Internal discomfort

Part of what my blog is about is the difference between the inner dialogue that can tell us some pretty negative stuff, and that “still small voice” we may also call our gut instinct, that has a very good sense of what`s right and best for us. The distinction is not always obvious, and learning to tell one from the other can be difficult and time-consuming. But it`s very worthwhile.

Right now, I`m reading Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward. I just came across a passage I think speaks directly to this, especially the intensity of that inner dialogue when we`re in an unpleasant situation.

“Internal discomfort is one of the major impediments to change, and we`re so used to responding to it as though it were a fire to be put out that many of us haven`t learned to live with it in the natural amounts that accompany change. We push it away, extinguish it, treat it as though it has no place in our lives – and by doing so, we eliminate some of our most effective options. Most of us are so reluctant to examine our discomfort that we often misinterpret what it`s trying to tell us by reacting to its presence blindly instead of asking what it means.”


Broken Open

Yesterday I bought a new book. Which in itself is a thing, since I`m trying to get rid of books, reduce my load of stuff. I got a Kindle to reduce the tonnage of paper I live with all the time. But, y`know, a Kindle in the bathtub, probably not a wise idea. So, I still buy actual paper books.

This one is by Elizabeth Lesser, called Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. It`s one of those books that`s so exactly what I would want to write, it makes me think, “what am I thinking? What do I have to add to this?”

The point Lesser would make, though, is that the story each of us can tell is our own. As we journey from dark into light, or from apparent light into darkness and back again, we are never alone. No matter how grievous the loss, how excruciating the pain, how foolish I feel, others have trod this same path. The more we share of those experiences where we are only human, the more we recognize ourselves in one another.

She opens many chapters with a quote that sets the tone for that section. One of my favourites is from clown-activist Wavy Gravy: “We`re all bozos on the bus, so we may as well sit back and enjoy the ride.” All of us feel strange and ashamed, “as if there is another bus somewhere, rolling along on a smooth road. Its passengers are all thin, healthy, happy, well-dressed….hold jobs that don`t bore or aggravate them, and never do mean things or goofy things like forget where they parked their car, lose their wallet, or say something totally inappropriate.”

She goes on to say that it “may be the first step to enlightenment to understand with all of your brain cells that the other bus – that sleek bus with the cool people who know where they are going – is also filled with bozos: bozos in drag, bozos with secrets.” We`re all alike, we all make mistakes, and when we feel the most vulnerable, the most stupid, the most hurt, that no-one else could possibly be quite as much a bozo, is when we`re the most human.

Some famous person (I can never remember if it was Leonard Cohen or T.S. Eliot) said that the broken places are where the light gets in.

I`m only partway through reading the book, but I pass it along as a strong recommendation. I`ve laughed out loud, I`ve cried, I`ve nodded in recognition and put the book down for minutes at a stretch as I thought of something in my own life conjured up by one of her stories. It`s already a classic that has earned a place on my shelves.

Choices and Decisions

I like the distinction William Bridges makes between choices and decisions, that a decision is one we make rationally, using information and practical considerations. A choice is one we make from the heart.

In the summer of 2009, my father was seriously ill, in and out of hospital, and it was clear my mother needed help.  I drove to my parents` house, a 4 hour drive, me and 5 cats in a Honda Civic.  The plan was that my parents would sell their house and move to a really nice seniors`residence close to where I was living. I would move to the same city.

It seemed sensible. We would all move to the biggest city in the interior of BC. The big hospital is there, a good cancer clinic, lots of shopping. There are galleries and businesses there, more opportunity for someone like me with an arts and non-profit background.

We had a realtor tour the house,  and the house was for sale, after 30 years. Relatives came and my parents gave away or sold books and bigger tools. My father sent out excited emails to his friends about the move.

And then he died. It was unexpected, months sooner than we thought. Shocking. Yet, death from brain cancer can be excruciating and horrible. Instead, he went quickly, quietly, gently. The same way he`d lived, really.

My life`s path changed in that moment, but it took months to accept it. I had no time to think ahead or plan, everything seemed urgent. I had to get my mother to doctors, have her assessed, settle my father`s estate, make sure things that needed to run would keep on running.

When I took my mother to see her doctor, I was told it was “medically unsafe” for me to live with her. She became agitated, I panicked and got anxious.  I had no plan, I just lurched from lawyer to psychologist to doctor, handling what needed to be handled.

In the end, I carried on living in my parents` house while my mother moved into a new seniors residence in my hometown. It`s much like the place they`d planned to move into.

A friend of mine kept talking about the freedom to choose, that I hadn`t CHOSEN to live here. I finally said, “you know, when it comes to the big things, the ones that truly shape our lives, we rarely get a choice. You don`t get to choose your parents, whether you`re oldest or youngest in your family. You don`t get to choose when your parents die or how. You don`t get to choose what your children will be like, sometimes not even whether you have children.”

