Knock-kneed Herons of the Apocalypse

I am happy to report that I have been painting. I promised to show you the fruits of my creative efforts, even the bad stuff, so here it comes.

For months, I wanted to paint something to fill the big blank space above my mantel. I’ve been stalling because big canvasses are expensive, and if I invest in one, I need a plan so I don’t screw it up.

However, plans and pressure suck all the joy out of painting. I like to paint because it’s meditative and freeing for me—but only if I’m not trying to achieve a perfect outcome.

While cleaning the garage, I found a possible solution: two plywood crate lids that my ex had left behind. They were each 3’ x 2’, so I figured I could make a diptych (two-part work of art). Free “canvasses” mean I don’t have to worry about screwing them up!

So, one Sunday, I sat in the garage and painted for hours. I set the two lids next to each other, top-to-bottom, and painted them like one big canvas. Freely, meditatively, I layered on base colors and then stretched big swaths of contrasting colors over them. I played with different brushes, different strokes, and different amounts of water. I got some good stuff.

I made a spirally sun and I liked it.

Then, like a dork, I got out a t-square and painstakingly laid out a compass rose in one corner. (If you’re trying to be free and meditative, don’t get out a t-square. Duh.) I painted it with metallic gold paint. Since I’m going for a travel/adventure vibe in my living room, I thought it would be perfect, but it looked really stupid. It pretty much wrecked one of the lids—I’d have to paint over it and then it wouldn’t match the bottom piece anymore– so I figured I’d just paint them separately and ditch the diptych idea. Diptych is such a ridiculous word anyway. Who even wants a diptych? I painted over the stupid compass rose.

On the other board, now a solo project, I thought I’d try to paint the silhouette of a heron. For some reason, I kind of want a heron in my living room, too. I don’t know where any of this comes from.

The heron started out awesome, but ended up looking like it was doing a pee-pee dance.

Hmmm. What do you do with a knock-kneed heron? You don’t hang it in the living room, that’s for sure.

I wasn’t thrilled that I’d jacked up both my free canvasses. In fact, I was more than a little disappointed. I set the boards aside and began to clean up my work area.

A little while later, I turned around and there they were, leaning next to each other, not top-to-bottom as I’d originally planned, but side-by-side—a different perspective all together.

knockneed heron

And they looked kind of cool.

I called Maddy, my 19-year-old, whom I can trust for an honest opinion. She said, “Well, it looks like a spaceship is going to abduct the heron. And it kind of looks like the apocalypse.”

Okay. I can see that. All valid.

But I was still excited. Not because I want to hang it in my living room, but because it helps me know what works and what doesn’t. Yes, I do want a big heron in my living room. No, I don’t want a compass rose. I like the rough texture and not the smooth, I know which colors work, and I have to watch out for the apocalypse effect.

See? Progress! I actually feel like I could drop $50 on a real canvas now and paint something living-room worthy.

That’s the beauty of letting go of ideal outcomes—you can engage in the process without fear of failure, and find value in whatever results.

I so often hear, “I want to try that, but I’m afraid it’ll turn out terrible!” People who have great stories are afraid to write them. People are afraid to try painting, crafting, whatever—because it might turn out shitty.

So what? Make something shitty! Get it out of your system. Use it as a practice run. Use it to determine what you DON’T want. Not only is it acceptable to write shitty dialog or paint ugly birds, it is often necessary. And sometimes, you make something and feel lousy about it, until you step away from it and give it a little distance…and then you find something redeemable in it. Maybe even something awesome.

Gotta save up for the big canvas. When I make my masterpiece, I’ll let you know.

The Blogger’s Guide To Breakups

Recall the Marvelous Moods of Meg? Sometimes they are chemical. Sometimes they are triggered by breaking up with a nice guy who loves you but does not inspire in you the passion you would really, really like to experience again in your lifetime (although it seems increasingly less likely as you approach your 40th birthday).

Say you wake up with a terrific backache on the day you intend to execute this break-up and your beau, fresh from the chiropractor himself, lovingly applies the tens unit he just purchased to your lower back, because that’s just what kind of guy he is.

Say you still do the deed, because you’re feeling increasingly guilty about playing along with the girlfriend routine when you can’t possibly imagine a future with this guy.

Say he takes it like a gentleman, but reminds you before he leaves that although you may find someone you love more than him, you could never find anyone who loves you back as much as he does.

Say you believe him, but you take the gamble anyway.

Most likely, you are left with a backache and one hell of a bleak mood. Here is what I recommend.

  1. Cry for a while.
  2. Take a lot of Advil.
  3. Numbly browse the For Sale ads on Craigslist.
  4. Try to imagine what you would have done with this day had it not been hijacked by your stupid love life.
  5. Oh yeah, painting.
  6. Return to Craigslist and find cheap canvasses, an easel and a long-handled brush set, just the kind you’ve been wanting, posted by a seller who lives a mere 10 minutes from your apartment. (This step could be tricky, but you’re due for some decent Karma by now, aren’t you?)
  7. Meet the artist-girl seller in the Santa Ana Artist Village for the deal. Wait for her in the warm afternoon and be inspired by the ornate façade of the Santora Building. Reflect on the fact that this same face has overlooked this sunny plaza since 1926.
  8. Be inspired by the artist-girl herself, with her Amelie haircut and bright-orange vintage bicycle. Ponder the possibility that your life might actually be some kind of movie and not real, kind of like The Truman Show.
  9. Be inspired by the fact that your art needs have all been met within a half hour for less than $60 via Craigslist. (Now you can forgive Craigslist for introducing you to your [ex] boyfriend.)
  10. Stop on the way home for tequila. Painting alone might not be quite enough to handle this mood.
  11. Mix a margarita and set up the easel on your tiny, neglected patio.
  12. Choose yellow, red and white paint: guaranteed to make a happy outcome.
  13. Don’t think. Just paint.
  14. Be inspired by the orange and pink swirls.
  15. Be soothed by the dog sleeping in the sunshine.
  16. Mix another margarita.
  17. Blog.

