In class recently, I started trying to paint a standard landscape — land, sea, sky — but when I finished, it looked so dead, so predictable. I was trying to paint the way I thought I should, and the result was not only boring, it was also definitely bad. In a fit of self-loathing, I took my palette knife and scraped as much paint off as I could. The result was accidentally closer to what I wanted — a kind of blurred, rough abstract view. Not a masterpiece or even a piece I would ever frame, but something that was closer to what I saw in my mind. I’m used to judging what I write or paint on the basis of what other people might think of it. Will someone publish it, will someone praise it, will someone validate me? But in this case, my failure was also my fuel — when I took it home, I was fired up to keep trying to capture what I see, the way I see it. Has a failure ever opened up a new way of thinking or a new path for you?
“Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event”
― Gaston Bachelard
I borrowed the title of this post from one of my favorite writers, French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, because that’s what I feel I’m in the midst of right now. I’m on the 67th day and the second notebook of writing down 100 childhood memories, a project I’ve embarked on with a faraway writer friend, a project that has no purpose, no lofty goal, no intended outcomes. The memories themselves are not as important as the side roads they take me down. I find myself drawing diagrams of the house where my soul was sheltered and nurtured and maps of the small town I grew up in. The rudimentary maps I dash off lead me to want more detail, more annotating of sacred spaces where insights or illuminations or wounds occurred. Some days I wish I had a whole wall on which to draw that map. Here is where we gathered bittersweet and milkweed pods. This country road is where I lost my virginity in an old blue Chevy. This fireplace is where my brothers and I huddled the day my father abandoned us. Here is the creek that would one day flood and drown two of my cousins on the same day. Just down the road is the old church where the farmers stood around outside in their clean white shirts and Sunday trousers while the women and children worshipped inside. This field is where I rode the hay wagon with my grandfather and ate sugar and butter sandwiches that my grandmother packed in a brown paper sack. I’m swimming backwards in time, and I need a map to lead me to all the forgotten memories and names and scars. A map that exists in child time, that never changes, where the brick schoolhouse has not yet been demolished, a Walmart is still in the future and I am always on the verge of becoming.
“Sad, so sad, those smoky-rose evenings, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart.” Angela Carter
These fine fall evenings when the sunsets fire up — our version of the Northern lights — and you can detect an under note of winter in the breeze, I find myself happily melancholy. Maybe that sounds like a contradiction, but just as black tree limbs are starkly outlined against vivid orange skies, memories of the past come to the front of my mind — present as at no other time of year. They are unsorted, simply tumbling over me like photos spilling out of a shoebox, some black and white, some still Kodak-colored. I think about talking on the phone to the lover I’d just broken up with, staring out the window at a bleak autumn afternoon and a bedraggled wet squirrel huddled in the rain on a tree branch. The loss, the hopelessness, the anguish of that moment are still fresh and painfully sharp. I remember nights lying on my stomach in front of the fireplace at my grandmother’s house, lost in a book, snug and safe in that lost world, still innocent and unconscious of the many times my heart would break in the future. And even though the smell of burning leaves is no longer commonplace, it comes back to me undiluted, carrying visions of saddle shoes, a caramel sundae on a fall afternoon shared with a lanky golden boy I almost dated, wool skirts tentatively raised by my football player boyfriend in the back seat of a car parked on a gravel road. Those memories do pierce my heart with sadness but also with gratitude for their beauty, for the intensity of feeling that, unlike old Polaroids, never becomes washed out or faded.
Because Fear and Embarrassment are my constant companions in painting class, I’m trying something new to trick them into looking the other way when I pick up a brush or pen. I bought a stack of cheap little canvases at a craft store and I’m slapping on oil paint fast and furious before my censor catches up. I dash them off on the kitchen table before I remember I’m not a real artist. I have no expectation of the results being good or something I’d keep. I don’t care if they go in the trash as soon as I’m done. Same thing for my sketchbook. Fast, sloppy drawing and colorful markers meant for kids. And I don’t heed all the advice not to tear a page out of your writing/drawing notebook. Screw that. I love ripping out the BIG mistakes and the mishaps because I don’t want my insecurity to take me back to those over and over again to obsess about what I didn’t do right. I want to jump over the security fence set up around my adult brain to keep it safely inside the lines and recapture the fun I had doing this long before I realized Art was serious and only meant for geniuses, grown-ups and professionals.
