FIXING A FIXER

Why it’s okay to say no sometimes. Maybe a lot of times.

Years ago, an older gentlemen came to my booth at a big show. His visit changed my life.

He was so excited by my work. He was an artist himself, and he had incredibly rich things to say about my art. And about me.

“You’re a shaman!” he exclaimed over and over again. “You’re a shaman!”

I felt uncomfortable with that. Who am I to say I’m a spiritual healer?? I can hardly figure out what MY life should look like. Where would I get the gall to tell someone else how to run theirs?!

He went on to explain. And I’ve never forgotten his words.

All shamans are artists. But not all artists are shamans.

All shamans are teachers. But not all teachers are shamans.

All shamans are healers. But not all healers are shamans.

He went on to say much, much more. And some of it I still work through. (For example, I wondered why I still feel uncomfortable telling people this story, until a new friend told me that “shaman” is never something a true shaman calls herself; it’s what other people call them.)

What do these shamanistic traits–creativity; healing; teaching–have in common?

They are all about seeing ahead to what cannot be seen right now.

They see possibility.

A healer sees a person with has discord, imbalance, pain. They also see the person person could have balance, comfort and peace of mind. (Like hospice, not necessarily curing, but healing.)

A teacher sees a person does not know, and cannot do. They also see the person could learn, and grow, and achieve.

An artist knows something is inside her that needs to come out into the world to be seen, heard, experienced. It is not there until she makes it.

Personally, I think we all have our moments of shaman-hood. A parent, a good friend, a stranger, all have the ability, perhaps for a moment to lift us out of ourselves and help us see our true potential.

But I digress. Because I think sometimes, these things that make us a good parent, or a good friend, or a good artist, or a good healer, also makes us a very bad “good person”…..

A…(gasp!)…fixer.

In hospice, “fixing” is akin to “curing”. It’s simply not what we’re here for.

But the healing/teaching/creative arts tend to call to fixers. (It has to be trained out of us.) One of my trainers calls herself a recovering fixer. I LOVE that phrase! Another name for it is “Helpful Hannah”.

I hate that tendency. If I’m not careful, I let myself get sucked into someone else’s little life drama. Or I’m soon handing out advice they didn’t ask for, or don’t even want.

Some people don’t really want to be “fixed”. They get something out of being the way they are, or being in the situation they’re in. (I love Dr. Phil’s line, “Is that working for you?”)

Because everyone knows (especially us who had to learn it the hard way)….

You can’t fix other people. You can only fix yourself. (And let me return to that statement, because even that can be a trouble-maker….)

Just so I don’t sound heartless and unsupportive, what does help someone in dire straits is to simply….listen to them. Listen deep. Someone once said, the best gift you can give someone is to listen–really listen–to them. (I tried to Google the quote but came up with really naughty links…) Good docs listen to the stories their patients tell about themselves. Likewise, shrinks, social workers, priests, good friends, parents. This will also help you sort out the people who are really trying to work through something, and the time-suckers. Because the time-suckers just keep telling the same story over and over and over, as often as you’ll listen.

But I digress again.

So….Sometimes the things that make us a good artist–being open, trying to know what is inside us, being sensitive to what our work needs–makes us even more vulnerable to the influences of the outside world and other people. Because we can also be vulnerable, sensitive and open to the needs of others.

Especially situations and people who look like they need fixing.

If your art comes from a deep, healing place in your heart, this is especially true. You will be sensitive to people and situations that need healing. Your impulse to fix, if left unchecked, will pull you off track.

It’s a constant struggle. Hospice is teaching me not to be a fixer.

So why did I say “you can only fix yourself” is trouble-making?

Because sometimes it’s not about fixing yourself (which is linked to trying to be perfect.)

It’s about forgiving yourself for being human.

So don’t beat yourself up when it happens. When you drop everything to help someone. When you volunteer for every good cause. When you say “yes” to every question, to every phone call, to every excuse not to make your art.

Just ask yourself where the impulse comes from. To make that person feel better? Or to make yourself feel better?

Make a good choice. Know what you’re setting aside, what you’re giving up.

Sometimes, it’s the right thing to help someone. Sometimes, it’s you that needs to be the healing heart.

And sometimes, it’s your creativity, your art, that is needed to bring healing to the world.

Congratulate yourself when you make a good decision.

And forgive yourself when you don’t.

For more articles along this line, check out:

The Importance of Solitude

Everybody’s Mother

It’s Not My Problem

Helping

Oh, gosh, apparently this is a prominent theme in my life! So folks, do what I say, not what I do, okay?

BUBBLES

I got a lot done in the studio today. I promised two of my galleries I’d restock them after the holiday rush on my work. (Whoo hoo!)

I’m working on a popular new series of jewelry using more organic, simple beads of polymer, accented with freshwater pearls, found objects, wrapped stones, oxidized sterling silver and soft ribbons of leather I cut from recycled leather clothing. It seems to appeal to people who like my aesthetic, but want something more “neutral” than powerful animal totemic work.

I’ve been “in the zone” most of the day, moving easily from one production task to another–drilling pearls, making more polymer pod beads and spacers, cutting leather strips, oxidizing findings, making head pins.

This evening I was dashing around finishing up some stuff so I could relax “later”. The last errand took me across town and back.

On the way back, I thought maybe I could practice being “in the moment”.

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

I relaxed and paid attention to what was going on right now.

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

My knee ached a little. “My knee hurts,” I thought. But that was a good thing. It meant I’d gone for a long, vigorous walk with our dog Tuck. I remembered playing “monster chasing dog” and “kick the pine cone” and “grab the stick and pull” games.

“I’m driving with my dog in the back seat,” I thought. Tuck chose that moment to stick his head from his seat in the back to rest it gently next to mine in the driver’s seat. Sweet.

“I’m cold,” I thought. The car was still a little chilly, but it was just enough for me to sense it, a good feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

It was wonderful. Quite a lovely moment.

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

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

Used to be, when the new year rolled around, you’d find all kinds of articles in the news about resolutions.

Nowadays, it seems like you see just as many about why we never keep those resolutions.

I started to set my own “usuals” this week: Be more productive with my artwork, get organized, exercise more, eat less.

Then I read those darn downer articles, and wonder why I bother?

The answer came to me last night.

Yes, it’s hard to maintain those good intentions.

But I love the place of hope they come from.

This year I’m going to enthusiastically make those same ol’ resolutions, with some new additions.

I’m considering the lessons of my hospice training, and thinking about the difference between “curing” and “healing”. Between “fixing” and “truly listening.”

I’m going to take my passions–riding, martial arts, tai chi and yoga–and dig in a little deeper. I may restart a little chubbier than usual, but I know I’ll feel better for simply showing up and trying.

I’m positioning my artwork right where it belongs–as something I do for myself, and then share with the world. With no regrets and no measuring. It will go where it will, perhaps only a small pebble in a very big ocean. But even a small pebble makes ripples. I may not be able to see where they go, but I know they are there.

I intend to write something every day. Not all of it will be earth-shattering or special. But I want to make writing as daily a habit as…..cream in my coffee.

I will NOT give up cream in my coffee. Maybe in 2011…..?

Oh, and to remember to be grateful for what I have and for all the people in my life. All of ’em, even the highly annoying ones, bless ’em. I have something to learn from them all. And…grateful to just be here.

Some of these intentions will stick. Most probably won’t. I get that.

But I won’t give up on myself.

I kinda like the fact that I still believe I could be a better artist, a more successful biz owner, a kinder, healthier person, a better friend, if I try.

What do YOU resolve in 2010?

We Interrupt Our Program….OPEN STUDIO!!

Yes, you’re invited, and you, and you, and you!

Just in case you’re my mom (which you aren’t, because my parents have never been online. NEVER.) DO NOT call me and ask me if I’m lying dead in a ditch somewhere. A call which always came at 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings when I was in college, following a period where I had been incommunicado too long, and which always baffled me, because this was way, way before cell phones and so if I actually ANSWERED the phone, how could I be dead in a ditch somewhere??

I digress…. Because I HAVE been incommunicado. I have a good reason:

I’m getting ready for another open studio this weekend. And you’re invited!

