Category Archives: life

GO AWAY ALREADY!! Part Deux

So what happened after my plea for the last of the snow to just go away gracefully? (Or else…)

This:

It's just not fair.

It’s just not fair.

That’s it, New Hampshire. Now you’re just messin’ with me.

I am breaking up with you.

And Dear Readers, before you start telling me about the joys and gifts of winter, let me just share something I’ve noticed…

Everyone who feels that way? They haven’t been around winter as long as I have.

4 Comments

Filed under life

MOTHER’S DAY

I’m too hot and lazy today to write a post. So I’m reprinting one from my old blog at Radio Userland, one of the early blog sites.

Enjoy!

Many years ago, I was miserably single, sure that I would end my life alone in a messy house filled with cats. Each new relationship seemed to vie for the previous one for weirdness and dysfunction.

I drove up to my sister’s house for a visit one weekend. While we waited for her husband Tom to get home from work, I helped watch her boys while she took down the laundry.

They lived in a tiny town 30 minutes outside a big city, in a run-down but charming old farmhouse Sue had painted and wall papered to within an inch of its life. It was warm and homey.

We were out in their spacious backyard. It was a beautiful, sunny summer day. A brisk wind whipped the sheets on the clothesline as Sue struggled to unpin them. Joey, her oldest boy, was running happily to and fro, occasionally plowing into a flapping sheet, his little three-year-old body pushing into its folds. Her baby Eddie was gurgling in his bouncy chair.

I was almost heartsick with envy. I was happy for Sue, of course. But I wondered if I would ever have such joy in my life.

The bees buzzed through the flowers, the wind blew, and all birds sang. I finally set aside my envious heart and chased Joe through the sheets as he shrieked with delight.

I remain, to this day, “Aunt You” thanks to Joe’s inability to pronounce the letter “L” at the time.

Years later, my husband and I moved to New England with our newborn baby. We bought our first home, a run-down farmhouse in the middle of Keene.

It was July, and in the middle of a major heat wave when we moved in. We only had one fan. Jon went off in the mornings to his air-conditioned office. I would lie on the floor panting in front of the fan, with Robin gazing at me with solemn eyes at my side.

We had a washing machine, but no dryer. I slogged out huge baskets of cloth diapers (yes, we fell for that ‘environmentally responsible’ crap), clothes towels and sheets to hang on the clothesline in our backyard.

One day, I hung our clothes out to dry. Before I could bring them inside, it rained.

I spun them in the washing machine, and hung them out to dry again.

It rained again.

And then they started to smell, because they’d been damp for so long.

So I washed them again, and hung them up once more.

They were barely dry when it started to sprinkle again. I dashed outside with Robin in her bouncy seat, and frantically began to fling everything into laundry baskets before it really poured.

Despite all the rain, it was still incredibly hot. The rains only seemed to increase the humidity.

The mosquitoes were fierce, and I alternated between smacking them off me and off Robin. She had developed a rash, and was prickly and bumpy. She was usually a happy baby, but not today. She fussed and cried as I raced the rain.

The lawn badly needed mowing–the weeds came up almost to my knees. The mosquitoes absolutely loved it. So did our cat, who repeatedly leaped out of the grass to pounce my ankles whenever I passed too close.

Halfway through unpinning sheets, I suddenly remembered that it was almost time for Jon to come home–and I had totally forgotten about dinner. There was nothing in the house to eat.

And the house was a total mess.

I thought of that day at Sue’s house.

When I called my mom that evening, I told her about my busy afternoon.

She said, “So you realized the dream wasn’t as wonderful as you thought it would be?”

“No, that’s not it at all”, I answered.

“I realized I was deliriously happy.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, gratitude, jealousy, life, mental attitude, mindfulness

SAME LAKE, DIFFERENT BOATS: The Power of Writing Through Grief

A talkative guy, Walt always said he invented social media.

Last night we wrapped up another grief writing group at HCS.

Once again, I feel like I’ve climbed a very high mountain, in the company of wonderful people. Once again, I feel honored to be the presence of people who are grieving the loss of someone they love.

Each group has been different: Different people. Different losses. All at different points in their grieving process.

Some are still in the raw, ferocious early stages, reeling from their loss. Some are caught in the soul-numbing middle stage, struggling to remember what “normal” even looks like. They are sure they’ll never feel “normal” again.

They fear if they let go of the grief, of those last difficult memories, they will truly lose their loved one forever.

And then there is this stage, where a tiny glimmer of hope and peace can be seen, and grasped.

The first stage is still scary to me. I remember talking to Lorraine, my supervisor, about taking on this work. I worried about saying the wrong things, or not knowing when to say the right things. If there even is a “right thing” to say to someone whose grief is so fresh and painful. “I’m so afraid I’ll make their grief worse,” I said.

“People are pretty tough,” mused Lorraine. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. And that’s part of the beauty of this work, this writing process.

People begin this writing journey with such pain, it hurts to look at their faces.

We start slowly, with gentle writing “assignments”. We share what we’ve written.

(Yes, I participate, too, and I’m amazed at how it’s helped me. I pick a person I’ve loved and lost for each workshop. This one was for my friend of more than 35 years, Walt Spiller (aka “Walt the Mailman), who died in January.)

We exclaim over the similarities in our “crazy feelings”: “You feel that way, too??”

And yet each person’s journey is unique. Our experiences, the manner of our loved one’s death, their journey, is like no other.

The person we’ve lost is unique. Last night, as we read our last scribblings, one person said, “I’ve come to know who your loved one is, through your writing. I can actually see them!”

Each person has traveled their own road, but yet together. One person said it beautifully: “It’s like we’re on the same lake, in a different boat!”

The same lake…. This is the human experience, after all: We will all lose someone we love. We will all be lost to someone we love. With every birth, there will be a death. To borrow a quote from Canadian painter Robert Genn, “Every puppy begins in joy and ends in tears. So it is with people.

A different boat. Not every death is simple. Some are too fast–loved ones lost to heart attack or accident, no time to say goodbye. Some are too harsh–loved ones lost to suicide or murder. Some are complicated–our feelings for them are conflicted, our love tangled in anger, or fear, or resentment, or worn down to a frazzle after years of care and anguish.

All this, and more, is shared, once a week, in these little groups. Through the power of the written word, ideas are born, feelings are explored, insights are shared. The healing begins. In a safe and sheltering place, people put their lives back together, one little poem and one tiny thought at a time.

How that happens is a miracle. The writing does its work.

For all our frantic scribbling, writing is a meditative practice. It lets us get those swirling, maddening thoughts out of the racetrack of our brains, stops the ceaseless circling and speeding so we can be less reactive, less guarded. We don’t have to worry about the next wreck around the corner. We can slow down and look and see what is in our hearts, and commit those words to paper.

It’s a time to write what’s in our hearts, to say it aloud, to share it with the group. The power of our words–the power of us acknowledging our words, the power of others acknowledging our words–is healing. “I didn’t realize I felt that way!” “What you said is beautiful!” “I feel that way, too! I thought I was alone….” You hear this over and over in this group.

Over the weeks, we build up a portrait of that person. We see the role they played in our lives, and our role in theirs. We remember the times before the loss.

Gradually, instead of the harshness of fresh grief, there is…a softening. Instead of the heavy weight of sorrow, we carry memories–just as strong and durable, but lightweight and supple.

We laugh, we cry, we laugh some more. And we write, and we write.

We are writing down the bones.

There is forgiveness. There is gratitude.

When we part, on the last evening, I see their shoulders, which have been weighted down with grief, set with a bit of strength. I see their new-found confidence, their courage to meet a new day. We hug, we laugh, we cry. And we go home, some to empty houses and shattered lives, but with hope.

So what am I left with, at the end of these sessions?

I’m left with sympathy. Watching people struggle to understand this last, the greatest of human mysteries.

I’m left with amazement at the bravery the courage these people carry, often unaware of their own strength and bravery.

I’m left breathless at the beautiful words they bring forth from their experiences.

I’m left grateful that they trusted the process, they trusted me, to take care of them.

I’m left with respect for the dignity they bring to this journey.

I’m left with peace in my heart.

