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Robin: The Way I Give Birth Now

The running joke in military families is that you can predict the ages of the children in a deployed family by knowing the dates of scheduled homecomings and R&R (meaning during the time the couple is being “reacquainted” the chances are higher that a baby is conceived!). While my husband and I do enjoy these “catching up” segments, conceiving more children is definitely NOT ON THE AGENDA. With my body fast approaching 42 and Mike having already crossed that threshold, we are content to have biologically produced one little princess together who just turned 4.

As I was working on a mosaic project this morning and gazing over at the potential of a piece of plywood I have sitting on my dining room table, the thought occurred to me: this is how I give birth now. The excitement of a new idea, the purchasing of the materials I need in preparation for the new arrival, fantasizing about what form it will ultimately take once I begin to apply my hands to the materials. Even that certain point where the creation begins to move in another direction than I had anticipated and my response to such change reminds me of raising and then releasing a child (my oldest is now 21).

And then, at least with mosaics, as you begin to dust off the excess grout and the beauty comes through after the piece goes through its own version of the birthing canal, the creation sits before you. You feel protective and defensive about her. You almost could not bear to part with her.

Honestly, if I were younger perhaps I would be willing to entertain conceiving another baby with my guy. Realistically, we choose to remain content to raise the one we have. So I have a studio instead. I find this birthing process to be FAR LESS painful (sometimes).

Miranda: I want to do NOTHING. Meow.

Lately I find myself staring wistfully at my cats. Sasha, curled up in her bed atop my desk, basking in the warmth of my desk lamp for hours on end. Mimi, stretched out on the back of the sofa, staring out the window at everything and nothing. They eat, they sleep, they wash, they run around a little bit, ask for affection when they want it,  and make their own fun — knocking over my water glass, eating Spanish moss out of the houseplants, chasing a long-lost chess pawn across the dining room floor. Sasha loves water; she bathes in the kitchen sink while we’re doing dishes and keeps the kids company in the bathroom during bath time. Then she goes off to find yet another cozy spot to take a snooze.

It’s a nice life.

Not that I would trade for a cat’s life permanently, but gee, a day or two would be awfully nice, wouldn’t it?

One sign that my stress level is getting way too high: I become resentful of my cats’ unencumbered lifestyles. My resentment is a helpful stress gauge because really, the insomnia, heart palpitations, and facial twitches aren’t clear enough indicators. Even though I’ve made recent progress editing my to-do list and scope in an attempt to focus on what really matters, each day is still about 10 hours too short. I used to think that I could just sleep less and steal “extra” hours while everyone else was tucked up in bed, but chronically working into the wee hours comes with a price — a price that I don’t want to keep paying. I’ve found that migraines and other health issues become frequent occurrences when I don’t get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. I can feel myself aging. So I decided that sleep simply must become more of a priority. In the past few weeks since I started going to be earlier, I’m more clear-headed and healthier (although not, ironically, that much less tired).

Aside from the freedom to sleep at will, what I admire about the life of a cat is the license to do nothing. Dogs aren’t like that. Sure, dogs sleep a lot (at least mine does — she’s a Newfoundland), but dogs have more of an agenda than cats do. Dogs work. Dogs feel obliged to do this or that — greet you when you come home (even if that means waking from a deep sleep and rising from a warm bed), bark when the doorbell rings, try to eat the mailman — whatever. Cats may or may not try to eat the mailman, but you can be sure that it won’t happen on cue. A cat will only try to eat the mailman if she feels like it. No robotic force of habit at work. No slavish worship to “shoulds.” Because as we all know, dogs want to please their owners, and cats don’t give a damn.

Being agenda-free does have its appeal. Oh, to have nothing to do! The prospect is dazzling. The more I feel overwhelmed by my to-do list, the more that curling into a ball on a patch of sunny carpet — utterly without guilt or angst — seems like the obvious, appropriate response to any situation.

While I realize that I’ll never have the feline’s ability to simply suit myself — everyone else (husband and five kids) be damned — there are lessons to be learned from the cat. Doing nothing is a good thing, at least in small quantities. And I don’t mean vegging out; I mean studiously doing nothing and letting magic unfold where it might. No agenda. No shoulds.

