Friday, December 31, 2010

Inviting Change: The Power of Less (book response)

[I have decided to post a few notes about a book before I mention it in my monthly newsletter. This is not a review of the literary value of the book, but rather a record of the response I had while reading it.]

The new year invited me to think and read about making positive changes. That's what New Year's resolutions are all about, right?

I was reminded what dangerous territory the idea of change is for me.

My adult life has been organized around coping with changes thrust upon me by living with a chronic illness. What with changes engendered by living at the turn-of-the-century and living through an uncertain economy, etc., most human beings are coping with enormous amounts of change. The new jargon for grace in response to change is "resilience." Building skills in this area is a survival mechanism for all of us.

But what about inviting change? I've been spending time recently with a book called The Power of Less, by Leo Babauta.

I was attracted to the book because Babauta is the author of the popular blog Zen Habits. I hoped he would not get too aggressive and heroic with his advice about how to make changes.

The book does, indeed, take a gentle and sane approach to change. Babauta encourages us to identify what is essential in our lives and eliminate the rest. It is about simplification.

I enjoyed and was inspired by the first 60 or so pages and then found myself getting into trouble. It took me a few days of processing (I'm not the fastest heifer in the stampede) before I realized my difficulty and made accommodations.

Babauta's Power of Less Principles-- and his explanation of them-- are fine:
  1. Set limitations.
  2. Choose the essential.
  3. Simplify.
  4. Focus.
  5. Create habits.
  6. Start small.

In the second part of the book, "In Practice," he gives examples of how to apply the principles in various areas of our lives. I found myself getting more and more frustrated with this section, until I identified my difficulty.

My problem, it turns out, is that I have little control over the practicalities of my life. I can't, for instance, get up half an hour earlier and create a new morning routine without inconveniencing several people. I have to have help to get out of bed, get dressed, have a cup of tea… I have to have help with pretty much everything on his morning routine list. I ran into similar trouble with many of Babauta's suggestions.

I returned, as I often do, to the safety of the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Babauta's book encourages us to think about goals and projects. To his process, I need to add:
  1. Identify tasks wherein I have control.
  2. Identify tasks with which I would need to ask for help.
  3. Decide with which tasks I am willing to ask for help.
  4. Identify potential helpers.
  5. Ask for help as decided.

My experience is that asking for help comes with a cost. If I have consciously decided to ask for help and accept the cost, then I will find it easier to make the changes I want to make.

Babauta's emphasis on focused, small, present-oriented changes makes it a good fit for someone like me who is working within limitations. As with most life processes, however, I have to take a little extra time to tailor his suggestions to my specific needs.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Working with a Broken System

What does living with disability teach me about working with a broken system?

This week I had the opportunity to bang into two broken systems.

First, the public health nurse who came to do my annual PCA evaluation (wherein she evaluates whether I still need the services of a personal care attendant) asked if my husband and I had discussed getting divorced so that, when I have to quit work, I will be able to continue to have a PCA. Second, I rode Metro Mobility, our local paratransit system and waited for my ride for an hour beyond the promised pickup time.

As I was bumping along in the bus, I realized I'm going to have to get better at working with broken systems. The good news is I'm not alone.

I googled "broken system" and discovered that I am surrounded by them. Our financial, immigration, education and healthcare systems have been described as broken…and that's just the first page of results!

So, hmm, what do I know about broken systems? Oh, right! I live in this body, which some people would no doubt describe is a broken system. Can't get much closer than that.

Learn as much as you can handle

Knowledge is power. The more I learn about how this system works, the more resourceful I will be in response.

On the other hand, there is more to know than I can take. I have to look at the big picture and make some guesses about what knowledge will be the most helpful. I have to learn a piece at a time or I get too overwhelmed.

Identify the experts

There are people who already know a lot about the system. If I can figure out who they are and talk to them, they can help me learn more quickly and efficiently.

I also need to remember that some of the experts do not have titles or letters behind their names. They are, as jargon has it, "consumers"-- those folks who have wrestled with the system from the inside out.

Notice what's working

Broken systems are so obviously broken that it's easy to miss what's working. I need to pay attention to what goes smoothly and easily. When I find those things, I need to:

  • celebrate!
  • thank the folks who are doing a good job
  • think of ways I can strengthen these pockets of righteousness. (See "advocate" below.)

About what's not working...

What's glaringly obvious about a broken system, of course, are all the things that are wrong with it. When I bump into those things, I can ask two questions:

  1. Can I make it better?
    If yes, then hahloo hahlay, I should just have at it! If no, see question #2.

  2. Could I fix it if I had help?
    If yes, then I can rally the troops and take action. If no, see question #3.

  3. Do I know who can make it better?
    If yes, then I can contact them, let them know what I see is wrong and tell them any ideas I have about how to fix it. This is called advocacy. Unfortunately, many of the consumers of broken systems are unable to do it because of lack of knowledge and resources (including personal energy). If I can do it, I should! (Real Genius fans say it with me: "it's a moral imperative.")

