Approaching Your Life as a Work of Art

Each one of us is an artist. An artist is merely someone with good listening skills who accesses the creative energy of the Universe to bring forth something on the material plane that wasn’t here before. … So it is with creating an authentic life. With every choice, every day, you are creating a unique work of art.
— Sarah Ban Breathnach, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy

I’m continuing to read Simple Abundance—at 700+ pages, I’ll be at it for a while!—and I’m continuing to find all sorts of interesting insights. (See first post here.) Something that has really struck me is this concept of creating our daily lives as works of art.  Breathnach recommends to “start thinking of your life as a work-in-progress. Works-in-progress are never perfect. But changes can be made to the rough draft during rewrites. Another color can be added to the canvas. The film can be tightened during editing. Art evolves. So does life. Art is never stagnant. Neither is life. The beautiful, authentic life you are creating for yourself and those you love is your art. It’s the highest art.”

Wow. Thinking of my life as a work-in-progress is a simple concept, but it feels radically freeing to me. It essentially takes the pressure off.  And approaching each day as if it is art I am creating—rather than just a to-do list I have to get through—really elevates everything.

Breathnach also talks about how to make our lives more nourishing by scattering moments of joy throughout. She says, “What is missing from many of our days is a true sense that we are enjoying the lives we are living. It is difficult to experience moments of happiness if we are not aware of what it is we genuinely love. We must learn to savor small, authentic moments that bring us contentment.”

Of course, as a “joy detective,” I love this idea. Something you can do, which I have done before, is to make a Bliss List: a list of simple pleasures that bring you joy. Then do at least one thing from it every day. Here are some of the items on my list:

·         Reading

·         Sitting in the sun

·         Savoring a cup of tea

·         Watching classic movies

·         Fresh flowers

·         Listening to jazz

·         Hugging

·         Toast with butter

·         Chocolate

·         Sitting and doing nothing (especially on a rainy day)

Breathnach also suggests trying to do daily tasks mindfully to “restore serenity to your daily endeavors.” She says, “Serene women do not get sidetracked. Sidetracked women, who scatter their energies to the four winds, never achieve serenity. … Concentrate slowly on completing one task at a time, each hour of the day, until the day is over.”

She says that we will wonder how we’ll manage to get everything done this way, but “I assure you that you will accomplish all you set out to do and need to do with much more ease, efficiency, pleasure, and satisfaction.” In fact, studies are now proving that multitasking actually makes us less efficient. Plus, this approach just feels better to me.

What do you think about these concepts? Do you also find them comforting and supportive? I’d love to hear. You can let me know by replying to this email, or in the comments below.

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Weaving a "Tapestry of Contentment"

I finally got a book I’d been hearing about for a while, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach, and it’s lovely! I’m finding it enormously comforting, like a cup of cocoa on a cold winter's day. It’s beautifully written and immensely inspiring.

I've been feeling frazzled, and so was Breathnach when she began writing the book.  She says in the preface, "I shared the revelations that came while trying to reconcile my deepest spiritual and creative longings with often overwhelming commitments to family and work."

I'm underlining all over the place as I read, and I wanted to share some of the insights that have particularly resonated with me so far.

She talks about six threads that, woven together, create a “tapestry of contentment.” Isn’t that a beautiful image? The full quote reads: “There are six threads of abundant living which, when woven together, produce a tapestry of contentment that wraps us in inner peace, well-being, happiness, and a sense of security.” Who wouldn’t want that? I’m in!

The threads are gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, and joy.  The book is organized by date, with one entry per day; she focuses on each thread for two months, so I’m currently reading about gratitude. Breathnach recommends counting your blessings, and says, “See if you can’t get to one hundred. So much good happens to us but in the rush of daily life we fail even to notice or acknowledge it.”

This really struck me. It’s so true, and it’s something I’ve talked about here before. But I continue to find it difficult to be grateful consistently. One of the tools she suggests is a daily gratitude journal, to help us maintain that focus. I’ve started one, and am trying to be more aware of all the little things there are to appreciate—even on off days. My life is so rich and full of goodness. It's a shame to pay more attention to the minor irritations or parts that are not going well and miss the greater good.

