Chipped beauty

The urge emerges in the aftermath of the holiday season, when festivities recede and the mundane winter months stretch out as far as the eye can see, with no end in sight.  Spurts of sparkling snow eventually descend and interrupt the doldrums, painting stark sticks a crisp white and revealing the shape of limbs that have been here all along, blending into the drab landscape. That’s when something shifts in me. I look down at my own pale hands. My subconscious starts to scratch a psychological itch through impulse drugstore purchases. I recognize a pattern emerging in my own behavior. The absence of color awakens my longing. My hands want to come out of hibernation.

The days are dull, diminished, and stripped bare. Like the rest of the world, I am tempted to acquiesce and plod through with my head down and teeth gritted until spring shows up. The rest of my shivering body is layered in fleece, cotton and wool but my hands peek out of my sleeves, exposed. They comprise my essential workforce, the skeleton crew that gets stuff done no matter the season, key employees without whom I cannot function. And now, with everyone else on strike, it’s their time to shine. An uncharacteristic craving rises within me and I indulge in the creamy, lush bottled liquids lined up and waiting for me on the Target shelves.

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They crave attention and burst out in rebellious frenzy. I let them try on costumes in whatever hues strike their fancy: ruby red, dusky periwinkle, innocent pearl, speckled rainbow glitter, luscious grape, robin’s egg blue. This dramatic flair adds weight and presence to my actions. Ordinary gestures now sparkle like the twinkling lights all my neighbors have finally taken down from their trees. The unexpected treat of beauty at my fingertips inspires me to move with more grace and care. These extensions of me dare in their tiny way to push back against the expectations and assumptions that rule my world. Without a word, I begin to resist the status quo.

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My fingernails are blank canvases all my own. They beg to express themselves like mini billboards advertising my moods. Forever growing and being cut back, they become living works of art. They hint at the swirling prints that lie underneath, invisible to the naked eye, marking my unique identity. A lifetime will not be long enough for me to memorize their patterns.

My polished nails perform beautifully, without a smudge or crack, for limited and varying amounts of time. Inattention, interruption, and obligation threaten to disrupt their smooth demeanor before they’ve settled into their roles. Five minutes, five hours, or five days: the countdown begins to see how long my handiwork will last.

When their unvarnished selves start to show, my character is tested. I begin to practice the spiritual discipline of enduring the chipping polish. For the perfectionist, it’s self-prescribed exposure therapy. My focus is challenged as the endgame begins. I wait and suffer, stretching myself to accept the minor flaws as part of the creative process, battling the insecurity that peeks through the layers. The only cure would require me to go without, to silence my spirit, and surrender to a humdrum existence. My game of solitaire continues until it’s time for a fresh coat, beginning again and again until the world warms up and agrees to join me.

 

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My One Word for 2016

While pondering a word to serve as myIMG_20160116_092923149_HDR(1) focus for the new year, I tried one on and found that it fit like a second skin. As an aspiring wordsmith, there’s nothing that delights me more than a single word that embodies multiple meanings, all of which ring true. Perfectly tailored to motivate me in my current season of life, the word CONTENT will be my focus for 2016.

This isn’t the first time I’ve picked a word in January with which to frame my year. My word for 2015 was BRAVE. Not a natural risk taker, I had a problem with lag time. After being inspired to try something new, I wasted too much time working up the nerve to begin.

This little word revealed itself to be a prophecy that the events of the year fulfilled in both big and small ways. My behavior fell in line with my new mindset. I took the plunge and learned how to knit. Volunteered my ideas and time in new ways. Launched this blog and allowed my words to be read by others. Enrolled in a writing class and opened myself up to feedback from strangers. My husband and I spent some money we’d saved in order to invest in things that mattered to us. Allowed our firstborn to board an airplane and go on a trip without us in the care of her grandparents. Trusted our youngest to the care of a surgeon. It’s time to build on my progress.

In the course of the last year, another word caught my attention that continues to intrigue and guide me: DEFINITION. Definition is a process of allowing what matters to sharpen into a crisp outline and letting the rest fade away. Time will tell, but I am hopeful this might be my word for 2017…

But CONTENT is the next step. Here’s why it’s so perfect. Check out these definitions:

CONTENT

Adj:        in a state of peaceful happiness (con-TENT)

Noun:    (1) a state of satisfaction

               (2) the substance or material dealt with in a literary work, as distinct from form or style

               (CON-tent)

This little term combines both the process and the goal.

