Category Archives: Creativity
“You’ll make art every week for the next year,” said nobody to me in May 2020. I didn’t say it to myself, either. I didn’t seek pandemic productivity or look to have something to show come the after-times. We were in the teeth of COVID-19. People were afraid, sick, angry, out of work, hungry, dying, grieving, and isolated. Our ordinary was upside-down. An idea sparked in me for a structured project, one that would help me and my loved ones do something different during the restrictive days, stay in touch, and briefly escape the pandemic and politics. Structure is everything for me – a time frame, a deadline, guidance, and parameters enable me to actually get a thing done.
So I created FACE, the Family Art & Creativity Exchange. Each week, I emailed a theme to my extended family across the United States, inviting them to create something on the theme and email it back to all of us. Photography, poetry, painting, cooking, gardening – all were welcome.
My ideas for themes filled a long list and kept coming as the weeks went by. Our first theme was Arise. I made a small collage showing a plant growing up a dark wall to reach a sun-lit opening. Getting away from my computer, my word work as an editor and writer, and the state of the world while using physical materials to make something visual was incredibly therapeutic. I limited myself to supplies on hand – magazines and motley art materials from across the years. Colored pencils, watercolor tablets in a metal box from my childhood, blank cardstock pages from that time I did some scrapbooking, nifty little scissors I found in a parking lot, and glue sticks from my son’s school days all appeared. A hot glue gun, old decks of cards too sticky for shuffling, black construction paper from some long-ago project, scraps of gift wrap, and out-of-date reference books answered the call.
The second week’s theme was Boundary, and the third, as the United States reached 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, was Memorial. (As of June 1, 2021, we’re closing in on 600,000 deaths.)
It quickly became clear that making something every week is not for everyone, no matter how enthusiastic they might feel initially. But I was hooked and decided to spread the joy in a second group, inviting a wide range of friends I thought might be interested. A few responded, and the PEACE group (People Exchanging Art & Creative Expression) began with the theme Nourish. In October 2020, when we’d already been doing this a lot longer that I’d imagined, I started sharing my pieces on Facebook. This was scary – who was I, a person with no training, to show my work as art? The positive feedback was heady but presented a new challenge: keeping my mind on doing the work, rather than how people would react to it.
Encountering other group members’ responses to the themes was fascinating. As we came to the end of each week, I was excited to receive the emails – What poem would Mary have written? What would Kim paint? On what new adventure would Lisa’s words take us? What photo would Kevin share? Would Gale offer a Haiku, and would Liza give us another glimpse into doing college from home?
A core group participated almost every week, and several told me that having this regular touchstone helped them cope with the emotional challenges of the pandemic. Although the project was specifically not about judging each other’s work, I saw real development by all of our regulars, including myself. My ideas got deeper and my execution got better. And as that happened, I also had to remind myself that the finished product wasn’t really the point. What was I going to do with all of these pieces, anyway? The point was the doing – thinking and creating. View all of my artwork from the past year.
Each week’s project followed a pattern. On Saturday, I’d sit with my list of themes, choose one for the week, and email it to the two groups. I’d consider where we were in the year, what was going on in the world, and what other themes we’d recently done. I tried to change it up between the abstract and the specific – Found Outside, Opposite, Chance, Storm. I picked Thanks around Thanksgiving, Anticipate around Christmas, and Courage around the 2020 presidential election.
Then I’d spend a few days letting the concept percolate. Having a focal point that was not the news of the day was a tremendous mental and emotional break. Ideas often came together on my morning dog walks. On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, I’d work on my art piece, then take a photo of it on Friday morning, email it to my groups, and post it on Facebook. I was unsatisfied at some level with virtually everything I made, but when the week was up, the work was done. Closure and limitation can be valuable tools. I was always excited to share my work, even when I didn’t love it, and getting responses from others was a thrill.
The project surprised me in many ways.
- Not everyone wants to make something every week. Not everyone has confidence in creating or ideas in response to a theme. But some do, and it’s kind of amazing.
- This project kept going for a whole a year. I hadn’t thought about an end point, keeping my mind on the present because the future was too unpredictable.
