We Are Enough (and So Is Mary Oliver)

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not.

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?

But a book arrived in the mail that day, Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Blue Horses. As always, it’s an unpected gift at just the right time.

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.”[13] 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.”[14] 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?!”

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”?

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”:

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 choose look 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.

The sun shining, for the fourth day in a row.

A flock of bluebirds in the California winter.

A murmuration of starlings in the evening.

Another poem by Mary Oliver.

Hey! A new year!

Now I feel like can can deal with it.

baby goat
A baby goat!
rocks on a beach
Rocks on a beach!
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Be Kind, Unwind.

Luann Udell discusses how to seek out what brings you joy, and peace in your heart.
Luann Udell discusses how to seek out what brings you joy, and peace in your heart.

LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Be Kind, Unwind.

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

Where is your happy place? Go there today!

I promise I will stop whining about my very hard year, but not yet. For now, it still holds many life lessons for me.

Life lessons are hard, though, especially when we love them so much, we learn them over and over and over again.

Maybe too many lessons this year? Loss. Grief. Forgiveness. Being vulnerable. Looking for the light. Leaving “the group”. Setting boundaries. Sometimes I think Brene Brown is writing just for me.

Mostly, though, I know we all struggle with who we are in the world, and who we WANT to be. Being human can be hard work. Being a good human is exhausting.

Except when it isn’t. And that’s what I want to share with you today, this holiday season.

Monday I spoke with a physical therapy person at the gym where I get (doh!) physical therapy. (I use their independent gym program. Most of the patrons are even older than I am. So at least I’m not looking at healthy, fit, beautiful youngsters working out at five times the level and six times the speed I am.)

I complained about the chronic aches and pains I’m struggling with. It never stops, and it never gets better. With everything else on my plate, it feels like injury heaped on insult. (Yes, I know I have that backwards, but it works here.)

They asked me about my activity level. I replied it’s minimal, because a) everything hurts, and b)….well, everything hurts!

They reminded me yet again that hunkering down makes everything worse. “Our bodies are made to move,” they said. “When was the last time you went for a walk?”

Er…..can’t remember???

All of us have some discomfort, or ache, or even pain. We all want a very simple solution: All of us want a pill to make it better.

A temporary fix, in most cases. And we all know the dangers of self-medicating. It helps for awhile. And then it doesn’t. Then the self-medicating creates its own problems.

So….no pill?!  Dang.

“Go for a walk,” they said. “If you can’t walk for 30 minutes, walk for 10 minutes three times a day. It’s not how long, or how hard, or how fast you do it. It all counts. Try it.”

Honestly, I wanted to cry. I want my simple, easy solution! It hurts to move! EVERYTHING hurts—my body, my feelings, my conscience, my spirit. I want to be distracted from my problems! I want to watch endless TV in comfort!! I want my Christmas cookies!!!

“Everybody hurts somewhere”, they said, with compassion. (The compassion part almost made me cry.) “Just try it.”

Fortunately, the next day was a beautiful, sunny day, a rare break from the winter’s rain. It was Christmas Day, but with no family here, a tight budget, a tiny tree that took 10 minutes to set up, there wasn’t much to do at home.

Remembering those words of wisdom, my husband and I went for a walk. Not a big walk. Just a walk through our neighborhood, but a new route. It’s a tradition we had back in Keene NH, where we would walk downtown every morning for coffee before we both started our day.

We’ve skipped that for years now. No coffee shop. Jon starts his day early, to catch up with co-workers on the East Coast.

We’ve missed it. So we walked.

It was great! We talked. The dogs explored new bushes to pee on. We imagined ourselves living in the pretty little houses with wonderful gardens. That garage could be a new studio! That house has a lemon tree! Wow, smell those roses!!!

We agreed it needs to be part of our day again.

I went to my normally-best happy place, my studio, to work. Unfortunately, it’s not my happy place lately. My future there is in upheaval, and everything there reminded me of that.

And yet….

I thought if I had more tiny wind-swept beach pebbles, I could use them to add a delightful accent to an assemblage I’m working on for an upcoming solo exhibition.

