By Nancy G. Shapiro
from the June 2005 issue of Spirituality & Health magazine
In times of transition, let your intuition chart your future. All you need is a glue stick.
“I can’t stand it! I hate this place!” My husband’s plaintive shout echoed between us. The 405 freeway was backed up for miles in both directions. We were one car of thousands stuck on a Saturday afternoon. Barry felt stuck in more ways than one. Los Angeles didn’t suit him. He was tired of his profession of 30-plus years. He yearned for something that he could hardly name, much less express how to reach. For want of anything better to say, I told him about the collage that I’d been sitting in front of most mornings, the backdrop for my daily prayer and meditation practice; how I’d recently realized that the dreams and thoughts embodied in that collage that I made four years ago in Central Mexico had all come to pass. I talked about intention, about the power of constancy and visual reminders. He looked at me with something akin to amazement on his face.
“Maybe I should make a collage.”
The Call of Art
It was early spring in central Mexico when I felt the prickly itch of change on my skin. It’s not that I wasn’t familiar with the feeling. But who can say they truly like the arrival of this nagging messenger, invisible to the eye, God’s version of a pesky mosquito buzzing in the dark? It is, after all, a reminder that life once again is tilting toward the unknown. I tried to ignore it, setting my feet firmly and locking my knees. Ha! This only accelerated the tilt. Thoughts swirled around in my head. Daily writing, a few therapy sessions, and the grace of a pivotal poem kept me from falling on my face. With this vulnerable stability came the realization that it was time to move back to the U.S.
I shuddered at the thought of the huge transition. Along with the insights came the questions. So many, in fact, that writing only partially helped to sort through the cacophony of what ifs and shoulds and I don’t knows.
I turned for further sustenance to my other love, collage. Opening a large gray storage box I gazed down at the treasures collected over the years. Stones and shells of all sizes and colors, feathers and dried leaves, sticks worn smooth by sea water and desert winds, rusted twists of wire, colored glass, and broken pieces of hand-painted tiles filled plastic bags and small containers. Piles of postcards, greeting cards from friends, and illustrations and photos torn out of magazines were tucked neatly into large manila envelopes. I pulled down a long, zippered portfolio full of handmade paper. Unrollingthe large bundle on the floor, a piece of yellow rice paper studded with rice hulls called to me. At that moment it was the color of hope, and it became the foundation for the collage that formed under my hands over the next few hours.
That spring I was in search of a way to focus, to keep the upcoming move and all of its aspects in perspective. I turned to my art for guidance. I stared at the stones collected on beaches in Mexico and California, at a foot-long, red hat feather my friend Ruth had given me. There would be challenges over the next few months, of course. In light of another move as radical as the one that had brought me to Mexico five years before, I wanted to concentrate on my intentions. What would be accomplished and enhanced by this soul inspired action?
It took quite a while to go through all of the pictures and photos, but it was a spirited, creative time when the hours that passed felt like only minutes. I chose an illustration of a smiling woman sitting on a sofa in a red room, a steaming cup of tea on the table in front of her; a sepia-toned photograph of angel’s wings from a famous statue; my friend Valerie’s art exhibit announcement with a painting of two lovers kissing, the bridges of Paris in the background. I added some mauve and green papers, torn into small pieces, an illustration of a young girl in an overgrown garden, and another of a woman in an orange and purple dress dancing her way across a polka-dot background.
The images symbolized places in myself that felt empty or half-realized, unfulfilled parts of me that yearned to be fleshed out, made fuller, deeper, richer. All, at first sight, touched a chord in me that resonated with a humming yes! I knew that humming. It is the same sensation that comes over me when choosing the various elements for a new art piece, the same hum I’ve had since I was a child collecting rocks or shells. It’s a mysterious inner discernment that translates out in the world as artistic energy.
