I wrote two poems this fall, and haven’t moved the pen in that direction since. So one day last week I searched for poetry-writing exercises/prompts and saved a bunch of links to a folder on my bookmarks bar. This way, I wouldn’t have that hurdle the next time I’d try to write.
Finally, the other day I acted on my “10 minutes of writing poetry” to-do list item. Sitting down with the intention to write a poem will likely leave you frozen, so I sat down with the intention to do one of the prompts, that’s it. To get myself in the habit of regularly writing freely in this little notebook (from an issue of Flow), which I’ve dubbed my poetry notebook. To condition myself to be okay with writing shit on the page, so that better stuff can come later.
Although I never intended to show these pages with anyone, today I’m going to share what happened that day—as a reminder to myself of how ideas are born and why sitting to write anything for 10 minutes, no matter how “bad” it sounds, can be helpful to one’s creativity.
One that I’ve used from The Crafty Poet is where you choose a profession or worker of some kind – plumber, accountant, hairdresser, contractor, lawyer, whatever – then brainstorm a list of words associated with this job. I find nouns and verbs work best. The prompt suggests adding in some contrasting terms, which will add tension and depth later. Your title or starting point is to be “The ________________ said you need” and then you write from there, using your word list. My poem “The Mortgage Broker Asks for My Net Income from the Previous Year” in my recent book came out of this exercise.
I chose “teacher” and began to make a list of nouns, verbs, and some contrasting terms, writing whatever came to mind first:
Then on the left-hand page I wrote:
The teacher said you need to study
But I know you must also play
I continued on a new line:
Playing will teach you to share
But then I was bombarded with a bunch of other thoughts about sharing, that you’ll create and entertain yourself, too, plus all the other benefits of play. I noticed there was no rhyme scheme going on here, and I didn’t know what I wanted to say. But instead of halting and trying to write some “good” lines, I let my stream of consciousness continue:
and create and entertain yourself.
You’ll visit worlds never before seen
After writing “and,” my mind focused on “never before seen,” and flashed (you’ll see I never even finished the phrase) to the idea of a never-before-seen movie, a premiere. Almost instantaneously, my mind brought up the contrasting idea of painting a never-before-seen picture.
And then as if a water hydrant had cracked open, all of a sudden my pen began to spurt out a list of contrasting things to do, x or y, consume or create: scroll through memes or invent your own using a template, or even creating your own meme. To stare wistfully at a friend’s photo album from a trip to Costa Rica, or take a walk and marvel at nature’s beauties: a squirrel, a bird, a stone, a leaf.
After I had jotted those down, I turned to a fresh page and wrote this list:
Just like that, I now had the idea to write a poem that compares and contrasts different options of things to do—one which is an act of consumption and the other of creation. Its ideas of creation would hopefully inspire and prompt people to use their creativity immediately after reading.
Later I’ll go back to this list and start to make phrases, seeing what sort of structure the poem might take on.
But what’s important here is that it all began with an unrelated prompt about teaching, and allowing the pen to move. By not censoring myself and letting my pen write whatever words were coming to mind, I ended up drawing connections and now I have several ideas of possible poems to pursue!
I started with nothing, and in less than ten minutes I had ideas.
This is how it begins!
Just move the pen. This is how ideas are born.
Write anything and connections will be made, the mind will turn the soil, and with consistent practice shining down, over time, creations will bloom.
Like many of you, I consider the end of the year to be a natural opportunity to look back and realign—not some sort of finite ending to an “old” me. So I’ve been reflecting, looking back on the year, flipping through old bullet journals, thinking about what needs to be illuminated and eliminated, and even turning over some tarot cards.
A Look Back at 2017
To start, here’s an overview of where I began the year and some of the themes that kept coming up throughout.
Setting the scene, at the end of December I published my atheist coming out story, which is the first time I’d written publicly about all of those events. It was fueled by the push to tell the truth and be more vulnerable in my creations.
Also, both of these events ended up being great ways to reflect and incorporate lessons I’d learned so far that year. The podcast required me to respond on the spot—something I’m not used to doing as a writer, but which provided insightful moments when I went back and listened (and re-listened!) to the episode—and the train allowed me to bring together and express (and share publicly!) many of the thoughts I’d been having as of late about human connection, social media, vulnerability, and unplugging.
The rest of the summer allowed for calm days reading lots from the library and growing my first garden. Highlights were volunteering as counselor at Camp Quest—something that’s been on my “life list” for years and years, and which was incredibly fun and fulfilling—and giving a talk about the Camino de Santiago at my local library. Camp Quest is incredibly accepting of all people from all backgrounds/lifestyles/dietary choices/sexualities/interests/etc., thus it was liberating to be around people who were so bravely themselves.
Throughout August I worked with Meg Kissack (highly recommend!) via her “Get Shit Done” encouragement/accountability experience to create this very site. That project is another which allowed for much reflection—looking back at who I’ve been and trying to articulate who I was at that moment in the present. (And that was just my About Me page!)
Although that project kept me creating and excitedly working towards something, my lowest point of the year fell during that month as well. I felt ready to move on to somewhere/something new (out-of-state seasonal work is what I was looking for), but was overwhelmed by the options. There was a period of days where I hardly left my room and would spend hours in the evening doing internet searches of jobs and potential places to live, feeling lonely and mildly depressed.
It was ACE which got me out of that rut, and within less than two weeks’ time I went from feeling sad, lost, and hopeless in my bed at my parents’ home to living in Flagstaff, AZ with an exciting new community/friends and work life. The people/environment at ACE has only helped me to become more of myself, and even more openly. I’ve been learning how important it is to play and laugh, as well as how good it feels to unplug and hang out in nature.
Aside from the mild depression in August, other challenges this year were losing two prior-good friends (by “breaking up with them” in my mind, to change expectations so I wouldn’t be disappointed at our distance) and mourning that loss of friendship; losing (to suicide) a cousin in May; and being disconnected from a family member.
For over half of the year this family member needed distance from all of us, which was more difficult than I let myself feel. It kind of all exploded out earlier this month when we finally saw each other; I’d been distracting myself from feeling too sad about all of it while in ACE, but the feelings were there, underneath. And now we’re reconnecting, though it’s been prompted by significant health issues with their partner (I actually just pushed my return flight to AZ back two weeks so I can help be caretaker), so there’s a lot still being worked through at this rocky point in time.
Overall, I’ve really improved listening to my hut (hut = heart + gut, à la Alexandra Franzen) and am settling into myself. I look inwards for wisdom/answers/direction rather than doubting myself or turning to outside resources/”experts.” I’m much more comfortable and confident being my true self in a society which doesn’t necessarily share my values/lifestyle/choices. I can see the growth towards my compass directions and I’m excited to continue moving in these ways!
I tracked my computer/internet usage with RescueTime during the year, which you can see in the year’s Resolutions Checkpoint posts on the old blog. My lowest-usage months were the three months I was backpacking in Europe and the three months since I joined ACE. (We work for 8-9 days at a time, camping, so I’m completely off of phone/computer during those times). I was hardly ever on my laptop during our off days, too—as evidenced by the silent blog over here—but it feels really good to be blogging again these past few weeks, so I’ll make an effort to continue doing so even when I’m back on the 8-on/6-off hitch schedule.
Twitter is a platform I’ve enjoyed for many years. Since getting a smartphone, I’ve never had the Twitter app—I only use it on my laptop from a browser. That means to tweet a picture, for example, I’d have to email the photo to myself from my phone, open it on the computer, download it there, and then upload it to Twitter from my computer. It sounds cumbersome, but that’s basically the point. I was much more intentional about sharing photos because there were a few extra hurdles.
Since it’s not on my phone, and since my laptop basically lived in a bin under the bunkbeds once I moved to Flagstaff, I was rarely on Twitter this fall. In October, someone tweeted at me that they’d read my post about leaving Facebook and had been thinking about leaving Twitter. I encouraged her to just do a two-week hiatus and see how she felt. She emailed three weeks later in November saying that she hadn’t been back on, and eventually deactivated her account. I let this soak in and about a week later I thought, why don’t I go on a Twitter hiatus, too? I’d hardly been using the platform lately, and I knew it was a distraction for the mind. I was curious what it would feel like to not have that distraction, plus I’d become more and more aware of how I’m spending my life minutes.
So, I signed out of my account that day, November 24, and haven’t logged back in since! Although Twitter has been excellent for connecting with new friends/opportunities online in the past (i.e. Meg Kissack/Couragemakers! Violeta Nedkova/Creative Rebel Academy!), asking quick questions, receiving poetry prompts, or sending bits of encouragement, I’m going to remain logged out of Twitter as we enter the new year and see how it goes.
