A Swift Kick In The Pants

Monday morning, right when I woke up, I checked my email. I never do this. It’s too jarring, especially if there’s stressful news. But, for some reason, I did it Monday morning and immediately had a stomach ache.

As you know, I want to sell my Storybooks You Can Color at Portland’s Crafty Wonderland sale. I applied last year and ended up glad I did not get in because I was not ready. I planned to apply for this year’s winter sale, and assumed applications would be due in October.

Wrong. Here’s what I read right when I woke up:

Apply Now for the
2015 Super Colossal Holiday
Sale!!!

Don’t wait too long!
Applications are due September 8th!”

Crafty Wonderland banner

I was not even out of bed when I texted my husband the news: ” I don’t know if I can do it?!?!?”

My guy calmed me down and rallied my resolve. We charted out dates when my books should be back from the printer (although, I’m already a day late delivering them); and how much time we’ll have to take photos for the website (not much); and how we’ll make them as good as possible (smart phone and … lots of re-dos? I was a good photographer when it involved film and a dark room.).

By Monday afternoon, my stomach ache had gone away, and I’d accomplished more in a few hours than maybe ever in my lifetime before this. I even baked four loaves of zucchini bread because my toddler would NOT take a nap, and it’s not like I can do the delicate work of scanning and layout with him requesting “Up? Up?” to be on my lap every other minute. (Although that’s exactly what I did today because there was simply no other way.)

This all felt a lot safer in my daydreams, but the sudden due date provided the kick in the pants I didn’t even know I needed.

So, hang onto your hats everyone. If all goes well, I will be telling you soon about a launch party, a website, the results of the Crafty Wonderland application, and the date of my Etsy shop opening.

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I Got What I Wanted, And I Don’t Like It

Right after my last post about clearing the clutter of my mind so I can carry bright, calm, open spaces within me wherever I go, the IKEA catalog arrived on our doorstep. Unbidden but so alluring.

I thought about putting it straight into the recycling bin, but I couldn’t. (Plus, it turns out they have numerous pages depicting methods for storing, sorting, and carrying your recyclables–even a fabric garbage can with straps to wear like a backpack to “keep recyclables secure–all the way to the recycling station.” That’s just what I need to do–buy more stuff to contain the stuff I’m trying to reduce in the first place.)

Looking through the catalog feels like a cool breeze on a sticky-hot day. The tiny kitchens so light and open. The bedroom-diningroom-kitchenettes so cozy and not at all stifling to be cooped up in one room for everything but taking a shower. All spaces have natural light emanating from somewhere.

The catalog creators understand me. They write soothing things like, “There!… All back in its proper home. …Notice the reassuring sense of order and efficiency?” Yes! Reassuring. Order. Efficiency! Ah, cool breeze.

Plus, there are interracial couples depicted in tidy scenes of domesticity, and same-sex couples, and blended families all equally at ease in their neutral-toned lounge wear. This depicts my ideal world of inclusion and diversity, but of course, just as there are no cords, there are no people with blemishes, un-trim bodies, stained teeth, or asymmetrical anything.

But, speaking of cords–I found one! Right there on page 153 in a slate gray bedroom, a white mushroom-shaped lamp has a cord that trails off the bedside table and plugs into an outlet. An outlet and a cord! And, guess what? I don’t like it!!!  My eye goes right to the cord, the only wobbly, un-contained, non-streamlined object in the whole scene. It’s like a mosquito bite on otherwise baby-smooth skin. I can’t help but look at the cord and then the whole scene looses its serenity.

There’s probably a lesson here for me about acceptance, or something. Maybe there’s a clan of rogue IKEA photographers tucking discreet moments of real life into each catalog for people like me to seek for a sense of reality. But I’m too distracted to think further about this. I keep imagining two “Strandmon wing chairs” for our living room; they’re the perfect shade of green. I could drape a soft blanket over the arm, sip dark coffee from a white cup, and gaze out the crystal-clear window.

Alas, budget and prudence require that we keep the third-generation sofa that we’ve used for 15 years already. Plus, the kiddo likes pulling off the balls of pilled upholstery and handing them to me. What would he do with new, spotless, green, wing-backed chairs?

