I've been to art festivals, jazz festivals, strawberry festivals, logging festivals, Polish festivals and festivals whose themes were hard to figure out. At every single one, I've found something beautiful, engrossing, strange, entertaining or tasty. Yet nothing inspires me like a book festival.
Thousands of people, all gathered to celebrate the written word, to listen to favorite authors read from their work, to discover new authors, to have conversations about books! In this age of quick-hit info-bits and constant distractions, it's good to know that so many people still choose to engage deeply with a 300-page tale.
I found abundant evidence of that phenomenon at the Tucson Festival of Books earlier this month. My main reason for going was to participate in a masters workshop for winners and finalists in the festival's literary awards competition (I was a finalist). I'll share more about the workshop in a moment, but first, a few impressions of the festival, which itself was worth the trip.
The two-day Tucson Festival of Books attracts more than 130,000 book lovers to the University of Arizona Mall and nearby venues, making it the nation's third-largest book festival (behind the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Library of Congress National Book Festival). And the event enriches more than minds: visitors pour at least $3 million into the local economy.
Some 400 authors participate in presentations and workshops on topics ranging from current events to zombies, and still more authors are on-site, selling and signing books at their booths.
A legion of 2,000 or so volunteers assists with the event, welcoming festivalgoers, greeting and escorting authors, selling books, carrying boxes, managing lines, posting signs, answering questions and giving directions (especially in that one wacky building where all the odd-numbered rooms are on one end and the even-numbered rooms are on the other!), and making the ubiquitous announcements inviting attendees to become Friends of the Tucson Festival of Books.
Consider this: the whole festival—readings, lectures, panel discussions, musical entertainment, kids' activities, even a literary circus—is free of charge to the public.
And this: All proceeds from the festival go to sustaining the event and supporting local literacy programs. Since 2009, the festival has contributed more than $1,450,000 to groups that work to improve reading and writing ability among children and adults in Southern Arizona.
That's only a small sample—the tip of the saguaro, if you will. I couldn't even begin to hit all the sessions that appealed to me.
With sixty performances taking place during the festival, there are ample opportunities to give your brain a rest and listen to music instead of words for a while.
During one mid-day break, I feasted on blue corn tamales to the accompaniment of the most indefatigable yodeler I have ever heard. Honestly, she went on for what seemed like half an hour. And she was good. (So were the tamales.)
By far the most entertaining hour of the whole two days, though, came courtesy of author Michael Perry. I mean, how can you not laugh at a guy whose website is called Sneezing Cow? I had bought his book, Truck: A Love Story, when I came to the festival and masters workshop two years ago, and I enjoyed his funny and tender accounts of life in rural Wisconsin (kinda reminded me of another rural community I know well). So when I saw his name on the program, I made sure to get to the Arizona Daily Star tent early enough to nab a seat.
Oh, was I glad I did. Perry had the audience cracking up—and occasionally tearing up—for the whole hour. My favorite was his piece on farmer yoga, from his new book, Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from on and off the Back Forty (which I couldn't resist buying in spite of limited space in my luggage).
Want to know more about Arizona insects? There's a tent for that. Take a virtual tour of nearby National Parks? There's also a tent for that. Learn about self-publishing? Yep, that, too.
Meanwhile, the indoor lectures offer tips on writing and publishing fiction, poetry and nonfiction; getting your book reviewed; promoting your artwork; navigating the entertainment industry, and other helpful topics. I took advantage of three of these free workshops: "Nonfiction – Finding an Agent," taught by Daniel Connolly, author of The Book of Isaias; "Telling Your Story – Biography v Memoir," by Lisa Napoli (whose memoir, Radio Shangri-La, is a favorite); and "The Ethics and Personal Issues of Writing," by Joyce Maynard (whose memoir, At Home in the World, is another favorite).
Striking up conversations is easy—after all, you can always talk about books. And you never know what else will surface. I shared a lunch table with a Tucson couple who, I discovered, were originally from Kalamazoo, had relatives in Fremont, and used to spend summers at Diamond Lake in White Cloud, all close to my Michigan home.
At another mealtime, a lively bunch of strangers saw me eating alone and invited me to join them. All members of the Western Writers of America, they enlightened me on a genre about which I knew nothing. Among other things, I learned that western novels are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Plus, the authors get to wear some mighty fancy duds.
Outside the booth of a Muslim organization, several young men put a different spin on friendliness. Smiling, they held signs that read, "MEET A MUSLIM. ASK ME ANYTHING." I stopped to talk to one pair and asked what kind of response they were getting. Their smiles widened. "Overwhelmingly positive."