I think one reason it was probably so simple to leave Twitter in November was because I’d recently joined Instagram in September. My prime motivation for joining the platform was to interact with the #MomentSketchers community. While in ACE I was happy with my usage—but being home in December with wi-fi all day has me checking the app like crazy. Ah! I have notifications turned off, of course, but being so accessible (it’s three swipes to the right, hidden in an “Other” folder) has me checking multiple times a day. There’s simply no need to do so!
One idea which would help me reduce logins is if I could delete the app from my phone and only use Instagram from my laptop, as I did with Twitter. However, you cannot post to Instagram from a desktop web browser (why!?), so the only way to post is through the phone app. (I’ve looked at a few workarounds but haven’t found a way to post from the website, yet. I use Opera, by the way. If anyone’s found an Opera workaround, I’m all ears!)
Aside from number of log-ins, I like how I’m using the app. I’m choosey about who I follow because I want to control what I see in my feed. It’s primarily sketches and art journal pages. I’m not really interested to be distracted with other people’s day-to-day lives, so I don’t put those in my stream. Following on Instagram is nothing personal to me, it’s simply the content I wish to be consuming when I’m there.
The “Discover” area (which I’ve recently discovered, hah) has been fun, because there are cool calligraphy/painting videos which get me excited to create. So, I’m still working on this one. I know usage will be fine again once I’m back in ACE, but I won’t be living on an 8/6 schedule forever. I will experiment with different ideas to figure out how I can use the platform more mindfully.
Quick Lists: What Went Well / What I Released
These next two sections are mostly for myself for future reference, so I’m leaving out lots of explanation.
What Went Well in 2017
The Writing Sit in June — I took on a 30-day challenge of “sitting” each day for 30 minutes in front of my computer to write. I could write in my journal with a pen if I didn’t feel like working on a post, but I had to show up and do my time. This worked well!
Playing, being outside, and unplugging in ACE
Growing a garden – (Actually starting it when I could have easily not)
Trains on Main
Waunakee Tribune interview
Travel sketching while in Europe / Moment Sketching
Yup, we’re not even to last year’s resolutions yet—but here they are! My three resolutions of the year were originally (1) leap, (2) stretch/yoga/pilates, and (3) unplug/be outside, as well as to continue living my values, creating, and meditating. Here’s where I stand on each of those:
A refresher for those unfamiliar with the term, the idea of “leaps” came from Tara Mohr’s book “Playing Big.” A leap is a decision + action that puts you in contact with those you want to reach/influence (aka involves sharing; is not solitary). It’s a simple action that can be described in a short phrase and completed within 1-2 weeks. It gets your adrenaline flowing and has a question at its center (something you can learn by doing). It gets you playing bigger now, not when you feel “ready.”
My leaps were:
April: Put up flyers at university in Montpellier (and made video advertising the editing service)
April: Submitted a proposal to be an artist for the Trains on Main public art project in town
May: Was a guest on Meg’s Couragemakers podcast
July: Contacted my local library about speaking and gave a presentation about my experiences on the Camino a month later
August: Applied to ACE/AmeriCorps
August: Launched this site
It didn’t feel at all like “The Year of Leaps” I’d originally intended to have (as I mentioned earlier, it was more like the year of becoming myself and trusting my inner wisdom), but I might not have done half of these if the idea of leaps hadn’t been on my radar. So I’m happy with the small leaps I did make, even though I wasn’t ever at or near any “max” capacity of comfort zone pushing, if that makes sense.
This one has been on my resolutions list (either main three or in the “tidbits” section) for several years now, and I finally made it a priority this year! Writing a reflection on 12 years post-spinal fusion in June definitely brought the topic to the front of my mind. So much so, that I made an appointment with a PT (especially since I was on BadgerCare). The appointment was successful—I asked questions and learned, I got specific exercises/stretches to do, and I did them nearly daily for the next two months. (Here’s where I recorded the start of this journey to have photo evidence for progress shots and whatnot.)
During that time I also bought a set of adapted yoga videos, made specifically for people with spinal fusions. These are excellent and I’m still using them today, however they require wi-fi so I haven’t used them on hitch nor much at the apartments in Flagstaff (we had several weeks without internet off and on throughout my first two months). My stretching also fell from my focus these past three months in Arizona, but I’ll turn it around.
Unplug, be outside
I was outside a lot this year—thanks to my personal sabbatical (choosing to be unemployed) and then serving on ACE’s conservation corps in the fall. We’ve already touched on social media usage above, so that’s all I’ll say about unplugging. Yay!
Continue Living My Values, Creating, Meditating
These were three other tidbits I’d thrown in with last year’s resolutions.
Living my values — I kept my personal compass at the top of my mind throughout the year and recorded small moments when I used it to take action in an everyday situation. I’m planning to put together some sort of booklet/PDF with a collection of these stories and examples, to show how the compass guided my daily actions this year.
Creating — I’m happy with the role that Creating has played in my year, and feel the energy only mounting to create more in 2018.
Meditating — Looking back at my Calm app, the first part of the year I was meditating about half of the month, then I was on a roll for every day in May, June, and nearly all of July. It’s September (my move to AZ) when things dropped way down to 3 days, 8 days in October, 4 days in November, and back up to 15 days being home most of December. Part of the reason is that there’s no wi-fi out on hitch, though I could have always done a silent 10-minute meditation, or used an offline meditation. I’ll work on this in 2018!
I did a quick mind map in my journal of what I wanted to see more of this year (though I prefer the term I saw Havi use in a blog post a few days after: “illuminated”), and here’s what I wrote that day:
Lindy hop / dance
Regular writing (read: Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, get a journal I like)
Mindful Instagram usage
Big creations quarterly
Sketching (Weekly? X portraits?)
Music (ukulele, guitar, singing, songwriting?)
Creating (zine, turn off wi-fi)
Leaps (postcard painting, lead a workshop)
[Side note: Seeing it here above, I just realized I haven’t shared yet that I bought a ukulele two weeks ago! A gift to myself—yeah!]
Tarot Card Reading
Then, back in December I was hanging out with my friends Emily and Liz, and we all ended up working on lists of 18 things we want to do in 2018. When we got stuck, Emily suggested we use her deck of these Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards. How fun! I’d learned the month before that a friend’s mother reads tarot cards, plus I knew Violeta Nedkova offered a tarot card reading as one of her services—so anyway, the idea had been on my mind for months and I was excited to have an easy opening to play with them!
So the three of us took turns using the cards to guide questions, and eventually we each made a map of the year (one card for each month, plus an overarching card). Here’s my year:
My guiding card for 2018 was “Sensitivity,” which you can read more about here. (There are longer descriptions in a booklet that comes along with the deck.)
My first thought upon flipping that card over was my increasing awareness about the amount of waste we produce, so I took it as an affirmation that continuing to learn about the zero-waste lifestyle would be a great focus for the year.
It was uncanny, though, because not two days later my friend Cathleen sent me an email which included the phrase “You truly are becoming an aware and sensitive being…” Aha! Sensitive! There it is! I thought.
For fun I later asked the cards what I’ll do after ACE, come April, and I got these gems:
In sum, if you’ve ever been curious to try tarot cards, I really enjoyed this particular deck. All of the possible cards are positive traits, but it’s interesting how seeing a word or phrase (when asking a question or thinking about a situation) can help you view things through a new lens and perhaps leave you with new connections/insights.
18 Things I Want to Do in 2018
Here’s the list I came up with after finishing this exercise:
Publish a PDF of my IBS story
Put together a poetry collection
Use social media/phone intentionally — develop framework and evaluate monthly
Explore counseling / life coaching (as possible paths)
And with the “illumination”/”18 things” lists as warm-ups, I’ve narrowed down the focus (somewhat) for the year (or rather, until I reevaluate and realign!):
I do want to continue learning about the zero-waste lifestyle and slowly implement changes to reduce the amount of waste I’m producing each day. I’ll do my best to learn in public, so others might have the chance to learn / make small changes as well.
As I touched on before, I had a hard time keeping this one into focus with my 8-days-on/6-days-off hitch schedule, but I’ll be back to Arizona soon for three more months of it, so I need to come up with a plan to make stretching/yoga more frequent than it has been this fall.
