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Beyond the Borders of Mamaland

 

Next month I turn thirty-six and I find it uncomfortable to be stretching beyond my world of mamahood.  If you’re thirty-six and you’ve been a professional of some type and now you’re about to jump into the deep end of parenthood, it’s probably a similar feeling.  It’s less to do with my current area of knowledge and experience and more the growing pains of learning something new.

In my case, I’m not an expert parent, but having been a parent for twelve years I’m pretty familiar with the aspects of my little world. Though I might still occasionaly look at another mama and think, “Hmm, she seems to do that part of parenting better than me,” the thought doesn’t rock my world me because over the years I’ve gotten used to having inadequacies and I know I will continue to have them forever.

Amongst my mama friends, I’m “the artsy friend”.  I have one other mama friend who enjoys writing and a few mama friends that spend time drawing and painting.  Through the years I’ve thought of myself as an artist of some sort-the writer part of me, the part of me that wants to create something with my hands and somehow reflect out, an inner part of my heart.  Maybe months passed between endeavors, but the essence of “artist” remained.

As I’ve spent time in the last year with writers and musicians who work at their craft as a full time job and lifestyle, the gap between myself and Artist/Writer seems to have grown exponentially.  Now, many of you are my friends, so you’re going to try to protest what I’m saying or it might sound as if I’m putting myself down in some way, but that’s not my goal. Most of you would agree that someone who works at a craft sporadically and “when the inspirations strikes” will not be nearly as developed as someone who has put in the hours (many hours) daily, for more years than I have been a parent. And so we’ve arrived at the gap.

As I’ve stepped off the edge into the gap it’s become very clear to me that improving as an artist requires self-discipline.  It seems an obvious statement, but my relationship to art has been “when I can fit it in”, so to face the wall of self-discipline in this area is new and hard. Self-discipline has never been a strong character trait of mine, it certainly wasn’t present in school and I haven’t had to sharpen it too much over the years.  That’s not entirely true, self-discipline is absolutely a requirement in Mamaland, but it looks different than the shade of discipline I’m trying to muster at the moment.  Right now it’s a floppy, ignored muscle and I’m asking myself if I have what it takes to develop it.

Can I write every day, not just when I feel like it? What about the long days, the days with unexpected circumstances? Oh wait, almost all days as a parent fit that description. I’m trying to find a way to bridge the gap between myself and the artists I’ve spent time with in the last year, not for the sake of self-promotion, but to be excellent at the passions that have simmered in my heart most of my life. But the truth is that no one is going to tell me to sit down and write five hundred words or create something with my hands.  It’s not anyone else’s job, it should come from me.

Most of my questions about myself and self-discipline remain unanswered.  The starting place I’ve found is humility. In this world beyond the borders of Mamaland I’m not “the artsy friend”, I’m the amateur.  Accepting that I’m in these early stages of development feels crucial to calling out for help and for putting the hours in to grow.  I need to strengthen my writing muscles the same way I did my parenting muscles, one day at a time.

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Writing Poetry about Writing Poetry

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been meeting with a friend to talk about writing.  The first samples of work I showed her were about my Dad and they were in verse form.  I didn’t call them poetry, I just said “that was the way my thoughts and feelings came out”.  I figured out over the next week that I simply didn’t want to call the work poetry because to call it poetry meant I had to acknowledge poetry rules and etiquette.

A whopping clue came when my friend asked me, “So who are your favorite poets? Who are you reading right now?” I calmly explained that I wasn’t reading poetry because I wasn’t writing poetry because I was just “writing however it came out”.

Once I accepted that the form of my pieces did fall under the heading of poetry, and once I started reading poetry, I realized how far my apple fell from the wind-sculpted tree. Last week, as I found my intended thoughts slipping through the lines of my poems, I decided to vent my frustration by, of course, writing some poetry about those feelings.

Here are two poems about writing poetry.

A Better Way to Poem
There’s something I want to tell you,
but with every new draft
the words twist themselves
into a puzzle that I can’t solve.
If only I had Dumbledore’s Pensieve
and could pull my thoughts
into a thin, blue whisper of smoke
and swirl them into the stone basin.
Then you could place your face in my poem
and sitting in a blue chintz chair,
understand everything.

 

Dear Final Draft    
I liked you better
the first time I wrote you,
with your dangling participles
and your mixed metaphors,
at least we understood each other then.

Now you’ve grown distant
with your fancy synonyms,
too good for me with your verses
purring like Milton and Yeats,
instead of stumbling over syntax,
waiting for my help.

