Hermit

This last half of the year has been a difficult one for performance.

That’s what blogging is to me, if we’re being completely honest. I do it for my own benefit, but I’m also aware of my audience, small though it may be. And I haven’t felt like broadcasting much. Some of the reasons are no doubt obvious — although That Thing That Happened In November hasn’t shaken me so badly as it could have, it has me asking a lot of questions of myself, and having heated conversations with many people I respect. Others likely aren’t surprising, given the sorts of things I was posting about frequently before I stopped posting at all.

The long and short of it is that I buckled down to clear out some of the thorns from around my personal metaphorical tower, and I found a way in.

This entry will get too wild and disjointed if I start listing everything. So many of the thoughts that ran through my head these past months could take up entire posts of their own, and they may yet do so. But there’s just one thing I want to mark down before the year ends, and that’s my promise to myself for the next one.

I got a lot done this year. Part of my personal work has been going through my many overwhelming piles of stored ideas, unfinished works in progress, and clutter, and destroying them, in one way or another. I finished a lot of things that have been sitting around for ages, capped my list of projects and rearranged things in such a way that I could change some of them to tiny, easy projects and got them all crossed off, and took a good long look at just what it is I want to put my creative energy into and why so I won’t get into this sort of situation again. I didn’t quite meet the goal I wanted to within the timeframe I wanted to meet it in. Even so, I sat down feeling satisfied when I realized it wasn’t going to happen, perhaps for the very first time. Despite the fact that I hadn’t met my own self-inflicted “requirements”, I felt I’d done enough, and truth be told, that feeling is rare and new and exciting.

But I came out of it feeling discombobulated and slow and a little overwhelmed and unable to keep going in any efficient way. So, I reported to one of my tarot decks — the meaner of the two, the one that likes to tell me things I don’t want to hear and isn’t gentle about it. (The other is kind and motherly and breaks things too me tenderly.) The deck told me that I’m great at making things, and all it would take was some proper contemplation to get myself back on track. It was just a lack of willpower keeping me from doing so, really.

“…yes,” I said. “Yes, I’m very tired now.”

This acknowledgement sent me into one of my negative spirals immediately. I come from the sort of family where we “just get over it” out of necessity, and though I logically understand the need to be less dismissive of our own troubles, it’s not something I’ve ever been able to do for myself. “I’m tired” or “I’m not in the right mindset for this” sound like excuses to me, because I’m sitting in a place where I can look back into my work and see all the moments I spent procrastinating and all the reasons I found to go do something else, stolen hours that would have rendered me much more efficient if I’d focused instead of swindling them. But this time, I had all I did accomplish built up around me to stand against that, and it made me suspicious enough to ask the deck — if I say that I’m tired, does it mean that I’m just being weak? Is it a real feeling? Or am I only making excuses for my own teeny tiny daily failures, which is always what I accuse myself of when this thought pattern comes around?

No, said the deck. No. If you’re tired, it doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you aren’t taking care of yourself in such a way that you’re giving yourself the energy you need to succeed. It means you’re imbalanced, that your equilibrium is off, that you need to give yourself the sustenance it will take to get yourself back on track.

They said, too, that to focus on my failures the way that I do is to pick a fight with myself, to attack myself, to beat myself down. They said it’s arrogant and vain of me to do that when I can look around myself and see so many ways that I’ve succeeded. To be preoccupied with the negative is to reject the positive, and that’s what throws me out of whack.

I went and made a list then of all the things that happened this year and things that I accomplished that made me feel like celebrating. I took stock of how I felt and what sort of situation I’m in, now that I’ve run this personal gauntlet. I found that I’m opening up at last. There are burdens I’ve been hauling around for years that don’t seem so heavy anymore, because I’ve finally paused to look at them and I’m starting to understand them at last. I’ve gained a good fifteen pounds, but that’s because my health has improved so drastically that I can actually eat and enjoy food again without worrying how my digestive system is going to punish me for it later. (Much.) My urge to bake has returned. I’m learning to cook some new meals, something I’ve always hated in the past for the amount of effort I had to put in, and finally exploring some beloved recipes that my mother wrote down for me before she died. I no longer wake up every morning and spend an hour or more screaming internally because there’s so much to do and it’s impossible to prioritize it properly and there’s no sense fussing because I won’t finish everything I hope to finish anyway so what’s the point, let’s just bum about on the internet for a while…

