“Such an intimate style, wavering between the incisive and the narcissistic….”
—said of CNN’s Aaron Brown, in the New York Times
Amazing, mysterious, bizarre, touching things always happen when you paint for several days in a row. By day 7 you’ve lost all sense of scale: the big and the small, the trivial and the life-changing, blend together like—
Barbara interrupts my intense scribbling. “No, no no! Go back to your painting!” With arm outstretched, she points to the painting room like Moses directing his people into the Red Sea.
I try to resist. “But the words are coming! This is the same process only in words!”
She cannot be moved. “The process is happening in the painting! The source is there! You’re trying to capture it! The words will wait!” Forget Moses, she has the force of authority of God Himself expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden. I tell her this, and she says she feels more like one of the ghosts in the Scrooge story. The Ghost of Painting Present, I guess.
I know the intensity has to be lived before it can be shared, but in this moment it wants to burst out of me in words, not images. She’s right, I want to capture it before it can escape.
Reluctantly, I return to my painting. “This is killing me!,” I cry, not overdramatizing one bit.
And then I go on to have an incredible afternoon painting my family as real and true as I have ever painted them. But the jury’s still out on whether the words have waited for me.
It’s been a long time, eh? When people ask what happened to the ‘zine, all I can say is, “It’s really quite interesting, but part of what happened is that I can’t write the ‘zine anymore, so I can’t tell people about it!” But I’m feeling stirrings in my writerly loins again, so here we go.
I was going to begin by saying “Long story short…,” but I doubt that very much. In the February issue (#21; not yet available online), I mentioned that I was so busy with work that I could only crank out a few ‘zine pages. But I still had the urge to do it, so it was fine. You can always find time to do what you really want. But when March came around and I thought about starting the next issue, I realized I was feeling kind of down, and had been for a while. The Zoloft didn’t seem to be working anymore. This was really disheartening, and I felt like an idiot for having had such high expectations. I thought, maybe it’s like a relationship—it starts out really great and then one day you wake up and realize the honeymoon’s over. Reality is always a downer, I should know that by now!
So the next time I saw my psychiatrist, I complained about how the Zoloft was no longer working. She had been trying for months to find the right combination of drugs so that I wouldn’t be so drowsy during the day. (Excessive napping—my cross to bear.) Now she thought we’d have to switch to a different SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). She assured me that there were “lots of new drugs in the pipeline,” and I imagined the pipeline as a tube in her office, maybe set up on an IV pole right next to the couch, so I could keep sucking up mood-altering chemicals until I felt good again.
At the end of the session, as she was writing out a new prescription, I looked out the window as a new thought began dimly to form. I said, “But you know… I’m not as anxious as I used to be.” And that’s when I saw that what I’d labeled “depression” or “the Zoloft not working” was just the absence of anxiety. The feeling was so unfamiliar that I didn’t recognize it!
This made sense to Dr. P. too, so we decided I would stay on “Vitamin Z” for a while longer. Immediately, I felt the change in my veins, or wherever you feel things like that. I wasn’t doomed, I wouldn’t have to start over with a new drug and new side effects. The letdown I’d been feeling had been about missing something all right, but the something I was missing was anxiety.
My life seemed to change overnight. I started noticing all the ways that I wasn’t anxious anymore. The more I noticed, the better I felt. I was able to rest in the present moment, Be Here Now, instead of feeling two steps ahead of myself, as if there was somewhere I had to get (what my father would have called “going nowhere fast”). Subjectively, I had a lot more time.
