Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips
from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it,
don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.
– “Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich, from Original Fire: Selected and
So I have two questions today:
How can I best put this sentiment into practice for myself, today?
And how the heck did he know what our household looks like??!!
OK, three questions: IT IS NOT OKAY FOR YOU TO USE MY TOOTHBRUSH!!! (JON!!!) (Not a question, I guess.)
There are many ways to be a force for good in the world!
I’ve met many creative people over the years. In fact, I might meet more than most other artists, because, a) I accept many ways of being “creative” in the world, and b) because I ask.
Ask what? Well, when new folks visit my studio for the first time, especially when they are still in the exploring/browsing stage (i.e., not actively looking to buy something), I often ask them, “What creative work do YOU do?”
It breaks my heart when they protest they are not creative at all. Nope, not a creative bone in their body. Other people are artists, but not them.
When I tell them my definition of “creative” is pretty broad, that’s when the conversations really get interesting.
I explain that I can be a snoot about what is “real art”, too, but I prefer not to. “Shamans were healers, teachers, and artists,” I say. “So if you get joy from any activity that puts something in the world that wasn’t there before, and it makes other people’s lives better, too, well, then that is creative work, too!”
You should try this sometimes. The results are amazing!
People go from being apologetic and humble, to expanding (figuratively and literally.) They say, “Oh! Well then….” And stories come tumbling out.
There’s art, “fine art”, fine craft, functional craft, paper arts, etc. There are people who love the music arts (singing, composing, playing an instrument, dancing), dramatic arts (acting, writing plays, set designers, cinema), even comedy, mime, etc.
But there are also people who love to cook or bake. They take great pleasure in preparing a lovely meal and sharing it with family and friends. (By the way, baking is a lot harder to get right than cooking, especially when you are creating a new recipe. There’s science involved, just as tricky as creating glazes for ceramics.)
What about people who garden, or design landscapes, or arrange flowers, or work with dried flowers? (Yep, some of these are categories in the highly-respected fine crafts organization I still belong to in NH.) These are people who create something special for memorable occasions (weddings, funerals, Mother’s Day, etc.), or who make our neighborhoods, even our homes, look charming and lovely. It’s a lot harder than it looks (ask me how I know) to consider what blooms when, and how it coordinates or contrasts with other plants, whether it needs sun or shade, a dry climate or lots of rain, high maintenance or low. A beautiful plant can brighten someone’s hospital stay, or celebrate a birthday, or provide food for our family or the neighborhood.
What about healing? Some people just have a knack for getting to the heart of our aches and pains. They listen carefully, ask the right questions, and look for the best solution for us. They help us get better, they calm our fears and anger, they help us live our lives without pain, with clarity, without self-condemnation, and with better resources.
Then there’s nurturing. Some people are simply amazing with babies and youngsters, and whose care for the infirm or elderly makes a world of difference to those clients. We may not “see” them til we need them, and realize how grateful we should/could be.
Teaching can be an art. We’ve all had a teacher or two that made us wonder why they even bothered show up, who made our lives hell. And then there are those teachers whose grace and presence still echo throughout our lives, the teacher who believed in us when no one else did, who floored us with their kindness and attention, or pushed us harder to do better.
There are people who fix things and rebuild things, so that something we need to live our lives work better, last longer, and is more efficient. This becomes even more valuable in a world struggling with climate change and plastic debris, an instance where “less than” is actually a good thing.
What about the scientist who finds something unusual in that experiment, and ultimately finds a new medicine or treatment for millions of people who would otherwise live lives full of pain, disability, or mental anguish? If they save even a few people, how meaningful is their work? For those people, and their family and community, a lot. I started a list of other scientific life-saving and planet-healing stuff, but you get the idea.
Here’s why identifying these activities as “creative” is important:
I find when the person doesn’t do this work that means so much to them, it affects them deeply.
Sometimes it’s obvious. They seem wistful as they browse my studio. They tell a story about why they set that creative work aside. They “don’t have time”, or “it didn’t pay very well”, or “it isn’t ‘real art’”, or someone said they weren’t good at it. It seems like a luxury, something to be set aside when there are more important things to take care of. They miss it, but how can they justify the time and the energy when their lives are so full?
When that happens,I encourage them to do it anyway, however they can fit it into their life. After all, as some readers remind me, not every creative work we do can also earn us a living.
But as we talk, it’s very clear to me that they miss it. It brought them joy, it gave them energy, and now life just seems a little harder, a little crazier, a little more demanding.
They need to put it back in their life so they can live more fully, with a little joy and restoration to their higest, best self.
When I “decided” I wasn’t a “real” artist, there were other things that distracted me. But as I look back, they were creative work, too! Teaching, quilting, knitting, jewelry-making, all brought me a little comfort and joy through the years. It got me through, though, of course, “everything else” always came first: Childcare, housework, etc.
How did that work out for me? Well…it kept me in the look, until I chose to take it to a higher level. The quilting evolved into fiber collage. The buttons I started making (out of polymer clay) for my sweaters became horses, and fish, and bears. The jewelry-making got richer, better, and more uniquely my own. And teaching/sharing skills creates community.
I wish someone had told me there are a thousand ways to be an artist in our modern world, especially with all the new material, new techniques, and new resources available to us.
