Last week my sister and I drove home to Michigan. A lot happened on the trip, mostly good stuff, and even the bad stuff ended well.
There was one sad thing that broke my heart.
We were zipping along the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way), the major highway that connects Niagara Falls (where we entered Canada) and Hamilton. It’s always frenetic, full of traffic, with one of those solid concrete barricades down the median. We were going 75 mph, five miles above the posted speed limit, and people passed us like we were standing still.
We were talking and laughing, and all of a sudden, we saw a mother duck and two baby ducks at the median, right next to the fast lane. (AKA “even faster lane”…)
It was heartbreaking. They were in a panic. There was absolutely no way we could stop. Even if we could, there was absolutely no way we could have rescued them without endangering ourselves, other travelers, even the ducks.
Our hearts sank as we flew past them.
We could have called “someone” about them. But who? I have no idea who to call in Canada about highway-stranded ducks. And I’m sure there are limited resources to deal with such things.
I’ve been thinking of them ever since, imagining their terror, and empathizing with their helplessness. I know I won’t forget that image of them easily. Why are there solid medians in expressways? Why aren’t there ways to prevent so many animals from being run over on highways?
From what I’ve read about animal brains, they were, indeed frantic and confused. But one of two things definitely happened.
They were probably killed within minutes of us seeing them.
Or they somehow made it back across the highway.
Either way, their agony is over.
Animals, it’s said, don’t dwell on the drama. If they made it safely across, then they immediately focused on the next task in front of them–getting to water, finding food, finding a place to rest for the night.
They didn’t carry that agony and that terror with them any longer than was necessary for their survival.
People, however, tend to fret, to “ruminate” over things that upset us, sometimes endlessly. I know I do! I go over and over the event. I hold my tongue for fear of saying something awful, then regret not speaking up. I make up stories about the people who hurt me, sometimes demonizing their intentions to justify my own indignation and anger.
I’m tired of it.
I know good things can come out of sad experiences. I know this incident helped me connect strongly to an article in our town newspaper, of a local project–high school kids taking record of how many animals are killed on local highways, and thinking up ways to cut down on the daily slaughter. And I know that animals die every day in the wild, if not from a racing car, then from predators and other natural causes.
I’m just saying that I’ve fretted far longer from that image in my heart than the ducks did.
This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to have a compassionate heart.
But I also realize that I should either do something about it or put it in perspective and let it go. Endless remorse serves no one, and nothing.
And so today, I’m telling you–and myself–a different story:
Even an “ordinary” duck and her babies crossing the road have a story to tell.
And I can learn from it.
What with the big show I do in August (9 days, people–please remember that when I’m slow with your special orders!), and getting my daughter off to graduate school (first time she’s been too far away to visit) and then vacation (I did nothing for six whole days), I fear I’ve sadly neglected my blog.
I felt it, too. The guilt. Heck, I didn’t even do my morning pages. Didn’t keep up on Facebook, either.
This morning, I had an extra fifteen minutes, and pondered what to do with it. Check my email? Sure!
But then I realized I miss writing. I may drag my feet about it, but it’s like fun exercise–I always feel better after I do it.
So rather than waste time looking for my current journal, I simply started another one. (Because of this coping strategy, I often have three or four journals kicking around at any given point in time.)
And of course, I started off pissing and moaning about what an awful person I was for not writing for the past five weeks.
And then I stopped. I looked at what I’d written:
I haven’t written in…months.
And then I wrote:
I’d made a choice, every day. Write….or go to the beach. Write….or go out to breakfast with my husband. Write…or sleep in. Write…or pick up Meg and go ride horses.
I did not choose to write, every day, for five weeks. That’s all.
Do I regret any of those choices? Not a bit.
Eventually, I miss writing. I restructure my day to allow time to do it. Or I suddenly have something to say, and drop everything to get it down before I forget. (Dear readers, you have no idea how much wisdom I’ve had that has simply blown away in the wind of my busy-ness like so much lint.)
What helped me get here today was this post on time management (NOT) by Danielle LaPorte, whose blog WHITE HOT TRUTH is one of my favorite reads. I’d long given up trying to be super-productive–lost my mojo a few years ago–but I hadn’t given myself permission to not feel guilty about it. When I read her post, I laughed out loud in relief.
Most of our choices are simply that….choices. Yes, there are good choices and bad choices. But it’s not always so clear which are which.
Work in the studio, or blow it off to have lunch with a friend? If you are honoring your art, and fiercely protecting your creative time, then perhaps the former is the right choice for you today. And maybe that friend is annoying, and always leaves you feeling vaguely unsettled.
But perhaps something says you need to honor your friendship today. Maybe your friend needs some love and support. Maybe it’s you who needs the love and support. (And hey, maybe, like me, you’re the annoying friend.)
Different times, different goals, different stages of life call for different choices. The sooner we allow ourselves to simply be who we are, today, the happier we can be.
So instead of a to-do list today, I simply set some priorities. I had three pages of writing with a great idea for an article. Done. I thought of all the ‘have-to’s’ I have to today, and picked the one that keeps coming back–the new design that’s just right for a store that’s waiting on some new work from me. There’s a friend who’s special order just keeps popping into my mind. I’ll work on her piece today. And I’ll make the phone call to another friend whose need is greatest, and make time for her.
But the first thing I did this morning, after my morning pages, was my favorite.
I went riding.
The first frost of the season killed off most of the annoying bugs. The sun was brilliant, but the morning was cool, perfect riding weather. I had unexpected (and welcome) company on my ride. My muscles are sore–I’m finally healing after a back injury last fall, and foot surgery this spring–and it feels good to be sore from riding. From doing something I love.
My blessing for you today:
May you choose for yourself today, the thing that will make you the happiest.
And may you have many opportunities to do so.
N.B. In the interest of full disclosure, I did write my column for The Crafts Report. And I did my columns for the Fine Art Views newsletter. And I wrote several times to my son, who moved out two months ago (to a house two blocks from here.) And I kept up on some crucial emails.
So, yeah, I wrote. But isn’t the point of this column still a good one?
This article originally published on Sunday, March 30, 2003
The advice still applies.
Let’s NOT do what we ought, but what we want
A cry for help appeared on a list serve I subscribe to. An artist gave up painting for years. She’s now determined to take it up again. Unfortunately, all her paints are so hardened in their tubes, they are almost unusable. Can anyone tell her how to salvage them??
