Happy Valentine's Day! I don't know if it's the memory of grade-school valentine exchanges or the connection with chocolate, but this has always been one of my favorite holidays.
This year I'm celebrating by kicking off a new, occasional (meaning whenever I feel like it) feature on creative couples. For the first installment, I'm profiling two all-around wonderful folks, George and Mallory Waldman. I first met the couple when George and I worked together at the Detroit Free Press—he as a photographer and I as a reporter. I always admired his honest, direct, and often surprising images.
Back then, Mallory was tirelessly working for a nonprofit organization that provided services for the elderly and people with HIV/AIDS, which didn't leave her much time or energy for other creative work. Now that she and George have retired and moved to Maine, she has flourished as a fiber artist.
Here's how Mallory describes her creations: "I play with color in fabrics which I've cut into one-inch-wide strips and woven together. It's almost like painting in a way, because the colors change when woven next to one another. It's fascinating, huge fun, and quite exciting."
George claims he doesn't do much photography any more. Mallory begs to differ. While he may not be practicing photojournalism, "I see such creativity in his photographs of the area around us," she says. "He can suddenly make you see what you really didn't do more than glance at before. He sharpens your sight."
In addition, George is carving wood and learning to draw and play piano, "working in different dimensions, rather than the two," he says. "It's all a challenge. Piano is really the tough one."
It surprised me when George added, "I'm beginning to think of myself as a creative person." Funny, I always thought he was.
He went on to explain that while he hasn't considered himself creative in an artistic sense, he's a creative problem solver. "I am, in my work, trying to find the essence of a situation and a person untainted by my own subjective impulses, and following that through to a final, beautiful and honest image that is useful and used and helpful in people understanding and appreciating each other."
In the beginning
I wondered if the couple's creative natures played any part in their attraction to each other when they met on a blind date 52 years ago.
"We were so young and didn't know each other well (and I didn't know myself), so the creative part of George was not what drew me to him," says Mallory. "I did think he was one of the nicest and most interesting guys I'd ever met." (She still thinks so, by the way.)
George agrees that he was "young and unformed" back then, and says this about Mallory: "At 22, she didn't seem to play games, which might suggest she wasn't very creative, but it made her very attractive to me. She was sincere, the kind of person who would do what she promised to do."
Perhaps it was that sincerity and mutual respect that helped them develop a partnership in which they could hone their own talents while encouraging each other's. That's a key to creative coupledom, say Katie and Gay Hendricks, husband-and-wife coauthors of Conscious Loving Ever After. "When people get in deeper communication with their own individual creative essence, their relationships blossom as a direct result," they write.
Or as George puts it, "Be true to oneself, or why would anyone else be interested in you?"
Space, Skills, Support
For George and Mallory, support goes beyond encouragement; they also help each other find space and time for creative pursuits. George might move a new loom into Mallory's studio, then do the laundry and fix dinner while she sets it up. Mallory will handle other logistics to give George a chance to "dream or wander or putz around with something."
They share their skills, too. George set up a Facebook page for technophobe Mallory, where she can display photos of her creations (photos taken by George, naturally).
"I see the play of light in her work, the texture, shapes and colors more deeply than others might," says George. "Photographic elements."
Once, another artist whose work George had photographed observed that the result was "about the photographs more than the art." With his photos of Mallory's weavings, he aims for images that capture both: the artful weaving itself, but also photographic elements such as the play of light on the warp of the loom.
That mix of literal representation and artistic expression "can be a good thing," George maintains. "A kind of collaboration. Right?"
Helpful as it as to have a supportive partner when things are going smoothly, it's even more appreciated during creative slumps and rough patches, the Waldmans have found.
"During a labor dispute with the Detroit newspapers, I had to struggle to make a living in depressing and often unfulfilling, problem-solving creative ways," George recalls. "Mallory was rock solid in support and understanding, never wavering a moment while she had her own problems to solve in funding and administering a program meeting the needs of HIV positive/AIDS people. Just earning a living is a creative challenge for most of us."
Giving George extra encouragement at that stressful time seemed like a no-brainer to Mallory. "One wants one's lover to be happy, fulfilled and eager to go on," she says.
Conscious Loving authors the Hendrickses see that sort of succor as essential in a creative partnership. In addition to asking oneself "What is my unique genius?", you can ask the same of your mate, Katie noted in an interview in the August 2017 issue of Mindful magazine. " 'What do you want to do in the world, and how can I support you and how can you support me?' That support is an expression of the genius of your relationship."
Recently, Mallory posed that very question to her spouse. "I asked George what would he really want to do if there were no constraints at all. Just dream and then tell me, and let's make it happen."
Passing It On
Though they don't collaborate on artistic work, George and Mallory did co-produce two exceptional creations: son Aaron and daughter Terrill. Not surprisingly, the parents applied their usual imagination and energy to nurturing their children's curiosity and creativity.
