Monday, November 29, 2010

Take Time to Slow Down (Sorry, Mom!)

Some of the last advice my mom gave me before she died was this: “When you have a baby, you need to slow down.” I’m embarrassed to say I sort of shrugged it off. Never mind that she was a veteran, having already raised five children. Never mind that she was approaching death, and had this all-wise eternal perspective on life. I thought I was superwoman.

I got a sort of high out of the adrenalin rush of living life in the fast lane: Meet with clients in their fancy westside offices. Work long hours meeting deadlines with creative solutions. Feed, clothe, house and nurture a family. I prided myself in the fact that I missed only one day of work to have a baby, that I was on the phone with clients from my delivery bed in the hospital, assuring them their projects would be delivered on time. I completely blew off my mother’s slowing-down advice. In fact, if anything, I sped up.

And you know what? I was wrong. Of course Mom was right.

Don’t misunderstand — I took good care of my babies. And I took care of my clients. Nearly always in that order. :) I did the ritual late-night feedings and changings, breastfed my babies while I talked on the phone with clients (only somewhat mortified when they burped loudly into the phone!), I rocked them, sang to them, read to them, nursed them on demand. (And I simultaneously churned out stellar gala invitations and corporate brochures.) But I missed lots of wonderful moments with my children, skipped some of the pure enjoyment of these little miracles growing up right under my nose!

The one person I didn’t take care of was me. I was a pretty stressed-out mom. I fell into a deep depression after about eight or nine years of this designer-supermom craziness. It became clear that taking time for myself was not a luxury, but a very deep need.

The refreshingly gritty and original Anne Lamott echoed my mom’s advice in this article from Sunset Magazine last spring:
...The good news is that creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.
Then I bring up the bad news: You have to make time to do this.
She concludes, “I’ve heard it said that every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self—unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.”
I almost laughed when I read that last line. I so need that perspective — that when you’re stresed and things are crazy you need even MORE time for yourself. MORE slowing down. Yes.

At the beginning of October I heard this talk, wherein there are echoes of both Anne Lamotte and my mother:
What do you suppose pilots do when they encounter turbulence? A student pilot may think that increasing speed is a good strategy because it will get them through the turbulence faster. But that may be the wrong thing to do. Professional pilots understand that there is an optimum turbulence penetration speed that will minimize the negative effects of turbulence. And most of the time that would mean to reduce your speed. The same principle applies also to speed bumps on a road....Slow down a little, steady the course, and focus on the essentials when experiencing adverse conditions. (italics added)

This line in particular reminded me of my mom’s advice: “We would be wise to slow down a little.”
"Strength comes not from frantic activity but from being settled on a firm foundation of truth and light.” He adds, "too often we attempt to keep the same frantic pace or even accelerate, thinking that the more rushed our pace, the better off we will be."
(Doesn’t that sound exactly like what I did, back when my kids were small?)
"Let’s be honest; it’s rather easy to be busy. We can all think of a list of tasks that will overwhelm our schedule. Some might even think that their self-worth depends on the length of their to-do list.”
“Because they unnecessarily complicate their lives, they often feel increased frustration, diminished joy and too little sense of meaning in their lives." (italics added)
"Let us simplify our lives a little. Let us make the changes necessary to refocus our lives on the sublime beauty of the simple, humble path of Christian discipleship — the path that leads always toward a life of meaning, gladness, and peace."

He then lists four key relationships on which to focus: God, Family, Our Fellowmen, and Self, each of which require spending devoted time. It was that last one that surprised me. Self? But listen to what he says:
The fourth key relationship is with ourselves. It may seem odd to think of having a relationship with ourselves, but we do. Some people can’t get along with themselves. They criticize and belittle themselves all day long until they begin to hate themselves. May I suggest that you reduce the rush and take a little extra time to get to know yourself better. Walk in nature, watch a sunrise, enjoy God’s creations, ponder the truths of the restored gospel, and find out what they mean for you personally. Learn to see yourself as Heavenly Father sees you—as His precious daughter...with divine potential.

I thought of those early, crazy Designer-Supermom years, and what they did to my stress level, to my family, to me, and I knew deep down he was right. (As were Anne Lamott, and my mother.) We somehow need to make nurturing time for ourselves, in addition to everything else. And we need to slow down to do it.

Sorry, Mom. I’ve always been a little slow when it comes to taking your advice. But this time I’m ready to listen. I’m ready to slow down, simplify, and refocus, particularly on those key relationships. I know I could use a bit more time spent in quiet beauty, and the promises of meaning, gladness and peace? Are irresistible.

* * * * *
p.s. My friend Melanie J (I know her in person, and in addition to her rare gift for witty banter, she has some of the world's most beautiful children and a completely adorable husband) has posted a great review of my book, What Think Ye of Christmas, called "Un-Grinching and Embracing Christmas," here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Three Kernels of Corn

Legend has it that when the pilgrims first arrived in the New World, conditions were harsh, and at times all they had was a ration of a few kernels of corn.
“But then, as if by the grace of God, their trials began to subside. After three long years, what was once famine eventually became a feast of sheer abundance. They feasted for three solid days… and gave thanks to God for their new found bounty.

However, before that feast began, they all received [three] kernels of corn on their plate as a reminder of where they had come from, and in honor of those who had died.”
One of our favorite family traditions is to place, as the original pilgrims did, three kernels of corn above each plate. After dinner is over we all sit around the table and give thanks for our three kernels of corn — each representing a blessing, or more often a category of multiple blessings.

