PROBLEM-SOLVING: The Things That Hold Us Back, Including Our Own Self-Doubt
A sad story with a happy ending.
A long-time admirer contacted me earlier this month, looking for the perfect wall hanging for their home. After many emails and sent images, they decided on a framed fragment:
But they had their heart set on a wall HANGING. Would I be willing to turn this into one?
Well, sure! The framed version would be harder to ship, I haven’t made hangings in awhile, and this would be a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. A practice piece, if you will.
It took many, many more hours of work than I’d anticipated. Still, if I charged by the hour, all of my work would have to sell for several thousand dollars. Which didn’t seem fair….
I added a backing to the fragment, created a hanger for the back, and searched my extensive stick collection for the perfect stick. It has to be the right length to work with, a shape that works with each fragment, etc.
Surprisingly (not!), I always find only one stick that meets my needs.
I found it! A beach-combing find from the Sonoma coast. I test all my sticks before I use them in a piece, to make sure they aren’t too brittle or fragile. This one passed the test–I thought.
It was already worn smooth by waves, it had beautiful branches, it sanded up easily. After waxing and buffing it to a soft gleam, I got to work drilling holes for the ties that would secure the fiber fragment to it, the beaded side “drapes”, and the cord to hang it all with.
For some reason, my new power drill didn’t work very well. Maybe my drill bits are dull? So I used my little hand drill (pin vise) to make the holes. Yep, more hours….
I put almost 8 hours on drilling the holes, stringing the color-coordinated glass beads for the drapes, attaching the fragment to the stick, and adding the beads that adorn the hanger. I’m pretty fussy about the beading. I use a lot of antique glass trade beads in my work, and many of them have really big holes. I have a stash of smaller beads I use to fill the holes so the beads set evenly.
After it was all put together, I picked it up to take a photo…..
And the stick broke.
It broke where I’d drilled a hole. Fortunately, it was a clean break. I was able to glue it back together (with construction adhesive!), restring that part, and wound some cord around it for support. Part of my aesthetic is creating the look of a well-worn, often mended piece of art. So it fit right in!
I clamped the repair and let it sit a full 24 hours, like the instructions said. Came back to the studio, gently tested the repair–good!
I picked it up to photo it. And it broke in my hand again.
This time, the wood shattered. So I was back to square one. (Okay, square three, but it sure felt like ‘one’.)
It took awhile, but I found another, completely different stick that I loved.
It has a sad history. Bark beetles are highly-destructive, destroying millions of acres of forests.
And yet, the damaged wood is hauntingly beautiful.
In New Hampshire, I looked for beaver-chewed sticks. The chew-markes look like writing, strange writing to be sure. They became part of my story, echoing the mystery of the cave paintings of Lascaux in my art: A message that was not addressed to us, a message we cannot read.
The trails made by bark beetles echo that story.
I’ve collected a lot of their chewed sticks from the coast, too. The good part is, the beetles are long gone and probably long-dead, too.
I sanded the stick carefully, and wiped it clean. I painted it black to back-fill the little chewed channels, then wiped off the excess. Then waxed it with brown Brio wax, and buffed it, then drilled more holes.
Finally, it was done!
Today I’ll find the right-sized box to pack it up and ship it to its happy new owner. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought, but I never regret a profound learning experience. Well. I regret them in the moment. But I’ll get over it.
My little journey from “the perfect stick” to one that many people would consider as a tragedy (destruction of national forests) and trash (a bug did this? WTF!!!) has me thinking again about my art process and my stories.
I obsess about getting everything exactly right, in an imperfect way. Asymmetrical yet balanced. Ordered color palettes.
One of my most powerful insights, in my life and in my art, is recognizing when something is ‘good enough’, and letting go of perfection. (As a wise woman once told me just before I began my hospice volunteer training, “When we are a perfectionist, we are ‘full of knowing’, and nothing new can come in.”) (Thank you Quinn!) (Another gift: I didn’t know she’d started a new blog until I linked to hers here.)
We all have visions of what that ‘perfect’ thing is. The perfect job. The perfect marriage. The perfect home.
Then there’s reality. There are the slog jobs, the times in a relationship when things can feel wonky, and homes? Renting here in Northern California, it’s whatever one will let you have pets….
Yet even in the worst of times and places, there is something of value.
Insights. ‘Aha!’ moments. Healing. Reconnection. Beauty. New ways to retell old stories. Seeing our loved ones for who they are, instead of the perfect person we sometimes expect them to be. Learning to see ourselves the same way….
Sometimes the ‘perfect’ needs to make way for something bigger and better, more human. Sometimes, we need to make way for something else.
And sometimes, it makes way for a tiny little beetle, with its own way of creating a powerful story.
Sometimes a “major change” is simply many tiny changes in outlook.
For everyone who wrote me asking why I’m walking away from my art and writing, let me reassure you, I’m not!!!!!
I am at what my dear hubby calls “an inflection point”. I’d never heard of that before, except as a math term. But one dictionary describes it as
- 1.MATHEMATICSa point of a curve at which a change in the direction of curvature occurs.
