Friday, October 5, 2012

"I Could Always Live in my Art, But Never in my Life"


I had lofty aspirations for this post. It was going to be about going to the Minneapolis Art Institute, especially the time in high school when I went to complete an assignment for an art class: pick a piece of artwork and draw it.

I wanted to tell you about the hush of the place, and the coolness, and the shiny floors that echoed with my footsteps. How I’ve been there many times in crowds, but in my memories I am usually there alone, or almost alone.

I wanted to tell you about copying the work of someone greater than you—what it is like to try to recreate their lines, and how you internalize something of theirs as you work. How when you hold your drawing up next to the original you can see your inexperience—the stiffness and haltingness of it—but that there is also something there you recognize, and that is a feeling that surprises.

But when I went looking for that drawing in my old high school art portfolio, I also came across this:

And my lofty aspirations sort of fell apart.

I don’t know when exactly I made this picture, or why. I know that the quote is originally from an Ingmar Bergman movie I’ve never seen (“Autumn Sonata,” from what I can tell.) I know also that it is quoted in a movie I did see in 12th grade English, “My Dinner with Andre.” I don’t know if this picture is part of a project for that class or something I did on my own. I am certain, though, that if I spent that much time dealing with those words they meant something to me.

Have those words been haunting me since then? Not in any conscious way. Yet there they are, tugging at my heart, reminding me of a 17 year-old who felt like she could live well in one place but not the other. Or was she afraid—afraid that she would not be able to find a way to live in her life, afraid of being cut off from the real things, afraid of her lack of skill?

Was it shock I felt, when I saw the consistency—that this is something I find myself dealing with still? That my continual desire to have art inform life and life inform art goes back farther than I realized? Always, I find myself looking for synthesis. And does it go back to this? Or farther?

I know that I have learned this:

When you are trying to draw a face, and you know that something is not right but you can’t tell what, you can turn your drawing upside down. Suddenly the things you couldn’t see because you were looking at a face become clear: one eye is lying lower than the other, or the nose is off-kilter, or the mouth is stuck in the middle of the chin.

When you are learning a piece of music and do not know what needs work, you can record yourself playing and listen to it. Suddenly there they are: the out-of-tune notes, the places where you rush or drag, the dynamics you thought were so dramatic but actually hardly come across at all.

When you are unsure if a piece of writing is finished, you can set it aside (for as long as you can stand—days? weeks? months?) until you are able to read it with something of a stranger’s eyes. And you start to see the awkward words, the passages that can be cut, the ideas that need to be tightened.

And that thing in your life that you don’t know what to do with? That seems harder. But you try what you can, and your efforts look something like what you might do with your art.

You can look at it from a different angle. What if it was not your thing but that of someone you love? What if the tables were turned? What if one thing was different—you were not afraid, or you knew things would work out?

You can share it with somebody else, or pray your heart out, or both, and listen very carefully to how it plays back to you.

You can sleep on it. Or simply wait.

You can decide, finally, that your life is a work of art. That you were intentional—every bit of your personality and your story. That where you are and who you are is no mistake, but part of a story line, and no, in this case you don’t get to skip to the last page to see if you get the ending you so desperately want. But you do get to wade through it.

You could, even, throw all of yourself in.

Because it strikes me suddenly that holding yourself back from your life is just as pointless as holding yourself back from your art. It’s all there, waiting to touch and be touched, to feel and be felt, to see and be seen. To go deep. And to matter, deeply.

Don’t you want to do that? Holding nothing back? Making of it the most beautiful thing you are able? Maybe you know how to live in your life, after all.

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  1. This is exactly what I needed to read today.
    Thank you, Karen!

  2. Oh Karen, beautiful. Such an elevating thought to be my own storyline. To have a life so well crafted and myself a character that has been imagined and filled with all the things needed for my own story. When I think of how precious my own imagined characters are, I am so obviously struck by how infinitely more precious I must be to my own Creator.

    Nourishing words for this tired mind. I love your transparency and depth.

  3. From above: "how infinitely more precious I must be to my own Creator." That is a beautiful thought that I will linger on all week... just like this post of yours Karen.

    Our faults, failures, fears, and vulnerabilities make us who we are as much or more than what we care to show outward. It does often take time, forgetting, experiencing and re-experiencing for most of us to see with the kind of perspective and honesty you're describing. Actually it seems like a great achievement and gift to yourself to recognize that you have arrived there!

  4. Wow.. I am left utterly amazed after reading these lines.It is as refreshing as surprising know that someone not only has passed and is going through the same stages in life as I am right now, but also has a formidable way of putting those issues and emotions into words.

    I for myself never had the linguistic talent to completely express -and consequently apprehend- my whole self and surroundings, my feelings and thoughts, my actions and what happens/ happened to me in such a beautiful way you did here.
    Therefore I must be grateful that I came across this blog by coincidence and to instantly see a message I really can relate to and really adore to have read.

    I don't really believe in fate or higher powers, but thinking (maybe realising?) that my journey in this world may just be part of a bigger story that is yet to be uncovered give me a bigger lust for taking this "adventure" and in the same turn make the most of it.

    Thinking about all of that reading this text gave me a new perspective of life by considering it an untold story, yet to be discoreved by each of us.
    And who knows? Maybe after that little realisation my story will be re-written and in turn its outcome will change.
    I only know that now I'll try to make the best of it and I am eager to find out what's to come in the next passages.

    Thank you, for such an inspiring piece of art (keep up the good work!) and I wish you all the best for your journey as well.


    1. Alexander, thank you! I appreciate these words of encouragement immensely. Your story is a continuing one, and you do get to make changes! I am--over and over--thankful for this. And coming back to this piece 3 1/2 years later, I can tell you I am glad for how my story has evolved. I won't say it's all easy and clear now, but I can see powerful change. I believe what I wrote then now more than ever.

  5. I just found this page at random when googling the quote to find more and I'm glad I did. Your story is touching, and it resonates with me in a way that's saddening but inspirational in light of the meaning you make at the end.

    It's apparently been years since you wrote this but I just wanted to share that it means a lot to me, and that in return I wish you the best, strangers as we may be.

    1. Steven, thank you. I am glad the words are still resonating, and I appreciate the well wishes. Sending my best to you, as well, as you craft your own work-of-art life.

  6. Thank You so much for this... I too was googling the quote which I used in a presentation some years ago and I appreciate your perspective. I needed to hear this today as it speaks to a very current situation in my life....You Blessed My Soul.

    1. David, I am so glad this spoke to you, and that these words continue to have life as time passes. Wishing you well.


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