TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: Slow Down When Things Get Hard

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

"...it’s okay to simply lay back in our little boat, and drift."
“…it’s okay to simply lay back in our little boat, and drift.”

Sometimes, it’s about NOT doing….

 (6 minute read) 

 In last week’s post, I shared my thoughts on how “waiting”, though it can feel like “doing”, can end up with us “doing nothing.” Many readers shared their own stories about moving forward. Others shared theirs about the realization they were indeed, just “waiting”. They were inspired to be more proactive with their art, and their art marketing.

But the first commenter broke my heart, with their story of dealing with loss, and grief for the last few years. Having gone through that myself the last two years, I know what it feels like to feel like our heart has no room, no desire for art-making.

It’s true our present culture can put a timer on grieving. People may expect us to “get over it” within six months. (There are ways to protect ourselves from that.) Others do “go long” with their grieving, and struggle to find a way forward. (There are ways to deal with that, too.)

What I wanted to tell that person is, it’s okay to be stuck.*

Yes, it’s important to work consistently and with intention to a) make our creative work, and b) get it out into the world.

But sometimes we just can’t. And that’s okay.

The first time I ever heard this concept—the idea that sometimes life just gets too hard to “soldier on”, that it’s okay to step back and breathe—was in Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. She described our creative efforts as paddling that boat swiftly down the river. But there may be times when we just can’t paddle.

And then, she writes, it’s okay to simply lay back in our little boat, and drift.

The current will still carry us downstream. Just not as fast.

“slow down when things get hard…”

Life has a way of getting in the way of our goals and dreams, our hopes and aspirations. It may be a good thing: Our first child, perhaps, (or the fourth!!!), or a new home. Maybe our spouse got a great job opportunity….on the other side of the country, far from friends, family, and supporters of our work.

More often, it’s that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night, the one none of us wants to get, ever. Or the call that a loved one is definitely nearing the end of their journey, perhaps expected, but just as difficult.

Maybe it happens to us. I know several potters who had to leave their beloved medium, and find another way to express themselves that doesn’t involve repetitive stress injuries. We may experience illness or debilitation. Or, even harder, we may take on the caretaking for a loved one, for years, in what feels like a grinding, thankless, sleepless exercise that will never end. Until it does, and then it feels even worse, focusing only on what we did wrong, and what we could have done better.

For those of you here, in these hard places, I’m here to tell you: It’s okay.

It’s okay to step back if life is overwhelming. It’s okay to put down the oars, to lay back in your little boat, and let the current carry you for awhile.

It’s okay to walk away from a creative career that doesn’t feed your soul anymore….until you hear the call of this one, or another one, again.

It’s okay to put down our creative work, when it becomes just another burden we’ve been asked to carry….until we’re ready to take it up again.

This is when it’s okay to wait.

This happened to me, in 2018 and well into 2019. Things just got hard. Yeah, it could have been worse, but that’s not much comfort when the suffering and sadness never seems to end.

The trick is knowing when it’s time to pick up your paddle again.

And who you can ask for help, to get you moving again.

 One tip is to still go to your creative-making space from time to time. Check in: Is there a little sketch you can do? A small surface you can clear? No? That’s okay.

But still check in from time to time. At some point, you’ll see something that you want to finish. Or start. Some little task that will help you remember what it felt like to simply want to make something new. (Remember the generous commenter who shared how they carved out a tiny bit of time during their days of full-time care of their parent? Brilliant!)

Another, bigger trick is to find your creative supporters, friends or family who know who you are—an artist!—and who hold that memory for you, until you’re ready to pick up the pencil/brush/clay tool/needle again. (I hope some of the stories people shared will help!)

The artist support group workshop I took from Deborah Kruger lo-these-many-years-ago, stressed this, too. You can, and should, keep going to the meet-ups, even if you haven’t made anything in months, or years. Their job isn’t to nag you, or tell you you’re doing it wrong. Their job is to listen, to be a witness to what you’re going through. And down the road, to gently remind you it’s time to get back in the saddle.

There’s a reason for the saddle simile. If/when we fall from a horse, we’re told we need to get back on, and ride. Otherwise, the fear and anxiety can grow until we tell ourselves we don’t even want to ride anymore.

Getting back in the saddle can remind us why we ride in the first place: For the joy of being outside, in tune with a complex animal that enjoys the work as much as we do, for the simple pleasure of riding, in sync with our companion, along a wide river, under the trees, on a crisp autumn morning.

And so it is with our art.

When we’re ready, it will be there, waiting for us. All the reasons we’ve said, “I can’t….” will be waved gently away. “It’s time” our work will whisper to us, gently, and urgently. “Come on back! The road is waiting! The river is still flowing!”

Wherever you are on your path, or on the river, know that sometimes the way gets hard. Remember, even when it feels like we are getting nowhere, we are still moving forward quietly, gently. Life goes on as we work through our grief, process our new situation, and find ways around our setbacks.

Because our creative work is just to big, too beautiful to set aside. It is powerful stuff, as we will remember when we take it up again. It will always be waiting for us.

Ironically, these setbacks that are real, the ones we survive, will help us understand better the ones we manufacture for ourselves: “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t know how to do that.” “Nobody wants my work.” It’s easier to see these for the silly (though crippling) stories they are. Shoo!

