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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.)

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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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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!

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To expose or not to expose?: Deciding how much info is too much when it comes to my kid

It turns out I have boundaries. I know that’s surprising, given the gratuitous photos of my giant pregnant belly and explicit details of my son’s birth story that appeared on this blog. But when it comes to posting his vital stats and even any photos, I hesitate. It’s tough, because everybody’s doing it. Mommy blogs everywhere are filled with photos, video, real names and info about every detail of their kids’ lives. I read them, and enjoy them immensely, and am tempted to post my own because surely he’s the most beautiful baby there is and his life just as entertaining, but I can’t help but wonder what the backlash will be.

I have vague, ominous fears about internet boogeymen trolling for kidnapping victims or turning innocent videos or photos into ugly things or stealing identities that won’t be discovered ’til your kid turns 18 and applies for their first credit card and finds out someone has racked up huge debt in their name. The latter is a true story that helped me decide to not even post his name or birthday, though I’m sure if you dug deep enough, you could find it. I’ve shared it all on Facebook with nearly 200 of my closest friends (I said I had boundaries, I didn’t say they were particularly stringent ones). What made me really stop and think about all this was when we were posting videos of our baby on Motionbox for my in-laws who live in Taiwan. They miss him terribly and this is a great way to keep them updated, but when my husband was about to upload a video of our 6-month-old happily splashing in the bathtub, I thought about the Demarees, and made him stop. Yes, our account is password-protected, but it still didn’t feel right. If this family could get arrested and separated from their children over printing a couple naked baby pics at Walmart, why even risk it?

Above all, my decision to keep his life private is based on how he will feel when he’s old enough to decide for himself. I remember being annoyed that all my mom’s friends knew all about what was going on in my life, and can’t even imagine how upset I would’ve been if she’d had a blog at her disposal and typed to millions of strangers, “Guess what, Internet? Cassy started her period today.” Argh. The humiliation. I feel for all these kids who I know by name and how many bowel movements they’ve had in the past week and I vow to not embarrass my son. As much as I’d love to share his antics and expressions, big moments and small ones, this is not the best forum to do so. I respect his privacy too much. This is my blog, so I will make it about me which will occasionally include my experience with motherhood because that’s where I am right now, but not be so focused on him. So, sorry, all six of you who read this regularly, there won’t be any chubby baby pics here, but I’m sure Little Man will thank me someday (though I’m sure I’ll give him plenty to be embarrassed about regardless).

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Studio Envy

I know I just wrote about being grateful and in the moment and enjoying just being, but this is also the time for looking forward and making resolutions for the new year and all that, right? I never make resolutions and I’m not about to start, but I do need to channel this feeling I’m having into a positive direction somehow.

I’m jealous. Of these people and their studios:

Yuyi Morales, children’s book author/illustrator

Marla Frazee, children’s book author/illustrator (whose studio is a separate little building in their backyard)

Ria Nirwana, scrapbooker/artist

I could go on and on showing you spaces of which I am jealous. Big, bright, everything in its place – they are everything my “studio” is not.

Here is mine:

It’s a cramped, uncomfortable corner in our cold, dark garage. I guess it’s better than a corner in my bedroom, which is always where I’ve worked before, but since it’s such a lousy space, I usually end up dragging projects out into the living room or our kitchen table anyway. I know I shouldn’t complain. We have shelter. We even own it. But it’s starting to feel very, very small – especially now with a baby. Our kitchen is so tiny we have to limit the number of appliances that can be on the counter at once. If we’re making baby food, there’s no room for a toaster. You have to move the trash can to open the pots and pans cabinet. With three people and a dog living in 750 square feet there’s hardly room for the baby to learn to roll over much less for space conducive to creation.

I know in my head that size doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it that counts. Sneaking peeks at someone else’s only makes you feel inadequate about your own. I know this. But I can’t help it.

So, I’m not so much making a resolution as putting my dream down in writing. Call it a goal. Or a wish. It seems like in the past whenever I’ve expressed a desire for something, whether it was to go to college or get to travel or for a good husband, I’ve put these hopes out into the universe and God/fate/my fairy godmother/whatever you want to call that higher being who knows the true calling in my heart and the best time to give it to me, delivers. In ways often surprising, unexpected and better than I ever imagine.

