Second Helpings of Joy

Joy DietI’ve been reading Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet, a self-help/Life Coachy recipe for uncovering and going after your Heart’s Desire.  If you haven’t been in therapy for decades, and feel like there’s something missing or off in your life, this would be a decent place to start.

I started therapy when Ronald Reagan was President, so none of the material is new to me.  Still, I like hearing things presented in a new way, especially when the author has heart and a sense of humor.

Take her chapter on Treats.  These are the things/experiences we’re to reward ourselves for taking a risk toward that Heart’s Desire.  Very Pavlovian.  But Beck also wants her readers to give themselves at least two other Treats a day, just because folks generally don’t do that enough.  I liked that.

And Beck’s definition of “Treat?”  Anything that makes you feel like smiling.  Since most of us are programmed to grimace automatically in public, she gives homework to help the chronically repressed find what actually warms their cockles.  I like how she takes her readers by the hand, breaks each step to Nirvana into tiny, measurable actions instead of leaving them stranded in nebulous Woo-Woo Land.  And I like how she compares us to pigs.

So some of these ideas percolated in my hind-brain as I played with my art journal this weekend.  I worked on a cross-over spread, taking characters from a short story I’m writing and doing cool things with letters they’re writing to each other.  I adapted a Dixie Chicks song that I love and made it my character’s.  I treated pages from an antique, hand-written journal to use as their stationary.  It thrilled me to come at these characters and their story from a different angle, and to make something so gorgeous.

Claire&Richard BeforeBut, when I tried to write my new lyrics on this scrumptious paper, no marker or pen I owned made a consistent mark.  I worked for hours, going over the blotchy, ragged letters again and again.  It still ended up looking like a serial killer’s tease for the FBI.

I stopped when my hand cramped too much to hold a pen, and I was willing to let it go.  Some experiments don’t work.  That’s why they’re called experiments.

But as Henry walked across my shins in bed this morning, I got one of those lightbulb ideas.  The problem wasn’t with my pens, it was the paper.  I’d made it too slick.  How could I give it a little bite?

Clarie&Richard RedoI jumped out of bed and went to work, mixing matte medium with a few drops of gesso, adding paint, then taking fresh pages out of the hand-written journal and applying this concoction with a roller and paper towels.  I tested one corner with a gel pen before spraying the pages with fixative.  It took the pen beautifully.

The whole process filled me with joy.  Setting a problem aside, receiving the answer as I passed through the Creative Gold Mine between sleep and wakefulness, using media I didn’t own two months ago, and actually creating a thing the way I imagined it in my head.

Claire & Richard

When I finished the spread, I couldn’t stop grinning.  Here was everything I loved—my writing, my art, my music, Richard Armitage. . .  Layers of meaning overlapped like the layers of paper (I love a metaphor you can actually touch), and color fed some hungry animal inside me.

Probably a pig.

My Brain Hurts!

“What ‘real artists’ have is courage.  Not enormous gobs of it.  Just enough for today.  Creativity, like breathing, always comes down to the question, “Are you doing it now?”  The awful truth is that there is always one small creative act for which we can find the courage.  As with housework, there is always something, and all the little somethings add up, over time, to a flow.  Courage, after all is a matter of heart, and hearts do their work one beat at a time.” — Julia Cameron in The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart

Blogging is so incestuous.  I read David Kanigan’s post from Monday, and knew I had something to say about courage, comfort zones and whacking the scales off our sclerotic dendrites.  At least I thought I did.  Or I wanted to think about those things.  Or my ego wanted to jump up and down screaming about them.  In public.

Monster

I feel pretty brave.  Except when I don’t.  Driving out to Artfest in Washington this spring didn’t feel particularly brave.  Except when I got home and spent the next two months rapid cycling and ducking from my brain’s suicidal dodge balls.  Latching onto art journaling to keep from getting hammered by red rubber didn’t seem brave, just a case of self defense.  It never occurred to me that drawing and painting when I used to be too scared to do either might be stripping some of the plaque off my craft.

