Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Grief Scarf

One night during the early weeks following my husband's death, I listened to a radio interview with Michelle Obama promoting her most recent book. Part of the conversation delved into how she had used knitting as a way to fend off depression and anxiety during Covid. Up to that point in the discussion, I had only been half-listening, not really paying attention, but at the word "knitting" I perked up, curious to learn how something as basic as yarn could turn your mood around. I was also intrigued that a First Lady could share such common feelings as anxiety and depression.

Until I discovered--and became more interested in--beading and art, I loved to knit. Over the years I made both my husband and myself countless pullovers, cardigans, vests, and of course, scarves. My main times to pick up yarn and needles were Sunday mornings when we watched motor racing on TV: Formula One, Indy cars, Moto GP, super bikes. Honestly, my husband would have watched lawn mower racing if it had been televised and the mowers went fast enough. Sitting beside him cheering on his favorite drivers I grew to love the sport too, but found I needed something like knitting to feel a little more productive during those endless lap-after-lap battles. After a while, though, we eventually had enough knitted clothing to last several lifetimes and I began to simply enjoy the races without the need for extra activity.

But after the interview with Mrs. Obama, I thought, well, maybe knitting would be fun. I had the needles, and a trip to the craft store was easy enough. The next morning I got in the car and drove to the nearest strip mall, quickly finding a soft, lilac/lavender chenille I thought would be perfect for a winter scarf.

When I got home is where things became more challenging. Of the dozens of needles I had packed away, the only size I didn't have was the one the yarn called for, Number 9. Too bad, I thought, 8.5 will have to do.

I didn't have a pattern. No problem, just cast on some stitches, right? I knew that if I knitted a standard stocking stitch it would result in a curled scarf that could double as a pool noodle, and garter stitch seemed too easy. Moss stitch would be the one for me. Which would also require that I concentrate, be aware of what I was doing at all times, and be willing to unpick any wrong stitches; none of which I was very good at right then and there.

Never mind, I told myself after the first several mismatched rows. Just carry on no matter what happens, exactly how I was living my life at that point. I was becoming familiar with making mistakes and taking countless missteps. Much of the time all I could do was laugh through my tears as I imagined my husband's mock-horror at my inexpert attempts to get by.

But "get by," I did. Last week I finished the final row of the scarf, and people, it is the worst thing I have ever made in my entire life. And you know what? I don't care. Every dropped stitch, gaping hole, wrong pattern twist is a witness to how I'm surviving, and I'm proud of myself. I'm trying. I'm doing my best. I've knitted a scarf that when it's scrunched around my neck not a soul will know what's "wrong with it."

 

There are so many lessons woven into this strange little piece of handiwork, first and foremost being that even in the depths of despair, when I was certain I couldn't walk across the room or turn on a light to see what I was doing, taking some kind of action, any action, took me to the next step. After that, I took another, and another. I kept going.

I learned that creativity doesn't have to be grand. I might not have the energy or focus to work on my new novel, paint a series of watercolor forests, or submit my last manuscript to sixty different agents, but I can still do something. Knitting is soothing, meditative, a rhythm of knit one, purl one, I find calming regardless of the order I follow. Working with my hands helps me to watch movies and news programs more easily. (For some reason I previously couldn't sit through more than ten minutes of any program without feeling restless and scared. I'm glad to say that's well behind me now.) 

More than anything else, the Grief Scarf, as I call it, taught me that mistakes are unavoidable. They happen. I have the choice to fix my stitches if I think they are important enough (I don't), or I can start over and use my new-found strength and knowledge to try a fresh outcome. Which is precisely the path I've chosen, starting all over again with a new project I've named the Happy Scarf:


This time I've got the right size needles and I'm going with easy and fail-proof garter stitch. I chose a bright yellow inspired by the Japanese practice of kintsugi or kintsukuroi: mending broken items, mainly pottery, with gold. In Japan, when an object such as a valued tea cup breaks, molten gold is poured between the cracks, making that object more beautiful because it has a history, including flaws and accidents. It represents, as I read in one online article, "a life well-lived." A worthy goal if I've ever heard one.

Thank you as always for visiting. Keep stitching!