Making the Magazine Playground Art Journal in August was fun, but I didn’t bring it along with me to Flagstaff. The other day I purchased Amy Maricle’s “Starting Your Art Journal” ebook and have been playing around while I’m still at home (and thus have many more materials available—I only bring my tiny watercolor journal to Flagstaff, for sketches). As I wrote about earlier, I’ve also been curating my Instagram feed to show many art journals. So anyway, I’m interested in developing a regular art journaling practice this year!
Create One Bigger “Thing” Quarterly
Somewhere on her blog I saw Candace write about using this quarterly framework (to make her free “Travel Sketching 101” and “Art Journaling 101” resources, for example), and it really resonated with me. So the goal then is to create four bigger works this year, one every three months.
The first one I want to make is a PDF about my decade-long journey with IBS (now that it’s over). It felt good to capture my atheist-coming-out journey and my spinal fusion story last year, so I want to get this one written before it becomes any more distant. I’d plan to share the PDF freely from this site, in case it should help a fellow IBS-sufferer.
I’ve mentioned two other “bigger things” in this post: a poetry collection and a collection of stories about navigating the year with my personal compass. So those are on my horizon as well! I’ll have to develop a writing habit on my off days in Flagstaff, to chip away at it bit by bit (like when I finally finished that Korean food guide in 2016).
Bits and Pieces
Lastly, a few bits I want to capture here, to revisit on my monthly resolution checkpoints:
Continue to use compass/values to guide everyday moments and monthly reflections
Write in poetry notebooks weekly — If I ever want to publish a collection, I need to have poems to pick from first! I’ll ease myself in with some poetry exercises to get myself regularly playing with words and phrases. (It’s hard to even open the notebook if your endeavor is to write a good poem!)
Monthly/weekly screen sabbaticals — It was either Emily or Liz who mentioned this idea while we were thinking about the new year. I love it! Maybe I’ll have a “social media/screen time” section of each monthly checkpoint, to make sure I’m periodically evaluating and visiting the topic.
100-day project — I really liked doing my 100 Days of Mind Mapping project the end of 2016/start of 2017. I learned so much from it! So I’d like to do another 100-day project this year. (Ideas?)
Past Years’ Resolutions
Finally, if anyone’s curious, here are my year-end reflections and New Year’s resolutions over the past five years:
I reread those posts before I put this one together, and as always, I gained some new insight by looking back that far. I had dubbed 2015 the “Year of Creating,” for example, but I feel like 2017 is when I really created.
In 2014, one of my three resolutions was “I have been struggling with a digestive disorder for over nine years, and this is the year I’ll conquer it.” Again in 2015, a resolution was “Eat a whole foods, plant-based diet; improve digestion.” At the start of 2016, I reflected “Unfortunately I can’t really say that my digestion improved at all during the past year. I should give it more focus this year, but have lost that hopeful “this is the year!” I had back in 2014. And again in 2015.” And yet, eight months later was when it all started to turn around. And 2017 was my year without IBS issues. (Yeah!) This is also the year I went from a primarily plants-based diet to a primarily vegan diet (I’d been eating dairy-free for years, but cut out meat/eggs at the end of July. I still eat honey and do not like to give myself the label “vegan,” though. This is a post for another day, though.)
Here’s one more: In 2015 I wanted to “Develop a daily stretching routine/habit.” In 2016, part of my “Tidbits” section was “See doctors in France about my IBS and back” and “Develop daily stretching/yoga habit.” But it wasn’t until 2017 when I finally saw a PT and began developing a daily stretching/yoga habit. Maybe there’s a two-year lag on these focuses or something!
Regardless, by bringing these desires into focus, I am slowly making my way towards them, as evidenced in the past five years of year-end reflections.
And so, once again, I’m adjusting the focus at this time of year, while taking stock of all of the growth I’ve experienced over the past twelve months.
Okay, dear friends, the space below is all yours—and I would love to hear from you!
Do you do any sort of reflection at the end of the year? If so, what does your reflection look like? And what did you notice this year?
What would you like to illuminate/eliminate in 2018?
Have any recommendations to help with my resolutions?
And anything else you’d like to share/comment on/question, the space below is always available.
Five years back I was doing a “year in photos” post (2012 // 2013) in addition to my year in books. Since 2017 was my first full year of sketching, I thought I’d bring them all together and look back on the year through the lens of my sketchbook rather than my camera.
Above is my first sketch with Moment Sketchers, watching “Parenthood” on Netflix while sick in bed.
While waiting for my flight to Madrid in O’hare, backpack and personal compass in hand, I decided to do my first “out in public” sketch of the trip right there at the gate. I went to a nearby coffee shop and asked for a paper cup, then filled it up at a drinking fountain. I ended up using this very cup for water while painting throughout the following three months!
One day during my week-long Madrid visit I had a lunch and “blue wine” by myself at this restaurant, sketching the whole time I was there and finishing the painting later at the apartment.
This is a card I painted for a friend at Puerta de Alcalá—one of my favorite landmarks in Madrid. It’ll be fun to go back in the future and sketch it again, now that I have a full year under my belt.
I want to point out that above (and below too, actually—hah!) is an example of one of the sketches in my journal that I strongly dislike—it’s just displeasing for me to look at. That said, I enjoyed the afternoon I sat out on the balcony sketching this scene, which is why I’m sketching in the first place. To slow down and appreciate my surroundings and their corresponding moments, while slowly developing a new skill. Later on I’ll point out a few that I’m particularly pleased/proud of how they turned out, though the intention is always to enjoy the time spent playing with my watercolors.
Above is another sketch I really don’t like to look at—but I can still remember that afternoon and the wander walking which brought me to this grassy side of the river. Plus, it’s the action of painting “messes” like these that moved me an inch further along towards “better looking” sketches. The only way out is through. To get better at something, you have to practice where you are now and keep going, even if your results aren’t pleasing to your eye. The act of sketching this scene still gave me experience looking at something and attempting to capture it in pen and watercolor. And it’s the accumulation of such experiences which helped me to paint some sketches I’m particularly proud of later on in the year.
Inspired by paintings in a watercolor journal I’d seen in a gift shop, I tried a new style in the sketch above, skipping the pencil and pen.
The above sketch is one I’m particularly fond of—both because I’m pleased with the result, and also because while sketching it I met a street poet who then introduced me to some of his friends at a nearby café: Urbana Cafe.
One of my first days back—another Moment Sketchers weekend—allowed me to sketch at Parc du Peyrou, the very first place I’d sketched the day I bought my watercolors the previous fall. How fun to look back and compare!
This little sketch above is meaningful to me because it represents an inner shift that had taken place over the past few months, putting my creative pursuits first. That day Damien had to work on his motorcycle (or something), so I decided to take a walk in the nearby garrigue and paint. Later on I reflected that when we’d been together the previous year, I never went on a walk by myself to the beautiful nearby garrigue when we were at his parents’ home. Yet here we were with only a week together this visit, and I was happy spending my afternoon there painting and he was happy to bricoler. Often it’s going back to familiar places (home) and unconsciously breaking from old routines which shows me just how much things have changed underneath the surface.
I’m also proud of the above Pooh watercolor painting, made at the request of Damien’s mother for the nursery she runs out of her home. It was a moment where I could feel I was stretching myself by saying “yes”—stepping into uncharted territories: huge canvas, characters I hadn’t drawn before, knowing it would be on display—but saying “yes” was notably easier this time. (By this point I’d said “yes” to Giovanni in Florence when she’d asked me to paint her, sketched in public every place I’d visited, and continued to nurture a growth mindset when it came to painting. All of this came into play when I stepped up to the challenge and viewed Damien’s mother’s request as an invitation to try something on the border of my comfort zone.)
The very day she asked me about it, Damien and I took the tram into Montpellier to buy a big sheet of watercolor paper at an art shop and I ended up finishing the whole thing by nightfall. To go from “I’m not sure if I can do this” to “I did this!” in such a short timeframe—thanks to taking action—was quite powerful.
Once back in Wisconsin at the end of April, much of my time was spent working on the Trains on Main public art project, but May’s Moment Sketchers weekend got me out painting at a nearby park.
As you can see, it took the June Moment Sketchers weekend to break my month-long non-sketching streak. Thank you, Moment Sketchers community! Above you can see part of my garden, which was a defining element of my summer.
On a trip to Wausau to visit my great aunt Lois, she pulled out her chalks one night and gave my sister and I an art lesson. (Lois is an amazing oil painter and all-around artist.) Above is the fox I drew—another creation I’m proud of!
