What Would Henry Do?

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live. “

~ Henry David Thoreau

This past June I had a major shift in my life. It had been planned in part, a large part even, but one can never completely plan big life changes. The variables twist and turn with or without our permission, and sometimes we are blindsided by what we thought we knew. Sometimes our inner world cracks wide open while from the outside things seem status quo. This has been my experience, and the past 3 months in the midst of the busyness of summer, I have been processing what I am discovering in the after shocks of my inner earthquake. When I started this blog in June I knew only that I wanted to write, needed to write, and needed to share that writing. Even though I am constantly thinking about topics to write on, it is difficult for me to turn those topics to tales. Again it has been over a month , but I believe I have a plan this time. I may still have to fake it, but my material is more readily available than turning college stories into parables for life. In early June I had just finished reading Patti Digh’s book Life is a Verb which I wrote about in July. This book was the very thing that cracked me open, and has been the catalyst for much that followed. After meeting Patti, also in June (a story I will write at some point), I stayed in touch with her through facebook and twitter. When it was announced there would be a 6-month teleclass based on Patti’s book, led by she and her business partner David Robinson. I knew without question I would take it. We are now 2 months into this journey and I choose to use it as a basis for my writing. It is the main thing I am focused on other than the ever-present artwork, and it just makes sense. So… this brings me to my main topic today.

The cabin in in Walden Woods

Why Blog?

As I explained in my first post it is not because I am supposed to. I already made that mistake! In writing for an audience I am attempting to find the stories I have to tell for myself. What is truly meaningful for me, and what do I want to bring to my experiences? This means sharing what I’ve learned in the past, what I am learning presently, and pondering what is to come. While journaling for myself does some of this it is not the same as writing to share. This kind of writing is very different than a personal journal. It requires that I organize my thoughts, and clarify them so that they are readable to another, to me even (I am learning as I go). As this quote explains it, writing is also a way that helps me think.

“The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.”

~ Edwin Schlossberg

In writing out my thoughts and processes I hope to understand myself better, and maybe help someone else to do the same. In June as part of my “cracking open” I visited the grave of Henry David Thoreau. I first read Thoreau in High School and again in my early 20s. I know his writing affected me deeply, but I had not specifically thought about it in a long time. When I was back in Massachusetts in August I took my husband with me to the grave, and we also visited Walden Pond. Recalling Thoreau’s writings and philosophy, and actually seeing the place where this took place made me really think about what I want, what I need at this point in life. There is that part of me that desires, has always desired, a simpler life in accordance with nature. I have fantasized steadfast cabins in the mountains and bucolic working farms ( I would raise sheep, and spin wool, and have hands the smell of lanolin), but in reality I am a modern girl. While the idea of being truly self-sustaining appeals I know it is more work than I would manage well. So instead I simplify. Get rid of the fluff and glitz and try to pare my life down to what I truly need, which I have come to realize includes quite a number of shoes (forgive my stretch of the word need). As I slowly purge my surroundings of extraneous material goods (shiny things still make me think twice), I start thinking about technology. The work I have come to love requires a computer. I love my digital artwork, and although I am a lousy typist I have come to prefer the keyboard to the pen when I write. When I stood in Walden woods looking at the replica of Thoreau’s tiny one room cabin I asked my self:  If Henry were living now what would he do? Likely he would be appalled as I am by what we have done to the place, but as a victim of the same society he chose not to conform to, it is even more difficult today to escape it. There are many that believe we are past the point of return in destroying this planet and I do not disagree, but as long as we are here we have an obligation to try. I imagine that the Henry of today would still be a naturalist and a transcendentalist or some more recent manifestation, perhaps even a libertarian, but he would not discount technology as useless (what’s on Henry’s ipod?). Rather, realizing as he did then, that having a voice and letting it be heard is the only free means of soliciting change, he would maybe have considered a blog. Facebook, NOT but a blog maybe (imagines Henry playing mafia wars). Regardless, I have decided that for me this is the best way to work out my thoughts for now. Hopefully I’ll engage a few readers, maybe spur a dialogue, but at the very least I will have spoken.

As I said I will be tracking my work in the teleclass here, but also allowing my art, and stories of the past to come as they may. Right now I am trying to wrap myself around the idea that I can use my creative gifts as a vehicle for bigger work in the world. I am open to all possibilities.

