Pears

Image
Three Pears; Acrylic on paper; 8×10

I haven’t done much painting lately, but on Christmas afternoon I got the itch to pull my acrylics back out. It was a way to mentallly and emotionally regroup in the aftermath of holiday chaos. Still-life paintings call to me lately and this little line of pears became my latest subject matter. They seemed to represent the Christmas season in shape and color. They are a reflection of the three little people that fill my life, elbows touching, each with their own personality.

I’m always interested in how painting and poetry intersect. Paintings are images in color. Poems are images in words. I love to see how the two different forms of art speak to each when they are placed side by side. Many of my poems overlap in subject matter with the paintings I’ve done or the photos I’ve taken. One inspires the other, and vice versa. As I was painting these pears the other day, I found myself thinking of a Linda Pastan poem from her latest collection of poetry, Traveling Light, entitled “Pears”:

Image

Do you find the different forms of art overlap for you?
What inspires you to create?
What images speak to you during this time of year?

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas!

the creative process

There are many artists who argue that the key to success is just sitting down, everyday, and doing the work, regardless of whether or not you feel inspired. I think that this is a great discipline, and it’s a practice that I’m trying to instill in my own schedule. I can’t always afford to sit down daily. Raising three children and tending to the myriad of associated details makes this difficult, but I’m learning that it is realistic and fruitful to set two to three mornings aside each week to “do the work.”

photo-128

I’ve been working on my MFA for an embarrassing amount of time. I started back in 2008. To my credit, there have been a few children, an adoption, and several moves wedged into this time frame, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to work at my own pace. I am finally finished with my coursework and I’m slowly plugging away on my thesis, so the end is in sight, but somedays it still feels like I will never finish. I fear that I’m not a great finisher, especially when it comes to things of a creative nature, so I am determined to prove my inner voices wrong and just get this thing done.

In the process, I am learning how to make my creative efforts a part of my life as reliably and unemotionally as any other task, whether it be feeding my children or taking out the trash. It’s easy to think that creative work is somehow superfluous to life, and therefore, should responsibly be dropped when life gets crazy. It’s taken me years to realize that my overall wellbeing is benefitted by regular times to let my creativity out. It doesn’t seem that our culture respects the fine arts in the way that it does, say, business or law or medicine, so I think that in-between the lines and starting at an early age, we learn that creativity is extra and elective. There is some truth to this, of course, and I realize that when one is in survival mode, creativity gets trumped by more immediate needs such as food and shelter. But when we are in a place where the needs on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Triangle are getting met, I think it is wise to challenge the idea that creative efforts aren’t a true human need. They may not generate much monetary income, but in the economy of the human spirit, creative efforts are rich and rewarding. They speak to the soul.

I hope to start unpacking some thoughts on the creative process in future posts, and I would love to hear what helps you in your own creative endeavors. I suppose it looks different for everyone depending on their brain chemistry and life circumstances. At this season of life, I don’t have all day to spend on my creative projects, so I am realizing that it’s important for me to “get in the zone” quickly. That way, I can utilize most of my time actually producing rather than staring blankly at the blank page.

Being “in the zone” for me translates to coffee, music (something moody, melancholy, and soft), good sleep, my journal, and a stack of books. Sometimes I like to get out of the house and work at a coffee shop, but sometimes I like to work at home. As long as there are no screaming or whining children demanding attention, then I’m good to go! I usually have some sort of prompt to get my thoughts going, whether it’s a photo I’ve taken (images, in general, yield a wealth of ideas!), a quote I read, a poem, etc. Holding onto all of these sources of inspiration has been helpful–being more intentional about storing these tidbits away for my next work session helps me plan how I want to spend my time. My journal is scattered with random, one-line musings that I hope to some day explore further.

One of my favorite writers, Donald Miller, says to “write where the wind is blowing.” This has also been huge for me. Whenever I feel pressure to just work on one thing, my imagination tends to start shutting down. Therefore, I love giving myself permission to have several projects going at the same time. (The challenge, then, is choosing which ones are worthy of finishing and actually finishing them!)

In the same vein, I have wondered if keeping this blog is a distraction–a form of resistance in finishing my thesis–but I am realizing that keeping this blog actually helps me unpack and unload my ideas in a way that keeps the creative juices flowing. It’s been important for me to remember that I don’t need to limit myself, and that spending time on something that I “shouldn’t” be writing or painting will somehow link back and inspire the thing I “should” be doing. Nothing is wasted. Most of my ideas for poems come out of left field and at times I least expect, so keeping my options open has been beneficial for me. I came across this graphic the other day and it concisely expresses this same thought:

quote_oscarwilde_2

photo credit

The more I engage with my creativity, the more I feel generating inside of me. The more I release it, the more it fills back up again. I am learning that the creative process is circular, not linear. There is no end. Everything is connected.

