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The Care and Feeding of Art

I have a full life, like most everyone else. There’s plenty to do in a given hour, stuff that doesn’t feel particularly interesting or thought-provoking but has to get done. Well and good, but I need to feed my mind in order to create my best work, even when I don’t have time to “indulge” in things that aren’t making money or managing my family’s lives.

One way I keep my head full of stories is to listen to podcasts on subjects I’m interested in. I can usually do this while I’m running or unloading the dishwasher, so it feels like multitasking. It’s fertilizer for my thought life and doesn’t cost me extra time (or money).

Another way is to read a few pages of a novel before bed (and when I say a few pages, it’s sometimes two before I sink into oblivion). I’m always working through someone else’s book, even when I’m writing my own. I used to wonder if reading while writing would cause me to plagiarise another author’s ideas. As far as I can tell, that’s a groundless fear. If anything, reading someone else’s work reminds me to use my own voice and stay true to my vision.

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Yet another way to stoke my thought life is to notice the artwork on the walls of a favorite coffee shop. I imagine what an artist was thinking as she sketched half of a face in charcoal. Before I know it, I have the vaguest glimmer of a scene in the back of my mind. Maybe I won’t use it right away, but it’ll be there waiting for me if I need it.

Feeding my mind is something I used to believe would happen in my spare time. Now I know I have to work it into my day in order to stay creative.

What about you? How do you feed your mind and stay inspired?

 

On Getting Over Creative Angst

Creatives have to take their art seriously, or no one else will. If what we’re making/writing/singing isn’t important enough to take it seriously, then why not just get the laundry done and stop messing around? After all, we’re all grown-ups here.

The irony is that taking our art too seriously also ensures that no one else will. Plus, it will be boring and un-fun to create, and we will wonder why we started all of this mess in the first place.

The trick is to take the work seriously enough that we give it space in our lives, that we bleed and sweat for it if that’s what it takes, but not so seriously that we become miserable people who can’t tell a good joke. Because art, like life, is worth working for, but it also needs a little levity to keep it from becoming insufferable.

A good way to keep from taking our art (and life) too seriously is to gain a little perspective. I don’t know how you recalibrate when you’re feeling stuck or stuck-up or struck down, but I just saw this photo my husband took in West Africa, and, yeah that did it for me.

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I get to write because I have food to eat, clothes to wear, and I live in relative safety. I get to create. It’s a wonderful, luxurious privilege I did nothing to deserve. This is what I will tell myself as I sit down to edit my manuscript.

Accidentally On Purpose

I started running last year. It was new and hard, and I was 39. I got into a routine, raced some 10K’s and a one-mile dash that made me think my heart had exploded. Running changed my perception of my body and what it could do. It made me happier, more confident. My running momentum built with each month, and I kept at it until I turned 40. I ran for three weeks after that, and then…

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Me (right) with my two sisters before a 10K in Richmond, VA

…I lost my mojo and couldn’t figure out how to get it back. I let the giant running snowball melt and evaporate.

It’s that I wrote another novel this year, I told myself, and started a new job, plus all my kids were in high school, and I can only focus on so many things. I’d see updates on my runner friends’ progress, and I’d think, I’ll get back to that someday, and if I don’t, at least I know I can do it if I want to.

But my moods.

My middle son likes to jump into things without preparing for catastrophe. He is the anti-me in this way. Life has rewarded him with some prizes for his headlong behavior as well as some serious bruises. When he told me he wanted to run a Monster Dash 5K in two weeks, I said, you haven’t trained. He said, I didn’t train last year and I won my category. I wish you’d do it with me, he said.

I stared at him.

But then I thought, maybe I should do it. Even though I haven’t run in six months, and I’d only have two weeks to prepare, and I know enough about running to know this isn’t an adequate amount of time.

Because I also know that sometimes you have to forget the plan. You have to go for it.

I completed my second three-miler today, and I didn’t have to stop. I didn’t feel like death, though my legs hurt like a son of a gun. I’m euphoric because I accidentally started running again.

Sometimes, it takes a kick in the pants or a serendipitous moment (or a middle kid) to get me back on track. Sometimes that’s better than any plan I could have come up with.

 

A Soft Answer

So much of life is about getting down to business, doing the work, not waiting for inspiration in order to accomplish tasks, etc, etc. This is true in our jobs and in our parenting.

Also? Our creative pursuits won’t find expression if we don’t commit to them. We know we have to Just Do It.

