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Note to Self, Resurfaced

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The cycles of nature are fascinating. She has no concern for deadlines. Spring will come when it comes. Even if our calendars say its May and our thermometers say it is 30 degrees, the day still goes on. Nature doesn’t try to fix things. Nature is a master at living in the moment.  We have so much to learn.

But I tried to take on one of my spring tasks this morning. Cleaning out the closed-in front porch. Somewhere around Christmas it becomes a storage area for stuff, and the stuff stays there until it is warm enough to want to move it again and use the space. Is it warm enough? No. I just cranked up the heat and am taking breaks. You see, I really am wanting to re-create some of my spaces. To start fresh. To start new. After all, isn’t that what spring was about?

But, as it often happens when I am cleaning, I found something. Something amazing that stopped me in my tracks and almost put me in tears. Something from a year ago. Not that long, really. But, my, how life has changed.

A year ago

A year ago, I was grieving the sudden loss of my father. I was missing my siblings everyday. I was completely overwhelmed with work. I needed a break. I needed to rest and cry. We needed to settle my fathers estate and clear out his house. We needed to pay funeral bills. I was terribly sick with abdominal pain. All my tests came back normal. But I was clearly ill. I was terrified. I was scheduled for exploratory surgery with the assumption my gallbladder would be removed. I tried to take each day on its own. But even that was too much. I made the decision to leave my job. This was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. But even as I gave my resignation, I had to prepare all the projects, grants, and reports for my departure. I wasn’t in the clear yet. I still had to wake up each day, show up to work, try not to break down, and be somewhat available for two more months.

What I found on the porch this afternoon was a piece of paper that I carried in my pocket on each of those days. It was a comfort object. It was my reminder. I was terrified and felt completely alone. I wrote myself notes. This piece of paper was folded up into squares. A total of 16 areas to write on, on the front and another 16 on the back. When I heard or thought of encouraging words, I wrote them down on a square. When I needed them. They were there for me. And I knew them to be true.

These are the reminders that helped me have the courage to make the changes that I needed in my life, even if I was absolutely terrified to do so.

  • It’s important to know that today is all I really need to worry about.
  • It’s important to know that I am making a choice.
  • It’s important to know that I don’t have to work hard to be okay.
  • It’s important to know that I have friends thinking of me.
  • It’s important to know that I am breaking my dysfunction.
  • It’s important to know what makes me uncomfortable.
  • It’s important to know that I am valuable by just existing.
  • It’s important to know that I am not giving up.
  • It’s important to know what makes me happy.
  • It’s important for me to listen to the trees.
  • It’s important to know that possibilities exist.
  • It’s important to know that my husband loves me best when I am me.
  • It’s important to know that my children value time learning and working with me on the things that I love.
  • It’s important to know where to find myself.
  • It’s important to know what I love to do.
  • It’s important to know that I deserve to be happy (and am allowed to be).
  • It’s important to know that my health is part of my well-being.
  • It’s important to know that my home is my own.
  • It’s important to know that I don’t have to be strong.
  • It’s important to know, I can change.
  • It’s important to know I don’t have to give all of myself.
  • It’s important to know that things can be simple.
  • It’s important to know I am learning what I need.

What amazing, powerful words those are. Some of them still bring me to tears now. What amazing lessons we can learn from life, indeed.

dogwood

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Recovering a Sense of Compassion

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Recovering a Sense of Compassion

“Learning is movement from moment to moment.” ~J. KRISHNAMURTI

In my progress as a recovering artist, I felt like I got stumbled up a bit. I wrote about it last week, “I had done so well with Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Then real life started to happen. I had grant contracts, I had deadlines, I took on the project of developing and opening the Upstage Gallery in my community. I got busy. I left the book behind. Still conscious, still grateful, as if I had completed ahead of time.”

Then, I sat down to read the chapters I had abandoned. But wait– they had been read! I even highlighted them. Rereading, I do remember the content of “Recovering a Sense of Compassion,” but I never really felt the words. So today, I make my effort. To go through and re-read (again) with a pencil, paper, and a clear mind. To have an awareness of potential blockages that keep me from hearing the truth. And here, I share that.

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~Fear~

One of the most important tasks in artistic recovery is learning to call things- and ourselves- by the right names. In most cases it is fear that blocks us.”

