ICE AND SKY

We are all walking on thin ice, every day.
We are all walking on thin ice, every day.

Ice and Sky

ICE AND SKY   

Hard times are always closer than we think, but we can’t live like that.

As our everyday life morphs and evaporates in front of our eyes, it can be hard to have hope in our heart.

We wake up one morning and everything is different. It even looks different. Empty streets. Empty restaurants and bars. A bathroom nearly empty of toilet paper. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) (And I get to joke about it, because I decided not to do my usual stock-up-on-two-months’-worth-of-toilet-paper last week, and now I’m sorry I didn’t.)

Was it only a week ago that the steering committee for a major county-wide open studio tour get into a passionate debate about whether to shift the dates for our event to avoid fire season in California? Now we can wonder how many of us will even be able to participate at all.

But as we left the meeting room, a friend said something, and I responded with a phrase that was one of my late father’s favorites:

We are all walking on thin ice, every day.

We just don’t know it.

My dad wasn’t really a philosopher. When he was angry with me, he’d warn me with, “You’re treadin’ on thin ice!” I knew I had to either stop or hunker down, or there would be consequences.

He meant, of course, that if I kept it up (whatever “it” was), I’d get smacked. Looking back, I’m grateful he let me know! It allowed me to make the changes that would avoid that.

But as we go through life, it turns out we are treading on thin ice every day. We are almost always only a step or two, one crack, away from catastrophe. We are always only one step away from the event that could change our lives, forever.

We’ve all experienced the panic of a car that suddenly veers into our lane, or the driver that runs a red light as we enter the intersection.

We’ve probably all been through the medical test result that suddenly takes away our notion that we’re in “good health”.

We’ve had that dreaded phone call from the police, or the hospital, in the middle of the night.

We can be cautious, we can be prudent, we can try to avoid all risk and potential danger. But it won’t protect us from the random acts of other people, our own occasional idiocy, and the forces of nature.

Suddenly, we look down, and realize we are walking on thin ice.

We could fall through any second.

It’s terrifying.

It’s the bottom of our world falling out from under us.

And yet, we can’t live like that.

If we were aware of this potential danger every second of our lives, our lives would be miserable.

Our lizard brain, of course, is happy to help us see danger everywhere. After all, its job is to protect us, and it works very hard at that.

Yet another part of our brain sees life as “normal”. Our loved ones will be there when we wake up in the morning. There will be food in the fridge. There will be no incidents as we drive to work. Everybody will stop at the red lights. There will be toilet paper at the grocery store.

That’s why we are so shocked when the ice breaks. We’ve been lulled into believing the ordinary will stay ordinary.

Should we listen to our lizard brain more?

That doesn’t work.

It seems the more I worry, the more I find to worry about. This is when we obsessively worry, all the time. When we try to control and manage every aspect of our modern lives. It’s a toxic, never-ending cycle that never gives us what we crave: Peace in our hearts.

Life is uncertain, yes. There will always be things that are beyond our control. There is danger lurking everywhere.

And yet…

There is also beauty, and goodness, and tiny moments of insight and clarity, even in the darkest hours.

They can be so tiny, we can’t see them until after the worst is over. They may seem so insignificant, we can’t image their utility, until later.

There is almost always a gift there, albeit one we would probably never choose deliberately.

We can see this in action, especially through the internet, even now. There are people who are angry, freaked out. People looking for someone to blame.

People whose fears overcome their consideration for others in the same boat. (The images of people with a year’s worth of toilet paper in their shopping carts.)

Yet a friend shared a post on Facebook recently that moved me to tears. The original post shares the beauty, wonder, and solace to be found in these frightening times.

As artists, we are fortunate. Making our art can restore us to our highest, best selves. (Except when I drop that box of seed beads on the floor and spend the next hour patiently picking up and sorting each one…) (Which, okay, I start out yelling and end up in a Zen state. For real!)

We may be afraid, but we have a place in the world.

Yesterday, our county set a “shelter in place” protocol for all residents. I raced to the studio to bring home enough supplies to work at home.

A storm system was passing through, and a rain cloud was just leaving. It held the sky, dark and dismal, with tiny patches where the sun shone through.

As I looked up, a large flock of snowy egrets burst into the sky, and flew away.

Great white birds, flying as one, as flocks do, their snowy feathers catching a random ray of sunshine, silhouetted against dark, stormy clouds.

