LETTING GO…So Something New Can Come In

My column today over at Fine Art Views may help you declutter your studio, or attic, or garage.

Anyone want to help me clean my barn attic? No? I didn't think so.....

Anyone want to help me clean my barn attic? No? I didn’t think so…..

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LESSONS FROM HOSPICE #1

When someone is going through something profound and difficult, sometimes all that’s needed to make it bearable is the presence of another human being. A hand to hold in the dark. The soothing rhythm of someone breathing along with you.

It’s been a year since my initial training as a hospice volunteer. An amazing year.

I’ve had several assignments–clients–since then, too. As powerful as the training was, putting it into action is even more so.

As a “recovering fixer”, I was not surprised that the hardest thing to do as a hospice volunteer is…..

Nothing.

They told us that, they warned us. I thought I got it, too. (Remember how I let go of being full of knowing…?)

It was harder than I thought!

Every time I felt compelled to “do something” or “fix something”, it always became clear that was not my task.

Troubled family relationships? There’s a hospice social worker for that. Pain and disability? There’s a hospice physician and a hospice nurse for that. Light housework, feeding, cleaning? There’s a hospice nursing assistant for that. Questions about the soul, heaven, the afterlife, whether there IS an afterlife? There is always their minister or priest, or the hospice chaplain for that.

“Doing” was very hard to let go of.

As a hospice volunteer, all I had to do was be there.

Because that is what a volunteer does. We just show up. Sometimes, all we do is sit.

If we need to be there but the client doesn’t want us to–say, a spouse or family simply need respite care–we read a book in another room and simply give peace-of-mind to those who just need to get out for a cup of coffee or a haircut.

If the client asks for a volunteer and later they change their mind, then we come for a little while–then leave.

If the client simply wants someone there to hold their hand, that is what we do best.

We can be the most expendable part of the team, or the most important, for a few moments, a few days or few weeks.

But here’s what’s certain–it’s impossible to try to be the best.

It’s very hard to be the best “be-er” in hospice care.

In a world where we are encouraged to always be our best (like the sad little refrain in Joss Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse), it is very hard to let go of that.

Even as I urge myself and others to recognize the creative spirit in ourselves, to nurture the skills, talents and passion within, it was profound to learn another truth:

Sometimes, all you have to be is….human.

Was it boring? Never.

There is something deep and real about serving in this way. I will have to work my way toward recognizing what that is over the next few months…or years.

Was it depressing? Not really. There is something about being allowed into this person’s life, at this time, with all the clarity that brings to your heart, that made it always poignant, and often exhilarating.

And oddly, I think it made me cherish my art all the more, even knowing that it could be taken away from me in a heartbeat. Even knowing (because I’ve seen it) that there will come a day when I would leave it all behind without a thought, without a regret.

So the first gift of hospice is to recognize the power of simply being.

Tomorrow I will share another gift of hospice.

NEW JOURNEY: Between Steps 7 and 8

I’m learning that perfectionism not only limits my options, it limits the options of others.

I’ve always been a serial friend.

By that, I mean I have very few friendships that lave lasted more than a few years. Partly that comes from moving so much: I left home for college at age 17 and never really went back. We went on to live in three more states. Even as I write this, we are contemplating where our “next state” might be.

I’ve also changed my “groups” a lot. First there were school friends. Then there were work friends. Parent friends. Now artist friends.

I have many online friends–people I’ve met in discussion forums and through blogging, many of whom I’ve never even met in person.

I have riding friends, martial arts friends, knitting/yoga/climbing friends. I’m sure I will now have hospice friends, too.

One reason I make friends so easily is, I am open to it. An old school chum said, “You have made more friends since I’ve known you than I’ve even met!!” I must have looked chagrined, because she added quickly, “No, that’s a good thing! I don’t made friends easily. I envy you.”

But that means I’ve also lost a lot of friendships.

It’s impossible to have deep friendships with everyone you meet and like, of course. Not all friendships can pass the test of time, distance or changes in circumstance. If you want to discover who your true friends are, see who hangs around after you or your spouse is laid off. You will be dismayed. And astonished.

But I still regret the loss of some of my more profound friendships over the years.

I’m thinking maybe…actually, I know…I lost them to perfectionism.

