22 December 2006

A Good Story, Well Told

I have been reflecting for several months on the art of storytelling lately in both my working and private lives.

In my work, I have been helping to educate my volunteers about historic interpretation as good storytelling. Visitors to our museum do not want to be lectured. They come to learn something about the past to which they can relate to themselves or, at least to which they can compare themselves. They want to feel like they are part of the events that lead young, wealthy men to rebel against their government to form a self-government--a risk not many today in my country would be willing to take, I venture to guess. Or, they want to learn about the domestic life of a colonial gentry household that included slaves and indentured servants. Or, how a gentlewoman entertained her many guests in her fine house.

Often visitors get an interpreter who is enthusiastic about the detailed minutia of history. This is the person who loves telling all the little memories or all of the information collected on a topic over a lifetime of enthusiasm. Not all of the stories are true, but they often sound extremely appealing. It's wonderful to love history and all of its detail. I certainly do. Yet, I also want my interpreters to know the facts. The average visitor is not the connoisseur of historical minutia that the typical interpreter is. They begin to glaze over if you don't capture their imagination right from the beginning of the tour.

The writer and creativity coach, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, puts the importance of storytelling versus rambling or lecturing very succinctly:

An account of a series of events is not a story. A series of
sounds or musical phrases is not a composition. Bits of color or shape, a
string of images or random textures, do not make a piece of art. . . And I
wonder what happened to the editing process, the process by which the raw
material of stories--the words that are chosen, the real or imagined events that
are described, the sensory details of inner responses and outer settings--are
shaped and reshaped until they become something whole and complete."

--What We Ache For: Creativity and the Unfolding of Your Soul, 2005

The editing process is a vital part of storytelling. Without placing emphasis on a critical moment or object or emotion, the listener is lost in what I call the "laundry list" of factoids. It's information overload and their brain has shut down. I don't think history should be taught like peas are fed to children, "because it's good for you." I think that history is storytelling and that the story must be enjoyable and comprehensible to the listener.

The challenge for the interpreter is to assess his or her audience before the story is even begun. There are tales of bards from the Middle Ages who could enter a room and capture an audience with a sweeping gesture and nod towards the crowd. The Bard would calculate timing, cadence, tone of voice, and dramatic movement to propel the story forward and to keep the audience members on the edge of their seats, desperate to hear what happens next.

When I was a pre-teen I went each summer to a camp in the wooded hills of Kentucky. Some of my best friends from my town and neighborhood also went to this camp, but once we were there our lives were filled with new challenges and activities distant from any we did at home.

One of my favorite aspects of this camp was the evening campfires where we watched the sun and our daily life set as the embers of the bonfire began to spark. We sang songs familiar to our teenage counselors--who were children of the late Sixties and taught us folk songs and lighter protest anthems, Scouting songs and even older English or Celtic-inspired ballads. The air temperature grew cold, sometimes the wind picked up and I can still recall the scary tale of Wolf Pen and the native spirits who one of our counselors said inhabited the barren rockscape only three miles hike from where we sat. Storytelling as song and as legend fed my imagination. I think my love of folk music and of being scared by spooky tales comes from these nights in the Kentucky hills.

Later as a graduate student I researched the concept of initiation in West and Central Africa for a paper in an African Art class. It told of the way that pre-teens--girls as well as boys--of a certain age were prepared for adulthood by their separation from their village in a place distant from their homes and families. There they learned--girls with their Elder Ladies or boys with their Elder Menfolk--skills to prepare them for adult lives as women and men. The adults also told them the stories of their people--the mythology, belief-system, and fables that encourage good, proper behavior or quick decision-making. The African stories of the animals and of the Gods become embedded in the young person's mind. For these African pre-teenagers, storytelling and mythology was (is still, in some cases) there to guide them in their daily lives as they approach adulthood. History, mythology and all of the little tales we tell each other and ourselves are somehow an essential part of being human, for all cultures utilize this method of presenting information to each other.

Storytelling is an art that I love to practice especially in the dark months of the year. The wintertime seems the best time to share tales and legends. The darkness feeds the imagination. Creatures can grow. Heroes become larger-than-life. The air holds a sense of mystery and invites you to journey into the Unknown. It's not unlike the dim setting of a movie theater, where moving pictures fuel our desires or nightmares. Even in the summer, the best storytime is after dark. There is something powerful about the memory of sitting round the campfire on sultry June nights that haunts me to this day.

We all have stories to share. Our lives unfold like stories. What is your favorite story?

08 October 2006

La llamada (The Call)

The surrealist Remedios Varo painted a fascinating canvas entitled La llamada (translated most often as The Call), literally meaning "The One Who is Called" in 1961. [You can see this and a number of other images by this artist here.] In the image, a woman glowing with red-orange aura walks down a tight alley surrounded by mysterious figures of men and women whose bodies are attached to the walls of this cramped, urban canyon. Some of these citizens have closed eyes and some look sleepy others are oblivious to the progress of Varo's woman who accepts The Call. The protagonist's fiery hair spirals upward towards a planet which hovers in the night sky like an omniscient Creator. Varo was a dedicated surrealist (with a lower case "s") who never subscribed to the subservient roles assigned her gender by the French Surrealist men. Her works speak of the power women hold as creators and as dreamers, subverting the misogynist message of her male counterparts on the European Continent with whose paintings and philosophies she was well familiar.

My comments on Varo's painting, La llamada, come as the result of a conversations had with two friends yesterday when we were driving through Maryland's Eastern Shore on the way to a festival. That painting burst into my mind as we spoke about the various gifts, talents and skills we have and of how we find the condition of contemporary women's lives difficult (acknowledging that men's roles are also difficult too). So many women like ourselves struggle to be healthy, to find meaning, to nurture creativity in ourselves and in those around us. Instead we find ourselves overworked, underpaid and feeling very unwell and incapable of helping others. Or worse, we give all of our energy to working for others at the expense of our freedom and sense of well-being.

