Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Thanksgiving


Other people leave their traces in our memory

Unexpectedly, the holiday when gratitude wells up within my heart is not Thanksgiving, but Christmas.  I guess I associate the former holiday with home and family and solidarity, but not so much with thanks. 

At Christmas, though, I devote a lot of time to thinking about my family and friends.  In order to choose gifts for them which I think they’ll enjoy, I have to recall their tastes and interests, likes and dislikes – the things which make them who they are.  I begin to realize how lucky I am to have them all in my life. 

It’s actually quite humbling, I find, to pause and consider the other human beings who have happened into our company.  Sometimes our meetings are so fortuitous, so providential, that it all seems perfectly arranged for our happiness and benefit.  For those of us who are religious, this makes us even turn to a divine power, in order to give thanks there as well. 

Just the other day, I spent some time with a friend, and he was stoking the boiler he uses to heat his house.  It was quite dark and snow fell on the hot furnace, from whose mouth curling ribbons of flame licked out among the flakes.  All the while as I stood there, my friend went about expertly clearing the flue, emptying the ashes, reloading the wood, chatting with me about the process and how it works. 

I realized that even such a simple interaction with a person can be incredibly valuable.  And the reason is because there is a poetry in it.  In fact, I came home and wrote a poem about watching him working there, but there’s poetry even when no words are literally written down. 

The real gift is in the details!
Every person, therefore, has a creative spark, which allows him or her to forge bonds with others.  Memories and experiences serve to build each link and draw us together.  Stoking a fire or sharing a drink, saying a prayer or listening to a story: so many little actions are the true Christmas gifts which we can give each other.  The material objects are lovely, too, but their significance is only emphasized by mutual kindness and generosity. 

I’ve always been amazed by the connections which so many people have.  In any group, you’re likely to meet someone who shares some common ground with you – perhaps even a common acquaintance – and in this way a glowing, living network is drawn around the world.  Some people break the pattern, which explains the presence of tragedy and horror, but even so, others always step in to rebuild the nexus and repair humanity. 

When I tell people that I like to draw, or sew, or write poetry, it’s not uncommon for them to become self-deprecating.  ‘Oh, I’m not artistic like that,’ they say.  But really, everyone is an artist (or can be) in their human relations. 

Our patterns can be so beautiful!
After all, when trying to be present and trustworthy and generous for others, a great deal of creativity is needed.  No one’s perfectly giving or perfectly patient, or perfectly anything, for that matter.  We have to work to fit into someone else’s pattern.  And yet it’s so worth it when we make the effort, no matter how tiring it may sometimes seem. 

At Christmas, thinking of such things, I realize how others have made the effort to do this for me.  I may be the novelist – the conscious artist – but they really are just as creative, if not more so.  My parents and brothers, my friends, even my blog readers – all these have done their best to support and help me in the past year, putting up with my grumpiness and complaints, encouraging my joy and dreams.  Looking back at all these efforts for my sake, how can I feel anything else but grateful?

So, on this Christmas post, I wanted to take the chance to express my thanks, not only to friends and family, but also to my new acquaintances in the blogging sphere.  I feel happy everyday that people are reading my words and leaving some thoughts for me to consider as well.  The posting schedule has been less frequent lately, due to life concerns, but with the New Year I’ll be back on track and excited to read others work as well.

Merry Christmas to you all!  I wish you happy, restful holidays.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cocoon


This week even though I have to keep going to class (dutifully, if reluctantly), I have no more grading or class prep that has to be done, which means my evenings are quite free – at last!  So I’ve been wrapping presents and such, but before I wrapped certain presents, I had to make them. 

Not much to look at....
Specifically, I’m making two stuffed bears, one for each of my nieces.  Even though bears aren’t too hard to sew, especially since I recently sank a lot of my savings into a new, exciting sewing-machine, they do take about 2.5 hours apiece.  Oh, and that doesn’t count the stuffing, which probably adds another hour to each bear. 

However, I’m proud to report that the two bears are now completely sewn together.  I still have to stuff them, but I’ll be able to do that in spare moments. 

Anyway, today while making the second bear, I realized that my favorite part of the process is right at the end, after the head has been sewn on.  The whole shell is inside-out, so the legs, head and arms are completely invisible.  The result is a sort of unearthly pod, just waiting to become a bear.  I told a friend that it was a bear-egg…She suggested cocoon was not quite such an odd image. She’s probably right.

Right after this stage, you take the whole thing and flip it right side out.  In hardly any time, you go from a small, unidentifiable blob to a recognizable (if somewhat deflated) bear.  It’s amazing.  Also, so satisfactory, if I may say so!

Now we just have to keep our fingers crossed that the bears will stand up to the energy of my older niece!

But nieces aside – my progress on the bears made me think about the creative process in general.  And actually, I think my reflections hold true for any sort of endeavor or occurrence or relationship.  Human matters tend to fall into overarching patterns, I find.

