Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What can an Artist with Disabilities add to the Global Warming Conversation?

When I was in sixth grade, I made a papier-mâché globe, glued garbage to it and used it as a visual aid for a "save the Earth" oral report. A few years before that, my Brownie troop painted metal drums and put them around town to encourage people not to litter. I don't remember a time in my life without recycling. I am practically an old lady now, and you would think if people my age grew up tending to the environment we would be in better shape.

Today is Blog Action Day. All over the world, bloggers are writing about this year's issue: global warming. I decided to participate because I am always excited when people find a way to use technology to make a better world and, as I've mentioned above, environmental activism comes naturally to me. On the other hand, I am not an expert on global warming nor am I a shining example of an environmentally-sound lifestyle.

What do I have to add to a world-wide conversation about global warming? As usual, I bring to the table my two traveling companions: chronic illness and creative activity. They have suggested to me three points to throw to the blogosphere:

Do what you can with what you've got.

"Do you have a studio?" asked a woman who heard I was an artist.

"No," I replied, "I have a corner of my living room."

I used to have a studio. A couple times a week I would go to my studio and paint. It was lovely. I felt like a real artiste. Those were the days when I had more money, more physical energy and more time. I had more physical capability, too. It doesn't serve me well to spend much time mourning those losses. I need to feel the sadness, but then I need to breathe it out and let it go.

Right now, I have a little corner, with a flat surface and some paints. My hands don't do what they used to do, but I can hold a brush and I can move paint around and doing it makes my heart sing.

We humans have already gone a long way toward trashing the earth. The damage is probably not recoverable. There may be fancy future technologies that will help us clean up our act. We don't know about them yet, so for now we have to do what we can with what we've got.

Years ago, I was a fan of Berke Breathed's Opus the penguin. Opus wanted to lose weight and was willing to try anything...except to exercise and eat less. Similarly we humans seem ready to do anything to avoid global warming, except make the behavioral changes that need to be made.

There are practical everyday steps we can take that will make a difference. Visit Common Sense on Climate Change: Practical Solutions to Global Warming and make a commitment to go further in three areas.

Work for systemic change (meanwhile, play by your own rules)

We need to make big changes fast. By "big" I mean system wide.

In my experience, there are two ways to do this. First, we can advocate for changes in legislation and regulation. We can work within the system to change the system. Second, we can do things in a different way en masse and force the system to scramble to catch up with our changes.

I remember writing "DDT" in marker on my papier-mâché Arctic Circle. One of the sobering facts I knew, at 12, was that overuse of the pesticide was so widespread traces have been found in the Arctic ice. Bald eagles were dying. I was adding my voice to the public outcry that led to most uses of DDT being banned in the US in 1972. It worked then. It could work now.

Tell President Obama that we want him to lead the United States in taking bold and significant action to reduce greenhouse gasses.

The art world is pathetically stuck in old-fashioned ways of doing things. Young artists are experimenting with new ways to connect to their audiences. Musicians are sending their work directly to their listeners. Visual artists are making their work available on the web without worrying about copyrights. Writers are publishing their own books. The system is broken, so these mavericks are creating a new system. Traditional media are trying to find footing in a new world.

What astonishing, out-of-the-box ways are people making changes in response to global warming? what grassroots solutions are out there that we might be able to get to trickle up? I just had a good time googling "out-of-the-box solution global warming".

Find and support one unusual idea to minimize global warming.

Keep playing, even though you're losing.

The effects of multiple sclerosis on my body keep increasing. Lately, I've been mulling over words to describe it: relentless, implacable, inexorable. Rolling these words around in my mind somehow throws a layer of insulation between me and my frustration.

Recently, I have noticed a lot of news reports along the lines of Newsweek magazine's It’s Too Late to Stop Global Warming. (interestingly, or perhaps sadly, the first page of Google results I received for "too late global warming" came from 2005-2006.) There is a danger that people will give up.

I have exercised fairly consistently since I was diagnosed 28 years ago. For a while, I jogged. Then I did yoga. I learned tai chi. When I could no longer walk, I exercised in the pool. Now, I use a strap stand to hold me up while I use light arm weights. Physical therapists tell me that doing what I could do helped delay the progression of the disease. I have no idea if that is true (and--shh--neither do they).

