“You enter the forest
at the darkest point,
where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path,
it is someone else’s.
You are not on your own path.
If you follow someone else’s way,
you are not going to realize
– Joseph Campbell
Ten years ago, I chose to walk away from a well-worn, secure path and entered the forest of my future at a dark, directionless point. Looking back on it now, I wonder if the more accurate way of explaining this is that a certain pathless path chose me.
Let me try to explain.
I was 23 years old, finishing up degrees in painting and art history at Colorado State University and over four years into a relationship with an exceptional man. The future seemed clear and bright: I would graduate, Marc and I would surely get married and start a family (to the elation of both of ours). There would be a beautiful home, built by him, in the same beautiful town in Colorado where I grew up.
Peering into this ‘sliding doors’, parallel version of my life now, I see a truly happy one. A life that, if I’m being totally honest, I have yearned for more than once these past ten years.
But that is not how it unfolded.
Instead, sometime during my 23rd year, I began to feel a stirring deep inside my bones. Unfortunately, this stirring was less of an illumination, clearly directing me to my truest path, but rather an ambiguous, gnawing feeling of unease that maybe – just maybe – the path I was on was not it. To say these thoughts felt inconvenient would be an understatement. They were flat out terrifying.
I would grapple with myself daily. Sheila, you have a man you love deeply, promising you a life of love and adventure. You adore his family and your family adores him. If you walk away from this, you are likely walking away from the love of your life. You are a fool – get a grip. I couldn’t understand how it was possible to feel such overwhelming, lifetimes-old love for someone and some place and a simultaneous, suffocating desire to leave?
Then one sunny afternoon, two hours into my four-hour painting class, something surfaced from the innermost layer of my being and silent tears began to stream down my face. Standing there in the fume-filled studio, blurry eyed, I knew with lightning clarity what I had to do. I am still not sure if this was my soul speaking to me or some outside spirit giving me the courage I couldn’t muster alone. Was this the most outside my body I have ever been, or the most in, I wondered. All I know is the voice that spoke to me that day felt deep and ancient and true. And scary. as. shit.
I was aware that the subsequent decision would break many hearts, including my own. And that it would be nearly impossible to explain this decision to others when I couldn’t totally understand it myself. But I had no idea just how hard the dark, unmarked path of the following years would be.
They would be filled with other losses, grief, crippling depression and loneliness. They would be filled with days that felt so groundless and disorienting that I feared I would never again relate to the girl who used to be so quick to laugh and dance and sing.
In an attempt to escape the overwhelming feeling that both my life and self were unraveling, I spent several years buying one plane ticket after another. I went on a climbing trip to Thailand. I spent a month driving down the coast of Baja. I moved to Guatemala for a while, climbed volcanoes and taught yoga in horrible Spanglish. I moved to Denver, then to Portland, back to Denver, then to Bend.
In an attempt to escape the overwhelming feeling that both my life and self were unraveling, I spent several years buying one plane ticket after another.
But eventually I ran out of money (ie. maxed out my credit cards) and was forced to stay in one place. After several years of wandering around the globe, I was about to embark on the most difficult, albeit rewarding journey there was – into the interior landscape of myself. (And as it turns out, travel there can be a real bitch! Ha!) But I was ready to stop running. So I slowed down, picked up my paintbrush and began exploring this wild human experience through the vehicle of my artwork. No longer able to escape geographically, I instead began to escape – or enter rather – through multi-hued brushstrokes on canvas.
After several years of wandering around the globe, I was about to embark on the most difficult, albeit rewarding journey there was – into the interior landscape of myself… So I slowed down, picked up my paintbrush and began exploring this wild human experience through the vehicle of my artwork.
Through this process I eventually realized that my life and identity had indeed unraveled some in my mid-twenties. And that this was precisely what it was to be human. There were – and would inevitably be – moments and events in life which strip away semblances of identity and security and truth. Sometimes these moments are imperceptible and sometimes they plow us over with blunt force and knock the breath from our lungs. As “spiritual beings on a human journey” we sign up for having our hearts and asses kicked in the process.
But the good news is we also sign up for moments of staggering beauty and joy. The periods of unraveling – or disintegration – consistently give way to reintegration, soul retrieval and healing. We contract, then expand. We close our hearts, then open them again. We fall apart, then come back together, often bigger an d more whole than we were before.
The periods of unraveling – or disintegration – consistently give way to reintegration, soul retrieval and healing. We contract, then expand.
Suddenly, the integration and distintegration of identity within the contexts of relationship, gender and culture became the main inspiration behind my paintings. I began to use fractal brushstrokes in which edges of form became less defined, more fluid. Figures would to dissolve into the background and traces of the environment would remain present within the figure, as if in a state of process, transition or transformation.There was a simultaneous feeling of expansion and contraction, integration and disintegration.
I painted and painted and painted. I stayed up all hours of the night, moving my brushes across countless canvases. I created images I loved and images I hated. I explored what it means to be a woman in a culture that – at times subtly and at times overtly – expects us to be at once sexual and virginal, strong but not overbearing, sensitive but not too emotional. I explored what it means to live in a culture and country that is collectively contracting and expanding alongside us. I explored what it means to be me, in this body, in this lifetime.
I explored what it means to be a woman… I explored what it means to live in a culture and country that is collectively contracting and expending alongside us.
And slowly, without full awareness, I began to heal. Those fragmented parts of myself that left Colorado, that boy, that life, all those years ago were reintegrating in unexpectedly lovely and expansive ways. I was emerging from the unmarked path, transformed. I had a peripheral awareness that I was laughing readily, dancing more and singing again in recent years. I could more often feel the sunlit warmth on my shoulders through the dense forest trees. I could sense an emergence, but still couldn’t quite name it.
But then, earlier this year, my incredibly talented friend Chloe O’Neill casually offered to film some of my work and life. And what I thought would be a short video became a revelation. A visual representation of the stirring I’d been feeling deep down in my chest for a while now. That maybe, just maybe, I had actually arrived.
That maybe I am right. where. I. need. to. be.
With tears once again welling in my eyes, a soft recognition washed over me: entering the forest all those years ago at the darkest point was not the easiest decision, but the truest. That “the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” That all the moments and days, the relentless work, the directionlessness and despair have all added up to something good. Something beautiful, even.
Sheila Dunn is an Artist based in Bend, Oregon. Her work explores the fluid relationship between figure and environment: how each continuously informs and affects the other. At the heart of this exploration lies the notion that we both form – and are formed by – all we have seen and experienced. Find her on Instagram and see more of her work at sheiladunnart.com and in her etsy shop.