Oblique Strategies #2

I am still getting the hang of painting for myself. When I fill a canvas with color, I almost automatically paint a snout or a big brown oval; one thing always leads to another. My second Oblique Strategies painting, which you can read more about here, was based on the command, “Imagine the piece is a set of disconnected events.” I wanted to skip this card and go on to something familiar, but that’s not the idea of my painting experiment. The idea is to find inspiration and challenge in something I have no control over.
I started with half of a yellow border and let it sit for two days – this would help me disconnect from any of my ideas of what “went with” the border. Next I painted a watery coral square that bled into the border. Later came the dashes and stripes, and then the runny green gradient along the bottom. But what would truly be a non-sequitur for this painting? A new texture. I had a ziplock full of googley eyes handy, and the rest is history. Check out my Instagram for a video of the eyes in action, and purchase the painting for $10 on my etsy shop.

 

Rise and grind

“I get up when I want, except on Wednesdays/When I get rudely awakened by the dustmen,” Damon Albarn says on the Blur song “Parklife” – and in my teen years, this seemed like the dream. Get up when I want (11 am), except sometimes, when life intervenes. When I grew up, I realized that it’s the other way around: Every morning, life intervenes in the form of a wakeful cat or a beeping alarm or an early work deadline. I wake up when I want, but only on Saturdays, and it’s usually more like 6.30, not 11.

Lately, I’ve started to lean into this. I wake up before my alarm, usually around 5.20, and I drink my coffee in relative peace (while Florence the cat shoves her feeder against the wall to get fresher food). I’ve instituted a rule: I have to do One Good Thing for myself before I go to work at 8 am. By 6 am, I’m writing or gearing up for a run or walk. Sometimes I update my budget or work on my website. The point is, when I get to work, I’m ready to do stuff for someone else because I’ve already taken care of myself. Turning my brain on is always the first step.

I’m not the only one who believes in the power of mornings. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes about the concept of Morning Pages: “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it . . .. Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream of consciousness.” Some of my closest friends swear by this practice. They have journals upon journals of things like, “I wish I were asleep, but since I’m not, I guess I’ll write in this dumb notebook. Blah blah blah what a beautiful sunrise,” or something more creative and profound probably. I myself have never committed to Morning Pages, because they always ended up looking like that previous quotation, but I find my system of One Good Thing retrieves my creativity for the day.

If longhand writing isn’t for you, there are other ways to get moving in the morning. The usual suspects: exercise, reading, doodling, or catching up on emails from friends. I know a couple that, every morning, would read off a list of personal questions (What would you do if you found a million dollars today? Where would your perfect vacation spot be?) to help differentiating themselves from each other and to explore their own sense of self. Using questions like these as writing prompts or food for thought could be helpful.

For people who can’t get the creative or imaginative juices flowing in the morning, don’t despair. Mark Twain saw mornings as a time to rise and shine and get something hard out of the way. “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning: If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first,” he advises. Sometimes self-care is paying a nagging bill before it bugs you all day. Sometimes it means putting your dishes in the dishwasher so you don’t come home to a full sink (or so I hear – this is not my practice. I love to be greeted by a full sink, personally! Hello, little buddy). Sometimes it means clearing out your inbox. Sometimes it means putting on your bib and eating a slimy, juicy frog.

I find that I am more awake, more positive, and more productive because of my One Good Thing rule. Today’s good thing? Writing this post and working on my website. The dishes will have to wait.

Reruns

I have not been a great reader the last few years. A known sleepy baby, the moment I open a book after work, I’m snoozin’. Sometimes books bring me a brief solace from the horrors of Twitter and Facebook, introducing me to new things. Recently I’ve been reading Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, which has reintroduced me to the magic of Brian Eno and is giving me ideas for how to mix up my creative life. But mostly, I am reading a page at a time, slogging through, and falling asleep.

