Monday, August 29, 2011

Hard-ly Worth It!

Okay, taking a poll – what’s the most difficult thing you ever endeavored to make or do, and why was it difficult?  I don’t like to dwell on the past, but when I ask that question, does a particular thing come into your mind?  Can you look back at that one thing that really took all your mental resources, skills, time to learn/finish/accomplish?  Because I think if you can think of one thing, you’re one lucky person - I can hardly think of one thing that wasn’t!

For my purposes today I’m just going to focus on quilting.  An example please, you say?  No problem – it will just take a nanosecond to come up with one - here you go:  I was working on a quilt that had curves and circles, etc.  I had this nifty curved sewing foot that I was using (Dammit, Mother – you swore by the thing!) and I was going absolutely insane because I could not get my curves right.  I actually had to go and cut more fabric because I ruined so many pieces (and cutting is my least favorite part of quilting!)  I nearly brought the house down with my rantings – I think I even chased all the bugs out!  And I shudder to think of the number of curses and new foul language my son learned from that one incident.  I was actually ready to give up altogether (much to family’s relief), when I got the idea to try to sew without the nifty device.   Turns out, the nifty device wasn’t so nifty after all, at least not for me.  I was able to sew so much better by just using good old fashioned pinning and clipping curves!  It was amazing  - and a little frightening - how all that vitriol instantly turned to peaceful smiles and humming, making me understand the true meaning of split personality.   I’m surprised my husband didn’t cart me off to the looney bin right then and there.  (Poor guys –  what they had to put up with before I became “The Zen Quilter!)”

Another example?  Not hard to come by - I am just putting the edges on a project.  When I first got the idea for it, I almost talked myself out of it before I began, “Oh crap – this is going to be so hard!” I whined to myself.  “Why do I always have to think of something more complicated than my skill level to do?”  But although I am a whiner, I am not daunted by a challenge, so I decided to do it anyway.  And lo and behold, the part I thought was going to be so tricky in fact went quite smoothly! It was fun – I had a great time.  I actually had the (fatal?) thought “Hey, I’m getting better at this!”  HA!  That was until I got to the next step, which I never had a care for when I began. (Skinny borders between and around big stretchy blocks, and outside border around stretchy skinny borders, for those of you who know quilting.)  For those who don’t, just take my word for it – it went much more (literally) bumpily!  In fact, it took more time, ripping and redoing, and far more calming breaths and “centering,” than it took to do the bits I expected to be problematical.  (Okay, there was a little cursing too, but only a minimum – ask my boys!  And I did have the sense of humor to laugh at myself when I realized I had exulted too soon, too, so that’s progress, too.)

If I am big enough to be completely honest, I can look back at a moment during the making of every piece of art I have ever made and admit that there was some moment when I had difficulty and I lost my temper, therefore making it the most difficult project I ever attempted -so far, anyway.  Hmm – wonder why?

Pondering on it, I see it has nothing to do with skill level or any other external thing – it all has to do with me.   (Yes, it’s another “DUH” moment!)  And yes - I’ve made (yet another) not so startling realization:  The hardest quilt I ever made is my next one.  And furthermore, it’s always going to be that way.  There is always going to be a challenge, whether it is lack of experience, trouble with machines, nifty, time-saving (torture) devices...hormones… All of which really boil down to one thing, which is my focusing on the end result of my efforts, not on the actual doing -  the how I am doing it.  Yes, of course I want to complete what I start and I want it to be worthwhile, but what makes something worthwhile?  I might not necessarily end up with what I envisioned, (Who knows - it might actually be better!  Or not – whatever!)  but if I can do it in the manner to which I aspire, it will change me, make me better – more in touch with what’s really important (my sanity…my family’s?) Yes, that too, but seriously, just to be the way I was meant to be – loving and awake – conscious every moment…alive, and joyful about it. 

