Self Portrait

For the past couple of months I’ve been participating in another Abbey of the Arts online program. “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist,” a thirteen-week study into the archetypes of contemplative and creative – two of my deep affinities – was another of those intentional activities undertaken to flourish during these darkening, distanced days. Again, each week corresponds to a book chapter, this time, The Artist’s Rule, authored by abbess-host Christine Valters Paintner.

Too, each week follows a similar agenda. Monday is a live video session with a couple of hundred of us tuning in globally as Christine welcomes us into the week’s theme, guides us in meditative reflection and journaling, gives the week’s overview and invitations for creative process, and answers questions. Tuesday features a scriptural interpretation by Christine’s husband and theology teacher, John. Wednesday is devoted to the sacred practice of Lectio Divina, listening with the “ears of the heart” to a scripture or poem, pondering on a word or phrase that “shimmers.” Thursday and Friday are for creative expression via writing and or art making. Saturday for closing reflections and “catch up”; and Sunday for rest and integration – what I like to think of as the yogi’s savasana. Throughout we’re invited to share our reflections and comment to each other, with the proviso that no advice be given. Instead it’s the application throughout of what “shimmers.”

Last week – our seventh and midpoint – focused on “Inner Hospitality and Welcoming the Stranger.”  Scripture, Rumi’s poem “The Guest House,” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness” were frames for supporting the encounter with our inner strangers.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Hebrews 13:2

I’m struck how often synchronicity is at play, with the “unexpected” appearance of a poem, a podcast, a picture that deepens, resonates or brings a touch of humor. This favourite appeared on Facebook a few days before the week’s scripture:

Thursday’s creative expression was an exercise to get in touch with our inner strangers via “gush” painting. I welcomed this as an invitation to return to a practice I had left several years ago. I painted according to my teacher, Michele Cassou, and her intuitive process painting outlined in Life, Paint, and Passion: Reclaiming the Magic of Spontaneity.

I’ve written in other blogs about my experimentation in this process, but shared last week in the course, the “back story” of having bought Michele’s book for $2.00 where it sat on my shelf for a few years. That one summer, re-intrigued by the cover, I read it in one sitting. Mesmerized by the paintings, and knowing in my core she was writing truth, and that being sprinkled with Rumi, what was not to love? That I immediately searched online for a class and remarkably discovered there was a retreat being held in – of all places – an obscure little town where we lived before moving to Alberta. It took a few years before the stars and my schedule aligned, but I went for a week, for three consecutive years, to have the requisite hours to go to Taos, NM during my sabbatical year and study at Michele’s master class, where upon my return home,  I hosted painting weekends – a life saver for me and those many who attended, mostly women from work – each of us coping with the dismantling of our department and huge work stress-uncertainties.

Too, I shared that consistent with the “gush” practice, and how I entered into this activity, it’s never about product, but about process: attempting to paint spontaneously, allowing the colour and image to come to guide, without meaning or interpretation, without choosing, but following that often, nearly mute impulse. Typically, not shared, as like pages from a journal, paintings often reveal truths and vulnerabilities that others, upon reading or seeing, or our own critical selves, might judge, and then frighten and subsequently inhibit ourselves from expressing. So, too, when a painting is acclaimed, perhaps even a more insidious trap.

Given it had been a few years since I’d last painted in this way, so long that my tempera paints had dried, I took a “practice run”…just to get back into feeling the brush on the paper, my body into gesture, my head out of the way.

A second painting emerged, attracted to colours and a style that have always evoked creativity, life, vitality, desire, the ooze of life and inner fire.

“This is your body,
your greatest gift,
pregnant with wisdom you do not hear,
grief you thought was forgotten,
and joy you have never known.”

Marion Woodman, Coming Home to Myself, 1998

The third felt the most unexpected, unbidden, honest. A self portrait. Evoked perhaps from the poem I’d shared earlier in the week describing the impact of getting Bells Palsy in 2013.

“We have lived our lives
behind a mask.
Sooner or later
– if we are lucky –
the mask will be smashed.”

Marion Woodman, Coming Home to Myself, 1998

A powerful depiction of the often felt, though less obvious to the outside world – unless I’m stressed or tired – lingering effects: the loss of facial symmetry, the odd tingly sensations and itchiness especially around my nose and cheek, my mouth that droops, my eye that dries or tears up. Not chewing as well, nor singing because of the loss of strength in my palate. Even speaking can be challenging some days. A shyness that developed, though perhaps it allowed for a truer introverted aspect of self to emerge. It certainly broke open my life –shattering the mask that paradoxically invited in a truer relationship to self, in my marriage and in my life. With a daily felt and seen reminder of how lucky I am.

And, in another stroke of lovely synchronicity, this, from the Vancouver poet, bentlily, appeared on Facebook, hours after painting:

“When I start to feel nervous about letting my creativity run free, it’s always because I am afraid of what people will think of what I create. And yet wanting the world to love what you make is not the problem. It’s natural (and financially, it’s very reasonable!). The problem is when I start thinking more about “you” than I do about me…But I still have to trust that if I write my poems for me, you will come. Because if I am too preoccupied with how and what to write for you, eventually, no poems will come at all because I will have lost the “me.”

bentlily by Samantha Reynolds, Facebook, October 23, 2020

Here’s to creativity off leash. Wild and messy and free.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.