TRIBES #1: RUNNING WITH THE PACK

Last summer, we came back from our first Caribbean vacation with a rescue dog. A puppy, in fact, from the Turks and Caicos Islands. Most people bring back a t-shirt or some shells, we came home with our first dog.

Watching him grow and adapt to our household has been a treat. I don’t think a day goes by that he doesn’t make us laugh.

He’s desperate to belong–a potcake cannot survive on the islands without his mates. Here in our home, it means fitting into our family. Watching his antics as he tries to befriend and play with our cats is a hoot.

There are no other dogs in our household, so of course he mimics many of the our cats’ behaviors. He has been around other dogs, of course. But he and the cats are together 24/7, so they are his first source of observation. For example, he noticed that both our cats take a piece of kibble, drop it on the floor, then eat it. And so he does the same.

The funniest cat imitation is how he goes up and down stairs. He watched our cats closely as a pup to see how they did it. Aha! One step at a time.

It worked when he was a puppy because he was the same size as our cats.

But he’s a lot bigger now. As he grew to the size of a border collie, it got harder and harder to scrunch up his body to take each single step. His contortions were extreme.

Yesterday, he had a sort of doggie breakthrough.

For the first time, he took the stairs in great, bounding leaps, three at a time. He practically flew up those stairs.

The look of pleased astonishment on his face was delightful. “Aha!”, he seemed to say. “I can bound!”

There’s a lesson in here for us; you know that, right?

When we have no other examples to learn from, we believe the right way–the ONLY way–is what we see around us.

We look to the people around us to learn “the right way” to do things.

That’s perfectly fine, if we are surrounded by excellent examples. But ask yourself: Perfect examples of what?

Not many artists grow up surrounded by artists and encouraged by other artists.

If you are a dog, there are only so many things you can do like a cat. No matter how many cats you surround yourself with, you cannot be a cat. No matter how much those cats wish you were a cat, you are still a dog. No matter how much they wish you were not a dog, it ain’t gonna happen.

If you yearn to make things with your hands, if you love to draw or paint, if you love to make music, or you must dance in order to think… (I urge you to listen til he gets to part about the little girl who could simply not sit still in school. It is astonishing.)

…And the people around you do not understand that….

What contortions would you put yourself through to fit in?

I scrunched to get up and down those “stairs”, for years. I’ll bet many of you did, too.

When I finally broke through, and created my own paradigm, I felt a freedom of spirit I hadn’t felt since I was a kid.

Ever since, I’ve encourage others do do the same–to find some way of getting their heart’s work out into the world.

Because when you try to bury who you really are, bad things can happen.

If you cannot be the artist you are meant to be, you may become a shadow artist.

I guess you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

EXPENSIVE PUPPY LESSON

Where NOT to let your dog ride in a car.

We just learned a very expensive lesson today.

When we go in the car, our puppy Tuck rides in the back seat, preferably on the floor. He immediately would scrunch under the driver’s seat, which we thought was cute. “Oh, look!” I’d say, “He’s trying to get closer to us without actually getting in front!” (Which isn’t allowed.)

Two days ago, my “air bag” warning light came on. I took it in to the Subaru dealer today.

The service manager called me back a few minutes ago with an odd questions.

“Do you have a dog?” he asked.

“Yep”, I replied. How did he know??

“Is it a small dog?” he asked.

Wow, I thought, this guy is amazing! “Yes, he’s a puppy.”

Then I thought, did Tuck poop in the car??

Nope. Much worse. And much more expensive.

Turns out our little Tuck chewed through the air bag harness which is located…..under the driver’s seat. It will take at least four days for a new one to be sent, and it will cost $545 for the harness and it will take 2-3 hours of labor.

Oh my.

So here is my public service announcement: Do not let your darling little puppy-or-small-dog crawl under the car seats.

Because in addition to the candy wrappers/empty pop cans/gas receipts/other assorted trash, there is evidently a pricey little part under there that dogs just love to chew.