This year my three kernels of corn are all for miracles:

First, I’m grateful for this miracle, and the joy of having our whole family together this Thanksgiving.

Second, I’m grateful for this miracle you’ve all been reading about, and still in awe that I had a small part to play in its fruition.

Third, I’m grateful for two very sweet experiences this year, also miracles, where I was able to feel the distinct presence of my mother, who passed away almost twenty years ago. One was in the temple on her birthday, too sacred to share; and the other I wrote about here.

Surrounding and encompassing all of these, I’m grateful for their Source: a loving Father who, with his living Son, is still very much involved in the lives of His children, caring enough to send real miracles to otherwise ordinary people. And once in awhile...even to me.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On Piano, Performance Anxiety, (Im)Perfection, and a Pattern...PLUS the big announcement! (Not Pregnancy) :)

On Piano, Performance, Perfection and a Pattern

I experienced my first performance anxiety when I was in junior high. I was playing the piano in a recital at our church. I had practiced for weeks and perfected the piece, I thought. Then suddenly I sat at the piano on that big stage, in front of that big audience, and I panicked. I got halfway through the song and my mind went blank and the notes on the page turned to an indecipherable blur. In slow-motion agony that felt like reliving my worst nightmare, I fumbled, stopped, and started over. I got to the same point and couldn’t find my way out of the abyss and just jumped to the next section and finished the piece.

I remember the mortification I felt to this day: Unable to face anyone in the audience, I slipped out the side exit, rushed down the hall and out the door and walked all the way home.  The house was locked, so I climbed through my bedroom window and hid in my room, for hours. I could not bear the thought of making such a colossal mistake in front of so many people.

In the meantime my family had no idea where I’d gone. They had been looking for me everywhere, and started to worry I’d been kidnapped. My family eventually realized I was home, and all was well. But this experience marked the beginning of a longstanding pattern of piano performance anxiety that has been, at times, crippling for me: 

I practice. I perfect. I perform. I panic. I make mistakes. I can’t recover. I am mortified. I want to quit. Or disappear. 

Ironically, during that miserable performance, my mother discovered I had a germ of talent as a pianist. She didn’t focus on the mistakes. She focused on the potential. A day or two later, after most of the sting had worn off, she told me I had played very musically, with beautiful technique and great expression, and was ready to audition for the big leagues. She took me to play for two of her former teachers, including a wonderful retired concert pianist from New York named Becky Almond.

Here emerges a new phase in the pattern, which I didn’t recognize until years later: I practice. I perfect. I perform. I panic. I make mistakes. I can’t recover. I am mortified. Some surprising and unbelievable good results from this painful process.

Because I thought so highly of Miss Almond, I practiced even harder than before. Miss Almond also helped a little with my performance anxiety, teaching me how to perfect a piece phrase by phrase, making sure I could play each section “six times -- perfect” before I went on. If I made a mistake after #4, I had to start over until I got six in a row. For some reason six was the magic number. I eventually had to play the whole piece “six times -- perfect.” At that point, you can almost play it on auto-pilot. You practice exactness.

She also taught me not to wince or make a big scene, if I did make a mistake. She said everybody — even concert pianists — make mistakes, but they know how to recover and keep going. They don’t get rattled; they maintain their dignity. You practice honor.

Another performance, years later, completely altered my perspective: 
In college I was asked to play for my cousin’s missionary farewell. We were close, and I approached the assignment prayerfully, selecting what I thought was the most beautiful music imaginable, a piano transcription of Faure’s Pavane. My mom wrote a flute obbligato for my younger sister. The addition of the flute made me slightly less nervous. A new-and-improved pattern emerged. I was well prepared. I prayed. I performed. It wasn’t perfect. But I played my heart out. Then something happened that still drops my jaw whenever I think about it.

There was a little reception after the meeting, and while we were all milling about, a man I’d never seen before approached me. He looked a bit ragged, and I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t sure what to think of this stranger at first. But he spoke a sentence that taught me the power of music and changed my life. He said, and I swear these are his exact words, “I was contemplating suicide, and your music gave me the will to live.”

That was one of those moments where the world stops. Freeze-frame. And then everything adjusts to surround this new paradigm.

I realized that my perfectionism was getting in the way of my performance. That genuine expression can eclipse a few false notes. And that acknowledging my imperfections is not the same thing as embracing mediocrity. It’s humbling. And pushes me to try harder each time, hoping.  

Today I had to accompany the church choir for our Thanksgiving program. The pieces were difficult...Rutter. I practiced. Every day. For weeks. Starting slowly. Working out the difficult passages. Counting the ledger lines. Gradually speeding things up. With a metronome. Eventually I had both pieces seamless and up to tempo.

But there’s that darn performancy anxiety again. Literally anything could happen if I panic. I pray. I’m prepared. I perform. It’s not perfect. It’s never perfect. I make mistakes. Every single time. But I recover. I play my heart out. And I hope somebody who needs to hear it is listening. 

I’ve decided this new-and-improved pattern is a lot like life: I’m not perfect. Not even close. I keep making mistakes, no matter how hard I try. But like Peter, if I panic, I sink. I pray. I recover. I live my heart out. And I hope I manage to reach someone who needs me. Then watch for some unexpected good to happen.

