The slow, unglamorous work of healing

On blogging (and spoons)

Carl Larsson

In an interview on the John Barleycorn site, my friend and neighbor Rima Staines discusses the art of blogging: how she started, and why she started. It's a strange kind of art form, blogging; and the question of why reasonably sane people feel compelled to blog is, for me, an intriguing one. It's got me to pondering why I blog myself...which I've actually done for quite a long time now if you count the years that Midori Snyder and I ran a blog for the Journal of Mythic Arts, although that was a good deal less personal than this one. And like Rima, it took me a while to find a comfortable “blogging voice” when I began Myth & Moor.

The thread of my Rima-stirred thoughts about blogging is all knotted up with a number of other things that I've been pondering lately -- about art, and life, and energy, and “spoons” -- and out of this tangle there's something specific I want to unravel, but I'm going to have to tease it out slowly from the snarl of other threads, so please bear with me.

Carl Larsson

This is also going to be a more personal essay than the others I've posted here, touching on the rather intimate subject of living with chronic illness. And that's a subject I approach gingerly, for an essay about illness can be mistaken for a plea for sympathy ("Oh, poor, poor me!"), or as a means of defining oneself as part of an aggrieved minority ("Us sick people don't get no respect!") rather than what it actually is: a creative/intellectual attempt to understand the process of living with illness while simultaneously living as a creative artist. (I'm thinking in particular of some very misguided reviews Nancy Mairs received for Waist-high in the World, her sharp, insightful essays on life with MS.) So I hereby give notice that I am about to tread further than usual into this murky territory today...and perhaps in speaking of the personal, I can find my way back to more general thoughts about living the Artist's Life; or, at very least, give voice to issues that others dealing with illness might find familiar, or useful.

Painting by Carl LarssonFirst let me define my terms. I'm going to refer to the limited energy one has when dealing with a chronic illness in terms of “spoons” -- so if you haven't yet read Christine Miserandino's very useful "Spoon Theory" essay, it might be helpful to do so. And by the term “blogging,” I'll be referring specifically to the writing of individual, personal blogs (like Rima's blog, or this one) rather than other sorts of blogs: professional, commercial, multi-author, etc..

With Rima's words running through my head, I was walking in the woods with my dog earlier (where I ran, quite unexpectedly, into Brian Froud and his dog, but that's another story...), thinking about the “art of the blog,” and why, after a somewhat trepidatious beginning, I find it so congenial. I'm in a different stage of my life and career than Rima, and thus my answer to the question “Why write a blog?” is bound to be a different one from hers, or any other young artist's. The answer that came to me suddenly as I trudged up the hill through the mud and leaves came from a thoroughly unexpected direction. It has to do with chronic illness and spoons and the thorny issue of communication.

Now, I can't speak for everyone with a serious and/or chronic illness, and my own (which I prefer not to name; the specifics of it aren't important here) has its rhythms and quirks that may be slightly different from other medical conditions, but what many of us with differing health problems share is a constant need to juggle whatever spoons we have to hand on any given day. And for me, the simple act of communication is one that consistently threatens to empty my spoon drawer.

By Carl Larsson

Perhaps it's because I communicate for a living, and therefore the spoons specifically shaped for that job are ones I particularly have to hoard in order to meet the daily demands of my work. All I know is that the simple act of writing a letter to a friend, or answering an email, or (especially) picking up the phone are entirely beyond me when those spoons are used up – and they're precisely the spoons I tend to run out of first, due to the nature of my work.

This is an aspect of my life that constantly frustrates my dear, patient, long-suffering family members (back in the United States) and friends (both in the U.S. and here). I drop out of sight, I don't pick up the phone, emails drop into some kind of cosmic black hole. I'm warm and engaged and present on a good day, and retreat into mumbles and chilly distance on a bad one. Sometime I'm a reliable sister/niece/friend, and a regular part of others' daily lives...and sometimes I disappear for days, weeks, months on end with no warning at all. If I were a hermit by nature, none of this would be a problem, but I'm not -- I'm a person with a wide, deep circle of close relationships; an artist who thrives on connection and community; an outgoing woman whose natural rhythms are often disrupted by the over-riding rhythms of illness.

Carl Larsson

What has all this to do with blogging, you ask? It is this: Writing short pieces for a more-or-less daily blog is, for me, a means of communication, of maintaining vital connections: with friends, with colleagues in the publishing field, with the wider Mythic Arts community. Yes, it takes spoons, but not many of them (now that I'm comfortable enough with the form and technology that I can put up a daily post reasonably quickly) – and when compared to the number of spoons it would take to stay in frequent touch with the many people I know and love, to answer every email and return every call, those couple of spoons become negligible and well worth the cost. Blogging, for me, is my daily missive from the trenches of my creative life to the people, near and far, who make up my world. It's a form of round-robin letter to say: this is what I'm doing, this is what I'm thinking, I haven't disappeared. I may not be entirely well, but I'm still here. And if other people whom I've never personally met are reading these missives too, well then that's fine by me. I assume they're here because they also love books and folklore and mythic arts, and that means they're not really strangers, they are part of my wider community too.

