The Illustration Friday word of the week is light.
Monks and mystics have always known that to remain connected to one’s own deep spirit, it is frequently necessary to fly away, disconnect, step-back and go inward. But despite expressions like, “far from the madding crowd” that come from every part of the world, most of us will not stop our frenzied lives until the knock of Spirit is literally at the door. Even vacations are often hectic, crammed with as much ‘fun’ as possible. “The Gods have become diseases,” Carl Jung wrote, and it is now our diseases, depressions and malaises…our creative blocks…that finally drag our attention away from the head-long rush of everyday life. We have waited too long to return Home, and so Home, missing us, has come calling…
❅ ❅ I forget that there are winters. I forget that Life is a circle, that there are seasons, beginnings and endings, that there is an ebb and a flow to everything–even creativity. When a creative winter comes, slowly and stealthily at first, then boldly enveloping everything in its cold grip, I am always surprised, then shocked, angry…and finally simply depressed. In the grips of a creative winter, it is all too easy to lose sight of the truth that winter, though painful, is only a season. That winter ends and spring returns, bringing with it the creative light. I forget that.
A creative winter can come for so many external reasons: an illness, a trauma, woes of any variety, a series of rejections, plans and hard work come to naught…but most often, a winter arrives because one has been too long, too far from Home. It is time to return: to relax, to trust, to rejuvenate, to reconnect, to contemplate and to listen. It is the winters that show up suddenly (when things seem to be going so very well) that shock and remind us that creativity is not a gift to be taken and run with, but one to be consciously thankful for every day, year-in and year-out. Discipline, derived from the Latin word for ‘disciple,’ is what I’m talking about here. And in the rush of life, especially when it’s sweet, I forget my discipline. Then a creative winter comes calling for me, once again…
“What can I do??” the Handless Maiden cries in her despair. It’s like that in the middle of a creative winter. “Nothing external,” is the unwelcome answer. All “doing” must become internal, moving along like a cold river still flowing beneath a foot of winter ice. Fish hug the bottom, frogs burrow into mud, dust gathers on the drawing board. Listening, waiting, watching the imagination throw up image after image on the internal screen, helpless to bring any of it into form. Self-worth takes a beating in a creative winter, and the studio waits more patiently than my anxious pacing and mutterings.
What does one do in the midst of a creative winter? Drink more coffee perhaps, or more alcohol? Force the issue or numb the pain with something, anything? These never worked for me. I feel…and look like I feel…the full weight of creative disconnect. Days, weeks, hopefully not months–I never know how long the winter season will be this time. I rail, I grieve, and finally, remembering, I sink into waiting and listening. While I wait, I ask myself many heart-to-heart questions, look at art that inspires, I walk, I talk to others who understand, I read and journal, and I make paint swatches and experiments until even that becomes somehow too hard. I do my best to not watch time going by. All day long in the back of my mind, and sometimes even in my dreams, paint and pencil kiss paper and blossom in glorious color and form. I can almost touch these creations, and yet I can hardly lift a pencil. My studio becomes a place of agitation, then mourning, and finally surrender. I am forced to return Home. Straining gets me nowhere but more deeply mired. Will spring never come again, I wonder?
But a creative spring eventually does come in its own mysterious time. It comes like a slow thaw, a tip-toeing trickle of movement. The paper calls, the hand makes lines that are more than grocery list and, once again, the brush can lay down paint. When that point comes, relief overwhelms me. Every winter’s cycle I endure strengthens the gratitude I have for my gifts, and a weakening of any sense that I can do it all on my own, thank you very much. Winter humbles me.
For those who have yet to experience a creative winter’s icy chill, rest assured: it is not death, not the end of something…simply the flow gone underground for rest, reconnection and the mysterious growth of roots and bulbs in the chthonian darkness of gestation. A creative winter never leaves us where it found us…we resume our work somehow a few steps further along, with more skills, clearer vision, greater understanding of tools, images, purpose and our own unique gifts. It is as if somehow we had been working all along, just beyond and beneath awareness.
My own recent winter has brought greater clarity, more trust (and more joy) in my heart’s persistent choices: watercolor, works on paper, pen-pencil-ink, line and luscious color, small-scale, and the inspiration of learning stories: folk, fairytale, myth, symbol and archetype. It has also brought me a taste–just a taste–of freedom from the judgements of others, and a glimpse of the possibility of putting my life, my art, in the hands of something incomprehensible but infinitely friendly, something unseen but so much more powerful than politics, economics, authority figures and the vagaries of “cool.” There is immense peace in this glimpse of life without efforting and I hope I can remember this, live this more consistently. It means going Home more often.
Coming back to life here in my studio, it seems fitting that the three drawings ready for paint just before the creative freeze hit were these: Alice falling down the proverbial rabbit hole…a shaman calling on unseen powers…and a new, watercolor version of my vintage oil painting, “Demons to Tea.” Suddenly I am eager to finish them, no longer flat-lining in the enthusiasm department. In another time and place, I’d be offering up a blood sacrifice in gratitude for this sweet change in the winds of creativity. For now, I will light some sage, do a little dance…and simply get back to work with my newly reborn hands. Natalie Goldberg said it best in, Writing Down the Bones: “Trust in what you love, continue to do it and it will take you where you need to go.”
As Northern California heads into its own Winter season here in the foothills, I am giving thanks that a creative spring is once again blooming (or should I say flowing?) here in my studio. A New Year approaches, and anything could happen.
“Flying House” (watercolor, pen & ink, pencil)