Monday, January 16, 2023

My Year of Letting Go

 

 

 My husband died on September 9, 2022. My world has completely fallen apart, and I must learn to build it back again. Piece by piece, just like my husband would have wanted me to.

My husband was the handy one, a self-taught engineering genius with sixteen patents to his name. There wasn't a thing he couldn't fix whether it was a twelve-foot high molding machine or a broken buckle on my shoe. But for all his mechanical skill, a broken heart might have been too great a challenge, even for him. Then again, when I think really hard about it, I know he would have come up with an answer, probably something along the lines of, "Don't just stand there crying, get to work! Come on, dry your eyes and grab that hammer." Yep, he was a man of action.

With the onset of his illness however--stage 4 liver cancer that suddenly appeared the day we came back from a trip to Texas--I found it next to impossible to continue my usual creativity-based schedule. On the good days when my husband was sleeping or watching TV, I managed to do a little drawing or some editing on my WIP, but blogging, and on any kind of regular basis, was an activity that left me cold. How could I blog when all I wanted was to bury myself alive?

In the early years when I started my blog, my initial intention was to help beginning writers. As time passed, it grew to include art-making, beading, travel, a variety of topics to encourage creativity in anyone who stopped by to read, no matter their level of skill. To round out the theme, I always wrote two kinds of annual "bookend" posts: one listing my personal highlights of the old year followed by a related post listing the things I hoped to achieve for the New Year ahead. Included with my list was also a chosen word for the year. 

For the start of 2022, I wrote out a few simple goals (most left unaccomplished) but more importantly, I wrote that I was going to be open to whatever life brought to me. To accompany my new attitude, I chose with no sense of irony whatsoever one of the happiest words I know: optimism. Seriously. Optimism. I'm still reeling from the disconnect, wondering, "what on earth was I thinking??"

And yet. There might have been something profound life was trying to tell me, a message that perhaps wasn't applicable to 2022, but certainly can be considered for 2023. Optimism might be the word telling me that if I can put aside my fear for five minutes, it might be the very thing that will keep me from utter despair. It might be the only word I will ever need to help me stay focused on all that is good and worthwhile.

During the worst of my husband's illness, I would try to help him sit up in bed and drink some water or juice by holding onto the glass for him. My reluctance to hand the glass over without hovering to catch it would drive him nuts. Repeatedly he would say, "Let go!" and I would say, "No, YOU let go." This would go back and forth until one of us gave up and the water spilled everywhere and we were both drenched, when we would start all over again. Eventually it became a sort of game, something--as crazy as this sounds--we would laugh about.

One afternoon though, after changing the blankets for the umpteenth time, I found myself thinking about what "let go" really meant. In my heart I knew, as much as I hated it, that my husband had to let go of life. It was inevitable, a kind of "if not today, then tomorrow" type of knowledge. I knew the longer he remained alive, the longer the suffering would continue, for both of us. I had to let go of wishing this wasn't happening; let go of my expectations of what our life was "supposed to be"; let go of the business we had spent twenty-seven years growing together. I had to let go of, well, everything.

Nearly five months later, I'm beginning to understand that letting go isn't the horror I thought it would be, and that optimism can help in ways I never thought possible. Optimism is helping me let go of the big things along with the small: accepting that we no longer share a creative work space that allowed for car restoration along with novel-writing; that we're not going to order cocktails at the top of Sandia Peak ever again, or share a plate of potato chips while we watch Jeopardy!, or that we won't be moving to Portugal, an idea we toyed with while drinking our cocktails.

In other words, I've started to let go, not of my happy memories or even my grief for that matter, but letting go of hyper-vigilance, fear of the future, constant worry about what will become of the material things I've had to release, the business being number one. As I let go of what were essentially terrible burdens, I am discovering that there is now room to keep the things my husband would never want me to be without: Gratitude for the wonderful life we had together--forty-eight years!; belief and reliance upon the power of creativity to pull me through to wherever it is I'm going; and my strong belief that each one of us has an undying purpose and reason for existing in the first place.

One of the last entries in the journal I kept while I was still actively resisting the idea of letting go turned into a poem of sorts:

Wild Horses

I wish wild horses could take me away,

that I could fade into ink

and never return, just spread out 

fainter and fainter until I was only a

landscape, emerging from a stranger's pen.

