Notes from inside a pressure cooker…

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

—Frank O’Hara, “To the Harbormaster” from Meditations in an Emergency

I have until late October to disentangle myself from this life I am living, and hie myself off to South Africa in time to sail with my beloved round the Cape of Good Hope, Brazil-bound. I wake into each new day with a sense of urgency, now. I have known for at least a year that this was coming, but recently caught myself sabotaging my own plans…living in complete denial, procrastinating, snuggling even deeper into my burrow, willing myself blind and senseless to the looming deadlines. Even after Kris sailed on ahead, and his absence brought our plans into sharp focus, I have managed to push them out of my mind for days, weeks, whole months at a time. I continued to make plans that contradicted The Big Plan. Instead of sloughing my life off, I took on more commitments, more projects, invested even more in my Darwin life. I signed up for craft markets, for exhibitions, agreed to a few commissioned bookbinding projects, bought more art materials, ordered prints of my work, on paper and fabric (that I will now have to try and sell). In a completely unrealistic fog I have managed to convince myself that I can get everything done before departure, orchestrate some kind of ‘closure’ to my Darwin life, and slip away cleanly, all my if-onlies fulfilled.

I will be gone for some years and, whatever I could, I packed and loaded onto the sailboat that left two months ago. What remains here, with me, will have to stay here: packed away, to age and rot or somehow survive until our return. This thought sends me into a panic of greed and attachment. Suddenly, my stuff has become this heady drug that I am convinced I will perish without…never mind that I have had most of this stuff around me for years and years, and never did anything with it; now I want to use it all, pursue all those projects, make all those ideas come to life! Some days I feel like I am drunk…flailing, grabbing mindlessly at the things around me, desperate to somehow consume, absorb, take it all into me. My ego has associated itself with The Things I Own and The Things I Do for such a long time, that leaving all this behind is threatening it with annihilation. Without my arsenal of art and craft materials, without the labels ‘bookbinder’, ‘artist’, ‘crafter’, do I continue to exist?

It feels a lot like dying. When my best friend was diagnosed with cancer at 21, and given 6 months, at most, to live, her family and friends flew into action: suddenly she was getting guitar lessons and art lessons, lavished with new experiences, surrounded by doting relatives and friends. She, and everyone that loved her, was trying to make up for lost time, and cram as much of a rich, colourful, idyllic life into her last days. Not the grey, dreary stuff that she—like the rest of us—had been caught up with for 20 years: university, the struggle to stay afloat in the world, the little projects to generate some spending money, the daily stresses of rent, family troubles, relationships. In the end the Self reached out, at last, for those untouched dreams that had been locked down, kept in storage, awaiting a better, more opportune time, and brought them all out into the light. Desperately, greedily, fearfully—with death no longer just an abstract idea, but something close and palpable and very, very real—we finally find the courage, the focus, the desire to drop everything but the few things that our hearts, kept on a metaphorical diet of bread and water, have hungered for all their sad lives. Perhaps a little too late…and yet, not really too late. Even those things: the beloved, longed-for, dreamed-of things—even the joys of a Perfect Life spent only doing the Things That You Love—fall away, reveal themselves as unimportant, as inessential, as mere add-ons to a person’s true essence. “No regrets,” she said, over and over, the last time we could be alone together (and she not drugged up to the eyeballs nor in debilitating pain). “Today. I have today..”

When I say that packing up and leaving my home for I-know-not-what-lies-ahead is like dying, I am not trying to trivialise dying, but point out that there are lessons for living that can be learned from dying. There are lessons I come back to, over and over, from the way G. lived, and the way she died. I lose track of them often, dazzled by the color and variety of the world of form. I become attached to things, to situations, to ideas about myself or about anything else, that I then fight to preserve and hang on to, even when they are doing more damage than good to my life as a whole.
But sometimes, by grace, I am granted a moment of lucidity, and catch sight of myself scrabbling to hold on to shadows like a madwoman, hoarding and coveting imaginary treasures, fully caught up in the illusions. Sometimes the illusions are like Russian matryoshka dolls…one nesting within the other, so that I think I have popped a bubble of unreality and all is well, only to find out later that I and the first bubble were simply inside a bigger bubble.

