Why do I make art?

Well, I don’t, but this was the heading for a list of reasons given by US sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard in the catalogue for her wonderful 2014 exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK. They say a lot about how I’d like to be and about the solitude/creativity connection. Here are the ones that spoke to me, and some reflections.

To ease my high anxiety, to numb myself with the labour and the focus of building my work

This speaks to me about the value of flow, of physical activity to release nervous energy, the expression of feelngs through creative work

Objects, or the process by which I concretize my ideas, feel so good

–  the sexual/sensual dilemma of being alone – finding ways to use touch, sight – all the senses – to nourish the need for physical contact

Because there’s pleasure in it

Because there’s pain in it

– because there’s aliveness in it!

Because my deepest admiration goes to those who have made art that interests me

-making use of inspiration, of the sense of deep connection with art that speaks to me

Because I need to use both my body and my mind. The labour of my body is what keeps me awake and alive, what numbs me and offers a kind of veneer between me and the things in life that are painful to face.

This is interesting. Is numbing a good thing? Is it avoidance? Maybe sometimes it’s necessary – some things have to be taken in, faced, integrated slowly – we can only take so much pain. Certainly a healthier numbing than alcohol or food! And it’s pouring out all the energy generated by strong emotions. Makes me think that I used to be much more aware of having lots of nervous energy. Now not so much. Is it still there, waiting to be accessed and channelled?

Because the visuals – that which I perceive through my eyes – are an extraordinarily important part of my life

Yes, One of my greatest discoveries in the past few years is art – looking at great art speaks deeply to me and nourishes my soul. And more generally, trying to look at the world mindfully can transform the ordinary.

Because I don’t want to be doing anything else with my life – that the building of my artwork feels like the most consequential thing I could be doing with my time.

Because I can run into a world of making, both physically and mentally

There’s the solitary! There’s the answer to the relationships dilemma: something that fills her life, gives her total satisfaction and fulfillment.

Because I like working with a group of assistants who become another kind of family

I passed over that one at first, but perhaps there IS something for me here: how to find a communal dimension to my passions? The idea of “family” based on shared passions and creative work rather than blood.

Because I like the daily rhythm of going into my studio

NB rhythm. Two things here: having a gentle, non-driven structure- and the discipline of that, to actually get into the studio each day. Of creating enough structure to give life rhythm and coherence without getting tied down by it.

Because it’s a place to put my pain, my sadness

Because there’s a constant hope inside me that this process will heal me, my family and the world.

Because I constantly need to try to better understand the immense suffering and pain of my family that I never seem to be able to really understand.

She comes from a Polish family, displaced in World War Two, so from a background of much suffering and loss. At first I didn’t think these were relevant to me  – I’m not creating great art, I have no such traumatic history. And yet – pouring body, mind and soul into creating, touching inner depths, bringing to the surface personal wounds and pain – which will reflect in some way the history of our family backgrounds –  each of us who heals and interacts  with those around us more healthily, with more wholeness – the wider world is touched and affected by that.

Because it helps me fight my inertia.

So pleased to read this one, as someone who struggles with that draining fog of inertia, lack of energy and motivation

Because I like embroidering around my long-ago Polish fantasies

I nearly ignored this one too, as being too personal, but maybe there’s a general truth in it around using the past, using dreams, using fantasy – of playing, embellishing, transforming.

Because I can reach into the future with my work

I like the principle of this – that we can all, even if childfree, create and nurture something lasting that will touch people deeply long after the maker’s death. It may not even be a thing  – it may be our model of a way to live.

And finally:

And also because I want to get answers to questions for which I know there are no answers.


Ursula von Rydingsvard’s words from: Ursula von Rydingsvard at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. YSP, 2014.


Lessons learned (till next time…)

This post may get added to,  as I identify (or, more likely, am reminded yet AGAIN!) what works and what doesn’t in keeping myself grounded and stable.

  • Alcohol and chocolate seem like a very good idea at the time when I’m in emotional pain, but they’re not. They give a very short spell of relief, then insomnia, an upset stomach and regret.
  • Sometimes taking my to-do list and saying that I’ll spend 15 minutes on the first item can get me moving.
  • Related to this, my “alternating” strategy of doing something – anything – then reading or watching TV can get me mechanically through times when I really can’t initiate ot find any energy.
  • Yesterday I went to bed in the afternoon because I really couldn’t get myself moving at all – nothing would settle me. I didn’t go to sleep, but spent some time reflecting on “Solitude” (see previous 2 posts), and it helped – new insights.
  • Compulsive checking of email and Facebook doesn’t make more people get in touch: it provokes feelings of disappointment and isolation.
  • Getting out and walking, even (especially?) in the teeth of a gale helps
  • Feeding my mind helps – reading or watching a stimulating TV documentary

The catch-22 of loneliness…

…is that I ache to communicate how sad I feel, but because the problem is loneliness, I’m silenced. If I say to a friend “I feel so lonely”, I make them feel bad, they probably feel obliged to try to help. So I’m manipulating them into offering something that wouldn’t otherwise have happened.

