Timeout for Art: Studio Time

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Yesterday, I came home from work filled with determination. I would not look at the dust or clutter that begs for my time. I would not respond to the stacks of papers on my desk that demand my attention. I would not even turn on the computer, for fear that I’d be drawn in to the latest firestorm of tweets and the legions indignant responses.

First, I took the dogs out for a good wander. No matter what my plans, they need fresh air and exercise. Next, I started supper. This new diet takes more time and thought than I am accustomed to. Bachelor living has made me content with meals that dirty no more than one pan, and can be served in one dish. Hot, buttered noodles, cold cereal with milk or fried potatoes and onions are my old stand-bys. Now, they are all off limits. Last night I mixed ground beef with chopped celery, onion and a grated carrot, and mounded it into two halved bell peppers, covered it with stewed tomatoes, and popped it in the oven. It would be dinner, plus lunches for the next three days. I fed the dogs. While they were eating, I changed out of my work clothes and into the baggy sweats that are stiff with old paint.

Then, up the stairs to the studio! I transferred one large and four small framed painting to the closet in my bedroom, so I would have room to move. I pulled out painted papers. I sifted through bins and bowls full of scraps. I started shuffling things around. I felt myself grinning. The time flew by.

After dinner, I went back upstairs, to make a few adjustments and take a couple pictures. Nothing is attached, at this point. This is not finished work. What it is – and it’s important – are results of the first day in months that I have taken time to work in the studio. That, alone, is a gift!

Artifacts to Memories: Mom’s Old Typewriter

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[This is a re-post of a blog I wrote several years ago. It feels like cheating, but it suits the category perfectly. And I’m so, so busy with other writing today. My apologies.]

I don’t know when Mom got the old Royal Typewriter. It was new – or nearly new – in my earliest memories of it. Perhaps it had belonged to her mother, and came into our home around the time Grandma Thelma died. Maybe Mom invested in it – as she did the large set of encyclopedias – to enhance the scholastic ability of her children. I don’t think Mom knew how to type, but I guess I’m not sure about that, either. I think it originally had a hard case that fit over the top and fastened on the bottom, to protect the keys and keep it dust-free. The typewriter was an important, revered object in our house.

As I think about it, very few objects in our chaotic household were given that status. Mom raised nine children of her own, and always had many more around. She fully expected that “kids will be kids.” That meant that dishes will get broken, toys will be destroyed, clothes will get stained and furniture will take a beating. Expect it, and learn to live with it. Except for those things that Mom set aside as precious, that were to be handled more cautiously, and treated with love.

Mom’s list was not long: the cedar chest that she’d received from her parents at the occasion of her high school graduation…along with the treasures and memories she kept inside it; books in general, and especially the encyclopedias, which had to be handled carefully, dusted regularly, and always kept in alphabetical order; the good china, which was never used, and the frosted iced tea glasses that had belonged to her mother; the nativity set that was put out at Christmastime and handled so carefully that the straw was still intact on top of the stable and the music box still worked for her great-grandchildren to hear. And the typewriter.

When we came home from school with a “really big research assignment”, we could use the typewriter for the final draft. If we had an important letter to write, the typewriter could be brought to the desk. If we had absolutely run out of options for keeping small children entertained, we could sometimes pull out the typewriter to show them the “magic” of their names appearing on the paper, the sound of the bell alerting them that it was time for their job: using the silver arm to push the carriage back over to the left. Always, the typewriter eraser was close at hand. By the time we got to high school and actually took typing classes, the biggest problem was forgetting the “hunt and peck” method of typing we’d grown so familiar with.

My mother gave me the typewriter when I was a graduate student at Michigan State University. By that time – the late ’80’s – her children were all adults, and the machine sat idle. Though a manual typewriter seemed pretty archaic, it was a godsend to me! The only word processor available  for my use – for the multitude of papers that had to be typed – was at the library, a mile from our apartment, with – often – a long list of students in line to use it. I was a single mother with a full load of classes, and no car. Having the typewriter allowed me to be at home with my daughters in the evenings. Many nights they fell asleep to the sound of me pounding on the typewriter keys, cursing as I reached for the Wite-Out. I still have several papers written during that time, with the characteristic shading from many corrections.

