“I’m a prisoner in my own skirt” — Edith Russell
Let me start this post off by saying that I did not steal the sketchbook that I am currently using. Not exactly. A better way to explain what happened is that I think the sketchbook choose me.
I was working as an art therapist for a well-known mental health agency, itself a smaller branch of a much larger national chain you’d recognize if I mentioned it here. So I won’t. When I started working there the art room was a hot mess. Now, I pride myself on a tightly run ship of an art room, and during my cleaning and reorganizing I found the sketchbook. It’s very pretty, it was made in Nepal, has flowers stitched on the front cover and it’s inside papers are soft and beautifully pulpy. Over the course of the next three years that I worked there I periodically put it out during my groups, but no one ever took me up on the offer to use it.
Towards the end of my tenure there the agency, like almost all other outpatient mental health programs in New York , began a conversion to a new state mandated system referred to as PROS. If you have ever worked anywhere that has ever undergone a complete philosophic and practical overhaul based on the opinions of experts that have never actually worked in the field they are experts in, you are already groaning. If you have not, and would like to know what all the groaning is about, simply grab a friend and head into your kitchen. Instruct your friend to intone, ceaselessly, “NO, not that bag of peas, the peas on the left, NO not the bag of peas on the left, the bag of peas, grab the peas on the left. NO, not the peas on the left, grab the peas on the left,” whilst you open and shut the freezer door on your head. That is, a little, what the process is like. For an even more authentic experience, complete follow-up paper work documenting the experience, know that for the purposes of your paperwork that “peas” refers to “rutabaga,” and, also, please refrain from using the word “rutabaga” in your notes, or the words “freezer,” “open,” or “shut.” Please try to be as detailed and specific as possible. Make three copies.
I digress. I thought, during that awful, horrible, conversion that I would use the pretty sketchbook to take notes during the approximately 5,000 meetings a week we were required to attend, or that, at the least, I would use it to doodle in as a defense of my sanity while paragraphs that began with “11(j) SEE NYSDOMH form 12.33k-z” were read out loud, and I did take a few desultory notes and make a few painfully self-conscious doodles, but the book was too pretty, and I felt bad exposing it to such torture.
So, back in the art room it went. But, I was pregnant, and very sure that the new program wasn’t a good fit for me, and knew that my husband was being transferred out-of-state soon after our baby was expected, so I put my notice in with the agency, said goodbye to some really good people, packed up the personal flotsam I’d acquired, cried at my goodbye party, and went home. Somehow, I really don’t know how, the sketchbook came with me.
Shortly after that my first daughter was born, very shortly after that we moved to Massachusetts, sometime after that my second daughter was born, and practically right after that we moved to Louisiana, and the sketchbook came with us. This is quite remarkable. Packing and preparing for moves brings out a side to my personality that I wish I was able to tap into more regularly: I become a lean, mean, throwing out/donating machine. I get rid of loads of stuff while preparing for a move, and during the ensuing unpacking I bemoan how much stuff came with us anyway, and throw out more. At least four times the sketchbook sat on top of a “get rid of this” pile, and each time it escaped.
A few months ago I got back into the habit of keeping a sketchbook, I knew I had to. I’m healthier when I can make some art, and I function better as a Mom. There it was, waiting for me: the perfect sketchbook. Everything works well in this sketchbook. Pen, ink, charcoal and pencil all flow beautifully on the textured paper, the natural color of the pages gives immediate tone to what I’ve drawn, and the book feels good in my hands — sometimes my daughters run their hands over the cover, or the pages, and my toddler delights in picking out my self portraits with her and her sister. I look at it often and can’t believe that I almost got rid of it, days that I don’t have time to draw I like seeing it on my table, it’s become a talisman for me, we are a perfect fit.
One more funny thing about this little sketchbook of mine: I swear, it was empty when I found it. And, I swear, that when I tried using it at work I flipped through its pages several times and always noticed that it was empty. But a few weeks ago I sat down with it at the end of the day, I was too tired to draw, I just wanted to look at some sketches, I opened it all the way to the back cover and there written in a beautiful script that was not my own was the following: “I am a prisoner in my own skirt.” — Edith Russell
If you follow that link you’ll learn, as I did, that Edith Russell was a survivor of the Titanic, but that she almost didn’t make it into the lifeboat due to the constrictive nature of her very fashionable skirt. More importantly, what a quote! What a chance to reflect on the self-imposed constraints we place in our lives, roadblocks to the happiness we so desperately want. How many times have I sabotaged a chance to really, truly, get what I want out of life? Oh, tons, tons and tons of times. That whole time I was working at that agency, for instance…ah, but that’s another post, this one has gone on long enough as it is. So, I drew Ms. Russell. Apparently she didn’t die very happily, although she did continue to live an extraordinary life. Oddly, I think I look a little like her, and I’ve got more to say on the way that making art starts connecting the artist to odd facets of the universe, but I’m saving that for another post too — and I’m hoping I might get some feedback about other practices that draw folks into magical moments of kismet. Meanwhile, thank you so much for indulging me, if you’ve gotten this far. I’m quite enraptured with this little magical sketchbook of mine, and this post was fun to write.