September 28, 2012

inspired: gretchen rubin

Last week, I attended not one, but TWO Gretchen Rubin book signings! Our wonderful Mom, Kim, had invited me to join her for an afternoon tea author signing event hosted by the Book Stall in Winnetka. And then last-minute, she found out that Gretchen was also going to be signing at an Anthropologie store in the city the day before. Anthropologie is selling a special-edition hardcover of Gretchen's new book, Happier at Home, which they carry exclusively. This copy includes fourteen extra pages of bonus material, including many fun tips and lists as well as a quiz. The Anthropologie signing event was free, so we decided to take the train into the city and catch this event, too, so we could check out this special edition. While Gretchen's presentation was similar at both events, it was fascinating to hear her responses to different questions. And I also think it helps sometimes to hear something twice, or more, to really let it sink in and perhaps catch some bits you've missed!
I know I have mentioned Gretchen Rubin's earlier book on happiness, The Happiness Project, before. I am still using the "resolution charts" every day - I love them! The book is an account of Rubin's experience setting out in search of more happiness through a structured one-year project, focusing each month on a different aspect of her life. This book has really inspired and motivated me to seek out more of the happiness that is already available to me in my daily life, if only I would choose to focus on it! Here is a favorite passage of mine from The Happiness Project
You won't wake up one day and find that you've achieved [a resolution]. It's something that you have to resolve to do every day, forever. Striving toward a goal provides the atmosphere of growth so important to happiness, but it can be easy to get discouraged if reaching the goal is more difficult than you expected. Also, what happens once you've reached your goal? Say you've run the marathon. What now--do you stop exercising? Do you set a new goal? With resolutions, the expectations are different. Each day I try to live up to my resolutions. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but every day is a clean slate and a fresh opportunity. I never expect to be done with my resolutions, so I don't get discouraged when they stay challenging. Which they do. (from Chapter 12, "December")
It was really inspiring to hear Gretchen speak live at these book events! It is always interesting to hear any author speak in person, and to get to meet them as they sign your books. But it is especially wonderful when an author whose work has been really significant to you is just as inspiring in person. Gretchen spoke eloquently and was very organized (I would expect no less, from reading her book!), and the highlights she shared from the new book made me even more excited to read it soon. She said that her favorite part of her events is taking questions, and it was clear this is true! She was passionate and witty as she answered each question, and showed more of her fun sense of humor, which we really appreciated. 
She talked about her new book, Happier at Home, which takes her Happiness Project into more specific territory. The book examines how one's home can play such an important role in one's happiness. She brought some fun props as she shared some highlights from the book: a set of food coloring dyes to help make holiday traditions even more festive, an example of an origami project she abandoned in order to streamline her possessions, and an old copy of one of her Cricket children's magazines she has kept all these years, which contributed to the Children's Literature "shrine" she created for herself in order to nurture her passions within her home. My favorite point she shared at the events was the importance of your sense of smell within your home. She brought tiny vials of some "smells" she loves, to pass around and share some of her favorites with us, creating an experience which was visceral as well as intellectual. You can look up these scents here! The scents she shared were "At the Beach 1966," "Memory of Kindness," and "To See a Flower." They were all lovely, but my favorite was "At the Beach 1966" - it reminds me of getting married by the ocean. I am also curious to smell "In the Library." 
The Southport Anthropologie store did a wonderful job with this event! As we walked into the store, we were greeted by a beautifully arranged table overflowing with yummy cheese trays and fancy pastries. I enjoyed a glass of Mango Passion Punch and for those who wanted, there were fancy glasses of champagne, served in these pretty Anthropologie "Horta" glasses, each topped with a perfect red raspberry. They had plenty of copies of the book on hand, and many of the guests grabbed extra copies to give as gifts. It was a really crowded event, and a very hipster crowd - it was neat to see so many different people gathered to hear her speak. Gretchen was kind enough to pose for a quick picture as she signed my book. 

At the Book Stall event in Winnetka the next day, I enjoyed a cup of Paris-themed tea and a Madeleine to remind me of one of my other favorites, Marcel Proust. At this second event, we picked up copies of the Happiness Project One-Sentence Journal, which is a wonderful companion option for lots of happiness-boosting spread out over five whole years to come. I think it will really help to have this pretty little blue book to remind me of my own happiness goals! 

It was great to be able to attend both of these events, even though I might not usually plan to repeat this type of experience twice. Each event offered different learnings and I am an even bigger Gretchen Rubin fan than before! I am really looking forward to reading Happier at Home very soon. Have you read any of her books or tried a "happiness project" of your own? I would love to hear about it!