 

Both of my decks have been telling me all year long that I need to be trying new ways of doing things, and I have resisted this for two reasons. The first is that I misinterpreted what they were saying, and thought they meant I should try some new hobbies — which struck me as a terrible idea because my wide variety of interests is a part of what’s caused me to be overwhelmed in the first place. The second is that change is frightening and I hate it. I need variety to keep me engaged, but that variety is set within the boundaries of routines I’ve relied on for years, and the idea of breaking them left me feeling so adrift that I couldn’t even think of where to start. However, taking stock of things here at the end of the year, I’ve finally figured out just where I can shift things in a way that will be positive and helpful.

I keep a planner book where, traditionally, I give myself a list of things to accomplish every day. I usually set it up as a little reading, a little knitting, one household chore, and something to do with whatever my focus project at the time is. But I rarely follow the list from day to day. I’ll fall behind in my knitting and devote and afternoon to catching up; I’ll feel like cleaning, so I’ll do all the chores for the week early on and cross them off in advance. Sometimes I’ll get distracted with things that aren’t on the list at all and have to give myself days to go back into the planner and catch up to myself. Obviously this isn’t really helping me. The listing itself does, I’m sure, but arranging it by day does nothing but make it look tidy in my planner book.

I’ve decided that in 2017 I’m not going to make goals like that. I’m not going to set myself up to be disappointed in myself every single day for “failing” to finish all that I think I “should”. Not in a world where things always take a different amount of time than I think they will, and I never know when I’m going to need to drop everything to tend to something else for whatever reason. Instead, every day, I’m going to write down what I do as I do it, no matter what it is and how small it may seem. It won’t be a to-do list so much as it will be a diary, a record of what I get into when left to my own devices.

Also, whenever I finish something, I get a sticker. My collection is getting out of hand, so clearly the only solution is to reward myself by sticking them to things.

My hope is that at the end of 2017, I won’t have yet another planner book full of things I meant to do and may or may not have ever gotten around to crossing off. Instead, I’ll have a book full of accomplishment, a proper physical record of what I have done. Beating myself up about how I can most certainly accomplish more has never actually motivated me to do better, but it’s all I’ve ever known to do, so it’s a habit as deeply ingrained as scratching when I have an itch.

Treating myself with positivity, I suspect now, will be much more successful.

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Intentions

“I think everything in life is art. What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone, and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in, and all your dreams. The way you drink your tea. How you decorate your home. Or party. Your grocery list. The food you make. How your writing looks. And the way you feel. Life is art.”

— Helena Bonham Carter

In college, I repeatedly tried to bring my craftwork into my art classes and was repeatedly shot down and shoved away from it. I never understood why. All I wanted was to Make Things, and no one was ever able to explain to me why it was acceptable that other students could paint self-portraits all semester and I could not illustrate my fantasy stories. Another student liked to tack yarn to the wall in compositions of straight lines but I was not allowed to crochet dolls in a series based on Greek mythology. Over and over they asked me to consider the differences between Art™ and Craft™, and I never really came up with anything I could articulate.

All I knew was that I could not make a teddy bear out of fabric. But if I made one out of sheet steel with jointed limbs that clattered and clanked and moved when you picked it up, or out of window screen filled with bits of clutter, suddenly my professors would get very excited. By that point I was exhausted of everything to do with my department, so I concluded that weird crafts were acceptable, washed my hands of them, and went off to crochet dragons for seven years.

So, here I am now.