Something else that really struck me was this: “much of my struggle to be content … has arisen when I stubbornly resisted what was actually happening in my life at the present moment.” Oh, that is so me. I resist reality all the time—how about you? I’m always thinking about how to improve things, remove things, or attract new things, so I often go about in a haze of vague dissatisfaction.

Breathnach talks about the importance of accepting what is. She explains that when you surrender to reality, a softening occurs. “Suddenly I am able to open up to receive all the goodness and abundance available to me because acceptance brings with it so much relief and release. It’s as if the steam of struggle has been allowed to escape from life’s pressure cooker.” That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And it makes complete sense to me.

Further, she adds, "blessing whatever vexes us is the spiritual surrender that can change even troublesome situations for the better. … If you're sick and tired of learning life's lessons through pain and struggle, blessing your difficulties will show you there's a better way."

I was thrilled to see that another tool she recommends is a morning ritual! She says, "give yourself the gift of one hour a day to journey within. You need enough breathing space to allow your heart to ponder what is precious. Or perhaps you can let your imagination soar to the twilight where dreams first dwell. … This much I know: if you go deep enough, often enough, something good is bound to come back to you." And this: “Stressed souls need the reassuring rhythm of self-nurturing rituals.” Yes!

I’m going to enjoy savoring this book each day for the rest of the year. I’m sure there will be plenty more insights and ideas to share with y’all! Meanwhile, I’ve got some creative projects brewing, including a big one that launches in April, so for the next few months I’ll be posting here every other week instead of weekly. Talk to you in mid-February!

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“A Bride Married to Amazement”

Recently the extraordinary poet Mary Oliver passed away. Her poetry spoke to me so deeply, as it did to millions. Her words were a beacon of light, shining the way forward to a richer existence. My friend Carla Robertson is a life coach and the name of her business, Living Wild and Precious, was inspired by the famous line from Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”  

That question just grabs you by the throat, doesn’t it? That’s what I love about her work—the images are breathtakingly beautiful, which is wonderful in itself … but then comes an observation or question that stops you in your tracks and makes you think, long and hard. Like this, from “Moments,” which gave me courage when I needed it:

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?

You’re not in chains, are you?


There is nothing more pathetic than caution

when headlong might save a life,

even, possibly, your own.

 

And this, from “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.


When I first encountered these lines, I cried. I felt such enormous relief. I should re-read them every morning to remind myself of this vital truth. And the way she expresses the idea is so much more powerful than saying, hey, don’t be hard on yourself. She puts it so brilliantly; she was a virtuoso of phrasing.

Here is another of my favorites, which I discovered last year:

“Magellan”

Like Magellan, let us find our islands
To die in, far from home, from anywhere
Familiar. Let us risk the wildest places,
Lest we go down in comfort, and despair.

For years we have labored over common roads,
Dreaming of ships that sail into the night.
Let us be heroes, or, if that's not in us,
Let us find men to follow, honor-bright.

For what is life but reaching for an answer?
And what is death but a refusal to grow?
Magellan had a dream he had to follow.
The sea was big, his ships were awkward, slow.

And when the fever would not set him free,
To his thin crew, “Sail on, sail on!” he cried.
And so they did, carried the frail dream homeward.
And thus Magellan lives, although he died.

Wow. It’s amazing, her ability to move, to encourage, to inspire. I’d love to know how many lives have been changed by her work. And that won’t stop with her passing. She may be gone, but her words will touch people for generations to come. She lived the vivid, all-in life that she wanted to—the life she wrote about below—and what more could any of us want? It’s certainly what I want. I’m enormously grateful that she shared her gifts with us.

From “When Death Comes”:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.


When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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On Community, Creating, and Pushing Past the Fear

This past weekend I was reminded—again—of the essential nature of community, and the vital importance of sharing our true selves. We are wired to seek out others with whom we feel like we “belong.” As Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us.”

Even those of us who are introverts want to feel that connection with others who get us and support us. Brown also says, “Never underestimate the power of being seen.” And yet, in order to truly feel like we belong, we have to show up as our authentic selves.

In a creative setting, where we’re putting out something we made, it can feel like we’re offering up a piece of our soul. I find that to be so risky emotionally. Brown agrees: “True belonging is not passive. It's not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It's not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it's safer. It's a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.”

