It’s Never too Late to Bloom

sunflower a work in progress
As a young girl I enjoyed few things more than losing myself in the adventures of The Boxcar Children (Gertrude Chandler Warner)and Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren), but my favorite will always be the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Every time I opened the pages and began to read, I became Laura (of course with the exception of Farmer Boy).  I’m not sure what I identified with the most; it could have been that her family moved often, maybe it was because it was set in the Midwest, or perhaps I saw myself somewhere inside the girl with the spunky and offbeat spirit.  I think I secretly wanted my nickname to be Half-Pint.

I recently found myself once again identifying with Laura, although this time it was with the author not the character.  I was blown away when I learned that her adventure as a writer began when she was in her forties and she got her start by writing columns about rural life for a couple of publications in Missouri. I was even more inspired by the fact that she was sixty-five when her first book Little House in the Big Woods was published. I never would have guessed that the “real” Laura was a late bloomer.  I also nearly spit my coffee out all over the keyboard when I read that her daughter Rose was her editor and collaborator.

It reminded me of my relationship with my daughter (and editor) Katie and our good natured banter and email exchanges; not only does she help me wade through the mysteries of when to use a semi colon and not a comma, she also provides me with great suggestions and isn’t afraid to let me know when a piece needs some “fine tuning” or in some cases “fine tunaing.”

I still enjoy living new experiences and adventures vicariously through characters created by my favorite authors, but these days I’m also creating a few of my own.  I’d been thinking about taking a drawing class for a couple of months but I hadn’t done anything past bookmarking the site and waffling about whether or not it would be a good decision.

I finally got up the nerve to register for the beginning drawing class. I provided my information, took a deep breath, clicked the submit registration button, and then didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved by the message on the screen.  “We’re sorry, the class is sold out.”   I reached for the phone.

“Hello, I just tried registering for the beginning drawing class but it’s sold out.  Can you tell me when the next one will be?” I asked.

“We don’t have it scheduled yet, but there is room in the Intermediate/Advanced drawing class,” she replied.

“Oh…ummm…no, I couldn’t possibly do that.  I haven’t drawn in more than twenty years and that was just one class.  I think I should wait for the next session for beginners.”

“It’s like riding a bike, once you’ve done it, all you have to do is get back in the saddle and the rest will come.  Maybe this is opportunity knocking, we only have three people registered and we’re going to have to cancel it if we don’t get one more. I really think you’ll like it,” she coaxed.

Two weeks later I found myself driving up the narrow drive toward the nineteenth century farmhouse that the Artists of Yardley call home.  I perched on my stool in front of the easel and tried not to hyperventilate while the instructor held up the image we were supposed to reproduce.  After more than a few false starts and lots of calming encouragement from the teacher I settled down and just drew.

The subject matter for the first lesson was a Sunflower in full bloom, it somehow fits doesn’t it?

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You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish

One of my favorite bands in high school was REO Speedwagon. They are no longer in my music collection, but to this day I crank the radio and  sing “It’s time for me to fly” at the top of my lungs whenever I hear the unexpected hit from the album You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish.  I always feel a bit nostalgic as the lyrics take me back a few hundred years (Ok, only a few more than thirty, give or take).

I remember as a teenager being amazed at how the lyrics of many of my favorite songs from a variety of bands seemed to be written just for me, and I marveled at how the poems set to music expressed what was in my heart but I couldn’t find the words to say.  I would lay awake in bed listening to Dan Folgelberg sing of “Hymns filled with early delight” and “Acceptance of life,” [Netherlands] and I hoped and I prayed that one day I would find myself and my way.

As an adult I still find myself latching on to a particular song and playing it over and over because it speaks to me.  I find that music has a special way of helping me to understand that I’m not alone; it entertains and motivates me, it cheers me up and at times it calms me down, it inspires me.  More often than not I think it provides a medicinal backdrop that we aren’t even aware of as we go about the routine of our day.  No matter what the genre is, there are songs of love and heartbreak, anger and victory, being lost and then found, songs of hope and faith.

I began the twelfth and final chapter of Walking in This World [Julia Cameron] with mixed feelings.  The past few months have been packed with an intensity of personal change and growth that surpasses any other time in my life and I felt ready for a break, ready to get back to being “normal,” although normal now has a whole new meaning. On the other hand the book had become a guide, leading me through each week and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to do it on my own and I wondered what was next.

The final chapter is entitled Discovering a Sense of Dignity, and Julia introduces it with a philosophy:  “The key to a successful creative life is the commitment to make things and in so doing make something better of ourselves and our world.  Creativity is an act of faith…Our graceful ability to encompass difficulty rests in our ability to be faithful.”

I’ve always thought about the creative process as the logistics of coming up with an idea and using the tools of the trade whether it be a notebook, a canvas, a flowerbed, or an orchestra to bring a piece of art to life.  I also thought that if you had a day job you couldn’t be an artist first, that you weren’t a “true artist” until you reached a certain level of notoriety or fame and that the fame must be accompanied by money or it wasn’t real.  Julia has set me straight on this notion more than once, “Art is a vocation, a calling, and if no one hears the call as loudly as we do, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, that doesn’t mean we don’t hear it, and that doesn’t mean we don’t need to answer when it calls.”

