THE YEAR OF (PAINFUL) GROWTH

We’re still in February and it’s been a rough year already.

We thought 2011 was bad. My best friend/lover/husband/sounding board and I hit one of those places in our marriage–you know what I’m talking about–where we’d look at each other and think (or even worse, say), “Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my husband/wife??!!”

Oh, we’ve gone to couples therapy before, for short-term help. And I mean really short-term. Sometimes we’d only need to meet with a referee counselor two or three times to get clear on our stuff. We jokingly referred to those interludes as ‘tune-ups’–just like a regular oil change to keep our partnership running smoothly.

This time, like our Subaru Forester, we went in for what we thought was an oil change, and ended up having to pull the engine. (No, we are no longer happy with Subaru.)

The repair process was simple, but not easy. If you want a year’s worth of couples counseling reduced down to a few suggestions, here are mine: Don’t assume–ask. Then listen to the answers. And don’t eat those restaurant leftovers unless you ask their owner first. (It’s one of those situations where preferring to ask for forgiveness instead of asking for permission will backfire. Just trust me on this one.) Oh, and the biggie: Value the relationship over having to be right.

It was a tough process, but we’re on the home stretch. We can now afford to look back and say, “I almost lost you” and be amazed. A good thing.

So what could be worse than almost losing your marriage?

Almost losing your kids.

Last fall was the time of extreme anxiety. Finding out your kid is in an abusive relationship? It’s the worst (or so we thought.) We had to tread carefully, keeping doors open, staying grounded, trusting in….well, trust. Putting our faith in the love and trust we’d built over the years.

We were rewarded with a happy outcome. Our child is safe. Life is good. We’re moving on. We breathed a grateful prayer. 2012 was going to be so much better!

Then, a few weeks ago, we got ‘the phone call.’

It’s the one in the middle of the night, the one you never want to get.

The police telling us there had been an accident.

Before my heart could stop, the caller rushed to assure us, “He’s okay! He’s okay!”

We nearly lost our other kid. To a car accident so fierce, our aforementioned Subaru Forester would now probably fit inside a large refrigerator. I still can’t look at the pictures without choking up.

He’s okay. Or rather, he’ll be okay. Miraculously, though his injuries are numerous, he will recover fully. It will be a long, hard journey, but someday he will be able to put this behind him. And I am very aware that this is not always the case, for so many people or the families they leave behind… My heart breaks for them.

Of course, there are blessings in all of this. I learn from everything, even the bad stuff. But sometimes it’s just too….too. As one of my sisters said years ago, delirious with pain after burning her hand badly while dealing with a small kitchen fire, and listening to us all tell her how lucky for her it was her left hand, not her right, just her hand, not her life, just the kitchen and not the house, etc., “Well, I don’t feel so damned lucky!!”

I just spoke with my beloved hospice supervisor, Lorraine, who struggled to find the right words today. I finally said, “Oh, yeah, there are are blessings here…..DAMN IT!!! And we both burst out laughing.

But…there are blessings.

I am grateful we both believed our marriage was worth fighting for.
I am grateful that my kids know for sure how much we love them. Or, if one of them isn’t sure, we’re getting another chance to prove it to him.
I am grateful for the people who listened. Really, truly listened
I am grateful for the small courtesies received from friends, and family, and complete strangers.
I am so, so grateful for the people who do not judge.

I’ve learned a lot, too.

I know now that a good day doesn’t depend on the weather, or how much I got done, or what didn’t go wrong. Sometimes a good day is simply a day where nobody dies.

Some people think we are ‘bearing up’ well. It’s simple. I know now that there are times when you know the worst has already happened, and times where you know the worst might yet happen. The first is a piece of cake, compared to the latter. I know now that the latter is much, much scarier, and harder to bear.

I know now that no matter what you’re going through, there are other people who understand. Those powerful words of Rosanne Cash, from her book Composed: A Memoir, still resonate in my heart:

You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You realize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrows and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevators first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember…

I’ve learned that people will judge. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, though. I want to say to them, “Look, if the universe slapped us down or tried to KILL US whenever we did something careless, there wouldn’t be too many of us still walking around…” But I know it’s just human nature. It’s how we convince ourselves that something like that would never happen to us, a way to distance ourselves, a way to protect ourselves. “Well, my kid/husband/daughter would never do that!” Really? Huh…..

Today, my wish for you is what I would wish for myself.

Today, may your blessings be small ones. Simple ones. Easy ones.
May they involve a hug or two, and perhaps a good laugh, and someone to share it with.
May you get a chance to learn something the easy way. Not the hard way.
And may you always get a second chance, another chance to say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” To say, “Thank you.”

To say, “I love you.”

ME, THE TATTOOED LADY

Yep, I started out 2012 with a bang. I got my first tattoo.

