Smoking and Masochism

Smoking and Masochism

June 22, 2018

It’s late, 1:30 in the morning, and for some reason, I couldn’t get right to sleep when I went to bed at midnight. I decided to get up and smoke a lot of weed to knock me out so I could get to sleep. But I guess I didn’t smoke enough because instead of passing out I’m getting ideas. Like what I need to do to continue to feel motivated enough to go through the pain of quitting smoking cigarettes. I need to do a little of what Jane does, and limit the number of cigarettes I smoke to only those that give me a great deal of pleasure, enough to be worth all the misery it causes me each and every time I light up and lots of time between smokes too, when I’m coughing up shit or out of breath or shaming myself, or disgusted by the sight, smell, and taste of cigarette smoke, ashes, and butts. Basically, the pleasure I get is in fidgeting with the cigarette, sucking on it, flicking the ashes, and enjoying the time I take out of my life when I’m alone to just smoke it, doing little if anything else while smoking. It’s a time killer and for some reason, while I’m in Greece, I felt the need for an implement to help me kill time. I guess I have a lot more time on my hands in Greece than I’d had in Israel and in the U.S. Or I need help to kill time and before I was perfectly capable of killing time on my own. In any case, smoking no longer gives me enough pleasure to outweigh its misery. I don’t really have much concern about health risks. I figure a smoker who starts at my age can probably outlive the health risks, but maybe that’s erroneous thinking. Perhaps the aged body is more fragile, less resilient than the younger body and hence more likely to quickly register the toxic effects of ingesting tobacco and other chemical additives, vapors, smoke, tar, all that bad stuff.

So the idea is to limit my cigarettes to only those that are truly pleasurable. The ones with no feelings of sickness, neither physical nor emotional. If, in a couple of weeks, I’m still smoking too much, which would be more than 5 a day, I would limit myself to only the top 5. I mean, the point is, I don’t think there’s even one cigarette that’s really enjoyable for me, that doesn’t taste or smell absolutely disgusting and look disgusting when it’s been smoked—the ashes and butts. I could easily remind myself of how disgusted I feel by carrying around a plastic bag of wet butts and ashes. That’s what Barbara did when she was ready to quit smoking. And I remember someone else, Vicky, told me about keeping a jar of wet butts in the kitchen, and taking a sniff whenever her resolve threatened to falter. I tried that for a while, but never unscrewed the lid to smell the stench, so I wonder if I’d unscrew this time around in order to stiffen my fortitude. I’ll probably have to do both the bag and the jar. As well as my old standby, prayer.

The big question is, should I turn over this new leaf right now, tonight, or wait until I’ve had my night’s sleep and the sun is up on a new day. I’ve been struggling all through the writing of this piece to not quit writing and get up and go out on the verandah (to where I’ve banished my smoking self ) and smoke a cigarette, which I could easily do within the parameters of the program I’ve set up if I truly anticipated that this smoking a cigarette would, in fact, be an experience of pleasure for me. I know, however, that whatever pleasure I get from the physical sensations of fidgeting, playing with the ash and taking long, deep sucks on the cancer stick pales when compared to the shame, fear, and sensory disgust I will experience. So I might as well quit tonight. And just go to bed, which is how this whole thing started in the first place. If I was asleep, I wouldn’t have to deal with the monkey on my back, this masochistic obsession. But in order to make the transition to bed, I’ll just have one last cigarette out on the verandah.

****. *****. ***…..

And here I am, July 9th, re-reading this post and realizing I played the same drama again last night, vowing to quit this morning and go out in a cloud of smoke, as Jane said. But I didn’t. I didn’t give her the pack of cigarettes when she dropped me in front of my house and when she didn’t ask, I considered it a sign from God that I wasn’t quite ready yet.




Voice is the theme. First there’s voice as in singing and all the story for me behind that. Then there’s voice as a writer, and the story there. And of course, there’s voices, as in the voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough, too fat, too old. Should I choose one or just go with all three? I’ll start with singing and find out where it takes me.

