Thoughts: Flat Lined

red shoes

I am starting this essay with absolutely no idea what I am going to be writing about.

It’s a blank day today. I have no struggles I am trying to push through. I haven’t had any event stir my mind and heart the past day or so, no episodes of particular love or hate that racheted my mind and heart into creating anything new. A poem or two, yes, but nothing stirring. A couple of scribblings in my sketch pad, but nothing worth looking at, much less show to anyone.

I am, alas, quite dull.

Dull is good for some things. I had some highly technical work to do earlier today and with no emotions to deal with, I cranked right through it with speed and clarity. I have bills to pay and I’ll knock those off in short order. So a lot of stuff is getting done without distraction.

I suspect it’s also a good rest. I tend to process things through my feelings first and as regular readers already know, I process feelings slowly. It’s work. And when there is a lot going on in my head, it flat out tires me. So in a way, this strange respite might be a bit like sleeping. A time to restore my spirit.

Or it might be a sign that my spirit is just plain worn out. It’s been an emotional few weeks. Good stuff, all, but an awful lot of it. When I am hit with a lot of emotions they tend to pile up, like an ice jam on the Hudson, grinding me to a stand still for a time, while all those emotions settle themselves out in some back corner of my brain, the rest of me unaware of what’s going on, feeling flat, If this is what is going on, then it will break loose at some point and stuff will start pouring out of me. To the outsider, I will look like a sudden creative whirlwind.

I used to be afraid of these flat times. Afraid I’d never write anything good again. Afraid I had taken my last striking photograph. Afraid there were no more paintings to be made. A silly fear, when you think about it. I have always come back to creating stuff. I just have to be aware, ready, and hopefully, in practice.

Practice – the art of keeping the skills alive while you wait for the spirit to fill you.

Or maybe art is the wrong word. Habit. That may be the word. Or discipline. That might be the word. Frankly, I don’t care what the word is. It’s just something I do while I wait for the good stuff.

I have come to a place where I think of myself less as being creative than expressive. I am not breaking new ground. No new forms or styles of writing or art. I experiment, but mostly, I am just expressing what I think or feel or see. Style be damned. Newness not needed. Honesty and openness is.

Trust me, I know creativity. I teach it. I have studied it. I coach it. I know what it is and what it is not. And I know hosts of people who really ARE creative, doing a new thing, stretching, experimenting, pushing boundaries in their art, whatever it might be. I’ve done a share of it myself. It is fun. I admire those that do, and I am grateful for those who have gone before me and pushed back the edges of style and method and expression.

I just am not one of them. I’ve chosen a different path.

Yes, chosen. When I began my artistic journey, I was all about the creativity, about doing it, whatever “it” I was doing, differently. I played with style. I did some pretty weird stuff. I had forgotten how weird unto we found a packet of my early work in my mom’s cedar chest after her death. Pretty ingenious guy, that young Mr Atkins.

But it was, for me, more style than substance. I can admit that now because I recognize it now. Oh, now and then some real emotion slipped in. Just enough to remind me that it was in there somewhere. But more of it was clinically, sometimes even comically, good. I wasn’t very good at being emotionally honest, I learned years and years later, because I struggled so with emotions. I had them, but I had trouble identifying them, naming them, expressing them. As life beat up on me, and I took on more and more responsibility, that whole adulting thing, I got better and better at holding back the emotions and just doing what needed to get done. I was your man in a crisis. The man in the suit, who got it done.

All the while of course, those emotions were in the closet, mating like rabbits, multiplying, growing. And not always in good ways.

Yeah, you know this story. It’s been repeated a million times. Eventually, those emotions roar out of the closet, and generally with a bang. “Things fall apart” as William Butler Yeats writes. And that was me. And then began the rebuilding.

My therapist, early on, asked me what made me feel loved. That was a question I had never been asked before. I didn’t have a good answer. I knew I had felt loved in my life, but I could not at that point quantify it. It took a couple of weeks to wrestle it down but I finally figured it out.

  • I feel loved when I am extended grace, when I don’t have to be perfect to be loved, when I am not always being told what is wrong with me or what needs to be fixed or be changed. That’s not saying there are not things that need to be fixed or changed. I am pretty sure that list will always be there and I will always be working to improve. But when the focus is on what’s right, not what’s wrong, I feel loved.
  • I feel loved when I can express myself safely. When I am given time and space to talk about what’s on my heart and mind without it being picked apart and attacked even as I am working it out verbally. Because that is what I do, work things out with my words. Being able to do that openly and safely is rare, and makes me feel loved.
  • I feel loved when I am talked to as well. When someone shares their own heart with me, also gently and openly. That trust means a lot to me.
  • And last of all, touch. We’re not necessarily talking sex here, just simple human touch. A hand held. A hug. Leaning into each other. Something in that says love to me. Powerful stuff.

What I came to realize is how much of that list is centered around expression. Not creativity. Expression. The ability and safety to express who I am, what I am, what my struggles and hope are.

When I began to put myself back together, I began writing again. After several years of not writing. My therapist insisted. It was, she said, part of my path back to myself. And she was right. I began posting poems about 5-6 years ago, and have been doing it ever since.

There’s not much creativity in my poems today. No new ground. But I think they are better. More real. More authentic. I work hard at them, to get words right, to find a way to say what it is that I am trying to say. My readership is way, way, way higher since I became less creative and more honestly expressive.

It was scary to start doing poetry that way. There was no artifice to hide behind. No stylistic quirk or brilliant wordsmithing to hide the thinness of true emotion behind. It was just me, out there. Still is.

Mostly, you readers are gracious. You tell me that I hit nerves and make you think and feel. That’s the magic of sharing ourselves – we find we are not alone in our struggles and our hearts. We connect. We grow stronger in sharing. And that fact gives my own wrestling additional meaning.

A few of you get angry at me. I guess that is normal. There’s people who will love who we are and people who will not. Some people carry hate in their closet and it spills out at every opportunity. Others carry love in their closets, and THAT is what spills out.

I am OK with either. I am at last in a place in my life that I can bear anger and hate better than I once did. And in a place where kind words touch me more deeply and leave me with a deep sense of gratitude that I can touch people in a good way. I believe in grace and experience a lot of it from all of you who read me regularly. You cannot imagine my love for each of you.

My path to this point has been long. It’s amazing to me that something we work towards for years and years and years can be undone in a flash. But the path back is never as quick. Rebuilding is hard work. But oh so gratifying.

So, don’t expect anything radical here. That’s not where I am. Expect me to keep digging into myself, because there are parts of me always waiting to be discovered. I am less wise as I am constantly exploring and learning. Much of me is in a good place. Some of me is still broken.

And in the in-between times, like today, and the past few days. I just write. I wait for inspiration. You never know when it will come.

You just have to be ready.

Be well. Travel wisely,


PS – What’s with the red shoes, you ask? They have no meaning. I just liked the picture and after two years, I haven’t found a poem to write about them. Shine bright my friends. Shine red.


  1. Your writing is wonderful. It always resonates. It was so nice to meet you in person at Bedlam Farm.

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