Kids are good at showing us how “doing nothing” can turn into an adventure. On Sunday afternoon I followed my toddler (who is peg-legging around on a full leg cast) into the dining room, where he found a ball hiding under the piano bench. For at least 30 minutes, he entertained himself by climbing onto the piano bench (with a lot of help, as climbing onto a piano bench is life-threatening difficult in a full leg cast) and sitting down, throwing the ball across the room, getting back down, peg-legging over to fetch the ball, bringing it back to the piano bench, and repeating the process, with or without a little piano playing in between. As I sat there, helping him up and down, I took in the afternoon sunlight on the wood floor and realized that I was about as close to doing nothing as I can ever be. No electronics droning the background; just family noises and the scraping and thumping of my toddler’s cast dragging across the floor. OK, so that last part wasn’t so idyllic, but still.

Eventually my son made his way into the hallway and decided to go upstairs to where his brother was playing. We found ourselves loitering on the landing at the top of the staircase. I settled on the top step, serving as barricade. Before we knew it a family game had evolved — my toddler and 5-year-old throwing a small ball, a cloth Spiderman face mask, and a parachute guy off of the balcony down onto my husband, who returned the toys in long aerial passes, trying to avoid the hallway chandelier. The boys thought this was hysterical, especially when my husband missed and the ball or parachute guy ricocheted off the balusters. Good clean fun, which never seems to grow tiresome. (Well, my husband’s arm got a little tired after half an hour, but the boys were still enamored.)

On a Sunday afternoon, passing an hour or two doing almost nothing feels awfully nice. I try not to think of the frightening to-do list that looms over my head like a tidal wave. The work, the book (the one I’m writing), the house, the book (the other one I’m writing), the laundry, the book (the one I need to finish reading for book group), the impatient client, the empty fridge. The wave will always be there — but will never actually crash down on my head. (At least that’s what I tell myself as I try to live in the moment.) The moments of that Sunday afternoon, however, are fleeting. Doing “nothing” makes for memories that have long lives and crystalline edges.

Of course, I’m not the only person who thinks that doing nothing is good for you. Doing nothing is by extension part of the slow parenting movement (and the slow movement in general). The brain needs to be left to its own devices on occasion in order to stimulate creativity (and, I would add, well-being). By doing nothing, it turns out, you often end up “doing” wonderful things without even realizing it — because your focus was entirely on the moment and evolved into enjoying a process, rather than being focused on the outcome. (This is also why I’m a big fan of Montessori education. It’s all about the process rather than appending meaningless rewards to performance. The process itself is the reward.)

Phew. That’s way too much thinking for someone who was trying to do nothing. Now, about that nap….

Kirsty: Taking the Lazy Road

I am lazy.

“What’s that?’, I hear you cry, ‘you spend months patiently tying knots in string, sticking pins through fabric or drawing every day for a year, how can you possibly call yourself lazy?’

Ah, but it’s a very specific kind of laziness and over the years — as I have come to understand it — I have adjusted my art practice to accommodate it.

I know myself and if I worked with the sort of materials that needed a specialist working environment like a forge or a foundry, I wouldn’t get much art made. If I undertook huge expensive projects that involved lots of paperwork, funding bids and meetings with planners and architects, I would never get any art made.

Heck, even if my studio was in another building, I would struggle. When I graduated, I hired a studio space on the other side of town because I thought that’s what you were meant to do. I kept it for a couple of months before recognising that I was working extra hours to pay for it but was hardly ever there and even when I was, I found it an uninviting place to work.

Eventually I realised that when I’d been a student, I used to make most of my work at home and then take it into college when it was finished. I tended to use my studio in college as an experimental installation space or somewhere to think, rather than somewhere to physically make work. I’m sure this is partly because I’d grown accustomed to fitting my art around parenting when my son was young. Having evolved as an artist whilst making work in the evenings on the kitchen table, a separate studio space felt like a barren and alien environment to me.

So now my studio is on the top floor of my house. Yet even that is not close enough and I tend to make my art in my study, my bedroom, my living room, my garden, on the dining room table and only occasionally in my studio.

