How Quickly We Learn

Even when we’re young we pick up clues pretty swiftly regarding what sort of behavior and attitude is expected of us in our interactions with others. As a child, I learned ever so quickly that I am not the boss of anyone else and practically everyone else is the boss of me, and not much has ever changed in that department. Whether happily or unfortunately, depending entirely on your point of view, I also figured out as speedily as most kids do that as long as I behaved in the expected manner when anyone was watching I could get away with a fair amount of far more self-indulgent–if not subversive–ways. Sure does simplify my life!graphite drawingShow of Proper Respect

The Mistress in her jewelry and finery and furs

Thinks everyone should bow and kiss the ground—that’s also hers—

And genuflect before her grand tiara and her mace,

So that is what we tend to do—at least do to her face.digital illustration from a graphite drawingAll frivolous jocularity on the topic aside, however, getting trained by our elders and betters, in particular our mothers, is both more complicated and more happily meaningful for those of us who are blessed with great moms. Me, I’ve got two. The mother who gave birth to me and raised me from my days as an only mildly subversive little sprout into the silly but exceedingly happy big kid you see before you today is worthy of recognition as one of the great teachers not only for giving me a framework on which to hang my sense of right and wrong and general grasp of manners but also the education and freedom and knowledge of being unconditionally loved that enabled me to choose how to build on those foundations as I grew. My second Mom, brought to me courtesy of (her son) my beloved husband, gets credit for instilling the same curiosity and drive in her children and, in turn, for reinforcing in me through her example what it means to be a lively and lovely person who is good company, an active part of the household and community at every turn, and a tireless learner and adventurer who earns her place in those settings with remarkable grace. Whether I can live up to the standards set by either of my Moms remains to be seen, but they certainly give me the tools that should make it possible if anything can.

If it can’t, I guess I’ll have to fall back on my naturally ridiculous ways and just pretend to be better than I am for as long as I can keep up the front. Those of you who are looking for reliably good, sound company, go see Mom W and Mom S. And also my sisters and my sister-in-law, great mothers to their children, and all of those other mothers, who by birth, adoption, random acquisition and teaching, raise better people, who in turn make the world a better place altogether. All of whom I thank profusely not only on Mother’s Day but every day for being such great examples even for those of us who are a little too childish to be motherly examples ourselves. Go ahead, you can say it right in front of me. I’ve learned that much, at least!

Righteous Doormats & Violent Cupcakes

digital artworkThey’re everywhere, I tell you, misunderstood geniuses and wolves in sheep’s clothing. The former, naturally, are a self-identifying group and the latter generally people who pose as, and more often than not, sincerely believe themselves to be, benign when they are in reality malignant. And it amazes me yet more profoundly to note how many humans manage to occupy the intersecting subset. A veritable embarrassment of riches, I say.digital artworkThe Misunderstood Genius [MG] sorts I have known range from those with certifiably stratospheric IQs to  folk I would deem more simply ‘certifiable‘, yet the number fitting into the truly brilliant bunch continually astonish me with their ability to be fantastically endowed with intelligence and ignorant or downright stupid in perfect simultaneity. The clear and incessantly demonstrated fact is that a high IQ has nothing to do with self-awareness, social skills, political acumen or just plain being right. While MGs are busy nursing their indignation over being ignored and repressed, made the scapegoat, under-appreciated, envied, maltreated and squelched by their personal versions of The Man, and muttering imprecations into their shiny academic loving-cups, their supposed inferiors are burnishing less impressive tools to get something real accomplished or merely live life.digital artworkMeanwhile, since the universe would so clearly be better (!) if it accepted MGs’ greatness, these people tend to see themselves as benefactors of the universe, if not its modest deities. Being misapprehended and under-admired is not proof, after all, that one isn’t fabulous. This is where the intersection of neglected magnificence and false-faced kindliness is nurtured. While there is a whole range of persons who present themselves as sweet and cuddly and kindhearted and are anything-but, right on up to full-blown sociopaths, there is this weird zone within it that is the dwelling place of those who think themselves unfairly ostracized or disliked. Whether they do so consciously or not, it seems to me that many MGs also build up quite a repertoire of acts wherein they play at sympathetic and philanthropic and other deliciously, invitingly admirable roles, all the while keeping a hand free to check on the availability of their ‘concealed carry’. It’s not only the guy in the clock tower that’s picking off passersby with his rifle but, more often, the one armed only with attitude that picks off everyone around, one chip of the communal atmosphere of support and collegiality and congeniality at a time.