So here’s my dream, higher being. I would love a home with a room all my own – a studio for writing, drawing, painting or whatever I feel like doing, with big windows and natural light, a work table, lots of bookshelves, supply storage, a utility sink and a cozy chair, either in my house or close enough that I don’t have to get dressed to go to it. I don’t need it in 2010.  I would love to have it before I’m 40 (that’s 8 years away), but I know your timing will be right whatever it is.

If I resolve anything, it is to continue to do the work in my heart and hope that it leads me down the path to my dreams, to a creative life that would require steady attendance in a studio like that. I am grateful for all my current blessings, but it’s good to have something to look forward to. I’ve posted this Barbara Kingsolver quote from “Animal Dreams” before, but it bears repeating:

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”

May you come closer to living your hopes in 2010!

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Contemplations on being a mother and an artist

This is supposedly a blog about “living creatively”, but it’s mostly been about surviving pregnancy and the early days of motherhood. Now that Little Man is five months old, we’re getting a bit more sleep and I’m creeping back into the creative swing of things with a couple of mural gigs (which I’ll post about later).  I feel like I’m coming back to life, but it’s a strange new one where time and space for myself are extremely limited. I had a hard time balancing my desire to create with marriage, a social life, and work that pays the bills before I had a baby, but now it seems like a nearly impossible challenge to carve out some “me time”. On the one hand, I want to be there for my son as much as possible. I don’t want to miss a thing and I want him to know I’m there for him. On the other hand, I hope to teach him that the best thing he can do in this life is find what he loves and pursue it with passion, and what kind of example will I be if I’m too busy/tired/afraid to pursue my own dreams?

The majority of famous women artists and writers I can think of (which are, sadly, not many to begin with), did not have children. It seems they had to make a choice between their career and kids, and career won out. I could go on and on about sexism in the arts and how men don’t have to make that choice and blah blah blah, but it’s been done (the Guerrilla Girls do a good job of it) and I’m not out to get famous in the art world anyway. All I want is a fulfilling creative life and a healthy loving relationship with my family. Can it be done? Are they mutually exclusive?

I’ll be thinking and writing more about this topic in coming posts. I’d love to hear more about how you do it if you are an artist and a mama.

In the meantime, here are beautiful excerpts from an essay on this issue which gives me hope. It’s called “The Divided Heart” and is by Ruth Whitman, a poet and professor (one I had never heard of before reading her essay in a collection of women’s art and writing called In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts).

“Writing for me was and is an assertion of my identity. I never feel so much myself, with a great sense of relief and release, as when I stop somewhere in the midst of my daily chaos with pencil and paper.”

[On becoming a mother] “I was afraid to lose my independence, my person-ness. But the whole experience of pregnancy, which I found marvelously mind-expanding as well as body-expanding, followed by the experience of viewing this beautiful piece of life for which I was responsible, gave me a passion for motherhood.”

“Perfection of life or perfection of work? Which would you rather strive for? My answer had to be – both. I began to see that life was not static. It changed continually. And one could guide the change: children could be educated to see the equality of needs and responsibilities; I could become less rigid in my view of my needs…”

“I don’t mean to imply for a moment that there were not tremendous pain and division in my heart. I didn’t want to miss companionship with my children…on the other hand, I felt resentful at having to delay my own creative development…my third child was born before my first book came out. But by that time I was beginning to understand that my libido was strong enough to make both books and babies and that in fact one strengthened the other. Both together were the real total of my life. Spiritually, so long as I insisted on my right to a private life, there was no real division. The division was in the distribution of time.”

“More and more I see the parental function – not authoritative, but educative – as the responsibility of every human being who has found out anything by living. If civilization means anything, it lies in becoming part of the great chain of learning from those who have gone before us, and of teaching those who come after us.”

“A private creative person lives inside each of us. It is one’s basic identity, with all the symbols, images, and language that each of us has stored up since childhood. It is in these universal terms that the poet and parent begin to come together, that the conflict begins to subside and the divided heart becomes whole.”