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Savoring Ordinary Life

IMG_1086The experiment is underway! In the Hero’s Journey, the character starts out in Ordinary Life. Usually, there is a bit of restlessness, or the potential for something to change, but the goal in this stage of any story is to establish what is before the adventure begins.

It’s not easy to see what IS in your own life without making changes. In fact, at least for me, it’s impossible. Probably it won’t surprise anyone that during this month as I pondered my Ordinary Life, I found myself organizing my office and closet and kitchen cabinets. The more you notice what is, the more you think, I wonder how I might make this better?

I spent some time before Christmas looking back over the past year, noticing growth and also areas of my life that needed more of my attention. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I use six key areas as touchpoints to make sure I’m not losing track of what’s important. Since balance in day-to-day living isn’t really possible–when we focus intently on one thing, other parts of life are bound to get messy–I look over chunks of time, say a month, or just recently, a year, to review how I’m doing. And… success! With longer term perspective, I saw growth in all the areas that matter to me. Probably this kind of growth happens every year, but when I don’t look at my life big picture, I don’t see it. Too often, I berate myself all about what I didn’t get done and am blind to what’s right in front of my face. Does this ever happen to you?

IMG_1084In any case, if you’d like to read about my six areas of focus, check out the post. The point today is that these six areas provided lenses to see the outgoing year and frame my goals for this coming year.

I’ve been reading many blog posts about why resolutions don’t work. I agree with much of what’s being said, but I also think many of them miss a very important detail. Life isn’t a huge mountain that we climb and climb and climb. All of those people climbing are hoping to reach a destination, right? But we’ve all heard the maxim that “life’s a journey” so many times it goes in one ear and out the other. Yeah, yeah, yeah, but my journey is actually leading somewhere and it’s just over that next peak. Well, that next one… Actually, the next.. until we’re so discouraged, we sit down on the trail and wait for the buzzards.

IMG_1088Here’s what I think. Life IS a journey. But the vistas aren’t as easily apparent as actual mountaintops. We have to intentionally find those trail markers and create ways to celebrate the vistas. Before we can do that, we have to notice them. And that’s exactly why am so excited about this Hero’s Journey project. We’re all the main characters of our own stories. We’re all on journeys. We can stumble along the trail, or we can celebrate it as we go. By choosing to see life as a journey with stages, by transitioning intentionally from one to the other, I’m becoming more aware of just how incredible a life story can be, in all of its ups and downs.

The next stage of the Hero’s Journey happens when the Call for Adventure comes. I knew I couldn’t force this call, so every day, I’m putting one card in a box, with a thought about what has been on my mind that day. When the end of the month comes and it’s time to move on, I’ll look at what I’ve collected and see what comes clear. In what direction should I head this year? For me, prayer is a large part of this process, too. I believe when we ask for direction, whether the answer is subtle or a knock over the head, clarity comes.

IMG_1090As I planned out the year, I knew I’d need a physical way to move from one stage to another. We need celebrations such as birthday parties and graduations to mark transitions in our lives, and we need smaller ones, too, to mark the smaller moments of our lives. So, when it was time to move away from Ordinary Life into Listening for the Call, I took my first coin to a river and tossed it in. We were in Bend, so we chose a snowy bridge with a view of the mountain. Recently, I read in Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years about choosing to create memorable scenes in our lives. I completely agree. Why not go for it?

When I got home to California, I took out all the cards I’d collected from each day of the first stage, and saw some interesting patterns. The biggest pattern included “one thing at a time,” and “patience,” and “be present.” These were good reminders. My favorite card read, “if you want the right answer, ask the right questions.” So, this month, as I’m listening, I’m keeping track of my questions, and pushing myself to ask more, too. Here’s to life’s adventure… onward!

A Hero’s Journey Experiment

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image12589947A few years ago, I made a decision that changed my life. Even though I had a BFA in Theatre Arts and was pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children,  I felt like someone pretending to be an artist. All around me, highly creative people produced inspired work. I was the ugly step-sister craftsperson. I worked hard, sure, but I was also too careful, too structured. While my work was adequate, lightning wasn’t striking.

