Floors, Walls, and Headaches

When my toddler gets frustrated, she sometimes bangs her forehead on the floor.

Erm…ouch.

She doesn’t hit it terribly hard (no bruising) and I’ve heard from other more experienced mothers that this is not an uncommon phenomenon and that she will probably grow out of it before long. Eventually she will realize that it hurts. And that she is doing it to herself.

In the meantime, I have to stand by, make sure she doesn’t do any real damage, and try not to reinforce the behavior by overreacting to it. But it hurts me to watch her inflict pain on herself, especially when she pauses, rubs her forehead and looks at me with this wounded expression as if I somehow made her do it by not letting her eat my lip balm. Again.

No one taught her to do this. My husband and I don’t habitually knock our noggins on the ground to emphasize our displeasure. And yet, she steadfastly bangs her head on the floor to punctuate a moment of upset or sometimes as a way to vent bursts of uncontrollable high energy. Really. Sometimes she giggles afterward. Crazy child.

The days roll by. These spurts of self-inflicted pain happen occasionally. I watch and shake my head, thinking, “Stop hurting yourself. Just get up and move on.”

It took saying those words out loud to realize just how applicable they are to me and my relationship to creativity…and really to countless other things in my life.

I think back to all the times I have wanted to do something–creative or otherwise–and have come up against a seemingly insurmountable barrier. Time, money, fear, being a parent–they can seem like daunting walls between me and what I want or need. It’s easy to shrug off the things I want, thinking that my ship has sailed or that only people without children get to do that or that I don’t have the time or money. I just build up all of the reasons why things won’t work out and when I get frustrated about them, I wind up banging my head up against the walls I’ve built. It’s as if that self-inflicted pain is my way of saying, “Look! I’m trying to get what I want but it’s just not working.” Even though it hurts, head banging feels slightly better than doing nothing. Or so I think.

At times like that, I rub the bruise on my forehead, and look heavenward to the ultimate Father figure in my life and scowl. “You gave me this life. You’re meant to open windows when you close doors or some nonsense like that. Where are the windows? Where are the doors? I can’t get past this wall!”

And then I imagine God shaking His head and smiling at me. “That’s not a wall,” He says. “That’s the floor. Now get up and get moving.”

Oh. Right. I knew that.

So I’m not unlike my toddler. Sometimes I get so bogged down by all the seeming barriers between me and my creativity that I don’t notice that I’ve melted to the ground and started flailing in my own grown up tantrum. But I don’t have to bang my head on the floor. I can stand up and move on. Sure, there are also walls involved. There’s no denying that there will be things in my way as I try to move forward, but I will keep looking for windows, doors, cracks, mouse holes–anything to help get me past it or to at least glimpse what’s on the other side.

TAG: Starting on May 1, I am committing to a new level of tackling the blocks in my creative life by doing Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” course. I invite you to try it with me. You can find her book here or at a local library. It would be fun to have your company in this self-guided spiritual path to artistic recovery. I’ve done the course once before and it works wonders.

Oh and speaking of barriers, you know that Artist Parent Theatre Lab I started and how no one attended my first meetup? I scheduled another meetup for next week. And someone RSVPed “yes.”

 

Baby Steps

Late last year, after being in a particularly stubborn creative funk, I pulled out my notebook and wrote out a list of truths that I needed to reconcile. As I wrote them out, I found myself also writing potential solutions in response.

Truth: I want to create and perform in theatre pieces.

Solution: I need to create opportunities to fulfill this desire.

Truth: I fear that I am limited by being stay at home mom.

Solution: I need to create opportunities to perform that work with my chosen stay at home mom lifestyle.

Truth: I miss the camaraderie of making theatre with others. I need connection.

Solution: The opportunities I create must involve partnering with others.  

There was something cathartic in just seeing these precious and deeply felt desires written out. Instead of letting them tangle inside of me in a sticky mass of discontentment, I could face them on the page. I could breathe easier, seeing that my frustration could be boiled down to a handful of simple statements. I still didn’t know what to do about the imbalances and holes in my artistic life, but at least I had named them. That was enough.

Then a few months later, I took a risk and started the Artist Parent Playground blog. Some people even read it. Some even seem to appreciate what it’s all about and give me hope that it might really turn into an interactive online community someday. And for a while, that writing outlet and potential was enough.

That brings us to this month.

My baby girl just turned one and looking back on the past year gave me lots of reasons to celebrate. And lots of reasons to realize how different and sometimes nonexistent my creative life has become since she was born. I felt stuck again–between being overjoyed at my good fortune to be at home raising this effervescent little person and being outraged that I didn’t have the freedom to just go out and make theatre the way I used to. And, if I was honest, I wasn’t even all that good at seizing the creative day before I was a mom and realizing that I had missed a lot of opportunities pre-baby, left me even more frustrated with myself.

