On Changing the Story

10/06/16

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A couple of months ago, I decided to re-up my commitment to a daily meditation practice. I’ve written about meditation here on this blog before (here and here, both from 2013), and over the years I’ve had a difficult time keeping it up after a few weeks. I’m too busy, I can’t settle down into it, I’m too distracted, and I’m not a morning person were all running excuses in my mind. Essentially, I was unable to make it a habit. I decided this time was going to be different. I’ve been reading a lot about (and working a lot on) living a more peaceful, less anxious life, and every single thing I read, from Eastern philosophers to Western medical doctors alike, suggests daily meditation as away to improve and heal countless aspects of life — from concentration to self awareness to acceptance to an overall sense of well-being to cardiovascular health to slowing aging — and most of all, to relieving the weight of stress and anxiety.

I’ve been contemplating big questions about my life and art practice in my continual search for meaning, and I believe meditation can help me here too — in gaining clarity as I move through my life and make decisions about how to spend my time and energy. So here I am again, trying again to do this thing that has the potential to change my life for the better.

This time, as a way of staying accountable and also for some good guidance, I’ve been checking in with a meditation teacher who I met over the summer, and about 10 days into my new practice, we had a call over the phone. He asked me how it was going, and I said that I was having trouble settling down — that when I sat and began to breathe, I was plagued with every thing I’d forgotten to do that morning or the previous day. For example: Oh, man, I forgot to email so-and-so back! Or: Oh crap, I forgot to take the trash out. And my only urge was to write those thoughts down while I was meditating so I wouldn’t forget them again.

“So, to clarify,” he said, “It’s like when you begin to clear your mind, all the thoughts that have been buried come to the surface?”

“Yes,” I responded, “That’s exactly it. And I can’t get them out.”

“When do you meditate and what do you do before you meditate?” he asked. I told him that I got up at 6 am every day, got dressed, went downstairs, drank coffee, ate breakfast, went to a very loud and intense spin class at my spin gym, came home, showered, got dressed again, and went in to a quiet room to meditate before heading to my studio for a day’s work.

“I think you have too much stimulation and opportunity for your mind to start reeling before you’re meditating,” he said. “What about if you woke up and went straight into that quiet room to sit — before coffee or food or spin class or any opportunity to look at your iPhone. Make it the first thing you do in the morning and not the last thing you do before you go to work. Our minds are most conducive to meditation first thing in the morning.”

“Oh, I’m not a morning person,” I responded immediately. “That would mean I would have to wake up at 5:30 so I could get to spin class on time, and it’s getting darker in the morning and I am terrible at waking up early. I could never meditate straight out of bed at 5:30 a.m.”

“You said you get up at 6 am normally?” he asked.

“Yes,” I responded, “pretty much every day.”

“Then I have news for you,” he chuckled. “You are a morning person.”

I blushed and took a deep sigh. He continued, “I take it that you are not a morning person is a story you have been telling yourself for a long time — possibly since you were a kid?” I admitted that it was. In my teenage years I was known in my house for being grumpy in the morning. My mom used to joke that you don’t talk to Lisa until she’s had her bagel and coffee and it was at least 10 am.

“That’s the story you’ve been telling yourself — that you can’t wake up early to do anything, much less meditate, because you don’t like waking up early,” he said. “But the truth is, you already wake up early. And you do lots of things, like make coffee and go to a vigorous exercise class — almost every day. So why not change the story?”

“You mean start to think of myself as a morning person so I can get up even earlier to meditate?” I asked.

“Yes, change the story so that it’s no longer ‘I can’t because’ to ‘I can.’ See what happens.”

“Okay, I’ll try that. But how do I keep from falling asleep at 5:30 am when I go into that quiet room to sit before I’ve had my coffee?” I asked.

He told me to get up first thing and drink a glass of water. Water wakes us up, he told me. “And stretch a bit. Then go sit up with a straight posture. Light a candle. You won’t fall asleep, I promise.”

