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Prompt 216. Little Gestures of the Soul
Behida Dolić on how to tether yourself to happiness
I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about my beloved friend Behida Dolić, an artist, milliner, fashion designer, and writer—but most importantly, an absolute marvel of a human. We met back in 2012, a few months after my first bone marrow transplant. It was my twenty-fourth birthday, a sunny summer afternoon, and I found myself in Hudson, New York, with a bald head and no hat, and there on Warren Street, the main drag, was her gem of shop. That day, I purchased a handmade fedora adorned with a little straw bird. I also made a friend for life.
There are so many reasons I love Behida, but one is that she always comes bearing glorious, weird, delightful gifts. On Monday, she arrived with a bulbous glass display case full of dandelions. She told me she’d been walking her dog through the woods one night, when she came across a field of dandelions glowing the moonlight. She began picking them and carrying them back to her car one at a time, cupping the spindly globes between her hand and her sweater so the seedlings wouldn’t blow away. When she got home, she made a wish on each one and placed them in the glass case. Then she carried the whole thing on the train all the way from Hudson. Oh, and since it was Halloween, she arrived wearing a paper fox mask she’d made herself.
Like I said, Behida is a marvel.
There’s a quote by the actor Helena Bonham Carter that Behida recently sent me:
I think everything in life is art. What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone, and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in, and all your dreams. The way you drink your tea. How you decorate your home. Or party. Your grocery list. The food you make. How your writing looks. And the way you feel. Life is art.
Behida texted this to me after she read my last newsletter, where I talked about feeling stuck because I wasn’t painting or writing. For years I’ve thought of my creative output in a very particular way—grinding my way through my New York Times column, turning out essays and reported pieces, finishing my memoir. Even when I was painting in those early days of treatment last winter, I could and would spend hours and hours at the easel. But most of that has come to a halt.
“Maybe—and just maybe,” Behida said, “it would be nurturing to your soul to make some conceptual work. Little gestures of the soul that don’t take an immense amount of energy.”
Both the quote and the idea of small artistic expressions—“little gestures of the soul”—this is how Behida lives. She has survived things that most of us would find unimaginable: war, losing children, and cancer. But she is always seeking beauty and drawing it out in completely new ways. It’s so encouraging to have her prompt me to do the same.
This week, I’m in a weird holding pattern because of health insurance issues. (The bureaucratic horrors of medical care in America: a subject for another time.) So instead of spending the week at doctor’s appointments, getting lab work and a bone marrow biopsy, I’m going to follow Behida’s lead and make small gestures toward beauty. She has graced us with a gorgeous essay and prompt, and I can’t wait for you too to be inspired by this marvel.
Some Items of Note—
We’ve scheduled the next gathering of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour: it’s Sunday, November 20, 2022, from 1-2 pm ET. Going forward (barring a holiday or special occasion), you can expect it to take place on the third Sunday of the month, though we’ll also give you plenty of notice each time!
In the Isolation Journals Chat, our new community space, we’re continuing our weekly ritual: a collective gratitude list of small joys. The Chat feature is currently in beta testing and available only on iOS-operated mobile devices, but it should be available for Android and the web very soon. You can join the conversation below!
Prompt 216. Gestures from the Soul by Behida Dolić
The year after my son died, I watched my dreams fall, one by one, like autumn leaves leaving their branches bare and without any color. This was the hardest year of my life, and I became obsessed with fragile things that persevere in the harshest conditions. In my darkest days, I began creating little pieces of art that no one but me would ever see—little gestures from the soul.
During rainstorms, I opened a window and arranged the sheer white curtains in exactly the right position so I could see them ripple as I lay in bed at night. I wrote joyful memories on hundreds of little scraps of paper, then stacked them to form an arch that, I imagined, was preventing my bedroom wall from falling in on me. Using twine and tacks, I pinned the outlines of shadows to the wall before they disappeared in the passing afternoon light. I painted in watercolors on my window, then watched as the rain washed them away. I placed flowers in a frigid lake and watched them freeze beneath the ice, like grief trapped, no place to go.
These were my ways of tethering all of the little pieces of my soul left behind; of remembering what it felt like to love and be loved, to be safe. These impermanent pieces of art reminded me of times when I was not lonely. They whispered in my ear, “Everything will be alright. You too will persevere.”
There are endless forms these conceptual, ephemeral pieces can take. Some examples:
Make 10-second films. Download an app on your phone that is a vintage super 8-mm camera, or a 16-mm camera. Then, overlay a beautiful piece of piano music that touches your soul.
Close your eyes, and let your body fall into movement. Into poetry in motion.
Write one sentence or word on a corner of a page, perhaps your favorite book. Fold it over. Write one every day until the book is swollen with folded corners. Your soul carefully placed on a page that someone, someday, hundred of years from now, will pick up and think, “My goodness. I wish I had known this person. I would have loved her so much!”
These gestures from the soul don’t require an immense amount of energy to complete. But they can mend your life back together, tether you to happiness, make you feel free.
Your prompt for the week:
Make a piece of impermanent art. Create a little gesture from the soul, something free. You can choose one of the prompts above, or dream up your own.
If you make a piece of ephemeral art, you can send it to email@example.com. We’ll be sharing some on the Isolation Journals social media. You can also can post a written response in the comments section, or share visuals in our Facebook group or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Behida Dolić grew up in a small village in southern Bosnia, among kilim weavers and furniture builders, where “handmade” was a way of life. Fleeing war, she moved to the United States in 1999 and went on to study art in San Francisco and Florence, Italy. Since 2012, she has been the owner of Behida Dolić Millinery in Hudson, NY, where she sells handmade hats and her own line of women’s clothing. A cancer survivor, Behida also paints, dances, writes, and makes ephemeral art. You can find her shop at behidadolic.com or follow her on Instagram.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
The Recommitment Pledge, a meditation on creative lapses and a community discussion on how to bring yourself back
Love in the Time of Cancer (Part 2), where my mom, Anne Francey, and I answer the question, “How do we keep going in the face of hard things?”
Six Prompts for Getting Unstuck, a curation of some favorite past prompts for writing and drawing and our way through