Thursday, September 21, 2017

time to teach

For this of you who are interested in workshops things, I will be teaching a workshop in Sonoma (yes, the Sonoma in the wine country) October 14th and 15th. I know I should announce these things more ahead of time, but my train is still off its tracks and I'm flying by the seat of my pants these days. That's just how it is. The class is pretty full, but there are some spots, so sign up here if you are interested in how I do my surface design. I promise I will answer all questions, show you all the things, and we will also drink wine. Not too much wine, but enough to flush our cheeks and feel that all is right in the world.

I have resisted teaching for many years, even though I love telling people how to do things. I think mostly because I like to keep my own schedule and I don't like outside forces imposing on it. And I'm afraid the more I teach, the less time I have to work on my own things-- I don't want to become that artist who is constantly traveling and teaching with no time to create.

 Also, I will be a beginner and there is a chance of sucking, so I am scared too.

But all of the sudden I'm feeling more open to the idea-- of teaching, of giving up some of my studio time, of meeting people in person and sharing what I've learned. Also, it's good to be pulled out of my studio orbit. Cultivate some new sources of inspiration. Right now I would even take a job teaching a weekly class, something I would have literally run away from even a year ago. I think maybe I just need more stability in my life right now. Things to lean on.

Any teachers out there who have any advice for me... hit me now!

Saturday, September 02, 2017


I had a big energy surge in May and June to get ready for the Palo Alto show. While I didn't feel like
I was able to bring my whole heart to the work, I was happy with how everything looked in the end. And I did well at the show, so I felt like the intensity I had to bring to get it done was worth it. But since the show ended I have been drifting. I'm told over and over that I am allowed to drift for a while after you lose your mom, but it makes me feel weird. I'm an achiever and a do-er and putting that aside to be sad is adding to the overall out-of-body experience of this year.

The only thing I am doing "right" is taking care of myself physically. I do my yoga, I take my walk, I do the meditation, I eat the good food. I drink too much beer but oh well.

I was thinking about my mom as I was walking through Mountain View Cemetery this morning, which sounds really really sad but the cemetery is one of the most beautiful places in Oakland and is great for walking.

I was thinking about how many people have said to me, "Your mom is still with you." I know people just want me to feel better, or are trying to reassure me somehow, but I don't feel like she's "with" me. She's just in my head right now. Is that what they mean? I wonder what she could possibly be doing because she is obviously not hanging around here in any way. What I would give for a haunting.

I had the thought that the best thing about being dead is the complete lack of consciousness of the world. You don't have to care about injustice, or insane floods, or the way we are slowly destroying ourselves and the planet, or the many millions of small sadnesses that people are coping with every second of every day.

My mom said that the best thing about dying was the fact that she wasn't going to have to live under a Trump administration.

Then I thought that the best part about being alive is the ability we have to create, and that is the only good reason to be alive-- to make and create things that sustain life in a whole hearted way. And how lucky I am to still be here and be able to do that, and that I have to make the most of my ability to do that now while I still can. All of the gravestones around me were a reminder that everyone thinks they will live forever and have all of the time in the world. But really....

I want to get back to work. I'm trying really hard.

Friday, May 19, 2017

do the work

Over the past 6 weeks or so I've been getting back into a morning routine. It's not the same as my old routine before my mom died. For one, it starts much later in the morning since I can't seem to get out of bed before 7 AM. And that's a vast improvement over my 10 AM wake-up that I was in for a while. Actually, I wake up around my normal time, 5:30 AM, but I just lay in bed instead of getting out of it.

My morning routine is pretty regulated, because it keeps me moving and sees to all of my needs, and I don't have to waste time having a conversation with myself over should I bother washing my face today, do I need to eat breakfast, what should I do for exercise. I just do what I did yesterday and don't overthink it.

My routine has been leading me into my studio after lunch, and I've been spending at least a few hours in there every day. That's where the overthinking starts.

