To speak of sorrow

“To speak of sorrow
works upon it”

from Denise Levertov’s “To Speak”

I haven’t felt like writing.

After the big report on climate change and biodiversity was made public in May, I feel paralyzed, stunned, crushed, blank, undone, guilty, sad, depressed, grieving, grey, blue, flat.  It’s not that we didn’t know it was coming, but the news still hit hard. Given the state of the world—one million plant and animal species at risk of extinction, with humans at fault—writing anything that doesn’t contribute to solving the problem seems frivolous. Blogs, poetry, fiction: all of it seemed trivial, narcissistic, diversionary. And yet the fire to read and to write continues to burn, regardless of the state of the world.

Sadness upon sadness: a couple of weeks after the climate report I learned of a young man dying of a drug overdose. Sure, it happens every day, but when you know the family, the sadness hits your solar plexus. My raw and open heart told me to sew. Working with cloth, with objects, feels healing. Even in the midst of sadness and paralysis—perhaps because of the sadness–the work wants to be made. So I sew, and plant, and draw, and write.

Sewing

I have slowly been making a quilt using pieces of my stepson Alex’s t-shirts. He died at age 27 in the summer of 2016 when the car he was a passenger in plunged into a deep ravine. This slow craft is my way of memorializing him. When I heard the news that Logan, who had gone to school with my sons, died two weeks ago at age 25 from a drug overdose, I was again plunged into sadness. I paused in my quilt-making to sew death’s pennant.

Pennants typically celebrate the accomplishments of sports teams, but here the “accomplishment” is early death and wasted life, symbolized by the useless buttons that fasten nothing.  I used scraps of Alex’s t-shirts, reminding me of his death but also reverberating with the deaths of all those who die young. Birth leads to death and then back to birth: I chose blood red cloth, the ruddy triangle representing the fertile womb from which we all came.

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Planting, writing

I decided to look closely at a very small part of the natural world and pour my love into that. I won’t be saving any species, but perhaps focusing my energy on a little mound of dirt and a flowering plant will be healing at this time of grief.

When we had our perimeter drains replaced in the winter, the contractor told me he would have to dig up the garden. Did I want him to save any of the plants? I dug up some of the small ones myself, storing them in the shed. “Can you save just four? I’ve tagged them with red ribbon.” The white peony, the two lavender plants, and my favourite, the big blue hydrangea.  During all of the chaos that erupted in front and back yards, the mounds of dirt, the rain and mud, planks of wood bridging the mucky walkways, I lost track of my hydrangea. Eventually, they put her back in the earth, but as March turned to April and April to May, nothing happened. The dry brown sticks remained barren. I could see no life at all.

I was unhappy. I loved that plant. So many times I had sat on the living room couch and gazed out our big picture window at the full-blown blue globes. Marvelled as they changed hue from soft Egyptian blue to darker indigo, then became edged in violet, and finally took on a full, deep purple as late summer turned to fall.

The loss felt deeper than simply a favourite plant dying. I felt stirrings of an old feeling I hadn’t felt for ages. When I was in my 30’s I was part of a Deep Ecology circle. The five members met over several weeks, taking turns hosting, and during each session we’d discuss material we’d read by some of the greats of the movement: Arne Naess and Warwick Fox, for example.  I don’t remember much from the experience except that we visited a local Wiccan gathering and learned how to do the grapevine step as part of the spiral dance. More than any event or book, however, I remembered a feeling from that time, and the feeling was coming back to me like pinpricks of sensation return to a numb limb. We have been desensitized, have learned to turn away from Earth, to tune out her sufferings, because to really feel them, to empathize with her would be too much for us to to stand. Overwhelming. But when we allow ourselves to connect with her, we start to feel the deep grief and outrage appropriate to the situation we are all in.

My dead hydrangea had come to symbolize all of the destruction of the earth, and I grieved over her death for weeks.

Finally, last weekend I bought some potted hydrangeas from a garden center and placed them on the front steps.  I put on my orange gardening gloves and got the pointed shovel. “I’ll dig her out and replace it with another,” I thought to myself. I knew it couldn’t be the same; I had loved that particular hydrangea. She had generously given her bunches of lapis lazuli every summer and fall. One of those bunches I had dried and the lovely antiqued florets graced the bathroom cabinet in a delft vase. She was even a character in one of my short comics. Hydrangea was cherished.

