Activities

What Am I Waiting For?

The creative action this week was to make something new from something old. My big goal was to make something crafty with my son. I was going to use old water bottles to make discovery jars, or empty milk cartons to make containers for crayons and markers. Or I was going to make little creatures with him out of things we found, and today while I was walking the dogs, I gathered some pine cones and eucalyptus nuggets (I’m sure that’s the scientific term for those pod things they drop) and moss and all kinds of cool things nature had discarded. And then I remembered my son is 13 months old. He is not “crafty”. Destruction is his thing, not construction. I can’t even build a tower with his blocks without him toddling over and smacking it down. He is happiest when he is hitting things with sticks, smooshing squishy food in his hands, or tearing pop-ups out of books.

I keep wanting to buy him art supplies and then I don’t because he just eats whatever he’s holding. I look at the fingerpaints longingly, and then put them down, sighing and saying, “Someday soon”. It just occurred to me that I have been projecting my wishes onto him. I have been dreaming of making art with him, and he might want to someday and he might not. It is my passion, but it may not ever be his. I need to let him be who he is, and give myself permission to play and make stuff without waiting for him to join in. Maybe it’s less scary to be silly and not produce great results if you’re playing with paint with a child. If I painted for myself, I might be disappointed if it wasn’t “good”. Oh, the burden of consciousness. If I could only be as free from that results-oriented thinking as he is. He’s sleeping now, and there are so many other things to check off my to-do list, but instead I am going to pull out the fun things I gathered and make something. Just for the fun of it. Just for me.

What are you waiting for? Go work on something you’ve been putting off. Something that will feed your soul and create wonder in your life. Go.

Activities, People, Places

Getting in the Flow

The creative action I proposed this week was to visit a museum. I thought it was an easy assignment, but when you’re busy and tired, it’s hard to squeeze something in that doesn’t feel like a necessity, isn’t it?  I made myself do it, though, and what I’m realizing more and more is that doing something that feeds me creatively is more “necessary” than most things I routinely put first in my life.

After visiting the Maira Kalman show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and looking at the catalog of the Wayne Thiebaud show at the San Jose Museum of Art (because I’d missed the actual show, darn it), I was inspired to paint again. They are two very different artists, but two of my contemporary favorites. Kalman’s paintings were smaller than I’d imagined. Little pieces of paper with wonky objects and people and words, mostly painted in gouache with more than a little whimsy and chaos. Thiebaud’s oil paintings are on large canvases with luscious, thick layers of paint that make you want to dip your finger in and lick it off like frosting. Hers were mainly intended for books and magazines, his for museum and gallery walls, but their work has two things in common that made me want to go home and try it. They both paint objects from the everyday – cakes, gumball machines, flowers, candy, shoes – and they both do it with wild colors.

I have always wanted to be wilder than I am. I am drawn to work by artists that can really go crazy with color. Kalman is clearly influenced by Fauvist painters like Matisse. Les Fauves were “Wild Beasts” with color. Kalman is cuckoo for hot pink and orange and blending colors on the page and leaving the brush strokes visible and uneven. Thiebaud is a little more restrained in his compositions. His perspective actually makes sense. But his color is just as wild. A slice of pie with white frosting on a white dish on a white countertop will have at least a dozen neon colors competing in the shadows. As an art teacher I was always encouraging my students to experiment with color, saying “the sky isn’t just blue, what other colors have you seen in the sky?”, but when it’s my turn, I can’t put hot pink in the sky, either.

I came home the other day, about an hour earlier than usual, my son was still with my in-laws, and I forced myself not to turn on the computer or take a shower or clean the house, but to get out the paints. I would try using gouache on a small piece of paper (totally different than the large acrylic on canvas or walls I usually do). I would paint a simple object, a white one, and try to use far more colors than just white. I saw my son’s Lamby. His lovey. The stuffed toy we’d lugged all the way to Taiwan and back because he can’t sleep without it. I propped him up, and got to painting, letting go of my to do list, and there it was.

I remembered how much I loved to paint.  Since hearing this TED talk, I know the name for what I was feeling: “flow“. There is nothing else like being fully immersed in the task at hand. Time stops, “existence is temporarily suspended”, and I can enjoy just being in the moment swirling colors around and putting them down. The product isn’t that great. It’s a one hour sketch in which you can see I am still tight and cautious with my colors and composition, not as wild as I want to be, but maybe if I let myself play like that more often, I could get there. Or at least enjoy the process, which seems to be the key to happiness. For years now I’ve been operating in a mode where I  spend most of my time doing things that contribute to my family’s bottom line, where the emphasis is on the product, but it has taken much of the joy out of the process. I’m going to try to allow myself more time for this getting lost in wild wonder, making things just to make them, because that positive, energized feeling I get is indeed necessary to a worthwhile life.