I'm trying to get work together for the Clay and Glass Festival, the one big show I do every summer. There is no way I'm not doing it. I actually made so much pottery in 2016 that I already have a good start on work, but I have a lot of holes. Like I have no small or medium sized vases. There is a bowl deficit. And only a few mugs left.

But I just keep freezing up. I'm sure it's the grief and depression, but I have lost interest in the loose, painterly, scratchy work I've been into for the past 2 years or so. I don't want to make it anymore. So then I say to myself, "You can just make what you want to make, just have fun." But I have no desires, I have no ideas.  It's like trying to light a match underwater.

I left the studio yesterday kind of hating myself and pottery in general. I kept thinking about a dream I had the night before, where I was in a watercolor class being taught by my friend Rae. I was painting all over this sheet of paper, and it in the wacky way that dreams go, all over this room that we were in. I was having fun, and it was a magical dream that made me happy all morning. I made some time to paint that morning to try and live out the dream a bit, and it felt good. But my "real work" with all of its loaded expectations and judgements, is like the opposite right now. I just feel like I'm falling short all the time.

I know that's not fair to myself. And I know that in many ways it's not even true. It's just how I feel.

I was bitching about my day to Big Brother and he basically told me to Just. Do. The. Work. Don't worry about stretching myself, don't worry about feeling creative, just make some work, make some money, and get inspired later when I'm feeling better. Copy my old work if that's what it takes.

Big Brother kind of knows what he's talking about because by horrible coincidence, his father died 2 weeks before my mom, so we've been going through the same kind of shit these past few months. I hung up the phone thinking how much I need to dial it back on myself right now. It's just way to much to ask to come up with fresh inspiration. It's absurd to expect. It's rude to even ask. My old semi-stale inspiration will have to do. Wow, hear how judgy that is? It's hard to stop.

I'm taking a break from the studio today and heading for the beach with my watercolors.

I'm a blank slate-- what are you going to make out of me?

Meanwhile, I don't judge my watercolors for a second.

Friday, May 12, 2017

this mother's day

My mom was not big on Mother's Day. In our family, it was considered a commercially manufactured holiday created solely to play on the guilt and obligation of children (and sometimes their partners too) in order to generate sales of cards, flowers, chocolates, and brunches at restaurants. My mom let it be known she did not like to be the recipient of this kind of attention on Mother's Day, but any other day of the year was just fine. I was not really comfortable with letting the day go totally unremarked upon. After all, I am an American citizen and to completely ignore a finely tuned machine of consumer manipulation is downright unpatriotic. I would always call my mom on Mother's Day to wish her a happy day, and now I am wondering if she really did think Mother's Day was bullshit.

I have been going to a grief support group for daughters who have lost their mothers, and everyone in the group is a daughter who loved their mother (not always the case, as we all know) and one of the ongoing themes is regret. There is not one of us in the group who does not have some level of regret that we didn't spend more time with our mothers, do more for them, show them how much we loved them, tell them how much we loved them. My mom knew that I loved her, and more importantly to her, that I liked her also. We always had a good time together. There was never any holding back when it came to expressing love. My family is very fortunate in that way.

I would give anything to have just one more minute with my mom, to hug her, to tell her I loved her, to look into her eyes, to laugh at her jokes. And I just think that the biggest problem with being a person is that there is never enough time to be with the people you love. No matter how much I gave my mom and received from her, I'm always going to want more of her love and companionship. But everything is limited. Life is limited and what we can do while we are in it is limited. Feeling that regret is part of the process of grief, it's a reckoning with our limitations, and I can just barely stand it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

grief and creativity

For the first time in 20 years I am thinking about getting a job.  I feel like I am going through one of the most intense and painful transitions I have ever experienced-- my mother dying-- and going into my studio to make-n-sell stuff is about the last thing I want to be doing. I've been managing a few studio hours a day, or every other day... or once a week, but it has been very hard to walk through all of the steps one must walk through to make work in clay.

