“You Need More Art in Your Life”

I had a lovely moment of serendipity today. I don’t believe that “the universe provides” for those who ask — unless the universe seriously hates the Congo and has a mad crush on upper-middle-class Unitarians — but I do believe that having ears that hear and eyes that see happens more often when you know what you’re looking for.

Last night I had dinner with my husband while my girls were out trick-or-treating with other friends, and I took advantage of the time between my girl-tini and the arrival of the sushi platter to talk to him about the stuff I thought I might figure out by writing (sporadically) on this blog. In short: how did I wake up this side of 40 somewhere I didn’t plan to be, and how do I get somewhere else, somewhere I like a little better?

I don’t believe in trying to reclaim your younger self, but as I said to him over little scallop purses, there was a time when I paid more attention to making things and making them well, and learning things, and mastering them. When it didn’t seem the point of the day was to get to the end of it as quickly as possible, ideally — oh, the high standards! — with enough energy left to watch a sitcom before going to bed.

“You need more art in your life,” he said: art as in making, art as in beauty, art as in creating something for the sake of creation.

Today while I was cleaning up in the basement, I found stacks of old notebooks, mostly containing useless notes about ancient freelance projects. But in one of them I happened to find this. It’s so old I can almost share it without being too embarrassed, like a poem by a relative rather than something of my own. It’s a poem I wrote, no revisions, for no reason, 10+ years ago. It’s not great, but that’s the thing: I made it to make it. And it’s about doing things just to do them.

Housekeeping

These days
I sweep my floor like
my daughter does . . .
Not yet two, she gently
strokes the hardwood with a hairbrush
or maybe a comb.

Her purpose is not to whisk away
the dirt, the crumbs, the onion skins,
but to care for the floor,
lovingly,
like you might pet a cat,
like I might stroke her brown hair
while she sleeps,
imparting a tender blessing.

I can’t go back to being the person who wrote that poem: the person who was waking up from a terrible depression, or the person who was, consequently, falling in love with being a mom and discovering an earthy, messy joy in a way of life that had seemed, only a few years before, a lame consolation prize in the race to the top. I can’t be her anymore than I can be a teenager again, but I can remember some things that she knew.

Finding that poem reminded me that I know how to have art in my life. Everybody does; we’re born that way. Why I stopped, I don’t know. Stuff gets away from you. But starting again doesn’t have to be a big deal. I’d like to start playing Chopin again, or publish a book of essays, or audition for a play, but I can also just pick up a pen and a notebook, or a broom.

After dinner last night we went to pick up one of our girls, drank some wine with friends, and then drove home singing Elvis songs. The day had been insanely long, and almost 4 hours of it had been spent driving in construction and traffic. My most creative act of the day was making green cupcake frosting, most of which ended up in the trash anyway. I stretched out on the sofa to watch 30 Rock but I couldn’t get to the end; my eyes kept closing and then the storyline kept changing in nonsensical ways until my husband woke me up and told me to go to bed. It was a fine day, but no art. Not even a wakeful sitcom viewing.

There’s been precious little art in this day too, but I still have about 4 hours to go. What will it be: the salad? a little piano practice? another poem for the archives?

And you: do you have enough art in your life?

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Writing about writing – Or “This post of so meta!’

You probably wont see my writing here next month. I am participating, for the second time, in NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. It is a crazy challenge, for masochistic writers, to write a 50,000+ word novel during the month of November.

I completed my first NaNoWriMo challenge five years ago when I wrote a crappy sci-fi novel, Nine Lives. It was crappy because averaging 2500 words a day is not how I do my best writing. When I was finished I was glad. I celebrated. But I never wanted to look at Nine Lives again. It was just too much of a good crappy thing.

I never thought I would do NaNoWriMo again. But I have hardly worked on my novel Dream Girl since being diagnosed with breast cancer last November. I feel like NaNoWriMo will fulfill a twofold purpose of getting me writing again and claiming time to write.

I have wanted to be a writer pretty much my whole life. (I also wanted to be a librarian and criminologist for the FBI, but writing is my first and longest love.) When I was 11 my mother got me a voice recorder so I could keep track of the stories I was constantly coming up with. Not that she thought I was going to be a writer. No, she thought I was probably going to die young, hit by a car while trying to cross the street, because I never paid attention and lived “with my head in a fantasy world.”