 So my goal at this point is to get through one entire quilt without allowing myself to get mired in ONE moment of frustration.   I’m not saying that I can’t recognize something as a challenge but that when this happens, I will simply do, without negative emotion or frustration, what I have to do to fix it, if I can.  And if I cannot fix it, I want to accept that as well (without cursing!)  And yes, I do actually believe it is possible, even for me.  It may take (quite) a while, given the puerile level of my frustration tolerance, but nonetheless, I shall persevere.    

I’ll let you know how it goes. 

In the meantime, I’d love for you some of you to share some thoughts.  Or some comments – heck, I’ll take them even if they’re nasty.  (It will be good practice for my Zen-ness!)  Let me know you’re out there, please.   (And FYI, it would be really nice of you to let me know if I’m not the only one who is frustrationally challenged – good for your ego, too…cathartic, maybe even.)

And “Shalom, baby!” to all of you - may you have a peaceful, joyful week.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Creative Frenzy

The word ‘frenzy’ brings a distinct picture to mind, doesn’t it?  Something like this, perhaps:  Hair standing on end, glasses sitting crookedly on face, eyes wildly darting,  feverishly  - even manically, perhaps- scurrying around from task to task, muttering under one’s breath all the while,  not actually accomplishing anything, just driving everyone nearby crazy with useless, undirected  activity.   Of course I’m not talking about myself – well, not at the moment, anyway.   I have been there, of course, too many times to count.  Don’t especially like the place, but still am compelled to go there anyway from time to time.  (Actually I think that many of us  spend a great deal of time there with our breathtakingly busy lives, just trying to get something , ANYTHING, completed before we have to do the next thing.   It’s called being a grown-up, I think, but I suspect we bring a lot of it on ourselves.) 
 However, that exploration is for another day.  Because today I want to talk about ideas, and what to do about them.   I am in a frenzy at the moment, but (thank God) not the useless, crazy-making kind  – I'm in a creative frenzy.  There's a veritable rollercoaster of ideas whizzing about inside me - to the point where I have to keep a pen and notebook by my bed, in my purse, in the car - so I can write them down whenever and wherever they strike.   I’m actually enjoying this flow of creativity enormously – ideas galore - fabuloso!  As soon as I finish one thing, I am raring to get started on the next one.  Whoo-hoo – what a ride!

 Naturally, in the (typical) human fashion, what appears to be a boon also has another, darker side (also known as the PRACTICAL side.)    First of all, not all the ideas are exactly superb.  Some (meaning many) of them actually stink - badly.  But that’s just a minor blip, because it’s all about flow – you can edit out the garbage later (And there will be some good ideas, even if it is only two out of two thousand, it’s okay, really - my guess is that that is actually a pretty good ratio of cream to er- crap.)

No, the dark side is far more evilly insidious.  Because it has to do with the question, “Why?  Why am I doing this - why am I spending several hours a day creating?  Why am I getting all these ideas?  What am I supposed to do with them?   Does it have a purpose - am I helping the world, making it a better place?”  And then there’s the most frightening question of all:  “Am I wasting my time?”  EEEEK– just writing the question makes me bite my nails.

 This is my black hole.  As always, I blame my mother and my German blood for it – she would never let me take Art in school; said it wasn’t a serious subject.  She pushed (okay, not that hard, I pushed myself harder) me to be an academic, to pursue a career, a job.   The right, practical (German) thing to do was get an education, a job and be secure.  And remember, I like to do the right thing…so I did it, by golly.   I have been working since I was 15.  I went to college and graduate school and I have worked all my adult life.  I am a mother and a wife and I take care of my responsibilities, dammit.   And, I feel lucky to add that I have been extremely happy doing it.  I like to work, I like to contribute, I like to do my part -no complaints there.

Plus, I didn’t think I had an artistic cell in my body until I was thirty-one.  That was the year I got pregnant with my son.  It was as if suddenly a dam broke loose inside me along with my water, because after he was born I couldn’t stop the ideas from coming, even if I wanted to.  And then I moved back to Texas and my mother introduced me to quilting and there really weren’t enough hours in the day.  I (and my family) found myself quite put out when I could get to my art on a regular basis.