So the very next day I changed my story. I set my alarm for 5:30. And it really sucked when it went off. But I didn’t hit snooze. I drank some water. And sat up and stretched my arms. And went into my quiet room and lit a candle. And guess what? My mind was already so quiet from just waking up that I didn’t think of one thing I’d forgotten to do the day before. It was one of the most peaceful meditations I’d ever had.

I discovered a wonderful app (The Insight Timer) that both times your meditations for you and offers tons of guided mediations. Last night I went to my first group meditation in over 10 years. I am taking an online class from Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. I am happy to report that I have woken up early and meditated for 40 days straight now. My mediations are not always peaceful. In fact, most of the time they are not. And it sometimes feels excruciating to go beyond 10 minutes. But I’m doing it, and, like everything in life, it takes practice (or so I’ve heard.)

I’ve also begun to wonder what other stories I tell myself that limit what I feel I can do or accomplish in my life? Where else I might need to change a story I tell myself to open myself up to new possibilities?

Thanks for listening. And have a great Thursday, friends.

CATEGORIES: Personal Essays
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Reflections on my Self Portrait Challenge

09/15/16

{Once a week for 10 weeks I drew my self portrait; this is a slideshow of all 10, in order}

This past June I was in London for a speaking engagement. I hadn’t been to London since 1998, so I took a week to explore the city for the first time in 18 years. I love museums and I love portraits, so naturally one of the first places I visited was the National Portrait Gallery. While I walked the different rooms of the Gallery, I noticed how many of the portraits were artists’ self portraits. I’ve been an artist for almost 20 years and a working artist for 10, and I realized that day that I’d only drawn a portrait of myself maybe two times in the past 17 years, and the last time was many years ago. I couldn’t stop thinking about that fact for the rest of the day.

Part of how I make my living is drawing other people’s portraits — mostly for books. But the idea of drawing myself filled me with anxiety. I try to look at my anxiety as something calling my attention, so later that day I asked myself: What was I afraid of? What if I attempted to draw a self portrait a week for several weeks in a row? How hard could that be?

I went back to the apartment where I was staying that evening and began drawing the first of the series of self portraits in my sketchbook (it’s the first in the video above). Each week for the 10 weeks that followed, I made 10 self portraits (all of them in my sketchbook) and posted them on Instagram. People were instantly curious about my process: was I looking in a mirror? Was I drawing from memory?

The first thing to know is that I cannot draw myself from memory! At least not accurately. I am someone who can draw a likeness, but only from looking at reference. In this case, I took a picture of myself with my iPhone each week and looked at that while I made each portrait. Some weeks I attempted an accurate, proportioned portrait, and some weeks I focused more on my feelings, and one week I allowed myself to go super messy and almost abstracted. I created the least technically correct portrait the week after I returned from two weeks in France in early August, when I was hit with the worst jet lag I’ve ever experienced. It might be the most accurate portrait I drew the entire series! One week I even drew myself as Marie Antoinette after visiting Versailles in France. I was traveling a lot this summer, and so there are portraits from London, Austin (Texas), Paris France, Antibes France and Rock Hill (New York); and of course, my home, Portland, Oregon.

The best part of the experiment (which is now officially over; I feel done) was pushing myself to do this thing that previously scared me. I learned that I could do it, not once or twice, but many times over. And each time the result looked different! In the end, the drawing part ended up being fairly easy for me. The hardest part was actually posting the photos of the portraits on Instagram. It felt incredibly vulnerable to both draw myself and then to share those drawings with my 115,000 followers. “Wow, so interesting how you see yourself!” people would comment. What does that mean??, I’d think to myself.  And then one week, something like “Maybe next time you could smile.” Maybe this isn’t about posing for the camera, I thought. Somehow sharing my self portraits felt like the most vulnerable thing I had ever done on the internet (and I’ve shared some pretty vulnerable things on the internet, including writing some very personal essays on this blog). It was like every week I said, Hey, everyone, look at me! And look at how I see myself! And look at how badly I draw myself! And that felt so raw. Of course, many of my followers instantly understood the rawness of the project and were enormously supportive and encouraging. Many of them acknowledged that this is not something they could ever do, or that they’d be scared to try.

