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These Days of Grace
by John P. Weiss - Eternity itself transcending time and space
The following article was written by John P. Weiss, the man and the mind behind the publication The Saturday Letters.
John, in The Saturday Letters writes elegant stories and essays about life. Often illustrated with his black & white photography. Over 52K subscribers enjoy his writing and art, which pairs nicely with a cup of coffee and quiet weekend reflection. You might consider subscribing.
Editor’s Note: In two days, this post will be locked and is available only to paid members because we don’t want this duplicate content on the open web in a way that might draw traffic away from the original post. If you are not a sovereign artist club member, you can still read the entire post here.
It’s not often that a sense of magic and ethereal serenity blesses your existence, but when it does, time evaporates and you become the center of the universe.
It happened to me years ago in Idaho, where I was invited to a week-long painting salon in early Spring with renowned landscape painter Scott L. Christensen at his Craftsman studio. The other participant, Don Howard, was a tall, lanky painter from Oregon.
I was a busy police chief back then, and landscape painting was how I escaped the stress, politics, and anxiety of my career.
I had taken past workshops with Scott, whose paintings I greatly admire. At the end of an advanced workshop, Scott asked if I’d like to return to Idaho for a private salon with one other artist. “It will be an intensive week of study, discussion, and painting,” he told me.
I excitedly accepted the offer.
The painting salon took place in the early Spring of 2009, when the Idaho landscape was covered in snow and the crisp air took your breath away.
At the time, Scott’s home included a 10,000 square foot Craftsman-style studio, with an exhibition space and upstairs living quarters. The walls were filled with Scott’s exquisite oil paintings.
The living quarters where we stayed, above the studio. Photo by John P. Weiss
Our salon days were filled with lectures, demonstrations by Scott, painting exercises, close study of other artists’ work, and deep discussions about composition, values, color, design, tonalism, and more. The evenings included fine meals and easy conversation.
But the magical part happened outdoors.
We’d hike or drive to stunning locations where the snow-dusted Cottonwoods swayed in the breeze, wildlife darted from hidden burrows, and the clouds floated by as we set up our easels.
Sometimes Scott would inspire us with a short painting demo, and then we’d trudge off on our own to paint. I chose a spot near the river’s edge and began painting a copse of trees in the distance.
Absorbed in my work, I no longer felt the cold March air.
Me setting up to paint in Idaho. Photo by Don Howard
There’s a blessed state of flow that happens when you are happily lost in your creative work. Time seems to stop, your worries melt away, and you become entirely absorbed in the moment. It’s a wonderful thing.
Sometimes, albeit rarely, it gets even better.
You reach a state beyond flow. A magical sort of transcendence, where the past, present, and future melt away. Somehow all the elements of your environment and activity send your spirit to a place of timeless serenity and peace. It’s like your soul is set free.
I felt it that day.
I don’t remember how long I felt it, but it was profound and stayed with me all these years. It was like God, the Universe, or Eternity itself hugged me, and let me know that everything would be okay.
“Who would then deny that when I am sipping tea in my tearoom I am swallowing the whole universe with it and that this very moment of my lifting the bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending time and space?”—Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture
That night back in the studio, I told Don about my experience.
He felt something, too, while immersed outdoors in his painting. A sense of utter peace and happiness.
“Cold country,” one of my paintings from the Salon
I wondered what the magic ingredient was. Getting lost in the painting process? The glowing snow, brisk breeze, and fresh air? No doubt they all played a part.
But I think the most important ingredient was freedom.
We need freedom to get beyond ourselves
There’s a famous literary book that contains double the number of words found in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
The book is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Proust is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. In Search of Lost Time is a multi-volume book, originally titled Remembrance of Things Past but later translated as In Search of Lost Time.
In Search of Lost Time contains pain, desire, jealousy, and many other human foibles, but one of its main themes is the persistence of memory.
Our memories are constantly with us, as Proust describes in a scene from Swann’s Way (the first volume of Proust’s epic novel). The narrator dips his madeleine cake in tea, and the aroma inspires a nostalgic memory. He remembers having a similar snack as a child with his invalid aunt, and other memories of his childhood home in Combray. When people refer to a Proustian or Madeleine moment, they are referring to this scene.
