Once again I’ve been making a serious attempt at regular meditation. I hesitate to talk about it because I’m embarrassed at how often I’ve failed at it, but I’ve started looking forward to my daily session. One thing I’ve noticed from the beginning is that I often get the feeling of flying through space having a bird’s eye view of the land below me and the sense that I’m searching for home. Not a physical place, but just an intense yearning and seeking. I usually take this to mean that I’m letting my mind wander and I need to drag my focus back, but it coincides with finding a chapter in a book about home and homesickness that I read recently. The rest of the book was okay, but that chapter was in the right place at the right time for me. Among other things, the author writes, “We are created with an inner drive and necessity that sends all of us looking for our True Self, whether we know it or not. This journey is a spiral and never a straight line.” That line gave me a shock when I read it because the mantra I repeat to myself sometimes in meditation is Sat Nam, which some interpret as “true self.” Another reason for my instant identification with the quote is the spiral tattoo on my wrist. Before I even saw the design on the wall of a tattoo parlor in Hawaii, I was fixated on having ink on my wrist. And when I saw it, I immediately knew it was the right one but no idea why. I didn’t find until years later that it was the Maori symbol for “unfolding,” but when I did, I was once again sure of the rightness of my choice. Ever since I was thrust out of my early childhood paradise by the breakup of my family, I’ve never felt at home anywhere, no matter how long I lived in one place. I’ve always envied people who have happily lived in one place all their lives or who had a place to return to that felt like a homecoming or who moved to a place that instantly felt like home. I always thought that would happen over the years, and when it didn’t, I blamed it on something missing in me. Maybe I’m outgrowing that dream, or maybe I’m finally realizing that there have been signs all along, like my tattoo, that have been pointing me in a different direction. Instead of feeling as if I’m lacking a home base or a home town, I might need to allow my yearning to take me both inward and outward like the spiral in order to have a homecoming in the truest sense of the word.
I went to Barnes & Noble today to look for magic. For years, I would make a monthly visit to buy the new magazines to feed my imagination. I chose from a wide range of genres: home decorating, psychology, fashion, graphic design, art, current affairs and so on. Inevitably I found images or writing that would spark excitement and enthusiasm, and I might even come up with a new idea that suggested itself from something I read. But today, I came up dry. There were titles like NEW YOU, BEAUTIFUL YOU, and NEW BEAUTY all devoted to looking good and feeling good — but mostly looking good. (Making me think, “I look like crap.”) There was plenty of home design porn — 3 local magazines alone on that topic, not to mention all the national ones. (Making me think, “My house looks like crap.”) There were women’s magazines filled with stuff to buy and people to envy rather emulate. (Making me think, “My clothes look like crap.”) But I couldn’t find one magazine that I just had to have. I ended up buying a couple of art publications (Elephant is my new favorite find), New York magazine and something else that I can’t even remember. It’s not that there are too few magazines out there; there are hundreds. But they’re all so mundane or predictable that I wonder how they stay in business. Obviously, I’m not the target market for what’s being published these days, but I’m starved for something I just can’t find on the internet, web and Kindle junkie that I am. I visit plenty of online sites that introduce me to things I’d never have found otherwise, but it doesn’t make print obsolete for me. That magic thing that happens when you turn pages, find startling essays and design, tear out something to save, dog-ear a page to remember. I think it’s similar to how I’d feel if I could only see art online instead of in person. If I had simply viewed the Ai Wei Wei exhibit on a website, for instance, would it have electrified me and moved me to tears the way it did when I wandered through it for several hours? Something is missing and I mourn it.
It’s coming…Valentine’s Day on Facebook. Cue up the scary music. The site will be filled with photos of romantic dinners, flowers delivered to the office, tributes to partners and a succession of old wedding albums. By it’s very nature, FB is already like middle school, with quizzes to see which character from Game of Thrones you are, being tagged in photos and having your friend count up front and visible. How many people can you get to sign your yearbook? Usually that’s easy to overlook, but on Valentine’s Day? Not so much. If you’re not part of a couple, it’s simultaneously boring and humiliating to get love bombed by other people’s relationships. I can’t help but ask, “what’s wrong with me that I’m alone?” Some days, I’m sure it’s because I’m as flawed as the woodblock Valentine cards I tried to make for friends and family. My carving is crooked and jagged, my message came out backwards and my inking technique is seriously bad. I was too embarrassed to mail them because they showed me in such an unflattering light. The more I looked at it, though, the more I liked it. It’s passionately red and it’s funny as hell. It’s willing to take on something new and fail at it. It’s sincere and unselfconscious, and it’s also screwed-up and sorry and foolish. It’s a mess! It’s the me and you that never shows up on Facebook, the morning-breath side of love, the middle-schooler who’s always a beginner at love. Maybe I’ll mail them out next year just the way they are, but in the meantime, I’ll just stay off Facebook on Valentine’s Day.