I think she’s right when she says we sometimes shy away from letting our true colors show and we tuck away our creative desires into corners and steal a few minutes here and there because we want people to think we are “normal.”  In reality we need to express ourselves to our families and friends and help them understand that our creative calling is real and it’s not “just a hobby,” it’s who we are.  That’s not to say we can or should cast aside the responsibilities of being a parent, a partner, or provider, it is saying that if we don’t communicate our needs, if we don’t set aside time to write, paint, sing, dance, cook- to create, we may find ourselves ultimately frustrated and resenting the very necessary and important roles we play outside of our artists world.

I think the author is saying that first we need to become aware of ourselves and learn what it is we need.  Do we need an hour each morning or one after work?  Is it an occasional Saturday escape from the “real” world that we need to be an artist?  We must learn to understand and recognize that emotions like anxiety and doubt, fear and anger, love and happiness fuel our art and we have the power to choose resiliency over defeat and depression.  We owe it to ourselves and our most trusted friends and family to share what we’ve discovered. 

I have a notepad on my refrigerator which says “Masquerading as a Normal Person Day After Day is Exhausting,” and I smile at its truth every time I read it.  But it occurs to me that maybe if we let those closest to us in on our “secret” maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so exhausting.

When I took my first writing class two years ago it was a distraction from some upheaval and turmoil in my everyday life.  As my interest grew it became a passion and a dream.  I dreamt of being a writer, of being published, which I equated with money and it being a full time endeavor with no need for a “day job.”  Time and time again, Julia has turned my thoughts upside down and inside out, and the final section called Service was no different.

We tend to equate art and culture, using Merriam Webster to define it first as “acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science” and forget that maybe more importantly it is also defined by Merriam as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” 

Julia struck a chord when she said, “We have very strange notions about art in our culture.  We have made it the cult of the individual rather than what it always has been, a human aspiration aimed at communicating and community.  We “commune” through art…”  I felt like it was one of the chance happenings she often refers to when I experienced a Moment of Magic and community through music on the day I finished the book.

 My reasons for writing have changed; I’ve come to realize that it’s not about me.  Art, whatever form it takes, is not intended to serve the artist, it’s meant to serve the community. Its purpose is to entertain and motivate, provide optimism and solace, its purpose is to inspire.  I struggle with the notion that I have a “gift,” it seems conceited to say so.  Do I still hope to make money as a result of my writing? Absolutely.   Will I quit writing if I don’t?  Absolutely not.   

Gifts are for giving and I think that translates to our personal talents as well.  By reaching out to others, sharing what we’ve learned through our experiences, putting  our egos aside, and making our contributions not about us but about our community I believe we can and will experience greater personal  joy and the world will be a better place.

I’m sad that the book is over and I’m more than a little scared to be without my “guide,” but I know it’s time…

“It’s time for me to fly.”

“It is What It is”…or is It?

If you’re anything like me, you’re not sure whether to cringe, roll your eyes, or take comfort and believe in the seemingly overused and abundant exchange of platitudes during turbulent times.  We’ve all been on both sides of giving and receiving these bromides between friends and family: “it is what it is,” “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” “it could be worse,” “it builds character,” and all of the ways to explain “things.”  Things “happen for a reason,” will “turn out how they’re meant to be,” and they “somehow always seem to turn out for the best.”

These sayings rolled through my mind as I read the introduction to week eleven of Walking in This World, Julia Cameron. She introduced the chapter with the concept that “our personal resiliency is a key to our creative longevity.  Defeat is transformed into experience by our willingness to start anew.” I once again wondered if the author had been reading my journal or eavesdropping on my conversations which have contained all of these sayings and more as I’ve written, talked, laughed, and cried my way through a myriad of challenges over the past year.

It struck me that the clichés that were tumbling around in my brain were in many ways tied to just that, “a willingness to start anew,” and we have more control than we think when it comes to things turning out for the best.   As always she explained the challenge and focus for the week:  “The readings and tasks of this week ask us to practice a beginner’s mind, opening ourselves to renewed endeavors despite setbacks.”  In order begin anew in spite of adversity we need to rely on and believe in the reservoir of strength and courage that runs through each of us and we must have faith.

It turns out that part of having faith is the fact that we need to trust, believe in, and listen to our inner voice and to our instincts.  I think it’s also important to understand what fuels and depletes our inner well and what we can do to keep it as full as possible.  This week I learned that word courage ”comes from the root coer, heart,” and “[w]hen we are discouraged, we are literally divorced from our hearts.”  It occurred to me that encouragement and discouragement are the actions that fill and deplete the place from which we draw courage, hope, and energy.

