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Posts tagged ‘choices’

Coach, You Gotta Walk the Talk

CommunityAs a creativity coach, I have an obligation to walk the talk. It’s important to me that my coaching strategies come not just from training and books, but from real-life experience and an active personal practice. If I were to champion the virtues of an early morning creative practice, for example, while I was secretly sleeping until noon and hadn’t flexed a creative muscle in years, I’m pretty sure that most of you would call me a fraud. And I’d have to agree.

In this vein, I recently came to an important decision.

I often work with clients who struggle with extreme shortages of time but are seemingly unable to edit anything out of their schedules. Looking in as an outsider, it’s not hard for me to identify items that might merit the chopping block in order to free up time for creative work. While I can make gentle suggestions, ultimately, those decisions can’t come from me; they have to come from the client’s own shifting perspective. That shift requires looking at everything with openness and a willingness to see beyond “I can’t.”

This year, like many of my clients, I found myself in the position of having too much to do — way too much to do — and being unable to see how I might do less. “But it’s all good, important, relevant stuff!” I told myself. “I’ve already gotten rid of the obvious things!” (Volunteering for the PTA, for example. Duh.)

Many of you know that in January of this year, I opened Open Studio Groton, a brick-and-mortar studio here in Massachusetts, with my dear friend and business partner Ellen Olson-Brown. Open Studio was launched as a place where people in our community could connect, create, and grow. Looking back over the year, we have an amazing collection of successes to celebrate. Connections have been made over ideas, projects, and conversations. Artwork, manuscripts, businesses, friendships — all were created in our cozy little space. Individuals connected and grew in their own ways: some developed into stronger writers through our writers’ workshops and writers’ groups, some became more flexible yogis through Buddha Nest Yoga, some enjoyed our other diverse offerings, from blacksmithing to writing a personal creed. Four talented artists had shows in our space. Personal friendships were formed; our community grew stronger.

To our surprise, our little experiment turned out to be sustainable. We hit the black in late spring, even while we were still refining our elevator speech. (“What *is* Open Studio, anyway?”) But over the months, we often scrambled to keep all of our many studio balls in the air. The marketing alone, as with any business, was a considerable undertaking. (“Crap! I need to write that press release within the hour!”) Other areas of my life were neglected this year. One of you dear readers even wrote to me to inquire about what happened to my formerly monthly newsletter — which was just one of several sacrifices (my garden, my sanity, and the folding of clean laundry were a few others) that I didn’t want to make.

Ellen and I both have other businesses to take care of (in addition to coaching I own an editorial services business — and Ellen is a children’s book author and children’s yoga instructor). Open Studio made so much sense, bringing together so many of our passions — and it still makes sense. But in the space of a week this fall, we went from planning 2013 to acknowledging that if the two of us wanted to stay sane, we needed to pull back, take stock, and reaffirm our primary commitments.

It isn’t easy to let go of something when it’s relevant to your life work, the community supports your efforts, and you’ve already launched on your planned trajectory. But the inescapable truth is that there are only 168 hours in the week. When there are too many things to fit in your box, you have to take something out. In this instance, you can’t actually get a bigger box. It’s really that simple.

And so it became clear that while the studio as a business is sustainable, the time that it requires on both of our parts is not. As I sometimes remind clients, “You can have it all, just not all at once.” My threshold for investing personal energy — and time — has to have a finer filter. Because energy, like time, is finite. I am committed to my personal writing practice. I am committed to my coaching work. I am committed to my editorial business. I am committed to my family. I am committed to myself: reading, yoga, breathing. I am committed to moving slowly enough that I can savor where I’m at. Because if I’m not savoring, what’s the point?

The studio will close on December 31 and Ellen and I will turn with renewed focus to all the other things requiring our attention. But we’ll have a few more ounces of focus at our disposal, and a few more minutes at hand. Hopefully, we’ll do a better job with everything that remains. Most importantly, we’ll celebrate the success of 2012, and affirm the value of doing a little less — and doing it well.

Oh, and by the way. Stay tuned for my next newsletter. 😉

(Ellen Olson-Brown contributed more than a few words to this post. Thanks, E.)

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….

The dissonance of music and motherhood

clarinetShortly after blogging about Rachel Power’s important book The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, I came across a personal essay by Diana Cassar-Uhl that poignantly illustrates the pain of a “divided heart” that so many artist mothers experience. When you’re devoting time to your children, you’re alienated from your creative work. When you’re devoting time to your art, you’re alienated from your children. When your art is your profession and you’ve spent a lifetime becoming an artist, this dichotomy can be intense — as Diana expresses so beautifully in her essay, which appears below.

