My dog, Buddy, is a Maltese. It’s an ancient breed—two thousand years old. And since the Maltese wasn’t bred for anything but to be a cute companion, that’s two thousand years of lapdog-ness. In a dog-like devotion to please, he fails utterly. He doesn’t care one whit whether you approve of him or not. He is also not keen on taking walks or obeying. He’s kind of like a cat, actually. He is very cute, though.
One day, I went for a hike in the woods and I took Buddy. Once we were away from the road and in the woods, I took his leash off and he seemed puzzled.
“Okay, go run along the trail like a dog,” I told him.
He looked at me as if to say, “What part of ‘lap dog’ are you not understanding?”
I began hiking along the trail. Buddy followed, reluctantly. Then he started to get the gist of it. Oh! Sniff at stuff! Eat deer poop! And that’s when Buddy, ancient breed of luxury, began to let his wolf DNA filter through.
“Yes!” I told him, “you are descended from wolves!”
Now that he’s figured it out, Buddy loves to hike. He gallivants along the trail ahead of me. He sticks his little white head into crevices to scare chipmunks. He laps water from streams when he is thirsty. He hops from rock to rock with insouciance. And once, forded icy cold water up to his chest. He comes alive in the trying of new things.
Often I think we get too comfortable staying within the parameters of what we think are our boundaries—those things we think are our reality. But it’s all a big catch 22.
“Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.” David Bohm, physicist.
The Muse tells me it’s time to break for summer, and like the Wife (heads up, husbands) the Muse is always right. To that end, I will be on vacation from my blog until the beginning of September, when, I hope, you will join me again.
To tie up a loose end before I vacate: The Sweater has been completed. The Twenty Year Sweater Here is a photo.
I know. I never said I was a good knitter, did I? Check out the oddly puffy sleeves. When I put The Sweater on, I’ve got a weird Shakespeare-in-winter thing going on.
This morning I am going to go outside and paint a watercolor. Even though I have a boatload of books to review and three writing projects awaiting various revisions, I am still going to shove them aside and do a watercolor. It won’t advance my career or make me money, but. . .
I am the product of two very different people. My mother has, as my dad likes to say, two speeds: slow and stop. But I think he might be envious, since he’s fast and faster. I tend to be more like my dad, until I remember that I’m also part my mom. Once I asked her how she avoided over-doing. She told me that she does three “things”—“things” being chores—per day, and once they are done, she’s off the hook and free to do what she wants. (I believe one of the “things” is making the bed, so you see she’s not unduly stressing herself.)
When I find myself in a muddle of work, I remember her words. Painting a watercolor this morning is going to be more satisfying than disciplining myself through a revision and what’s more, I suspect it will free up other creative areas in my brain, making me more effective when I get back to writing.
If you’re more on the driven side like me, maybe today you can try to do one thing you truly enjoy, for no other reason than that you truly enjoy it–see how it goes.
Until September, then. Have a lovely summer.
I’ve been knitting a sweater for the last twenty years. It’s true, I am a really slow knitter but I’m not that slow. Well, I am. I have quite a few “one socks” without the other—I knit one, it takes me forever, I never get around to knitting the other one. But this sweater is something that I am going to finish—I have one sleeve to go. I am determined.
This sweater has a story (you would hope, right?) It begins with a dream to own a farm, which I did make true in my twenties and thirties. The farm had chickens and horses, but it needed a few sheep. So one spring morning, I drove my VW Rabbit diesel to another farm that raised sheep for hand spinning and bought two lambs—one white, one black. I stuck them in the backseat with some hay. Then I drove the two hours back to my farm, the lambs looking out the window, having never been in a car before. When I got home I put them in the pasture I had prepared. It was a lovely space bordered by a stone wall.
Then next morning Dolly and Miranda (that’s what I named them) were gone. They had climbed over the wall and disappeared. I searched the woods, I met a neighbor who had a flock of sheep and said he would keep an eye out for them; I gave up hope by the end of the day. They were coyote food. I went to bed depressed. The next morning I got up at the dim early light of pre-dawn and went to let the chickens out. And who should appear, emerging from the woods across the road? Dolly and Miranda.
