Last year was quite an adventure. Everything I dreamt about when I got in touch with my dreams, during my exchange year in Switzerland, so many years ago. Safe here in my sacred art space and studio, painting away.
I also had the privilege to spend art time with many students of core art, holding the space for them to explore their own way of making art in the moment.
But no writing. Not one poem, all year.
By December I felt congested and blurry. I spent most of the Christmas break writing and reconnecting with myself. Poetry helped me find my way back. It hit me today, after all this time spent writing and painting, that what I most need to feel loved, is to spend one on one time with my love. This goes for my relationship to me as well.
Somehow, having spent so many years writing for a reason: for healing; for articles; for connection; for insights – I had missed the most crucial part. Writing, for me, is an act of self-love. It is a very precise way of listening to the moment and describing it, of looking at myself, my life, my emotions with kindness and deep honesty. There is no desired end result, no agenda, no gain. Just the act of reaching out, spending time with the person I am in that moment.
So, I wanted to ask you, in turn:
What makes you feel loved?
How could you give yourself [more of] that, whatever it is, today?
The process of creating transformative art; a backstory
The big painting has been stuck for a week, almost. I have been gazing, staring, willing it to move. Even dabbing it gingerly with a brushful of transparent red iron oxide. All to no avail.
Until, as so often happens, when I start to focus on a new painting project, the deepening experiences start piling up. When I was in Scotland, re-experiencing Crimson Circle’s SES workshop, I wondered a bit that my mother and my relationship to her did not come up. Ah well.
This week on my birthday, my mother called me. I hadn’t talked to her in three months. At eight in the morning, she was drunk. I listened to her slurry, wobbly words, as always wondering at how the alcohol could completely deprive them of meaning for me, despite her telling me that I was a beloved, expected child. As she talked, I was revising my plan for the day. Usually, when I am in touch with my mother these days, deep emotions may start arising and spread outside my control.
That day I was supposed to lead a core art workshop in drawing. These workshops are intense and require my deep presence as well as all my abilities. I was already in Rastila, waiting for my core art students, scent of coffee in the air. The open art studio was starting in an hour and the first student would arrive any minute.
I suggested to my mother that we meet, but she said she was injured some way and could not move. Alarmed I asked if she needed help and became even more alarmed when my proud mother said yes. Again, thoughts racing, planning, moving the components of the day this way and that, I asked if she needed help acutely and if I was to come to her. When she laughed resentfully and said no, I asked if I could call after work and said I’m here for her. Grating some more piercing laughter, I heard in her voice, this was not good. I ended the call as swiftly as I could.
Diving into the challenge
“Well, happy birthday to me.” I thought bitterly right after the call.
Then I noticed the oozing touch of self-pity and asked myself what I needed. Eating a bit, drinking something hot, doing some deep breathing, I did what I do well; I carefully compartmentalized the little girl inside of myself and the art teacher part of myself in different boxes. While I knew from experience that I would later pay the price of this, at that moment keeping my promises and taking responsibility for all different roles and parts of my life seemed to be of utmost importance.
Although I felt sad and worried during the day, momentarily distracted, always bringing myself back to the present, the core art workshop was gentle, flowing and even fun at times. Once again I was amazed at the power of art, self-made or enjoyed, to transform anything. What I was less aware of, was the automatic mode I was in – I can carry anything, I can pay this bill, I can afford this, I will carry this [for you] because I can.
During my breaks I was in touch with the Engineer and with my dad, so I could get the necessary information and organize the rescue mission of the evening. After work, I and the Engineer went to my mom’s with two bags of groceries to see what kind of situation she had. In the car, I could feel emotion swirl around in my body. Old, familiar poison. My mind was full of thoughts I recognized. I told the Engineer that voicing those thoughts would only increase the emotion and drama I was aware of inside of me. I felt helpless. When we came to my mother’s apartment building I was relieved to see the building door was open, because I couldn’t get a hold of her on the phone. We rang and rang the doorbell. She didn’t open the door. Her neighbours said she hadn’t been home for days. She still didn’t answer her phone. We left the non-perishables behind the door and got into the car.
In the car, my body started trembling. I asked the Engineer if we could stop at a drive through, so I could have a sugary drink and something to eat. That would bring some balance and stability into the moment. The kids were waiting at home for night time stories and the rituals of going to bed. I cherished each bite of the hamburger, sitting beside my husband, each ketchup filled bite. The junk food fit my inside state.