Beginning, for Somewhat Ineffective People

If you’ve spent any time in corporate America, or in the self-help aisle of the bookstore, you know about Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I have spent a great deal of time in both, so I’m pretty familiar with the Seven Habits.  I admire them, I respect them, and occasionally I even try to practice them.  Alas, I’m still not terribly effective.

Habit #2 is “Begin with the end in mind.”   The idea is to have a clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve—a detailed, crystal-clear vision of the result you want.  This applies not only to building mousetraps or what-have-you, but to your whole life—envision the life you want and the things that are important to you, and make your choices accordingly.

(You people who have your acts together—you Highly Effective People– can stop reading right here. Go make some choices and be effective.  Somewhat Ineffective People, please continue.  You might find this helpful.)

Here’s my problem: I can’t picture the end. I don’t know exactly what I want.  I’m almost 40, and my life vision is as clear as mud.  I put a lot of mental energy into it. I do workshops, take tests, see therapists…. I make some decisions, get my vision all squared away, and then change my mind. While all this thinking is going on, nothing gets done.

That’s highly ineffective.

But a couple months ago, my aimless wandering paid off in an unexpected lesson.   I took a painting class on right-brain painting at The Art Bar in Santa Ana. The instructor was Whitney Ferré.

The class wasn’t about creating fine art or learning techniques. It was about quieting your left brain—the logical, linear, rule-based side—and allowing your right brain to do its intuitive, free-form, creative thing.  For the sake of the lesson, we were going to paint owls. That’s all I knew.

Also, I could bring wine…wine and painting is a good combination.

Each person was given a big, blank canvas, a paper plate with some paint on it, and a fairly chunky paint brush.

The first instruction was to cover the canvas with paint. “Just cover it,” Whitney said, “It doesn’t matter what it looks like; you’re going to paint over this part anyway.  Don’t worry about the colors. This part is just to get you past your fear of the blank canvas.”

For the record, I’m a crafty girl. I like step-by-step tutorials, templates, and pre-coordinated collections of fashionable colors.  I like to see a completed example of what I’m about to make, so I can mimic it. I’m good at that.

So I wasn’t exactly comfortable with this “it doesn’t matter” approach. I didn’t even get to pick my colors. How was I supposed to know what I was going for, without an example?  In this case, I really, really wanted to have the end in mind.

But, I’m also a conflict-avoidant girl, so I just did as I was told and covered the canvas.  My plate had red, yellow and white paint on it, so my canvas turned all kinds of gorgeous shades of pink and orange.  It was lovely.

The next step was to paint an outline of an owl using basic shapes.  (For this step, she did give us some examples to copy. We were a bunch of beginners, so we needed some help.)

Reluctantly, I took my chunky paint brush and, with black paint, slopped an outline of an owl over my pretty sunset background. It didn’t look like Whitney’s; it was kind of lopsided and way too big, but whatever.  I was sipping my wine and happily covering my canvas, and the “it doesn’t matter” approach was growing on me.

Just then, Whitney said, “Now get some different colors, and fill in the shapes you’ve created.  Just paint right over your background.”

WAIT! Those are my favorite colors! I don’t want to paint over them!

“And you’ll paint over the next layer, too, so don’t worry about the end yet.  Don’t worry about how it’s going to turn out.”

ARGH!  What kind of stupid art lesson was this? Don’t worry about how it’s going to turn out? I heard my corporate-trained left-brain squawking all kinds of effectiveness at me; I could feel myself obsessing.

With eerie timing, Whitney advised the class, “Don’t obsess. You’re taking yourself too seriously. That’s ego.”

Well, far be it for me to have EGO. I painted over the orange. I tried to pick other colors I like just as well, like aqua. Maybe some purple.

Dang, it was turning out cool.

After a quick lesson in color strategy, a couple more layers and a little more wine, my painting was complete:  a big kooky owl with goofy eyes and ridiculously bright colors. He looks like he dropped some acid and flew through a rainbow and landed on my canvas. I love him.

I love that silly owl every time I look at it, and here’s why: because I tried something new, I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, I shut off my ego and my need to be CORRECT, and out came something colorful and fun.   It’s a product of my own fearless, intuitive right brain.

The moral of the story is this: if you can’t begin with the end in mind, begin anyway.  Just try.  Sometimes the vision takes shape after you pick up your brush, or start typing, or say hello.  Sometimes it evolves after some layering, some learning, or a glass of wine. The important thing is to be open to all kinds of beginnings. Don’t worry so much about being effective. Just begin.

Here I am in The Art Bar with Whitney Ferre and my owl painting.