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This week I moved to a new house a few blocks away. Our landlords wanted to move into the little blue duplex we’ve called home for the last two years in Vancouver, so we sadly vacated. I will miss the fig tree in the back yard, the cozy main floor with its gas fireplace, the bathtub with the perfect angle for lying back to read a book.

And in the last few months, I’ve been moving through emotional spaces too ~ a reunion tour of haunts I thought I’d left behind. I believe the tour kicked off because I’m very close to finishing my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire. It’s as though the book itself wants to reacquaint me with where I’ve been and how I moved on, so I would have that body memory and empathy when I put the book into the world.

Here are the highlights of my reunion tour.

Day Job Hell

In March and April, I took on too much client work. I blame the freelancer’s impulse to say yes to everything plus my desire to do some editing for a cool pro bono project. I was brought right back to my days at the software company. Waking up with a toxic sense of dread, knowing that I would not have one minute of down time all day. Not even taking time to eat or pee because I needed to be in client meetings onsite. The crushing fatigue muted by cups of coffee. Mustering every scrap of creative energy to crank out a draft of web copy. Breathing an atmosphere of guilt, feeling that I was letting absolutely everyone down, failing at everything.

“Good God,” I thought, “I really used to live like this? How did I ever stay afloat?”

I made the survival decision to let three retainer clients go. Those were tough emotional conversations, but necessary. I started estimating available work hours and told prospects that I was booked out when those were filled. I defined for myself the freelance conditions that work best for me: one or two clients at a time, finite projects, subject matter that excites me. I turned some projects down completely. The pressure has eased.

And going through Day Job Hell reminded me why I advocate for people to create better conditions for themselves. That lifestyle is just a petri dish for depression.

Family Drama

In May, I finished my rewrite of Pilgrimage of Desire and sent it out to early readers, including my family. I started the exercise very matter-of-factly, ticking off the recipients on my spreadsheet. Then I got a few calls and emails from family. The book gets personal about certain aspects of my childhood, particularly my relationship with my mother. And some family members find that shocking or painful to revisit. They have different perspectives than I do.

I’ve been talking about the book with my family from the beginning, sending them drafts, asking for their blessing. They believe I have a right to tell my story. But it’s understandable that the book would stir up those hurt, confused feelings again now that it’s about to be published.

Anne Lamott says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But I struggle with that sentiment ~ it feels a little vengeful to me. My family and I did the best we could ~ we made our mistakes out of love and ignorance, not malice. I tell stories that include family with great caution and compassion. I am putting them in a difficult position ~ the world will hear my version of events ahead of or instead of theirs.

I had heartfelt conversations with each of them. We confessed and cried and explained, and I will be making some changes and additions in the final draft to make the book more fair and complete in its version of the story.

But this experience really knocked me off my feet. I stopped working on Pilgrimage altogether. I felt a generalized distress. I fell into nervous compulsive procrastination, and my productivity tanked. And one day the source of the distress came to me.

“I can’t feel good if I’ve made others feel bad.”

This was how I used to operate all the time. Make sure everyone around is happy before taking care of myself. Another incubator for depression.

Once I realized I was holding that belief, that I couldn’t feel good, its power lessened. I started writing morning pages again. I scheduled a special anniversary dinner with Shawn. I talked to the other writers in my new indie author mastermind group. I had more conversations with my family, and they still loved me.

Housing Panic

Knowing we had to move out of our duplex by the end of July, Shawn and I were diligently checking the rental listings to find a new place. I wrote a list of criteria ~ location, rent, number of bedrooms. We saw a few places but nothing was suitable. June drew to a close, and I started to feel really anxious. We missed out on on great place with an artist’s studio in the backyard because we were in Ontario visiting family. We contemplated moving out of our school catchment to give ourselves more options, but I hated the idea of uprooting the kids and starting over with a new community.

I thought of our past housing searches, when I had such faith that we would find just what we wanted. Now I was bogged down in pessimism, suspecting that our good fortune had been used up, picturing us stuck in some awful basement suite for students. I didn’t even dare pray about it ~ how could I ask for a nice house when everyone else in the world had much bigger problems?

