Category Archives: Self-Improvment

Timeout for Art: Momentum

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Focus is necessary when starting a creative project. I’ve talked about narrowing my attention, putting away side projects, and clearing the space. The next major issue is momentum. Beginning is the hardest part.

Once again, just when I need it, the right advice comes to me, this time, in a newsletter that I subscribe to. Canadian artist, Ruth Maude regularly posts about her art process at http://www.allthingsencaustic.com. I’m trying to learn as much as possible about the encaustic process, and how it can be used in collage, painting and printmaking, and often gain helpful information and inspiration in her posts. In February, she wrote a piece titled “When it’s Hard to Make Art/Finding Momentum,” and it addressed the exact things I was dealing with.

For content, she referred to another artist who offers good instruction and advise. Nicholas Wilton is the founder of Art2Life Creativity workshops and classes. Maude draws from one of Wilton’s videos for his “Three Tips that Really Work to Get Your Momentum Back.”

  • The more you do, the more you do.
  • Little and often.
  • Don’t start. Play instead.

She expands on each of these pointers with quotes from Wilton, expounding on the importance of making time each day to show up, even if just for non-art-related activities like cleaning or planning, of giving it a few minutes each day, rather than waiting for a large block of time on the weekend, and – most crucial, in my mind – finding the fun in the project.

Maude also explains the importance of having an accountability partner, and making a plan for what you hope to accomplish in a given work session. All advise was very pertinent to my situation, and gave me a way to get started.

Hope

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“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” – Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve always been a hope-er, a wisher, a dreamer, a pray-er. Which may, as I think about it, indicate that I have never been satisfied with my life “as it is.” Rather than simply being perfectly happy in the present moment, I’ve looked to the future, with a long list of hoped-for objects or occurrences that would make life better.

As a child, when prayer seemed to offer the most promise for achieving things that were otherwise out of my control, vanity dictated the direction of my appeals. “Please…” I would beg, and follow with a long list ranging from thicker lips, thinner eyebrows, lighter hair and more curves in my slight frame. Looking back, it is clear that I should have better appreciated the assets I was born with. In fact, if I were going to get deities involved in my appearance today, I’d be requesting that many of those dreaded characteristics be restored to me!

As a young mother, I became a little obsessive about my importance in the lives of my children. I wanted them to be confidant in themselves. I wanted them to be happy, and healthy, and to always feel loved. I wanted them to make friends easily. I wanted them to be polite, and to have good grammar. I felt my participation in their up-bringing was central to the success of these goals, so my biggest hope was that I was able to be there. It was for their sake that my biggest hope, beyond their health and safety, was my own safety and good health. I needed to be there, to see that they had the childhood that I wished for them.

I have a long, long list of things I have hoped for throughout my life. Many involve material things. I’ve hoped for more money, newer furniture, a bigger house, nicer clothes, a better haircut, and on and on. In hindsight, I can often feel relieved that I didn’t get some of the foolish things I wished for. And, I can see that some things, once achieved, were not as glorious or life-changing as I’d imagined they would be.

I have gotten much better, over the course of my life, of appreciating exactly what I have. Though I devote an entire page in my bullet journal to “Wishes,” it rarely has more than one or two items on it. At this time, new windows for my kitchen and dining room are the only things listed. They aren’t my only hopes, though.

I hope my children, and their children, are happy and healthy. I hope that they have goals that challenge them but that are not unreachable. I hope they manage stress and difficulty with good humor and determination. I hope they always know that they are loved and valuable. I hope they know joy.

Personally, I hope I am known, and remembered, as intelligent, kind, a good worker, and someone who always acts with good intentions. I hope to be always forgiven for the times I show temper, vindictiveness or meanness. I hope my dogs feel cherished. I hope all of the many important and influential people in my life have been aware of the difference they’ve made. I hope all the people I love know that they are loved. That the best I can hope for.

Gratitude

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After she retired, my mother regularly watched the Oprah show on television. Sometime in the 1990s, Sarah Ban Breathnach was a guest on the show. It was shortly after her book about gratitude, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, came out, and she was there to promote it. It made a huge impression on Mom.

