Like riding a bike

Santa Fe

Craig and I are back from a weeklong arts workshop in Santa Fe, him life drawing and me nature writing. We drove from Kansas City with our bikes strapped to the car, watching the land grow from Kansas prairie to New Mexico mesas, from Flint Hills to the Sangre de Cristo range, from 1,000 feet of elevation to 7,000.

I hadn’t ridden my bike in a year. I hadn’t written outside of work since our last blog post two years ago.

Our first morning at the dorms of St. John’s College, I uncoiled the lock and jumped astride my Schwinn to ride to a nearby prayer labyrinth and begin our week in solitude. I remembered the route as being fairly flat – memory developed five years earlier while riding in a car. I reached the labyrinth quickly, not realizing until my return trip the gravity of gravity. I felt the weight of the earth’s weight against me.

I shifted to first gear within a few hundred yards. Before the first of three turns, my rate of breathing outpaced my pedaling. By the time I reached the college turn-in a mile later, I was moving so slowly I could barely balance. I dismounted and wobbled past the student center and classrooms to the upper dorms, my quads and lungs burning, rewound the lock and realized how much more meaningful it would be to pray on campus the rest of the week.

The writing wasn’t any easier than the riding. I’m not really a nature girl.

Day 1 exercise: Write about a powerful experience with wind. I live in tornado alley, so my mind went to … nothing. Toward the end of our 10-minute time limit I wrote a few disjointed sentences about a ferry ride and the need for ponytail holders.

Day 2 exercise: Write about a powerful experience with water. I had a great first line, “I take a drink and begin,” followed by … nothing. I started listing the ways water benefits me and blessedly ran out of time just as I began praising my soaker tub.

Day 2 invitation (i.e., homework): Write about your homeplace. I started 10 different times and went to bed with … nothing. Until 6 a.m., in my waking up, when I could see my scratches coming together into a unified piece, a piece that included both wind and water.

I never acclimated to the hills and altitude. I climbed the 92 steps from our meeting rooms to my dorm room three or four times every day, gasping each time. But I eventually found breath for my writing, remembering my process and seeing how nature can fit into my suburban-life stories. I’m eager to tell them again.

So I’m doing my exercises. I’m back in my writing seat, watching where the road leads, thankful if you ride along.

Confessions of Two Fundamentalists

Color blobs

Craig’s image usually flows from my words, but today I wrote from his watercolor.   

 

“You’re such a word nerd,” Craig teased. I had just finished listening to an audio on apostrophes – why it’s okay to write farmers market but not womens shoes* – and I embraced the accusation. I also wondered if he caught its irony from where he sat at his computer, as he had most every evening the past month, experimenting with images of snow.

Yet I see why I’m the nerd in our relationship. People are intrigued by an artist’s eye – how cool to see that a white mound actually contains a rainbow of colors – but give an icy shoulder to an editor impassioned by proper possessives, pronouns and punctuation.

SnowballThanks to Miss Claeys, my ninth-grade English teacher, I’m a stickler for the fundamentals. She taught me what makes a sentence whole and how I tear it up if I dangle participles or misplace modifiers. She demanded perfection. If an essay had misspelled words, the highest grade it could receive was a B; with a run-on sentence, it earned at best a C. In my quest for A’s, I kept my dictionary open and followed every subject with a predicate and period.

Craig also espouses the basics, not the ABCs, but the ROY G. BIVs. He spent three hours every day of his first year at the American Academy of Art with Vern Stake, his very own Miss Claeys, learning the Fundamentals of Art. Every week in class he drew or painted from a still life arranged at the front of the room and was brutally critiqued on his form, lighting, perspective and color. Every week at home he painted a color chart that filled our kitchen table, a carefully constructed grid or wheel with dozens of colors, each hue a smoothly brushed square or triangle butting against another box a small gradation lighter or darker.

He mixed and applied color every night, oblivious to his new wife’s hope for a little attention. I staged a protest one night, lying on the kitchen linoleum next to the table where he painted. He stopped working long enough to cover me with a blanket after I fell asleep.

Each of us is rather fanatical about our craft.