I made cookbooks for my daughters one Christmas many years ago. The opening page says “so that Jenny and Katey can have the food they grew up with, even when ‘Home’ is far from their Mom’s kitchen”. My methods were ancient by today’s standards. I gathered photographs and had them enlarged and/or cropped as needed. I used rub on Chartpak letters to make the chapter pages. I typed all the recipes on Mom’s old Royal Typewriter. A dozen hours over the course of several days and a couple hundred dollars at Kinko’s,and I was done. That was the last big job for the typewriter.

The machine sat unused after that. Over the years, I moved it from the shelf to the attic to the storage unit. I almost forgot about it. Then things changed:

First, my mother died. Which caused me to reassess everything. Caused me to look with new eyes at everyone and everything she loved. Caused me to cherish everything she had cared about, and everything she had given me.

Next, I saw a lovely room in an art magazine where a typewriter was used for making gift tags, and had a place of honor on the desk.Then, I saw a piece on a news program about a typewriter repair person who is enjoying a resurgence of interest in the old machines. Last, I reorganized shelves and books to accommodate a new drawer unit, and ended up with one empty shelf.

Now, Mom’s old typewriter sits with dignity among the cookbooks on my kitchen shelf.

Sunday, Sunday…

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“Get right up and take a walk first thing,” I told myself, when I finally felt ready for sleep last night. Greeted with this icy landscape this morning, I decided to wait.  I’ve been struggling with lethargy and sadness for a week now; time to turn it around. I’ve tried to find the problem.

It’s winter; the sun rarely shows itself through the mass of gray clouds that seem to have come to stay. It’s been bitter cold, and windy, making it impossible to spend much time outside. Inside, my house is drafty, too. Though I have a thick rug underfoot, I also put on heavy slippers and wrap in a fleece robe if I’m going to sit for more than just a minute at the desk. In fact, no matter where in the house I am, or what I am doing, I am generally trying to function while wrapped in many layers.

Politics, I can’t even begin. Every day, another bitter encounter, another strange and fearful turn of events. I can’t stop watching and listening, but I feel like it’s the same thing that makes it almost impossible to look away from a train wreck.

I’ve had a big project going at the hardware store, that has left me exhausted by the time I get home in the evening. I feel like I should be getting big applause for the positive changes in organization and cleaning that is going on in the electrical aisle. I spend too much energy trying to elicit notice, let alone a compliment!

One of my co-workers is still mad at me over a scheduling conflict, and that weighs on my mind. I fill out the schedule. I don’t get paid extra for doing it, and I don’t have a lot of control over it. I basically just fill it out as I’m told. Except that if we’re overstaffed or understaffed, I have to account for it. And, in trying to please everyone else, I usually end up with the least desirable hours. What other hardware employee works every single Saturday and Sunday, almost all year long?  Only me. The one who writes the schedule. Still, I hate it when people are mad at me. I tell myself I’m just doing my job, and it will all blow over. That doesn’t seem to be happening.

I have a pile of work to do for the Beacon, which seems to fill every single nook and cranny of my life with obligations, must-dos and should-dos, until I just shut down. Up-dating the database is a continual chore. I have bills to send out, and others to collect. There are phone calls to return, letters to answer and work to edit. There is always some event I should be attending, in order to cover the story. Right now, I have a full issue of articles to write, that should have been done two weeks ago. So, again, I am running late, with no one to blame but myself.

We are halfway through the month of January. There are all those pesky new resolutions to be assessed. I have managed to stick to my diet, though it takes a lot more thought and preparation than I’m used to. It seems that I spend way too much time planning meals and cooking. I always have a mound of dishes waiting at the end of day. I have lost a solid three pounds, though one day last week the scale showed I’d lost five. It hardly seems like enough, for all the trouble. Still, it’s one minor accomplishment in a field of disappointment. Studio time, daily walking, three times a week for strength training or stretching, organize…one failed promise after another.