I’m not sure how welcome my advice would be, but it’s clear to me the universe is sending a message here, loud and clear.
BUY NEW PAINTS.
What a huge obstacle she has overcome! The urge to paint again is wonderful, and I wholeheartedly tell this artist to go for it.
But the artist is already stuck again. “I can’t paint until I fix my paints.”
Where have we heard that before?
Well, I used to hear it every day. And sometimes, when I’m down or overwhelmed with the simple problems, I still hear it:
“I should do the laundry first.” “I really need to run a few errands first.” “I’ve got to get this mailing out this week–I’ll work on some new art ideas later.”
Sometimes it feels like my passion for my art, the work of my heart, is the last thing I take care of.
To that renewed artist, I’d say….
Maybe those paints are ruined for a reason.
Maybe the universe is sending a message here. You can paint again, it says, but maybe it’s time to really start anew.
Here’s a powerful thought: Maybe you don’t have to do penance by fixing those tired, dried-up old paints.
Maybe the message is, “Go out and buy wonderful new paint. Buy some of your favorite old colors, but try something different, too.”
Maybe it’s time start fresh with new ideas, new inspiration, maybe an entirely new direction.
Maybe it’s time to play with colors again, to regain the same sense of wonder and excitement when you first began to paint. And then to move ahead in a different way. Forge a new path.
But to do this, you need to get rid of everything that held you back the last time.
You have found your inspiration to paint again, and you’re determined to really set aside the time and energy it deserves. And that means not wasting time and energy working to revive dead paint.
What a lesson for me today! I’ve been sitting in the middle of an overwhelmingly messy studio, bemoaning the fact that I “should” clean up before I get back to work. Then I get the note about dried up paint. Sometimes what is easy to see in others is what I need to see in myself.
Maybe it’s really okay to just jump right into making something today, messy space notwithstanding. Maybe it’s okay to do a little cleaning up after I have fun.
Hmmmmm… Okay, I’m putting away the dishcloth now!
(For the sake of clarity, I republished this article a day after “WAITING FOR THE COOL: That Copying Thing Again”. I didn’t move it very well, and I may have lost some comments. I apologize, they were GREAT!!)
A Response to Kerrie Venner’s article, “Copying vs. Stealing”
I just discovered an article on the International Polymer Clay Association’s website, written by Kerrie Venner, IPCA Vice President for Education and Outreach. Kerrie’s article is here.
The article talked about my artwork and a blog article I wrote about my work being copied. Kerrie refers to me as an example of an artist who has published directions for making my artwork who then gets “antsy” when people copy it. She states that she doesn’t understand what’s wrong with coveting my little totem animals, then making her own versions for her own use, and even to sell, since her customers probably aren’t familiar with my work anyway.
At first I was delighted to read Kerrie’s wonderful comments about my blog and my artwork. But that delight quickly turned to dismay.
Her article is an interesting take on a very complex and emotional issue.
Just to correct a few errors:
1. Kerrie’s article simply linked to the home page of my blog. My article Kerrie that refers to in her article is WHAT IS THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL? and the correct url is https://luannudell.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/what-is-the-story-only-you-can-tell/ I discuss why someone who copies another artist’s work is actually short-changing their own creative journey.
2. Contrary to Kerrie’s assertions, I’ve actually only published directions featuring my faux ivory technique (a modification of the technique originally developed by Victoria Hughes.) I provided directions for very simple beads, buttons and bones. Photographs of my animal artifacts and jewelry were for illustration and inspiration only.
3. I have never published projects or taught how to make my artifacts and animal totems, for the very reasons Kerrie mentions in support of her viewpoint: It might imply permission for others to copy my work.
I could address each of Kerrie’s statements and questions separately, and will do so in a future blog article. But here’s the short story:
I’ve done the hard work creating this body of work. I spent years perfecting my craft. Inspired by imagery available to everyone, it is nonetheless a highly original and individual interpretation and presentation. As Kerrie points out, it has a powerful, personal narrative, describing my journey from a place of pain (at not practicing my art), to a place of healing (embracing my unique vision, and sharing with others how that happened.)
I’ve done the hard work to get my work out there. And I’ve spent a lot of money doing that. I’ve paid thousands of dollars to do the high-end shows to sell it. I go to great lengths to find galleries to carry it. I’ve spent thousands of hours marketing, writing, speaking, entering exhibits and juried shows, and submitting work for publication to support and grow my reputation. I’ve paid thousands of dollars to have my work professionally photographed, to construct a booth and create beautiful displays for it.
I’ve spent years developing a loyal following of customers, collectors and supporters. I am deeply moved by the role my art has played in their lives. I love the stories they share with me on how much my work has meant to them, how much it has inspired them, how it has healed them.
I’ve earned my stars and paid my dues. My work-and my prices–reflect that.
We artists may make our art for love or money, or both. But it’s hard to make art without some kind of support from our community, be it emotional, spiritual, or financial.
Kerrie says she admires and desires my artwork. I am truly grateful for that. There are many ways a true supporter can help me get my art out into the world:
1) Tell me how much it means to you, and respect the unique place in my heart it comes from. Tell your friends, too, and point them to my blog, my website or my store.
2) Spread the word about my work by writing great reviews and articles.
3) Buy it for yourself, or for a special gift.
4) If you really can’t afford my work (prices start at $42, and I have a great layaway plan), encourage potential collectors to buy it instead. Or ask friends and family to buy it for you. Christmas is coming!
5) Ask your favorite gallery or museum store to carry my work. Or suggest they include me in an invitational show. Or even a solo show
Actually, the list is endless: Invite me to speak to your local or regional art guild. Ask your public library to purchase the books that feature my work. Hire me for a private consult on your artist statement. Alert me to publishing opportunities. Etc., etc., etc.
Unfortunately, copying my work doesn’t support me.
Copying my work, then selling it as your original work, deprives me of potential customers who might buy my work. This does not support me.
Telling others I am wrong to care about my work being copied does not support me.
In fact, someone copying my artwork short-circuits everything I’m trying to achieve. That is where the pain and the resentment comes from. And that is what I have to get over, and get through, every time it happens.
In the end, although my work is copyrighted, it’s almost impossible for me to protect those rights. I don’t have the deep pockets of Disney, and I don’t have the time or emotional energy to spare. I have to save that energy and focus for my art.
Some amount of copying has its place in the learning process. That’s why a teacher provides a project for a class.