As adults we sometimes feel embarrassed to admit that we need praise and comfort and that it hurts when our creative contributions are ignored or undervalued.  We feel like we should ‘buck up’ and not be so sensitive, that ‘grown ups’ shouldn’t need a pat on the back for a job well done.  The truth is we all do, maybe some of us more than others, but we all need at least an occasional compliment or a small round of applause.  I think the mistake we make is that we rely too heavily on others as the only source of encouragement and we don’t assume enough responsibility for cheering ourselves on even if no one else is.  We undervalue our own voice when it tries to tell us we’re doing well, instead we replace it with negative self-talk that screams “woe is me” and “I should be doing better.”  Julia’s words hit home: “[o]ptimism about ourselves and our chances is an elected attitude.”

As much as we wish we could, we can’t control our environment and we are bound to have interactions that discourage and dishearten us and deplete optimism and strength from the well.  However as Julia points out “the antidote to depression is laughter” and whether we want to admit it or not there is always something positive we can do.  When we’re feeling blue instead of taking to our beds we can and we should do something; we can call a friend, watch a comedy, organize the craft room, clean the office space, we can make a list of twenty-five things we are proud of, and we can always create something.

A recurring theme throughout the book is the notion that we are all creative and that each of us makes ‘art’ in a different way.  Unfortunately we live in a culture that undermines the creative process, the making of art because there is so much emphasis on fame and ”making it big.”  The standards to which artists compare themselves have become muddied by what sells and convince us that we shouldn’t create if it’s not going to sell.  We persuade ourselves that we will never “make it,” so we stop trying or we allow ourselves to fall into a trap of creating distractions that appear to be contributions toward achieving our dreams. 

I recently found myself guilty of just that.  I had convinced myself that attending an upcoming writer’s conference was an important thing for me to do so that I could “really” write.  After reading and re-reading the section on Integrity I came to the realization that I was fooling myself.  I have yet to really put my money where my mouth is and follow the basic principles that I’ve learned through numerous classes and books.  I couldn’t look myself in the mirror and say that I have been treating my dream as real; I’ve created diversions, made excuses, and nearly drowned myself in drama.  I decided not to attend the conference and I made a commitment to myself that when the time is right, when I have made enough concrete progress toward my dream I will attend a conference as a reward and not as a detour.

The final section is entitled Getting Back on the Horse and opens with some food for thought.  “We are intended to make something of ourselves.  When we feel supported by others, this is a festive feeling…surrounded by support, making something – and something of ourselves – is easy…Sometimes, support fails us.  Instead of help, we meet hindrance.”

Sometimes that hindrance comes in the form of what Julia refers to as a “creative injury.” I think it’s fair to say that the injury could also be a spiritual one.  I had to smile to myself when she said “Art is made from talent and character. Adversity strengthens our character and can strengthen our art as well.”  How did she know that my one of my dad’s favorite things to say to me when I’m lamenting about something is: “you’re building character.”

Prayers are heard and answered, we just have to ask and we need to understand that in order to recover from an injury whether it be creative or spiritual it’s important to ask for and accept help. The answer often arrives in the form of a ‘coincidence’ or a ‘chance meeting’ and happens when and how we least expect it.  I believe Julia when she says “[s]ometimes, remarkably often, creative angels show up externally.”

I’ve learned a lot in the past few years about the importance of setting boundaries and to the degree that I can control the situation I surround myself with people of integrity, humor, talent, and compassion.   I’m still working on holding others accountable for their negative actions and not counting myself as the reason for them. One step at a time I’m accepting that it’s a sign of strength not weakness when I ask for help.

 Although the focus of the book is on the artist within us, I can’t help but think about how so many things that I am learning apply in all aspects of my life not just to my art.  We allow negative experiences and injuries from one area of our life to spill over into our creative world. We convince ourselves that it’s not worth trying and we pretend that we have lost interest or that we don’t have time when deep down we’re afraid of failing. 

We allow discouragement to exhaust us and we forget to take control of our world and replenish the reservoir of strength through creativity, laughter, and camaraderie.  While in many ways it’s true when we say “it is what it is” it is also true that we have the power to make “things turn out for the best” by reaching for help, having faith, being open to change and the risk that may accompany it.

A Lost Story

Prints by Erin Endicott

Technology and Art can intersect at some very unexpected corners of the world.  Earlier in the week I received a notification via the Newtown Patch of an Art Gallery opening featuring the work of a regional artist. The event was promoted as “[a] retrospective exhibit of mixed media works by Erin Endicott [that] will open with a wine and cheese reception from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. at the Pennswood Art Gallery.”

Perfect! I’ve been struggling to find ideas to fulfill my weekly Artist’s Date, an activity that I committed to do once a week as a part of the experience of Walking in This World (Julia Cameron) that I’ve fallen shamefully short on. What could be better than the opportunity to attend the opening of an Art Gallery – and the description of the artist’s work sounded delightful and intriguing.

My normal paranoia about getting lost was magnified by the fact that I couldn’t find any concrete information about the gallery and whatever I could find linked me to a retirement community website. With my trusty GPS and a backup set of printed directions from Google I set out on my ‘date’ and hoped the event was for real.  My confusion grew as I drove past one row of apartments after another. I spotted a signs along the way for a variety of things including the Landscaping Department and a Community Center, but nothing for an Art Gallery. It seemed as though my date might be doomed.

Determined to give the outing my best shot I took a deep breath and walked toward the Community Center.  I figured it was worth a little embarrassment about getting lost if I could find someone inside who could provide directions.

