Almost two years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, I picked up a paintbrush and revisited an old passion of mine. Drawing and painting have always been an interest but often existed in the background with only occasional inspiration. In recent years art has developed into a therapeutic means of self expression and has enabled me to access feelings that are often difficult to wrap words around.
When the pandemic began and my part time job was replaced with remote learning facilitation duties for my two kids, I dove into a creative project that I am now close to completing. I decided to dig through photographs from my favorite trips, places, and memories and paint them. I devoted a room in my house to hang all of these painted memories. As the months passed by more and more paintings were completed and added to this collection. The more I painted the more I enjoyed it.
Almost two years later and the walls of this room that I have devoted to this creative project are nearly filled. I still have plans to paint a few more, but this project is now nearing its end. The interesting part about this challenge that I ventured into is that now as I look back at my first paintings in this series I see them differently. I see parts that I like as well as ways in which I might approach the paintings slightly different – color choices I would tweak, composition choices I would alter, or details I know I can express better now.
Reflecting on this past art work has caused some deeper thinking. I can see in my paintings that my skills have improved over time. It may not be a quantitative measure like improving a test score or a race time, but I see growth in areas that I struggled with at the beginning, and I even see growth where I didn’t know I needed to grow.
As I sit here today in a space of personal struggle – with uncertainty of my value here – doubting my own self worth and purpose – perhaps my paintings can show me something I’ve been failing to see.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where we stand. Sometimes it’s hard to have the proper perspective to find the space that exists between our shortcomings, our own personal growth, and our potential. It can feel so dark and murky that it just feels safer to shrink down in place. Perhaps this reflection on my painting process can be a reminder to look back and remember the struggles that have been overcome and the growth that has occurred. Perhaps then it might be possible to pave the way for a new healthier perspective that has seemed otherwise impossible.
My daughter went through a phase when she was young where she brought a backpack with her everywhere she went. I’m sure this was a phase born from a variety of factors. For one, she was really excited about this new brightly colored backpack that was given to her. She also watched and wished to emulate the grownups in her life who carried important belongings with them in various bags. And she watched just enough kids tv shows, like Dora the Explorer, to know that she wanted to be ready for adventure at any time. So naturally her backpack was filled with everything that her young mind considered essential – a stuffed animal, a toy magnifying glass, a purple beaded necklace, and an empty metal mint container repurposed just in case she needed a place to collect and protect something very small. In her mind she was prepared for anything and carried these valuables with care wherever she went.
I too carry a backpack. But mine is different than the backpack my young daughter carried, and it’s different than the ones you see on the backs of strangers walking down the street. My backpack cannot be seen. It is only felt.
I cannot absorb the kindness of another while in their presence. I try. I sometimes get close. But something exists within me that prevents these types of messages from fully penetrating and resonating in front of others. Instead I have learned that in order for me to feel the full impact of another person’s kindness or support I need to pack up their words and intentions and take them with me. Much like the prized possessions wrapped up and placed in my daughter’s backpack, these messages are protected and carefully carried with me. Later while in solitude I can safely set my backpack down, unzip it, peek inside, and slowly let the messages emerge. Here they can get closer to me, slowly reaching the places within that they were meant for. I can feel a softening inside that was not possible while in the company of others. It feels different. It feels warm and safe and inviting. So I take my time with this process. I let their words linger, fluttering around me at first, weaving and dodging the swift countermeasures that occur from the dark places within. Slowly and carefully they circle around me before landing and softly soaking in. I feel a weightlessness in my chest that makes it easier to breathe. I feel a quieting inside that is almost as startling as it is refreshing. I want to savor these moments. I want to draw them out and let them last forever. So I hold on tight and try to replay their words and their support over and over again in my mind. This often works for me.
Although I wish it was possible to accomplish all of this in the moment, in the face of the one whose words I wish to absorb, that is not a realistic expectation I can place on myself at this time. Maybe someday. But for now my backpack system will suffice. This process has been a part of me for quite some time now. It’s been part of a purposeful progression – of slowly learning to let the kind words of another reach a place beyond the protective surface that tries to filter and distort them. It’s an intentional practice, and one I wish to improve upon.
Lately I have found myself in a recurring place of heavy struggle. My sense of self worth and purpose feels continually challenged by self destructive messages from within. I reach for options and solutions that simply feel like trapdoors, leading me to an ever sinking feeling that the message I am receiving from the universe is that I have no value here. It’s a painfully lonely and desperate hollow feeling that keeps finding me. I can’t see clearly when these thoughts take over, and I feel as though I’ve exhausted all viable options to find my way out.
