Long time, no me.
I don’t write, I don’t call….
My writing energy has been going to the Painting Studio at ccesf.org (Center for Creative Exploration).
… and what a coinkidink, I’m going to write about painting here, too, along with some other stuff. And I’ll explain what “Mary Unmuted” means.
As I look back over the last few weeks, I think, “What a shitty month this has turned out to be.”
On Dec. 3, my 10-year-old cat Luther died.
Next day I got work, which is usually a good thing, but it meant I had to miss the first 2 days of the December painting intensive.
There were a few bright moments, even some profound moments, during the intensive, but at the same time…
I was having to be on the phone every day trying to save my health reimbursement account and my flood insurance, which is required to keep my mortgage. At least I had an agent to clear up the flood premium snafu, but for the other one I had no advocate. I called and e-mailed multiple people in three institutions: my former employer, an insurance exchange, and my health insurance plan. I was lied to, given wrong information, waited in vain for people to call me back, was called unnecessarily to tell me someone would call me later.
If it weren’t for misinformation and disinformation, I wouldn’t have any information at all.
The result of all this effort was that I lost funding for my account for 2016: $3,000 gone poof. And there is no appeal.
So now, I’m feeling depressed—it’s not S.A.D. or Xmas, it’s just the confluence of losing my kitty and a lot of money in the same time period. I feel like I should have a better attitude, be positive. Instead, I feel heavy, pulled down by emotional gravity. Plus, I worry about Luther’s brother Brutus. Either he’s depressed over losing Luther, too, or I’m projecting. It wouldn’t be the first time.
But… onward and upward!
For the first time ever, I did not attend the December 7-day painting intensive in San Francisco—at least, not physically. Until astral projection becomes a reliable form of transportation, I have to rely on a web conferencing service called Zoom. It’s similar to Skype. Anyone who can’t get to the studio for a class or workshop can “Zoom in” and paint at home while being able to interact with Barbara (our teacher) and the painters who are there. I did the May intensive that way and have been taking 2 classes a week all summer and fall. It’s a great privilege to be able to do this, but it is not without its problems.
The biggest downside for me, besides difficulty in hearing what people are saying during the group sharings, is that I have to be “muted” so as not to create static, feedback, or amplified cuss words if I yell at my cat. So I have to get Barbara’s attention before I can say something, and it kind of kills the spontaneity.
My physical travels to S.F. over the past 11 years have been traumatic, to say the least. You can read about them on editorite.com; search “travel.” But this year I’ve had leg pain for several months and it’s not easy to walk, even with a cane. That leg is 69 years old; of course, so is the rest of me, but the leg is taking it extra hard. I think there’s a portrait of it in a closet somewhere, glowing with health.
So I felt I couldn’t deal with all the walking, the multi-drug taking, and the various demands on me physically and emotionally that result from my being in that now-foreign element, driving around a big city, having a strict schedule, and, of course, spending a lot of money to make it happen.
I knew that Zooming in to the intensive was going to be its own challenge. I have felt resentful at times about the distance—real and imagined—between me and everyone at the studio. I’ve likened it to being a brain in a jar; at other times, to a ghost who’s dropping a feather so the other painters will know I’m trying to communicate with them.
To make matters worse, I have several good friends who do the December intensive, and I was missing out not only on the hugs and conversations, but also on the lunches and dinners and the hanging out at the end of the day with Terry.
Luther had been sick for a long time—he’d had bladder problems his whole life—and now had renal failure, blood in his urine, and he was peeing in places other than the litter box. He had lost so much weight that he seemed to be disappearing ounce by ounce. But he was still wanting to be with me or on me all the time, purring, sleeping in my arms; he still ran to the window when he saw a bird, could jump from my armchair to the top of the cat tree, and would play with an empty toilet paper roll on the bathroom floor or rassle with his brother.
Except for the obvious signs, he almost seemed normal, even up to the night before he died. I found him dead the next morning and called the mobile vet, Dr. A., who came right away and took the body away. It was heart-breaking to lose him, but I was also profoundly grateful that I had not had to make the decision to put him down. I’ve only had one other cat who died peacefully at home like that.