Fast forward to now,  the present moment.  Here I sit, with this flurry of ideas and the opportunity to pursue them, but… it seems somehow too indulgent, too selfish – too fun, really, to go for it,  because there’s that (diabolical) practical side breathing down my neck, asking those horrible, soul-sucking questions. 

So what to do, what to do…Well, as you may have guessed, I’m just doing it.  I’m taking this inspiration and jumping right into the vortex of the dark hole.   I have no idea where it will take me or whether it will spit me right back out, but I’m doing it anyway.    I know from experience that this flash of ideas doesn’t grow on trees, so I’m going to create, quilt, write, paint - all of it - while the creative stars are aligned for me, and whatever happens, happens.   I’m fine with whatever- security is a state of mind, anyway.  Some people feel secure in the midst of a plane crash and others feel unsafe with a million dollars in the bank. )

 For some reason, a new door has appeared in my life and I want to go through it, even if it is scary.   And I’m not asking if it matters or it’s a waste of time, either, so please - don’t tell me!

Monday, August 15, 2011


Quilters are among the most giving people I’ve ever met, as a whole.  I’m continually impressed and humbled by how very decent every single quilter I’ve ever met has been.  Here’s a recent example:  Last week I was sewing with a Bernina that I inherited from my mother.  Neither she nor I really ever learned how to use it; she ran out of time, and I just started using in my usual haphazard fashion, consulting the (sketchy) manual whenever I ran into a snag.  I couldn’t get a certain stitch to work, and I tried everything I could think of as well as all two of the troubleshooting suggestions offered by the (very sketchy) manual and it just wouldn’t sew correctly.   I decided that I needed to have it looked at.   I took it down to Pocketful of Poseys, the local quilt store, and was talking to Cindy, the owner, about it.  She told me that the repair man she used was not coming anymore, but she offered to look at it for me because she has the same machine.  She told me to come back the next day.  When I did, she and one of her coworkers had cleaned it, changed the needle and fixed the problem for me.  Thrilled, I asked her how much I owed her and she said “Oh nothing, not a thing.”  Now there is no reason for this woman not to charge me, at least for her time.   Believe me, I appreciated her help enough to pay for it (I had spent two very UN-zen hours trying to get the blasted thing to work the day before.)  It was just so very kind  - what a nice person!  And this is not an unusual happening - it seems to happen all the time.   It's as if quilting is a kind of sisterhood and everyone supports everyone – it’s a beautiful thing.
The ladies from my quilting bee are generous to a fault.  They give tools, material, lessons thread, books and magazines away at the drop of an “Ooh or ahh” of admiration. They share so much, in fact, that sometimes I wonder if they even know which stuff belongs to whom!  But it doesn’t matter to them – it’s all part of the collective creativity. (Just don’t tell their husbands how much they spend on this shared wealth!  Although I’m sure that it all evens out anyway with all the give and take!)  I teasingly tell them they do this because they are enablers– kind of like people sitting around a campfire smoking pot who want everyone else to share their addiction - if you don’t take a toke, everyone stares at you until someone vouches that you’re “cool.“  (You have to partake of all the fun, man!) ** But the truth for these wonderful women is not that they are trying to justify what they are doing, it is that they are having such a blast, they want to share their delight with everyone.
They are also quite liberal with their support and praise, as well.  Never does one hear a discouraging word from any of these ladies, no matter how insane or impractical an idea.   My friend Diane Kammlah, in particular, who I believe has more knowledge about sewing and fabric than any person I’ve ever met before, loves to encourage me to try things and often is an accomplice to my creative insanity. Her catch phrase is “Sure, you can do that!” usually followed by some suggestion of how to make it work.   If something isn’t working, I usually call her and together we hatch some scheme for making it work.  Even when (as is often the case) my work is less than perfect they politely don’t point out the flaws, but notice the beauty, or at least the intent of beauty.
 More evidence of quilters’ munificence is how often and freely many of them offer the fruits of their labors to friends, family, admiring strangers… If you know or are a quilter, how many quilts have you been given/given away – too many to remember, I’ll wager. 
 This unnecessary and unexpected behavior nicely demonstrates the Zen-ness of art – it’s not the final result that counts, it’s the DOING.  This is one of the more important lessons I’ve learned from all these incredible women.  ( It's closely followed by "The more you give – the more you get back."  )
  Now this may be because quilters want to be encouraged in their own daffy endeavors, but I don’t think so.  I think that it’s just because quilters are a Zen-erous bunch.

