Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” That has always been true for me as well. It is now also true about painting. I am discovering more about who I am, deep inside, what I think and how I feel, where I have been, where I am, and to that end, opening a path to where I might go.
I am working on a painting now that is still in early days, it will be a very detailed painting when it is finished, and it startled me when I started because it was, well, peculiar. A woman’s face peers out of a window, an octagon. There were 3 octagons as it kept opening out but the large outer one is already shape shifting and vines are coming out of it in every direction. In almost a pinwheel design, bold, bright colors spin around the page. I know, now, that there will be lots of detail in these sections, though I know not what. I don’t need to know yet. Each tiny step forward with this piece is revealed when it needs to be. It only came to me yesterday that the dark feeling of the piece as it is in this stage is, I believe, representing what the world looks like to me from my safe haven, a dark scary world. It is the portrait of the life of an agoraphobic.
This startled me deeply as one did earlier, I showed it a few entries back, of a woman trapped in a tree. I only realized well into that painting that it was also about my life. I escaped to the woods as a child being sexually abused, from 4 to 18. Abuse drove me out of the house and into nature to hide. As I watched how that painting progressed, almost in spite of my wish to not finish it at all, I saw that “she” had hidden in the tree for so long she had become trapped in it and now couldn’t get out. There is a tiny, magic fairy door at the bottom. Will she find her way out?
I don’t know where my life will go but I can tell you that while everyone around me sees a woman who lives a life cut off from the world, I would never have imagined myself trapped in this solitude I have created. It is my safety, where I find solace. But how much life have I been missing because I hide here in my woods? Will I ever find a way to escape the tree? I don’t think I want to escape entirely. Perhaps the painting is telling me that at least there is a door and I can come and go. I am only beginning to journal about this and meditate on it, but had I not painted it I never could have seen what the woman inside of me was feeling, perhaps even crying out? Please don’t leave me trapped in this tree, there is a way out. I will be thinking about this for a long time.
When I started this painting a few weeks ago — I have picked it up and put it down a thousand times it seems, inching along, not certain I wouldn’t just chuck it — all I had seen in my head was the woman’s face with spokes coming out in every direction, not piercing her face, just odd spokes like those of a bicycle that quickly became shapes, and only much later did I realize, did I see, that it was once again a woman trapped, and this time looking out at the world frightened and bewildered. I think she is calling for me to, well, does she want to come out? Or does she just want to make sense of the world that she sees from her window? It is too soon to tell, but it has begun to fascinate me. Now I approach the painting each day with no preconceived notion about where it might go. I show up to paint to see where it will take me. I am truly fascinated.
I remember, when I went to Taos to study with Natalie Goldberg in 1990, her saying not only that writing was the act of discovery, but that her zen teacher Katagiri Roshi had told her that she didn’t need to sit meditation, that writing would take her any place she needed to go. Writing has been my practice, my salvation, my tool for survival since I was 9 years old, hiding behind a stand of forsythia bushes, writing furiously with my Bic stick pen in my little red spiral notebook. It has stood me in good stead for 50+ years since. Now painting has joined writing. They are helping me find my way home, a new home perhaps for the woman who might have been without the abuse, or who, in spite of it, might still, at nearly 61, find a new way of living and being that has infinitely more possibilities available to her than she ever dreamed.
Too, I have to figure out how to find my way while carrying my basket full of oddities and peculiarities. Some are just the bits and pieces of who I might have been (Seeds that might still grow?), and who I am, but there is a hole in the bottom of my basket and stones fall out and litter my path and I keep tripping over them. These stones are the product of nature + nurture, the mental health issues that are very real, and while there is no magic pill to make them go away I do what I need to do to take care of them as best I can. And they continually shape-shift, which is part of the problem, so just as the picture becomes clear it goes out of focus again.
The nature vs. nurture thing, that’s a puzzle. I was adopted and when I found my biological mother at 26 — a terrifying experience — I found a woman who was alcoholic, suicidal, and threatened to kill me. It was a nightmare past anything I could have imagined when I started the adopted child’s fantasy search, “If I could just find my real mother she would love me.” (Real is relative and there are no guarantees. It can be a shattering nightmare, not a beautiful dream.) But what I found was a key to understanding a little better what I was dealing with. Bipolar disorder may be genetic, but might not become “activated,” if you will. Trauma set that ticking time bomb off inside of me. The PTSD was the result of the trauma. The anxiety disorder a result of both. The seeds of agoraphobia were always there but didn’t become full blown until my 40’s and into my 50’s when I finally left the world simply to survive and have some peace of mind. Some of this can be helped along, made better, with vigilant self care, but the bipolar disorder is the gift that keeps on giving. These are the things in my basket. Is the woman looking out the window in this painting horrified by her own life, or the world around her, or is she wondering if there might be a way to come out and make peace with it all, or some semblance of peace? Is there, inotherwords, a life beyond the life I’ve known? Too soon to tell, but the very fact that I am painting and writing about it gives me hope that I am on to something and might just be able to find more in this life than I ever imagined I could. I shall have to keep painting to find out.
On I go with my pen and paintbrush at hand. Perhaps I can write and paint myself a new story, but you can’t create the new without taking time to look with compassion and as much understanding of what was, and what is, as you can. This woman is very afraid, but at least she is coming to the window, she is peeking out of a hole in the tree she lives in, she is wondering if…
I will not let her down. I will paint my way to an answer.