When I’m Not Making Art

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When I’m not making art…

Well, yes, sometimes I am trolling the news channels, to see what next is going on in this country at the federal government level. Just to  keep myself always frightened and angry. To keep my nerves on edge, and my blood pressure slightly elevated. Because I feel that being aware – here on this little island in the middle of Lake Michigan – might somehow make a difference in how things play out.

Not since the Watergate era, when the war in Viet Nam was sending classmates home in boxes, and everyone in power seemed to be disregarding the people they served, has my attendance seemed so necessary. Then, I sat for hours with my baby on my lap, with my eyes glued to the television set as unfamiliar names became ordinary, and the characters took on roles of scapegoat, criminal, watchdog and hero. Now, I check the news a  dozen or more times each day. Obsessively.

Sometimes, fed up with the spin on every single bit of information, I retreat to the realm of time-wasters. There is the book of crossword puzzles that my sister gave me; there is always a book or magazine to page through. There is on-line Scrabble, and that other word game that, I think, was designed for children but that I’m amazingly good at, and a matching  game.

Often, when I’m not making art, I am working at one of my three jobs. And when I’m not doing that, I am often embroiled in the dozens of menial tasks that keep this household running along. Normal cooking and cleaning and laundry can easily take over any bits and pieces of spare time.

This week, though, I have a project! It actually started as one small thing. My desk, which is two 5-foot-long planks of wood stretched between two file cabinets, takes up too much space in my small dining room. I have to squeeze past the table in one direction to sit at the desk; I have to ease around it from the other side to let the dogs out. On top of that, the only thing I use the desk for is working on the computer. Room for a glass of water or a cup of coffee, and for the small laptop is all that I need. The rest of the long stretch of  horizontal surface holds two small succulents and one begonia plant, three fat jars filled with pencils and pens, two scented candles, a decorative paper holder, and three medicine bottles. It has become a repository for papers to be dealt with, projects-in-progress, and other nonsense.

I decided to create a – much smaller – desk space on the other side of the room, in the little cubby under the stairs. One small project. Except for telephone and computer lines that have to be untangled and twined across the room. Except that the corner cabinet that was hiding in that cubby had to be moved out, along with all of the stuff I had piled on top of it. Which meant the living room had to be rearranged to make room for the corner cabinet, bookshelves had to be altered to free-up the deep brackets I need to support the desk top, and the kitchen shelves had to be edited to make room for the file cavbinets underneath.

I am embroiled in a massive overhaul. The table is mounded with stuff that is in transit. The little under-the-stairs desk space is, right now, filled with stacks of papers and books. The desk has not yet budged from its original location. However…I have hauled away several boxes of books for donation. My kitchen shelves are now in good order. I kept only the cookbooks and garden books that I truly read, use and enjoy. Everything is bright and clean. In the living room, the shallower shelves seem to open up the space. I like the new furniture arrangement. I have a master plan in place, and am working steadily through the rest of the project. There is progress! And, though it’s not art, it’s the most creative undertaking I’ve been involved in, at home, in quite some time.

Sometimes there’s time for art…and sometimes life is art.

Artifacts to Memories: Red Chair

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I don’t know quite how I ended up with this red lawn chair.

Oh, I know where it came from, alright. I had a seven-year relationship with a man who got around, in his job, to  many estate and moving sales. He was not a collector of junk, but of novel and interesting items that caught his eye. I have a row of squat triangles made of limestone, that were once possibly a part of a polishing tool, that he brought to me as a gift. He and I tried for years to revitalize an old, manual printing press that he had picked up for a song. His home was filled with unusual pieces of furniture and accessories. This lawn chair was one of his found treasures.

I remember when he brought it home. I know he made some minor repairs on the folding mechanism. I recall his decision-making process before he decided on red paint. I just don’t remember how it came to be at my house, in my yard.

Unlike my husband, who asked for nothing when we separated except for his “Rock Shaped Like a Foot” collection (Not the good couch that I bought him for his birthday! Not the afghan his mother had crocheted! Not the old army trunk he had gotten in a trade! Not even  the little unfinished house he had built with his own hands!), this man had a clear sense of what was his. Years ago, I might have added, “to the point of selfishness,” but I’m beyond that now. Still, when we broke up, there was little that we had accumulated during our years together that stayed with me. I transplanted two grape vines and three peonies that I had planted at his house before he sold it. And, somehow, I ended up with the red metal folding lawn chair.

