Archive | ArtiPeep Well-being and Creativity Ponderances RSS feed for this section

Big Black Drop Sheet 

13 Apr

 

Over the past month and a half depression has come over me like a big black drop sheet. Big black drop sheet is the way I described my depressions when I was first diagnosed with bipolar in 2004. This particular depression has surprised me, almost come out of nowhere but not: having to stop my meaningful plans, change tack, lie in bed for days, have insomnia, tolerate crying unexpectedly and uncontrollably. Depression has hit me again, and I thought I was an old hand at picking up the signs.

This time sadness, shame and self-hatred have been the most overwhelming emotions surrounding me. For someone so clearly capable to keep banging up against a crashing amount of self loathing has been hard to take. I cry like a little girl, so I’m told, and that is probably true. For the things that I am presently mourning for today are the very same things child-Nicky was attempting to deal with years ago. I know that this is not unusual, maybe something we are all faced with at some point.

I have bipolar II which means I have hypomanias and not manias (hypomanias are energy-based and not psychotic). You also have more depressions than ups.  With bipolar II if you track back there is usually a history of the depressions getting increasingly more severe with fewer and fewer hypomanias in between. Bipolar II is also not regular. There are no regular cycles. It can spring up on you at anytime. You can’t predict it, so it is therefore quite hard to manage.

Since my diagnosis, and the therapy that followed, I’ve gone about my life trying to emphasise the well parts of it, which can make you, and others, almost forget that you have an ongoing illness that sits behind your well periods. I’ve come to realise that this attitude isn’t necessarily healthy for me although it might seem like it should be. My capability and energy can unhelpfully mask what illness I have. Over the last 20 + years I have been regularly depressed after anything I have achieved: jobs, creative projects-you name it. Stress triggers my bipolar. It’s hard for me to consistently hold anything down for a length of time.  This is a bitter pill to swallow and face. This is further complicated by the fact my self-worth isn’t derived from what I do. It’s derived from how well I look after myself, and generally I do that pretty poorly as I tend to ‘become’ things when I do anything. All my self-care subtly vanishes as I flounder, sabotage and watch my self worth ebb away.

 

Brain

 

Out of what has happened to me lately I can see that the strategy of treating myself like I don’t have an illness, that I am a ‘well person’, doesn’t necessarily work for me despite its inherent positivity. To keep myself well and catch things early I have to have the fact I have bipolar right in front of me so I can catch things. This is important because symptoms can appear from out of nowhere, escalate and dig-in and before you know it I’m a ‘goner’. I forget that. Like in the summer last year, when all of The Nine Realms threads were coming together and I was very stressed and working 60 hour weeks. I started to change: started hitting myself and becoming very aggressive whilst still feeling full of energy and highly functioning. I became a different person for a while, which I came to understand in hindsight was me in a mixed state (where you are both depressed and energised at the same time). For about three weeks I was not myself, felt dreadful, but was fully able to work and was driven by my intention to follow through on every aspect of The Nine Realms. This state incremently and subtly crept up on me, and from that state the seeds of depression were sown.

I didn’t catch the change in my behaviour because we weren’t being vigilant enough. Maybe if we (and by we, I mean my mother and I) had been actively on the lookout for changes I might not be lying in bed right now. I’m not saying that I need to be treated with kid gloves or stopped from doing anything that might trigger me. No, I’m not saying that, but maybe a new strategy needs to be put in place. A few signs in my house need to be put up that remind me that it’s a good responsibility to manage my illness. That I have an illness, that despite being on medication, comes up and slaps me merrily on the rear. It’s not nice, it’s not pretty but it is the cold stone truth.

This depression is the first time I haven’t been comatose, which you would think would be a turn up for the books, but it doesn’t feel like that. The extensive period of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy  I had for 7 years has taught me that there is distance between myself and my thoughts. I know I am not my thoughts, and I also know how to challenge my thoughts. However, despite having this knowledge, because of my miswiring, it doesn’t stop me from feeling the negative emotions attached to them which then spirals me downwards. So I still get powerfully locked into the negative loops in my schemas (established, entrenched patterns of thinking). In this last week I have just started to use again the CBT techniques I was taught. I think the fact, that this time, I haven’t become my thoughts is what has saved me from becoming comatose. It’s lessened my feelings of helplessness. I have mind tools to deploy. My therapist (who was a specialist in persistent severe depression) taught me well.

