Hitting the Reset Button

February 2008

Last year I put myself into a situation that would have guaranteed deep humiliation had I not, finally and rather behind schedule, devoted to it my complete and unadulterated attention. I left myself no other choice. I’m referring to preparations for my installation, “Site Lines,” which ran from early September through mid-October, 2007, at Naropa University’s Nalanda Gallery. I had almost a year to prepare for it and in the end most of the work was completed between mid-May and (I hate to admit) the last few moments before guests began arriving for the opening. Oddly, but not surprisingly, that experience of hyper-focus was, though stressful, intensely satisfying and often joyful. I actually miss it. But I’ve been playing catch-up since the show came down, and as a consequence I've been contemplating the problem of how to keep some balance in my life.

My husband, Anselm, used to quote his friend, the poet, Ted Berrigan: “Don’t wash the dishes first!”  By this he supposedly meant, “if you want to write a poem (or make art), don’t wait until everything else has been done – or else you’ll NEVER get to it.” That’s true, up to a point, but I also know that keeping a functional home requires that certain tasks be accomplished at certain times and in a certain order.  If countertops stay cluttered with dirty dishes for very long, it’s depressing to go back into the kitchen, and then washing the dishes feels like a REALLY big job.  In fact, when I mentioned this quote to Ted’s oldest son, David, his response was: “Yeah, well Ted probably just didn’t want to wash the dishes.”  But SOMEONE has to, and being someone for whom clutter and disorder are irritatingly distracting, I find these kinds of jobs hard to ignore and often actually satisfying to perform, either at home or in the studio.  I call doing them "hitting the reset button."

Years ago a fellow student at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore wrote a poem to this effect: “Stop complaining! There are 24 hours in a day – eight for your day job, eight for sleeping, and eight for making art!”  But the satire of that statement reveals the difficulty – it’s the space between things that consumes most of our time. As David Lynch explains in his lovely book on meditation, Catching the Big Fish, he needs four hours of uninterrupted time for every hour of real creativity. For myself, I’ve realized that I will probably always have to walk a tightrope between keeping real life in some kind of working order and working diligently in my studio. I have never been able to come up with a prescriptive way to balance these two necessary parts of my life.  But “continuous improvisation” is a good way to describe what the making of art entails, and it’s also a good metaphor for how to have a full, though not necessarily balanced, life.

One strategy that helps me maintain at least an illusion of balance is "hitting the reset button."  I realized long ago that every project has an ebb and flow between "clean and clear (beginning or end)" and "maximum chaos." A certain amount of upheaval is inevitable and even necessary as the project (a meal, a remodel, a work of art) begins to take shape. In order to engage in continuous impovisation, materials need to be close at hand so that additions and subtractions can be made quickly and spontaneously. At some point, the project will move into the stage of being ALMOST complete, and this is when a change of scenery is helpful. Discerning what's needed for the "final touch" is subtle work, and taking time to clear the space has the effect of clearing the mind. Reaching the visual equivalent of silence is the best way I've found to make the transition from the active to the concluding phase.

Sometimes I find that the work is not, in fact, "almost complete." But by then, the process has shifted into something less one-sided. It has become more of a collaboration between the piece and myself. Clearing away physical distractions at the appropriate moment has the effect of heightening the communication between me and my work, and this experience, of course, has parallels in other parts of life. For instance, I've discovered that Yoga is an excellent way to "reset" and reconnect my mind and body. A long walk, cooking, making love, counting the blessings of the day -- all of these activities can have a similar effect. Ultimately, finding the state of being that at least occasionally feels like "balance" must simply be part of the process of stringing together individual moments in the "eternal prestent" while we discover and simultaneously create our lives.