The next morning when I woke up, I had a text message on my phone: “Thank you for the food. Very kind. Give me your account number and I will reimburse you. I am not available tomorrow, I am at a retreat. Hug.”
This is when I snapped.
The visible effects of emotional radiation started. I felt my shoulder blade area shut down completely, as if someone had stitched iron wire throughout my skin and muscles. The thoughts of self-hatred started gushing forth in a never ending stream. Anxiety made it hard to breathe fully. Deep currents of self-doubt ran through my mind, doubting everything from my skills, to my life choices, to my right to exist. Tears started flowing at unpredictable intervals. I staid in bed, lifting any part of my body felt like an insurmountable task.
While I rationally knew that this was an automatic reaction to the interaction with my mother, based on deep patterns unresolved, it was hard to keep on breathing, keep on functioning. In these situations I would love to be able to be calm, collected, instantly healing myself in some deep mystical or instant way. Instead, in the midst of the considerable inner pain, concepts of self-love feel abstract and unreachable. So I attempted to just be aware of what was happening inside of me, not trying to change anything, concentrating on breathing, letting the painful emotions move through me like weather and tried my best to not hold on to any of the venom that was flowing through me.
When the Engineer came home at five p.m. I went to sleep and slept through the night.
What was different this time?
For someone who has never lived with an alcoholic, this reaction may seem way overblown. For me, it’s automatic. Through the years, my needs have had to wait and the needs of my mother have come first. Still, one day a year, on my birthday, there is the expectation that it is my day, something for me. Instead, I spent the whole of my birthday, trying to help my drunk mother, calling forth the emotional reality that was my norm for so long.
Discerning between self-pity and self-compassion has been a challenge for me. Yesterday, someone said: “I wish you would always feel appreciated and loved.”
That moment I realized, the only person who can give me that kind of stability is me. Today, after another twelve hours of sleep, I think the biggest difference between self-compassion and self-pity, for me, are boundaries. After experiencing her twenty years of full blown alcoholism, I have still longed so much for a nugget of love from the mother I once knew, that although I have put my children’s needs before her needs, I have always put myself aside.
I have never said: It is more important that I love me and care for me than that I please my mother and father. Not for my children, for my family, for my relationships. For me. Just for myself.
The practicality of loving self
In conclusion, I am here, sitting with the part of myself who resists the thought of drawing boundaries. Life is clearly showing me the need to do so. To say a clear yes and no to how I choose to be treated. The little girl part of me is saying: “But I want myself to love my mother, the way I used to love her. But I want us all to be friends. I want love to be the norm. I want to be gentle, kind and smiling. I am afraid of what will happen if I am not.”
And I ask in return: “Who am I to think I know what other people need? Who am I to say that the minuscule connection I have to my mother is wrong? Who am I to judge how other people create their lives, to criticize what they choose? The only thing that IS my responsibility is choosing whether I want to participate, to choose how I am willing to be treated. And THAT is done by learning what my boundaries are and then expressing them.”
Self-pity is allowing myself to be badly treated, and complaining, heaping on blame and suffering afterwards. Self-compassion is saying: This is not okay.
From life to painting to life again
What I’m learning, already, from this painting project is that loving myself actively doesn’t make life easier, exactly. It doesn’t decrease my sensitivity, or remove the pain from a difficult experience. What it does is increase my sense of being alive, of having a right to simply experience what I do, as I do. With support and love, whatever comes next. When I allow myself to get lost, in my life, inside myself, I find areas and solutions that I haven’t found before.
The adventure of self-love continues. Yesterday, after coming home from meeting my work counsellor and seeing an artist friend, I updated this illustration. I don’t think the problem with loving ourselves is the self-care, as much as what happens within, when we do care for ourselves and our boundaries.
Setting boundaries is scary. We only ever see the surface of the people who set their boundaries for us. But when we do it, lots of stuff happens inside.
For me, saying no is often accompanied with a sensation of nausea, guilt, endlessly questioning whether I did the right thing and if I hurt the other.
As for the acrylic part of the project, here is the big, first acrylic painting in the Getting Lost in Landscapes of Self-Love on the right. On the left is its little sister, called “Loving Self”, from my last show.
Now, I’m going to tidy up my studio, to make room for clients and more painting. Thanks for following this winding path, as I find my way, impulse by impulse, into this new project.