Now, I didn’t do it to look hip (if hip is even the up-to-the-minute word for….well, up-to-the-minute.)

It’s on a hidden place on my body. But don’t worry, it won’t embarrass you (or me) for me to show you in a public place.

It’s an animal. But surprisingly, not one of my animals.


It’s Mama Bunny from Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, a children’s book I read to my kids when they were little. (I love the illustration that mirrors the ‘cow jumping over the moon’ illustration in Wise’s other popular children’s book, “Goodnight Moon”.) My Mama Bunny is the one from the very last page, where Mama Bunny and Baby Bunny are eating carrots together. (I asked to NOT have the carrot added. Didn’t seem right to have a carrot on my ear.)
Oops. Gave away the tattoo location. It’s on the back of my right ear.

How did this come to be?

Well, this summer, soon after my daughter announced her engagement, she asked me to accompany her to get her third tattoo.

Robin has unusual tattoos. The first is a heart. Not a cute little Valentine’s Day heart, but an anatomically correct heart illustration. I keep forgetting to ask her what it symbolizes, but knowing her, I’d guess strength and passion and core values, with no sugar-coating.

Her second is a line from the great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva. These powerful words encircle her left wrist– Where does such tenderness come from?–from the love poem of the same name. It looks like a flowing wreath of Elven-speak, as beautiful as the words themselves.

So what was Robin’s choice for her third tattoo?

Why, it’s Baby Bunny! She had it done on the back of her right ear, at one of our local tattoo parlors, Mom’s Tattoo. And she asked me to go with her.

It was my first visit to a tattoo studio. I loved the signs (“YES, it hurts!” and “We tattooed your mom!” Can you say, “Foreshadowing!”…?) I held her hand, though she assured me it hardly hurt at all. I complained, teasingly, that now I had to get my ear tattooed, too. After all, if your daughter is willing to endure pain to proclaim her joy in being your daughter, don’t you have to follow suit? She said no need, but I knew.

Soon after, the season from hell started. It’s still not my story to tell, but suffice to say, my daughter is safe, and healing, the engagement is off, the danger has moved on, and life slowly returns to normal.

And when Robin came home for Christmas break, I told her we had to get my Mama Bunny tattoo.

Just to warn you, yes, it hurt. But it didn’t last very long. Robin held my hand. The artist told us he had just done his own mother’s very first tattoo, just before us. (She had a BIG one, with full color, of his name and his brother’s name. SHE was a better mom, tattoo-wise, than I!)

Now we hope to convince my son to get a Baby Bunny tattoo, too. I’m sure he’ll refuse, for many years. But I think someday, when he is less fierce about his independence, and space, he might consider it.

My husband mourns the lack of Daddy Bunny in the tail…er, tale…but I think he’s secretly glad he doesn’t have to get a tattoo.

And as I hold my family safe, with love, and the fierce honesty and respect that got us through that wrecking ball of a relationship, I am so very, very grateful for my blessings.

It’s good to be human, with all the pain, and fear, yes, and even the despair that comes with it.

For then there can be hope, and love, and gratitude, too.

“If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

FLEETING BALANCE

Perfect balance is not only overrated, it’s not necessarily desirable. The only perfectly balanced pot is one with a flat bottom. And flat bottoms are good for pots, but not for people.

Balance. We know it’s a good thing. When it comes to our bodies, our professional and personal goals, our relationships, perfect balance is a good thing to strive for, right?

Well…some concepts about balance are good for you. And some aren’t.

Balance regarding bodies makes an excellent metaphor, so let’s take a look.

Balance as parity can save us a few tricks to the doc.

It’s widely accepted that we all have one leg that’s longer than the other. Right?

Wrong. Our legs are petty close to being equal lengths. What happens is we tend to favor one side or the other. We tend to use our “strong” leg, and end up standing more on our “weaker” leg.

Try it yourself. Stand up, then assume a relaxed position, as if you were in for a long conversation with someone. What leg are you standing on?

For me, I put my weight on my left leg. It might be because my right knee has sustained a lot of injuries over the year, and it feels less “solid”.

But standing on my left leg also frees up my right leg, which is still stronger and faster for kicking. (Taekwondo, folks, not randomly kicking people in the street.)

Over the years, this gradually led to a shortening of the muscles in my left leg. It isn’t really shorter, I’ve squashed it!

I found this article on your golf swing as an excellent description of this.

This kind of “non-parity” also leads to more than a bad golf swing. It can aggravate problems with your back, shoulders, wrists. My husband makes a point of shoveling snow and raking leaves by switching his “lead” from time to time. It’s dramatically reduced his back problems.

It’s good to mix it up!

Just as lack of physical parity slowly creates big problems out of tiny choices over time, the search for perfect balance can, too.