During a recent visit to an old friend , we lamented how we routinely come up with long-term projects and optimistically ambitious action plans and then quickly lose interest. But banging ideas off the walls is always energizing and inspiring for us even if we forget half of them by the time her husband uncorks the 5 o’clock wine. Her house has always served as an incubator for me — in fact, much of Skirt! took shape in the early days around her dining room table years ago. As a break from making lists of books to read, essays to write and grandiose schemes to launch, we made one of our traditional visits to Utrecht art supply store in D.C., where I could happily spend an entire afternoon and day’s pay. Even though my suitcase was overpacked, I scored a big bag of art materials and came home determined to spend more time making and less time being paralyzed by how untalented I am. Because even when things don’t turn out the way I expect, I’ve usually lost myself in the process of it. It takes me back to the days of white library paste, construction paper and finger paints. One of the biggest guilt trips I take is that even though I take classes twice a month, I don’t seem to paint on my own in between. Maybe it’s the prep work oil painting requires and trying to shove all my supplies off my kitchen table to begin. Maybe it’s just plain old fear, but I had to find some way to short-circuit the dithering and postponing I do. When I returned home from my visit, I bought a vase of tulips that I fully intended to paint, but every time I thought about setting up the palette I just gave up. I felt I would surely fail and would have wasted expensive paint and flowers. I needed an expert in the form of my teacher to make my experience real. But the tulips weren’t going to last forever, and finally I just grabbed a pad I use for grocery lists off the kitchen counter, quickly made a pencil sketch and then filled it in with watercolor crayons and india ink. Done! Yes, I accidentally spilled water on the paper and smeared paint so I had to cut the sketch out. Then I realized a damp little watercolor was perfect to hang on the twine clothes line where I clip postcards and sketches. Done and done! The thing that elated me was that I had tricked myself into making a little artifact before my ideal of perfection froze my hand. Maybe some day I’ll start an oil painting on my kitchen table and labor on it until I get it right. But until then, no pressure, no big plans, no big deal. I’m simply going to fool myself into fooling around.
When life is going my way, it’s easy for me to write about taking chances, being bold, daring to leap. But it’s writing that sometimes seems all sugar and no salt because when my life goes off the rails, I struggle desperately to walk the talk, to face up to fear, to not go fetal in my bed in the afternoon. My knee-jerk response to adversity is to fold like a cheap umbrella in a windstorm when what I really want is to be as sturdy as this tree, as transcendent as the moon. Yes, I’m resilient and always bounce back, but I wish I didn’t have that initial reaction of panic, cowardice and surrender when trouble stops at my door. I was thinking about this last night when I stumbled across a line from “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” The words lit up in my mind like mercury scrawled across the night sky. Because the facts are (contrary to what Pinterest and Instagram would have us believe) that dark days, poverty, illness, betrayal, loneliness, blood, snot, loss, pain and death are all mixed up in this life along with the big pink moons, laughing kids, leaping dogs, cake icing, wish bones, watermelon flesh, candlelight, snow angels, country lanes and new shoes. And the biggest fact of all is that we will every one pass out of this world, this green and gorgeous home some day. We will leave behind all we love and all we’ve accomplished and all we’ve accumulated. But maybe it’s possible, in the meantime, to be joyful even though we’ve considered all those facts. To use the candlelight to find our way through the dark. To savor the cake while the wind howls outside. To worship each moon as if it were our first.
