Yep, it’s my birthday! And remember: Terrible things and wonderful things, always fall on SOMEONE’S birthday.
9/11 hit us hard. I received a phone call on the morning of my 49th birthday, from my father-in-law (who has since passed on.) I thought it was a “happy birthday” call, but it was a “you might want to turn on your tv and see what’s happening call.”
We spent the rest of the day in despair, without hope that things could be better. Trying to explain to our children what was happening, and why. (Didn’t do well with that.)
We went for a walk in downtown Keene. We could tell who had heard the news, and who had not. Happy, normal people had not heard. Quiet, sad people had.
Today, we are a few days’ past the conclusion of the first major response to that day, for better or worse. We can look back and point fingers. But I remember not knowing what where the right choices even were. So I can’t judge too harshly.
Here is the story I wrote on that very day. It still brings me to tears. Because it is my truth, my deepest truth. I hope it encourages you to follow the power of your choices, too.
WhatIsTheStory Only You Can Tell? Make It A Good One!
By Luann Udell
4/27/2019 by Luann Udell
This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. 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….” For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored 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.
We can’t control everything in life, but we can choose how we face it.
Years ago, one of my favorite writers, Martha Beck, wrote an article thathas stuck with me for decades.
Beck’s insights and advice come from her years as a therapist, observing how people get stuck and how to help them get unstuck. In this article, she describes two of her clients, two women named Mary.
Mary One has a sad life story: A parent dying young, obstacles, setbacks, health issues, etc. Just reading the list makes you wonder how anyone could survive what she has been through.
Mary Two has a wonderful life story. She inherited wealth, and was able to attend top-notch colleges. She is highly educated, and her career issatisfying. She is very close to her grandmother, who showers her with love and kindness. She loves to travel and has been all over the world. One cannot help but envy her good fortune.
The two clients are actually the same person.
This article was a game-changer for me. The lessons are obvious.
We have all had sadness, and joy in our lives. We have all experienced cruelty, and kindness. We all have victories, and setbacks. We’ve all had people who love us, and people who are toxic. We all wish we had more money, even though we know in our hearts that if a billion dollars is “not enough” for the wealthiest people in the world, how will we ever have enough?
The lesson for me was simple: We get to create our own story.
For years, my saddest story was that I couldn’t get into art school. My school, one of two in the entire county, in an agricultural area, didn’t have much money to spend on art programs. This meant my portfolio was pretty pathetic. And so, when I did go to college, I majored in art history instead, the traditional “shadow artist”, hovering on the outskirts of my passion and filled with envy for those who thrived with their art.
I actually was accepted into not one, not two, but three colleges thatoffered art programs. Instead, I chose the one that was the most prestigious, where my best friend, my high school boyfriend, and my secret crush had been accepted. It was the only school that rejected my portfolio. I took a few art classes, but they were like bananas offered to amonkey in a cage, a prize I could never reach.
So “not being good enough” wasn’t really a thing, though it took me years to see that. It was just a “sad story” I held onto for a long time.
Although that boyfriend turned out to be fairly toxic, and much of my love life was pretty pathetic, it was in this same city that I met my husband, my life partner, and a pretty great one. We’ve been together over 40 years.
So with the power of hindsight/reframing, going to that college was actually a lucky fortunate choice. (Next week, I’ll share another storyabout “luck”!) Taking all those art history classes, starting with theLascaux Cave (the oldest human art in the world in the 1970’s) was apowerful, inspirational resource when I finally owned the power of my choices, and became the artist I was always meant to be.
And if I had actually been accepted into that college’s art program, I am certain I would not be making the work I make today. I don’t think my tender heart would have survived the toxic critiques many students had to endure (I hear schools do it differently now, but I take that with a grain of salt, as this intriguing memoir reveals.
In short, there may be one set of facts, circumstances, etc…
But there area slew of stories I can tell myself because of them.
When I’m feeling “less than”, I feel embarrassed that I actually hate drawing. I resent that my medium of choice took years to gain respect in the art world. I know that some people still would not consider me a “real artist”. I remember every cruel or thoughtless remarks from ignorant, pompous, or deeply-troubled people.
But when I choose to see my power, I know I make art for myself, first. Making my art has made me a better person. I know that I use thatpower, the power of my choices, to not only make work that‘s so personal, my collectors can easily recognize my style and aesthetics, I’ve used that power to reach out and connect with others, always with the hope that doing so may elevate the hearts of others, as well.
Try this exercise today: Jot down all the hardships and crappy things thathave crossed your path this week, everything that made you suffer and seethe. (I didn’t say “in your lifetime” because that could take weeks! But sure, put in anything that‘s still hounding you.) List the deadlines you’re stressing over, the to-do list that never seems to end, the lack of respect for your style/subject/medium, the dearth of sales. Make note of how you feel when you’re done.
Now write down all the blessings and gifts that happened in the same time period: The car that let you merge safely into traffic, the person who stopped to let you cross the street, the new opportunity to show your work that‘s got you fired up about your new series. Consider the thank-you notes you got from the grateful customer who bought your work because they loved it. Think of all the things you did accomplish, and all the steps forward you’ve taken with your art, your personal growth, your relationships.
How do you feel now?
I always-always-feel better.