And I’m always, always left to stand, in astonishment and humility and gratitude, honored to in the presence of these people as they make this difficult, incredible journey.

Walt told a LOT of stories, but now I see they were always told with love, about love.

1 Comment

Filed under art, grief journaling, hospice, life, writing

THE POWER OF NOW

This is a column I wrote for The Crafts Report, way back in 2010. (I remember it well….it was…ah…the year before 2011.) I just came across it, looking for something else, which, by the way, I haven’t found yet. (That’s how my life works, people. Embrace the serendipity.) But it make me laugh again, and maybe you will, too.

I recently picked up a used copy of Ekhart Tolle’s THE POWER OF NOW at a local thrift shop. It’s a well-loved, well-read copy–the previous owner underlined and highlighted almost every single page. I especially loved the “!!!” and “YES!!” and “THIS IS IMP.!!” written in the margins. Just in case I missed what was going on.

I don’t want to make fun of that person nor the book though. It really does have some thoughtful things to say. It’s about being “in the moment”—not reliving a painful past, nor anticipating the future at the expense of the “now.” It takes a lot of practice, though. Otherwise, you end up watching a clock and saying things like, “NOW….it’s 10:30:24.” “NOW….it’s 10:30:31.”

On this particular day, I’d worked hard in the studio. I’d promised two of my galleries I’d restock them quickly, as they’d sold a lot of my work lately. A LOT of my work. (Whoo hoo!)

I worked on a popular new series of jewelry, with a more organic, simpler designs. It seems to appeal to people who like my aesthetic, but want something more “neutral” than powerful animal totemic work. (What?? You don’t want a giant ivory bear hanging around your neck when you go to the supermarket??) (I can joke about my work, but you can’t, okay?)

I’d been focused and busy all day, “in the zone”, moving easily from one production task to another.

Later that evening I was dashing around town to finish up some stuff so I could relax “later”. You’d think by now I’d know that “later” rarely comes.

The last errand took me across town and back. On the way home, I thought maybe I could practice being “in the moment” in my normal life, too.

So instead of wishing I could hit all the green lights, or cursing the idiot who pulled out in front of me at the rotary, I tried to slow my breathing down. Breath…… In. Pause. Out.

I relaxed and observed what was going on right now.

“I’m driving the car,” I thought. It felt like flying. That was neat.

My knee ached a little. “My knee hurts,” I thought. But that was a good thing. It meant I’d gone for a long, vigorous walk with our dog Tuck, playing “monster chasing dog” and “kick the pine cone” and “grab the stick and pull” games. (Dog training tip: A tired dog is a well-behaved dog.)

“We have a dog!” I thought. Tuck, sitting in the back seat, chose that moment to stick his head forward and nestle it gently next to mine. Sweet. Except for the doggy breath. I’m still not used to that.

“I’m cold,” I thought. Not painfully cold, just enough to feel it. Refreshing.

“I’m on my way home to my family.” That felt good, too.

I drove through the town square. “This is a pretty town,” I thought. Keene does have a really nice downtown. This is where our kids grew up. No matter where we end up, it will always hold a special place in our heart.

“It’s a beautiful evening,” I thought.

And then I thought, “I’m driving through a cloud of soap bubbles. And I was.

Someone in an apartment above had opened a window and blown soap bubbles to drift down to the street below.

It was wonderful. Quite a lovely moment.

Then I saw a very flat, very dead squirrel, and that moment was done.

4 Comments

Filed under art, life, life lessons, world peace

ANGELS IN ODD PLACES

Yesterday I met the family who may have saved my son’s life.

The daughter heard the car crash late that night. She roused her mother. They ran outside in their pajamas to his car.

Everyone who saw the car said the same thing. They all thought no one could have survived that crash.

The woman and her daughter sat with him while the dad called 911.

The mom stayed with son til the police and ambulance came. She couldn’t reach him–he was too entangled in the dashboard. The car was so badly crushed, he couldn’t move.

It was cold that night, in the teens. She gave him her coat to staunch the bleeding from his head wounds. She kept talking to him, trying to keep him from passing out or falling asleep. He was obviously in shock, and suffering from a concussion.

The first police officer on the scene waited with him til the ambulance came. “He was gentle and supportive,” the mom said.

If the daughter had not heard the crash, my son could have lain there for hours before someone found him. No one else heard it–all the other houses in the area remained dark and silent.

I know he is a man, all grown up, with a deep voice, a scowl for his out-of-it parents, with a job and an apartment, a whole life we know so little about.

In my mind’s eye, I still see that small child, solemn one moment, giggling with laughter and joy the next. In his purple snowsuit, wearing the purple hat I knit for him, pulling his beloved wagon and carrying his stuffed dog.

I asked him if he remembered her. He said no. He’s too embarrassed to meet her. Someday, he may feel differently.

In the following weeks, the mom and daughter gathered up the detritus from the crash–broken mirrors, pieces of metal–that the clean-up crew overlooked. They didn’t want anyone else to be injured by sharp glass and metal. They also found some CDs, some computer games, a hacky-sack or two. They gathered these in a box, and called our home a few days ago to let us know we could pick them up.

“We’re in the big house right across the street from where it happened,” she said on the phone. “You can’t miss us.”

My husband had been to the site, taking pictures of the skid marks, the road, later the car at the tow garage. I hadn’t been to the site. It was hard to look at that deep drop-off from the road, the gash in the tree, the scrape on the telephone pole.

I remembered the photos my husband had taken of the car. I remember not being able to take my eyes off those images. They were horrible.

The mom and dad came to the door to greet us. I thanked her. It was nothing, she said. She simply did what anybody would have done–taken care of a stranger, a young man in need.

She’d been in a bad accident once. She’d fallen asleep on her way home, and woke up to confusion and pain. But she was not as fortunate. No one heard her car crash. She’d made her way, slowly and painfully, to a nearby house. They wouldn’t let her in. They made her wait in the driveway while they phoned the police. She remembers how that felt–in the dark, in the cold, in pain, waiting. She said she couldn’t let that happen to someone else.

I was thinking, so it’s NOT what anyone else would have done.

I took them some of my jewelry as a small token of gratitude. I told her how grateful we were, that she had been kind to my son. We hugged, and went back home.

I had a chance to meet the police officer, too, at the emergency room. He was gentle and kind. We met again at the police station a few weeks later. He did his job, but without the need to heap further humiliation on top of my son. I shook his hand. I told him it had been a very difficult night, and he had made it a little easier with his kindness.

It was nothing, he said.

It was everything, I said.

I thought of the police lieutenant in Ann Arbor, the one who listened to me when I called asking for help, for guidance when we found out our daughter’s fiance was a potentially dangerous person. She couldn’t offer much as a police officer, she said. But as a mother, she had a lot to give.

We spoke to her many times over the next few weeks. In our trips out to Michigan to be with our daughter, we got to meet her. A wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful woman, she was one of countless remarkable souls who were with us in our hour(s) of need.

Her email address said “Angela”, and as I got up to leave after our visit, I called her that.

She laughed. “It’s ‘Angela’ here in the department,” she said.

“But my real name is Angel.”

Of course it is, I thought.

Of course it is.

11 Comments

Filed under art, gratitude, life, life lessons

PARKING WOES IN KEENE NH

January 26, 2012

City of Keene
Keene, NH 03431

To Whomever Makes Parking Meter Purchase Decisions:

I am not enjoying the new parking meter system in downtown Keene. And if we can judge by the unusually high number of empty parking spaces in that area lately, I have a lot of company.

I’ve had to wait in line at the kiosks, even when I simply need 6 minutes to run an errand.

No matter where I park, I have to detour to go to the kiosk. In fact, this system completely eliminates the concept of a “great parking spot.” It’s no longer in front of your destination store, because you still have to go out of your way to get to the kiosk. When the weather is lovely and my arthritis isn’t acting up, and now that I no longer have small children in tow, a detour to a kiosk is no big deal. But when snowbanks are piled high, when it’s raining or freezing out,when sidewalks are icy, when I’m in a hurry, when I’m carrying a child or two, when I’m recovering from yet another knee surgery, that extra trip is just a pain, literally and figuratively.