I just read an article on the National Wildlife Federation website says that kids now spend an average of only 30 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play and up to 7 hours in front of an electronic screen of some sort. It was a shocking statistic that I immediately realized applied to me as well. If I go outdoors, it’s to power walk, not to stroll or wander, and most of my day is spent in front of a computer or behind a Kindle. When I was a kid, especially before I became an obsessive voracious reader, I spent most of the summer outside playing or just hanging around. Adults really did not want us underfoot any more than we wanted to be there. On my grandparents’ farm, there was always something to do outside. I spent hours sitting on the fence with a stick and twine pretending I was fishing or watching the occasional car go by and never being bored. Now my mind is habituated to the constant stimulation of the internet, and the prospect of just sitting on the front steps or taking a stroll through my neighborhood makes me itch with impatience. Last weekend, I went for a beach walk with a friend on the island that’s just minutes over a bridge from my house. So easy to access and yet I rarely do. So beautiful once I’m there, and yet I’m always “too busy.” Having the ocean and sky fill up my eyes was like a massage for my soul, a Sunday sermon for my senses. When I first moved to SC and lived on that island, my daughter and I shared a house with a friend and her son. As an introvert, it was hard for me to settle into being around so many people who were always there plus drop-in visitors, but looking back I remember lots of late afternoons on the screened-in porch drinking wine and eating cheese and crackers and just talking, not doing. Or weekends on the beach soaking up the now-forbidden sun. As crazy as it seems to me now, I didn’t have email to check obsessively or phone games to play or urgent text messages to send. There was a lot of time to simply waste, or to waste in a simple way. I’m a victim of the thinking that we must always be accomplishing something, justifying our existence, not letting a minute of our precious time on earth go by without making it memorable or making a mark. As if our resumes must be constantly updated and bucket lists notated in order to reassure us that we matter. I hope I will always want to create or make something or leave room for a passion to be explored, but I hope I can also remember that instead of my constant to-doing I need to take time just to rest in the arms of the world.
I recently discovered a blog called Slow Muse written by visual artist Deborah Barlow on a variety of creativity related topics. In one post, she mentions how her interaction and friendships with musicians, writers and inventors — people from outside her own circle of expertise and training — help her see the world in a different way. When I was in my early 30s, just starting college in the 1970s and crazy mad for writing, I met a vibrant older woman in one of my literature classes who was an artist, a free spirit and as colorful as her work. Delilah used bold colors that she named for personal experiences, like John Deere Green for the tractor from her father’s farm. She’d just left a suburban D.C. marriage of decades, and her apartment filled with art and artifacts and her eccentric lifestyle were revelations to me. I’m sure her life was harder than I knew and not nearly as bohemian as it seemed from the outside, but at the time, she seemed like a radically brave artist. I was just starting to take my own writing seriously, and I noticed how the poems she wrote to describe her paintings were so much more vivid and direct than my work even though writing wasn’t her major or her main interest. It was as if being a painter allowed her to see and transcribe the world a little off center, and I thought that if I just moved my head slightly to the side, I might see it that way too. Since then I’ve found ongoing inspiration in artists who have that ability to travel easily between genres – Anne Truitt’s sculpture and journals, Twyla Tharp’s dance and writing, Bob Dylan’s music and painting — and it makes me John Deere Green with envy. I’ve been taking painting classes for the past months hoping they will teach me to pay better attention to the world and maybe shake the words in my head into different, fresher combinations. It’s what I aspire to every day even though I fall far short of it over and over and give up on myself time and again. When I had known Delilah for about a year, she packed her possessions into a U-Haul and left Virginia for Mexico on her next big adventure. Big adventures like that have a way of sometimes disappointing us, but I hope it was everything she imagined and that somewhere out there or beyond she is still painting words that glow like Tin Roof Red or Double Line Yellow.
The scary thing and the wonderful thing is that I no longer have a simple answer for this question. After leaving a job I thought would always be my passion, my calling, my alter ego, my reason for getting up in the morning, I’m going to have to relearn what I want instead of coasting on what I do. I am newly hatched. I don’t have a resume. My deadlines are self-imposed. My old business cards have been recycled. I am open to being a stranger to myself for awhile, but if someone asks me at a party what I do, what will I say? That I’m a night owl and reluctant riser? That I’d rather read cookbooks than cook? That if I have a religion, it’s poetry? That I love the sound of wind chimes on a wild winter night, the bell that rings in It’s a Wonderful Life when a fairy gets its wings, a mournful country song on a solitary road trip, logs settling in a wood fire? That I dream of living in the country, but only if there’s a Starbucks nearby? That I’m easily distracted by bright shiny things and multiple conversations going on around me? That I can’t not write? That if I lost all my music, I’d be lost? There’s no job description for any of that, or at least not one that you can present at a networking event. It’s a rare and remarkable circumstance to be suddenly standing in your life without a predictable identity that can be summed up on a business card or used to reassure yourself when the world shit-kicks you into self-doubt. I’m terrified and grateful at the same time. I know in the months ahead there will be times when I will regret my decision, worry about money, wonder what my purpose is, worry about money and long for my old routine. But how many chances do we get to start over by choice, to find out who we are instead of what we do, to have the whole world open before us in the same way it did when we first left home? In his poem The Laughing Heart, Charleston Bukowski wrote, ”be on the watch. the gods will offer you chances. know them. take them.” I hope that’s what I’m doing.
