I spent some time in my studio yesterday. It’s the second time in a week I’ve cut aside some time to paint.
The woman I love is always concerned when I am not painting. She knows the bigger story of my life, and how, many, many years ago I got so involved in a busy life that I let my creative life get pushed aside and how, after years of letting it evaporate, I slowly came undone.
Was that the reason for my undoing? Not alone. Other things, in particular, my marriage, were also coming undone at the same time, but the lack of creativity was the sign I have come to understand, of something else, something else.
The lack of expressiveness.
In the end, I have come to believe, creativity is less an end to itself than a method of expressing ourselves, of opening ourselves up, of getting things out that are bottled inside us. When we let our creativity lapse in favor of the prosaic things of life like cutting the grass or being nursemaid to everyone in our lives, we stuff. We stuff emotions. We stuff struggles. We stuff the demons that need to be released to be healthy.
And that’s not healthy. At least it has not been healthy for me.
I can do it for a while. I suspect we all can. Sometimes things rise in our lives when there is too much going on. Sickness. Death. Loss. Big moments. For instance, I have had a couple of months getting my son ready for college, preparing some changes in my work, laying the groundwork for my wedding and upcoming marriage.
All good stuff, but stuff none the less. Stuff that’s eaten into my normal schedule of writing and painting. I still write (You readers know this, since you check in most days.).
Normally, that would be a recipe for “issues”. But I can do it for a while, as I said. And this go-around, it’s taken less of a toll than normal because I am in a rare place in life where I have someone safe to be expressive with. Someone I can talk through all the things that chew on me or make me rejoice. Someone I can feel safe to be myself with, good, bad or strange. Someone I can be uncertain with.
That’s what I am coming to understand about myself. That to be expressive I need to be safe. Creativity – my poetry and my art, is a way of creating my own safety. I can write through things on my mind or my heart, even if they are not fully formed, and it’s relatively safe.
Oh, some people may (and do) attack the work, but that’s not the same. For the most part, they don’t attack me (OK, a few do, but that’s the price of putting it “out there”.). They let me ramble. They let me stumble. I don’t have to fight through their harshness to express things. I just do it.
It’s the same with my art. The beauty of abstract art, similarly to poetry, is that it is designed more to provoke thought and emotion than to tell you what is. It is expressive.
(I am not in the middle of this essay and have no idea where I am going. Truly, I am rambling.)
10 minutes and a cup of coffee later……. Safety. That’s where I was going. I create because it is my path to understanding. Often, mostly, understanding myself. Where my heart is. What is going on in my
I create because it is my path to understanding. Often, mostly, understanding myself. Where my heart is. What is going on in my head. I am slow at that whole emotional processing thing, stunted, I have been told, by a childhood where a boy’s emotions were ridiculed and dismissed and treated harshly by a father who had no use for them.
Expressing feelings was an unsafe thing to do, growing up. A sure-fire way to fire up my father’s ire and anger. Volatile, violent anger.
I never knew why. For the most part, my dad was a pretty nice man. People liked him. He was a great raconteur, a teller of stories. He was generous when people were in need. He was amazing with his hands and his understanding of mechanical things.
But he was also an alcoholic and was never angrier than when I tried to express an emotion, good, bad or strange. No wonder I got stunted emotionally, able to feel, unable to properly express.
I found out why a few years ago, before his mind slipped away completely into dementia. It was Thanksgiving and my whole family was there. He had just gone all angry and mean on my son for, yep, expressing his feelings, and I stepped in and confronted my dad, pushed back with just as much anger as he was expressing. All the anger at what my Dad had done to me came out in that one moment and the boy who had never been able to fight back was now a man and I pushed back.
My dad retreated. Something that almost never happened. There was tension in the house like you can not believe. People never fought back against my dad’s anger. It was a quiet Thanksgiving.
The next day, I talked to my father. He was repentant. Sorry. I asked him why he was like that. And he talked in a low voice about being a boy himself, and feeling and wearing his emotions openly. He talked about being in a rural community and being bullied for having and talking about those emotions, and how he learned he had to be tough. Silent. Stoic. Emotions, he said, were dangerous. They were unsafe to have.
There it was again. Safety.
Without it, we close into ourselves. Without it, we never develop fully. We never become our best selves. We suffer and never heal. Relationships come undone. Families come undone. We come undone. We act out. We erupt and cause damage.
It has only been in the last few years that I have carved out a place of safety, emotional safety for myself. And I have flourished. I am happier now, divorced and paying out long term alimony and living in a smaller house, doing new work, than I have ever been. I am free to express, maybe imperfectly, but free to express none the less who and what I am through my poetry and art and ministry. I am in a relationship with a woman who makes me feel safer than I have ever felt, to just be me.
I have long believed that safety was transformative. I worked hard when I managed people and crews, to make them feel safe to grow and talk and share, and my greatest joy in the years I was building large businesses was watching the people who worked for me grow and blossom into something more like themselves, and in the process, grow exponentially professionally.
How did that happen? They had a safe place.
I have seen my kids do the same. Both came to me broken and afraid while they were in high school. I did nothing special. No secret formulas. No disciplined programs. All I did was give them a safe place to be, and in both cases, withing a year, the change was dramatic. In two years, it was mind boggling. They became vibrant, alive, leaders. fully themselves and have leaped into lives they want.
As a pastor, I see it too. People hurting. Feeling unsafe. Relations broken because of a lack of safety, more often emotional than physical. Relationships with God too, broken because people in a church were harsh rather than nourishing, where people were not allowed to find their own path to God, but had God force fed to them. When I work more as a facilitator than a teacher or preacher, people find their own way. Because they once again feel safe in their faith.
My recent spate of not painting had nothing to do with feeling safe or not feeling safe. It was not a block. I was and am in a place where I have safety in my emotional life. I can be who I am, what I am, warts (and oh do I have warts) and all. I can safely express who I am and what I am to those closest to me. And if life gets busy, and I don’t paint or write as much, I am not stuffing. At least not now.
All the same, I am glad to be painting again. I am glad to be in the studio a couple of days a week. Glad to see my thoughts and emotions showing up in color and line again. This little painting, for instance, is called “Homer’s Garden.”
I was thinking about my former father in law, Homer Duty. I loved that man and I was terribly sad at his loss. I still feel it some days, particularly in the spring. He loved his yard and loved his garden, and he loved the people around him.
He would have been sad that his daughter and I divorced, but he was of such a spirit, that had he lived, I believe he would have stayed a friend. And he would have liked the woman I am marrying in a few weeks. He would likely have given me something from his garden.
The forsythia are blooming, and one of them came from a cutting from one of his forsythia bushes. I have carried those cuttings with me from place to place ever since he passed, and when they begin to bloom, I think of him.
This week, they began to bloom.
And I painted.
Be well. Travel wisely. Thanks for indulging a wandering mind today.
Added Later: This painting has now been posted for sale. Click here for details.