Ōtepoti Dunedin, April 2022
‘Just sit with it,’ the blonde counsellor says, her very blue eyes magnified behind glasses. She leans forward slightly. I have no idea what she means or, if I could understand it, how to do what she suggests.
I write counselling off as not-useful and head back down to the surf.
Two years later after lockdowns and still-during the pandemic my very good friend says to me, ‘I’ve been practising feeling sad lately.’
‘You know, really feeling it. If I feel sad, I go right into it, feel awful. It seems to be helping.’
‘Oh,’ I say, I remember the counsellor, and her glasses, ‘But how do you actually do it?’
‘I dunno. I just feel sad, really feel it, and then it goes,’ my friend laughs. Down the phone I hear her dog bark in the wind.
Hmm. I try feeling sad. It doesn’t work. I just feel sad. So what’s the point of that? I surf for longer.
At the time, I was writing and trying to learn to write, and reading about writing, and in the process wrestling with my inner critic, no, not wrestling, listening to her beat me down, and staying down. Every time I sat down to write, I’d be so paralysed by fear of doing it wrong, invariably I’d get up, do dishes, laundry, run, surf for hours and hours, until there was no more time, energy, daylight left.
I tried counselling again.
‘You’re very hard on yourself,’ the new counsellor says.
‘What’s the point of talking to you?’ I ask her.
‘When something happens,’ she says, ‘All we have is our feelings, and to talk about it.’
Feelings again. Talking. Well, I can talk. So for a while I talk.
‘You’re very hard on yourself,’ she says, her eyes are dark and kind.
I think about this statement for days and weeks. I wonder, how can I be not-hard on myself? Is that possible? By this time, I’m so paralysed when I sit down to write, I practically hyperventilate as the computer boots up. I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. This helps, a little bit. I read her chapter on perfectionism. Oh. Okay. I try not to be hard on myself about it.
One day, as I’m sort of wandering around the garden, looking at all the weeds I haven’t pulled out, and not-writing, I have an idea to paint butterflies as a way to practise not-hating-myself. I don’t know why I have this idea, it’s just there. My next thoughts go like this:
- that’s pretty random
- you can’t paint
- you can’t paint butterflies in particular because it’s too twee
It’s anger I suppose that gets me started. I tell my inner critic, I don’t care if it’s twee, the whole point is that I can’t paint, so nothing you say can hurt me or make me feel worse.
I begin that day, painting butterflies in my journal with an old paint set. I feel a thrill as black and orange paint spills across the page and wrinkles the paper. The paint dries and lifts like blistered skin.
My daughter sees what I’m doing, ‘You need to use watercolour paper,’ she says.
She gives me a piece from her stash which I know she has bought with her pocket money, and because of this, I try it.
‘Oh,’ I say as the paint bleeds into the paper, runs and sinks, it feels like the ocean over my skin. The water does not try to do what’s right. It goes where it wants to. It blossoms and weeps.
I start buying 200gsm watercolour paper in two-packs.
‘You need 300gsm,’ says my mother, the artist.
‘But it’s so expensive,’ I say. She gives me a piece to try. It’s like eating cake.
I remember Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird, to waste a lot of paper. I buy 300gsm.
The surf is big. I’m too scared to go out. I’m tired of feeling scared. I choose the hardest looking butterfly in the photographic book. A swallowtail. I feel afraid. I still don’t surf, I paint fear.
For days and days I feel sad because I’m too scared to surf. I paint a purple hairstreak again, and again.
One day I paint an orange-tip drinking nectar from a flower. This is gratitude.
I feel empty. I paint a ghostly wood-white, holding a scrap of cloud.
I notice the eyes, and the light at the centre of the wings. I tune into the delicacy of the antennae. I think: this was a grub. The internal critic pops up. She says: that wing is not quite symmetrical, the paint has bled outside the wings and you’ve used too much green. I say: I’m not doing this for you. I’m painting to ‘just sit with it.’ The internal critic says: oh. She goes quiet.
I start to recognise sitting with emotion as a weird sort of energy. Even seemingly useless emotions like stress, panic, resentment. All of them get wings.
I feel a slight shock that I like some of the painted butterflies. Even more shocking: other people like them. Somebody actually pays me for a series of four. I take a photo of the money. I buy a pair of bright yellow boots.
I sit down again to write, I think, all I have to do is paint one wing. I have a task to write a short story as follow-up after a writing event I attended at Olveston House in October 2021. I think: I’m not a historical fiction writer, but then, I can’t paint either, so —
A sixteen-year-old delivery boy vaults into my mind, circa 1915. Okay, I’ll paint him with words. Writing doesn’t feel like writing. I don’t shake. I finish the story.
Joy. It’s velvet black with flecks of paper-white. It flutters fast above long grass. It dips and disappears. I felt it, while it was there.
every day I paint
in the night I dream
I’m a glass funnel
pouring through me
to the sky
where you are
Kirstie McKinnon lives, writes and surfs in East Coast Otago. Her poetry has appeared in Landfall, takahē, the Otago Daily Times and online at https://corpus.nz/. She has contributed poetry to, and coordinated the following exhibitions for the digital Cube Space in Dunedin Public Libraries City Library: The Fossils of Foulden Maar: creative responses; Antarctica Poetry; and CUMULUS: photography + poetry.