"We always had an art drawer for the kids, and George took them on an assignment once in a while so they could see him work," Mallory says. "We also supported their artistic impulses with classes and our general attitude that art was great."
Books were plentiful in the Waldman household, and George and Mallory encouraged creative thinking with daily questions: "What do you think of this? Do you like mustard on your eggs? What's the worst thing that could happen here?" (Mixed in with the occasional "Could you mow the damn lawn?")
Aaron and Terrill grew up to lead their own creative lives. Terrill and husband Charlie Jenkins, also a glassblower, create colorful and imaginative pieces in their studio, Tandem Glass. Aaron is "a very creative accountant in a good way and intent on the craft of it," says George.
Now grandparents, George and Mallory spend two days a week with their grandchildren and enjoy seeing their talents bloom.
"We're hoping to foster in them a freedom of thinking, problem-solving ability, and acceptance and understanding of life and its challenges," says George.
Come to think of it, those are exactly the qualities George and Mallory continue to cultivate in themselves in this phase of their creative couplehood.
"Life has several beginnings," says Mallory. "At 74, we feel this stage is another new beginning."
We all start the new year with such great enthusiasm for our projects. Then, a month or so in, we sometimes lose our momentum. Ideas dry up, energy sags. That's when an injection of inspiration can be just the thing.
Welcome back, Lene!
Lene's Ten Creativity Boosters
Attend to Your Health
Get Out In the World
Meet New People
Kick Back With TV or a Book
Get a Move On
Capture the Beauty
Connect With Other Creative Types
Accentuate the Positive
I hope you found something in here that might help you boost your creativity, and if you did, I’d love to hear from you! Maybe you have a tip that you’d like to add to the list, or maybe you’d like to share an experience when one of these “boosters” worked for you. Feel free to comment below!
Images courtesy of Lene Fogelberg
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. On this wintry Wednesday, I've gathered up an assortment of thoughts about the season and the pastimes--reading, writing, music, laughter, gatherings with friends--that help us get through it.
And if all of that doesn't warm you up enough, I'm throwing in a winter getaway at the end: a little jaunt down to Memphis to recap our visit to Graceland a few months ago. Believe it or not, there's a connection here. Though this isn't something I would normally have on my calendar, I happened to hear on the radio that Elvis's birthday was January 8. So come on along to Graceland for a belated birthday celebration. You just might get a taste of peanut butter-banana ice cream. It's never too cold for that!
Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.
-- Victor Hugo, poet, author, playwright
If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.
-- Haruki Murakami, author
What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.
-- John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it's the answer to everything . . . It's the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it's a cactus.
-- Enid Bagnold, author and playwright
My old grandmother always used to say, Summer friends will melt away like summer snows, but winter friends are friends forever.
-- George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.
-- Christopher Morley, author
Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.
-- Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world.
-- Anne Lamott, author
I want to watch the blue mist of the night come on,
The windows and the stars illumined, one by one,
The rivers of dark smoke pour upward lazily,
And the moon rise and turn them silver. I shall see
The springs, the summers, and the autumns slowly pass;
And when old Winter puts his blank face to the glass,
I shall close all my shutters, pull the curtains tight,
And build me stately palaces by candlelight.
-- Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal
There are more truths in a good book than its author meant to put into it.
-- Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, author and playwright
I'm not even going to try for a graceful segue, except to say, "And now, for something completely different . . . "
All Graceland photos by Nan Pokerwinski
One of my favorite January rituals is choosing a calendar to hang in our kitchen. More than a place to keep track of events and appointments, the right calendar can be a thing of beauty to admire every day.
For the past three years, I've been delighted to find photographer Gail Howarth's calendars for sale at Artsplace in Fremont. I've been a fan of Gail's photographs since I saw a collaborative exhibit of work by Gail and painter Renae Wallace at Artsplace a few years ago.
This year, Gail is donating profits from calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries, a Grand Rapids nonprofit organization that works with homeless people. Gail is also undertaking a photography and writing project with the organization. I've invited her here today to tell us about her work and this new project.
One thing that has always appealed to me about your photographs is the way you create extraordinary images from everyday objects and scenes—an old chair in a barn, a pile of driftwood, a rusty bicycle in a patch of weeds, a weathered fence post. What is your process for finding subjects for your photographs, and what do you look for in a potential subject?
I feel as though my subjects find me. It is true that I carry my camera most of the time and that I often have a goal in mind when I go out for the day. However, what is on my camera at journey's end is seldom what I planned. I photograph a broad range of things, as you mentioned. I am attracted to things old and broken, beautiful landscapes, and interesting people. Often, I travel the same roads or walk the same paths and see nothing of interest. Then with a shift of light, I see the location or an object as though for the first time. This fascinates me and keeps in a state of wonder and awe. A potential subject is anything that tells a story. My hope is that my photography not only be beautiful but also conjures memories or inspires the viewer to create a tale about the image.