This is why I write. It helps me sort out the distractions from the real deal, the true life mission I carry in my heart from the road bumps. I get clarity on what I can change, and what I can’t change. I can feel my anger melt as I frame the difficult stuff differently.
All the naysayers, the critics, the trolls, the digs, the snark we encounter daily, suddenly feel more like annoyances than anything. I feel free to simply do what I love to do. I give myself permission to live my life theway I want.
A recent example: A dear friend and supporter shared with excitement the realization that their work is “on trend”. My lizard brain immediately buckled. The same trend was in force when I started making this particular aspect of my art, and I struggled mightily to overcome it. For afew moments, I was envious that this person, who has had my back for years, might surf that wave farther than I ever will.
And then I had to laugh. My work has never been “on trend”, and I’m glad! The courage it took to simply make the work of my heart has created my own wave I can ride as far as I desire.
I know now thatthe world is big enough for both us. If they aresuccessful with their work, if they get a “bigger piece of the pie”, thatdoesn’t mean my slice is smaller. There is an infinite amount of “pie” in the world, enough for both of us. Actually, it’s big enough for all of us.
I will simply not let that first story be thestory I tell. I choose the second story, the one filled with mutual respect, joy, and kindness.
Whatisthestory YOU can choose to tell, today?
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It was the last day of December, the last day of 2018. It’s been a hard year in so many ways. I don’t know whether to embrace or watch with suspicion the dawn of this new one. Do I move forward with hope, and courage? Or do I hunker down until it’s safe to come out?
I’m a fan, and not just because I love her poetry for what it is to me. I used several of her works when I created a grief writing workshop as a hospice volunteer. Her poems are accessible, full of the beauty of small moments in nature, with a big bang of wonder and insight inside. They always draw a gasp of amazement, and they often make us cry.
I don’t know much about her. I only recently discovered she was in a relationship with a woman, Mary Malone Cook, for over 40 years, and her partner died in 2005 I didn’t know about the hardship and abuse she suffered as a child. I didn’t know she lived in Ohio but took up New England as her home years later. And as I read “Blueberries”, with her musings about eating blueberries year round, something new for her, I wondered where she lives now.
And so I Googled “Mary Oliver where does she live now” and came across a Wikipedia entry. And found this somewhat disturbing entry in “Critical Reviews”:
Vicki Graham suggests Oliver over-simplifies the affiliation of gender and nature: “Oliver’s celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.” In her article “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver”, Diane S. Bond echoes that “few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver’s work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical that identification with nature can empower women.” In The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Sue Russell notes that “Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”
I had to stop reading.
Who are these people??
Who are they to judge a poet’s work based on how “political” her thinking is, or how much she aligns publicly with her gender?
My husband, an English major as an undergrad, contemplated a career in academia briefly. He says this is exactly why he didn’t pursue it. “It’s just academic-speak”, he says.
I think it’s more than that.
Someone is saying Mary Oliver is “not doing it right”.
They are saying she is not enough.
Jon said, “You read poetry? I haven’t read any poetry since college!” What?!“You haven’t read “Wild Geese?!”
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Even as I tried to read it aloud to Jon, I knew I couldn’t. Tears were already welling up. I handed him my phone to read it.
Or how about “Summer Day”?
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I’ve rarely enjoyed poetry “analysis”. I’ve never understood the desire to write in specific forms or meters as a professional challenge, unless the rhythm and patterns lend themselves to even deeper feelings of connection. (As in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I understand there are hidden gifts in complex musings, and challenges that can deepen our experience. It’s like doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle as opposed to the 5-minute versions that always appear in our local newspaper.
But there are reasons it’s okay for poetry to be accessible, and simple.
It’s okay not to speak for everyone. Geez, white guys of Northern European descent have been doing it for years.
It’s okay for a writer to simply share what’s in their heart.
It’s okay to make people cry with our beautiful words.
If I Wanted A Boat by Mary Oliver, Blue Horses
“I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe? Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat that I couldn’t steer.”
What do I hear in this?
It takes courage to let go of trying to control our future.
Or this one:
WHAT GORGEOUS THING
by Mary Oliver
I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.
It tells me it’s okay to seek solace in the tiny moments in life. To hold the simplest things and see. To listen. To wonder.
They won’t fix everything. Maybe they won’t fix anything.
But if they give me a teensy break, a moment of relief and respite, I’m taking it, with gratitude.
Fortunately for my mood today, I came across this lovely article by Ruth Franklin in The New Yorker: What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand. It helped me back to my happy place. Still, a few off remarks: Oliver didn’t write much about her lover, and she rarely writes about the dark places in her life. Such a lack “…flattens her range….” in the opinion of this writer.
Whatever. I’ve been writing articles, essays, and blog posts for almost two decades. I never write about my relationship with my husband, and although I write about what it feels to be in dark places, I keep away from the deeply personal. And don’t bury myself in the dark.
I don’t, except in my “blort book”, because it’s my dark place. Yes, it’s part of me. But I get to decide how much I share, and when, and how.
When I’ve had suicidal thoughts (and I’ve had them all my life), I know what they are: A response to the despair and hopelessness I’m overwhelmed with. I also know it will pass. It looks like an escape, but I know it will only bring enormous pain to those I leave behind.
(To be perfectly frank, I’m also a chickenshit. I’m afraid I’d mess it up and have to live with pain, and shame, and disability the rest of my life. So no, I’m not gonna do it.)