I crossed through the doors into a beautifully furnished lobby full of activity and lots of grey hair.  I scanned the room for an information desk and much to my surprise what I saw was the sign for Pennswood Art Gallery and sure enough there was a roomful of art hanging on the walls.  I accepted a small cup of wine served with a silver ladle from a punch bowl and a couple of crackers topped with cheese.

I don’t have words to do the artist’s work justice.  She uses a unique blend of painting and fabric woven together and adorned with text, stitching, words, and beads to tell a story and depict the complexities of life and human emotion. 

I think it’s better described by a curator, Samantha Levin, during an interview with the artist:

“A unique breed of soft sculpture, Erin utilizes stitching and ink to “draw” on found objects – things that hold power because of their age and anthropomorphic wisdom. Erin’s Healing Sutras tell stories of pain remembered and solace found. They indicate hope and speak of feminine patience evidenced by the painstakingly small stitches that create flowing abstract shapes”  (curator Samantha Levin of Anagnorisis Fine Art, NYC.)

After enjoying the exhibit I stopped to look at some prints that were available for sale, among them the piece that was used to promote the show, A Lost Story. In addition to buying a print I learned that Pennswood Village is a retirement community (which would explain my Google results) and they have had an art gallery in the Community Center for twenty eight years and the exhibit today took place in a new and expanded location.  I had a lovely visit with the elegant woman who organizes the shows.

“How do you find the artists?” I asked.

“Well, we go online and look for artists with websites.  We follow a trail of leads and look at their galleries on the internet.  Then we pick the pieces we’d like to have on display and contact the artist to see if they are interested. It’s all done through email and it’s all about the internet,” she replied.

It’s interesting to note that I spent my morning reading and reflecting on week eleven of Walking in This World (Julia Cameron).  The portion of the chapter I finished before getting ready to leave for the open house raised a lot of questions around our society, our culture, and how we do – or maybe more to the point, do not nurture artists.  I think Julia would be pleased with this non-traditional center of support for the arts.

Seventh Inning Stretch

Rosenblatt Stadium original home of the college world series

I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I thoroughly enjoyed attending the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.  I haven’t been for a few years now but I still remember the thrill of finding a parking spot on one of the narrow streets of South Omaha, followed by a hot and sticky walk toward the stadium anticipating the foot long hotdog and freshly squeezed lemonade as much as the game itself. 

I always felt a small lump in my throat and a shiver down my spine when we emerged from the neighborhood and saw The Road to Omaha sculpture in front of the Red and Blue awning of the stadium.  There’s something special about the way the artist immortalized the joyful feeling of winning the championship through the image of three young ball players hoisting a fourth onto their shoulders, his hand reaching to the air with the universal symbol meaning  ‘we’re number one.’

For one week out of the summer, strangers from all across the country come together in a spirit of competition and camaraderie that turns many a non-baseball lover into a fan of the series. Among many long time traditions including sunburns, beach balls on the field, and the wave, is the seventh inning stretch, it’s the point in the game where both the fans and the players need to take a breather. 

Headed into week ten of Walking in This World (Julia Cameron) I found myself in need of something akin to a seventh inning stretch.  My professional work life had been particularly challenging and full of commotion when I tackled the chapter Discovering a Sense of Camaraderie for the first time.  After careful consideration I knew my head wasn’t in the right place to absorb the message let alone write about it, I put the book aside knowing I would recognize when the time was right to pick it back up.  Three weeks later I read the chapter and performed the tasks for a second time.  In doing so I realized both how much I learned and how much I would have missed if I hadn’t taken a break.

For the tenth chapter in a row I wondered how Julia knew me so well.  She introduced it with the notion that “[d]espite our Lone Ranger mythology, the artist’s life is not lived in isolation.”  The first section is entitled Keep Drama on the Stage. Oh boy…I have a tendency to let commotion overwhelm and consume me and when that happens I can become quite dramatic and have been known to make mountains out of molehills when I lose perspective. 

I paused for a long time after reading Julia’s opening comments, “Artists are dramatic.  Art is dramatic.  When artists are not making artistic dramas, they tend to make personal ones.  Feeling off center, they demand center stage.”  I realized that as the disorder in my day job increased I was writing less, taking no pictures, exercise was non-existent, and the amount of time I spent wailing and gnashing my teeth had reached an all-time high.  I had to stop and consider the fact that although the commotion in my life was real that perhaps in some ways I had fallen prey to what the author refers to as “Artistic anorexia, the avoidance of the pleasure of the creative… ” 

I took heart as she described one friend who develops “health problems on the cusp of every major concert tour” and another  friend who “loses all humor and sense of personal perspective every time a writing deadline looms…People like these should furnish seat belts for those riding shotgun in their lives.”  It made me realize that I’m not alone and although my ‘drama’ isn’t always a result of a creative deadline (although there have been a fair share of those as well) and it made me thankful for the people in my life that ride along with me on the rollercoaster and who don’t hesitate to let me know when it’s time to snap out of it. 

