My tai chi group calls itself a practice. After our last two teachers moved away from the area, we decided to conduct our own sessions by working together and instructing each other. Two knowledgeable and generous souls have taken charge and kept us going, but all are invited to share what they know. I began to learn tai chi in order to improve my balance and because I loved the dancelike movements. I didn’t know how meditative this activity would prove to be or how much gratification I would receive from the support of like-minded people practicing an ancient Chinese art form on a regular basis.
Our routine has evolved into an hour and a quarter of warm-ups, chi gongs, the five elements, all the circle forms that we have learned thus far and those that we are still learning. We then break for conversation and a reading from a number of sources including “The Sage’s Tao Tai Ching, Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life,” by William Martin. What has proven most valuable to me, however, are the thoughtful inputs of so many very different people who have gathered for a purpose that elevates them both spiritually and physically.
Recently, we spoke at length about letting go. There was no need to define the concept or to provide directions. How we could achieve it was left to our own devises and there was a communal trust that each of us could do this in the same way that we could imagine the concept of embracing tiger and returning to mountain or we could bestow reality on the gesture of cloud hands and opening doors. We end our practice by dipping into the well of peace and sending peace to those around us and out into the world. This is creativity put to a purpose both ephemeral and enduring. I always leave our practice feeling nurtured and better able to conduct the other aspects of my creative life.
When my five children were at home, interruptions of my painting and writing time were the norm. A child would plunk down in the old leather chair in my office and breathe heavily until I acknowledged his or her presence; a teenager would need to do a load of laundry or want me to do it just as I’d become engrossed in a still life. Yes – there was a time when the washer and dryer were in my studio; another when I worked in the basement and had to move upstairs to escape ping-pong games. One summer I worked on a large triptych on the living area floor of our house at the beach. Kids jumping in and out of the Pawley Island hammock strung from the rafters didn’t deter me.
Though for years I’d dreamed about being able to work alone even for a little while, when the last child left for college I found myself unable to proceed without tensing for the very interruptions that I’d earlier complained about. Life was too quiet; I didn’t know how to adjust.
Now that I live entirely alone and have very few interruptions to challenge me I don’t seem to have the same gumption. It’s often as though the will to push forward is absent when there is nothing to push back. There is also no longer anyone to daily cheer me on as my husband used to do and no one to report my small triumphs to in the course of a work day. I have been getting used to the latter situation for quite a while, and in spite of the fact that I was prepared for it, I didn’t realize how deeply it would affect my entire process or how hard it would be to find the support I need within myself. I’m working on it. It is one of the many things I’ve been working on as I grow into this new phase of my life.
I have a storage locker full of my paintings. Other works cover my walls. When I moved to a smaller space, I sold, gave away, or threw things out with a heavy hand. Or so I thought at the time. I’m still discovering work that needs to go before I do.
There’s also a file cabinet full of rejected and unfinished manuscripts. At one time I winnowed those as well, and I’m about ready to do it again, but there is no way that I can part with all of it. Someday I will re-work that short story. A children’s book manuscript just has to be tweaked. And so it goes.
Now, when I decide to begin a new painting or manuscript, I’m sometimes stopped by two persistent questions that I hope to answer here: Is there really a need for another painting of my beloved rocks or the manuscript for a new novel? Do I have something to say that hasn’t been said before by someone else more talented than I am? I’m not certain that there is a definitive answer to either question, but after a long consultation with myself I have come to the comforting conclusion that it is my need that must be satisfied, my insatiable desire to catch that angle and cast of light, the expression on a particular face, or the fragile movement of a hand. My need also propels me to tell a meaningful story from a vantage point that is uniquely mine, with words that I choose carefully for their beauty, nuance, and power.
Many do not consider art of any kind to be a true necessity such as food, clothing, or shelter or a subject to be studied in the way that we do math and science. These people ignore the fact that the paintings and music of another time are also what we depend upon to form a picture and understanding of an era, a culture, a country.
It’s fair to say that most artists remain unrecognized throughout their lifetimes. Perhaps their work is seldom if ever seen at all. But though recognition from others is wonderful, inner recognition is fulfilling in itself and may be all we have. As Joy Halstead replied when I asked if she continued to maintain a feeling of artistic worth, What is artistic worth? I know I’m a good artist and some few others think so, too. My own feeling counts the most. It has to.
Who needs what we create at whatever age? We do. We need the process and what it promises over and over and over.
I recently sent off a new historical novel to my agent. Since then I’ve had periods when I feel as if I don’t know what to do with myself even though this was to have been a time when I’d be free to begin a new series of paintings. I keep putting obstacles in my path that make the transition from one art form to another difficult. Painting is messy, I tell myself; writing is neat and requires nothing but my mind, my research and my laptop. I miss my routine, my story, and especially my characters. I am homesick for the world in which I have lived with them for the past few years, the things they taught me about themselves and myself. I hope there will be a need for revisions and I can seriously meddle in these lives once again. I wonder if they miss me, if they feel abandoned. I wonder if it’s possible that they know who I am. And I wonder if I am a little crazy for embracing this imaginary world with such intensity that it has become a part of me.
The other day I ran across a comment by a writer who claimed to be suffering from post partum depression since finishing his book. As I see it, however, after the birth of a real baby you have something precious to hold. But after relinquishing the manuscript for a book and finishing any and all revisions, the next time you will meet the characters you’ve given life to will be upon the dry pages and within the hard covers of a book. They will never be as real to you or as dear as when they were in their infancy and you could help them change and grow.