I leave you with another quote by Thoreau, as I stand up to live. BTW I do not have an ipod or iphone 🙂

“Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

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If I had a voice, what would it say?

If i had a voice

In my never ending quest to understand myself and this life, I have a practice of beginning each day reading some inspirational material and journaling. I have been doing this for 5 or more years, and have read a bit of everything from pop self help to Plato. Much of it over my head, or under, and much of it intelligent and worth some pondering. My last book of choice (though it came to me by chance) was Life is a Verb: 37 days to wake up, be mindful, and live intentionally,  by Patti Digh. The book is  acollection of 37 short stories from Patti’s life all with a meaningful lesson, and complete with writing promts. Really good stuff, and perfect for my morning ritual. In an essay called Give Free Hugs Patti tells a  story, in essence,  about stepping out of your comfort zone to meet your better self. The story is mainly about an experience she shared with her daughter, but there is a side story that blindsided me. It goes like this:

“A friend, Marybeth, recently told me about gathering a group of women friends from around the country together to help her celebrate some occasion—perhaps a birthday?—to help her be more herself, to give her feedback, to embrace her. At one point in the weekend, Marybeth said to the group something like this: “I am trying to find my voice.”

Her friend Pat spoke up, giving the kind of real, honest, true feedback that Marybeth needed and wanted (and perhaps shocking the rest of the group who didn’t know Pat as well as Marybeth did): “I’m so sick and tired of middle aged white women saying they need to find their voice. I’ve heard that a million times. I just have one question for you: If you did have a voice, what would you say?”

Whack!!! If I had a voice what would it say? Here I am starting a blog because I feel compelled to tell my stories, share my journey, use my voice. I have a long list of topics I want to write about, not to mention the the daily challenges involved in starting over (career wise) at 50. So why has it been over a month since my last post? Because I haven’t trusted my voice. I realize that while I have worked hard this past year to define  my self, my work, and what it means to me, I have not  convinced myself that I know what I’m talking about. Well too bad for me. The old catch phrase “fake till you make it” comes to mind, and that is exactly what I plan to do. I did not quit my job to sit sit around second guessing myself. When something is the right thing to do (and I believe this is), now is always the right time to do it. Whether I feel like it or not. Whether my motives are 100% clear or not . Whether I get any reward from it or not, now is the time. I am reminded of another of my college stories.

My first attempt at college was  community college when I was 17. I was an art major, incredibly unsure of myself, and usually stoned, which did not help my security or my productivity.  1976-77 was a tumultuous year in my life. I got through my first semester by the skin of my teeth. I  ended up leaving in the middle of the second semester after being evicted from my Mother’s home shortly after I turned 18. My memory of that time is pretty vague, but I distinctly remember my 3-d design teacher Bob Dodge. He was an interesting man, a good teacher, and most of all took time to make each of us floundering adolescents feel special. If I learned anything during those months it was from him, and one incident provides incentive now. I have always been a procrastinator, usually up all night before assignments are due, but I usually have the wheels turning all the while, so I know what I intend to do. There was one assignment in that 3-D class that baffled me I guess. At any rate I had no idea how to complete it the night before it was due. It involved constructing something with toothpicks and glue, but with specific references to some art historical something, and metaphorical connotations, and lots of big words. I read the assignment over and over, and finally slapped something together having no idea ( or so I thought) if it fit the assignment. The next morning I studied that paper again, and reluctantly went to class to present my “sculpture”. When my turn came, just short of crapping myself, I got up and started talking. I wove together some tale about my piece, referencing all the important topics, and using those big words. Somehow I managed take my clumsy pile of splinters and turn it into art, fooling even myself. It was a success. I faked it, I made it. The power of words is undeniable. So here I am 30+ years later learning from my 17 year old self to go for it.

I created the self portrait above specifically for this post, and I am really pleased with it. I am dropping it off at a friends gallery tomorrow where it will be showing for the month of August. The next time I find myself doubting I have a voice I will remember this story, this image, and fake it. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.

