This was a year of research and recovering. After graduating last year, everything had to stop for a while. The Master’s in fine art is like being shot out of a cannon. I began learning Dutch. I had left NYC with a gold-standard resume for working with senior executives in finance, after 10 years with UBS & Morgan Stanley. I researched the job market here in all sectors and looked for administrative roles like I held in NYC, but got nowhere, especially not with beginner Dutch, my middle age, and a high-level university humanities degree instead of secretarial school. So over the summer I concluded that there was no falling back on office work after all, it seems I have to commit to this change of life I engineered again and again, despite financial risk and fear of it totally impoverishing me into old age. It never stops being completely daunting.
Since the late summer I have been exploring some new installations outdoors with wood, metal and yarn, and drawing more now that the weather has turned wintery. I began to research artist grants here. I’m also starting a side business as a communications coach for non-native English-speaking media professionals, called “Beyond English” (http://www.beyondenglish.nl), after working with one client at Utrecht University all this autumn, which I really enjoyed. Sometimes I sell home-made (organic, gluten-free) foods made from what I can harvest from my small garden.
I somehow turned 50 this year, and celebrated by traveling back to the US. I was able to visit my Pennsylvania and NY friends and family and also enjoy an advanced Qi Gong (ancient Chinese health practice) retreat in upstate New York with my community. I miss the Shambhala buddhist and qi gong community in North America a lot; though there are long-established branches in Europe as well, there isn’t a diverse and supportive community in my little city, just a small group that is challenged to grow. It has been a contrast that I didn’t realise would be so stark, or have such a strong impact on me. Nonetheless – nice as it was to visit past places, I was glad to return to the Netherlands. I’m very lucky to live in such a place, where the overall society seems orders of magnitude better at taking care of its fellow beings. It’s been two years and a few months since landing here; 5 years since New York was “home”. The thing I mainly miss is the amazing, diverse landscapes of North America and seeing friends and family. Sometimes it feels disorienting to live in such a small country that nonetheless projects itself as large, with a lot of self-importance. You can cross it in 3 hours.
In the new year I plan to do more writing in addition to developing visual/environmental work, and creating more stability for all of that. I hope to hear from you if we haven’t been in touch for a while, And if you are coming to northern Europe, stop by for a visit!
Liefs, en warme groeten van Nederland,
Send me a postcard: Kanaalweg 89, 3533HG Utrecht | Netherlands
These days I am in Utrecht, the Netherlands, enrolled as a Masters student at the University of the Arts (HKU). A collaboration of logistics malfunctions and too much perpetual motion has stymied my attention to this venue…however it is still where I think out loud from time to time, and conduct experiments.
Just lost an hour of life–
A leather-apron-clad girl climbs
and moves the hands of the clock
I watch helplessly
at the table, my coffee cooling by a half-eaten sandwich.
Have I simply carried this hour since October?
Or did I use it well, somewhere along the way
not knowing I was spending it?
What happens to the accounts of those
who pass from this life between spring &
fall, when their hour is missing –
does it accelerate their demise?
My father left this world
just as tiny pale flowers were emerging from trees, and
my mother, the same year, as leaves skittered across pavement
in the hospital parking lot.
A year of time contracting,
sharpening before vanishing altogether–
like a lick of saltwater
A metal ball – visiting or bouncing? in the pinball machine
it is mating season, after all.
The ball rolls down, slows, then kisses off a bumper
sometimes it pauses for a moment, testing gravity
feeling for magnetism
then drops off, strikes another place,
or is flipped back to the starting point by the
realisation there is more to look at
no rest until it catches the “bard-hole”
That’s the problem with being round.
Since last writing I’ve been on a deep dive into studying art-making, studying myself as a student again, and studying myself in NYC again…
Intense, wearying, joyful, painful, sad, insightful, fattening, irritating, depleting financially, and overall very worthwhile.
I found a living situation that is at once incredibly fortuitous and awkward, and have had plenty of opportunities to watch my irritation and resistance get triggered by someone else’s irritation and resistance. It’s returned me to bodhicitta practice, which is the only way I feel able to short-circuit the churning mind that is reacting to situations instead of letting them go.
I also did further training as a dharma teacher (also helpful in the live situations), so I might be able to support the community of meditation practitioners wherever I land next year.
As far as the art-making goes…I love my mixed-media class, where I work on my own projects. Started slow, and have been working at a fury pace the last week or so to finish one large piece, and a few smaller ones. Meanwhile, I studied drawing full-time in October and part-time in November, which revealed a lot of limitations and pedagogical frustration. Perhaps after 3 years of drawing classes I might be producing things freshly, and as enjoyably as when I am making assemblages, painting, writing or singing, but it’s not feeling any more natural than before I came…in fact, less.