That Christmas, Mom got every one of her daughters a copy of the book, and the accompanying journal. We each thanked her, and did the obligatory gushing over what a thoughtful gift it was. And maybe my sisters took it more seriously than I did, but I remember thinking, “yeah, I don’t have time for that!” Mom might have sensed my reluctance, because she took me aside and spoke to me directly.

“Just try it, Cindy, and see if it doesn’t help,” she said, “give it a chance!”

I don’t know where my hesitation was coming from, to begin with. I devour self-help books! I always think I need improvement, and that the help I need is right around the corner…or in the next book of instruction or advise. Anyway, I assured her that I’d read it and give it a try, and I did.

It certainly made sense, and my attitude surely could benefit from a little adjustment. So, I started a gratitude practice. Several times, actually. I’d begin, then forget about it, or let it fall into neglect. I’d pick up a journal to make an entry, only to find that several months had gone by since I’d last written anything.

Even when I was writing regularly about it, my idea of gratitude was pretty skewed. The “dark side” of gratitude. Entries included:

“I’m grateful that I wasn’t totally depressed today”

“I’m so glad the tire didn’t go completely flat”

“My hair looked okay for a change.”

“I did not sit home alone feeling sorry for myself tonight”

“I’m glad I left the party before I got even more depressed”

“I am grateful to have made it through the day”

“I’m grateful that I don’t feel totally miserable today”

“I’m glad the green paint doesn’t look so bad on the bed frame”

I was a pathetic excuse for a thankful person!

Then, some time last year, what had been a miserly, sporadic habit suddenly seemed important…and worthwhile! Now, I fill a whole page, every single morning, with things that I am grateful for. It has caused me to pay attention. I’ve learned to look at simple, ordinary things – a cup of coffee, a wag-tail dog, birds on the lawn, a good night’s sleep – as the blessings that they are. I’m sure I am more appreciative; I’m probably happier, too.

Last week, after a rough few days, I got out of the shower and put on my Mom’s old fishing shirt, to wear as a pajama top. The next morning, I pulled on the fleecy white robe she bought me, some other Christmas. And, when I sat down to write down what I was thankful for, I realized that, in a week when I needed a little comfort, there was my mother, her presence in the old fishing shirt, the warm bathrobe, and the gratitude practice that she’d encouraged.

“I’m so grateful for my Mom,” was my first entry that day.

Eclectic

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A donation recently came into the Island Treasures Resale Shop: a large and lovely dining room hutch. Oh, it brought back memories of years and years of wishing for one. That, with a matching dining room table and chairs, would make me feel like I had finally reached some pinnacle of achievement that I was constantly falling short of.

This obscure vision of success always revolved around possessions or, at least, things that cost money. In grade school, I thought I needed a professional haircut, patent leather shoes, a mohair sweater. When I got those things, and my life was not fulfilled in the way I expected, I thought of other things I lacked. If only our house was surrounded by a white picket fence…if our dog were a Pekinese rather than a mutt…and, oh, if only I had clothes like Dee Lynn Hathaway!

By the time I reached high school, I’d moved on to bigger and better things. Now, I was plotting my adult life. I went through the catalogs – we received them from Sears & Roebuck, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward – and planned my future. I picked out the clothes that would make up my adult wardrobe, the hairstyle that would flatter my adult self, and even the model (dark hair, cute, not too glamorous) that I could hope to grow into. Sometimes, even a future husband.

Then, on to the S & H Green Stamp catalog. Past the pages of wristwatches, telescopes and toys, there were photos of entire rooms full of furniture! My style, I determined, would be French Provincial, where all the pieces were light, curvy and delicate-looking. In the living room, the television would be a large console model; the sofa would be accompanied by a coordinating love seat and chair; every table would match. Room by room, I planned my future.

Of course, when I actually became an adult, and started setting up my household, all of those plans went sideways. There were the realities of living within my means, and of living with children and pets. There were lots of moves to various, odd and challenging homes.

Still, I dreamed. That matching dining room set, with a hutch for displaying fine dishes, stayed with me for quite a while. The Pottery Barn catalog replaced the others, and for years my wish list included the large, slip-covered, roll-armed sofa that I found in its pages. The Ikea catalog thrillingly offered a hundred good solutions, all within my budget. Until I learned how expensive the freight costs would be, and how daunting their merchandise is to assemble.