I do believe that our lot is easier than the women of the mid-twentieth century whose struggle to fight for better jobs, better pay and to tamp down on sexual-bias in all areas of live is to be applauded and honored. Here we are, however, in the year 2006 still struggling to fight fires of this nature on a smaller scale: on the home front. Women are indeed an integral part of the modern workplace, yet now the pendulum has swung over to the point where trying to find time to tend to your domestic family life or personal life has become precious. Gone are the days of Mrs. Cleaver housewives only to be replaced by frantic women who have little time to take care of their own health, their loved one's needs, and their own pursuit of happiness.

The three of us conversing in the car concluded that the best way to find a balance between work and home life is to find a job that requires the minimum sacrifice of personal life while providing enough pay to support you, so that the rest of your time can include the activities that make you feel alive and healthy such as spending time with family and friends, supporting those around you in need, and attending to the inner voices of creativity and play.

Remedios Varo was a woman who understood the need for creativity and play. She might be a poster child for the life author Virginia Woolf outlined in the famous essay, "A Room of One's One." Varo was born in Spain at the beginning of the 20th century (1908) and was fortunate to have a good education thanks to her father, a hydraulic engineer. As an adult, her life-course was altered by war: she fled to Paris during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and fled the Nazi's assault on Paris to find refuge in Mexico in the 1940s. Surrealist painters in Europe influenced her style, but like the other great Mexican artist of her day, Frida Kahlo, Varo forged a new and personal language from the methods observed in Salvador Dali and his crowd.

Varo was not only a painter who achieved a measure of success in her own lifetime, but also one with a complicated life lived in pursuit of freedom and sense of well-being. She married at age 22 to another painter, but the marriage failed. She had an abortion as a young woman (a choice likely made from hardship due to her unfortunate economic circumstances during the pregnancy) and was thereafter unable to have children. She loved several men and at least one woman, fellow artist Lenora Carrington.

She painted and wrote about the intersection of magic and mysticism with science and technology--in a surrealist style, that to my mind, demonstrates perfect understanding the the contradictions of the era in which she lived. Her paintings most often focus on a central female character. She places her women in a variety of roles: The Traveler, The Musician, The Scientist, The Temptress, etc. Then there are the floating figures of men and women who surround her; they are The Masses, The Crowd, The Unbelievers, The Judges, The Critics. Given the independence of Varo's life, it's not so surprising that these themes emerge. These images are fantasy, but they are allegories for the circumstances the artist herself, and probably her friends too, faced.

La llamada, or The Call, is about a woman who walks without fear down the path of her own choosing because she is called to do so by a Higher Power. That disembodied Voice may come from within her or from the Universe at large, or from Deity, but it is a call that may not be denied. Her path is guarded by the throngs of people who don't hear this voice and who don't even notice her, yet she glides forward on unafraid. Varo was in her fifties when she was working on this painting; she was at the height of her power as a visual storyteller.

I find this painting a comfort whenever I am confronted with critics who don't understand my personal mission in life or the type of life I have chosen to lead. I think of how Varo understood that our hold on the goal is tenuous, that responding to The Call is not a choice everyone could be brave enough to make. But once you have begun to live a life more in balance and listen to the (inner or outer) Voice, you are compelled forward carrying your precious objects, just as Varo's Woman carries symbols of alchemy and of precious liquids. Taking The Call, accepting it, is a risk and one that many people, like the figures affixed to the city walls in Varo's painting, will refuse to hear. Finding one's calling--and for many people today that might mean finding balance--is risky, but there are rewards for success in this journey. The powerful glow of success in Varo's Woman shows that she is gaining and even spreading her light, her energy into the world. She is the candle that spreads light into the corners of her world.

Creativity illuminates if only you will accept The Call.

20 September 2006




Main Entry: ath·lete
Pronunciation: 'ath-"lEt, ÷'a-th&-"lEt
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin athleta, from Greek athlEtEs, from athlein to contend for a prize, from athlon prize, contest
: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina

For the first time in my life, I am finding an enthusiasm for athletics. I stop to think about why I never liked sports as a child and recall unpleasant moments of being the last kid picked for any team sport and of gym teachers with whistles around their necks yelling at me to do better, try harder. I was never good enough. I was never an athlete. I hated my body as a teenager and grew very fat and very, very depressed.

Not all of my early experiences with sports were unhappy ones. I loved swimming in the pool and learning yoga with a very patient instructor at the local YMCA. I can even remember having fun in gym class during kindergarden and first grade. But after lower elementary school, I suddenly felt inferior based upon my inability to run fast enough, kick or hit the ball well enough, play rough enough to keep up with the neighborhood gang and the kids at school. I wasn't competitive enough. At a certain point, I never even tried anymore. I did the minimum in gym and didn't play on any sports teams until one summer during high school when my best friend's mother found us a softball league which was less high-stakes competition in the town just one over from ours. We played as well as we could. Sometimes we won, and sometimes we lost. I enjoyed playing shortstop, but I wasn't a great hitter. It didn't matter.

But none of the physical activities I did really caught on with me except hiking in the outdoors. I wanted to be in wilderness, away from suburbs and away from the traffic and people. The problem was I wasn't able to go hiking often enough for it to be sufficient exercise. I had a poor diet at school, where I couldn't stand the food and so loaded up on sugar and starches. I didn't much like the healthy foods my mom fixed, but I made my best effort for her sake and snacked heavily in between meals.