Painting my friend Chad’s niece (above) is when I created my 100 Portraits project—though again, it was a collection of moments (painting myself way back in January, saying “yes” to Giovanni’s portrait, etc.) which got the idea into my mind and propelled me to begin.
I made the above painting while putting together this site, specifically my Values page. It was quite impromptu—I just had the itch and put brush to paper—so I’m glad that I simply began creating before I had time to overthink anything, and I’m also pleased with the creation.
Here we go, above is another sketch I’m particularly not fond of, but once again, it brings to mind memories of sitting in the sun that day, soaking up live music, and browsing the art stands.
I worked on this desert sketch at a bar while friends gathered there to watch a football game. I don’t like football but I wanted to socialize, so this was a no-brainer for me. Especially after bringing my tiny watercolor kit everywhere with me since January, I didn’t think twice about painting during the game.
The two portraits above, Orion and Charlie, are two I’m quite pleased with. They both turned out better than I expected (based on my past work and what each of these looked like at different points throughout the process), so that’s always a good feeling!
This Grand Canyon sketch fell on the “quick” side for me, since I started it in my tent one night (headlight on) with watercolors working from a picture, rather than sitting on site for 3-4 hours and beginning first with pencil and pen as I usually do. So I was surprised to receive comments on Instagram from the Moment Sketchers community with such high praise for this one. It’s interesting how your view of something as the creator can be quite different from how others view it; I’m open to it all.
I love this girl so much, but after I shared the portrait some family joked that she looked like an old woman. She’s 19 years old! (And cute!) I wondered aloud for a moment if I should take it off Instagram, not wanting to hurt her feelings or something with a less-than-stellar portrait.
But then my growth mindset regained control. (Phew.)
Painting this one was excellent practice. I learned to take more time getting the locations of facial features correct in pencil before jumping to pen (notably the eyes—they should be lower) and I enjoyed feeling gratitude towards Hanna Rose while painting her. And although I’m not over the moon with the final result, it’s loads better than I thought it would be (again, based on what it looked like during some earlier in-progress moments), so I’m proud of what I transformed it into. Finally, this is portrait #12/100! The twelfth watercolor portrait I’ve ever painted. Ever! So looking at it from that perspective, I have no reason to be anything but proud of this!
As if to prove that point (that the practice is helping), I was really satisfied with my next portrait of Colin.
At a dinner party in December, a friend asked if I would do a watercolor of his dog—my first commissioned piece, if you will. This was my first attempt, but I’m in the process of painting a second. My great aunt Lois helped me see that the right eye is in the wrong place, which is what throws it off. We spent the night before New Year’s Eve sketching this dog in pencil at her kitchen table, so that’ll be one of my first paintings of the new year.
Sketching has certainly been an integral part of this year, and I’m looking forward to painting even more in 2018!
What was integral to your year? Have you done any sketching/creating lately?
I read 63 books this year. My original goal was 42, so the final number looks high to me, too. This is, however, thanks to the fact that I was unemployed a majority of the year and spent the summer at my parents’ home, a 15-minute walk from the local library.
Some of the books I read this year were poetry collections and children’s books, so I’m always interested to see how my “pages read” stats compare year to year. Fifteen thousand seven hundred forty-one pages in 2017. (Thanks Goodreads!)
I’ll list them all this year—here’s what I read, beginning in January and ending in December:
Books Read in 2017
“The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember” by Fred Rogers
“Modern Calligraphy: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started in Script Calligraphy” by Molly Suber Thorpe
“Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within” by Natalie Goldberg
“Creative Block: Get Unstuck, Discover New Ideas, Advice, and Projects from 50 Successful Artist” by Danielle Krysa
“Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message” by Tara Mohr
“Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life” by Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Living Color: Painting, Writing, and the Bones of Seeing” by Natalie Goldberg
“Milk & Honey: A Love Story” by Alexandra Franzen
“So This Is the End” by Alexandra Franzen
“On Beauty” by Zadie Smith
“The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake
“Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It” by Gabriel Wyner
“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
“Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder” by Arianna Huffington
“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur
“The Yellow Envelope: One Gift, Three Rules, and a Life-Changing Journey Around the World” by Kim Dinan
“The Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life (Before 8AM)” by Hal Elrod
“Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” by Brené Brown
“The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life” by Mark Manson
“Love Warrior” by Glennon Doyle Melton
“Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed” by Glennon Doyle Melton
“Forward: A Memoir” by Abby Wambach
“Rising Strong” by Brené Brown
“The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking” by Mike Rohde
“Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams” by Barbara Sher
“Brave Enough” by Cheryl Strayed
“Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own” by Kate Bolick
“Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” by Cheryl Strayed
“Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between” by Lauren Graham
“This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” by Ann Patchett
“All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft” by Geraldine DeRuiter
“The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles” by Steven Pressfield
“Janesville: An American Story” by Amy Goldstein
“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott
“This Is How It Always Is” by Laurie Frankel
“The Last Unicorn” by Peter Beagle
“Ariel” by Sylvia Plath
“Dog Songs” by Mary Oliver
“Felicity” by Mary Oliver
“The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
“Ladies Drawing Night: Make Art, Get Inspired, Join the Party” by Julia Rothman
“The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures” by Dan Roam
“Harry Potter et les reliques de la mort” by J.K. Rowling
“Our World” by Mary Oliver
“Upstream: Selected Essays” by Mary Oliver
“Blue Horses” by Mary Oliver
“A Poetry Handbook” by Mary Oliver
“Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person” by Shonda Rhimes
“Worm Loves Worm” by J.J. Austrian
“The Great Failure: A Bartender, a Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth” by Natalie Goldberg
“Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask” by Anton Treuer
“Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time” by Andrew Forsthoefel
“Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative” by Austin Kleon
“Just Diagnosed: The Five Keys to Living with MS from the Driver’s Seat” by Laura Sowinski
“The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith
“Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture” by Shannon Hayes
“Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith” by Martha Beck
“Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone” by Brené Brown
“The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America” by Timothy Egan
“The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less” by Amy Korst
“The Colorado Kid” by Stephen King
“The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir” by Dee Williams
“The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language” by Natalie Goldberg
Top 10 Books Read in 2017
I usually select five or so which I highlight as favorites, but this year I couldn’t get that number any lower than ten (plus some honorable mentions, below). In alphabetical order, I recommend:
I started this historical fiction book when I was visiting my friend Max in Munich and finished it on the train into France—which happened to be so fitting because it takes place in both countries during World War II. (I hadn’t known what the book was about when I began reading.) There’s a reason this won the Pulitzer Prize and spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list; I enjoyed getting lost in the story.
A friend in ACE recommended this one to me, and it was an interesting, educative read. I hadn’t read anything by Egan before, but he has the gift of bringing the past to life, so the retelling of these historical events was lively and engaging.
This story takes place in Janesville, Wisconsin—which lies just an hour southeast of where I’m from. The book follows several families/politicians/teachers before, during, and after the GM plant closing / recession of 2008. Although informative and well-researched, this book—like “Evicted”—is far from dry, filled with approachable and engrossing stories.
In case anyone missed my ooh-ing and aah-ing over this one last year, I’m including it again because I reread it at the start of the year. If you were a “good student” in school, this book is full of practical ways to break from good-student habits we women are taught at a young age—in order to lead, create, and speak up in our communities.
This book articulated so well many ideas I’d partially uncovered on my own. How refreshing to see a fuller picture, though, and to consider ideas I hadn’t yet stopped to consider. For example: What does a country’s GDP really indicate? It’s not a measure of personal well-being, so why does society care so much about a “healthy” GDP? Here’s a snippet from the Goodreads summary:
“Radical Homemakers nationwide speak about empowerment, transformation, happiness, and casting aside the pressures of a consumer culture to live in a world where money loses its power to relationships, independent thought, and creativity. If you ever considered quitting a job to plant tomatoes, read to a child, pursue creative work, can green beans and heal the planet, this is your book.”
This memoir particularly gripped me because walking the country is something I’d thought of doing years ago—though I hadn’t had an idea for a “reason”/name/project and never moved an inch forward. Andrew Forsthoefel did, however, and five years later he wrote a book about his experiences. Not only is the story compelling and a neat way to get an up-close-and-personal tour of various regions of the USA, but the writing is beautiful to boot.
Oh, Natalie. This was the first book I read by Natalie Goldberg, and I couldn’t believe it had taken 28 years for us to meet! After this one I read several others by Natalie throughout the year, and there are plenty more of hers I’d like to read. I’m happy to have gained another role model this year.