When I first started with the project of opening the Upstage Gallery with Dakota Prairie Regional Center for the Arts, I was absolutely petrified with fear. After the initial meeting, I wrote to a friend, “I find myself feeling very nervous about this and it took me a little to figure out why– I think it has to do with the collaborative aspect of the project and the fact that it is the first “long-term” commitment I’ve made in a long time. I just find myself terrified that I’m going to let folks down. I realize though that these are old dysfunctional feelings…” That was 10 weeks ago. That fear is no longer there, in that way. I was delighted by that collaboration in the project and we had a quite successful soft opening, with the grand opening coming soon. We have work from 15 artists consigned and the list is growing. There has been no disappointment, only enthusiasm and support.

Artworks on display at DPRCA Upstage Gallery. This is the first long-term project I've been involved in since I left my day job in July 2012.

Artworks on display at DPRCA Upstage Gallery. This is the first long-term project I’ve been involved in since I left my day job in July 2012.

This is not to say that fear has gone away completely. It has moved, to a more private sphere of life. Fear permeates me as I prepare my work for display. Even as I encourage artists young and old to honor the value of their works, I have trouble doing the same.

The need to be a great artist makes it hard to be an artist. The need to produce a great work of art, makes it hard to produce any art at all. 

And months ago, I made a vow to stop using the excuse- “I’ve been so busy.” So when one of my collaborators asked, “What about your jewelry? Where’s that at?” I told the truth, “I’m working on it.” And that night I did. I prepared enough feathers for 12 pairs of earrings.

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Then the next day, I completed 7 pairs for the gallery and took them in right away. It is part of my habit to silence my critic, to take in my work for consignment nearly immediately. As soon as it is framed, finished, complete, I take it in so there is no room for self-doubt and fear to grow.

Once it is on the wall, it is part of the display.

"Pheasant Feather Series"  Fine Art Photography by Rachel Brazil. 65

“Pheasant Feather Series”               Fine Art Photography by Rachel Brazil                  65–

 

But, yet the fear still hangs on as I have pastel drawings in my studio, waiting to be sprayed with fixative, mounted, framed, priced, and consigned.

~Enthusiasm~

Perhaps the greatest anti-venom for fear and self-critique is enthusiasm. Julia Cameron explains,

Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, and loving recognition off all the creativity around us.

And for me, there is so much truth here. I have a terrible tendency to curb my enthusiasm. If I start to get too excited, too giddy, I see it as a sign of irresponsibility on my part. If I don’t curb it, I get scattered. I’m flying high, but I lose my keys, break my glasses, forget to pay the electric bill. I realize now that my curbing my enthusiasm and maintaining my sense of a responsible self, that I let fear continue to have influence in my life.

I am fortunate though, that sometimes I just can’t help it- genuine collaboration breaks down that ill-suited defense against enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm (from the Greek, “filled with God”) is an ongoing energy supply tapped into the flow of life itself. Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work. Far from being a brain-numbed soldier, our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate. As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.

This explanation of enthusiasm is so key for me and my recovery as a work addict. Enthusiasm is NOT about work. It is about play. It is about JOY. And with a wonderful group of collaborators to experience the joy of creation with, no longer should I confuse joy and responsibility. Yes, the two can co-exist, and they can be found within one another– but they are not equal. They do not look the same. They do not feel the same. There are differences to be celebrated in both joy and responsibility.

~Creative U-turns~

As I reach this section of the book, it is overly highlighted. It looks like an undergraduate textbook. I’m sure I understood it, I must have recognized myself in it. But it is the sections that I didn’t highlight that are most revealing.

A productive artist is quite often a happy person. This can be very threatening as a self-concept to those who are used to getting their needs met by being unhappy.

This is one phrase that wasn’t highlighted. Even now, in rereading I looked over it. Initially, it didn’t resonate with me. “That must be for someone else,” I thought. But, no. There is startling truth in it. While the statement feels like someone saying, “Oh, you’re just unhappy to get attention…” the truth in it has more to do with the fact that dysfunctional patterns of life lead us to do things in unhealthy ways. For me, I was most productive when I was unhappy. Whether I was physically not well, emotionally scarred, grieving loss, hiding anger, or just simply not quite okay with things– that is when I excelled— as a student, as an artist, as a waitress, as a grant writer, as someone striving to be the best THE ABSOLUTE BEST they could be, just to drown out the unhappiness. In this pattern, I got graded well, recognized, tipped, funded, and promoted. I got my needs met.