As the festival wound down, the masters workshop warmed up with a Sunday evening get-acquainted reception. Monday morning, we got down to business with a full, two-day schedule of craft talks and readings by the faculty, poets Dana Levin and Monica Youn and authors Joyce Maynard, Michael Tolkin and Mark Beauregard.
I have pages and pages of notes from their talks, full of gems that I will return to again and again. One comment stands out as especially relevant these days. In her opening remarks, Joyce Maynard noted that, at a time when compassion is lacking, it falls to writers and poets to be "the holders of empathy."
Each day we also split up into groups of ten, sorted by genre, and spent two to three hours discussing the pieces of writing we had submitted. Joyce Maynard led the nonfiction workshop, and she wasn't kidding when she warned us she'd be tough. She zeroed in on misleading lead-ins, flabby prose, irrelevant details, rambling sentences, sloppy structures, vague and timid language. Ouch, ouch, ouch. She counseled us to write with intention, spending as much time thinking as putting words on the page. She told us to throw out writing that isn't working, rather than trying to patch it up. Most of all, she urged us to write our most difficult stories, honestly and shamelessly.
"Go to the nerves that are alive, the dark places, the things that don't work out, the odd things you're obsessed with."
I came away with a freshly-sharpened set of writing tools and the determination to use them on the essays I've been struggling with. I also came away with nine new writing friends. I've been in workshops where participants developed a strong rapport and others where the group just never clicked. This one clicked, perhaps, as someone joked, because we bonded like trauma survivors after enduring Joyce's critiques. Whatever the reason, I look forward to trading work and encouragement with Kelly, Gerry, Jane, Sara, Steve, Lee Anne, Arlyn, Roz and Kirsten.
Not ready to leave Tucson? I don't blame you. Come along on another walk through the festival and its surroundings.
I'm traveling this week, so I thought you deserved a getaway, too. Unfortunately, I can't take all of you with me to Tucson; instead, I'm sending you to the exotic island of . . . Big Rapids!
Oh. Big Rapids isn't an island? Or exotic? Well, it sure seemed like it a few weeks ago when the Polynesian dance troupe Aloha Chicago (I know--Aloha Chicago?!!?) came to town as part of the annual Big Rapids Festival of the Arts.
That evening transported me back to my Samoa days, when friends and classmates used to perform some of the same dances I saw on stage. Just the sound of the drums made me feel like a teenager again in the "land of frangipani and Fanta."
If only I could reproduce those sounds here! I guess you'll have to use your imagination, inspired by the pictures below. Bon voyage!
In January, Ray and I spent a delightful hour or so viewing the latest work of photographer Tim Motley at an exhibit and reception at Artsplace in Fremont. Tim, who has made a living as a commercial photographer for thirty-seven years, recently changed direction to concentrate on fine art abstract photography.
As I listened to Tim discussing his inspirations and techniques with gallery visitors, it occurred to me that HeartWood readers might also be interested in what he had to say. Though I had already peppered him with questions the night of the reception, he graciously agreed to answer still more questions for this Q&A.
I'm always fascinated when someone who's been successful following one path decides to take a chance and turn a different direction. You mentioned that your shift from commercial photography to fine art photography was something you'd been thinking about for a while. What made you decide it was the right time to make the move?
It was one of those things where you're kind of gently pushed. I started out in fashion in back in the eighties, moved into high-end weddings, and then when the economy went down, my weddings went from fifty a year to four. Because of the economy and so many other photographers out there, I decided to go into fine art world. I had done some fine art work back in the nineties, but it really didn't go anywhere. This body of abstract work that I'm doing now, I'm very motivated to get it out there, get into galleries and museums. I look at this as my legacy.
Was your previous fine art work similar in any way to the work you're doing now?
It was very different. Quite a bit of it was travel photography—a lot of images from Italy. The rest of it was just fine-art things that I'd shot off and on through the years, like Tibetan monks. I have photographed events all my life, and after a while, with the events, I started getting little fine art pieces. And in the nineties, I was in an artist's co-op. We had a gallery in South Haven and we all sold our artwork. That kind of dried up when my weddings took over.
Where did the initial idea for this new work come from?
About three years ago, I was photographing a dance rehearsal. I was starting to get really bored with it, because the dancers would get up and move around, and then they'd sit down and talk about it. You could be there for four hours without much happening. So I started shooting abstracts of the dancers in the dance studio under fluorescent lighting and getting some interesting results. That's where it really took off. I thought, if I take the concept to my own studio where I can the control lighting and background, I bet I could get some remarkable results.
How much experimentation did it take before you arrived at a process that would produce the results you're after?
Actually, I'm still in the experimenting stage. But probably about a year into it, I started feeling confident and knowing I had something here to really treasure. After that, with each shoot, I continue to learn something. It just evolves. There's really no hard-and-fast rules that I use in this, with the exception that generally I use one light and one person, and they have to move. Those are the only requirements.
