We Are Enough (and So Is Mary Oliver)

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not.

It was the last day of December, the last day of 2018. It’s been a hard year in so many ways. I don’t know whether to embrace or watch with suspicion the dawn of this new one. Do I move forward with hope, and courage? Or do I hunker down until it’s safe to come out?

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

I’m a fan, and not just because I love her poetry for what it is to me. I used several of her works when I created a grief writing workshop as a hospice volunteer. Her poems are accessible, full of the beauty of small moments in nature, with a big bang of wonder and insight inside. They always draw a gasp of amazement, and they often make us cry.

I don’t know much about her. I only recently discovered she was in a relationship with a woman, Mary Malone Cook, for over 40 years, and her partner died in 2005 I didn’t know about the hardship and abuse she suffered as a child. I didn’t know she lived in Ohio but took up New England as her home years later. And as I read “Blueberries”, with her musings about eating blueberries year round, something new for her, I wondered where she lives now.

And so I Googled “Mary Oliver where does she live now” and came across a Wikipedia entry. And found this somewhat disturbing entry in “Critical Reviews”:

Vicki Graham suggests Oliver over-simplifies the affiliation of gender and nature: “Oliver’s celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.”[13] In her article “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver”, Diane S. Bond echoes that “few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver’s work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical that identification with nature can empower women.”[14] In The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Sue Russell notes that “Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”

I had to stop reading.

Who are these people??

Who are they to judge a poet’s work based on how “political” her thinking is, or how much she aligns publicly with her gender?

My husband, an English major as an undergrad, contemplated a career in academia briefly. He says this is exactly why he didn’t pursue it. “It’s just academic-speak”, he says.

I think it’s more than that.

Someone is saying Mary Oliver is “not doing it right”.

They are saying she is not enough.

Jon said, “You read poetry? I haven’t read any poetry since college!” What?! “You haven’t read “Wild Geese?!”

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Even as I tried to read it aloud to Jon, I knew I couldn’t. Tears were already welling up. I handed him my phone to read it.

Or how about “Summer Day”?

Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I’ve rarely enjoyed poetry “analysis”. I’ve never understood the desire to write in specific forms or meters as a professional challenge, unless the rhythm and patterns lend themselves to even deeper feelings of connection. (As in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I understand there are hidden gifts in complex musings, and challenges that can deepen our experience. It’s like doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle as opposed to the 5-minute versions that always appear in our local newspaper.
But there are reasons it’s okay for poetry to be accessible, and simple.
It’s okay not to speak for everyone. Geez, white guys of Northern European descent have been doing it for years.
It’s okay for a writer to simply share what’s in their heart.
It’s okay to make people cry with our beautiful words.

If I Wanted A Boat
by Mary Oliver, Blue Horses

“I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe?  Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat that I couldn’t steer.”

What do I hear in this?

It takes courage to let go of trying to control our future.

Or this one:

WHAT GORGEOUS THING

by Mary Oliver

I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.

It tells me it’s okay to seek solace in the tiny moments in life. To hold the simplest things and see. To listen. To wonder.

They won’t fix everything. Maybe they won’t fix anything. 

But if they give me a teensy break, a moment of relief and respite, I’m taking it, with gratitude.

Fortunately for my mood today, I came across this lovely article by Ruth Franklin in The New Yorker: What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand. It helped me back to my happy place. Still, a few off remarks: Oliver didn’t write much about her lover, and she rarely writes about the dark places in her life. Such a lack “…flattens her range….” in the opinion of this writer.

Whatever. I’ve been writing articles, essays, and blog posts for almost two decades. I never write about my relationship with my husband, and although I write about what it feels to be in dark places, I keep away from the deeply personal. And don’t bury myself in the dark.

I don’t, except in my “blort book”, because it’s my dark place. Yes, it’s part of me. But I get to decide how much I share, and when, and how.

When I’ve had suicidal thoughts (and I’ve had them all my life), I know what they are: A response to the despair and hopelessness I’m overwhelmed with. I also know it will pass. It looks like an escape, but I know it will only bring enormous pain to those I leave behind.