    If no, then I can do research to try to find out who can influence this system.

What if it just stinks?

Suppose I can't--even with help--do anything, my advocacy efforts have come to naught and the system is still broken?

Sometimes, the best offense is a good defense.

I need to protect myself, body, mind and spirit.

Having learned about the system and identified the experts and influencers, I can figure out what rules (nonsensical though they may be) are in place that might help me get what I need.

I can bear in mind that broken systems often don't make sense; it's not necessarily that something's wrong with me.

I can cultivate a state of mind and spirit that allow me to exist amidst the chaos. I need to put some thought, creativity and effort into creating my "bureaucratic happy place" whence, faced with the inequities and complexities of the broken system, I can retreat.

As it turns out, I have a lot of ideas about working with a broken system. Isn't it great (sarcasm) that I will have so many opportunities to practice them!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Trusting in Here and Now

Art Every Day Month, Days 27-30

It is December. I am embarrassed to admit I have been wondering what to do about December for days. Art Every Day Month is over. Will I stop making art? Will I stop the other behaviors (meditating, exercising) that I connected with making art?

I have to laugh at myself. I decided to make art every day. There was no one making me do it and there is no one grading me on my participation. My thought, "where do I go from here?" is only a thought. It pulls me into a future that has not yet arrived. If I stay in the here and now, I will be all right.

Here is what I did the last four days of November.

  1. Texture again
  2. Experiment with an object
  3. Meditation on Strong Feelings
  4. Following the Hand 11-30-10
Today is December 3. I painted yesterday and the day before (in a new notebook I bought). I painted because I picked up the brush and painted.

With the new notebook, I created some new rules.
  1. I don't have to create something new every day. I can add to a painting done on an earlier day.
  2. I don't have to use only one piece of paper every day. (I bought three notebooks.)
  3. I don't have to blog about what I create every week, nor do I have to scan and post the results.
I have thoughts about where to go (and not go) from here with my painting that have been generated by what I've done over the last 30 days. (Day 28 was an experiment that definitely gave me some ideas.)

Those are thoughts and ideas. I can welcome them with "curious attention" (as one of my favorite meditation guides would say).

When it comes to continuing to paint in the coming month, I just need to pick up the brush.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Not precious and precious

Art Every Day Month, days 20-26

  1. The Open Door
  2. I'm Tired!
  3. Texture
  4. My Healing Story now (lower right)
  5. Body Scan 1
  6. Body Scan 2
  7. Following the Hand 11-26-10
Not Precious

Twenty years ago, I was a fan of a photographer named DeWitt Jones who wrote a monthly column that combined photography advice and zen philosophy. (Googling him now, I am pleased to discover he is a hugely successful photographer and speaker.)

One of the things that impressed me about him was that he would take hundreds of photos, unconcerned about the cost in time and film, in order to get one beautiful image.

Making a painting every day has reminded me of that approach. If I work for several months on a painting,it's easy for it to become precious to me… All that time spent and all those decisions made.

The rhythm of my life does not allow me to spend huge amounts of time on a painting each day. They have to be made quickly in between other dailyness.

They become less precious. There is another one coming tomorrow.


On the other hand, when I look at them closely, when I spent time with them, I discover parts that delight me. On day 22, I remembered how much I like texture in paintings. I have been enjoying the simplicity of some of my output this month (example: day 19), but I was missing the complexity of multiple layers and marks. Day 22 is my favorite of the week. When I look at the state of the paper, however, smudged and marked with paint from other days, I wish I had treated my little notebook with more care and respect. That piece would look so lovely against pristine paper.

I took a workshop with writer Natalie Goldberg. (Also about 20 years ago… I confess to a secret enjoyment of how much older these people look now. What? The mirror, you say? Pshaw!) She encouraged people to write-write-write, to trust that there was more where that came from. Then, when people came to read their work aloud, she asked them to read slowly. encouraging them to caress each word as it came from their lips.

Not precious. Precious.

Painting, writing, living, loving with wild abandon as if there can always be more, as if the Source has no end.Yet slowing down to appreciate each shining drop and understand its holiness.

Friday, November 19, 2010

More Surrender Equals More Beauty

It is still Art Every Day Month.

  1. Vibrant Energies
  2. Following the Hand 11-14-10
  3. Hot Chocolate
  4. Loving Kindness
  5. Behind My Eyelids
  6. Mandala 11-18-10
  7. Moving On...

During the past week I have noticed that, when I try to control the marks I'm making, when I try to be very deliberate, I like the product less. I am clenched around what's happening and the tightness shows. When I paint without an agenda, just following the hand or starting with a vague notion, I find the results more beautiful.

I thought about calling this post "Less Control Equals More Beauty."  Then I thought about the results of lack of control in my life: working too much, saying mean things, etc. That lack of control does not produce good results. I chose the word surrender instead.

