29 01 2015

I’ve been thinking a while about the concept of ambition.  Like most children from a privileged upbringing, I was told to dream big, to work hard, to achieve success…to be ambitious.  These were and are good things.  I was fortunately born with the type of intelligence that does well in standardized testing, and (after a stint in a program for gifted children) the kind that also fit in well with the educational style of the 1960s and 70s.  I did well.  I was rewarded for it.  I achieved good grades in high school, got into the college I wanted to attend, and was paid to go to graduate school.

All along was the idea that wherever you are, you need to push to be in a better place.  Where you are is good?  The next place could be better, with more money, more power, more, more, more.  Your relationship seems pretty great?  Are you sure?  It could be better – more sexy, more intimate, more, more, more.  Your child is well-adjusted?  Are you sure he has enough to do? Is her environment rich enough?  Have you done everything you can to encourage the growth of those early neurons?  Don’t you think you could be doing more?

I did well.  I was successful.  Decent job, good marriage, a demanding-but-otherwise-awesome son.  I made myself crazy listening to the voices telling me that none of those things were enough.  I pulled free of some of it – for instance, the Baby Weight Gaining competition that happens when you have a baby close in age to another woman’s.  “Oh, your baby gained a pound in the week after birth?  That’s great… my baby gained TEN.”  Followed by more information than you want to hear about the richness of your competitor’s breast milk, along with a self-congratulatory breast pat.  That one has “Get out while you can” stamped all over it, and I did.  Fast.

Other things I didn’t let go of, so much as have them pulled away.  My decent marriage ended with my husband’s death.  Which of course, after a period of grief, starts the push cycle again.  Are you seeing anyone? Have you been dating?  Are there any “good prospects”?

Then I was laid off from my decent job.

A lot of things came to a screeching halt right there.  The first thing I noticed, when the shock wore off, was a sense of relief.  I took some time to simply breathe, and rest, and consider what had happened.  A little while later I got a contract position… and there it was again: Will this turn into a full-time position?  You really want that, right?  Because that would be better.  You should want more than contracting.

The breathing and resting paid off.  I wasn’t in a full-time position, and realized that I didn’t actually want to be in that position full-time, because hello, corporate crazy.  My time was my own.  I could set that job down and walk away.  Sure, they could let me go at any time – and I could also let them go at any time.  It felt balanced in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time.  I finished that contract and moved into another one – for less money. (Shouldn’t you be making more?  You used to make a lot more than that.) Less money was more than balanced by working with people that I knew and loved.

I get it, truly.  There’s a time in your life when you are trying to build and achieve.  You’re making a family, or building a career, or studying deeply for a long time, or planning for retirement.  But I’ve come to think that we should always question what it is we are after.  Is it just more?  The bigger house, the fancy job title, the luxury car, all the activities for your children… what are they for?  It’s like we’ve misunderstood the “dream big” part of what our parents tried to teach us.

What do you actually dream of?  Do you dream of that next big goal?  Or do you dream of a time when it’s behind you, when you can stop pushing so hard to get to it?  We can make that time happen.  There should be a point where we can look at our lives and say, these things are good.  To stop adding the word “but” to every single beautiful thing we say about our lives.  Instead: I love my husband.  I have an amazing child.  I like my job.  My house is comfortable.  My life is good.

It is nearly un-American to say ambition isn’t always good.  It’s the American way – strive, be ambitious, succeed.  Never be satisfied, never be content with where you are, never rest.  I am not entirely done with that – I do still have a mortgage to pay for – but my ambition these days is for inner peace.  To not worry about whether I’m achieving enough, but to love what I’ve already achieved.


Unexpected mindfulness

2 09 2014

I had a couple of lengthy drives this weekend.  Nothing that required overnight stays anywhere – just drives of over an hour each way, which for me is a different mindset than hopping in the car to run errands.  But really all my driving has become more mindful recently, and I’m grateful for that even though it was entirely unexpected.

A few months ago I traded in my much-loved SUV for a more practical but (in my mind) much less cool Prius.  I adored my SUV.  She drove through any weather, on any surface, and got me where I needed to go without fail; the only time she didn’t start in nine years was when a door didn’t get closed, and the dome light drained the aging battery.  She did, however, use a ton of gas.  Mileage for the kind of driving I did – mostly to and from work – hovered right around 20 mpg, sometimes a little less.  And she was getting to the age where I knew that repairs were going to start costing more.  So I traded her in.  I cried over letting her go and was grateful that I couldn’t see her when I drove my new Prius out of the lot.

