Recently, my friend DeLinda gave me a paint-by-numbers set. But this is not your stiff, childhood red barn or Venice gondola paint-by-numbers, no no no. This is a brilliantly colored, wild-stroked, Bohemian cow painting.
Of course, there are a lot of steps to get from the detailed, numbered canvas to the realized final effect. To get from here to the big picture, if you will. The challenge of that is not lost on me — nor on DeLinda, who is always good at throwing down a subtle but effective test of my self-perceived limitations.
And who, right now, doesn’t have self-perceived limitations? This gauntlet of a challenge — colloquially known as COVID-19, scientifically considered a Pandemic, and psychologically in tune with the end of the world as we know it — is testing all of our skills: emotional, psychological, organizational, financial. Are we able to deal with this? And how?
Even more difficult is the fact that none of us has a clear picture of what this looks like when it’s over. Which brings me back to the paint-by-numbers.
This awesome paint-by-numbers kit would be a challenge for a trained artist, never mind someone like me who doesn’t have much experience at all. With that in mind, I thought I’d share my experience of this project with you so far — a broad-brush glimpse of how we come wired with the ability to adjust and adapt, even if we don’t think we do.
The first paint is a pale shimmery blue that does. not. cover. over. the. numbers. This gives me a lot of anxiety. And, it makes me really angry. Shouldn’t it cover over the numbers? Why wouldn’t it? Maybe I’m not doing it right. Or maybe I am the worst human on the planet…at best, a little over-emotional right now. So I close up the paint, clean the brushes, turn off the light for the day.
We move from pale blue to pale gray, and I realize quickly that following the implied rules of this — applying pale gray only to the number 2 spaces — is next to impossible. It’s messy already, and I am coloring all over the lines. Outside of the lines! And I’m just not doing this right. So I close up the paint, clean the brushes, turn off the light for the day.
Pale gray to medium gray brings an understanding that each paint layers onto the next. Everything happens for a reason. Solutions don’t always show up right away. With that acceptance, there evolves a somewhat nicer pace to the process. Paint a little. Wait for it to dry. Paint a little. Wait for it to dry. Work a little. Rest a little. Work a little. Rest a little.
Slate gray is a strong color, and brings with it a certain confidence. It takes care of some of those early mistakes and disregards the messy strokes. Slate gray has a can-do spirit, and I find that I’m much braver with my brush strokes now.
My first brush stroke with paint #5, a bluish gray, lands smack in the middle of a #6 space, but I roll with it. No one is going to know, or care for that matter, if a 6 space is painted color 5. It’s time to get over myself. And it’s time to get over some of these expectations that make things harder than they need to be. Breathe. Relax. Paint. Then clean the brushes, turn off the light for the day.
Paint #6 is white paint. White. And I immediately have PTSD flashbacks of paint #1, that pale, translucent blue and the show-through numbers. But by now, I’ve adapted. I’ve learned some new brushstrokes and paint tricks that cover over the numbers. Now I’m just painting liberally over lines, blending into other spaces, layering paint impasto on top of numbers. Come what way!
Last night, I painted all of the #7 spaces with a happy yellow paint. I made small, flower-petal strokes, and big, flamboyant messy ones. I blended here and stippled there. I’m in the groove now, even if the canvas is just a mass of messy paint splotches. Does it look like a cow yet? No. Is it even pretty yet? No. Will it ever be? Doubtful. But man, that yellow sure is happy.
I find my reaction to the paint-by-numbers project mirrors, somewhat, my experience of the pandemic, a roller coaster ride of responses similar to those outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to describe the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. And make no mistake, we are grieving. If not the loss of a family member or loved one, then a loss of work, income, companionship, routine, our sense safety and what’s normal.
Understanding those stages of grief, understanding our reactions to what is happening around us, is critical to our mental health — even if we can’t see or know what the big picture looks like yet.
In an article on the Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Learning Network website, psychiatric nurse practitioner Andrew Penn writes: “The five stages of grief…are a useful map as we transit through the uncharted emotional aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.” His 3-part series “Navigating the Emotions of a Pandemic” is a must-read if you or someone you know is struggling to cope with this current state of the world. Check it out in the LINKS below.
Penn ends his first article with a beautifully appropriate poem by Pablo Neruda, “Keeping Quiet.” I’ll leave you with this, then, and my heartfelt hope that you are safe, healthy, and able to find your own creative path through this wild journey.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Navigating the Emotions of a Pandemic
The 5 Stages of Grief as a Framework for the Journey
Making Room for Grief During COVID-19<
The Search for Acceptance and Meaning in COVID-19
Other Interesting Links
Branford Land Trust – for nature activities, outdoor things to do, and places to visit
Good News Network – an alternate source for headline news
Guilford Art Center – watch for a new online learning section coming soon
Guilford Poets Guild – celebrating April’s National Poetry Month and more
Hope for Paws – where I go when I need a happy ending
Pediatrics Plus – for ways to manage the COVID-19 shutdown with your family
“Understand there’s no right or wrong
way to grieve, including anticipatory grief.
It’s like the ocean. It ebbs and it flows.”
― Dana Arcuri, Sacred Wandering: Growing Your Faith In The Dark