Isabel Abbott: Artist + Author
How do you start your day?
I live in two different places; half the time in a small lake town life with my teenage son and art, and half the time in the thick movement of a big city with the woman I'm lucky to love and be loved by, a week at a time in each place with each life offering me something so distinct, a world unto itself. How I start my day is very different depending upon the bed I wake in and the window next to the bed and the life lived in the location of each of these days I know as my own. These are the things which remain wherever I am: * Coffee, every morning, almost always first thing, and my favorite thing. * Writing in blank unlined pages. After a long time away, I returned to a morning writing just for me practice and it has been like mending. It feels like words that are these stitches sewing pieces and parts of things and me back together, the fragments of things, letting them come have a gathering space in the quiet of no urgency. It is how I pay attention. And for me, attention is love. * I'm not entirely sure how to express it except to say I begin every day with some sense of disbelief or wonder that I'm here. That I'm alive. I did not think I would be. I'm so glad I was wrong, you know? It's just the moment that happens again and again, waking and being stunned by own awareness of existence and moment of reflection in a mirror or seeing my body in a bed, feeling the weight of it. I honestly did not believe my life and body would bring me into this many years. And I was wrong. I was wrong about so many things. And in these moments, it is sometimes the most wonderful recognition imaginable, filled with relief and wonder, humbling and beautiful.
What do you do when you are overwhelmed or stressed?
It is interesting to me because in the past I think I would have said that there were perhaps certain things I would have wanted to do when overwhelmed but did not, such as stop and let myself rest. Instead I would have found myself in the exhausted fumes of survivalism, overriding my body again and again. And then I became very sick and broke in so many ways. It wasn't the getting sick that changed everything. It was when I didn't get better. That was when I learned what ableism really is, and how deeply I had internalized it myself and caused harm to myself and others in my belief in my own exceptionalism and capacity to always rise above. I am no longer able to just keep pushing through and pay for it later. My body and brain don't let me do that anymore. What this means is, now when I am overwhelmed, I rest. I go to the pool. I let my body be by water and soak in heat. I cry when I want to cry. I feed myself with solitude and salt and art. I don't ask myself to have a different experience than I'm having or to fix anything or change anything. I just let myself be. I get myself to vast things, like night skies and ocean, big enough to hold the whole. I tend to small and intimate things, like making paper wings. I also try to remember that the system is rigged. Single parenting and working and living and having a body with chronic illness and pain and being human is actually asking for me to have more hours that exist in a day. This is not because I am over extending myself or taking on too much or don't know how to say no. It is because it is designed to be impossible and keep only a few people with power and most people oppressed. I remember that I am overwhelmed because it is overwhelming. So I do things really imperfectly. I drop balls in the air and sometimes they bounce and sometimes land with a thud. And I keep show up for myself and my people and my life. I have become deeply forgiving of myself. It makes me softer, more spacious And somehow this extends now beyond me. I don't need perfect. I don't need the escape plan. I need us. Human and as we are.
What gives you the feeling of true bliss within?
Immersion. The experience of being deeply submerged and given over to a thing, whatever it is. For me, that often happens with art, with making, with writing, but given that art is also living in many ways, it can be painting the feet of a claw foot tub or plotting out plants, or getting lost on the hard wood floor because I let my body collapse there and find its way to solid ground, or entering a story that has multiple entry points and no known exit yet, or making banana pudding my grandmother used to make when I was child, or discovering that though I have lost far more than half of my cognitive memory due to illness I have stumbled into body memory and live closer to cells and so I am stirring cream and eggs and sugar in a pan and what bliss feels like for me is the experience in that moment of not wanting to be anywhere else but there. Even when it really hurts, just the experience of letting myself have all of it, all of me, whatever that is. Of being immersed in it, and that is also what art is to me. The giving over of the self in this way. not knowing what comes next. To be that human. That willing to be delighted. That open to following the thread. To be true to my hunger. To be gloriously affected by encounter.
What are you currently reading?
Red Rover and Cinder: new and selected Poems by Susan Stewart
All the Names They Used For God: Anjali Sachdeva Detective Novels
Re-reading Anthony Bourdaine's No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
Art books filled with images and provocation. I'm very visual these days.
What are you listening to right now?
I've been on a big Amy Winehouse kick of late.
What does nourishment look like to you?
