The White Goddess

I have recently adopted a morning ritual of quiet prayer, meditation, writing, day-planning and reading. I was inspired by some posts I saw floating around on Instagram. It was easy enough to codify my disparate loves into one hour of concentrated, uninterrupted focus. Observing the ritual has been exceedingly rewarding, despite being scheduled for O-dark-thirty in the morning.

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Today, however, I had to see husband off to work earlier than usual so I decided to take advantage of the early morning break in the searing Australian desert heat and go for a walk. I roamed northward, toward Spencer Hill and the Telegraph Station. I came around the other side of the hill and caught my breath when I saw her–a beautiful white gum tree, bursting forth from the grassy hillside, kissed by the morning sun.

I felt the goddess call and–despite my reticence to encounter one of the several deadly snakes that twist along in the Outback–I walked over to her, picking my way through knee-high clumps of stiff grass. When I reached her I paused, dumbstruck. I felt abruptly small, uncertain, ignorant, even. I didn’t know what sort of action was appropriate and I felt self-conscious even though I was certain no one was around. How does one greet a sacred being?

I placed my hands on her trunk and was taken aback by the velvet of her skin. I thought about how desperate I was to feel something, to have some kind of revelation or ecstatic experience as I stood in the presence of this obvious goddess. I dropped my hands and stepped back, gazing in awe at the tree, at her place in the world. I wanted to connect to this place, to glean a bit of wisdom about stoic silence, patient growth and inevitable decay.

I looked with my artist’s eyes. I admired the contrast between her body and the dim grass. The dance of her new-green leaves in the breeze delighted. I leaned in close, studying the striations on her skin; so fine and numerous were they that it made her skin soft, not hard and scratchy like most other trees I had met. Abruptly instinct seized me:  I leaned in again and placed my left hand on her skin and sent out a simple prayer:  “Teach me.”

I was not certain what lesson I may garner, what I might need from this White Goddess, but I sought to remain open to receive it when it came. I walked back to my home, my heart at peace, my step sure, and my eyes and ears open to receive the blessings all around me.

Back at home I rested, pulled up my regular social media platforms and sent a couple photos out into the world. I began to scroll–tentatively, as I had plans to work on some art and I know how easily I can get mired in the morass of other people’s carefully curated lives–and I felt my mood crumbling rapidly.

The abruptness of the emotional change shocked me–these brief, ethereal, digital encounters can have so much power over me. I chide myself now:  how can I stand with my heart open in a field full of life for a half hour and remain only vaguely affected somewhere deep within and yet a few moments indulging in social media releases a veritable shit-storm of emotions?

Jealousy, guilt, betrayal, disgust, anger, self-loathing:  these and more flashed through me. I took the time to catalog the experience because my focus for personal growth has been to increase my emotional strength and grow my self-confidence. I usually hide away from toxic social media but today I wanted to feel it: to weigh my emotions, to analyze my reactions. Where once I ran from confronting my deeper self I now held myself in the crucible, willing my flesh to harden, my will to be tempered, until I come out a more resilient alloy.

Primarily, I grieve. For my friends who are suffering, for the world which is suffering, and for the time and creative energy lost to the act of scrolling.

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Here, perhaps, is the lesson of the White Goddess:  grieve and move on, keep growing, putting out roots and twigs. No matter the storm, continue to carefully place one green cell in front of the other.

No matter the storm.

The Orphan, pt 3

…continued from The Orphan, pt 2

“You need a vacation,” was the collective good advice. A vacation? From work? So I can be with the wailing in my head? I shuddered inwardly and plugged along, determined now more than ever that I would not falter; I would become the best non-commissioned officer and most adept technician that I could be. My military career was everything to me…wasn’t it?

I couldn’t see anything more than a few inches in front of my nose, so deeply was I focused on my tasks; yet somehow I started to make mistakes. Small ones at first which drew little more than shrugs and kindly excuses: “She’s just been under a lot of stress…she will sort it out.” I nodded frantically in agreement and refocused my efforts but I hardly heard their voices over the shrieking in my skull. Then, a blunder of epic proportions resulted in my boss suggesting again that I take some time off. The closed door and the stern expression on his face as he regarded me across his desk told me it was hardly a suggestion.