In recent months my tarot decks have been giving me certain homework assignments and one of them has been to curb my impulses, because flitting about and following my whims is arguably a major reason my creative life is such a mess. My to-do list has items on it that I came up with right after college and committed myself to because they seemed cool at the time, and then I never did them because something else always took priority, and the whole mess became overwhelming and upsetting. Projects were started and put down and forgotten. I’ve been finishing up those items and staring hard at the list, examining the items on it, and if I’m not absolutely in love with the idea it is culled and replaced. I’m very nearly finished striking the knitting list down to something I’m actually looking forward to confronting, with projects I’m looking forward to instead of obligations.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, something finally clicked. The difference between Art and Craft is intent. It’s a very thin line and in many cases I don’t think there is a line at all. There’s perfect bookshelves that serve exactly the purpose they’re intended for, and then there’s bookshelves that do that but are also riddled with carvings and have a presence in the room they’re placed in. I can make a quilt out of scraps from my stash just to use them up and have a warm item in the end, or I can put together a masterpiece of colors and shapes and composition and embroidery using the exact same techniques.

Quite frankly, I am 100% sure that even if I had realized this during school, they still wouldn’t have let me make quilts without making them weird. But much of the art they pushed me towards was art I would never choose to represent myself with, so at least I’m sorting it out now, and on my own terms.

Since realizing this, I’ve been looking for my own intention in just about everything I do, from how I dress and wear my hair to what book I choose to read next. These are all things I’ve done without thinking in the past, following whims with only the barest understanding of why those whims were there in the first place. Conveniently, when one is a witchy sort, the advice always given in regards to magic and spellwork is much the same — it’s all about intent. All the colored candles and stinky herbs in the world aren’t going to make a lick of difference if you aren’t present in your work. Because of that, the idea of “intention” isn’t wild and new and scary. It’s just a matter of expanding my understanding of it, utilizing it.

I am attempting now to see my whole life and everything I do as my work, and to be present in it. I’ll admit that part of this is a tiny spark of spite — if everything is art, I don’t have to care what the difference between art and craft is. But what I’m finding is that I feel so much sharper, much more in control, than I did before. This isn’t necessarily because I have more control than I did before. But I understand myself and my own actions in ways I’d never bothered to consider, and everything about myself seems to fit together so much more easily.

Finished Friday: Etsy links

Recently, I’ve been digging out half-finished projects and reorganizing my project lists, starting with the knitting. To that end, I have two new items up for sale in the shop. They’re not exactly new or exciting, but they’re no longer disembodied parts floating around my workspace, so they’re a triumph, really.

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Firstly, the loudest dragon I have ever made, available here.

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Secondly, here, one of my Cheshire Kittyballs.

Once I’ve tied up the last of my loose ends, I will no longer be making readymades from my own patterns. I’ve been doing that too long, and it’s kept me from expanding the shop as I’d like. I’ll be focusing on new designs from here on out, making finished items only for the purpose of testing my patterns, unless I run across materials I just can’t leave alone.

The idea of laying some of these things to rest is a relief. I’ve loved them in the past, but it’s time to move on.

WIP Wednesday: A New Stash

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I’ve been doing an experiment lately. Recently, I had great success starting to doodle in my gray-paper sketchbook, learning to look at things in terms of highlights and shadows instead of lines. Because this simple shift in my thinking had such a huge impact, I’m now trying something else: I’ve been collecting picture frames that please me aesthetically, and trying to come up with artwork that suits the frame instead of sitting down and thinking “what will I draw?” My hope is that this different approach will ultimately push me out of my habit of drawing the same things over and over, or at least let me add some more variety.

The challenge will be letting these pictures be what they’ll be, even if they don’t wind up suiting the frames I’m intending them for. My goal here is to start making art again at all, not to frustrate myself with too many rules.

Waiting

I’ve been crocheting all my life. My mother taught me when I was four, as soon as I had the motor skills necessary to wield a hook. She also taught me to sew, and provided me with the resources I needed to pick up on many other crafts besides. One of the things I’m most grateful for in this life is that I was born into a family of crafty women, and wound up marrying into another one. A fine arts degree didn’t really give me what I wanted artistically, but it did increase my confidence in many areas, and gave me a glimpse of other techniques I’d like to pursue someday.

But one thing that never really stuck when I was growing up was knitting. My mother had a collection of knitting needles, mind, but most of them were bent. She used to use them to pry the windows open during thick summers when the humidity would cause the wood of them to swell and seal shut.

