Alli Harvey Art

My surprising way to predict the future

You know what I pined for the most during the most isolated parts of this pandemic? It surprised me. The number one thing was New York City. NYC crept into my dreams. I was out at bars in the Lower East Side; I was in taxis heading back to Brooklyn in the early hours of the morning, I was in and out of a blur of ornate interior atmospheres and restaurants that characterize the rich interior life of that incredible city. 

I’d wake up from my dreams of rushing around NYC in my bed in mid-winter snowglobe Alaska, the ravens and moose doing their thing outside. I wondered if we’d ever get a ticket out of this place. I mustered the strength to go back to daily living in isolation.

The other thing I sorely wished for was a manicure. I told myself that one of my first treats to myself when it was finally safe to venture out into the world would be an appointment at a salon to get my nails done. 

New York City makes sense as something to miss. NYC was the set of an exciting time in my life and it’s full of people, culture, and activity; three things that were sorely lacking throughout 2020. Manicures?! I’d only ever gotten two professional manicures in my lifetime at that point. One with my sister, and another with my best friend. I was the tagalong for both. Sure, sounds like a fun activity but most of all I like spending time with you I said, as I gamely joined to get my nails did.

Weeks later, I cursed both of them as I tried to scrape the gel polish off after soaking my nails in pure acetone for entire episodes of The Office. It still wasn’t enough time! Gel polish is durable and, turns out, a beast to remove. I vowed never to get a manicure again.

Enter the pandemic, and I dreamed of NYC and having pretty nails.

I think at its heart what I was craving was a lasting marker of something externally beautiful, that I could see every day for myself and also act as a declaration of me to the world. I wanted to see and be seen. The four walls of my home and (wonderful, but solo) husband weren’t cutting it.

So on the eve of my first journey back east for Thanksgiving in two years, fully vaccinated, I cajoled a friend to go with me for a gel manicure at a local salon. Even fully masked up it felt somewhat illicit, like all interior activities with other people felt like those few short months ago. But it also felt indulgent. The salon wasn’t anything particularly special. It had that transactional, bare-bones feel of many nail salons; not too much to look at but they’ll get the job done. My nails, though. I chose a deep sparkling red. Walking away in the snowy November Alaska cold, I didn’t want to put my mittens on, so I could keep admiring my new polish in the waning daylight.

It was everything I’d dreamed of! Lucky me, right? How often does life pan out that the very things we crave turn out to exactly fit the bill? In this case, I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the best way.

Instead of scraping the polish off three weeks later, I made another appointment.

And then another one.

I’ve been going in to get my nails done every three weeks since then. This is a major luxury for me. Each visit costs between $45-$60 (with tip) depending on whether I just get polish or a full manicure, which in this time of scrapping and saving for the Mobile Art Studio feels borderline irresponsible. 

But it’s doing wonders for my daily sense of joy and even, to some extent, my sense of identity and self confidence. Before every visit, I muse about what kind of big events I have coming up; what the next few weeks might look like, and is there a color that corresponds with the kind of stature I am looking to inhabit during this time? To ring in New Year’s, I chose a bold, bright glittery blue that felt fresh, optimistic, and fun to look at during the darkest time of winter. Later on in January and February, I chose a mood-changing polish that was a sleek and professional navy during my work day, but when I warmed it up shifted to a bright magenta. It felt like I was wearing a secret.

Every visit I spend at least five minutes scrutinizing the array of color swatches offered in a little basket, thinking about what mood I want to bring into my life in the coming weeks. It’s a version of meditation, because I’m reflecting on the prior weeks and who I was during this last polish while thinking about what shifts and changes I’d like to realize in the weeks to come. When I select my color, I am making a decision about who I would like to be in the future, even as I have no other control over what happens except for how I bring myself forth. 

When I look down at my nails, especially in those first few hours and day after the polish, I feel – and I’m not exaggerating – joy. The color and shine brings me joy. After a while the polish and the joy fades, but then I have about a week to think about what the next polish will be. It’s a good cycle; a good passage of time and phases.

Then, during the manicure itself, I can’t stare at my phone because my fingers are either in little tinfoil packets (this, it turns out, is how they professionally apply acetone – with little daubs of cotton doused in acetone, affixed to my nails with tiny foil squares wrapped neatly on each of my fingers) or in the process of being fixed up and painted. This is at least a full hour of no phone gazing, which means all I can do is let my mind wander or intermittently chat with the salonist. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how many manicures I have left until the day I go in to select my Mobile Studio pickup color. This last time I made an appointment for the week of departure.

My nails for these coming weeks are a dark, nearly iridescent green that shimmers slightly differently in different lights. To me, this color represents the weeks of trees gearing up for the green-up that will happen at some point soon – a deep, dark internal greening that takes place for a long time before the external and seemingly overnight explosion of color.

I haven’t chosen the color for pickup yet. I am open to ideas!

