Masquerading as a normal person day after day is exhausting. —Unknown
The above saying came to me by way of Diane D, who gave me an elegant magnetic notepad with that quote and a funny old-timey picture on it. We laughed at how hilariously appropriate it was.
I suppose it’s possible to masquerade as someone you’re not at the CCE Painting Studio in San Francisco, but mostly, the acute self-knowledge—or at least self-seeing, self-experiencing—that comes along with the brush strokes, vivid paint colors, and previously unimaginable imagery reveal you for who you are, to yourself and to others. It’s a gift, but there’s also a price to pay: your most fondly held beliefs may be challenged, your own hypocrisy, bad social skills and defensive postures can be highlighted. But the upside to revealing the difficult parts of the self are the deep love and compassion that can also come—the realization, on a level below that of ordinary thought, that we are all human, deeply flawed, but/and lovable. It’s one thing to face the white paper and expose our ids and egos to whatever may appear from the collective or personal unconscious, but it can be more difficult to do the same with one another in the group or, indeed, one on one. One woman’s worst, most humbling day can be another’s best, most compassionate day. And that can all be reversed in a minute or overnight: no one has a monopoly on self-judgment, or the judgment of others: or grace, or simple gratitude. Somehow the painting process breaks down our defenses, our belief about our own specialness, our habit of competing with others or judging them to make ourselves feel superior, or at least normal. We all recognize ourselves in one another, making identification and thus compassion the only reasonable response. It’s not a painless process, obviously. Feelings can get hurt, misunderstandings can arise. But it’s strange how having even a minor conflict with someone can open the doors (the eyes) to a new way to see that person. It’s an odd way to bond. There’s also, obviously, the usual case of being drawn to one another through the common understanding of what lies in the human heart. In the outside world, as I said one day in the group, “Fear is King.” But in the studio, in the process, the secret is: “We are one.”
I had been freaked out about flying back to San Francisco for the December ’11 painting intensive ever since, well, the December ‘10 painting intensive, which ended in my being stuck at the Chicago O’Hare Hilton for 3 days during a massive snowstorm. (You can read about it in mary’zine #48, January 2011.) One of the worst parts, besides the unexpected extended stay, was the excruciating symptoms of restless leg syndrome I suffered throughout both cross-country flights. I had since gotten a prescription for a drug that helped to alleviate those symptoms, but I didn’t know how it would interact with the Dramamine I have to take to fly.
I had decided, quite definitively, not to go this year, but finally bowed to the inevitable. At my age, I feel I should make the effort as long as I’m physically able to do so, despite the huge expense for a first class ticket (“I just can’t do coach anymore,” I announced, like the 1%’er I most assuredly am not), 9 nights in a hotel, and myriad other costs.
The intensive turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been to, and there were no problems with the flights. I repeat: there were no problems with the flights. I only got tsuris from one TSA at SFO, because I had forgotten to take the bottle of water out of my bag. This was at 5 a.m., after I had gotten up at 2:00 to be sure to make my 6 a.m. flight. Mr. TSA took me to a separate contraband/confrontation area to read me the riot act about how I’d have to “surrender the water” or be “escorted out.” From his stern demeanor, I could have been smuggling hashish. I asked if I could take a pill before surrendering—I get anxious about taking my Dramamine in plenty of time before a flight, so I try to have water on me at all times—but no, I had to have taken it in the pre-security area. I would have loved to hear his reasoning for what tragic consequences would result from my swallowing a pill 10 feet one way or the other, but he wasn’t about to discuss it with me. I’m sure the TSA is chomping at the bit to emulate the sudden rise in status (and matériel) of the campus police state (UC-Davis). How humiliating it must be to have absolute power in their little sphere but no weapons to back it up. I wanted to mouth off, but of course I surrendered. I have a lifelong problem with authority, but in my advanced years I have learned, like John Mellencamp, that “I fight authority, Authority always wins.” Also, thanks to the world-wide-webs, I have learned that “Scorpios are ruled by Pluto, so there are bound to be power struggles with unreasonable authority figures,” an explanation that is as good as any, I suppose.
I was going to tell my story in reverse order, like in the movie Memento, but that sounds like a lot of work, so I’ll just go back more or less to the beginning.
