What did I do?

Once upon a time — somewhere between the evangelical Christianity I embraced when I was in my late teens and the Catholicism which is my current spiritual path — I studied Zen Buddhism for a while. Parts of it stuck — fit rather nicely, in fact, with the mysticism which is part of the Catholic spiritual tradition.

Other parts I haven’t thought about in years. Karma — the Eastern version of “you reap what you sow” — fits in the latter category. But with the way my holiday trip to visit the grandest of twin girls (and their parents) is going, I have to wonder what god I angered.

My misadventures actually began shortly before Christmas. I volunteered to work on Christmas Day, both because I wanted the moms with young children to be home with their families and because the holiday pay would come in handy since I knew I’d be missing a week of work. (It actually will be more than that because at the last minute the owners decided to close for about 15 hours, and the two employees affected were desperatedly in need of the income they lost, so I gave them some of my hours in compensation.)

However, though I volunteered to work on Christmas Day, I had no intention of treating the day like any other. I decided to bake cookies to give to customers. I started by mixing oatmeal cookies with coconut and chocolate chips. The dough had to be refrigerated, and I failed to resist the temptation to sample it. I bit down on a chilled chocolate chip and broke a tooth — a week before my dental insurance kicks in and at a time when Custer (and most professional offices in the area) were closed for an extended weekend. As a result, I’ve discovered a new diet plan — eating very, VERY slowly — and Oragel’s effectiveness. Unfortunately, it’s only to be used four times a day.

Fate ended up having the last laugh regarding that. Both my niece and one of my brothers brought me Christmas goodies which my trip would prevent me from enjoying, so I shared them with customers on Christmas Day and my oatmeal cookies were frozen after baking for later consumption. In fact, the only cookies I contributed to my goodie tray for work were a few spritz (the old-fashioned, high cholesterol version with real butter and egg yolks, that melt in your mouth).

On Christmas Day, I planned to visit my 95-year-old neighbor who doesn’t get out much but has a sharp mind and is a delightful companion. Unfortunately, I had to go into work early to do some bookkeeping and didn’t get out of church as expected because poor road conditions delayed our priest (who serves three far-flung parishes in Western South Dakota) so that Mass started late. Because I couldn’t leave for a week-long trip without visiting her, my to-do list for yesterday was lengthened.

That, and an impulsively-made decision to apply for a position with the diocese, delayed my departure so that I wasn’t able to go to a movie with Katie as planned. In all honesty, I must blame myself for that. I’m the kind of person who needs to clean the house and do the laundry before taking a trip. If I wasn’t so obsessive about leaving my home in order, I probably could have left before the roads started freezing. As it was, I not only missed the movie, but was also negotiating winding mountain roads at dusk at 45 miles per hour.

Before going to my niece’s home, where I spent the night so that I could catch my early-morning flight, I made an emergency gift stop. I had with me a small blanket for Avery since I will need to fix “Yellow,” the knitted blanket with which she’s slept since she was born, but I had nothing for Paige. At the store I was struck with the brilliant scheme of getting the girls some fingerpaints. For some reason, I thought the cut-off size for liquids and gels in carry-on luggage was four ounces. I was wrong — it was three, so the paints remain behind, (but I do have a cute bear for Paige in my backpack).

While Katie was able to get me to the airport in ample time this morning, a mechanical problem — the toilet didn’t work — delayed the flight so that I missed my connecting flight in Denver. At present, I’m sitting in a small alcove, sipping a strawberry smoothie because it requires no chewing (despite the sign that says “NO food or drink”), writing this, wondering how to kill another five hours before the flight upon which I — Sara, actually — was lucky enough to get a seat, and wondering what I’ve done to merit this series of misadventures.

I suppose it really doesn’t matter. Tomorrow, I’ll see my darling girls and will undoubtely forget all these little frustrations. It’s amazing how the smiles of grandchildren can erase any number of woes!

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Simple Gifts

I had to walk away.

I simply had to walk away. I had been painting for nearly three hours, knew the painting wasn’t finished, but also had no clear sense of what it needed to take it from a work in progress to “yes!” I suppose that’s a strange way to express the sense of rightness that indicates a work is complete, but that’s about the only way I can say it.

I will be working on a piece, make a brushstroke of some sort, pause and know that I can do nothing to improve it, that another stroke may well be the one that takes it from finished to overworked, from “yes” to “shit,” from satisfaction to a strong desire to simply trash it. It’s entirely intuitive and, at the same time, based on years of practice and experience. It’s that inner sense that knows, that simply “knows.”