This is the moment (you would think) I would be cracking open the champagne (if I drank), pulling the party poppers and celebrating the fact I have been given these tools, but I have found this half-processing state to be far worse than the familiar comatose depression state. In the comatose state you’re out of it at least, you’re not feeling anything other than awful; or you’re so out of it it doesn’t matter. In what I’m feeling now- this half-state- you feel so consciously cornered by your head and your schemas. You feel everything, and you are constantly batting off negative thought processes and delving into, and staying with, emotions. It’s tiring, all-consuming and scary (even if the process has the hidden positive of reminding you you can still feel). This strangely makes the thought of the comatose state more attractive. Tackling my negative thinking constantly is wearisome. Writing things down, charting why I feel what I’m feeling. It’s tiring, even though I do know in my heart of hearts it’s probably a healthy responsibility but……nevertheless. It just doesn’t feel like it. If I take on the new ‘I have bipolar’ strategy, I have a lifetime of charting and managing ahead of me, and sometimes (in all honesty) it feels like it would be better for it all to stop. These types of thoughts are the worst and still come back again and again.

It usually takes me a year to recover fully from a depression. Getting through this bit where my constant rumination and negative processing get in the way of me moving forward. However, I absolutely intend to put my ‘I have bipolar’ signs in the house so I don’t forget (even if it looks a bit bonkers). With a new strategy maybe I can catch my negative core beliefs and thoughts more quickly, treat myself more kindly and live a little bit more of an honest life that actually knowingly supports my vulnerability (which is something we all share). This might help prevent the big black drop sheet from dropping down so quickly in the future. It will come back but maybe the next time it might be a little bit more translucent.

 

Nicky

Advertisements

Tell your story walking

7 Dec

.

For the last two weeks now I have been intending to post out a piece on The Festival of Ideas and ArtiPeeps’ future. It hasn’t materialised for a number of reasons,  primarily because I seem to have lost myself somewhere in all the swirl of ‘doing’ and plans for the future. There has been no space for any extraneous writing other than those required by funders. Upon exploration now it has become strikingly clear to me that during this year I seem to have foregone self-care for service, which ultimately (I know) can lead to no good. You don’t need to totally ring yourself dry, background your needs and story for the sake of your passion/vision/project. It’s easy to do but it isn’t health or well-being or sensible. If you do the act is probably rooted in something darker and often in personal history.

I know that my bi-polar doesn’t help the situation. Balance is hard to find when you’re permanently chemically imbalanced, and I’m so driven and generally enthusiastic that I forget that there is an underlying process going on that is triggered by stress and drives me from up to down: if there is an up there WILL be, guaranteed, a down (that is the way of bi-polar, I forget that).

I also have two very active and powerful schemas going on which skew my thinking: what I call my ‘I am responsible’ schema and my ‘Care for others’ schema. These are interwoven patterns of thinking, cognitive miswirings that I have to permanently handle. They are always triggered by ‘doing’ and/or creating and they complicate everything I do. They were powerfully triggered by The Nine Realms, and as this year has gone on I’ve had to manage them more and more. They are strong and nasty and can make me think I’m not good, make me hit myself, or take things away like self-care, meditation, gentleness, food or steadiness and replace it with cruelty, anxiety, sabotage and a level of self-detestation that is hard to understand when you think I would be feeling great about myself.

When I stopped cognitive behavioural therapy, even though I had come to understand my thinking errors profoundly, I knew these miswirings couldn’t be fixed. I was gently told that I just had to become an expert at managing them, and that each time I did it would get a little bit better. Inch work which accumulates. That each time I tried something new, like ArtiPeeps, or the BBC, or the theatre company, or the library, that I would have to face these schemas and ways of thinking again and again. I don’t think I was presumptuous enough to think that I would come through The Nine Realms psychologically unscathed, but I was and am, shocked at how quickly, despite the success of it and the clear benefit, my balance went, how quickly I chose to replace myself with ArtiPeeps and the greater good.