In some ways, I’m on top of this one. The studio didn’t get too, too messy since my last one, there was a lot of publicity because it’s part of the NH Open Doors Tour, and I’m not driving myself crazy about preparations. For example, I’m not going to vacuum again unless the dog barfs. (Keeping my fingers crossed here….)

But in other ways, I’m behind–as always. I didn’t do any personal promotion–no postcards mailed out to my customers. (I’m kicking myself here.) I decided to redo all my signage. Even though there’s not a year’s mess in here, there’s still a mess.

And I’m adding my usual personal anxiety to the mix. I once had a party where only one person showed up. It was traumatic. She was a very nice person, and we did do damage to a bottle of tequila (which promptly did damage to me, which is why I never drink tequila anymore, but that’s a story for another day.) But I still enter each entertainment venture with a sinking feeling that says, “And what if nobody comes this time, either??”

So help me not support my therapist single-handedly. Come to my Open Studio this Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 7 & 8, from 10-5, or pass the word on to someone you think would enjoy it. Tell them what you want for Christmas (if I happen to make something you’d want for Christmas) and tell them it’s only available here. This weekend.

And we will be BFF. Especially if you are the only person who comes.

P.S. Full disclosure: To be fair, at the time of that party, I was living in a 10’x10′ room in a rooming house. I think everyone was afraid we were going to stay there.

P.P.S. And I kinda forgot to tell everybody til the last minute. Which is why I probably deserve to have slow open studios, since history is repeating itself here…..

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #13: One Big Break is All You Need

Myth: If only I could get into X Gallery/get Famous Person Y to see my work/get a website, I would be successful!

Reality: No one person, event or venue will make or break your vision.

When I first started showing and selling my art, I read these very wise words somewhere:

Every day you will find an opportunity to move your art/biz forward. Every day you will overlook an opportunity to move your art/biz forward.

I quote them now because a reader posted this comment on my blog recently, and with her permission, I reprint it here:

Hello, again! I get what you’re saying, Luann, I really do. But right now I’m really in a down space.

Filled with excitement, I opened up a space in Etsy back in September thinking that *there* I would find people who would see value in handspun hand-dyed yarn. They do, apparently–there are lots of other spinners on Etsy–but evidently they don’t see any value in mine.

Lots of looks, a few hearts, no sales.

One part of me is bugging me to get busy and make more yarn, but the other part of me is saying, “Why make MORE beautiful yarn that no one will want to buy? What’s the point of doing that, when no one wants what I’ve already made?”

I’m sorry for dumping on you my own pity-party, but I need someone who is an artist and “gets it” to vent to. ..

Maybe the Lord is trying to tell me to give up and become a boring housewife who grades papers and washes dishes and remembers when she used to make beautiful stuff. I don’t know.

Dear Reader, I give you permission to wallow for awhile. Things do get hard, and we all get discouraged. (See Myth #14 about this.) (Not yet, I haven’t written it yet!!)

But I can assure you wholeheartedly that the Lord is not telling you to stay small and regret your lost dreams. 🙂

Sometimes we take that leap and many things fall into place. Sometimes we take that leap–and things stay hard.

In fact, that is the major purpose of my blog: To chronicle my journey pursuing my art, with honestly and self-examination. And hopefully, a huge helping of inspiration.

Because, as my husband pointed out to me a short while ago, we always hear about the instant overnight successes. (What I call the Cinderella stories.) And we also hear about the not-so-overnight success stories, where the hero struggles and perseveres, and finally gets a lucky break.

The point is, we already know how those stories end. We know the goal was achieved, because the tales are always told afterwards–not while the ball is actually in play.

My blog is all about the ball being in play. And sharing that process with you.

So here are some possible scenarios regarding this handspun yarn biz, but don’t take the “you” thing personally. These are just some things to think about:

1. When we stand at the beginning of our stories, we cannot see the end.

Sometimes, we can’t even see what our ultimate goal will be. Longtime readers may remember my sad little story about wishing my handknit toy sheep idea taking off.

And when they finally did, how I discovered how much I hated knitting toy sheep.

If your handspun biz where to be an instant hit, you could be locked into a business that takes too much time away from your other pursuits right now. Or you might find spinning is fun for a few hours a day, but not so much fun doing it all day. Maybe you’ll realize you like writing about the process, or teaching the process, more than making yarn to sell. (Although that piece of it will give you the insights you need to do the other stuff–writing, teaching, demonstrating, etc.) Maybe you’ll end up developing a therapy program with your skills. Who knows what the possibilities are?

So maybe right now you think your dream is to sell handspun yarn. But maybe even bigger things are in store for you.

2. We cannot tell what strategy will work, and which ones will peter out.

Etsy looks like a “sure thing” from the outside, but having an Etsy shop does not guarantee success.

We dream of getting into “that great gallery”, sure we will be successful if they would only represent our work. We dream of finding “the perfect show” where we will find all the buying customers we need. We know if only we had a great website, we would be flooded with orders.

In reality, there is no “perfect venue” or “perfect strategy”. There is simply another opportunity to try.

Maybe e-commerce will work for you. Or maybe your yarns would sell better “in person”–at small local shows, or certain events. (We have a big “Wool Tour” here in New Hampshire on Columbus Day weekend. People come from hundreds of miles to tour small farms, see llamas and sheep and angora goats and bunnies, and buy fleece, roving and finished yarns.) Maybe people need to touch your yarn to fully appreciate it first, and then you turn those customers into online customers with reorders.

Maybe a “new product release” about your yarns to a knitting or spinning magazine would bring interested buyers to your Etsy store.

3. We may be trying to sell to the wrong people.

Etsy is the biggest and best-known venue for handcraft. But it’s also a huge venue for vintage goods and craft supplies. And it’s a big shopping venue for other artists. So you may be inadvertently trying to sell to people who can make it themselves.

At a friend’s suggestion, I used Etsy as a way to sell to my current customers. I didn’t actually think I could join an already established, close-knit online community (no pun intended) and create a strong presence there.

Even so, I didn’t have a single sale on Etsy. I’m exploring other ways to sell online, and will use Etsy to offload my old supplies.

4. It just may take more time than you think.

Another reader posted a reply to the original comment, and it’s a good one. (In fact, I just realized I’ve repeated a lot of what Kerin said!! oops…)

And see item #1 above, where things taking time can be a good thing.

5. And sometimes it’s just hard.

It’s true–it’s just hard sometimes. There are days when we just feel like the universe is saying “no”.

But what does your heart say?

Because if you give up, there is only one thing that can happen: Nothing!

If you persevere, anything can happen. Including failure, but failure is not necessarily a bad thing. (Go back to the knitted sheep thing.)

#5: What is “success”, anyway? What does it mean to Y*O*U?

Right now you haven’t had any sales. Is that your only measure of success?

Have you learned how to spin and dye beautiful yarn? You’ve successfully developed a product.

Have you learned how to photograph it? Have you successfully uploaded images to a website? You’ve successfully done something millions of people have no idea how to do. (Since I lost my photographer, I’ve had to work on developing a whole nother skill set, and that learning curve is steep!)

Have you learned how to talk about it, write about it? You’ve learned how to pitch your product.

And have you learned how to create a unique product? Which leads us to….

#6. Are you telling your real story?

Sometimes, especially when we first start out making stuff and getting it out into the world, we focus on the surface of the process. When you hear artists say, “I just love color!” or “I just love knitting!”, we are listening to someone who has either a) not bothered to dig deeper; b) doesn’t know how to dig deeper; or c) or is afraid to dig deeper.

What is it about hand-spinning and dyeing that excites you? What does it mean to you? Don’t say, “Oh, it’s fun” or “Oh, it’s relaxing.”

Tell us why.

Here’s a perfect little example that Bruce Baker tells in his seminars.

A potter makes tiny little pots with lids, very charming. But so what?

She explains that her life is so hectic, so harried, that when she takes time to make these tiny wonders, she envisions she is creating a little moment of serenity, of quiet. “And then she draws up the tops, and makes a little lid, and there is a little moment of time preserved….”

Doesn’t that make you want to own one of her little pots? And when you are harried and frazzled, you can lift the tiny lid….and there is your own little moment of quiet and peace.

She told us the “why”. And when you purchase her product, you can have a little of the “why”, too.

7. If it brings you joy, you should not–cannot–stop doing it.

It’s hard when it feels like the world does not want our beautiful work. But remember when I said, “I have to do it anyway, or I’ll die?” That’s what got me through.

