Choose Contentment

I’m still working on the big changes I mentioned in my last post. Launching the new website and blog like I imagine will probably take a month or so (due to only having sporadic chunks of time these days), but wanted to give you a glimpse into what the changes are all about. Part of what I’m learning right now is that no matter what circumstance you find yourself in, you have a choice to be miserable or to feel content/happy/satisfied/successful, and why choose the former? My mama always told me happiness is a choice, and said if I wasn’t feeling great, I could act as if I was and it would be so. Here are some fascinating TED talks about choice and happiness that actually back that up with some interesting science:

Dan Gilbert, “Why Are We Happy?”

Barry Schwartz, “The Paradox of Choice”

To sum them up, Dan Gilbert says that both our longings and our worries are overblown. We put too much stock in thinking we might be better or worse off if something wonderful or something terrible happens. It turns out we already have within us the capacity to manufacture the happiness we are constantly chasing or fear losing, and it doesn’t make much of a difference when those other things happen because we still are who we are.

Barry Schwartz says when we have too many choices, it actually makes us less happy. In this modern world, when we have choices galore, from potential partners to careers to salad dressings, we easily become paralyzed or regret decisions we’ve made. My goal for myself these days is still to pursue my creative ambitions, but to know that achieving them will not make or break my personal satisfaction. My happiness lies in choosing to see and appreciate what I already have and what is all around me wherever I may be. Check back in for the new blog and web content that will help you to choose contentment, too.


Can We Have It All?: Redefining Success

Our culture is obsessed with success stories. We love a good rags to riches tale, an American Idol who came from nowhere and rose to the top can move millions to cast their votes, and we teach our kids they can become whatever they want to be if they just work hard enough. The dark inverse of this “meritocratic” societal belief, as writer/philosopher Alain de Botton infers in a fascinating TED talk, is that we must think those who are at the bottom are there because they deserve to be.  When success as defined by status, fame and riches is perceived to be attainable by all, the stakes of failure become higher. We become “losers” if we try and fail. We become envious that others are able to achieve their dreams while we somehow cannot.

This puts enormous pressure on those pursuing their passions to succeed. David Sedaris says if your life is a stove with four burners for family, friends, health, and work, you have to cut off at least one of the burners in order to be successful.  Throw kids into the mix and the dreams feel even further out of reach. Ayelet Waldmen expresses this well in an essay in her book Bad Mother in which she says she feels lied to by the feminists of the ’70s who taught her she could “have it all”, a family and the career of her dreams. Madeleine L’Engle writes in A Circle of Quiet that “the various pressures of twentieth-century living have made it impossible for the young mother with pre-school children to have any solitude. During the long years before our youngest child went to school, my love for my family and my need to write were in acute conflict.”  I relate to her frustration and her quip that none of the great artists would have qualified for a mental health certificate (much less a Parent of the Year award).  This sentiment was reflected in a recent article at the99% about Chris Guillebeau from the Art of Non-Conformity. He says, “Balanced people don’t usually change the world. Something’s gotta give and it’s up to each of us to determine what that’s going to be and how we’re going to allocate our energy.”

Since my return to working everyday, these ideas have all been warring in my head with the emotions of missing my baby, and longing for more time to pursue writing and other creative ventures. Botton’s assertions that you cannot have it all, that there is no such thing as work/life balance, and that you have to accept loss in some areas were causing despair to set into this perfectionistic over-achiever’s heart. His only hope came in urging everyone to define for themselves what a successful life is. This theme also appeared in the book I just posted about by Summer Pierre, when she suggests answering “what does the good life look like for you specifically“?

It was an excellent practice for me to think through what my ideal of “success” would look like. Status, fame and riches are nowhere near the top of my definition of success. I found an alternative definition from another TED talk by John Wooden: “Success is peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing that you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”  I love that. It’s only measured by me, not what anyone else thinks.