There are some philosophical changes I had to make in changing from the enthusiastic V-6 of the SUV to the smooth and quiet hybrid.  The biggest one was that I was no longer going to beat anyone away from a stoplight.  I didn’t realize – until I couldn’t do it any more – how much energy I had spent in maneuvering into positions where I could “get ahead” of traffic clumps.  I was constantly calculating in my head which lane was moving faster, how I could be behind the fewest cars at a stoplight so that I could be faster getting through.

Drive a hybrid and those decisions are largely meaningless – yes, you can still punch the engine and get a surprising kick of acceleration out of it, but that takes a lot of fuel, and efficiency was one big reason I wanted this technology in the first place.  So driving in a fuel efficient way meant breaking those old habits.  It meant learning to accelerate smoothly and evenly while other cars tore away from the lights.  It meant braking smoothly and evenly to capture that braking energy – while other cars zipped into the space in front of me to get that coveted spot as far up as possible at a stoplight.

And oh my, cars got ahead of me.  They got away from lights faster, they pulled ahead of me, and by my previous V-6 standards they were winning while I was losing… and I stopped caring.  Driving a Prius took away my ability to compete on the road, and I hadn’t even realized that I had been treating driving that way.  And I certainly had no idea of the mental ravages of going through this competition every time I got behind the wheel.

I’ve been driving Lily for almost six months now.  There are days when the driving is rough because holy cow, do the competitive drivers bring it some days, and it’s all I can do to stay out of their way.  But mostly?  I have found a much more peaceful means of getting around.  I’m not in the competition any more, and suddenly the drives are… nice.  Lovely, in fact.  I see the things around me – fog hovering over a field in the early morning, deer lingering in the dawn, sunsets on a stormy day.  I decide what music to listen to while I’m driving and I actually hear it.  And nearly every time, I get to my destination and think, that was a lovely drive.

I know.  I could have been driving mindfully this whole time.  And technology isn’t the answer to all our life problems.  But I wasn’t, and I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been strongly pushed in that direction by new (to me) technology.  That wasn’t why I decided to buy a hybrid; I was entirely motivated by economics when I made the decision.  The benefits turned out to be much greater than I expected.

The morning after

9 11 2012

So I don’t know if anyone noticed, but we had this election?

Words cannot fully describe my relief, not only at having this particular episode behind us, but even more at how it came out.  The Tea Party will never be repudiated fully enough for my satisfaction – that would involve public humiliation and tons of rotting fruit – but this election delivered some deliciously solid smackdowns.  And I plan on basking in the afterglow for some time.  Here in Illinois, Tammy Duckworth defeated Ball-of-Tea-Party-Rage Joe Walsh; I also have a Democratic congressman for the first time in something like 40 years in this district.

And of course there is some post-election activity on Facebook.  Part of me thinks that if I were any kind of a good person, I’d let this stuff slide on by.  And then the part of me that cares about things reminds that first part that we let things slide on by for a good long time, and it led to nothing but tears.  So instead of taking that little post-election respite, I’m still in the thick of it.

The one that will never cease to amaze, depress, and infuriate me is the attitude of conservative Christians.  I have reached the point you reach as a parent with a whining, overtired child – okay, that’s enough.  You need to go take a nap and pull yourself together.  Or as my mother used to tell me: you have fifteen minutes to go into your room and change your attitude.

I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a more willfully obtuse group of people.  If Romney had won, they would, every one of them, be blasting out how this election was God’s will.  But since the election results didn’t agree with their will?  Then it can’t possibly be God’s will.  A couple of comments apply here… first, if the God you worship can have His (because their God is always male) will thwarted by people with ballots?  That’s a pretty damned sad excuse for a deity.  And second, Anne Lamott’s observation: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Funny how these things work out.

I have seen laments of how we are no longer a Christian nation, how we have turned away from the Christian principles of our founding fathers.  And because we’ve turned away from Jesus, we’re also turning away from morality.  (Yeah, that might be where I cracked and decided to wade back in.)  I have had it with a church that wants government out of religion, but thinks that religion – specifically, their brand of conservative Christianity – should be all over government.  I have MORE than had it with anyone who thinks that their religion makes them more moral than another religion, or no religion at all.  Even if we were not a country in which Protestants are now a minority, there is no excuse for the continued privileging of Judeo-Christian theology.  I’m sure the one commenter I found thought of herself as being quite inclusive when she wrote “I don’t care if you use the Old or New Testament… we need to work together.”  That’s some diversity you’re showing there, all right.

