I Did It Myself…*to* Myself

Do It Yourself (DIY) projects, when well executed and realized, are impressive and admirable. They double one’s pleasure in the end product by being not only beautiful and useful as desired but also the satisfying result of her own skilled labors. Personal investment increase value exponentially.

I can claim a few DIY accomplishments on my resume, happily, despite my ordinary limitations of resource, monetary or of expertise or ability for the project in hand. But having mentioned hands, I must also confess to having a DITY (Do It TO Yourself) record as well. On the occasion of the hand-made hand injury, I was fortunate that my second of inattention resulted in no worse mishap than a tiny nip on my finger.

Being an artist, I did however do this with a certain degree of style: when I stuck my finger with a single tooth of my nice, sharp little hand saw (too aptly named, perhaps?), I did manage to insert the steel into the only small spot on my hand that already had a visible scar. Puncture becomes punctuation, so to speak.

As always, the tiniest wound is magnified by other pains, not least of them the injury to ego and dignity when on the instant of infliction I succumb to a combination of reactions that to the uninjured could only have a sort of serio-comic ridiculousness perfect for cutting me down to size. The unpleasantness of having made an unwanted incision in my personage is compounded by the leap back that threatens to throw me over a chair and onto my tailbone; the pinching clamp of fingers on the cut to stanch the bleeding hurts almost more  than the initial stab; the yell of pain that, in my nephew’s youthful terminology ‘scares my ears’ is also loud enough for the neighbors to hear and enjoy. On top of all this is the diminution of my sanguine pride, reminding me that my handy skills are sorely limited no matter what I tell myself.

Does this prevent my attempting further DIY projects? Hardly! Being by nature a timid and lazy and not-so-brilliant craftsman hasn’t made me give up but instead tends to make me plan and work things out fairly exhaustively before I begin, and to assume that I’ll make mistakes or need help before I finish. It all slows me down, to be sure—and that’s not a bad thing, mind you. Any DIY work is bound to be only as polished as patience and occasionally remedial work can make it.

When I speed up too much, I get sloppy and unfocused; I make silly mistakes like sticking my finger on a saw tooth/a saw tooth into my finger. Luckily for me, I didn’t have a power saw going there, so all I lost was a few minutes, my composure, and a few red cells rather than a digit. In return, I got a good reminder to sharpen my attention, to use tools with greater care, and to call in expert help when needed.

After all, I’d far rather sacrifice some dollars and a touch of my DIY pride than an appendage. This is how I’ve survived to my advanced age without losing any body parts or breaking any bones. I have recovered numerous times from being an (or falling on my) ass. Self image is ever so much more resilient than such things. Arguably, a little too much so in my case, or I wouldn’t tend to get into these fixes at all.

Of course, getting into a fix is something I can easily do all by myself. For that task, I do have all of the necessary experience and expertise.Digital Illustration: In Which I am a Silly Ass

One in a Million

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Homage to Popularity

My Distinction

If I should need some camouflage, should want to truly blend,

I’d better watch my persiflage and learn not to offend

By wearing last week’s trendy style, my hair too short or long,

Or failing, yet, to reconcile which Party’s Right (or wrong)

To run the government; which church is favored most by God,

How not to leave you in the lurch when I have been a clod,

Appalling with my social gaffes, faux pas and frightful fouls;

I may accept I’m built for laughs, but using the wrong towels

Or forks or traffic lanes, That Word in company unfit—

I hope I don’t seem too absurd as-is, but that’s just it:

My imperfections, my unique design as Me, are such

As might make me appear a freak if I am Me too much.

But, truth be told, while I may work to fit in with the rest,

I hope you won’t think me a jerk for liking myself best!

I will blend in, keep pace, behave, up to a point, to please,

But lest you think me fashion’s slave, I think it a dis-ease

To seek conformity and bow to other people’s rules

When I’m quite nifty anyhow, and others may be fools.

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Fingerprint Beats Homage

Risk/Reward

Breaking free of our bonds can send us soaring. Or it can make us crash hideously. Sometimes the same experiment or adventure can lead to both results, and sometimes that can happen in short shrift. Hubris leads, often enough, to overreaching and all manner of unrealistic expectations and lets us take stupid risks, if we get too caught up in our dreams or delusions to pay attention to their practical details.