I wish other people weren’t so quick to stick me in a box, either judging my worthiness on whether my work was art, or craft, or simply too different to be considered anything. (Let me tell you about my very first attempt to introduce a gallery to my wall hangings, when I was told my “design aesthetic was immature….”) (Let’s just leave it at how relieved I was years later, when reliable sources confirmed that person had “issues”….)
I wish all the boxes weren’t so “square” or so narrow. I remember the relief I felt when I applied for a major fine craft show. I called the show organizers when I couldn’t figure out what medium to check on the application. The person I spoke to said firmly, “I hate that, too! We should appreciate the artists who are SO creative, there’s no single category to put them into!” (I quit pursuing many of those shows because I would be juried in for one medium, but not the others, often excluding the one that generated the most sales: Jewelry.)
I asked the art students what their creative work was. At first I got the usual: “Painting!” “Graphite!” (Ha! What a great way to frame pencil drawing!)
But when I opened that door to a broader definition, one said, “I love baking!” They said it proudly, too! I rejoiced at that and told them so. They may also pursuit the more commonly-recognized forms of art-making. But they were reassured that whatever the work of their heart is, it deserves their attention and time.
There is something for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be what everyone else agrees is “real art”.
If it makes us a better person, if it makes the world a better place, if it gives even one person in the world joy, hope, and validity, well then, I believe that’s a good thing.
And I’m delighted these young people already know they are “doing it right.” I can’t wait to see what they do with their passion, and their skills.
This article is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores 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. 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….”
It was the last day of December, the last day of 2018. It’s been a hard year in so many ways. I don’t know whether to embrace or watch with suspicion the dawn of this new one. Do I move forward with hope, and courage? Or do I hunker down until it’s safe to come out?
I’m a fan, and not just because I love her poetry for what it is to me. I used several of her works when I created a grief writing workshop as a hospice volunteer. Her poems are accessible, full of the beauty of small moments in nature, with a big bang of wonder and insight inside. They always draw a gasp of amazement, and they often make us cry.
I don’t know much about her. I only recently discovered she was in a relationship with a woman, Mary Malone Cook, for over 40 years, and her partner died in 2005 I didn’t know about the hardship and abuse she suffered as a child. I didn’t know she lived in Ohio but took up New England as her home years later. And as I read “Blueberries”, with her musings about eating blueberries year round, something new for her, I wondered where she lives now.
And so I Googled “Mary Oliver where does she live now” and came across a Wikipedia entry. And found this somewhat disturbing entry in “Critical Reviews”:
Vicki Graham suggests Oliver over-simplifies the affiliation of gender and nature: “Oliver’s celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.” In her article “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver”, Diane S. Bond echoes that “few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver’s work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical that identification with nature can empower women.” In The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Sue Russell notes that “Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”
I had to stop reading.
Who are these people??
Who are they to judge a poet’s work based on how “political” her thinking is, or how much she aligns publicly with her gender?
My husband, an English major as an undergrad, contemplated a career in academia briefly. He says this is exactly why he didn’t pursue it. “It’s just academic-speak”, he says.
I think it’s more than that.
Someone is saying Mary Oliver is “not doing it right”.
They are saying she is not enough.
Jon said, “You read poetry? I haven’t read any poetry since college!” What?!“You haven’t read “Wild Geese?!”
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Even as I tried to read it aloud to Jon, I knew I couldn’t. Tears were already welling up. I handed him my phone to read it.
Or how about “Summer Day”?
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I’ve rarely enjoyed poetry “analysis”. I’ve never understood the desire to write in specific forms or meters as a professional challenge, unless the rhythm and patterns lend themselves to even deeper feelings of connection. (As in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I understand there are hidden gifts in complex musings, and challenges that can deepen our experience. It’s like doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle as opposed to the 5-minute versions that always appear in our local newspaper.
But there are reasons it’s okay for poetry to be accessible, and simple.
It’s okay not to speak for everyone. Geez, white guys of Northern European descent have been doing it for years.
It’s okay for a writer to simply share what’s in their heart.
It’s okay to make people cry with our beautiful words.
If I Wanted A Boat by Mary Oliver, Blue Horses
“I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe? Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat that I couldn’t steer.”
What do I hear in this?
It takes courage to let go of trying to control our future.
Or this one:
WHAT GORGEOUS THING
by Mary Oliver
I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.
It tells me it’s okay to seek solace in the tiny moments in life. To hold the simplest things and see. To listen. To wonder.
They won’t fix everything. Maybe they won’t fix anything.
But if they give me a teensy break, a moment of relief and respite, I’m taking it, with gratitude.
Fortunately for my mood today, I came across this lovely article by Ruth Franklin in The New Yorker: What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand. It helped me back to my happy place. Still, a few off remarks: Oliver didn’t write much about her lover, and she rarely writes about the dark places in her life. Such a lack “…flattens her range….” in the opinion of this writer.
Whatever. I’ve been writing articles, essays, and blog posts for almost two decades. I never write about my relationship with my husband, and although I write about what it feels to be in dark places, I keep away from the deeply personal. And don’t bury myself in the dark.
I don’t, except in my “blort book”, because it’s my dark place. Yes, it’s part of me. But I get to decide how much I share, and when, and how.
