Tiny Steps

Is it the dark of November, that flu I just couldn’t kick, or the malignant gloom of the American election?
There are days when it feels like nothing gets done.
Days when doing the laundry is a big accomplishment.
Days when I think it’s the perfect day, free of obligations, to go down to the studio and paint – smudging and scribbling and sharpening the image, listening to music for hours – and yet somehow I never get there.
Days when I get up with last night’s promise of a morning run ringing in my ears and I flop on the couch and flake out on facebook on my phone.
Days when I’ve told myself it’s really time to finally sit down at my little corner writing desk and enter the zone – the zone of happy struggles, of exploring interior worlds, scaling memories and imaginings and sensations and the secrets of the human heart, searching for all the right words… and instead I spend hours glumly in front of the computer catching up on email.

Do you know these kind of days?
Switch out the particulars for your own personal Important Goals list that never quite happens?

Well, I’ve been pushing against the dark slide of lethargy with some new tools…
Chief among them the concept of Tiny Steps.

kaizen-book

Tiny Steps comes from the Japanese tradition of Kaizen, elaborated on in this book by Robert Maurer: One Small Step Can Change Your Life.
He says,

Kaizen is an effective, enjoyable way to achieve a specific goal, but it also extends a more profound challenge: to meet life’s constand demands for change by seeking out continual – but always small – improvement.

The key is to start small.
The key is to make it SO small you can’t NOT do it.
Reading some of the bios and creative practices of the greats can be totally intimidating – they seem to be on their game ALL the time, productive all the time – so much so that it’s a world away, unreachable.
Twyla Tharp in The Creative Habit describes her mornings –

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on my workout clothes…walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab.

Well, this is amazing, I love the sound of it, can just see the dark of the Manhattan morning and the surliness of the cab driver and the sweaty two hours at the gym, and gosh I sure wish that were my life too, but ummmmmmmm…
I can tell you right now I’m not gonna be doing that tomorrow morning. And not just cause I don’t live in Manhattan.
I mean even just thinking about how far all of that is from my life brings up all kinds of neurotic garbage and the harpies of self-flagellation begin to loom and the whole thing makes me feel like, well, if I can’t be like that, then I might as well just give up now.
But…
This is precisely where the small steps of Kaizen come in.
Maurer says –

Don’t let these common roadblocks to change make you feel so guilty or frustrated that you give up your attempts to improve.
Instead, use times of difficulty to remember that fear is the body’s gift, alerting us to a challenge. The more we care about something, the more we dream, the more fear shows up.
During the rough patches, understanding that fear is normal, and a natural sign of ambition, makes us more likely to hold onto hope and optimism – qualities that increase our willingness to take the kinds of small steps that slip right past the fear.

Did you get that last bit?
…small steps that slip right past the fear.
Okay! Now we’re talking!
A step that is so tiny it will neatly sidestep the harpies in my head. Perfect.
So, for me, a small step would be NOT to say I’m going to write a novel before the end of 2016, but to say I’m going to write for 10 minutes each morning.
10 minutes of sitting down to write is something small enough that it’s really really really easy to do.
(and if there’s a morning when even so, even though it’s a tiny step, if it doesn’t happen and I don’t show up, I’m going to remind myself that FEAR IS NORMAL, and try again the next morning)

Going back to Twyla Tharp’s story about the cab – the point that she’s making and the point that really speaks to me is the idea of creating a Ritual.
Creating a Ritual sounds to me partly like a way to make the whole thing more FUN.
But Twyla takes it even further –

Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed…
It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behavior – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.

So for me, for my 10 minutes of writing, I’ve found this one piece of ritual I can bring in to the goal of sitting down at the little writing desk in the corner…
I light a candle.
The beautiful little glass candle holder makes me happy. The action of striking the match marks the beginning, the dancing of the flame keeps me company, and the whole thing signals to my brain that a hallowed space has been created to sit down and hold a tiny 10 minutes of writing.
corner-desk

And you, Dear Reader? Are there Rituals, Practices, Habits, Methods that have worked for you?