I've been doing this for about three years, and as I go along my techniques shift and change a little day by day. One of the really neat things about this is, I felt like I had learned everything there was to learn as a photographer, and now all of a sudden this abstract world has opened up a whole new world for me. I'm learning much more about photography.
For photography enthusiasts, can you say a little about the techniques you use in this work?
We set up one light, and I have the model standing on the floor under the light. We put some music on. The music is very important; we try to put on music that they love to move to, dance or yoga or whatever, and then we start to shoot, using low shutter speeds. Usually the shoots last an hour only, because after that the model is exhausted and so am I. It's a real short time, but it's filled and compacted with energy like crazy.
Every model that comes in brings something different to the shoot. Some are professional models, some are dancers, and I've had a number of actresses come in. Each person brings a little something different each time, be it through their personality or through their talent. That contributes to the difference in each shoot.
How many images do you typically take to produce one of these pieces?
In one session, we will shoot anywhere from 500 to 800 images. There's a whole lot of shooting going on. Usually out of that 500 or 800, I can come up with five or six really good pieces. Then I'll narrow that down to maybe one. The rest of it is just exploration.
You mentioned that your wife, Patty Caterino, does the printing and any post-processing that's involved. Can you say a little about that process?
Oh, absolutely. Being that I shoot everything digital, there's a lot of latitude with any of the images. Basically all we do with the images is what you would do in a traditional darkroom. The lights are darkened, maybe a little contrast and saturation, but that's it. All of the abstract work is actually done in the camera. After we shoot, quite often I'll spend a few days evaluating the images, and then I'll pull maybe 20 or 30. My wife will sit down with me, and then she and I will go over them. Her knowledge in the computer is far beyond anything I could ever do. She starts making little adjustments, and she'll see things in her mind's eye, and from that all of a sudden other things start coming out of the picture.
In fact, the one picture that was like the main picture of the whole Artsplace show showed a blue body walking out of frame. That was a picture that I just breezed right over. My wife found it and said, "Oh, let me take a look at this," and she made a couple of minor adjustments and all of a sudden the picture took on a whole new life.
I'm basically a photographer. I work the camera, but I don't work the printer. I don't have experience in that field. My wife and I really make a very good team. We've been together since 1995, and we have a good cohesion, where with what I shoot, she makes my images so much more beautiful.
She's an artist in her own way. Anything she has an interest in, she can pick up some books, read them for about two weeks and then master whatever she wants to do. She's done everything from welding to glass mosaic work. She used to do a lot of oil painting on my photographs, where she'd take a black-and-white image and hand-color it. She has a phenomenal touch. She's very, very artistic. The things that we do together let her use that talent.
What do you feel you're expressing in this new work?
These abstracts kind of parallel my life. In the old days, when I was out there photographing events, my life was wide open to everyone, and people knew what was going on in my life. Now I'm much more reclusive, and my work is shifting with my personal life as well. Part of the idea behind the abstracts is, the body will have no clothing, no jewelry, simply because I don't want to depict this society. I would like those images to be as timeless as they can be.
My personal feelings are, the more I see of society, the less I want to be a part of it. So the abstracts kind of play along with that, and are something different that no one else does. And this work speaks to me. It really does.
And it stimulates me. I had reached the point a while back where the work just did nothing for me. All I did was make pretty pictures, but I couldn't feel anything coming from it. When I do these abstracts now, there's a feeling I get, a sense of accomplishment, definitely a sense of mystery. Sometimes I don't even understand what I'm getting, but I love what I'm doing. So I just continue down that path and see where it takes me.
Every piece that you see of my work is a part of me. I feel that connected to it. I think for the first time in my life, I truly do feel like an artist, and I wouldn't trade that feeling for anything in the world.
Where do you find inspiration?
In the early days when I was shooting a lot of fashion, some of the fashion photographers like Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon inspired me. Nowadays my references that I use for studying are Picasso, Matisse, de Kooning. I really do see life in an abstract way now, and this is all I really see photographically, too. I study art all the time. If I'm not shooting or working on pictures, I'm studying other artists' work just trying to be inspired by it, analyze it, see how it can come into my work.
How did you first get started in photography?
Back in the 1970s, I got a camera and started photographing my sons. One day I was shooting one of my sons in the living room, and I did something different with the lighting, and it was the most different picture I'd ever made. That really inspired me. I was bitten by the bug then, and I took off with photography. I started reading everything could get my hands on about photography. I was a magazine junkie. I bought every magazine I could get on photography and devoured it.