For one, my focus is shit. Daily tasks and things I'm supposed to do, they may or may not get done, depending on if I remember to do them, depending on whether I even care enough to do them. I can make a list, then forget that I have a list. I've had my wallet FedExed back to me twice in the past month after leaving it behind in various places. I've locked myself out of the house. I've left the stove burner on for a very long time, and yes, I left the house with it on. I forgot to pay my credit card bill, and then when I went to pay it, I paid the minimum instead of the balance. I have literally never done that in my entire life because I refuse to pay interest charges on my purchases. I won't do it. But I did it last month and as far as I'm concerned I may as well have set fire to a small pile of money.

Secondly, I feel this need to continually protect myself. When I go out of my house to go anywhere, I put on sunglasses and a giant pair of headphones. This is a combo I would normally never do, because I like to be open to the world and see what is going on out there, even if it's disturbing. But I can't handle disturbing right now, or sad and vulnerable either. My heart is shattered and I need to make sure nothing more messes with it until it's a little stronger. A protected heart is not a creative heart.

And my energy is limited. By early evening, I am tired. I'm also tired in the morning, and in the afternoon. I'm writing this at 10 in the morning, and I think I need a nap. Eight hours of sleep is okay. Nine is better. Ten is excellent, and even more if I can get it. I feel like my body is continually occupied with trying to adjust to this new reality, this new world without my mom in it, even while I am sleeping.

None of this primes to pump for creativity, or a zest for putting myself and my work out there. Even putting an image on my instagram seems like too much. The two things, grief and creativity, they just don't go together for me at the moment. Maybe they could, and maybe they will at some point, but not now.

I've gotten the suggestion that I make something that expresses how I feel, and the very thought of doing that makes me tired. The only thing that sounds good is making whatever I feel like and not worrying about how I'm going to get someone to take it off my hands and give me some money for it. I am so sick of that equation right now.

People have been asking me to make specific things for them, and that I like. I can do that. If there is something you want me to make for you, now would be the time to ask. So I'm not saying get away from the studio completely. I just need to take the burden off. I can't count on just making pottery right now.

This is one thing I have been doing: drawing flowers with white gelly roll pens on colored card stock. I could do this all day. So the fire is not completely out, it's just burning kind of low.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Marcee Stiltner 1948-2017

My mom died two months ago. She suddenly got very sick in mid-January, and was quickly re-diagnosed with the cancer she had managed to fight off for a couple of good years. Only it had spread to all the places you don't want cancer to spread to. The plane ticket she bought for me to fly to DC so I could go the Women's March was changed into a last minute ticket up to Olympia, where I spent almost two weeks by her side with my younger sister. She died at home in hospice care, which is where I hear most people want to die, but very few actually do.

My mom refused further treatment for her cancer, a decision she was completely clear on and my sister and I had both been prepared for long before. My mom believed in quality of life. She was a mental health advocate her entire professional life which informed her choices about a lot of things and shaped her character. For her, getting treatment that may extend her life by a few months while at the same time making her so sick that she would not be able to work and enjoy her family wasn't even a choice. It was amazing how long it took her oncologist to understand that. He had all kinds of life-extending plans for her. She wasn't having any of it. And she didn't. She died quickly, which many have told me is a mercy, but I can tell you is just a total shock to the system.

My sister and I took several weeks to clean out my mom's house, with help from friends and family. Our mom's actual living quarters were pretty easy to deal with-- aside from that peculiarly American habit of buying paper goods in extreme bulk and her obsession with office supplies, my mom was not a collector or hoarder of things. She was very neat and organized by habit, with contained areas of chaos, mostly isolated in a junk drawer or a laundry room cabinet. While I was growing up we moved so many times to follow her career that I think it gave everyone in my family an allergy to tchotchkes. She did have a lot of jewelry which I was moved to meticulously collect in 3-inch plastic baggies, one baggie for each item and pair, and store in a bin. The jewelry is not valuable nor to my taste, but I can't give it away. Not yet.

