I’m Back

I’ve returned to the USA. There’s cheese here; I like that.

It’s been a great joy to see so many people I haven’t seen for so long. My social plate has been full for the last week and a half, and I hope all my friends know how wonderful it is to see their faces and hear their voices.

People keep asking how it is to be back; and it’s good. It’s surreal how ordinary it all feels, almost like the last year never happened and I’m back where I’m supposed to be. I’m different, though. The ten months abroad gave me a lot, in terms of focus, identity, belief.

Currently I’m existing in a state of unknowns. Thankfully I saved enough to invest in some things I need (an American phone, a drawing tablet that works, new interview shoes), but things cost a lot in America—like, so much—and I need an income sooner rather than later. I expected to feel more anxiety about that, but I’m putting a lot of energy toward the search, and it all has to work out one way or another. Housing is also an issue, and unexpectedly so, but I know we’ll find a solution.

My most overwhelming reverse-culture shock moment so far happened while walking into a Hannaford grocery store last Sunday. There are many Hannaford stores all over the greater Portland area, and for the two years I worked as bus driver Hannaford was my home-away-from-home. You can always find bus parking in a Hannaford parking lot, and I used to go in at least once a day to use the bathroom and grab a snack, or even get lunch from the wings/salad bar. While riding back from the airport, just seeing the Hannaford sign gave me a surprisingly intense shot of nostalgia.

So I walked into Hannaford on a Sunday morning, concise grocery-list in hand, and it was SO STRANGE to be alone in a public place and feel like I was meant to belong.

Every time I went into a mall or grocery store or market in Phitsanulok, I knew that I stood out. I was the tall foreigner who didn’t speak the language, and couldn’t be expected to know how to do anything. If I ever needed help, or if the cashier needed to tell me that it was buy-one-get-1-free on one of my items (which I never knew while getting it off the shelf because I couldn’t read the sign), it meant we were in for a half-mimed and half-understood conversation of broken Thai and broken English. I became really accustomed to that feeling of standing out, of being watched, of sales people whispering to each other when they saw me and then sending their best English-speaking representative over to ask if I needed anything.

So it was bizarre to be in a large store and to feel like everyone around me expected me to fit in and know exactly how to behave. It felt like a lot of pressure, suddenly, like if I messed up people would judge me. I didn’t realize that the lack of expectations for my behavior in a foreign country was actually freeing, in some ways, and belonging in a place visually made me feel like an imposter. Especially since I couldn’t remember where the coffee aisle was, and hadn’t steered a shopping cart in months.

I’m also really scared that Hannaford has stopped making lemon poppyseed muffins, which were my favorite. They did them perfect, too, soft on the inside and crispy on top. I need to try a different store, or a different day, to confirm. All I know is that the back bay store didn’t have them on Sunday, and it was a bummer.

That’s all for now! Despite the muffins, it’s great to be back.

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Blog Number 100: Space and Summer and Goals, Goals, Goals

This is the 100th post on the Grace Makley Blog.

Yay.

We also had the two-year blog anniversary sometime last week.

Woooo-hoo.

Neither of these strike me as especially significant, but it’s so hard to get anything done these days that I might as well celebrate small accomplishments.

I’ve been thinking about workspace. One of the biggest things I’ve learned in the past year is that writing/arting in my apartment is difficult. My bedroom has barely the requisite space for a bedroom; forcing it into double-service as desk-area and studio really taxes its reserves. There is no space I can work in my apartment that is not also the space I use to relax, so it’s hard to find any distraction-free focus. I work in coffee shops when I can, but the difficulty there is the danger of your work being on display. I’m putting together a kick-ass painting of Vanya and I don’t care who looks over my shoulder at Starbucks and sees it, but I’m using a photo of Mr. Huntington as reference. He’s not making I guess the most flattering face in the photo, and the Vanya-shirt isn’t his usual style,  and he’d frankly rather I not inadvertently display it around town—and since I’m going to be needing many more reference photos, I’m rather keen to respect his wishes on that.*

So I need a better space. Not necessarily my own solo space, but a space where I don’t need to feel self-conscious about the accouterments of my work, and a space where I don’t need to buy a drink to stay there. I actually had the possibility of an exciting opportunity that would solve my space problem and provide a fulfilling occupation and some extra income. I was hoping for it with all my hopes. It still may come through, but it’s looking less likely now, so I’m trying to move on to other solutions. I’m at a point where I’m ready to invest money in this, ready to make it happen—except, oh yeah, I’m also out of money! Not out out, but this business of cutting back to three days a week from four without an extra part-time job to fill in the cracks is starting to make itself known in the size of my bank statements. Even if I’m ready to shell out cash for some workspace and willing to make that investment, I just can’t afford it right now.