What are some of the most unusual or surprising places you've found good subjects?
I love old abandoned places. This is not unusual these days, as there is an entire genre of photography related to "abandoned places". However, it is where I am most surprised and intrigued. First, my storyteller's mind is intrigued by the possibilities of why a thing or place was left behind. Second, I am surprised by what is left behind. A girl's saddle shoe, the curtains, an apron over a bed frame, a lifetime of someone's greeting cards scattered upon the floor, a woman's purse, and so on and so on. Some images are heartbreaking, yet oddly beautiful.
I was surprised to read, in the text on the back of your 2017 calendar, that you started out with little or no confidence in your skills as a photographer. What helped you grow and develop confidence in your abilities?
I have always had an eye for composition, but I thought my photography was ordinary. Honestly, it was my friend's comments on Facebook that made me believe I might have something more than snapshots.
Then Renae Wallace, a painter from Fremont, Michigan, began asking me if she could paint some of my images. Of course, I was shocked, honored, and so pleased. That eventually turned into our exhibit at NCCA - Artsplace: Of Time, Transition and Reflection. Words cannot even begin to describe how wonderful that experience was. Renae is a gem. A dream came true when Lindsay Isenhart said yes to the project. Everyone at Artsplace was incredibly supportive. Faune Benson Schuitema even helped me pick all the materials to frame and mat my work. The community came out in earnest to support both Renae and me. It was then that I knew I was on my way and felt like a real artist.
How have your techniques and approaches to photography changed over time?
My technique improved once I learned more about all the settings on my camera. Instead of just taking a shot and hoping for the best, I learned how to set the camera for the best capture. Additionally, I started shooting in RAW versus JPEG and picked up a couple of higher-quality glass lenses. I learned Lightroom and Google NIK for editing. I do have Photoshop, but have not yet learned it. Perhaps this year.
My approach is different, as I take more time with setup and take fewer images versus taking too many images and then sorting through for the best one. That was very time-consuming. I also ask for opportunities to photograph things that interest me. In the past, I would miss many opportunities because I was too shy to ask.
This year, you're donating profits from your calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries. How did you come to be involved with the organization?
I worked as a practice management software trainer for Patterson Dental. When Mel Trotter Ministries Dental Clinic purchased the software, I became their trainer. Over the years, I would occasionally be called upon for follow-up training. I felt at home with this group and felt strongly that their mission was important. I was moved by their conviction to help and I would think, if I ever left my job I would want to be part of this.
In early 2016 I began to feel more and more unsettled in the career I had loved. As the year progressed, I found myself thinking more about photography and writing and less and less about my job. One day when I was training the dental staff at Mel Trotter, I mentioned to Janice Keesman, Director of Clinics, how I was feeling. I told her I was considering leaving my job to pursue my passion. I mentioned that if they ever needed help, I would still like to be considered. That resulted in many discussions, and finally a job offer. I work in the clinic three days a week and spend the rest of my time cultivating my life as an artist.
In addition to donating calendar profits, you're working on a photography and writing project for Mel Trotter Ministries. Tell us a little about that project—what you're doing and what you hope to accomplish with this work.
This is truly a labor of love. The project is so important to me that I do it on my own time. Mel Trotter Ministries is an organization that serves the homeless. It provides overnight shelter, meals, residential programs, job training, counseling, the dental clinic, chiropractic care, vision, legal services, and so much more.
The project was born soon after I began working in the dental clinic. Patients often said the same phrases to describe what was happening in their lives. They went like this: No one hears me. No one sees me. I am invisible. I thought perhaps I could help. With my camera and writing skills, I could give them a voice, a face, and increase public awareness of homelessness.
Mel Trotter Ministries publishes my pieces on their website. I will be including the blog posts on my own site soon.
Additionally, I would like to create an exhibit for ArtPrize and/or other venues to increase awareness.
How has your work with Mel Trotter ministries affected you personally? As an artist?
One cannot work at Mel Trotter and not be changed. First, it has deepened my personal relationship with God. It may sound quite absurd, but I did not expect this. I think the usual things you might think: I am more grateful, considerate and have deeper compassion.
But, I would also say, I feel a bit more of a burden of responsibility in caring for those less fortunate. I find it difficult to leave the building between 4:30 and 5:15 pm. That sounds terrible, but I have a tender heart and my mind has a hard time wrapping my head around the extent of the issue of homelessness. That is the time when the homeless women check in for the evening. They wait in line and security goes through their sparse belongings before allowing them entry where they will receive a meal and bed for the night. I often see the same women day after day. There is no age limit. Some are very young and some very old. Some appear to be frightened, angry, resigned, and yet others quite joyful. And I wonder, where are their families, why does no one care enough to open their doors to these people, and what does the future hold for them?
As an artist, I would say it has been a call to action. I am one person. What can I do? I can and will use my words and camera to do whatever I can to help.
