Memories of a 4th Grade Love Note

This morning, without any clear stimulus, I was treated to the memory of a note I once received from a 4th grade classmate. The note was written on an unlined piece of pulpy paper, the kind designated for math problems, and folded into a small careful square. Above a pencil sketch of a toilet, the note read: “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” It was a decent rendering of a toilet, leaving no question about what it was, but I remember wondering about it. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have drawn a turkey?

While I may have been confused by the mixed metaphor, I treasured the note. How or whether I responded I don’t recall, but I believe I recognized it as the love note it was, not only because it was signed, “Love, Matt.” And I’d like to think I was demonstrably grateful in some way, but I’m not sure that’s true.

What’s interesting for me to think about now, especially as I conjure an image of my 4th grade self, is that I don’t remember being outwardly vulnerable enough to warrant such a specifically encouraging note. I wasn’t a victim of bullying. I wasn’t really teased at that age. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did what I could to appear immune. Was that also the same year I brought a pocket knife to school? Quite possibly.

Now, I don’t want to paint the wrong picture here. I wasn’t a bad kid. Rough around the edges, yes, but generally a rule follower and a serious student. I was also quite sad and angry a lot of the time, but I didn’t think that showed, at least not at school.

It’s funny now to consider whether my internal struggles were more transparent than I realized, at least to Matt, whose kindness registered even then, but not nearly as much as it does now. It takes a special kind of person to see what lies beneath the masks we wear, the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, the things we try not to broadcast.

And it’s true I don’t really know what Matt intended to communicate. He was obviously repeating something he’d heard and maybe he simply liked drawing toilets and was intrigued by idioms. His conscious intent doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the memory, 41 years later, the long echo of imperfect, innocent love. And my newfound appreciation for the the note exactly as it was, the toilet especially. Because I understand now, more than I possibly could have then, that life is indeed filled with bowls of shit, including those of our own making. We persevere by not letting the turkeys get us down, it’s true. But maybe the real secret is found in small acts of kindness, in seeing what lies beneath rough exteriors and writing love notes to whomever we can.

Invisible Strings

Invisible Strings, 18×18 acrylic on panel

“Here, where I am surrounded by an enormous landscape, which the winds move across as they come from the seas, here I feel that there is no one anywhere who can answer for you those questions and feelings which, in their depths, have a life of their own; for even the most articulate people are unable to help, since what words point to is so very delicate, is almost unsayable. But even so, I think that you will not have to remain without a solution if you trust in Things that are like the ones my eyes are now resting upon. If you trust in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge.”

– Ranier Maria Rilke (Letters to a Young Poet)

Group Therapy in the Aftermath of the 2020 Presidential Election

Many of us keep asking ourselves how it is that so many people still don’t get it! But it’s not only the people we agree with who are asking. And THEY, the members of the other side, think we’re the ones who just don’t get it. The irony would be funny if it wasn’t so painful. Still, it’s worth sitting with this for a few minutes. No matter which side we’re on, we are asking many of the same questions. And probably drawing similar conclusions.

Which makes me wonder: What else might be the same?

Now, before you answer, let’s pause and fishbowl this. That’s a technique teachers use to talk about difficult things, where part of the group talks and part observes. Let’s divide the group into sides and consider a few things together. There are a lot of us who don’t fit into a neat category, so let’s sort by skin color, the most visible thing. And let’s begin by having a white-person to white-person talk, while the non-white folks rest for a minute or two. I promise, I’m not looking to hurt anyone here. I’m not going to ask who you voted for. I just want to talk. For real. Ok?

Ok. Now, do what you need to do to feel safe. Cross your arms if you need to, but try to keep an open mind if you can. And let’s begin with one of the elephants in the room. We’ll get to everyone’s concerns, but let’s start by acknowledging the non-white perspective since we’ve elected ourselves to be the ones talking first. Ready? 

You’ve heard it before, but let’s say it again. BIPOC (that’s Black, Indiginous, People of Color) folks have been fearing for their lives and still do. That is a fact, not an opinion, whether or not you happen to think it’s a valid one. And they, at least as I understand it, are trying to figure out the rules for their survival, only to find that the rules keep changing.

