Creative Networks

I spent the day with an artist friend. She has mentored Kiki many times over the years and this trip she gave Kiki some advice which may put a significant dent in Kiki’s upcoming college tuition bill. She also added both Kiki and me to a Facebook group full of illustrators and graphic designers.

Recently I finished reading a book and, as is usual when I don’t quite want a book to end, I scanned my way through the acknowledgements. I was surprised to realize that I recognized almost half of the names in there. Many of them were people I’ve met in person. Which I guess shouldn’t have surprised me since I’ve spent time with the author on multiple occasions.

On Twitter I watch the conversations of other people. They laugh and share photos. Sometimes in the photos I see two or three friends standing together and smiling, but the thing is that I know them from very different areas of my life and I had no idea that they even knew each other.

This evening I finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and (again) read the acknowledgements. They were full of people whom I have not met in person (Nor have I met Ms. Gilbert) but I was surprised at how many of the names I recognized as writers whose works have had critical acclaim.

In my high school and college Humanities classes I learned that renaissance painters communicated with each other. Impressionist painters gathered together both to paint and to hang in galleries. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends.

There is this myth that creation is solitary, the lonely artist or the reclusive writer. Perhaps there are some people who create that way, but it is not what I see. I see tightly woven communities of mutual support. The communities may be somewhat detached from each other, a literary network is different than a genre fiction network, but within a network the connections weave tightly. Everyone who creates needs someone who will listen when the creation is going badly. They also need someone who will rejoice when things go well. They need someone who knocks them out of their comfort zone and helps them think new thoughts.

I remember a time when I did not yet have a creative network. In 2007 I attended a concert and had the first inkling of creative community. Now I have hundreds of connections. I spent a long time feeling outside and on the edges. I took a long time to learn how to grow an introduction into a professional contact and sometimes into a friendship. Back in 2007 Howard and I had barely begun attending conventions, social media was just beginning to alter the online landscape. I was soon to learn that the best connections I could possibly make weren’t with the established creators I could see in the distant center of the creative community. My best connections were made with the people next to me on the edges. Thread by thread I extended my network until I was not on the edge anymore.

I know creators whose networks of support are entirely online. I know others who connect in person because they avoid the internet. There are so many ways to support others and to gain support. This is how creators survive and succeed.

Supporting Creativity

I picked up Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert months ago. I read it a bit when I first acquired it, but, while I enjoyed it, the book was not grabbing me. This is in part because it is a book that wants to be read in snatches. I want to read a few sections and think about them. Unfortunately this leaves me time to get distracted and forget to come back to the book. Also there is the fact that I don’t completely agree with the ways that Gilbert views creativity. I’ll be reading along and feeling in rapport with the text, but then hit a sentence or a paragraph where I want to argue “No, it’s not quite like that.” Her viewpoint isn’t invalid, it just makes me want to discuss with her, except that she isn’t here to speak to, just the book, and books aren’t good at listening. So I wandered away from the book for several months.

I guess I just hadn’t hit the right section of the book yet. I picked the book up again yesterday and found passage after passage that I underlined and bookmarked. One section in particular I’ve been turning over in my head ever since I read it.

“I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life. I knew better than to ask this of my writing, because over the years I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay their bills.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

I had never before considered creation from this perspective, as if it were a shining and joyful thing that I get to support. I’d somehow assumed that my writing paying my bills was the goal. And it is, in a way, but not at all in another. I want my art to be able to support itself. I want it to be able to pay for the time it takes away from bill paying activities. I also want it to be valued and people do not value things that they do not pay for. I am fortunate. The job that pays my bills sometimes gives me creative joy, which is more than some people ever get. But my personal creative works, this blog, my short stories, the picture books, they all cost more in time and money than they have returned in money. They’ve given me many things and allowed me to give many more, but they aren’t lucrative. Gilbert’s quote reminded me that this is in no way a failure. Just as the point of raising children is not for them to support me later, the things I write do not have to support me to prove their worth. What I write has value both to me and to others who get to consume it. Creation adds to the world. That is worth pouring time, energy, and money into without expectation of financial return.

Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a full-time creator. Howard is one, and in a way, so am I, though many of my hours are spent on administrivia. We have lots of friends who are full-time in their creative careers. But I think that many of those who long to go full time, don’t realize that being a full time creative person doesn’t mean more time spent creating. No one gets to write day after day without interruption. The more that your creation earns, the more it comes with obligations to publishers, fans, events, etc. Every single creator I know—both full time and part time—laments that they don’t have enough time to be creative. Gilbert’s words helped me see it. She says it outright in another section of her book.

“For most of human history, the vast majority of people have made their art in stolen moments, using scraps of borrowed time—and often using pilfered or discarded materials to boot.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

If everyone struggles to make space in their lives to create, then why is being full-time creator always assumed to be the dream? For those who have the skills and enjoy the business aspects of a creative career, then yes it is a dream job. There are those who are invigorated by the challenges of freelance work. But there are also people who have much to give to the world and who are happier when they have a steady paycheck. There is nothing wrong with having a day job you love and a part-time creative career that you also love. There is much to be admired in art that is squeezed into the nooks and crannies of daily responsibility. Not just that, but daily responsibilities are often dismissed as mere chores without recognizing the myriad ways that chores create order out of chaos, beauty where there wasn’t any before. Many daily responsibilities are hugely creative and worth the center space they take in our lives.

As an example, I give you our postman. He has been delivering mail to our house for fifteen years now. He’s retiring this week, and messages have been posted in neighborhood Facebook groups about this fact. It was amazing to me how many people responded and had stories about this him, about his kindness in bringing mail to the door of those for whom walking to the curb was difficult. About how he knew when a family had suffered a death and helped to sort out the junk mail to ease the pain of that passing. I know that when we had big shipping events which piled up hundreds of packages for him to carry away, he always smiled and was cheerful about doing so. Such small things, just a tiny bit of extra kindness and service, what a beautiful gift he made out of his ordinary daily work. He will be missed, but hopefully he’ll have a lovely retirement where he’ll get to do some new beautiful thing.

I need to own all of my work and creativity, rather than feeling like the parts of my life are doing battle. Yes I prefer writing to shipping packages, but shipping packages feeds my family. With the family fed, my mind and heart are free to go play with words. And I can recognize that the packages I ship are received with happiness when they arrive. I get paid to send couriered joy to others. That is an amazing job to get to have. I will not complain if at some point in the future my writing does begin to help pay for my life, but it is fine if it never does. To quote another wise woman, my sister:

“Either the money will come, or it won’t. Until then I’m just going to keep doing this thing that I love.” Nancy Fulda

Starfish Story

I’ve been thinking about starfish. The thoughts started when I read this article
about how to keep writing when no one cares
. Halfway through reading the article, after a litany of evidence that people don’t care (for which I had all too much sympathy), before she got to the part where she explains why she writes anyway, I began to think of that story about starfish.

You know the one. A quick google search brings up a hundred versions. The beach covered in starfish and a single person throwing them back into the ocean one by one. When someone asks why the person bothers, what difference does it make? The person throws one more starfish and says “I made a difference to that one.”

I wish I knew who first wrote that starfish story. I wonder if that writer was in a place of pain, trying to convince herself to keep going when the effort seemed futile. It seems likely to me that she was. Only a person who has struggled with futility could understand why helping even one matters. I’ve heard this story since I was very young. It has been around forever, attributed to everyone and no one. It is likely that the original writer is long gone. Did she have any idea how far her words would go, carried on the currents of an internet she probably never imagined? Perhaps this starfish story also seemed like a futile cry into the void.

That gives me hope. It is not only when I’m alive and chucking starfish that my actions or words can make a difference. The good things I put out into the world can spread out far beyond my reach. They can last longer than my life. They can change and transform so that no one will every be able to trace them back to me. I may never get full credit for them, but credit is not the point. It never was, even though our egos want it to be. We don’t expect the starfish to come back and say thank you. It is the throwing that matters, the attempt to use action to help another.

