Called to Be Creative, creativity, death, faith, grief

Remember the Best. Erase the Rest?

eraser pencilSorting through my vintage pencils yesterday, I came across this interesting specimen that sports an eraser as long as the pencil itself. What a novel idea, though I’m not sure how the length would fare with actual use, the rubbery tip giving with any pressure. Surely it would break off? My first thought was to search eBay for more of the same, to give out at writer’s workshops. “Erase the Rest. Go with the Best,” is perfect advice for writers. Rough drafts are…well, rough… They aren’t meant to be submitted. I always advise edits and revision. Reading pieces out loud to hear rough spots. Making sure the final manuscript is well-edited before submission, and even then, setting work aside until morning and looking it over again. Good writers only submit their best work.

But what about memories? Should we attempt to erase bad memories, concentrating only on the good? At first glance, that seems sound advice. It stands to reason that if we only think happy thoughts, we’ll be happier. Science supports this platitude. I discuss the elements of happiness and creativity in my upcoming Called to Be Creative

“More grief?” someone commented two years ago when I shared I was working on another book. She didn’t attempt to hide the derisive tone or the eye-roll. The words stung, long after her quick apology.

For the record, I’ve written about couponing, refunding, saving money, friendship, and caregiving. I’ve had hundreds of articles and human interest pieces, unrelated to grief, published in magazines and newspapers.

But, yes, it does seem that grief sneaks into my everyday conversation.  Thanks to this morning’s Facebook’s “Memories on this Day” app, I can say with some assurance that it was eight years ago today we discovered my young grandson’s cancer had returned. According to a heart surgeon later that month, it was also the date my husband’s evening shoulder pain indicated the first in a series of small heart attacks.

Those aren’t pleasant memories by any means, and some might wonder why I even address their “unpleasantness” on my blog.

Those memories are part of me. I am who I am today because of them. As much as I wish my husband had not died that March, or my grandson the following year, they did. I can’t erase the truth, nor should I, considering how those losses changed me.

“Interest in how trauma can be a catalyst for positive change took hold in the mid-1990’s, when the term ‘posttraumatic growth’ was introduced by pioneering scholars Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. Posttraumatic growth occurs when a person utilizes hardships and life trauma to grow in their interpersonal relationships, spirituality, appreciation of life, personal strength, and yes, creativity. This proved true for me on all fronts. I’m no longer the person I was before I lost mother, husband, and a grandson in the space of three years. In the seven years following my husband’s death, I signed six book contracts, coordinated an annual grief retreat, became a public speaker and workshop presenter, established a large network of mentors and friends, and developed a personal relationship with God in the process. My husband foresaw the professional achievements, but no one who knew me just ten years ago could have predicted either the spiritual or the relationship changes, least of all me.” — from “Called to Be Creative”

While it’s true my next book is about creativity, loss and grief do make several cameo appearances. How could they not? The death of my mother in 2010 prompted the idea for the book. If a woman raising ten children in a poverty-stricken household could manage to create, wasn’t there hope for the rest of us? If she left behind a creative legacy in a masterpiece of a well-lived life, how could we do the same? For two years, I delved into research, interviewed people who were living a creative life, and formed two different creativity groups to test my jumpstart activities on. The result is a book that is meant to educate, inspire, and ignite the latent creativity we all carry within us. Grieving my mother was the impetus to write the book.

“The creative process is far too often inspired by our most painful experiences rather than our most inspiring ones. It would not be a stretch to say that for many artists, authenticity and tragedy are inseparable,” Erwin Raphael McManus writes in The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life Into a Work of Art.

If I could erase the bad memories; the moment the doctor closed the door after informing my daughter her five-year-old son had cancer, the sight of my husband in a hospital bed after stent surgery, the five long seconds of disbelief when I discovered him unresponsive in his chair— would I? Would I delete those moments? After all, it is those vivid memories that bring a piercing ache to my chest, a single sob choked back, the threat of tears in a public place.

Perhaps my latest creative project answers that question. When I decoupaged the top of an old desk, I chose photos, newspaper clippings and words that inspired and lifted me. I glued the word Miracle next to my grandson’s photo, not because we were given a miracle healing, but because his presence in our life, however short, was the miracle.

desktop

God was there in all of it…in every single moment. While I thought my heart was breaking in two when my husband died, it was actually breaking wide open, allowing me to become a different person. In those dark months that followed, I knew instinctively what I needed, and I turned to God. He walked before me and with me.

