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Robin: The Hamster Wheel

I have a friend who recently quit her job in retail management because she felt like it was zapping her energy (she might have said something like siphoning her life force — she is very poetic!). She said her immediate response to the new stage in her life (you know, after the thrill of sticking it to your boss) was sheer panic. Did she really decide to take herself off the hamster wheel — the one that tells you where to go, when to go, how fast to go, and how to think about on any given 8-10 hour work day? Quick, we must find another hamster wheel!

If you have ever taken a plunge like that, then you know. It feels like you are drowning in possibility. Problem is, you do not know how to discern anything outside of the schematic of a structured work environment. My panic came in the form of motherhood. I waited several years for the little girl in my arms, but where was the constant ringing in my head coming from? I felt like I was a retired Pavlov’s dog unable to generate anything more than DO NOT GIVE IN to the desires invoked by the bell which is GO BACK TO THE HAMSTER WHEEL. Too much time to fill and no one to tell me how to fill it. Well meaning friends who have heard me “lament” (a pretty word for moaning and groaning) said, “finally Robin you can write like you always talked about.”

But how can one create in a state of panic? I felt forgotten in the world. Forty years old in a play group with a toddler surrounded by the other “20-something” moms. Many of whom were joyfully talking about their “next baby” while the one in front of them is barely a year old. I am college educated and full of life experience, stuck in a world filled with The Wonder Pets anthem playing in my head and not much else. It was getting difficult to get out of bed.

So as I embark on this thing — this facade I still call it even as I make myself write — I have no choice but to wake up in my life and EXPLORE. I see that my panicked friend and I could help each other. She actually has her undergrad in art so she has the foundation to re-imagine a life of openness to love through her creativity; more fully with her heart and mind.

As I continue to journey DAILY, I hope I can inspire and encourage others on the way. I do find from past attempts on this creativity kick that, very similar to my walk with Jesus, that I am “simply A BEGGAR trying to show other beggars where the bread is.”

photo credit

Tammy: Define yourself

“A government that robs Peter to pay Paul
can always depend on the support of Paul.”
— George Bernard Shaw

I picture myself ordering at Starbucks, tentatively holding a moleskine journal and a Ziploc of pitt pens and gellyrolls, anxious for a few peaceful hours of drawing. The barista smiled and asked if I was an artist. What an odd question for a girl who had lived in the world of numbers, objective decisions and analysis since grad school. It was two years ago and a key a turning point… because I said yes. Yes.

If you teach calculus, yet ski every chance you can, are you not a skiier? You don’t have to be a competitive skiier or a particularly fast skiier or even stay upright most of the time to use the word. Calling yourself a skiier takes nothing away from Olympic skiiers or ski teachers.

We are all many things…

  • A Java programmer who is an avid urban sketcher
  • A mom who writes sci fi when the kids are at school
  • A logistics manager who writes stories for her children
  • A pilot who embroiders aprons
  • A mom who manages the PTA and blogs about nutrition
  • A chemistry teacher who creates art journaling pages all summer
  • A photographer who quilts
  • A paralegal who sketches jewelry designs at lunch
  • A realtor with a cooking blog
  • A homeschooling mom who develops crossword puzzles and writes poetry
  • A veterinarian who writes sewing patterns

What are you? If you say you are an [fill in the blank]… you are!

PS.  It’s Your Art

[Cross-posted from Tammy's personal blog, Daisy Yellow.]

Miranda: Breathe in, breathe out

Late May and June seem to overflow with spring sports, end-of-school trips, rehearsals, recitals, and events. Like many of you, I drive from baseball practice to the dance studio and then back again, arriving at home far too late to get a decent dinner onto the table. The options are: plan carefully and cook dinner in that narrow window between work and the chauffeur routine, or get pizza (again).

It’s easy to be swallowed up by the 1,358 details and pressures of daily life. Last week I retrieved my college son during a two-day road trip to Ithaca, NY, just in time to come home and help my husband rip out an asphalt driveway. Major DIY landscaping projects loom, woven in between graduations, shopping for teacher gifts, T-ball tournaments, and driver’s ed. Normally, the added tasks and activity of this time of year would turn me into a raving bee-atch stress muffin. But this year things are a little different. I’m not a sea of tranquility — not by a longshot — but I’m not fantasizing about my escape to Mexico, either. What’s changed?

I’m running around, but my recent efforts to do less and reduce stress have actually begun to work. I’ve stopped taking on new client projects (the existing clients are more than sufficient) and I no longer need to work nights in order to stave off the panic attacks. I continue to refine my custom planner, which I still love. In the big-picture thinking about moving closer to what makes me happy, the answer seems to live in “just being.” Being, as opposed to doing.