Even as a child, I’d wanted to be a singer. When I was young, I had terrible stomach cramps on a regular basis and after much examination by physicians, it was determined that these cramps were due to gas bubbles, from gasping air instead of breathing properly. So it was suggested that I be enrolled in voice lessons. I was thrilled, and went weekly to the home of my neighbor, Mrs. Stauf. Mrs. Stauf was an old-fashioned, stuffy singing teacher, who had a doorbell in the shape of a treble staff, and answered her telephone with a melodious hel-lo-o, an ascending descending set of triplets.

I’d previously studied piano with Mr. Frank, coming home weekly at lunchtime from my neighborhood school where I was in 2nd grade, to gulp down a bowl of Chef Boy-ar-Dee Ravioli in time for my lesson. I was not a good student, failing to have the patience to practice until the day before the lesson. Finally, he expelled me, telling my mother it was a waste of money. I loved playing the piano, but with extensive attention deficit disorder, was unable to sit myself down on the piano bench for more than a few minutes at a time before getting bored and distracted, and had already perfected the art of procrastination.

So voice lessons were traded for piano lessons and I was no better a student at the latter, except that I could sing the songs I liked while dancing around the house. But practicing breathing exercises or scales was not an option for me, and most of the songs I was supposed to practice I did not like. Mrs. Stauff was a classically trained vocalist and expected her students to master art songs and light opera pieces. I, on the other hand, was desperately in love with songs from musical theater, and yearned to sing numbers from The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls and West Side Story. Any song from West Side Story, but especially Tonight and I Feel Pretty and even When You’re a Jet. Mrs. Stauff and I struggled mightily over my repertoire and eventually compromised on one show tune per recital, the others having to be art songs and opera arias.

I planned concerts at home for the neighbors, selling tickets to parents and playmates alike, sitting at the piano and plunking the first note, continuing accapella with dance and gestures for the rest of the song. I especially remember my rendition of Surrey With the Fringe On Top, from my Rogers and Hammerstein songbook. I’ll never forget the isinglass windows you could roll right down in case there’s a change in the weather, although no one but me knew what isinglass meant.

I was an anxious kid, and often, right before one of Mrs. Stauf’s student recitals, parents and young girls crammed into folding chairs in Mrs. Stauf’s small cape cod living room where we took our lessons, lemonade and cookies on the dining table where the standing room audience stood, I would come down with a cold or cough, such that I couldn’t perform on the appointed day. This continued for several years without my parents discerning the pattern. I was always disappointed to miss the recital, but secretly relieved.

I needed lots of praise and recognition for my efforts and neither Mrs. Stauff nor my father were particularly encouraging of my abilities. Mrs. Stauff maintained that any person, including me, could be trained to sing well. My father repeatedly pointed out the odds against my ever becoming a professional singer. I wanted to hear people say that I was a natural talent. I felt demeaned by the philosophy that anyone could sing well if properly trained, if only they’d practice the right exercises with the right teacher. There were plenty of great singers, maybe not opera singers, but famous ones, who didn’t have to work so hard at it, I was sure. They just had the gift. I dreamed of auditioning for the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, commuting daily on the Long Island Railroad for my high school years. I never did apply to Juilliard, and rationalized that I’d only get sick just before the audition, so why bother. In my fantasies, however, Juilliard had indeed accepted me for an audition, but I would have gotten sick anyway and miss it.

I was a rebellious kid in high school but never hung out in the school grounds smoking a cigarette between classes because that would be bad for my voice. When I quit taking voice lessons in my junior year, I became an avid smoker. To hell with my vocal chords—useless instrument they turned out to be. But in college as a freshman, I auditioned and was accepted to play a part in the chorus of one of my all time favorite musicals, Camelot. It was a minor role, but as a freshman woman living in the dormitory in the days when colleges exerted in parentis loco over their undergraduate female students, I was granted fantastic privileges, given my own keycard for entry to the dorms after curfew, a privilege I abused whenever possible. After appearing in the play, my singing career came to an end. Forever, I had thought.