I was talking with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. She is a writer but also has a day job, so she doesn’t always have a lot of time to spend on her own projects. She writes bi-weekly for an online publication, though, and she says that this habit helps to keep her creativity going. The articles she writes aren’t always what she would choose to write, but the act of sitting down and writing fills her creative bank nonetheless.

So, all of that said, what practices facilitate your own creative process? Do you have a process or a routine? What has helped you to progress and produce as an artist?

the other place

photo 2

In my last poetry workshop, we studied some of Juliana Spahr’s work. I love the simplicity of her verse and I also love the way she weaves language together in such a way that it reveals the complex and paradoxical connections between things. The above excerpt is one of my favorite parts of her book, as she explores the human longing for more–always searching and seeking “the geography of the other place.”

I think this sense of longing is universal. I believe it is a good thing, as it compels us to go after something “other”–something beyond ourselves. It is the urge which ultimately leads us to find God. However, like anything, it can have a darker side–a side that can steal contentment and acceptance from our lives–a side that leads us to seek perfection in an imperfect world.

christinasworld_wyeth_sm

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

This is one of my favorite paintings. It used to hang in my high school art studio and I remember how something inside of me connected with this girl in the painting–the way she seemed fixed in one place yet longed for the home on the horizon–the way her posture seemed to be reaching for what was beyond her. I wondered what was in the house that she wanted, and I wondered why she stayed in that same spot on the grass. My art teacher eventually told me that the girl in the painting was handicapped–she had suffered from polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. It seemed such a sad portrait of a girl alone in an open field, longing to move yet unable to.

Do you ever feel like that? If you were to put yourself in this painting, what posture would you assume and what would surround you? What would that thing in the distance be that you are longing for? Is it real, or is it a mirage?

I have often struggled with contentment, idealism, and withdrawing into a fantasy world. I can tend to have this unhealthy awareness of what is missing in life and allow my own imagination to fill in the missing pieces. I am like Spahr when she writes, “I am in one place and longing for the geography of the other place…I am in days wanting it all.” In recent years I realize how much this struggle can steal from my enjoyment of actual life. Living in some fantasy world of “what might have been” or “what could be” or “what should be” takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. It can steal my ability to truly engage in the present-tense-reality of what life actually IS.

Growing up, I had an idea of how my life would turn out. It is an illusive idea, not grounded in reality at all. It was always wrapped up in living overseas, in some brand of self-glory, living life as a loner and free-spirit, perhaps as a traveling nurse, helping others and needing nothing, free to do anything, to be my own person. The more I try to nail down the fantasy, the more disappointing and vague it actually is. I don’t know that I ascribe it to any one place–it is not grounded in anything truly tangible or even good. Yet, I find myself ascribing to it when my current reality is hard or disappointing. It is a way to escape.

A few weeks ago, my daughter, Tess, had a stomach virus. She was puking into plastic bags from Target in the backseat of the car as we drove her two younger siblings to preschool. As we drove along in our Honda Pilot, past stop lights and strip malls, I thought: why didn’t anyone tell me about this part? It was not a scene my imagination had conjured or clung to when I envisioned my future. At the alter, saying my vows with my husband…in the bathroom, holding positive pregnancy tests…vomiting children is among many things that I had not envisioned. (You know that part of baby showers when you ask older mothers to share their wisdom with you? How did projectile vomit miss the memo?)

This got me thinking about how unreliable our ideas of the future really are. Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would. My foresight is terribly limited. And, the life I originally imagined for myself, which floats up in some pastel cloud, fluffy and unreachable, is completely detached from anything I would probably ever want to touch, taste, or feel in reality. This realization leads me back to the present, to this hard wooden desk where I currently write, to luke warm coffee, half-eaten biscotti, the stack of half-read books and crumpled napkin at my side. This is what is real. This is what I love. The here, the now…the paradoxes and dichotomies of daily life. The more I accept these, the more I am happy to let my flowery fantasy world float away like a balloon until it shrinks into a tiny speck in the sky, no longer visible to the naked eye.