In 2009, enamored of the way cables look and dissatisfied by the equivalent crocheted cheat, I decided it was time and began to teach myself to knit. It’s my primary hobby now. The rhythm of it soothes me as nothing else does, and after years of twisting and turning and typing, my wrist prefers it to crochet. Back then, one of the first patterns I fell in love with and saved was The Morrighan Shawl. I wondered how many different colored skeins of yarn the designer had used, and how clever they had to be to achieve these gradients. Eventually, I understood that the answer lie in variegated yarn with long color shifts, and also, that I probably wouldn’t be able to make my own.

I am allergic to wool, and most other fibers are cost prohibitive in a piece this size. Inevitably, most of the yarns that have those long stretches of color are in fibers I cannot use. The short shifts in most acrylics and cottons would make the shawl look explosive and chaotic — not what I want at all.

Then, last year, Lion Brand Textures came along. I bought a skein of the Mystic Moors colorway on a whim. I generally don’t pay much attention to bouclé, but the colors attracted me. Only after I began to work up a scarf with it did I realize that this yarn had those coveted long gradients, and the more I worked on the scarf and admired the color shifts, the more I didn’t want a scarf at all.

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I have waited seven years to make this shawl. I’m using a JoAnn’s Sensations bouclé to fill out the black lines between the squares. It’s my first time using these mitered squares and I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s so nice to work on a project that won’t have hundreds and hundreds of stitches per row by the end of it. I have to work much more loosely than usual with these yarns, but it’s working up soft and squishy and good.

I’m going to call it the Swamp Witch.

Ace of Swords

Recently, with the help of the tarot decks, I’ve managed to sort through enough of my personal mess that I’ve made my way from the outer parts of said mess — the surface parts, the symptoms in which this mess-disease is manifesting — to the inner bits, which I’ve always been terrible at confronting. Truthfully, I’ve never really wanted to see those bits in the first place, and so having these layers peeled back for me one by one has been exhausting. Absolutely beneficial for sure and the positive changes start to become visible almost as soon as I hit these realizations. But, exhausting.

The first of these layers has been my anger, a constant companion for many, many years.

Until now, I’ve never been able to articulate how exactly my anger likes to exist, and to present itself. Even so I’ve been aware of its presence for as long as I can remember. I’ve rarely had an outlet for that anger that would actually accomplish anything and so I internalized it instead, and that was fine, because anger has always been more productive for me than depression. When I’m sad, I sit. When I’m angry, I get up and I get things done. So clearly I should be angry, right? The productive route is the correct one. If what’s around me makes me angry — the situation at home that I was too young to get out of, the situation in my department at school, my mother’s sudden illness and death — then at least I’ll still be moving, I’ll be doing things, and the fury will see me through to the end. Right?

Well, yes, it’s done that, but — it never occurred to me to stop existing that way after those situations had changed.

The first step of this part of the journey came in the form of several direct orders from my cards, over several days, to stop picking fights. You don’t need to be fighting all the time, they told me. Lay off. This was confusing at first. I’m involved in several social circles online, and I pride myself in being the neutral diplomat, the one who navigates without provoking and doesn’t start fights, that’s the whole point. A closer look at my own vocabulary ultimately revealed what they meant. My to-do lists for every day have been referred to as “battle plans”. A successful, productive day was a “win”. The fights I was picking were with the world around me and with myself, in the way I was constantly setting myself up for a battle and thus either triumph or defeat, every single day. Strength, I thought, meant never giving up, never backing down. If I didn’t finish everything I wanted to in a day it meant I was weak, undisciplined. But of course, every new day is a new day. There would always be an opportunity to fight again, and perhaps the next day could still be defeated, because I would do better.

Oh.

I started by watching out for the words I used. My battle plans are to-do lists again. A day, I remind myself, is a unit of time in which I exist, not a foe I need to defeat. I do not have to be a person who fights. I just have to be a person who does. I can do without turning my entire life into a subtle war, and I do not need to be on a rampage just to get myself to accomplish anything. Slowly, I’ve been easing off on myself. I’ve been feeling a little better. I’ve been poking, tentatively, at the notion that I’ve been using anger to cover grief. I’m feeling more open to happiness now, like happiness is something already there instead of something I’ll win once the self-inflicted war is over.