One day in therapy with J, I was trying to explain the change, and she asked how I felt in my body. I focused my attention there, and all of a sudden I felt completely unself-conscious, as if my center was truly down in the center of my body instead of up in my chest, throat, and head. As much as I love and trust J, it’s always been hard for me to sit across from her for an hour and be the focus of attention, especially since she’s always watching for clues to my somatic state. I’ll make a gesture—a shrug, a wince, a tapping of my fingers—and she’ll say, “Do that again—but slow it down.” But on this day, I lost that sense of discomfort completely. I often worry about what I’ll talk about in therapy, but that day it didn’t matter. We were just there together. It was like being weightless, free of emotional gravity. J could feel the change in me and immediately went to that place in herself. We sat there grinning at each other, and I looked around the room in amazement as if I had discovered a new world (or as if I were stoned, if you really want to know). The phone rang, and she got up to turn it off. When she sat down again, she said, “Try walking around, it’s really something.” So I got up and took a few steps around the office. When I sat down, I felt the movement settling, like the “snow” in a snow globe that gets shaken and then falls gently back to earth. J said that’s exactly how it felt to her, too. It was amazing to me that she could “go there” with me, especially since she wasn’t feeling well that day. Actually, it reminded me of how I feel after painting sometimes, when it doesn’t matter what I say and I can just sit silently with other people.
Then I spotted some rubber balls in the corner and asked her if she wanted to play catch. So we tossed a ball back and forth, feeling the movement in our chests and shoulders, comparing bodily notes. I started throwing the ball up in the air and catching it, and then I stood up and bounced it on the floor and against the walls. Oops, almost knocked over that vase. I felt so free, it was so easy to move, to invent, to be spontaneous. I didn’t even have to talk! J said she’d never seen me like that, and I had to agree it was a first.
What struck me the most was seeing that “being free” isn’t about floating aimlessly, without anchor or boundary, it’s about being who you are. It’s easy to retort, “Who else could you be?,” but the truth is, a lot of us find it easier to play a role or to guard the Fort Knox of our true selves than to just be, for fear of being overwhelmed or overtaken—or of revealing ourselves to be as inadequate as we sometimes feel.
A few weeks before (when I thought I was depressed), J had urged me to “find a cause in the world,” and I had uttered the shameful truth, “I’m not really interested in the world.” But now I had spontaneous urges to follow up on things I would once have stuffed in the “someday” file. I subscribed to the international magazine Granta and to the Sunday New York Times. I stopped reading fiction. Spent $200 in 2 weeks at Cody’s, poring over the nonfiction shelves and coming up with books about psychobiology, Buddhism, mathematics (geometry morphing into particle physics—who knew?), the class system in America, and true stories from NPR’s National Story Project. Suddenly I was more fascinated by the real than by the made-up worlds in novels. This was not some self-improvement project—such projects are doomed because they come from the belief that you need to be a “better person,” whatever that is. It’s the same principle I learned years ago in painting, to go where your interest is.
Of course, some of my interest in “the world” was really interest in my own brain chemistry. I was sitting in my car outside Dr. P.’s office one day, with about 10 minutes till my appointment, and I picked up a book I had brought along to pass the time. It was Going on Being by Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who uses Buddhist teachings in his practice. I was interested in his perspective, because for a spiritually semi-evolved (or is that self-involved) person like myself, one who shares the Buddha’s Enneagram number, no less, the drug-taking initially raised all sorts of questions about self-identity. Who’s the “real me”? If this is my brain on drugs, who am “I”? Where does the serotonin stop and I begin? Am I my depression, my anxiety? Who is it who suffers from these symptoms, and who is it who is relieved of the suffering by a pill?
So I started reading the Introduction, “How People Change,” and almost immediately I was plunged into a story about a woman, “searching for a spiritual life,” who was “suspicious of the role of psychiatric medications in today’s culture. It seemed like some kind of brave new world to have mood-altering drugs so readily available.” But this woman, Sally, “had been plagued with chronic feelings of anxiety and depression for much of her adult life, and despite a healthy investment in psychotherapy she still felt that there was something the matter with her.”
Sally had been taking a small dose of an antidepressant—Zoloft!—for several weeks and was
…finding that she felt calmer, less irritable, and dare she say, happier. She was planning on going to a two-week mediation retreat later that month and was wondering whether to stay on her medicine while she was there…. “Perhaps I should go more deeply into my problems while I’m away,” Sally questioned. She worried that the antidepressant would impede that process by making her problems less accessible to her.
[I’m trying not to quote the entire chapter, but it’s tempting.]