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But sometimes you “need” to do something, and you feel overwhelmed by the thought of doing it–as in you actually cannot make yourself start the thing in the first place. Even though you know the sinking feeling is only your weak mind keeping you from being disciplined. It’s Resistance, you tell yourself, as if naming it will pull out its eye teeth or something.

I’m a Christian, not a Buddhist. But I like what this guy has to say about gently accomplishing the thing you really want to get done in a day. Just that thing and nothing more. Just that thing, while breathing and letting yourself find joy in the moment you’re doing it. Just that thing, while not being driven by anxiety and dread.

So will I work on novel edits today? Will I smile at Resistance instead of trying to trick or outrun it?

Could be. Yeah, maybe I will.

 

*photo by my creative, procrastinating son

Trying Hard and Letting Go

Something I’ve been mulling over: how do I work at something that takes up a lot of my time and mental energy, something I care a lot about, but not put ultimate hope in the results of my work?

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You think I’m talking about writing, but I’m talking about raising kids. My oldest is 17, now, and my baby is 14. So much of what I’ve prioritized in the last 17 years is stuff that can’t be measured. The trips to museums, the long talks and I’m sorry’s, the tears over math worksheets, the orchestra concerts and travel, have they made a difference in my kids’ lives?

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My kids are almost grown. They’re intellectually curious and kind. They’re beginning to know their place in in the world.

Still. How many of those traits would they have developed without focused effort on my part? Has what I worked for in the last 17 years mattered?

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Also, how do I let my kids fail (which is so important) and not feel it as my failure? How do I let go of the results of years of caring?

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Maybe this is one reason I write–because the joys and sorrows it brings, my various successes and failures, belong only to me.

 

*photos 1-3 taken by my oldest son

On Waking Up Again

My husband is in Africa, and I am in the U.S. with three teenagers and three dogs. I don’t worry when he’s gone, am not resentful to be the one holding down the fort, am used to a global life, etc., etc. Besides, sometimes it’s me halfway across the world, wondering if someone back home remembered to get more toilet paper.

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This time, though, I’m trying to keep the home fires burning while developing a proposal to send to literary agents. While teaching Chinese kids English in the wee hours of the morning. While teaching American high school students medieval literature and essay writing. While being a friend (and sometimes an enemy) to my own kids. While being 40.

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I’m tired.

But I’m getting good at letting things go when I need to. To wit: my kids are eating Ramen noodles and ice cream for calories, and I let my son pierce his ear at the mall yesterday. I’m not scared to use Z-quil at bedtime (if, for example, I happen to eat a large handful of chocolate covered espresso beans for “snack” and find myself alarmingly alert at 9 P.M.).

This is real life. It’s possible to keep going strong if I let it be what it is: imperfect and good enough.

Come On In

I’m still tinkering with my website since it’s pretty new. And, yes, I mean tinkering. Like an old man in a shop, bent over tools he doesn’t actually use.

Since returning from the writer’s conference, I’ve spent a bazillion brain cells adding to my ‘About’ page because, well, this is What You Do. It’s scary since I love a certain amount of anonymity. On the other hand, people want to know things about other people. I want to know things about you, though we may never meet.

Since the ‘About’ page is static on my website (doesn’t go to anyone’s inbox), I thought I’d add a link here in case you want to check it out. Take this as permission to snoop in my bathroom cabinet.

On Surviving ‘Big Opportunities’ Part Deux

I’m back from the ACFW conference. After going to bed at 9 p.m. for the last two nights, I feel like I might be getting back to normal (it’s a process that involves a little crying here and there). The conference was rewarding, but it pushed this introvert fairly far as I shook hands, flashed my lanyard, and explained what my novel is about to people waiting to tell me about theirs. Each night I fell asleep with my mouth open, Golden Girls blaring on the hotel TV, while other conferees partied and swapped business cards.

Some takeaways: be prepared that your best laid plans might not be the ones you stick with, and that’s okay. Be nice to people, just because, and let them be nice to you. Don’t keep eating the spicy dessert because you can’t think of anything to say to the table full of strangers.

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More takeaways: my novel is interesting to agents. I will have to write a proposal. It’s good to be humble, but it’s also good to put yourself out there. Just because you want to keep “creative control” doesn’t mean you can’t compromise in order to get some help. Everyone defaults to Facebook when it comes to social media and building a brand except for one person, and she said YouTube was better. I’m trying to decide which of those I find more horrifying.

