The point of writing in my art journal

Journal page white on black

Journal page in tribute to my mother by Suzanne Hollifield

I used to keep a written journal every day. In fact, I’ve got boxes of them taking up space in a closet. When I taught high school English, every class started with ten to fifteen minutes of the students free writing, which I never read. The point was to develop fluency, to support thinking in words instead of images, and to develop a writing practice that just might carry over to life after school.

At some point, however, I began to write less and less. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say, it was just that after I retired from teaching and especially after I stopped dating on a regular basis, I had less drama in my life and so less need to bare my soul on paper. 

When I began painting two years ago, I began to write again more regularly. At first, I only wanted to document my learning process, and then I started taking classes that encouraged self-reflection before picking up the brush. I used the prompts supplied to me by my teachers, initially by Kelly Rae Roberts in her Spirit Wings course to create mantras for the paintings and then by Effy Wild in Book of Days, a year long course that comes with a prompt for every day. The fact that I often painted over what I had written gave me a freedom to express myself without reservation.

Journal page

Journal page by Suzanne Hollifield

Over the last year, I’ve strayed from the prompts more as world events have challenged me to think about where I stand on certain issues. I often feel the stress of my values in conflict with those of people I love or care about, and although I am aware that nothing will make me stop caring for certain people, I wonder if we might become estranged by events if push comes to shove. 

I made a commitment several months ago to read the words of great leaders like Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when I get really upset with the way things are going in the world. I have also started listening to podcasts that either explain events or that offer a positive viewpoint. They help me stay rational and positive rather than reactive and fearful.

One podcast that is just back from hiatus is #ReikiRadio, which you can find on Blog Radio or on iTunes. It is hosted by Yolanda Williams. She spoke on a recent episode about how during the last year many people have been dealing with the Shadow, and she indicated that our country might also be dealing with its Shadow. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I heard it, and I’m sure it will provide days of fodder for my art journal. 

If you are wondering how that works for me, I usually write on the paper; then I either paint over it or glue collage piece over it. I have, on occasion, torn the writing and used it as collage pieces. (I’m thinking of doing this with some of those old journals.) in this way I get my feelings out, and then make something beautiful out of the pain or anger or frustration I’ve expressed. 

Another way to art journal is simply to make the writing a part of the page itself as in the two pieces here. Sometimes, I just use a poem or a quote that is meaningful to me. Recently, I’ve been using music as a jumping off point, thanks to a class I’m taking called Mixed Tape II.

This is not to say that I never save things I write anymore, but art journaling has given me a way to express the irrational and the confusing parts of my mind and heart without judgment. It is surprising to me how often simply doing that finds a resolution that all the self-analysis of previous years did not. Besides, I get to paint. 

My yappy inner critic

Art journal page

Art Journal page for Book of Days with Effy Wild

I spent all this past weekend painting. I usually do some art every day although it may only be a sketch. I’ve only been painting for two years, and yet, it has become a necessary part of my life. Most of the time, I can see that I’m improving, and even when I am not as happy with a piece as I might be, it is okay because I feel like I’ve learned something about composition or combining materials or any number of other things I can practice improving when I tackle the next piece.

Several of my favorite teachers encourage introspection while art journaling or before painting a canvas so that one meets oneself on the page or canvas. On several occasions, the prompt or exercise has involved listening to one’s inner voices and facing or combating the inner critic. My teachers may describe the inner critic as the voice that often tells the artist she isn’t good enough or that she doesn’t compare with other artists. They speak of the voice that says, “Who do you think you are to think you can be an artist?”

Fold out of Book of Days Journal page

Maybe it is because I am 66 years old or maybe it is because I don’t really expect to be able to sell my paintings commercially, an least not in large enough quantities that I need to worry about other artists, that I don’t hear the voice of this specific inner critic. Instead, the voice I hear says, “Why are you spending all day painting when you need to be cleaning the house? Why are you spending money on another online art class when you haven’t done all the lessons from the ones in which you have already enrolled? Why are you buying more Golden paint when you could be using craft paint? Why aren’t you reading? Why aren’t you working on your genealogy projects or (fill in the blank)? You’re getting obsessed!!”

