March | Perspective | A Lesson by Callie Feyen
Eight years ago, my Aunt Lucy died of cancer. She was 56 years old. I was living in DC at the time, and Lucy lived in Rockford, Michigan, and the morning she died – it was a Wednesday – I had an OB/GYN appointment. I was nine months pregnant with my youngest daughter, Harper.
I walked down the stairs of my condo building and down the sidewalk to my car, and my thinking went like this:
First, it was one of those picturesque fall days – the kind where the sky is brilliant blue, the leaves are the colors of fire, and the day is crisp. The weather made me cheerful and it was strange to feel thankful or joyful when I was also feeling sorrow, and I think this combination of emotions made me a little crazy because on the way to my appointment I decided I would tell my doctor that she needed to induce me that day. I would have the baby, and fly to the funeral two days later. I was utterly hopeful and I can remember gripping the steering wheel in excitement. I can still feel that October 29th sun. I can remember thinking: My first baby was born ten days late and was ten pounds, so this one will be born a tad early but will probably be around seven pounds, so that’ll be just fine. I remember thinking I bet they sell plane tickets cheap for funerals. They’re probably free. I can remember brushing away tears –probably signs that my body knew something my brain refused to acknowledge – and repeating over and over, “Don’t be sad. Don’t be sad. Don’t be sad.”
My baby, who recently turned eight, showed no signs of being ready to be born that morning. Our bodies were still very much intertwined and as I lay on that examination table looking at the ridiculous cartoons on the ceiling the office put up there to take our minds off of our setting, I realized with a sting that I cannot manage life and death the way I was planning. I cannot force life to begin just as I cannot make it rainy and dreary on the day my lovely Aunt Lucy died. Anticipation and shock, joy and sorrow, thankfulness and disappointment are mixed throughout all our days and this is not an easy lesson for me to learn. It’s a mess to try to feel, and it’s a mess to write.
It seems though, that this pairing of extremes is where the good stories come from, and I’m interested in looking at and exploring conflict, sadness, pain, anger, embarrassment, etc. on the page.
I try to write about Lucy every year but I can’t seem to do it without unraveling. A couple of years ago around this time, I was driving home from an errand when I remembered having dinner with my cousin Tara and my Aunt Lucy at Pietro’s in Grand Rapids. A few months prior I’d given her a lavender scrub for her birthday, and she told me that night that she loved it. It was the only thing that helped her eczema. I was ridiculously happy to know this because I loved knowing I’d done something helpful for Lucy.
Remembering this made me so sad, but I didn’t want that sadness to go away because it also felt like Lucy was close to me. So I went to the grocery store and bought a jug of Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Lavender wash, brought it home, and scrubbed my floors with it. I cried more than I’d ever cried while I washed the floors, and for days my home smelled like lavender. For days Lucy felt near.
Sometimes we write the messy just so we can feel and be close to that memory.
For this month, we are focusing on the word, “perspective,” and I think that when it comes to looking at, and dealing with what haunts us, we need some perspective. That is, we need to walk around the event a bit, maybe walk away from the event, come at that memory from behind or sideways, or maybe in the voice of another person. I once took a memory that I was terribly ashamed of and wrote a story completely in the third person so that I could distance myself from the main character (me). This freed me up to really make her as nasty or ridiculous as I wanted; to tell the truth without fear or worry of judgement. What I found was a dear adoration for this person, and while I still made her look pretty ridiculous, I also was able to write a layer of endearment onto her, and in turn, find another layer of myself within the story I wrote.
So this month, take the events that you are afraid of, and put them on the page. Write what makes you sad, what makes you angry. Write what makes you tremble when you pick up a pen or put your fingers to the keyboard. I will give you different ways to perceive these memories, in the hopes you will find all sorts of details from the messy parts of your life, and while you might not find a “happy ending” to these messes, you’ll get closer to the memory, and probably learn something new about yourself in the process.
"You don't step out of the stream of your life to do your work....who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person." -Ann Patchett
“Atticus said that Jem was trying hard to forget something, but what he was really doing was storing it away for a while, until enough time passed. Then he would be able to think about it and sort things out. When he was able to think about it, Jem would be himself again.” –To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee.
1. Writing helps us become more ourselves. Write about a memory, and trust that it will help you become more yourself again.
Now write the memory again, but this time change the point of view: If a memory is overwhelming to write from first person, consider writing in second or third person. Sometimes the story opens up when we change the perspective.
“And do you think I complained about this? Do you think I complained about picking up old lunches that had fungus growing on them and sweeping asbestos tiles and straightening Thorndike dictionaries? No, I didn’t. Not even when I looked out the clean lower windows at the afternoon light of autumn changed to mellow and full yellows, and the air turned so sweet and cool that you wanted to drink it, and as people began to burn leaves on the sides of the streets and the lovely smoke came into the back of your nose and told you it was autumn, and what were you doing smelling chalk dust and old liverwurst sandwiches instead?” –The Wednesday Wars, Gary Schmidt
2. Write about something that, at first, you think is an awful memory. After you write it, underline or highlight the beauty in your words. It might not be a happy ending. It might be that you were able to find words to portrayed the painful memory so that it reads beautifully.
