fear

Timing is Everything. Part II. Or How I Came to Paint a Donkey in a Pink Housecoat. by Susie Lubell

Once the initial excitement of being selected to participate in the Women of the Book project wears off, the panic sets in. What in the hell was I going to paint? How would I interpret this wacko chapter with a talking donkey. I had managed to wiggle my way into the project without fully realizing that these women were all highly accomplished, highly trained, widely exhibited contemporary artists. I had told the curatorial committee to trust my process. Like I have any kind of process at all! I finger paint! And the kicker is I have three weeks to get it done including a round of critique by the curatorial committee. I was leaving for August so it had to be done before then. Did I mention I had just broken my toe?

So I start to do research. I read whatever sources I could find on Balak. My mother in law brings over books and sends articles. I spend that whole first weekend reading Torah. And interpretation after interpretation. All the while I just keep having visions in my head of Bilam standing together with his donkey like in that American Gothic portrait by Grant Wood (see above). Except the woman is a donkey. I start doing some sketches. And there's one with Bilam riding the donkey and one with the donkey riding Bilam and one with Bilam and Donkey sitting at a dinner table together. 

Then finally I meet Shoshana, the founder of the project, to get my piece of parchment. She drops off the tube with the parchment inside and gives me a bunch of scraps too for experimenting. She is lovely and encouraging. The parchment feels weird. Like a lamp shade. How am I going to paint on this stuff? I take it home and immediately start painting in acrylic on the scraps. I experiment with gesso, without gesso, I spray water on it. I glue some paper to it. It seems pretty sturdy. I can totally do this. No problem.  It dries all curled up. Damnation. I lay books on it overnight and it flattens out. Salvation. 

Without knowing exactly what I'm doing and without a full understanding of the material I'm working with (both the story and the parchment), I decide to start painting. I just need to put paint down because I'm running out of time and the blank parchment is giving me anxiety which is making my toe hurt. I spend an hour making marks and strokes, mainly finger painting. Every few minutes I read the text again. I start to pray. I'm not kidding. I tell God that I need a little vision on this thing. I ask God how it all ties together. The paranoid king, the blind prophet, the talking she-ass, the blessings, the curses, the rage, the beat-down, the orgies with Midionite women, the plague, that horrid impaling scene at the end. What. On earth. Does. It. Mean. God? 

When God doesn't answer I call Sharone. She was a religious studies major and even considered the rabbinate at one point and we chat for a long time about what it all means. I tell her about my American Gothic vision and she can see it too. We talk about the master and servant relationship, about the powerful ruler archetype. We talk about disobedience and how it plays out over and over in the parasha. We talk about how Bilam disappoints Balak and the donkey disappoints Bilam and the Israelites disappoint God. Again. We talk about the context of this chapter. The Israelites have been traveling for nearly all of their forty years in the desert and God is still trying to get them to behave so they can enter the promised land. And they are still totally blowing it, And we talk about the divine feminine - that feral, creative, subversive spirit and makes our donkey heroine open her mouth and tell her master what's what. 

And with all that in my head I go to work. And as I paint and pray and meditate, the parts of the story unfold onto the parchment. You can read about my interpretation here. I send Shoshana a preview and after presenting it to the committee she comes back with some critique. I make some changes, hand off the final piece and hope for the best. 

On Saying Yes by Susie Lubell

A week ago I was on a camping trip with a few families and I got a phone call from the director of my choir. I sing in a choir. I like to sing. I've always liked to sing. In college I sang in an a capella group which might have been the best thing about college. We rehearsed twice a week and performed around campus. It was good fun. But once I graduated, I stopped singing. Anyway, this year the director of the music school in our town (the guy who built it from nothing) announced that he was starting a new adult choir and even though I preferred to sing Annie Lennox and Led Zeppelin rather than Mendelsohn and Psalms, I decided to try it. Turns out it doesn't much matter what I'm singing. I like it all the same.

But back to the phone call. He called to ask if I wanted to sing a song in Yiddish at the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in our community. I let out an incredulous chuckle. Are you kidding me?You want me to sing in public? In Yiddish? Next week?  He said No, not kidding. Yes, Yiddish song. In front of people. Next week. Isn't there anyone else you can ask? I mean I barely speak Hebrew and you want me to sing in Yiddish? Gevalt! He said, I want you to do it. It's a beautiful song. It fits your voice. I told him I'd think about it. He said he'd send me the music and a recording of him singing the song. He sent both immediately after we hung up. He was serious. 