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Breaking free of all constraints has its challenges; it can be a long, laborious, and sometimes dangerous task.

Icarus, My Cousin

A bird, aloft on updrafts in the sun

Above the path, could see one tiny soul,

Alone as if in death, yet singly, whole,

Complete and full contented as that One—

For on that path, and in that blessed place,

He knew such deep delight, such peace and calm

From drawing in each breath of nature’s balm

With that sweet sun so gentle on his face—

It seemed that like the bird, he too could fly,

Could rise above the green enchanted wood,

Need only think it and, behold, he could

Leap up at will, suspended in the sky—

Yet, knowing he could not thus really do,

He suddenly wept, bitter now with rue—

So turns the heart of merely mortal man,

Full in one moment of outlandish joy;

The next, despairing like a little boy,

Because the joy’s imperfect, as it can

Be seen by clearer eyes to truly be;

So rose that wanderer up to the crest,

Where soon the path was free of trees, and best,

Clear-viewed down from the cliff there to the sea—

He bound upon his shoulders feathered wings,

Sleek as the bird’s, to take by force his flight

And steal the sky, but its great burning light,

The blazing sun, had no use for such things,

And cast him, melted, in the ocean swell,

Gravity’s slave, thrown back from heav’n to hell.

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The world, powerful as it is, cannot fully contain me.

For myself, I will concede that I have been known to aim higher than my reach many a time, to think I am better or more skilled or more prepared for certain things than I really am. I have gotten knocked on my backside more than once; turned down, failed, fooled, exposed. There are fissures in the earth to prove the grandness of my fall. But what little I have accomplished was done mainly by dint of that same outsized expectation of my success, and without that I would hardly have moved since birth. So while I may grow and change as slowly as a tree breaking roots out of its paved prison cell, I will take my cue from that tree and keep expanding and hoping, and just see what I can do.

Canoeing in the Slough of Despair

pen and inkBeing up the proverbial creek without a paddle is just too common a state for most of us mortals. What’s remarkable is not the frequency of its occurrence, though, but how often we paddled up there our very own selves and even quite willfully pitched out the paddle on arrival. Having gotten ourselves into the trouble in the first place doesn’t make it any more tolerable, let alone palatable, but if we learn to pay better attention, there might be a hope of return from the brink after all.

Retracing my footsteps to find where I went astray, maybe even to undo some of the damage, isn’t always possible even when the place where I’ve gotten myself in dire straits isn’t literally a trackless stream. But if I keep my eyes open and engage my wits and will, I might at least remember the way next time I start to veer in that direction, and learn not to step in that same river twice.

I’m fallible enough, but perhaps not irremediably so. Still, I’ll always welcome a good rescue. Throw me that life jacket, won’t you?

Anachronisms

There are advantages to being out of sync with the known, the planned and the expected. Nothing new, of course, can ever happen if someone or something doesn’t step out of line. Creativity and growth can only take wing if we allow anomalies and anachronisms. Learning doesn’t happen without forward movement and its inevitable mistakes.

So once in a while there has to be the duckling hatched in autumn or the crazy idea hatched at three a.m.

Great things are timely no matter when they occur.digital illustration

Duck!

Yep, someone’s sneaking up on you. Or some thing is just about to get you. It’s really inevitable that stuff is about to happen and make you the punchline of the universe’s joke. That’s how it works. In fact, in a plus-perfect moment of synchronicity, despite my having written this post several days ago in preparation for posting on the 8th of September, I had a brain hiccup and completely forgot to press Publish on the appropriate day. So here I am giving you a two-fer in recompense. Pardon my pratfall!photo montageThe nice thing is that we’re all generally in line for the same sort of treatment, so when such craziness happens, the embarrassment of it all is rarely going to linger for long; soon enough, something silly will happen to somebody else in the room and the pangs of self-consciousness will be turned to sympathy for his or her plight, the mortification of being the center of derisive attentions muted by seeing them passed right along to another poor dupe. That is also how it works.photo montageI’m not saying that I enjoy being the buffoon of the moment, mind. In the space of the last few days I managed to both fall off a shallow curb (only a near-miss, as I was able to convert the tripping into an awkward but deep curtsy to the people nearby) and trip forward up a step onto a hardwood floor, whose grain will soon be emblazoned on my knee in a variety of flamboyant purple colors by tomorrow, all while injuring nothing more seriously than my scant supply of dignity. And I’m not proud of this lack of grace, merely cognizant that it’s not limited strictly to me and the joke that remains in strangers’ minds has a lot more to do with the hilarity of the situation than it does with remembering what unknown fool performed the ignominious stunt that so brightened their day.photo montageI’d love to think it possible to overcome and avoid all future Incidents of ridiculous stupidity and clumsiness simply because, once experienced and noted, they can be put to rest, but that is decidedly not how it works. So what I need to overcome and avoid is letting it get to me. I am bound by history, odds and my very nature to slip, fall, make egregious errors and squeeze a minimum of ten smaller mistakes into every day I’m alive, but nothing says I have to be defined exclusively by my failures and flops. Every once in a while I can work to turn such things to entertaining advantage. Who knows, if I pay attention, I might even see the little disaster coming and be able to duck in time to miss it and let it hit someone else for a change.