Without work to fill my day I wandered like a wraith, moving from room to room in my house. I avoided people. I organized my books. I cleaned my fridge. I lingered in the garden. I played with my cats. The feeling that I was standing tip-toed at the edge of a precipice frightened me, and yet it was exhilarating; I could do whatever I wanted. Anything. I could drive to Texas for some real barbecue. I could order in Thai food and watch bad movies. I could read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time in it’s entirety (or at least attempt to). There were so many possibilities–I had so much time now!

So I sat on the couch, paralyzed by the wealth of choice, chiding myself for being so lackadaisical. I was confused at first, but then I began to get angry with myself–truly livid–disgusted by my lack of motivation to do any damned thing. A small voice reasoned that I was on vacation, so maybe I should be resting? I snapped back: No, this is ridiculous–the howling monster must be fed and it likes productivity…right?

“Maybe you should change its diet,” the little voice whispered.

I leapt from the couch and strode with purpose to the spare bedroom, shoving the door open and breathing in the stale air. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom dismay bloomed in my heart; this place was a real wreck! Where did all this crap come from? Disappointment settled like a weight as I realized I would have to clean this room before I could do anything else. I started to sort things into piles, falling into old habits while the beast roared its hunger.

There. My eyes found my drafting table—a gift purchased to replace the one I had lost to “the flood”—folded and forgotten behind a mound of assorted goods; all of it suddenly seemed extremely useless as I scrambled over the dross to pry my table out. Something crashed behind me and a long gash appeared on my calf as I yanked the table free, stumbling with the ungainly thing over to the door. In the living room I restored the table to its functional position, tucking it against the wall under the skylight. With a small groan I returned to the room to retrieve some art supplies, fighting valiantly against the urge to stay and clean.

I shut the door behind me, excitement growing in my belly. What was I going to draw? Well, it didn’t matter, as long as I did something. I began to sketch, tentative at first, scared of what I might end up with. A figure emerged and I began to lose myself in the process, the howl fading to a warm humming as I sat, bent-backed and scribbling over my precious drafting table. In that singular moment, I was reconciled with my creative spirit.

Years and experience have taught me a great deal about how creativity works in my life; I have become adept at identifying the various leg traps that way-lay me, despite my best efforts. I recognize that creativity needs space, and it’s less about the physical studio and more about the space I am willing to give it in my life. I see this allowance as more than mere vanity; it is a necessity. I have written this account again and again in various phases and times of need in my creative life. In the writing I am reminded how easy it is to lose track of myself, to ignore my spirit’s need to create.

The purring kitten becomes a raging monster, demanding I make the sacrifice or be consumed. Once I face the beast, stare stoically into the gaping maw lined with poison-teeth, I have but to acquiesce, to bend my head in solemn homage and put my tools to work in order to return the beast to its demure form.

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My Weird, alcohol markers and felt tip pens on paper, 2014

The catharsis from such surrender cannot be overstated; I was so relieved to know that my creative spirit was not dead, but that it lived on; I learned to love the monster, even as it transmogrified back into the well-fed beauty lounging on the edge of the stream of my subconscious. I learned how to properly nourish and care for this creature, and she has been as stable a companion as any orphan could ever hope for.
Existentially yours,

Tam

The Orphan, pt 2

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Descent:  The Crucible of Ereshkigal, mixed media on layered canvases, 2016

…continued from The Orphan, pt 1

In my crisis I found myself becoming more and more acquisitive, despite the slight amount of money I could call my own after I paid the bills; I started to buy beautiful things, things that struck something inside my heart, loosening the armor a bit so the spark could breathe. I bought striking things for my apartment, lovely accessories and shoes, and yes, even art supplies. I inhaled the aroma of oil pastels and newsprint as if they were a wholesome meal waiting to be devoured. I promised my little spark that, once I had all the things I needed, I would let it out to play.