In my twenties I came up with lots of novel ideas, mostly supernatural themes. One, about three girls with magical powers, would eventually morph into Dream Girl. Back then I was hanging out with some comic book writers and illustrators and I even started collaborating with a comic book artist on Dream Girl. She drew some pictures of what she thought my characters looked like. That was when I realized that I am not so good at collaborating.

When my daughter was 2-ish I spent 10 days working on our friend’s ship ranch, it was there that I came up with the “Dream” part of Dream Girl. I knew I was on to something. Years and years went by while I raised my daughter and started homeschooling her. I thought about Dream Girl all the time but I didn’t feel like I could really write it.

A few years ago I started doing some collaborative writing with some friends I was playing role-playing games with. Starting writing again really energized me. I was so excited and looked forward to it everyday. My co-writers gave me good feedback, which got me past some of my insecurities. That was when I realized I could collaborate, as long as nobody draws my characters totally wrong.

All that time, since before my daughter was born, I have been thinking about my book. In that time it has grown into a huge complicated tome, chock full of things that excite and scare me. When I finally sat down to start writing it, in 2009, I realized that I had made it so complicated that I now had to do a ton of research to write it realistically. Luckily, I think researching is awesome. (Researcher is another job I think I would be suited for.)

Also, I kind of love myself a well-crafted sentence. My daughter and I sometimes stop what we are reading just to share a particularly excellent sentence with one another. We collect them. When I am writing I am sometimes inspired to craft a beautiful sentence or phrase. When I do it just makes my day. This might come from spending a lot of time away from my computer thinking about my book, basically writing it in my head, looking at it from all sides and listening for the music or poetry in it.

All of this is to say that I am not a very fast novel writer. My style is thoughtful and, at times, deliberate.  NaNoWriMo is a shock to my writing system. Once November starts there is no time for research, no time to sit and ponder a beautiful sentence, possibly no time to make dinner and, most likely, no time to blog. If I do come up for air, I will probably only have something short. Like a pronoun.

I wont be working on Dream Girl for NaNoWriMo but a ghost story instead, which tells the back story of a character that inhabits my Dream Girl World.

Shoes I Have Known and Loved

My friend Kelly, who blogs about fashion, feminism, and other quasi-girly stuff at How I Learned to Wear a Dress, asked this question on her blog’s Facebook wall:

At what point did how shoes look (and how they looked with your outfit) supersede how they functioned?

Oh the memories.

I was, at one time, a devoted shoe hound. For one thing, no matter how hippy or busty you are, shoes fit fairly reliably compared to pants or a dress. If you’re a size 9, you buy a size 9, with few exceptions. There is no plus size section of the shoe department, and few women have shoes in multiple sizes waiting in their closets until they can get into them.

Shoes are also less of a commitment. Feeling a little puckish today? Lace up your combat boots—no need to go the whole nine yards and get the pegged jeans and shredded Clash t-shirt out of storage from your parents’ basement.

Besides, function is a relative term. When I was young all my shoes were functional — I went drunk rock climbing in the dark wearing crazy pointy-toed white ostrich-skin pumps without any trouble. My youthful feet could make any heel, any toe, any platform work.

It’s kind of like how no clothes are ugly or ill fitting when you’re 19 because you are just bursting with sexy, “Corinna’s going a-maying” nubile hotness regardless. (How else could American Apparel be so successful?) When I go to Ragstock or another shop staffed by young urban hipsters, the cashiers are flaunting it: “Look at me! I’m wearing an ironic Cosby sweater and corduroy pants the color of moldy mustard and I still look sexier than you could with a $1000 and a personal stylist!” At some unconscious level, they’re playing a game of fashion chicken that they can’t lose: see how many ways can I violate traditional aesthetics and still look freakin’ awesome?

And so I loved shoes from about ages 12 to 30, and then there was a dramatic decline, for familiar reasons:

1) My feet grew after pregnancy and most of my collection had to go.
2) I never wore anything or went anywhere that required cool shoes.
3) Years of going barefoot (and pregnancy) meant that my feet could no longer squeeze pointy-toed shoes even if I bought them new.