Nourishment for me looks like the art and act of staying with myself. I write a lot about it. Its the foundation my work with others. Which is really, what does it mean to stay with ourselves. Not to have to do the performance of loving ourselves or accepting ourselves or liking ourselves even. To not have to prove we have healed all our wounds or mastered trauma. This is something much gentler or in some ways more radical in its acceptance. Which is that I can stay with myself as I am. Even if I don't love myself, I can stay. Even I never heal my trauma, I can stay. I am not required to accept every part of my body in order to live here in this body and take up space and stay here, with myself, moment by moment, breath by breath, in loving kindness. This kind of staying with self, or allying self, is what nourishment looks like to me. My life has also become so so much slower than anything I every would have imagined. It takes me so much longer to do things than it once did. Nearly twice as long, hours and hours longer. It is often frustrating. I am often left behind. I get disappointed. I feel sometimes that I am wasting things or that I won't meet deadlines and earn the money I need to earn in order to provide for myself and my child. I grow frusterated that I won't write the books I wanted to write. It is sometimes very painful. And, I have always been surprised with the profound need it has met to move so slowly through and in the world. I have come to find the slowness to be deeply nourishing. I do things very slowly these days. And in doing so, the act of doing things nourishes me, not just the things themselves. Slicing pineapple. Taking a shower. Making iced tea the color of rubies. Walking by the lake. Working side by side with a woman making art from assault. All done with slowness. And with slowness, we are fed.
How do you make space for play?
My teenage son and I have been going to see so many movies this summer and it has been the best kind of play. To do something purely for fun, for play, not for productivity or accomplishment. Only for pleasure, sitting in the theater eating junior mints out of a box and falling into stories for hours at at time. It's all him. He gets all the credit. For real. I don't make space for it. He pulls me into it. And for this, I'm really grateful to him. We are planning a trip this fall to the headlands for dark sky viewing, this area where there is shoreline viewing of the dark sky. I didn't know what a dark sky was until him, until he told me. Because he cares about such things, and choose to share them with me. It's An area where you see the light in the dark. Which is, for me, the kind of magic I believe in. Which is the closest thing to play I would say I have. So yes, my son is what I know of play. And in his own way, he is really good at it, different at fourteen then he was at seven, and still really wicked cool.
What are some favorite mantras you cling to?
"We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit." - Audre Lorde
It's not consent if you are afraid to say no.
Loving the World Anyway
"I should be content to look at a mountain for what it is and not as a comment on my life. -David Ignatow
Please share some words of wisdom you've learned over the years.
There were a great many things I once thought I knew. And at the time, I even think many of them were true. But then decades later life happened. I loved differently. My body and brain changed. My past opened up and also I walked away. And things I once would have said. . . they are not true anymore. Not in the same way. So I've become far less quick to lay out claims of words of wisdom. I will say that these are some things I do know, at this moment in time. * I will not define success on the oppression of others. * I am here for a revolution of love big enough to set both the oppressed and oppressors free. * I cannot speak for others and it is never useful nor of service to come in and provide rescue and salvation through the centering of my own ideas of help. * Listen to those most directly impacted and trust they know best what they need. * We don't really know what another is going through. What they have capacity for. What hurts for them or makes them feel alive. What they just lost. What their lived experience is. We don't really know for sure. * I believe you. I trust you. And in my own life and this never to come again day, I have come to let myself love what I love. My body and brain can no longer override or do things and pay for them later. There are all these things I simply can no longer do in any circumstance. And, I love not gaslighting myself with forever trying, and choosing reality instead. I love not chasing progress. I love letting go the striving toward achievement. I love my days which are my life not being comprised purely of what could be accomplished I love laying down a measuring stick I never wanted and was never really mine. I love eating really delicious food and drinking tequila in my underwear, knowing some kind of stillness in me while sun sets over rocky water. I love speaking what is true and letting this be love. I love all the worlds being written and all the old stories free to leave and no longer be carried. I love what stopping sometimes gives out like benedictions: all the unknowing and unlearning and coming undoing.
Isabel Abbott is an artist and author, a dissident and doula for the liminal spaces; a lover of salt water and strong coffee and really dirty dancing. When she's not writing and creating, she works with individuals and groups want and need spaces of sanctuary in their lives. This includes work as a sexuality and intimate justice educator; a birth, death and art-in-the-living doula, and providing support for those recovering from cults and religious abuse. Visit her website here or find her on Instagram and Facebook.