“awareness is learning to keep yourself company” –Geneen Roth

“And then,” as Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, “learn to be…compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage.”

Now, reading this line felt like somewhere between a love-letter from the gods and a “DOH” with a bonk to the head. Of course the “gods” write a love letter. I’m the one who bonks my head in judgement. Hm. I don’t think that’s what Anne means.

I am learning that the most important task for me to learn, is to give myself a love-letter. Act as if I want to hang out in my space, have a chat, sit on the porch with a cup of tea and watch the clouds. I turn 40 this year, and I’m reflecting how long it took me to realize that I’M the one to really get to like, get to know, get curious about what makes me tick. As a writer, an artist, and generally curious soul, I’m infinitely curious about what’s OUT THERE.

That’s great! It’s my way of loving the world, accepting it for all it’s beauty and cruelty and gorgeous paradox. Now, what about MY OWN beauty, cruelty, and gorgeous paradox? For aren’t I all of that too? DEEP BREATH. Yes. Yes, I am.

Here’s a very simple map for learning to love myself. Get curious. About me. What do I think? What do I feel? What are the sensations going on beneath the surface of my skin? When I wonder about these things a whole fantastic and deeply interesting world opens up to me. What stories are there in the tension of my calf? If my fingers had a voice, what would they say? What is the color of the sense of peace I feel inside? The texture of my anger? The shape of my love?

In the wondering, I’m made whole. I don’t need to look to the gods above to write me a love letter, though the thought conjures images of handmade lace, a Mozart concerto, and the most delicate wildflower honey on a sun-warmed fresh fig. I am smiling at the thoughts I just conjured…. I just wrote a mini love letter to myself in those images. Pure joy in myself. I wish this for you today: Keep yourself company. Be lovingly and compassionate with your best friend in the world. You.

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Discipline: No Pain. No. Pain.

As someone who loves discussing creative endeavors I start to breathe shallow and break into a slight sweat when it comes to the topic of discipline. I am committed to leading a creative life, to nurturing my passion for making art, for writing. Okay that’s great! Hmm. …It looks like this place needs a good vacuuming. Or better yet, I should check my email. Blue the dog looks like he could use a walk. Wow, the sofa is in the sun. Look…how…inviting…all…of…a…sudden…I…feel…sleep…..y…………..

And, an orderly space, keeping current on my responsibilities, and rest are all ingredients of clearing my internal space for creativity to flourish. The space BETWEEN the words, the time between the work is a time for seeds to germinate. But it’s winter. My nature in January is to go to the nap.

Enter my friend and this discussion about discipline that sneaks up and suddenly I need to pee. I’m sorry, I say, can you hold that thought? Secretly I’m hoping she’ll forget the topic. She does, however, hold that thought. She begins to talk about discipline and its value in living a creative life. I know this, of course, and know I’m perfectly capable of kicking it out, preparing for a big exhibition, for example. And yet I keep having this Marine sergeant voice in my head calling me a lazy slug for the times in the sun on the couch. The thinking. The opening of space inside myself for new ideas to emerge. Organizing my studio.  The walking of dog, and yes, even the vacuuming. “Prewriting” my high-school English teacher alter-ego calls it.

My drill sergeant gives a derisive snort.

Then my friend says something magical. My friend sitting across from me who is incredibly smart, and fit, someone I judge to be WAY better at the kind of discipline my drill sergeant has in mind. She says:

Discipline is simply turning toward that which you are committed to. And turning to it again. And again.

My breath deepens. My pulse slows. My mind goes fuzzy and I ask her to repeat it, thinking I must have mis-heard. Yes. She says it again. Discipline is simply turning toward that which you are committed to. And the practice, the discipline of coming back to that turning toward. My cells start vibrating, giving each other some space. I feel the skin around my temples go smooth. I begin to feel as if I’m getting into a warm bath, and I know what she says is true.

I come home, stretch, make a cup of tea. And turn to my studio. Wonder about what I want to make, what I want to write, what I want to create for myself. And then I vacuum. And while I’m vacuuming I wonder about what I want to make, what I want to write, what I want to create. And I nap. I go to sleep wondering what I want to create. It is delicious.

And I wake from my nap, and I go to my studio. And begin.

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On Wanting

wild bill wants a nap

I wanted an epiphany. I may not have known it at the time, or put it into words, but I wanted a seismic shift.