* * * * *

And now for the big announcement:
First...the winner of Luisa Perkins’ wonderful cookbook, Comfortably Yum, is The Mom, from Outnumbered. I just know you’ll love this—I could tell from your comment that it’s a perfect fit.

Now...I loved your gift lists, especially the ones who took the time to type out something extra thoughtful. Thank you. I really do wish I could give ten books to every single one of you. But chose only one. So finally, the winner of a copy of What Think Ye of Christmas for every person on your gift list goes to: Happy Mom, from Hunyville Happenings. When her smile first showed up on my list of followers it made my whole day. She has a wedding going on over there, and I’m guessing this gift will relieve some stress. Congratulations!

Winners: Don't forget to send me your mailing addresses. And acceptance speeches are always welcome.

Note to the rest of you: Be not dismayed. You can order the book on my website, and still get a killer deal! If you order ten or more, the quantity discount lets you steal these books at less than $8 apiece. On top of that, if you enter the discount code CHARRETTE you get an additional 5% off your entire order, reserved only for my blog friends. So go crazy!

Also, there's another giveaway going on right this very minute from Steph over at Diapers and Divinity. I always love her sense of mission, and am excited to see what she has to say today.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Oh, if only there were a better word than WINNER...

I have exactly six winners to announce here today. But, even as I type this, I'm suddenly not crazy about the word "winner". Alternatively, "prize-taker-homer" doesn't sound very sharp or official, or even literate. I think I prefer the way the Oscars® do it, acknowledging in advance that they are all, each of them winners, but the prize ultimately can only go to one person. --Oh, wait, and since this is about Christmas, we'll call them gifts:
First, a used copy of the original 1978 book PLUS a copy of my new edition, as mentioned in this post, goes to: (I'm opening the envelope, but not wearing a glitter gown) my new friend Shari, of Think, Dream, Inspire.

Second, a set of six notecards from the book PLUS a copy of the book, as mentioned in this post, goes to my friend Kate, of Walking Kateastrophe fame. (Rumor has it she tripped on the red carpet on her way in tonight!)

On Day 3 I offered two books instead of one — one to each of two lucky commenters — to commemorate the two paintings a day I mentioned in this post. The two books go to my friend LisAway, of Away From It All (please just tell me I don't have to ship the book to Poland!) and my friend Heather,, around the corner from my house? :)

Next, we have another set of six notecards AND a copy of the book, as mentioned in this post, all of which go to: (drum roll please) my friend Rachel, of Shoes—and Ships—and Sealing-wax.

And now the moment we've all been waiting for: The art print (giclée) and one copy of the book as announced on this post (no, don't start the music — I haven't announced the winner, er, um recipient yet!) The art print (giclée) and one copy of the book go to my friend Mary Ellen, whose blog is private.

Even though the awards were selected by, I'm quite pleased with its selection of winners, all people I know and love. You celebs have until Sunday night (Nov. 21) at midnight to claim your gifts (by emailing me your mailing address and your card/art selection, if applicable). Any gift not claimed will be tossed into another drawing and a new prize-taker-homer announced on Monday, the 22nd.

More good news? Well, I have one more giveaway left, here. A big one. A book for everyone on your Christmas gift list (up to ten). Just leave your list in the comments. I also have book reviews and giveaways scheduled to appear on some of my favorite blogs from now until Christmas, so check back often. In fact, right this minute there's a giveaway up at One Wild and Precious Life by my friend Jessica, in Ohio. She and I started blogging within days of each other, never having met, but with a similar sense of mission. It only took the universe a few short weeks to make our worlds collide. (Thank you, Heather of the EO.) Total kindred spirits. You can read what she has to say about the book (and maybe win a copy) here.

Thank you so much for all your wonderful comments, your interest in my book and my art, and your friendship, which means the world to me! I'd also like to thank my— *static white noise*

* * * * *

Please leave congratulations and acceptance speeches below. I promise I won't cut you off after 30 seconds!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Christmas All Summer—Opening Miracles

This is a continuation of a story that starts here

Okay, I'll spare you the minute-by-minute details, but my two weeks of solitude and serenity painting in my studio were suddenly eclipsed by the mayhem of design production. The week that followed was a watershed of calamities, including a trip to the hospital with Katie (don't worry—she's fine) and the super-expensive digital files coming back all wrong, and my husband (thank you, honey!) taking the morning off work to help me color-correct all the scans. The stress put me over the edge. I stopped going to bed on time, stopped my workout regimen, and had a-headache-bordering-on-a-migraine that lasted all week. I was a wreck.

The files had to be uploaded to my printer in Los Angeles on July 9th. Of course the computers crashed. Of course the FTP site was full. Of course I couldn't access the site from my computer and had to transfer everything downstairs on a jump drive. Of course there was a problem with the cover. Par for the course, right? But then — suddenly, at 11:57 p.m. (just minutes before the clock struck twelve and I turned into a pumpkin!) the whole thing worked, the files were gone, and I turned off my computer and went to bed.

The next morning I got up at 5 to run a 5K. Because I said I would. I'd been training for it all summer. And I was rewarded with one of the most beautiful sunrises I've ever seen. A gift. I finished the 5K, running it in four 8-minute segments with short walks in between. Another gift.

The proofs arrived via Fedex the following Monday. (I told you Peter was amazing!) We made some minor corrections, signed off on everything, and overnighted the proofs back to Los Angeles. And then I had to wait. For the longest 2 1/2 weeks of my life. (No — the second longest. The longest were the 2 1/2 weeks my first baby was past his due date!) The project was completely out of my hands. I could do nothing but pray. I prayed for the printers in Korea. I prayed for the bindery. I prayed that the boat wouldn't sink.

