StickWithItStickWithItStickWithIt

It happened again. I went for a walk, and serendipity struck.

A few days ago, I re-read an essay I’d drafted seven years ago. After saving one paragraph to develop, I nixed the rest and put the discarded pages onto my recycling pile.

The rejected pages described a time when I felt lost and dissatisfied with myself. I’d go out for a jog, and on three occasions, I came across a poetry pole in the corner of someone’s yard. I didn’t follow a regular route when I jogged. I preferred to wander, but each time I happened by this house, the stories on display resolved my problem and lifted my spirits.

The first story described farming bamboo and the many years of tending it takes before a bamboo sprout appears. The story ended with the maxim: “You can’t reap what you sow in the same day.” The simple message gave me a rush of oxygen and relief. Without noticing it, I’d been striving to succeed at a dozen different things all at once, everything from teaching and management to writing and gardening, applying a perfectionist’s severity to all of it. The bamboo story put my life back into perspective.

This was before I had a smart phone, so I called my office and left myself a voice mail message reading the story on the pole. I listened to it numerous times that week.

A couple of weeks later, while berating myself for my slow jog because I thought I *should* be able to run faster and further than this. I came across: “No matter the circumstances, always be willing to begin again.” The saying transformed my leaden jog into the baby steps of a fresh start.

The final time I came across the pole, the saying read: “When it comes to success, extraordinary perseverance wins over talent. Keep watering the bamboo.” Which is eerily similar to the Big Profound Message I wrote about last week. At this time, however, I don’t think I knew what my “bamboo” was–teaching? Writing? Yoga? Food studies? Any number of things I was trying to do all at once.

Then seven years pass. Although I continued jogging around the neighborhood, I mapped out a route and stuck with it. While walking or biking, to my recollection, I never wound up coming across that poetry pole again.

And then yesterday happened.

I went out for a walk, wandering in whatever direction shady trees or fetching front yards called me, and there it was. Marveling that I’d forgotten all about this poetry pole until re-reading my old essay, I crossed the street to read the story then continued down the sidewalk toward a tall, lean man playing basketball in the street with an equally tall, lean little girl.

The basketball hoop sat between two houses, but close enough to the house with the poetry pole that I felt inspired to ask the man, “Is that your poetry pole?” gesturing back to the corner of his front yard.

“Yes,” the man said, and came over to talk.

I told him about walking by years ago and how helpful the sayings had been to me. When I told him I’d call my office and read the messages to myself in a voice mail, he said, “Oh, I’ve got to give you something,” and jogged off to his garage.

He returned with a book, which I thought might be where he got the collection of sayings he posts until he opened up the book to the title page, asked my name, and poised his pen to write.

What?!?!?  I thought, and then asked bluntly, “You write all of those sayings? You come up with them yourself?”

Turns out, the writer of the stories and the owner of the house is Greg Bell, a dad playing ball with his daughter who also founded a leadership center to teach his concepts about watering bamboo. In a TED Talk, he describes the importance of staying with something over the long term, giving it at least a few minutes every day. He uses the details about farming bamboo as a metaphor for patience and determination that pay off in the long term. His approach can be applied to writing, art, family, or career.

Talking with him on the sidewalk, however, he said only that he “gives talks” now and then and waved it off, instead telling me about his grandfather, the inspiration for his approach to life.

I thanked him and continued on my walk, when about two blocks later I laughed out loud. Turns out, this poetry pole of wisdom that felt was my own personal oasis in a vast desert, resides about five blocks from my house.  I swear I missed it completely for seven years and then bumped into it again just when I needed it. Maybe the pole only reveals itself to you when you’re receptive to what it has to say.

Meeting Greg affirmed everything I realized in my last post: writing matters, words have an impact, stories are important, writing daily is key. Whatever it is you do: stick with it stick with it stick with it stick with it, or, as Greg would say: keep watering the bamboo.

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Showing Up, Flaws and All

I had the most eerily auspicious experience today.

I listened to a TED Talk playlist called “Kickstart Your Creativity” while I walked. Although I’d heard most of the talks before, they resonated just as much the second time around. The playlist ended before I got home, but a final lesson waited for me on the sidewalk a few steps ahead.

Elizabeth Gilbert gave the first talk on the playlist and spoke persuasively about the necessity for artists to show up every day to do their work—no matter what the results.

Maybe your performance last night inspired the crowd to chant your name and call you a god.  The next day, you wake up as the same-old-you and go practice your craft. Maybe yesterday, your latest work failed so miserably critics didn’t even bother writing about it. Today, you show up to practice your craft.

