My computer is on life support. This means, among other things, that it remains tethered to a cord in my office and refuses to be pressed into service as a “laptop.” Prior to this affliction it traveled with me to the living room in the evening so that I could do something useful as I watched – my longstanding deal with myself is that I can only allow myself to watch “drek” (The Real Housewives of New Jersey) if I am also folding laundry or answering e-mails..
Computerless, I have recently spent my television time drawing with a #2 pencil and a 64 pack of Crayolas. I am not good at it. I draw very much like I did when I was seven, with lots of woman in long gowns, mermaids on rocks, animals that might be foxes, wolves or ferrets, bowls of fruit and oceans inhabited by improbably colored fish. Sometimes I make bold swathes of all the purples right next to each other, or solve age-old mysteries like the difference between “blue violet” and “violet blue.” If I don’t like something I quit without remorse, and I experiment madly with dicey propositions like capturing the complicated blues, greens, whites and grays of an active ocean. So far, I am not Grandma Moses, but I am taking real joy from doing something I am Not Good At. All my life I have stopped doing things as soon as I found out that I was not The Best, or even particularly good.
I loved singing as a small child. I sing in tune, but I do not have a particularly appealing voice. In fifth grade our music teacher picked people to sing solos at the Christmas Program (this was before the advent of political correctness). She walked around and listened to each of us sing about “Don Gato” (who was “no ordinary kitty, meow, meow, meow”). At the end of class my best friend was chosen and I was not. I struggled to balance happiness for her with the shock of learning that I was Just Not Good at Singing. I may have cried a little. The teacher offered to let me have a solo anyway, but I knew that if I accepted that offer I would be a bad singer in front of everyone, and an object of pity. I declined, and decided to avoid singing.
A similar thing took place in the world of art. My pictures were not selected to be hung in the elementary school halls at the open house, I was a miserable failure in ceramics class in high school, and by the time I was required to take a studio art class for an Art History minor in college, I had given up. I was bad at it, other people were good at it, and why would I waste a single minute trying to draw a leaf or make Lady Macbeth come to life on a sheet of notebook paper if no one was going to tell me how good it was?
For years, I have been bound by those sad, silly decisions based on some competitive thing wired into me at birth. Instead of singing I became a cellist, but you can’t really whip out your cello when you’re driving and a great song comes on the radio. Instead of drawing I became a crafter, then a scrap booker, but there was never the same direct, galvanic pleasure that I had felt as a child drawing anything I could imagine, wherever I happened to be. I also found myself, in both cases, creating not the ripe, succulent fruit of my own imaginings, but things I thought other people would like and admire. I was not so much Picasso as Thomas Kinkeade.
So this box of crayons spoke to me in the grocery store, and reminded me of hours spent drawing castles and houses and horses while my mind traveled freely and returned rich with ideas and excitements. I told myself that I did not have to take a class, participate in juried shows, or even let anybody see what I drew if I didn’t feel like it. There was no competition, there were no standards, it was just about making that soul-satisfying connection between my brain and a piece of paper. Last night I made a kind of checkerboard grid, and drew a ridiculously unrealistic flower in each square. I colored them using first the colors I’m drawn to (robin’s egg, sea green, asparagus) and then using the colors I avoid (orange, brown, blue-violet). It was an odd looking finished work, not suitable for much of anything, but I think that towards the end as I filled in the spiky, Burnt Sienna petals of a monstrous kind of tulip…I was singing…..