This post is not supposed to be a downer! I’m just putting the problem out there to the universe. Acknowledging the issue in good faith, making my goals known, stating them so I can start working on them where I can. And hey, I grabbed an extra shift today. And I’ve got a job lined up painting a fence this summer. Not enough for rent on a studio space, but at least I’m getting by.

And, oh yeah, the weather is beautiful. I’m biking places, and yesterday I ran the Back Cove Trail for the first time this year (over four miles, starting from my apartment). Today it reached 80º, and I have more energy after work than I’ve had in a long time. I’ve been trying to eat more fruit, and trying to at least go for walks when the weather is nice and I don’t feel up to running. I cleaned my room yesterday, and some harmony in my space makes me feel like I can breathe. Gotta wonder, sometimes, if Maine winters are really worth it. Do people in warmer climates feel this good all the time? Or are summers only so welcome in places like Maine and Michigan because we have endured the snow and cold and depression all winter long? As someone who would choose 90º F over 50ºF any day, I think I would like the opportunity, one of these years, to discover whether I would miss Maine winters if given the chance to do so.

Hey internet! Do you have any advice for me on finding a studio I can afford in Portland, Maine?

 

*The reference photo problem actually represents a solution to ANOTHER problem, the problem where I wasn’t using as many reference photos as I should because it’s hard to work ON the computer while looking at a photo that is also on the computer. So I started printing my photos! Now I can use my whole workspace for painting, but an 8″x10″ photo propped up beside my computer draws more attention than a few pixels taking up space on a screen.

 

A Weekend, A Sketch

Long weekends don’t mean too much to me, generally; I always have Mondays off. Brother came up from Massachusetts on Friday evening, though, and stayed with me and Brackett through yesterday. We checked out the newly renovated Dogfish Bar and Grill for lunch yesterday (I can recommend the 128 Free Street Sandwich) and then Brother and Brackett picked up some vinyl and a few Super Nintendo games at the Electrcic Buddhas nostalgia shop around the corner. They proceeded to beat Goof Troop in under two hours—a game that had seemed impossibly difficult when I was a child. Brother headed up to our parents house yesterday evening, and I’m following in a few hours. Sadly, I have to return my mother’s car. It was easier for her to leave the vehicle with me last weekend than for us to figure out the logistics of her and my father dropping me and another friend off in Portland on their way home from the retreat in separate cars in time for a scheduled event back home. It’s been really nice having wheels for a few days.

I can’t share the painting I was telling you about last weekend yet. I’m really happy with how that’s turning out, but it’s not quite done. My week was subsumed by another worthy project (yes I did make art during the week this week, though it was for a different purpose [an exciting one!] than my usual stuff) so I haven’t made too much more headway on that painting or my other digital art. I did make a sketch yesterday that I finished today, though, so I’m sharing that instead. I’m working on an illustration for the picnic scene in Chapter 4 (Wanderlust Chapter 4: City of Shadows) and right now I’m planning where everyone’s sitting and what they’re doing. I’m hoping to round up some friends to shoot reference photos this week (friends in Portland: I need about two more models for a picnic scene—let me know if you want to help!), so it will be good to know what poses I’m looking for ahead of time. I’m thinking Vanya will be in the background of the scene taking a swig of his drink. I realized I’d never drawn that before, so I did the following sketch as a study, using some stock photos as reference.

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 10.42.29 AM

Weekend Retreat

If you read my last post, you’ll recall that working from home is a real struggle for me, even if I’m working on the things I love and the things I want to be doing. This past weekend, I received an amazing gift of time and space that let me do more work in a few days than I’ve been able to do in a long time.