That seems like so long ago. In fact it was half my life ago: 18 years. Today I don't even recognize my body when I glimpse myself in the mirror. It's like another person has grown in my place. It's been a five-year struggle, but finally I've managed to become a healthier, happier body as a result of learning how to exercise with weights and machines properly and of experimenting until I've finally found physical activities that I can love, not merely do competently. It helped to have a partner who was not only encouraging, but who actually took the time to show me how to safely use weights and machines and to demonstrate proper stretches.

After I made progress with the weights, abdominal stretches and such, I realized that I wanted to be athletic without the activity being so boring. Last year I began taking yoga after a 30-year hiatus. I actually remembered some of the poses and taking the class dredged up old memories of the young man who taught this YMCA class of five- and six-year olds about forming the poses of animals and trees (Hatha Yoga). I also remembered how much I loved the relaxation at the end, where he would have us imagine a glowing ball of blue light. This man must have been the Pied Piper, or how in the world did he get a class of bouncy preschoolers to lie down and relax?

My latest daring adventure into the world of sports is kayaking. My husband and I have gone out on at least one short kayaking paddle since the beginning of August. We began on our vacation in Central Coast California and have taken weekend trips to local rivers and creeks every weekend since our return. We took a half-day lesson in sea kayaking in Monterey Bay, and recently decided to go for the full one-day basics course. It's now that my muscles are looking toned and I'm beginning to sculpt myself into a real athlete for the first time. I can hardly believe it, but I'm falling in love with this sport. It allows my husband and I to spend time together, while combining our love of the outdoors with the enjoyment of freely moving through the water.

I think the noun "recreation" is a very appropriate word to summarize my feelings about this process. I am re-creating myself and relieving many of the angry feelings I had toward my body. The mind-body connection is so powerful that I feel like I am becoming a whole new "Me."

09 September 2006

Ecological Nostalgia

Ecology was a catchword at the time I was growing up in suburbia. It was the 1970s and all of the teachers were talking about recycling, backyard science, and saving the planet. I did school projects on solar power and learned to identify different types of rocks and minerals. In the summer my Mom gave me general science books like Linda Allison's The Reasons for Seasons, where I learned to think about the Earth as one of many planets moving through space. I could do my own experiments with light bulbs or house plants. Some of the more "way out" teachers even talked about Gaia--the idea that the Earth was a living organism. It was the time of the great gasoline crunch, with cars lined up around the block just to refuel. The anti-pollution ad campaign featuring Chief Iron Eyes Cody made me hate litter.

Is it any wonder that with such an upbringing I was drawn to such deep concern for the environment?

While I discarded my dream of becoming a geologist when I learned that my high school math scores were nowhere-near in the ballpark for getting into a decent college program, I have an abiding need to study and preserve nature.

I wonder where the enthusiasm about environmentalism, so vital in the 1960s and 1970s, has gone. The baby boomers still talk about it as they drive around the gas-gorging SUVs and sip their Starbucks from paper cups. The child in me sometimes feels a bit betrayed that all of those people who cared so much about the Earth have long forgotten what they taught me. The adult in me knows only too well that human nature is what it is. People talk, but they often don't listen--even to themselves.

How to keep that ecological sense alive is the problem I'm turning over in my brain today. How would I teach a generation of kids who only know iPods and downloads to unplug themselves long enough to sit embraced in the roots of a tree or notice the salty smell of the marshes on a summer's day? Sometimes I think the people around me rely so much on technology and on an environment created solely by humans that they forgotten about the real environment. The Earth is the only environment we have. If it goes, no technology will save us.

I'm as fascinated by technology as much as anyone, I suppose. I'm sure that many things I do are harmful to the planet's health. But I often stop to think about what life was like before all of the networking capabilities made it possible to easily shut out the Nature in our lives or to simply pollute without thinking about any cause and effect. It's the lack of consciousness that concerns me most. You can't realize you are doing harm if you are oblivious.

Maybe my problem is that I happened to be naive enough to believe what my teachers taught me in elementary school, even if they didn't believe it themselves.

28 August 2006

Thoughts on Workplace Sustainability

My sister-in-law is involved in a project to help her company become a sustainable workplace. This seems to be the new trend in the business world: the concept that a working environment should encourage good environmental practices; should support employees so that their talents can be valuable to a company for a long time; and should solicit ideas from employees to maintain a more efficient and comfortable environment where they can be more productive and more satisfied. We talked about her project over lunch and I gave her my two-cents on why I think workplace sustainability is a good thing.

As a historian, I take the long view on the sustainability concept. In agriculture-centered societies (ones in the past, such as pre-industrial Europe and also ones in some developing countries today), it is often necessary for community survival and success for everyone in the community work in sustainable ways. Of course some agrarian communities aren't sustainable, but for the ones that are it makes sense that having a high turn-over rate of workers or depleting local resources is very poor policy if you desire the long-term stability.

I found one article on the workplace stability concept on the website of American Institute of Architects. I once worked in a building that had a high degree of people getting cancer due to poor ventilation. The building was overhauled while I was there, but it was alarming to hear stories about all of the past employees who had died of cancer and the current cancer rate was high. I was actually a representative on the committee that was lobbying the management for correcting the "sick building" issue. Even if a building's environment is not that bad, there are still many offices that have poor environmental systems or run through vast amount of waste in a year.

A quick Google search on the topic revealed that Australia seems very progressive about workplace sustainability. But given Australia's isolated location and finite resources it doesn't surprise me that they are ahead of the U.S. They seem to have university programs centered around the concept. Some of the E.U. countries seem also very keen on the idea to a lesser degree. I'm encouraged to learn that the international company where my sister-in-law works [I leave out the name intentionally] is actually exploring the sustainability concept. I have been avoiding the corporate sector in my choice of career and choice of lifestyle, but inevitably in a large consumer culture like mine the culture of corporations has a huge impact on my life--on everyone's life, too, unless they go off and live in cave somewhere.