Change is a bitch. Where others seem to have an insatiable desire for the new, I strive to repeat experience as much as possible. When I take the huge leap of faith that is entailed in traveling, I attempt to replicate the known by using the same airline, same flights, same rental car, same hotel, and so on. This works out about as often as you might expect, which is to say not often, because the world keeps changing—adding, subtracting, and probably doing a bit of calculus on things I’ve come to rely on.
Terry and I stayed at the Laurel Inn, as we always do, and practically the first thing we discovered upon checking in was that they no longer provide the continental breakfast we used to enjoy before setting off for a day of painting. It bummed us out to the point of thinking we would have to find a different hotel in the future because this was simply not acceptable! It finally occurred to us that we could buy our own eggs, English muffins, and orange juice, and we had even tastier breakfasts on our own. (We both had kitchenette rooms, a must for boiling eggs and refrigerating leftovers. Hopefully, they will not eliminate that necessity/luxury.)
At the studio, we found our expectations beautifully met: same bright painting space, same great friends—old (30+ years) and “new” (<10 years)—same beaming Barbara welcoming us to another 7 days of intense inquiry.
my friend and teacher, Barbara (beautiful subject; blurry photographer)
However, we soon learned that changes were afoot there as well. There would be a different schedule: starting half an hour earlier in the morning, and cutting the lunch hour from 2 to 1.5 hours. We would then stop half an hour earlier at the end of the day and have long, glorious evenings to do as we pleased. I wasn’t happy about this, because I preferred to spend my free time (a) sleeping longer and (b) luxuriating in a long enough mid-day break that I could have a leisurely lunch with my friends and then investigate various chocolate shops, bookstores, or other attractions, maybe even have a nap in the car.
Barbara said she also wanted to experiment with bringing in music to the group and changing the final sharing on day 7 from each person’s recitation of gratitude and awe to a “love offering” given in any form we wished: a poem, a painting, a story. Both those things—the music and what sounded like “show-and-tell”—rocked me to my core. Painting had always been the sole focus of the studio, the raison d’être, the ne plus ultra, the sui generis, I think you get my point.
But at first it all seemed kind of abstract, a remote possibility, except for the schedule changes. Nothing else was written in stone, and Barbara was not one to write in stone anyway.
On day 1, Barbara read us this beautiful poem. It felt almost scarily relevant, not an abstraction or sentimental in any way, just solid, earned knowledge of the heart.
For a New Beginning
by John O’Donohue (1956–2008)
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
I was blessed to have a wonderful, easy week of painting. It just flowed. But at the end of one especially good day—no conflicts, no doubts, no intense huddling with Barbara over how I could possibly get out of the corner I had painted myself into—suddenly, music filled the air. It was a beautiful song that I don’t know the name of and that I wasn’t remotely willing to enjoy. It was like Painting: The Musical. I was angry. It felt like a violation, an imposition. An unwanted change.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to fully disclose my own reactions but will protect the privacy of other painters as much as possible. So I told Barbara that I “voted” not to have music in the studio, at least during the painting hours. What anyone does afterward, whether it’s speaking groups, Byron Katie work, or karaoke, is of no concern to me. And Barbara cheerfully replied that I could stay or go, my choice.
I had been conditioned from years of “pure” process that nothing was needed to “enhance” the painting process. In fact, introducing other forms, such as dance or singing, could be a distraction—or worse, a form of avoidance. So when I heard the music ringing out at the end of the session, I was appalled, and I refused to join the afternoon group sharing.
I felt ridiculous, sitting alone in the painting room, just behind the wall from everyone else, especially because it seemed I was the only one who had a problem with the music. So I hid, indignant, embarrassed, wishing that the studio had a back door. I swear I would have sneaked out and left Terry behind to find a ride back to the hotel. In my wildest fantasy, I thought I might change my ticket, fly back home, and never darken the door of the CCE again. (This is a common fantasy, actually; more than one painter has threatened to quit forever when they’re having a bad day.)
I know this makes me sound like a prima donna maker of mountains out of molehills, but there you have it. We painters know that strong feelings don’t necessarily come from the trigger—the precipitating comment or event. They are usually reactions to what we’re painting, or memories or feelings that arise from it, or from other people in the group. But in the grip of those feelings, I don’t always know what the true source is, and I’ve long since lost the ability to just stay quiet about whatever’s bothering me, if indeed I ever had it.