A lot of different threads have come together for me during the past few months as my husband and I began to seriously study and practice Buddhism. Now that I’ve done more than just dip my toe in (I’m probably up to the ankle) I wonder why I didn’t embrace this practice a long time ago. I’d read many Buddhist-inspired books over the years, but I never before connected all the dots. Mediation and mindfulness speak directly to my long-time desire to live in the moment, appreciating my children — how fleeting this time is! — and embrace creativity as much as possible without all the self-flagellation when it doesn’t happen. Somehow Buddhism always seemed to me like something that other people — crunchy, poser Westerners — took to in order to check out of life. But I was wrong. It’s not about checking out, it’s about checking in. You don’t need to be Tibetan in order to practice Buddhism, and it’s already helping me become a better mother. (One of my favorite books in this category: Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn.)

I’m also running again, eating better, and protecting my 7+ hours of sleep a night. And I’m reading, almost every night. What am I NOT doing? Well, I’m not watching any TV, but I don’t miss it. I’m also not doing very much personal writing. But I’m trying not to obsess. Obsessing means losing out on the opportunity of RIGHT NOW. Remember our discussion of someday is today? Well, today brings whatever today brings. I’m down with that. Yes, there are many things that I’d like to make happen. I’d like to finish my novel. My nonfiction book. Heck, just my creative nonfiction essay. I’d like to ensure at least three posts to this blog every week. And I will do all of those things, in time. But I won’t do them at the expense of this beautiful moment, or my children. (It was quite affirming to look out the window just now and see a hummingbird skimming through the sprinkler in my front yard!)

Summer looms, and with it the perennial promise of slower days and a bit of relaxation. (When the weather is fair — for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere — it does seem easier to embrace the moment, doesn’t it? Of course, this is the very reason why my husband argues that we should move to a warmer part of the country :-) ) How are YOU feeling during the end-of-year crunch? Are you able to enjoy the beauty outside? Have you developed strategies to stave off the stress? Are there certain items in the self-care category that you refuse to give up, come hell or high water (a nightly bath, journal writing, a weekly yoga class, a photo a day)? And if creativity gets put on hold for a while, do you trust in a cycle that will bring it back? Please share….

Cathy: Denver retreat

Friday night, I arrived with Honey in Denver, CO. Gor-ge-ous sunset on the drive from the airport. Sorry, I did not bring a camera for this trip. I was going to write, after all, not fool around taking pictures! But I did curse myself up and down for lack of camera when it came to that sunset.

We helped my husband’s cousin set up his speaking engagement/seminar, and ate a late dinner of hotel bar food. the Grand Hyatt 1876 Lounge had a three-sauce sampler for fried zucchini and portabello mushrooms that was a bit greasy, but the middle sauce for dipping was a tomato jam I could have eaten on anything for eternity and never missed another flavor. I ate it on Honey’s sweet potato fries that came with his pork sliders. I couldn’t get enough of that tomato jam.

Food rhapsody over for the moment, I turn to the purpose for leaving my children on Mother’s Day weekend: to write!!!

My manuscript is, after all, my other child. They do vie for attention constantly.

Saturday morning, my dear Honey trotted off to do his tech support function for his cousin, while I stayed in the hotel room under the auspices of writing. I proceeded to drive myself completely berserk, agonizing over getting past the block I had regarding what I knew I needed to do to the manuscript. I’d been having this block for months and was blaming my lack of time alone for it. So I got the time alone, and still went bonkers.

I finally said, I must walk! I am in a new city. I have never set foot in Denver proper. I must find the nearest green space to find some solace in my frustrated writer’s soul.

I rode the elevator down to concierge and she pointed me toward the capitol and its park. Then she looked dejected as she recalled, “But there is a huge Cinco de Mayo Festival going on there, so you won’t see much of the green.”

I replied, “No problem, I love to people watch.” Along the walk, I met an adorable nine-week-old brindle coated sweet little pit bull puppy. And the young man on the other end of the leash, who had a big smile, proud to show off his new little girl. It’s been a long time since my “Boston days” between tall buildings, seeing the slant of light and shadow play down the walls and windows. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Then I hit the busy amusement park set up of Cinco de Mayo, on the eighth of May. Lots of good sights and sounds and distractions and rhythms, and some construction of the park, and children on rides, and walking and Spanish and dancing, and a lot of Dos Equis displays.

I didn’t stay long, and the capitol building in Denver is a gold domed beaut, like my beloved Boston capitol building, so that was nice for my suburban aching heart to see. Then I turned back to the hotel and to face the open document on the laptop.