When I’ve had suicidal thoughts (and I’ve had them all my life), I know what they are: A response to the despair and hopelessness I’m overwhelmed with. I also know it will pass. It looks like an escape, but I know it will only bring enormous pain to those I leave behind.
(To be perfectly frank, I’m also a chickenshit. I’m afraid I’d mess it up and have to live with pain, and shame, and disability the rest of my life. So no, I’m not gonna do it.)
But most people will “hear” a plea for help. They will respond with a “solution”, a “fix”.
There isn’t one. Or at least, it’s never the right one.
My truth: I’m kinda hard-wired to be in mild despair. I always expect the worst.
But I choose to look for the light instead. I chooselook for the life lesson that will help me move forward. I choose to seek out the folks I know I can trust, who know who I am, and who I want to be, to help me find my way back.
I also want to respect my partner’s privacy. We’ve been together 40 years. That wouldn’t be true if he weren’t a good human being, worthy of love, who is simply trying to do the best he can. He has saved my sanity a jillion times. At his best, he meets me where I am, and helps me take a step forward. At his worst, he is bad about cleaning up after himself. Not too shabby, in my book.
I even want to protect the privacy of those who have hurt me. It’s on me to work my way back to the light. They have their own story, and it may involve things I know nothing about, no matter how much pain they’ve created for me.
That’s my choice. It doesn’t make me “less than”. (Yes, I am a proud member of the “#metoo” moment, but it’s just not for public consumption. For now.)
I’m not going to hold it against Mary Oliver, either.
Thank heaven for the last part of that “critic review” section by Sue Russell:
“…but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”
So go forward today, with the joy you find in the small things. For me today, it’s Noddy wanting a drink from the kitchen faucet. Chai trying to sneak a lap of milk from my cereal bowl. Tuck wanting a butt-scritch. Jon reassuring me that academic critics live in a world of their own making, and not to worry about it.
Here are my experiences with affirmations, a complicated and simple concept.
An affirmation is a positive assertion. It is also a powerful tool for change.
Affirmations can be part of your support group agenda, done as a group exercise. But it’s just as powerful as an individual, daily exercise.
Affirmations became a powerful topic in that first workshop with Deborah Kruger. We were on our second day, and boy were we a needy group! As Deborah encouraged us to be the artist we’d always dreamed of being, we all pushed back with disclaimers. All that encouragement to recognize our strengths and talents? Hah! It was easy for her to say… She was talented, strong, and smart. We were little groveling wriggle-worms, looking for some proof we could have what we craved so badly. (As I’ve said, my fairly-recent commitment to my art empowered me. But I recognized the same feelings of self-doubt shared by my group-mates.
About the eleventh time someone voiced that pushback, Deborah put down her notes, and looked at us thoughtfully.
“I don’t usually do this in group training”, she said. “But I think I need to share a bit of my own personal journey with you today. I want you to really understand where I started, how far I’ve come, and how I got here.”
I will not share the personal experience she shared with us. It’s not my story to tell.
Suffice to say that we were shocked and appalled. And her story gave even more power to this insight, this tool for self-growth she shared with us:
Every sentence of inferiority, self-doubt, insecurity, invisibility, had to be replaced with a sentence, of strength, courage, confidence, compassion, and ownership.
And it was going to take time, and repetition, and practice.
“I believe,” she said quietly, “That when we are told we are worthless, when we are told we are nothing, when we believe ourselves to be invisible, when we are told that a million times, we need to tell ourselves the opposite, a million-and-one times.”
She said, “We have to offset the cruelty and ignorance, and fill ourselves with something new, something better, something kinder, and something empowering.”
Just as there is the 10,000 hours thing about the amount of time and effort that goes into becoming skilled at something, this is the “plus one” thing about overcoming “truths” that hold us back.
A beloved professor shared with me his favorite go-to affirmation: IALAC.
“I am lovable and capable.”
After Deborah’s powerful, personal story of self-healing and growth, I created my very first affirmation, based on how uncomfortable I still felt saying this simple statement:
I am an artist.
And so I followed her advice.
I wrote this sentence hundreds of times. Thousands. Sometimes I filled three pages a day, writing it over and over again.
I still remember the feeling of amazement that day when someone asked me what I did. With no hesitation, I replied, “I’m an artist.” Boom.
I’ve created many more affirmations over the years. “I have a story to tell.” “I have the power of my choices.” “I am worthy of love and respect.” “I am a successful artist.” “I am a writer.” “I have a place in the world. My art has a place in the world.”
When I took this workshop, I wasn’t even making Lascaux-inspired art! I made tiny dolls and hand-knitt sheep, handmade polymer buttons (!foreshadowing!), and small doll quilts. And yet I was ready to hear all the wisdom being shared with me.
I don’t write about how much money I could make, or how famous I could be. That isn’t the measure of my success as an artist anymore. (Don’t get me wrong, I love selling my work!) And if that’s your goal, use it!
For me, when I hear that someone’s heart has been lifted, or healed, or strengthened by something I’ve written, when someone tells me my work creates wonder and mystery for them, when I realize I may have helped someone through a hard place, or encouraged them to tell their story, that means success to me.
Take a few moments today, and think about that whiny voice you hear whenever you are discouraged, or lost, or unhappy with your art.