I’d hit my natural ceiling. Without drastic action, I wasn’t going to grow. The moment that actually pushed me over the edge was an editor reading my manuscript and telling me, “You’re not writing what you need to be writing. This story is well-written, sure, but you–you’re not in here.”

Why was being an artist so important to me? To me, living life as an artist meant risking asking the big questions. It meant stretching to my outer limits and beyond. It meant seeking truth in the hopes of shining light for others. My role models, Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis, had both done this with their work. Their fiction and nonfiction had reached out of the pages of their books and challenged me to live a bigger, a more meaningful, life. No one could guarantee that my work would have this significance, I knew. However, if I only dipped my toe into the creative ocean and never dared to dive in, well… my work would never have more than toe-dip impact.

At the time, I was writing my creative thesis on the importance of play in the creative process. I’d been approaching this task intellectually, squishing every last bit of fun out of my play. I was trying to force myself to act like an artist, all the time becoming less and less inspired. So, I wrote to my graduate advisor and announced, “I’m going to write a play, a hero’s journey, about my process of learning how to play. I’m going to start now.”

plays-the-thingShe responded: “Cool!” and then, “Are you sure it will work?” I wasn’t, to be honest. But I assured her it would. In the end, committing to the process was what made it work. I wrote the play and produced it. Through the process of journaling, shaping the story, rehearsing with the cast, creating costumes, sets and choreography, composing music, and learning how to edit video, I battled some of my deepest challenges: perfectionism, the need for control, and the search for my unique voice in the sea of creative voices in the world, to name a sampling.

After the play ended, though, I felt at odds. I’d been engaging with life in a new way, but after we finished the production, I slipped back into life as usual. My old habits returned, stomping down those fresh shoots of artistry that had started to sprout.

Fast forward to December 2014. My inbox was being bombarded with offerings of goal-setting courses and books. I watched some of the videos and listened to two very insightful books, The One Thing by Gary Keller and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. I went through Donald Miller’s Creating Your Life Plan. As pieces fell in place, I realized I needed a practice that combined the inner work I needed to do with my outer goals, work and otherwise. We are not simply what we do, but what we focus our energy on day in and day out can’t help but affect who we become.

What I needed was a new hero’s journey. So, I made another decision. I decided to try a hero’s journey experiment this year. I’m going to share some thoughts along the way here, on my blog, because I know a travelogue can often help a traveler experience sights and experiences on a deeper level. Perhaps my travels will inspire you to ask a new question or to try an experiment of your own. We’ll see what happens together.

Here’s how I’m setting out.

journeyI put together a journal in which I reviewed key successes from last year, as well as habits and thinking I need to let go. I added pages where I can map out the journey and take notes along the way for each stage. One tool I knew I’d need was a symbol to help me transition from stage to stage. I bought small coins, and plan to drop each into a fountain or wishing well as I say goodbye to one stage and hello to the next. Also, to keep myself open to the possibilities, I’m collecting one thought per day in my hero’s journey book. For instance, when I’m Listening for the Call, I’ll write down one word or phrase per day. Then, when I come to the end of the month and am ready to Cross the Threshold, I can review the cards to see what pattern emerges from the sum of those days.

I started, of course, with Ordinary Life. What does that mean? I’ve been working on noticing where I am, right here and now. I’ve been organizing and decluttering my spaces, making room for whatever might be coming next. Another focus has been on building healthy habits such as exercise and blocking off regular time for writing. I’ve been practicing saying no, when appropriate.

I’m planning on tossing my first coin into a fountain around January 1. Then, it will be time to start Listening for the Call. I can’t help but believe that something extraordinary might show up. In any case, I know that by committing to the journey, I am engaging with life. I’m living the artist’s life.

Fruit and Fizz

9781607745983I’m loving Kombucha Revolution by Stephen Lee. With brightly colored illustrations and interesting combinations, Lee encourages readers to drink Kombucha, the “wonder drink.” An ancient home-brewed tea, Kombucha “detoxifies the body, aids digestion and reenergizes the mind…” What could be better? The book encourages healthy living with a flair of creativity, riffing off the original Kombucha with such recipes as “Lavendar Lemonade Kombucha,” “Kombucha Root Beer Sasparilla,”  and even “Edamame Kombucha Spread.” Overall, I appreciate the fun and flair with which this book is written, and am enjoying exploring the recipes. Give it a try, I think you’ll like it too!

