"Slow down and enjoy life. It's not only the scenery you miss by going too fast — you also miss the sense of where you are going and why." — Eddie Cantor
I was in college studying literature, theater, linguistics, anthropology, Spanish – and all the other majors I kept switching to every other week – when my theater professor gave us a book to read with an assignment to complete.
The book didn’t look all that impressive: bad graphics on the cover, colors that were too passé, and a title that makes you cringe and say, “Too hippy-dippy for me. No thank you, please.” But it was for a grade, and if I was anything, I was a good student. So I cracked open the book and began the first of many journeys since through The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron.
Right off the bat, I knew this Cameron woman must have been living inside my head or, at the very least, sneaking peeks inside my private journals. She spoke my heart’s language. Every word, every quote, every exercise (as crazy as it seemed), seemed to be just the balm that I needed for my heavily burdened soul.
The book was written for creatives and artists to help them break free and find their creativity, but truth be told, the principles laid out in The Artist’s Way go beyond artists and apply to anyone who is looking for a way back into themselves, a way to care for themselves in the middle of a crazy pandemic, or a way to discover new things they love along the way.
Before you can even begin Week 1, you have to sign an artist’s contract committing yourself to the daily/weekly exercises, laid out for 12 weeks. This is before you know what these tasks are, mind you. And for good reason. But in the contract, you also commit yourself to “excellent self-care, adequate sleep, diet, exercise, and pampering.” Now that, I was willing to commit to blindly.
One of the first tasks the author lays out for you are weekly Artist Dates for the duration of the course. As in, you go on a date with your artist self and nobody else. “A date? With my artist? Yes. Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to… Spending time in solitude with your artist child is essential to self-nurturing,” Cameron explains. “A long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunrise or sunset, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighborhood to taste foreign sights and sounds – your artist might enjoy any of these. Or your artist might like bowling.”
Don’t feel the need to go to grown-up places that are culturally edifying. This is supposed to be a playful affair that pleases you and nobody else. Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Cameron suggests we build a relationship with that child like we would a romantic partner or friendship and we spend time together.
"It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for living." — Simone de Beauvoir
Okay, I will tell it to you straight. The first time I took myself out to dinner and sat alone in a restaurant was awkward sauce. I pulled out my phone and pretended to be so enraptured in a text (nobody was texting me), and I think I even faked a phone call when I thought people were judging me for eating by myself (just thinking about it makes me cringe). That date would go under the “not a pleasant date” category. But lucky for me, I forgave myself, and took myself out for a second date. This time to the movies.
I didn’t see the arthouse movie all my friends were raving about. I bought myself a ticket to see the chick flick that they had all made fun of but secretly I thought looked really good. And hey. I was by myself. So, nobody would have to know. I loved it. It was so funny and exactly what I wanted to watch. I saw it a second time in the same week. Again. By myself. Okay, I thought. I like this new me. She and I have the same sense of humor.
For my fourth date, I went to a park. I laid down in the grass like I used to as a child, put on my headphones with my favorite music. It didn’t have to be the cool music everyone was listening to, because it was only for my ears and my enjoyment. So, I could listen to whatever made me happy in that moment… It was Britney Spears. I looked at the sky and tried to find pictures in the clouds.
I stayed like that for an hour before I reached in my bag and pulled out a peach. With Britney blasting in my ears and a baby elephant-shaped cloud floating above, I tasted that peach. It was like I was biting into a peach for the very first time. The tartness and sweetness erupted on my tongue and the juices overflowed out of my mouth in a gush of ecstasy. The flesh of the peach was just the right amount of soft.
I remember the perfection of that peach like it was yesterday. And it dawned on me how I had never taken the time to really explore the taste of a peach before. And how my forever-spinning mind loved and craved and needed to just focus on one thing at a time. The grass. The clouds. The song. The peach.
For my fifth date, I took myself out to dinner again. I left my phone at home. After initially bringing my book, I went back and left it at home so as not to be tempted to distract myself, and I chose a restaurant that served French food on a terrace. I ordered the richest coq au vin I had ever tasted. I chewed slowly and I tried to guess the herbs the chef had used. I ordered two desserts. One for me. And one for myself. And I sat at my table and thought about the food and thought about the view. It was an incredible three hours spent.
And so it went. I did the weekly tasks that sometimes made sense and sometimes didn’t. And every week, I thought and planned and anticipated that artist date. I took a train to the Art Institute and sat in front of one painting for six hours. I’ve never seen a painting come more to life and connect me with a painter than when I took the time to just sit. And look.
I rode my bike down to the beach and back. No Britney. Just the wind roaring in my ears, through my hair, and that sticky, salty air clinging to my skin. I went to an amusement park and rode all the rides by myself. I sat in a library and read a naughty book. I had a dance party by myself with the music turned up to the highest volume, and screaming out at the top of my lungs, “It’s My Life and It’s Now or Never”. My neighbors complained, so that date got shut down pretty quickly.
"No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently." — Agnes De Mille
At the end of the term, after our final exam, my professor asked us to explain one thing we learned throughout our work in The Artist’s Way and one thing we will never lose. My classmates all had profound answers. One had started writing a novel, the other a screenplay. One was switching her major to music because she discovered a talent for singing she never knew she had. And then there was me. I’d discovered baby elephant clouds, and still couldn’t figure out what my major was.
So I sheepishly told him the truth. I said, “I discovered baby elephant clouds, and that I love the taste of a peach.” He looked at me for a long time. He got a little teary. It was a little bit awkward. And he responded, “Good. You’ve just earned yourself an ‘A’ in life.”
I still take myself out on dates. I’m a mom now, and I don’t always have six hours to spend looking at one painting. But once a week, I will set aside some time to do one thing just for the fun of it. Not because I have a deadline, but simply because I want to. My inner child gets gleeful at the mere thought of our date. And it brings me back, every time, to that feeling of getting an ‘A’ in life.
‘The Artist’s Way’ Starter Kit by Julia Cameron