But a body of work based solely on some “variation” of someone else’s work is not the work of your own heart, your own unique vision.
Kerrie’s article was written without my knowledge and did not link to what I actually said. I cannot adequately convey how disheartening it is to see these views-justifying the right to copying my work simply because I have made it visible in the world–expressed by someone who is Vice President of the International Polymer Clay Association’s Education and Outreach Committee.
Kerrie is entitled to her viewpoint, and I appreciate the opportunity to present mine. As she and I both said, this is a complex issue, involving human nature, the creative process and ethics.
Whether or not Kerrie’s reflects the views of the IPCA organization, it was published on their site and incorrectly referred to me as an example of a disgruntled artist who sets herself up for being copied by offering her artwork as projects and classes. Since I’m not one of “those artists”–who are also entitled to their own opinions about others copying their work–and especially because I have consciously chosen not to…that allegation was neither true nor fair.
I’m thrilled Kerrie loves my work. I hope someday she decides my artwork is worthy of collecting for herself. I would be truly honored.
And…I would feel truly supported.
2 P.S.’s (What the heck is the plural of “P.S.”???)
It’s been brought to my attention that Kerrie didn’t mean she would actually copy my work–she was speaking aloud the thought process that many have expressed. So in a sense, she was speaking as “Everyman/Everywoman”. And she never intended these remarks to represent her, or the IPCA’s actual point-of-view.
Again, I’m glad she voiced these thoughts so we can talk about it.
And please, please don’t bash Kerrie! :^)
P.S. For the latest take on this, see WAITING FOR THE COOL: That Copying Thing Again
IMPORTANT! On 9/2/2010, an anonymous poster on a local website published derogatory, insulting and personal comments under a pseudonym. They then linked their pseudonym-signature to this article.
It would be easy for a casual reader to assume I wrote those comments.
I did not write those comments, and I do not know who did.
I am extremely upset that someone, to hide their own ugly act, then impugned and sullied my professional integrity and reputation.
Regular readers will know I have never, ever written anything as hurtful and unkind as that unknown poster did.
You may see my thoughts on this incident here.
We now return to Luann’s regularly scheduled post for today…..
What is it you really want in your life?
A local lawyer was in the news recently, for allegedly shortchanging the interests of his client in order to line his own pockets.
Soon after the story broke, we walked by his office, a building that sits prominently on our Central Square in downtown Keene.
We saw the strangest sign on the building. It read something like this:
$$ John Doe Law $$
We’ve walked by that sign several times a day for years now, and never noticed the dollar signs used as brackets til then.
Obviously, money was very, very important to this man–and/or his clients.
We all get caught up in money. I do. You do. Can’t live without it, right?
What is it about money that we want it so badly? That we call for it so passionately, so persistently?
And is money what we really want?
What we really want is what money represents. Security–knowing we’re prepared if something goes horribly wrong. A roof over our head, preferably one that doesn’t leak. Food on the table. Maybe really, really nice food on the table. Travel. Adventure. Education.
But if these tangibles and intangibles are the things we really want, why do we focus so completely on the money?
What am I calling for in my life?
What happens if I call for money, call for it more powerfully than for anything else??
I know money is a means to an end. In the case of this lawyer, however, it may be that the pursuit of money, over the best interests of his client, became the end. The end of his career. The end of his reputation in this community. And probably the end of a whole lot more.
What I’m thinking about today is not how evil money is. It’s not. But I’m thinking about what money represents to me.
I’m wondering if some of those things, maybe I already have ’em.
And thinking maybe there are other ways to get the ones I don’t.
What do you intend to call for in your life?
P.S. A dear friend in the biz once wrote me to say, “You’re one of the few craftspeople I know who evaluates their success in many other ways besides money. I like that.” I still treasure that remark.
P.P.S. Just in case you’re thinking I’m trying to get nominated for sainthood here (ho ho!….NOT!), let me say I’m expecting a visit this afternoon from an African bead trader.
And I never say no to African trade beads.
A reader left a comment yesterday on my LESSONS FROM HOSPICE Part Deux essay. Only sixteen hours of the last year could be devoted to art due to family circumstances.
Now if sixteen hours is all you got, that’s a lot.
Here’s another thing to consider….
Months ago, I read an essay (and I apologize from the bottom of my heart that I cannot remember where I read it) on writing.
The author was working on a book project. At first, they tried to write whenever they had a good chunk of time. Over the course of a year, that came to a handful of days and half-days, and something like 10,000 words. Sounds impressive.
The next six months, they resolved to write for twenty minutes a day, no matter what.
In three months, they wrote 50,000 words.
That stopped me in my tracks.
Yes, some projects take a depth of concentration, a certain amount of time.
But others don’t.
So two possibilities are open to you:
Work in smaller time chunks.
Work on projects that don’t demand that total immersion. This is the time to work on sketches, samples, smaller works or simpler pieces.
I thought I didn’t have enough time to write and post this today. And for sure I don’t have time to do a deep editing.
But I started anyway, and this is how far I got in ten minutes.
How did I do? 🙂
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.
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! :^)
Myth: Artists are not business people.
Reality: Successful artists have good business skills, or they marry*/partner with/hire people who do.
(This marriage tip courtesy of Wendy Rosen of The Rosen Group in Baltimore MD.)
A common myth about artists is that they are not good at the business end of making and selling art. The reality is, the better you are at the business skills necessary to promote and market your art, the better chance you have at being a successful artist.
I have a theory about artists and their lack of business skills. I think we tend to not like skills like math (balancing checkbooks, statistics, recording expenses). When it came to math, I liked story problems–if Bill and Jane decide to buy a house, and their options for borrowing money are a loan with an interest rate of 9.8% and no points, or a loan with an interest rate of 7.2% and 3 points, which is better? Because I liked to think, “Well, how much money does Bill make, and what if Jane has gone back to school to get a teaching certificate? And what if Bill gets a better job offer–is there a chance they might have to move in two years, and sell their house in a buyer’s market? Do they also like expensive cars, or do they shop at Salvation Army? Do they fight about how much to tip the waitress at a posh restaurant? Are these two even compatible enough to make a marriage work??” (You see the story potential here?)
Artists think they won’t need to take typing classes because they’re not going to be a secretary when they grow up. (We could not foresee the Internet and the importance of keyboard skills in 1968.) Talking about net profit and gross profit seemed, well, gross.