I do enjoy the quiet and contemplative space of my studio, especially when I need to think, draw or make more mess than usual. But I also need my art to be part of my daily life; something I can pick up and put down as easily as the morning paper or my cup of tea. So art, for me, is largely a domestic affair and you’ll often find me making my more repetitive pieces in front of the TV or while listening to a podcast on my computer.

In addition, the sort of materials I use in my art — small, unregarded things like matches, pins, sequins or envelopes — are easily available, safe to use and relatively cheap. This is a deliberate choice on my behalf. Partly because I’m very interested in everyday objects that are so commonplace that they become effectively invisible but also because I am passionate about ‘owning the means of production’. I hate to be dependent on other people before I can even start to make my art.

I’ve never done well if I have to go through multiple steps to get something done and so wherever possible, my practice is organised to minimise that. For example, when I graduated I took out a loan so that I could upgrade my computer equipment and digital camera because I wanted access to the technology I’d used at college without having to go off to a library or rent out office premises.

My materials are a continuation of that desire for independence. I don’t need to work a day job to buy the sort of materials I use. Nor do I need to scrabble around for grants or sponsorship or jump through anyone else’s hoops before my work can come into being. I’ve learnt from experience that projects that do need access to specialist knowledge or equipment or more funding than I can provide myself are the ones that invariably end up on on the backburner.

Again, I’m sure my formative years of trying to combine art with parenting also informed my preference for cheap, readily available materials. Although I always bought the best I could afford, I was on a low income and got used to making do with what I had. And I found that I actually preferred it because it was easier to be loose and experimental with thousands of cheap, everyday things than with very rare or precious materials.

Some artists need the heroic struggle; it motivates and inspires them and forms a vital part of their practice. Others find that getting out of the house and into a separate studio space makes them more focused and dedicated. Yet others relish the challenge of working in very expensive materials.

But for me that stuff just gets in the way.

I need the path of least resistance because I find making good, meaningful art quite difficult enough without adding extra obstacles. I am perfectly capable of putting mental road blocks in the way of my own art practice and I realised early on that it would be disastrous if I added further restrictions such as the need for funding, planning permission, specialist studio requirements or expensive materials. So I have consciously set up my practice so that the only thing standing in the way of my art is myself — and believe me, that’s usually more than enough!

It’s vital as an artist to recognise your strengths and weakness and to play to both of them. Don’t make it any harder than it needs to be.

[Reposted from Kirsty's website. Image (Rubber Bands 02) courtesy Kirsty Hall under a Creative Commons license.]

Robin: Play IS Fun

[Editor's note: Please join me in "officially" welcoming Robin to our About page. This means that we can now bug Robin any time we feel like it! ;-) ]

“Play is fun, but it is also meaningful and complex.  The more intelligent the animal, the more it plays.” –Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., Playful Parenting

Josey woke up the other morning to a note left by Daddy on the kitchen table. I of course went into swoon mode for my hubby. Josey looked at the pad of paper and said, “can I take that paper off so I can draw.” Josey wanted the notepad — it was hers, after all!

Parenting allows us to give a lovely type of nurturing drawn from that “outside of yourself” place. My hubby is not normally a “hugger” but he knows that Josey LOVES it.  She has no idea what an effort it is for him.

I got to thinking about this for myself. I am not one who really likes playing with toddler toys and only do it when Josey asks me to join in. However, I really enjoy reading children’s books and I really enjoy improvising crafts based on the stories we are reading. Maybe sometimes parents do not “play” as much as they would like because they feel restricted by the type of play that only taps into their kid’s place of whimsy. I submit that these could be opportunities to offer other playful options to our children which come in different and WONDERFUL packages.

I have found a few blogs that are incredibly helpful to get someone started:

So here we go: PERMISSION TO HAVE FUN PLAYING!

Cathy: Back to the book

I have received excellent notes from someone in a position to discuss observatories in a way that I need to fill the hole in my manuscript. For this, I am extremely thankful, and feeling the impetus to write that one hole in the book.