The photos of yours that I've seen in galleries and on your calendars have focused mainly on places, objects and wildlife/nature, and not as much on people. Your new work with Mel Trotter Ministries is all about people. Is this a new direction for your work overall, or just for this particular project?
I like photographing people, but not in a studio setting. Lighting with flashes, reflectors, and the use of backdrops is a mystery to me. The project at Mel Trotter is an extension of something I started in November of 2016. I began asking people to think about for what they were most grateful while I photographed them. I used the light that was available and processed the images in black and white. The result is a very raw image. Some people cried while others beamed radiantly. The first person I photographed for the gratitude project taught me that what I was asking was not a minor request. I was asking people to become vulnerable and to bare a part of their soul. I am grateful to those who participated. To be allowed a look into someone's soul is an honor and needs to be treated respectfully. This is what I hope to bring to the Mel Trotter Project.
What directions do you want to go with your photography in the coming year?
I would like to pair writing with my photography more often. I will definitely be reviving my neglected blog. The folks at Mel Trotter have asked me to also photograph and write about the volunteer of the month and have begun asking me to photograph events. I am hoping that Renae Wallace and I can begin another collaborative project soon and am open to collaborative projects with other artists, but there is nothing in the works. Perhaps this is the year that I will finally learn Photoshop.
Anything else you'd like to add?
My work is available at NCCA - Artsplace in Fremont and at MB Woodworks & Company and Market 41 in Newaygo. Online I can be found at:
I am also starting a small gallery by appointment at my home in Holton.
Get your feet off the coffee table, and put on your best manners—we have company today. It's local author Janet Glaser, who writes as J.Q. Rose. She's swinging by on a blog tour to spread the word about her newly-released mystery, Terror on Sunshine Boulevard.
I met Janet/J.Q. through the writers' group at Fremont Area District Library, and I've enjoyed reading her imaginative stories (and indulging our mutual weakness for ice cream). Terror on Sunshine Boulevard is one of my favorites.
Here's a quick word from J.Q., followed by a Q&A. More details about her and her books can be found at the end of the post.
Thank you, Nan, for hosting me during the Terror on Sunshine Boulevard Winter Warm-Up 2018 Blog Tour. I look forward to visiting with you and your readers and to answering any questions asked of me in the comments. I hope you have a cup of cocoa ready to warm me up today.
Readers: Please leave a comment below because a lucky commenter will win a PDF copy of Terror on Sunshine Boulevard. Winner will be drawn on Friday, January 19 at 9 p.m. EST.
The usual image of a Florida retirement community is one of golf courses, swimming pools and craft classes, not the scene of heinous crimes. What made you decide to set your new mystery, Terror on Sunshine Boulevard, in such a place?
I chose this setting because the scene one pictures of a retirement community is exactly what you describe--a place where people who have worked all their lives have a chance to enjoy the good things in life. I love the juxtaposition of the bright fun-in- the-sun feeling with the darkness of murder and mystery. Even the title includes the contrasting views—terror and sunshine.
What goes into creating a believable character in a work of fiction?
I base my characters on real people in my life. We meet many interesting folks in our travels. And I might add, there are some real characters in Michigan too! I take bits and pieces from personalities, gestures, accents, speech and put them together in one character. I also create the background story of the character to understand his relationships with other characters and his motivation for doing something like stealing, cheating, even murder. All of that information, such as his favorite color, is not spilled out on the page for the reader. The more I know about the character, the more believable he’ll be.
How big a part does setting play in your stories? Does the setting ever become a character?
In all of my stories the setting is very important. I have mysteries set in the retirement community, a church, and a funeral home. Each location is a message to the reader to understand the reason for the drama within the pages of the book and to set the mood for the scenes. Often the twist comes when a character doesn’t fit into the setting. I think the setting is an element in the story, but I’ve never thought of it as a character. I guess we need to discuss the definition of the character.
Without giving away too much of the story, I think it's safe to say that Terror on Sunshine Boulevard deals with the intersection of nature and civilization, and the conflicts that arise as a result. Is this an issue that concerns you in the real world?
Yes. I’m concerned watching “civilization” encroaching on the natural habitat by paving over acres of ground that is home to many animals and native plants. Developers tear out huge areas of property to build malls and subdivisions. Roads and highways cut through ancient areas, disturbing the trails and habits of generations of animals. No wonder wildlife raid garbage cans in subdivisions. Their food supply is no longer available because the homes are built in their habitat. The natural environmental balance is disturbed and the animals’ survival is at risk. We must be better stewards of our resources.
Another theme in Terror on Sunshine Boulevard is the contributions seniors can make to society. Do you think seniors' gifts are underappreciated?
