ARTIST AND WRITER

A friend read my blog entitled Is That a Book I See Before Me? and had some powerful comments on my choice of words.

She said (accurately) that I tend to downplay my writing and promote myself as simply an artist who writes about her art. My writing is sound.  So why was I being coy about putting as much energy into it as my art?

Why was I burying a link from my website to my blog way back in the “About the Artist” section?

Why did I always say “…and I’m also a writer….” instead of “I’m an artist AND a writer”?

When I went back and looked at the text she was looking at, I saw she was absolutely right.

And I realized I have been tentative about pushing my writing forward, yet I say it’s as important to me as my art.

Where did that come from??

There are several issues involved here.

1) In a marriage, usually one spouse takes on a set of tasks, and the other spouse takes on another set of tasks. We may complain that it’s usually gender-based, but it is a valid strategy for an organization (a household) to make. It’s more efficient to have every person good at a few things, rather than everyone sort of okay at a lot of things. Until you lose one person, that is.

In my case, Jon has been earning a living as a writer since he graduated from college. It felt awkward to think I could write, too, or that my writer would be as “excellent” or as “important” as his is. (That didn’t come from him, it came from me, unconsciously.)

In the last few weeks, Jon has made a point of telling me my writing is good–really good. I was surprised how wonderful it felt to hear him say that. A sign to me of how worried I was to be seen as competing with him in his area of competency.

2) It took me years of making art before I could confidently state, “I’m an artist” and feel like it was the truth, not puffery. It’s just taken me a little longer to get there with my writing.

3) I’m aware that my website is all about my work and the mystique I’ve created in my processes and my story. The blog feels more exposed, more exploratory. I always wonder what my customers would feel about me struggling with this issue or that, or complaining about the “difficult people” in my booth, for example.

This led me to the heart of it.

4) Years ago, someone (anonymous, of course) posted that it was a bad business decision to write so honestly about the ups and downs of being an artist, to admit setbacks and disappointments. It made me look unprofessional. An artist is supposed to look like a duck–swimming along, with all the hard paddling work unseen beneath the water.

I would alienate potential customers and galleries with all my whining and struggling.

There was just enough truth in that snarfy comment to let the knife slip sideways between my ribs and into my heart.

So I felt like I had to keep those two worlds separate, at least until I was famous enough to have a coffee table masterpiece of a book dedicated solely to my artwork written about or by me. Then people would want all the stories.

This latest “challenge” was made with love and respect and good insight. It got my dander up just enough to realize I do care passionately about my writing, too, and would be devastated to give it up. I am going to proceed with all the conviction it needs.

It also came with some really great advice on how to proceed, so it was a double gift.

I am blessed with such a wonderful readership, with people who read regularly and offer support and encouragement along the way. Thank you all!

I thank my husband Jon for his instant support when I told him it was time for me to write another book. Thank you, sweetie!

And a special thanks and a hug to Amy Johnson, for your bravery to ask such hard questions of a new friend. I am grateful. Thank you, Amy!

FEELING VS. BEING

I found this intriguing article called 10 Unsolved Mysteries of the Brain by David Eagleman in back issue of DISCOVER magazine this morning.

In it are statements that took my breath away, and some that made me laugh out loud. Much food for thought (no pun intended), and I’ll share one such thought today.

Mystery # 5 (don’t you just love the notion of “mysteries” being quantified and numbered?) asks, “What are emotions?”

Now, I have to admit, I tend to confuse emotions with feelings. Emotion is the actual physical response to a stimuli–the racing heartbeat and perspiration that go with fear, for example.

Feelings, on the other hand, are “…the subjective experiences that sometimes accompany these processes: the sensation of happiness, envy, sadness and so on….”

What took my breath away was the realization that emotions are our innate physical response to a situation or event. Our feelings are our subjective interpretations of those situations or events.

There is no right or wrong interpretation. Only interpretations that help us move forward–or hold us back.

And–to some extent–we can learn to choose how we feel about things. How–and who–we want to be in the world.

Perhaps that’s why some of us quail at even the thought of confrontation, even just arguing on forums, while others thrive on that energy. It explains why some of us never get past our fear of putting our work out there in the world, while others acquire some eagerness to exhibit, to show, to sell our work. Maybe it’s why some of us can never get over the hurts and frustrations and obstacles we encounter in life, while others seem to find some way to work through them.

Why did this affect me so powerfully?