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But I couldn’t stand to look at the dry sticks any longer. As I started to push the shovel into the ground to pull out the roots, I noticed a few green leaves at the centre of the plant. What? How had I missed that? Had it happened overnight? Although the main part of the plant appeared lifeless, there was life—tender new shoots and rich green leaves at the heart.  So I went back to the shed, excited, to grab the long clippers and instead of pulling out the plant at her roots, I clipped back all of the dead sticks to expose her new child. Beside this little green girl, I dug a hole and introduced a friend—one of the new hydrangea plants just out of a plastic pot.  I’ll watch the two loves grow together this summer, probably not producing any flowers just yet, but hopefully thriving as they reach for the sky under my gaze from the living room window.

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We have to be honest with ourselves

I usually have several things percolating. Right now it’s Inktober, so I’m doing a sketch every day inspired by the prompts, keeping my drawing loose and free and generative. Jake Parker started Inktober in 2009. He wanted to improve his inking skills so he set out to make 31 ink drawings during the 31 days of October, and the idea blossomed.  Here are drawings prompted by 1) cruel and 2) weak. All of them are on Instagram: @maddyruthwalker 

 

Next, there’s Loren’s butterfly quilt, and I feel a bit stalled, though I have booked a solitary quilting weekend in November to finish it. I had tried to “cut corners,” even when I know that is always a mistake. Trying to skimp on time, materials, money, or love. . . this strategy always backfires on me. I have all of these old batting scraps and thought, well rather than buying a new big whole piece, I will just sew them together loosely by hand and it will be fine. I hate to waste them, after all. I am frugal. And then I realized I didn’t have basting spray to put the layers together, so I figured, well I bet if I put a few pins in the quilt it will all stay together enough for me to quilt it. So I did that, always hopeful, but in the back of my mind remembering other times that I’d donned my rose-coloured spectacles and done  something not very sensible, yet still unreasonably hoping for the best.

Sure enough, after machine quilting about one-quarter of the quilt I noticed the puckering and unevenness: The lack of basting spray combined with cobbled-together-batting created shifting fabric and resulted in a lumpy mess.  Furious with myself, I decided to rip the whole thing out, buy the spray, buy the batting and stop trying to cheap out on stuff.  But when I ripped out the stitching, being mad instead of patient, I ripped too hard and tore holes into the quilt top. So then I had three little rips that I had to patch.

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Hiding my mistakes in plain sight

Deep breath, accept what just happened, I told myself. I created three little patches, not in matching cloth, but in contrasting cloth. Hiding my mistakes openly. The patches are obvious cues that something went wrong, but the mistake itself, the ugly rip, is covered. Hiding in plain sight. Whenever I quilt, I am reminded that things take time. What’s the rush?

My illustrated memoir, Sow’s Ear Purse is coming along (about 150 pages so far).  I am including the first five pages, below.  Sometimes I grab bits from other pieces I’ve written and incorporate them into the memoir. After all, I am making a sow’s ear purse, not a silk one. Please let me know what you think.

My storytelling flow class with Tom Hart at Sequential Artists Workshopis almost over; we are all scripting and putting together the final iteration of our stories.  Mine is about Niobe, a woman who grew up in Dogland and became King Ambrose’s seamstress, only to hear the distressing news that he is a sexual predator, so she plans an escape to Cat Island, a loving and benign kingdom. But some urgent news interrupts her flight.   Maybe I’ll post the full comic here once it’s finished. . . . Stay tuned.

I hope you are engaged in your own creative processes this month.

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We have to be honest with ourselves

“We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see our gut, our real shit, our most undesirable parts. We have to see that. That is the foundation of warriorship and the basis for conquering fear.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,  Smile at Fear, p. 6

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I’m losing my memory, and with it, all of my memories.  I’m frightened that I won’t know my sons, my husband. That I’ll forget who I am and what I was. When I’ve lost that, I won’t be anybody. My thoughts, memories, and ideas will float away, like helium balloons, lighter than air, and what’s left will be a husk of me, the functioning yet deteriorating body, the spark of intellect extinguished. Arthritic hands will fumble over the TV remote, an ugly knitted afghan pulled over my plump aching knees.  I’ll ask my caregiver, “what’s for lunch?” only to be told, “you’ve just had lunch, dear. It’s time for your nap.” Well, you might think, that can happen to anybody.