Years ago when I had a yard sale, people skirted the long tables of knick-knacks, books, clothes and old toys, and honed in on my red chair. “How much for this?” I heard throughout the day. Disappointment followed, when I said, “That’s not for sale.” Though I have others, this lawn chair is my favorite. It is easy to bring along when I go to a summer concert, or for the long day at “Meet the Artists.”  In the summer, it sits in a prominent position in the garden, ready to give me rest between bouts of weeding, or support when I need to sit and think. In the winter, clearly, it braves the snow.

Morning Snowfall

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I woke this morning to a telephone call, and was greeted, when I looked outside, to a gentle snowfall. The dogs came in from their early wanderings with sparkling wet fur. It has changed, over the last hour, to something more serious. The snowflakes are larger, and holding tight to everything. My view is transformed! It is beautiful!

This would be a good day for a pot of soup simmering on the stove, a loaf of bread rising. It would be a good day for sitting with a good book, as the snow sifts down outside. It would be a good day for lighting scented candles and listening to soft jazz. It would be a good day for special activities and projects, and I have a long list.

Sunday is one of my days for writing this blog. After apologizing and explaining about no “Timeout for Art” on Thursday, I was planning a long essay. Then, I was going to dress for the weather, and get myself and my big dog out of the house for a long walk. I am partway through a purging, cleaning  and  rearranging project that (according to my sister, Brenda, who read an interpretation based on the alignment of the stars) should be finished within the next two weeks, or the chaos in my life will still be around in August. I can’t have that! I also planned to be here if my daughter should call, as we are in the final stages of putting our next issue of the Beacon together.

Well, none of that is going to happen this morning. The phone call that woke me up was a request that I go in to work today; the person who was scheduled put her back out. Of course, I can do that. So, it’s up and away, this morning, with four inches of heavy snow to scrape from my car before my trek to town on roads not yet plowed, to work at the hardware store.

Sigh.

Artifacts to Memories: Bunny Rabbit

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This bunny rabbit is not a personal artifact, but it’s been in my home for quite a few years now. Memories attach themselves to objects, and this little raggedy soft toy is no exception.

I brought two of these little bunnies home, when my dog family consisted of Maggie and Clover. Clover was a joy to watch with a new toy. She tossed it in the air and caught it in her teeth; she gave the toy a good shake before tossing it up again; she’d bring it to me coyly, inviting me to play, too. Maybe tug-of-war? What about fetch?

Maggie, on the other hand, was just a hoarder. She’d impatiently watch Clover play, until she could grab the toy away from her. Then she’d stand, chest out, on her bed, daring anyone to try to take anything away. She was the oldest, and largest, of the dogs, so she always got away with it. While I was away, she’d settle in and chew the stuffing out of any soft toy, but she didn’t otherwise engage with them. She just wanted them. All of the toys. On her doggie bed. All the time.

By the time Maggie passed on, Clover had lost interest, mostly, in toys. I’d try to engage her in games; she try to comply, for my sake, but the joy was gone. She preferred just a good walk. The collection of beat up chew toys and stuffed animals sat neglected in a corner.

Then, little Rosa Parks came in to our household. She was young, curious and ready for adventure. What were all these toys, gathering dust? Could she, with her keen young nose, detect a whiff of another dog…one that she had never met? As the toys were dragged out, one by one, Clover engaged with them as well, just to let the little dog know she knew what they were for. Mostly, they just got them all out, and strewed them around the living room.

As the years went by, though, both dogs lost interest. By the time Clover died, the toys – with a few additions – were occupying the neglected basket again. Rosa Parks, who had engaged in all kinds of games and play with Clover, was a hard dog to entertain, on her own. Often, I’d drive her down to Fox Lake, just to see her tail wag. There the water, and the memories of squirrel-chasing play, always put a spring in her step.