Because I realize I’ve been physically injured–deeply–a lot lately. Multiple surgeries, an air cast, one assault after another in my body. My emotion? Fear. “Run way! Hunker down!” Good responses, considering I need to lie low and heal.

But my feelings have interpreted that emotion as despair, and sadness.

I realized that I could truly choose to see this differently.

I can choose to see “hunker down!” and “run away!” as “Hey, why don’t you take some time off and just read all day–like you used to before you got so busy and successful?” “Why don’t you just goof off and refuse to do the dishes for a change?” “Why don’t you just lie here and daydream for awhile? Not think or problem-solve or obssess about what you can and can’t do–but just look at the moonlight, or watch the squirrels play, or listen to your husband noodle around on his guitar while you watch the fire?”

It’s not, perhaps the “vacation” I would have chosen. But it’s the one I’ve been given. And I’m definitely going to take it.

The practice of mindfulness–simply being aware of our feelings without always feeling the necessity of acting on them or believing them–will help.

I know I’ve had this “aha!” moment before, but I’m just one of those people who has to “aha!” a lot.

So what made me laugh out loud in the article? Further on on Mystery #5, Mr. Eagleman says, “Modern views propose that emotions are brain states that quickly assign value to outcomes and provide a simple plan of action. Thus, emotion can be viewed as a type of computation, a rapid, automatic summary that initiates appropriate actions. When a bear is galloping toward you, the rising fear directs your brain to do the right things (determining an escape route) instead of all the other things it could be doing (rounding out your grocery list).

I’m so relieved to think that, upon seeing a bear rush at me, probably even my poor beleaguered brain would not consider “shopping” on equal par with “fleeing”–at least, not for very long. Although I still suspect the inner conversation might go something like this:

“Dang! If I don’t start running away NOW, I will never be able to shop again!!”

MAKING DO…OR MAKING THE BEST

It’s been a long, hard week. My right hand looks like a large wrapped club. My pinkie and ring finger have been wrapped together for stability and comfort, making it look like like I’ve devolved from five digits to four.

I’m currently overwhelmed with what I can’t do. The list grows daily.

My main meal consists of toast with peanut butter. It only takes me about 15 minute to make, if the bread isn’t too deeply buried in the fridge and if the peanut butter isn’t too stiff. (It’s “natural-style” peanut butter, so you know what I’m talking about.

Typing is extremely difficult. Let me qualify that. Typing accurately is difficult. For every letter you see, about five wrong keystrokes gave up their little lives. In fact, halfway through this post I accidentally erased the whole thing.

Three surgeries and two foot injuries in seven months are taking their toll. I’ve gained back half the weight I lost five years ago. And now my back is going out from lack of activity. I saw a physical therapist yesterday to begin treatment for my shoulder. (The muscles are “asleep”–they go into deep “protection mode” in response to the extensive surgery. It actually feels like I’ve had a stroke.)

The therapist gently lectured me about the importance of exercise and healthy diet. I was indignant at first–“Hey, you’re preaching to the choir here!” Then I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Oh. Yeah. I don’t look like that choir anymore.

It took years to turn my somnambulant lifestyle around, to go from bitter shadow artist to creative force, to transform from a total couch potato to an athlete.

It took five months for it all to dribble away.

So I’ve been sad, and tired, and gently weepy. Not a pretty sight.

Two days ago, I reread the book series His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. The first book is now a movie, The Golden Compass.

It’s the perfect book for me to read right now.

The themes are complicated yet simple.

Stories matter. Love, kindness and courage matter. Truth matters.

Life matters.

The final book brings these themes home with a bang. Simply being alive–able to partake of this world through our senses–is such pure joy, even angels weep with envy.

“Dust”–the mysterious “dark matter” that is the mysterious heart of these novels–is more than simply “life essence”, more than simply consciousness. It is self-awareness–living beings being aware of their own existence, and rejoicing in that awareness.

It is from this self-awareness that all human art and industry springs.

Our purpose in life is to enjoy and love life itself. To respect other living things. To love the world we are in, and do our best work in it. To be kind, to be patient, to be creative.

I’m telling this badly, and I’m sure I’ve skipped over the deeper issues at hand. I’m in pain even as I write this, and can’t wait to finish typing so I can go lie down for a minute.

And I can’t pretend for a minute I can hold on to this concept for very long–that even this pain and emotional discomfort is to be marveled at, because it means I exist.

I’m not that spiritually evolved, I’m afraid.