Some of you might interrupt here to say, “Well then they should not resist arrest! They should comply, stop looting things!” Etcetera. Actually, many of THEM agree with you and they’ve tried that. Are they still dying? Yes. 

“But we’re dying too,” you say. Fine. Let’s put the circumstances and proportions aside for a second, because there is a point of shared empathy here for you, if let there be. Because, believe it or not, I hear you too. You’ve been saying, in different words perhaps, the rules keep changing for you too. And your perspective is valid too, so long as it doesn’t include a belief that only you should have the rights our country was founded on. That’s not fair.

Sorry, I know that last part was a bit provocative, but we’re all good people here aren’t we? So let’s come back together now and let some things sink in for a minute. Let’s stand in a neutral zone beyond our own fears and grievances for just a second, if that’s possible. You know, like Switzerland? Cuckoo clocks and all. 

How does it feel for YOU when the rules keep changing? What do you do when you feel helpless? Now pause and give yourself a hug. Or let yourself be hugged by someone else. I’m not being sarcastic here. This is not an easy conversation and hugs are good. 

Most of us don’t like to think about things that make us feel bad. But just for a minute, if you can, let yourself feel your feelings. All of them. Are you, too, worried you won’t survive, even if you play by the rules? Are you worried about keeping your job? Or finding one? Of having your freedom taken from you? Have compassion for yourself first. That’s important. And then, if you can, understand what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. Let yourself see what you have in common. The other isn’t a cartoon now, not a meme, or a caricature of your worst fears. Understand that everyone is afraid of something and that’s what we’re really fighting about. You are not alone here.

Now, remember all the people you’ve met and liked. Pick one different than you who you can even partly like, if not love. Think about your gay cousin, your Black co-worker, your white neighbor with the Confederate flag who also helped you change your tire that time. Let that be who is in the room with you now. That IS who is in the room with you now.

Who isn’t in the room are the so-called liberal elites you’ve heard so much about. They don’t want to have this conversation any more than the Republican elites, by whom I mean the ones in power. Because people in power, except for the really noble ones, want to keep it at any cost. And that cost includes you and me. That is the real problem here, and only an opinion, but it’s worth considering, no? Because if they keep us fighting, nothing changes, and they keep their jobs. Think about it.

And then, because this is important and will help all of the straight white folks in the room understand a point of major contention. Consider this. When you are a person of color or identifiably gay or transgender, you are worried about the jobs, the money, the health, the kids, the freedom, and the power. All the stuff. The same stuff. AND you are worried about the possibility of dying (or not being able to live fully) because the laws don’t always protect you. Would you want that to be your reality? Of course you wouldn’t.

Look, I know people have different beliefs about things and that rules become very important, even when they are outdated. Change is hard. Certainty is desired over most other things. But wasn’t our country founded on the wish for freedom and tolerance for differences? What is your highest value? What does it mean to be a patriot?

And which is worse? To die quickly or slowly. Because in some ways that is also what we are talking about here, much as we might not want to acknowledge it.

But here’s some good news, something you might want to know. There is a secret to avoiding a painful death. It’s called transformation. Evolution, if you prefer. And not as in the thing some people want to keep out of science curriculums. Sheesh. Why must we make everything so binary? Science and God are not mutually exclusive. Especially if you believe God created everything, including the scientists. Do you see? Sorry. I know. I indulged myself there for a second. Back to Switzerland.

By transformation I mean allowing yourself to keep getting better. It hurts your soul, not to mention your body, when you insist on staying in the same clothes you were raised with. You know?

And I know that what’s happening now isn’t all about the lives of Black or Brown or Indigenous people. It isn’t only about gay and transgender rights. Which I know is the reason so many want to say ALL lives matter, though I personally understand how and why that affronts. The contentiousness now, in so many ways, is about how we ALL want to live and by what rules we want to ensure our livelihood. Like it or not, we can’t really talk about living without thinking about how we’re afraid of dying. Which is partly why we get so twisted up and angry, especially if someone we love has already died for reasons that could have been avoided.