It took my breath away.

Take a few minutes today to find your happy place. Find a little time to do your creative work. If you can’t get there right now, make notes for your next project. Imagine the steps. Write them down. Savor the anticipation.

Find a favorite book to reread, relishing the bits you might have skipped over in your racing through to find out what happened.

Share something that lifts your heart. In the comments, share a tiny blessing you’ve found in the last few weeks.

Post a link to something you’ve found comforting, uplifting. It could be a beloved poem, or a thought you’ve had, something you’ve read or experienced that lifted your heart. It will lift the hearts of others.

Think of small ways you can help, right now, with the causes dear to your heart. Donate online to agencies that are forces for good in the world. Even a couple of dollars can make a difference.

Set aside your greatest fear for now, not because it’s “unlikely”, but because it doesn’t serve you right now.

I mean, yeah, follow the “shelter at home” protocol if your state has set them. Do what is recommended and required, and take exquisite care of yourself and your loved ones.

But also find ways to let your lizard brain know you’ve got this. Thank your lizard brain for trying so hard to keep you safe. Then let it rest for a while.

You can still be the best “you” in the world, today, if you try. The internet can be a curse, or a blessing.

Today, use it as a blessing to share your own moment of Zen.

As always, if you enjoyed this article, let me or my editor know! If you’d like to read more, you can either read more of my articles on Fine Art Views or subscribe to my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com. You can visit my older articles in the wayback machine at Radio Userland. (They are harder to search for, but they are also shorter!)

If you think someone else would like it, please forward it to them. And if someone sent you this, and you liked it, ditto!

BE THE HERO IN YOUR OWN STORY: Framing Is Everything!

It takes time, but somewhere down the road, there’s a powerful story in our darkest hours.

 We attended a gathering this weekend. Good food, great people, and beautiful scenery. That’s where the idea for this week’s article comes from.

I was talking with a younger person there, who’s right smack in the middle of a difficult life stage. I listened to their woes, which, to be fair, they put a good spin on. In other words, they weren’t whining, but they were definitely struggling, in a situation all too familiar to me.

Without loading them with too much advice, I mostly told them they were doing it right. They had the right attitude, they were seeking the help they needed, and they knew they were fortunate in so many ways, they hated to complain about the exhausting situation they found themselves in.

I gave them two pieces of advice. Or rather, insights.

One, I told them that people who have been through the same thing, will understand. And those who haven’t, won’t. I said, “Seek out the first group, and just ignore the second.”

Two, I told her this, too, will pass. It’s hard, and it’s hard to make it easier. But in the end, they will be okay. And when they get through it, they will be able to see the gifts and blessings along the way.

I get that when we’re in the middle of a big muddle, it can feel like there’s no way out. No solution, no quick fix, no “magic mushrooms” to make it right. It can be hard to have hope.

And yet…

When I look back at some of the hardest times in my life, I can see something of value there.

I can see the goods things that came out of it. I can appreciate the people I met along the way, people who often had exactly what I needed to get through one day.

I can see the hard-won lessons that proved so valuable later in life. I can see the blessings, the gifts, the jaw-dropping miracles that not only helped me get through, but formed me into the person I am today.

“You can’t see it when you’re in the middle of it, and that’s okay,” I told them. “Because right now, it just sucks. So take exquisite care of yourself every chance you get.”

“But years from now, there will be something beautiful here, something that will encourage you, inspire you, help you find your way. This will change you, and some of those changes will be powerful. You will find yourself in a place you never even dreamed of, yet.”

“It will always be part of your story, and YOU will get to decide how to tell it.”

No one would ever choose to be in that hard place. It will simply find us, no matter who we are, no matter what we do. We are going to have very, very hard times in our lives.

And not everything has a happy ending.

But there will be gifts, if we chose to look for them.

The trick is in how we tell our story.

In a slump with our artwork? Uninspired? Tired of the same ol’ same ol’? Someday, we’ll look back and see the wall we hit—and how it led us to an exciting new body of work.

Didn’t get into art school? Maybe the wild and crazy path you DID take, is what makes your art so powerful today.

Didn’t get into that gallery? Or exhibition? Or that top-notch show? Rejection feels like failure. But failures have a way of making us dig deep for our art. We can crumple up and walk away, leaving our creative work behind. Or maybe we realize someone else’s “no” can be our next “maybe”. Maybe I’ll try another gallery in the next town over. Maybe I can simply apply for more exhibitions, hoping I’ll get into just one.