Nobody Loves Me, Everybody Hates Me . . . *

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. . . Think I’m Gonna Go Eat Worms! [Note: no actual worms were harmed in the making of this photograph.]

Yes, it may be true that no man is an island–we all depend on others far more than we even recognize or comprehend–but conversely, every one of us is his or her own unique and seemingly isolated version of Three Mile Island at times when it comes to having personal meltdowns. It starts right at birth, when most of us scream and complain at having been removed from that ever-so-pleasant resort and spa, Mom’s innards, and ejected unwittingly and unwillingly into the cold, cruel world, and it continues, however sporadically, throughout our lives. We are such fragile creatures.

The majority of humans, happily, are not subject to this dark reality for too large a percentage of our lives, but it’s more common than is commonly discussed that we have trials, tribulations and the varying degrees of inability to cope with them that make us question, if not our sanity, then certainly our ability to rise above what’s bad, get a grasp on the good, and move forward regardless of feeling worthy or curable. Depression truly sucks–not just in the vernacular, but in the sense of pulling one down into a bottomless abyss like an evil and irresistible vortex.

I’m not referring, of course, to ordinary grief or sadness. We all get hit by those monsters at times. We flounder, we suffer, we recover. It may be deep and painful and take a long time to rebound from sorrows of even the most normal sort, but we do, eventually, learn how to go on living and being and take part in the doings of the world. Generally, that sort of difficulty or tragedy even tends to gradually heighten the sense and appreciation of what is good and joyful once we’ve experienced and survived the dark and can see the shining contrast of even a modest pleasure with what appeared insurmountably grim from its midst. True clinical, chemical, physiological depression, well, that’s a different thing.

It resists the most persuasive and intelligent logic. It batters self-worth and love in the most brilliant, gifted and accomplished sufferers. It tears at relationships of any sort with other people or with action, with one’s wit and will to survive. If it doesn’t make one outright, actively suicidal, it can simply kill through atrophy and attrition: sufferers have described the state of longing intensely to kill themselves but having no strength or energy to do so.

Why would I talk of such dire and dreary and horrid stuff, even think of it at all? Because I am reminded sometimes of when I used to be there. My worst bout of depression was perhaps aided and abetted by various situational and temporal aggravations, including the typical catalysts and intensifiers of real-world health and happiness threats: the onset of my spasmodic dysphonia, job problems, the murder of our good friend. These were of course widely different in intensity and timing, but to someone like me, their interaction with my evidently wonky endocrine system or whatever combined forces of chemical and biological imbalance were building in me meant that when I hit bottom, no amount of thoughtful and heartfelt reasoning with myself could ‘fix’ me or my situation.

I am one of the true Lucky Ones. I finally felt so brain-fogged, so unable to resist the pull of that deadly sucking, enervating, soul-destroying feeling of pointlessness and ugliness and being unlovable and incapable of doing anything meaningful or good–well, I got so needy that I actually let others help me. That was it. The only way out of the hole was to grip the hands reaching in toward me and let them do all of the work of pulling me out. Part of it was accepting these helpers’ assurances that they did indeed believe in me and in how I felt, that they loved me and knew that I had worth and potential. Part was letting others lead me around and taking their advice and simply letting go of what little shreds of ego I had left enough to say that I would do better in following an educated and experienced prescription for improvement than I’d been doing on my ever-weakening own two feet. And a part that was essential for me was loosening my grip on my insistence that taking prescribed treatment–both psychological and chemical–without trying to create or control it myself was a sign of weakness or failure. It took, in fact, all of my strength and intelligence to recognize that any strength and intelligence I had couldn’t save me.

The luck involved is clearly that together we (my caregivers–medical and personal–and I) did find the combination of therapeutic treatments, behavioral changes and chemical re-balancing medication that not only unlocked my present emergency state of depressive existence but ultimately proved to let me feel fully, wholly myself for the first time in my life. I know that this is not a cure but an ongoing process for as long as I live. And, having lived both ways, I am more than happy to take on that responsibility. It’s a privilege.

