Monday, August 22, 2016

This Would Have Been the Last Weekend

It was everywhere I turned this weekend--

It was in the way that the mornings felt a little chilly, in the way that the parks overflowed with children and parties and the smell of hamburgers grilling. It was at the farmer's market, puddling out of the stands along with the stacks of zucchini and bushels of tomatoes and ears of corn stacked ten deep:

The end of summer.

Some (not as many as I thought, but some) people told me that I would start to miss teaching once the end of August rolled around and the yellow school buses started rumbling down the streets, their red lights flashing on and off. Some people said that I would start to feel that twinge of longing when the school supplies went on sale in the grocery store, when stacks of notebooks and canisters of #2 pencils took up residence next to the soap marked down to $1 and the bins of early Halloween candy.

And maybe it was just me being stubborn and clenching onto the belief that I'd told all of those people, but trust me when I say that I really, absolutely feel zero desire to be back in the classroom right now.

There were a lot of things I loved about teaching. There were a lot of things I didn't love about teaching.

But all of those things are beside the point.

The point is that I've made the choice--right now--to be exactly in the spot that I'm in, which is waiting for my daughter to go down for her nap and planning out when would be the best time to go to the grocery store later for milk and cheese and eggs and avocados and Hershey kisses (the absolute necessities of life, in other words).

If you looked closer into my life right now, you might see some latent teacher tendencies coming out, though--

Yesterday, I taught a lesson (called sharing time) to all the children in our church congregation, and I employed many of the strategies I had practiced over and over again with my 7th graders until they'd become as natural as asking questions, as easy as reading aloud. Now when I teach, I no longer have to plan which engagement strategies I'm going to use to make sure no one's falling asleep or wandering around the room--I just do what has become second nature, gently disciplining and reminding and managing behavior when necessary, but putting far more energy into making the learning interesting and the level of participation high.

With Raven, I've started scheming up "enrichment activities" that we can try out each day (like doing "finger painting" with pudding or filling little cups with wet sand and showing her how they form shapes when you turn them upside down), simply because I think that the structure and novelty each day of doing that would be good for both of us.

In a way, the teacher side of me will never leave, and that's something I'm proud of.

At the same time, I am breathing huge sighs of relief that the only thing I need to worry about this week is my half marathon on Saturday, and not getting my classroom (and lessons) ready for the new school year ahead.

In years past, on the last weekend before everything started up again, Matt and I always made it a point of planning something extra fun so that summer could go out with a bang.

It's a sign that for the first time in our married life no one will be having a "school year" of any kind that we enjoyed a nice, quiet weekend spent just as we wanted it to be:

1 // We finally made it out to the farmer's market again, something I've been itching to do since the last time we went several weeks ago. While Matt was on baby duty and pointing out all the dogs to Raven, I filled my arms with bags of sweet corn, fat red tomatoes, a handful of shallots, and enough basil to perfume our entire front room. We ended up making this fabulous 20-minute meal from it all, and we counted the blessings that come from living in a place filled with freshly picked vegetables and easy access to delicious food blogs.

2 // I played around with a more minimal makeup look on Friday and Saturday---a little concealer and bronzer, a swipe of mascara on my eyelashes, and a bright pink lip stain. It took about two minutes to apply, and I think it might become one of my go-to weekday looks.

3 // I went on my last long run before my half marathon, and even though it felt harder than I wanted it to (tapering down your mileage will do that to you), a big part of me was relieved that we're almost to the starting (and hence, the finishing) line of this thing. I love training for big races, but I think I'm ready for a new physical challenge when all this is over (plus, I've been fighting off shin splints or some kind of related injury for weeks now, and the recovery time will be much-needed).

4 // Last night, we did something we haven't done in far too long---we left the evening free (since we often will invite people over for games on Sunday night), we turned off the t.v., and we both sat and read for about three hours straight after Raven had gone down for the night. It reminded me of when we were engaged and my mom would find us downstairs by the electric fireplace, both reading side-by-side for hours at a time, like a grown-up version of a read-a-thon (complete with snacks and all). Ever since I made the move away from just reading books off of recommended reading lists towards reading whatever the heck I want to, I have just been SO EXCITED for my reading time lately. There's just nothing like getting lost in a fabulous book, and it's one of my greatest pleasures in life.