Because here’s another drawback in perfectionism:

When you expect it in yourself, you will demand it from others.

And that, as we all know, is totally, hopelessly, humanly, impossible.

I like to think I have been a good friend. But I’ve always suspected I could have been a better one.

Looking back, I can see that sometimes the best friendships were short-lived for good reasons. I love this little essay by Brian Andrew “Drew” Chalker, “A REASON, A SEASON, A LIFETIME”.

But I know sometimes–many times–I simply asked too much of people. More than they were willing, perhaps even capable, of giving. And that has served neither of us well.

So now I strive for a little less perfectionism.

I hope I can do that really, really well.

I’m hoping, if I can learn to forgive myself for not being perfect–if I can learn not to expect it from others–I will truly be a better friend.

And wife. And mother. And artist/writer/climber/rider/owner of silly pets.

NEW JOURNEY: The Seventh Step

I learn that trying to be perfect limits your options.

Another quick thought to share with you today.

I read a comment that Quinn McDonald (of Quinn Creative) left on my last post about my hospice training experience.

(And btw, let me thank all of you who took the time to write such thoughtful, beautiful, powerful words of support to that post. Each of you, and your words, are a gift to me.)

I had a coaching session with Quinn a few months before I began hospice training. She said several very valuable things to me, thoughts that helped me stay centered and calm.

The most pragmatic were her observations on perfectionism.

When she asked if I were a perfectionist, I answered, “Yes!” I’ve worked hard at everything I’ve undertaken with my art biz. I’ve always tried to come up with the best solutions for everything. When I teach, I try to create the perfect workshop experience. When I speak, I work hard to say exactly what I want to say to an audience. When I write, I cull and edit and re-edit to make sure everything flows logically. It drives me nuts to find a spelling error after I publish a piece.

I know that is perfectionism exhausting. I recognize it eventually produces diminishing returns for our efforts.

Quinn pointed out another drawback:

“When you are a perfectionist,” she said, “then you are full of knowing. And when you are full of knowing, nothing new can come in.”

Nothing new can come in….

I had to really think about that one. If I am to learn as much as I can from this experience, I have to be open to what is there.

And what I’m learning so far is that there is no need to excel in the class. There’s no need for intellectual brilliance, or to even ask great questions. There’s no need for extreme competence or great listening skills or excellent communication skills. This is not the place for perfect anything. The skills I’ve relied on all my life do not serve me.

In fact, as our training leader says over and over, every class, it’s not about “doing” at all.

It’s about “being.”

Being present. Being there.

We can help by simply offering the gift of ourselves.

This is new territory for me. But what an odd place to end up, this year. Somewhere where nothing is asked of me, except to have an open heart. In a way, it feels a lot like yoga….

I feel like I am learning to simply listen. And breathe. Perhaps hold a hand.

And be.

P.S. I edited this little article about two dozen times. Until it was almost perfect. Obviously, I am still imperfect at being imperfect.

additional P.S. The implications for my art–and my life–are not lost on me, either.

NEW JOURNEY: The Second Step

Finding new values for the life you lead, and defining your own success.

In my last post, I shared what brought me to consult with artist/writer/life coach Quinn McDonald. I wrote about my conflicting desires for my art, and why I feel so lost about my next steps.

At the very beginning of our conversation, I mentioned to Quinn almost apologetically that there was something that had grabbed my heart recently. It made no sense to me, but it did to her. More on this later.

After talking for awhile, I noted that there were some things that still made sense to me.

I love public speaking. I ask the event organizer, “What is it you want your audience to come away with?” Then I focus on addressing that, from my own experiences, from my heart. For example, for the World Batik Conference, it was how to encourage artists to promote themselves in a way that’s sensitive to their cultural heritage. (In some cultures, it is not considered respectable to “brag” about your accomplishments.) The result was this essay about sharing your gift with the world.

I love inspiring and encouraging new artists (actually, all creative people)as a group. I loved my experience as a guest lecturer with the Arts Business Institute. I didn’t so much help people to sell their work, or focus on wholesaling (which is probably why I didn’t become a permanent faculty member!) I loved getting them to think about what they wanted from their art, and helping them establish goals to get there. My workshops on self-promotion resulted in this article: The Ultimate Story

I love writing this blog (though it’s nowhere close to being a hugely popular blog!) because it does both. And it helps me work though issues I have with my art and my life.

