A few months ago I listened to a webcast. The speaker compared life’s experiences to climbing a ladder.
“Every rung is important,” he said, “Every rung is equal.”
At first, the idea of “everything matters equally” felt paralyzing. Taking even the simplest of actions could be life-or-death in a world where all is so completely important. I might do it wrong.
Then I heard the words differently.
Everything in life has equal meaning.
At first, this didn’t seem logical. Holding a door open for someone and saving
someone’s life has equal meaning?
Yes, it does.
Last Fall I was deep in grief over the deaths of my Dad and my cousin. The feelings came and went, unpredictable tides that left me feeling helpless and lost. On a day when things were especially colourless and I desperately needed to feel better, I took myself to the library.
As I walked towards the door, it swung open and someone
came out. Their arms were loaded with
books, a balancing act, but when they saw me they paused and waited, holding
the door open wide. They looked me in
the eyes and smiled. I thanked them and walked
Holding the door open for someone and smiling, a momentary gesture frequently repeated, nothing really in the larger movements of life. Except this someone, a stranger, smiled for me as if we knew and loved each other well.
That brief action was pure kindness, a connection that gave me light and space and breath. I was offered a moment of love that buoyed me for the rest of the day.
I don’t know what happens as my actions and choices ripple outwards. I don’t know who I affect every day in my
I do know I want my life’s touch to be as kind and loving
as the gift I received that day.
If everything is important and equal, if everything has meaning, I choose to do my days with kindness and love for the people around me and for myself.
My studio is in chaos.
Boxes. Books. Papers. Art supplies.
Reintegrating two studios into one is a messy business. Right now I am organizing, and there are
multiple piles covering the floor and work tables.
I am joyful amidst this chaos. My smile is wide and I am utterly content. My studio is becoming one again, I am becoming one again.
I moved back and forth between two homes for fifteen
years. This movement was not natural to
me. I am a nester. I did my best anyways.
Now I am home where I began, the place where I feel grounded and whole. Here I breathe easiest, and my body and senses know the rhythm, smells, and sounds of the land. I am a part of this place.
I should have expected the feeling that showed up, but I didn’t.
I held my breath for fifteen years and did not know it.
How could I not know something this essential?
Necessity. I forced myself to focus on what was necessary. In my second home I made myself find what was good, what was new and interesting, what I could love. Apparently I am very good at finding ways to feel okay, and very expert at looking away from what I have to leave behind. No looking back, I say to myself, and I don’t.
I made good friends.
I found things I could truly love, and things that expanded my life. I met people who love the land there, who are
clearly home in every meaning of the word.
But I know my home is here.
The back-and-forth years are done, the time away completed. The relief I didn’t expect to feel is real and honest. I have come home again.
In this post:
The image is a pastel drawing I made for my sister-in-law. It’s titled “I called light and dark and wove the cloth of life (Charlene)”, from a body of artwork “Dancing The Ghosts” which honours five generations of my family. I created this body of work while living in my northern home, and on Charlene’s drawing I wrote:
Nothing is wrong. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is neurotic. Nothing is disowned. Everything is possible. Everything is held. Everything is claimed. Everything is loved. This is who we are.
The last few weeks have been a slow roller coaster. My moods have traveled up and down, and longer in the downs. This week I’ve settled, a blessed relief.
I could list the reasons, but it’s easier to simply list ‘life’.
I am exactly like my son when he was five years old.
It was a tough day at school (kindergarten is not always easy), and he came home angry. He didn’t want to talk, and he bashed his way around the house until I became angry too. Better we separate when we’re both angry. I told him to go to his room. I stayed in the kitchen.
I listened as he stomped away, as his door slammed, as the noise and activity level in his bedroom peaked, then quieted.
After a few minutes, concern and curiosity led me down the hallway. I knocked on his door, then opened it.
He looked at me, mourning written all over him. “Mom, I’ve tried everything and nothing makes
me feel better.”
The evidence of his effort lay all around him, on the floor and the bed. Toys, Lego pieces, stuffed animals, his favourite blanket. He had tried so hard. My upset dissolved in an instant.
Love is what I gave my precious son that day, and received love back. We sat on his bed and hugged, held hands, talked about nothing important. We had all the time in the world.