I basically have not been able or free to write or edit in the manuscript since my retreat in January and my surgery in February. The fact that my toddler is way too busy now at times when other than her, I have the house to myself, and therefore should have no distractions… Yeah, right, that’s a good one!

So much for writing during morning naps. Buh-bye! Actually that was gone about six months ago.

Then, two other things put a kink into the process: My mother-in-law started a diet support group with her exercise buddies on the same day as my critique group; and my critique group bumped the timeslot from 12-2pm to 10-12pm. Same time as her regular exercise classes she has committed herself to for over three years now.

This prompted me to start seeking inexpensive daycare services to try to cover Toots for at least two half-days a week, so I would have time to write and time twice per month for the critique group. She turns 2 on April 1. All the basic church basement type preschools in the area start at 2.5 years. Otherwise, it’s parent accompanied playgroups or expensive daycare centers. I felt really SOL. But I have committed to putting my writing on the map. Think, think, think.

So I got a message late Sunday night to request a change for this week’s group meeting to Thursday from the usual Tuesday meeting. And it was to be a writing rather than a critique meeting. I was half-ecstatic. Only half, because while it did not conflict with my mil’s diet group, it did conflict with her usual exercise classes.

Yesterday morning, I shored myself up and asked if she would mind watching Toots on Thursday morning instead of going to her class.

Not that she typically says no, but it’s not like I typically feel I can ask, because I want to respect what is important to her. She said sure.

Maybe a week by week check-in is what it will take to get my writing on the chart, to coordinate around a household of six including toddler. At least for now. And in six months, maybe I can start her in a regular preschool, if we can figure it into the non-existent part of the budget.

Baby steps. For now, I will write, in the committed company of other writers on Thursday for two hours. That is two hours of writing I did not have before. One week at a time.

Crossposted from Cathy’s personal blog.

Kirsty: Everyday Art

[Editor's Note: Meet Kirsty Hall, a Bristol-based artist and curator. Kirsty's website includes an inventory of useful articles for artists on how to build an online presence. Kirsty has kindly allowed us to re-post several pieces from her blog that speak to creativity and motherhood. The first appears below. Thank you, Kirsty!]

grape stemLast night, my son had his 15th birthday ’sleepover’ (why do they call them sleepovers when no sleep ever happens?), so I was in nominal charge of 8 teenage boys. This morning, as my son and I cleared up the quite considerable mess, I found myself musing over the similarities between parenting and art.

Art is an everyday thing. Like parenting, it is made up of lots of little moments, a thousand little decisions and a hundred thousand moments of just showing up — what Alison Lee of Craftcast calls “getting your butt in the chair”.

Art is usually not the heroic struggle of Romanticism or the epic machismo of the 1950’s Action Painters, although those big dramatic moments do sometimes occur, most often in the run up to an exhibition. Instead art — for me at least — is rooted in the everyday; in the daily ritual of the Diary Project envelopes, in the way I sit in my computer chair listening to podcasts while I do another couple of rows on a Thread Drawing canvas, in the slowly changing pile of art books that are permanently in residence under my bed.

Although it is not usually about domesticity, my art is firmly rooted in the home. I am fortunate enough to have a studio at home and like Virginia Woolf, I recognise the importance of having a room of my own. However, my art also takes place in other rooms in the house: in the living room while I’m watching TV with my family, in my bed where I often draw, in our library/dining room where I sit at the big table and stick photos into my sketchbook, in my study as I make work in front of the computer, in the shower where I think up ideas, in the kitchen when I get distracted from cooking by the sudden overwhelming need to photograph the ingredients.

Art permeates my whole life — it isn’t confined to a set time or a set place.

In the myths about art, this everyday quality is often omitted. For some reason, it suits people to imagine dramatic moments of crazed genius, a life lived on the bohemian edge and a slow descent into madness, drugs and suicide. We seem to want our artists to be very different from everyone else. Perhaps the reality of getting your butt in the chair, like the daily grind and pleasure of parenting, seems too mundane to most people? Was this great art really made in front of the TV or with radio 4 playing in the background while the artist drank cups of tea and pottered around the studio — how dull! We wanted death threats and overdoses, tortured homosexual love affairs, rats and cockroaches in the studio, drunken pissing in the fireplace, body parts cut off and maybe a couple of tragic stabbings!