**Don’t be so shocked – even Mery Streep did it in “It’s Complicated!”  On the other hand, IN NO WAY am I advocating the smoking of dope!  Smoking of any type is nasty business if you ask me.  But although I don’t personally partake, I’m hardly one to judge - I can get high from fingering fantastic fabrics! J

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rebel With a Cause

 Growing up, I pretty much did what I was told in every situation - you know, the typical good-girl, pleaser type.   I did this to a fault; when I turned twenty-one  I made the horrifying realization I’d never even tried a cigarette!   (A little lame? Perhaps, but I don’t feel like I missed much on that score.)   But although I did subsequently spend a (legal) but drunken night smoking my friend Susan's cigarettes (and paying the price for it, too!), I still tended in general to be a pleaser, always attempting to do the right thing.  Until recently. 
Suddenly  I find I am a rebellious, eccentric, risk-taker!   I find myself branching out from the prescribed set of directions in almost every aspect of my life.  While at times it feels like being chased by cannibals across a rope bridge above a 200 foot drop, like everything else in my life at the moment, I’m just going with it.

Take cooking, for example.  Now I’ve been cooking for at least 35 years, and by now, I feel pretty confident that I know my way around a recipe – I don’t measure exactly, I add here, substitute there,  leave out what I don't like or have, and the food is edible,  good, often even delicious! (One noteable exception – I always follow any Julia Child recipe to the letter –– never mind that she’s dead and can’t see me - I’m scared of her!) ,

I guess all my success with cooking has gone to my head, or I’m getting to be one of those old people who doesn’t give a sausage for what others think (although I’m only 46!), because now I feel like I don’t have to strictly follow the rules in anything I do  -  let’s say, for example, trading a steady paycheck for a career in art, maybe?!

This rather insane behavior has, naturally, spilled over into quilting, painting, pretty much all my creative endeavors.  On most projects I start out trying to follow the directions , but suddenly I’ll get an idea.  The idea may or may not make any sense, but logic has nothing to do with it – once the thought forms, it knocks on my head like a hammer until I give in – so I’ll go ahead and incorporate the hair-brained scheme because it seems, I can’t control my inspiration – it controls me!  As a result, the whole thing often takes so much longer, is so much more difficult than it was originally and the results are far less than perfect.   And if - who am I kidding – when I get frustrated, whom do I have to blame but myself?   

Hmm – well actually, there are a few people I could blame, come to think of it…I could blame Robbi Joy Eklow - she makes amazing art quilts and she does everything with (GASP ) raw edges!  She says and I quote, “In art, you don’t get extra points for doing things the long way, and I can’t see the point of spending a  tremendous amount of time for a result that doesn’t matter to me.”   (Gotta love that woman!)  I could also blame the Houston Quilt Festival for showing me that pretty much anything goes when it comes to quilt art.  Hell, I could even blame my mother - it’s always the mother’s fault anyway, isn’t it?  I once told her during an argument, “ DUH Mother - if you wanted us to be just like you, you shouldn’t have taught us to think for ourselves!” 

Assigning blame aside, I get to a larger, perhaps more important question – does it really matter? (Which seems to be a theme in this blog, doesn't it?) Just like any coin, there are (at least) two sides to it.  There are many, many people who create incredibly beautiful art without ever breaking a single rule – and I can and do appreciate that a great deal.  But who creates the rules but us?   I’m not saying that rules are meant to be broken (I’m still at heart that goody-two shoes), but I firmly believe it’s okay to take risks or try nutty ideas - for art’s sake.   I find I just can’t be happy if I don’t feel free to experiment; I seem to have no choice but to stick to my side (or edge – whatever) of the coin which goes like this:  If I can make it work and I like it, I don’t care if it follows the rules – I don’t even care if the finished result isn’t exactly, well -  perfect, as long as in the end I still love it.

