Like most new experiences, things might seem strange at first. When we move into a new home it can feel odd. If we close our eyes and walk around the unfamiliar layout, we don’t know where anything is at first. The unfamiliarity can be unsettling. After awhile things shift and become more familiar and what was strange and foreign becomes common and expected. We begin to trust our senses.
After my mother’s death, at first there was this odd strangeness, much like inhabiting a new space. But there was also an additional intrusive element. As I described in my last post, The Unwanted Guest, I was carrying around demons. Navigating a changed inner world with these new companions was scary. They continued to follow me around, sit on my shoulder, lurk behind the shower curtain, follow me as I took a walk, slept, ate and worked with me. They took over my space and downright spooked me.
As kids, our magical thinking allowed us to imagine these beings were real and we had to somehow cope. Was the Boogeyman under our bed or in our closet? Our parents told us not to worry, that it wasn’t real. We didn’t really believe them, since our fears seemed very real. As grown ups now, we tell ourselves that this is foolish, that there are no such things as demons, especially with names. But what if we know they are there, feel their presence in their invisible form while at the same time telling ourselves that this is completely crazy? How do we name and make sense of an invisible force that we feel has and might continue to cause us harm? When I decided to face the demons, I thought about this a lot.
In the early 1990’s I met a man named Shaun McNiff, artist and founder of the Expressive Therapy Program at Lesley University. At the time he had just written a new book entitled Art as Medicine and was giving a lecture in Boston. The title resonated with me so I attended. At the time I didn’t know much about this topic, but kept thinking back to the dark paintings in I had done in California. He taught me that the paintings have a soul and I realized at the time that I would need to do the work to make my demons visible, to give them form and shape, no matter how scary it was. I wasn’t sure what this would lead to but I started to wonder, “What am I really afraid of, the worst has already happened?”
At first, when I started painting the demons they were invasive, scary and mean. They were there, swirling all around me, in and out of my body. And like anything, after awhile, I slowly began to get used to them. They still slept with me, appeared in dreams, ate with me, went on road trips and worked with me. But very slowly, day by day, I began to get used to them and their presence wasn’t as scary as it had originally been. And as I painted them more and more I began to question if their presence could take on a completely different meaning in my life.
After weeks and months of painting them, their visual presence in my work completely shifted. They were no longer threatening, but softer, even expressive and sometimes sad. I realized that it was possible to actually befriend the demons and even welcome them into my life, thus diminishing my fear of them. I wondered if maybe someday, they would decide to just wish me well and disappear. I realized that maybe all along they hadn’t been there to harm me but to help me. Could I go on to learn something from them, feel compassion for them and even embrace them?