Do you have any experience with or thoughts on workplace sustainability? Leave a comment.

18 August 2006

Mind Maps and Collages of Thoughts

I'm taking a correspondence course and the current exercise involves creating a mind map of a particular topic, my thoughts about "the earth." Mind-mapping is a method of focused brainstorming that appeals to my right-brained, intuitive brand of logic. It's my way of getting beyond the ease of thinking in a linear fashion. Mind-mapping allows my mind to meander in directions I probably wouldn't go if I was just making a list. The technique makes me realize there are powerful connections which interlace my thoughts.

I learned the term "brainstorming" from the teachers who conducted a gifted and talented class for third- through sixth-graders in my public school system. As a third-grader I thought of brainstorming as a peculiar metaphor. The idea that storm is going on inside your head (at a time in my life when I had few responsibilities or hardships) seemed amusing. I played with the concept and honed my skills to the point where I hardly do any project these days without using some form of brainstorming. It has become second nature to make lists of ideas, to compose rough outlines for an article, or to ask a group to call out ideas before making decisions about the project at hand. I am employing this bag of tricks even before I realize consciously that I'm brainstorming.

Some of the brainstorming techniques I learned back in elementary school tend to emphasize linear patterns of thought. Linear thinking is not all bad, but more recently I've needed a method to push the limits of my mental box when confronting a problem. When you make a list, it's easy to discount "weird" ideas that don't seem to belong with the other concepts or judge them unfairly. Mind-mapping, on the other hand, allows for more possibilities and multiple pathways to connect individual thoughts.

There seems to be a host of mind-mapping software on the market, but I have never seen or used any of these products. For me, colored pencils or markers and the physical act of drawing out the connections makes the most sense to me. Yet, words are not the only way to make a mind map.

Some of the very first mind maps I created were made as collages--pasted bits of newsprint or magazine pictures laid out and then glued to a page. I remember doing a very powerful mind-map about my personality for an assignment in 9th grade psychology class. I know it surprised (alarmed?!) my teacher with the sophistication of its themes--very unlike what most of the girls in my class did with their pictures of clothing, hairdressing appliances, favorite bands and movie stars. I wanted to ask my teacher, "What do you expect? I grew up in a household of artists!" My "personality" collage had landscapes. Images of fire and of ice stood beside exotic foreign countries I read about and wanted to visit. And, yes, a picture of my favorite band, too. It really stood out when taped up on the blackboard beside all of the others.

I have used collage to make other mind maps over the years, to the point where the combination of language and image speak in complex metaphors to me. Collage is a medium which many people find easy to learn. I've taught collage to a number of different age groups and found that people take to it because they are well-versed at assigning meaning to images, perhaps more than with words. In the western world's culture of over-stimulated vision, the images of our printed media are icons of consumerism. People find the images that make sense for them instinctively, like when they find something they want in a store at the mall. It's fascinating to see what images draw and speak to us through random collage.

I wonder if any of the authors on mind-mapping have ever considered collage as a technique akin to their own. I suspect that the Cubist artists of the 1900s and Pop artists of the 1960s would have likely seen their works as "mind maps" if such a term was known to them. Perhaps, the Surrealists of the 1920s would have appreciated such an approach even more. Many of the Surrealists held that no thought could be an accident. That the mind always understood the interconnectivity of thought at some primordial level.

02 March 2006

On building community

This week I'm headed into the homestretch of planning for a retreat to be held in the woods of Adelphi, Maryland, in a sanctuary I have always found inviting and friendly from the bright summer day I first walked up to the building in 1998. When I came there, I was a struggling student who felt out of place and who didn't have many friends beyond my life in the Ivory Tower of Academe. I was on a quest for something that I could not describe on that day, but I soon discovered what I most needed was a place to belong, a sense of community.

Now, eight years later, I am bringing the women of the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church congregation together for a retreat-in-place this coming Saturday. I have to laugh and remark how much trouble it is possible to get into by being in a conversation with a number of friends and beginning a sentence with, "You know, I've been wanting to . . ." In my case, I said that "I've been wanting to facilitate a retreat about creativity" and the friends are members of this church. From that conversation late last fall, the fleeting idea has grown into solid reality. One of the main purposes of our retreat is to strengthen community among the women of this church and our guests, and in some ways this has already happened before the retreat has even begun.

It seems to me that women are often naturals at community-building. We can become friends over a snag in one's stocking at a fancy party or in the checkout line at a supermarket. It seems an outgrowth of the roles we play as caregivers to family and friends that we create bonds and bring groups closer together. Not all women are like that, of course, but I view it as a quality I've observed in many women around me. I've witnessed how they focus their energy upon and many make it an important part of their life's work.

It's odd for me to see myself in the role of retreat facilitator when I really reflect about my past. I was a loner as a child. I always felt like I stood apart and didn't want to play the games by my friend's rules. I was a bit of a Tomboy and didn't like the make-up, cute-boy talk and other subjects that seemed to be endlessly fascinating to the neighborhood girls. When I got old enough to leave home for longer periods, I found teen friends more like me who liked to escape to "Downtown" by bus and explore cultures and flavors not found in our insular (and we thought, often narrow-minded) suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. I thought I would never really fit in as a teenager, and actually relished the idea that I would be a wanderer of the world. I arranged my life so that I could leave the country immediately after high school on scholarship to a collage in England and planned to never settle down. At that time, I would have been hard-pressed to say that I would even choose to marry someone or live in the same state for more than a decade.

Yet, it's strange how the protestations of youth often make 360-degree turns. Not ten years after I left for college I found myself in my sixth year of graduate school in Maryland and wondering just who I was. My life had changed so dramatically, my teenage fantasies were no longer able to hold up to the life I had created for myself.