I’ve never seen a ghost, experienced magic or had a paranormal experience. I’m not religious, but I believe in the power of prayer flags. That the wind wafts blessings through the air as it blows through them. I’ve had them strung on my porch since I moved into my house, and coming home and seeing them makes this country girl raised as a Methodist inordinately happy. As do the string of tin can lanterns made by a friend of mine. And the twinkle lights that stay up year round. Bless this house. Bless everyone who comes through the door. Bless the little green lizards that climb the screens. Bless, I guess, the damn slugs that sometimes make their way onto the porch and scare the crap out of me. Bless the delivery guy who leaves Amazon packages on the porch, for he shall enter into the heaven of books. Bless the doormat made of recycled flip-flops and the feet who journeyed in them. Bless the aloe plant that I forget to water and yet quietly survives, waiting for the bad sunburn it will treat without saying “I told you so.” Bless the Martha Stewart wicker couch from K-Mart purchased before her fall from grace and still jaunty on the porch in a recent coat of turquoise paint. Bless the amazing little woodpeckers that come to the feeder and even the schoolyard-bully jays that try to take it over. Bless the cliched white picket fence that is verging on shabby, and bless the wide world that lies outside the fence where blessings come and go on the wind.
Last night when I went to bed, I was swamped by a sadness that seemed to rise up out of nowhere. Sadness about change and loss, sadness about everything I’ve done wrong in my life, everyone I’ve let down, every time I’ve made a bad choice. The list grew and swelled with reproach every time I closed my eyes. And through it all, I felt a deep embarrassment at being so frayed around the edges, at not being able to pull myself out The Bog of What Might Have Been. I can’t say much of anything changed overnight. In the morning, I drank a latte. I read an article about pilgrimages on the Camino de Santiago. I took a walk around my neighborhood. I ate a perfect peach. It was the last one from a bag a friend brought me from upstate South Carolina. One more day and it would have gone from ripe to rotten. The contrast of its chorus-girl curves with the wabisabi-ness of the beat-up wood table on my porch and the pristine plate mediating between the two nudged me to try and paint it, to record that it was here and so was I. Nothing happened to make my sadness completely disappear, but the day went on and I made my own pilgrimage from a soul-wrestling night to an afternoon of peaches and paint tubes. I put one foot in front of the other with no guarantee of enlightenment, no spiritual guide, no destination in mind. I just shouldered my grief and took it for a walk through an ordinary day, an unremarkable day, a good day.
Is it just my imagination, or is everyone extraordinary these days? Innovative, visionary, simply amazing. We’re all trying to have the most Likes, the most Retweets, the most Friends. To have our blogs optioned for books. To lead memoir-worthy lives. To have our videos go viral. It’s not enough to knit our days together with simple things like calling friends, taking a walk, noticing sunsets, admiring clouds that will never come again just so, loving Fridays, making bread without taking its picture, learning something without the need to be the best at it, honoring beautiful boring dailiness. No. We must be Commented on, gold-starred, entrepreneurial, singled out, TED-talked. We crave recognition. It’s our designer drug. I’m not immune to the addiction, but I try to remember what life was like when I was not instantly uploading it, sharing it, starring in it. When information didn’t substitute for inspiration. When the moment at dinner when our minds clicked over wine was more indelible than the Instagram of that moment. When the full moon was the whole show, not the photo that proved we saw it. When life just unfolded before our eyes without being curated.