“We’re back,” they seemed to say. “Nothing much out there.”
When Dolly was a year old, I sheared her and it was from this first fleece—a rich dark brown—that I spun the wool to make the sweater. Dolly didn’t like being sheared—as a matter of fact for a sheep, Dolly had some strong opinions. But we both persevered, in our stubborn ways. I got the fleece, and she got kicks in.
I want to justify taking so much time to knit a sweater and this is how I’m going to do it: I’m going to believe that this sweater is more than a bunch of loops in dark brown. It’s about dreaming a dream and staying stubborn in the belief that living your life the way it matters to you counts–whether you’re a human or a really stubborn sheep.
When I was growing up, my father at dinner would ask us—each of the five kids in turn, going around the table—what did we do to improve the world today? And I remember feeling squirm-ily inadequate. Even though he always praised us for our paltry attempts to improve the world—“I babysat for Mrs. So-and-so,” “That’s helping!”—I held myself to a higher standard. Apparently his innocent question resonated with something deeper inside of me. And I thought everyone wrestled with this question.
I remember asking a boyfriend when I was in high school if he wondered what it was all for—an off-the-cuff question for me because of course everyone puzzled over this. I was shocked when he not only said “no”, but further said that if he ever did think about it he would probably just tie a rock around his neck and throw himself into a lake. Huh? It’s your duty to worry about the meaning of your life. I mean you can’t just live it, can you? As I get older, I realize that most people pretty much just live it and try to enjoy doing so, as far as I can see.
So is life a gift to be enjoyed, or a responsibility to be lived up to? What makes a good life?
Me, I lean toward the responsibility end of the spectrum, but every now and then I get moments of just living it and I must say, it feels like playing hooky—no wondering if you’re doing it right—no wondering if you’re living up to whatever you’ve been put on this earth to do…It’s a great and freeing feeling, but I also know that it is only, for me, the responsibility that gives the gift its value.
So I think what makes a good life is becoming a person you want to be with—realizing that you’re fine just the way you are.
I got up at 4:30 this morning because I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t sleep because I had spent yesterday out of town and I shoved my personal work aside. After a day of denying my need to write, this is what I have done to myself. I HAVE TO WRITE. There’s no way around it. So I’m up early, to write, before the next commitment.
I don’t know what it is; it gets hold of you and doesn’t let you rest until you’ve released the pressure. The words are piled up inside and must come out. You’ve invited the muse to show up but when you don’t show up, the words want to come out anyway, and when you don’t let them, haven’t made the personal time to do that, they build up, the pressure of all those words crowding together inside you.
I have to learn to take myself seriously, and by that I mean, take my writing seriously. It is not something to be shoved into corners. It must be the centerpiece of the room. Sure, it could be a female thing—take care of everything else before you take care of yourself, but I don’t like excuses.
I have a choice. I want to choose the writing life, so why do I keep shoving it back? Is it because I don’t take myself seriously as a writer? Probably. That’s a slippery slope and I’m not going down it. I am a writer. I am a writer. I am a writer.
Sometimes I don’t sleep well. I’ll fall asleep right away, but then I wake up, usually about 2 or 3 am, when the liver meridian is strongest. One of the liver’s jobs is to synthesize the events of the day before, deciding what to keep and what to discard. So when I don’t sleep well, I guess there’s so much to filter through, that it wakes me up.
The good news is that I’m privy to my subconscious thinking in those wee hours. Small situations of the day before loom ominously at 3 am, and since I’m awake I can, if I want to, figure out why.
The other morning I was thinking about someone I barely know and I felt funny—bad funny. Instead of shoving it under the rug I decided to poke around in the depths of me and see what I came up with. And it was this: I was comparing myself to this person and judging myself against them in a little subconscious competition. I realized if I do this with someone I barely know, I must do it with everyone. Not that it’s a bad thing–I think it is in our DNA–survival of the fittest.
