Mar 042012

For some reason the word “autodidact” has repeatedly popped up in my reading recently. Enough that I’ve been thinking about the nature of being “self-taught.” The idea of achieving a skill or other knowledge on ones own is certainly something I’ve claimed. But really, I’m not sure it’s possible.

I’ve been on both sides of formal education and training; written resumes that documented degrees, and touted independent, self-taught skills. Yet looking at my collection of learned abilities, it seems to me that I could not have, no one could have learned all alone.

Yes, there is a wonderful human ability to gain skills by both arduous trial and error, and those incredible flashes of insight. At least for me though, I recognize that those sparks of insight are triggered by something that already exists. Something I’ve seen, heard, felt, even smelled moves into my brain–and then shifts into something new. That new idea then is a twist on something that exists. Certainly this has been documented throughout history. Newton’s apple, da Vinci’s translation of the dragonfly to a flying machine, Fibonacci’s sequence plainly visible in every sunflower–all notions that were progress from an observance.

Of course when we trace back to our origins, there was a hominid who first drew on the cave wall, transforming forever a stick into a drawing tool, and the stone wall into an art surface. Whoever he or she was, the designation of autodidact obviously applies. I would love to know, to understand and experience what spurred that first artistic action eons ago. I believe then, that since that first artwork, we’ve been learning from each other.

Perhaps this is something to celebrate and cherish. In a time when formal education is becoming more and more rigidly determined by rising costs, and tightened entrance acceptances, it might be a good time to find ways for each of us to share what we know. We all have a wealth of knowledge to share, we all have a vibrant curiosity for what we don’t know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all opened our brains, and our hearts and learned from each other.

Feb 142012

My Dad wasn’t many things. Success wasn’t measured for him in scholarship, career, finance or athletic ability. He never imparted wisdoms, past the occasional “If you don’t make your mother mad, life will be easier.”

Yet he had an incredible gift–he possessed the ability to share unconditional love. He never discussed this with me, but throughout my life with him I would see him smile and say “hello” to someone on the street. If I asked who the person was he would just quietly say, “Oh, I don’t know him, but it looks like we could both use a smile.” And that was it. No “parent-lecture” on the responsibilities to love one’s fellow man, no pontifications whatsoever.

I think about my Dad often, but especially on Valentine’s Day. He told one February 14th when I was a teenager in the midst of some boyfriend angst that Valentine’s Day wasn’t just for romantic love. That it was a day when even crabby people could shake it off and smile at a stranger. And of course he loved heart-shaped boxes, deep red roses, and silly cards. His favorite I think were the message hearts. Because they were fun, because he could give them to everyone in the office, because, as he said–they are a smile in your mouth.

My Valentine’s Day wish for all (including me), is to experience a little of the love my Dad had every day. Smile at a stranger, share some message hearts, give the critical brain a rest for the day, and just enjoy being alive.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Daddy–Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!

Feb 072012

In a recent post the wonderful Danielle LaPorte asked the question: How do you want it all to feel? One of those enduring questions that can shift consciousness to levels of bright hope, deep fear, and just flat-out confusion. But there are moments when the answer is right there–out loud, just before waking. A clear, absolute statement. Stronger than a message, a full synapse-snapping statement. It shakes you from whatever depth of ennui you’ve been treading like a climber’s hoist into breathable air. And there you are.

This is a place where movement is more than ambidexterity. It’s a full-on state of flow. A constant feel of everything, all at once–but enduring, rather than fleeting flashes. It’s a place for dancing a drawing into the sand. It’s taking the left turn against traffic, knowing even in the crappy car that there’s just enough time, and turning your head to see how close it was–still moving forward. It’s seeing the artwork fully formed, without having made a stroke–but knowing where the materials are, knowing the finished piece may have nothing to do with the flash of concept, knowing that the outcome has nothing to do with the concept.