My self-esteem has never been connected to what I do, what I create. You might expect otherwise. My self-esteem has always been nurtured when I have truly felt I have taken care of myself, not sabotaged, not endured or stuck the shards in (again). An intrinsic feeling (consolidation) and not something externally manifested. This is why achieving things externally never lasts for me because by the time whatever I have decided to do has finished I’ve usually died somewhere along the line and am scrambling around in my mind for some resemblance of myself. Why have I done this again?!

It took much longer to tie up The Nine Realms than I expected. There was the success of The Festival of Ideas (which came as a delightful add-on afterwards) the wonderful coming together again, and then the sending out of the backer rewards (delivering) and the last payments of invoices, which only was completed today. Unexpected things cropped up too: I had to rejig The Nine Realms budget for The Arts Council only the week before last when all I wanted was for things to stop. After a year of regular 60 hr a week work patterns and driving myself towards this collective goal and celebration of collaboration, I just wanted it all to stop. How can it be that the event happened 11-15 September and I’m still putting the project to rest at the end of November? Every ounce of me had been given- willingly, and I had to draw on a sense of energy and a positive psychology that wasn’t there anymore. My best self.

I had to use every reserve to complete what needed to be done, whilst my feelings of badness started to become huge (that’s the miswiring and the stress). What should have elicited feelings of joy and pride left me more in contact with my ongoing psychological vulnerability (my grin can hide a lot).

Physically I have had difficulties this year: I now have to walk with a stick a lot of the time, and I am losing mobility in three of my fingers in my left hand. I have cerebral palsy and I think in middle age, things are catching up on me. I soon won’t be able to grip much with my left hand and without my leg brace I walk like a geriatric lobster. I’m having to learn a new way of being, come to terms with the restrictions of my new physicality. When I caught glimpses of myself in The Nine Realms event photos, I was quite shocked at my own vulnerability- how stiff and ungainly I’d become. This physical shift has been going on at the same time as ArtiPeeps’ growth. It’s ironic.

For the past couple of weeks I have banished myself to my bed- to restore my body and mind and to try and reinstate some balance in my life. Every single self-care and physical practice that had been so carefully created over the previous three years vanished during this year. I took it all away myself ,and replaced self-care and myself with ArtiPeeps. It was a willing, wonderful giving which I couldn’t control, but equally it can’t continue because it’s unsustainable, doesn’t allow me to create and nurture my own story, and to give my true best to ArtiPeeps. How can well-being be a fundamental to ArtiPeeps if I don’t practice it myself? It doesn’t set a good example and serves ‘old Nicky’-beliefs that, in reality, are long gone. This is what humanitarian Zainab Salbi said about the nature of giving fully:

.

.

I don’t want to be that rung out towel. I want to continue to grow ArtiPeeps into something wonderful, and to celebrate the creativity and talents of everyone who is involved. I want to serve from a position of strength and (as much as possible) equanimity. Now, I just have to get the balance right and to keep on walking the best way I know how- with integrity, care and a quieter mind.

Addendum:

Here’s a profoundly valuable and insightful video by performance artist Marina Abramović which has further consolidated my belief  in the notion of challenge that I have recently embedded into ArtiPeeps’ new artistic statement

.

.

As ever, thank you for your interest, and I shall endeavour to get a post out about the 3rd ArtiPeeps season of work shortly.

Nicky

P.S.  Deb Talan’s song “Tell Your Story Walking” was is inspired by “Motherless Brooklyn”, a novel by Jonathan Lethem

‘Keep Your Chin Up’

1 Jul

keep_your_chin_up_by_bloobat101-d39okbe

 

‘Express yourself in as many ways as possible without fear. There is nothing to fear,. There is nobody who is going to punish or reward you. Express your being in its truest form, in its natural flow, you will be rewarded immediately, not tomorrow but today, here and now…. ‘(Osho, The Book of Understanding)

‘Sometimes the best way to express yourself is to shut up and stay quiet’ (Nicky, aged 13)