5 // After our little jaunt to the farmer's market, our outdoor appetite was still roaring, so we took Raven down to the park so we could all dip our feet in the cold stream and laugh at how Raven still gets excited over every single bird and dog she sees. The place was packed with birthday-partiers and volleyball players and water-fighters and just about everything in between. It was as if the town of Logan had collectively decided that it must take advantage of every last second of summer while it could and decided to spend that time at the park. It was kind of perfect, actually.

6 // Finally, we somehow got sucked into The Great British Baking Show, which led to me making cookies for the first time in literally months. I've been so good at not making sweets (since I've been counting calories and diligently training for my half), but man, nothing has ever tasted as good as that first bite of one of those cookies warm from the oven. It had been far too long.

Right now, as I finish writing this, my former colleagues and administrators are having their first back-to-school professional development training. As if right on cue, my department head just shot me a text that said that I was missing out on all the fun, and that they missed me.

It's lovely to be missed, to stay at one place long enough that people care if you're present or not.

And I love that I worked with the kind of people who would actually miss me, and especially who would take the time to tell me so.

So, even though I don't regret for one moment where I'm at, I send off a hearty salute of appreciation and a hefty wish of luck to all the teachers and students who ARE about to embark on a new school year.

It is strange, being at this point now, where our lives can no longer be measured by school years, our vacations determined by holidays and spring breaks. It is strange, not taking a first day of school picture, or sending Matt off to the university with a backpack full of too-expensive textbooks and a few protein bars to take him through his studying.

Now, we're just exactly where we're at, with no formal educational structure in place to mark the passage of time.

But, to all of this newfound freedom at this new stage in our lives, I'm saying HECK YES.

(And you thought I was going to get all sappy here right at the end, didn't you? Sucker.)

So, here's to a few more weekends of hikes and trips to the park to splash our feet in the water and eating grilled corn and slicing up watermelon. 

Here's to the chilly fall weather around the corner, accompanied by our annual trip to the apple orchard and Raven's first "real" Halloween and maybe some pumpkin chocolate chip cookies thrown in for good measure.

Here's to a life I'm now measuring not by terms or trimesters or grading periods or the days left until my next holiday (because you'd better believe that's how it was)--

Here's to a life measured by happy messes and crazy "enrichment activities" and lots and lots of snuggles. 

I'm so thankful to be exactly where I'm at.


Friday, August 19, 2016

How I Keep My Creative Mojo Going

Currently, I'm in the middle of reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and even though it's not quite as life-changing (for me, anyway) as every reviewer has seemingly made it out to be, it's still given me some good things to think about.

For starters, now that I'm over halfway through with the book, I've finally come to an important realization:

I am a creative person.


This probably shouldn't have been such a revelation to me, but I'd always hesitated to put "creative" together with my own name because there are so many artistic things in which I am most definitely NOT endowed with any measure of talent, drive, or motivation (like sewing, almost any DIY project, crafts of any kind, most kinds of artwork...).

But as I've been going through and reading about Gilbert's creative process and how she's realized certain cycles she goes through during that process, I've found myself unconsciously nodding along and thinking, "Huh! So THAT'S what I've been doing---I've been going through the creative process! I'm not totally crazy!"

Take my photography, for example---

I will often vacillate between extreme pleasure over having gotten a shot I'm proud of or having learned a new skill in Lightroom, to extreme frustration/depression/anxiety over shots where the lighting didn't turn out well or pictures where my editing was slightly off (and I don't want to go back and fix it since I've already published it to my social media or the blog) or the lack of positive feedback from anyone (especially the subjects themselves of the pictures), which must mean I have absolutely no talent whatsoever...

Well, after reading over half of this book, I have now concluded that apparently all of that crazy up-and-down stuff is NORMAL.

Who knew?