So, when I finished my work and Zoomed into the intensive on Monday morning, I knew I was going to be painting Luther a lot. I did, of course, but I was startled when I realized that, had I flown out to S.F. for the intensive, all else being equal, he would have died just after I left for the airport. Then my sister Barb would have had to deal with the body, and Brutus would have been alone all week except for Barb’s daily visits. I’m not going to draw any deep conclusions from this, though it would be convenient and soothing to think that “God” or The Universe had planned it that way.
I hadn’t had work in months (I’m a scientific editor), so, according to the laws of the Universe, or at least Murphy’s law, it was no surprise that I got two manuscripts to edit just before the intensive was about to start. Most of my clients are non-native English speakers and therefore non-native English writers. This is good, because I’m quite invaluable to them, but it can be difficult to decipher what they mean, especially since they’re writing about very technical (biological) things. So I spent the weekend working harder and longer than I wanted to, and I finished the paper at 10 p.m. Sunday night.
We painted for about 5 hours every day. Painting felt good, but I was ill at ease in the group sharings, during which I mostly watched my friends 1,836 miles away while they laughed, talked, and bonded as only we painters can. I was still technically a part of the group but felt marginalized, mostly unseen and unheard. This was something I had anticipated, and I saw it as a difficult but necessary lesson in being in myself rather than looking for recognition from others. I had sometimes had this feeling of alienation even when I was physically at the studio, but there was always someone to talk to there. Even making eye contact over the painting table was a form of communication. This week was a stark contrast.
I had painted Luther in the classes for a few weeks before he died. I painted the following on Nov. 14, Nov. 23, Dec. 7, and Dec. 11 (#1–4, respectively). So only the last two were painted during the intensive.
#1: I’m holding Luther, Brutus is clinging to me, and previously ascended kitties Pookie and Radar are enjoying their peaceful or raucous afterlives.
#2: Luther (center) displays the power and immortality of the Cat World. His coffin, an irrelevance, stands empty. I am in the upper right corner refusing to be consoled by Blue Cat Being.
#3: I am burning up from sorrow. A Being on the left is dispensing comfort and encouragement (to keep burning).
#4: I’m holding Luther, who is ascending. I’m still burning, and Luther’s golden coffin is still empty. On the right, a staircase leads up to a Royal Cat Being sitting on his throne, wearing a golden cape. Below the throne is the notation C.A.T., which I later decide means Consciousness And Transcendence.
So these paintings felt good—even transcendent—to paint, but the contact with the group was bittersweet. I had to face the alienation and the loneliness, which were very real, despite my certainty that I am loved in the group. “Knowing” something, and feeling it when conditions are not ideal, are two different things. Terry, who had flown in for the intensive from Massachusetts, made it a point to check in with me now and then, and we talked on the phone a couple times after she got back to her rental place. Occasionally, if my name was mentioned, people would wave, but I mostly experienced the sharings as if I were watching a movie starring my friends. It was an odd sensation. It was as if I didn’t exist—or did, but only (like I said) as a ghost or pure gray matter. When someone addressed me directly, as a few people did, it was like getting a hit of energy. This was instructive.
On Monday night, I said good-bye to a few people and exited Zoom when the sharing was over, but on Tuesday night I stayed and watched the scene as some people left and others stood or sat around and talked. Sometimes it can be hard to leave that place after painting all day and feeling the love. Terry and Sandra were sitting by the laptop (on which my ghostly self was displayed), and we were able to talk and act silly like we used to. Then Terry asked if I wanted to take a tour of the studio. Sure! So she picked up the laptop, and she and Sandra walked me around. I said “Hi” to a few people, and I got to see a few of the paintings. I wanted them to prove that “my flag was still there”—the Tibetan prayer flag that I had painted for the studio’s 16-year celebration gala in November—and yes it was, hanging above the windows with all the others. When I was ready to leave, the others waved and yelled good-bye. The attention was intoxicating. Suddenly, my alienation was a memory and I felt special for attending the intensive in this virtual way. This thought, too, was instructive.
