Happiness lies not in finding what is missing, but in finding what is present. – Tara Brach
I haven’t posted here for awhile, in part because nothing has come to fruition in my mind. Unlike my other blog, which I use as a near-daily sounding board, a place to explore my heart, my fears – this has been my place to further an idea: Namely, how to be a good enough mother and an artist? I’d hoped to create a book – which could still happen – but for various reasons, I’ve loosened my grip on that dream, which sometimes makes coming to this space difficult. I feel as though I shouldn’t be allowed here if I’m not pushing my marble up the hill.
Letting go of our expectations seems one of the hardest thing we do as artists – and mothers. I’ve been simultaneously reading The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Both have much to say about loving our children and ourselves as we are. Both are so seemingly easy and yet this kind of love and acceptance is ongoing practice for most of us.
A few weeks ago, I got some good practice. I had set up a workshop at a local crafts store, for single mothers to gather and do a sewing project together. I’d started out envisioning us all making super hero capes to celebrate our inner super powers – incredible patience, checkbook balancing genius, ability to make dinner out of scraps, etc. – but had come to realize that I didn’t really want a cape. What I wanted was more like a prayer shawl–something that would help me to turn inward.
About five people said they’d come, but when my daughter and I arrived at the store no one was there. I’d been preparing myself for this possibility all week, telling myself I wouldn’t be a failure if no one showed up. The store owner was incredibly kind about the whole thing, and helped Bella and me to envision our projects – my prayer shawl and her magical cloak. An hour later, when one friend joined me, I was pleased – but I was having so much fun by then, that her presence was just gravy to an already good experience.
I had brought my wedding dress with me, which a friend’s mother made sixteen years ago this spring (whoa!) out of a beautiful ivory silk charmeuse. I never really liked the dress. It wasn’t her fault, but my own discomfort with my body at the time. The dress was a huge, formless thing, so there was plenty of material to play with. Cody showed me how to undo all of the seams, and after tugging and ripping, I had a long piece of material almost exactly the width and length of the wool shawl I sometimes use for meditating. Amazing!
Making something from seemingly nothing is an art that entails the ability to see possibility, to value all objects – no matter their seeming inconsequence, and to accept imperfection.
“I think I want to incorporate a quote on it … somehow,” I told her next, worried that this would entail some difficult skill that I couldn’t master. She smiled and announced, “Embroidery!” then introduced me to the backstitch. I went through my journal, seeking out the perfect quote (there’s that word again), and finally settled – in part, I admit, because of its relative brevity, which goes to show how imperfect perfection is, based on subjective things like length or tone – on a Hafiz line: “God breaks the heart again and again until it stays open.” Before the quote itself, I added the word BREATHE as a little reminder to myself, followed by a heart.
Bella and I left the store after more than two hours, her with a finished cloak in hand and me with a bag containing my silken garment and some deep red thread and a needle – not to mention a new skill. I felt a calmness I hadn’t experienced in ages. Twice since then, I’ve taken it from the bag and worked on the embroidery. I have “breathe”, the heart, and “god” done, which as my friend Chris says is all you really need.
Making something from seemingly nothing is an art that entails the ability to see possibility, to value all objects – no matter their seeming inconsequence, and to accept imperfection. That’s what I was doing with the silk material that had been hanging in my closet for years, doing nothing but reminding me of disappointments. A friend who lived in Haiti nearly a decade ago shared a memory during a recent church service. A woman she knew there had gone to market and come home with a used skirt. It didn’t fit her, but she undid the stitching, saving the thread, and then cut it to a shorter and slimmer size, and re-stitched it using the same thread. I know some crafty women out there who might re-make a found skirt, but no one who would think to re-use the thread. The image has stuck with me and grown as a metaphor for how we live when we are at our sleekest and leanest but also our best.