Julia likens a sense of humor to a sense of scale: “a sense of scale is what gives our work proportion, perspective, and personality;” when we lose our sense of humor we also lose our sense of scale.  I thought the bumper sticker she quoted was brilliant, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”

I’ve always thought of myself as being a person with a great sense of humor and one who uses humor to get through tough times.  What I’ve come to realize is that when I start feeling a loss of control about the situation at hand I also start losing my sense of humor and perspective.  I turn into Eeyore and I not only feed on the drama I’ve created, I con myself into thinking that obsessing about my dramatic dilemma is far more important than anything else I could be doing.  I need to adopt the mantra suggested by the author, “Sudden problems in my life usually indicate a need to work on my art.”  Creativity is fueled by the full range of emotions not just the positive ones. What we create, what defines our ‘art,’ can take on many forms, it can be anything from a masterpiece of a painting, to a beautifully prepared meal, or as simple as arranging flowers in a vase to brighten the winter gloom.

Sometimes breaking through the wall of self-induced or maybe even self-indulgent drama is as easy as Julia cleverly points out, “It is probably not an accident that the verbs exorcise and exercise are so similarly spelled.”  I have to admit the comment hit home and I’m now back to regular physical activity and a much improved perspective about life.

As with most things, if we enjoy doing them we strive to improve and to be the best we can, art is no different.  “As artists, we are not interested merely in expressing ourselves…We are interested in expressing ourselves more and more accurately, more and more beautifully.”  In order to do so, we must be open to being teachable and we need to strive to find excellence in our interactions and our resources.  She spoke of how “teachers and students seem to intersect by divine planning more than by set curriculum.”  Based on my own experiences, I believe this to be true.

I also think a ‘teacher’ can take on many forms and isn’t limited to a classroom or mentoring relationship.  It can be a chance meeting at an author’s luncheon, a conversation in an airport, or even the gift of a book.  Life is made up of teaching moments if we are open to them, I think this is true for art as well.  It’s important to remember that “[g]uidance and generosity are always closer at hand than we may think.  It always falls on  us to be open to receiving guidance and to pray for the willingness and openness to know when it arrives.”

In addition to teachers we also need friends.  I enjoyed the discussion about the various roles friends play in our lives in the section Before, During and After Friends. The author refers to the need to have friends who fit well in the various phases of our creative stages and sense of self.  We need friends who see the swan but also understand that at the same time she looks beautiful and at peace, her feet are churning under the surface and she’s trying to stay afloat.  One size does not fit all when it comes to friends, we need people in our lives to “help us leap and land, help us celebrate and mourn,” and they may not always be the same person.

One of the most important friends in our lives could quite possibly be the person that Julia refers to as a “catcher’s mitt…someone whose particular intelligence lights your own.”  It’s the person who acknowledges with gentle honesty if the work has a ways to go and encourages you to keep going.  They don’t build you up with false praise and they don’t destroy you with harsh criticism.  It’s “[s]omeone avidly crouched near home plate.  Somebody slapping his mitt a little eagerly and saying, “Put it here.”

Life is not meant to be lived in isolation and art is intended to be shared.  It’s critical to the creative process to be discerning about relationships and their impact on us.  Discerning doesn’t mean snobbish it means smart and self-aware and is the foundation for a sense of camaraderie, creativity, and happiness.  It’s also about maintaining a sense of humor and personal perspective even if it sometimes takes a ‘seventh inning stretch’ to get back in the game.

There’s No Place Like Home

Second to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, my favorite childhood movie is The Wizard of Oz.  Back in the days before On Demand, Netflix, Redbox, and hundreds of cable stations playing the same movie over and over again were the days of anticipation and excitement. I looked forward to the special night when I could watch a movie while eating dinner and I cried when they ended because I wanted them to go on forever. 

As a child I thought that Dorothy’s companions were the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man. As an adult I’ve come to realize that the foursome was really worry accompanied by fear, insecurity, and doubt.  In spite of the anxieties and feelings of panic, Dorothy and her friends survive danger, conquer the enemy and emerge from their journey triumphant.

In week nine of Walking in this World (Julia Cameron) the author defines negative emotions and explains how they can play a positive role in life if they are kept in their proper perspective.  I wondered if Julia had somehow read my journal before she wrote the chapter Discovering a Sense of Resiliency. The first section is entitled Worry (which is my middle name) and she introduced me to the chapter with a gentle but firm reminder, “No artist is immune to negative emotions…As the week focuses on the inner trials faced by artists, it assures us that while the dark night of the soul comes to all of us, by accepting this we are able to move through it.”

Merriam Webster defines worry as “mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated: anxiety.”   Julia describes worry as obsessive and “a kind of emotional anteater” and says that “[w]orry is the imagination’s negative stepsister.  Instead of making things, we make trouble.”  Worry is often accompanied by panic and fear.  Panic is the immobilizing certainty that we know just where we want to go but no idea how we are going to get there.  Fear can take a small worry and translate it into “paralyzing inertia.”  She also pronounces fear as both “positive and useful,” and further explains that we should not give into our fears but we should pay attention to them, admit them, and be open to help. 

