Is Just Working At Your Art Enough to Inspire?

The other day, I was meeting with a friend who is a stay-at-home mom, as I once was. She was lamenting how hard it is to find time to write with all the responsibilities of home and children. I passed on a piece of advice a friend said to me when I was lamenting something similar many years ago. She said, “Your kids will never remember how clean or dirty your house was. They will remember, though, a mother who worked hard every day at something she loved and believed in.”

Can we, as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and friends truly be role models for the children in our lives if we don’t follow the same advice we give them? Can we expect them to “follow their dreams,” when we don’t do the same? Can we expect them to “never give up,” when we do just that? Can we expect them to “work hard to achieve what you want,” if we don’t let them see us working hard too?

As a teenager, I was one of those kids who taped inspirational quotes to my bedroom mirror or hung them on my bulletin boards. All kinds of quotes about how I could do anything if I just believed it was possible and how my talents were gifts for me alone and I must use them or lose them. Ever since I was in the fifth grade, I wanted to be a writer. And through all the ups and downs, I never stopped hoping that would happen. But I also knew I’d never be a writer unless I actually wrote. There was no shortcut to success. If I wanted to be a writer, I couldn’t just dream about it. I had to do it.

It’s never going to be easy to find time for our art, but we owe it to the dreamer inside of us to somehow make it happen. The universe will back up our dreams, I was recently told, but only if we work toward them. You can’t just wish them into being or pray them into existence.

So let’s encourage each other. Let’s tell the artists in our lives—whether they are professionals or hobbyists—their work matters, and not just to them. True, their finished art may someday impress or move others, but just the act of their working will inspire so many of us, including our children. Because kids are always watching.

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How Deep is Your Thinking?

A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling really down. It lasted for about a week. I told someone who is close to me, and her advice was something she had said to me before, “Don’t think. You think too much. Just live in the moment and don’t worry about anything.”

While that might sound like good advice for someone in a funk, I realized it wasn’t going to work for me. See, I like thinking deep. It’s been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. I can’t not think about heavy things, just like I can’t not think about things that make me happy. I’m fascinated by this universe we share and fascinated by the worlds that live within me. And while it would easier, I’m sure, to let things roll off my back, I know that would not make me happy.

Even in my funk, which got pretty dark for a couple of days, I had an awareness that my mood was temporary and it was trying to tell me something. I decided not to try to wish it away or “do something about it.” I resolved to sit with it and see what I learned. I decided to think about what was happening to me and what it all meant. After a few days, the mood lifted slowly, until I was back to my usual self.

That next week, I was interviewed on a wonderful radio show, and the host asked if I agree that our purpose in life is to follow our joy, and I said, mostly yes. But sometimes that advice can be misconstrued. It can sound as if feeling down is not allowed. And if we do feel sad or depressed, we have somehow failed. I know that’s not how she meant it, but I told her that for artists especially, sometimes our best work comes from difficult times. And sometimes our greatest revelations about self come in moments when we’re not even sure we like ourselves.

So feel no need to apologize if you are feeling temporarily down. You’re not “wallowing” if you sit with that sensation for a few days and try to figure out where you sense it in your body and what it stirs in your soul.

One of my coaches told me that week, “You’ve been doing a lot of soul searching these past few months. You’ve turned the soil, and maybe some hard things are coming up. But that just means you can see them now and have a chance to work on them.”

Yes, that is what it felt like. And here I am, still thinking about it. Still trying to figure out what it all meant. Still going deep.

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Of Poetry and Art That Dwells in Your Heart

The other day, I invited two poets, Veronica Patterson and Lisa Zimmerman, to speak to one of my writing groups. They talked about how poetry predates written language and how it’s in all of us. They pointed out that little kids speak naturally in metaphor. For example, when you ask them how something felt, they might say, “It felt like when my uncle ran over my skateboard.” And they talked about how many of us remember poems and nursery rhymes from as far back as childhood.