Slowly over the course of the years I attended graduate school I learned that there were communities of people who hold the values I believe in. There are people who enjoy the quirky culture and intellectual bantering on literature, film, art and international news as I do. And when I met a group of people who attended this wonderful, wooden sanctuary nestled back into a grove of trees along a stream, I found a kind of home. This place became a home like one I hadn't known since childhood, since the world and responsibilities had intruded upon my sense of peace and upon my boundaries. Most of the feeling of belonging came not only from the building itself and from its natural setting, but even more from the people who inhabit it and who make it their spiritual home.

So this weekend I return there, and in a way this retreat is very much a homecoming. I have been able to attend services again and feel a part as we have planned the retreat. Although my life has moved in different directions, and I am no longer a member there, I feel a jubilation in the reunion. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to give something back to this group of people who gave me support in a critical time in my life.

The theme of our retreat is Spring Clearing: Honoring Transistions, Restoring Creativity.

To me it's especially poignant that the women of this church are asking me to help them with this particular task because it is within this community that my skills as a facilitator and leader of spiritual groups blossomed. My participation enables me to fulfill a dream I've had in just the past few years of bringing people together to inspire greater creativity. And now the time is right for me to answer this calling. My tasks were made all the more easy for me by the professional experience I now have as an educator and as an events planner. So the spiritual and the practical roles I play are now nourishing and sustaining each other. It brings me a great feeling of accomplishment. I feel honored and a bit humbled by it all.

22 February 2006

Life in the Jungle

Two photos by Runningwave from her vacation in Costa Rica, February 2006.

From: Webster.com

Main Entry: jun·gle

Pronunciation: 'j&[ng]-g&l

Function: noun

Usage: often attributive

Etymology: Hindi jangal forest, from Sanskrit jangala desert region

1 a : an impenetrable thicket or tangled mass of tropical vegetation b : a tract overgrown with thickets or masses of vegetation
2 : a hobo camp
3 a (1) : a confused or disordered mass of objects : JUMBLE (2) : something that baffles or frustrates by its tangled or complex character : MAZE b : a place of ruthless struggle for survival

Jungle is a word that has very specific connotations to people who grew up in the Western countries of North America and Europe. Jungle is often something "other" to the world we use to describe our orderly, clockwork society: civilization. I find it interesting that Webster's Dictionary list the etymology of the word from Hindu simply meaning "forest." For indeed when I encountered "the jungle" for the first time twelve days ago in Costa Rica, I found it to be simply that: a forest. A tropical rain forest to be precise, yes, but "the jungle" doesn't look all that different up close as some of the forests of my home country. Different and more diverse plants, certainly. Animals of every size and description that were new to me, absolutely. But I wonder if monkeys howling or barking in the trees seem as wild to a Costa Rican native as it did to me? (See the photos of Capuchin and Howler Monkeys I took on the trip above.) Afteall, I have actually seen tourists oo-and-aaah at and then photograph deer in National Parks in the U.S., where I don't view deer as "wildlife" any more since they are so common in Maryland suburbs like squirrels or raccoons.

So the jungle is a bit less mystifying for me now than it once was. In my childhood, I love reading stories about jungles in India and other parts of southeast Asia and in the Americas. I enjoyed Rudyard Kipling's tales and dreamed of becoming an intrepid explorer. One of my favorite stories in English class was Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game," about a big game hunter who becomes the hunted. I reveled in film versions of H. Rider Haggard novels like She and King Solomon's Mines and cinematic and literary images of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World.

While on my vacation to the rain forests of Costa Rica, I took along a wonderful book entitled Latitude Zero: Tales of the Equator by Gianni Guadalupi. The book divides the narratives of equatorial exploration and conquest by "temperate zone" Westerners by continent and relates the successful and disastrous adventures of explorers from the 15th century through to the Victorians and Edwardians. This reading helped me to frame my own travel with the fantasies I have always had about exploring the unknown. I found myself intrigued and amazed by what the explorers encountered and saddened by the terrible costs in human life and in deforestation that often occurred while these places were forcibly opened to the West.

Yet there is something cathartic about separating the childhood dreams and dark illusions of youth from the real, living and breathing tropics. For me, the treks we made into the jungle opened my mind to the tremendous fertility of the planet, if only we will preserve what's left of these wild spaces. Spending ten days fording rivers; powerboating down canals; elevating ourselves into the forest canopy on a sling; whitewater rafting; and hiking in different microclimates brought us to places where we could encounter all sorts of animals that I found exciting and unusual: from macaws, to lizards, to orb weaver spiders, to troops of coatis (rain forest raccoons), to an anteater, to sloths and to monkeys.

We were able to fly over mountains in small planes to get from the capital of San Jose to the isolated National Parks on the Pacific and Caribbeann coasts and to drive through the mountainous central areas of this tiny tropical nation. Small it may be in land mass but, oh, how much of the wilderness is left in this beautiful country since some Costa Ricans had the foresight to protect what natural resources remain beginning in the 1970s.

I am still not a great fan of the combination of heat and humidity impacting on climate (cool, dry weather for me, when I can get it!), but I am so glad I bore the weather to take this trip, opening up a whole new world for me. I don't think I will ever understand the word jungle in quite the same way.

08 February 2006

Into the Unknown: Risk and Creativity

This week’s post is dedicated to Explorers. Explorers are people who willingly go into the unknown to face whatever the Universe sends them.

As a historian by training, I have had many opportunities to ponder what it would be like to travel into the unknown. Some explorers travel into the unknown on a physical level. The great sailors of the eighteenth-century were such men and women. They had already mapped much of the globe, but did not have the technology to predict storms weeks in advance nor did they know how animals or indigenous peoples would react to their arrival on distant shores. In that world intrepid men like Captain Cook did not always make it home alive.