My first instructor had me focus on how I use line to describe the figure…so I gradually developed a bunch of beautifully-outlined figures, but no volumes, expressions, environments, etc. Then I switched to part-time and that instructor disdained the outline altogether in favor of structure, vectors, responding to the movement of the pose, including the background of the studio and how one uses the page. All useful things to think about, but now I had to completely rewire myself and produce very unsatisfying results, instead of building on what I’d spent a month developing. Like learning to play music, or speak a foreign language, the process of becoming masterful at drawing is mystifying.
What I confirmed through this process is I am interested in drawing as a way to capture human expression, the face, the experience of lives intersecting with the world at a given moment, and the qualities that make a beautiful drawing in general, whether realism or abstract. I made some advances in exploring these aspects of drawing, but realized finally that I have to do more work on the street without the formality of instruction shadowing me.
You can see some of the other drawings I liked in my sketchbook.
I returned from nearly 3 months in Europe to turn around and go to Colorado for a week of Qi Gong practice with my teacher. I also managed to attend my Aunt’s 80th birthday party in between. A crazy amount of travel.
While in Europe, I was hitting the pause button on the art-making, on the mental momentum of graduate school portfolios, so that I could spend some time re-assessing. I delved into exploring places and volunteering in various meditation programs, as well as doing a lot of my own meditation practice. I visited Vienna, Brussels, Berlin, and Copenhagen, investigating the livability of these places, meeting and making friends, and visiting a few art schools. I also explored with the support of the Shambhala community in Europe some improvisational dance, performance art, and began finding many more connections using my singing voice that I had abandoned for most of the last 30 years. It was a fresh and rich summer, everything you would expect a summer traveling around Europe to be.
Beginning next week I’ll be in NYC for three months. Upstate now at Eric’s, my resting place between places. Both here and the city generally are like my “home turf” where I feel “returned.” In this place, aside from continuing to explore the path to my future through classes at the Art Student’s League and elsewhere, I will be reflecting on what all the travel experiences have produced in my mind.
One very clear message I was receiving over and over is that I should be using my voice – people enjoy hearing me sing, and singing comes naturally to me. Further to that, I made a very strong connection to a women’s singing/performance group in Brussels that I met the director of last spring at Dechen Choling – the group called Patshiva that I posted about on Facebook. What they are doing – polyphonic choral voices performed with movement, contemporary dance, costume, light – is transformative and amazing work. It’s something I’ve looked for my whole life without realizing it. And they have been doing community work as well – a residency in a poorer neighborhood in Strasbourg, and teaching workshops at festivals like the summer festival at Dechen Choling. Empowering women’s voices. There is something very magnetizing happening there. And in Brussels, where they are based, also happen to be two university art schools. Still, I really want to use this return to home turf to give some perspective on everything I have been accumulating by way of “research” this year. I will have some opportunity to do some teaching this fall as well, which also usually helps me process things. Through this stage, my next move will become clearer.
At the moment however it’s Sunday, I’m here in Spencertown for the week. I venture into the basement to swap clothing and encounter again (as I do every time I return) the volumnity of my stuff. All the things I’d pulled out in June to sell now…plus luggage and boxes of practice materials, dharma books, art supplies…all my competing aspirations and artifacts of my nomadic life filling the whole of space. (At least, that’s how it feels). Although I shed a lot of possessions when I moved into storage, and have shed about half my wardrobe since then, there is still too much. I feel overwhelmed by the task of severely editing my possessions to match my current vision of my life.
Which is changing all the time, will change again and again. I’ve enjoyed the lightness and simplicity of living from a suitcase. Being without stuff frees up so much time and mental energy. As soon as I perch somewhere though, things begin to accumulate again. I have a lot of Ratna so it’s inevitable, even as a nomad. (One of the five Buddha families, Ratna appreciates the wealth of the world…and all of its stuff). Then my Vajra Buddha aspect (sees the essence of wisdom apparent in any situation, applies clarity and sharpness) takes a look around and says “enough! Wipe the slate clean!” So I put myself through the ruthless (but healthy) editing process and then the whole cycle begins again. Part of the “volumnity” is two piles of half-finished sculpture project began this year that I “should” return to. I began to feel the urge to torch the whole pile. Storage unit too. Freedom.
I also did my monthly bookkeeping…and felt the pressure of the next 3 months in the most expensive city in the world on my dwindling bank account. I’m not going to “really” run out of money for a while, but I definitely have gone beyond my budget for the “exploring” part of my transition…partly because I have been spending money on various forms of temporary housing pretty much all year. So I’m beginning to dip into the funds set aside for studying & its attendant expenses.
