ART FOR MONEY vs. MONEY FOR ART

 

This post was originally published May 30, 2004, on a now-defunct blog-hosting site.  This slightly edited version is dedicated to Rhonda K. Hageman, who read it when it first appeared on DurableGoods/Radio Userland. Thank you, Rhonda!!

Still timely. So enjoy! 

A topic came up this week on a small private e-mail list I host. The list started as a way for artists to learn how to get their work in front of a larger audience than friends and family, by exploring ways to sell, publish and exhibit their artwork.

Some have found the process daunting. Perhaps they had difficulties selling their work as it was, then started producing work they thought would sell better. Or well-meaning people made discouraging remarks or suggestions that just didn’t feel right.

I’ve never advocated making anything just because you think it will sell. I realized from the get-go that this process will whisk you away from your core vision (making the work that is in you and pleases you) and sends you scuttling down the path of trying to please others. No can do, says this girl.

The thing is, so many times, when I hear artists have decided not to explore ways to sell their work, it’s for all the wrong reasons. They don’t get enough money, they find the quality of the work degenerates, the sales are disappointing, and the whole process doesn’t make them feel very good, nor creative, nor successful.

Part of the reason this happens is we misunderstand what selling our art can really mean. In fact, many people associate “selling art” as “selling out”.

I have found the complete opposite is true when I sell my work.

I make the most beautiful work I can envision. Someone else appreciates the work I have made. I tell them the story behind the work. A connection is made. An exchange is made—usually their money for my work (or, if you prefer, the fruit of their labor for the fruit of my labor.) Hopefully, both parties are pleased with the transaction.

That’s all. That’s it. That’s what selling my art means to me. No value judgments, no demeaning transactions, no loss of my artistic vision, no selling out.

Lately, though, I’ve come to see another dimension, just as rich (no pun intended) to this transaction. ..

And that is the power my art has on others even after the sales transaction.

The last few weeks I’ve received half a dozen e-mails, postcards and letters from people who have bought my work, or seen it in a magazine, or read what I wrote on 9/11.

Apparently, the impact of my work on their lives has continued long after I sold them the piece.

One woman wrote to tell me how much she enjoys looking at her wall hanging every day when she works at her computer. Another wrote to say how much she loved hers—and that it even inspired her to revisit her own interest in fiber art. She is now creating her own unique pieces, revitalized by our discussion on art and life and my passion for my work. She now appreciates my handwork even more, if that is possible, she wrote. (You can see this incredible letter from Kathleen Faraone here.) (N.B. I had forgotten all about this, until I found it just now–April 20, 2018! Kathleen, wherever you are now, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your powerful words!)

And that is the magic of selling/exhibiting/publishing your work. Not just the excitement of being able to generate some cash flow, perhaps even a livable income (which is pretty darned exciting!) But seeing how what you create working from your heart, seeing it start its own journey of inspiring hope, creativity, and passion in others.

That is something I did not expect when I started my journey of making my art accessible to a larger audience. It is something I could not predict nor control. It’s just another affirmation that I am doing the right thing and on my true path.

So before you sell yourself—and your art—short (or decide not to sell at all), consider this: Selling your art can be a good thing. A  very good thing.

It is a process, and sometimes a long process. As the saying goes, “It took me twenty years to become an overnight success!” Most small business consultants say it takes at least five years for a business to get established. Most people only plan for a year or two at most. Many artists give up after one bad show or one dismal gallery experience.

The secret to success with your art?

Stay with it.

Keep on making the work you are passionate about. Then look for its market.

Ask for help, but don’t assume what someone else says about your work is automatically true. Experiment. Adjust. Tweak. Sometimes small changes in format, size or presentation can make huge differences. But these need not be fundamental changes in what your art is. You should still be able to work with total commitment to your inner voice.

In fact, most of the time, when I see an artist or craftsperson who is not having much success, it’s because they’ve “dumbed down” their work, made it more cheaply, made it more mundane. They doubt their ability to astonish, so they set their sights lower. They end up aiming too low.

Make your best work. Make sure as many people as possible see it.

Then you will never have to worry about “selling out.”

Because your heart and soul are not for sale.

They can only be given, with love and joy.

A lot has changed in my art through the years…..
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…but a lot of things HAVEN’T changed!

WHAT MERYL STREEP AND I HAVE IN COMMON

This is the very first blog post I wrote, on Sunday, December 1, 2002.
And it’s still true today. Except Walt is gone now, may his gentle heart and fevered brain rest in peace.  And if it gives YOUR fevered brain a little peace today, well, that’s good, too!

I was going to write about a discussion with a friend about his dirty house.  But when I picked up the Sunday magazine that comes with our local paper, I came across some amazing statements by Meryl Streep that caused me to bump the dump story.

In the talk with my friend, he told me how immobilized with anxiety and self-doubt he felt each day.  I’m a natural born people fixer-upper (much to the annoyance of my friends), so I jumped right in with suggestions that have worked for me.  He kept saying, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand” until finally, in frustration, I told him my deepest, darkest secret:

I wake up every morning with a sense of dread about how hopelessly inadequate I am to achieve my goals, and I go to bed every night ever mindful of….how does the Lord’s Prayer go?  “We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone the things we ought to have done.”  Well, that sums up the beginning and end of my day quite well.

My friend was astounded.  He said, “But you’re always so upbeat and you’re always busy with your artwork and always doing stuff….”  He paused and said, “And I know you’re telling the truth, because you know the old saying, ‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter?’  I’m in the pits, and I can tell you’ve been there, too.  So how did you turn it around?”

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, spiritually.  I simply stopped listening to the little voices that told me how how futile it all was.

Note that I said I didn’t stop hearing the voices.  I said I stopped listening to them.

It came about through a long, slow process.  It wasn’t any one thing.  It was a series of books, a smattering of important people, teachers, who showed up in my life at just the right time.  It was the birth of my oldest child.  It was a workshop I took.  It was trying to spiritually accomodate the violent murder of an elderly neighbor 20 years ago.  It was a physical injury that tied up my body for almost a year.  It was a brush with cancer (a very light brush, but frightening at the time.)

We often dream that when we figure everything out, when we realize our perfect vision for ourselves, everything else will fall into place, too.  When we get the right job, when we meet the right life partner, when we get our dream home, when we find the perfect little black dress, (when we reach the perfect size for that little black dress!) the perfect lipstick, whatever, that we will finally silence those little voices that always tell us what is wrong.  (Please note I’m not talking about the little voice telling you about real danger.  I’m talking about that little voice that tells you you will never be good enough, fortunate enough, strong enough, talented enough, blah blah blah. The inner critic.)  When we still hear that little voice, we may panic.  Dang!  It’s still there!  Where did I go wrong??

One of my most precious insights, almost miraculous in my eyes, is that it is possible to act in a powerful way even if your little voice says you have no power.  You hear that familiar little rant in the morning–“You didn’t fill that order, you didn’t win that award, you didn’t get into that show and you never will!

Then I get up and do it anyway.

Everything I have accomplished in the last five years–and it’s a lot!–I’ve done in spite of that little voice.  I don’t pretend to say that I have deeper resources than other people, and I would never even pretend to say that all mental health can be achieved by just saying no to those voices.  I am saying it is an act of will to act in spite of my voices, and I feel blessed to have found that out.  I now realize there is no place I can get to where I will not hear them.  But now I don’t let them stop me from getting where I want to go.  They can whine all they want, I’m going there anyway.

So what do Meryl Streep and I have in common?  In an interview with Ken Burns that appeared in USA WEEKEND today, KB asks Meryl if she will always act.  And she answers:

“Oh, I always think I’m going to give up.  You get the cold feet.  You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?  And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?  I don’t have to do this.’  It is something I confront at the beginning of everything.  I have to start out with nothing each time.”