I’ve tried and nothing makes me feel better–I know that place.
Luckily, I am now old enough I’ve learned what to do.
I don’t push the feelings away. I don’t try to make myself better. I’m upset for a reason and my feelings are broadcasting what and why. I need to feel and listen, so I do. I put on music, or let the house be silent , wrap myself in my favourite blanket, cocoon myself on the couch, become still. An hour or a day, I feel and listen. I treat myself gently, a precious being broken and hurting and needing love.
Love is what I give myself when I am hurting and needing. Love and all the time in the world. Love fills the cracks and mends the breaks. Love tells me I am something precious, and makes me whole again.
My son doesn’t remember that day, but I do always. He gave me the most perfect gift of feeling
and understanding what keeps us whole. Love. Love.
In this post:
I didn’t always know how to love myself. I still forget sometimes, but each time the
gap is smaller. Dee Wallace’s Red Dot
Exercise is one of the things that helped me learn what unconditional self-love
My experience doing the Red Dot Exercise is here on my blog,
postings from December 23 and 24, 2014:
I am not very kind to myself. I call myself lazy. I say I am a master procrastinator. The fact that I am in year five of my book draft must make these judgments true. The additional fact that I’ve done several projects during this time, so that I didn’t have to write, also makes this true.
Today I woke and realized these years of off-and-on writing
and the projects-in-between were necessary.
I had to get myself to the point where I could let go of the story.
I had to break my heart open.
In all the time I’ve been writing my blog, I’ve never
talked much of my book draft, other than I was doing it or not doing it. I’ve never talked about the content because
that wasn’t what my blog was for. My blog
has always been for the sake of writing, not for the sake of story.
I am changing that today.
For thirty-four years I had an overtaking illness, fibromyalgia, that shrunk my life and finally, fully cut away my ability to make art.
I was always a good girl. I did everything the doctors told me. I took all the medications. I cared for my body. I adjusted my life, managed, made changes, made excuses.
None of it mattered.
The disease slowly stole away the core of me, my truest self—artist.
The week I understood I had finally completely lost my art
was the breaking point. The book begins
here, and the story traces the healing path I created.
I know this story intimately. I lived it.
I was sure that five years of writing was too long and wrong. I called myself lazy and procrastinator, and
it felt appropriate.
What I had not taken into account, when I began writing the book, was how numb I had been for all the years of illness. I was living through loss repeated over and over. I was living through pain and grief, and I had to numb myself to my emotions. Numb was survival. The only place I allowed my emotions was in my art, where I had control over what I expressed.
Numb is an emotion.
But, telling a story where numb is the primary emotion
doesn’t work. The reader needs something
more to connect into and feel.
My first draft was all numb. The facts were there. It had a story line, but the emotional
connection was ice. I was skating on the
surface of everything I described, and I knew it.
I stopped writing and spent time working on my emotions and
my beliefs about myself.
My second draft was better. I was able to move into fear and love, how they felt, and how love melted away fear.
Better, but still not deep enough.
Then I did two things, perhaps accident, perhaps instinct, and experienced yet another that broke me through the numbness and let the story go.
I wrote a parallel draft during Nanowrimo 2017. I wrote all around the edges of the story,
every other part of my life, and the lives of my family and friends, during the
period the primary story took place.
Because I believed the parallel draft was not the story, I felt
free to write whatever showed up. Because
I’d given myself permission to accept whatever showed up, emotions started
breaking through and I recognized them.
Loss, grief, rage, desperation, depression. Everything I’d buried beneath numb showed up,
demanding to be acknowledged and written.
So I did. I felt the feelings and wrote the words. Painful, tearful, cathartic, necessary. For my eyes and heart only, and those of a few very trusted friends. I made it through the parallel draft.
While I was preparing to begin draft three, I discovered Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius. I put the draft on hold and instead began writing the back story, following Lisa’s process.
While I wrote back story and grieved the losses imposed on me by this now-healed illness, both my Dad and my cousin died, and my Mom fell hard and deep into Alzheimer’s.
So many griefs. They smashed the few defenses I had left.
I was naked and lost.
I kept writing.
There is something to be said for having my heart blasted
I felt everything and I feel everything, pain and joy
both. There is no numbing a blast site
And somehow, for some reason, I no longer wish to.