____

I was 13. There was a knock on the front door of my house and I rushed down the hallway to open it. It was a Summer’s day, and the door swung open to reveal  podgy, kind-hearted Frida our next door neighbour standing brightly silhouetted in the frame of the door.  I was in my mid- teens at the time, quiet, and’ shy as a church mouse’ and going through a very, very difficult time. The last thing I wanted in the world, IN -THE -WORLD was lovely kind, caring Frida being nice to me.  I just stood there and watched her and it seemed like an age, even though it was probably merely a beat. As I watched her it was like her mouth was in slow-mo, every syllable stretched out, elongated. As I watched her gloopy mouth I didn’t say a word, I kept ‘stum’ and waited until the clammy feeling of vulnerability and shame vanished. Then she smiled at me, dusted down, cleared her throat and said:

‘How are things? Alright?’

I said nothing.

She smiled.

I just kept on staring down.

She sighed, she shuffled her feet again, breathed in, waited a bit and said:

‘Keep You’re chin up dear’, a whispy smile quickly retracting as she saw me start to tear up,  and she turned away in a swirl of do-goodery and swept off down the road.

As Frida left  I just continued to stand and stare watching her walk up the street and something inside me seemed to zip up for good. It was the final straw, and from that moment and for a good long while into the future,  I let any need of mine to express to just stay inside, to just stay within.

____________________

A Ponderance:

Sometimes it is easier to keep the words inside, to not communicate and to let the words rest within. This can be a form of expression  and a creative act. Sometimes words aren’t enough to say what you feel;  or they are not the right words; not the right words to describe the complexity of your situation,  dream or fantasy. Sometimes one can’t find the right words,  to express that particular emotion deep within or to communicate that circumstance to someone else who cares.

Up until that point in time, I had always written down what I was feeling, that’s how I kept myself safe. I expressed myself on paper because I had never really been good at communicating orally. Saying things out loud made things more real and I don’t think I liked that. It was easier to write down that I wasn’t okay than to say it , have it out there vibrationally and in front of someone who was a kind soul and who cared. And as I said previously, I’m not sure what it was about her words at that present moment but for a long while I sealed up for good and that was okay. Even today, looking back, it was the right thing to do.

In an age where we are told that self-expression and emoting are good for us; that it’s important to express like Osho says ‘everything and without fear’; to communicate with clarity and with individuality, to put it out there and to put it out there with gusto, it becomes very difficult to choose silence (and to be okay with that), or to choose not to write for a while; or to express nothing at all (what ever your ‘nothing’  is).

Now admittedly in the  scenario above I was a child (to all intents and purposes) and I couldn’t have really expressed myself with any great clarity even if I had wanted to;  I didn’t have the lexical and verbal skills I have now for starters.  But I  do remember that in that moment I did make a choice. I chose not to mould and shape what was going on in my inside and put it out there for her. I remember choosing.

How we express, what we express and to whom we express is a choice, an act of  either sometimes the intellect or the soul.  And what I mean by that is expression can be sourced from what is in our heart or what is formulated through reason and is in our heads. As children because we haven’t developed our vocabularies or our reasoning power we create and communicate from a unformed, intuitive place, a place that is perhaps more brave and unprocessed. There’s may be no worry, no prevaricating before we act. As adults most of our forms of expression are processed and sorted and cultivated and honed so we protect ourselves.

Now I write relatively regularly, and I don’t mean I sit at my desk tossing off sonnets and short stories on a daily basis, nothing like that, but every day I consider what matters to me. I don’t call it journaling, it isn’t journaling, its more of a written practice. It’s not a stream of consciousness either. It’s more of a list of fundamentals that I check in with.  I try and express something about my world and how I receive and respond to it. I try and communicate something that hasn’t been edited to death or constrained. It’s easy for me to do the cultivated, clever-clever stuff.  It’s how I used to protect myself.  But I’d rather be connected to something different now. That isn’t to say, I don’t enjoy creating something that is cultivated and honed but  I’m just saying that expression can be attached to something less formalised, something totally individualised that doesn’t necessarily have to even be communicated. To withhold is one way to express. To be silent (like teen Nicky) can be as potent a means of expression as a writerly or artistic roar.

