The first day of this new year finds me in a thoughtful place and I know I’m hardly alone here. I think the end of 2020 and the new year 2021 has found a lot of us in in a thoughtful place and full of rumination.
It would be easy to look on 2020 as a mulligan. A do-over. A throw-that-in-the-bin and never think about it again kind of thing. Take it out with the trash.
But to do so would be a mistake. 2020 was a lesson. A mentor. A cruel but perhaps necessary education.
The past several days has me thinking about teachers and mentors who impacted me and more specifically, impacted my art. About how many of them are not in my life anymore, for various reasons. And how much I yearn to find replacements, how hard I seek the wise advice of those who know so much more than I do.
In fact, getting a mentor’s view on the lessons and tragedies of the previous year is exactly what I seek.
To my great sadness, in November within the span of forty-eight hours I lost two of the most influential women in my life. I find myself on day one of 2021 still reeling from their loss and scared to face the road ahead without their wise guidance.
On November 6th, my dear mother-in-law who was more like a friend and one of the strongest working artists I know, passed gently at home with her beloved son by her side.
On November 8th, my photography teacher and dear friend passed peacefully at home under the loving care of her wife of 22 years.
These double blows were hard to take. I even wondered at the time if I could sustain the loss.
In a text to my best friend, I told her that the grief was stacking up and I had no idea where to put it all. Could I build metaphorical shelves to store the pain? Maybe rent a unit where I could put all of this sorrow and then sort through it on the weekends?
No, there are no metal shelves and no locked doors to store the grief. Turns out I have to carry it with me. At times the load bends my back into a question mark. At other times I carry it almost (but not quite) lightly.
I can forget about it for a moment and think I am through and then a smell or a sound or a visual will bring it all right back with weight and ferocity and my back bends further. Bend but not break is the theme, or at least the hope.
I have questions. I have thoughts. I have worries. I have wonders. I am working on a big project, a goal I set for myself and it is a big goal and oh how I wish I could talk to both of these powerful, creative, and smart women to get my head on straight about it.
One would make me a cup of coffee and listen to my thoughts and fears and tell me that she understands and how hard it can be, but that continuing to work, that doing the work, is what matters.
One would make me a cup of twig tea and then verbally shove me around a little in the most beautiful and caring way, telling me to forget what anyone else or the voices in my head say, to just keep making art. Because making art is necessary in this world. Not a nice to have, but mandatory.
And then dazed and thoughtful after each of their wise counsel, I would go back out there into this mad world and I would keep making art. Putting word to page, and paint to paper, and images through a lens.
Because the road to making art is a long road, the journey beautiful and painful and frustrating and worth it. One must walk through low valleys of making really bad art and occasionally look up to find you have arrived at the peak of a beautiful hill. That something you made is actually not that bad and might actually be very good.
From that view atop the hill you can see more hills, steeper and more meaningful and you must, have to, can’t stop now, start moving towards them. Sights recalibrated, on you must go. To keep walking is what matters. To keep walking is necessary.
Even though I miss them both so much perhaps I can find them, then, in just continuing to do the work I set out for myself. And when in doubt, I make myself a cup of coffee or a cup of twig tea and sip and pause and listen and then…get back to work.
To find an image to accompany these words, I went to Unsplash with their thousands of free images, and searched with the word “mentor.” My eyes landed on the image found at the top of this piece. I loved the color and the visual and the feel of the photo. “But that isn’t about being a mentor,” I thought. And then realized I was wrong.
The dandelion with its many seeds waiting for a gust of wind to carry them off is actually perfect. Exactly the image I needed to see. Writing this out, saying these words helps me carry my grief a little bit lighter today.
I cast my own seeds of creativity to the wind. I can’t wait to see where they land.
This post is dedicated to the beautiful art and spirit of both Jamie Dedes and Marty Rose Springer and the impact they had on my life. I am forever in their debt.
One of the benefits of my job is that I work from home one day a week, and have been doing so for just over seven years. It’s a wonderful perk. If I ever chose to move to a different job, I’d want to be sure I retained this same benefit as it goes a long way toward my mental health.