A book I read recently commented that loneliness is the last great taboo- it triggers shame and can’t easily be admitted to.

Relationships have to be freely given on both sides. I learned that through the painful years of dependent relationships. As soon as I express the need for companionship, if someone responds, it’s not entirely freely given. And therein lies the dilemma….

So what do I do? Feeling like this and being unable to share it just makes the whole thing feel even worse, I feel more isolated and outside the flow of life. When I see my friends I’m pretending – you know, the old “Hi, How are you?” “Fine, thanks”. That magic word “fine”… covers a multitude of emotions!

All I can do is stick it out, keep in touch without letting the mask slip, and hope that eventually the companionship I yearn for will materialise. But it’s so hard.

Alone as a neutral space

Yesterday I had a busy, noisy day in London. Some alcohol-fuelled students on the train got it off to a nerve-jangling start, and I found the crowds and noise difficult all day. So this morning, sitting in bed, aware of the silence around me, I could welcome it. And that gave me a different perspective on being alone – it’s a neutral space, that I can populate in different ways.

I’ve just written in my journal: “projecting inner wounds onto a neutral space”. I mean the labelling of being alone as rejected, invisible, unloved etc etc. Making it  a place of hurt and pain. There is choice in this.  This morning there was a sense of needing to embrace the silence and aloneness – that’s what transforms it into solitude, which is the healthy place to be with it.

Maybe I have more choice in this than I like to accept. There’s a perverse pleasure sometimes in the melancholy, in the “lonely”, “unwanted” labels. They confirm old scripts. But maybe I can choose to make it time to change those scripts…

I’m using a collection of quotes on solitude, and yesterday’s was:

I had already found that it was not good to be alone, and so made companionship with what there was around me, sometimes with the universe and sometimes with my own insignificant self, but my books were always my friends , let fail all else.

Joshua Slocum, Sailing alone around the world.

At first it was the bit about the books that struck me, as it chimed with my thoughts earlier this week about reading rather than surfing social media when I’m feeling lonely or bored. But as the day went on I found myself reflecting on the first part. Choice again. Am I Iago’s “I am myself alone” – or am I part of the whole, even if I go through the world in solitude? As I walked to the station, I was listing things that I’m a part of, belong to: my family; my local community; my city; my county; my country – and so on, radiating outwards. I’m part, if a loose part, of some friendship circles. Of the organisations I belong to. Of the online forums I  subscribe to. Of the groups of people who have shared interests, even if we’re not working together on them. Of those who have similar political and ethical vews. And so on. Most of the time, that doesn’t mean I’m communicating with the people in these different groups, but there’s a sharing, something in common. Perhaps having a consciousness of all those links, basically seeing myself as connected rather than as isolated in that bubble, would help change my outlook and diminish the pain?

Online mainline

 I’ve noticed for quite a while how much time I spend aimlessly online when I’m feeling unmotivated or lonely, and I’ve been particuarly aware of it recently – in front of the laptop, clicking between email, Facebook, newspaper, email, Facebook, Pinterest, Facebook….and each time there are no new posts there must be, whether I realise it or not, a small jolt of disappointment.

And when I’ve been out, or when I finish a task, I automatically go and check online.

I wonder how it would be if the automatic action was to pick up a book – which it probably would have been in the days before online. How much more I’d be reading! And no doubt that would be better for my state of mind than the endless online disappointments.

I’ve made various efforts to limit my online time, but always drift back to the endless checking. The idea of just going online after meals worked well: I’m going to try it again, and also make sure that my book is always within reach.

Changing habits is perhaps easier if the bad one can be replaced with a good one…

When your single friend is bereaved…

Two family bereavements within a few months left me reeling – more so than I realised at the time. Now, 8 months after the second, I’m just emerging from all the fallout. Only now, looking back, can I see how deeply I’ve been affected and how tough and lonely  life has felt for the past year or so.