September 24, 2012

road trip: grand rapids

Last week was one of those rare weeks when all sorts of lovely experiences seem to squeeze into an unbelievably short amount of time. I had the privilege of joining Ryan for a couple of his performances over the last few days, and one of the shows was in Grand Rapids, MI. We arrived in Grand Rapids after a rainy drive, and met up at the venue with our friends Jim and Cherie. While Ryan and Jim rehearsed for the show, Cherie and I slipped out to get coffee. We walked a few blocks through downtown Grand Rapids, where Cherie introduced me to a coffee shop called Madcap Coffee - one of her local favorites. I took her recommendation and got the "Cafe Miel," which is a latte with honey and cinnamon, and it was absolutely delicious. I picked out a bag of their El Porvenir whole bean roast to bring back home, too. I am excited to try this roast as a part of my morning French Press routine. If the Cafe Miel was any indicator, it will be a win for sure! It was a wonderful coincidence that ArtPrize (an art contest based in Grand Rapids) had just started this weekend - there was an incredibly gorgeous art installation, "Perspective Lifters," which filled the entire coffee shop. It was so magical to enter the shop and be charmed by the hanging paper houses, art prints, and ladders mounted and grouped throughout the space. 
As we headed back to the venue with our coffee, we stopped into a stationery shop called 6.25 Paper Studio. I loved this little message posted high on the wall near these pretty polka-dot balloons! And I found some very special treasures to bring back with me. I am especially taken with this 2013 calendar by Smock - it will be such a pretty way to keep track of the year ahead! I adore all things Audrey Hepburn, and I am excited to find a special use for this pink notebook and this darling washi tape, too.
Ryan played the Ladies Literary Club in Grand Rapids once before, and it is one of my all-time favorites! It is such a beautiful, elegant space - open and roomy with its high, formal ceilings, yet still intimate and cozy. Lovely woodwork and moldings are accented by a gorgeous crystal chandelier in the lobby, as well as an original Louis Comfort Tiffany window, commissioned long ago for the space as a gift from one of the Club's members. (Did not get a good picture, I am sorry to say!) I love the idea of the venue's history as a Literary Club - so neat! I am so happy that Calvin College now continues to host music events in the space. It is always SO great to hear Ryan play live, especially with a string quartet!! (He is going to be touring on the East Coast soon with strings, look here for more info...)
Before heading back home the next morning, we joined Cherie and Jim again for an incredibly yummy brunch at Marie Catrib's. We couldn't have been happier with our choices and with so many healthful, delicious menu options, this restaurant received maximum stars from all of us!
On our drive home, we experienced more rain, but in between, we enjoyed the Midwestern expanse of cloudy skies as they put on a show for us, shifting and swirling themselves into one dreamy landscape after another. I am reminded that even the smallest, shortest of road trips can turn your world just enough to grant you amazing new experiences and perspectives. 

September 19, 2012

artist date: hometown discoveries

This week's artist date was the perfect example of how my creative journey leads me places I never really intended to go. I set out this past weekend to visit the "Riverwalk Fine Art Fair" hosted annually in downtown Naperville by the Naperville Art League. When I worked in downtown Naperville a couple of years ago, I was aware of this art fair taking place each Fall, but never took the time to attend myself. In my decorating adventures, I have come to appreciate fine art more and more. And what better way to stimulate my creative senses than to take in the art of others who are dedicated to their craft? 
The art fair was pretty big, two blocks long and doubled up in some places, but most of the art was not my personal style. It was inspiring to see so many different fine art forms represented, and to see so many people gathered in one place for this reason! But I felt a little deflated as I walked past booth after booth and nothing really caught my fancy. It was a cool day, but nice and sunny, and so I decided to keep exploring a bit and make the most of the trip. The Naperville Riverwalk flanks both sides of the West Branch of the DuPage River, covering an almost two-mile stretch of the river banks. Even though I had worked here for almost two years, I had never walked the whole Riverwalk. So this became the second half of my artist date.
It turned out that the art that inspired me on my artist date was the art of the Riverwalk's landscape itself: so many monuments, sculptures and sights that I had never seen before or failed to appreciate. I had heard of Centennial Beach, but had never grasped what anyone referred to. The Beach is closed this time of year, but it was almost more amazing to see it abandoned, to grasp the enormity of the space. I never saw the paddleboat dock before, and only once before had stopped to observe the Millenium Carillon (a musical bell tower featuring 72 bells, Naperville's carillon ranks among the four largest in the world). I hadn't seen any of the Riverwalk sculptures, or even understood the geography of how the DuPage River winds along. It became an adventure of hometown discoveries. I won't narrate every picture, but you can learn more about the Riverwalk sculptures and history here!
As I observed the anniversary of the September 11th tragedy just a week ago with a heavy, contemplative heart, I did not know how to put my thought into any form. It felt like a gift to discover this monument to those whose lives were lost or changed forever on that day. 
And I was left to contemplate a few mysteries left behind by unknown individuals: a battered, worn Bible left all alone on a bench (who left it there??), and this small monument along the shaded South Bank Riverwalk path, with a lovely message about "what we need." 