“It’s necessary to transform pain into art. To give a form to suffering.” “In this time of anxiety and searching, one should write something, shape something. Whatever it might be, it could lead to proposing some kind of sense and order. Any situation can become a starting point.” –Anna Kamienska, her notebooks
3. From what pain can you create?
Keep an “Awful/Beautiful” journal. In your reading, copy down paragraphs that display both beauty and sadness/sorrow/fear, etc.
Create a timeline or collage of the “messy memory.” Collect photos, newspaper clippings, recipes you used, favorite pieces of clothes, etc.; surround that memory with everything you can and see what else was going on during that time. Consider looking at what you created and writing about everything else except that memory. Observe what else creeps into your story.
Each time you write, make a list of everything else you see besides the difficult emotions of the messy memory. Is the sun shining? Do you smell lavender? This is not to suggest everything turns out lovely, rather, you are practicing holding hands with joy and sorrow. I think it makes a better story.
Just for fun
We're going to talk about mobile photography in May, but just for fun - let's take a sneak peek at one of Ashlee's favorite tips for stronger photos. Are you ready? It's quite simple: change your perspective.
This month, try taking photos from a bird's eye view and a worm's eye view. Don't worry, those aren't fancy photography terms, they are quite literal descriptions -- birds see from the sky; worms see from the ground.
*More photography tips coming in the May lesson, but if you try this tip in March, use #yocperspective on Instagram so we can see your pictures!
Artist interview with Kaylan Buteyn:
1. You are a wife, mom, and amazing artist—you wear so many hats in your day-to-day life! What does a typical day look like for you and your family?
My son (4 yrs) has always been a late sleeper but since having my daughter (9mo), who wakes up earlier than we are used to, we have grown to embrace the beauty of the early morning. All 4 of us are usually up by 6:30am. My husband makes breakfast for all of us, and I usually do some administration tasks like getting paintings ready to ship if I have had any recent sales, catching up on emails or cleaning and arranging the studio while I putter around with my coffee. Sometimes I take a short run. He heads to work around 8:30 or 9:00am so other than sitting and eating breakfast with my family, I try to use the morning to be productive since he is on ‘kid duty’ during that time.
Once he leaves I spend the last few hours of the morning playing with the kids, doing housework and homestead chores, doing school work with Finley and prepping anything I can for our dinner meal.
My daughter sometimes naps during this time which gives me some one on one time with Finley. Two days a week a babysitter comes to the house so I can work alone from 9:00am-12:00pm. On those days I spend all morning painting alone in my studio and its the largest block of time I get each week. On days that the babysitter doesn’t come, I don’t try to paint until the kids are down for their afternoon naps.
So after our morning, the kids and I eat lunch together and sometimes we watch a short show- Finley and I love the food network and one of his favorites, The Pioneer Woman, is on at lunch :) After eating we typically read a few books together, I put River down for her afternoon nap and Finley either takes a nap or has quiet time. This affords me about 2 hours in the afternoon to paint. Bliss. On magical days its more like 3 hours. I try to stay off my phone and computer and allow myself the opportunity to spend this time painting with no distractions. When one of them wakes up, they join me in the studio for another 30-45 minutes while I try to finish up whatever I was working on.
My husband comes home around 3:30 or 4:00pm and we spend an hour doing a few things with the kids, sneaking in some time outside in the garden or catching up on laundry or dishes. I finish up making our dinner and we eat together before heading back outside for some final play time, reading books together or doing something as a family before we put the kids to bed. My evenings are spent doing research and writing for my graduate thesis (MFA in Visual Arts- graduating this summer!). If I am caught up on my work then my husband and I watch a show together before heading to sleep relatively early- 10:00pm at the latest. I feel my best when I get 7-8 full hours of sleep so I try to do that 5-6 times a week.
2. You’ve blogged about using a studio space, but recently you’ve begun working from home more. How has that transition been for you?
From fall of 2014 to spring of 2016 I rented a studio space in town. I never felt like I was really getting my money’s worth out of the space because at the time we weren't able to afford childcare and I rarely had dedicated studio time to focus. In the summer of 2016 we decided to turn our unfinished attic space into a home studio. The money we were using to rent the studio space in town we could now use to pay a babysitter to come to the house and watch the kids so I could work alone. It’s not a perfect solution- I think my dream scenario would be to have a detached studio that is still on our property but not actually in the house because sometimes I am still distracted by the kids. However, being able to pop into my studio space any time I want is also a HUGE benefit and it gives me more chances to interact with my work than I had before.
