|Refrigerator and Cecelia with a fake smile|
Monday, July 28, 2014
This is me last Thursday in front of my refrigerator thinking about food (audible sigh). I decided to try fasting and meditation for the last week of Ramadan–the Muslim holy month of praying and abstinence from food and water from sunup to sundown. It’s a moveable calendar event that just ended. This year it went from June 28 to July 28.
Why did I do this? As an artist I’m interested in discovering aspects of “the Self”, and who I really am. I’ve explored thoughts and feelings, my face and body in paintings, photos, performance art, videos and fabric work. See http://www.ceceliakane.com/.
Ramadan is a regimen for intensive mind, spirit and bodywork through prayer and renunciation. I’m not interested in the overt religious teachings at Ramadan, but I thought such extreme fasting might provide a structure for engendering a break-through in knowing myself.
Here’s what I discovered:
Did I have a breakthrough in knowing myself? Yes. I am humbled by the experience, and compassionate toward Muslims who can maintain the fast for a whole month, and also towards the poor who regularly go hungry. This fast was suffering. I needed a like-minded community to weather this storm.
Am I the food and water I consume? Surprisingly yes! Lack of food and water made me a different person, and a shriveled, tired body. I was so hungry, my stomach seemed to collapse, which made eating and drinking at nighttime difficult. My mind went fuzzy on Thursday, and I even had trouble finding the correct words when speaking. I was definitely dehydrated, even after drinking as much water as I could at the start of daylight. Thursday night and Friday I felt my heart flutter a bit in my chest. Wow!
I was whiny, cranky and an obsessive clock-watcher, continuously calculating how many more hours to go before sundown.
What is my relationship to food and water?-I discovered I pepper my normal non-fasting day with little rituals around eating and drinking. When I finish a chore, I treat myself to a coffee break. When I meditate I have a glass of water by my side. When I read, I’ll bring a snack to my chair to munch on. In the evening I rest with a glass of wine. Without the props, I felt adrift and angry.
Can I look at suffering with curiosity, not frustration? – Not really. I tried being an observer of myself, and meditating calmly on my bodily sensations, but honestly, I found it almost impossible to maintain any concentration during meditation. My brain was mush.
Can I do normal work or exercise without water and whining?-Yes I could do the work if I slowed down, but I was whining to the four walls a lot. Work kept me busy and not self-centered. I got a lot of art done. Apparently I spend a considerable amount of time on food prep and cleanup. With the fast, I had time on my hands.
Can the experience of suffering break down walls of self-centeredness, and fear? - A week of fasting is not long enough to break down any walls, but I recognized something. It occurred to me that my normal task-orientation, and absorption with time, efficiency and speed might blind me to alternate approaches to art and life. Can I modify this habit and see what comes up? “Food for thought” (pun intended.) This was an ah-ha moment.
What about my caffeine habit? –I’m addicted! Drinking one cup of coffee before sunrise did not suffice to carry me through 24 hours. (I did not want to drink coffee at sundown for fear of insomnia). As a result, I lugged a pressurized big-head around on top of my shoulders all day and night throughout the fast. My brain felt too big for my skull.
Is this even healthy for a woman about to turn 68? -No definitely not. My difficulty thinking by the end of each day, the fluttery heart by the end of the week, my perpetually tense stomach, and the lack of concentration indicate dehydration with a potential for some bodily harm. I also lost sleep. I set my alarm each day for 4:50 am to eat breakfast before daybreak which is 5:20-ish this far north in Vermont. Sundown was around 8:30.
Finally, could I even do this for a week? I completed six full days, not seven, and altered the water rule by the end of the week. I drank one glass of water on Wednesday, went back to no drinks on Thursday, but on Friday and Saturday drank water throughout the day to combat the health problems that were cropping up. This cleared up the lack of brainpower and the fluttery heart, but not the caffeine headache. That raged on.
Am I glad I did this? Yes. I discovered I’m not the strong, independent person I thought I was. Body chemistry is a big part of who I am. Aging is the slow process of the body’s deterioration. We live and we die. All the more reason to enjoy each moment, like the glorious taste of water and the bliss and flavors of food. Time to slow down in general, glory in art making, the beauty of nature, and help others.
Monday, July 21, 2014
I took a walk alone a couple nights ago, down the dirt road that skirts a forest near my home and studio above Peacham Vermont. It was both frightening and awesome. Existential is the word. The cooling air was thick with silence. No cars in earshot and no street lamps to wash out the night sky. A pair of bats dipped and dived over my head. A hooting owl sounded deep in the woods, and a heavy, unseen creature crashed through the brush somewhere on my right. Lightening bugs flickered among the trees. The blackening landscape rose up through the dying light of dusk as the last bit of daylight leached out of the sky. I felt small and alone. Thoughts of death and danger lurking in the shadows consumed me. My hearing became acute as visibility dwindled.
