Writing

Staring at the Ceiling: the Importance of Downtime

Two days before my first international flight, I broke my foot. Remarkably, it wasn’t the wild dancing in my five inch stilettos, it wasn’t from my dogged determination to channel my inner Cherry Pie on the club’s pole—I broke my foot when I kicked the door frame playing hide-and-seek with my cat. They say when you break a bone, you’ll know it, but this one took me a while. Once I got over the embarrassment and peeled myself off the floor, I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and went to bed. Sure it hurt, but I’d sleep it off. When I realized eight hours of sleep hadn’t given me back the ability to walk like someone who’s practiced the art for 20+ years, I thought maybe it was time to hit the doctor. Turns out, I’d split my second middle phalanx clean in half. I left the country with my foot precariously taped together and hobbled through England on a series of crutches and canes.
Four weeks later, I’d ditched the cane and stubbornly limped up and down the stairs of my third-floor walk-up like nothing had ever happened. In fact, my recheck was a formality: I never anticipated my podiatrist would tell me I should have had the break casted from the beginning, much less that I had damaged another bone from compensating for the better part of a month. Thus began my slow descent into madness as I found myself a club-footed prisoner in my family’s suburban home. When you live in the most notoriously bustling city on the planet, walk several miles daily, and enjoy the freedom of popping out to get whatever you want, whenever you want it, medical orders to stay off your feet in Suburbia, USA is a death sentence of boredom. Worse yet, my parents’ house is a Poké-Wasteland, nary a zubat or ratatta in sight. How was I going to hatch my 10k egg when I couldn’t even walk downstairs to check the mail?
Warstone Cemetery, Birmingham
Over the next few weeks, I plowed through a multitude of books, filled entire notebooks with journalistic psychobabble, and killed more than a couple bottles of wine. I colored my hair and called friends. I played cards and compiled playlists. In a time when other crises would have seen me running around town in an endless parade of distraction, my own physical helplessness had me trapped in far too small a space with my own thoughts. I spent far too much time sobbing into pillows and sleeplessly staring at ceilings. But it wasn’t all a desperate attempt to kill time—I signed up for some classes and meditations at the spiritual center my mother attends, returning sometimes several times a week for courses on crystal healing, astral projection, chromotherapy, mystical-feminine empowerment. In the process, I met several Channels who all had profound messages to pass to me. I’ve been working with tarot cards for over twenty years, but it’s been only recently that I’ve realized my cards have no power of their own—each card I pull means nothing on its own, but instead serves as a meditative tool to focus my attention and direct my intuition. The tarot is a comfortable system for me to work with, but given the practice and confidence, I could just as easily use anything to receive and deliver messages to my clients. With this knowledge behind me as I heard what each of these Channels had to tell me, I decided to explore the practice myself.
What I found was remarkable. It all made sense, and I realized I’d been using bits of the practice in my own life for some time. But most amazing of all was a passage written in one particular book about the importance of downtime. Downtime is imperative to clear the mind, relax the body, and allow ourselves to be open and ready to receive, whether we’re receiving divine wisdom, messages from the other side, or love from ourselves or others. As a Type-A Sagittarius with a streak of Overachieving Virgo Ascendent, my version of downtime is a lunch date with friends, window-shopping before school, outlining new essays, or painting something for a friend. But there’s nothing “down” about any of that. Even commonly-accepted modes of relaxation like Netflix marathons, devouring a novel, or catching up on YouTube subscriptions aren’t really downtime. Many of us haven’t experience true downtime since we were kids—laying in the grass and staring at the sky until we lost track of time, contemplating exactly nothing until we realize we’ve been sitting on the sofa in roughly the same spot for the last three hours. True downtime is literally taking the time to do nothing at all, and our minds and bodies need that.
So much of our self-worth is wrapped up in our productivity and our ability to be of service to others—if you can accomplish more than your coworkers, your friends, your family, then you become more valuable to the collective. But a constant stream of productivity dulls us like scissors: if our mind and body are out of synch, cutting at different speeds and intensities, we no longer function as we should. Everything is just off, whether or not it affects our lives noticeably. Downtime allows us to reset, to realign, making us feel more comfortable within ourselves and leaving us more room to connect to the people and things that matter most to us. It seems counterintuitive to spend those spare moments quietly alone when we want to be closer to the people we care about, but when we use that time to clear away the mental static and emotional haze within ourselves, it leaves more room for healthy, productive relationships.
This realization hit me like the Broadway local at rush hour—all these years, I’ve been struggling to fill every last second of my life with activity. Hustling is a full time job these days, and everyone seems to have at least three major games to play to set them ahead. Competition is a way of life. But there’s a reason we still hear about Aesop’s tortoise and his long-eared running mate: when you take time out to yourself, to contemplate your place in the world around you and simply exist for a few moments in time, you come out ahead, especially when your competition is racing along without the slightest idea of what they’re fulfilling…and what they’re not.
Two days after this flooded my mind, forcing me to spend the better part of an evening laying on the floor, visualizing these lessons like projections on the white space of the ceiling, the doctor cut off my cast and told me I was a free woman. I’m still supposed to take it easy, to avoid walking so many miles in a day or wearing my favourite heels for some weeks to come, but I can get back to the life I’ve built for myself. It was like everything—my broken foot, my damaged bone, my extended stay in suburbia—was a direct hit with the Universal baseball bat telling me to slow down, if not by choice, then by any means necessary. Being forced to a stop was the only way for me to learn this all important lesson. And like any lesson learned, once I passed the test, I was allowed to move on. My life won’t be like it was before all of this occurred, and I don’t expect it to be, but I’ll be implementing my newly acquired knowledge as I rebuild. Opportunities for downtime will be built into my schedule to keep things on track, even if it means forcing myself into group meditations or blocking off hours in the park. Personal growth should always be a priority—if you aren’t moving forward, you’re standing still.
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Art

