Monday, January 25, 2021

Hitting Reset: Desert Wanderings

Three years ago, I fell in love with the desert. I took a solo weekend trip to western Utah, and became utterly mesmerized by the abstract patterns in the rock formations and the rich colors of the desert landscape. I quickly realized that in order to feed my soul, I would need to seek out the crisp air, solitude, and adventure found only in the wilderness--on a regular basis.

Why the desert? After all, I live in beautiful, sunny Colorado. In the summer and fall I get out frequently for day hikes or plein air excursions. But when winter rolls in, I have little enthusiasm for cold weather and snow (maybe it’s the childhood trauma of growing up in Wisconsin and being forced to shovel our looooong driveway in sub-zero temperatures!). The desert offers warmth during a season when I am most prone to depression and cabin fever.

But perhaps the biggest reason I keep returning to the desert is that I relate to the biblical stories of Jesus slipping away from his followers and the crowds to be alone in the wilderness. Though his public ministry was very short—only three years—he understood the need to find rest and solitude in nature so that he could pursue a deeper connection with God. I’m trying to learn how to do the same. I’ve already gotten more time on this earth than Jesus did, and yet I live in such a state of hurry and striving, that I seldom feel rested. Last year, especially, I was burnt out (you can read about that here). I’m trying not to let it get that bad again, so a couple of weeks ago, I took a 3-day trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

Mask on

As I sat by the window on the first plane I’d boarded in almost a year, and watched Denver dissolve from view, I thought back to how I felt last February when I retreated to Death Valley to deal with the burnout. I had a different mindset back then, and it wasn’t even remotely healthy. I was trying to escape my reality. I wanted a different life, rather than learning how to win at the life I was given (I was missing the “art of living,” as Matthew McConaughey says in his wildly entertaining autobiography "Greenlights"). And on that trip to the wilderness, in spite of the demons I didn’t want to face, I was mercifully gifted with peace, adventure, and healing.

Since Death Valley, I have continued to grapple with difficult thoughts and feelings, namely because only a couple of weeks after that trip, COVID struck, as did the onslaught of disasters brought to us by 2020, including months of devastating wildfires in Colorado.

With quarantine and an incredibly strange, forced new “normal” (which I stubbornly decided would NEVER be normal), I experienced some of the most painful, lonely, and depressing months of my life. My children, both at demanding ages, made me feel crazy and want to quit, while simultaneously keeping me going. In early summer, our Crossfit gym opened back up, and I felt immediately better getting to work out again. Cecelia returned to in-person school in the fall. These things did help, but I still struggled to find joy in most aspects of my life. My husband was struggling with burnout too, and I tried to support him by carrying the lion’s share of housework, childcare, etc. I wasn’t happy about it, but I thought I could do it all. Duh. I was exhausted because naturally, this kind of life is exhausting. And perhaps most distressing of all… my art was really suffering. I found that whenever I sat down at the easel to try and create something new, I was hating every mark I made. I felt insignificant and small in the art world, like my best work was behind me and it was all downhill from here. I received a kind but brutal critique from a trusted colleague and realized that I still know nothing.

So… it was time for me to go away again.

Mask off.

I can breathe. I stayed in a remote, tiny Airbnb cabin outside of Twenty Nine Palms, about 15 miles from the north entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. The cabin had a kitchen, a washer and dryer, hot water, and wifi. The neighbors were all far enough away that when I stepped outside at night, I had a perfectly clear view of the Milky Way. The shooting stars were as bright as headlights.

I drove everywhere in a rented pickup truck. I listened to audiobooks, including the Matthew McConaughey book I referenced earlier. I loved some of his quotes, including, “Less impressed, more involved. Don’t be impressed with your life, be more involved in it. We must become more than happy to be here.” And, “All I want is what I can see. All I can see is in front of me. No more rushing ahead to the next thing, or waiting to see what’s around the corner.” (A timely quote for hiking).

I also listened to a challenging but excellent book by Brene Brown called “Dare to Lead”. I’m still thinking about what I’ve learned from this book and working to implement some of her wisdom in my day to day interactions and habits.

I packed snacks and made my own food. I didn’t touch alcohol or eat at restaurants. I wanted a clear mind.

An 8x6" study of some Joshua trees that I did on one of my hikes

I am never afraid when I’m alone in the wilderness, and I’m never lonely. Sure, I set myself up for discomfort. January, even in the desert, isn’t exactly bikini season. I get tired, hot, cold, sometimes I get off the trail and have to find my way back… but the thought of something bad happening to me? It doesn’t even cross my mind. I’m so busy thinking about how happy I am to be out there, setting my own pace, with no one to answer to except God above, and no one asking me for things. I use my time in the wild for introspection but also for long periods of time where I don’t have to think about anything except putting one foot in front of the other. And as I gaze around me at the display of nature’s glory, I wear a silly, stupid smile on my face.

I loved being surrounded by miles of sand, mountains, and those amazing Dr. Seuss-like Joshua Trees that are perfectly spaced to look like soldiers lined up for battle. It was a surreal place.

Work hard, play hard

Depression and fatigue can manifest themselves in many different forms, but as an artist I’ve learned that for me, it’s most obvious when there is an absence of curiosity. When I can no longer feel struck by the world around me and compelled to paint it, I know there is something seriously wrong. What good is an artist who isn’t curious, who doesn’t seek to create, play, and understand the world through their chosen medium?

I worked to change that on this trip. I had this cool app on my phone for national parks called “Just Ahead,” that doesn’t require GPS but somehow can detect where you are in the park, and tells you all about it. The app has all kinds of interesting details and historical or geological information. Learning about the spindly Creosote plants that cover the Pinto Valley, and the Cholla cactus, and many other interesting tidbits, helped re-awaken my curiosity.

Above: Hiking and painting is what I love! This was about a 4-mile round trip, and I did this 8x10 plein air painting at the destination, Forty Nine Palms Oasis.  

This year’s desert retreat was very different from last year. It wasn’t an escape, it was a RESET, with the intention of coming back better equipped to serve the ones I love. It was about talking less, listening more. Being responsive and letting go of expectations and control. Being receptive to beauty, curiosity, and words of wisdom. Relinquishing control. Releasing expectations, worries, and past hurts to the wind.

In the past I’ve shared with you a chosen word at the start of each year. It’s my way of setting an intention for myself without being bogged down by a long, unattainable list of “resolutions.” My chosen word for the year is JOY. I want to choose joy over negativity, being present over obsessing about what I have to do, being kind over being right. If I can live each moment with “joy” as my filter, how transformative will that be not just for myself but for everyone I surround myself with? And in my art—well, I’ve always said that I “paint my joy”, but I wonder if maybe I lost sight of that somewhere along the way as I got bogged down by life. There’s something to be said for Bob Ross and his “happy little trees.” It’s pretty clear that he saw everything through the filter of joy.

Friends, I wonder what “hitting the reset button” looks like for you? Maybe the thought of a ten-mile hike with a 30-pound painting pack sounds completely awful. No one says you have to do that! But if there is something that really makes you feel alive – something that sparks joy and opens new pathways for creativity, then DO IT. Regularly!

Now that I’ve had a chance to hit my own reset button, I’m taking up my “happy little brush” with vigor and fresh perspective. Stay tuned for the resulting paintings!

New Video for MFA.Studio Coming soon!

Stay tuned! I was able to film the entire process of a desert plein air painting. Coming soon to!

Above: An incredible scene I got to witness: this coyote scored a rabbit for breakfast, while crows circled around for a chance at the leftovers.


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