If we’re not careful, we become peevish. When Craig and many others at our church were praising a new novel’s portrayal of the Trinity, I couldn’t slog through the overwritten scenes. The painting I bought at a charity auction hangs at work because Craig said it was based on a formula, not fundamentals, and he refused to let me hang it at home.

But usually we remember that the craft is only the foundation, that it’s simply the support for the work we’re building, the scene being rendered, the hope or outrage painted with words or brushstrokes. We don’t use the fundamentals to seek perfection, but to express truth. To create art. Beauty found in the swirls of color breaking through the lines. Truth sometimes proclaimed in fragments. A square’s edges softened by the flow.

 

* Click here to listen to the fabulous Grammar Underground lessons of June Casagrande.

 

Some Reassembly Required

“How are you caring for yourself?” The question came from a friend, one of two I meet with most Thursday afternoons for encouragement and accountability. I had just finished talking about my uncertainties in dealing with a struggling loved one – a struggle these caring women know firsthand. Together we are learning that we can’t change other people; we can only change ourselves and how we respond to them. Rather than letting their trials consume our thoughts, worries, energy and money, we are trying to take care of ourselves.

How was I doing that? The answer came without thinking: “I’m walking every day and watching what I eat.”

After they left, I considered my response. Yes, I was caring for myself by eating less and moving more, but why did I go immediately to diet and exercise? Why not the other healthy practices I began or continued over the past year?

  • I meet weekly with these women, who listen and understand and gently encourage me to love better.
  • I’ve filled the house with Christmas carols, ornamented the tree with memories and invited family and friends over.
  • Craig and I share this blog and are challenged to post every week on it.
  • I’ve established a morning routine of walking, reading, praying, writing on some days and tackling the New York Times crossword puzzle.
  • I’m cooking more locally raised and seasonal foods.
  • I worship on Sunday mornings with a community of friends who affirm and challenge me.
  • I practice yoga.
  • I spend time with a granddaughter who delights to be with me.

My physical body is only one part of me. I am also a mental, emotional, relational and spiritual being. To be healthy, I must recognize the importance of caring for all these parts. At times it seems daunting, just more to-dos that leave me feeling guilty when I don’t do them. But now that we’re empty nesters and others’ schedules (and food preferences) aren’t dictating ours, Craig and I are feeling a freedom to develop a new life rhythm, one that pulses with our heart’s desires rather than the lock step of duty.

It’s a rhythm that needs movement and stillness, solitude and community, inward reflection and outward service, truth and grace. Comfortably moving through my days with this dynamic tension is a lifelong mission. It keeps me dependent on God and grateful for the loving people in my life.

As I look over my list of healthy habits, I don’t see much in the area of service. I’ve had seasons of intense service but right now am more focused on time for writing and time with Craig, our family and friends. But seasons change, and as the new year begins, I’ll be watching for my next movement. Maybe a nudge will come during a cold morning walk.

Staring down the Blank Page

Nothing scares me more than a blank Word document. I stare at it and await the perfect opening sentence, an idea visualized in metaphor and punctated with a singing verb. I start typing, only to end with my favorite key – the Backspace button. I hold it down until I’m back where I began, staring at empty space.

Craig, on the other hand, feverishly fills the screen with the images playing in his head. His words carry me along effortlessly long before I realize I have no idea what he’s talking about. But who cares? He writes the right way, like all the books preach. He gets it down. He keeps his pen (or fingers) moving. He turns off the critic and writes from the other side of his brain. He imagines a scene small enough to fit into a one-inch picture frame.

Me? I do it all wrong. I can’t move on to the second sentence until I have some degree of satisfaction with the first. At writing workshops, when everyone’s pens move and pages turn, I’m paralyzed by my few flat sentences.

I spent years wondering what was wrong with me. Until I read Harold Fickett’s essay “Gushers and Bleeders: On Getting Started” in A Syllable of Water: 20 Writers of Faith Reflect on their Art. It turns out Craig’s a gusher and I’m a bleeder. Gushers produce prose “like a Mississippi River without banks.” They have an easy time on the front end creating their art but a difficult time on the back end editing it. We bleeders, on the other hand, “are painfully slow at composition … rather like trying to force kielbasa through cheesecloth.” But once we get things down, we’re eager to clean them up … and maybe the first draft is already somewhat coherent.

