LESSONS FROM THE GYM: Challenge vs. Injury

There’s a big difference between perseverance and suffering.

I overheard another intriguing comment at the physical therapy practice I go to. Out of nowhere, one of the therapists told a client, “We want to see perseverance, not suffering.”

Oh, the memories…..

Years ago, (seems like an eternity) I was really into martial arts. (No, I never got a black belt, though all my instructors along the way said I was well on my way.)

I never got there because…..injuries.

I pursued martial arts over a spread of 15-20 years in my middle age, sometimes with massive breaks in between practices and schools (Tae Kwon Do, Thai Kickboxing, then back to Thai Kwon Do.)

Typically, I was the oldest person in the class. I always did my best, but I’ve always been “heavy” on my feet as opposed to “light”. Ironically, this quality is not due to weight. Jackie Gleason was always heavy, but he was also “light on his feet”. I’ve talked with my husband (a former gymnast), physical therapists and athletes about this quality. They recognize what I’m saying, but can’t identify what it “is”, whether it is innate or can be learned, and why some people have it and some don’t. It is not an indication of ability, but is a recognizable style.

And so, encouraged by my instructors to push myself, I always, eventually, ended up injuring myself pretty badly. (Although, come to think of it, my most major injuries were inflicted by a) an instructor who should have known better, according to other instructors in the class, and b) another student who was even more inept than I was, tried to kick me below the belt, and when I blocked him, his shoe broke my finger. (He had to wear shoes as he was diabetic.)

The story typically goes like this:

One evening, I went to Tae Kwo Do. We did a kicking work-out. The instructor yelled, “Faster!” and I didn’t want to be the one everyone was waiting on.

So I picked up the pace a wee bit, landed wrong on my foot, and injured my Achilles tendon.

I instantly had a cap on almost all my other activities for many months.

I felt pretty stupid. The instructor wasn’t urging me to go past my limits–he was yelling at the green belts. I was the one who felt I had to prove something–that I may be older, but I was still a competent student.

Well, I went over that delicate balance between challenge and injury, and landed hard on the injury side.

It wasn’t even my own challenge. I was worried what other people would think if I didn’t try harder. Even though I should know by now that is NOT the way to get what I need. The only thing I get with that attitude is more injuries.

I told myself I would not give in to self-pity, nor get angry with myself.

I went swimming instead. And with each stroke, I chanted to myself, “I…..can…..handle…..this.”

I realize I walk a delicate balance in everything I do. Working out. Friendships. Relationships. In my business. And with my art.

I need to push myself enough to challenge myself, to make myself grow stronger, physically, emotionally, artistically.

And yet hold just enough back so as not to injure myself, or others.

As in martial arts, so in my art. There’s that same balance between taking the professional risks that challenge me, without injuring my bottom line (and my ego) irreparably.

That particular injury (and there were many along that path) happened just before my (very full) fine craft wholesale/retail show was scheduled. I realized I was in the same place with my art biz. Although I had no idea what to expect, I knew I had to try.

Sometimes I get freaked out thinking it out–“What am I doing??!!” Other times, I feel it is a reasonable venture.

Hopefully, I would find buyers who were looking for work that had a more western/southwestern/northwestern feel.

If not, I knew I would come home feeling like I need to crawl into a barrel and mosey on over Niagra Falls…..

But not for long. I knew if this show proved not a good fit for my work, I would just have to get over it and try a whole ‘nother strategy.

Like my tendon, my ego eventually healed. And like my injury didn’t keep me away from martial arts very long, guessing wrong will not discourage me from making my art. Not for very long, at least.

In the end, the injuries accumulated to the point where I did have to walk away from that passion. And those shows? Well, that was just before the recession in 2007-2008. They turned out to be a gamble, one I finally decided was not worth it.

After creating new strategies over the years, I finally found what worked for me: One major show with a deep history and very loyal following, open studios, and online sales.

Moving to California meant rebooting in may ways. I’m still working out my best plan to persevere in my art-making.

What worked for me then doesn’t work for me now. What works for me now is still in process. There continue to be obstacles and injuries along the way.

But here are two big truths I hope inspire you on your own journey in making the work that lifts your heart:

As I said, I was not a “natural” when it came to Tae Kwon Do. But every instructor always reminded me: We are competing with ourselves. (One class was “Olympic” but there were plenty of folks who obviously weren’t going down that path.)

Because I was “bad” at it, I had to practice more than others did. I showed up, every class. My last instructor said, after the last big injury that meant I could never practice again, that my perseverance had gained me excellent technique, and indomitable spirit. He said he felt guilty they had started me at the beginning all over again (they doubted my credential from an instructor who had moved away.)

He said I deserved a black belt.

So, wait, four big truths:

I did what I loved.

Perseverance almost got me there. 

Practice makes perfect.

I’ve gotten very good at not giving up.

Whatever you need to do to make your place in the world, never give up what you love until it takes away from you. Even then, there are ways to keep moving forward. (T’ai Chi!)

Find the balance (life/work/art) that works for you.

And keep doing it ’til you get better.

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!