Or maybe I realize that no one can keep me from my studio, and it’s time for me to get back to work.

It can be hard to be Pollyanna in the middle of despair. And yet…

What if we actively thought of ourselves as the hero of our own story?

What if the challenges we face, force us to rise to meet them?

What if that difficult person in our workplace finally inspires us to find another job, a better one, too?

What if our loneliness when things get hard, creates compassion in our hearts for others in the same boat?

What if physical setbacks force us to choose another path, one that has its own rewards? (I’ve met TWO potters this month who had to find another form of creating when their bodies couldn’t take the “weight” any longer.)

What if lack of sales, fame, and stardom as an artist, actually encourages us to focus more on the “why” of our creative work? Helps us pay attention to the joy we get from making our art?

What if all we really need to get through this day, today, is a six-minute film to bring us nearly to tears, filled with awe of the beauty of this perfect day?

Last week, I read an old journal from our last two months in Keene, NH, just before we sold our house and 80% of our possessions to move across the country.

I’d made note of some difficult times, people, and situations. But I was surprised at how little of them I actually remembered! I would read, “I hate Doris!” and think, “Who the heck is Doris?!”

When we were in the middle of that move, all I could see was total chaos.

But as I look back, I see what a powerful experience it really was, on many fronts.

The things I loved so much, it felt impossible to leave them behind—only to find out they were in much worse shape than I’d realized, and couldn’t go anywhere except the dump. (My cheetah-patterned sofa!)

The person who gave me a hard time, and now I can’t even remember who it was, nor what it was about. (As I deal with difficult people here in CA, I’m reminded there are difficult people EVERYWHERE.)

The people who didn’t show up to help (“I’m not going to do one thing to help you leave, because I want you to stay!”) and the amazing gift of the people who DID show up, every day, for weeks.

The fear that I would lose my audience in NH (which DID fall off for awhile), and yet realizing how quickly I could start growing a new audience here.

The people who were upset by our choice to move, until I shared with them our own “hero’s journey” that led us to that decision. (Hallelujah, they came around!)

Now, sometimes we just need to gritch. I get it. I love to gritch, too. It feels good to get a good whine in (with a glass of wine, too!) And it can be cathartic to blow off steam with a good friend who’s willing to listen.

But in the end, I choose to see the miracles, the gifts large and small, the Angels In Odd Places I find in almost every step along the way.

So the next time you get slapped in the face with a big ol’ whipping cream pie of rejection, or lack of sales, or whatever, take note. My bears’ story: “Be strong when things get hard. Listen more. Think slow. Love deep.”

Bear tells me, “Be strong when things get hard. Listen more. Think slow. Love deep.”

I process things by writing, but you may have another process. Maybe painting your heart out, or creating a song, or poem, or prayer. Maybe do something kind for someone even worse off than you. Perhaps a chance to simply blort with a loving partner, or a really good friend who is truly there for you.

Whatever works for you, embrace it.

Be the hero of your own story.

Tell the story only you can tell.

Because your story might  just inspire someone else to be a hero.

Do you have an example of a setback that proved to be a power booster for you? Share it here! It may be just what someone else needs to hear today!

And if someone shared this with YOU, and you like what you see, sign up for more articles at my blog here.

I WRITE FOR MYSELF and Maybe for You

I’ve always known my writing is not for everyone. Some folks expect more concrete “do this” and less “we’re all in this together, and that will make us better”. That’s okay, I get that.

Sometimes that’s what I’m looking for, too. Like today. Why do none of my LED bulbs work in my old booth lighting fixtures??”  (The results: It’s complicated.)

The thing is, when people criticize my writing because that’s what they’re looking for, it’s really a moot point. There are other writers who will give them that.

Me? I share when I’m stuck or overwhelmed, or when I’m feeling “less-than”, and how I got through that, as close to “in the moment” as I can.

But here’s the deal with the “just the facts’, ma’am” approach:

I’m a woman, born in the ’50’s, who never saw an artist growing up. (There was one potter in the county I grew up in, but I only heard of her after I graduated high school, and never saw their work.) I was raised to blend in, to go along, not to talk back, and to be nice.