Art and Grief, a Legacy of Loss

As human beings, we share certain experiences. If you’ve ever owned a pet, you’ve experienced the deep and profound heartbreak that comes with losing that life. They become part of your daily rituals, from feeding them in the morning to cuddling up at night. They rely on you to tend to their needs, and they love you unconditionally for it. No matter what you go through, who hurts you or how you self-destruct, pets are there for you. This month, I’ve lost not one, but two animal companions, including my best childhood friend, Paco. Since I was 12 years old, Paco has been with me for every trial and tribulation that comes with growing up. He was there for sleepovers with friends and giggly adolescent parties, and he was there when I cried over teenage spats and family feuds. He comforted me through intense medical treatments and saw me through countless heartaches. For 16 years, he left his mark on every article of clothing I owned and every piece of furniture in my family’s home. I can’t begin to describe the emotions that overwhelmed me Saturday morning, plucking his hair off a sweater that hadn’t seen daylight since last winter, knowing I wouldn’t be doing it again.

Paco

This January has been full of grief, from mourning a lifelong hero, navigating the illness and death of one pet, to coping with the sudden and unexpected loss of another. I’m not proud to admit that it’s effected my productivity–sleepless nights and mornings spent bargaining one’s way out of bed doesn’t lend itself well to getting things done. But that can only go on for so long. Grief needs to be experienced, but then it needs to be worked through and dispersed.

As an artist, I’ve always processed my emotions through projects–paintings, drawings, essays. John Lydon has said that anger was his primary driving source, Yayoi Kusama painted to stave off mental illness. It’s a common experience amongst artists: no matter your medium, you work through your feelings by producing work. So many amazing works of art have been made as a response to grief–Francis Bacon painted several tributes to his lover George Dyer after his 1971 suicide, and Salvador Dali and Max Ernst (among so many other artists) worked through the grief of wartime by creating truly profound pieces. Barthes wrote his classic essay, Camera Lucida, in the aftermath of his mother’s death, and it contains some mindblowing, heartwrenching thoughts on mortality and its inherent role in art. On some level, I think death is a driving motivation behind all artistic pursuits: the artist creates work to fight against his or her own mortality, unsatisfied with a life that leaves nothing living in its wake.

