Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Mental Health Awareness Month: Winston Churchill's art and fighting the black dog of depression

If it were not for painting, I could not live; I could not bear the strain of things--Winston Churchill, 1921

When I get to heaven, I intend to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject. --Winston Churchill in an interview with Life Magazine in 1946

Painting is like taking a paintbox off on a joyride to lift the blood and tears of the morning. --Winston Churchill

In Churchill's art studio at Chartwell, his home of 50 years. 

                                           In front of Churchill's art studio on a beautiful spring afternoon

Since it is Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight Winston Churchill. Why Churchill? When one has a son with autism who loves Winston Churchill and art, one learns a lot about the private, more silent man behind his nearly 500 paintings. It was our shared dream for a long time to go to his beloved home and refuge, Chartwell, about one hour from London. We wanted to roam the grounds and house, but mostly to view his art studio--a brick, light-filled building about 75 yards from the house. 

Churchill captured many chapters of his life in almost 50 years of painting. Although he was one of the great statesmen and communicators of the 20th century, he also left a prodigious collection of images that confronted his fears, conflicts, and fascinations. He was endlessly intrigued with composition, texture, and color. It allowed him to enter a creative world of refreshment that absorbed him when he felt melancholy and overwhelmed. In his suitcase, he often toted his paints and easel as he traveled. One can see the pyramids of Giza, sunrises in Marackesh, Morocco, and dappled rivers in the Cote of Azure in Southern France, among many others. His art studio is filled with paintings that allow us now to get a lens into Churchill's world--a world that was often in tumultuous upheaval. 

Everyone knows Winston Churchill was a gifted statesman, but he was also unquestionably, an accomplished artist. With his susceptibility to depression, he learned what could bring his unloosed moorings to anchors again: it was painting. His heroic stature during World War 2 is well-known when Britain withstood Hitler--giving hope to a nation under siege. But many do not know the private turmoil he suffered for about 25 years before bombs started falling on his beloved England. It sounds familiar. None of us really knows the private pain and anguish of another, isn't that right?

In his quiet times, he could become sullen and sad--remembering the colossal failure of his military quest at Gallillipoli in northeast Turkey during World War I. Because of his failed military tactics as Head of the Navy, about 45,000 British men lost their life. This dark tragedy deeply scarred him. It was through a relative encouraging him to paint that he brought out the colors, canvas, and brush. He learned that painting coaxed the cheerless spirit out of him--again and again. He referred to his depression as "his black dog." And when that "black dog" came around the corner, he consciously, deliberately, I think, got out his paints. Observing nature, deciphering shapes and lines, and putting brush to canvas made him feel alive again--ready to conquer his own inner world and ultimately, the battle-torn world during WW2. He was ready and prepared to take on much of the world's struggles. But I believe art got him there. 

Andrew Marr, the British BBC commentator and hobbyist artist said about happiness in the documentary  Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Oil Paint, about Churchill's artwork "I think there is a 'flow' in all of us--an essence of happiness. It is finding and being engaged in something as intensely as you can, doing it as much as you can, as hard as you can, but something that is difficult and not easy, but that you can do it. It is a release valve. Doing it can keep us alive in a flickering, iridescent reality that gives us awe and amazement. Art saved Churchill's life and I think it can rescue all of us."

 It does not have to be art, but I believe everyone needs something that relieves mounting pressure. It is discovering what works for you. No one really teaches you, unfortunatley, you have to discvoer where you derive your joy. That means putting head, heart, soul, eyes, and hands together, and then standing in amazement at your creation. Finding that "flow" of happiness is the answer. Churchill is a great example to me of persistently trying to overcome his inner struggles--and finding unbounded joy and beauty in the journey. 

                 Churchill in his garden fish pond on the Chartwell grounds--a pond he made himself. 

                                          On the walk between Chartwell, the house, and Churchill's art studio

                        Churchill in his beloved art studio where he recharged his spirits again and again.

                                                              What it looks like today...

                         This is one of his last paintings--a more loose Impressionist style of his goldfish pond. At this point in his early 90s, he had had several strokes and could not see very well anymore. 

                                       His painting, brushes, and paints as he left them

         It is definitely worth a visit to see someone who relentlessly pursued painting in his private world--a pastime he knew kept the "black dog" at bay. And with that insistance to not cower, he brought so many beautiful worlds for us to now see. As he said, "If it were not painting, I could not live. I could not bear the strain of things."