But most people will “hear” a plea for help. They will respond with a “solution”, a “fix”.
There isn’t one. Or at least, it’s never the right one.
My truth: I’m kinda hard-wired to be in mild despair. I always expect the worst.
But I choose to look for the light instead. I chooselook for the life lesson that will help me move forward. I choose to seek out the folks I know I can trust, who know who I am, and who I want to be, to help me find my way back.
I also want to respect my partner’s privacy. We’ve been together 40 years. That wouldn’t be true if he weren’t a good human being, worthy of love, who is simply trying to do the best he can. He has saved my sanity a jillion times. At his best, he meets me where I am, and helps me take a step forward. At his worst, he is bad about cleaning up after himself. Not too shabby, in my book.
I even want to protect the privacy of those who have hurt me. It’s on me to work my way back to the light. They have their own story, and it may involve things I know nothing about, no matter how much pain they’ve created for me.
That’s my choice. It doesn’t make me “less than”. (Yes, I am a proud member of the “#metoo” moment, but it’s just not for public consumption. For now.)
I’m not going to hold it against Mary Oliver, either.
Thank heaven for the last part of that “critic review” section by Sue Russell:
“…but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”
So go forward today, with the joy you find in the small things. For me today, it’s Noddy wanting a drink from the kitchen faucet. Chai trying to sneak a lap of milk from my cereal bowl. Tuck wanting a butt-scritch. Jon reassuring me that academic critics live in a world of their own making, and not to worry about it.
First, let me clarify my two metaphors. I use ‘lizard brain’ a lot. And now I’m using ‘monkey mind’. Is there a difference?
For me, the lizard brain is the part of me that’s angry, jealous, resentful, scared:
When someone else does it better than me, and my immediate reaction is, “Why them, and not me??” When I see someone else’s fabulous work, and my immediate reaction is, “My work’s just as good!” When someone else gets into that show/gets that award/has more sales/success/whatever-the-fear-flavor-of-the-day is, and I think, “My work’s better than theirs, why did they get it/in/that and not me?!” Grrrrrrrrrr!!!!! GRRRRRRRR!!!!
Monkey mind is the squeaky, insecure, scared, self-doubting, worry-wart, over-thinking everything:
“Why doesn’t that person like me?? Did I do something wrong? Maybe when I said blah she thought I meant blah. Should I have said blah? Should I ask her? ” “Why didn’t anyone buy this necklace?? Am I charging too much??” (Since I don’t even earn minimum wage, that is really scary!) “I can’t figure this out! What’s wrong with me?? Am I losing it? Will I end up in the streets??” Blah blah blah blah and more blah.
Lizard brain and monkey brain are both scared, and angry.
When threatened, lizard brain attacks ‘the other’.
When threatened, monkey brain attacks me.
Neither one serves me.
I have a mantra for lizard brain:
Life is a pie. If I believe the pie is finite, then when someone else gets a piece of pie, that means there’s less for me.
But if I believe the pie is infinite in size, then there’s enough pie for everyone.
So what’s my mantra for monkey mind?
Not sure yet. But I know having compassion for monkey mind (rather than berating it, because after all, it’s me) and giving it something to distract it (“Here, count my breathes with me!”) helps.
I read something years ago that stays with me: “You are not that anxious voice in your head. You are the person listening.” This helps.
Artists urge us to see the invisible, unnoticed beauty, and the important stuff of life.
I didn’t intend to write today.
I opened my journal, intending to try a new journaling technique I just read about. In flipping to the next blank page, I came across a note I’d written a few weeks ago. All it said was David Foster Wallace: This is Water
That’s it. Curious, and always open to an opportunity to procrastinate, I Googled it.
It’s about everything I’ve ever written about.
Of course, my lizard brain went, “Dang! Nothin’ left for me to write.” The angels of my better nature said, “Shut up and write. And then share it.”
Foster tells the story of two young fish passing by an old fish. The old fish says, “Mornin’, boys, how’s the water?” The younger fish continue on, til one turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water??”
Foster talks about a basic fact of life: We are the center of our own universe. After all, he notes, everything that happens everywhere is filtered through our eyes, our experience. He describes a typical experience: Grocery shopping after work. He outlines every single nuance of frustration and exasperation involved, from getting caught in traffic, shopping crowded aisles filled with slow people and whining kids, and ending up in the longest line at checkout. Who are these annoying, terrible people, and why are they ruining my day??!!
This isn’t bad, or evil, he reassures us. It’s natural. It’s ordinary. It’s human. It’s our default setting.
We have something unique in us. We get to consciously choose what has meaning, and what doesn’t.
We all worship something, something not necessarily god-like. This, too, can bite us back. If we worship money and things, we will never feel like we have enough. If we worship our bodies and sexual appeal, we will always feel ugly. If we worship power and control, we will always feel afraid. If we worship our intellect, we will always feel stupid.
Real freedom, he says, comes from conscious choice. It involves attention. Awareness. Self-discipline. Effort. Caring for, and sacrificing for others.
That awareness comes from seeing what is real and essential, hidden in plain sight.
“This is water.”
I instantly realized, this is what artists are for.
When I say to you, “Yes, making money from art is nice. But that’s not the whole reason we do it.”
