Monday, March 26, 2012

Julia Cameron's Artist's Dates

Back when I lived in New Mexico, my mom sent me cassette tapes of a Julia Cameron lecture that talked about her bestselling book, The Artist's Way. I loved those tapes, one in particular. They were the kind of tapes you could listen to a hundred times, and still get a new insight on the one hundredth listen. Alas, I've still got those tapes, but no cassette player. I think of them often, though, and one theme that frequently visits my life is the idea of an artist's date. This is a special time you, the artist, sets aside for yourself to help refill your creative reservoir. You don't let time-sucking friends over ride it. It's all about you and no one but you. If I remember correctly, she throws out examples that include shopping for buttons or antique maps.

Now that I'm a mom, I have a couple of questions. Does picking up a gallon of milk count as an artist date? See, I was out, picking up milk, on Sunday and I realized that it was the first time I'd been alone in I didn't know how long. The radio was on in the car and I was listening to Krista Tippet talk to a neuropsychologist about creativity. He was explaining how the brain pathways are different when you think creatively and I realized that I couldn't absorb what he was saying. I couldn't understand it because it was a deep thought, and I almost never have deep thoughts anymore. My thoughts are shallow: "Look your brother in the eye when you say sorry, and say it nicely or it won't mean sorry." "No, you can't have the blue bib because your sister has it and I wish we had two bibs that were identical so that we didn't have this conversation at every meal." "Yes, you can have cherries in your oatmeal." "Good job pooping in the big potty upstairs!"

I remembered the famous essay by Virginia Wolfe, A Room of One's Own, where she talks about how important it is for people to have privacy to create. Not all that long ago, when I was single, I had plenty of privacy. I had hour upon hour all to myself. I had lots of time to think, and my thoughts were more complex than they are now. I have a harder time keeping up with complicated thought processes because I'm out of practice. That's okay. Childhood is fleeting. I'll have plenty of time later to exercise my deep thoughts muscles.

But I did start thinking that I need to be better about artist dates. I can't spend two hours browsing aimlessly in a hardware store anymore. But I can custom design quicker dates that suit my current life. Here are some ideas. I'll add to the list as I think of others.

1. Sit in complete silence for 15 minutes.

2. Take a yoga class.

3. Sit outside on my stoop while my kids are "napping" and draw a picture of the cement sidewalk (or something else nearby that I rarely look at carefully).

4. Turn off internet for an entire day. (This doesn't count as a date, but while internet free, I'd be interested to see what I end up doing with myself.)
5. Spend twenty minutes in a shop where I know I'm never going to buy anything. (Bike shop, carpet store? My idea is to explore a new area without tasks and chores (things I need to buy) being part of the equation.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Decluttering closets

I was waylaid in my big decluttering by sick kids and life in general, but now I’m back.  To review: every room in the downstairs is now decluttered, with the exception of the kitchen, which will be the last room to go because it’s pretty functional even as it is.  (For those of you with good memories, you recall that I did declutter the spice cupboard and pantry and cleaned out the fridge).

This week, my husband and I tackled the closets in our bedroom and upstairs hallway.  I had already done the top shelf of the hallway closet.  It's the linen shelf, and several weeks ago I sorted through and got rid of blankets, comforters, and sheets that we don’t need.  We don’t need more than two or three sets of summer sheets and the same of flannel.  I cheated a little on this.  I kept way too many pillowcases, mainly because they were wedding presents, and they were expensive.  Now we have five sets of sheets for our bed, three for my daughter’s twin, and about five for my son’s toddler bed.  I went onto YouTube and watched some tutorials on how to fold a fitted sheet.  These tutorials really worked!  Tutorial oneTutorial two.  There are different techniques.  I took different bits of the two I watched and combined them.  The trick is to cheat on the folding so that it keeps a square shape and therefore folds like an unfitted sheet.  Folding them makes a big difference.  Before, my attempts looked more like crumples, which tended to give me justification for just shoving all the linens in, crumpled.  Folding literally doubled the space of the closet.

