Life Life Fully and Freely

Live LIfe Fully

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost exactly two years since I read “Walking in This World,” by Julia Cameron. It would be an understatement to say that it changed my life; although would probably be more accurate to say it was a catalyst for change.

It took me more than 12 weeks to finish the book, but as with most things in life the outcome was better because I didn’t force the process.In my final essay, I summed up what I’d learned:

  • Savor life – live with humor, joy, and passion.  Use feelings as fuel for creativity and creation.
  • Make something of yourself – do something, be something, make something.  Be who you are and continue to strive to become who you were meant to be.  Don’t be afraid to try, don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to succeed.
  • Accept yourself– be yourself, trust yourself, be childlike, own and understand your relationships, be aware and follow your instincts, be accountable, and last but not least, be kind to yourself.
  • Have faith – ask for and accept help, be teachable, life is spiritual, art is spiritual and it is healing. Follow your dreams and treat them as real.
  • We commune through art – when we create from the heart and not from the ego we experience a clarity of purpose and feelings of joy.

I continue to learn about synchronicity, serendipity, and faith. I don’t think it’s any mystery that many of the teachings of Louise Hay are congruent with the teachings of Julia Cameron. One of the concepts they both teach about is the concept of living life fully. Julia in particular reminds us to remember our inner child and to create time to play as an adult.

For some reason when we “grow up” we forget about the wonder of life we, forget about curiosity, and we take things too seriously. I know that happened to me. Life became about the schedule, the goals, and the perceived expectations. I had a career to build, a family to support, kids to raise, and an image to uphold. I thought I had to be “perfect,” I didn’t allow myself to be “me.” I worried about the future, re-hashed the past, and forgot to be present in the moment.

I’m re-learning the lesson that, being in “child at heart” doesn’t equate to being irresponsible or un-adult like, it means it’s okay to do something just because it delights us.

And now to share my most recent little art journal entries 🙂

letting go of the past is the path to the future

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If You Build it They will Come

What do Mahatma Gandhi and Ray Kinsella, the character played by Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, have in common?  One man is real, of great historical significance, and influenced people around the world. The other is a fictional character who hears “a voice,” builds a baseball field in the middle of his farm in a film which is described as fantasy-drama.

When my landlord and friend gave me the book Walking in This World, The Practical art of Creativity (Julia Cameron) for my fiftieth birthday I was thrilled and I couldn’t wait to begin it so I could learn more about how to be a better writer.  I had no idea who Julia Cameron was or what to expect but I knew Jeanne-Marie viewed me as an artist and gave me the book to help me pursue my dream.

Before the end of the first page, I knew I had to write about my experience with the book and share what I learned and its powerful impact on my life.  I originally intended to write one essay after each week and one final essay to summarize what I learned and how I felt about each chapter. I naively thought that my final essay would be the conclusion of the journey, and that I would be able to cleverly communicate the recurring ideas and my interpretations of them in 1200 words or so.

I boiled it down to a list of five themes and read through my journals and the book to capture the concepts.

•    Savor life – live with humor, joy, and passion.  Use feelings as fuel for creativity and creation.
•    Make something of yourself – do something, be something, make something.  Be who you are and continue to strive to become who you were meant to be.  Don’t be afraid to try, don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to succeed.
•    Accept yourself – be yourself, trust yourself, be childlike, own and understand your relationships, be aware and follow your instincts, be accountable, and last but not least, be kind to yourself.
•    Have faith – ask for and accept help, be teachable, life is spiritual, art is spiritual and it is healing. Follow your dreams and treat them as real.
•    We commune through art – when we create from the heart and not from the ego we experience a clarity of purpose and feelings of joy.

Three weeks and fifty pages of notes and thoughts later I realized that I am far from done writing about this experience and it will continue to be a part of my life for the rest of my life.  I think that’s something that would make Julia smile.

Although I don’t recall her using the word conviction specifically, the author communicated the importance of treating your dreams as real and that when you do so they will come true.  Gandhi stood firm in his conviction that the British would leave India, Ray Kinsella followed his instincts and did something that seemed crazy.  We all know people who have achieved great things that have nothing to do with being famous or wealthy.

From everyday heroes to world leaders the thing they have in common is that they were not only brave enough to have a dream, they believed in it, they followed it, they inspired people, and they made it happen. I’m sure that even Gandhi had a restless night or two and felt doubt creep in between his head and the pillow but when morning arrived he was true to his beliefs and didn’t waiver in his pursuits.

When I started Walking in This World, I had a dream and my dream was to write.  What I didn’t realize is while I had defined it and I had tentatively said it out loud, I was missing conviction and purpose, the most important ingredients to making it a reality.

I concluded that the most fitting way for me to summarize my experience with Walking in This World would be to take a deep breath, share, and continue to write.

