Everyday Artistry

Karen Rose and I were exchanging emails about the focus of the blog—she was reminding me that we promised not to give advice or promote any product.  I don’t want to promote a product, but I do tend to be preachy—it’s the teacher in me. Karen Rose stated that she wants to explore and support creativity and the arts. As I thought about her comments, I decided to make a list of everyone in my immediate circle and what artistic endeavor they might be engaged in—I even included grandchildren who by necessity should be mostly engaged in school.  Of about 21 people, 14 are engaged in some type of identifiable art. I included cooking, gardening, knitting, as well as the more obvious painting, writing, and making music.  That’s better than half, allowing for a convenience sample and the fact that any of those who aren’t observably engaged in art are perhaps doing something I don’t know about.  For example, my grandson, Henrik, a senior in high school, designs and collects shoes—is that art?

          Of those not obviously engaged in an artistic pursuit, does commitment to a sport or working towards an academic or career goal count as art? I didn’t interview my sample, and I also wonder what they might tell me if I did.  Perhaps they have an artistic interest that they would pursue if they “had more time.” At any rate, I’m led to conclude that Karen is onto something, the human draw towards artistry is quite strong. On the other hand, limiting my definition of art as something that manifests a product—a great meal, a lovely garden, a poem, a picture, etc., might miss the real artist in all of us.  As the cartoon at the top of this blog suggests, we are always creating our lives, and yes, sometimes our creative efforts go up in flames with lots of black smoke.  As Iris Dement so perfectly puts it:

          An’ my life, it’s tangled in wishes

And so many things that just never turned out right.

          As many times as I’ve heard this song, live on stage at the Guthrie for the first time, and on her CD many times after, I am stopped in my tracks by that line.  I think about all the things that “never turned out right.”  My perfect second marriage that was derailed by cancer.  My not so perfect first marriage that ended but left us with two marvelous offspring and many good memories. My ambitious career plans that never quite materialized. The fact that I told my children to never go into education, and they did, but they are doing work they value and love.  The essence of life is that we plan and plan, and then life does its thing.  There are numerous clichés about this Truth. I won’t recite them here.

What keeps us going in the face of setbacks, though, is that we always have a chance to create something new from that which never turned out right. The way in which love can prevail in spite of the mishaps of life. I am calling this Everyday Artistry.  It takes immense creativity to live.  One thing I loved about being a teacher was that I was always problem solving on my feet.  Well, I maintain we mostly live that way, too.  Some of our plans work out nicely, but mostly there are perturbations, and we work out ways to adjust. 

So how does all this inform a blog about retirement and aging?  Well, for me it means nostalgia might feel good, but moving forward and creating is essential to living.  And there’s an opportunity for artistry in everything we do.  Finding a new sport when you can no longer run; playing pickle ball instead of tennis; learning rosemaling although you’ve never been “artistic,” trying new recipes based on new knowledge of nutrition, sitting on a chair when you garden because your back can’t take it. Finding ways to show love when it seems like it’s left the room.  Some new acts are adjustments and some are exploration. It doesn’t matter, that’s what Everyday Artistry is all about and we never lose the chance to practice it.

And. . .

Karen Rose reminded me that some of us love the charred marshmallow—me included—with its middle that isn’t quite melted all the way through—the marshmallow that goes up in flames.  I say, put another one on the stick and try again. It’s all artistry.

“I’m 64, Should I Give Up Trying To Be Successful?”

Believe it or not, this is a real question, posted to the Quora feed.  What followed in a response was a post by a young woman about her father.  The upshot of her comments was:

He taught me that you can always succeed if you believe you’ll succeed.

So believe in yourself. I know that’s cheesy, but I’m currently in class with a 74-year-old woman who’s getting her psychology degree after being a housewife for 45 years. My dad was five years from retirement, and then worked an entry level job. People start over at all stages of life. If they can be a success after so long, then anyone can.

This was apparently a hit with the readers, garnering 2,700 likes and 64 shares when it appeared in my inbox.  But, if you read through the heartwarming story, her father “started over” when he was 50.  Life looks different at 64.  Or 74.  

But back to the question:  What does it mean “to be successful” much less “giving up” on trying to be successful? 

“To be, or not to be?  There is consensus that Hamlet is talking about enduring the pain of his life versus the calm of death.  But (for me) “being” is more than merely “living” and one of our biggest jobs in moving from living to being is to consider success more deeply.  I like to use the Tarot to understand this work – and to remind myself of the stories that I want to tell myself and others.

Juggling with Joy in Early Adulthood — When I was in my 30s, what I wanted most from my life was to experience my young children’s development and maintain a modest professional profile (which meant a job doing something that I liked).  In other words, success was measured primarily by short-term joyfulness and maintaining a do-able balance between family and work.  It was all about balance….and dancing a little while doing it.

Fast-Forward to My Mid-Forties: Craftsmanship…The kids’ needs were less immediate and they were busy with friends and school.  I, on the other hand, was experiencing external “success” at work, with increased ego-stroking responsibilities and annual reviews that placed me among the “exceeds expectations” group in all of the areas associated with being an academic (the three-legged stool of teaching-research-service).  I focused on skill and artisanship at work.  At the same time, my life was not in balance.  I traveled a lot, focused on my own learning, and believed (incorrectly) that my family needed me (or even wanted me) less.  Without thinking too much about it, these external markers increased in importance over the next decade.  While the focus on skillful work resulted in lots of tokens to hand on the walls of my office, this card does not exude joyfulness….


A Slow Crush..My success contained the seeds of failure. While busily crafting at work, I gradually became accustomed to before-and-during dinner drinks, which allowed me to relax and avoid thinking about my marriage or the daily challenges of parenting teenagers.  Work was challenging but manageable, but not the emotions and preferences of other human beings.  I managed to hold on to the external trappings of success but lost personal direction and Shakespeare’s “not to be” became an increasingly attractive option.

One of the consequences of depression is a generalized sense of meaninglessness — what better a definition of being unsuccessful?  I looked OK on the outside, but the image captures the way life felt on the inside.

Comfort and a Different Success? Twenty years later, my life had changed radically again, with a new (and peaceful) marriage, a position within my work as an “elder stateswoman” whose job was to nurture the development of others, and grandchildren.  This Tarot card represents the abundant fruition of success and a life finally almost back in balance.  I think that in this image I am both the older person on the left and the woman on the right, in conversation (with a student? My husband?).  Bridget, my oldest grandchild, is tugging on my dress, while beloved dogs wait to be petted.  Who could ask for more in this life?

This redemptive card is part of the story of dancing while juggling, honing a craft, and ignoring relationships and self.  But, in my mid-60s, much life remained. 

Becoming New Again? So success (or failure) has meant very different things to me over the last 40 years.  Of course I cannot know what further success might look like – it is easy to tell a story after the fact, but predicting anything is a challenge.  And rather than hoping for “success” I have to keep reminding myself that I am likely to find a gift if I am willing to accept the mystery and not try to force the future. 

To return to the Quora post, what appealed to me about the story that the young woman told was not that her father founded a successful business in his 50s.  Rather, it was that he was willing to take a risk:

He said ‘I don’t think I can make this work anymore. I might have a chance if we move….Within a month, we left New York and drove 16 hours down to Georgia.

I am not sure where I will find my psychological or physical equivalent of Moving-to-Georgia.  But, I hope that I will wake up one day, and have a similar insight.  And be willing to act on it – with abandon and “wise innocence”, like my favorite Tarot card. 

The Fool has found something lasting – a “successful” understanding of joy that emerges from deep inside, seemingly for no reason at all. But he is also embracing adventure — more than willing to take a new risk.