But the rewards for that risk are great—when you’re accepted for who you are, or your work touches others, it’s deeply satisfying. I work at home and really miss the camaraderie of coworkers. Online groups fill part of the gap, but I also crave personal connection.

Last weekend I had the chance to go to the opening of an exhibit featuring a painting that includes one of my poems. And although it meant driving eight hours to Houston over on Friday and back again on Sunday—and I was nervous because I’d also have to read my poem aloud at the event (risk!)—I grabbed that chance. What made it even better was that I’d get to stay with one of my dearest friends, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. To be able to spend uninterrupted time catching up with her is a rare treat, and immensely nourishing. (More connection!)

The exhibit was called Color:Story 2019, by amazing artists Leslie Gaworecki and Marlo Saucedo. I met Leslie at Lucky Star Art Camp. Last year she put out a request for words to feature in a collaborative work with Marlo, so I submitted my poem “What If.” I was thrilled when they chose it, and even more so when I saw the finished piece (pic below, and more on my Facebook page).

It felt amazing to be part of a collaboration like that. Then they decided to create more pieces along those lines, and were approved to exhibit them in a show. I figured the opening would be fun, and I knew it would meet my desire for connection, but I didn’t anticipate how very much it would fill my soul.

Their space is a huge warehouse subdivided into studios, and before the opening we were able to wander around and see all the other artists. Being in a place dedicated solely to creativity, I felt a special kind of energy that was inspiring and rejuvenating. (It also made my hands itch with the desire to grab a brush and start painting!!)

It was incredible to see my piece in person, and all the other beautiful pieces in the show. The other writers’ work was amazing. And then hearing that work read aloud, and feeling the appreciation of the crowd, brought a whole new level of energy.

It wasn’t quite enough energy to keep me from being increasingly nervous about my turn. But since my poem actually talks about feeling the fear and doing it anyway, I couldn’t possibly back down! I managed to read it all without losing my place or misspeaking—or tripping on the way up—and afterward, several people told me how much they liked it. That meant the world to me. Writers so often send our word babies out into the universe and don’t hear anything back…to get affirmation that our words touched someone makes all the effort, uncertainty, and fear worthwhile.

Seeing such a large group gathered to support the writers and artists was fantastic. It was like getting an infusion of love and appreciation. And seeing all of the artists gathered in that studio space, inspiring and encouraging each other, really brought home to me how important it is for creatives to have a community. Whether it’s “in real life” or virtual, having others who understand the challenges you face and can cheer you on is invaluable.

Especially when we’re starting out, that inner critic can really be loud, and can stop us before we have a chance to get going. Sharing with others who have been there before, who struggle with their own inner critics, really helps us keep going.

And then having others appreciate your work when it’s out there in the world—wow. We create because we have to—because there’s something inside of us that wants to be born, and if we don’t let it out, part of us withers away. We also create to bring joy, or solace, or inspiration to others. Our own pain or happiness, while personal in detail, is universal in feeling. Sharing it heals both the creator and the viewer. Everyone is lifted up. It’s magic, and I’m grateful to have finally gotten to a place in my life where I can experience it for myself.

If you’re feeling that urge to put something out there, remember this. If even one person is touched, it’s worth the vulnerability and the risk. The world needs your voice. Each of us has something unique to share, and someone else needs to hear it because it will benefit them. Don’t let fear keep your voice bottled up inside. Something that can really help you push past fear and doubt is the book The Artist’s Way. Read that, and find your community, and as Rumi says, “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal.” The risk is great, but the reward is enormous.

What If


Go For It

In honor of the new moon tonight, and fresh beginnings, here are three poems (from three incredibly wise and wonderful poets) that inspire me to take bold action in pursuit of my dreams, and to live life fully. May they inspire you as well!

If It Is Not Too Dark

by Hafiz (from I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Hope and Joy /

Renderings of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky)

 

Go for a walk, if it is not too dark.

Get some fresh air, try to smile.

Say something kind

To a safe-looking stranger, if one happens by.

 

Always exercise your heart’s knowing.

 

You might as well attempt something real

Along this path:

Take your spouse or lover in your arms

The way you did when you first met.