As a confirmed introvert, working from home on Friday allows me to get my job done while having a little break from my very extroverted team of peers (all of whom I adore, in measured doses).
So when word came down from my leadership that we are to work from home for the foreseeable future, I though “pfft, no problem, I’m already a pro at this.”
On Day One, I approached my now shelter-in-place working from home days exactly as I approached every work from home Friday, and that was my first mistake.
Since I believe in growing from my mistakes, here are five things I have learned and want to share from the first week of working from home every day:
#1 You must have boundaries
When working from home just one day a week, the boundaries between work life and home life were never an issue. I’d get up a little later than usual, make the short commute down the hall, and do my job. Since the end of Friday is also the end of the work week, at 5:00pm I’d log off and enjoy my weekend time.
Now that work from home is every day, it’s too easy at 9:45pm to think “oh, you know, I could just dash off that email to my boss that I forgot to do earlier” or when I’m obsessing over the current news at 3:30 in the morning, “I could take one more look at that PowerPoint draft.”
To be honest, it’s very likely that I have used “putting in extra work” as a way to deal with my anxiety over the current events. It feels like I am doing something about it, but I’m not. It’s an avoidance and over time will wear me out when right now I need to find ways to stay strong.
In short: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.
#2 You must have boundaries
Since my husband is now my coworker five days a week, and since my husband is my absolute favorite person in the world, I find myself wanting to spend time with him as we usually do after work or on the weekends.
This means sitting together, drinking coffee, talking over all the things on our minds, including but not limited to: how cute our cat is, our thoughts on movie, television, or literary characters, what to have for dinner, and most importantly whether or not feeding peanuts to the crows and bluejays in the backyard will cause them to protect us, as a fierce corvid army, when the zombies rise…you know, normal couple stuff.
But if we spend too much time in our usual weekend pattern, then I am not getting work done. Then again, if I spend too much time doing work (see #1 above) then I’m not spending needed time with my husband.
Once again: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.
As part of my job I support a team of technical people who are dispersed across the country, so I am very used to using video conferencing daily, whether at home or not. When this new stay at home edict came down, I was already set up on the app, had a good camera to use, and a speaker for sound.
Not so for my peers. For the most part using videoconferencing is new for them, and I find myself giving mini tutorials on every meeting we have.
Our IT department is now conducting four one-hour long trainings a day on how to use the videoconferencing service, but my peers seem loathe to take a course. “Too busy,” they say. So instead they are relying on me to help them. In every meeting.
This is not sustainable. I love to help people but I can’t get sucked into this vortex. Instead of jumping in there when they have troubles, am now sitting on my hands when someone says, “I can’t figure out how to share this document” or “Why can’t I see everyone?”
If they ask me directly, I will help, but if they are just muttering and fumbling I stay quiet because the best way to learn is to do it for yourself. The user interface isn’t really that hard, it just takes a little time to get comfortable with it.
The one exception: The times when a participant has both their phone and laptop dialed in which produces that horrible ping back and forth that escalates into a high teeth grinding sound. The audio equivalent of standing between two mirrors. I cannot restrain myself from jumping in to sternly say “Phone or Laptop, not both, mute one!”
At any break at work, I find myself looking at the latest headlines. On every call my peers want to talk about the headlines. In the kitchen while making lunch my husband and I talk about the latest headlines, “So, did you hear that…”
All of this fuels my anxiety and managing this is a big factor in my ability to stay safe and sane, and to be an active, productive employee.
Many years ago I took a meditation class and the instructor told us: “You don’t have to watch, read, or seek out the current headline news. If there is something you need to know, it will find you.”
It has been almost 20 years since I first heard this gentle guidance and it is more true today than it ever has been.
#5 You must have boundaries
On Friday work from home days, I tend to dress pretty comfortably. Yoga pants with a not terrible shirt. Fluffy socks and slippers. Loose but comfy (okay, ratty) sweater.
