What’s Next?

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As the end of a year draws to a close, I tend to look at what I’ve done, and consider what I want to accomplish in the year ahead. In some years, it’s just a tallying of achievements and memorable events, and a fresh list of New Year’s resolutions. At other times, it’s more reflective. It seems that this is one of those thoughtful years.

I will turn seventy years old this year. Simply surviving in this world for that length of time feels significant. The group of young people I graduated high school with, who I remember as young, strong, and capable, has been reduced by almost a quarter! Two grandmothers, one grandfather, and five of my brothers and sisters died long before they reached seventy. In fact, few members of my family have made it to age eighty. So…

With the “finish line” in my life not yet in view, but perhaps just over the horizon line, and almost uncomfortably close, I’ve been looking at the big picture. What do I want my life to represent, when looked at all through the years? What have I done, and what should I do? How can I do better? How can I bring more contentment and joy into my life?

This isn’t brand new. I’ve been operating with these questions in mind for more than ten years now, since my mother’s death shook me awake to the finite nature of this precious life. It has caused me to pay closer attention. It has made me more thoughtful. I’ve expanded my sense of gratitude and appreciation. I have tried to be happier. Still, with a new milestone in view, and a new year right around the corner, it feels like the time for a fresh assessment. That’s what I’ve been doing.

Some things are just normal adjustments. I cleared off my desk, and made new decisions about the things I keep there. I removed an art photo that I’d gotten tired of, moved several old family photos to a shelf near my bed, switched the location of a picture of my Mom, and brought in a photo of my sisters. These simple, small changes give me a brand-new outlook whenever I sit here.

I moved furniture around in the living room, to give a couple house plants more light during this time of year. I’ve been thinking about changes I can make in the dining room, to make the file cabinet more easily accessible, and to give the table a bit more space. I have a few ideas for the studio, too, to make moving around in there a little easier. I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to make more room in the tiny rooms of my house.

I have plans to move the border of the vegetable garden a few feet to the north, come spring. It will be a lot of work for very little change, but then I’ll be able to mow all the way around the fenced garden spot. That will cut down on the amount of grasses, berry brambles and weeds that continually move in from the south side, that now borders a wild field. I ponder more dramatic changes, like building high raised beds or designing a different enclosure, while I’m at it. I try to suppress those ideas. Too often, the more ambitious the plans, the less actually gets done!

This month brought one major development in my life that has been a long time coming: I put in my notice at the hardware store. December 30th will be my last day working there. It’s a change that took a lot of thought and consideration. It’s a little sad. I have been employed there for almost twenty years; it has, mostly, been a good experience. But, the time is right.

With endings, come new beginnings. I’ve started working a few hours a week at the Community Center here. I’m enjoying it very much so far, for the change in scenery and routine, and for the lovely people I work with. Along with my summer job at the Beaver Island Golf Course, my volunteer work at the Island Treasures Resale Shop, my garden, and constant on-going projects in the studio, this ought to be enough to keep me out of trouble!

There are more changes that I’ve been contemplating, many having to do with methods of creative expression. I have many more things to consider, and other decisions to make. That’s enough for today, though. It makes me think of one of my favorite quotes, this one from the Talmud: “Life is so short we must move very slowly.”

Happy Holidays!

Welcome, Snow

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I woke up this morning to about five inches of new snow, and it has given me a whole new perspective on the day.

Yesterday, a storm came through the area, and much of the state got significant snowfall. I’ve seen reports of it from friends and family all around Michigan. There have been lots of comments about “the white stuff,” and how unwelcome it is.

“Ugh!”

“I’m not ready for this!”

“Here it comes!”

“I don’t think it’s ‘pretty!'”

There was plenty of reinforcement for every negative comment. From the sounds of things, nobody wants to see the snow. I understand. Wintertime, in this climate, adds a great deal of work and considerable discomfort. Everything, from a walk to the car to a drive to town, seems to take longer. It’s cold. I get it. Still, I hold a different viewpoint.