I think many folks believe retirees are no longer useful to society. Don’t believe that! They have not been put out to pasture. A vibrant new chapter opens for them. Seniors have skills and talents polished by their life experiences. They are assets to their communities in many ways and guides to warn the young’uns about their mistakes and to show them how they have triumphed. They are storytellers when they share family stories around the dinner table as the kids sit enthralled learning about the funny, crazy uncle or the accomplished pianist in the family. Seniors are eyewitnesses to the world and our country’s history and will not allow anyone to slant the truth for their own purposes.
You've been a teacher and a business owner. What led you into writing, and into writing mysteries in particular?
To tell the truth, I was a writer way before being a teacher or entrepreneur. I actually started writing stories in second grade and I never stopped. I’ve had mentors and supporters along the way encouraging me to keep writing. First was my Grandmother Maw and teachers. Judy Corey and Mary Zuwerink started the North Country Writers many years ago. Esther Jiran (who writes as Joselyn Vaughn) was the force behind starting a writers group at the Fremont Library. I met many folks excited about writing there including you, Nan. Also a critique group of talented authors not only helped me brainstorm story ideas, but also encouraged me to submit my first story to publishers which resulted in signing a contract with a small publisher. Esther, Wendy Sinicki (pen name W.S. Gager), Theresa Grant (Tess Grant), and Nan continue to be important advocates in my writing life.
After we sold our flower business in 1995, I had time to sit down and write. So I did. I asked Rich Wheater, editor of our regional newspaper, if he could use a few stories for the paper. He said, “Go ahead.” I learned a LOT from him and branched out into writing freelance articles for magazines, newspapers, and online magazines. After reading Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries and Janet Evanovich’s funny mysteries, I decided to tackle fiction. And I’m glad I did!
What have been the biggest challenges in becoming a published author?
I’ve discovered writing the book is the easy part. After publishing comes the difficult job of promoting the book. I spend many hours a week, every week, on Facebook, my blog, and guesting on blogs to get the word out about the books and urging folks to review my books. Reviews get the attention of Amazon so they promote it; the review helps readers decide if it’s a story they would enjoy.
You divide your time between Florida and Michigan. Do your writing habits and routines change with a change of location?
Yes. Daily routines change, but I learned I had to schedule an appointment with J.Q. Rose to sit down every day and write for half an hour or more. No marketing, no emailing. After lunch, I put on my author cap and write no matter if I’m up north or down south.
In what ways besides writing do you exercise your creative muscles and find contentment?
I take photos—of everything! I love capturing people, places, things, a tricky bee landing on a flower. I also enjoy “creating” quote graphics at canva.com using my photos.
.Anything else you'd like to add?
Yes. My mission is to encourage everyone to take time to write or record their life stories. So what if you didn’t discover a medicine to cure disease or help build a ship to fly to the moon? Your life is worthy because it can inspire others by sharing your experiences of overcoming obstacles, making mistakes or celebrating success. Your stories will allow generations of your family to get to know you and be empowered by your life story. I’m writing a memoir now about the first year we moved to Fremont and started our business. What an adventure.
Do you have a story inside you to share? Go ahead and do it.
Thank you for visiting today.
Terror on Sunshine Boulevard
Back of the Book: Rescuing a naked woman lying in a geranium bed or investigating mysterious murders are not the usual calls for first responder Jim Hart. He expects slip and fall accidents or low blood pressure emergencies in his retirement community of Citrus Ridge Senior Community and Golf Resort. The ghastly crime scenes turn the winter time fun into a terrifying season of death and mystery when the authorities cannot track down the predator responsible.
Jim and his wife Gloria could escape the horror and grief by returning to their northern home, but concern for their friends and residents keep them in Florida. With the entire community in a dither over the deaths, the Harts participate in the normal winter activities of golfing, dancing, and pool parties with their friends to distract them from the sadness and loss.
Can Jim and Gloria work with the authorities to discover who or what is killing the seniors on Sunshine Boulevard and stop the increasing body count?
Terror on Sunshine Boulevard is available for purchase at these digital booksellers.
After writing feature articles in magazines, newspapers, and online magazines for over fifteen years, J.Q. Rose entered the world of fiction. Her published mysteries are Deadly Undertaking, Dangerous Sanctuary, and Terror on Sunshine Boulevard, released by Books We Love Publishing. Blogging, photography, Pegs and Jokers board games, and travel are the things that keep her out of trouble. She spends winters in Florida and summers up north camping and hunting toads, frogs, and salamanders with her four grandsons and granddaughter.
Connect with J.Q. Rose online at
J.Q. Rose blog
Books We Love Author Page
In this first month of the year, it's exciting to envision good times ahead, to imagine accomplishments and successes piling up like drifts of fresh snow. This year, I'm also looking forward to goof-ups, flops, bungles, epic fails. To dumping garbage, if you will, on all that pristine snow.
Seriously? Seriously! It’s my intention to embrace failure, to view it as a teacher, not an indication of my worth.