I dabbled in it until about 1985, when I met a guy at a camera shop who had a little studio in a warehouse in Grand Rapids. He said, "I'll tell you what, you come in and help me with my rent, and I'll teach you how to use studio lighting." I was with him for two months; then he took on a couple of other photographers because he wanted to lower the rent even further, and the place was too small for all of us. So in the same building, I built my own studio. I had close to 2,000 square feet that I only paid $200/month for. I was there for fifteen years in that building, shooting fashion and weddings and portraits. Then my wife and I met in '95 and the place we live now came up for sale in '97.
Where we live now is in a little area called Tallmadge Township, about fifteen miles outside the city of Grand Rapids. We actually own an old town hall, and that's what my studio is in. In back of the town hall is our house. One benefit of shooting the abstracts in the studio is that it keeps me home more often.
What suggestions do you have for anyone who's starting out in photography or who's been dabbling in photography for a while but wants to get better at it?
The one thing I could suggest is, you have to have a very strong drive. You have to be dedicated to it and you have to be focused on it. To go the route that I've gone, you have to work at it 24 hours a day. Once I got into photography and started professionally, it was like there was nothing else that went on in this world to me except my photography.
Are there other directions you'd like to take this work in the future?
One of the ideas we're kicking around now is tying my abstracts in with cancer patients. One of the models who's been in probably three or four times to do these abstract nudes is a breast cancer survivor. She's 57 years old, and she's got scarring, and it's obvious what she's been through, and we made some very beautiful artwork of her. Further down the road, if we can find a patron to bankroll this kind of project, I'd like to make beautiful abstracts—nudes or portraits—with cancer survivors and have them displayed in a hospital.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The show at Artsplace led to a contact in Ludington, and I'll be putting on a show at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts in 2018.
If the news of the day has been getting you down, here's one bulletin that's guaranteed to inspire:
FAIRYLAND, Newaygo County (March 1, 2017)—In spite of last year's housing boom in the Enchanted Forest (also known as Camp Newaygo), officials report a serious shortage of sprite-sized housing.
"Thanks to the artistry of local supporters, the fairy homes that sprang up in our forest last year were so attractive, they were all immediately occupied by pixies, gnomes, sylphs and all manner of tiny creatures," says Elvira Elf, housing coordinator. "We’re expecting an influx of fairy folk soon, as they return from their winter homes down South. We're asking everyone to pitch in again to create a forest full of houses to welcome them back."
After receiving the news, fairy-house builder Wildwood Ray was spotted heading for his workshop with an armload of mysterious materials. "This is one call to action it's impossible to ignore," he said.
Bet you can't ignore it either! So start gathering twigs, moss, stones and anything else that strikes your fancy, and get busy creating. Houses are due April 15 (you can drop them off at Camp Newaygo or call 231-652-1184 to schedule a pick up). Guidelines are listed below.
The fairy houses, gnome homes, pixie palaces and elfin abodes will be hidden in the forest surrounding the camp, and during the Enchanted Forest Event, April 29 and 30, visitors can wander the woods with a trail map, searching for the houses and trying to spot their secretive inhabitants.
Cookies and punch will be supplied for house-hunting fortification, and for an additional fee, young visitors will have a chance to create their own handiwork at a craft table.
All the fairy houses will be auctioned on eBay afterward, so you can pick out a favorite to take home. (Don't forget to make a wish for a fairy to come along with it!)
Camp Newaygo is an independent, not-for-profit camp located on 104 acres along a chain of lakes in the Manistee National Forest region of mid-western Michigan. In addition to offering a girls' residential summer camp and a coed day camp, the camp provides year-round community events: dinners, girlfriend getaways, winter sleigh rides and more.
Last year, organizers hoped the first Enchanted Forest event would bring in twenty-five to thirty little dwellings. They received forty-two houses, and a total of 627 visitors toured the forest over the two days.
Here are this year's guidelines for building your fairy house:
The Enchanted Forest tour is April 29 and 30, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost is $7 per person or $25 per family of four. The make-and-take craft table will be available from 10 a.m. to noon on the 29th, for an additional charge. No advance registration necessary; please pay at the door.
Valentine's Day is over, but can't we all still use some love? I think we can, so I'm offering quotes about love in this installment of Last Wednesday Wisdom. And because HeartWood and I both celebrated birthdays this month (guess who's older), I'm throwing in some about age and experience, as well.
In the spirit of love and celebration, I'll even give you a treat at the end: photos from a recent concert and exhibit by local luthiers (stringed-instrument makers).
There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.
-- John Lennon
Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Airman's Odyssey
The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been.
-- Madeleine L'Engle
How many slams in an old screen door?
Depends how loud you shut it.
How many slices in a bread?
Depends how thin you cut it.
How much good inside a day?
Depends how good you live 'em.
How much love inside a friend?
Depends how much you give 'em.