My nephew is 18 and is carving out a place for himself as an atheist.  Because he’s 18, some of his opinions and postings are perhaps not as gracious as I would hope.  Nonetheless, I am with him 100% in his fight to express his beliefs, and to live free from religious beliefs that make no sense to him.  I believe in a creator who loves all of her creatures, and that includes the ones blissfully unaware of her presence; those who marvel at her power, beauty, and humor; and even (perhaps especially) those who doubt or deny her.

The time is over – is, in fact, LONG past – for one half of the two-party system in this country to be controlled by the religious right.  Rachel Maddow delivered the most perfect summary of this that I am ever going to see. Part of it has been transcribed into a piece that is all over the internet now as a rebuke to the ignorant-by-choice Tea Party.  But the more important part of the commentary comes in the second half, with her heartfelt plea for everyone, in both parties, to stop arguing over the stuff that actually IS well established (evolution, global warming) and instead spend time on the very real problems that our country faces.  The whole idea of having different political parties is to throw different, competing solutions to these problems out there, so that voters can see those solutions, talk about them, and then decide the path that makes the most sense.

In spite of the inflamed rhetoric of the last several months, in spite of the ugly commentary I’ve seen on nearly every article I’ve read (pro tip: do NOT read comments, ever) I do believe that most people in this country want many of the same things… we want to work, to stay healthy, to raise our children to productive and compassionate adulthood.  We cannot find that common ground as long as the religious right – or the Tea Party, or the family values crowd, or any of their assorted cronies – sets the topic and tone of the discussion.

If you actually believe that this country is going to hell in a flaming handbasket, then by all means I encourage you to hide in your houses, and cower in the fear provided by your imperfect and inadequate faith.  That at least will get you out of the way.  For those of us who actually do believe in this country, in the basic goodness and humanity of the people with whom we share a country and a society: Forward.

I am a dilettante

3 06 2012

I spent the day yesterday at an arts festival, in the artist demonstration area.  It has taken me years to get to the place where I can accept the label of “artist”.  I look at the things I do and think, these are just… the things I do.  The things that interest me, that give me pleasure.  These aren’t art.  These are just the things I like to do.  Somewhere there’s this idea that art has to involve more suffering than this.  I’m lacking that film montage that shows me overcoming countless obstacles to achieve my dream – although, if we do get around to making that montage?  I want “Eye of the Tiger” for maximum cheesiness.

Anyway, arts festival.  I was there armed with the tools of my particular craft, which in this case included a spinning wheel, drop spindles, a bin full of different colors of fiber, my lazy kate basket, finished yarns of different kinds of wool, and finished garments that I’ve made from handspun.  And interestingly, one thing I didn’t realize was a tool – my handmade socks, which got at least as much attention as my spinning wheel did.  On my right I had a young artist who works on collages of sewn paper and fabric – his particular tools were bins of beautiful paper, precision scissors, and a sewing machine.  On my left, my potter friend, with her wheel, clay, and shaping tools.  And beyond her, a new addition to our artist group, a weaver with her Schacht Baby Wolf loom (hello, lust in my heart) and beautiful samples of the flowing, feely, colorful fabrics that flow from her heart and mind.

I spent the day spinning and talking – and telling so many people, both adults and children, that of course you can do this.  I don’t know how many times I heard “Oh, I just don’t have that kind of talent,” or “I’m too uncoordinated,” or saddest, “I always wished I could do something like that.”  Those are the ones that break my heart.  Those are the ones that I call over and press a drop spindle into their hands, and say, “You can do something like that.”  People are so certain that they’re going to fail – but worse than that, that failing says something terrible about them.  First time with a drop spindle?  I guarantee you’re going to discover, several times, why they’re called drop spindles.   I still do and I’ve been doing this for years.

I’d like to say I don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve been demonstrating now for enough years, and I’ve shown enough people how to use a drop spindle, that I’ve seen how it gets passed on.  I’ve had children come to me, eager to try something new – there seems to be some compelling fascination with the spinning motion of a drop spindle.  I willingly hand it to them, show them how to use it, and everything is going well… and then there’s a parent behind them, saying “Be careful! Don’t break it!” Okay, normal parenting things.  It’s when it progresses to “Oh, your yarn doesn’t look like hers!” (really? you think?) or “Why isn’t yours even?” (because that comes with practice and your child has been spinning for oh, 30 seconds?) or my own personal favorite: “Well, I guess if anyone saw you spinning they’d put you back to cutting wood.”