It seemed like Rosa Parks needed a companion, besides me. So, mainly as a gift to my little dog, I adopted Darla. Turns out, both Darla and Rosa Parks would have preferred to be the only dog in my house. Or so they thought. For my sake, they put up with each other. It took a few months for them to learn to enjoy each other’s company.

The toy basket, though, was an immediate success! Darla loves a toy. Her tail wags just snuffling through the basket, trying to pick just the right one. If she has gotten into the trash while I was at work, and she hears displeasure in my tone, she’ll bring me a toy. If that doesn’t do the trick, she’ll go get another. Once, having exhausted the toy basket while I was still picking up scraps of paper from the floor, she brought me a throw pillow!

Darla always likes to carry a toy outside with her. When she goes tearing out of the house, growling, to chase wild turkeys out of the yard, she often has a cute toy dangling from her jaws. Stuffed animals come on our walks with us. Until a chipmunk or a smelly piles of leaves distracts her, Darla will carry a soft toy in her mouth for a mile or more. I try to pay attention to where she drops it, so that I can tuck it in my pocket for the walk back home.

This stuffing-less bunny rabbit and all of his soft companions have a new lease on life, and  are getting out more, now, than they ever did before!

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A Path to Happiness

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I was sleeping so soundly at 2AM, when the little dog decided she needed to go outside, I could hardly drag myself out of my slumber. Rosa Parks was fairly frantic by the time I made it to the door. I closed my eyes and leaned against the door, waiting for her to finish. Immediately, when she came back inside, I went back to bed. I wanted to go back to sleep. I wanted to be back in the center of the good dream – something about horses…and dancing…and spelling – that was still playing ’round the edges of my mind.

But, no. Though I could have slept, I’m sure, standing up, with my cheek pressed against the cold glass of the door, now I could not sleep. Always, in those times, there is plenty to think about. I run through the events of the past day, both in my life and – lately – in politics. I worry; I fret; I distract myself with my “to-do” list. That is overwhelming enough to make sleep impossible. Finally, I get out of bed.

I turn on the computer with good intentions of doing some necessary writing. I am drawn into “breaking news” and political headlines. I pull myself away from that with engagement in time-wasting word games. Soon, I am ready to try to sleep again, having foiled my good night’s rest and not accomplished one single productive thing.Then, wrapped in my fleecy robe with both dogs crowded on the couch with me, I slept late.

Immediately on waking, my mind is flooded with all the things I need to do today. And already it’s 10AM and why, why, WHY  do I continue to sabotage my life like this, so that I always seem to be on the sheer face of a cliff, fighting my way upward through a blizzard…WHY is it never just easy??  I make coffee. Turn on the computer. Check my Email.

The first thing I see, right on the first line of my in-box, is “This Is How To Have A Happy Life: 4 Proven Secrets From Research.” I pour a cup of coffee. I sit down to read. It is not an invitation to a weeks-long on-line seminar to unlock the secrets of happiness. It is not an effort to sell a book. It turns out to be a not-too-long, well-researched article with good advice.  And, as it happens, exactly what I needed this morning! Thank you, to whatever gods of internet content sent this to me!

The article, written by Eric Barker and published on his “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” newsletter, draws heavily from the book Authentic Happiness by  University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman. He suggests that there are four choices of happy lives:

  • The Pleasant Life: a life that successfully pursues the positive emotions about the present, past and future. Schedule more fun.

  • The Good Life: actively doing stuff you’re good at and getting lost in it. Trying to improve your skills. Accomplishing goals. Go as far down that rabbit hole of “flow” as you can, Alice.

  • The Meaningful Life: using your signature strengths and virtues in service of something larger than you are.The Good Life + helps others.

  • The Full Life: experiencing positive emotions about the past and future, savoring positive feelings from the pleasures, deriving abundant gratification from your signature strengths, and using these strengths in the service of something larger to obtain meaning. Enjoy the pleasures of life, leverage your skills, seek flow, and use it to help people.

The Full Life might sound like a lot. It might sound hard because of formal terms like “signature strengths” and intimidating concepts like “meaning.” Don’t let any of that stuff scare you off. Just try this:

  • Every single day, do something that makes you smile.
  • Every single day, do something you’re good at.
  • Every single day, make sure your efforts help someone else smile.

