When we were in London last month, I spent a few precious hours in the National Museum of Art, while Charlie was roaming the Churchill War Museum. While I always relish a chance to view the work of masters, I was most taken by a special exhibit by a contemporary English painter named George Shaw. The exhibit was called My Back to Nature. While we usually think of “back to nature” as a refocusing on the natural world, Shaw was also referring to the way that, in our current society, we turn our backs on nature, and the paintings were powerful depictions of scenes from the woods showing vestiges of careless human presence. An old discarded mattress, a blue vinyl tarp, beer cans. A tree carved with the name, Max.
The paintings were striking on their own, and I wondered about the man who had created them. In a tiny room adjacent to the exhibit, they were running a video about the exhibit and the artist, which only served to intrigue me further. George Shaw was not only a talented visual artist, but an eloquent man. What he said about his work, and how he said it, elevated my appreciation of what I had seen.
Yesterday I did a web-search on Shaw, to learn more about this man and the art to which I was so drawn. One article was based on an interview and was written completely in his words. One statement Shaw made had a powerful impact on me:
I get perturbed by people who have meaningful epiphanies in expensive places – who go to India, Goa, New Zealand, watch a glorious sunset to find themselves. If you can’t find yourself in your own backyard, you’re not going to find yourself in the Serengeti, are you?
If you’ve been reading this blog, you can understand that this comment would hit home for me. We left our own backyard over a year ago, to loosen ourselves from the constrictive force that a house full of possessions can become. I reflected then that while “things” can provide us with a sense of identity, they can also become a kind of prison. It was not that I expected to find an epiphany in places like Bali, but rather that I wanted to face the challenge of knowing who I was without an address, possessions, and a calendar to both define and limit me.
After almost 15 months, Charlie and I have begun the tough discussion about where and how to live in one place again. If our plans fall into place, by the time it has been two years since we left our old address we will have a new one. We both feel ready for that new phase of our lives. Although we will always consider travel one of the most enriching aspects of our lives, we want a place to call home.
While there is a lot of wisdom in artist Shaw’s words about finding oneself in one’s own backyard, I am glad we loosened ourselves from those bonds for a long while. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and made some wonderful new friends. Some things I learned were surprising. For one, I never stopped keeping a calendar, in spite of my expectations. We had planes to catch, friends and family to see, birthdays to remember (or forget). I guess as long as we have days, weeks, months, and years, and things we want to do with others, a calendar is a necessary evil. One of those things that, if you didn’t have, you’d re-invent.
I also (guilty confession) still have possessions. I’ve snuck new purchases (and rocks) into our storage unit, objects that will help me to remember this time of exploration. Like carving one’s name in a tree says, “I was here!” – bringing home a souvenir…a seashell…a feather…a stone…reminds me that I was really there. Still, it was a useful exercise to purge, and one that will inform my future approach to nesting. I will keep things, but I will keep less. I want to have more freedom, but from a secure base.
Two weeks ago, while visiting my daughter Eva in Vermont, I had the pleasure of seeing three old friends, each separately, in the course of 12 hours. This happened unexpectedly – I had not set out to make this day “old friends day”. I saw Virginia in the morning, at her home, where we will house-sit this winter if she doesn’t find a buyer. I then saw my friend Larina, to whom I had reached out with a question. We had a brief visit and chatted while she fed her horse before she ran off to work. Later, Eva and I went for dinner and Suzy was at the restaurant. Each reunion was heart-warming and sustaining.
Even though I had not seen any of them for a few years, these women are important to me. When I was living in Vermont and raising my family, they each were a part of my support system. I was creating that secure base for my own family, but needed my connections with an extended tribe to feel nourished and able to do the hard work of living well. Our small worlds ripple out to touch other small worlds, and so we are a part of a larger circle. Somehow I understand that better than I ever have.
The past few weeks have been difficult for me. When I wrote my previous entry, A La Famiglia, I explained my struggle with having loved ones in many places and needing to choose a home base. Many people reached out to me with comfort and understanding, and their own wisdom. I loved that. But I have continued to feel my way through this inner conflict, and it has been hard.
This morning, after reading about George Shaw and sleeping on it, I awoke thinking about atonement. At first there may not appear to be a connection, but there is. We talk about “finding ourselves,” but without others, who are we? For our relationships to be authentic and deep, we have to face the fact that sometimes we hurt each other. My attachments are my life’s blood. That secure base only remains secure if we houseclean, that is, we mend our relationships.
If I go to Bali to find myself, is it not like what happens when a tree falls down in the woods and nobody is there to hear it? It is only when I come home and greet my loved ones that what has been awakened in my heart through travel reaches full expression.
When we were much younger, and with little children, my above-mentioned friend Larina had to undergo open heart surgery. While taking my morning walk today, I found myself thinking about that long-ago time. She must have been so frightened, facing such a serious surgery while her children were so young and she had so much life yet to live. While I was supportive on the surface, I don’t think I realized how alone she must have felt. I could have been a better friend, and the next time I see her I will tell her. I know she will shrug it off, as we all can do when someone apologizes, but I think she deserves acknowledgement of how hard that must have been and how alone she must have felt. I want to carve my name in the tree of her life: to tell her: I was there…even though I could have been a better friend, I recognize that now and I want to acknowledge it.
The concepts taught in recovery of taking inventory and making amends are life lessons from which we could all benefit. But how difficult a task that is. How many layers there are to go through to truly “take inventory”. I’m not even convinced it is possible!
Yet my memory about what happened with Larina gives me hope. Our hearts are awakened, not only by geographical travel, but simply by traveling through life. When Larina faced her surgery, maybe I was a little too numbed-out by my own challenges to be fully awake to hers. My journey through life has awakened in me more compassion, and the desire to share what I have gleaned.
Our lives are small things, tiny grains of sand in the cosmos. But inside of each of us, our lives ARE the cosmos. Like those ripples that become a full circle, our lives matter, but only when we touch other lives and let the circle grow.
I realize now that whether I am visiting Mayan ruins, a Balinese temple, or my own backyard doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am inside the circle, not outside of it. I was there, I am here. I am home.©