KB: And reinvent the wheel.

MS: “And reinvent the wheel.  It’s very hard.  It’s very, very hard….”

There you have it.  The article notes that Streep has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, tying Katherine Hepburn’s record.  She’s actually won two Oscars.  And that her work ethic is legendary.

And every time she takes on a new challenge, she hears the same little voices I do!

I wonder what she says to her little voices…..?

READING THE OBITS

 

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Will future archeologists see my work as true artifacts? Clever fakes? Or even know them for the introspective artwork they are? 10,000 years from now, who will know the makings of our hands? And who will know the mysteries of our hearts?

I wrote this post almost nine years ago. Still true.

May 20, 2007

I’ve arrived at that age where I read the obituaries in the paper each day. (Actually, I started years ago but it seems more age-appropriate now.)

After checking in with the important stuff (Is it anyone I know? Were they younger or older than me??) I glance through the rest of the article for clues about who they were.

This person left behind a huge family of grieving loved ones. This one outlived many others. This one founded an industrial dynasty. This one traveled the world for the love of adventure. This one worked tirelessly to help her fellow man. This one was an Elk, or a Moose, or a veteran. This one was an advocate for animals, for children, for the earth. This one wrote a book, made a movie, sang in their church choir. This one made toys for his grandchildren. And this one always had fresh-baked cookies and a seat at the table for those in need of a warm heart and a sympathetic ear.

Real lives, all. None for us to judge. We know too little, in the end, for that.

There is a strong central theme running through each one.

The desire for them to be remembered.

It got me thinking this morning:

Remembered for what?

We cannot ultimately control how we will be remembered. If we leave behind an impressive legacy, or enough loved ones, we may have a slightly better chance.

Even then, for how long? A few years? A few generations, if we’re lucky to have mattered that much to some? For centuries, if we are a Mozart, or a queen, or a tragic hero?

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we cannot always control the outcome of our actions in our lives. Some of the most noble actions have led to the most dreadful outcomes and vice versa.

Even the most evil act in the world may someday generate some good. Israel, the United Nations and the lifework of Elie Wiesel (“Too remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…”) are but a few legacies of the Holocaust.

If we cannot control the outcome, how do we decide what is worth doing?

All we can do is live our best intention, and make it manifest in our everyday lives.

The older I get, the more I realize how hard this is to do on all fronts–my personal life, my professional life, in my art and writing. I am really good at some intentions and frankly awful at others. And sometimes my failures are more outstanding than my successes, as my critics love to tell me.

In the end, the words I wrote for my aunt’s funeral sum it up the best for me. I scribbled them on a scrap of paper that morning, and it was lost in the shuffle on the way back home.

I said that all lives, great and small are precious.

That in the end, even small and quiet lives can touch the hearts of many others in ways we cannot foresee or fathom.

I remember saying that our days are surely numbered, and none of us knows the number of our days.

We can only live each one with as much passion, as much wonder, as much love, as much forgiveness, and as much courage as we can muster.

Because the world can be a harsh and frightening place, and it needs that from us. It needs our passion, and compassion. It needs our open heart.

It needs the very best from us. Our very best effort to make it a little brighter, a little better not only for our loved ones, but for everyone.

Even quiet lives and little acts of courage and kindness can have repercussions we cannot ever imagine Because the diary of Anne Frank is a legacy of the Holocaust, too.

For me, part of my very best effort means my art.

I realize my confusion and unhappiness has been because I could not see what its place is in the world. I’ve been doing my best to make sure it’s as “big” as it can be.

But then I have to let it go. I have to let it go out into the world and let it be what it is.

That is as it should be. It’s as much my child as my own flesh and blood. And like my children, I want it to shine as brightly as it can.

Like my children I must fight fiercely to protect it when it is vulnerable, and always out of love.

And like my children, it will ultimately find its own place in the world, beyond my expectations and intentions.

I cannot “control” what effect it has, or what it will mean to others, or even whether I will be remembered for it after I am gone. Just as I have no right to control how my children will craft their own lives, nor who they will marry, or how they will make their living in the world.

And like my children, I see more and more that this is a mystery to be embraced–not “handled.” There can be joy is in doing my best–then letting go of the outcome.

And trusting that even tiny actions of encouragement, acts of good intention, acts of creation, might leave their mark in the world long afte I and my work am forgotten.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Let go.

HOLDING ONTO PATTERNS THAT HOLD YOU BACK

What is the story you tell about yourself, that holds you back from doing the things you really want to do?

This is my very first blog post, which was first published Friday, November 29, 2002

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 a single digit 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 x 1 = 1, 2 x 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 x 3 = 9, 4 x 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 x 3 = 6 and 3 x 2 = 6, 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: Subtract 1 from the not-9 number, use that number. That number plus what will equal 9? So for 6 x 9, 6-1 is 5, 5 plus what = 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, too.)

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’s also 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. So make up a story, and move on.

But what do you lose with a story like that?

You lose a lot.  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. 

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 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?  What is the story you tell about yourself that is holding you back from doing the things you really want to do?

Tomorrow I’ll tell the story about my friend Walt and his messy house.  Now there’s a story! *

*Sadly, I never told the story about Walt, who died a few years ago of brain cancer. I remember it was another riff on this article–he had a huge story about why he couldn’t clean his house.

One of the many wonderful things I remember about Walt is, he came to the same conclusion: He could change his story, and he did.

GO FORTH AND MAKE STUFF

There are a million reasons why you can’t/shouldn’t/won’t make your art visible in the world. There’s one reason worth your life, why you have to.

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I felt pretty uninspired yesterday. Then I made this.

I’ve have many dreams for my art over the years. Some involved artistic vision. Some involved recognition, respect, and kudos. Some involved financial rewards. Some were only for me and my sanity, my vanity, and my little rabbit heart’s yearning.

Some have been achieved. Many probably never will be. Some are still in progress.

Some I never even imagined, until they came appeared, on their own, exclaiming, “Hey, you forgot ME!!”

We all hold dreams for our the creative work we do, whether we work with words, music, paint, stone, polymer clay, gold, clay, or glass.

It’s when we try to make them present in the world that we run into trouble.

I’ve encountered so many creative people lately, strong, intelligent, gifted people, who, quite frankly, have their head up their respective asses. (In all fairness, I can add myself to that list.) Filled with self-doubt, physical/emotional/mental/spiritual/temporary and permanent setbacks, they struggle to have even an iota of their creative potential in their life.

“When I have the perfect training/situation/schedule/studio/work place/support group/guaranteed income/show/companion/gallery/social media skills/presentation/experience/audience/community/website/skills/whatever-in-god’s- name-you-think-you-need-to-create in my life, then I’ll exercise my creative talent!”

Oh dear.

This is beginning to sound like the SCOTUS nomination and Congress situation. There is just no work-around when you have so many conditions on how–and when–your creative self will engage with the world.

It’s easy to buy into these situations: When can I call myself an artist? How will I make a living with my creative gifts? Who will buy it?? What is a successful artist? Am I good enough to be an artist? These are just a handful of the mind-numbing and soul-petrifying doubts and questions that block so many of us from doing what we love to do.

I’ve been writing about this since my very very first blog post in 2002.  I’ve felt all of these ‘conditions’ and ‘restrictions’ personally, too. Examining my own caustic beliefs, working through them, and sharing that process with you, is a huge part of my own creative process. Sometimes I wonder if the only reason I was born with an artistic gift, is so I could write and share this with you.

It’s so incredibly hard, for so many people, to hear my message over the little nagging voices in their own heads, I often can’t break through.  (I’m learning that people can’t hear me until they are ready to hear me. Which helps me keep trying when I feel discouraged.)