I wish to thank Bob Dodge wherever he is (Germany according to his website) for making me think, and for listening when I ventured to speak. May I continue to do so! I also wish to thank Patti Digh who has helped me turn the pages, and taught me to “come as I am”. Continue reading

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There is NO Shame in Happiness

bathroom of shame

In August of 2000 my husband and I moved into our first house. We had spent 15 years in a small 1-bedroom apartment, and this 4 bedroom home with an office, full basement, and attic was like a palatial mansion to us. It was in pristine condition, and with no offensive decorating needing immediate attention. Except that is the upstairs bathroom. It is an odd little room built into the eaves of the house. I can think of many ways to deal with the awkwardness of the space, and not one of them is a big fat mid wall border featuring pink roses on a dusty blue background. It was just below eye level when seated on the toilet. So, I did the logical thing and started peeling it off as I sat there one day. This, as you may know, is not the way to do it. What remained was most of the border intact, with a big hunk ripped off taking part of the wall with it. Nice. My husband informed me that it would require wetting the border to get it off, to which I replied when are you doing it? His answer, you can do it. I didn’t. He didn’t. We ignored it. About 5 years later I went to the bathroom with a Sharpie and started writing on the wall. Help. What’s up with the hideous border? Paint me etc. I ended my bout of graffiti with this: Welcome to the bathroom of SHAME. Then my cousin Doug pinned a dollar bill to the wall with a note: Fund for the refurbishing of the bathroom of shame. That was last fall. We have started work on it, but it is a work in progress, which brings me to the real topic of this post.

I want to talk about lists, priorities, and reality. Like most things involved with being organized, I have been slow to embrace the list. It seemed to me that all I got from making lists was evidence of how inefficient I am. Even grocery lists challenged my ADD brain as I neglected at least one crucial item on my list, and purchased five things I didn’t need…look at all the pretty colors. To do lists for the house, ugh!

Clean the kitchen.

Do laundry.

Paint the dining room…

Who wants to do any of that? I realized my self-defeating lists were self-defeating because they contained nothing I wanted to, or was capable of doing. I mean who really needs a list to tell them the laundry needs doing? Doesn’t that become obvious when you need to sniff your clothes before wearing??? Regardless, I spent years making these lists filled with tasks I had little or no intention of doing. To make things worse I applied this same defeating policy to things I did want to do. Like for example redecorate the bathroom of shame. Rather than commit to looking at paint colors this week, I would commit to painting the room, along with organizing my closet, painting a portrait, and cleaning said bathroom. Oh and lets not forget the laundry, etc… NO WAY!!! It’s no wonder I spent much of my time with feelings of failure, and even worse, doom. I mean a person that can’t even keep a bathroom clean certainly is not capable of a fruitful career, rewarding work, happiness. A downward spiral if ever there was one. Thankfully there was some piece of me buried deep within that knew this is bullshit. I have worked hard in recent years to dig those better parts of me up, to recover my true essence.

Fast forward…

The other day I was tweeting or facebooking and I found myself making this comment. “My to do list is lifetimes long, but everything on it makes me happy!” I have to admit that took me by surprise. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line I got it. I stopped having outrageous expectations of what I could, or should do. I stopped wasting energy on what I have to do, haven’t done yet, or know I won’t get to. Most of all I stopped focusing on what I don’t have, like a cleaning crew. While there are still things I want, I have everything I need to live well. The new camera will not make me a better photographer, and an apple computer will not eliminate the frustrations of internetery (nod to P:).

By putting a positive spin on things, I now have a to do list filled with things that excite me. Writing this blog for instance, or finding shows to enter, grants to apply for, projects to work on, make art, make art, make art!!! Not to say all this is easy. Writing tortures me oft times, but I still like it. Every week I cross something off the list, in no particular order, and add or remove things as needed. The list shifts and changes with life as it should. Nothing is written in stone. Especially cleaning the bathroom. That no longer makes it onto a list. The bathroom of shame is now in the midst of reconstruction and that is fine. I have many incomplete projects around the house, and more not yet started on the list. What I have come to realize is that this is my beautiful house. This is my beautiful life, (taking liberties with the Talking heads there) and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I am gone I won’t be remembered for my cleaning skills, but hopefully I’ll be remembered for my comfortable, and interesting  home. So if you should come by here don’t expect the bathroom to be spotless, or the tchotchkes to be dust free, but I can offer an easy seat, and some good conversation. Someday I will be able to show you my refinished bathroom, and proudly displayed on the wall will be the above photo. Then we’ll go downstairs to look at the other bathroom in progress.