I have always liked the saying, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” (no one really knows who said this, but it’s widely attributed to the great Eleanor Roosevelt). Thank you to everyone who followed along and engaged with my project. You made it less scary.

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On Traveling Alone

08/17/16

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Five years ago in 2011, when I was 43 years old, something really cool happened: my art career started to take off after five years of concerted effort, and I began to have a bit expendable income for the first time in my life. When something like this happens, especially without a long track record, it can be a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, I feared that my success might be a fluke, that it could all go “poof!!!” at any moment. On the other hand, I wanted to spend my “new” money on the stuff that my 43 year old self had not up-until-then been able to enjoy, especially before it went “poof!!” again (which thankfully never ended up happening, or hasn’t yet, but I had no idea at the time).

It was no secret then — to either my followers or my family and friends — that I had wanderlust. Much of the work that made me that expendable income was incidentally inspired by this wanderlust: portraits and landscapes of an imagined Nordic land, folk inspired Scandinavian drawings and patterns, and the like. So the first thing I did with the expendable income was to begin to scheme, and then pay for, my first trip abroad in nearly seven years. I decided I would go in real life to the places I had been pining after in history and design books and photographs I found on the internet — the places that were on the top of my bucket list: Scandinavia and Iceland. For the record, I do not keep a written bucket list, but I did have one in my mind, and Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland were at the top.

My now wife, then girlfriend, had a full time job managing the marketing for a major art college. She didn’t have the time or the inclination to join me for travels. So I had no choice: I would go all alone. Over the course of weeks, I set a date, booked plane tickets and reserved several accommodations for a 23 day solo adventure.

I realize now that I am in some ways the perfect travel-alone candidate. I am true introvert in that I have always been someone who enjoys time alone. I get my energy from being alone. I love doing things by myself. I find time alone enormously peaceful. On the other hand, I also love people. I am not afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger. And I am getting braver the older I get about asking strangers for directions or help when I’m confused or lost.

And multiple solo trips to New York City prior to ever traveling abroad alone had taught me one important thing: I like making my own decisions about what to do, where to go and and how long to spend in a place when I travel. I enjoy wandering through cities without negotiating turns without another person. If I walk into a museum or shop and feel bored (which sometimes happens) I don’t spend much time and can move on without having to worry if I’m cutting my travel partner’s experience short.  Conversely, I adore spending ample time in places that do intrigue me — all without worrying whether my travel companion is feeling unineterested. I love eating when I’m hungry and skipping meals when I’m not. I love buying things without feeling like I need approval. I love going bed early without apology after a day of walking.

So I had a feeling that I would enjoy month long trip by myself to a foreign country. I just had no idea how life changing it would be. The following year, in September of 2012, I boarded a plane bound for Reykjavik Iceland, the first leg on my journey.

Just to be clear: I was definitely scared. In the week before I left, I was having such intense butterflies in my stomach that I couldn’t fall asleep at night. What if I got lost? What if no one spoke English? What if, what if what if? As with most things that scare me, I just told myself, you’ve got this, Lisa. Just do it.

And so I did. And it was the most memorable, glorious twenty-three days of my life so far. Nothing — no solo trip since then (and I’ve taken two) —  has matched it. And I doubt anything ever will. For one, I visited some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been (places I’d been dreaming & reading about and watching videos of for years). And it was a true vacation: I shopped, ate, lurked, wandered, took pictures, hung out with a few locals, slept, and wandered some more . I felt an enormous sense of freedom, one unlike any I’d ever felt. I was so inspired visually. It was hard to contain the overwhelm I felt, the best kind of overwhelm you can imagine. I can’t believe I’m here, seeing this. It’s like a dream.