How to be here and there at the same time

In what I call “deep pandemic” times (in 2020, when vaccines were but a twinkle in a laboratory scientist’s eye) my husband Wes and I were in the habit of spending Fridays at the makeshift bar that was our butcher block table. It used to be that we’d host people most Fridays for cocktail hour following a hike. But during this peak Covid isolation it was just us, shiny bottles (we’d retrieved from curbside pickup in Anchorage) in different hues and at varying levels of fullness staged attractively in front of us with cocktail-making accoutrement and spent lime rinds scattered between. I usually lit candles.

I make it sound romantic, and it was, if you ignore how very sick we were of the interior of our home at that point and that after a while, even though we convinced ourselves we were making our own choices about how to spend time, there was little bandwidth for that choice. It wasn’t like we were choosing to stay in.

Still, it fostered creativity. I enjoyed the coziness of those nights. It felt a little like playing house as a kid. We were playing “go out to the bar”.

One ritual we got into a few times was doing a “song-off”, where one person would play a song on our speaker via Spotify, and the next would riff off the former song or continue building on a theme. 

Like many couples, Wes and I have developed a shared language around music. There are a few albums that characterize different phases of our lives and relationship. When we first got together, it was back in the days of that hot new band Mumford and Sons (lol). We have a strangely fixated nostalgia for an album that mashed up Lil Wayne with the 500 Days of Summer (remember that movie?!) soundtrack. And, when I was living in Nevada, we road tripped out to hot springs in the middle of the state with then-new Beirut and Death Cab albums. (I feel like our taste in music characterizes us as the once-cool-but-aging parents in a teen flick).

That road trip out to Nevada hot springs stands out as particularly inextricably linked to its chosen soundtrack. I remember that morning in December, probably 2011, when we decided to make the trek, the check engine light on Wes’s rig popped up unexpectedly (I wrote about the trip in its entirety on my then-blog). We were going through some hellacious custody issues at the time, mostly (likely) spurred by change fostered with my arrival on scene. That’s a super sanitized way of saying that Wes and I, in our still fairly new relationship, had shifted into pretty high gear together very fast and were dealing with solidifying our relationship and family dynamic even while diving headfirst into legal sparring. It was, ah, unpleasant, and most days nearly all encompassing.

The view out the windshield from central Nevada.

But, as we made the decision to head to the hot springs despite the check engine light, all I remember from that trip is the feeling of release and decompression as we headed deep into the wide-open desert. Mountains and passes yawned open as we crossed range after range that typifies Nevada in a way that is both secret-seeming and miraculous in its expansiveness. We listened to those albums that we’d downloaded specifically for the journey.

And all those years later, when we had our Friday night song-offs and one of us played a song from that particular time, we sat at our makeshift bar in deep-pandemic isolated winter in Alaska and agreed that we had no idea in that moment, at that time that it was such a particularly characterized, special and isolated gem of a time. We didn’t know that the short, weekend trek out to the hot springs, listening to those albums, would freeze in an emotional kind of amber the way it has. The point of reference for us is a sense of release, possibility, joy, and adventure, even during a time of adversity.

I keep reminding myself in these final weeks leading up to Mobile Studio pickup that even as I hustle, buckle down, move faster, and do more than I have at nearly any other time in my life, this IS my life as I’m experiencing it even as I am striving for something more. I am incredibly stressed, but also incredibly motivated and focused.

I don’t know yet what or if the soundtrack is. Maybe it’s more of a visual reference as I try to get myself out on slow, long walks in between the rushes of action, taking in the mountains and really trying to feel cold air on my skin. I am both excited for the next chapter while also enjoying these final days of this phase in my and our lives.

On dreams, choice, and making the world a better place

In late fall 2021, I realized my dreams had started to feel like email. 

I have a subconscious that is pretty direct with me. I’ll wake up and recount my dreams and know exactly what I am trying to say to me, because my sleeping self just said it. For someone who might be considered a “creative” (ew, never call me that), my dreams are disappointingly plain. They often almost exactly mirror my daily life.

When I was a barista, I dreamed in coffee orders. When I went on a ski vacation, I careened down snowy slopes. After packrafting all day, my inflatable pad at night became a boat and I was paddling. Etc.

So, when my dreams took on the look and feel of gazing into a laptop and responding to a never-ending inbox, I thought I might have a problem with my waking life. 

I decided to try shifting my focus. I downloaded a meditation app and dutifully meditated for about 20 days straight. This was my attempt to have more choice in my life about where I focus my attention. Email? No thank you. All the beauty that I am so lucky to be surrounded with everyday, including the amazing people in my life and Alaska? Yes, more of that, please.

Like anything working with what’s knocking around upstairs in my brain, there’s not a switch I can trip to reset myself. There’s only trial and error, process, and slow change over time that can be difficult to perceive since I have to pick up on it using the same exact noggin that I’m working on shifting. As my perspective changes, so does my perspective on my perspective. 

That said, I think, over time, meditation has helped me. I know how to focus on elemental aspects of my human experience in order to re-ground myself and my senses, like feeling the heat in my hands or my breath. 

And it’s good – I suppose – for this increasing ability to be challenged. Which, in our modern society, is frequent.