At the end of this grumbly, overwhelming day, Eric out of the blue asks…”after these two years of wandering, what vision do you see for your life? Just wondering – will you have money after you go to school? How will you make a living?” All kinds of DOUBT and panic swamped me. Not questions I can answer easily. While I feel (fantasize?) I have a clear sense of what I’m doing, on being pinned down I have to admit it’s all just a speculative brew of ideas I’ve collected from observing other working artists mixed with my various competing aspirations (time for some Vajra clarity there.) WTF am I doing? How did I go from being this person who worried about her 401K and spent years rehabilitating herself as financially “responsible” to someone who had faith that if she followed her inspiration things would work out? And now—moving to Europe to join an unpaid performance group? NUTS. I actually pictured myself (briefly) back at a desk at UBS with a steady paycheck, good health insurance, a regular schedule. But quickly saw that move as the one I’ve made repeatedly when I feel too overwhelmed by the panic I’ll not survive the perpetual uncertainty.
To find a livelihood in creative work that feels true and necessary requires living in this continual uncertainty. There’s no “safe” way to go about it – having money to live on the past two years while I’ve delved into what I care about most has inured me somewhat to the reality that I’m not some carefree world traveler with every curiosity an open door I can step through. In the next 2-5 years, I really do have to build a whole new life AND livlihood from the ground up and it is terrifying.
In Europe, living out of a suitcase, away from all the artifacts of the life I’ve led, everything seems so clear. And here, so complicated (is that any surprise?) I can continue to de-complicate, stuff-wise, but know I need to ask for some help – it’s a lot of work to go through everything and try to cut my possessions in half again. And realistically, life is complicated, no matter where I end up.
This overwhelm and panic is also where I’ve tripped in the past with relationships – it feels “safe” to make a haven in another person’s life and hide there (or try to), as many people do. I’ve written elsewhere that generally I don’t like life to feel too comfortable – I equate it with being asleep, in the cocoon – yet when I realize how exposed and vulnerable I am, I panic and long to jump into the nearest “safe” place, which sometimes is another person rather than situation. In either case, I realize there’s a key Buddhist teaching here (probably several) – the teachings on the Bardo or intermediary state between death and rebirth. In the Bardo it’s groundless – no longer with a body, mind is just flying wildly through some kind of space. It’s said that when we begin to panic in that state, we’re not trusting in the inherent wisdom-nature of our mind, sometimes called basic goodness, or buddha nature. From this doubt we feel the need for external confirmation – so we begin to look for what we think is a familiar (comfortable) situation. Rebirth is the accident that happens on the way to enlightenment (someone said that before me). We (formless, but with ability to know, hear, see) gravitate towards some couple having sex and boom – we’re conceived for another trip around the samsaric world. Recognizing this is what’s happening tames the panic a little for me, enough to take a few deep breaths and see just what is, in this moment, to trust that my inherent nature can lead me. And from that, maybe I see what to do next. As in today, this hour.
It’s remarkable to me that somehow this is now possible – all these years of practice seeing the thinking process of mind and (sometimes) recognizing how it rarely helps to just think my way through confusion. Confusion is another word for the panic. Not trusting that I have an inherent connection to wisdom, if I just allow it to emerge and illuminate. Practice has cultivated a tiny ability to withstand intense fear and see past it. I don’t know how it all turns out – and that’s ok. At least, I can remind myself of this from time to time.
It’s been nearly a year of traveling since my long stay at Karmé Chöling, after closing up my life in New York in 2013 and embarking on a sea journey to a more meaningful life and livlihood. I have some reflections about how my time there, and some years of dharma practice in general, have affected my life. Nothing earth-shattering yet it feels right to offer these thoughts. One aspect is meditation practice, which has developed more dimension and relaxation that filters into my days in subtle ways. I have more patience and appreciate myself and others more, yet have much less tendency to solidify identities. Especially in relationships, I am not as inclined to feel embarrassment or inadequacy when there is a misunderstanding of any kind, especially of the heart. I still experience potent periods of overwhelm, doubt, discouragement, confusion, desire, frustration – but they no longer feel endemic to my existence, as I see so much of it is in common with everyone. Although I have deep-seated habitual modes of protecting myself, I am more brave in how I communicate, most of the time, and see more quickly when I try to manipulate situations or make things “turn out” in some pre-conceived way. Most significantly, I am allowing myself to fall in love unabashedly, again and again, after a couple of decades of keeping the world at arms length. For all who have been a part, wittingly or not, of this fragile awakening, thank you for the tremendous gift of opening my heart. It feels good to know it is still alive.
