I’ve tried to make use of this tendency in my approach to art-making. I thrive in a realm where I’m tossed an unresolved mix of unknowns and get to structure things or establish some degree of order. I very much enjoy the process and the discovery of “solutions” along the way to “resolving” a painting. In such works it’s a delicate balance between “letting go,” sensing without thinking, and applying a degree of energy toward ordering the chaos without lessening its essence. In my art I have shifted from (decades ago) aiming to achieve a certain expected outcome and knowing what imagery I strove to end up with, to learning to appreciate how nowadays my paintings are far more exciting for me to create when I go with the flow and don’t insist on any predetermined outcome. When I have a fixed idea the results often seem stillborn. Contrarily, I feel when I approach creating in a more open way, the results are more vital and seem to be more engaging to others as well.
It’s one thing to practice this as a studio discipline, and another to apply such principles to living in the world at large. Harder still when there are other tensions in the world. Even though I’ve spent years working and living alone and can be reasonably at peace with it, this COVID-induced isolation, this “not in control” time, can be soul-draining. I especially struggle with the lack of any physical touch—I suspect this aspect especially affects those of us who are not partnered with someone. I recognize many are being challenged by far greater issues: severe financial crisis, debilitating physical suffering, and/or permanent losses. I do take this to heart, try to hold others in compassion and understanding.
But I also try not to be in denial of what I feel. Lately I feel a muted heaviness as we balance social distancing for the sake of the most vulnerable in our communities with the impacts of physical isolation. Social media, Zooming, and FaceTiming only act as light tonics. They may convey rudimentary info but it’s via an energetic vacuum. I’m still finding joys, and fortunately have plenty of satisfying work. I’m somewhat isolated but not utterly alone, very grateful for family, and good friends, and able to have safe-distance in-person chats with a select few. For someone sensitive to nuanced emotional energies, one crucial thing I’ve learned in this time is that physical contact with others helps keep my being balanced and my soul nourished. Perhaps it’s out of selfishness, I’m skeptical masked hugs are more dangerous than they are beneficial. I admit I could sure use some restorative, life-affirming hugs. (If you thought my hugs were lengthy before COVID, be forewarned.)
Like so many others, some of my friends and loved ones have contracted COVID-19. So far, gratefully, all have recovered with no affects in the short term. My 92 year old mother was in the hospital last weekend (and thankfully, just “released” —into more isolation and quarantine! Ugh!— today) — but right now any hospitalization carries that element of grave concern. As all who have faced this sort of thing know to their core, few things make you feel as helpless as being unable to assist a loved one who is not well.
Here we are, stumbling through things in America without consistent leadership, so we make our own choices and find ways to cope. One of my methods is floating in the nearby Roanoke River. I began floating last year as a rejuvenating therapy. It was a softly joyful way to nurture my heart, which after a long period of barrenness had unexpectedly cracked open to love, then, as life’s currents go, was as unexpectedly set adrift. This year, during this unforeseen swirling viral COVID spiral with its necessary social distancing, floating has become my anchor, beacon, and saving Grace. I often go alone, but a few friends have taken floats with me. Inevitably I encounter non-human companions along my floats, and for sure they’re welcome, much appreciated friendships as well.
Everyone approaches life in their own fashion, suited to their unique moment. Maybe because I began floating last year awash in self-doubt and confusion, from the outset I avoided trying to “control” the journey. I still prefer this way. Like life, I know it has an endpoint, and I’ve a general idea of things to be cautious about. As the hot summer lowers the river, many rocks are now jutting up, so at times I do guide my vessel between obstacles. But mostly I prefer to let the tube bounce off them and set me into a freeform spin. In the Sufi tradition, spinning was a means to help unlock one’s being from the control of one’s intellect. For me it’s also accepting the futility of trying to control what I can not. Maybe it also acknowledges I’m just a peon in the powerfully flowing grand scheme. Which in many ways feels similar to the limited sensible options right now in pandemic America.
It’s in interesting how our stresses manifest on social media. We (myself included) vent, pick at others’ comments, insist on what’s valid, or worse, become embroiled in heated exchanges — likely all signs of our current insecurities and an unexpressed ache for stability. It’s so hard to step back and take in the bigger view, to think generations beyond our own. These strange and reflective times have me questioning how to approach my desire to live a meaningful life. So much feels murky, its hard to know which way to step. Maybe its due to the social isolation and living alone, but somehow right now I feel a bit vulnerable: as if I’m walking bare foot on the muddy river bank, risking a poke from a sharp unseen object. Yet walk forward we must.
These days it can feel difficult to feel confident about many things. The formerly consistent weather, our fragile democracy, the natural environment we now know, our civil communities, our basic routines and lifestyle. I feel stymied about my distanced relationships, my larger purpose/goals, even my art...
For now, I find peace again and again, tube over shoulder, by wandering down to the ever-constant, ever-changing river, and setting into the refreshing waters. Despite all the noisy uncertainties, once there, I briefly stop asking questions, listen more, think less. And I become less, and more, as my heart expands and merges with the whole. I’m suspended yet supported, effortlessly hovering between the grounding earth visible just a few feet below me, and the always engaging heavens above. I’m embraced in a much-needed hug from the Roanoke River itself. I hear cicadas, kids’ laughter, birdsongs, ripples against boulders. I spin as breezes sway trees’ upper limbs and feel cooling waters on my own. I breathe in the smell of river moss evaporating on sun-baked stones. I allow this mercurial, living pathway to carry me, meandering, my being fully immersed within the moment, toward an uncertain goal, yet certain renewal.