People who should know–physical therapists, etc.–tell us that walking is a process of regularly losing–and finding–our balance.

We need that constant process to move forward. Perfect balance–when we stand only equally on both feet–is standing still.

Think about when we strike a tree pose, a great balance stance in yoga. We aren’t ever really being still. Our first efforts may result in widely flailing arms and torso. But even when we can hold that position for five minutes, our bodies aren’t actually static and immovable. Muscles in our feet and ankles are constantly constantly making tiny adjustments to keep everything in alignment. We just need tinier movements. How do you know those muscles are working? Think how exhausting it would be to stand in that pose all day.

How does this relate to our art, and to the business of exhibiting/marketing/selling/teaching our art?

Well, one way is how we think about a “perfect balance” in our art. We think there’s a perfect blend of art/business/family/other work/community, etc.

Some artists struggle to balance work, family, art. Sometimes they give up. There’s no way to make it work!. Sometimes all they need is permission to their art on the back burner–on “simmer”–for awhile. (But don’t forget to come back and turn the heat up someday!)

Some of us struggle to find the right balance in our art biz. Sometimes the business of getting our art “out there” more grueling and less exciting that actually making art. We force ourselves to do the inventory thing, the invoice thing, we apply to shows or write the press releases or whatever, grumbling as we go.

But if we aren’t careful, we lose that beautifully precious, joyful synergy that comes from making. There’s no way to “balance” that. It’s the spring from which everything else flows.

Some of us even find the balance of “making” to be difficult. Some days I come in my studio determined to make stuff and can’t decide where to start. Make more little horses? Cut some leather strips for necklaces? Mix some colors? Do more sculptures? I feel torn in eight different directions. Even when I start in on something, I feel guilty that I haven’t answered that email, or updated my store, or gotten those postcards out.

Yes, our art has to eventually be out in the world.

But we have to make it–bring it into being–first.

What sparked this post was a comment I heard of made by a 2-D artist. He said there was a discipline to his craft. He made sure he drew, even if just a little bit, every single day.

I was in awe of that. He’s absolutely right, in many ways. We need to make even tiny little spaces for our art. Because pushing it entirely out of our lives is never a good thing.

At the same time, I see he has a simpler life right now. Retired, no partner, no young children, a small apartment. He is able to make more balanced choices at this point in his life.

Like our bodies, the balance we seek in our art, and in the pattern of our lives, perhaps will never exist. Waiting for it before we make art is a trap. Even if you have to let your art “simmer”, think of ways to keep it in your heart. And never miss an opportunity to add a few carrots to the pot.

There will be periods where we are on fire with our creativity, and nothing can pull us out of studios. There will be periods where our children, our partners and spouses, simply need us profoundly, and time spent with them is not wasted. There will be times when we need to put down the brush or the blow torch and simply get outside and move.

Whatever your particular “blend” of life is right now, embrace it. Know that in a day, a month, a season, the demands will change.

And your greatest blessing–and peace of mind–will be knowing that you will change your particular balance right along with it.

P.S. How am I making myself lose my balance today? I wanted to write this post so desperately. I have so much to do today, I’m not letting myself do that series of final edits. I’m just publishing it!

WHAT WERE YOU DOING?

I’ve been reading slowly through Martha Beck’s book The Joy Diet, a guide for leading a happier life. I’ve always enjoyed her columns in Oprah magazine, and the book is just as good.

I came across an interesting passage that got me thinking….

People can have a hard time identifying what’s really important to them in life, and discovering what they really want to do in life. Ms. Beck, a therapist, says sometimes clients find it hard to dig through the layers of rationalization and obligation we pile on our lives to find the answer.

I’ve got a good “cut to the chase” question for that: “When you were in first grade, what did you want to be when you grew up?” This sometimes helps people get back to the simple joys and desires they had, before shoulda/woulda/coulda took over.

Martha has another great question to ask yourself:

“What were you doing on the evening of 9/11?”

Her point is, the morning of 9/11, everyone was doing the same ol’ same ol’, taking care of what they thought they should be taking care of. But by the end of the day, people were doing something drastically different. They were desperately hold on to, or reaching out to, the things they felt were really important.

The evening of 9/11, I was out having my birthday dinner with my husband. The only other people out were other people having their sad little birthday dinners, too. But what cheered me (a little) that day was that despite what had happened, we were still determined to celebrate the small, important milestones in our lives.

And by the next day, I’d written this essay called An Ancient Story for Modern Times.

Reading Martha’s passage, I realized several things.

My first real response to 9/11 was to put it in context for my children, and hold my family close.

My second response was to go to my studio and make my art.

My third response was to write about it in context with my story. And to retell that story to others.

I guess I’m more on track in my life than I realize….