The thing is, my brain is different from other people’s; it’s not just the inevitable memory loss associated with aging that terrifies me. The memory lapses ageing brings are now meeting the earlier damage my brain suffered from blackout drinking as a teenager. I imagine my mind right now as a slim sandbar with a black tide rising on either side. The lapping Lethe-like waves surround me and it’s only a matter of time until one touches the other, the foamy lip of old brain damage kissing the lacy dribble from age’s drooping mouth. Over the course of my life I have known that my hippocampus is different from other people’s.  There is something missing, some capacity for cementing details that others seem to have, the train into long-term memory is stuck at the station. I’ll read a novel, see a film and two weeks later it’s gone—as if erased. This was happening even in my thirties and forties. It’s a miracle I was able to remember enough of what I read and learned to complete a Ph.D. in my late forties. Now that I am turning sixty, it’s only grown worse. If I don’t write things down, they are lost.

In “Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf describes with sensuous detail her first memories—the “red and purple flowers on a black ground” of her mother’s dress, and then lying half asleep in a nursery bed at St. Ives, the Woolf’s seaside house in Cornwall, hearing the waves breaking behind the yellow blind, “the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out.  [My earliest memories are] of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.” (p. 65). Later in the sketch are captures of scenes and places wrought with photographic intimacy, a closeness that made me start to weep when I realized I have only a few dry kernels of remembrance rattling around my mind. Woolf was a little younger than I am when she wrote this essay. The precision of detail amazes me. What do I remember from early years? A veil obscures that time from consciousness. Any memories I have seem to be memories created from my cache of small square photographs with their warped, jagged edges: Serving my stuffed animals “tea” at Little Bear’s tea party, blowing enormous soap bubbles with my adopted Grandmother in Berkeley, feeding the llamas at the children’s zoo at Tilden park. My mind fools me into thinking that I remember those events, but I don’t—there’s only the faded capture on Kodak paper. No sensuous details arise; no feelings live on in my cells.  There’s just a dumb grey screen.

Yet there is a memory from age 11—my sisters sitting with me on the cold tile floor of the bathroom, both dabbing at my new kilt with warm wet cloths, quickly cleaning me up and putting me to bed so our mother wouldn’t know that we’d gotten drunk. Perhaps we started by pouring small amounts of wine from corked bottles in the kitchen. We might have sat around the kitchen table with coffee cups half full of too-sweet sherry. But my memory also keeps tugging at the old refrain, “come alive for a dollar five.” That was the joke we used to make later about the cheap rotgut wine “Old Niagara” that kept the rummies fueled. I remembered the old men slumped against the wall of the Silver Dollar tavern when I walked down Spadina Avenue, paper bags concealing identical green glass bottles lying beside each ragdoll body.

We got tipsy, the three of us, light-dark-redhead, but it was too much sweet stuff my first time drinking. We probably laughed, acted giddy and silly as sisters do. Felt the thrill of being bad. But before the sweet sickness came over my gut, I felt the first stirrings we alcoholics get—that deep gut-warmth. Liquid gold, ecstasy, painting my insides. That halo of euphoria that crosses us over into a land of freedom, power, luxury—the velvet couch of glory. Give it to me again and again!

So even though I scrambled up the stairs two at a time, my gut heaving, to retch in the toilet, partly missing and getting the sherry-smelling chunks of vomit on my new kilt, I was still shaken, seduced by that blood-warming pleasure. Even if I woke the next morning feeling black-wasted, sour-tongued, I still wanted to go back to that land soon, to loll on that velvet couch. Give it to me again and again!

There was no turning back. For the next fifteen years, I drank to get drunk. With my friends and family, I had to elaborately hide the machinations to get another drink, to keep going when everyone else had enough. I had to keep going until I was curled fetus-like, comatose, on the velvet couch. Not all the time, and I don’t think I drank steadily until I was around 16, but the hungry ghost had always been inside me. The ghost is inextinguishable.