People who respond well to these antidepressants often… find… that they feel restored, healed of the depressive symptoms…. Less preoccupied with their internal states, they are freer to participate in their own lives, yet they often wonder if they are cheating. “This isn’t the real me,” they protest. “I’m the tired, cranky, no-good one you remember from a couple of weeks ago.” As a psychiatrist, I am often in the position to encourage people to question those identifications. Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression [my emphasis].
… The notion that we need to go more deeply into our problems in order to be healed is a prevalent one, and one that, as a therapist, I am sympathetic toward. Certainly ignoring the shadow side of our personalities can only lead to what Freud once called the return of the repressed. Yet it struck me that there was a remnant of American Puritanism implicit in Sally’s approach….
When people believe that they are their problems, there is often a desire to pick away at the self, as if by doing so they could expose how bad they really are. People think that if they could just admit the awful truth about themselves, they would start to feel better, almost as if they have to go to confession to be absolved of their sins. Going more deeply into our problems can be just another variant on trying to get rid of them altogether….
But to go more deeply into our problems is sometimes to go only into what we already know…. It can lead, at worst, to… a resigned negativity that verges on self-hatred…. I told [Sally] that at this point I felt she needed to come out of her problems, not go into them more deeply…. To be overwhelmed while on retreat would not be useful.
As a therapist influenced by the wisdom of the East, I am confident that there is another direction to move in such situations: away from the problems and into the unknown [my emphasis].
Reading this, I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. I was especially struck by the parallels with painting. People who understand that painting-for-process isn’t about “making art” often see it as a way to “work on their issues.” Indeed, we don’t shrink from the disturbing images that come up, but instead of identifying ourselves with them, we allow the act of painting to take us to a meditative level where we experience (not just “understand intellectually,” an oxymoron) that we are not that, we are not our problems. I had been exactly like “Sally” in thinking that if I wasn’t suffering I was “avoiding” or “cheating.” It was wonderful to get this point of view from a medical doctor who also has respect for the spirit.
Another change I noticed is that I felt more like giving. I packed up a box of books to ship to China and another box for the San Rafael Public Library. I checked out the Habitat for Humanity website to see about signing up for some hardhat action when they start building in Marin. I checked the Marin volunteers website, but the only thing that appealed to me was driving police cars to the repair shop at 6 a.m.; of course, I rejected that, partly because it was so early in the morning and partly because I couldn’t imagine driving a police car down Miracle Mile and coming upon a robbery in progress or having bloody or disoriented citizens lurch into the street, waving at me to stop and help them. (Do they have police cars that say “Not in Service”?)
I liked the idea of giving scholarships to poor kids, having been one myself. So I thought about donating to the Marin Scholarship Fund (there are plenty of poor kids here, despite the media hype about how rich the county is). Then I read an article about kids way up in northern California who don’t have many opportunities, and I thought, yeah, rural poor kids, having been one of those. Then the Obvious reached up and smacked me, and I realized I wanted to give a scholarship to my old high school in the U.P.! (U.P. = Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a virtually forgotten region of the country, known only to Ernest Hemingway and a few vacationing Chicagoans who like trees.) Believe me, this was a major turnabout. I had sworn for the last 30-some years that I would never have anything to do with that place again, but here I was, waking up to the awareness that there must still be kids back there who are smart and poor (and who want to be beatnik editors?) who need a ticket out. So I made inquiries through my sister, who teaches in the middle school in my hometown, and next year some lucky girl will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship, thanks to me and my newly un-reuptaken serotonin. Now I have to decide what to call it. It would be nice to rehabilitate the McKenney name around there, because most of the men on my father’s side were ne’er-do-wells, and my sisters got married and took their husbands’ names. So it’s up to the lesbian daughter to carry on the family name, if not the genetic line. (The genetics are marching on without me, and there’s nothing I can do about that.)
I’ve discovered that being emotionally healthy(er) is like having a lot of money, as in “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” When you have greater resources—whether emotional or material—you have a foundation, a safety net, room to make mistakes, and enough abundance to think beyond survival. You can take a few losses and not go under.