But I knew that attempts to clear the rest of the closet would fail.  See, the hall closet is full of all my junk:  things I’ve picked up in hotel rooms (tiny bottles of shampoo, facial soap, facials crème); gifts of fancy soaps in decorative boxes; lipstick freebies from the Avon Lady, from 15 years ago; boxes of jewelry collected over my entire lifetime, including the fake rhinestone earrings I wore to my prom; hair curlers; eyelash curlers;  freebies from Clinique; expired allergy meds; expired tubes of hydrocortisone; clogged cans of hairspray; multiple boxes of band aids; a dozen travel sized tubes of toothpaste; assorted compacts with no make-up left inside; ten year old containers of skin moisturizer; uncomplete sets of playing cards; cds; cassettes; sample packages of foot crème, deodorant, and room freshener; travel adapters for European outlets, and who knows what else?  So help me God, I can’t throw these things away. 

My husband can.  I asked him to leave my jewelry and not ask me about anything else.  Then I focused on our bedroom closet, which wasn’t really all that bad.  We are not fancy dressers, in fact, we are terribly out of date, but we have too many clothes.  I started with mine.  I had a keep pile, a donate pile, and a garbage pile for anything with holes in it.  (Alas, I wear my clothes into the ground.  Many of my favorite jeans and shorts have holes in the butt, and I still wear them around the house because I love them so.  This doesn’t work out when I forget and go run an errand.)  I’ve heard a rule of thumb, that if you haven’t worn it in a year to toss it.  But I have two Jones of New York suits that are good to wear when giving professional lectures or on interviews (although I haven’t been on an interview in 12 years.)  I have a lime green sequin dress I bought for six dollars at Domsey’s, a giant used clothing store that used to be near the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  From that store I also have a black gown with sequins on top and draping things on the side, a red velvet jacket, and a bomber jacket.  They all had to stay.  Plus an overcoat, in case it’s raining the next time I need my suit.  Oh, and my wedding dress.

I cleared out some shoes and a pile of old tights.  Then I sorted through my husband’s clothes, and made a "helpful suggestions" pile about which shirts he should toss because they make him look like he’s still living 1986.  Still, once I’d cleared everything out, vacuumed, and put things back, the closet still looked too full.  This got me thinking about why I have so many clothes.  I wear the same jeans every single day.  Literally.  I have a second pair for when the first is in the wash.  I wear five shirts, total.  I have eight sweaters but only two I like.  When I worked, keeping more clothes around made sense.  Of course I needed five pairs of pants, for example.  Now that I’m home, I don’t need all that stuff.  But that's not why my closet and dresser were full.  I’d packed the work clothes away back in January. 

I understand keeping a couple of special outfits.  Even a couple of outfits that I haven't worn in ten years, but might wear someday if I live in a city where it's okay to wear a lime sequin dress when going out of coffee.  The problem wasn't my closet.  The problem was my dresser drawers.  All I needed was two pairs of jeans, five shirts, socks, and knickers.  The more I thought about this, the more I wondered if I could do some real decluttering of not just my closet but my dresser drawer. 

Around this time, my husband finished the hall closet.  It looked fantastic, and he’d even saved all the make-up, putting it in a small basket.  (Not that I’ll ever use it.  I don’t wear make-up too often, but when I do, I have one eyeliner and one set of shadow that I’ve used for years.)  But, the extra make-up might be good for Halloween, right?  (Classic cluttering rationalization).  When he came to check out our bedroom closet, I pointed out how many clothes we have.  (He had about six pairs of jeans).  We decided to hit it hard.  We began tossing more and more of our clothes into the giveaway pile.  I eased into it like this:  I put shirts I loved but never wore into giveaway, no discussion.  I put shirts I didn’t like but that were well made and might be useful on rare occasion into the “maybe” pile.  I put shirts I wore but that didn’t really fit me in the maybe pile too.  I put shirts I wore a lot, or shirts I consistently wore on those rare special occasions into the “keep” pile. 

When I was done, I put the "keep" pile away first.  Drawer One: worn, comfortable shirts, Drawer Two: nice shirts, Drawer Three: jeans, pajama bottoms, one nice pair of pants, work pants.  Drawer Four: one light sweater, one heavy sweater, skirts and dresses, Drawer Five: underwear and socks.  The "keep" pile alone had filled my dresser.  So from there it was easy to move the “maybe” pile right into the giveaway. 