The books were scheduled to arrive on August 1. They didn't make it. *breathe*
I called Peter. He said they were tied up in customs and should deliver on the 2nd. *breathe*The convention starts on the 3rd. *breathe*The 2nd came. The books didn't arrive. Heartsick, but with a shred of hope, I called Ester back and told her sometimes UPS and other carriers often deliver as late as 7pm. *breathe*We go out to dinner. I can't eat. *breathe* (Oh, me of little faith.)
The doorbell rings. Our 11-year-old answers, and brings me a box.
Here I am, opening a miracle. (Yes, I had to capture the moment). My sample copies.

Ester calls the next morning: "You were right. They came on the dot of 7pm last night. We have plenty of books here in time for the convention." *exhale prayer of thanks*
Looking back, I spent my whole summer indoors. I missed my family vacation. I spent my whole summer working. And it was one of my best summers ever, because I spent my whole summer focused on Christmas: On Christ, and the miracle of His birth.I opened gifts called Connection, Harmony, Joy. I opened gifts I thought I didn't want: Darkness, Despair, and a Dare. I responded with gifts of my own: Toil, Solitude, Prayer. And found myself reveling in more gifts: Water, Light, Inspiration. In a way I felt like the Littlest Angel — reaching unworthily toward the altar with my grubby little hands, placing there all I had to offer, hoping it would be acceptable.

And I opened a miracle. I couldn't believe that just 2 1/2 weeks later, I was hefting the finished product, opening a real cover, turning actual pages. And as close to perfect as I could have hoped. I never imagined my summer of non-stop Christmas would hold so many wonderful gifts, such an increase of faith, such powerful peace. And this little miracle I was holding embodied it allit began as a book about symbols, and ultimately became one.

* * * * *

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Christmas All Summer — Water, Light, Inspiration

This is a continuation of a story that starts here

* * * * *

Everybody came home. They were so full of cousins and stories and jet ski adventures they didn’t even ask to see the paintings. I took the children aside and explained my routine, then asked them to please honor it this coming week: Ninety minutes uninterrupted in the studio, then a 20-minute break for them, plus longer breaks for lunch and dinner, then ninety minutes in the studio again. And again. And again. They accepted this offer rather reluctantly.

Late one morning my son came down to the studio to announce, “It’s been ninety minutes.” (He’d been watching the clock!) “Can we go look for back-to-school shoes?” “I have twenty minutes,” I said, “Let’s go!” I put down my brush and we darted upstairs for the door. We finished shopping and were on our way home when I looked at the clock. It had been twenty-three minutes. Then I added, “Well, I do allow myself a bit more time for lunch and dinner —— let’s grab a sandwich.” Lunch, shoe-shopping, and I was still on schedule, with one completely happy 11-year-old boy at my side.

That’s how my days went. I painted all day and half the night. And nurtured my children during love-packed twenty-minute breaks. (Thank heaven I only had to do this for a week!)

Meanwhile, back in the studio, the challenge was growing. I had unconsciously managed to save all the paintings of people for the end. Now I was painting a group of carolers, a child looking through a store window, Santa, my grandma...there was a figure in every painting, often more than one. And the most daunting of all I saved for the very last...Jesus.

The pressure was mounting. I chose the medium of watercolor because of its inherent spiritual quality, its reliance on water and light. But that same water and light also brings with it an element of risk, a lack of control, the chance of ruining it with every stroke. My dad says you haven’t mastered it until you’ve thrown away a thousand paintings! But I didn’t have time to chuck any of these. They had to be right.

Yet strangely, I painted in peace. The Christmas music ministered to me. The lyrics seemed to amplify the images I was creating. The words of the book distilled on my soul as I contemplated the subjects I was painting. Symbols (many unplanned) became clear, right down to the very color a subject should be painted, as though it were given to me through a direct conduit.

Listening to Christmas music helped keep me focused on the heart of the book's message. The Sarah Groves CD came on again, and I felt something so deep as I heard her sing, “It’s true-u-ue. Angels and crowns. A God who came down...” With each painting, I had the opportunity to ponder the accompanying words...often for hours at a time. And what I found was that the words slowly began to reshape my heart. Sometimes, when my brush didn’t manage to do what I saw in my head, I had to remind myself, “Don’t swear!” because I didn’t want to break the spell...lose the conduit of inspiration that was helping me paint.

I had the most powerful experience working on this project because I had to literally immerse myself in the text. First, by breaking down the raw manuscript, pulling out key phrases, deciding which images could best convey each thought. Next, by bringing those ideas to life through my paintings.

What I learned from this book? Is something I thought I already knew...that it's TRUE. It's all true. Angels, wise men, shepherds, gifts, wreaths, a star in the heavens, a child come to save us...every symbol, tradition, and component of the Christmas story is true, and still relevant today.

Finally, with trepidation, I arrived at the one I’d saved for last, the one of Christ with an older child, her face resting in his hands. I had wanted all along to prepare for that one, to take some sacred time, purify my heart, worship in a higher place. But there wasn’t time. Unworthily, I picked up my brush and blocked in his face, his hair his robes. It was working. And I realized I was ready. With each painting I had come to know him better. He’d been with me all along. In Bethlehem, in the lilies, even shadowing the shopper. The truth buried in each paragraph of text, in each painting, had distilled on my soul as I painted. And here was grace making up for my weakness. I painted from my heart. I added the final details. I knew when it was finished.