(To be perfectly frank, I’m also a chickenshit. I’m afraid I’d mess it up and have to live with pain, and shame, and disability the rest of my life. So no, I’m not gonna do it.)

But most people will “hear” a plea for help. They will respond with a “solution”, a “fix”.

There isn’t one. Or at least, it’s never the right one.

My truth: I’m kinda hard-wired to be in mild despair. I always expect the worst.

But I choose to look for the light instead. I choose look for the life lesson that will help me move forward. I choose to seek out the folks I know I can trust, who know who I am, and who I want to be, to help me find my way back.

I also want to respect my partner’s privacy. We’ve been together 40 years. That wouldn’t be true if he weren’t a good human being, worthy of love, who is simply trying to do the best he can. He has saved my sanity a jillion times. At his best, he meets me where I am, and helps me take a step forward. At his worst, he is bad about cleaning up after himself. Not too shabby, in my book.

I even want to protect the privacy of those who have hurt me. It’s on me to work my way back to the light. They have their own story, and it may involve things I know nothing about, no matter how much pain they’ve created for me.

That’s my choice. It doesn’t make me “less than”. (Yes, I am a proud member of the “#metoo” moment, but it’s just not for public consumption. For now.)

I’m not going to hold it against Mary Oliver, either.

Thank heaven for the last part of that “critic review” section by Sue Russell:

“…but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”

So go forward today, with the joy you find in the small things. For me today, it’s Noddy wanting a drink from the kitchen faucet. Chai trying to sneak a lap of milk from my cereal bowl. Tuck wanting a butt-scritch. Jon reassuring me that academic critics live in a world of their own making, and not to worry about it.

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

A flock of bluebirds in the California winter.

A murmuration of starlings in the evening.

Another poem by Mary Oliver.

Hey! A new year!

Now I feel like can can deal with it.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Be Kind, Unwind.

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

LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Be Kind, Unwind.

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

Where is your happy place? Go there today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Er…..can’t remember???

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

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

So….no pill?!  Dang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve missed it. So we walked.

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

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

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

And yet….

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

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

I’m a pebble puppy, and I’m proud!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinda like life, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s what we artists do.

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

STAY IN TOUCH: Newsletter Tips for Artists

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

Keep it real, keep it human, and be yourself.

In my last column, It’s the Little Things That Count a reader asked what we should write about in our email newsletters.

Short story: Our email newsletter is how our audience gets to know us.

And long story (which follows): There is no single “right way” to do that.

I have seen beautiful, heartwarming, informative newsletters that I eagerly read as soon as they show up in my inbox.  I have seen pompous, bragging newsletters that make me stop reading after the second paragraph.

I have seen brief notices of an event, and I have seen long, meandering missives that wander here and there and everywhere.

All of the writers have an audience, so just because I like them or don’t like them doesn’t mean they are necessarily “doing it wrong”.

I do see (and you are all going to laugh knowing this comes from ME) that keeping it short and to-the-point makes it more likely people will actually read it!

Here’s the thing to remember: If someone signs up for your newsletter, they already believe you have something of value to share with them.  So really, all you have to do is be the best “you” you can be.

Of course, usually I create a newsletter to inform my audience of an event, whether it’s a show, a meet-the-artist event, or an open studio, or even a sale.

But many artists share tips on how they actually make their work. Or they share WIPs (works in progress), providing a little behind-the-scenes peek into their creative process. Or they share a little life lesson or funny story. (I tend to share this kind of stuff on other social media, but that’s me.)

In short, every single newsletter is a reflection of who that person is. Their newsletter tells us what they want us to know about them, and their work, what they’re up to, where they’re heading.

So think about who you are: Confident? Humble? Cheerful? Grounded? Funny? Very serious? Quiet? Talkative? A sharer/teacher? An eternal student of life?

Show that in your writing!

Be authentic. Write about what matters to you.

Write simply, and get to the point.  Some of the newsletters I get go on and on, as if I’m listening to a stream of consciousness in the author’s head. Not fun on a busy day…

Be funny (if that’s your style.) If not, be serious.

