I spent yesterday learning bollywood-style choreography, hosting/taking an intense workshop on the touch drawing technique, and wildly spinning to amazing fiddle music at the contra dance. There was hardly a moment to take a breath, but while my body made hand mudras and shimmied my shoulders, pressed ink into paper, and twirled in the arms of my dance partners, my mind doggedly pursued the same topic it’s been tumbling for weeks now. Weeks of making art and writing papers, studying for exams and curing hundreds of bars of soap, visiting family and holding babies and blending body butters and solid perfumes, watching plans coalesce and unravel, feeling by turns utterly filled and completely devastated–I’ve been thinking about what’s beneath it all.
All of these different layers of self—the ones that come out at family dinners, the ones represented by the photographs we throw away and the poems that would embarrass us horribly if they ever came to light. The parts we claim and don’t claim. The parts we don’t even notice—the way our walk differs from everyone else’s, or what incites us to love, or why certain colors or sounds induce longing.
It strikes me that the ones who inspire me, my dearest friends and deepest teachers, are the ones who live frighteningly close to the surface. We feel EVERYTHING. It can be called sensitivity, touchiness, flakiness, vulnerability, mental illness, intuition, creativity, genius….so many of us who are this open to the world end up broken by it, submerged in depression or mania or something in between; so many of us develop addictions as ways of dulling this excruciating sensitivity. Some of our addictions are benign—too many cups of sugared tea—and some kill us. All are ways of tuning out, because our default setting is so very very tuned in.
But some of us manage to shift our value system, to see this burden as a gift. We decide to highly prize experience and sensitivity. We linger over every new idea, every scent, every painful and deeply felt emotion. We let ourselves grieve in every color over situations that others seem not even to notice.
And lately I have learned something—we ALL notice. All of us are born this close to the surface. It’s just that some of us hide it better than others, and some of us dull it away with behaviors or time or routines. I haven’t managed to hide mine. Or, perhaps, I have, by building my life around it.
At the touch drawing workshop, beautifully facilitated by Katrina Plato, we were urged to ask questions and let the drawings answer. I drew with closed eyes, on tissue paper that had been laid over rolled paint, so that the pressure of my fingers and elbows and hands marked the page. When my eyes opened I would quickly lift the drawing and begin a new one. I made 31 drawings in this way. They cycled through downcast faces, trees, weeping eyes, dancing women, ambiguous swirls, and back to downcast faces. Some of them terrified me.
In the end we were asked to quickly number and title our drawings, keeping them in sequence so that they could tell an unfolding story. There was one disturbing series that I titled “Croesus” for no particular reason. When I came home I read about Croesus and learned this:
Croesus was a spectacularly wealthy king crowned in 560 BC. He reigned at a time when the once powerful Ionian cities were falling to the Persians in Anatolia. He asked the oracle at Delphi if he should go to war; the oracles answered that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.
The empire, of course, turned out to be his own, and Croesus was burned alive. Some stories relate that as he burned, he cried out ‘Solon!’ three times–Solon, a poet and reformer who had warned the king that good fortune is fickle.
Terrible as that is, this is the story that broke my heart: There was a Phrygian prince called Adrastus, a young man who had been exiled for accidentally killing his own brother. Croesus took pity on Adrastus and offered him refuge. Adrastus thanked him by accidentally killing Croesus’ only son, Atys. (what is it Maya Angelou said? when someone shows you who they are for the first time, believe them.)
It is so hard for me to come to terms with this, that our very mercy, our desire to do good, can be the vehicle of our destruction–that sometimes there is no reason, no redemption, only terrible waste. I know that it is true and I do not know how to make peace with it. But boy oh boy did it answer my question! Art amazes me in this way, in its power to coax out meaning, and in doing so, to heal.
Because it does heal. I have to remind myself of this; it is easy to think of expressive arts as ‘soft’ therapy, useless in times of real trauma, self-indulgent when there are so many who need water or light or, I don’t know, stitches.
But I had a dream several nights ago in which I lay beneath the ocean floor and looked up through layers of oddly warm water. Fish of every color swam urgently past and then a whale, slowly, looking straight into my eyes. And then another. I was pinned there, beneath the water and between the unyielding gazes of these beautiful, sincere creatures trying fiercely to communicate something of extreme importance. I saw a leaf catch fire at the corner of my eye and felt an overwhelming and inexplicable sadness.
When I woke , I saw my friend Zoe’s partially painted canvas. She’d left it with me, urging me to either paint over it or complete it, and so I began painting.
I did not know I would paint my dream–not until the next morning. After painting on and off for several hours, I could see that I was painting about Fukushima and my deep despair over what is happening in the oceans of this world. And then I saw that my friend Zoe, who speaks fluent Japanese and studied papermaking in Japan, who practices acupuncture and shiatsu, was all over the canvas: layers of handmade paper torn up and collaged, points of light swirling along the meridians of the ocean as if to diagram its acupuncture points, underlying colors and depth she had left there for me.
Everything is a dialogue. I am never in this alone, and neither are you. When I finished that painting I felt emptied out—there was so much grief I did not know I’d been holding. But I also felt held, by my friend, and by the simple loving craft of papermaking, and by the power of acupuncture, by all of the good and beautiful things we humans have done. Held by the mystery of it all, the mystery that is so much larger than my sadness or my dream or my vision. Held by my own sensitivity, that is willing to open me to so much in this world that could hurt, and that defies explanation, but is willing all the same.
It is good journeying with you all. Thank you for your own willingness to live close to the surface of things, your bravery in feeling everything, the way you communicate what you’ve learned to the rest of us. That’s an answer right there.