(This revelation reminds me of the time that I first heard the theory that when running, you will hit certain "walls" at certain points in your workout and once you've forced yourself to push past them for a certain distance, those "walls" disappear. This was revelatory to me because I always figured I'd just pushed to my limit and that was that---I never dreamed that if I just was willing to push through the fatigue and boredom or whatever, that things would totally change around. Once I figured that out, longer distances ceased to scare me like they used to because I realized I just needed to keep on pushing through the walls when they came up.)

Anyway, as I've mentioned a few times lately, my creative mojo has been flowing much more freely this summer due to my having more time and energy, but I've still had my moments (oh, so many moments) of self-doubt, of feeling stuck in a rut, or of just being uninspired in general.

When that happens, these are some of my go-to things for getting that creative energy going again:

1. Travel somewhere--anywhere--where you've never been before (or at least to where you don't go very frequently).

New places and experiences are a feast for the senses and for the brain, and an adventurous vacation can create fodder for many a creative project to come. Also, as a bonus, when you finally do return to reality, it's almost like you're seeing everything in your life with fresh eyes, as if for the first time, and that can be creatively stimulating in its own right.

2. Take a page out of the kids' playbook.

Next time you're around kids, take some time to observe them at play, and you'll notice that creativity comes naturally to kids (which means that all of us have that spark of creativity in us, but that it might just have been in hibernation awhile). If something doesn't work, kids try out something else. If they come across something new, they'll study it and manipulate it and try it out in lots of different ways to see how they best like it. And finally, kids don't take their play too seriously. Sure, sometimes they might get frustrated or upset over something, but they don't wallow in that--they just keep on creating and trying things out and enjoying the here and now.

So, when I'm feeling stressed out because I'm not The Most Amazing Creative Person Ever or when whatever I'm currently working on isn't matching the vision I have for it in my head, I try and bring some fun and some silliness and some low-stakes play back into the situation. (And--bonus!--this often helps me to grow a ton in my work, even though that wasn't my intent.)

3. Appreciate the creativity of others.

Sometimes it can feel like if someone else is good at whatever it is you're trying to be good at, then there's no hope for you to be good at that thing, too. When I've gotten to that point, I know it's definitely time to take a step back and reassess my thinking patterns because a mindset that tells you that there's a limited amount of talent or success in the world is simply flawed.

So if I'm starting to compare my work to others and am feeling negative about my sliver of the pie in general, I remind myself that there's really no pie involved anyway and that only those who are humble enough to realize they don't know everything can really learn. And then I let myself study the work of others, marveling at how differently we might approach the same subject, or I try and really dissect a photo that I particularly like and try to figure out how it was captured.

About half of the photos in this post were taken by my husband, and it never ceases to amaze me how we approach the same subject matter in completely different ways, and how his photos continually surprise and delight me.

4. Take a walk out in nature.

I've heard it said before that Charles Dickens, after writing for several hours, would take long--and I mean LONG--walks that would sometimes last all night. I've heard that 20- or 30-mile walks were a regular occurrence for him, and that he once said that if he couldn't walk, he would "explode and perish."

Now, I'm not suggesting that we all take up walking twenty miles a day, but I absolutely know for certain that when I'm feeling uninspired or anxious about my work or overly self-critical, a long walk outside often seems just the ticket to get me relaxed and motivated again.

5. Take a break.

Sometimes when you're so burned out from constantly working on the same project, the best thing to do is to just take a break from it all. Sure, there are times to push through (see note above on the idea of running through the "walls"), but there are also times to just give it up for a little while and let yourself read a book or go out with a friend or take a nap or throw yourself into washing all that dirty laundry.

The key is to know yourself well enough to realize when a break is the prudent thing to do rather than simply a way to procrastinate the hard work of creating.