Yeah, I know I wouldn’t drop dead if I never made another little horse. But I know something inside me would wither away. And the world, whether it knew about the loss or not, would simply be a sadder place for it.

I want to believe in my heart that somehow, in ways I may not see or could even possibly imagine, that the world is a better place for me making my work. For me being in the world. I have to believe that. Because to believe otherwise is to give in to self-doubt, and eventually, despair.

And whatever we believe in, whatever our religion or creed or ethics, if we are creative people, then we have to believe that creativity makes the world a better place. That anything we make–a lovely skein of yarn, a useful pot, an inspiration movie, a beautiful song, a warm and loving home for those we care about–the world is a better place for that.

Or what are we here for?

So keep making your yarn, because it makes you happy. Don’t give up, but be open to where it leads you (because it may not take you where you think you’re going!) Take the opportunities you find. Let go of the ones you miss, and move on. Think about the deep “why?”, and don’t be afraid to share it.

And know that whatever happens, it’s all good.

LOSING MY GREEN BELT

A teensy break from my “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS” series…maybe.

I was hiking in woods above our home a few weeks ago, and lost my house key. Not too big a deal, under ordinary circumstances–our family seems to lose house keys like a six-year-old loses teeth.

But attached to the key chain was one of my most prized possessions–a little tag made from a section of a belt used to denote rank in the martial arts. In my case, green belt.

When I first took up Tae Kwon Do more than fifteen years ago, it was a struggle for me. I was over forty, I was out of shape, and I was never an athlete to begin with. But I fell in love with my practice and slowly worked my way up through the ranks. I had good instruction, and although I wasn’t fast or especially talented, my techniques were sound.

Green belt level always seemed ideal. It meant you were at that hugely desirable third stage of learning, able to competently demonstrate good technique with some thought. But training is not as rigorous as the next level (red belt). Maybe halfway to black belt–still a long way to go, but with hope it can be achieved.

It’s a good place to be.

Soon after I tested for green belt, I received two presents, one treasured, the other one I wish I could forget.

I was given a key chain with the aforementioned green belt, which I treasured.

And one of my black belt instructors severely damaged my knee while sparring with me.

And no, it wasn’t an accident, it was something a fifth-degree black belt should never have done to anyone outside of a life-or-death situation, let alone a student.

I call it that incident a “present” because my husband calls it “the gift that keeps on giving”. It totally screwed up my leg, and as a consequence, my lower back, my hip and my posture. I’ve had multiple surgeries to repair the damage, including an ACL replacement, months of physical therapy and other complications. I still struggle with compromised range of motion, swelling and discomfort.

The positive outcome? I left the martial arts, for good, I thought. But a decade later, I came back. First to Thai kickboxing and five years later, a new Tae Kwon Do school.

I’m even older, achy, ouchy, and even more out of shape. But I know now that, though my practice will always be a challenge, I will continue until I simply can’t.

I’ve learned to show up, even when I didn’t want to. I’ve learned to work through frustration and self-doubt. I’ve learned not to measure my progress against others, but to simply try to do a little bit better each time. And sometimes, I’ve learned to just stick it out “just five more minutes.” And another five minutes. And another. Until, miracle of miracles, the two hours is over, and I realize I’ve made it through another whole class.

And that has been a gift. Because I have applied these principles of practice to many other areas of my life, including my art.

The school I’m in now has a more aggressive, sparring-oriented approach, and my progress is even slower. I may never see green belt again.

So my little key chain was my constant reminder of how far I was able to go, once upon a time. A time where I could hold a little personal dream that I might at least achieve that level again, someday.

And now it’s gone.

I remember how upset I was when, trying to provide provenance for my past placement at this new school, I was told that “anyone could buy one of those key chains”, it didn’t prove anything. They’re right, I get that. Even now, I could simply buy another one. But anyone who knows me, knows I would never in a million years do something like that. It would feel like cheating.

I wondered why its loss feels so hard. Today I read an article by Lee Eisenberg, author of Shoptimism. (Okay, it was in today’s Parade Magazine and you can read it here.

I realized my little green belt tag represented something of value to me–of a time when it was physically possible for me to dream of being a black belt someday. Not as a goal, but as a culmination of a process, of dedication to my practice.

And now I have no such dream.

What I do have is the realization that black belt would be wonderful (after the training and the testing–it’s a brutal process.) But the dream of black belt is no longer my goal.

My goal is to simply keep going, and to keep on practicing, and to hope for incremental refinement and improvement. And hopefully, to continue my practice far, far, into my life.

So as painful as losing that memento is, maybe it’s just as well. Maybe it was actually holding me back. Keeping me in the past. Maybe it’s just time to let go of the need to remember stronger, younger days.

Or maybe I just don’t need a reminder anymore. Maybe just being me, and being grateful I can practice at all, is all the blessing I need.

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #12: The Muse Never Falters

MYTH: Creativity never sleeps. If you hit a wall, then you aren’t a real artist.

Truth: The Muse will come and go, but give her half a chance and she will always return.

Today’s myth was inspired by a blog post from Danielle LaPorte, whose website White Hot Truth…because self realization rocks is becoming one of my favorite reads.

“Life balance” is an insidious myth. Picasso, Oprah, Steve Jobs, Einstein, Maria Callas – they weren’t aiming for balance, they were aiming to rock their genius, and they’ve all had periods of burn out.

This was a little spooky. Okay, a LOT spooky. Because I got the old synchronicity thing going again.

Because a few days ago, for the first time in like two years (or more???), I sat down and began working on a new series of fiber work.

Danielle’s post today was actually the third or fourth synchronistic thingie. The second was her post from a few days ago, about kissing up to your muse.

I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago with a great idea for next month’s column for The Crafts Report. At first I rolled over to go back to sleep. I’d just sent in my column and had a few weeks before the next one was do. I was sure I’d remember the great idea.

But something in me said, “No. Get up NOW. Just go write it.”

I went with it. And wrote almost the entire article in one sitting.

The spooky thing about that? It was the night before her post on don’t-dis-the-Muse. (Cue Twilight Zone music…)

The synchronicity thingie piece before that happened at dinner out with friends last week. Turned out one of our dinner companions is the daughter of another good friend who’s a painter. Her dad has a new series of artwork on exhibit, after a hiatus of many years from painting.

I mentioned I’d tried to buy one of his paintings a few years ago and he wouldn’t sell me one. She said yeah, he had a “thing” about not selling any until he had a body of work produced, even though he hadn’t even started his new phase when I’d tried to buy one. “He’s funny that way,” she mused. (Pun intended.)

Funny? Hmmm….. He wouldn’t sell his old paintings…. He’d stopped painting…. Now he had a new body of work.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I hadn’t made any new fiber work because it had stopped selling a few years ago. I don’t care what the newspapers say, artists and craftspeople know the recession started a lot further back than last year. Oh, I sold a few, but it was tortuous.

When people stopped buying, it wasn’t exciting to make more. And as they sold (slowly), I unconsciously held on to the ones I had left.

So that, if the muse never came back, I’d have something on hand to prove I really had been an artist.

I know it’s it’s desirable to grow and change as an artist. But change for change’s sake was not desirable (for me.) I was stuck.

Awhile ago, I realized that even if my fiber work remained what it was, and I never had a new idea, well, having that one really great theme in my life would be “good enough”. That cracked the door open again.

The remark that made me realize I was hoarding my old work opened that door a little wider.

Getting up in the middle of the night to write blew it open. Danielle’s post was like putting a door stop in it, to keep it open.

And then I sat down at my sewing machine and thought, “What if I just do some simple little pieces….? Just for me.”

Her post today was the final nail in the coffin. Er, door. Should doors be nailed open?? Okay, forget that metaphor, it stinks.

So being willing to be a “not very good artist” again (making the same old work) and realizing what I was holding on to (“I was once a pretty good artist!”) was enough to get me in front of my sewing machine once again. (Which is when I also sewed through my finger, but I’m not going to let that stop me, either, though I worry that my machine has now tasted blood.)

Danielle’s observation–that the muse may come and go, but if we care enough, we will just hang in there–was powerful. Letting go when the inspiration wanes, knowing we will come back, somehow, some way, even though we have no idea what that will look like, that feels like jumping off the edge of the world.