- What started as an activity became a practice, a very important part of my week.
- When you do something regularly, you get better at it (obvious, I know, but still unexpected).
- My pieces that I liked least were often the most well received by others.
I’m grateful to all who participated in the FACE and PEACE groups, and to friends online who were so supportive. This connection and regular commitment to making and sharing art has been a source of joy and sustenance. As of June 2021, we’ve moved to a monthly rather than weekly schedule, but the ideas keep simmering and the practice continues.
From doorway to doorway across Milan, voices rise and fall, calling and answering. The words are familiar and imploring – people of all ages and backgrounds are singing together while staying apart, facing a pandemic that is making unfathomable changes to life as they know it.
Have you seen the viral video of that?
In fact, you can’t have seen it. That singing happened in Italy more than 400 years ago, during an outbreak of plague across Europe that lasted nearly two years.
But these voices are from just two weeks ago in Siena, Italy. As I write this, the world has reached almost 1.5 million cases of covid-19. More than 130,000 Italians have contracted the deadly respiratory illness from the novel coronavirus, and 17,000 have died there. (See the latest numbers here.) The entire nation of Italy was put under a lockdown on March 9.
And that’s when the videos of singing began to appear.
The physical act of singing is good for us, we know – the breathing boosts the oxygen in our blood and our brains. Singing together is really, really good for us, in so many ways. For starters, it releases dopamine (activating pleasure centers) and serotonin (fighting depression). Who couldn’t use more of that when there’s a deadly virus going around?
But even more than the physical boost, research has shown that singing together heals our spirits.
That’s what they believed in 1576, too, when plague struck Milan. The wealthy fled the city and people dropped in the streets. Plague was believed to be punishment for the sins of the whole community and singing together in prayer was a search for a remedy.
To prevent people from gathering in churches or processions that could spread the plague, bells would signal the 300,000 people of Milan to sing from the doorways of their homes. And sing they did, “sending up an harmonious voice of supplication for deliverance from their distress,” according to a witness at the time. Simple, familiar, call-and-response songs of prayer connected homes and streets across the city. It was a communal ritual in a time of danger and separation.
We are in our own time of separation and danger, and our singing echoes those ancient voices.
It started back in January, in Wuhan, China, then the epicenter of covid-19, which the World Health Organization has designated a global pandemic. People shouted the Chinese phrase “add oil” from building to building, meaning keep fighting or keep going. They sang patriotic songs on balconies, too, until fear of transferring the virus via falling saliva droplets put a stop to that. By early March, the virus had spread to Europe, the Middle East, and North America, and so had the city lockdowns and the singing.
In Milan, quarantined people sang the Italian national anthem from their windows and balconies. In Edinburgh, neighbors sang “Sunshine on Leith.” Apartment blocks in Spain sang along to Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” while Israelis in a raucous balcony party sang about sisterhood, brotherhood and being part of a tribe. To show support for Italians under coronavirus lockdown, Germans sang the Italian resistance song “Bella ciao.”
Somehow, music has the power to helps us deal with this vast, frightening unknown. What will our world look like in a year? In a month? Music bridges the distance between us – across a road between city blocks and across the globe via streaming and social media. Music can even build a bridge across time, like the voices of sisters of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, singing on March 19 from a rooftop in Rome, praying for the people of their city and the world and sounding right out of 1577.
One couple in Chicago built connections both in person and online. They set up the Chicago-Wide Window Sing-a-Long, using Facebook to invite people across the city to sing with Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” on March 21. The idea took off – more than 18,000 people expressed interest, a local radio station played the song that night at 7, and Jon Bon Jovi himself recorded and shared a video supporting the event. People sang from apartment to apartment, played along on their porches, and shared their videos online.
Many choral directors are putting together virtual choirs in the style of composer Eric Whitacre: Individual singers record their part and send a video, which then gets edited with others into a whole. Students at Berklee College of Music in Boston created an inspiring version of “What The World Needs Now.” Choir members from a Lutheran church near me (including a friend from my community chorus) put together the appropriate “How Can I Keep from Singing.”
