In 2012, you may remember, I was gifted an art studio just for the summer. I painted and sewed there. I also turned on music and danced alone, read books while scarfing down leftovers from home, cried occasionally, and set up the camera to take self-portraits in a gauzy skirt I rarely have the chutzpah to wear, with the light streaming through the old warehouse windows and through the fabric, defining my body for no one's gaze but my own.
At the end of the summer, I returned my art supplies to our home, and Chris generously removed his desk from our office and gave that room exclusively to me. Because affording an outside studio space was not in the cards for us, not then and not anytime soon, and he had seen how important it was to me to have a space of my own.
I returned the art supplies. And I tried to return to the feelings, the true aloneness, the bestowing of time and attention on myself. But it was so hard.
A room in a home just for a mother is a huge blessing. It is also a convenient place for hiding the shit you can't seem to deal with. The fear that paralyzes you, the worry about fraudulance, the I've-had-it-up-to-here exhaustion. AND the school projects, the paperwork, the clutter, the old books, the bags of donations, the mess. All you have to do is close the door. For once there's no one to answer to but yourself. No one to tell you the mess, or your inaction, is making them crazy. It's only making you crazy and you are the mother, you can handle it.
As it turns out though, I could only hide it away for so long. Longer than anywhere else in the house, but not forever. Eventually, the falsehood the room had turned into started to have consequences. Chris' (understandable) resentment at the gift he gave being squandered. Hyper-organized (and frustration-prone) Stella's increasingly desperate need for a bedroom not shared with her tornado little sister. And my own pain at not doing the work, not living the truth, not walking my talk. That tiny room was holding so much more than art supplies and clutter. It was holding our family's hopeless, stuck longing for everything to be different. The air in there was thick with it.
One night in the fall of 2013, I met up with some old friends for a wine-soaked porch hangout and we ended up burning wishes in candle flames, sending our desires up into the night sky. One of my little pieces of paper said “A beautiful studio outside our home in which I can make my work.” I couldn't imagine how it would ever happen, that particular dream. The money was such a monster obstacle, it felt like the only way it'd ever come true was by winning the lottery. But I burned the wish anyway, my prayer written in smoke.
The room in our house stayed as clutter storage.
I pinned pictures of other artists' studios to my Studio Pinterest board like a teenager doodling her crush's name in a notebook.
I had a lot of fights with my daughter about when she would get the room.
But no studio.
Then this past summer, I sat in a restaurant with my mum and got a good scolding about the room in our house. A tough love talking-to. “What help do you need?” she asked at the end. “Let's set aside a day for me to help you clean it out. Let's go to the Container Store and get you the storage stuff you need.” I agreed in tears but then couldn't seem to schedule the time, every week it was something else, some other work that needed to be done more.
And still no studio.
By October, the helpful thing about my mother upping the heat under the room problem was that it had turned my status quo stuckness into something like a physical affliction. I HAD to do something about it. One afternoon, having reached boiling point, I asked Chris to take the kids out of the house and I went in there like an episode of Hoarders. A few hours later I posted this to Instagram:
It wasn't done, but it was starting to be usable again. I was starting to feel like maybe I would one day be in love with it. A bit of breathing space had opened up... a crack where the light gets in, so to speak.
At Random Retreat, during a discussion about the areas of our lives where we're attached to the ideal in our head instead of the reality in front of us, I spoke aloud about wanting a studio.
A couple weeks later, I got an email out of the blue.
It was an invitation.
An invitation to have a studio.
The same artist-mama-friend I borrowed space from two years ago, who had been sitting at that Random Retreat and heard me speak my desire, had decided she was interested in sharing her studio. Splitting rent and space, gaining community and accountability and inspiration. And she thought of me.
Another artist-mama is on board too, so the three of us will be sharing together. Because it is split three ways, I can afford it. Because it is with them, the particular women they are, it has the potential to be gorgeously wonderful in ways I can't forsee or control, and I'm very grateful for that. I don't want to try to control this dream anymore. I don't want to strive anymore for "what it's going to be like someday." The only things that have allowed this process to progress have been feeling the longing, articulating my desire to others, and doing some amount of clearing the way to invite it in. Holding on tight to a certain vision, however, has not done any good at all.
I am blessed to know a woman named Melissa Mulligan. Out in the world she is a singer-songwriter and celebrated vocal coach, but to me she is a soul-sister and treasured creativity guide. Mel's greatest teaching to me has been this:
How is not your job.
What you want to create and manifest, and especially why you want it? Oh for sure, that's your job. Get crystal clear on those things. But how it should happen? Hands off. That's not for you.
When we get into the how, we get stuck. We get practical. We lose the magic and intention and FEELING that had us want whatever it was to begin with.
The truth about how is that we simply don't know what's going to happen. No plan or strategy we can come up with at the beginning of a process can possibly take into account all the twists and turns and miracles that are coming down the line.
I'm not anti-plan. If you want to go to medical school, say, or save for retirement, or drive more than an hour with kids in your car, a plan is probably pretty fucking important.
But in matters of love and spirit and creativity, of giving birth – whether it's to a human or a book or an impossible dream, anything in which you have to leave the known road and go off through the unpaved wild, a plan is going to hinder you more than help. In the unknown, our preconceived ideas of how will keep us too much in our heads. To find what we're searching for, we need to smell the what on the air and feel the why like a divining rod in our guts, and respond moment by moment to our surroundings. We need to throw away the map.
I almost didn't say yes to this studio, because it didn't look like the either/or vision I'd been clutching. I didn't know a third how was possible, so at first I didn't recognize it when it came. “I should stick with trying to make the room work,” I told myself, “and that way I'll be available when the time comes when we can afford solo studio space. That's been my plan and I shouldn't flake out on it.” This thought made a lot of sense, even though it also made my chest feel a bit like brittle old newspaper curling in on itself.
But then, thank god, I pictured Melissa saying blissfully, “HOW... is not your job!” (She is very joyful when she informs you of this. There is no doubt, when you hear it from her lips, that it is good news.) And I almost literally smacked my own forehead.
Hey Alison. Hey self. Hey dumbass! Here it is! THIS is the how. It's here right now.
How is not your job; it's someone – or something – else's. And when they decide to do their job, you gotta let them.
So now I have a studio. Space to paint and to sew. Space to write and to read. And as a bonus, space to create community with other artists traversing this crazy shaman landscape of creativity + motherhood. A beautiful space, outside my home, to do my work. Exactly what I asked for, in a totally different package than I thought it would come.
I know this studio won't be some perfect solution or happy ending. It will still be tough to leave my home and all its neverending chores and obligations in order to even get myself there, and once there, the space won't make the art for me! But it was my dream and it has come true. So now new dreams can bubble up. And the studio will be a huge reminder to be patient with how those new dreams manifest. Because how is not my job.
By the way, Stella doesn't know yet that she's getting the room in the house. So if you know us in offline life and you see her, please don't mention it until after Christmas. I'm thinking that Christmas morning she should wake up to a giant red bow on the door.
I'm so excited to see her face. She won't see it coming! Never in a million years did she think it would work out like this...