But now I know, as long as I persevere, it will indeed come back.

Because it has to. Or I’ll die.

It may be the same stuff. If so, then I will keep making it. I will rejoice and be grateful I had at least one really good thing to offer the world.

It may start the same and change. That’s okay, too. It will be what it will be.

What’s important is–it’s back.

I don’t care what it looks like anymore. I don’t care what other people think about it anymore.

I just have to do it.

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS#10: You Have to Go to Art School to Be a Real Artist

MYTH: You need an MFA to be a real artist!
REALITY: The real proof is in the work.

I couldn’t get into the art school at the university of my choice (The University of Michigan.) So maybe my attitude about art school is pure sour grapes.

On the other hand, the reasons I chose U of M seem pretty silly in 40 years in hindsight. My best friend, my first boy friend and my first crush all went there, and they said it was the best school in the world.

So I wanted to go there, too. I gave up going to other schools with art programs that had accepted me, just to be with the boy who dumped me four months later.

I hope I’m a little more sophisticated about my choices now. (But I’m probably not.)

I’ve come to believe it’s a good thing I didn’t go to art school there (or anywhere.) I may have been an artist sooner.

But I would not be the artist I am today.

Getting a degree from an art school has its advantages.

Credentials, for one. A degree says you completed a course of study. It says somebody deemed you good enough to complete it successfully.

Art school gives you other precious gifts: Time, tools and resources to actually make art. You have many opportunities to experiment with different media and different techniques. Many students develop important relationships with teachers who become mentors, and with other talented students.

Art school also allows you to immerse yourself in a community that supports art. If you come from a family or environment that’s baffled (or even threatened) by your artistic attempts, this immersion can be powerful stuff. You may feel like you’ve finally found “your people”.

And of course, there is the confidence and validation you gain from holding a degree that proclaims you an artist.

But there is a downside to art school.

You spend a huge amount of time making work that fits someone else’s agenda and criteria, not your own.

You may find it hard to develop your own style. You are surrounded by the vision of other teachers and other students, and it can be hard to figure out what your particular vision is.

Or conversely, it’s all too easy to be influenced by the vision of others.

Or your vision doesn’t get the “strokes” from the group you desire, so you unconsciously begin to modify it so it does.

Or you don’t modify your style, and suffer the consequences We’ve all heard the appalling stories of vicious group “critiques” and the lasting emotional damage they can cause. We’ve all heard of the nasty teacher who never missed an opportunity to denigrate someone’s work.

You may fall for the tendency to make high-falutin’, theoretical, worldly/academic “statements” with your art. Read almost any art statement, preferably one you barely understand, and you’ll know what I mean. The actual approach to your art may be taught as a purely intellectual or academic exercise. There is value to understanding and practicing art this way, of course. But I personally feel something is lost when art is made only to provoke, or satirize, or insult, with no real emotional connection, personal experience, or “heart” in the effort. IMHO, of course.

And the biggest drawback–you may not ever actually encounter any working artists.

I once spent a day giving five high-school art classes a presentation of the business of art. I opened the first class with this question: “How many of you believe it is impossible to make a living by selling your art?”

The teacher raised her hand.

Some people who teach art do so because they don’t believe they can be successful selling it. (Though many teach so they can have the freedom to create the art they want, without worrying about having selling it.)

You can often tell which teachers are working artists and which ones aren’t. The working ones are making their art, at some level–entering exhibitions with new work, selling, taking commissions, whatever. The ones who gave up are telling you why it’s impossible to sell your work. These are the ones who make terrible role models.

Almost as bad are the teachers who convince their students that the art world is out there just waiting for them to graduate. Instant success is within their grasp. Famous galleries in New York City are eager for their work, and the party starts as soon as you walk out the door. Then, when it doesn’t happen in six months, or a year, or three, the new grad begins to think she doesn’t have what it takes–and gives up.

Some art schools now incorporate business skills for artists in their curriculum. Yay!

Either way, the art school experience can make the issue black-and-white. There are “artists” and there are “non-artists”. There are “rich/famous/successful” artists, and there are “failed artists”. No gray. No spectrum. No range.

Know that there are many “levels” of keeping art in our lives.

There are as many ways of making that work as there are artists.

Some will make good money with their pursuits. Others will cobble together different ventures and venues that makes them happy. Some will go into fine art. Some will go into design, or graphic arts. Some may teach. Some may do the show circuit. Some may find gallery representation. Others may find ways of using the internet to market directly to customers.

Some may find other work that is rewarding and makes them happy, and keep their art practice solely for their own enjoyment. And some will run up against life’s hard walls all too soon, and have to carve out tiny chunks of time to keep their vision alive.

Maybe we can’t all be rich and famous. But there are many ways to create a life that includes art as a daily practice. And there many ways of sharing our vision with others.

So go to art school, if that is your dream. Squeeze every drop of experience and knowledge you can from it. Revel in your freedom to immerse yourself in an art community. Learn to protect yourself against the nay-sayers.

But if you didn’t go to art school, know that you simply found your life’s work by another path. It may have wound around in the woods for awhile, it may have taken you longer to get here….

But you simply had a different experience. That’s all.

And those unique experiences are what made you the artist you are today.

UPDATE: See what Canadian painter Robert Genn says about artist credentials in his well-known Painters Keys newsletter.

ANOTHER UPDATE: So embarrassed that I missed this for YEARS, but I just found a powerful video/poem by Beth Murch, who says she was inspired by this article! So, proof positive that when we share the work of our heart, our unique vision, with the world, it will cross the path of someone who needs/wants to see it. It’s like tossing a pebble into a great lake. We may not see where the ripples go, but they are there. Thank you, Beth!

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #8: You’re only a REAL artist if you’re ONLY an artist

Myth: Real artists devote their entire life to art; real artists never compromise! (And its corollary: Artists sleep til noon because they don’t have real jobs to go to.)

Reality: Any time you can make art is a good time to make art!

I’m beginning to think that history books and movies have been the source of most our myths about artists.

Again, remember that what makes for a good “sound bite” doesn’t always reflect real life.

We’ve all seen the movies about artists who devote themselves passionately–and exclusively–to their art. Marriages, kids, friendships fall to the wayside in their relentless pursuit of their vision. Charlton Heston as Michaelangelo, lying on his back painting the Sistine Chapel as he exchanges barbs and retorts with the pope. Or Ed Harris as Jackson Pollack, fierce in his artistic throes, with the entourage that devoted themselves to promoting his art (who ended up tossed by the wayside as they burnt themselves out doing so.)

And what do we know about artists throughout history? Usually a sentence or two, or at most a paragraph in the history books. An entire chapter, or maybe even a book, for the stellar ones.

So we’re only a “real artist” if we devote every waking minute to our art, and plow through our personal relationships with the sensitivity of a back hoe.

There are other ways to make art, of course. And the artists involved are just as “real” as you and me.

Yes, some artists are fortunate enough to pursue their art full-time. But their art becomes their profession–they work just as hard at it as anyone else does in THEIR profession. If they sleep til noon, it’s because they just spent 36 hours straight completing new work for an upcoming exhibition, or they put the finishing touches on a new CD, or they finally figured out how to use QuickBooks to bill their galleries, or they just got back from a grueling four-day wholesale show on the other coast.

Real artists run the gamut of everything you can say about artists. Some are so successful selling their work, they can support themselves and a family doing so. Some work part-time or even full-time jobs to pay the bills, painting in their spare time. Or they marry someone whose passionate profession pays more money than making art does.

Some get famous, some don’t. Some blow through people like kleenix, others have solid relationships and happy families. Some create public murals that cover tall buildings that thousands see every day. Others make wonderfully tiny artifacts you can cup in your hand and known to literally a handful of people.

Again….there’s room for us all.

Of course, the converse is also true. If you work full-time or engage in other activities, and don’t make time to make art, then you may be an artist at heart. But there will be nothing in the world that reflects that intention.

If you watch TV, do housework, put everyone else’s priorities ahead of yours, then your art will indeed only take up only the tiniest space you’ve allotted for it–nada.

Yes, life happens, especially if you are the caregiver in your family, the social planner, the “fall-back” person. Our sales fall off and we have to scramble to pay the bills. We get sick or injured, or a loved one does. We enter periods of self-doubt and despair. Our desire to create can seem fragile, tenuous during hard times.

