Monday #29: Determination

Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life– think of it, dream of it, live in that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success. ~Swami Vivekananda

Well, Daylight Savings time is here, which means Spring is almost here, which means ski season is almost over. We anticipate that next weekend could likely be our last trek onto the slopes before the big thaw. If you have been following my blog during the last year, you know that last winter I went skiing for the very first time. While I am an athletic person who enjoys endurance activities of all sorts, I have some serious fears of heights and of speed. I also fought with my feet and legs and constantly struggled to get them parallel so that I could make turns more easily and graduate to some more advanced runs.  All in all, skiing did not come naturally to me and, while I always felt like I could kind of do it, it took an enormous amount of physical and psychological focus every time I went down a slope. I was slow and I fell a lot.

Because I was beginner all last year, I did most of my skiing alone. No one wants to wait ten minutes at the bottom for slow girl.  At lunch, I would meet back up with Jeff and the kids and they would report on their top speeds and all the black diamond trails they’d done already that morning. Soon my kids were reaching speeds of over  50 m.p.h. and learning how to ski backwards and I was still stating, very matter-of-factly, that I was happy on the green trails and would never do a black, never ever. Then I would go back out and spend the afternoon trying so hard not to snowplow through every turn, my quads toasted by the end of the day. Jeff says you should never say you aren’t going to do something just because, at the moment, you can’t.

Despite all of this, I turned in my seasonal rentals and furthered my commitment by buying my own equipment. I guess I figured that even if I never went beyond being a beginner, I wasn’t going to let this sport totally whoop my ass. Plus, it’s a whole season of weekend fun that I didn’t want to miss out on and my children were completely hooked.

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So, this year, I have skied twenty days already and there are two things that have completely changed this game for me.  Somewhere after the few first weekends, Jeff started skiing with me instead of the kids. I have no idea why but I’m glad because this is probably when things really started to change. The night before this happened, however, I’d been online desperately looking for some new insight on parallel skiing and found this video which really addressed some of the mechanics I wasn’t getting quite right. Armed with a new approach to think about and practice, I had a new sense of determination so, when Jeff urged me onto some steep blue slopes, I went with a little less trepidation and a little more confidence. Maybe, I thought, I could dial this up a notch.

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Now, there is a weird moment of terror when you get to the edge of the slope, just before you go down. The feeling inside of you as you see the view down from this place, the precipice, is one that conjures up all your resistance and fears, combined with the fact that you know once you go over that edge, the only way down is, well, down. I’ve tried to capture the visual perception of it on camera but it just doesn’t quite translate to what you really feel when you are there, which is intense. If you’ve ever stood at the edge of anything very tall and steep then you know what I am talking about. Jeff says you cannot let the precipice scare you from the slope.

But, I was able to do the blues and even gain some speed. When I got to the bottom at the lift, Jeff remarked that I was only a couple minutes behind him! A few weeks later in NY, I did my first black diamond, Belleayre Run. And I did not fall.

Last weekend, Jeff and I tackled a scavenger hunt at Killington Mountain in VT. We were overly ambitious (or, I should say he was overly ambitious) and signed up for the “advanced” course instead of the “intermediate.” We also made a critical error in designing our strategy map for hitting all the checkpoints and had our butts handed to us on a black diamond called Royal Flush that was in a natural, ungroomed state, full of rocks and moguls and covered in ice. I think that my newfound success, however, changed the voice of my inner critic from an insulting and degrading one to a drill sergeant who screamed at me somewhere in the middle to put my skis back on, get up off my hiney, quit sniveling and get down the damn hill! I won’t tell you exactly how much time this little activity cost us but let’s just say we could have won the prize for the last team to come in. It was humbling to say the least and gave me a real understanding of how mastering moguls are going to take a different kind of practice!