Too often we pretend we are not scared, we feign bravery and we begin to feel isolated, helpless and not good enough.  When we ignore the message fear is sending us, when we hold ourselves to blame, “we blind ourselves to the possibility that there might, in fact, be someone or something wrong in our environment” and we may miss the opportunity to change something wrong into something right.

I took heart when she said, “If we are to expand our lives, we must be open to positive possibilities and outcomes as well as negative ones.  By learning to embrace our worried energy, we are able to translate it from fear into fuel…This is a learned process.”  I think I have a lot of learning yet to do.

Lately I’ve been feeling restless and out of sorts.  According to Julia “restlessness is a good omen” and it means destiny is getting ready to knock, prayers will soon be answered, and that “[i]nner malcontent actually triggers outer change – if we are willing to listen to our malcontent with an open mind and listen to what will feel like a wave of irrational promptings.”  I had never thought about feeling agitated or discontented in this way, but as I jotted down a list of major breakthroughs in my life creatively, personally, and professionally I had to admit there may be something to what she was saying.  Maybe fate is asking me if I want to dance.

Maybe things do happen for a reason, and maybe that reason is because we finally acknowledge our fears as well as our dreams and in doing so we quit clinging to Plan A and we become open to Plan B or C or even Z.

I think most people are insecure and as human beings and especially as artists we tend to focus on how we compare to others rather than being content with who we are.  We lack patience and hold ourselves to a standard of perfection that has little to do with actual criteria, instead we feel bad because we’re not as good as we think we should be. We negate our own value by wishing we were as good as what’s his name rather than being proud of our accomplishments. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try and improve ourselves, but it is saying that we need to accept ourselves for who we are and we need to guard against allowing our insecurities to keep us from following our dreams.  In the task Exactly the Way I Am Julia asked me to list fifty specific things that I like about myself. After completing the list I realized that there is a lot to like.  “By counting our blessings we can come to see that we are blessed and that we need not compare ourselves to anyone.”

Julia has a way of turning things on their head for me and her take on doubt is certainly one of them.  “Doubt is a signal of the creative process.  It is a signal that you are doing something right – not that you are doing something wrong or crazy or stupid.” I thought my doubts about my writing meant that I was self-aware and realistic and that the essay I had just written really did deserve to be deleted because it wasn’t any good.  It turns out that doubt and self-appraisal are not one in the same.  Doubt plagues us at night when we’re alone and vulnerable and tells you that you can’t while self-appraisal arrives in broad daylight and helps you adjust your course.  Doubt is something to be waited out without giving into behaviors that are self-destructive.

There is an underlying theme woven throughout the lessons. Although we will encounter negative emotions and unsavory characters along our own version of the yellow brick road, we can combat them, wait them out, and use them to our creative advantage, but most importantly self-acceptance and self-respect will lead us safely home.

Going the Distance

A few weeks ago I expressed my love for the classic Disney films and the recurring theme of wishes and dreams being fulfilled. Characters overcome obstacles, find courage and beauty from within, and learn that wishes really can come true.

Week eight of Walking in This World (Julia Cameron) is entitled Discovering a Sense of Discernment and the author begins the chapter with a challenge, “Are we actually able to go the distance?” 

As I thought about the challenge and the phrase, ‘go the distance,’ it occurred to me that there is another underlying theme woven into my all-time favorites; from Hercules to Mulan, the characters slay dragons and conquer evil forces along their journey to fulfill their dream and find the place in life where they belong.

It took me two weeks to complete this lesson; I needed additional time to process the message and to complete the final task.  The author begins with an analogy, “For many artists, fame is a trigger food, or can be.” She explains the pitfalls of chasing fame rather than staying focused on making art.  When we strive to please the public eye we forget that “[s]elf-respect lies in the writing and the playing, not in the reviews.” If we focus our efforts on ‘making it’ rather than making art we are vulnerable to depression and frustration because we’re not ‘making it’ fast enough.”

I have to admit I am guilty of this. Although I understand Julia’s advice about the value of my day job as a source of creative fuel in addition to providing an income; I still spend more time than I should wondering what I can write that will be my lucky break, my springboard to fame and freedom.  Julia reminded me that being a writer is not synonymous with recognition. She also pointed out, “When we are focused on making a career in the arts, we often forget that our artful nature is a gift we can bring to the personal as well as the professional realm.”  I hadn’t thought about using my gift as a way to express my love and appreciation to the important people in my life.  I wonder if my family and friends would mind if I wrote them birthday gifts next year.

We are all faced with changes in direction and unexpected events in our life. When they come we are faced with both opportunities and diversions, the author defines them as “useful things and opportunities to be used.”  

“As we become brighter and stronger as artists, others are attracted by that clarity and glow.  Some of them will help us on our way, while others will try to help themselves, diverting our creative light to their own path.”

Unfortunately, the world is full of people who position themselves as mentors, fans, and supporters;  who in reality use any means at their disposal to execute their own agenda and advance themselves at your expense.  One of the critical elements of ‘going the distance’ is the ability to discern between the opportunities and the diversions and to discover and extract ourselves from the influence of the opportunists and creative saboteurs.