I came to realize that it was rewarding, in its own way, to improvise with what came my way. Accepting cheap or hand-me-down clothing and furniture, and putting my own spin on it. became my way of life. If I had managed to acquire a matching dining room set back when it seemed so very important, I may have been the one recently delivering it to the resale shop. There is certainly no room in my house – or my life – for that kind of extravagance.

My living space, now, contains a mixture: an armchair that was a gift from Emma Jean when she got new furniture; curtains that came out of my daughter Jen’s house eighteen years ago; two side chairs that came from Roy’s Erin Motel; the small bookcase that my brother, Ted, built for me in Wood Shop; dining room chairs that my friend Huey and I snatched from a dumpster at MSU. And my precious dining room table. My Dad brought it home nearly sixty years ago, from a junk sale, and set it up in the back room of our house. For the rest of my childhood, it was the clothes-folding table…and folding clothes was my job. After a roundabout journey as a party table in the family garage, it came to me after my mother died. It’s the perfect complement to my jumble of furnishings. When I was much younger, I would have judged this style “tacky;” now, I call it “Eclectic.”

A Year After “Aloha”

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Last year, when I started the “April A to Z Challenge,” I was in Hawaii, and my title was “Aloha.” I was, in fact, stranded in Hawaii by shut-downs associated with the – then brand new – Corona Virus. What a year it has been! What a time we have all been through! Today, beginning on this first day of April, I feel that this last year has got to take center stage.

First of all, let me remind you what the April A to Z challenge is. Through this month, I’ll post one blog every day except Sunday, based on the letters of the alphabet. I don’t have a particular theme in mind; maybe one will develop as I move through the letters. For now, it’s just the commitment. During this month, I am setting aside the list of blog topics that I’ve been writing about on Sundays, based on David Whyte’s book, Consolations. I plan to take Sundays off from blogging in April; I’ll pick that up again in May. I’m also changing my “Timeout for Art” blog. I’ve been working my way through the alphabet with that, too, and had just gotten to those difficult few letters at the end…I’m happy for the interruption there! Though art will still turn up as a topic, this month it will have to fall in to whatever letters turn up mid-week..

I should clarify that “stranded in Hawaii” sounds a lot more dire than it actually was. My older daughter and I had travelled together for a visit to my younger daughter and her family. Our one week planned vacation was extended to almost a month. Truly, it was quite wonderful! The weather, of course, was fabulous. We always felt safe. We were comfortable and well taken care of in my daughters house. Until last spring, I hadn’t had more than a couple days at a time with my two daughters together in at least thirty years. So, though there were concerns about our jobs and pets, and our lives were put on hold, I feel blessed to have experienced that special time.

By the time I got home, and finished my mandatory self-quarantine, I had been replaced in my job at the hardware store. That was, without a doubt, challenging in many ways. Still, it offered me several weeks OFF, in the spring and summer, on Beaver Island, for the very first time since I moved here in 1978! My vegetable and flower beds were never so well-tended. My lawn got mowed before it looked like a field. My dogs basked in the attention. And I loved it!

Since last year at this time, I started a new, seasonal job at the Beaver Island Golf Course. I began volunteering at the Island Treasures Resale Shop. I worked out the details for an art show next October. I read at least one book each week. I continued and expanded on a rewarding morning routine. I took care of several long-neglected medical procedures. I found and enjoyed quite a few new recipes. I walked almost every day.

It’s not possible, though, to look back on this year without acknowledging the tremendous devastation caused by Covid-19. How many lives have changed? How many jobs have been lost? How many businesses have closed? How many have died? Everyone knows someone lost to the disease. Everyone has been affected by it. This virus has touched all of us, in the entire world, in one way or another. We are experiencing trepidation and fear, trauma, and grief on a scale never experienced in my lifetime. This year has altered our thinking, and our behavior. I think, as humans, we are forever changed.

That’s the crux of it, I guess. This last year has been defined by the ways that the virus has changed our lives. Everything else seems unimportant in comparison. That makes it all the more necessary, I think, to continue to notice all the little pleasures along the way. As long as I’m here to appreciate them, they still matter!

Genius

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So, what could I write about genius? I’d been puzzling over that topic for days. I have no special knowledge nor even a particular opinion about the subject. Certainly, I’m no genius!