Then I happened to flip through my trusty notebook and came across my list again. And even though it took me half a year, I finally decided to do something about it.

We’re still relatively new to the area and while we have definitely connected with some wonderful people here, I have yet to break into any kind of theatre scene, mostly because of my time constraints with having a toddler. So I took matters into my own hands and took another risk. I started a Meetup Group.

Meetup is a handy online platform that helps you “find your people.” You can enter your interests into the database and then see if there are any groups of people who share those interests in your area. If you don’t find something that fits, you can organize your own Meetup Group. It’s a great tool for meeting people when you’ve moved to a new place or when you’re looking to get involved in a new activity.

I created an account and have joined a number of groups that have to do with parenting, theatre, or creativity, but have found that I have scheduling conflicts with a lot of them. I still hope to make it to some of the meetups put on by the groups I’ve joined, but I didn’t want to just wait for my daughter’s routine to change in order to start networking with other artist parents. So I made the decision to invest in organizing my own group: Artist Parent Theatre Lab.

The point of Artist Parent Theatre Lab really is to have an extended, practical application for the creative work/play I want to promote on Artist Parent Playground. I love writing for this blog and dearly hope that it will start to feel more and more like a community as it grows and as other artist parents begin sharing their insights. But I also want to work with other artist parents in person and strive to create some of the performing opportunities that I so dearly miss.

So Artist Parent Theatre Lab is for artist parents in the west Toronto area who are interested in meeting at public parks and playgrounds, kids in tow, and devising theatre pieces together. It’s an experiment in redefining conventional rehearsals and performances. The group has five members so far and our first meetup was yesterday.

No one came.

To be honest, I wasn’t really surprised. No one had RSVPed “yes” and with only 5 members scattered all over west Toronto, the odds of even one person being able to attend at the totally random time and place I had chosen was slim. But my daughter and I went to the meetup anyway, just the two of us. We stretched out on a blanket in the sunshine, I jotted down some blog post ideas and even an idea for a short theatre sketch while she played with my car keys. We had a picnic lunch together, photographed the playground, and then went on our merry way.

I’ll try again. I’ve changed the settings of the group to cast the net a little wider on Meetup. Hopefully more people will join. Hopefully people will commit to actually showing up once in a while. For now, I will keep scheduling meetups. My daughter and I will keep going and, if nothing else, it will be precious, planned out creativity time for both of us. For now, that’s enough.

Looking back on the path I’ve taken from writing a list, to launching a blog, and now starting Artist Parent Theatre Lab, I recognize a familiar pattern that I’ve observed in my daughter. In December, she pulled herself up to standing for the first time. Then she didn’t do it again for two weeks. She knew she was capable, but didn’t feel like going for it again. Then one day, she was suddenly standing all the time. It became the new normal. She did the same thing with walking. She clearly had excellent balance and strength and I could see that she could totally take some steps if she tried. But she didn’t try. Not for months. And then she walked half way across the living room. But she still favored crawling for a week. And then suddenly she was walking all over the house and hasn’t looked back since.

It seems fair to assume that we’re all capable of more than we think we are. Or maybe we even know how capable we are, but we’re scared or just not ready to tap that potential. But then one day, we wake up and face down whatever obstacle we’ve let stand in our way and we take a step forward. And we might back away away for a while or we might stand still in that new place for a good long time before trying another step in any direction. But for me at least, there is solace in knowing that it will happen when I’m ready. Whenever that is.

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Upside Down

My daughter loves being upside down.

Part of our morning ritual involves her facing me while sitting on my lap and then diving backwards, head first, while I hold her hands to keep her from hitting the floor. This brings her utmost delight. She giggles with her entire body as she performs this backwards dive over and over and over again. She never wants to stop. In fact, she seems content to hang upside down indefinitely and even resists my tugs to bring her upright.

I’ve done this kind of dipping activity with lots of children over the years. There seems to be something deeply appealing about being upside down when we are very young.

As an adult, I tend to want things to be in their proper place. I feel most content with a clean kitchen, with chairs tucked in at the table, with clothes in the dressers instead of piled on the bed or floor. I like routine. I like knowing when my appointments are, when I’ll run errands, what time my daughter will (hopefully) nap and eat meals. I like knowing what to expect.

But life–and having kids–has a way of turning things upside down. Sometimes literally.

A chair topples over after being used as a make shift walker for a newly mobile toddler. Cups spill. Book pages are lovingly–okay sometimes violently–flipped from back to front and facing the wrong way. But then again, who am I to say that any of this is the “wrong” way?

Sure, I ultimately want to teach my daughter to treat objects gently, but she’s in this incredible process of discovery and taking me along for the ride. I never thought of my dining room chairs as walkers. She opened my eyes to that possibility by zooming around our hard wood floors. When she tips a cup over, sometimes it spills and she learns about cause and effect. And sometimes other cups fill me with awe and gratitude for the people who have developed lids that actually don’t leak. Talk about creative parent geniuses. And as for upside down books–I’ve sometimes peered over her shoulder as she “reads” to herself and found a detail in the illustrations that I had never noticed before when reading the book the “right” way.