I know what I want to feel more of, which is awe, connection, love, gratitude, and joy. And I know what I often feel, which is confined. Confined by what, exactly? Well, by Alaska, especially after two years of Covid. Bills and the need to pay them. The need to crack open a laptop and hook myself in for days on end to solve problems that can feel arbitrary and fake, but simultaneously important. Confined by the need to move myself to care enough to rise to the steady flow of these sorts of challenges.

The confinement feeling leads to offshoot feelings, like sadness or even, in the darkest parts of winter, despair and a kind of frozen, paralyzing feeling. More mildly, I feel irritation – kind of like the laptop in front of me is a constant itch that I’m already contending with, so anything on top of that scratches just that much deeper. Anger comes up when I feel powerless in the face of corporate interests, like dealing with the United States’ “healthcare” system and my place in it. 

As always in my life, it ends up boiling down to a series of decision points. (That’s at best, when I recognize what I’m feeling and that I have the ability to make a choice.)

Where is it worth it to invest in the discomfort of navigating things I simply do not want to do? When is it worth it to shift my perspective away? 

Big picture, I’m working on designing life circumstances that require less materially of me. Read: fewer bills, more economic and ultimately time freedom. The real limited commodity is not money, but the number of breaths I get to take here on this earth. (Yes, money absolutely helps make the most of those breaths – not discounting that. I’d just like to require less of it, because I don’t particularly enjoy navigating the systems of earning and then maintaining all that more money affords).

But to get to this big picture, I have to play the game. So, I am. That means this is an instance where it is worth investing my focus in necessary “evils” (mini-evils?) like email in order to get to where I’d like to go.

It’s the other stuff I wrestle with more – the phone calls to navigate unfair bills, the maddening labyrinthe of doctors’ offices and health insurance, the neighbors’ dogs constantly barking, the email or offhand comment that landed poorly.

What I’m trying to do more of is sift out how much of my focus these mundane, but attention-sucking details of modern life get from me. I’m trying to see them and then zoom out so I can rationally decide. Do I want to spend the time haggling on the phone with the health insurance claim that probably won’t get resolved, feeling myself getting more and more angry? Or do I just want to pay the damn bill and be done with it, moving my perspective (and again, finite breaths) on to take the run and see the mountains and call my stepdaughter up to see how she is?

It’s really hard, because there is truly a system out there that is so much bigger than me and requires so much change to actually enable fair circumstances for all of us humans to have a shot at inhabiting this same joy I crave creating. Isn’t that all anyone wants from life, in whatever way each of us accesses that? I see it, I see the unfairness. And I weigh it, with my life and those daily experiences I wish to have.

What I end up back to is twofold: 1) I am so very fortunate to be able to – hopefully, ultimately – create circumstances that better position me to access joy and awe, more. I need to continue working not just on my external circumstances, but on my inherent ability to choose where I put my focus. I absolutely deserve it, just by virtue of being a person here on earth, so I will continue to work on and hopefully enjoy it. 2) This is a basic human right for everyone, and it is my innate responsibility as a member of the human race on the face of earth to do what I can – and to be consistent in my effort – to break down and contribute to better systems that support myself and others in having this same access to whatever gives our lives meaning, purpose, and love.

I started writing this from my personal perspective, about learning how to choose my focus and, hopefully, make my dreams brighter and less e-mail-esq. But I’m ending with tying together how this, for me, is intrinsically tied to my greater sense of connection and, more importantly, responsibility. If I have this access and perspective, if I access joy and awe, others should too. This is part of why I write. It’s part of why I paint. And it’s part of why I am weaving a business model that I want to give back and lift up causes, people, and places I care about.

Beginning of the Alli Harvey Art manifesto, over and out!

On choosing focus, including inspiring myself and others to inhabit a scene like this – whether in real life and/or through art/writing – and also working to create a world with fair access to joy, for all.

It’s difficult to rest

On Friday morning, I felt like I was staring up a hill with no motivation to climb it. I felt pre-tired.

Speaking of hill climbs, here’s Hiking Lazy (8″x10″). This is an inaccurately named mountain and yet a very popular local hike.

The hill was made of writing and painting. Those are my usual Friday activities. It’s my one full day of the week dedicated solely to art. That morning I easily found the energy to complete a difficult work out in my living room, and then jumped at the opportunity to head to a friend’s house for tea. But work? 

When I started sorting out possible photos to paint, instead of my usual curiosity mixed with the thrill-meets-fear of whether or not I can do it, I felt deep resistance. Like, dog digging its heels in and refusing to budge against the pulled leash level resistance. I had near nausea; I simply didn’t want to do it. When I thought of parking myself at my laptop to write, I had the same reaction.

It occurred to me that I might just call it and take a full rest day. Immediately, I felt my spirits lift.

I spent the rest of the day lolling about in the bathtub with a book and a face mask or on the couch with the same book but now a cup of green tea. When I thought, out of habit, that maybe I would do xy or z task later in the afternoon, I struck myself down with, “today’s a rest day”. My check list would be there later on.

My stepmom’s voice sometimes ricochets around in my head at moments like these, because she used to give a deep sigh at hearing about some of my weekends. She would tell me I needed to learn how to rest. It was an exasperated kind of a sigh. I never took her advice, although I considered her perspective and wondered if she was right.

