Contemplate the strawberry

not sure why this is so blurry...

An old friend told me a fable about a monk who was crossing a chasm on a wooden bridge that was intertwined with strawberry vine. As he was crossing the bridge, the boards beneath his feet gave way and he fell through, grabbing on at the last moment to one tenuous strand of rope barely attached to the bridge. His grasp was not good, and he considered his next step. He perhaps had the strength to make one good try to get a better hold and pull himself up. And then he saw just above his head a most perfect strawberry, just within reach, but to pluck it would require the last of his energy. With his last effort, he plucked the strawberry.

That story has stuck with me and I think about it often, and usually, when I feel like I am facing impossible odds. I was born with a lot of fight in me, born of people who do not give up, ever. Someone said of me once, “What is it about achieving the impossible that you can’t resist?” I was flabbergasted when she said this, because it sunk the proverbial nail with one deft blow – the allure of achieving what shouldn’t be possible has always been one of my greatest temptations. My metaphorical rickety bridge is not being realistic about limitations. Tell me I can’t and I’ll try harder.

With this kind of passion, however, comes a lot of failure. Yes, when more often than not, you can achieve something that shouldn’t be achievable, there is an indescribable thrill. It is really satisfying to accomplish something, especially if someone said you couldn’t. But sometimes, it is hybris to overreach. Finding that balance between good failures and bad successes is a challenge.

And so, about 20 years ago, I heard this story about this strawberry. I thought about how, if I were the monk, I would be fighting to live. I would be using my energy to make that effort, and I would pull myself up and live another day, for another strawberry, or die trying. I would sacrifice the sweetness of the strawberry for the small chance of success. Yes, the monk is foolish, I thought.

But here’s the truth. Sometimes, what is real is that you aren’t going to make it. Sometimes, what is real is, even if you do accomplish it, perhaps you shouldn’t have. Sometimes, what is real is, achieving five things instead of four meant doing all five half-assed, rather than achieving four (or three) really well. Sometimes, having the perfect strawberry would be better than salvation from the chasm.

I hope I never really find myself dangling from a bridge with a tentative hold on a rope. Given the opportunity, I’d still fight for the better hold and the chance to pull myself up, rather than being all zen about it and savoring a last moment of sweetness. I’d struggle, because that’s who I am. But I am grateful that John told me this story. It is good to contemplate the strawberry once in a while, and say to myself, you know, maybe accomplishing 3 impossible things is enough for this week.

Mindfulness, one raisin at a time

box of raisins spilled out

One small morsel for mindfulness, one giant meal for a lifetime

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a mindfulness meditation course with Carol Greco at the Center for Integrative Medicine in Pittsburgh, PA. It was a wonderful opportunity to practice being. Just being. Being in the moment.

One of the first things we did together was taste a raisin. (Well, we each had our own raisin ;-) We were asked to really experience the raisin, and to do so for an extended period of time rather than chewing it and swallowing in haste.

Savoring a raisin for five full minutes, noticing not just its taste, but its texture, its position in my mouth, its scent and every other sensation that eating engenders made me wistful about all of the hurried meals I eat. When was the last time I had so carefully considered a bite I put in my mouth? How much delectable food had I eaten without savoring it as much as I was now savoring this delicious raisin?

Mindfulness and the slow, deliberate attention to oneself and one’s experience of the world was a welcome yet foreign way of being in the world for me. I embraced the opportunity to learn techniques for slowing down and experiencing life rather than plowing through it without reflection. With all of the distractions of modern living, it is so easy to operate on autopilot, moving from task to task and place to place without reflection or awareness…have you ever been in the car and been so caught up in a string of thoughts that you hardly remember the last mile you drove?

I aspire to be more mindful every day; some days I am not even mindful that I’m supposed to be mindful. I fail more than I succeed. I rush and hurry and gobble and speed far more than I should. But each day is new. Each day, I can take a raisin from the box and begin again.

Saying “no” so you can say “yes”

One of the biggest challenges I face is mastering the art of saying “no.” Having grown up in a household of people-pleasers, saying “no” wasn’t a suitable response (unless you were turning down sex, drugs or alcohol…) If someone asked you nicely to help, you helped. If someone could make you feel a little guilty about even thinking of saying no, you didn’t say no.

For years, I’ve worked on exorcising this need-to-please part of my personality. Just when I think I’m getting better at saying no, I get sucked into a YES that turns into a big mistake. And the yeses that are motivated by guilt are the ones that really make me feel resentful and cranky.

But there is another “no” that can be even more insidious, because it is disguised as opportunity. Sometimes it is important to say no to that really great-sounding project that beckons like a siren, luring you to add another demand to your already jam-packed life.