Close up of Book of Days Journal page

The inner critic is also called the superego. I was once in a spiritual group that did work on silencing the superego and was told that you could never really get to your True Nature as long as you listened to your superego; that is because the superego does not want your success but only wants to keep you down. Originally, some time in childhood, it may have begun as a voice that wanted to keep you safe, but it quickly turned into a voice to keep you subdued. You cannot escape the ego if the superego is constantly yapping in your ear.

Painting puts me in a place where there is no yapping. What I don’t know is a challenge, and since my classes are all online, I can learn what I want. In fact, I can go back and repeat lessons that I really liked after my skill set has grown. Next year, I may do just that. I have signed up for more classes than I easily complete this year, but fortunately, I can download them or I have lifetime access to them. I plan to go back to some that I skipped and even to redo others. Next year, I will not need to enroll in so many online classes.

Close up of Book of Days Journal page

I can live with that. I have finally come to a place where I feel like my own style is emerging. I am using Effy Wild‘s note taking strategies with the videos in my classes and doing my own paintings by synthesizing techniques I have learned whereas a year ago, I copied a great deal more.  This way, I can skip lessons that don’t really appeal and still learn the techniques.

I’ve stopped referring to myself as a student artist and started calling myself an artist. I have even made some notecards with prints of some of my work and sold a few in my massage office.

So, I am going to keep painting every day, in spite of my yapping inner critic telling me to dust the furniture. It gives me pleasure. Furthermore, I live 43 miles from Huntersville and Donna Downey Studios. I live about 80 miles from Asheville and Alena Hennessey‘s studio. As soon as that car is paid off, my bucket list has a live class in Huntersville or in Asheville on the agenda. The dusting can wait.

Defeating the Darkness Within

Collage of girl with flowing hair

Like my last post here, I’m behind on the prompt/daily nudge train. I read blogs written by other people in the “Blog Along with Effy” group, (which, by the way, is worth joining even if you don’t want to write, just so you can read the amazing blogs being produced in the group), and I suddenly start thinking about what I’d say to the nudge. So here I am on day six, discussing day five’s prompt: What is something you struggle with? What battles are you fighting that most people know nothing about? What’s something about your life that makes you feel weird, or different or isolated?

It was amazing to read a couple of other people say that they either often or occasionally had suicidal feelings as a regular part of their inner dialogue. They had no intention of acting on those thoughts, but the demon thoughts were there. What???? I am not alone??? I am not some totally strange (deranged) Pisces Enneagram Four INFP with suicidal thoughts who is relatively happy and has no real intention of offing myself. I just think about it a lot…especially when I get stressed and usually in the morning…I am not alone?

I never tell anyone about those thoughts. For one thing, I was a public school teacher for thirty years, and have lots of teacher friends. We were taught to take such thoughts seriously and to report them immediately when expressed. I’m not sure anyone would really understand the difference between the inner wimp who just wants to give up but is basically impotent and the real inner devil who can push one into the deepest despair and consequent action. Fortunately, I know the difference, and I know when I need to seek help.

So what pushes me to feel this way? Day four’s prompt was about stress, and I’m going to address that here, too, because usually I get those sucky thoughts when the stress gets too much to bear. Money stresses me out for one thing. I have a huge amount of debt, and I don’t seem to have the self-discipline to pull myself out of it. Some of that is hiding my lack of cash from others by charging, some of it is a certain OCD about books, art supplies, shoes, etc. You get the picture. I also have a rather weird self-defeating attitude that if I actually had money, my friends and family might only value me for what I could give them instead of for myself. I think that comes from of my earliest relationships with men, which is a whole different story.  Anyway, being short of cash can really send me into a tailspin of depression even though my finances always work out, and I actually have a very good credit rating. 

I am a codependent person. You may have deduced that. I can worry about my friends, and I can really obsess about family.  I am much better now that I used to be, thanks to Al-Anon, which I really credit with saving my sanity. I am now able to set boundaries and walk away from the most toxic people. When I don’t though, I can start feeling life isn’t worth living, especially if I start taking criticism too much to heart or thinking everything is about me. I can also do it when I start thinking I can fix other people instead of making them responsible for themselves. Those are red flags for me. It shows that I am really stressed and I’m reverting to earlier, self-defeating behavior instead of taking care of myself. It’s a message to me to step back and regroup.