So there you have it. No formula for world peace, but a way to be content in an uncertain world. Now if someone can tell me how to manage a grocery list, that one still has me stymied.

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The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions

The Methacton White Oak

I started a blog in November of 2008, to which I have made a whopping 3 entries. I did it more because I was supposed to than because I wanted to, and the intent was to log only my art business stuff. The problem is, I had not yet progressed enough in this new venture, to have regular news to post. In addition, it is not my style to be so by the rules professional. Any successes I’ve had have been by doing things my way within the constraints of professional expectations. While I am trying hard to follow some basic models of Internet promotion, I am also working by instinct as I always have, and need to remain true to my voice. What I wrote in my first attempts is not my true voice, in fact I am somewhat embarrassed, but feel it is important to share in the context of starting over with more honesty.  I have always been one to share myself openly, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have a loopy and sketchy past, which has brought me to this place, and all of it colors my current work. My intentions were good in November, but misguided, which brings me to the topic of this post.

I am a late bloomer. I expect I will talk about that in depth at some point, but for now I mention it only in relation to this story. I graduated high school young, at 17, but did not successfully attend college till 11 years later. I went to Moore College of Art, an all girls’ institution in Philadelphia. As a 28-year-old woman (so I thought) with mostly 18-year-old classmates, I felt confidently challenged, and somewhat superior in my first freshman classes. Harold Jacobs taught my 2 dimensional design class. A noted sculptor, Mr. Jacobs was arrogant, brutally demanding, and notorious for making the girls cry. My group was pretty tough, but there was more than one incident involving Harold Jacobs and tears. Once I even came close myself.

The final project for the 2-D course involved a montage of photograms. We had several weeks to learn the process, come up with a concept, and produce a majority of the photograms we would use for the final piece. A week before the project was due we were to make a presentation of these prints, along with clear sketches of the completed project.  In my normal fashion I procrastinated, but I also outright avoided making my photograms. With a clear idea of my goals and all my materials in hand, I day after day remained terrified of going into the darkroom looking like I didn’t know what I was doing, which of course I didn’t. But how could I allow all those young girls to see me flounder. Ha! I learned quickly that my worldliness and street smarts did not substitute for knowledge. Finally, just one day before the deadline I made a few successful prints. Enough to know I could achieve my goal, but way shy of the assignment. I showed up the next day with my handful of prints and an intelligent, articulate verbal sketch of my plans. I was creating a portrayal of the irrepressible life force in the universe, through a kaleidoscopic myriad of leaves, literally bursting from the surface. Blah, blah, blah. I was brilliant! When I was through Mr. Jacobs remained silent for an uncomfortably long moment, and then said, “Well Gwyn, the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The end. It was clear to Mr. Jacobs that I had no prayer of completing my assignment. With shame rising in my throat, I clenched my teeth, kept my chin up, and sat down. The following week I frantically went through at least 2 packs of photo paper, and spent the entire night before finishing my montage. It came out pretty much as I planned. The images of leaves spiraled out from the center, and then actual leaves “literally burst” from the edges of the board. It was rather impressive, and a shame I have no record of it. So in that too familiar state of vertigo that comes from lack of sleep, I battled my way on and off the train with my 32”x40” project, my tackle box of art supplies, and my huge backpack. Trust me this is not a popular position to be in on the 7:30 am commuter train. I then navigated my way through the busy morning streets in CC, and got the beast on the wall moments before class started. I titled it “The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions”.  Mr. Jacobs chose not to comment on my piece during the critique, just looked at it and walked on expressionless. I got an A.

I love telling this story because it is still one of the high points of my artistic life, of my life in general. This attitude got me through college with honors, and a best of senior show award. I earned my good grades frequently challenging my professors with unconventional timelines, materials, and ideas. This proved less successful in the working world as I have struggled through many job and career changes, losing a piece of myself at every turn. Now, making my way back, as well as moving forward to a more authentic self, I want to remember the girl (face it that’s what I was) that challenged Hell and won. As I begin a new chapter of my life, personally and artistically I will be true to her. Perhaps I’ll end up in Hell, but I’m not worried.

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