I am not too sad about this, just as I am not really missing 19. But I can still relish the memories, from the 4-inch wooden stilettos I wore to tour Niagara Falls with my parents and grandparents when I was 12 to the tall black cowboy boots I wore with tights and short jean cutoffs for much of grad school. Those were good—if, in the case of the stilettos, somewhat messed up—times.

Besides, shoe trends these days perplex me. Setting the functionality of high heels aside, is there a more boring shoe than the high-heeled pump? Putting a 5-inch heel, or toe platform, or shiny patent leather on it is like tacking up pictures of your cat and George Clooney in your office cubicle. Sure, it’s a little more interesting than the bare fabric walls, but you’re still in a cube. Zzzzzzzzzzz.

These are the shoes I have my eye on now: they’re like my old LL Bean lined duck boots (circa 1987) meets Converse high tops (circa 1985) meets my cowboy boots meets Sorel. Like all of those old shoes, they go with anything, but especially they’ll go with the snow.

Monday Mind Hack — Perspective

I try hard not to fall back on the old cliché “It could be worse” when trying to console someone or boost morale. “It could be worse” is almost always true, and yet it is so far from comforting it almost feels like scolding.

“Quit yer bitchin'” more like. Not helpful. “There’s a first-world problem,” someone says when you’ve lost one too many rounds with the technology in your life. Great: now I can feel frustrated, overwhelmed and ashamed of what a yuppie douchebag I’ve turned out to be. Thanks for that.

So when someone posted an article on Facebook with the one-word comment “perspective” I was hesitant to read it. Plus it’s called “Notes from a Dragon Mom,” which made me think that it was related to that whole “Tiger Mom” thing, and I’m sure we can agree no one needs to go there again.

But I didn’t want to leave my desk chair and go face the onerous task of grinding the morning coffee beans (“There’s a first-world problem”), so I read it anyway.

Wow. Perspective. Read It. Really.

The author, Emily Rapp, writes movingly about parenting a terminally ill child:

Ronan won’t prosper or succeed in the way we have come to understand this term in our culture; he will never walk or say “Mama,” and I will never be a tiger mom. The mothers and fathers of terminally ill children are something else entirely. Our goals are simple and terrible: to help our children live with minimal discomfort and maximum dignity. We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss. This requires a new ferocity, a new way of thinking, a new animal. We are dragon parents: fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.

Her point isn’t that those of us with healthy children should feel guilty for that unearned grace or foolish for having dreams for the future, but that parenting—living—is ultimately a “here and now” experience.

The truth is that healthy children and healthy parents die unexpectedly, as our family learned personally and painfully this summer when we lost 3 friends in a car accident. And there are less dramatic changes and surprises: a career ends abruptly, lifelong friends move away, a mental illness appears out of nowhere and settles in to stay. It now takes me two hands to count up the number of friends—mostly mothers 40 and under—diagnosed with breast cancer in the last two years. What Rapp writes about parenting is true for all the plans we make: “none of it is forever.”

Gratitude for not having any of those problems is great, but it’s still a short-term perspective. The long view, ironically, reveals that regardless of whether we’re healthy or sick, successful or at sea, today is really all there is. The only way we can be sure that we’ll achieve the desired consequences of our actions is to do them “for the humanity implicit in the act itself.”

If I set that as the standard for what I put on my agenda today, what stays? What goes? And what do I need to add to make this day worth doing, just for the sake of doing it? If I set that as the standard for how I perform the day’s necessary but ordinary tasks, would I do them differently?

Circle of Friends

I never had a lot of female friends. I tended to hang out with guys when I was growing up, and when I was a grown up. It was pretty normal for me to be the one girl in a group of guys. But, recently, I have befriended several women, and many of them were the “one girl in a group guys” girl. Now I am part of a close group of female friends. This is definitely new territory.

Every so often, something comes up with a friend, or in the group dynamic, that pushes me in new and uncomfortable ways. I don’t know if it is the “femaleness” of the friends or my age but I find myself needing to both grow more and more clearly define who I am, to develop/maintain my friendships. Sometimes it is challenging. But I think it is a good thing. When I didn’t have female friends I didn’t know what I was missing.

Now I feel like I am part of a circle, and, wherever I go, they are with me.

The Clean Slate Club

AM’s post about moving to a new city and having to make a new social life really resonated with me, but not because I’m moving or looking for new friends. It’s because I’m envious.