― Shel Silverstein
Trust in Experience. And in the rhythms.
The deep rhythms of your experience.
-- Muriel Rukeyser
No matter what you're feeling, the only way to get a difficult feeling to go away is simply to love yourself for it. If you think you're stupid, then love yourself for feeling that way. It's a paradox, but it works. To heal, you must be the first one to shine the light of compassion on any areas within you that you feel are unacceptable.
-- Christiane Northrup
Imagination has no expiration date.
-- Paula Whyman, author, in article on debut authors over age fifty, Poets & Writers magazine, November-December 2016
Love is a canvas furnished by nature and embroidered by imagination.
We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
-- Paul Bowles
If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love.
-- Maya Angelou
If I had known when I was twenty-one that I should be as happy as I am now, I should have been sincerely shocked. They promised me wormwood and the funeral raven.
-- Christopher Isherwood
What do farming and art have in common? A lot more than you might think, say Mike and Amanda Jones of Maple Moon Farm in Shelby, Michigan. To underscore the connection, they're sponsoring a FEED THE STARVING ARTIST contest with the theme, "Local Food and Local Farms" and a prize of a $250 gift card to the farm.
"The idea was really born out of a desire to increase community connections," says Amanda. "One of the reasons we farm is, we really enjoy having that direct relationship with the people who eat our food. Another element is, we feel that we ourselves bring an artistic element to farming. We wanted to draw on that bond with other artisans, whatever their art form, to create connections and a stronger community."
Artists and artisans have until March 4 to register, either by emailing Mike and Amanda at firstname.lastname@example.org or by stopping by their booth at Sweetwater Local Foods Market in Muskegon, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Anyone planning to enter needs to let the Joneses know the type of art and the size of the piece, so they can plan for enough display space at the market on March 11, when voting will take place. If registering by email, please send a photo of the entry.
The entries themselves may be dropped off at the farm or brought to the market on the 11th, when market shoppers will cast ballots to select a winner. "We just ask that anyone bringing their art on the 11th have it there by 9 a.m., when the market opens," says Amanda.
Entries of all sorts are welcome, she adds. "When someone is practicing something from the heart and really putting an element of themselves into what they create, we view that as being an artisan. We wanted to leave the definition broad to be as inclusive as possible." The only criterion is that all works should be related in some way to the theme of local food and local farms.
The winner will be announced at the market's close on the 11th and will also be featured on Maple Moon's Facebook page.
"The winning piece, we will keep in exchange for the gift certificate," says Amanda. Other entries should be picked up at the market after results are announced on the 11th.
For budding artists and coloring enthusiasts of all ages, there's a coloring contest, too! Coloring pages are available from Mike and Amanda on market days at Sweetwater Market. Market shoppers will also vote on coloring contest entries on the 11th, and the winner will receive a generous gift basket from the farm.
The couple hopes the contests will forge new connections between local food producers, artists and other members of the community. "We're hoping this will draw in people who haven't been connected with their local farmers market and that others who identify as artisans will connect with this local resource and see the parallels in what we do. Our community thrives when people are able to do what they truly love. It makes us happier people and benefits everybody as a whole. If we are able to support each other in doing what we love, it's a win-win for everybody."
Love is a big part of Mike and Amanda's approach to farming, says Mike, who grew up in Newaygo County family that gardened and raised animals. "We believe growing plants is an art form more than a job. We treat every plant with respect to get the best-quality produce . . . Everybody talks about their grandparents' garden and how they raised the best-tasting tomatoes. There's a reason for that: the plants were getting all the love and attention they had. When you're putting that kind of attention into the food, you get the best quality."
Maple Moon has used organic growing practices from the beginning and is currently certified organic. Though the farm's output has grown in the seven years since its beginning, Mike and Amanda want to keep it small enough that they can still be hands-on, rather than hiring other people to do the work.
"If we stay small, we can have more control over how plants are loved," Mike says. "Our primary goal is to grow things that taste the best."
The Joneses grow "most vegetables you can think of," including "lots of heirloom tomatoes," but specialize in greens and herbs, both culinary and medicinal, says Amanda, who grew up in suburban Detroit, but took an interest in food and farming in her late teens. She arranged to work for six weeks on Nothing But Nature farm in Ohio and ended up staying more than three years.
Consumer interest in organic and locally-produced and foods is on the rise, but with those foods increasingly available in supermarkets, many shoppers don't visit farmers markets. Amanda wants to remind them there are still good reasons to buy directly from growers.
"You're not only getting fresher food, but you're also creating a relationship with the person," she says. "I know our food has to be good and clean, because I know the people who are going to use it. I see their children. I've watched babies grow up on the food. Sometimes when I'm out in the field, harvesting or working on a crop, I think of the people who come to the market who love it. That creates better connections and better health for everyone involved."