There was no choir of angels, no trumpet fanfare. I just quietly rinsed out my brush, heard the water ripple and the glass chime for the last time, and tiptoed up to bed. There was one thing I knew for certain: that with God, nothing is impossible. And my twenty paintings were tangible proof.

What I still didn't know...was whether we'd actually make that deadline and have our books there at the convention. In that sense, the book was far from finished. The paintings had to be scanned, placed in files, uploaded to an FTP site, and sent to Korea. There were still so many things that could go wrong -- what if the printing didn’t match the proofs? What if the instructions got all mixed up because of the language barrier? What if the boat sank?

To be continued...Part 6 is here.

* * * * *

Also, don't miss this review of the finished book over at Dreams of Quill and Ink today.
L.T. Elliot shares a wonderful, heart-felt response to the pictures and prose.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Christmas All Summer—Toil, Solitude, Prayer

This is part four of a story that starts here. 

* * * * *

The first thing I did (after learning that I had to do 20 paintings in two weeks) was enlist a small handful of close friends to pray for me.

Next? I started making plans for doing two paintings a day on a houseboat:

Work surface? (check)
Outlets for light table? (check)
Schlepping supplies? (brushes, paints, sketches and layouts, etc.--check)
Schedule? Let's see...
  • One day riding in hot car
  • Three days holing up in houseboat while kids in swimsuits run past, knocking over brushes and water
  • Three days of well-meaning people begging me to go swimming and ride jet-skis
  • Three days of questionable productivity, with constant interruptions and distractions
  • One more day riding home in hot car

When Jeff discovered what I was doing, he was mildly horrified. "You can't bring all your painting stuff and work on the houseboat." "If I can't work, I can't go. The deadline is set in stone." There were some tense and awkward moments over the next few days, until it was time to pack. (This is the part where you all swoon, and sigh deeply over the fact that the man I married is already taken.) Jeff presented a loving and generous alternative: "Okay, I can see you need to stay here and paint. I'll take the kids to Lake Powell. I hope you get a lot done while we're gone."

Whew! Just like that, the panic lifted, and I went from making plans for painting on a houseboat to making plans for painting in my own studio, in total quiet. Instantly I thought of Tolstoy's creative process: Toil, Solitude, Prayer -- and was so grateful I'd have a few days of needed solitude in which to focus my energy and be, perhaps, the most productive and creative I'd ever been.

Ironically, I planned to exist in a very monklike state and keep a very structured regimen for my week of freedom. I prepared some very healthy but minimalist food so I wouldn't need to cook or clean up the whole time I was working. I was up by 7 every day to pray, down a protein shake and work out. From there I painted in strict 90-minute increments, interspersed with 20-minute breaks, during which I did something different to clear my head: A snack, maybe some light reading. Sometimes my "break" was actually folding laundry. :) It surprised me how much I found not just the painting but the actual rhythm of the routine very satisfying and therapeutic.

I started with a landscape (from a photo I took while staying at Sundance). A cozy cabin in the woods that will appear on the last page of the book. Begin with the end in mind...

Next I painted the Bethlehem sky. But I had to stop and start over because it wasn't perfect. And the Bethlehem sky has to be perfect, right? But the second one I tried wasn't perfect either.
Finally, my wise husband (still loading up the car) told me if I kept fixating on that sky I'd never get the rest of the paintings done. I needed to let go and move on. And of course he was right. :)

I consoled myself with my understanding that the Navajo tribes always intentionally weave an imperfection into their creations because only God himself is perfect. I paused right here and went on to the next two...telling myself if there's any time left at the end I can try another one.

I worked steadily, day after day, in my studio-monastery, somewhat miraculously turning out my requisite two paintings a day in my toil-solitude-prayer routine. And if they weren't quite finished, I still quit painting before midnight and went to bed, so I could get up early again the next morning. I was listening to a Sarah Groves Christmas CD fairly often while painting, and one of the tracks had two little kids telling the nativity story, starting with the annunciation. It cheered my soul to hear that tiny little voice say, "Is anything impossible for God?" Maybe not. I'm hoping not.

On Friday, my last day full day of painting before everybody got home from Lake Powell, I had planned to finish three paintings instead of two. My intern, Katie, was scheduled to come help with a few more sketches and scans, and I was already in the studio finishing up a painting from last night. The doorbell rang, and it took me a minute to get up there from the basement. I opened the door to find Katie somewhat collapsed, red-faced and out of breath, on my front porch. "Are you okay?" I asked. She could only manage to shake her head. Bless her heart...Her roommate had needed the car, so she rode her bike all the way up the hill to my house, in 90-degree weather! I could tell from my Webelos manual (I knew that thing would turn out to be a blessing someday!) she had heat stroke. I brought her inside, got her a glass of water, and had her lie down on the couch. Called a friend of mine who's a nurse. And spent the next three hours taking care of her...putting a fan on her, feeding her ice chips and water, running to the store for gatorade and chicken noodle soup.

* * * * *
By the end of the afternoon, it is also the end of Week One. I have no new paintings done, but I also know I've done the right thing. I go back down to the studio, quietly finish the painting I was working on, and start another. I am now one painting behind. I have eleven to go. Most of them are figures. And tomorrow morning Jeff and the kids come home...