I’ve been reflecting on the changing over to a brand-new year–2012. I’ve been thinking thoughts like “what have I accomplished in the last year” and “what should I be thinking about creating this next year” and “I wonder what would be really great for me to do, really healthy, really interesting….”  A friend asked me “what do you WANT? I hear myself talking about what I want but I don’t really have a clear idea about what YOU want.” This hit me hard. I wasn’t sure I knew what I really wanted. That wasn’t a question I was asking myself.

I realize I’ve not been friendly with the word “want” and have hidden it in other words such as “need” (a very tricky one when it applies to chocolate or having space), “should,” “intend to,” even “commit to.” But to say I WANT? Something about the way I saw the world had me unconsciously thinking that to WANT was somehow selfish, even wrong in some way. Especially if it was about material objects, success, or anything “flashy.” Whose belief was this anyway? Mine? My family’s? My culture’s?

I am talking on the phone with a friend in a room with the door closed. I hear dog Blue nudge the door with his head in hopes it will swing open. Cat Wild Bill joins him, meow-ing his displeasure at his exclusion into my space. I get up from my comfy spot and let them in, close the door. Blue lays down, points toward closed door. Wild Bill does rub-by on my leg, goes to closed door. Meows.

I feel a rush of gratitude, it is my epiphany I didn’t know I wanted! A line from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” enters my mind: “you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I rephrase it in that moment “you only have to let the soft animal of your body want what it wants.” This frees me, seeing these beings allow themselves, without judgment, to want what they want.

So I decide to want what I want. Wonder into what the soft animal of my body wants. Now these wants are pointing me in ways I want to move in, want to commit to. I feel yummy. My animal body softens into this wanting, like having my belly softly stroked. Like stretching in the sun, staring out at the winter day, wondering…wondering…what do I want?

I want to have the art that I create and the words that I write inspire others. I want to have abundant monetary affirmation of my creativity. I want to have a positive impact on the world. I want as much chocolate as I want. I want to go for walks in nature every day. I want a conscious loving relationship with my partner. I want lots of sex. I want to feel supported. I want to have a room to myself to do whatever I want, whether it’s to be creative and “productive” or just to nap and daydream. I want to create positive change in my life. I want it to ripple out to others, and to my community, out as wide as it can go into the world. I want to make stuff. I want to make stuff even if I don’t know what it means or why I’m making it. I just want to make it. I want to feel close to those around me. I want to take 100% responsibility for my life. I want to be transparent, and have others be transparent with me. I want to be magnificent. I want to have beauty all around me. I want to make beauty, be beauty. I want to experience a lot of things. In friendly ways. I want to care for my body. I want to care for those around me. I want to care for the earth. I want to know what my gifts are and I want to bring them into fruition in the world. I want to live my life so creatively, so presently, that time disappears. I want my purpose to flow through me in every moment.

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“In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action.”

–Keith Johnstone, quoted by Malcomb Gladwell in Blink

I recently learned that improvisation in comedy theater relies on specific rules that allow the action to run smoothly. The most important one is that both actors commit to agree, to accept all offers made, to keep the action going. Here’s the example Johnstone, one of the founders of improv theater refers to (115):

The first exchange, where this cardinal rule is not adhered to by the actors, goes like this:

A: I’m having trouble with my leg.

B: I’m afraid I’ll have to amputate.

A: You can’t do that, Doctor.

B. Why not?

A: Because I’m rather attached to it.

B: (losing heart) Come on, man.

A: I’ve got this growth on my arm too, Doctor.

In a very different exchange, but with a similar subject, the same actors agree to the rule of agreeing to whatever the other actor says, no matter how ridiculous:

A: Augh!

B: Whatever is it, man?

A: It’s my leg, Doctor.

B: This looks nasty. I shall have to amputate.

A: It’s the one you amputated last time, Doctor.

B: You mean you’ve got a pain in your wooden leg?

A: Yes, Doctor.

B: You know what this means?

A: Not woodworm, Doctor!

B. Yes. We’ll have to remove it before it spreads to the rest of you.

(A’s chair collapses.)

B: My God! It’s spreading to the furniture!

I found this lesson on improvisation immensely inspiring. It’s the sort of example of how saying YES to whatever comes next, however absurd, can be the foundation of surprise and creativity (and let’s face it: hilarity!).  A willingness (and enthusiasm) in experiencing surprise is one of the joys of living. It’s surprisingly (and NOT in a funny way, I might add) that many grown-ups struggle with this. The ability to be surprised is somehow perceived as letting on that we don’t know something, that we are gullible, or (god forbid), easily amused. I myself fully embrace my ability to be easily amused, even if it means risking appearing less sophisticated. The inadvertent laughing until I cry or–yes, this is far worse, and I will add very, VERY uncommon–until my drink comes out my nose pretty much precludes me from sophistication anyway. It has happened. Oh, well.

