I took a few days off last week. I don’t think I realized how much I needed it.
I took in some historic kinds of places. And spent a couple of days with the woman I love. It was low key, and refreshing, in the way that only spending time with someone you are well matched with can be. Some of that time I spent at the Hancock Shaker Villiage near Pittsfield, Mass.
I was expecting to see traditional New England Architecture, which I did. Since moving up here seven years ago, I’ve fallen in love with the simple, crisp lines of 18th and 18th-century New England homes and buildings, and the Shaker Villiage has 20 of them, a complete settlement that has been lovingly restored.
I expected too, to see some of their crafts and furniture, with their simple perfection, and there was plenty of that to see as well – hand made Windsor chairs, dressers and tables, and of course the ubiquitous oval boxes in their astonishing perfection.
The Shakers are renown for their simple, perfect creations. In fact, I learned, trying to do their work perfectly, whether it was furniture making, laundry, or gardening, was not just part of their culture, it was part of their faith. To do good work was a way of honoring God, and the better the work, the better the honoring. It was ingrained in them at a level few of us experience, even those of us who are very good at what they do.
Yes, I got a lot of what I expected. I saw historic things. I learned about a culture, but something else struck me, something I know in my head, something I struggle with constantly, and something I needed a reminder of.
The power of simplicity.
I found myself wandering through the village. It was a slow day, and I was in no hurry. I could just stop when something caught my eye, and I did. In the workshops, I stopped and took in the oval boxes, and the furniture. I mean, really looked at them, turning them over in my hand and taking in the perfect seams, the careful pegging of the joints, the matching of the grains.
In the sewing room, I sat and gazed at the fabrics, my eyes savoring the color and textures. The rooms were not cluttered, so whatever was there caught my eye, and held it. At times, I got so lost in simply looking at something that it was almost like meditation.
Later, as I was driving away and on to the next stop, I began to think about that. I’ve spent much of the last ten years trying to simplify. I make progress. I slip back into old habits. I’m the sort that believes I can do most anything, and true or not, I tend to leap into things, sometimes too quickly. But once in, I see them through.
I realized I’ve been feeling…. claustrophobic in the past couple of months. Part of it is my house too full of furniture, over-filled since my parents died and we split up their household. Normally I would not have taken on so many of their things. I only need a few to be a vibrant reminder of them. But I took on more than my attic can handle for the kids, for their memories. Of course, neither of them have their own homes quite yet so…. things are cozy.
But it’s more than stuff. That’s actually the smallest part of it. I’ve had a busy year this year. I am making a lot of changes, fading out one kind of work that I have done for a long time, and easing in another kind of work, but I have the tools and paperwork of both piled up in my office. My son moved up here about a year ago, and his life surrounds me, not just in things like instruments and longboards, but in activities and places to go and things to do. I have added new church work and responsibilities. I have the woman I love more and more in my life with each passing month.
These are all good things. Very good things. But they crowd life, and sometimes when life is crowded, we kinda let stuff pile up. Sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically. Sometimes both.
For instance, I haven’t been painting much lately. I could not pinpoint the whys, I just knew it was so. Then yesterday when I came home, the images of the Shaker Villiage still in my head, I walked into my studio and realized it looked like a bomb had gone off in it. I’ve had several shows lately, and when each one ended, I just threw all the paintings in piles and took off to set up the next show. My work table had old and new paint and you had to sift through the tubes to find one that had good paint in it. I had no idea what was what or even what colors I had left. Drawing pencils were scattered about, not together in their box.
No wonder I wasn’t painting. It was too much trouble to find anything.
Today is my birthday. I am 61. My daughter is in DC where she lives and works. My son has been in Maine all week and will get home later today. The woman I love is off celebrating the birthday of one of her grandchildren.
So I spent the afternoon after church shoveling out my studio. Putting things back in place, clearing out the floor, tossing the dried up tubes of paint and semi-organizing materials and paper and canvases.
Other things are going to be rearranging themselves as well. My son is inches (well, days.) away from getting his license, which means I will suddenly become less of a taxi driver. My work is falling into place, slowly but surely. Some of the local groups I am part of are winding down. I have a period with no shows of my art to take a breather.
I have, in other words, space in my life, either here, or coming soon.
Space is where things happen. It’s where creativity happens. It’s where opportunity happens. Space in our lives lets us think, allows us to sit with our feelings so they do not consume us, allows the spontaneous moments that build relationships to happen. In general, we let life and activity and accomplishment (and I am as guilty as the next guy) swallow the space in our lives.
It is slow. It is insidious. And often made all the sneakier by the fact that often the stuff that sucks out our space is good stuff, meaningful stuff, stuff for other people, giving stuff, kind stuff…… But it can still swallow us alive until the best stuff is closed in and stops happening.
I’ve made that mistake. I work hard to keep it from happening again, and mostly do, but still, at times, it sneaks up on me, like it has the next few months.
I probably would have caught it before it got dangerous anyway, but I am grateful to the Shakers and grateful for a couple of days with the woman I love and no agenda, to remind me of the power of space. For inspiring me to take care of it now, before I got really, really claustrophobic.
So, the studio is in order. I did some painting. Nothing great, but I felt the spirit return, the joy of it. I am glad to have room again, figuratively and physically. I am no longer feeling claustrophobic.
A good way to begin my 61st year.
Be well. Travel wisely,