I am not trying to control the marks, rather they are being pulled out of me by the idea or the emotion that I'm trying to express. Surrendering to that process makes the work more fun and the results are more beautiful.

Art imitates life.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My Hand in Curious Motion; A Kiss and a Promise

Art Every Day Month, days 6-11

  1. Still in love with sumac leaves.
  2. Playing with Prismacolor sticks.
  3. Entranced by fall foliage.
  4. Sunset.
  5. Purple berries and green leaves. I love
    purple and green.
  6. Ispired by hearing Lynda Barry on
  7. What are the colors in this paint set?
My Hand in Curious Motion

Yesterday, my Delight of the Day was listening to Lynda Barry on NPR'sTalk of the Nation. I was driving home from work and there she was. I've never heard of her before, but waited in the car until the interview was over.

Her new book is about doodling your way out of writer's block. She is sure that moving our hands to write or draw causes our brains to think in different ways than they do otherwise. It was one of the callers who inspired me.  A political cartoonist, he talked about getting his ideas from his "hand moving in curious motion."

When it was time to do art, I let my hand lead, doodling with a paintbrush.  My hand definitely moved in curious ways, making marks I would not have expected. That day's image continues to call to me.  I want to work with it more but decided to move on today because it feels like I need to live with it for a longer before I know what I want to do.

A Kiss and a Promise

Moving on made me remember a phrase my mother used when she felt that the house needed to be cleaned but we didn't have time. "Just give it a kiss and a promise," she would say, meaning that we would come back later to do a more thorough job.

It's a wonderful expression, especially for those of us who would like to be perfect. It's not that I'm doing a bad job. It's not that I'm abandoning my "need" for quality. Instead, I'm doing the best I can for now and moving forward with the intention of coming back.

The kiss is respect for the present moment; the promise is resolve to live in hope.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Love the One You Are (Art Every Day Month, Days 1-5)

I have been pondering why it is so hard for me to do the things I want to do and the things I know are good for me to do. I want to do them so why don't I? It seems like it should be effortless. Yet, I will do any number of things, frittering away my time and my life, rather than do those things I say I want to do (art, writing, meditation and exercise, to name a few).

On October 30, I screwed my courage to the sticking point and signed up for Art Every Day Month 2010. I have been thinking about it (and the monsters had been arguing against it) for weeks. One of my heroes is Leah Piken Kolidas, an artist who writes the Creative Every Day blog and who invented Art Every Day Month eight years ago. Her intention was to create some art every day for one month and post it on her blog. She invited others to join her. This year more than 100 people are participating. (I used her widget to sign up but I am not listed… More about that later.)

I used this as an excuse to get some new toys. I bought a watercolor paper notebook and a new tray of 48 watercolors.
Here is what I produced during the first five days of AEDM:


  1. There is the painting inspired by the abscission cells of the last post.
  2. Delight of the Day: bare twigs against the blue sky.
  3. Still delighting in the fall.
  4. This one was about colors and paint.
  5. I looked at the paint tray and used the colors I hadn't yet used.

Leah provides some very generous rules for AEDM, but I had to add some of my own.
  1. Keep things simple; make it easy.The reason I chose a watercolor tray with because it's easy to start and stop using it. I don't have to spend time getting things ready or cleaning them up. That's also why I put the materials right where I will see them when I come in the door.
  2. Allow beginner's mind. "Do you know what you're going to do?" asked one of my friends upon hearing my plans to participate in AEDM. No. I am purposely facing the blank page with no plan. As soon as I get home, I take the dog for a walk and then I come in and paint. Sometimes, I am inspired by what's outside. Other times, I have started with
  3. Attach a target behavior to a habit. I take the dog out every day, so I made a rule that I would meditate as soon as I got inside and make art right after that. So far, that is working, but here comes the weekend when my schedule goes wacky and I will need a plan...
  4. Don't compare. This is an old 12-step adage and one I need to hold close.I subscribe to Leah's e-mail feed and, after looking at her beautiful productions, the monsters started shouting about what a crappy artist I am.  I had to take a deep breath and continue on.
  5. Remember why. When I revisited Leah's website, I discovered that my name was not on a list of those participating. Foo! I wanted recognition. I wanted to be on that list with other people who make good art. But why? Am I doing this to impress? No. I make art to practice the creative process and learn from it and that's what I'm doing here. Remembering that, results and recognition become less important.
Dealing with the Monster Voices

I know I will spend significant time this month with the not-good-enough/why-bother monster voices as my companions. In case you haven't noticed, anyone can make art better than mine. There really is no earthly reason for me to continue this charade… Etc.

About that time, I started hearing (in my head) Crosby Stills and Nash singing "Love the One You're With."

Today, when I was scanning in my results and the monster voices were very loud, I successfully shut them up by looking at parts of the paintings.

For instance, the first day's painting (which I really don't like):

Became this:

And this:

And this:

Now those I like!