Twenty years later, I was a member of a fledgling havurah, a group of Jewish folks who gathered together more or less informally to celebrate the sabbath and holy days. We had managed to hire a student rabbi to assist us in our efforts one time per month and were preparing to celebrate the holiest of celebrations, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, for the first time as a congregation. A month before the High Holy Days, our student rabbi joined us for a shabbat service and heard me enthusiastically singing the prayers. In a Jewish service, many of the prayers are chanted musically, but our student rabbi was the first to admit she was not good at leading those prayers. She had a terrible voice, off-key and out of temp. After the Shabbat service, she approached me and asked if I would sit with her in the front of the congregation and help lead the High Holy Day services. I, of course, was delighted, but declined, being mostly illiterate in Hebrew and ignorant of the prayers of the services, even more so the tunes associated with them. She persevered, however, saying she would find resources for me and that I could invent tunes for the prayers she couldn’t teach me. Thus began my career as a cantor, the officiant of the tuneful parts of a Jewish service.

I prepared mostly by listening and singing along with a cassette tape of High Holy Days prayers taught by a non-traditional female cantor copied and given to me by a member of the havurah

Supplemented by tapes prepared by the student rabbi, either recorded by her fellow students in the seminary or by herself, I learned the tunes from the tapes, and if the singer was off key, I sang it off key, not aware of the problem. I used transliterated versions of Hebrew, frequently mispronouncing the words. And I created out of thin air chants and tunes for some prayers, having little idea of the meanings of what I was singing. Because I was only a mediocre, inconsistently good vocalist, but authentically myself with all my non-professional flaws, the members of the congregation felt free to contribute musically as well, especially because the tunes I chose were simple, folksy sorts of arrangements. They all sang out enthusiastically, several of the loudest and most enthusiastic, often off-key, but with their whole hearts. During services, their hearts opened and they were inspired. Throughout the fifteen years I served as cantor, the congregation grew into a full-service synagogue complete with Hebrew school and well over 100 families.

And then I left the congregation over a conflict I initiated.

Which could bring me directly to the voice in my head that says nasty things about me, but not yet.

Instead, I’ll explore the notion of voice as a writer and that story. The thing is, although I’m a good writer with a voice that invites engagement from the reader, I’m not an imaginative story-teller. In my stories, nothing much happens. It’s a pity, you know. A good writer ought to be a good story-teller, too. But that’s just that voice in my head.

Reflections on a Guided Journey

Reflections on a Guided Journey

I love that I named my blog Guide and Seek: Reflections on a Guided Journey, but haven’t yet addressed the topic of spirituality in the foregoing blog posts. Spirtuality’s no longer an everyday Practice for me anymore, because I’m not doing any of the spiritual observances with which I used to engage. Like prayer or meditation, observing kashrut dietary laws or Shabbat, making blessings or even immersing myself regularly, dutifully, in nature. I ask myself why, and my answers range from laziness all the way to almost but not quite, alienation. But wait. even as I write this post, I’m remembering a daily practice I have maintained, probably even strengthened, during my stay here on Paros. Every night before I go to sleep I give thanks to God for the day and it’s wonders. Which is not an insignificant spiritual Practice.

Somehow, I feel that my relationship with God has integrated into my life, merged, if you will, with who I am. Maybe God and me, maybe we’re married or long-time roomies, and an affectionate nightly check-in is all we need to keep the home fires burning.

I used to fancy myself some kind of a spiritual guide in my work both as psychotherapist and life coach, and of course, later when I studied to provide Jewish Spiritual Direction. I didn’t make excuses for using the God word and that sometimes attracted people with a fundamentalist streak, but I didn’t mind. I liked joining them in their passion and dedication and opening up more possibilities to live an expansive life of love instead of living obstructed in narrow places. They never even saw it coming! I can be a woman of profound influence, but only feel permission to use that influence when there’s a professional contract between us, a contract that is explicit in that the consumer of my professional services desires to be influenced by yours truly.

After I got divorced, the bottom fell out of my self-confidence and I no longer thought of myself as a wise elder, a wise woman. Who was I to advise or guide others on their spiritual journeys when I had aborted the sacrament of marriage, the most challenging of spiritual paths.? I felt lost and without purpose, no longer tethered to the path of making a marriage work, of loving unconditionally, no matter the toll it took on me. If I was more spiritually advanced, I told myself, the marriage wouldn’t have taken such a toll. I would have been more loving, accepting and detached from the triggers that brought out the worst in me. With the distance of a decade, I realize that the best I could do was, indeed, the best I could do; that I am better off no longer struggling to be satisfied with an unsatisfying situation. It took a while, but I do believe I’ve arrived at peace with the choice I made.

