Lisa Gates’s “get out the door” imperative jolted me into action, but not exactly the kind of action Gates exhorted in her Forbes article. In Forbes, Gates says, Ask the question of the person whose affirmative answer could change your life. Be courageous and take care of business. But I took “get out the door” literally: Change out of your sweats, go to some events and meet people who’ll introduce you to other people who will sometimes email, message or call you back with wonderful opportunities. Do the thing instead of ruminating about the thing. Act. Show up. Then, ask that question Gates talks about.
I joined an intense, dedicated group of arts educators, the Committee on Multiethnic Concerns (COMC), a special interest group within the National Art Education Association (NAEA). Suddenly, there were presentations to make, people to caucus with, articles to write and a conference to attend in the cutting winds of Manhattan winter.
Then came the reading. I read the NAEA newsletter, “NAEA News,” from cover to cover (It arrived in paper form in my mailbox. I’m so happy that’s still possible). From the Caucus on the Spiritual in Art Education (CSAE), I learned about Rabindranath Tagore, who, one hundred years ago, became the first non-European Nobel laureate in literature. Tagore’s poetry was actually popular (through translations and in his native Bengali), but he wrote so much more than that. Short stories, plays, essays, music! And he painted. I think of Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus – both songwriters and painters (who had the pleasure of collaborating shortly before Mingus’s death). I admire how all of these artists resisted criticism that must’ve come from inside or outside about being a dilettante or flaky or unfocused. They followed their interests. If they wandered into several mediums, or areas of science or philosophy, or all of the above, so be it—they were just more interested and interesting that way. Tagore and those like him bring entire cultures forward. I think about how many voices resist or disagree with people like them, and how much fortitude or vision (which could be translated into stubbornness) it takes to be authentic and move forward past your own fear and anyone else’s.
COMC’s newsletter piece featured The Memory Project. This is connective tissue: an art-based service project where art students from around the world paint or draw portraits of orphaned children, then gift them with the art. The message: You are a work of art. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=1971619n
Certainly, I could’ve spun the Internet wheel around a few hundred times and made these discoveries on my own. But there’s something quite wonderful about sharing a bus ride or a sandwich or a blog with like-minded people who look for and find the good. I look to Life in Transit to extend a network of art-connected people and give them wheels…to extend the global network of art in unlikely places. What do you want Life in Transit to do? A network stands for something. It keeps ideas incubating, and it gets us out the door.
One of my favorite quotes is, “The only constant in life is change.” I love this quote because it’s so true—change is an inevitable part of life. From the moment we are born, we are changing. We are never exactly the same today as we were yesterday, and every day we grow a little bit older. Change and transition are everywhere around us, ranging from minute changes such as when we get a new haircut or outgrow a favorite old pair of shoes, to the more profound changes such as when we decide to pack up our bags, leave behind everything we have ever known, and start over. The cyclical, impermanent nature of life necessitates that change is interwoven into the daily fabric of our lives. But why, then, if change is such an integral fact of our existence, is it so painful and terrifying? Why do we have such a strong tendency to cling on to what is known rather than allow ourselves to flow with the natural detours and transitions in our lives?
My life is in a period of transition. We usually refer to the term “transition” when a tangible, concrete event that has occurred, such as a college graduation, an engagement, or the birth of a child. And yet, my experience with the Life in Transit workshops taught me that we are all constantly in a state of transition. Every morning we wake up, every step we take, every breath we draw, is a part of this inevitable transition and growth. As Thomas Crum so elegantly said, “Imagine that you are a masterpiece unfolding…a work of art taking form with every breath.” The fact that most people don’t think about this inevitable growth process does not make it any less true, nor does it change the fact that this process is constantly occurring.
Of course, some transitions are certainly more overt and painful than others. In fact, some transitions are so gut-wrenching and agonizing that a person can be rendered completely helpless. These types of difficult transitions may involve different things for different people, but some examples may include being abused, getting divorced, moving to a new state, ending a long term relationship, or being diagnosed with a serious medical illness. The possibilities are as varied as the people who experience such events, but the fact is that everyone, at some point, experiences painful transitions—what Judith Orloff in her book Emotional Freedom termed “the dark night.”
In my own life, I can pinpoint two specific events that created my own dark night. These events included my best friend and roommate getting diagnosed with cancer, and the ending of my five year relationship with my boyfriend—my other best friend. As you can imagine, the combination of both of these events, which did not happen simultaneously but rather seemed to gradually unfold alongside each other, literally shattered the foundation beneath me.
And despite all of the feelings that were elicited in me during this time, despite the feeling I had deep inside of me that was trying to tell me to let go, I only clung on even harder. I clung on to this idea, this feeling, of “how things used to be.” How things used to be before my friend found out the devastating news and had to leave so swiftly it left me reeling. How things used to be before I lost my boyfriend, the person who provided me with so much strength and security. Because there was comfort in that…and thus, even though my life clearly wasn’t as it used to be (of course not; I came home to an empty apartment every night and the love of my life, who had always been there, wasn’t there anymore), I refused to accept that things had changed. Or that they were going to be different from now on. This, of course, is like trying to viciously swim your way against a fifty foot tidal wave while denying it’s there—it just doesn’t work.
And then, to make matters worse, Grief and Depression struck. They began tapping on my door, softly at first, and then as the days and weeks progressed they started knocking even harder and more forcefully. Eventually they both started whispering to me, one in each ear, until I couldn’t hear or listen to anything else. They held me captive and wouldn’t allow me to concentrate on anything, except for my feelings of intense sadness and fear, which I draped over my entire body like a cloak. They held on to me so tightly that even getting out of bed in the morning felt like swimming through thick syrup. When I tried to fight them, to distract myself from their deadlocked grip by talking with my friends and family, they began to withdraw a little bit; yet as soon as I was alone again, lying in bed at night, unable to sleep, they attacked viciously.
Yet, despite their unwelcome intrusion in my life, and despite the bleak, heavy nights they caused me, I feel thankful for what Grief and Depression have taught me. They have been an essential part of my dark night, and without their presence, without the opportunity to struggle with them, I would not have been able to transform.
In regards to the feelings of despair that often accompany difficult transitions, Judith Orloff says, “The dark night speaks to the soul’s development. It’s a releasing of your ego’s grasp on the psyche, permitting positive change that can prompt redefinition of the self.” It is in this way that feelings of fear and sorrow can provide us with the opportunity to achieve a greater sense of understanding, as well as an opportunity to break free of old habits, relationships, or beliefs that do not serve us anymore.
Change is painful, and facing it undoubtedly requires great courage. Sometimes, when we are faced with a painful choice or situation, it is difficult to find that courage. And yet if we fight against the inescapable changes and transitions in our lives, we will never be able to grow. We will sacrifice our soul’s development in order to maintain feelings of comfort and security—and by doing so, we are untrue to ourselves.
To all of the women out there who are facing a transition: Remember that you are not alone. Remember that you are stronger than you think, and that you are “a masterpiece unfolding, every second of every day.”
Emily Willen, Art Therapist, Life in Transit: Documentarian & Archivist