In its unedited and original form:

I have a dream, and my dream is to become a published author with books in multiple genres.  I have three books in mind right now, the first and most important one to me is entitled A Leap of Faith, an Artist’s Journey into the Light. It is a story of discovery, it is my story of self-discovery and coming into my own.  It will be inspiring to people who think it is too late for them and for people who have similar feelings about themselves as I do, but don’t have the words with which to express their thoughts. I am driven to write because I want to be of service to others, I want to help young people make good choices and I want to help people at any stage of life realize that they can change, they can recover and soar.  I particularly want to help women understand that they can be care-givers without giving up their identity, the importance of being in positive relationships, and we are all stronger than we know. I want to teach and inspire, I want to help, I want to change the world and make it a better place. My dream is to do so through my writing, I will make people laugh, make them cry, help them feel, and make them think. I have experienced and survived things that should be shared in a way that will be helpful to others. I have the talent, I have the drive, and I now have the conviction to pursue my dreams and write my first book and many more.

I Could Have had a V8

What started as a clever ad campaign for V8 vegetable juice somehow became a phrase synonymous with “Wow, if only I had known, I’d have made a different choice.”  Sometimes we don’t feel the accompanying thunk on the head until days, weeks, or maybe even years later often times because we weren’t aware that there was a choice.

Our society is obsessed with “making it big” and we’ve left little to no room for the pursuit of dreams.  We convince ourselves that our day jobs are all that we are and all that we can be and our childhood desires of becoming anything from an actress to an athlete, to a chef or a master Gardner get shelved away.  We buy into the notion that if we can’t make it big, there’s no point in trying and we forget that as children we once knew how to dream.  We “grow up” and we do the responsible thing, we put our aspirations on the back burner and promise ourselves that someday we’ll find our way back to them.

Often if we’re brave enough to admit our true desires we’re met with responses such as, “Why would you want to do ‘that’?” and with good intentions we’re reminded that “there’s no money in it,” “shouldn’t you focus on your career?” and “it’ll take away from family time.”  I think the most dampening of all is the one spoken without looking up from behind the newspaper, “oh really, uh huh, yeah that’s nice.”

I was raised during a time and age in which pursuing a practical curriculum followed by an equally practical and hopefully financially rewarding career may not have been expected, but it was encouraged.  I attended college during one of the first times in history that a career for a woman was not perceived to be limited to a teacher, nurse, or wife.  Like most seventeen year olds I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and in 1979 anything in the Business College was the degree of choice for those of us without an obvious gift or burning passion.

Unfortunately when I graduated, or more specifically after one more summer of life guarding, jobs were far and few between, and truth to be told, I hadn’t looked very hard.  Between believing I had landed the perfect husband-to-be and in spite of what I thought my aspirations “should be,” I was relieved to think that my degree was something I wasn’t going to need.   My thoughts hadn’t moved beyond enjoying one last carefree summer and finding a job to pass the time while I waited for his December commencement ceremony.  I was certain the summer would end with the question “will you marry me?” and not with the words “I’m sorry, I’ve met someone else…”

Heartbroken and irrational I somehow managed to convince myself that selling disability insurance door to door in rural Nebraska was a good opportunity and a way to move on.  During those brief months, I experienced everything from being invited into a stranger’s home for roast beef and mashed potatoes to being chased off of a porch with the wave of a shotgun. I also enjoyed the first and hopefully last experience of being stuck up to my ankles in sludge and being pelted simultaneously with rain and mud wondering if we’d ever get the car unstuck.

The car belonged to the only other woman on the road with me and many nights we laughed until we cried as we shared our mishaps and tried to convince each other we weren’t crazy. We concluded that we, in fact, weren’t crazy, the job and everyone else was.

One night we decided that it would be easier to just leave than to actually resign, so under the cover of darkness, we packed our bags said goodbye to the job, the run down motel, promised to keep in touch, and swore we would write a book.  We actually sat down at the typewriter and started composing on more than one occasion, but one reason after another got in the way and before long we convinced each other that it just wasn’t practical and we went our separate ways.

It was the last time I talked or thought about writing anything other than a business presentation, a cover letter, or an email until I heard about a place called “Sometime Isle.”  I heard about this “island” while attending a book signing and luncheon at a small café in Dorset, Minnesota.  I found myself surrounded by ardent fans of the author’s series about life on the plains.  They alternated between hanging on her every word and peppering her with questions about what would happen next to their favorite characters – their friends.

I didn’t connect with the personalities she described from her stories and I was relieved when she moved from her books to her personal experiences because that meant the lecture was drawing to a close.  Suddenly I found myself listening and not daydreaming.  She spoke of career, marriage, and motherhood; she revealed the dreams that had been tucked away with prayers that ended in “Sometime I’ll…”  She provided inspiration with her story of taking a risk, attending a writers conference on a whim, and becoming a published author after she turned fifty.

I surprised myself when I felt my hand raise in response to her question, “Do any of you have a secret dream? Have you ever said to yourself, ‘sometime I’ll write a book, sometime I’ll paint a landscape, sometime I’ll take a cooking class, sometime I’ll….” I recalled the book I’d started twenty five years before as well as the painting, drawing, and piano lessons I’d started and stopped in between.  She dared each of us to consider taking one small step toward moving off of Sometime Isle.

I’ve thought about that day often and wondered how someone so different from me could have made such an impact on my life. Since then I’ve taken half a dozen writing classes, started a blog, and have more than a few ideas for a book. I even pulled out my sketch pad and am taking a drawing class.  I may never have a book published, but I’ll write one.  I may never make a dime pursuing my passions, but I’m devoting time to them.

Every time I hear myself say “Sometime I’ll…”  I think of her story and remind myself that it’s never too late.

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.