Monthly Archives: March 2012

Creative Productivity Equals Happy


Marie Digby, Unfold

Most of you out there that read this blog know that I lost my job last October. I’ve made no secret out of the amount of stress the job caused in my life, particularly trying to maintain it while struggling with a plethora of health problems. What I might not have adequately conveyed, however, is that there were very few times when I was actually performing my job where I was unhappy. Sure I hated the politics of my department; the bitchy coworker who wouldn’t say hello back to me in the morning; the fact that the longer I struggled with my health the more I was held personally responsible for my condition. Yeah, I loooved having cancer, it got me out of sooo much work. Riiight… Insert picture of me rolling my eyes here. But if I divorce all of that stuff from the actual work I was doing, it was very rewarding. It certainly kept me busy and I felt that what I did was meaningful; that I had a purpose. I know that there are kids out there that I have effectively changed their outcomes for the better.

There were times, however, when I was terribly depressed. Looking back on it, I don’t think a lot of that had to do with the job, my health, or my life’s circumstances. Sure, those things didn’t help, but I think the real problem (at least emotionally) was the result of a byproduct: I had stopped being creative. My job left me emotionally and physically exhausted. I had no energy to create at the end of the day. My health issues can be all-consuming, leaving me hospitalized or in bed for weeks at a time. For me stagnation breeds despair. And so, for the last five years, without even realizing it, I’ve been mourning the loss of my creative self.

Today I was driving around completing my to-do-list and was reflecting on my more positive frame of mind. I find that I handle a lot of things better now that I’m not working. I’m not sick any less, but when I’m in pain or unable to complete daily tasks, I am more accepting of it. I just handle it better. I was thinking of why that is. I definitely feel less stress, but I’m not sure there is actually less stress in my life. As I said before, my health hasn’t really changed. And instead of worrying about work, I worry about making ends meet, whether or not the insurance is going to cover my health costs, whether we’re going to be able to pay the mortgage on time, if my “bro-son” Zach is safe and eating well. There’s still plenty to stress about.

What has changed for me is that I feel productive in a way that I didn’t feel even when I was working. Social work can be like walking on a treadmill that is set on a steep incline and is steadily getting faster. Eventually it’s all you can do to stay on the track. There is no progress, at least none that you can see in the moment. The more you understand the job, the longer your lists become. If you aren’t overwhelmed then you aren’t doing it right. Now my days consist of almost purely creative endeavors. Projects I can start and finish.

One of the many purposes of this blog is to have a place where I can share my processes and creations. I have several things in the works right now. As I finish each of them, I’ll be posting pictures, how-to directions, and any incidental craziness that might have ensued during the creative process. Thanks to a friend from high school, I’m converting an old claw-foot tub into a sofa for our living room. Pinterest has me playing around with watercolors again. My stained glass projects are always ongoing. And Ben and I are making a tea cabinet together. Such collaborative efforts lead to hilarious exchanges that end with me throwing my hands into the air and yelling, “Ben, your mechanics are ruining my aesthetic!” Then we laugh and come up with a hundred new ideas that will also cause us to lovingly bicker about design and functionality. Oh, and I’m knitting and cross-stitching again. I have curtains to hem and a great idea for a full-length mirror mosaic for our bedroom. Just thinking about these things makes me happy. Combine this new sense of purpose with a loving family, a supportive husband, and my two little dogez and I’ve got to say: life’s pretty good right now.

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Losing Uncle Frank

The last two weeks have been kind of heavy. There certainly has been no shortage of topics for this blog, but everything feels so loaded. I find that sometimes I need a little distance from things before I can write, especially topics which conjure feelings of anger or anxiety. Blogs on my upcoming cancer tests and the workings of student loans and social security are no doubt in my future. But right now all of this seems overshadowed by the fact that our family has recently experienced a great loss.

This past Saturday our Uncle Frank passed away. Most people I speak to think he was my father’s brother. When I explain that he was actually my great uncle, they seem confused at the extent of our grief. Perhaps to most people my age the loss of a great uncle would be blip; something to remark on and move passed. I have a lot of friends who barely knew their grandparents, so I can understand the confusion.

I remember in one of my early social studies classes, maybe in the fourth grade, learning about cultures that lived with their extended family. My teacher remarked on how different we as Americans were; how we grow up, move away, and live on our own. Although in some respects this is true, I remember thinking even then that maybe my family was a little different. Sure, my mother and father had their own home, but I spent a lot of time with my extended relatives. My mother was one of six, and her mother was one of twelve. I was ten when Nana passed and felt the loss of her keenly within our family. I felt like I knew Aunt Shirley, Polly, and Phillis. There was Uncle Bill and Uncle Joe and Uncle John and Uncle Harold. My grandmother’s siblings always had time for me and treated me like a favorite niece. I was never shooed into another room when they sat around the kitchen table and spoke. Instead I was taught to be respectful to adults; not to interrupt. I think because of this I didn’t go through a phase where older people scared me.