This is fine once a week, as Friday is the most causal day at work by far, but this is not sustainable for me five days a week. It is really true that clothes impact how you speak, how you hold yourself, how you feel. Clothes matter.
Now, I’m not saying put on a three piece suit and hard shoes every day, but at least wear the kind of “business casual” clothes you might wear to the office. Get up, take a shower, comb your hair, put on some work clothes, maybe light makeup if that’s your thing, and present yourself well. You’ll get your mind right to sit down and do some work.
Then when the work day is done, by all means, jettison yourself right back into those comfy home clothes. You’ve earned it.
We have no idea how long this current stay at home edict is going to last. so it is important to build good boundaries now to help stay sane over time.
And just because you work from home, don’t neglect washing your hands!
Today I reluctantly rose from bed, put some mismatched clothes on my body and headed out. The roads were unusually empty. Stopping at my neighborhood grocery store, I parked and hopped out of the driver’s seat.
Behind me I heard, “Hey! Is anyone coming?”
Assuming this was not directed at me, I leaned into my car to grab my wallet and heard again, more insistently this time, “HEY! Is anyone coming?”
Realizing this was in fact directed at me, I whipped around to see a man in a very new and very shiny cherry red Mustang. He pointed as if to show me that he couldn’t see around the large Amazon delivery van that was parked next to him, and was wary of backing out in the tightly packed parking lot.
“Oh sorry,” I said, and turned to look, the morning sun blinding me as I did.
Shielding my eyes and with a pirate’s squint I said, “Yeah, it’s okay, come on back.” I stood there waving my hand and muttering encouragement while he maneuvered his pretty vehicle through the obstacles. “Yep, keep coming. Yep, you’re good.”
Finally, the driver straightened out the wheel and put it in drive. While pulling away he yelled out the window, “Thank you! I love you!” revved the engine, and was gone.
I stood there for a minute with a perplexed look on my face.
Then went inside the store. Chicken salad was my goal.
Word Sprints for Writer’s Block, With Apologies to the Cranberries
My word of the day is linger. This word was given to me by the good folks at RandomWordGenerator.com, a place I visit when I need to do a word-based workout.
Like running sprints or doing calisthenics, allowing the fates to give me a word then writing something around the 750-word mark is how I keep the literary muscles supple and smooth. (This as my post-holiday actual muscles are quite lumpy and stiff)
Today I was in the bath, where I do all my best thinking, and realized that I hadn’t written anything in days. And days. It’s fine, I have plenty of good reasons for this, but wanting to get back in the saddle and bereft of any really good ideas, I got out, dried off, and hit the random word site.
The rules of my game are: I have to take the word given to me, or in the parlance of golf (a game I know nothing about) I have to play it as it lays. No repeatedly hitting the “Generate Random Words” button to find a word I like. Nope. Get the word and get to work.
So linger it is. As in…don’t linger, get to writing. Boom, done.
Well not really.
The first thing I do is Google the word to see what’s what. Read a definition, see where the word shows up, find some sort of context or concepts around the word that provide a creative spark.
Of course, one of the top hits for linger was that angsty song from the Cranberries that was everywhere and all the time in 1993. A song I once liked but was ruined for me by a coworker who told me the story of her boyfriend standing outside the bathroom singing it loudly while she was doing a number two.
Do you have to let it linger? Well, when it comes to a poo, sorry, it can’t be helped. I can light a match?
Now I can’t think of that song without that memory. So let’s not linger on that to write about, eh?
Next I navigated my way over to Unsplash to see what they had to offer under the heading of linger. The pickings were, surprisingly, slim. Same with Pexels.
Pixabay didn’t have much that I thought fit my own interpretation of linger, but did offer up this very cool photo:
From Pixabay, and the license states no attribution required
I have no idea what’s going on there, but I have never seen a Zen stack made with ice, so there’s something new I learned as I lingered over the Pixabay site (a stretch there, stay with me).
Though as I look at the photo, I wonder why the photographer didn’t get behind the ice to try to get the low golden sun lighting up the slices. It’s a beautiful photo but I feel a missed opportunity.