I feel validated that my condition has a name. Even better, I’m in very good company. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth is a bleeder, or at least his character in Ghost Writer is. I have the following quote from the novel hanging in my office, tucked in my purse and stored in two places on both my home and work computers. It gives me that much comfort.

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and I write another sentence. Then I have tea and I turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

I had hoped to post this piece on Tuesday. Then I kept turning the sentences around (I also worked late all week and read a mediocre novel for my book group). This time, however, I’m hitting Publish. Then I think I’ll need to lie down.

Confessions of a Failure

Craig and I took a Scripture memory class at our church. We learned and meditated on two Bible verses a week, reciting each one every day. At the beginning of each weekly session, our teacher went around the room and asked each to report how many days we had recited. The first week all 20-some of us circled up and echoed each other: 7, 7, 7, 7. Likewise for week 2. Week 3 started the same – 7, 7, 7 – until we hit me. I was the first to proclaim 6. I can still feel the awkward silence and see the teacher write my deficiency on his attendance sheet.

We took that class in 1985, nearly 30 years ago, but I haven’t forgotten the shame I felt for that failure – which now I recognize as too small to even register among my many real failures.

Yet I continue to shame myself. Today it’s for blog failure.

I had convinced Craig that we needed to post a blog at least twice a week to show we were serious, to build up work, to make sure readers found and stayed with us. Last week we only had one. Craig had sent me the image for the second one, the above gondolas overlaid with his notes on the painter John Singer Sargent. I had my idea for the copy, how we packed three important things for our trip to Italy: respect, stamina and curiosity. Our Italian-English dictionary represented respect for our hosts, a willingness to speak their language rather than assume they spoke ours. Our walking shoes represented our stamina, much needed in a country where every road seemed to head uphill. Our map and willingness to ask questions represented our curiosity, which took us to neighborhoods, restaurants and stores far from other tourists. I liked the idea, but every time I tried to write it, I sounded rather pompous.

So I stopped writing.

When I sat down at my computer, I checked email and Twitter instead. I played spider solitaire and free cell. I read the newspaper and finished the crossword puzzle. Thank goodness for the intestinal bug that kept me from finishing off the entire bag of Lay’s chips in the pantry. I delayed further by reading Craig’s new Steven Pressfield book, Turning Pro, about the need to stop being an amateur who talks about what you’ll do and actually become a professional who does it. No matter how hard. The book was so insightful. Pressfield seemed to have written it just for a few friends who came to mind.

Pressfield’s mindset has led to a dozen bestsellers. Mine has led to a dozen blog posts.

I thought blogging with Craig would be fun. I hoped others would appreciate our willingness to collaborate and would identify with our foibles and discoveries. I expected my vignettes to be easy to write, but as I develop my voice, I’m afraid to let people hear me sing off-key. I want to avoid the shame I felt at being the first to fail at my Scripture recitation.

It’s time to recapture the traits that defined Craig and me in Italy: curiosity, respect and stamina. Am I willing to keep exploring and learning, to trust I have something to say, and to persevere in saying it?

I think it’ll only work if I also develop another quality: the grace to let myself fail from time to time.

Six-Word Tributes

With our big families, there’s almost always a birthday or anniversary for me to overlook, with fall being a particularly busy time to disappoint people with my forgetfulness. Admittedly, I set a poor example for the wife of a greeting-card artist. But I’m thankful for a friend who told me about six-word memoirs, an initiative from the online SMITH Magazine. Her idea helped our families pay tribute to our parents for their most recent milestone birthdays.

SMITH Magazine began in 2006 as a website to promote personal storytelling and launched its six-work memoir project later that year. You can go to the site to post your own memoir and read thousands from others. My friend changed the idea of writing a memoir of yourself to writing a tribute to another; she and her kids used this poetic form to honor her husband, who loved to write poetry. Craig and I aren’t poets, but I’m an editor, and I love the concept of saying as much as possible with so few words. As my mom planned a family party to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday, I sent out the call for all my siblings, their spouses and our kids to come with our six-word tributes.