Saying “yes” when you should say “no” can be devastating to your goals. As my browser home page says, courtesy of Luciano at litemind.com, “You can do anything, but not everything. Choose wisely.” It is great to entertain new opportunities and embrace new challenges, but choose wisely how you will spend your 24 hours each day. Not saying no can be a minefield. It is so easy to think, “Sure, I can fit one more thing in, because it is such a great thing!”

Here’s the rub: if you don’t say “no” enough, all the things you’ve already said “yes” to don’t get the attention they deserve.

What do you already have in your life that you can move aside to take on this new opportunity? Do you still want to, when you consider it like that? Does it get you were you wanted to go, or is it a distraction from a really awesome plan you’ve already worked out? If you are the kind of person who wants to embrace the fullness of life, you will have to make some tough choices about what will fill you up and what will make you explode.

You can do anything, but not everything. Choose wisely.

Two frickin’ years?

Some writer I am. I started this little blog with the best intentions of creating an artful space…and have let it languish since November 2009.

I have been writing. I just haven’t been sharing.

I do have a private paper journal. Sometimes I fill it with drawings; I like to try to experience the world in these pictures. I look more closely, I see and retain – and I get an interesting memento.

line drawing of susie lying down

LIttle line drawing of Susie lying down

line drawing of a tree

The tree outside our trailer at Bear Run Campground

Time and creativity

timer

timer

What would you do if time were limitless?

It fascinates me to consider what I could accomplish if time were more malleable – if it could be stretched to accommodate my wildest dreams. If time were limitless, we wouldn’t have to make so many difficult choices – we could be less responsible and more free-wheeling. This is a very appealing notion…plenty of time to write that short story without feeling like I’m shirking some duty (more laundry? How can that be?)

But being forced to decide how to spend our time makes every choice more meaningful, and every creative success more valuable. How much more impressive is the art created against daunting circumstances? I admire the writer who perseveres to write  a book by writing for thirty minutes every morning for ten years! To have that kind of discipline may be somewhat counter to the creative mind; after all, creativity is born of letting your mind play without bounds. And yet all the creativity in the world will do you no good if it stays in your head. So the lesson to be learned is to give yourself permission to be creative and build into your life these opportunities for unfettered creativity – even if the opportunity must be scheduled.

Thus, as someone who craves the thrill of an interesting project – a story to write, a picture to paint, a photograph to create, a conversation to savor – I have had to develop structure to give myself pockets of time to indulge my creative desires. In many ways, truly having the creative oasis is my grail quest.

And on that quest, I have found some of David Allen’s Getting Things Done concepts to have really improved my life and my opportunities to be creative. I am a big fan and have adapted his basics to suit my style. And the one little tool that helps make the system work and keep time from running me over:

A timer. Yes, the basic egg timer works in a pinch, but my preferred timer is the one on my wristwatch. Between the timer and the alarm on my wristwatch (your basic Timex sportswatch), I can keep a handle on the minutes I spend engaged in one task or another. I can limit myself – spend 1 hour on this task and then move on to the next. Sometimes I find myself reluctant to live by the time limit – sometimes one hour flies by and you’re just in the meat of the project, and then comes the decision-making: can I shuffle the rest of my life to keep going, or can I keep to my schedule and move on to my next obligation? There’s the rub – it is the challenge for the creative mind to be free and unbridled and to still be effective. As long as time remains linear, this will be a balancing act.

Did Einstein or Hemingway or Seurat have limits on their creativity? Of course they did; everyone has limits of one kind or another. You could argue that all of them lived in simpler times, (they didn’t have cell phones to distract or simplify; they likely traveled by train or car, not plane…) so did they have more limits — or less? Maybe we should look at J.K. Rowling or Chuck Close or more contemporary examples and analyze how they overcame the limits. Perhaps in a future post… But the point is, all of these highly creative people likely crossed these boundaries by making their creativity a priority. Who was creative but neglected their laundry? Who lived a full life and still was a creative success? Who was a creative success at the expense of their relationships? In the end, it all comes down to how we manage our time and what we choose to make a priority.

Without a time machine, we must face the reality that time is not limitless. We must spend each moment well and give ourselves the freedom to contribute to the world. How will you spend your time, and what will you accomplish?

Four Elephants, or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Lecture, Part 1

I had the most enjoyable evening. Beautiful. Inspiring. Providential.