Still, I wish I could experience this open heart with all of its inspiration and energy more. I lose contact with it a lot of the time. It seems to only be accessible when in honest communication, difficult and fear-inducing though that is, with another human being. When all pretense about hope, expectation or desire is recognized and let go, and we stop trying to protect ourselves. So easily seen in hindsight, so hard to achieve in the moment. The dance with vulnerability often seems crazy, unsensible, destabilizing—and yet the alternative perpetuates so much more pain.
I am writing from Vienna, my last day of a long visit here which included staffing the half Dathun in Hungary, a profoundly deep retreat for such a short time. I head to Dechen Chöling for the rest of the summer, which will fly quickly but promises more chances to dance and fall and evolve my understanding. My boat still has a lot of sea to cross before finding a port – see you along the way.
Back in the US for a month, at a studio in Stockbridge. Instead of boxboard I thought I would try to form wire mesh for the armature. I want to get to the point where I have the majority of the suit fabricated; then will respond to that with the surface decoration. The clips of windows from NY apartments taped on the helmet in the last entry are one idea – to have the symbolism of windows and light, especially on the head area, seems intriguing. But the overall suit, when complete, may call out a different scheme for its surface…
So, another beginning. This process is one of constantly being out of my league – I never studied sculpture and feel myself fumbling around trying to get my vision to manifest through my hands communicating with metal, paper, material. Both frustrating and thrilling when something finally works.
It began before I ever knew I would move to New York. It was a strange necessity, the unsettled disease. Except there was never any cure it seemed. Or more to the point, the cure was depicted, weekly, monthly, illustrated, described in detail, but obtaining this cure seemed elusive.
The story of ‘home’ has been weaving through consciousness my whole life – never any more intensely than the 20 years I lived in New York City, always finding a gap between the life I imagined and the life I experienced. In NYC especially, the story of this gap, fiercely felt by so many, finds itself told in the pages of the New York Times Home & Garden and Real Estate sections. Which recently were merged. Home is no longer it’s own story, but has been subsumed into Real Estate.
Examining my experience of ‘home’ as I’ve traveled nomadically the last two years I’ve felt that sense that it’s very hard to imagine the home without the environment – i.e., the home within one’s own basic being. Realized individuals in the different spiritual traditions have a strong ability to be at home anywhere, but speaking for myself, environment – home, town, community, earth – are entwined deeply with my sense of well-being. I’ve begun to parse some of the feelings of what the obsession with the material trappings of home both celebrates and obscures about living on this earth, at this moment – and have moved into mixed-media explorations to further this inquiry. Below are some images of work I began making during a winter 2015 retreat in Margaree Harbour – a small village in Cape Breton Nova Scotia.
In the many ways we think about “home”, I realized a strong yet subtle aspect is protection, armor. We armor ourselves through creating a home environment that protects us from the world. Or we armor ourselves through creating a home that supports our engagement with the world. So often the impulse (for me anyway) is to augment and tinker with the physical environment of home – to be in the ideal apartment, ideal neighborhood, with the objects that most reflect back to me some sense of accomplishment, or wisdom, or brilliance. It becomes a materialistic pursuit very quickly. Hence the easy, troubling alliance with shelter media – images of some ideal just out of reach, yet seemingly accessible, ‘if only’.
In making armor I’m exploring what it means to create a shield between myself and the world through a form that can display these images of desired “ideals”. I’m also interested in resurrecting the connections with the history of this armor and seeing what if any parallels there are between its function in Renaissance society and how I’m appropriating it now.
Since working with Joel Meyerowitz, I’ve been mesmerized by the horizon. His classic “Bay/Sky” images inspired my photography both in the Hudson Palisades series and here in Cape Breton. I hadn’t intended to focus on photography during my time here, but as I looked through my casual daily shots, I realized there was something happening.
Winter on the west coast of Cape Breton is subtle in its beauty but sharp in its elemental push. There are hundreds here in the glory of summertime who vacate in September, leaving behind a few hardy souls. Winds whip through the highlands or off the Gulf of St Lawrence approaching hurricane speeds and drive continuously changing weather throughout the day. One day, the temperature swung 40 degrees (farenheit) in less than an hour. Once the sea ice fills the Gulf, however, the winds tame, the sun is out more, and there’s quiet pierced only occasionally by the caw of crows, the whine of weekend snowmobiles or the periodic scrape of the snowplow on the Cabot Trail. More images at www.susantylerjenkins.com in Other Work.