There is a Franciscan Monastery and Guest House in Kennebunkport, Maine. It’s a ten-minute walk from the beach by road, and has beautiful, well-manicured grounds with walking trails through the woods to various shrines and down to the river near the mouth of the sea. Every year before the tourist season begins, the Guest House hosts a retreat for the Secular Franciscans from the surrounding states. A Secular Franciscan is a Catholic who takes vows to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis—but Secular Franciscans aren’t monks, and they are allowed (and encouraged) to get married and live in the world. My parents are Secular Franciscans, and they’ve been taking me on this retreat since I was very, very small.

When I was a kid, there were always older kids at the retreat who babysat and took care of the younger ones while our parents were at the retreat sessions. They took us to find tide-pools near the beach, brought us walking on the trails, and played frisbee and football with us on the lawn. We would sit at our own kids table at dinner, away from the adults, and steal second-helpings of pudding and third-helpings of very sweet iced tea.  As we got older, we became the babysitters for the younger kids. Now I’m twenty or so years older than I was at my first retreat and my parents have aged accordingly, but my parents are still some of the youngest of the professed Secular Franciscans. There weren’t any young families with children at the retreat this weekend, and there weren’t any gaggles of young children running around the grounds the way we did when we were kids. Some of us still come back as adults, but this weekend all my childhood friends were busy (the baby of our old crew was attending his Junior year high school prom) and I was pretty much on my own. And, in terms of making art, that was exactly what I needed.

While my parents went to the retreat sessions and spent their time in prayer and reflection, I went to a conference room on the third floor of the guest house and worked on a digital painting. Given large blocks of time to myself in a space without distractions, I was able to focus. I didn’t even have to worry about feeding myself, because the retreat included included bountiful and delicious home cooked meals served up three times a day. All I did on Saturday was eat, paint, eat, walk to the beach, paint, eat, walk to the beach, paint, spend some time with parents and dears friends, and sleep. I’m excited to show you the painting I was working on; it’s almost done! And of course we can’t be on retreat all the time, but sometimes time away from home shows us what we’re actually capable of when we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted. It was a good way to get back on track mentally and creatively, and I’m hoping to bring a little bit of quiet and focus with me as I travel through the weeks ahead.

Have you had any retreat experiences that have allowed you to get more creative work done that you could do at home? Where do you go when you need to focus?

Time Management 101

It’s Thursday, and I have the day off. I was working Thursdays for several months, so I’m not used to this yet; it feels perilously like a Monday, and I have to keep reminding myself that the weekend will arrive sooner than I think. I’ll get some stuff done today. Important keeping-the-ship-afloat stuff like laundry, dishes, and tidying up the apartment, and I’ll do some writing and artwork on down the line as well.

It’s hard for me to arrive at the place where the story and the canvas are the only things that matter. I get overwhelmed by everything else, and even within my own work I get overwhelmed by the choices. Should I write today, or paint? Is this editing the most important thing, or should I be writing new scenes? Should I be working on this painting that’s for improving my skills, or should I be taking reference photos and getting at the meat of a new illustration for the book? Decision-making is not my best skill, and it takes mental fortitude for me to even decide where to begin. And, if in addition to my pressing need to be someone who actually makes books and art rather than just talking about it all the time, the dishes also need doing, the floor needs vacuuming, the laundry needs putting away, it becomes even harder to choose my work over the work that keeps me happy and comfortable in my space. (I’m not a very good housekeeper, but I also get miserable when the house is a mess. It’s a constant battle, and the more I lose the less I feel like cleaning or doing anything.) This doesn’t mean I’ll actually do all the dishes instead of writing all the things when I get home from work; it just means I’ll feel bad about not doing either and watch another episode of House on Netflix. When I get home from work, I’m just too tired to prioritize and make decisions. I’m not too tired to do stuff—if there’s a scheduled event I’ll change into some nice clothes and go back out there—but if that stuff I’m trying to do is solely for my own happiness and personal improvement, then it becomes ridiculously hard to rally.