It’s also okay to experiment with different styles and approaches until you find the one you’re the most comfortable with.

Now, for the concrete: I’ve written many blog posts over the years, about what I’ve learned about writing effective press releases to magazines, newspapers, etc. and I consider an email newsletter a personal, mini-press release.

So when you’re setting one up, think about the 5 (or 6) W’s: Who, what, when, where, why, and how (okay that’s not a W, but you get it) if you are including something educational.

  • The “who” is you, of course.
  • The “what” is what you want your audience to know: An event? A class? An honor/award/prestigious show you’ve been accepted into? A new gallery? A new body of work? A sale?
  • The “when” is obvious. Nobody will show up to your event if you don’t let people know what date and time it is.

What is not obvious (and what I struggle with) is, email newsletter experts say you need to let your audience know multiple times about the “when”. That is, if you have an open studio event, you need to not only let people know in multiple arenas (email, Facebook, etc.) but multiple times. Give people plenty of time to plan ahead. But then remind them over and over that it’s coming up.

The “where” is obvious, too. But you’d be surprised how many emailers assume their audience KNOW where the where is. I finally replied to one gallery newsletter last week, asking them what CITY AND STATE they are in. (In fact, I just realized I did not do that in my most recent newsletter. OOPS)

  • The “why” is trickier. But untangle it a bit, and it becomes obvious. For events, the “why” is, “Because I’m hoping you show up and buy something!” For notices of awards and honors, it’s “Because now you can see other people/organizations think my work is pretty cool, too!” For a new body of work, it’s “Because you love my previous work, you might REALLY love my latest body of work!”

The “why” could also include your call-to-action. That is, what do you want people to do with this information? Do you want them to come by? Share/tell their friends, so they can help you grow your audience? Order something online? Be happy for you? How about just to say “thank you”? That works, too!

  • The “how” can be an interesting tip, suggestion, insight into what you do. Some people want to know as much as possible about our process. Others want to take a class, and this can encourage them to do that. Sometimes, they just appreciate the fact that you care enough to share!

The only caveat (beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned) is to tread carefully about the hard parts of your life you’re dealing with. It’s okay to share a setback, or to explain why you’ve been out of touch, or why you had to take time off from your art this year. I would advise you not to overdo it. Here in Santa Rosa, the fires last year devastated a lot of lives, immediately and peripherally. It will take most people years to process their loss, and heal.

But to make every single newsletter/conversation/announcement about that is overwhelming to our audience. After all, we are all struggling with something. We are all broken, someplace in our heart. We are all healing from something.

Asking for a little sympathy and understanding is human nature, and support from others can be a healing factor. But asking someone to listen over and over and over to our sad story is exhausting.

It also doesn’t serve us, in the long run. I’ve had a rotten year myself. I would say “nobody died”, but actually quite a few people died, and quite a few involved let me down horribly. It was hard, and trust me, I’m happy to tell everyone about it.

In the end, though, where the most powerful healing came from was, getting back to my studio and making the work of my heart. It helped restore me to my better self, the person I chose to be.

And that message, a message of healing, and restoration, and solace, and hope, a message of what our art does for us and for other people, is the message we really want our audience to hear.  

As artists, we want our art to inspire, to bring joy, to lift hearts. We want to bring messages of hope, and love, to others. We want to provoke thought about difficult issues, and to share our own personal view of the world and our experiences.

This is our job, as artists. And the people who are attracted to our work, who want to see more, learn more, hear more, are just waiting to get more of that from us.

I hope this encourages you to reach out to your audience, and let them know what’s going on in your world! Clint Watson, founder of FASO, has written great articles about the more practical points of producing an effective email newsletter, and I encourage you to go back and read them.

But I assure you, if you approach this with as much integrity and openness as you approach your art, you really can’t go wrong.

EXERCISE FOR SUCCESS Tip #12: Make Do With What You Have (Til You Know Your Real Next Step)

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

Sometimes an austerity budget is a hidden blessing!