At this moment, I’m oddly grateful to have experienced the inner prompting that said, “Take a break.” It’s a grateful joy, actually, the joy of seeing an old friend and knowing all is well even though the hiatus between visits has been years. It’s a homecoming of the most profound kind, a coming home to self.

That probably sounds overstated, but it’s nothing more than simple truth.

I am painting again. Regularly. In an improvised studio with a small table-top easel (since 19 months ago I gave away the easel that had been my companion for more than 25 years, having not used it on a regular basis in ages). I am painting.

It seems like a miracle in my life at this moment. In 1979, I took my first art class and discovered an unexpected joy in creating images. Through most of the 1980s, I painted on a regular basis for the simple pleasure of the activity. I used to say that painting kept me sane.

In August 1989, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago, seeing work by Masters in person for the first time. Cezanne. Van Gogh. Renoir. All of the Impressionists that I had studied in books and magazines were before my eyes and I could see the way they manipulated paint. I could see the way they used color.

I had an epiphany that day I didn’t share until years later. I realized that if I did not paint, my life would be wasted. I returned home and began, in typical fashion, to begin conducting research. By early the following year, I had one-year, three-year and five-year goals as well as an action plan. Slightly more than a year later, I had achieved all of those goals. All of them.

And seven years later, I was well on my way to supporting myself as an artist. With a grant that I had been awarded, it would no longer be necessary for me to juggle art activities with two jobs. I could pare my life down to one part-time job and some artist residencies in addition to my own creative work. Nearly a decade of hardwork was beginning to bear fruit and I was excited.

Then, the phone calls started. A small art center needed a director and the caller felt I would be perfect for the job. For months she called. Eventually, the part of me which cannot resist helping others, if it’s at all possible, persuaded the part of me that knew deviating from my plan was a risk to accept the position.

It was a disaster. Eighteen months later, I was out of work, burned out and profoundly depressed. I stayed in bed for days on end, ate Cheetos and Hershey’s chocolate bars, and repeated to myself over and over like a mantra, “I cannot leave my girls motherless. They have no one else. I cannot leave my girls motherless. They have no one else.” Those words stood between me and suicide.

Eventually, I found another job and started painting again — not the elaborate pieces that I had been exhibiting, but landscapes. I was finding my voice as a plein air artist when I answered the siren call of another nonprofit and history repeated itself. That time, lifting myself from the ashes like a phoenix did not involve painting. I did some scrapbooking for a creative outlet, but essentially forgot how to use a brush.

And then, in October, I saw a listing in our diocesan newspaper for a one-day retreat called “Prayerful Painting” at the local monastery. I signed up, got cold feet and went anyway.

I still cannot believe the dynamic that was unleashed in me that day. Sr. Terese Marie began by giving each of us a leaf to draw. As I worked, I was taken back to 1979 and my first art class with Signe Stuart, an incredible artist whose work continues to be exhibited around the country. She, too, had us draw a leaf as one of our assignments.

As I worked, I thought of Signe and the way she encouraged me. In some ineffable way, she saw the artist in me before I did. On a spiritual level, I realized that God, too, sees me and the gifts that are mine to express into his world before I know them myself. That was a profoundly healing thought, coming as it did at a time when I’m working in a convenience store, joking about the downward mobility of my life, and trying to come to terms with working at a job that is by no stretch of the imagination a professional position.

I left the retreat with an inchoate understanding that I still have gifts to express into the world and a strong sense that I need to start painting again. In the following weeks, I cleaned out the second bedroom in my apartment, which had basically become a storeroom, set up my improvised studio and began to work.

Most mornings, unless I have other commitments, I get up, make coffee, feed the cats, scoop their litter, grab a freshly-brewed cup of coffee and head for my studio. There, I work for two or three hours before cleaning my brushes so that I can spend some time in prayer and eat before going to work. In the past month, I’ve completed three paintings and have a fourth nearly done.

Granted, the paintings are small — only 11 inches by 14 inches, much smaller than any of my previous work — and the subject matter is slightly absurd for an artist known primarily for unconventional portraits. I’m painting leaves — not clusters of leaves; each painting is essentially a portrait of a single leaf. I picked up four one day while scouting Custer State Park for possible painting sites and carefully store them in a wooden cigar box.

I should probably be embarrassed by this activity, but I am not. Rather, each time I am simply grateful to be working again. I call the series — and I think of these paintings as part of a series — “Simple Gifts.”

The double entendre is intended. The subject matter is simple and the act of painting is a gift in my life. But the title also refers to the Shaker hymn written in 1848, a hymn I first heard in high school as part of Aaron Copland’s “Appalacian Spring.”

“‘Tis the gift to be simple,
‘Tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”

This place in my life is undoubtedly just right. This place is a valley of delight.