Multiple British groups are going large-scale with virtual choirs. Choir celebrity Gareth Malone livestreamed the first rehearsal of his Great British Home Chorus on March 23, with more than 15,000 people (including me) watching. Learning “You Are My Sunshine” in four-part harmony over one week, singers are submitting their recordings, with the final mixed version still to come. Next week they’re preparing an Elton John song. On the classical side, the Stay At Home Choir worked up Vivaldi’s “Gloria” its first week, and is partnering with the King’s Singers in its second.
But at some point, people seem to want to move away from screens and be physically present with other people. “Choir isn’t something you can do alone with a webcam on your computer. It just isn’t,” wrote Joan Riddle Steinmann, a chorus teacher from Salt Lake City.
Angela Alsobrooks, county executive of Prince Georges County, Maryland, described walking through her neighborhood during this pandemic and seeing “children in driveways with sidewalk chalk, people in lawn chairs, people walking. I had never seen this many people sitting outside before. Just people drawn closer as families.” I’ve observed the same while out with my dogs.
Neighbors are standing on stoops and sidewalks (but not too close) in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and joining their voices, some meeting each other for the first time this way. I led a driveway sing on my street and had a few neighbors I’d never met come out to sing “America the Beautiful” and “You Are My Sunshine” with me. We know that singing in groups strengthens a community, and maybe these new neighborhood connections give a glimpse of a way the world can be different after the pandemic.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better, they’re telling us. In spite of this, I have hope that people will keep turning to the sustenance of singing, despite our losses and our separations. We don’t need instruments or electricity or technology. We can make music from nothing but breath and heart. No matter how bleak things get, we can sing together even when we cannot be close together.
As Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1939:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.
These are dark times. Let’s keep singing.
I just finished a writing retreat during which I did the exercises in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Sailing the Sea of Story. Some of them were hard work and some were really fun – just wordplay. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I, who never write fiction, am capable of whipping some story and dialogue out of thin air. Some bits turned out well and others were garbage, but I learned a lot from the process.
Here are a couple of short narratives I wrote during the retreat that I really like. The first assignment was to write with no punctuation, and the second was to use repetition of a word.
Plain glazed that’s what she always got because there were too many choices but today she would take her sweet time crumpling the $20 bill in her pocket so many combinations chocolate maple strawberry icing and cake or raised and coconut sprinkles and even bacon which sounded weird but she might try it just once she crouched at the case to think but now the heavy man too close behind her sighed and she panicked and took a dozen plain glazed hot and turned to him with lips tight but he wasn’t even looking his kids had their hands all over the case she bit hard into a donut and felt the crisp hot sugar shatter on her tongue so rude so pushy when she wanted to choose her treats she’d make him sorry with one greasy donut smear down his windshield with his fat kids and skinny wife who stunk of cigarettes and didn’t eat a donut at their table just frowned and tapped her foot until well Christ she marched to the doorway dug through her purse and lit up a Virginia Slims you could see her relax as the smoke curled out of her mouth the boys were still in with their dad getting sprinkles everywhere and slopping milk so maybe he was already sorry and she’d just keep her donuts for herself and Pop who shouldn’t eat all that sugar but fuck it we’re all gonna die of something might as well be donuts
Marcus was a troublemaker, Shasta said, and everybody knew it. Nothing but trouble would come from that boy, and wherever he set his feet, disaster would follow. If he was cursed, he decided, he and Davy might as well make the most of it. “Trouble’s my middle name,” he informed Louise behind the counter at the gas station shop. She looked skeptical but kept a sharp eye on him as he browsed the candy aisle then moved on to look at the snacks. As he pulled out a package of chips, the whole shelf fell and an avalanche of chip bags dumped around his feet. While Louise dashed over, cursing under her breath, Davy pocketed a handful of candy bars and shot Marcus a look. Later, munching the chocolate together in the dark, Davy’s praise for his smooth work warm in his ears, Marcus felt satisfied with his cursed future and considered what he and his trouble might get up to next.
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is not a destination for upscale vacations. You enter the cheap “Going out (for) business!” beach stores through the mouth of a giant shark to buy flimsy chairs, painted shells, and non-sea-worthy swimsuits. The fried seafood buffets and ice cream shops attract long lines of people hungry after a day in the sun. Mini-golf courses compete for attention – see the volcano belching smoke! Watch the animatronic pirates battle! There’s not a bookstore in sight.