So yes, now doing art simply out of joy!? Writing for the creative endeavor of it!? It seems so foreign! This is my creative u-turn. Healthy creativity. Finding support. Nourishing myself. Respecting myself. Honoring my work. Letting enthusiasm drive away the fear.

~Blasting through Blocks~

Now I remember! I do, I do!

In order to work freely on a project, an artist must be at least functionally free of resentment (anger) and resistance (fear). What do we mean by that? We mean that any buried barriers must be aired before the work can proceed. The same holds true for any buried payoffs to not working. Blocks are seldom mysterious. They are, instead, recognizable artistic defenses against what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a hostile environment.

I reached this point, and anger swelled inside of me. I couldn’t let it go. It felt like I cut a vein, and it wouldn’t stop bleeding. Anger about my art, led interestingly enough to anger about my past. Mostly on the topics of spirituality and sexuality. It was more than I knew how to handle. I consulted my yogini, “I’ve got some serious pent up rage issues bubbling up to the surface today and quite honestly I have no idea how to deal with it. (If I did, I wouldn’t have this problem, right!?) I do however, know what NOT to do. No breaking stuff, yelling, hitting, and so on. So my question, do you have any suggested yoga poses that can help to open and release some of this?” 

Her suggestions to do backbends like Camel, Cobra, and Upward Bow, and the kneeling arm sequence (Mudhra bind, Reverse Prayer, Half Eagle, and Half Cow Face) to  open the collarbones and extend the spine were followed by opening my hips. She said “it will free emotions and may lead to a sudden overwhelming rush of feeling, but it will help you work through them faster. These are poses like Garland and High Lunge, Wide-Legged Seated Forward Bend, and One-Legged King Pigeon I.” Then, after feeling better I tried an inversion like Downward Dog, Standing Split, Wide-Legged Forward Bend, or even Big Toe.

It worked marvelously. I felt so much better, but physical pain still remained in one particular spot. Physically, meta-physically, whatever, however it works out, that pain became a block for me and I never followed up on the rest of this chapter. So hear I am, reading the notes I made, with an awareness that detects the anger still there and hoping to break the cycle that consumed me before. 

Cameron asks a lot of questions of her readers.

“List any resentments you have in connection with this project?”

I wrote about my involvement as a consigned artist at Upstage Gallery.

  • having let the process of creating artwork go, earlier in my life.
  • feeling an expectation to have some of my work (but not too much) as the gallery manager.
  • feeling intimidated or superior to other artwork I see.
  • not having the space, time, money, or energy to do the work I want.

“Ask your artist to list any and all fears about the projected piece of work and/ or anyone connected to it.”

  • I’m afraid the work won’t be good, or won’t be presented as good as it should.
  • I’m afraid people will love it and come to expect things of me.
  • I’m afraid I will be judged.
  • I’m afraid it will be too expensive for others to buy- that I’ll be at a loss.
  • I’m afraid I will have to talk about my work with others who won’t really understand.
  • I’m afraid I will have to defend myself, my philosophies, and my methods.

“Ask yourself if that is all. Have you left out any itsy fear? Have you suppressed any “stupid” anger?”

  • Is that all?
  • Am I afraid of having things on display?
  • Showing myself to the world?
  • Afraid I’ll be made a fool?
  • Afraid I’ll have to make commitments that I’m not comfortable with?
  • Afraid I’ll have to face the old feelings that I once hid from with art?
  • Afraid I’ll have to face the feelings that led me to stop doing my art?

How strange it is, to go back to these notes I made! To see how deep the fear is… the fear that being an artist will force me to accept myself and my past. How strange it is, to see it all as a learning process. How strange it is, to see that I’ve been here before. Days ago, weeks ago, years ago. How strange it is, to move on, to move into it. And to understand that compassion can be a guide, as we move on, move into, and move through the world.

“We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.” ~ JOHN HOLT

 

 

 

 

listening to the trees

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There are times, when I am trying to tell my children something wise, that a smidgen of myself truly hears what I am saying. The recent revolving phrase in our home has been, “Not listening turns simple tasks into big problems.” I’ve said it over and over again. Then this morning, as I returned home from taking my oldest son to school, I heard it again. I truly heard it. I heard it in the trees. I heard it in the songs of the chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. I should be listening too. “Not listening turns simple tasks into big problems.”

