Nearly all of us have times when life gets gray and grungy, like an end-of-winter window. Nothing tragic or traumatic, such as a death in the family, just a general malaise that casts a dull finish on daily existence. When the blah feeling goes on for months, we may start looking for the inner equivalent of window cleaners by entering therapy, taking up jogging or increasing our movie-and-buttered-popcorn intake.
Several years ago, the buildup on my inner windows was growing noticeably dark. A career setback contributed to the grime, but mostly it was just that my life had been bumping along in the same rut for a decade. Often, inner window dirt sneaks up on us as we plow through years of child rearing, mortgages, errands and a schedule that revolves around everyone else's needs. While we love our families and take satisfaction in our jobs, most of what we do on any given day doesn't necessarily feed the urges to learn, discover and create. I think this is often what causes "soul grunge" to form.
One night my son and a few friends took over the living room for a games-and-pizza evening. I gave myself some quiet time in the office just off to the side, believing that I'd spend my time reading or writing. Instead, I found myself listening to snatches of their conversation. My son would be entering middle school in the fall and was planning to attend an alternative school featuring an interdisciplinary arts-centered curriculum with an emphasis on collaborative hands-on projects. Several of the kids at the party already went to this school and were excitedly talking about classes and teachers.
I stopped trying to focus on the article I was writing, and started thinking about what my life might have been like if I'd had the sort of educational opportunities the kids at this school had. If I'd been able to study subjects in which I excelled while using my preferred learning style, and been encouraged to relate my learning to "real" life, I might have actually liked school. And if I'd enjoyed learning and been rewarded for doing things well, maybe I would have developed the sort of you-go-girl confidence I see in twenty-something women today. Who knows where that might have taken me?
I'd always loved the performing, literary and visual arts - reading about them, going to events and discussing them with like-minded friends - but this passion had gotten buried under piles of necessity and obligation. However, as I eavesdropped, I began to wonder what it would be like to study fun things like film and art history now, as an adult. My thoughts progressed from "Oh, I wish!" to "It would be nice, wouldn't it?" to "Why not? Who's stopping me?" Maybe I could sign up for a class or two at the community college. I finally landed on "Let's do it." Why should kids have all the fun? While the party bubbled on, I quietly plotted out my new adventure.
After making a commitment to one year of self-guided learning, I took leaves of absence from volunteer duties, made a few changes in my job and abandoned many of the household chores I'd taken on. Calendar cleared, I decided I wanted to study Renaissance art, literature, theater and music - topics I'd always found fascinating but didn't make time for in college because I was building a resume and portfolio. I loaded up on books, DVDs and other resources from the library. I joined an "Artist's Way" circle and became more involved in my writers' critique group. I even started singing in a choir again, a pleasure I'd dropped years earlier because I was "too busy." Along the way I tried to somehow relate everything I learned to my mundane life via journaling.
During that year, I polished old skills, learned new ones, enriched my appreciation of others' work, and met kindred spirits. My most startling discovery, however, was that my windows on life were changing. They seemed cleaner, but more importantly, I developed the ability to change viewpoints at will, like a camera operator switching from pan to zoom.
One evening as I drove my son to a sports activity, I found myself staring at the ugly strip-mall scene that lined the familiar road. The fast-food joints and auto parts stores with customers silhouetted against the harshly lit interiors suddenly reminded me of American painter Edward Hopper's scenes: same contrast of brightness and dark, same inward mood. Were the customers as lonely as the people in Hopper's paintings seem to be? What does his art say about modern urban life? How do I feel about its tendency towards aimless busyness and superficial relationships? A light went on inside me. Wow! I thought Art really does mirror life.
The muddy playground at the school where I work became a study in subtle browns and grays. Lunchroom and recess noises turned into a sort of symphony, complete with fast and slow movements. Days where everything seemed to go sideways could be converted to situation comedies. As I practiced changing viewpoints like lenses, things that previously bothered me became situations rather than problems. This detachment has made it easier to work towards solutions. I learned to savor ordinary elements of each day, things I'd previously missed.
Now, several years later, I still periodically check my inner windows and change viewpoints. My circumstances haven't changed much, but I have. I don't envy the art school kids anymore. At fourteen, I would not have been able to fully appreciate the discoveries I made at forty. Unlike the painter Gauguin, I didn't have to quit my job, abandon my family and move to Tahiti in order to live more creatively.
Art has many functions. It can be a noun, something to be produced, enjoyed and bought. It can be a verb, the process of creating. For me, the arts are a window, clean and open, that allow me to turn daily life into a path of exploration and discovery.
Geri lives with her husband and teenage son. She works with special education students, and loves writing, singing with the choir, and taking long walks. In the near future she plans to start a mutual support / exploratory group (local or cyber) for women who want to use arts to enrich their daily lives and work.