Sweetwater Market operates at the Mercy Health Lakes Village, 6401 Prairie St., Norton Shores, and is open Saturdays from 9 to noon.
Maple Moon Farm is located at 1224 S. 144th St., Shelby, Michigan. Phone: 231-861-2535
Photos courtesy of Mike and Amanda Jones
A year ago this week, HeartWood's first post went live, so this is our blog-iversary, and we're celebrating!
Come to think of it, we're big on celebrations in general, I realized as I looked back at the past year's posts. One of our earliest posts was a wide-ranging rumination on celebrations—of special occasions and special people, of big events and small moments that are just as deserving of a hooray!
We didn't have to go far at all for some of our experiences. We stopped in at local hangouts and even went on a writing retreat without leaving home.
When HeartWood launched a year ago, that same yoga group was central to many of our lives, and our teacher Ellie Randazzo was central to the group. Her death in August was a shattering loss that still affects us deeply. I'm happy to report, though, that we continue to honor her memory by practicing together weekly at the same time, in the same place where we practiced with Ellie. Her spirit still guides us.
All of these experiences over the past year have given us plenty to think about, and we've taken time to reflect on such topics as serendipity, slowing down, home, expanding our social circles and the importance of striking a balance between on-the-go activity and solitude. We've embraced our bodies! And we've embraced our creativity, too, considering the roles of chaos and boundary crossing in stimulating imagination. And because this has been a year of divisiveness as well as harmony, we've given some thought to how we communicate with people whose opinions differ from our own.
That's a look back. Now it's time to look ahead. When I started this blog, I vowed to stick with it for a year, then reassess and decide whether to keep going. How to decide? Feedback and figures are one measure, and on both counts I'm encouraged. The comments I get from readers and the growing numbers of page views and individual visitors tell me this endeavor is worth the time I'm putting into it.
What's more, I'm enjoying this undertaking way more than I expected to. It's satisfying to have an outlet for my own writing and a place to share guest posts and interviews and to know that someone is actually reading this stuff and maybe getting something useful from it.
So here's to another year of HeartWood, and here's where you come in. I'd love to know what kinds of posts you most enjoyed in the past year and what topics, events, places and people you'd like to see featured in future posts.
Oh, and I know it's not polite to ask for gifts, but if you're wondering what to give HeartWood on this special occasion, a few more subscribers would be really terrific. My goal is to double (or more) the number of current subscribers over the next few months. So if you haven't subscribed, please consider signing up (see form at right side of page). And if you're already a subscriber, please encourage one or more friends to subscribe.
Now, on with the party!
So here we are, one month into 2017. Remember those intentions you started the year with? Those goals you were going to pursue and ideals you were going to embody? How's that working out?
For all the resolve we start the year with, it's easy to get sidetracked. That's why I try to reboot my resolutions (or intentions, if you prefer that concept, as I do) from time to time.
If one of your intentions is to build connections with other people, my friend and former coworker Colleen Newvine Tebeau has some great suggestions for enjoyable ways to make that happen. Colleen is a journalist turned MBA whose marketing consulting firm helps small and mid-sized businesses with practical strategy and tactics. She's also one of the most joyfully social people I know. So when I read a recent post in her blog, Newvine Growing, about cultivating friendships, I knew I had to share it with you.
Colleen lives in Brooklyn, New York, but her suggestions work just as well if you live in a small town. Maybe you don't have a neighborhood cocktail bar to frequent, but you're probably not far from a coffee shop or café.
But before I give away any more of her tips, I'll turn you over to Colleen. Here's her post on building social connections.
Make this the year you value your relationships
by Colleen Newvine
If you're making resolutions, I’d like to recommend you aim for a different ambition than the typical "lose 10 pounds" or "quit smoking." Focus, for a change, on increasing and improving your connections to other people.
Why? A New York Times article headlined, “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us,” said in part:
Social isolation is a growing epidemic—one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.
About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do. People in poorer health—especially those with mood disorders like anxiety and depression—are more likely to feel lonely. Those without a college education are the least likely to have someone they can talk to about important personal matters.
A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones.
One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.
Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.
If you need more convincing, I suggest you read the full article by Dhruv Khullar, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
How to get started? Consider throwing a party
I love hosting parties, from intimate dinner parties to jam-packed cocktail parties. When people come to our parties, they sometimes say wistfully, "You’re so good at this. I wish I knew how to throw a party like this."
Here's the truth: I began throwing parties in part because I was lonely. When my ex-fiance and I broke up, I realized I didn’t have close girlfriends to commiserate with, and I made a conscious decision to cultivate friendships.