Other explorers travel into the unknown on a mental plane. I am thinking this time of scholars, scientists and artists, who use their imagination to take them to breakthroughs in their understanding of their field. Those who know me well, know that I spent years researching the experiments of modern artists and designers who found beauty in abstract art of the past and of other cultures and adapted it for their own purposes. I am recalling the image of the 1905 Autumn Salon in France when the Fauves first unleashed their wild colors and violent brushstrokes on an unprepared public. Now I walk down the street of any major city in the U.S.A. or Europe and could see a Fauvist poster hanging in a shop or café and think it unremarkable. But the Fauves caused riots in their day because they broke the boundaries of convention and leaped into a style that transgressed what that culture believed to be “normal.” What a difference one hundred years makes!

Of course, there is another level of journeying into the unknown. It is one that I have been introduced to over the years, but not a type of journeying that I find easy or comfortable yet. I refer to spiritual exploration, where a traveler journeys inward to a place beyond the physical and mental planes to a place that is exists only in the present. I am learning Yoga practice again after a thirty-year lapse from my introduction to it as a young child. My life is very busy and I often feel so over-stimulated by thoughts, sights and sounds of the modern world that I find meditation very difficult. I find slowing down difficult. It may take me many years to become comfortable with journeying inward into transcendence and, perhaps, I will never achieve being fully in the present, but I continue to learn about what others have done in their spiritual practices to find that place.

All three types of encountering the unknown that I have mentioned: physical, mental and spiritual, involve one key factor—risk. And risk is the point at which you decide if your creativity will help you to survive. I think that a healthy person needs some element of risk in her or his life, in order to maintain their “creative muscles,” just as athletes need to use their muscles or fail to improve their skills.

My husband and I are leaving this week to travel by plane to the Central American country of Costa Rica. A professional outfitter with an international reputation and bilingual guides will be taking us to several of the national parks across the country. Costa Rica touches both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and features diverse wildlife and many different ecosystems and climate zones. I am trying very hard not to create expectations in my mind of what I will encounter. I want very much to just “be” for a brief time and make this a real retreat from modern life as I know it and learn from the Costa Rican people some new ways of living and existing. I find myself unable to fully suppress the excitement of observing wildlife, but realize that a lot of the very fascinating mammals I would love to see will probably be out avoiding humans by day and lurking in the shadows at nighttime. I also admit to being intimidated by the idea of hiking through the rain forest with 90° F heat and 90% humidity. My mind wanders when I think of the many stories about the jungle I read as a child (and as an adult!). So I am returning to my yoga training and studiously calling my breath and finding balance.

On my expedition into the unknown I hope to find out what shape my creative muscles are in. Would I have had the courage to travel with a physical adventurer like Captain Cook and explore distant lands? Will I observe something in the culture of the people of this land that I could inspire me to adapt my life at home? And will I attain the calm in the center of the fugue of modern life and be able to fully distance myself from all that I leave behind.

Perhaps I will have answers the next time I post to this blog.

I hope if you have read this entry, you will share in the comments something about your own explorations on any level of your life.

30 January 2006

Winter Stillness

One of my greatest sources of creativity is spending time in nature. Often it is necessary to recharge my batteries and look at life without rushing and hurrying. I find that when all the problems, confusion and frustrations of my life are crashing down around me, I can rediscover my calm and balance by spending time in a suburban park, or better yet, hiking in the woods.

My husband and I have found a nature preserve that's about a forty minute drive south from the bustling commercial and sailing hub that is Annapolis, in the farmland and wilds along the Patuxent River. It's called Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary and, as the name implies, it is an oasis in the dessert of East Coast congestion, noise and pollution.

We have had unusually mild weather for January and we could not resist the opportunity to be out among the marshlands in search of the elusive critters who inhabit and shape this 1400-acre paradise. We always hope to spot one of the beavers who have constructed some amazing dams in a small run (creek) flowing into Otter Point. But only their handiwork is visible. Nor have we ever been fortunate to spot one of the Point's namesakes, but then the park opens long after sunrise and closes before twilight so the chances for the average visitor to spot river otters are slim. I have spoken with volunteers who conduct scientific research at the park and who assure me that there are otters who live near Otter Point! Someday I'll find the time to volunteer there when I can be present at the edges of the daytime and perhaps spot one of these animal wonders. (Otters are my favorite creatures!)

So we did not see any furry critters about, but in the long silence of a winter afternoon we sat at the bank of the beaver-constructed lake and listened. And listened. And listened some more to the stillness of winter. We heard a woodpecker tapping on the trees in search of meal and saw one of his compatriots guarding a treetop promontory in the lake. Proud little birds, woodpeckers. I am always wondering how it doesn't hurt for them to bang on trees with their beaks. We could feel the light breezes blowing the high tide currents toward the lake and hear the little waterfalls from the beaverdam trickling in the background.

It's fascinating to me how many natural sounds are present when you take away the layers of traffic, machinery, and noises of the modern world. Just listening and breathing in the woods at the edge of the marsh on a 60-degree day is one of my ideas of perfect bliss. Although we spent about three hours hiking around the sanctuary that sunny afternoon, my favorite moments were sitting side-by-side with my husband surrounded by the stillness of life going on around us.

We humans have so altered the planet we dwell upon, but the true beauty often lies in the untouched places.

19 January 2006

Time of the Essence: Scheduling for Creativity

So many people in my circle of friends and in my working life are experiencing signs of being overworked and underpaid. Many of these folks are quite well-educated with advanced degrees and long years of experience in their careers. But somehow they find themselves working so hard, that the anxiety generated by their jobs prevents them from living their dreams and from becoming more creative.