 

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Embracing Clutter And Keeping My Chair

We sat in the near-dark of the living room Saturday night talking about what we need to do, wish to do, and dread doing regarding the maintenance of our house. Although there’s nothing particularly awful or imminent, it all feels hard, expensive, and overwhelming.

“Sometimes, I daydream of cleaning it all out, of simplifying, of making it all clear so life’s not so complicated,” I said to my husband, grasping at words to convey how I felt about house repairs, confusing health insurance policies, piles of papers to file, and so on.

“Having only one bowl and one spoon?” he said.

“Yes! Exactly!” That’s exactly what I meant. A totally unrealistic and probably unsatisfying daydream of boiling our exterior lives down to the minimum essentials and thereby achieving a constant calm inner life. But one glance at our shoe rack by the front door, and already I wondered, “Just one pair of shoes? Or one for each occasion, like: running shoes, dressy shoes, everyday shoes …”

Sunday morning, my husband read last week’s Modern Love essay aloud to me. At the end of it, Ada Calhoun writes:

…I found myself daydreaming about the one-bedroom apartment [she would have instead of the complicated family home she actually has] looking out onto Powderhorn Park. After waking up alone, I would brew some coffee, switch on one of my many ceiling fans, grab a robe from my largest cedar closet and head for my breakfast nook.

This is what I daydream too, a life free of clutter and complexity. Bright morning light, coffee, simple one-bedroom studios, no clutter, no confusion or doubt, just me–existing.

I used to think this was not only possible, but that a lot of people lived this way, and I only needed to try harder. I blame it on the catalogs.

When we first moved into our house, catalogs arrived in our mail every other day, mostly from Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, and they enchanted me with their depictions of bright, light, tidy spaces.

I studied these magazines, tearing out pages for our “house notebook” of everything from bathroom towel racks to a dining room wall decorated with giant white plates. (Trust me when I tell you that this is truly an ill-fitted idea to our little, low-ceiling home and tiny dining room.)

Soon, these magazines left me frustrated, dissatisfied, and grouchy. And then I had my epiphany:

“THERE ARE NO CORDS IN THE CRATE & BARREL CATALOG!” I shouted to my husband.

One day, there it was–or actually–there it was NOT. I suddenly noticed what was missing in those catalog images. Not only were early mornings never depicted as dark and dog hair was always missing from the couch, the lamps and computers, stereos and TVs had no cords!

Desktop computers perched cheekily on rustic farm tables as if they’d turn on and accomplish work without cords from keyboard to monitor, from monitor to tower, from tower to wall. Lamps hovered nearby, angled to suggest the light they would emanate if they had a cord and it were plugged into a socket (which also don’t exist in catalog pictures). The space looked uncluttered only because each device lacked its three-to-seven cords necessary for functioning.

This broke the spell, and I finally saw the images for what they were, skillfully shot photographs of completely fabricated scenes. I couldn’t see it initially because the creators of these catalogs understood me and the clean-line, dust-free ease with with I wanted to exist in the world.

While I do still believe I can calm my inner mood by ordering my exterior surroundings (a tidy desk fills me with optimism and capability), I think instead I should work on de-cluttering my head and heart.

I mean, if you could create one of those imaginary spaces and put me in it, I might revel for a day, but then, there’d be some dirty laundry, a plant to water, a counter to wipe, and where are all the books? (Most definitely not wrapped in light-to-dark slate-colored butcher paper and shelved by size.)

Besides, ultimately, I’d still be me, alone with myself and my head still cluttered and doubtful.

Maybe that’s it–if I can achieve a calm, serene mind and heart, it won’t matter what kind of space I’m in. I’ll carry light, open, cord-free, clutter-free space within me.

NOTE: This is crazy timing. I first drafted this post on Sunday, July 26, but by Wednesday night, I’d read the hilarious essay at The Toast, “How To Get Rid Of Clutter And Live Abundantly” by Mallory Ortberg. Her sarcastic poke at the ever-growing “genre” of “mindful living” is hilarious and a great antidote. Here’s my favorite part:

Have you ever owned anything? This is why you cannot forgive any of your former lovers. Things like ‘having chairs’ is preventing you from living your best life, …

 

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From Tender to Thick-Skinned

During the A-to-Z Challenge, I wrote about Backlash, and I think that’s what I’m experiencing now. I mustered the confidence to write and draw my first Storybooks You Can Color, I asked some people for help, I told all of you about it, and then … I took it to the printer.