Extreme successes and failures aside, I think practicing a craft every day is difficult.

It’s not just finding the time. It’s finding the motivation. How do you keep showing up when your daily work seems to be going nowhere? Why keep walking in circles?

Phil Hansen, a visual artist, spoke at TED about embracing limitations. When Hansen developed a nerve disorder that caused his hand to shake, he abandoned his intricate stipple art and used everything from hamburger grease to Starbucks cups as material for his masterworks. His physical limitation inspired him so much that he manufactures further limitations, like not letting himself spend more than one dollar on supplies for a sculpture, or giving himself only a banana and a push-pin to create a piece of art.

He, too, concluded his talk by affirming that artists must show up every day to engage in the creative process, no matter how well or terribly the current project seems to be going.

I’ve never been able to write every-single-day-without-fail. I’ve tried numerous times but have never lasted for long. Years ago, I decided the daily effort simply didn’t work for me; however, I recently looked over some of my old writing and drawings, and I discovered two things.

First, deeming what I worked on as “good” or “bad” proved either meaningless or relative. Some essays I’d thought were pretty good at the time, grate on my nerves now. Some other pieces I’d thought drab and pointless, contain a whimsical image I want to illustrate now or an insight I couldn’t see initially.

Second, I noticed a trend. When I quit working steadily on writing or art, either because I got busy, used that as an excuse, or got frustrated, I was sometimes on the verge of good work.  I can see it years later.  What I thought was failing was actually emerging, not terrible at all, and in some cases, better than what I can do now that I’m less “in shape.”

The TED Talks concluded, and as I finished my walk, I thought about what flaws I could embrace the way Hansen described. Listing flaws came easily, but seeing them as a creative asset proved harder.

Just minutes later, I passed a house with a poetry pole in the yard. Instead of a poem, the page displayed three thick paragraphs of prose which made me curious enough to back up and read the story, which proved to be serendipitous timing to put it lightly:

Every day, a man carried two pots to the river to fill with water for his master. One pot was perfect and stayed full of water. The other had a crack that leaked and left the pot only half full by the time the man returned to the master’s house.

After two years, the flawed pot felt so ashamed by its failure to hold all of the water that it managed to speak to the man. It apologized, but the man asked, “What for?” After the pot explained, the man told the pot to look around on the walk back to the master’s house. The pot noticed the landscape and flowers along its side of the path. “So?” asks the pot. The man asked, “Did you notice there are no flowers on the other side of the path?”

The man had planted seeds and let the flawed pot water them on the way back from the river every day. Without the pot’s flaw, the flowers would not have existed.

The pot thought it had only one purpose, at which it had failed. Instead, the pot’s flaw made beauty possible. The flaw created art, and the pot achieved more than it had imagined for itself.

And now I get it. I get why I’m supposed to practice my craft every day. I may or may not achieve beauty, but the only way to find out is to slog along one day after the next, accepting my flaws and embracing my limitations.

Maybe whatever we practice in our daily lives—showing up to work every day without a scowl, raising kids or gardens or pets, tending to neighbors and friends—will yield something even better than what we’ve imagined, if only we can stick with it every day and trust that our efforts add up over time, whether or not we notice the results.

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Magic Telephones & “the stark disappoinment of words”

I used to have a wooden telephone. I made it out of scrap wood my dad gave me when I was maybe seven years old. I used my wooden phone to play a game I never bothered to name. Recently, I wished to have that phone back.

Here’s how it worked. One of us called the phone–this was the client. The other answered the phone–this was the artist. The client would order a picture. Once the call concluded, the one playing “client” changed roles and joined as artist and we worked diligently to complete the picture just ordered.

Lucky for us, clients trended heavily toward cats and rainbows.

I want this phone back, along with the pretend client and the not-so-pretend assignment and deadline (Clients always demanded their rainbows immediately!). I want the pretend phone to ring; I want to answer it, and I want to be told what to write (or draw) today (and every day) because I’m really good at coming up with ideas for stories and articles, making lists of ideas, tucking notes in the margins along these ideas. But I somehow rarely manage to choose one of those ideas and begin to bring it out on the page, never mind actually finish it, and heaven forbid I send it out for possible publication.

I used to wonder why.

Thanks to Ann Patchett, now I know:

“Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.”