Monday, May 1, 2023

American Samoa: The Endless Possibilities of Discovering and Excavating Our Own Oceans

     Celebrating my birthday on a perfect day in American Samoa at Sadie's Beach

    I have always liked this painting Elias painted when we lived in Doha--conveying all the diverse unseen, undiscovered layers under the ocean. And it is the same with us--so many endless possibilities that are often hidden until we decide to uncover them.

Until I got here two months ago, I had not snorkeled for a long time. Up to this point in my life, the Red Sea had always been my favorite memory to snorkel, but now it would definitely be American Samoa. You don't have to worry about big waves, or riptides (as long as you choose the right beach and watch the tides), and the reef is very close. The fish and coral are different each time you go under the ocean's surface here. The experience of discovery is different every time: a new fish, coral, or seeing thousands of fish at a time feed on fish eggs. On a few occasions, the ocean has been churning and the visibility is murky, but most of the time it is invitingly clear. But isn't life like that too? Cloudy, shadowy, but then wala, a ray of sun suddenly shines through to lighten up the dark crevices all around us. 
Last week, I was snorkeling in the late afternoon with my son. After I had only been in the water for about ten minutes, a sea turtle swam past me. I gleefully followed it for a minute or two. It was almost like he was turning his head around, and inviting me to follow him. I thought, "I wish Elias could see one too." No kidding, but about five minutes later, another turtle came drifting by, and I motioned to Elias to come and see my discovery. We accompanied him for about two minutes, as he escorted us to underwater reefs that brought more awe. 

Swimming with a turtle is the most magical experience. But to share the memory, of course, gives you this magnificent connection with another person. We came up, elated, that we had been able to follow this turtle and have an adventure with him. This fun-loving turtle swam like a bird, but playfully glided, back and forth, zig-zag, like he was enjoying himself too as he welcomed us into his underwater territory. 

Every time I snorkel and peer into the layers underneath the ocean, I am reminded how each of us has so many untapped, unrevealed layers to find. And just as we have many possibilities of potential to discover, every person around us, for that matter in the world, has that same promise. Often, we don't see beyond the surface; the layers are often invisible to ourselves and others. But as we are willing, humble, and determined, we can unravel our own potential and even see others' latent capacities. 

One of the things, I think that holds us back is fear. We are afraid of the initial plunge to truly see; sometimes that fear paralyzes us. I remember a young man who was in my semester abroad long ago. One day, he told me he could not swim and was extremely afraid of the water. He was overweight, but desperately wanted to see the world under the surface since he loved drawing landscapes. As an artist, he was captivated by the beauty of the earth and wanted to see the wonder underneath the ocean. 

Several of us encouraged him to learn to swim so he could view the world under the ocean. In those months we were there, he lost weight and learned to swim because he was so compelled to see the colorful fish and coral we all raved about. I will never forget snorkeling with him in the Red Sea and coming up to see his smiles of exhilaration and joy. He was not the same after breaking the surface of his accustomed vision. Immobilizing fear was pushed away so he could excavate new layers of discovery in himself.  
If we take the time, there is so much beauty to be seen in ourselves and others. Just like my turtles who occasionally glide by, we also can have beauty and wonder be revealed to us too. It's all about being willing to go under the surface to really, really see. Otherwise, we just keep seeing the same known things.

I believe God wants us to unlock the divine mysteries and awe in ourselves and try to behold others in new ways. The joy we find in unveiling potential in ourselves and others is our birthright if we choose. It is the happy way to live. 

                                  Snorkeling with friends and family. It was a bit murky that day. 

 As beautiful as the seashore is in American Samoa, even boasting a National Park, it is a must to go and see the layers under the ocean--a whole new world to discover. 

                                                               A favorite snorkel beach

                                     Joseph, a kayak surfer, takes it to the limit with the waves.                                       

                 This New Zealand man and his wife own an eco-lodge in a secluded cove that is a marine sanctuary for fish and coral. As I spoke with him, I was fascinated by his life. He trained as a swimmer for the Olympics in the 1980s but then came to this cove and found work and decided to stay. In the past over 30 years, he has rescued 150 people in the small bay near the restaurant and eco-lodge. A few did not make it, he sadly said. His knowledge and respect for the ocean inspire me. He has learned to see when someone is in trouble: he runs down the beach, out to rock, waiting for the right moment to jump in and catch the current under the riptide. And then he holds his breath all the way, to rescue the person who is no match for the sea. Now, he insists if you want to go out to the cove to see the fish, you must go with some floating devices while he accompanies you.  I told him saving 150 people from that inlet was better than saying you swam in the Olympics.