The kiosks don’t accept debit cards or credit cards. So we’re still stuck fumbling for change. However, it looks like it will be lucrative for the city, because when the kiosks misfire and refuse to accept change, you have to put a dollar in no matter how little time you need. And when it refuses to make change, well, we lose again.

But who really loses? Downtown merchants. This morning I went to Prime Roast for coffee. The row of spaces in front of their store was completely empty, except for one car. I haven’t seen the street that empty, on a weekday morning, in 20 years.

If you make it a hassle for customers to patronize downtown businesses, they will go somewhere else to shop.

I’d rather have the old meters back. Simple and quick. Or better yet, a meter (NO KIOSK, please, God) that accepts change, dollars and debit/credit cards. Or a parking pass card, like EZ pass. Pay a monthly or annual fee, get a car sticker or a swipe card, and never worry again about how many quarters I have.

Please—just make it less annoying to shop downtown, okay?

Luann Udell

cc: The Keene Sentinel

I think the 'love' stamp adds just the right balance, don't you?

9 Comments

Filed under action steps, art, life

JUST ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL MORNING

Yep, life was weird and scary this fall and winter, and I’ve been in a funk.

So many days I didn’t want to leave the warmth and comfort of my own bed. I couldn’t think of a reason why I should, either. I slept ten hours, eleven hours, sometimes twelve hours at night.

And still felt lethargic and only half-here.

Now some of the grey has lifted. Slowly, I return to the things that have always given me strength–my writing, my craft, my marriage, my family.

And my friends.

Last week, on an impulse, I invited myself to piggy-back along on a friend’s trip down to Webs, a fabulous yarn store in Northampton, MA. I’m in knitting mode, which hits me in winter. Actually, I’m in yarn-and-pattern-and-book buying mode, but whatever.

I couldn’t believe how much I anticipated that road trip. Jenny was taking a class, and would spend most of the day at the store. It’s the kind of place I can hang out in for hours, too–shopping the yarn warehouse, with its bargain-basement prices. With a shopping cart, people! I need more yarn like a hole in the head, but it was so soothing to be with the lovely colors and textures of yarn. Then I spent more hours browsing through every single pattern book and leaflet.

It all appeals to the hunter-gatherer in me.

I was in fiber junkie heaven.

And I got to spend some time with Jenny. Which turned out to be the best, most healing part.

To know Jenny is to love her. She’s simply a good, gentle woman. Always there for her family and friends. She has an open and loving heart, and we gravitate to her as a sunflower follows the sun.

One particular exchange resonates with me today. Jenny has sheep, and she’s the ‘morning feeder’. She gets up at the crack of dawn, rain or shine, to care for them. (Her husband Mike, another treasured presence in our circle, is the ‘night feeder’.)

Jenny said sometimes she hates getting up in the cold winter mornings. It can be a hard time of day here in New England. Freezing rain, deep snow, cold winds can put a damper on your enthusiasm. (I’m personally grateful we don’t have ducks or chickens this year…. The feelings of guilt on those zero degree nights is mind-numbing!)

But then Jenny, as she usually does, said something quiet and clear, and deeply profound.

“I look around, and see the morning,” she said. “And each morning is so different, Lu! Each one is beautiful in its own way….”

Light. Sky. Clouds. Wind. Water–snow, ice, rain, mist, dew. Birds. Color–in the flowers, in the leaves, everywhere you look. Something that catches your eye, or your ear, or your heart, something different, every day….

Sometimes the sunrise is brilliant and gorgeous. Other times, perhaps just a small cluster of rose-gold clouds glowing on the horizon. Sometimes the wind puts all the trees in motion. Other times, she said, it’s so quiet, you can’t even hear the traffic from the country road a few miles away. Sometimes you hear the cackling commotion of crows, other times, simply the sweet, low cry of a morning dove.

Every day. Something different. Something…unique.

Something you only see when you pull yourself out of your warm and safe bed, and venture bravely out into the new day.

I’ve thought about that every day since.

I am so grateful for people like Jenny, who gently, sweetly, help me remember what it is to be alive.

And though I’m more of a sunset person than a morning person, today I, too, try to se–with fresh eyes, an open heart, a calm spirit and grateful nature–the beauty of each new day.

8 Comments

Filed under friendship, gratitude, inspiration, knitting, life, life with chickens, living with intention, mindfulness

ME, THE TATTOOED LADY

Yep, I started out 2012 with a bang. I got my first tattoo.

Now, I didn’t do it to look hip (if hip is even the up-to-the-minute word for….well, up-to-the-minute.)

It’s on a hidden place on my body. But don’t worry, it won’t embarrass you (or me) for me to show you in a public place.

It’s an animal. But surprisingly, not one of my animals.


It’s Mama Bunny from Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, a children’s book I read to my kids when they were little. (I love the illustration that mirrors the ‘cow jumping over the moon’ illustration in Wise’s other popular children’s book, “Goodnight Moon”.) My Mama Bunny is the one from the very last page, where Mama Bunny and Baby Bunny are eating carrots together. (I asked to NOT have the carrot added. Didn’t seem right to have a carrot on my ear.)
Oops. Gave away the tattoo location. It’s on the back of my right ear.

How did this come to be?

Well, this summer, soon after my daughter announced her engagement, she asked me to accompany her to get her third tattoo.

Robin has unusual tattoos. The first is a heart. Not a cute little Valentine’s Day heart, but an anatomically correct heart illustration. I keep forgetting to ask her what it symbolizes, but knowing her, I’d guess strength and passion and core values, with no sugar-coating.

Her second is a line from the great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva. These powerful words encircle her left wrist– Where does such tenderness come from?–from the love poem of the same name. It looks like a flowing wreath of Elven-speak, as beautiful as the words themselves.

So what was Robin’s choice for her third tattoo?

Why, it’s Baby Bunny! She had it done on the back of her right ear, at one of our local tattoo parlors, Mom’s Tattoo. And she asked me to go with her.

It was my first visit to a tattoo studio. I loved the signs (“YES, it hurts!” and “We tattooed your mom!” Can you say, “Foreshadowing!”…?) I held her hand, though she assured me it hardly hurt at all. I complained, teasingly, that now I had to get my ear tattooed, too. After all, if your daughter is willing to endure pain to proclaim her joy in being your daughter, don’t you have to follow suit? She said no need, but I knew.

Soon after, the season from hell started. It’s still not my story to tell, but suffice to say, my daughter is safe, and healing, the engagement is off, the danger has moved on, and life slowly returns to normal.

And when Robin came home for Christmas break, I told her we had to get my Mama Bunny tattoo.

Just to warn you, yes, it hurt. But it didn’t last very long. Robin held my hand. The artist told us he had just done his own mother’s very first tattoo, just before us. (She had a BIG one, with full color, of his name and his brother’s name. SHE was a better mom, tattoo-wise, than I!)

Now we hope to convince my son to get a Baby Bunny tattoo, too. I’m sure he’ll refuse, for many years. But I think someday, when he is less fierce about his independence, and space, he might consider it.

My husband mourns the lack of Daddy Bunny in the tail…er, tale…but I think he’s secretly glad he doesn’t have to get a tattoo.

And as I hold my family safe, with love, and the fierce honesty and respect that got us through that wrecking ball of a relationship, I am so very, very grateful for my blessings.

It’s good to be human, with all the pain, and fear, yes, and even the despair that comes with it.

For then there can be hope, and love, and gratitude, too.

“If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

10 Comments

Filed under art, gratitude, life, life lessons, love

COMMITMENT

It’s been a busy month, with a week-long gig at a glorious old grand hotel as artist-in-residence (and marriage counselor); our son moving into his own digs (it’s time, it was expected, but Oh God, it was still hard….) and my daughter Robin announcing her engagement to a very nice young man named….Rob. (He told me earnestly last week, “Mrs. Udell, when you say ‘Rob’, I can almost always tell which one of us you’re talking to!”

So marriage, and committment is on my mind today. Mine, my daughter’s, and the delightful woman I spoke with at length during little artist workshops I gave at The Balsams.

