Friday, December 16, 2011

Letter To My Son In Honor Of His 7th Birthday

Here is what I know: At the beginning, I knew nothing. Only love.

I did not know how I was going to do this…alone. I only knew, instantly upon seeing you, that nothing I’d done with my life up to that point even mattered. It fell away. Who I was before that moment fell away. Nothing mattered, nothing at all, but you.
When you have your own children you will know what I mean. The feeling is that strong. But to love someone, anyone, takes courage. You’ll learn that, too.

Before your birth, when your feet pressed so hard against the inside of my tummy that I could see the shape of it on the outside, I knew you had spirit. I liked that, because I, too, have spirit. I wanted your spirit to be as indomitable as mine, even though I knew it would mean tough discipline challenges down the road.

And I was right. You have not always been easy. But I did not ask for easy. I wanted spirited…and they are not the same thing. Not at all.

You have grown to look like me, with your big brown eyes and unruly mane of curls, but your personality mirrors mine very little. I’m amazed by this. You’re so outgoing! You seek the company of others, where I always preferred to play alone. I used to find a quiet spot and read during recess, but this is not your way, not at all. I liked solitude, but you prefer companionship.

And what companions you and I have been! How I cherished our time together, just the two of us, when you were younger. Then one day, when you were about five, you said to me, “Mama, we need more people,” and I knew you were right. I’d kept our little world almost exclusive because of my own preferences. But you were ready to broaden your horizons, and I loved you too much to hold you back. So I opened up the world for you. I broke our constant routines that you were growing so tired of and I let you lead me into developing new friendships, new connections, and a whole new lifestyle. I watched the ease with which you connected to new people, and I quit bringing books or knitting to the park or to birthday parties you were invited to. I spoke to other parents instead. Acquaintances slowly become friends, good friends. Our world got a little bit bigger each day. And I saw how happy it made you. Now you hit the door immediately asking for someone to come over. I don’t take it personally. I love that you brought more people into both our lives. I’ve spent enough time in my own head. Our world is so full of people now, sometimes I wonder how to fit them all in. And it’s fabulous. Wonderful. So much better than it was before.

Your mind fascinates me, because it’s so unlike my own. You love concrete, logical things. You get upset with me if you know I’m bending the rules, or not following the Lego instructions exactly. You notice things like this, and you’re bothered by them. I see the seeds there for a future preference for organization. It lets me know I better make more of an effort to be organized in my own life, so I can set a good example.

And that, my child, has been your greatest influence on my life, knowing that I serve as an example to you. Every action I take, I know you are there, watching. Every chance I take, and every chance I pass up, I know you are learning from my example. The moments when I want to turn away from someone in anger, but choose to act with love instead, because I want to make sure that you are taught by my example it is never a mistake to care; The moments when I want to give up, but know that I can’t, because I want to make sure you are never taught by my example that giving up is okay; The moments when I feel overwhelmed, but I want you to remember me as strong, and so I find a way to demonstrate strength, so that you might know, from my example, nothing is impossible; The moments I find delight in a sunrise, or the shape of a plant’s leaf, a cup of coffee or the particular rhythm of a cat’s purring…I want you to learn from my example that the simple joys of life are always with us.

Your days as a young child have passed, you are entering your middle childhood years, developing a clear idea of who you are and what you like. These years will take you away from me little by little, bit by bit, moment by moment…but I’m okay with that. You are my child, not my life companion, and I know full well there will come a day that you leave me completely. I want you to do it with courage and confidence. You are so fearless now, I can’t imagine what adventures you will take yourself on in years to come. I’ve already taken you on so many, and I know we have many left to take together. But you have taken me on an adventure of finding myself through parenting you. My love for you made me determined to give you the best and fullest life possible…which meant I had to grab life by the horns in a way I never quite had before. But I could not show you how to really live were I not doing it myself.

And so, my spirited, son, as your 7th year begins, here is my wish for your life, spoken to you in a way I know you will understand: Live it. Fully and completely. Don’t stand on the sidelines playing it safe. Get out there in the game. You might get hurt, but you will heal. You might get knocked down, but you’ll stand back up. What matters in the end is that you played. What you would regret, in the end, is standing back, holding back, wishing you had the nerve to play. I will always lead you by this one example: Play. Play well, and play as often as you can.

Thank you for teaching me how to do just that.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Wind

It is a thought, it is a feeling, it is the wind, carried to me and through me by a voice on the other end of the line.

How foolish we are! How vain to think ourselves so strong. How vain to think that I could not be toppled. I have never seen the wind, but I have seen what it can do…mighty oaks scattered like toothpicks.

Wind can glide through the tree tops, calming our minds with faerie sounds. It can dance with stars at night. It can gently warm our faces as we stand on shores of foreign seas.

Or it can blow cold. Bite. Bring tears to our eyes.

I’ve tried to paint the wind. But like love, it can’t be expressed in form. Like love, it cannot be seen. Like love, it can only be felt. Like love, we have no control over its intensity or the direction it may choose to take. We can only experience it.

I hang up the phone and immediately hear sirens wailing. Outside, I see signs of the wind. Leaves are scurrying by, enjoying the ride. Without the wind to scuttle them, they lie in piles and decompose. The wind is their adventure, the only force that can save them from simply rotting where they fell. They have no power to lift themselves up. They can only lie in stasis, hoping for a gust to carry them somewhere new before it is too late.

I watch one large golden oak leaf pass by the window. The wind picks it up, dances with it, then lets it be. Still for a moment, it is lifted up again. Carried. Dropped. Up. Down. I watch until it disappears from sight, a particularly strong gust carrying it around the corner.

Sirens wail. I’m in the car. I want home. I want safety. I want to drink coffee and watch the storm through my patio door. And this is the plan.

But it is not what I do.

I’m home. I’m safe. But I’m not behind the door. I’m on the patio, wind whipping past my face, drops of rain dancing on my skin. The storm is abating, as they always do.

I cannot see the wind, but I believe in it all the same. I have never doubted it is there. I have never doubted, in its absence, that it would one day return.

So long as I can feel, I know. I do not have to see.
For example, I do not need to be near the Arctic Circle to know that it is winter there. The wind blows cold, carrying with it tiny shards of ice that bite the skin, bring tears to the eyes. Wind from the top of the world can freeze a person in place, which is quite dangerous. It can take a long time to thaw a thing that’s frozen solid. And other times, it can thaw in an instant.

It all depends.

The phone rings. I am still for a moment, then lifted up again.

Carried. Dropped. Up. Down.
We can only
experience it.

Art: The Other Side of the Sea, by Amy L. Alley, 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mylar Balloon Reflections (or Playing with Creativity)

From the window of my classroom, I can usually see kids outside playing. However, when there is no recess going on, I can see what lies beyond the school gates....a small church cemetery. (I can see the church too, of course....)

One day I noticed balloons and flowers on one of the graves. I could see them from the window, briliant colors blowing in the wind. Those balloons  got me thinking about life, and about how I am spending mine. Mainly in terms of what legacy I leave behind.

All I can do with Eric is hope I leave a lasting, valued impression on his life. Although I love my own parents, I am so different from them...I don't embody any of thier beliefs and/or values...other than my life, I'm not sure what thier legacy to me has been. My family life has not always been easy. There's a reason I sometimes need a little distance, whether it is 15 miles, 1,000 miles, or an ocean between us.  Which makes me wonder about Eric, about what life he'll embrace, and which of the values I've taught him - if any - he'll hold on to. And suddenly I'm aware that he is getting older, and that his childhood is passing faster than I can keep up.

There is still so many things I wish to make happen for him... I wish he had a sibling. I wish he had a father figure, or at least another person in his life who'd love him as I do. I wish he had a backyard.  And a pony.  And a pool... I wish so much...but I am only one person. What takes the primary bulk of my attention right now is simply living. The chores, the homework, the necessary family time and play, the woods romping, the laundry....what time I find to really focus and concentrate on dreams and ideas is usually the late evening hours, when the house is quiet. I unclutter my mind from the drama of the day and play with creating.

Play with creating, you say…isn’t it a serious, deep venture? Aren’t artists supposed to be on some different level than everyone else? Aren’t writers supposed to be ornery loners that possess more intelligence than everyone else? Aren’t poets and musicians supposed to be dreamy romantics who hop and skip through clover waving colorful ribbons? Okay, maybe I went too far on that one but I think you get the point. Play at creating makes it sound like I don’t take myself – or what I create – very seriously.

And you know what? I don’t. 