 

Re-reading these lines, I realize the horses have always been by my side, waiting patiently for me to give them free rein. It's time I let them take me into a new chapter, the one I promised my husband I would eventually enter and that I would make the best of. For that promise alone, I will let go and begin to write not with sorrow, but with hope.

Thank you for visiting and thank you to everyone who has continued checking in on my posts even when I wasn't here to write them. I appreciate you all so much. Have a happy and creative New Year. I'll be back.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Creating With the Seasons, Part II: Writing


Happy Spring, everyone! Taxes, allergies, never knowing if the weather is hot or cold or simply freezing . . . Yes, it's a wonderful time of the year.

In my last post I wrote about finding ways to use the various seasons as a creative direction for my artwork, especially for the days when I was stuck wondering what to paint. For today's post I want to discuss how to use those same ideas as writing prompts, starting with:

Poetry. Although it's now a few days behind us, April was National Poetry Month and one of the ways I celebrated was experimenting with some haiku. You might recall learning to write one in school, something teachers love to promote as for some lucky reason children seem to excel at the form. In case you missed out on those lessons (say it isn't so!) haiku is a traditional three-line poem from Japan consisting of a five-syllable first line, a seven-syllable second line, and a third and final five-syllable line. One of the most important elements of haiku is that ideally there should be some mention, or at least a reference to the seasons. A good book on the subject that encourages daily haiku writing is Clark Strand's Seeds from a Beech Tree. Even the title to me implies a seasonal sensibility as I imagine all those birch seeds flying around in a spring breeze. Beautiful!

Scenes in your novel. Winter storms; mosquito-infested summer camping trips; constant autumn drizzle . . . all of these things can enhance both the mood and the action of a well-written scene. Not only can seasonal details add plenty of drama or humor, but they can also be what spurs the action: a summer cloudburst destroying a high-society wedding, or the fatal consequences of SADD (Seasonal Attention Deficit Disorder) in a Yorkshire-based murder mystery.

Writing an entire short story or novel set in one specific season. Limiting your timeline to one specific season can both tighten your pacing (e.g., a goal that must be achieved during an explosive summer abroad) as well as amplify your story's theme, e.g., end-of-year gift giving can be the catalyst for a wealth of character reactions, from over-the-top shopping sprees to deep and dark financial woes, all to be dealt with during a single season of joy.

Use the seasons to bookend a story or novel. Begin your story in spring; end in spring twenty years later. Choosing a significant, stand-out season to begin and end a narrative can provide a satisfying sense of closure for both your characters and your readers.

Give your characters passionate reasons to love or hate an individual season. We all have favorite times of the year and so should your characters. Consider how the seasons might affect your characters' health, happiness, and/or plans for the future. What if they need to travel at a certain time of year, but their choices are blocked when they encounter overbooked hotels and flights which then spark entirely new challenges and obstacles to overcome. Or perhaps they suffer from "anniversary syndrome," every year reliving some terrible event from a distant summer that leaves them devastated and struggling to meet any challenges at all.

Seasonal or holiday foods. In some of my previous posts I've written about how much I enjoy books that include descriptions of food or cooking. I like authors who feed their characters as opposed to those who insist their heroine save the world with only a cup of coffee to sustain her, and she drank it three mornings ago. Showing your characters eat or prepare seasonal foods for any given holiday or time of the year is a great way to add metaphoric as well as literal descriptions of culture and character attitude (positive and negative) as seamlessly as possible.

Bundle up, or dress down for comfort. Be sure to keep your characters warm or cool with appropriately seasonal clothing. Then again, if you really want to torture 'em, ensure that they've got it all wrong: a padded raincoat in August; a summer dress for a winter party. I know from experience how difficult it can be to not have the right outfit at the worst possible time. Years ago I traveled to New Zealand in the middle of their winter (American summer) and due to an airline snafu I ended up staying in hot, humid Tahiti for two weeks with a suitcase full of sweaters and socks. Fortunately it was easy enough to buy myself a pareu and a new bathing suit to beat the heat and not stand out like a misinformed tourist, but think about how much trouble you could create for a fictional character in a similar situation. Heat rash, anyone?