If it appears that I’m giving all the credit to a chemical rather than to 20 years of process painting and 10 years of therapy, it’s because I’m amazed (note to self: dig out the thesaurus, quick!) by what feels like instantaneous change. Maybe it’s like the “overnight sensations” in the entertainment world who’ve been performing in obscurity for years and are suddenly “discovered.” In reality, I know that Zoloft is just the icing on the cake. The cake is therapy—or no, therapy has got to be the meat and potatoes. That would make painting the cake, Zoloft the ice cream… oh, never mind. The point is, it’s not that the drug is magic, it’s just that it helps clear away some of the emotional debris so that the real self, excavated and examined through the inner work, can emerge. People think these drugs put you in a mental state that’s like my image of Hawaii—beautiful but bland, same temperature all the time—when actually they put you wherever you already live, but with a clearer head.
But despite (or because of) my newfound emotional stability, I was dreading the 7 days of painting, partly because I never know what’s going to happen and that’s so uncomfortable, and partly because I wasn’t sure I would still have the desire or “ability” to paint. Although feeling better made me want to explore more, not less, I was afraid the painting urge might have gone the way of the writing urge, which seemed to have gone far, far away.
I had written the following to a friend who wanted to know what was up with the ‘zine:
I went to a new level with the Zoloft and am enjoying my life without the need/desire to share it in writing. Not to mention the fact that I’m having fewer neurotic reactions, which made up a large part of what I used to write about…. It’s weird, I’ve never felt like this. Like: Life is enough; you don’t have to prove anything or do anything special.
All well and good, but creativity is about going to the edge, pushing the envelope. What if my edges had been smoothed away? What if my envelope had already been sealed and mailed and was now gathering dust in a corner of the Dead Letter office?
After trying and failing to give J a complete news report on all my insights from the week, I realized I’m not a journalist, and so I will just write whatever I feel like and see where it goes (the driving principle of the mary’zine).
7 days in May
Having spent most of my time since the last intensive by myself, I felt slightly overwhelmed by being with so many people in such an intimate setting. Checking out the people in the group, I was sure that several of them wanted something from me. And if someone wanted something from me, I had to give it. If someone had a problem, I had to fix it. I made a mental list of the things I felt responsible for: K’s silence. S’s self-hatred. G’s male ego. The feelings of everyone I like. The feelings of everyone I don’t like. Everyone’s lunch. (In my grandiosity, I thought I would be inundated by requests to go to lunch, but only from those who wanted something from me.) I was seeing how my mind works, and it was both repellent and fascinating, like Animal Planet during Shark Week.
My first painting was of me and J. We had been talking about ending therapy, and the thought not only made me sad—I couldn’t imagine giving up such an important relationship—but also (see above) I felt responsible for her feelings about coming to the end. When I went on to paint my mother, it was clear that my perceived responsibility for J’s (and everyone else’s) feelings was linked to my belief that it was up to me to make my mother happy, an almost impossible task. (Me and Tony Soprano.)
Then I painted a “monster” that I thought was going to be your everyday, normal monster (scary, dark, trying to get me), but it came out looking fearful and anxious—not threatening me but clinging to me—and I realized that the monster was indeed “my” fear and anxiety, now projected out of me in monster form. Seeing the monster outside of me, I had the insight that everyone I encounter is a form of me outside of me, and that the same is true for everyone else. We’re projecting our own shortcomings or idealizations onto one another all the time, so (psychologically) there is very little reality, just a lot of projected illusions walking around thinking that everything they see is real.
Here I want to give Bonnie credit for inspiring two possible titles for the book I may someday write about painting: In the Company of Monsters (the monsters in the painting, in one another, and in ourselves) and Radiant with Anguish, an apparent oxymoron that goes to the heart of why we paint—not to be in a constant state of distress, God forbid, but to go deeply inside ourselves where even fools fear to tread, and discover whatever is true there.
Painted the “fabric of the universe.” Just so you know, the strands that make up the universe are interwoven like the potholders my sisters and I used to make, but they’re multicolored, not just red and white, blue and white, or green and white. I loved painting the “fabric,” but I had the strong feeling there was something on the other side that I couldn’t get to. I was stuck. I then painted several black figures and realized they were “sentries of the unknown,” blocking my way. I felt better just painting them. As M. Cassou used to say, “When you paint the wall, the wall comes down.”