The emotions running in me have freed my heart and my
story. I can let the story go, and trust
the writing. I can trust the words to
carry what I feel and have felt.
For Christmas, my sister gave me a gift I’d hoped for, the book Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart.
I cocooned myself on the living room couch, and read the book slowly over two December afternoons. I could have read it slowly in one, but I had to stop halfway. I had to stop and let my feelings wash through me. Wash through me and make enough room to experience the second half of Tom’s story.
Rosalie Lightning is a graphic memoir. Tom and Leela’s young daughter Rosalie died suddenly and unexpectedly. Tom found a way through, drawing and writing.
You’d think this memoir is about grief. You’d be wrong.
Tom, Leela, and Rosalie’s story is about love. Immense, devastating, life-filled love.
Grief is always about love. I have learned this over the past year, grieving and loving first my Dad and then my cousin. Feeling both empty and far too full at the exact same time. Frozen in place, and yet needing to run as desperately fast as I could, as if I could outrun pain.
You can’t outrun your heart.
My heart—love—is the only thing that can carry me through when nothing feels right.
Tom knows about heart and nothing feeling right. His book tells something unimaginable,
chaotic, stark, crushing. And yet, at
the same time, his images and words show a way of continuing to love when you
don’t know how.
Emotion. I try, but words cannot hold the whole of it, and images only suggest it. Then I see them together, and there is magic. Together they walk me into layers of feeling another person’s world, knowing beyond any doubt my world feels the same. Word and image together reach into my heart and heal me.
Tom Hart, your name fits you perfectly. Say it aloud.
Thank you for Rosalie’s story.
In this post:
Rosalie Lightning: a graphic memoir by Tom Hart. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 2015. http://www.tomhart.net/ I also have his book The Art Of The Graphic Memoir which I am beginning to work through. This book came out in November 2018, also published by St. Martin’s Press.
Last night I watched one of my favourite Christmas shows, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.
This morning I woke thinking how, as kids in school, we labelled each other. Those labels did a lot of damage. Unlike Rudolph, some of us were never able to rise above the words we were called.
I love words. I love playing with words, putting them together and taking them apart. I love crossword puzzles, word games, and Scrabble. I love reading other people’s words and writing my own.
When I was thirteen years’ old and entering high school, my parents gave me a thesaurus. I never dreamed such a treasure existed. I read it cover to cover, like a novel.
My husband didn’t have a love affair with words. For him, it was much the opposite.
He struggled with words. He couldn’t make the connections between sounding out a word and spelling it. Spelling was a disaster for him. He had to consciously, repeatedly memorize the sequence of letters for each word. Otherwise ‘celery’ came out ‘clegery’, and ‘chimney’ was ‘chibmny’.
He was told he was stupid, and he felt stupid.
I know the English language has weird and wonderful word spellings, but his struggle was beyond that.
By the time my husband reached high school, he’d struck a deal with a friend who was an ace speller. His friend struggled to come up with ideas for writing assignments. My husband always had loads of ideas. So he provided his friends with ideas, and his friend spell checked my husband’s essays. Win win.
My husband is not stupid.
His brain came equipped with a different pathway to understanding words, sounds, and spelling. He had to find his own way, and did, into learning how to spell.
It’s so easy to stick a label on someone, easier than taking the time to consider the whole of the person standing in front of you and finding an understanding.
No one is stupid.
I have twenty years of experience as an artist, but ask me to sculpt something and the result would have you seriously doubting I have any artistic ability at all. I am a disaster at sculpture.
My brain doesn’t see and understand the way a sculptor needs to. What my brain naturally sees and understands is drawing. Give me paper and drawing materials, and I am a wizard.
I’ll say it once more.
No one is stupid.
This life is rich because of the uncountable paths we have for seeing and understanding.
I have a very old dictionary from Great Britain, a school discard dated 1954. It contains a definition for ‘stupid’ I find interesting. The dictionary defines it as ‘wanting in understanding’.
This definition surely describes me trying to sculpt and my husband trying to spell. We want to understand and are unable to.
There are other layers in this definition. We all want and deserve help and understanding from others when we are struggling. And for those who label others then walk away, describing the label-ers as having a ‘wanting of understanding’ works for me.