Please Note: All this comes from a training program I’m doing currently, called Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coaching. You might want to check it out. 🙂

Weekly Photo Challenge – Tiny

Looking back

I was in Ottawa visiting friends from back in the day, back in Montreal, and as if out of some random pocket of a time warp, my friend pulled out some tiny forgotten paintings I’d done on tiles – tiny still lives of the charming funky place we lived in together so many years ago…

bowl and hyacinth

And my gosh, it was a revelation to me – most of all, that I had more or less managed with, more or less made my way around oil paints a couple of decades ago.
I’ve been struggling with oil paints the last few months – torn between the more recent experience of a fast drying acrylic paint, the possibility of fast endless layers, and the faint memory of a rich buttery wet wet paint I was able to negotiate to some degree some decades ago…

kitchen telephone

Now, trapped in work deadlines, I am fetishizing the time ahead in the studio…how glorious it is sure to be with this new-found half-remembered confidence…

goose and duck

Happy happy summer all…

Weekly Photo Challenge – Looking Up

Honesty vs Admiration


The tourists are beginning to return to the city, and if I leave the studio door open to get a bit of a cross breeze with the window, occasionally a lost meandering tourist will make their way to the third floor of the building, and wander into the open door, curious…
There are a total of 5 of us in our large loft room – a fashion designer whose layout tables and sewing machines and bolts of fabric crowd one big corner; a landscape painter with small children who I have yet to cross paths with, but the changing toys suggest she makes appearances at odd hours; a figurative painter who has been in the space for the longest, some 6 years now, and his corner is packed full of the large portraits and expressive experiments of those years; and then Nancy and I in our tiny corner by the door.
It is more of an entranceway than studio, our little corner, but in a city like Toronto, it is what we can manage between the 2 of us, and we love it.
Yesterday I was there with the door open, and given our space, it means I am essentially in the doorway, working away – a point of interest for the 3 tourists who stumbled down the hallway.
They were not especially shy, and after a brief invitation in, went straight into the depths, shrugging by the landscape painter without much notice, and burrowing into the tightly packed corner of the figurative painter. He has some large paintings of famous people out and about – a David Bowie still in progress, Rihanna drying in a corner – and there were ooh’s and aah’s from the 2 ladies in the group.
Turning back, they passed by the bolts of fabric and noticed Nancy’s tiny corner within the corner, a few of her gorgeous pieces up on the wall. The man in their group was especially taken with Nancy’s work and the 3 of them stood there for a while pointing and discussing details.

Beltaine by Nancy Gardiner
Beltaine by Nancy Gardiner

Midsummer by Nancy Gardiner
Midsummer by Nancy Gardiner

Finally they turned towards where I was working away in my section around the door, and after interrogating me on how they might get in touch with the figurative painter, if there was a card or a website, they looked around at my various scattered sketches and experiments, and tried to find something nice to say.
IMG_20160504_195910-01
One of the women focused on the wall of sketches, and said, “well, they are certainly well drawn”, as if relieved she had found some point of concession – she could grant me that at least.
IMG_20160504_195858-01
The horse sketches are on terraskin paper, a treeless stone paper, so I told them about this, and then of course they wanted to touch it, and we focused on surfaces and textures for a while, as I showed them which ones were terraskin, which ones mylar.
The large bat that dominates one wall right now is oil on mylar, and one of the ladies said, “he looks like he… I don’t know, as though he has a purpose of some kind.”
Processed with VSCO with g3 presetMy eyes grew wide, as it occurred to me I HAD painted her with a purpose – she was a dream messenger, one of several bat dreams, and so given the repeated bat imagery, asking for attention, I’d been spending time drawing and painting the dream characters, honouring them, staying with them, listening to them as best I can.
What exactly the bat is about, what she wants to say, I still don’t know…
bat feet
But in there, in the intense focused silence of creating the images, of repeated bat drawings and paintings, I think about the strangeness of them – as if little tiny mice that one day got fed up and said, Dangit! I want to fly!
And did.
And maybe that thought is all she really needs to say…
bat fly down
And so this one comment from a stranger, not filled with flattery at all, but with a kind of faintly uncomfortable, honest relating to the image, totally made my day…

Weekly Photo Challenge – Admiration