I revel in the good memories of those people who have gone Home before me. I am grateful for the loved ones who are still here. I count myself blessed.

But no, I would not erase a slew of bad memories to risk losing even one good moment. Those memories made me who I am, they are a part of me, and I will not apologize for mentioning them.

 

grace, grief, Jacob, kindness, Random Act of Kindness

Thanks. Giving.

Yesterday, I stopped at Subway to pick up a sandwich for my daughter. In line behind me stood a young policeman. Something about him reminded me of my grandson Jacob, and I immediately knew I wanted to pay for his meal. He protested when I told the cashier to add his total to mine, until I handed him one of the random acts of kindness cards I carry in my purse. “In honor of my grandson,” I insisted. Reading the card, his eyes softened. He nodded, thanking me.

I cried all the way home.

Why am I crying? I initially wondered. The goodwill gesture was a simple one. Not terribly expensive or elaborate. I usually felt lifted through performing random acts of kindness in memory of our sweet boy. Why was I crying?

random act of kindness

Then it hit me.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” the young man had called after me as I turned around to leave. Happy Thanksgiving. 

I was going to be alone on the holiday. Several of my children were scheduled to work, another lives in CA. Since I have to go into work this weekend, we’d all agreed we’d wait to get together in December when Emily visits Iowa with my grandbaby Tommy.

But I wasn’t crying because I was going to be alone.

The tears came because I can’t fix the holidays and make them the way they used to be. Everything is different since David died in 2012 and Jacob the year after. Holidays aren’t the same. I can’t give my children back their dad or repair the deep wound of child loss my daughter and son-in-law live with daily. To make matters worse, I moved away from the two-story home that served as a gathering place to a tiny house an hour or more away from children and grandchildren. Gatherings aren’t as easy or convenient. I can’t make holidays what they were. I can’t fix what was irrevocably broken by loss.

With the unexpected day off alone, I decided to go through letters my mother had written to me, organizing them into binders like I’d done with the letters she’d written to my grandmother. It was the best thing I could have done.

Nov 7 1978 letter

Mom didn’t have any plans for Thanksgiving 1978? I’d always imagined my mother making a big deal out of Thanksgiving, memories of a white tablecloth, fine china, and candles on the table. I can’t recall whether any of that happened on Thanksgiving 1978, or if there was turkey served, or a duck or goose my father had raised. What I can say with some certainty is that I came home from my first semester at college to a family that loved me. And, evidently, my dad didn’t care whether any plans were made. He’d reassured Mom, told her not to worry about it.

Thanksgiving isn’t about the food, the fancy china, tablecloths and candles. It’s about family, and I have family to be thankful for, whether I see them today or not.

Then there is this letter, written in November 1990:

Nov. 27 1990 letter

More than five years after Dad’s death in May 1986, my mom was keenly feeling his absence. Much like we keenly feel the absence of David and Jacob.

What can I do about that?

It’s true I cannot bring them back. Cannot make everything the same. But there is something I am determined to do. I can be a better person because of them. I can honor them through my actions. Live a life they would be proud of. Do good in their name. Give a stranger a sandwich.

Give thanks for having had them in my life.

 

 

beautiful things, creativity, David, death, grief, love, mother, paper, things

What We Keep

What do the things we choose to keep say about us?

I recently shared a mixed media piece I created using objects that had either been my mother’s or reminded me of my mother, a project directly related to the theme of my upcoming book, Called to Be Creative.

Most of the those small mementos had been stored away in drawers and boxes. I love having them displayed where I can see them  now. Since then, I’ve been collecting items that remind me of my husband David; things like the last piece of jewelry he purchased for me, the tiger pin I wore when I was a waitress at Sambos, (where we met), and our 25th anniversary newspaper announcement. I’m planning an artist-facilitated “Memory Mixed Media” program at my workplace in February, when I’ll complete the project.

With all the talk today of the Kon-Mari method of decluttering and the value of simplifying our lives and homes, why save any memorabilia at all? These art pieces take me on a sentimental journey, reminding me of two very special people I loved, the mother who was the muse for my creativity, and the husband who encouraged me to spread my wings and fly in my endeavors.

What does it say about me that when I faced a move to a 760-square foot house in the summer of 2018, I easily parted with thousands of items; pieces of furniture, clothing, hundreds of books, home decorations small and large, but sifting through piles of paper, files, photos, and letters seemed an impossible task? At least two of the things I chose to keep, my mother’s cabinet and trunk, were with the intention of storing other things.