It may be true
that you don’t need me anymore,
but I’ll never forget when
I was the romantic poet,
and you were my first draft.

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The Day I Didn’t Get Discovered

 

Each year as I watch the Oscars or the Tonys, I am fifteen again, dreaming.  I imagine the style of dress I’m going to wear when my name is announced (my mom will sew my gown since I can’t afford high fashion). And, of course, I practice my acceptance speech. I thank my high school theater teacher, I’m witty and make people cry, and for my speech only, the orchestra holds the music to allow the power of my speech to finish in awed silence.

The inkling of these dreams began when I played a pointy-toed elf concerned for Santa as he contemplated leaving his job in the classic 5th grade play “Santa Goes Back to the Future.”  That same year my teacher gave us the weekly task of concocting a short story with our vocabulary words. The assignment sharpened my youthful writing skills as I blended Hamster, Circus, and Automobile into the same story.  That year, as I stared at the clouds with a wall of stiff bangs usefully blocking the glare from the sun, I saw glory in my future.

Two decades later when glory still eluded me, I thought to myself, “Now they’ll no longer say  ‘I can’t believe she’s so young!’ when I write my first play or book, instead they’ll say ‘Wow, she’s sixty!”.  The abundance of my years will be my legacy, instead of my youth, I lamented.

Nowadays, I continue on in the land of Mamahood but remain open to the possibility of being discovered.  When I saw Kevin Costner in our local pancake joint last year, I stuck around after the pancakes were gone to give him a little extra time to turn on his movie spy senses and notice me.  I gave him time to saunter over in his scuffed jeans and cowboy boots and tell me I was perfect for his next movie or that he’d like to co-write a screenplay with me (clearly I was attributing a strong spy sense to him).  That day it didn’t work out, but I like to keep my options open.

Last week I met with a friend.  She’s a friend plus a Real Writer.  I showed her a few pieces of writing I’d been working on, she gave me some positive feedback, and between our next meeting time, I dreamed of exactly how my Big Discovery would happen.  Maybe she’d encourage me to write a book or in the very least ask me to write something for her blogging community. Oh the possibilities, I dreamed.

This week we got together and we talked again about those pieces that I had handed her last week.  Last week those pieces carried a little gleam around the words because they were filled with promise. This week unraveled a little differently.  The first piece was solid but as she gave me her honest feedback about piece number 2 and 3, the glow dissipated.  These were not the pieces of promise.  It turns out, I’m much closer to the beginning then the middle or end of getting to my Big Discovery. Her words were truthful, and even as she spoke with grace, I knew every word was true.

As the hope of the Big Discovery grew cold like my forgotten cup of tea, my heart swung into motion to close-up and close-out.  But the Lord had already been at work in my heart all week, getting me ready for this moment, and I was able to recognize the gift of this friend.  She had taken a risk.  Did I wish that she’d told me my mediocre work was actually brilliant? Instead she told me how to begin the process of moving from mediocre to great (or at least better).

In the weeks since the-day-I-didn’t-get-discovered, I’ve been working my tail off to improve.  When I thought my skills were better than they were, I didn’t work very hard to improve them.  So it was also the day that I discovered that I could, and would, stick to the process even if it wasn’t the instant gratification of striking gold, but an extended excavation, a painful process to get the work done. So, I’ll work.

However, I’m still open to discovery over pancakes or maybe at this Starbucks as I finish this sentence.  And I plan to keep honing my acceptance speech.

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A Day With Art is Never Ordinary

I said to my kids today, “A day with a Carla Sonheim art class is no ordinary day!”

Today we began the first day of a week long class in printmaking.  As with any art process we’ve learned through Carla, this new process is forgiving and, therefore, exciting instead of stifling.  In fact, she always encourages the imperfections as if they are mini-triumphs (how many voices do you have like that in your life).  Also similar to other classes, the piece develops through the process, the next step is always influenced by the last step and it feels a little bit like magic.

We don’t know where we’re going with these pieces tomorrow or the next day, but here’s a peek into our extra-ordinary art day.

 

collection of prints

prints by our 10 year old

prints by our four-year old (yes, truly mixed and printed by her)

 

prints by our 12 year old

 

prints by the Mama

 

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Momma’s Day: A Glimpse

For my Momma, I made this little painting (it’s 5×7) of my kitchen window.  When she was visiting a few weeks ago, she made the curtain with the sweet birds from a towel I found at the thrift store.  As I sketched, inked and painted this cheerful piece, I pictured my momma’s smile when she reached into the mailbox and opened the envelope.  Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

My own Momma’s day was lovely. It began with chocolate chip pancakes in bed.  You would think that might be the height of the day and it could only go down from there, but the day soared.