But ultimately, we have to come back to this–the only person who can make your art is YOU.

Whether it’s a song, a prayer, a painting, a dress, a garden, a play, a dance, a necklace, if it’s in you, find a way to get it out into the world as soon as you can.

So make time for your creativity a priority. Carve out a little space for it in your life. Plan for it. Honor it. Respect it.

Because if, like I did once, you walk away from it entirely, you will always feel that empty space in your heart.

I will never go “there” again. And my wish for you is that you never go “there”, either, at least not for very long.

Tip: This is where a well-written, passionate artist statement comes in handy. The kind where you really talk about the WHY of what you do. When you read yours, YOU should be inspired to get back in the saddle and ride off into the sunset with your art.

September 11, 2009…and life goes on.

I meant to write this on my birthday, September 11. But I spent the day with my family.

Which is the way it should be.

And by waiting a day or two to post, I found that same ol’ three-of-a-kind thread thing goin’ again…. (I mean, sometimes an idea I’m mulling shows up in two or three or four variations in my life, which means I have to deal with it/write about it/ponder it.

I always think about THE 9/11 on my birthday, of course. Not because 9/11 makes me special–terrible things always happen on someone’s birthday.

But when something awful does happens on your birthday, I think it’s natural to think about your birthday in a different way.

I usually I keep my thoughts on that day to myself. I don’t want to sound glib about all those people dying so I can have little “aha!” moments at their expense.

This year, I did want to say something. And I wasn’t sure I could say it in a way that would sound right. So I waited.

Then yesterday I found this lovely article on a friend’s refrigerator. That was the second thread.

And today, once again, I found out that someone who seems to be making my life a little harder, is actually struggling with the same circumstances themselves. Proving once again that when someone says “it’s about YOU”, it’s usually about THEM. (And I say this with compassion today, because I get that sometimes they’re hoping you will figure out what to do about it, so you can teach them.)

So sometimes someone who’s giving you grief has their own bugbears that have nothing to do with you personally. This is the third thread, which ties in so nicely with that second one.

And so all three threads come together.

Because the first thread–what I wanted to say this year on 9/11–is that life….goes on.

Life goes on, even when innocent people die in an unfair attack. Life goes on, even when terrible things happen to us.

Life goes on, even when beautiful things happen to us. I look at my tall, handsome, silent teenage son, and wish I could have one week of his sweet childhood back (and knowing what I know now.) Oh, I would hug him, and do whatever it took to hear his beautiful, bubbling laughter again. I look at our dog, halfway to adulthood, and marvel that only a few months ago, he was small enough to carry in one hand. We want to hold on to the beautiful times, wishing, hoping life will pause, that time will stop. We swear we will never forget.

But life goes on. And we do forget.

Life goes on, whether we are brave enough to apply to art school, ask for that job, introduce ourselves to that lovely person across the room, join that tae kwon do class, learn to ride, climb, drive, sing….or not.

Life goes on, whether we stand up for something, or whether we remain silent.

Life goes on, whether whether we do the right thing…or not.

Life goes on, whether we have the courage of our convictions…or not.

For better or worse, for richer or poorer, we get our chance and take it (or don’t) and life goes on.

We have our turn, to be here, to do the good work that is within our grasp, to love the people that are in our care, to take care of the issues in our path. We are given that turn, every day, and the next, and the next.

And then our turn is over.

We know….WE KNOW….the good that is in us, the art that is in us, the music that is in us, the love that is in us.

And we also know so very well the fears, the resentments, the anger, the hurts, the weaknesses we carry, that hold us back.

That’s why Mother Theresa/Dr. Keith’s words resonate in my heart this weekend.

Ten thousand years ago, someone, somebody painted hauntingly beautiful images of horses, bulls and deer on a cave wall in what is now France. We know almost nothing about them, except that they must have had a compelling reason to do that. We only know they were people like us, who had their turn. And then they were gone. All that’s left (and we are lucky to have that) are the paintings.

Hard as it is to imagine, thousands of years from now, we’ll be fortunate if a handful of names–Charlemagne, Confucius, Mozart, Einstein–and hopefully more of those will be names of WOMEN!!–survive as anything more than a hero’s tale, a mythical creature. Maybe we leave a bigger footprint in the sands of time now. But maybe not.

So do it.

Be kind. Love. Do good. Forgive. Make stuff.

Just do it. Just do it anyway, no matter what. If it’s important to you, if you know it’s the right thing to do, just do it.

When you have a teensy glimpse, as I did this year on September 11, the tiniest little glimpse, that what matters is not how we love, or what we love, but that we love…..

That it’s not how good our making/singing/dancing/loving/caring is, but that we do it….

Because yes, there will always be someone to criticize it, to judge it, to sneer at it, to make fun of it (and sometimes that someone is me, I’m ashamed to say. Oh, I am merciless about bad singers. Move over, Simon Cowell.)

But you must do it anyway….because yes, it matters

Then suddenly, and for a moment, it doesn’t seem so very hard after all.

p.s. Yes, I know today’s column is a lit-tle incoherent. But hey, it was my birthday! :^)

MISS YOU, JEFF

I miss absent friends in little moments.

Today was a day where I really felt the loss of my friend, photographer Jeff Baird.

I finished a magnificent piece, a necklace, for the Craftwear exhibit at the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair. A large faux ivory neck piece, ringed with polar bear and otter artifacts, with a central pendant made with a prehistoric carving of a woman suspended from a disk. Tiny, tiny birds hung off the pendant. It’s bold, it’s gorgeous, it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever made.

For the past nine years, I’ve called Jeff to set a date to photograph the finished pieces before I deliver them to the exhibits. The minute I was finished, I’d dash over to his studio in Vermont. It’s a beautiful winding half hour drive over low mountains, across the Connecticut River and into downtown Brattleboro.

Jeff would always admire the new piece, commenting on my latest artifacts or an unusual composition. He’d take lots of photos–jury shots, some with dramatic angles for future ads and postcards, lovely close-ups and detail shots. He’d clean them up and load them onto a CD, all ready for me to take with me. We’d chat the entire time, talking about family, art, other artists, shows, the girls’ basketball team he coached.

Often I’d drive straight from his studio up to the Fair site and drop the exhibit pieces off. It’s always hard to let a piece go. But the thought of Jeff’s images, safe on a brand new CD, would cheer me as I drove back home again.

I’d go directly to my computer and look at his photography again, amazed at his skill and eye, secretly proud of my work, grateful I knew such a talented photographer to record each important milestone in my art.

This was the first time in nine years that didn’t happen.

I drove the piece up to the exhibit and dropped it off. And left with empty hands.

It felt unfinished somehow. A beautiful little ritual, a farewell ceremonial, that I took for granted until it was no more.

Just another reminder that he is gone.

DOG OWNER, HEEL THEYSELF!

Living with intention makes for better dogs, and makes us better artists.

Our new puppy Tuck (he’s the stylin’ dude in the blue bandana) is a delight. Tuck is our first dog ever. He’s a little too smart, but funny, sweet and eager to please. He has already added a lot to our lives. Including a few little puddles and stinky poo piles. (He’s getting much better with housebreaking, though.)

Actually, we’re getting much better with housebreaking. Which is the point of today’s post.

We’re learning that training our dog means retraining ourselves.

This weekend we hired our local “dog whisperer”, Perry Davis, for a one-hour intensive puppy training class. Perry is amazing with dogs. He doesn’t have a website (yet) but if you are interested in his services, please email me privately and I will send you his phone number.

We found we were doing some things right. But there were quite a few things we could do better. And the time to start doing better is right now, in this stage of deep learning, before Tuck hits the human equivalent of adolescence. (Parents of teens know this is when you seem to become invisible and mute to your child.)

This is the time to take advantage of natural tendencies in a puppy (eager to please, follow the leader) to lay down a good foundation for all future training.

Our dog sees us as either a leader, or a follower. We need to establish ourselves as the leaders in every situation.

For example, we’ve been using “come” to get Tuck to go along with us. And already it was not working as well as it should. He was beginning to resist going for walks on his leash, and would end up sitting in defiance while we tugged and lugged on his collar. He loves to go home, though. So I would drive Jon and Tuck downtown, and then they would walk home from there. Not something we want to become a habit.