“We say we know them ‘by heart’” Lisa said. “Because that is where we keep our poems.”

I’ve been learning lately that the soul leads the heart, and the heart leads the mind, and the mind leads the body. When we are doing our soul work, we feel it in our hearts. And our minds and bodies engage to support our passion. There’s sometimes no reason to write poetry, or anything else, except that our souls demand it. And when we do the work we are meant to do, that passion goes out in the world and touches or teaches others.

As Veronica and Lisa were talking, I thought about one of the poems I’ve had memorized since my late teens. It’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29. I heard it first on a favorite TV show, Beauty and the Beast, and loved it so much I committed it to heart. I thought then, of course, it was a poem about romantic love. But the other evening, as I watched those two poets inspire everyone in the room, I realized I could dedicate that poem to my fellow writers. The ones who lift me up and keep me going when doubt and insecurity, frustration and envy set in. Poems, like all art, can mean just what we need them to mean right when we need them most.

So, here’s the sonnet. I dedicate it to all my friends who follow their art and all my friends who encourage others to follow theirs:

Sonnet 29

by William Shakespeare

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Finding Brilliance in Your Ordinary Life

I’ve been working on my branding and the messaging for my new website. In running through various exercises to arrive at what I do best, I realized there is a consistent theme in my life’s work. Everything I’ve done—from my books and other writings, to my speaking and presentations, to my community work and activism—has all had to do with celebrating the contributions of “ordinary” folks. Celebrating the brilliance inside us all. 

The people who inspired my books were often surprised when I asked to tell their stories. “Oh, you don’t want to write about me,” they’d say. “I just had an ordinary life.” To me, though, sketching wounded soldiers in their hospital beds or working in a war factory at age fourteen seemed far from ordinary. 

The people who have come to me for help writing and publishing their books have not been celebrities or CEOs. They’ve been retired teachers and engineers and young mothers with three children and teenage kids with big dreams. They’ve been ordinary people with something to say. Something they hope others will want to hear. And I’ve honored those hopes. 

I’ve been touched by the ordinary on a daily basis. I’ve learned the most in my life not from the sages and gurus, but from the passers-by who have shared with me their stories, from the schoolkids who have given me hugs, from the strangers who’ve written to tell me what my work has meant to them. 

So I decided to use the word “ordinary” in my branding and met immediate resistance from my writer friends. “No one wants to think of themselves as ordinary,” they told me. Really? Then why is it when celebrities are interviewed, they often say, “I just think of myself as an ordinary person”? In all the rush and chaos of their lives, they cling to the need to be just like everyone else. And why is it that people tell me all the time, “I don’t want to be rich or famous. I’m happy being my ordinary self.” 

The fact is, whether we are kings or commanders, saints or superstars, we are all, at our core, just ordinary people. We are all one. And we are all brilliant. Every one of us affects the lives of others, encourages greatness, shares our gifts. Every one of us raises the energy in this world when we laugh, love, pray, or create. Every one of us is here for a purpose, and no one is more important than anyone else. 

So today, be thankful for your ordinary life, as I am, and the bursts of brilliance that light it up.

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Where Work and Worry Meet

Today, a close member of our family had major surgery, and another had a minor procedure that concerned me a bit. It’s hard to focus on work when you’re worried. You tell yourself that everything will be fine and you must assume the best. You tell yourself you are “professional” enough to not let fear affect your work. After all, everything will likely be fine. 

You try to push all your concerns to the back of your mind and do your job, but you jump every time you get a text, and you think you hear the phone ring when it didn’t. You wonder if there’s something more you should be doing or saying. You wonder if you should prepare for the worst or if that’s jumping the gun. You remind yourself this is life. There are always going to be worries and distractions, and if you let them all get to you, you’ll never get anything done. You tell yourself not to be such a worry wart. 