Time for me to get to work putting good things out into the world. That is how the world becomes better.

Parenting and Creative Life

I recently read an online article from Amanda Palmer talking about her creative life and her impending motherhood. My life has been so different from hers. I dove into parenting while still in college, so adulthood and motherhood were all tangled up together. For a long time all my creativity was absorbed into my parenting and homemaking efforts. It was only later that I began to create in ways that were shareable outside the walls of my house. Palmer’s fears about the impact of motherhood on her life are valid. All anyone can say for certain is that what comes afterward will be different than what came before.

I’m thinking much about the impact of parenting on creativity. I think about it often as I contemplate the novel I’m still writing years after I began it. I spiraled down into depression thinking about this over the past year or more as the needs of my children loomed and my creative spaces vanished. I thought about it now during the second week of school where we’d not yet had any emotional crises and I’d had several good work days in a row. I thought about it again after the third week of school where I did not have any good work days and emotional stuff spilled all over the place. I’m not fully able to judge if teens with mental health crises is more problematic for a creative life than infants or toddlers, (I wasn’t trying to maintain a separate creative existence during those hands-on early years) but I can attest the the toll that mental health during the teen years has taken. Though truthfully it was likely my own depression and anxiety which impacted my creativity more than the time taken by my children. Of course, my depression and anxiety were triggered by my children, so it comes to the same thing really.

I wish I had answers for this. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to look back and see how it all went together. From a distance I’ll be able to explain how all the things affected each other and maybe I’ll be able to draw a useful conclusion from it. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe being creative is always messy and complicated by the details of living. Either way, summarizing is not my job now. My job now is to make sure that I don’t hide from my creative work merely because I’m tired. I have to remember that creative time gives energy back to me in a way that down time does not. I have take time each day to pause and listen deep into my soul and ask the question “What is the work I should be doing today?” The answer to that question matters.

Designing the Planet Mercenary RPG Book

Designing books is an art. The presentation of the physical book must be pleasing and enhance the transfer of information from page to reader. For some types of books, such as novels, this is fairly straightforward. Put the words on the page, pick a good font, add a few graphic elements, copy edit, double check for widows, orphans, and rivers. (Note: Straightforward is not the same as easy.) Other books, such as textbooks are a bit more complicated. They include more graphics and a need for extensive indexing. A good RPG book, like Planet Mercenary intends to be, presents a real design challenge as it needs to incorporate elements that are similar to novels and elements that are similar to textbooks.

In facing this challenge I found it helpful to list out my design goals. There are four.

1. It needs to be a useful instruction manual for people learning how to play the game.

2. It needs to be a reference book filled with easy-to-find information for people who are playing the game.

3. It should be fun to read and have a narrative flow from beginning to end so that people who don’t really want to play, but want to know more about the Schlockiverse, can enjoy it.

4. It must be visually attractive on every page.

To show how I’m attempting to meet these design goals, I share with you the following page spread. It is a work in progress and will likely change before we got to print, but it allows me to show what I’m reaching for.
Web Sample

Instruction Manual
This spread is from one of the heavily instructional sections of the book. The pages before it explained how to go about creating characters. These pages are designed to give a player enough information so they can choose which type of sophont they want to be in the game. There is text about the advantages and disadvantages each sophont brings to the table. There are stats so players can do quick comparisons. Design wise, I’ve turned the stat information into easily recognizable blocks. All of the instructional information has to be carefully planned so that we’re answering questions in the order they come up, or we’re indicating that the question will be answered. It is very important that a learning player not feel confused.

Reference Book
Note that the outside edges of the page are clearly labeled with the section of the book. There is also color on the edge graphic. Each section of the book will have a different color and texture. This means that players can look at the edge of the pages and quickly find a section they are searching for. Chapters will be clearly labeled on the upper corners of the pages. The page numbers are on the bottom corner to make finding a specific page is easier. The primary point of the narrow outside column on the page is to be useful reference. There will be page numbers for additional information, definitions of terms, and other reference type material. The book will also have an extensive index, which will be a giant task all by itself.

