When Words Fail

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Originally published in 2014, at Deeper Story

Across her lap was my notebook, college ruled and crinkled from use. I had been writing songs in it, per her suggestion that I channel my inner angst up and out of myself, into something creative.

I sat slack on the couch, eyes sagging low from last night’s insomnia and waited for her to finish. She turned the pages slowly, as if they were aged documents. A couple times she scratched her cheek. Looked up with a smile. Looked back down.

“You are, you say, “a thousand puzzle pieces with no one to put you back together”?” She asked, repeating a chorus line. I nodded. I explained, “Yes, yes, I am because I’m all broken up inside and no one knows how to fix me. I can’t figure out how to fix me. If you look at another poem, I note that God could fix me, but he doesn’t.” She flipped a couple pages ahead. “Ah.” She said. “He is watching you fall with, you say, ‘pitiless eyes’?”

After a couple weeks of me writing and her reading, we concluded that while writing was a tremendous tool for sorting out our stuff, gaining perspective and clearing a path toward healing, it wasn’t what I needed. It was actually awful for me.

At the time, my therapist didn’t know I was gay, but she knew that there was some deep sensitive secret thing in me, something I was not ready to share with her. I had told her there was a thing. I told her how this “thing” was keeping me up all night. How it hooked around my ankle like a weight and I was underwater. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t slow down on the smoking, I couldn’t sit still for five minutes with my friends. And we decided that writing was just keeping my mind flooded with this worry, this darkness. I was dwelling in it. Drawing sad circles in the muck of it.

She suggested biking, at first,and then fishing, and then yoga. She listed off a number of things that could make some space between my mind and me.

So I biked, but then I’d stop somewhere and smoke and write in my notebook. I ran, but kept it short and then spent long hours of sad scribbling. I had a secret that needed to be shared. Needed to be said. Needed to get out of me, but I was so deep in the closet that all I could do was write parallel metaphors. Verses about hiding. About fear. About the world that was brushing up hard and fast against me.

Truth is, there wasn’t a single word, sentence, poem, book that spoke to the indescribable experience within me. Every time I tried, I missed.

When the sketching came, it came out of nowhere. I came back to my parents’ place one afternoon and saw my older brother hunched over a pad, slowly working out a portrait, glancing to his right at a flopped open book called “How To Draw”. He did this often, finding new hobbies. He had mastered a hundred, most of which I had little interest in myself, but for whatever reason, this captivated me. I walked over and stood behind him, lingering silently over his shoulder.

I got my own sketchpad and artist pencils and I sat at the Caribou down the road for several hours, drawing total crap. The upside to depression is that you can fail like this and not drop further than where you are, which is bottom. And so I kept at it. Day after day. Hour after hour.

Before long, I learned the different purposes of pencils, the darker shades, the lighter ones, how to make shadows look natural and eyes really shine. I learned the standard length of noses, how sketches are best started by using circles, then finished by sanding out a face or a dog or a car.

And before long, I was actually pretty good.

I was taken by it, the Visual Arts. I took up painting and then sculpture. I switched my minor to Studio Art and my junior year of college, I was a finalist in the school-wide art competition, an achievement I never could have predicted.

In many ways, the Visual Arts saved my life. When words were too much or too scary, I found color, line, shape, shade. And I found I had heart bent toward beauty and creation and depth.

This therapy was actually quite scientific. Art drew the pool of my mental energy to one corner of my mind, the artsy part, and in that move, it left the anxious and depressed parts to starve in some dark corner. It was an escape from life because, yes, sometimes you just need to escape for a season.

And in that escape, in that wordless season, I unknowingly found God. I can only see him there in retrospect.

When I went into my little makeshift studios, I found sanctuary. I found myself sitting before a canvas as the clock wound all the way around and there was nothing I needed to say, no prayer I needed to offer, no reason I needed to find to justify myself. I was just there. I was present. I was joyful. I was alive. My hands were covered in paint and ink and graphite, coated completely over with so many chemicals and for some reason, that makes me think of grace.

I set out unawares on a mysterious canal, oaring the roundabout way until fear felt less real. Until my own voice began to slowly rise in my throat. Until that moment, that breathtaking moment, when I looked up and saw the shore. I was always going home.

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