This may mean slaying dragons, exorcising demons, or making difficult decisions. It means we must be alert to the consequences of our decisions and be able to distinguish between what seemed to be a lucky break and is in reality an unlucky choice and take appropriate action.  It’s also important to evaluate which risks are worth taking and which are not.  Discernment combines following your instincts with gathering information and facts to come to the right conclusion.

I thought her description of opportunity and opportunists was brilliant: “Opportunity knocks with a Christmas-morning feeling…a hushed sense of awe as an opportunity slides into place…Opportunists, by contrast, have more of a pressured feeling of last-minute shopping, the kind of impulse buy where you know you shouldn’t but you do.”  I think this will become one of my guideposts.

Often our insecurities cause us to accept help from people who are looking out for themselves or to believe input from “creative saboteurs.” A creative saboteur is someone who attempts to crush our dreams with confusion, dissuasion, and presumed superiority; they will have a million reasons why an idea can’t or won’t work. Creative saboteurs are like snakes or rodents, unpleasant and impossible to avoid completely. The challenge is to identify them and protect ourselves as best we can.

Julia provided me with a smile and a sense of perspective when she presented the cast of characters and their bios in a playful but meaningful way; they included the Wet Blanket Matador, the Amateur Expert, and the Bad News Fairy.  She compared surviving a creative saboteur to surviving a snakebite and stressed the importance of doing our best to recognize and avoid them. If bitten by one, step away as quickly and judiciously as you can, and find ways to use the injury as creative fuel and put it to good use.

We all have baggage, or what I call demons, things from our past that we haven’t reconciled and that keep us from going the distance.  They’re the voices in our head, the whispers that say you can’t, you shouldn’t, and your ideas are no good.  Some are real, and others may be imagined but they’re there and they hold us back.

The final task was designed to help with the healing process from the snakebites of the past, she asked me to find a way to address and face those voices. I had finished my collage from week seven, but hadn’t framed it yet. Although I had completed the task, it didn’t feel ‘done.’  It started with a photo of me surrounded by words and images that represent the vision of my future self.

It now also contains music notes, a sketch I drew, and a few pictures I’ve taken: things that represent the artist emerging within me.  I framed it and when I look at it I see the future not the past, I see myself going the distance.

Through the Looking Glass

For the past six weeks I’ve woken up on Saturday morning made a pot of coffee, written in my journal, and raced to my laptop to write about the previous week’s lesson.  That was not the case this week; I started and stopped more times than I can count.  I suppose it’s somewhat ironic that week seven of Walking in This World (Julia Cameron) is entitled Discovering a Sense of Momentum and she introduces it by saying “Creativity thrives on small, do-able actions.  This week dismantles procrastination as a major creative block.”  Apparently I needed to do a bit more dismantling.

I flipped through my notes for the umpteenth time and I found myself coming back to the task Easy Does it but Do it. It dawned on me that while I had completed the task, I hadn’t experienced the lesson.   I read the words and thought I understood what Julia was saying as she explained that ideas, like emotions can cause anxiety and cause you to feel like you are going to explode if they are kept bottled up. She described it as creative logjam resulting from too many not too few ideas and spoke about the concept of taking small positive actions to keep the creative momentum flowing forward. “The truer the dream, the more creative pressure it has, and the more important it is to begin with small actions to keep them from getting frozen up.  Don’t just talk. Do.”

I had to admit to myself that I had just gone through the motions when I followed the instructions to list five areas in my home that could benefit from some straightening up and in doing so I completely missed that the point was not to make a list and think about it, but to actually do it.

I looked at the laundry basket of clothes waiting to be put away and decided to take Julia’s advice, “If your head is awhirl and you ‘cannot think straight,’ then start by straightening something up.  Fold your laundry.  Sort your drawers….often, when we are engaged in such small, homely tasks, a sense of being ‘at home’ will steal over us.  When we take the time to husband the details of our lives, we may encounter a sense of grace.”

One thing led to another and a few hours later, I had a clean house, an organized writing space, a clear head, and a fresh perspective.  I was surprised to find that I was ready to write.

In the midst of it all I had a minor meltdown, but perhaps the author is right and it wasn’t a meltdown as much as it was a break through. “When we have creative breakthroughs, they may look and even be experienced as break downs.  Our normal, ordinary way of seeing ourselves and the world suddenly goes on tilt, and as it does, a new way of seeing and looking at things comes toward us.”

These days my world feels turned upside down and when I look in the mirror I’m not entirely sure who is looking back at me.  I see myself with what Julia refers to as “Strobe-light clarity…We look so different, so impossibly possible to ourselves that we are caught off guard.”  I see my future, not through rose colored glasses, but with frightening precision and at the same time disturbing vagueness. My destiny has changed and so have my dreams.  I don’t know how it will be achieved, but I know it will be.

The chapter ended with the ever so practical advice, Finish Something.  Surprisingly, the ‘something’ wasn’t about finishing a piece of poetry, an essay, or a painting, it was just about ‘finishing.’  I found myself thoroughly engaged by the story of a young composer who bounced from project to project, full of energy and ‘promise,’ but could never quite deliver.