Despite my sleepiness, I have also been indulging in some rereading. Rereading is a favorite self-soothing practice of mine. Rereading texts that mattered to me is a guarantee, unlike with new books, which might be disappointing or put me to sleep. You didn’t hear it from me, a master of the humanities.

In the throes of anxiety and depression, I used to read aloud from Marilyn Hacker’s Presentation Piece to calm myself down. Now, in a happier part of my life, I have returned to the book for inspiration. This particular excerpt reminds me of the beauty and the power of routine, which is something I see more clearly as I get older. Marilyn also speaks to a certain longing I feel lately for connection with my environment and the people around me. Sometimes, reading someone else reveal what is inside of you is the most calming activity of all. She writes,

But nothing extraordinary will happen
today. There’s no interesting mail:
a postcard, bills, very professional letters
that only want a kind of ritual
reply. I chew my pen and watch the plants
and would very much like to put my hands

in dirt or in someone else’s hands.

Another poet I’m perpetually rereading is Rupi Kaur. Rupi is, among other things, a genius, an Instagram phenom, and the soother of many traumas. I look to her for a reminder that I am powerful in and of myself, and but that friendships and relationships can make me even more powerful. My personal favorite poem from milk and honey is showcased with two light bulbs and reads,

 

i do not want to have you
to fill the empty parts of me
i want to be full on my own
i want to be so complete
i could light a whole city
and then
i want to have you
cause the two of us combined
could set it on fire

Finally, I’ve dipped even further back into my Extreme Self-help Days, to the Happiness Project – a book I loved at the time because it helped me add structure to my world. Rereading now, I can’t believe I could tolerate this book in 2012. The premise is that a rich white lady who has everything decides she wants to be happier, so she makes a lot of charts. At the time of first reading, I was a poor white lady who could barely get her brain together to read a chart. Perhaps it was an aspirational read for me. Whatever the appeal then, it is somewhat more relatable to me as a more settled, satisfied person. Some things I’ve remembered from rereading that I am trying to implement in my own life:

  1. Don’t use electronics when you wake up in the middle of the night.
  2. Give yourself gold stars for doing small things that you’ve resolved to do (being nice to someone who frustrates you, going for an extra walk around the block, ironing your clothes) – no one else is going to.
  3. To shake things up, implement a policy of Extreme Niceness and give people a damn break. We’re all just trying to get by in this life, and Extreme Niceness to others usually carries over to ourselves.

Rereading has lit up dark, dusty parts of my brain with renewed purpose.

What are your favorite books to revisit? What have you learned from reruns?

The Oblique Strategies

When I look back at my year in painting 2016, I feel mostly uninspired. I painted some great things – things that made me laugh, things that surprised me, things that pleased my patrons  – but not very many. I worked when I was asked to and made a few things just to pass the time, but I wasn’t driven.

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Brian Eno says of creative work, “The point about working is not to produce great stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can.” There were months at a stretch that I didn’t paint, and I felt stilted when I finally did. I hadn’t kept up the practice, and in not doing so, I lost momentum.

In 2017, I am committed to painting, to filling canvasses with vibrant colors and things that make people smile or think. I want to have my paintbrush at the ready for when I can create something great. Creative expression is a huge part of my self-care. If I am well enough to put paintbrush to canvas, it’s indicative that I am fed, watered, walked, and ready for new challenges. But sometimes, painting can help me get my head together enough and energize me enough to fulfill those other more basic needs.

I thought about ways to keep me creating without consistent commissions. I’ve tried to do series in the past and mostly got bored or lost momentum, but right now seems like the perfect moment. Recently I was reintroduced to the Oblique Strategies – a brilliant set of instructions created by Eno and Peter Schmidt. These instructions, on notecards or as I use them, on an app, are dealt at random to disrupt the creative process and to get you moving in a new direction. Some examples: “Listen in darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly” or “Shut the door and listen from the outside.” The cards are geared toward the ear of a musician, but they get me thinking as a painter. I love the concept but have never had a project that could use it.