I’m going through a huge change in my career this month, and even though it’s a good change in every way, it’s triggered a mental inventory of all the things I’ve done wrong over the years and wishing I could go back and tweak my life. After wallowing in that for a few days, I had to admit that there are things I just couldn’t have known until now, or known only in a theoretical way:
1. There will always be a cool crowd that you’re not part of. I’ve felt on the outside a lot of my life, and it was a lonely place to be because I constantly compared myself to the shiny people and always came up lacking. But being on the outside was the exact right place for me to be given my personality and past. Being underestimated and invisible while I did my work was a blessing instead of a handicap.
2. You might not get the relationship you want — ever. Maybe you’ve been wounded too often and too deeply or maybe it’s just the luck of the draw, but it’s a fact of life that there are always going to be men and women who don’t meet their match. The thing I couldn’t accept when I was younger is that you can have a butter-luscious, full-fat life in spite of that if you just allow it. I wish I had realized that when I was battering my heart against elusive men who were all wrong for me. I don’t regret the difficult relationships in my past because love is never wasted, but obsessing about a Happy-Ever-After made me miss so much Right Now.
3. Your calling can break your heart. It’s a rare gift to be driven, to have a passion that sinks its teeth into you and won’t let go until you cry uncle. The magazine I started was my alter ego, my voice in the world, my lover until it became a millstone around my neck. Now that I’m in the process of leaving, I feel weightless but also bereft. I invested so much in being Nikki-Who-Started-Skirt (the way I am ALWAYS introduced–as if that’s the only thing that makes me worth knowing) that I lost of sight of the Nikki who didn’t need props to walk through the world. I started to wonder if that was all I was in the eyes of other people. Who am I without a title or a purpose? Where do I go from here? What will I answer when people ask what I do? Will people still like the me without a title or job? I wish I could have realized that this day would come and been more prepared for it, but you probably can’t prepare yourself for divorcing your calling while you’re still in love with it. The thing I couldn’t have known until now is that you can read all about how growth is the result of change, but being between the past me and the future me is like being stuck in the birth canal. I need to be both the baby and the forceps and launch myself into some brave new world.
What I think about more and more is how our lives are all about unfolding from one stage of growth into another, world without end. How apt is it that the tattoo I got on my wrist 10 years ago is based on the koru, a Maori symbol of unfolding and creation? I thought I would reach this age and be content with my life, that all the striving, angst and self-doubt would be over. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m just failing in new and improved ways. I still have a passion to create something. I’m still searching for the meaning in life. I’m still in the process of becoming. I’m doing 70, and I hope it will be a hell of a ride.
[Painting by Matt Overend, which hangs in my house to remind me of the outer journey as my tattoo does of the inner journey]
In every painting class, I start out with a well-organized, tidy palette. By the time I’m half way through, my paints are all over the place, mixed up in so many combinations that I can’t even remember what original colors I used on what part of the painting. I promise myself to do better, but I have to admit that I love the look of paint gone wild, of a life lived outside the lines. I’ve been reading Brown Dog, Jim Harrison’s collection of novellas about a character who lives off the grid and whose appetite for life makes my world of iPhones, email, Facebook and 24/7 tech seem sterile and one-dimensional. Brown Dog, a down-on-his-luck underdog with a wide-open heart, lives a simple life of hand-to-mouth and day-to-day, but his being is complex — earthy, tender, funny and fully alive. It makes me wonder if I can’t keep my palette in hand because I secretly wish my life were more colorful and riotous. So much of my time is spent on the computer or in constricted circles of the known and predictable. For someone who already lives too much in her head, the internet is a drug, a bad romance, a safety zone of seems-like. I’ve become a follower of curated lives and Pinterest prettiness, of TED talks and travel blogs, of other people’s adventures and achievements. Yes, lots of it is inspiring and useful (can’t do without my Kindle downloads!), but with all the posting, tweeting and texting, I sometimes feel like my life has a CNN news crawl running through it. Brown Dog touched a place in me that hungers for the wide open spaces of the spirit, for a wild Montana of the soul, for a place that can’t be Instagrammed.