Two weeks ago I was so sure that I had finally broken out of all bubbles when my job went back to just three days a week, and I had four whole days every week to throw myself into art-making and bookbinding and self-expression and all those things that I love and enjoy and associate with Who I Am. I could finally get down to tackling all those projects: each one hugely vital to my life, each one an absolute Must-Do on the list of Things To Do before I leave Darwin. I was going to use up all my Spoonflower fabric as well as paper and make 40+ hand-bound journals, that I would then sell at craft markets and in my ETSY shop over the next two months…along with some 500 postcards of various designs that I still have, and 50-60 giclée fine art prints of my work. I was going to try and produce another 6 paintings or so for the group exhibition “The Magic Garden” that is opening at the end of this month, as well as stitch half a dozen art dolls for another group exhibition happening in September. On top of that I was going to squeeze in some brilliant little earthenware and porcelain sculptures (to use up 45 kilos of clay, along with jars of underglazes and glazes, that I bought over the year…before it all dries out and goes hard as rock) that I have been dreaming up, plus make some one-off artist books…with lino printing, pop-ups, painting, embroidery, and mixed-media covers in high relief. I hadn’t even started to think about the time I would need to clean the houseboat and move my stuff into storag,e to make it liveable for the friend who will be moving aboard and looking after the place for us while we’re away!

Completely in denial, as I said, of what is possible, what is coming, and how much time I have left. Convinced that I don’t have to give up anything, that I can have it all, get it all done, use it all, somehow incorporate it all into my sense of Self, into a monument in honour of my talents, my aspirations, my ideas. Hubris, in other words. Not just any inflated ego…Egozilla.

This morning I got up and, filled with energy and ambition, primed new canvases to paint. While they were drying I folded and punched enough paper to make a dozen books. I started to stitch, calculating that it would take me a mere 8 hours to stitch up all 40 small book blocks. Then the thread snapped. It snapped again. And again. I spent half an hour splicing threads on just one book block. I looked for more thread and found that I have enough linen, here on the boat, to make just four books. Add to the To Do List: go ashore, cycle to Spotlight, buy 5 spools of linen thread for $70. I make a pot of coffee, discover that my stove gas is out. “Get LPG,” I add to the list. Lunchtime comes around, I only have 4 books stitched, I am out of thread, I’m starving but don’t have gas to cook lunch on. I have a headache. A guy who wanted me to make a huge 9 x 12 inch full-leather guest book for $70 dollars has told me he’d like to double the number of pages (from 100 leaves to 200 leaves) and wants me to throw in embroidering the title “just in some pretty, curly lettering” in gold thread on the leather covers…like this is just a little extra eye-candy that I should be able to manage without dramas. I send him a message saying I want $120 for the book, now, because it is heavier, will need to be made stronger, will prove difficult to fit all on one little piece of kidskin leather, adding that I have to embroider fancy letters through the rubbery skin of a dead animal with a needle and get it all positioned and centered perfectly for when the covers are made…all-in-all, a job that wouldn’t attract a sane person if she was charging even $350 for it, bearing in mind that this is starting to look like a 12-hour job, and I can earn $140 in 8 hours at Jacksons, putting tubes of paint in paper bags, smiling, and ringing them up on the register for customers. I’ve had no reply. Yet. The day gets old, the sun is on its way down the sky, now. I needed THAT commission like a hole in the head!

Like the linen bookbinding thread, something in me snaps. What am I doing this…ANY OF THIS…for? My beloved is in Africa, “living for a living”, while I try to plough my way through all my art materials and bookbinding stock so that I can maybe sell some at a craft market and be, at the most optimistic, a thousand dollars richer before I leave this place? In the meantime things run out and more spending is required simply to keep going, to keep getting up on free days in order to paint more things that may or may not sell at exhibitions? I’d have more money if I just stopped trying to make money and sat here, watching the dolphins hunt in the shallows for shadowy barramundi…

How could I have deceived myself like this for so long? What did I think lay in these last few months in Darwin that was so damn precious that I had to stay behind for it? Was it just the ego-fest of being included in a couple of group exhibitions (where you make 8 paintings in the hopes of selling two)? Was it fear of the unknown, and of going into it with very little material possessions? Was it the smug satisfaction of loading table, chair, boxes  into the dinghy and then paying a taxi $40 to get it all to the craft fair, where you stand on your tired feet as idle shoppers drift by, touch everything you make with hands that were, moments before, engaged in the eating of ice-cream or cupcakes, then toss you the ego-stroking (but otherwise worthless coin) of a compliment before moving on to the next stall (because they are just bored and have come—with their prams and their rugrats and their grumpy husbands—to be entertained, but don’t actually want to pay the money that someone—who punches and sews sheets of paper together by hand—is asking?

