Courting Joy

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Joy must be courted.

Shy, elusive, hesitant,

she shrinks from brash grasping.

The desperate and the howling miss her timid whispers.

Joy cannot be commanded or held fast.

She slips into the quiet space

opened for her by breath

and surrender.

Joy must be wooed

with  no expectation of relief or transformation.

She comes in small ways

and in small acts;

a moment of forgetting,

lost time in the act of creation,

a companion’s purr.

And though our instinct is to clutch at her

to keep from drowning,

we must let go,

and allow her to hold us

in her own way.

Second Helpings of Joy

Joy DietI’ve been reading Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet, a self-help/Life Coachy recipe for uncovering and going after your Heart’s Desire.  If you haven’t been in therapy for decades, and feel like there’s something missing or off in your life, this would be a decent place to start.

I started therapy when Ronald Reagan was President, so none of the material is new to me.  Still, I like hearing things presented in a new way, especially when the author has heart and a sense of humor.

Take her chapter on Treats.  These are the things/experiences we’re to reward ourselves for taking a risk toward that Heart’s Desire.  Very Pavlovian.  But Beck also wants her readers to give themselves at least two other Treats a day, just because folks generally don’t do that enough.  I liked that.

And Beck’s definition of “Treat?”  Anything that makes you feel like smiling.  Since most of us are programmed to grimace automatically in public, she gives homework to help the chronically repressed find what actually warms their cockles.  I like how she takes her readers by the hand, breaks each step to Nirvana into tiny, measurable actions instead of leaving them stranded in nebulous Woo-Woo Land.  And I like how she compares us to pigs.

So some of these ideas percolated in my hind-brain as I played with my art journal this weekend.  I worked on a cross-over spread, taking characters from a short story I’m writing and doing cool things with letters they’re writing to each other.  I adapted a Dixie Chicks song that I love and made it my character’s.  I treated pages from an antique, hand-written journal to use as their stationary.  It thrilled me to come at these characters and their story from a different angle, and to make something so gorgeous.

Claire&Richard BeforeBut, when I tried to write my new lyrics on this scrumptious paper, no marker or pen I owned made a consistent mark.  I worked for hours, going over the blotchy, ragged letters again and again.  It still ended up looking like a serial killer’s tease for the FBI.

I stopped when my hand cramped too much to hold a pen, and I was willing to let it go.  Some experiments don’t work.  That’s why they’re called experiments.

But as Henry walked across my shins in bed this morning, I got one of those lightbulb ideas.  The problem wasn’t with my pens, it was the paper.  I’d made it too slick.  How could I give it a little bite?

Clarie&Richard RedoI jumped out of bed and went to work, mixing matte medium with a few drops of gesso, adding paint, then taking fresh pages out of the hand-written journal and applying this concoction with a roller and paper towels.  I tested one corner with a gel pen before spraying the pages with fixative.  It took the pen beautifully.

The whole process filled me with joy.  Setting a problem aside, receiving the answer as I passed through the Creative Gold Mine between sleep and wakefulness, using media I didn’t own two months ago, and actually creating a thing the way I imagined it in my head.

Claire & Richard

When I finished the spread, I couldn’t stop grinning.  Here was everything I loved—my writing, my art, my music, Richard Armitage. . .  Layers of meaning overlapped like the layers of paper (I love a metaphor you can actually touch), and color fed some hungry animal inside me.

Probably a pig.

Nesting

Henry's Pillow 2

It’s autumn.  Time for apple cider and the annual ugly chest cold.  Time to put away shorts and see if the crotch in any of my old jeans will embarrass me in public.  Time to start work on my Solstice cards and pull out my Happy Light.

I love autumn, even if the waning light makes me think St. John of the Cross was probably bipolar and talking about winter when he coined the term dark night of the soul.  I love the smell of corn dust and how it hangs in the air.  I love the slant of the sun as it hits a golden point on its arc, how it burns through a single, curry-colored leaf stuck in the weeds.

I’m profoundly aware of how much I’m enjoying autumn this year.  Even with bronchitis and a pantheon of prescription inhalers on my counter, I watch the squirrels in their pre-winter frenzy and feel joy rise up.  Like a breath.  Like a sigh.  Clear lungs are not required.

I’ve had moments of bipolarness over the past five months.  Moments—not days or weeks or months.  Moments where the illness broke through to remind me to stay sharp.  I can’t go back to sleep.  And I also don’t fight or fret when the illness presents itself.  This is me, too.  All of this is me.