But this book has given me an emotional respite, a place to rest.

I marvel at what I can do right now.

I can still write. I can still move about, however awkwardly. Even as I think, the list grows by leaps and bounds.

There is still so much I can do, to much to be grateful for, so much to rejoice in.

My body can heal, and I will get better.

That alone is a miracle. A gift.

Tonight I head to a friend’s house for an informal yoga session. I won’t be able to do much, I know.

But I know, too, that whatever I can do will be enough, for now.

Breathe. Breathe.

BREATHE

Today a reader mentioned Christine Kane’s blog in her comment on MY blog essay RESOLUTIONS. (Thanks, Michelle!)

I’m actually a huge fan of Christine’s blog. But I keep forgetting to check in regularly, and I’d missed this one. I’m glad Michelle mentioned it, because when I read Christine’s essay on Resolution Revolution, it resonated with me immediately.

I realized my word for 2007–the one I’d inadvertently picked up halfway through last year–was “breathe”.

It was when I realized I was totally stressing myself out about what I could and could not physically do in Tae Kwon Do, and climbing, and riding. I realized I had to let go, relax, and….breathe. And simply do what I could.

It also helped me not to panic about preparing for new and different shows, for getting ready for even more surgery last month, for everything else that seemed piled on top of my life. For dealing with odd and huffy situations, dealing with demanding and demeaning people, and even dealing with me when I got whiney.

It worked, too.

It took me on a tiny mental vacation, a mini-break. A moment to center myself, and remember that though I may be the center of MY universe, that doesn’t make me the center of everyone else’s universe. And that as tricky, or as embarrassing, or as difficult as this moment was, it would pass.

Breathe. Breathe!

It will be fun thinking of “the word” for 2008. I’m thinking it might be, “just try.” Or maybe, “do better.” Or her suggestion, “release”. That’s a good one.

For now, “breathe” will do just fine.

ON BEING (and NOT being) SIXTEEN

We’re having a little gathering tonight. Not a big bash. God, no. That would entail too much housecleaning, though to hear my teenage son griping, you’d think the little we’re doing is monumental. He is sure that his day has already been insurmountably,inconsolably ruined.

But, as I reminded my husband, to be sixteen is to be in a certain frame of mind that is almost impossible for anyone who isn’t sixteen to understand. I only have glimpses, because I can still sort of remember what it was like to be that age.

We had set out on a walk through our local cemetery, which is very beautiful, with open rolling hills and two streams running through. There is a lonely old chapel sitting on a hilltop and poignant old monuments clustered under old pines. Jon made a sweet little video of a walking tour through this special place a few years ago. Yesterday when we walked there, he showed me the latest in a series of little American flags, stolen from veterans’ grave by squirrels for their nests, this one high in a pine tree near the entrance.

I reminded my husband (who tends to more impatient with Doug than I am, not that I am that patient) what it was like to be sixteen. And pointed out to him that some of those traits are the very same ones that are at the bottom of our own dissatisfaction lately.

Entitlement. Resentment. Being self-absorbed. And unaware of how much negative energy we give off when we’re in that space.

A reader left comments on my blog, and because she said it so beautifully, I direct you to Gail Denton’s comments on my essay RESOLUTIONS. One sentence in particular leaped out at me:
“…Now, here’s the interesting part. I am starting to be grateful for my troubles. What a shock. But they are the things that change me, not my blessings…”

I love that sentence!

We want all the blessings, and none of the troubles. It seems so silly, so childish, so….sixteen. Yet there it is. When we get over ourselves, when we can get past being sixteen, we can feel the deep truth of what Gail says.

It’s not entirely our fault we get stuck thinking this way.

Our brains have been hard-wired over millions of years to prepare us for a very different world than the one we find ourselves in today.

Unless we’re careful, we eat too much at the drop of a hat. Because once food was not always readily available, and we are hard-wired to constantly prepare for once-real threat of starvation.

We are hard-wired to seek the new, the novel and the different. It keeps us curious and eager to try new things and helps us explore and wonder and question and achieve. But it also drives us to buy too many things that only keep us happy for a short while.

We seek security and shelter, which is necessary to survive. But it also means we “play it safe”. It keeps us shut down in what we know, prevents us from taking chances, and closes our minds to new possibilities.

We find it easier to focus on the bad times rather than the good for neurological reasons. We forget the blessings we have, and focus on our lack.