His close friend and mentor advised him to clean up his arranging room, to organize his mess.  He resisted and dawdled, and if not for the gentle prodding of his friend he would have quit.  When he was done he “felt determination,” and moved beyond having ‘promise’ to completing projects and feeling productive.  The author didn’t say so, but I suspect he also felt peace.

We often stop before we start, afraid to try something new.  We forget that we’ve encountered and mastered things we never thought we could. The learning curve isn’t easy, in fact can be downright scary, but it’s also exciting and mysterious and the destination is well worth the trip.

In Living Color…

For years I was baffled as I watched an animated version of Samantha sweep through the black sky and twinkling white stars, loop through the air to draw the B in Bewitched with her broom, followed by the caption, “Now in Living Color.” If it was ‘now in living color,’ why did I see it only in black and white?

I think we’re all fascinated by magic, I still wish I could wiggle my nose like Samantha or cross my arms, blink my eyes, and swing my pony tail with a head bob like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie and make my dreams come true.  Who hasn’t wanted to fly, wished upon a star, or squeezed their eyes really tight while blowing out candles on a birthday cake, all the while hoping that somehow our secret desires would come true.

Week six of Walking in This World (Julia Cameron) is called Discovering a Sense of Boundaries, and the focus is on how to “interact with the world in ways that minimize negativity and maximize productive stimulation.”

I’m fascinated by Tarot Cards, so I was intrigued by the opening reference to the author’s favorite Tarot card, the Magician.  “He stands alone, holding one arm aloft, summoning the power of the heavens.  He has no audience.  His power – and our own – lies in our connection, personal and private, to the divine.”

In some ways art is a little like magic. We most often associate the word magic with the supernatural, but according to Merriam-Webster, it can also be defined as “something that seems to cast a spell: Enchantment.”  I think it can be said that often art, whether it is music, painting, writing, or any other form casts a spell and entrances us, even if it’s only for a moment.  Like a good sleight of hand, the creative ingredients of a piece of art are as invisible as the magicians well kept secrets.

As I read the section on Containment, I began to understand what she meant when she said “As artists, we must learn to practice containment.  Our ideas are valuable.”  If we share our ideas before they are ready, while they are still incubating, we run the risk of allowing someone who is not insightful or forward thinking to influence us into tossing them aside rather than pursuing them.  We run the same risk as a magician who performs a new trick in public before he has perfected it.  When the audience laughs or even worse yawns with boredom, chances are good that the trick may be tossed aside and if it happens often enough, the magician may stop performing completely.

I’ve always been a believer in bouncing ideas off of people and it seemed counter intuitive to me to keep my ideas to myself until they have taken more of a complete form.  After all why bother pursuing an idea if it doesn’t make sense to others? As I read, I realized that there are many projects and ideas that I’ve tossed aside because I let them out before they were ready.  I abandoned some ideas because they were not well received and others because they were; I became paralyzed at the thought of not being able to fulfill their expectations.  Perhaps Julia is right when she says, “One of the most useful creative laws I know is this: ‘The first rule of magic is containment.’”  It’s not that we shouldn’t share our ideas at all, but that we need to trust our instincts and protect our ideas, we need to limit the risk of abandoning our dreams because we shared them too soon or with the wrong people.

The discussion about ‘containment’ led to the section entitled Inflow, in which Julia described how in our over stimulating world full of cell phones, radios, jobs, friends, family, media, finances, internet, bosses, coworkers, and more, we often find ourselves feeling like we are shouldering the weight of the world and life becomes ’too much,’ and we wonder how long we can continue acting ‘normal.’

In order to create, we need to find ways to manage the inflows and expectations; we need to find time for solitude and focus.  We must learn to protect our creative energy and use it wisely. She explained that this may involve setting boundaries, something I’m not comfortable with.  I’ve always associated setting limits with saying no, and I’ve perceived there to be a risk of rejection within a relationship, disappointing people by not living up to ‘expectations,’ or that I may cause someone I love to hurt.

I never realized that by being honest and gentle with myself and others, boundaries aren’t barriers and honesty and self-respect can serve as catalysts to communication and better relationships. We can all find ‘a room of our own,’ a half hour of privacy in some very simple ways, we can turn off the phone, the computer or the television, and we can say no, not now, but later.  And when later comes our heart and mind will be focused on helping friends and solving problems rather than resenting the interruption and going through the motions. “Setting even such small boundaries is a huge step toward self-care –which leads to the self in self-expression.”

Recently a friend asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?  What’s your dream?”

“I want to leave Corporate America behind and be a full time writer; I’d love to be able to just write. My day job used to define me, but I’ve grown past it. It’s no longer me,” I replied.

Julia knocked the wind out of my sails and in the same instant gave me something to consider when she said, “A day job is not something to “outgrow.” It is something to consider…As artists, we need life or our art is lifeless.”

I think we’re both right. I have grown beyond being defined by my day job, but I do need to pay the rent, and I have to admit that my days are full of inspiration and characters, they are full of life.  I think her point is that we aren’t meant to live in isolation we are meant to thrive in community and when we embrace living our art will shine.