First, I had dinner with two of my favorite people, Gale M. and Jolene M., my fellow writers and dear friends; I thrive creatively because of these most meaningful of connections. We had a lovely, simple meal and good conversation at Gale’s. Then the three of us walked over to the Carnegie Music Hall to hear Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame. First Ms. Gilbert spoke with wit and grace, and then she petitioned us as if anyone would demur, “please indulge me by letting me read to you the Introduction to my new book,” Committed: A Skeptics Makes Peace with Marriage.” No one outside of Ms. Gilbert’s family and “people getting paid to read this” have read/heard it. It was a treat, and of course, a big tease so we’ll all have to get the book now…more on that in Part 2.

Next, as I was leaving the lecture hall, I saw Beverly D., who was my 9th grade English teacher (oh the things you remember: how the class tittered when she screened Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet and a roomful of repressed Catholic school students saw Romeo’s butt!) I swear Ms. D. hasn’t aged a day. She was waiting for one of my dearest friends, my 11th and 12th grade English teacher, Lorraine W. whom I hadn’t seen in years, and who also looks younger than I remember, if that’s possible. [Maybe the reward for teaching in a Catholic school is age-defiance...because it certainly isn't the money.]

And so it was that at a lecture by a writer whose voice and passion greatly inspire me, my past and present collided. How very moving and appropriate to be able to introduce my dear fellow writers, two of the most supportive people in my life – to two women who introduced me to literature, cultivated my appreciation for good books, and taught me more about writing and grammar than you might expect to learn in high school. (It was Catholic school after all, so admittedly the standards were pretty high.)

When I fired up the laptop to write about the evening – I had taken copious notes in my omnipresent journal, laughing as I captured clever turns of phrase – I had intended to examine the gems from the lecture and share it here, relive it, relish it. This is, after all, a CreativeOasis for just that reason… sharing what moves me and hoping it moves others. Indeed, this was my intention as I sat on our uncomfortable sofa, thinking I should really go to bed, but instead, sat with my aging laptop warming my knees, and groped for my journal. Only to find the journal wasn’t there.

With my journal misplaced, my plan to polish the nuggets of lecture that captured my imagination has been postponed.  This seems, upon reflection, to be an act of Providence, capital-P. (nothing to do with Rhode Island, I assure you.)   So, Providence, that cheeky muse, says, “screw the notes. You’ve got some interesting moments to consider.” (Okay, in my head, Providence is a muse, and she is cheeky, sassy, and convincing, and looks a bit like Bea Arthur) What the muse also said: the most important thing about tonight is not what Elizabeth Gilbert said. As amusing and meaningful as her words might be, the inspiration comes not from the lecture, but from the convergence of past and present, this momentous and unexpected encounter linking my earliest inclinations to write with my current life as a writer.

And then I recalled a story Ms. Gilbert shared near the end of the evening. During her divorce ordeal, she was feeling low and desperate on a rainy, depressing day. Despite wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and wallow in misery, she had to go to the post office, and to make matters worse, the line was long, filled with wet, miserable New Yorkers. After a bit of crying as she waited in the line, she promised herself she must seek out something beautiful before she could let herself crawl into bed and weep. She felt compelled to find something beautiful, no matter how elusive, no matter how gray and forbidding the sky outside. One step out of the post office and there before her were four elephants walking down the bus lane, draped in diaphanous fabric and carrying dancing girls on their backs.

If not elephants, than what might it have been for her, what beauty might she have seen to fulfill her own ultimatum? A writer sees the patterns, the connections, and finds meaning in circumstance, mundane or colorful. She wills the beautiful into being just when she needs it. The elephant story resonates with me because I have had those same moments when some kind of joy breaks through the gray, and I realize that part of what makes me a writer is that I recognize this beauty, I see the connections. I seek meaning and writing helps me find it.  I enjoy possibility.

What gray clouds threaten my day? I haven’t been writing as much as I should. To be a writer, you must write. It is that simple. The clouds threaten as I realize how little time I’ve been spending writing. But I can appreciate the moments when four elephants cross my path and delight me. [I've witnessed the elephants myself, twice, when the circus came to Pittsburgh and I just happened upon elephants as they mosey in their elephant way.] Sometimes the joy that breaks through is not as big and obvious as an elephant or four. Sometimes it’s the lone gladiolus swaying in the wind. Sometimes, what I must appreciate are the moments when four friends converge and remind me I have a passion for words that deserves my time and my commitment. I can recognize Providence when she walks up and slaps me on the face, or just gently nudges me in the butt. Thank goodness for elephants. For convergence. For words. For the impulse to create. For those who nurture your gifts. Thank goodness for Gale and Jolene, Beverly and Lorraine, and Elizabeth Gilbert and her elephants. Beautiful. Inspiring. Providential.

