the angel waiting in the woods
By Herman Melville
In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.
* * *
I have been in an artistic mode lately– the hands-on sort– and interested in doing many different kinds of creative projects. It reminds me a little of the nesting phase that comes at the end of pregnancy, only I have no pregnant abdomen to point to by way of explanation.
I’ve been decorating Easter eggs (with wax, Ukrainian style, also called pysanky); I’ve been painting things– second hand lawn furniture, a mirror frame, our mailbox. I picked up an embroidery sampler that I started half-heartedly in 2007 and started working on it again, along with some other embroidery things. And finally I’ve been sewing. I made a skirt for Esme (something I’ve wanted to do for years), and I even made a matching one to fit her American Girl doll. I also made a simple a-line summer skirt for myself– another thing I’ve wanted to accomplish for years. Now I have also begun a braided rug from old t-shirts. I’ve always wondered about whether or not it would be possible to make a braided rug but never really bothered to explore the question. It now strikes me that if I don’t act on at least some of these tiny ambitions I have tucked away, I will never know one way or the other. It is time to seize the day.
I have been on Pinterest a lot and although I love it as an bottomless source of ideas, it can also make my mind feel like it is exploding. It can cause my thoughts to dance around the logistical questions of multiple projects, and sometimes has made it more difficult to fall asleep at night.
I am thinking a lot lately about creativity and artistic energy–where it comes from, how it works. I saw this little blog post by an artist whose work is quite feminine and beautiful. Shortly after that I ran across this sad but powerful art exhibit called “The Real Toy Story,” a collection of stark portraits of Chinese factory workers who make the mass produced toys which I find to be a burdensome component of parenting in the context industrial first world abundance. The soul of these factory workers shines forth from their eyes in these portraits and seems to say: I am human, and I could do things infinitely more beautiful and astonishing than this, but, as you can see, my time on this planet is already spoken for.
I do not live in China, and I do not work in a factory. I am so fortunate to have other options. It might be time for me to exercise those options while it is still called today.
In my life I have not known very many artists. I wish that were not true, but it is. I have seen very few examples of what it looks to live a life dedicated to art. I think that I grew up believing that it was simply not okay to do this. This probably explains why I feel blown away when I encounter such a person. I wonder how in the world they broke free and obtained permission from the universe. “What unlike things must meet and mate,” says Herman Melville. But I want to know the statistical likelihood for anyone in this world fully developing themselves artistically. Most of my experience indicates that the patterns and structures of this world work aggressively against such an outcome.
But I do know that there is a place where I can go to with my concentration that is sustained and almost trance-like. It is a mode of being– a happy and good one. In that place, I am out of time and I am content; I am working but the work does not feel like work. All the energy I need is available. The exhaustion I feel afterward is a good exhaustion. I think this is the distinct experience of creativity.
Recently three art prints, at separate moments, captured my attention and bewitched me. All three were a variation of a theme in which a woman is alone in a forest clearing. The woman in each of these images is surrounded, dwarfed, and shielded completely by trees; she is safe, serene, and contemplative. Upon seeing these pictures, I want to step inside of them.
Obviously, this is not a literal place. I think these pictures represent a state of being that I know blindly through feeling alone– the way it feels to be engaged in the creative process– and the way it would look if that process were a physical place.
I like writing and I like making things. I always have. And when I embark on the process of a creative project I go to a distinct place where I am alone, focused, and protected. From what? From exposure to the eyes and criticism of others, from a lifetime of internalized censoring and negativity. From a messy kitchen, piles of laundry, and a floor that is gritty on the soles of my bare feet– all of which act as instant indictments to my self-worth and send me back into the spinning wheel of any and every preoccupation other than art.
Those are the demons that I have to wrestle before I can go to this clearing in the woods and do the more productive work of angel-wrestling. The demons have won more often than not in my life so far, and I am really not that young anymore. They’ve beat me through an endless variety of ways, words, and means. The clearing in the woods is ridiculously imminent in proximity, right outside the locus of my everyday life, but the demons have so many tools and clever ways to turn a phrase, all to the end of preventing me from heading out there. One would think that the angel would get tired of waiting there for me, but maybe since angels are, after all, celestial, it continues at its post in anticipation of the moment when I get things figured out.