I remember this state of mind from depression too: “I don’t deserve good things, and I hold no hope of getting them.”

At the eleventh hour, we came across a listing for a five-bedroom house on a ten-month lease at reduced rent. At first we couldn’t figure it out. How could a single-family dwelling of that size in Kitsilano be offered at that price? We contacted the owners and learned that they are planning to renovate but had to delay construction, so the house would be available as-is: exploratory holes, chipped paint, and all.

We went for a walkthrough, and honestly, I never would have rented a house like this by choice in a million years. It’s a hundred years old, with creaky floors, sticky doors, and light switches in weird places. I like a pristine space with fresh paint and refinished floors that needs no repair or maintenance. This house feels enormous: three floors, high ceilings, a big front porch, and a giant yard. The living room and dining room alone are the size of the entire main floor of the duplex we just left. Usually I go for compact living spaces where I always know where everyone is and nothing is more than a few steps away.

However, we were out of choices, and the owners were lovely and seemed to want us there. And honestly, the house met every single item on our list and then some. We signed the lease that night.

I shed many tears about moving. I did not want to go to the effort of packing everything up, unpacking it again, and finding new places to keep things. I imagined our furniture looking puny in the magnificent rooms. I thought I would be embarrassed to have people over. I could barely keep a small place clean and tidy, how would I ever manage three floors? It would take half an hour of looking every time I forgot where I put my phone down.

And the question I kept asking was, “Why? Why do we have to move? Why this house? What the hell is going on? This doesn’t fit my plan!”

Now that we’ve moved, I think I’m beginning to understand. Because I do believe that, as Jesus says in Matthew 6:8, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” This is not the house that I wanted, so it must be the house that I need.

Big-houseThe size has to be part of it. The last time I lived in a house this big, I was five years old and my parents bought a place to share with another family. I remember the living room feeling like a gymnasium. I think this house wants to teach me about expanding, taking up more space. I suspect this lesson is connected to publishing my book.

And the house’s beat-up, pre-renovation condition is part of it too. A few days ago, I was reading an essay called “Baler Twine” by Don McKay in his book Vis à Vis, and he writes:

To what degree do we own our houses, hammers, dogs? Beyond that line lies wilderness. We probably experience its presence most often in the negative as dry rot in the basement, a splintered handle, or shit on the carpet. But there is also the sudden angle of perception, the phenomenal surprise which constitutes the sharpened moments of haiku and imagism. The coat hanger asks a question; the armchair is suddenly crouched: in such defamiliarizations, often arranged by art, we encounter the momentary circumvention of the mind’s categories to glimpse some thing’s autonomy — its rawness, its duende, its alien being.

BookshelfI’m guessing this house wants to reunite me with the wilderness. With the broken-down, the battered, the cobbled-together, the raw and alien. It’s easy to love a house that is pristine and perfect. This one keeps its treasures hidden behind leaking plaster and broken drawers. I plan to hunt for them diligently. To that end, I’ve been posting photos on Instagram tagged #100daysofhouse. Some photos will have to stay offline because I’m mindful of respecting our landlords’ privacy ~ they’ve owned this house for years and they’ll be moving back in when it’s renovated. We’ve been invited to share its last hurrah of wilderness, and suddenly that feels like a great privilege.

The kids, of course, are thrilled. It’s a child’s paradise, so many rooms and stairs and cubbies. We’re going to set up a permanent fort in the basement playroom. We’d like to put a trampoline in the yard. Lia and Nico now have their own rooms, and there’s plenty of space for sleepover guests.

I remind myself that the spiral path leading me through these experiences for short intense periods is a labyrinth. I haven’t regressed or fallen back ~ I’m just going deeper.

I’m on the reunion road, heading to the centre of all things.


Are you also on the reunion road, passing through rough territory, taking steps toward the centre of your self and the divine? I’d love to hear your story too.

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 AlisonG.CoverImage

I count myself lucky to have found artist Niya Christine before she started her 365 Paintings project in January 2013. Every day I looked forward to a splash of colour and a playful story in my inbox. I ordered one print (“Red Poppies, Random Numbers and a Birdie“) and am seriously coveting another (“507 Year Old Clam and a Barking Snail“) to hang over my mantel.

