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What We Leave Behind – by Brian Sonia-Wallace

How do you move on from the things you needed desperately when you needed them?

Burnt out from two years of pandemic Zooms and losing my housing, year after year, I started to paint again for the first time since I was a teenager. Acrylics. Bodies. Landscapes. Whatever was in front of me as my world shrunk and I struggled not to shrink with it.

My space over these years had become a doomsday bunker, as I, the millennial hermit crab, danced between sublets. I lugged around B-horror movie paintings I’d inherited from a mentor when I had a whole house to fill with art, shedding a few at a time as I crammed myself into increasingly smaller rooms. Rents kept rising. It was just over a year after my dad’s death and I was digging out who I was from the wreckage.

When you’re a freelancer, living project to project, there is a constant joy and terror of accountability. No one was checking in on me to make sure I was doing my work. What I was doing was sitting in a haze of weed smoke and cooking meat from the discount aisle. In an attempt to get organized, I picked up James Clear’s Atomic Habits.

Some of the self-help tips felt trite (Want to remove distraction? Remove distraction. Groundbreaking) but I got caught up in a question Clear poses — before setting your habits, you are supposed to ask, “what kind of person do I want to be?” and then, from there, “what does that type of person do?”

My first thought came to me unbidden: “I’m an artist,” I thought. And, a moment later, “An artist paints.” Since my dad died I’d been stuck, a writer with a broken compass, writing in circles and getting nowhere. Under my writer identity, I realized, was a deeper identity as “artist,” whatever the medium. And art was my first love — I used to be the kid who couldn’t stop drawing. I needed it to focus, doodled in every margin during class. As an only child, without a TV, living across languages and countries, it gave me something I could share with other kids on the playground. No Pokémon cards? No problem. I drew my own.

What would it look like to return there? Not to a place of innocence, but to a place of curiosity and the energy it inspires. Before the world swarmed with death and taxes.

I traipsed with my facial hair and back pain to the back of my closet, where the big sketchbook and a few crusted tubes of paint had followed me, house to house. It had been so long since I painted that, when I squeezed the tube, a solid stinking log crawled out before anything I could put a brush in. I started tracing the outline of a human figure in red, blue, yellow. A woman dancing. Bold and imagined and anatomically terrible.

When I finished painting the woman, my hand itched to reach for Instagram. After all, I’d just produced something! Surely I should share it, should let everyone know I was stepping into this new identity, encourage them to engage with another piece of content.

I put the phone down. No. This was just for me. Did we have to share everything?

I listened to audiobooks as I painted. Drank tea or whiskey. Talked to no one. For once in my day, beset by language, by contact, by connection — I could be silent.

A new dialogue emerged. I’d dip my brush in a color and ask the canvas, “where does this live?” The red in the sunset, but also reflected in the lake, in the shadows of the trees, contrasting with the green. Balancing color on the page, finding where it could belong, even if it wasn’t literally there. It could belong anywhere.

I set a few rules for myself: Never take more than an hour. Never return to a piece once I put the brush down. It was a meditation — explicitly NOT work. Gloriously imperfect.

And then — I started seeing light differently. Shadow too. And color? Don’t get me started on color. In my thirties I thought I knew what there was to know about shapes and colors, but I was wrong. Within a month of my new commitment, I was pulling the car over and haranguing whatever friend was unlucky enough to be my passenger with my newly sharpened senses — “Look at the mountains! Look at the clouds!” The yellow of the light. The way the shadows fall.

For a jaded iPhone junky, state-tested into perfectionism, starting to paint again brought the world into a vivid new relief. After my dad’s death and a global pandemic, the simple act of carving out time to make something, to make it and not to share it, was a release. In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell says, “patterns of attention…are how we render reality for ourselves, and thus have a direct bearing on what we feel is possible at any given time.” As the world reopened after the pandemic, I felt constantly harried, rushed, overwhelmed by so much stimulus being reintroduced at once. Pausing for an hour to paint — to give my attention to a single subject and study its aesthetics, somehow made the rest feel smaller, less urgent too.

My latest sublet was with the childhood friend of a writer I knew, deep in the heart of West Hollywood and mercifully rent controlled. West Hollywood is a city consumed by the production and repetition of image, a place where everyone is making their own myths and longing to believed — to be credible as an actor, or a real estate agent, or a pornstar. I didn’t tell my roommate at the time that I was putting an easel in the living room. We were already almost not speaking at that point — he was dating someone and would go absentee for months. He’d never had a boyfriend before, wasn’t out to his whole family, and this was a huge deal for him. The last roommate, who I replaced, has moved out to move in with a boyfriend, and I could always hear the longing in Eric’s voice when he talked about it. Once Eric’s boyfriend happened, I knew I’d need to find a new place to live, yet again.

In my new studio — twice the price for half the space, but with my name on the lease so no one could tell me to move out — I mostly stopped painting. The problem with restarting yourself by becoming a beginner again is you only remain a beginner for so long.

I started dance classes instead, a Monday night ritual. Tuned the old guitar which I had carted alongside my paints for years from home to home without touching. Before painting, I spent a year studying Brazilian Jiu Jitzu and kickboxing, forming a new relationship with my body, with gravity, with the floor, with how I felt about fists hurtling toward my head. I got comfortable with them. And then. I moved on.

Nothing will bring my dad back. The two-year anniversary of his death is at the end of this month, as I write this. No amount of paying attention to the world will slow time down, or turn the tide on mortality. My world is irrevocably scarred by ephemerality. Grief is the frontier of language, the place where words fail. At this frontier, all we can do is paint, is dance, is fight, is sing. Find, not, something new to say, but new ways to come back into our bodies and their experience of the world.

I pack my bags to go to Arizona for the weekend for work, but also to visit an old friend and his new children. Just a couple days, so I don’t need much. Two pairs of socks, underwear. Some shirts and slacks. I look at the easel, folded in the corner after my last travel, when I carried it to the mountains and then never used it. I wonder if I’ll paint on this trip, and decide to leave the wooden frame and paints. That’s not what this next trip, this next chapter, is for.

My friend moved to Arizona because it was where their family could afford the space, and now they live on a golf-course suburb. His mom recently passed. No one has left these years unscarred.

I imagine the sun will set gloriously on the drive. I am not painting anymore as a regular ritual. But I am so looking forward to the colors.

Brian Sonia-Wallace

Brian Sonia-Wallace is an intimacy worker who creates collaborative public poetry about hopes, fears, memories, and dreams, mediated by the technology of the typewriter. He is the West Hollywood City Poet Laureate, a 2021-22 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow, and the author of The Poetry of Strangers: What I Learned Traveling America with a Typewriter. He runs a queer open mic in a trashy gay club and just lost his housing for the fourth time.

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