From my twelve year old I received a poem.  Not too long ago she wrote a poem about herself entitled “The Shape of Me”, and it perfectly descibed the inner heart of my oldest child.  Here’s the poem she wrote for me (she says it’s just a draft, but I like it just the way it is):

The Shape of Momma

She is full of squiggly ideas,
waiting for the time to share them.
She is a gentle tangle,
reaching for everyone at one time.
She is a sculptor,
forming blobs
into beautiful works of art.

As a Momma I often feel like I’m seen only as the “food dispenser” person, the “drive me to that place” person, the “has to say no” person.  This poem reveals that as she watches me in the daily tasks of motherhood she sees a woman striving for grace, love, and beauty. It’s a gift to be seen as the Momma I aim to be, if only a glimpse.

My ten year old gave me a handmade card with a list of things we do together that are special to her, like reading favorite books, doing art together and snuggling.  Again, the gift is letting me know that I get some things right.  There are plenty of days when I go to bed full of doubt.

My 8 year old boy gave me hugs and kisses. His expressions of love are always accompanied with full-body force and heart.

My 4 year old daughter began wishing me “Happy Mother’s Day” on Saturday and repeated the sentiment with sincerity and smiles at least 14 more times by Sunday afternoon.  She left a small pot of roses outside of the bathroom door for me to find, and as she said goodnight she told me, “I enjoy you”.  We also had a little date to the park and a bite of ice cream.

And together, they all gave me this little natural habitat of beauty.

Most days I think about the hard parts of being a momma, today I was reminded that it is a privilege and a gift just to be with these fantastic, miniature human beings.

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The Risk of Failure on the Heart

I hold my fingers above the computers keys, wondering, will I have anything to say, or should I just read someone else’s book, or blog, or play.

I flip the pages of my sketchbook and remove my mechanical pencil, pause, and wonder, will the pencil marks amount to anything really good or original?

I watch the film, mentally moving the camera to a different angle and adjust the order of the storyline, as the movie plays on, I wonder-what if I put my own hand to theater only to find my work has no truth or beauty.

Would my heart be safer without dreams?

What about a world without dreams, I wonder? No dreams, only duty. No longing for anything greater than myself, just the reality of the hard and fast world in reach of my fingertips.

To dream means to hope and to hope means to risk.

As I enter a season of taking my dreams and unfurling them into the daylight, the door to my heart tries to close hard against the risk. To keep the dream a dream, nothing more.

What am I risking?

Failure.

When I type the word it’s bathed in red light, it’s reaching out to me as vivid and invasive as a 3D, high-def movie.

This nauseous pit of fear lodged somewhere between my stomach and my heart has been with me ever since I said yes to test-driving one of my dreams.  Well, the “yes” was exhilarating.  The need to vomit came about 30 minutes later.

As the day approaches, I take out my fear and I look at it again and I send a searchlight out for my dream and it’s still there, pulsing.

I think of the parable in the Bible when the character buries his talents in the ground until his master returned, thinking himself safe and wise. Imagining my dreams inside of the cool, dark earth instead of the burning light of day sounds very tempting.

Which leads me back to my original question.  Would a world without dreams be safer?

But this time a second question shoves it’s way in.

Am I called to lead a safe life?

Is a safe life an abundant life?

A world without dreams may be safe, it might protect me from rejection and heart pain.

But as I imagine this dreamless world further, I imagine a life without invention. Without beauty. Without poetry. Or stories. Without the grace that arrives when dreams die and are resurrected into a new hope that couldn’t have been born without pain.

A world without worship because a safe heart has no need to worship.

It’s a daily choice to keep walking toward the risk instead of toward the hole in the earth ready to swallow my hope as if doing me a favor.

It’s good to be both awake and dreaming.

I feel alive.

“You must once and for all give up being worried about successes or failures.  Don’t let that concern you.  It’s your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite quietly, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, for failures…”

Anton Chekhov, quoted by the character David in L’engle’s Certain Women

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L’Engle Quote

“If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said, by me. We each have to say it, to say it in our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try.”

– Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

 

Amen.

 

 

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There is No Green Room at Hutchmoot

*please forgive all of the botched paraphrased quotes, I did my best to catch the essence.

After Hutchmoot 2012: Day 3

If New York is the place where everyone is really an actor, and just a waiter “on the side”, then Nashville is the town where every other person is a graphic designer, but what they really want to do is play music professionally.  By this I mean that it’s a city of ambition.