Niya made all these paintings while also working her day job as a designer. And now she’s Kickstarting a deluxe art book based on the project and its evolution. I jumped at the chance to interview her for my Hours for Art series. Enjoy!


Alison: Your 365 Paintings project was a carefully constructed labyrinth, giving you a structure and system to channel your creativity in 2013. Tell me about how you constructed that labyrinth: what triggered the idea? How did you come up with the parameters?

Niya: I love that you use the word “carefully.” At the time, “carefully” couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was more of an insistent urge; a wilful and rough declaration of a vision that I wasn’t sure was achievable. Kind of like when a cat throws itself across the room at a ball of yarn with the scant urge of unravelling it, only to find that it snowballs into the china cabinet.

The project began with very low expectations. I was incubating the desire to simply do a watercolour a day and post it in under an hour ~ to consider it a colour spa. I would have been happy enough to fill my brush with purple paint and water, make a splash and be done with it. I was mentally fatigued with work and suspicious of how I was accounting for real achievement. We get an endorphin rush when we solve a problem ~ it’s easy enough to be satisfied with that ~ until suddenly years have gone by and what matters most has gotten lost. What it netted out to was that I was mostly managing my days vs. building my dreams.

Loungechair beansI picked a theme for the first month of “Coffee & Tea” simply because I wanted to see what tea- and coffee-stained paintings might look like. I hadn’t planned at that point to have an ongoing trail of monthly themes. I had my watercolour set and container of French press coffee, brush in hand, ready to be blobby. I felt tricked when my first painting was bags of coffee beans taking a sun bath on a beach in Mexico. Really? Wasn’t I in a meaning coma, healing? Why couldn’t I have just painted some coffee splats with a bit of colour and been done with it? How was I going to keep this up?

I had set up my blog and people were subscribing. I did that for accountability. My promise was to post whatever painting happened that day, no matter what. To further unravel my first inclination towards the simple colour spa … the bags of coffee beans took on characteristics and story lines. They wanted me to tell their story. Demanding little buggers.

This is where the snowball happened. I’d had enough experience with painting in my life to know that when a series wants to occur, my plans need to get out of the way. Flushed and forever forgotten. If they do come back, it’s real love. But most of the time, they don’t. The paintings that followed the “Lounge Chair Coffee Beans” were just as surprising to me and never preplanned or conceptualized. “Drunken Pigeon on a Coffee Diner Sign” – “Teabags of Character” (the teabags looked like wise ol’ ancestors), and more. And they kept evolving into scenes. The characters were chatty. Urgent and talkative little buggers.

I had to design a system to manage the complexity and the time. Clearly, I had created a monster and organization was the only control I’d have.

That’s how it happened. The months that followed were days filled with much deliberation ~ protecting and nurturing the creative time and space ritual for the work to do its thing. I was simply the ethos mother.

[Editor’s note: What you’ve just described seems to me the epitome of care-full, Niya! Your “insistent urge” as a primal form of deep caring about yourself and your art, and then your attention and adjustments as the project declared itself to you. Careful doesn’t have to mean cautious or exact; it can also mean being solicitously mindful and taking pains. So thanks for your spontaneous, intuitive, and enthusiastic portrait of careful!]

Alison: I’ve done smaller projects like yours, such as NaNoWriMo and the Clarion West Write-a-thon, which required regular writing and a certain amount of discipline. I’ve had mixed results, in that I did create and produce a lot more than usual, but I also found myself writing while tired or overwhelmed, and other parts of my life got neglected. Did you have any fears going into this? Were they realized? Did new difficulties crop up that you hadn’t expected? In what ways was it easier than you anticipated?

Niya: Great question. I’m a “keep my word” person. The biggest fear I had was that life stuff would overwhelm the commitment I made ~ letting myself and others down. On the other side of that (because I knew it would have to be very extreme for me to let that happen) was the fear that I would be stubborn and burn myself out. Luckily, neither of these extremes actually happened.