Self-love skill number two. Saying no appropriately.
Man, how I struggle with this one. There’s saying it, of course. Hard at times, almost impossible at others.
But before you can say no, you have to be able to feel into what you really really want. Yes or no. You have to be able to say, I’ll come back to you, I’ll think about it for a while.
You need to accept, appreciate and allow your preferences.
Then, you may need to calmly say no thank you. Sometimes forcefully.
So, the practice continues. 🙂
Oh, and what do self-love skills have to do with creativity? My current experience is that the more I make art, the more productive I am, the more time I need for empty space time, bupkis days, taking care of my needs. It’s all part of the whole of creative work. Although the final act of creation may be fast and expressive, what makes that possible is sometimes a lot of time spent incubating, ruminating and in general just containing different kinds of tension.
This means I need to carve out that time by saying no. A lot. Trust the process, trust the need for this time, trust myself.
Sometimes saying no to the outside world is saying yes to your own art, whatever its expression.
What can you say no to today, as a way of practising self-love?
Back from Scotland and my adventures into the mystery of loving self. Things keep getting more hectic here on our planet, more turbulent. I felt an updated skill set in caring for myself would be appropriate. I’m glad I did.
Edinburgh was a beautiful place where it was easy to breathe deeply. I came back with lots of inner space and a collection of non-verbal, not yet painted experiences.
I’ve always thought loving ourselves is a pretty abstract concept. Easy to think and talk about, harder to practice. A quick google search seems to indicate it isn’t an easy concept generally speaking.
It seems to me, loving ourselves is something to be practised, day by day. This way it does increase, helping us to keep center in this ever-changing world of ours.
So while I’m painting my huge paintings around this theme, here in my studio, I thought I would ask my inner crew to give me something more tangible, that can be shared now.
I asked my friends: What is implemented self-love? Here’s the first illustration, T. and Fant style.
This morning I was feeling pretty much like this picture. Do you ever feel like this?
When I came back from taking the kids to school, I went straight to my Dragon’s Lair, that’s starting to come along pretty nicely. I moved things around, taped a new series on the board in preparation, drew myself into my core again.
Not much time away from the To Do List, but time enough for clarity.
The ones of you, my dear readers, who have followed this blog for a while know that in 2010 I decided to take on the tyranny of my own beliefs, internalized from well meaning parents, peers and art school. These were beliefs that in unending circles spouted out shoulds, musts and not good enoughs.
At this time my daughter was on her second year and I realized the return to work was imminent. Were I to ever have time to be a full time artist, it was time to start making some art – any art, no excuses.
The three guiding principles that allowed me to break free from my self-imposed prison of shame, self-doubt, creative blocks and resistance were:
1. Easy access to the act of creation.
2. Create something every day.
3. No need to plan, know or understand, just start playfully.
Four and a half years have passed. During these years I’ve created more than ever before. I’ve also been suffering less than ever before in my life.
But, coming back from Switzerland, about four weeks ago, it seemed I had to work at squeezing myself into the life that just a week ago had seemed wonderful. I felt like an ocean that tried to squeeze itself into the utensils drawer. So many tiny compartments. So little space for expansive processes and uninterrupted time.
Time for a change.
After a few weeks of uncomfortable fidgeting and some simple structural changes, an opportunity presented itself. A storage space, close by, reasonable rent. Easy peasy?
The vulnerability of a shining core
Again and again, I’m surprised, inside myself and in working with my clients, of the kind of strength and vulnerability core desires exude. This past week, I have gathered thought books, pastels, art works from every nook and cranny in our home, in the Engineer’s office, in the far reaches of closets, behind photographs, in the high kitchen cupboards. Tear inducing work. I have been trembling so my bones are shaking, in order to encompass the enormity of what I am allowing myself to do and become.
I never imagined I had created this much. The tendrils of my most protected and naked core dreams have reached all through our home, until they simply did not fit anymore. Time for the dream to move out from the cocoon of our home.
Flashback to eighteen years ago. I had finished High School, with excellent grades. I felt I had earned the right to make independent decisions and although I attended entrance exams at the University of Helsinki, mainly to please my father, I was seeking other options. When I found a school that combined an intensive year long visual art and writing class, I knew it was the right thing for me. The fact that they rented a room I could live in just made the whole thing better.