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But, now something had happened in both my body and my brain. Skiing was finally starting to feel natural to me. I was going to the precipice and not feeling that paralyzing terror. I began to actually want the challenge of something more difficult. I was enjoying the feeling of conquering these slopes. The next day, just before the lifts closed, Jeff and I, both double diamond virgins, did Cascade.

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Yeah. I’m a double black diamond skier.

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Over time, a bit of good advice, practice, renewed determination and the encouragement of another led to real success. Skiing, like running, has become a metaphor for my life and has taught me many things about myself and how to approach the moments in my life where fear and lack of confidence can creep in. I’m about to really use this vibe in upcoming weeks where I will be immersed in something professional that is very new and pretty overwhelming to me because my skills are few and fresh. I’m determined to approach this with a sense of adventure, though. Heights and speed are, after all, just another thing to conquer.

TRY THIS WEEK: Don’t let the precipice scare you from the slope.

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Monday #28: Woman to Woman

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Today’s post is kind of about women. If you are a man who follows this blog, consider this a peek into the complicated minds and hearts of those creatures with whom you share the planet; the ones you can’t live with or without. This is also your opportunity to get out of today’s Monday blog while you can!

So, now onto women…

I recently had a frank conversation with a good girlfriend about what women are like when we enter the world of “us.” We concluded this: A woman walks into a room full of people and, within moments, scans the room looking at all the other females to put herself on the room’s “pretty scale.” Who’s the prettiest woman in the room? We check out each other’s outfits, makeup, hairdos, making quick judgments on taste and socioeconomic level. We analyze derriere sizes and make ass-umptions on exercise and diet habits. Then, upon actually meeting each other face-to-face and having an initial conversation, we listen carefully for political, philosophical and social beliefs and attitudes. Do we have anything in common?  Could this woman be my friend? Would my man be attracted to her? Could she make me feel better or worse about myself?

I realize I might get a lot of heat with these observations. Some of you, perhaps, think this is utter hogwash and you could be right… or not. Some might want to chalk all this up to how we’ve been brainwashed by the skinny-pretty-photoshopped-advertising that we are all inundated with. Could be. Last week I encountered a hilarious blog that celebrated the irony that the new Victoria’s Secret swimsuit catalog came out the very week that the Girl Scouts had their big cookie drive. Will thin mints keep me thin enough to fit into the stringy little beach things featured in its airbrushed pages? Others may want to chime in about income disparity when it comes to men and women—last I heard women were still making pennies on the man’s dollar. Where can I make my extra twenty-two cents? Let me know when you figure it out. So, that’s fine and I won’t disagree with you on any of these points but it doesn’t change how these kooky minds of ours sometimes work. We can be competitive, jealous and self-defeating when it comes to what is in our own best interests and I believe a lot of this comes from inside and how we approach other women.

There is, however, a place where how women think of each other changes, becomes more objective and less from a place of insecurity, confusion and the things outside our selves that influence us… and that is when we women connect with each other in a place that puts us in our joy. I’ve talked about being “in our joy” before and it is less about being stupidly happy twenty-four-seven than it is about being in a space where our personal, professional and social needs are essentially being met and are doing so in such a way as to make us feel fulfilled rather than wanting. It isn’t about prestige—who’s better than whom—and it isn’t about money. It isn’t about intelligence or academic accomplishment, it isn’t about prettiness, super-fitness or glamorous wardrobes. It’s about spirit, heart and inner peace. The least competitive and catty women you will ever encounter are those who find a space to truly live their dreams and are in their joy.

A month ago I started taking an online class with over 500 other people, nearly all of them women. It’s a course designed for artists to introduce us to the art and design licensing industry. While the ability level of the students ranges from beginner to professional and everything in between, there is a large population of fairly advanced students who take it for the sheer practice and inspiration it offers the working designer and their presence, upon starting the class, was immediately unnerving to me and many of the other newbies. It would have been easy for me to be judgmental and feel as though I was the ugliest girl to arrive at the party and, to be honest, after a little fit of jealousy, I sulked for a few days contemplating whether I’d jumped in too quickly to something I wasn’t ready for.