So we decided we would be artists. Famous artists. Successful artists! So successful that galleries would take care of all that bookkeeping stuff and marketing stuff for us. We would simply show up at the opening receptions in our cool black clothing, sip white wine and schmooze with our collectors.
That worked well enough for a fortunate few, for a few good decades. And then times changed. We grew up and realized we needed to pay mortgages, have health insurance, put kids through college. The artists who stuck it out had to learn how to sell, how to market, how to maintain positive cash flow.
And many of us found that these weren’t such awful skills to learn, and acquire, after all.
The same way artists are made, not born, business skills can be LEARNED and the incentive is huge. The more you understand the consequences of your business decisions, the better your decisions get.
Days of galleries “handling” all your business matters are gone, and as the Bernie Madoffs of the world should have taught us, good riddance. We’ve learned the hard way that galleries can go out of business (taking your art with them). We’ve learned that locking totally into wholesale strategies can also lock down your artistic aspirations, when galleries only want the work that sells. Even if we did embrace the business side of our art, strategies that worked beautifully in the 80’s and 90’s don’t work so well in the post 9/11 economy.
It’s always good to to know your bottom line. We need to know how to sell work, if only to understand why people buy it in the first place, and what they need to know in order to buy it. (More about that in Myth #5)
Marketing, promotion, sales, research and product development, teaching, writing–these are all business of art/craft skills that are good tools for a successful artist to keep in her toolbox.
Why was Picasso famous? Most people assume it’s because he was such a great artist. Well, yes, he was. But there were other artists of his time who were better at drawing. Other artists who were more skilled with color. Other artists who were better at all kinds of artistic things.
But Picasso was a master business person. Because he was a master at self-promotion and publicity, he was able to translate his name into the name everyone comes up with when asked to name an artist.
I read a story years ago about Picasso owing his tailor a large sum of money. He wrote the man a check. Then suggested the tailor not cash it because someday his (Picasso’s) signature would be worth more than the check was written for.
Not all of us will end up that famous (or with that much chutzpah. But learning appropriate business skills to get your art out into the world goes a long way to ensuring your efforts will come to fruition.
In fact, I’ve found I enjoy many of the business aspects of my art biz more than I thought. Because they are a labor of love. I choose, knowing the consequences, good and bad, of each informed decision. Gambling on formerly “sure thing” avenues is no longer part of my marketing strategy. I constantly forced to think hard about who my target audience is, and why they buy my art.
And I think I’m a better artist for it.
Let me share a story, one of the stories that got me thinking about these “artist myths”–myths like “Artists are born, not made” and “Only the best artists succeed.”
A few years after I finally started my own art journey, I was invited to do a series of artist presentations in a nearby school system. I was to visit three elementary schools in one day, sharing my artwork with students and telling them about the Ice Age cave art that inspired me.
I met the woman who set up the presentations, Nancy Brown, and she drove me from school to school. She was very pleasant, and we chatted animatedly between “sets” about family and life.
At the first school, I introduced myself at the main office but was met with blank stares. They’d never heard of me. But when I explained, the office person exclaimed, “Oh, you’re going to talk about CAVE ART. We were expecting an artist named ‘Kay Vart’!” She pointed to the chalk board behind her, and sure enough, “Thursday 10:00–Guest Artist Kay Vart” was carefully written there.
At the second school, we arrived a little early. “Oh, goody!” exclaimed Nancy, “We can play in the gym!”
Baffled, I followed her into the school cafeteria/gymnasium to a piano in the far corner. “This room has the most amazing acoustics!” Nancy said happily. She plopped herself on the piano stool, broke into a few chords on the keys, and began to sing.
To this day, I cannot describe that moment adequately.
Her voice was…..incredible. Astonishing. Powerful. Rich. Her voice filled the room with a moving variation on a Shawn Colvin piece.
I kid you not–a thrill ran down my spine.
I stood, entranced, as this perfectly ordinary little woman revealed a talent as big as the ocean. I will never forget it. It moved me to tears.
When she finished, I broke into applause. I told her she had an amazing voice.
“Actually, my voice is quite ordinary,” she said frankly. “I don’t have a natural ‘voice’. But I am passionate about singing, and I have studied and trained my voice to the nth degree.”
I was dumbfounded. Not being knowledgeable about things music, I had assumed only people born with a naturally beautiful voice could sing like that.
I had no concept of training an ordinary voice to be beautiful.
It was an epiphany.
I had seen–I had heard–the power that comes, not from natural talent, not from luck, but from dedication and determination. The power that comes from passion and training, and indomitable spirit.
I’ve lost track of Nancy. She moved in and out of professional music over the years and eventually left the area.
But I have never forgotten that beautiful moment, when time was suspended for a few precious moments. An empty school gymnasium, a grand old piano and passionate woman with a bold and beautiful voice.
An extraordinarily beautiful….a beautifully ordinary….voice.
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.
I discover I’m not lost–I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
Awhile back, I wrote about a coaching session I had with longtime friend and life coach Quinn McDonald, of http://www.QuinnCreative.com. (I’m leaving out the links because WordPress does not seem to want to process my html coding today.)
During that session, I mentioned my odd desire to sign up for hospice training. Quinn said she didn’t think it was at all odd. After we’d talked, she said I was asking myself, “what are the values that are calling to you to be fulfilled in your life?” They’ve changed since I first started my journey as an artist. No better place to search for them, she said, than to look at what happens at the end of life.
I told a few people about my decision.
Some people said, “Oh, you’d be great at hospice!” I loved their support and faith, but I cautioned them, “I’m not even sure why I’m doing this! But for sure it’s not because I necessarily think I’ll excel at it. I just feel I have to do this.”
Some people pooh-poohed it, or looked at me like I’d given in to the woo-woo thing.
Other people I knew I couldn’t tell.
And most of the time, I just knew I shouldn’t talk about it too much. Sometimes, talking about doing something takes all the energy out of it. Like your brain mistakes the “talking” for the actual “doing.
So I just needed to do it.
Today was my first training session.
It was powerful.
It was amazing.
I cried like a girl. (Well, I am a girl, so that’s okay.)
I haven’t even begun to process everything that happened. And maybe I shouldn’t, for awhile, anyway.
I will say this:
When I first felt the desire to pursue this, I had no idea why. It felt irrational, crazy and self-indulgent.
But now, there is no doubt in my mind anymore.
I KNOW that this….
…this is exactly where I need to be right now.
It is exactly the right place for me to be.
That feeling alone is enough to make my spirit soar for the first time in ages.