New BookcaseMy energy amazed me, and the way my mind opened to possibility and change.  Over the summer, I catalogued my apartment—the rotting furniture, the squeeze and mess of a tiny space, all the ways I made do when the idea of doing more overwhelmed me.  Getting a new bathtub and replacing the damaged linoleum floor suddenly made anything possible.

On my trips to Minneapolis to see friends, I also visited IKEA.  I gave away or trashed furniture that was too big, too ruined or too inefficient and replaced it with four beautiful pieces put together with my own two hands plus one great recliner from the Club Furniture.  Now our living room fits us.  There’s room for the cats to chase each other, new places to nap, and a more inviting entry (rather than sliding in sideways and banging a hip on some ouchy corner).

Cabinet Before

Before

Cabinet After

After

Desk Before

Before

Desk After

After

I’m also working on more efficient storage.  I installed roll-out, metal baskets under my kitchen sink and bathroom vanity.  I cleaned out a skinny cupboard in the kitchen, found tubs that fit the narrow space, and got seldom-used art supplies out of the way.

Before

Before

After

After

valje-wall-cabinet-red__0290149_PE424853_S4IKEA carries a wall cabinet—basically, an open box with mounting hardware.  I tossed the hardware and stacked two of those on my coat closet shelf to wrangle the magazines I glean for greeting card captions (My closets have lots of height, so I’m always looking for stackables).  There was plenty of room left over to store other crafty stuff.  No more cascades of musty magazines when I get out the broom.

Autumn is the season for nesting.  We make ourselves snug and warm, surround ourselves with treasures and love, settle in for the long winter.  Nesting makes a place a home.  We should find comfort and relief there.  And joy.

Sitting here at my desk, with Henry curled on his pillow, I listen to James Vincent McMorrow and feel my home breathing with me.

A moment of joy.

Treasuring the Rope

Rope 1In a bipolar life, there are days, weeks, sometimes months, where the illness never lets up.  Most of the time, I can ride those long spells.  They’re a fact of my life.  I understand that.  But, I suppose like anyone with a chronic illness, the relentlessness of it sometimes swamps me.  The despair of dealing with the illness combines with the despair it creates.  The extra weight guarantees sinking to the bottom and makes it that much harder to fight my way back to the surface.

I’ve been going through one of those spells—a long season of black.  It’s been a different kind of hard this time without my two water wings of compulsive eating and compulsive spending.  Oh, the compulsions are still there.  I still pace my kitchen like a caged bobcat, opening all the cupboards, the fridge, the pantry, hoping I slipped and brought home something, anything, that will dull the wild scrabbling in my brain.  And even when I’ve budgeted a trip to Des Moines, have cash to pay for a movie and gas, the urge to keep spending is a fish hook under my sternum.  Pulling, pulling always pulling.

This past week my Start With One Serving mantra saved me from getting lost in food, but I still gained a couple of pounds.  Compared to other similar seasons, though, that’s nothing.  And while I’m on the edge of nothing in my checking account, I have enough in my piggy bank at home to get through the month.  Since I paid all my bills, put money in my car fund, and made my planned Visa payment, this, too, is far from the disaster such seasons usually bring.

I’m sure the tension of fighting these old behaviors contributes to the illness itself, but the fight is required if I’m ever to find any freedom.  I know how lucky I am to even have the option of fighting.  I’ve met others like me who don’t, who don’t have an inkling of insight, who are utterly lost in the illness itself.  I understand them.  I am them.  But, I’m also this.

There was one day last week where I thought about surrendering to being lost.  What if I quit fighting and just turned into the crazy cat lady on the corner?  Would that be so bad?  There’s a siren song to mental illness that can be so seductive.  Go to sleep, it says.  I’ll take care of everything.

Emmet AlertBut, after all this time, I recognize that purring song.   It’s part of me, but not all of me.  So, I start looking for joy.  Tiny moments.  Gentle kindnesses.  Things that make me close my eyes in appreciation.  The light on Emmet as he watches the birds.  The silky slide of the water as I swim.  A song on my Pandora station.  A kind note from an almost-friend.  The perfect taste of a vanilla latte with one squirt of raspberry.  The ballet-like fight scenes in Captain America’s new movie.  The wonder of creating an exquisite background paper for a card.  The smell of rain.  A deep breath.  An old feeling of lightness that comes while driving through town in the orange light of dusk.  A chance to listen so someone else in pain.