Fears were realized many times, yes. But there were many things that grew out of the creative practice that balanced fears and exhaustion. The top three: People, playfulness, commitment. I had to keep reminding myself that since this was my project, I got to course-correct and re-assemble it to make it work. And in doing so I learned a lot about how creative you can be when you are the designer of your work patterns.

Frequency gained momentum as the days went by ~ I either flexed to it or tensed up. When I flexed, without fail, delightful discoveries were made; energy and creativity I didn’t know I had came out to play. In addition, what I came to trust was that as long as I respected the commitment with the same value and energy I gave to other obligations … the project itself buoyed me. It was a rock-solid pocket of joy and adventure there for the taking every day. Discipline became freedom.

Creativity is fun after you’ve fired perfectionism and given it a big severance package (because it gets bored fast). The willingness to produce bad paintings in front of my subscribers brought those tendencies to their knees. It was painful at first. Now I see perfectionism as the enemy of creativity.

Blue-CakeNiya-June2013Alison: In knitting parlance, there are process knitters who love the act of knitting, and there are product knitters who love having a finished item to wear or give. Creating daily was your “process,” and the final paintings were your “product.” Were there other products of the process (intended or unintended)? Did you love one more than the other? How did the two intertwine?

Niya: I was fascinated by the process and learned to trust it early on in the project. The product was secondary ~ I’m still culling the product. It’s pretty fun to look at the paintings now in calendar format and remember the feelings I had daily and monthly in relation to the subject matter. For instance, the cows. Their surly bovine character and soulful eyes. I could have painted cows forever. And how I expected to love using coffee as a stain on watercolour paper … but got impatient with it and used brown ink. Or when watercolours were too precious for the mood of the day, I’d glob up my finger with acrylic paint and finger-paint a new painting on top of it.

Since my number one rule was that the painting needed to be finished in under an hour, there wasn’t time to think. I just jumped in with a fuzzy sense of direction and something came out on the other side. Something awful or surprisingly delightful or just so-so. If I ever thought about product before the painting was done, it would have destroyed everything. I was always teetering on that edge.

I think my training in product design early on in my career helped. Patience for process and discomfort is a requirement of quality design.

Sometimes a painting would go out there that I was too tired to see objectively. I’d wake up in the morning to a lot of comments and positivity from subscribers. Always a surprise, these blurry blobs. These bursts of “who-knows-what-or where-from-it-comes” shared with readers and the celebration of being alive that comes from that.

Alison: Did you notice a tension between the part of you that wanted to paint and the part of you that didn’t want to paint? How did you work with that tension? (If we could eavesdrop on those two parts talking to each other, what would it sound like?)

Me: It’s late, I’m very sleepy.

Painter: Nope, it’s time to paint.

Me: I don’t want to, I just want to go to bed. It’s been a helluva day.

Painter: How about some Russian Caravan tea with real cream and gobs of honey?

Me: Excited. Okay, let’s do it.

I know it sounds overly simple and like a fast switch. But when the body and heart are in an argument and you give the body something really yummy … (like kids) the two become best buds in a nanosecond.

I had to keep things simple ~ to not over think it, like diving in a cold pool. It’s not as cold when you put that thought out of your mind. I always felt more fulfilled at the end of the day after painting ~ always. Even if I didn’t want to, I knew I had that satisfaction to look forward to.

John-O'DonohueNiya-Dec2013

Alison: How did the project affect your relationship with your audience?

Niya: My audience surprised me the most. I got love letters for a year. Can you imagine? I mean real squishy love. One of my favourite tweets: she quoted a story line with “this is from my daily painter, everyone should have one.” She had encapsulated exactly what I wanted people to feel.

We are all managing and mitigating email. I wanted people to wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, open their email boxes and see some big bold colour, maybe something funny and not too long. I aimed for micro-fiction for easy and pleasurable reading. It was a good-feeling-thing all the way around. The only thing I would do differently is paint daily but post weekly. My stats show me that 65% were daily opens. People generally would wait until they had some real time and then sit down and slowly go through a week or two of the paintings. I think daily was too much for some. I did have this core set of people that got addicted to the daily dose. They would open it last to savour it in the morning. They wrote their interpretations and responses immediately. I loved that. I miss this routine with them quite a bit.