2017 Books Read: Honorable Mentions
“Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone” by Brené Brown — I read two of Brené’s other big ones this year as well (“Daring Greatly” and “Rising Strong”), and wanted to highlight at least one of hers somewhere in this post. Her latest book nicely summarizes many concepts I’ve learned over the years—so nothing breakthrough for me, but she’s certainly a helpful voice to have a stage, especially during this political climate.
“Felicity” by Mary Oliver — If anyone’s new to poetry like I am, this Mary Oliver collection was an enjoyable read. (Additional shoutout to Oliver’s “Upstream: Selected Essays”)
“The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov — I read this book because Regina Spektor mentioned it in an interview somewhere. I was also curious to read a Russian author and a fiction book (I usually find myself reading within the non-fiction genre). It was sure interesting! I didn’t understand the deeper metaphors that must have been going on, but the story itself kept my interest the whole time.
“On Beauty” by Zadie Smith — This was my first Zadie Smith book, found on the bookshelf while I was HelpXing on the farm in Italy, and I enjoyed getting lost in her story.
“The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake — This is another one from the bookshelf on the farm in Dozza, and it was also an enjoyable fiction read.
“Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life” by Jon Kabat-Zinn — I finished reading this at the start of 2017 and wanted to mention it somewhere, as it was a peaceful read which nurtured mindfulness.
Finally, if you’d like to see five more years of past year-end book reviews, they are below.
My family typically doesn’t buy each other Christmas gifts—except for my parents, who would get stuff for us four kids—but this year we decided to start doing no gifts from anyone. We all have what we need and would rather spend time together playing games (or watching “The Office”) than to unwrap things our parents spent money on.
That said, since I had the two weeks before Christmas at home and the itch to create, I gave myself a mini-poetry project. I’d select a poem for each member of my family and gift it to them for Christmas.
This way, I’d be exposed to a greater number of poems during the selection process, helping me along on my poetry journey, while also spending $0 on homemade gifts. It was realistic and thus approachable.
I checked out a poetry anthology from the library and borrowed three other poetry collections from my grandma’s bookshelf:
Then I spent a few days browsing through all of them, looking for anything that reminded me of any of my five family members. I got most of my poems from “The Family Book of Best Loved Poems” (edited by David L. George), though I had some honorable mentions from all of the books.
After I had selected a poem for each family member, I wrote it out by hand on white card stock and then painted a watercolor border on watercolor paper. A little snip, snip, glue, glue, and they were done!
Here are the final poems:
Everyone got a bamboo toothbrush from Mother’s Vault along with their poem, since I’d bought two 4-packs back in August before I moved to Arizona (specifically to give the extras out at Christmas).
For anyone who’s new to this idea, by the way, plastic toothbrushes will never biodegrade. Rather, they will fill our landfills and pollute our oceans. Here’s why bamboo is a fantastic alternative (from Mother’s Vault’s website):
Bamboo is the fastest growing plant with natural antimicrobial properties, making it the perfect material to use. Our mao bamboo toothbrush is made from 100% real biodegradable bamboo, features BPA-free bristles and plastic free compostable packing. This means no plastic waste, no chemicals in your body and no waiting for trees to regrow.
That was the first time I’d ever bought a bamboo toothbrush, and after using it for the past three months, I’m definitely on board to stay bamboo!
Finally, I wrote out a poem for myself as well (while I was at it), featuring Mary Oliver’s “Moments.”
Have you given handmade gifts before? Are any of these poems familiar to you? Do any particularly resonate with you?
My dad has been going through the file cabinets downstairs and today he handed me a file to toss or keep up in my room. They’re my old dental records—mostly bills and letters from my root canal and later orthodontics treatment.
I found a gem in that folder, though:
It’s a large booklet from my old orthodontist, which we probably received circa 2001. I don’t recall ever seeing it before, but the illustrations and text were entertaining enough that I wanted to share it here. Enjoy!
Finally, here’s the back cover:
And now that it’s documented here, I’ll be cutting up the illustrations for snail mail fun!
This year something that’s been on my mind more and more is how to support the creatives in my life and those whose work I’m a fan of. While you’ll see below that such loyalty is not limited to monetary support, I’ve been more aware of my purchasing power as well.
I’m getting a little better at checking Etsy when looking for a particular item/gift, rather than heading straight to Amazon (though Amazon is still very much a habit), and this fall I’ve been buying all of my painting supplies from a local art shop in Flagstaff.
It’s important for me to support the values I believe in—not just when it’s convenient for me. This means taking a closer look at my smaller, everyday actions—including purchases—and evaluating how well they align with my values. If we encourage and help the people who are bringing more kindness, creativity, and truth into the world, their impact will expand exponentially.
As I reflect on my year and this particular topic, the people below continue to pop up. I’m excited to share their work with you—because obviously I think they’re really cool people doing great things—but I’m also including some of my interactions with them. The purpose of sharing these is not to pat myself on the back, but rather to provide concrete ideas/examples of what support can look like.
While staying in Venice, I saw an event on Couchsurfing for a free walking tour, hosted by Josh. I’ve gone on many walking tours throughout my years of travel, but this was hands-down the best. Picture the Bill Bryson of walking tours. Josh was incredibly well spoken and pointed out such interesting details and nuggets of history that he had my full attention for the entire three hours. What a joy to experience that tour!
Surprisingly enough, this was only the second time he’d given the tour. Ever. He was trying it out via Couchsurfing to see if it’s something he could charge for, down the line. He accepted tips at the end, so I gave much more than I tip at “regular” walking tours. Then I gave him encouraging spoken words, assuring him that he could totally make a living doing this—the quality is superb.
When I got back to my hostel, I felt propelled to push him along even more, so I sent a message via Couchsurfing with some positive testimony, which he later used to advertise future walking tour events.
Kim Dinan – “The Yellow Envelope”
I’ve been a long-time reader of Kim’s blog, So Many Places, and thus a long-time fan of Kim. Naturally, then, I pre-ordered her book “The Yellow Envelope” late last year before it was released this April.
A few days after returning to the states this spring, I attended her book signing event at Barnes and Noble in Madison. I recommend the book to others and share her Yellow Envelope project on my site.
Meg Kissack – Couragemakers/That Hummingbird Life
I hope you’ve heard me talk about The Couragemakers Podcast before, as it’s been a favorite of mine this year. To help support Meg’s fantastic podcast, I left a positive review on iTunes earlier in the year and often shared episodes via Twitter when I was active on the platform.
Since I align so well with her values and approaches, I also hired Meg as a mentor/coach for two of her “Epic Shit” session offerings: “Get Shit Rolling” (a brainstorming session for multi-passionate creatives) and “Get Shit Done” (an email accountability/encouragement experience). The (tangible) result? This very site! It was an even better experience than I could have imagined, and you can bet I provided feedback and testimony for this amazing Couragemaker.
Luke Thering – Musical Creations
Luke is my younger brother, a wonderful human being who plays piano (incredibly well) and composes (also incredibly well), among other actions. In past years I’ve supported him on Kickstarter and attended performances. What comes to mind right away for this past year was sharing two of his fun videos with others:
“Fire Sale” – Any“Arrested Development” fans out there should check this one out!
“My Best Friend” – In this video, Luke adds accompaniment to Key and Peele’s “best friend” comedy sketch
And while we’re on the topic, here’s a one-minute wintertime video that always brings a smile to my face:
Candace Rose Rardon – Moment Sketchers
Another woman I’ve mentioned a lot this year is Candace Rose Rardon and her Moment Sketchers community (to which I belong). I support her by commenting on blog posts, sharing the community with others (writing about it, talking about it, inviting others to join me for the monthly sketch weekends), and encouraging fellow community members via Instagram comments.
James Hansen – FOUL The Webseries
A friend from high school is creating a webseries called “FOUL,” which he is funding thanks to Kickstarter. I was happy to contribute to the campaign when it was live.
Genevieve Lacombe, a fellow Moment Sketcher, opened her Etsy shop this fall: Atelier Art Postal. I had lots of fun ordering and sending out the adorable postcards seen above. I left positive feedback on her Etsy page and shared the postcards on Instagram too.
This year I’ve also been on the receiving end of such support. From a monetary view, I received $7 in tips from two people via Paypal donation (which I’d added to my Oh No She Madridn’tblog a few years ago—these are the first donations ever received) and I sold six copies of my Korean Food/Restaurant Guide on Gumroad. (Hooray!)