My friend, Lily, once told me something that has soothed me for years.  Sometimes, all you can do is hang on.  This is true.  Hang on until the season turns.  Hang on because this—whatever it is—won’t last.  Grip the rope and wait.  Most of my life I’ve focused on the tension of waiting, the feeling of not being able to hang on much longer, the sense of fingernails ripping away.  What I’m finding is that it’s even more important to notice how beautiful the rope is and to treasure it.

from my Pandora station

Nine Days out of Hell

handmade greeting cards, collage art

In an unusual stroke of magnanimity, the Bipolar Gods (Bill and Ted, I think) have granted me a little respite.  Nine days since my last urge to bolt.  Nine days of saving money instead of spending it.  Nine days of reacquainting myself with my inks and papers.  Nine days of reading quietly in the evenings with Missy Higgins on the stereo and Emmett providing a nice head rest on the back of my chair.

It’s not until the cycling stops that I can see I’ve just passed through Hell.  As I’m going through it, I always feel I’m managing pretty well, keeping my head down, stepping carefully through the lava and acid.  I take short sips of breath to keep from burning my lungs.  I brace myself for the demons that jump out of the dark with their pointy teeth and pokey tridents.  I squeeze into the tiniest target possible.

But when I pass through the Gates, the relief is so shocking—fresh air on scalded skin, the ability to uncurl and stand upright.  This time I realized I hadn’t taken a deep breath in six months.

And once the shock wears off there’s so much to do—salvage, and reconstruction, and reinforcement of the structures that will carry me through the next Descent.  But, there’s joy in the ability to do instead of survive.  And moments of pause to feel the delicious weightlessness of No Mood.  Always knowing this, too, will pass, but appreciating every hour Bill and Ted grant me.

My friend, David, at Live & Learn introduces me to amazing music every week.  I found Missy Higgins through him and want to share this lovely music video of hers.  It might help with whatever is burning you today.

Feeling Human

April is National Poetry Month.  Who knew?  Congress obviously has other fish to fry than announcing such news to the country.  But our local library knew and sponsored a wonderful event the other night.

A retired English teacher from a nearby school district gave a program on Robert Frost.  He told about Frost’s life and struggles as a poet and a man, then sprinkled the talk with performances of Frost’s poetry.  I say performances because these were more than readings or recitations—they were dramatic expressions of Frost’s words and emotions.  I was moved to tears during every poem, and now have a whole new appreciation for the man and his poetry.

As I walked home under a star-laden sky, I felt like some empty cup inside me had been filled—the part of me that loves theater and folk music from other countries, the part of me that dances and chants, the part of me that seeks out museums and art festivals, the part of me that lives in color and moves in rhythm.  I couldn’t put my finger on it.  What was that expansive feeling that had been watered by Robert Frost?  Then the stars told me.  I feel human.

• • •

A Minor Bird

I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;

Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.

Robert Frost

Party Assemblage

Plans are coming together for my Callinda Celebration Party on April 21.  I’ve reserved the community room in our apartment complex, made and sent the invitations.  Just when I was ready to raid my little savings account (the start of a new car fund) in order to cater the food, Mom offered to pay for everything.  What a wonderful gift!  I fully intended to celebrate in style, not put out a bowl of M&Ms and cheap punch, which is what I can afford.  I wanted to celebrate life now, not wait a decade when I may or may not be able to buy a car.  Get fear out of the way and miracles happen.

Now I’m in the process of making the party favors.  I wanted to create a little piece of art for everyone to take away with them, so I printed out quotes from the book and made a little platform for them.  This involves sewing fabric onto cardboard, lots of paint, stamping, embossing, beading, funky fabrics, sequins, fibers and the accompanying glues, tapes and tools.  I’m taking this:

And turning it into this:

I can only do three or four a day (sewing into cardboard, even with a thimble, is a little rough on the fingers), but in the meantime I can attend to other party details.  Like ordering an alien-looking, Zen floral arrangement for the table, and washing up the glass service party trays from my mom’s basement (and a recent find at a local thrift store).

Assemblage is a study in details—one more layer, one more bead, one more texture.  I’m hoping my party will hum with subtext and delight the eye.  The overriding theme is joy, and I can hear the laughter already.

Why I Love Marshalltown

We’ve had our first real snow accumulation over the past week.  Here’s what the neighbor kitty-corner from me did with it.

