In 1982, I declared myself a life long learner as I went back to finish my BA. I have achieved an MA and many certificates in programs 2 and 3 years long. Now, after 12 years away from formal education, I am back as a student and the delightful thing is, it is now purely for the pleasure in learning. I am at our local community college enrolled as an auditing student in Drawing 1. An entire semester of learning for the grand sum of $30.40! No term papers to write. No worry about getting a good grade. As I sat with the 16 – 20 year olds who were very sweet and kind and talkative to me, and I was clearly the grandma of the class, I could only feel joy in just being present.
In 2010, when I turned 60, I jumped into learning watercolor painting. My mother, who also started painting in her 60’s, was my inspiration. I held tight to, “If mom can do it,…” There is no doubt, it is intimidating learning something new, stepping back into beginners mind while trusting that as I might make a fool of myself there is hope or I can simply bow out gracefully and choose another route. It is all about being kind to one’s self which includes allowing for the risk of trying because the pay off is enormous.
I have decided after 7 years of painting, learning to draw would be a tremendous asset. As our instructor, Marko, ran through slides of previous student submissions into the art show that is coming up, I could only sink back further into my chair and hold onto it with gripping fingers so I would not bolt for the door while Marko states, “Oh, you will achieve this in about 4 weeks. Not to worry.” Okay, trust is a big factor here as well. A little humor goes a long way too. I realize I can’t take myself too seriously as Marko casually tells us, with 40 minutes left of class, “I want to see what level each of you are at so for the remaining time just draw a self portrait.”
Oh, man! Marko hands me a mirror. The me that begins to appear on my paper looks tired and on edge as the lines around the face are jagged and she has no life in her eyes. I quit counting the aging and stress lines on my face. The mouth is out of order, the eyes don’t seem right. How do you draw a nose without looking like a pig? Gratefully, Marko tells us to finish it at home. I sleep on it with thoughts of the question, what brings life to a portrait? How does one show the soul? The spark, spirit? I look again at the portrait in the late afternoon. Then I see it, what I could not see before. Looking in a mirror to paint a self portrait is always a reverse image but beyond that it is the shadows that tell the story, the shading around the eyes, mouth, and the nose that bring the pieces of a face together into a whole. As I adjust the drawing, I begin to see a softness form and a spark of interest in my eyes, with a soft smile of inner calm.
I am mindful of this awareness as I sit later with a bereaved spouse who is clearly not himself. He is despondent, lacking in any hope, wanting to end his days on earth, while hardly able to be heard in his mumble of a short conversation. He is so out of character, I have to rest my eyes and ask myself the question, “What am I seeing?” The man before me typiclly loves to converse, while deeply grieving he is always hopeful, dresses well, carrying himself with calm and pride. He loves to tell stories. Where is he? As I draw myself closer, almost touching knees, so I can bend in and hear his words, watch his body, see his downcast eyes, I begin to get a picture as he states in a whisper, “I don’t think I can reason myself out of this one.” When there is light in a being, the shadows highlight and provide contrast. When there is darkness the shadows accentuate the darkness. The light here, inside this dear man, was very dim. In further questions, and then talking to the daughter, I realize this man has his medications so mixed up, and his sleep and eating in such disarray that his mind cannot focus on the now. The pain is so deep and severe, he cannot make a whole of the pieces he finds.
He is now being watched closely and guided to the medical attention he needs but it is a reminder of our vulnerability in learning something new, in this case how to live alone after the death of a spouse of 67 years and when married as teenagers who had never left home. Everything, every thing, was done together by this couple. This is a big learning curve late in life as he struggles with memory loss as well.
The portrait of this man has shifted in a short time. I feared for him in his darkness until he was distracted for a moment and started to tell me about his granddaughter he was to see that evening. His pride and love for her filled his heart and he vibrated briefly with the thought of her as he told me her story of triumph over adversity. It was the dark of her story into light that raised his light and, for a moment, I saw energy rise, then fall again.
When the darks are too dark, they become harsh throwing everything off balance. It is the dark speck that shows the white spark of light in the eye. It is the dark shadow below the cheek bone that adds definition to the check and jaw. It is the dark lines of aging that adds interest to a life lived. It is the balance of light and dark that gives frame and equanimity to a life. It is the light we see against the backdrop of dark that guides us forward like the light of the waning moon against the dark sky of night that greeted me this morning upon rising, like an old friend waiting for my arrival.