Sure, a few times I got lost. And I even had two panic attacks, one in Copenhagen at a train station and one trying to find a bus station in Stockholm while dragging about forty pounds of luggage. That trip required ten airplane flights, countless bus rides and a handful of trains. The travel part of travel is always the hardest. But overall, I survived unscathed.

Since then I have traveled to different places in Europe four more times, twice with my wife and twice by myself. All of the trips have been fantastic, but the solo trips are special in their own way. When I travel by myself, I am making the most of my time, because I am seeing the things that are the most important to me. Sure, I don’t get to experience things with other people (aside from a few times when I hang out with people I know who live in those countries), which for me only means that I take in the experience more fully, because I, alone, am responsible for enjoying and remembering it.

People ask me a lot about traveling alone, especially as a woman. How is it for you? Are you scared? Do you get lonely? While I do occasionally get scared, I am getting used to being scared, which, over time, makes me less scared. During my latest solo trip to the South of France last month, I felt the least scared or intimated since my solo adventures began five years ago, and I don’t speak or understand a lick French beyond Bonjour! And Merci! and a few other words and phrases. I chalk that up to experience. Doing scary things over and over makes them less scary. And, no, I never get lonely.

It is not lost on me that traveling is a privilege. Travel costs money, even when you do it on the cheap. I am also very lucky to be married to someone who not only tolerates but encourages me to do the stuff I love and to pursue all of my passions, even if it means being away from home for periods of time. I think for many women, the idea of going off alone to travel is a much more complicated thing because the person they share their life with might not understand or support the idea. I also don’t have kids or a horribly expensive mortgage. Taking time away from work is the hard part for me. I feel so lucky that the travel part is easy.

But if you are someone who wants to travel and can travel by yourself, and you enjoy being alone, I really encourage it. I am not alone in my love for solo travel. Every time I scroll through Instagram, another one of my female friends is traveling alone. Seems like every time I turn around my friend artist Elizabeth Olwen is traveling by herself somewhere in the world (often at the same time as me). My best friend Jen Hewett travels solo almost every year. We joke often that we should “meet up” on our solo travels.

I also imagine solo travel isn’t for everyone. You have to like being alone for long periods of time in very unfamiliar environments. You have to be able to advocate for yourself when you are in a pinch — when you are lost, or unsure which train to get on, or when you’ve lost your ticket or it isn’t working in the machine, or you’re not sure which line to get in, etc etc. You have to learn to navigate cultures where men may talk to you inappropriately or, conversely, ignore you. Dealing with these kinds of situations isn’t rocket science, but you have to be comfortable protecting your personal space, asking strangers for help and being slightly vulnerable. The good news is, most of the time people are very kind.

For me, the freedom that comes with solo travel outweighs all of the stuff that is sometimes uncomfortable. I love seeing new sites: architecture, cathedrals, boutiques, museums, vistas, historical monuments, nature. And so planning and tackling days of sightseeing on my own is one of my greatest pleasures. What do I want to see today? Do I just want to wander? Or go to this museum? Maybe I’ll try this restaurant? I have so much energy, maybe I’ll walk the entire city! And I can do all of this without anyone else’ approval or permission or negotiation. Pure bliss!

“I guess I’m too selfish to travel well with other people,” writes author Alice Steinbach. While I do love to punctuate my solo travels with travels with other people, I feel similarly. Where is my next solo trip? I am not exactly sure, but I’m already scheming. Stay tuned.

 

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On Racism and Silence

07/12/16

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This is a post I should have written a long time ago. Every time I’ve sat myself down to write these words over the last two years, I have either become despondently depressed or overwhelmed with fear by what to say or how to say it. Sure, I talk about this topic on my personal Facebook page with my mostly agreeable friends and family, and mostly by reposting other people’s words, but, really, I’ve been mostly silent.