A different kind of creative oasis

Earlier this summer, we decided to buy a patio table and chair set, complete with nifty umbrella. We don’t have a very large back yard, but figured we’d love to dine al fresco, and since we don’t have a very large front porch, we focused some attention on the back yard. We put up a fence panel to help screen us from the street, planted a few arborvitae and bought the patio set. We ate outside pretty regularly, but soon realized that a patio set on grass is less than ideal, particularly when it is time to mow.

The patio set on the lawn...not the greatest situation.

The patio set on the lawn...not the greatest situation.

After a little (very little) research, which is so unlike me, we opted to install a patio using pavers, ordered everything we needed from a local distributor and signed up our friendly landscaper Dennis to help us with the installation. After evaluating the site, we discovered that we had a little more slope to the backyard than was desirable, and realized to install these pavers correctly, we’d have to excavate a lot more than we expected at the top end, and would need a retaining wall to boot. The “it’ll take three or four days” project was now looking more like a few weeks project, and we were going on vacation (the camping vacation mentioned in a previous post).

Lesson #1: Never proceed without a thorough design phase.

We kept having difficulties with the line levels, and the intervening weeks when we couldn’t work on the so called “Pit of Despair” were taking their toll on me. I had become the project manager and site engineer, in part, I suppose, because I gravitate towards reading directions and learning everything I can about a project before I begin. And because Matt kept saying, “If I’m in charge of this project, we’re screwed.” Sure, I started the learning process a little later than I might otherwise, but Dennis and I had successfully installed a much less sophisticated terrace at my other house before…so we started off with a ton of confidence. But now, the joke was, “We’ll have you over when the terrace is finished. For lemonade. Or hot chocolate!”

The Pit of Despair, covered in plastic

The Pit of Despair, covered in plastic

I kept checking in with the people at Lampus, the manufacturer of our wall stones and pavers. They were adamant about needing six inches of compactible gravel under everything because of Pittsburgh’s freeze/thaw cycle, though we’d only gotten enough from the distributor for four inches. And because the first course of pavers must be buried, we excavated the wall area a little deeper…and then I realized I hadn’t accounted for laying the wall stones level but the pavers at a 1/8″ per-foot slope. I lost confidence in my ability to figure out how to proceed. So we invited our good friend Peter to help us figure out what the heck we should do next, and without his calm competence, we might still be screwing it up. In reality, we had a great deal of fun working with Peter, too, a nice bonus.

Lesson #2: Never be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes a little compassionate mentoring is all you need to keep going.

Suffice it to say that nearly a month later, the project is finally finished and by all indications, it is pretty successful. Except for an equipment malfunction in the eleventh hour – the tamper we rented to set the pavers blew its oil cap, spewing oil all over the pavers and wall – we got the job done and have a great new space to enjoy with family and friends.

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid to dream, but be prepared for setbacks.

So this project was a different kind of creative oasis. Most times it felt more like a punishment than a place to soothe my soul. And yet, there were moments of bliss. Like the evening as I quietly kneeled in the pit setting wall stone and cardinals and gold finches came to feed at the giant sunflower heads just a few feet away from me; their wings beat rapidly as they hovered in front of the bowing flowers, and when they had extracted their prizes, they would alight on a nearby branch to eat. I felt enormous and overwhelming joy when I set a paver in sand, whacked it with a mallet to secure it and it was perfectly placed. Despite the hard physical labor of shoveling a few tons of soil out and a few tons of gravel and sand in, despite the backbreaking task of moving 29 lb. stones to and fro, I am glad for what I learned. The “lessons” above may seem trite, but I am sincere about this project reinforcing them. I have told Matt more than once that I believe very much in hiring experts to do what they are expert in…the skills you have to develop and the tools you have to buy (and might never use again) just to say you did it yourself are not always the most valuable way for me to spend my time. And I believe it is just proper to hire someone who makes their livelihood in some particular task – for these reasons, when possible, I’d rather earn my wages doing what I am expert in, and pay an expert to earn theirs working for me.  In reality, we probably could have hired someone to do this job for us and spent less. Certainly, we’d have been less stressed out. And yet, in the end, it is enormously satisfying to know that we did build this little oasis in our backyard, that we persevered when things looked bleak, that the Pit of Despair has been replaced with a beautiful patio we can enjoy for years to come. I expect to have my coffee out there tomorrow morning, dinner out there with the family tomorrow night. I’ll stretch its utility well into the winter, when I’ll have to bundle up to sit outside. With my hot chocolate.

Completed terrace

Completed terrace