The sense of scale is beginning to blur. After an intense day of painting, I’m driving home and I see a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It appears to say “Everybody Loves Firm Potato Brushes.” I go, ha-ha, that’s one of those things that turn out to be comically misread, like when “Change is in charge” was revealed to be “Charles is in charge.” So I come up behind the car at the next stop sign, where I’m able to read the bumper sticker clearly. It reads, and I quote, “Everybody Loses From Potato Bruises.” I am nonplussed, and believe me, I have never written or spoken that word before. My initial interpretation would work if the driver were a door-to-door potato brush salesman. But what does the real message mean? And is it true? Does everybody lose from a potato bruise?
Looking at the notes I took during the 7 days, I see that I’m getting the days all mixed up, but c’est la vie. That afternoon (one afternoon), someone shared that she felt so in tune with her painting that she almost felt an electric shock if she tried to paint something in the “wrong place.” I said that sounded like a good idea. If you go to the “wrong place” you get a shock; if you go to the “right place,” you get a Milk Dud.
Oh, I forgot to say that one of the things I noticed post-Vitamin Z is that it’s not so important for me to be funny. As with the “not interested in the world” comment, I had said to J a few weeks back that “I’d rather be funny than anything.” This shocked J because she hadn’t known that about me. Granted, therapy is not the best situation for getting off a lot of zingers, but I thought it was written all over me like a graffitied wall! I felt like the proverbial funnyman who makes people laugh because it’s the only way to satisfy his craving for love. Since Zoloft, it doesn’t feel like such a strong drive. I just sit back and hear the words fly out of my mouth, and if they’re funny, so much the better. There’s less at stake now.
But here’s an interesting postscript to my telling J “I’d rather be funny than anything.” After that session, I went home to try to write about it for the ‘zine, and I looked up “funny” in a quotations book. And the very first quote was from Woody Allen: “I think being funny is not anyone’s first choice.” It was one of those bizarre synchronistic moments: I declare that being funny is my first choice and then find out that one of the funniest people in the world thinks it’s no big deal. Maybe he thinks it’s too easy. That’s what I like about it—minimum effort, maximum reward. I don’t want to be Woody Allen, though, I want to be James Thurber.
OK, I’m getting off track here, and you know how I love to stay on track.
My painting has no meaning, but it doesn’t matter. That evening, on the way home, I have to stop at a few places: ATM, grocery store, Rite Aid. As I’m standing in the prescription pick-up line at Rite Aid—usually my idea of Hell on Earth—I realize that it doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing. I’m still me, in the world. Waiting for the person at the head of the line to understand why her medications aren’t covered by insurance seems no different, really, from lying in bed watching TV. Imagine that.
Diane and I have an idyllic lunch at Chloe’s on Church St. The food is good, the weather is perfect, and we both feel like we’re being held in the embrace of the universe. I tell her I’m looking for a new hat. (I’m trying to get used to wearing one—preparing myself for the day when I have two wisps of hair left on my head and can just switch to all hat all the time.) Diane tells me about one she’s seen in the gift shop at the Jewish Home, so we drive over there to check it out. It’s a baseball-style cap with the words “Gone Gefilte Fishing!” stitched across the front and “Jewish Home, San Francisco” on the side. Considering the corny “gone fishin’” reference, the cap is actually quite tasteful (canvas, neutral colors). If I had bought the equivalent “ethnic”-type hat in Michigan or Wisconsin—“Gone Lutefisk Fishing!,” for example—it would have been crocheted, with neon reflectors and a Budweiser can sewn into it. Actually, I don’t know that, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit, considering the “yooper” (U.P.’er) culture I grew up in—tasteless without a whiff of irony.