I decided over the weekend that I wasn’t going to be silent anymore. Why is it that I speak out easily and openly on this blog and social media about acts of homophobia? Sure, I’m gay, so some might argue that’s “personal”. But I am just as enraged about the killings of black people by police. So why don’t I speak out here about that?

I realized it’s because I don’t have to. And for a long time it felt easier not to.

I realized my silence is an expression of my privilege. My silence is my message.

And here’s the thing: I don’t want that to be my message.

Also, this issue really isn’t about my feelings. My feelings of “fear” about what to say as a white woman (hey, let’s be clear, white women typically don’t like to ruffle anyone’s feathers) have zero significance in relationship to the disproportionate killing of black men by police — killings which are a direct result of centuries of insidious racism in this country.

So here’s what I’ve got to say:

Racism is the most pervasive problem in the United States of America. Racism is inexorably linked to poverty, the achievement gap in education, mental health problems and violence. Everyone is harmed by it, and yet we allow even the most blatant expressions of it to go ignored and unpunished.

Don’t think the targeting of blacks by police is actually a problem? Here are some facts. And here are some more and some more.

Let me be clear before we go any further: I support and respect police officers. Police officers serve a necessary and important role in our society, and most of them do honorable peace-keeping work. Not all police officers commit acts of racism. I am devastated by the shooting of officers in Dallas. This is about the disproportionate and widespread instances in which white police officers have committed acts of violence against black men. This is about the lack of punishment for those police officers. This is about the lives of black people in this country.

I began to understand institutionalized racism and white privilege deeply for the first time about seventeen years ago when I was in my thirties. I worked in a non-profit organization in the Bay Area that did change work inside of high poverty public schools in California — with the goal of closing the achievement gap between children of color and their white counterparts. As part of my job, I went through intensive and immersive trainings with my fellow staff members around race and privilege. We studied and engaged with the work of Tim Wise and Peggy McIntosh, among many others (many, many more anti-racist teachers and programs exist today). A very diverse group of people, we talked and we talked about race and privilege from all perspectives. There were arguments, horribly uncomfortable moments, and tears. We developed programming to help the teachers and leaders we worked with also have conversations about race and privilege, and we engaged with them too. It was the most important work I’ve ever done. And it opened my eyes and changed how I understand my experience living in this country as a white person.

To this day, I think about race nearly everyday. Aside from my wife and family, the person I am closest to in the entire world is black. Because we interact and talk every single day, I am confronted with thinking about how this person I love experiences the world. And that, ironically, has been a great gift in my life — because it forces me to look squarely at her reality (not that I could EVER fully understand her reality) — as horribly awkward and painful as that is for me (and for our friendship), at times.

My wife and I talk about racism almost everyday now in the light of recent events, in the privacy of our own home, and two nights ago we talked about ending our public silence and becoming more actively engaged in addressing racism head on. We want to contribute to the eradication of racism in our country. We want to contribute to the conversation. We want to help change minds and hearts. Like many white people, we are overwhelmed by what to do.

I have spent a lot of time recently reading about and talking to other people about what I can do. I found this article on Salon particularly helpful. Here are some basic things it suggests:

  1. Talk to everyone about what is happening, even though it feels really uncomfortable, especially the people who are the most resistant or make you the most uncomfortable. Don’t know how to talk about race? Practice. Make yourself feel the discomfort of it.
  2. Check yourself. As white people, we benefit from the system we have created as the holders of power. No one is immune, no matter your pure, progressive intentions, thoughts and feelings. As Clodfelter writes, “If you’re doing work as an ally as a means of earning capital to counterbalance your white guilt or as a way of seeking accolades for how not racist you are, stop taking up space at the table.”
  3. Show up at events and rallies. Donate money to causes fighting racism. Participate in the conversation. Read what people of color have to say. Build your own awareness.
  4. Bear witness. Download the ACLU’s mobile justice app or similar tools and prepare to record police interactions if you find yourself witnessing an encounter.

This essay I am writing is not for the people who are already doing all of these things. This essay is for people like me who care deeply, but are unsure about speaking out — what to say, what to do, how to make a difference.