I must have truly been exhausted on some level on Friday, even if it wasn’t physical, because it takes a lot – a lot – for me to take a true rest day. I need to be sick. And, that’s kind of what it felt like. I wondered briefly if I was getting sick, but then my physical energy was high and my immediate change in mood when I granted myself the rest day told me that something else was going on.

I am someone who enjoys creating. I chafe at calling myself a “creative”, because that sounds demeaning, but when I think about the activities that are the most work but also the most reward, it’s about painting images into being, learning how to support a roomful of people trying to do a thing together in a way that maximizes their desired outcome (ie, writing agendas and facilitating), writing stories and anecdotes that only live in my heart and mind until they get down on paper. I love DJ-ing dance parties, and otherwise curating experiences.

What is all of that, if not creating? Yes, it takes a lot of effort, but I almost always am happy with the result, which helps propel me deeper and forward into my life.

I think my energy is fragile these days and was particularly compromised on Friday because I’ve been pushing myself forward on steps that are required of but no longer fit me. Sitting at a laptop for 30 hours a week while consulting is becoming more draining than rewarding. I follow through on it because I am committed to it, and I really do give myself the extra push needed to fully inhabit my role. But that push comes at a cost, and I think I felt that on Friday.

I also am ready to downsize the material needs in my life in favor of a more compact existence, with less “stuff” and fewer bills to pay. That moment is coming, but not quite yet. 

It’s been a long Alaska winter, following and still during an even longer pandemic. We’ve been saving every penny, and that’s a difficult posture to hold for a very long time. I crave sunshine. When I think about the desert, which I do too frequently, I feel homesick in a profound way. 

My husband reminded me that we are taking active steps to change our situation. It’s true. But I’ve never been a steps person. I’ve been a “paint it or write it into being; flip the switch, go to the place, life is short” actor; I don’t need instant gratification but I’m swift and decisive in making change because, again, I like creating. Life is a constant creation for me. I like to make things happen.

What’s happening now is the slowest but also, probably, deepest and most thought-through series of changes I’ve made in my life so far, in partnership with Wes. This takes time, and not even too much more of it. But I still feel the every day waiting and working in the meantime, and the routines in building toward our big life move have started to wear me thin.

I don’t have an easy answer for it except recognition. And, perhaps I can afford myself a few more rest days in the meantime, knowing that soon I’m coming into enormous, welcome change alongside all that will be required of me then.

I was wrong about Florida

January in Alaska is hard on me. Yes, I chose to live here; yes I’ve now spent over ten years of my life here. Winter is extraordinarily beautiful. It is also dark, in a way that seeps into my skin, brain, eyes, and heart. By this time of year, I can’t tell the difference between my external environment and myself. It just feels like the world is this way: fragile and cold, with a dash of hopelessness and clawing for something different.

I told you it’s dark. Hello, seasonal affective disorder-lite. I’ve never been diagnosed, but I can see the symptoms for what they are when I zoom out. 

My husband and I took an opportunity last week to jetset to Florida, where my dad has a condo and graciously offered us a place to stay. It wasn’t a vacation per se. We both worked from home, which is a little rough with the four hour time difference. But we indulged in a heavy dose of Vitamin D. We ran and rode bikes out to the beach. I took many work calls while walking aimlessly outside, in 90% fewer clothes than would be required this time of year in Alaska.

Running at Lover’s Key, a State Park in Naples. Gorgeous walking, biking, and running trails.

As part of agreeing to accept my dad’s generous offer, I told him I’d paint a Florida scene for his condo. One afternoon, nearing the end of our trip, I parked myself and my easel at his kitchen table. I started painting a photo I’d captured of a Naples sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, a view I know he and his wife love.

A bit of context here: my relationship with Florida has been, ah, fraught. To say the least. Last time I visited it was when my dad had first bought the condo. I was a teenager, and had just discovered my own love of Alaska. Read: my identity was now tied to mountains, extremes, and variable weather. Florida was the antithesis of that. Like any good teenager, I saw the world in binaries: one where my parents were embarrassingly defective in their falling in love with a place that had mild weather, zero hills, and condominium views for miles. I, of course, was right. 

I behaved very poorly during that trip, grouchy and snippy the whole way through. It was mutually agreed that my parents and I were fine with me not visiting Florida again.

So, this trip was a bit of a re-visiting and, ultimately, revising my opinion. Naples, Florida is still extremely subdivided and built up. It’s still flat. But I caught glimpses underneath all that to the the Florida that draws people in.

There were incredible and charismatic birds. From pelicans patrolling the beach, occasionally dive-bombing for food; to sanderlings darting bravely toward the shoreline and pecking eagerly at the ground, then skittering back out with the tide at their heels, I gawked at all the wildlife. We visited a wildlife refuge with a beautiful, vibrant array of plantlife rising in explosive greens and gnarled shapes from serene swampland and standing water. 

And, of course, my dad’s beloved sunset over the water. It was truly spectacular.

Sunset near Vanderbilt Beach in Naples, FL.