That, or Tuck is actually a gold-digging puppy who hoped to inherit our estate after we were killed in a car crash.

Naughty Tuck! But he’s in good company, as you can see from our other pets who create havoc with their chewing.

CHICKEN LESSONS

We’ve had a small flock of chickens for awhile now. We enjoy them immensely, not only for the delicious fresh eggs but because they’re so funny to watch.

A few days ago, though, we saw the worst of all chicken behaviors.

“Pecking order” among birds is not merely unpleasant, it can be deadly. Chickens will mercilessly attack and kill not only a strange bird, but one of their own flock, if they perceive it as sick or wounded. Theories abound about why they do this, and the theories make good sense. But it’s still hard to see in action.

Our little flock had turned on one of their own. They started in on one hen, pecking at her til they drew blood. We took her out of the coop and put her in a large cage in our mudroom.

The “house hen” was happy enough for a few weeks. But my daughter, convinced she was missing her flock, returned her to the coop.

We either put her back in too soon, or she’d become enough of a stranger to the others that her fate was sealed. The next day, Robin found the bloody carcass, minus a few important body parts (like her head).

It was an awful sight, especially to us “chicken newbies”, and Robin was devastated. She declared she wanted nothing more to do with chickens ever again.

We talked about it later. As I shared with her these “chicken lessons”, I realized they can also be good lessons about making and selling your art.

1. Chickens can’t choose. We can.

Chickens are not people. If, in fact, they are the direct descendants of dinosaurs, then we are dealing with instinctive behaviors that have been in place millions of years before humans appeared on this planet. Our own human heritage has evolved to allow us to choose whether to fear and hate “the other”. We can choose to behave differently.

Chickens can’t choose. It’s not fair to attribute such human notions as “kindness” and “cruelty” to behaviors that keep the species healthy and viable at the expense of the individual.

We, too, are not completely at the mercy of the world when it comes to our art. We may feel that way sometimes! But we actually have tremendous choice.

We can choose what kind of art we make, what quality of work we produce, and who to market it to. We can choose how to promote it and where. We can choose the story we tell people about it.We can choose our own balance of prestige, money and fame, if we are willing to do the work associated with each choice. I could go on, but you get the point.

2. Don’t make it personal.

The chickens didn’t do this to make us miserable. It’s just part of owning chickens. Sometimes bad things will happen. A fox will take one, or they will get sick and die. We can minimize the bad stuff by taking good care of them, but we will still make mistakes. And even if we take perfect care of them, stuff happens.

When it comes to making and selling your art, try to avoid taking setbacks and failures personally. “They” don’t get my art…. “Nobody” likes my work…. “I did that show and it sucked big time! Nobody wanted my work!” Who is “they”?? “Nobody” likes your work?? Is it really just you and “everybody else”? Statements like this are gross generalities. They set you up against the world, they doom you to pessimism and lassitude.

Instead, try to view your marketing and promotional efforts as experiments. You got results that were effective or ineffective in furthering your goals. “I tried that show and didn’t do well. Its audience was not a good fit for my work.” Or even “I may need to invest a few more years at that show to build a good audience for my work.”

3. Only brittle hearts break.

To rephrase: T’is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

When we love something or someone, it stretches our hearts. When that object of our affection is hurt, or hurts us, it feels like our hearts are broken. We feel like never loving again, because it is too painful when things go wrong. I know people who, when their beloved pet dies, swear they will never own another–because it hurts too much to go through that again.

But that pain we feel is is the growth forced on us by experience, by living life to the fullest. The pain I feel when my spouse and I are fighting is excruciating. Yet that is simply a consequence of being a different person than him. Though we love each other, sometimes we just don’t feel the same way about certain things. My children drive me nuts sometimes, and if anything were to happen to them, I would feel like dying. But I never regret for an instant my decision to marry, nor our decision to have children.

The same with our art. Sometimes it seems too hard to get it out there, and the setbacks seem unbearable. Some days we may feel, “What’s the use? I just don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. People don’t care. Why should I keep butting my head against this wall??”