September 17, 2012

feeling my way

I am taking a new yoga class this term, and today was my second class with my new instructor. She is really strong in her verbal cues as she leads us through the flow of our practice. In class this morning, she reminded us several times during our first few poses that we should take the poses slowly and begin to wake up our muscles, to let them know we would be using them more soon. As we held our poses, she reminded us to elongate on our inhale breaths, and to settle more deeply into the pose on our exhales. I felt the transformation within each pose. I began each pose stiffly and awkwardly, but by following her gentle, confident instruction, I found increasing comfort and strength in every pose, breath by breath. As I returned home, her words have stayed with me. 

Just as in my poses this morning, I have to let myself ease into my creative practice today, tomorrow, forever. A gentle beginning, a warming up of muscles, is not defeat. I tend to think that if I can not go right in swinging, I am somehow failing myself, falling short of my own capability. I want my energy and drive to be operating at 100% capacity all of the time. But I have been experiencing the trial and error of this approach in these last few weeks. My expectations have pushed me harder in moments, but have also made me fall harder when I cannot seem to achieve them. Warming up to the poses this morning did not let us off the hook; the harder poses came later in our practice and they were still challenging. Throughout our one and a half hour class, we still had to focus completely, to concentrate our energy and reach as hard as we could into those challenging poses. And afterward, we gently wound the poses back down, to restore ourselves and our bodies, in preparation for our return to our varied days and lives outside the studio. 

I am learning to accept that pursuing my creative dreams might sometimes mean "feeling my way" through lots of fear and insecurity, just as I felt my way into my poses this morning. Or even feeling my way through different warm-up poses. One day, it might be music that opens up my practice, and another day it might be a book, or a walk, or a conversation with a friend. Or it might just be a few moments spent pondering a lovely vase of flowers, and my gratitude for this gift of beauty in my life. Perhaps allowing myself to enter one stage first, and then another, until the way becomes clearer, is the only way to really achieve anything at all. It is like having to choose a direction at a fork in a dark tunnel, without any clue where it might lead. All you have to hold on to is the peace and truth you can feel as you walk along, and in order to find where the path will lead, you have to keep on walking. Listening to my inner thoughts and instincts will tell me if I am on the right path or wrong. And no amount of preparation or research can substitute for this practice of feeling your way as you go. Maybe the tunnels of insecurity will last only one more week, or maybe months. More likely, they will punctuate our journeys all along the way, taking new forms and following new patterns. Maybe time will provide solutions, will help me find my stride, or maybe finding this gentle stride is the solution itself.  

I believe that God allows the truth of what we are created to do to come to us in waves. First, we need to begin somewhere, then we need to move on to someplace else, and on and on, we must always be moving towards his greatest use of our gifts. But it can be really, really uncomfortable. I love to attack a project that has a clear beginning, middle and end, a clear cause and effect pattern, and a clear grading scale for my efforts and results. But this new journey is so much less clear and patterned. And perhaps the only true mark of progress is in taking whatever I can feel to be the right next step

So today, and this week, I am going to embrace this practice of feeling my way through. 

Does it work like this for you, too??

September 14, 2012

inspired: honey bee weekend

When I set out on my artist date to the Morton Arboretum last week in pursuit of the Reading Garden, I had no idea that I was also in for another inspiring experience! As I pulled up to pay my entrance fee, I noticed what seemed like a million bees buzzing around the lovely flower beds by the gatehouses. There were so many that I had to close my windows as I waited my turn, so that I wouldn't end up with a bee in my car! Walking up to the Visitor Center a few minutes later, I noticed signs posted everywhere, advertising the Arboretum's annual "Honey Bee Weekend," taking place that very day.
I am so inspired by bees. Their cooperation, their instinct, the way that individually, each bee plays such a tiny role but every role is necessary. And I love how such tiny individual creatures are so intrinsic to the prosperity of agriculture and flowers and so much of what makes our world beautiful and functional every day. I am by no means a bee expert, and I have had no actual experience with beekeeping. But I have read a lot about bees and beekeeping, and attended a scientific lecture a few years back on the "Disappearing Bees" phenomenon, just because I find them so fascinating. Beekeeping is one of my someday ideals, which would have surely been listed in my goals post the other day, if I had let myself keep going. I think they are beautiful and I am absolutely captivated by learning about their purpose and cooperative achievements in nature. 
I decided to be spontaneous with my day and signed up for a tour with a docent, which included a walk over to visit one of the Arboretum's hives. Our tour ended up just with myself and another guest, so our docent gave us great attention and answered every question we could think of in our hour's tour. A lot of the information she shared were things I already knew, but there were a lot of visual resources and props available throughout the display booths that helped to illustrate the knowledge she shared. Here are a few moments and sights that really inspired me! 
My bee adventure turned out to be a wonderful prelude to my "Reading Garden" artist date which followed! I am grateful for the way my day unfolded, for my chance to share in this unexpected learning, and to be inspired by the bees all over again. 