It was my mom's sewing studio that tripped us up. My mom was a self-taught master seamstress. She has sewn since she was a teenager and she has always sewn, no matter what, no matter how busy or overwhelmed with work or raising kids on her own. I remember a period of time when I was in elementary school and she was briefly unemployed, and I often came home in the afternoon to find her sewing.  Next to reading, it was her main hobby in life and she never got bored with it.

The home she has owned for the last 15 years has a large basement where she finally had the dream sewing studio she always wanted. She had four sewing machines: a regular machine that most seamstresses have, a serger machine, a quilting machine, and an embroidery machine. She had a professional iron that I barely knew how to turn on, and a custom made ironing board that was longer and wider than a regular board. She had a cutting table that dominated the space, with a huge cutting mat so you could line up your fabric perfectly. One wall was lined with racks that held thread of every color. The opposite wall was lined with shelving that held over a dozen bins of fabric, ordered by type, color, and print. Other bins that held scores of zippers of every length and color. More bins that held sewing notions. Even more bins that held stuff for fun sewing projects. One giant bin of just patterns. My mom was an early adopter of the internet (she was the first person I knew to install Prodigy and start surfing the web) and was always trolling online looking for the latest sewing gadgets and tools, and those gadgets and tools were everywhere in her studio. I can't even begin to list them all.

My mom made everything, all the clothes she wore, down to her own tailored slips, for most of her adult life. Women and men always asked where she got her clothes, and she loved telling people that she made them herself. She was a professional woman through most of her career and made the most beautiful suits: tailored jackets, skirts, pants, blouses.  She copied the first designer jeans in the 80's, making her own Calvin Klein's that looked exactly like the real thing, missing only the Calvin Klein label.  She made her own t-shirts and shorts. She sewed her own bathing suits. When jogging became a thing she sewed up her own jogging outfit and actually jogged 3 or 4 times. She made a floor length fur coat made from fake fur and took shit from people on street who thought it was real.  In my closet I have an exact copy of a Chanel jacket she made, down to the quilted lining and gold chain that runs around the inside hem. It is a work of art, yet my mom never thought she was an artist or even particularly creative. She just like to sew. A lot.

My mom once rented a RV with one of her friends and they drove to a national park where they sewed all day in beautiful surroundings. She was a little bit crazy when it came to sewing.

Later, she started making other things: quilts, wall hangings, curtains, toiletry bags, throw pillows, oven mitts, purses, wallets. Slippers. Cell phone covers. Laptop bags. When she got her embroidery machine she would sew something up and then embroider it. When she got her quilting machine she would sew, quilt, and embroider. When she was diagnosed with cancer the first time she made bunch of cute hats in anticipation of losing her hair during chemo, and then she didn't lose any hair and gave them all away.  She made ridiculous things too: she created an item she called a "charger cozy"-- a colorful sleeve that slipped over a cell phone cord so it would be more difficult to leave behind when you were traveling. She had little interest in buying anything that could be made. Sewing was more fun than shopping.

My mom mostly liked to sew for herself, and for me and my sister, and she liked making gifts for friends. She had no enthusiasm in doing it for money. She tried a couple of times but she said it took the fun right out of it. She made me a dress for Pioneer Day when I was 7 with a matching bonnet that I continued to wear for everyday attire. I loved that outfit, especially the bonnet, and refused to take off even for a formal portrait with my sister, which led to a huge throw down in the portrait studio (I won). She made the dresses that we wore to dances in high school. She made the dresses that we wore to our college graduations. She made my wedding dress and my sister's bridesmaid dress and of course, her own mother-of-the-bride dress. She made the aprons I wear to work every day. She sent me sheets embroidered with mine and my husband's name along the top. She made me a silk "sleep sack" so I would not have to be tortured by low thread count sheets when I travel, a personality quirk of mine she thought showed a specific weakness of character, but made me a sleep sack nonetheless. (It's not that I have such refined taste, I just have very sensitive skin.)

