It was mid-afternoon one late summer Sunday. I moved idly around my little house outside Buffalo, picking up the clutter and talking to my cat, Shadow. I was feeling angst-filled, which was pretty typical at that time of my life. The semester was about to begin at the college where I taught as an adjunct, and the next day would bring another series of sessions with those I saw in my grief counseling practice. I really liked my work, my clients, my co-workers, my students. It wasn’t anything in that realm that filled me with Sunday afternoon blasé. I was in the midst of a relationship coming to a close and dealing with the material ramifications of divorce, and that certainly contributed to my general malaise. But there was something else gnawing at me, making me feel like there was a slice of life that could be mine, but that I didn’t have access to at the moment. What was keeping me from really jumping in and experiencing the fullness of life?
As I sorted papers and vestiges of my hurried daily life into piles, I ran across a fairly recent copy of Art Voice, the local source for all things happening in the WNY music/theatre/art scene. It also had, hands down, the best classified and personal ads section I have ever read. Reading the longings of the artistic love-seeking was always good for a chuckle, so I flipped it open and started to read about who was searching for whom to participate in what interesting combinations of romantic activities. Not far from the entertaining “personals” section was a little ad from a local artist starting up a beginner figure drawing class that fit perfectly with my schedule (something which rarely happened). On a whim, I thought, “hey, maybe I should take an art class!” and this thought settled me for a moment. I went to my phone, called the number, left a message regarding my interest and went on with my day.
When I returned home from work the next day, I had a blinking light on my answering machine and a message from the art teacher, Betty, who sadly reported that in the weeks since she had placed that ad there had been insufficient interest in the class. She encouraged me to call her, though, to see if I had interest in setting up private art lessons. I scoffed at that…I could barely afford the quality of life I had already, and I did not see art lessons fitting into my budget. But, I called her anyway because I don’t like to leave people hanging and frankly, I had nothing better to do. When she answered, she explained the situation a bit more and I conveyed that I was a total beginner who just wanted to find a possible creative outlet. She quoted me a price for a weekly lesson that was considerably less than going to therapy, so I decided to give it a try.
I first met Betty in an art studio that had been improvised in the upper garage above a mechanics shop where she worked as the receptionist for her day job. It wasn’t much of a space…two easels, paints, drawing supplies, two chairs, a few makeshift tables, and a fan by the window. That first class, we chatted a little and she took an apple out of her brown paper bag lunch and set it on a table comprised of a turned over cleaning bucket she had covered with a scarf. Then she began to teach me about form, and line, and light. The apple began to take shape on my page…a bit lop-sided at first, but then we started another, and then another…each taking better shape as I listened to her advice and applied it first in pencil, then in my pastels, to my paper. I loved every second of that class and scheduled another. Something natural was present in her teaching that I could not put my finger on…but as someone who taught college, I wondered why she would choose to apply her teaching skills in such meager surroundings, with such a random student, charging so little. But, I was grateful.
Over the weeks and months, we met every week and worked through a project (or two) learning to apply each major area of media: pencils, oil pastels, chalk, watercolor, acrylics, oils. Somewhere in the midst of the oil pastels, her employment situation changed and we moved from the garage art studio to her living room. While I learned to access my inner artist, she revealed snippets about her life. I learned about her family, her spouse who had died after a long and difficult battle with Alzheimer’s in which Betty was the primary caregiver, and I heard about her becoming-adult children and their struggles to find life and identity. I learned that art was new in her life, too….taken up as a respite during her caregiving. She hadn’t formally taught before, even though she was a natural. My own stories began to spill out as well and we would just talk, and listen, and create art with each other. Sometimes almost all we did was talk, and she would decline any payment. As the months stretched out, sometimes we would just meet to sketch in a park, in silence, and let the art speak freely. We became friends, and remain friends even to this day in spite of our geographic distance from each other.
Through our art lessons, we were achieving more than just technical skills. We were slowly healing each other’s pain, and moving toward healing ourselves. This implicit desire wasn’t written in the class advertisement she put out, nor did I voice it in my request to become a student. But, we each brought our pain and our strengths and our courage and our humanness to the art sessions and we were transformed through our honest sharing. In each other we saw a yearning for life, for freedom from pain, for making a difference, for finding beauty in the world. During that time, Betty wrote a book to help other spousal caregivers, and I found my courage to move into the next chapter of my life in a new city, as a newly emerging scholar, capable of making new relationships. We were both reaching for healing. And healing was granted, far more than either of us could have asked or imagined.
Healing is all around us if we have the courage to reach out and seek it. And healing happens through us, when we are open to that which is greater than ourselves.
[This story is written in response to this week’s Who is My Neighbor blog series at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. I highly encourage you to check out this week’s media links on that page, especially Candy Chang’s TED Talk which I find deeply inspirational.]