It felt less threatening to invite women I didn’t know well for a group gathering than to ask one out for a girl date over coffee or drinks. I began hosting clothing swaps because inviting people to join me for an activity felt like a more attractive offer; they didn’t have to want to hang out with me, they just had to want some free gently used clothes. I wasn’t experienced at hosting but I learned as I did it more. Slowly some of those women became friends, and I still host clothing exchanges two decades later.
If you feel shy about asking someone for one-on-one plans, consider hosting a small group at your place. If you don't click with anyone who comes, you can casually drift to another conversation or excuse yourself to tend to some unspecified task in the kitchen.
Hosting doesn’t have to mean a lot of work. When the economy tanked in 2008, we hosted happy hours at home to give our friends a less expensive way to socialize. We'd tell people to bring whatever they wanted to drink and eventually we’d order pizza and ask people to kick in. That’s really it. All we offered was the venue.
You could invite a couple of people to watch movies and get food delivered or throw a frozen pizza in the oven. Host a potluck dinner. Set up an activity you’d like to do anyway—make beer or jewelry, do scrapbooking, get out your musical instrument—and ask acquaintances you’d like to know better or friends you don’t see often enough to join you.
If you’d like to try hosting, here are a few posts I’ve written with suggestions:
Become a regular at a bar or coffee shop near you
Socializing at home isn’t the only option, of course. You can enjoy a bar, cafe, coffee shop or other gathering place near you.
Ray Oldenburg wrote a book called The Great Good Place in 1989 that spoke of the "third place"—someplace that's not home and not work, but another spot where you connect with your community. Going to your third place isn't just about scheduling a date to meet people you already know but about chatting with whoever’s there.
That means putting down your phone, making eye contact and opening yourself up to strangers.
The development of the individual depends on meeting people from different walks of life, and getting to know them. That's good for the individual, and it's good for the community. Coffee shops are great, and bars are great—they offer an edge because of what you consume, and you can relax and warm up to other people.
In a recent interview in Imbibe magazine, Oldenburg said:
The development of the individual depends on meeting people from different walks of life, and getting to know them. That’s good for the individual, and it’s good for the community. Coffee shops are great, and bars are great — they offer an edge because of what you consume, and you can relax and warm up to other people.
We feel fortunate to have fallen deeply in love with a cocktail bar a block from our apartment. It's a place where we go to celebrate as well as to sulk or mourn, and where we feel welcomed and cared for, more like family than customers.
It's the first time in our lives we truly feel like regulars someplace. It took trial and error to find the right place and to connect beyond a simple business transaction.
Here's some of what worked for us in finding our local hangout:
My husband, John Tebeau, is writing a book about 50 great New York bars, not places with the very best cocktails or the hippest places, but bars that are beloved gathering places.
Visiting dozens of bars to scout them for his book has given us copious practice engaging with barkeeps and regulars, and as someone who used to find sitting at the bar intimidating, I can tell you that the more you do it, the easier it gets. I’ve learned to read the body language of patrons open to chatting and to gauge when a bartender has time to socialize versus needing to focus on the task at hand. Like hosting parties, it gets easier the more you do it.
Bring a social element to something you'd do anyway
Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Ann Arbor institution Zingerman's, taught a webinar on time management last year that was beautifully philosophical—it wasn't about shoehorning more productivity into each day but about living well by prioritizing how we spend our time.
One of the practical pointers Ari gave was to combine priorities so he can accomplish more things he values simultaneously. For example, if you want to exercise and you want to socialize, work out with a friend. My husband, John, had a standing racquetball date with a co-worker twice a week when we lived in Ann Arbor. That's part of why we're still friends with his racquetball partner, Bob, two decades later.
I once read about two moms who swapped helping each other clean. They'd both spend an hour cleaning one family's house, talking as they did it, then they'd switch to the other house. It turned a grudge task into bonding time.
What do you do—or what would you like to do—that could work as a social activity?
Make it a priority to show people you love them
I hear a lot of people, especially in go-go-go New York City, saying they just don’t have time to socialize. They work long hours, wrapped in a long commute on each side, then maybe they have the demands of parenting waiting at home.
I get that you might already feel you don’t have enough hours in the day, and squeezing in a brunch date sounds more stressful than relaxing.
But if you value your relationships, can you prioritize maintaining those connections enough to make time? Is there something you’re doing that you could ditch to make room for friendships, or could you make better use of downtime? Can you combine socializing with another activity, like Ari suggests?
I have one friend with a high powered job who leaves substantive voicemails, so I feel connected even if we didn’t get to chat. Another friend who travels a lot sends thoughtful texts about something happening on the trip or something that reminded him of me. A successful business owner friend routinely leaves cheerful comments on my Facebook posts. They’ve found ways to fit connection into their busy lives.