Soon enough I had all the materials any artist could want; but I lamented that I did not have the proper space to create. Visions of grand 7-foot tall easels and white-washed walls with high windows teased my senses; yes, I needed to make the space for my art. My mother, a freelance writer, has a cozy office in her home from where she works and writes. Behind her desk is a framed cross-stitch piece with the carefully stitched phrase “My Little Corner of the World.” That, I told my little spark, the hungry beastie growing in my heartspace, is what we need in order to create.

Despite the mounting credit card debt and the already-pinched space in my apartment, I bought my own drafting table. I played with the location, trying to carve out a space that I could call my own: a space that would inspire me to create. The table found a niche, tucked in the dining area easily enough since I was accustomed to eating at the coffee table in the living room. Here I carefully set out all my supplies, neatly stacking the boxes of sundry sticks of material and leaning the great pads of papers of various weights against the legs. Satisfied, I perched upon the flimsy folding stool, waiting for inspiration to strike.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a pile of dirty dishes; once these were conquered I suddenly recalled how long it had been since I had cleaned the toilet and—wouldn’t you know it?—the bath towels were dirty, too. I sighed resolutely and promised the beastie whimpering for sustenance that it would be fed, when I had the time. The drafting table began to gather papers, junk mail, receipts and the like, and the materials were lost under the layers. Disgusted with myself and convinced that somehow I had lost my ability to create I decided I could no longer bear to look at the thing; the table stood as a reminder of what I could have been, of the dream that had been stolen from me when I was first orphaned.

And then I committed one of many acts of self-orphaning; I folded up the table and stuffed it into the closet on the porch, where it would be forgotten and eventually ruined by the rain that would periodically flood the porch. Even though I said I was done—that I would not go back to drawing again—the beastie within whined, it’s tiny voice staying my hand, pleading for temperance in the face of my pain. So I kept my supplies, despite my sinking certainty that I would never use them again. I carefully boxed them up along with my other things as I made up my mind; it was high time I got a “real job.” Lured by the promise of an education and a career in science and technology I enlisted in the United States Air Force. Perhaps I could claw my way out of the muck after all, I thought, as I readied myself to “cross into the blue.”

The military, it would turn out, provided a novel, if demanding, way of life. It seemed that art would literally have no space in my new life, and as I went about trying to convince myself that I had outgrown the need to create, the beastie with the little voice grew claws and began scratching at the inside of my brain. I fed it excuses to quell the tumult in my heart: I don’t have the time; it’s just not that important anymore; I was never any good to begin with; no one will look at the stuff anyway, let alone buy it, so what is the point? Plus, I don’t have the space anymore. I filled my heart with excuses as I sopped up all my time with work, volunteering and friends. I didn’t have the space in my life for grief, for anger, or healing. I filled my heart with bitterness, the orphan certain of the cruelty in this world. Those pretty emotions make me weak anyway, I reasoned, cringing as I recalled how the men at work treated me, deriding me for being “such a girl,”

I was being “productive,” filling my daily agenda to the brim. Those tasks and projects became the armor I placed around my heart, but after a time even they couldn’t keep me from hearing the beast howling. It began as a dull rushing sound, persistently underlying all my oh-so-important tasks. Then it built to a piercing wail and all of a sudden I felt like I was slipping. I honestly wondered if I was having a nervous breakdown. My heart would race without provocation and the energy required to simply stand in place made me feel weak and dizzy. Suddenly I felt threatened by everything, regarding familiar people with suspicion, safe places with wide, frantic eyes. “This isn’t where I need to be,” the howling beast said, “This is not who I was meant to be!”

 

…to be continued…

To motivate a songbird

 

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Bloodbound, mixed media on canvas, 2014

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

Joan Walsh Anglund, 1967

This observation–even as it projects the human trait of motivation on a wild thing–hints at one way to answer the burning question: “Why create?

