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.