Fun to Read
This is a tricky piece to fit into a book whose primary purpose is instructional and reference. Fortunately the source material has humor built into it. Also working in our favor is the concept that this book was created by a company inside the Schlockiverse as a way to trick low level military personnel into learning important information. This is the origin of the CEO comments that also show up in the reference column. Those CEO comments will form a story of sorts, starting with the belief that the comments would be removed before the book went to print. (They weren’t, which is why we get to read them.) Much of the world information will be told with the same humor as can be found in the footnotes under Schlock Mercenary comics.

Most of the attractiveness of this book will come from the art that is contracted to fill its pages. My design job will be to make sure that the pages are organized in ways that display the art to advantage. I need to pick fonts and elements that work well together. Since the art for each page will be different, I will have to arrange the words and images on each page individually. Sometimes we’ll have to re-write text so that everything fits and no information is skipped. This is a long and tedious process which requires a rough layout so we know what art to commission and then everything has to be adjusted for the art we receive.

The animated gif below gives you an idea of how things shift around during the design process. Images change, text gets nudged. The shift at the end shows when we decided to swap the pages because the Fobott’r art looked better on the left. There are probably three times as many iterations between where the page is now and where it will be when the book goes to print. I can already see half a dozen things I want to nudge and make better.


This is such a big project. I’m really excited to be working on it.

New Cover for Cobble Stones Year 2011


I’m pleased to announce that Cobble Stones 2011 has a new cover. I’m so very pleased with how it turned out. The cover designer I worked with was brilliant and she created something much better than the one I put together for myself. This cover does a much better job of conveying what the essays inside are about: growth and overcoming difficult things. The essays inside are the same as they’ve always been. For the first 100 copies, this cover will be a dust jacket over the old cover. After that I’ll print up new books with this cover on them.

You can find the book at our store, amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Breaking Through the Blockages

This post is a summary of a presentation I gave at LTUE 2015. I find that posting it right now is particularly apropos because I’ve got two writing projects in process and I’ve made little progress on either one lately.

I am a writer of picture books, blog entries, essays, and children’s fiction. As my day job I run the publishing house for my husband’s comic strip, Schlock Mercenary. This means I do graphic design, marketing, shipping, inventory management, store management, and customer support. I have a house that needs maintenance and I have four children, three of whom are teenagers. My life is busy. In fact when someone who knows me in one of my non-writing capacities finds out that I also write, the question that they ask is “where do you find the time?”

The truth is that I spend a lot of time not writing. Even with my busy life, time is not the problem. I have the hours, I just find myself reaching the end of the week and realizing that I’ve spent them all on non-writing things. This post/presentation lays out some of the reasons writers get blocked, or otherwise don’t write. It also offers some solutions for the problems.

Self Doubt
Pretty much every creative person I know has an inner critic who tells them they are terrible and that there is no point to spending time creating. In my head this voice often tells me that my writing is a waste of time and that I should be spending that time on more important things.

How to counter it: Recognize that the critical thoughts are there. I often personify them a little bit, calling them the voices of self doubt. This small separation is useful, because once I see them as separate from me, it is easier for me to choose to ignore them. Sometimes I even mentally address them. “Yes, I know you think this isn’t worthwhile, I’m going to write anyway.”

Important reminder: These voices of self doubt are lying to you. The act of creation has value, even if the only person who is ever changed by it is the creator.

There may be people in your life who feed the self doubt. They may be deliberately undercutting you for reasons of their own, or they may be doing it unintentionally. It is important to recognize which people make you doubt yourself. If they are unimportant in your life, perhaps remove them from it. If it is a loved one, then spend some time figuring out how they are adding to your self doubt and try to re-structure your relationship so that they have less power to make you doubt yourself. Be aware that this is not simple and the other person may react poorly to the process.