At the time I left the marriage, I also left my profession, my house and all my possessions, my community, my country, my children, and most of my family. I started over, twice, in fact, moving first to Israel for six years, and later to a small Greek island where I’ve lived four winters. Some say these were brave moves, but it takes courage to be brave and I hadn’t the need for courage to make those moves. I was propelled by curiosity and a sense of adventure, as well as a long-standing desire to live anywhere other than in America. I was perfectly content at the time to remain in Jerusalem and only after a 5 day end-of-May holiday on the island with my writing buddy from Jerusalem, did I decide I wanted to live on Paros during the “off season.” Ten months, from September to June. And somehow, that move has morphed into what is now three and a half years and no current desire to return either to Israel or to the U.S.

When I lived in Jerusalem, my observance of Jewish religious practices deepened but I felt no more connected to God than previously, when I was involved with Alanon, the period in my life when I was closest to God, and then later, as a spiritual leader, founder and musical prayer leader, of a Reconstructionist/Jewish Renewal synagogue in Madison, Wisconsin, In those days, my Jewish observance was lightweight, but the few practices I followed were meaningful to me. In Jerusalem, there was comfort as well as conflict in deepening my observance of Shabbat, the holy days, and everyday practices like kashrut. It was easy to be more observant, living in Jerusalem. I found congregations that were progressive in ways that mattered to me, such as how Shira Hadasha elevated the role of women in synagogue life, supported by radically feminist interpretations of Jewish law, Halacha. Yakar used feminist interpretations of Halacha to allow women intellectual leadership on an almost equal footing as men, and musical and dress leniency for women in their congregation. And Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan’s Jewish Renewal, Zalman Shachter-Shalomi-inspired congregation, Nava Tehillah style of offering mystical interpretations of Jewish texts and practices sustained me.

But it was more for community than for God that I deepened my observance and I found that I didn’t miss it when I moved to the island in Greece. I can’t remember just when I started to say good-night and thank you to God — Israel or Greece?— but it has become a ritual I am not likely to give up, and on the rare occasions when I forget, I don’t fall right to sleep until I remember. I think of Sylvia, an early client when I became a Jewish spiritual director. She thought of herself as agnostic and having no spiritual life whatsoever despite an intense involvement in her synagogue. During the course of her counseling, she developed the ritual of saying thank you and good-night to God and complained that it made no sense to her since she didn’t believe in a God. I suggested that she leave out the God word and simply say thank you but that shift didn’t do the trick for her. No, she knew she was addressing God, whatever that was, and had to voice that truth in order to receive comfort and satisfaction from the ritual.

I have no trouble addressing God, as I believe there’s something greater than us, responsible for all of life as we know (and don’t know) it. I also believe there’s no way for us to truly know God, so we might as well create something to relate to in order to have a relationship with this God-thing. At times when I need lots of comfort and succor, I imagine God as a big, black woman, with a large lap and bosom that I can snuggle into and feel safe within. I know that’s not God, but it’s my way of opening up to receiving the comfort I need at the time. Christians have their Jesus and Mary and all those saints to relate to. Why shouldn’t I have a God who is relatable? As long as we all remember that the images we have of this God is a figment of our imaginations, what’s the harm? A God that works, who is useful. That’s all I’m suggesting. If these beliefs give us strength and courage, comfort and relief from fear, and support us to be better, more loving and compassionate people, why not? When people keep icons and pictures and statues of holy people on their altars at home and in their religious institutions, isn’t it an attempt, a spiritual practice even, to catch a ride on the energies of holiness emanated by these holy ones?

Tonight, when I tumble into bed, properly scrubbed clean for the night, or not, depending on my mood, I’ll snuggle under the covers and thank God for the electric blanket that’s warmed my sheets and the heavy down duvet gifted to me by an island friend, for my friends I visited, talked and texted with and my dog and even the cats, and thank God again for all the wonders of today. And I won’t need an image of a big black woman or a Buddha or a Jesus because that’s just the kind of day it’s been.