Some people who lead workshops and write about creativity recommend making a "date" with yourself to spend "creative time." Julia Cameron, author of The Arists' Way series of books, advocates "morning pages," a series of exercises to get your creative juices flowing every morning. Other authors have called the practice of regular scheduling of creativity time "artist's dates." I actually like to call this time "Open Space." I believe it's vital for any creative person to get out her/his pen or pencil and mark in her/his calendar the hour or two that s/he will set aside to be free and to pursue creativity. Once "Open Space" is on your schedule, let nothing bar you from meeting that appointment with your own destiny!

Most people to whom creativity is important find themselves saddled with complicated jobs or family situations or volunteer commitments. Afterall, it's common for creative folks to be expressing their creativity by nuturing others or by giving time to the people who they love or to the goals that they value.

Although I am currently working "part-time" in my day-job as an events planner for a non-profit organization, I often find that there aren't enough hours in my schedule to fulfill all of the tasks given to me. Tasks come not only from my supervisor, but also from many other department heads and individuals in the organization. I don't always have a say in how my time is spent. When it comes to my private life, on the other hand, I do have many choices. If I'm asked whether I can stay late at work, I can tell my boss that I have a firm "date" to take a class, or visit a family member out of town, or go to the doctor. So, in the perfect world, I should theoretically be able to be just as firm about my personal schedule for "creative time."

Now, I happen to work for a very enlightened boss, who has long years of experience both in graduate school and post-graduate school of juggling a complex work schedule. She probably works harder than I do on any given day: If I work 110%, she is likely working 125%. She realizes that her staff needs to maintain their morale or we would not be good employees. Not all bosses are that way! Many of them would say "Tough luck!" or "You're fired!" if you tell them you have an appointment with yourself to be on a personal "vision quest," "retreat" or "creativity break."

My advice to those of you who don't have a boss like mine, is to be firm about the fact that you need to make a date with yourself to have time to be creative. Don't allow friends, family members and other social acquaintances to talk you out of your creative time. If you were caring for a sick relative or a young child, you probably wouldn't agree to stay late and work, so why would you sabotage something as precious as your own creativity?

Nuturing your creativity is essential to living a productive life.

Okay. So, say you have managed to find the time for an appointment with yourself to be creative. Does that mean that the inspiration for a new work of art or journal article or theatrical production will automatically come to you?

No. Of course not.

In fact, you need to not only make the appointment with yourself, but to give yourself a "homework" assignment or exercise. There are many wonderful reference books about exercises that will enable you to pursue your creative work. You may only have the time for a quick sketch or a couple of notes, but if you make a consistent time to be creative at a certain time each day or each week, you may discover that the creative thoughts come more easily and more frequently.

Scheduling time for creativity to happen and working through exercises are both huge topics! I will be breaking these up and addressing them separately in future posts to this blog. I do encourage you to think about what system would allow you time and space to be creative and to make a promise to yourself to attempt it. Even if you fail at first, when you actually manifest something and try to make a real change in your schedule, the chances are that eventually it will happen.

Don't be discouraged! Give yourself the break you would give your best friend who's having a hard day.

Please feel free to make comments here on ways that you have found to squeeze some creative time into your daily or weekly schedule.

Some resource books about scheduling creativity and exercises:
Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992).

Mountain Dreamer, Oriah. What We Ache For: Creativity and the Unfolding of Your Soul. (San Francisco and New York: Harper San Francisco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 2005).

13 January 2006

On Being Mindful of Health

I am prompted to write on this subject because a friend and coworker has been struggling with a severe medical problem that has played havoc with her life for now nearly six weeks. She has had two surgeries in less than a month and has been trying to find time to work and time to be the single parent for her young daughter despite these trials. All I can do is to try and ease her burden at work just a little and to do personal favors for her, such as my offer to cook her dinner some evening--an offer I hope she accepts.

Every January, suddenly the normally, retiring, quiet "self improvement" section of bookstores suddenly leaps out from behind shy shelves and confronts the customer in central aisles and towers that says, "Admit it. You know you came here to buy me." The lure of "New Year's resolutions" is too much for many to resist and all of the morning news shows tell you to to loose those extra holiday-gained pounds, get into shape before you get into your Spring Break beachwear, and how to communicate more effectively with your partner.

I laugh about this phenomenon each year. "Self improvement" has become a way of life for me since I was forced to reckon with the state of my health five years ago at the age of 31. I spent nearly ten months in 2001, dealing with a serious medical problem that forced me to look squarely in the mirror, and face the fact that I had ignored my health for far too long. I had to have invasive abdominal surgery to remove seven rapidly growing tumors, ranging from the size of a pea to one 10 cm in diameter (the size of a grapefruit!). The major concern was that no doctor knew for certainty if the tumors were benign or cancerous until I had the surgery.

Medical researchers are uncertain, based upon current research, whether or not a certain diet, a certain amount of stress, or a lack of exercise are actually direct causes of the condition I have. Many doctors are still convinced that my particular illness is genetic and that I can do little or nothing about it. My mother also had surgery in her forties for similar enlarged tumors. After living with this knowledge for five years, I have come to believe that this "condition" I have may indeed be genetic, but that if I can live a more healthful life, I can slow down or even prevent the tumors from returning.

Two goals I placed upon myself during my long recovery, were losing weight and increasing my strength. As a child I was willowy, but as a teenager I was overweight and not inclined to be involved very much in sports. I did nothing about my weight problems or health for twenty years. I experimented with being vegetarian for several years and initially lost weight, but gained it all back due to the increased amount of starches and sugars I ate or drank. By the time I was thirty, I was back to weighing what I did when I was sixteen, and feeling rather unhappy about my body.