You know what else was spectacular? Seeing all the people on the beach turn to face sunset when it happened, collectively taking in this natural phenomenon together. You know me. I’m a sucker for what connects me and all of us to ourselves, one another, and the natural world. Witnessing the warm, final throes of orange light glow-up the faces of everyone on that beach was almost as special to me as seeing sunset itself.

So, an old idea is now sinking in for me anew. If I can connect with the beauty in Florida, this place that I once shunned, I can find it in other places too. I’m so looking forward to this year of the Mobile Art Studio, taking the show on the road, visiting new places, and finding and painting the extraordinary everyday beauty there, too. I hope to meet many people along the way generous enough to share with me what they love.

Caring less works for me

I have poured myself into aspects of my life. When I hear the phrase “heart in my throat”, I feel that viscerally. 

“Hiking Anchorage” (click the image for more info!). Caring a little less works well for paintings – it helps me be more fluid and have more fun, instead of every brush stroke feeling high-stakes.

This used to be my default. Even when I have been defensive or guarded, my entire being was right there at the ready. Does that make sense? There wasn’t even a part of me I walled off or withheld. All of her, all of Alli, was present through every interaction, even if my behavior didn’t immediately disclose everything she saw or felt.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been learning how to hold a piece of myself back.

This seems contrary to popular opinion and advice. “But Alli,” you might be asking, “Isn’t it better to actually bring more of yourself forward? Why not just ditch defensiveness altogether?”

In some situations, I think that’s absolutely true. And I think it’s important no matter what to learn how to be authentic to myself, even if I have some defenses up. But I don’t think bringing every fiber of myself to the table is always necessary, or healthy.

What happens for me when I do that is my identity gets caught up in one facet of interaction or life. I’m talking about me at my core. I want to be careful with that core, generous with feeding it and giving it room for expression in the world, but also safe from things that might damage it. My core self is not my thinking, rational being that can decide whether to let information in, and if so how deeply. She’s more vulnerable. If I bring her too far to the surface, I risk getting hurt by all of the crap that life is constantly throwing my way. So, I’m protective. I decide what to let all the way in.

What learning this slight removal of “core” self from the world, with judicious exposure, has taught me is that I actually perform and learn better when I have less than my entire being at stake. Since my very identity is not wrapped up in every interaction with the world, I can play more. I can fail more, without risking my essence, and therefore I can more readily learn from experiences. Counterintuitively, knowing that me, at the very heart of my being, is simply and straightforwardly a good thing that deserves care and protection in the world, and holding her back a little, helps me lead a better life. 

To the teenager up on the stage

I was out cross country skiing when my phone dinged ten times in a row. Before you picture technology interrupting a serene experience with “whooshing” noises like a Nordic Track across fresh, downy snow, instead please imagine more of a clattering, dawdling planks on icy snowmachine tracks down near a river situation. 

We made it to the picture-perfect ski eventually, but it wasn’t before I fell over while attempting to call my best friend whose texts were blowing up my phone. 

“What?” I asked, “What are you talking about? I’m skiing.”

“I can’t talk either,” she said, “But you NEED to look at Facebook. Like, right away. It’s crazy.”

Right away couldn’t happen. So, for the next hour or so, classic skiing my way through an Alaskan winter landscape with my family and a friend as dusk fell, this question hummed in the back of my mind. What’s on Facebook? What is she talking about?

We got back to my friend’s house in darkness, and stowed our skis and gear before gathering around the kitchen island. Snacks laid out and cocktails in hand, my heart rate went up as I pulled out my phone and opened Facebook. Everyone gathered around to see what it was.

And, the most bizarre thing: the video started, and it was a memory. Not a “Facebook Memory”, but it was an actual, bona fide memory of mine; something I experienced directly and was also apparently captured by a camcorder video in the very early 2000s. I remembered the feeling of that night even if not the details – a coffee-house style show organized and hosted at my school. It featured numerous performances by people I spent significant time around. All their faces were captured on film exactly as young as they were then, from the kids in the dance performances to the guy I dated a couple years after the video was shot. I remembered being there, in the dim lighting, the stage, the walls, and seeing the low-lit faces of an audience including my parents seated on folding chairs.

I remembered my heart in my throat, exactly as it was now as I was rewatching. I watched myself get up on that stage.

In those days, I wasn’t who I am now. I’d recently overcome my chronic childhood asthma, and my face and body were still puffy from all the prednisone and months trapped inside. I’d experimented with dying my hair as I tried to figure out who I wanted to be post-asthma, so I had these bleached streaks in a short, wavy cut. I remember feeling like I was up there on that stool with my guitar forever, but in reality it seemed like I got set up and off the stage almost as quickly as I could.

Watching me from a different era, my heart both swelled and hurt for her. I wanted to tell her: it’s okay!

Then, I watched me starting to sing. So did my husband, stepdaughter, and two close friends, all gathered around my phone witnessing this performance from twenty years ago. 

I was, actually, okay! I was good. I didn’t remember the song I was singing, but I sang it well – I could hear only a thread of nervousness, but my voice hit those notes and I kept on going. The song sounded vaguely folky, and I had a little tiny bit of remembering what it was. That’s when I realized this had been my very first performance. It was all optional; no one made me or any one of us do it. I had decided to select this song, learn the chords, and get up on that stage in front of everyone and sing.