Upon entering Jamaica on holiday long ago when I was younger, I wrote on the application for my tourist visa in the space provided for occupation: magician. I don’t know what possessed me. At the time, I worked in a mental health center as a clinical social worker, a psychotherapist, studying and practicing NLP and hypnotherapy, and had an inflated view of my abilities to conjure profound changes in the lives of my clients. I liked the idea that I could trick clients into becoming the persons they wanted to be. I enjoyed using indirect hypnotic tools to induce trance, telling rambling, often boring, stories, with the understanding that I was the expert and the client engaged me specifically to practice such deception. People paid good money to change and yet, with every fiber of their being, resisted such transformation. How to help? How to bypass the resistance and engage that small fraction of self that hoped to move into new, uncharted territory? It was all about magic and illusion. Reframing a tragic situation as one that provides growth and opportunity. Providing a different perspective that encourages movement. Magic. Smoke and mirrors. Hope. 

 My career as a psychotherapist and later, as a life coach, spanned more than 30 years and during that time, I was astounded by how the issues presented by my clients mirrored my own in many ways. Everything from infertility to alcoholism to hair loss. If they had it, so, it would seem, did I. I don’t understand how it happened. I used to think such coincidences were gifts from the Universe. I’d work out and learn about my life challenges through the work my clients did in and out of my office. Maybe it wasn’t so odd, after all. Maybe there are only a limited number of challenges human beings face, and the challenges my clients brought into my office were bound to match up with my very own some percentage of the time. Nonetheless, it always seemed a magical coincidence, and delighted me in each and every instance. 

 These days, the magic shows up in different ways. In my paintings, for instance, and in my stories. I work in these media with very little interference from my analytical thinking center and instead let myself fall into trance and let slip out whatever is inclined. One of my classmates in studio painting class looked at an abstract painting I was sitting with and asked “this comes just from your mind?” And the honest answer I gave was, no, it comes from my hands. My mind is not involved in the process. I have no image of which I am even remotely aware when I paint. I just pick up a color and apply it then pick up another and apply it, too. With no sense of what is meant to develop. And that’s how I write, when I am at my best. Even now, the magic is in not knowing where this piece is taking me and how I will get there. It’s a journey into the unknown and that’s what’s so thrilling for me. That’s what makes it fun and engaging. 

 I used to think that I needed to know what the story was going to be about, what the image was meant to look like, in order to create. Now I know that for me, the joy is in the not knowing, the emptiness of mind and trusting the right strokes to take me somewhere delightful. And if I am not delighted, I can always revise. It amazes me every time I paint or write something that I like, and it’s happening more frequently as I learn to surrender to the joy of not knowing. I wonder if my love life will be affected by this same process. Surely I have surrendered to not knowing what’s in store for me in the romance department, but have I done so with joy? I don’t know the answer to that question. It changes every day. But magic is surely the only way romance will ensnare my heart, for the heart is on its own journey and I haven’t any control over it, and never have. 

 I sit in my living room surrounded by paintings I enjoy. I have painted all of them. Two years ago, I did not take delight in my paintings, but was learning only to tolerate and not reject them. Something has changed, and I think it’s the notion of control. I paint the way I live. I take the easy path, the path of least resistance, the path that is fun, pleasurable. I have chosen not to try and develop my skills in areas that are woefully deficient, like shape and perspective and copying reality. Instead, I’m creating my own reality, using skills that are inherent to my being, my pleasure and sensitivity to color. No one will ever praise the life-like quality of my paintings. Just as no one will praise the structure, discipline or craft of my writing. I am learning to surrender to my strengths and let my deficiencies shine through with affection. I am too old to learn the hard way. I trust in magic. 