I was talking with a friend of mine on the phone last week. We are both thirty-somethings–now fully established in the decade that has largely (though not entirely!) escaped from the drama, reactivity, grandiosity, and insecurity that defined our twenties. We are “officially grown ups.” At this point, we are realizing that if we don’t start to discard the fantasies that we chased in our teens and twenties, our lives will pass us by, un-lived and unappreciated. It is time, we both have decided, to accept and embrace the full reality of life, in all of its ordinariness. If the fantasy hasn’t happened by now, it probably won’t, because it probably was never attainable anyways. It is time to embrace the plainness of a dry open grassland and a cloudy sky and the fact that, try as we might, we sometimes can’t move ourselves from where we sit in this big open field. We are here, where we are, for a reason, and perhaps there is joy and contentment in burrowing deeper into our current landscape, embracing both the grit and softness of the earth around us.

This week, the week of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for life–even life that is “less than ideal” at times. I am grateful that my life didn’t turn out the way I imagined it–I would be miserable. I am thankful for the geography of the place I am in–its ordinariness–its many joys and disappointments. I am grateful that God gives us a heart that always longs for more…but that can also find rest and peace where it currently is. I am finding that there is great significance and value in “normalcy.” I am grateful that the home on the horizon–the one that I long for in the distance–is not something I can ultimately create for myself. It is a place that God has made for me, and it is real.

What do you long for?

What are you thankful for?

the lost genre

IMG_0763

Last spring I went to Barnes and Noble to buy a few self-help books that were recommended to me. I came home with three poetry books instead.

I remember standing in the measly poetry section of the bookstore that day. It consisted of one little column of shelves–a slowly sinking island in a vast and verbose sea of prose. What has happened to this lost genre? I wondered why it had become such an outcast.

Poetry came into my life a bit haphazardly. I went into my MFA thinking I would focus on creative nonfiction. Then I took a poetry workshop to meet a requirement and I fell in love. Poetry was not what I thought it was. It was not a Hallmark card. It wasn’t flowery language. It wasn’t (exclusively) Shelley and Keats and struggling through my senior year of British Lit. It wasn’t predictable rhyme schemes and abstract language. It was so much more than all of that. It was tangible, gritty, simple, and musical. It was dense, the real heart of things.

In contemporary poetry, I found freedom. I found a place where I could let my mind wander and embrace the moment. I discovered that profound truths can be expressed concisely. I found my senses. I found that images are a language of their own. This was a place where rules could be broken and the breaking was invited.

Perhaps, for me, the allure of poetry lies in its stark contrast to the current culture. Poetry is okay with unanswered questions and gray areas. It’s fine with being open to interpretation and misunderstood. And in this place, I find rest. I find help that no self-help book can offer me. I find room to move around, to be quiet and listen and let life unfold naturally, organically. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s words:

“In the act of writing the poem, I am obedient, and submissive. Insofar as one can, I put aside ego and vanity, and even intention. I listen. What I hear is almost a voice, almost a language. It is a second ocean, rising, singing into one’s ear, or deep inside the ears, whispering in the recesses where one is less oneself than a part of some single indivisible community.”

Obedience. Submission. Listening. Community. Are these qualities dwindling down like the poetry section of the bookstore? I find that they are essential to a meaningful life.

We experience so many deaths and rebirths throughout a lifetime. Though poetry seems like a dying art, I am aware that art is constantly being reinvented, shifting and adapting along with the rest of the world. I believe we will always have art with us. Innate to the human spirit is an unquenchable hunger to create. Despite the sparse collection of poetry at my local library and bookstore, I believe this art form will press on. It may not be the most popular genre, but somehow, that seems fitting, too.

What art form/genre are you drawn to and why?  Is it a “dying art?” How has it changed over time?

photo 3

[French Press Saturday]

small talk

Our recent move to Virginia has provided numerous opportunities for one of my least favorite things: small talk. Whether it’s meeting people at church, establishing care with a new doctor, attending a gathering with other adoptive families, or chatting with a neighbor down the street, there are those obligatory conversations you get through in order to establish relationship and connection. One of the classic small-talk questions people ask me:

Do you work or are you a stay at home mom?

I typically mention that I stay at home with my kids and that I used to be an operating room nurse in the Air Force. One thing leads to another, and then it comes up that I’m also working on my MFA in Creative Writing.

This is the moment in the conversation when some people begin to look puzzled and make various comments that all communicate a similar message:

Those things don’t fit together. 

These encounters usually leave me feeling like a cluster of fragmented pieces that don’t fit together, a conundrum of opposing and conflicting ambitions and desires. One of my neighbors once responded, “Wow, nursing and creative writing? You must have really strong and opposing parts of your personality.” In between the lines, I have started to wonder if I made a mistake somewhere.