How many of us can sympathize when someone says that their life seemed to be imploding but then suddenly took a turn for the better?  

Flat, but recognizable!
Quite often we work and work and exert every effort to achieve some purpose.  We’re good at pouring out our energies. Then just before the end we look at what we’ve produced and it seems odd and blobby and unfinished and generally a mess.  

There’s a dreadful temptation at such moments to stop completely.  After all, we’re obviously not getting where we wanted!  What’s the point anymore? 

And yet, with my bears, the moment they reached the disappointing cocoon stage was exactly when they were most filled with potential.  In just twenty seconds or so, they turned from nothing much at all, into a fully-constructed stuffed animal shell. 

Now, it’s a bit unfair that so many experiences turn out this way, since right before the end we’re most tired and ready to listen to negativity.  We begin to criticize ourselves quite harshly. 

That’s why I’m writing this blog post.  The bears are a whacky example, but even something so trivial demonstrates quite nicely how things can turn around in a second, with just a little effort. 

Even a thoughtful gift can validate your work!
Keeping this in mind should allow us to persevere.  In the uncertain moment before the end, we have to plug our ears to the criticism in our own minds and give one final little push.  Then, TADA, we have something complete on our hands, in which we can take pride.  Even if we’re tired, that’s forgotten in the general pleasure of a triumph – no matter how small. 

So, if you’re feeling discouraged about your work or hobbies or even how you’re dealing with other people, don’t give up!  Just a few more days, a small effort could bring some relief and happiness.  That’s my optimistic point of view at least!  And believe me, as a novelist, I need that optimism.  It’s always as you get further and further into the story that it seems poorer and poorer quality, until suddenly you’re done! 

Then you may have to edit and revise, but no one can deny you the pride of having a completed novel under your belt.  That sort of pride can be found anywhere in life, I think.  We just have to keep our trust alive during the cocoon stage of our undertakings!

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Perversity of Life


So after a week and a half, I’m returning to my blog.  Amazingly, during that whole time, I’ve had my topic in my head, but life just got so busy that I couldn’t find the time (or energy, which is more key) to create the post I envisioned.

But now it’s Friday and I’m here, listening to random Spanish songs and relaxing from the work week, and a sense of duty to my poor neglected blog is calling me.  And what I want to talk about tonight is irony. 

My golden days usually feature Mediterranean sunsets!
We humans are perverse creatures.  When we’re running around with our hair on fire (like Blackbeard, perhaps), forced by duty to put aside our personal hobbies and plans, we dream of the golden days of the future.  Then we’ll have escaped the business and in perfect leisure we’ll pursue our dreams

And yet, when we do reach those purported golden days, how often do we find ourselves lying on the couch watching TV, while we studiously ignore whatever plan we had idealized in our head.  If that’s not situational irony, I don’t know what is! 

I had just that experience at the beginning of this past November, when I had a week off school.  I did manage to edit about ten pages, but I’d had glorious fantasies of working through two whole chapters of my novels.  HAH!  Granted, I had a bit of an excuse because my whole vacation was thrown off kilter by the cancellation of my trip to New York, but still…I definitely let the laziness creep in. 

Interestingly, in the past two weeks, while I’ve been slogging my way through endless grading and averaging and filling out of report cards, I’ve actually squashed in about 15 pages of editing.  I guess this means that when we’re in the mode to work, it carries over into all aspects of life. 

Anyway, to increase the irony of the whole situation, in the midst of my business editing has become this shining beacon of all my desires (no matter that when I’m not busy I’d rather do almost anything else!).  That probably contributed to the fact that I managed to get quite a bit done recently - resentment over life keeping me from doing what I wanted prodded me to make some progress no matter what! 

A complacent face!
Now this could be just a sort of ‘ha-ha’ story about the silliness of people and me in particular.   However, I think I’ve also learned something.

See, if I were complacent, I’d just say to myself, ‘Huh, how funny,’ and then go on with life.  During my Christmas vacation, I’d let myself get distracted and remember how many other things besides editing I could be doing.  And actually, what with Christmas baking and wrapping and all, I will still be busy for a while!

On the other hand, if I’m smart, I’ll learn my lesson.  See, I think that artists – and even people in general – are benefitted by self-reflection.  We notice our little quirks when we take the time to look at ourselves, and instead of just carrying on blithely in a non-productive path, we suddenly have the opportunity to seek a healthy change. 

These aren't even the reddest pages of my editing!
So what did I learn?  Well, basically two things.  A) I’m actually more likely to do some editing if I feel like it’s a reward after a busy day.  B) I have a tendency to get too lazy during vacations.  My resolutions, therefore, can be to not let myself get too passive this Christmas, and to plan out my time so that I end up with free hours here and there.  Then I can spring on my stack of papers and pour out red ink like blood upon them.  Seriously – my poor MS for The Art of Dying is a mess of red scribbles.  It’s at once gratifying and terrifying!