Working with Chaos
My intention during the process of making art is to find beauty and order out of the visual chaos of materials, colors, and textures spread out on my worktable. On that spring afternoon there certainly existed chaos, though of the emotional kind. More compelled than consciously trusting, I hoped that the images I chose would bring beauty and order into an unknown future. Some of the papers were smooth and light as air; others were rough to the touch, with a palpable heft. I played with the composition, overlapping this, turning that, until my eyes and my heart were satisfied. Then I carefully glued everything onto the yellow rice paper and secured the finished piece into the lid of a tin box I called my altar box. I poured dried rose petals in the bottom portion and placed a small candle in the center. I packed it carefully when we set off from Mexico to Los Angeles.
Re-entry into fast-paced American life was a shock. We rented an apartment. Every morning I’d meditate. The woman in the red room captivated me during that time. Her picture spoke of home with a capital H, a place of refuge away from the helter-skelter energy of life out there. After months of searching and near despair over ever finding a house we could afford, one appeared —right around the corner from our office. The walls of our newly remodeled home are sage green, golden sand, and autumn orange. The ceiling is the color of caramel. A few special walls for artwork are black and copper. Natural slate floors and honey-colored wood frame it all. I sit in our co-created sanctuary and watch the light dance with the colors. I know why the woman with the cup of tea is smiling.
I walk to our small office and, although I don’t wear a purple and orange dress, I am grateful because I have worthwhile work. The angel’s wings have manifested as a Reconstructionist synagogue that we found through a friend’s referral. I converted to Judaism a year after we moved. The spiritual expansiveness and the community of friends found there have been the bedrock on which this new life has been built.The Parisian lovers and the young girl in the garden represented the desire or need to surround myself with love, beauty, and creativity. I have all of these in armfuls. I am blessed.
The collage meets me every morning, winks at me with its bright magic when I lift the lid of the altar box. It’s been a work in progress. Today the bottom of the altar box has a thick bed of moss. Tucked into its green folds are sea urchin shells from Mexico, an ivory netsuke of two frogs on a lily pad, a Virgin of Guadalupe key chain, and two quartz hearts. A tiny agate frog sits on a flat black stone along with an even tinier silver mouse. A chamseh with a blue stone and a nutmeg seed from Madagascar lean in opposite corners. Two small dragonflies with rhinestones perch on the collage, stuck in place below the angel’s wings and the kissing lovers. There’s a picture of Georgia O’Keeffe, a quote about writing from Alexander Pope, Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world.” A few months ago I added the motto of Goddard College in Vermont: “At the Heart of Your Mind.”
When the World Tilts
This latest addition contains a pulse of energy that beckonsfrom my very center. At age 51, I have found what I want to do when I grow up. It requires finishing my bachelor’s degree and entering a master’s degree program. The enormity of this feels daunting, yet I’m compelled again to enter unknown territory. The world is, once more, tilting ever so slightly. I know Goddard’s motto will be the centerpiece of the next collage. But I’m not done with the old one. The miracle of it hasn’t completely sunk in. Or maybe it has. Maybe the treasure box is still in the closet, the brilliant papers still rolled up tight, because I’m not quite ready for this new journey, the changes it entails.
Art of any kind is the soul speaking through, and to, the artist. It is a radical act that can jump-start the wheels of the universe. By its very nature it calls me, the creator, to action. In the creating of my present life, I broke self-imposed boundaries and stretched past my comfort zone countless times. I surprised myself. The gentle reminder of those images helped me re-focus when times were rough. They spoke through moments of despair and doubt. Consistent, always there, they cried out, “Remember, remember!” And I did.
This next transition will require the same of me. Perhaps it’s my resistance to move from this hard-earned place of relative calm that keeps the new collage just a picture in my head — and perhaps it is this same resistance that prevents my dear husband from making his own collage. Though writing about it will most likely tickle that resisting part of me unmercifully until it throws up its hands and half moans, half shouts, “I give up! Where’s all that art stuff? The scissors, the glue? Enough, enough.”
I don’t know when I’ll be ready to gently remove the old collage and commit the new one to paper, to place it into the lid of the altar box. I don’t know when the tickling will become unbearable, forcing my procrastination to end. It could be tomorrow, or months from now.
Perhaps at the same time, you’ll start yours, too.
Nancy G. Shapiro is a life-transition coach, writer, and workshop facilitator. Her article “Writing Myself Back to Life” appeared in the summer 2002 issue of S&H.