Then, in a bit of synchronicity that the author would have relished, I turned to a new chapter of The 5AM Club to find The 10 Tactics of Lifelong Genius. “Well,” I thought, “It’s about time I received some kind of pay-back for the endurance I’ve shown with this book!”

I used to be a more steadfast reader. I finished every single book I started. Some were more worthwhile than others, but I appreciated every one. I was younger then. I had better vision. I had more time for reading. No more! If a book doesn’t grab and hold my interest, I will set it aside.

There are exceptions. The Shipping News not only started slowly, but had one of the saddest first chapters I’ve encountered. Sad in the manner of The Grapes of Wrath. Discouraging, like The Beans of Egypt, Maine, where every single character lived a sad, pathetic life. I wasn’t in the mood for another depressing book! At this time in my life, I am almost never looking for that in my reading material. I stuck with it, though, and The Shipping News redeemed itself, and became one of my all-time favorite books.

I didn’t expect that from this book, though. The author, Robin Sharma, has written several well-received books, and the premise sounded interesting. Anticipating some travel that would give me more time for books, I downloaded it onto my reader in January of last year. Yes, last year. A self-help book disguised as a pithy romance, this book did not appeal to me at all.

Now, I don’t mind a self-help book. In fact, I have kind of a weakness for them. I almost always feel like I could use improvement, and that more insight would help. I get a little bristly when other humans offer advice, but I accept it pretty easily from books. I don’t mind information being passed on through the telling of a story, either, when it is done well. Daniel Quinn managed it brilliantly in Ishmael; Richard Bach succeeded, too, with Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions. The Celestine Prophesy, not so much. It, and the several sequels by James Redfield. had a wonderful message, but I found the story-line distracting.

Looking into other books by Robin Sharma, it appears that this author is both prolific and popular, and I may be unfairly judging his work or ability based on my singular experience. From what I’ve read, though, the characters that promote the message in The 5AM Club are poorly drawn caricatures that introduce and promote the information through one stupid question after another. Answers are doled out in a painfully slow manner, between burps, inexplicable bits of yodeling, and severe bouts of coughing. Only one character has a name; the others are known only as the Artist, the Entrepreneur, and the Spellbinder. The fourth, Stone Riley, is most often referred to as the Billionaire. For most of the book, it seemed like I was the only one who knew that his terrible cough was something to worry about.

In fairness, the book does have merit. There is good information, and even some inspiration in it, but it was a dreadfully long time coming. It was only because it was on my reader, and I was without any other reading material, that I ever got back to it. If it had been an actual book that I had set aside, I would have never picked it up again! But, then, I would have missed out on “The 10 Tactics of Lifelong Genius,” and something to write about today. As for the actual tactics…well, maybe you’ll have to read the book!

Forgiveness

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There is a story I’ve told before, about how Pat Burris, who at that time was our next-door neighbor, had her baby just a week before my mother gave birth, and usurped the baby girl name that Mom had picked out. So, when Mom also had a baby girl, she had to come up with another name. Though they were lifelong friends, Mom never forgave Pat for that. Seventy years later, when the conversation turned to Pat, or to her daughter, Shari, or to my named-at-the-last-minute sister, Sheila, Mom would point out the fact that Pat had stolen her baby name.

I must take after my mother in that regard. Forgiveness is one of those things that I KNOW is important, but that is so, so difficult to achieve. I have learned how to move on from insult or injury. That, alone, is a major accomplishment. But I don’t forget and, if I’m honest, I rarely forgive.

I attribute it, partly at least, to my good memory. I can not only remember incidents that happened years ago, I can recollect the way they made me feel. I can bring up the emotion as if it were yesterday. So, when that emotion involves hurt feelings resulting from being snubbed or slighted or slandered, I still feel the pain, and the bitterness lingers.

I hold on to things that are of absolutely no consequence in my life today. When I was five years old, and my mother punished me unfairly. When my Dad deliberately missed my Confirmation ceremony, too busy setting off dynamite charges to get rid of tree stumps. When my sister mocked my skinny legs. When a teacher singled me out for blame on the rare occasion when I was blameless. It’s not that I’m still mad, no. It’s that the lingering feelings of resentment let me know that forgiveness has not happened yet.