Perry showed us that we were giving Tuck mixed messages, and not taking advantage of a built-in tendency: A dog his age (four months) wants to follow.

In order to encourage him to do what he naturally would do, we should not face him and ask him to “come”. (“Come” should ask a dog to return to you, not go with you.) We were to turn around, face away from the dog, and go, with the firm command, “This way!”.

We tried it. Sure enough, his compulsion kicked in, and he hurried to catch up. It was amazing! It worked every time. Soon Tuck was walking downtown and back with us again.

My husband Jon, as always, was quick to see the subtle structure beneath the advice and suggestions Perry offered. It was Jon who noted that the sequence also trained us.

Changing the command and the posture also changed the whole balance of energy in the interaction.

“Come” asks for something to come to you–in this case, our dog. It hopes the “something” will come.

“This way!” is you taking charge, you going your way. And expecting that “something” to go along with you.

What an intriguing metaphor….

Of course, there are many times when it’s nice to ask.

And hope is a good thing. It’s always good to have hope.

But there are also times when you need to just get going. “This way!” This is what I want. This is where I want to go. Making our intention clear to the universe.

When we know what we want, when we take responsibility for our journey, all our energy will go into supporting that. Naturally, without fuss, with enthusiasm.

Not without obstacles, of course. There are busy streets and high hills to cross on our walk. There may be setbacks and issues.

But knowing we want to go there will give us the good energy and zest we need to make our way.

Such a useful management tool for dogs. And for us.

P.S. The title comes from an old joke about a guy who named his dog “Physician.” When they went out for walks, he could say, “Physician, heel thyself!”

SMALL THOUGHTS @ LARGE

Something useful, something interesting, something funny and something wise. You get to decide which is which.

Instead of a loooooong deep heavy post today, just some little thoughts and things of interest I’ve read in the last day or so….

From the June 2009 issue of Real Simple magazine, Kristin Appenbrink in the “Moneywise” section calculates that the Lewis and Clark Expedition (St. Louis, MO to Oregon, with nine states in between) today would cost about $308 for gas, roundtrip. I wonder if L & C would think that was wonderful or depressing? Of course, traveling by car, they also never would have met Sacajawea, and she was pretty cool.

From the June 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine, “Health News” by Jane Bianchi features little D+Caf Caffeine test strips to see if your restaurant coffee really is decaf. Sort of like a pregnancy test for coffee.

I tried this cool little free tutorial from JewelryLessons.com on how to oxidize sterling silver with an egg. It was the best one I found online, involving the least mess, with great illustrations. Thank you to Sarah and Jen from tae kwon do, who, when I described the method to them last night, pointed out that I might want to recheck the part where you put the egg and jewelry back in the microwave to heat up. Yep, you’re right, I missed the part where the author said to take the jewelry out first.

I’m at that point in life where, when I put on eye shadow, my eyelid skin stays where the brush pushes it. Scary, but funny, too.

And the words that jumped out at me the last week or so were, “Life is too short to lose good friends.”

Enjoy!

NEW JOURNEY: One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

Spiritual progress is not always linear, and definitely not always forward.

As I said in a previous article, in the interest of full disclosure, what you read in these articles isn’t always what’s happening in real time.

It may look like a steady, measured path to grace and enlightenment. But actually, these are only a few moments of grace I experience as I walk a path that often seems dark and unclear–and not a little scary.

Not because my life is so rotten–it isn’t. I have so much to be grateful for. One old friend said, “Any day you wake up, that’s a good day. Any day you wake up and can actually get out of bed, that’s a great day!”

It’s my brain, my soul, my heart. I do this to myself, by seeing the world through a filter of “lack”, a filter of despair and fear. I behave so badly when I am afraid. I know I’m capable of so much more. But for some reason, I’m wired to believe I have less. That I am less.

I’m just trying to rewire my circuits. Some days with more success, sometimes with less.

I am not always the wise, thoughtful, evolved soul I’d like to be. In fact, sometimes when I wonder what I’d like to be when I grow up, the answer is, “Well….a grown-up.”

I have my moments of wisdom and insight, kindness and clarity. But more often I have my hours…no, days…of self-doubt, self-pity, self-absorption and self-delusion.

There’s a story in my family about one of my grandfathers. He was a difficult man–not violent, just incredibly difficult to live with. Pessimistic. Sad. I think he may have had some kind of manic-depression.

For some reason, he finally visited a psychologist, who found him so charming and upbeat, he declared my grandfather “a delightful gentleman”. He recommended the rest of the family come in for counseling, since they were clearly unable to appreciate my grandfather’s wonderful qualities.

But after a few more visits, the psychologist threw my grandfather out, declaring him impossible to deal with–ornery, opinionated, unrelenting–and told him to never darken the doors of his office again.

Sometimes, I feel like the 21st century version of my grandfather.

My friends think so, too. Years ago, after meeting the man of my dreams, I wistfully said to a friend, “What did I do before I met Jon?” and she answered through gritted teeth, “You slowly drove your best friends crazy….”

I got whiny and weak this week. I gave in to impatience. I gave in to second-guessing myself.

My Bobo brain started down those well-worn paths of chasing money, losing sight of the dream, grabbing at fate instead of letting go, comparing myself to other people, thinking the world owes me something, being afraid, being judgmental.

And I whined about it to a good friend, who gave me a long and passionate (and painfully accurate) smack-down.

For the record, in case there is any doubt in your mind, there’s no doubt in my mind , she wins the more-evolved-soul contest. She spoke the truth, and she held me to my own words of what I say I want to achieve in next stage of my life: Letting go, and being still so that something new can come in.

So what to do?

What there always is to do.

Try to get centered. Again.

Try to let go. Again.

Try not to panic. Ignore that giant unpaid business Visa bill that lurks in the corner!

Remember my blessings (and there are so, so many to remember.) Including friends who keep me honest.

Go back in and try again.

Oh, and remember the next time I need to whine, to go see Carol.

New Journey: The Ninth Step

Class is over, and now the real learning begins.

I really need to start renaming how I number the posts in this series, or someday I’ll be up to “The Hundred-and-Fifteenth Step”….

Yesterday was my last hospice volunteer training class. I’ve been gently, quietly freaking out. The time for talking the talk is over. Now it’s time to walk the walk. And I’m not sure I can.

I thought I was the only one that felt this way. But of course, a little talking among my classmates quickly overturned that little paranoid delusion. We all felt anxious about actually doing what we’d signed on to do.

This week, we had current volunteers as guest speakers. They were relatively new, having completed their training only a year or two ago. And they had this to say:

The first time is scary. You want to do a good job, and it feels like there is so much to remember! But it changes into what it needs to be….

You’ll get your cues about what is needed. The patient will let you know if they need interaction, or quiet, to be touched or left alone.

The things you thought would be easy, might be hard. What you thought might be hard, will be easy.

Try not to anticipate what will be needed. Don’t be a “fixer”. Let go of that need to jump in and take over. Hold that part of yourself down.

And open yourself up.

Center yourself. Get quiet. Be peaceful. Observe. And be present.

We also had a hospice nurse talk with us. His final words of advice: You are all ready for something different in your life, or you wouldn’t be here. Don’t consider yourself a gift to others. Don’t worry about that part. Just consider the gift you are being given…. (to be with someone at the end of life.)

And now I can I see where my anxiety is coming from.

I’ve been working too hard on giving.

That sounds silly, I know. Here me out.

Lately, it feels like my gifts aren’t needed or wanted. Neither my art, nor my self, nor my intentions feel honored lately. My artwork sales are falling, the galleries say no, the memorial service I felt I was not welcome at, my artist friend who did not enjoy the article I wrote about him–one of my best, btw!–my son who does not want my mothering right now. All feel like failures, failures in what I do, what I don’t do, who I am.

And when I ask for help, I worry I’m asking for too much. It feels like I’m constantly asking for too much.

Now I see that in my search for the perfect exchange, that perfect moment when what is given is exactly what is needed, when what is needed is exactly what I have to offer, I have actually been selfish.

I’ve been trying to control the outcome. I have been driven by the need for gratitude.

And I cannot control the other side of that transaction. I have to let go of that. I can only control my actions, my intentions, my offering.