The ‘Frida’s’ of this world who stand before you when you are in need but have chosen not to communicate, maybe don’t need to know the subtly and the specifics behind your reasons to not express in that moment, at that time.  And even if you did express it,  the reality is that maybe people don’t really want to know what is really going on or maybe can’t even take it.   Maybe, it’s easier to fling out a truism than to respond to someone who has had all their words taken away from them; it’s sometimes  easier to turn your back away from an act of creative silence than it is to greet it and meet it in its truest form.

__

N.b . I wrote this piece several weeks ago and reading it back today I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to get at, if I’m honest. It feels difficult to truly define what the correlation is between my childhood memory and its difficulty and the need for me to relate this to expression in a wider sense. I’m slightly at a loss and it leaves me pondering but I thought I’d post it anyway.

>>>>

Who Are You Really?

23 Apr

001

‘Imperfection is not a personal problem, it is a natural way of existing’. (Tara Brach)

This is a post about imperfection and perfection and how this relates to creativity. At first glance it may seem like a splaying, disability spiel but I assure you this is not its intention.

So I’ll begin….

I was born with cerebral palsy, when I came out of my mother’s womb not enough oxygen got to my brain quickly enough and the right side of my cerebral cortex was affected, which means that I have permanent decreased mobility on my left side- a hand that spasms, a bent elbow and a ‘tricksy’ left  hip and leg which means I limp. Luckily, I was not cognitively impaired as a lot of people with cerebral palsy are. The physical manifestations of my disability didn’t come out until I was 9 months old.  So everybody thought I was ‘normal’ for a while. I should have been walking but instead I was still sliding around on my bottom smoothing museum floors.

As I grew up my disability began to manifest itself more significantly but it’s never been severe. It’s only ever affected my left side so if I choose to I can hide the fact there’s something wrong. If I move my left hand under my arm you wouldn’t know there was anything awry. I can mask it if I so choose.  This has always been a problem for me- ‘to show-or not to show’. To reveal who I am from the beginning;  be courageous and truthful, or to protect myself a bit; pave the way, make sure you like me first and then show there’s something wrong.

I have struggled with this dilemma consistently throughout my life and sometimes I have used my creativity to try and understand this conflict within me. At worst, I’ve used it negatively to validate myself as ‘spastic’, not normal; I’ve used it negatively to put myself down and to undermine the value of what I produce. There can be a kind of shame attached to imperfection, of not being perfect and this can also be manifested in what we produce as artists and writers. My body, for me, has always curiously represented this human artistic dilemma; the tightrope between that which craves perfection and that which chastises imperfection.

So how does this imperfect/perfect dichotomy affect our creativity?

I think in order to create and to produce from a place of integrity, we have to write from the place deep within us that is our imperfection; who we are.  And if we begin that creative process we also, by association, gradually reveal our perfection, what matters to us, what makes us unique and whole. Both are needed to shape a creative entity; a piece of art. We don’t need to be ashamed of imperfection or flaws.  There is nothing wrong with exposing them within what we write or shape as long as we’re not doing it for ulterior motives: to punish ourselves or chastise ourselves- to splay instead of celebrate our complexity- the balance of perfection and imperfection within us.

It took me years to overcome this idea of myself as ‘a spastic’. My psychiatrist said I let my disability ‘creep over me like ivy’, and she was right, I did. I twisted it and let it define me.

As creatives it is often our imperfections that inspire us, that allow us to connect with others and to make us want to share and explore that through the work we produce.  There is a need in us all to engage with these areas because it is through this engagement with the flawed that we also engage with the positive and the whole. One does not exist without the other.  However, it’s somehow easier creatively to mulch ourselves down into the dark rather than the light, but the light is what makes life worth living; it’s what sustains us and allows the dark to exist in contrast (and maybe not in antithesis).

I don’t know quite what made me stop thinking of myself as something incomplete or not normal; and in all honesty even now when I walk into a room I will probably, more than likely, protect myself. It’s a fight or flight thing, a natural protective instinct that I can’t override intellectually; and, I’ve come (I think) to maybe accept that. And that’s okay.