If I can't produce the art I love, I need to love the art I produce.




Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Letting Go: Another Lesson from the Rooted Ones? Maybe not...

This autumn,I have been fascinated by falling leaves because I know that my life is at a point where I need to shed some things I have been holding close. Chronic illness will do that to a person.I have spent my life experimenting with who I want to become. Now I am in a season of letting go of some of that.

I thought that, once again, I could  learn from the trees, but I've been struggling.

Leaves (and fruits and wilted blossoms) don't actually fall off trees; they are pushed.

Hormones, triggered by internal or external changes in the environment, cause the plant to create what are called "abscission cells." A layer of waxy material forms nearest to the stem to protect it. On the leaf side, a bumpy line of cells forms to push the leaf, bit by bit, away from the rest of the plant.

{Pretty, hunh? It makes me want to paint. If I do, I'll post it.}

Flashback: I am 16 years old, sitting on a plane next to my mother, who is reading a book by Lafcadio Hearn. We are returning to the States after 10 months living in Jamaica. It has been an awful/wonderful/transformative year for me. I read this:

"When you pick a branch, the tree springs back into place. The same is not true of the heart's affections."

(I have been unable to Google the quote… Is the memory fiction?)

Part of me wants to emulate trees and falling leaves:  How do I protect my core while I gradually push away what needs to drop?

Part of me insists on my humanity: change may hurt. To be fully human, I want to feel the hurt and loss and grief and incorporate it into my forward movement.

Let me get less esoteric. For many years, I have been driving half an hour to attend a church. Over the last year, my arms have been getting weaker and driving has been getting more dangerous. Getting rides is possible, but inconvenient and time-and-energy-consuming. During the last month, I've been making connections at a church 5 minutes drive from where I live. (On a nice summer day, I might even get there in my wheelchair.) It makes sense to change churches.

When I imagine staying at the "old" church, I feel tired and heavy. When I imagine switching to the "new" church, I feel relieved and free, but my heart hurts.

When we moved from California to Minnesota, my then seven-year-old daughter, Alexis, said, "we will never have all of the people we love in the same place at the same time."

She was right, of course. Moving on is a condition of creatures, not of trees. We leave things behind. If we are conscious, it hurts.

Alexis was right: we never have all of the people we love in the same place at the same time. But we learn, as we age, to carry the love with us and within us.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lessons from a Sumac Leaf

"I don't like change," said the man in the meeting. "Nobody does." Around the room, people nodded.

I beg to differ. I do like change. Maybe this is a defense against living in an unpredictable body. Maybe it's a generational thing. Who knows? Luckily, it turns out, in these postmodern times, to be a strength.

Delight of the Day

Lately, I have given myself an assignment: to identify my "delight of the day." That is, some small thing that makes me smile. Often, it is something I notice while I'm taking the dog for a walk. One morning I saw dew clinging to spiderwebs. Another day, it was the contrast of black-purple wild grapes against yellow leaves. Today, it was the green and red veins in a sumac leaf.

After a month or so of choosing delights, I decided to combine it with a creative experiment: to give a creative response. I have been singing back to frogs and waving my arms at birds. Today my response to the sumac leaf was this:

Changing Colors

In addition to playing with the patterns on the leaf, I reminded myself how leaves change color in the fall. Colder weather and shorter days lead the tree to shut down production of chlorophyll. For some trees, this reveals the color already in the leaf. The red and purple leaves (like those of the sumac) are created through a chemical reaction turning the stored chlorophyll into anthocyanin. The shade is affected by the pH level of the soil.

So we have this being subject to changes beyond its control. In response, it stops what it has been doing, takes the resources available and creates something new.  The result is a blend of old and new, influenced by the environment in which the being grows.

Lessons for Humans

Although I like the possibilities change invites, I don't always enter into change gracefully. The sumac can teach me:
  • Differences in my environment are invitations to change.
  • Recognizing those differences puts me in a place of choice.
  • Now might be a good time to stop what I have been doing and identify my resources.
  • Can I use the same resources and do something different with them?
  • The new may be very different from the old. (The greens and reds of the sumac leaf are opposites on the color wheel.) Still, they can coexist.
  • The processes and products I create may be different from the ones others' create. That's okay.
  • The processes and products I create may be different from one another and from those I've created in the past. That's okay too.
Human brains sometimes find change disconcerting and scary. When we remember that it--and we--are part of the Divine Pattern, we can take deep breaths, slow down and learn from the rooted ones.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Trust:: Empty can be complete.

drawing of roots
Deep breaths

Soft belly

assistive software is puzzled by poetry.
Where is the context?
What is that sentence?
Trying to make space,
trying to move slowly
causes my software to stumble

New challenge:

surrender (at least sometimes) to the hidden gifts of disability:




don't let the tools they give me seduce me into their world of




Empty can be complete.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Trust: Needing Roots

The other day, I did a creative experiment: Make marks showing what happens when you try to trust the divine.

painting of my trust in the divine

My consciousness is in green. I start out steadily enough, then I get distracted by the sparkly popping things in the air and head towards them. I am trusting-trusting-trusting and then the air gets so thin and the sparkly things so thick that suddenly I realize I'm not trusting and I fall to earth. Icarus, anyone?