My mom taught me how to sew in a two week marathon of sewing at her house when I was about 21.  Up until that time I had no interest in sewing. My sister and I grew up trying to entertain ourselves in fabric shops, and I can tell you there is very little that is entertaining in a fabric shop unless you want to buy fabric. My mom and I did sewing marathons almost every time we got together for a visit, and she did the same thing with my sister. It was a great way to spend time together: my mom would fix all of my mistakes and I had new clothes at the end of it.

There was a period of time where I was making all of my clothes too, but I lacked the meticulous skill my mom brought to sewing. I liked to take shortcuts, skip reading the directions, fudge on steps. I didn't have patience. I started sewing again in the past couple of years, and finally my mom's lessons came through: take your time, do it right. I will never be as obsessed as she was with sewing, I have my own obsessions to tend to, but I enjoy the process now in a way I didn't before.

In recent years as rhuemetoid arthritis started causing pain in her hands she slowed down with sewing and started wearing store bought clothes more often, which always profoundly disturbed me. It was a small sign that she had to give up something she loved. And it was just a slight loss of dignity, of being forced to flip through racks for mass-produced clothing like the rest of us. As I've watched people age, I've realized that everything you love becomes everything you eventually lose, sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly. Trying to hold on to your dignity through this process  is one of the most difficult things of all.

Cleaning out her sewing space seemed like an insurmountable task. There were days where I couldn't even go down there because it was so overwhelming. It was like a fabric bomb had gone off. My mom gave us permission to throw away every item in her home, except for the poetry she wrote (she's written poetry since she was a child), which she wanted my sister and I to keep. While I had little problem boxing up most of her home for Goodwill, her sewing stuff was another thing. My sister and I divided up the machines and some gadgets, her best friend hauled off a lion's share of fabric and supplies, and that still left a ton of stuff. We felt it all needed to go to people who would appreciate it, not a scrap would go to Goodwill. And we did it, down to the last box filled with cotton quilting fabric and quilting books which went to a quilter friend. We probably could have headed home two weeks earlier if not for the sewing studio.

I can write about my mother for a very long time. I was a terrible, terrible teenager, to the point where my mom kicked me out for a while because I refused to go to a drug rehab (I didn't need it, not really), but even during those times I always loved her, always felt loved by her, and always knew I could count on her. I know many people are not as lucky as I was with my mom. I have always been able to take her unconditional love and support for granted. She has helped me through every difficult period in my life, never telling me what to do, but helping me figure it out. She knew everything about me, I stopped keeping secrets from her once I moved out of the house at 17. She never judged me. Or if she did she kept it absolutely to herself.

My mom had many stellar qualities, but her ability to help me and my sister prepare for her death and talk about it openly was one of the last amazing things she did for us. My sister and I wondered if we were too open with her about our anxiety about taking care of her at the end of her life; my sister could get paid family leave for 3 months but I would have to improvise. We were semi-panicked at the idea that she would be in hospice beyond our ability to personally care for her, dreaded the idea of draining her account or having to sell her house to continue her care. But she kept telling us she wouldn't last more than a week, even though she was talking and laughing with her friends and making jokes, so we didn't take her totally seriously. But she was right. We brought her home for hospice on a Wednesday, and she died on the following Sunday.

My mom did a lot for me, but unfortunately she could not prepare me for what life now feels like without her. There is no wrapping your head around that until it actually happens. People who have been through it tell me it gets better, but I don't know what that looks or feels like, I just try to hold on to the idea that I might one day feel better. I try to be grateful that I had two weeks with her before she died, but she was only 69 and I wish I could have had another 20 years.

You can read her obituary here.