First, I live in Michigan. We will always have winter. Second, I live on an island, where the surrounding water provides such good insulation, the snow sometimes hangs around for six months! It seems ridiculous to spend energy despising it, when it comes every singe year. Third, as it covers dead grass and brown earth with sparkling white, I think it is quite beautiful. Finally, I find something magical about that first snowfall.

It brings me back to my childhood, coming home from school to find that my mother had put out the holiday decorations. The kitchen was bright and warm, with lively snowmen, Santa and reindeer hanging in the picture window, a dish of hard candy on the table, and cookies cooling on the rack. The record player was serving up carols sung by Perry Como, Julie Andrews, or Bing Crosby. The living room glowed, quiet and mysterious, from the little light provided by the nativity set, which now sat upon a tapestry cloth on top of the television set. Everything quiet, and warm, and our hearts filled with anticipation.

When the wind is howling, and snow is coming down, I start thinking about comfort. That is the time to put on the warm flannels and fleece, and to slide my feet into the fuzzy slippers. I want to put a pot of soup on the stove, to simmer all day, and set bread to rise. Freshly baked bread and hot soup are the perfect evening meal for a snowy day. I start daydreaming about winter projects. Though I rarely crochet and almost never sew anymore, a snowy day makes the fabrics and yarn sound inviting. Good books, too, are always better when it’s wintry outside.

When the first snow blankets my view, I always breathe a sigh of relief. I can quit, right now, worrying about whether I should give my lawn “one more mowing” before winter. Raking the leaves is now out of the question, too. All of the outside lawn and garden activities that were keeping me agitated as “things I should make time for” are now happily off the table until spring. Snow acts as good camouflage, too. It has covered the leaves that weren’t raked, the grass that wasn’t mowed, and the shrubs that weren’t pruned. It has hidden a hundred little flaws in my landscape.

Though it’s clearly not a very widespread point of view, I have to say, I welcome the snow!

Memory

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This morning, like almost every morning, I looked through the pages in my date book, to review what I have to do this week. I noted the days and hours I have to work. I’ve recently added a new part time job to my schedule, and my days at the hardware store have changed. That has forced a change in the day that I volunteer at the re-sale shop. It’s wise to have it all written down, so that I know where and when to show up.

I copied a note to myself about ordering Christmas cards onto a post-it note. I stuck it onto the computer, so that I’ll remember to actually do it, before the season is over. For tomorrow, I wrote a reminder to call the pharmacy to refill my prescriptions. and to call the County Clerk regarding my property taxes. I added a line about filling out the paperwork for house insurance. The forms have been sitting on the table for a week, now, after I finally remembered to download and print them. Insurance and property taxes used to be held in an escrow account; that changed when I paid off my mortgage. Two more things I have to remember to deal with!

Remembering hasn’t always been such a struggle for me. I have, in fact, always taken pride in my good memory. I could memorize a string of historical facts, numbers, or dates quite easily. I could recite long pages of poetry or prose without having to refer to the printed pages. I kept whole lists of telephone numbers in my head; as well as a string of important addresses. Not anymore!

For a long time, I was the one to come to for family history, or to get our childhood memories straight. Lately, I’m not so sure. I still think I remember, but sometimes I have doubts. I find myself saying, “I believe so,” or, “that might be the way it happened.” I’m just not sure.

Standing in the kitchen one day, surrounded by my dogs, I noticed something on the floor. I reached down, picked it up, showed it to the dogs, identified it, “guitar pick,” and put in on the shelf. At two o’clock in the morning, I woke up to the troubling realization that I had it wrong. As I sat up, and the dogs stirred, I told them, “that wasn’t a guitar pick; it’s a golf tee!”