To be continued...right here.

 Today there's also a review over at Half Past Kissin' Time. Find out what my friend Mrs. 4444 in Green Bay, Wisconsin has to say about the finished book!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pausing to Honor a VIP

We interrupt our current programming to honor my friend, author Luisa Perkins on her birthday. Since I promised I'd give away a book every day this week, I'm making good on that promise, and giving away a copy of her book, Comfortably Yum to one lucky commenter today.

Here's the review I posted a little over a year ago. (It remains one of my most popular posts of all time, so I think you'll enjoy it). --But first, I have to add that after enjoying it for nearly a year and a half now, this cookbook is the best-loved and most used cookbook I own, pushing aside even the Barefoot Contessa herself. You haven't lived until you've tried Luisa's buttermilk pancakes! (I especially love them with Magleby's buttermilk syrup). Also highly recommended are Patrick's Pasta Sauce, the Applesauce Cake with penuche frosting, and Wedding White Cake with Lemon Curd Frosting (all are to die for). Two particular favorites are the Cream of Vegetable Soup and the Mother-of-Invention Muffins, where she encourages the reader to experiment and come up with infinite variations on a standard, and explains exactly how, where and what you may substitute, and with what results. These two appeal to my creative spirit in a most satisfying way, as I continue to reinvent various forms of deliciousness with rapturous results.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Open Letter to Luisa Perkins, Author of Comfortably Yum: Food for Body and Spirit

Dear Luisa,

Once upon a time, when I was first married (and still in the knight-in-shining-armor phase of our relationship) I truly viewed my husband as a future King (okay, I still do) and believed with all my heart he should eat like one. I had been the unofficial cook in my family for years, but still had an arsenal of very few recipes that were fit for a king. So late at night, while he was shooting footage for film school, I was up reading cookbooks. Studying the way ingredients were combined and herbs were used. Drooling over the ones that sounded truly delicious. Experimenting on a daily basis. And expanding my repertoire exponentially.

I haven't done that for years...

Until last night. Your new cookbook, Comfortably Yum: Food for Body and Spirit arrived in the mail, and I sat down and read the entire book, cover to cover. I couldn't put it down, despite the deadlines that are gripping my psyche, and the dustbunnies that are not only multiplying but rapidly becoming ferocious dragons all over the house.

I read. I laughed. I nodded in agreement. I found a soulmate. I was inspired.

This made me laugh:
Elga called it a dessert when she gave me the little handwritten index card, but I know she must have been kidding, because, um, see, Elga, it doesn't have any chocolate in it. But it makes a fantastic breakfast item...
This spoke to me in words I hadn't yet found to describe:
Cooking well is an art and a joy and a way to nurture yourself and your household all at the same time.
In this aspect, and many others, you are my twin separated at birth (although I am quite possibly not "as far down the food obsession continuum" as you are.):
We don't just savor delicious things; we are transported, practically Meg-Ryan-in-When Harry-Met-Sally-style.
(I would add here that Brillig just sent me a hilarious laughing-out-loud email busting me for using the word orgasmic in reference to the restaurant where we ate last night. My sister-in-law literally let out a rhapsodic squeal over the layer-upon-layer-of-chocolate dessert, as if she had just won not only the Showcase, but also the new Corvette...and I countered to the waiter, "I'll have what she's having.")
Our food addiction was enabled for many years by the fact that we lived in New York City, which is pretty much Mecca for restaurant goers. We never could bear to repeat-visit places because there was always something new to try.
Substitute Pasadena for New York City, and I could have written the west coast version of this paragraph, verbatim.

I read the excerpts from your travel journal and think about the way Jeff and I ate our way through Italy, and sixteen years later we still remember where we ate the best risotto, the best gelato, and the truly transcendent ribollita (which set Jeff on a quest to find the perfect recipes so I could duplicate it all at home. When we returned we invited our friends over...not for a slideshow or a travelogue, but an authentic Italian dinner.). I can't wait to try Patrick's pasta sauce.

I read about the way you're training your children to love good food, and thought of one of our family mottos: "Parkins aren't picky". (We're just very, very choosy.) I read about your son wondering aloud why he's the only one of his friends who doesn't like school cafeteria food, and it reminded me of this classic:

We took our youngest to preview several preschools when he was three, one of which actually had its own lunchroom. Mr. Cool saw a poster on the wall showing the food pyramid, pointed to it and said, "Mmm. Yummy fish!" The woman guiding our tour said proudly, "Yes. We have our own lunch room. Do you like fish sticks?" Mr Cool gave her a blank stare. "Actually," I explained, "he's never had fish sticks." "Oh," she said, recovering nicely,"but I bet you like tater tots!" Again, a blank stare. "I don't think he's ever had tater tots either" I explained. "Well, what do YOU like to eat?" she asked him directly, and without missing a beat he responded, "Salmon and couscous." Just like that. I pray we haven't ruined our children.

Even now, as I read...
  • I am thinking of all my wonderful food snob friends with whom I've shared many excellent meals and cherished recipes, and would now like to share this book.
  • I am wondering how you manage to stay so impossibly thin while eating so much bacon and cheese and potatoes and heavy cream.
  • I am reveling in the commentary, delighted by the way you were able to put so much of yourself on every page, in every recipe.
  • I am loving that you quote Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.R. R. Tolkien, Broadway musicals, and name a dip after Lynard Skynard.
  • Most important, I am reminded why I love to cook. How the alchemy of the kitchen, the flavors and aromas, has such power over me. I am reminded that I LOVE to nurture my family through good food.