More agonizing. I called a friend, who asked me to send it to her, to which I promptly said NO! Then backtracked that I was sitting there staring at seven critiques already. She kindly said, “Oh, no, you don’t need me to look at it. You need to know that what you know you have to do to your manuscript is good because it will make it better!”

I said, “Aha! That was the missing piece! Editing will make it better!”

And so I began to edit. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I still struggled, was still largely attached to what I had already written, but I moved stuff around, rewrote the beginning.

Loads more to the weekend, but as far as the writing, that’s what I did. I agonized, I moved something around, I agonized, I moved stuff around. I agonized, I deleted a few lines here and there. And I agonized some more. I made it to page 5 out of 120. And I was disappointed enormously with my new first line.

I thought, “If I picked this book up off the shelf, and read that opening line? I’d put it back.”

And then, the day after my arrival home, my writing group met to write on Tuesday. All of a sudden, I was able to work much more effectively in the company of my writing group all sitting quietly with their laptops and notebooks, doing largely the same thing I was doing: editing what we already had.

But if I had not gone to Denver; had not driven myself crazy until I chiseled away a crack in the writer’s block, I would have been of no use to myself or my manuscript on Tuesday.

And, like Edith Ann says, “That’s the Truth, thpblbubblepppbubth!”

[Cross-posted from my personal blog.]

Robin: A Storyteller’s Tale

Two years ago, a fellow yogi and I e-mailed one another daily preparing for a retreat we were both attending. This correspondence continued over a 6-month time period. I saved all the e-mails thinking that I would compile them and put them in book form as a beautiful memory for both of us. This endeavor produced 63 double sided (8.5 x 11) pages. I realized with that exercise that writing a page a day is incredibly doable. So, why have I continued to make excuses for my non-existent writing life?

Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, describes this type of behavior as ‘shadow artists.’ Pent-up creativity flows sideways into other venues such as e-mails, telephone conversations (read Facebook and Twitter!) in an effort to clue the defiant artist that he/she is not living the fullness of his/her life. Whether it hearkens back to being discouraged from exploring art as a child, feeling incompetent or simply viewing the task as a waste of time, the idea of creation for its own sake rather than a manifestation of outcomes takes much courage to walk into.

As I choose to move my own shadow artist into the light, dusting off years of denial, complacency, and just plain laziness, I pray that this decision awakens the thrill of living within the juicy words on the page, finally out of my head with the potential to garner community and conversation.

[Photo credit here.]

Alison: Carved-out satisfaction versus cut-throat success

There’s a ‘wealth’ of information out there and particularly online about how to become a successful writer, how to write, pitch, blog, market yourself, build up a following, get a publisher, be known. Much of it is excellent advice. However, what grates on me is the kind of ‘stop at nothing’ advice where you are meant to steamroller your way to the top by being relentlessly competitive with your contemporaries. Some will think I am naive. You simply have to stand out to be noticed, you need to blog more, network more, tour more, promote more.

Absolutely. You need dedication. You need to lose the excuses not to write. You need to be aware of what’s going on in the market. You need to know who’s in the know and what they know! But what I object to is ambition in a vacuum, the one-track mind to success that doesn’t consider other priorities like the people around you, your home and family life, or your relationship with others and with the world.

Last week Christina Katz, writer, woman, mother, powerhouse asked people to blog about happiness. To me happiness can be joy, exquisite moments of enjoyment of the process of writing, of the gorgeous reality of my children and their funny moments, a perfect moment of spring blossom and sun. But that kind of happiness is not always available moment to moment. What is available is an overall satisfaction with your life and its choices, an understanding that you may not always get exactly what you want, when you want (like all the time you want to write) but that you are doing your absolute best to fulfill your ambition while maintaining equilibrium with other parts of your life. As a woman and mother, this reciprocity and balancing of your own needs with the needs of your children, family, extended family and the community as a whole is integral. I am not going to blog everyday if it means that I don’t do a jigsaw with my two-year-old or colour with my daughter, if I can’t listen to my friend who is going through a hard time, if I never have time for giving rather than just getting. On Benjamin Kanarek blog Isa Maisa said recently: As our society today considers fame and fortune to be the Holy Grail of our sense of purpose, living a life in an attitude of a happy medium is hushed as insufficient and discusses Doris Lessing, Michael Jackson and Alexander McQueen’s relationship with success.