Your homework for next week (or hey, share below!) is to think about the biggest doubt you have right now about your work, your creative work, your place in this world. (I can’t tell you how many people say they are too embarrassed to call themselves an artist! “Oh sweetie, do tell!” I exclaim.)
Take that thought, the one that snuck into your heart all those years ago, and look at it.
Then transform it into a simple statement of power, and truth. Something that means something important to you.
Think this is a silly premise? Read my blog post about how a graduate education student framed her historic problem with multiplication tables.
So let’s get to work! Grab a composition book from the dollar store, and your favorite pen or pencil, and write it down a thousand times. (Er…. you don’t have to do it in one sitting.)
Simple rules: An affirmation is grounded in the present. Not “Someday I’ll….” Instead, “I am….” An affirmation is the truth YOU need to carry in your heart. Not what someone else says is your truth. An affirmation is not about “trying” (to be better, kinder, smarter, etc.) An affirmation is learning to believe, realizing, you already are.
If you struggle with even this simple task, hold that thought. You are on your way to finding a supportive group of fellow life travelers who may have some helpful ideas!
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(Originally published on my old Radio Userland blog on Friday, November 29, 2002. You can read the original post here.)
Years ago, when I was getting my master’s degree in education, I met a young woman in one of my math methods course. We paired up for several projects. I found her bright and funny and easy to work with.
One day we were doing some measurements for a hands-on project, and she stumbled on an easy mental calculation: multiplying something by 9.
I said something jokingly about her multiplication tables needing work. “Oh, I never learned my 9’s facts,” she explained. “I was absent that day.”
I thought she was joking. Surely someone as smart as she was, and as someone who was taking master’s level math methods coursework, knew that elementary school does not denote one day out of the entire fourth-grade curriculum to teach the nines multiplication table.
But she wasn’t kidding. She told me an elaborate story about being sick the day the nines table was taught, and so more than 15 years later, she was still unable to multiply by nine.
I think of that young woman often.
Coincidentally, in that same math teaching course, we were learning how to teach kids their math facts–addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. There are many easy facts. Let’s take the multiplication tables. Everyone knows what the ones facts are–1×1=1, 2×1=2, etc. Next come the twos, and it turns out they’re pretty easy, too. Most kids learn them quickly. Next are the fives and the tens. They’re easily mastered, too. Also the “doubles”–3×3=9, 4×4=16, and so on.
Now if you were to map out a chart of all the multiplication facts, and mark off all the “easy” ones, including their reversals (2×3 and 3×2, for example) you’d find almost half of the facts accounted for. And what are the strategies for learning those remaining facts?
The answer, it turns out, is not so much fun. You have to memorize them. Of course, there are some good tricks, like the nines tables. (6×9, one less than 6 is 5, 5+? = 9? 4. So 6×9=54. Cute, huh?)
But the straight skinny is, ya gotta memorize them. The math facts are one of the few academic skills that are ultimately only learned by memorization, and best reinforced by drill and practice. (Acquisition of vocabulary, especially in learning foreign languages, also benefits greatly by this approach, by the way.)
So here we have two statements, or stories, about facts. One is measurable, observable, concrete. To learn the math facts, you gotta work at them. You gotta memorize them. You gotta be able to knock out the answers within a second or two of hearing the numbers. But once you learn them, you never really forget them. You might get rusty, or you might get stuck on one or two. But the foundation, the habit, is still there.
The other story is harder to quantify. Everyone will believe it, few will really examine it. It goes like this:
“I have a special story about why I can’t do something. It’s an odd story, but it makes me feel better about not being able to do that thing. So I hold onto it fiercely….even when a calm, adult eye would see that it doesn’t even make sense anymore.”
What do you gain by holding onto a story like that?
Well…you don’t have to try anymore. You can have a clear conscience about why you can’t do that thing. Others might think you’re silly, but it’s possible no one would ever say that to your face.
In fact, probably other people, who have their own “I can’t” story, nod their head in sympathetic agreement, relieved that someone else has such a story, too. You may even get sympathy, or admiration. “Wow, that’s quite a story! How awful for you! No wonder you can’t do that!”
It also is a way to make sure you don’t have to do the real work of learning those new facts, those new ways of doing something. It’s too hard, it’s too time-consuming, it’s too late, it’s not possible, and so on.
But what do you lose with a story like that? A lot.
You lose a lot of missed chances, missed opportunities, a whole world of missed possibilities.
I’m telling this story because I used to tell myself a story like that, too.
It was all about how I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to do–make art. It was about how I couldn’t be what I really wanted to be–an artist. It was about how I would never be able to sell my work, or find anyone who would want to buy it.
The biggest one? “There are no women in my art history books. My professors said there were no women in the Lascaux caves. So women can’t really be artists, right?” *
Surprisingly, once I realized my “stories” I told about myself were just that–stories–I found I could change the story to one I like better. A huge paradigm shift occurred, and I began to see that all the things that “couldn’t happen”, could.
I now hear that same old story from people who ask me how I accomplished so much in the last five years. When I tell them, they first tell me how lucky I am. (I am, but not for the reasons they think!)
I soon hear their story. They think it’s specific to them, a special story, an unusual story. When I point out that I had the same story, they are quick to correct me that their story is different.
When I point out the inconsistencies of what they’re telling me, they tell me I don’t understand their story fully.