There are decisions we can make, based on logic and practicality. Maybe we go to college versus vocational training. We have choices about how hard we work, how much we put into our schooling or our job. We may get a choice about which job to take or where we live.

I didn`t WANT to move to my old hometown, I never imagined myself living in my parents`house. I even talked to a realtor about selling it. But that meant sorting things out, getting rid of what I don`t need. It seemed simpler to sell and move on. All things considered, weighing the practical pros and cons….

I hired a friend to help me tidy things up, get things to the dump, make it saleable.

Besides ongoing major and minor improvements to the house, my parents created a park-like garden that`s a miracle of planning, a true labour of love. It was something they did together for 30 years, and in a way, I felt it was their domain, especially after I left home. Now here I had full responsibility for it.

In June 2010, my friend got someone in to do some pruning, but that was a disaster. He was the expert, I was just the middle-aged daughter who had inherited the place, who didn`t understand things. I was “sentimental.” With every snip of his shears, it felt like pieces of my own body were being cut away. I cried, I stormed, I negotiated. In the end, I fired him.

The next day, I walked around the garden, then ran back for my camera. It was as if I`d never seen it before. Every few feet, there was another magical vista, another precious moment I wanted to capture. I was like a first-time parent. Every angle of light and flicker of wind was a new world to be explored, like a doorway into eternity, yet a fragile, wavering moment in time that will never come again.

When it comes to the big things that shape our lives, we rarely get to choose. We get to say no, or yes.


Quoting from Rob Brezsny`s “Free Will Astrology”

Most people associate innocence with naivete. Conventional wisdom regards it as belonging to children and fools and rookies who lack the sophistication or experience to know the tough truths about life. But the Beauty and Truth Laboratory recognizes a different kind of innocence. It’s based on an understanding that the world is always changing, and therefore deserves to be seen fresh every day. This alternative brand of innocence is fueled by an aggressive determination to empty one’s imagination of all preconceptions.

“Ignorance is not knowing anything and being attracted to the good,” wrote Clarissa Pinkola-Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves. “Innocence is knowing everything and still being attracted to the good.”
The preceding oracle comes from my book, PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.

Starting Over

In February, I started an exciting project, painting on a large piece of furniture. I’ve painted on furniture before, usually copying a painting by a well-known artist. And the furniture was always fairly small, the door of a cabinet or the front of a chest of drawers.

This time, I chose a media cabinet that stands over 3 feet high with doors 6 inches deep. And I’m not copying, I’m creating a composition based on the exotic primitive paintings of Henri Rousseau, with touches of my own. Which is much more impressive than copying, but also more daunting. I felt pretty confident about my ability, though.

Until I came to actually paint on the thing. It took me 4 days to get the sky right, because my paint kept drying and I couldn’t blend the colours properly. This forced me to look in all the nooks and crannies of my house and find my acrylic medium, better quality brushes and other artist’s materials I’d never assembled in one place until now. Once the sky was done, I sketched in the major elements of my design: orange tree here, fig tree there, palm trees here and here. I relied partly on images of Rousseau’s work, partly on photos of my trips to Morocco and from my parents’ gorgeous garden, which is now mine to care for and to document in photographs.

Then I painted the tree trunk and branches of the first tree, using a photo of an orange tree in a courtyard in Marrakech. The browns weren’t right, but I had limited selection. Oh well. I’ll buy more paint later, I said. I’ll just get the lines in place. Then I tried a few ideas I had about colour and contrast, which didn’t really work. I painted a few leaves after the photo. Not great. Well, I haven’t painted for a while, I’m rusty.

I did more another day. Still not great.

After 3 attempts, I gave up. For a month. Then in mid-March, I was online searching for a different painting, and up came another image by Rousseau, one I hadn’t seen before. I thought, “THIS is what I want that cabinet to look like, THIS is more like it!” I printed it off, took it downstairs and decided that this composition would work as I’d intended.

So, what to do about the branches and leaves I’d painted? Should I simply paint over the whole thing and start over? The sky is exactly right. I decided the position of the tree was right, the basic lines were right, but the leaves have got to go.

I didn’t want the ghostly image of what I didn’t want showing through. After some thought, I painted the leaves over with pure white, which has the most opacity of any paint. Then I covered the entire section with acrylic medium, so it’s all one smooth surface. Not entirely starting all over from nothing, but close.