When I say, “When we have a creative gift, it’s our responsibility to bring it forth.”
When I say, “We can’t judge the work we do. We just need to get it out there in the world.”
When I was told, “The world needs your art”, I felt ‘the call’.
When I say, “Art is more than just what it does for you. It’s what it does for others.”
All of this, and more….What I’m really saying is this:
Art and creative work helps us see water.
This is why we must make the work that is unique to us–not what’s trendy and fashionable.
This is why measuring ourselves with fame and wealth is a sure way to kill our creative spirit.
This is why trying to control our legacy creates a disconnect with our rich inner life.
Bringing our creative work into the world involves the same conscious decisions: Attention. Awareness. Self-discipline. Effort. Caring for others. Sacrificing for others. (I’m still wrapping my head around that last one, I can almost get it, but can’t articulate it. Another article??)
First art heals us. When we share it with the world, then it can heal others.
Sadly, Wallace suffered from severe depression, and committed suicide in 2008. Sometimes the angry, frightened voices in our head cannot be silenced. But he left us with beautiful words, and powerful ideas. He got them out into the world so that you and I can flourish.
Yesterday I wrote how I sabotaged my creative workday. I did dishes and laundry instead of making art.
Today, I did the same thing.
Doesn’t matter what I did. (Okay, I finished a book. It took a couple hours. But I had to do it. Why? Well, it was kinda creepy. Giving me bad dreams. But the writing is good, and I had to get to the ending.) (No, I’m not going to tell you.) (Okay, The Chalk Girl, by Carol O’Connell.)
Yes, as I was reading, I thought, “I should get to the studio.” But I chose to finish my novel instead, knowing I had other choices.
Why? Because I’m human.
This means there are days where I will have the power of my intention. And days where I will give in to temptation.
There are days where I will make time to make the work of my heart. And days where I will set it aside to do something else I love. Or like. Or fool myself into thinking I have to.
There are days where I will move heaven and earth to explore a new design, a new color palette. And there are days where I have to look up “palette” for spelling (because I always forget the which of the three options is right) and I come across a wonderful new color palette app–so cool!) and get distracted. (Color Pal–get it? Auto fill-in with Google led me right to it.)
You are human, too. Which means, if you read that last post, you may have realized how often we sabotage our creative efforts with more mundane tasks that can wait.
And, being human, you–me–all of us–will do it again. And again, and again, and again.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my decades-long observation and exploration into what makes me click as an artist, what holds me back, what holds me down, what gets in my way, what leads me astray.
It’s always me. Me making that decision, consciously or unconsciously, to leave the path.
And no matter how many times I observe it, write about it, clarify it for others, there’s also something else I’ve learned….
I’m going to do it again.
Here’s why I’m not beating myself up about it. And why you shouldn’t either:
This is what people do.
You are not a bad person because your will power is made of rubber, not steel.
Here’s an interesting fact: We’ve all read the benefits of meditation. We all know what we’re supposed to do. Sit quietly, empty our mind, and if we do it right, we will achiev a state of enlightenment.
And most of us know that finding that time, that quiet space, is something we just can’t seem to make room for. We know we start emptying the mind, and all sorts of stuff rushes in to fill the vacuum. “Did I remember to turn the oven off?” “How do my kids/cats/partner/employees know when I’m trying to sit quietly for five minutes?!” “I can’t remember my mantra….!!” We are left with yet another feeling that we’re doing it wrong. We’ll never be enlightened, unless yoga class goes on for another hour or to.
But do you know that enlightenment is not the goal?
Turns out the benefit doesn’t come from “doing it right”.
I wrote this post almost nine years ago. Still true.
May 20, 2007
I’ve arrived at that age where I read the obituaries in the paper each day. (Actually, I started years ago but it seems more age-appropriate now.)
After checking in with the important stuff (Is it anyone I know? Were they younger or older than me??) I glance through the rest of the article for clues about who they were.
This person left behind a huge family of grieving loved ones. This one outlived many others. This one founded an industrial dynasty. This one traveled the world for the love of adventure. This one worked tirelessly to help her fellow man. This one was an Elk, or a Moose, or a veteran. This one was an advocate for animals, for children, for the earth. This one wrote a book, made a movie, sang in their church choir. This one made toys for his grandchildren. And this one always had fresh-baked cookies and a seat at the table for those in need of a warm heart and a sympathetic ear.
Real lives, all. None for us to judge. We know too little, in the end, for that.
There is a strong central theme running through each one.
The desire for them to be remembered.
It got me thinking this morning:
Remembered for what?
We cannot ultimately control how we will be remembered. If we leave behind an impressive legacy, or enough loved ones, we may have a slightly better chance.
Even then, for how long? A few years? A few generations, if we’re lucky to have mattered that much to some? For centuries, if we are a Mozart, or a queen, or a tragic hero?
It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we cannot always control the outcome of our actions in our lives. Some of the most noble actions have led to the most dreadful outcomes and vice versa.
Even the most evil act in the world may someday generate some good. Israel, the United Nations and the lifework of Elie Wiesel (“Too remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…”) are but a few legacies of the Holocaust.
If we cannot control the outcome, how do we decide what is worth doing?
All we can do is live our best intention, and make it manifest in our everyday lives.
