Friday, August 28, 2015

Trust the Process

“To teach to make a difference. To teach unusually well is to create magic.”  — Kay Redfield Jamison, Exuberance, the Passion for Life

There is something so invigorating about a new school year. It brings whispers of things to come, there is excitement in the air, and the classroom is buzzing with potential.

 I love the line in the movie “You’ve Got Mail” where Tom Hanks tells Meg Ryan this time of year makes him want to buy up “bouquets of sharpened pencils.” YES! That’s it. A sharp pencil, a crisp sheet of paper...a clean slate. They all have something in common: the welcome of creativity, an opportunity to begin again.

I started school again on Monday, my 12th year as an adjunct art professor. I walked into a classroom full of strangers that I know will soon be my friends. I felt that familiar flicker of potential and saw combinations of joy, anticipation and horror on my students’ faces. The reality is, what we do in Watercolor 1 may look easy, but it can be terrifying. The assignments are designed to take everybody wwaaaayyy outside of their comfort zone. To try new things. To surrender control. To let the water do the work.

I have a formula for success that I’ve discovered applies just as much to life as it does to the classroom. Consider: 

1. Show up. 
Come to class, every time, on time. Bring all the necessary materials.
Be fully engaged the entire time. None of the magic that happens in class can be found on youtube or in a textbook. Demonstrations happen live and in real time. Everything we do is personally directed and hands-on. Missing that instruction and interaction comes with a very high opportunity cost.

2. Do the work. 
Complete all the assigned work on time. Stay caught up. There is no busywork in this class. Every assignment builds on the last and prepares you for the next one. I will not require any wasted efforts. Give each exercise your complete focus and your very best efforts.

3. Trust the process.
Sometimes we do things in class that are scary and hard. Many of these assignments are designed to take you WAY outside your comfort zone. It takes courage to try new approaches. Be brave! Especially important: When what you’re painting looks nothing like the image you have in your head, please trust the instructor, and the process being taught. Continue working through the process, despite the fuzz and the fog and maybe even some messiness. It will eventually turn out if you follow the instructions. In fact, it will most likely become something far more interesting and beautiful than you initially imagined.

Woody Allen said that "80% of success is showing up." And most of us readily agree that doing our best work is a chief source of personal fulfillment—whether we are paid or not. But the part that seems to be the most challenging—both in life and in the classroom—is learning to trust the process.

After 12 years of college-level teaching, something that has become abundantly clear to me is the importance of trusting in a mentor, a higher power. Just knowing that God is in charge of the universe helps to make sense of the chaos and upheaval of life—especially the murky parts. Not just believing, but really trusting—that His word is Truth, that He loves us and has our best interests at heart, that He knows something maybe we don't, and that He can turn the worst cataclysm into something better is ultimately key to our survival and success.

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

This promise is rock solid. It takes trust to leave our comfort zone, to try new things, to surrender control, to let the Spirit do the work. But we prosper so much under his care and tutelage.

One of the great things about teaching and observing the learning continuum year after year is that we continue to learn so much about the universe and ourselves in the process.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Once I Was A Beehive, Too...

Once I Was a BeehiveAfter seeing this movie, I can’t resist sharing some of my own Girls Camp stories.

(Actual excerpts (and drawings) from my junior high journal.—Pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out so I can’t be arrested for any of these shenanigans!)

We took off early this morning for Brighton Camp. I love being in the mountains! The hike up Hernia Hill was a lot easier than I remembered last year. Someone's little sister came along this year...complete with a plastic purse.

Cherubic Little Sister
When you first get here, everybody sits up on the rock and sings songs, and hopes they get one of the coolest counselors. My cousin is a K.D. this year and said she warned the entire camp about me in advance.

Our counselor is Krispie (as in Krispie Kritters cereal). She’s fantastic. She has a steel-string guitar and can play almost anything on it. The latrines are called Skunk and Daisy.

Two of the really popular girls are in our unit. Believe it or not, the four of us have a pretty good time together. We had a little dispute over the bunks though. We settled it by taking turns and rotating who sleeps on the top bunks every night.