Scientists have found that binge drinking in the teen years leads to irreversible brain damage. When researchers gave 10 doses of alcohol to adolescent rats over 16 days, mimicking binge drinking, they discovered that nerve cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory and learning, communicated abnormally and looked abnormal. According to the scientific report, “Branches coming off of nerve cells should look like short mushrooms. Instead, here they looked long and thin.”

In addition to damage to the hippocampus, heavy drinking leads to the loss of white matter in the brain. Like a shuttle bus, white matter quickly delivers messages to grey matter, so when you lose white matter the efficacy of your thinking is disrupted.  Alcohol also affects the prefrontal cortex and, thus, executive function. As drinking adolescents start to lose executive function, they find it more and more difficult to stop their self-damaging behavior, triggering a vicious circle.

It all started to make sense. I imagined long thin mushrooms branching off my botched nerve cells. As a typical teenager, the long-range planning or executive planning part of my brain was developing more slowly than other parts. The effects of alcohol abuse confounded this slow development by dissolving my white matter, prompting me—when I started to feel tipsy—to abandon thoughts of consequences and take many risks. Early in my life, my brain was irreversibly rewired. My memory just doesn’t work like other peoples.         

But I have my journals—erratic records of my life—that connect me to my past. Traces of my forgotten life live on in those notebooks that overflow a blue 60-litre Rubbermaid tub. Some date back to the mid-1970s when I first started to write.  Sometimes, this tub holding my past feels like a burden. Like Pandora’s box, it harbours snakes that might slither out and asphyxiate me. Ghosts might be unleashed, giving rise to nightmares, regret, self-recriminations. But could there be hidden treasures in there as well, I wonder? I contemplate the tub with ambivalence: The emancipatory urge to clear space battles with the fear of losing everything. Are the old journals a scourge holding me back from the future? Or do the journals anchor me to an identity, a reminder of who I am, the only record of Madeline as I slowly lose my mind?

As my 60thbirthday approached and my fear of losing my ability to remember grew, I decided I needed to make something out of those journals, but the thought of reading all of them was overwhelming.  How can I choose which ones to read? I wondered.

Always intrigued by chance, I wondered what it would be like if I pulled only 13 out of the pile of perhaps 50 or 60 journals and worked with just them. What if I eschew choosing the “best” or most interesting ones, the most dramatic ones, and rather, work with whatever I get? That would alleviate the huge responsibility of poring over all of them, and it would also force me to make something out of “slim pickings,” perhaps. I remember my mother telling me you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. True, you can’t make silk from pigskin, but you can make an even more bewitching purse from that sow’s ear than you could ever fashion from mere silk. Work with what you’ve got, with what you find, with what you pick out of the air, out of the dump, off street signs, from snatches of conversation.

 

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I am the sow

 

 

 

Week of Solitude (sort of)

 

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From December 27 to January 2, my husband M. was on a non-residential meditation retreat or “Weekthun” at our local Shambhala Centre from seven in the morning until six at night. I joined him for just one day. But for the remaining six days, I have conducted my own retreat, mostly at home, but really a retreat into myself, which is something I often crave.  I haven’t been entirely alone; I visited with two friends and I talked on the phone with people occasionally. I also went out into the world to do things. But there has been a lot of solitude.

Today is the last day of that week, and I discovered some things.  I am reminded that I mostly like being in my mind and my body. I am pretty friendly to myself these days. I am able to watch my mind get anxious or self-sabotaging and stop it before it goes roaring down into the slough of despond. So that’s good. More awareness means more equanimity.

I love being alone, but as each day comes to an end I am so happy to greet my husband coming in the door.

I like the mornings, when I have the most energy.  M. went off to his retreat at around 7 a.m. because he was assigned breakfast duty. Sometimes I stayed in bed for a little while and read a novel, which felt like a treat. I would get up and saunter around the house, which I had all to myself. Even our tenants have been away for the holidays. I liked the whoosh of the hot air coming up the registers in an otherwise quiet house. I liked watching the sunrise from my art/sewing room as I had a second cup of coffee.  Sometimes I switched locations and sat in the living room watching the traffic of hummingbirds at the feeder, needle-nosed flits of purple and turquoise.  What a beautiful thing, to have all of this time. To not have to rush or talk. I am so privileged.

