Because of my health, I have had to let go of almost every outside activity. I know by now the trouble I will be in if I don’t respect my limits. I have let choir go, and tango is on the back burner. I am grateful to be able to teach, grateful for taking the dog for her daily walk. Still, I mourn those other activities that kept me feeling alive.
There is one thing I still make time and energy for, though. A dear friend’s mother is an accomplished painter. Cessi, like me, is confined to a small life–time has slowed her down. Yet, there is in her the artist still. So Cessi and I paint every Wednesday.
Paining with Cessi, I must re-learn beginner’s mind. I have a good eye, but my skills are minimal. I must practice the elementary. I set up a still life: green bottle, a blue and white bowl with bananas and a pink grapefruit. The bananas lie heavy and tumid in the bowl, the bottle soars up behind them. How to give the bananas weight, how to suggest the bright, juicy roundness of the grapefruit? How to paint the light on the fruit, the bottle, the way the fruit holds the light even as the winter evening fades?
I paint the ellipsis of the bowl, the outline of the bottle. The first strokes feel bold, and it is a relief to have broken the blank space of the paper. I continue, tentatively, feeling awkward, unsure. I’m not used to acrylics, not sure whether to make them opaque or transparent, and am hesitant about mixing colors. I step away, become self-aware, critical. I freeze, unable to go on. Cessie looks up at me and smiles encouragingly. “You are paralyzed.” It is an acknowledgement, and that is all I need. “Just keep going.” I see a way to go on, not with the freedom I long for, but a next step.
Why do it? It is tiring, and I’m smack up against all my insecurities. But for those two hours, I’m not in monkey mind. I’m not obsessing over my daughter’s wedding or work. For those ours I am in the now. It is meditation of a sort.
Cessi’s granddaughter, Giordana, comes in. “You look serene,” she says, noticing the hush in the room. We speak very little, Cessi and I . Yet doing it with her makes it less frightening, more companionable. I feel her supportive energy–she helps contain me. We go deep into ourselves, together.
It is good for me to remember what it feels like to be a fledgling. This is how so many of our participants feel, who come to us for guidance and containment as they delve into themselves, seeking the words that will release them. We are not there to teach them what to write, but to encourage them to listen to themselves. Maybe one of our most important functions is simply help contain them, giving them practical suggestions as needed, but also to look up and nod and say, yes, I know, you are stuck, or scared, or go further.
Katherine Dunn spoke to this issue of being paralyzed in Poets and Writers in this last issue: “Sometimes all that saves me is being willing to make mistakes. There are projects that strike me as so beautiful, important, complicated or just plain big, that they convince me of my own inadequacy. This awful state of reverence leads to paralyzing brain freeze. At times like that the only way out is for me to decide, ‘to hell with it. I can’t do it right, so I’ll do it wrong. I can’t do it well, so I’ll do it badly.’ Sometimes, with luck, while I’m sweating to do it wrong, I stumble on the right way.”
My still-life turned out better than I expected, although the lip of the bowl lists. But I learned a lot, a whole lot, and I’m less scared now. I’m more engaged. Ready to go on and make more mistakes.