 In last week’s column, I talked how we can get distracted with shiny new toys in our art biz: The latest brush craze, the hottest craft tools, the newest technique, can give us a lot of joy and amusement, and offer inspiration and new ideas. BUT they can also pull us off-course and dilute our true story. I said, “Those special karate shoes won’t make you a better karate student if you don’t show up for class.”

Like all my advice, you should only cherry-pick the bits that work for YOU. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to advice. And as several people pointed out, it IS fun to try new ideas, new palettes, new tools, new techniques. Fun is a good thing.

Of course it is! And I encourage you to try this when it feels like time to take a little break from your usual routine, and change things up a bit.

My caveat was, sometimes the “little bit of fun” turns into a death-spiral of spending and distraction. Getting caught up in classes could mean less time to actually do your own work.

My own trap is getting pulled off-course in admiring the work of others, and not focusing on what’s unique about the work I do. I admire what they do, I want to do it, too. And then I realize that in order to “make it mine” I can’t just imitate what they do. I have to transform it for myself, to reflect MY vision and aesthetics–and story.

So for those who realized they are dealing with the caveat, as promised, here is a solution–temporary or permanent, YOU DECIDE–that I used a few years ago:

Put yourself on a (tools/techniques/class/materials) diet.

I went through a period after the recession where sales fell, galleries hunkered down (or closed forever), and it felt like no one wanted my work. (Yes, I made a world-wide economic event all about me. Go figure.) :^)

I was in business debt up to my eyeballs due to three consecutive high-end shows retail/wholesale shows with poor sales. I had no money for new supplies, no budget for more big shows, no resources to indulge in new distractions.

At first I had no idea how to move forward. But I came up with a year-long plan, and it worked!

I resolved to make it through the year with what I had on hand.

I took an informal inventory of the supplies and materials I had on hand. (I say “informal” because mixed media artists can never rarely completely inventory all the bits and pieces they use in their work.)

1.     What did I ABSOLUTELY NEED to keep making my work?

I let go of what I wish I had, what “everybody else” had, what I thought would be fun to have. Bare bones budget, baby.

2.     What did I ABSOLUTELY NEED to get me through the next year?

Instead of stocking up every chance I got, I realized I had enough supplies on hand to make it through at least a year.

One of my biggest pitfalls is buying in bulk. It’s a lot cheaper per piece, of course. But if I only need 100 widgets for $50, that’s doable with my restricted budget. 1,000 widgets for $400 is still $350 more that I don’t have.

3.     What did I have on hand that could be put to better use?

E.g., what can be repurposed, traded, or even sold (to make money to spend on something more useful?) Years before, I bought a slew of quality ear wires that were just too small for my purposes. I found I could reshape them into useful “dangles” and decorative bits for a new line.

In other words, NO NEW SUPPLIES could come into the building without paying for itself upfront.  NO NEW MATERIALS could be purchased until I’d exhausted the ones I already had. NO NEW CLASSES could be taken until I had a project in the works that decidedly NEEDED that technique/process to create. Even then, I’d stop: Do I HAVE to take a class? Can I learn what I need online? From a book? From a LIBRARY book?? From a friend???

I also swallowed my pride–just for a year–and focused on my best sellers and my lower-priced work, the work that was the easiest to make and get out there. Not as a permanent thing, but as a rescue strategy. It felt restrictive, and small. But it also felt necessary to help dig myself out of the hole I’d gotten myself into. Knowing it was a temporary “narrow focus” really helped.

I took on a very cool mail order catalog client. It was hard. It meant mass-producing certain jewelry items in a short amount of time. But it also meant a few big production week, and then a very big check (for me!) a few months later. (Again, even a year going into production mode for some of my pieces resulted in sacrificing something. Not quality, exactly, but….energy. I look back at those pieces from that period, and I can tell the difference.)

And when I did make a sale, I applied every single penny to my more-money-than-I-make-in-a-year credit card balance.

Within two years, I paid it off.