During our annual week in Myrtle, I especially enjoy walking the section of beach in front of the nearby high-rise hotel. The sand there is paved with chairs, blankets, coolers, umbrellas, and bodies of every shade and shape. Plump moms in swim dresses chase toddlers while skinny teen boys hop on skim boards. Elderly locals sit and smoke, displaying their signature deep and wrinkly tans. It’s a busy place of earthly delights – hot sun, salty waves, cold drinks, flesh on parade – not a place that seems inclined toward intellectual pursuits. Yet everywhere you look, people sit and read.
For me, this silences those constant rumbles about the death of reading. You can’t fling a plastic shovel in Myrtle Beach without getting sand in somebody’s pages. And I mean their pages, not the crevices of their Kindle, because almost no one on the beach is staring at their phone or e-reader. Thick paperbacks rustle in the breeze while the tide approaches and recedes. The beach always makes me think about the inexorable changes of time, so it feels a fitting setting to consider how humanity has been reading, in some form or another, for 5000 years.
We read constantly, most of us, without any thought or effort. Yesterday was typical: I received 87 emails and read some of every single one, even if it was just the subject line or the name of the sender. One of my Facebook groups has nearly 10,000 members, editors all around the world, who post a lot, asking questions and sharing concerns. I read these posts and many of the replies. I read texts I receive. I read news articles in print and online. I read almost all day long, and then in the evening to relax, I read.
And it’s not just avid readers like me who are always reading. All those annoying people on their phones while walking, dining out, and especially driving – they’re reading. All those people with laptops in coffee shops – they’re reading away, and even if they’re writing, they’re reading. We as a society are constant readers. Road signs, nutrition information, Tweets, fast-food menu boards, fantasy football stats, TV news crawls, Reddit threads, bumper stickers. And books – fiction and non, highbrow and low. From Fifty Shades of Grey to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, in print or as ebooks, we’re reading.
Reading started in another hot and sandy region: ancient Mesopotamia, where the very first reading involved accounting and records of temple assets. When a man by the Tigris river 5000 years ago could look at the markings on a clay tablet and know the number of sheep to expect in a payment, reading – for the first time – gave power.
I only wanted to find out when we started reading – we humans, we non-royals, we non-clerics, we women. But as I pursued this information across 5000 years of Western history, I reached a conclusion much more compelling than just the when and the whom: Reading makes people powerful and dangerous – to institutions and to ourselves. And it always has.
The world’s very first readers (and writers) were the scribes of ancient Babylon, who recorded and read the data, news, and information that kings and administrators needed to make their civilizations grow and thrive. While these abilities made scribes powerful, they also made the scribes a potential threat to those in charge.
This dynamic continues today.
I don’t feel like a dangerous force when I’m enjoying a novel or bantering with other editors on Facebook. But the power that I, an ordinary person, can gain from reading becomes clear when I freely read whatever I choose from across the political spectrum. I can easily acquire information about joining with others to support change – potentially threatening the status quo. I also see that my reading could conceivably present a danger to me, if my government began to use data to constrain the reading of its citizens.
The power and the danger of reading are alive and well.
In the coming weeks, I will share a series of posts from my process of uncovering this idea.
A rustic mountain cabin or lonely seaside cottage might fit the fantasy of a writing retreat. But if the cost or personal overhead of running away to write is too high – and you hate the thought of working without your usual monitor setup – a home office retreat can be a great option. I just finished a two-week, at-home writing retreat. When all was said and done, I accomplished my goal of writing 500 non-awful words each day. And that was while fighting an intestinal thing the first week and a bad (but fast) cold the second week.
Here’s how I approached the retreat.
I chose the retreat dates around my clients’ schedules and notified clients (and friends) several weeks in advance that I would be unavailable and would only check email occasionally. I unsubscribed from as much junk email as possible to keep the inbox cleaner. I also made a comprehensive dinner plan and did a thorough grocery shop so I wouldn’t have to make many meal decisions or extra trips to the store.