Let tenderness pour from your eyes

The way the Sun gazes warmly on the earth.

 

Play a game with some children.

Extend yourself to a friend.

Sing a few ribald songs to your pets and plants—

Why not let them get drunk and wild!

 

Let’s toast

Every rung we’ve climbed on Evolution’s ladder.

Whisper, “I love you! I love you!”

To the whole mad world.

 

Let’s stop reading about God—

We will never understand Him.

 

Jump to your feet, wave your fists,

Threaten and warn the whole Universe

 

That your heart can no longer live

Without real love!

 

Moments

by Mary Oliver (from Felicity)

 

There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.

Like, telling someone you love them.

Or giving your money away, all of it.

 

Your heart is beating, isn't it?

You're not in chains, are you?

 

There is nothing more pathetic than caution

when headlong might save a life,

even, possibly, your own.

 

Don't Go Back to Sleep

by Rumi (from Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks)

 

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

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I'm a Guest Blogger!

I was honored to be asked to write a guest blog post for my friend, fellow Lucky Star camper and writer Keri Wilt (who is featured in chapter 2 of my book A Beautiful Morning and is pictured below).

I have been enjoying Keri’s blog for over two years. She named it FHB and Me because her great-great-grandmother is Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and many other beloved children's classics. I don’t know about you, but I adored those books when I was younger. I re-read The Secret Garden after meeting Keri, and found even more meaning in it as an adult.

As Keri says, she "blows the book dust off [FHB's] inspiring words and legendary life, then mixes them with her personal stories for a multigenerational twist on the everyday." The post I wrote for FHB and Me is titled “Discover the Magic in Your Mornings” and you can read it here. Then take a moment to check out some of Keri’s posts—they are always thought-provoking and inspirational, and I find that they generate a lot of what she calls “head bob moments”! Enjoy!

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What if?

What if you believed you are worthy?

What if you accepted the praise rather than deflecting it?

What if you embraced the joy as much as you wallow in the pain?

 

What if you agreed that you are special,

that inside you lives a gorgeous spirit nothing can break,

that you are more than enough just as you are,

and that the only person you need to hear that from is you?

 

What if you trusted in the love that yearns toward you,

in the light that others to seem to see?

What if you believed that people you admire could admire you?

 

What if you stopped holding yourself back,

pushing yourself down,

making yourself small?

 

What if believing in yourself was as natural as believing in the sunrise?

 

What if you allowed the glory biding its time offstage to step into the spotlight?

 

What if you felt the terror and did it anyway?

What if you faced the pain and kept on going?

What if you took that leap of faith despite your crippling fear of heights?

 

What if you understood that mountains in your path are not meant to block your way

But rather to elevate you to a higher vantage point

From which you can see more clearly?

 

What if you gave up needing to know,

insisting on being right,

being afraid to fail?

 

What if you stopped hiding your tears—and your joy?

 

What if you opened yourself up,

laid yourself bare,

made yourself vulnerable,

and stayed that way without resisting

in order to feel the triumph of surviving your worst nightmare?

 

What if you shared it all,

gave everything away,

and expected nothing in return?

 

What if you LET GO?

What if you kept letting go every second of every minute of every day—

what do you think might come to you?

 

What if you relaxed,

and rested,

and laid down your heavy burden of "shoulds"?

 

What if you stopped trying so hard?

What if you stopped trying at all—and started allowing?

 

What sort of miracle do you think might brush against your cheek? What magic might land on your fingertips?

 

What if you opened the faucet all the way?

What if you unkinked the hose?

What do you think might pour forth?

 

What if you stopped insisting that you're all alone,

that you have no power,

that you're less than,

that you’re ordinary?

 

What if you believed you could make a difference?

What if you believed your life was vital in some way?

What if the teacher you seek is inside you?

 

What if you gave up?

What if you gave in?

 

What if you stopped swimming and started floating, trusting in your natural buoyancy and the path of the current?

On what golden shore might you land?