This is the place where synchronicity occurs with breathing. It isn’t that some cosmic beneficence is popping old favorites on the radio or tinging the sunrise clouds with an especially brilliant hue. It’s that your ears and eyes are at one with the rest of you. All of you. This is a walking, breathing, fully aware state of flow. It can’t be shaken by the minutiae of functioning in the world. Minor irritants aren’t ignored–they are dealt with–with fluid movement and a little humor.

This is a pushed-up sleeves place–where muscle-memory is powered by backbone. It’s a place where intent cannot possibly be shaken by fear, where failure is a learning tool, and the Bandaid box is at least half-full.This is a place for bare toes in the sand, and where steel-toe boots stand next to 4″ red pumps–ready for whatever.

This is a place where fingertips grip the right place the first time, tools have a recognizable heft and balance in the hand with or without gloves–and there’s a constant if mutable rhythm that moves from the ankle, up the spine to the base of the neck no matter where the music is coming from.

This is the place I found in that nebulous place between child and woman. A place I’ve known in extraordinary clarity in childbirth, in painting, in bending torched steel, in loving. This is the place I found again in sobriety after eons of despair. This is the place I’d recently lost track of, but never really feared was lost.

This is the place where I am everything I was meant to be. This is a place of power without any need to challenge. This is the place where I am all I want to feel, and I’m not leaving.

Jan 112012

There are many moments when I am reminded why I love to teach. It certainly isn’t the pay or the “prestige.” But rather the gifts I’m given–just for being there.

This afternoon I was with a child who is working with me rather than being in class due to some rather serious and difficult on-going medical protocols. The nausea and exhaustion–residuals from the most recent treatments meant homework hadn’t been touched. So we began to slowly work through the 5th grade assignments. Mostly tedious drills, far below this particular child’s intellectual level–but still assignments that must be completed, submitted, assessed and charted before the upcoming grading period. When I asked about an assigned “response” worksheet for a short story, I was told that it hadn’t been done, but would I like to hear a poem from the back of the text.

I will never forget this child reading the following poem.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Emily Dickenson

Jan 082012

you are with me today
as you once were
as you have become
as you always will be

all this time
you have been gone

twenty-five years
a quarter century
nearly half my life

yet the warmth of your head
against my chest
our hearts in tandem
and the sweet smell of you
remains undiminished

you have been with me
in the sister you left
in the brother and sister
who never knew your smile
in the father who loved you so

yet now you have become
my bright morning star
when I walk to the sea

you are the new day
when sunrise touches surf
and baptizes my toes
at the edge of the sand

I find you where I left you
gleaming bits mixed with shell
merging with the sand
beneath my feet

with me you always will be
when I lift my soul
to the ocean met clouds
to the pound of waves
our hearts in tandem

my love for you remains
for the beauty you gave me
for who I’ve become
since you left me
I love you and always will

my Nicole

Jan 012012

It is my experience that the best journey begins with little expectation, but with great openness to whatever appears on the horizon, the path, or beyond the next turn. There is something magic about daring the willingness to step out, especially when the way is unmarked. Not for any purpose, not for any destination or end–but just to put a bare foot on the dawn-cold sand and move forward.

If I have a wish for all of us in this barely begun New Year it is to meet each day with eyes fully open to beauty. Even when it can only be found in the darkest of sorrows. To hold tolerance and understanding in heart and mind rather than judgement and fear. To actively seek peace and justice without flinching. To speak the truth without flinching. To live the truth unafraid, and with joy.

And remember to smile and breathe, just breathe.

Dec 312011

I caught myself while beginning the pre-tax receipt-sorting yesterday. The packs of little papers growing into paper-clipped stacks. Art supplies, office supplies, restaurant, utilities, restaurant, art supplies, home repair, more restaurant and even more art supplies. This is a task I usually reserve for mid January, when I can review with a little more emotional distance–buoyed by still fresh resolutions. Resolutions to do more, do better, do with less, do without. That’s what caught me, the concept of resolutions.

Most of us, on this last day of the year, are considering some form of resolution, reformation, reclamation, renewal. Even those of us who swear not to believe in the standard New Year resolves are unable not to sift through the year that is so rapidly dwindling, and take stock. It is simply the sentient being’s process in ending one thing in order to begin something new. So the self-promise to losing weight, clear the desk, clean the closet, and be kinder is a natural function of constructing hope.