We live in our own heads and find it truly hard to see things from others’ point of view, because….well, that’s where we live: In our heads. If we get glimpse of the world from someone else’s hard-wired little monkey brain from time to time, if we have that insight and can see a bigger picture, a way to forgive, a way love and be joyful in spite of our own issues, aches, agendas, well, that’s a small miracle.

When I first started realizing our built-in programming, this “lizard brain”, this sixteen brain, was so dominant in my thinking, I was discouraged. But then, I realized it helps to understand where some of this is coming from.

And realizing I can choose differently, if only for a few precious moments each day, is empowering.

We can’t completely overcome that programming. But we can take little vacations from it from time to time. Like having some really great friends over tonight. Like walking with my husband on a beautiful day. And realizing we may all be in the same boat, if only because it means I may not be the only one who’s crazy around here.

As we walked, we both noted that part of our discontent has been with all the things we think should be happening for us (because we work so very, very hard for them) and aren’t. “I bet if we stopped and really thought about all the incredible things other people have done for us,” I said, “we’d realize how rich we really are.” And Jon agreed, and immediately mentioned some people who have done huge things for him in his career.

Our son is hugely hampered by being sixteen right now. He really can’t help how he’s feeling and how he chooses to deal with that. Life looks very different to him, and it’s impossible for him to stand outside himself and see what we see. With luck and time, he will grow up and into himself, and he will learn how much choice he really has, and how to exercise it wisely.

And with time, he will learn what we all learn eventually. That many of those “terrible things”, with a little insight or hindsight, aren’t really so terrible. That many of them are blessings in disguise. Or, if they truly are terrible, they are also something we really can get through, with help from loved ones, time, and the kindness of strangers. Oh, and highly-trained professionals and appropriate amounts of alcohol.

And somewhere in the middle, as Gail says, perhaps we can see them as just little opportunities to shape us into better people.

It’s a blessing to not be sixteen anymore. And it’s a blessing to understand that, in a way, we will always a little bit “sixteen”.

MEAN PEOPLE SUCK #2: Professional Jealousy

Years ago, I was going through a rough patch with my art career. Other artists were behaving badly. I was dazed and unsure of what was going on. I confided in a friend, who mentioned the matter to her husband, a lawyer. “Be nice to Luann at dinner tonight, dear”, she told him. “She’s had some bites taken out of her lately.” She told him the back story.

Her husband, a person usually brusque and heavy-handed when it came to the tender feelings of artistic types, responded quickly and with passion.

“You tell Luann that lawyers do this to each other all the time!” he told her. “It’s called professional jealousy. It means she’s doing good work.”

I’ve always kept those words in my heart when things get rough with my fellow craftspeople.

Today I was killing a little time and came across Christine Kane’s wonderful blog again. Christine is an artist in the music world. She writes great essays that transfer across all creative endeavors. You can see her writings here:
Christine Kane’s “Be Creative” blog

I read her essay on Jealousy and Envy. In it, a certain paragraph leaped out at me, the one entitled “Mastery”.

Christine wrote, “Whatever career path you’re on, you have the choice to become a master. Not necessarily of the career or the craft or the art. But of you. That’s what keeps me going. If you want to reach, inspire, help, encourage, heal in any way, most likely it’s going to require that you face your own demons in that process. If jealousy comes up, then it’s a teacher for you. That’s all. Let it be. That’s where your biggest treasures will be.”

I’ve never denied being jealous myself of people more talented and creative than I am. I affectionately call that first rush of pure green bile “the lizard brain”. I chalk it up to my inner nature, that ancient instinctive heritage I will always have with me.

But as Christine says, we have choices, too. And this is one aspect of my life with which I think I’ve made good choices.

I used to be consumed with jealousy. Years ago, though, I realized what being jealous did for me.

I realized it let me off the hook.

If someone else was “better than me”, or “doing better than me”, then I didn’t have to try to be the best anymore. I could give up, quit doing what I was doing, and just say, “Oh, well, I wasn’t very good at it anyway…” Or, “Oh, they’ve got it all wrapped up, there’s no room for ME.” I could pick up my toys and go home.

There’s always the temptation, too, of letting jealousy shift your focus. You now have an “enemy” to hate. How delicious! You can now seethe and plot on how to take them down.

What a tremendous waste of our precious creative energy.

Once I realized that, I quite letting jealousy rule my life. I couldn’t banish it completely, of course. But I could make different choices on how I acted on it.