This essay originally appeared in ICView, the magazine of Ithaca College, and won second place in the magazine’s 2009 arts and literary contest. Reprinted with permission. (Many thanks to the author and ICView.)

Conflict of Interest
By Diana Cassar-Uhl

I’m contemplating ending my career as a clarinetist. It’s a choice I never expected to face. I thought I’d stay at my job until retirement. Music chose me. I know I could never have pursued anything else without feeling paralyzing regret.

I’m not sure how I got here. One might assume that giving birth to my first child was the turning point that ripped me from my commitment to music, but I experienced a career-defining performance when Anna was not yet eight months old.

About two years ago, at what might have been my last solo recital, another musician was amazed that I, a mother of two young children, could give a recital. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t balancing my career with motherhood the way it seemed I was, that I was losing my mind and felt completely out of control.

My recital program spoke of my past, my present, and my future as a musician and as a human. I had no idea just how connected to that music I would feel until I was giving the performance. It was the first time in years that I wasn’t just playing the notes. I had a lot of things to say — about who I was, what I am going through, and what I desire.

I finished my recital with Appalachian Spring, and it was the stuff dreams are made of. My heart was on my sleeve during those 25 minutes of my life. There were exquisitely musical moments, and the big, sweeping statement of “Simple Gifts” told everyone what I really want — to be simple and free!

I sobbed, right there on the stage. I was filled with joy and sadness and direction and confusion all at once. I crave the simplicity of motherhood, without the shackles of all this “otherhood” . . . the tangible pain that has crept into my musical experience; the despair I feel to my core because I can’t ignore the dichotomy: there are instances of humanity and beauty in my job, but they are overshadowed by cynicism.

This is why I struggle with the difficulties of balancing my hard-sought career with my even harder-sought family. I can’t pretend to feel proud that I’m leaving my children. This negative force brings me frustration and illness. My children are infected with my anger.

I don’t know whether I’ll stay or go. Music has forever claimed a part of who I am. I don’t know whether I’ll find a way to satisfy that need, or if that part of me will go unanswered.


It’s hard to come up with words to ease Diana’s heartache, isn’t it? I think it takes another professional musician to speak with authority to Diana’s experience. About two years ago, I interviewed classical guitarist Berit Strong for the book I’m writing about artist mothers. Because Berit’s words might be of some comfort to Diana — and the rest of us, of course — here is an excerpt from that interview.

Berit Strong: Music and motherhood

Berit Strong, an award-winning classical guitarist, lives in Acton, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children, 10 and 12 years old. She has performed in hundreds of concerts around the world. She also teaches students at all levels, privately and at area organizations.

When her children were first born, Berit took a break from performing. But a few years later, when her children were 1 and 3, Berit received an invitation to play a concerto with a large orchestra. The piece was one of the hardest in the guitar repertoire, and one that Berit had dreamed of playing since she was a teenager — Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Although it would take a year of preparation, she couldn’t say no.

With an infant and a toddler at home, Berit cobbled together practice time through part-time preschool, a few hours of day care, her husband, and capitalizing on any opportunity to pick up her guitar. Sometimes she’d take an evening “nap” and then get to up practice from midnight to 2:00 a.m., or wake up at 5:00 to get some time in before the children work up. “I needed time to memorize really hard music. I couldn’t get that time free of interruption otherwise. And sometimes I’d let them watch an hour of TV in the morning. I tried to be really strategic and practice during every moment of that time. When you want to keep your fingers in shape, just as a baseline, you need to practice your scales for 45 minutes a day. I think with writers, they say your daily output just to stay ‘in shape’ should be 1,000 words a day. It’s the same with any discipline.”

To find enough time in the day to practice scales, learn the new music, get it down perfectly, and memorize it, Berit made conscious concessions. “I got in the habit of doing the house and the dishes at 3:00 in the afternoon. I had this rule that I wouldn’t do any dishes until then. I had to make the most of my biorhythms. Once the kids were occupied, I would practice. I think that made me a better mom than being a goody-goody and doing the dishes in the morning.”