I looked again at the image. "Shallow roots, that's my problem," I thought.

tree photoI went on a riverboat ride and was entranced by the trees along the bank with their roots exposed. The water had taken the soil away from these glorious tangles but they were clearly still doing their jobs: the trees stood straight and tall, reaching toward the sun.

Wondering about roots, I read

The root system of a tree performs many vital functions. In winter, it is a store-house for essential food reserves needed by the tree to produce spring foliage. Roots absorb and transport water and minerals from the soil to the rest of the tree. Roots also anchor the portion of the tree above ground. It is important to keep the portion above ground healthy to ensure an adequate food supply for the roots to continue their important functions.

Something to absorb and transport nutrients sounds like just what I need. But how do I keep the portion above ground healthy?

More reading:
  1. Room to grow
  2. Steady temperature
  3. Adequate water
  4. Adequate light
  5. Proper nutrients

Aha! After last month's post on finding purpose, I have been paying attention to who I am. It seems I ought not be fighting that, not my time of life. So how does a bookish introvert serve? I hope by learning and thinking and putting it together and sharing it with others. It's all I can think to do, though it isn't full of sparkly poppings.

Here is what arrived;


(The first time I thought this through, the "physical" column was missing. I have enjoyed some thought-spinning over whether this is defensive—due to physical disability—or whether being oblivious to physical needs contributed to illness, or both.)

This list can guide my exploration of the idea of trust.

Until next time, I will be experimenting with the idea of "room to grow."

See why I like making art? It's like a doorway to a secret garden.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Trust: On Finding Purpose

The people I most admire live lives of creative and joyful service. From my outside perspective, their backgrounds seem to prepare them, their choices seem to be obvious (though not easy), their strength seems to be unwavering. How do they do it?

In the last two weeks, I felt myself moving beyond the theme of hope. There were several experiences and ideas blending in my mind. They distilled into a dream.

In the dream, I am attending a rehearsal of a community orchestra. I'm excited about the work these people are doing and want to be a part of it. I am keenly feeling the loss of no longer being able to play the viola (due to disability). Maybe, I think, I can volunteer to do some graphic arts for them. That's something I can still do on the computer. Mulling this over, I wheel out into an alley to get my van and go home. The van has been stripped—really stripped. All of the body covering (fiberglass?) has been removed and only the frame remains. The seats and everything inside the van has been removed. The wheelchair ramp is standing open. I wheel inside and try to start the car, but the battery has been stolen so the car is dead. First, I think about calling my husband. Then, I realize I should call the police to report the crime. I wake up with my heart pounding and a feeling of panic.

My biggest fear is becoming useless. I worry about how long I will be able to continue driving safely (answer: not long). I worry about how long I will be able to keep my job. I worry about when I will need to move into a facility.

I believe this dream is about that fear. Drawing me into that orchestra is beauty and community, but I can't make the same contribution I would have made earlier in life. I try to compensate (and feel proud of myself for doing so), but my ambitions are derailed by a reminder of my complete dependence on others...even on strangers. The dream is a nightmare because of my emotional response to it.

Therein lies the lesson. The initial situation in the dream is entirely realistic; it could happen. The stripped van is a dreamlike extreme, but it is true that, like Blanche Dubois, I must rely on the kindness of strangers. What I need to do is get beyond my panicked response to the facts. In the end, this dream is about trust. Only trust can assuage my fears.

My new theme is trust.

This week I was fortunate enough to hear Alexie Torres-Fleming speak. (You can get a taste of her by watching her on YouTube.) She talked, among other things, about how the American definition of success (which she initially accepted and accomplished) turned out not fit for her. I was impressed by her ability to discern and follow her inner voice (God). When I accused her of having an unusually articulate and specific God, she responded that we all do if we get past our fears and learn to listen. She also pointed out that, while her mission may not be my mission, we both have one. I was reminded of Marianne Williamson:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." (A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles", Harper Collins, 1992. From Chapter 7, Section 3])

I originally thought this post would be called "body of work." My artwork has taken a turn lately: I am illustrating other people's words by repurposing and recombining earlier paintings with new electronic illustrations. Having created a dozen or so of these new pieces, I realize that I am creating a new body of work. When I first started to take myself seriously as an artist (something I no longer do), I remember struggling to produce a "body of work."

"Galleries and art buyers want an artist to have a body of work to show that they can consistently produce art that is distinctive and of a predictable, suitable quality." (Art glossary,

I despaired of making work that was distinctive and predictable. A mentor helped me by listing for me all the commonalities she saw in different pieces I had created. She was able to see how my work was distinctive and predictable when I was not.

