LESSONS FROM THE GYM: The Whale Watcher

My column today at Fine Art Views, a marketing blog for artists and craftspeople.

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”

We make our own luck in the world.

There are lessons to be learned everywhere, if we’re open to them. Today’s lesson from the gym is courtesy of a therapist there with an unusual hobby.

This guy loves to go whale watching. When he found out I’m a recent transplant to the west coast, he suggested I check out the whale migration scene on the coast.

We aren’t that far from Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” is set. There ARE a lot of birds out there, but so far, none have shown signs of turning on the human race….! Still, I’m careful to be very nice to all of them.

Bodega Head is a beautiful stretch of land reaching out into the ocean to form one side of the Bay. Bodega Head, with its open vistas from towering cliffs, is a popular whale watching spot. Volunteer ‘docents’ are present on the weekends to offer advice and help with identification.Whales migrate south to feeding grounds off the coast Baja Mexico, then return north after the mating season. Mother whales travel more slowly, and closer to the coast, with their new offspring.

This guy regularly reports back every Monday with exciting ‘spots’. And so my husband and I began making a trip every week or so to watch, too.

We haven’t seen any whales yet–just seals, sea lions and pelicans. And of course, after our fourth attempt to spot a whale, my husband concluded that guy is “lucky” to have seen so many whales.

Is he? Let’s dig a little deeper….

The whale watcher goes out every week he can, and sometimes multiple times in one week.

He and his family stay for hours at a time–not an hour, or two at most, like we do.

He knows a lot about whales, from talking with the docents and his own reading. He knows when they go, where they go, and why they go along our coast. He knows the best weather for watching, and the worst weather; and he knows how to get in-time local updates about that area’s weather. He knows what to look for–blowholes, pods, fins, breaches.

He’s invested in a good camera and a great lens to capture good photos.

So….Patience. Consistent effort. A practiced eye. And a passion for whales.

Is this luck?

Yes, there’s still a wee bit of luck involved. One first-time watcher spotted an amazing pod within a few minutes of arriving. A docent jokingly told her, “Don’t even bother coming back, you will NEVER see anything like this again!”

Mostly, though, this guy makes his own luck. And he deserves every whale spot he gets.

How many times have we heard about another artist’s success, envied their ‘luck’ and lamented our lack of same?

Now think how often we trouble ourselves to find out what they did to achieve that.

I’m guessing that ‘lucky’ artist is someone who’s practiced their craft with patience and persistence. I’d bet they have great images of their work, and a powerful personal story to go with it. I’d imagine they’re serious about getting their work out there, in a consistent fashion–through websites, shows, exhibitions, social media, getting published, personal invitations to collectors, and good selling skills.

Above all, I know they’re truly focused and passionate about the work they create–enough to not only make time for it, but to make it a priority, as much as possible.

Me? I would love to see a whale pod, or a mother and baby, or an orca, someday. But I’m just as happy to spend a few hours enjoying the beautiful California coast. I’m just as delighted to find a wonderful pebble or a twisty piece of driftwood on the beach.

But when it comes to my artwork, I know the same qualities that make that guy a great whale watcher, makes me a competent artist.

And when my next ‘lucky break’ comes, I’ll be ready!

PERFECTION VS. PRACTICE

Today I read a beautiful post by my artist friend, Kerin Rose, on resiliency.

It’s just what I needed to hear today. I’ve been feeling mopey and wobbly for quite awhile now. Jon says I’m even waking up grumpy from naps. What a waste of a good nap!

I’ve tried to figure out why, but end up in useless mind swirls. Waves of anxiety, bouts self-judgment, exasperation with others (and not knowing how to manage that).

Kerin’s words remind me of what determines how we move forward, and how we get stuck.

Resiliency. (The ability to bounce back.)

I’d add to the list….

Grit. (The belief that we can get through it.)

Vulnerability. (The realization that we are not perfect, and never will be.)

And practice. (Wha……??!!)

Let me explain that last one, because it’s way more subtle than you might think.

Whenever we take up a new skill–piano playing, martial arts, writing–we’re told to practice, practice, practice.

We’re even supposed to “practice” yoga. And meditation. Enlightenment, like everything else that requires skill, takes that proverbial 10,000 hours of practice.

But let’s face it. Most practice is b*o*r*i*n*g. Repetitious. Monotonous. Right?

And many nay-sayers say it depends on what you practice, and how. After all, if you practice an error, you get really, really good at that error.

So what’s the use of practicing?

It’s not what you think.

For example, most Westerners probably think that we should practice meditation because we can empty our brain, and achieve enlightenment. Since most of us may not want empty brains, we think time spent meditating is not time well-spent.

But it turns out meditating–or rather, even trying to meditatehas its own rewards. Even a few minutes a day helps our brain focus better. Being able to recognize a thought, acknowledge it, evaluating it, helps us manage our emotional states better. Our “enlightenment” is actually the realization that much of what we have the luxury of creating in our lives, comes from our emotions and thoughts and perceptions about how the world works. We have the ability to change that for the better. Practice makes it so.