Going Places without Getting Anywhere

Summer holidays allows some of us lucky folk to indulge our inner travel junkie. This summer was pretty much the lottery winner for the Sparks household in that regard, and it helped to scratch my perpetual go-somewhere itch more than a little. We went on a Road Trip. By that I mean a 6000+ mile loop from Texas to the west coast, north to Canada, and back again, over five weeks.

I won extra, since I got to make that trip with my favorite partner-in-crime, my husband. And he likes driving and I don’t much, so he did nearly all of it. I just got to watch the world go by, cities, states, countries, plains, hills, mountains, rivers, forests, and much more. I sat there mesmerized, my camera propped on my lap or–more often–shooting away virtually aimlessly as we buzzed by at 85 mph/137 kph (yes, there are some places where that’s the speed limit in the US) in hopes of catching some of the amazing, beautiful, weird, wonderful stuff we passed along the way. Thank goodness I didn’t have to try this kind of photography on the Autobahn.

Being dyslexic in so many helpful ways, I am the last person who should be navigator on any trip, but I was reminded that maps of any sort have their limitations anyway, and GPS only adds new layers of complexity and adventure, as when our perky GPS announcer lady (affectionately known as Peggy Sue) calmly informs us from time to time that we are in Undiscovered Country, or as she likes to put it, Not in a Recognized Area. The fun part of it is that the map on our GPS just goes blank at that point except for the little red arrow that is us, which thereupon floats through the air with the greatest of ease. That’s when I really call on my fantastic piloting skills, of course.

Mostly what I learn from maps of any sort is how far we are from where we intended to be and how many complications lie in the space between. But that, too, is part of the thrill and amusement of road-tripping or, for that matter, travel of any sort. The planned and well-known aspects are seldom as exciting and interesting as the things found by accident, the experiences had in passing and the ‘scenic route’ that is a fixable mistake. If we never made any U-turns or wrong guesses or took any side roads instead of the Main Drag, life and travel would be ever so much duller. And this trip was anything but dull. I’ll share some of the adventures with you when the dust settles!digital illustration