I think my heroes' lives may also be less distinctive and predictable when viewed from the interior.

If I trust what I heard from Alexie Torres-Fleming, I realize I am being called to create a new body of work in my life as well as in my art. As my subconscious has warned me, my old way of being will no longer be possible. My ideas for what to do instead may not be the right ones. I need to begin by letting go of my fierce—and false—independence. I need to begin with trust.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Choosing Hope

I have been exploring other people's notions of hope. Two quotes have been dancing in my mind the last few days. Christopher Reeve said, " Once you choose hope, anything's possible." Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote, " The road that is built in hope is more pleasant to the traveler than the road built in despair, even though they both lead to the same destination."

After actor Christopher Reeve became quadriplegic in 1995, he used his fame to advocate for research that would lead to a cure for paralysis. I am ashamed to admit I was disappointed with his choice. I thought he might champion physical and social accessibility for people with disabilities. (At that point in my life, I had begun to use a cane to walk short distances and a scooter to travel longer ones.) I thought his determination to walk again was an unrealistic waste of time. Now I see it differently. He was practicing choosing Hope.

Until recently I thought I didn't “do hope." My interaction with Julie Neraas, author of Apprenticed to Hope has transformed my thinking. She has helped me understand hope as (among other things) a belief that, in the end, things will be all right. I recognize that moments of that belief have carried me forward through my messy life. Reaching for those moments is the underlying purpose of my insistence on practicing life as a creative process. Surprise: I do hope.

I don't, however, do it well. Zimmer Bradley is pointing out that our future is unknowable and beyond our control. Our road will lead where our road leads. As we travel we can choose our attitude: we can choose hope or despair. I spend way too much time in the unpleasantness of despair.

Can I get better at choosing Hope?

Any parent with school-aged children knows that spring is concert season. In the last week, I have been to two middle school music concerts. They have reminded me how we go about learning and improving skills.

  1. We observe as other people demonstrate. Reading about hope, hearing other people talk about their hope and watching as others live in hope gives me that opportunity.

  2. We break the whole into small, more manageable, parts. What are the pieces of choosing Hope?

    • Choose to choose. When I was a young psychology student, I tripped over the idea that I could choose my emotions. My feelings seem to jump out at me randomly from dark corners. (Yes, part of the problem was that I was shoving my feelings into dark corners.) I couldn't imagine having any control over my emotions. Then I discovered Rational Emotive Therapy and the idea that what I was thinking gave rise to what I felt. Even though my first thought was an unconsidered reaction, I realized I could choose a different thought to replace it. Despite my instinct toward despair, I can practice thinking toward hope.

    • Look for the good. Speaking of middle school music programs, one of my junior high choir directors told us "the pony joke," with the punchline "with all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere." (If you haven't heard the joke, you can find it here.) I've returned to the story many times since. Finding the good in every situation—while admitting what could be the horrible realities of it—can help me choose hope.

    • Choose as an individual. I was a viola player between the ages of eight and 30. I was lucky enough to want to play and, though I'm sure my parents reminded me to practice, I don't remember putting up much resistance. I was playing for the sake of playing, because I enjoyed it and not to get anywhere in particular. Similarly, if I choose hope because I want to practice choosing hope, I will be more likely to do it. Attachment to results will not serve me well.

    • Choose in community. I have to make the choice myself, but I am not alone. Julie Neraas writes and speaks of hope as a communal effort. When I can't find hope, there may be others who can hold it for me. In turn, I may be able to offer hope to others when they lose it.

  3. Having broken the whole into parts, we choose one part and do it slowly so our bodies (or, in this case, our minds) can get the hang of it. If something is difficult, we do it more often. Eventually, we become more fluid.

  4. Practice practice practice. One of my least favorite sayings is "practice makes perfect." Even if things become easy, we keep practicing. Explore the nuances. Add variations. Practice to practice, without attachment to a perfect product.

One more quote: Chinese author Lin Yutang wrote, "Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence."

It's time I made my own hope road.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Attracting hope (in which I go too far with the dove metaphor)

"I hope you remain in good spirits," wrote my friend in the last line of his e-mail. "Ha!" my monster-mind replied. "In order to remain in good spirits I have to be in good spirits in the first place. How long has it been since I've felt in good spirits?" Okay, monster, let's dance.

The free dictionary defines in good spirits as "without losing equilibrium." We use the expression when we are talking about getting over a health challenge or relationship difficulty.

But what are good spirits? I dodged the alcohol and ghost-related Google results, spent some time remembering my experience with positional vertigo during bedrest and finally connected "good spirits" with the best spirit: the Holy Spirit. Pentecost Sunday this year is May 23, 2010. Pentecost is one of my favorite Christian traditions. We tell the story of Jesus' apostles gathered together following the execution of their leader. "Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind. It filled the house where they were meeting. Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak." (Acts 2:1-4)

The Pentecost story is an answer to the question: how do you keep going when it looks like everything is lost?

