By nature, I’m a pretty happy, optimistic person. I don’t have trouble seeing the bright side of things. But the last few years of my life have involved a staggering amount of trauma and loss. These days, no matter what happy things are happening in my life, the hard, sad things can cast a rather large shadow. Such shadows have the capacity to darken even the happiest occasions.
As much as I absolutely love celebrating my birthday, yesterday was not a straightforward celebration for me. For one thing, my stage IV cancer diagnosis seems to have already forever altered my experience of my birthday. On the one hand, I no longer feel any worry or sadness about growing older AT ALL, because I now seeing growing older as nothing but a good thing. On the other hand, I now live so close to the reality of my own mortality that on each birthday (not just my own) and holiday and milestone I can’t seem to help but wonder if it’s my last. I find myself feeling not so much celebratory as fragile. It’s a lot of existential angst for someone who just wants to enjoying receiving gifts and going out for a nice dinner!
This time, my birthday was complicated not only by my diagnosis but also by my grief. My father died just six weeks ago, and while I’m sure I seem like my normal, happy self, my world does not feel normal. At. All. My grief is huge and, at times, it feels endless. I know from my experience of grieving my mother, who died in September of 2015, that grief does not stay this sharp forever. In the months after my mother died, I felt like I would never have a purely happy experience again, because even at my happiest, I always felt the ache of grief. And though I have never stopped missing her, I did eventually discover that the pain of intense grief does lessen, and it becomes possible to experience an unmixed happiness. I realize I’m still in the early days of grieving my dad, and I know enough to expect it to get better.
The difference this time is that now I have no more parents. It’s an extraordinarily disorienting feeling. The totality of that loss sometimes overshadows everything. And when I couldn’t sleep in the wee hours yesterday morning, one of the things I kept thinking about was the fact that this was my first birthday without any parents. I don’t yet have adequate words for what that feels like and why. I just know that it was hard to feel completely happy about the first birthday I’ve ever had without a card or a call from the people who loved me from before I was born.
So I cried a lot. And then, as you know, I kept learning to paint with watercolors. It was a good antidote to sadness.
And then today, I tried another new thing. I started learning how to draw. Perhaps you are thinking I’m trying to learn too many new things at once. And perhaps you are right! But I’ve wished for a long time that I could draw, and I’ve thought perhaps my watercolor attempts could be better if I had at least some foundational sketching skills. So I thought I’d give both a go at the same time.
I’m working with a couple of books that I love, and both authors insist that drawing is not a gift but a skill – a skill that anyone can learn. One of the things I’m learning is that drawing isn’t just about what your hands do; it’s about what your eyes do. It’s as much about seeing as it is about drawing. So, I’m not just learning to draw; I’m learning to see.
Today, I drew a sphere.
That smaller circle in the top right is the light source. I’ve learned that to draw a realistic three-dimensional picture, you have to determine which direction the light in the picture is coming from, and how it’s hitting the object you’re drawing. In this particular exercise, the directions said to actually draw the light source in the picture, and then create the cast shadow (on the ground) and form shadow (on the sphere) in relationship to the light source.
In The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards writes, “Learning to draw requires learning consciously to see lights and shadows and to draw them with all their inherent logic.” Even with my very rudimentary creations, I can tell what a difference it makes to see both the light and the shadow.
To draw or paint in a realistic, multidimensional way requires the willingness and ability to consciously perceive both light and shadow. It requires an intentionality of perception. I feel certain that this “light logic” and this perceptional intentionality have application not only to art but also to life. We tend to reject, deny, or suppress our darker, sadder, harder feelings. It doesn’t feel good to feel sad on a day that’s supposed to be happy! But maybe the way towards a truer, richer, more multidimensional life is to see and express both the light and the dark.
“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” – Brené Brown
I’ve only been painting for two days and drawing for one, but that sounds about right to me.