There’s a shoebox somewhere in my mother’s basement containing a fingerpainted creation I made in high school, despite being, at seventeen, decidedly too old for painting with my fingers. I had spent a night smearing paint around newsprint with a guy I was dating at the time. The resulting mess was saved in the same shoebox that contains, to date, the only love note I have ever received. Likely the only love note I’ll ever receive, at least in the technical sense of the word: the business of navigating love and heartbreak has now moved firmly into the digital age. The flirty emails and break-up texts of the past decade of my life just don’t hold the same weight, literally speaking, as that piece of college-ruled looseleaf paper with the chicken-scrawled phrase, “I really like you and I want us to try again.”
I had forgotten entirely about the night of fingerpainting until several days ago, when I was struck by the late-night impulse to grab the art supplies from the basement. I wish I could say that I’m “a painter,” but that would be a total lie. I’m not a particularly skilled visual artist, and I have no desire to truly become one. I actually kind of suck at it. Painting is just this thing I do on the nights when I’m feeling restless. On nights when I get into those moods, those quietly vulnerable and lonely moods that hit me every now and again, painting is simply the more sensible alternative to drinking.
So I painted a landscape. Fields, sky, some silhouetted birds, a tree in the lower right-hand corner entwined in fairy lights. Watercolor and charcoal on canvas. Stuff I had lying around.
There’s this song making the rounds on XPN, the local radio station. Do you know it?
I’m taking bad self portraits of a lonely woman…
I like it because, ok, while it’s ostensibly a song about selfies and breakups, it’s really a song about loneliness, just disguised in a fun ’70’s vibe.
It’s also a little bit about laughing at ourselves. For creating exactly the kind of navel-gazing bad artwork that can only be produced when everything is basically fine and yet you can’t help but feel a little sorry for yourself.
And I suppose if I’m being entirely honest, the desire to paint didn’t come from some noble late-night desire to create. It came from a sudden and specific self-pitying moment of feeling lonely and sad. It really came from a simple moment of driving home from work in the quiet darkness and passing by an old boyfriend’s car, parked on the street near his place.
We broke up ages ago. Amicably enough, and he’s a good person, and I’m a good person, and we weren’t good together, and we both know that. There’s no lingering attachment or longing on either part to get back together — frankly, I can’t think of anything less appealing than that. But something in that small, seemingly insignificant moment – seeing the car and realizing I’d never sit in it again, despite the fact that I don’t really want to – felt like a tiny pinprick of my soul.
Driving past his house and driving to my own, alone, instead.
Look, being single is great, and, much like everything else in the world, it’s entirely perfect except for the moments when it’s just not.
So I painted. On the floor of my bedroom. Trees and birds and fields and sky.
My mind wanders back to the fingerpainting. It’s been years since I’ve seen it. But if I’m remembering correctly, it was also a landscape. With kind of the same color palate.
Maybe I’ve been painting the same damn thing for years and I’m only just realizing it now. Maybe other people take selfies or write poetry or kiss strangers in bars and my stupid thing to deal with my stupid feelings is just that I paint pictures of trees.
And then I remember, with a sudden jolt, that I’m remembering the entire fingerpainting incident entirely wrong. Yes, I painted that first landscape with a guy I dated. But the night we painted together happened months, maybe years, after we had broken up. I suddenly feel incredible love and warmth for my high school boyfriend, that goofy teenaged kid who, I think, figured out I was depressed even before I did. And whose version of helping me through it was to take a trip to the craft store and invite me over to get a little messy. Not because he was my boyfriend. Because he was my friend.
This changes the story in a way I find immensely comforting.
I step back and look at the painting. It’s pretty laughably bad. It’s splotchy. There are rogue brush strokes everywhere. If I had really thought it through, I would have done it differently. I’m sure I won’t hang it anywhere – it’ll wind up in some corner of my basement, and eventually I’ll paint over it entirely, start clean on another sad night. But I feel a little better for having made it.
It’s almost dawn by the time I finish. I clean up the paints and step outside for a brief moment, and stare up at the sky. It looks nothing like the thing I put on canvas, but it makes me feel just as small. But, I don’t know. Maybe a little more hopeful.
Taking bad self-portraits. One landscape at a time.