My relationship with my father’s side was a little different, but there was no less love. Aunt Karen showered me with affection. Grandma Sauers taught me how to cross-stitch and paint ceramics. There were trips to the beach in the summer and sledding in the winter out at the farm. Every Christmas we would see Uncle Frank or he would send packages and cards to my family with beautiful ornaments for the tree. I remember looking at old photos of me as a baby and asking my father who was holding me. Dad would tell stories of his Grandmother and Grandfather Ritter with great affection. He explained that Uncle Frank was a great artist.

As the years passed Uncle Frank spent a lot of time with my family. He and my father had always been close, as they seemed to share a quiet understanding of one another. When his partner passed, we saw him more and more. He would come to dinner and smile as people chattered on around him. Adrian and he would talk about art. Nathaniel took to visiting and helping him with the house and lawn when he could. Alex and Uncle Frank were two peas-in-a-pod. Alex could make Uncle Frank laugh like no one else.

 So when I talk about losing Uncle Frank, I’m not talking about the death of a distant relative. For us, he was a fixture in our family. To me he was like having another grandfather. When he was became too sick to take care of himself he came to stay close to us, and we all saw him frequently. He was there for us when Alex had his accident and he was one of the few people in attendance for my wedding.

Me and Uncle Frank.
July, 07, 2007

I’m having trouble winding this blog up. Anything that I could say seems trite at this point. We all loved him and he will be greatly missed, but that isn’t the half of it. A family in some ways is like a machine. Each person is a piece and serves a function. When one of those pieces is taken out, it’s not a matter of just replacing them. In fact, each piece is handcrafted and there are no duplicates. It takes time for the machine to rebuild itself and function when a part goes missing, and even then there is the memory that the machine once functioned differently. I guess we’re all still just picking up the pieces that are ourselves and trying to figure out where the gears and grease should go.

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/eveningsun/obituary.aspx?n=albert-f-ritter&pid=156579330

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Thoughts on Oklahoma:

So I’m home after a solid seven days away. It’s the first full week I’ve gotten off since our honeymoon five years ago. Back then I was shadowed with phone calls from doctors with test results and recommendations for treatment. This, in contrast, was a worry free and relaxing time, and for that I am incredibly grateful. But I have to admit feeling slightly jealous of the kissing couple at the Houston airport on Sunday. Someday, Ben and I are going to get to fly somewhere, just the two of us, with no worries. I’m willing it to happen.

Although I missed Ben and the dogez terribly I had a pretty fantastic time. So here are some of the highlights:

I read approximately 1,500 pages of Anita Blake goodness. Sure, the plots are getting more and more lost as Blake’s burgeoning sexuality comes to the forefront. And yeah, she’s a bit of a Mary Sue. But damn if Laurell K Hamilton doesn’t know how to write a page-turner. I try not to be a book snob. I like what I like, and I’m not ashamed to say I’m loving Anita Blake right now. Maybe I’ll get bored with it eventually, but who knows. I’m still hooked on the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and they’ve moved from parody to something that should be parodied.

I got to eat at Toby Keith’s restaurant.

Click here to check out the site.

It was everything that I had anticipated. The waitress was super friendly, country music blared from the overhead speakers, and there were freedom fries on the menu. Being the subversive soul that I am, I ordered street tacos. They were delicious, but when I told Nathaniel (my musically-inclined brother) about it later, and he was horrified. “You got Tacos??!!” Of course I did…

Ken and I shopped at Whole Foods, which was pretty fantastic. It may be a national chain, but there’s not one within 100 miles of where I live, so it was a special treat. The boys behind the deli counter sang silly songs and yelled back and forth to each other, much to my amusement. The hipster at checkout commented on my purchases with enthusiastic aplomb. And the steak and roasted vegetables we had for dinner that night (recipe compliments of Kristin Sauers) were amazeballs.

On Friday I got a little stir-crazy and was going through Starbucks withdrawal. I got up and the sun was shining through the bedroom window. So I decided that if there was a Starbucks within reasonable walking distance, I was going. What is reasonable walking distance for Starbucks? Depends on how many days I’ve gone without. I’ve been told that I have a problem.

I opened my trusty GPS mapping application and found one only 3.1 miles away from my friend’s house. So I set out with the intention of getting a mocha, reading a couple chapters, and heading home. But then something wonderful happened. It turns out that the Starbucks I had mapped was actually on the University of Oklahoma’s campus. And so I spent the day wandering around the streets of Norman, going from boutique to cafe. The university is surrounded by blocks of smalls businesses and restaurants.