Carl LarssonNow here's where I'd like to see if I can make the leap from personal circumstance to something that might relate to other artists as well, beyond the small subgroup of folks also coping with illness or disability. It's almost always difficult for artists in any field (except, perhaps, for a very privileged few) to balance the time needed for creative work with all the other demands of life. The need to manage ones time and energy may be more extreme and urgent for the chronically ill, yet I know few writers or artists (heck, do I know any?) who don't wrestle with the details of work/life balance. If it's not medical issues taking up ones time, it might be children, or elderly relatives, or a day job, or community obligations, or all of these things at once. The sheer busyness of modern life can feel relentless and overwhelming...and that, in turn, conflicts with art's requirement for time, solitude, and periods of sustained, uninterrupted concentration.

I think that even if illness was suddenly, blessedly removed as a factor in my life, I would still be at this same point in my journey: having reached the years of middle age, and recognizing that time is not infinite, I feel compelled to turn inward and focus my time and attention on truly mastering my craft. The social gregariousness of youth is no Painting by Carl Larssonlonger possible, or desirable; there are only so many hours in the day, after all. And yet, the life- and art-sustaining web of connection begun in ones early years remains important even as one grows older, slower, and more protective of ones time. That, for me, is where blogging comes in. It maintains that web of connection.

Here's what blogging is to me: It's a modern form of the old Victorian custom of being "At Home" to visitors on a certain day of the week; it's an Open House during which friends and colleagues know they are welcome to stop by. I'm “At Home” each morning when I put up at post. Here, in the gossamer world of the 'Net, I throw my studio door open to friends and family and strangers alike. And each Comment posted is a calling card left behind by those who have crossed my doorstep.

But it's important to remember that the flip side of the Victorian "At Home" day is that it also provided boundaries -- for it was widely understood that visitors were not to drop by on other days of the week. Visitors could leave calling cards with the butler, but the Mistress of the house was not instantly available to them. Like every artist (and particularly artists deficient in health and energy), I too need large periods of time when I'm simply not available to others: when I'm working, or resting, or off at the doctor's, or re-charging my creative batteries, or working out thorny plot problems while roaming the countryside with the pup. In these days of speed and instant access, of Facebook and tweets and 8-year-olds with their own mobile phones, it's almost a revolutionary act to say: I'm not in to callers. You can't reach me now. And yet artists need this. We need to unplug. We need to spend time in the world of our imaginations, where the 'Net and mobile phones cannot go.

Carl Larsson

But here's what I find interesting: The very same technology that threatens to force constant communication upon us can also be the thing that allows us to create necessary boundaries. Blogging, for all its intimacy as an art form, is also an excellent boundary maker. Yes, we open up our lives on our blogs...but only this much, not that much, and each blogger decides where that line will be drawn. The blog is a controlled kind of publication. It doesn't provided instant access to its maker, unless the blog's author specifically wants it to. The open, generous space cultivated on a blog need not (indeed, probably should not) be duplicated in the physical world; for in the world, what a working artist truly needs is the equivalent of the butler at the door, politely turning callers away: The mistress is not 'At Home' today. She is working. I will tell her you called.

This, then, is why I write a blog: not for the reasons so many young artists do (as they build their careers and find their audience), but because, as an artist in my middle years, it helps resolve one of life's central conflicts: that both illness and art demand solitude, yet the heart requires communication and connection.

 Carl Larsson

I am also a woman woefully short on spoons and at this point in life I have learned to accept it. (Okay, my husband would say that I am learning to accept it.) Calls will continue to go unanswered. Emails will routinely begin with the words: Please forgive me for taking so long to respond.... Friends will continue to worry when they haven't heard from me for a week, or a month. But these days, at least, they know they can always find me here at Myth & Moor...with fresh coffee brewing, Tilly at my side, and a pen or paintbrush in my hands.

In the physical world, my studio is my work space, not a social space, and a rather fierce butler stands scowling at the door. But here, in my online studio, I am "At Home." And everyone is welcome in.

Carl Larsson studio

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2011, reprinted today by request. The art above is by the Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1854-1919); all rights reserved by the Larsson estate.

Comments

Thank you for sharing your more personal thoughts Terri. I think a great many of us share the horror at the intrusive nature of modern life. Living with chronic illness is a tightrope, one that is particularly treacherous when the illness is an invisible one, hidden from the eyes of other people. I particularly like your calling card simile: We need to ensure that not being available isn't read as dislike but as retreat when needed.

I hope your own needful retreat works for you and you have the energy to share with us when you are able. My very best to you and yours,
Charlotte.