How on earth did I end up advising a perfect stranger about marriage?? It started when the woman corrected me when I referred to her partner as her husband. “We’re not married, but we’ve been together 10 years,” she said. I asked why they hadn’t married. It was a sad story of a difficult first marriage, and fear about making that kind of commitment again.

We talked over several days. It was obvious they were both good people and cared deeply for each other. She said she had no doubts about him–“He’s a good man.” But still she was afraid of history repeating itself.

I finally said to her, “Don’t make decisions out of fear.”

How long does it take for a man to prove to his beloved that he is the real deal? That his love is real, and their relationship is based on respect and love?

It’s like saying, “When I have a lot of money, then I’ll feel safe.” Then you have a million dollars, but it’s still not enough. “When I have TWO million dollars, then I’ll feel safe.” True story, from Martha Beck.

If 10 years is not enough for someone to prove their intentions, what will another 5 years mean? Another 10? A lifetime?

And you’ve essentially said to this person you love, “Actually, ‘never’ is good. Is ‘never’ good for you?”

Of course, I immediately felt I’d overstepped myself and apologized.

But the day I left for home, she told me she was starting to change her mind.

Later that same day, my baby girl told me Rob had proposed to her, and she had accepted.

My only concern was they hadn’t known each other for years and years, and began dating each other only recently. Did they have enough evidence to make this decision? What if it didn’t work out?

Then I realized I’d decided about Jon in just about as much time.

And I realized there is no way to be absolutely sure about love. We make our best guess, based on the evidence that matters to us.

And we take that magical leap of trust, and hope.

She posted her relationship status change on Facebook, and my husband had this to say:

It has been a wonderful thing to behold. Rob and Robin are highly self-aware people who are smart enough to know the right thing when they see it, and strong enough to work through a process that will take some time and adjustment. I was quite unprepared for how happy this has made me!

My post? “Plus he’s funny & SAYS he thinks we’re nice!”

What does this have to do with art? Plenty. Why am I writing about marriage here today?

Because so many of the things that really matter in the world are based on this leap of faith.

Pursuing your passion. Making art. Getting married. Having kids.

Even pursuing success, when I deconstructed my desires for it, came from a need to show my love and commitment for my art; to hope people love it–and me!; to create a teensy bit more love and hope in the world with the work of my hands and my words.

Whether we mean it or not, whether we sought it or not, or found it or not, love has been by our side every step of the way.

Sometimes we are surrounded by people who cannot show their love very well, or even by some who can’t love very well.

Sometimes we have to create for ourselves the love we can only imagine.

But it’s there. And if we are lucky, and if we are open to it…

When we find it in some small measure, it is a treasure.

And when we find it in abundance, it is a blessing.

The more times I sit by a hospice bedside, holding someone’s hand as they they go out on the tide of their life, the more I know the truth of these hauntingly beautiful words…

…Time has transfigures them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

by Phillip Larkin, from “An Arundel Tomb”

In all that you do, in all that you make with your whole heart, may love find you there.

6 Comments

Filed under art, craft, hospice, inspiration, lessons from hospice, life, living with intention, love

LIFE LESSONS: What Is the BEST Lesson You Can Learn Today?

Learn to look twice to get at the ‘better lesson’ from life’s setbacks.

My nephew Michael was a tiny hellion when he was young. He wasn’t mean, or malicious, or difficult. He was just….busy. We have many family stories about his escapades. One of my favorites is when my sister left him in the car briefly while dropping something off at my parents’ house. When she came out, he was in the driver’s seat with his hands on the wheel. Before she could say a word, he jerked his head and thumb to indicate the back seat and said firmly, “Get in back. I’m driving!” (He was four.)

Here’s another favorite story about Michael. He visited my folks, and all day he got into all kinds of mischief, including getting into my mother’s purse, looking for gum. Instead, he found a medicine bottle and ate some of her high blood pressure pills.

He was rushed to the emergency room, where his stomach was pumped and he was forced to drink lots of water to induce him to vomit. We were so relieved when he was declared out of danger. As he lay bleary-eyed in his little hospital bed, my sister asked him sternly, “And what did you learn from today’s little adventure?” Whereupon Michael snuffled quietly and croaked sadly, “Not to touch Gramma’s new refrigerator.”

Earlier that day, Michael had been fooling around with the features on my folks’ brand new refrigerator, and Grandma had told him to stop. Not to touch her new fridge anymore. (Gotta admit, that ice-and-water dispenser is pretty appealing.)

Years later, we still laugh at that story. But it’s sad, too.

Michael connected his emergency room ordeal as punishment for not listening to Grandma. He thought that was the lesson he had to learn.

(It’s sad that a loved and cherished child would think a stomach pumping was an appropriate punishment for touching a kitchen appliance, of course, too…. Such is the trustful nature of children. Makes you think.)

I refer to many of my life setbacks as ‘life learning experiences.’ Sometimes finding the knowledge and experienced gained helps offset the pain of falling, failing and flailing. This looking for something good and useful out of the bad things that happen…. It’s a useful skill. It’s part of being a human being and learning how to make our way in the world.

But sometimes, like a child, like Michael, we look at the easy lesson, the most obvious lesson. Not necessarily the deeper, more important lesson.

Sometimes the obvious lesson is not the best lesson.

Learning to choose your better lesson is a way to unchain yourself from your sad old story. Your sad old story about not being good enough, worthy enough, talented enough to achieve your heart’s desire.

Years ago I was part of a small artist group. We met monthly, to support each others’ efforts to fulfill our dreams as artists.

One person, a budding book illustrator, had singled out one lone book publisher as her ‘dream work place.” She submitted her portfolio to them and waited anxiously for their reply.

When she received a rejection letter, she tried to put a good face on it. “I’ll never get hired by that company. I guess I need to learn how to accept failure,” she said dejectedly. “I’d like help from the group on how to do that.”

We managed to convince her that piling all her dream eggs in one tiny basket was too limiting. We encouraged her to explore other possibilities, too. One person offered to put her in touch with a working illustrator who could offer her feedback on her portfolio. Another suggested other small publishing houses she could approach, to gain more work experience. But the last person, reading the letter carefully, opened an even bigger door.

She had experience in the corporate world, and read the letter differently. “I don’t think your portfolio was even seen by the appropriate person,” she said firmly. “I suggest you call the company and ask where to send it. Get a name, not a department. Make an appointment to follow up. You haven’t ‘failed’—you sent it to the wrong place. This line here actually sounds like they’d like you to resubmit it with more support materials, and more examples that match their current needs.”

Our friend, despondent and self-defeating, had looked no further than her own limited vision. Seeing the window barred, she failed to see the door standing wide, wide open.

When I trust a person, and they end up shafting me, it would be easy to say, “Well, that’s what I get for putting my trust in such a person.” But what I prefer to say is, “I like to expect the best of people, and I’m open to all kinds of friendships with many different people. That means some of them will disappoint me or take advantage of my openness. I accept this as an occasional side effect of trust. Bbut I’m not going to let that change the way I am .” (However, I am more careful about who I lend money to.)

Don’t assume life is giving you a smack-down because you touched the fridge door.

Look for the deeper knowledge, the more powerful challenge, the more meaningful message. Because YOU….are worth it.

Wanna here something funny? Michael ended up working as a receptionist at a nursing station in a hospital. He loved it. He’s now working as an emergency medical technician, driving an ambulance.

A much higher calling, for him, for us, than selling refrigerators at Sears, don’t you think?

P.S. I know young people who are proud to work at Sears selling refrigerators. I my intention is not to malign their efforts to be productive people earning their own way in life. But you know that about me already, right?

1 Comment

Filed under art, life, life lessons, mental attitude, myths about artists, telling your story

WE ARE ALL MADE OF STARS

Do you realize how amazing you are?

Why are we so willing to believe the worst about ourselves?

I had a conversation with a friend recently. She tends to believe she presents herself worse than she does. She accentuates her perceived weaknesses and berates herself for being “stuck”.

When I commented on her strengths and her perceived weaknesses (more on that), she smiled. “Yeah”, she said, “A friend once told me what my real problem is. My friend said, ‘Your problem is, you don’t realize how amazing you are.”