As I painted over the leaves, I was thinking about a time in art school, more than 30 years ago, and the first time I made a piece in pottery class and decided I didn’t like it, scrapped it completely and started again. I was so pleased with myself. I saw it as an essential milestone in my development as an artist. I tried to explain this to my boyfriend of the time (who was not in art school and was a pompous guy who didn’t know as much as he thought he did about pretty much anything but it took me another year to figure that out). He just couldn’t get my point and said he would NEVER do that, he would always rework any piece of carving he was working on even if he knew he’d done it wrong.

*I* knew I’d reached a new level of mastery when I made this decision. I knew what I wanted, I knew I hadn’t done it, but most importantly, I knew I *COULD* do what I’d set out to do, so I had the confidence to say, “nope, sorry, not working for me. Done. Start over.”

Yes, there is the saying that “the difference between amateurs and professionals is, professionals know how to hide their mistakes.” So having the humility to rework something is good. But when I first start doing something, I may think maybe all my work is a fluke, that if I don’t get it right this time, maybe I never will. Therefore, I don’t dare start over. Where ripping something out (as all knitters learn how to do!), tossing a failed pot in the slip bucket, painting over a painting, can be an essential step in knowing what I’m capable of, and that I just haven’t hit that mark this time. It means I’ve raised the bar on myself. And sometimes, it takes a lot of work to start over, but trying to rework a piece that’s gone wrong can be MORE work. Easier to start clean and get it right when you know it’s wrong this time.

It’s about knowing that you DO know. When I thought about it the other day, I realized that I would STILL see that as a milestone in my life, I still see it as a victory. More so now than I did then, in fact.

Van Gogh Challenge, 2007

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This is the first art challenge tackled by the group now known as The Ripoff Artists. The painting chosen was Vincent Van Gogh`s “Wheatfield with Cypresses, Early September 1889.”  We displayed other works done in the style of Van Gogh during the week, then got down to work at 9 am on a Saturday morning and were done by 3 that afternoon.

Cabinet, 2008: Portrait of Emilie Floge by Gustav Klimt

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This is part of an annual art challenge I do in Oliver, BC every summer. We choose a painting by a famous artist and each of us uses our own medium to interpret the work. I`ve painted on furniture most years.

This was 2008. The artist we chose was Gustav Klimt. The painting is “Portrait of Emilie Floge.”

This was our second annual challenge and we called ourselves the Klimtomaniacs. After that, we chose the name The Ripoff Artists.

My cabinet is acrylic for the surface details over latex paint on wood.

Book: The Way of Transition

In March, I got a book I enjoyed a lot, The Way of Transition by William Bridges. He said a lot of things I would say about life and changes.

He talks about the difference between change and transition. A person may have changes in their lives but that doesn’t mean they go through a transition. It’s the transition that makes the difference, and if a person is ready, a fairly small change can have a huge effect on them. So there may be lots of changes in a workplace, for example, and none of them bother a person who’s prepared to stay where they are. But for a person who’s ready to undergo a transition, a minor change at work may be enough to make them quit or ask for a raise or get training for a new job. He talks about how people may get divorced, which is a change, but not go through a transition, so they get married again but they haven’t changed at all inside, so the second marriage may end up exactly the same as the first one. Where a person who goes through a transition may stay in the same marriage, but their own internal shifts mean they handle things differently so a marriage that wasn’t working starts to work again. Or a marriage that was working suddenly stops being tolerable, because the person has shifted so much internally. The external change isn’t the catalyst unless the person is ready for change internally.

A transition begins with the ending of something: a marriage, a job, a phase of life. Then there’s a period of confusion or nothingness, of not knowing your way. He calls this “the neutral zone.” And then something new begins. If a person hasn’t gone through the neutral zone, then they haven’t gone through a transition. Transitions always happen in a life, it’s just that we aren’t very good in our society at marking them, and we have no rituals, like rites of passage, to make them formal. We don’t do vision quests or send adolescents out into the wilderness or make everybody wear a clean white shirt to get baptized in or something to mark the event.

He also talks about the difference between a decision and a choice. A decision, he says, is something you research, you get information, you weigh various factors, and you decide if you want this or that or the other. Whereas a choice always comes down to yes or no. Getting married is a choice. Buying a new car is a decision. Decisions are the product of evidence and logic. Choices are an act of will.

At the end of the book, he talks about how it used to be that elders were useful to a society because things didn’t change very fast. Someone who had been around longer had more information about the world than someone younger. But today, information moves so fast, technology changes so fast that a younger person may be more valuable in terms of ability to produce, ability to make decisions, because they only know what they know. They don’t have to unlearn stuff they used to know in order to learn new stuff, as us older folks do. But older people have the wisdom of having lived through many choices, of having gone through transitions, making mistakes, changing course and finding their way, over and over again. They can see their own lives in a broader context and be more philosophical about it. So they have wisdom, not simply knowledge.