What helped:

  • Some commitments to big change mean a lifetime commitment. In this case, not. It helped knowing it was a period with a beginning and an end.
  • It also helped seeing results. I did not go deeper into debt. I could look at my card statements and see the balance going down a little bit every month.
  • Austerity became my friend. I got used to not buying everything I thought I “had” to have. (For a while. Back in it now! Gotta go back on that diet!)
  • It felt good not to add more pressure to an already-difficult situation. Examples: Not taking time for classes I didn’t really need, meant more time to focus on my own work.
  • Using up the materials I already had on hand meant I freed up a little storage space. And not buying materials I didn’t need right away meant not having to FIND more storage space.
  • The biggest advantage? I didn’t spend enormous amounts of money on a “new thing”, only to find out it wasn’t MY thing in the first place.

I cannot tell you how many times I see new artists (and experienced artists venturing into new places) invest heavily in everything they think they need to “do it right”.  They get caught up in “doing it right the FIRST TIME”.

That can be a very expensive mind-set.

The person who decides they want to be a potter who invests in brand new, high-end kiln, throwing wheel, (the best!) and tools and glazes, and remodels their garage or basement for a studio—who then realizes a) it’s too much time and work to actually make stuff every day, or b) they actually prefer a different medium, or c) they actually want to focus on making pinch pots instead. (No wheel necessary.)

The person who TOOK OUT A SECOND MORTGAGE ON THEIR HOME to buy a complete professional craft show booth for those really big trade shows, a van/trailer to haul the thing, display structures, lighting, etc., etc., only to find out they did not have the kind of products wanted by fine craft and gift stores, nor could they produce them in a timely manner, nor price them reasonably for wholesale/consignment.

These enthusiastic, well-meaning artisans thought they knew what they wanted, and jumped in over their head, emotionally and financially. Some people have no regrets about this, or can afford it easily. Most of us can’t.

Again, this is not to say, don’t be bold, don’t be brave, don’t commit.

It means, when you realize this is an issue, stop. Slow down. Rethink.

Last, think about the deeper reason why we overspend on stuff we really don’t need: Mental/spiritual turmoil. Fear of missing out (FOMO). The myth of scarcity. (“If I don’t buy these NOW, I’ll never find another source.”)

My life is in turmoil right now. As if this past year weren’t difficult enough, I might have to give up my current studio and find another. The last month has been a freaky one, and guess what I realized as I wrote this article?

I’ve been compensating by overstocking up on the components I want for my “new big idea.” They are items I am repurposing from vintage items, so hard to find (feeding my “myth of scarcity” fear). I probably need a couple dozen, yet I in the last month I’ve tracked down and bought enough to last my lifetime.

So distraction, envy, FOMO,

If you’re determined to invest in those high-tech karate/biking/sports shoes, knowing they will make a difference….

Make sure they’re the right size. The right fit. And don’t buy more than you really need.

If they really do help you have more fun, expand the horizons that need to be explored, help you perform better, and help you make the best work of your heart, then that is money well-spent!

THE POWER WORD

Last week, I came across life coach Christine Kane’s call to action: Pick your Word-of-the-Year (Word of the Year.) (This is a free download, with no call to sign up with your email.)

It’s a cool concept. Our modern culture focuses on action steps, especially during this time of year. Soon we will be making resolutions, setting goals, etc.

Christine believes simply choosing a word that resonates with us manifests our intention. Intention, she believes, comes from the heart. And it’s even more powerful when it unfolds in a more natural, organic way than saying, “I’m gonna do this, and this, and that, and then THAT will happen!” Which starts with selecting a word that resonates, even it it’s not what you think it is.

The idea did resonate with me. But I didn’t even know where to start.

This year has been a clusterfuck, personally, economically, physically, professionally, financially, in addition to the stuff that we see on the national and international stage. Everything right down to how I feel when I get up in the morning and go to bed at night is filled with anxiety, self-doubt, frustration, resentment, and confusion.

So I downloaded the free workbook, and looked over her list of words, dozens and dozens of them. Nope. Nope. Nooooope. Hope? Maybe… Joy? Well, yeah….but no. Expansion? Maybe. Power? Power!

Now why did I pick power?!

I don’t want to be the boss of anything or anyone. Yes, I love to offer advice, but don’t want to be responsible for other people’s actions and life decisions. I don’t want to be “big” or “important” or “in charge” of anything except my own life.