The loneliness of this time is what strikes me now. I have so many friends, but have felt that I’ve been very  alone as I’ve worked through the impacts of 2 deaths. It’s really only now that I can see more clearly both what my own needs have been and how others might have helped. Consequently, I didn’t ask for  support, not realising how much I was in need of it – and once the first few weeks were over, friends presumably thought I was OK or that someone else was helping.   I’ve noticed  before that this happens: where people would be very concerned about a family member in this situation and would continue to watch out for them,  single people seem to be seen either as having  emotional resources denied to the rest of humanity, or, perhaps, as so lacking a normal emotional life that they’re not as affected by difficult circumstances!

For the past few months it’s been really difficult to get myself out and socialise,  to plan to do things, to invite people here. Yet those are vital for the mental health of the sociable person who lives alone : we always have to make that effort if we’re to have company and interaction. (I’m an introvert, but a sociable one, so though, on the whole, I appreciate my solitude, I do also need human interaction if I’m to stay more or less sane). I think that’s an issue that those living with others  often don’t understand: the day by day energy-demanding efforts that have to be made to stay connected. At difficult  times, that necessary energy isn’t always there and isolation quickly  results, at the worst possible time.

For those months I needed other people to make some of that effort for me: I needed my friends, I needed to be taken out of the trough of grief, to be given space to talk, sometimes to be distracted,  or just to be given a meal and looked after for a few hours, to feel cherished. I usually do all that for myself: but for the past year or so that has sometimes been beyond me.

I’m not writing this in self-pitying mode – at least I hope not. It was as it was, because people just didn’t understand or appreciate what would have helped, and I wasn’t in a place to articulate what I needed. Indeed, as I said above, I don’t think I understood what I needed either. Which is why I’m writing this.

Please, if you have a single friend who is in a traumatic place, because of grief or other loss, be aware. Be aware for months, maybe a year or two. It’s no huge deal, no big commitment – no in-depth counselling or having them move in with you – just invite them from time to time without expecting them to take their turn at the entertaining for a while; meet up and give them space to talk (I’ve become so aware of how I listen, listen, listen, and everyone seems to assume that I never need to do some of the sharing!);  take the initiative in suggesting outings; don’t assume that if they’ve gone quiet or are putting cheery posts on Facebook the grief must be over, they must be happily busy and don’t need to hear from you.

Grief goes on for some time for ALL of us, and the grieving process  can be particularly tough for those who have to process it alone and without the day to day companionship, support and distractions of partner and family. Be aware of the situation your friend is in, be unobtrusively alongside, don’t expect too much  – that may be all that’s needed. And, crucially, be prepared to give her that for the time it takes to begin to heal from grief, not just for the obvious first week or so.

It will be appreciated and remembered, and eventually she WILL invite you for a meal again, honest!

The empty container

Leo Babauta has just posed a great question on his  Zen Habits blog:

If [your life] were an empty container, with limited space, what would you put in it?

This was timely, as I’ve been pondering recently on this concept of time, space, energy all being limited, and the necessity of accepting that. It started when I finally ran out of space for more new books, and when I noticed that when I emptied the dishwasher several mugs were always left standing on the worktop because the designated spaces were full. There comes a point where choices have to be made: I need to donate some of my fine collection of mugs, even though I like all of them: it’s too inconvenient having the workspace cluttered by them. And just how many unread books is it realistic to have?! Unless I want to cull them, it’s time to have a firm rule that no more are bought unless I’m going to read them immediately.

That made me think more generally about this principle: is it wise to try to do more than I have time and energy for – whether that be social engagements, food, favourite blogs, trips away, craft activities, housework or regular commitments? This question has been around for a while, as I seek a simpler life. My progress has been very limited, and I think this is at the heart of it: the tendency to think that just one more mug/book/commitment/website/interest  won’t make much difference, until I begin to feel overwhelmed again, panic and either go for distraction from the mess or try to go to opposite extremes.

Leo describes the tendency of life to become more complicated and suggests standing back and asking the question at the beginning of this post. Obviously the answer is going to be different for each of us. I might consider which of the things I’ve listed I would want to put in my box – what do I want to be the basic pattern of my day/week/month? Of all I do or could do, what is most important to me?

I find this image of the empty box, with the boundaries  that limit its contents (such as  time, energy, space, money, necessary tasks), a good starting point, inviting me to visualise picking up the aspects of my life that matter most and deliberately place them in the box and, conversely, also deciding what has to be laid aside and not put in the box.  A good assessment tool to revisit from time to time.