I’ve decided to use the Oblique Strategies as a set of painting prompts. My first prompt was, “Look at a very small object, look at its centre.” We have a lot of candles in my house, too many candles. Help! My family is starving. I decided to look at a match, really look at it, and instead of painting its full head, to focus on its center. I’m happy with the result as a “first pancake” – the bright colors, the engulfing flames.

The lesson here? Keep creating until you’re ready to make something great – and use the tools that other creative people have made to keep you from being derivative.

I will be selling my Oblique Strategy paintings, which have the prompt written on the back, for $10 plus shipping in my etsy shop, if any particular one strikes your fancy.

 

Water water everywhere

My house is a sparkling water graveyard. I popped open the recycling bin to throw in some junk mail and was met with the cruel reality of my addiction: 1.5 liter Topo Chico carcusses; crinkled HEB Sparkling Water cans; and the rare but special pamplemousse La Croix (pronounced La Croy, fight me!) corpse. RIP little buddies.

Since November, I’ve put a huge focus on what I’m drinking, upping my water game and cutting out my already spare soda and processed juice. I use the Fitbit water tracker to visualize my water goal and to feel like a goddamn water-drinking champion. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Water is often more effective than afternoon coffee to keep me moving

Lately I feel like I can’t make it past 1 without some caffeine. I drink 3 cups of coffee in the morning, and adding any more into the mix seems a little reckless. I’ve been experimenting with drinking a ton of water after lunch to keep me going and so far it’s worked pretty well. What I want from caffeine is the feeling of a fresh mind, but an afternoon cup of coffee usually leaves me a little muddy. Water leaves me feeling a lot more refreshed. Also, it’s free.

2. Sparkling water as a regular treat is worth the money, because it keeps me away from coffee and soda

Buying 1.5 liter Topo Chicos from convenience stores is getting kind of expensive, compared to, ya know, filling up a bottle of water from the tap. I find that stopping on my work breaks to grab a sparkling water feels like the treat that sneaking off to grab some candy once was for me. Sparkling water keeps me away from coffee, which heightens my anxiety; soda, which has a ton of sugar; and other snacky treats that are mostly unnecessary and devoid of nutritional value for my precious bod. Long live the 1.5 liter Topo Chico.

3. Drinking water can be hard to remember to do during a busy work day, so I pound some before I leave for work

I’m an archivist, which is a fun and cool job that I love, but it means I can’t bring my drinks to my desk with me, unless I want to ruin some historical documents with my romcom-level clumsiness. So, if I want to drink water, I have to take little breaks, and I often get wrapped up with other things and forget. To head this off, I’ve started my rule of three: I drink three tall glasses of water before I get to work in the morning. The first I have with my morning coffee. The second I have when I’m doing my make-up. The third I have in the car with me – I take huge, ladylike gulps at stoplights. This is why I looked like I peed my pants that one day when I got to work. I’m devoted to this ritual.

On the flipside of the water-drinking coin is cocktail hour, a fair-weather friend with which I’m still making peace. I’ll share my relationship with alcohol and what I learned about taking a couple of weeks off from drinking soon. Until then, I’ll be here with my Topo Chico.

 

Peanut butter time

I’ve never been a journaler. I’ve started journals that always devolve into to-do lists or endless loops of thought. I much prefer to put my thoughts out into the world than to ferret them away, planting them like seeds for revelation – most of the time, I just can’t get there on my own. The closest I’ve ever come to meticulously logging my days is tracking my food. While a little less glamorous than a gratitude journal or a line-a-day notebook, tracking food has helped me break bad habits and start good ones. It also holds me accountable for that 10 pm bagel I just couldn’t say no to, for some reason.

I’m not a nutritionist. Eating is personal and different for everyone, and my insights are my own. That said, in no particular order, here’s what I’ve learned from tracking what I’ve eaten since mid-November.

  1. I eat like… so much peanut butter.

There are worse things in the world for you, but processed, sugary peanut butter is also the nemesis of my clear skin and my beautiful bum. I have been known to steal scoops of peanut butter from roommates and partners, to have four spoonfuls with a tiny banana, and to have a lick in the middle of the night (we’re being honest here, right?). Part of logging my food is coming to terms with the fact that listing peanut butter three times in a day means I’m likely going a little overboard.

Old habit: loads of peanut butter.

New habit: keep the peanut butter jar at work, where I can only get at it during my active hours, and there are eyes watching me.

  1.  Food as comfort does not work for me…

… but I really, really want it to. Eating a bowl of mashed potatoes while crying to a sad podcast or eating a huge bag of chips if I’m feeling the effects of the cocktails from the night before both feel like indulgences that will heal me. Yes, most of my indulgences are potato-based, despite the fact that they  usually make my body feel worse: bloated, lethargic, and greasy.

Old habit: bad food as “comfort”

New habit: drinking a liter bottle of sparkling water – the water hydrates and energizes me and feels special enough to provide comfort.

  1. Food as a reward does not work for me

I like my Friday nights to feel special, like I’m winning the lottery on a weekly basis. Congratulations! You made it through another week of paying your bills and waking up on time. In my early twenties this meant drinking as much whiskey as my tiny budget could buy; in my teens it meant snackapalooza and the Wendy’s drive-thru; and more recently it meant lots of margaritas and tacos. Like with seeking food as comfort, overdoing it with food as a prize hasn’t exactly worked out for me. Usually I overeat or overdrink and wake up feeling simultaneously like a dried out sponge and a fat moldy one. I haven’t exactly loved the long-term results either – this pattern has made me crave fatty foods whenever I feel like a million bucks, instead of craving the food that will keep me feeling like a million bucks.

Old habit: Friday night overeating and overdrinking

New habit: In all honesty, this is still a work in progress. So far I’m leaning  on moderation, making a nice meal for myself, and low-key nights with friends.

  1. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

Some old habits die hard. In particular, no matter how hard I try to defeat night eating, I still find myself tracking midnight snacks on the regular. This is an unhealthy pattern to be sure, but it’s not going anywhere. My friend Rose Truesdale (read her AMAZING blog) has taught me that sometimes, you are the way you are. She likes to EAT capital E-A-T but acknowledges that this isn’t always great as an all-caps activity. Instead of denying denying denying, Rose fills her stomach with ludicrously beautiful, nutrient-rich creations: smoothies and greens,homemade nut-butters and COLORS. Similarly, I’ve given up trying to kick my midnight snacks entirely by replacing leftovers and carbs on carbs with fresh fruits. At the very least, my body is welcoming the fiber and vitamin C of 11:13 pm orange slices.

Tracking food has been an adventure. During the holidays, it meant having to log five tamales in one sitting. It’s also meant feeling really really good when I make three vegetables with dinner, or when all my snacks come from the ground (not the floor – though sometimes, you know, 5 second rule), or when I balance that breakfast taco with 2 liters of water and a salad. Like with all things, it requires balance and being kind to myself. Physically and mentally, this food tracking has had a dramatic effect on my relationship with food and with myself. So, let’s celebrate: pass the Topo Chico and the orange slices (okay, and a little bit of peanut butter).

Next up: what I’ve been drinking (and not drinking) since November.

Weighing in

In 2010, I lost 30 pounds in about 3 months. The weight loss was significant, especially because I am not a tall person, and I felt a confidence I hadn’t felt in years. Physically, I felt like I could do anything. I rode a bike with a child strapped to the back up hills with ease. I ran six miles and felt like I could run six more. I danced all night and woke up to Charley horses in the morning. Being skinny made me feel powerful. At the time, I had just graduated from college, just broken up with my first love, and was finding out who I was outside of these two frameworks. I felt strong emotionally, and put myself out there every chance I got.

This was not the end of my story (fortunately or unfortunately). Weight loss is not a silver bullet, and it’s not the thing that cures your lack of confidence or sets you on the path to enlightenment. I was still me, and that meant I was still growing and making mistakes and changing. I started drinking for the first time, and with the drinking came an increased appetite for bad food. I struggled with mental illness, and with that came an ever greater appetite for bad food and therapies that led to weight gain. I started working a 9 to 5, with limited time for taking care of my body in the way I was able to in the days of nannying and school. All of these things – drinking and socializing, mental illness, working – were important parts of becoming my adult self and discovering my talents and my path to happiness. They were also important parts of becoming less physically healthy and gaining a significant amount of weight.

In light of these new developments, I strived to celebrate the power of my body in its updated form. It could lift the heavy things that it needed to in order to do my job as an archivist. It had the nutrients to fight off illness. It could run – slowly. I hopped on the body positivity movement and celebrated that my body takes up space, that it cannot be ignored or tucked away or overwhelmed as it could have been in its previously small stature. But lurking beneath the surface was insecurity – I have had a small body and I have had a big body. I knew that the way you are treated with each is significantly different from the other. I knew that men talked to me differently, I knew that I was served differently, I knew that strangers thought of me differently. My body insecurity slowly became an emotional and intellectual insecurity. Who would listen to me? Why? I had to be 100% certain when I asserted a point or expressed my opinion that I was ready for negative backlash. This became so exhausting that I began keeping more and more things to myself. The insecurity snowballed.

So where am I today? I’m writing this blog. I’m speaking my mind about what I think. I’m sharing this experience with anyone who will listen. I love my body, but I do not 100% love my body. We are like best friends who have started to outgrow each other. We need a long weekend together in Nashville to rediscover what we have in common – or, we need to come to an understanding about what health looks like and what it weighs. In the next two posts, I’m going to talk about tracking what I’m eating and tracking what I’m drinking. This is a personal journey to me, something that is extremely difficult to write about, but something I find comfort in sharing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on body image and self-confidence in the comments (the new blog has COMMENTS) – where are you now? Where do you want to be? What makes you feel powerful in your body? What makes you feel vulnerable in your body?

Blue bloom

January 1st, 2016 Emma was cute. She just got a job, she had big plans for the future, and she loved emojis. Exhibit A:

Tweet, December 31st, 2015, 10.29 am: I have some resolutions: save my money read make new friends use my free time productively

January 1st, 2017 Emma is a little worse for the wear. When I read my resolutions, I laughed out loud – Save.. money? Like, the stuff that buys me the cute boots?  Read MORE? I thought we were trying to read LESS. My mistake. A rom-com montage of my free time of 2016 passed through my mind, and it was a lot of me scrolling, scrolling, scrolling; half-heartedly painting once every few weeks; remembering to blog, but then forgetting to blog. The fruits of my free time were… sparse.

There are so many things I want to do better in 2017 that it’s hard to remember that I generally like myself and the way I live (parts) of my life. My greatest year of growth and change was in 2013, when I decided to move to Austin. I set myself a concrete goal (make something every day) and an ephemeral goal (stop being complacent) – the latter was directed by a mood board I made in January 2013.

In order to make 2017 as important a year for me as 2013, I’m following an old pattern. I have concrete goals (body-related – I’ll write more about this coming soon) and an ephemeral goal (to be myself and above all, to be brave). I made a mood board to go along with my goals, hung it on the side of my dresser, which has become a little shrine to self-improvement. It includes some words that are important to me this year: singular, know, moments, hero, lift off, body. It includes some people who provide me with inspiration: Dolly Parton, Janelle Monae, Oprah, Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins. Most importantly, it centers around a power color (this year, BLUE) and includes imagery of mastery: cutting down a redwood; pedaling a flying bicycle; and jumping into a clear blue pool.

My favorite image is one I compiled of a tightrope walker with a great big bloom for a head. This will be me, this year. Daring to bloom, to be myself, and to do hard things.