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

Girl at the End of the World

514iqc7VMnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One of the most daunting challenges I’ve faced as a writer is to write about my faith. I always insisted I wouldn’t do it, and when I was asked directly to write about faith, I did so with fear and trembling, and even then, only through the lens of fiction. When one has been brought up to believe there is a fundamental right and a fundamental wrong, no matter how much one grows spiritually, it is impossible to overcome the fear that one will say the wrong thing. The voices never stop: You might get it wrong, and what then?

These voices are crippling, particularly when eternity is in question. When one has learned from the very earliest age that faith is the one thing you must not get wrong… there’s the rub. If you get it wrong, it’s not just death on the line. But how is one supposed to get it right if one can’t discuss, ask questions, reflect, ponder?

Girl at the End of the World is a bold, brave book, one that challenged and inspired me, one that brought up deep questions. I want to thank Elizabeth Esther for having the courage to write about her experiences and about her continued search for answers, even though she hasn’t yet figured everything out yet. I’m inspired to dig deep myself, to try to shine some light in those places where fear reigns.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Dancing on the Head of a Pen

Writing isn’t like most other art forms. While one might apprentice with a painter by observing the artist at work, cleaning brushes and gathering habits and strategies to try, watching a writer at work would not likely bring about such clarity. So much of the writing process happens between our ears, not out there in the tangible, real world.

Also, while writers do create processes for their work, these systems tend to change per book. And no writer could prescribe a system for another that would fit perfectly in a one-size-fits-all way.

9781400074358-1Thus, when a master writer takes on the challenge of sharing their process on the page, I’m always appreciative. This turning one’s mind inside out and putting into words what is largely invisible is no small feat. Reading such accounts does the most fantastic thing for my writer-self. Books such as this make me feel a part of a community of like-minded people. I feel seen. The strategies and habits and thoughts shared by the writer give me a starting point for doing my own thinking. How is my process like this other writer’s process? How is it different?

Robert Benson’s Dancing on the Head of a Pen was an excellent read for these reasons. Benson blended introspection with stories from his experience as well as practical strategies. Once I finished the book, I wanted to re-read again more slowly, journal in hand, to start up a writerly conversation with the ideas I encountered on the page. After reading this book, I feel empowered to think more about my process, to revise the way I approach my writerly life, and to commit again, and more deeply to working on my craft.

One of my favorite parts of the book was when Benson addresses the three hats he wears, his beret, his New York Yankees gamer and his fedora. He equates these hats to the three roles he plays: freewheeling artist wearing his beret, hard-working revisionist with commitment wearing his gamer, and businessman wearing his fedora. Throughout the book, Benson makes the variety of tasks writers must wrestle visible in just this way.

For writers who need a boost of inspiration or some perspective on their writing life, this book is well worth the read.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Be Surprised

Urban Watercolor SketchingI have to admit, when I picked up Urban Watercolor Sketching by Felix Scheinberger, I thought, I’ll just see what I can take from this technique and make my own. There has to be a way to use watercolors with more control, sharper lines, more definition…

Then, I read the first page where Scheinberger wrote, “Watercolor is, however, not just a technique; it is almost an attitude. Watercolor always does what it wants. In a way, it is willful and anarchical. Therefore, for me the secret to using watercolor to create pictures lies in striking a balance between control and letting go.”

Uh-oh. Just when I thought I was loosening up, I slammed into another internal wall. I thought I was ready to play with watercolors but I was actually planning to force the medium to fit between my very limiting lines.

Intrigued, I read on. And on and on. I almost forgot to eat dinner I was so wrapped up in this book. Instead of starting with an art supply shopping list and step-by-step instructions, Scheinberger launched into the history of gum arabic, stories of pigments and where they originated, specifics of how watercolors work on the page layer by layer and the science of color.

Through each passionate word and image, Scheinberger enchanted me, surprised me, took me where I never expected to go. I thought I wanted a how-to book. Turns out, what I got was a book that challenged me to continue letting go. To let myself be an artist in a new way. To play and experiment. When I finished the book, I turned back to the title. Urban Watercolor Sketching? I don’t know. Obviously they couldn’t have called the book Fall in Love with Watercolors. But I did fall in love while reading this book.