6. Try something new, especially something that scares you a bit.

Growth rarely happens in our comfort zone, so find ways to try out something totally new. If you've always just taken pictures of yourself or your close family, offer to do a family shoot for free for someone or see how you like doing posed portrait shoots. If you're a pretty decent cook but baking scares you, try making a simple pie or tart this weekend rather than just sticking with what you've made before. If you're used to doing sketches in pencil, try using charcoal or chalk or pastels next time. In other words, give yourself permission to try out something totally foreign and not be any good at it at all. If you go into it without pressure, you're more likely to relax enough to learn the most you can AND enjoy yourself in the process.

7. Relax!

In Big Magic, Gilbert says this about the central paradox of creating:

"The paradox that you need to comfortably inhabit, if you wish to live a contented creative life, goes something like this: 'My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).'"

She goes on to say that as a creative person, you will go between the two extremes frequently, and that you must become completely comfortable with those two contradictory concepts.

I totally agree.

So, when you're trending towards the side of the paradox that is caring *too* much about your work, then it's time to relax and get yourself comfortable with the other side, which is that your work mustn't matter at all.

In the end, the creative process goes through highs and lows, and no one can be "on" all the time. But I know that for me personally, many of my creative ruts are self-inflicted, which means that in many cases, I can get myself out of them.

And that was a pretty significant thing for me to realize.

How do you keep your creative mojo going?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Because It Really Is Possible to Get Burned Out From Summer Living

For many of us, summer is the time of year we most look forward to due to its never-ending supply of sunny days and outdoor fun and feelings of freedom and play and relaxation.

As a (former) teacher, summers took on an even more special tone, as they were literally what helped me regain my sanity, regroup my sense of self, and just take a mental break from it all.

This summer has not disappointed in all those respects, and I'm definitely grateful for all the time I've had to go out on all sorts of adventures and spend a ton of time with both Matt's and my family and work really, really hard on some of my personal goals (like training for my half marathon and working on my photography and sticking to a more regular blogging schedule).

But today, I'm feeling a bit burned out from all the adventure and the hard work on hobbies and the drastic changes in routines and the fact that I feel like I haven't had a "normal" day in seemingly forever. Today, I'm feeling burned out from working out nearly every day (as well as watching my calories), yet watching in horror as the scale manages to actually slide up instead of down. Today I'm feeling burned out from trying to push myself to take on more photography projects and watch more tutorials and study other artists' work so that I can better improve my own.

Today, I was supposed to do my last post on Island Park and then upload all the pics from the family campout we just got back from so that I could start to prepare to post about that in the near future. Later this afternoon I was going to do a strength workout to try and somehow help beat back this weight and then maybe squeeze in some time to work on my book, since I haven't written in it yet this week. Then, as we neared the 5 o'clock hour, I intended to do a fridge sweep and put together a healthy meal based on the foods that we needed to use up the quickest.

But then, as I sat down to write a post and nothing came up but a vague buzzing in my head and a strong urge to go take a nap, I decided to just cut myself a true rest day already and not feel guilty about it (for once).

So today, I'm giving myself permission to let it all go, to finally catch up on all the reading I've been meaning to do (especially since my library books are all due back in 3 days), to listen to my favorite podcast, and to finally clear off the kitchen counter (which will bring me more peace of mind than it probably should).

Summer 2016, I have loved you immensely, but today, I need my space.

Hopefully my energy levels will be feeling back to normal come Friday (when I'm due to post again).

Monday, August 15, 2016

Taking Pictures is One of the Best Things About Traveling

Throughout my life, I've loved hearing stories about people who had an out-of-this-world passion for something--people who felt like they'd discovered their "calling" in life, and who subsequently did whatever it took to chase after that passion.

I would guess that most people have a similar affinity for these types of stories, maybe because they remind us of what is possible when we pour all of our energy and resources into just one thing.

I personally find those kinds of stories inspirational because even though I would consider myself as having many interests (many of which I take rather seriously), I still am a bit of a stranger to the "eat, sleep, breathe your passion" way of life, usually preferring instead the "try and cram in everything that I've ever been interested in" way of life.

To me, I am absolutely impressed by someone who is willing to close all other doors and go into just one with all of his (or her) energy in order to see just how far that one view will extend (rather than running in and out of several doors all at once, maybe only getting to explore a few easily-found rooms in the vast estate of possibilities).