I tell this story often. I think it’s an almost perfect self-deprecating anecdote. It touches on my fading memory combined with very old-lady-ish conversing with the dogs. It makes me smile, and it usually gets a laugh. It’s a good illustration of the tricks the mind plays as I get older. The truest example, though, comes when I tell this story, and I see a particular look on the face of whoever I’m talking to, that’s lets me know they have heard it before. And I forgot that I already told it to them.

Maybe I’ve already told it here, too. It could be that you’re reading it for the second or third time, politely pushing through with a slight, knowing smile as your eyes glaze over with boredom. It’s possible. I just don’t remember!

Maturity

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Maturity is one of those concepts whose meaning has changed through my life.

As a child, maturity was something we wanted to achieve. Being mature was equated with acting in a dignified, grown-up manner. In voices dripping with sarcasm, “Oh, that’s really mature,” was a common insult among my brothers and sisters. “You’re being childish,” was another. Other, similar chastisements came from parents, teachers and friends, as well as siblings.

“Grow up!”

“Act your age!”

“Behave yourself!”

“Quit being such a baby!”

So, I strived to be more mature. Through my childhood, and right on into adulthood, I worked to control my temper and my tears. Both have always been my most common responses to frustration or stress. Those, and sometimes a case of the giggles at the most inappropriate times. They still are. Clearly, none are very mature ways to deal with difficult situations. I still try to do better.

Something changed, though, while I was rehearsing conversations, practicing alternate reactions to possible scenarios, and reading up on The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. I got old! Wrinkles and gray hair would give me away if I tried to deny it, which I don’t. But, you know how old age is referred to? Maturity!

So, maturity has finally found me, though not in any of the ways I went looking for it. I still lose my temper more often than I’d like. I continue to embarrass myself by my inability to control my tears when I’m frustrated by a confrontation. Sometimes, still, I laugh when it is definitely not the proper response. I doubt anyone, though, looking at my wizened countenance, is going to tell me to “grow up,” or “act my age.” Clearly, I have matured. I’m just not yet very mature!

How Do We Go On?

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The photo I snapped this morning, to record our first “sticking” snow of the season, came out almost like a black and white image. That’s fitting, as this place seems to have lost a lot of its color today.

Though there have been a few, always tragic, crashes involving private or charter planes, accidents, here, are rare. On Beaver Island, we have two air taxi services: Island Airways, and Fresh Air Aviation. They make dozens of trips a day between the mainland and our remote island, delivering passengers and packages and mail, and that are, for four months of every year, our only physical connection to the mainland. They serve our needs in a hundred ways, safely and thoughtfully. Both do a wonderful job. Island Airways has been around the longest, having served the island for more than seventy years.

Yesterday, coming in for a landing on a blustery day, one of the Island Airways planes crashed. The tragedy unfolded through the afternoon. In town, we first learned that all of our emergency vehicles and personnel, ambulance, EMT, fire trucks, and sheriff, were headed south. That told us that it was something big; faces reflected the tension as we waited for more news. Slowly, information came, as people came in. It happened at the airport. The Coast Guard sent helicopters. it was a plane crash.

“Wait,” we told ourselves and each other, “you know how facts get garbled.” We reached out hands and gave out hugs, and looked into faces filled with worry and concern and sadness. That bit of connection was all we had, as we waited.

By last night, there were news reports. Three dead at the scene; two airlifted out in critical condition; one of those died. At this time, one young girl is the only survivor. Some names were revealed. They are people we know. We know their smiles, their history, their projects, their families. They all feel like family. The island grieves together. It’s like a thick fog we are stumbling around in. What do we say? What do we do next? How do we continue?

Social media, which is often filled with current events, family pictures and petty grievances, is suddenly awash with images: a candle’s flame. One light in the darkness, posted and shared, sometimes with a few words, sometimes alone. It’s just a small way of reaching out, from whatever distance, to say “I feel it, too,” “I care,” “We are family.” Just a small light, a tiny spark, to help to lead us through. Until we figure out how to go on.