That fresh, intentional push toward betterment lasts (for most of us) until the files begin to pile up on our desks, the pizza is too tempting, and that idiot cuts us off in traffic. There’s a common discussion amongst coaches and trainers that January is their highest traffic month. Highest for the volume of people who sign up and then bail within a few weeks after New Year’s.

So what would happen if we took this last day of the year to consider the things we’ve done well, and instead of resolving to repair the bad, focus on the good we’ve done for ourselves and others. Surely, no matter how rotten a year it may have been, no matter how we feel we’ve failed–there had to be something enriching that that touched us. Suppose we all spent this turn of the year not ignoring our imperfections, but strengthening our positives. And move on from there.

It’s the game we’ve all played somewhere in our lives. Typically led by a teacher, camp counselor or an elder at the special family dinner, you get the question. “Tell us one thing you liked about…”, whatever. Even the sourest in the group will inevitably (though sometimes days later) come up with something. Often it builds within the group, each trumping the next. And then whatever the experience was takes on a new aspect. What might happen if we play the game within our own thoughts. Isn’t there the possibility our view–of ourselves, our fellows, even our world might shift.

Thinking about this brought the awareness that this has been a wonderful year of riches. Given to and by me. I became filled with gratitude just to have experienced the year. One moment stands clear though. In the kind of teaching I do, I am always working with children who are in some kind of trouble. My students may be out of the regular classroom due to chemotherapy treatments, Fibromyalgia, severe anxiety, simple fractures, or emotional/psychological disabilities that have led to suspension with intent to expel. All of these children are fragile; physically, emotionally–or both. While I love what I do, the teaching day fails to pass that doesn’t contain some frustration and even irritation I then chastise myself for.

Recently I was sitting with a student whose physical condition is so difficult that among other challenges there is no speech–or liklihood to be any. This makes teaching ABC’s, numbers and shapes pretty daunting. And frustrating. But in a magical moment, the child was asked by his mother (on whose lap he was sitting) to “just put your pointer on the circle.” And somehow, instead of shifting, and moving on to some other task, I just waited. It took a full three minutes and multiple encouragements from mom and me–but he slowly pulled in his other fingers and thumb, and with a full heft from the shoulder, touched the circle with the tip of his “pointer.”

Now obviously, I didn’t differentiate my finger or super-humanly coordinate my body to lift my hand. But I did follow my instinct to sit still, followed my nature to cheer, followed my heart to thank both my student and his mom. And instantly, eagerly began planning ways to build on this first, small step of communication for him.

I look then to the New Year with an eagerness and anticipation I’ve been missing. The plans I have are equal parts what I know and what I can do with that knowledge. There is art to be made, a book to be written, teaching tools to be created. Hopefully when I look back a year from now I will see months and days filled with learning from failures, celebrations of good work, the joys of good friends and family, a heart more open, a mind more eager, and a spirit more daring.

I wish everyone all the same.

Dec 302011

Long before any of us become actual parents, we wonder at what we will give, sow as seeds, and then how those seeds will develop into children and then adults. We approach the image of our future children with such expectation and hope. The thought being that if we give them our love and wisdom they develop into the image we’ve created.

But life comes along. The real child is born with her or his own wonderful mesh of abilities and interests that may or may not coincide with our prenatal dreams. The lawyer you believe you are gestating may become a monk, the violinist a CPA, or the peace-activist a warrior. Certainly we hope for our children to become good people, loving human beings with a solid respect for themselves and others. But I really thought I’d raise a ballerina–or at least a soccer player.

As my children enter adulthood I recall that my one constant aspiration for each of them as they grew was to develop a love of beauty. That was always my focus, and the direction of much of their childhood activities.

During their early years, before the beginning of each summer vacation, I would scour the local calendars for free events. There were music festivals, breakfast picnics at the zoo, and countless trips to the National Gallery and Smithsonian Museums. We had a simple rule, we would start (and often finish) in whatever museum we could park closest to–it took them years to figure out that I knew there would never be parking around my least favorite Air and Space Museum.