Also, we’ve all felt alienated from the group at various times: when everyone else seems to be having an easy time painting or is feeling blessed and happy, and we think we’re the only one feeling out of sorts, annoyed, or bored. It helps everyone when this is brought out, because painting (and, by extension, sharing) is about being how we feel in the moment, not about achieving some ideal state.
So the sharing began, and after a while Barbara asked if anyone knew where I was. She wanted to reconsider her response to me, because she felt she had reacted defensively. She “invited” me to come in and join them. “It’s not the same without Mary in the group.” So I went in and sat in the back and cried some and tried to explain what was going on with me, that it felt like an imposition to have music played in the studio and to have no choice about it. What I love about Barbara is that she is open to being questioned and is willing to reveal her own vulnerability. I felt much better having the opportunity to talk about my feelings. Her willingness to hear me out made all the difference.
But I felt sensitive afterward, because I was afraid that I would forever be associated, even as a joke, with “hating music.” The day after the incident, someone joked about the group singing “Kumbaya,” and she looked right at me. I coldly asked her why she was looking at me. (Geez! I can be such a jerk!) She later shared in the group that she had said something that was met with a defensive attitude, so I, center of the universe, took her aside afterward and apologized. Lo and behold, she had been talking about her husband! I told her why I had reacted that way and she apologized for being “insensitive,” though of course she wasn’t at all. We hugged, and I felt so much closer to her afterward. There’s something about telling the truth, exposing oneself, that can turn a misunderstanding into a real connection.
Also, I had completely forgotten that I had told Barbara earlier in the week that I wanted to learn to stop taking everything so personally. “Be afraid of what you ask for” has never seemed so true.
Oh dear, I just remembered I had another meltdown a couple days later, but I don’t think I’ll go into it. Too complicated, involved other people, made me feel like a jackass again…. But it was resolved, and I felt even closer to Barbara. We’ve never been afraid to sit together, look into each other’s eyes, open our hearts, and let the truth pour out. No defenses. A blessing I cannot overstate.
One of the poems read in the group that week was “Allow,” by Danna Faulds. A line that resonates with me is: “practice becomes simply bearing the truth.” I experience “bearing the truth” (a fear, a self-judgment, a humiliation) as feeling like a nut or a knot (or a pit) in the pit of my stomach that I can’t ignore or rationalize away. The nut-ness, though not a pleasant feeling, is actually the good news. If I can’t contain it / bear it, the fear or humiliation just washes over me and I react blindly, defensively. Feeling the nut (I should find a more genteel way of saying that) is like M. Cassou’s “when you paint the wall, the wall comes down.” The nut feels like it is lodged there forever, never to be digested or dissolved. But when we look at / bear (and paint) “it all,” it all takes on its true proportions. Only then can we truly feel our own humanity and thus the humanity of others.
The painting was intense all week. Barbara would come around occasionally, mainly just to make contact. I would look at her and smile with a demented energy that could hardly be explained by the circles and lines and dots I was applying to the paper. The process happens in the person, not on the painting.
I had never before painted dead people doing anything other than being dead. Sure, I’ve painted my share of bodies in graves, in caskets, hanging from crosses, divided into body parts—who hasn’t??—but one day I left an area at the bottom of my painting to wait and see what “wanted” to be there. I didn’t have much hope that anything new and mysterious would come, because you can’t make it happen and you can’t predict it. But when I finally got to that white part and started to paint a casket with my body in it (ho-hum), I was amazed to see something completely new: My head was in the regular place, but one arm was flopped over the side! Then the opposite leg went over the other side! It was a revelation! I painted crosses lying crookedly on the ground along with discarded flowers, as if they had been flung off the casket. It felt awesome. What would become of me, rising from my death like that? In the next painting, I started with the hole (the grave), and painted myself big, standing up with my arms spread wide. I put nail marks and blood in my palms, I don’t know why—don’t exactly see myself as the risen Christ, but the things you paint often passeth understanding. When I shared in the group later that my body on that painting didn’t have feet “because they cut them off, or so I’ve heard,” this was greeted by a collective gasp, and I quickly backed off—“Never mind, I probably made that part up!” (From About.com: “The Saxons of early England cut off the feet of their dead so the corpse would be unable to walk. Some aborigine tribes took the even more extreme step of cutting off the head of the dead, thinking this would leave the spirit too busy searching for his head to worry about the living.” Good thinking, ancients! I’m so glad we’re using one of your books of wisdom—The Bible—as a guide to living in the 21st century!) Then I painted the dirt underground, the grass and flowers above, and the cross at the head of the grave toppling over. I then proceeded to paint a million dots and circles, very satisfying.