Timeout for Art: Making Room

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Last week, my “timeout for art” topic was “bare minimum.” Appropriate, because that’s about all I’ve been able to do lately.

This is a busy time for me, even in years that I’m not preparing for an art show. The garden needs to be cleaned up: vines pulled, tomato cages stored; raspberries cut back. Leaves settle in to all the flower beds, around the shrubs, and against the house. I don’t battle them as vigorously as I probably should, but I make an effort, until the snow comes. Inside, this is the time for weatherizing against the cold. For two weeks in a row, I picked up extra days at work. Good for my budget, but a strain to my schedule.

This year, my focus was on the October art show: art-making, matting and framing, documenting, pricing, packaging, shipping, travelling, setting-up, attending the opening reception, follow-up tasks, and then finally arranging to have it taken down, boxed, and stored. Though I received a bunch of support and much-needed assistance, and it was a successful show and a good experience, it was still exhausting!

So, I gave myself time to recover. Time to mull over the adventure of it all, the mountain of things that had to be ticked off my list to pull it together, and the fact that I managed to do it. Time to settle back in at home, taking time with the dogs and with all the necessary fall activities. Time to get back to a regular schedule. I’m not always good at functioning “full-throttle,” but when it comes to “recovery-time,” I’m a master at it. But, it’s been a month. I’m getting anxious to get back into the studio. So, this week my focus was on making room for doing just that.

The small upstairs room that has been my meditation/exercise space, and was given over to matting and framing activities over the last few months, had been then converted to a bedroom for my grandson. He moved in for about ten days, to take care of my dogs while I was away. He and I pulled the metal bed frame out of the side attic, and set it up. In order for the bed to fit in the small room, I had to move my Pilates chair, a small table, and a side chair into the studio.

We dragged the metal box springs, that I’d gotten free at a yard sale, up the stairs, around a tight corner, up and over and onto the frame…where it fell through, to the floor. Though we tried it several times, all accompanied by lots of groans and cussing, it was clearly not going to work. Unwilling to re-visit the struggle of getting it up the stairs and around the corner, only in reverse, we just left it on the floor. We pulled out the wooden support that served the same purpose, though without the bounce and comfort of springs, then dragged the mattress out and put it on top. Sheets on, and we were done.

And, though I knew it needed to be dealt with, I’ve been pretty much ignoring it for the last month. During which time I’ve added to the already impossible crowded studio with several packing boxes. It seems, in getting things ready for the show, I ordered frames, in the 16 x 20 size, three times, thinking that the problem was that I had forgotten to order them, when in fact they were on backorder. Which I would have known, if I had read the company’s letters, rather than being so quick to believe my memory was failing! So, the studio has been packed, clumsily, to the rafters, impossible to even get through the door.

To remedy that, the bed had to come down, so that the side chair, small table and Pilates chair could be returned to their places, so that I could start to make sense of the rest. Getting that bed in to or out of that narrow side attic is a monumental job, that I should not have tackled alone. I managed it, but then spent the last two days in bed, with my back out. I had to miss work yesterday. Today, I’m better. And, feeling better, I can appreciate the progress I’ve made. Eventually, I’m confident I will once again have room for making art!

Longing

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The feeling of longing, I think, is something we grow out of as we get older.

It was certainly a big part of my childhood, all those desperate, sometimes contradictory yearnings:
  • can’t wait for new school clothes
  • can’t wait to start school
  • can’t wait for snow
  • can’t wait for Christmas
  • can’t wait for the new baby to be born
  • can’t wait for warm weather
  • can’t wait for summer vacation
  • can’t wait to go to Beaver Island
  • can’t wait to be whatever future age seemed most filled with promise at that time. I tended to long for the multiples of five, at least until I reached fifteen.