You know that feeling you get when you can’t wait to see someone but you think you probably should spend twenty more minutes in front of the mirror, getting ready? You’re excited and also a little bit afraid? That’s how I feel about watercolors now. I can’t wait to put some paint on the page. Also, I want to live up to the history and depth and beauty of the medium, which I never knew about before. In the book, Scheinberger tells a story about an ancient Chinese painter who worked patiently for a long time in preparation for one masterful painting. He was a master, but it still took him a long time to prepare. And there’s the reminder. Living up to the medium is more about delighting in the process rather than expecting a certain outcome.

Urban Watercolor Sketching is dessert for the creative soul. Don’t miss it!

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

Balance Feels Wobbly

small_3622808830I just read a post by Michael Hyatt about the way that balance feels. You should read it, too.

Michael wrote that when one is balancing on a rope, one doesn’t feel balanced. Instead, one is constantly noticing what is off-balance and adjusting. When I read his words, my stomach did that strange swoop thing it does when I’m walking on any narrow object. Yes, I thought. Absolutely. No wonder the very people who intentionally seek balance always feel off-course. The only way to stay balanced to be aware of what’s out of balance. I’ve written frequently about finding balance through adjusting expectations. When we have a realistic picture of our lives, grounded in the facts of our given circumstances, only then can we make needed adjustments.

Last weekend, I spent time with alumni from Hamline’s MFA program. The question came up: How do writers find a work-life balance? For writers, finding balance is particularly hard. We are passionate about sitting down at the page and setting down words. We must do this for our mental and spiritual health. Yet, writing is such a quiet, personal thing, that it can appear like doing nothing. Sometimes the people in our life point this fact out, asking us to drive them to the airport or help pack for a move instead. For me, though, the biggest obstacle is myself. Daily, I struggle to remember that my writing is important, that it matters, and that giving myself the time to write isn’t selfish. I’m giving myself time to be me. Wouldn’t I passionately defend such time for anyone else?

So, here is the reality. We aren’t finding balance. We are actively balancing. It’s a verb, not a noun, and one one that evokes a visceral, gut-level sensation. Balancing isn’t a warm glow the way happiness is–That’s where we run into trouble. We expect balance to feel soft and airy, the way one might feel after an intense yoga session. Balance is a jolt, a shock of electricity, an instinctual reaction built into our DNA. We may long for balance that feels calm and settled, but instead, we must adjust our expectations. Balance is aware of itself. It is an ongoing, active process, full of experimentation, strategy and practice.

What if instead of asking, “How do I find a work-life balance?” we asked, “Where am I leaning too heavily? What adjustments might I make to right myself today?” The more specific the answers, I think, the better. No need to be overly ambitious about fixing one’s whole life. Tomorrow, we may be out of balance in a completely other way. This task is one that can’t be checked off the to-do list. We must engage in balance every day.

Balance is individual, but in the same way that stories deal in specifics, the particulars of others’ solutions can clear our own murky waters. So, what are you doing today to adjust and find balance? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

photo credit: Jeff Pang via photopin cc

Listening…

small_2888369643When you set out to do something, truly commit, you can’t have any idea what’s around the corner. That’s the beauty of a journey, I suppose, maybe even the reason for a journey. We want to strike out into new territory for better or worse. We want to grow.

If you’ve been reading along these past few months, you know I’ve set out on a Hero’s Journey, and that about a month ago, I transitioned from the first stage of Ordinary Life to the stage of Listening for the Call. Some practices I intended to put in place in order to listen included yoga and a specific kind of prayer called Lectio Divina, a prayer that acknowledges the need for silence and listening after reflecting on sacred words.

I have started working with these practices, but what has overshadowed this month more than anything was the sudden death of my aunt. Listening hasn’t been about holding practices out at an arms length. I’d been thinking of listening as a quiet, settled activity, one that would allow me to breathe deep and soak in some kind of capital T truth. Or some kind of capital Q quest. Listening hasn’t been anything like that this month.