I also made time to take my son for a quick visit to the Bay Area Discovery Museum. This is him experiencing flow.

I hope you make some time to create wonder and find your flow this week, whether it’s through painting, dancing, or programming software. We are all wired differently, but we all have something that moves us. Remember, if you post a comment sharing your museum experience by this Sunday night, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a copy of my book.

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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.

Books, People

Little Man Reads – 10 months

We are getting back into the swing of things after our trip. It is wonderful to be on our home turf in our beloved city, San Francisco. Sometimes it takes going away to see your life with fresh eyes and realize how good you have it. We really do live in one of the best cities on Earth and I’m glad to be back.

One of my favorite things about this city is all the opportunities to meet authors and illustrators as they share their work at bookstores. We still have a number of excellent independent bookstores in the Bay Area and they are popular stops on book tours. Just this morning we went to see Nikki McClure at the Book Passage in Corte Madera. She is one of my favorite artists. I posted about her back when she had a local show of her amazingly intricate and beautiful cut paper pieces. Her subject matter is often a celebration of nature, simple things, and motherhood – kind of a modern outdoorsy Mary Cassatt. So it’s a natural that she also does childrens books, the latest being Mama, Is It Summer Yet?


She explained to all of us at the reading that she created this book in response to her son’s question. The illustrations show the clues in nature that the seasons are changing and getting closer and closer to summer. As someone who dreads winter, and gets giddy with the spring and arrival of warmer weather, I loved it, even though my son is too young to be into it just yet. I was also inspired to get out my art supplies and get back to work on some stories. She said when she was little she played pretend that she was an artist, but thought it was similar to being a princess, a make-believe wish. Sometimes I still feel this way, so it’s always encouraging to see someone in person who is making their art in real life, not in some magical castle far, far away. She even did a demonstration of her technique and wowed the kids (and me) with her X-acto knife wielding skills.

So, that’s my mom pick for the featured childrens book on my sporadic review of what Little Man is reading lately. I posted at around 6 months and now at 10 months he is into completely different things. For one, he rarely sits still in my lap anymore unless he’s very, very tired, so sadly, our storytimes are fewer than when he was less mobile. At around 8 months his favorite was Sing-Along Song, written by JoAnn Early Macken and illustrated by San Francisco local LeUyen Pham. He enjoyed the rhythm and onomatopoeia of the text, and would reach out and touch and smile at the pictures of the little boy exuberantly going through the routine of his day. Now, he’s as busy as that little boy, zooming around the house with a very short attention span.

So, at 10 months, he likes Go, Dog. Go! the board book version. It’s short, it’s fun, it’s action-packed. He’s also into books with texture and sounds and pop-ups, basically he needs bells and whistles to keep his focus now. And he wants to destroy them. Chewing, grabbing, tearing. Books have to be tough now for him to enjoy. So, I will be putting my signed copy of Mama, Is It Summer Yet? away until he’s ready, and letting him enjoy tactile books like Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings by Matthew Van Fleet.

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Mission Mural

I spent much of this weekend helping to paint a giant mural on a new building at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Mission Street. I did it as volunteer work for Precita Eyes, a San Francisco community mural arts organization that has been such a strong presence in the Mission District for so long you can hardly turn a corner without seeing their work brightening the streets. When I moved to the city almost nine years ago, one of the reasons I came was for the murals. My favorite project in college was delivering a lecture on Mexican Muralists, and in researching the likes of Orozco, Siqueiros and Rivera, I fell in love with the medium, in particular its ability to tell a story. The messages murals convey can be political, historical or simply beautiful, but whatever the artist’s intent, it becomes art for the people. It is not hidden away in a museum or a private collection, it is meant to be seen by the masses. Murals invite and incite reaction. They are difficult to ignore.