The older I get, the more I realize how hard this is to do on all fronts–my personal life, my professional life, in my art and writing. I am really good at some intentions and frankly awful at others. And sometimes my failures are more outstanding than my successes, as my critics love to tell me.
In the end, the words I wrote for my aunt’s funeral sum it up the best for me. I scribbled them on a scrap of paper that morning, and it was lost in the shuffle on the way back home.
I said that all lives, great and small are precious.
That in the end, even small and quiet lives can touch the hearts of many others in ways we cannot foresee or fathom.
I remember saying that our days are surely numbered, and none of us knows the number of our days.
We can only live each one with as much passion, as much wonder, as much love, as much forgiveness, and as much courage as we can muster.
Because the world can be a harsh and frightening place, and it needs that from us. It needs our passion, and compassion. It needs our open heart.
It needs the very best from us. Our very best effort to make it a little brighter, a little better not only for our loved ones, but for everyone.
Even quiet lives and little acts of courage and kindness can have repercussions we cannot ever imagine Because the diary of Anne Frank is a legacy of the Holocaust, too.
For me, part of my very best effort means my art.
I realize my confusion and unhappiness has been because I could not see what its place is in the world. I’ve been doing my best to make sure it’s as “big” as it can be.
But then I have to let it go. I have to let it go out into the world and let it be what it is.
That is as it should be. It’s as much my child as my own flesh and blood. And like my children, I want it to shine as brightly as it can.
Like my children I must fight fiercely to protect it when it is vulnerable, and always out of love.
And like my children, it will ultimately find its own place in the world, beyond my expectations and intentions.
I cannot “control” what effect it has, or what it will mean to others, or even whether I will be remembered for it after I am gone. Just as I have no right to control how my children will craft their own lives, nor who they will marry, or how they will make their living in the world.
And like my children, I see more and more that this is a mystery to be embraced–not “handled.” There can be joy is in doing my best–then letting go of the outcome.
And trusting that even tiny actions of encouragement, acts of good intention, acts of creation, might leave their mark in the world long afte I and my work am forgotten.
What if your ‘horrbile, no-good, very bad day’ is simply protecting you from something much, much worse?
A week ago today, I had one of the most frustrating days I’ve had in ages.
I drove down to Oakland, California, in the East Bay, to meet a friend for lunch and see street- and mural-artist Bud Snow’s show in a local gallery there.
I stress out driving in the Bay area–so much traffic, many expressways and interchanges, I usually realize I’m a little low on gas on the way down (which was true this trip, too), and I obsess about finding a place to park. (Worse than Boston, if you can believe it.) In fact, there’s a funky gas station right off Hwy. 101 on the way down. But traffic was heavy, the line was long, and I didn’t want to be late. “I’ll fill up on the way back,” I thought to myself.
But I made the trip in good time, and found a parking space right in front of the restaurant. I met my friend, we found two seats in the crowded restaurant, and had a terrific meal. I thought, “Wow! It’s my lucky day!” I paid the tab, and we left.
My luck soon turned.
We were going to walk to the show, but I decided to drive us there instead. We found another good parking space, and I pulled out my wallet to get the parking. (My friend beat me to the punch, though.)
That’s when I realized my wallet was missing.
The next couple hours were spent calling the restaurant, retracing our steps, looking under the car that had taken my former parking space, searching my car (always an adventure), and then calling credit card companies and banks. (Jon said, “Why don’t you just put a hold on them? Maybe you’ll find the wallet!” My friend said tersely, “It’s Oakland. Cancel the cards.) Flustered, overwhelmed, unable to rally my good cheer, I decided to skip the show and head home, hoping to get a jump on rush hour traffic. Halfway home, I wish I hadn’t refused my friend’s offer of gas money.
The whole way home, I fretted about gas and the loss of a sizeable chunk of cash in my wallet. And the traffic was UNBELIEVABLE. Almost the entire way home, I rarely drove more than 20 mph for over 60 miles. The one-hour trip without traffic had taken me over three hours. And I still had to deal with more phone calls when I got home. (Jon didn’t realize we could ask for expedited service. Especially with the holiday weekend, we’re still waiting for our main household credit card to arrive.)
And then, on Monday, after I’d spent several hours getting my driver’s licence replaced, a little package appeared in the mail, postdated the Saturday right after New Year’s Day.
I knew instantly what it was. Sure enough, it held my credit cards, my driver’s license, and my health insurance ID.
I was instantly awash with a multitude of emotions.
Anger–did the person really think I would not cancel those credit cards immediately? What was the point? Why couldn’t they have sent the driver’s licence back sooner?
Then curiosity: Did they try to use the cards, and they were already cancelled. So they felt bad and returned them. A thief with a conscience?
Then, humility. How did I know it was the person who helped themselves to my wallet? Maybe someone stripped the contents, took the money, and dumped the cards? Perhaps someone had simply found the cards, and decided to send them back to me.
The handwriting was extremely careful–did the person deliberately disguise their handwriting, so it could never be traced back to them? Or was it someone young, who didn’t learn cursive? Or…was it an elderly person, or a person whose first language is not English? (You can see the wavering strokes…) No return address, of course. No note, my husband remarked. Did they simply not want me to think they were the one who’d taken the money? (As Jon always says, no good deed goes unpunished. He also liked the ‘Happy Holidays!’ postmark, while I noticed the ‘Forever’ postage stamps from 2012. Two of them, too, to make sure it would make it through the mail.)