Our memories stay with us, and some of the best memories come from those times when we are truly free and immersed in the moment. Like that snowy day in Idaho, when I was happily lost in the outdoor painting process.
A piece in Openculture.com had this to say about Proust:
“Proust, a constitutionally fragile elitist born to wealthy Parisian parents in 1871, concluded that a life worth living requires the uniquely sensitive, finely-tuned appreciation of everyday life that children and artists possess, uncolored by the spoils of habit and deadening routine.”
I like that last bit, that a life worth living means appreciating everyday life “uncolored by the spoils of habit and deadening routine.” In other words, a life worth living requires some freedom from habit and routine.
Painting out in the grandeur of Idaho freed me from my work at the police department, with its “spoils of habit” and sometimes “deadening routine.”
This is, after all, why we need vacations. To reconnect with our deeper selves. Our real selves, not the exterior facades we show the rest of the world.
“To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see over-all patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future. And we need freedom (or, at least, the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves, whether with telescopes and microscopes and our ever-burgeoning technology, or in states of mind that allow us to travel to other worlds, to rise above our immediate surroundings.”—Oliver Sacks
That magical day with Scott and Don painting the snow-capped mountains and rural white expanse transported me beyond myself. Because I was free and thus open to experiencing life on a deeper level. A transcendent level.
I agree with Oliver Sacks.
We need freedom, or at least the illusion of it, if we are to get beyond ourselves.
You have to fight for your freedom
During the working years, our sense of freedom can feel like a distant dream.
I remember gazing weekly at my calendar and confronting an ocean of appointments, obligations, and commitments. Not to mention endless family responsibilities, including ushering my young son to and from school, martial arts classes, playdates, and more.
But I learned the art of saying no and clever scheduling so that I could carve out pockets of time for my creative life.
I gave up golf, which I found time-consuming and unenjoyable. I quit drinking, which meant wine party invitations dried up, and thus I had more time for my writing and art.
What I found was that, here and there, these tiny pockets of freedom gave me little moments of transcendence. Slivers of time when I felt joyously free, my soul floating in some divine space.
Moments like that sustained me.
They can sustain you, too. The key is to say no to discretionary distractions and non-obligatory commitments. Learn to block out pockets of time in your schedule for yourself. Say no, politely, to people. After all, people will spend your time for you if you let them.
You have to fight for your freedom.
In order to experience grace
Had I never taken those vacation days to explore my writing and artwork, I may never have discovered who I am.
I enjoyed my law enforcement career and the chance it provided me to help others and contribute to my community. And I’m grateful for the pension and benefits it provides.
But deep down, I was always distracted by an interior voice. The voice seemed to whisper, “You are an artist. You are a creative. Set yourself free.”
And so, with the encouragement of my wise wife, I flew to Idaho for that painting Salon. And after that transformative day in the snow, painting the Cottonwoods and floating ethereally, I found myself.
I found the artist within.
I worked a few more years but then decided to retire early, to become a full-time artist and writer. And now, years later, I am transformed. But part of my transformation included the wisdom gained from my working years.
I guess we need both, struggle and enlightenment, if we are to gain the wisdom to finally experience the grace of our true selves.
“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.”—Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
Now I rise each day, brew my coffee, and settle into a creative rhythm of reading, writing, photography, painting, and releasing all the art, essays, and stories that seem to endlessly pour out of me.
I have such deep gratitude for these days of grace.
And through my essays and stories, I try to inspire others to find their own days of grace. Their own madeleine moments of nostalgic memories and magical transcendence.
Take your vacations.
Listen to your deepest instincts and that little voice buried in the depths of your soul. Explore those art workshops, writing retreats, or whatever venues are necessary to feed your passion.
Fight for your freedom.
Get beyond yourself. Create the kinds of memories that become your madeleine moments later in life. Do all of this. And then one day, with tears in your eyes, you will suddenly realize.
Your days of grace have arrived.
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This article was republished with permission from John P. Weiss. To get John’s latest essays, artwork, and photography, signup below for The Saturday Letters.
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