Julia, marked, in 19-something

 

 

In the days since these personal tragedies, I’ve dived headfirst into my work. I’ve sought catharsis in ink and paper, writing new words, working in new media. For some, the imagery of my recent experiments will be perfectly obvious. They’re not a “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans,” but it’s the beginning of something, some way to understand the role of these lost lives through the kaleidoscopic lens of my own artistic journey. If we are the sum of our collective experience, then the individuals and ideas that impress themselves upon you are also part of that equation. And lately, my work as been entirely about exploring that link been identity and influence. Last year, that mostly meant pouring through photo albums, briefly peering into the lives of anonymous relatives, tied to me only through blood and universal experiences: labour, laughter, love…

Love, circa 19-Something

 

The pain of loss never really leaves us entirely–ten, twenty, forty years from now, we’ll still feel pangs of grief recalling beloved pets, departed family, friends that left too soon. But rather than losing time, sinking in the quicksand of sorrow, use the memories as fuel for the creative fire. The death of someone close is absolute agony, but there is no greater heartbreak than a life gone unlived. Feel your sadness, grieve your losses, but process the pain into something positive. You can’t control when your time is up, but you can construct the legacy you leave. Let’s make this one count…

Self Portrait, Two Decades Removed

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Metamorphosis

An Ideal Future: propelling forward

On any given day, I have two or three drafts written, waiting for final photos to be added and one last proof before going live. Photos take me a long time to edit and finalize, and I do try to take them all myself whenever possible. But right now, there are five–five–drafts waiting for me to finish them.

What have I been doing? Aside from the obvious (work, school, and life in general), I’ve been trying to figure out exactly which direction I want to go in. You’ve seen several sides of me now–you’ve seen the makeup addict, the makeup artist, the artist, the writer, and the witch–but sometimes I still feel like there’s something missing. At home, I often wonder where I’m headed: I work my day job as a makeup artist, I’m finishing my degree in studio arts, but how to do I reconcile my passions with my job, or make a living with my dreams?

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When I envision my ideal future, what I would most like my life to be, I see a small apartment on the lower east side, and cliche as it sounds, a typewriter by a window where I can drink coffee and look down on the city I love and write. I see myself with my dog in sidewalk cafes, a blue-haired bundle of sweaters and scarves, tapping words into my iPad or sketching characters onto paper. I love makeup and the beauty culture, but I don’t see myself living in it for the rest of my life–art is my passion, in all of its forms, and I desperately want to immerse myself fully in it. Certainly, I’ve worked hard to get where I am now, and I recognize that I am where I should be at this present time. But sometimes, I get lost in the fact that I’m not yet accomplished in the areas I want to be. On the good days, being a part of people’s precious memories is enough–knowing that I’ve helped them feel beautiful on important occasions and particular moments of their lives is immensely gratifying. But on the bad days, I worry that the time I spend surrounded by powders and creams is taking up too much of my attention and that I’ll never get ahead as an artist or a writer because of it. Quitting or cutting back is not an option because that’s where the money is right now, and we all have to live.

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So what am I doing with those precious spare moments to propel myself towards that ideal future? Sometimes, I’m not so sure. But I have decided that this is the year I finish the novel I’ve been working at for the past three years. I was afraid that it would sit unfinished on my hard drive for the rest of eternity, but the words have started flowing again and I know that in the next few months I can definitely squeeze out the last of them. Fiction was my first love, and I’m more than thrilled to be working with it again. And once I finish this one, two more neglected projects are nipping at my brain, begging for completion.

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I’ll admit I’ve lapsed in painting again, but I’ve found a new fascination in photography. Armed with my father’s old Nikon FG, I’ve been taking a course in photography and development that’s instilled in me a true appreciation for a medium I never before considered. There’s something so zen about holding that camera, adjusting the aperture, the shutter speed, checking the light meter and focussing just so on the subject, and then just letting it go–all you can do is hit that button and wait until you get into the darkroom to see if you got the shot. When I was little, the camera was sacred: it was taken on family vacations, a fixture at all holiday gatherings, and it was to be touched only by skilled adult hands. Film was also something special–frames were precious and not to be wasted on anything you didn’t want to remember forever. Digital photography almost ruined me. When I got my first digital camera (a 3 megapixel HP point-and-shoot gifted to me by my ever-technologically-savvy grandfather), it turned photos into something disposable. Once they were uploaded, they could sit forever on my hard drive. Prints were nothing more than streaky printouts on an inkjet, and once I got a new computer most of them were deleted, un-missed. With paintings, I can put imagination into something tangible. Photography never seemed more than documentary to me. But not everyone sees the world the same way, and there’s more imagination that reality to some…

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So that’s what I’ve been up to, Internet. The radio silence isn’t really silence at all. I’m simply gathering myself, collecting the bits and pieces I’d like to share. Eventually, I need to learn to stop combing through things unit they’re perfect–they never will be, and there’s a sort of charm in imperfection anyway.

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