Color OUTSIDE the lines

color outside the linesFor my artist date a few weeks ago, I signed up for a 2-hour art class at ArtSpot in Edmonds. I had no idea what to expect, but it was advertised as an Artist’s Way function, and it seemed to fit the bill.

There were only a few students, and I was there early. The teacher swept me into the back room and asked what brought me. I told her about The Artist’s Way and about my on-going love of art and art-making, all the aborted projects at home, my drawing classes in college (from which I withdrew, every time). “What’s up with that?” she asked, not really paying attention (or so it seemed), and busily laying out her materials.

I told her my mother’s story about me as a little girl, watching my older brother color in a coloring book and refusing to take part until I was able to color perfectly, inside the lines. “Oh!” My teacher’s face lit up. “You must color OUTSIDE the lines!”

We worked with gelli plates to create our art, something entirely new for me, by the way. It was a little like finger-painting, just playing with several layers of acrylic paints and patterns, applying each one in a more or less systematic way to a block or a small piece of canvas (I did both). When we were finished with the gelli’s, our instructor wanted us to write I AM ENOUGH on the finished product. On my first project, I instead wrote COLOR OUTSIDE THE LINES. On my blue one, I wrote (in paint, very sloppy) “I am enough,” but I later covered it up and tried to turn the projeangelct into an angel, like one I’d seen in the studio. (Copying was encouraged.)

I wasn’t entirely pleased with how these turned out (that darned perfectionism!), but my teacher said it didn’t matter. “This is about process, not product. Do it again! Have fun!”

And I did have fun.

“I’m fine!”

Long ago, back in my restaurant service-supervisor days (yes, I was such a thing), I had a boss named Stan who had been a Marine, and never really recovered. I forget what in the Marines. But he still had the haircut and the posture, if not the physique. He was a district manager and he dropped in a couple times a month. I opened 2 or 3 restaurants with him. If he asked you how things were going and you said, “Fine,” he said, “Fine! That’s when we roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Fine, a fine word with lots of meanings. I went to Merriam Webster on-line to check and found the following:

Free from impurity; very thin in gauge or texture–not coarse–very small (fine print)–keen (a knife with a fine edge)–very precise or accurate; physically trained or hardened to efficiency (said of an athlete or an animal); delicate, subtle or sensitive in perception (a fine taste in art); superior in kind, quality, or appearance; ornate (as in writing); very well, more than okay (often ironic–Stan was right!).

Then there’s a fine as in a penalty (a traffic fine), and fine as an intensifier, like very, and all of these deriving from the same root as words like fin (as in fish fin). Think finish, the end. 

Not quite sure where I’m going with this, except it’s something that I’ve been thinking about. A friend confided that she can’t stand to keep a journal. She asked what I do, “lists?” Sometimes I write lists. I usually include a paragraph on “what happened yesterday.” But I keep going, past that, into what’s happening in my brain, in my — well, for lack of a better word, in my heart.

When I’m stuck, I write questions. Sometimes I ask myself questions, and sometimes “I” answer. I sometimes write prayers. I write down quotations from things I’m reading. Sometimes I write snippets of poems or character sketches or short scenes.

I reread my journal every so often (especially the current one, but sometimes older ones) and I try to pick out topics that recur so I can write about them again. I’m sure that anyone else would find my pages mind-numbingly repetitive, boring! But when I worked in restaurants, back in the day, writing in a spiral bound notebook (in 100s of spiral bound notebooks, morning after morning and week and month and year after year), kept me alive. It kept the essential, moody, dreaming, creative me alive. Eventually, writing was what helped me reach what Julia Cameron calls “escape velocity.”

Writing 3 pages in a notebook every morning–even now, when writing is my job–drops me beneath the surface of my lifeI can’t lie to myself when I write in my journal. (Later, I might ignore or willfully forget what I wrote, but it’s all there.)

You can’t write “I’m fine” for 3 pages. (Not unless you want to bore even yourself silly.) Certainly you can’t write “I’m fine” for 3 pages multiplied over 12 weeks of writing.

“But even if you never share a sentence of your diary with anyone else, you will share it through your life. Its existence will touch other people by the way it changes you and permits you to develop in self-awareness, directness, and honesty. As you acquire and refine the talent for helping yourself in the diary, you will grow in your ability to understand and nourish others. While it permits you to take responsibility for your own emotional well-being, it also opens the way for a deep understanding of human nature.” -Tristine Rainer, The New Diary

Keeping a journal is kind of like my own, portable Stan, that bossy, buzz-cut ex-Marine who won’t let me get away with bullshit. It’s a fine practice and it gets me past “fine.” It gets me through the nitty-gritty of everyday stuff. It gets me down to the finer stuff. Over and over.