And that’s when I really started making progress in my career as an artist.

I began to focus on doing what I liked just because I liked it, regardless of how “good” I was. It helped me keep starting over, and helped me persevere when things got tough.

And because I kept going and kept starting over, I began to get kinda good at some of those things.

Now that I think about it, that attitude has helped me in all kinds of situations. Another case where learning how to be a better artist has also helped me be a better person.

And now when the green monster raises its ugly head, I savor it. I know it’s going to spur me on to greater heights.

I know somewhere in that mess, that demon still has something to teach me.

Try it yourself! The next time the lizard brain kicks in. Go on, be jealous. Enjoy it.

But only for a minute.

Then get down to work. And figure out how to make that jealousy work for you. Instead of fuming about your object of envy, put that lizard brain to work.

Think how to make it make YOU a better artist.

If only more of us focused on making jealousy work FOR us, instead of focusing on how to take that other person down…..

We might get along better. Or at least have a lot more wonderful art in the world.

p.s. I’m thinking that, after I wrap up the “GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD” series, this might be a good essay in a new “MEAN PEOPLE SUCK” series. In fact, I’ve gone ahead and numbered this one accordingly. There isn’t a MEAN PEOPLE SUCK #1 yet, don’t panic.

BORN TO BUZZ: Create Your Own Reality

I believe we chose our own reality.

I’ve seen that process in action—two people interact, and both have their own very clear ideas about what actually took place.The same event happens to two different people–one views it as a blessing, the other as a blight.

But saying we choose our reality sounds so very lightweight. There’s no getting around cold hard facts, right? Reality is reality—if your car is going off a cliff, no amount of wishful thinking is going to keep you from eventually hitting the ground.

Well, I guess there is reality, and then there’s reality. So much of what holds us back in life, and in our art, is NOT about cold hard fact, nor is it as concrete as driving off a cliff.

Most of our obstacles are tied up with perceptions and misperceptions, based in fear, in indecision, or results from unclear goals and unfocused efforts.

And all of THESE conditions are, indeed, things we can choose how we think about them.

I wrote recently about actually experiencing a thought burp up in the middle of the night—and watching my mind literally pounce on it and begin to worry a solution out of it.

Til I realized, “This is not a problem I have to solve. It’s just a thought!”

And I’ve been reading more and more about “mindfulness”, the process of observing and naming your thoughts without the compulsion to act on them or even judge them. “Oh, look, there’s that insecure feeling again….” “Wow, I feel like smacking my cat. I must be having an angry thought about her ralphing on the couch.”

But why do I…we…have to go through these processes to achieve inner peace? Why is my brain always buzzing? What’s wrong with me and my brain, anyway?

I’ve been blaming it on menopause and looking for a cessation any day now. But more and more women are telling me, “Oh, it’s not that simple….”, sending me into new panic. You mean it’s not going to just go away on its own?? Horrors!!!

But yesterday I found hope.

I read the most remarkable book excerpt in the July 2007 issue of OPRAH magazine.It’s from Ruth King’s book, HEALING RAGE: Women Making Inner Peace Possible”. You can read more about Ms. King’s book here.

The excerpt reads:

“The mind’s job is to be busy with thought—24/7. The problem is that we often confuse the activities of the mind with the whole truth…A single wave of emotion can feel like the vast ocean at any given time, yet it is still only a wave, to be followed by another…Emotions are fed by thoughts that believe they are the only reality…We can be informed, even entertained by [them] without the urgency to believe them or act on them.”

I have read and reread that excerpt.

“The mind’s job is to be busy with thought—24/7.”

Our consciousness constantly creates thought because that is its function. There’s nothing wrong, that’s just what it’s supposed to do. That’s why it’s so hard to “empty your mind” when you meditate, so hard not to think of brass monkeys when told not to.

We have brain buzz because our brains are born to buzz.

And notice the next big sentence:

“Emotions are fed by thoughts that believe they are the only reality…”

If this is true, then here is the linchpin behind the whole “choose your own reality” philosophy.

If how we feel is based on thoughts, and any given thought can be given credibility if we let it, then we can CHOOSE which thoughts we give credence to, and which ones we won’t.

I don’t think it will be easy. I’m sure it takes practice, practice, practice.

But if such peace-of-mind is really so within my grasp, I’m willing to put a little time into making that happen.

I feel like this marshaling of my thoughts and processes is going to be so good for my art, and for my life.