I remembered there are tiny, wind-polished beach pebbles on a beach at Point Reyes.

I’m a pebble puppy, and I’m proud!

I realized we had enough daylight left to drive out there.

I had a mission! And a clear destination. Fortunately, my hubby agreed, and off we went.

The drive to Point Reyes is exquisitely beautiful. Rolling grazing land with old valley oaks, amazing vistas, all bright green with the recent rains, and big blue sky. One of our joys as a couple is taking drives to amazing places.

There are many things that are difficult in California: The cost of living, the cost of housing, the woes that high-tech industries bring to big cities, wildfires, earthquakes, mudslides, I could go on.

But almost everywhere you go, there is jaw-dropping beauty. The mountains, the redwood forests, the deserts, the Pacific Ocean….

The ocean will take every ounce of your sorrow and sadness, your fears and self-doubt, and it will sweep them away.

The ocean here along the Central Coast and in Northern California is powerful, and dangerous. It’s not the gentle wash of the mid-Atlantic, nor the calm surface of a lake. You have to watch your back. Rip tides, king tides, sneaker waves, sudden storms, all await the careless or the unwary.

And yet watching waves roll in is strangely calming. It is unrelenting, never stops. It doesn’t wait for me, nor you. It is its own “thing”, with its own rules and purpose. It is totally unpredictable, yet always powerful…and astoundingly beautiful.

Kinda like life, huh?

We walked. Soon I found those special rocky patches in the sand, where small polished pebbles can be found. Jade, serpentine, jasper, carnelian, quartz, in shades of olive, sage, pine green, red, orange, amber, white, black, and brown. I happily hunted-and-gathered for over an hour, collecting about a cup of tiny stones.

I felt my heart slowly edge back into place, and my soul, just as slowly, open up a little.

The drive back was just as beautiful. Soaring vultures, diving hawks, sentinel herons, crows and starlings gathering in the dusk, a flock of bluebirds. Bluebirds! And gorgeous glowing pink cumulus clouds holding the last rays of the sunset….

We humans are hard-wired to be hunter-gatherers. Whether we emulate that in picking up pretty pebbles, collecting tools and brushes, teacups, Chilean cabernets, the sale rack at Nordstrom’s or the local flea market, it’s in us somewhere.

We are also hard-wired to pay attention to the horizon. Our ancestors watched for signs of danger. That evolved into being constantly aware of our surroundings. Our love of beautiful views and beautiful places, whether they are mountains and mesas or small gardens and sweet cottages, spring from this. We are soothed by sights, scenes, and vistas. (Landscape artists, are you listening?)

We are hard-wired to watch the sky. Is a storm coming? Is the day waning? Weather meant life-or-death to our ancestors. Still does, though more of an inconvenience for most of us, most of the time. Yet a beautiful sky is still a mood-lifter.

We are also hard-wired for water. A small babbling brook, a roaring waterfall, a koi pond (or aquarium!), a lake, even a bird bath, is a universal source of interest, comfort, amusement. But the ocean tops them all.

Me? I also have a superpower. I sort. I will enjoy some time picking through these pebbles today, sorting by color and size. (They need to fit into a tiny bottle!) I find sorting very soothing. Er….after I’m done screaming when I’ve knocked a box of beads onto the floor…

Got any little old crusty bottles you don’t want? (My version of “you gonna eat that?”)

As I work today in my studio, I will remember the wild storm surf, the wind, the big sky, deer and cattle, birds and clouds. And a handful of carefully gathered and curated pebbles. Oh, and all those times I spent collecting lovely little old glass bottles in New Hampshire antique stores….

If you are struggling this holiday season, if you are sad, or lonely, or fearful, if you are stressed, or grieving, take exquisite care of yourself.

If even your sacred creative space is (temporarily, I hope!) compromised, take heart. You will get through this.

It will never stop aching. But the sharp pain will (hopefully) soften. Time, love, friendship, solace, music, nature, will help you heal.

Seek out what brings you joy, and peace in your heart.

Find the beauty of the world. Let it heal you.