In searching for the attribution to the above quote I came upon several lengthy explorations of the needs of songbirds to vocalize in their peculiarly lovely way. William Hazlitt, British literary and art critic, offers this particularly relevant insight: “The thrush…does not sing because it is paid to sing, or to please others, or to be admired or criticized…” (link).

Conflict rises in me as I reread this statement. If I have ever felt these things while creating then am I doing so for the wrong reasons? Should I cease the work and move on to something else, something that comes from the spirit without any knowledge of motivation? I have been paying careful attention to the way I feel when I make work lately and I find I am often working from one of two modes.

In the first mode–the most satisfying instance–I am creating something raw with little notion of where the work will go from the outset. I feel myself descending into the deepest parts of my psyche, reaching towards that indescribable center. I am in the work, and the work comes easily. While the critic may pipe up intermittently at the beginning, the sheer ecstasy of being so deeply ensconced in my subconscious drowns it out. Ego is a distant memory. I am dancing with my spirit.

In this mode thoughts of success and praise do not enter my mind. I am fully engaged in singing my hearts deepest song. And when I return to the topside world I am revivified.

The second mode in which I make my work involves starting with an image or motif I want to explore. This process is natural enough for an artist and I struggle with placing the blame for my creative blockages at the proverbial feet of such a monumental practice. In other words, I do not malign the preparatory sketching and the making of studies nor do I wish to turn my nose up at commissions and freelance work. However, as I begin in this mode the critic is quite vocal and obnoxious. It chides me for thinking myself clever, berates me for wasting my time on something so cliche or–if the project was specifically commissioned–it henpecks me over technique and representation.

“You know most folks value representation above all else in their art and you simply do not have the skill, poor dear, to pull it off.”

Even after I silence the critic my mind remains too alert, too conscious. I begin to obsess over technique and how I will finish the piece most efficiently. I ponder how I will display it, where I will upload its likeness, and what the reception will be. I keep my work at arm’s length.

This fixation with success has lead me to question whether or not I should even keep creating. I am in anguish over trying to divine the inner motivation behind my need to create. I feel I must either accept that success is my primary motivator and learn to work with that or I need to stop creating from this place entirely. The sense of urgency puzzles me somewhat but I feel some tugging in my psyche which wants an answer.

The songbird may not vocalize an answer but in his act of singing may be my own answer; if I garner satisfaction from creating in the first, deep mode then am I like the bird? When I can happily tell the critic off, move beyond the nagging, negative voices that beg to know, “What…why?” and simply create from that space deep within my spirit then I feel the most satisfaction.

I am singing because I have a song.

The Orphan, pt 1

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Reveries, Maxfield Parrish, 1913

Through my rapacious consumption of psychology books I have come across the concept of the noble archetypes and the use of these as learning tools in one’s own psychic individuation process. I am particularly enamored of Pearson’s Awakening the Heroes Within. Within the book are detailed descriptions of the characteristics of each archetype. As I read about them I felt particularly attracted to the Magician and thoroughly repelled by the Orphan. How whiny and pathetic this archetype was, with the chip on its shoulder for the whole world!

The more time I spent with the book the more infuriated I became with the Orphan until one day I realized the heat of my reaction pointed to the need for further exploration. I began to write detailed passages from my life and I came to see over and over again how the Orphan was at work in my life, and how I had more work to do before I could move onto the next leg of my spiral path.

What I learned was this:  we are all of us orphans.

There are so many orphaning experiences in our lives; metaphorically, anything in which we—as Innocents—placed a great deal of faith that turns out to be false can make orphans of us. Culture, parental values, communities, institutions, governments; any of these can offer up a shining version of reality which we may in turn never experience.

In my experience as an American Millennial I found great value was placed on hard work, productivity and linear patterns of thinking: if x and y then z will follow. It is the system which nurtured our leaders, teachers, and parents, and it is hardly their fault if I find–as a sensitive, creative type–that the model they presented to me had less than satisfactory results; they themselves are likely orphans in one way or another.