The powerful (primarily white men, yes, and no not all of you and not only men, but try to listen because I promise I am trying to help you)… The powerful typically operate by the idea they can only extend their lives by erasing the competition. This idea is reinforced by history, the reason the grip on the past is so firm for so many people. Do you wonder about the appeal of ‘Make America Great Again?’ It’s not directly a story about race or gender; it’s primarily a story about winning. A story about how to get back to the “winning” you once heard was possible in America if you followed the rules. It’s a myth, as many stories are, but it is a compelling narrative because it is about survival and winning. We all want to live. And truthfully, most (if not all) of us would rather win than lose. That is another way we are the same.

Now before I finish this lengthy pseudo group therapy session, I want to acknowledge the very many people who feel, “A vote for Trump was a vote against me (and my right to live).” You are so angry about the vote. Of course you are. Your feelings aren’t wrong. But I wonder if your interpretation of a Trump vote could stand some expansion. We only know why someone does what they do if they tell us. And even when they do, it’s still sometimes not a complete explanation. Because most of us don’t always know why we do what we do. And you know that’s true because even you can’t say for sure why you do everything you do. It’s part of being human not to know.

I have a hypothesis, though it too is incomplete, that everyone’s vote was, on some level, about their survival and the way they saw their own most likely to occur. They weren’t necessarily voting AGAINST you (though it might be the functional equivalent, I know), they were voting FOR themselves. “Exactly!” You say. Because you want them to care about you. And I don’t blame you. You deserve for them to care about you, whichever ‘them’ you are. 

The hard truth is, only the very compassionate are able to care about you as much as they care about themselves. And even then, when there’s a need for a tie breaker, you all know who you’re going to lean towards. 

Still, we have to grow compassion by whatever means necessary. And I’m not saying it has to start with one group, though let’s face it, those who have been harmed the most are often the most equipped. I’m actually saying compassion would be good for everyone because hating ultimately hurts the hater as much as the hated. You don’t believe me? Do you prefer a good mood or a bad one? It is almost that simple.

But back to the point I’m trying to make about voting: the opposing vote was both personal and not personal. We’ve learned to take care of our own first and we’ve narrowly defined what ‘our own’ means. We’ve all done it. I’m not telling you how to feel about it. I’m only suggesting you challenge your assumptions because it’s sometimes easier to make progress when we stop making it personal and when we understand the shared bits. I am speaking to everyone here.

Full disclosure, I’m no expert, nor am I pretending to be. Mostly, I’m just hoping to be a good facilitator and muddling through just like everyone else. I’m only offering my thoughts because I want things to be better. Like all of you. And maybe, if nothing else, this offering will be the catalyst for a way forward led by someone more capable than me. Maybe it will be you.

If you’re still reading, I’ll offer one final thought and some questions for reflection.

Most of what we think we know is incomplete. I believe we have bought into the story of survival of the fittest and we see examples in nature that reinforce this belief. But it’s not the only possibility. The other story is that we survive by finding better ways to peacefully coexist (and not just with our own species). These aren’t new ideas or new stories. I’m just reminding you.

Finally, find a quiet spot on your own and consider asking yourself the following: Do you want the few to survive? Or the many? How does your answer change if you imagine yourself a member of the few? If you are in the minority group already, how will you resist the temptation to recreate the nasty dynamic of oppression when it’s your turn to be one the many? This has been the shifting dialectic over time and we will keep trading power back and forth until we find a new way. You’ve cast your vote already, but it’s never too late to learn something new. What will you do now?

Peace.