 

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14 thoughts on “Notes from inside a pressure cooker…

  1. i dunno. maybe it’s not ego so much as authenticity. it’s *you* attempting to indulge in a bit more at the end of this phase of life. it’s you who underestimates the time it takes to finish a mental to-do list of projects because of how much enthusiasm you have for these things you’d love to do. if you were suddenly good at time management and completely realistic and perfectly organized, you would be a different person, probably with different values. if “living for a living” is next on your list, then what pressure is there to be a person who prioritizes or particularly values these efficient & organized variety of traits? i think it’s awesome you’re choosing a life that doesn’t compel you toward placing these at the top of your list of values (they’re over valued, i think; society in general would rather us have those traits and be riddled with anxiety than give us some flexibility so we can enjoy life with a bit of serenity). anyway, if that’s just who you are, a person who is feeling an impulse to cling to art materials and the use of them in hand-construction, and they remind you in one big finale at the end what you’re good at (in part because you spent much of your time and energy cultivating these particular talents), then you’re just being who you are, at least who you are right now. maybe that will change and evolve during your journey, but i say, you’ve got a big journey you can spend watching these changes happen, so why not let this period wrap up without premature interruption? and savor this last bit of now. not trying to derail you from being responsible, or considerate of the friend who’s going to move onto your boat. but i delighted in all the wonderful details of all the artful processes you’d hoped to participate in in these last two months, even if you couldn’t possibly complete them all. sometimes i think there’s too much spiritual mumbo jumbo we get tangled up in that convinces us that certain things should be sidelined in importance due to some abstract tie to “ego” (though i’m not sure what makes that bad, if that’s our nature) instead of just the beauty in human talent for self expression and the wonderful variety of modes of fulfillment through engagement of our senses. i say, don’t listen to people who try to sort experiences of joy into categories like ego-driven and some other, supposedly more pure category. there are pitfalls and endings to everything, absolutely everything, no matter how we go about it, and unabashed enthusiasm, which you so obviously have for creating things, is (i think) a pretty fantastic way to experience the world. even if it ends abruptly or messily. =)

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    1. LOL This is just too much analysing for me, forgive me if I pass on a point-by-point reply! I know it was ego because I wasn’t feeling very happy about the procrastination, even though it took the form of doing something I normally enjoy. painting for money isn’t exactly a labour of love, anyway, as one tends to pander—consciously or subconsciously—to a market. It was really just a determined refusal to face certain unpleasant jobs, and the fear of going naked, as it were, into parts of the world I didn’t know.
      Hmm, I don’t think the ego is natural, I believe it’s a form of cultural conditioning, and I believe that if you let it, it will run your life and make you miserable, because it is never satisfied and opens the path to being dissatisfied with everything. But that’s me.
      You’re right, had I decided to keep on painting and making, I should have at least done it with all of my heart, then at least it would have been ‘authentic’, as you say. As it was, I long more than anything to be with Kris, and it just isn’t going to happen if I don’t get off my butt and do the unpleasant stuff, first. Nobody’s going to do it for me.
      So I’ve struck a happy deal with my heart. I pack down 95% NOW, and in the weeks left over I may work on a handful of leftover projects, but at least the bulk is done and I can drop my brushes and go. 🙂

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      1. aw, well, i guess i didn’t read earning from your art into the motivation to do more of it… maybe i assumed you thought that selling it, and thus, earning money from it, was a justification to do more of what you love. you do sound awfully smitten with your art materials, in and of themselves. =)

        i’ve been reading up on how to be a good parent, in preparation for becoming one. the more i read, and explore ideas about how everything children do is just them meeting their needs, and it’s my job as a parent to facilitate that without coercion or shaming them for things done “wrong”, the more i believe i owe the same to myself, my spouse, my friends, people i meet. and it’s amazing how much easier it is to grow and change in an environment devoid of value judgments or expectations. to me, labeling something as ego-driven is inherently a value-laden judgment, and therefore limiting one’s most natural growth and development. if someone is ready to grow to a different way of being, it’ll happen, and if they’re not ready, it won’t. i think the label puts weight on the person, and that slows readiness.

        sometimes i find myself judging something about myself, and even just hearing from someone else something positive about that aspect of myself will remind me i’m caught up in self judgment, and i’ll remember to be more gentle with myself. i just thought i was sharing kind words with you along these lines.

        i hope they felt that way!