And while I definitely often subscribe to my usual plan of trying to fit many interests into each day, I also relish the times when I'm more free to focus on one thing at a time because they give me a taste of what those "Passionate People" must feel like all the time (or so I think).

Take the next two weeks, for example--I'm in the home stretch before my next half marathon, and even though I wasn't initially planning on trying to beat the time that I got in my last half, I've recently begun to ask myself, "Why NOT try to beat it? Why NOT train to run just a bit faster, even if it means I only beat my PR by a few seconds or so? What do I have to lose?"

So, with that extra push, much of my focus lately has been on running, which is just one of my many interests (I hesitate to say "passions," simply because, like I mentioned earlier, I've never really known what it meant to eat-sleep-breathe a passion, except for maybe the 18 months I spent serving a mission for my church). 

For much of this summer though, my focus has been more often than not on photography, and I've been riding a high wave of inspiration with that largely in part to all the adventures we've been able to have.

Now, you must know that I was bit by the travel bug early (something I mentioned all the way back in this rather old blog post).  To me, traveling has always equaled increased inspiration, so this concept isn't exactly novel to me.

However, I HAVE recently realized that one of the number-one reasons I get the most excited to go anywhere new or try something adventurous nowadays is so that I can take pictures of it.

Now, I COULD choose to look at this phenomenon in a negative light---I could say something about  how regularly participating on social media maybe means I sometimes feel like I can only experience things by documenting them publicly, or about how maybe I get so caught up in getting The Picture that I forget to have The Experience.

I'm not choosing to take those viewpoints, though.

In fact, I think that always being on the lookout for The Picture makes me much more likely to notice (and enjoy) everything more in general whenever we're out experiencing something new. Additionally, photography (for me) is the perfect blend of work and play, and as I've (also) written about before, a truly perfect vacation can't be all about just lounging around and doing nothing---it needs to have a certain ratio of productivity and novelty and mindless relaxation in order to be the most efficacious towards improving one's state of mental wellbeing.

I've also come to grips with the fact that my memory really isn't what it used to be, so taking pictures and documenting everything through photography and blogging is my way of reminding myself of those things that I never want to forget.

So I hope you'll forgive me if we're ever out on an adventure together, and I'm lying sprawled out on the ground trying to get my perfect shot or trying to capture the light a certain way through those trees or telling you to move just slightly one way or another in order to be better framed by the landscape all around us...

Because for me, that's how I best engrave forever the experience of our vacation together.

With all my love of getting The Photo aside, however, I must have you know that I am trying to more consciously document Life As It Really Is, too. As a photographer, I can sometimes be 100% guilty of manipulating where people are positioned or cropping out unwanted elements in order to get The Perfect Vacation Shot.

(And in all honesty, I'll probably still do that much of the time because I love pushing myself to create better and better images.)

But on this last vacation to Island Park, I also tried to step back and allow in images that were a little messier or harshly lit or grainy or out of focus because if I waited any longer to try and get the "right" image, the moment would be gone, the chance to document Life Right Now wasted away.

So you might notice (or you might now that I've pointed it out to you) that some of these images are a lot more "tidy" or "picturesque" or "perfectly lit" than others.

It's because in the end (as I sometimes need to remind myself), I want to remember the glorious vistas and the fabulous views and us looking awesome in that one place, but I also want to remember that it's hard to take a photo while out with family without someone trying to photobomb us (hilariously) or that it's kind of awesome how the baby's ponytail is literally sticking straight up because her daddy thought it would be funny or how half the members of the photo are in shade while a few are in awkwardly dappled sunlight, but I was going to take the picture anyway because I wanted to remember everyone together, just like they were on that very moment of time.

So this little photo essay of our time at Mesa Falls, Idaho is my own chosen blend of the almost-perfect and the totally-real-life, and overall, I think it's a pretty great representation of our vacation.

Oh, and I think that, lately anyway, I'm dangerously close to having to classify this photography thing as a true eat-sleep-and-breathe passion.

We're about at that point.

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