I did, once. When my life consisted of evenings spent in pretentious mod circles, sipping wine from plastic cups and eating Brie at art receptions and listening to other artists – or worse, myself – talk cryptically about their work and their reasons for creating it. The big favorites were always political or social justice issues. Rarely did anyone, even me, ever say ‘I created this because I just love painting!’ (you can change the setting here to literary reading or concert and insert poetry or music or writing in place of painting, the effect will be the same.) And my own work took on darker overtones, not because I had complex, deep issues, but because my seeming to have complex, deep issues made both me and my work more interesting somehow.

Then, I had a child. Wow. 

Deep, complex issues? Thanks, but no thanks. Political and social issues, yeah, I care about you, but I’m not inspired by you to create something just to prove to the world I care about you. And as to being on a different level than everyone else, well, I’ve come to the realization that Picasso was right when he said we spend our entire adult lives trying to create again with the freedom we created with as children. I’ve done the loner thing, it isn’t as fun or fulfilling as Hemingway made it seem. And I have skipped through clover waving colorful ribbons, I’ll admit that…but it was with my son, and we were playing with nature. 

And last night, I sat in front of my easel and had fun with dots and swirls. Perhaps my new work won’t be taken as seriously as some of my older pieces, but I don’t take myself as seriously as I did ten years ago, and I’m kind of okay with people not staring into my art and looking for pain and angst beneath the layers of paint, or reading my poetry and dissecting it, and so on. Life is short. I’ve no time for pain and angst, nor do I want to create any lasting thing that reflects it. I want to play. Not just with my child, but with art. And poetry. And the things that I write. If you've seen my yard, then you know I even play with my landscaping. And definitely my clothing. And if there is a message that my work, or my life, conveys, I want it to be this:


And so I look out the window at the balloons, so out of place on cemetery grounds, blowing in the wind, and I think about the legacy I will leave behind. I want it to be greater than paintings adorning the walls of strangers, a mention in an art book somewhere, an inclusion in an anthology on painters. While all of those things are nice, they’re not my sole (or my soul) ambition anymore.

Creating, like life, should be fun. When we take ourselves too seriously, we lose that element, not only from our work but from our lives, from our beings. I recently passed up a glitzy Friday night art reception to paint pottery with two 6 year olds, something the 25 year old me could not even have conceived of doing. And the most amazing thing of all is it was exactly what my heart desired to do.

As my 38th birthday approached and passed last week, I realized that having a child and working with children has spared me from the road of pretentious mod-ness that I was careening down at breakneck speed. Becoming a parent opened me up to a magic and a wonder I had forgotten in my quest for fame and fortune. It opened me up to skipping in meadows waving ribbons, getting my hands dirty, catching butterflies with nets, making flop cakes and ‘anything’ cookies. It opened me up to love something, finally, more than I loved myself. It opened me up to fun.

I still want my work, and my life, to have an impact. I’m passionate about environmental and social issues. But I’m more passionate about joy, and helping others find it. If there is a legacy left behind in my art or poetry or writing, I want it to be one of beauty.

And the legacy I want to leave behind for my child? Be joyous. Life is short. Create always, but create beauty. Help others to create beauty and find joy as well. There is no nobler pursuit in life than bringing joy to another, whether it is through art, writing, poetry, music, or by simply loving them and showing that love by sharing your most precious gift: your time and attention.

I may never be able to give my child a house with a yard, a pony, a pool, a sibling or a father figure for his life. But I can give him the gift of how to find beauty and joy through the act of creating, not for recognition or fortune, but merely for fun. I can make sure that whether or not he agrees with my political, spiritual, or even nutritional beliefs, he will at least know, for certain, that it life it meant to be lived. And it’s meant to be fun.

And when we take ourselves too seriously, well, it becomes our great misfortune.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Photographer

The Photographer

"You're alluring,"
says the man
photographing my art.

"Would you consider
letting me
shoot you

Standing behind my painting
I consider
his offer
for a moment.

Standing behind my painting
I consider
(for a moment)
how nice it is
to be seen.

- Amy L. Alley, 2011

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Poem - Good Junk


Cleaning the silver jewelry
outside on a summer day.

The tarnish yielding
to an almost white shine.

I look at the ring I bought when I was 12,
and have had repaired at least a dozen times
(because I'm really too rough
to wear delicate things).
It's been with me a long, long time
since I discovered it in a $2 pile
at a local thrift shop.

And then, the pendant
that was actually an earring
discovered in a box of junk
my dad decided
was good enough to be picked up
and picked through.

It was black with tarnish
and had no mate,
but I saw the Many Goats signature on the back
and knew that meant
As did the beauty
of the stones
that spoke to me
through layers of grime.

I polished the earring
then broke it apart
(because it had no mate)
and strung it on a necklace.
I wore that necklace during winter months
when I was sure I'd spend the summer ones
in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona

I ended up in Helsinki instead
Blown just a little off course
from the American deserts
to the edge of the Baltic Sea
(and the edge of
a lot of other things as well.)

But I've always had a knack for
veering off course.
Just like I've always had a knack
for changing the shape of something.
And being able to see
beyond the tarnish
to the white shine.

I slip the necklace on
It's cold against my skin
I'll wear it in the summer months
and wonder what winter will bring...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Trust Lessons from Stray Cats and Wandering Hobos....

The cat has been hanging around the house for months. I've tried many times to just get close to him, but he's always bolted like a rocket.

I'd try approaching him quietly, talking in a low voice, but he never seemed to appear at a time when it was convienent. It was always when I was coming in from the supermarket or on my way out the door to somewhere else. And the appearance of my energetic, almost seven-year-old son bounding out the door joyously (as he always seems to do), would usually send the stray cat bolting if my own  presence hadn't already managed to do so.

Until a couple of days ago when, inexplicably and in an unprecedented display of a sudden decision to trust, the cat not only let me get close to him, but let me pet him as well. It was morning, and I was on a stroll around the gardens, cup of coffee in hand. It was early, my sacred morning time (which I accomplish only by rising at 5:30am),  and I was almost startled when the cat suddenly appeared, strolling out from the sunflower patch where he'd been resting. He caught sight of me and I expected to see a flash of tail and black-bottom feet disappear around the fence corner, but this time....he stayed. And as I whispered softly to him, he twitched his tail, blinked his eyes, tapped his front feet up and down, and made some low sounds back to me.

This is all for, "I want to know you."

I went back inside, grabbed some dry food, and returned.. He was still there, and I shook the cup of food a few times before putting it into the kitty bowl. Then I knelt beside it. This is all communication, too. Offering food to a stray animal is human-speak for, "I want to know you."

The magic worked. After circling me and meowing several times, he finally approached the food bowl, despite it's dangerous proximity to me. And when I reached out to touch him, he didn't slink away, but remained, allowing me to pet him. I couldn't believe it, and  I couldn't stand this strange and wondrous new development on my own, so I slipped into the house and awoke my son, telling him that "Gray Kitty finally let me pet him!" I told my son how to come out the door quietly (as opposed to his usual 'bursting forth into the world') and to slowly approach from behind me, making no noise or sudden movements, and he did it all just right. As a result, he was able to pet Gray Kitty as well, which was the equivilant, to my animal-loving child, of Santa Claus showing up unexpectedly in mid-July.

And so it has gone on and on. Every day we have some time with Grey Kitty, who we've 'named' Lamington Deer (don't ask why, please...) and who occasionally still bolts away for no particular reason I can see. But he also has climbed up into my lap, allowed me to pick him up and hold him, showed me his belly and allowed it to be rubbed (ultimate sign of trust for most animals as it's such a vulnerable spot), and allowed my son (who approaches him now with the quiet grace of a Ninja Warrior walking through a motion-activated security field) to pick him up as well. He doesn't know it, poor kitty, but once he's tame enough for me to put him into a carrier he'll be taken to the vet for shots and a slight 'alteration' to his manhood, for he on occasions gives my little female kitties an unnecessary chase. But bottom line is the question that my son asked me last night: "Is he going to be ours now?"

"I'm not sure," I replied, "It's really up to him." And this is true. He's never been 'owned' before. He may not want to hang around in one place after at least a few years of stray nomadic-ness. It's a tough qeustion to answer. I remind my son, however, that what matters is not him becoming 'ours' in the end, but that we are showing him kindness and love right now. This small creature has decided we are worthy of his trust. And I'm not only flattered, I'm honored, because there is no greater judge of a person's character than a stray animal. This is universal knowledge to the point that years ago, travelling hobos used the image of a person holding out a bowl of food to a dog as a symbol for a house where one might find kindness. And in Medieval Europe, the image of a woman with a bowl of food surrounded by cats meant the same thing. These drawings were usually crude and stick-figurish, but there is a truth behind them than animals seem to know, and the down-and-out can sometimes see through to the soul of a person and know a truth about them that others often miss because thier vision is too clouded with a sense of thier own grandeur.