Everyone else at that show had done it too.

I finally understood what all the staff members at that school were always going on about, with how incredible the students there were. It wasn’t about the talent, although there was a lot of that on the stage. It was the creativity, confidence, and bravery of the performances, how funny some of them were, and also how terribly out of people’s normal “lane” or comfort zone. Some of the performances were surprising, like someone had an alter-ego no one knew about before. One of the little kids got ushered off stage after too long dawdling at the mic. There were beautiful voices, and terrible voices, but it was all one tapestry of authenticity and expression. It was absolutely imperfect, but also not scripted by anyone – it was real. So many people in that spotlight.

Yes, because you’ve ready this long – here’s a screenshot from the video! I can’t share the recording because it’s on a private Facebook group (tragic, I know). But you get a glimpse of the memory and teenage me up at the mic just the same.

I felt a few things: I felt gratitude for the experience and especially how supportive the school and the audience, including all of our peers, had been. I felt a small sense of awe and confusion about how I had ever summoned up the courage to get up on that stage at that age and particularly where I was in life, but also grateful I had managed to scrounge it up. And – and I don’t use this word often or lightly, because I don’t particularly like it as a word – I felt tenderness toward every person on that stage. I had the sincerest hope for each one of us that we would find exactly our way in the world, whatever that was, and that we wouldn’t sweat whatever was between us and that along the way; not too much anyway.

It was a strange feeling to have, because it was all retrospective. Me, and everyone else in that video? We’re twenty years older now. And there I was feeling earnest heartfelt hopes for the futures of the people on film.

Back in my now-body, in Alaska, where I was taking in this memory in my friend’s kitchen, we disassembled from around my phone and laughed and debriefed while eating cheese. My stepdaughter appreciated the fun the videographer had with production; lots of those early 2000’s effects thrown in. My heart rate started to go down.

That feeling of experiencing the memory clung to me a late into the evening; how struck I was by the memory, how clearly I could see it in retrospect, even though when I was actually in it the world was a cloud of teenage angst. I had managed to find some clarity in it and find my way forward, and so had everyone else from that stage. 

There’s not a clean takeaway here. But I’m reminded that each step forward is always faltering and awkward, and in the end that’s what makes it brave. I’m proud of everyone who performed that night and sincerely grateful to all who witnessed (including the videographer!).

Visible relief and shock that it’s over and that I didn’t die. That’s the expression on my face as I complete the song and remove the capo before handing the guitar back to the stage manager to ready for the next act!

The year of the mobile studio

A couple of years ago I was biking through snowy, cold woods. It was midday January in Alaska. I was with Wes, and we were a couple hours north of where we live. Even just a little Interior like that, the landscape vastly changes – more low-lying rolling hills versus stark mountain views. Ponds and lakes dot the landscape, easily seen from a plane but linked together only by a trail network on the ground.

Off-key yipping and howling of the occasional dog sled team echoes through the woods there. The trails are packed by snowmachines which leave a patterned track. The forest is peaceful, punctuated only by the occasional crew of snowmachiners revving and zipping through. Otherwise, you’ll see dog mushers, the occasional walkers, and skiers.

Then, there’s us.

Fat tire bikes are wide and slow. The big tires create flotation. The fluffier the snow on the trail, the more air you have to let out of your tire to create traction. That day, the trail pack was pretty hard, which is nice. It helped that it was a chilly, but not unrideable 6 degrees. The cold temps helped lock in the snow groom created by the snowmachines.

It’s weird how living in a place with so much winter, my sense of what’s okay outdoor recreation weather is a tad skewed. I start putting the kibosh on sustained outdoor activity at -20.

What’s also weird is that, even though fat biking is and can be a calming activity, the actual experience is often loud from the sound of bikes on snow, and sometimes grueling. In temperatures like that, I’ll have at least one balaclava over my face to protect my cheeks and lungs from the extreme temperatures. Condensation naturally accrues as I breathe, and soon I have those trademark frosty white eyelashes. 

Pedaling over snow with two wide tires is also naturally difficult, because the traction means it takes that much more effort to keep going forward. It’s simply slow going, but that’s not for lack of sustained movement. The little hills created by riding onto and off of ponds at their bank push my legs into higher gear, and even with the frigid air I’ll start to sweat.

So even though my husband and I were together, we weren’t talking unless we were stopped. We did pull off to the side on part of the trail that ran across a lake once to let a dog mushing team go by. We watched the dogs pulling on their line, and marveled at how amazing it is to be in Alaska where this is normal. 

We also paused at decision points, where the trail forked. It was at one of these stops that I really felt my heart beating, and looked around.

Light in Alaska in January is scarce, especially the farther north you go. That day, it was “high” noon and while the sun wasn’t high, it was a clear blue sky. Light filtered through snow-laden trees surrounding us, filtering blue and purple shadow right alongside creamy yellow onto the sparkling snow. I could feel all of this color, contrast, and light hitting my brain and massaging it into instantaneous, clear-as-day sensations of pure joy. The joy was prolonged by that feeling of my heart working, thumping right there under my layers in my chest; the joy was compounded by my sudden intense feeling of gratitude for my body, the day, and the activity that brought me right there, right to that moment.