I have a pattern of not celebrating my successes. Mostly I ignore them, occasionally I allow myself to briefly enjoy them. Never do I allow myself full appreciation of what I have successfully completed, be it writing or drawing or anything else in my life. Always, I immediately move on to the next thing.
I’ve been wondering why I do this. Two days ago, I discovered a big reason.
In school, I was one of those brainy kids. The A’s on my report card came easily to me. Because of this, my teachers gave me extra enriched work, mostly math and science.
I loved, and continue to love, learning new things for the sheer enjoyment of it, but this was not something I chose for myself. I loved school, but this extra work felt like work, and I wanted to be with my friends playing and having fun. I rarely completed the assignments. The teachers eventually gave up, which was a relief for me.
In my child-mind, this experience created a belief that stuck in my subconscious.
I believed I was a failure.
I did not do the enriched work and become someone who changed the world through discovering amazing scientific things. I did not meet expectations. I did not fulfill my potential. It did not matter that the expectations and ideas regarding my potential belonged to someone else. As a child, I knew I was smart and I trusted my teachers, so I took this on as something reasonable.
When I look at my life now, I love where and who I am. I love love love drawing and writing. I love the learning I do, moving toward life with an open, creative heart. I love the family and friends I have around me. My life is good and I know I created this, which means yes I am successful at what I do.
I do not owe my school teachers or the world, or even myself, anything. I owe neither success nor failure.
I walked the path I needed to walk, so I could be exactly where I needed to be. As a child, love and joy were the most important choices I made for myself every day. I didn’t consciously realize what I was choosing, and I couldn’t articulate it. I didn’t realize love and joy could be choices, yet there I was choosing time with my friends as the most important thing.
That time with my friends shaped me. We read, traded books, made up stories, and played pretend. We drew and made things with whatever was at hand. We were creators who played, loved, and enjoyed what we created.
As I grew up, every choice I made, everything I was, everything I created led me here.
I appreciate what my school teachers did. Unknowingly, they pushed me into making my own choices, helped me find and experience the things that were right for me.
I know and feel how the words and images I create, the love and joy I share, the life I live changes the world around me. That is success.
I did not waste my potential. I have been fulfilling it all along.
I’m playing with Lucy Bellwood’s book 100 Demon Dialogues. I keep going back to cartoon number 83. In the cartoon, Lucy says, “I think I’ve figured it out: you’re more afraid of success than you are of failure.” Her demon, who is trying to hide in a box, says, “I’m afraid of EVERYTHING.”
I am afraid of success. When I succeed in my art or my writing, I am not sure what to do. What should happen next I can never figure out.
Here is one example. When someone offers me praise, I don’t seem to hear it. The words don’t go all the way in. I feel happy, briefly. I smile, say thank you, glad you enjoy it. Then I feel uncomfortable and need to escape.
It makes me sad to realize I am unable to wholly accept a kind comment. It makes me feel there’s something wrong with me, that I can’t celebrate something I have created when it touches and connects with someone else.
Weird thing is, this is one of the main reasons I write and draw, to create that heart-to-heart connection.
It’s easy, in my studio, to open my heart and be vulnerable as I create. My studio is a safe place, I am alone with my work, and I trust myself to go as deep as the work requires. If I don’t get there the first attempt, or second or third, I keep going until I reach the feeling I want. I’ve done this long enough, I trust what shows up and trust I am able.
Put me in the situation of accepting praise face to face, and I am in fear. Someone connects with my writing or drawing, it evokes something for them, they appreciate the experience, and they want me to know my work succeeded in touching them.
My deepest success, and yet I am afraid to open my heart to this person and feel what they are offering me. Instead I feel naked and vulnerable because someone has seen the feelings I place in my work. How ironic when someone really sees my work and connects heart to heart, I want to run the other way.
My deepest success and my deepest fear. I got this wrong. I’m not afraid of success. I’m afraid of being seen and connecting at my truest self.
I am an artist and a writer who creates heart to heart. I know no other way to create. I refuse to allow any kind of fear to stop me.
Next time someone praises my work, I need to remember who I am in my studio. Trusting, open-hearted, and reaching for connection as many times as it takes.