Black-capped chickadee

Listening to the birds is easy. They put their song out to the world. But it is on those late winter morning that they burst forth with fervor that we are reminded that each of them has a unique song to sing. If we are fortunate enough to know their songs, a whole world of possibility emerges. Over the upcoming months I will wait patiently to hear the song of the black-capped chickadee to change from a raspy “chic-a-dee-dee-dee-dee” to a crisp and brilliant “springs-here…springs-here.” It is a reminder that a symphony is yet to come as the robins, juncos, flickers, doves, and sparrows return to the north.

While part of my spirit might belong to the birds, my heart resides with the trees.

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Sketches of some of my best friends.

Trees are some of my best friends. There are many that I know well, box elders, ashes, poplars, and oaks. There are some that I miss dearly, red buds, dogwoods, sweet gums, sycamores, and magnolias. Even from the furthest distance, I can still hear them. I can still know them. But perhaps they know me better. They bear witness to my being.

I missed these friends so dearly last spring that I took a solo train ride “back home” to the St. Louis area. I had come to the stark realization that I had been severely neglecting my creative inclinations. I took this trip to do a little soul searching, spend some time with my brother and sister, and listen to what the blossoming trees had to say.

Flowering dogwoods have so much wisdom imbued into those branches.

When I arrived in St. Louis, I could smell the blossoms in the air. It was a familiar perfume that overwhelmed the surrounding urban industries. I could smell the floral scent as I drove my dad’s car through the refineries of Wood River and East Alton. It was a comfort to know that something so strong welcomed me. The trees did look bigger. Grandma’s yard was much different than how I remembered. I knew that the apple trees I used to climb were long gone.

But the branches of other trees expanded out. There was less open space. Everything else felt smaller. Space is infinitely changing. Yet, mourning doves still occupy the edges of the yard. Squirrels are still fed and I am sure the horseradish still grows.

Everything is smaller. Except the trees.

Everything is smaller. Except the trees.

It seemed more like a process of recollection than recognition. Much like the processes young red bud branches undergo each spring as tiny delicate heart shaped leaves grow, nestled amid the perfectly intricate pink blossoms. eastern-redbud

With that recollection came a process of my own blossoming growth. I began to claim and maintain what was mine. I understood that the shades of colors that occupy my mind might not exist until I define them. In order to do that, I have to be willing to continue listening to the trees. 779154960_2767274445_0After all, that is where my heart is.

They continue to say,

Be strong. Be flexible. Grow. Be a refuge to others when you can. Reach for the sky. Prepare for the cold of winter. Celebrate the return of spring with running streams of sap and bursting buds of beauty. Embrace the warmth of summer and allow it to provide shade for others. Honor the turn of autumn with colorful confetti. Embrace what comes. Dance with the wind. Flourish within yourself. Don’t do. Just be. Continue to listen. Creation and existence is not without purpose, nor is it without love or pain. We have more to say.

rachel, in her natural habitat

the smallest steps take us the furthest

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Each of us is on a path. Sometimes we stray from it and we must remember it is never too late to turn around.

But what about when turning around means breaking down? We find ourselves at the bottom. Shards of glass scattered around us. We are spent and exhausted, knowing that we must get up and move. Move on.

Today, I look back at that place within myself and see how far I’ve come. The sun came out today, just for me. The wind is calm today, just for me. The snow glistens today, just for me. My heart listens today, just for me.

The world doesn’t seem so dark. It is as though I conquered something inside. I am standing tall. But I still remember.

I remember that fear and pain. I remember the sadness and grief. I remember the guilt and confusion. I remember feeling paralyzed. I knew that if I got up and ran, those shards of glass would find their way into my flesh.

Before I could even get up, I had to look at the pieces scattered around. I didn’t understand how it all fit together to begin with. I didn’t understand how it all fell apart. The idea of picking up the pieces was completely overwhelming.

I started with baby steps. When infants learn to walk they are excited and cautious. The bump into things. They fall down and cry. They try again. They squeal with delight. So did I.

I had to learn to walk again. Not so much in a physical sense, but emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually. I had to learn to breath again. I had to find my balance again. I had to care for my soul again. I had to find my path again.

Now that I feel like I am on my path again, I realize I am not alone. I am alive, just the same as you. I am human, just the same as you. I look back and expect to see the mess I left behind. Instead I see a story of strength, endurance, beauty, and triumph. A story I am glad to have overcome. A journey I am glad to be able share. Now I know just how far baby steps can truly take us.

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