I’m not a very social person, so it’s not the “building a social life” or the “putting myself out there” that got me feeling a little jealous. It was the part about “from scratch” and “new me, new city, new things, new people.”

I love my city with a completely unobjective partisan love, and I am thrilled to know and hang out with fantastic people I hope to keeping hanging with for a long time. It’s just, well, I miss “new.” It’s like this:

Remember leaving high school? (At least vaguely?) If you’re lucky you go off to college somewhere new, somewhere that you aren’t “Bob and Sue’s daughter” or “the girl from debate class” or “the one who threw that huge party junior year and the cops came and half the school got busted on the new alcohol policy and never really forgave you despite all the money you spent on liquor.”

Maybe you gain the Freshman 10, but I felt like I dropped the Freshman 50, walking around free on my college campus. I can still see myself standing in front of the theatre building on the bucolic Smith College campus when I had the sudden realization: “None of these people know who I am. Good lord, I could be anybody!”

Then you leave college for work, or grad school. Probably you have a series of jobs before you find one that you stick with for a while, or before the babies turn up at your door and tell you you’re not leaving for a couple of years. Each time it’s a chance to be brand new.

I managed to squeeze in quite a few fresh starts in my young life, transferring schools, skipping town, going online, leaving academia. Often these were hard goodbyes. Plus moving sucks. I hope to stay in this house forever, or at least until someone buries my ashes in the backyard. (Note to family: I’m hoping that won’t be for a while, so put away the shovels.)

Still, there’s a part of me that is always looking down the road for the next corner to turn. When I stay in one place too long I get Itchy. And Scratchy. (But not Poochie.) Living online seems to exacerbate this feeling: every word goes on your permanent record, every person you’ve ever known comes back to find you again. Except they know you as You 2.0 and you’re now at least OS X Snow Leopard and looking at upgrading to Lion.

So many sticky little threads holding you in place, fixing your identity: no wonder they call it the World Wide Web.

Much as the idea of a dramatic breakout appeals, however, it’s not in the cards. I’ve got the Real golden handcuffs: great kids, dreamy husband, a little slice of the Midwest that I’ve grown to love. How I’m going to achieve that great “Clean Slate” feeling I love is still a little bit beyond me: divorce, the Witness Protection Program, and high colonics are out, as are drug-induced amnesia and the convent.

Still, every great journey begins with a single step, and I’ve started this one like so many others before me: with an inspirational refrigerator magnet. Check it out, it might inspire you too:

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wishing you bushes full of butterflies

You are having a bad day. You don’t want to face the obvious, that you have little control over your life, or even your own feelings about it. You’re so far from being able to pull yourself out of this that you don’t even want to.

Then you see it, a bush full of butterflies. At least a dozen of them, fluttering like animated jewels on the bush in your yard.

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Then, just like that, your day is all better. And all it took was a miracle.

Cross posted from my other blog.

Mind Hack Monday – She Shells

No matter how introverted I say I am I still need to connect with people. But that connection hasn’t always been easy for me to make. And, recently, I have been wondering why it is so hard.

Not that I don’t have friends. I have actually been blessed with many wonderful close friends. They are truly amazing, so I guess I must be doing something right. But, well, I just moved to a new city and now I am faced with the prospect of having to build a social life from scratch.

Moving can be exciting. You get a fresh start, on everything, even who you are, or, at least, how you present yourself to others. This time, I told myself, I am going to be more outgoing. I’ll try to talk to people I wouldn’t normally talk to. I’ll have more confidence, be less guarded, and be a better listener.  You know, “be myself” but better. 😛

Contemplating my struggle with friendships and relationships makes me think of my daughter, whose friendship mojo is strong. In the six weeks since we have moved here she has made several really good friends, had 3 sleepovers, and almost daily invitations for playdates/hang outs. Her social calender is so full it needs 13 months.

Not that I want that. I couldn’t handle that. But I would like to make at least a few meaningful connections. And it would be nice if it didn’t seem so hard.

I recognize that a big part of my problem is my impatience. I haven’t yet figured out how to enjoy the slow and somewhat obscure process of vetting, I mean, making friends.  In the past I relied on intuitive (snap) judgements regarding compatibility. But, the new me, in my new city of Brotherly Love, is trying out new things and new people. I am meditating on remaining open, and curious. And that helps, a little bit. But sometimes it doesn’t.