I agree with her friend.

I told her about a presentation I made last year, to an auditorium full of people. I’d goofed pretty badly–thought I was doing a presentation on one topic, only to realize the night before I was committed to a different one.

I was still more than adequately prepared. I’ve taught this workshop before, and have plenty of material on hand. But throughout the presentation, I kept apologizing. “I’m handing out a resource list–I’m so sorry, it would have been longer….” “Blah blah blah, sorry!, blah blah.”

When I read the evaluations later, everyone raved about me.

Except for one astute soul who commented, “The presentation was excellent, good information. Just one negative. She apologized too much. I found it distracting.”

Oy.

It’s time to quit apologizing for ourselves.

It’s so easy to see this in other people. So hard to see it in ourselves: Not trusting our instincts. Focusing on our weaknesses and flaws. Taking our strengths for granted.

Taking ourselves for granted.

So in the interest of full disclosure, here’s the back story behind my blog:

I merrily make my art/write my column/prepare a seminar. Things are humming along. Life is good!

Then I hit roadblocks. An envious peer. A missed deadline. A new injury (usually acquired doing something absolutely stupid.) A rejection from a show. Oh, and a very low checking account balance.

Some people thrive in adversity. Yay for them! (And we all can do that sometimes.) But often we are struck in vulnerable places. The roadblock looks similar to a struggle in our past. And there are some people in this world, in a kind of pain themselves, who know exactly where to aim their blows.

If I’m in my powerful place, I shrug these off as annoying but manageable, tiny little bumps in my path. I will not be deterred from my journey.

But if I’m in a fragile period, I get knocked off-center. “Why do I bother making this work? Nobody likes it!” “How can I make her like me and stop being so mean?” “I’m so disorganized!”

Soon I feel like there’s no place for me in the world. No gifts I can offer. No way I can contribute. I’m just a whirling bundle of fret and anxiety and unkindness and ineptitude. (I thought I was making that last word up, but spell check says no, I’m good to go. Until I spelled “spellcheck” wrong….)

I eventually sit down to write. I dump it all out onto paper. I whine, I cry, I resent, I blame.

And then something wonderful happens.

I realize how amazing I am.

Not in the swelled-head, I’m-okay-you’re-not, aren’t-I-grand kinda way.

Just…amazing…in the ordinary way. A person, here in this world, in this time, trying to love and be loved. Trying to be kind. Trying to shine. Trying to do the work I was put here to do. Trying to do the best I can. (Another friend, years ago, said to me, “I like to believe people are doing the best they can.” It brought tears to my eyes.) (Although it’s hard to remember that when someone cuts me off in traffic.)

For a few wonderful, incredible minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe even an entire day, I see how powerful I am, how brightly I shine. Just enough for me to get back in the saddle and try again. (OH! A riding metaphor!)

At some point, this struggle, this journey, turns into a blog article, or a keynote speech, or a new wall hanging. If it’s funny, it goes to my column at The Crafts Report.

I write about the struggle. I write about how I end up in the hard place, and how I find my way back from there.

And how I still end up there again.

And find my way back home, to my own heart–again.

I write about how our weaknesses are not something to be cried over, but something to be celebrated. Because our weaknesses are the true source of our strength, if we let this awareness happen.

If we are the victim of cruelty, we can still choose to be kind.

If we are gripped by sadness, we can simply embrace that, for now. Or we can choose to act as if we are happy. Or we can help someone else who is sad.

If we grieve, it is because we loved. Or because we wanted to love, or to be loved.

These things are not imperfections. Or rather, they are imperfections. They are what make us beautiful, just as as stress, flaw, disease and even death make something beautiful in wood.

If we don’t think we are amazing, it is simply because we are afraid of what that might mean. We think we don’t know what that looks like. We don’t know what might change or what we might lose, or that we are setting ourselves up for even bigger failure. We are afraid we will have to work harder, and we are afraid we won’t be able to.

We are afraid we are not enough.

And yet, in each of us, is the potential to simply be ourselves. To be present. To respect our gifts, and USE them.

What inspires me, what makes me cry, is that this very place that’s so hard for us–“I am not enough”–comes from a very powerful, very beautiful place–“I want to be somebody</em, somebody worthy of love, respect, kindness, joy, achievement. I want to be seen and cherished. I want to do good work. I want to be remembered after I'm gone."

Don't you think it's amazing that we all want these things?

Isn't it astonishing that this desire drives everything we do, every choice we make, whether we act on this consciously ("I'm going to hold the door open for that person behind me.") to unconsciously ("Huh! That person cut in front of me! He acted as if I were totally not worth his kindness!" or choice words to that effect….)? (I am praying you did not get lost in the punctuation of that last sentence.)

And that's why, when people say I'M amazing, or do such beautiful work, or write something good, I do a little foot shuffle and blush, and say, "Aw, tweren't nuthin'…"

Because I DON'T have this all figured out, or rather, it doesn't STAY worked out. I'll have to do the same thing tomorrow, and next month, and probably for the rest of my life–fall down, cry, take hope and get back up.

I know I just have to do this. And I don't have to do it perfectly, either.

Because when I look at my work, at my art, at the artifacts, the fiber work, the little bears and otters, the grumpy fish, the horses….oh, the horses!

When I remember my story I tell about myself and this work, what it's done for me spiritually, and what others say it does for them….

When I remember how far I've come from that lonely, sad place, where I was so sure there was no place in this world, I actually tried to leave it….

When I look at the wonderful guy who is my life partner, and our children, our friends and family, even the stranger on the street who chooses to be kind… When I realize all the opportunities there are in life to BE that partner, that child, that friend, that stranger…

I realize we truly are all made of stars.

I am. And so are you.

p.s. Thank you, Moby, for the title of this post.

26 Comments

Filed under art, craft, creativity, fear of failing, inspiration, life, mental attitude, world peace, writing

HELPING OTHERS WHO GRIEVE

I’m pulling together materials to help me run a writing workshop for bereavement support. I’ve been browsing local bookstores and surfing the net for resources.

I found a wonderful little book, 101 WAYS YOU CAN HELP: How to Offer Comfort and Support to Those Who Are Grieving by Liz Aleshire.

A quick flip through the book revealed succinct, concrete ways to help someone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one.

I like how the book is organized, by whether the person who needs your support is a family member, a friend, a co-worker, etc.

I like that the suggestions work. That same day, I called a friend who’d just lost someone. Normally, I’d invite the person over for a meal. Liz’s book suggested taking a meal to them. Sure enough, the “dinner here” and “dinner out” invitations were refused. But the “How about we come to your house with dinner?” invitation was received with surprise and gratitude.

I like that some of the suggestions are counter-intuitive. For example, she says sometimes you gotta be a little pushy. This echoes something I learned in my bereavement training. For example, we are urged to call people even if they don’t answer the phone. The grieving person may not feel like talking. But they appreciate knowing that you’ve called, even in only to leave a message. So call them regularly, even if it feels like you’re talking into space. You’re not.

But what I like best about the book is the back story.

Liz Aleshire lost her 16-year-old son to bone cancer. So she knows grief personally. For thirteen years, she carried the devastation of his loss.

And Liz died before her book was finished–literally of a broken heart. Health issues complicated a series of heart attacks that finally ended her life.

If that weren’t poignant enough, Liz’s book was finished after her death–by her friends. The members of her small writing group came together to care and support Liz through her trials. And they helped her finish the book. Careful to retain Liz’s distinctive “voice”, they wrote and edited from Liz’s outline and drafts, bringing the book to publication.

All of this is astonishing. But the final kicker is…

I know one of the authors
.

Paula Chaffee Scardamalia and I met when she interviewed me for an article in the May 2000 issue of The Crafts Report magazine. We were both taking our craft as far as we could, doing the show circuit, acquiring galleries to carry our work, etc. Everything was bright and shiny, all opportunities full with the promise of success.

I really enjoyed talking with her; she’s a fellow fiber artist, warm, insightful and a great writer. We emailed back and forth for awhile, but then we lost touch.