My plan was to work on my memoir. I have been taking online courses at Sequential Art Workshop and now feel embedded in a friendly and supportive community of people from all over the world working on their graphic memoirs. The trick is to keep the conversation going without getting overwhelmed by the volume of sharing, recommendations, and seemingly endless threads in our Google Group. I have had to juggle all this social activity and responding to others (albeit online) with creating momentum to draw and write my own memoir.  I got some work done this week. I was about to add, “but not enough.” Hey, I did what I did, and it was enough.

IMG_2508Sometimes I felt discouraged.  But I just found something to motivate me and moved ahead. One step in front of the other. I like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way where she’s collected so many encouraging quotations in the margins. Today I opened the book to Jackson Pollock’s “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.” I wrote it on a post-it note then crossed out “painting” and replaced it with “graphic memoir.”  I remember all of the times I wanted to quit writing my dissertation. But I kept talking myself out of quitting and into writing. I love what Lisa Hanawelt says: “Don’t worry about how good it’ll be. Just make it and do your best.”

After a couple of hours of working—drawing, writing, drawing—it was time to go out and do things. Sometimes I went for a hike or a run. Other times, shopping. We needed groceries and I was the one at home this week. And cooking—I made soup and Socca (a savoury pan bread made from chickpea flour and originating in Nice), black bean and tofu hash, Greek salad.  I did chores: the laundry, the garbage and recycling, changing sheets, cleaning, organizing.

Other kinds of outings.  I walked to the library and got out several graphic memoirs. I can usually read one in a couple of hours. Just soaking it all up—fascinating stories and all great reference material. I like to see how others draw, compose the page, handle text and lettering, build a story.  John Porcellino, Jennifer Hayden, Lucy Knisley, and Nicole Georges.

I took myself out to breakfast today on my way to buy more drawing supplies for the memoir. I was curious what it would be like as I haven’t been out to eat alone for a long time.  I went to a popular place that usually has line-ups.  But I got in right away, sitting at the bar.  I noticed the young guy next to me with a cell phone welded into his hand. He hardly took his eyes away from the phone display as he shovelled food into his mouth.

I looked around. The place was loud with noise and things.  Tons of old stuff hanging off the walls: books and mirrors, an ancient cash register, antique junque.  Waitresses carried plates with towers of food; the servings were enormous, so I just ordered eggs and toast off the “sides” menu.  I haven’t eaten toast since July when we started a new way of eating with few fast carbs.  I have lost 12 pounds and I feel really good. But I was curious to see if I could tolerate the occasional toast and jam experience, which in my opinion, when done well with excellent products, is akin to manna from heaven. I even devoted a section of my mandala IMG_2506to toast and jam, my desert island food. This “toast,” however, was really more like big fat slices of hot bread. I like thin slices of well-done crunchy toast.  Too bad. But the “jam” was delicious apple butter infused with cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg.  The waiter behind the bar asked other diners solicitously how they liked their food, but he never asked me. He called me “ma’am.” It’s interesting how lone older women are treated differently from other people. We are mostly invisible. But funnily, I don’t really mind. There are powers in being invisible, as sorcerers know.

When time and space expands, as it did this week, I can take up things I dropped before, for example the fleece hat pattern that didn’t work for me. I went back to it yesterday and figured out that there is nothing wrong with the pattern: I had cut and sewn the hat opposite the selvedge. It was too small because it didn’t stretch.  So I made another hat the right way, and it stretched and fit. I learn from making mistakes. I learn by slowing down.  Similarly, I got lots of good feedback from my teacher this morning about where I went wrong with my text and drawing on my comic panels. Time to redo them. Start over. Learn from mistakes. What’s the hurry? It takes time to learn a craft.

What a gift to have had this week in retreat, in solitude, with few obligations. To have had the time to do what I like, to think, to read, to not think. To rest, to do and redo, to not do. I feel grateful and ready to go back to work tomorrow. Happy new year everybody. May you find time to do what you love in 2018.

