The last time I touched a brush was in July, 2015. I think about it for a while, because five years is a long time to walk away from so much color. I put the brushes down, put the paint and paper away and didn't look back, except one time in December and that was just weird. I don't think I intended to turn my back, but I did.
I turned away from one of the things that is fundamental to who I am. I did this because I couldn't paint the blue butterfly, and I really wanted to paint the blue butterfly. Desperately.
Painting is an expressive statement, made to yourself, the public, the mouse in the back corner? Whoever's looking. Sometimes it's best if no one is looking. No one was looking when I tried to paint the blue butterfly, except me. I didn't understand until I pulled it all back out again. Not being able to paint the blue butterfly in a way that said, only to me, here it is! Here is this thing I was feeling when I sat on the edge of a shelter on the AT. Here is what I experienced in those impossible blue wings. Not being able to paint the blue butterfly felt like a loss of myself. Gone. Just like that.
When I pulled it all back out at the end of the summer, I found a half finished painting of the dunes at the end of Hatteras Island. Archived with the half painting was the color palette required to finish the painting without a photograph. Swatches of color with precise notations. I intended to finish the painting that didn't get finished at the beach because I ran out of time. When I was painting the dunes, I was aware that I might be producing the best thing I'd ever done.
That scared the shit out of me.
Because what if I can't? What if I take this very good start and foul it up beyond belief. Watercolor is not particularly forgiving. The other half of the question is, what if I can?
This year, I have two half finished, and one almost started paintings. Three! I tell myself I stopped painting the leaf because I ran out of time. In truth, I put it down four days before I left Vermont. I look at it with significant disappointment. I did not pay enough attention and flattened out the top which bled into the green that was almost what I wanted. I don't know that I would have noticed if I wasn't painfully aware that I painted a similar leaf in 1999 that blew me away. The damn thing is perfect. Hard stop, right? One right thing and I can never risk getting it wrong. A bad thing invalidates the first? Apparently.
I have maybe three quarters of a painting called The Breathing Well. I'm not entirely happy with what I've done so far, but I can live with it. I can live with it because it evokes the memory of standing on that porch and deciding I might be willing to give being alive another shot. I am afraid to paint the foreground because I am certain I will flatten the thing and destroy the composition. And so The Breathing Well remains taped to the board.
From a photograph, I began a drawing of my daughter's face. It's so close. It's so close I wish for a light box just to get it right enough and get on with the painting. I know I have stopped, because to paint the wounded adolescent face of my daughter and not get it right is more than I can bear. I want to, so badly. I had a strategy, since I don't actually do portraits. The strategy was to paint her as landscape; a series of washes to catch the color and contour, the light and the dark. To capture Lucia at fourteen; starkly beautiful and painfully vulnerable. So I have most of a drawing and nothing else.
All three pieces are stuck in the same place. I cannot afford, I tell myself, to destroy something that is halfway good.
From the way back past, I hear my own voice, speaking passionately to a handful of women:
At what point did you decide you weren't enough? At what point did you sell yourself out and settle on mediocrity? Can you find the place? Can you touch it? Can you ask it if this thing is true?
We wonder why that one person walks away from good things. We wonder why they walk straight into the path of oncoming trains. We wonder why the hell that person could want to end their own life. What could possibly be so horrible, so un-fixable?
Eventually we come around to judgement and declare that person a train wreck. This is the point when it's time to look in the mirror.
At what point did you decide you were not enough?
A long, long time ago.
Having nothing to lose, I might just as well pick up the brushes and get on with it.
And you? What are the prices you have paid?
I love you, and yes you can. That is what we need to say.
That is what we need to hear.