Then, when you are rested and restored to yourself, take up your tools again: Your pencils, your brushes, your pile of clay. Sit again at your loom, your easel, your worktable. Put on your favorite music, or sit with silence.

Share what healed you today. Capture it and share it, so someone else can be healed, too.

It’s what we artists do.

And we are really, really good at it, too. Thank heaven!

ALMOST FAMOUS

Years ago, I ran into major star at an event. (We were in line for refreshments.) This was someone whose music influenced me deeply ever since my early college years, and I’ve followed them faithfully ever since–20 years at the time, almost 50 now.

I told them that. Even as I struggled to express how much they meant to me, I could see “that face”:

“Yeah, okay. I’m tired. I hear this all the time. I get it. Thank you. But I just want to get my effin’ drink here, in peace!”

They didn’t say that. But the numb expression on their exausted face was clear. I felt awful.

And I felt awful after I did it again recently.

I had an opportunity to meet a star. Another REAL star. A famous person. I got to go backstage, and meet them. And foolishly, instead of just saying “hello” and moving on, I once again tried to tell them how much their work means to me.

And I could tell, once again, how much I bored with my little story.

Again, this person was gracious. I am not complaining. I was embarrassed I’d done it again.

They’d just completed a performance. They get hundreds of those backstage visits a year. They were already exhausted, after working the stage for hours.

And here comes a perfect stranger who hopes to “connect” at the worst possible time. What if every person, the hundreds of thousands of people who love their work, did that? “I know you, you don’t know me, I think you’re wonderful, do you “see” me????”

I have a confession to make…

The older I get, the harder it is to remember, and recognize, my own fans/customers.

This is embarrassing, because…Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You made the time to visit my studio/website/show, you had the sense of purpose to collect a piece, your purchase helps me stay in business so I can continue making, and our conversation lifted my heart.

So when I see you again, and you have to remind me who you are and what we talked so passionately about, I want to sink into the floor.

Most people are understanding. “Why should you remember me?? I was one of hundreds who visited your studio that day! Don’t worry about it.”

But I always remember that first “star” encounter, and cringe. The second encounter was totally on me.

Where am I going with this?

It’s about a creative person’s “dream”, our desire for fame, the need for proof that the world loves what we do.

I realize I don’t really want to be “famous” anymore. I wouldn’t be good at it.

Trust me, it’s not because I’m “more evolved” than these starry folks. They have talent, they’ve worked hard to get it out into the world, and I celebrate every measure of success they achieve. They work hard to be gracious and appreciative of their audience, even when it means putting on a happy face when they are drained and exhausted.

I just realize I would not be nearly as gracious as they are if I were in their shoes.

Do I love what I do? Yes. Do I want my work out in the world? Yes! Do I want my work to be seen, and admired, and respected, and loved? YES!! Am I grateful for the people who let me know, especially when they love it enough to actually buy it? OH GOD YES.

But I also believe my work has a purpose in the world. I feel compelled to connect with my followers, my visitors, my collectors. I’m honored when my work, our conversations, inspire them, heal them, encourage them on their own creative journies.

I can only do that when the encounters are “small”. Personal. Intimate (spiritually.) Enjoyable. I know I would not handle fame nearly as well.

It’s not a “be careful what you wish for, you might get it” thing.

It’s know what you really want, instead of what our celebrity-driven, limelight-lit world tells us what we should want.

Summed up beautifully, and with humor, in my all-time favorite cartoon  (Sally Forth) by Francesco Marciuliano.

 

 

 

GROWING

How do you know when it’s time to move forward? When nothing else is possible.

If you follow my blog, you know I’m writing about a series of steps to create your own artist support group. It’s harder than I thought it would be, though I’ve done it many times. Even though I took the training not once, but twice.

I am obsessed with doing it right, hoping this “I’m not in the room to show you” approach will translate and transfer. I can’t stop thinking there’s someone out there who really needs to hear this today.

Today I finally realized that person is me.