If my presence is not wanted, then at least I showed up. If my article caused anger, then at least I wrote out of love and respect. Doug may not accept it right now in this angry teenage phase, but my unwavering love for him is the greatest gift of all. I choose to give it freely, and he is free to not want it right now. Or rather, he is free to choose not to show he wants it right now.

And so here is where my real journey will begin. Next week, I go back to interview for my first volunteer assignment. It may be days, or weeks, or months before I am placed. I’m scared. But I’m going to do it.

I will show up, and see what’s there.

And I will be grateful.

WILL THE REAL LUANN PLEASE STAND UP?

So should you believe everything you read here? Getting to the real “me” can be tricky.

Someone wrote me recently, commenting on the phenomenon that many writers don’t actually resemble in real life the personae they’ve created in their writing (or in their online presence.) People who seem so saintly are actually kinda mean and petty. People who seem so forthright and opinionated in online forums are actually too shy to ever say what they really mean in real life.

How do you know anyone is who they say they are??

Coincidentally, another friend recently accused me changing a word or two when I quoted him in an article. I lied, he said.

So…Are all writers liars??

My first reaction was, Ruh-ruh. They’re on to me.

I try to be calm and loving and accepting, always looking for the lesson, always looking for the other side of a situation.

But sometimes that all goes out the window when someone cuts me off in traffic, or when somebody gives me attitude. Or when I simply don’t get what I want.

I try to to be cheerful and upbeat, and a good friend.

But sometimes I just want to crawl in a hole and die. Sometimes even my best friends really piss me off. Or worse, are highly annoying.

Much as I pour my heart and soul into these articles, you can’t get around the fact that I write them.

I get to decide what parts I put in and what parts I leave out. I get to frame the problem, and I get to position the answer.

I get to be too hard on myself, and I get to fudge the happy ending.

So who IS the real Luann?

1. Is she the compassionate and wise, thoughtful and kind person some people think she is?

2. Or is she the verbally quick and bright-haired woman who always feels she has to be the smartest and funniest person in the room?

3. Is she the loving mother who will fight fiercely for her children’s right to simply be who they are? The supportive wife who is always there for her husband?

4. Or is she the screaming shrew who actually once yelled at one of them, “If I had a pointy stick, so help me God I’d use it right now!” Or the bickering partner who says, “You know I’m right, so why don’t you save us both some time and just throw in the towel on this argument now?”

5. Is she the writer who publicly shares a struggling, sometimes painful spiritual journey to understand her place in the world, with anyone out there who will listen?

6. Or is she the self-righteous indignant and angry crabby person who still has the self-awareness to laugh when the writer Ann Lamott writes,

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

7. Is she a person with a core of hot truth who examines what role she plays in the sad places of her life, and willingly embrace the lessons she finds there?

8. Or is she the idiot who falls back into the same patterns that didn’t work before, and has to learn those same lessons over and over and over again?

9. Is she the nicest person you ever met?

10. Or is she so empty inside, she still believes that being nice is more important than being honest/whole/self-reliant/herself.

11. Is she brave and fearless in her approach to love, life and art?

12. Or is she hanging on desperately to what she already knows, because anything else is too terrifying to contemplate?

13. Is she an amazing artist whose work with texture, color, mixed media and narrative has resulted in a formidable body of work?

14. Or is she that woman who spent an hour in Home Depot’s paint section, agonizing over what color to paint her bathroom?

15. Is she someone who understands this is her journey in life, accepting it with a whole heart (only having to be dragged kicking and screaming to the next step occasionally), doing the best she can? That it’s not about what others think of us or what we do, we just need to do the right thing?

16. Or is she fearful that others might think she is putting on a pretty good but false persona, too?

Answer:
a. All the odd-numbered statements.
b. All the even-numbered statements
c. Some of the above.
d. All of the above.
e. None of the above.

If I’m learning anything in this strange journey called life, it’s that we’re all very different, and that has to be honored. And we all have a lot in common. A lot.

We all have our dark side, and our bright side. We all struggle to love and be loved, and by the “right” people, too. We all want to be recognized for the incredible things we do, and we all wish the bad things could go in a closet somewhere, forever.

We all have the “inner work” to do, and most of us will never finish it. In fact, some of us will never even acknowledge there is inner work to do. “Oh, that’s, someone else’s inner work!” they’ll exclaim. (I just corrected a typo here that read “sinner work” & realized, that works, too….)

And they’ll be right, too. (And wrong.)

You see where I’m going with this.

If you met me for the first time, and I were having a good day, you might think I’m delightful and funny. Or you might think I simply talk too much.

If you met me on a bad day, you might think I was thoughtful, a compassionate and ready listener. Or you might think I have a chip on my shoulder the size of a Buick, and I whine too much.

Some people love the fact that three years ago, for the first time in my life, I dyed my hair. A deep, rich, intense auburn color. They think it’s brave and cheeky and fun and artistic. Other people think it’s pathetic that a woman my age is so desperately hanging on to her youth. Who does she think she’s kidding??!

The real me? Your guess is as good as mine. I only know it seems important right now to accept all these things as true. Without judgment or censure. Without pride or smugness.

Because what I do, or what I think, or what I have, or what I choose, are all aspects of myself that could disappear in a heartbeat. What is left then?

And that’s what my journey is about.

Because I think what I’m going to find out is, who I really am–just me–in the end, is something much, much bigger–and much, much simpler–than all of these other things.

And that will be….enough.

Just remember. We’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive.

p.s. My friend, who has mental illness, objected to my use of the word “crazy” to describe the way he’d “altered” his rented room. So perhaps I should have been more sensitive to his condition and used a less volatile adjective.

On the other hand, the other word he complained about was just way too picky. So I think–you guessed it!–we’re both right.

DON’T MISS IT!!

Focusing on what’s going wrong could make us miss the thing that’s going to be oh-so-right.

It’s been a very difficult last few weeks. In fact, yesterday was hellish. I won’t even dwell on what happened, that’s not important.

What IS important is the lesson I’ve learned.

When weird things happen, my brain (and your brain, perhaps?) leaps forward to figure out WHY.

Why did she say that? Why did they do that?? What else should I have done? What did I bring to that situation? Was it my fault? Their fault?? Your fault???

In the end, some things cannot be “figured out”. People will overlook your good intentions, life will not be fair, hard times will come no matter how much we try to protect ourselves.

But if we let our brain continue to spin and fret and fuss, the real tragedy will overtake us…

We will be focusing on the bad stuff, trying like heck to figure it all out.

And we will not be facing the right direction for the next blessing that awaits us. The next “namaste”, the next recognition of the miraculous in other people or in our lives.

I don’t want to miss that.

So I’ve had my little hissy fit. I’ve cried and felt sorry for myself. Good friends listened and sympathized. And after a little while, they delivered a very gentle but very firm kick in the pants.

And now I’m ready to see the blessing already in my life, and be grateful for them.

I’m ready to turn in a new direction. And see, with an open heart, where the next blessing is coming from.

Thank you Ruth, Ted, Kerin and as always, Jon. Thank you for loving me when I’m feeling very unlovable. And thank you for assuring me that it’s entirely possible for 312 other people to be very weird, and of course it has nothing to do with moi.

NEW JOURNEY: Between Steps 7 and 8

I’m learning that perfectionism not only limits my options, it limits the options of others.

I’ve always been a serial friend.

By that, I mean I have very few friendships that lave lasted more than a few years. Partly that comes from moving so much: I left home for college at age 17 and never really went back. We went on to live in three more states. Even as I write this, we are contemplating where our “next state” might be.

I’ve also changed my “groups” a lot. First there were school friends. Then there were work friends. Parent friends. Now artist friends.

I have many online friends–people I’ve met in discussion forums and through blogging, many of whom I’ve never even met in person.

I have riding friends, martial arts friends, knitting/yoga/climbing friends. I’m sure I will now have hospice friends, too.

One reason I make friends so easily is, I am open to it. An old school chum said, “You have made more friends since I’ve known you than I’ve even met!!” I must have looked chagrined, because she added quickly, “No, that’s a good thing! I don’t made friends easily. I envy you.”

But that means I’ve also lost a lot of friendships.

It’s impossible to have deep friendships with everyone you meet and like, of course. Not all friendships can pass the test of time, distance or changes in circumstance. If you want to discover who your true friends are, see who hangs around after you or your spouse is laid off. You will be dismayed. And astonished.