This is not an easy mind-shift to make. I've spent most of my life aiming for success (however I chose to define it) and avoiding screw-ups. I've taken risks, but they've been calculated risks that I had reason to believe would turn out all right. For the most part, they did, or at least I convinced myself they did.
So why am I so intent on failing now? It's because there are things I want to try without worrying how they'll turn out. I'm not talking about major undertakings like kayaking across Lake Michigan, just small endeavors that previously have intimidated me.
For example, I have always wanted to draw, but my drawing ability plateaued around age seven. In college, I signed up for an introductory drawing class with a young, hip professor named Larry. For the first few weeks I looked forward to every session. Larry put on a Crosby, Stills & Nash album, demonstrated a technique, gave us an assignment, and cruised around the room offering suggestions. To this day, when I hear "Marrakesh Express," I'm back in that classroom, immersed in the scratch of pencil on paper, the magic of images taking shape beneath my hand.
Drawing was a joy, and I thought I was making great progress. Then one day, mid-way through the term, Larry made a comment to a mutual friend, and the friend (who was not known for his tact) repeated it to me.
"Larry says no one in your class has any talent."
That did it. I finished the class, but my enthusiasm for drawing died. I packed up my pencils and never gave them another thought . . . until recently, when I realized I still have a desire to draw.
It's a modest desire. I don't care about creating realistic likenesses, I just think it would be great fun to draw whimsical, cartoonish figures, faces, flowers, creatures, and objects. I envy friends who embellish their journals and notepads with fanciful doodles that seem to flow from their pens as easily as words.
So I bought a sketchbook and a book called How to Draw Almost Everything, which promised step-by-step instructions in the kind of drawing I want to do. I filled a page with with cartoon-y faces, first copying from the book, then making up my own. It was fun, and the results—while still at seven-year-old level—pleased me. With practice, maybe I could progress to advanced seven-year-old level!
Emboldened, I added bodies. Not too bad. Then I tried animals—squirrels, to be precise. The first one came out kind of cute, but the more squirrels I drew, the more bizarre they looked. Hunched backs, distorted bellies, fierce faces. All of a sudden my seven-year-old talent had regressed to kindergarten level. And not even cute kindergarten level—more like extremely disturbed kindergarten level. I tried clouds, trees, suns, stars, ballerinas, mermaids. All disastrous.
I remembered Larry's comment: no talent.
I laid the sketchbook aside and didn't open it for a few days. But then two things happened. First, I came across a couple of quotes I had copied from The Artist's Way when I re-read parts of the book during a creative slump:
Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.
It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.
A few days after encountering those quotes, I was cleaning out some old files and found the first articles I wrote for the science writing class that led to the internship that led to my thirty-year career as a science writer.
My first attempt, a story on the health hazards of photocopy machine toners, dated August 30, 1980, was covered with red marks from the professor. And with good reason. My lede was leaden, my verbs flabby and passive, and story so full of qualifiers, readers would be hard pressed to draw any conclusions from it. In short, a failed attempt.
Yet if you had asked me—before I unearthed that old story—how I learned to write about science, I would've said it came naturally to me. Clearly, that's not true. I was once a beginner, and only by messing up and trying again did I get better at the thing I ended up doing best.
So I'm giving myself permission to be a beginner at drawing and all the other things I want to try or improve at: writing flash nonfiction, trying more challenging photography techniques, mastering yoga poses that don't come easily. And that means allowing myself to fail and try again.
What do you want to fail at this year?
From time to time over the past couple of years, I have written about the remarkable group of women with whom I spend nearly every Monday morning. We start with yoga—either a class with Behnje Masson, who drives up from Grand Rapids every other week—or a group practice session. Then it's on to breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café, where we appropriate the biggest table (and pull up extra chairs and tables when our group is at full capacity).
I've mentioned how our breakfast conversations ramble, touching on books, movies, politics and passions. But have I mentioned that these stalwart women can also get mighty silly when the mood strikes?
As it did on the morning of the corset. Kathy had discovered the article of clothing—a stretchy, satiny creation from an era when women wore "foundation garments"—among the belongings of her mother-in-law, who had recently passed away at the age of 98. She brought it to breakfast for show-and-tell, but this group couldn't be content to just pass the thing around.
After waiting until the table of men from the nearby church camp had left the premises, Valerie hopped up, undid the corset's side zipper, and began tugging it up over her yoga clothes. The more she wriggled, the more we giggled.
Camera phones came out. Then, like Cinderella's stepsisters, we all wanted to try squeezing ourselves into the magical undergarment.
I don't know about the other yoginis, but I fully expected that slipping it on, I'd be transformed into a svelte, glamorous, Hollywood-worthy creature. Seeing the cellphone picture Sue took of me quickly shattered that illusion.
No matter. The real transformation was that moment of lightness, of letting go of whatever concerns were constricting me and sharing a laugh with friends I've grown to love in the five years since we moved to this community.