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        1. Oh, and I hope my reply didn’t come across as snarky! I did recognise that you were being kind and trying to be helpful 🙂 It’s too hard, by reading one blog post, to actually know the whole story (if I tried to write it, it would never end) and there’s a lot that gets left out, so you can’t be expected to know where I’m coming from or how well I know myself. There’s also the imperfect interface of a language that, while identical on the surface, is often understood in completely different ways…my definitions of ego, for example, may not be the same as yours. That’s just the limitation of the internet (and the brevity of a blog post. doesn’t help!) It doesn’t seem very likely that a mere 2,000-word-essay encountered in the blogosphere will explain or reveal very much.
          But thank you, Jamie, for giving it your time and consideration, and for sharing your own experiences on the journey! 🙂

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  2. I’m astounded by this post because it is all the thoughts and feelings that I have had in the last few years. I keep going away for long swathes of time and then coming back. Each time is such a wrench to leave my work, my pottering, my making and my THINGS and then when I do eventually go I wondered what I was hanging on to? Then when I return I start all over, buying in order to make, making and committing. The thing I am beginning to learn is that the creativity that I hone on a daily basis, cooking, arranging, writing, sketching is as satisfying to my being as selling, exhibiting and striving to make a professional presence. I’m learning to let it all go and observe and be and accept that with all the will in the world I cannot make everything I want to make. Including money.
    For you? Make a big one off sale of work, a one off event, featuring you and all your wares. Would they let you do it at work? One day with lots of hype, sell as much as poss and then begin the pack down. You have to go on this trip. I, for one, want to read everything that you write or draw or create because of it. There’s the art, right there in that adventure waiting for you to join it. The rest is flotsam. Take paper, paint, pencils and pens. You are an artist but it is becoming ever more clear that you are a writer. A glorious one.
    Just saying’
    {*}

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  3. It doesn’t seem to matter what you write about. When you put “pen to paper” the words always make me feel as if the English language is still wonderfully intact. I wish you would write a book….a long one!

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  4. We’re built to identify with what we have and what we do. Our mind wants to protect our ego, wants us to believe that’s who we really are. Overcoming this is the work of a lifetime. Be patient and kind with yourself. And remember you aren’t alone — the rest of us have the same struggle, whether we recognize it or not.

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  5. Dear Nat, you really opened your heart (or was it your soul?) in this blog entry! I was really touched by it. I think I know what you’re going through a bit, since I have reached the point of “just leaving it all behind”; those things I planned to do for years when I would “retire”. I imaged who “G” might be, since she was a dear and wonderful young person when she died. I’m not sure I can send you the book that Bri made for her family; I have forgotten how to print it out as the delightful little accordion–fold book it was planned for. I also am missing some of the links, like the words on the sign post…if I can’t send the PDF I just made of the file here, I’ll send it attached to email… love you!

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  6. Thank you for sharing this. There is a lot here that I recognise in myself and you may just have given me the push I need to off load all the unnecessary and do what really matters…bring it on Egozilla, I can handle you! H x

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    1. Thank you for receiving it with an open mind and heart! I was just trying to be honest…with myself, above all, and expose my dirty habit of self-denial by sharing it with others. Harder to go on lying when everyone knows what you’ve been up to. 😉 I am so happy that it resonates with you.

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  7. Beautiful, thoughtful and inspiring post. I so agree that the mundanity of life can overwhelm our bigger picture – and what a bigger picture, you lucky thing! Even in my non-boat-travelling-around-Africa neck of the woods I relate strongly to your words today. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, I was just trying to open the guilt up, lay it bare, shine a light on it…seems to resonate with a lot more people than I expected! I hope I am actually learning something, moving forward, and that I don’t find myself on the other end of five years in S. America, clinging to yet another ungainly shell of stuff and identity, hating the thought of going back to Darwin, which I didn’t want to leave in the first place! Thank YOU for such an open, sharing response. 🙂

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