One would think that if one attended a conference with musicians, songwriters, and authors, in Nashville, it would be one big schmooze fest of making contacts and getting oneself noticed.  (I’ll admit, I wouldn’t have minded getting noticed.)

When I came here I introduced myself by my professional name, but by day two I found myself introducing myself as Matt.  I realized I was not making business contacts, I was making friends.  When N.D Wilson introduces himself here he introduces himself as Nate, Andrew is AP and, Pete (the Moot Master) is just Pete.”  These are the words of one Rabbit on the last day of Hutchmoot and they’re a great introduction to the atmosphere of this gathering.

“There is no backstage, we’re all out here together,” declared Andrew Peterson and his description was not just a pretense of humility.  All of the musicians and writers were standing around in the general hubbub and there was no special table for Charlie Peacock or Steve Talyor, director of the recent film Blue Like Jazz.  Is this possible in Nashville, where every artist has a clause for the kind of drink or furniture he wants in the green room?  There is no green room at Hutchmoot.

In the same way that Jesus knelt down to wash the dust and grime for His weary disciples’ feet, I saw the leaders of Hutchmoot serving the guests.

I want some water,” I said to my husband, getting ready to look for a cup of refreshment. Pete, who is not just a Head Rabbit but also the author of two outstanding books, apparated from somewhere to the space beside me and asked, “You need water?”  How had he gotten there and why was he concerned for my needs out of the other 180 attendees?  I tried to reassure him that, yes, I did indeed need water, but that, no, I did not need him to retrieve the beverage for me.  He pointed me toward three locations where fresh water was available, then apparated to the bathroom to refill the toilet paper.

Didn’t these leaders find their self-worth in the artistry of their books, songs, and films? Weren’t we supposed to lift them up and remember that we humbly come with nothing but hearts to learn from their wisdom of the ages?

In session after session I received this heart-probing message,”Go use your skills, but don’t define your worth by what you do.”

In the theater session, a profession that begs for praise and adulation, Stephen Trafton reminded the room, “Your worth and identity come from God and will never come from anything you make or create.”

And in Phil Vischer’s testimony of broken dreams he quoted C.S. Lewis, “He who has God plus many things has no more than he who has God alone.”

The capital “R” rabbits were also quick to share their weaknesses.

In my first session, one of the pastors confessed readily that he struggles with the longing to boost up his vanity at every Hutchmoot as the other staff have books and cd’s to show on the tables but he doesn’t. “I don’t mean I used to struggle with this, I mean this morning, about 4 hours ago, I struggled with it.”

One musician shared openly about the many dark places of his depression, and  all around I heard men and women release their breath as they realized they didn’t have to hide the mess in their lives to be accepted or prove their artistic significance in order to start using their gifts.

This is a new kind of community, or maybe, a very old one.

 

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The Life and Death of Dreams

 “So, do you feel ready to go write your play now?” my husband asked me on the last morning of Hutchmoot.

“No,” I answered.  “I’m not going to write any play for a week, a month, 3 months, could be a year.”

I went to Hutchmoot to crack my dreams wide open.  At a Gathering held within the walls of stories, I would learn how to tell mine.  I’ve been dreaming of how to tells stories for years now, while living out the dark and the light of my own.

Then Phil Vischer ruined everything.

As he talked of Big Ideas and Jellyfish, I realized that my dreams had a whole lot to do with adding to my worth, and the outcome (which had to be Excellent by my standards) of any artisitic endeavors were too important to me.  In the past few months I’ve even tried to step out before the last painful chapters in one thread of my life and begin to mold the events into a genre I can hand to others.  I can’t experience God in my story when I’m trying to write it.

I left Hutchmoot with my dreams cracked open, but what I found inside surprised me.  I need to give these to God, I thought to myself, and wait to see if He hands them back.

A time of dream fasting began.

After Hutchmoot: Day 1

8:30am: I rise from my bed with noble intentions.  Death to my dreams.

9:30am: At the breakfast table I look around for familiar faces.  I don’t see a budding filmmaker, a man in a spacesuit, a Broadway actor who knows his theology, or a red-haired beauty who surrounded me with familiar ink-laden friends a few a days ago.

My mother, who’s in town because she graciously watched all four of our kids, has just given the children their 5th and 6th donut in 3 days.  I can hear my 7-year-old sugar-loaded son from the kitchen. He’s playing ping-pong in his room, only he’s the ball and the wall is his paddle.

My husband just left for the week.

I will serve them selflessly, I remind myself, I will put the Mooters out of my head.