Final takeaways: my teenagers got taller in four days. God is good to me. I really, really like my own bed.

On Surviving ‘Big Opportunities’

In two days, I’ll attend a writer’s conference at a swanky hotel. My carry-on will contain professional clothes (okay, a few Stitch Fix mix ‘n matches). I will wear poppy-colored lipstick and have too many business cards in my purse. I will try to look bright-eyed and confident, but also cool and not too eager because gross.

I will try not to think about myself and my writing too much, try to remember that this kind of event is about reaching out to others with no strings attached. Let good things just happen, man. Think about how you can be helpful. Be the first to go in for a handshake.

Shudder.

The whir in the back of my head will be: I wonder what’s going to happen. What VIP will I meet that could change my future plans? Do I belong here? I don’t. No, wait, I do. But not really. But, yes. Yes, I do. I will lick my front teeth to make sure none of the poppy-colored lipstick is smeared on them. I will open my eyes extra-wide (but not crazy wide!) behind my glasses when people smile at me because I’m 40, and my eyelids are starting to sag even when I’m not tired. Even when I’m nervous and on sensory overload.

And then I will remember how fortunate I am to be here. I will think about the beggar kids that lived outside my apartment in India for three years, those pink warts on their toast-colored hands, the broken-off front teeth. I will think about the level of privilege this conference represents, and how I did nothing to deserve it.

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And that will set me right for a few minutes out of every hour until I reach my hotel room at the end of the day. There I will let my face sag. I will switch on the television to see what cable looks like after all these years. Then I’ll make decaf in the nasty little pot on the desk. I will text my husband and ask him about our three teenagers–the ones I miss when they’ve been out of my sight for more than eight hours.

I’ll thank God for seeing me this far.

I’ll remember who I am.

A Place For Dogs

I’m convinced nobody around here knows what love is. That’s probably one reason my Jerry doesn’t come to see me anymore, though more likely it’s because he hates old person smell.

They have a big sign here that says no pets, right in the foyer. Linda didn’t say she’d talked to the people in charge about Missy. Bright Futures is one of the best long-term care facilities, Mama, was all she said.

Not a word about dogs, so how was I to know.

Thing is, people don’t listen to one another these days, and it comes of the young  thinking they know better when they don’t. For instance, I said to Linda, When your daddy dies I want to keep things in the house like they are. I’m not one of those women who can’t stand to see her husband’s clothes hanging in the closet without a body to put them on. But, wouldn’t you know, after Jerry passed Linda came right in my front door with two ladies from church, and all three set to clearing out Jerry’s closet.

Don’t touch those things, I said, so they could all hear. But Linda bent close and said, Now, Mama, you know Daddy wouldn’t want you to hang on to his clothes. He’d want you to move on. Remember he said that?

Linda thinks she knows better than I do, and nothing galls a mother more than for her child to act superior. My own mother claimed I did it to her. Then again, that was a special case because my mother got to where she was half-crazy.

My daughter thinks because I fell, my mind is slipping, too. Well, it isn’t. I’m sharper than a double-edged sword, as the Bible says. It also says ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ I do not feel honored these days, I can tell you.

After the funeral, the house felt like the inside of an old shoebox. There were still a few photos of Jerry on the pump organ, his cigar case over by the fireplace, things like that. But most of him had been cleared out. Linda and I had some words over the situation, and she ended up crying, but it seemed like things would blow over like they usually do.

It turns out we still weren’t speaking a week later, so I knew something must be wrong when she came by the house anyway. It was the middle of the day on a Tuesday, which was strange because Linda has to work at a garden center to put her kids through college, and she’s never available during the day. (Her husband is a professor at the university, and they pay him peanuts. I asked her one time if she didn’t think that was ironic).

Anyway, there she was. I could feel her thinking behind my chair, and I waited for her to come out with it while I watched my midday stories.

“Mama, I know you’re upset with me and I can understand that. I just want you to hear me out, okay?”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve got nothing but time and empty space now, Linda, so say what you need to say.”

“Now that Daddy’s gone, we need to decide whether to have in-home nurses stay with you or have you…go to another kind of home.”

I twisted around to look at her. I could feel my blood pressure.

“Are you saying send me to a nursing home where idiots drool in front of Wheel of Fortune every damn day?”

“Not a nursing home. More like an apartment where they do your meals for you and provide entertainment. Bingo and checkers, the lady said.”