I’ve been trapped in a whirlwind of my own emotions, my self-doubt, my inability to figure out what “the universe” is telling me. On top of the difficulties of melding with (relatively) new surroundings, trying to rebuild an audience for my art (and writing!), dealing with difficult family matters (I almost said family “members”, but have to remember they might describe me the same way!), I have been in a tsunami of allergy-related health issues. I am achey and ill-at-ease, exhausted, and I sleep round the clock. A friend said, “When allergies hit us, it feels like the universe is attacking our body.” True dat.

I’ve been reaching out to people who have had my back in the past. People who know me well. People who have seen me at my worst, and still love me. Unfortunately, when I look at how far back our conversations go, I can see that some started before we even left New Hampshire!

And slowly, slowly, I’ve realized, the universe isn’t trying to tell me something.

My heart is.

I’ve always struggled with “shaman”, just as I used to struggle with “artist”. The three aspects of a shaman are intriguing and feel right. Whether I am one or not, to go “in that general direction” just felt like the right path.

Artist. Teacher. Healer.

What about my training for those facets of who I am?

I claimed my story, and my art grew from there.

Teaching? It was one of my very first “aha!” moments, when I thought/realized I wanted to be a teacher. (Turns out I DO, and I AM, but not in our traditional idea of teaching. I share what I’ve learned in my writing, in workshops, and often in conversations with people who happen to cross my path. In a classroom, 8-4 every weekday?? For 8 months??? Not so much.)

Healing? My hospice training blew my heart up, in a good way. From sitting with clients, sitting with them, not “fixing” but simply being present. Then learning to sit with clients with Alzheimer’s, not “fixing” but simply being in THEIR moment, not mine. Then I moving on to creating and leading grief writing workshops: Helping people heal from deep and/or complicated grief and loss. (ALL under the guidance and supervision of trained professionals!) I learned, and I learned, and I learned.

But though people have urged me, I’ve always edged away from actual “coaching” coaching. It would seem like a natural “next step”, but it feels…wrong.

When I work with the wrong person, at the wrong time for them (and me!), before they are ready, before they are able, and when they are in my life for the wrong reasons, it ricochets badly.

And sometimes, I just get caught up in “I know better than you!” (I call it “triangulation”–“Let’s check in on these questionable people we both know, are they just goofy, or dangerous?” But some people call it, “Please mind your own business, I didn’t ask you!” OW!!)

I feel these efforts are always sketchy anyway–I don’t feel like a healer, though I believe my art heals me, and my art can sometimes heal others.

Lately, my “coaching” efforts have been a lot more than “less than”. They feel awful.

What it feels like: The minute I assume I know what I’m doing, it blows up in my face. And because I’m vulnerable in that role, it’s devastating.

It felt like the universe was saying, “Get over yourself!”

But today I realized there’s a gap in my training.

I need more training in healing/coaching.

I still reject the notion of this aspect of my life. It still feels wrong, it still feels uncomfortable.

I need more information on how to stay grounded. How to assess the situation. How to realize when to fold, the sooner the better! (I do have good instincts for self-protection, but sometimes they kick in too late.) How to tell when someone really is “ready”.

And to acknowledge that often, when it works at its best, there is reciprocity. Not money-wise. But every time it works beautifully, there is an exchange of energy. We both walk away better for the interaction.

Hard for me to describe. I’ll think about that.

So I share this with you today. It’s why I’ve been quieter than usual. Why I’ve made myself “smaller” instead of “bigger”.

I’m at another turning point in my life. I don’t know what it looks like, and I pretty sure I’m leaving art and writing behind. (How would I survive?!)

So today I start another trail of learning. My “next step”: Today I’m contacting someone I trust with my heart, to get a thought on how to move forward on this.

Today is another “life lesson”, just waiting to be learned.

 

 

 

 

Mercy Now

Need to just cry for a few moments?

Mary Gauthier’s heart-achingly simple and beautiful song “Mercy Now”. That violin! Tania Elizabeth nails it with sweetness and restraint.

