Posted by: mew | October 20, 2009

magic rocks

During Week Three of The Artist’s Way, we are given a series of fill-in-the-blank phrases in an exercise called “Detective Work.”  I enjoyed the exercise very much — once I got past an initial blocked phase where I could not seem to recall anything at all.  The first time through the list, it was as if I’d never seen a movie before the age of 15, never played with a toy as a child, and as if the ink in my pen had dried up quite suddenly when confronted with such phrases as “If I had had a perfect childhood I’d have grown up to be….”

But after we’d passed on into Week Four, and then Week Five, I found that page of the notebook again and found all the answers flowing easily from the pen nib.  Almost too easily.   The corresponding memories popped up clearly, too, as though they’d always been there, just shrouded in a stubborn mist.

And my favorite childhood toy, the first on the list, was a classic “scientific” toy:

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Of course, I learned no science whatsoever from the magic rocks.  I remember receiving them as a Christmas gift — and I assuredly wasn’t yet 10 in the memory, which means either (a) my parents ignored the age-appropriate guideline, or (b) the decade in which I spent my young childhood was not very regulated yet, and there may have been no guidelines at all back then.  Both scenarios are equally likely.  I know for a fact that my parents thought the age guidelines were pointless if they intended to personally supervise my engagement with any toy, and also know for a fact that it was common enough to place a baby in a baby carrier on the floorboard of your car, or even unbuckled in the passenger seat, in the 1970s.

I actually fell out of a moving car — albeit moving very slowly — in 1979 on the way to a ballet lesson by — get this — leaning my back against the passenger side door.  I’d been sitting on my knees with my elbows propped on the dashboard just previously, making the windshield fog up so I could draw pictures in it.   I fell out wearing my tights and tap shoes, and when the man who’d been driving the car behind us ran up to check on me, I asked him worriedly if he could catch my mom now driving away because otherwise I was going to miss dance class.  (How’s that for priorities?  Sadly, I did miss dance class, spending that time at the hospital being checked for concussion.)

So child safety regulation was, let’s say, a little more lax than circa 2009.  If car seats and seat belts weren’t yet de rigeur, it’s possible that a toy made of water-soluble metallic salts and a packet of liquid sodium silicate slid easily under the radar.

My dad and I did the actual stalagmite-creation process together, although I remember him being a little frustrated with the lack of a decent explanation of why it worked and what scientific principle it illustrated.  We didn’t have Google back then, so he couldn’t show me this.  But being Daddy, he speculated at length on the possible point of the experiment.  Daddy had done graduate work in Chemistry, worked for the army’s Explosive Ordinance Division, learned about the disarmament of Vietnam-era chemical weapons (among other topics), and likes to figure things out.  I think he would have gladly taken apart my little plastic aquarium and done other experiments with the stalagmites therein, until nothing remained but cloudy colored water or dust — just to be sure.

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But it was far too late for that.  I’d fallen in love with my new fantasy world in a jar while he lectured.  I couldn’t stop staring at the world within the little octagonal plastic aquarium.  From every facet of the octagon, I had another window into this realm under the sea.  And I doubled the whole kingdom by sitting it in front of the mirror atop my dresser.

From that day until the rocks finally dissolved some three years later, the magic rocks became my partner in crime, a trigger to my subconscious to kick in creatively when I wanted to go to my room, shut the door, and daydream myself far away.  I say “crime,” of course, because this behavior was repeatedly and many times harshly discouraged.

Oftentimes the shaming word “lazy” was invoked, and Week Nine of the Artist’s Way, where we are now, has a few wonderful things to say about how artists are mis-named “lazy” by parents and others who view the desire to make art as an act of rebellion against them, and how we then apply this term “laziness” to what is actually a potent fear of separation, abandonment or loss, along with the usual contingent of guilt for even wanting to do our own thing and thereby terribly disappointing our loved ones, all of this unexamined and stuffed emotion blocking us from even taking the first steps to make Art.  (I had a dual reaction to most of this chapter:  part of me wanted to hide it away and felt embarassed by it, like it was unseemly even to say some of this stuff, and part of me wanted to laugh out loud and send copies of it to everyone who ever discouraged my art, even peripherally.)

But I can daydream to my heart’s content nowadays.  Well, except for the duties of adult life which intervene now and then.  Still, it’s a lot freer than feeling I must do it clandestinely, somehow unobserved, lest I disappoint those I love and invite censure and criticism of my very character.

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So bring on the magic rocks!