“’The lady said?’ Do you mean to tell me you’ve already talked to somebody without asking me first?”

“I’m asking now,” she said. “I did a little research so I could have all the facts for you. I know how you like your facts.”

Something I’ve learned over the years: Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head. For instance, I did not, at that moment, mention to Linda that she’s clearly picked up weight and that I have no reason to trust a person who cannot keep up with her calories to help me find an apartment, daughter or no.

“Let me tell you something,” I said, “I appreciate you trying to help, but I will not be moving from this house. It’s mine and your daddy’s and it will stay that way. Besides, what will I do with Missy? Do they let dogs into those apartments? No, I don’t want to hear any more about it.”

“We’ll need to have somebody come out here and stay, then. Somebody to cook for you, do a little cleaning, make sure you’re getting your medication on time. There’s no shame in it.” She rubbed her forehead. “Insurance will pay.”

“Well, I don’t mind having a maid, if it’ll make you feel better,” I said. “I always had a cleaning lady when you and Doug were little, if you’ll remember. As long

as she stays out of my personal business, I think we’ll be fine.”

I meant that. I really did.

The maid showed up a week later. Her name was Tanya, pronounced Tan-ya, like the color. I guess she’d lived a beat-down life, as mother used to say. She wore a dingy nurse’s uniform, a faded blue cotton dress with questionable stains above the right breast and knee. She’d poured herself into that flimsy costume and she, and it, smelled like cigarettes. She told me right away that she’d need to take several breaks throughout the day. She looked down at Missy without smiling.

“This your dog?”

“Why, yes. This is Missy. She’s old but sweet.” I patted my leg and the dog jumped into my chair, precious thing.

“She bite?”

“Only if she needs to,” I said.

“Well, I cain’t be worried about it, or I won’t be able to do my job.” She took a little step back.

“And what is your job, exactly?”

“Help you get along.”

It was hardly my fault that Tanya turned out to be an ignorant lump that cared more about sneaking miniature pecan pies from my pantry than tending to her duties. I’m a fair woman and I didn’t expect miracles out of her. But I did expect her to clean the house once a week and to stay awake while I watch my shows. And I requested a hot lunch instead of sandwiches every day which, I felt, was only reasonable. I can make my own self a cold lunch, even in this chair.

But you know how people are, trying to get by doing as little as they can. Tanya was no exception. First, she handed me baloney and bread on a paper plate, three days in a row. Then every time I turned around she was either in the bathroom with the fan on, or outside, sucking on a cigarette. She stayed with me nights, too, and I heard her snoring from the guest bedroom, louder than Jerry ever did. All that was bad enough. But when I saw her kick my Missy, well, that was it. I sent her packing.

Linda burst through my front room later that day, hair flying. She’d gotten a call from the home care agency. I’d reported a case of abuse, and she’d come straight from the shop to see about me. I told her Tanya was gone. Had she smacked me, or anything? Worse, I said, she hurt Missy. Everybody knows poodles are sensitive, and my dog cowered for the rest of the day because of that trash.

Linda’s eyebrows got low, then, like she was preparing to give a speech, but I held up my hand before she could get started.

“You made a mistake with that woman, but I’m willing to overlook it,” I said. “She was a sack of nothing, and she stole from me, but it’s in the past. I think we can agree that, from now on, I’m the one ought to be picking out my own help.”

Unfortunately, the next girl was no better than Tanya, even though her references were good. Lynn wasn’t fat, that was something, but I could tell right off she wasn’t a dog person. She never even looked at Missy, and the dog could feel the hate. The poor thing even got to where she raised up her jowls, showing her little crooked teeth, every time that woman came near me.

Then, at lunch, after Lynn had been sulking around the house for five days, things took a turn for the worse. It started with me leaning over my chair to reach for a bit of biscuit that’d fallen on top of my left foot. I’d seen where Missy was fixing to go after it and I drew back to let her have it, like I always do. Well, Lynn saw Missy lunging at my foot, and I guess she thought it was her place to discipline my dog, because she grabbed the poor thing by the back of her neck and tossed her across the kitchen.

She asked was I okay. I was so mad I didn’t answer. I wheeled myself over to where Missy sat shivering and patted my leg. Would you believe she wouldn’t jump in my lap?

I turned around and pointed at the door. “You get out of my house.”

She gathered her things and left, slamming the wall with her overnight bag on her way out. That afternoon Linda called me up on the phone and gave me an earful. Lynn had tattled to headquarters about me, said I treated her poorly. The people at the agency told Linda they could “no longer send home health care workers to my residence.” Home health care workers! Flunkies from the Holiday Inn, more like.

