The Learning Doesn't Stop

    I’m currently among a group of people who are working the online program called “Daring Greatly” offered by Brene Brown. This first week we’re focusing on our values (among other things). In the process, I’ve discovered something about my interactions with a particularly toxic person who has since died but left fossilized tentacles of poison behind.

    A bit of backstory. He was a particular type of brutal:  one who kept things changing and so shaken up that those who dared to disagree with or disobey him always found themselves on shifting sands and coming away with the sense they somehow “lost’ the fight. In reality, those of us who disagreed and disobeyed didn’t actually lose the fight; we lost his approval and acceptance largely because he couldn’t own any portion of the role he played in pushing away his family. And it took me, in particular, a long time to realize I never would get his approval.

    For so many years, I carried this sense of never being good enough for him and the extended family he belonged to. I so often felt frustrated he couldn’t “see” what he was doing. (He could; he just didn’t admit it, as I discovered later.) And he never gave me credit for anything good unless it was about cooking and even then, only provided a very back-handed compliment.

    “I don’t care what anyone says about Anne, she can really bake.”

    That’s as close as he ever came to validating any portion of me. In fact, he accused me of f’ing up a member of his family.

    I don’t intend this backstory to vent or marginalize him as a person. Only to use it as a backdrop for a few lessons I learned very recently, lessons I’d like to share in the hope of easing someone else’s way. It’s only now, this week, that I’ve come to a very different viewpoint about my worth and how to handle the lessons provided me through this man.

    Every time we speak our truth, we display vulnerability and great moral courage. In my case, I stand up for people over money, gratitude over scarcity, giving over taking, loving over hating. The problem, though, was that both the inner sense of insecurity and our deep desire to fit often lead us to the conclusion something is “wrong” with each of us. That we aren’t good enough, wealthy enough, whatever-enough to earn passage into someone else’s inner sanctum and permission to sit at the table.

    I received this gem of insight from a coworker many years my junior.

    “Mama,” she said, using her nickname for me, “you did exactly what you had to do at the time in order to learn what you had to learn and to teach the people affected by him what they needed to learn at that time, too.”

    This triggered some really deep digging for me, so much so I wrote the following in my journal:

    “…Intellectually, I knew I was enough but I never took it to the next level of ‘Where, in my life, am I allowing others’ opinions affect my view of myself?’ And then to an even deeper level of looking at specific instances, breaking them down to separate components and addressing each component. Then, taking it [still deeper] to the deepest part that required the greatest amount of work:  taking the learning and applying it to every day life, as a practice. …”

    So I learned a second lesson this week:  it’s not enough when we intellectualize things.We have to take things down to the deepest level possible, squeeze every bit of learning from them, and then practice what we learn in every day life. Making spiritual work - from writing to reading to doodling in an art journal - a daily practice can be an equivalent of daily prayer. Centering. Focusing. Caring. Listening. All with a sense of gratitude and self-worthiness. From spirituality flows the courage and honesty, the integrity and sense that we are all important and have so much to offer.

    And as a daily evening practice, I go to “church” - night time walks under the glow of Moon, lifting my face to the Wind and smiling as I watch my dogs enjoy the night as much as I do - as a way of unwinding, smoothing the ragged edges of the day, and relaxing into Spirit.

    My wish for you is that you come to realize your incredible worth, find ways to your truest self, and live from that part of you as a daily practice.

    Be of good spirits.

Creative Courage

I just looked up the definition of “courage” and all but one definition stated something to the effect that courage means having the mental or moral strength to stand up for something in the face of pain, fear, or danger.

Over the last week or two, I’ve come to understand courage as applying to all aspects of life and how we live it. We all have pain, emotional or otherwise, we have to deal with and fears that rise up or descend upon us when we least expect them. Which brings me to thinking about the place courage - or being courageous - holds in our creative processes.

Sometimes we suspect our creative projects will bring pain, either in the form of memories or as something we’re dealing with on a more immediate basis. And, as humans and creatives, we don’t like pain. We will often do whatever we have to do to avoid it. Remember, our bodies are imbued with pain avoidance and fear responses as a means of self-preservation but we needn’t always give into the avoidance or fear. Some of us still manage to create, plowing through the fear, knowing full well what we paint or write or sew or express will, in some way, bring pain.

I think creative courage means stepping out of our comfort zones and into those areas which cause a certain amount of pain. We don’t have to be fearless when our natural fear response steps in and revs up. What we have to do is to move through fear and feel the pain in order to come out on the other side.

Sometimes creative courage is more about stepping away from a project in order to get to one that’s truer to a dream we hold. But what often accompanies that is a feeling of failure:  Why did I start this project and now don’t have the resolve to finish it? But maybe it’s not about resolve at all. Maybe it’s more about not being stopped or deterred in the face of the pain that comes when we categorize something as a “failure.”

