O! Solitude!

Solitude is for  me a gift of midlife. Growing up, I went from  busy house to  crowded dorm, to  apartments overflowing with visitors, to career, marriage and children. The only place I could go without someone else was to the inside of a book. I don’t think I knew what solitude was, but I got my first taste of it when I went to graduate school at age 36.

Early in graduate school, before having to complete internships, I would have one day a week when I had no classes. After the children went to school I would make my way to the medical school library we were allowed to use. Once inside I would take up residence in an isolated study carrel. Surreptitiously I would remove a forbidden thermos of coffee and a bagel from my school bag. For at least four hours I was in a place where no one knew me or expected anything from me. With books, pen and paper, coffee, bagel, and privacy I had everything I needed for productive reverie.

School did get busier, so the luxurious library days did not last. In time, however, my parenting duties became less hands on. I graduated from school and eventually was able to go into  private practice. It would probably be important to say here that for my work I am required to focus intently on encouraging my clients to be aware of their own thoughts and feelings and to follow their dreams. To do my work I must be aware of myself, yet the work is not about me. My own self actualizing must take place outside of the office.

I have been fortunate enough to be able to limit my practice  to  three days a week. The purpose is of course  is to give me time to recharge myself – essentially, to take the advice I so often give to my own clients. Having two work days to myself ,though,  often seems  to exist only on paper. The time gets taken up. Obligations intervene. And sometimes I just don’t use the time well.

Nonetheless, having these two  work-free days has changed me. I know now that I must have time alone in order to feel connected to myself. I have “things to do” which take me deeply inside myself and lead to a sense of peace and well being. Without my solitude I am vulnerable to professional burnout, to becoming numb to the world around me, or to being just plain cranky.

I didn’t want to mention it but since the holidays I’ve noticed all three manifestations listed above. I was feeling  little enthusiasm for the activities I usually enjoyed. Wanting to want to do something but not having the energy to do so is very melancholy.  Since I now had this blog, my lack of magpie-ness was disconcerting. How long would this last?

Clearly I would have to take some action. I started by having a nice heart to heart with myself. I was feeling out of balance because, with all the festivities, I had gotten out of the habit of finding daily solitude. Then I got sick, but had to carry on anyway. Then my husband got sick and did not carry on anyway. He stayed home for several days. I was finding it hard, post holiday, to return to the routines which keep me in sync.

So on my  most recent  day off,  Friday, I made as few plans as possible. I closed the computer and the Ipad, reached for my trusty composition notebook, and wrote and wrote. What did I write? Nothing of significance to anyone but myself. I whined, I felt sorry for myself, I prattled, and vented my frustrations about feeling so stuck.

My angst began to clear. I found myself flipping back through my notebook to where I had left off in my most recent letter to my sister. I had abandoned it earlier in the week because it was so deadly boring. Upon rereading I decided it wasn’t so bad after all. So I added a few pages before turning to my knitting and adding to the poor pitiful sock I’ve been working on for some time. I stopped in time to whip up some chorizo and brussels sprouts for the book club. It was a new recipe, so I wasn’t too sure of it, but almost all of it was eaten.

A sock is born.

A sock is born.

Saturday dawned damp and chilly. I contemplated a photo shoot, but the weather was most unwelcoming. I still had my unfinished letter and sock to work on in the morning. But what would I  to do in the afternoon? Draw, I told myself. I got to work on a sketch of my niece Mary Hannah, who has waited patiently for me to paint her portrait. My fingers were delighted to once again feel the circular needles and the pencil.

The portrait begins.

The portrait begins.

As the sun went down my husband and I contemplated our plans for the evening. We opted to go to a local coffee shop and hear an acoustic music group The Stray Birds. As we settled in at the standing room only event, I marveled that only one week earlier I probably would have talked myself out of going. Knowing that just made the fiddles, banjoes, bass, guitars and elegant harmonies all the  more sweet.

The Stray Birds

The Stray Birds

Now it is Monday. Part of my day to myself has been taken up with two routine medical tests, but I’ve rallied. Except for this blog post, I’m not wasting time on the computer. In a few hours I  will have to leave for yoga. I am savoring the fact that after just a short time of solitude my creative energies  returned to the point that I could write, knit, draw, cook, and listen to live music. It’s a miracle!

My preference is long stretches of uninterrupted solitude. In my perfect world I would be free to stay in my pajamas for days, sipping coffee as I moved from one activity to the next. Read awhile. Write awhile. Check out the sewing machine. Document everything by taking a few photos. But if I can’t have my perfect world, I will take the world I have. I can still connect  with myself in a shorter length of time as long as I am consistent. I can add a few sock rows while watching The Battle Of Britain. The sock may not be finished today, but knowing I did one thing gives me the energy to go to the next.