That’s all it takes to start living the happiest life there is.

And that’s just what I plan to do!

Timeout for Art: No Art.

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Last week, it was a question. This week, a statement: No Art. I haven’t had a single moment in the studio all week.

I’ve  bargained with myself about other commitments to try to figure out how to fit it in. Could something be set aside, or delayed, or rushed through, to make time for the studio? This week, just like many other weeks, that was impossible.  I have brainstormed about ways to fit in a little bit of art making in other times and places. I chastised myself for reading instead of drawing while eating lunch, moments when a sketch book rather than a dog could have been on my lap, and any other stolen minutes that could possibly have been put to better use. That doesn’t work.

Art should be a joyful experience, that I willingly create time for, look forward to, and take joy in. Art should not be a part of the frantic push-pull that is my life right now. Until something gives way, until something changes, there is no time for art in my life. That’s an unhappy fact, but true.

I just finished the February “task and activity tracker” for my journal. As usual, I left one sad column to chart time spent in the studio. I’ve just decided to revise it. The column – neglected all these many months – set aside to mark time spent making art (that coincides with a “to-do” list in my brain that feels sorry, sorry, sorry and let down every single time it gets left in the wake of other duties) is out. For the month of February, any time I can muster to put toward it will be spent getting my life in better order, so that I will have time, eventually, for art.

I’m going to concentrate on my schedule, and what can be rearranged. I’m going to work hard toward removing a couple major commitments from my life. There is a lot of simple clearing and organizing, in the studio and through the rest of the house, that would help. Maybe I’ll find that I don’t have time for any of that either. But, maybe it will be just what I need. I’ll let you know!.

Artifacts to Memories: Baskets

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It started with one sturdy willow basket. My husband and I received it, filled with fruit, as a Christmas gift from his employers at the Western-Southern Life Insurance Company. I kept it in the center of our dining room table. When the fruit was gone, I bought more to replace it. A bag of apples looked more inviting when spilled out into a nice basket. Oranges, too, made an attractive centerpiece. Sometimes, it was a mixture of apples, oranges and bananas.

Out on a walk with my young daughters one day, I came upon a garage sale. There was little that I wanted, and even less that I could afford. One item caught my eye, though. A simple round basket, in perfect condition, woven of fine reeds in two shades of brown. On the bottom, a tiny rectangle of red fabric had a row of Chinese characters and one printed word: CHINA. It seemed so exotic! And it was only twenty-five cents!

Slowly, over the years, I added to my collection. Sometimes I bought them new. Pier One Imports was a treasure trove! I never bought more than one at a time, though, and I always made sure it was unique or special, and that I thoroughly loved it.

Sometimes they were given to me. A large six-sided basket that Catherine White gave me hangs on the end of the cabinet, just inside the kitchen door. Sometimes, when the dogs rush out in a flurry, it gets knocked to the floor. I pick it up and rehang it, and think, again, of the dear woman – gone now many years – that gave it to me.

A few are hand-made. A rectangular, two color handled basket, made by my friend Judi, has a place of honor on top of the refrigerator. Next to it is the dark woven round handled basket that my daughter Jen made in art class, and the squat rustic basket decorated with ribbons and dried flowers that my daughter Kate made. Keeping them company is the cherry wood, rope handled “pie bucket” that Bill Freese made for me, with the condition that I should use it to deliver a homemade pie to him now and then.

I use every single basket that I own. Some are permanent receptacles for small items in drawers or on shelves.Larger ones hold magazines, correspondence and palm-sized books. CDs, DVDs and cassette tapes are contained each in their own basket. Yarn, crochet hooks and on-going hat or slippers projects keep company in another one. Others are pulled in to duty to hold bread or rolls. I still like to keep fruit on display in a basket. Some are good for gathering vegetables from the garden.

Sometimes I think I have too many baskets. It’s one of those things, though, that feels like an integral part of who I am. I am comfortable with it. I could quit being a basket collector, and get rid of them all…but I’m afraid I’d always miss them. So, I have baskets…and all the memories that come with them.