Linda, back at the house.

“We’re out of options, plain and simple,” she said. “I don’t know how it’s going to be possible for you to stay at home anymore.”

“Those girls were awful,” I said. “I never saw Missy bite anybody before, but I did see both of them girls kick her. If she bit, it was to defend herself. I’m not leaving.”

Linda pulled at her face.

“You don’t need to do anything,” I said. “Just go on back to the garden center. They’ll be wondering where you went.”

I pretended to look at something on my left. Nothing uglier than an old woman crying.

“Just for tonight, then, Mama,” Linda said, patting my shoulder. “You’ll call if you need anything?”

I nodded, and she dropped a kiss on top of my head, like I was her little girl.

Jerry visited me later that night, like he does sometimes, and I lay in my bed staring at him from behind my eyelids. If I keep perfectly still I can get him to stay on a little longer. I waited for him to tell me what he’s been up to, or that I should be nicer to Linda, or where I’d put my glasses. But he stayed quiet and looked at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher.

Then it dawned on me I’d forgotten to take my medication. That’s what he was trying to tell me. My pills sat all the way over on the bathroom counter, and I was flat out on the bed. I had no choice but to skip my dose, or haul myself upright and force my legs to get me to my chair.

I woke up the next morning with Linda heaving me on to my bed.

 

“You can’t make me go anywhere I don’t want to go,” I said, panicky, but I knew she could.

“Here.” She handed me a Styrofoam cup with a straw. “Drink something.”

“I’ll tell you what. I know things are hard for you, and you hate to see me like this. What if I get better, and then we can see about having someone else move in with me?”

“We tried, and it didn’t work.” She gave me one of my mother’s looks.

“Then I ask you this,” I said. “Let me get better and take what I want out of my closet without anyone bothering me. Let me have that.” I took a sip of my water like she wanted.

“Fine. When it looks like you can handle it, I’ll let you pack some things by yourself.”

Eight days later, Linda opened a suitcase on my bed, said she’d be back to check up on me in a couple of hours. Missy and I waited at the window until we saw her drive away. With my dog in my lap, I wheeled myself into the kitchen and over to the sink. I opened the cabinet where I keep my cleaning supplies.

Moving still hurt so bad I had to catch my breath, and for a minute I was afraid I might slump over onto the floor. I waited until the room stopped spinning, grabbed a bottle of Drano, and righted myself. I set the bottle on the counter so I could use both hands to love on Missy. She poked my good-for-nothing thighs with her little circus feet, and licked the tears off my cheeks.

“Jerry, honey,” I said, “I don’t know how to go on with however many years I’ve got left. I’d come be with you now if I could, but suicide’s a sin. I don’t expect you to follow me to one of those hospital homes that smell like old men, which is where I’m headed. You never even liked to stay in a motel.”

Missy spread herself across my lap and sighed. I took a second to memorize the weight of her.

“I know you never liked this one much. That was partly her fault, partly yours. But I need you to take care of her while I’m gone. She don’t understand how things are. Anyway, I don’t want you to think bad of me since I’m doing what I have to.”

I scooted to the other side of the sink where a half-empty peanut butter jar sat, lid off. I poured in a little of the Drano and stirred. Missy’s nose shivered at the smell of her favorite treat, and she strained from her perch on my lap even after I thumped her twice.

I stuck the spoon into the jar and pulled up a wet glob. Missy licked the spoon so hard I had to hold it with both hands to keep it from falling. I watched her tongue dart in and out like a party favor, eager for more, more, more. After a minute, she started to tremble. Then she froze and yanked open her mouth like she was trying to yell something but couldn’t.

I dropped the spoon and pulled her close, but she fought me, cut into my legs with her nails. Finally, she lurched forward and collapsed on my lap. I closed my eyes and stroked her till she stopped twitching.

When Linda came back, she found me with a dead dog on my lap, inside a dead house. She didn’t say a word, just looked at Missy, at the peanut butter jar, staring like they were some kind of riddle. When she saw the Drano on the counter her face changed.

“What did you do, you crazy old woman? I had made arrangements.”

I let Linda take the both of us–Missy, first, and then me, without a fuss, because there’s no point in trying to explain anymore. Nobody listens to anyone else. Anyway, soon I’ll get to the place where they let you have dogs.