I longed to tell you that when I made a local restaurant recommendation to our wonderful Kimberly during her writers' conference weekend, I noted: "I'm positive Luisa would LOVE Pizzeria 712 (sustainable, organic, gourmet wood-fired pizzas)" I guess I wanted to let you know, I get it. I might not always do it, but I get it.

I find myself wanting to have long conversations with you Debating, for example, the merits of sea salt over kosher salt. Sharing recipes and philosophies. Breaking bread. I especially want to tell you that my grandmother made those very same beloved salmon patties, but no one's quite been able to reverse-engineer the recipe, so I'm grateful for yours.

And, while I'm certain that house next door to you is WAY out of my price range, and would make for a long and tiresome commute for my hubby, I'm finding it very, very tempting.

Thank you for this wonderful book. The title is perfect. (And, after reading, I have to concede that the subtitle is even more fitting than my own clever half*).

Well done, my friend!



*Backstory: I won a copy of Comfortably Yum: Food for Body and Spirit in a contest a few months ago, in which Luisa challenged her readers to come up with a title for her new cookbook. There ended up being two winners, one for the Comfortably Yum (me) and another for the subtitle (Deb Barshafsky).

Leave a comment to be entered in the giveaway. And wish Luisa a happy birthday! It's on me.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Christmas All Summer — Darkness, Despair, and a Dare

Continued from a previous post--but the story really starts here.

Now, on with the saga...

Our distributor suddenly tells us he needs a box of books in time for an important booksellers convention...on August 3! I'm finding this out on June 17th. Yikes! Ordinarily I would respond to a request like that with, "there's no way this is humanly possible" or maybe even a curt "that's SO not gonna happen!". The books are being printed overseas, with a six-and-a-half-week turnaround. I look at my calendar and sigh. That means the project needs to go to, yesterday. And I have little more than a big pile of sketches on tissue paper and some empty files on the computer. It looks like the little-project-that-could has finally run out of steam.

Of course I realize this convention is our one chance to place the book in the hands of booksellers across the country. If we miss this convention, we'll have to wait not just a few weeks but a whole year for the next booksellers convention. We'll have no hope of getting it out this Christmas. All the money the author invested in the project will be sitting stagnant for a year and a half, with no return.

All the momentum I had built up for the project is rapidly dying. If we drag it out for another year, my intern Katie will have long since graduated. I'll have no more help. I feel like I'm stalled at a dead-end. It's impossible to send the book to press right this minute, and a marketing death sentence to wait any longer.

In one desperate move, like a 3-point shot hurled from the back of the basketball court before the buzzer rings, I place a call to my printer in Los Angeles: Peter, what can I do? Is there any way to shorten this window of time and get the books here by the beginning of August?

Amazing problem-solver that he is, he looks into paying a little extra to air-ship one box ahead of time, just for the booksellers convention, and sending the rest slow boat. If we do that he can deliver that first box in just 2 1/2 weeks after we sign off on the final proofs. He just bought us a month!

Reviving somewhat, I count backwards on my calendar: August 1, July 31, July 30...It looks like I can send the book to press on July 8 or 9...which means — oh, dear — I have to finish all the paintings by July 1! That's in fourteen days!

Two weeks. Twenty paintings. That’s more than I would typically finish in two YEARS! It’s beyond insane—and yet, rather am I! :)

I work out a schedule. I give myself two days to scan all my sketches into the computer and set the type so I can be sure it all fits. Taking Sundays off, that leaves me a total of ten days to do all the paintings — exactly two paintings a day! If I start at 7 in the morning and paint until midnight every night, maybe I can actually do this!

EXCEPT...oh, no! We have an extended family vacation (a trip to Lake Powell) that’s been planned for almost a year...scheduled right in the middle of my two-week crunch! My hubby lets me know in no uncertain terms he is expecting me to be there.

To be continued...part 4 is here.

Christmas All Summer — Connection, Harmony, Joy

Continued from this post.

Fast-forward to 2010.
Suddenly everything was coming together more rapid than eagles: First, last fall I jumped on a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to study figure painting with world-renowned watercolorist Charles Reid. Miraculously my schedule was open and (for once) the money was there. So I took a road trip to Jackson Hole to paint with the master himself. We painted from live models all day every day, and I learned so much...including not to doubt my own abilities. I was able to overcome my skittishness about painting people, and Charles actually told me I should become a figure painter! Huge progress.

Next, there was Peter, the printer I had worked with for 17 years in Los Angeles, but with whom I had since lost contact. He was this amazing printer who helped me start my design business back in the early 90s with three great referrals...including the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But we hadn't spoken since I moved, six or seven years ago. I thought he’d sold his business. A previous project (also a book design) prompted me to try and reconnect, so I emailed his wife. :) [Vee haff oudr vays...mwah-ha-haha!]

Like a Christmas card from a long-lost friend, suddenly we were back in touch. It turns out that Peter is still in the printing business, but his focus has shifted slightly--and he now specializes in (of all things) printing fine art books! Astounded at the synchronicity, I asked him about the process. He told me he had personally calibrated a press in Korea. He did all the proofing in Los Angeles, and could virtually guarantee that the book would match the proofs and be delivered right to our doorstep from clear around the world in about six weeks. Amazing. (And affordable.) Almost as good as Santa Claus!