In the afternoon we hiked down to Silver Lake, and after a couple of other games, we played “Grunt, Piggy, Grunt.” (Everyone sits in a circle, and someone is blindfolded in the middle. The blindfolded person sits on someone’s lap and says, “Grunt, Piggy, Grunt.” The person whose lap it is says, “Oink! Oink!” and the blindfolded person has to guess who it is by the sound of her voice. )

Now that in itself is hilarious. But Patches (the other counselor in our cabin) decided to play a joke on one of the girls who was “it” (blindfolded). Every time that girl sat on someone’s lap, Patches would run and stand behind that person and say “Oink! Oink!” so no matter where she sat, she always heard the same voice oinking back at her.

At dinner we had some rangers come, and Pippin came out in a sequin gown singing, “Here comes Smokey Bear, here comes Smokey Bear. He’s got a hot date. Here comes Smokey Bear, here comes Smokey Bear. He made the rangers late.” (Sung to the tune of “Here Comes Santa Claus.”)

We went on a breakfast cookout this morning with Dusty’s unit. It was awful. The only thing worth eating was the sausage. I wouldn’t have been able to guess what the pancakes were if no one told us beforehand.

I ditched the craft house this year and brought along my sketchpad instead, to draw the mountains and the trees. Then I went out on the cabin porch and wrote in my journal for a little while.

This morning we had certification. Second Years had to light four types of fire. Marie and I stuck a couple of matches under our pine needles, so ours just flared right up while everyone else was struggling to get a flame. Mine was a regular bonfire!

After certification was First Aid. Then we had our lunch cookout. It was fantastic. Marie and I are now the designated firebuilders, so we don’t have to do any of the other chores. We had triple-layer pizza in a dutch oven, salad, garlic bread, and chocolate pudding cones. Krispie and Patches got in a chocolate pudding fight and starting smearing each other with pudding. They looked so gross afterward, everybody took pictures of them.

We were supposed to be painting rocks for our “Brighton Buddies” when we noticed some girls were burning garbage in the incinerator, so we snuck away and tossed some firecrackers in the incinerator. That was a blast! (Literally.) No one was harmed in the performing of this prank.

Then our unit challenged the other unit to a game of “Paper Charades,” where you run into the counselors' room to get a word, then run out and draw your clues instead of acting them out. (I guess this was pre-Pictionary!). Then we had our dinner cookout—Cheeseburgers. It was good, too.

Tonight we had an Indian Ceremony on Century Rock.

This morning we left on an all-day hike. To start us out, Trix read something Helen Keller had written: “If I could see…” Then we split up into partners. One was blind-folded and the other had to lead her, and describe things for her, and let her feel things, etc. I had to lead Marie first. Then we traded places and she guided me. It was great.

The hike wasn’t very hard at all. We went up past Twin Lakes to the saddle and Twin Peaks. It was really beautiful all the way up, but whoever said “the best view is from the top” knew what they were talking about. I wish everybody in the world could have the chance to see that. Notice everything and appreciate everything. That’s what the things in nature were put there for.

Since this week was “Easter Week” at camp, we all made “Easter Bonnets” and had a parade. Pippin was the commentator, and the camp directors were judges. Marie made a tin foil soldier helmet and won first place in our unit.

Most of the skits were really funny, but the only one I can remember is ours. You can tell I wrote it, just by the title—“Senior Citizens Romper Room.”  I was Great-Grandma Julie, Carolyn was Bigga Momma Stroganoff, Marie was “Mrs. Butterworth,” etc. We started out with “Sharing Time” (Show-and-Tell). Marie used Ember’s “Angry Doll” and said she used it when she was mad instead of yelling at her grandkids. Carolyn had a stuffed frog and said it was an old family pet they preserved after it died. Somebody else had a traffic sign and said they picked it up as a souvenir when they were crossing the plains.  After “Sharing Time” I said, “We’re ready, Grandma Music,” and we sang:

When upon life’s mountain you are over the hill
And you think the time has come to start your will
Count your many grandkids, name them one by one
Trying to remember them is lots of fun!

Then I announced that we were going into the kitchen for warm milk and prune juice.