These things are all in the far distant past. Between the time of my childhood and now, I’ve been married and divorced. I’ve raised children. I have had businesses and partnerships and jobs, and have experienced friendships of all kinds. Imagine all the indignation I could hold on to, from all of those interactions over the years!

I give myself a little grace in this area. I know that these old grudges hurt me more than anyone else. I also know that I hold myself to an even higher standard, and that I don’t forgive myself, either. I remember a time my Mom came into my room and put her arm around me, and I turned my back to her. I remember a dozen times when I behaved unkindly to my parents, or to my brothers and sisters. A thousand times, at least, when I messed up as a parent. A million times when I, out in the world, said the wrong thing or didn’t speak up when I should have. These things haunt me, too, if I dwell on them. When it comes to forgiveness, I should learn to be as generous with it as others have been with me!

Disappointment

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The more I think about it, the more it seems that disappointment is a pretty common emotion in my household. I’m surprised at how often it comes up!

I was planning to write about a job I recently applied for, and did not get. With help from my sweet daughter, Kate, I updated my resume. I filled out the application form and read through the job description. Then I debated about whether I really wanted the position or not. At the eleventh hour, I turned in the paperwork. An interview was scheduled. I anticipated topics and prepared possible responses. I also wrote out several questions about the job requirements. I had a long conversation via “zoom” with Kate and her family, to make myself comfortable with the on-line meeting format, and to make sure the screen was placed so that I was not looking ghoulish, or like I had a double chin.

The only glitch, on the day of the scheduled meeting, was several inches of fresh snow. While I was waiting for the interview to start, the road truck went down the road, throwing all of my dogs into fits of barking. They had just calmed down when the other participants showed up on screen. I started right out with a warning that, if the young man showed up to plow my driveway, I’d have to interrupt the interview to put at least one dog (Rosa Parks is the instigator) into “time-out.” It’s good that I warned them, because that exact thing happened!

Beyond that, though, the interview went well, in my opinion. I was able to communicate my abilities, voice my concerns, and address their questions confidently. I know all of the other participants, and they were each as friendly, kind and generous as I expected they would be. The next day, I got a call letting me know I did not get the position.

I felt a little twinge of disappointment, sure. It would have been nice to be working at something challenging like that. It would be a chance to use my abilities and education; I’d be learning new skills, increasing my knowledge and stretching my boundaries. The money would be helpful.

If I had gotten the position, though, I’m sure I would have felt an equal amount of disappointment. I’d had so many concerns. Did I really want to take on a third part-time job? The hours to fulfill the requirements of the position would not, I’m sure, include the self-training I’d need to update my computer skills. Would I be a failure? Was I trying to do too much? When would I find time to make art? To walk the dogs?

So, that’s one example, in my life, of “Disappointment-No-Matter-What.” It’s a fairly regular occurrence. I walked, penguin-like, to the end of my icy driveway yesterday, only to find the entire length of Fox Lake Road to be equally as icy. Too slippery to take a long walk. That’s a disappointment. The day before, the road to the north was nearly clear, and the dogs and I went for a good long walk…which eliminated time to get in the studio before dinner. That was disappointing.

It’s kind of a trade-off. I’m always a tiny bit disappointed when I finish a good book, but I’m excited, in equal measure, to begin a new one. Every page that I turn in my journal gives me a wisp of disappointment at the lack of accomplishment and the too-swift passage of time. Yet every new page is a fresh start, with new promise and possibility. Disappointment at not being able to travel means, at the same time, no guilt and turmoil over leaving the dogs at the kennel. Disappointment over not being able to eat out is accompanied by the comfortable pleasure of enjoying my own cooking at home, with book in hand, and three dogs waiting for leftovers.

Disappointments are just little bumps along the road that remind me to take notice. They aren’t devastating; they don’t lead to despair. They are part of the juggling act in my life, where there are many good things that cannot all be acted upon at once. That kind of disappointment, I can live with!

Destiny

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Fate seemed to play a part, when I met my big dog, Darla. She is a boxer, pit-bull mix, which is the same mixture that my sweet, recently-deceased Clover was. I was told that she was good with people, including small children, cats and other dogs. That was important because of potential visits from grandchildren and others, and because of my little dog at home. She was six years old, which was the same age as Rosa Parks, my lonely chihuahua who I felt would benefit from a companion. Her name was Darla, which is also the name of one of my sisters, beloved and remembered though she died in infancy.