And then big things happened in the world, things that changed us deeply. Our ideas about “success” made a paradigm shift. Many of us now look in other places beyond fame and fortune for what the work of our hands can accomplish, in the world and in our hearts.

To see her name in this book was a wonderful example of synchronicity. I’ve learned that, just as I’ve added writing and hospice to my life, she does less weaving (mostly custom orders now) and more writing and life coaching.

She’s pleased that I find Liz’s book so appealing. It’s a reminder that the good we do lives after us. She hopes the book will find its way into the hands of more people.

Because grief eventually touches us all. Where there is love, or the hope of love, or the failure of love, there is grief. Only in indifference are we spared. And indifference is a high price to pay, to be spared the pain of grief.

And I marvel, once again, at how the threads of our lives touch, entwine, pass on…and touch again.

So here’s my shout-out for Liz’s book. I’m going to order extra copies for our hospice library. It’s already helped me out. I hope you’ll find it helpful, too.

1 Comment

Filed under art, craft, death, hospice, lessons from hospice, life

I HATE WORDS (and Zen)

Sometimes I can be in the moment for like….60 seconds? If that. But today is one of those times where I just can’t fit the wisdom of zen into my life.

It’s one of those days where I made the mistake of comparing my words to someone else’s words, and theirs were better. A day where I realize how really, really, really jealous I am that someone else’s words have more recognition than mine–and MINE are better.

A day where my son and I, and my husband and I, exchanged all these words, sharp and angry and cutting…and I have never felt so far apart from understanding either of them, nor they me.

A day where someone’s careless words, admonishing me to “hurry up, people are waiting on you” erased my happy little moment. A day of my words, spilled in anger at a telemarketer–why didn’t I simply take a few seconds to be kind rather than righteously indignant and pompous? A day of words I used to try to curry favor from someone, hating myself the instant they were out of my mouth.

Even my shipment of custom mats for my new work turned out to be the wrong size. Because–yep, you guessed it–I used the wrong words to describe what I wanted.

I’m ready to spill over, frustrated with my lack of patience, my lack of self-respect, my lack of insight and tact and balance. I found myself actually crying in the shower. That time of month? Hah. That train has left the station, baby, and good-bye.

Today, I wish I’d had no words. Bah! Who needs ‘em?? They just get in the way of everything.

In the moment? I HATE this moment!!

But then I remember the sweet words I gave my horse today. She met me halfway when I asked her to do something. “Good girl!” I trilled. I know she heard me, too.

I remember I tried to make it up to my son. I reached out, let him know I’m just trying to figure out how to be a good mom to him. “I love you,” I said, as his door closed in my face. I could almost here him mutter “Whatever…” behind it.

Soon I will have to say, “I’m sorry” to my husband. Even though I still think I was right. I’m trying to remember that new mantra we’re working on: “Who’s right?? Who cares?!!” It’s the “us” that matters.

Hospice is teaching me that I can’t count on words, not all the time. Sometimes, someday, they won’t be there, and sometimes they just are not enough anyway.

But for now, I realize I just want to look up again at that beautiful New Hampshire sky, so blue today, so swept through with lacy sheets of clouds fanned by unseen winds above, and in the silence so deep I could hear the wings of a wren a dozen yards away, I, too, yearn to hear a sweet, small voice trill…

Good girl!

19 Comments

Filed under art, humor, jealousy, lessons from hospice, life, life with teenagers, love

At The Balsams

I’m halfway through my week-long artist-in-residency at The Balsams. It’s an absolutely beautiful place, one of the last of the “grand hotels” so popular in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This is the second year I’ve been invited to stay and teach little workshops for the guests.

It’s always a big sea change for me. Most of the year I’m usually bopping around my studio, listening to techno music, happily making my little horses and great bears and crafting the most beautiful jewelry and wall hangings I can imagine.

Then I go through utter panic preparing for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s annual fair at Mount Sunapee Resort–digging through the barn attic for my halogen lights, my ProPanel walls, my necklace and earring stands, getting postcards printed and mailed, wailing, “Where did I stash all my extension cords??” and worrying how many trips I will need to make to carry everything up there. My booth does NOT fit into my little Subaru Forester, not by a long shot.

Then nine days at the Fair, with my long-time customers and new collectors stopping by my booth constantly, sharing their stories of the pieces they bought last year, and adding new ones to their collection. Stories of love and hope and laughter and gratitude abound. There are many tears shed, and hugs and good wishes shared. And with luck, enough sales to keep me in business another year.

Then it’s over. We break down the booth in a rush, and I immediately begin to plan and pack for my “Balsams gig”.

It’s a totally different place here. Meals are served in a beautiful ballroom, with glorious views of Dixville Notch and the surrounding forests. Countless staff members make sure every need is met, often before you are aware you even HAVE a need.

Every effort is made to keep the “real world” at bay, and provide as wonderful an experience as possible, with as little visible effort as possible. And many, many people work here to make that happen, from the incredibly talented team of chefs to the guy who found me table lamps for my class table, from the doormen who greet each arriving guest and carry their baggage to their rooms to the musicians who play during dinner and also double as sales clerks in their off-stage hours.

It’s a little daunting to be in the midst of so much luxury and service, especially when my own breakfast the last few weeks has been a box of cinnamon Pop Tarts; it seems unreal to be dressed up every day in my “artist” clothes when normally I live in cut-offs and t-shirts. It’s different to be teaching kids how to make polymer beads and buttons in between tee times and riding lessons instead of making my own art and hoping I sell enough necklaces to pay for my own riding lessons back home. My husband came up with me this year to bike and hike in the White Mountains. But he stays with friends or at local motels–because even with a reduced room rate for him, we can’t afford for him to stay here with me.

But finally, I get it.

I hear the stories behind some of the people I’ve met here and there; I hear about this one whose beloved aunt nearly died last week during surgery; a grandchild born with unbearable health issues; the person who has just finished chemo, and another recovering from debilitating injuries. Life doesn’t care who you are or how much money you make, it just happens–good and bad, wonderful and sad.

Then I remember the words of Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian, whose book of memoirs, “Composed”, was published earlier this year. She writes with dignity and respect, in words so graceful and elegant and so full of compassion, that I am moved to tears:

You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You realize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrows and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevators first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember…

Little courtesies and small kindnesses….. They abound all around me this week.

And suddenly, I realize it isn’t about who has what and who doesn’t have enough. Suddenly, I realize that we’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive or unshaken.

And that all we really need and crave is love, and acceptance. We all yearn for the recognition that inside each of us is something unique and wonderful that just needs a little opportunity to shine in the world.

That we all have a story to tell.

And somehow, though I don’t always understand how or why I can make that happen, that’s my job today–to help someone make something that brings a little joy, to give something that lets someone else know “I hear your story, and I care”.

It’s my job today to provide a little experience a family can treasure for years to come, and to be a small part of those memories. To share the joy that comes from making something with your own hands.

And it’s my job today to keep making art–my little horses, my great bears, my sweet birds and happy dogs–that causes someone else’s heart to leap up and want to sing, just a little, just for today.

And that’s when I know I really am at home and at peace, here at The Balsams.

7 Comments

Filed under art, balance, craft, craft shows, creativity, inspiration, life, mental attitude

THE BEST ADVICE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

I found this essay by Paul Graham today–advice for young people in high school, leaving high school, getting ready (or not) for college, and actually, for anyone else, too.

And it is exactly what I wish I’d known in high school. And college. And the first 30 or 40 years of my life. (I finally figured it out when I was 42, I think….)

I came across this by way of the Fine Art Views blog. Fine Art Views is a great resource for artists. It’s kind of geared towards 2D artists, but the advice is general enough for all creative folks.

I’m printing it out for my latest high school graduate. Pass it on to someone you know could benefit–it’s good stuff!

1 Comment

Filed under art, business, career, craft, inspiration, life, mental attitude, perseverence

WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL? Sometimes There’s a Bigger Story.

Cliches are boring. Your art deserve better.

In yesterday’s article, I shared my first story about my artwork. It was “good enough” to get me going and to sustain my first artistic efforts.

Many, many people are content with this “first story” or their “little story”. Trust me, I’m not here to judge anyone. If what you are doing is working for you, don’t change it.