Close to the same time, a great friend from Pasadena (who I hadn't seen for 4-5 years) emailed me out of the blue saying her daughter, Katie, who was majoring in design and illustration at BYU, would like to intern in my studio. I hadn’t had an intern for years. What was I supposed to have her do? Straighten the studio? Catalog paintings in the computer? But I said yes, mostly as a favor to my friend. And then I remembered Ester's book. (I'm a little slow sometimes.) Katie could help with that! She could be the support staff I needed to actually get it done! When Katie brought me her portfolio, I knew it was a good fit. She showed some maturity in her concepts, some sensitivity in her drawings and paintings, and an eagerness to learn.

I approached Ester and told her I had an intern and a printer lined up, and I thought we could have a book ready by this Christmas. She was elated. We drafted an agreement, and suddenly, almost overnight, I was immersed in Christmas!

I put Katie straight to work. We played Christmas music the entire time, to keep us in harmony with the theme of the book, even though it was 90 degrees outside! We sat side by side at my kitchen table (and later the countertop in the downstairs studio) three days a week, munching on peanut m&ms as we pored over the manuscript, envisioning how best to bring each of the thoughts to life. My goal was to help the reader actually FEEL what the author was saying.

We broke it down, page by page, sketched out thumbnails, and discovered a powerful dark-to-light motif that we wanted to capture in the design of the pages. I also noticed a visual theme of repeating circles which felt significant, and certain segments that begged for a punch of vibrant color. Together we researched images, shot photographs, made preliminary drawings. Working in tandem was more comfortable than I thought it would be, and yielded good results. Katie was a godsend.

Ester was also a joy to work with -- she loved every idea, every little sketch we presented to her, saw the depth and detail of symbolism we were incorporating, and delighted in the whole process.

We were really on a roll! I was feeling great about what we'd accomplished — 32 pages plus the cover — all designed, laid out, sketches prepared and ready to create final artwork, in just six weeks. Now I had two full months left to finish the twenty paintings. It would be tight, but doable...

--And then the deadline changed. (da-da-da-DUM!)

To be continued...Part 3 is here.

Monday, November 1, 2010

In the Beginning...

Exactly six months ago today, while the rest of you were donning your swimsuits and sunglasses, my summer turned into non-stop Christmas. I mean that both literally and figuratively. While you were planning your vacations, I was planning a Christmas. And if Christmas really is, like most children hope, an endless opening of new and surprising gifts, then my summer was that and more. It contained a series of gifts with unusual names: Toil, Solitude, Prayer. Water, Light, Inspiration. Even Miracles. Because what's Christmas without a miracle or two?

Without my even realizing it, this summer-that-was-my-best-Christmas-ever actually began almost four years ago. Divinely orchestrated, much like wise men watching for a star to appear, key events were put in place. An author I adore, Ester Rasband, had seen an exhibit of my work in Park City . She had purchased a giclée of one of my paintings, and said my work captured an elusive spirit...a combination of warmth, depth and light...that would be exactly right for "a little Christmas book" she had written decades ago.

An out-of-print book? Didn't sound like a very promising project. But she had printouts from ebay and Amazon showing there was still a big demand for her book on the used market. It had a pretty impressive following. She handed me the manuscript. She had recently updated the text. Just four pages, printed out in a gigantic font. That didn't look like much. But then I started reading. I was immediately pulled in. She writes with a profound simplicity that feels more like poetry.

The book is about the gentle reminders of Jesus' birth and divine role we find in every Christmas tradition...if we only choose to recognize them. I was so struck with the symbolism I wanted to make her thoughts come alive in images; to help the reader feel every word on every page. I was thrilled she had approached me, and my mind started spinning with ideas. I could instantly see how the sparkle and spirit of my watercolors would be a good fit for the glorious message of Christmas presented in her book.

She asked me to redesign the book and re-envision all of the illustrations. Start from the bare manuscript. Create everything from the ground up. My very first book! It sounded daunting, but doable, and I agreed to give it a shot. I told her I had a pretty full plate, and it might take me a long time to complete. She said she knew we couldn't have it by that Christmas, but maybe in time for the next. Then she bustled out the door, saying how excited she was that I was on board. And I pinched myself. I couldn't believe someone had just handed me this amazing gift!

But later, as the idea danced in my head, it became more like a vision of sugar plums than a real project. It turns out I have a life. A whole other life, already filled to the brim with teaching, painting, parenting, carpools and one wayward teenager. (Notice I didn’t even bother to mention the laundry?) As much as I loved the concept, and despite my best intentions, Ester’s project gradually slid...not just to the back burner, but right off the stove! One Christmas went by. And then another. And another. And still I had nothing down on paper. (Sorry, Ester.)

It was becoming impossible. I knew there was no way I could pull off a huge project like that without the support staff and print broker I had in California. On top of that, there were dozens of figures to paint. And I was a landscape artist. And most daunting of all...there was Jesus. How could I possibly paint the Savior in a way that would do him justice? I felt so unworthy.

But for some reason I just couldn’t tell Ester no. I really wanted to do this project. I knew I needed to do it. The little Christmas book kept hanging around in the crevices of my mind, hovering there, waiting. As real life kept getting in the way, my initial excitement began to be replaced with a low-grade guilt. The perennially patient Ester started asking if I still planned to do the project, or if she should take it to someone else.

To be continued...Part 2 is here.