But I didn’t understand exactly what it was I was backing away from until this past week, one of those social circles blew up right in front of me and people I care about very, very deeply were hurt.

I kept a constant eye on the situation because this is an online circle and as a woman who works from home, I was the one who was around to do so. I serve as a careful guardian when this sort of thing happens. I correct misinformation where I see it. I keep my choice of words and thus my tone polite. I choose my battles — some people don’t want to hear anything that will contradict the opinions they’ve already decided to hold no matter what, and engaging them will only cause things to spiral out of control. Because of that it’s important to conserve my energy for the places where my voice will make a difference, and reach the eyes and ears of the people who are willing to believe what I have to say. I wasn’t the only one around to do this, and slowly, the issue was sorted out. But because I cared so strongly and because I was keeping such a watch, the physical symptoms of anger and battling were triggered. I was tense, but I was shaky. My heart rate was elevated. I came out of that battle satisfied with the outcome, but I was exhausted, and that night I was very, very sick.

For all that I’ve spent so much time in a state of constant annoyance — perhaps because of that — it’s rare that my temper flares up this way. Seeing the results of it this week, now that I’m paying attention to that emotion, was horrifying. Just how long have I kept myself in a state of low-level stress simply by using anger as my vehicle for productivity? What sort of damage have I done to myself by treating life as a fight I need to win, and turning my blades in on myself to force myself along when I falter?

 

 

In my Shadowscapes deck, the Ace of Swords is described as a beginning wherein the outcome could be positive or negative depending on how things fall — because a sword is double-edged. This is one of the cards I was given when I went to talk to my decks about it, and this is the metaphor through which I have chosen to understand my anger from now on. It is a blade. In the hands of someone who knows how and when and why to use such a thing, it’s powerfully positive, used to protect and to carefully strike down. Wielded by someone vicious, it hurts people. And, given to someone careless who flails it about haphazardly, that person is just as liable to trip over it and stab themselves as they are to lash out at whatever it is they think they’re fighting. I have been the latter. I’ve been rolling around on my own knives for years without realizing that I was the one dropping them all over the place to begin with. I’ve been so focused on keeping the one edge turned out that I’ve missed the way I’ve been slicing myself up on the second.

There is no getting rid of anger entirely. It has a place, and really, I still see it as a force with a lot of positive potential. Anger does get things done. There are some changes that need to be made in this world that will not happen without a fight, that’s a fact of life, and I’ve had the right idea in the past — choose one’s battles, use a voice that isn’t screaming. But I stand here now in the midst of a new beginning, one where I’m not picking fights all the time, and some changes need to be made in how I am wielding this weapon.

Swords are heavy. To use one effectively, you need to be strong. But you don’t get that way by hacking into yourself little by little and telling yourself to keep going. You get that way with love and nourishment, and that’s the way I need to go now. The blade itself needs to be cared for, too. It needs to be refined, and understood, and treated with respect. It’s a tool. It’s not something you wave about at the slightest provocation.

More importantly, I’ve had my sword out and ready to go for far too long, not realizing that the things I was aiming it at were things I never even needed it for. I’ve clutched my anger as though I’d lose my one source of protection the instant I let it go. That’s not true. I don’t need it nearly as much as I’ve believed, and it’s okay to put it away.

It’s okay to put my anger back in its sheathe — where it will wait for me, and be there when I need it — and walk forward with both hands free.

Up Over the Walls

Years ago — as I approach my thirtieth birthday, I realize, half a lifetime ago — I considered myself an artist. I was one of the Elfwood types, drawing virtually nothing but my original characters from the vast universe I had created for myself, elves and dragons and magic-users everywhere. The dragons in particular earned me a reputation among my classmates. I used to joke that if I didn’t pay attention to what I was doing, any and all pictures I tried to make would become Red Dragon Sitting On A Rock.