So whether or not Lamington Deer becomes ours, he's giving me a lesson in trust that I find heals my spirit. My heart leaps when I step outside and see him there amidst the sunflowers. It makes my soul smile each time he lets my son and I pet him. I needed this lesson, I know and perhaps the kitty knew as well. Or rather, I'm sure he did. He'd observed me from afar for quite some time, after all, and cats are considered healers in many countries both in the past and today. My Reiki-practitioner friend has told me that cats naturally do Reiki because they have an ability to heal hurt with positive energy. I can feel this happening in me, with each closeness that he allows. (Why did it need to happen? View my other blog at and look for the 'Sad Eyes' post.)

And now my son is awake...the sacred morning time, so fleeting these days, is suddenly filled with, "Can I have breakfast?", "Can I watch cartoons?" and now the new mantra, which pleases me greatly: "Can we go outside and see if Lamington Deer is still there?"

"Yes," I say to all three.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bonsai and the Art of Not Being Tame(d)

Wild: Being in a state of nature, i.e. not tame.

I was feeling bad about uprooting the small tree that had taken root in my flower bed, but it could not be left to grow there, so close to the house. Still I was surprised when a nieghbor suggested that instead of replanting it, I try my hand at Bonsai.

Bonsai is one of those art forms I'm on the fence about. It's essentially about restricting growth. Controlling and taming the wild until what should have been towering and free can fit into a tiny pot is simply not my cup of tea.

I can appreciate the history and technique behind the art, but I can't help feeling like Bonsai are the 'Stepford Wives' of the tree world. They look the same as thier wild sisters, only they are celebrated for being smaller. Which is odd to me, because what they become, essentially, is merely what someone decides they should be.

It's hard to ignore the fact that the art form originates in the same area of the world where women were forced to wear shoes that basically cobbled thier feet until they were so ridiculously small the women could barely stand, let alone walk...or run free. And it's hard to ignore the fact that man's ability - and need - to tame the wild seems to be the purpose of both of these customs.

Trees and women share a sisterhood. Julia Butterfly Hill ( lived in the canopy of Luna, an ancient Redwood she was determined to save, for 738 days. She came down in 1999, after she and supporters negotiated a deal that saved Luna, who still stands today.

In Cassie Premo Steele's novel Shamrock and Lotus, ( there is a story told of several village women in India making a human chain to hug the trees in order to spare them from governmental deforestation.

And of course, there is the profound history that has linked women and trees for centuries....we've both been curtailed, trimmed back, put into tiny pots because of a misguided belief that in being less wild we were more beautiful. That a tidy, tended yard was more worthy than one with a pumpkin vine blooming wildly in the hedges. But to me, there is no beauty in a mighty oak tree living out its life in a 5" pot.

Perhaps it was ancenstral memories or being controlled, contained, curtailed...or maybe recollections of pictures of women with feet forced into a tiny shoes...or maybe it's the being told that one is too independent, too liberal, too smart, too intimidating (what the heck is THAT about?), too strong-willed, too creative, too successful, too much of this, that or the other to ever fit into the ornamental, complacent 'little woman' mold that so many men seem to find attractive that made me look at my nieghbor as if he were quite insane. And then I headed out to a small wooded area and replanted the seedling tree in the ground where it could grow freely, alongside it's wild sisters.

I can appreciate the ancient art of Bonsai...but I celebrate the need to put one's hands into the soil and work the earth without gloves. I celebrate the need to be out in nature, to feel the earth beneath one's feet, and to pick up the feathers that one finds on the ground. The need to sit out on a deck and watch the night sky. The need to wonder, to feel, to lie back on the grass, to watch a bird's flight. The need to live life on my own terms, not follow a blueprint of proper experiences, complete with timeline and ettiquette rules. The need to watch my son hoot and holler with delight as he falls in love with nature, exploring every inch of the outdoors. The need, in me, not complain on the days he has to have the mud hosed off before he can even enter the house to shower. He'll never be a kid who is seen but not heard, and who cares? I celebrate my son's need to grow freely, even though it might lead to a life lived outside the box that so many others conform to fit within.

In other words, I celebrate what is, essentially, allowed to grow free, not what is ornamental, carried, complacent, contained...but what is living in a state of nature.

What is not tame.

Art: Egg, Feather, Nest Mandala, Amy L. Alley, colored pencil on paper

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Handful of Surprises

I reached into a black widow's nest today.

It wasn't intentional, of course. I realized my hand was covered in dozens of tiny, pale gold infant spiders about the time the mother waved her many arms at me, making her presence known as she defended her brood. I shook the babies off my hand and went inside, grabbed a bottle of eco-friendly Raid (yes, they make it), and annihilated the lot of them.

Then I felt a pain in my hand and realized that it might be in my best interest to call poison control. I can proudly say now that, most likely, I am more knowledgeable about Black Widow spider bites than anyone I know.

I say it all the time, but there is a truth that is universal, always with us, always asserting and proving itself: Life is, blessedly, full of surprises.

Was I bitten by the big spider? Really, I don't even know. I'd been gardening for an hour or so when I reached into the nest, and there are bites, scrapes, and pricks all over my hand because I like the feel of working without gloves and rarely wear them. There was pain, yes. But whether my symptoms were real or psycho-sematic, I do know I'll be okay. Any severe reaction would have occured by now.

For the most part, I just know that I sat down to plant cosmos and ended up having an adventure I'd not planned for at all. Which is funny, because on my mind all day had been the concept of adventures, how they can happen suddenly, and how they can lead us in directions we never expected.

Reaching into a nest of a venomous spider was not quite what I had in mind to do this afternoon. Still, that's the thing about life, it is full of surprises. The key is to remain ready...and unafraid.

Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Precious Gems

A friend was showing me her collection of semi-precious stones today, and I was reminded of this short story that Paulo Coehlo shared in his recent blog (

A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream.

The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food.The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him.

She did so without hesitation.

The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.

But, a few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious.

Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone.”

I share this here because it sums up, nicely and neatly, what I was hoping to write about tonight. I am not sure who I admire most in the story, the wise woman, for giving so freely, or the traveler, who was able to recognize that within this wise woman was something more valueable than precious gems.

I only know this: We are always demonstrating to others what truly lies within us. But it is important to remember that we are also always being shown, by others, what truly lies within them.

And it's also important, as the traveler learned, to recognize something precious when it is handed to us.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Measuring A Year...

I'm pulling out fabrics and thread, yarn and patterns. I'm tearing images for collage, and ordering new art materials. I'm starting to slow down a little from the routine that has guided my days for the last 9 months. I'm watering my garden in my night attire at 10pm just to show myself that, despite the trials and stresses of the past year, I am still the boss of me.

Summer has almost officially began.

I don't measure summer from the start of a set date. For me, as a teacher, summer - and all the promise it holds - is measured from the last day I work in May until the day I return in August. And I don't measure years by days on a calendar.

I measured this past year by Friday afternoon cups of coffee at an uptown cafe, and by the times I turned the pages in my son's school journal and watched how the August scrawls turned into legible words by December. I measured this past year by paint strokes on canvas, and by knits and purls and laughter with the group of friends that gathered in my home every other Saturday night. I measured it in moments spent coming to term with things I could not change. I measured it in books I read, in emails I sent, in letters I recieved. I measured it in hours spent waiting on to catch a plane, and in the memory of the moment I stepped off the plane to a destination I'd dreamed about for years. I measured it in days spent at the pool watching my son learn to swim, and then to dive, and then to dive deeper. I measured it in moments I forced myself to dive deeper, even when I didn't want to know what lay beneath the surface.

I measured this year in choices I had to make, difficult ones. I measured it in articles and blogs I wrote, in animals I rehabiliated and rescued, in the bursting forth of life from seedlings I planted. I measured it in hugs from students, in bills I managed to finally pay off, in goals I accomplished. I measured it in moments I realized that out of all the attributes a man can possess, courage is the one I value most, and it's okay for me not to accept someone who is less than bold. I measured it in moments I took risks, and in moments I realized that there are some people who live within fences that they'll never have the courage to leap.

I measured it in moments I held my son close, and realized that he is the best thing I have ever created. I measured it in moments I knew, without doubt, that raising a child is the noblest of goals, and, modern woman or not, I am a mother, and it is the job most worthy of all my effort and energy. There will be plenty of time for writing, for painting, for waxing poetic over coffee in cafes with friends...but there is only one period of time that my son will be a child, and it is now. I measured this year in skinned knees and fairy houses, in lego castles and in times my son got back up on the bike after falling....and in long evenings spent watching him ride after he finally learned how.