Or maybe, when we step away from a project we’ve spent a lot of time developing, we feel we've wasted our time. But maybe it’s really more about seeing the original project as an avenue to the truer project. Maybe it’s about looking at the project and realizing the time invested in it isn’t wasted at all, because we always learn from attempts we make in any direction when pursuing creative projects. A few weeks ago, I stepped away from my most current project, giving myself some time for reflection about it because the deeper I got into the project itself, the more it felt less my own. The deeper I went into my reflection of it, the more I recognized my project started bringing a certain amount of anxiety and spiritual dissatisfaction rather than joy and a sense of “rightness.” Within these few weeks, I realized the project - as it had been going along - became less and less the one I envisioned. 

Initially, I thought “Oh, no. Now I’m right back to square one.”  But that’s not true at all. All the things I learned while developing the project are now being channeled into a project that has more to do with my own vision.

I’ve realized creative courage means taking the steps to start a project, regardless of fear and in spite of the pain. But it’s also about taking the steps away from a project, if needed and regardless of time invested, and starting over in order to drill down even deeper into what’s true for me.

I’m wishing you courage to take the steps needed to start, or stop, or restart any project, in the hopes of it becoming aligned with the truest “you” imaginable.

 

Light Box Epiphanies

Our SW Florida home is designed to keep direct sunlight at bay. Our porches are deep and under cover, shielded by trees and large shrubs. So as I prepare to take pictures of my greeting cards, this wonderful home of ours doesn’t provide enough light of the sort needed to provide the crisp contrast good online photos that prospective buyers need. 

    Hence, the light box.

    I’d first heard about light boxes while taking an online class with Kelly Rae Roberts and then went to YouTube to watch videos. Looked pretty straightforward:  get a large, rectangular cardboard box; cut open two opposite sides and a top, leaving a frame around each opening about one inch wide; attach white fabric to the sides and top, fabric that would provide diffused light while providing enough oomph to get that contrast. Then, a solid back and bottom, covered with said cloth and an open end from which to take the picture.  Put the picture inside, set up lamps on the sides draped in white cloth and maybe a light above, depending how much was needed. Click.

    Voila!

    Well, maybe not. Because by the time I actually got around to making the light box, I’d forgotten all about the need to reinforce those one-inch sections in order to keep the box from collapsing. Let me just say the attempt was not pretty, nor very functional.

    But!…I remembered to ask for help. My wonderfully gifted, contractor/builder husband simply took some sections of cut up cardboard, punched in some holes, and wired it all together as a skeleton of sorts. Now it stands, waiting to do the work.

    As I recalled my measuring, swearing, trying to get the sections evenly spaced, swearing, cutting, swearing, and trying to get it to stand - and saw just how well things worked out once I asked for help - a few realizations came to mind.

    Asking for help and spending time with other creatives provide me the support I need but too much of this draws me into procrastination which I “do” terribly well. I am a serious expert at putting things off.  (I even procrastinate about procrastinating!) On the other hand, time alone allows me to work at this creative life of mine but too much aloneness will ultimately find me descending into isolation and negative self-talk. Not a good thing for me as this type of descent is way too easy for me. Even after all these years, I still have to stay alert to it once again becoming my default reaction. 

    Where's the balance, then, because I’m not convinced we can achieve balance in our lives? We really have little control over what life presents us, often at the most unexpected times and usually in amounts that can topple us right over. Personally, I can’t usually maintain a balance because sometimes I need more of one thing than the other. 

    So the epiphany this whole light box project delivered is that creativity has to be cyclical for me.

    When I start wondering about the quality of a project - at the very first sign of wondering if something is “good” or what I’m “really trying to say” - well, that’s the time to step away and take myself on a date. When I start staying away from a project, telling myself I’ll get back to it right after [insert any possible excuse], hmmm, that’s the time discipline has to come into play and I have to park my butt wherever I need to, in order to get back to the creating part of things.

    Cycling from idea to doing to stepping away to be with others to coming back and finishing. 

    I think I get it now.

 

Coming Together

    The longer I thought about writing a very special, very personal message in time for the holiday, the solstice, or the deepening darkness, the more anxious I became. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I found myself trying to offer a message which could’ve found me back at square one:  trying to post something that wasn’t all together genuine, that was forced and, as a result, against the values this space holds dear. 

    So, I didn’t.

    And then I forgave myself.

    Not for passing on the post, but for trying to force myself to offer something that meant well but fell short on sincerity.

    In the few days since, I’ve had the time to reflect on just how I spent the last week or so and I find myself experiencing a renewed sense of peace. I enjoyed baking cookies - both old, ethnic favorites and new recipes - and the old ethnic ones tasted best. We didn’t decorate outdoors but hung an ancient red cellophane wreath with a candle in the center and the power cord long gone, unable to survive decades of being left in the un-insulated attic on Center Street. That old wreath is still my favorite and I can’t part with it.

    I watered and dead-headed my flowers, fed the wildlife, walked through night-time streets lit by the moon, stars, and Christmas lights. Reflected on how we managed to make this time of year feel real, wrapped in the humid breezes coming off the Gulf Stream rather than woolies and heat from the furnace. Griping - just a bit - about the record high temperature of 87 degrees on Christmas day but thankful sub-freezing temperatures are no longer a part of our traditions. 