I don’t have a resume. In fact, I haven’t had one for 20+ years, so how can I be sure I actually exist? Even before I was self-employed, my resume was spotty with some awkward gaps. Ten years as a stay-at-home mother. Another five going to college while a single mother. A degree and my first real job at age 33. A slow start with a meteoric rise with a publishing company. A brief stint with a software company. A bad breakup and an illogical move to a faraway state. Making ends meet as a liquor store clerk, glorified chambermaid in an inn, incompetent waitress and so on until I started the improbable venture of creating a magazine from scratch. When I was the publisher of my own magazine, I occasionally thought I should update my resume. Then I lost my old one and the dates of the various phases in my job history became hazy in my mind. Sometimes I would be asked to submit a bio, but rarely did I need to document all the ups, downs and dates of my so-called career path. The longer I went without one, the more I resisted it — until the thought of assembling one became almost painful. As if I would have to relive the hardscrabble years of single motherhood, the insecurity of being an older student in graduate school competing with kids from Harvard, Yale and Ivy-whatevers, the guilt of neglecting my kids while focusing on my shiny Big Job, the regret of relationships that never had wings, the constant self-doubt around people whose accomplishments far outweighed mine. I’ve always had the niggling feeling that I’ve cobbled together a life without benefit of schematics or instructions, and a resume only reinforces that. Now that I’m back to working part-time as a writer and consultant (whatever that is), it seems even more daunting to sit down and fill in the back story of Me. It would undoubtedly be reassuring to be able to look at a list of orderly career stages neatly dated and documented with action words (Created, Led, Developed, Initiated). A linear map of my life. Instead, I have a rambling story of work interrupted by dead ends and detours, rest stops and road-side attractions and long intervals of just being lost. It’s more akin to a kid’s treasure map or a visual resumé than an adult’s career bio, but I doubt the board seat I’d like to apply for would accept a CV drawn on a napkin with a crayon.
I’m a faithful subscriber to BON APPETIT even though I rarely attempt one of the recipes. I know I will never make a Beef Bourguignon Pie or Seeded Buckwheat Cookies, but I love to imagine the people in their small Manhattan galley kitchens or their Aga stoves/sub Zero-fridges kitchens lovingly duplicating the recipes in the magazine. I like to think they’re serving their meals to cello players, aspiring actors, struggling writers and artists who are on the verge of a break-through at a rustic farm table that has big fat candles (unscented of course) set in saucers down its length and carafes of rough, honest red wine from some tiny vineyard in Italy. The conversation will range from Tolstoy to tap dancing, Frida Kahlo to perfect pommes frite, indie films to urban farmers. BON APPETIT is a secret world to me, much as California was when I moved there at 18. A magical land I could visit but never really be part of — a state of mind made up of San Diego sunlight, exotic flowers and fruit and the soul-astounding Pacific Ocean. I would love to live there, but I also cherish the homemade-with-love cherry-pie country of my real life, grounded in gritty reality and table talk that’s sometimes tense and antsy instead of artsy. I wish I were one of the people in the BON APPETIT spreads, those confident, well-dressed, well-educated dinner guests. But I’m afraid I will always be the one who knocks over the wine glass, who would rather stay home than pilgrimage to India, who sweats when she’s out of her social depth. And whose favorite dessert is humble pie with extra ice-cream, please.
My new sort-of routine is heading for the exotically-named and mundanely suburban Alhambra Hall, a public building set in a big lawn on Charleston harbor near my house, to watch the winter sunset. It’s not always spectacular, as on this day of moody gray clouds that remind me of a Japanese woodcut. I don’t make it on rainy days and I don’t make it on lazy days, but when I do show up, it pulls me into a 10-minute space of silence that is shivery and serene. The air is as crisp as a just-ironed, lightly-starched white shirt. Planes write soaring haiku paeans to the sky. The dog walkers are quietly convivial with each other while their companions cavort. I’m acutely aware of the contrast of being warmly bundled up while I breathe the chilled sauvignon-blanc air. A small delightful luxury that I have done nothing to deserve. When the sun starts to set, a golden light often sweet-talks the dormant russet marsh grass, and it seems to glow from within. And so do I.