I came home from work the other day, and immediately called a friend. I started to tell her about my mood. “I cried all the way home from work, too,” she told me. We commiserated about the stages of the moon, planetary alignments, losses we’ve suffered and all the “shit” going on in each of our lives. None of it really explained the sadness. It’s hard for me to tell if events caused my melancholy, or if those were just reasons I came up with to account for it. I sent her a message a few hours later. “It’s Friday the 13th,” I said. “Figures,” she replied.

I’ve walked this path, though, a few times before. I know what to do. I warm my clothes in the dryer before getting dressed. I  layer fleecy sweats over soft jersey long underwear. I choose the bright pink, soft and cozy socks with stars that were a gift from my friend, Bob. For my coffee, I select the delicate cup with blackberries on it that my friend Sue gave to me. I grab my journal and go to the couch. I invite both dogs to join me there. Only when the time is right, I move to the computer desk. Soon, we’ll get out for that walk. Everything will be okay.

Timeout for Art: Kate’s Work

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My daughter, Kate, made a New Year’s resolution to spend some time with her art each day. A working nurse, a mother of four (two teenagers and two young adults), a devoted grandmother, and a tattoo artist who travels from Michigan to South Carolina regularly for work…this was a huge commitment! And yet, she is doing it. Every other day or so, I see a beautiful new drawing. She has covered, as you see here, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Gene Wilder as Young Frankenstein, and David Bowie at his sexiest. She has others, each one more precious than the last. I’m pleased to be able to show them off, for a couple reasons. First, because she’s very skilled, and I’m extremely proud of her. Second, because I still have nothing new of my own to show!

Artifacts to Memories: Books, Bookstores, and E.B.White

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My dear friend, Mary Blocksma, has started a year-long memoir-writing project, and has generously invited others to join in.

I admire Mary’s abilities as a writer. Her background of writing scholastic literature, as well as her sense of fun, make her children’s books some of the very best. An education in library science and research shows itself gracefully – alongside her love of nature – in books about the flora and fauna of forests and shorelines. Her ability to put words together – in poetry or creative writing – often takes my breath away. Mary is also a skilled teacher and editor. This was an opportunity I could not pass up!

The method Mary is using for pulling out and writing about a lifetime of memories is genius: she uses objects collected or saved throughout her life as a jumping-off point. As a fellow “saver” (I shy away from saying “hoarder”) I know that objects are saved for the life events and heart-strings attached to them. Why not use them, then, for the memories that they hold? So, that is the premise.

Mary is calling her excavation “My Life as a Dig,” and has already, in this new year, written several lovely essays. I am planning to devote one of my writing days each week to the project, under the title “Artifacts to Memories.” And here I go!

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I was a twenty-four year old “re-entry” college student, already a wife and the mother of two young daughters, when I first entered a good bookstore. My friend Linda and I had driven off the campus of Mott Community College during a break between classes. Downtown Flint, Michigan was an exciting and welcoming place in the mid-seventies. Interesting shops and little galleries were tucked in among novel restaurants and bars. We were on our way to Hat’s Pub for lunch. Their julienne salad was a lovely mound of matchstick sliced vegetables, meats and cheeses; vegetarian pizza was piled high with alfalfa sprouts; the bohemian atmosphere of the place was always fun.

Walking from the parking lot to the pub, we came upon a little corner bookstore: Young & Welchan’s. We might have missed it, if it weren’t for the stacks of books organized in neat piles and rows on tables on either side of the door. Beautiful books! Hardcover books! Brand new! With price tags that stunned me: $2.95; $4.95; ninety-nine cents! As a student, I was spending a great deal of money each semester on textbooks; I was haunting the campus library for other required reading. As a fairly new (proud) member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, I knew the value of a hardcover book! I had never come upon “remaindered” books before. This was amazing!