At one demonstration I even had one little boy take the offered spindle and say “I just know I’m going to be a miserable failure at this.”  I must have gotten That Look on my face, because the boy’s father said “Oh, he plays a lot of video games.” That little boy – truly, he couldn’t have been older than six – didn’t convince himself that he would fail because of video games.  It wasn’t the video games telling him that he couldn’t do anything correctly.  I’ve never in my life wanted to gather a stranger’s child into my arms so much, to tell him that he could do anything he wants to do.  And I did teach him to spin.  It really didn’t take much.  He got it right away, and he spun beautifully, like someone who had done it many times before.  I’ve thought about him so many times in the two years or so since he handed my spindle back to me with a solemn “Thank you.”

I’ve been spinning now for almost six years.  I started teaching other people how to do it about three years ago.  When I started it was just about showing people something that I thought was fun and interesting, and I figured hey, with no grades or anything, this is just fun and easy and angst-free.  And mostly it really is.  But there’s also this consistent current of being afraid to fail, the fear of not being instantly expert at something – and beyond that, the feeling that if you’re not an expert, then what you’re attempting isn’t worth the effort.  That loving it, just for the sake of the art itself, is not in itself enough.  So many have been waylaid by the idea of “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” – but it’s perverted into “If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all”.

It’s not that I’m immune.  I’m not a big fan of potentially looking foolish in public myself… which is the biggest reason that I have never in my life bowled.  (I know.  You’ll take me bowling.  There had better be a bar.)  But I haven’t let it paralyze me or keep me from things that I really do think might be interesting.  I love to sing… I’m not professional quality, but I love it and I spend time on it.  I love to paddle kayaks… not someone who’s going to handle the big water, but I love it nonetheless and I treasure the time on the water.

The words amateur and dilettante get tossed out as pejoratives…  you’re just an amateur, you’re only a dilettante.  The implication being that you’re not really serious, that you’re not spending the time, the angst, the suffering that you need to be a true professional artiste.  Years ago someone reminded me that the root of the word “amateur” was “to love” – that an amateur is someone who loves a subject.  And that the root of “dilettante” was “delight” – someone who delights in something.   I am still an amateur and a dilettante in the world of spinning, and Goddess willing I always will be, even though I already am a professional who makes a little money doing it.  My goal is to bring more amateurs and dilettantes into the world.

Regaining the balance

17 04 2010

So what happens with two posts in a day?  Does it unbalance the planet somehow? 

So the testy day finds me here at the end, thanking the Goddess that it’s the weekend and I don’t have to deal with any more of the diverse and interesting personalities of the work environment for a couple of days.  Mostly it’s a wonderful occupation, with people that I’d hang out with even if I didn’t work with them.  But today, just… no.  I’m tired of dealing with the highly specialized technical experts who have no social skills.  I’m tired of the assumption that, because I’m one of the few women in my very very male industry, that I will be the civilizing influence on all those unruly men.  Because boys will be boys.  Even when they’re plenty old enough to know better… somehow the expectations of growing the hell up don’t apply to them.

Hello, spinning wheel… because if there was ever a time when I needed the gentle rhythm and whir of the wheel, the feel of fine wool slipping through my fingers, this is it.  And the knowledge that, with this at least, I’m making something real and measurable and useful.  That in some sense I’m jumping back, past all the modern ideas of technology and interconnectivity and networking, back to fundamental skills that wrapped babies in warmth, protected fishermen on icy seas, clothed peasants and royalty alike.  For millenia, women have spun the fiber of their world into thread and yarn – sometimes for commercial purposes, but overwhelmingly to take care of their families. 

I remember when I was pregnant, 22 years ago, feeling a visceral connection to all the women who had ever carried a baby in their bodies.  I felt the presence of their shared experience, and there was comfort in knowing that this experience, so new and unfamiliar to me, had been repeated countless times.  There was a golden cord that connected all of us who had ever done this.  I took strength from all the women who had come before me.  The time for pregnancy and babies is long past for me… no longer the child or the maiden, I’m now on my way to crone.  Which is another form of connection to all the women who have done this before me.   The longer I do this, the more I long for ways to reach back to all of them

Tough week, not nearly enough balance.  So tonight I spend reaching back.