Not that it breaks my heart, but it IS disheartening when glittering (and admittedly vague but full-of-potential) ideas must start with one sentence, and then another, until it’s a flat, simplistic scaffolding of the multidimensional Thing in my imagination.

So, I want my wooden phone back. I want the demanding clients who just happened to need exactly what I liked to create. And I want my hop-to-it creative self to return.

Ring-ring.

“Hello, Trista’s writing and drawing services, how may I help you?”

“I need an essay. About box turtles. 500 words. By tomorrow.”

“That will be 25¢.”

“Illustrated by Monday.”

“Not a problem. Good bye; I must get to work now.”

 

Patchett’s insight comes from her essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

 

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The List

In fourth grade, I made a list to simplify my life—which had started to feel complicated.

I think my anxiety was caused by the questions adults ask kids in an effort to make conversation. They are always asking about kids’ favorites—forcing them to rank their few life experiences.

In fact, I did it today.

My friend asked Henry, age seven, “What was your favorite thing at the farmers’ market?”

“Ummmm …” he replied, “ummmm … .” After a long while he said, “It would be easier if you asked me …” but the rest of his sentence got whisked away by the open window as the car sped up.

“I missed that.  What was your favorite thing?” she prompted again.

“—The raspberries,” he said with a conceding nod.

And even though I’d already started drafting this blog post and knew better, I followed up with, “Are raspberries your favorite fruit?”

Again, he paused for contemplation.  “One of them,” he replied, softening my binary proposition and allowing for the possibility of more than one favorite.

I, however, was not this wise in fourth grade. When adults asked about my favorites, I assumed I needed to have favorites. So, I made my list and planned to carry it with me at all times. When asked about a favorite thing, I’d pull out my list to find the answer and avoid the tension-causing contemplation.

Favorite color:  green
Favorite animal: cat
Favorite thing to do: read
Favorite food: pizza
Favorite ice cream: blueberry cheesecake

My list—written on typing paper, glued to green construction paper, and folded into quarters—fit in my back pocket and gave me peace of mind.

Shortly after constructing this list, I found myself at an ice cream shop.  I remember strutting into the store, hanging out with my mom while the other kids pawed the display case trying to choose their scoop flavor. I already knew what I wanted without even pulling out my list, but then the cashier said, “We don’t have that flavor.”

I think I actually took a step toward the door to return to the car and add a column to my list for “second favorites” in case my “favorite-favorites” didn’t resolve the question or fit the situation. But there wasn’t time for that now, and I really wanted some ice cream.

“We have strawberry cheesecake ice cream,” the cashier said. Fine, yes, okay, I’ll have that. And it was good.  It had the same gooey pie crust and creamy bits my favorite flavor had, but it wasn’t as rich or pretty to look at as the blueberry cheesecake.

I’m pretty sure I abandoned my list after that experience because when it failed in that moment, I also had to admit that the list had not simplified my life like I’d expected it to.  I’d found myself fretting about whether I’d made the right choice.  I mean, green seemed like my favorite color, but there’s also that puke-toned olive green; whereas I always liked blue, any blue.  Then again, my favorite color to wear was purple.

I think of this fourth-grade list often because I still feel drawn by its allure.  Maybe I have a good day, and I’ll think, “Ah, this is it!  I’ve finally got it figured out.  This is how I’m going to live my life,” as if tomorrow’s going to roll out exactly as today did.  But, of course, it never does.

Even though I haven’t eaten dairy for over a decade, any time I end up in an ice cream shop, I scan for blueberry cheesecake.  It still exists but is just as difficult to find as it ever was.  I like knowing I had such a particular preference.  Had rocky road been my favorite, I might still be carrying around that list.  I’d be forever known as the kid who likes cats and rocky road.

Instead, I wake up to question marks most days.  The core of my identity settles into place while all kinds of electrons shift about and reveal whether today I will prefer quiet or company, activity or stillness, chocolate Coconut Bliss ice cream or chocolate chips by the handful.

Life’s a little more complicated and less  convenient this way, but rarely predictable and always interesting.

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Frugal Abundance

You know how as soon as you say you’re not going to do something, like eat chocolate, all you can think about is doing that very thing?  Like every time I say “No more take-out,” we end up eating take-out five days in a row!

While texting with my husband this morning about saving up for some projects, I wrote:  “I am determined to be frugal in a creative and abundant way.”

It’s only been few minutes, but so far, I’ve not yet thought of twelve things I need to buy, and I think it’s because of the phrase “creative and abundant way.” It feels like a project rather than a restriction.