When I suggest ways they could tell another story, they are horrified. They’ve put so much energy into holding onto this old story. There’s just too much at stake. It’s always a really, really good story why they simply cannot do the very thing they just told me is their true heart’s desire.
So my first question for you today is: What is your story? The sad one, the one you were told, or learned to tell yourself, that keeps you stuck here?
What is the story you tell about yourself that is holding you back from doing the things you really want to do?
Fortunately, you can tell youself a different story. Tune in this Saturday for my Fine Art Views column about the power of affirmations.
The only difference is, other big changes are in store for me.
I can’t talk about them now. I’ve found that sometimes, me writing and talking about ‘next steps’ can feel like I’ve already done them. The talking replaces the doing. Not good.
This past year, an entire year apart from everything that’s gone before, has been strange. Unsettling. Exciting. Powerful. If only from the fact that we took a huge step outside our comfort zone, left familiarity behind, embraced something new. Because we believed we could, and so we did.
With this distance has come the gift of space, space to contemplate, space to heal.
My first manifesto, and events in the year before the move, sparked some usual responses from readers, friends, and family. My decision to speak up, and not hunker down, caused some explosions, some ridiculing, and a lot of patronizing. A lot of this stemmed from people who are very, very sure they have everything all figured out, and see the rest of us (me in particular) as stupid/hateful/not worthy. They consider themselves experts and all-knowing, to the extent that they don’t even know what they don’t know–to the extent that they can’t even hear someone who’s experienced something different. (A huge shout-out here to Quinn McDonald, a friend whose wisdom created the space for what I learned in hospice, to come in. Her words inspired a slew of posts about perfectionism.) (And probably more, because I used to really mess up with categories and tags in my blog.)
A fellow traveler, Sheri Gaynor, came into my life late in 2015. I’ve had an intense, beautiful session with her recently, one that finally laid to rest many old wounds I was still carrying. Sheri is a licensed therapist who uses the healthy, healing properties of horses with her clients. (If you’re interested in how this works, walk calmly to the HorseTenders Mustang Foundation in Greenfield, NH and meet their horses. An amazing family, with amazing mustangs, working in partnership, with peace and intention, creating profound experiences for all of us.)
Most attacks in my life came from me expanding, emotionally, spiritually, from new experiences and insights. And most devastating were the ones that I triggered just by being myself. “You’re too sensitive!” could have been my mantra growing up. I sure heard it enough. The attacks were at times so powerful, I would retract to protect myself. This act of retraction/contraction became such a protective measure for me, I soon equated each expansion with fear. If I stepped up/forward/outward, I would be slapped down. The contraction became a habit. It held me back.
(Quick note: I always–always–take responsibility–and apologize–for my own contribution to these attacks. Maybe I took too much on myself. Maybe I overestimated the other. I could have been more calm, more measured, more grounded. But I rarely regret what I believe and say. I’m also a sucker for a good apology (and I can smell a non-apology apology a mile away. I also know, and understand, that most people who hurt us, are hurting, themselves. That’s fine. But….Not my circus, not my monkeys.)
As one of my wise woman friends, Melinda LaBarge constantly reminds me, I’m not here to “fix” anybody else. Though I love to try, I must resist. That’s their journey, not mine. (Melinda is also the person who told me, after I whined about the difficulties of transition, “This ain’t your first rodeo. You don’t have to be the clown.”)
Looking back, I see the attacks are an important part of who I am today. The pain I’ve carried has caused major shifts in my persona. But they will not define me–or rather, restrict me–going forward. (There, I said it.)
2015 became my year of healing, though I didn’t realize it til today. (I’ve always excelled at looking back than leaning forward. Amazing what a little space to heal, and a lot of time to think, can get you.)
What does 2016 bring?
Expansion. Time to step up to the plate with my gifts.
And with it: “Protection through rejection.” I heard this phrase in the context of, sometimes we don’t get what we want because it would have been bad for us. We may feel ‘rejected’, but we were actually protected. It also works both ways: Moving forward, I may need emotional/physical/virtual distance to protect myself. Facebook is my frenemy. I see it as a way to connect, to see new points of view, to learn from others. And you can post whatever you want on your timeline. But be warned–From now on, if you shit on my timeline, you are history. (And for those who embrace the ‘a few bad apples’ theory, you have to understand–Michael Jackson got it wrong. Bad apples do spoil the whole bunch, girl. They need to be set apart from the good apples or they continue to rot, and spread the rot to the rest. You don’t tolerate, excuse, overlook, rot. (Did I get carried away with my farm metaphor??)
I hope to will practice leaving the contraction part of expansion/conttraction behind.
To all my fellow travelers in this world, to those who have helped me, educated me, encouraged me, believed in me–thank you, bless you, go with light. To those I have wronged or hurt, please forgive me. For those who have given me the gift of love, and friendship and a true sense of family, I love you. Because of you, I’m moving forward.
“…And I can do this with my hands, by creating my little horse, which symbolizes the power that comes from our choices, our actions, even in the face of despair.”
My post on 9/11 reminds me that in the face of tragedy, we always have the power of our choices.
