February comes, a month of hygge, squirrels burrow in the knots of trees, stalks huddle in the too-cold shade, waiting for the glimmer of a warming sun. February kills my high, bums me out. with its soft slow snow, feathery fistfuls. February, the heart-smacking, lip-centered, wait for longer days. For the spring of birthdays, of another hula hoop, scoop around the sun, for stronger days, when the shoots doesn’t break in the brittle cold, and the loon calls from the lake. And even the Met opens her front doors, wide, like a seamstress, ready to unfurl her crazy quilts.
If I visit the small lost and found department of my life, I wonder what I would find there. The things that I don’t even recall losing. That high-collared Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown, I wish I had it now for this spring dressed as winter in the North Country. During this pause, this enforced sanctuary, I’m aware of the recent big and small trips I’ve missed. To commemorate my dad’s life in Sarasota; to volunteer at McCurdy School in Espanola. I grieve. Take time to grieve so many losses. And the loss of certainty. Of course, we’ve found things too. Vast swaths of uninterrupted time with darlings. Sometimes bickering. Sometimes laughing. Sometimes walking the dog. Sometimes (okay, a lot of time) watching Netflix. I’ve found that frisson of joy when I hear a friend’s voice on the phone. Definitely, I feel loved. There is – yes – a sense of finding and losing. And we’ve experienced loss. One recent twist, I’ve found a forgiving heart for any and all who live with fear, the shadow self.
And a desire to turn to visual art — as ‘not the thing I do, but the place I visit.’ Imperfectly, yes. For we are only human.
Some people vacation in the Adirondacks in the summer. Yet the cold winter months in the New York mountains offer a beautiful and stark landscape, perfect for taking stock and taking time. How often do we pause to simply exhale and inhale the beauty of nature?
Getting out of your home comfort zone and into nature, even in the winter weather, refreshes your soul. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, my family went up to Westport on Lake Champlain. We took a couple of long walks on Camp Dudley Road. Nothing makes you feel so alive as a brisk winter walk. Breathe. Feel the bracing fresh air and notice the big sky.
Don’t be lulled into the belief that the only way to socialize with family and friends is to dine at home or go out to eat together. I contend that walking and talking and making art together offers a more fulfilling connection. Don’t get me wrong: I love sitting down to a delicious meal with family and friends. It’s a great way to share time and stories. But it’s not the only way.
Walking together makes memories too.
During one of my long winter walks, I hit upon the idea of offering a winter writing and arts retreat in Westport. I, for one, am looking forward to getting quiet, slowing down, going for long winter walks, and, okay, yes, dining together. Telling stories through art and writing.
What you see is what you get. If you look for signs that you are disliked, you will find them. If you look for signs that you are loved, you will find them too. I believe this.
But this rugged self determinism doesn’t really take into account the reality that, in certain environments, there are truly biases working against you and, yes, biases, too, working in your favor. You do not even know what you’ve got or don’t have going for you. We discussed this the other night in a book club around the topics of hidden bias presented in Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald.
I encourage myself through positive self talk in my journals — I first learned how to do this, I think, when I read Gilda Radner’s book, It’s Always Something. She conducts a conversation with her childhood self at the end of the memoir. I have always believed there are many personalities within one person. This is why I love the theater, I guess.
My encouraging self talk is a way to drive out the nagging self doubt. We all have doubts. I always remember that even the pilot Sully who made the heroic landing feels he could’ve done more. Than what? Landing his plane on water? The Hudson River with its smooth runway caught his plane like a net ten years ago.
Yesterday in my watercolor class at the Art Students League, I was totally doubtful about my work as a fine artist. All of my watercolor sketches were spread across one wall for everyone to see. I felt like hiding under a bushel.
Later, I overheard two women talking — one was saying she would never be very good. The other said, ‘If you didn’t believe you could get better, maybe you’d stop trying.’ We are always on road to perfection. We have never arrived.
Yes. We need to encourage ourselves through positive self talk. But we also need to know we are moving towards becoming better. And there are forces working for and against us. The main point is to never quit.
What you are must always displease you if you are to accomplish that which you are not. – St. Augustine
Last night, I got into watercolor painting. I’m a rank amateur compared to my brother Brendan and my father, but I do love to push paint around paper and see if anything emerges. I try to get into the zone. I never have enough time. And the feeling I love best is when one effortless stroke yields something recognizable. And I have that rush of self-affirmation, “Wow, that’s good.” Or maybe, “I’m good.” I love that dopamine hit of a feeling of mastery.