Just a few days ago this new blog received its first comment (thank you Eva!), and that’s definitely something to celebrate.
I have a folder on my desktop where I keep screenshots of tweets, emails, and other encouraging words from friends and fellow humans. I added several clips to this folder throughout the year and I’m grateful to everyone who contributed.
I appreciate the friends and family who came to the Trains on Main reception this summer, and all of the supportive words I’ve received—while travel sketching, speaking at the library, chatting with friends, via snail mail, etc.
How to Support Creatives in Your Life
As we move into the new year, I’ll keep an even closer eye out for ways to support the creatives I value. Remember, there are many ways to support creatives in your life—no matter how new/far they are on the journey. Here’s a starter list:
Comment on a blog post / Instagram post
Write a letter/email of encouragement
Recommend an encouraging book/post/podcast/community to your creative friend
Share one of their articles/creations/event info. on social media or by email
One day while walking through some paths about 10 minutes from my apartment in Flagstaff, I stumbled upon a labyrinth.
I’d never seen nor walked a labyrinth before, so I appreciated the plated stone at its entrance—which included some background information and directions:
Labyrinths are an ancient part of the cultures of Egypt, India, Europe, and the Americas (including Hopi & Tohono O’ odham).
“How should I walk the labyrinth?” There is no “right way” to walk a labyrinth, but you may find this information useful:
There are no forks or choices on the single path to the center & back out.
Most people walk the labyrinth without talking, and prefer not to hear others talking.
Most people prefer the 2-way journey (to the center and back out). Most people sit in the center ring to reflect for a few minutes.
When people come as a group, individuals usually start about a minute apart.
It’s OK to stop and pause anywhere. It’s also OK to get bored and quit.
As long as you respect the labyrinth, the land, and other walkers, your way is right for you.
Couldn’t some of those instructions be beautifully applied to living, as well? It’s okay to stop and pause anywhere. It’s okay to get bored and quit a journey or pursuit. As long as you respect yourself, the earth, and fellow humans, the way you choose to live your life is right for you.
There are plenty more labyrinth metaphors to draw, several of which were written about in a journal of visitor comments that I discovered under the nearby bench, wrapped in a big ziploc.
It’s provided by the Flagstaff Community Labyrinth group, who also transcribes all visitor comments and posts them on their site. While I much prefer paging through the entries and seeing the visitor’s handwriting, I’m impressed by and grateful for everything the labyrinth community does to offer such a reflective space to the public and to share it.
I’ve walked the labyrinth several times during my first three months in Flagstaff, each providing the calm reflection and guidance I needed at the time, and I look forward to many more visits in 2018.
Have you walked a labyrinth before? Where was it? Would you like to install a labyrinth in your community?
As soon as this arrived, my mind built it all up into a mountain: the gear I needed to get, the amount of money I’d need to spend, the things I had to get done in the next seven days. It felt as though I were leaving the next day, even though I had a full week of unscheduled time to get everything done. Bit by bit, the world conspired to get me here with ease.
It all began with the backpack. I searched Craigslist for large backpacking backpacks and found two that fit the bill. One was listed for $75 and was green, the other was $90 and beautifully blue. They were both good brands and hadn’t been used very much. I sent an email to both, explaining that I’d just been accepted to work on the conservation corps and needed a backpack in the coming days.
The woman selling the blue backpack was free to meet on Friday morning, but the woman selling the green backpack ended up being free to meet Thursday evening. Not only was she available earlier, but she suggested meeting at the public library in my town, meaning she would drive in from out of town. To boot, she texted on Thursday to say the pack also came with a rain cover and 2.5 L water bladder, which she hadn’t mentioned in the Craigslist post. As this information trickled in, my desire for the blue pack faded. I biked to an ATM to get cash, certain I’d be making several Craigslist purchases in the next few days—this green backpack being the first.
We met at 6 in the library parking lot. I had brought some full water bottles, books, and my yoga mat along so that I could try on the backpack with some weight in it, as recommended by my friend Emily.
I put in the assorted items and tried on the backpack, not a clue as to the correct way to size it. It seemed to fit just fine, the rain cover and water bladder were awesome extras, and I was anxious to check off the first item of my mountainous to-do list. “I think this’ll work well, I’ll take it!” I said.
The woman replied, “Great, because I’m giving it to you.”
I opened the car door, pulled out my wallet, and began to count out the twenties I’d gotten earlier in the day. “Twenty, forty—
“No, I mean it,” she interrupted, “I’m giving it to you. It’s a gift.”
“Noooooooo” I said, my tone dropping in confused disbelief.
“I insist,” she said.
Was this really happening? My emotions were swelling
“Thank you,” I mustered.
As the words left my mouth I could feel their gross inadequacy. I took a step towards the woman and gave her a hug, doing what felt right in the moment.
“Have fun on your adventure,” she said as she headed back to her car, leaving me in awe at the Craigslist kindness I’d just been gifted.
The following day I emailed a Craigslist seller because I was interested in his North Face sleeping bag (15 degrees). A brand new one would have cost $270, but he was selling his for $130. Once again, I briefly explained why I needed the sleeping bag. He replied to my first inquiry saying that he’s actually from Arizona!
We met the next day at a public high school and ended up knocking $10 off his asking price. Then, he gave me recommendations of where to visit and explore while I’m based in Flagstaff.
After buying the sleeping bag I drove to Farm and Fleet to see what they had available. It was a disappointing visit which didn’t help my to-do list, but Gander Mountain was on my way home so I decided to swing by, as this was their big store closing sale. I missed the turn, though, which meant I was even closer to my route home. It was getting later in the afternoon and I needed to be home within 45 minutes, so I considered going straight there. For some reason, though, I exited the highway, got back on, drove back, and made the turn.
Upon walking in I saw that the store was already 3/4 empty and was only continuing to get picked apart at each passing minute, so I didn’t expect to find anything on my list.
After a quick size-up of the remaining shelves, I made my way over to the shoes just for a glance. And there they were: leather boots, non-skid bottom, ends above the ankle, and no mesh on the tongue or ankle. They were half a size smaller than I usually wear, but they seemed to fit all right and my toe didn’t hit the edge. Plus, the closing special? 70% off! I bought $120 boots for $37.
(Update: These boots were also steel-toed, which, I later learned at ACE orientation, are absolutely not recommended. “No steel toe!” I wore the boots on my first hitch and they worked fine, but I now have a pair of non-steel-toe hiking boots to use on my second hitch. I found them in the “Commons Closet” of another ACE house here in town, meaning they were free!)
Finally, near the end of my gear scavenger hunt, I was still searching for women’s work pants. Emily recommended Duluth Trading Company in Mount Horeb, so I drove the 40 minutes to get there on Saturday, hopes high. In the end they didn’t have my size in the women’s work pant they were currently carrying. The woman helping me suggested altering or mending the pair to make them fit, but I didn’t want to spend $70 on a pair of pants and need to make modifications so quickly.
I drove to the west side of Madison and tried on men’s pants at Menards. Then I texted my aunt to see where she gets her work pants. “Farm and Fleet,” she responded, but sometimes she finds some at Savers or Goodwill, she added.
So I drove to the nearby St. Vinny’s and headed straight to the women’s pants rack. I started flipping down the line of size 4s, immediately moving past any regular pants or non-thick jeans. I couldn’t believe my eyes when my hands felt a pair of black pants that were super thick—nearly the same material as the work pants I’d just tried on at Duluth Trading Company.
I look at the tag:
Duluth Trading Company work pants – $7.99
I grabbed them and headed to the fitting room. They were a little short, but would definitely do for one pair. What crazy luck!
Then I stopped at Goodwill for kicks, since it was just a few minutes away and I was already out and about with mom’s car. Once again I went straight to the size 4 section of the women’s pants rack, and oh my goodness, the stars were aligned. Here I found two pairs of Duluth Trading Company work pants and jeans, both size 4 and this time they were the correct length. $7.99 each!
Although these work pants fit great everywhere else, I couldn’t get one pair buttoned but still bought them. The following day while out at my grandma’s I showed her my finds. As soon as I mentioned I couldn’t button the pants, she said, “Well just put on a button extender.”
A button what?
She went into her bedroom and came out with two cute little button extenders that go right on to the button of the pants. I could now button the pants!
I had all that I needed and still three days to go.
I reflected back on how panicked I’d felt merely four days earlier, and then marveled at all of the people, generosity, and serendipitous connections which had helped me acquire what I needed for this next adventure. I knew the frenzied feelings had only been a hindrance when I let them surface the first day, and I let this serve as a reminder to breathe and continue to take it one step at a time.