I talked to the girls at the Starbucks counter and they recommended Cafe Plaid for lunch. One of the many things that I’ve learned from watching the Food Network is that you should ask the locals what’s good. Chances are, not only will it be tasty, but it will be inexpensive. Everything was freshly made and the menu was very friendly to mixing and matching. They had homemade soups, sandwiches, and salads – all served cafeteria style. They also have a separate coffee counter. While I waited for my turn I watched one of the workers cut up freshly grilled chicken breasts. The portions were large, the price was under ten dollars, and everything was delicious. On top of that, the environment was relaxed and hangout-friendly. While I ate I watched groups of college students add to their numbers, switch tables, socialize, and study.

After lunch I walked all over campus. There is something about the pace of college that appeals to my internal metronome. Later that evening I was talking to Ben, recounting tales from my day, and I was trying to explain the feeling I get. He stopped me and said, “Becca, I know. I’ve seen it happen to you when we visit Pittsburgh. It’s like you are simultaneously excited and calm.” And that’s exactly what it is. It’s like I sense all the potential and energy of a place, and all the things that are constantly rattling around my brain go still. The rhythm resonates with me and Norman had a good beat. Here are some pictures of the campus: The architecture is consistent throughout, like the whole place sprung out of nothing one day. There are bronze statues and fountains that paths wind around. And the student body was out in full force.

After a long walk, I stopped at this little place called Earth: Deli and Cafe. They have raw fruit drinks and smoothies among other fare. My waitress was a pixie. She exuded a lazy sexuality without intent. She was dressed in a cotton top, knee length skirt and hiking boots. She stretched with her arms above her head and hummed as she waited for me to decide what kind of smoothie I wanted. All of this was done without pretense. I don’t think she was stoned. It was like she was other-worldly or something. The whole place had a vibe like I had stepped out of Norman and into somewhere else. A husky dog with startlingly blue eyes stared at me through the window as I sucked my smoothie through a straw.

At 5:00 pm, Ken came to pick me up. Originally we were going to go to another traditional Mexican restaurant, but Ken looked tired from a long week so we decided to eat in Norman. We went to this awesome pizza shop. I got a small pizza with fresh Parmesan, mushrooms, and basil. It was really good. Hideaway Pizza has won many awards for having the best pizza in Oklahoma City.

Saturday I got a chance to play AD&D for the first time in years with Ken and friends. Ken ran the game and created a throwaway character for me to play. It was a lot of fun because his group really role plays and works together. I felt very at home and seemed to share a lot of their sensibilities. Not only did we play a kick-ass game, but we talked politics, women’s issues, religion and fantasy novels. You know, all the things that you’re supposed to avoid in polite conversation. It’s always nice to spend time with intelligent and well-read individuals. And I loved being treated like one of the guys.

Finally, the vacation also afforded me the impetus to finally start this blog. I’ve been wanting to do something like this for years, and have had many false starts. I think part of that may have been that I was working in a field where confidentiality was of the utmost importance. The work was all-consuming and left little time for me to be anything other than working or sick. Also, as a civil servant, I was not really supposed to share my views on politics or any of the many things that interest me. This is meant to protect civil servants from the ever-changing political landscape, but I found it constricting. So now I am free. I have begun to fill my life with things other than doctor’s appointments and television. I find that I have more time to observe, think, and be creative. Ultimately, that gives me something to write about that I feel others will find interesting. Also, cancer and six and a half years as a social worker have provided me with some perspective on things. I hope this means that you will find my blog entertaining.

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Today’s Recommendation: Unicorns

OK, so I need to preface this with saying that I’ve never been a pony or horse kind of girl. Until recently, I’ve always considered myself of the feline persuasion. In fact, I’m pretty sure my parents had me pegged as becoming my neighborhood’s version of a crazy cat lady before I met Ben. But I digress.

Today I woke up to a dreary Oklahoma morning. It’s been sunny and sixty for the past five days, so you can imagine my disappointment. I trudged into the kitchen and fumbled with the coffee pot. Since this was not my kitchen, I had to go in search of a mug. And that, my friends, is when it happened. Hanging discretely from a stand was the most amazing mug I have ever seen. Don’t believe me? To you I say, behold:

I was so excited by my discovery that it got me thinking. Why did this single object bring me so much amusement and delight? It was unexpected, sure. And, yeah, it’s a vehicle to get much-needed coffee to my lips, but it is more than that. It is whimsical and it draws upon a happy nostalgia.

