Adventures in Altered Art

Back in January I finally decided to sign up for a workshop with Seth Apter at one of my favorite little, local art shops, Collage. Today was the day.

It has been hard this past several weeks. Igal’s death has been a dark pall over the bright flowers of spring. I was really quietly pleased that despite the grief, anxiety, PTSD triggers, illness, exhaustion and busyness of April, I still managed to put together 30 poems in 30 days.

In the cleaning, sorting, distributing, and dealing with Igal’s apartments, which his closest friends took on, some of his things were sent to, or set aside for people. I helped in the initial days, the apartment was easier to deal with than the meetings to plan his memorial. In the final days our friends decided some things should be brought to us.

Japanese ceramics, a collection that seems to have no theme beyond being pleasing to Igal at some time has been brought to CK and I. I look forward to serving festive dishes, particularly Japanese ones, on these beautiful dishes. At future Thanksgiving dinners it will give me a way of continuing to include Igal, despite his being gone from this life.

Igal’s Lovely Japanese Dishes

In January, when I’d decided to attend the workshop, I had so looked forward to discussing my ideas about it with Igal. He had encouraged me to explore using acrylic medium for my artwork. At one of our infrequent, but wonderful Art at Koehler Haus days, Igal sat with me and shared his acrylics to help me learn how to use them.

Another gift of our friends was a decision to bring Igal’s art supplies to us. Today I had Igal with me; I brought his paint box with me to class and used many of his acrylic paints and glaze in the start of my project today. I am so humbled that our friends thought these things should come to me.

Beginning the Workshop, with Igal’s paint box.

I was so nervous this morning before heading to the workshop. All the usual feelings of inadequacy, of “pretending” at art.¬† CK gave me a kiss before leaving, encouraging me.

Our instructor, Seth Apter, was great. He immediately assured us that we would most likely not finish! Such a relied to be assured that 54 small collage pieces was a tall order indeed!

We quickly got to work on applying black gesso to all 52 playing cards and a piece for the front, another for the back.

Gesso Down!

He reminded us right away to not forget to work on the cover and back pieces, on book board, pieces in addition to the 52 playing cards. The black and the beauty of metallic, gold acrylic inspired me to create a small Enso. I will admit that it felt really very good when Seth complimented it, showing it to the other workshop participants, and recognizing it as an Enso.

Cover with Enso

Next we were encourage to apply some layers, at least one, of acrylic paint. My colors were all fairly rich and dark, against the black gesso they mostly implied a suggestion of color, which was pretty lovely.

Layers of Acrylic Paint Over Gesso

Then we were to set aside one side for adding text. Eventually my book will have poems by Hafiz and Rumi appearing on these pages. To the other side we received instruction on how to mix the acrylic paint with glaze to make sheer, translucent layers of color over the black gesso.

Layers and Layers of Acrylic Glaze

Next¬† came time to apply collage layers. Here’s where I felt a little lost. I’d thought I’d seen the boxes of paper and emphera I’ve collected these past handful of years, but I only found the small box of the smallest scraps. Given that we’re altering playing cards, it was really just fine, but I still wish I’d found my awesome paper stash!

Next Step, Collage!

All too soon the workshop was over! I am only a quarter or a third of the way done! I really can’t wait to get my office fully together, my chair out the box, so I can create!

Just Barely Begun!

Today is all “wrapped up” and I’m already thinking about making a book of Mary Oliver poetry in this form. I’m also really intrigued by Seth’s inspiration for this workshop; making one card a week for an entire year. Seems like a great way to combine collage, altered art and haiku into a project.

Hafiz / Rumi Altered Playing Card Book – Day One

Unfolding Beauty (and Practice)

I had acupuncture today, a long session to discharge all the chaotic energy I’ve been running on for weeks now. Mostly the only poem I could come up with is:

Too tired
To make
Poetry.

So here’s a great opportunity to practice with the side of me that stokes up that chaotic energy to just tough it out, get through. The side that prods the voice that’s tired and small into producing anyway. Here’s a chance to practice a gentleness that encourages that a haiku “counts” and isn’t slacking off on the 30-poems-in-30-days goal.

New Butterflies, Westminster, Colorado, May 2011

And here it is, a haiku about new butterflies.

Emerging slowly.
Wings wet and still unfurling.
Unfolding beauty.

When my Critic is Quiet

This weekend’s retreat was unsurprisingly powerful and emotional. I felt very strongly supported by my Portland friends, something CK helped to remind me of by prompting some friends to send me very positive text messages on my way out to Great Vow, and by the Sangha there. Looking back at the weekend I can see the many ways the residents at Great Vow were supporting and helping me through a retreat I came to very reluctantly.