Seasonal Journals. There's nothing quite as special as a journal dedicated to capturing the beauty and essence of the seasons. Whether it's an art journal, a travel journal, or a nature or gardening journal, writing down your impressions and activities amidst the changing of the seasons is a journal to keep forever.

Tip of the Day: In case you're considering writing a holiday novel, children's picture book, screenplay, or a series of craft articles for magazines, keep in mind to write and submit your material well in advance of a seasonal publication date. Six months to several years in advance of your chosen holiday is never too early. Some tricks to help with writing about fruit cake while you're sunbathing can include decorating a section of your writing space with a miniature Christmas tree in July, or doing the same with beach towels, sea shells, and resort posters in the depths of winter. Never let what the thermometer reads hinder your imagination.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Creating With the Seasons, Part I: Artwork

Happy Spring!

For everything there is a season . . . A time to write, and a time to paint. A time to be totally inspired and a time to completely lose it--

Hello, everyone! Time, where does it go? It seems like forever since I've had "time to blog" or do much of anything else for that matter.

My time shortage started early this year when I found myself fostering a stray kitten at work. I was well aware that 2022 was the Year of the Tiger, but the last thing I ever expected to find outside my back door was a tiny, hungry baby cat. She was adorable and I would have done anything to keep her (impossible at this current point in my life). Despite my lack of space and ability to be with her as much as I wanted, I did everything I could over a six week span to get her healthy, playful, and ready for adoption. It was one of the most fun things I've ever done and I still miss her to pieces, but now that I know she's in good hands and safely onto the next stage of her journey, it's time to get back to work: writing, painting, and yes, blogging.

Prior to kitten-sitting I had been planning to write a post about my intention to draw and paint within a series of some kind for the year. I'd often heard of artists painting a series of pictures as a way to go deeper into a single subject or theme and also bring some unity to their work. The idea appealed to me as I thought it could bring more focus and discipline to my daily sketching practice, focus that would help me produce more finished, polished pieces. The trouble was I didn't know what kind of series I wanted to try.

I tossed around a lot of ideas, e.g., choose a building I liked in town and paint it multiple times from different angles; create a series of pictures based on the displays at the dinosaur museum; sketch people and dogs at the dog park. Unfortunately, none of these ideas felt like something I wanted to work on more than once. Yes, they were interesting enough on their own, but to paint over and over? I was worried I would become so bored after my third attempt to sketch the downtown Wells Fargo building I'd never want to open my sketchbook again. It wasn't until my husband suggested I try basing some work on the seasons of the year that everything fell into place.

Suddenly I had specific goals to pursue. My first step was to sit down and make numbered lists under the broad headings of each season, brainstorming subjects that fit each particular time of the year. After that I created lists of sub-categories, for instance, under the heading of "autumn" the first images that came to mind were acorns and squirrels, sweaters and scarves, bonfires, steaming mugs of tea, rainy skies, and beautiful trees. Once I had those things listed I continued mapping entirely new ideas for a seasonal series based on each subject, e.g., squirrels in summer, squirrels in spring, squirrels bounding through the snow . . . it eventually became quite endless.

Another advantage to this plan that I liked besides never having to decide "what to paint" again is that, at least for me, the seasons signify different emotional and spiritual states to explore. Themes such as renewal, growth, and letting go, topics I would usually write about are now themes I can express through color and composition, showing joy or even a little sadness through a seasonal lens. 

Right now my first attempts to go with the seasons revolve around my sketchbooks and a small painting-a-day practice. I'm currently concentrating on trees including the quick sketch I've put at the top of this post, but soon those trees will be full of birds, flowers, squirrels and even kittens. I only hope I have enough time each day to keep going!

Tip of the Day: Spring is in the air, a great time for both writers and artists to consider starting a nature journal. Always keep in mind that you don't have to draw or paint to create a beautiful journal. Instead of drawing, try some collage using items like seed packets, handmade papers, or fabric. Experiment with dipping leaves, sticks, or pods in ink or paint and printing your impressions onto your journal pages, or paste in the actual plant materials. Take photographs and add them to your words. 

And speaking of words, that's exactly what I'll be taking a look at in my next post: Creating with the Seasons, Part II: Writing. See you soon!