Since coming to the city and giddily roaming the streets trying to discover all the murals in the Mission, I have jumped around living in one neighborhood after another and working on many mural projects with students and on my own, but I’ve finally come full circle and moved back to my old ‘hood. Working on this project with Precita Eyes feels like coming home. Its content is a celebration of all things “Mission” – Carnaval, mariachis, low-riders, the Mexican bus, the actual Mission Dolores, and the now iconic Cesar Chavez (appropriate since the mural is located on Cesar Chavez Street). At such a busy intersection, we had tons of traffic (both foot and car) while we worked and everyone had an opinion. Most were positive; people honked and yelled “Great job!”, “It’s beautiful!” or stood and admired close up. One woman walked by muttering loudly about “tired old subject matter…can’t they paint anything else”, which I have to admit I thought when I first saw the design. The building we are painting contains a bunch of condos and a new Walgreen’s, about one step above a Starbucks on the gentrification scale, and here we are painting a mural about the old, authentic Mission, the things people come here wanting to see. It made me think of this great KQED Forum discussion on Mission murals, where a man named Oscar called in to complain about how murals cheapened buildings and they would never do this in the Marina. All I have to say about that is that’s one of the many reasons why I prefer not to live in the Marina. But Oscar is entitled to his opinion. No matter what you think about murals, you think something when you see one, and that’s what I like about them. Nobody can tell you your opinion is wrong.

The mural we painted today is for you. Go check it out. It’s not done yet, so maybe you’ll see us out there still working on it. Whether you think we’re beautifying or cheapening the place, it felt good to be leaving my mark on the Mission in such a traditional way (I mainly worked on the mustachioed maraca man in the parade and the red-orange background). It has been a practice since primitive people made drawings on the walls of their caves, and there’s nothing like it to satisfy my urge to create.

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Inspired (finally!)

Ah, the muse is back. The fog has lifted. The juices are flowing. Insert whatever mixed metaphor here that works for saying I feel like my old creative self again. My son is almost eight months old, and on a great sleep schedule, and suddenly my brain is functioning again. For awhile there it was touch and go; there was a period when the Twilight series was the only thing that I read, and any writing consisted of notes scribbled down about how often said son was napping and pooping. At last, I am beyond that newborn haze, and my mind has a few brain cells that can be occupied with creative things.

At first, when my wits returned to me, I didn’t know what to do with them. I could look around and see with new clarity that a few things had been neglected in their absence – my household, my husband, and my wardrobe, to name a few. But I’d also been forgetting to feed my soul, which leads to despair for me and renders me incapable of taking care of those other aspects of my life. To regain my creativity, I needed to “fill the well”, to borrow a concept from Julia Cameron’s, The Artist Way. I needed to do things that sparked interest in life, that got my ideas churning again, that made me feel engaged and present, instead of merely getting through the days and craving escape to vampire land (or werewolf-ville, since I am for Team Jacob).

Here are some ways my well is filled:

  • Listening to stories: The Moth, NPR and PRI have some of the best- Great stories get me going, mostly about people who are pursuing their passions, but really learning anything new can get me high on ideas right now. Here are some that excited me recently: Bootlegger Blues: L.Gabrielle Penebaz’ obsession with trying absinthe turns into a serious creative pursuit (anything can be your art!).   Change Over Time – Carl Honore talks about the Slow Movement (I will blog later about how this got me interested in “slow parenting” and “slow travel”) and Amy Gorman decides to interview older women artists to see how they keep at it. Very inspiring! (Makes me want to go get the book she wrote about it.)
  • Looking for role models – If I just bumbled through life with what I know and what I learned from my parents or my limited experiences, I wouldn’t have much to work with. It’s hard to create in a vacuum, to make something from not very much, so by looking around and seeing how others are fashioning interesting lives for themselves, I get ideas for how to dream bigger in my own. The documentary Who Does She Think She Is? is a recent example of this, my new heroes being those women who pursue their artistic life while also choosing motherhood. It helps me be more creative about how I spend my days to ask myself “who do I want to be like?” and “how do I start taking steps to become more like that now?”.
  • Reading – Just finished Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Very interesting studies, deserving of its own post later.
  • Planning things to look forward to – It’s easy to get into a rut of just going through the motions one day after another while childrearing. It can feel like Groundhog Day. But we’ve just planned a three-week trip to Taiwan in April, and the anticipation has been a tremendous boon to my energy level.

It really is amazing how different life feels with a little sleep and some inspiration. By taking care of my own spirit’s needs, I have so much more to give to my family. And maybe that will even trickle down to this blog. I might actually have some interesting things to share with you soon!