I was first orphaned by an idea; the motif was so very powerful that it informed my every action as a school-aged girl. The premise and promises were hammered home on a regular basis by my parents, my teachers, and the culture: working hard, getting good grades and being very intelligent would merit me great success. Not only would colleges be begging for me to attend but all financial woes would evaporate before my considerable acumen.

I will admit that, in hindsight, the idea sounds impossibly large, but as a child it had a huge impact on me. Very early I began trading social experiences for study time, cramming knowledge into my brain and trying very hard to impress my teachers with my smarts. While I alienated myself from my peers, I was building a foundation that I was confident would be rock solid; I was encouraged by my parents who promised me that I would never have to struggle financially, the way they did, if only I could do well in school.

While my innate intelligence seemed to be for writing and creating artworks I still managed to succeed–at least by the usual standards–in maths and sciences. Next, I chose my institute of higher learning, one which would cater to my need to create beauty and explore deep and personal mysteries through the visual arts. I barely blinked at the cost of attendance, certain as ever that I would be deemed worthy, that some mysterious benefactor would come to the fore in the nick of time, offering financial salvation. When the money failed to manifest, when I was turned down for over fifty different scholarships and several loans, and when the government and college deemed me unworthy of sponsorship I felt the promise dying in my hands.

When the very same idea I had built my entire young adulthood on was burned away to reveal the exceedingly ugly truth I was orphaned as surely as anyone who had lost a dear parent. I peeled away the naïve cloak of innocence and looked hard at life; I was hurt, wounded in such a terribly deep way that I could not even weep. I would not be continuing my education and, by the logical system I had built up in my head, I would as a result be doomed to failure, to obscurity, to toil in a meaningless job, cursed to struggle financially for the rest of my adult life.

Certain of my future I hardened my heart against the pain; I put away my pencils, my paints and my childish dreams and fulfilled my own prophecy, toiling in meaningless jobs for several years. Meanwhile I told myself that I wouldn’t have liked a career as an artist anyway; it would have taken my passion for creating and made it feel like work, sucking the joy out with its rules and rigid gauges of quality.

I turned my nose up at the system, but the spark was still there and no amount of mental armor could keep me from being gripped by sporadic urges—needs—to create. I would furtively pull out paper and pencil and scribble, but I could not call myself an artist; after all, I was slinging coffee in a local big box book store. No one was looking at my work, let alone paying me for it. The bitter taste tainted what little joy these creative excursions may have had, and the result was always the same; I felt lost, alone, and deeply wounded; and yet, I could not articulate the source of my pain.

 

…to be continued…

A web of knotted strands

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Sssss, mixed media on canvas, 2015

Last we met I gave several observations of the ways in which my life is whole and serene while offering only a mere hint of those elements which amass to create the aforementioned web of knotted strands that is my crisis. I resist applying the term “crisis” to this exploration, as my traumas are many and meager, my travails difficult to catalog. This will likely be the first of many attempts to nail things down.

Here goes…

Largely my crisis seems caused by an emptiness, and a yearning to fill the void. Perhaps more accurately the crisis comes when I attempt to fill the void with things that just don’t suit my spirit. Through the emptiness howls a fierce and terrifying gale which–when it is gusting–overwhelms my senses, leaving me in a debilitating state of anxiety. It is not enough to simply be calm, to meditate, or to find other things to do. The beast must be fed. I have stuffed many novelties into its gaping maw only to have the howling return. The same sustenance often does not satisfy, leading me to leap from one novelty to another, painting the familiar picture of a perfectly scatterbrained young woman.

For a time I filled the hollow with sexual pleasures; the terrain was new to me and I was a ravenous explorer. In a matter of years the balm of sex ceased to satisfy the beast and I turned to food and entertainment, obsessively consuming material goods like so many sweets. I spent all of my money in shopping excursions, filling my home with furniture and treasures. I escaped for hours into video games and reading, never moving except to procure something like–but not really–food.

A wholly new host of problems beset me as these too failed to satisfy. I longed to return to my innocence, to feel those butterflies of first love, the ecstasy of fresh touches, the toe-curling pleasure of tasting something new.