What’s most beautiful of all, for me, is that when it happens (as it has in this last couple of weeks) that several occurrences and situations conspire to remind me of this my past and how it shaped my present life and self, it also reawakens in me the profound gratitude for all of those complex minutiae that converged so miraculously well as to make this life possible. To make my continued existence at all possible, perhaps, but particularly such a happy me. What seemed like the most disastrous and irreparable of confluences instead conspired to make just the right blend at the right moment that finally offered me a rescue.

Turns out that eating worms is the very nourishment that makes some birds healthy enough to sing their hearts out with the pure delight of existing. Last week I was out walking and saw a ditch full of drowned worms, lured into and killed by stormy waters. This week I was walking the same route and the sky was filled with the most spectacular warbling, chirruping, musical bird songs I could hope to hear. Coincidence? Very possibly not.digital illustration from a photo

(* from the old campfire song Nobody Loves Me, Everybody Hates Me . . . )

 

More Myths about Inspiration & Creativity

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Don’t accept a falsehood for your reality–if you have to create your own, then do it!

Back on that old topic of whimpering: of all the [wonderfully dire and woefully valid] reasons I can’t possibly do the enormous amount of work required by this assignment, there’s none simpler or more honest than Number 11:

11         BUT I DON’T WANT  TO _______________ (you fill in the blank)!

            Boo Hoo.  It’s not always optional, is it. Just keep firmly in mind that sometimes doing the required thing leads to unexpected delights in the end product. Not to mention the thoroughly predictable delight of having it done, finished, off the To Do list and out of nagging territory. Just get it out of the way now and you’ll be ever so relieved. Maybe even pleased with yourself!

12        ALL CREATIVE PEOPLE ARE (take your pick):

Eccentric; loose; savants; savages; radical; anti-intellectual; uncontrollable; fluff-headed; egocentric; snobbish; smelly…

Everybody is one or more of the above at some point; look at all of our pop-culture idols who get hung out to dry on a daily basis, not to mention all of the religious, educational and political Saints who irk the multitudes so regularly.  So imperfection is hardly a reasonable excuse for avoiding being (or being in the company of) an art maker.

13        IT’S SELFISH &/OR IRRESPONSIBLE TO BE AN ARTIST.

How about how selfish and irresponsible it is to be good at something that enriches lives and shapes culture and to refuse to exercise, to share, those gifts.  How unkind it is to stifle your true self and passions (and spend your life unfulfilled or with a chip on your shoulder) so that you live a half life and cheat your friends and loved ones out of your rich complexity.  How about that for selfish and irresponsible, huh? Choosing a ‘safe’ path never guaranteed anyone’s actually being safe, anyway.

14        NOBODY (read: Not Everybody in the Universe) WILL LIKE IT.

If you find anything that everybody likes, let me know.  For that matter, if you find anything NOBODY likes, I’ll be mighty surprised.  So, isn’t it good enough for you if you think your work has some value?  It may not make you a market mogul, but it’s amazingly fulfilling to be an artist, and (other than food, which is admittedly desirable) practically no other wealth compares.

15        THE GREATEST!!!

Who says?  There is no single Greatest of anything that everyone will agree on yet, and the odds are pretty good that they won’t all agree anything you do is the Greatest—or worst—ever, so why lose sleep over an untried concept.  Do your best and be done with it.

16        IF YOU CAN’T SAY (do) ANYTHING NICE (or well), DON’T SAY ANYTHING AT ALL.

A half-baked effort is usually better than no effort at all; no effort guarantees a lack of (or negative) result, and misguided or incomplete efforts can occasionally be rescued or luck into a better-than-deserved result.

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Think beautiful thoughts!

17        IT ISN’T AS GOOD AS _________________’S.

Probably nothing anybody else ever does will be as good as my work, but aside from that impossibly high standard, you have as good a chance as any of doing work better than somebody’s, at least occasionally, as long as you do work.

18        ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT.

But they don’t come to all of the specific people who desire them, or ‘on time,’ or in the desired form.  Your dream might end up in someone else’s stash of prizes if you don’t put up a fight for it.

19        I CAN’T DRAW A STRAIGHT LINE.

No, but a computer can do it for you, or you can use a straightedge, or you can hire a stand-in to draw your straight lines.  Don’t tell me your whole oeuvre as an artist/designer is going to be straight lines.  Sheesh.