On Monday evening Emily and Liz came over for one last art night before I took off. Emily showed me how to adjust my backpack correctly and also brought along some old clothes up for grabs, which have already turned into staples for me here: yoga pants, a sun hat, a warm fleece, socks. At one point during the evening, Liz reminisced back to when she’d flown to New Zealand to study abroad in college, and how her body had manifested all of the nerves she’d been feeling on the way to the airport. I could relate; I’ll never forget the feeling of my stomach dropping as I took that first flight to Madrid in 2009.
But as I boarded the bus to Chicago early Thursday morning, there were no worries, stomach drops, or fears. My thoughts returned to amazement at how quickly my trajectory had changed. And despite the sudden shift, I felt completely at ease—thankful for the people and experiences which got me here.
All day in route I was nothing but excited to see what Flagstaff looked like from the ground and what ACE would have in store for me. Where have the butterflies gone? Have I done this so many times that I now know to my core everything will work out? Or am I so confident in my ability to adapt and find the good that there’s no room for doubt?
Or perhaps, this time I had the entire universe conspiring along to get me to Flagstaff.
Well, universe, we made it.
What It Cost
Here’s a rundown of the required gear and how much I spent to get myself to ACE here in Flagstaff:
Backpack – $0
Sleeping bag – $120
Boots – $37
Rain pants – $40
Wool socks – $18
Sleeping pad – $100
Sleeping bag liner – $40
3 pairs of work pants – $24
4L MSR Dromlite bag – $30
Headlamp – $9 Subtotal – $418
Bus to Chicago – $30
One-way flight – $150
Checked bag – $25
Shuttle to Flagstaff – $53 Subtotal – $258
“Smile on three: One, two— stop leaning Rebecca,” said my cousin.
It was Homecoming of my freshman year in high school, and I was having my first of many pictures taken in my black dress.
“I’m not leaning,” I replied.
“Then why is your hip sticking out?” she asked.
What was she talking about? I looked in a mirror.
My cousin was right: My right hip was jutting out as if I were leaning heavily on that side.
But I wasn’t leaning at all.
That’s the day I “discovered” my scoliosis—an abnormal curve of the spine.
The diagnosis was eventually confirmed by a doctor, and by February of my sophomore year I was seeing a chiropractor twice weekly. She gave me stretches to do, but my curve was at a severe degree; it had been caught late, now age 15.
I do remember my chiropractor mentioning a brace, but I never got one and I’m not sure why we (my family and I) didn’t explore this option more seriously. Would a brace have even made a difference this late in the game to a curve of my degree? I don’t know. But if I were to receive the news of scoliosis today—knowing what I know now—I would try whatever I could before turning to surgery.
But in 2004-5 we went on to visit a few different doctors before settling on a course of action. One of these doctors could lengthen limbs, and boy was I excited to meet with him. You see, we’d found out my left leg is slightly shorter than the other, so I thought if he could just make my left leg that much longer, doing whatever it is that he does, it would even me out and make everything straight again—easy as magic. I had zero concept of how unnatural it is to cut into human skin and perform any type of surgery, let alone the toll it would take on the body to heal itself.
Despite my fantasies of having two legs of equal length, the limb lengthening doctor didn’t think that was the route we should go. But to address the length discrepancy either he or one of the other doctors gave me a quarter-inch lift to wear in my left shoe. I wasn’t really instructed on how long I should wear it for; looking back it felt more optional if anything. I wore it for a time, then summer came around and flip flops adorned my feet—a shoe unfit for a lift. I know the lift is still lying around my room somewhere today, 12 years later, but I don’t wear it. (Should I be wearing it post-fusion? No idea.)
Rather than surgically lengthen my leg, the consensus was that I should have a spinal fusion. This would involve screwing a metal rod to my spine and covering the area with bone graft so new bone would grow around the fused area. I don’t recall having any sort of discussion about this with my family—it was more like a doctor recommended it, told us a bit about it, and then we picked a date: June 24, 2005. I was on board, but again, I hadn’t considered what this would mean for me long-term, nor all of the risks involved.
My main concern was getting my driver’s license, as I’d be turning 16 in April but wouldn’t be allowed to drive for six weeks after the surgery. I strategically scheduled my driver’s test for early June, two weeks before the surgery, and much to my relief, passed.
The operation would also eliminate all possibilities of becoming a future gymnast, which was a non-issue. No more botched cartwheel attempts or forward rolls in our PE’s tumbling unit for me.
Another concern brought up when learning about spinal fusions was my ability to have children. The doctor assured us I’d be able to give birth no problem with a fused spine. What I didn’t consider, however—too far from my mind at the time—is how a spinal fusion would limit positions for conceiving said child.
With no red lights, onwards we moved.
The Fusion and Hospital Stay
I had to give blood twice a few months before the surgery, which they would save and later put back in me after the spinal fusion. The first time I went to give blood, my iron count was too low. So we scheduled another date and two weeks prior I started taking iron pills (which made my poop turn green) and ate lots of broccoli. This second time my iron level was just high enough for a self-donation, but didn’t meet the level required for donation to others.
Sophomore year ended, I passed my driver’s test, and before I knew it June 24 rolled around.
The day prior appeared to be like any other summer day—I watched a Hilary Duff movie (“The Perfect Man”) with my best friend, had another friend over, and went to my neighbor’s house to watch the guys play Halo 2. My older brother and grandma returned from a trip to Ireland that evening, and then I imagine I tried to get to bed early.
I woke up at 4 the next morning and we left the house around 5. My surgery was scheduled for 7:30. I don’t remember feeling hungry or anxious, just being cold in a hospital gown and finally getting wheeled into a room.
When I came to, I was in a room with nurses and my parents. I couldn’t move my core. I had a button I could push for the pain, which pumped drugs straight into me but wouldn’t let me surpass some sort of daily limit. I was also connected to a catheter, so my pee went directly into a bag.
You’d think the most critical part would be over, now that the surgery had ended, but the event which marked my hospital stay happened in the hours after. I was watching “Pirates of the Caribbean” on the TV, and a nurse came in to give me a bag of my blood. She hooked it up, and all of a sudden everything went fuzzy, then black.
When I came to, there was a pile of doctors and nurses around me, one holding an oxygen mask over my mouth and nose, and my parents had terrifying looks of utter shock on their faces. Apparently the nurse had put the blood through the same line where they’d been giving me narcotics—without clearing it—so I overdosed on narcotics and my central nervous system shut down. My parents said I’d gasped for breath and then stopped breathing. They thought they were watching me go, right then and there. I was going, but the nurses/doctors gave me oxygen, stopped the blood transfusion, and then I came back.
Later that day I felt well enough to eat a popsicle, which I promptly threw up. I attempted to sleep that night, but hardly got any shut eye.
On Saturday I woke up around 6 a.m. and watched “A Cinderella Story.” That day’s events as recorded in my journal include:
Dad, Luke, Jacki came around 10 a.m.
Watched “Finding Neverland” but didn’t really watch it.
Read a little of “The Dark,” listened to CDs.
Got flowers from my chiropractor and staff.
Sat up in chair.
Watched “The Princess Diaries 2.”
Luke and grandma played cards.
Rolled on right side, not comfortable, rolled on back.
Took medicine, got washed up.
Yes, sitting in a chair was hard enough to warrant a line in the journal, and getting washed up involved a nurse wiping every inch of me with warm cloths.
That night was the episode I remembered most vividly. It was 3 or 4 in the morning and I had been sleeping on my right side. Suddenly I was incredibly uncomfortable and wanted to move, but couldn’t find the call button for a nurse. The pain was intense, but I also couldn’t find the green button to push for the narcotics. I was in such a panic, unable to move or do anything to get comfortable, trapped in my own skin. My newly damaged spine made my body feel foreign; nothing moved as I’d known it to. I couldn’t bear the pain nor frustration. Eventually I was able to wake up my mom—who had been sleeping on a cot next to me—and a nurse came in, but dang that was a long night.
On Sunday I sat in a chair again, got washed up, drank 7-up, took lots of pills, got a balloon and beanie baby from someone, had family visit, ate toast and juice, and then had my first walk.
It was very exhausting to stand and walk around. The nurse pushed my IV pole along, and I used all the energy I had to put one foot in front of the other.
Then an aunt and uncle came to visit, followed by my best friend MB and her mom. I went on a second walk with MB, returning to find another aunt and her friend were there to see me, armed with gifts of magazines, word puzzles, Pez candy, and a DVD.