So here’s one of my all-time favorite comic strips that explains, as only humor can, why the world needs your art. And why YOU need your art in the world… And why it doesn’t matter how much of it you put in the world, or how much money you make with it, why it doesn’t matter if it’s your vocation, your avocation, or your career, why it doesn’t matter how many people ‘like’ it (literally and figurative, thank you Facebook!), nor why it even matters if I like it or not….

In this Sally Forth cartoon panel from February 5, 2015, Ted is talking to his daughter Hilary, ten years in the future, about the real importance of her creative endeavors:

Hil, do you know why people play music? Or draw or sing or do stand-up or create?

Becauxe it’s through their art they can interpret the world. And it’s through their art they can add their ideas to the world. It’s not about having an audience, it’s about having a voice.

And if you don’t pursue your art, you may lose that great opportunity to have your say.

(And for a small reality check that every parent will recognize, Hilary replies, “Is this the very level of understanding why you never flinch when I ask for money?”)

Ponder that for a bit today.

Remember: I’m not telling you to give up your day job. I’m not telling you to sign up for American Idol. I’m not telling you what “real” art is, I’m not telling you how often or when you should make it, I’m not telling how you should do it, I’m not saying you should run off to Tahiti, abandoning your family, and lie on a beach somewhere with a umbrella drink in your hand. (Although, that sounds pretty cool, and Tahiti IS a magical place.)

And I’m not telling you it’s easy, or simple, or that there’s a right way to do it.

I’m saying you have a voice. You have just this one life to use it. And it’s NEVER TOO LATE to use it.

Okay, you have a job, a real job or role, one that you like, or even love, or a care-taking role, or anything else you simply do or have to do.

I say, you need the restoration, the sanity, the healing power you get by putting your own power out into the world, to support this other, vitally important work you do. (Think of your creative spirit as the gas you put in your car.) (Okay, the electricity you recharge you car with.)

Make room for it, even just a tiny bit of a room, in your life.

If not for yourself (although I firmly believe that’s the best reason in the world to do it), then do it for someone you love, someone else in the same boat, who holds the same fears and second-guessing and shame and despair that you do.*

Show them the real healing power of art.

Show them what it looks like.

*Yep, this is my super-sneaky strategy to encourage certain selfless folks to be a wee bit more self-ish. Did it work?

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The well-worn and much-loved comic strip that inspired today’s post.

Stories from the Flea Market: Christine’s “Tail”

A friend back in Keene, NH read yesterday’s story about the bunny I bought at a flea market. Christine Janda Grant is a talented craftsperson, and I have several samples of her explorations in polymer, beading, yarn, etc. She wrote to me to share her own, similar story, and with her permission, I share it with you. She’s working on a launch of a new project soon, so keep an eye out for her!
Christine wrote:
So enjoyed your bunny story. It brought to mind a tale from a NH League of Craftsmen show.

Years ago I had gone to help a friend (Gail Wilson, nationally acclaimed doll artist) with her booth at the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair

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Gail’s tiny bear kit is wonderful. Of course, I can’t put my hands on my finished bears right now….STOP LAUGHING AND SAYING “So what else is new?”….!!!
I only had a little money to spend – I think about twenty dollars. I had spotted a small pottery clock that I fell in love with and planned to buy it before the fair ended.
A family came into Gail’s booth with a little boy who very much wanted one of Gail’s dolls. The father brusquely informed the boy that they were for girls and they moved on. I saw some tears rolling down his face as they left.
I asked Gail if she would sell me a small doll for the money I had and she did. I stuffed it into a bag and caught up with the boy. After getting his parent’s permission to give him “a little something”. I gave him the bag with instructions not to open it until he got home.
Gail made a remark about me not being able to buy my clock now and I told her I didn’t mind. A little later I stopped by the booth to see it one last time but it had been sold.
At the end of the day Gail thanked me for coming to help her and gave me a gift to take home.
You guessed it, the clock I loved.
I only found out later that she told the story to the potter, who gave something to Gail and then someone gave a gift to the potter and it kind of traveled around the show that year.
I still have the clock as one of my treasured things.
Thank you, Christine, I love this story!

Stories from the Flea Market: The Bunny

 

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I know. Not a bunny. I can’t find the bunny pic.

We made some pretty fierce friendships in Keene, NH. IN making our move to the West Coast, leaving our son behind (who chose to stay in Keene) was hard. And leaving these friendships ‘behind’ was hard, too. (Say what you will about Facebook, it’s been wonderful for small, constant contact with those people.)

Each person had a particular, unique way of showing up in our world, some special way of looking at the world that would amaze me, and support me, when I struggled with some life issue. I hesitate to even pull out one name, because there were others just as magnificient in my heart. But today is a little shout-out for Melinda.

In the context of my struggle to find peace with difficult people, with problematic family stuff, with my own journey as a human being on this planet, Melinda taught me much about forgiveness and love. About what was part of my journey, and what was part of someone else’s journey. She knows I don’t believe in God per se, but knew how to put it into context I could accept and hold. She could see when I was part of the problem. And she could see when the problem was not mine to ‘fix’. “That’s not between you and them,” she’d explain. “That’s between them and God.” (I could accept ‘God’ as what I would call ‘fate’ or ‘karma’ or ‘the universe’, and see the wisdom.)

One thing we talked about often was miracles. I struggled with the concept. I could see that in times of great distress and agony, when loved ones were in danger, when I felt hopeless and powerless (or rather, recognized how powerless I was to put things right), there were always little moments when something powerful happened. I would cross paths with someone who had exactly the right words I needed to hear, to get through that day. That person might be anyone: A perfect stranger, or a casual acquaintance or a good friend with a life experience I’d never known or imagined. Something in me would blurt out what was on my mind. And that person would have the wisdom, the insight, to help. Not the solution, not the ‘fix’. Just enough of ‘something’ for me to take the next step. (Or not to fall into the pit of despair.)

Melinda said that that’s what miracles are, if we are open to them: Tiny moments of grace that let us see the world differently, a small change in perception and perspective….if we are open to them.

Today I went to the flea market. When my soul is sore, sometimes hunter-gathering soothes it. Finding something that someone else has given up, tossed aside or left behind, or worse, the objects valued enough to hold on to, but cannot find room for in our lives until debt or death acts for us,  the treasures of the auctioned storage locker…there’s something beautiful and poignant about even the ugliest and least meaningful (to me) objects.

Today I found a small pair of round-nose jewelry pliers, and pretty rocks–petrified wood, a small agate, a geode. A necklace I can reuse for the beads, and a small bookcase that might fit under the table in my studio.

And a small stuffed rabbit.

If you ever visited my studio in Keene, you know about my eclectic small doll collection, and my pebble collection, and my shells, and pottery shards, and my small boxes. And my menagerie of stuffed animals.

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Part of my studio menagerie.

As I walked by, the vendor tried to stand it up on her table. It kept flopping over, so she stuffed it into the slot of a toaster.

I stopped and without thinking, cried, “Oh, no, don’t put him in the toaster!”

She stopped and looked uneasy. “I know, but I can’t make him stand up!” She caressed him hesitantly.

Impulsively, I asked, “How much?” She held up three fingers.

I shook my head, trying to be a grown-up. If it had been the holidays, I would have bought him to put in my little Christmas tree.

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I still haven’t retrieved my ornaments from Jenny G., so I had to improvise this year.

If I had more cash, I might have bought him to send to my friend Julie, who adores bunnies.

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I once threatened to give Julie THIS thrift store bunny. She claims it would have ruined our friendship.

But….”You have enough little toys,” I told myself sternly, and turned away.