So where did power come from?

I thought back over this past year. Loss. Death. Discord. Grief. Fear. Physical pain.

I thought of where I got to, working through this stuff. I have explored, and almost mastered, true forgiveness. (Okay, in bits and pieces.) Letting go of the need to belong. (Doing okay, still needs work. Still hurts to be told you don’t belong…) Accepting that we may choose to be connected, but that we are also actually alone. (SCARY STUFF.)

Where does power come in?

Following the instructions, I wrote down the words that came to mind:

Brave. Integrity. Stand tall. Move forward. Work hard. 

Okay. That felt more actionable. But I still wondered.

Then some incidental acts of cruelty stopped me in my tracks again. OK… I’m reading more of Brene Brown’s newest book, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, which is (I think) about elements of The Hero’s Journey. I think I’m in the “rumble stage”: That is, I think I know what I want. But everything seems to be conspiring against me. The stage in the Hero’s Journey where we realize it’s gonna be a heckuva lot harder than we thought. Perhaps even impossible.

With the mean remarks, I thought power might be “empowering myself to set boundaries.” Very important for creative people. We thrive and create by being open to the universe, allowing our pain to show, making our art to heal it, and then sharing it with the world.

When people respond negatively, that hurts. But we have to keep making! Hence, boundary-setting becomes imperative, a way to protect ourselves without shutting ourselves down, and shutting the world out.

So imagine my surprise when the very next chapter I read in Rising was about…..power.

Brown suggests that power has a negative connotation, because “…we automatically conflate power and power over…”

But, she continues, “The type of power I’m talking about is more in line with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s definition of it: The ability to achieve our purpose and to effect change.

Powerless leads to fear and desperation. We are at our worst when we feel powerless.

She says moving out of powerlessness and despair requires hopeWe can soften the experience of failure by asking ourselves, “Were we all in, and were we true to ourselves?” If so, then we can focus on the true lessons of regret: “We regret most our failures of courage, whether it’s the courage to be kinder, to show up to, say how we feel, to set boundaries, to be good to ourselves.”

I do not regret chosing “power” as my Word of the Year.

It’s already started me on a journey of introspection, a journey of hope, a journey of achieving my purpose….

And as fellow narrative artist/writer Teri Sloat shared after we talked in our fledgling artist support group about this, “Do you know who you meet at the end of the “Hero’s Journey?”*

Yourself.

Yup. I think I have the right word.

Wish me luck! (And courage, and perseverance, and most of all, patience.)

*Teri added a clarification, a lovely one, and I quote:  I think my comment about the hero’s journey is a bit off, if people are thinking the the actual Joseph Campbell structure of the hero’s journey.  What i should have said is that before the ‘resurrection’ we have to deal with the shadow side of what makes our strengths. Once we accept them we can accept them in others.  You have made me think as I read your work that it is only when we acknowledge these shadows in ourselves do we accept them in others and neutralize their danger to us.”

Beautifully said, Teri, and thank you again!

 

 

EXERCISE FOR SUCCESS Tip #11: Wear the Right Shoes.

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

Special “karate shoes” won’t make you a better karate student if you don’t show up for classes.

Some activities require more specialized equipment than others. It’s hard to rollerblade in bare feet, for example.

My husband spent years avoiding all of the latest high-tech biking stuff. He insisted on regular t-shirts over special moisture-wicking synthetic fiber bike shirts. He wore his regular sports shoes instead of special biking shoes.

We had friends a few years ago who used to laugh openly at his lack of high-tech gear. “I can’t believe your husband rides in a cotton T-SHIRT!” the wife giggled.

But here’s the thing: He never has any problem enjoying long bicycle rides just because he didn’t have the fancy clothing, shoes and gadgets. When the weather allows, he’s off on his bike every chance he gets.

He did finally realize that those “geeky bike shoes with the special clip-on cleats” (that attach to the bike pedals) really do provide a more efficient, more enjoyable experience for long-distance riding. (And he still doesn’t know the right name for them.)