One thing I figured out that was good to learn are the times when my Critic is silent. That critical voice or sensation in my body is so often present that it feels like I am never with out it. However, when a Dharma sister from our Portland program and I agreed to talk about when it isn’t there, since the conversation was shorter, she helped me to see two times when I am utterly free from this feeling.

Unsurprisingly cooking was one of those times. When I am engaged in preparing food there is no critical voice. I am merely present to the activity of my hands, the timing of the cooking, and the food I am transforming. When I serve a new dish to someone the voice comes back, but most of the time I’m pretty confident that what I’ve prepared will be delicious.

I also realized that when I teach yoga there is no Critic. Even if I am anxious or terribly upset right up until the very moment I begin a class, once I start to teach the voice goes away and I am present and alert. When I transmit the Lineage of Yoga there is no space for the Inner Critic. None.

It was good to connect with these two times when I am clear and free of my Inner Critic. Now I’m wondering when else it is gone!

Transforming the Inner Critic

In a few minutes I’m headed out to Great Vow for the weekend for the Transforming the Inner Critic workshop. People have assumed I’ve already done this workshop, but the truth is I’ve avoided it like a plague. I’m really very anxious.

It isn’t helped that I made a rather big decision today about my life. It is a positive decision and for the best, but like any big decision it brings up a lot of worry. It really fires up the Inner Critic.

So off to engage my Inner Critic in the safe environs of Great Vow Zen Monastery. I dread crying. I already know I will be. I hate crying in front of people and I feel like I do it all the time at Great Vow if there is any kind of overnight stay involved. My therapist said she thinks I should try and come back having attained some compromise with my Inner Critic where I’m allowed to feel OK when crying.

Have my pictures packed and silly Buddha ATC someone sent me (bling-tastic, hilarious). I have snacks and CK made cookies last night. I even packed up some supplies for making some art myself. Ready as I’ll ever be for this retreat.

Art Stretch

I made a couple of artist trading cards this evening featuring some of the brushwork I was learning at Great Vow earlier this month. I’d been quite taken with the cursive writing of the character for “Ink”. Something about it reminded me of the twisty, circuitous route we take on the path of awakening, a “meandering lifeline” as poet David Wagoner writes in his poem “Getting There”.

This evening, in a total break from everything else I’d been doing this weekend with the thinking/planning brain, I got out the box of water colors and the cheap brushes. I practiced once on some scrap paper to get the feel of the making the much smaller paper and carefully painted two cards of watercolor paper with the cursive character for “Ink”. Since these are for a trade I included some lyrics from a song by the Indigo Girls about crooked lines.

I feel very anxious about these two little pieces. They are so unlike anything I’ve created yet. To me they seem quite flat compared to the layers and levels I use in my paper collage pieces. CK really liked them and I’m ignoring my Inner Critic who says that CK only likes them because she’s biased.

Even though I feel great anxiety about creating, I deeply appreciate the opportunity and support to explore art.

Here’s the whole poem by David Wagoner I referenced earlier.

Getting There

You take a final step and, look, suddenly
You’re there. You’ve arrived
At the one place all your drudgery was aimed for:
This common ground
Where you stretch out, pressing your cheek to sandstone.
What did you want
To be? You’ll remember soon. You feel like tinder
Under a burning glass,
A luminous point of change. The sky is pulsing
Against the cracked horizon,
Holding it firm till the arrival of stars
In time with your heartbeats.
Like wind etching rock, you’ve made a lasting impression
On the self you were
By having come all this way through all this welter
Under your own power,
Though your traces on a map would make an unpromising
Meandering lifeline.
What have you learned so far? You’ll find out later,
Telling it haltingly
Like a dream, that lost traveler’s dream
Under the last hill
Where through the night you’ll take your time out of mind
To unburden yourself
Of elements along elementary paths
By the break of morning.
You’ve earned this worn-down, hard, incredible sight
Called Here and Now.
Now, what you make of it means everything,
Means starting over:
The life in your hands is neither here nor there
But getting there,
So you’re standing again and breathing, beginning another
Journey without regret
Forever, being your own unpeaceable kingdom,
The end of endings.

And while I’m at it, the song I used the lyrics of is ‘Closer to Fine

Closer To Fine

I’m trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you’ve ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously, it’s only life after all
Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it, I’m crawling on your shore.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper
And I was free.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

I stopped by the bar at 3 a.m.
To seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
I went in seeking clarity.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

We go to the bible, we go through the workout
We read up on revival and we stand up for the lookout
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine

As a Result of Poety

I really thought I’d written about haiku, learning the form. It is a cherished memory and activity from the year I was nine. Generally that year was one traumatic event after another, but I also was taught the form of haiku that year. It is a form of poetry I’ve returned to over and over in my life, although I really moved away from in during my twenties. When I started practicing yoga and zen I noticed that haiku just started to appear in my mind.