It’s the bridge between where I am and where I want to be.

Living out the Adjective: con-TENT

The discipline of practicing gratitude provides my life with balance. Its weight steadies me and keeps me from falling. I am no longer an emotional slave to the ups and downs of my days. Gratitude fosters contentment by teaching me to reframe my circumstances in the light of the truths that I know. It centers me with the knowledge that I am known, I am loved, and I am kept by Jesus, the One who gave me (and saved my) life. It humbles me and keeps me mindful that all I have is a gift. In my current circumstances, and whatever may come, this is the attitude I want to embrace: I want to live CONTENT.

Compiling the Noun: CON-tent

The other meaning of this word beckons me to create: to generate CONTENT. In order to do this, I must wrestle thoughts out of my brain and pin them down on the page. I need to move beyond the longing of “I want to be a writer” and live out the reality “I am a writer.” The only thing standing in my way is doing the work. I’m ready to sit down with a pen and start cranking out words. Only after I build a big clump of clay can I ever hope to chip away and mold it into a masterpiece.

To stay on task, I’ll have to defeat my squirrely tendencies that could cause me to drop the ball. Here’s my short list of potential pitfalls:

Perfectionism

Every time I think of this word, I remember this quote and smile.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a sh^*#y first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

The desire to be perfect is at odds with the pursuit of learning. I will have to fail, and fail often, in order to get where I’m going. I’ve got to risk embarrassment, share my thoughts even when I don’t feel totally ready, and take the chance that I might be misunderstood or judged. I will invite my internal editor to scheduled meetings only. Otherwise, I’m issuing her a restraining order so I can get to work.

Comparison

My life and my writing don’t have to measure up to anyone else’s. Comparison murders creativity, suffocating it before it even attempts to breathe on its own. I choose not to belittle my thoughts, not to cower in the company of others who may know more than me. I will welcome others into my life who inspire me to be my best self and shut the door gently behind those who judge me for not fitting into a mold. I will open my heart to receive honest feedback and promptly toss aside criticism that threatens to discourage or discredit me.

A Cluttered Schedule

I will make creativity a priority and build the time into my days to practice my craft. I will not sign up for activities or responsibilities that drain me or don’t align with my purpose and passions just to please others. I will leave margin for rest and play.

Isolation

Relationships are essential to my contentment and of utmost importance to me. I will not hunker down indefinitely in my cozy house (a tough commitment to make on a snowy January day!) or close myself off from the ideas and needs of others. I will put myself out there, lead with vulnerability, and enjoy learning from and with the people in my life.

CONTENT. It’s a big goal. Both pronunciations are pulsing in my brain, drumming out a rhythm that’s setting the beat for the new year ahead. Here’s hoping my steps will fall in line and the dance will begin.

What “ONE WORD” will you choose to frame your new year? I’d love to hear it!

the courage to create

On a recent Thursday evening, I attended my very first Wine and Canvas event. This outing was organized by my mom and her two good friends Pat and Rita, whose daughters were also my childhood friends. The six of us went out on the town to celebrate the fortieth birthdays of the younger set, a milestone we will all achieve in 2015.

We assembled our party shortly before six o’clock. Our hors d’oeuvres and drinks filled in the spaces between blank canvases resting on tabletop easels. We joked about how easy it would be to mistake the creamy yellow-orange cheese sauce for paint. Between bites, we caught up on one another’s lives. Our years of shared history make such gatherings feel like family reunions.

My mom’s friend Pat interrupted our giddy chatter to present us with nondescript black gift bags. Inside, the three of us forty-year-olds discovered aprons that made the ordinary black ones provided at the studio pale in comparison. Tying them around our necks,we each displayed Wonder Woman’s body in all her strong and feminine glory.

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After a few laughs and photographs, we felt empowered to begin our creations. Settling onto our stools, we turned our attention to the instructor at the front of the room.

I sat next to Kathy, a college art major who now makes her living in interior design. Within a few moments, she decided to go rogue and create her own original scene. Carrie, two stools down, was open to the adventure as well and had a few high school art classes on her resume. She confidently swirled the paint on her palette, mixing bold new colors, and got to work on our assignment. I tentatively looked down the row at my friends to my right, glanced over at the strangers to my left, and took a deep breath. I had to gather my courage in order to simply make the first mark on the clean slate in front of me.