Today, I’ll get to the art because I have time to do the dishes first and pack up the laundry. I’ll do some writing at the laundromat, and then I’ll come home and have a cup of tea and keep working. I have all day, so all the things I want to do are more spread out and a little less pressing. I’m not so overwhelmed by the stress of deciding which to tackle in an alarmingly short space of time. I’d rather work only on my days off than never work at all, but I think my task for the upcoming weeks is to find a way to remove the stress of decision-making from my process when I get home from work. To transition from day job to vocation in a way that doesn’t open the door for all the doubts and decisions that I just can’t deal with at that point in the day. Does anyone have any ideas?

Do day-to-day decision hinder your workflow too? How you deal with the conflict between the creative and the mundane, when they’re both fighting for the same real estate in your 24-hour day?

What I did on a Sunshiny Day

Yesterday was Sunday, and Mother’s Day, and perhaps the most beautiful day we’ve had in Maine yet this year. Temperatures in the 70s, sunshine, everything you could ask for. My apartment, which tends to be a little cold during the winter, has actually been overheating. I forgot it did that. This winter was especially brutal. I’ve always lived in places with cold and snow in the colder months, but this year it seemed to just keep coming. I’m still a little paranoid about this Spring thing. I don’t quite trust it. Warm weather? Us? Must be some kind of set-up. Where’s the catch?

Yesterday was too beautiful to stay inside, so Mr. Huntington and I took the ferry to Peaks Island, the most popular of the islands in Casco Bay right off the coast of Portland. My roommate Brackett met us at the ferry and gave us a quick tour; his family has a cottage on the island and he happened to be out there the afternoon we decided to take our impromptu trip. After walking around some rocks by the sea and getting a tour of Brackett’s cottage, we walked down Island Ave to the ferry landing and sat in the sunshine and ate ice cream while waited for the next boat back into town.

The rest of the day was taken up with dinner, and laundry, and not much else.

What do you do when it’s a beautiful day, and you’d rather be outside than at your computer desk writing?

Is there value in disciplining yourself to the desk, to the work? What sacrifices do you make to further your craft, and where do you draw your lines? How do you navigate the boundary between distraction and things you need, things that feed you?

A Tale of Woe

Three weeks ago, while on a flight from Philadelphia to Jacksonville, my computer died. I didn’t do anything to it, it wasn’t jostled or harmed in any way. I was just scrolling around while I drank my in-flight ginger ale. I let the macbook attempt to connect to the in-flight wireless, and took a look at that illustration I’d been working on for a couple weeks.

Guess who?

Guess who?

And then my macbook slowed down, and stopped responding.

So I restarted it!

And never got past the long-in screen.

So I tried again, and again. Eventually the startup screen showed a blinking image of a folder with a question mark. This was the exact opposite of reassuring.Pmhp4

Consensus was, I had a busted hard drive. There went all my plans of being a semi-productive writer and illustrator while on vacation. The good news—the really excellent news—was that I’d backed up my entire computer before I got on the plane that morning.

I had no choice but to enjoy my florida vacation completely guilt free. I spent a lot of time with family I don’t see very often. For most of my life, holiday gatherings have been a four person affair (my mom, dad, brother, and me), but this Easter I celebrated with…well, we never did get a head-count, but at least 35 relatives of some degree or other. In Florida, everything everywhere was green, a nice contrast from the Maine of a few weeks ago. I went running by the Suwannee river, went swimming in the ocean in APRIL, paddled a kayak through salty inlets to the sea, and saw dolphins, wild horses, an alligator, and many birds.

Back in Maine, my first prerogative was a trip to the Apple store. They checked my computer in on Monday and told me I could pick it up on Tuesday. I had both days off, and the half hour bus ride to and back from the Mall took a good chunk of time from both days. On Tuesday, there was good news! They hadn’t needed to replace the hard drive; only the connector cable. All my stuff was still there, and my computer was back to normal. Much rejoicing, etc. I brought it home, and commenced browsing the internet and getting caught up on my favorite webcomics. And then, my computer, staaarted    to       slooooooooow                 dooooooooooooowwn.