What really felt brave was buying The Hollow Crown and sitting down to over eight hours of Shakespeare.  It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so dumb.  I listened to the pretty words, knew they were an old form of English, but couldn’t translate them.  I could feel my brain straining, flabby gray-matter-muscles forced to climb a junior high fitness test rope.

Oh, but, the music of the language!  That was the liniment for my bruised brain.  Plus, Great Performances emptied out The Royal Shakespearian Theater to cast these four plays, so all the British actors I adore speak this unintelligible music.

Whose Superpower is Britishness

I take comfort that I’ve never read Richard II, Henry IV (either Part One or Part Two) or Henry V.  I have no bits of them embedded in my hind brain next to the passages of Romeo and Juliet Mrs. Christensen made us memorize in ninth grade.

And, yet, it feels brave to be dumb, to be a Monty Python Gumby shouting, “My brain hurts!”

Sometimes, being brave means finding the right anesthesia.  Sometimes it’s embracing my full-out Gumby-ness.  Either way, my art benefits.

And now for something completely different.

Welcome Home, Old Friend

Rage

Rage seems to be intrinsic to my flavor of bipolar disorder.  In a mixed state, where symptoms of both depression and mania manifest, my “manic” is some form of agitation—anxiety, compulsive behavior, or rage.

I made the journal spread above in the midst of anger so black and sharp I could barely breathe.  I painted over the picture on the right—mini-me with my dog, Rebel—then slashed at it with a steak knife.  The violence stunned me, violence aimed at myself, at the innocent and vulnerable part of me.  I painted in the gouges, then echoed the savagery on the opposite page.

I left it that way for several days, coming back to take in the images and process the layers of Truth I’d uncovered.

I used to believe there must be a reason I got so mad.  I used to sort through all the old betrayals, snubs, and layers of unfairness in my cheesecloth memory.  But, there’s no reason for my rage other than funky brain chemistry.  Trying to justify it only throws napalm on the fire.

Rage is just another part of me, like the creeping hopelessness that sits on the other end of the spectrum, like my blue eyes, like the way I put words or colors together.  And like everything else, the only thing to do with it is welcome it home.  That’s when I pulled Thich Nhat Hahn’s Anger off my bookshelf and found the words my Rage needed.

Today, this moment, contains no rage.  This morning I wrote in my journal next to The Dalai Lama:

Dalai Lama

“When the symptoms are big, there’s always this base undercurrent of failure, a deep Mariana Trench of wrongness, that awful and vague sense that I should be doing something else/more, that I should be something else/more.  It negates all that I do and all that I am.  It robs me of any satisfaction or sufficiency.  Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to these journals now.  They are so immediate.  The rush of rightness washes over me without any censor.  Pictures together tell an immediate story.  Color bypasses thought.  The soft texture of the Pan Pastels signals instant comfort, and I feel masterful… I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for this tool.”

Yes, I do.

The Adventure Continues.

Primatives

So Very Odd

100 Blessings

It just feels odd to be so creative and crazy at the same time. And yet… And yet, this is exactly who I am.  Somehow, I’ve come home to myself through the backdoor.  And it’s all okay.  More than okay, I’m at peace with the pain.  I can breathe through the hopelessness.  I find comfort during the hysteria.  I am living in a place of sufficiency even while the brain demons scream that I’m not.  And sorta loving that all this contradiction and friction seems to be making art.

My Blue Eyes

The Journey Continues

Breathing with my Fingers

As my current bipolar season continues, I’m ever so grateful for this new tool of Art Journaling.  Since there are several stages to creating a spread, I can always find some piece that will fit my state of mind.  Whether it’s pulling images out of my stash for the collage bits:

Civil War Spread

 

Or finding new ways to use text:

Air Spread

 

Or slipping into a Zen state while making boarders and lines:

Into the Storm Spread

 

Or trying out a new tool, like this very fine tipped Pilot marker:

Eyeballs

 

I can camp out at my coffee shop with my journal and let my illness be.

Megan, my therapist, said I’m not fighting it anymore, and that feels true.  It seems to be getting easier to accept whatever my illness brings—the quicksilver changes in mood, the sudden shifts in functionality.  Those things aren’t good or bad anymore.  They’re just me.