So,  equally, when we create as artists or writers maybe it’s also okay to write and hold a bit of ourself back;  to not pour every ounce of ourselves into our creative work. Maybe it’s okay to choose to keep  the nub of us within (whether that be the positive or the negative bit).There’s nothing wrong with that in essence. Or,  if you are one of those  explore- everything, exposing writer/artists you have to be extremely conscious of the intention behind what you’re doing so you don’t harm yourself or delude yourself or forego your right to a form of personal creative privacy.

023Even now I wish I could walk into a room and not be self-conscious, to not slightly look down and see if my hand is twitching or watch your eye-line to see if you’ve noticed. But actually, if I look deep within my creative soul, I have come to appreciate the imperfect/perfect difference because it’s a constant reminder of what makes us human, unique and creative and what makes us explore and express.

>>

As John Ruskin says, ‘to banish imperfection is to destroy expression’ and I have no wish to do that

>>>>>. 

The Space Between Thoughts

8 Apr

Swing

>

‘It’s not about taking photographs, it’s about thinking about photography. The more photographs you take the less you think’ [my emphasis] 

(Jan Dibbets, Modern Painters Magazine, March 2013, p29)

Perhaps you should stop thinking then and start knowing’ 

(CJ. Sullivan Wings of the Divided, p11)

>

About two years ago I decided to buy a swing and hang it from the large Horse Chestnut tree I have in my back garden. I bought it for two reasons: 1. because it was on that exact tree that my grandfather slung a similar swing for me when I was a child and I’m a sentimental sort; and 2. because I wanted to have something physical in my life that would remind me of what it’s like to be in transit and how okay that is. Swinging to and fro. So when I feel I’m doing too much or I’m caught in ‘doing’ (the processing), I trot down to my swing and rest in between the push-pull. The movement catches my thoughts and I become unstuck in the space in-between. The natural dynamic of this space  seems to allow for the seeds of  creativity to  be sewn

– in the space that’s left between the up and the down.

Dibbet says, ‘it’s not about taking photographs it’s about thinking about photography’ [my emphases] There’s a huge difference. One is about outcomes and the other is rooted in what lies before the outcome and what powers the engine of our production-and coats the delicate fronds of our intent to create. We disconnect all too easily when we produce  instead of  giving ourselves space to feed what drives that actual act of creating. Knowing what matters to us and moving within that, so there is a reserve of explored self-knowledge, awareness  and experience that acknowledges a world in flux and  from which we can draw. A kind of faith of sorts that doesn’t take and doesn’t amass.

Yesterday, for the first time in a while, I went down to the bottom of the garden to my ropey-tree swing and swung for a bit. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out  and the rays were dancing off the bare branches and as I moved back and forth I could feel myself disengaging from the flurry of my mind and getting caught in what can only be described as my own space in transit.  In that space appeared new ideas and little glimpses of  parts of me that I sometimes shun,. or fragments that I can hand-heart, 100% identify as creative ‘me’. More importantly within the space of the up swing and  the down swing there is also a place for ‘don’t know’, for uncertainty. Too blurry to see……..yet.  

I think there are parts of our creative lives, hopes and dreams that maybe we don’t need to see yet (or maybe never). As the Libyian writer  Hisham Matar states ‘In our own stories there are always things we don’t know’ *. But unless we value the in-between space we’ll never know that we know that we don’t know. 

I hope- I’m making sense.

Knowledge is what we accumulate when we think. It’s a possession of thoughts which isn’t necessarily concrete and easily definable. Knowledge can be knowing that we don’t know and that is equally important to our creativity as we create and when we create and after we create.  When we ‘do’ too much we get confused:

  • We confuse doing with knowledge
  • We favour thinking over knowing (that deep gut feeling…faith)
  • We confuse experience with thought
  • We confuse worry with reality
  • And foreground reality as what matters instead of our creative hopes and dreams.

This is what can happen if you don’t allow yourself the grace to move within the spaces between things. For this is where nurturing faith in our creative abilities lies. Oft times we confuse processing with thinking, we confuse ruminating for thinking. Creatives get caught in ‘stuff’ and that’s ok because it’s then through a process of unpicking (if we have the courage to do so) that we know who we are as artists and as human beings.