Another opportunity to let loose together came up a few weeks ago at Camp Newaygo's annual Christmas & Cocktails event. For the past several years, our group has reserved a couple of tables at this annual women-only shindig. If C&C sounds like a wild and boozy girls' night out, it really isn't—not for the yoginis, at least. We might sip a cocktail or a glass of wine, but it's dancing, not drinking, that's the draw.
In past years, we've rocked out to the tunes of piano woman Alesha Nicole. This year, Camp Newaygo changed up the entertainment with BellyDance Grand Rapids. No corsets here! In fact, in reading up on belly dancing, I learned that when this style of expressive dance first became popular in the U.S., in the 1890s, Victorian sensibilities were affronted by the dancers' uncorseted gyrations. Imagine!
We, however, delighted in the dance performance, especially the part where the male waiters—who had served us so capably and even recited poems composed specifically for each table--took to the floor to swivel and sway with the belly dancers. A few brave women from our group gave it a shot, too!
The rest of us held back until the rock 'n' roll came on. Then we were on our feet for the rest of the night, bopping and twirling against a backdrop of glittery lights.
When the music ended, and we headed out into the cold night, we all glowed a little brighter.
What's the most fun you've had with friends lately?
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. This Wednesday, we're not only near the end of the month, but also nearing the end of 2017. So today, I'm sharing some thoughts I want to keep in mind as we leave this year behind and move forward into a new one.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.
-- Ray Bradbury
Genuine compassion comes from the fact that you see your own limitations: you wish to be kind, and you find that you aren't. Then, instead of beating yourself up, you see that that's what all human beings are up against, and you begin to have . . . genuine compassion for the human condition.
-- Pema Chödrön
On the late-afternoon streets, everyone hurries along, going about their own business. Who is the person walking in front of you on the rain-drenched sidewalk? He is covered with an umbrella, and all you can see is a dark coat and the shoes striking the puddles. And yet this person is the hero of his own life story. He is the love of someone's life. And what he can do may change the world. Imagine being him for a moment.
And then continue on your own way.
-- Vera Nazarian
Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.
-- Rachel Carson
Above all, don't fear the difficult moments. The best always comes from them.
-- Rita Levi-Montalcini
The happiness of life . . . is made up of minute fractions -- the little, soon-forgotten charities of a kiss, a smile, a kind look, a gentle word, a heartfelt compliment.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.
-- Søren Kierkegaard
The human experience of aging is interwoven with vulnerability. And what if it's OK to be vulnerable? What if that's the point? What if wisdom and connection, depth and richness all spring from the shimmer of impermanence? You don't have to pretend the sensations of aging are comfortable, or pleasant, or wanted. But what you can do is be present as it all bubbles up -- the whole goopy, horrifying, colorful mess called being alive.
-- Elaine Smookler, "Anti-Aging? No Thanks," Mindful magazine, April 2017.
A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.
-- Frederick William Faber
Always be a little kinder than is necessary.
-- Sir J.M. Barrie
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Solstice, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Seinfeld's Festivus for the Rest of Us, or some other winter observance, this is a festive time of year. The lights, the sparkle, the special treats, the gatherings with people you love (or try to) all combine to brighten the season.
Now that I think about it, this whole year has been pretty festive. Sure, it's also been stressful in a lot of ways, but there's been a lot to celebrate and plenty of events centered around celebration. Though we didn't set out with this goal in mind, Ray and I ended up attending a record number of festivals this year, from the Baby Food Festival in Fremont to the Blueberry Festival in South Haven.
I've taken HeartWood readers along to some of these events, but looking back over the year, I realized there were several I hadn't shared with you.
So take a break from the holiday bustle and join me as we hit the highlights.
National Blueberry Festival, South Haven
Newaygo Logging Festival
Muskegon Polish Festival
Newaygo Christmas Walk
This is the time of year when year-end lists start appearing. Just the other day, for instance, I read through the list of New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2017. As interesting as it was to see which books made the cut, it was also informative to learn why those particular books were chosen.
As editor Pamela Paul explained in a Books Briefing email, the top ten are selected for overall quality, not necessarily for their relevance to current political or social issues. "These are books we think should and will endure, books that transcend the current moment and will be read for years to come," she wrote. "That said, it so happens that the themes considered in this year's 10 Best happen to touch on very urgent issues: migration, gender inequality, identity, civil rights, Brexit."
The list inspired me to think about the books I've read this year. But when it came to ranking them, I had to agree with author Neil Gaiman, who put it this way: "Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose."
Yet while I'm reluctant to choose favorites, certain books do stand out in my mind—some because the writing was exceptional, others because the topic was intriguing or the story was told in an unusual way.
So I compiled a list, but I'm not sure what to call it. My 10 Most Memorable Books of 2017? My 10 Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2017? Or simply Ten Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About? Maybe I should just go ahead and share the list and let you decide what to call it.