It’s not like we don’t go biking in the woods a lot. Winters are long. We get out as a means of physical, but almost more, emotional health. I’ve had lots of good moments in the woods. But that one stuck out to me.

I think the circumstances that invited and sustained this experience are something along the following: 

  • The ability to be out there and riding at all, and gratitude for that;
  • Hard work and how it created heat where I needed it most and brought me to a beautiful place, 
  • Long-term lack of access to a key resource (sun) followed by seeing it clearly for the first time in a while,
  • A willingness to simply take in my surroundings with all of my senses, without analyzing or thinking behind or ahead. 

This is the year I’m finally constructing and bringing online the mobile art studio and gallery. This story keeps coming to mind as a feeling I’m longing to inhabit, both as I await and take this next big step.

Where do I thrive?

I’m used to pining for one place from another.

When I lived in New York City but my heart was in Alaska, I would pace the sunny streets of Brooklyn looking over the river into the new shining condominiums of New Jersey, wishing it was the Chugach range.

In mid-January in the low light and frigid cold of Alaska, I think of Nevada. I yearn for the high, powerful sun infusing the air with dry and permeating warmth, on my face, arms, and legs.

From the comfort of my house in Alaska, I miss living out of a van.

Living out of my truck in Alaska while Airbnb-ers rent our house, I miss the comfort of home.

Etc.

This summer was the most frenzied Alaska summer I’ve ever experienced – and this is for someone who is used to the breakneck pace of 24 hour daylight. 

I had a Covid respite, fully vaccinated and slowly and then suddenly arriving back on the “scene” of being around people; saying “yes”, “yes”, “YES” to every opportunity as it came up, after a full year “off”.

We rented out our home for extra income to support long term plans. We camped in various friends’ driveways. We flew down to Nevada to attend Reesa’s high school graduation and experience van life for three straight weeks. Family visited and we drove down to Homer for a three-night staycation; we went on a fishing charter. I learned how to packraft and flew into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for a friend’s epic bachelorette party on the Ivishak River. I had an art opening with Stephan Fine Arts. I trained for a marathon. I hiked Pioneer Peak for the first time.

And I maintained a roughly thirty-hour work week consulting, with breaks for some of the above-mentioned activities.

You’re waiting for the inevitable mic-drop of “and, boy I’m exhausted.” That’s true. Ish.

I am realizing that when I fill up many, contrasting aspects of my interests and life, one complements the other. When I’m living out my truck, I am an excellent consultant. Driving through the high desert for weeks at a time, I can write an essay a day. Training for a marathon helps me build enough endurance to sit fully still for hours focused on a painting. 

I’m working on what I need in order to live a life that is less about a house, and more about experience. At least, for the time being. I’m only 75% clear on what that means exactly, but I think that’s a good start. I’ll be sharing more here as I put my plans in motion!

In the meantime, I know it’s been a while since I wrote. Pictures & inspiration from this past summer below!

Finding presence, without the yoga

Listen: I’ve tried yoga. I’ve tried it so many times. Back when Groupon was a thing, I bought unlimited yoga classes for a month and went religiously. I remember it was very difficult for me not to giggle when everyone’s butts were in the air. I felt irritated at an “ohm” dedicated to something terrible happening in the world (these are all South Anchorage ladies, surely we could dedicate…money?!). And one time during a particularly relaxing class, I fell asleep on my mat.

Now I do yoga like some people smoke cigarettes: socially, occasionally. 

What I am really into is finding ways to be present in my life. 

“Presence” is now an Internet wellness-ism catch phrase. When I think of the word, though, I think of raising my hand in class. Hi, I’m here.

Painting snow is kind of like insta-presence: it requires enormous concentration and trust.

At 35 years old, I’m not old or young, and one thing I’m starting to fully grasp is how my life will culminate in a series of moments. It’s so strange, fickle, and in some ways unfair that I can’t simply create and hold a way of being or feeling that I like for myself – nope, everything that happens to me will be fleeting and yet add up somehow to something bigger.

Good luck figuring that one out, right?

Well, I’m trying.

I think many people try to access this presence in both body and mind through yoga. Think of it as one portal in. This particular portal doesn’t work for me, but I have stumbled on other means.

Money!

Just kidding. A few of the ways I bring myself into my own present are through good, genuine connections with friends, family, and colleagues; exercising outdoors with all of my senses – remembering to breathe deep and smell stuff, to notice how a breeze feels on my skin, to listen to birds and trees – and (you know where this is heading) through painting.

Painting at its best is meditation.

I enjoy painting most when I’m relaxed and along for the ride, even though I’m the one in the driver’s seat. Yet, in a sense I’m not. Much of painting for me is intuition. It’s taking one good big belly breath at a time, noticing and focusing on where I am in a piece, and taking small, precise and yet uncharted steps toward drawing a bigger whole. It’s not like I’m painting by numbers. My brain is humming but hopefully not in overdrive, and my lungs feel full of air and hope as I watch myself build something on the canvas.