I need a philosophy of art to which I subscribe or at least aspire, a concept into which I can box myself, so that I am satisfied when something I paint has harmony and color and texture that moves or inspires the viewer, especially me. I guess that’s my philosophy and my statement, arrived at after the fact, as I pondered which paintings please me and why. I want my paintings to invite the viewer to stick around and enter them. They are an invitation to relationship with each painting that strikes a chord, but relationship with the paintings, not with the painter. If there is to be any relationship between painter and viewer, it will arise in the future, when the painter has developed her unique style for communicating with her art, and through her art, with her viewers. 
I believe there is nothing more important for human beings, at least this human being, than relationship, especially with other human beings. It is the crucible in which one is burned to ashes and reborn, over and over, to rise each time in Phoenix fashion. I think of relationships as sort of tests. Maybe that’s why I can’t make one last. But, hey, thirty years in one relationship, I consider that I’ve passed that test and no longer need to matriculate in that particular school. I’m at the point where I believe my relationships deserve to be easy, not fraught, and when they’re not, I’m not interested. That doesn’t mean I necessarily dance around the challenges. I don’t. I may take a while to get there, but that’s not new, it’s history. 
When someone asks me what I do here on this island in Greece, especially off-season, I might tell them that I write and paint and take walks and do my laundry and such. Or I might say, “I’m a writer and painter.” Those are two very different ways of answering the question and which way I choose depends on a bunch of variables, including how I am perceiving myself these days and, how I want others to perceive me these days. Which changes day to day. Now that I’m painting on stretched canvases that pose a logistical problem, how to get them cheaply back to Madison, I’m more inclined to sell them if someone wants to buy, rather than keeping them around for my own pleasure. For that reason, I would call myself a painter–painters sell their pieces. 
I like movement in my paintings. My colors surprise, even me. These days, no two are alike, a clear indication that every painting is pure accident. Does that make them less authentic or valuable? Because they’re not intentional, but rather like a hundred monkeys randomly typing the encyclopedia. One of my art mentors, Peter, with his instructions to do “variations,” is trying to get me to go deeper into a style, but I’m not ready for that kind of exploration. I’ll refine and discover “style” sooner or later, but right now, it’s all too new, exciting and frustrating for me to want to narrow my focus. I like being a beginner; there’s so much to discover. I avoid revealing how long I’ve been painting (since the year or so before I moved to Greece), because it’s getting to be four or five years, and I’m not doing it seriously. But I feel myself to be a painter, nonetheless. Just not a serious one. A silly painter. A painter who paints for fun, not to get better at it, whatever better would look like, except that I’d like what I’d inadvertently yet purposely created even more, probably. 
I currently am completely out of touch with whatever it is that compels me to pick up a particular color when I first sit in front of a blank canvas. I have no interior visual that prompts me. Instead, I just let my hand do what it wants, and choose the color to first apply. And I have no preconceived notion of how I would want the form, texture or color to be. I sort of rely on the accident of the state of the Sennelier Oil Stick I’ve chosen and see what happens. Instead of cleaning and preparing my oil stick, I sometimes start out with some very dry, dirty colors on the end of the stick and that’s what comes off on the paper or canvas, instead of clear creamy thick colors, which apply so very differently. I’m getting to know my medium in a deeper way, as I learn how it responds to stretched canvas instead of paper, and how I need to learn new techniques and tools for moving the paint around on the canvas, which responds so differently than the paper we use at Peter and Heidi’s. I wonder how long he’s used the oil sticks as his primary medium in painting How long it’s taken him to come up with his own techniques, like the towel rollover, for instance. It’s frustrating not to have more techniques to get the movement of paint where and how I want it. I approach the canvas with an intent, usually not well-formed, and only tentative, and inevitably, I haven’t the skill or tool with which to achieve my intended stroke, so it comes out differently and I have to deal with what I’ve done and make it harmonious and interesting and inviting and that’s how I learn what to do next. 
This afternoon, I faced one of my artistic fears and painted alone at home when I was bored. I took out a watercolor paintbox and paper and played with the colors and the textures and had fun. 
It was an activity that engaged me and satisfied my need to play and create. Then, even though the sun had already set, I bundled up and walked for an hour in the dusk to Ysterni. It was beautiful. I saw two types of orchids, passed a runner, a bicyclist and two people sitting at the chapel by the sea. I saw many houses lit up with open windows–occupied for the first time this year. It feels good to have people visiting my island, bringing more life. 