    And it dawned on me, slowly, that the reason why the ethnic food tastes best, why the old wreath sits in a place of honor, is that they allow me to experience a sense of connection with where I come from and integrate it with where I’ve landed. The traditional foods and customs from my childhood hold distinguished places in my adulthood because I hold a place in the march of my ancestors and continue the legacy given me by them. Quiet routines like making coffee after baking our Slavic nut rolls and still talking to my mother, who is now on the other side, about the price of the nuts and how fresh they were - all are personal treasures. I cherish those old, cardboard Christmas village houses, now paper-thin, even more so since I have to touch up the “snow” on the church steeple with baby powder to cover over years of rust-colored dust and the marks made by chubby children’s hands over time.

    These are timeless traditions for me and this year, they quietly mingle with an elusive ability, newly acquired, if not to forgive the sins and omissions - real or imagined - of the past, then to at least get to a point of practicing forbearance toward them. The realization that I come from a long line of strong women, even if they didn’t show their strength in ways I might show my own, warms me. The ability to celebrate without the stress of hosting “expected” dinners for extended family brings joy and relaxation, both of which often went missing in years past.

    The old recipes and the new. The well-used, well-loved Christmas village and the newer practice of decorating less in order to celebrate more. Young and old. New and used. All form and fill the vessel called Soul. The past to be blessed for whatever it brought; the present to be lived here and now, in the moment; a future that fills one with hope. 

    Each of which brings us all in connection with each other and can bring each of us to a place of grace and gratitude.

    I wish you connection. I wish you grace. And I am so profoundly grateful for all of you.

Some Thoughts that Come as the Nights Lengthen

    We’ve all had the experience of having to deal with negative thoughts - often about ourselves - that swirl around inside our heads until they become whirlpools of self-doubt. Mine usually come around whenever I dwell too much on the non-acceptance directed at me by relatives and in-laws over the years. The memory of a single incident sometimes pops up and can instantly deflate me. But these are the easiest for me to handle because I can quickly recognize for them for what they are and can release them straight away.

    Other memories that come as the sum of feelings years in the making are much more cunning than those easily brushed aside. They sneak in, a series of small cellophane memories of old home movies that play in my head. I think I manage to push them aside but they somehow manage to link together as continuous frames of old dramas and before I know it, I have a mess of stuff to edit away, to leave on the cutting room floor. And, if I’m not very, very careful, all the “stuff” can spiral me downward into a full-blown depression.

    So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address reactions to painful, old memories.

    Many of us realize we can’t control the events of our lives in every, single case. We try to stay away from situations that might create new and less-than-desirable memories. We know sometimes new situations simply present themselves and they can be distasteful and unavoidable. But we can remind ourselves that we only own own reactions to events like these, not always the events themselves.

Single events that suddenly present themselves are generally easier for me to deal with; I try to stay in the moment, picture my boundary wall or protective bubble, and leave the event as early as possible. Usually, although not always, this keeps too much of other people’s yuck from sticking to me. (My wall and bubble are non-stick, by the way.)

    However, memories don’t allow us the opportunity to just walk away. They’ve already happened and we can’t change them. But that’s just where our power to deal with them lies:  realizing we can’t change the past or do anything differently to modify the event itself. We can’t go back, no matter how much we may want to do just that, nor can we change anyone’s opinion of us in the context of biological family and family-by-marriage.

And a while back - when I paused long enough to really consider my family and family-by-marriage interactions, their natures and their own family dynamics - the “AHA!” of realizing their opinions of me don’t mean jack to me was and still is liberating.

    We often spend so many years selling ourselves out by morphing into someone else’s vision of ourselves and of trying to fit in. We rationalize pain rather than work through it. 

I try not to waste any more of my life at it. So many years filled with constantly changing expectations and trying to meet them; love and connection withheld by people who couldn’t face their own lives and created stories of blame toward me to justify their own unwillingness to assume their responsibility - all of it found me self-injuring as my life-force seeped from me. My dreams disappeared along with parts of my soul during those years. Inviting those parts back, welcoming their return, and honoring them were hard-fought and hard-won.

I won’t give them up again.

    No more self-sacrifice on altars of deception, on dogma that says “Unless you are blood, you will never be enough. Unless you willingly close your eyes and keep drinking from our toxic well of lies and self-deceit, we will never accept you” or “Unless you assume the blame for us not staying in touch, we won’t come around.”

    Fine. Don’t.

    I’ve begun to worship at a different altar, one of trees and sky, sun and moon, all of creation. An altar that didn’t require deception and self-deception, only love and wonder and awe and gratefulness.

    My dogma - honesty, curiosity, inclusivity - celebrates, it doesn’t denigrate or blame or neglect.

    When our thoughts veer toward destructive, let’s focus on the instructive as much as we can. When others’ wounded-ness triggers our own in such a way that we begin to rate our worth according to others’ standards, it’s time to stop.

And not just stop but come to a screeching stop.

    I stop. Sit. Remind myself what’s happening. Clear out the remnants of gunk and junk, get back on my own path, worship at my own altar according to my own dogma.

    In this season of shortening days and lengthening darkness, I hope you create beautiful altars unique to you and write your own dogma according to your own truth.