Jon posted about this on Facebook. The comments were varied. “Mediocre Samaritan” was our favorite. (Update at bottom.)
On Tuesday, I took my car in for a maintenance check. And the report came back with disturbing news. My car needed new tires. How soon? I asked. As soon as possible, he said. Why?? A 2006 Scion we bought just before we moved here, they were probably the original tires. There were severe cracks in the sidewalls. We’d forgotten to check our tire pressure, and the tires were underinflated until a few days before. That could have affected very old tires badly. “You’ll be okay for a few days on surface roads,” the guy said. “But stay off the expressways. If those tires were to overheat, one could explode, and you’d lose control of the car.”
Stay off the expressways….
What if my day in Oakland had passed without incident? What if I had filled my tanks on the way down? What if there hadn’t been rush-hour traffic clogging the expressway for hours? What if I hadn’t been forced to drive slowly, and carefully, all the way home?
My friend Mary Ellen (who was the friend involved) put it best in her Facebook comment:
All our comments are our own lens on the world. I choose to believe there is good in most people and someone found it and returned it. There is no way to test that. Another might see some nefarious plot. It’s like a rorschach.
I have the resources to restore my life back to normal (such as that is!) I thought back about the money in my wallet. On impulse, the day before my trip, I’d stuffed a $20 into the collection pot for a charity outside a supermarket. It seemed excessive, but it felt like the right thing to do. I’m glad that was my last ‘purchase’.
Maybe, maybe, maybe, the rest of my money was a blessing in someone else’s life. I hope so.
What might have happened if I’d driven home at top speed, on uncrowded roads?
I heard the phrase, “Protection through rejection…” a few months ago. I instantly recognized the sentiment: Sometimes, the times we didn’t get what we wanted–the gig we didn’t get, the relationship that didn’t work out, the opportunity that fizzled–those “rejections” are actually protecting us, directly or indirectly, from something else.
There is simply no way to know the true story, nor the whole story. But the point is, it doesn’t matter.
And it doesn’t matter whether we believe we are under special consideration from a superior being, or fate, or whether we make our way through utter randomness in the universe. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is the lens we choose. What matters is the story we choose to tell ourselves. The story that marks our view of the world, our view of this life, and our place in it.
Me? I’m happy to be safely at home, my life approaching normal again. Happy with the story I chose to tell today.
Update When I posted this article on Facebook, several people shared their own experiences, including a friend who routinely used to find lost wallets and cards, and always returned the contents to their rightful owner. This is what I wanted to believe, and now I have the proof. Thank you, Barbe SaintJohn for sharing your story. Faith is knowing what to believe, hope is wanting to believe. You have solidified my faith.
Second update I was telling this story to two friends in Atlas Coffee recently, and they both told me they’d been driving on a freeway when their tire blew up. “It was like an explosion!” Ray said. “I was doin’ 70. Thought I was gonna die.” ” Closest I’ve ever come to dying,” said Mike. Thank you, lost wallet. Thank you.
The only difference is, other big changes are in store for me.
I can’t talk about them now. I’ve found that sometimes, me writing and talking about ‘next steps’ can feel like I’ve already done them. The talking replaces the doing. Not good.
This past year, an entire year apart from everything that’s gone before, has been strange. Unsettling. Exciting. Powerful. If only from the fact that we took a huge step outside our comfort zone, left familiarity behind, embraced something new. Because we believed we could, and so we did.
With this distance has come the gift of space, space to contemplate, space to heal.
My first manifesto, and events in the year before the move, sparked some usual responses from readers, friends, and family. My decision to speak up, and not hunker down, caused some explosions, some ridiculing, and a lot of patronizing. A lot of this stemmed from people who are very, very sure they have everything all figured out, and see the rest of us (me in particular) as stupid/hateful/not worthy. They consider themselves experts and all-knowing, to the extent that they don’t even know what they don’t know–to the extent that they can’t even hear someone who’s experienced something different. (A huge shout-out here to Quinn McDonald, a friend whose wisdom created the space for what I learned in hospice, to come in. Her words inspired a slew of posts about perfectionism.) (And probably more, because I used to really mess up with categories and tags in my blog.)
A fellow traveler, Sheri Gaynor, came into my life late in 2015. I’ve had an intense, beautiful session with her recently, one that finally laid to rest many old wounds I was still carrying. Sheri is a licensed therapist who uses the healthy, healing properties of horses with her clients. (If you’re interested in how this works, walk calmly to the HorseTenders Mustang Foundation in Greenfield, NH and meet their horses. An amazing family, with amazing mustangs, working in partnership, with peace and intention, creating profound experiences for all of us.)
Most attacks in my life came from me expanding, emotionally, spiritually, from new experiences and insights. And most devastating were the ones that I triggered just by being myself. “You’re too sensitive!” could have been my mantra growing up. I sure heard it enough. The attacks were at times so powerful, I would retract to protect myself. This act of retraction/contraction became such a protective measure for me, I soon equated each expansion with fear. If I stepped up/forward/outward, I would be slapped down. The contraction became a habit. It held me back.
