In three weeks I am losing my job. I only found out in January. My director reassures me that it is a budgetary thing and that it has nothing to do with how much my work is “valued.” She says that there is no way around it, so she is terminating my contract.
Since January, my legs have been aching. They hurt constantly. The throbbing pain forces me to make an appointment with my family doctor. She tells me that my legs are tight. “Are you under any stress?” she asks. I just nod. I don’t want to talk to her about being jobless in three weeks.
Not long after, I notice that I am constantly shaking my legs. It happens when I am eating and when I am reading or watching TV; my legs are constantly moving. One night I wake up, and my legs are moving up and down in bed. Am I moving them in my sleep? It’s as if I am attempting to run somewhere else in my dreams. I try to breathe and relax my body. I manage to get my legs to stop moving, but I have to put in so much effort to hold them down.
The constant movement in my body makes me think of stillness and quiet. When was the last time that I felt calmness and ease in my body?
It makes me think about the time I spent six months in Mexico City as a 22-year-old on a 6-month exchange program. I was completing my third year in Political Science. On weekdays, I traveled through Mexico City on bus and subway almost two hours each way to get to school. I took courses in Political Theory and Political Culture in Spanish, and one course in Visual Arts.
Of that time, it is the art class that has stuck with me. I stumbled upon two gifted and passionate instructors who poured themselves into the workshops, teaching us about the delicacy and harshness of lines and shadows. I tried out different artistic styles and each night students took turns posing as models in front of the class as we would carefully observe the lines and shadows of their bodies. I managed to draw a very sophisticated chalk portrait of Sinead O’Connor. Not for any personal interest in her work, but hers was the last photograph left to choose from. I loved it.
There is plenty of research that highlights the value of arts-based practices on mental health. I haven’t read any of these studies in any detail, but they seem to point to something that feels obvious to me – something I think about nightly as I try to manage the anxiety around becoming unemployed.
It feels strange to have someone take a job away from you. I try to make it easier for my manager. So, in the first week of March, I start closing some of my programs and transitioning some of my work.
A few days ago, I texted a friend and told her that I am nervous and having panic attacks. She responds right away. Tells me our economic model is making us sick, something like 85 percent of us are unhappy because of work. Somehow that stat makes me feel less alone on this journey.
After I came back to Toronto from my exchange, I continued to focus on portraits and especially started to do drawings of hands. There was this space – quiet and empty – that my mind fell into when I focused on my sketches. I spent hours on the lines and shadows of my hands.
I knew I had found something special, but, at 22 and then 23 there were more exciting things calling me, and so I forgot about sketching and portraits and hands and went to work and then to graduate school, and to more work and then back to graduate school. It’s only recently that I started to think about this quiet space again—and about the lines and shadows.
There are parts of my job that I really love and will miss when I’m gone. I work with newcomers and racialized people as a Community Mental Health Worker. Mostly, my work is to coordinate programming for people struggling with mental health issues. I bring in artists from the community to share their skills with us. We have done creative writing and memoir workshops; yoga, meditation, walking, and laughing yoga workshops and pottery and conversation circles. I love the way that people come into the workshops at first, all quiet and reserved. The way they sit awkwardly away from the group and how their bodies and postures change after just one session. My favorite part is noticing the way participants start to smile at each other and to themselves and the way they will move through the space with confidence and ease after a few sessions.
Most of the participants in my programs struggle with physical and mental health. For grant purposes, we measure the outcome of our programs through simple evaluations that ask participants to self-disclose changes in mood before and after the program. Sometimes, people write me the most beautiful letters. They tell me how difficult it is for them to get out of the house and how much they look forward to our time together in the program.
I struggled with anxiety throughout my childhood. I didn’t know that there was a name for what I felt in my body. I found it hard to move through public spaces. Schools and classrooms have always been difficult for me. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to unearth the roots of this panic, but it is usually hard to pin down. In my work I come alive; I want to create the kind of spaces that I needed when I struggled with my own anxiety. I want to create welcoming and empowering spaces for people that struggle with mental health.
Last summer, I opted to work with a professional visual artist. Pamela works with communities teaching painting to children and adults at various levels.
Saturday mornings during programming, I am at the community centre early to set up the community room. I cover the tables with colourful tablecloths, placing a reusable yogurt container filled with water in each section. The instructor always comes in early, and we usually get a chance to talk before the participants arrive. One day, she talked to me about her struggles with mental health and in particular depression. She talked about the ways she had found visual arts in high school and how much it had helped her.
She didn’t know why it helped but said that somehow your mind becomes focused on the task of completing the painting.
“You will see,” she warned me, “soon you will start to think constantly about your painting.”
This winter I organized another workshop with the same facilitator. This time, she insisted we do something different. She taught us how to paint – what she called – a “simple” landscape. The painting, she told us (the first day) contained several elements: a field with red poppies, a pathway and then at the top the sky and a few clouds. All of the elements worked together to create movement and balance.
She did not take us step by step but told us we would have to quiet the vibrant colours and go layer by layer. The first layer involved drawing with a pencil a basic outline of the painting and then painting all the different elements. It was frustrating. I did not know what to do with my grass. It looked like dark-green square blotches on the canvas.
In parts, the painting workshop reminded me of writing. That childlike memory of learning how to create and position different elements into a sentence.
I noticed that evening after the painting class that I was humming, and on my shoulders and belly, a distinct feeling of energy vibrating. I had to check in with myself to see what was happening. Nothing of any great importance had happened during painting. I had not been successful with the grass or the sky. My painting was terrible, but for some reason, I felt happy. In the morning, the first thing that I thought of when I opened my eyes was my painting. I started to think about ways that I could improve my grass and the sky.
For three workshops I work on this painting.
I ask the facilitator specifically about the grass, and she tells me that I have to start to notice the different hues of green that make a patch of grass: the tiny details. She shows me how to lighten and darken the colour green by adding white and black paint and the complementary colour, and then it is up to me to figure out how to brush the shades of green on the canvas.
At the end of the last workshop, I write this tiny note to myself:
I am painting orange-red poppies on a field of grass. The poppies are light on the edges and purple in the center. It takes me a long time to mix the colours to get the right violet-grey sky. There are a lot of failed attempts at muting purple that mark the sky with flashes of violet. This, the instructor assures me, is what makes my painting beautiful – the things I see as mistakes. There is a road in my painting. It is also grey-violet, and I pick the colours from the sky and paint them on the road. It’s meant to create symmetry or tonality or balance – I can’t remember, but it starts to work. And out of nowhere – so unexpectedly, I can see it; my painting is beautiful.
Last night, when I wake up, I find that my legs are still. I am not thinking about the prospect of being unemployed. Instead, my usually anxious mind focuses on something new that I can work towards: How to improve the sky, what to do with the trees, how to lighten and darken the grass around the poppies.
Leonarda Carranza’s writing has been published in Room, The New Quarterly, and Best Canadian Essays. Her essay “Tongues” is part of Room Magazine’s first women of colour edition. She recently won the CNF contest for Briarpatch Magazine. She holds a Ph.D. from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education where her research examined the experience of racial injury through the lens of humiliation and shaming.