When I look back on my life so far, I am satisfied that I have accomplished everything of which I was capable. I could only define success in relation to what I knew at the time, so it has changed and expanded. When I was young, it was simply to make better choices than my parents – to stay sober, to not get pregnant too young, to go to college. When I went to college, I had no idea what else I wanted to achieve, so I decided to become the highest and best career I had been exposed to and emulated a beloved teacher, becoming a high school art teacher at the age of 21. Then, as I saw more of the world through travel, I realized there was so much more I might want to do, and that I wasn’t ready to teach yet. Success at various stages since then have meant pursuing a relationship with God, working on a harmonious marriage, learning to cope with anxiety, starting my own businesses, becoming financially stable, and lately, being the best mama I can be. When I look back to where I started, instead of feeling envious of where I see other people I admire, I can be proud of the choices I’ve made, and know I can go on to achieve whatever I set my mind to do.

The fact that I even have space for this desire to achieve something new is a function of my previous successes. I am building on the balance I have worked so hard to create, and I do believe I can have it all. I don’t have to turn off the burner of my health or my family to make room for creating art. I have already started ruthlessly weeding out other things that waste my precious time. In addition, it might mean turning off the TV or the Internet more often. Maybe it means a little less sleep (now that Little Man is almost a year old and sleeping well, this is an option again). I don’t have to achieve all my dreams at once, but if I can break them down into small pieces and work on them a little bit every day, I will define that as success at this stage of my life.

(On another note, I started this blog nearly two years ago, and it has been as scattered as my mind was through this time. It has been a place for me to vent, to try out various forms of writing from mommyblogging to travel journalism, and to post my art work. I have a new vision for it now. A more focused approach that I’m really excited about. Expect big changes in the blog and my website over the next few weeks. Prepare to be inspired. Nothing is going to stop me from having it all, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.)

Books, People

Summer Pierre: The Artist in the Office

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard

I have been thinking a lot about jobs lately – why we work, how we end up doing what we do, what those choices lead to, etc.  I’ve often felt a disconnect between what I do for a living and what I wish I was doing with my time (even more so now with a baby). I’m sure everyone goes through moments like that, but I think creative types often have an idea that making Art (with a capital A) and making a living are incompatible and struggle with not feeling like a legitimate Artist if they have an unrelated day job. As I’ve recently gone back to work full-time, I have been trying to deconstruct that myth and look for ways to incorporate Art into the everyday.

Lo and behold, one of my favorite Artists, blogger/author/illustrator Summer Pierre, has written a book on the subject, and I had the opportunity to see her read from it last night at Books, Inc. It’s called The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week. I haven’t read it all yet, but just from the excerpts she used to sum it up and the first few pages I perused last night, it is exactly in line with what I’ve been pondering these days. She doesn’t encourage wild fantasies of dropping everything in your life to become who you truly think you’re meant to be. She asks you to look at the life you are in and analyze how you got here and what the job you have is doing for you. For example, though dogwalking has its frustrations, it allows me a lot of time to think, to be outdoors, to be with happy dogs instead of disgruntled co-workers, to be my own boss, and to afford to live in this amazing city where I can actually go see authors speak.  I’ve had a few “dream jobs”, but no matter how good a job is, they get old. I bet even if I was writing and illustrating full-time, I would find things to be frustrated about. In the book, Summer challenges you to shift your perspective and find ways to keep yourself living creatively throughout your days, as opposed to feeling like you can only create while you’re off the clock. Instead of feeling like you are living two lives (your work life, and your “real” life), she reminds you it is only one life, and it is yours. With examples of famous authors and artists who had day jobs alongside their illustrious careers, tips for prioritizing your life and exercises to try to get your creative juices flowing, Summer makes you feel like it’s not only possible, but a realistic and tangible goal to be an Artist (with a capital A) and keep your day job.

I am thrilled to have met her, as I’ve been following her blog for awhile. It’s such an odd thing to feel like you know someone you’ve officially never met, but she is a kindred spirit and it was nice to connect. Her husband and darling son were in the audience. They are on a small California book tour together (see if she’s coming to a town near you). She has another book coming out in November. Hooray for artist mamas making the life of their dreams. I am inspired. Congrats, Summer!