Perfectionism / The editor within
This is also an internal critic, but it is slightly different from the self doubt voices. This internal editor constantly tells you you’re not good enough, but it is more specific. The existence of the internal editor is actually an indicator of writing growth. New writers think everything they write is wonderful. Then they learn more and realize that everything they’ve written is terrible because they’ve acquired knowledge and skill to recognize the flaws in their own writing. Your internal editor is extremely valuable when you need to revise, not so much when you’re trying to draft.

How to counter it: When you’re drafting you have to give yourself permission to write something terrible. You will fix it later. Some people need to have some sort of timer or incentive in order to force themselves to draft quickly without worrying that it is bad. Examples of incentives are Write or Die programs, Written Kitten, or participating in NaNoWriMo. If you are editing you need to distinguish between the useful editor and the mean editor. The useful one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. We need to write it better” The mean one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. You are a terrible writer. Why do you do this anyway?”

Professional Insecurity
When you know other writers or read about how they work, it is very common to come to the conclusion that you’re doing writing wrong. You feel like if your process isn’t like [famous writer] then that explains why you fail to write. I’ve seen people contort their lives and writing trying to be someone else.

How to counter it: There is no wrong way to create. Anything that allows you to get writing done is better than a system that does not. Feel free to learn how other writers approach their writing. Experiment with their methods, but if their methods don’t work for you, discard them. Keep what works for you and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong. (If they do, then they fall in the category of people who feed your self doubt.)

Fear of Failure
No one wants to be rejected or to fall short of their dreams. Sometimes writers will subconsciously sabotage their own writing because if they never finish the book, then they never have to face the rejections that come with publication. Rejections and criticisms come not matter what publishing path you choose. Sometimes writers learn too much about publishing before they’ve finished writing. The whole process can feel futile if no one will ever read your work.

How to counter it: First remember the act of creation has intrinsic value no matter what happens to the creation once it is done. Second, focus on the work that is in front of you instead of on your fears about what will come in the future. If you’re drafting, then fully enjoy the process of drafting. No matter what comes afterward no one will ever be able to take away the experience you had with writing your book. Then you can focus on the experience of editing. Then on publishing or submitting. Each step is its own process. Do one at a time. All the other steps will be there later. Worry about them when you get to them.

Time Management
It may be that how you’re managing your time is causing you to be blocked. This is not the same as not having enough time. The time is there, you just need to figure out how to arrange it so that writing fits. You may not have a large block of time or you may be trying to write during the wrong time of day.

How to counter it: Learn to work in small chunks. Sometimes it feels like you can’t accomplish anything unless you can free up an hour or two. But I know writers who create whole books by snatching fifteen minutes here and there. You just have to train your brain to hold the story ideas and percolate them while you’re doing other things so that when you sit down to write you can pour words onto the page. A notebook is a very useful tool for training your brain to do this. Carry one with you. Scribble notes as thoughts come to you. This teaches your brain to hold story thoughts until you need them. Also learn your biorhythms. Some people are most creatively energized first thing in the morning others late at night. I know that my body wants to take a nap around 3pm. I should not attempt to schedule my writing time for when my body wants to nap. My brain is all fuzzy and not good at writing during that time.

The Story is Stuck
Sometimes you’ve arranged the time, cleared everything else from your schedule, but then you sit down to work and you can’t put words down. There are several reasons this can happen. 1. You honestly don’t know what comes next. 2. Your subconscious knows that something is wrong with a thing you wrote previously and is not letting you proceed until you find and fix it. 3. The story needs skills you don’t have yet.

How to counter it: If you don’t know what comes next, then it is time to step back and take a broader look at your story. You may need to brainstorm or re-outline. This is also a solution to the subconscious blocking you problem. You need to recognize where your story deviated from what it needs to be. If the story needs skills you don’t have, then you may need to step away from it an practice that skill. With practice you’ll begin to develop a sense for which sort of problem you’re having. Sometimes the right solution is to plow forward, just keep putting words on the page even if they’re the wrong ones. Other times you have to step backward, get outside your box and look at the whole thing differently.