There were school budget constraints that created a total lack of actual art education.

My college art history textbooks featured no women artists. One author even stated publicly he did not believe women could be considered “real artists”, and of course, that meant no women artists were featured in his book until 1987.

1987.

1987, people!!!!! Nineteen effin’ eighty-seven.

Janson’s History of Art has become so problematic as Janson’s own personal canon of “real art” is, that efforts to be more representative still can’t restore its usefulness in art history education.

You know where all the women are in art history? Nudes, as subjects. For the shock value, and publicity.

I’ve seen and read examples of many, many women supporting their male partner’s art career, often at the expense of their own. The Wife, anyone?

I cannot recall one instance of a man doing the same for his wife. (Some wives-of-artists even have a secondary career of advice-giving of how to be a successful artist. Without admitting that it can be hard for us wives to have our own “wife”.)

(Full disclosure here: I could not afford to have a studio nor have an art career, nor even to be a writer, were it not for the fact that my partner’s work pays 100x more than my meager income. And he helps with computer issues all the time. But he does not do my marketing, my correspondence, my social media, sales, shop upkeep, etc.)

Even in workshops on technique, and writing about marketing, most folks refer to famous male artists. It took the Netflix “comedy” special Nanette to share the real reason Van Gogh is famous, and to frame his situation for modern art-lovers. (Van Gogh’s work was hampered by his mental health issues, not inspired by it, and his work is visible today not because he was “good at marketing”, but because “…he had a brother who loved him.”

Although making your place in the art world can be harder if you are a woman, there are several things I also am, that make it a little easier for me. I’m white. (Not a person of color.) I’m middle class. (Not born into poverty, and I was able to attend college.) (No, my family didn’t “buy” my way in, either.) I identify as a woman. (Not LGBTQ.) I was raised Christian. (Not Muslim, Jewish, or any other religion that some consider “less than”.) (And though I now identify myself as agnostic.)

All of these identities are in my favor, NOT because they make me “better than”, but because some believe these traits make us “less than.” (It does not.) These folks have far more difficulty navigating the waters of our culture, throughout our history, and to this day, unfortunately.

Then of course, there is our choice of media we use to tell our story. I cannot tell you how many times people have told me I’m not a “real artist” because of my choice of media. I work in fiber (“That’s craft!”) and polymer (“That’s just fake clay, and clay is just a craft, too!”)

There are those who tell me I’m an awful writer, because I tell a story rather than simply “get to the point and tell me what to do!” (At one point, after someone complained my articles were too damn long, I put things like “5 minute read” in the bylines. In case, you know, five minutes was too much of a drain on their time.)

So when I write, I write for myself first. I write to reassure myself–and other artists who feel the same way–that our work IS needed in the world. It DOES serve a “purpose”–it’s our voice, our chance to have our say.  Yes, making money from making our art is wonderful, empowering. But even if we don’t, we still have to find the time and energy to make it, if only for ourselves.

.And so when I write, I write for myself. To inspire myself. To remind myself, that though there are some who still would not consider me a “real artist”, the only person who can stop me from making my art (barring a drunk driver) is myself.

And the one single factor that keeps most of us from creating is…..

Doubt.

Such a little word, and so much damage comes from it! I came across this quote recently, but I can’t trace it to the original author.

Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.

This is why I share my writing with you.

Doubt kept me from trying harder. From making good decisions about my life work until my early 40’s. Doubt kept me from calling myself an artist, until I hit the wall, hard. Until the day I knew I had to do the work of my art, or I would destroy everything around me with bitterness. Doubt made me frightened, weak, and full of excuses why I wouldn’t take my work seriously.

Once I learned to pat doubt on its head, shush it lovingly, and move it back to its corner, failure was nothing. Failure I could deal with. Because if you give it your best shot, if you try and do your best, and fail? Well, at least you tried.

And then we learn to try again. And again. And again, until we either find a way through, or realize we will build a different path over, under, and around that obstacle in our way.

So when I share my beginnings, when I share my setbacks, when I share how I healed my toxic self-image, it’s because I want you to have what I have:

Hope.

Hope, and courage, inspiration, and strength, and my own definition of success.

I want this for every single artist I meet.

And though we may never meet in person, I want this for YOU.

Hope is the thing with feathers

Emily Dickinson1830 – 1886

Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,  
   
And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.  
   
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;         
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.