September 13, 2012

charting my passions

I am an idealist. I have more ideals than I can even remember or keep track of all at once. So whenever I choose to focus on one particular ideal or passion, it is easy to grow discouraged about the rest of them. For years, I have made resolutions, set goals, created lists of all that I aspire to achieve and experience. Here are just a few of them:
  • speak fluent French (have been learning for many years, still not there)
  • read one volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time collection each year
  • move past "beginner" level in my yoga practice
  • learn to make great pies
  • finish decorating our apartment
  • write back to all of the emails in my inbox
  • finish knitting something I can actually wear
These are only ideas right off the top of my head. I stopped because I realized the list could keep on going forever. Literally forever. This list does not even begin to include the usual "everyman" goals like eating healthier, being more organized, and exercising more, and of course these are on my lists, too. 

But as I have reminded myself often in these posts, it is important to remember that I can begin anywhere. It might just be this year's official theme for me! (And maybe next year's too, and maybe my lifetime....!) I can begin in the middle of a month. I can begin with just a few goals. I know that my idealist self can go too far, can push so hard for growth in one direction that I feel an even bigger failure in the rest. 
As I focus my attention, energy and goals on my writing in new ways this month, I am in danger of losing balance in my daily life. It is so easy to forget the value of balance. Yes, I need to write more, but I also need to take care of myself in other ways that will help me to feel hopeful and proud of progress. The creative journey can be one that is so hard to track. I love check marks and progress and items crossed off lists, and I realized that I needed to find a way to give myself this satisfaction. I need to put pressure on myself in my writing, but I don't think it is healthy for ALL of my idealistic pressure to ONLY be directed into my writing. 
I remembered reading about Gretchen Rubin's "resolution charts" in her wonderful book The Happiness Project. She had mentioned in the book that her charts were available for free download on her website, so I looked them up and printed out a few copies of the blank chart version. I filled in the first eight goals that came to mind, trying to make sure they covered a wide range of my ideals and were not all just about my creative practice. When I practice my other life ideals, they often provide such important inspiration for my writing, and when I get tunnel-vision and only focus on writing, I can lose that richness, texture and contrast in my daily life. My goals for the rest of this month are not lofty or complicated, for the most part. They are simple and clear, easily achieved just with a little intention. And it helped a lot that there were only eight boxes, it kept my idealistic impulses a little bit more realistic. Some of the goals, like "morning pages," might already be a normal part of my daily life, but I felt it was important to continue to practice consciousness in these goals and celebrate them each day.
I have only been using the charts for five days now, but already it feels great to be checking off columns. The check marks are fun but I might need to get some cute stickers to use instead to make it a little more colorful and fun - any suggestions? I am trying to be gentle with my expectations - I am not going to achieve every goal every day. So my goal instead is honesty and ambition. Some goals are really clear and measurable, and some are very vague, but I know deep down whether or not I achieved each goal each day. I want to be honest and accept what I truly did or did not accomplish each day, and I also want to be ambitious about starting each new day fresh and believing in my ability to accomplish as many of those goals as possible. Whatever goals I do not achieve would definitely not have been achieved anyway if I had not made my goal-chart, so I am no worse off! And anything I do achieve can help me feel proud of my efforts and successes. It is also encouraging to see the patterns... I might miss several goals one day but achieve all of them the next, and it is good to see that this is simply the nature of aspiration. Sometimes you will achieve it all, and sometimes you will not. But the next day is always a new chance with a new possible outcome. It helps me to see the flow of possibility and not focus so hard on any one given day! 

My daily creative writing is on my chart as one of my goals each day, but it is just one of eight boxes that need to be checked, and this helps me to be gentler with my creative self and not put as much pressure on those ambitions! I am thinking a lot about goals lately and will probably post about this more in future... how do you keep track of goals? How do you choose which goals to reach for next? Have you found any systems or motivation that works for you? I would love to hear how goals work for you!