“Two dollar!” she piped. I hesitated. I couldn’t help but think how hard it is to bring all this stuff to the flea market, to stand there all day behind piles of….stuff. To hope someone will buy it, so you don’t have to drag it home again. Maybe make enough money to buy something more important.

I remembered the frantic distress of sorting through all our belongings in Keene, the endless scurry to get everything out of the house and gone, that horrible, horrible last hectic week, the precious objects I’d set aside to keep that ended up on our curb because there was simply no more room for them.

The friends who’d shown up to help, to wrap, to pack, to gently pull loved possessions from my hands, who let me cry, who hugged me, over and over and over again, until the very last day.

As I stood there thinking, a young mother and her little girl came up next to me to look, too. The child stooped over and picked up something small and round and bright green from the pavement.

I instinctively reached for her, but the tiny pellet fell from her mouth, just as her mother noticed her movement and, frantic with worry, cried, “What did you put in your mouth?! What is in your mouth?!”

“It’s okay! She spit it out! It’s gone!” I told her. She was relieved, but still anxious.

I suddenly saw my younger self in here. I remembered when some people were critical of my young ones, when they were small–Doug was crying, Robin was upset, me, frantic, wanting to be a good mother, and not knowing how–and how those people had let me know how annoying they found it all.

And I remembered all the people who showed me kindness and understanding, and smiled at me and said, “Oh, I remember those days!”

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Those days seem so far away now.

I hesitated–should I interfere? Would she see it as meddling?

“Would your little girl like this bunny?” I asked her.

Now she hesitated. “Yes…” and I could see…(but why was I giving them the bunny?) “Yes…” she said, and smiled.

In that second, I realized the little girl already had a lovey, a small white stuffed unicorn she clutched fiercely to her chest. “Robin (my daughter) loves unicorns,” I thought. I realized the child would like the bunny, but the unicorn was special. It would simply be a surfeit of stuffed toys.

Suddenly,  the older brother appeared, about five. He saw my hand, hovering with a bunny. Something in his eyes…..

“Would your little boy like the bunny?” I asked her.

She hesitated, we both did. Boys are tough. It’s sometimes harder for a boy to show tenderness. You never know when a bunny is a ‘baby’ thing, especially with a younger sister present, when a fluffy toy will draw a sneer.

As I turned to the children, my hand still out with the bunny, his eyes caught the bunny–and his face lit up.

“Ohhhhh, a bunny!!!” he cried. My outstretched hands met his before either of us could think. He clutched the little toy to his chest and hugged it fiercely.

Mom and I looked at each other and smiled, and we all moved on. Best two dollars I ever spent.

I know now that I didn’t “leave Melinda behind”, nor Julie, nor Roma, nor others. Their friendships are sacred to me. It’s possible that Jessica will remain an acquaintance, even though, since her words once helped me make it through a hard day, she will always seem like more than that to me.

It may be our paths won’t ever cross again.

I also know there are new ‘angels’ here in Santa Rosa, and Petaluma, and Sebastopol. The scene at Atlas Coffee Company, next door to my studio in the arts district, is stinkin’ rich with angels and small miracles. There are old friends rediscovered in Benecia, and in Castro Valley, and Santa Rosa itself.But every day, they are all in my heart.

Make new friends. But keep the old. One is silver, and the other, gold.

And every one is a miracle to me.

 

 

 

SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE Part 2: Lessons from the Bym, Tai Chi, and the Circle of Life

My latest post for Fine Art Views helps you put everything into perspective about your art career. And, maybe, your life.

SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE Part 2: Lessons from the Gym, Tai Chi, and the Circle of Life

The Blender: Part 1

In yesterday’s post, I shared what is–has been–a huge part of my life: The blender. A constant buzz and swirl of chatter in my head. Even as a child, I mulled and ruminated. (Odd. Both of those can also be food words.) Hashing and rehashing events, issues, questions, worries. I’ve always felt like a blender!

I know that’s part of the human condition. In our modern world, especially for most of us who have….enough (even when it doesn’t seem like it), our little buzzy brains are always busy. Evolved over millennia to watch for lions, tigers, and bears, now we imagine danger (and worse, humiliation) in every shadow and behind every corner. (Unless you are a sociopath or a narcissist, in which case you have a lot less buzz. But people don’t like you very much.)

Let’s add another string bean to the blender: I’ve had tinnitus my entire life. I thought everybody had a ringing chord in their brain. I thought I was hearing electricity, that the power lines connecting our houses were thrumming with it. I was six when I realized only I could hear it.

It’s never gone away, and probably never will.

So a week ago, I began my blender meditation.

Wednesday morning: I imagine a blender. I put in some water, some ice, oil. A few peas. (Peas, Quinn? Why??) A strawberry. Some food coloring. In my mind I turned it on, I watched, I waited. And then I turned it off, just as the alarm on my timer went off, too.

I wrote one word in my journal: Yuck. (It made me queasy.)

Thursday a.m.  I put something different in the blender: Rocks. Small pebbles, sand, silt. Leaf litter and debris. Water. Sediment layers!! (I love geology!) And some floaty plastic bead things. I’d been using one of those hot/cold gel pads on my cat bites (a story for another day), and they obviously intrigued me to the point where they got stuck in my head.

I took Quinn's 'add a few peas' suggestion literally.
I obviously took Quinn’s suggestion to ‘add a few peas’, literally.

I thought this was a great visualization, because I’ve done this before (without a blender), and marveled at how well the ingredients settle out. And each layer has a potential purpose. Gravel can pave a path. Small grit can be used in concrete. We can use one layer to make clay for pottery. We can drink the water. The debris? Compost!

I also realized it was the sound of the blender (that high-pitched grating whine) that made me feel queasy.

And I thought of my tinnitus, because sometimes it, too, sounds whiney.

But what if that whine had layers, too? Sometimes I can ‘hear’ it as a chord, a blend of many tones. Sometimes I imagine it as the noise of my own body (one theory about lifelong tinnitus)

What if I were actually hearing….the steady tone of the universe??

I raised my open hands to that achey place, and held them there. I felt comforted.

Then the alarm went off. I wrote all these thoughts down.

On Friday, I worried about my rock smoothie. What if the rocks broke the blender?! What a mess, right? So instead of rocks and dirt, I realized I could put shoulda/coulda/woulda into the blender. All the second guessing, all the remorse, all the replays of the bad moments of my life, the fears (“I could do that! But wait….what if….??”), the self-doubt, the self-recriminations….

As the whine grew louder in my head, there suddenly came a flash of insight:

I could add “I shall” and “I will” to the blender. And…I could add “maybe”.

As in, “Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t.” As in, “I don’t have to make a decision. In fact, I can decide not to decide.”

Again, I put my hands to that achey place, and felt comforted.

The blender wavered. And then the alarm went off. I wrote all these thoughts down.

On Saturday  I got all caught up in the details. Rocks? I could, too, pick them up with wet hands! (Part of Quinn’s metaphor about the uselessness of trying to corral those thoughts.) (Yet another aspect of the human brain. We love to rebut.)

I decided to go back to the peas and strawberries, etc.

Then I thought of Quinn’s comment: “I see you circling the ‘problem’ with your back to it.” I imagined what that would look like. I immediately thought of Mike Birbiglia’s comedy routine, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend”, and his description of the amusement park ride, The Scrambler. (Later in his routine, he actually spins and wheels across the stage to demonstrate, but I can’t find that bit.)

I laughed out loud. And the timer went off.

On Sunday, it was about the noise again. The blender was whining. Jon was outside with our new weed-whacker. The refrigerator hummed. My tinnitus was ringing. Noise! The noise was unbearable.

And suddenly, I saw the noise as something different.

Energy.

Everything is doing what it’s supposed to do.