The diagnosed growth of tumors was my wake-up call. Suddenly every day, every meal, made me feel obsessed about my health problems. For the first several months after the discovery of the tumors, I threw caution to the wind because I had an almost fatalistic view that I should "be merry, for tomorrow I may die." Then I received the medical opinion that I must have surgery. I just shut down mentally and became extremely depressed about my health. I ended up calling the minister of my church for help.

He was working from home on the day I called. He invited me to share his lunch and told me something that I will never forget. He told me that in times of great stress and turmoil, he found comfort in the most simple things. He had typed the word "breathe" on a piece of paper and taped it to the dashboard of his car so that whenever he was stuck in traffic and boiling over psychologically about some problem, he would see that word and immediately focus on his breath and, by focusing on his breath, calm down. He also advised me to be mindful of eating, enjoying my food, slowing down to take my meal without rushing. As a person working part-time to support grad school studies, I was always rushing! Finally he also told me to drink more water. Sounds like something a doctor or your mother would say, but I've since read that when you are under stress, drinking clean, pure water instead of soda or juice is the best way to remove the acids in your body that stress produces.

At the time of my meeting with the minister, I was in such a state of panic that I didn't quite get the message. But as I began to be more mindful of what I put into my body, I really did began to calm down or at least tune the stress down a notch or two. No, it didn't cure me or solve my psychological problems, but it did something even better than that. It taught me that we humans living in our world of modern conveniences, cut off from the need to gather and hunt for our own food in Nature; sealed in our hermetic environments with HVAC systems; and living in an age of wonder drugs and long life-expectancies often forget the basics.

Health is really a very fragile state. The assumption of our culture is that if you are unhealthy, you aren't doing your job. You haven't seen the right doctors, haven't jogged enough miles, haven't eaten the right foods or gone on the right diet. It's your fault. Or, it's pure tragedy: "Oh,that poor child," you might hear someone say. "It's just so sad that she got cancer." I say that we are the caretakers of our own health. And if we care for others in our lives, we first need to care for our own state of health.

I am now over 25 pounds lighter than I was before my surgery in 2001, thanks to regular exercise and the South Beach Diet, a nutritional plan that seems to fit my body type and leaves me feeling satisfied after meals. I am also more muscular and stronger than I have ever been in my life because I am now more athletic and I train with weights. I have also recently begun to take yoga, a practice I had first learned at the age of five or six, but had long since given up until just last year. I drink vaster amounts of water and remember to consciously breathe, often remembering that conversation with my minister when I do.

I am a human being. I need air to breathe, water to drink and food to give me energy. When I can be mindful of that, no matter what aches and pains I feel, no matter the state of my chronic sinusitus, I know that I am being mindful of being alive.

05 January 2006

Winds of Change are Blowing

Turn the page of the calendar and welcome 2006.

The New Year has brought with it a mountain of work added to my day-job schedule. I am a part-time (almost full-time) volunteer coordinator and museum programs person for a small non-profit. I deeply believe the organization's missions and goals, but sometimes I feel like the lofty goals are hampered by personal misunderstandings and lack of communication. My coworkers and I are under a great deal of stress to open a new facility in late March of this year. It now looks like it's finally going to happen, but sometimes I wonder "at what cost to our careers and personal lives?" My goals are to keep trying my hardest to help with the volunteer and educational outreach programs. Yet I need to be realistic within the limits placed upon me. I am not paid to be a salaried full-time worker, so I have to try and keep my wits about me as I approach my work in the next few months. There is so much in my personal life that I want to accomplish, that I would be full-hardy to give too much and to not be compensated for it.

In spite of these concerns, I am also feeling the winds of change. Perhaps this year will bring me closer to doing the kind of creative work I feel drawn to do.

So many small opportunities have crossed my path since I've made myself open to them. People have offered me suggestions about where I might teach my creativity workshops and how I might publicize. I know several women with home-based or consulting businesses who have all been supportive of me when I've mentioned the work I'm doing in my own time. People can say what they want to about stereotypes, but women can be incredible at networking and nurturing each other's talents. I am constantly amazed by the number of women who have been not only interested in hearing about my budding creativity facilitatation work, but who have been genuinely enthusiastic.

A friend who is a professional facilitator suggested to me that I might want to become qualified to administer the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is a type of psychological assessment that helps people to determine their preferences for working and for comprehending information. (It is useful when people are learning what kind of creativity they excel at and may indicate some psychological stumbling blocks a person may encounter.) I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in a high school psychology class and have since been very interested on it as a useful tool to understand work-habits, leadership styles, and communication styles. The qualifying exam would give me a credential invaluable to my new career. The difficulty will be raising the funds to take the exam and to travel on my meager salary. So I will have to find a way to take it in a city where I can stay with one of my friends or somewhere in the local D.C. or Baltimore area. Fortunately I have several friends who have been through the qualifying exam and who know about several different organizations that officially administer it. Hopefully I'll be able to take the exam later this year and perhaps combine a visit to family or friends.

I also learned about the Creative Education Foundation from the same friend. Each year they host a conference focusing on creative-problem solving. It sounds like it would be a wonderful place for me to learn about creativity and critical thinking. The conference has workshops and training components where I could gain more skills and network. I may not be able to attend this year, but perhaps make it a goal for 2007. I definitely want to learn more about this organization during this year.

There are also some more humble and practical matters I must explore if I'm to succeed in this line of work. I am hoping to get a website up and running before summer 2006. Along with that I will need a doing-business-as bank account, perhaps a Postal Box, and may need to take a class or workshop about running a consulting business. Fortunately, I have been doing my homework and I know from my parents some of the skills needed for owning my own business. Yet the task is daunting from the outside.

The best part about all of this is that I feel like I am making some progress and getting organized. Compared to a year ago when I was still trying to figure out what to do with my life, I am amazed at what I have accomplished at this point.