3. In your most full seasons of mothering, how have you still managed to create? What have those seasons looked like? Do you feel like you’re in one of those seasons now?
Luckily, I had my daughter in May of last year and my husband is a college professor which means he was home permanently all summer, right when she was born. I would consider her newborn phase as a very full season of mothering and I was only able to have the energy to keep painting through that because my husband was also home full time for the first 3 months of her life. Now that she is 9 months old and in a routine, I am able to create more consistently, and I can better anticipate what I will be able to get done and when. During those first few months of having a child, it’s so difficult to not feel disappointed when your production doesn't meet your expectations. My son has always been an amazing independent player, and he is very content to work alongside me in the studio. Having a second kid really caused me to be much more disciplined with my time and schedule, to say no to things I wanted to do and be dedicated to my priorities because my time is so much more precious. My goal is to be fully present and engaged with my work as an artist while also being fully present and engaged as a mother. That requires a lot of compartmentalizing.
4. How are you seeing the fruit of your creative work blooming now from seeds that you planted long ago?
For 4 years I walked out my creative path as a wedding photographer. It turned out to be a career that was not fulfilling me as an artist, even though I was a practicing artist and getting paid good money to photograph people. I craved working with my hands and wanted to be a painter, so one day I just made the switch. It took about a year of transition, finishing up my committed photography work and switching my lifestyle over from commercial artist to fine/studio artist. My background in the wedding business really helped me as a painter though because I am so prone to detail and discipline in the studio. I like having a plan and working through the problems I am engaging with in my art making in an organized and well thought out way. This helps me stay consistent with my work, not get lost down rabbit holes as easily when I am exercising my creative muscles.
5. What inspires you: as a wife, mom, and artist?
Strong women inspire me. My children inspire me. Fresh air and trees and the sounds birds make inspire me. Doing inner work, growing as a person and thinking through my identity inspires me.
6. What or who do you read to help inspire your work? What other resources do you recommend to fellow creatives?
I read the Brooklyn Rail, Two Coats of Paint, The Jealous Curator, Beautiful Decay, Art in America and ArtForum. I spend a lot of time reading about artists who are also mothers like Louise Bourgeois, Mary Kelly, the Mother Art women and contemporary artists who are making and practicing today in the midst of motherhood.
I strongly recommend for other artists and creatives to spend a lot of time engaging with artwork that is not your own- that does not look visually like your own and does not wrestle with the same content. I think it’s especially easy for parent artists to be focused on output, on generating work because their time is so limited. So much of being a great artist is understanding what other artwork is being put out into the world and engaging with that work. It will help you become a better artist and help you to be more articulate and thoughtful when you create your own work. Spend time in galleries, connect with other artists, open your work up to critique and dialogue with others.
7. Do you have a scripture, word, or mantra that guides your work?
Truly, no! Right now I am looking at the idea of the mother as a hinge or a hook, metaphorically and am playing around with that concept in my painting. I have visual cues that I focus on to guide my work but I am so saturated with reading that I’m not sure I could ever pick one specific thing… It might be a fun practice to try it out though!
8. How do motherhood and creative work complement one another?
I think being a practicing artist and being a mother works together in many ways. I am constantly engaging with new ideas and ways of thinking in art and children certainly push you to do the same. I find so much satisfaction from birthing a beautiful painting, and the idea of growing a body of work and then releasing it into the world is an obvious parallel for having a child. It takes a lot of organization, focus, and discipline to be an artist and I find I am a better mother when I have a handle on how I am spending my time with my kids and am able to focus on them, when I have disciplined myself to put down my phone or set aside the laundry and really interact and engage with them.
9. What is something you have learned in the past year that you are taking in to the new year with fresh eyes?
I have learned that I tend to be too serious and hard on myself and I need comic relief to help alleviate some of those feelings. Being around friends, watching a funny TV show or listening to a podcast that makes me laugh is really good for me. It softens me. I’m trying to spend a little time laughing every day.
10. If you could tell moms who long to create as they raise little ones a word of advice, what would it be?
To quote one of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard, ‘how we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives’. I think about this quote all the time because every day is truly so important. While being a mother of young kids, I think it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, to get lost on the doldrums of each day, to get discouraged, to hope for things to change and to wish time away. I think its truly worth every ounce of energy you have to give yourself fully and completely to your kids when you are with them, and also give yourself fully and completely to your creative work when you make time for that. If you find yourself unable to focus on either thing, then take a step back and see what needs to change. Readjust and try a few different schedules or options until you find what truly works for you and don’t beat yourself up for it! Kids are flexible and will adjust well as long as you are loving them completely. Don’t feel guilty for wanting time to do your work. Yes, you will have a phase down the road where your kids are not with you and you can use that time to create, but your time now is just as important! And those future days are not promised. All of the effort you have to put into making both things work, being an artist and a mother, is 100% worth it. I fully believe that.