I still try to stuff myself into a “normal” sausage casing sometimes, expecting to move around in the world the way other people do.  But, as I sit with my journal, with all the space it creates in my head, I’ve started to unhook from those expectations and get curious about how I might move differently in the world.

Today, for example, I looked at how I keep trying to make commitments (like being on a committee or taking a class) when my illness makes that nearly impossible.  At some point, when my symptoms become severe, I’m forced to drop everything.  So, instead of continuing to bash myself over the head for being “unreliable,” perhaps there’s another way.  Maybe it’s a matter of showing up when I’m able.  I know the world doesn’t work this way, but I do, and I would like to honor that more.

More acceptance.  More integration.  That seems to be a by-product of all this artsy-fartsy stuff.  I’m breathing more with my fingers, slipping into meditation with color and line.  It’s a new kind of Practice.

I’ve come to a place with my art that I found a while ago with my writing—loving the mistakes and crap as much as anything that “turns out.”  The Shitty First Drafts and the Muddled Attempts are my best teachers.  They point me to the next piece of Practice.  They’re the ones who taught me to accept it all—my writing, my art and, of course, my bipolar disorder.

Funny how that all comes together.

I’m on a Funny Adventure.

Plato Says

Music is a moral law.  It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.  It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, and just, and beautiful. — Plato

Just obeying the Law and creating a modicum of order today with these two.

Coming Out

In my art bagJournaling in coffee shops is a big part of my MO.  It’s how I push the worst of the internal pain and distortion to my margins.  It’s how I remember who I am.  Journaling is vital for me.  It’s medicine.

Now that I’ve embraced art journaling, I needed to figure out how to make it mobile, how to make it as easy as my old $1 spiral notebooks used to be.  Some folks I met at ArtFest do their page set-ups at home and only journal out in public.  Some take a few art supplies.  Tracy likes to have people stop and talk about his journaling.  He even invites them to add to it.  Teesha wants to be left alone.

I put together a bag of supplies and launched.  It helped that our local coffee shop closed for a couple of days and reopened under new management—Georgina, a sassy, gregarious New Zealander who is bent on upgrading the food quality and increasing the friendly factor.  It seemed an auspicious start—new art form and new digs.

Lion Spread

Since I’ve journaled in public for years, I’m used to the odd personal inquiry.  I don’t get bothered much, but if folks see me as a regular with pen and notebook, eventually they ask what I’m writing.  I’m happy to share.  It’s also a chance to advocate as a person with mental illness.  Almost to a person, they are or know of someone with mental illness.  Conversation ensues.  Stigma weakens.  This is my superpower.

I’m finding that art journaling is a more open invitation.  First it was the coffee shop staff—mostly college and very young adults—who seemed drawn to my booth like fluttery moths to a flame.  They were fascinated, almost giddy, and inordinately proud that I did this weird thing in their coffee shop.  I’ve become a kind of celebrity with my little bottle of matte medium and magazine gleans.  They introduce me to their families.  They give me muffins fresh from the ovens.  It’s so sweet, and totally baffling.

Failed Michael

It’s much more visual, this art journaling thing.  My crap is spread out on the table and hard to miss.  Other caffeinators wander by and stop to find out what it’s all about.  And I’m happy to share.

These last few weeks have been rough, mental health-wise.  The Bad Thoughts never stop, and reality is a little hard to recognize.  When it starts to drag me under, I take a deep breath and go glue something or spread paint.  It helps.

girl on fireIn one of my buying frenzies, I ordered some old art ‘zines from Teesha Moore, the wonderful art journalist who organized ArtFest.  I figured there’d be lots of stuff to glean and pretty pictures to soothe my Brain-On-Fire (which would be my Hunger Games name).

In one of the zines from 2007, Teesha wrote an article about how she created an art journal page.  The more I read, the angrier I got.  She had lots of Do’s and Don’ts, particularly Don’t ever, under any circumstance, just cut a picture out and glue it to the page without altering it.  And then there was an endless list of art supplies—types of paints and pens, markers and pastels—all with their own Do’s and Don’ts.

I thought, no wonder I could never do this.  Complete intimidation.  In my righteous indignation, I created a FuckYou,ThankYou,Teesha spread in my journal.  Part defiance, part homage, I used some of Teesha’s techniques and a lot of swear words.  And it is glorious.