Looking at the proof and then picking up a box of books a few days later felt  … well … unsettling.

Photo of the proof taken at the print shop.

A customer at the shop asked to see one of the books, so I handed it over, pretending to be confident. He said he has a 3-year old grandchild. What he did NOT say is: the grandchild would love such a book, that the book looks fun to color, or “What a unique and grand idea!”

Instead, he asked, “How much are you selling them for?” I wasn’t sure, so I said the first number that came to mind. “Hm,” he said, and tossed the book back into the box. Then, he suggested a lower price, “to sell more volume.”

Volume?

Well, days later, I think I have a few things figured out:

I have to embrace the “business-y” side of creativity, even if only a little. I mean, I do have to decide a price, but the price can’t come from my floundering faith in my book. If I based the price on how I felt, some days the book would cost nothing; other days, it would go to only the highest, most audacious bidder.

Also, while I don’t expect every person to love these books, the casual dismissal of the other customer made my stomach ache for a few hours. I realize now that I can’t hide myself and the books away from anyone but those of you who are supportive. I guess I’d wanted to store these books on a secret shelf only those who would love them could find.

IMG_0398

One of my favorite pages in the book. My photo makes the paper look two-toned, but it’s all bright white paper.

And lastly, I’m learning, learning, learning. (Insert eye roll here.) At first, the proof looked great to me. But when I picked up the box of 60 books, while they looked the same as the proof, they didn’t look as good to me any longer. I’d had a few days to contemplate, and I’d noticed some things I’d do differently next time.

I have to convince myself that just because I see a way to do a little better on the next book, this current book isn’t a failure. Not at all. In fact, it’s remarkably better than the very first version I tried to do all on my own without critique and help from others.

For being the VERY FIRST ONE, this is a good book. It really is. I like the color cover, I love the inside paper (smooth and thick and can handle pens but folds nicely), and I still love the quirky story and drawings. However, for the next book (or any re-prints of this one), I have a few ideas for improvement.

I guess it’s as simple as that.

Thank you LoriAlexSolveig, and Rose for your comments on last week’s post. I was so consumed by my confused feelings about this first book that I never replied. I read your comments numerous times, and they helped me cheer up and look more confidently at what I’m doing. THANK YOU for being out there, reading my blog, and taking the time to comment. And thank you for your great blogs as well; you’ve all inspired me this week .

PS: I drafted this post on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning, I was ready to share the book with two friends and get feedback. Writing to you all gave me perspective and got me grounded again. It wasn’t easy to hear critiques, but I got some good ideas (and some compliments!). Creative work really does grow when shared with others, but it’s so much easier to leave it tucked in a journal, hard-drive, or closet!

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Holding My Breath …

I took my first completed “Storybooks You Can Color” to the print shop yesterday morning.

I expected to post pictures for you–selfies of me smiling with the printer guy.

I have no idea why. That’s so not my style. Still, I keep picturing a blog post of me, the printer, the book, and big smiles. Weird.

Plus, the moment of delivering the completed book felt kind of anticlimactic. The printer saved my pdf files, confirmed the details of paper weight and type, and said they’d have a proof for me to see today or soon after.

I’d imagined yesterday to be such a big moment that my husband took an hour off of work to meet me and our kiddo for a celebratory breakfast after I finished at the print shop.

Having breakfast at a diner downtown on a weekday felt adventurous and fun, but something has left me feeling slightly off kilter.

I’ve already started final drawings for the next book, and I’m really enjoying the re-drawing process, adding all kinds of details I hadn’t thought of when I drafted it ages ago.

And yet, the first book is kind of in limbo. Maybe this is normal? I guess I’ve never worked on projects that depended on other people so much. Even essays I’ve published pretty much go from my fingertips to print, just the brief (and rewarding) conversation with an editor here and there.

