The Gift of Solitude
It breaks my heart that California is burning in November. When I was in Oakland last month, I could already feel the parched air in my nose, and in how flatly my hair lay on my head. Here in Oregon, the forest fire smoke and record-breaking summer heat is now a faded, soggy memory. In fact, it seems like we’ve had the rain of an entire California winter already, and yet winter is still a month away. The spectacularly colored leaves, a scented candle, and my year-round strings of multi-colored lights keep me from getting too gloomy about all the gray. And in a few weeks I’ll have a dedicated art studio out back to keep me uplifted, surrounded by color, images, and random art supplies to share. Woohoo!
I’ve lived in Portland for over a year now. This virtual space has been rrreeaaallllyy quiet during that stretch, so here’s an update on the low-down from P-town.
So Busy Being Quiet and Still
I’ve had the sweet luxury in the past year of taking a prolonged recess from real life—or whatever you want to call the socially exalted American-style hustle of constant busy-ness that most of us are used to. (Addicted to?) I crawled pretty deeply into my shell, and reveled in the intimacy of my own thoughts. Turns out that my introverted little self was due for some serious down time. Months and months of it.
I was bone tired and didn’t even know it. Specifically, I was…
...Tired from 35 years in the labor force, doing work that—while very meaningful—put me in front of new groups of people constantly, sometimes all day every day, pretending to be way more outgoing than I really am. Exerting more social energy than was sustainable for my particular constitution. Mostly unaware of the toll it was taking.
...Exhausted from 25 years of parenting. No, I wouldn’t trade it for anything—love you, Elena and Natalie!—but let’s be real: being a mom is not easy. It’s physically demanding and emotionally consuming. My message to all mothers: Let’s be gentle with ourselves and each other. We’re doing the best we can and that’s enough.
...Worn out from all the times I betrayed myself in order to be nice. Because I was conditioned to be a good girl, and not to offend, and to be ever patient. And because I hate disappointing people. And because I lacked boundaries and the will to enforce them. (Don’t worry: I’m basically a kind person and I’m not faking it when I’m nice to you.)
...Politically beaten down. No explanation needed.
So I've spent days/weeks/months thinking and reading and doodling and writing and processing and feeling all the feels, sometimes sitting on the couch staring into space for half an hour when I need to. Painting. Taking walks. Taking naps.
To balance all the stillness, I’ve taken up yoga and Pilates, which both feel like deep self-care—profound acts of loving maintenance for this vessel that’s done such a good job carrying me through these first 53 years of life. And I dance, for the joy. (In addition to hiphop, I’ve recently added flamenco to my week. And to practice what I preach about the importance of sharing your art, even when it feels wobbly and unpolished and not very art-like, I’ll be in a performance soon, one that even requires tickets to attend!)
The solitude has been delicious, even when sorrow creeps in.
It’s both beautiful and unsettling, what surfaces when we slow down and get quiet for a while. I wish this on everyone: time to process even a fraction of the emotional activity that we routinely squash down or postpone, because we’re already late for the next thing. It’s important to our collective health that we take time to think, and write in our journals, and have the conversations we need to be having.
(Here is more inspiration for slowing down, from the wise Danielle LaPorte.)
I wish down time especially for You, you hard-working, sensitive, creative soul. You could really use a break, and a dose of silence. All the space for contemplation that you need. Rest for your body and your heart.
This gift of time for silent contemplation was brought to me by...
How was this break from the hustle-bustle even possible? you might be asking. Here’s how:
1. My partner shares the housework and accepts my level of activity or inactivity without judgment. (He’s also been gracious about my use of the dining room as my “studio” while our garage is being converted.)
2. It’s been easy to fly under the radar socially, since I don’t know very many people here yet.
3. I’m an empty-nester, with two kids out functioning independently in the world. We’re tethered by modern communication technology in between the real-life visits we all look forward to.
Basically, I’m pretty much only in charge of myself.
And here’s the biggest factor: Hard as it was to leave my Oakland-area friends, neighbors, and favorite local spots (and sports!), that move lifted a ton of financial pressure off my back. I can’t overstate the mental relief of being debt-free and having some moolah in the bank. I’m extremely fortunate, even if it's temporary. My status as a homeowner moving from a very expensive place to a moderately expensive place made it possible, no question.
That leads to this.
Our home is near a formerly red-lined neighborhood of Portland that used to be mostly African-American, but is now hip and majority white. I think about that most every day—my privilege, and gentrification, and the history of policies and precedents that conspired to allow me to enjoy housing security when so many others don’t. The least I can do is get involved in my community. So I collaborated on a swirly mosaic mural with hand-painted tiles made by seniors and kids and other neighbors last winter, in a nearby community center basement. And came out of my cocoon this past summer to organize a block party on our street, and to plan an intersection street mural with my neighbors. And I’m excited to offer art workshops again, when my studio is finished. I’m interested in connecting with local communities of color that may not have access to creative spaces, and becoming an accessible space for them. Because: inequality. Because: trauma. Because: art heals. Because: I can.