It’s been a hard month so far. Family matters, hard and sad stuff with our kids, impossible to solve. “Nobody died”, has been our way of framing things for Jon and I over the past 30 years. Still hard. Health issues (I now have not one, but TWO inhalers). A runaway pet. (Of course, the one who panics once she gets outside, and figuratively goes crazy.) Listening to people blame those dealing with hardship on…guess what? The people going through those hardships.

Where is the kindness?

Many people confuse “nice” with “kind”. I’ve learned to tell the difference.

So I pulled up that video on YouTube and played it loud, three times in a row, this morning.

For the first time, I noticed its date: 09/09/10.

Nine years after 9/11. Two days before my birthday.

And yet, the lyrics could have been written today.

Today, I’m going to donate to three causes. One will be for immigrant children separated from their children at the border. (Of course, there should be mercy, too, for the immigrant woman who was denied entrance because even though her husband KILLED HER TWO CHILDREN, it’s been determined spousal abuse is not a valid reason for entrance.) And btw, I often sign up for very small monthly amounts. Even $5/month adds up.

Today, I’m going to mail presents to my kids. One will love them, one will resent my “pity”.

Today, I’m going to do some journaling, something I tend to forget now that I have a regular writing gig.

Today, I’m going to schedule horse therapy time. I thought the horse needed love and acceptance, & I’d being doing HIM a favor. Doesn’t work that way.

Today, I will look for every opportunity to be kind.

Today, I’m going to take exquisite care of myself. Because like so many others even less fortunate and privileged as I, I need some mercy now.

noddy and nick
Noddy, please come home!

 

 

 

 

 

Holding Onto “Facts” That Hold You Back

(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.

20180503_144655
* No women in the Lascaux caves? Ha! Check out the link below!

Were the First Artists Mostly Women?

 

 

 

THE FOUR STAGES OF COMPETENCY: What do kickboxing and pursuing a career in art have in common?

(This article was originally published on my blog at Radio Userland back in January, 2004. Fourteen years later, I still find it a valuable, and timely, reminder.)
WHO KNEW EXERCISE COULD BE SO EDUCATIONAL??    

 

My kickboxing instructor had a cool handout for us a few weeks ago.  It was entitled : “Cycle of Performance/Formula for Success”.  It was a brief description of the learning process for, in this case, martial arts.  It had four little phrases on it:

INCEPTION:  Unconsciously incompetent

DECEPTION:  Consciously incompetent

TRANSFORMATION:  Consciously competent

IDENTITY:  Unconsciously competent

We talked about it during class. It provided “aha!” moments for many of us.  Turns out this little handout explains more than how to learn martial arts, it’s an insightful road map into any life endeavor we pursue. It goes something like this:

Inception, the first stage, is that wonderful, giddy stage of learning a new skill, the excitement of potential.  I remember the first time I sat down to a wheel with a lump of clay.  I was fearless!

I plopped down the clay, centered it, made a cylinder and pulled out my first pot.  It was great!  It was easy!  I thought so, anyway. ” I must be a natural!” I remember thinking.

I was “unconsciously incompetent“.  I was gloriously unaware of what I didn’t know yet, and how hard it would be to recreate my initial success.  Besides, it was so much fun!  I was so thrilled with with my “innate” abilities that I smashed that first pot down, confident I could throw another just as easily the next time.

You know what comes next.  The next class, I sat down confidently to throw my next ball of clay.  And nothing happened.  I mean, nothing right happened.

I couldn’t center the clay for the life of me.  I kept trying until I had a sloppy plop of drooly clay.  I threw it aside and tried another ball.  Same thing.

Slightly daunted, but still game, I tried to raise a cylinder from the wobbly mass.  What a disaster!  I tried all through class, and went home discouraged.

All my throwing efforts in the next few classes ended up the same way, and I turned to slab work, making a few simple tiles and such.  But I was totally discouraged.

I had (unknowingly) entered the dreaded second stage: “Consciously incompetent“.  I recognized how much I didn’t know, and how much I still had to learn.  The ratio looked something like 1:1,000,000, if you what I mean.