Check out her book and her blog.

And check out another job related podcast that has been fueling my thoughts about our occupational choices lately.


Be an Enthusiast

Since landing face first into reality upon returning from an amazing vacation and going back to work full-time after nearly a year of a sweet part-time schedule with Little Man, I haven’t had much time to blog, and frankly, haven’t felt like I had much to contribute since I was in a bit of a funk. It’s hard to leave your baby with somebody else. It’s hard to spend your time doing something to earn money rather than being with this little person who has become the center of your universe. That said, I’m coming out of grieving, counting my blessings because there are a lot more difficult things people have to go through, and refocusing on how to make the most of the situation I’m in. Part of that is remembering to be an enthusiast. I don’t have the time right now to read all the books I want to or travel as much as I’d like or to make much art, but instead of feeling frustrated about that, I am trying to find things I can get excited about all around me.

When I was an art teacher, I had a quote by Henry Miller hanging in the room. “Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.” I moved to San Francisco to experience interesting, throbbing culture. Nine years later, it’s easy to be numb to it as I go about my business. Why live here if I am not engaged in exploring my enthusiasms? So, lately, I have been trying to do things that wake me up, that get my pulse racing, and wouldn’t you know it, I feel positive, have ideas, and am ready to create again (in whatever small chunks of time I can piece together, usually late at night like this, which means I’m not getting much sleep lately, but c’est la vie).

Things that have been getting me going:

-Changing my routine: Since going back to walking dogs everyday, I try to drive down alternative streets while I’m picking them up, take them to various parks, choose the path less trodden, anything to keep me out of the autopilot mode I so easily fall into. If I can be present in the moment, like dogs always are, I enjoy the walks on a visceral level. I can feel strength flow through my body as it moves. I remember what an ardent admirer I am of trees and how grateful I am for fresh air and open spaces. All it takes is a conscious shift in my awareness.

-Noticing things: Have you seen the amazingly large new statue in front of City Hall? How about the beautiful mural in progress on Fell and Pierce? What about the crazy 80s outfits people are wearing and they aren’t even joking (seriously, Hammer/I Dream of Genie pants, ladies? Really?!)?  People are out there creating art and expressing themselves and making dreadful fashion mistakes and taking risks and living fascinating lives. Yes! Inspiration around every corner. Even hanging out at the park with Little Man and seeing how he notices every leaf on the ground and wants to inspect it helps me be enamored with the world again.

-Listening to Public Radio – Since I am stuck in my car for much of the day, my iPod plugged into the car stereo has been my umbilical cord to the source of nutrients I need to stimulate the growth of my mind (I get this almost nowhere else since I am not able to read much or take classes or meet up with fascinating people these days). My regular subscriptions are: The Sound of Young America, This American Life, Fresh Air, The Moth, To the Best of Our Knowlege, PRI: Arts and Entertainment, Radio Lab and Freakonomics (the latter only has a few episodes so far, but very interesting ones). Let me know what other great ones are out there!

-Music – I can’t really call myself a true music enthusiast because I don’t make time to search out new stuff, but when I remember to listen to the stuff I have that I love, it does wonders for my soul. Currently my favorite playlist includes Ida Maria, A Fine Frenzy, Matt Costa, Regina Spektor, OK Go, and the Black-Eyed Peas. If you have any new favorites I should check out, please share!

-my iPad – Again, I haven’t had much time to even scratch the surface of what it can do, but this gadget really is one of the coolest things ever. My favorite apps are NPR, Pandora, Zinio, ABC Player (yay, Modern Family!), NY Times Crosswords, and of course, since I’m a mama, the Craft Finder, Fish School, and I just downloaded Puppet Pals last night and can’t wait to play with it (especially when Little Man gets older). And I’m inspired to create my own app from a children’s book I’ve been working on. So hopefully I’ll be telling you all to download that soon. Until then, let me know what other must-have apps I need.

Please leave comments. I would love to hear what you are enthusiastic about!