Going through the real hard stuff, helps us move forward through the imaginary stuff we put on ourselves. We know better, and when we know better, we can choose to do better.

Are you waiting, now? What helps you keep hope in your heart? Are you ready to get back to your art? What will your first step be? If you’re comfortable, share this part of your journey. Someone else may need to hear it today!

If you liked this article, share it with someone who needs it.

If someone sent you this article, and you found it helpful, let them know!

And if you want to read more like this, sign up for the Fine Art Views newsletter, or subscribe to my blog, where I republish them after they run on FAV.

* That person said they were already starting up their creative work again, exploring new media, new venues, etc. Patricia, you are doing it right!

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

6 thoughts on “TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: Slow Down When Things Get Hard”

  1. As a writer, I’m focussed on my need to keep producing. In my recent travels I also needed to stop, look, see, experience. But I felt torn by the need to also document. When your head is in a laptop or notebook, you’re not looking around you. We should trust our minds and our memories a little bit more, and document when we stop. Some things must be experienced — that slow drift along a river in a punt, fingers trailing in the water. So clichéd, but unforgettable.

    Sometimes we are forced to pause because either our body has let us down, or grief in circumstances. Yes, pause. Deal with the emotional load. But sometimes, creating in grief is valuable too. People may never see your results, but the creation process at a time of intense emotional pain can be therapeutic. You may create an ugly monstrosity, with sharp angles and stark pain. But it has come from your own depths, and it has meaning and value

    Not pressuring yourself — I think that is key. Adding guilt to an already heavy load can delay a return to full-blown creativity.

    Enjoy the drift down the river. Contemplate the navel. It’s all a necessary part of the creation process, to simply just BE.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love what you said. You ARE a writer! You see the value of our creative process in getting through the hard places. Our creative work can be a way of absorbing, understanding, transforming the difficult times in our lives, in a way that can also lift the hearts of others. Thank you for your comments, they are beautiful.

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  2. When I spent the 3 years being my second husband’s caregiver while he fought the beast. I just am someone whose artwork and creative energy saved me from the stress of the tasks of life I carried a bag of creative treasures and art pieces in progress that I could finish by hand The nurses , doctors and those around me would smile As they watched me stitch on something. And if I spied a sad face it became my mission to get them to smile so I would make them a pocket smile. Two by three inch fabric ATC And give it too them It always worked. I gave many of these away. Some days larger pieces And all in all I survived the worse days and kept my soul from shattering watching my husband fighting every day till his last

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A hauntingly beautiful story, showing how even our tiniest actions, during our most difficult times, can lift the hearts of others. And knowing that we can, and did, can lift ours. You are truly a source for good in the universe, and I love what you’ve shared here today. Thank you!

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  3. I can very much relate to this post and to many of the blogs I’ve read of yours over the past few years. Thank you for sharing your heart and hard-learned lessons with your readers and fellow creatives. My youngest daughter (I have three) was diagnosed at age 2, with a rare cancer. She battled it for five years and passed away just after her 7th birthday, eight years ago now. For years I was busy with three little children, balancing work and home life, with little time to grieve well or to be creative; life was survival at best. There was a point when I had to step off the “hamster wheel” and allow myself to rest and process life. During this time, I was pulled into painting sets for my daughters’ dance studio. It was a voluntary effort that probably did more for my heart and soul than I could have imagined. It reminded me that of all activities in my life, nothing makes me happier than creating beauty for others. In more recent years, my family and friends have recognized that I come alive when I’m creating. I have been encouraged to resurrect that part of me that was lost for a long time, to use my gifting and passions as a way to find healing a wholeness and joy as well as to bless others. It is hard, the grief is still very real, but little by little, tears give way to testimony. I’m beginning to find joy again and long buried dreams of becoming a more accomplished artists, writer, and children’s author are starting to take root. It is a process. I am realizing my need for encouragement and community and I’m learning to be vulnerable and authentic. Making the time to pursue my passions when the busyness of life interferes is difficult, but I am finding that this “tug on my heart” is growing stronger. It is a culmination of brokenness and surrender to something (and someone) much greater at work in me and the world around me.

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    1. Joanna, it takes courage to tell a powerful story like this, and you did it beautifully. First, my heart goes out to you for your daughter. We expect to lose our parents, we know either we or our partner will go first, but we never expect to lose a child. Second, there is even more power of your story, in everything you did afterwards: Doing what you had to do (take care of your other children, etc.) and when you COULD “drift”, you did. Once you settled into drifting, something crossed your path, something so out of the box, you simply said, “yes”. And then, slowly but surely, you were restored to your best self, with much introspection and acceptance of what you’ve been through. Yes, the grief never goes away, but it gets “softer”. Last, this terrible tragedy was the start of a whole new journey for you, something we would NEVER chose, but a powerful catalyst for your life choices. I’m in awe of the clarity you’ve achieved: The need for community, encouragement, and support; and the desire to open your heart to everything life throws in our path. Your last sentence moved me to tears. Writing is a good path for you! Your story will help someone else, hopefully today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps years from now. I can already feel its healing force, and I know others will, too. THANK YOU for sharing it!!!

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