Warning: This is a long post …..
Mike’s Wall Frog made me smile and brought me joy each day of my visit.
The Wall Frog
The creature Nicole made for me makes me smile and brings me joy each day.
Alexis’s self portrait makes me smile and bring me joy each day.
Bust of Alexis, Sculpture, Self-Portrait
My study of the brain began in October of 2007 when my sister sent me a copy of The Joy of Living, Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness written by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. I quote from the front flap of the cover:
“In this groundbreaking work, world-renowned Buddhist teach Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche invites us to join him in unlocking the secrets behind the practice of meditation. Working with neuroscientists at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, Yongey Mingyur provides clear insights into modern research indicating that systematic training in meditation can enhance activity in areas of the brain associated with happiness and compassion.”
At the time, I practiced yoga daily, both at home and at a nearby yoga center. On Sunday mornings I painted the yoga students during the early morning Ashtanga class. For me, live painting is a form of meditation. Drawing and painting, whether en plein air, in the studio or at a performance is always a form of meditation. I thought that by combining yoga and breathing exercises with simple visual creativity exercises I might unlock the door to the joy of living in a world of creativity for those who convince themselves that they are not creative. It is my belief that everyone can live a creative life, experiencing joy every day without quitting a job to become an artist, a musician or a poet. Being an artist, my path is mostly through the forest of the visual arts. That is the path I’m able to share with others. For about a year I offered Creativity Workshops at the Yoga Center, at an art gallery and in my home. At the end of the year I stopped. I had not successfully communicated my message, perhaps because I had not stated what that message really was…..
If I don’t exercise, nurture and challenge my brain, each and every day, it will lose its ability to perform the tasks I need it to perform.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that even if I exercise, nurture and challenge my brain, I might be one of the many unlucky individuals whose brain stops serving them well in spite of Herculean efforts. My father is one of those unlucky ones. Into his mid eighties he walked seven miles a day. He read hundreds of books, wrote poetry on a daily basis, danced four nights a week, played (and won) at card games and board games to say nothing of being the neighborhood Croquet Champion. He volunteered in his community, served as a business arbitrator and stayed involved with the activities of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My father suffers dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s.
Two years ago we moved my father out of the house he and my mother built with their own hands. He now lives in an assisted living facility, a forty minute drive from my home. Thursday is our day together. For the first year and a half, we walked together exploring the parks, trails, gardens and forests in the area. We stopped to rest on benches, rocks and tree stumps. My father wrote poetry and I sketched. Dad never remembered where we had been, nor that I had been to see him. The only evidence of our adventures is his green notebook, my sketchbook and the weekly blog posts on our family site, Walks With Dad. I tried to present the day with truth and humor while, at the same time, letting my siblings know how my father was doing. Our adventurous walks have now become quite tame due to my father’s quickly debilitating condition.
Dad was an electrical engineer. One might say that he was extremely left-brained. Abstract art was a total mystery to him. A building drawn without being in perfect perspective was simply bad art. His poetry had to rhyme. He thought, because I often painted abstractly, I painted that way because I hadn’t learned to draw well enough to create real art. About the same time that we noticed his memory slipping, I noticed that he spent more time looking at abstract art than representational art when he attended my exhibits. At one gallery, he made the comment, “I think I finally understand why you might want to paint like that.” I was stunned.
A year ago it became increasingly difficult to inspire my dad to write poetry. He couldn’t find words, any words. Rather than frustrate him, I taught him how to do contour drawings. He became focused, drawing until I told him he could stop. After drawing, he started using adjectives again in his speech. If I asked him to write a poem, he did so without resistance, often writing expressively rather than in forced rhyme.
Around this time I stumbled upon Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. The brain is remarkably adaptable. When one area is injured, another area steps in to fill the void when possible. I believe my father’s right side of the brain has compensated, a bit, for loss in the left side of his brain. He can now identify the subject of abstract drawings of objects, whereas he could not do so before.
In spite of Dad’s total loss of short term memory at this point, he can still follow the calls at a square dance and he can still win at games, even Bridge! I am hoping that my habit of drawing and painting every day will serve me as well. When I can’t remember who I am I hope I will still be drawing and painting.
This brings me full circle. Though it might be futile, I am breathing new life into my Creativity Workshops, dedicated to presenting brain exercises through creativity. Using the vocabulary of art: Line, Shape, Value, Texture and Color, The Creativity Workshop introduces simple games that can be played daily with common items such as paperclips, string and toothpicks. I want to teach these classes during lunch breaks at corporations as stress relievers and brain teasers. I want to present them at Centers for Healing, in schools, hospitals, prisons and summer camps.
Seeing the smile on my father’s face when I hand him his green notebook, now almost filled with his poetry, reminds me of the importance of not giving up on him, and not giving up on anyone else, either. My father turns 90 on February 24th, 2013.
Dad drawing cherries before writing a poem after a picnic at Feltville, NJ
Sketchbook drawings: Top – Wall Frog – Ink and waterbrush. All the others are drawn first in ink with a fountain pen, followed by watercolor.