The Labyrinth: My Artist’s Date

CAM00580Almost a year ago I went out in the rain and wind to find a labyrinth near the retreat center where I was staying. I didn’t find it, but I hiked up the hill into old-growth timber, dipped my hands into a stream, and, generally, communed with nature. Nice. Then, on the way back to the retreat center, I slipped on the lawn, fell down, and broke my ankle in two places. Stumbling up, to my feet again (ouch!), I saw the labyrinth marked out with stones, just a stone’s throw behind the buildings. Needless to say, I limped back inside. No labyrinth that day.

Earlier this week, my friend Carla told me about her Artist-Date visit to a labyrinth. I remembered that, near my mom’s home in Allyn, there is a little sign that says, “Labyrinth Open.” Yesterday, inspired by Carla, and disheartened by a not very positive visit with Mom, I decided to investigate. Interesting how I have seen this sign every time I’ve visited Mom in the last four months, but it took a little prompting before it occurred to me that I might walk it.

The parking lot at St. Hugh’s Episcopal Church was empty, and a sign on the office door to the side said “Closed.” I felt like I was trespassing, but there was that “Labyrinth Open” sign. And my Artist’s Date is supposed to get me out of my comfort zone–which made feeling uncomfortable a good thing, right? (And then the whole not irrelevant history with the broken ankle.) So I got out of my car and started walking around the church. I found the memorial garden and a memorial bench. I didn’t see a labyrinth. I found an information board and a brochure that told about the labyrinth and the St. Hugh’s congregation’s tradition of a “blessing bowl” full of stones, and an invitation to take away a stone. Still, no labyrinth.

I expected something obvious, lavender hedges maybe or raised stones. Maybe I expected something like a hero’s journey with obstacles, maybe stations of the cross. Instead I found only this flat patio with a creche at the center. As I hiked around the perimeter, investigating, however, I began to see that the colors of the patio stones formed a spiral pattern. I stepped onto the outer path and I began to walk. labyrinth2

I thought about Mom as I walked, my mother who no longer walks. I gave thanks for Mom’s long life and many blessings, and I gave thanks for my healed ankle. The blessing bowl full of stones sat beside the path and I picked out a white stone and put it in my pocket. When I had walked all the way to the center of the labyrinth, I spent a moment looking up, at the view of Hood Canal, and then I walked back through the spiral and out of the labyrinth. And that was that. My Artist’s Date.

Certain novels are like this, quiet, unobtrusive, little journeys that can seem almost pointless, except to the discerning reader, that perfect reader (as Hawthorne defined him or her in one of his prefaces).

We are, all of us (writing, or not writing) on a path. Once in a while we open our eyes and see the path.

The Reading Fast

The Artist’s Way, week four, asks us to give up reading. Julia Cameron promises, “If you feel stuck in your life or in your art, few jump starts are more effective than a week of reading deprivation.” Down the page a bit, I highlighted this passage (yes, we’re still allowed to read The Artist’s Way):

“Reading deprivation is a very powerful tool–and a very frightening one. Even thinking about it can bring up enormous rage. For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” (87)

I’ve done this before, of course, and I knew it was coming. In the abstract, it didn’t sound like that big of a deal. A week! Hah! I can do anything for one week!

And I know that I’m a reading addict. I know that giving up reading has been a powerful experience for me in the past. (Remember the Responsible Living workshop, to which I lugged not one but TWO BAGS of books, only to discover that I wasn’t going to be allowed to read for 3 days? Not even at night before falling asleep! And how powerful was that?)

So why all this reluctance?

I bargained for an extra day, thinking I could finish the Maisie Dobbs mystery at least (then I read 80 pages of an Alice McDermott novel instead; and a chapter from my new Rebecca Solnit collection, a Christmas gift, after all). I bargained with myself about whether or not I could read emails and blogs (emails, okay provisionally, but not blogs, I decided). Could I read my new issue of The Sun? (No.)

Next Tuesday morning, it will all be waiting for me. The last 44 pages of the Maisie Dobbs mystery will still be there and the story will roll on.

Meanwhile, I’m going to spend a little time working on poetry. I’m going to do some decluttering. I’m going to do a jig-saw puzzle.

I’m going to try–over the Christmas holiday–to be present with not only my family but also with my own thoughts and feelings.