Alison: How are you feeling now that the 365 Paintings project has ended? Freedom? Sadness? How have you navigated the transition to new projects in 2014?

Niya: The answer to this is tricky. When I finished, the overall feeling was neither freedom or sadness ~ just excited about the next phase. I’d only just begun.

However, as time has passed this month, I’m definitely grieving. We humans and “change” ~ does it ever get easier? I’m still spending daily time in the studio. I’m exploring children’s book illustration. The other change is marketing, packaging, selling art and books. This will take some time to make everything happen ~ probably a year. I’m balancing these efforts with the work-a-day world. I’m still very connected to the project and my supporters. So I only feel sad when I can’t devote everything I’ve got (time-wise) to this next phase. But this was true last year as well; the activities were just different ~ more private.  Mostly though, I’m just very excited about all the possibilities as the paintings get productized. I have a set of classes I’m working on and the books right now.

Unattainable-CoffeeNiyaJanuary2013Alison: I love that you are including the story of your year in your book of paintings. How did the format and content of the book come together for you?

Niya: I envisioned this as a book as the story paintings kept coming out over the year. Something like: 365 paintings, 12 months, 20 topics; Bunnies, Bicycles, Cows, Canaries, Quirks, Curiosities, Fish, Dogs, Doors, Coffee, Tea, Wine, Kites … etc. It was simply going to be a record of the project in print in an organized fashion ~ a keepsake for my audience.

However, I was getting a lot of emails and requests to share the behind-the-scenes evolution from month to month. People wanted to know about the difficulties in detail and how I fashioned a creative practice within the demands of life. I have a lot to say about this. There were some tragedies and joys in 2013 that made painting a huge challenge. I learned a lot about what it means to reclaim something that matters for life vs. the net result being “just” a project or experiment. It challenges everything when you claim it as a new life-long habit.

So … as people were thinking about pulling up their dreams into a creative practice, they needed guidance. Guidance, resources and secrets were ongoing requests. I became very excited about creating a book that doesn’t just expound on the health and joy of creative practice but digs deep into the details and mobilization of its reality.

There is a ton of research about the power of problem-solving from the resting part of the brain vs. the executive part. We are a culture that generally operates from our frontal lobes. To reflect, be a child, unplug from outer distractions and listen requires a bit of re-learning, I think. Self-esteem plays a role. But there are other practical strategies I found to be useful over time that I want to share.

I edited the original vision of the art book to make room for the creative practice and memoir aspects. I want the book to be universal no matter what people are wanting to create. There are principles and creative-thinking approaches that I hope will be useful to any body of work.

I was close to sending the proposal to agents and publishers when I realized that even if it was picked up, it might be 2015-16 before it comes out.

Which is too long for a project that happened in 2013. I then turned to crowdfunding to fund a limited edition book print run for the full color beautiful book I had in mind + practices and tools and my story for readers.

That’s my story … so far! Thank you for this fabulous interview!

Doh!AlisonInterview-Niya.Aug2013


Thank you, Niya! I hope everyone will check out Niya’s Kickstarter and make a pledge because I’m more keen than ever to read her book. Here’s a link to a calendar of all the 365 Paintings at a glance. You can also find Niya on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

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Bookshelf

In 2014, I’m going to read as few books as possible.

I know, it’s an unusual goal. Who resolves to read less? Isn’t reading good for you? Every single list of advice for aspiring writers says, “Read a lot. Read as much as you can.”

And since books are like oxygen to me, reading less is a scary prospect. Last year I read 100 books. The year before that, 63 books. This year I’m asking myself to keep the total to 36. Three books a month.

Why the change? Well, in the fall I noticed that Margaret has been in charge of my reading habits for quite a while. She loves tracking the books I finish, and she loves seeing the numbers add up ~ they give a nice boost to the ego.

Mireille does get involved, insisting that I read the best books I can find, the ones that fill me up with truth and beauty. She has me copy down particularly good quotations for future use.