So I let this year draw to a close. Summer, with all of it's promise, is about to begin. For me, it's only 3 days away! I close with one of my favorite songs from RENT, a favorite musical.

Painting: 3o Minute Peonies, Amy L. Alley, completed in college for a class assignment, dug back out of the closet for a Feng Shui experiment! :-)))

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Butterfly Magic

Today is my son's bridging ceremony.

It's a Montessori celebration of transitioning from one year of learning to the next, similar to a kindergarten graduation.

The year has flown by. As a matter of fact, the past six and half years have flown by. I don't think about it often. I don't have time. As my child's sole parent, the days fly by at speed of light, or speed of childhood, I should say. I used to be able to have my son asleep by seven o'clock each evening. Now I'm lucky if we're able to slow down the day enough by seven so that he can be asleep by nine.

There is just so much to do, and so little time to do it. The magic of childhood is flying past just like the butterflies that seem to always be attracted to my son, landing on him while we're playing in the yard or while he's riding his bike. He used to be amazed by this occurence, now it's so normal he'll usually just call out, "Mama, there's another butterfly on me!"

I smile, because I want so much for this boy, and I carry on my shoulders every day the weight of being the only person who can provide it. But I did not provide the magic of having butterflies land on him, so much that he's used to it. That's something that came to him from somewhere else. Perhaps it's a magic all children possess, I don't know. My only experience is with this child.

I bought him a small turtle sculpture for his bridging gift. It's carved from wood, and it's an adult turtle with a smaller turtle on it's back. I didn't even think about it when I picked it out. My son was with me, as always, when I was in the shop, and I was trying to purchase it without him seeing. It was only later, when I was wrapping it up, that I noticed the symbolism of a larger turtle carrying a smaller one. I practiced attachment parenting, which means I carried my son for quite some time, in a large sling on my hip, and I loved every minute of it.

He's much to big for that now, of course. He's almost too big to even sit on my lap. I'll blink my eyes one day soon, and like the butterflies that love him, he'll simply fly away.

But I hope that, where ever he lands in life, it will be some wonderful place that my love helped carry him to.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Finding your niche....

The older I get, the more I realize that if something is mainstream, (i.e. what everyone else is doing) it is probably not going to be for me.

I don't know why. I just know that I spent a few early years trying to find out what was so fascinating about things other people seemed to love, like sitting in bars or pubs for hours on end sipping overpriced drinks and talking to other people who were just sitting there sipping overpriced drinks; watching cable shows that, while entertaining, were ultimately just a waste of mental energy; or wearing the same style of shoe as everyone else even if I didn't actually like them. I did all of these things as a young adult only to find out that I could never get into the collective 'group think' that seemed to make certain styles or activities so fascinating to others.

And that's okay, just as it's okay if other people enjoy those things. I no longer watch cable; set foot in bars or pubs if I can help it; or buy what's in fashion just because it's in fashion. To decide not to be in the collective mainstream, however, will set you apart from most everyone else around you. It can be a little bit lonely not to blend in with 90% of the population...but the good news is, the more you embrace your authentic self and engage in activities that you truly enjoy, the happier you will be. And what I have found to be true is that the more you live in a way that honors your own spirit, the more you will draw to you people who share your same interests and passions, and with whom you will blend just perfectly.

Living a truly authentic life, embracing who you are and NOT trying to be someone you aren't just to please a majority population that you don't even relate to is a huge catalyst for the unhappiness and depression that seems to plague society today. I've rarely met a person who is living fully that is unhappy. But I meet many people who are hiding a major part of themselves from the world, and for this reason, are secretly miserable. And I've had dissapointing experiences with people who could not take a leap of faith, believe in something that wasn't mainstream, or give chance to an opportunity that would change thier lives just because it was different than what thier friends were doing.

I can image these people years from now, still sitting in pubs or bars, sipping on a tall glass of regret, the most expensive drink there is. Because life rarely looks back, never waits, and blessings rejected usually turn into curses as the years pass by.

My last Boldness Initiative post was about swimming lessons, diving in, and buying a pink dress. But a big part of the Boldness Initiative series was on finding the strength to be your authentic self, because in finding - and being - who you were meant to be, you will find your niche, your tribe, and ultimately, your happiness.

Painting: Mixed Blood by Amy L. Alley

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cicada Blessings

Hanging off the edge of the pond, rain pelting my back, I was trying to scoop up a nice cup of algae water without falling into the algae water. My heels were sinking in the mud, and I was acutely aware of the spectacle I must have been, clad in a white top and silk skirt, braving the elements and a particulary cross pair of nesting geese.

It was a perfectly insane moment of life...however, my son is raising tadpoles, and they needed a fresh food supply. Even if it was raining.

It never ceases to amaze me the things we do for our children. It just amazes me how we do these things so often, and so willingly, without even thinking about the effort we're putting forth.

But what amazes me most is the joy that my child brings into my life. He was an unplanned blessing, a delightful surprise to someone who had spent years focused on work and career. I was driven to accomplish so many goals, but what I never expected was that motherhood would fulfill me in a way that nothing else ever has. Even on the most exhausting days, when I've got glue and glitter on my arms from helping with yet another collage, leaves in my hair from the afternoon's nature walk, and a cicada loose somewhere in the house, (because I relented and allowed him to bring it inside, where it naturally escaped), I know that there is nothing I could ever give my time and attention to that would be more worth it than the child sleeping down the hall.

There are fairy houses in our yard and a butterfly habitat full of cocoons in our den. The jar of tadpoles rests on a counter, and a row of stuffed animals who serve as 'gaurdians' line the back of our couch. Because there is a child in my house, there is magic. I want to put this magic in a jar and keep it on the counter as well.

Somewhere downstairs the lone cicada announces it's presence with a shrill chirp. My son has reveled in these insects, fearless of them from the start. We've researched them together and learned alot about thier lifespan and 13-year cycle. For weeks they've been abundant, but thier time is winding away. A photograph freezes a moment, but I can't freeze childhood. It's winding away too. The next time I see these cicadas, my son will be a grown man, almost twenty.

I leave the lone chirper downstairs.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On Dreams, Boldness, and Patience (and also locking down and walking away)

Dreams are amazing things.

I don't mean what happens when we are sleeping, I mean the dreams that possess us and drive our lives. The dreams that give us extraordinary destinies and make our lives magical. The dreams that come on us when we least expect them, and are often far from what we thought it was that we wanted to do with our lives.

Sometimes, a dream seems impossible. But when you share the dream with someone else, it's a combined force of energy and desire that can make anything possible. It creates a sense of working together towards a common goal. Pursuit of the dream bonds you at heart and spirit. You are fiercly loyal, standing back to back to face the world together in a way that few people understand. And the universe opens up, giving you signs and signals that your dream is the right one, and that yes, it can come to be.

But what happens when the one you needed to complete the dream suddenly freezes up, locks down, then disappears? And nothing you do or say seems to convince them that the dream is, at heart, still worth it? And you begin to feel frozen and locked as well, because no new dream you can think of comes close to what that one was?

There is only one thing you can do: Wait. Even though in the end, waiting is so much harder than forgetting, you know that patience is the mother of all wisdom. You know something will come from this, it has to, because everything in life has a purpose, even this extreme test of your own love, loyalty, and patience.

I'm reminded of a beautiful poem by my friend, distinguished poet Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D.

Cave Lesson

You ask me to join you in your cave, and I do.

I sit down on the damp floor and we watch the dark walls
dripping with yellow light from the candle.

You are like that light,
I tell you.

See how you affect everything around you.

You do not believe me.

It takes time.

I breathe out. I let go of my impatience,
even though I know candles do eventually burn out.

I must let you take your time.

I'm also reminded of another one of Cassie's poems, from her recent book of poetry entitled This is how honey runs.


Athena was not always bold.
We want to think that she was.
We want to remember the owl,
the victories, the wisdom.
Nothing comes like this.
The owl was an egg first.
That sound you're hearing.
The one your heart is making.
That is your egg cracking.

There is a lesson always, even when you are left standing alone, holding in your hands the broken pieces of a dream that you can not accomplish on your own. Patience reveals the lesson. Patience tests our ability to love, to be loyal, and to be bold enough to continue believing in something that suddenly seems as unattainable as a feather drifting on the wind.

Waiting is hard, yes. Forgetting is easier, always. Anyone can give up. Regardless of the defense one might mount to the contrary, it takes no strength of spirit, no sense of courage, loyalty or boldness to just give in to fear and take the easy way out. It takes nothing, absolutely nothing, to simply walk away.

But even when our hearts are cracking, we must remember that patience is the mother of all wisdom, and no one was ever bold without first being wise. And the wise know that in the end, it is only boldness that determines what dreams are possible.