But when I think back to what my life was without my art, I can hardly breathe. As hard as it gets sometimes, it was worse–much, much worse–not being an artist.

I am grateful to have had the chance to make beautiful work that has brought so much joy not only to me, but to others. My life is richer for it.

4. Gain, don’t blame.

It’s so easy to fall into the pattern of determining whose fault it was. But in reality, we were all to blame–and none of us to blame. After all, I could have called a friend to ask their advice about the situation. If I’d really felt it was too soon for the hen to go back to the flock, I could have stood my ground. In fact, some of the anger I felt about the situation was guilt for my part (lack of action)….

But that doesn’t get us anywhere. Hindsight is always so damn obvious. We shoulda, we coulda…. Guilt and dismay keep us locked in the moment. They are only useful if they help us resolve to do better next time.

In the end, it’s not about “What did we do wrong?” It’s about “How could we do better?”
Try not to dwell on the mistakes you’ve made with your art in the past. Instead, look at them as marvelous opportunities not to make that same mistake again.

5. It’s still a good life.

After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, I realize that even with this unhappy event, our chickens have lived a humane and enjoyable life, compared to the chickens raised commercially for eggs and meat. Our chickens get to run free, eat bugs, enjoy the sunshine and dig to their hearts’ content.  For a chicken, it’s a pretty good life.

So, too, despite the ups and downs of the artist’s life, it’s a life I would choose again, and again, and again. Because this is still my best life so far.

As I get older, people are starting to say to me, “How did you get so wise?!” Okay, I admit it–I love it when they say that!

But the truth is, wisdom comes with experience. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to learn from the mistakes of others. Mostly, we learn from our own.

Everything you read in my blog is me working out the good stuff from all the bad stuff that happened to me. Sometimes I do it easily, and sometimes it takes me a few days, or weeks, or even years to get there. I’m a work in progress.

But the wisdom is always there, if you are willing to look for it. Even in the sad death of a single little chicken.

MORE BUNNY LESSONS

My rabbit Bunster (she looks a lot like this rabbit) pretty much has the run of my studio. Sometimes this is not fun. She chews a lot, for one thing. If I don’t pay enough attention to her, she will even chew my pant leg. All my pant legs have rough spots where she’s nibbled the edges.

But she amuses me with her little bunny romps in the early mornings and evenings, when rabbits are most active, and I love the fact that she always hangs out near me when I’m working or writing.

And the lessons she teaches me are useful, too. I’ve written about some of these lessons before here and here.

Last night she taught me another lesson.

I often run back and forth between the main house and my studio. She hangs out happily in the mudroom in between sometimes. But every time I open my studio door, she runs over as if she wants to come inside.

If I opened the door to let her in, she stops and just sits there.

This always infuriates me. “Come in or go out!” I exclaim. “Make up your mind! It’s cold out here! I can’t leave the door open all day!”

She always ignores me, of course. I think she’s teasing me. Or trying to figure out where I’m eventually going to land, so she can hang out there, too.

Last night, she paused in front of the door, refusing to come in. But when I started to close the door, she reached and and grab the edge with her teeth and start to gnaw. I would open the door. She stopped. I go to shut the door again. She grabs the door again.

This went on and on.

Finally, I scolded, “Come in or stay out–but quit eating the damn door!!”

And then I started laughing.

I’ve been caught in the same dilemmas all season. Rest and recuperate? Get back to work? Start production? Clean the studio? Explore new ideas? Get caught up on the old ones? Chuck it all and move to Hawaii??? I just can’t decide what I should do, what I want to do, what my next step is. Someone tell me what to do!! All I want to do right now is hole up in a warm corner and knit.

As my rabbit twitched her nose at me, I realized it doesn’t matter which way I decide to go. In, out, in. If it’s not right, I can always jump back.

But there’s absolutely no point in sitting in the doorway and chewing the door.

Time to simply DO.