An Early Morning Conversation about Mars

I can see Mars from my kitchen window
Which sounds like it could be a metaphor, and probably is
Except, I mean I can literally see Mars
That red skinned beacon
Out there. The speck that reminds me how small I am
And also of how impossible things might be known
First from a great distance. Then close up.
But how do we get there from here? That is the question
That keeps me up at night
 
And while I’m awake, even half-asleep
I figure, I might as well keep looking
Because we never get there by not looking
Over and out there, but also
In here. And if we don’t want to go
Someplace we’ve never been
It might be important to know why not
To understand whether we are afraid of green men
Remnants of a cartoon we once saw
Or something else
 
Isn’t it funny how we give meaning to color
Red states, blue states, people and planets
As if we are still children learning to sort a giant crayon box
Trying to make something so big
Fit into our small hands
 
We know so little for certain except that
The universe is bigger than any one of us
And we are hurtling through space at a speed we can’t match
Mightn't it be prudent then
To keep our options open
To keep our hearts opener still
To open up the too small box and smash the cardboard with our grown up feet?
 
Maybe then, we’d be able to see
What the container has keep from our view
That we’ve made a very poor bargain for certainty
And also. Maybe Mars
With the friendly green "men"
Is closer than we think

© Amanda Reilly Sayer, 2020

Hold Your Flame High

The challenge now is to hold your flame high
Without seeking to burn others
It’s tempting, I know, to singe another on the way by
Especially when you’ve clawed your way out of darkness
And they have blocked your passage
When you have been burned
Near past the point of recognition

You did not deserve that
You did not ever deserve that
But you are not the only one with scars
And you must find within you the strength
To be better than those who’ve hurt you
Because you can and you are
Not when you are set alight with vengeance
But when you light the way for everyone

If you want a new story
You must allow for a new ending.
In every hero’s journey ever told,
There comes a time to re-know the enemy
Because the enemy is who you become
When you don’t use your light well
When you can’t honor your history
Without making it a weapon

Know your anger and guard your wounds
But do not succumb to hatred or bitterness
Nor direct your rage inward
No one is asking you to offer yourself as firewood

And understand this:
The way forward is now
There is an opening now
The darkness is lit with love

© Amanda Reilly Sayer (November, 2020)

Alchemy

Alchemy, 18×18 acrylic on wood panel

The alchemists have a saying: ‘Tertium non datur.’ The third is not given. That is, the transformation from one element to another, from waste matter into best gold is a mystery, not a formula. No one can predict what will form out of the tensions of opposites and effect a healing change between them. And so it is with the mind that moves from its prison to a free and vast plain without any movement at all. Something new has entered the process. We can only guess.

– Jeanette Winterson

This painting has been on and off my easel since February. And although I wouldn’t call it gold, I can say that the process of making it had an alchemical quality. Put another way: I have no idea what I’m doing or why, but always have transformation foremost in my mind.

On Connection, Clarity, and Friendship

My friend Diana Peach, a talented and generous writer, offered me a gift the other day. The gift came in the form of an exchange about creativity that added a layer of color to the evolving picture of my creative journey, my purpose for making art. I wanted to share it with you all in case the conversation, along with my associated thoughts, has any relevance for you. Also, you may want to follow Diana’s blog and make her your friend too!

In response to Diana’s comment on my most recent blog post about painting, I offered this:

I don’t often know why I feel compelled to write about something in particular. My ‘muse’ often seems to have an agenda beyond my ego’s comprehension. Through painting (and writing too), I often see where I am limited and where there is greater capacity than I recognize (or realize). I’m always looking to connect with others who are thoughtful about the creative journey, which surpasses any particular work of art (painted, written, or otherwise). Sometimes I think I care more about how we create than what is created. But that may simply be a stage in my creative journey. I wonder about yours. How you came to allow yourself to access the stories that live in you. Whether it was effortful (or perhaps still is?) or more like breathing (effortful moments nestled in automaticity/flow).

Diana’s response:

“Sometimes I think I care more about how we create than what is created.” A lovely musing and one I can relate to. I never tire of learning about the creative impulse and process of other artists. It’s utterly mesmerizing. I still seek that fluid balance of effortless inspiration and effortful craft. 

Until Diana quoted me back to myself, I’m not sure I fully appreciated the extent to which process has been more important to me than outcome. My attention to process was the reason I started this blog, but in the making of things I’d almost forgotten that.