Sin Boldly, Fail Dramatically

Anyone who knows much about the instigation of the Protestant Reformation knows that its leadership was not enacted by prim and prissy sorts. Martin Luther, besides being quite the rabble-rouser in the event, loved his beer, offended the all-powerful Church that was his employer and effectively, his owner, and married a rebel nun, with whom he had six children. His being credited with advocating that fallible humans should ‘sin boldly’ rather than live in denial of their mortal failings and inability to produce or buy redemption comes as little surprise in light of this life history. But in all of this there’s also more than a tiny hint of very useful everyday advice as well: thinking ourselves capable of perfection tends to stand in the way of getting anywhere close to it. Making mistakes is the only real way to learn and improve. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it enables us to get closer to our ideal of it and, if we’re really smart and lucky, to change and improve our concepts of perfection.photoOur failures do tend to cling to us. There would be no name for Schadenfreude, not even an inkling of its existence, if it weren’t for our feeling relief in and even reveling in, others’ mistakes and disasters; the more public their occurrence or exposure, the better chance of their (sometimes literally, in this digital age) going viral. But for every ninety-nine spectacular pratfalls, there is one person who, by dint of dusting herself off and jumping up with agile alacrity to redo the test and win the day, makes the fall look like a flashy prelude to a show-stopping grand finale that everyone will envy rather than ridicule. What makes this person enviable is not perfection but the ability to rise up from the ashes with new wisdom and determination, both gained from what was probably a whole series of dazzling falls in the process. Even more desirable is the one who manages to let us all in on the secret, admitting fallibility and mortality from the start and leaving the curtain wide open so that we can revel in the learning process with her before she ever hits the stage, can learn from her mistakes. This is a kind of brilliant generosity I have always admired.photoRisk. Taking risks means you will have bumps and bruises to ego and, possibly also, body. Taking none guarantees you will have a dull life and probably, a colorless soul. Worthwhile risks might conceivably include real danger: one can take chances that cost money, job, power, relationships, physical injury–life. More often, they will cost a measure of pride, and that’s something nearly all of us can afford to lose (and some probably should offload a ton or two of it). A policy I developed for myself when I was in college and such a fearful ninny that I would hardly have survived my undergraduate years let alone moved forward in any other part of life if I hadn’t finally forced it on myself, was to accept that whether I believed it or not in the moment, whatever it was that scared me probably wouldn’t kill me. Sounds silly to all who know how minor were the things that held me in utter terror, but the fear was real even if the danger was not. The adjunct rule I decided to apply to this idea was that if It (the risk of the moment) did kill me, it certainly wouldn’t bother me anymore.photoI may have worded these rules in a slightly tongue-in-cheek mode, but I conceived of them as an actual, practical reassurance that anything life hands to me I ought to be able to handle sufficiently. And that hey, if I don’t end up managing quite that well every time, I’ll make some meaningfully big mistakes, learn from them, and do better the next time. I’ve learned that I can’t be humiliated unless I allow myself to be–in truth, it’s strictly an internal experience when you really boil it down, and there’s nothing that says anyone or anything can force me to feel mortified if I refuse to do so. If I make enough mistakes along the way, I’ll get better and smarter to the degree that I’m unlikely to deserve anyone trying to humiliate me anyhow. Being wrong doesn’t necessarily mean burning because I’m flushed with embarrassment, let alone guaranteed burning in Hell; letting it get to me and not taking the opportunity for growth from it is the true error.

All Grown Up? I Think Not!

mixed mediaSome while ago I made this little mixed-media wall piece that I think still represents my style of gardening pretty well. I am the virtual avatar of all things bumbling and ignorant and serendipitous and goofy when loosed upon the back forty. Off I go on a ramble, grabbing what is decidedly a weed but managing to yank out a perfectly healthy portion of the adjacent flowering or fruiting plant in the same fistful, backing away sheepishly only to go stepping sideways in a hole, twist over onto my elbows and land face to face with a giant unidentified insect that clearly thinks I have arrived not just to gape at it but to invite it into my open mouth. Gnashing my teeth shut like a portcullis in the event, I bite the inside of my cheek, rocket upward and hop around on my one un-twisted foot, brandishing my shabby bouquet of mismatched greenery at the bug as it whizzes away, dancing around as spasmodically as a broken marionette, and muttering imprecations not appropriate for any sort of garden party under my gasps of breath. Meanwhile, the beetling object has settled quite contentedly on a nearby pristine piece of fruit and begun munching it to smithereens placidly, not needing to bother degrading the bit of fruit I’d already accidentally killed.

And yet despite incidents very like this occurring on a regular basis in my peregrinations through the green world, somehow I usually end up mistress of quite the cozy and inviting little patch of paradise. I’m fairly certain that I have something very near to the best karma in the universe–the finest possible friends and family, fabulous adventures wherever I go, and by golly, I keep finding pretty things in my gardens no matter how boorish and buffoonish I manage to be as a gardener. I shall neither apologize nor excuse such unwarranted, unearned good fortune. There’s nothing I can do that would explain why, when I consistently do exactly what the garden experts say will Never Work, it consistently rewards me with much lovelier results than I could possibly deserve, and frankly, I’m glad to just wallow in my happiness.

So come on over for a nice sweet tea under the shade of one of my many marvelous trees, gazing upon the phantasmagorical collection of improbably, ridiculously happy plants that really shouldn’t be thriving so, and we’ll just pretend I’ve done all of this by virtue of my hard work and genius. No, it’s not a flourishing haven and (in Realtor-Speak) a Park-like Setting quite yet, but in my blustering, blundering innocence I always believe that soon it will be. And I betcha it will, too.