This may sound arrogant and I know it’s not for everyone, but for me, it’s exhilarating and incredibly motivating.  I get that I may never win any awards for my dangerous and wacky behavior, but that’s the beauty of creating – we each get to do it in our own little (badass) way.   

Monday, August 1, 2011

Am I there yet?

It occurs at about the same time in every project.  The idea was in my head for about six months.   I drew a sketch and periodically “visited” my idea in anticipation, but I was determined to finish several other projects before I allowed myself to begin working on it.  Finally (Oh, Joy!) it was time to begin.  I have been working in a frenzy of excitement and creative energy for two weeks straight, not only while I’m in my studio, but dreaming about it, thinking about it, and wanting to be with it when I had to take care of other, more practical matters (such as have been previously mentioned in this blog).  It has been a satisfying challenge and I love the piece – it makes me happy just to look at it.  But as soon as I completed the top, it happened.
I still have quite a bit of work to do.  I need to sandwich it, figure out some logistics (it’s kind of a complicated deal) and most of all, I need to quilt it in a way that really enhances it.  In short, I am only about halfway through with it, and suddenly I’ve lost my passion!  I no longer care about finishing this piece.  In fact, I want to start working on something else instead.  And sadly, it seems to happen at this point in every project I start. What’s up with that?   
I think that I’m not alone in this little idiosyncrasy either.  How many other people out there have spent countless hours on projects only to suddenly lose their momentum when they can see the finish line?  I happen to know quite a few people who have as many unfinished projects as they do finished ones.
So what causes this (irritating) phenomenon?  Here are some thoughts:
            It’s really strange, but it’s kind of like Groucho Marx saying “I wouldn’t want to attend any party that I’m invited to.”  It was a challenge, and now that the challenge is winding down, or now that I’ve nearly accomplished what I wanted to do, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.  I mean, if I can pull it off, it must not be all that difficult, right?  So - it is the thrill of the “chase” keeping me from finishing!
Or it could be that I’ve burned myself out on the thing, going at it so intensely for so long that I no longer have the energy to complete it.  So - it is exhaustion keeping me from finishing!
Maybe the truth is that I’m not so excited about the next steps.   I’m not as good at it as I want to be and I don’t want to ruin it after I have put so much into it.  So - it is fear keeping me from finishing!
On the other hand, maybe there’s no reason to analyze it, because the cause doesn’t matter.  I just have to figure out the cure - don’t I?  Hmm - maybe not.  What if it’s just the process we are supposed to focus on, not the finished product.  Maybe the thing, finished, is far less important than what we learned along the way, making it.  I do feel I learn something from everything I do, every time I do it, if I just pay attention to it while I’m doing it.  So - it doesn’t matter at all if I finish it!
Nope - not at all.  It doesn’t matter at all if I never finish a single project.  But I still want to.  I still want to because I spend a lot of  time and energy (well, okay - money, too) on my creations – in the long run it makes me unhappy to lavish such intense enthusiasm and attention upon something for a brief shining moment only to abandon it at the siren call of a new idea.  I know we live in a culture that is always looking for the next thing, (or person, just look at the divorce rate!) but I think we are missing the joy of right now when we are always craning ahead to see what’s coming.  I still want to complete my projects because I started them, and that means they must have been meant to be.  It’s part of the journey, too, even though it’s not the fun part anymore.  And (I can’t help it – I’m half German) there’s the practical part of me that says I’m trying to make a living off my art, and I don’t guess people want to buy an idea to hang on their wall, but a complete piece of art that makes them happy every time they look at it.  
But I admit it, the thrill is gone.  I guess this is where good old-fashioned discipline has to kick in for me.  But something I’ve discovered from this project is that I actually like to finish what I start – even though I don’t have to.  But I think it will be okay to walk away from it for a few days, focus on something else, and then come back and focus on the next step in the process.  In the end, if I pay attention to the “doing,” not the completing, I’ll have something far more valuable than a finished project - I’ll have learned something.