Art has always felt like home to me, whether it’s writing a poem or painting a picture. My sketch pads and journals have been a consistent place of refuge and rejuvenation. Growing up, my spirit felt at rest each time I stepped foot in an art studio, amongst the charcoal and paint chips and still life displays. In college, I toyed with the idea of majoring in studio art, but decided to take the more “practical, reliable, sensible, and noble” route. I chose nursing instead.

I don’t know if this is a generational or a cultural pressure, or perhaps a bit of both, but it seems that there is some unspoken yet pervading idea that choosing a career in the arts is indulgent, impractical, bohemian, and narcissistic. It’s okay to indulge your creative side every once in while, perhaps as a hobby, but to make it your profession is assuming and irresponsible. In the past, I have felt a sense of shame and embarrassment when I tell people that I am studying poetry. I mean, what kind of respectable human being has time to read and write poetry? Aren’t there more important things to be done in the world?

Perhaps I don’t fit into a label, and that might provoke uncomfortable interactions with other people. I am learning to accept this. I have been tempted to replay my decision to become a nurse–to wonder if I should have chosen art instead. And then there are days when I wonder if it’s audacious to think that there’s a place for me in the world of art. At the end of the day, I know it’s a huge freedom and privilege to even have a choice in the matter. Many people don’t.

There are things I desperately miss about being a nurse. I miss being a part of the surgical team, working together with others to bring about a life-changing and tangible improvement in someone’s health. It was meaningful work, and even on the bad days, the hard days, the exhausting days, I could walk away feeling good about that. On the other hand, there was always some part of my mind that nursing failed to engage, and over time, this made me feel depleted and burned out. And, so, here I am, back to pursuing art again.

I don’t know how my different “selves” will fit together in the end. I do believe that God doesn’t waste anything, and at the end of the day, the so-called “opposing” parts of my personality must be there for a reason.

I often like to end my posts with a poem, because, as I mentioned before, there’s a poem for everything. This poet that I want to share with you today has a very prized place in my heart.

Can you think of a writer or an artist that has given you permission to be yourself–someone whose work validates who you are and what you love? I can think of many writers like this, but the one I want to share today is Laura Gilpin.

41fwawB06JL._SY300_

Gilpin was a registered nurse and a poet. She is proof that the credentials RN and MFA can be a compatible couple, and she is an inspiration to me. Her book, The Weight of a Soul, has been on my nightstand for months. I take it along with me on errands. I read her poems at stoplights and in waiting rooms. She started out with a BA and MFA and then went back to school to become a nurse. In 1976 she won the Walt Whitman award for her book, The Hocus Pocus of the Universe. She passed away in 2007.

Laura Gilpin reminds me of what can happen when we embrace all of who we are, even the parts that don’t seem to fit together. The next time a new acquaintance makes a remark about how odd and ill-fitting my educational pursuits are, I may just hand them a copy of Gilpin’s book.

It was so hard to choose, but the following poem is one of my favorites. It reminds me of working night shift and walking through the eery, dark, hospital halls towards the blood bank. She captures this moment so well…

The Ritual of Hanging Blood
Laura Gilpin

Two nurses, the ritual requires two nurses
as though the blood is so heavy
it can’t be carried by one
though the bag is small
no bigger than a heart
but flat and dark and viscous
not bright like urine
urine is usually clear and bright, almost sunny
deceptively filled with life’s impurities
but blood is thick and dark and dusky
as though the darkness itself
holds the secret of life
holds the breath of life, is life giving.

I wind through the darkened hallways
to the blood bank, sign my name
beside the patient’s name
as though I am signing for him
in the book of life.

Then I wait for the second nurse.
She holds the blood while I hold the patient’s wrist
read from his name band his name,
which we spell together,
his hospital ID number
which we read aloud in the darkened room.

Whose life is held in this bag?
The blood drips through the tube, drop by drop,
like the original heart still beating
the way life flows through a small cord
between a mother and child.
The blood drips, drop by drop,
like the pulse in his wrist
I reach for in the dark
as the blood merges with his own
becomes his own.
All night I walk in and out of his room,
listening to his heart,
listening to his sleep.

Citrus and Espresso

Citrus and Espresso

Citrus and Espresso.
Acrylic on paper; 9×12

I started this still life during the doldrums of winter when the days were gray and damp. The trees were barren and life felt dismal. The light and joy of Christmas had faded and spring was still a faint fleck in the distance.

We found relief in the color and scent of citrus. We took momentary refuge in the warmth and richness of espresso.

This painting reminds me that God gives us good gifts each day, gifts that breathe beauty and hope back into our spirits even during the darkest seasons. I am grateful for that.