I don’t really know much more than that right now. I’m just telling you, so if you have any odd urges or yearnings right now, it might behoove you to check them out.
And yes, behoove is a word.
Martial arts teaches me that playing it safe means no playing at all.
When I decided to quit practicing Tae Kwon Do, it felt like the right decision. The safe decision.
I was keeping myself safe from more debilitating injuries, right? After all, I’d been in physical therapy to strengthen my knee for six weeks already, when I stumbled in class and twisted my knee again.
So I quit. For two months. I was terrified of being injured again. I thought I was making a good decision.
It was a physical therapist during my second round of pt who finally set my head straight. “Luann,” he scolded me. “Professional athletes in peak condition still get hurt. It’s just something that happened.”
He assured me that being active was the best strategy to staying ‘safe’. He pointed out that he gets just as many clients in for therapy who are total couch potatoes, who fall on their way to the kitchen for another bag of chips and injure themselves.
If doing something you love motivates you to work out every day, then do it.
In his mind, “playing it safe” meant continuing to do the strengthening exercises he’d given me, faithfully.
Somehow, I ‘got that’, and decided to return to class.
In fact, I decided to also return to kickboxing as a way to train better for tae kwon do.
I heard a lot of protests from friends and acquaintances. “Are you crazy?! You’ll get hurt again!” they exclaimed. “Don’t you think you should take it easy?” Some suggested swimming–it was much safer.
Play it safe.
But here’s the thing: If you live your life fully, you can’t play it safe.
I like swimming okay, but I don’t love it. I don’t love it enough to show up to do it three to five days a week.
I do love martial arts–tae kwon do, kickboxing, tai chi. And I doshow up to do them, at least five days a week.
I know now that a daily practice may occasionally result in injury. But it will also strengthen me, stretch me, and improve my balance. All things that will serve my body, and my spirit well as I approve my sixties, my seventies, my eighties and beyond.
I’ve been playing it safe in my art, too.
Not just in getting it out into the world, but in doing the work I love. I’ve been holding back, making less expensive work, worried about whether it will sell.
Telling myself to give up on certain dreams and desires. Too unlikely. Can’t see it. It will never happen.
Figuring if what worked the last ten years wasn’t working anymore, then nothing would work.
So give up. Keep my head down. Play it safe.
You know how well that’s worked (NOT!) because I’ve been writing about the pain.
Art needs a different kind of daily exercise.
Normally, that’s simply doing the work. Making art generates wanting to make more art.
But I’ve been ‘injured’ doing my art. So I tried a little “emotional physical therapy” suggested by Martha Beck in her latest book, Steering by Starlight.
I can’t picture my perfect life right now. Too big, too scary, too unlikely. So I’ve been practicing how I’ll feel when I’m living my perfect life.
I imagine feeling joy instead of fear. I imagine feeling anticipation instead of dread. I imagine the world wanting exactly what I’m making, instead of me trying to imagine what I could make that the world wants.
And it’s working.
I see a wall hanging that my brain tells me could never be purchased. It simply wouldn’t fit in anyone’s house I can imagine.
But I imagine feeling my heart leap with joy. And suddenly I saw that piece laid out on a worktable in sections, waiting for me to work on it.
I have an idea for a book I can’t imagine would be published. I can’t imagine how I would find a publisher. I can’t imagine an editor who would be so on board with what I want to write, that she would call me every few days to read what I have and exclaim in delight and encouragement, with excellent suggestions on how to make it even better.
But I imagine what that would feel like, to have an editor like that, working on a book like that. And I feel anticipation instead of dread.
I know I’ll never be young again, ‘thin enough’, good enough to do justice to my martial arts practice. It’s too hard to lose weight, too hard to practice daily.
But I imagine what it would feel like to be light on my feet, to be strong enough to throw a kick perfectly, easily–and my spirit soars.
I’ve been doing this a handful of days. And I cannot express to you how much lighter and happier I feel.
I’m starting to really feel like good things are ahead.
Pulling out of my ‘normal’ routine for the last few years helped clear the decks. Cleaning the studio helped, too (though I’m sorry to tell you, my friends, that you can’t tell I cleaned at all in here anymore.) Following my heart on hospice has cleared a space in my schedule this spring. My dear husband allowing me the space to simply get through this and see what happens, has helped enormously.
For the first time, I am not afraid to simply wait and see what’s next. (While moving ahead all the same.)
And to prove that playing it safe does not necessarily keep you safe….
I did badly twist my knee again yesterday.
But it wasn’t in kickboxing, it wasn’t in tae kwon do. It wasn’t climbing a wall. It wasn’t while I was snowshoeing, yoga-cizing or riding.
I slipped on the ice while chasing a chicken out of my garage.
And when it happened, I laughed at the absurdity of it all.
p.s. I’m okay. Sore–but okay.
CHANGE is not just for “other people”–you can do it, too.
There was an incredible program on BBC years ago called “Faking It’. Actually, it looks like it’s still around.
A person from one walk of life would be dropped into another, for a month. A male ballet dancer trained to be a professional wrestler. An upper class class college student became a bouncer at a bar in a rough section of London. An exotic dancer learned how to ride horses hunt class. A shy Indian woman became a newscaster.
For four weeks, they were immersed in a new culture, with new expectations, often the antithesis of what they knew. The student, who was gay, found himself training with coaches who hated homosexuals. I still remember the scene where one trainer’s girlfriend boxed with him–and beat the pants off him. The dancer, terrified of injuries that could derail his career, was tossed and pitched across the ring in complicated take-downs.
The show was intensely watchable. You felt for the newest candidate, totally submersed in a new culture, terrified and overwhelmed. Tempers flew as coaches demanded top performances, and many tears were shed.
But amid the tears and frustration and fear, something marvelous happened.
They all transformed themselves. Each and every one.
And came out better for it.
The shy woman, who’d never even raised her hand in school, learned how to face a camera and report the news with confidence. The gay student not only found new courage, he also transformed the people around him. They marveled at his hard work and endearing personality, became his supporters, and learned to accept his homosexuality. The exotic dancer found her athleticism and excellent balance served her well as a rider. The classical ballet dancer learned inner strength he never knew he had. .
They all learned what they were really capable of. They all developed a healthy sense of self-confidence.
The final test at the end of each show was, could they “pass” as their new personae in front of three judges. And they all won, or nearly so.
Later, the crew revisited these “students of life”, to see how permanent the experience had been.