I restarted it, and got stuck on the log-in screen for a long time. Like, half an hour. It kept trying really hard to function normally, but it took an intolerably long time to accomplish anything, and eventually crapped out every time. The nice fellow on the Apple Support line was able to schedule me another appointment at the store for after work the following day, an appointment I missed because my work day started and finished a half-hour later than normal, without warning (this week, my schedule changed to two hours earlier instead). In the end, I couldn’t go back until Saturday, where my computer was again admitted for repair. Got it back on Sunday, good as new, this time with a brand new hard drive.

And that’s the story of why my productivity has plummeted for the past three weeks. Now it’s the weekend. I have three days off in a row, I’ve warmed up with writing a blog post, my apartment is less of a mess than it gets sometimes, and I just finished my second cup of coffee for the day. I’m going to get to work.

I probably won’t accomplish a lot in the next few hours. I probably won’t meet my goals this weekend, this month, or even this year. But I have to keep plugging away at it, a little bit at a time and in whatever way I can, or I’ll never get anywhere at all.

Ruminations on The Struggle

So I’ve ben sketching. It took me three months to post 31 sketches, but this week, I’ve done that many since Wednesday. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the struggle to make art, about what it all means. I’m at a point in my life when I’ve recommitted myself to my artwork and writing countless times, and I’ve been ruminating on how delusional it is to believe, every single time, that I’ve figured it out, that this is what I do from now on, that I won’t need to recommit myself again because this is it, forever. I’ve been thinking about how invigorated I am by change, by new routines and new ways of working, and how bizarre it is that with each NEW thing I think I have found the thing that will ALWAYS work. I’m realizing it is the change itself that always works.

This scares me, because I worry that in my quest for change, for newness, I will never be able to finish anything. This reassures me because I have been working on Wanderlust, a single project, for seven years, and I’ve never given up on it, not even for an instant. I get discouraged and stop working on it for months or years at a time, but I never truly lose sight of it, and I’ve never considered quitting. It’s only my methods of working that change.

I read an internet article recently about what separates amateurs artists from professionals. One of the things listed was that amateurs are always working, always perfecting, and never finished (I’ll try to find the article again to post later on, but right now I’m trying to finish this post before work). If I want to make the leap from amateur to professional, I have to start finishing things. I have to start sending Wanderlust out, I have to start getting rejections. I’ve been thinking about the amount of work I need to complete before I can do that, and I’ve been thinking about how to get it done.

We had one warm day last week. It got up to fifty degrees (F). I’m still in a good mood.

My current New Thing is returning to traditional media for sketches. It’s important to work with yourself, I think, to make things as easy as you can for yourself when you are asking for big efforts and great things. I, for instance, have developed an aversion to pencil dust. I don’t like it on my fingers, I don’t like how it collects in the bottom of my backpack when I store pencils and a sharpener in one of the pockets. So I was sketching with pen, for a while, and I bought some mechanical pencils the other day. They’re pretty annoying for filling in large spaces, and using them for loose work goes against everything I’ve been taught, but for right now they’re what I need for remembering anatomy and working through thumbnails as I prepare to dive into, and maybe finally complete, some real work and some illustrations for Wanderlust.

sketches

Ballroom Dancing (Our First Class)

Last Sunday night, Mr. Huntington and I attended our first class of a six week Beginners Ballroom Dance Course. And this is why we keep going to our jobs that leave us too tired and worn out at night to do our writing and keep up with our blog (a royal “we”. Mr Huntington doesn’t have a blog). We go because, when you hear some swing music playing and ask your boyfriend if he knows how to dance, and when he responds that he would like to learn but never has, it feels great to say, “Do you want to take a class together?” and to know that you can afford it, that it won’t break the bank, and that you won’t even have to eat rice and beans for the next week.

So we signed up for a class. We’ve paid ahead for six weeks of lessons at Maine Ballroom Dance, a large studio right on Congress Street in Portland, ME. In the past, we’ve seen the African Dance class through the studio windows while stuffing our faces at the Congress St. Bar and Grille. I remember feeling vaguely envious and dissatisfied when I compared my own inactivity to the people moving and jumping and making use of their bodies for something other than mindless intake. Last Sunday, the studio was bright and empty when we drove by in search of parking. By the time we parked and came back to the studio, another couple had arrived, and we all introduced ourselves and wrote out our checks to the instructor. It turned out that only the four of us had registered for the class, which is nice because we get a lot of personal instruction. The other couple is friendly and cool. They’re also younger than us, which is a new feeling for me, at nearly 25, to look at another adult couple and think, “they’re a younger couple.” We were all excited and a little nervous as we waited for the class to begin.