And you go back to your desk and try, but your mind is foggy and your brain is tired and the focus just isn’t there. So, you give up and accept that it’s okay to fall behind sometimes. Some things are more important. And you sit with the worry and the fear and the emotions, because you know that this, too, is part of working and creating. 

I was listening to an interview with someone the other day (I think it was John A. Powell) and he said, “You can have suffering without love. But you can’t have love without suffering.” And that struck me in so many ways. Sure, we’d have more time for our work and better focus if we weren’t distracted by the people and things we care about. But would we have the heart to do the work we do? Would we have the empathy and compassion to make the connections we need to make? 

This past week I also had a major disappointment with my own writing. I sent a poem to a contest with the highest of hopes and tremendous confidence. This piece of writing had seemed divinely inspired, like it flowed through me. And it was something I’d longed to write about for decades. In the end, I not only didn’t place in the contest, I didn’t even make it onto the long list. And after twenty-six years of writing and submitting, all the old worries and insecurities came flooding back. “Maybe you’re just not good enough. Maybe you should give up writing and do something else. Great job, you once again misjudged what was ‘meant to be.’” It was discouraging to think after all these years, I have not grown beyond doubt and insecurity and the hurt of being rejected. 

And then I remembered, with love comes suffering. And I love what I do. I love writing. I dearly love that poem that didn’t make it. I love the fact that I wrote a poem at all. I love that I got to feel high on hope and creation for the time it was under consideration. 

Some weeks, everything goes our way. The good news comes in threes. The future looks bright. Other weeks, everything falls apart. Bad news comes in threes. The future looks dim. But through it all, our art is there. Love is there.

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Are You Ready to Be Vulnerable?

The other day, I was meeting with one of my women’s groups. We’re all getting to know each other really well, and one woman asked a pretty deep question. Another said, “Wow. You’re asking us to be pretty vulnerable.” And then we each answered, from the heart, and with faith that we would face no judgment. It was a magical evening for me, to be among women who could share so deeply and with such trust. 

The dictionary defines “vulnerable” as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” A vulnerable person, it says, is “in need of special care.” In this overly judgmental, critical, opinionated, outspoken culture we live in, it’s scarier than ever to show our true colors and speak our truths, and yet artists learn early on that our best work emerges when we turn ourselves inside out on the page or on the stage and let our audiences see what lies deep within us. 

This doesn’t mean we should air our dirty laundry or seek only to shock our audiences, but when we allow our emotions to show, expose our fears, acknowledge our regrets, and reveal what we’ve learned, we create what’s called “universal appeal,” which means our stories or songs or paintings are no longer just about us. They become something our audiences can relate to, even if their lives seem nothing like ours. 

I experienced this phenomenon again last night when I turned in an essay to my writer’s group that divulged many things I’d kept secret my whole life or told only to my husband or very close friends. I trust the members of this group, and the time had come for me to write these things out of my being, but in doing so, I’d leave myself vulnerable to their judgement, misunderstanding, or ridicule. I knew in this group of friends, that wouldn’t happen. But if they convinced me to publish the essay, I would be standing naked before strangers. I kind of hoped they’d say they hated it, and I could put it aside forever. 

But they liked it. And they related to it. And they felt themselves a part of it. And that’s the power of art. It takes our individual hopes and pains and says, “This is me. Is this you too?” And the answer is often a resounding yes. We are more alike than we are different. 

So be vulnerable. Tell us your stories. Share your shames. Admit your mistakes. Revel in your successes. Chances are we’ll be too busy thanking you for giving voice to our similar joys and sorrows to judge you. 

And for those who do judge, don’t judge them back. That path leads only to pain. Just remember, their judgment is their weight to carry, not yours. 

Here’s what I’m learning: if being vulnerable requires trust, the first person I need to trust is myself. Trust that we I am strong enough to stand in my truth. Are you?

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When Your Energy Rises, Time Expands

I get it now. Finally. It’s only taken me 50 years. People often say we must make time for ourselves, but I never really understood why. I mean, I kind of got it and sometimes I did it, but I’m a busy person. There are days I barely keep up with chores and work and other obligations. Who has time for hobbies or art?