What does it mean that I saved every letter my mother had ever written me, the few my father did, and many I’ve received from siblings?

Until the winter of 2017, I hadn’t re-read Mom’s letters, but as I prepared to write a book chronicling the creative legacy she’d left behind, I did. In fact, I immersed myself in all things Mom, re-reading letters, her memory book, and notebooks, searching for nuggets of wisdom, like this, to share in the manuscript.

mom talents on loan from GodMuch of Mom’s words that appear in the book will be shared in her own handwriting because of what I kept.

In downsizing, I did manage to dispose of hundreds of greeting cards that had no personal message, only a signature. Because I saved others, I still have my very first “fan letter,” sent to me care of my publisher in 1996, after the release of Homeschooling From ScratchI also have the birthday card my pen friend and prayer warrior Pam Pierre sent me on the first birthday I celebrated without my mother, which also happened to be the anniversary of Mom’s death. That was the last note I received from Pam before she herself died unexpectedly.

I also chose to keep the ledger my mother utilized to keep track of her art sales. I’d flipped through those pages in 2017, marveling at her detailed notes and wondering how she kept track of the art work she’d done after the final listing of a courthouse carving in 1996. Surely an artist who’d carefully numbered her pieces, from the first wood carving at age 42 would have continued the tracking? Perhaps she’d done so elsewhere, in a notebook I didn’t have? I wrote about this in my book:

“If midlife means the mid-point of one’s lifespan, my mother hit hers at forty-one, a year before she’d picked up a hammer and chisel to create her first woodcarving. In the ensuing thirty years, Irma “Amy” Potter would produce 544 pieces of art, according to a ledger that tracked each piece. The entries are not dated, but begin with the first woodcarving in 1970 and end with the relief woodcarving that was commissioned for the Delaware County courthouse in 1996. Anything Mom had crafted before the age forty-two—the wall-hangings, pastel pictures, quilts, or homemade dolls—were not included in this tally. Neither was the body of work she continued to produce between 1996 and her death in 2010. That includes countless pillows, teddy bears, baby quilts, Christmas stockings, handmade ornaments, a painting that hangs in Breitbach’s restaurant in Balltown, Iowa, lavishly-designed walls my sister Pat commissioned Mom to paint in 2001 in the lower level of her Treasure Alley consignment store, along with numerous paintings and wood-carvings now displayed in homes of family members and strangers.

I could not begin to guess how many additional pieces of art my mother produced in those last fourteen years of her life, or why she stopped keeping the log, but suffice it to say, my mother was a prolific artist in the second half of her life.”

It was only yesterdaynine years after the death of my mother, as I searched the trunk for memorabilia to include in my next art project, I picked up the ledger again. Studying those pages of neat handwriting and record-keeping, I marveled at the low prices she charged for her work. Hours of toil on an owl carving amounted to a single ten dollar bill. Four small owls she sold to “David and Mary Kenyon” (me), less than that. I wondered again at that last notation. Why had she stopped keeping track? I flipped through the empty pages until something caught my eye; a lightly penciled notation on an otherwise empty page.

pencil notes about muralsSo, Mom had noted her mural work on the walls of my sister’s shop, though without a date. I flipped through a few more empty pages amazed to discover there were further records at the back of the ledger!

This list, unlike the beginning of the ledger, was not in chronological order. Many were numbers from the previous list, but some were newer, including a piece numbered 1040 (suggesting she’d completed at least another 500). An ad from a South Dakota studio was paper-clipped to the page. Did the Eng studio owner order the “carved Eskimo Girl” my mother noted, or did she own a “carved Eskimo Girl” by the artist? I’m fascinated by either scenario. (I later searched the Internet and discovered that Marion Eng, the co-owner, had passed away within days of my mother)

This. This is why I keep these sorts of things; the letters, a ledger, a list. Pieces of paper to some, precious treasures to me. A rosary, a pencil, a penny dated 1978. My mother wrote this. She drew with this pencil, prayed on this rosary. My husband kept this receipt for my wedding ring, he cherished this Valentine from his grandson fighting cancer. He wrote this note proclaiming his love and chose that necklace for me. Each foray into the trunk or cabinet, a warm hug. Each letter re-read, a visit with the beloved mother.

And sometimes, a surprise… a few previously unread pages, a clipping, a question unanswered. Who carved “Eskimo girl” and where is she?

If I ever find her, I’ll probably keep her too.