And that brings me to this past Friday. My love of haiku has borne fruit, as it were. I am being given a pair of tickets to see the production of ‘Snow Falling on Cedars‘ at Portland Center Stage as a prize for a winter haiku I wrote! They sponsored a concert on Twitter for the best winter-themed haiku, or “snowku” and I submitted this:

Bare branches rattle.
Evergreens shiver and sway.
Winter’s breath blows cold.

On Friday they posted a message that I’d won. What a delightful surprise to see appear on my computer screen while working! CK & I’ll be going on the 30th and are very much looking forward to it.

I’m trying to take this into my practice too. Ango is approaching and I’m given the gift of a chance to remember the focus Hogen gave me during my first Ango: Appreciate my accomplishments.

I discount my writing a lot while at the same time am anxiously attached to it. I minimize my poetry. I even diminish the accomplishment of having my writing appear in ZCO‘s publication, Ink on the Cat.

“After all, they’re your Sangha, they have to act like they like your writing.” says my Inner Critic.

This little surprise of winning these tickets is pretty hard for even my Inner Critic to diminish. I mean someone in the “real world” liked something I wrote. Gosh.

Hah! Take that, Inner Critic!


In Kilauea Iki Crater on the Big Island in August 2009

Dirty Cups

CK bought me two beautiful editions of Rumi’s poetry for my birthday. On the flight home from Hawaii I came across the following piece, gorgeously illustrated in The Illuminated Rumi

Ask!

Step off
proudly into sunlight,
not looking back.

Take sips of this pure wine being poured.
Don’t mind that you’ve been given a dirty cup.

I read that as CK dozed next to me on the long flight over what appear to be endless water and clouds, then darkness. It really made me sit up and blink. The last line particularly resonated with me.

Don’t mind that you’ve been given a dirty cup.

I tend to see my life, especially the fragile, bruised beginning, as a “dirty cup”. This life where my Inner Critic relentlessly condemns my goals, my present actions, my trauma-triggered responses – the whole of me. To that critical voice my life is a dirty cup, unworthy of pure wine being poured by the Beloved.

Greater than the Inner Critic who immediately deems me as unworthy, is that on many levels I mind. I mind ferociously that I experienced abuse, repeatedly. I mind a world where every step I move towards truth alienates and invites insult from much of the society I live in. I mind the very idea of suppressed memories surfacing unannounced and involuntarily pulling me backwards into misery. I mind tremendously that CK was hurt. I mind that my job frustrates me and leaves me feeling unable to accomplish anything.

Alright, so I mind a lot of things. All those things that stack together in an ugly heap, the dirty cups of my life. I mind them. Some of them I downright resent the hell out of. Some I want to pick up and hurl into the wall I mind them so much.

Which would then leave me without a cup for the pure wine.

Leaning into this suffering to feel compassion for myself is hard, excruciatingly difficult. When I do I almost immediately run into either drowning in grief or completely overwhelmed by fear. Sometimes I kind of ping-pong back and forth between the two. There was a whole lot of that back in April during the Loving-Kindness sesshin.

Yet in fighting these realities, in minding the “dirty cup”, I’m staying stuck in the fear and grief. I can touch back to moments during the Grasses, Trees & Great Earth sesshin in August where grief came up and I was just able to be there with it. It wasn’t that I didn’t cry, but I didn’t have the overwhelming fear about crying. I just cried some and the moment of grief passed. I even had a pretty awful memory bubble up and I was also able to stay still with it.

I was so stilled by the outright exhaustion that hit me at the start of the sesshin that I lacked the energy to fight. It even felt like my Inner Critic was quieter, minimized due to the soul-deep fatigue. Regardless of why, it was still a taste of just being present to the grief and able to witness & accept the memories.

The knack of doing this is something I need to cultivate in my practice. Waiting until I am utterly exhausted by the tension isn’t terribly sustainable. Besides, I am weary of being exhausted by fear.

I’m also taking Bansho’s suggestion and considering a suitably non-threatening, perhaps slightly comical name for my Inner Critic.

Inner Critic Revealed

I’d like to introduce you to my Inner Critic. I talk about her a lot here and a new art project in my Zen community inspired me to catch her in the act.


I had this clever idea to use Photo Booth on my MacBook to “catch” my Inner Critic. Earlier this morning I’d thought about writing down some of the top things I hear from my Inner Critic on a note card and photographing them with me in the background looking angry, disgusted. When I finally got this done this afternoon I found myself really taken aback by the image.

Wow, is that some nasty shit. Inner Bully is more like it.

And yet that’s the person I hear nearly constantly. Something about having this image really kind of creeps me out. The enormity of this voice, the judging and harshness of it. The ugliness fully revealed, not just alluded to.

