Artist Date: An Afternoon at the Cemetery

OakwoodCemetery2 In Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, she recommends that artists—painters, writers, musicians, all types—carve out time each week to take themselves on “artist dates.” She says, “Serious art is born from serious play,” and she encourages people to indulge in selfish endeavors, to spend time in creative pursuits that (on the surface) have nothing to do with their current projects, and to experience as much as they can.

This is something I should be good at. Unlike so many people who have to squeeze their writing time in between full-time jobs and families, I am in the very fortunate position to have several hours each day that I can devote to my art and, theoretically, to artist dates. But it’s easier than you’d expect to fill that extra time with chores or perfecting a sentence that might soon be cut anyway or slumping in front of the desk in frustration over something that’s not working. Sadly, despite my gift of time, I’m still capable of wasting a lot of it.

So last Friday, I made a point of taking myself on an artist date.

After spending the morning mastering the “art” of Google sheets (ugh) I left my house with just a book, a journal, my phone, and a promise to myself that I would use the phone only for navigating, picture-taking, and necessary phone calls, and I headed in the general direction of the Oakwood Cemetery in east Austin. I say the “general direction” because terrible traffic diverted my route and I ended up driving through unfamiliar neighborhoods and getting a bit lost along the way. (Once I looked out my window and realized downtown was on the wrong side. !? Somehow I’d managed to turn myself completely around without realizing it.) It’s important to point out though that traffic and detours are not a problem for someone on an artist date. When the plan is to experience new things, then losing yourself is sort of the point.

Here’s what I experienced on the way to the cemetery:

* Ate some fried okra from Church’s Chicken.
* Witnessed a fender bender outside an elementary school.
* Stopped to provide my expert witnessing skills to the victim of the fender bender. (My skills were not needed, but the man was extremely appreciative anyway. I gave him my card just in case something goes weird with the insurance process and he ends up needing a witness. Later, I wrote in my journal: “If this were a movie, he would turn out to be a literary agent who offers to help me get published as a thank you for being so nice. Wait… no one would watch that movie.”)
* Took a random walk through the neighborhood of the fender bender since I was there.
* Saw a man in pajama pants and a t-shirt jumping on a tiny trampoline in his front yard.
* Was offered a ride by a pedicab. Declined.

Eventually, I arrived at my destination. OakwoodCemetery1 Why did I want to spend the afternoon in a cemetery? I like cemeteries, especially old ones, for lots of reasons. I love Halloween and love being spooked and spent my entire childhood wanting to see a ghost. But that’s all stuff that goes with visiting graveyards at night. During the day, cemeteries are peaceful places with a lot of history and a lot of unknown stories. My grandfather was Foreman of the Gardeners at Restland Cemetery in Richardson for many years, and my dad worked there too for a while. I learned to drive there. Cemeteries don’t scare me. (Unless I want them to.) I enjoy walking around them, reading tombstones, noting the different types of inscriptions for different cultures and generations. I think it’s interesting.

Why Oakwood Cemetery specifically? Oakwood is the oldest city-owned cemetery in Austin. The original section and the annex cover about forty acres, and the graves date back to the mid-1850s. There are lots of pecan trees and of course oaks, and narrow alleys with deep tire ruts crisscrossing between the plots. (My car tires are currently caked with cemetery mud.) The tombstones in the original section are mostly the upright kind (unless they’ve fallen over) and there are a few mausoleums of different styles and levels of eeriness. My dad and I went to Oakwood once a couple of years ago to look around, but it started raining on us and we left before we got stuck in the mud. Friday was a beautiful sunny spring day, so I decided to go back. OakwoodCemetery3 An hour alone in the Oakwood Cemetery turned out to be just what I needed. I walked. I sat. I wrote. I felt the sun on my face and arms. I didn’t talk. I took a few pictures, mainly just as records to remember the spots where I jotted down poems or ideas. I felt invigorated. When I left, I had six little poems, or at least beginnings of them, and a clear, awake mind.

This particular artist date isn’t for everybody. To find something that’s right for you, check out this list of 101 Artist Date Ideas from Julia Cameron herself. (I didn’t find this list until after my little excursion, and I was happy to see #95 was already on it.)

If you are one of those artists who does have to squeeze creative time into the crazy juggle of life, you may be thinking you don’t have time for any of these things. But you do. Trading an hour of work on your current project for one of these dates will be worth it, I promise. And if you don’t have an hour, there are still ways to steal a creative moment here and there. Here are three things you can do that don’t take more than two minutes and don’t cost a dime:

* Open a book, preferably one you’ve never read before. Read three random pages from the middle. Find one sentence to write down as an idea or inspiration.
* Sit somewhere in your house where you’ve never sat before— in the hall closet or on the kitchen floor with your back to the fridge or on top of your desk or in your laundry basket. Take note of what the world looks like from there.
* Stand on your front or back porch alone, at night, with your eyes closed. Take ten long, deep breaths. See what happens.

ArtistDate

4 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Go Barefoot in a Cemetery

1. Pointy rocks.
2. Sharp sticker burrs
that have to be pulled
from soft spots in your soles.
3. Fire ants.
4. You never know
what might reach up
and tickle your toes.

4 comments

  1. I LOVE this post. I need to do and artist date soon. I even loved your little ideas you suggested at the end for the people that may not have time to take a full blown artist date. And the Julia Cameron’s list is invaluable. I want to do EVERYTHING! This post goes so well with the care package that will be coming your way soon.

  2. I looooove cemeteries! For all the same reasons you mentioned here. :) And I think the idea of artist dates is a really lovely one. I try to do that already, although I’ve never thought to call it that. I think of it as “refueling the tank,” and I don’t regularly schedule my outings. But yes to all of it. Great post! I’m off to look at Julia’s list.

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