This essay is also for people who are spouting the words: “ALL LIVES MATTER.” Yes, all lives matter. Of course they do. But here’s the point of the phrase Black Lives Matter, eloquently explained by Kevin Roose:

“…the phrase “black lives matter” also has an implicit “too” at the end: it’s saying that black lives should also matter. But responding to this by saying “all lives matter” is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It’s a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting that it means “only black lives matter,” when that is obviously not the case. And so saying “all lives matter” as a direct response to “black lives matter” is essentially saying that we should just go back to ignoring the problem.”

Let’s not ignore the problem anymore. Let’s stop denying our privilege. Let’s begin to try to understand the complex layers of racism and where we fit in. Let’s express that “love” we preach with action to change.

Let’s stop being silent.

CATEGORIES: Personal Essays
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What Makes a Good Life?

05/18/16

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Two weeks ago I was on an airplane flying to the East Coast. I have my most profound creative and emotional moments on airplanes. I have come to learn I am not alone — that many people experience intense emotion and feelings of clarity while suspended in air. I have my deepest ponderings on airplanes. I have had some of my most weighty AHA! moments on airplanes, and come up with some of my greatest ideas.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the question, What Makes a Good Life? and on the airplane that day two weeks ago, I was thinking about it deeply (of course). So I took my pen drew the question in my sketchbook (top image, above) while we were flying over the United States, somewhere between Seattle and Washington, DC.

The next day in Rhode Island, our first stop on the trip, I photographed the spread, posted it on Instagram and asked my followers what they thought made a good life. You can see the results here. I also explained underneath the photo that I have been thinking a lot about this question lately, mostly because I am experiencing a new level of weariness in my life, which has lead to more labored attempts at creativity, less motivation and an almost constant state of anxiety about getting things done.

I need to come out of the closet and admit it: Hi, my name is Lisa and I’m fried. 

I have a thriving career, a solid, loving relationship, a close circle of devoted friends and a loving family — all markers of my own idea of some of the things that make a good life. I’m enormously grateful for all of those things. But lately I have also been experiencing unprecedented fatigue and malaise. That fatigue and malaise are, ironically, the result of the thriving career I mentioned earlier. I have spent the past six years working long days and with feverish devotion to build my illustration and writing career and take advantage of every opportunity that has come my way. And I have done it with energy, love and enthusiasm. And all of that work has paid off. But, as a result, I am now really tired. The kind of tired you can feel in your bones.

The #1 question people ask me is some version of this: You do so much in your career and you seem to have so much energy! How do you do it? I have never really known how to answer that question, and my answer is usually some version of sacrifice! discipline! long hours! taking the best possible care of myself that I can when I’m not working!

But lately, I’ve been wanting to say, I work too much! I’m burned out!

Truth is, it’s time for me to work less, create space around the projects and travel I do commit to and begin to slow down. My happiness, health and quality of life depend on it.

Okay, back to the question I posed on Instagram. I got over 90 responses in the comments. So on my way back home (also on an airplane) over last weekend, I drew in my sketchbook the most common responses to the question What Makes a Good Life (as proposed my my Instagram followers). You can see a photo of that sketchbook above too.

What people didn’t say was working long hours! success! to-do lists! 

What they did say was relaxation! curiosity! mindfulness! rest! family! friends! (and on and on). I couldn’t agree more.

I would not change anything about the past six years of my life and the sacrifices I made. I am gratified by and grateful for my career, following, books, clients, opportunities, travel, new friends, everything I’ve learned — all of it.

But it’s also time for me to make a shift. I will be writing about and documenting that shift here. I am not sure it’s going to be easy. I am not sure I really know how to relax anymore. Or that I won’t want to fill up my new “free time” with more projects. So, this should be interesting! And probably a little bit funny. And I look forward to sharing my thoughts about how it’s going here.

Stay tuned for more, soon.

Happy Wednesday!

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