Yesterday we saw Edie Falco in the True, an off Broadway play about the politically savvy Polly Noonan, the Albany secretary and consultant of Mayor Erastus Corning II who served, unbelievably, for 41 years. Falco is one of my favorites. So are John Pankow and Michael McKean, also masters. It’s relaxing to go to the theater when you can trust the actors’ craft, sit back and let them do their thing. You don’t have to worry. It’s all going to be okay.
Corning may have peddled in corruption, but he knew his constituents well. And this seems to be what we’re missing nowadays in politics and in our neighborhoods — from the cop on the corner to the local Assembly person. Well, actually, I do know and love Linda Rosenthal, our Upper West Side assemblywoman. So never mind.
Our neighborhood is so beautiful in the fall. Just this afternoon on the way back from church, I spotted a rose at my neighbor’s down the block. It was still fragrant. (Is that global warming? We are in early October, after all). I snapped a picture of it and thought I might try to paint it. Making art, oddly, helps me overcome my despair about politics.
And theater about powerful women in politics, even as helpmates during a sexist era, uplifts me. There’s mastery there. Women in the arts, women in politics — we just can’t get enough.
Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. – Pablo Picasso I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint. – Frida Kahlo
just messing around
seen down the block
bumper sticker spotted in long island
our beautiful nearby farmer’s market
I had an amazing advantage: a grandmother [Polly Noonan, the influential confidante of the mayor of Albany] who loved politics. She taught me not to listen to negative press or people. I grew up knowing politics was rough-and-tumble. – Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Senator
You want to be happy but there’s so many chores to do.
For one moment, put your happiness first.
The other day, I bought myself a really cute pink party dress from Talbots. Once, as a preteen, reading Young Miss, an article said: ‘In order to be popular, do not wear a new outfit right after you get it. Wait at least a week.’
I have internalized this advice and have for more than 40 years tucked away my treasures in the pursuit of popularity. But WHY???
There is another truth: Don’t hide your light (or pretty pink dress) under a bushel. I am wearing the dress today.
Also, to increase my happiness quotient, the other night I went to the 52nd Street Project. I saw plays written by 10-year olds, performed by top-notch adult theater professionals, like Bill Kamp and Edie Falco. Going out to the theater makes me so happy. But especially because I like hanging out with my friend Joanna.
So for today’s happiness advice, I suggest you:
Do something nice for yourself
Wear something new
Go to the theater
Meet up with a friend
Admire the creativity of children
Plan something fun
Tomorrow the girls and I leave for almost two weeks in Italy — Milan, Ravenna, Bologna, Florence, Rome. Looking forward to this trip has made me happy.
Just home from watching the Martian, a fun 3-D movie, suspenseful and relaxing at the same time. It’s been a long day. I started with my 80-minute 10th grade English class — our current topic is Magical Realism — then I subbed the rest of the day in Kindergarten.
At the end of the Kindergarten day, the children had choice time. They got out their leggos or coloring supplies. And one boy, high energy, wanted me to read him some Frog and Toad. Always good. Then another girl joined us. We read a few more books and then the boy passed me Mindful Monkey; Happy Panda.
“Oh, I like that one,” the girl said.
I liked it too. The message was keep your mind at the same place as your activity. Monkey is not happy because his mind is always on something beyond his activity. But happiness comes from thinking about what you’re doing. When you walk, think about walking. Eat? Think about eating. Play? You get the idea. It was such a happy reminder to keep your head where your feet are. Tomorrow and yesterday are not here. Do not think about them. Think about now, this moment. It was an excellent way to end a busy and satisfying teaching day and work week.
I have been blogging every day of October. I am trying to see this ritual of writing as a mindfulness practice. I realize I have to write what interests, helps, inspires me. And not find this blog burdensome. My husband Chris is in Florida, I am working teaching, editing and writing. I have turned down a couple of substitute teaching jobs. And I am trying to be present and organized for my daughters.
Even my self-imposed challenges, like this blogging every day of October, can be a chance to practice panda mind, not monkey mind. I can keep my mind on my activity. And be alive to the present.
Last week, when I substitute taught French, I told the kids my last name was similar to the French word for present, cadeau, and today when they saw me again, one boy said, “Hi Ms. Cadeau.” And he told another teacher, “You can just call her Ms. Present.” Not a bad name. Because sometimes Ms. Present is actually in the present. There she might get lucky and find Magical Realism.
I sat outside for 10 minutes at lunch time. I did nothing. I closed my eyes.
This video inspired me. Taking a 10-minute break connected me to my senses. I felt the sun on the back of my neck. I heard hip hop music from a car stopped at a traffic light nearby. I opened my eyes and saw a sparrow, a few feet away, tilt its head.