In fact, the value of our practice may be greater than the actual goal we practice for.

I found this in martial arts. Yes, the practice of Tae Kwon Do resulted in me attaining a certain quality of form (for a few years, anyway!) But the real gift was realizing I could get very good at something, even if I didn’t really have a knack or a gift for it. I just loved it. And loving it kept me practicing.

Practicing got me skills, but it also taught me to have more confidence, and trust, in my process and in myself.

(This is why I tell people not to beat themselves up for not “doing it right”, whatever THAT is. Whatever works for you is the right way to do it.)

That’s why we feel better when we actually work our craft. Whether we make art, play an instrument, work in our gardens, sing, dance, whatever our creative thing is, practicing it makes us feel engaged, and more ourselves.

In fact, one of my practices is writing. Lately, I’m encouraging myself to write as soon as an idea hits. This post is a result of that practice. (And guess what? It’s working! I feel better!)

In short, practice is what gives us resiliency and grit.
Practice is what allows us to be vulnerable. Allows us to connect. Encourages us to be open to something new.

Practice may not make perfect.
But practice is what makes us better. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Now go make something today!

PRACTICE AND NOT PERFECT

I was writing my morning pages today. And I got stuck.

I did what I tell my students to do when they get stuck. Just write something, no matter how silly or tedious. For me, it’s often, “blah blah blah” or “I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write.” I kid you not.

Today I was writing, “Keep going. Keep going.” Actually it read like this:

keep going keep going keep going

Because when you’re doing morning pages/free journaling, the trick is to not even stop for correct spelling or punctuation. No editing, no anything. Just write.

And the miracle happened. As it always does.

Sometimes this silly repetition keeps my inner critic/left brain busy, just for a few seconds–long enough for my inner wizard/right brain to grab the steering wheel and hit the gas pedal. Many of my insights, over-the-hump strategies and yes, gentle readers, even blog posts, come from this wild ride in the kidnapped taxi cab that was going nowhere slowly.

Today’s insight was the writing itself. Though I rarely focus on good penmanship when I doing this exercise, suddenly the repetition took me back five decades, to third grade. (Yep. I’m old.)

I wasn’t a bad kid in grade school, but I would get in trouble for talking (surprise!). Or for drawing pictures when I was supposed to be paying attention. And then I’d be assigned that infamous penance: Writing 100 sentences that began with “I will not….”

“I will not talk during geography class.” “I will not doodle while the teacher is talking.” “I will not wait until the very last minute to ask permission to go to the bathroom.” (That was an awful day!)

I didn’t mind it, though. I loved to write, even the same stupid thing over and over and over.

It became a little game to me. How perfectly could I form each letter, each word? And could I actually write the entire sentence perfectly, beautifully?

I never could, of course. At the last second, my pencil would skitter, or my lead would break. Oh well. Plenty more sentences to try!

And suddenly, I realized the beauty of that 8-year-old’s spirit. Perfection may be only a few pencil strokes away. I never got there.

But simply trying was…..fun.

Somehow I knew, and accepted, that it wasn’t about being perfect, or doing perfect. It was the practice that brought the joy. There was plenty of paper, and a pencil sharpener right near the door. I had all the time I needed. (I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to geography, after all.) I liked being indoors and didn’t mind missing recess.

With another stroke of insight, I realized this powerful attitude drives all my practice. All my interests and processes.

Except, of course, when I’m not messing myself up by falling into the adult’s version of private hell….PERFECTION.

Lose the striving for perfection, and I’m in heaven.

It’s why I can write about the same topics in my life, over and over, and never feel like I’ve written the definitive take yet. It’s why I love to ride horses, though I’ll never be a great rider, and was certainly never a natural rider. It’s what kept me going through tae kwon do, kick boxing, and back to tae kwon do. That’s why I can do kata all through tae kwon do class, and never feel like I’ve quite mastered Basic 1.

I may never get back down to fighting weight. I may never get my black belt. In fact, as I struggle back from yet more injuries and another upcoming surgery, I may never even regain the level I was at six months ago.

None of that matters. Just the practice.

It’s about the joy, plain and simple, we can find in our practice, if we let go of the outcome, the “finished product”. Because we are human beings, and there is no “finished product.”

I read a review about this book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. (It’s being billed as the not-so-exotic-and-more-domestic version of Eat, Pray, Love.) Some people love it, some people hate it. But what I loved in the review was the comment that the practice of yoga isn’t about getting to perfection in yoga. It’s about practicing yoga imperfectly and doing it anyway. I like that.

So yesterday I went to yoga, for the first time in six months. I’ve lost strength, and flexibility. I have to watch the twists, and I had trouble bending.

But it felt…wonderful.