My husband was doing his own magic, across the room.  He even took my suggestions on all his dated clothes except one shirt.  By the end, we had three garbage bags of clothes.  I set them in front of our door and felt immense satisfaction looking at all the clothes that had just come out of our closet and dressers.  It felt great.  Later that day, my husband dropped them off at a thrift store and we were done.  No going back into the bag for that one short sleeved shirt that had the cowl neck. 

The next day, I went through all the kids’ clothes, for all seasons, and tried to do the same.  They literally have more clothes than we do.  About twenty pairs of shorts and short sleeved shirts each.  It was maddening to decide what to keep and what to give away.  But in the end, I had a big garbage bag of their clothes to give away, too.  And I’d put all the winter and too-big clothes into one container.  One.  This is a big deal because when I began, there were four. 

The sense of accomplishment was like a drug.  It buoyed me.  Yesterday, I even made the bed in our bedroom.  I haven’t made my bed in twenty years, unless you count throwing the comforter over everything because workmen or parents are coming over.  When my husband got home from work that night, he came back downstairs and said, “Our bedroom feels like a hotel room.”  I think it was the made bed, but maybe it also had something to do with how when we're in a hotel, we travel with just the bare essentials.  Maybe we’re doing that in our regular life now, too. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Doonesbury cartoons

The cartoon Doonesbury is not being run in many newspapers this week, including my own, because of language that would apparently offend readers.  You know, phrases like "transvaginal probe."  It's okay to pass a law requiring that women getting abortions have one, but you wouldn't want to offend people by using it in a cartoon, even a cartoon  posted on the editorial page.  That would probably ruin breakfast, wouldn't it?

Click here to see the censured cartoon.  (If you click here after the week of March 12, you'll have to scroll backwards to that date.)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dear Politicians and Bishops, Back Off!

Women should have unrestricted access to birth control; unrestricted by politicians or by cost.  Gone are the days when birth control was prescribed only to married women.  Yet society continues to try to judge when or why a woman can use contraception.  I’ve seen a lot of people argue that some women need it for ovarian cysts, heavy periods, or endometriosis, as if this is more virtuous and thus, more justified than women who want it so that they don’t get pregnant.  This is ludicrous.  Women shouldn’t have to explain to anyone why they want to have sex but don’t want to get pregnant.  Do men ever have this conversation with the public?    

What right do politicians, religious leaders, and others have to judge the morality of women, when no one seems to care much about the morality of men?  Men certainly aren’t expected to pass some test of virtue before getting a vasectomy paid for by health insurance. 

I used to be a devout Catholic.  I continue to applaud much of what the church does, including community outreach, the Catholic worker program, mental health services, schools, and charity hospitals that help people from all denominations.  But I left the church twenty-five years ago because I could not be a part of institutionalized bigotry toward homosexuals and because I opposed the church’s treatment of women. 

Before I left, some Catholic friends made this argument.  “My priest is very tolerant of gays.  You can find a priest like that.”  There are many pockets of tolerance in the Catholic community.  I could have easily found one of these churches and continued to be Catholic.  But I still left.  I had just finished a college history class, and I realized that history doesn’t tell you about these pockets.  History would say, “The Catholics were opposed to (fill in the blank) and this percent of the country was Catholic.”  I couldn’t be a part of any institution that didn’t treat all of God’s people equally.  When I left, I thought the Catholic Church would change, and that I’d return.  But in the ensuing 25-years, the church has become more intractable than ever on these policies.  Gays can no longer become priests.  And now the bishops are crying an attack on their religious freedom because the President wants all women to have access to birth control. 

Catholic institutions should not force their religious beliefs on the people they hire or serve.  It’s not just because they get tax breaks from our government (and thus, from us, the taxpayers.)  It’s because our country was founded on religious freedom and tolerance.  That freedom goes both ways.  We give it to religious institutions, but they also give it to us.  Imagine the scandal if Jewish hospitals circumcised all boys or if a Muslim hospital forced all women to wear veils? 

I have worked at a Catholic institution for more than a decade.  They stopped providing birth control a few years after I started.  This meant that about 80% of my department had to start paying for it out of pocket.  It costs about $60/month.  When a Catholic hospital stops providing birth control to the staff, do they expect the women to all get pregnant?  Or do they expect that the women will purchase the birth control out of their own pocket?  From an employment point of view, they surely don’t want half their work force gone on maternity leave.  They can’t want to pay the labor and delivery costs of all those births.  Think of how many kids would be added to their family health care plans.  Financially, it could get very expensive.  But bishops know all of this.  They can crunch the numbers.  I think that they actually just expected women to pay out of pocket for birth control.  Now they are crying foul, because they don’t want to foot the bill that women have been footing all these years. 

Do I sound a little cynical?  Well, I guess I am.  Maybe it’s because tying tubes and vasectomies are also against church rules, as is marrying if you can’t procreate.  But the rhythm method is encouraged.  So it’s okay to try to prevent pregnancy, just not if you do it with a reliable method.     

It’s hard not to feel that the bishops support these arcane rules, not just to save money, but because they have never had to worry about getting pregnant.  They will never have an ultrasound probe stuck up their vagina, either.  Which brings me to abortion.  Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choicers are not that far apart, if we stick strictly to the issue of abortion.  We all want a dramatic drop in the number of abortions.   But the one thing that would lower the abortion rate the most, easy access to birth control, is opposed by many Pro-Lifers.  Another thing that would reduce abortions, sex education in high school (real education, not abstinence teaching), is also opposed by many Pro-Lifers.  When I was in high school, our varsity football coach taught our Health class.  He taught the section on pregnancy first, then birth control, so we all paid attention.  He taught us that abstinence was best, sex with someone you loved was second best, and then he taught us how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.  He knew that some seventeen year olds were going to have sex.  I didn’t use that knowledge for several years, because I practiced abstinence.  But once I was ready to have sex, I remembered.  And I never got pregnant until the day I stopped using it in order to get pregnant.  If I hadn’t learned about birth control from him, I’m not sure where I would have learned it.  But that kind of class is all but gone from most high schools today.  We need it back and, as a society, we need to make boys and men accountable for birth control, too.  It has to be socially appropriate for men to be as committed to using protection as women.  How can we do this?  Maybe our politicians can pass a law that requires men to get trans-anal probes stuck in them anytime their partner goes in for an abortion.

We also need birth control to be accessible.  But this won’t happen if religious institutions can remove it from their health care coverage.  Today, I can foot the $1200 annual bill for birth control.  Ten years ago, when my Catholic employer cut birth control from my health care plan, I couldn’t.  Back then, I sold my plasma in the wintertime to help pay my heating bill.  So, the Pill wasn’t an option for me.  With gas and grocery prices so high today, how does someone on minimum wage swing it?  They won’t.  They’ll get pregnant and probably either drop out of the work force or get an abortion. 

Maybe it’s because all bishops are men, or because most politicians are men, but women have not been treated as equals in this debate.  That is why some people thought it was okay to prevent poor women from getting breast cancer screens because the organization that did it also provided abortions.  Adult women’s lives are as important as the life of an unborn fetus.  Did I really have to say that?  The politicians who are trying to make policy on women’s reproductive rights don’t even invite women to the discussion. I thought we’d come a long way in the past 25-years, but I’m beginning to feel like those years were an illusion.  I’m reminded of Gloria Steinem’s famous essay, “If Men Could Menstruate” which discusses the way that a patriarchal society stacks the decks in favor of the men in power.   It was written in the 1970s but it still applies today.

But perhaps things have changed.  One man with a lot of power, the President, is trying to make birth control accessible to all women.  And many other men have leapt to support the cause.  It makes sense, because access to contraception benefits men as much as women.  We’re all in this together.  Most of us don’t want ten kids.  So in spite of the disregard, and at times hatred, for women  that we’ve seen in some of the public discourse  recently, I’m heartened by the number of women and men who are ready for a fight on this issue.  We thought this battle was fought and won a generation ago.  The women who fought so hard for these rights remember how it was.  They aren’t going back to that.  And neither am I.  Women make up more than half the world.  The bishops make up an ever diminishing scrap.  Politicians, unfortunately, proliferate.  But they need women’s votes to succeed.  Ironically, their famously anti-government stance belies their eagerness to interfere on a very personal level with women’s reproductive rights.  As much as I’m stunned by their hypocrisy, I know they will ultimately fail because of women and men like me, who will put aside other political issues this fall to vote for our reproductive rights.  I’m going to vote with my vagina.  Keep your fucking probes out of it, and stop telling me what to do!!!