Self-taught, I learned from internet tutorials and I learned from books. I learned by doing. I carried a sketchpad everywhere I went. Hours and hours of my time were given joyfully to my Photoshop paintings, and I was so, so proud of the effects I’d figured out. I took a cartooning class and made a flipbook, and then came home and made a couple more. Perhaps I would be an illustrator of children’s books, I thought. Perhaps I’d become an animator.

Then I went to college.

I went in as an undeclared major. I had so many creative passions in high school that I wasn’t sure which one to prioritize, and anyway, I was told, I shouldn’t be hasty in deciding. I had no way of knowing where or when I’d stumble upon That One Class That Would Change Everything, and I should be open to new experiences as I explored what my school had to offer. This was excellent advice, and proved to be completely true. My mistake was in declaring myself an art major without actually investigating the program first. There was no room for fantasy, which they dubbed “cliché and therefore uninteresting”. They were not interested in my illustrations or the cartoony, juvenile look my drawings carried, a result of being a teenager interested in anime. Those four years were long and full of fighting, and it’s only after seven years of time and distance that I can admit with grace that much of the fault was mine. I’d thought all art programs would be the same, and, perhaps because I’d been self-taught to start with, I would simply have whatever resources I needed. This was not the case at all, and I found out too late that the program I’d found myself in had no idea what to do with me.

The fact remains that classes filled me with tears and dread, I left school with an art degree but no portfolio, and I can count on one hand the pieces that I am actually proud of from that time. The time immediately after graduation was full of loud declarations that it was time to reclaim myself and my work, but I’d been away from what I really wanted to be doing for so long that my eye had advanced and my hand had not. Slowly, frustrated, I let it go, and no attempt I’ve made to actually achieve that reclaiming has been successful.

I’ve always known that when it came to it, I’d have to rebuild my skills from the ground up. That was too much. It hurt.

 

Lately, with the aid of my tarot decks and friends who’ve watched me flounder for years, I’ve been working on getting out of the rut I’ve been stuck in for more or less the past decade. Recently, I’ve discovered that my artwork is included in this — not just the things I sew and knit and all the rest, but the pictures, too. I’m supposed to be allowing my wounds to heal, and this one in particular has been digging at the very core of me for some time. I’m angry. I’m bitter. I grieve the girl who would happily make art for hours, to the exclusion of all else. But I’d always put it off, not feeling up to investing the time and energy I knew I’d need. Whenever I did try to start a picture, my own lack of ability put me off. My skills are still those of the eighteen-year-old, stagnated.

But no, the cards have been telling me. There’s a way out, and you’ll never find it if you keep to your old thoughts, your old habits. If that was going to work you’d have succeeded by now. You need thoughts that are new. Open your eyes.

To that end, the other day I bought, as a gift for the girl who used to draw for hours, a sketchbook with gray paper and black and white pens. I’d never drawn on toned paper before. I hoped the different materials would help to jar my eye and hand away from old habits. I hoped using pens, unerasable, would force me away from the guidelines I’ve always relied on in my undersketches. My first few doodles were awful as I sorted myself out, still clinging to those old ways of mine. But on the second day, something clicked while I was practicing with mundane objects. I stopped looking at the lines. I saw the highlights and the shadows instead, and it worked. It worked.

In my excitement, I sent my father a picture of the salt shaker I’d drawn. He hasn’t seen much artwork out of me in years, if any at all. The drawing surprised him at first, and when I confirmed that I’d drawn it myself, he said, “Boy, you’ve gotten good,” as though I’d never stopped drawing in all that time. He went on to suggest that I should draw him some pictures to hang on the walls in his new house, because my little salt shaker that I was so absurdly proud of was worth framing.

This is the way of cuts and bruises for me. They’ll linger and linger, painful and stinging and turning strange colors, and suddenly disappear overnight. This particular wound isn’t completely closed — not yet. But for the first time in my recent memory, it hurts so much less, and I can actually conceive of a future in which drawing will be a part of my life again. I can think of that and I can believe in it.

And all it took was a small shift in perspective, almost silly in its simplicity — look at the highlights and shadows instead of the lines. Now, I want to shift everything. What else have I been missing all this time, as the blindfolded Eight of Swords?