I’ve been silent here for awhile, as we’ve wrapped up our mammoth move to Northern California. And even when I’m writing regularly, I usually stick to subjects I consider “safe” for me: Writing about the business of art, writing about making art has affected my life, sharing the lessons I’ve found in wall-climbing, martial arts, hospice, parenthood and silly pets as I muddle through life.
None of that is changing. But there is something that’s been building, building lately. If you follow me on Facebook, you may have wondered why I’ve gone all “social justice-y” as my social worker daughter Robin so aptly puts it.
I’ve decided to speak out about white privilege and racism on my blog.
Rest assured that this will not dominate my writing. That is for more knowledgeable, articulate writers than I.
But let me explain how I got here.
Several years ago, our family became involved with an abusive person who is black. In his manipulation of our family, many topics revolving around race and class were used as tools to bully and intimidate. We became ‘hyper-allergic’ to anything that reminded us of that difficult period in our lives.
My daughter is the one who walked us back from that hard place. She made us realize that the way these issues were used was hurtful, but the truth of them was valid. Not only valid, but devastating in their consequences for people of color.
I began to examine many of the things I say and believe that I felt made me a ‘liberal’, a non-racist person. I was dismayed to realize I was oblivious to what more than a third of the people in the United States experience every single day of their lives. (Numbers vary, but roughly only 62% of the U.S. population consists of non-Hispanic white people.) The daily life of people of color in our country is very, very different than anything I have ever experienced. The death of Trayvon Martin opened my eyes even more.
More recently, we’ve gotten to know our new neighbors, a naturalized American of Mexican ancestry and her white husband. I had no idea of the extent of hostilities experienced by Hispanics in California. I was totally ignorant of the police shooting/death of Andy Lopez. Soon after, the events in Ferguson, MO took place, and the grand jury decision was made. Days later, the results of the Eric Garner grand jury were announced.
As I educated myself about these incidents, more and more examples of similar tragedies arose. I felt overwhelmed. But I realized I could no longer turn away.
Normally, I would slowly return to my ‘normal life’, feeling sad but sidelined and powerless to change anything. But as I learned even more, something shifted.
It happened after I read a powerful post from a black blogger. (Deep apologies, I can’t find the appropriate link, but will find it later. I need to get this written NOW!) She noted that her white followers, white people, even her own white friends, were being remarkably silent on these issues, even on Facebook where a cute cat video can go viral in seconds. She checked around, and found this was the case for other bloggers of color, too. “Where are the white people??” she asked.
Oh. Uh…. Yeah. That would be me.
Why WAS I being silent? What was holding me back?? Believing that these events don’t affect me? That I have nothing useful to say? Was I worried about appropriating a people-of-color cultural narrative?
I realized it doesn’t matter.
Andy Lopez could have been my kid, a young man who loves his Airsoft games with his friends. Except that my kid does it in the woods of New Hampshire, on private property, whereas poorer kids of color play in parks. And poorer kids of color get shot on sight, whereas my kid is white and would probably NOT be shot.
Andy Lopez could have been my kid. But saying, “There but for the grace of God…” doesn’t do it for me anymore. Because Andy Lopez deserves grace, too.
What about simply standing up and saying, “I stand with you”….?
What about simply saying, “I believe this is unjust and intolerable”….?
What about simply saying, “We have to find a way to change this”….?
I found I could no longer tolerate remaining silent.
And I began to post on Facebook about it.
The first post created quite a stir!
Things I’ve been told lately when discussing Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Andy Lopez, Tamir Rice…..
“He wasn’t a good kid, he’d just stolen cigarettes from a store!”
Me: “Do we shoot to kill when teens shoplift?”
“He lived in an awful neighborhood!”
Me: “He didn’t choose to live there. Probably his parents didn’t, either.”
“Why do those parents let their kids play with real-looking guns??”
Me: “Have you WALKED through a WalMart lately?? And heck, I had a preschooler chew his organic peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich into a gun and pretend to shoot it!”
“Why don’t those parents teach their kids not to wave a play gun at a police officer?”
Me: “I’m sure they did. But the operative word here is…’kids’….”
“Andy Lopez was a big kid. He looked like an adult!”
Me: “He didn’t choose that, either. And even an adult shouldn’t be shot on sight for carrying a AirSoft gun.”
“He wore a hoodie! That’s a gang sign!”
Me: I don’t even know what to say
In my passion to be more involved, I alienated some people, good people. I incurred endless arguments from well-meaning people who explained to me why these victims don’t deserve my compassion. I became more frustrated as I saw people endlessly defending their own points of view, while not even really considering mine.
I say one thing to these people: I’m sorry I didn’t respect your journey.
I don’t want to respect their point of view–I try, but I’m not that evolved!–but I have to. “Let go, let God”, says a wiser friend than I. I get it. Everybody has their own journey to make. I’m at a different place in mine, but it’s not for me to say where you should be in yours.
Neither will I become silent. My art, why I make it, and why it seems to matter so much to other people, are all wrapped up in my journey. I cannot separate my art from my activism. That’s why it seemed so right to take my simple earnings from my very first open studio here, and walk around the corner to donate it all to the Center for Peace and Justice in Sonoma County.
So my manifesto which begins today, as an early “New Year’s Resolution”. Or a “New Life Resolution”, if you will. I will hold onto the other core issues I treasure–humane rescue of animals, the spirituality of art, hospice, homelessness.