Always the attentive student, I tried to focus and follow the steps we were given. My hopes were two-fold: to end up with a painting that resembled the example and to make it my own. Both goals were lofty for a rookie like me. I wondered if they might also be mutually exclusive. IMG_20150827_193343877_HDR-001

In this environment, I discovered that many decisions would be required in quick succession. This presented a problem for an inexperienced perfectionist like me. At one point, I tried to follow Kathy’s example and go off-script, selecting a color for the sky that would reflect the orange/yellow/pink real-life sunsets I’m always chasing with my camera. I spent a few panicky moments trying to mix the color I saw in my mind. Finally, I caved and went with the purple the instructor recommended. I couldn’t afford to get too far behind in the instructions.

As the night progressed, I did what I was told for the most part, slowly forming the wildflowers and leafy vines on a scenic backdrop. But the concentration required for me to make myself put brush to canvas slowly drained me of energy. I continually looked around, comparing my sloppy brushstrokes to the accurate replica being created by the stranger to my left. I sighed in jealous frustration as I watched my talented friend capture the scene from her own imagination to my right.

Hours of poor posture from leaning over the canvas strained my back. My eyes ached as did my weary brain. My anxiety mimicked the ticking clock, building steadily as we inched toward the end of our allotted time. But in the end, the time limit proved to be a lifesaver. I eventually had to abandon my unattainable vision of glory and settle for progress. It turned out that the more I wanted to be done, the more decisive I could be.

The instructor finally finished guiding us through the finishing touches, and the projects were deemed complete. Our group assembled with our paintings for a photo shoot. Laughs were shared and compliments were given. Completing the craft felt like an accomplishment and it had been fun to share the experience together.

As I drove home, I decided to pass my project on to my eight-year-old daughter, hoping she’d see the beauty in my efforts. I wouldn’t dare placing it in a spot I would frequently see in my house. I knew its imperfections would constantly pick at me, reminding me of my inadequacy.

When I arrived home that evening, my kids were already asleep. I laid the canvas on the dining room table and headed up to bed. In the hustle and bustle of getting them ready for school the next morning, I almost forgot to show it to them. When I did, I wasn’t disappointed by my daughter’s reaction. She proclaimed it to be a great work of art and wanted to know how I’d done it. Looking at it again with fresh eyes, I was surprised at what I’d created. I still wasn’t ready to put it on the living room wall, but I didn’t hate it.

Stepping out of the context of mass production and removing the element of comparison made the colors come alive. High art it wasn’t, but it was my little masterpiece. In the forgiving light of a new day, I felt satisfaction when I considered how I had transformed a blank space into an actual picture of recognizable objects. It deserved a place on the wall if only to remind me that I need to constantly be challenged to express myself in new ways. pic on wall

Creativity grows from awkward beginnings. A certain amount of mess and risk and discomfort is required in order to give birth to something new and beautiful. Trial and error is how we move steadily closer to the goal of having our creation adequately reflect our vision. There are no shortcuts.

I had spent the evening envious of my friend Kathy’s freedom when she sits down to create. She considers – but feels equally confident disregarding – instructions from others because she’s spent so many hours with those elements. She has honed her craft; her eyes and hands have learned to work together. She hasn’t let the “perfect” become the enemy of the good.

A quote from an excellent book I read this summer came to mind as I reflected on our evening: “Fear is the shadow of creativity. When we choose to create, we bring light to our fears. The darkness does not prevail over us. The creative act is inherently an act of courage. We are born to far too many fears and far too great a darkness. It is only when we find the courage to create that we are freed from those fears and that darkness.” (The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus)

It took an invitation and a little positive peer pressure to get me to try something new. It took a good night’s sleep and a break from comparing myself to others in order to appreciate the beauty in my creation. Though I don’t aspire to be a visual artist, the act of stepping out of my comfort zone wearing the costume of a superhero made me just a little braver. This birthday outing proved to be a field trip for my soul, providing some hands-on experience for the growth I desire in this next season of my life. Here’s to stepping out of the shadows and living my next forty years with the courage to keep creating!