Of course, sometimes I have to think “Maybe it is just me.” Maybe everyone else I know easily makes full and satisfying friendships. Maybe they often get that experience of being “known” and accepted. Maybe once an outsider, always an outsider. (and maybe feeling negative about the process isn’t really helping:P)

I don’t know. I really don’t. All I can do is just keep showing up and putting myself out there. Or maybe I should give up looking for a specific outcome but somehow not give up on the process. But, I should probably not crawl back into my shell. Unless maybe it is my shell that somehow, paradoxically draws other interesting shell dwellers to it.

Think Different

My Facebook wall and Google+ stream are full of a common sentiment: R.I.P. Steve Jobs. (Twitter probably is too — when I last looked it was over capacity and couldn’t sign in.)

As a teen and young adult I was raised to love Steve Jobs like I was raised to love classic rock, Detroit, and vacations at the lake up north. As a grown person I may be able to see the warts that I missed as a kid, I may have developed some new tastes, but Apple was one of my family values from time my dad brought home the first Macintosh.

The death of Steve Jobs feels personal: a sign of decades of brilliant marketing, for sure, but true in lots of ways. I’ll be calling my dad tomorrow, for one thing. I think he’s had every Mac model (even the Newton! talk about being ahead of his time!) and used to ask for copies of MacWorld as Christmas gifts from us kids. I associate Apple with my dad like some people associate sports teams or cigars.

And on that score: the other reason I take the death of Steve Jobs personally is that I feel pretty sure he’s one of the accidental engineers of geek ascendency, the shift in pop culture mores that has made technology, science fiction, role-playing games, and assorted fantasy nerd lore cool for my 12-year-old daughter in a way that it never was when I was young. He may have a screen credit on “Toy Story,” but he also deserves credit for “The Big Bang Theory,” which wouldn’t be a phenomenon today if geeks like Jobs hadn’t been making science and computers exciting and necessary for the last 25 years. To grow up a nerd and then see your team rise up and take over is powerful stuff. It moves products, yes, but it also moves people.

People like Jobs are incredibly inspirational to me because, in small but important ways, I see myself in them. Not only because I was squarely in the geek squad as a kid, but because he came back after being written off or cast out, and because I have always tried to live like this:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. [Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, 2005]

That approach never let me down either, until recently. Lately a plateau—maybe a rut—in my work and in other areas of my life have left me wondering whether my foolish optimism led me to a dead end, and whether a hard-nosed pragmatism would have served me better.

For better or worse, however, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I love my iMac, my Macbook, my iPods. When the money tide turns the iPad is top of my list. And I’ve been convinced that it’s not just OK, but essential, to Think Different.

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary” [Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, 2005]

Banana-buying used to be simpler…and probably will be again, someday

One of the uncles I happily inherited in my former marriage used to say (in a delightful Philly accent), “Honey, I’m so old now, I don’t even buy green bananas anymore.”

I thought of him this morning as I pondered the banana section at the store. Buying bananas these days for me is not as straight-forward as it was for my uncle in his later days. I have to use a fairly complex algorithm in order to land on the right quantity and degree of ripeness in order to make this “simple” produce purchase. Firstly, I have to think about what day of the week it is and what the co-parenting schedule for the week is in order to determine how many more banana-eating opportunities there are going to be for my boys before they go over to their dad’s. If, for instance, it’s Wednesday, and they are going to his house tomorrow afternoon, then at most, they are likely to eat 2-3 bananas. But, these bananas have to be ripe enough to eat right now in order for that to happen. So, I need 2-3 perfectly ripe bananas for the children. But after they head to their dad’s, I will be heading to my partner’s house, which is out of town, for a couple of days. So if I want to get in on the banana action, I either need to eat these perfectly ripe bananas before that trip, or buy two different sets of bananas: 2-3 perfectly ripe ones for the children, plus maybe 1 perfectly ripe one for myself, and then a separate, less ripe bunch that will be perfectly ripe by the time I return from my time out of town. Or, I could consider another trip to the grocery store when I return. Just for bananas. Or, I could travel with the remaining bananas so as not to waste them and then buy more when I return. Or I could buy one bunch, let them over-ripen in my absence and make banana bread when I return.

All this thinking and planning required to purchase the right bananas is enough to drive me…well, you know.