Some people were apprehensive … until they started writing Then they couldn’t stop. Even grade-school-aged cousins had fun composing their thoughts. At the party, we gathered in the living room to eat cake and to read Dad our tributes. We let the time flow organically: One person read one, another person followed, usually with a related thought, and on it went until we had finished. We laughed, we cried, we remembered, we asked Dad to say more about the memories we had stirred up. We could never have anticipated how powerful our words would be in expressing a full picture of Dad and our love for him.

That fall, we repeated the tribute for Craig’s dad and mom, who were turning 80 and 75, respectively, and the next year for my mom for her 80th birthday. Each party had its own personality, as our parents do, but each was an evening of celebration, honor and love. Here are some examples:

To Lee’s Dad from Ed: Retired bowler, lawn bowler, Wii bowler.

To Grandpa George from Andrew: Thanks, Grandpa, for the bald gene.

To Lee’s Mom from Cathy: Best mentor ever for modeling hospitality.

To Grandma Rita from Rachel: Colorful shoes, colorful personality, colorful language.

To Craig’s Dad from Michele: Wonderful laugh, shaking shoulders, twinkly eyes.

To Grandpa Tom from Rachel: Outlined tools; everything has a place.

To Craig’s Mom from Craig: Complete compassion, family passion, ankle fashion.

To Grandma Joanie from Amber: Mom’s bed made; Grandma was here.

So today, Craig and I have written our six-word tributes, he to a mentor and former boss, me to a friend.

To Levi from Craig: Man within whom hope springs eternal.

To Julie from Lee: From powerful pen, discovery, growth, beauty.

Now we invite you to post a tribute in the Comment section below (and even send it to that person). We all want to matter to someone. Please take a minute to let another know how they matter to you.

Blogging is not for Extroverts

I’ve become that person I always avoid, the friend I spy in the produce section at the grocery store who now sells jewelry at home parties or looks fabulous thanks to a prehistoric diet. If I say hello, she’ll act so happy to see me and just sure I’ll want to book a party or reclaim my youth with meat and vegetables. I quickly veer left to the pasta in aisle 5.

But now I’m her. Since Craig and I started the blog, every conversation I have points to one of our posts. You mention your mother? We wrote about mine. Your marriage? Covered ours. Communication issues? Hit that too. Decorating, reading, gardening? Check, check, check. It’s remarkable how much we’ve covered in just 10 days. And I want everyone I know to be engaged, passing the blog along to others and letting me know how transformative it is.

Yesterday Craig said he wanted to hide from all the readers. In my case, readers (or potential readers) want to hide from me.

Yet all my talk is really just a covering. Inside I’m filled with fear. Where Craig fears exposure before an unknown audience, I’m petrified we won’t have an audience. I’m thankful for friends who are following our posts, but what if nobody else cares? What if those who care now get bored with us? Can anyone really care enough to satisfy my ravenous insecurity?

Saturday I had a guest post on a blog that’s followed by hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, and I sat all morning before my WordPress dashboard waiting to see a multitude of readers click from her blog to mine. None came. I did have a nice email chat with my younger sister, but that was it. At lunchtime, I closed my laptop, started laundry, changed the sheets, weeded the garden, and later Craig and I ate dinner with friends. I ignored the computer. Or at least I didn’t check it more than once an hour.

By the end of the day, just a handful of people had clicked on our site, hardly the bump I had anticipated. (I feel your pain, Mitt Romney.) I headed to bed a bit dejected and picked up my new book, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. The title is based on a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, which says in part: “It is not the critic who counts…. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, … who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, … who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Brené says that to dare greatly is to be vulnerable and to open ourselves to engage in life. It feels like Craig and I are doing that; we’re pushing our skills in new directions. I’m just hoping I can trust my voice – both written and spoken – and stop pushing so hard to prove my worthiness.

Blogging is not for Introverts

Today we turn the tables – Lee paints and Craig writes – each getting coaching and courage from the other.*

I have lost all control of my audience and, with it, my composure. I imagine myself as Jim Carrey on The Truman Show, my life broadcast to anyone who wants to watch. I feel naked.

I’m surprised at the disruption a week of blogging has caused me. I thought blogging would mean sitting alone, making art and uploading it to my computer. I’m an introvert. I like being alone.