If I can simply notice, instead of judging myself, I stay in a good zone. Yes, it’s work. But I just keep on holding the bigger picture and taking small steps that eventually continue to grow into something complete.

That something complete is also me. When I’m painting, I’m constantly growing, focused, completely immersed. I’m present. (Hi, I’m here!). That’s one way of being complete; this constant state of motion that’s also grounded in fully sensing the right here. 

That’s blue, right?

My poor old brain. I am constantly trying to feed it things and get it to do stuff for me. I picture it skulking around in the shadows trying to avoid me, wondering how many hours until we get to sleep again.

Sometimes, when a new idea or realization hits, I feel my brain’s movement. It’s laborious and slow, like giant gears on a machine groaning into place. But when it has a really good reason it accommodates, grinding ever-upward until it a new thought sinks and clicks.

The other day, I was working on a painting-in-progress. My thoughts went something like this:

We’re painting sky. Sky is blue. Mix, mix, mix the whites and the blues, oh and a little red – is that right? Oh yes, nailed it. Nice first layer.

Now we’re painting faint mountains; background mountains. They’re – what’s that, they must be navy blue. Head for the blue, some white, and a touch of black. 

WAIT.

[Cue my brain, big dopey eyes wordlessly begging me to not make it continue working, scuttling around frantically for a place to hide from incoming New Information.]

I caught the thought just in time: WAIT, it said. Actually look at the color of the mountain range. Is it what you think it is, or is it something different?

I looked at the mountains and tried to remove my knowledge that they were mountains. I looked at the shapes and what was in them. Suddenly, I saw dark gray with deep purple undertones. A very different shade from what I had initially assumed based on what I know of background mountains.

Meanwhile, my brain begrudgingly lit up – acknowledging the work it had just put in to come to a new conclusion, sure, but also happy to be resting in the glow of new knowledge. 

The painting I was working on – see those background mountains?

Learning new information is pretty easy, especially when it already fits what I already know. The general shape of a mountain, for instance, is not that tough. Filling it in, with all the complexity of color and shade? That’s tougher, particularly when I’m working with something I’ll never fully understand – all the light, depth, subtlety, and majesty of true mountains. My paintings are only a translation between those mountains and the rest of the world, the filter being me.

As an imperfect but striving filter, I am challenging myself to look at what is and not what I assume. This very much hurts my brain, which craves comfort and knowing that background mountains are navy blue. Why do we have to change something that’s served us so long, after all? Can’t we just go to bed already?

The new color brought me closer into those mountains I was painting. I felt that I’d learned something about reality that had always been there yet I’d never seen. There’s something exciting about that exploration, taking place so quietly in the moment where I make a decision to look at something in a new way.

A word, please. On New Year’s resolutions.

You probably think I am about to rail on the futility of New Year’s resolutions. There are plenty of articles out there debunking them. “You’re setting yourself up to fail,” they say. “Outlandish and unrealistic changes in your lifestyle are unsustainable.”

But me? I’m for ‘em. I love me a good New Year’s rezzie, and here’s why.

Okay, so time is a construct, nothing actually magically changes from the end of one year to the start of the next, etc, and yet. We collectively mark the moment in time. It’s an agreed upon time to turn a page; to celebrate a shift. A ball drops, people smooch, fireworks explode (dogs whimper, too many people share fireworks on their social media, we wake up the next morning with champagne headaches which are actually and certifiably the worst form of hangover). 

This was my New Year’s resolution painting from last year. Hiking Lazy. Anyone who’s ever done this haul knows you just take it one step at a time!

Generally we agree to celebrate one year ending and a new one beginning.

With that celebration tends to come reflection. What even happened last year? What were the high and low points? What do we want to keep going in the new year, and what might we want to shift or let go of entirely? What’s our word going into the new year, what’s our commitment – there are so many forms a resolution can take just in terms of how we apply our focus.

We are now one full month into 2021. The coronavirus apparently didn’t take a break to celebrate new year’s, in yet another chapter of its being a soulless virus. A new Administration officially took office, after a riot and before shenanigans on Wall Street. In many ways, the dreaded 2020 marches on, and yet. Didn’t we have a New Year’s? Didn’t those fireworks go off?

What about YOU, though? You and me – we are the rest of the world in so many ways, but also we are not. We have our own personal reflections on the years past and what we want(ed) going into this one. Did you resolve anything? Did you pick a word; a focus? How is it going?

In defense of New Year’s resolutions, yes, they may be based in an artificial notion of time and yes, some may be completely outlandish goals (like any goal, at any time). But there is power in choosing to reflect and then define a purpose and focus in moving forward. New Year’s provides a pivot point; an opportunity to decide what to aim for moving ahead. That aim might be something concrete, like a savings or fitness goal. Or it may be more amorphous, like choosing to focus on feeling or inhabiting your body and mind in a certain way.

There’s lots in this year we can’t control. But we’ve always got ourselves. I’m really happy, one month in to 2021, that I chose to double down again on art. It feels like something deep within me that I can grow and bring into the world more and more. I’m looking forward to where it takes me – and us!

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