We returned from camping and I ran into him at the supermarket. Ugh. Are we doing the song? he asked. I still hadn't said yes. Sensing I was on the verge of saying no, he said, "listen, let's practice it a few times and then you decide." I didn't want to disappoint him but I also really didn't want to learn a new song in another language and sing it at a public ceremony four days from now.

You see I get nervous doing anything live in front of other people. Even just talking. This is why I like blogging. Because I can edit. If something doesn't come out right, I can go back. I can even unpublish. I can SHUT. IT. DOWN. Performing is not like that. Once you hit the wrong note or screw up the words, you're done. I mean, your life is not over, but it's still a bummer. An irreversible bummer. And I tend to hold onto bummers for a long time. I wasn't always like this though. I used to perform all the time in a children's theater company. I used to play piano in recitals and in front of judges. Even in college, performing with my group was a rush. I loved it. I sang solos in front of hundreds of people. I regularly made a total ass of myself on stage. It was awesome. But in the twenty years since the last time I was on a stage, a kind of performance anxiety had taken hold. We can even call it fear because that's what it really is. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of getting in over my head. And it's kind of pervasive. I felt it in graduate school. I felt in my various positions in my various careers. This fear that I'm just not qualified. 

Plus there's this thing about knowing when to say no. People are always talking about being skilled at saying no. Knowing when to forego opportunities because they are not worthy of your time or energy. Understanding your priorities. Not getting roped into someone else's circus. I'm all for that. And in my quest to slow down and stay focused on my family and my work and my own happiness, I've gotten pretty good at saying no. Maybe too good. Some days it's more or less the only thing I say all day. Just ask my kids.

But then I recalled what he said on the phone. I want you to sing it, he said. That's when I had my Moses on the Mountain moment. If the director of the music school asks you to sing a song, no matter what language or key or day of the year, you sing it. You go learn the music and sing the song. Because he knows you can and your job is to trust him. If you get the call (and in this case it literally was a call) you answer it. Had he asked my son or daughter to play piano at the ceremony, I would have encouraged them to do it because the only reason not to is the fear and that's not a good enough reason. And all this without mentioning what an honor it would be to sing this particular song in rememberance of those who had perished in the camps and fighting in the resistance. And those who lived to share their horrors.

So I said YES. And I practiced and we worked on it together and I practiced more. I practiced a lot. I even recorded myself singing and we all know how painful it is to listen to a recording of yourself. But I said YES. I let go of my fear. I got up on stage in front of 500 people and I sang my heart out. I said YES.

Big Dreams by Susie Lubell

Her dreams were much bigger than she originally admitted.

Her dreams were much bigger than she originally admitted.

I've been lying to myself and most everyone else. Or rather, I haven't been totally truthful about my professional aspirations. I have minimized them because of this fear of owning my dreams. That if I told anyone that what I really want is to have my work hanging in galleries and museums, to have exhibitions all over world, to teach workshops in self expression through painting, well then they would know. And maybe they would laugh at me. Or say, oh yes, wonderful, but then secretly snicker and think, who does she thing she is? She's not an artist. She can't even draw a cat! She doesn't make art. She makes decorations. She can't teach people to paint because she never learned how to paint! And anyway, once anyone knows that I have these aspirations, then I would be held accountable for making good on my declarations. Like taking out a mortgage.

A few years ago, when I was taking steps to design a career as a creative professional, I took an eight week coaching class based on the book Creating a Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd. This paragraph from the book sums up everything for me:

"Some fear is healthy. It keeps us from jumping off buildings and saying smug things to violent drunks. But fear also works against us. Fear colludes with our most conservative self and allows us to stop before we try, dismiss before we think, mock before we imagine. We've all seen it in others; it is so easy to perceive when ou watch a friend refuse to take advantage of some remarkable opportunity, simply out of fear. But tey don't often say, "I'm too afraid." They say, I don't know if I'm ready," or "I'm just too busy right now." At the heart of their fear is the message, "If I try to get something really wonderful, I'll have to screw up everything that is already just okay."

So I've been keeping my dreams small because I fear the kind of criticism and rejection that comes with sharing and achieving big dreams. But there's another side to that fear (psst. I'm like the three billionth person to share this quote. It's still worth sharing):

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
- Marianne Williamson

I just can't do it anymore. I can't be small. Being small serves no one. I'm big. Like a whale. And my aspirations are whale-sized too. Unfortunately my whale-sized aspirations have to live in harmony with the everyday demands of my regular life including the whale-sized pile of laundry to be folded on my bed.

But it doesn't matter does it. The thing that matters is the truth. And the truth is that I dream big. Because anything else only serves to deny the world my gifts. We all have gifts don't we? And gifts are meant to be shared.