On my one-weekend-a-month art course recently (where we learn how to run creativity and expression workshops by basically being in one – no artistic ability required!), we were asked to paint a picture with textures in it, and as usual within 5 minutes of starting the picture, I forgot about the tutor’s instructions and just got carried away with enjoying the novel experience of making another painting.
I found that I was painting a scene from the home where I grew up – the family home that used to belong to my grandparents, and we moved into when I was 9. My sisters and I grew up there, and my parents stayed living there and having us there for holidays and visits for 30 years, until about 18 months ago, when the house was finally sold.
My mother had died 4 years previously and it was way too big for my father to live in any more.
So the beautiful house where we grew up with the amazing English garden, in the countryside near Oxford, was sold sooner than we could have imagined and it was incredibly painful, like a part of us was being given away to strangers without our consent.
I know it had a lot to do with the memory of my mother, like she was still there too, and that as long as the house was still in place, she was less gone as well.
But the house went, and now new people live there, and I had to relive all of this for the hundredth time as I was painting the picture of the garden. It was so difficult that I nearly left the room (full of everyone else on the course painting whatever needed to come up out of them) because I thought I was going to have some kind of tearful collapse in the midst of them all.
But as I kept painting I realised two hugely important things.
The first was that despite all the hard stuff that life had thrown up in the past, I’d been lucky enough to grow up in a kind of earthly paradise – surrounded by all that greenness and beauty, and that looking at things that way, at the positive side of it all, helped a lot with the hard side of the end of that era – the era of that place, and of my mother, the two so closely intertwined.
Becoming aware of the positive side, helped balance the painful stuff. And by the time the allotted hour for the painting exercise was up, I was smiling. Art is therapy – it brings up what I can’t normally face without me realising I’m doing it, and shows me solutions to problems, or sides of coins, I’d never thought of before.
The other important thing I saw had to do with the doctrine of impermanence – the undeniable truth that everything changes and that we might as well accept it.
I saw that I would have had to let go of that house one day, even if it was on my deathbed, and that if I didn’t embrace the idea of impermanence, of change, it would be just as painful then as it was now – the grasping pain of attachment to things we can’t or refuse to let got of.
Realising that everything changes, and everything is impermanent, it was obvious that letting go was the right thing – in fact the only thing – to do, albeit after an appropriate time of grieving, because that’s just how life is. Full of impermanence. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s horrendously hard, but in any case, resisting it indefinitely is attachment, and attachment just means more suffering in the end.
Thinking about all that, and seeing how the end of the house and its era was just the way of the world, made things better still. Everything is impermanent, everything changes, and that’s OK. It makes space in the world for new things.
When I got home from the painting course that night my son asked to see my paintings. When he saw my textures exercise, the picture of the garden from the house-now-sold, he said, “I like that lots daddy, I want to put it on my bedroom wall!” And that put the biggest smile on my face of all.