Painting as Welcoming Love and Loss

I just finished reading Forever is the Worst Long Time by Camille Pagán, a novel about love and loss and how they intertwine when it comes to youth, friendship, relationships, and life in general. The intertwining of love and loss feels especially palpable during this pandemic and this holiday season. Many families have lost loved ones to COVID-19, as well as other circumstances. Many families won’t be seeing each other over the holidays. I won’t be going to Canada this year and, although it is the right decision given the circumstances, I am feeling the loss of the usual traditional activities, which allow me to enjoy the company of friends and family.

The end of one year and the beginning of another inspires both reflection on times past and anticipation of the time ahead. The holiday season is a time of introspection and also largely a time of shared rituals. When a season’s traditional markers change, how we deal with that change is personal. For me, not visiting my family this year has meant getting a tree (even) earlier, baking up a storm on my own, appreciating the twinkling lights around my neighbourhood, and trying to accept feelings of both joy and sorrow. It has also meant reading comforting Christmas stories.

Charles Dickens wrote a short story entitled, “What Christmas is as We Grow Older”, originally published in 1851.* I had to read it twice through—for the message and the Old English—but was immediately stirred by the theme that times past still hold powerful meaning in our present and that it is seasonal rituals that underscore this connectivity of time. Dickens begins his story describing Christmases past, those enjoyed in youth, as “[…] bright visionary Christmases […]! That was the time for the beatified enjoyment of the things that were to be, and never were, and yet the things that were so real in our resolute hope that it would be hard to say, now, what realities achieved since, have been stronger!

As we grow older, we inevitably encounter and undergo many small and large changes in all aspects of our inner and outer lives. Change is how we grow but growth can be accompanied by pain. When we are in the thick of change, growth, pain, loss, or all of these together, the relationship of these difficult experiences to what we have loved or what we value doesn’t always seem to help in the moment. The knowledge that loss is born out of love can, however, eventually soften the sting of grief. Whether we are mourning dreams or projects imagined in childhood, paths not taken or not worked out, or loved ones deceased, those parts of our hearts can be welcomed during the season of remembrance. Of later Christmases, Dickens expresses that:

[…] the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands! Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth.

Welcome, old aspirations, glittering creatures of an ardent fancy, to your shelter underneath the holly! We know you, and have not outlived you yet. Welcome, old projects and old loves, however fleeting, to your nooks among the steadier lights that burn around us. Welcome, all that was ever real to our hearts; and for the earnestness that made you real, thanks to Heaven!  

I usually start a painting from an external scene. For example, I see a tree in the forest and want to communicate the impression of sunlight through the leaves that gives me a feeling of joy. Presently, I can feel a painting beginning in me that is inspired by the season of remembrance and, even more so this year, of loss. However, I am not really interested in dwelling in loss alone. Rather, what has helped a feeling of loss begin to transform into the inspiration for a creative work is Dickens’ invitation to “welcome”; to “welcome, all that was ever real to our hearts.” This phrase is moving; to me, reading it managed to rustle my experience of the emotion of loss out of its stiffening. This idea of “welcoming” emphasizes that our experiences of loss can hold our experiences of love, from which they were born.

My next painting—only real in my imagination at the moment—will be called, “At the Hearth”. I usually title paintings when they are completed, but I am looking forward to working backward this time. The title “At the Hearth” is inspired by the sentiment of Dickens’ story, to welcome our meaningful experiences past, “all that was ever real to our hearts,” into the present. This season, I will be remembering those special people in my life who are no longer with us, friendships and relationships past, family and friends dear yet far away, the young me who painted in her Opa’s garden, and the more global losses we’ve endured and continue to endure. Welcoming, experiencing, and moving through emotions is part of the painting process.

Painting to follow! (If it’s not only dreamed!)

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* Dickens’ short story can be found in The Complete Christmas Books and Stories, published by Moon Classics in 2020.

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