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Finding a Path for 2022

© creativecommonszero / dreamstime.com

It seems impossible that it was exactly two years ago that I last met with my various writer's groups, weekly drawing classes, and my illustration groups. Two years! Since then I've done everything in my power to believe the situation was only temporary and that one day we would all go "back to normal."

Today I realized I won't be doing that any more. And that's not such a bad thing. In fact, it's fantastic!

Moving away from my hopes and dreams for "normal" means that I can be open to change and new beginnings. Best of all, I can do it my way without fear of getting it wrong. In other words, I can experiment. Hanging on to "normal" means being stuck. This year I want to run with scissors.

At the same time, I do want to put my scissors to good use, cutting out a new path of possibility and creative endeavor. Some of the projects I'd like to work on this year with a renewed sense of joy are:

1. Update my website to include my beaded jewelry for sale.

2. Publish The Abyssal Plain.

3. Submit my novel, Ghazal, and my novella, The Seaweed Collector, for publication.

4. Finish the first draft of one new manuscript (not entirely sure yet which one this will be).

5. Continue painting and drawing, but with more focus on working within a specific series. (More about this in my next post.)

6. And of course, continuing with this blog.

2022 is going to be my year of optimism with no looking back. I'm letting go of both the good and the bad experiences from the last twenty-four months and I'm looking forward to the future, whatever it brings. 

Tip of the Day: Vision boards have always been my go-to way of establishing my goals and plans for any given year. For 2022, however, I want to change things around a bit. Instead of putting together a vision board, I'm going for a vision quest. Rather than searching out a dozen or so magazine cut-outs to represent or symbolize things I already want, I'm going to let the images search for me. I want to discover things I had no idea I wanted or that even existed.

Starting with a blank journal, every time I come across a magazine photograph, headline, or article that speaks to me for even the most trivial or surprising of reasons, I'll cut it out and paste it on a page. I'll let the journal develop like a mysterious road map inviting me into unexplored, but much-needed territory. I can't wait to see what happens--I can't wait to see where I go. Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Highlights of 2021

© creativecommons / dreamstime.com

Happy Holidays, everyone! Another year closing down, with plenty of time for reflection, celebration, and even a little joy. We can do it!

Around this time of year I always like to make a list of my most exciting or interesting highlights, the things that made the year special and/or memorable in some significant way. 2021 may still have been a difficult year to navigate, but there were definitely lighter moments, more feelings of optimism, and more opportunities to socialize than we had in 2020. Throughout it all, the one thing I truly learned was that we can always look for the silver lining, no matter what, and the following list comprises my own, personal top twelve:

1. I finished my work-in-progress novel, Ghazal. This was a big deal, I can tell you! What started out several years ago as a NaNoWriMo exercise took over my imagination and wouldn't let me go. I had to know more about my characters and their stories, and here we are today: a whole, finished manuscript.

2. In October I opened my first Etsy shop selling my handmade beaded necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. You can see them all by clicking here. Come on over and let me know what you think!

3. I got the chance to see some good friends again. After months and months of isolation, it was a major event to meet up in a cafe and share our various creative projects and plans while eating some great food. Just like we did in the "old days."

4. Albuquerque Urban Sketchers took the plunge and resumed their monthly meetings. I wasn't able to attend all of the outings, but the ones I got to participate in were both educational and inspiring.

5. Spring brought the opportunity to attend a Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum. It was great to rejoin the world through history and culture. And of course the artwork was spectacular.

6. I started work on two new book ideas. One is a mystery, the other is a historical Southern Gothic. Currently they are both messy first drafts that only make sense to me (sort of) but they will be interesting projects to carry with me into the new year.

7. My local library became so overloaded with donations they had a massive sale that continued for most of the summer. 50% off books that were originally priced at no more than one to two dollars each meant I got an entirely new shelf of excellent art books.

8. I signed up for and took several more Domestika online art classes. One of my absolute favorites was about starting and maintaining a sketchbook practice taught by artist Sorie Kim. 

9. And thanks to Sorie I filled several sketchbooks this year, exploring many new ideas, mediums, and subjects. Who knew I liked to draw frogs and lizards so much?