After dinner and skits we had Testimony Meeting (where we share our spiritual feelings). We all went around the circle saying whatever we wanted to, and everyone started crying, and blowing their noses (except for me). I wasn’t going to say anything, because I really didn’t have anything to say that would benefit anyone, but everybody else did, so I decided I’d better. I talked about my experiences in Washington, D.C. and people I’d met there, and their view of Mormons. One of them asked if I was in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir! When I was almost finished, something came over me and I couldn’t say anything else. Not even “Amen.” That night I think I prayed more sincerely than I ever have in my whole life, and I just started to cry, and I couldn’t stop. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before.

This morning Krispie asked us to do some creative writing on our feelings here at Brighton. It took me a long time to even get started, and a lot longer to finish. I’ve had some great experiences this week.

Our cabin was the only one that didn’t get TNT (Tops and Tidy). We all had to go up and finish cleaning it after lunch. I was in charge, but I couldn’t see anything wrong with it, so we just moved all the sleeping bags off the front porch, and it passed.

At the farewell assembly, all of the counselors sang. Then Petunia bore her testimony, and Pippin told the legend of the Pine Cone. Then the counselors said goodbye and passed out the name sheets (with all of the counselors' real names—Krispie is Holly Richards. Her younger brother goes to our high school next year.) Everybody started to cry—then they sang some more and we got on the bus.

The bus driver got mad at us because we were singing two different songs at the same time at the top of our lungs. This is one of my favorite songs (the one that really made the driver mad, too):

Old Mr Jones, he had troubles of his own
He had a yellow cat that just wouldn’t leave his home
He tried and he tried to give the cat away
He gave it to a man who was going far away

But…the cat came back, the very next day
Oh, the cat came back
you know they thought he was a goner but
The cat came back
He just couldn’t stay away…
no, no, no, oh-oh-oh-oh, no, no, no, no…

The old man next door said he’d shoot the cat on sight
He loaded up his gun with nails and dyn-O-mite
He waited and he waited for the cat to come around
Ninety-nine pieces of the man was all the found


The H-Bomb dropped just the other day
Somebody was trying to blow the cat away
China went, Russia went, and finally the good old USA
Everything was dee-molished…

When we got to Marie’s church, her brother Mark rode over on his bike and picked up our duffel bags. (Thanks, Mark!) Then Dad picked me up at their house.

I keep thinking about last night’s Unit Prayer at camp. Krispie talked about a lot of things, but the thing I remember best is a story she read. It’s like a journal of a baby before it is born. You should have heard that story when Krispie read it. It really changed me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

I Collect Bodies in my Basement

I wasn't present when The Living Room recorded our most recent show, "Body Image and Sideburn Moments." Lest you think I have no body image issues—or solutions for overcoming them—I invite you to read this essay: 

Bodies In My Basement

I collect bodies in my basement.  
Over the years I’ve amassed hundreds of them. 
And I feel good about it.  

Every summer I take the kids to the pool. They adore what I avoid: Exposure. To the water, the sunshine. To other people. While they frolic and splash, I seek cover in the shade, fully clothed, attempting to lose myself in a novel. I note the irony of isolating myself at a pool labeled community. When I face the thought of exposing my physical flaws, my body feels more like a prison than a temple

Nearly lulled to sleep by the afternoon heat, I squint toward the pool. Hiding behind my sunglasses, I see my children and all the other people enjoying the water. Wonderful people, in every shape, size and color—some rotund and Rubenesque, others elongated like a Modigliani. Observing with my Artist’s Eye, I appreciate the distinctive beauty of each one.  

Leaning into the sunshine, I dig through the beach bag for the sketchbook I brought from my basement studio. Quickly, rhythmically, I begin to draw—sometimes without even looking at the paper. I try to capture all of those life-filled bodies in fleeting strokes: Families strolling by. Mothers standing, hips cocked to one side, talking to complete strangers. Grandmothers stooping over large, unwieldy beach bags. Children sliding and laughing. Little ones, wrapped in bright-colored towels, shivering in the sun. I suspend time, movement and space as I collect these gestures one at a time in my sketchbook. I want to save them.  The imperfect bodies are the most interesting to an artist. The rolls and folds create elegant forms. I notice that a pregnant woman's belly mirrors her toddler's, and contemplate the connection. I study the variety of proportions, and find that none is wrong. 