I established daily and overall objectives for the two weeks and set a daily schedule. All of these went up in plain sight over my desk. Each day on a small whiteboard, I listed the day number, some motivational words to myself, and the day’s tasks.
Take the Time
Two weeks worked out to be an ideal amount of time. By Friday of the first week, I was really glad that I still had another week to pursue my work. By the end of the second week, I was really ready to be done, take a break from my topic, and get back to my regular routine.
My daily schedule was, as always, constrained by my dogs’ walks, but that meant I took scheduled breaks and got outside. I also made a point of eating regular meals and snacks to help my concentration.
Making the deliberate decision to take a retreat put me in a new mindset. I posted a sign-off on Facebook and took the extreme step of uninstalling it from my phone for the duration of the retreat. Losing that tyranny of notifications was a surprisingly wonderful feeling. I don’t use Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, but I would have taken similar steps with those. I also postponed meetings and other events during the week and avoided running errands that would break up my days.
Every morning I typed up goals and thoughts for the day, and every afternoon when I was finished, I wrote an assessment of the day. At the halfway point in the retreat, I read through my notes, looked at what I had accomplished, and identified what I still wanted to get done. Then I noted what on that list was realistic. At the end, I had quite a few unfinished goals, but this whole process was an experiment for me and I felt that what I did accomplish was satisfactory. Getting a fresh take halfway through was helpful and encouraging.
- World Cup Soccer! I accidentally scheduled my retreat during the qualifying matches, which were the perfect entertainment during lunch or snack breaks.
- Giving up Facebook. Not having the blinking blue light and little F on my phone was liberating. I had other sources of news, and not being in the thick of responses to the day-to-day was such a break. I had to think hard about whether I wanted to reengage.
- Fun tools. I did my morning goals typing on my manual typewriter and my afternoon summary using the Querkywriter typewriter-style keyboard for my tablet – it was fun to use these tools and get more comfortable with both of them.
- I worked hard to make sure I would be able to keep my focus but found that I got a bit lonely, in part because my husband had several evening rehearsals. One article about planning a group writing retreat recommended having participants gather and read some of their work out loud every evening. I think building in some professional camaraderie would have been helpful, so in the future I might partner with other writers and meet a few times for non-critical reading sessions.
- Getting started with writing the first day was hard. It took some time to get into the writing mode, but having two weeks helped me not stress about some unproductive time.
- My writing topic was way too broad and my research was inadequate, even though I had done a lot in advance. My goal was to write a long essay that I could publish as blog posts, but I’m wrestling with how best to handle references and sources in that. And I didn’t have time for the research and writing for several points I wanted to make. My second goal was to consider doing a book proposal on the topic, and I’m undecided as to where I stand on that.
To keep some writing momentum going, I’m planning to schedule two designated writing days every month for a few months and see how that works out. I’m considering another retreat for this time next year, so if you’re interested in joining me, get in touch!
I’ve been reading a lot about reading lately.
Reading is something I take completely for granted. To be able to function – to understand road signs, prices at the store, medication labels, the crawl on TV news – not to mention texts and social media – we have to be able to read. Here in the U.S., we automatically teach of our children to read. We worry about how soon they start reading, fuss over whether they’re reading enough, and compare standardized reading scores in our schools and across the world.
But when did everybody start reading all the time? A thousand years ago, reading in Western culture was pretty much limited to priests and monks. When did it stop being a privilege and begin to be a necessity?
And how has technology across the centuries transformed how much we read, what we read, and how we read it? Gutenberg’s moveable type led to an explosion of reading, and today’s devices are also making an impact on what, when, and how we read. I’ve laughed at postings of an 1800s screed about the dangers of women reading novels and neglecting their families, but how does that differ from today’s social media addiction?
Another compelling strand in this knot is the notion that having books around is beneficial, even if you know you can never read them all – maybe especially then. They are aspirational on the one hand, and on the other, they remind you that you can’t know it all, and therefore keep you humble.
My reading about reading has made me want to read much more about reading. And then do some writing. I’ve planned a writing retreat for next month to work on this, so stay tuned!