(Don’t know who Margaret and Mireille are? Read this post.)

But Margaret’s emphasis on volume naturally leads to speed, more short books (graphic novels and children’s books), and adult books that are quick and easy to read (meaning more genre or plot-driven books). I always have a steady stream of new material coming in through holds placed at the library, and the due dates force me to finish books quickly and return them.

Mireille often feels bloated on this reading diet. She hardly has a chance to process one book before we’re on to the next. Instead of talking or writing about the book, or letting the stories and ideas sink in, she just gorges herself and moves on.

Margaret would never permit me to re-read a book because it wouldn’t contribute to progress on my goal. She encourages audiobooks over podcasts. She even has me ploughing through books I don’t particularly like just so they will “count.”

Performance-based reading isn’t a new thing for me.

Many years ago, I was told that the definition of an “avid reader” was someone who read at least one book a week. I was already tracking my reading in the Book Lover’s Diary that Shawn gave me for Christmas 1997 (inscribed from “a Book Lover lover”), so of course I made a spreadsheet to see how well I was performing. I had read quite a bit in grad school, both the assigned volumes (30 linked short story collections as background for my thesis project) and the guilty pleasure stuff like James Herriot and Edith Nesbitt.

Counting the books I read using this measuring stick of 52 books a year for an avid reader set me on the course of “more is better.”

Then I came upon the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2012, which turbo-charged the whole venture. Now I could see the goals that my friends set, and congratulate or chastise myself depending on how I compared. I got that hit of satisfaction when I finished a book and logged it on Goodreads, watching my total inch up.

Last December 2012, just when I was setting my new Reading Challenge goal, I read a Slate article that only fed my obsession with more. In 366 Days, 366 Books, Jeff Ryan describes how he read a book a day for a year, and I adopted many of his strategies to meet what was for me an ambitious target: 100 books. I fell behind a little in the spring but picked up over the summer and then crammed 15 short books in the last weeks of December to meet the goal. But the victory felt a little hollow.

And I had a flashback to Grade Five. Mrs. Taylor was hosting a reading contest for the class, and first prize was a new book. I remember that we got bonus points for reading Canadian authors, so I raided the library for Jean Little and Janet Lunn. By the end of term, I was solidly in the lead, but I needed just one more book to reach a total of 100,000 points.

446678The trouble was that the contest ended the next day, and I had read everything on my shelf. The library had closed for the evening. So I begged my parents to let me finish The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald, the special book that we’d been reading aloud as a family.

Can I just emphasize? Reading this book would not help me win the contest ~ I had already won. Reading this book would only help me reach a meaningless milestone with lots of zeroes.

Bless my parents’ hearts, they said yes. They let me carry the book off alone and dash through the remaining pages, treating it like a commodity instead of a sacred ritual. And I’d like to officially apologize to them: Sorry, Mom and Dad and Melody. Sorry for putting my focus on numbers ahead of our shared reading experience.

(By the way, I chose a copy of Bel Ria: Dog of War by Sheila Burnford as my contest prize. Thanks, Mrs. Taylor!)

Penelope Trunk says that the things we measure are really important. And I realized that the way I tracked the books I read significantly affected the way I read.

So in 2014, I’m trying a different tack.

Fewer books. More short stories and literary fiction. Fewer library books and more purchases (because I can choose more carefully, slow down, and savour books I own). More discussion, online and at book club. More memorizing poetry. More re-reading books. Maybe even less reading, more writing. (Find me on Goodreads to follow my book consumption delectation.)

Once I started questioning “more and faster is better” in my reading life, that led to examining other patterns and habits too. Which eventually led me to my word of the year for 2014. But that is for another post . . .


Speaking of books, I’ll be posting an update soon about my own progress with Pilgrimage of Desire. I’m also reading an advance copy of Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider, so I’ll be writing about that. And later this week I have an interview with Niya Christine, who is running a Kickstarter campaign for a gorgeous book about her 365 Paintings project.

God, I love books. This year I’m going to love them differently, but my love will never die.

Photo Credit: eflon via Compfight cc

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