My body is alive–heart pumping, blood flowing, ears listening, brain processing the wonder of all this, even as I sit quietly in my chair. The fridge is keeping our food cool and safe. The weed-whacker is whacking weeds. The universe doing its universing thing.

My brain is doing what it’s supposed to do. Overdoing it, perhaps. But it’s not a bad brain. It’s just busy, acquiring information, assessing each bit for danger, for possibility and usefulness.

Simply observing it at work is a marvel. Our minds are a gift. My life is a gift.

I suddenly realized, my brain is simply trying, in its own way, to take care of me. It’s busy evaluating each possibility, examining the potential of each thought, even the ones I cannot control, the ones I have absolutely no power over.

And if I can keep out of the process, just for a moment, I realize it will all settle out on its own, into the layers that I can contemplate later at my leisure: Hmmmm, no, that one is not a danger I have to act on. That one is interesting, but not actionable right now. That one is a possibility, but I don’t have to decide right now.

My responsibility? To let that gift do what’s supposed to do. Let it expand. Let it sift. But don’t lose sight of what’s important.

I am meant to grow. To learn, to expand.

I am meant to to sift. To let go of what does not serve me: Fretting, mulling, worrying.

I am meant to forgive, myself and others, to take the lessons learned and move on.

I am meant to share what I am, what I make. I share what I make with my hands, sometimes by selling, but also by exchanging, by writing about it, by giving it away. In its own time, at its own pace.

I thought of the ache in my chest (I never think of my ‘heart’ as the source except metaphorically. It’s always at the top of my chest, for some reason.) I raised my open hands to that ache, to comfort it. I felt peace. Love. Relief.

And the timer went off.

On Monday, the blender started. And I thought of the video, We Came to Dance.

The words, “We learned there were rules to being human…” (shame, guilt, feel of humiliation if we don’t do it right.)  “We stopped listening to the humming in our veins…” (My tinnitus! One theory of tinnitus is that the sound is in every one of us, but most have learned to ‘screen it out’…) With the beating of my heart, and the chord of music I carry everywhere, even the odd musical note that is the blender of my brain, is music.

I thought about dancing. What would dancing to that music be like?

Suddenly, the noise of the blender receded, even before I turned the blender off.

In its place I heard the thrum of traffic, more noticeable because many trees lost their leaves and so don’t muffle the noise. But spring is here, and the leaves are coming back.

I heard the cherk of saucy jays, and the tiny pips of unknown birds (new to me) that I call ‘pipkins’ (until I learn their proper name.) I heard the voices of children playing in the neighborhood. (School holiday?) I heard the clock ticking, measuring time in its sometimes helpful, sometimes annoying way. I heard the timer’s alarm.

And I felt peace in my heart.

Today was Tuesday. And I only wrote down two phrases:

Tardigrade, aka ‘water bears’. (Google it, it’s weird.) (Should I be freaked out??)

And 4-7-8, the new “guaranteed-to-help-you-sleep’ breath count. Which I’ve tried, and feel like I’m suffocating. (Am I doing it wrong??)

I laugh. And get ready to start my day, with a little peace in my heart.

What’s the problem I’m circling with my back to it? I still have no idea.

But I know Quinn will be there to help me sort it out. I know Sheri will be back in a week. My kids are visiting later this month, and my daughter has assured me the too-tiny fold out sofa bed will be fine.

All I have to do is trust my process. And enjoy the day.

Did you find that helpful? Part of me worries that you won’t.

But mostly I did what I do:  Shared it with you, to help you on your journey, wherever the ripples take you.

And that’s all I have to do, today.

p.s. Oh, and clean the cat litter. And make the bed. And go work out. And go to the studio. And maybe go grocery shopping. And put the too-tiny sofa bed together. And clean the bathrooms, kitchen, back hallway, and basement. And everything else. And not worry about galleries, publicity, sales, exhibit opportunities, volunteering, staying in touch with friends and family, how to create the perfect visit for my kids, how to take care of loved ones, etc., etc., etc.

But somehow, it all looks a little more manageable.

 

 

 

 

The Blender: Intro

We love our new lives in California. But sometimes all the ‘new’ is overwhelming.

Even small things, like not recognizing the ‘ordinary’ birds out here, remind us daily of what we don’t know about California. (There are at least TWO kinds of jays here in Santa Rosa.) (And what are the ones that go, “pip”.  “Pip.”)

Then there’s been the big stuff: A knee surgery for me, within two months of moving here, for me, double hip replacement surgery for Jon less than six months ago. Rebuilding our careers, missing our kids, our friends, our resources…. Did I say missing our kids?

Starting over….I knew it would take time to rebuild an audience for my art, time to grow a new audience, here on the other coast. I know that takes patience. (Not my forte, btw, patience. Er….could you tell?)

But it’s the constant second-guessing that’s killing me. Not knowing what is an opportunity, and what’s a distraction. What’s the next step? What should hold on to, and what do I let go of. When to wait, and when to act. And my studio–is it a workspace? A store? A blessed space, a sanctuary? Yet another place to fill with stuff?? Finished goods overrunning the space, a constant reminder that it’s not selling??? All of the above???!!

It boggles the mind. MY mind, daily.

Last month, I had a healing, enlightening, expanding session with a new friend here, Sheri Gaynor of Creative Awakenings. It was healing with horses, something I’ve encountered (and will always treasure) just before I left New Hampshire, at HorseTenders Mustang Foundation. I highly recommend both Sheri and the HorseTenders programs.

Of course, the new vision frightened me. And of course, being me, I immediately when into ‘contraction state’ (Who, me?? I can’t do that!!) and right through to planning mode. (What does that look like? How does it work? How to I monetize it? Should I monetize it??)

“Call Sheri!” my fevered brain begged. So I did. Ack!! Sheri is on a sabbatical in Costa Rica, for her own much-needed retreat, respite, and restoration of heart and soul.

The song from Ghostbusters ran through my head…”Who ya gonna call??”

And then it occured to me who I could call: My friend and mentor Quinn McDonald of Quinn Creative. (I love her tagline: “Clarity starts here.”)

I had a coaching session with Quinn years ago, in the middle of another professional turmoil/quandry. (Okay, I have them every month day 20 minutes, if you must know.)

She asked if I were a perfectionist, and I said yes. Who doesn’t want to always do their best??

“The trouble with being a perfectionist,” she said, “is that you are full of ‘knowing’. And when you are full of knowing, nothing new can come in.”

Let me repeat that amazing, seemingly-simple little sentence….

When you are full of ‘knowing’, nothing new can come in.

That phrase lit up my life for the next six years. Still does. And so I turned to Quinn to walk me through my latest crisis of heart.

After listening to me whine describe what I was going through, Quinn created a metaphor for a brief, daily meditation, an image to capture what I was going through and what it felt like–and what to do about it.

It’s a blender.

“Imagine a blender. Throw some ice cubes, some water, a little oil, a couple of peas, maybe a strawberry. And some food coloring!” she said. “Then turn it on.”

My life has been a blender the past few years, she said. All of that stuff, the good, the awesomely good, the bad, the really bad, the scary bad, the good in the bad, everything, is whirling around, being chopped into tinier and tinier pieces. “And you’re trying to pick up those pieces as they fly by, with wet hands.”

Boy, did I get it.

“So life is not supposed to be a smoothie,” I mused. Right, said Quinn.

Hence the meditation. She described the steps, ending with “turn off the blender.” (whew!) Then, “Write down what comes up, after”, she said. “Even a word or two. Keep a written record for the next week or two. We’ll talk more about that later.”

Now, knowing me, you KNOW I wrote down more than a word or two.

And no, I actually don’t like smoothies. A milkshake, yes. No veggies, please, nor fruit.