FYTeesha

Anger can light a fire under creativity.  It can conquer Defeat.  It can pound a fence post in the ground and say, This is as far as you get to push me.

A Brain-on-Fire can be terrifying and it can be an open door.  With May being Mental Health Awareness month, I’m happy to share.

 

Integration

IntegrationTwo weeks since I returned from my cross-country sojourn, and I still can’t find the words.  But, that’s never stopped me.  Words come.  They tumble down the nerve bundles from brain to fingertip and hit the keyboard all by their lonesome.  My mistake is in thinking I have to go looking for them.

A small part of taking this trip was curiosity.  ArtFest, my destination of record, was a gathering of art journalers.  I’ve tried art journaling in the past, even made my own journals, but it never stuck.  I journal—a fast, Artists Way kind of brain dump that vomits everything onto the page as fast as possible—and I make collage art—a multi-step process that can take days or months.

Could I find a way to combine the two forms?  I went to Port Townsend without a need to make it happen, just a willingness to keep an open mind and play with fun toys.

The question followed me from that creative crucible, down through the Redwoods, and into a conversation with my friend, Robert.  That’s the thing about people of a Buddhist persuasion—if there’s a question lurking in the back of your psyche, they’ll winkle it out of you, one way or the other.

So, in the course of our conversation, I blurted out that my real Work was to Be Me—to be in the world as mindfully as I could, to use all my parts (nefarious, broken or skilled), to accept them all, and just show up.

I almost looked around the coffee shop to see who was talking.  Words tumbled out of my mouth, prompted by nerve bundles attached to a question tucked in my gray matter.  Words I obviously had no control over.  Words that made absolute sense.

Travel Journal CoverI was talking about integration.  And I could feel it happening, like a broken bone knitting together or a spider spinning a fragile web across space.  And as I left Durango, the sensation continued.  I talked to it, held it gently, never pushing or setting expectations.  I wanted to see what it would do, not me.

So, I continued to work in the journal we made at ArtFest, pulling everything about my trip into it, creating something new, something more.  At the same time, I dug out the journals I’d made years ago and wondered what might happen in them.  And I pulled out my SoulCollage© materials, because they were another piece of this emerging creative process.

In a few days, the severe depression that usually peaks this time of year arrived—another part of me accepted and welcomed.  Not that the despair and hopelessness are any easier to ride.  I felt them drain my energy and confidence.  I heard all the old fears and horrors settle into their usual corners.  And as I sobbed with my therapist on Thursday, I also knew the pain and darkness as a valuable part of me.  This, too, Tara Brach might say.

Robin & Albert

I’m comfortable being the brave, battling, Bipolar Bad-Ass.  Proud, even.  But it’s much harder to let others see my seriously brain-sick self.  I feel too vulnerable, too liable to hurt myself or others with my pain, too out of control.  It’s part of the illness to want to hide, to keep the truth of it on a leash, to just wait until the cycle shifts and I can present as more-normal.  Instead, I joined my spiritual study group on Thursday—exhausted, incoherent, weeping—and felt the truth of integration even then.

My showing up touched each of them in different ways.  Etta called it a gift.  Martha said, “We want you with us, no matter what state you’re in.”  Chuck, whose daughter also struggles with BP, wishes what I have for her.

This is the path, then.  To use it all—in the world and in my creative efforts.  No need to look for words or have a plan.  I’ve got everything I need.

Westward Ho! Day 15

Kansas City, KS (7:30 AM) to Marshalltown, IA (11:45 AM). 252 miles.
Notables: Total Miles Traveled: 5031.

A short day on the road.  Honestly, I should have planned more of those, but oh well.   Live and Learn.

adultorientalcockroachIt was a frantic start as prehistoric-sized cockroaches scuttled out of the way when I turned on the bathroom light. Okay, I thought, no shower today.

I saw another one—doberman-sized—in the “living room.”  And when I shook out my robe, his bigger brother fell out.