We don’t always get a choice about what will turn our lives topsy turvy. Feeling helpless about changes can paralyze us, but actively choosing change can empower us to shake out of the mundane and discover new possibilities. How might we conscientiously turn even little parts of our lives upside down to get some new perspective and maybe even find some creative inspiration? A few ideas come to mind:

*Dangle upside down from the edge of your couch or your bed. Look around the rooms that you might take for granted and see them in a new way.

*Take a few everyday objects in the house, flip them over, and go about the rest of your day, just to shake up your surroundings.

*Do you always shower or put dishes away in the same order? Try reversing it. You might like it. You might hate it. It won’t hurt.

*Write a poem starting with the last line and working backwards.

*Too rainy or cold to go outside? Do it anyway. Embrace the cold, wet, muddy mess that will result.

The possibilities are endless. Why not take some time to shake things up a bit today? After all, we often flip over the ketchup bottle to so that it’s easier to get the good stuff out when we need it next. Sounds like something all artists could use. Feel like you’re scraping the bottom of your creativity barrel? Flip the barrel over. There’s probably more in there than you think.

 

What Artist Parents Make

When I was in high school, the poet Taylor Mali came to perform some of his work for a special school assembly. I had never heard of a slam poet before and I was blown away by the powerful, playful, and conversational way he wrote and delivered his poems. I never forgot it.

In college, I sought Taylor’s permission to perform “How Falling In Love Is Like Owning A Dog” for a class. I still smile when I recall the warm, personal message I received in response giving me the thumbs up and how much fun I had performing the poem. Sometimes simple similes can provide profound clarity. (And opportunities for me to use far too much alliteration.)

I’ve continued to follow Taylor’s work over the years and my longstanding favorite is “What Teachers Make.” This poem has some bite and a bit of language, but golly have I always loved the stand that Taylor makes for teachers everywhere and how vital they are in creating the upstanding and intelligent adults of tomorrow. Yes, teachers are invaluable in the creative process of educating and developing decent grown up human beings.

Parents are in a similar boat. We play a huge role in the creative process of raising these tiny people to become well-rounded, useful, loving not-so-tiny people. That’s huge. Massive really. And sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough.

Sometimes I feel trapped in an ever whirling cycle of confidence and self-doubt as both an artist and a parent. Lately, the nasty voices in my head have been asking me the same question that ignorant lawyer once asked Taylor Mali, “What do you make? You call yourself an artist, but what do you have to show for it?”

It’s as if choosing to become a parent and do less in the professional art world means that I am selling myself short. It’s as if I’ve already given up being an artist and now all I can hope to do is to live vicariously through the creative lives of my children. Those nasty voices snicker, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, have kids and hope that someday the kids can” or “Those other people have kids and still make a lot more art than you do, so what’s your problem? You can’t call yourself an artist.”

That’s when I have to stick my fingers in my ears and hum my favorite song loudly to drown out that destructive nonsense. I make room for the useful voices. The true voices. The ones that sometimes sound an awful lot like my husband:

“No one gets to tell you whether or not you are an artist or whether or not the art you make is ‘real’ art. You are an artist because you say you are. Because you feel and know that you are. You don’t need anyone’s permission or validation for that to be true. You don’t need to create a specific product in order to be an artist. You’re an artist because that’s who you are.”

Right. I take a deep breath. I shake free of the riffraff and remember that I am an artist. I remember that in so many ways, all parents are artists.

So what do artists make?

I recently Googled that question and was disturbed to find that most of the top ten search results were about how artists make money or how much money artists make. Really? That’s what comes up first? No wonder the nasty voices are so pervasive.

I might not be a slam poet, but I’ve got a whole lot of passion about defending the creative goldmine that is being an artist parent.

What do we make? 

We make children.

We make living, breathing works of art that are the future of civilization. We make homes. We make safe places for our children to play and grow in. We put up baby gates and cupboard latches even though they are a pain the butt.

We make imaginations grow and read the same books over and over and over again and yes, we do all the voices.

We make time to play with our kids and let them know that they are important.

We make spoons into airplanes and choo choo trains.

We make strong-willed, self-centered miniature humans share and say “please” and “thank you” and “I’m sorry.”

We make mistakes and let the tiny eyes that are always watching us know that they can make mistakes too and still be superheroes.

We make beds and school lunches and play dates and soccer practices.

We make love with our partners and make more children and make time to paint, sing, dance, bake, write–whatever we need to make, to make us feel like we are the artists we know we are. Because it’s not selfish to want to make the more conventional works of art too.

But we make ourselves remember that these children are our most precious creations. And even on days and weeks and years when we feel out of balance in our artist parent identities, we always, always make a difference.

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