Red dog

I was painting in class one day, skimming along on the surface of my feelings, not knowing how to get down below, not sure I wanted to. The painting had started out strong—a week, a lifetime ago—and I thought wistfully of the feelings of power and aliveness I’d had at the beginning. Strange what becomes nostalgic for a painter: “Remember when I was painting all that blood on the skeleton, and snakes came out of the eye sockets? I want to feel that again.”

I wanted the feeling of being in contact, but there was this big obstacle in the way: Me. I was feeling cut off from everything. I was sealed up in my head, painting dots as if I were on another planet beaming down radio waves to direct the brush. Clearly, I was trying not to feel, but what I want to know is, Why is not-feeling more excruciating than feeling? Standing there painting dots that really are just dots, not tiny universes, with 2 more hours of class to go, is the most exquisite form of torture I know. Perhaps they should try it on spies who won’t give up their secrets. “Forget the rack, here’s a brush, paint what you feel.” “Nooooo….”

Barbara comes around to see how I’m doing, looks sweetly into my eyes, and it’s almost more contact than I can bear. Well, forget “almost,” I can’t look back. Instead, I stare at the painting, where I see a snarling dog that doesn’t have a color yet, at the snakes that felt so powerful last week but now look like one-dimensional black smudges covered with inexplicable pinpoints of white.

I keep painting, looking for a way in, trying to thread a microscopic needle with invisible thread. Thoughts of blame, self-blame, stories of my distant, dead family, feelings about a grandmother I can’t even remember. I feel like I’m sifting through an old trunk, looking through other people’s memories for a secret that is all mine. I don’t even know what “feeling” is at this point. We tend to think of feelings as clear and distinct, there’s red, there’s black, every feeling corresponds to a color. They all have names, anger, sadness, fear. But now I’m losing all sense of definition, it’s more like motion than color, I can’t seem to keep my balance, my safe harbor.

Suddenly, I’m blind-sided by something, a rising up or a falling down, I don’t know which. What’s going on? It’s too big to name, almost too big to think; all I know is, I can’t do this anymore. Words are an inadequate translation. My whole body is like a graph on a lie detector and the needle’s going crazy, plunging up and down. I can hardly see the paper or register what the brush is doing. I’ve broken through the ice, and now there’s a shock of ice-cold water and my body is screaming some bodily version of no way.

It’s as if I black out for a second. I’m not in the world of time anymore, there’s just dark water and a flooding sensation. The words salvation and redemption come to me in the whirlpool like inarticulate prayers, but I don’t know who’s praying them. My mind quickly struggles to its feet, but it’s already too late. I’m somewhere else, while it scurries around to explain what happened, goes back over its previous thoughts, looks for the doorway back to control. The one who’s holding the brush just keeps painting. Suddenly, as if a light has come on, I know the dog is red. I paint the big strokes, wondering how long it’s been since I painted so broadly, I feel released from the land of infinitesimal dots and micro-thin lines. I’m sad when the dog is finished, wishing for paper as big as the wall so I can paint huge red dogs forever.

I hesitate, sink down on the stool. I’m overwhelmed by all that power at my fingertips. How can I contain it, channel it where it needs to go? Barbara comes back around the corner, as if psychically reading my thought waves. Only she conveniently ignores the fact that my thought waves are saying, “Barbara, don’t come now!”

I tell her about the huge red dogs, and she wants to know what could come into this painting. I say, heads, hands, tongues, eyes on arms, it doesn’t seem to matter as long as there are “too many” of them. I see that it’s about going downstream now, riding the rapids. I can no longer get away with not knowing what to do.

She leaves, and I dare to paint the new faces, the eyes and mouths, the teeth, a hand over here, a hand there. I go big, then small wants to come again, I have so much to do. Time passes but not in me, and all at once I notice I’m in calm waters. The words come back, salvation, redemption, they taste solid in my mouth, in my belly. There is a truth that words embody, but you can’t hear it with your ears or speak it with your mouth. Words connect to something real, but you can’t be on the page when you read them.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: