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Posts from the ‘Creativity’ Category

The teacher who saved my life

Beginning violin - Age 8

Betsy Lewis ~ Age 8

My family had significant challenges when I was growing up. I was the oldest of 4 kids and when I was 12, we lost our mother. My father was completely overwhelmed with the job of taking care of us, especially since he needed to work long hours to keep his new business afloat.

That’s when I stepped in to take up the slack and when my childhood mostly ended.

Despite my best efforts to run the household, I regularly fell short. I naturally didn’t know what or how to do things and I took it as a personal failing. My father seemed grateful for my help, but no one told me that this was an impossible job for a 12 year-old. Even today, I work on letting go of shame when I don’t know how to do something or when I fail.

There was one steady adult in my life then — my violin teacher, MaryAnn Butler. She also had a busy life as a wife and mother of four children. She ran a home business teaching violin and piano, and she played violin with the Livermore Symphony Orchestra.

MaryAnn talked to my father and started giving me free lessons — since we could no longer afford them. Later, she hired me to babysit, so I had some spending money. She made me a 2nd violin in the symphony orchestra — picking me up by car every week and driving me to and from practices and performances for 5 years without fail. She also made sure I got music scholarships for college.

She seemed to believe in me and never gave up. This, despite the fact that I was not a good student or violinist, had a terrible musical ear, rarely practiced, and was too anxious to play at her recitals.

Truth be told, I got no joy from music or playing music. My life was simply too stressful — to feel. I am sure I clung to the violin because I knew that each week I could go to a place with a caring adult holding space just for me, who showed me how to do things I didn’t know how to do and didn’t give up on me when I failed.

MaryAnn and I lost touch over the years. From my perspective now, at age 61, I deeply regret this. In a recent Google search, I discovered that she had died at 71 of cancer. I also found comments from other former students confirming that she had done, for many many other kids, what she had done for me.

MaryAnn was a teacher, and teachers do things like this for kids all the time. But, you don’t have to be a teacher, or even in a profession geared to kids, to change their lives for the better.

NPR recently ran a story of a barber who managed to fit in support for kids in his daily work by giving a $2 discount on haircuts to kids who read a book to him in the chair: ( How The Barber, And Other Caring Adults, Help Kids Succeed.)

NPR also cited a study that found “for every 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio in a given community, there was a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people dropping out before graduating high school.”

Astoundingly, it doesn’t take much. Simply having more grownups around is pretty powerful!

And maybe you only need to do one thing to make a big difference.

Which leads me to ask the question of myself and of you.

Is there a way we busy adults can carve out just a little bit of extra space for a child in our daily life or work?

I stopped playing the violin soon after graduating from college, but I think MaryAnn would be happy to know that, at age 50, I bought myself a cello and found that I actually had developed a musical “ear” and found joy in making and listening to music.

This was her legacy to me, discovered many years after my lessons ended. Deep gratitude to MaryAnn!

If not now, when???

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I  am getting ready for a trip to New York City. It’s #1 on my travel bucket list.

This is not the most affordable trip I could take. Like all trips, there is the getting there (not cheap) and the lodging (REALLY not cheap) and the eating, the transportation etc. However, I’ve pulled it together as affordably as I can. I am going with my good friend Patty, who has traveled to many exotic places, but has never been to New York City.

I would put it off if I were younger. But, at 61 years old, my new favorite things to say to myself is: “If not now, when???”

I had this trip planned some 7 years ago, but my kid got into trouble, so I canceled. The ensuing years were filled with worry and sacrifice. I look at the pictures from 7 years ago and it shows in my face, beyond what would be normal aging.

Now this child’s life is not my life — to protect with MY life anymore. But, for a long time there, I felt I was finished. Like I was done with new and growth and a future — and moving backward in a long slow slide to my own demise.

Getting another chance, at what I was planning when it all fell apart, feels like a reboot.  Back to the “before” and still capable of something approximating the future I had imagined. I am still a work in progress.

New York will probably look different to me now than it would have 7 years ago. I will get different things out of this visit – find different meanings and be changed and inspired in different ways.

And, thanks to Facebook, I have discovered that a friend I haven’t seen in 20+ years will be at a theater just down the street from where I am staying — the night I arrive in NYC. Our babies – her boy and my girl – were friends in the Indiana neighborhood where we both lived. New mothers together, we shared a pivotal time in our lives! My baby grew up and is a mother now herself. And her son is getting married soon.

We will both be exhausted by then. I will have traveled all day and she will be flying out early the next morning, but there is a chance we can meet for a few minutes when the play lets out.

It’s funny to think that we would both land, once again, at the same time and at the same place in this whole wide world.

 

School Daze: Living and Thriving in an Elementary School Classroom

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They say you can’t go back, but I am trying.

I live and work in a 1200 sq. ft. elementary school classroom on the Oregon Coast. My landlord, a school teacher, purchased the whole school about 10 years ago and remodeled 8 of the classrooms into apartments. Besides these apartments, there is an old school gym and cafeteria used for community events, basketball practice, weddings, a model train show at Christmas, and the annual crab feed.

There is endless work still to be done on the buildings and grounds. The school exterior is pretty scruffy, but the entry hall is finally being painted and an onsite laundry room is being installed as I write.

We residents are the “Bobcats” – mostly middle-aged or older – 3 artists, a couple building a boat by hand in the local shipyard, an emergency room physician, a young man who works in a local restaurant and a retired couple. The apartment manager is easy going and goes barefoot, regardless of the weather.

We are colorful enough to inspire a sitcom. Truth can be stranger than fiction sometimes.

You can see a slide show of my space below. The school was built in the 1960s. The landlord added a kitchen and shower to each classroom, and the toilet and sink have been refurbished. There is new carpet, linoleum, updated lighting, ceiling fans, new paint, a security system, and double-paned windows. The room still has many of its original features – a vaulted ceiling, blackboard, pencil sharpener, coat closet, flag — and those huge windows we used for staring and daydreaming as kids — as our teacher droned on and on.

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Unlike Portland, where anything extra requires an “additional fee” and a contract, the management here is generous and accommodating. They have loaned me several heavy art tables from the auditorium (and even lugged them over to my apartment for me.) They also constructed a little sleeping cubicle for me out of old folding doors.

I’ve furnished the place with colorful second-hand things. The area is economically depressed, so most things are relatively affordable and I’ve discovered wonderful artists who are painting and restoring furniture pieces. I’ve added some school “props” to further fuel my back-to-school fantasies: a 1950s globe, a metal locker, old books, a school bell, a child’s chair, a hall pass and a shiny red wooden apple. I just stopped short of buying a pull down map of the world.

My windows are south-facing with great light and the weather has been wonderful. The closest walking beach is only two miles away. The rent is low, utilities are never over $60 and WiFi is free. The people are unpretentious and friendly. I am learning how to cook seafood and there are many things still to explore and learn.  I can’t see any reason to leave here for awhile.

Until recently, I drove back and forth between Portland and the Rogue Valley frequently, but I am making a commitment now to stay put and get some work done — until September – when I head east to Pendleton for a bang-up rodeo party for my 60th birthday.

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At the schoolhouse I am creating a new body of work I call “Shipyard Abstracts”.  All my work, both painting and collage, has taken on a maritime theme — mostly inspired by beach-y finds and the local shipyard full of rusty things and the weathered leavings of abandoned and decomposing ships. I am still making my up-cycled aboriginal inspired pieces, and if all goes as planned, I will photograph and post them in my new Etsy Store this weekend. I also continue to enjoy doing social media work for a couple clients.

It is a huge, peaceful and deeply quiet place —  where I can breath, spread out and heal from the past decade.

It has not escaped me that I have managed to put myself back into school – to a time and place that was safe and predictable for me as a child — when my family life wasn’t.

I think I will just stay here awhile until I grow up some more.

I am Monica Lewinsky

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#IAmMonicaLewinsky by Betsy Lewis

“Humiliation is a more intensely felt emotion than either happiness or even anger”   Monica Lewinsky

I avoided watching Monica Lewinsky’s March TED2015 Video titled: The price of shame — like the plague. I don’t like shame. People who have made shameful mistakes, been found out and publicly humiliated, make me extremely uncomfortable. They remind me too much of my own mistakes and humiliations.

And, frankly, it is a lot easier to have someone else embody shame, (and  hate them for it), rather than face up to shame in myself. I like to think I don’t do that, that I am more conscious than that, but in the case of Monica Lewinsky — I think I did. Before watching her talk, she was merely the blue dress or the beret and all they symbolized. After watching her talk, I see a full human being, a woman who is courageous, articulate, and purposeful.

A few days ago, I started to put together a collage in my usual way, with no particular intention. I put down the face  . . .  and then the fish over that . . . and thought to myself, “Oh! . . . . . humiliation.” Monica Lewinsky’s story had been working some sort of magic in my subconscious — and apparently it was something I needed to express.

I also began to wish to do something in solidarity with her – the woman who has been taking the “hits” for all of us, for far too long.

I can say — “I am Monica Lewinsky.” All of us can say — “We are Monica Lewinsky” – but there are big differences. We may have fallen in love with our bosses or someone inappropriate — but that person was probably not the President of the United States.  And for those of us over 50, before the onset of the instant connectedness of the internet and social media, our youthful mistakes were usually only an embarrassing legend in our own minds or in the minds a handful of people or in our local community.

Back in 1998, when her story broke, and she was all of 24 years old, Monica Lewinski became the first of a new genre of scandalous internet sensations. The stories and sordid details about her spread like wildfire and could be viewed by anyone at any time — and forever. In short order, she made history. Her shame became a legend world-wide, and she — a target. No wonder her parents feared for her life.

Now, what she calls “technologically enhanced shame,” is commonplace. Countless individuals, often young people, are cyber-bullied every day — sometimes with tragic results. Public humiliation has become big business. And, as Monica points out, “The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars.”

The antidote for shame? The things she said saved her when her life became unbearable — compassion and empathy from other human beings. She quotes Brene Brown, a researcher and authority on vulnerability and shame, saying: “Shame can not survive empathy.”

In the online world, we can foster minority influence by becoming upstanders. To become an upstander means instead of bystander apathy, we can post a positive comment for someone or report a bullying situation.” Monica Lewinsky

I admire Monica Lewinsky. At age 41, after a decade of silence, she is using her horrific experience in a unique and productive way. She is doing what admirable people do who survive a great trauma – she is making meaning out of her story and using it to help others. As a living example of the power of compassion and empathy to heal, she is helping others cope and heal also.

The internet is a force that can be used for good or evil. There is power in your clicks, beyond the advertising dollars. Like Monica Lewinsky, we also have the power individually and collectively to become upstanders and spread compassion and empathy in place of shame.

And while you are doing that for others, give yourself a break. Shine some compassion on yourself, for  your own shame. You are only human  — just like Monica Lewinsky.

Watch the TED2015 video of Monica Lewinsky titled The Price of Shame.

Self-Portrait: Woman with a Key and Clocks

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What’s up for me in 2015?

Time. (And being in control of it.)

I’ll be turning 60 this year — and this fact is working powerful magic for me.

Up to now, I felt I had plenty of time — eternities of time. I didn’t ever think about how I used my time. I just went along, spending it haphazardly on things as they came up. This wasn’t all bad. My unconscious ruled, and it has been an interesting unfolding of a life. But now it is different.

I am aware of limitations in all areas of my life, and TIME is a big one.

That explains the clocks above my head. The big key is important too. I am taking charge. I will open and lock the doors for myself now. My hands are big, over-sized and strong. I want to make things. The E and L  are my initials. I use my given name, Elizabeth, when I mean business. (I love doing self-portraits. I never know exactly what will show up — but it is always revealing.)

I think the cowboy getup, (clipped from a Sundance catalog), is a little more shallow — a wish fulfillment. I dreamed of growing up to be a cowboy as a child, and as an adult would like to dress like a Sundance catalog model!

A woman in the apartment across from me just had her 2nd knee replacement surgery. After her first surgery, I drove her to a couple PT appointments, waited for her and drove her home. That’s the nice person I am, but I felt resentful — and that is key too. Ironically, I barely know this person, yet I felt obligated to BE THERE for her. This 2nd surgery I am refraining from offering. She has financial resources, there are cabs and she has friends and family who could help her. I don’t blame her – who wouldn’t want to save $ and get a ride from a neighbor. I was the one who OFFERED to drive her that first surgery! This second surgery, she seems to be getting along just fine without me. I don’t have to feel resentful and a true friendship between us has a chance of developing.

In many other ways, I am refraining: Not doing work that doesn’t inspire me, declining social invitations, limiting visitors, letting myself be the introvert that I am and the extrovert that I am — when it fits.

I find myself taking refuge in being almost 60. I am OLD for God’s sake – give me a break! But, I have never really needed an excuse.  I am well aware of how my past, my upbringing and my gender has led me to ignore myself — especially as a mother. As hard as it is, I am working on letting my children figure things out by themselves.

This doesn’t mean I won’t be there for others in the future. But, I will be discriminating and consider myself first (gasp . . . did I just write that?). I just have to see those clocks, me as the holder of the key and those big hands screaming, “Make something now!” — to remind myself. I think the kick-ass boots are a nice touch too.

There are things I want to do. I don’t want to die regretting not doing them. There is no guarantee that all those people, for whom I have sacrificed my own needs, will come to my funeral and say nice things. And who wants to spend their precious time securing glowing eulogies.

I am also thinking about buying those boots and taking myself off to a dude ranch for my 60th birthday!

Introducing pLaNeT PoRtLaNd

The Violin Shop on pLaNeT PoRtLaNd

The Violin Shop on pLaNeT PoRtLaNd

Working almost full time in the wake of losing my pension has put a severe cramp on my artistic output. Introspection-wise I am still functioning but not putting much of it into writing. The Portland Nine writing group, which meets once a week, has been my only expressive outlet.

However, just as my head was about to explode from the log jam of my creative ideas, I discovered phone photography. It has allowed me to squeeze some creativity into my busy days. I usually take a walk each day anyway, so now I am bringing my phone/camera along with me and snapping shots along the way. (I’ve programmed the camera to make that gratifying shutter click noise too.)

Me on the hunt as the intrepid phone photographer

Me on the hunt as the intrepid phone photographer

Later, I art-ify (my word) the images — once again quickly and right on my phone. I’ve set up a Tumblr blog — just for posting these images — with minimal words. I can also do the posting from my phone which saves time. Oh, the wonders of modern technology!

I’ve called my new photo blog “My Year on pLaNeT PoRtLaNd.” It is at: http://planetportland.tumblr.com. Give it a visit if your like. If you have a Tumblr account you can follow it too.

I have been on my walkabout now for nine months – the perfect gestation time. Lots of lessons learned. I am currently crafting a bulleted list (for speed and ease of reading ) of walkabout pointers to be published here soon. I also signed a lease for one more year at  the apartment in Portland, Oregon. There is a lot I have yet to experience and learn from this very quirky and inspiring place I call pLaNeT PoRtLaNd.

I still have some Walkabout Woman portraits I am working on, albeit slowly . . . on real paper and with real art supplies!

That’s it for now. I hope everyone is enjoying Spring — in whatever form it is emerging in your life! Here’s one last phone/camera image:

My place of work, aka the poetry corner, on pLaNeT PoRtLaNd

My place of work, aka the poetry corner, on pLaNeT PoRtLaNd

Skating on thin ice

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Drawing by Betsy Lewis

The Walkabout Woman blog has been languishing. The truth is . . . I have been busy making a living.

The loss of my pension in February sent me off in a new direction, one with less time for writing or art. I am actually enjoying my foray back into the working world.  I find meaning and value in the work I am doing.

I am also grateful for the previous months of solitude I spent in deep communion with myself.

Everything seems to come in its right time and place, but I am aware that I am living more on the surface of life now.

It is as though I am skating on a frozen pond, with just a thin sheet of ice between my busy everyday life above and the shadowy depths of my inner life below.  I am relishing the frosty air on my cheeks and my strong graceful competent movements.  I feel joy and exhilaration with this new slippery speed that sends me careening into contact with other people.

My months of solitude taught me a lot about the magic of being present — and I have not lost the habit.

As they say, “It’s all good.”

I joined a writing group made up of  nine women – The Portland Nine.  I am # nine, the new one. Each Thursday night, from 6:00 pm to  8:30 pm, we gather, respond to 10 minute writing prompts and share what we have written.

There is a lot of freedom in this and I feel myself loosening up as the evening goes on. It is only with these women now that the sheet of ice cracks and I fall through to the depths below.

Sometimes when I am reading aloud, it touches a nerve and I cry.

And try as I might, I am unable to write a scrap of fiction or come up with the colorful adjectives or metaphors that the others do. I can only write plainly and starkly about myself or myself thinly veiled. In this group, however, I feel accepted and appreciated for my voice. I am only slightly embarrassed by my tears. The other women seem unperturbed, and the  hostess just brings out the Kleenex.

What is profound for me is this — day by day, art or not, work or not (or maybe because of it), I am witnessing the unraveling of the tangled threads of my life. Sometimes my tears are  from the relief of finally setting the burden down.

I bought a scroll for my wall which says:

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection” Buddha

As I welcome in my own humanity and claim the wisdom of the crone that I am, the love I have received and given so far wells up inside me. I see that, in big and small ways, I am beginning to be able to love myself.

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