Some images are burned into our minds and never leave. They may be dramatic or breathtaking or horrifying and, in that moment, we believe that is their sole purpose for existing. But sometimes, in the distant future, some of those images are resurrected and take on a whole new meaning.
In the fall of 2005, my mom and I traveled to Pensacola, Fl for my cousin’s wedding.
Hurricane Ivan had devastated the region the prior year and I wasn’t sure what to expect upon our arrival. I knew it wouldn’t be the Pensacola I knew and loved from my childhood, but I wasn’t prepared for the destruction I saw. From the air, we could see swaths of trees that appeared to have been trampled by the large rock roller pushed by the Rock Biter from the movie “The Neverending Story.” I sadly wondered if they would ever stand tall again. Once we landed, the area surrounding the airport appeared normal, however, the closer we got to Pensacola Bay, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico, the crushing effects of a Category 4 hurricane became much more apparent. Large boats had been thrown and laid to rest on the tops of houses still, one year later, waiting for insurance adjusters to survey the damage and prepare a claim.
Piles of white sand and debris had been bulldozed and many remained along some edges of the roads. It looked more like a winter scene from my Midwestern hometown than a beach town in Florida.
But perhaps one of the most vivid images that has stuck in my head from that trip was a house along the beach road. One side of the house was completely missing, as if someone had come along and peeled off the wall. It looked like a dollhouse. Furniture was still in place. Paintings still hung on walls. Rooms looked like they were simply waiting for their people to return. It was surreal. On the second floor, there was one room where a TV was still plugged into the wall but had fallen from its stand and was dangling precariously over the edge where the outside wall used to be. We stopped and stared at it for the longest time. I wondered how, after all that devastation, after all these months, how was that TV still plugged into the wall?
That image was permanently burned into my mind. At the time, I thought it was simply a tragic and horrifying example of the strength of a powerful storm. But it’s not simply just an illustration of the power of a storm, it’s also the embodiment of both the strength and the exhaustion required to weather a powerful storm. For myself, and so many countless others, 2020 was a powerful storm. As I transport myself back into that memory of standing along the beach road with mouth agape at the scene before me, I have a new vantage point. I am no longer in awe of that TV dangling precariously over the edge. I am that TV. I am no longer marveled by the extraordinary strength of the cord, but recognize the exhaustion from holding on with all your might despite the pounding waves, blistering winds and sheer amount of time spent waiting – waiting for help to arrive. Waiting for it to be over. Waiting to let go and safely return to the ground.
I have been largely absent from social media and my website for the past year. I had intended on taking a short break after the holidays in 2019 to recover from three straight years of daily projects, teaching, family life and the holidays. But a few weeks into January, heartache and trauma entered and changed my life. All my plans were put on hold. My entire mindset shifted. And suddenly, I was taking on a role I had never imagined I’d ever fill in my lifetime. It was during this time that Covid began its devastating march across the globe. But because I was so deeply entrenched in my own reality, I was completely oblivious to what was happening in the world around me. Suddenly, schools were being shut down. My husband was working from home. We weren’t leaving the house or seeing anyone. Within weeks of the year starting, my new reality was a life I didn’t recognize and I did not feel prepared to face it. But somehow, I stayed plugged into the wall. Somehow, I kept going.
It was around this time that I began creating again. Everything had been put on hold through January and February, but by March, I could not quiet my creative mind any longer and it came pouring out on the page. I picked up a blank book that had been sitting on my shelves for years and started writing. And drawing. And painting. I documented the historical events happening around me. I documented the things my family did on a daily basis. I documented everything, but I didn’t share any of it. I couldn’t. Some because it was so deeply personal, but more so because I was hurting so intensely and I couldn’t open myself up to the rest of the world – a world filled with billions of others who were sad, confused, scared, angry, and all the other feelings. Because that’s what we were all experiencing all at the same time. All the feelings. All the time. And we still are.
Every minute in every day of 2020 seemed to present a new experience, a new challenge, a different feeling. Every day I realized I could reach a higher threshold for pain, both physical and mental. My kids quit sleeping. My dog quit sleeping. I have long since forgotten what a full night of sleep feels like and fear I may never know one again. Mental health has been a top priority for my family this year and as I’ve navigated these uncharted territories, I’ve come to accept a truth that I was already familiar with, but perhaps had not entirely embraced: Writing, art and creativity are not only a fundamental part of my essence as a human being, but they are also essential for my physical and emotional wellbeing.
It has been fascinating to watch as my creativity has ebbed and flowed with the events of the past year. The style of music I listened to changed several times. When tragedy struck, I was not able to listen to anything with words, but instead needed simply to hear the rhythmic pulse of trance music. Perhaps it reminded me of a heartbeat, and I needed a reminder that my own and the hearts of my loved ones were still beating. Then it shifted to the songs from my childhood as I felt the overwhelming desire to travel home to be with my family, to curl up like a child in my mother’s lap, feel the warmth of her love and her comforting arms surround me, and to hear her tell me it would be o.k. But I couldn’t. So, I curled up with the music instead. Now, I am seeking out new music. Music I’ve never heard before. Music that will open my mind and my heart to new experiences. Music that will take me away from this current reality, if only for a few minutes at a time.