Now, I’m not an insect weenie, generally.  I either squish bugs or catch and release to the outside.  But, this was sort of the Last Straw on my Exhausted Camel’s back.  I packed up in record time (checking to make sure I had no hitchhikers) and got the hell out of Dodge.  Or Kansas City, as it were.

Once I was on the road, I texted my host, said it was too bad we didn’t actually meet (he’d brought someone home with him last night.  You know bachelors.  I didn’t think it was cool to stick my head up from the basement to say hi), and why I bugged out so fast.

In all fairness, he apologized sweetly and gave me a partial refund (Okay, I did sleep in the bed, but really?).

Me&CorvusIn no time, I found myself back in familiar territory.  I stopped at my gas station, took a small token of thanks to The Cat Whisperer, put my valiant Corvus through the car wash, and went home to my boys.

And, of course, there’s a notice on my door that Radar, the bedbug sniffing hound, will be here tomorrow.  Sigh.  There’s no rest for the bug-conscious.

Home HenryBack to Real Life tonight—Chinese take-out, a movie, and purring cats.

It’s good to be home.

Westward Ho! Day 14

Lamar, CO (8:30 AM Mountain) to Roeland Park (Kansas City), KS (6:30 PM Central).  474 miles.
Notables: Jim Butcher’s audiobook Small Favor (laugh-out-loud supernatural fun).

Mourning Dove, Cabin Lake Viewing Blinds, Deschutes National Forest, Near Fort Rock, Oregon

Eastern Colorado got hot yesterday; upper 80s and dry as shed rattlesnake skin.  So, it was pure d-lite to open the windows of my shabby-chic turret room and sleep with the night air washing everything cool and clean.  Mourning doves woke me this morning; a sound I grew up on and always says home to me.  I’m close now.

Jane, my host, made a real breakfast for me and the family staying downstairs; a wedge of watermelon with blackberries and strawberries sprinkled on top, French toast with a warm orange/lemon sauce; bacon; and really good coffee.

Sour-Cream-Chocolate-Bread-from-ChocolateChocolateandmore-34aJane started B&B-ing twelve years ago, and like the other pro-hosts I’ve met on this journey, her hospitality far exceeds expectations.  She carried my heavy bag upstairs for me, even though I tried to stop her.  She came back in a few minutes with a cut-crystal glass of ice water when she saw my little fridge was out of bottled water.  A slice of her chocolate bread waited for me on an antique breakfast-in-bed tray.

Like Doris in Roseburg, Oregon, Jane did all these wonderful extras matter-of-factly.  Just part of the job.  But their businesslike demeanors cover fonts of generosity and genuine kindness.  These are the kind of ladies you want for neighbors, who show up when disaster strikes and get to work doing what needs to be done.

th736MWWNCI met the family staying in the downstairs room briefly when I arrived; a dad with a tween daughter and younger son.  Breakfast was pleasant with kids who weren’t too shy or too bored to talk.  And the dad had lovely manners (Jane and I were both “ma’am”).

He mentioned in passing that he wrote crime novels.  My ears perked up, but I didn’t pry; he didn’t seem inclined to talk about it.  I looked him up, though.  The blurb for his latest novel, Cry Father, claims:cry-father-9781476734354_hr

In the tradition of Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown comes a haunting story about men, their fathers, their sons, and the legacy of violence.

Cool!  I’m downloading that book tonight!

(He looks like a total bad-ass in that PR photo, but he was quite shy with a nervous giggle).

That was the fun part of the day.  The rest was… Kansas.  Like Iowa, there’s not much to see; a few cattle grazing, lots of wide spots on the highway that have names, gas stations and rest stops.  But my audiobook and the pull of home made me cheerful.  And a new witticism from my Navigator.

thDNKM0U8QA stretch of I70 is a tollway.  John announced, “Congested traffic ahead.  Cough it up.  That’s medical humour.”  And he gave a very Cleesian snort of disgust.  Just when I thought I’d heard all his funnies.

Tonight I occupy the basement of a young, professional bachelor.  He’s out to dinner at the moment, so I’ve let myself in (per his kind instructions) and set up shop.  Soon, my Ramen noodles will be burbling, and I’ll see about finding Ben’s book.

A good day.

Tomorrow… home.

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