Night for me holds an unseen force. Last summer here I painted what this felt like-primal, dark, powerful.
|Night Wings_42"x36"_acrylic on canvas_2013|
I still keep a nightlight on at home to give definition to the boundaries of my space–to let me know I am alive and grounded. I would like to be more brave.
I took iphone pictures in successive stages of dwindling light, until the camera refused to recognize the emerging stars, and I needed a flashlight on the road.
|1.Dusk remains above the trees|
|2.Walk begins as light fades|
|3. Edge of the forest_trees turn into black blobs|
|4. Night quickly falls along the road|
|5.Almost complete darkness between trees and sky|
|6. Last light between the trees that the camera can register|
I quickly lost my courage, and turned back toward home. I had not gone very far. Later I sat in a plastic lawn chair in the blackness of the yard, and gazed up at the expanse of constellations. I will test my self again another night.
|Half moon at 2AM Peacham VT|
Sunday, July 13, 2014
|One-armed maple near Danville Vermont|
“The way plants persevere in the bitterest of circumstances is utterly heartening.
I can barely keep from unconsciously ascribing a will to these plants; a do-or-die courage; and I have to remind myself that coded cells and mute water pressure have no idea how grandly they are flying in the face of it all.”
-Annie Dillard, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek
I drive past this old weather-beaten maple a lot. I see her as Mother Courage, valiantly holding up her one remaining arm to shout out the joy of living, in spite of the odds.
I’ve been contemplating courage for the past couple decades, pushing the edges of my life to get simpler, and more daring...letting go and letting it rip. It’s scary sometimes being alone and maintaining confidence in this “foolishness” called art. Again and again I ask the same question with paint, line, fabric and performance. Who am I? Feelings? Face? Body? The only child of a Catholic mother?
A quote from Henry David Thoreau gives me courage, “Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life…Known your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it and gnaw at it still.” Yes.
I like to anthropomorphize non-human things to imagine what it might be like to be a warrior, like that rugged tree. I made a tunic in 2007, that I call The Bravery Jacket.
|front and inside|
It’s a pseudo West Point military style garment that I found on the street. I ripped out the constraining sleeves, covered the wool twill in wild painted hearts and infused the gauze lining with red yarn on the right to replicate oxygenated blood exiting my heart and lungs, and blue yarn representing the blood returning without oxygen. I wanted a real “suit of armor” I could magically don in fearful times.
I even dared that same year to create the enemy, which I called “The Failure Cape”; a tapestry cloak trimmed with a mink collar, and adorned in shiny gold painted clay hearts.
Hidden inside, however are the sad eyes of despair connected by lines of thorny branches. May I never succumb to its cowardly charms.
Courage is about overcoming fear. About being persistent, and self-confident, or pushing through timidity. It’s about “alligator wrestling” as Annie Dillard in The Writing Life calls the process of pulling the writing (or painting) out of the mind and into the tube or drawing tool. It’s also about letting go of the vision at some point if need be, and valiantly pursuing what has emerged on the paper or canvas. She says, “You are wrong, if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page [canvas]. The [canvas] is jealous and tyrannical. The [canvas] is made of time and matter; the [canvas] always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.” The trick is not to give up on the piece simply because it has taken a different turn.
Courage she describes, is about going for the edges where the madness is.
In the disciplined act of walking into the studio in the first place, I start conjuring the zone of wildness with things like cups of coffee, dark bold music like Coward by Vic Chesnutt from his album At the Cut, or an NPR podcast of On Being, a glass of wine or beer.
The point for me is to keep the neural pathways open from the heart of courage, past the wasteland of the cautious, perfectionist mind, through the primitive amygdala and into my hand and chalk and brush.
This week I finished the self-portrait of feeling “Strong”-which is #71 of 89 photographs of daily emotions that I shot in 2009 in my bathroom. I ignored the fact that the studio seemed lonely, too clean and uninviting. I set up my wall of blank papers and a table of media to experiment with loosening up my head and hand; like warm-ups for an athlete. In the photo below I’m about to start a portrait for a friend.
I begin with a tissue tracing of the original photograph in quickly-applied ink, to get the “lay of the land”– the shape of my emotional face.
|original 8x10 selfie_2009|
This time I did only two trials.
The first one I stared at the photo while drawing, only occasionally glancing back at the paper to see what was happening.
I returned to touch it up and make her somewhat believable. This I recognized as a hedge…a cautionary move that was not courageous, but not shameful either…just part of my process. Now I'm ready to let it rip on page two. By now I was having fun. With honesty and courage flowing, I created the self-satisfied thuggish self-portrait of Strong at that moment in time. This one worked. Sometimes it takes much longer. Sometimes I have to stop and return later.
Tomorrow I will need to summon the courage all over again to walk into the studio.
This is the way I discover real life, and it is worth it.