It started with a phone call when my husband and I were out for dinner. My phone didn’t ring, but I saw a message pop up from my mom, unusual for a Friday night. Unusual enough that I listened to the message, and from the sound of her voice urging me to call tonight or tomorrow, I knew I needed to call right then. Listen.

I called and she told me the news about my aunt. It was a month and a day after my uncle, another of my mom’s siblings, had passed away. She assured me that all would be okay, and yet I heard underneath that she needed me. My upcoming week was full of preparation for a full-school musical I was directing, but when I sat down to tell my husband the news, he asked, “Do you need to go home?” Listen.

Yes, I needed to go home, right away. The next morning, I woke up early and was on the road, driving to Portland as the sun rose. Friends and colleagues covered me so I could be with my family. On Sunday, Mother’s Day, I felt the tiniest of nudges: Go for a walk. Go to the Gorge. Listen.

My mom and I went for a walk to get coffee, and we talked the whole way. After taking care of a little more business, we went to the Columbia Gorge and watched water pour off cliffs, mist filling the air with energy, freshness, life. We were on the edge that day, so close to death and so aware of the life around us, the beauty just waiting to be noticed. Had I been home, I’d probably have been fretting over the musical or the multitude of other details about life. Listen.

After a few days, I came back home and dove in to help finish the show. A little less than a week later, I stood in the auditorium watching the kids take their bows, and then the auditorium burst into song, singing to me. Happy Birthday. Listen.

I’ve been struggling to name the call, to wrap my mind around something that is so simple it’s difficult to label. It’s the starkness of seeing what’s left when a life ends, and yet tasting the richness of being present, of seeing one’s work right here, right now. What am I being called to do? What is the work of this journey?

One could call it many things. Settling into my skin. Being Naomi. Becoming an artist. It’s definitely not about working harder or accomplishing more. The call is about how I life my life, not about what I do so much as about who I am. Maybe once I set off on this journey, the call will crystalize, become even more clear. I like the word “becoming.” For the past ten years, I’ve worn a butterfly ring, a symbol of the process of transforming, a life theme for me. I think I’ll set out with that word in mind.

I’ve also realized I need a ritual, some kind of marker to help myself pass from stage to stage. It’s hard to know when one stage is done and when the next is ready to begin. I do think it’s been the right choice not to force each phase to last a month. Some will be shorter and some longer. That’s only natural. However, a tangible act is needed to mark the passage. Were I on a real journey, I might mark the path with a special rock, or write what I’ve learned on a paper and toss it into my bonfire. Probably I’d keep one copy, too, so as to keep track of what had come before. Maybe I can find some kind of replica of this in my real, everyday life, since I’m not hiking trails or cooking by bonfire each night. Something will come to me, I’m sure. And then, I’ll move through the next stage, Crossing the Threshold into… who knows. Whatever it is, I know it will give me opportunity to grow, to notice the richness of life, to be fully present right now. Listen. Each moment matters.

 
photo credit: Alaskan Dude via photopin cc

Listening

Flat StanleySo yesterday, I set out to listen. Here’s some highlights:

– A friend emailed me with the perfect link, encouraging me to think about slow work. I love what Micha Boyett has to say in this post and am looking forward to reading her book, Found, too. I’ve been looking for a book just like this, one that helps me slow my rhythm and re-center my focus.

– I couldn’t get my audio book to work while I drove into work, so I ended up driving in silence, listening to the wind and the cars rushing by and the sounds inside my car and my own thoughts. In the quiet, calm settled over me. Some words I had recently read from Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin came to mind: The days are long, but the years are short. Yes. There was plenty of time in my day, and yet, I needed to enjoy each moment of the day because it would be too easy to let it slip by.

– Then, when I showed up for a wild rehearsal with tons of kids at the elementary school, one of the young actors ran up to me with a tupperware filled with cupcakes–vanilla, my favorite-and one of them sported a white chocolate Flat Stanley on top to match the theme of our play. She’d stayed up late and made cupcakes just to thank me for my work with her and her classmates. We shared them after the rehearsal… and I felt a gentle nudge. Notice. Listen. Soak this in.