Art: During The Time That He Was Away, by Amy L. Alley. To view more of my art, visit


For more information on Cassie Premo Steele, or to order a copy of This is how honey runs, visit Cassie will be reading poetry at the SC Book Festival in Columbia Sunday, May 15th, at the Garden Terrace Pavilion from 12:45-1:00 and copies of This is how honey runs will be available for sale and signing.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Luna Lessons

We were rushing into school on a typical day when I saw a spot of green on the asphalt.

Closer inspection revealed the spot of green to be an adult luna moth. She was lying directly in the path where schoolbuses would soon be passing by. I scooped her up into my hands gently. She didn't resist at all.

I have always loved Luna Moths. I even used an image of one on the cover of my book, The Absence of Anyone Else. But I'd never, ever, held one in my hands.

My son was enthralled. The Luna was still alive, but barely, and I explained to my son that it would most likely die. It had been bitterly cold the night before, which could have affected her, but also most large moths, like Lunas, have relatively short life spans and females will die soon after laying eggs.

The Luna was so weak. She barely moved when I transferred her from my hand to my son's in order that he could hold her. Her wings had suffered some damage, and the only sign of life she issued at all was an occasional wriggling of a leg or two. She was safe with us, however, and she seemed to know this.

My son is enrolled in a Montessori program, and his class is currently studying insects. We put the Luna into a container for butterflies and my son took it to his classroom, where it would be placed in an appropriate viewing area for the children. As an artist, however, I wanted to keep the Luna's remains as a visual reference for a painting. I've painted Luna moths before, but always from a photograph, never from a life study. I told my son's teacher I'd pick the moth up at the end of the day.

When I arrived, the teacher informed me our Luna had not moved at all during the day, but the children had enjoyed watching it and the class had talked about Luna moths and thier life cycles. So imagine my surprise when, back in my classroom, the moth suddenly seemed to undergo a complete transformation! I was packing up my supplies when my son cried, "Mama, look! She's flying!"

And she was. Or trying to, at least, as she was still confined by the container she was in. I was amazed. And excited. We brought her home right away, and carried her out into the nearby woods. I gently let her rest on my son's hand, hoping she'd take flight from there, knowing it would bring him great joy.

After a few minutes, however, it was clear this wasn't to be. Worried that perhaps I'd misinterpreted the suddenly burst of life the Luna had demonstated, I placed my hand on his. As if on cue, she walked slowly across my fingers and rested in the center of my palm. I held my hand up, high, and she slowly fanned her wings. Then she lifted up, taking flight. She dipped and dived a moment or two, hovering about us, and then dissappeared off beyond the trees. Her wings, though damaged, were strong. She flew high, and away. She would live another day, she would lay her eggs, all would be as it was meant to be.

There's a very old adage that states 'when the student is ready, the teacher will appear'. It just doesn't say what form or shape that teacher will take. When I found the Luna that morning, I was convinced she was dying. I never imagined she would fly from the palm of my hand later in the afternoon. But I know now that she flew from my hand, not my son's, because although I wanted him to have the experience, it was me that needed the lesson she offered.

It is easy, sometimes, to assume a thing is at an end, when the reality is, it simply needs time, as the Luna needed time, so that it can grow stronger, take flight, and become all it is meant to be. I didn't realize it before, but I needed to see this happen in order to believe that it could.

Life is an amazing series of adventures. We are always learning. A teacher appeared that morning in the form of a gentle winged insect, an insect I loved, one that I had painted many times and even used an image of on the cover of my book.

She had a lesson to teach me...and yes, I was ready.

Visit my Boldness Inititiave blog, a month long series of posts on how to live in a more intentional, dynamic way, at

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Boldness Initiative

Happy April!

I am celebrating this month with a new daily blog titled

The Boldness Initiative.

You can view it here at


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Guest Writer Charlotte Ehney :-)

Embracing the Now

For the past few weekends, my husband and I have worked on updating our den. This is a project six years in the making. Way back in 2005 we started planning for this room. I wanted the den to be bold. I wanted the den to be red. We started collecting color chips and taping them to the wall. After much back and forth about which shade we liked, my husband bought the paint. For one reason or another, it wasn’t the right time to get started. So I went about buying other items for the den -- a decorative mirror, a wood curtain rod, sheers and curtains -- and squirreled them away.

A few weeks ago, we decided it was finally time to paint. I excitedly told a friend about our plans for the room. I described the burgundy red paint and the silver mirror with small, vining red flowers. Imagine my shock when we opened the paint and saw an orange red like the color of creamy tomato soup. We pulled out the mirror. The flowers were actually geometric designs consisting of red bars with a circle in the middle. No vines anywhere. Apparently over the years my memory of these items had morphed.

How like life that is. As we deal with struggles like bills, job stresses, relationship issues and parenting challenges, it is easy to fondly recall a different time and place in our life. The desire to return to that point can distract us from our present, sometimes to the extent that we make ourselves miserable in the here and now. There are times I long for the carefree days of my youth, when my parents handled all the bills. I miss my hourly job as a cashier that I had as a college student. I wish my kids were still infants so I could enjoy baby cuddles once more.

But were those times really that good? If we are honest with ourselves, even the wonderful times were not perfect. Being a youth at home meant power struggles as I moved toward independence and my parents wanted to maintain strict rules. My cashier job gave me spending money but would never allow me to live on my own. Having infants also meant sleepless nights and comforting crying babies who did not understand what was happening around them and could not tell me what they needed.

As we look back, we tend to minimize the bad parts and amplify the good. The energy we spend reminiscing keeps us stuck in today’s problems. Bottom line: The past was not always perfect and the present is not usually as bad as we think.

It took four coats of paint to evenly cover the den walls. I had my doubts but once the paint dried, the color was beautiful. The mirror looked great. A watercolor we’d had for years complemented the bold wall.

We’re not done yet. There are some minor repairs to make. We still have to hang the curtains and purchase a few accessories. The den is not the room I imagined six years ago. It’s not even the room I imagined six weeks ago. But I’ve accepted that I won’t have that room. Instead, I have fallen in love with the den I have today.

Charlotte Ehney has served as the President of the Greenwood Writer’s Guild from 2009 to the present. She is a participant in the Greenwood Poetry Circle. She received an Honorable Mention for her short story “The Game” in the 77th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition (Genre Category) and an Honorable Mention in the Fifth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards for the story “Full Circle”. Her poems “The Prophet” and “Bedfellows” were displayed at the Greenwood Arts Center during the month of June 2010. Charlotte’s poems have appeared in the column “Birthing the Writer Mother” on and in Thump magazine.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Earth Hour Musings...

Sometimes, stillness must be sought out like a needle in a haystack. It’s elusive, hard to catch, as intangibly difficult a concept as visualizing someone else’s dream. Other times, it settles upon us easily, a mantle of peace suddenly wrapped around our shoulders.

Tonight was the annual Earth Hour, when the world collaborates on a global mission of using less energy. Those who participate turn off all power in their homes for one hour. No lights, no television, no anything that needs a cord and an outlet to work. This is the third year I’ve participated in this event, and the stillness it creates always seems to take me to a different place. I suppose that’s because each year, I’m in a different place. Not physically, but mentally and spiritually. And Earth Hour encourages me to take one hour out of an entire year and just sit. Reflect. Be. Don’t try to do anything by candlelight, but to just sit for a while with my thoughts. Observe the candlelight. Observe the soft glowing aura that surrounds it, how it contrasts with the neighboring darkness. Walk slowly through the house, noticing how different my surroundings appear in the absence of artificial light. Imagine my house is a cave, my hallway a long dark tunnel. My senses respond to this new world: fingers touch the wall, feeling their way along. I can anticipate what will come next: the coolness of the stair rail, the ridges of a doorway, the feel of tile becoming carpet under my bare feet as I pass into a new room. In the dim light, my art appears mysterious, seen only in small lit sections, surrounded by a warm red glow, like the ancient graffitti of long ago.

I’ve always been keenly interested in the art found deep within the earth's hollows, evidence of the need to be creative scrawled on the walls of caves thousands of years ago. The paintings of Lascaux in particular make my soul feel ignited. Some of these images are estimated to be between 10,000-20,000 years old, and scientists all over the world spend quite a lot of time debating the intention behind the works. Were they spiritual, part of ancient prayer rituals? Or were they talismans intended to bring luck to hunting parties? But no one knows. We see these paintings through the filter of time and the power of artificial light…each large animal, each glyph, each handprint on the wall, all at once. But this is not how the ancients would have seen these images at all. They’d have seen them the way I see my paintings on the wall during Earth Hour: by the light of a small flame, whether it was a torch or simple grease burning lamp. They’d have taken the images in one by one, holding their light to the walls, watching each painting appear in the glow of their lamp’s soft, flickering aura. They would have created the works in near darkness as well, not in the glow of artificial lights that I feel I must bask in every time I pick up a brush.