But then I took a breath and a moment to remember why I took the class in the first place. In fact, when the class began, the instructor told us to think of the three reasons we’d enrolled, write them down on a sticky note and look at them every single day. What did mine say? To explore different artistic avenues,  to create a new source of income, and to expand my professional expertise. How were any of these women—experts though they were—keeping me from any of my goals? They weren’t. And, the truth is, when I realized that, I began to see that quite the opposite was true… they could actually help me achieve these goals. I started looking at their work and feeling inspired rather than envious, I began reading their posts for clues about how they got to where they were, I thought of questions I could ask them and happily absorbed their willing and generous advice. As more of the newcomers settled in to being beginners, the class forum became a wellspring of women in their joy supporting and encouraging each other, offering constructive criticism, sharing resources and providing advice based on their own successes and failures.

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With a little perseverance, a little stumbling through Adobe Illustrator and a lot of help and encouragement from the group, this is the cuckoo clock inspired phone case I made.

Now, if you have gotten this far, you might say, well, this is true for anyone regardless of gender and you’re right, of course, but what I know best is women. And I do believe there is a great deal of pressure put on us to be fit, be smart, be nice and be good at whatever it is we do. I would argue that it’s not shallow or vain to work hard to obtain these goals but that, in doing so, finding some kind of inner peace and balance is paramount to being in a space where we can benefit from the success of others and share our own in return.

TRY THIS WEEK: Think about what keeps you in your joy?

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Monday #27: In A Rut

Maybe it is the weather here in the Mid-Atlantic–days and days on end of gray and brown, cold and then colder temperatures and the seemingly endless parade of epic snowstorms we’ve been getting–but, lately, I’ve heard so many people around me talk despondently about feeling in a rut.

Ruts. When we’re in one we feel bored and have difficulty doing things with enthusiasm. Time gets frittered away and it is as though nothing has been accomplished. New ideas and adventures seem far away as the tedium of real life bears down on us. As best as I can come up with, it’s really a lack of mojo. Getting into a rut can make us anxious and uneasy because we suddenly feel disconnected–even from our selves. Heck, I was feeling like I was in my own rut recently after a feverish flurry of painting for a big show I did a couple months ago. Afterwards, I was kind of like… well, what next? Many times, a rut follows a big event where we have invested a great deal of time, energy and soul into making something happen. The letdown of it being over can really put us off our game.

But, of course, there are things we can do to make our way back to feeling energized, optimistic and enthusiastic. Let’s play a trick on our psyches and reclaim our mojo!

1. What IS WORKING for you right now? When we get overwhelmed by despondency or feeling like nothing is moving forward, we often forget the sometimes little but beautiful and important things in our lives that are working wonderfully. Taking time out to contemplate and notice what is really working in our lives—and taking an extra moment to feel authentic gratitude for those things—is a good way to feel less rutty. Can you come up with THREE THINGS that are totally working for you in this very moment? Even the small things count!

2. What if you could imagine that this lull, this rut, is exactly where you need to be now? What if this weren’t really a bad thing but, instead, a quiet space for you to reflect on what you’ve been doing lately and kind of “reboot” for the going forward? How about taking a breath, finding a moment to quiet the critic in your head and imagining the possibility that this space is just the normal rhythm of YOU and your life? You know the ebbs and flows of your life— what if you could feel like this was just the right moment for a lull? And, while you’re at it, remember that ebbs and flows need each other. Today’s ebb always leads to tomorrow’s flow.