I recently read a prescription for leading a creative life not only is to be available and willing to be surprised at least once a day, but to surprise someone ELSE once a day. This is more of a challenge in a world where consistency and order are valued as adult and responsible traits. Following the rules of improvisation seem like a good start, though. What would happen if we agreed to suspend disbelief and cynicism at least once a day to wonder what would happen if we said YES to that which seems unbelievable?

I heard a story not too long ago on the radio about a flamingo that fell from the sky in Siberia, in the middle of winter, in sub-zero temperatures. Two boys ice fishing nearby witnessed it, and brought the pink feathered giant home, warmed it, fed it and made it the family pet (until it bit the family dog). That’s a gorgeous act of improvisation if I ever heard one.

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The Destroyer

Someone once told me that we all embody three aspects of creative activity: The Creator, The Sustainer, and The Destroyer. Ideally, these are in balance, and we move easily through the cycles as things pass away and come into existence, and go through their life cycle. These aspects are present in the very short-term. A day, for example, goes through the fullness of a cycle in only 24 hours. Consider how a meal comes into being: we have the seed of an idea, perhaps based on a craving, or whether or not we will be eating alone or with others, entertaining one person, or twelve. We plan the menu, shop for ingredients, prepare it, eat it. The destruction, in this case, is obvious: the dirty dishes, piles of pots and pans, perhaps now the smell of coffee or quiet conversation. The slightly chaotic evidence of the full cycle of creative process. Of course the destruction always brings with it another creative process, but there seems to be a gap between one creative cycle and another.

This gap is terrifying to me. My friend who talked about these three parts of creation pointed out my discomfort for The Destroyer aspect of myself. Well… Duh. The destroyer ENDS. I mean, DESTRUCTION? How can that be good? I am quite fond of The Creator, and The Sustainer. The Creator seems to me a radical, sassy, puckish girl who will try anything. She’s fun, loves to include everyone, is curious and free. The Sustainer is a little older, a little wiser, and knows the value of caring for things, for people. She’s kind, and a little maternal, like she’ll be very tenacious when caring for her own. But The Destroyer? Wow, she’s a mean one. And apparently always ready to ruin a good time. Who wants her around? She’s the one who will always say no. But my friend seems to be saying I shouldn’t blame her. It’s her job.

I’m thinking of endings. The end of the semester. I just had another birthday, and it’s late in the decade for me, the last year of my 30s. Favorite students are graduating (both a death and a birth, of course), and it’s a time of clearing out winter’s destruction in the garden to allow for the life that will come. But it’s Northern Colorado, and my thumb is not exactly green, so I feel like my yard is in suspended in that uncomfortable gap between destruction and creation. There is a lot of brown out there.

There’s a funny thing that occurs with artmaking for me, also, at this point when I’m nearing completion of a piece. I’m prone to not fully committing to finishing. It signifies destruction. And of course after that there will be a gap before my party-girl friend The Creator comes over. And what if she has other plans? What if I’m not home when she stops by? The gap could mean ANYTHING. For some, this gap of potential is thrilling and full of endless possibility. It’s that for me, too, but endless possibility also includes the fear that what if NOTHING happens. What if there are no more ideas? Of course I know this is absurd, but it does worry me that The Creator will forget which street I live on or get distracted.

Recently I said “no” to going somewhere with a friend. In a momentary panic I said, “am I missing my window of opportunity?” and he said, “there are always windows of opportunity.” He didn’t realize how profound a statement that is for me, how beautifully it said to me, “it’s okay, go ahead, DESTROY. There will be something on the other side.”

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Tales From The Crit (Art Critique, that is)

It’s the last couple weeks of classes, and Critique Season is upon us here in the world of art school. So far I’m cruising through this one relatively unscathed, but there is still Finals Week to contend with. So far, this semester, so good. During Critique Season, I review previous years’ critiques, just to remind myself of the potential dangers (and silliness, and delights) of the art school critique.

The first major critique I ever held was my first year out of grad school, when I was an adjunct professor at a small art and design college. I was only teaching one class, and my experience as a graduate teaching assistant seemed ample in preparing me in class managing whatever possible challenges I’d encounter in such a setting. Let me begin by stressing I am not a morning person. I think it’s just best to get that out-of-the-way now. The class was held once a week, but as a studio class, it was five hours long, beginning at 8:00 a.m. I lived about a one-and-a-half hours away (not including morning rush hour traffic into the city). But, I figured, it was only once a week, and though it barely paid enough for gas, it was good experience. I kept telling myself this.