There is a sense of stillness that the absence of bright lights can bring about. But what about the absense of sound? Or should I say the absence of the sounds we are so conditioned to as modern humans. It is a universal truth that a state of chaos tends to generate more chaos, and yet we have grown so habituated to the continuous presence of artificial sound in our lives that we keep it going. We revel in the ‘mind chaos’ that these sounds bring about. We leave the television on for ‘background noise’, or we need the radio’s ramblings to fall asleep. We raise our voices over the sound of our appliances droning and run to the chirp of our cell phones like lackys to a bell. We don’t even realize what it does to our physches when chaos takes the place of stillness, when sounds, any sounds at all, are preferable to silence.

During Earth Hour, I hear the soft rhythmic breathing of my son while he sleeps. I hear the sound of rain striking the glass top of my patio table. I hear an owl call out, and I hear his mate respond. I hear my cat, obviously angry, emitting a low growl at some trespasser. An occasional car passes in the night, tires slick on the wet roads. A nieghbor laughs as they unlock the door of thier home. Otherwise, the world is still, my den an ancient cave.

I’ve explored caves, following their trails deep under the earth. They are quiet places where the only sound tends to be that of the explorers' footsteps and voices. I can imagine the Lascaux artists of long ago creating in the halls of those great caves, firelight flickering nearby, the sound of low voices occasionally piercing the stillness. If chaos generates more chaos, then stillness certainly generates more stillness…stillness of the mind, which allows us to connect with the deeper levels of our creativity. What thoughts went through the ancient artists’ minds as they scratched pigment onto stone, spread color with their hands, watched as animals came to life in startling detail by the power of their own hand? Were they considered sorcerers? Alchemists? Were they thought to possess special abilities?

I found a place of complete stillness once, stumbling across it in the Alaskan backwoods almost two decades ago while enjoying a youthful adventure. It was a clearing outside of a small town, tucked away between the mountains, somewhere along the road to other places we were heading towards. It was a pit-stop, a diversion, not an intended stop along the journey...but there, in that clearing, I experienced not silence, for the natural world was alive with life that day, but stillness. True and total stillness. No cars passed by, we were too far from the road for that. No cell phone could even get a signal, much less ring. The only sounds to be heard were those of the earth itself. I stood for a long time in that moment, knowing I was being given a rare gift. I was being allowed to hear what my ancestors had spent thier lives hearing. I don’t mean the cry of the hawks or the soft rippling of wind through the trees, but what those sounds carry with them. How they speak to our souls when we allow stillness in.

A world away from Lascaux, ceramic shards litter the floors of the ancient cave-like dwellings the mysterious Anasazi once inhabited. The shards form parts of pottery, functional items used for carrying water and storing grains. But closer inspection reveals that the shards are decorated. Whirling lines, dramatic stylized animals, repetitive patterns, all carved or painted onto the clay surfaces. Unnecessary for function, yes, but necessary to the ancient artists who rendered them in the same stillness that surrounded me in Alaska’s wilderness. In a workshop on creativity, the teacher encourages us to find time each day to sit in stillness. I think of how rarely I actually do this. I wondered if I even can.

But now, as Earth Hour ticks slowly by, I find myself sitting alone in my den, my candle flickering down to nothing as I thumb through a book on the cave paintings of Lascaux. I have a book on the intricate designs of Anasazi pottery, but I don’t need to look at it. I can see the images clearly in my mind as if creating them are my own memories. And it is in this Earth Hour stillness that I realize I will never need a team of other people to explain to me why ancient folk created art, made musical instruments, or had intricate storytelling traditions. I do not need someone else to tell me that the need for creative expression is as primitive as life’s origins, as essential to our souls as food is to our bodies. It is the reason someone painted on a clay pot, or hollowed a flute from a limb, carved a stone into a bear, or told stories around a fire at night a thousand lifetimes before mine.

In the stillness of their ancient world, they found their creative voices, voices that still speak to us today.

And if we make time to sit in stillness, we will find ours as well.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Activating the Light

Yesterday I shipped two works of art out to their new prospective owners. One a commissioned work; the other, a piece from my own heart and mind…and just a little harder to let go of.

Here’s a secret, about artists…we don’t always create our works with the idea in mind that they are going to sell, oh no. Most often we create just because it’s in our soul to do so. And then, when someone asks the price, we stand a little speechless, suddenly feeling possessive, not quite sure if we are ready to let go of our creation just yet.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve parted with a piece of art, only to wish later I’d kept it with me a little longer. Because the truth is, I’ve never known an artist who could paint the same picture twice. Creation is an act that deals solely with the moment. What is in the mind, soul and heart at the time that the work is being created is poured into the piece, whether it is a portrait, a sculpture, a poem, a musical composition, or a coffee table made by hand. All the thoughts, ideas, and love behind the work become a part of it. And yes, there is love behind things that one creates: the love of the idea, the love of the materials, and the love of the process itself. The creative process. But what defines these moments, these instances where creativity takes root, shape and form?

In Lowe’s Home Improvement store last week, waiting on the attendant to mix the paint I needed to complete my kitchen do-over, I took out a slip of paper with the numbers and dimensions for all the new light switch-plates I needed to buy. Over a dozen, total. There’s nothing wrong with the current ones, mind you. They are simple beige plastic plates that function perfectly, but just seem dull now that new coats of paint grace nearly every wall of my home. I thought replacing them would add an elegant little touch to each room’s new d├ęcor, but I was startled to find out that it would cost at least eight dollars per switch for the nicer plates. And I needed a dozen.


There are levels in life to nearly all experiences one can have. For example, being a single parent. There are many single parents out there, and all situations aren’t the same. There are those who share the physical, emotional, and financial duties of child raising so equally with their former partners that they are actually still raising the children together, regardless of their relationship status…this is, of course, ideal for the children’s sake, but doesn’t constitute single parenting. It’s more co-parenting, really. Then there are parents who do the primary physical and emotional tending to the children, relying on the other parent for some shared financial support and also the physical care of the child a few weekends a month. They may also have a support person in the home, a new spouse or partner who shares in these responsibilities as well.
And then there are those like me, true single parents who shoulder the entire responsibilities of child rearing on our own, without any concern from the child’s other parent or any other support person to fill in the gaps. And for those of us in this situation, no decision that involves spontaneous spending of money is ever entered into lightly. We’ve learned that wolves lurk at the door when we least expect it, and when it’s all on you financially, you’re a little less likely to splurge, no matter how much money you make, or how much you might desire a little elegance. If you’ve faced down wolves at the door before, you know there’s always the chance that they’ll come back.

But mercifully, being creative is a way of life, not simply an act to be done spontaneously when time allows. It’s about how one’s mind works; how it processes a problem and arrives at a solution. It’s not just about making art or clothes or poetry, it’s not just some intangible realm known only to dreamy souls. Being a creative person is about choosing to live one’s life in a unique, extraordinary way that doesn’t yield easily to being told ‘it can’t be done.’ It’s not about just settling for what you already have or what would be the easiest solution to a problem, but in letting what lies within you dictate what will and won’t be possible in your life. I stood in Lowes that morning knowing full well that it would be risky and impractical to spend so much money on fancy, but unnecessary, switch-plates, but I also knew it would be useless to buy cheaper ones, for they weren’t much of a step up from what I already had. And I didn’t want to leave them as they were. It made all the renovations I’d already undertaken on my home seem somehow incomplete. And so I left with just my paint, and the question in my mind of what to do.
It wasn’t a real crisis, of course…just a simple glitch in my redecorating plan, but it was on my mind all the same. Then, halfway home my son asked, “Mama, while you are painting, can I make a collage?”

And there it was…the solution appeared instantly, tripping over my son’s words as his spoke, the idea falling down upon me so quickly I could barely wait to get home and begin. A mottled coat of oil paint on each plate and a few carefully chosen words and images torn from magazines, and voila! The problem of the dull switch plates was solved in a splendidly creative way, no money was spent, and I accomplished a more unique result than if I’d simply bought a dozen identical plates. The process itself was simple and fun, and the ‘renovated’ switch plates are now bright, happy little spots along the walls…appropriate really, for an object whose sole function in the world is to activate light within a space. But if something is to have just one function, isn’t activating light a pretty good one?