All had changed their lives.
The dancer performed his ballet with new spirit and enthusiasm. The exotic dancer returned to her world, but with new goals. Now her money was going to put her through college, and she made time to ride regularly. She dreams of owning her own horse some day.
They were either better at what they did, or they were doing something else, something they’d never dreamed of if they hadn’t learned to believe in themselves.
I constantly hear from people asking for advice or insight about their own art careers. At some point, the person always says, “I just can’t…..(fill in the blank)”
“I just can’t sell my own work. I’m no good at it.”
“I just can’t write my own artist statement. Do you have a template I could use?”
“I just can’t do shows/make cold calls to stores/figure out what my market is….”
Yes, you can.
When someone says, “I don’t know how to do that!” or “I’m no good at that!”, I always say, “Well, we’re not born knowing how to play the piano.”
It takes practice.
It takes perseverance.
It takes courage.
And sometimes, we have to fake it til we make it.
If a young gay man can learn to walk through a homophobic culture with pride and real peace in his heart, if a young stripper can find a way to keep horses in her life forever while she earns money to go to college (the first to do so in her family), if a shy woman can learn to stand up and speak with the power of her true self, if a chubby woman whose only “sport” is walking can learn to climb a rock wall and practice Tae Kwon Do, and take up her art at age 40 with two young children…
Then you can learn how to sell your work. You can learn how to market it. You can learn how to write about it. You can learn how to find the watch spring in your soul that makes you tick, that makes you create the wonderful work you make, that makes you sing the way you do, that makes you, well…you.
Yes, you can.
When that “jack-of-all-trades, master at none” becomes all too true, maybe it’s time to give “master of ONE” a try.
When I left Tae Kwon Do a few months ago, after yet another injury, the head instructor asked if I were leaving because my green belt test was coming up. Was I a person who quit when I was challenged too hard?
I was hugely indignant, but I admitted the thought had occurred to me.
Was I a quitter?
I’ve done a lot of thinking about what he said, coupled with reading an interesting article, “Mastery Plan” by Kelly Corrigan in the January 2009 issue of Oprah Magazine.
Corrigan reinvented herself in several disciplines–photography, journalist, author, playwright. She was the ultimate student, reveling in steep learning curves that produced spectacular results. Where learning a new discipline causes most students drop out at level one or two, she made it easily to level six or seven.
But never to levels eight, nine or ten.
She wonders if all the excitement of the reinventions, the ‘look at me, I’m good at this!’ moments, learning in leaps and bounds, avoiding the point where learning comes in tiny increments “… just might be a distraction from (her) greatest fear…”
Fear of failure.
She talks about the people who work more slowly, but create something of that lasts, something with true elegance, something of value. She wants that, too. But she’s not sure she can.
I wonder if part of my conflict with my art is fear, too–the fear I’ve already done my best work?
It feels too hard…
…Maybe it’s supposed to?
Thinking it might be time to move on to something else…
…So I can avoid the hard work that’s called for now?
It reminds me of being a parent. How hard it is, but exhilarating, especially when your kids are young. You’re exhausted, but you’re also rewarded every day with some new discovery, some new milestone they achieve.
Til they hit the teen years, and everything slows down. And gets really, really hard.
You learn to let go of expectations, and big successes. Your rewards are tinier–“She said thank you!” “He did the dishes the first time I asked!
But you also dig in–because as hard as it is to parent teens, as thankless as the job is, they actually need you more than ever.
You can’t stop being a parent just because it gets really, really hard. We may never know if we were a ‘great’ parent–but our best efforts will be ‘good enough'”. And it’s certainly worth our while to do our best.
Corrigan ends the decision to write a second book, determined to keep working at it til it truly reflects an indomitable spirit.
Which is, oddly, an attribute of black belt. Indomitable spirit.
Last night I talked with my Tae Kwon Do teachers about returning to practice.
It means much more work on my part. My teacher says he believes I’m capable of so much more than I believe I am. He says attitude is everything. I’m doubting myself, and the only person who can turn that around is….me.
Maybe he’s right.
I’m going to find out if I can turn this around. I want to find out.
Last night, I also decided to keep making my fiber art and jewelry. It feels right. For the first time in ages, I heard no negative voices in the wee hours of the night.
I’m not abandoning my new journey. Maybe the hospice will open up something else, and I look forward to exploring that. Something’s calling me there, and I want to find out what it is.
But just as I can study Tae Kwon Do and be a parent, I can explore this new venture and make my art. The art may change, it may not change. But maybe it will simply get even better.
Being a parent is teaching me, and Ms. Corrigan, how to be a more deeply creative person. How to create something of value that will really last, as an artist and a martial artist.
Change is always hard, but learning to recognize when it’s TIME to change, gets easier.
In my last two posts, I described two big fears in my life. The first was knowing a change was coming. The second is not knowing what it is.
The third is being afraid I’ll get stuck in the new change.
Now, if this isn’t anticipating trouble, what is? Right?
But I’ve seen many people leave the art and craft biz, trying to take their experiences to draft a new career for themselves. There are drawbacks to leaving that source of knowledge and passion.
Some did it beautifully, and have given much back to the community. Others had “steam” for awhile. But eventually, driven again by the need for fame or fortune, or fear of changing what works, their contributions become stale and rote. Like a burned-out teacher two years from retirement with two kids in college, they slog away, feeling they are simply in too deep to quit. They grind on for “just a few more years.” And making life miserable for others around them. (I don’t mean to pick on teachers, it’s just something I witnessed once that wasn’t pretty, and it stuck.)
I dreaded ending up in the same boat.
But once I recognized this for what it is–anticipated fear of failure–it was easier to put it back in the box.
First, I have no idea that’s where I’ll go next. Being afraid of something that might happen from a new career direction I might head in seems awfully silly.
Second, I realized it just won’t happen. If I’m paying such close attention to my changing desires now, I always will. That’s who I am. I will always be questioning, and rigorously testing my motivation.
Several readers mentioned this in their comments to my last few posts. It’s a journey, with more than one destination. More than a few travel plans will change. We never get to one single place and then plop there for the rest of our lives. “Got mine, get in line,” is no longer a justifiable or sustainable model for the self-aware. Change is always just around the corner.
Which reminds me of something a friend told me years ago. It was at a dark time in my life, just before I realized I was being called to be an artist. I was so fearful of everything in my life, and especially for my child. The world seemed to dark and full of evil. I said I couldn’t figure out how to protect her and keep her safe.