My artistic style has shifted dramatically as well. Over the past few years, I’ve worked primarily in mixed-media and collage. However, for some reason, I wasn’t able to sift through by beloved paper pieces this year. Perhaps it was too reminiscent of all the tattered shreds of my own life. Instead, I drew with fountain pens and painted with watercolors. I illustrated my life and thoughts. I created my own fonts and embraced my own handwriting. I sought out all the mediums and styles I had always loved but was too afraid to try because I told myself I wasn’t “good enough.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself working really hard to create abstract pieces in response to my emotions – to visually create a story for which I have no words or can not share. It has been painful, difficult and challenging. It never turns out the way I imagine. Most of them are a disgusting mess. But that’s also somewhat fitting for the current state of events.
As I have worked through these personal projects over the past year, I have truly missed the connections I made through my in-person and online artistic communities. I made a few attempts to return to Instagram throughout the year, but the pain was too raw, my heart hurt too much, and I was too exhausted to share myself publicly. When I looked in the mirror, I barely recognized myself anymore and I had no idea how to share that person with the rest of the world. I was ashamed, embarrassed, terrified, and exhausted. I needed time settle into my new normal before I could return.
Now, here we are, standing on the starting line of 2021 and the image of the TV still plugged into the wall dangling over the broken floor has flooded my mind once again. On New Year’s Eve, I greeted the new year with cautious optimism, guarded hope, and an anxious dread. So much was broken and lost last year, how will I recover? How will I heal? How will I stay plugged into that wall and keep myself from falling over the edge? I don’t have the answers, but I know it will start with art. In 2016, I began my path to developing a daily creative practice with monthly challenges. I started with one. Then did another. And another. In 2017, I took on a 365-day challenge and kept it going for three amazing years. I have been afraid that I’ve lost everything I built over the past several years, that my progress was gone, my connections were broken, that I had to start completely from scratch. Of course, deep down I knew that wasn’t true, but fear and anxiety have wreaked havoc on my fragile being this year and self-doubt has run rampant. So, I asked myself, what would it look like if I did start over? How would I do it? Where would I begin? And right away, I knew what I had to do: set myself monthly challenges.
I have a beautiful set of vintage library cards that my mom gave me years ago for my birthday. I cherish them and have kept them tightly locked away in a box waiting for the perfect project. But, if I’ve learned anything the past few years, it’s that there is no such thing as perfect and the best way to begin is just to take a leap of faith and dive in. So, that’s what I’m doing.
I’m going to set a challenge for myself to create something on one index card every day for the month of January (and then see where it goes from there). I don’t usually set prompts for myself, but I want to explore the idea of abstract expressionism and see if I can finally figure out how to translate my thoughts and emotions through abstract pieces of art.
I love that the cards are library cards because each one represents a story. And each piece I create will also hold a story. Some I will share, but others I will need to hold close to my heart. When I started my first 365-day project, it was important to keep my project small and manageable so that it was reasonable to complete one page a day. I love that these cards will force me to work small and within a confined space so that I don’t overwhelm myself. They also remind me of the Index-Card-a-Day challenge by Tammy Garcia of Daisy Yellow Art, who has been a huge inspiration to me over the years and was one of the challenges that helped me develop my own daily creative practice.
This has been a long story and I’m sorry for the exhaustive post, but I’ve been gone a while and have a big gap to fill. I told myself that if I was going to return, I was going to do it the right way – my way – and share my story (as much of it as I can) rather than just being vague and popping back into Instagram and my blog. Thank you for being a part of this journey and if you’re struggling to find a path this year, struggling to hold on to hope, struggling to stay plugged into the wall, you are not alone. I wish I had some enlightening piece of advice to help us all through this struggle, but honestly, over the past year I’ve waivered between needing to hear those uplifting words and feeling like they are cliché pieces of crap that don’t hold any meaning whatsoever. And so that’s why I’m reaching for this project, that’s why I’m so thankful for art. It will meet me where I am. It won’t ask me to explain anything or provide answers that I don’t have. It won’t judge my actions or feelings. It will simply be a statement of where I am in that moment.
As we begin the new year, be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. Show kindness and compassion. We are all recovering from our own devastating hurricanes. We are all out surveying the destruction and waiting for insurance adjusters to calculate the damage so we can remove the large boats from the tops of our homes. It will take time to clean up after this storm and the landscape may never look the same. We will need to adapt. And we need to stay hopeful. I will never forget my cousin’s wedding on Pensacola Beach that summer. The beach wasn’t how I remembered it, but that gorgeous white sand still squeaked beneath my feet when I walked and the salty ocean air still filled my lungs when I inhaled deeply. I remember closing my eyes and taking it all in – the sounds, the smells, the feelings of loved ones by my side. Hold onto those moments. They are what will help us all recover from this storm.
Here are my first three cards of 2021.
I meant to post this on January 1st with the first card, but it has been delayed because my mom and I have been searching everywhere for a picture of that TV dangling from the side of the house, but we can’t find it anywhere. All the photos posted above of Pensacola are mine that I took during that trip, but oddly, my mom and I are both missing a batch of photos, including the one I so desperately wanted to share. Apparently, it was meant to live only in our minds so that as we recall it now, we are transported back to that moment, to the side of that road, to relive those feelings we had as we took it all in on that day in 2005.
The first card deals with some of those emotions from that day.
The second card was created in response to seeing flickers of inspiration in the midst of utter exhaustion.
And the third card was created today (January 3rd) after a walk in the snowy woods with a very dear friend. We encountered a magical piece of art from an outdoor installation and I wanted to bring home the colors, the shapes, the wonder of that moment so that I’d never forget them.