John and I spend a few hours every couple of weekends calling and writing people we love. We send postcards and texts as we drink our coffee. We value this enough that we schedule it in our shared Google calendar.
Excellent ideas, Colleen! And I know many HeartWood readers have come up with great ideas for connecting with others, too—from the women's hiking club to dominoes games and craft nights. Share them here, and build more connections in the process!
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. Here's what I've unearthed this month. See you in February!
Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teaches who unknowingly speak to your condition.
-- Sam Keen
If a thousand old beliefs were ruined in our march to truth, we must still march on.
-- Stopford Augustus Brooke
You think your pains and heartbreaks are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have ever been alive.
-- James Baldwin
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
-- Mother Teresa
The truth is at the bottom of a well. You look in a well, and you see the sun or the moon, but if you jump in, there's no longer the sun or the moon; there's the truth.
-- Leonardo Sciascia
I nod to a passing stranger, and the stranger nods back, and two human beings go off, feeling a little less anonymous.
-- Robert Brault
Don't do nothing because you can't do everything. Do something. Anything.
-- Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
The path of progress has never taken a straight line, but has always been a zigzag course amid the conflicting forces of right and wrong, truth and error, justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy.
-- Kelly Miller
No amount of fine feeling can take the place of faithful doing.
-- William Barclay
The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.
-- William Sloane Coffin
We've all seen them: before-and-after photos urging us to try new diets or body-shaping products. In the before shot, the woman (the subjects usually are women, it seems) looks not only doughy, but dejected, slouching and spilling out of her too-small bikini. In the after, she's lean and hard-bodied, beaming as she strikes a triumphant, look-at-me pose.
While those photos may be designed to encourage us to care for ourselves (or to buy products that will make us believe we are), just as often they reinforce our negative self-images, especially if we happen to look more like the "before" than the "after."
That's what led an Australian woman named Taryn Brumfitt to post unconventional before-and-afters of herself online: a trim and bikinied before shot and discreetly-posed nude photo of her plump, soft—and smiling—after-self. The photos went viral and touched off a flurry of media attention, giving Brumfitt a platform for telling the world how she learned to love her natural shape instead of trying to force it to fit someone else's idea of attractiveness.
Television interviews gave her only a few minutes to make her points, though. She wanted to say more. So Brumfitt raised money on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to create a documentary film, EMBRACE. The film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival last year and now has made its way to Newaygo County, where it will be shown at Camp Newaygo on Friday, January 27.
I'm especially excited to spread the word about this event because it's being sponsored by Ellie's Yoga and the Wander Women hiking club—the groups of strong, positive women with whom I begin and end most weeks.
The film was a natural for Camp Newaygo, says Jalisa Danhof, the camp's assistant director. "When we watched the trailer and looked into what it's about, we thought it fit perfectly with our mission of teaching empowerment and self-worth and building confidence."
Body image is a topic that comes up often at camp, especially among early adolescent girls, Danhof says. "They're more comfortable talking about it at camp because there are no boys. It's a safe place to express fears and concerns that they might not otherwise express." Camp Newaygo counselors are trained to respond in ways that are supportive but not intrusive.
In EMBRACE, Brumfitt travels around the world, talking to everyone from actor and former TV host Ricki Lake to a burn survivor and a celebrity photographer about the impact of body image.
"The media and advertisers so often present one singular body type as being the standard," says Brumfitt. "In truth, hardly any person on the planet looks like that and the images are often digitally manipulated anyway. But so many perfectly healthy normal people are left feeling inadequate. We should all be empowered to just not buy into it."
Producer Anna Vincent hopes audiences will leave the movie "punching the air, feeling good about themselves, and understanding that they don't suffer their problems alone."
As for Brumfitt, "I want people to walk away after watching EMBRACE believing that they can embrace and love their bodies unconditionally. I know from travelling around the world that this is a real problem that's affecting people's lives every single day. I hope the film will start a more positive conversation about body image and that audiences will be inspired by the stories they'll hear, and the people they'll meet through the film."
In addition to creating EMBRACE, Brumfitt founded the Body Image Movement, which advocates natural aging and beauty and aims "to uncover the true beauty that lies within each and every one of us, the beauty of a person you can't physically see: one's humility, kindness, humor, respect and generosity."
Now, that's a beautiful mission.
EMBRACE will be shown at 7:30 p.m. on January 27 at Camp Newaygo, 5333 Centerline Rd., Newaygo. Doors open at 7 p.m. The event is free, but please register to reserve a seat (and let organizers know how much popcorn to pop!). The film is recommended for ages 10 and above. A parents' guide, available on the Camp Newaygo website, is designed to help parents decide if the film is appropriate for their children.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.