There are many people in the writing world I admire who are successful by building up a reciprocal and mutually satisfying relationship with their readers and with other writers. They bring others up with them, provide others with opportunities for exposure and development. In particular I would like to mention Vanessa O’ Loughlin of Inkwell Writers. She writes, provides great-quality writing classes, and has created a network of writers who regularly receive her extremely useful newsletter. She uses the newsletter to promote other writers and has provided opportunities for other writers to be noticed. Christina Katz is an expert at platform building and becoming known in the publishing world, making the most of opportunities — but she also promotes the careers of fellow writers and provides opportunities for them. The Year Zero collective is a group of writers who want to engage with and give back to readers. They develop a reciprocal relationship with readers by posting work regularly and getting feedback, by doing readings in intimate venues and by often giving away their work for free.

These are only a few examples. In terms of social media, there is, for the most part, a wonderful atmosphere on Twitter of reciprocal help, promotion and respect. There are also plenty of blogs (here, for instance!) where the object is mutual support and encouragement. Only occasionally do you find those whose own agenda of self-promotion comes ahead of their respect for others.

I want to be a writer first; I want to be a successful but also satisfied writer. But what that means to me is to develop a relationship with my readers and other writers first and foremost, to maintain a courteous, considerate and caring relationship with people in my personal and professional life. And after that, only after, will I count book sales and stats as a measure of happiness. What do you think?

[Cross-posted from my personal blog.]

Alexsondra: Tantrums, Treasures, and Family Stuff

Apparently, I threw many a temper tantrum as a child. I was the “spirited” child. The obstinate child. The strong-willed child. Suffice it to say, I tested the very core of parenting skills. Those were the days that pediatricians would answer all kinds of questions, with such authority that mothers would accept the answers automatically. Yes, I know those pediatricians still exist today. I do hope that every mother has learned to trust her instincts and raise her voice.

My mother loved to tell the story of my tantrums, and how she was “beside herself” with not knowing what to do. She explained how our very thoughtful and insightful doctor suggested she give me one warning, and then throw a small amount of cold water in my face. She was tickled pink at how quickly it worked. But did it? (This is not a mommy bashing post, of course she did the best she knew how — anyway, I’m a mommy and my mommy bashing days are in the “tempered tantrums” file, under forgiven.)

Back to Did it Work: I don’t think so. It did shut me up, but it didn’t change my mind. That strong-willed kid grew. And kept having tantrums. And kept putting her foot in her mouth. Yes, it took me a long time, a very long time to learn how to pick my battles. To decide whether I wanted to pay the price for speaking my mind. But in my day I was boldly willing to accept whatever the cost. And believe me, the costs were staggering sometimes, but that’s another post. It was a matter of survival and justice. I took it seriously. Because, as every kid knows, there are two sides to a temper tantrum.

My mother is now deceased. I cared for her in her final months. We had plenty to share, and one of those treasured minutes was this. When I told her that her son was coming from California to visit, she beamed in anticipation, ”Oh! The apple of my eye.”  These words were not new to my ears.

I began teasing her as I usually did, about her sugary love for her boys. She went on in a dreamy voice of remembering the past, ”Yes,” she said, savoring her thoughts, ”Tommy was always the apple of my eye, and Victor was my golden child.” She sighed gently and had nothing left to say. That was it. She had summed it up. Now, I could have let things be, but that’s not my style. No, I decided we’d have it out, right there. I didn’t care if she was dying, and I had heard those titles given to my brothers many times during my life. This was no deathbed discovery on her part. I never had a title, and now, I was going to demand one, if necessary. ”What about me? What was I?” ”YOU,” she said, “Hmmm…you, you were…” and she hesitated a few seconds, ”you were my tantrum child.” There you have it. In fairness to her, as well as accuracy to the tale, she said it gently and lovingly. Kind of queer don’t you think, remembering a tantrum kid lovingly. But she did.

Now, I’m obliged to tell you that days later, she called me over to her bed and said, ”Darling, you were really my precious one.” Adding, though, “If you tell anyone, I’ll deny it.” Always humor. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

One year later, Christmastime, I would have to make her delicious cookies myself. I had never baked them before. And right there in my kitchen, as I braced myself for this overwhelming task, I threw a huge tantrum, complete with stomping my feet, tears streaming, tight-fisted, and all. I knew that feeling well. I was intimidated by the unknown (baking Mother’s cookies), and mad as hell that I even had to do it.

The tantrum lasted maybe a minute before I heard her words: ”You were my tantrum child.” I had to laugh. How well our mothers know us. Tears wiped, laughter over, I opened a favorite cookbook only to find a handwritten note from her. ”Dear Lulu (nickname), try these recipes (marked), I know you can do this, just follow the directions.”

I think I still throw tantrums from time to time. Only now I’ve learned to couch my words in “acceptable tones” as to be heard. But not always.

A gentle word of advice. Listen to those tantrums, they may not sound pretty, but there’s usually a gem of truth inside.

Oh, and please write little notes to people you love. They are little treasures carrying an abundance of love.

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