Unsplash did offer up this one under the tag linger, which, uh…that’s not lingering. That’s walking very fast.
Lovely photo, nice composition, just not my idea of a good ol’ fashioned linger. So that’s irksome.
Back to the Google, this time I navigate to Wikipedia and try my luck. It’s there I learned that there is a city in Luxembourg named Linger. The population of 577 means the Wiki entry is quite brief, in fact just a stub. So I had to linger over this idea for a moment.
I’ve always really loved towns with weird names like Hell, Michigan or Sandwich, Massachusetts. I mean, I could write a whole story on the weird town names in New Mexico, where I grew up. Actually, that’s not a bad idea, I think I will tuck that story idea away.
See, lingering over Linger, Luxembourg got the ol’ juices flowing.
This random word thing is an almost no-fail writing exercise for me. There are plenty of things that the word linger can introduce into the post-bath, post-holiday brain.
Granted, linger is a pretty good word, lots of ways to go with that. I do occasionally get words that are clunkers and try to make the best of them.
Well, if you have made it this far, I thank you for reading through my writing exercise to ease my writer’s block. Maybe this is helpful in some way? Perhaps if you also have writer’s block, you will stumble across this lingering little story and linger over your own ideas, hit the random word generator and then linger over some fresh, piping hot ideas of your own.
I’ll have you know that the word “own” was word 758.
See? Knocking out 750 words is just as easy, or rather just as difficult, as that.
“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr., from the book A Man Without a Country
Last night I ran across these bon mots from the author Kurt Vonnegut. This is not the first time I’ve seen the quote, it’s fairly well known, but for some reason this quote had a little more resonance than usual.
Miles of text have been written by people like me about their feelings on this quote and on Vonnegut himself. To be fully candid, I am not a devotee of Vonnegut only because I haven’t actually read any of his books.
I know, I know. Who didn’t get Slaughterhouse Five in High School? Me along with all my fellow students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. Saaaaalute.
My beloved is a fan of Vonnegut’s work, and has read most or all of his published writing. Let’s be honest, he had a better public education than I did. But let’s set that aside for now.
Vonnegut seems to be quite quotable. I mean who can ignore this brilliance of words like this:
I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Can’t argue with that. But back to the quote at the top, about taking the effort to notice those moments where the prevailing winds are happy.
That sentiment is a little bit different from prevalent mindset to be found online and in the media. There is a real drive to getting mad about just about anything and staying mad about it. About taking the maximum offense as often as possible. About grinding out misery. I guess perpetuating the agony keeps the eyeballs coming back, and eyeballs = ad revenue.
I really do get it.
But I just can’t thrive with that anymore. In the real world, not online, beautiful things happen every day. Happy moments exist and it’s not only good to notice them, it may be a matter of survival.
For example: There is a quirky scrub jay that inhabits my yard. I put out a bowl of peanuts and the bird picks through them like the pickiest toddler in the history of food, tossing aside the items that don’t meet exacting standards. It’s a funny moment of joy when I scold an unscoldable bird to “just take that one and stop being so picky!” The scrub jay never listens.
There’s the unscoldable rascal!
Today at work I did a nice thing for a coworker that really wasn’t that difficult, was right in my wheelhouse for the work I’ve spent a career doing, and helped my coworker out of a jam. They were so surprised and delighted I felt like I’d performed magic.
This morning I woke up next to the most wonderful man in the world. Tonight, I get to come home from work and hug him again.
See? If all of that is not nice, then I don’t know what is.
Feels good just to notice. Makes me want to keep noticing. Makes me want to pause a little when my own outrage seems to take the lead in my response to anything I read or hear or see.
Maybe I’m running too hard, reading too fast, reacting too soon.
Maybe I need to fart around a little more.
Maybe I can just remember it’s never as bad as it seems. Nor is it as good as it can be. But everything is always just a little bit better than I give it credit for. Leaning more toward the side of doing okay rather than not.