But the fact is, there are many parts to ourselves. We feed our bodies, our intellects, our spiritual beings, but we neglect to feed our imaginations. There’s an artist inside all of us. Whether your art is writing or music or crafts or gardening or cooking, it is the space in which you express your creativity and originality and experience passion and joy. And what do those lead to? A rise in energy; energy we then take into our lives and work, enabling us to do much more and do it far better.

With a rise in energy, we become more awake, more at ease, more confident, and happier. It is, therefore, imperative to the success of our businesses, and the proper running of our households, and the good work we do in our communities that we take time to pursue our passions.

Sometimes it’s not even in pursuing our own art that we find that energy surge. It can also happen when we engage in more indirect ways; going to a movie, listening to a new CD, reading a book.

I remember the first time I saw Les Miserables. I was 21 years old and studying for a semester at West Chester University outside of Philadelphia. Some friends and I drove in to the city to see a traveling production. When we left the theater, we gathered in a tight circle on the sidewalk and held hands (guys and girls together) and literally jumped up and down. There was an energy running through each of our bodies that was just short of euphoria, and when we joined hands, it amplified. In that moment I thought, “If something as amazing as that show can exist in the world, we can do anything. We can change the world!” That’s how we felt, powerful, motivated, moved, and energized. I rode that wave for days as I struggled through my homework and classes. Anything seemed possible.

It is not decadent or selfish to pursue your art, it is necessary. Don’t do it just for yourself, but for the people you serve. Take a cold, hard look at the things that currently fill your time and figure out which of them could go to make more space for the things you love to do.

And then watch . . . as your energy level rises, you may find the time to do those things again, or you may find better, more creative, more original, more productive ways to move forward.

Trust that if you give time to your art, time itself will expand to enable you to do more of all the things that matter. Time and energy are linked, after all.

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How Self-Improvement Can Help Your Art and Business

I made a commitment at the end of last year to devote myself to self-improvement in 2018. By that I meant, learning to meditate; creating more space in my life for contemplation and introspection; finding more time to read and attend classes; releasing old grudges, negative thought patterns, and pressures I put on myself; and tapping more fully into intuition and the divine. So what have I discovered in the five months since I started this process? That self-improvement is a full-time job!

I’ve learned so much so far this year and found myself very often inspired, motivated, and much more at peace. I’m really liking my new self and my new life. But in this dedication to living “in the moment” and to creating space for quiet time, I’ve found that I’m not as productive in my work life as I once was.

I’m taking longer to respond to e-mails, falling behind on simple tasks, and feeling less inclined to launch new projects. I’ve even missed a few blog posts. But with my new focus on silencing my inner critic, I find I can’t beat myself up over those things anymore. That’s a good thing, I know, but I’m my own boss. So if I don’t kick my butt now and then regarding my work, who will? Guilt and shame were great motivators for me at one time.

But here is what I’m coming to believe, all this quiet time, all this contemplation is leading me much further into preparing for my future in better ways than the old five-year plan and spreadsheets filled with tasks. It’s causing me to finally get clear on what matters to me in my work; what I do best; what gives me energy; and how I can best serve. And with the absence of judgment, I’m finally, for the first time in years, starting to see where I actually want to go and how I can best use my gifts.

That doesn’t mean I can just skip out on my work life and sit in the sun all day. There are still bills to pay, commitments to fulfill, and good work to do. I have no intention of dropping any important balls, but I’m realizing that this work I’m doing on self is now also an important ball that deserves to be tossed into the mix and honored as well.

And when you get clear on what you want, things really do start to align. Turns out the old masters were right, the answers really are within us.

