Small Disciplines

Close Harmony cropped

I spent some time painting Saturday afternoon. It was a warm, bright day and I brought my easel and paints to the back porch.  My new studio space is not ready to move into yet, but I had to take advantage of having both the light and the time I had.

I have not been painting for a couple of months. I am not sure of the reasons why, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that there has been a lot of change in my life, and that change has taken time and emotional energy to absorb. There’s a lot in flux and I don’t create as well when I am unsettled, even in a good way.

At the same time, I understand that painting, like poetry writing, is part of my settling in process. It’s how I sort out my feelings, part of how I come to understand what lies beneath my normally calm exterior.

That calm exterior is the result of my mother’s “never let them see you sweat.” example. We all take some of our parent’s lessons to heart and abandon others, and for whatever reason, that whole “never let them see you sweat” thing became one of my defining lessons. I took it so much to heart that at times, I think, I lost my own feelings. I stuffed them. I put them in closets where they rattled around like vagrant ghosts.  I got so that, by the time I approached my fifties, I could hardly make out my own feelings.

That’s changed, thanks to therapy and a whole different kind of self-discipline.  A day to day, hour to hour monitoring of how I feel. Something that comes naturally to most people. At times, I can’t sort it out still. So I write. Or I paint. I lose myself in the words or bushes and what is breaks loose and I go “Ah-Ha! So that is what lies underneath this calm exterior.”

It has to be maddening to the people who love me. They can ask “What are you feeling?” or “How do you feel about that?”  Most people have instant answers. I have to stop and take inventory. I don’t always have an instant answer.

Maybe it’s not maddening. Maybe they just think I am a dullard.

But I get there. There’s a discipline in it, for me. Work for what most people count automatic.

So it was good to paint Saturday. To wrench some feelings out of my calm shell. I set out my paint, choosing colors that I felt. For no explainable reason. Five colors. (Normally I use dozens of colors.)

I had music playing. I often do. I have satellite radio and so I had a hundred or so channels to listen to. I chose the Sinatra channel, a channel that plays a lot of the great crooners and jazz singers of the fifties and sixties. Close harmonies and the singers sing to you instead of at you.

The music itself tells me something about where I am. I listen to different kinds of music when I am in different moods. Nothing special in that except most people pick a music to suit their mood while I pick a music to help me understand my mood.

The Sinatra channel is one of my happy channels. It is the music of my parents. Music of a different, more innocent time. Where love in song and culture was more about romance than sex first. Where there was less overt anger in pop culture. More simple joy. I can’t play it when I am in a rough struggling place. When I put it on, I know I am in a good place.

I painted.

I am an abstract painter. Once, while doing an outdoor art show, I watched as a mother grabbed her six-year-old child, who was drawn to my paintings and their bright colors. “No,” the mother said. “We’re going to look at the real art.”

Mad me laugh. My art and the art of other abstract artists may look undisciplined, but it is not. There’s thought and emotion and conscious choices in every brush stroke. There’s discipline and mindfulness.  I have learned that one bad brush stroke can ruin an afternoon’s work. It resonates with some people. It doesn’t with others.

I painted.

I am always a little afraid when I have been away from my paints for a time. Will I be able to do it? Will I still be able to mix color and movement and white space to get to what I want to get to? How well will I be able to both release my emotions and create something that might resonate with someone else somewhere? I worry that I might have lost the knack or the eye or whatever you call what makes art, art.

So coming back to it is a discipline. A willingness sometimes to flounder for a painting or few to get back to that flow of emotion and color that brings me joy, insight and truth.

I painted.

This Saturday, it was not hard. I didn’t struggle. It simply flowed. The only discipline was in the starting.  I did two paintings over the afternoon. I sang while I painted. I danced a little. My courage of one moment of starting made an afternoon of joy possible.

That’s how it generally is. A few minutes of discipline, of getting started, makes hours of something else, something powerful and true and good happen. It’s how I fight my depression. It’s how I write. It’s how I paint. It’s how I work. It’s how I love.

The good stuff is there. But somehow there always seems to be a resistance that holds me back from it.

I wonder sometimes if this is only the way it is for me, or if others have the same thing going on. Do we hesitate to do the thing that makes us feel good, or can lead us to the joy we want and crave, never getting started, thus never getting past where we are? Is it common or only me.

Al I know is that a moment, or a short burst of discipline pushes us past that resistance, makes things happen, brings (or allows) joy.  It’s work, but then the natural joy that I think we all want, bursts out.

It’s in there. I am convinced of it. But we have to do that first bit of work to get to it. It’s not what we think discipline is.

We think of it as this drudge, as a constant barrage of hard work and nose to the grindstone-ness. No fun. All work, all the time. But that is not my experience. I think the discipline is done in bursts, and then the magic just happens. Twenty minutes of push and discipline normally gets me 2-3 hours of magic. No matter what I want to do. Even feel.

Good trade off, I think.

Be well. Travel Wisely,


PS: the header image is a part of one of the paintings I did Saturday. The whole painting can be found on my “Art of Tom Atkins” blog.

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