Oh, To Be A Superager

  1. There was an article in the New York Times today, “How to become a Superager” by Lisa Barrett. It’s about growing old and staying mentally fit. Which depends, to a certain extent on staying physically fit as well. The crux of the article had to do with willingness to work hard, hard enough for it to hurt, even. Apparently, the hard work keeps the brain from shrinking. Areas actually get thinner from disuse, much like our muscles. I can feel myself slipping into senility all too rapidly these days and it’s because I’m not now, nor have I ever been, willing to “feel the burn,” not physically, not mentally and I’m not sure about emotionally. In fact, I may have been a little too willing to burn emotionally. But maybe not. It’s complicated. I have a hard time understanding myself emotionally, even though I’ve been trained professionally and have been the professional’s client at many times over the course of my life. In any case, I don’t like to work hard enough to hurt.  The Times article talked about working hard at challenging activities, be they running or swimming or math problems or whatever. I tend to give up when faced with an obstacle to easy success. I’ll work hard in pursuit of a dream, but only as long as it goes according to plan. Certain setbacks are accounted for in the plan, but those that come along unanticipated or not readily surmountable generally stop me in my tracks and usually send me sliding down a hill. Or over a cliff. Depending. 

 Giving up is not a character trait of which I am especially proud. In fact, there are times I feel ashamed of my lack of stick-to-it-of-ness, and it may be that because I give up on my ventures, I end up in episodes of depressive illness. Conversely, it could be that in struggling to overcome a challenge, my stress levels and hormones increase, precipitating the precise chemical cocktail in my damaged brain that tips me into the depressive illness, undercutting my chances of successfully overcoming the obstacle. It’s most difficult to function with a creative mind when the brain is in depressive free-fall. The brain sort of takes over and wipes out other thoughts, and that’s where my words come from. My thoughts. My paintings don’t depend on thoughts, and are affected differently by depression, in the shapes, colors and textures I produce on the canvas. And paintings exist in the eye of the beholder, interpreted differently by each person who bothers to interpret. And my painting is easy, just like my writing. I don’t require inspiration to paint or write well enough. What I require to write well, though, are thoughts that are not produced from depression chemicals. 

 I fantasize about having a partner, an agent, an angel who will complement me, who is good at doing the things I can’t do, and who wants to support me and my work and will do what’s necessary to get my stuff out there, published and exhibited. Like many wives do for their husbands. A loving personal assistant who has me and my works’ best interests in mind. I would pay the right person, if need be, but I don’t want to hire a whole bunch of people to do the different jobs, just one, and Svetlana already cleans my house. This assistant can’t be too expensive, either, because I don’t have that kind of money, or if I thought I did, wouldn’t want to invest it so generously in myself. 

 I’ve come to see myself as profoundly lazy, and believe I’ve always been so. I wonder why I was so lazy as a youngster. Now that I’m older and have suffered many defeats, I can speculate that those defeats wore me out and sapped my motivation to put in the extra effort, but I’ve been lazy for as long as I can remember. For instance, I used to get a stitch in my side during physically exerting activities like running or playing tennis, so I sat out those activities. Enough things came easily to me, I never really learned to work hard and apply myself. I achieved high grades in school without much effort, and was talented in several arts. But without the willingness to break through barriers that arise, I’ve led and continue to lead a mediocre life, never reaching the heights of glory to which I aspire. And I do. I’d love to be famous, and a little extra spending money would be nice, too. 

 I want to be rescued. Knight in shining armor, compassionate angel, patron or benefactor, I’d take the help in any form it presents. I want to be discovered and supported. I will work hard at the things that I can do. I’ll show up and put in the hours and the pain on the activities where I can engage with all my being, but the stuff that overwhelms or bores me, both emotional states intolerable for me to navigate, that’s where I long for a fairy godmother to make it all happen. 

 There was once a time it did happen and my own personal angel came along. It was when I presented Spirituality and the 12 Steps retreats in Wisconsin. A very satisfied member of my second or third retreat weekend stepped up and volunteered to manage the administrative and marketing aspects of the retreat, tasks I’d been feeling burdened by. Her name was Jane and she was no ninny, either, but rather, a middle-school principal in the city of Madison. It was a fantasy fulfilled for me, but something went wrong, I don’t remember the circumstances anymore, but she quit her position after managing only one retreat. And so far, that’s the only fairy godmother intervention I’m aware of. 

