Painting life upside down.

The woman had both hands drenched in paint. She pressed them onto the large canvas in front of her. Working with one hand and then the other, sometimes both together, she smoothed and swirled, stroked and shaped, covered and revealed the image into being. It became a face.

But it was a face presented entirely in positive and negative spaces. A face that only became recognizable at the very end of the process. It was as if her hands felt the light and sensed the darkness, as she lifted the foreground up, and pushed the background away. Her fingers crept away from the light and scraped the shadows out from the dark.

She used no brushes or sticks or rags or instruments of any kind other than her hands. She was a part of the painting itself, as well as the process of creating it. And it was messy and committed and awesome.

Not long after I had witnessed this expression of art, I was in contact with a longtime friend who is also a painter. He takes a more conventional approach with his canvases and brushes, pencils and paints. He shares his work with me randomly and electronically – often in progress. There had been a rather long silent period. And then, one day there appeared a portrait of a young child. It was brilliant. Frankly, better than his most recent work. And then another – the face of an old man. The play of light and shadow, the depth and vibrancy of it was breathtaking. A breakthrough in creativity. A new level of excellence. “I painted these upside down,” he said. “And it was messy and awkward and unpredictable. And pretty incredible.”

To add my own experience to this story, I was recently struggling with my work for a bit. I had no more stories to tell it seemed, nor words with which to tell them, even if I had. No beginnings, no ends, no middles. No ideas. No thoughts. Perhaps no more feelings.

But I was reminded by a friend of the way I use to write – frantically, just to get the ideas down on paper. On the backs of envelopes and napkins if necessary. Standing at a kitchen counter or waiting in line for a plane. Sitting in a car at a bank drive-through. Sometimes in the middle of the night. Before sunrise. With a flashlight during a power failure, a dog on my lap and a cat on my head. And always by hand, usually with a pencil – typically one worn down to a stub with no eraser and a dull nub of lead.

There is something about the connection between my hand and the paper and my thoughts, the pace of the pencil and the beat of my heart. It’s the sound of the writing evolving across the surface beneath it. Hearing the words in my head as they take shape before me. Scratching out and replacing a word here, a thought there. Finding the rhythm and cadence and flow.

And, so, this is the way I found it again. And it was messy and satisfying and exciting. And often surprising, not knowing what the end would be, even well after the story had begun.

I’ve read somewhere that cursive writing is being reintegrated into some schools; keyboards are being set aside occasionally for pencils to be sharpened. The same is happening with art. They say they’ve discovered an important link between brain development and the process of writing longhand and the experiential expression of finger-paints.

I suspect that it’s true. But I suspect it may be more than that as well.

A life well lived is hands on. And it is messy and it is committed and it is awesome; it’s awkward and unpredictable and incredible; and it’s satisfying and exciting and surprising. And one should never know exactly how it will turn out or what it will look like or how it will end – regardless of how it starts. And, when it’s done with both hands, sometimes upside down, with distractions and in the dark or with a cat on one’s head, it’s got all the possibilities of being rather brilliant.