When everyone left I napped for a while. Upon waking, I saw that my brothers and mom had used the window paint in this children’s wing to repaint the window in my room. My dad took my brothers home around 5:30, then I napped again, got my hair washed, ate mashed potatoes, and slept more.
Around 9 I woke up and went on a third walk, then watched “Desperate Housewives,” brushed teeth, and couldn’t sleep well that night either.
Monday was more of the same, though with notable progress made:
Woke up, sat in chair, took pills.
Walked and measured height (5’6”).
Walked up and own stairs.
Got hair washed in a “salon.”
Ate some mac+cheese, used bathroom.
Epideral pad bleeding.
Slept on side.
They changed back pad.
Apparently being able to walk up and down stairs was what needed to happen before they let me go home. A nurse suggested we try it on the walk to get my height measured, and she seemed pleasantly surprised that I was able to do it, albeit slowly and with concentration. And that’s why at 5:30 that evening they released me from the hospital, a day or two earlier than we’d been expecting.
Before the surgery I slept on a top bunk, so my parents brought it down and set the bed in the middle of the rug/reading area of my bedroom. I most remember spending daytime next door in my parents’ bed, however, as they had a small TV in their bedroom. I watched VH1 and MTV each morning, completely captivated and transported by Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound,” which had just come out that summer and always made the day’s top 20. I had stacks of library books next to the bed as well.
I wore a fabric brace that Velcro-ed shut, to help keep me from twisting or turning. I couldn’t shower, so we got some wet shampoo to keep my hair under control. I had a prescription of oxycodone and oxycontin for the pain, but I stopped taking them early on. I couldn’t tell much of a difference with or without them, so I figured I should stop taking them. I had little idea at the time just how sought-after the remains of these two pill bottles would be, but just last month I took them to a drug drop off here in town—the same number remaining as when I stopped taking them 12 years ago.
Later in July a friend had a birthday party and bon fire at her house. This was my first big “outing” post-surgery, approached with caution. I wore my brace under a sweater and my mom both drove me there and later picked me up.
After six weeks I got to drive again, and had a check up with a doctor sometime around there. At one point he asked me “Do you have any numbness or tingling sensations in your back?” My mind grabbed onto the word “tingling,” to which I immediately answered no. Moments later I realized this was when I should have said that yes, my lower back is a bit numb. But I didn’t say anything, and it’s remained somewhat numb ever since.
Aside from that, post-fusion changes were small and I adjusted quickly. Lying on my stomach was no longer comfortable, for example, so I stopped doing that. I was now sure to sunscreen the long scar on my back whenever I was outside in a swimsuit. Years later when I first tried yoga, I quickly learned that poses like upward-facing dog and cat pose were absolute no-nos. I’ve slept on a Tempur-Pedic pillow ever since my fusion, bringing it along for all of my year-long stints overseas. For a while my grandpa would always ask “How’s your back?” whenever he saw me, and I’d be surprised (and annoyed) we were still bringing this up—as the fusion didn’t really affect my day-to-day teenage life after the recovery.
Life with a Fused Spine
As I finished high school, the whole spinal fusion quickly became old news to my new health problem of IBS-D—which would go on to cloud my world for nearly ten years. The funny (?) thing is, I’m fairly certain all of those digestive problems started because of the spinal fusion, or at the very least my surgery must have been a contributing factor. No one told me that all the antibiotics I’d been given would kill good bacteria in my flora, so I did nothing to restore it after the surgery. I didn’t yet know about prebiotic foods, probiotics, gut health, whole foods, The China Study, industrial farming, etc.
I’m now thankful the IBS happened, because it prompted self-education and experimentation through which I learned an incredible amount, flipping my view of Western health/medicine on its head. Over the past decade I’ve changed my diet from cans, frozen meals, and processed foods to a primarily whole foods plant-based diet. Very long story short, during most of my young adult life I was struggling to get my IBS under control, so there wasn’t much energy to consider physical health beyond that—meaning I wasn’t too aware of my movement.
I was most active in the no-contact sport of ultimate frisbee over the years, playing as everyone else except that I was cautious to avoid collisions and purposefully held back from “laying out” to dive after low discs.
In 2014 I brought attention to my tight hamstrings by beginning a 100-day stretching project with the goal of touching my toes. I made it to day 77, increasing my flexibility along the way, though never eliminating the gap between my finger tips and toes.
That fall I took my first Pilates and Zumba classes at our local village center. I especially liked Pilates and found I had quite a weak core to build up. There were certain twisting/rolling exercises I would modify or substitute for others, and although she’d never had a spinal fusion student before, my instructor was really good about telling me what to replace with what to keep my core in a neutral position.
When I signed up for a second session with the same instructor that winter, she requested a letter from a doctor saying it was okay to do Pilates with a my fused spine. I went back to my chiropractor all these years later and she tested my movement then cleared me for Pilates. (She encouraged it, actually, commenting on my weak core muscles.) I suppose it was during these years that I began to pay more attention to my movement and posture.
The Roost raises the screen so my eyes are looking straight out to the top 15–20% of the screen when I’m sitting straight up, rather than having to crane my neck down or slouch as I’d been doing. (I can tell a huge difference and highly recommend a Roost for all laptop/tablet users, by the way.)
I’ve notably increased the amount of mindfulness in my life over the past five years, and I’m now much more aware of my body’s position each day. I make sure to avoid slouching or putting pressure on the lower and upper ends of my fusion.
While working on a small farm this spring, for example, I was often tasked with cutting olive tree and vineyard branches into small logs and tinder. I did much of this chopping on my knees or sitting down, depending on the tool I was using. It probably looked silly, but standing and hunching over to cut said branches would have been terrible for me. I have to keep my top half straight. (For any fellow fused spine folk, I recently discovered that Julie Wilkins has very helpful videos on YouTube, such as “Home Activities After Spinal Fusion”and “Yoga With Spine Fusion.”)
I’ve read a bit on online forums about people older than me with spinal fusions who later had to have hardware removed/replaced. I’ve only read a bit and not extensively because these types of Google searches really freak me out. I absolutely do not want another surgery, but 16 was so young. If I live to be 90, let’s say, that would come out to 74 years living with the spinal fusion. I don’t think anyone’s ever had my exact type of fusion for 74 years, as medicine is always advancing, so this huge unknown worries me. Could the hardware break down inside of me or cause some other big problem in the years to come? What’s the longterm effect of having cut through my skin and installed this hardware along and into my spine?
I don’t like to think about it, so I don’t. Instead, I stay in the present and pay attention to how I move, taking responsibility for what I can control now—in an effort to prevent any future slicing and dicing.
12 Years Fused
When first researching for this post two years ago (the original idea was to do a 10-year reflection), I happened upon a story about a teen girl who wore a back brace to reduce the curve of her scoliosis. She probably cursed having to wear it every day at school, but my first thought was “I wish I had done that!” My whole understanding of health and Western medicine has changed drastically from age 16 to age 28. It feels strange to know one of my past selves so willingly allowed surgeons to alter my body in this irreversible way, to cut it up and put it through so much without trying to fix it via a more natural course first.
The word “regret” has only ever come to mind in my life when looking back on this particular past choice. Who wouldn’t wish they could move freely and bend like once before? It would be nice to be able to twist in yoga and Pilates, to shake my hips while dancing, and to have a greater variety of passion poses. But at the same time, if the surgery was indeed the main cause of my IBS, I’m thankful these struggles allowed me to learned so much about whole foods and being mindful of my body movements. Would I have learned all of this another way, without the spinal fusion? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.
Whenever I’ve reflected on whether or not I regret the surgery, those feelings are soon followed by twinges of guilt. You can’t feel bad just because you can’t turn certain ways and bend your back, I would tell myself. You can still walk, run, ride a bike, basically do anything you want—just a tad bit differently. It seems a very small price to pay when you consider all the things that could have happened to me. I have my sight (with glasses), I still have my awesome metabolism and size, my hands, arms, legs, feet, knees, heart, lungs—everything else seems to be functioning as it should. And that’s merely the physical. So among all of my good fortune in life, it feels foolish to regret having fused my spine together.
But still, every now and then, I wonder.
Update: In July 2017 I had a great appointment with a PT who offered specific exercises and stretches to improve my flexibility/muscle where I need it most. I also purchased a set of ten yoga-for-spinal-fusion videos by Julie Wilkins called Adapted Yoga. A full write-up about this new part to my journey can be found here.