I applied for a job at a shopping mall, as a cashier, and got it. Having secured a place of study, a home of my own and a job to finance it all, I presented the plan to my father. He took one look at the curriculum, at the price and said:
“Marie, this is the worst mistake of your life. You will regret this.”
So I went and did it anyway.
Taking permission to do what makes life alive
Dreams do not make life easy.
They’re not supposed to.
In fact, the transformational work that is included in any dream from the core will probably bring up everything we are hiding from ourselves to the surface.
Dreams do not [necessarily] bring in millions, or even enough to pay the rent at first.
There are no guarantees. Hard times may be ahead. This is not for wimps.
Proceed only with awareness, gentleness and support.
This is why rational minded people try their best to steer us away from dreaming in the first place. My beloved Dad was absolutely. Completely. Right.
Not when he said I would regret my decision to pursue art.
Just definitely when he said I was choosing a spiralling, backward, hard path, when I could have just driven on the highway [to a well paying job]. He was being the stern parent out of love and concern for me. He could not see into my soul. He did not see the reality of impending death that was driving me. Every road that lead toward deadening myself was too expensive to contemplate.
No money in this world can buy aliveness. The aliveness of a bungee jump lasts for a few seconds, jumping with a parachute, it lasts a little longer. But the skin caressing, soul squeezing, heart pumping aliveness that comes from bringing alive a core dream expands with each step. You just may end up with a life worth living.
If you wouldn’t have to
plan or understand
your dream on a rational level, yet, which next step toward your dream beckons to you?
I was out meeting my accountant today. Things are moving in my company and we were crunching the numbers to see how everything adds up. My book keeper is gentle as a doe, yet I walked away from my encounter both weary and overwhelmed. The urge to make art, create, move hearts and energy, transform creative blocks with freedom and exuberance seems to mix poorly with numbers.
Somewhat later, I talked to a friend. She asked me:
“What would you and your family look like, if you hadn’t been making art all of these years”?
This image immediately popped to mind. My parallel future self, without the presence of transformative art making, would be an obese therapist, listening to everyone else instead of creating herself.
Images of my husband working full time at some nameless company (because when you don’t have time for your art, giving it to someone else becomes verrrry hard), imbalances in my relationships with the kids, all the shopping I would do to make up for the lack of direct creativity flashed through my mind. Then I remembered.
Some years ago I was studying expressive art therapy. During those studies we were required to engage in therapy of our own. At one moment there, painting a sky big and blue, talking to the therapist, I had the clearest flash of insight; studying expressive art therapy was the perfect compromise for the little girl caught in between mommy’s and daddy’s wishes for me. An academic degree (Dad) that incorporated the arts (Mom).
That moment and insight was a crossroad. I left my therapy studies (for the second time) and went on to pursue art making, for real.
That choice. Making art every day. Has transformed my life experience.
I’ve learned to stand and contain chaos, to let completely opposite feelings or concepts play with each other in the same space. Art has taught me to start where I am and say yes to whatever is born. Creating every day has taught me to trust the void of not knowing, lean into beliefs of uselessness and open up to uncertainty.
Without art my life would be more rational and controlled. And less alive.
If you would create something, just for you, today. What would it be? [mental note: the more useless, the better. You do not need to justify creating.]
By the way, the Engineer is so much more ruthless and so much better at standing this whining. But I’m doing my empath homework and getting better at it. Because, fast-forward about forty-five minutes and the living room is filled with laughter, instructions, crashing, running feet.
The sweetest music in the world. Born from the fertile soil of technology deprivation, boredom and the choice to create something new.
For about eight years, every work day in my life, every moment on my own, has been framed by the needs of my children and family.
This summer the boundaries of this framework are wider than every before. While the beaches are filling up with roasting people, our parallel insight stages of our creative processes have given rise to a new rhythm. One day with the kids, one day at the studio, one day with the whole family. Rinse and repeat.
And I am so grateful for the unyielding restrictions that have surrounded me until now. All this space is pretty terrifying. The need to fill it up with distractions is palpable.
Until I remember,
I don’t need to do anything.
It’s okay to walk from tea cup to tea kettle.
Listen to silence. Wiggle my toes. Eat a pistachio nut.
Feel my skin.
The impulse that leads me to the next step in the body of work before me always comes. The emptiness is like cold water that I dive into, head first and the initial shock jars me to my bones. No matter.