It amazes me that I can get right back into the process after not painting on my own all year. Is that proof that time does not exist? On a certain level, emotions don’t matter, time is never lost, there’s just The One Moment of honest exposure of yourself in color and form on the white paper. Here’s a mysterious but possible explanation (that I wish I understood better):
Our consciousness animates reality much like a phonograph. Listening to it doesn’t alter the record, and depending on where the needle is placed, you hear a certain piece of music. This is what we call “now.” In reality, there is no before or after. All nows, past, present and future, always have existed and will always exist, even though we can only listen to the songs one by one. —Robert Lanza, MD (author of Biocentrism)
Other highlights and lowlights
- On the night before the intensive started, Diane L had a showing of her paintings in a beautiful, spacious home on Potrero Hill. She glowed with excitement among her many friends and colleagues who had come to see her work. I felt so happy for her. This was definitely a highlight… except for the challenge of driving through an unfamiliar area of San Francisco during rush hour on a Friday night.
- One morning, an old woman appeared outside the door of the studio, her hands and face pressed against the glass, peering inside. She opened the door and announced, “My name is Michelle, and also Michael.” I thought, Here we go. “You know that if you kill people, God will forgive you.” The narrative quickly devolved into sentence fragments: “… something in her belly… the family…,” and finally she said, “I’ll be right back.” And she left.
- On the same day, after lunch at Chloe’s with Diane, Diane, and Terry, I was hobbling across the road with my cane, my friends several yards ahead of me, when a man stopped his car at the stop sign, let my friends pass, and then started revving the car and jerking it forward, impatient at having to wait for me. I stood in front of his car and yelled, “What’s your problem?” I couldn’t see the man’s face clearly, but I was lucky he wasn’t looking to kill a pedestrian that day. After that, Terry made sure to hang back with me when we were out. Not that it would have helped much if we had both been run over by a maniac, but it was sweet of her. Throughout the week, I drove the rental car and she was my lookout (as in “Look out!”), and I’m sure she prevented several needless injuries to bicyclists and pedestrians who rode or strode through the black night in dark clothes. (At least the bicyclists twinkled.)
- We all sort of forgot about the strange woman at the door, but in the afternoon sharing Karine mentioned her again—she had been thinking about her and was still kind of apprehensive. In my favorite line of the week, she summed up the woman’s message: “It’s OK to kill people. I’ll be right back.” We all laughed, and thus a lowlight turned into a highlight. And God didn’t have to forgive anyone.
- I want to reiterate the great fun I had with my close friends, and the tenderness I felt for everyone in the group. Besides our tightly scheduled lunches, Diane, Diane, Terry, and I had dinner one night at the beautiful, Christmasy/sparkly Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin. On the last night, several of us gathered for one last time at the Clement St. Bar & Grill. On several nights after painting all day, many of us stayed past the official closing hour and shared laughs or long, full silences, a blessing either way. Throughout the week I had intimate, meaningful interactions with… again, just about everyone. Special shout-outs to Martha, Carol, and Kate. It was truly a special week, and one I would have missed if I had chosen to follow my fears instead of my heart.
I had dreaded the final sharing (“love offering”) on day 7 and had just about decided not to do anything for it (we had a choice). But that afternoon I quickly prepared something and was glad I did. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had at the studio. Everyone brought something very personal—from stories and pictures of mothers and grandparents who had died, to Alyssa playing her guitar and singing a beautiful song she had written, to the sharing of paintings that had been done during the week, Liat telling us about her beloved dog, Kate leading us in singing a round of an old folk song, and several beautiful poems and reminiscences. I felt tenderized and tender and cried practically nonstop. Everyone’s offering was so moving. There’s an old story about how the world rests on the back of a turtle; when someone asked what held up the turtle, the storyteller replied, “Turtles all the way down.” For me, this sharing felt like love all the way down.