Along with my friend, Linda, who I was visiting, I stopped to see Darla several times at the no-kill shelter where she’d spent most of her life. Finally, I signed the papers to make her a part of my family. With the big dog beside me in the passenger seat, we drove across the state toward home. With several stops along the way for short walks and nature calls, and one shared fast-food meal, we got to know each other. Through the long drive and the short, noisy plane ride, I assured Darla that she was coming home. By the time we got to my house on Beaver Island, she almost seemed to be wearing a smile.

There were a few complications when Darla and Rosa Parks met. It turns out, each of them would have preferred being an “only dog.” Still, they both loved walks down the country roads, rides in the car, and trips to the water at nearby Fox Lake. They both loved me, tolerated each other, and learned to be friends. Later, when Blackie Chan, a long-separated litter-mate of Rosa Parks, was added to our family, there were a few more challenges. Again, we worked through them.

As I’ve worked to negotiate a “pecking order” to keep the peace in this multi-dog household, Darla’s good nature has been a blessing. Because she is the fastest eater, I always put her food dish down last. Because she’s too large to share my twin-sized bed with me, Darla has to be removed to her own nearby bed when I’m ready for sleep. The two small dogs sleep with me. Though Darla has her own large comfortable bed between the heater and my desk, the small dogs often take that space to be near me when I’m working at the computer. Darla doesn’t argue, but moves to the armchair, or a rug, or the now-vacant bed.

Both little dogs have rugs that mark their eating spot; Darla has a raised stool that I put her food dish on, to make her meal time more comfortable. Still, she seems to notice the discrepancy, and I’ll often find her big body curled up on a tiny rug, beside a small dog’s food dish. I see her looking enviously at a little dog taking up space in my bed, or in her bed, or in my lap. I imagine her thinking about what it would be like to be the only dog. Still, she kindly puts up with the little ones, watches out for them, and indulges them with the utmost patience and good humor.

Last week, without a single thought to Darla, I brought home a new rug for the kitchen. I got it to replace the tiny, unraveling and threadbare one that had been in front of the sink. The new one is beautiful, thick and cushion-y, and large. It stretches across the length of the floor in front of the entire double sink, right beside the stool where Darla eats her dinner. I love it!

Someone else does, too! Darla believes I brought it home just for her. It’s right next to her food dish, after all, and exactly where she loves to lay – underfoot – while I am preparing dinner. It is perfectly sized for her. She claimed it immediately, with a big smile. “Finally,” I imagine her thinking, “I am the favored one. THIS is my DESTINY!!!”

Timeout for Art: Sketching

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Sketching has become a regular and significant part of my life. I draw every morning, at my dining room table. I draw when I’m sitting in a waiting room. I draw when I’m on the telephone, or watching a movie, or sitting on the bank at Fox Lake while the dogs have a swim, or when I’m trying to work through an idea. No drawing takes more than a few minutes of my time, but the benefits stretch on.

The sketchbook I use is fairly mundane. The paper is of reasonable quality, but not overly precious. It has a hard cover, which is helpful if I’m away from a desk or table, and is bound together with a thick wire spiral, making it easy to open flat. I keep a dark sepia-toned extra fine point artist pen in the sketchbook’s spiral binding. Always ready. The pen limits my methods of shading, and eliminates the possibility of erasing. My sketchbook is marked off into variously-sized small squares, rectangles and – occasionally – a triangle. So, I don’t even have to commit to a full-page drawing. This is the least intimidating method I could think of to start and maintain a drawing habit, and it worked. I draw every day.

This is not fine art. Some sketches work much better than others; the images on some pages relate with each other better than on others. This work is not meant to be framed, or even shown. Though I sometimes work on shading techniques, composition, or, for instance, how best to illustrate glass in black and white, it’s not about art.

Making these little observational sketches feels more like meditation than art work. It is simply looking closely, and recording what I see. It has caused me to be a better observer; it constantly reminds me to be honest to my vision. At the same time, the practice of doing it, of taking time to observe and render what I see, reinforces the idea that I am an artist. Sketching is a small and simple practice, but it has become an important part of my life.