But there will be a few additions:
I will share my views openly (and peacefully!) when and where I can about social justice for people of color.
I will continue to examine my own deeply rooted beliefs and assumptions that keep me from being engaged.
I will support accountability for those in power.
I will support those who write and work for these issues, with my respect and my pocketbook.
I will not hide behind rationalizing, and defensiveness, and silence.
Because only our silence stands in the way of real justice.
And here’s my manifesto for 9/11:
Today is my birthday. A Google alert tells me that today is the anniversary of the day the Lascaux cave was discovered by four teenaged boys who followed their lost dog down a hole.
In all these years I’ve made artwork inspired by the Lascaux cave, I never knew this.
It makes this piece (which I wrote on 9/11, my 49th birthday) even more poignant to me….
AN ANCIENT STORY FOR MODERN TIMES
The events of September 11, 2001 were almost too horrible to contemplate. The world seemed filled with evidence of hate, destruction and despair. As I watched events unfold, I was aware of my own reactions of anger and hate for the people who could stoop this low, and overwhelming sympathy for those whose lives were so carelessly taken in these acts of violence.
I went to my studio later, lost in despair and fearful of the new world that awaited us. As I worked, I couldn’t help thinking, “What does it matter that I make these little horses? What relevance do they have in the light of this tragic event?” I kept working as I thought.
The Cave Paintings of Lascaux…
Soon, however, it dawned on me. When the Lascaux cave paintings were created, the Ice Age was ending. The climate was changing, the great glaciers were retreating. The grasslands disappeared, and with them, the huge herds of animals that followed them. These ancient people watched as their entire way of life changed and disappeared. Some archaeologists now think the cave paintings were created to call the animals back.
Even as we stand, fearful and afraid at the dawn of a new age, so did they stand and watch as their world changed around them. They were afraid and perhaps filled with despair. But they went into the dark cave and created the most profoundly beautiful and evocative art the world has ever seen. Poignant in its message (though we cannot read it), we still feel its power 17,000 years later.
The Dawn of a New Morning…
We, too, stand at the dawn of a new morning. We, too, are afraid and despairing about what those changes will mean to us, as a nation and as individuals. We have choices to make about how we will meet those changes.
Life is not about what happens to us, but how we get through what happens to us. The kind of person we want to be determines the kind of choices we make.
We can choose how we face life.
The Choices We Make…
As an artist, I choose to affirm the creative force of the universe. In my own small way, I must stand on the side of creativity—to grow, to understand, to move forward in a constructive way, and to act in whatever way I can to honor this force. I can do this globally, by contributing to causes that seek to alleviate the conditions that bring acts of horror like this to the world. I can do this locally, by holding my family and loved ones close, and honoring the creative spirit of all other people. And I can do this with my hands, by creating my little horse, which symbolizes the power that comes from our choices, our actions, even in the face of despair.
“Artist” is a loaded word these days… Is it a label? A title? An occupation? I think it’s simply a means to an end?
A reader emailed me today with a simple question. She’s been on her creative path for awhile now. She wanted to know if what she does, is art. And when we know it’s time to call ourselves an “artist”.
Here’s how the internationally-respected art blog Making A Mark introduced the topic a few years ago. It’s an interesting read. You’ll find in the comments that opinions run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, the strict delineations to the all-embracing. I love the one explaining how Canada defines “professional artist.”
Me? I really don’t know.
Seriously. I just had a consult with someone who works with archetypal symbols to help us chart our course. I seem to be top-heavy in “magician”. Magician sees many perspectives, and tries to hold many points of view. Sometimes this leads to deeper knowledge and understanding. But sometimes we get lost in a “hall of mirrors”, unable to find our real path for all the confusion of multiple images.
Hence (I’ve waited all year to use “hence”!) I see the validity in many opinions on what is a “real artist”.
But here’s the bottom line: If we really say that people have to have credentials, sales, fame, and a life dedicated entirely to art in order to be considered real artist, and that only certain media are eligible (painting, preferably oils, for example), then we are going to eliminate thousands upon thousands of people who have created works that have stood the test of time. And I’m not just talking decades or centuries. I’m talking millennia. (Not counting half the human race that weren’t recognized at all during that time. Yes, girls, I’m talking about US.)
On the other hand, I know junk when I see it. Just sayin’.
One of my favorite stories about this–who is, and isn’t, an artist–took place over a decade ago, when I was looking for a studio space in a newly-renovated building not far from my house. My husband and I were talking with some of the building’s owners and one of them asked what I did. I replied, “I’m a fiber artist.” He said something like “That’s nice”, and the conversation continued. About ten minutes later, he mentioned a local painter and exclaimed, “Now, she’s a real artist!”
I was pretty grounded by then, and bemused, not insulted. The person he’d mentioned wasn’t actually a very good painter, and she eventually moved on to other media. But it didn’t matter to him that she wasn’t that skilled, and I was. Her media automatically defined her as a “real” artist, in his mind.
Another telling tale: Many times, at parties, gatherings, etc. someone I don’t know will ask what I do. I’ll tell them, and again, I get the equivalent of “That’s nice.” But later in the conversation, when they ask me where I sell my work, I’ll reply, “Well, my biggest retail show is the League of NH Craftsmen, so I do ‘Sunapee’ (the show’s totally unofficial and informal nickname) and sell through a lot of the League galleries.” Then there’s a respectful gasp of admiration and the inevitable, “You do Sunapee?! You must be awesome!”