3. Do something. Anything. I’ve found that, in my own life, my “ruts” trip me up until I really push myself to do something. It could be as simple as a lunch date with a new or haven’t seen in a long time friend that yields an inspiring conversation. It could be a day trip to a place I’ve wanted to go and haven’t for whatever reason; I take a camera and a notebook and use it as a place to prompt ideas for my work. It could also be a class—online classes work for me— on something I’ve always wanted to learn and that pushes me to get out of my comfort zone and expand my skills. A lot of times, it’s kicking my own butt out the door to take a run and not yielding to the voice that says, it’s too cold, it’s too late, I’m too tired, etc. and I am always hateful about it in the beginning and glad I did it once it’s done. What is something that you could push yourself to do or try right now that might jumpstart your imagination and your motivation?

So, while the sky may be grey and the dirty snow is piled up all around you and spring still seems light years away, see if you can shine a little sunshine down into that rut you’re sitting in. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t like a palm tree right about now. :)

 

TRY THIS WEEK: Get a little bit out of your rut.

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Monday #26: Beginning

Being a beginner… it’s a challenge. Especially when you’ve become an expert at other things in your life. Owning up to feeling confused and not knowing what to do, starting off on something and doing it poorly, being in the middle of it and feeling like it’s not a part of your “self” and finishing up with something that gives you a sense of apprehension rather than pride… these are the hallmarks of being a beginner.

Have you ever felt like this? I have.

We don’t like being beginners and, after a certain age, we like it even less because we become accustomed to doing what we do well and being recognized for these things. But growing, personally or professionally, requires expansion into new areas of awareness, skill and expertise. It requires that we put our selves in the awkward position of being beginners. How we choose to react to this uncomfortable situation can affect the way we deal with the beginning task at hand. In other words, our own anxiety over being a beginner can actually thwart our ability to acquire new skills or experience the growth that comes from moving in new directions.

Recently, I have put myself in the position of trying to learn a new professional skill. I’ve signed up for a class that requires me to work completely out of my comfort zone and puts me in state of, mostly self-imposed, “competition” with individuals who are far more advanced than I am in this arena. I know that what I will learn will improve my life in ways both personal and financial, particularly if I can become proficient at it, but I am the quintessential beginner with all its dysfunctional emotions. I have spent far too many hours in angst over this new endeavor and, so, I recently put my inner, bratty child into the corner for a stern talking to. And this is what I told her about starting something new…

1. Everything we now know how to do was once something we didn’t know how to do. Think on that very hard for just a minute… think of that thing you know so well and do so well. Think on that thing that you know so well you could do it in your sleep and teach it to someone without a second thought. Think on that thing that is so much a part of your being that it defines who you are. At one time, you didn’t know how to do this. At one time, although it may have been a very long time ago, you were a beginner at this. Give yourself the gift of being clumsy, new and curious. Let that beginner in you have the chance to learn this new thing one small step at a time.

2. Comparing our selves to others diminishes our ability to fully blossom. When we compare our selves to others and come to accept the belief that they are better than we are, we relinquish our own possibility to excel beyond a certain point. Keep in mind that, in many cases, “perfection” is a completely subjective thing and that beauty is often really in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. In your anxiety over being a beginner, realize that what looks like perfection to you might not look quite that way to someone else. Give your self the room to grow without having to keep looking over the fence to see if the grass is greener. Believe that you can fully bloom and that your blossom might be a different size, color and shape than any other flower in the garden. Let others proficiency inspire rather than intimidate you.

3. Finding your joy will exponentially enhance the outcomes of all life experiences. We have spent a lifetime hearing things like not all of life is fun, that nothing comes easily and, of course, that all good things must come to an end. What if you could believe that from this day on, anything you add to your life, anything that requires some semblance of effort, added to the overall joy you experience? Not everything we do will be easy but challenges can be filled with a sense of joy and fulfillment that improves our quality of life and drives our sense of wonder. Let yourself feel the bliss that comes from pure enjoyment of learning and practicing without constantly seeing the objectives of tasks and responsibilities.