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The Joy of Novelty

I watched “Breakfast at Tiffany's” again recently. (I love that movie!) This time, I was struck by the part when Paul sells his story and Holly says, “We should celebrate! I think there's a bottle of champagne in the icebox; you open it and I'll get dressed.” He says (while opening the bottle) that he's never had champagne before breakfast before, and she says they should spend the day taking turns doing things they've never done. She takes him to Tiffany's; he takes her to the public library; she takes him shoplifting! I thought, what a wonderful idea! Not the shoplifting—but to spend an entire day doing new things. Doesn’t it sound invigorating and adventurous?

Of course in New York City it would be easy to fill the day with new activities, but in a smaller town, is it more difficult? You might have to try a little harder, but I think it’s possible. There are plenty of places here that I've never been. I bet we all have those spots we drive by and think, "one day I'm going to check that out,” but we’re always too busy, and then we forget.

Now, an entire day might be asking a little much in my current world—and probably in yours too—but we could certainly take an occasional morning or afternoon to have one or two new experiences. Hmmm … I just tried to make a list and I could only come up with three things. Wow, I am definitely stuck in my old habits! There are probably dozens of activities I haven't tried and places I haven’t visited around here, yet I can only think of three.

When you're in a rut, it's hard to turn the wheel and get out. That's why I love traveling--new places force us to do things differently and expose us to fresh experiences, which inspire growth and novel ideas. Keri Wilt, author of the beautiful blog FHB&Me, just wrote a post about that very thing. She related how her young son would make huge leaps in development whenever they would take a trip. She says, "Despite all of my encouraging and nurturing at home, it was only when he left our home base, that he grew and changed by leaps and bounds. Now, I am not discounting what he learned at home, but I made a mental note at the time about the power that new people, views, and experiences can do for a developing mind. And guess what? It's true for my developing mind too! Yes, my 43 year old mind is still changing and learning and growing. And just like my son, when I confine myself to living the same days over and over again: wake up, breakfast, work, lunch, home, tv, dinner, bed...I get stuck and my growth slows to a crawl."

Yes! She hits the nail on the head. Novelty is good for us. It wakes us up, stretches our mind, gives us a different vantage point from which to examine our lives. It opens us to new possibilities. Research shows that learning new things keeps our brain changing and growing as we age, and can help prevent cognitive decline. So not only is it fun, it's beneficial to our health.

My husband and I try to have a date night every week. We’re in a rut on this too, usually heading to our favorite bar for cocktails and then to dinner. Recently, we shook it up a little by trying a new restaurant. It was amazing—incredible ambience, excellent service, to-die-for food. We felt like we were in a different city altogether. It was so much more memorable and fun than going to the same old place.

Last year I read the book “The 52 Weeks: Two Women and Their Quest to Get Unstuck, with Stories and Ideas to Jumpstart Your Year of Discovery” by Karen Amster-Young and Pam Godwin. It was a fascinating read. These two 40-something friends felt like they had lost momentum in their lives. They were griping to each other over drinks, and came up with a plan to “face our fears, rediscover our interests, try new things, and renew our relationships” by doing something different each week for a year. They started a blog to chronicle their year and ended up publishing the book—how’s that for shaking up your life? After I read it, I was quite inspired. But the thought of trying to do something EVERY WEEK was a bit overwhelming, I admit. So I adjusted that to every month—which still felt a little intimidating, but much more manageable—and decided I would start in January of this year.

So far, here’s what I’ve done:

·         January: took piano lessons for the first time

·         February: made marbled paper on my own and taught a friend how to do it at our first “art party”

·         March: performed a song on piano, in a band, at a showcase—in front of actual people! (Eeeek! I was terrified but I did it!)

·         April: started writing my first book

·         May: launched this blog!

Each of these took me out of my comfort zone, and everything except the art in February scared me silly! But I find that I’m now feeling more excited, engaged, and energized than I have in years.

For June, I’m REALLY stretching my boundaries. I’ve got a surfing lesson scheduled this afternoon! I have never tried to surf and am not particularly athletic; luckily, the waves here are not that big. Surfing is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, but I’ve always been too afraid of looking like a fool. I got tired of moving the Post-it note that said “book surfing lesson” from calendar to calendar year after year, so when I decided devote 2017 to new activities, I knew surfing would be one of them. I am both excited and anxious; I will let you know how it goes!

What have you always wanted to try? Which interesting spot in your hometown is crying to be checked out? I hope you get to have an adventure of your own soon, and that it brings you joy!