Even when I’m in front of a crowd, demonstrating or teaching, I can predictably dial people in and, after a session, hide. My gig’s over. I’ve risked influencing or conversing with those in the room, but I’ve had a measure of control – I’ve had an audience whose responses are familiar. Not so much on-line. Posts go out and can spread anywhere, like poison ivy. I feel itchy.

So I pace tonight, this morning, actually. Why were Lee and I compelled to enter in? I blame her: “She took the first bite!” But the creative pull was so strong I bit as well. And my eyes now see the good and the evil, and I am fighting the urge to hide or find a big fig leaf – to instead stand before a virtual audience, a community beyond my capacity to know, elect, pace or control its reactions. I am walking in dumb faith … again.

Why does a guy who used to ride a 10-foot unicycle and juggle to draw a crowd, who has had hundreds of his paintings published and distributed around the world for nearly 30 years, have difficulty posting little sketches and notes on the blogosphere? Can I embrace this new platform for creative expression, one that my alter-ego wife and I can enjoy together? Can the differences we ponder in our sketches and notes really resonate with others and offer any small bits of hope?

Creative self-loathing enhances my painting process. I hope it works for blogging as well. As we begin week 2, I am completely perplexed, yet fully engaged. I am terrified and invigorated both.

 

*In 31 years of marriage to a watercolor artist and teacher, Lee has never before painted in watercolor. In 31 years of marriage to a writer and editor, Craig is taking his first writing workshop – led by a skilled facilitator, not Lee.

Taking Flight

We launch Sketches and Notes today with a tribute to a classic: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. In that whimsical cause-and-effect story, a boy selflessly shares his cookie with a traveling mouse and watches as each act of service leads to yet one more, compounding the chaos the mouse has brought to the boy’s quiet life.

Here’s our not-so-selfless or -whimsical telling of that tale, which begins for us on Aug. 16:

If you tell your friends you will be watching and waiting for the right writing opportunity, you’ll see an announcement the next day for a contest to write about a Woman of Valor.

When you send in your (very heartfelt) entry (about your mom), you’ll check your email every 30 minutes on announcement day to see who won, all the while telling yourself that the important thing was just to have entered.

When you see the winners being posted on the sponsor’s (very popular) blog, you comfort yourself by noting that all these writers are bloggers and you don’t have a blog for your (very heartfelt) piece (about your mom) to link to.

When you learn you are among the second-tier finalists who also will have their pieces posted on the sponsor’s (very popular) blog, you remind your artist husband that you and he had always talked about collaborating on a project and suggest that it’s time to start a blog. Right now.

When you talk with him about possible blog names (“Sense of Wonder?”), you remember why you never collaborate on projects.

When you watch YouTube videos on building blogs in 15 minutes, you realize either they are lying or you are inept.

When you learn on Sept. 14 that you have 15 days before your piece will be posted on the sponsor’s (very popular) blog, you hire your office mate, who happens to be the world’s best web designer, to build your site.

When you know that the site design is in capable hands, you and your artist husband have to finally answer the question, “What’s the blog about?”

It’s about Craig’s sketches and my notes. And we are taking off. We hope you’ll come with us. Even though the important thing is just to be doing it.

Welcome to Sketches and Notes

We’re getting closer to launching Sketches and Notes, a blog combining images and words from the likes of us, Craig and Lee Lueck. Who are we? We’re an artist and writer, married for more than 30 years, living a rather ordinary life, trying to slow down and take note of the wonder (or absurdity) in our everyday moments. What does a marriage between an artist and writer look like? We might have a conversation something like this:

Craig: You have an inordinate need to be right.

Lee: Thank you.

Craig: I didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Lee: But I’m an editor. I have to make sure things are right.

Craig: You don’t have to edit my love letters to you.

Lee: I thought you’d want to know there’s only one “l” in always.

Craig: I thought you’d want to respond to the feelings I expressed. I really put myself out there.

Lee: Yes, you said some really nice things. Thank you. And I’m sorry.

Craig: I forgive you.

Lee: Good. Now do you want to see your other two mistakes?

Stay tuned. We’ll be posting soon.