This kind of re-use and sharing of things/ideas can loosen our hold on Our Vision – that vision that can all too often strangle us. (You know, the one that says, “This better be for your book, or else!” or “Is that really good enough for a show?”). I think of my friend Cheryl, an amazingly talented calligrapher who spends hours every day hunched over her lettering table working at perfection. People pay her to create beautiful, seemingly flawless marriage ketubahs, birth announcements, or extra-special awards for extra-special people. A page of quotes that she calligraphed from women engineers went up with the Space Shuttle. If your work was going into space, wouldn’t you want it to be perfect?
But perfect, it turns out, is not only unattainable but makes us tight. It contracts and prohibits possibilities. “Ironically, to really do the calligraphy right, you have to let go,” Cheryl says (which reminds me of the psychologist Carl Rogers who wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”)
The pieces she’s been working on for the past two years appear incongruent with the ideal look of her calligraphy. They are assemblages made from old photographs, books, and found objects. “This work has been great in that I can mash them up more and they get even better,” she says. “If I bang something that’s already beaten up and old with my large sledge hammer, it gets even better.” I love visiting her studio to see the stuff – to imagine the voices and stories that are gathered there – the novel that was good enough to get published 90 years ago, but not critically acclaimed enough to be remembered. The family photos taken no doubt with saved money and treasured by someone at some time – but no longer. The jewelry, once dear, now cast off. All remade by Cheryl into something with an entirely new narrative, a new purpose, and a beautiful imperfection.
My friend Kyle who runs her own arts-crafts space in Los Angeles, told me about a time recently when she was actively trying to let her inner critic – that striver for perfection, go, only to find it further challenged by her son. (The story is wonderfully reminiscent of another painter friend, Jill, who I wrote about here.)
One night at the studio, we were having a workshop in collage, and I decided to work with an old, thinning and worn piece of framed out wood. I am not sure even where it came from, it was just sitting there, discarded and it called out to me. I began tearing pieces of paper off and applying layers of paint. Just when I felt it was “freely” going somewhere I liked and I had a rhythm, my 8-year old son stepped over and asked, “Can I help?” (He had been hanging out while class took place and previous to this moment had no interest in participating). I looked around at the faces of the women and men who were there; people I was trying to model spontaneous, unstructured creativity to. Sometimes when my son asks if he can paint with me on a piece I am working on, I say yes. If it is a painting that is from a sketch, and super detailed, I say, “Not this one, honey,” and offer him some paper and paint. In fact, I often encourage him to paint with me.
But this piece, I was (I thought) ‘in flow’ and for a split second I was about to say “no” in order to protect this piece of art and so that I could get out of it what I thought I wanted. Then I realized I would be doing the very thing that stifles pure creativity. So I said, “Sure, sweetie, go ahead. Here is a paint brush, here is some glue, what would you like to add”? He promptly picked up the brush, dipped it into white paint and painted almost entirely over an area that I had seen as “done.” I smiled and let go. He continued, then I joined in and it was fun and I released all my expectations. We painted, added some tape, glued paper, and then he said, “Okay, thanks, Mom, I’m done”, and walked away. I added a line drawing of a dandelion, something that reminds me of him, and put it away to dry. It is hanging in my hallway and I love it. It has pieces of both of us and we both signed it and I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it.
Will I write a book about motherhood and creativity? More importantly, am I any less or are my ideas unworthy if I don’t? If I take the words and drop them to the floor in a big heap, then sweep them up and re-use them in some new form – knowing that their original intent is still buried in their hearts – I am not doing them a disservice. Rather, they are more robust, more infused with thoughtfulness than before.
We are all stumbling forward, clumsily. Sometimes we even crawl. There’s no way it will always be pretty or even slightly perfect – which is the beauty of creating and parenting authentically. Of being ok with the chicken scratches and the shitty drafts, with the Wolf Mama who sometimes rages and bellows, as well as with the Comforting Mother, who holds child and manuscript close to her breast, waiting for spring and for her own healing balm.