“You can’t!” exclaimed my friend. “That’s not our job. Our job is to teach them to be themselves, and to believe in themselves, so they can handle anything life throws at them. I want to teach my children to dance on the edge of the universe!’
Her words sent shivers down my spine. Here was a fearless mother who knew a good way to truly protect her children–teach them to adapt gracefully and beautifully to the inevitable challenges that come their way in a fully-lived life. She showed me how to drive that debilitating fear right out of my heart, and put love and faith and courage in its place.
So who do I want to be? An anxious whiny person, determined not to risk what I have in order to move forward?
Or do I want to dance on the edge of the universe?
ps. Years later, my friend had more difficult pregnancies, resulting in children with debilitating special needs. Emotionally exhausted, financially overwhelmed, the family made the decision to move across county to be closer to family and old friends for support. The night before she left, I took her some gifts, told her how much her friendship had meant to me.
“You led me out of a very dark place, and I will always be grateful”, I told her. I repeated her words back to her.
“I said that??” She couldn’t remember ever being that fearless and sure.
It was then I realized the real reason she’d told me those words was so I could repeat them back to her when she needed them most.
They had been held in trust for her.
When I first met the man who became my husband, he had a very odd friend in tow.
The friend was Will Shipee, a homeless man who lived on the streets of Ann Arbor Michigan in the late 70’s. He was a small man, lean and tan, energetic yet quiet, with sparkling blue eyes.
He was the first guy I knew who wore earrings. They gave him a friendly pirate look.
He was an incredibly spiritual person and spoke of God’s presence in his life often. He was a vegetarian. He didn’t drink or smoke. (Well. He smoked something, but it was a $5 fine in those days.)
He was intelligent and articulate. He was peaceful, graceful, self-sufficient, wise. He’d walked away from many things in his former life–a high-paying corporate job, a marriage, a mistress, expensive cars–to live and pray in India. He returned to live in the streets of America, determined to live a holy life, free from the chains of money and ambition.
I was a little nervous around him at first. But he never asked for money or took advantage. He was there if we needed odd jobs done, asking only for food in exchange.
He sometimes moved among more dangerous people, which made me uneasy. But he kept them separate, always careful to make sure they never encroached very far into our lives.
He had a way of dealing with everyone that was quiet, peace-making, grounded. Everyone respected him. No one harmed him.
My (future) husband and I spent many, many hours talking, listening, laughing, eating with Will. (He was always hungry!)
Will was an artist, a woodcarver. He would work on a wood carving for a year, usually for a specific patron, and sell it when it was finished for a nice price. He lived very simply and frugally, but he needed the occasional chunk of money so he could get to a warm place for winter.
His carving project during that magical summer was a mermaid. A praying mermaid.
We have pictures of her, but I can clearly see her even now. About 20″ tall, carved out of a solid chunk of mahogany. Upright, with her tail curled and curved up behind her, each scale carefully and skillfully incised. Her face as serene as a Botticelli Venus, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. And her hands folded gently but fervently in prayer.
He carried her wrapped in a blanket, with his carving tools, in a sling on his back. He took her everywhere.
And people were drawn to her.
We all wanted to hold her. To look at her. When she was brought forth, our hands all reached for her, to touch the silky smoothness of her face, to feel the intricately carved hair and scales. For the first time, I understood the power and mystery of an icon.
Will didn’t brag, but you could tell he was gratified by our response. He wanted to show that even the mythical beings who supposedly had no soul, could feel and celebrate the presence of God.
Pretty heady stuff for a young woman who was in love, and who’d just left her own corporate job to shovel horse manure in a riding stable.
He had a buyer for her, a guy in Texas who would pay him a huge sum of money for her–several thousand dollars. It would be enough to find a house and feed himself for the winter.
I thought the person who owned her would be blessed. I envied him as I yearned for her myself. I could imagine her in my life forever.
Will left at the end of the summer, dreaming of a winter in warmer climes.
But the deal fell through, and Will returned.
And he kept carrying the mermaid.
He looked in vain for other buyers. And he kept working away at her, unable to stop. Til finally, he carved away at her eyes, and “opened” them.
She no longer seemed innocent and dreaming. Now she looked lascivious
He offered her to me for $300. I didn’t have it. But I wasn’t sure I even yearned for her anymore.
I wondered what it meant.
His art carried too long, went from “finished” to overworked. And in the process, changed into something….less? Certainly different.
His art became all about the money as he desperately kept working to make her what he thought a buyer would want.
I think he finally gave her away to someone for a pittance of his original price. Perhaps just enough to buy him a bus ticket out of town.
His carefree life was more grounded in his art than he realized. And when he left that connected space, even though it was for a good reason, he always seemed a little more lost and uprooted to me. I think he felt that way, too, for he disappeared soon after that.
We never saw him again.
Will taught us many things that year, beautiful things.
I often think of him. I hope he is safe, and well, and loved.
I wonder what happened to the mermaid.
I wonder where she is now. I wonder if the person who owns her has any idea what her origins were, or what she meant so so many people that summer in Ann Arbor, so many years ago?
And as my thoughts turn over in my mind–What’s next for me and my art? Where do I go from here?–I can’t help wondering…
What do we open ourselves to, when money is the only coin of the realm? What do we gain? What is lost?
Is it the smart thing to do? Is it right, or wrong?
Is it worth it?
Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes. Who can say?
Unusual thoughts on this cold, cold day in New England, so far away in distance and time from that heady summer days of new love and wonder.
p.s. As I reread this, I hasten to add that I don’t criticize my friend’s desire to have enough money to eat, and travel and stay warm. But something changed when the deal fell through, something that was painful to watch. Something made visible even in the change of the mermaid’s expression.
And that’s what I’m trying to figure out.
Two weeks ago, a switch got flipped in me.
I realized I’d become a couch potato again. (Another injury side-lined me in martial arts.) I went on a healthier eating plan and ramped up my exercise regime (which had dwindled away to “not much” the last few months.)
I knew this before then. But I decided to really do something about it.
I’ve been wondering why it took so long to simply start eating better. We all the know the benefits of working out and eating more veggies. Why do we put it off?
Because it just seems like a huge commitment. We’ve all known people who are relationship/commitment phobic. Well, I am diet-and-exercise/commitment phobic.
