The calendar I picked out in 1994 was something that changed my life.
I know: odd statement. But true, nevertheless: it was a random choice, based on the fact that the Mary Englebreit calendar I usually buy was sold out, and there on the shelf was a Georgia O'Keeffe calendar, and she'd always intrigued me, and it was on clearance, so I bought it. Then I flipped through it as soon as I got back to my car (my favorite car we ever owned, a 1993 Honda Accord; I still miss it), which is my habit with new calendars, looking to see what images will hang on my kitchen wall throughout the year. (My grandma Elsie also had A Thing for Calendars, but hers was quite different from mine.)
I got to this image and I stopped looking:
And then I changed. Because there in an image was the place I'd walked in my heart so many times. The black place, the deep canyon nearly void of light, and the thing that looks like a path is really lightning and it burns rather than leads. Don't be fooled by the peaks nor the glimmer of color because that is the irony of dark places, you can tell how dark they are only by judging how far away the beauty is.
This painting changed me for several reasons. Most powerfully, it taught me what art can do. It isn't just about color and shape (or word choice and sentence structure and metaphor), but about expressing the human condition. It is a standard my little skill will probably never manage but one I hold dear all the same, to write things that might toss a sort of rope across the chasm to someone else. Equally, it gave me an image, something I could see to make sense of what I had felt. Continued to feel, will continue to feel. I had read poems that had done that, too, and novels, but this was the first piece of art. When something dark and complicated and hard like depression is given a shape it becomes less complicated because there is now, at least and blessedly, a form, a color, a texture, a thing to point to: here. And if the work of an artist from the American southwest, a person whom I'd never met, could represent what I had felt, the next bit of knowledge was that I wasn't ever wandering my black places alone. Others had been there. Were there, even though I never saw them. Black Place II is, for me, an expression of why art (and by "art" I mean the things we create) will always be the truest expression of humanity.
I wrote a poem about it for one of my writing classes. I clung to the image when things were rough. I learned about O'Keeffe and came to love her work, but not like this painting. This one has become a metaphor for what my life feels like: sometimes I am down in the canyon, sometimes tumbling toward it, sometimes climbing out. Sometimes, even, on those white hills.
Usually, I manage to stay out of the darkest of the black place.
But not this past Monday, which someone told me was Blue Monday: the most depressing day of the year. A cross word, a short but bitter tirade which cut across a few layers of hope, an overheard comment: these things on Sunday night pushed me right over the edge, and sleep didn't help. On Monday I was right down in the dark, head full of meanness, heart hard as anything. I was full of self-doubt and -deprecation. I tried all the usual things that are supposed to help: exercise, and cleaning, and music. I tried pretending to be happy. I took the kids to lunch. I even made cookies, even though food isn't supposed to make you feel better, sugar cookies which we frosted with blue frosting.
Slowly, a little light filtered in: Kaleb's happiness at cutting hearts from dough, Haley laughing at Kendell's exuberant fingerful of dough straight out of the bowl, the kind way that Nathan taught Kaleb how to get the cookies onto the sheets. Jake's declaration that sugar cookies are the best thing ever. Look at that: it was the cookies that made me start to climb. Not the eating of them, but the making, the process, the sharing of time.
And I remembered again: acts of creation are what lift. None of my cookies were works of art, but they were each an act of creation, small circles like steps to climb out of the darkest of black places.