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Lessons from a Lullaby

I’m sure it’s safe to say that every culture across the globe has its own lullabies. And that mothers have been singing their children to sleep since the dawn of civilization. If your ancestors hail from a certain country or tribe, you may know the traditional lullabies. Or perhaps your mother made up her own songs. Or maybe she just hummed. But singing while rocking a child comes naturally.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that my three babies were choosy about their lullabies. I’d always assumed I would just sing the tried-and-true tunes I’d heard as a child, but when my son was born, he’d have none of those. In desperation, I started pulling all kinds of songs out of my memory banks, and guess which one he liked the best? A song I doubt many of you know, and even fewer of you can sing. It’s a wonder I can sing it. It’s called “I Still See Elisa,” and came from the movie musical Paint Your Wagon, which is anything but a kids’ show!  In the film, the song is sung (badly) by Clint Eastwood. He’s warbling about his lost love. And only to Elisa would my restless son settle down.

My oldest daughter was an easy baby from the moment she was born. She was perfectly happy just to hear me hum that old standard, “Brahms’ Lullaby.” But my younger daughter has always had a mind of her own. She tested and discarded every one of my ballads and ditties, until I finally resorted to a song I’d taught myself by rewinding a recording of a movie about Houdini. It’s called “Rosie, Sweet Rosabel,” and was written in 1893. Yes, the nineteenth century! Who knows, maybe my daughter had a previous life and remembered that tune in its heyday. But when I would sing Rosie, she would pop her thumb in her mouth and slowly close her eyes.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, that art is so subjective that even babies have their preferences? We are hardwired to love the things we do, and while parents, peers, and community can influence our choices, there is something deep inside us that just knows what we like when we hear it. Or see it or write it or experience it.

So love the art you love, with no apologies. If you’re an adult who likes to read comic books, do so on the subway. Own it. If you’re a twelve-year old who prefers Shakespeare, go ahead and quote it to your friends. If your kid loves rap, and you just can’t imagine why, let him listen to it. Don’t judge. Who knows, maybe someone someday will introduce you to a type of art you’d always assumed you’d hate, and you’ll find that you like it. Be open, be curious, be accepting. Art is for everyone. It knows no time or cultural boundaries. So make the art you love and engage with the art you love, and if your kid won’t sleep, try an old Queen song. You never know.

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It Is Safe to Stand in Your Power

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A few months ago I was chatting with my friend, Jean Marie DiGiovanna, who is a brilliant and successful speaker, but also happens to create unique jewelry on the side. I asked if she had any new pieces, and she directed me to her Etsy page. I went the next day and found a bracelet that took my breath away. It was brass and stamped with the expression, “It is safe to stand in your power.” That was a message I needed to hear. So I bought it.

Month’s later, I decided to call Jean and ask her about the bracelet. Why did she choose that saying? “You know,” she said, “I tend to create work that I personally need, and then I just trust that maybe someone else needs it too. I was heading into a new direction with my work and feeling a lack of confidence, and that phrase just came to me. ‘It is safe to stand in my power.’ So I made the bracelet for myself and then decided to sell a few too.”

And I’m so glad she did. It’s been on my wrist since the day it arrived. Wearing the same bracelet over and over is not something I typically do, but it is serving as a constant reminder for me right now to trust in my own power.

Jean’s comments about creativity are important too. While it’s true that sometimes we artists have to do projects we don’t want to do, it’s also true that most of our best work comes from a place of passion, excitement, joy, and release. Our greatest work usually stems from a bit of self-exploration. But this can feel self-indulgent at times. Who else gets to spend their day doing exactly what makes their heart soar? Well . . . hopefully everyone. I hope accountants love running those numbers and truckers love driving those long hauls and mail carriers enjoy stuffing those boxes. And if they don’t, I hope they find something else to do.

We need to trust, as Jean did, that when we follow our passion and look deep inside, we will create art that is authentic and inspiring. It may not resonate with everyone, but it doesn’t have to. It only has to speak to the people who need it most. And there will always be so many more of those people than you will ever know. Trust that too!

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