This is particularly a problem for people who have ADHD or similar distractibilities. Sometimes you’ll be writing and then between one sentence and the next your brain says “We should check Twitter!” So you click over and it is twenty minutes before you’re back to writing. Often what is happening here is that your brain is getting micro-tired. Writing is hard work, and the brain wants to jump to something easier or more soothing.

How to counter it: Turn off or remove your typical distractions. At the very least, make them harder to access so that you have time to realize “Oh I’m getting distracted.” The moment you realize you’re distracted, bring yourself back to the writing. Also control your environment. If you sit in a particular place with a particular drink, these things can signal to your brain that you’ve entered writing time. You can train your brain that writing time is for writing and not for Twitter. Some days will still be easier than others, but physical signals and practicing coming back to writing focus will help.

Creative Depletion
Often people have plenty of time to write, but by the time they reach that hour, all they want to do is relax and watch TV. This is usually the case when they’ve used up all of their creative energy on something else. Parenting is a huge cause of this. Daily parenting requires huge reserves of creativity. You’re expending creative energy just keeping little ones alive, teaching them, entertaining them. As they get older, creative energy goes into helping them with projects, helping them problem solve, and figuring out how to effectively communicate. There are also many jobs that use up all the creative energy.

How to counter it: First determine what you are spending your creative energy doing. If that thing is more important to you than writing is, then you don’t actually have a problem. The writing will wait until your life shifts in a way that you have energy for it again. If the other thing is LESS important to you than writing, it is time to take steps to rearrange your life. Most of us can’t afford to quit our jobs and be full-time creative. But we can be budgeting, paying down debts, and saving money so that someday that dream becomes possible. Parents can hire babysitters once per week so that there is a day with some available creative energy. The solutions are as varied as the problems. The key is to analyze why you’re too creatively tapped out to write and make a small change toward fixing that problem.

I know these are not the only things that can cause a writer not to write, but it is a useful jumping off place for writers to figure out what is going on inside their heads that prevents them from reaching their writing goals.

Making Art

Art museums take my breath away. I am always awed by human creativity, the ways that people choose to express themselves, and how often they make simple objects needlessly beautiful. Then I stand in front of Greek marble sculptures and know that people have been doing this for a very long time. I wander to the next gallery that has ancient stone statues and I realize we have been creating art for even longer than we’ve had recorded history. That long ago sculptor was driven to create by a very similar creative impulse that leads me to write. Standing in a museum I can see all of this and I feel connected to all of the best of our history. Humans are amazing. It is nice to be reminded of that, because wading around the internet and watching the news so often shows me how humans are terrible.

I sat at the table and listened to my friend Mary plan her birthday dinner. It was to be a multi-course formal event. She picked anchor items then she planned complimentary courses. I listened to her discuss with her husband the merits and detriments of various pairings. Once the dishes were selected, they talked at length about the order of presentation. I squelched my impulse to reassure them that their guests would be happy with any order. This wasn’t about appeasing guests, they were discussing the artistic presentation of food as part of a formal dinner. I was watching art in the planning stages. Later this evening I will get to participate in the culmination of the planning, shopping, chopping, and cooking. This is not an art that will ever end up in a museum because it’s very nature is ephemeral. It is my friend raising a necessity (food) to an art form and I’m honored to be able to participate.

Dinner settings

We began our tour of the Chicago Art Institute in the miniatures gallery. In the 1930’s Mrs. Thorne took dollhouse decoration to an art form. She commissioned teams of artists to create accurate miniature replicas of period rooms. Every single one was stunning. I was most charmed when there was a doorway or window that I could peer through into a back bedroom or a garden. I very much wanted to shrink myself and go explore those gardens. I suspect that Mrs. Thorne was ridiculed on more than one occasion for wasting her time and resources on so frivolous a pursuit as miniature rooms. I think that every artist or creator has their work belittled at least once. Yet her creation is marveled at today. Her rooms are carefully preserved by museum staff so that they will be available for my great grandchildren to admire. I am grateful to the museum conservators for this and for the Greek marbles that they tend, and the impressionist paintings, and all the other things that fill my soul when I look at them.