10. Which then led me to buy professional watercolors for the first time ever. I tried two different brands and with completely different results. It was an interesting experiment as I had no idea high quality paints could vary so wildly from brand to brand. In the end I had to discard one as being absolutely horrible: the colors faded into the page, no juicy life or sparkle, just very disappointing to use. On the other hand, my second brand, Winsor and Newton, gave me everything I was looking for: strong and vivid color from the first layer and a "brightness" that encouraged me to keep painting.

11. This might sound a bit desperate, but in July when we were able to go mask-free for a few weeks I got a professional haircut at a genuinely fancy-pantsy salon. At the time I went it was my first cut in over 18 months and it was a true joy. Due to renewed restrictions I haven't been back since, but it makes a nice memory. I'm sure to go back one day!

12. Caved and subscribed to Netflix. I'm still undecided on how good a move this was, but with my local movie theater having closed down permanently and not much else happening in town, TV is a welcome relief after a day of work, writing, and sketch-booking. There have certainly been some good series and films (amongst a sea of questionable others) and it was fun to not be the only kid on the block who didn't know what Squid Game was. Television, for all its faults and propaganda, can certainly be a comforting way to unite with distant friends, family, as well as total strangers and I was glad to take part.

In between all of these highlights there were of course plenty of simple but wonderful days painting on my balcony, enjoying a cup of tea, and walking through my amazing neighborhood. It may have taken a bit of digging, but there was always something meaningful and unforgettable to be found, each and every day. It was a year well spent.

Tip of the Day: The next time you find yourself seated by the fire or just beside a frosty window, be sure to have your pen and journal with you. Take some time to record and consider what made 2021 a year to remember; the highs, the lows, the things that made the year unique. I hope you'll discover there were many more moments of joy than you may have realized at first and that you'll be motivated to keep creating more. 

Wishing you all a brilliant 2022!

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Introducing my Etsy Shop: Valerie Storey Designs

 

At last! I'm so happy to announce the opening 

of my Etsy Shop: 

Valerie Storey Designs

"Inspired by the past, created for today."

Earrings, bracelets, necklaces and pendants -- I have a brand! Everything is handmade by me, one-of-a-kind, never to be repeated and all with free USA shipping. 

Here's a small selection from the sixteen items I'm currently listing:


 

Although quite a few of the individual beads I've used were purchased right here in Albuquerque, many of them are from all over the world, collected during my travels to places such as Taiwan, Portugal, and Spain. I'm always looking for distinctive, unusual beads whenever possible, and often these are only available in very small quantities, guaranteeing that whatever I make from them will be one-time-only pieces.

Similar to the way I write and paint, my approach to beading depends a lot on the magic of randomness. I start with a handful of color (oh, how I love color!) and let the beads find their own way into a design often inspired by my many years spent visiting museums and galleries. Art history has always had a big influence in everything I do, inspiring my novels such as Overtaken and The Great Scarab Scam, but it's still a huge surprise to me to see how a piece will turn out: Egyptian, Etruscan Revival, mid-century modern: every bead tells a story!

One of the most surprising things to have come out of all this is my new appreciation for photography. Etsy requires a wide variety of product shots, and I have to admit the process was difficult for me to learn--I almost gave up at one point I found it so hard. But after several days of trial and error, I think I'm on the right track to figuring it all out: light boxes, satin drapery, as much daylight as possible . . . confusing at first, but like all creative endeavors, definitely worth pursuing.

Anyway, I hope you like my efforts and that you can visit my shop in time for the holidays! Over the coming weeks I'll be listing new items, so please stay tuned.

Tip of the Day: While I will always consider myself first and foremost a writer, art, beading, and working with hand-built pottery has enriched my life beyond measure. I can't imagine a day going by without at least a few minutes sketching or working on a new design for a bracelet or pair of earrings. The strongest advantage of having these varied interests is that they really do feed each other, especially when I'm stuck or hit some kind of road-block. Going back and forth between, say, a difficult scene in a particular chapter, to figuring out if blue beads look better with gold or silver findings, keeps my imagination active and open to receive the answers I need. Better than working solely on one project until you reach potential burn-out, always try to have another creative outlet ready and waiting. You'll be glad you did!