And in tomorrow’s post, I’ll share what came up, and where I’m going with this.

Til then: Turn off the blender!

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE: Liar, Liar…

There’s a big difference between the “lies” that heal, and the truths that hurt.

I have a friend who took care of her husband, who had Alzheimer’s, until he died a year ago. It was very hard for her, especially since both of them worked closely with families who experience loss, death, and devastation.

You can gain a lot of insight working with others on this hard, sometimes lonely, journey at the end of life. But you don’t get a free pass just because you’ve witnessed this journey with others. In fact, it seems like it’s even harder, if you’re ‘in the field’, when it happens to you. Maybe we feel like we should know how to ‘do it perfectly’. But when it happens to us, there’s no such thing as ‘doing it perfectly’. There is just ‘getting through’.

Caring for a person with Alzheimers, and other cognitive issues, is especially difficult. Their view of the world, their resources for dealing with it, are changed drastically. The old method was to constantly fight for reality–yours! Maybe, with enough reinforcement, we could ‘force’ them back into our world. Tell them the same thing over and over and over, and eventually, they’ll get it.

Sadly, this approach does not work. In fact, it creates more stress, more anxiety, in the person.  People often still have an emotional/social self–they sense they are ‘doing it wrong’. When they are constantly reminded of this, things go downhill pretty fast. Anxiety leads to agitation, anger, and even agression.

Current strategy is to ‘go along’ with the client. “I’m supposed to be at work!” they exclaim. “I have to get ready!” You may choose to ‘go along’–“Sure! But we have to have breakfast first.” “Or, “Sure, we could do that! What would you like to wear to work today? Let’s get dressed. OH…you might want to take a shower first!” “Or you gently ‘remind’ them that today is a work holiday. So maybe they’d like to go for a drive in the country instead?”

This can be difficult, though, because it doesn’t feel ‘honest’. The hardest part of caring for clients with cognitive issues? “The lies!” my friend exclaimed. “Our relationship was based on trust, and respect, and honesty. And then, to keep him calm and at ease, I had to lie to him, over and over and over, every single day!” She felt she had worn away the last thing that connected them, by lying to him.

The best advice I can share with you today is to point you to a person who embraced this situation himself, and wrote about it.  For insight into these strategies, I highly recommend the website Alzheimer’s Reading Room. Bob DeMarco went there and back again, into the world of Alzheimer’s while caring for his mother.

His insights are filled with integrity, insight, and simplicity. He stresses that to create a new, rich relationship with your loved one living with cognitive issues, you need to go to their world. We need to look at their point of view, and understand where they’re coming from. The person we used to know is changed, due to major changes in their brain and cognition. We cannot hold them to who they once were, to what they could have been. We have to work with who they are, and what they’re doing now.

We tend to think in terms of absolutes: Good and evil. Right and wrong. Truth and lies. Even the grey areas of white lies and fibs can feel overwhelming when you have to practice it over and over, day after day after day.

Alzheimer’s is not a world of absolutes. For a person in this world, it is a place of ever-changing reality, as memories fade, as dreams flood into waking time, as it gets harder and harder to understand what’s what.

DeMarco says, over and over: You have to go to their world. You have to see through their eyes, understand through their experience, work with their fears and anxiety.

I was going to go into a big long spiel about lying vs. going to Alzheimer’s world, and kids and Santa Claus/Easter Bunny/Flying Spaghetti Monster, but there’s just this: When we talk to kids about death and dying, sickness, bad accidents, we frame it so it meets them where they are. A four-year-old grieving for a dead pet needs something different than a 12-year-old, etc. The same when we are caring for/living with/working with people with cognitive issues.

A friend told me how she struggled what to tell her dad, who had dementia, about her mom/his wife, who had just died. “When he asks where she is, do I tell him the truth”, she agonized. “Then he reels with the shock and weeps. Two hours later, he asks me again. I don’t want to lie, but telling him the truth is like torturing him with harsh sorrow, over and over, and over again. It’s new to him every time.”

Eventually, when he asked, she told him she (her mom, his wife) was ‘away’. No, no one was sure just when she’d be back, but she was okay, and sent her love, and they would see her again ‘in awhile’. This reassured him, until the next time he asked.

This went on for months, until one day, he asked her hesitantly, “I have a feeling Mom isn’t coming back. Am I right?” She then told him yes, but again, gently, simply agreeing. And reassuring him that she (the mom) was okay, they would be okay, and that she (the daughter) was there for him. He wept, but was not devastated. The question faded gradually away.

Understand they can no longer be in our world, but we can visit them in theirs. Have compassion. Understand there is a difference between lying to manipulate, to gain something you don’t deserve, or to avoid consequences of your actions–and meeting them where they are, with love, with patience, with respect and kindness, in their world.

If your religion believes that God would never give someone more hardship than they can handle, then understand a person with dementia cannot handle hardship like they used to. Accommodate them.

It’s not easy–it never is.  The role of the caregiver can be lonely, and already so very, very hard. So please don’t agonize over having to ‘lie’. What you are really doing is not hurting someone  who cannot understand, or process, the hurt. The ‘lie’ you tell to create peace in someone’s heart who has no way to heal–to avoid giving them pain they cannot protect themselves from–that ‘lie’ is actually kind, compassionate, and healing.

So be kind to yourself, too. The only people who would judge you, just don’t know. (Yet.) The ones who know? Believe me, they understand. And they are supporting you in spirit, every step of the way.

CLEAR YOUR CACHE

TMI can overwhelm. Start where you are, let go of what doesn’t serve you anymore, and take one step forward–today!

Today’s column from Fine Art Views:

Clear Your Cache!

LOST WALLET

What if your ‘horrbile, no-good, very bad day’ is simply protecting you from something much, much worse?

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Happy Holidays postmar, careful writing, and the contents of my lost wallet, less the chunk of cash. What do YOU think?

A week ago today, I had one of the most frustrating days I’ve had in ages.

I drove down to Oakland, California, in the East Bay, to meet a friend for lunch and see street- and mural-artist Bud Snow’s show in a local gallery there.

I stress out driving in the Bay area–so much traffic, many expressways and interchanges, I usually realize I’m a little low on gas on the way down (which was true this trip, too), and I obsess about finding a place to park. (Worse than Boston, if you can believe it.) In fact, there’s a funky gas station right off Hwy. 101 on the way down. But traffic was heavy, the line was long, and I didn’t want to be late. “I’ll fill up on the way back,” I thought to myself.

But I made the trip in good time, and found a parking space right in front of the restaurant. I met my friend, we found two seats in the crowded restaurant, and had a terrific meal. I thought, “Wow! It’s my lucky day!” I paid the tab, and we left.

My luck soon turned.

We were going to walk to the show, but I decided to drive us there instead. We found another good parking space, and I pulled out my wallet to get the parking. (My friend beat me to the punch, though.)

That’s when I realized my wallet was missing.

The next couple hours were spent calling the restaurant, retracing our steps, looking under the car that had taken my former parking space, searching my car (always an adventure), and then calling credit card companies and banks. (Jon said, “Why don’t you just put a hold on them? Maybe you’ll find the wallet!” My friend said tersely, “It’s Oakland. Cancel the cards.) Flustered, overwhelmed, unable to rally my good cheer, I decided to skip the show and head home, hoping to get a jump on rush hour traffic. Halfway home, I wish I hadn’t refused my friend’s offer of gas money.

The whole way home, I fretted about gas and the loss of a sizeable chunk of cash in my wallet. And the traffic was UNBELIEVABLE. Almost the entire way home, I rarely drove more than 20 mph for over 60 miles. The one-hour trip without traffic had taken me over three hours. And I still had to deal with more phone calls when I got home. (Jon didn’t realize we could ask for expedited service. Especially with the holiday weekend, we’re still waiting for our main household credit card to arrive.)

