My door is red

Did you know that Georgia O’Keefe chose her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, because she liked a door in its courtyard? She saw the door, and she knew she needed to paint it despite the house being in ruins. It took her years to buy the home and renovate it, but she finally did. And she painted her door many times, in all sorts of different ways.


I just finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Have you read it? I liked it. He talks about the phenomenon of snap decisions, how they work, and their strengths and weaknesses. He briefly explains that our minds have a “locked door” between the conscious and unconscious. All the mechanics of our snap decisions lie behind the locked door of our minds, which he says, we can’t ever really know.

Not being able to know my own mind feels infuriating. Gladwell writes about a tennis coach, blessed with the ability to predict whenever a player will double fault a serve, who lies awake at night trying to figure out why he knows what he knows. Isn’t that just so true? I want to know how my mind works. I want to open my locked door, don’t you?


In his conclusion, Gladwell writes, “the key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” Knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is an accessible set of facts, it’s what we find when we Google something, when we do our research. Understanding implies a relationship to that knowledge, a comprehension of it. Knowledge is easy to find, understanding takes time. Knowledge takes action, understanding takes patience.


I’m thinking of Georgia O’Keefe painting her courtyard door over and over again. Was she trying to create the perfect door? No. She was giving her unconscious a place to express itself. She was seeing what her door could produce. It’s true that we can’t ever know the mechanics lying behind our locked doors. Even the most intensive psychotherapy only offers the opportunity to watch ourselves and see what we do. What actions arise from our unconscious? Is there a pattern to the output? In the absence of facts – of knowledge – understanding comes from watching the door and seeing what we can create from it.


Meditation on a mug

My mom was an artist. She studied art in college and taught herself much more. She drew, she painted, she did beading and weaving. She liked very much to dabble. My mom, who spent much of her life suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, found an outlet for her pain through her art. Her disease fueled her creativity, and vice versa, in ways that I have only begun to understand.

When I was twelve, my mom bought me a sketchbook and sat me down at the dining room table. She put a cup in front of me and told me to look at it.

“Look closely,” she said. “See how the light hits it here?” she asked. “See this shadow?”

I did. As my mom broke the parts of the cup down one by one, I could see each part singularly. She taught me to notice difference.

“Now draw what you see,” she said, handing me her special charcoal pencils. She showed me how to use heavier and lighter pressure to make the drawing textured. She showed me how to blend, how to highlight with the eraser. She showed me how to re-create reality.

“Take your time,” she recommended gently. “Work on one part at a time.”

I drew slowly and carefully. When I finished, I had a lovely two-dimensional rendition of a mug, instantly recognizable. I’d like to think that I had real talent, but I think that anyone could break down a simple object like this and make something beautiful from it. In any case, I loved drawing. My mom’s lessons showed me the way to one of my earliest passions. I remember counting the days until art class, waking up early and full of excitement on Wednesdays and Fridays. Those were the days when I felt special. Those were the days when I got to do what I loved best.

My mom’s method of drawing was entirely rooted in the present. She taught me to be mindful, to make art a meditation. She taught me to overlook nothing. She showed me how even the simplest object can open you to creating beauty and can teach you a truth about yourself. It’s funny — you probably don’t think of drawing as a survival skill, but for me, it is.

Thoughts on a Monday morning

Many years ago, I painted something for a boyfriend.

A tree frog on a branch.

Vivid, it popped off the canvas, lifelike.

Nearly the instant I completed it, I gave it to him. Not long after, we parted ways. Almost immediately, I wanted that painting back.

That was a piece of myself.


I’ve carried that anger around for almost 20 years. Just recently, I contacted him, in friendship. I asked for the painting back. You know what?

He sent it.

Professionally wrapped, expensively sent. Clearly, it had been well cared for. I had asked him to mark it in some way, to prove his ownership of it. He neglected to, but I shall do it for him. I have no compunction about messing it up. And I will always know the truth.

And I will love that he returned that piece of myself, intact, pristine but for the passage of time.

Thank you.


On rubber ducks and secrets

Sometimes when I really like something, I keep it a secret. Do you ever do that?

It’s always tempting to brag when you find the newest great thing – the new shop with delicious bread, the new book that I just finished, the cutest pair of new sandals. Part of me just wants to share, with everyone in my path, how excited I am, how lucky I feel. Sometimes I want to spark an interesting conversation, sometimes I just want to feel generous.

But here’s the thing. Once you share the greatest new thing, once you make your opinion known, people will take your advice. They will check out that new shop. They will download the book on their Kindles. And in a week or two, you will hear from some other acquaintance that they just LOVE this new shop around the corner. You will overhear on the train that so-and-so can’t tear herself away from your favorite book.

Will you feel glad to brighten someone’s day? Maybe. If you are a saint.

Me? I feel a little disappointed. A lot less special. My secret is out. The thing is, I really like having a secret. I like to know without a doubt that I see something in a special way. While everyone else runs into the grocery store to grab a loaf of bread before dinner, I know that the best baguette is on offer at that little shop around the corner from the Y. If I just run in with the boys after swim class, we can pick up our bread while we grab some donuts for a snack. Two birds with one stone. And there will still be time to wander by the rose garden on the way home.

Why does keeping things a secret make them more special to me? Am I weird that way? Perhaps. But I just read this article in The Wall Street Journal, about the Hong Kong rubber duck installation. In case you haven’t heard about it, a 50-foot yellow duck is calling Victoria Harbor home for a while. Hundred of thousands of visitors have flocked to see the bird. Is the artist proud? Well, yes. And no. “On one hand,” the artist, Florentijn Hofman, commented, “I felt very happy, and thought, wow, so many people are coming to see it. But on the other hand, I thought, how can you really see the duck now? Can you really get it?”

It’s true. If your view of the duck is so obscured by the back of other people’s heads, by their iPhones up in the air, blocking your view of its beak, can you ever truly experience the duck? To experience something authentically, you need to sneak up on it, early in the morning or last thing at night. Perhaps during the day while everyone else is too busy to notice. You need to be alone, unencumbered by friends or children. You must be stealthy and silent. You approach on tiptoe, hiding behind the closest building or bench. You peer out over the water and get the clearest view of the huge yellow duck, its orange beak, its cheerful eyes. You notice how it juxtaposes itself against the staid buildings, how it bobs and floats happily in the bay, how the sun streams off of its yellow back and air-filled wings. You know it’s just a toy, a silly thing, but for one instant you see it as it really is, and you are filled with happiness.

At the museum

A Georgia O’Keefe. No, not one of her flowers. A wooden cross, black, in the forefront. The New Mexican desert behind it, and a sunset. This is striking. Sitting on a bench, I sketch it. Why am I drawn to that cross? It’s almost morbid. So large and dark that it overtakes the rest of the painting. I can see the nails in the center of it, boring into the wood, holding it all together. Then I notice the lower quadrant of the cross. All the others are smooth and opaque, no brushstrokes, no movement. But that lower part of the cross is fluid. The paint curves downward in long strokes, falling, seeping down toward the vegetation below. It’s as if the wood has turned to water here. Taken as a whole, the cross is overwhelmingly solid, unmovable. Yet when I break it apart, examine one piece at a time, I find this fluidity. The cross is no less permanent because of the waterfall within it, and this duality draws me in and holds me.

This, this is what I want in my life, in our marriage.