I belong to a great support group for women artists. There are five of us, all involved in very different types of work. Even though some are visual artists and others make music or write, we’ve learned in our time together how many common questions we face. When Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929 that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” she hinted at something so deeply embedded in culture that it seems timelessly true: we have to fight (sometimes the outside world and sometimes ourselves) for the space to make art.
We group members support each other in our struggles, offering helpful ideas and appreciations to sustain each other when obstacles threaten to overwhelm. I am more grateful than I can say for this type of support. But every once in a while, I’m reminded that having friends to ask the truly tough questions is the greater gift.
The artist who started our group functions as the leader, planning and facilitating our discussions. She is great at asking hard questions. Before our last meeting, she asked each of us to consider what we most cherished about ourselves: what quality, accomplishment, ability each of us most values. My answer came to me in an instant: above all things, I value and enjoy the way my mind works. I cherish my ability to gaze out at the swirling scraps and currents of information and energy that make up the world, and see some new pattern cohere, some thrilling new figure pop out of the ground.
I turned this over in my mind all the way to our group meeting. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I understood that this experience has become my chief and most reliable pleasure. I have the idea that my enjoyment in thinking is akin to the satisfaction someone who loves running takes from a long run on a fine day. It feels so good to use those muscles.
So I arrived at the meeting feeling pretty delighted with myself. That’s when our group leader dropped the bomb: “Okay,” she said, “now that you know what you cherish most about yourself, I want you to consider a question. What if you lost it? Who would you be without it?”
My first thought shocked me: I wouldn’t want to live. Whoa! What about all the other pleasures and satisfactions of life? What about living to see a sunrise? Eat the best chocolate? Hear the music that moves my body and spirit? Make love? Gaze into the eyes of a dear friend? Extend my hand in help to one who’s hurting?
That’s when I understood that without realizing it, I’d retreated to a very old place in the landscape of my life. I was one of those kids who, growing up in an irrational household, took refuge in her imaginings, her reading and drawing, her fantasies of life beyond the family. No matter what was happening around me, I could always find a place inside that was engaging, stimulating; and safe. A place I could be whatever I desired. Do you know that great Leonard Cohen song, “In My Secret Life”?
I smile when I’m angry.
I cheat and I lie.
I do what I have to do
To get by.
But I know what is wrong,
And I know what is right.
And I’d die for the truth
In My Secret Life.
So now I have some work to do, getting outside my head and back into the world. It might take awhile. I find that considering the hard questions helps. What about you? What do you cherish most about yourself? Who would you be without it?