Creativity rarely arises from the desire to make money or receive acclaim from others. It often involves those factors, yes, but if it becomes primarily about external motivators like fame and fortune, it will lose its authenticity, for money and praise rarely walk hand in hand with love. And creativity must involve love, because both stem from the same source within us. They both arise from the internal desire we have to activate light within a space. To make visible, or possible, what without us might never have been.

No matter how much I may miss a painting I’ve let go of, I’d never try to paint it again. Creating the same painting twice would be like trying to recreate the same experience over and over. Nothing is the same the second time around, we all know that. However, there are many, many people who live their lives with this goal in mind. They long for something special in their lives, but when they are given a glorious new – but startlingly different – life experience, they cast it aside like rubbish because it’s unfamiliar. Blinders fully on, they can only see what they have created in the past, and they seek to recreate something similar for the future. Because what is similar is predictable, and the predictable is somewhat controllable, and if you’ve ever had your life turned upside down, there’s nothing you’ll long for more than some sense of control. But these are fool’s errands in the end, for keeping life within the parameters of the familiar and predictable doesn’t guarantee any real control over what might come next. It only guarantees doing the same thing the same way over and over, which after a few years, becomes about as exciting as my plain beige light switches.

The artist knows this, and it is the sole reason one rarely sees a painter trying to create the same image over and over. But creativity is not the sole possession of the artist, no. It It exists in all of us. It is the place in the mind where problems meet solutions, where torn images from magazines and a little paint and glue become dazzling new switch-plates, where great lengths are taken to ensure, mercifully, that instead of trying to recreate what was, we can be courageous enough to let the familiar go sometimes and step up to bold new roles, unafraid.

In my house now, the switch-plates are like snowflakes. No two are the same. They shout their presence out from the walls, and because of this, activating the light is a pretty easy task.

And thank goodness for that.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Faith, Freedom Riders, and the Perseverance of Hawks

Growing up I spent a lot of time outside alone. It was a place of peace for me, a refuge from strings of difficult schooldays. I was an ADD child before the term was coined, and the classrooms of the late seventies and early eighties were difficult places for me. I can remember being told over and over and over by exasperated teachers, “Why can’t you just sit here quietly like everyone else?’ or ‘Are you paying attention?’ If there was a window in the classroom, I can assure you, I was not. I was staring out the window at the world beyond.

I was so out of place in the classroom, and with my peers. They didn’t understand me any better than my teachers did. But I was in my element in nature. There I felt at home in a way I rarely did anywhere else. And so I learned to be patient. I learned to grip the sides of my desks sometimes when the urge to move was too strong. I learned that if I looked out the window too much, the teacher would turn my desk away from it, so I trained myself to use my peripheral vision to sneak glances at the sky while appearing to be completely focused on the board. I learned that to make it in the classroom, I had to become, in a way, a totally different person, but I knew that if I could maintain that identity for the 7 hours I was required to be at school, the days would roll along smoothly and there would be no reprimands, no trips to the principal’s office, no notes home to my parents. It just took being patient, and knowing, no matter how slowly the clock ticked the school day away, that eventually I’d be outside in the woods I loved.

In nature, I could sit still for hours on end with no problem. As a matter of fact, I used to try to 'blend' with being very still and calm and quiet. I wanted to belong to the outdoors the same way the lizards and bees belonged to it. I learned to watch nature, and to watch for nature. I learned that if you are still enough you can see birds building their nests, a snake sliding along a tree branch, a chameleon change it's color, a butterfly drink from the puddle of dew in a leaf. The first time I was able to sit still long enough to have a bird actually land on me, I learned that there is something to be said for the art of persevering.

Yesterday I watched a hawk sitting on a very low branch by the creek. He was watching the same spot, his eyes never moving. He waited...and waited...and waited. Occasionally he'd ruffle his feathers or look away...but then he returned his gaze to that spot. He watched and waited for a very, very long time. The sun slowly changes positions in the sky, and neither of us moved. The hawk watched the creek, and I watched the hawk. Eventually, there was a rustle in the leaves, and the large bird raised his wings and carried himself up to a higher branch. But even from a different perch, his sharp eyes still watched the creek. Hunger is a powerful motivator.
Pain in the belly rarely disappears just because you want it to.

I recently discovered the story of The Freedom Riders. That I could have come through years of public school and six years of college and never known these quiet heroes existed in our nation’s history amazes me. The Freedom Riders were a group of average citizens, both black and white, who banded together in 1961 to protest segregation on the public transit systems. It’s a complex and amazing story of courage and perseverance. At every stop, The Freedom Writers were met by angry mobs. Buses were set on fire. Riders were beaten, often brutally. But they continued the ride. They weren’t trying to change the opinions of the mobs who met their buses with weapons and torches. They knew there was no hope of that. But they knew that what they were doing would, somehow, make a difference. They also knew that at every stop, one of them would have to be the first to exit the bus. Someone would have to be the first face the mob saw, the first body that would be hit, knocked down, stomped. And yet, there were those who volunteered to get off the bus first, even though they knew what they would face upon exiting.
There is so much more to this story…bus bombings, quite acts of heroism, examples of both the height of human compassion and the sad depths of ignorance that intolerance can inspire. But I won’t go any farther into it here. I’ll only say that I’m glad the story of The Freedom Riders came to my attention. I’m glad they believed that their cause was worthy, and that half a century later, their stories are still being told. I’m glad that their hunger for justice and fairness motivated them to continue the ride. And I’m glad I live now in the world that the perseverance of people like them helped to create. There is always room for improvement, yes…but we’re certainly in a better place now than we were then.

So what is it inside of us that keeps us going, that tells us what we are doing is worth continuing towards? With no definitive proof that our efforts will pay off, what gives us the strength, the determination, to keep moving along a certain path? What gives an 8-year-old child the ability to grip tightly the edge a desk just to get through a school day without a reprimand? What gives a hawk the ability to sit patiently for hours and watch a creek that may yield nothing for the hungry belly in the end? What fire inside gave The Freedom Riders the courage to continue the ride when they knew what they were facing at every stop?

I can’t tell you that. I can only tell you this: Giving up is the easy way out. It’s lying down and letting the world roll over you with its own bus. It’s looking into the face of hardship, challenge, and adversity and saying “Okay, you win.” It’s telling yourself you don’t want something anymore instead of fighting for it. It’s taking the story of your life, for which you are the primary author, and allowing fear to ghost write it for you. It’s being a spectator, and not a participant. It’s not being realistic, no; it’s being too weak to stand up for what you really want…what you really believe is possible. The Freedom Writers had no evidence that their bold stand would still be inspiring people fifty years later. The hawk had no idea I was watching him yesterday, learning lessons from his perseverance. As people, we have no idea of our own capacities to love, to live, and to believe, especially in ourselves.

I wonder sometimes, when my young son is frustrated trying to learn a new skill, or when I myself am trying to hold onto to a dream that seems to be defeated at every turn, if the ability to persevere is just genetic, something we are born with or without, or if it can be learned, taught, and inspired through the stories of others. I think it’s a little of both, but I hope it’s more of the latter, because while we can’t help how we are born, we all have total freedom to choose what we believe ourselves to be capable of. We all choose whether to author our own stories, or let fear, doubt, and intimidation ghost write our lives for us.

A hawk rests patiently, knowing perseverance is key to survival. Somewhere in history, a person takes a dangerous bus ride, knowing intolerance cannot be tolerated. Someone else loves against all hope, swims against the tide, and closes their eyes for the night with the knowledge that what they believe in is worth fighting for. Somewhere else, a person steps out of their own story, letting blank pages fill the void where words should go. These blank pages become the chapter of thier life called ‘When I gave Up’. In later years, it is destined to be the one read the most by the author, who will sit, pen in hand, desperately trying to fill the pages with what they wish they'd done.

To learn more about The Freedom Riders, visit

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Finding the Time...

I wake to the sound of pouring rain, falling rhythmically onto the various items on my patio, creating a cacophony of sound, a random orchestra of high and low tones. It is early Sunday morning, before dawn, the time I best like to wake.

I can barely remember the time when I didn’t rise before dawn. It began in art school, when I was working three jobs, being a full-time student, and realizing that if I wanted to be a painter, I was going to have to find some time to paint. I did not have the type of life that afforded long stretches of time in the studio. I still don’t. Then, just like now, my days were often planned down to the minute. Working all day at the frame shop, then evening classes and weekends spent teaching or hostessing at a local restaurant afforded little extra time back then. But being in the studio was important to me, so I began rising at 5am and painting, writing, or just doing something creative until 7:30am, when it was time to start getting ready for work.