I’ve got lots of ways to deal with my stress and my depression. I love reading both fiction and non-fiction. I go on spiritual retreats, and I live only about an hour away from the Blue Ridge Mountains (roadtrip to Boone or Asheville). I love watching old movies and reruns of old favorite TV shows. Painting has become more than a hobby, it’s a necessary part of every day, and I draw, art journal or paint something every day. I enjoy genealogy and have traced both sides of my family back to the 1700s when they came to America. I get a massage every two weeks and go the the acupuncturist monthly. I used to go to an energy healer monthly, but she moved, so I am looking for someone new. When all else fails, I lie in the floor with my dog and cry. Then I call a friend and cry. Then I call the doctor if I still need help. I know if I wait it out, I will be okay. I alway am. Always. And in the end, I always get up and want to live. 

So What?

Girl with andy Warhol quote

If you’re reading my blog, chances are you are participating in the September blog challenge begun by Effy Wild. I’ve read some incredible posts as a result of her prompts, and the one she posted yesterday has really challenged me: “Write about something you used to believe that you no longer believe and how that shift in belief has changed things for you.”
I used to believe that I had to have a man, or more accurately, to be in love with a man, to be happy and fulfilled. Indeed, I thought I wouldn’t be a whole woman without a man. In my teens, it was a near obsession. Girls often got married right out of high school where I lived. Not having a boyfriend felt to me like being totally rejected as a female. It created real fear and panic that I was unworthy of love.

I’m not sure where that kind of thinking came from. My parents loved me. I wasn’t abused or mistreated. I had friends. I made good grades and did things with other kids. I just thought if I didn’t have a man, I wouldn’t be worthwhile as a woman.

I was born in 1951, that generation which grew up with the Cleavers, then James Bond and Star Trek and finally The Sensuous Woman and the Equal Rights Amendment. To say we received mixed messages about a woman’s role would be an understatement. I also grew up in the South with middle class parents and in a middle class community. My generation was the first in my family to go to college. My parents and my cousins’ and girlfriends’ parents were overprotective and expected me to marry and have children. About half of my cousins and family friends did exactly that.

I did get married while I was in college to my high school boyfriend. We should have broken up instead of getting married. He was a fun boyfriend, but he was not a fun husband. Four months after we married, my mother died. Then I had to go back to college for my senior year and student teaching. It was no way to start a life together. We actually lived together a total of eight months, and that was off and on. There were lots of fights. Some were violent.

After we separated, I continued to look for love. I really thought I would find “the one” and then everything would be okay. I’d get married, be a good wife, have children, keep the perfect house, take great vacations, etc. etc.  In fact, I did fall in love again, really  in love, but I think I knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t work out because he didn’t want to get married. I was caught in a dilemma: stay with the man I loved and miss out on the life I wanted or leave him and maybe get neither. I was too afraid to take the risk to get the life I wanted. The irony is that in the end, he left me, and I still ended with neither.

After that, I had other relationships, but I began to realize that I couldn’t depend on someone else to make me happy. Some of that was because I had begun to do a great deal of inner work, and I faced some of my fears of abandonment and being less than. Some of it, maybe a great deal of it, came because I began to see myself through my own eyes and not through someone else’s.  I stopped putting up with things that drove me crazy just so I wouldn’t be alone. I set boundaries and felt good when I maintained them. I found I actually enjoyed doing my own thing on my own terms.

The really odd thing is, I think I have more love in my life now than ever before. I think about the people I love without constantly worrying they will stop loving me if I don’t live up to their standards. In fact, I wonder how I could have ever have loved someone who demanded such a thing.

I still believe all you need is love, but I don’t believe you have to have another person to make you happy. Oh, certainly, certain people can bring you indescribable joy and satisfaction, but if you aren’t able to find happiness within yourself, it is unfair to lay that burden on another person. It just won’t work. I enjoy the people in my life, but I also enjoy my solitude and independence. Even during my occasional bouts of depression, I am more apathetic than unhappy.

Let me be clear though, it isn’t that I don’t have people in my life that I love and that I need and would miss if I lost them. Likewise, there are people I’ve lost whom I miss. It’s just that my happiness is not dependent on some other person in my life. There is an inner core of strength inside me that just wasn’t as available to my conscious mind forty years ago as it is today. For that gift, I am thankful.