If  we allow ourselves to swing – ‘to and fro’ -then we can see that experience is:

never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative-much more when it happens to be that man of genius- it takes itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of air into revelations.

(Henry James, from The Modern Psychological Novel, Leon Edel)

That’s what a bit of swinging can do for you. 

__

* For the interview with Hisham Matar see:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/04/out-loud-hisham-matar-david-remnick-libya.html

I Never Saw Him Paint

25 Feb
Artist At His Easel by Gustav Courbet

Artist At His Easel by Gustav Courbet

 

My father was an artist, but throughout my entire life I never saw him paint. I knew he went down to the bottom of the garden each day, knew he did something creative down there, but I don’t remember actually seeing him do anything. That could be because I blocked it all out, I don’t quite know.  Of course I saw the fruits of his labours hanging on the walls: the swirling landscapes, the swampy green Canadian forests, the big oily orangy yellow sunflowers all hanging in our house.  You could see all the potential in every brush stroke. All the hope for success.

From the age of about 18 to the age 37 I was estranged from my artist Dad. I was so full of anger at him for one reason or another and I completely despised and diminished his art. I swept away, with great venom, all the mass of his work. In my head he was no artist, he was hardly even my father. Then, curiously, like the way life works sometimes, we were brought together again and I looked after him until he died of cancer in 2005. I lived in his house for 6 months, a house full of his  pictures and writing. I was forced, due to circumstance, to consciously live with his art again.

Strikingly, I discovered, his art had completely changed over the years. The pictures I remembered  from my youth weren’t hanging on the walls any more, they were either in the shed at the bottom of the garden or upstairs in his studio randomly piled facing the wall. The pictures he had painted in those in-between years were far removed from the emotional swirls, the life-splatters, and the textured surfaces he created  whilst I was a  child and teenager.  The art he had produced in the interim years were cubed and contained and his colour palette had transformed from reds and greens and browns to blue and black and white. Every element  contributing to the picture  was put into an outlined box or a rectangle, and  then further confined and reasoned into a picture.  It was as if my father had boxed his creativity and spirit and shut it all up for good. I found his art made me feel very uncomfortable but I couldn’t take any of it down because he was dying and he loved them so.

After he died, as you do, I had to clear up his house. I had to go through his pictures, give some of them away. I had to work out what to do with a lifetimes worth of creativity, expression and effort. It made me think long and hard about what could have caused such a massive shift in style, and what I would say was also a dampening of his skill, and a narrowing of his heart.

My father never quite made it as an artist. He had the ambition but not the chutzpah to actually turn it into reality. He still painted but never got the acclaim. He could have, but he never put the real day-in, day-out effort you have to put in to get to where you want to go.

I also remembered that he had fought in the second world war. He had come back a changed man, I was told. His art on his return, apparently,  hadn’t immediately change as a consequence of what he had seen and what he had done, but his heart had. As the years rolled by the damage done to his heart and psyche inched its way into his art. Nothing happened immediately and for a good long while, through the orange and red, and the green and the brown he could still communicate his feelings; but slowly there was a shift and eventually the weight of life got too much for him and emotions had to be  contained and life and all it’s joy had to be put into squares. He had to box it somewhere. Whether it was insecurity, fear, laziness (it’s hard to gauge) he somehow lost track of why he created. He was creating from a cold heart but still creating, and one wonders what the benefit of that was to him.

The reason why I’m talking about this is not because it’s cathartic or therapeutic it’s because it’s a story of what can happen if you lose sight  of what your creativity (whatever that maybe) is about. It’s what happens if what you express isn’t connected to the reality of all of you. If you deny yourself access to feeling the whole breadth of you (in all your muckiness, the good and the bad) what you are left with creatively can flow away, and you too can end up metaphorically in a room of  blue, boxed paintings. You also have to be able to take responsibility for your art (if you really want to do it properly; and by art I also mean writing, poetry, sculpture etc. too). You can’t just sit there like my father and expect somebody else to do it for you, or for something to magically happen. It doesn’t work that way.