I knew early on that I would not be able to provide money-attached advantages. Instead I had the luxury of living close enough to the beautifully free Smithsonians, a vibrant folk music and art community, and one of the last children’s libraries in the nation. Of course it was also another time. Our national budget crisis had not yet forced the closing of concerts, exhibits, and the most wonderful children’s bookstore–where each fall a Monarch butterfly hatchery took over the front window, and favorite authors like Eric Carle came to paint with children.

There were also adult friends my husband and I were able to share with our children. Artists, writers, scientists and of course musicians who were not celebrities to the kids, but people they knew. People who shared their time and art freely, becoming something of a creative community for them–the village (of artists) it takes to raise a child.

My children now are young adults, and I sometimes wonder (as all parents do) what all those trips to the zoo and the library and th family dinner conversations did. But then without intention they unite to give me a wonderful gift. This Christmas night, after the huge dinner and flurry of gift exchanging my son sat and quietly played guitar–the music he knows I love. The next day my daughters and my son-in-law joined my husband and me walking through several galleries. The highlights included a couple of good bounces on the National Gallery’s “multiverse” walkway. My youngest daughter’s gift to me was “finding” our favorite Rauschenberg, Wall-Eyed Carp/ROCI JAPAN hadn’t been removed–but moved to a better spot.

And there it is. Of course it doesn’t solve the world’s problems, or even our personal ones. But watching my children this Christmas tells me a love of beauty is solid in each of them. I still believe if we all were filled with a love of beauty it might become easier to share with each other. Through sharing we might come to understand and truly see each other as fellow travelers rather than as adversaries. When I see and hear this living in my children, I know my husband and I were not alone in helping this to happen. Sometimes the magic works.

Oct 042011

One of the many beauties of having a sixteen-year-old daughter around are the wonderful observations that zing from her mouth, pierce any mental funk, and take up residence in my brain. Not too long ago during some family dinner kvetching about the weather or politics, she noted, “yup, a real First World Problem.” This simple phrase pops up frequently whenever I realize I’m sinking into hyper-mode about something fairly trivial; something either easily fixed or not in my capacity to change.

I have “First World Problems.” And so do my daughters, my sister, my mother–girls, all of us. Even my grandmother, who escaped from a childhood on a hardscrabble dirt farm to eke out a living in Washington, DC during the Great Depression, and wasn’t allowed by law to vote until well into her adulthood, only had “First World Problems.”

We have, and have had only “First World Problems” because even if there sometimes wasn’t enough, we had food, clean water, and the freedom to achieve anything we strove toward–even though we were all born girls. Yes, there have been restrictions based on our gender, but nothing that couldn’t be withstood or overcome. Nothing life-threatening.

So when I saw the first Girl Effect.org video, I was hooked. Simple graphic, powerful message. This is not a “First World Problem,” but it will take First World effort to create change. When I saw Tara Mohr’s blog calling for a “Girl Effect Blogging Campaign,” I of course signed-on. I signed-on because I believe every child born into this world deserves basic love and care. Because I believe with my whole being that if every child were free from hunger–both of the body and mind–the world would be far less damaged and its people far less dangerous. Because I believe in the power of women who were gained strength as girls. Because I believe in the possibility of change.

I have been blessed to give birth to three daughters and a son. I have been fortunate enough to raise my son and two of those daughters. As I see them go off into the world strong, loving, and ready to take on whatever challenges they may face in their lives–I am filled with gratitude. It is that I wish for every child, for every girl.

For my part, each time I sell a piece of my Imprematura Wearable Art, I send a donation to the Girl Effect. And when the opportunity arises, I share that first, wonderful video. Because I can.

When my first child was just born, my husband took one look and said softly and with incredible love, “It’s a little girl.” That awe I heard in his voice contained all the love and care we would both give her as she grew, that she would learn to give to others. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was the norm for every child, for every girl.

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