My husband wrote back that chapter six of my (purely hypothetical) memoir should be:  “Abundantly Frugal and Other Potential Oxymorons Shattered by Creativity and Persistence.”

I loved that!  With creativity and persistence, we can be frugal while also enjoying abundance.

So, rather than focusing on what we can’t or shouldn’t do, we’re working together on a project, our self-imposed limitations challenging us to think outside of the box and find  inspiration.

We’re quite thrilled with ourselves, for example, when we “iron chef it” for dinner, when we manage to turn a mish-mash of bits and scraps into something savory.  The instant satisfaction of take-out entices, but we end up appreciating the creativity and adventure of “iron chef-ing it” just as much.

In my twenties, I lived on very little, and this kind of blog post would have had me rolling my eyes!  But coming from a more stable and comfortable place today, I love the idea of “frugal abundance” because it’s about noticing what we already have and finding happiness in that rather than seeking to acquire more.

What ways have you practiced “frugal abundance,” where a restriction has led to the creation of something great?

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“… and this is our bedroom.”

I was ten years old when I learned what it meant to be gay.  My dad was as an interior designer, and he’d been talking enthusiastically about a home he’d been working on for a few months.  One morning, he said the two women who lived in this house were going to be investing in art for their walls and shelves.

“What if one of them gets married and moves out,” I asked, wondering why they would put so much money and time into something not permanent.

“Well, they’re not just roommates,” he explained matter-of-factly, “they plan to live together for a long time.”

He didn’t label them “gay.”  It took me a few more years to connect that word and the way too many people sneered when they said it to the comfortable fact of two women living together instead of marrying men.  I hadn’t known such an option existed, and I liked it.  I could see living in a house with my best friend and imagined how fun it would be to pick out art together for our walls.

More than two decades later, circumstances of my life came together in such a way that I ended up meeting the two women who hired my dad to design their home.

They’re successful, impressive women, but too humble to make that obvious when talking with me, and they remembered my dad — quite fondly!

“Oh, we loved that house!” one of them said and explained they’d recently moved. “Your dad wouldn’t want to come work on our new house, would he?”

I explained that he’s 80 years old, but that did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm about his artistic eye.

Then, as one woman turned to talk to someone else, the other continued smiling at me and said, “You know, we interviewed other designers.”

I hadn’t even considered this, and worried retroactively about my dad not getting the job.

“… But as we gave them a tour of our home, when it came time to show them our bedroom …”

She trailed off here, but the expression on her face left little to the imagination about how the designers might have reacted.  Barely disguised disgust? Outright judgment?

“But your dad!  We got to the bedroom — our bedroom — and he just nodded and asked about colors.”

I’ve always loved my dad, but I still get teary when I think about this moment nearly thirty years ago, during a time even less accepting than now, from a man whose generation certainly did not embrace anything remotely “non-traditional.”

Two women sharing a bed was a complete non-issue for my dad.  All that really mattered to him — all that should ever really matter about anyone —  is what art they have on their walls, what books on their shelves, what music they listen to or where they’ve traveled, and how much joy their home contains.

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The Fairy Godmother of To-Do Lists

I wish someone could tell me my future.  I don’t need to know it all, or even see that far ahead, but each day feels like a blank, white wall, which could feel like a fresh start but instead feels vague and unclear.

My dad’s step-grandmother was clairvoyant, but in the most practical ways:  knowing who called before answering the phone and locating lost jewelry just by talking with the owner (the ring was in the wastebasket to the left of the desk).

Gram died before I existed, but when my mom was pregnant with me, Gram came to her in a dream and told her she’d have a girl, and that girl would “be just like me.”

My mom feared this meant I’d be stubborn; I’ve always hoped for clairvoyance.  However, considering my total lack of discernment in my own life, I have yet to see how I resemble Gram.

However, I don’t recall any stories about Gram seeing her own path in life.  Maybe it’s easier to predict other people’s lives.  Their patterns stand out more than our own, and listening carefully reveals what others yearn for even when they don’t describe it directly.  It’s easier to believe in other people’s potential too, in their capability, mostly due to wanting the best for others, but also because the day-to-day effort of baby steps, stumbling blocks, and leaping off cliffs stays invisible; we see only the golden achievement.

If someone could tell me my future, I’d rather not know what’s going to happen but what I ought to be doing today and tomorrow to prepare and get me there.

If my actions today largely shape my future, I’d like some celestial guidance as I create my to-do list. A fairy godmother of the to-do list!

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