There, like a gift from the heavens, was E.B.White. My English teacher had just been reading excerpts of his work! She had been glorifying him as “comparible to Henry David Thoreau,” and “one of the finest essayists of the 20th century!” And right here, in front of me, were Poems and Sketches of E.B.White and Essays of E.B.White…priced at $3.99 each. Even with my meager budget, I could manage that! I bought both books. That was the beginning.

Those two books were the start of a lifetime of accumulating books. I have a section on my shelves for E.B.White, others for Maxine Hong Kingston, Evan S. Connell and Annie Dillard. They sit among treasured individual books of essays or poetry. I have a nice selection of books on paring-down, cleaning-up, organization and simplification. I don’t believe any of that information applies to books!

E.B.White became – and still holds the position of – one of my most treasured writers. I have read, I think, everything he has written at least twice. His essays about life on a saltwater farm in rural Maine influenced my thoughts on farming, gardening and rural life. “Death of a Pig” is one of my read-aloud favorites. Without E.B.White, I doubt I would have ever ended up out in the country with a big garden, on Beaver Island!

Young & Welchan’s became the first “favorite bookstore” in my life. It taught me what to look for, in a good bookstore. There should be a wide range of books on many subjects, organized so that it’s easy to find an area of interest, and a literate staff to assist when needed. There should be benches and comfortable chairs for browsing…and browsing should not be discouraged. There should be coffee. And the entrance should always have neat piles and rows of good books at amazing prices…to welcome the uninitiated.

 

Life Goes On

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I have a lot of writing to do today.

First, this writing, because Sunday is one of the three days a week I committed to writing a blog in this new year  This is a pleasure! Have I mentioned how much I miss daily writing? Though it took time and energy that could have well been spent in other (sorely neglected) areas of my life, and it was time to take a pause, I enjoyed having a forum to voice my opinions, complaints and random thoughts on a daily basis. I find myself, now, thinking in sentences and workable paragraphs, as if my thoughts and actions are only legitimate if I could write them down. That, alone, tells me I need a break!

I also have writing to do for work. Today – a day off now that hours at the hardware have been cut for the winter months – is the day I promised my daughter that I would finish all the stories and articles we need to complete the next issue of the Beacon. That will allow her to finish putting it together (in stolen hours that she ekes out for me between other jobs and obligations) so that we can go to press. At that point, we are still two to three weeks away from having the issue out. And, as usual, we are behind schedule. So, my day’s focus is set.

As is often the case, when outside forces determine the scope of my day, my mind rebels. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking of all the things I would rather do today. I was quick to label each of them (and there were many!) with “should”s and “ought to”s and “really need to”s to reinforce my argument. I’m great at that! What helps is that all of it is true: my house could use a deep cleaning; the studio needs work; I should be getting things done in the studio; I should exercise…or at least get the big dog out for a walk; the list goes on and on.

Next, I play through all of my grievances. Though we’ve been putting many hours and a lot of energy into sending out bills (“Time that could be better spent covering events…or writing,”I tell myself), the return is often slow, and not sufficient. I have still not collected enough to repay the money I borrowed to cover the printing costs two issues ago! I have not been able to reimburse myself for more than a fraction of my continual contribution to keeping this publication alive.

Still, there are always – usually legitimate – complaints: not enough news; too little sports coverage; not enough politics. Yesterday, someone made a comment to someone – who then came and told me – that I’m not getting the Beacon out in a timely fashion. This, along with every single negative comment, plays on my mind and robs me of energy. Tell me something positive, and I will write it off a trivial; tell me something I could improve upon, and I will treat it like gospel, and worry over it for weeks. I’m terrific at that!

Next, my body rebels. First, after my midnight sojourn with procrastination tactics, grievance and complaints, I overslept. I woke up with a headache, stiff muscles and a sore back. “I am in no shape to be sitting at that desk all day,” I told myself, “I should be resting.” Finding reasons why work is impossible: I’m pretty good at that, too.

What I am not great at is just knuckling down to the task at hand. That is what I have to do!