Anyway, basically I have returned after my hiatus to declare that if you’re incredibusy during this crazy but delightful month of December, I sympathize with you.  Er…I did want to say that, but even more I wanted to say that if you are busy, channel the adrenaline.  Squeeze in a moment or two of whatever project you’re in love with at the moment.

That will serve to whet your appetite, and then, when you’ve got precious time again, you’ll be in the mood to return to it.  Besides, making a little progress on what you like to do helps make the daily grind seem much more pleasant.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Keep Going

Last Monday I began my trimester wind-down at work.  That means a flurry of grading, then averages, comments and entering everything in report cards.  It’s a fun time, but also a very busy one.

Bonbons!
I actually don’t mind being busy.  I’m good at organizing, but if I don’t have a reasonable amount of pressure on me, I tend to say, ‘Oh, I still have two hours till that’s due!’  And off I go to eat bonbons.  However, when I know a deadline is coming up, then I rise to the occasion.  This time, too, I’m making a couple of teddy bears for my nieces for Christmas, plus I want to sneak in some editing, so I’ve got a few deadlines, not just one! 

So last Tuesday I was doing Pilates after I got home from work.  On Monday I had taught for four hours, graded for two, made dinner for my family and monogrammed one of the teddy bears.  I didn’t finish with everything until 11:30.  The result was a rather tired Tuesday, on which I graded still more and taught for another four hours.  As you might imagine I staggered through my exercise routine.

The thing about Pilates, moreover, is that I find it super relaxing.  I was almost at the end, doing back extensions, and I put my head down briefly.  All of a sudden I had an enormous temptation to take a nap, lying there on the carpet, with the Pilates video chattering in the background.  I was so tired…it would feel so good…but I resisted.  I finished the exercises, then went on to write emails, compose a blog post and grade 17 Latin assignments. 

The rest of the week was equally busy and I had lots of other moments when I wanted to curl up in a forgotten corner at work and snooze.  I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who feels this way during December…or even the only working-woman! 

However, the thing that struck me as I pushed ahead is how much we can accomplish as we keep going.  Quite frequently I worry when I feel draggy during the day because I'm tired.  (Sometimes, in fact, I am justified in worrying, as tiredness makes me unexpectedly grumpy!)  On the other hand, there’s something gratifying about working so hard each day that you tumble into bed and sleep a well-earned sleep.  Staying busy has its benefits in a feeling of great satisfaction. 

Anyway, as I came to this conclusion, as usual I thought about the impact it has on my writing.  A lot of writing is busy work after all – it’s rather tiring and not necessarily that inspiring, but it has to be done.  If you are lucky enough to have an agent and publisher, it even has to be done on a schedule with deadlines. 

I’m sure everyone has reached that point in a story where the excitement of jumping into a new story fades and the end seems miles and years away.  Actually, I think this happens in almost any project, no matter whether it’s a story or not!  At such a time it’s easy to start slacking, or to decide maybe that we should look into something new and fresh.  That's when we need to resist the urge to take a rest and instead keep on going.  A sustained impetus can carry us through an amazing amount of tiredness and ennui.

Amazing what can be done while watching TV!
However, sometimes it’s not a question of pure will-power when it comes to completing an undertaking.  There needs to be a little incentive.  For example, last week while I was working on my embroidery, I caught up on a TV show .  The prospect of being able to spend a couple of hours relaxing while still making excellent headway on my gift for my nieces was really appealing.  It made me actually want to work!

With writing, I think that sometimes we need to find a similar incentive.  For the past few years, I have tried to associate writing with something particularly enjoyable – e.g., breakfast out at a café, followed by the composition of a new chapter in a novel.  I spent all last summer bike-riding to the library to write, too.  However, lately I’ve been extra busy and I’ve not had time for cafés or biking (not to mention it’s winter).  The frequency of my writing has definitely gone done without such pleasant associations.

We need rainbows to travel towards!
Currently, I’m managing to feel a little excited about editing, however, because I’m using it as a way to relax from the rush of school work and Christmas preparation.  Last week I spent four days looking forward to Thursday evening which I’d freed up completely for editing.  I’m anticipating the same this week for Wednesday, and hopefully Friday.  By turning writing into a reward for myself, I’m suddenly a lot more likely to engage in it during free time!

This solution may not last forever, and I’ll have to look for another motivation to get me editing here soon, but something will come up, I’m sure.  In any case, I’ve found that as long as I simultaneously push myself not to give up and incentivize myself with something I like, I can keep up a fairly steady pace on my work and writing projects.  That’s a balance I like to achieve.

Since I’m not infallible, though, I’d love to know your methods for pursuing your most important projects, even when you’re busiest and most tired.