Family Tools by Tilly Woodward

I read in The Economist while doing the elliptical machine at the gym (I like to mix my high and lowbrow moments … and yes, that would be me multi-tasking…) that 46 is the nadir of happiness for most people worldwide. Tanzania, Bosnia, Switzerland – it matters not – 46 kind of sucks. It turns out that there is a u-turn of happiness. We start to move downward in our thirties, hitting this low point in our forties or early fifties, and then move back up. The report on age and happiness also says that people with children are less happy than those without… and since my children reliantly provide me my happiest moments (albeit those mixed with the greatest miasma of poignancy and fear, as in, “Oh, lord, don’t let this end…”), I’m not sure how much credence to give the report.

Still, I do have a general sticky feeling these days. A stuck-in-the-middle feeling, a little bit trapped, like a fly adhered to the glue tape hanging from the ceiling. Maybe it’s winter. Maybe it’s the approach of the dread “46”.

How do I find the unexpectedly cool spot on the otherwise worn and warm pillow?

Either way, it is mine to get myself out of – this is for certain. It is mine to examine and learn from. And although I can sense some wisdom in reach, I don’t always listen. For instance, I can feel that less sugar and caffeine would be good. I don’t know this; I feel it. And yet ….if this imbalance is true, why can’t I counteract it? How do I turn this – and other places where I’m stuck – around into a different way of being; how do I find the unexpectedly cool spot on the otherwise worn and warm pillow?

We get in ruts. Every artist finds her well-worn groove. Every mother makes the same excuse a hundred times. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of habit. Rarely are we pleased with it.

My yoga teacher Jurian just sent a newsletter that speaks to this:  “I’ve been feeling lost, without a location from which to begin. Lost and anxious. Lost and full of doubt. Just lost. Lost is not something that I tolerate easily or well.” Uncomfortable with this, especially as a teacher who is meant to lead students, she got  up in front of a 6:30 am class and declared that she had nothing to teach them. “What a relief to say it out loud! What a relief when the students laughed out loud and the energy in the room seemed to suddenly say, ‘Ah, great! Truth! We trust you! We’re listening.’ From that rich, alive space of authenticity I found freedom.”

I allow myself to relax and surrender to the work.

"Merry Jig" by Priscilla Perkins & kids

Surrendering into the rut is a response that rarely occurs to most of us, a path that isn’t much taken. And yet it’s always an option. I’ve become a steady fan of the practice of surrender since learning of the yoga practice of Ishvara pranidhana – surrender to a higher spirit. Americans hear “surrender” and think: “give up.”  We are doers:  Go, go, go … Get yourself out of this. But my friend Tilly, a painter of amazing patience, says that when she’s stuck, “I allow myself to relax and surrender to the work.  I know that if I am nothing else, I am a good worker.  Making art can be a tedious venture–  there is the excitement of a new idea, but it takes a lot of effort to cover the entire canvas, to make yourself take time to pay attention to detail, keep trying until the color is right, and not just close.  If I relax into the work, I know I can go the distance with a piece, or with a series.”

…when my whole life was mournfully stuck, I’d check out heaps of books from the library…

Sometimes just looking and taking in other’s work is the best balm. I recall several winters ago when  my whole life was mournfully stuck. I’d check out heaps of books from the library – giant art tomes, daunting architecture collections, centuries-spanning poetry anthologies, how to cook entire continents … The larger the better. I’d lay in bed til very late at night, pouring over the images and words and feeling steeped in the possibility that I’d create something good again, that my life would move forward eventually, no matter how painfully stuck it was just then.

by Julia Kuskin

My friend Julia has had similar spots:  “I get bogged down and depressed, scared, overwhelmed by what I don’t have, where I’m not, what I’m missing, the amount of work I don’t have.” Recently, when her son started first grade and her husband began writing his dissertation she became keenly aware of her lack of work; “I knew I needed a project but didn’t know what kind.” So she turned to an old camera and gave herself an assignment:  4×5 black and white portraits using only two sheets – in one film holder – of film per child.  “I wanted to shake up my system and give myself something to do that wasn’t exactly comfortable or easy.”

Shaking up the system seems key. Another friend, Priscilla – English professor by day, militant stitcher by night – says that she grudgingly gave up her stitchery during her daily train commute in order to work on a course syllabus.  Denying herself something she loved made her “overtired and resentful.” But one day, she recalled a series of silly photos she and her children had taken at the beach the summer before; they’d called them “merry jig”  series. She used them to decoupage a box, an act that was so enlivening that it led – wholly unexpectedly – to an ambitious 20 X 28 painting.

We start one place – perhaps stuck on the Interstate – and then meander illegally up an off-ramp, and then transfer to a taxi, which hurdles us into a snowbank, and suddenly we’re behind the wheel of the cab while the driver and a garbage truck driver try to shovel and push the vehicle out, when a passerby suggests a piece of cardboard under the wheel and voila!, suddenly we’re moving again, off to the airport – not to make our flight after all, but to laugh at it all and have a good tale that will lead to another and another. This is a the short short version of my trip home from New York last month, but it’s a good reminder that movement comes unexpectedly and rarely works exactly as we thought it would. But we go somewhere. Always, we are moving. And to that I surrender.

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