They are only useful, though, on rides where you don’t have to stop much (since the shoes have to be manually disengaged from the pedal when you stop.) Those same shoes and pedals would make in-town riding miserable.

So the right equipment can make your workout not only better, but possible. More efficient. More fun. But different situations make for different “right equipment.”

The downside of focusing on the “perfect equipment” is, some people get so caught up in the high-tech accruements, they spend more time shopping and playing with the “toys” than they spend actually doing the activity. They need the “best bike” that costs thousands of dollars, the “latest biking shirt”, etc.

And if they can’t get them, well, that can be the excuse they need not to exercise in the first place. “I’ll wait til I find the perfect slippers to do T’ai Chi!” (Never found them. Time to go back to socks!)

Too much equipment can eat up your cash resources. At best, it can put the focus on how to get your next new “toy” rather than your next good workout. At worst interfere with the simple act of getting out there and exercising.

Special “karate shoes” won’t make you a better karate student if you don’t show up for classes.

My hubby, for all his lack of gizmos and high-tech sportswear, still logs in hundreds, if not thousands, of miles biked every year. While the friend who poked fun of him for being so low-tech? Hasn’t been on a bike in a loooong time……

If a new sport “toy” excites you enough to exercise more, then it’s a good thing. If it distracts you from the PURPOSE of your work-out–to exercise more, to make your work-out more productive, and help you enjoy your activity– it’s not a good thing.

The same with our art biz.

My own two craft media, the world of quilting/fiber arts and the world of polymer clay, are especially prone to this “new toy” phenomenon. New tools, techniques and gadgets are introduced almost weekly. Pick up a decent quilters supply catalog and you will find hundreds–no, THOUSANDS–of gadgets designed to aid you in sewing two pieces of fabric together. The polymer clay industry is just as product-dense.

I’ll take that back–these two media are not any more prone to this than any other medium. In fact, classes and supplies for painting probably lead the pack. Special brushes, engineered paints, exotic papers and canvases, intricate easels–the list is endless.

At one point, I decided to invest thousands of dollars in a giant sewing machine that would have allowed me to make really, really big fiber wall hangings. I saved money until I could purchase one, set it up in my studio….

And never used it. Not once.

It turns out the way it worked was exactly the reverse of my process, and cumbersome. The learning curve was steep, and not worth it to me. It turns out I lose my sense of composition when my work gets big. (Someone said years ago my aesthetic works best when small and intimate, and I totally agree. My first aesthetic was “something you can hold in your hand”, and that still describes the bulk of my work.)

I’m fortunate that the store owner simply bought the machine back two years later. (It helped I was a loyal customer who had always treated them with integrity and generosity, and it was repaid in kind when I needed it!) (It helped that it was in mint condition, too.) :^)

It turns out my professional-grade but limited-options sewing machine was exactly what I need, and nothing more. (It can’t zig-zag or serge-stitch, but it free-style quilts like a charm!)

New toys are fun. And classes in new techniques, materials, tools, and processes can expand our artistic vocabulary and strengthen our repertoire of skills and abilities.

They can also water down our focus, our ability to develop and refine a FEW skills to perfection. All the squirrel-hair brushes and archival quality paper and lightfast paints in the world will not transform a mediocre painter into an accomplished artist.

In our eagerness to get on board the “next new thing”, we join the ranks of dilettantes–by definition, those who pursue an art as a pastime, especially sporadically or superficially.

I say “dilettante” as opposed to the original definition of “amateur”–one who pursues an art for the pure love of it, rather than a profession. It used to mean “someone who loved what they did and did it even while not accepting money for it.” Getting paid was not the end result–enjoyment was. (“Amateur” now means/implies someone who cannot/has not mastered or marshalled their skill enough to pursue their art as a profession. I hate that!)

There’s nothing wrong with being a dilettante OR an amateur. Not everyone even wants to be a “professional” artist. Just having the work of your heart in your life, even at a small level, is enough for many, many people.

But….if constant “playing around” is getting in the way of something else you want….If you want to be considered as more than a hobbyist, you must rise above your tools and techniques–and become a master of the medium itself.

It’s all about “the right shoes” for the RIGHT next step.