20        CREATIVITY = INTUITION.

Intuition is an indefinable sense or sensation that can bring soul and emotional depth to the work (both process and product), but true creativity takes that nebulous touchy-feely power and combines it with study, effort, logic, research, skill and courage and synthesizes all of the elements of an artist’s knowledge and experience and passions into a concrete Work of Art (process and/or product).

21        THERE’S NOT ENOUGH TIME.

True.  We’ll never be given enough time for everything that’s important.  So it’s up to us to TAKE the time.  And MAKE the time.  There’s no real alternative.  It’s called Making Choices (and living with them).

22        YOU CAN’T FAKE INSPIRATION.

Maybe you can’t, but I can.  Seriously, folks, most people won’t know the difference if you substitute delirious hard work and enthusiasm and use all of your know-how to its limits.  If that isn’t quite Inspiration, at least it’s mighty inspirational.  When in doubt, review Item Number 10 in Tuesday’s post (linked above).

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Go ahead: try your wings!

Real-Life Mysteries

While I’m on the subject of mystery stories (see yesterday’s post), there’s a true one that I hadn’t ever heard of until recently that almost defies imagination, even generations later. But that’s what true mystery stories do, isn’t it.

The story of a female immigrant serial killer/mass murderer, born in Norway but made in America, was a hideous and irreconcilable tale of horror and crime in the 19th Century and remains one today. Belle Gunness, who is believed to have killed all of her own children, two husbands and a handful of suitors, not to mention an accomplice or two of her own along the way–possibly executing as many as forty people in her lengthy crime spree–is surprisingly little known nowadays. I fear that this may be because we have so many other hideous and oversized monstrosities and real-life mystery stories handy to horrify and mesmerize us that many likely get pushed out of memory by the current ugly news. Undoubtedly the advent of World War I‘s dreadful specter was a factor in overshadowing a single murderer’s story rather immediately on its discovery.

All the same, once I knew of it, I found the woman a compellingly repellant subject for another mystery story illustration, being a subject worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe style drama or, yes, a true-crime cinematic epic. Though it was one of those news stories that ‘rocked the nation’ when uncovered a hundred years ago, the tale of Belle Gunness is relatively obscure nowadays. There have been a few generally tepid and mostly heavily fictionalized stories, books and movies based on the horrors wrought by this one woman’s apparent sociopathy and the trail of blood left in its wake, but it’s remarkable to me that such a grim, terrible story is scarcely known on a wider scale anymore.

Frightening, dark, and perhaps an indictment of the worst of human nature in general, yes–but I think perhaps part of the reason I find mystery stories so gripping is because I think they remind us–again in that somewhat ‘safe’ and detached format of past-history or fiction–that brilliance and the abyss are constantly in conflict in the human heart and only by understanding this and being willing to examine it in ourselves can we have a chance of rising to beauty and shunning the grotesque urges that we might have–and, if we’re truly fortunate, catching up the would-be wrongdoer in humane and forgiving and healing arms before she can ever fall so far. That’s my hopeful fiction, and I’m sticking to it.

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La Belle Dame sans Merci of the prairies, Belle Gunness. What fearful horrors shaped this woman’s inner darkness?

Today, I present Belle Gunness, a truly fallen woman and black widow whose mystery may never be fully unraveled, for your contemplation. May we never see her like again.

Matters of Perspective

 

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Stormy skies can bring destruction . . . or the rains of growth and promise . . .

I’ve said before, and in ever so many ways, I’m a firm believer that we all live our lives wearing our own very distinctive glasses. By that I’m not referring to the glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty attitude–but that’s indeed part of the whole idea. It’s about how we see the world through our individual filters.

In a fairly concrete fashion, that means that the quality of my actual eyesight–my acuity, ability to detect and distinguish colors, textures, shapes, depth of field aided by stereo vision, and all of that sort of thing does, in fact, have a profound effect on my world view and how I experience my passage through it in life. As a longtime visual artist, I am dependent upon all of this stuff for my very sense of self.

But I’m also convinced that each of us has a life history that includes our adventures from birth to the present, our nurturing or lack thereof, our environment and resources and social contacts and political influences and educational progression, and that whole reality is so distinctive for each of us, right down to a cellular level, that I can’t quite imagine how even the closest of kin could possibly have identical points of view.