I’m sipping coffee out of a mug and I can almost hear America playing in the background. They wrote a number of hits in the 70’s, most notably, “A Horse with No Name” and “Ventura Highway.” What some of you might not know is that they also did the soundtrack for the animated adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.

If you haven’t read The Last Unicorn, I would highly recommend it. Beagle’s prose in uniquely his own. His language has the fluidity and nuance of a poem. The story captures the essence of our desire to belong; to be important. The protagonist is achingly beautiful in her isolation and otherness, and in that contrast one gets a sense that the writer is a keen observer of the human condition.

So far I’ve been speaking rather literally about unicorns, but I think the real recommendation today is to enjoy a little whimsy. If you just take time to look around, your source of entertainment will be limitless. And so, on a final note, I’ll leave you with an image of Patrick Rothfuss’ Lesbian Unicorn.

Click on the image to be magically transported to Pat's blog to find out more.

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Thoughts On My 50 Book Challenge

A few years ago a friend posted on her Facebook that she wanted to do a hundred book challenge. She linked to an article and the challenge was passed around our circle. The idea was to not only read a hundred books (or fifty depending on your schedule), but to broaden the reader’s literary base by reading new genres and topics. I thought this was a grand idea and committed myself wholeheartedly to the project. Since that time I have successfully completed the challenge two times and am working on a third year. Not only has the challenge reinforced my love for books, but it has brought up some interesting questions and made me learn more about myself than I would have initially expected. Here are some things that I find notable and for all my fellow readers out there you may too.

1. I can’t read 100 books in a year. Just the notion of accepting the challenge forced me to really think about what was achievable. I find I have a terrible habit of setting the bar too high and then feeling bad about myself when I fall short. I’ve seen many a motivational poster that encouraged the viewer to “Shoot for the Stars!” Although it is true that you have to push yourself to know what is possible, I have found that knowing your limitations and finding a way to work successfully within the margins leads to a happier and less stressful existence. Sometimes the path less traveled takes you to a remarkably beautiful place, and sometimes you trip, fall down a hole, and get bit by a rattlesnake. For me, two books a week just didn’t feel achievable, so I wussed out and decided on fifty, and I’m OK with that.    

2. I had to reevaluate how I spend (i.e. waste) my time. If I had to guess, I’d say that before the challenge I read thirty books a year… maybe. I already felt like my life was in a time-crunch. If I was going to read fifty books, I was going to have to make some adjustments. I read in Time Magazine (of course!) that the average American wastes six months of their life waiting at red lights. That got me thinking, where else do I waste time? Doctor’s offices, waiting in any sort of line, and trying to fall asleep were big ones that seemed unavoidable. But there were active ones too. How many hours have I spent watching TV, playing Farmville, or clicking refresh on Facebook? I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are amazed that I can find the time to read as much as I do, but at the end of the day I’d say that it is largely about being creative and making choices. First and foremost I quit Farmville and decided what TV shows I could live without. Second, I always carry a book in my purse. Not only does it make my purse an excellent bludgeoning weapon for would-be-muggers, but ten minutes in the grocery checkout equals ten minutes of reading. Waiting for the doctor is less stressful because I have something to occupy my mind. I go to bed earlier, set a limit on how much I’ll allow myself to read (otherwise I would be up all night), and give my body time to wind down, so when it’s time to fall asleep it’s easier. Reading has had many side benefits outside the pleasure of good entertainment.

3. I read for pleasure; as an escape; for information. In that order. The blog that outlined the challenge specified that it was meant to broaden a reader’s scope and perspective. I went into the challenge with the best of intentions. In some ways I was successful and in other ways I absolutely was not. In the seventh grade I discovered Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. I had read over a hundred Babysitter Club books before that, dozens of Nancy Drew’s, Roald Dahl and Beverly Clearly. Nothing captivated me the way Amber did. It’s the first time I can remember staying up all night to read anything. From there I read Piers Anthony, R.A. Salvatore, Terry Brooks, and many others. Maybe another day I will bore you with stories of me as a sad child, but for today, let it suffice when I say that for me Fantasy was an escape from the torments of grade school and unpopularity. There was something quite extraordinary about being able to imagine an entirely different reality. To have it be so real that I could suspend disbelief and have it make a perfect kind of sense. I think the best Fantasy always defines what it is to be human. The fantastical elements can be allegorical or can provide contrast, but the core is always a very human story. The challenge has broadened what kinds of fantasy (and science fiction) I read, and I have read more nonfiction and regular fiction novels than ever before, but I find that I get the most pleasure when I read fantasy. So when you look at my reading list that is what you will see, because ultimately that is why I read.

Overall, I think the challenge has enriched my life. It has certainly made me take a closer look at my reading habits and the importance of literature in my own life. Here’s to another fifty books in 2012.

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