The answer: the Holy Spirit, something mysterious enough that it sends us traipsing back to the Holy One to say, "hunh?" Now we are in conversation with—in relationship with—God, which is just where God wants us.

I grew up in church with stained glass windows that included a depiction of the Spirit descending like a dove. I am wrestling with the concept of hope this summer, at the invitation of my present church, which is studying the book Apprenticed to Hope. My initial (monsterish) response is that "I don't do hope." The author and my church companions are slowly opening me to the possibility. The dove is also used as a metaphor for hope, thanks to the story of Noah's released dove returning with an olive branch in its mouth.

I decided to see what I could learn by playing with the metaphor of the dove.

How do I await the Holy Spirit? How do I invite hope?

How do I attract doves?

It turns out, according to the folks at the University of Georgia, to be fairly simple. Doves want food and water. They nest in piles of twigs (sometimes in low bushes, sometimes on the ground), but they're willing to travel distances to get what they want. Even if my heart is not the perfect habitat for the Spirit, it's willing to find me and able to put up with a less than perfect host..

Doves like to drink water, that common substance that covers 70% of the world's surface. Yay! I'm common. I also am embarrassed to admit that I didn't quite know what water does for a biological creature. It turns out that our bodies need water to regulate temperature, provide the means for nutrients to travel to our cells, remove waste, and protect our joints and organs.

I can translate those functions into a list of spiritual disciplines. A practice of meditation helps me regulate the extremes. Participating in community and worship allows nutrients to travel to where they are needed. Confession removes spiritual sludge. Practicing the presence of God (prayer) helps protect my functioning parts.

This is where the monster raises its ugly head to say, "Practices! You're no good at practicing. You do great for three days and then you go back to your old nasty habits. That little bird is gonna die of dehydration in no time." Sigh.

painting of MilletDoves like to eat millet, a general term for small-seeded grasses grown in difficult production environments. Yay again! My soul is absolutely a "difficult production environment." Rather than spending hours cooking sumptuous dinners for these little birds, I can find some tiny seeds to scatter that might attract them.

If these practices seem like hard to crack, huge sunflower seeds, what would be millet?

Just for today I can:

  • Pray the Lord's prayer (worship, supplication, confession and practicing the presence in one convenient package)

  • Have a quiet time of meditation—even if it's only two minutes.

  • Call a friend.

Later this week, I can go to church.

What would happen if I lived each day as an invitation to hope and the Holy Spirit?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Repurposing Art and Life

I am in the midst of an art experiment and loving it. I was asked to find artists to show their work in our church’s small gallery between May and August. Our theme this summer (not chosen by me) is hope. I was unable to find anyone to use the gallery in May. A couple weeks ago, I decided to do it myself.

For my series on hope, I developed the following experiment:

Creative ExperIment

Google a word or concept you love (or resist?),
followed by the word "quotes."

Choose your favorite quotes and
respond with art.

(My results)

In addition to the time crunch, I'm getting used to a new level of disability. I am able to use my hands much less skillfully these days. Painting is a huge energy commitment because of the physical work involved to get materials out and put them away. In the last year or so, I scanned my art every time I painted. Sometimes I would paint something simple just for scanning and using later. Now I have a library of scans.

This feels like cheating. I'm not starting from a blank page, but it is my art. I'm not cheating, I'm collaborating with myself. I'm repurposing.

Repurposing. There is a word that was not in my father's (extensive) vocabulary. defines it as “To use or convert for use in another format or product: repurposed the book as a compact disk.” Most references to it seemed to involve home decorating or ingenious use of everyday things.

In my last post, I wrote about my need to reinvent myself. Repurposing my art has been so much fun, I wondered if I could draw lessons from it to repurpose my life.

  1. Necessity is the mother...

    I wouldn't be making these pieces of art unless I needed to do so. Having a purpose and, frankly, being pressed for time motivated me to action. When it comes to reinventing myself, I can leave things as they are while I struggle or I can make changes that will make my life easier and happier. Gently reminding myself of the pain of inaction and the rewards of change may help motivate me.

  2. Be inspired by others.

    I subscribe to Hugh MacLeod's Gaping Void cartoon series. His interplays of words and lines delight me. It was his work that inspired me to combine words, paint and electronic illustration for the series. Paying attention to how others create and re-create themselves may exhilarate my own efforts.

  3. Keep the best parts.

    The quote reminds me of a scan I have available. I open the file, choose the part of the piece that is calling to me and copy it into a new file. Textures and hues in the painting (intentional or accidental) that attract me. Parts I don't like so much, I leave behind. What chunks of my life grab me? What slices do I want to discontinue?

  4. Add something new.

    Existing material may form the backdrop of the new work, but it's only a start. To say something new, I add something new. I can add focus by illustrating an image. Similarly, there may be something I can add to my life that will bring everything around it into a whole, will become a point of convergence.