But now, the book is literally out of my hands and either lingering on a computer in the print shop downtown, or printed and waiting for cutting and stapling on a counter among other projects.

I hate to admit it, but the cliche is true — this feels a tiny bit like trusting someone else to take care of my child. I want to call the print shop and ask how it’s going.

Okay, lesson #473 in art and life — collaboration requires trust and letting go. Time to trust the printer and all the work leading up to this moment, let that book go because there is nothing more for me to do at the moment, and get back to working on the next one.

Maybe next week I’ll post a selfie of me with the printer and the proof? Geez. Kind of holding my breath … See you next week with more news, hopefully.

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Can Beauty Save The World? I Hope So, But I Have My Doubts.

In response to my post Something Has Got To Be Better Than Nothing, Deb Nies, a writer I met through the Live Like Julia Project, said she tries to live by the phrase:

bloom where you are planted: beautifying “my own little corner of the world. I figure if everyone just tried to do that, we’d all be just a bit better off.”

Just as I decided I liked this constructive idea, I heard more horrific news that made my individual efforts seem futile.

So, I went for a walk. When I got to the poetry pole we always pass, I stopped to read it to my kiddo. It was “I, Too” by Langston Hughes, and two things happened. First, the poem helped me understand what it is I’m feeling about negative world events: shame. I feel the shame he describes in the second-to-last stanza:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides, 
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I want to apologize, on behalf of humanity, for all of it– for not inviting people to the table, for hateful acts, for greed, for violence, for not seeing everyone’s beauty. I want everyone at the table, and I want everyone to see everyone else’s beauty.

The second thing that happened is the owner of the house stepped out to water some plants, and I had a chance to tell her how much we like her poetry pole. Some of the poems she’s posted have hit home for me, changed my mood, given me more resolve or hope or cheer. There’s one person blooming where she’s planted, making her part of the universe beautiful and that beauty has altered the world, if only a little, which proves that beauty works.

This is the perfect example of something I read in Street Roots in an interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie, whom I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of, even though she’s apparently shaped American culture quite significantly.

The writer, Zalokar, asked Sainte-Marie about our duty to ourselves, to others, and to the planet to right wrongs and fix all the messes. Sainte-Marie replied that this “duty” is:

“…not something to be afraid of. It’s something just to step up to. You know, it’s like doing the dishes; you’ve got to do it all the time or it piles up on you.”

I can relate to this, it’s back to daily practice. The article then quotes a line from one of Sainte-Marie’s songs, and it’s just what Deb Nies said:

“…so take heart and take care of your link with life and / carry it on …”

Okay, so none of this fixes the problems I hear on the news that shock me to the core. Today it was about Sudan. I can’t even repeat the story, so you can look it up if you’ve not already heard it. But after feeling helpless and hopeless for a brief while, I came back to an ever more firm resolve to do what I can each day — back to daily practice, but this time in life as well as art.

Which is what another friend said in response to my earlier post. Simon Tam (you might know him from The Slants), reminded me that “change occurs on many different levels. Just as no one person created the severe environmental issues we’re facing today, no single person can solve them,” and that solutions come in many forms and at many levels.

He’s an engaged activist doing as much direct action as he can, so I was cheered when he noted some small things that can make a difference:  “It’s easy to get overwhelmed but there’s so much good that we can do, even if the effects are [not] directly/immediately visible – just look at the effects of a good teacher, dentist, or customer service rep. Sometimes, that good can be multiplied and magnified! ”

Which is how I am feeling about the woman with the artful house and the poetry pole. Her corner of beauty is altering my state of mind and making me go forward more cheerfully and productively for the rest of the day, and probably doing so for others passing by.

Which brings me back to Street Roots and an article about a woman who paints icons. I didn’t even know we had modern icons; I just assumed they were all from ancient times, and now I’m fascinated by what it would be like to be an artist creating powerful spiritual imagery. For Mary Katsilometes, interviewed by Jane Salisbury, it’s about beauty:

“All artists, writers, painters, theater people are doing this; engagement with beauty truly does save the world.”