I am in awe of the souls who courageously parade their corpulence without inhibition. They don’t mind being exposed and vulnerable in swimsuits; they’re simply enjoying the water and the sunshine and the community. As they should.

Having cast myself to this poolside corner in relative darkness, I suddenly feel ashamed. Not so much of my body, but of the way I hide it, enshroud it, and sometimes even loathe it; the way this damaging mindset distances me from my kids. What kind of mother am I? I recognize that, in my reluctance to join my children in the pool, I’ve fallen prey to my own insecurities. In one fell swoop I’ve managed to devalue my mortal frame, a gift from God. I’ve cheated myself out of an opportunity to share a spirited activity with my children. And I run the risk of passing down a ridiculous complex to my own daughter, not to mention the children I hope she’ll bear in a future generation.  

Driving home the other day, I heard a song by Regina Spektor that seemed like a fleeting revelation. The lyrics: “I have a perfect body, but sometimes I forget. I have a perfect body because my eyelashes catch my sweat.” It’s just a silly pop song, yet it struck me with such tremendous force: My body, my children’s bodies, all of our bodies are perfectly engineered, from eyelashes to perspiration. They do what they were designed to do. Cells divide. Scars heal. Babies—entire human beings—grow inside their mothers. Before they’re even born they sprout fingernails and toenails, and develop impossibly complex parts like eardrums and eyeballs. Miracles, all.  

I yearn to develop an Artist's Eye—the Creator’s view—toward my own body. I remember that form follows function. I’m slowly learning to rejoice in my ripples and curves rather than lamenting the loss of the hardbody of my twenties. It’s easier to love the pillow of padding on my belly when I remember how I earned it: creating life, giving birth—four miraculous times. Through conceiving, bearing, feeding and nurturing children—through motherhood—I have finally used every part of my body exactly as it was designed, every function for its intended purpose. I may not look perfect, but I am complete.

I wonder: Were I to pull out of my basement the bodies I’ve collected in my sketchbooks—my creations celebrating His creations—might I somehow pull myself into that light as well? I have never drawn a body that wasn’t beautiful. I have never brought a baby into the world whose body seemed anything less than perfect. I would love to envision a self portrait with the same appreciative eye. Perhaps then I could escape this notion of a prison and celebrate my body for the temple it is...both for how it's shaped, and for the divinity it houses. 

I make a conscious decision to own my complete form and join my children in the pool. Donning a raspberry-red tankini I enter the water slowly, tentatively at first. I take a step, and then another. I try to silence the words of a former boyfriend still ringing in the back of my head: “Jana, get in the water quick before anyone sees those legs!” Wincing a little inside, I throw on an imaginary cloak of invisibility, shutting out judgement and shame. Who cares if it takes me the whole summer to turn from blue to white?! 

The water catches ripples of light, sparkling in the sun. The initial shock of cold gives way to a refreshing escape from the heat of the day. I am immersed. Lifting my head, catching my breath, feeling clean and alive, I see my children’s faces, beaming. They don’t notice the varicose veins or the dimples of cellulite. They see their mother, present and joyful, willing to splash, dive and call Marco. Or Polo. They may not be aware of the pride I sacrificed to join them in the pool, but I can tell they sense the love behind the gesture. Their smiles and enthusiasm tell me their happiness multiplied when I finally summoned the courage to dive in, all in. With them.

I'm proud of the fact that I collect bodies in my basement. Those stacks of sketchbooks are my personal witness to the beauty of the human form, in all its varieties. Including mine.

Big shout-out  to Lime Ricki Swimwear, who helped me overcome my pathological fear of swimsuits. Every suit I've worn since the writing of this essay is made by Lime Ricki (I now happily own five, and no longer shrink away from getting in the pool or playing on the beach. Thank you, Lime Ricki!)

This was originally posted here. It is the piece I presented at the Listen To Your Mother show in 2014. You can hear me read it for that audience hereAn earlier, shorter version of this essay was recently published by Deseret Book in an anthology on body image called Why I Don't Hide My Freckles Any More. All were based on a post I originally wrote for this blog several years ago, here.