I’ve been reminded of this in the last few days as I’ve been reading the latest Oliver Sacks book on which I’ve laid hands: The Mind’s Eye. Every book of his that I’ve read thus far is, since he’s a neurologist, a humane and humorous thinker, a deeply curious scientist, and a citizen of the world with wide-ranging interests, bound to be an adventure. Given the visual theme of this particular collection of case-studies (including his own discovery of and treatment for an ocular tumor), it is indeed a confirmation of my sense that such complex inventions as human bodies, multiplied by the almost infinite variants those influences I mentioned above can infuse, create and incubate an incredible range of possible ways to see and experience life in this world and whatever we can conceive of beyond it.

Yes, I am enjoying this latest Sacks book as immensely as I have all of his thus far. It’s been rather striking, too, to add to the layers of my own filters, many of which I’ve only come to recognize rather more recently in my life. I have sussed out and confirmed to my own wildly non-medical satisfaction that I am very probably distinctly dyslexic or cognitively ‘different’ in a whole bunch of ways, and having looked at this good doctor’s descriptions of face-blindness, or prosopagnosia, I’ve a feeling that my realization sometime not long past that I might have a degree of face-blindness might well be accurate. I’m certainly no less inclined to believe it since immediately before the book arrived on scene at the local library, I was working in our front yard when a car pulled up and the nice driver called me by name and conversed with me pleasantly until I could identify by her voice, questions and comments that she is the neighbor who lives directly across the street from me. Sigh. Sometimes the ol’ filters do get a little blurry.

More importantly, though, I’m convinced that how we respond to our life experiences and our histories–the choices we make and what we do with what we’re given and who we are within it–those are the truly telling filters. They’re the things by which we’ll be known, be remembered (if we’re remembered), and that offer us ways to define ourselves and our place in the world. So while I’m happy as an artist to play (as you saw in the last couple of posts) with my reality in the artificial world of visual imagery and how I attempt to show others what it’s like to see through my lens, I realize that my moods and attitudes are a part of that process too. Can I get others to understand or accept my point of view? Rarely, if I’m mighty fortunate. Can I help them to see it? More likely, if I work hard. Can I give them happy access to their own filters that might improve their moment or their day? That, I hope, I can do if I am true to the better of my instincts in responding to the world as I know it and expressing, the best that I’m able, with passion and with compassion. With love and joy.

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Heavens! What started as a grim and ominous day can become something bright and hopeful . . .

 

Like Ice Cream on a Blistering Day

digital collageIf I’ve learned anything in moving from the Pacific Northwest to Texas, it’s how to handle a wider range of temperatures than I was accustomed to experiencing on a regular basis. Part of that is thanks, I suspect, to a gradual cyclic change of the climate in general, and that was helpful in its way: the extremes at both ends of the weather spectrum had gotten slightly extended outward before I left western Washington, so while it was nowhere near as common to have three-digit Fahrenheit temperatures (around 38C) as it is here in my newer home, it came closer more often. And I can certainly credit a combination of my own tendency to freeze exceedingly easily, even to the point of having a nervelessly cold nose, during much of the year with the counterbalance of that delightful boon of aging, a personal microwave having been activated in my torso at various intervals from my arrival at a Certain Age and forward.photo

Then there was this relocation to Texas and the discovery that even a freezy-bones like me can learn to love air conditioning in the good old summertime, and conversely, that it really doesn’t have to be snowy, icy or even a notably low temperature to feel bitterly cold in the winter if the wind is howling through town sharply enough at the moment.

So what I’m working on is a sort of low-rent version of biofeedback: learning to think my way toward hot-and-cold happiness. Not hugely successfully, thus far, mind you–this is very much a work in progress. But I’m trying to convince myself that if other people can find the blast of the cold air returns in cafes and grocery aisles pleasant and comfortable, surely the temperature can’t be untenable for me. That if they can like sipping screamingly hot coffee or soup on a cool day and not develop third-degree burns, I should be able to warm up my refrigerated self in wintertime without having to set my socks on fire.photo

Now that it’s May and has passed 90F/32C at a hasty trot, I do need to get the whole plot in gear. While my brain is not necessarily already operating at top speed in gathering the necessary data to combat the actual, and already pretty nearly oppressive, heat, maybe if I dig deep into my treasury of imagination and do my best to imagine myself cooling off, there just may be hope yet.photo