But art — like parenting — is not something you do once in one grand and shocking gesture and then never again. Instead, it’s a constant trickle, a constant reiteration that this tiny thing, this moment of awareness, this quiet, everyday dedication is the really important thing.

[Image (Grape Stem 01) courtesy Kirsty Hall under a Creative Commons license.]

Alison: The Float Boat — St Patrick’s Day Parade, 2005

(Here is the true but amusing life tale of trying too hard as a parent to do everything. This happened back in 2005, when 3 of the 4 were born and were all under 5. Crossposted from my personal blog.)

It was 40 minutes to the parade and the homemade boat float wasn’t finished. He was painting it in ‘Forest Green’ weatherproof paint with one hand while taking part in a tele-conference call to the US with the other. I threw him an exasperated stare. ‘See you down there’ I mumbled while hoisting Tigger, Simba and an 18-month-old pink butterfly into their car seats.

That year the Humpty Dumpty Mother and Toddler Group had decided to take part in the Bray Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. The committee had given it an enthusiastic ‘green’ light. We were always looking for ways to reach out to new mothers, to gain exposure in the local community. At the starting point, there was chaos and angst. My three under-fives tore off their costumes and took fright at the belly dancers and the freaky faced clown on stilts. Stationed finally behind the Humpty Dumpty banner we were given the signal for the off. I began to realise that my husband’s creation of a fishing boat out of palettes and scrap wood may have been over-ambitious. He had attached castors to the underside in order to wheel the boat through the town to join us, but there was no sign of him. I sighed resignedly and set off with two kids on the buggy and one under my arm. Resignation turned to delight as Novara Road met Bray Main Street. He was there, waiting to join us. The former Tigger jumped in, eager for a ride in Daddy’s masterpiece.

What should have been a happy conclusion was only the beginning of our troubles. Instead of moving at a stately pace, the parade began to race along. When my husband attempted to move the heavy boat, he stalled and we zipped by. He was sandwiched and stranded between a marching band and Bray Emmets. When he tells the story, he says I abandoned him. I say I thought he would catch up and take his place under the Humpty Dumpty banner. He says ‘at least someone else tried to help him’ — even though she yanked off the side of the boat in the endeavour. It was at that moment that he was filmed for the six o’ clock news making ‘running repairs’. The noteworthy point; always take your hammer on parade.

When I said that the Humpty Dumpty group wanted exposure, I didn’t mean hypothermia. The year before we’d been sunburnt, this year threatened frostbite. As we flung ourselves back off the main street onto the Quinnsboro Road, the wind whipped up from the seafront. The children began to turn blue. It was then that a Garda in radio contact ceremoniously approached the group. A 3-year-old boy travelling in a homemade boat some way behind was hysterically calling for his mother. I ditched the toddler group and about turned. My husband was struggling, red faced and panting, flanked on each side by belly dancers. At my approach the former Tigger stopped screaming. We loaded all the children into the boat and soldiered on, side by side, our own private parade, our own Pole expedition. Sleet drove into our faces, but we prevailed, we saw the shore swim into view beyond the Dart lines, the waves recklessly pounding, the spray soaring. All we had to do was reach the seafront and the parade’s end.

The castors were becoming increasingly rickety under the strain. As we went over the Dart line they jammed and one of them came away. Drama in real life! Float Boat in Train Crash Horror they would write. No fear. The Gardai were on our tails. Three of them lifted up the boat bodily and moved it to safety. Not only that. On its final lap past the bemused compere’s stand, the homemade float boat had its very own Garda escort.

That was the last time we took part in our local St Patricks Day Parade. The boat was photographed and commended that day by an indigenous cult following. It has had a much less illustrious life since then. Later that day we took it apart and transported it piece by piece in an emerald green Volvo to its final resting place: the back garden beside the swings. In their imaginations the children make other extraordinary trips in it. One of these days, we’ll have to give it a fresh coat of green paint.

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