And then, on Monday, after I’d spent several hours getting my driver’s licence replaced, a little package appeared in the mail, postdated the Saturday right after New Year’s Day.

I knew instantly what it was. Sure enough, it held my credit cards, my driver’s license, and my health insurance ID.

I was instantly awash with a multitude of emotions.

Anger–did the person really think I would not cancel those credit cards immediately? What was the point? Why couldn’t they have sent the driver’s licence back sooner?

Then curiosity: Did they try to use the cards, and they were already cancelled. So they felt bad and returned them. A thief with a conscience?

Then, humility. How did I know it was the person who helped themselves to my wallet? Maybe someone stripped the contents, took the money, and dumped the cards? Perhaps someone had simply found the cards, and decided to send them back to me.

The handwriting was extremely careful–did the person deliberately disguise their handwriting, so it could never be traced back to them? Or was it someone young, who didn’t learn cursive? Or…was it an elderly person, or a person whose first language is not English? (You can see the wavering strokes…) No return address, of course. No note, my husband remarked. Did they simply not want me to think they were the one who’d taken the money? (As Jon always says, no good deed goes unpunished. He also liked the ‘Happy Holidays!’ postmark, while I noticed the ‘Forever’ postage stamps from 2012. Two of them, too, to make sure it would make it through the mail.)

Jon posted about this on Facebook. The comments were varied. “Mediocre Samaritan” was our favorite. (Update at bottom.)

On Tuesday, I took my car in for a maintenance check. And the report came back with disturbing news. My car needed new tires. How soon? I asked. As soon as possible, he said. Why?? A 2006 Scion we bought just before we moved here, they were probably the original tires. There were severe cracks in the sidewalls.  We’d forgotten to check our tire pressure, and the tires were underinflated until a few days before. That could have affected very old tires badly. “You’ll be okay for a few days on surface roads,” the guy said. “But stay off the expressways. If those tires were to overheat, one could explode, and you’d lose control of the car.”

Stay off the expressways….

What if my day in Oakland had passed without incident? What if I had filled my tanks on the way down? What if there hadn’t been rush-hour traffic clogging the expressway for hours?  What if I hadn’t been forced to drive slowly, and carefully, all the way home?

My friend Mary Ellen (who was the friend involved) put it best in her Facebook comment:

All our comments are our own lens on the world. I choose to believe there is good in most people and someone found it and returned it. There is no way to test that. Another might see some nefarious plot. It’s like a rorschach.

I have the resources to restore my life back to normal (such as that is!) I thought back about the money in my wallet. On impulse, the day before my trip, I’d  stuffed a $20 into the collection pot for a charity outside a supermarket. It seemed excessive, but it felt like the right thing to do. I’m glad that was my last ‘purchase’.

Maybe, maybe, maybe, the rest of my money was a blessing in someone else’s life. I hope so.

What might have happened if I’d driven home at top speed, on uncrowded roads?

I heard the phrase, “Protection through rejection…” a few months ago. I instantly recognized the sentiment: Sometimes, the times we didn’t get what we wanted–the gig we didn’t get, the relationship that didn’t work out, the opportunity that fizzled–those “rejections” are actually protecting us, directly or indirectly, from something else.

There is simply no way to know the true story, nor the whole story. But the point is, it doesn’t matter.

And it doesn’t matter whether we believe we are under special consideration from a superior being, or fate, or whether we make our way through utter randomness in the universe. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the lens we choose. What matters is the story we choose to tell ourselves. The story that marks our view of the world, our view of this life, and our place in it.

Me? I’m happy to be safely at home, my life approaching normal again. Happy with the story I chose to tell today.

Update When I posted this article on Facebook, several people shared their own experiences, including a friend who routinely used to find lost wallets and cards, and always returned the contents to their rightful owner. This is what I wanted to believe, and now I have the proof. Thank you, Barbe SaintJohn for sharing your story. Faith is knowing what to believe, hope is wanting to believe. You have solidified my faith.

Second update I was telling this story to two friends in Atlas Coffee recently, and they both told me they’d been driving on a freeway when their tire blew up. “It was like an explosion!” Ray said. “I was doin’ 70. Thought I was gonna die.” ” Closest I’ve ever come to dying,” said Mike. Thank you, lost wallet. Thank you.

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE: Nobody Dies Alone (Not)

Recently California passed  Right to Die legislation, allowing the terminally-ill to seek their physician’s assistance in committing suicide.

Many people have valid arguments against this legislation. Almost everyone I’ve met who works in hospice and palliative care are dismayed. Too often, hospice is not called into such a situation until the last minute. Most hospice clients receive care for less than 14 days. More than half of those clients, less than a week. Many, if not most, of the issues that Right to Die legislation addresses, could be alleviated by hospice and palliative care, including patient comfort and support. Research shows that clients in hospice care live longer and suffer less than those in standard care.

But that’s not what moved me to write today. There was a letter to the editor from a grieving person, who provided round-the-clock care for their spouse until the very end. The person said hospice can’t do what they did–sit with their spouse until their loved one died.

Which, believe it or not, is not always a good thing.

Somehow, being with someone while they die has been synonymous with ‘best practice’. “Nobody dies alone!” And when people can’t be there for that final moment, they often feel a sense of failure and guilt.

Meanwhile, those of us who are involved in hospice care, notice something totally different. Something that we noticed in almost all our cases….

Most people die alone. And though obviously we cannot know what someone’s final thoughts are, it sure looks like their choice.

We’re often called on for what we call a ‘vigil’. There’s no one to sit with the person who seems to be actively dying–family members are out of state, or can’t be there 24/7. Volunteers sit with the client in shifts. But we never provide round-the-clock care. And that’s a good thing, because the truth is, sometimes people need that time to themselves, to choose when they would die.

Read that again: The circumstances where someone in hospice died was often so responsive to what was going on around them–even when they were unconscious or unable to respond–it looked like they’d chosen to leave at a specific time.

In the five years I served as a hospice volunteer, I saw many extremes in outcomes around this.

I had a client who was mobile, and aware, who had “months to live”, who died within a day of her own daughter (also her caretaker) being diagnosed with breast cancer. (Her daughter chose put her in respite care for the weekend–two days–just so she could process the news.) As if my client were saying, “I’ll be okay, but you need to take care of yourself now.”

I know two people, siblings, who sat with their dying parent all night. When it was one sibling’s turn, they fell asleep briefly.  And in that short span of time, their parent died. As if they were saying, “I love you, and I don’t want this to be your last memory of me.”

I know another client who died, again while a family sat holding their hand, asleep. It was the family member they’d had the most contentious relationship with. As if they were saying, “Please forgive me.”

Another client who had mere days, perhaps hours, to live, held on for over three weeks. Immobile, usually unresponsive, unable to eat nor drink anything except a few tablespoons of ice cream and soda during that time, yet they hung in there. One of their attendants, who’d become close with her, was expecting a baby. She was two weeks overdue. I believe my client was waiting for the baby to come.

I don’t know how many times I, and my fellow volunteers, someone would say to us, “We kept watch, we took turns, someone was there with them every day, every minute! They were never left alone! And then one night, on my shift, I went to the bathroom–I was only gone five minutes! And when I came back, they were gone. I still feel awful.”

The sense we are all left with is, sometimes there seems to be a choice, when to stay, and when to go.

Sometimes it seems obvious the person is dying doesn’t want their loved one to witness that.  For whatever reason, they wait until that tiny moment of time where they are alone–and they go.

Sometimes it seems they are waiting for someone–an out-of-state family member, a new baby–to arrive. They hang in there until the person either comes, or until the client can’t hold on any longer.