Another bit of unexpected attention I got was when one of the painters said in the sharing that she had read the studio’s “blog” online (ccesf.org). She quoted a line about the author’s feeling “dread” as she drove to the studio. She found this “helpful”—obviously, she could relate—and then said she didn’t know who wrote it. Barbara said, “She’s right here,” meaning me. That was rewarding, because I tend to think that no one ever reads what I post there. Once again, I felt special. Are we seeing a trend here?
During the Wednesday morning sharing, I asked to speak, Barbara unmuted me, and I told the group about the glorious tour of the studio I had been taken on the night before. But the attention I had so enjoyed brought with it the realization that I expect validation to come from the outside. I had honestly thought I was long past that belief, but those core feelings from childhood have a way of reasserting themselves when one is under stress. I love living alone and being alone, but feeling like a ghost or a brain in a jar had put into sharp relief my deep need to be accepted and reassured. My reactions during the week were showing me that I had trouble feeling comfortable even with a group of friends I normally feel very close to.
But one day—I don’t remember which day it was—I was speaking, and an interesting thing happened. Instead of the Zoom emphasizing my distance, I actually had the sensation of zooming toward the group on my own wave of connection. I felt like I was in the room with them; the screen, the frame, disappeared, and I was no longer an onlooker. That had also happened one time in a class, so I know it’s within my power, I can’t blame the technology for my alienation. I can’t make it happen on command, though. It’s like the painting itself, it comes alive when it’s ready, when I forget myself.
Wednesday was a half day for painting. The studio provided a pizza lunch, Alyssa made her signature kale salad, which of course I didn’t get to eat, and people either painted or left for parts unknown. I was looking forward to a long winter’s nap in the afternoon, but instead I spent hours on the phone pleading with insurance people not to drop me from my HRA and (different insurance people) not to drop my flood policy, which I had been late in paying.
That night was our traditional night (me, Terry, Diane D, and Diane L) for dining at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin. The last two times we were there, I had the Crab Louie. I’m hardly a salad person, but I love theirs—the crab, the hard-boiled egg, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, and of course the dressing. It was probably the healthiest thing I ate all week. But this year it was not meant to be.
On Friday, the last day of the intensive, Barbara asked us each to speak about something that had touched our heart during the week. Several people mentioned the presence of Amanda’s young daughter Maia, always the center of attention during the sharings. Terry spoke about the time a car alarm went off outside and people in the group started singing in harmony with it, “transforming noise into beautiful music.”
I talked about the night that Terry and Sandra took me around the studio. I told them about Luther’s dying and how over the weekend I had felt uncharacteristically lonely. And then, I was surprised to hear myself say that maybe I had been lonely all my life. It felt strange to say that, because I pride myself on never feeling lonely or bored when I’m alone. The fact that this is a source of pride tells me something. But as those words came to me, I thought of myself many years ago, especially after my little brother died when I was six years old. I felt as alone then as I have ever felt, before or since.
And I wondered if I had shielded myself from the grief by becoming a self-sufficient “loner.” A few years later, when I was 11 or 12, I remember walking down our road, inaptly named Bay de Noc, and giving myself a pep talk about life. I had decided it was inherently unfair, and that the only way to deal with the unfairness was to allow myself to say and do anything to survive. I was actually denying the concept of living with honor. If I had known curse words back then, I would have said, “Fuck that!” It felt like I was growing up and taking the pulse of the people around me and figuring out what I had to do.
And so that brings me to the “present,” which is also my past and my past’s future, when I may finally be able to reverse the ignorant but self-protective armored stand I took back then. Self-knowledge, I’ve discovered, has many layers, and you have to be diligent in opening to the next beautiful, painful realization. Even at the age of 69, with or without my bum leg, which may be living a better life in that idealized closet, there is time to “change,” which is, in a way, to stop changing, running, maneuvering, rationalizing, and just being still and being myself.
I’ll let you know how that goes.
(Note: If this is published with all the weird spacing I see in the preview, I will throw down my keyboard and admit defeat. WordPress changes its way of doing things every time I write a new post.)