creative process

Looking back, fully free

Painted when I was lost and then found, seven years ago.

Most of my psychic energy in the past two weeks has been spent on new and sub classes and leaving my class at Pengu Studio.  On October 1 I started teaching the 7 am class at Tranquil Space Dupont and will begin the 6:45 am class at the Arlington studio on October 16.  On weekends I try out sequences, trying to get the flow right. I worry incessantly, and occasionally in the past week, I’ve been right to worry!  For all my big talk about embracing beginner’s mind, I’m terrible at it. As my beautiful and wise daughter reminded me, everyone is perfectly imperfect. Get over it.

But I don’t want to turn away from the worry, because it has been a dense, rich soil for my creativity.  For example, this month’s asana Bharadvajasana has been an inspiration for me on so many levels.  The pose has so much going on it — part hero, part lotus, deep twist, bind.  As I try it out in my body, I think of Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World.  The autumnal colors and the fact that Christina turns away from the viewer gives the painting such a beautiful nostalgia.  But this feeling is balanced by the horizon — there is hopefulness of creation and the freedom of spaciousness.   This is exactly what Wyeth wanted us to take away.  Christina was a neighbor of Wyeth’s who was afflicted by polio, who “was limited physically but by no means spiritually.” Wyeth explained, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.”  (From the MOMA website. It is part of the permanent collection.)

The pose also brings to mind the Zen teaching:  “The past is already past.  Don’t try to regain it.  The present does not stay.  Don’t try to touch it.  From moment to moment the future will not come.”

Our nature is to turn back, to look for meaning, to right things that went wrong, to revel in the good feelings or wallow in the bad.  And even when we aren’t looking back, the past comes looking for us.

Two Mondays ago was the seventh anniversary of my Mom’s passing.  I hate to admit that this was the first year that I didn’t feel the loss in the marrow of my bones as the day approached.  That evening I ran into one of Mom’s dearest friends at a work reception.  It was a coincidence that was a gift .  It reminded me about what is truly important about my past.  We chatted until way too late about Mom, and I drove home feeling enlivened by the old stories, even the hardest one to relive, that of her last few months.

The next day, I went looking through the past for more of that warm embrace from the past.  I flipped through her correspondence from Bangladesh in the 70s — hoping that there was a message.  Anything for me here?  Lots of talk about Dad’s job, my first Brownie uniform, how much weight my little brother had gained, the incessant monsoon rains, the fabric she used for upholstery on the drab government issued chairs.  Nothing.  Just the past.

Bharadvajasana is fully ground in the present.  The sit bones are ground into the earth, the deep twist coming from the ribcage.  Even though the heart pulls us into the past, our root is in the present.

This poem by Linji has helped me get to this sense of freedom from, in spite of, because of the past:

If you want to be free,

Get to know your real self

It has no form, no appearance

no root, no basis, no abode.

But is lively and buoyant

It responds with versatile facility

But its function cannot be located

Therefore, when you look for it,

You become further from it.

When you seek it, you turn away from it all the more.

On Being Precious or Being Precise

The Renwick Gallery has an amazing new exhibition of 40 artists under 40 years old who are changing the face of art and craft.  The work exhibited there is transformative for anyone who is interested in creativity, inspiration and the artistic process.  I marvelled at the concepts they played with in their work and level of precision and craft that each artist has achieved in his or her own piece.  See a slide show of their work here.

One of the most important lessons for me to learn and relearn as a recovering creative has been to be honest about being precious and being precise about my work.  I had a wonderful painting teacher at the Corcoran named Tom Xenakis who would stand behind me in a painting class and say (in a very unjudgemental way):  “You are being precious.” He didn’t mean cute or funny.  He meant that I was being fastidious and affected in my work.  It is a challenge about the practice of art.  Tom’s lesson has stayed with me, although it usually doesn’t come to me the moment I need it, before I have painted a canvas into a muddy mess.  Or when I look at something I’ve worked very hard on but it won’t sing.  There’s just paint, no heart.