(Quick note: I always–always–take responsibility–and apologize–for my own contribution to these attacks. Maybe I took too much on myself. Maybe I overestimated the other. I could have been more calm, more measured, more grounded. But I rarely regret what I believe and say. I’m also a sucker for a good apology (and I can smell a non-apology apology a mile away. I also know, and understand, that most people who hurt us, are hurting, themselves. That’s fine. But….Not my circus, not my monkeys.)
As one of my wise woman friends, Melinda LaBarge constantly reminds me, I’m not here to “fix” anybody else. Though I love to try, I must resist. That’s their journey, not mine. (Melinda is also the person who told me, after I whined about the difficulties of transition, “This ain’t your first rodeo. You don’t have to be the clown.”)
Looking back, I see the attacks are an important part of who I am today. The pain I’ve carried has caused major shifts in my persona. But they will not define me–or rather, restrict me–going forward. (There, I said it.)
2015 became my year of healing, though I didn’t realize it til today. (I’ve always excelled at looking back than leaning forward. Amazing what a little space to heal, and a lot of time to think, can get you.)
What does 2016 bring?
Expansion. Time to step up to the plate with my gifts.
And with it: “Protection through rejection.” I heard this phrase in the context of, sometimes we don’t get what we want because it would have been bad for us. We may feel ‘rejected’, but we were actually protected. It also works both ways: Moving forward, I may need emotional/physical/virtual distance to protect myself. Facebook is my frenemy. I see it as a way to connect, to see new points of view, to learn from others. And you can post whatever you want on your timeline. But be warned–From now on, if you shit on my timeline, you are history. (And for those who embrace the ‘a few bad apples’ theory, you have to understand–Michael Jackson got it wrong. Bad apples do spoil the whole bunch, girl. They need to be set apart from the good apples or they continue to rot, and spread the rot to the rest. You don’t tolerate, excuse, overlook, rot. (Did I get carried away with my farm metaphor??)
I hope to will practice leaving the contraction part of expansion/conttraction behind.
To all my fellow travelers in this world, to those who have helped me, educated me, encouraged me, believed in me–thank you, bless you, go with light. To those I have wronged or hurt, please forgive me. For those who have given me the gift of love, and friendship and a true sense of family, I love you. Because of you, I’m moving forward.
“…And I can do this with my hands, by creating my little horse, which symbolizes the power that comes from our choices, our actions, even in the face of despair.”
My post on 9/11 reminds me that in the face of tragedy, we always have the power of our choices.
I’ve been silent here for awhile, as we’ve wrapped up our mammoth move to Northern California. And even when I’m writing regularly, I usually stick to subjects I consider “safe” for me: Writing about the business of art, writing about making art has affected my life, sharing the lessons I’ve found in wall-climbing, martial arts, hospice, parenthood and silly pets as I muddle through life.
None of that is changing. But there is something that’s been building, building lately. If you follow me on Facebook, you may have wondered why I’ve gone all “social justice-y” as my social worker daughter Robin so aptly puts it.
I’ve decided to speak out about white privilege and racism on my blog.
Rest assured that this will not dominate my writing. That is for more knowledgeable, articulate writers than I.
But let me explain how I got here.
Several years ago, our family became involved with an abusive person who is black. In his manipulation of our family, many topics revolving around race and class were used as tools to bully and intimidate. We became ‘hyper-allergic’ to anything that reminded us of that difficult period in our lives.
My daughter is the one who walked us back from that hard place. She made us realize that the way these issues were used was hurtful, but the truth of them was valid. Not only valid, but devastating in their consequences for people of color.
I began to examine many of the things I say and believe that I felt made me a ‘liberal’, a non-racist person. I was dismayed to realize I was oblivious to what more than a third of the people in the United States experience every single day of their lives. (Numbers vary, but roughly only 62% of the U.S. population consists of non-Hispanic white people.) The daily life of people of color in our country is very, very different than anything I have ever experienced. The death of Trayvon Martin opened my eyes even more.
More recently, we’ve gotten to know our new neighbors, a naturalized American of Mexican ancestry and her white husband. I had no idea of the extent of hostilities experienced by Hispanics in California. I was totally ignorant of the police shooting/death of Andy Lopez. Soon after, the events in Ferguson, MO took place, and the grand jury decision was made. Days later, the results of the Eric Garner grand jury were announced.
As I educated myself about these incidents, more and more examples of similar tragedies arose. I felt overwhelmed. But I realized I could no longer turn away.
Normally, I would slowly return to my ‘normal life’, feeling sad but sidelined and powerless to change anything. But as I learned even more, something shifted.
It happened after I read a powerful post from a black blogger. (Deep apologies, I can’t find the appropriate link, but will find it later. I need to get this written NOW!) She noted that her white followers, white people, even her own white friends, were being remarkably silent on these issues, even on Facebook where a cute cat video can go viral in seconds. She checked around, and found this was the case for other bloggers of color, too. “Where are the white people??” she asked.
Oh. Uh…. Yeah. That would be me.
Why WAS I being silent? What was holding me back?? Believing that these events don’t affect me? That I have nothing useful to say? Was I worried about appropriating a people-of-color cultural narrative?
I realized it doesn’t matter.
Andy Lopez could have been my kid, a young man who loves his Airsoft games with his friends. Except that my kid does it in the woods of New Hampshire, on private property, whereas poorer kids of color play in parks. And poorer kids of color get shot on sight, whereas my kid is white and would probably NOT be shot.