The Only Useful Retrospective Operates on a Pivot

If examining history–on a grand scale or on a very tiny personal one–doesn’t ultimately result in turning around to move forward from that study, it is of no use. I find the obsession at the end of a calendar year with reviews, retrospectives and rehashes sometimes entertaining and even intermittently informative, but at the end of the day (or year) what I want is to know: where do I go from here?

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What lies in the past remains in its ghostlike remembered forms . . .

There are plenty of fine reasons to revisit what has gone before. It’s meaningful to honor those things, events and especially people we hold dear when they are no longer part of our lives. We can recognize past mistakes, uncover gaps in our experience or behavior or education. We take inventory of what we have accomplished, what we have gained, how our world has expanded, and those valuable objects and attributes that have accrued to our accounts over the past part of our lives. But if it stops there, it can serve no great purpose in the long term, I think.

The deeper honor for recognizing losses must lie not only in coming to terms with them–acceptance, if possible, but if not, then some sort of détente that makes us able to separate that grief and pain from the necessity of not only continuing to live but to grow and thrive. It is no gift to those causes and persons we have loved if we do not continue in our own new ways to seek and become those things we admired in them, to share them with the rest of the world that missed the chance to know them in their own right. If we dwell on mistakes and do not seek amends for them, no one is made better, least of all ourselves. Failure that leads to learning, improvement, reconciliation or higher goals for the future is in fact a beautiful and curable disease. Real progress–growth–almost never comes without the forerunner of Failure. Most of us miraculously able to accomplish something grand on the first try can’t replicate such an accomplishment or even ‘get’ how to achieve the next one, because there has been no passage through the great human experiment of trial and error, of practice and repetition to drive us to the point where we can deliberately and even repeatedly do such fine things.

Certainly, recognizing the great and good things that have been granted us in the past is given its true value and meaning both by our showing appropriate gratitude and then by our turning to the task of making wise and joyful use of whatever wealth we have, whether it’s a piece of bread we can share or it’s the Nobel Prize that sets a foundation for a whole new field of research or it’s a solid investment that paid off well so that we can afford to reinvest in the company or it’s being experienced enough to teach a kid how to ride a bike. Having something of value isn’t really all that impressive if it sits and collects dust while we too sit and collect dust. Unless, perhaps, one is a connoisseur of actual Dust. That is another Issue altogether.

Meanwhile, here I am at the end of another calendar year, taking inventory with everybody else and wondering what it means for my future. What, after all of that, do I want to do with my baggage, good and bad? There are some specifics, I suppose.

I have been a slug, growing more and more sedentary and finding more and more plausible (to me, at least) excuses for doing so, and I intend to get fitter. Not as fit as in my days of hefting a 60-pound bag of Quikrete on my shoulder or scrambling up a scaffold three stories to haul five gallon buckets full of paint up for work. That Me is long gone. But I am going to find a much fitter 50+ me, and that will be satisfying work. As I’ve grown more dedicated to writing in the last year or so, I’ve shelved my previous commitment to practicing drawing regularly that was satisfying as a process and led to some equally pleasing improvement in agility and technique and even end product. So I’m going to re-balance my work to engage in creating more visual art again, whatever the mode or medium.

There, I’ve said all of that out loud, in public, in front of all of you grand people whom I admire for so many attributes that I won’t be able to replicate, and I know you’ll hold me to my promises, because you’re that kind of encouraging and inspiring folk and, yes, a little bit intimidating in your gifts. And the more so in your accomplishments, because after all, that’s what I’m really talking about here: not what we already are, but what we strive to become, however gradually and through whatever study and practice and love of progress it takes to close in on those horizons.

A bit of challenge? Oh, YESSSSS. So it will always be. Mysterious, sometimes frightening, certainly adventure-filled in many ways. But that’s what the past should be teaching us to do. Today was made possible by all of the yesterdays that shaped me, coupled with the will to move forward from them. Tomorrow will be made that much more possible by adding what I’ve learned and accomplished today and letting it help to push me another notch onward. If looking backward thoughtfully can do that, I can barely imagine what looking forward will do. But I’m going to lean into it and see.

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The way ahead is always somewhat unclear; that can be part of the joy if I let it be . . .