But if you are wondering if your work can forget a more powerful connection with your audience, if you hunger for something deeper, read on.

When I talk to people about their art, I often get pat answers.

“I just love color!”

“I’m happiest when working at the wheel with clay. There’s just something about it that centers me.”

“I love making other people happy.”

I’ve learned that if you dig a little deeper, you will find true treasure. I learned this by being totally clueless about gallery talks.

So what’s wrong with pat answers?

Because they are cliches. I love this quote from an article by Grammar Girl:

Good writers avoid clichés wherever they might lurk. Novelist and essayist Martin Amis said, “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”

…..cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart…..

A cliche has low energy. When you settle for a cliche, you sell yourself short. You short-circuit your power. By trying to protect your inner life, you actually create a wall between your and a potential audience.

A pat answer is a way of putting people off the trail of understanding who you really art.

The “I just love color” thing. Look–everybody loves color. That’s not why you’re doing the work you do.

“I’m so happy…” Okay, first of all, we know you must be happy working with clay, or fiber, or glass, or words, or music, or you wouldn’t be doing it. Have you ever heard an artist say, “I absolutely hate what I do, but it sells”? (Well. Okay. Yes, I know some artist are burned out and DO hate what they do, but they’re usually so crabby we don’t want talk to them anyway.)

Second, what does that do for me? I asked a very well-known artist about her new work. She kept saying, “I’m having so much fun!” I had to bite my tongue to refrain from saying, “I’m supposed to pay $1,500 for this piece because you’re having fun??!” Sweetie, I’m sure you’re a wonderful person. But I need a better reason than that to spend that kinda money on you.

So what’s wrong with the “I-want-to-make-people-happy” reason-I’m-an-artist? (Or the equally lame “I want to help people.”) Think about it–What would really make people happy is if you walked down the street handing out $100 bills. (Most guys would be even happier if you did it in the nude, but I like to keep things family-friendly here.)

So let’s say what we mean to say.

What you’re really saying is that what you do is a way of engaging with the world that is fulfilling and deeply satisfying, and puts you in a state of grace, and joy. And there are real and personal reasons why it does.

There’s that word again…..

WHY?

Here’s one example of working through cliche to cachet. During a mentoring session, I talked with an artist about her work. She talked avidly about her craft, but it just seemed like something was missing. Sure enough, she mentioned in passing that her other avocation was gardening.

And she really perked up when she talked about gardening.

When I asked her why she loved gardening so much, she gave the usually pat answers about pretty flowers and being outside. When pressed, she grew exasperated–didn’t everybody love being outdoors? (Believe me, not all of us are wild about hot weather, mosquitoes and black flies.)

I pushed harder: How did she feel when she when she was in the garden?

She felt safe.

It started when she was very young and home was not safe. I didn’t pry for details, let’s just say there was just a lot of tension and anger and harsh words).

And being outdoors is where she felt safe.

Now, she doesn’t have to share that story with her audience, if it’s too personal.

If she wants to share it but doesn’t want to tell it over and over, it can be her artist statement.

She doesn’t have to ditch her craft, which was also satisfying, and become a full-time gardener.

She doesn’t have to “to” anything.

But recognizing her real story, a poignant story about a child who didn’t, who couldn’t understand the unhappiness and discord in her home, who found comfort and haven in the garden, will bring emotional and spiritual power to her art.

Understanding what yearning was filled, what hurt was healed, will create a bridge between her artwork (and her) and the people who are drawn to her work.

Because these themes–moving past fear, finding solace, being healed–are richer, deeper, more evocative human, more honest emotions than simply loving color or fabric or flowers or clay.

Some of you will come to this moment of self-awareness naturally. Some will need to have your feet held to the fire. Some of you simply won’t care. That is your choice.

But know that if I buy your stuff collect your work, it won’t be because you just love color.

It will be because something about it that is lovely and poignant and human is calling to me.

12 Comments

Filed under art, artist statement, craft, inspiration, life, marketing, mindfulness, self promotion, telling your story, What is the story only you can tell?

COUNT THE HOURS

A reader left a comment yesterday on my LESSONS FROM HOSPICE Part Deux essay. Only sixteen hours of the last year could be devoted to art due to family circumstances.

Now if sixteen hours is all you got, that’s a lot.

Here’s another thing to consider….

Months ago, I read an essay (and I apologize from the bottom of my heart that I cannot remember where I read it) on writing.

The author was working on a book project. At first, they tried to write whenever they had a good chunk of time. Over the course of a year, that came to a handful of days and half-days, and something like 10,000 words. Sounds impressive.

The next six months, they resolved to write for twenty minutes a day, no matter what.

In three months, they wrote 50,000 words.

That stopped me in my tracks.

Yes, some projects take a depth of concentration, a certain amount of time.

But others don’t.

So two possibilities are open to you:

Work in smaller time chunks.

Or….

Work on projects that don’t demand that total immersion. This is the time to work on sketches, samples, smaller works or simpler pieces.

I thought I didn’t have enough time to write and post this today. And for sure I don’t have time to do a deep editing.

But I started anyway, and this is how far I got in ten minutes.

How did I do? :-)

9 Comments

Filed under art, balance, choices, craft, creativity, life, time management, writing

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE #1

When someone is going through something profound and difficult, sometimes all that’s needed to make it bearable is the presence of another human being. A hand to hold in the dark. The soothing rhythm of someone breathing along with you.

It’s been a year since my initial training as a hospice volunteer. An amazing year.

I’ve had several assignments–clients–since then, too. As powerful as the training was, putting it into action is even more so.

As a “recovering fixer”, I was not surprised that the hardest thing to do as a hospice volunteer is…..

Nothing.

They told us that, they warned us. I thought I got it, too. (Remember how I let go of being full of knowing…?)

It was harder than I thought!

Every time I felt compelled to “do something” or “fix something”, it always became clear that was not my task.

Troubled family relationships? There’s a hospice social worker for that. Pain and disability? There’s a hospice physician and a hospice nurse for that. Light housework, feeding, cleaning? There’s a hospice nursing assistant for that. Questions about the soul, heaven, the afterlife, whether there IS an afterlife? There is always their minister or priest, or the hospice chaplain for that.

“Doing” was very hard to let go of.

As a hospice volunteer, all I had to do was be there.

Because that is what a volunteer does. We just show up. Sometimes, all we do is sit.

If we need to be there but the client doesn’t want us to–say, a spouse or family simply need respite care–we read a book in another room and simply give peace-of-mind to those who just need to get out for a cup of coffee or a haircut.

If the client asks for a volunteer and later they change their mind, then we come for a little while–then leave.

If the client simply wants someone there to hold their hand, that is what we do best.

We can be the most expendable part of the team, or the most important, for a few moments, a few days or few weeks.

But here’s what’s certain–it’s impossible to try to be the best.

It’s very hard to be the best “be-er” in hospice care.

In a world where we are encouraged to always be our best (like the sad little refrain in Joss Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse), it is very hard to let go of that.

Even as I urge myself and others to recognize the creative spirit in ourselves, to nurture the skills, talents and passion within, it was profound to learn another truth:

Sometimes, all you have to be is….human.

Was it boring? Never.

There is something deep and real about serving in this way. I will have to work my way toward recognizing what that is over the next few months…or years.

Was it depressing? Not really. There is something about being allowed into this person’s life, at this time, with all the clarity that brings to your heart, that made it always poignant, and often exhilarating.

And oddly, I think it made me cherish my art all the more, even knowing that it could be taken away from me in a heartbeat. Even knowing (because I’ve seen it) that there will come a day when I would leave it all behind without a thought, without a regret.

So the first gift of hospice is to recognize the power of simply being.

Tomorrow I will share another gift of hospice.

5 Comments

Filed under art, humor, lessons from hospice, life, perfectionism

WE CAN ALWAYS USE ANOTHER HERO

We all need a hero.

And we can all BE a hero.

Although I love that Tina Turner song from the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, I have to disagree…

We do need another hero. Lots of ‘em.

I’m often asked how I got started making my art, and I’ll share it here.