But I still regret the loss of some of my more profound friendships over the years.

I’m thinking maybe…actually, I know…I lost them to perfectionism.

Because here’s another drawback in perfectionism:

When you expect it in yourself, you will demand it from others.

And that, as we all know, is totally, hopelessly, humanly, impossible.

I like to think I have been a good friend. But I’ve always suspected I could have been a better one.

Looking back, I can see that sometimes the best friendships were short-lived for good reasons. I love this little essay by Brian Andrew “Drew” Chalker, “A REASON, A SEASON, A LIFETIME”.

But I know sometimes–many times–I simply asked too much of people. More than they were willing, perhaps even capable, of giving. And that has served neither of us well.

So now I strive for a little less perfectionism.

I hope I can do that really, really well.

I’m hoping, if I can learn to forgive myself for not being perfect–if I can learn not to expect it from others–I will truly be a better friend.

And wife. And mother. And artist/writer/climber/rider/owner of silly pets.

NEW JOURNEY: The Seventh Step

I learn that trying to be perfect limits your options.

Another quick thought to share with you today.

I read a comment that Quinn McDonald (of Quinn Creative) left on my last post about my hospice training experience.

(And btw, let me thank all of you who took the time to write such thoughtful, beautiful, powerful words of support to that post. Each of you, and your words, are a gift to me.)

I had a coaching session with Quinn a few months before I began hospice training. She said several very valuable things to me, thoughts that helped me stay centered and calm.

The most pragmatic were her observations on perfectionism.

When she asked if I were a perfectionist, I answered, “Yes!” I’ve worked hard at everything I’ve undertaken with my art biz. I’ve always tried to come up with the best solutions for everything. When I teach, I try to create the perfect workshop experience. When I speak, I work hard to say exactly what I want to say to an audience. When I write, I cull and edit and re-edit to make sure everything flows logically. It drives me nuts to find a spelling error after I publish a piece.

I know that is perfectionism exhausting. I recognize it eventually produces diminishing returns for our efforts.

Quinn pointed out another drawback:

“When you are a perfectionist,” she said, “then you are full of knowing. And when you are full of knowing, nothing new can come in.”

Nothing new can come in….

I had to really think about that one. If I am to learn as much as I can from this experience, I have to be open to what is there.

And what I’m learning so far is that there is no need to excel in the class. There’s no need for intellectual brilliance, or to even ask great questions. There’s no need for extreme competence or great listening skills or excellent communication skills. This is not the place for perfect anything. The skills I’ve relied on all my life do not serve me.

In fact, as our training leader says over and over, every class, it’s not about “doing” at all.

It’s about “being.”

Being present. Being there.

We can help by simply offering the gift of ourselves.

This is new territory for me. But what an odd place to end up, this year. Somewhere where nothing is asked of me, except to have an open heart. In a way, it feels a lot like yoga….

I feel like I am learning to simply listen. And breathe. Perhaps hold a hand.

And be.

P.S. I edited this little article about two dozen times. Until it was almost perfect. Obviously, I am still imperfect at being imperfect.

additional P.S. The implications for my art–and my life–are not lost on me, either.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BABY IN THE WORLD

When you truly open your heart to possibility, you will find beauty, joy, compassion, love and other miracles.

It’s odd, but my hospice training experience is already crossing over into my artistic experience. Last week’s session made me think about the connections we form when we make our art from a powerful place in our heart. (Yes, that place some of you are finding so hard to think about when it comes to your artist statement!) (And I say that with love and acceptance, by the way. No lecturing parent thing here, just bear with me.)

During my first hospice training session last week, we split into small groups to do various exercises.

I worried for a moment. What if I didn’t like the people in my group?? What if they didn’t like me? I decided to set my fears aside and simply see what would happen.

We started our listening exercises. I soon realized the people in my little group, these “randomly selected” people, were soul mates.

Their stories blew me away. Their outlook on life amazed me. When it was my turn to talk, their compassion sustained me during difficult moments. What we shared with each other was astonishing.

Oddly, when we returned to our big group, I noticed we all felt the same way. Everyone felt their little group was the perfect match for them.

The only thing is, the groups were created in a fairly random manner.

How could all of us, have “randomly” ended up in “the perfect group for us”?

After the session, I asked our trainer how often that happened.

She said it happens all the time.

In fact, it happens every time.

In fact, she’s come to believe this:

“If your heart is open to this work (hospice), then that connection is already there.”

I thought about that all night. This insight is one thing that made me realize this is the perfect place for me to be right now.

When your heart is open, so many things are possible. Miracles are possible.

This phenomenon reminded me of a story, one of my personal favorites.

Years ago, before kids, before Keene, my husband and I shared an evening with new friends. They had just started the arduous process of adopting a child from another country, working with an international organization. In one of their support groups, another couple had told them this story, and now they were sharing it with us.

Now, because this story is third-hand, and because we heard it so long ago, I’m sure I have many details wrong. So if I’ve messed up anything that may be distracting if you know more about this kind of thing than I do, please forgive me and go for the story.

This other couple had gone through years of preparation and paperwork, and waiting and disappointment. (At one point, they were almost given a baby they learned at the last moment had been STOLEN from her mother. They were devastated on many levels.)

But finally, the glorious day came. They were told a child was available for them, really truly available. In fact, a number of children were available. A group of prospective parents were traveling to a South American country together, to receive their new babies and return home.

Now, for some reason, they would not be allowed off the plane. Their babies would be brought to the airport from the orphanage, then carried to the plane by the nuns who cared for them. Each baby would be given to its respective new parents, and the plane would take off immediately and fly home again.

On the flight down, the parents-to-be talked excitedly among themselves. They were bubbling with hope, and excitement.

And fear.

It had been so hard. So much had gone wrong. They’d waited so long. Was it really going to be all right today? Were they finally going to have a child to love?

Their biggest fear, they all agreed, was that they might be given an ugly baby.

(I remember the way Cathy told this part, in a hushed voice, and it always makes me laugh. It seems so silly! Yet a year later, I was pregnant, and that’s why I remember this part so clearly. Because I had the same fear.)

They could handle anything–missing toes, deformity, sickness, injury. But maybe something else would wrong with the baby. Maybe it would simply be ugly. And what would they do then?

And everyone agreed that it wouldn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all, not now.

No matter what, they all decided they would learn to love that ugly baby, and give it a wonderful home and a beautiful life.

The plane finally landed at the small airport, and rolled to a stop.

They could see the little terminal from the plane. They could see the doors.

They waited. And they waited.

For what seemed like an eternity, they waited.

Was there a mistake? Had something something wrong? Had the orphanage changed its mind?

Finally, the terminal doors flew open, and a very strange procession marched out into the fierce sunshine.

It was the nuns, with their habits and white wimples flapping in the breeze. They marched quickly, single file, across the tarmac.

And each nun, in her arms, carried a baby.

The nuns-with-babies marched up the steps into the plane, names were called out, hands were raised. And soon every baby was being cradled by its brand new mommy and daddy.

Now, the rest of the story is very fuzzy, probably because it would be almost impossible to describe the joy that must have filled that plane. If you could measure joy, if you could figure its weight, it would have been so big, so deep, so profound, our planet Earth must have surely tilted slightly on its axis that day.

But, Cathy said in a hushed voice, her friend had been very clear on one point:

Every single couple on that plane secretly rejoiced that they had received the prettiest baby in the group.

Each couple whispered to each other that their baby…

….that their baby…

… was the most beautiful baby in the world.

So it’s true. When your heart is open, wide open, fear and doubt will fall away. And the most powerful connections–authenticity…compassion…love–will already there.

Don’t you think that’s a miracle? I do.

That’s why art can be a miracle, too. When we make art from this powerful place in our heart, we will find other people whose hearts resonate with it. And that is a powerful connection. One heart speaks to another. A miracle.

P.S. At the end of our training session, we were asked to give the person next to us a blessing.

Here is mine for you today:

May you find such joy in everything you do in life, especially your art.

May you always have an open heart.

And may you always know, deep in your beautiful, open heart that you, as a child of the universe, as someone who brings your own special creativity to this world, at this time, in this place, may you know that to somebody, somewhere, you are the most beautiful baby in the world.

And may you know that somewhere in the world, your creative work has made someone else feel that way, too.