The last gallery we wandered through at the art museum was the Folk Art gallery. I looked at weather vanes and homey little chairs. I pondered why Folk Art is different than Art. The sign on the wall implied that the difference was in training and skill. I don’t quite buy that. Some of the folk art pieces were every bit as lovely as pieces found elsewhere in the museum. Then I thought of Mary’s planned birthday dinner and of the thanksgiving dinner I created for my family last November. Mary’s dinner is an art, mine was a folk art. Mine sought first to be comfortable and pleasing. Mary’s seeks to be beautiful and esthetically pleasing both to eyes and educated palettes. There is intrinsic value in both sorts of creation. It is true that Mary and I laughed at some of the items in the Folk Art Gallery. There was one clock case made of layer upon layer of wooden strips cut into zig zag shapes. It was busy and while not exactly ugly, definitely not something I’d want to look at often. Yet I could see how much loving work had gone into the creation. Some artist loved making that clock case.

In the Thorne Miniature gallery the European rooms ran along one wall while the American rooms were on the other. Stepping from one side of the hall to the other provided a distinct contrast. The European rooms were all large and highly decorated. The American rooms were smaller and practical. Yet both were beautiful. Just as Mary’s elegant dinner and my homey dinner are both beautiful. Just as folk art and fine art are both beautiful, even when they are kind of ugly. I love that humans make things needlessly beautiful. I love that we are all artists, creating in different mediums. Some create books, others well-run classrooms. Some make buildings, others sandcastles. Some embroider tapestries, others knit scarfs. Some create with expertise and skill, others with skill-less fingers but a strong desire to make something anyway. That is how we all begin, with pure desire to create. The skill comes later.

Art museums remind me that we are all artists, we all create in our own way. I think if we spent more time remembering that, the world would have more of what is lovely about humanity and less of what is not.

Calendars, Jumbled Thoughts, Journeys and Growth

Lately I’m spending a lot of time looking at my calendar. In theory I’m doing this to plan for the days ahead and to keep myself on track. That part is necessary, because I’m prone to distraction lately and I need my external reminders for what I hope to accomplish each day. But there is also something else that is driving this staring-at-the-calendar behavior. I’ve had trouble putting my finger on it, but it feels a little bit like waiting. It’s almost as if there is a coming deadline after which my life will clear of the minutia and leave me space for long and slow thoughts. I miss my long slow thoughts, the unrolling of words in my head. Everything feels jumbled up there and I’m not sure how to unjumble it.

This is one of the things I hope for from my trip to Chicago. I hope to get far enough outside my usual context that I can see clearly all the things I’ve been in the midst of doing.

I am fortunate to live in a network of friendships. I attend a church where the members are my neighbors. Most of us have lived here for many years. Many of the women here are kindred spirits, yet I often forget to talk to them. I forget to look outside the walls of my own house. When I do, my head is so full of unspoken thoughts that I’m a little afraid to start talking for fear that my avalanche of words will overwhelm my listener. So, I parcel things out. I talk of parenting to one friend. I talk of business to another. I talk writing with a third. There is some mixture in what I say, because it is hard for me to talk about any of these things without mentioning the others. Then when I’ve been talking for a while, my friend will say something like “Wow, you’ve got a lot going on.” These are affirming words. I need to hear them, because sometimes I wonder if I’m just being weak or silly when I’m being buried in the stress of my life. Surely I could have planned it better and not needed to dump on my friend. Then there is the other quiet thought in my head, the one that knows it is time for me to change the subject. Because I’ve only told part of my stories and my friend already thinks I have too much going on.

Used to know a family who always lived in emotional crisis. They were always fighting or recovering from fighting. They feuded with neighbors. They created drama everywhere they went. I would sit and talk with the mother of this family, trying to help her find peace and calmness for her household. Yet, without fail, any time peace began to be established, they would do something to create a new crisis. The family didn’t know how to exist without it. Crisis was familiar. Peace was uncomfortable and strange to them. I lost touch with this family long ago, but I expect they are still careening along, colliding with the world and being angry about it.