I was adamant about not wanting to teach per se.
We explored the teaching thing. I like the one-to-hundreds model, such as speaking and writing. One-on-one is exhausting to me. I would make an awful coach or therapist. After three visits, I’d fire my clients.) Even classes, which start out fun, end up with me wishing halfway through I could get back to my own work. And I have no interest in teaching people “how to make the little horses”, a common request from (some) other artists.

Quinn agreed that the world probably didn’t need more people making my little horses. But she pointed out that most people who take classes from artists simply want to share a day in the life of that artist. Hmmmmmm……

We decided if someday I could go out and speak to a large audience and get paid, that would be great.

But people only want to hear from artists with credentials, I protested. If I dropped everything I’m doing now, or didn’t get busy achieving something else, who would want to listen to me? (Here I credit my good friend Kerin Rose with this insight: She exclaimed, “Luann, you already have those credentials! No one can take them away from you, and you don’t have to keep proving yourself.”

Well, then, how will I know how successful I am in creating an audience for my work, or my words, or my thoughts? How can I measure that?

Here is where Quinn brought in my odd little admission at the very beginning of our talk.

Since fame and fortune are not doing it for me right now, what will?

Where is money and fame NOT the coin of the realm?

At the end of life.

Before we’d started, I’d told Quinn I was drawn to hospice, and had signed up for volunteer training.

There have been three times in my life I felt this strong a pull. One was the compelling desire to take up my art. The second (very odd) was to volunteer for an intense women’s self-defense program I’ve taken twice. (I didn’t pursue that, it was too far away, and I still regret not doing it.)

The third was this. Hospice.

“I’m not surprised,” Quinn said.

Wha….??

“You’re drawn to the end of life, to see what happens. You will be a witness to what is there, to what is valued at the end. It’s not money, it’s not fame. It’s something else. You want to learn what life is all about.”

But I’d told the volunteer coordinator that I was simply called to do this. It isn’t about my art. Artists like Diedre Scherer have already explored this realm in their art, with sensitivity and grace. I had no intention of copying her or “mining” this experience for myself, for new inspiration. I just had to follow where my heart was leading.

However, the coordinator said all my reasons sounded spot-on. She had no qualms about admitting me to the training program.

Which sounds perfect, by the way. The program is long and involved, well-rounded and grounded, covering all aspects of the experience. At the end, volunteers are carefully screened and interviewed to find out where, if any place, they would fit best. Most people drop out, or end up volunteering in a totally different capacity from what they initially intended. As scary as it sounds to me, I know I won’t get in over my head.

And I have no idea why I’m going there, or where I’ll end up. I just know I must.

“You’re searching for the values that will define this next era of your life,” Quinn said. And then she gave me my question for homework:

What are the values that are calling to me, the values to be fulfilled in my life?”

And my mantra…(and this is important):

I don’t know yet….and it’s okay.

Because I have become so very full of knowing. Knowing has gotten in my way for the last few years. Knowing how hard it will be to recreate new work, a new audience, new goals. Knowing what will work, what won’t. Even knowing what isn’t satisfying anymore.

Perfectionism is all about being full of knowing. This is the opposite, and that’s why it makes me feel so uncomfortable.

There is a gift in not knowing. You can’t know until you realize you don’t know.

So that’s my homework. As I work, as I do yoga, and martial arts, and I sit quietly and simply observe, I say to myself, “I don’t know yet….and it’s okay.” I am to pay close attention to what comes up, as I begin to truly accept the fact that I don’t know.

She says she can see me standing in a doorway, waiting…for what?

For what’s next.

Not knowing, and listening to your heart, and patiently waiting….

Isn’t that the very definition of faith?

ps. I won’t be writing much about this aspect of my journey for a bit. I’ve found there’s a danger in talking too much a new venture. Talking about it and “writing about it” begins to feel like “doing something about it”, and I don’t want that to happen. I’ll share what I can as I go, but no more speculation, okay?

Tomorrow: Another fear overcome. Stay tuned!