Also true: Adjusting to this level of freedom came with a hefty dose of guilt and embarrassment about not being a “real” adult. I wake up without an alarm clock, usually between 8:30 and 9:30 am, and I don’t have a normal job to hustle off to and stress about. Almost every day, I get to decide how to use my time.
I worry about appearing lazy and directionless (despite the impression my Instagram feed gives*), though to exactly whom, I’m not sure.
I want to make the most of it.
“It” being this gift of time and space. And agency and education and freedom. And health and mobility. And communication skills plus the technology to share them. The pleasure of crafting each day the way I want to. It’s a magical set of conditions that few women in the history of the world have ever experienced. Let that sink in for a minute, and you’ll understand the small fire that’s been lit under me!
More about the fire (the one in my belly, that is).
During the early months of my geographical transition, even as I was scouting out places to salvage tile and art materials (as though I’d be living the same life in a different place), a quiet, recurring thought entered my head: Maybe all the mural work I did over the past decade was my Oakland thing. Maybe Portland holds something new.
I’d given myself a year to not hustle up gigs, and instead to work on writing projects that had been on my back burner. And I decided to be open to my next thing, whatever that was going to look like. (Because, just as I’m learning to not judge myself for getting up at 9:00 am, I’m working on seeing the shifts in my professional direction not as “flighty” or “dilettantish” or “scattered” or “indecisive” but as staying current with my curiosity and in tune with my inner compass.)
So I spent time nearly every day writing about whatever topics interested me. I kept reading and thinking and doodling and painting and exploring and writing more and more, until the thing emerged. Which it did, one ordinary day in late July.
This thing—the project that’s been consuming most of my bandwidth since the day it appeared in my brain—is a book I’ve started to compile, aimed at supporting teens and young adults in navigating this crazy, stressful world they are inheriting. It will be a collection of stories about healing, healthy strategies for processing emotions, ideas for fostering positive relationships—with ourselves most of all, and with others, and with our planet. The important things we don’t always learn in school. All the stuff I’ve been wrestling with, to make sense of my own history, and my ongoing daily experiences. A mix of modern research, ancient wisdom, and honest talk about things that are hard to talk about—and therefore easy to avoid dealing with.
My daughters and nieces and their friends inspired the effort, and Elena has signed on as my co-conspirator. 🙂 The enthusiasm of these young people to see the book materialize is keeping me at it. I’m detecting in them a thirst for understanding, a desire to be taken seriously, and a deep longing for connection.
Spoiler alert: It’s shaping up to be a handbook about LOVE. Yep, because that’s what I’m most determined to figure out: What is it? What isn’t it, even when it says it is? What does it look like in parenting, in intimate partnerships, in schools, at work, in politics? There is nothing more central to our healthy human existence than love (also called connection). And yet it feels like our culture has lost sight of this simple truth. Love is completely absent from our current political agenda. The lack of it is behind every mass shooting, every teen suicide, every addictive behavior, every reckless pursuit of wealth and power and dominance of one group over another.
It seems like a situation worth examining, no? A useful skill, this knowing how to love. Let’s figure out how to get better at it.
I’m certain that I’ll be the one to benefit the most from this project, because what I’m really doing is working through my own sh*t. And that, my friends, is the true value of making art.
Speaking of which, I’m in the process of updating my All Hands Art website, as well as the way I talk about what I do. Yes, I still love getting my hands messy with paint, and with thin set mortar, and I want you to do it with me! I’ll still be leading art workshops. I’ll continue hawking my whimsical paintings and up cycled wares at select events and venues. I’m—even today!—working on a mural project, and I’m staying open to doing more of them. But my definition of Art has broadened to include writing, and dancing, and all the small, everyday acts of thoughtfully creating the life you were made to live. Even when that keeps shifting, like mine does.
Because choosing a life that reflects your true self is the greatest artistic endeavor of all. AND it's a beautiful act of love.
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Ok, your turn! I’d love to hear what artwork you’re making out of your life. What’s lighting a fire under you these days? Please share — you’re sure to inspire someone else when you do.
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*I’m reevaluating how I show up on social media, because when I see people in real life, they often exclaim about how busy and what a world traveler I am! I tell them, I’m actually an extreme homebody. 90% of the time I'm sitting at the cluttered dining room table tapping computer keys or scribbling in doodle journals, or reading on the couch, wearing the same baggy paint-stained yoga pants and sweatshirt day after day, being mundanely unphotogenic. 5% of the time I’m exercising, 3% I’m running errands, and 2% of my life I’m doing something that would appear interesting to someone watching me. It’s a jarring reminder of how out of context our curated, photographed selves are from our actual lives. I don’t want to contribute to other people’s social media anxiety by appearing more exciting than I am. But I do like putting color and beauty and inspiration out into the world… Still trying to figure this out.