When I view my life and the endless stream of things I am managing, grieving, afraid of, or depressed about, I sometimes wonder if I am doing the same thing. Do I live in stress like a fish in water, so that if I’m ever at risk of emerging, I do something to plunge back in? I hope not. I want to believe that I’m helping my loved ones traverse a difficult but necessary passage. I want to believe that I am experiencing a period of stress and recalibration.

“Don’t worry Mom. It’s all going to be fine.” Link says these words to me often. Usually when I’m pushing at him to accomplish something because I am afraid of the future that I have pictured. I try to believe him and I try to stop pushing. My conversations with Link have changed in the past year. They work best when I manage to listen to Link instead of the clock ticking in my head. It is the ticking which tells me I’m running out of time to teach him the things he needs to know. As if I will have used up all my chances to teach on the dawn of his eighteenth birthday. Link says he feels like a seed, small and protected now, but ready to grow into something big and amazing. I believe that too (when the clock isn’t in my way.) I see the potential that is in him. Yet I am a gardener and I know that not all seeds reach their potential. Link is amazing, more amazing than he believes, and I want him to fulfill his desire to go out and make the world a better place.

My thoughts of seeds and gardening send me wandering out to my front flower beds, where I have pansies in bloom. We’ve had a strange, warm winter here in Utah. Most days are forty or fifty degrees. My pansies are little troopers, putting out bloom after bloom, even when the nights drop below freezing sometimes. I’m grateful for the bright color as I walk up to the house. It fools me into feeling like we’re in March, not February. March is when winter recedes and spring begins to make its presence known.

Perhaps that’s why I keep looking at the calendar. I’m waiting for spring to come, not just outside, but inside my heart. I’m waiting to see signs that the Link seed will sprout and grow. Or for green growth inside me. I am not so foolish as to think that my son is the only one with learning to do. On the calendar I look back to see how long ago we arranged for good growing conditions. I look ahead wondering when I can hope to see green. And I hope for hospitable growing weather. I have to believe it will come.

Heart’s Work and Creativity

I read a lot of articles online. Truthfully, most of them are a waste of my time. But every so often I find exactly the words I needed to read that day. When I do, I pin it to my Pinterest board. That way I’ll know where to find it if I need it again. More than once I’ve been able to send a link that I pinned to someone else who needed it.

Today started out a little bit raw, which is normal on the day after a crying day. Sleep restores much, but my eyes are still tired. I understand why lots of crying in a short span of time will make me thirsty, I’m less clear on why it makes my eyes feel tired and my face feel tender. The good news is that the tears were gone, the sadness processed. Today I can see that my challenges are not so bad. I could see it yesterday too, but the sadness had to finish flowing once the pocket had been pierced open. This morning it was gone and I was left with tired eyes and a day’s work to do. Fortunately one of the first things I read was an article, linked by a friend of mine, about how often we fail to realize that we are already in the middle of our life’s most important work. The work we are called to do. I was barely halfway through when I could see how all the things that I cry over are a worthy work. I wouldn’t cry over them if they were not. And they bring me joy far more often than they bring tears.

The other article which I found very helpful today was linked on my Facebook timeline by my backyard neighbor. She knows me well. It is an article about doing the artistic work you feel divinely called to do. The ending of the article is a specific discussion of a project to help mother artists, which didn’t really apply to me. Yet the earlier words exactly matched what I’ve experienced in the last few weeks. I finally listened to all that prodding and hounding which I felt any time I opened my heart to inspiration. I finally bumped writing far enough up the priority list that it has been getting done. I can feel the difference in my heart and my life. I can feel a before and after difference in each individual day. Even while I’ve been spending my energy, and my tears, on my hearts work of raising my kids, I was also ignoring my other calling. In fact I was sometimes actively dodging it while trying to pretend to myself that I was not. No wonder I spent so much time feeling stressed and in pieces.

I have crying days in my future. They come to all of us. But between now and then I hope to have lots of days where I’ll do my heart’s work, both parenting and creating.