Surrender is not a choice I wish to consider. So although feelings of being a burden or a soul sucking leach to others are immense at times, I continue to convince myself to reach out for help in the form of therapy and friendship connection. The support is there. I can hear it when I am in their presence. The messages are strong. I can recognize that I need to hold onto them and take them with me. But something isn’t working the same. By the time I reach into my backpack for their supportive words in private it feels like they have disappeared. I can’t find them. They’ve vanished. It’s almost as if a hole has formed in the bottom of my backpack and every ounce of supportive kindness that had been carefully packed in there now trickles out long before I even have the chance to access it. By the time I land in solitude, unzip my backpack, and reach inside I find nothing but dark emptiness. The messages have fallen out somewhere along the way and are long forgotten. I am left with nothing but the internal dialogue that I was trying to override in the first place. I’m left questioning if the messages and support were even real to begin with. Were they ever really there? Were they even meant for me? And why would I think I deserved them?
I keep looking for external ways to pull me out of this dangerous head space I keep finding myself in. What can I do? What can I physically put in place outside of myself to focus on to move forward? While I recognize that external factors cannot fix something broken within, I do know that momentum can be gained from putting certain outside pieces in place for myself. But when I continue to fail in these efforts and begin to spin in thoughts of hopelessness, I wonder how I can possibly continue to keep digging, clawing, and searching to find another way. Maybe nothing can stick. Maybe nothing will help. Maybe there is no outside option right now. Maybe instead of trying to find a way out I need to focus my attention and figure out how to mend the hole in my backpack.
Everyone has their limit. Everyone has their own personal breaking point. What’s yours? Do you think you know? Do you think you could tell if you were getting close to it? What if approaching this limit was like trying to navigate through a thick dark fog after being bound up and spun around in circles a few hundred times? How are you supposed to know where, when, and how to move when you are unable to even recognize where you stand in space? How would you know if you were standing at your edge – at your own personal limit? Maybe it’s only a matter of one step forward, or back, or to the side that spells safety or peril. But how could you tell if you were that close, and how could you possibly determine which way you needed to go?
Maybe you test all conceivable options. You outstretch your leg in each blind direction all around you, mapping the edges of safety with your foot as it carefully reads each surface like Braille. You find that you are trapped and can’t make safe progress unless you find another way. Something from deep within urges you to keep trying – to find another way. So with only the resources on and around you, you build ladders and bridges and try to make them long enough and sturdy enough to connect you to safety. But everything you construct seems to crumble under your own weight. You try to reinforce your failing ladders and bridges with nuts and bolts and duct tape and super glue and silly putty and bubble gum – with anything that might help – with anything that could make a difference. You try everything you can think of to help navigate your way out of this space. Yet you come up short – again and again and again. This leaves you with nothing but disappearing options. So you stand frozen in place for a while, thinking that maybe a new path will emerge if you can just think hard enough and be patient enough – because hope drives you to believe that a way out must somehow still exist. This flicker of hope is what keeps you searching – keeps you driving towards a belief in what might still be possible. You hang onto this hope. You need this hope. It’s your only way.
But what if while you are waiting and searching and holding onto hope the ground begins to crack and crumble and disappear beneath your feet. As you scramble for new options the edge you fear continues to creep closer and closer to you. You try to get smaller. You try to occupy less space than you require, folding yourself into a ball of crumbling hopeless self protection. Your efforts feel futile. You fail time and time again. You begin to feel a sinking force take hold of you – a convincing voice that echoes a message you do not want to own. Yet this voice tries to claim you. It’s message is loud and very clear. It leaves you questioning everything you reach for and everything you search for because none of it can actually be attained. In the end you start to believe this message. In the end it starts to become a part of you. In the end you realize that maybe chasing hope and purpose is nothing more than a fool’s game.
This series of art is inspired by the symbolic nature of the beauty within the changing seasons. It is a reminder to slow down, pay attention, and soak in the details of each moment. When I am in struggle painting helps to clear my mind and make space for thoughts outside of the ones that feel pressing and consuming. While I may currently find myself relating to these barren trees I see before me, a search within for a reframe guides my way towards more hopeful thinking.
“Take a breath and rest your weary soul – for life will bloom again.”
This series of art is inspired by the symbolic nature of the beauty within the changing seasons. It is a reminder to slow down, pay attention, and soak in the details of each moment. When I am in struggle painting helps to clear my mind and make space for thoughts outside of the ones that feel pressing and consuming. This painting is the result of an attempt to redirect myself out of a dark place.
Welcome to the 5th creation of my “Seasons” series.
“Meet me in the middle of your story when the soul is worn but wise.”
There is a hollow place that finds me. It knows me by name. Its reach can cover any distance I travel. Its strength can multiply, creeping and surrounding me as it wishes.
There is a hollow place that hunts me. It lurks and stalks and waits for the prime moment to pounce. Its jagged grip pierces and swallows upon contact, making it hard to distinguish where my body ends and its darkness begins.
There is a hollow place that seeks my surrender. Its isolating presence, although ominous and layered with pain, is familiar to me. Its constant company tries to convince me that my efforts to evade its grip are insufficient.
There is a hollow place that believes it has already won. It feels rooted inside of me. Can I possibly convince it that there is still fight left in me? Can I convince myself?
It knows where to find me Clinging and gripping Onto something hardly tangible It hovers nearby Waiting and knowing Its presence My reminder That what I grasp for Does not belong to me That what I need Exceeds what I can wish for