Sweet milk for the hummingbirds

I am not going to say anything about this latest comic except that I submitted it as the final assignment for our “Going in for the Snakes” course.  Anything I say will cloud your reception of the work, so I’ll just let it stand.

I start an intensive course in graphic memoir in mid-November.

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More sequential art: Athena’s Thigh and The Facelift

My online comics class is going well–a great group of creative people sharing work and learning from each other.  Check out the online classes offered at Sequential Artists Workshop if you want to know more. Tom Hart is an inspiring leader/ facilitator and he offers sliding scale tuition.

Here are two more pieces. The first strip is from our homework about “Birth, bodies, and death.” Our prompt was to start with a body part. . . . you’ll see.  And the second one, “The Facelift,” continues with my earlier strip and gives a voice to the dead addict.  IMG_2192IMG_2193IMG_2194IMG_2195IMG_2196IMG_2197

 

The Facelift

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Sequential Art: the Snake Pit

I changed the tagline of my blog from “Reader, Writer” to “The work wants to be made,” an Elizabeth Gilbert quotation. The rest of that line is “and it wants to be made by you.” I feel like a vehicle for expression–sometimes I don’t even know where stuff is coming from–but the work wants to be made.

I will use the blog to feature not only my writing, but also my other forms of creative expression.

I am taking an amazing online course: “Going in for the Snakes” at the Sequential Art Workshop (Gainesville, Florida).

Our teacher, Tom, is getting us to dig deep to tell stories with pictures and words. This week, I got immersed in telling this crazy story that I thought I would share.  IMG_2166IMG_2167IMG_2168IMG_2169IMG_2170

And here’s another sequence from the previous week. . .

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Dilettante blues

dilettante |ˌdiləˈtäntdiləˈtäntē| noun (pl. dilettantanti |-ˈtäntē| or dilettantantes): a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge: [ as modifier ] : a dilettante approach to science.

I have long thought of myself as having a dilettante approach to intellectual and artistic projects. In our loving household, we put a slightly kinder label on it: “Dabblers unite” is one of our mottos. Yet on my more self-critical days, I wonder why I cannot commit to a path and get really good at one thing, whether it’s fiction, sewing, poetry, drawing, painting or making comics. I come into my room on weekend mornings, loving the light pooling on blond wood floors; the palm tree outside the window; my son’s, my husband’s, and my own paintings decorating white walls. The drawing table and swivel chair in front of the window beckon, “pick me! Draw comics today!” The sewing machine and cutting table are spread with a quilt I am in the middle of making, also calling out to me: “Play with us! Free motion quilting is so fun!” And my low wicker chair, lined with plump blue pillows, looks seductive, laptop not far away. “Write! write! you know you want to, you know you want to get better at this short story thing. . . . “ The tall cupboard might be open, with its treasure trove: glue gun, watercolours, scissors, charcoal, India ink, felt-tip pens and pencils in every hue. Whose birthday is next? Shall I make a card?

Yes, I want to create, but when I never commit to one path, I never get really good any one thing. Even when I committed five years of my life to getting a PhD, I don’t think I went really deep, and I didn’t continue my research in that area. I never got to really know my subject. I used to joke that I was getting a “PhD lite” because I would rather go horizontal, exploring many tangents, than go vertical, deep into the material. I’ve always read this way too: skimming and popping in and out of several different books, writing down the title of a new one, pursuing first this lead and then that one, rarely settling down for any length of time and achieving depth. Picking books off shelves, reading a line. This and that, this and that. I’ve celebrated my dilettantism too–deciding to write about film and gender and just doing it, making the plunge. It often feels liberating to follow my variegated passions.

And yet, deep down I know that if I put on blinders and really work at something, eschewing all the persuasive pulls at my attention, a jewel may be uncovered. So, my intuition tells me not to just accept my dilettantism. To choose one path and stick to it, to put aside the other things, simply breaks my heart. However, I sense that that is the way I need to go eventually. I won’t force it, but at some point, “big magic” (Elizabeth Gilbert) will  lead me to the vertical plunge. I can feel it coming.

For now, I will enjoy dabbling.  A little moon quilt, a little cartooning, a little short story writing.  A little of this, a little of that.

 

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Have a creative week.