If you’ve ever taught, you know how difficult it is to even observe this stage in others, let alone go through it yourself.  Frustration bubbles to the surface, masking everything else. You are totally aware of how bad you really are at this.  No matter how many times you practice, you don’t seem to get any better.  You can’t seem to do anything right.  Pots plop, your kicks flick harmlessly, the souffle falls, the watercolors don’t blend right.  It seems like everyone else is “getting it” except you.

Here was the gamechanger/aha moment/blast of insight for me:

Most people quit at this stage. 

They become convinced they are never going to get it. They just aren’t cut out for this, they just aren’t good at that.  They get angry–at their instructor, at the other people in the class who seem to be doing just fine, but most of all at themselves.  (That’s me, anyway.)

They may complain, or clam up.  They quit trying, or even quit coming to class, convinced that this just isn’t for them.  I believe most people who are afraid of making change in their life have let this stage totally defeat them, incorporating it into their very image of themselves.  “I’m just not good at math.”  “I’m just not very graceful.”  “I’ll never be able to (insert your dream activity here.)”

But if you perservere, you will come to the next stage:  Consciously competent.  It may take a long time, but you will get there.  You eventually begin to find yourself able to perform that skill.

You can do it, but you have to think about it.  You begin to see what needs improving and what needs strengthening.  You may begin experimenting with minor changes, trying what works best for you and what doesn’t.  You become more willing to plug away at it, perhaps even enjoying the process of learning for its own sake.  (Think of the perpetual graduate student….)

And as anyone who has ever mastered a skill knows, eventually you reach the fourth stage: Unconsciously competent.  The skill or knowledge has become a part of you.  You don’t even think about what you’re doing anymore, it’s just….YOU.  

You are a pianist, or a painter, or a doctor, or whatever.  In fact, you may not even remember NOT knowing that skill.  Do you really remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike?  Or does it feel like you’ve always known?  Do you really remember looking at a page in a book, and having no idea what those mysterious squiggles meant?  Surely we thought at one point, “I’ll never be able to ride a bike!” Or, “What if I can’t learn to read??!!”

I’ve been thinking about this little handout a lot for the last few weeks, especially that deadly little second stage.

It occurs to me that as adults, we’ve mostly forgotten the process of learning, and how truly awful it can feel.  In fact, it’s so awful, most people probably quit when they hit that stage, feeling they are never really “meant” to learn how to paint, how to knit, how to learn a new language, or whatever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what people need to see them through that second stage, and safely into that third stage…because this is what life changes and pursuing your dreams is all about.

Sometimes, of course, we are forced to make changes.  That becomes our determination.

But what about when we choose to make those changes?

I’ve been thinking about how important it is to either have a wonderful support system (a terrific teacher, encouraging friends or family, a great book that serves as a guide) or a tremendous sense of purpose, drive and determination.  Or both.

How many of us have started out to change something in our lives, to pursue a new interest or tread a new path? Then we hit that second stage and bagged out?

What if we simply made a conscious decision to believe in our selves one more day, one more hour, maybe another five minutes–what could we achieve?  How far could we really go?

When I started back in martial arts last spring (after sustaining a devastating injury by one of my previous instructors seven years ago) all I hoped for was to gain back some strength and stamina.  I could barely do one push-up anymore.  But I’m determined to stick with it, and now I can do thirty.  (well….on a good day.)

When I started back with a dream of pursing art seven years ago, I was determined to stick with it. My turning point? It no longer matter if didn’t turn out to be a particularly good artist.

“Good” didn’t matter anymore.  I knew that being an artist was so important to me, I simply had to try.  And keep trying.  When I look back at what I accomplished in seven years, I am amazed.

Type out this little handout, and post it somewhere where you can see it every day.  The next time you feel discouraged about achieving your goals, look and see where you are in the process.

Realize it isn’t something about YOU, but about the process.

And stick with it, if just for a little bit longer.  You may surprise yourself…..!

(I kept progressing, even returning to Taekwondo, for several more years. But the injuries I incurred in the process eventually forced me out. You can’t kick a bag with a knee replacement. But this lesson has stayed with me for over 14 years, and counting.)

(T’ai Chi, anyone?)