4. Relax and remember the power of practice. There is only one thing that you do well that came to you in one day: BREATHING. The moment you got here, the first thing that sustained you was your ability to… breathe. But, everything else took practice. Weeks and weeks, months and months, years and years—all these things that make you you, took practice. Over and over, you did these things because they brought you joy and made you feel more like who you wanted to become. When you are beginning again, relax and remember the you who practiced until you got it right. Remember that not everything will turn out right the first time you do it—or even the second or the third. Relax, practice and remember to breathe.

Being a beginner… yes, it’s a challenge. But you can become an expert at many things in this life and you can believe this if you choose. Feeling confused and not knowing what to do are what all of us feel when we begin, doing something poorly is still doing something, and being in the middle of it and, all of the sudden, feeling like a part of your “self” just expanded gives you a sense of pride and the urge to carry on… Yes, these, too, are the hallmarks of being a beginner.

TRY THIS WEEK: Let yourself begin.

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Monday #25: An Open Letter To My BFF, Deb, On The Occasion Of Her 60th Birthday

 

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My Dear Deb,

I will completely admit that, in the fifteen years we have known each other and have been best friends, I have remembered your birthday, on your birthday, only a handful of times (most often reminded by Facebook, thank you very much).

Cake by Tricia Patterson.

Cake by Tricia Patterson.

So, I figured that this year, with it being on a Monday–and, of course, it being your big, whoppery six-O– I’d share it, and our amazing friendship, with everyone.

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You were the first friend I made when I moved here to New Jersey. OK, you were the second friend I made but I liked you better than the first one, that’s for sure. When we met that night at book club, I thought, who’s that bossy woman in the black turtleneck who thinks she knows everything about parenting, food and literature? It only took about a week to realize we were two of a kind in so many ways and after a couple of playdates with the kids, our friendship was off and running.

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We have raised our children together, shared our dreams with each other, revealed to one another our deepest secrets and toasted more than a few glasses of wine. You have been my sounding board, my second opinion and a shoulder to cry on when I needed one. You are truly like a sister to me and our relationship is a rare gift in a life full of busy-ness, stress and responsibility.

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But, perhaps, the thing that defines my friendship with you the most is laughter. I’m not sure I’ve shared as much laughter with anyone else in the world. From piss-your-pants laughing at stupid humor like Austin Powers or the Farting Preacher, to laugh-in-order-to-deal with real life situations like parenting, marriage, power outages that go on for days and days or winter breaks where everyone in both our families has head lice (yeah, remember that?). We laugh and we laugh a lot. You have brought so many good times to my life, girl, and that is something I don’t take for granted.

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Thank you, my smart, funny, beautiful, dancing, photo-taking friend for many years of being my BFF. I’m so happy you are a part of my life. Here’s a big hip-hip-hooray on this, your sixtieth year.  May you have many, many more.

Happy Birthday! I love you.

Dar

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Monday #24: Cut Loose

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I’ve just finished three weeks of school residency programs with elementary children. We write using techniques and strategies that I use in my own books for kids, and then we illustrate using cut paper collage—also a method I employ in my books. The sessions are lively and let kids have fun learning without really realizing it. I begin each session by telling them that I haven’t come to work with them—there will be no grade on what we do, no homework and no test—but instead to play with them. Don’t tell the grownups, though, I whisper with a wink-wink; I’m not so sure they’d want to pay me to play they smile and nod their heads quietly in solidarity.

A few years ago, before I prefaced what I now jokingly call playshops (instead of workshops), with this caveat, I often watched the stress in kids build as they got ready, essentially, to perform for me in front of their teachers. As soon as I finished the lesson and gave the project directions, anxious hands would go up with all manner of questions all beginning with “Are we allowed to…?” I am now more careful in getting them ready to begin and the result is immediately evident: shoulders relax, smiles appear, sighs of relief are exhaled. Hooray! She came here to play.