The class was Beginning Fibers, and my approach to the final project was very open, and there was a variety of work from weaving to surface design, sculpture and 2-dimensional work. The assignment was “research and reinterpretation,” so students looked to contemporary or historical sources for inspiration, but needed to make their work fit their personal expressive goals. NOTE: Take care when encouraging exploration of “Personal Expressive Goals.”

There were a variety of interesting projects that came out of this project, however. One student was working on reverse applique in large abstract shapes with various found materials such as faux-fur, corduroy, and lots of polyester. Another student created a very compelling installation in a hallway, another did a small-scale tapestry. Yet another was working on a small pink stitched piece with skulls and imagery from his favorite band, Slayer. I can’t remember what research he was doing.

One student researched the so-called “Snake Goddess” figurine from Bronze-Age Crete. This particular student, I’ll call her Sara, was enamored with the dress: an open-bodice corset-like top with a flounced skirt. She decided to knit a sweater that had an open-bodice. (if you don’t know what a bodice is, an open one exposes the girls. see above.) Sara wanted to comment on…well, I can’t remember, really, but she was commenting on something to do with the rights of chest-baring.

So. The morning of the final critique. I am very excited about The Last Day of my first “big girl” teaching gig, and the night before is fitful in anticipation. The alarm goes off at the usual time for my once a week morning–4:45. Did I mention I need a lot of sleep? Well, I’m running on maybe four hours. Anyone who knows me knows I’m actually not so good on less than…7 1/2. 9 1/2 is better.

I haul my tired but wired (on too much coffee) self to school. My students break into small groups to quickly write, free-associating words about whatever work of art we are about to critique. We start with the installation. The students recite their lists to wake us up, get us warmed up for more formal critique. The students go down the lists of words of this suspended piece saying things like “energetic,” “swaying,” “spider-woven,” “well-hung.” At which point I begin to laugh uncontrollably. In my defense, out of all the critiques I’ve attended over the years of my education, I never heard the words “well-hung” used to describe something that hangs, which is, really, A LOT of art. As I looked around the room I see that the students are bewildered with my reaction. These 18-21 year-olds seem above my adolescent reaction to the words “well-hung” to describe the installation. Damn. It is going to be a long day.

And it is. The reverse appliqued abstract piece? Well. It turns out that this boy who made the piece (which is very interesting by the way) was recalling childhood memories of showering with his mom. Hence the, um, fake fur.

My students are good participants, and as any teacher can attest, without lively participation from the students, the critique simply flops. Bless their hearts, my students are all quick to pipe up and comment on how “well-hung” each of the pieces are.

After a coffee break a couple of hours into the class, Sara emerges from the bathroom ready for her critique. I don’t know, call me naive. I was assuming she’d find a mannequin, or perhaps pin her work to the cork-board wall. I underestimated her creativity. To support her Personal Expressive Goals, she decided to wear her sweater. Her open-bodice sweater. Did I mention she’s a girl? At least she’s wearing silver heart-shaped glitter pasties.

This is the point, this seemingly eternal moment, when I decide whether or not to be a teacher. I stare at the ceiling tiles, imploring them in silent desperation, “is this job really for me?” and “can I get arrested for allowing this?” and “I wonder if I can just leave now and play like I never had this job and go and work at Starbucks?” and “what do I say now?” In the next moment I receive wisdom in the form of my own thoughts, which  answer, “yes,” “probably not,” and “no,” and then…”okay, class, let’s talk about this next work…” and off we go like this happens to me every day. Thankfully it doesn’t.

I still encourage students to explore their “Personal Expressive Goals.” And hope for the best.

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Instructions (from a guest blogger)

  1. Find the patch of sun on something soft. Curl up and rest there.
  2. Stretch.
  3. Always remember it never hurts to ask for what you want.
  4. Play vigorously. Pretend that whatever you are doing is the most important thing ever.
  5. Practise good personal hygiene.
  6. It’s okay to chase your tail sometimes.
  7. Have good boundaries. Don’t allow others to take advantage of your cuteness. Or eat your lunch without asking.
  8. Love a human.
  9. You can say no whenever you want to.
  10. Express your pleasure loudly.
  11. Don’t over think it.
  12. If you find some yarn, make something cool out of it.
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