Sometimes it seems that they are waiting to hear something.  Perhaps someone who has to let go, someone who has to tell them, “It’s okay, it’s hard, but I’ll be okay. You can go”. Or for someone to say those four powerful statements: “I forgive you.” “Please forgive me.” “Thank you.” “I love you.”

So if this has happened to you, please don’t despair. There is no predicting how close someone is to death. Hospice and palliative care do the most good the sooner they can be brought in to provide services.

But even with the best of care, the best intentions, this was one of the most amazing, the most…okay, I’ll say it: miraculous thing I saw in hospice.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and it’s surprising difficult to write about. But it’s important.

How our loved one leaves us, is often their last gift to us.

 

 

 

THE RUBBERBAND: Snapping Yourself to Awareness

So I’m wearing a sporty piece of wrist gear these days…

A rubberband.

In a neutral, tan color, just like my new palette for 2016!

I’ve read about wearing them. I always thought snapping the rubberband was sort of negative feedback when you indulged in a habit you wanted to eliminate . A little smack on the wrist for ‘my bad’.

Turns out it doesn’t work that way. It’s just a way to bring your attention to what’s happening, to take notice of what you’re doing, or experiencing.

In my case, it’s when I diminish myself. When someone compliments me (“Love your hair color!”), I always say, “thank you!”. And then, “Obviously, I owe it all to modern chemicals!”

It’s an unusual color not normally found in nature. But why do I feel I have to apologize for that?

Self-deprecation. I excel at it.

Unfortunately, while modesty can be an admirable trait, I tend to carry it into the dark side. As one online dictionary puts it, “Being self-deprecating is usually considered a good trait, a quality of someone with a wry sense of humor. When being self-deprecating goes too far, it can become self-loathing and self-sabotaging, which are less amusing forms of putting yourself down….” And I’ve turned ‘taking it too far’ into a life practice.

As I said in my mission statement for 2016 I learned early in life not to get too full of myself. Either those around me let me know I was out of line, or the universe seemed to smack me down a bit. I learned that every expansion of my spirit, my confidence, my expertise, was quickly met with a contraction. Eventually, I could do it myself, perfectly, without a second thought.

The habit remains. But it doesn’t serve me anymore, if it ever did.

It was my friend Sheri Gaynor who saw this, and challenged me. “You say something amazing, and then you put yourself down. You don’t even see who you truly are, what you are already capable of. Why is ‘being full of yourself’ a bad thing?!  Full of….yourself. Your true, unique, authentic self. Isn’t that a good thing??”

And so the ubiquitious rubberband.

It’s hard. It’s hard to say, “I can do this!” without “maybe” following. It’s seems too much to say “I want this for myself” without “But I’m not sure I can handle it” tumbling out.

I still find it hard to say, no more, I’m done with that. I was going to say, “I sure hope I can make this change.”

A little snap of that rubberband helps a lot. I don’t need to do anything other than notice what I’m doing. But that’s enough. Just seeing how often I do that to myself–and how often I let others do it to me–is appalling.

I was always stymied by people who challenge me with, “Who do you think you are?!”

Now I can respond, “Who do I have to be?”

The better answer is, “Do you believe I need your approval to have my point of view?” And depending on your answer, we may or may not see much of each other anymore.

As Rabbit says, “I may be a fearful creature. But I have a place in the world.

So much wisdom, from a fellow traveller, and from a lowly rubberband…..

 

MANIFESTO 2016

Oddly, 2016 also looks like a year of not-color. I'm exploring the power of white, and other neutrals. Thank you, Patty Tulip!
Oddly, 2016 also looks like a year of not-color. I’m exploring the power of white, and other neutrals. Thank you, Patty Tulip!

I’ve been thinking about 2016 for awhile now. I revisited my Manifesto for 2015 just now.

It still works for me.

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 hope I truly get a pony–er, horse–in 2016.

FEED THE BIRDS

If you build a feeder, they will come.

20150422_115838-2.jpg

I know. Birds. Bird feeders. Blogging. Where the heck am I going with this?? Bear with me….

I write for an online art marketing blog called Fine Art Views. A few days ago, artist Mark Brockman wrote an article about artists blogging that generated a rush of comments.

Mark shared the other reasons artists should blog, besides just generating an audience for our work. He uses it as a sort of professional journal of his process, his intention, his progress with his art–a record of his artistic journey. And he also mentioned that, to help gather those thoughts,  he actually ‘interviews’ himself in his mind. This helps him pull his thoughts together for his posts.

The comments were many, and filled with gratitude for the insights Mark shared. Almost everyone starts out struggling with their blog–what to write about? Who is it for? Where do I start? And will anyone ever read it?

Which brings up a funny story about me that became a metaphor for this.

I have a confession to make: When I first started blogging, I felt the same way. WHAT MERYL STREEP AND I HAVE IN COMMON, my very first blog post, appeared on December 1, 2002. Actually, it holds up well. (Oops. Actually, that was my second blog post. My first was HOLDING ONTO PATTERNS THAT HOLD YOU BACK. It’s pretty good, too. In fact, I should reread them both, daily.)

Radio Userland was an early blog-hosting site. It was clunky in some ways–it’s tricky to search for specific articles, there were no categories or tags (that I know of), and the only way to read them is to start at the beginning and follow the little calendar markers through to my first post on WordPress on May 25, 2007.

I had very few readers when I started out, and it was rare for a reader to leave a comment. But I’m still proud of the writing I did, and, as Mark said, it was mostly for me. I’m a writer, and I have to write. Even if it’s just for myself.

Years ago, before the 21st century began, my husband and I moved into a little apartment on the Old West Side in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was our first little home, in a family neighborhood, a rag-tag little house supposedly made from lumber salvaged from a defunct railroad car. (I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it definitely had its share of odd construction details.)

We even had a little backyard. And so, of course, I fulfilled a life-long dream of putting out a bird feeder.

It’s embarrassing to even write this, but it consisted of a bag of random, cheap, generic bird seed from the grocery store, poured into the empty lid of a garbage can. “Maybe the ground feeders will like it,” I chirped cheerfully.

I then went back inside to our enclosed porch, perched myself on a chair looking out the window, and waited for the birds to come.

Twenty minutes later, I slumped into the living room and wailed to Jon, “There aren’t any birds at my feeder!! What’s the use?!”

He didn’t laugh. He just gently explained to me that it can take days, even weeks for a new feeder to attract birds. (He forebear to tell me that a garbage can lid wouldn’t even necessarily ‘read’ as a feeder to the birds.) “They’re creatures of habit,” he said. “They have a set route they follow. It will take awhile for them to notice. But if you keep it up, eventually a few will find it, and they’ll tell their friends.” He added that it was a responsibility, too. Once they discover what you have to offer, they count on you to come through for them.

I realized it takes time to build a bird audience. The responsibility thing…well, we weren’t quite ready for that, either. Plus, it rained the next day, and my “bird feeder” turned into a lid of porridge.

But Jon’s remarks stayed with me. They became a powerful metaphor for how to blog.

You write for yourself first. You write because it helps you get your art out into the world–not the art itself, but your intention for your art. You can express that by sharing your technical process (if that’s important to you). But you can also share your creative process–how you select your subject matter, how you prepare to create something, how you feel about it, how you explain yourself. You do it because you now have a written record of your journey.

And you do it because there are plenty of birds out there who are happy to find what you share. Birds are always grateful for those who provide nourishment, for those who are kind, for those who care.

You just have to wait for the birds to find you.

And then they will come.

P.S. This also is reminds me of that old joke from Alice in Wonderland, “How is a raven like a writing desk?”, but my answer isn’t as funny.