Everything Changes – Painting Into The Past

Garden in Oxford, Ben Curtis painting

On my one-weekend-a-month art course recently (where we learn how to run creativity and expression workshops by basically being in one – no artistic ability required!), we were asked to paint a picture with textures in it, and as usual within 5 minutes of starting the picture, I forgot about the tutor’s instructions and just got carried away with enjoying the novel experience of making another painting.

I found that I was painting a scene from the home where I grew up – the family home that used to belong to my grandparents, and we moved into when I was 9. My sisters and I grew up there, and my parents stayed living there and having us there for holidays and visits for 30 years, until about 18 months ago, when the house was finally sold.

My mother had died 4 years previously and it was way too big for my father to live in any more.

So the beautiful house where we grew up with the amazing English garden, in the countryside near Oxford, was sold sooner than we could have imagined and it was incredibly painful, like a part of us was being given away to strangers without our consent.

I know it had a lot to do with the memory of my mother, like she was still there too, and that as long as the house was still in place, she was less gone as well.

But the house went, and now new people live there, and I had to relive all of this for the hundredth time as I was painting the picture of the garden. It was so difficult that I nearly left the room (full of everyone else on the course painting whatever needed to come up out of them) because I thought I was going to have some kind of tearful collapse in the midst of them all.

But as I kept painting I realised two hugely important things.

The first was that despite all the hard stuff that life had thrown up in the past, I’d been lucky enough to grow up in a kind of earthly paradise – surrounded by all that greenness and beauty, and that looking at things that way, at the positive side of it all, helped a lot with the hard side of the end of that era – the era of that place, and of my mother, the two so closely intertwined.

Becoming aware of the positive side, helped balance the painful stuff. And by the time the allotted hour for the painting exercise was up, I was smiling. Art is therapy – it brings up what I can’t normally face without me realising I’m doing it, and shows me solutions to problems, or sides of coins, I’d never thought of before.

The other important thing I saw had to do with the doctrine of impermanence – the undeniable truth that everything changes and that we might as well accept it.

I saw that I would have had to let go of that house one day, even if it was on my deathbed, and that if I didn’t embrace the idea of impermanence, of change, it would be just as painful then as it was now – the grasping pain of attachment to things we can’t or refuse to let got of.

Realising that everything changes, and everything is impermanent, it was obvious that letting go was the right thing – in fact the only thing – to do, albeit after an appropriate time of grieving, because that’s just how life is. Full of impermanence. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s horrendously hard, but in any case, resisting it indefinitely is attachment, and attachment just means more suffering in the end.

Thinking about all that, and seeing how the end of the house and its era was just the way of the world, made things better still. Everything is impermanent, everything changes, and that’s OK. It makes space in the world for new things.

When I got home from the painting course that night my son asked to see my paintings. When he saw my textures exercise, the picture of the garden from the house-now-sold, he said, “I like that lots daddy, I want to put it on my bedroom wall!” And that put the biggest smile on my face of all.

Can We Change?

Pool, Andalusia

This weekend we were visiting friends in Jaen, in the south of Spain. It was about 42ºC (108ºF), but luckily the house we were having lunch at had a pool. Which is great, except in general I don’t like swimming pools. I’m more of a sea person… or at least that’s what I tell myself and everyone else.

So while the others were having the time of their life splashing about with the kids in the pool, I sat nearby in the shade, convincing myself that I was perfectly happy. Except that I was dying of heat and beginning to wonder if maybe I ought to be a swimming pool person after all.

Finally my son swung things for me. “Dad! Come swimming with me, please!”

And I realised I didn’t want my son to think his dad was the weird one who never went swimming, who ‘doesn’t like pools’, and I quickly asked our hosts to borrow some trunks, jumped in with my son, and had the time of my life too!

This fits in with a new ‘yes instead of no’ approach to life I’ve been cultivating over recent months.

Recently, my friend Tom’s girlfriend wrote to me in secret, asking if I would come to his 40th birthday party in Barcelona as a surprise. My initial reaction was, “No, it’s mid-week, it’ll upset the family routine, I don’t feel like it…”, which after brief reflection I quickly changed to, “What fun! Why not! Yes of course!” – and once again, I had the time of my life during my overnight surprise trip to Barcelona.

After finally enjoying the pool with my son this weekend, our hosts suggested a game of ping pong. Again, my first thought (and typical life-long reaction) was, “Hmmm, no, I’m rubbish at that, I think I’ll just watch,” which I quickly changed to, “Why not!” – and it turned out that a) I wasn’t that rubbish and b) it was some of the best fun I’ve had in years!

So I’m really starting to appreciate the benefits of changing “I don’t do that” to “That should be interesting”, of changing “Definitely not” to “Why not?”

I’m keeping an eye out for the negative response and changing it to the positive one, and life is improving immensely as a result. Every ‘yes’, especially at the level of “I’m not a pool person” to “Lend me some trunks!” is a small victory on the path to change.

‘Everything is impermanent,’ says buddhist philosophy, and people think that’s all about accepting the end of good things in life, or accepting the fact that we all die one day. But it’s also about the impermanence of bad habits or negative attitudes, and how they can change for the better, quickly bringing us more happiness in the process.

So, can we change? If I can become a swimming pool person, then of course we can!

“We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence our sadness and suffering will pass.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Corn field, Costa del Luz, Andalusia