It’s a tough choice: which cookie to eat?
Really, it shouldn’t be so difficult. I can just grab any of the batch of homemade cookies and take a bite. They’re not getting any fresher.
Yet still I hesitate. At Christmas, when I’ve baked decorated gingerbread or sugar cookies that I might share with friends, maybe it makes a little bit of sense to eat the uglier cookies first. Sure, take that tree that’s slightly dark and crisp on the edge. Eat that mitten where the icing ran off and the sprinkles didn’t stick very well. But that trumpet with the silver dragees? That sparkling snowflake? I almost can’t bear to see them go.
This kind of indecision does not make sense when I’m facing a batch of peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies. And yet my hand hovers over the tin. My brain whispers, “No, that one’s too perfect. Take that smaller, more misshapen cookie with not as many chips.”
Why am I saving the beautiful cookie? Sure, my husband or son would enjoy it, but not more than its less-perfect sibling.
Is it pride? Do I try to save my pretty cookies so I can show off my (not very amazing) food styling skills?
Or is it part of Giving Mom syndrome? When I was a kid, my mom always took the broken piece of pie, the slice of cake without the rose, the less attractive potatoes, and she always served herself last. During an angry teenager phase, I thought this reflected her submission to my father. But as a parent myself and a cook who loves to sit down with my husband at the end of the day to enjoy a meal I’ve prepared, I have a different perspective. Cooking is a gift to those you love, including yourself. We feed because we care and want our loved ones to be happy. We take the ugly slice of quiche because we want them to enjoy the beautiful one and we know the appearance doesn’t affect the taste. (And, if I’m being honest, we want to forestall any whining about the food by picky children.)
Maybe I just want more time with the beautiful fruits of my labors. In that case, maybe I should switch to a craft that produces something lasting. Ah, but then I wouldn’t have cookies, and that was the whole point of the exercise.
I especially enjoyed the research for this feature on youth apprenticeship programs in the U.S., including an interview with the Swiss ambassador, Martin Dahinden. The article was published in ASCA School Counselor‘s November/December 2016 issue.
Download the complete article
For the last thousand years, many young people seeking professional skills became apprentices. But if that word still evokes a plumbers’ union or a medieval guild hall, it’s time for a fresh look. Youth apprenticeship is an educational approach that is thriving in Europe and on the rise in the United States. To find the skilled workers they need, companies of all types are offering opportunities for high school students to learn in-demand skills while earning their diplomas. Participating in youth apprenticeship can help students clarify their objectives, burnish their college applications and gain an edge in the job market.
Wisconsin Snapshot: Co-op Program in Sheboygan
When the school counselors at Sheboygan South High School evaluated their national clearinghouse data, they learned that many of their graduates were not going on to college but were staying in the community. From local labor statistics, the school counseling department identified four primary employment sectors and laid the groundwork to build four pathways in the school’s curriculum. The new pathways would address a need in the community. “We can then, as a school, say with confidence to our community, ‘We’re helping to answer this labor issue,’” Schneider said. From this initiative, the new manufacturing co-op program was born. “Once we aligned our philosophies of our building with the community needs, then all we had to do was say to the community ‘We want to help you; let’s start talking,’” he said.
In June 2016, I had the privilege of working with John A. Booth and Sarah Schwind of METAVERO as they were preparing their booth and materials for the Kscope Conference. METAVERO provides Oracle implementation and support services. John is the company’s founder and managing director (he wrote a chapter of “Developing Essbase Applications: Hybrid Techniques and Practices,” which I edited) and Sarah is their operations director.
For METAVERO’s presence at Kscope, we developed a tri-fold brochure, banners for their exhibit booth and client event, website content, a PowerPoint template, and two informational postcards focusing on key components of their business. I edited or wrote text for these pieces, but the bulk of the credit goes to the outstanding artists who created the visuals: web designer Ella Hutchings and print designer Stewart Moon. It’s rare these days that I get to work on a project with so much visual emphasis—this was great fun. (Shown above are Larry Geraghty, John, and Sarah in the METAVERO booth; shown below is the horizontal booth banner.)
Cards: METAVERO Process and Fishing for Solutions