Problem:  how to locate a vintage toy?  I ended up going to e-bay and ordering a classic 1980s set because all of the modern versions looked so strange with their non-octagonal aquariums and lots of little stickers to tart up the ensemble.  If the trick worked and I ended up with a rainbow-hued garden of coral forms, why would I ever want to ruin it with a sticker?  No way!  Plus, the modern versions were rather expensive.  So was mine, once I paid for shipping — and I learned afterward that you can usually buy a basic set for about $3 at a local discount store.

However, I was pleased with myself for not only planning an artist date, but actually exercising the forethought to have an item shipped for the occasion.  And to have unearthed a heretofore unrecognized wishlist item from excavating my own past felt, well, strangely comforting.  I could almost use the word “re-parenting” here — but that word still feels dirty and disloyal.

My artist child felt pretty special, I can tell you… and she could hardly wait to open the package and get cracking.

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Do you see what I mean about a magical underwater realm?  Can’t you just imagine all the mermaids swimming between the rocks, sitting on the cracked and fallen branches of coral, making their homes in the cool, bejeweled caves at the base of those palace-shaped formations?

I could.  Still can, it turns out — although when the process was first completed, I couldn’t think of anything at first.  I could only stare and stare and wonder if this artist date had turned out to be a waste of an hour and $13.  My artist child seemed supremely happy with the outcome, not at all concerned about how empty the underwater world appeared to be.  I even wondered out loud if you had to be a child for the “trick” to work, at which point I distinctly heard her giggling at me.

This did not put me in the best of moods.

I put the jar (found it on my Artist Date in Week One, remember?) filled with the new kingdom in fresh, clean water on top of my desk and left it there overnight.  Nothing happened for a couple of days, except that I kept staring at it and even took it repeatedly to the mirror atop my dresser to double the size of the world in a flash.  But … nada.  No swirls of color, no movement.  This world was empty.  Maybe even dead.

The experiment had caused me nothing but grief and frustration this time around.  Well, mixed with a little beauty, I suppose.  Not a total loss, then.

But the very next morning, after morning pages, a lovely mermaid with spiky peach-colored hair and turquoise and silver fish scales came swimming right up to the glass to introduce herself and take me on a tour of her world.

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Apparently they just had to trust me first.  They were there all the time.  (Although they were totally different mermaids than I knew before, and it was a totally different city than the one that finally crumbled to sediment in my childhood.  Of course!  I am a totally different human being now, too — although some similarities remain, and one mermaid I have met assured me she recognized me vaguely from her grandmother’s stories.)

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.  I’m not quite sure how to articulate it.  About trusting oneself and Art taking patience and the Muse absolutely impossible to lure out until things are not just calm and beautiful, but ready for her.  About working with your subconscious and not expecting duplicate results and — well, I’m sure all of my fellow Artist’s Way travelers could add to this list.  Perhaps I can’t entirely articulate it because parts of it are communicated to me without words.  Maybe I just need time for the words to come to me….

Meanwhile, if you need me anytime soon, I might be completely and joyfully lost in another world.

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Responses

  1. I love this post, the childhood story and the mermaid coming to meet you. What fun that is. This Artist way journey is an amazing one,

    kate

    • So glad you enjoyed it — and I agree with you, it is an amazing journey. Thanks so much for taking over the reins from Robyn at the main page for our group. You’ve done a wonderful thing for all of us now that Robyn has so much else on her plate.

  2. Beautifully written post, Meredith…I was taken away to a wonderful place of childhood fantasy.

    The point you made about trusting, and being patient, with ourselves and our creativity is just what I needed to hear. Thanks!

    • Oh, that’s so sweet, Serena. (Compliments on the writing put me in alt.) I’m glad it swept you away, too. This particular artist date definitely brought that back to me — especially a few days later.

      And I’m glad you needed to hear that. So many times during this journey I’ve read what I needed to hear on one of our fellow travelers’ blogs. It is wonderful to be able to share like that. 🙂

  3. how wonderful. chapter 9 was really rough, wasn’t it? i’m impressed (and somewhat jealous) of your ability to do your artist dates. i haven’t done one since week 1! i guess i’m still heavily resisting…

  4. Hi! So very happy to hear your inner mermaid found you. We do need to pay attention to our artist child.
    🙂

    • So true, gemma! You know, I hear mine loud and clear after 9 weeks in TAW. She’s been pretty suppressed for years now… and I’m so glad she’s awakened again (and that I’m listening!) She’s delightful. I know from looking at your art that yours is, too 🙂


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