Andy Lopez could have been my kid. But saying, “There but for the grace of God…” doesn’t do it for me anymore. Because Andy Lopez deserves grace, too.
What about simply standing up and saying, “I stand with you”….?
What about simply saying, “I believe this is unjust and intolerable”….?
What about simply saying, “We have to find a way to change this”….?
I found I could no longer tolerate remaining silent.
And I began to post on Facebook about it.
The first post created quite a stir!
Things I’ve been told lately when discussing Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Andy Lopez, Tamir Rice…..
“He wasn’t a good kid, he’d just stolen cigarettes from a store!”
Me: “Do we shoot to kill when teens shoplift?”
“He lived in an awful neighborhood!”
Me: “He didn’t choose to live there. Probably his parents didn’t, either.”
“Why do those parents let their kids play with real-looking guns??”
Me: “Have you WALKED through a WalMart lately?? And heck, I had a preschooler chew his organic peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich into a gun and pretend to shoot it!”
“Why don’t those parents teach their kids not to wave a play gun at a police officer?”
Me: “I’m sure they did. But the operative word here is…’kids’….”
“Andy Lopez was a big kid. He looked like an adult!”
Me: “He didn’t choose that, either. And even an adult shouldn’t be shot on sight for carrying a AirSoft gun.”
“He wore a hoodie! That’s a gang sign!”
Me: I don’t even know what to say
In my passion to be more involved, I alienated some people, good people. I incurred endless arguments from well-meaning people who explained to me why these victims don’t deserve my compassion. I became more frustrated as I saw people endlessly defending their own points of view, while not even really considering mine.
I say one thing to these people: I’m sorry I didn’t respect your journey.
I don’t want to respect their point of view–I try, but I’m not that evolved!–but I have to. “Let go, let God”, says a wiser friend than I. I get it. Everybody has their own journey to make. I’m at a different place in mine, but it’s not for me to say where you should be in yours.
Neither will I become silent. My art, why I make it, and why it seems to matter so much to other people, are all wrapped up in my journey. I cannot separate my art from my activism. That’s why it seemed so right to take my simple earnings from my very first open studio here, and walk around the corner to donate it all to the Center for Peace and Justice in Sonoma County.
So my manifesto which begins today, as an early “New Year’s Resolution”. Or a “New Life Resolution”, if you will. I will hold onto the other core issues I treasure–humane rescue of animals, the spirituality of art, hospice, homelessness.
But there will be a few additions:
I will share my views openly (and peacefully!) when and where I can about social justice for people of color.
I will continue to examine my own deeply rooted beliefs and assumptions that keep me from being engaged.
I will support accountability for those in power.
I will support those who write and work for these issues, with my respect and my pocketbook.
I will not hide behind rationalizing, and defensiveness, and silence.
Because only our silence stands in the way of real justice.
And here’s my manifesto for 9/11:
Today is my birthday. A Google alert tells me that today is the anniversary of the day the Lascaux cave was discovered by four teenaged boys who followed their lost dog down a hole.
In all these years I’ve made artwork inspired by the Lascaux cave, I never knew this.
It makes this piece (which I wrote on 9/11, my 49th birthday) even more poignant to me….
AN ANCIENT STORY FOR MODERN TIMES
The events of September 11, 2001 were almost too horrible to contemplate. The world seemed filled with evidence of hate, destruction and despair. As I watched events unfold, I was aware of my own reactions of anger and hate for the people who could stoop this low, and overwhelming sympathy for those whose lives were so carelessly taken in these acts of violence.
I went to my studio later, lost in despair and fearful of the new world that awaited us. As I worked, I couldn’t help thinking, “What does it matter that I make these little horses? What relevance do they have in the light of this tragic event?” I kept working as I thought.
The Cave Paintings of Lascaux…
Soon, however, it dawned on me. When the Lascaux cave paintings were created, the Ice Age was ending. The climate was changing, the great glaciers were retreating. The grasslands disappeared, and with them, the huge herds of animals that followed them. These ancient people watched as their entire way of life changed and disappeared. Some archaeologists now think the cave paintings were created to call the animals back.
Even as we stand, fearful and afraid at the dawn of a new age, so did they stand and watch as their world changed around them. They were afraid and perhaps filled with despair. But they went into the dark cave and created the most profoundly beautiful and evocative art the world has ever seen. Poignant in its message (though we cannot read it), we still feel its power 17,000 years later.
The Dawn of a New Morning…
We, too, stand at the dawn of a new morning. We, too, are afraid and despairing about what those changes will mean to us, as a nation and as individuals. We have choices to make about how we will meet those changes.
Life is not about what happens to us, but how we get through what happens to us. The kind of person we want to be determines the kind of choices we make.
We can choose how we face life.
The Choices We Make…
As an artist, I choose to affirm the creative force of the universe. In my own small way, I must stand on the side of creativity—to grow, to understand, to move forward in a constructive way, and to act in whatever way I can to honor this force. I can do this globally, by contributing to causes that seek to alleviate the conditions that bring acts of horror like this to the world. I can do this locally, by holding my family and loved ones close, and honoring the creative spirit of all other people. And I can do this with my hands, by creating my little horse, which symbolizes the power that comes from our choices, our actions, even in the face of despair.