Here is what is true for me: exercising brings me closer to my body. I am more aware of its ups and downs. I have more compassion for it. Exercising gives me hope. There are days I do better with the weights and can imagine I am getting stronger. That little swoop of joy is worth the gurgling sadness of the bad days.

Maybe it is too late to stop all the effects of global warming. In doing what we can, though, we may draw closer to our planet home. We may find new ways to work together as a species. We may join in swoops of joy over every environmental triumph.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Meshing with Mistakes

(In which I teach myself about mistakes and achieve a long term goal of illustrating my blog.)

Sometimes, when I'm painting, I make a mistake. That could mean an involuntary movement of hand or brush makes a mark I don't expect. It could mean that I intentionally make marks that, on reflection, I don't like and wish I hadn't done. If I notice right away, I sit and stare for a moment. Other times, my eye keeps being drawn back to the problem area like a tongue checking to see if a tooth is still sore. The way I paint (acrylic paint used transparently), there is no way to cover it up. What to do?

Oddly, I have discovered that repeating the mistake in other areas of the painting integrates it into the piece, allows me to continue painting and sometimes moves the painting in a new direction. Are there life lessons hidden here?

The two kinds of mistakes I experience while painting help me understand what happens in "real life." Sometimes I make a mistake. I consciously take action. It seems like a good idea at the time, but it turns out not to be. I regret it. I wish it could be undone. Other times, outside influences affect me in unexpected ways and "mistakes are made."

I thought I might write about Overcoming Mistakes, but I didn't like the image of triumph it conjured. I wanted a word with more accommodation built into it. I have been playing with alliteration. In the thesaurus, I found the word "mesh."

While I love the slithery sound of the word, I was a bit worried by the idea of becoming enmeshed in mistakes. I switched to the dictionary to investigate the word.

It can be a noun, of course.

  1. any knit, woven, or knotted fabric of open texture.

  2. an interwoven or intertwined structure; network.

  3. any arrangement of interlocking metal links or wires with evenly spaced, uniform small openings between, as used in jewelry or sieves.

  4. one of the open spaces between the cords or ropes of a net.

It can also be a verb and (when used without an object) has these meanings:

  1. to become enmeshed.

  2. machinery: to become or be engaged, as the teeth of one gear with those of another.

  3. to match, coordinate, or interlock.

So what can I learn by pairing the words mesh and mistake?

Weaves, knots and open spaces

weave artIn a weave, crisscrossing threads take their turns going over and under. There is order. There are spaces. The purpose of a weave is to make a fabric that covers or protects.

As Hannah Montana points out, everybody makes mistakes. Mistakes are part of my daily life. When they happen, they feel more like knots: tight, tangled, constricting. When I make a mistake (especially in more functional areas of my life), the mistake feels huge. One mistake reminds me of all its ancestors and my life looks like the one unbroken lineage of mistakes.

It's not, of course. The threads of mistakes cross my life, but they are not the whole cloth. I need to move into the open spaces in the cloth. I need to relax. Mistakes are part of the weave and perhaps, unyielding and wiry as they are, they make it (and me) stronger.

Be engaged, not enmeshed.

My initial discomfort with the idea of becoming enmeshed in mistakes is valid. if I hang onto my mistakes and become obsessed with them—even obsessed with fixing them— I will not escape them.

Better to become engaged with my mistakes, like the gears in a machine. The teeth in a gear are, like my mistakes, pointed and unyielding. Those are precisely the characteristics that allow it, when engaged, to push another tooth forward. A the gears push against each other in a rhythm of engagement and release, the machine moves.

gears art

Meshing with Mistakes

When I started writing this post, I imagined that for each meaning of the word "mesh", I would find a lesson for myself. As I wrote, paragraphs kept ending with the same lessons. I am left with these simple thoughts:

  • Mistakes, whether made voluntarily or thrust upon me, are part of my life. Expect them.

  • Notice the open spaces. Linger in them. Treasure them.

  • Play with the possibility that mistakes are (a) making me stronger and (b) moving me forward. (It may or may not be true, but pretending it is will help my attitude.)

I don't think purposefully repeating mistakes will let me integrate them more gracefully into my life. Perhaps, though, remembering the lessons of the mesh will allow me to move over and under obstacles more easily.