Blogging is an excellent form of communication - but then, apart from all of the above, I'm also an introvert, so I quite delight in meeting people all over the world without having to cook and clean for them ;-) Although reviving the open house day could actually be fun (once or twice a year), friends and family otherwise unaquainted might get to know each other etc.

FB and Twitter I just don't get. Gave me stress trying to keep up with the latter for just 2 days.

Hi Terri, I don't think I've ever mastered the art of time-management, I just try to get done what I can, when I can. And I don't have the extra burden of illness to cope with, thank goodness!

I desperately hope I never will have to learn how to negotiate the limitations imposed by being chronically sick, but we all know life's a lottery, and you can never tell what lurks in the future!

Though to say I've been untouched by serious and long-term illness is a little misleading. My sister suffered a debilitating sickness from which she never recovered, and the effects of that have echoed down the long years for all the family.

You make it very clear Terri that you don't want our sympathy, so I won't offer any. But you do have my unending admiration, as I'm sure you do from all of us who read your wonderful blog

Loved this, thank you. It's so very topical for me at the moment and your spoons might be a way of me understanding myself.
As always, you are the wise and wondergul blog I disappear into when I need to escape my world. I do appreciate the fact that you post, even if I am one of those strangers out here in the world.

I love that you make so much beauty of this - the humanity of communicating (and boundaries!) whatever the medium.

Also: Carl Larsson.

Dear Terri, your words, sharing your experiences (and your art!) are such a great consolation! You have no idea. :-) And I'm not the only one. I'm so grateful to meet you here in in your wonderful online studio, where the door's always open.

Solitude is something we must cherish -Henry Purcell realized this as well and makes me sing this when I realize I've managed to ignore my own boundaries (of social life and energy). Nothing like a 17th century Ground to get me "grounded" again: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4QM2uENkE8

I miss blogging! But I'm one of those artists with both a day job and family obligations. And the day job is teaching, which means that I am in almost daily communication with my students. It's not like having a chronic illness, of course, but the communication itself, the sheer amount of it, is exhausting. I've realized that recently: that what exhausts me isn't the physical work, but the communication itself. And I can't keep endlessly communicating with people without eventually collapsing . . .

Thank you for the lovely post, Terri! It made me realize that I need to somehow manage my own spoons.

I hear you on spoons, art, and blogging. Though the 'at home' = blogging equation is one that only works for my wider circle of acquaintances, not close friends. Or family. Or business colleagues. Though, hey, being able to talk to a group of people at one fell swoop is a gift this technology has brought us.

Thanks for your art.

I have been struggling lately with wanting to pull inward and wanting, needing to focus on my own creative work, rather than just supporting others' works.
This was just the kind of words I needed right now.
Thank you.

Thank you Terri for writing your blog...it is so life affirming for me, one who suffers also with a chronic illness for the last 15 years...it encourages me to pull out that pen & ink again...or write a poem again...that i haven't lost my creative self just because half the time i am in bed or having to work...i didn't plan to be a recluse ... it is all in the time mgmt of the illness...you put it together absolutely how it is...your blog brings out the person i left behind i think in the mgmt...it's why i love your garden gates and your walks...i imagine myself going along...and to meet Brain Froud on a walk would be like a gift all wrapped up...blessings ever

Thanks, Terri, for both the link to "Spoon Theory" as well as being "at home" through your daily blog. I have a best friend with whom MS resides as well as an aging parent who is frustrated by how little the number of spoons she has compared to the number in her youth. It puts into some perspective of what they go through as well as draws me up short for some re-evaluation of my own....

Also, following your blog has sent me down some very interesting paths (under the generalized heading of Mythic Arts, I guess) that I haven't traversed since childhood and that have opened new realms of experience and knowledge for me. Best always.

Two wooden spoons for you Terri xxx

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FY2EO9wjiw

"Smart" phone society comes to assume that one is always "at home" when nothing should be farther from the truth. We're shifting culturally, demanding instant response and access. Yours is a saner point of purpose, more necessary and medicinal. When the spoons are all used, one must wash the dishes, and replenish the cupboard before setting the table again. Brava.

Oh, yes yes yes. Blogging is my lifeline. I don't have your phyical challenges but I feel the tick of the clock every day and struggle to get as much out of my head and the page as I can in whatever time I have. I love technology! It has become my first line of defence ("oh, I was charging my phone") as well as keeping me connected to those who are geographically distant. Thank you for capturing that aspect so well.

Terri, reading your blog always seems like a conversation with a good friend. Thank you for that. “...illness and art demand solitude, yet the heart requires communication and connection.” As artists, I think we necessarily have to be centered on self to access our minds and hearts, to morph our unique visions into whatever we create. Knowing that, we must take care to understand the difference between centered on self and self-centered. Defining the parameters that support our emotional and physical health, we must turn outward, and how and when we do so is as varied as our situations and personalities.

I just spent 5 days in my cave. Thank you.

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