These things, that I knew were coming but seemed impossible to wait for, mingled with a few other longings that were not likely to happen. I wished that I were an only child, much loved and appreciated by my [much more stylish than in real life] parents, and that we lived in a house surrounded by a white picket fence. I longed to grow up to look like Annette Funicello. I prayed that “Little Joe” Cartwright was real, and would fall in love with me.

But, I grew older, and away from many of those childish desires. As a teen-ager, I still wished to look like Annette Funicello, or any number of other shapely, beautiful women. I couldn’t wait to grow up, and get on with real life. Though I still could hardly wait for Christmas, and summer vacation, most of my longings involved falling in love, getting married, and starting a family. Oh, and an ideal little home, filled with French Provincial furniture, and a yard surrounded by a white picket fence.

As a young adult, married with children, most of my longings were centered around home and family. I remember feeling desperately afraid that I wouldn’t measure up. That permeated every area of my life. I longed for change in my looks, personality and parenting ability. I longed for a better life personally and financially. I longed for a better house, though I had perhaps given up on the white picket fence. And there were times, though few and far between, when I felt perfectly satisfied, and that I had every single thing I ever wanted.

Later, while raising children on my own, I let go of the desperate ache for something more. Then, it was a blessing just to get by. It was so challenging just to manage to pay the bills, to put food on the table, to keep my daughters happy and healthy, that I didn’t wish for anything beyond that. I was satisfied. Through that experience, I learned to be happy with what I have.

Now, with age, longing is not really a part of my life. There’s no sense in wishing for the seasons to change. They will change in their own time, and the years pass quickly enough without me wishing them away. I look forward to holidays, or summer, or up-coming trips, but I’m happy in the moment, to wait. I am content with what I have. When I feel I’m lacking something important, I put it on a list, and work toward getting it. There is no feeling of desperation involved. There are people, gone now, that I miss, that I would love to see again, but no amount of wishing for it will bring that about.

I still have goals, and aspirations. There are things that I sometimes think might make my life richer…but even then, I’m skeptical. Mostly, I am happy to live my life devoid of longing. Because that is a life filled with contentment!

Timeout for Art: The Bare Minimum

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Blackie Chan

One smart thing I’ve done in many areas of my life is establish a bare minimum. I always make the bed and do the dishes, even on days when I have no energy or inclination for housework. I fill one page in my journal each day, even if I have no desire to write. If I am too lazy to do an entire exercise program, I’ll at least do the warm-up. I always walk the dogs.

I have spared myself many slothful days by maintaining minimal standards: clean one shelf; do one push-up; weed one flower bed. Sometimes, by the time I’ve finished the required minimum, I find I’m on a roll, and manage to surprise myself with how much more I can accomplish. Other days, I console myself with the idea that, “at least I got that small bit done.”

In art, I have a series of “first steps” that are sometimes exactly what I need to nudge myself into a productive day. I’ll convince myself to just go into the studio, just to have a look. Or, maybe, to just do a little organizing there. Or simply gathering materials for another day’s work. Sometimes, even these small steps seem like too much to fit into a day. Daily drawing is my absolute bare minimum.

These certainly aren’t “fine art.” Small thumbnail drawings, they don’t even fill an entire page of my sketch book. Some pages, in fact, have a dozen little drawings. None take more than a few minutes to complete. There are days when I feel like I’ve expanded my observation or rendering skills, or learned something new about how to depict shadow and light. Most of the time, it isn’t that dramatic. The reward is simply in the discipline. On even the most uninspired days, I can accomplish the bare minimum.

Learning

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I love to learn. I say that easily…but is it true?

More accurate, I guess, is that I like knowledge. I like knowing things. I like being smart. What I often lack, unfortunately, is the required humility to be a good learner. It’s often difficult to be open to instruction. I’m impatient. I want to jump ahead, to already have the information or ability. And, because I am pretty smart, am a good reader, have some problem solving skills and artistic ability, I tend to over-estimate what I’m capable of.