The intensity of Berit’s life during that period made her laugh at the idea of having it all. “When people used to ask me how I balanced my life, I would say ‘You must be kidding!’ There is no such thing as balance. The ancient Chinese didn’t believe in balance; you have to be really intense about your life. Certainly when I was preparing for that concert, balance was a ridiculous concept. I didn’t see anybody, I didn’t socialize. I was getting ready for a concerto. I was happy to sacrifice anything else. No time for jogging, I didn’t promote my career, this was the chance of a lifetime. I once lived in Italy for two years. They think that Americans are laughable in the concept of balance. You can’t have both — it’s really hard to have everything the way you want it.”

Despite the sacrifices, Berit made it work, and focused on the positives. “I didn’t feel guilty because I had really good daycare and my husband was really great. Well, maybe I had a little bit of guilt, but not much because I knew I was a better mom. I was watching them carefully, though, because they were so young, and if you have a workaholic mom, who knows what will happen. It was a finite amount of time, but it was really hard. My husband was really supportive, even though he’s not a musician. He has no vision of what I have to do and how much work I have to do. And there were times when the kids just wanted Mommy. I think there were a couple of instances when the kids were screaming and I had to practice. It was expensive, too. They paid me, but I had to get extra time at daycare. But it was worth it. It was an investment in my career.”

And then, after a year of work and stress, it was all over in a few hours. “When the concert was over, my life really did go back to normal, and I am more of a stay-at-home mom. Being a musician, you get depressed and sad when the concert is over — something you worked so hard for is over in 35 minutes. It was a great moment, but it was over. When you go to a museum, pieces hang there for years. But with a concert, that’s it.”

Today, Berit is still performing, but hasn’t advanced in her career as much as she might have. This was another conscious choice, and an adaption. “I haven’t gotten my first commercial recording out yet. I might be kind of burned out. It’s a wavy thing. It’s hard to keep going sometimes. How can I be a happy person and perform? Classical guitar is so detail oriented — I’d rather play something easier.”

So Berit has found a new outlets. “I keep dreaming of finding more time to be creative. I’m performing more on the viola de gamba now. I met this instrument in college — my husband got me one three years ago. It’s an early music instrument of the 1400s, sort of an early cello, but it has frets and six strings. It’s easier, in a way. I can sit down and sight read and have a blast — it’s really hard to do that on the guitar. I play in two early music groups. We have metal bass strings and gut strings, really gorgeous. When you’re in the guitar world for so many years, it’s nice to have to an instrument that I can sustain — a bow — there’s something about the sound that gives me strength, especially in dealing with my parents. It makes me feel very good. It’s important to have an instrument that you like. My dream is to be better at the gamba.”

For schedule, Berit can usually push for a finite period. “I can go really hard for two or three months. If I worked really hard, had a few concerts, I’ll take two or three weeks off because it’s better for my ear.”

Despite peer pressure, Berit is satisfied with the choices she’s made — for now. “I don’t think that fame is really important. Before children, I was performing in Europe and everywhere, but in terms of quality of life it’s pretty cool to hang out with your kids and watch them grow. I could have chosen to be all over the place, performing and recording constantly. I didn’t want to push myself like that. My colleagues are doing it, but I’d rather do a good job as a mom. I love traveling and meeting people, being taken to places that no tourists have ever gone to. I do want to go back to that, one day.”

For women in similar situations, who can’t travel and focus on a performance career in the way that they’d like, Berit recommends teaching. “I’ve been teaching for 18-20 years, and I think teaching is great. It’s a baseline for your creative identity. You don’t want to lose that completely. I make money, it keeps me in the music world, and I’m telling the students what I need to hear myself.”


Voices from the chorus? If you were Diana, might you feel buoyed by Berit’s story — or deflated?

Afterthought: I believe that my son, who is a freshman at Ithaca College School of Music — Diana’s alma mater — will probably never experience the division that Diana faces. One day he may have a child, but I don’t think he’ll ever consider hanging up his guitar, no matter how much he falls in love with his offspring. Somehow it’s just different for dads. Even artist fathers who are committed caregivers and are deeply involved in their children’s lives don’t seem to grapple with the “choice” that mothers must face. Men are for the most part “allowed” to follow their creative genius wherever it takes them without being accused of abandoning their children. They also don’t seem to feel that leaving their children behind “by choice” is frequently synonymous with having their hearts ripped out. And of course, they don’t seem to carry the blame when there are no clean socks and the fridge is empty.

Why is that?

[photo courtesy aussiegall under a Creative Commons license]

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