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Collage is an interesting medium. I began dabbling with it back in college making handmade cards for birthdays and have illustrated all six of my picture books using this medium as well as many images of trees, my favorite theme. Currently I am mostly a painter, but my first love is truly collage. Paper, scissors and glue.  People have always asked me how I have the patience to cut all those little pieces of paper, but there is a mesmerizing, relaxing and very “zen” aspect to this technique and I’ve witnessed the most jumpy and attention deficit children become deeply focused on creating a piece of art out of brightly colored, paper shapes.

Most of the time, when I’m working with kids, I collage, too. It is good for them that I model the joy of creating something, but I also find that making stuff with children helps me with my own artistic anxiety. I am faster and more free with the scissors when I’m in a classroom rather than my studio and I am much more bold, cutting without the tracing paper I almost always use for patterns on stricter projects. And, because I see this in myself, I have one rule with kids and collage: no pencils. No pencils?!?  They don’t like this one bit. Some of them are actually quite defiant about this rule and get a little angry. Accustomed to drawing, they fear the line-less-ness of “drawing with scissors,” and don’t always believe me when I tell them their shapes will be bigger, better and more beautiful without those beloved pencils and the even more beloved erasers.

Last week, during the last session of the day, I spoke to a group of fourth graders about the philosophy behind the no pencils rule. I said, you know, for a long time I was only a collage artist. I liked the way my work looked, I thought it was “good,” and I didn’t think I needed to do anything else or change anything about it as long as I believed that was true. I never took art classes with other artists or even talked that much about other mediums with them. But, I told them, one day I finally realized that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I didn’t know what it felt like to use other techniques and other supplies. I started to look more at other artist’s work and I began trying to learn about other mediums. I bought a few new things and started playing around with them. It was—and still is—a real challenge to let myself be free of the need to make something “good,” but I have learned so many new things that I would never have learned if I’d just stuck with what felt comfortable and familiar. I would also not have been able to find the little bits of goodness that I discovered in the sloppy, messing around stuff I did. Some of these weird and ugly things became the new and much beloved facets of my work and helped me grow as an artist and a person. What, I asked them, do you think it would it feel like to let yourself be open to trying something new that maybe feels uncomfortable but could lead to something wild and wonderful? Do you trust me? Yes, they say, we trust you, Dar. And they begin.

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The session with this particular group of fourth graders was on the day of Jeff’s birthday and I’d found myself without a card for his gift and an early dinner reservation directly following my time at a school. As the kids cut their animals from bits of patterned paper, I sat at one of the tables with them and began a quick little illustration for his card. The moment I begin to make something in the midst of children, I get an audience. You’re sooooo goooooood, they moan. How do you doooooo that? It’s practice, I say, that’s all. I have cut a lot of paper in my life.

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What are you making? Why are you making a hot air balloon? I explained to them that it was birthday card and that I had a party right after school (I also mention that handmade cards are always better than store bought ones and they agree). Who is that for? Whose birthday is it? I already know that saying “boyfriend” around grade school children will elicit giggles and exclamations of “YOU have a BOYfriend?!?” Old people, you see, do not have boyfriends and girlfriends. But I say it anyway and, after they giggle and ask me how old I am for Pete’s sake they continue their interrogation, What did you get him? You got him a hot air balloon? No, silly, I say, a hot air balloon ride. Which is true. I got us a one-hour, real live hot air balloon ride. The kind where you are way, way up in the open sky, far above the ground, with no real steering, a puff of air riding on the whims of the currents, powered by a flame-fed balloon, and dangling from a basket. Oy.

Without drama, I tell them very matter-of-factly that I am kind of afraid of heights. I admit to them that I do not really like driving over big, long bridges, riding on roller-coasters, rock climbing or even the idea of hang-gliding or sky-diving. I tell them I am not really sure how I feel about the hot air balloon ride but that he likes things like that. As I continue to make the card, the conversation over it dissolves into how many scary roller-coasters they have all ridden. And then, one of the girls leans in toward me and says, You will be trying something new. But, maybe it will be wild and wonderful!

TRY THIS WEEK: Something new… and put away your pencil. ;)

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