– When working with one of my students, we were looking for the perfect word. Turns out the word required was “peculiar.” Except neither of us could say the word without getting tongue tied. I tried, and couldn’t. Then he tried, and couldn’t. Then, the babysitter across the room chimed in and couldn’t say it either. We were all laughing out loud and the sound was a drink of fresh water. Exhaustion exited the room and energy bubbled up. Again, I felt that nudge. Notice. Listen. Soak this in.

– Then, this morning, I had an email from one of my Inklings instructors, Helen Pyne, who blogged about how much she learns and is inspired in her work with young writers. Again, the nudge. This is why I do what I do. This is why all the hard work matters. Not just to me, or to the students, but also to our instructors and every single other person it touches.

 

Our world is busy and chaotic and filled with noise. Often, I’m tempted to add to the noise, to try to shout over everyone and be heard. But why? Don’t I actually want to be part of a grand patchwork, to play my unique part? To both inspire a creative girl and enjoy her gift of amazingly inventive cupcakes? To open doors between writers and young writers to allow them to find inspiration and joy? The connections we make person to person are truly the thing.

And this, after just one day of listening. I’m looking forward to what I’ll hear today.

When to Begin? Now.

small_2143353272The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing. Walt Disney

I’m wrestling with the temptation to stick with the beginning of this journey for too long, to try to get everything in order before allowing the journey to really start. But that’s not how the phase of ordinary life works in the Hero’s Journey. In every epic adventure I’ve read, the journey takes the hero by surprise.

It’s time to start to listen for the call to adventure. I need to be ready for it, whenever it appears. So, I’m erasing the word “begin” on my whiteboard and moving on to “listen.”

Before I turn my attention from ordinary life, though, I want to take a moment to note what I’ve noticed so far. I’ve risen up above the treeline. I’ve taken a look at all of my clutter and ideas and worries and resources, organized, clarified and created places for each kind of input, and started to practice the habit of keeping my workflow clear. As new email, ideas and requests come in, I put them into my lists so that I’m not only reacting to the newest request. At any given moment, I can see what I’ve committed to already, and can easily determine how important the new issue that shows up is in relation to the whole. I am able to keep track on a weekly basis of whether I’m giving time and attention to my larger goals, and to the issues that may not be emergencies today, but which might become emergencies if I don’t maintain steady progress with them.

My responsibilities and commitments are clear. And what do I see?

– I’m actually doing a better job of living a creative life than I realize. Even in the busiest moments, I find time to sketch, to brainstorm, to cook a simple but interesting meal. I find playful approaches to nearly every task, and now that all the things I know I need to do are written down and not rattling around my head, I have been starting to have fun doing them one at a time.

– I’m committed to more than I can realistically do. However, I’m not alone in this. Nearly everyone is committed to more than they can do given our many dreams and our practical realities. Given the fact that I can do only one thing at a time, I can now decide which of the important things I’ll do at this moment and let the other tasks and projects wait. And I can practice saying no, standing on the strength of my clear knowledge of what I have already said yes to.

– For me, being busy isn’t the problem. I like being creatively engaged with my world. However, I enjoy doing tasks creatively. For instance, sending out a monthly newsletter to a mailing list sounds horrible to me. Inventing a themed monthly missive that sums up what I’m already thinking about and sharing it with people who really want to read it? Totally fun. Particularly if I give it a fun name and draw the logo. For me, it’s all about the approach.

– Even though I’ve been working steadily at creating a body of work for quite some time, I’m still at the very beginning. And that’s okay. I need to be comfortable with where I am and realize that with the huge projects I’ve taken on, I’m in for the long term.

I love this feeling, being able to see where I am clearly. I feel ready to open myself up now to listen. Sure, I have all of these projects and dreams. But, where am I being called to journey right now? Since I am at the beginning, in which direction should I head? I have a number of ideas of ways to listen: yoga, lectio divina, prayer, meditation, journaling, sketching, running, walking, sitting on the beach, reading, not reading, listening to music, taking time away. But instead of getting busy with any of them, I’m just going to start today by paying attention. Today, I’m going to notice every time I feel that breath of creativity flow through. What causes it? What’s tugging on my attention?

photo credit: CK Wong via photopin cc