Of course, these are assessments made by people who may not know a lot about art. They may not know how exquisitely tricky those “official” delineations are. For example, if you make a sculpture in clay, it’s usually classified as “craft”. But if you create a bronze cast of that sculpture, then the bronze version is considered “art.” (How’s that for weird?)
I’m the same person, before and after, credentials notwithstanding.
So how do we decide?
Well, as I’ve said before, you don’t need a license to practice art. But here’s what I really think….
If you are making something that makes your heart sing, if you enjoy it, if it connects you to your higher self, if it connects others to their higher self, even for a few brief moments, then yeah, you’re an artist.
And you can start calling yourself that right now. Go ahead! You have my permission.
Short version, for you: It’s tempting to wait til you believe it, to say it. But one of my most powerful mentors said exactly the opposite… You have to SAY “I’m an artist” before you can believe it.
How many times do you have to say it? You have to say “I’m an artist” as many times as you’ve been told (and told yourself) you’re not.
So if you’ve told yourself a million times you’re not an artist, you need to say it a million and one times to truly believe it yourself. And if you believe it, others will, too.
I had to do this. It works. It took a year. But by then, the phrase, “I’m an artist”, rolled off my tongue. And I knew it was true.
If people are curious, and it’s hard to explain what you do, hand them your business card (which absolutely should have a bit of your artwork on it, if at all possible) that has your website (because you need to have an online presence of some sort so people can see/hear/watch what you do).
And let them decide for themselves.
Let others decide. Let history decide. Let your credentialing institution decide. Let your family, your boss, your peers decide.
It doesn’t matter.
Only you know the true worth of what you do.
Don’t doubt what you are. Don’t second-guess what you do. Just constantly strive to make it as good as you can.
After all, only you can do it.
Say it loud, say it proud, “I’m an artist!” right out loud.
It’s been a wild and crazy January, full of changes, upheavals, accidents and injury. In other words, the usual life stuff.
In the turmoil, I barely found time to write, let alone come up with something cohesive enough to post.
But a simple lesson I’d forgotten about raised it’s pretty little head last week.
And suddenly, something post-able appears.
Someone asked about affirmations. Popularized by The Artist’s Way by Julie Cameron, it’s a morning writing practice of stating what you wish for, as reality, here and now. It’s a way of making room for what you want, in the moment.
Now, I’ve been writing about life lessons and museum studies, hospice and art-making. And I’m very good at writing gratitude lists, where I remind myself what’s good about my life, instead of dwelling on the bad.
But I haven’t done affirmations for ages.
I wrote this morning about how overwhelmed and anxious I’m feeling about rearranging/repurposing/renovating our home the past few years. We’re expecting another, potentially long-term guest in a few weeks, and we’re scrambling to make room for her. I’m depressed about our clutter (okay, my clutter), in our home and in my studio. I’ve felt down and spongey. (Is that a word??) Maybe porous–everything coming in and wreaking havoc in my ruminating brain.
I started to write, “I am moving to a less cluttered…..”
(Yes, I stopped myself in mid-word!)
Suddenly, I thought, what if I quit writing about mastering clutter?
What if I wrote about why we’re dealing with clutter?
What if I wrote an affirmation for our home?
Our home is open to people who need a home.
Our home is open to people who yearn for companionship.
Our people is open to those who need a laugh… A Yankee Swap,
a Bad Movie Night,
a pizza and beer.
Our hope is open to us aging gracefully.
Our home is open to new possibilities.
Our home is open to animals who need a home.
Our home is a haven to people in transition.
Our home provides work and income to those who need it.
Our home celebrates family, friendship, and transition.
Our home is warm and cozy and eclectic and artsy.
Our home is filled with new projects and innovation.
Our home supports both of our vocations, and our avocations.
Our home is full of good intentions, and acts of kindness.
Our home is open to reconciliation.
Our home is full of ever-changing light.
Our home can stretch or shrink.
Our home has sheltered people for over 175 years.
Our home has weathered storms and risen above floods.
Our home holds new potential, and old memories.
Our home is a blend of the old, the modern, and the ultra-modern.
Our home is gracious.
Our home amuses people, welcomes people, amazes people and confuses people.
Our home is where our kids finished their childhood, and it’s where they come back to when things get hard.
Our home is a place where there’s always room for one more. Or two. Or three.
Our home has many sofas, and warm blankets.
Our home even has a fireplace that works–twice!
Our home has many attics and a dry basement and a good roof.
Our home can handle all our needs and desires, our ever-changing pasttimes and our hopes and dreams.
Our home can change to suit the needs we have today.
Our home has a kitchen that can hold many cooks–as long as it’s just one or two at a time.
Our home is a haven.
Our home is filled with love and wistfulness,
with love and angry words,
with love and slamming doors,
with love and reconciliation,
with love and new respect,
with love and laughter,
with love and sadness,
with love and gratitude,
with love and healing.
Our home is filled with love.
So here it is, for you, today.
A different way of looking at things, today.
Now, please excuse me while I drop of two more bags at the thrift shop, a couple to the garbage, and an errand to Home Depot for more closet organizers.