I was the typical “class artist” throughout grade school, drawing at every opportunity. (Mostly horses, come to think of it.) Then drawing for other kids (“Draw a dog for me!” “Can you draw a mouse?”) Then cartoons for the school newspaper (and writing a funny column, come to think of it).

I couldn’t wait to go to college, so I could learn to be an artist. (Our school’s art programs constantly fell victim to budget cuts, so I had very little access to making “real” art.) That didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons, none of them very good in hindsight.

And so I left my art as a young person. Mostly because I believed so many MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS.

I backed away from it later because when I stayed home with my children, it was so very very hard to make time for anything beyond trying to be a good wife and a good mother. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever introduced yourself as “(your child’s name here)’s mom”. I still introduce myself to some people as “Doug’s mom” and “Robin’s mom”.)

There was barely time to knit a hat or finish a project before I had to clear the table for lunch, or dinner, let alone take on any serious or involved ventures.

I actually got to the point where I decided to simply focus on good wife/good mom, and wait til there was more time/money/opportunity to do differently.

I thought it was the right thing to do. There was some relief in “letting go” of that dream.

But something in me was sad, too. I pushed it down and tried to forget about it.

Shortly after that, as I watched my darlin’ three-year-old daughter at play, I found myself daydreaming about her…

What would her life be like? It seemed to spread before us like a tiny brook, growing into a mighty river.

What kind of person would she be? I hoped she’d be the same person she was now: Quiet but deep-thinking; shy but fierce in her beliefs; talented in so many ways; loving yet independent; quirky, different, her own person, comfortable in her own skin.

What kind of work would she do? There were so many possibilities.

Who would she love? Would she marry, too? I hoped she’d find someone who would respect her strengths and encourage her dreams. I hoped she’d find a loving partner who would let her shine, who would let her simply be herself.

And then an epiphany whacked me right over the head. Three big questions tumbled into my brain. In big glowing capital letters.

1) Did my mother want that for me when I was young?
(I still don’t know the answer to that one. I was the oldest of seven, there may not have been time to spend daydreaming!)

2) How could I want that for my daughter, and not want that for myself?

3) How will my daughter know what that looks like–to be all she can be–if I didn’t model that for her?

I knew I had to be a hero for my daughter. And for me.

I knew I had to be authentic for my daughter. And for me.

That was the day I knew I had to be an artist. Or die.

That was the day I knew it didn’t even matter if I would be a good artist. I just had to do it.

It’s a perfect inspirational story for parents. These are powerful questions for breaking through the barriers we erect between ourselves and our dreams. It’s amazing to see the look of shocked enlightenment on the face of something who “gets it”:

“What am I teaching my kid??”

Are you actually teaching them to NOT live their dream? (Because you’re not?)

Are you showing them they shouldn’t try if they think they might fail? (Beause you’re afraid to?)

Are you telling them that someone else’s needs always outweigh their own? (Because that’s what you always do?)

Ow. Ow. OW!!

If you don’t have kids of your own, maybe this would be helpful:

“Someone–somewhere–is looking to you to be a hero.”

Maybe someone we care about deeply. Maybe not.

Sometimes it’s easier to be brave for someone else we care about, braver than we would normally choose for ourselves. Hopefully, as we grow older/wiser/more evolved, we choose to follow our power because that’s the right thing to do. (See the Martha Graham quote here.

But til then, altruism can be a force for good that’s also good for us.

Be someone’s hero. Be your own hero.

11 Comments

Filed under art, business, courage, craft, creativity, inspiration, life, mental attitude

THE DEVIL AT WORK IN THE WORLD

The Devil’s two most powerful tools in this world are vanity and envy.

I’ve written so much about jealousy and envy, I thought I had nothing left to say. But I do.

I know that technically speaking, the terms are not identical. Envy is wanting what someone else has. Jealousy is fear of losing what you have.

But the premise is the same: Your perception is, you fear you have something to lose, and somebody else is responsible for that fear.

Envy has been a powerful thread in my life. No matter how “enlightened” I get, I struggle with it. Either I’m preoccupied with someone else having more skill/good fortune/attention, or someone is giving me crap because they envy me.

Seems like much of the trouble in the world is based on envy, from my own small woes to those of great nations.

If someone copies your work, part of that is because they see you have skill/success/attention/money/whatever. They think if they simply make the same work, they will have that, too.

If someone is envious of your artwork, and they are in a position of power over you (a juror for a show, a standards committee member), they can make life miserable for you in countless small and subtle ways.

If they are a peer or a friend, it’s even worse. Suddenly, everything you say or do draws a sarcastic remark, a biting comment, a moment of ridicule. A once-promising friendship warps into something sad and rueful.

When I allow myself to envy, it’s just as bad. Trust me.

But the real sin in envy is not in the behavior itself, or the misery it causes.

It’s because by giving in to it, we give away our power.

We give away everything beautiful, unique and wonderful that’s in us. We destroy the gifts that are given us–our talent, our perseverance, our joy–and turn them into dust.

Earlier this month, I almost left my dojo for another that seemed more compatible. I thought I would join a school that was less physically demanding, more sympathetic to my aging body.

I talked with my head instructor; he reluctantly agreed my reasons were sound. But he said I had to let the head of my school know.

I have one thing I do well that I’m proud of. I make the hard phone calls. I arranged to meet with Mr. R in person.

What happened then was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

I will make a long story short–this was a complex situation, with a long history, involving many talented, good people. Much of it is personal and not tangent to the story, so I won’t go into it.

But the heart of this story is, Mr. R quoted that opening line to me. He told me when he’d heard it, and why.

Envy was at the root of the long, sad story that had left so many people deeply unhappy, and not at peace with themselves.

That’s when I realized that another, deeper reason for me leaving was not simply the tough work-out. The real reason was, I was envious of others in the class. I felt stupid having to step out when things got hard. Others were moving ahead, and I was not.

That was bad. Because I had lost track of my true reasons for practicing Tae Kwon Do.

I’d forgotten that my practice is always, for myself.

Not to be better than so-and-so, or to get to my next belt, or have my teacher praise me.

I must practice because I love what Tae Kwon Do can teach me.

I must practice because I love the discipline of trying to be my best.

I must practice for the joy of mastering something–sometimes in a horribly pathetic long drawn-out process, to be sure–to get good at something simply because I keep doing it, no matter what.

I, and I alone, am responsible for pacing myself within the class. If I can’t do sets of fifty push-ups anymore, then I must break it down into sets of 25, or 20. Or seven, if that’s all I can squeeze out.

If I can’t run fast laps on the hard floor, then I can run slow laps on the mat. Or walk, if that’s all my body can handle that day.

And there is no need to feel embarrassed when I need to step up or slow down. Because 1) it’s not anyone else’s place to judge me, and 2) I must stop judging myself.

Can you see the implications for our art?

I have quoted Martha Graham’s quote many times, but I’ll do it again. And I see I’ve lost the copy I used to hang prominently on my bulletin board, so I’ll print it out again for me, too:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.

And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. …

No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

from The Life and Work of Martha Graham[

Everyone always has there own reasons for their behavior. If they are envious of you, it has nothing to do with you. There is nothing you can do to deflect it, or control it, either. Sometimes we have the luxury of removing ourselves from the situation, sometimes we can’t.

Understand that envy is based on fear. Fear that there is not enough love, or not enough attention, or not enough money, or not enough opportunity for all of us. Fear creates a little death. It takes the joy of living away from us.

We can only manage ourselves. The only thing we can change is how we respond. The only thing to do is to keep doing what we’re supposed to do, on the very highest level.

We can only try to make our decisions out of love, and hope, instead of fear.

We can only keep making the unique work, the art, that is in our hearts.

I have had the support of amazing people in my life, who have helped me internalize that. I may need a refresher course from time to time, but I always get back to the same place, the place of inner strength and conviction.

This is my gift to the world, the work of my hands, the work of my words, the work of my heart.

It is all we really have, but it is astonishingly powerful.

And when we truly understand and embrace that, we are astonishing, too.

25 Comments

Filed under art, copycats, craft, creativity, envy, inspiration, jealousy, life, mastery, Nibble theory, professional jealousy