I thought about the mastercard bill I have to pay. I strategized about meeting my daughter before one play practice today and after another. I wondered if it would be good enough if she had only a slice of pizza for dinner.
I felt some things. I thought some things. But I did not get bogged down in my thoughts or feelings. I hopped from thing to thing like the sparrow.
There may have been a few moments when I entered a state beyond thinking or feeling. I drifted into the sky. I saw a gold frame against the sky. What happens when you frame infinity? I thought, How funny – that there are stars in the sky during the daytime too. I don’t see the stars, but I know they’re there.
I thought, I have to work on my Magical Realism curriculum for the 10th grade World Lit class tomorrow. I added that to the part of my mind that contains the long To Do list.
I slowed my breathing. I glanced at my phone 9 minutes had gone by. One more minute to sit. One more minute to think about nothing. Closed my eyes. Heard a strange tapping. Then, I heard footsteps crunching. I opened my eyes. A mother and her teenage son walked in front of me, serious, going somewhere.
Meditation is watching a movie in my mind. Being a bystander. Not hopping on stage. I am not the star of the film; I am a witness.
Make art because it feels good. Art is as therapeutic as a glass of wine or a good work out.
5 reasons to make art:
Your imperfections are beautiful
You are in the moment
You see things differently
You connect to your child-like self
You co-create with God
Just about every Sunday night, I sit at the dining room table and move around some gesso, paint, gel, old magazine pieces, ink, pastels, stamps.
I make crazy art collage books — a bunch of randomness. Searching for serendipity, synchronicity. I try to piece it all together. I really don’t care if people like or understand my stuff. I live so much of my life trying to get people to understand – as a writer, I want to be clear; as a teacher, I want my students to get the assignment.
So I appreciate the time with my art; time connected, not to my head, but to my body or spirit or flow. I know I am good with words, but sometimes words fail. Or words exhaust.
Then images remain, replenish.
I doubt I am much of a fine artist. One brother is a professional artist. Another is a graphic artist. And my father is pretty good with a paintbrush. My whole family is artsy. So I might have a knack.
I am okay that my work is messy. Making art is about letting go of intentions. I start one project only to move on to another. Briefly, I was obsessed with painting small boxes. I have more than a dozen. I tried to give them away at Christmas a couple of years ago but one of my sister-in-laws refused the gift! LOL – An indication of how useful these little boxes are? Honestly, I think she was trying to honor her minimalism rather than denying my craftsmanship. And I can honor that and want to downsize too.
There is no reason to make art. But my dad once told me (don’t you love when politicians are always quoting their fathers?) “You should always do the thing for which there is no reason.”
I realize by making art that I have a unique way of seeing the world. I realize that making art is simply playing. Tinkering. I have to believe that the act of creation is something the creator wants us to do. And something that benefits us all. As actors, composers, singers, dancers, artists, we move the human race forward. And we receive therapy. It just feels good.
Behind our girl/woman is a patchwork of newsprint, bubbles, circles, Xs and Os.
Behind all women there are many back stories, unexplained or overexplained scenarios, patterns, styles, habits. I wish through this flat screen that you could touch the texture of this work of art. To caress the layers and feel the bumps of glue and paint that hold it all together.
I want to create this kind of collage, a layering of meaning and a build-up of patterns.
We are always building our last layer. Sometimes we get stuck in an old pattern. We think we are done, but it is only a foundation for the next layer.
I have a pattern of apologizing for the messiness of my work, my art, my life. Collage appeals to me because I am patching it together, painting over that last round, gesso-ing (whitewashing), getting stuck, then starting over. I do not need to apologize.
Life is mixed media – messy and doodley. Made with pens, colors, words, fabric, papers.
I have been letting go of scraps, wondering as I give away books or clothes, What was I doing hanging on to this? When I die, I do not want my children saddled with all my stuff. Discard. I will have a harder time when I come to all my journals, some with writing, some with art. I have hundreds of them.
I want to patch together my stuff and make it beautiful. I like making art. Times when I am always happy? Paintbrush or bike handlebars in hand.
I am also happy when I am hugging someone I love. You need seven hugs a day my yoga teacher told me. Making art is a little like hugging – or making the paper hug the paint or fabric or mixed media or glue.
“If it is too simple, complicate it. If it is too complicated, simplify it.” Mariano Rosario, my mixed media teacher at the Art Students League, told me.
This post was written at the Ecumenical Library Writing Group. We were shown a mixed media collage by my former colleague, Milagros (Millie) Suriano-Rivera. Alicia Pitterson led the writing group. She asked us to look at Millie’s painting and write about what resonates. We meet next on August 24 at noon.