10:30am: We’re back from the airport, Nana is gone, and I’m the only adult in the house.  Responsibility stares at me from every pile of laundry and dirty dish.  Good thing I’m setting aside that dream thing.  How very practical.

10:45am:  I Google a few books from the conference.

11:00am: I get out my watercolors.  That’s not dreaming, it’s just a little sketching with color.

11:05am: The 3-year-old has dumped out the water and brushes all over the floor.  Her own watercolor project lasts 1.5 minutes.

11:30am: Although sketching ended abruptly, I’ve now forgotten that I planned to take even one week off from planning out my dreams.  I think of putting up a board on my bathroom wall (the only available space) for me and my husband to post ideas as we get them, an idea also via Mr. Vischer (not the bathroom wall part).

I’ve already composed the first one in my head, “Could I adapt XXXXXX book into a play?

11:35am: I’m pulled from my pondering because, by the sounds from the bedroom, three older siblings will soon hurt their 3-year old sister if she knocks down their LEGO village one more time.  And these young people seem to think they need something to eat.

I calculate about ten minutes before final impact, so I pick up my copy of Me, Myself, and Bob. I remember the section in his talk on our ‘Groundhog Day lives’ and how God is working through each moment of each mundane act of each day.

This death to my dreams thing is beginning to hurt.

12:00pm: Because there is not a chef at my house to prepare Smoked Pork Loin smothered in Fruit Compote (which led to loud moans of pleasure with each bite just a few days ago), we have macaroni and cheese.

The kids are making a not so pretty transition from Grandma time to Momma’s back in charge.  Momma’s transition isn’t so pretty either.

I’m becoming a deranged picture from one of those flap books that has pages of foreheads and eyes on the top, with different noses in the middle, and different mouths at the bottom.  The goal is to mix up the pictures to find the craziest combination of features. I have Rabbit ears and eyes on the top, a momma nose and cheekbones, and I’m not sure yet about the last flap.

The next five hours:  A blur of normal activity, with some snotty kleenexes added in for good measure (theirs, not mine).

8pm:  I’m putting my 3-year-old down to bed but I’m really thinking about writing this post.

“No, mommy, sing to me down here,” she pulls me from the edge of her toddler bed to a leaning position inches from her face.  The lights are off, but she has a nightlight in her hand so we can see each other’s eyes in the dim green glow of a Toy Story alien since she’s holding it close to my forehead.

She holds her hand on my cheek while I sing her most popular request:

“I love you Lord and I lift my voice

to worship you, O my Soul, rejoice

Take Joy my King, in what you hear

let it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.”

9:52pm: Silence settles into the house.  Another idea appears in a small square on the bathroom wall.

Dreams don’t die in one day.

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Have you been writing anything lately, Momma?

“Write a bad story.”

I read the words and consider closing the book on such a ridiculous idea.

Why would I set out to write a bad story?  I want to write truth-infused stories that compare to the giants of literature and stir the hearts of readers everywhere.  (music swelling in the background)

It’s true that I’m not currently writing stories of such caliber.  In fact my daughter, (who is currently sketching daily and taking a creative writing class) and who knows of my dreams of writing, asked me just the other day,

“Have you been writing anything lately, Momma?”

“No, not really.” No. Nada.

In fact I haven’t written any blog posts, or picked up my sketchbook to create a drawing or watercolor in months.  I’m surrounded by artists of great skill, some of them young in my house, some of them lining our shelves, and some in my surrounding community.  I want to draw like them (but not like them).  I don’t want to do bad paintings.

Turning to my last (and most dear) genre, I think about plays and theater, and I certainly don’t want to teach, direct or write anything of poor quality.  So I haven’t done anything.  For about 12 years.

If I’m paralyzed by such lofty aims, and certainly by the chance that someone might catch a glimpse of my mediocre failings, maybe changing my target could be helpful.

I think of the words again.  “Write a bad story.”

Can I aim for bad, and possibly create more than, well, nothing.

And if I aim for bad and fail at bad, does that mean my failings might be good?

A perfectly preposterous idea.

But what have I got to lose with preposterous ideas?

That’s right. (Nothing.)

Revised Goal:

Write a bad story.  Draw a bad picture.  Start a mediocre theater class.

Just. Start.

 

 

Extra: Watch this video by NPR’s Ira Glass, on creative work.

The quote, ‘Write a bad story”, can be found in the book  If You Want to Write by Brenda Uleland, an absolute gem of a book for anyone dreaming of creative pursuits, writing or otherwise.

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