In the morning sharing, Barbara asks what we could ask for in painting today, if we asked for what is pushing in us or what we most fear. I ask for antsiness because that’s where I’m at, and I don’t know the half of it. While painting, I get antsy, all right, but the feeling keeps going toward a full-fledged bodily scream that B encourages me to paint with a small brush. On the painting the stream emanates from my mouth, stomach, and genitals. Little holes appear in the “fabric of the universe” and then in the people (the triumvirate of me, Mom and Dad). Then the holes start to widen, and cracks form. The silent screams from my painted self don’t seem to go nearly deep enough, so I paint screams irradiating out of the holes in the fabric of the u. These screams feel like they’re coming from the deepest part of me, beyond the fabric, beyond the existence of everything, or perhaps just beyond the little that I know.
When I show J this painting later, she perceives the “holes” as “openings,” and I have to admit that feels right. It’s not that the fabric is being torn or that black holes are waiting to swallow me up, it’s just that openings are being created for me to pass through (or for something to pass through to me, I suppose). This was a typical turnabout in painting, as when I discovered that the “sentries of the unknown” that I thought were blocking me were actually guides, not guards. It’s fascinating to see that everything we think can be looked at in the opposite way.
In the afternoon I call Barbara over, feeling stuck-stuck-stuck. I’ve painted my parents so many times over the years that it feels like all I have to do is paint a bare outline, fill it in with peach color, and add the requisite eyes, nose, mouth, and genitalia. But B says, “Look at the expressions on their faces—they really look like themselves!” It’s true. Mom looks pissed off and is reaching for me as if to strangle me. Dad looks shell-shocked, staring off into space, not even relating to me. When I complain that there is nothing else I can paint on or around them, B asks the fateful question, “What would you paint if they were you?” And we both feel the lightning strike of that question. She says she has never asked it of anyone before. But when I look at the figure of my mother and imagine she’s me, the brush explodes and she becomes fiery, black-hearted, riled up, bleeding from wounds. As I paint her, images from my childhood come to me, seemingly at random. I tell B I feel as if my life is passing before my eyes. I remember the summer I was 13 and had to babysit 6 days a week for the 5-year-old daughter of my cousin and how horribly trapped I felt, like the women in that dissatisfied-suburban-housewife fiction I would later read in the feminist ‘70s. I wonder if I’m tuning into the source of my mother’s anger at becoming the housewife/mother/breadwinner/caretaker instead of the quiet librarian/book reader/traveler she had always wanted to be. But this thought comes later. While painting, I just let my thoughts and feelings roam. I feel vividly the despair of spending the summer in my cousin’s old, grungy apartment, unable to stop the kid’s crying, praying she’d nap all afternoon, reading my cousin’s True Confessions magazines, soft-pornographic images that are still alive and repulsive to me—dirty old men with yellow teeth drooling over the naked breasts of unconscious young girls. There’s probably a whole lot under the surface of that particular memory, but that’s beyond the scope, as they say, of this discussion.
When I move on to the figure of my father and imagine him as me, I start painting his brain exploding, his heart pounding, his stomach roiling, and I have the half-coherent thought that the way I’ve painted his penis, it looks like a hand grenade. Suddenly I am him in World War II, being shot at by German soldiers, a flurry and fury of fear and pain all around me that are much like the feelings that surround my painted mother, but for different reasons. I have never identified so closely with him. That’s when I go out to the sharing room with my red notebook and try to capture some of the words that are finally wanting to come.
After being expelled back to my painting, I add my two sisters and my brother. Once again, when I’m stuck for what to do next, B asks me what I’d paint if they were me. And again I’m thrust into an intense reverie and feel I have become them somehow or at least can “read” them. I paint one sister being molested by our cousin, and she looks fiery and angry and tense, tolerating the invasion. (I tell B, “Everyone in my family was angry; it wasn’t just me!”) I paint my other sister helping my father pee in a bottle, her household chore at age 10 when my father could no longer control his arms. According to her, that’s when her “world stopped.” As I paint her swollen body, eyes drifting upward—the opposite of my other sister’s tight compression—I see there isn’t a lot of difference between my distress and the distress of everyone else in my family, except that we kids kept ours hidden—well, hidden like the purloined letter in the Edgar Allan Poe story, right out in plain sight, or maybe like the tell-tale heart beating under the floorboards.