Of course the real gifts of solitude are not any finished projects that may come from it. No, the important parts are the self knowledge, the being with self, and the life affirming energy,  all seemingly emerging at once. The time invested in solitude repays itself many times over. To quote May Sarton:

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”

Here’s wishing you a week full of richness.

Art History

Last Thursday night was the last meeting of my painting class. That evening we were three students, and the instructor, all women. As we each worked on our own paintings, we began a leisurely  discussion on how important it is for us as humans to make art, and how we share with the world when we do so. Our time was limited, so we didn’t delve deeply into these important matters. But when I left the class I continued to think about the meaning  of art to me and to others.

My fellow painting students were aware that I was an inexperienced painter, first because I told them and second, because they could see my work. But only I was aware of how meaningful it was to me  to finally let myself take a painting class. From my earliest memories I have loved to draw and paint, but as many in my generation can attest, schools in those days did not reward creativity. Rather, they stifled it with such techniques as holding up people’s work in front of the class for a blistering critique, or withholding an art activity to punish the class. Had I had many art supplies they would not have been respected at home where I had younger siblings and not much privacy. I was afraid to study  art in high school because I thought only “weirdos” took that. I see now I would have loved to be one of those weirdos. Life kept happening, but art did not.

Fast forward to about the last ten years, when I first began to have some time for myself. I started to paint pictures. My method was to add paint, add paint, and add paint until I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Since I didn’t really know how to draw, that is all I could do. At first it was tremendously rewarding. I enjoyed the process, and though the content was primitive and poor, I had had no instruction and was therefore blissfully unaware of any  deficiencies. But after a time I had drawn all the random shapes and stylized flowers I could stand. If I wanted to go further I would have to seek instruction.

For a time I just lived with a big red ball of anxiety whenever I thought about taking a class. To a part of my mind this sounded like jumping off a ten story building barefoot, while another part yearned for the knowledge. I did not know when I would ever put my own instruction to the top of my to-do list. However, last year I got a jump start when my sweet niece asked me to paint her portrait for her birthday. An acceptable likeness here was mandatory, for an eight year old art critic does not mince her words.

Who wouldn’t want to paint her portrait?

And so for love of Mary Hannah I took a figure drawing class.  After each three hour drawing class I was so exhausted I immediately went home and and took a  a nap. At the end of the class I felt I had learned a lot, but still needed lots of guidance. When I drew I could sometimes see that something was wrong but didn’t know what it was, or how to fix it.  I knew I would have to continue to draw in order to learn. When Mary Hannah came to town this summer, she saw the sketches I had made of her from photographs. She immediately began to change them to her own satisfaction. I would count her now as a satisfied customer.

Mary Hannah makes adjustments on my sketches.

And she even did a sketch of me!

But what about getting back to painting?  What about making a nice messy palette filled with exciting color combinations? What about dipping a brush into one of the dabs of color and watching it come alive on the canvas? What about stepping away from the canvas and waiting for your heart to tell you what needs to come next?  And what about the chance to learn to do all these things while knowing what I was doing?

One morning after a jangling dream in which I was a kindergarten teacher with 50 students, I pored over the latest circular from Flicker Street Art Studio where I had taken my drawing class. I knew what the dream meant; I was taking care of everyone else except myself. It was time to take the plunge and paint.

Taking the class meant six weeks of rushing out of work at the exact time the class began in order to race across town  and be only twenty minutes late. It meant cramming some sort of tortilla wrap in my mouth  and washing it down with a bottle of water during said racing. But I got there, and the kind Melissa Dunn, our instructor, was ready to catch me up to the rest of the class.

Melissa, a working artist whose studio blog is linked above, made a welcoming environment for the hesitant soul such as myself.  My anxieties  vanished after the first class when I saw that Melissa while providing correct instruction also urged  us to listen to our own instincts. ( Note: unlike Sister Claire Marie.) I am just sure I appeared poised and composed on the outside – ahem – but inside I was grinning like the silliest clown in the world! I was doing it! I was painting! You complete me!

Friday, the day after our last class,  still thinking of the emotional fullness that comes with creativity, I ran quite accidentally across the following words by John O’Donahue:

“Each of us is an artist of our days; the greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become.”

I don’t have to be a professional artist, but I do have to listen to the part of me that needs to  imagine and create. I may not know much about painting yet, but I know I can let myself take a class when I want to.  I am the only one who can be an artist of my own  days. I know I won’t regret it.