Somehow seeing this visual representation helps me get a grip on why I’ve felt so self-doubting these past several weeks, why it is so hard to feel any sense of accomplishment when this is the constant negativity I’m bombarded with. No wonder my therapist will interrupt me occasionally during our sessions to remind me, “I don’t like it when you talk about Sherri that way!”

Yeah, need to keep working with this voice.

I burned the note card in the fireplace and lit some incense just now. It felt like the right thing to do. A cleansing step.

My Inner Critic

The tasks around Jukai, particularly sewing my rakusu, writing about the Grave Precepts, and making my lineage chart, have riled up my Inner Critic hugely.

What occurred to me tonight, while lying on the bed with a hot bag of flax seeds on my face and doing Metta practice for myself because I feel lousy, was that I’ve been able to more clearly hear the words of my Inner Critic lately. I’ve experienced a lot of the sensations of shame, guilt, anxiety, unworthiness, etc. that my Inner Critic builds up in me, but not the words.

It isn’t even that I’m arguing with my Inner Critic (that still riles up a lot of childhood anxiety about the consequences of “talking back”). I can just make this internal voice out more clearly, which is kind of different.

My Inner Critic seems at times to be made up of a bored Greek Chorus of 13-14 “cool” kids from middle school. Not the self-conscious & longing to fit in kind of kid, that was me, but the disdainful, judging, mean-spirited kind. Nothing but pure anxiety-inducing spite and sarcasm.

My rakusu? Sucks.
Lineage chart? More sucking.
My writing? Lame. You’re such a hack.
My name?! Yeah, right!

You get the picture… Bullying, arrogant, jerks.

In fact, that “Yeah, right!” response to the name given to me was immediate upon hearing Chozen tell me that my name means Peaceful Person. That bored, young-adolescent voice snorted in derision, rolled their eyes and said, “Yeah, right.”

I insisted to myself that I was not allowed to start laughing in the zendo, in the middle of Jukai, right after my teacher gave me my name. In retrospect they both probably would have encouraged that laughter to just take form. I was conscious of the same Inner Critic who denies me the right to say I’m “Peaceful” then denied me the option of laughing about it. For a moment there my Inner Critic taking on my Mother’s voice about proper behavior.

I’m still juggling how to deal with this voice, or voices it feels like at times. The very fact there is a distinct voice instead of just pure, overwhelming surges of emotion feels like an interesting shift. When I started writing this all down I wondered if some of these sensations would make a little more sense, I’d be able to define the “voices”, and maybe that’s what’s happening now. The combination of the writing practice and the furnace-like intensity of preparing for Jukai have started to reveal some clarity.

Waves

Today has been all waves, ups and downs.

It started with feeling tired and a headache. I jumped into communicating with someone in IT on a project that releases next month and before I knew it was past 8. I threw myself together and out the door to catch the bus.

Lunch with AM today and lots of catching up. I’m feeling sad for the relationship troubles he’s just gone through, for both he and the person he was seeing. The rest of the day I spent much of trying to get something to work on a coding project only to end the day wanting to scream. Oh how my head pounded. The whine of the router in our new office area does not help.

There was a time when learning a new programming language or systems short cut was exciting, challenging and fun. More and more it isn’t that way anymore, I just go straight into feeling dumb that I haven’t figured it out yet. Don’t know, maybe it is just some short-cut my inner critic has found to really get to me and fast.

Came home cranky and in a rush to change because I’d stayed a little too long at the office before catching the bus. I had no more than 15 minutes of “down” time before leaving again to go teach yoga. I was even just barely on time to start my class! Ugh!

And then teaching yoga does what it nearly always does. I settled down mentally and emotionally. I listened to my student’s needs, touched the lineage of yoga and just taught. I felt cooled, centered, and my head felt better.

I put on some lentils to cook to make into a salad and finally faced calling my Mom. After all my stress over telling her I won’t be going to the wedding she responded with an, “Oh. OK.”

She said she understands how my family hurt me and why I might not want to see them yet. She also really felt like my desire not to have my relationship with CK potentially turn into “Family Drama” at a wedding was reasonable. We made plans to have a late lunch and some thrift store shopping on Sunday.

I made a great, late dinner and got the downside of the wave catching up with my friend JA-N. Her cancer pathology report was sent onto the Mayo Clinc and even they were only able to give a “best guess” as to where the cancer started. The diagnosis, endometrial cancer, suggests a chemotherapy treatment that is known to have the most side-effects. She’s scared about it and I totally understand.

In between the surprising Up wave of talking to Mom and the Down wave of catching up on news from my friend there is the middle. I felt the happiness at hearing CK get home from a meeting and now watching Zonker snuggle up to her on the couch. I don’t feel unsteadied by any of the news I’ve received today. I do feel rooted in compassion, especially towards those who are experiencing pain that leaves me feeling sad in response to their suffering.

Metta on the Up waves, on the Down waves, and in the space between the next wave starting.

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