 I don’t like being lazy, but what to do? As this person ages, it’s more difficult than ever to change my character traits, if ever it was possible before. I make jokes with my friends about my laziness and it amuses them, but I know the hard reality. Life is not much fun when not fully engaged and my laziness is another way of saying I disengage. I prefer to feel passionate about my activities, to live my life with zest and enthusiasm, wide-eyed with wonder. Wouldn’t you?

Embracing My Creative Process

I told my friend Gail that I was working on writing my blog post for today but was uninspired. She asked, “what’s the theme?” I told her, “that’s the problem.” I usually start writing without knowing what my theme will be and discover it along the way, during the writing itself. Not the most efficient way of writing a new piece, but it’s the way I work. She suggested that I write about creative blocks. That’s an idea–start with a theme and see what develops. So today’s blog is about creative blocks.

At my painting class with Angelika last night, she suggested I bring in a large canvas to work with, and I also brought along the big chunky Sennelier oil sticks I use at Peter and Heidi’s studio painting circles. I sat at the easel in front of this big canvas and couldn’t stand seeing the empty white space, so I started covering the entire surface with a color, yellow ochre. Covering up all the white made me feel less nervous, but then I had to do something more and that made me feel a little queasy again, since I had nothing in particular I wanted to paint and Angelika has stopped giving me objects to paint in still life. So I took up another color with the big oil stick (it’s like a huge crayon and immediately upon picking one up, I regress in age to a seven year old). With the big color stick in hand, I scribbled on the canvas, drawing loop-de-loops and zig-zags and different lines. Then I switched to another color and again drew lines and loops and swoops but didn’t find a form to work on. After a while, the canvas was a chaotic jumble of lines and colors and I had to stop for a cigarette break.

Sennelier Oil Stick

When I returned, I called Angelika over for a consultation and she said “it’s missing some colors, pinks and purples” so I mixed up some pink from my tube oils and with a palette knife, started applying it here and there, at first not liking the color combinations and then beginning to really enjoy seeing the colors. I worked in pinks and then purples for a while and the painting started to come together and a sort of harmony formed. The more I enjoyed it, the better and more nuanced it became.

In my work as a psychotherapist and life coach, I often considered the work I was doing to be editing lives, helping people  reshape themselves and their relationships.  I had always been stymied by the blank sheet of paper, the bare room, the unimagined project, but I was great at coming in to a work in progress and seeing how it could be improved, tweaked, restructured, added to or parts deleted. In the physical world, I have a “good eye” as my former husband used to say, discerning beauty and harmony and knowing what was off-kilter. So, I guess my way of creating in the plastic arts is to start by creating visual chaos and then edit and reform. Maybe that’s the same thing with the way I write creatively.

Becoming aware of and embracing my creative process is showing itself to be an extreme act of self-love. Otherwise, I am rejecting a core aspect of my self, the playful, joyful, child within. Angelika helps a lot. She encourages me to embrace my singular approach. When I create art or write,  I feel like I poop out whatever is inside and then play around with my poop until it pleases me. That’s my creative process. Organic and messy. And if I’m not having fun, it doesn’t work.

It’s all about accepting and forgiving myself for not being perfect. For not having the skills I would like to have, for not having enough patience, for being who I am. Embracing my process of living life my way. Because, after all, it’s the only way I’ll ever be able to live life anyway, so why not be kind to myself for it? And better yet, why not exalt and celebrate my quirky way? Be happy when I see it coming my way, just as I light up when I see someone I love. Wag my tail and greet it with whole body enthusiasm.

Roni came over, bringing her crocheting with her. She’s learning how to fashion flowers and baskets and other objects d’arte  from crocheted yarns, including yarns made from strips of plastic bags. I couldn’t understand what pleasure one could possibly get from crocheting small flowers on a tiny crochet hook with yarn composed of plastic bags. The pleasure in crocheting is all in the sensuality of the yarns. After a few minutes of working with the plastic yarn, Roni concurred and put it down, reaching instead for a yarn made from sheep’s wool.

I’ve just now been blessed with a serendipitous incident; minutes ago I found the following quote on a friend’s Facebook post:

“Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise—you can make anything. So please calm down now and get back to work, okay? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”

― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

Thanks for sharing!