If you think I’ve been absent for so long (again) because I’ve been busy finding and getting a life, you’re sorely mistaken. Actually, it’s rather the opposite: I haven’t been around because I’ve been swallowed down deeper and deeper into the swamp of hibernation and have been lying there dormant and silent. I sank to the floor of the swamp sometime in the dead of winter, during January or February maybe, and remained sleeping there undisturbed and unruffled throughout the rest of the season. Meanwhile, the world has been going about its business and everyone has been living their lives and weathering the winter as always. All of the swamp life around me has been flourishing as well; the mallards and sparrows and screech owls have all been attending to their affairs. And I haven’t given much of a damn. I’ve been lying comfortably on the murky bottom, underneath everything, benevolently cloaked by silt and mud and sundew buds and covered by moss, saturated in the rich decaying biomatter seeping into me. It’s been quiet and very stagnant and very warm here and I haven’t had any desire to change things.
A few weeks ago, however, on a rare occasion that I’ve bothered to leave the house, I noticed that things are changing regardless when I visited a nearby stretch of woodland. I was there in the first place because of my mother, who didn’t want me to go there. My mother is a watercolor painter, a very melodramatic one who onerously laments the defeated passivity of her recession bum spinster of a daughter. That morning last week she stood at the foot of my bed and wearily implored me to abandon my despairing routine of unemployed shiftlessness and get up early to help her transport supplies to and from the art workshop to which she was giving a demonstration. I guiltily acquiesced.
After I helped her set up, she wanted me to stay with her for the two hours of her demonstration to the student painters. She does watercolor by painting wet-onto-wet—painting with water and watery paint onto water- and paint-moistened paper. She is also notoriously unruly: her works have a characteristically spontaneous, haphazard, messy style; she’s not a realist. Upon first glance, it looks as if she clumsily and a little wildly splashed the pigments onto the paper and then carelessly let them diffuse and spread and run into each other. But this is the very effect she is going for—to show the the ambiguity, the runniness of it all.
Despite its sloppy style, painting wet-onto-wet is one of the trickiest and most painstaking techniques to take up. I experienced this firsthand as a child when my mother made me her apprentice. Though I didn’t have any particular affinity for painting or drawing, my teachers and parents for some reason felt that I was unusually artistically inclined and always encouraged me to nurture this presumed talent. I’ve figured everyone assumed (and still assumes) I’m the artistic, painterly type because I’m as glaringly strange as my mother and they therefore thought the arts would be a useful niche for a weirdo like me to express myself. I needed something as my niche, given that I was completely detached from my peers—and still am. As a result, when I was a kid I found myself spending hour after hour with my mother in her studio learning how to paint.
My mother takes her craft seriously; watercolor is not for dilettantes. During those painting sessions in her studio, she stood over my shoulder like one of those stereotypical, formidable piano teachers, fastidiously instructing me on how to carefully, very carefully layer, lift, stain, and bleed the colors into one another. I stood at the easel (I was too small to reach everything if I sat) attempting to steady a brush on one of her fancy sheets of hand pressed paper, grappling with the meandering streams of pigment. You need to drop in the color lightly, she would bark at me. If you overbrush the painting you’ll soak the color into obscurity and the painting will be muddy and dull and lifeless, and you won’t convey anything except your clumsy attempts to make something with watercolor.
I dropped the visual arts altogether by the time I was about 17. I simply lacked the impulse to paint, and no amount of skill or talent or carefully cultivated sloppiness will make an artwork flow and have a movement of its own if the impulse isn’t there. And the impulse is often elusive, even if it is in fact there and it’s a strong one. My mother says she can’t paint, and can’t make herself paint, unless she can “feel it,” the something she’s unable to articulate if you ask her to describe it. She isn’t able to articulate the something she feels while she is painting, either. You’ll notice the something if you watch her while she works on a picture, though. She is so wholly absorbed in the oozing and dripping and untame, intractable pigments that she becomes completely oblivious to her surroundings. You can’t talk to her. If you do she doesn’t realize someone is talking to her or is even in the room. Any attempts to get her attention away from her work or any potential distractions—a crying baby, a blaring fire alarm, the smash of a helicopter falling out of the sky into the backyard—are all hopeless. She’s in a realm of her own.
Watching her from the outside of her realm, I think of hypnosis: an elusive, almost ethereal state of heightened awareness in which you are hyperfocused on your object of interest, to the point that your surroundings are irrelevant, your worldly concerns are irrelevant, your being is completely unburdened, yet alert. When she’s tried to describe it, my mother has suggested that the state she enters while painting is an even deeper one than hypnosis. “Trancelike” is the closest word she can think of. Literally, an altered state of consciousness, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, intoxicated and mildly exhilarated, and very, very focused, you abandon the world around you completely and remember only what it is that brought you to that place where you now are.