I’ve heard this before, and I want to believe it, but I’m always left asking, “How? How does beauty save the world?”

Luckily, Salisbury followed up and asked just that–what does it really mean that beauty will save the world? The icon artist replied:

“Beauty will save the world because it appeals and comforts and stands against the profane. If we don’t have images of beauty to stand against the profane, we are lost. All the world is entitled to the beautiful. It causes us to reflect on a world full of goodness. When I was a child, the nuns told us to be careful what we let in; I think that’s part of what they were saying.”

So, maybe Deb is right, bloom where you are planted, make your speck of sand as beautiful as you can. Whether that’s enough or not, I don’t know, but it seems a great place to start, and something to work on each day.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”   –John Keats

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Wanting To Help: Is It A Basic Human Instinct?

I felt really self conscious after publishing last week’s post, worried I’d been too sappy. And then you all showed up, sharing resources, ideas, anguish, and personal stories. Thank you. Thank you for sharing so much and for making me feel so much less alone.

I’m still reading, viewing, and considering all that you sent me and will share as I learn more. For now, I just have two stories for you.

Right after publishing last week’s post, I started reading The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s good, and you should read it before the movie comes out in October.

It’s about a lot of things, but one plot line illustrates how much good people can achieve  when they’re motivated and dedicated to a shared goal. It also shows how people, institutions, and countries that typically don’t get along can set issues aside long enough to do good work together.

I thought of all of you and this blog when I read these paragraphs:

Human beings have “a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.

If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.”

I hope that’s true, that it’s a basic human instinct to help each other, and that the caring individuals not only outnumber “the assholes,” but that the collected good work has more impact than the negative. Which, truthfully, is hard to believe right now, but I’m hoping. Plus, all the more reason to up my game, right?

So there’s that to ponder. Then, one day while out for a walk, I started daydreaming.

I let myself imagine that the business I’m slowly crafting would be a great success and that I’d have resources to pass along to others. Who would I give money to? How might I give back? Homelessness and hunger are two things that worry me the most in the world, so I thought of that. But then I thought of other artists and writers and helping them pay the bills while they do their work.

Then, my daydream shifted to a simple, good, and practical idea that I can start right now, that helps remedy homelessness, that supports artists and writers, and that involves all of you, too.

In Portland, there’s a newspaper called Street Roots. It’s a weekly paper that creates jobs and raises money to deal with poverty and homelessness.

I am ashamed to admit this, but many years ago, I tried to give a Street Roots vendor some money but told him I didn’t want the paper. I never took the time to read it, and I didn’t want to waste the paper. He insisted I take it, saying, “You can pay extra if you want, but you have to take an issue and read it.”

I feel like a jerk now, because it recently dawned on me –not only do the articles take on issues of poverty and homelessness, most of the writing, photographs, drawings, interviews, and comics are created by people who are or have been homeless.

Telling the vendor I never get around to reading it was incredibly rude! I mean, can you imagine someone giving you money for your book but not wanting your actual work? This was one of my most horrible moments. But now, I am slightly less blind and have a plan.

I am going to buy the paper somewhat regularly, pay extra, READ IT, and look for insights to share in an occasional blog post. I’ll be contributing to a well-respected publication and resource, and I’ll be reading and sharing work by other artists and writers. Win-win.

It’s a simple plan and a little one, but it’s a start, and it feels good.

– – – – — –  Okay, I was going to end here, but I talked with my mom just before finishing this post, and I have to tell you one more story about individuals working to ease the suffering in the world.  – – – – – –

My mom mentioned that her neighbor volunteers with the Red Cross. This woman flies all over the country, right into the heart of physical, emotional, and mental trauma, to do the work she’s been trained to do. She told my mom that it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t know anyone when she arrives; they’ve all been trained in their roles so well that they work in harmony right away, getting things done.

Here’s an example of one person who has retired to a financially comfortable life, but rather than kicking it on a fancy yacht (for all I know, she might do that too), she has devoted endless hours to rigorous Red Cross training and leaves her home for weeks at a time to tend to the damaged, wounded, and scared.

Maybe the next question in this conversation is what is it that motivates people to sacrifice time, money, and comfort to help others?

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