Like all good art teachers, Tom taught working the entire canvas, leaving something and returning to it, trusting the process of making art.  In other words — get the hell out of your own way.  Let it flow.  Stop thinking so much.   Look, focus, see and paint.

The practice of mindfulness — of being in the moment and getting yourself out of the way — is important to painting, to yoga practice, to life.  Precision happens in mindful moments.  It is when we really see the shape of an eye — it isn’t shaped like an almond, the pupil isn’t really round, the iris catches the light here and darkens there.  In asana practice, precision happens when we can turn off the noise in our minds to tune into the sensations of our bodies, allowing us to take flight into bakasana or come up into our first headstand.  Indeed, mindfulness allows us to be precise with the people we love.  It allows us  look into their eyes and be present, to empathize, to listen and to love.

In Re-Entry I posted the painting of my husband’s hand.  I’ve added to the canvas a portrait of my daughter and the crook of his elbow, where she used to swing from as a toddler.  It is still unfinished, but I’m happy with it because I enjoyed every moment of the painting process.  I stopped being precious and just let the emotions carry me through.

Again I’ve learned the truth to the  Zen paradigm:  Stop thinking and talking about it and there is nothing that you will not be able to know.

Filling in the Form

Faded Bangkok 1969

I’m always two steps ahead of myself creatively.  I’m thinking about what a final series of paintings will be before I’ve even prepared the first canvas.  According to Julia Cameron, this is creative sabotage.  When we are thinking about the end goal, we are allowing ourselves to submit to the fear that our efforts won’t get us there, that we aren’t up to the task, that we aren’t worthy of the inspiration.  But since I’ve been doing the disciplines of morning pages and intentional creative play time, I find that the daydreaming about the future is harder to turn off.

Case in point: I drew this from a beautifully faded photo of my brother and me on a boat in Bangkok.  I loved the bright negative space in the photo.  This inspired me to spend time cataloguing my mother’s letters to her mother when we went to East Pakistan to live in 1969.  I spent Memorial Day placing the old tattered tissue paper hotel stationery and aerogram letters in plastic sleeves.  I started to journal the in-between the lines places of love and guilt of a young mother writing to a worried mother.

At about the same time, a warm wind of inspiration took a hold of me and I wrote a children’s book in one sitting.  I’m now working on the illustrations for it — slowly, steadily.  Sometimes painfully.

Where do these projects lead?  I know I shouldn’t care, but I want to work towards something. I want to devote my time to something that will come to fruition — and soon, dammit! Is that so wrong?

I turned to Pema Chodron’s Wisdom of No Escape last night as I was falling asleep and came upon a favorite passage.  It spoke to me in this instance.  (Sorry I can’t give you the page number — it has a place of great importance in my Kindle, but I’m disappointed that I can’t see the page numbers!)

“The experience of labeling your thoughts “thinking” also, over time, becomes much more vivid.  You may be completely caught up in a fantasy, in remembering the past or planning for the future, completely caught up , as if you had gotten on an airplane and flown away someplace.  You’re elsewhere and you are with other people and you’ve redecorated a room or you’ve relived a pleasant or unpleasant experience, or you’ve gotten all caught up in worrying about something that might happen…Then suddenly you realize, and you just come back.  It happens automatically.  You say to yourself, ‘Thinking,’ and you’re saying that, basically what you are doing is letting go of those thoughts.  You don’t repress the thought.  You acknowledge them as ‘thinking’ very clearly and kindly, but then you let them go.  Once you begin to get the hang of this, it’s incredibly powerful that you could be completely obsessed with hope and fear and all kinds of other thoughts and you could realize what you’ve been doing — without criticizing it — and you could let it go.  This is probably one of the most amazing tools you could be given, the ability to just let things go, not to be caught in the grip of your own angry thoughts, or passionate thoughts or worried thoughts or depressed thoughts.”  

Still recovering.  But at least I’m in the studio today. Sit still, breathe, work, and just be.