Most of my friends thought I was insane to give up sleep, and yes, it took some time for my body to adjust to the early hour. I figured out pretty quickly that if I was going to be waking up at 5am, then I’d better get to bed before midnight. And I gave myself a break on the few mornings that I just couldn’t do it, when I was too exhausted from all I had to do to survive to pull myself out of bed before the sun rose and be creative. But in time, with nothing but my own determination not to be undone, waking up early and going into the studio became a habit…such a habit, in fact, that more than a decade later, I’m still rising before the dawn, even on weekends.

According to Julia Cameron, author of the acclaimed Artist’s Way book series, it takes approximately 12 weeks for a new routine to become a habit. That’s three months, which seems like an interminably long time at first, but as we all know, tends to pass in the blink of an eye. That’s one thing about time, it doesn’t hang around. We lay claim to it while it is slipping through our fingers like sands in an hourglass. It was Benjamin Franklin that stated “Do not squander time, for it is the stuff life is made of.” For years, I had that quote taped onto my bathroom mirror. Every morning I’d read it and remember that no matter how I chose to spend my day, free time was a precious commodity that I did not have in abundance. I still don’t have free time in abundance, but I have learned how to give creativity a high priority in my life by managing what time I do have.

I don’t need to see Franklin’s quote every morning now to remind me not to waste time…my life is certainly fuller these days than it was a decade ago. With a teaching career and a few side pursuits, along with raising a child on my own, it takes more strategy than ever to find time to be creative. But it is there. A comment I often hear from others is, “I don’t know how you have time to do all the things that you do.” I don’t understand this, because few people, least of all me, ‘have’ time to do things. That’s not at all how it works. When something is important to you, you must make time for it. It’s really that simple. Because the time is hiding behind hours spent in front of television or idled away looking for bargains in a shopping center. It hides behind social engagements we feel we must take on, and voluntary commitments that we impose on ourselves and often, our children. (How many family schedules revolve around the kids’ extracurricular activities?) Creative time hides because, sadly, we are often taught that the arts are a frivolous luxury that only people with an abundance of time can afford to pursue.

To put a value on creative time is to take a stand that many of us aren’t ready to take.
It’s much easier to tell ourselves we don’t have time for things than it is to tell others that we value creativity in our lives, and that making time for it is important. But the truth is, there are many ways to incorporate creativity into daily routines. The first, and simplest, is by waking up a little earlier each morning and spending that time in some creative pursuit, just as I did when I was pinched for time in college. Journaling is a favorite early morning practice, because so much comes from this simple exercise. Not only clarity and a release of negativity, for we often ‘vent’ when we write, but also for the occasional poem or essay that will suddenly burst forth from a journal’s pages.

Finding a creative activity that can be done ‘on the go’ is also very rewarding. I have an ‘on-the-go bag’ that accompanies me almost everywhere. It’s filled with a variety of projects that I can pull out and work on when I find I’ve got a few minutes to spare. And as our lives become busier, we often have to adjust our creative goals. I used to paint on huge canvases that were typically 3’ x 4’. Now, as my life has gotten busier, I usually work on canvases no larger than 16” x 20”. It simply makes more sense to work smaller, and it allows me to complete more projects.

If you have children, don’t use them as an excuse for not being creative. Be creative with them! Children love the chance to explore artistic mediums. When my son’s friends are over, and I pull out the clay or the collage box, there’s no Wii or Playstation in the world that can compete. Most children delight in being creative with their parents, even if it’s as simple a project as making a cake from a box mix and decorating it. And there’s not enough that can be said regarding the memories you’ll give them during this time.

If you are persistent enough with finding a way to fit creativity into your life, it will eventually become a habit. You’ll find yourself cutting off the television, which might mean missing GLEE, but finally finishing the painting you started back in college. You might find that it isn’t so big a deal you don’t spend this Saturday afternoon in Greenville shopping, because instead you’ll spend that time creating a collage with your children. You might miss a night out at the pub with your friends, but complete the poem you’ve struggled with for a month. At the end of a year, because of your ‘on-the-go’ bag, you might knit a sweater during the time you spent waiting to pick the kids up from school or for soccer practice to be over. Or maybe, by waking up a little earlier each day, you’ll find you’ve written an entire book or series of poems in those wee morning hours you spent scribbling away in your journal.

Time is there…hiding, lurking around behind the reasons we give ourselves for not having it. If you’ve got the desire for more creativity in your life, then take a close look at how you spend the time that you do have. We all squander a little…take the initiative and salvage what you can today. Create some new routines to allow more creativity into your life. In twelve weeks, your routines will have become habits…and you’ll find yourself somewhere along the way.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Wolf We Feed

It’s 70 degrees out, and I’m barefoot with my toes in the sand. All around me, people are enjoying this little taste of spring, even though it is still February. When you live in a Southern climate, the seasons like to tease this way, coming and going, blending together, giving you a nice warm week and then blasting you with ice a few days later. Still, these random warm days are impossible to resist, even when you know they can’t be trusted. I’ve learned not to put away my sweaters or put my house plants on the patio until at least April.

But this was not my best winter, and I’m more eager than normal to see the coming of Spring this year. It doesn’t carry with it the same promise as last year, but it carries promise nonetheless, because spring is all about new life, rebirth, and hope. As I sit in the sun, I think of an old Cherokee adage a friend recently shared with me:

One evening a Cherokee elder told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between the two 'wolves' that live inside us all. One is Unhappiness. It consists of anger, jealousy, fear, regret, greed, arrogance, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, bitterness, weakness and ego.

The other is Happiness. It consists of joy, love, hope, serenity, benevolence, peace, empathy, kindness, generosity, truth, humility, faith, strength, forgiveness and compassion."

The grandson thought about it for a while and then asked his grandfather, "In this battle, which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed." - Cherokee Elder

Although I spent much of my young adult life on or near North Carolina's Cherokee reservation, participating in pow wows, learning stories and traditions, I’d never heard this particular tale put forth in this particular manner. But it makes perfect sense, really. Do we really need hours of therapy, dozens of books, and thousand-dollar seminars to tell us that happiness is a choice, not an automatic condition we're gonna find ourselves in? Just like Spring in the South, life is unpredictable. We find ourselves in all kinds of situations that we never imagined…these moments are the forks in the road, the stopping point where two paths diverge. They are not always what we expected, and often, not what we wanted. But it is here that we make the choices that carry us forward.

Last summer, I killed a Copperhead snake with a small hand shovel. I didn’t want to do it. I like snakes. I think they have been unfairly villanized throughout history, and for the most part, mean us no harm. But I don’t like highly venomous snakes on the patio where my young son is playing. I remember the moment I realized what I was seeing, when the serpent's golden eyes were looking back into my own. There was no panic, no running to get someone else to handle the situation for me. There was no one else to handle the situation. Being on one’s own teaches a form of independence that can’t even be imagined by those who’ve not had to live it. I’m so out of the habit of calling on someone else to handle my emergencies, it never even occurred to me to do so. My reaction to seeing the Copperhead was instinctive and immediate, coming from that place in a mother’s soul that knows protecting her offspring must come before anything else, even the risk that she herself will be struck. But also, there is an instinct born from forced independence, from knowing there is simply no one else to handle a situation but you. The snake was coiled and poised to strike. My son was less than two feet away. If there was another choice in that moment, I could not take time to consider it.

Although I know I did the right thing, I still regret taking the life of another creature. I regret that there was no other way to handle the situation. I even regret that there was no one else to handle it for me. But to ponder regrets is to risk unhappiness, and, as the Cherokee elder states, the victor between happiness and unhappiness will always be the one we feed.

Spring is coming now, it’s obvious in the budding trees all around me. Winter wasn’t my best season, no, but the warmth of the sun on my skin reminds me that, even though there may be a few random icy blasts over the next few weeks, the cold is almost at an end. Soon it will be time to start seedlings in old egg crates. The trees are sporting small green buds that will eventually flower. Birds are busily gathering materials for their nests. Hope lies in a seed, in a waiting bloom, in a pale blue Robin’s egg.

Apologizing to Serpents

A flash of reddish brown diamonds
Amongst the clover
And my heart stops

I can smell the venom
I am death, the serpent seems to say
Perhaps not to you
But to the child behind you
Who plays
At striking distance.

I don’t make a move
Or sound
My spade is in my hand
My son is five
Curious age
And he plays
At striking distance.

Copperheads are quick
But I am faster
My spade meets flesh and bone
In an instant
Eve slays the serpent
Before there is a chance
For the world to come undone.

Later, as I cover my deed with dirt
I remember the serpent’s protest
As its life ended
And I wonder if there might have been another way
Everything desires to live
And what was its sin, really?

But in the absence of Adam
Eve must be swift.
Her shoulders sag at times
From a weight that should be shared.

Still, death does not stalk my house tonight
I sleep with my spade in my hand
And wake up
Feeling strong.