- 2.US(in business) a time of significant change in a situation; a turning point.
That’s what it feels like. A “change” is coming, but I don’t know what it is.
What I do know is, my story hasn’t changed. I’m not done telling that story! And so my art itself, and my propensity for writing about my art (and what I’ve learned from making it), will not change.
I got lost in trying to pinpoint what was going to change. Stuck in trying to figure that out, because sitting with that has been hard.
Because when we choose not to move forward until we’re sure what that looks like, we lock ourselves into the present while fearing the future. (Perfectionism, thy name is “Luann”….!!)
I had fallen so low in my self-esteem in this flux state that I broke my own rule about giving away my work.
I don’t give my work away to people who expect it to be free, or those who demand I give it to them.
Such a simple rule, and I broke it. To the tune of agreeing to do free work worth thousands of dollars. And to be grateful to the person who said I should do it.
No worries, I walked it back! I’m only out $200, and I consider that a lesson I will never have to learn again. I hope!
I was in the middle of a health crisis (not life-threatening, but life-style threatening), a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, a state of living with uncertainty so long, I couldn’t see the gifts I already have: A home, a family, a loving partner, my health in general, the beauty of the California landscape and seascape, my studio, etc. I’ve been focusing on how close we are to losing many of these gifts, obsessed with security, and my struggle to control our future. (Ha!! Good luck with that, human!)
So I made a few more bad decisions.
But I also made some very, very good decisions.
Like reaching out to family, good friends, old friends, new friends, readers, supporters.
I reached out, and found people who listened, deeply.
I overcame my main worry, that I only reach out when I need help, others will judge me on my own selfishness (“She only calls when she’s stuck!”)–and found they were genuinely happy to help. Not only that, I found everyone was going through similar stuff, themselves. And they welcomed my help/feedback/support! (“Reciprocity” is a word that’s been resonating with me lately, and I was delighted to engage in it.)
They walked me back from the next bad decisions I’d made. And although I’ve been in a deep funk about who I am, they’ve been holding the memory of who I am, when I’m at my best.
And even better, they shared how much they love and respect me even when I’m at my worst.
Which gets me to where I am today: Tiny steps forward, and for the first time in months (many months!), holding a tiny bit of hope.
How I got there in a few hours yesterday is what I want to share with you today.
There’s an online class offered by Yale University, and anyone can take it if you can cough up $40. (And if you can’t, there are grants available!)
It’s called The Science of Well-Being, a class based on brain science and scientific evidence, developed and taught by Laurie Santos. It’s been in the news since the course wen’t online in March. It’s quickly become Yale’s most popular course.
The short story is, we don’t really know what we want. We don’t really know what will make us happy. And if we don’t understand what really will, or won’t, make us happy, then our pursuits in life won’t result in happiness.
The first video talked about “A ‘Good’ Job”. When you ask people what they want from a job, it’s often things like “a big salary” and “opportunities to advance”, and “prestige”, etc.
But it turns out those can be misleading goals that don’t necessarily make us happy in the long run. Yes, a livable income is important. But not at the expense of other goals that will actually improve how we feel about life. Like work that appeals to our strengths and values, work that challenges us in a good way, work that provides us opportunities to be “in the zone” or what is now called a “flow” state.
So how do we do that? How do we identify those unique strengths, our important values? How do we learn to nurture them those strengths and values? Because doing so will nurture us, will increase our sense of well-being and happiness.
This isn’t the old 90’s thing about “follow your bliss and the money will follow.” It’s more evidence-based, and doable. This class shows what works, and how to do it right.
After a few hours of work yesterday, I read something that gave me a glimmer of hope that I, too, can figure this out.
One evaluation survey showed that after taking the course, and implementing the (very simple) exercises, almost every student showed an average 30% increase in their sense of happiness. That’s nice.
But what blew my socks off was this statistic:
On average, every single student also reported a 70% DECREASE in depression.
Think about that.
We all know there’s no such thing as “happy all the time”, or a life filled with constant joy. I think we all shy away from anything that promises that. After all, I’m following my passion in life, and I still struggle with insecurity, a sense of not-doing-it-right, not being able to even pay for my studio rent with my art, and not being able to pay for much of anything from my writing. (A friend was gob-smacked when I told her how little I am paid for my one paid writing gig. And that’s just “the new normal” for free-lance writers.)
So “being happier” was something I’m always a little suspicious of.
And I already know some of the more obvious, popluar goals, like “make more money”, won’t fix everything–especially if I sacrifice integrity and what makes my work powerful. I know fame and celebrity can be a shadow goal, and potentially a self-destructive pursuit.
But the promise I could be less unhappy? Significantly less unhappy?? Bring it on!
That tiny ray of hope, the realization that things really could be better, inside, with a shift in perspective, was enough to raise my spirits.
And the way that happens–aligning key character traits and values with my life mission–is already giving me a wee bit of clarity of what that “inflection point” might be.
As always, I’ll keep you posted on my progress.
And in the meantime, I hope you check out the course, especially if you are also struggling with what would really make you happy!