Finally, I paint my baby brother in his coffin, paint the cross on it with his initials (instead of his name, Mike), and am inundated with sense memories of his funeral, when I thought the adults in the church were laughing at me. (My brother was 2; I was 6.) This is not a new memory—the experience was one of the turning points of my childhood, maybe the turning point—but painting it isn’t so much like remembering as reliving. I paint people all around the coffin laughing their heads off, heartlessly. It feels good to paint them, because they are clearly not me, so I can hate them freely. (I know the people at the funeral weren’t really laughing, but as I paint this projected image it’s as if I’m creating reality retroactively and taking my long-awaited revenge.) I tell B who the laughing people are, and she again asks her question, “What else could you paint on them if they were you?” I don’t want them to be me, but I obediently put myself in their place, and it turns out they do have hearts after all, along with sharp teeth in their midsections. Hearts are breaking in the air around them, and I know that “they” (that is, I) had very complicated feelings about the death of my brother, everything from pain and loss, to love, and probably guilt and repressed jealousy as well. (This last could be where the projected laughter came from.)
It feels so intense, so right, to paint everyone in the painting as me, or as me in them, or as them in me. B comes by again and asks, “Who else?” Who else could I paint more on as if they were me? I groan, because the only two people left are my molesting cousin and my peeing (probably humiliated) father. I paint lightning coming out of my father’s chest and a heart on my cousin, taking these projections, also, into the fold. But B is still there. She asks again, “Who else?” but there is no one else! I point to all the people in the painting, one by one—I did her and him and her and her and him and him—and then I see that I had forgotten about my brother. And that turns out to be the most poignant experience of all, as I paint him surrounded by hearts, feel the beauty of his baby soul (too young to have had all the complicated feelings of a 6-year-old), and notice that the initials I had painted on the cross earlier were M.M., the same as mine.
Being with 12 or 15 other people for 7 days, all of whom are facing themselves on the blank page and sharing their insights, fears, and joys in the group, seeing themselves in one another, taking reassurance that they’re “not the only one,” sometimes pushing one another’s buttons or getting their buttons pushed, is an intense experience. That kind of honesty (with ourselves first of all) and searching seem inevitably to lead to agape, the love for God and our fellow humans.
During that week, besides enjoying some of the friends I’ve made through painting, I made connections with two people I had seen at the studio for years but had never talked to before. It took so little to break that long-frozen ice. One person approached me, and after a brief conversation my judgments of her got turned on their head. It was like looking through one of those tiny holes/openings in the fabric of the universe that allow you to get a glimpse of the richness on the other side.
The other person was someone who stayed aloof from the group and seemed to make eye contact only with Barbara. I impulsively complimented her on her hat (my new life passion), and that tiniest of holes/openings widened to give us a special little hat-bond after that. (She was rather nonplussed—there’s that word again—by the gefilte fishin’ hat, but it was the first time I’d seen her smile.)
But love and honesty make strange bedfellows sometimes. I spontaneously proclaimed to a fellow painter I’ve known for years, “You are a complete mystery to me.” What I meant as an affectionate observation, she took as a huge insult. But that’s the price of taking this journey with one another. You can’t always get what you want, but I think you’ll find, sometimes, you get what you need. For a while I thought I had to make everything right with her, but I finally realized that giving up the responsibility to fix the whole world, one person at a time, allows me to be myself, which is, after all, the only thing I have to give.
And so I bid you adieu, not knowing what will happen with the ‘zine but fairly confident that I can have my proverbial cake and eat it too—live my life, extend myself in unexpected ways, learn more about the world and my place in it, see myself in others and them in me, and be able to write as the spirit moves.
p.s. Pookie is also enjoying life and showing less interest in adding his sarcastic commentary to the ‘zine. He spends as much time as possible outside, picking his way through the honeysuckle vines in search of the lizard who lives there, or lounging by the bird bath, trying to look like a harmless lawn ornament as the birdies flutter around. He’s lost his taste for tuna-flavored laxative and now begs for popcorn instead. We are becoming more like each other all the time—older, fatter, and grayer but with still a gleam in our eye and a spring in our step. When we aren’t napping.