Linda H, the only brand-spanking-new painter, who, coincidentally (?), was the one who provided the music over which I had freaked out earlier in the week, played a recording of Johnny Cash singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with his daughter Rosalind, from an album he recorded just before he died. I cried so hard during the song that I felt I had to explain afterward… he had been my father’s favorite singer, and my father had played his songs on the accordion. The tears and memories and tragedy of my father’s life washed over me as I listened. It was a special gift, and when I asked Linda later if that “made up” for my protest over the music earlier in the week, she said simply, “It’s forgotten.”
At first I was concerned that my “love offering” wasn’t in sync with the rest, but I went with it—first showed and talked about my death paintings, then did what I called an “infomercial” about the mary’zine, with information about how to read it online or subscribe. Later, a few people gave me money for the privilege of receiving paper copies, which I painstakingly print out at home so I can include the color photos.
All week, my eyes were opened to the beauty of ordinary people on the streets, in stores, in restaurants. I found myself intently observing everyone around me, marveling at their humanity, our commonality. One night at an Italian restaurant near our hotel, I was so focused on other people that Terry asked, “Have we said everything?” No… but there was so much to look at, to overhear, to speculate about: young, permissive parents trying to bargain with their tantrum-throwing child; a large party of friends or family who individually left and returned, changed seats, you couldn’t tell which children went with which adult, like they were one moving, changing organism; a waiter with ready-made jokes that were often incomprehensible (holding out two identical glasses of wine: “Pick one.”). Everywhere we went that week, we remarked on how everyone was so nice (with the obvious exceptions of the God-forgiven murder fan at the door and the impatient man behind the wheel). One day at the hotel, waiting for the slowest elevator in the world, I noticed a doorknob sign that didn’t look like the usual zzzzz or please clean room. I couldn’t see the words clearly, but I thought it said Everything is fine. Hmm. But on closer inspection, it actually said, Housekeeping in room. I felt like I was looking at the world with new eyes. What if all it took to “change the world” was to change one’s way of looking at it? Perception could be everything.
The officious TSA at SFO notwithstanding, my trip home was a breeze. At the Chicago airport, I had plenty of time to get to the other side of forever (O’Hare: The Nightmare) where the small plane would fly me northward. Being whisked over to concourse F in a wheelchair is fine, but I prefer the large multi-seat cart that makes me feel privileged rather than infirm. The driver was a young Pakistani man who proclaimed his love for America (“no discrimination!” “jobs!” “free speech!”). At one point, another Pakistani got on and rode with us for a while so he could bond with the driver over the tragedy of their homeland (partition of India). He was either a traveler who happened to be walking nearby, or a plant put there to advertise diversity, as if I were a bit player in an infomercial for Freedom. (I’m not being cynical, just fanciful.)
In the waiting area for my blessedly short flight to Green Bay, I observed a mentally disturbed woman and her grown son who were sitting near me. The son was patient but clearly stressed about dealing with her. She got up at one point and stumbled over her bag, falling facedown and setting in motion a parade of United Airlines representatives to ask how she was, perhaps to forestall a lawsuit. I hadn’t exchanged words or even a glance with the son, but when he went to gather his things, he mistakenly started to go for my book, coat, and messenger bag; in one of those sweet encounters with strangers that could easily have been unpleasant, we both laughed at his error. It wasn’t a big deal, but it made me wonder if World Peace could start at home, as it were, in the smallest exchanges between people with no chip on their shoulder and no axe to bear.
It was a relief to land at the Green Bay airport, claim my luggage, and plod over the vast tundra of the parking lot to my Jeep. The sky was gray and leaden, but it had never looked so beautiful to me: I had made it through 10 days of Unknown! I somehow managed not to fall asleep on the 50-mile drive home, having taken the various travel downer pills. (The lorazepam worked!)
The cats were confused by my arrival—Luther even hissed at me—probably because I and all my things smelled like California. I would rather be greeted by cries of ecstasy, but oh well. Hauling my suitcase into the bedroom, I noticed a wine bottle… black, with hundreds of white dots painted on it, some surrounding large circles that remained black. It was quite synchronicitous, because I had been conscious of painting dots and circles all week. Clearly, it was a gift from my sister Barb, who had been tending to my cats. I saw her the next night to catch up on the episodes of “Homeland” and “Dexter” that I had missed, and she gave me a black ring display hand (I have a thing for those), that she had spent all day painting white dots with large circles of black on to match the wine bottle. I was blown away. She said to me once that I was the artist in the family and she was the craftsperson. But she had shown true artistry and love in giving me these gifts.