But if it is a subconscious behavior it leads me–controls me. If, on the other hand, I am consciously aware of it, then it becomes another opportunity to set myself a little more free. I can realize that there’s no comparison between me and someone else. There’s no comparison between anyone and anyone else. Each of us fits into our lives, hand-made for that life. There’s no one else who can fill it or live it.
We are all incomparable.
I’ve had several self-constructed careers and at the beginning of each one, I’ve felt a shyness about declaring who I am this time—artist, photographer, video producer, craftsperson, massage therapist, writer/illustrator. But after that first moment of hesitancy on my part, I found that everyone accepted me in my new role. Even people who had been closely involved in my old role. Oh, she’s this now? Ok.
This gives me a profound feeling of gratitude because I consider this acceptance of my current profession, by extension, an acceptance of me. I see it as an offering of faith in me and my abilities that I sometimes don’t have in myself.
In my career shifting, I have learned that you are what you think you are. If you think you are a writer, and you work at being a writer and you declare yourself a writer, people will treat you as a writer and your friends will support you as a writer. Ditto for being a craftsperson.
Supportive people are the safety net of trying something new, and the urge to try something new is as old as human kind itself. Think teen years and mid-life crisis.
Every year, in a Nevada desert, an ephemeral city comes into being for one week; it’s a place where people go to try new things—identities, creativities, lifestyles. This year the attendance at Burning Man was over sixty thousand. I’m intrigued: Are there so many people who need an infrastructure and permission to be creative and take chances? Burning Man is an interesting concept, but do you need to pay money and travel to a set-aside place to try on new interests? I think you can do it in your everyday life. Take that leap—the worst that can happen is that you find it’s not what you thought it would be and in that case you move on. And once you’ve found the courage to take that chance with yourself—and it is just a springboard really, the leap into the pond—you will discover the real jewel in the heart of the lotus.
You will find that you will be supported. People will help you. And as you realize this, you will find that you too, will support. The acceptance and generosity from others will find an empathizing home of acceptance and generosity within you and you will be moved to support your own friends’ interests and changes. In this way, the support and tolerance and creativity grows, until eventually it becomes an undeniable truth: There’s room for everybody.
Earlier this week I researched female education in the late 17th — early 18th centuries in Massachusetts for an essay I’m writing for my local historical society and I can honestly say that I really, really love research. I love finding little snippets that seem like gold, the piecing together of bits to make a story. I love the quiet and the books in the reading room of the research library. I love the sheer amount of potential that surrounds me–the potential of learning, of discovering, of finding interests, of creating.
On the drive home my friend and I were discussing our new life changes—a new career for me and retirement for her and she said how the funny thing about retirement is that people tell you what it is like, but what they really mean is what it is like for them. That resonated, because that’s how I feel about this nascent career of mine in writing children’s books. People tell me how hard it is to get published and make a living and then ask me what I’m working on. If I say a picture book, they tell me I should really be writing a chapter book because that’s what’s popular now. If I say a young adult novel in verse, they say verse doesn’t sell.
But, as with my friend’s experience with retirement, these people are telling me what it is like in their sphere of knowledge, based on their experience, in their own life. Which is, when you pick it down to its bones like that, a pretty limited viewpoint.
All of our viewpoints are limited. They can’t be anything but because they are necessarily based solely on our own experience. Which is not going to be someone else’s experience or the next person’s experience either.
So here’s my idea–instead of giving people advice “for their own good” (which is almost never why it is given) how about we all just encourage the heck out of each other. Let’s all admit that we don’t know the first thing about someone else’s potential and so the best thing we can do for them is to trust that they are onto something and tell them to go for if that’s what they feel like doing.
What we are really doing when we encourage another person is telling them that we believe in their belief in themselves. We are supporting their belief in their own potential–and that, to my mind, is the truest ‘advice’ we can give.