For me, the diet road is a long, dusty, boring highway. It seems to stretch on forever, with no fun food in sight. Saying no to a burger when you eat out. Choosing fruit instead of peanut butter fudge for a snack. Foregoing General Tsao’s chicken for hot-and-sour soup and some steamed rice.
Choosing that road seems like a very big deal. Not a very enjoyable one at that. One that will last a long, long time. (No more Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Chunk Fudge ice cream? Forever??)
And regular exercise is the same. Choosing years and years of swimming, walking, Pilates, lunges, weights. All that time to switch into workout clothes (instead of getting dressed once for the day and staying there.) All that time to walk somewhere (instead of just jumping in the car and driving in five minutes. And ending up running one errand instead of six.) Washing and drying my hair after a workout or a swim (which takes forever once your hair gets beyond a certain length.) Getting sick after snowshoeing because it’s so damn cold in January, in New Hampshire, for any exertion that makes you breathe deep and hard.
Did I mention I’m allergic to chlorine, too?
Making a commitment to actually start that journey just seems like too much. It’s much, much easier to say, “I’ll start tomorrow.” Or next week. Or after New Year’s.
Which never really happens.
I keep seeing that bumper sticker, “One Day at a Time”. Well, I get that, but it still didn’t help much. Seems like one very long hungry/achey/sweaty/coughing/itchy day after day after day….
Til I had a revelation this week.
Time is like a river.
Not an original idea, I realize. But the usual metaphor is we cross time like a river. And it’s never the same river twice, since “different” water is flowing each time we cross.
Nice image, but not helpful for starting that new practice.
But what if we are standing in the river?
And time itself is moving all around us. Constantly flowing toward us, and around us, and past us, as we stand.
There is only the power, the energy, the beauty, the potential, the miracle of a brand new day coming to us.
We don’t move through it. We inhabit it. It flows to us.
And all we have to do is deal with the water that engulfs us this day.
Then there is no long highway to walk. No exhausting effort to make day after day. Only choices. Plucking a different option out of a stream of possibilities.
I don’t know if this is making sense or not. I know it baffled my husband when I tried to tell him about it. “Sounds like that movie Ground Hog’s Day“, he said.
To quote a Wikipedia entry, “The main character (played by Bill Murray) is forced to relive the day over and over again until he can learn to give up his selfishness and become a better person. In popular culture, the phrase “Groundhog Day” has come to represent going through a phenomenon over and over until one spiritually transcends it.”
“No, it’s not like that!” I protested. “It’s not punitive. It’s not repetitive. It’s…opportunity. A new beginning, every single day. Tomorrow doesn’t exist. Yesterday is gone.”
It’s like we don’t have to go to it. It comes to us. Very hard to explain….
But suddenly, the choices I make today seem a little easier.
ps. This Wiki entry has a list of the ground hog’s prediction results for the ten years. And a good explanation for why spring always comes six weeks after Ground Hog’s Day, whether it’s sunny or not. (I’m feeling very smart because my husband didn’t know this.)
pps. Is this too Zen today? If so, just go eat a salad and worry about it tomorrow.
ppps. I just swam for an hour.
There’s a great article on the front page of our local newspaper, the Keene Sentinel, written by staff writer Phillip Bantz.
Our big news in New Hampshire (after the devastating ice storm) is the conviction of Michael Addison, a young African American, for killing a white police officer. He is the first person in our state to be given the death penalty in 50 years.
There has been much debate over the morality and efficacy of the death penalty in New Hampshire.
In addition, Addison’s character and motive have been heavily expounded upon the last few months, too. There was evidence he’d bragged about his intentions to “kill a cop” someday. The prosecution resisted any defense of his horrible environment, noting that countless people come from horrible environments, yet they don’t choose to kill. Which is true.
It is not our finest moment, in so many ways.
This article is different. It tells a story about silent evidence.
Here’s a good definition of silent evidence. Usually, silent evidence refers to a happy story of success or survival, that overlooks the stories of those who didn’t succeed or didn’t survive.
This article is about the happier story that could have been….
Eight years ago, someone did imagine a different story for Michael Addison.
Eight years ago, Addison walked into a teen counseling center: Compassionate Connections, in Manchester, NH. Steve Bernstein, a counselor there, saw a troubled youth with a drive to change his life. He saw a young man with hope and optimism.
A young man who was trying to choose differently.
Addison came to the center regularly, of his own free will for well over a year–unusual in and of itself. He became friends with Bernstein. He got his driver’s license. He pursued a GED. He sought counseling. He talked about learning a trade.
He wanted something different. He acted on that. And he showed up, consistently, choosing differently every day, for over a year.
So what happened? How did he end up a handful of years later, murdering a cop in cold blood?
Why did he walk away from everything that was working for him, and choose this?
A few sentences say it all. Bantz writes,
“Addison never left the center. The center left him. After working with Addison for about a year and a half, Bernstein said the grant money that was the lifeblood of his center dried up, and he was forced to close it’s doors.
The next time he saw his friend’s face, it was on the news….”
It’s a weird, inversed modern version of what-could-have-been from Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Maybe it’s facile to say things could have turned out differently.
But…they could have. A little more money, for a little more time, and there may have been a different story. Maybe no story….
There would have been no murder, no police officer shot in the line of duty, no devastated family left behind, no grieving community. No flurry of news stories and headlines and debate about the dark soul of a heartless monster who killed for no reason. No death penalty debate.
Just a non-story, just another electrician in Manchester, plying his trade, maybe supporting his own young family. Maybe giving back to his community, reaching out to help other youths, as others had reached out to help him, once upon a time.
Just another link in a chain of hope, and compassion, and choice. A chain now broken.
As artists, we create such chains, too.
We choose creativity. We choose passion for making beautiful things. We choose to add to the good in the world.
Yet we cannot see how our actions manifest themselves in the world. We cannot see what good they do, or what is left undone. We may never know what comes of our decision. We may never even see success, or affirmation.
It seems like a small thing, sitting here today–I cannot see the chain I create by putting something beautiful out into the world, the chain I create by making something, whether it’s evocative art, or beautiful jewelry, or a story I tell about my process. I cannot see it.
I cannot see what would happen if I stopped, either.
I believe in silent evidence. I choose to believe. That somehow, the world is perhaps, at least, a slightly better place because of what I put out there.
This story today in our local paper, about what could have been different for this killer, affirms that for me. Not confirm. Affirm.
I hope it does that for you, too.
Because something in my heart says it’s so.
We cannot see the chain.
We can only choose to believe it’s there.