This is the corner of a pretty busy street, so it’s even more fun to watch people stop and hold up traffic to take a gander.  Folks park and get out to talk to him while he’s working.  A very humble, shy guy who’s not quite comfortable with all the attention.

Ahh!  Now the day care gaggle from the Lutheran church up the street is gathered around King Kong taking pictures.  This is just too cute!

What I love even more than the art or the public’s reaction is that the artist is Hispanic—a much-maligned minority in our White Bread town.  HeeHeeHee.

Count the Blessings

I’ve been down with an intestinal flu the last couple of days.  Nothing to do but watch movies, drink ginger ale and ponder the year that’s about to end.  But pondering can be a dangerous exercise, especially when I’m sick and in the middle of an episode.  I’ve learned it’s never a good idea to give too much attention to the thoughts that swirl up then.  Too much darkness, too much regret, too much grief.  So instead, I’ll focus on a few of the blessings 2011 brought me.

A place to sell my art cards.  My last visit at The Perfect Setting was disappointing compared to all the other times I’ve sold my cards there.  Pam, the owner, placed another employee in charge of the greeting cards.  This person pulled a couple of mine as “inappropriate”.  It seems she and I don’t share the same sense of humor.  So, Pam bought only half of the bunch I brought in this time instead of all of them.

Even though I know better, I took it very personally.  I know every shop has to make careful selection and cater to the clientele, but it surprised me since Pam always seemed to love everything I brought in.  Every artist has to tailor their work to fit the market—I know and understand this.  It just caught me on a very bad day, and I haven’t been able to sit at my studio table since.

This isn’t sounding much like gratitude.  But I am extremely grateful to Pam for taking a chance with my work.  She hung my weird collages even though no one in Marshalltown will ever buy them.  She bought all my cards, even when her other employees raised eyebrows.  She let me be the square peg in the town’s round hole—no one else here has ever done that for me.  Yes, I’m grateful.  And eventually, I’ll start making more of the cards that the town will accept—along with a few naughty ones.

Healing.  This year I learned how to manage without psychotropic medication.  I developed my Bipolar Bad-Ass Training guidelines.  I graduated from the Silver Sneakers water exercise class to the deep water, high-powered, water aerobics class.  I pushed the envelope of my reading disability and actually finished eleven whole books this year.  I’m learning how to be a woman alone without being lonely all the time.  I’ve moved past my fear of cooking and can now fix supper for myself every night.  I’ve started again on the weight loss journey, losing 12 pounds since my visit with the allergist at the beginning of December.

It’s an important practice to remember all the healing this year brought, all the hard work and dedication I put into it.  The illness always grabs center stage.  The loss of Will, the scrambled routine, the swamping thoughts tear down self-worth and confidence.  It’s so easy to see only failure.  So, remembering the success and joy play a vital part in bringing reality back to true.

Saying Good-bye to my dad on my terms.  I am deeply grateful that I was able to spend so much time with my dad in his final days and participate in his funeral in a meaningful way.  It was a gift.  Just as easily, my illness might have flared like it did this past Christmas, incapacitating me and keeping me from any human interaction.  Frankly, I expected to be a nut case during my dad’s rituals, and the stress did eventually cause an episode.  But I was fully there when I most wanted to be.  A miracle.  A prayer answered.

These are just a few of the gifts the Heart of the Universe placed in my lap this year.  What treasures did you receive?

Happiness

The last few days have been pure delight.  No insurmountable agonies of any kind.  No hardships and no complaints.  My writing and art are both deliciously satisfying.  I can hold the relationships in my life lightly and feel no barbs or hooks.  I’m dedicated to my healthy eating changes and see results.  My arm and shoulder are getting stronger, my stamina returning to pre-surgery levels.  In this place and time, life is good.

I am grateful for this gift, this breather between episodes, this chance to erect new structures that might help me carry healthy habits through the darker times.  I’ve joined T.O.P.S., even though I dissed it after my first meeting.  I realized I need the support and accountability as I try to lose weight.  It’s a little goofy—more like a church sewing bee than a weight loss group—but I’m good with goofy.  It’s one anchor I can cling to when the dark waters roll back in.

A little while back, I read Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project.  While I agree with her that there are changes we all can make to become more content and joyful in our lives, I also know that bipolar disorder can negate all that hard work.  Happiness is sometimes just a gift from the Universe.  All we have to do is open our arms to it and say thank you.

Thank You.

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