Incidentally, none of the books on my list was published in 2017. Their publication dates range from 1991 to 2016; I just got around to reading them all this year. And like the writers and editors who selected the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best list, I didn't set out to include particular themes, but as I think back on my stand-out books, I realize that issues of identity, gender, clashing cultures, coming of age, and complicated relationships run through most of them.
So now, may I present:
My List of 10 Something-or-Other Books I Read This Year
At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard. I read this memoir just before attending a masters writing workshop in Tucson, for which Maynard was the instructor. Though the story itself is engrossing—at age 19, the author entered into a destructive, year-long relationship with J.D. Salinger—I was equally intrigued with the way Maynard wove disparate strands of her life before, during and after the Salinger affair, into a compelling narrative.
The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard. This is another book I read before heading to Tucson, because Beauregard was also one of the workshop instructors. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have picked up the book, and I would have missed one of the best reads of the year (oops—did I just indicate a favorite?). I didn't think I cared for historical fiction, and I've never read Moby Dick, around which this story centers, yet this tale of Herman Melville's passionate relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne harpooned me and wouldn't let go. Through Beauregard's skillful writing, Melville, Hawthorne, and their cronies come to life as witty, brilliant, complex characters—not at all the stuffy literary figures I had pegged them as. Beauregard even manages to convincingly channel Melville's inner voice without sounding archaic or imitative—an impressive feat of literary ventriloquism (a term I learned from reading reviews of The Whale).
Fakebook: A True Story. Based on Actual Lies by Dave Cicirelli. I downloaded this memoir onto my Kindle for airplane reading, thinking it sounded like a light, enjoyable—perhaps even goofy—read. It was enjoyable all right, but also thought-provoking. The story: Feeling inadequate after reading friends' Facebook posts about their accomplishments and adventures, Cicirelli concocts a wildly uncharacteristic online life for himself, posting about such fictitious exploits as trashing an Amish buggy, running away with the Amish farmer's daughter, and falling in with a religious cult. Before long, the ongoing prank begins to complicate his real life and leads him to explore his true identity, as well as the ramifications of social media.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. After enjoying The Whale, I was emboldened to take on another historical novel. The blend of art, science, and South Seas setting (for at least part of the book) made this story particularly appealing. It's the tale of a sheltered woman who, yearning for freedom and intellectual stimulation, ventures into a world where assumptions are being overturned at a dizzying pace. Like Cicirelli in the book mentioned above, the character of Alma Whittaker discovers much about herself as well as the world she explores.
The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. The sheer economy of this book impressed me. In just six chapters, Franzen immerses readers in his growing-up years in the 1970s. From the torment of church camp to the exhilaration of an elaborate prank involving ropes, pulleys, and a stepladder to accessorize the school flagpole with steel-belted radials, Franzen depicts coming of age in all its excruciating and hilarious aspects.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. Well, for one thing, I just never knew there were so many ways to describe waves without being repetitious. For another, South Pacific settings (including my personal favorite, Samoa!) lured me in again. Plus, winning a Pulitzer Prize and being on President Obama's 2016 reading list were pretty high recommendations. In the words of the Sports Illustrated review, "Reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting; William Burroughs on controlled substances; Updike on adultery. . . A piscine, picaresque coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard."
Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo. Another master of economy, Harjo blends poetry and ancestral stories into her 176-page memoir of early years characterized by neglect, abuse, and confusion. She found solace in painting, music, language, nature and spirituality and grew up to be an award-winning poet and musician. Also, she's from Oklahoma, which wins bonus points from this Okie girl.
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt. In simplest terms, this is the coming-of-age story of a transgender girl, set against the backdrop of transgender rights in this country. Even more, it's the story of a loving family making its way through an exceptional situation. In particular, the evolution of Nicole's father Wayne—Air Force veteran, Republican, macho man—from denial to acceptance to activism—is deeply moving.
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas. Dumas paints an affectionate portrait of her family's life after moving from Iran to Southern California in 1972. From hot dogs to Bob Hope to infomercials for weight-loss products, Dumas and her family navigate the American experience with humor and insight.
Plain and Simple by Sue Bender. A display of Amish quilts in a New York men's clothing store so intrigues Bender, a ceramic artist, she becomes obsessed with learning more about the Amish way of life. After finding two Amish families who agree to let her visit for extended home stays, she leaves her mile-a-minute urban life and settles into a quieter existence where no one rushes through chores to get to the next thing on the list and community is valued more than individuality. Work merges with play, sacred with ordinary. Returning to her regular life, Bender searches for ways to piece together—like quilt patches—her striving, busy nature and the calmer way of life she enjoyed with the Amish.
One lesson she learned really struck home with me: Having a multitude of options often makes life more scattered, rather than richer. Something I'm trying to keep in mind as I head into a new year of possibilities.
Now it's your turn. Tell me about a book you read this year.
Other books I read this year (All good, even if I didn't list them above):
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.