Learning to cope with the consequences of my over-consumptions distracted me for a time as I fed the beast miles of self-help books and late nights surfing forums haunted by other suffering women. I studied Buddhism for a time and began to see how yearning lead to suffering. I entered a new phase of self-awareness in my life, becoming hyper-vigilant to my impact on the world as well as the world’s impact on me. Writing came back into my life in full force at this point, and the beast seemed most satisfied when I was busy with creative work.

For better or worse, emotions are both my barometer and my compass, guiding me towards things I love and hate alike. I have come to covet things others possess. Here, another layer of crisis settles in as I lust after things which are simply–through no fault of my own–beyond my reach. For instance, I am envious of the extended family of others, especially groups that include three or more generations–I have only my parents here on earth, my grandparents having moved on without me. Surely I am missing out on the elders’ valuable secrets and ways of knowing.

I am envious of those with a thriving spiritual life; they seem calm and always certain of their path as a result of their contact with the divine. It is like they have a secret road map that shows them where to go and when. I am envious of those who hail from one tribe, one nation, and can count their past back to the stone age–I can only see back a generation or two. These folks seem to possess an unshakable confidence in their place in the world. I am envious of those who maintain ritual and rites of passage to mark milestones in their lives. I have only more birthdays and am confused about the roles I should aspire to or what is expected of me.

From the outside these conditions most likely appear to offer me the gift of freedom. Freedom from religion, pedantic elders, and stifling nationality. For me, I have found such freedom to be paralyzing.

The history, the legacy, the spirituality:  I see these as more reliable guides than my emotional compass. I crave these delicious, novel nuggets because I think they will somehow make me more whole, more stable and confident. The anxiety and uncertainty would certainly be vanquished if I only knew where I came from, and how to continue. If I only had a strong connection with Spirit then I would have a ready guide on my path.

Largely, I am sick and tired of feeling like an outsider. I crave a connection.

 

Existentially yours,

Tam

 

 

 

An unfortunate term

 

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Descent:  Hemmorrhage, mixed media on board, 12in x 12in, 2016

Part of my identity crisis stems from the notion that I have no right to be in crisis. My so-called crisis as a white American female, born to a pair of loving parents, educated and pampered, stems not from want of physical comforts. Nor is my crisis the result of any physical abuse, loss or trauma. Continuing to list the blessings I have in my life would serve only to exacerbate the guilt I feel as I publically explore the nature of my identity.

So often as I am reading these posts and the companion entries in my journals I feel as an outsider looking in on someone who is whiney and shallow at their best and downright feeble and boorish at worst. I am ashamed of some of my first thoughts and I scurry to cover them over with safer speech. This shame is hardly new to me, and has prompted the impetuous destruction of many pages of writing in my younger days. Rote stubbornness stays my hand these days.

I am repeatedly made uncomfortable by my own works, written and drawn. I have explored this discomfort with my artwork before and came to the conclusion that I was simply afraid of the reception of my works–what would people think of these, my dear, personal creations? As I contemplate the discomfort I feel surrounding my recent writings I wonder if this is the full and honest answer. Or is it simply difficult to share such things that are so deeply personal?

My difficulty stems from my fear of being described by others as I just described myself–whiney and feeble. But this fear is no longer enough to keep me from sharing so why the guilt? It is as if I feel my story lacks credibility because my traumas are many and meager, hard to see and harder to describe. The words that were written upon me as a child and again as a teen and later as a young adult are so intricately woven together that I struggle to untangle them.

This is my crisis–a web of knotted strands.

I am coming to terms with the notion that this crisis is at once horrendous and beautiful; the very fact we can contemplate and articulate that which gnaws at our psyche speaks to the magnanimity of the human spirit. The struggle can be hideous, but it births glorious works and makes new humans out of wretches. Like dredging a clogged waterway, my struggle to recover my authentic self has released a fount of creativity in my life.

“Crisis” really is an unfortunate term…

 

Existentially yours,

Tam