  5. Adapt as needed.

    I often make changes to the backdrop or older illustrations as I repurpose them. I adjust lines (the woman walking on the road in the Lin Yutang quotation was once dancing to a Hebrew Psalm). I duplicate and darken layers. I make changes to add meaning. Parts of my life (some of them dear to me) must be left behind. What changes can I make that will deepen my experience?

  6. Be prepared to undo.

    Sometimes, when I'm drawing, my hand spasms and the line goes wild. When I am using the computer, I can use command (or control) Z to undo my last move. Thank goodness! I am getting used to using many “undo” commands as I work. How much easier things would be if I lived my life the same way, if I forgave myself mistakes, backed up a step and moved ahead.

  7. Share it.

    The “Hope Quotes” series will hang in the North Como Presbyterian Church Gallery of Gifts in May. Pieces will be added as the series expands. In writing and visual art, sharing my work with others is an important part of my process. Often, in "real life" I withdraw into my shy place. (This happens less often as I age.) I need to remember that living out loud is one way I can contribute to the human community.

It may not be as unexpected and clever as using rain gutters to corral cables, but reinventing—and repurposing—may keep my life doable and entertaining.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Eight Things to do instead of giving up

In the last few weeks, I have come very close to giving up. Completely. Turn my face to the wall and wait to die. I have managed to change my mind, but it has taken work.

It was a tough winter. I spent the first week of December in the hospital and the following six weeks in a transitional care facility. (My family would later refer to it as "that place.") For most of that time, I couldn't do anything but lie there. No computer. No Internet access. I made a couple tortured drawings. Once home, I was visited by nurses three times a week. I was allowed out of the house for three things: doctor visits, church, and "the beauty parlor." While I was in that place, I thought of nothing but healing enough to get out of it. At home, I was surrounded by bits of my old life, but I didn't have energy or physical ability to take advantage of most of them…hence the impulse to give up.

Here's what saved me:

    1. Focus on one small thing that fills your heart.

      I went to a concert. (It was at a church... so I didn't even have to feel guilty about leaving the house There was one moment where the sound I was hearing was so wonderful that there was no room for anything else in my world—no room for any physical or emotional discomfort. There was only beauty. I thought: "Moments like this. Life is worth living for moments like this."

    2. Return to the present moment.

      I don't know how much of my former ability and energy will return. It is easy for me to get lost in worries about the future. That moment at the concert lifted me because I was nowhere else but the present moment. Pretending that the past and future exist is a game with very limited use. I've been writing for years about “making an internal gesture.” I finally know what I mean: paying attention to sensory information and leaving behind my mind chatter so that I am in the NOW.

    3. Feel the blessing.

      If someone else points out that there are people who have it much worse, I have to restrain my violent tendencies. Sometimes, though, I am reminded of these things naturally. For example, one of the pieces in the Global Harmony concert was about a Southeast Asian family fleeing violence. Hearing others' stories, I understand that—all things considered—I am blessed. When I feel that blessing, I want to go on.

    4. Go mad.

      In Douglas Adams book, Life, the Universe and Everything, hero Arthur Dent decides how to cope with being stranded on prehistoric Earth. He gets up one morning and announces "I will go mad!" After a particularly difficult day in my at-home recovery, I remembered Arthur’s coping mechanism and decided to try it. I had been thinking about things too realistically. I have an incurable disease and it's getting worse, hence: despair. Ruth Gordon said, "Never give up. And never, under any circumstances, face the facts.” In order for me not to give up I will have to ignore the facts. I will have to lose touch with reality. I must go mad.

    5. Spend time with a friend…the right kind of friend.

      I went to lunch with a friend and afterward felt much better. Not any friend would have left me feeling encouraged. My friend talked honestly of the difficulties in her life and how she copes with them. She is a 12-stepper and, as such, reminds me of the tools that come with that outlook on life. She is a deeply religious woman and the strength of her faith became a sort of splint for my own brokenness. Time with a good friend puts me back on the path to healing.

    6. Learn something new.

      I received an invitation to a free webinar. It was a subject in which I had only mild interest, but free is free and I had time. I listened to the webinar and took some follow-up video lessons. The subject matter had nothing to do with illness or medicine, so it was a nice change of pace. Absorbing information used my brain in a different way than when I am caught up in the emotions or tasks of dealing with my difficulties. In the book, Nation, Terry Pratchett's characters are recovering from a tsunami. One boy thinks about needing a "thin silver line" to draw him into the future. Learning something new is a thin silver line for me.

    7. Reinvent yourself.

      Having a major disruption in my usual schedule brings with it opportunity. I can reinvent myself. What is important to me? What gives me energy? What helps me move toward life? As I add activities into my life, I can choose which to reclaim and which to leave behind.

    8. Look for reasons not to give up.

      I started writing two weeks ago with five reasons not to give up. Because I was thinking about it, additional reasons have been jumping up and down, waving their arms and asking to be included. This has been fun and moments of fun, well, there's another reason not to give up.