journals, "the long swim..."

The Long Swim: notebook excerpts on motherhood, painting, and survival,
Or, How I Came to Interdisciplinary Art



The fact of motherhood is inextricably tied to my art practice. The manner in which I now work, my ability to use short time frames, even having been nudged toward painting from my writer’s perch, all weave together in my projects. Once my children were born, I could no longer sustain the idea that art making was reserved for a separate, precious endeavor, or for that matter, that is was reserved for one medium. I either had to incorporate art into my everyday life and adapt to whatever medium suited the cause, or my endeavors would slowly perish.

In the maelstrom of my life’s recent upheavals, I am bombarded by odd fragments of my former life as I pack up a household, move, separate belongings in a divorce. Trying to re-center myself, I started looking through my old journals, and found that in the years I tried to write amidst the demands of parenting, the image of the sea recurs.

In the studio recently, painting with first pneumonia, then injuries from a car accident, I am drawn to work in a different way. Exhausted and unfocused, I let myself play with paint, allowing for images to appear without a prior concept of what I want to see. Normally I would make several drawings first, or work out a sketched composition on the canvas. But I am too tired for that, and what begins to emerge are images of the sea, of the feeling of being caught in the current, on a long swim.

These journal entries are culled from over a decade of reckoning with the demands of parenting and desperately trying to maintain my creative life, my identity.

In Newport Beach, OR the Sylvia Beach Hotel has each room decorated in the style of various authors: Melville, Poe, Alice Walker, Gertrude Stein, Collette, Oscar Wilde. There are no TVs, but a beautiful library in the attic overlooking the Pacific. There is also an unadvertised dorm (or at least there used to be) where you can buy a night fairly cheaply. Though it is equipped for six, during the week it is often empty and I would have the room to myself. I wasn’t able to go there often, but on a rare occasion I tried to escape there alone, when my daughters were small. Sometimes I would get there and sleep for most of my time.

Though I struggled for studio time, I never forgot about my work. It haunted me every day. In most of my waking moments, the desire lurked and qualified everything I did. I was desperate for solitude, for time to wander and think and make. The shape of that craving for creative time was a cavernous landscape inside me. It threatened to swallow me up unless I figured out a way to work in the sea of constant interruptions: crying babies, lack of sleep, no time off.

Feb. 28, 1999
I’m watching the ocean through the fogged window of my room: condensation trickling down, little spots of clarity.

***
Window open now, feeling the full RAH! of the waves. Seagulls screaming down blackbirds, which in turn fly off and caw madly from a distance. My thoughts are similarly chased off by daily interruptions: the cry of a child, small but constant demands… somewhere my thoughts have retreated, waiting….

Log rolling in the surf. I want desperately to walk once again on the beach – the tide is still too high. This silence in my body -- this sad, desperate silence – what is it trying to hold on to? I’m not done here, I’m not ready to go home. I am still only at the beginning of what I’ve come here for, whatever that is – to reclaim my self? To release this hard, locked up place inside me?

The waves are hitting hard now, all that debris sliding toward the sea. Logs, rocks, scrap wood – odd shapes in the thinning water. Everyplace I walked yesterday now submerged….

***

When I walked yesterday, it was in driving rain and gale-force winds. This gave me the beach to myself. Occasionally the dot of another figure would appear near the surf line, but would quickly retreat. I walked and walked. I was sure there was no point to it. There was nothing on the sand, save for a black rock here and there, pieces of driftwood. The beach swept clean. I picked up tiny fragments of shells, glass. Small broken things.

A log the length of a person turns over and over in the waves, pushed back and forth as easily as a child’s toy in the bathtub.

What does this silence want from me? This is all I’ve been able to write in weeks….

August 20, 1999
Nedonna Beach
Elinor L.’s house

The ocean again. I like the sound of it, “ Nedonna Beach, Elinor L’s house, 1999." As if I am marking something; a turn, a choosing. We arrived late last night, Martha and I, around 10 pm. Soon after found me propped in bed, books and notebooks bulked beside me like a lover, two maple donuts in hand.


All this morning I read and dozed and drifted, finally arising for good and with enthusiasm around 1 pm. It was so delicious to have this wander time; I am amazed, meager as it is, to even be writing this. I have not been able to write a word in so long – I don’t recall writing anything since last February at the Sylvia Beach.

At least I have been painting, and that is some relief. It has been tremendous to be out from under the burden of language with painting, although it is impossible to say anything, it seems, this silence locked inside me.

I am like a kid in the candy store with my books – so many to read, and I, grabbing one then another, reading as much of everything as I can.

***
Evening, August 20, 1999.

Walking with Martha late this afternoon on the shore, I had the most difficult time hearing her. After a while, I realized it was because the sound of the ocean sucked her voice away. When I walked between her and the waves, I could hear her better, as if I intercepted something of her voice before the sea obliterated its sound.

I need something to intercept my voice: … art or poetry…

August 22, Nedonna Beach

Last day here. I’m having trouble getting started; I think I need the regularity of journal entries to keep the words coming out, to keep them from getting stuck. I’ve started a poem here, a kind of prayer. I need to find a way to write every day despite the little conspiracies of life, but here I am feeling stuck and a little terrified because this is the last morning and it is impossible not to feel as though it all comes down to these next hours, that this is it and when this time is used up it’s forever gone and there will be no other…

I’m not ready to go home…. It has been so sublime: reading, writing, thinking, talking little. I can’t bear to leave the sea, the sound of it, the cool air, sun, gulls, crows shattering into the sky….

***

Studio work, 2006: “The Long Swim" Series

A little strange to uncover these journal entries, when my recent paintings have been working through similar ideas. But these threads weave not only through my daily life but back and forth from memory into the present....

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(to be continued...)