vulnerability part 2

I’ve been facilitating an online painting workshop this week, and over the past few days have had eight marvelous one-to-one conversation with participants. I’m really grateful for the candor, depth and trust that’s emerged in these meetings. There have been recurring themes in the conversations that map onto my own creative and developmental preoccupations —  which also speak to some of the cultural imperatives pressing down on us. 

About a week and a half ago, I had a 3 PM meeting that I had to cancel because something urgent came up. Then, of course, that urgency suddenly wasn’t so urgent and canceled. So did my 6 PM drawing group. So had a block of time and I started walking. I felt guilty about it because had work to do in the studio and it nagged at me that I allowed my day to get disrupted. I try to remind myself that walking is my work — that literally as a landscape painter my job is to be in the landscape. But it’s hard to unwrap all the mythology about productivity that’s been drilled into me — and I still find it hard to embrace the idea that work can be joyful. I feel similarly about reading. I have a stack of really good books in my studio, but the only time I feel permission to read (without guilt) is during the 2-4 hours in the middle of my biphasic sleep cycle. Again, engaging with the ideas in these books is literally part of my job, but somehow I have it in my head that reading is a leisure activity.

I’ve been writing more in this format because I’m trying to find my legs as a writer again, but also because I need to articulate some things about who I am and who I’m becoming. Twenty years ago I blogged a lot through a platform called Live Journal. The thing I appreciated about that platform, and miss today, is the circle of writers to whom I was connected. They were mostly queer men writing to make sense of themselves and the worlds they inhabited. There was a lot of depth to the writing and a sense of connection. It was journalistic, to be sure, but also felt epistolatory. I had a sense of writing toward a receptive and sensitive audience. This platform doesn’t feel that way, and even when I cross-post to social media it feels episodic — just another drop of information in the news cycle — and I don’t get the sense of ongoing dialogue that LJ offered. I’m craving dialogue in every corner of my life, but finding it harder to cultivate at this developmental moment than I have in other times. I fear that I’ve closed down some parts of myself, and I’d like to reclaim them. But I don’t precisely know what they are. And more broadly I’m not sure how to name what’s been collectively lost, although I know something is missing from our shared life.

I’ve been thinking about joy and vulnerability — in part because I recently read Brene Brown’s book on vulnerability, but also in part because I sought out Brene Brown’s book to explore joy and vulnerability. Both feelings are difficult for me, and I want to be better at navigating them. Happiness pops up in unpredictable moments that I often think are the beginning of an era of happiness. But that’s an illusion. Happiness lives in moments when we’re receptive to it. It deepens when we’re mindful of it and it passes when we think about its duration (or preempt it with fears of it being taken from us). I wrestle with ghosts of those who’ve reflexively sought to take joy from me, so these processes are hard to unpack. I always feel joy (eventually) when I walk a long distance. Sometimes I need to engage a walking meditation to get there, and often I process a lot of rage while I’m walking. One walking meditation that takes up the issue of rage always ends with a check in about one’s feelings and suggests ‘walk more.’ The one I rely on most comes from Thích Nhất Hạnh — and with one footfall invokes “I am here.” And with the other “I have arrived.’ Both methods eventually shake the ghosts free. But I do sometimes worry that walking in this way is akin to ‘running away’ — and I don’t want to believe that my joy is tied to fantasies of escape. But those fears say a lot about the pathologies of our culture and my enduring need to step away from other people’s projected drama.

When I teach, I talk a lot about practice — which of course is what I’m writing about here. I want to think I can master it, because my culture has trained me to think that mastering something is the thing to do, that mastery is the pinnacle of achievement. But that impulse is counterproductive and destructive. I’m living with a lot of doubt and ‘unknowing’ at the moment and it feels lonely (even thought this week’s conversations have demonstrated that I’m hardly alone in my feelings). I’m trying not to fall prey to old habits for dealing with loneliness, but that’s hard too. I’ve been in this place before and I know that looking squarely at the gap in my understanding is precisely what facilitates transformation. But ‘unknowing’ is really hard for me because forces me to unpack and take apart a lot of the cultural training that still informs my identity — and there are a lot of moving parts to all that. At least, I feel (mostly) committed to doing the work. Even if it is exhausting.

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