I’m not the best painter or writer, nor do I expect myself to be. I am most interested in growth and evolution – my own and others’. I get better when I attend more fully to process, to understand where I am not allowing flow. I wonder how true that may be for others besides Diana and me.

We communicate imperfectly. We make offerings to each other without any certainty about how they will be received, without any sense of what we may get in return. Still, we try. We write. We paint. We share in whatever mediums and by whatever means we have. And I believe it is in the trying and sharing – the willingness to engage in common space – that we get closer to clarity. Sometimes we even get answers to questions we didn’t know we were asking!

By sharing, we allow ourselves the possibility of fresh air, which by definition is a kind of inspiration. In breath, the energy exchange with others, we may find a clearer path to creative flow in the midst of our effortful crafting. If any of this resonates, I’d love to hear from you!

Are You Willing To Risk It All?

For those of you who aren’t painters, I want to tell you this secret. To be a painter – even an amateur one like me – you also have to be a gambler. Painters have to be willing to lose, repeatedly, until a painting is finished.

Every time I make a painting, I reach a point where I must put everything on the line, bet it all on the next brushmark. And many times, I lose.

Now, I’m not a gambler in any other way. The only slot machines I ever remember playing were the ones I visited at the Las Vegas airport en route to the Grand Canyon. I didn’t win. Lottery tickets tempt me sometimes. But the potential jackpot is less compelling than the greater likelihood of losing. I’ve never considered myself particularly lucky.

Instead, I prefer a sure thing if I can get it. I am a creature of routine and sameness for this reason. I know what I like and try to maximize my chances. Maybe I just like control. Don’t most of us?

But painting is never a sure thing. It’s a practice of uncertainty and risk. Painting is always a gamble. 

The first brush strokes come with low stakes. There’s a lot less to lose when so little has been invested. But as a painting progresses, so increase the moments of possible ruin. With each new brush stroke, the razor’s edge becomes thinner.

Yes, mistakes can be corrected and even Bob Ross style happy accidents may add life to a painting. But I can tell you it’s not as easy to fix a painting as you might think, especially not if you want to preserve some precious part you’ve attached to. Changing one thing often creates a domino effect of other needed adjustments. This is doable. In fact, better paintings often result. But there is almost always something lost. And it is a gamble. The losses may never be recouped by the final bet.

When you look at a painting, there is typically no hint of the artist’s sweat, or that razor’s edge in view. You decide if you like it or not, and move on. You don’t see the paintings that have been tossed, scraped down, or sanded away, sometimes after countless hours of attention. But the artist remembers. The artist can’t separate the painting from the process of making it.

Maybe there are painters out there who don’t identify with what I’m saying at all. I’d love to know YOUR secret! And I’m aware there are ways of painting that make outcome more predictable. Still, I recently heard that Anne Packard once threw one of her paintings into the ocean. I know the struggle is real, even for great painters!

And I know the paintings I’ve wanted to throw into the ocean are often the ones I become most attached to. I don’t throw away the ones I don’t like. Instead, I let them rest where they taunt me until I have the courage to go back and try again. These are the ones I suspect others won’t value the same way I do; these are the ones that contain a bigger piece of my heart.

I don’t really like gambling. I hate to lose, especially in a contest with myself. I’ve had enough loss in my life already. But I am a painter, which requires me to be a gambler. I keep painting. Because sometimes I win. And only because I am willing to try again.

And sometimes I even understand: What is meant to be kept, can never truly be lost.

And sometimes I even know: we only find out what is truly possible, when we are willing to surrender everything we have attached to.

Are you a gambler? Are you willing to release the things that hold you back for the possibility of something greater?


Here are a few recent paintings that were saved from the trash.

This painting sat in my closet for a year before I pulled it out and painted over most of the original painting. The darker blue at the bottom was once the sky and that is the only part I didn’t touch.
This is another painting that sat in my closet for a bit. Now that I think about it, the sky in this painting was once the ground also. Seems to be a repeated theme!