These painterly trances are enviable to me. I have always walked around in a perpetual, inundated, dreamlike state of dissociated oblivion, but I have never gotten high off my own inspiration while making art, or while doing anything, for that matter. Inspiration, and its accompanying rapturous energy, has always been as aloof to me as I have been to the world. Especially nowadays, when I have been for a long time sifting through a state of torpor and inertia—the exact opposite, you could say, of the ecstatic energy that inebriates you during a trance.
Having confronted it every morning throughout this past winter when she would come into my room, stand at the foot of my bed and try painfully to yank me out of REM sleep while it would still be morning, my mother has watched me from outside my opposite realm of lassitude. I’ve reached a state in which I’ve retired completely into sleepy passivity in the mire, resting still and unresisting below the surface, where your grief isn’t able reach the oxygen which would allow it to breathe back to life, root itself into your soul, sprout up and wrap itself around you as it would in the open air. It’s safe down here. Above me the layer of moss and algae sucks up any sunlight that would diffuse down into me, as well as the fragrance from the swamp pink and bergamot that might stir me. I’m both supine and numb, and I wouldn’t be able to rouse myself on my own even if I want to, it seems.
This is why my mother wanted me to stay with her and assist her throughout he watercolor demonstration. “I think it would be good for you,” she said in her characteristically vague language that I’ve learned to interpret over the years. Meaning, perhaps being in the company of a bunch of artists while they are all at work, being surrounded by their collective painterly trance, might help to rouse me out of my coma at the bottom of the swamp. She proposed that I stay as I helped her set up the last of her scrungy accumulation of paints, brushes, pencils, rags, crusted-over paint trays, and several old large pickle jars used for water. Withdrawn already into my perpetual waking sleep, and still deprived of my morning coffee, nothing could have appealed to me less than the company of a buoyant crowd of artists as colorful as my mother. I wanted to be alone and hidden in the woods, as usual.
So I left her against her protests, dejected with her paint in front of the class for the two hours and instead retreated to a local hiking trail where I walked 7 miles through the woods next to the bay inlet. It was the first warm, sunny day of the season. Wildlife was returning to the landscape. The bugs were back. Snakes were beginning to crawl out and reappear and wait for me on the gravel path. I kept walking and walking, sinking further and further into the woods and diffusing into everything around me and forgetting everything else. I was so rapt in my thoughts and within my renewed idyllic surroundings at that I lost track of time, terrain, distance, and the condition of my feet, until closing in on the last half mile on the way back to my car. I glanced down and was startled to see that the arch of my right foot was smeared all over with blood coming from a wound where the thong of my flip flops had rubbed away the skin, and I could suddenly feel that I was walking on top of a humongous blister on the sole. Only then did I realize how exhausted I was and how spent and beaten my limbs were, and that I had walked more than 7 miles in what felt like such a brief amount of time and such a short stretch of woods.
As I limped back to my car sunburnt, chafed raw, and sore and worn to leather, I wondered how I could have crossed the salt marsh, the creek, the canal, the pine bluff, the footbridge, the mucky part of the trail where I always step into something gross, and the place where I had once seen a nest of bald eagles without noticing any of it . . . or at least without noticing that I was noticing.
I arrived back at the studio to help my mother pack up her materials during the last half hour of the demonstration. Unsurprisingly, she had dissolved into a painterly trance while working on the demonstration piece and was paying no attention whatsoever to the clock, or anything else for that matter. She didn’t notice when I hobbled into the room even though it was stone quiet, with the 40 or so art students all transfixed upon the front of the room. She still didn’t notice when I dragged myself up to the front and conspicuously stood near her in the hopes she would finally notice me, and be glad that I had at least shown up for a little bit of the demonstration.
“We’re reaching time,” the organizer of the workshop called out to her during the last few minutes, after first reminding her earlier that there were only fifteen minutes left.
“Mmm hmm,” my mother mumbled carelessly without taking her eyes or her brush away from the paper. Tinted water dripped from the mounting board on to the work table, which was strewn with brushes, slimy tubes of paint, and sopping, stained cloths used for blotting. She still couldn’t stop when the organizer finally told her it was time to quit, and distractedly told everyone that they could start packing up their things while she would continue to work on the picture. Most of them didn’t move.
I myself stood watching in the corner up front, propped against emergency exit. Flushed, sweaty and serene, I felt the flood of exhilarated calm and strange lack of my usual spiritual disgust that I experience when I get a runner’s high. Only this calm, unlike the typical fleeting runner’s high that I experience after a workout, continued to last for hours and hours and I felt the flood all over my body. My whole body felt an almost translucent calm through the evening and kept feeling that way until the late hours of the early morning when I lay in bed in my pink Tinkerbelle pajamas falling asleep, my feet covered in band aids. Even though I had nearly walked myself to death I felt rejuvenated, as if the shroud of silt and algae and mud down in the swamp had begun to rinse away. And as I drifted off, I felt more awake than I had been for a very long time.