We learned two steps each of the foxtrot and swing at the first class. We’re going to be learning four dances total, including the waltz. I’m excited that swing is included on the docket, because swing dance is my favorite and I was disappointed that the Beginner Swing lessons didn’t fit into our schedule. I was the only one who raised my hand, sheepishly, when the instructor asked if we had any previous dance experience, but I don’t remember too much from the ballroom dance club I attended briefly in college, and in some cases I remember just enough to get in the way. I may learn the steps without too much repetition because I have been foxtrotted around a room before, but, because I remembered a previous partner telling me I was too limp in the stance, I overcompensated and my teacher told me I needed to relax into the position. And in swing, though I know the swing beat and I can rock-step with the best of them, I had forgotten (or never realized) that there’s a difference between open and closed position (in open you step straight back, and in closed you step behind your other foot), and I was doing the closed position step in open position and had to be corrected.

It felt really good to be dancing again. Mr Huntington enjoyed it too. You know how you feel responsible for the other person’s enjoyment when a group activity is your idea, like when you feel guilty for bringing someone to see a movie that turns out to be not very good, even if they said they wanted to go? I felt really gratified when my boyfriend got involved in the class, stopping us in the foxtrot for an earnest discussion of our stance and watching the instructor attentively as she introduced each new concept. We spent the first twenty minutes of dinner at the noodle bar down the street discussing how the class went, and where we need to improve as a team. We both had a lot of fun, and as Mr Huntington pointed out (“Not to be all mushy and cliché,” he said) it’s really good for us as a couple, for learning how to work together and for building our communication skills. We still need to do some practicing before six o’clock tomorrow, but I’m really looking forward to our next class.

NaNoWriMo: Final Countdown

Two days left, and my word count is 42,318. I wrote 7,036 words today (November 28), and I have to write 7,682 words in the next two days if I want to hit 50,000 by the end of November. The next two days are vacation days, so I’m pretty sure I can do it. I stalled during the middle two weeks of the month, but I’ve been playing some pretty intense catch-up since Saturday. Here’s the graph of my progress so far (the grey line represents the target goal of writing 1,667 words per day):

Thanksgiving NaNo Graph

 

For those of you who read my last post following week 1 of the challenge, I actually did manage to keep up my word count for the entirety of that weekend (days 8, 9, and 10 on the graph). I was so very tired at the end of it, though, that I couldn’t get it together to do any writing on my workdays the following week. Oh, and I didn’t know where I was going with the story. I haven’t known where I was going with the story, except for a few tiny revelations that were enough to keep me trucking along and putting words on the page. I didn’t really find the answers to any of the big questions until about 7:30 pm today. So my NaNo project isn’t a narrative, per say. It’s about 40,000 words of me flailing away at the story, writing (sometimes in depth, sometimes not) about any aspect of it that I could write words about, and world-building and begging the world to tell me what it’s all about so I can keep writing and win this silly and arbitrary 50,000 words by November 30th challenge. The project won’t be done at 50,000; it will be just getting started. And actually, I’m pretty sure the flailing-away-at-your-story-in-any-way-you-can is pretty much the point of NaNoWriMo, so the event is doing its job. During those flat periods on the graph above I didn’t think I was going to finish, and I thought that was okay because the story just wasn’t ready yet. It wasn’t ripe. But I still wanted to win, you know? I still wanted to finish what I set out to do. And while marathoning some words today, trying to reach that arbitrary goal that will make me a NaNo “Winner,” I did find that piece of the plot and world-building I was searching for. Not that there aren’t a gazillion other problems I don’t even know about yet that are gonna crop up later on, but my point is that writing is the best thing to do for writing. And that’s the point of this entire exercise, right?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and a big congratulations to my writing buddies (http://amorecolorfullife.com/) who already won the 50,000 word challenge. You rock!