And I think in my father’s heart of hearts he knew that. So by way of punishment he put all the blue ones up and all the red-green hopes away, turned to the wall. He knew he’d let his creativity down.

But in the end my father didn’t let me down. Just before he died, for the first time in my life, my father told me he loved me, and hearing it that one time was enough to shake off all those decades of embitterment. With one regret, I suppose, that I could have done with hearing it earlier because I had never had an inkling  and it would have dissipated my phantom anger sooner. But life does seem to give you things when you most need to hear them and when you can hear it (even if it doesn’t feel like that at the time).

Now, I live in his house and all, I have to say, of the blue pictures have gone, they are now the ones banished to the shed and facing against the wall in my studio upstairs (the one that once was his). I’ve replaced them with some of his earlier work. The paintings where I can see his heart and his talent. I rest easily here with them on the wall.

Girl On A Red Bench

19 Feb

red bench

When I was a little girl, (around about 8 or 9 years old) I used to sit on a particular red bench every single break time at school. I liked the bench for a number of reasons. 1. because it was red; 2. because it was in a corner and I could pretend no one could see me; and 3 because the dinner lady who I liked so much always sat there too.  I never spoke to the dinner lady though but I liked her silent company. I was a very quiet child, shy, I always felt very cut off from the world, very different. I couldn’t run properly, couldn’t play, skip or jump. I always felt physically removed from the everything.

I was also very sad inside and my sadness poured out all over me like syrup. So I used to enjoy my break times. I could go inside. I’d walk to my red bench, push myself right into the corner so I could feel the two side-panels of the fence behind me, all the knobbly bits, and I’d move my life and my energy and focus into my head.

Once inside all was well. I created stories. I had a riproaring time and my imagination went on many a ride. I didn’t feel lonely, I didn’t feel different, I had friends to talk to that I didn’t feel saw me as an alien (even though they didn’t). I had a fine old time in my head.  Periodically the dinner lady would sidle up from the other end of the bench and would say ‘Are you alright dear’, and usually this would make me cry. Even as an adult now generally if someone asks me that I burst into a ball of tears. It doesn’t bother me now, it’s just one of my triggers, but then, as a little girl, it was just way too much kindness.

Sitting on that bench with those stories flowing through my mind was what gave me the first drive to create. I don’t know what quite drove me  to turn what was inside my head inside out and onto paper, I can’t mark the point, but at some point I started to bring an exercise book and a pen to that bench and I started to write it down. What was in my head, tweaked in girly-curl handwriting, was then scattered across a lined book. It was a novel from what I remember, set in the Tower of London. It ran to two chapters, and I re-read it nostalgically not so long ago and it made me laugh, such great expectations I had then (and indeed, still do now).

As an adult, I think I can learn a lot from the process by which I expressed myself as a child; the process and the intent behind my creativity. There was something very smooth and organic about the process I had back then. Nothing filtered or clever-clever. There wasn’t a knowingness attached to what I wrote. There it was inside, and now look at it there, out on the page.The creative process was pure, not corrupted by my expectations or other people’s opinions. Yes, it did save me, it did allow me to express, it did remove me from very difficult circumstances but I didn’t write from the perspective that considers an audience or sets an agenda or uses writing as a personal indulgence. The inclination came from a  simple need to express despite what was going on in the background.

I think if we can, and I don’t know quite how we can as adults mark you, we need to be thinking about how we can write like the girl on the red bench a bit more. We worry too much about how we express, or what we express, or why we express. If we need to express, we don’t need to be writing for anybody, we don’t need to have to show it to someone to get it validated, but somehow nevertheless we always seem to need to; look at me now posting this out to you.

I look back on that little girl and I do recognise me there and she is always with me. I recognise the place where my creative seed was planted and began to grow, but I feel very different from her now (not surprisingly and naturally). How I shape my words has changed and I have become a congruent being. I’ve shaken off the difference and the shame and the need to hide behind and in my mind, I look back on the little girl on the red bench with kindness and acknowledge that viewing myself like this is just ‘ one way of knowing people…to know the outline and not the detail’. (Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse).

%d bloggers like this: