How I Love Knowing my Weaknesses as Strengths

I read this Copyblogger post that discussed “The 7 Bad Habits of Insanely Productive People,” and I longed to believe it fit me.

In many ways, it does, as I believe these habits are found in most creative people, and you are creative if you are an entrepreneur of any description, and if you are an artist in any medium–from gardening, quilting, and woodworking to painting, photography, and writing, and if you simply are a person who has managed to piece together a more than comfortable living from doing only the sorts of things you love.

Over-sensitivity, Flakiness, Selfishness, and Greed… Distractibility, Self-doubt, and Arrogance. How can I have every one of these “flaws?” Aren’t some of them contradictory? How can selfishness and greed be strengths? Please read the link first. Here I am going to talk about, well, ME. Yup. Me, me, me.

I particularly loved greed because, somehow or other, we think that if we are giving, if we believe in social justice and humanistic causes, greed does not fit.  This is the first time in my life where it has finally occurred to me that just because I would like to have a comfortable income and that I would like to be able to sell my paintings for something that approaches what I truly DO believe they are worth, does not mean I am a money-grubbing establishment capitalistic pig. I do not think successful business entrepreneurs who make more than $150,000 a year, or ten times that are awful people. So why the problem with being open with myself that I really would be happier if I were not poor… on the road to poor, having just survived three years of the real deal? (I sold my house, so I have money for a couple of years, while I try to learn to produce despite a pretty significant disability.) It made me smile just a bit, to think of Michael Douglas saying “Greed is good,” and accepting that, in myself, yeah. It’s there.

It motivates me to do more of what I love.

Selfishness is something many women struggle with. We think it is bad. We are brought up, often, to believe that putting ourselves first if we have families is wrong. Always. Oh, I am not talking about those ancient “Calgon®, take me away” commercials, where we are selfishly taking a bubble bath. I mean deciding to spend our time producing what we want to produce, rather than giving our all to the kids and our husbands.  When I was married and raising the kids, I was on disability for half of that time, just as I am on disability now.

I thought I had no right to use the disability income for clothes for myself, to go to the hairdresser, to even go out with my friends. I thought, because I was the kids’ main parent of the three of the parents, and was not earning money, that everything should be banked for them. I used my disability money for necessities, but not frivolities. I banked every dime of my stepkids’ disability for their schooling. It was my job not to be selfish. I did not write. I did not paint. I would not buy myself books, even.

Gee. What a surprise, I was not creative at all. I was half-dead inside. I do not think I am alone in this, where moms and wives are concerned. I think that the boomer generation and older were brought up to believe this was how we should be, all the while we grew up with feminism from our teen years on. HORRIBLE, wasteful, useless conflict.

Sefishness is necessary to productivity. Sometimes you need to block out all others’ needs to do your best, most fruitful work. I learned this as a freelancer, a bit before my marriage was blown up. Before that, the resentment of enforced selflessness erupted in the most destructive ways possible for my marriage. Oh, sure, my husband blew us up, but I was no prize as a wife. Period. The point is that a good hunk of selfishness allows us to work, and no one else suffers for that.

This backs up to self-doubt and arrogance. Most artists, I think, express the self-doubt, thinking that the arrogance and pride in our work is unjustified. It’s just art, after all. It’s not like it is valuable. My mom used to say, when I was proud of something I had done, “You’re not such a much.” It wasn’t truly that she felt what I had done was less than wonderful; it was that she did not want me to get full of myself and conceited. Inside, though, once again, I DID feel that I wrote more powerfully than lots of kids I knew. And I DID feel I sang well and had talent in visual arts. What I lived by for too long, though, was the thought that, really, who was I to always feel I should work for ME, not for a company?

Once I got rid of that after my divorce, I DID get off of disability. I turned on a computer for the first time in the Fall of 1992. In 1994 I had an “apprenticeship” in computer graphics with my graphics teacher, at her firm. I designed, did layout, and I taught computer graphics. By 1996 I was was the computer graphics layout person, a designer, a copywriter, and pen and ink illustrator for a small, successful Ad agency in PA. When I came back in 1998, I had my own business, working freelance for the Sunday newspaper magazine (It had a national reputation), doing marketing copy and design for two multi-million dollar nonprofits, and was writing copy for Northeastern University in Boston. And by 2001, I was the primary copywriter from my home, for the Stanford Center for Professional Development–part of the Graduate School of Engineering for Stanford University in California. It did not get better than that for me.

Distractibility helped me there. I am eclectic– curious and love science, human services causes, education, zoology, all sorts of things. It was the fact that I had a multidisciplinary background that Stanford wanted me. I am a butterfly, flitting from one subject to another to another, learning enough to satiate my curiosity, and then I move on.

I think it’s a must for artists. We bring our passions to our work, which is why one painting is different from another, from artist to artist. Why one writer’s voice differs from another. We apply our curiosity to our businesses.  So we live with a certain stasis: the need to move on lives alongside tremendous focus to finish a piece of art.

And if we do not have a dose of arrogance, how on earth can we expect to market ourselves to anyone?

I had never thought about these qualities in the same terms as the Copyblogger article. I think it was freeing for me, in a way. One day I will worry about pushing this blog. For now, it’s fun just to write about today. To write about why I did start from scratch and succeed.

It shows me that, having done it once, who is to say that even now, the sixty-year-old phoenix cannot rise to giddy limits again? Stanford was the height I shot for in the career I had. Living on the proceeds from my paintings and my personal writing is one height I shoot for now. And inside? Living EXTREMELY comfortably on them is a dream I rarely confess. Oops. The mail just came and I want to read my copy of SUN. Unless, of course,  I get distracted by a flower or something on my way to the mailbox…

And when I come back inside, a daydream or twelve may be in order.  Thank you, Copyblogger!

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Tutoring: a Joy and a Challenge

My nephew has been my student since he was ten. He is now fifteen. Few aunts and nephews know one another as we do.  He has watched my health deteriorate, yet treats me like a hero. I have watched him struggle with ADHD challenges, and I consider him a hero. We have been known to work together six hours a day for three days in a row, then do it again a week later, for mid-terms, for finals, for other things in between. We have tackled together Spanish, History, Math, Algebra I, Religion (he is in a Catholic school and neither of us is Catholic), Integrated Science, Chemistry, Biology, and English. I think that covers it pretty much.

When he was in public school, his mom and I watched the town inbred system start to choke the exuberance and creativity out of him. We watched it in his eyes. Adam is a musician, a dancer, a dreamer. Since he was small, it seemed as if he was a brand new soul to this earth. EVERYTHING new excited him. We called him snack boy for a while. By three, he knew how to work the private beach, flitting among blankets at just the moment that families opened the coolers, the baskets, the bags. He would giggle and run off with the snack of the moment. His parents recognized this as a great help with the budget. He was never hungry for dinner. He was such a light among other lights, the families did not mind feeding him. He was a born storyteller and could work the world as if he were working a room.

But schoolwork held some problems for him. Serious problems. Adam was born with extremely mild spina bifida, which presented challenges. He also was very much a tactile and audial learner. When one sat next to him, and had a hand on his shoulder, he focused pretty well. He had short-term memory glitches, so that if he worked too long, he could not recall bits of information he’d known cold an hour before.

I learned his patterns in elementary school. Adam was also adopted from Bolivia, and was growing up in a town whose prejudices were barely disguised… that is, when people bothered to even try to suppress them.

It was and is a society that had learned to label squirmy boys as ADHD and drug them to quiet them down. Adam’s mom did not care to do this to him. It was hard enough to see some of the light dim as Adam tried and failed at every team sport around. “I just don’t have the killer instinct, Mom,” he’d say. And his mom was not a woman who cared to foster that in him. Competition was one thing; winning at all costs, another.

By fifth grade, she decided to try him at the school he still attends. For Adam, it was the right choice, though not a perfect choice. We do not all have the money to access the perfect choice. His mom felt glad she could access any other school. Even there, however, Adam chose to keep his dancing, acting, and even his violin-playing under wraps for a couple of years. It was then that I began to work with him on a regular basis.

He was diagnosed with ADHD and some other learning idiosyncrasies, but it was not until halfway through the year that his mom finally decided to try medications. Fortunately, they helped him. They quieted the noise in his head, and he did not have the side effects others had. In fact, Adam became more confident during the seventh grade. He recognized they helped. His grades began to be consistently of honor roll caliber.

I was working with him one day, as we acted out the difference between revolutions and rotations, when discussing planetary action. I was the sun, of course. His mom was earth, he was the moon, and his sister chose to be Pluto, so she could be coolly apart from us.

We were prepping for his final exams. He turned to me and said, “I’m really not a stupid kid, am I. Why did they make me feel like I was a stupid kid?” His dark eyes were shiny and I had no acceptable answer.

I said, “There is absolutely no answer that makes sense or isn’t cruel. You have nothing to do with stupid. I am so proud to be your aunt and your tutor. I love working with you.”

I do not think there has been even one time when he has acted as if our work together was burdensome to him. I have never seen or known of a kid more willing to spend hours with his tutor, studying, writing, talking things out.

Well this past weekend, we had to do a research paper. He is a sophomore and his whole class was assigned a ten page research paper, their first, about a month ago. Their teacher did not discuss the process. She did not ask for a thesis statement. She did not talk about what was involved with outlining or index cards or drafts. She simply told them, three days before their spring vacation last week, that the paper would be do the Wednesday after their break. She told them, when they asked questions, to simply refer to the twenty-page style manual. She collected no work during the process.

Her tests were consistently drawing low C’s and D’s from nine out of eleven students, but since two students got B’s or A’s, she’d discount the rest of the children as lazy. One of the achievers has a photographic memory–or whatever that is called now. The other is younger than the rest and has an IQ off the charts. She is not in the honors section because of a scheduling conflict. We have watched Adam’s self-confidence sink bit by bit, as this English course ate into his time for other work. This was the year he was to put to use the lessons learned in our years of studying each week together.

Unfortunately, we both realized, along with his mom, that he needed me again to get through the year. And this paper. We spent three days and approximately twenty hours of work together on this paper. Adam needs structure for long assignments. He likes to have steps written out, so he can check them off. None of this is unusual. Frankly, research papers have been taught in the same way since the 1950s. Step by step, with the teacher collecting each step, giving feedback and guidance. They hand in a rough draft and then have suggestions for the final. Their citations and bibliographies are TAUGHT. Adam’s class had none of this.

Plus, the assignment itself was vague, and when he asked for help, the teacher simply barked at him to just DO it. And we did. He chose a literature genre, legends, that he’d studied. He chose five legends and we narrowed it down to three. Together, we found–as instructed–a secondary source on each legend. HE found some common threads beyond the definition of legend. There was no time for note cards at this point. We tackled a thesis statement together. We developed a general outline that simply organized the thoughts he expressed to me, and I asked him to write a “garbage draft” and have it ready for us for this past weekend.

In the meantime, I did research as well, just in case we needed more. I read his style manual and the other MLA sixty-page guide she said they should use. When I was done, I was more confused. Fortunately, Adam was not. He’d found a plug in site, where he could put in information and the site spit out the cite. YES.

What is my point? Adam learned NOTHING of how to approach a paper. Next year he will be in Honors English, but, unlike the honors students, he will not have had any guidance in process. What he did learn was how to write a comparative lit. essay. What I learned is that Adam has an unusual talent in assimilating information from many disciplines in creative ways. What he learned was the value of a garbage draft. For the first time in his life, he simply sat at the computer and wrote without censorship. He read all his research, as I suggested, then wrote, referring ONLY to the outline. The draft was more than ten pages, which was perfect.

Together, we hammered out a rough draft which HE had to edit before I did. I had suggested he not worry about a conclusion or more than a rough introduction, until we’d finished the guts. By the end, we were punch drunk.  I made us stop mid-sentence and suggested we go have our dinners. (He went to his dad’s. I stayed with his mom.) I pointed out that Adam often had his best writing moments in the first twenty minutes he returned to work after dinner.

My ADHD “lazy” nephew, the kid his GUIDANCE COUNSELOR said we should just accept as a “C student,” looked at the paper, and in twenty minutes, reworked the introduction and wrote a stunning conclusion without my help. In the process, he had realized he saw a new thread he had followed that, to him, made legend different from myths or ballads or fables. He changed a few sentences in the guts to emphasize this thread and wrote his conclusion in a style that mirrored the introduction, yet stated it in a more forceful, moving way.

He said, “Is this more like what you taught me yesterday about parallel construction?” It was. “Have I made it clear it’s my opinion without using I or me?” He had.

He teared up again and said, “You helped me all along, but I really CAN call it my paper, can’t I!” Indeed he could.

I told him never to let me hear him refer to himself as stupid again. Yesterday, his mom called me. Their teacher was OUT and might be out today. The paper is due tomorrow, Wednesday. The writer of the style manual was filling in and was appalled with SIX of the eleven kids were in tears. They had tried to write the paper, did not understand how to do it, what she wanted, or how to cite. He asked whether they had been taught each step. Nope. He asked whether any had finished their work and just two raised their hands.

Adam was one. The teacher looked at his paper, and smiled at him. Adam admitted immediately that he’d had help, but the teacher hushed him and said, “You ALL should have had help. Adam, this is really good, but I hear you in it. I am glad you had someone to help you, but I recognize your voice.”

It was the first time Adam realized that anyone had heard his voice. He realized that someone thought he was smart, aside from his mom and me. His friends all asked if he could help THEM, even the little girl who was younger. His friends.

And I learned the meaning of perseverance and patience, not because of anything I did, but because of him. HIS work. His willingness to talk about everything he thought, to try every suggestion I offered, to keep at it until it was done. I learned something about legends as a literary form because he taught me.

Sunday night we’d discussed the fact that he was not a loser because he had a challenge. I asked him if he thought I was a loser because I had gotten heavy, now that walking was so hard for me. He’d said, “Of course not. I mean, you keep walking even though it hurts.”

I asked him how that was any different from what HE did? He keeps trying even though it takes his time from what he loves. Even though it takes him longer to learn sometimes. For the first time, I saw that light bulb thing go off. It really DOES look like that.

“I’m not a loser. I’m not stupid. I want to be a teacher, I think. I want to do it right, so kids like me don’t feel the way I’ve felt. I mean, not just ADHD.” And he told me they were studying racisim, slavery, prejudice, in history. And he talked about the racism he’d had to endure, something about which I know NOTHING. Not as he knows it. “I want to teach history, how we got to bad places, so we can not go there any more. I want to make kids feel like you make me feel.”

I think that was the best thing I have ever heard from him or any other child. But just when he and I were starting to feel too sentimental, he looked at me and said, “Well. Unless I decide to be a famous rock star.” And he ran off to play with his X-box.

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I Sold a Painting, Started a Series

Let  me start by saying that I have painted before. I have finished others and have given them as gifts, but this is a special event for me, actually selling my work.

The banner of my blog is one of my paintings, too. It was a dream that has returned half a dozen times through life, haunting to be painted, but I was afraid. For years, I’ve dreamed paintings and would wake up thinking how great it would be to paint them. Mostly I would wander down the lane of fame and fortune and what I’d say to Oprah and it all died there.

Somewhere along the line I decided that Oprah would never call unless I actually painted. then, once I began to paint, to lose myself in the bliss of something so simple, Oprah disappeared. This winter scene, however, was my first.

I was afraid I could not paint it. I was afraid it would not be perfect, and it is not perfect. The thing is, however, it didn’t have to be. For the first time in my life, I was happy with it anyway. The finished piece  has more contrast between the left and right, and parts of it glow. Parts of it nearly blind for the brightness. My sister and I were on a crater lake somewhere near Sant Fé in February. We’d left the city warm, with crocuses blooming and that air freshness only spring allows. WE looped south and there it was,  this was a magical spot, we’d found by the road and we found our boots in the trunk, as well as the coats and gloves. It was sixty in town. Forty out here.

My sister set up to draw and I set to climb around a bit. I wanted to feel the place. I stood watching the sun rise and wondered whether the mark between night and day happened right there every day. BOOM. A line just so, on one side, night, on the other morning. I imagined a line, not a gradual lifting into day. I wrote a story in my mind about how day lassoed night and would throw it off to dissipate.

Years before then, Jean Ellen and I had flown to Paris and she woke me up, saying, JEtty, look outside, quickly.  Dawn lay in a pool ahead of me, this pool of light. That was the effect it had on me.  We were headed straight into that pool, it seemed, soon to be engulfed in day. I wanted to paint that, but did not know how. I still can’t. PErhaps one day.

But we spoke of that lake, Jean Ellen and I. And we spoke of our experiences flying into the day, watching the night come at us full throttle. I asked if she’d ever painted the experience, and she said it wasn’t her thing, “But I bet it will be yours. You want the bigger than life experiences, don’t you.”

I guess she’s right. I do. I have since finished the painting that is this blog’s banner. There is more contrast. It is bolder. I have another that is my experience of Pennsylvania jungle, for jungle it is. Hot springs, lush growth you can hear grow when you let yourself. So many greens.

This past October we had a blizzard. It was an anomoly. White on orange and yellow. In the night I was awakened by what sounded like barrages of gunshots. Branches breaking fro the weight of snow on fully leaved boughs. The world was a cacophony of twisted piles of branches, a study of yellow, scarlets, green, and white. People lost their homes to the weight of five trees falling. Flood waters raised to second story windows, and we saw families in flannels and Christmas wraps, huge moose slippers and santa caps the warmth they grabbed at midnight.

It was terrifying; it was magnificent. I was lucky to be in an apartment. My only inconvenience was to be without electricity for heat. Most of my food didn’t even spoil. I walked a bit, disturbed at the five foot walls lining each street. Walls of highly colored branches, coated with a wet, heavy snow. Children had made maniacal snowmen, using dirt to fill in where the snowballs just weren’t large enough. The song “Mad world” went through me, over and over.

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Yet I wondered at the beauty. For I do not remember seeing any fall that could rival this. The frozen coating on leaves made them shine that bright morning. There were blinding piles of leaves to entertain. So I painted one particular pile, and my neighbors thought me nuts. I told them that, yes, in fact, I am, but would this prove problematic to them? The couple was quiet for a few moments, then said, “No. It’s about time someone interesting move in Welcome.”

Another blessed change since I’d moved here. In my house neighborhood people affected smiles as they past. Occasionally one might pass the day by asking why my husband and I never seemed to go out. Or they’d ask about the trees. I had so many near my house, wasn’t I afraid. Why would I ever want so many oaks, for heaven’s sake. Or they’d say that they wished the forsythia bush would be yanked out. Other than that, though, they believed my yard was the prettiest in the neighborhood.

But I digress. I painted. And painted.

And it is called simply “October Blizzard.” Within two weeks it has been sold!  I did not have to ask the price, the woman offered and she will pay postage and insurance.

This is the direction I hope my painting will take anyway. I love juxtaposing things when I write, so why not when I paint? And it goes to show the power of blogging, because the woman buying it is a follower of a different blog of mine. The sale has made me cry. I started to shake when I realized it was happening. It was as if a whole new chapter of my life had begun at last. The journey that had taken me out of my home of twenty-one years to my apartment felt true.

I am a phoenix rising at last. I have had false starts, where in the back of my mind were those silly, Maybe he will come back and won’t he be surprised asininity. Unfinished business. I have had so many physicla roadblocks and I nearly did muse;

So That’s that. Here on WordPress, where I do not know yet what I’m doing. Everything is different here, and I want my blog to be different as well. My other blog still teaches me and I will keep it, but this one is about starting over. Fresh. I am exploring the artist in my in a very serious way. I am exploring my MIND in a new way. too.

I truly am starting over and the excitement overwhelms me. I have no idea how long the money will afford me the life I’ve started, but that’s okay. My longterm financial future’s less than stellar. For now, though. For now I have a roof over my head with room to paint. I have friends. I have dreams. I have to ability to turn these dreams into something that can save my life.

It’s up to me to learn how to make it happen. How wonderful is that? Truly. I may surprise myself. I’ve already surprised myself… I’d best get to sleep though, so I can see what happens tomorrow.

I think I am alone in here, though. I wonder whether anyone will even find my blog, let alone read it and stay. Yet I’ll keep going. It’s fun simply to write again.

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Phoenix Rising, Yet Again

Throughout my life, I’ve felt I’ve had to fly up out of the ashes at least three times.  This blog is about this flight. Now. As I speed toward sixty and beyond.

I never thought I would feel brand new, or that I would so much like the eight year old Jetty, who believed that miracles lay just beyond my sight in almost every direction. Yet here I am, and I do.

I also never thought that I would be alone, poor, and unable to walk more than two hundred feet without feeling my back collapse. Yet here I am, and this is how I am.

Inside, I am newer than I have been in my adult life. Outside? Well, not so much. Yet at long last, I just don’t much care about the packaging any more.  I do the best I can there, and I hope there will be improvement, but I can live with where I am if I must.
This blog is about the joy of recreating my life according to my dreams.  It’s about the miracle of launching into a brand new life and feeling that sense of flying, that sense of myself as a phoenix yet again.  Our culture likes to say that we are pretty much done at sixty.  We hand the reins over to younger people, and we tend to say that the world is theirs now.

Why? Why is it only theirs? Why do we give in to this culture that tends to want us to go play golf, live in Florida, and be good grandparents?  Lately, I have read some wonderful blogs by people who have changed careers, moved to new countries, or gone out of retirement and back to work because they wanted to.I have also read blogs written by people at different stages of life who have had to start over, or move to plan B.

Personally, I think I am on Plan Q, but that’s another story.

Eventually, I hope to link to websites and blogs written by people who have recreated their lives for the joy and passion of living life–people who have done this at ages beyond fifty-five.

For now, I will start writing my own story. My own journey.  The personal stuff is in a different blog, the food for the memoir I am writing. For now I want to keep those stories separate. I am living very much in the moment by and large. I am trying not to look too far ahead; that’s something we boomers do. We try to map our futures out, and we worry.

No more. If I have learned one thing from the last six years, in particular, it’s this: we fool ourselves into thinking we can map our our futures and set the plan in stone. Planning is fun and it’s useful. Going after a dream, all out, is a wonderful thing. Still, we have to remember that something can happen at any time to change our direction for us. A dream can be taken without warning. I have never had my life plan work. Something has happened to change it, and while it has often been painful, sometimes it has turned out quite magnificently.

Right now, though, I am one of the lucky Americans. I have enough money to keep me in my new apartment for at least another two years, possibly more. I have nothing much for beyond that, true. In fact, all I have is Social Security, which is not enough to keep me on my own. Still, I have to be acutely aware of people who do not have this opportunity that I now have.  I can write and I can paint. These have always been my dreams and now I am living those dreams. Art has no age.

I’m nearly sixty. I can neither walk nor sit for long stretches. I cannot hold any job at this point. The pain has taken a toll, physically, in every way. Yet this pain has freed me from more conventional constraints, and for that alone, I refuse to curse the disability that has me in this position now.

A friend once told me he wished I could get up every day and choose whether to paint, write, or rest without having to worry. Hey, old friend. I’m doing it! We are nearly sixty and have just begun to fly. You are flying, too, and following your entrepreneurial spirit. How lucky we are.

Again.  I hope you’ll join me along the way. I hope you’ll share  your own flights as well. I hope we will inspire younger people not to fear aging.

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