I have often walked into classrooms fully expecting simply to show off the knowledge or ability I already possessed. Then, at the first test, submitted paper, or art critique, I’ve been stunned to realize that I’m not nearly as exceptional as I led myself to believe. After that shock comes defensiveness and false justification. Who or what could I blame for the fact that I’m not as bright as I thought I was? Humility follows, and with that, finally, the ability to learn.

It’s not usually easy to get to that point. It feels like a surrender. A failure, somehow. Once there, though, it’s a good feeling, to be receptive to new information and to give in to the idea that there is more out there to learn. That, in fact, I don’t already know everything.

That’s not always the case, of course. There are classes I’ve taken that were clearly well beyond my realm of knowledge or experience, when I entered knowing that I was a novice, and was fully open to being enlightened. Spanish, for instance. Art History. Geology. And any course involving Mathematics. The experience, then, is like that huge leap from zero to one. That’s when learning is most rewarding: offering brand new ideas; opening windows and doors in the mind; and creating pathways for thought and comparison that hadn’t existed before. For that feeling of enlightenment, I am a lifelong learner.

Though my instruction comes mainly from books these days, I actively pursue new information and insights. One book leads to another and then another. I became interested in Women’s Studies in the 1970s; after reading Greer, Friedan, Daly and other modern authors, I was anxious to know more about the history of the movement. That led even farther back, to the persecution of witches, women’s lives in Medieval times, and then back to ancient Greece and Rome. A few years ago, I went down a path on Arctic and Antarctic exploration. They are good books to make our Michigan winters seem mild and quite bearable! Recently, a historical novel set during the French Revolution has spurred me to learn more about that period of time.

I am always striving to be a better – more enlightened, healthy, contented and organized – person. To that end, much of my reading is in the realm of self-help. And, though I could count a dozen books I’ve read, for instance, on forming good habits, and they often even reference each other, they rarely seem redundant. Part of that stems from my belief that I have a lot to learn. Part of it is because I forget. It seems my memory is not as good as it once was, and I don’t retain knowledge the way I used to. That’s okay, I guess, as long as I keep giving myself more information. Luckily, I love to learn!

Timeout for Art: What’s Next?

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For most of August and the entire month of September, my focus was on getting work ready for an October show. I had to put all “work in progress” on hold to give my attention to matting, framing, boxing and shipping. There was paperwork to be done for the gallery: some to aid in their promotions; some regarding liability and compensation. Titles, sizes, and prices had to be reviewed and recorded for each piece of art submitted.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about my processes and techniques, as well as my motivation and direction. Perhaps like many visually-oriented people, I have an easier time making things, than I do talking about the “how” and “why.” Yet, once the work was delivered and hung, the gallery was hosting a reception, during which I might be called upon to do exactly that. I had to be ready for questions.

Finally, there was the travel, and all the unrelated-to-art activities that go along with it. Like packing, getting a hair-cut, shopping, and catching up with family and friends. And all the art-related activities: delivering the work, helping to hang the show, taking photographs, and expounding on my methods and materials to all the kind people that showed interest. Home again, it took me a while to recover. Travelling is hard work!

Now, finally, I’m beginning to think about the studio again. When I drew the line on working on anything new, in order to get the finished pieces ready to display, I had a group of six panels underway. I applied black gesso to a large, square stretched canvas several months ago, and have been playing around with different ideas for that. I framed one black and white collagraph for the show, but I have several other images from that plate that I plan to add color to.

One large painting was a new direction for me. I liked it, but then started second-guessing myself. I went back and forth about whether to even submit it for the show. Sometimes I like to sit on things for awhile, to make sure my initial assessment was correct. No time for that this time. I nervously boxed it up and shipped it, thinking, “at least I’ll get some feedback on it.” It created a little bit of a buzz at the opening, and it was the first piece I sold there. So, now I’m thinking of several variations on that theme that I’d like to explore.

So, I guess I’ve got a few possibilities for what comes next!