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Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Quite a few years ago, I worked in the city for a major magazine publisher. There I met Marilyn, who became a very dear friend. Our work was very hectic with endless deadlines and demands of all kinds. When she took her vacation, she and her husband went to some remote-ish island in the middle of nowhere to just relax.

“How boring,” I remember thinking.

During that time period I wanted to travel. I remember a great trip staying with cousins in Arizona, heading south to see New Mexico and north to visit the Grand Canyon. I also had the  pleasure of staying with friends I’d made through the publisher and visiting beautiful western Kentucky. No laying about for me!

My, how times change.

Now my idea of a vacation is exactly that of Marilyn’s – a quiet beach, with as few people as possible to distract me, and simple relaxation. I’d like to bring some books, a notebook, a sketchbook, and basic art supplies and just sit. I’d like to close my eyes and listen to the ocean, and open my eyes and see this …

Now the funny thing is that the beautiful ocean above is actually the New Jersey shore, and about one and a half hour’s drive from my house. But I only want to go off-season when I can just sit. Better yet, that remote-ish island.

This could also work. It’s the quiet and the freedom from distractions I would like. And, of course, being near the water.

But overlooking or near the ocean would be my first choice. There is something so wonderfully soothing about the sound of the tide, ebbing and flowing, whispering and calling. I wouldn’t mind spending some of that time alone, just to rediscover parts of my artistic self that don’t find enough space and time in everyday life to express themselves. But see? There are two chairs, and you’re welcome to join me in companionable quiet, just enjoying the peace.

And at night? Being near enough to feel enveloped by the gathering dark, listening to the rushing of the ocean tide coming in. And just being. (This, too, by the way, is the Jersey shore.)

To think … Marilyn had it right all along.

 

Thank you to the photographers above who have generously shared their work online so that I may have such beautiful illustration to my post.

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I know I’ve mentioned this before, but the county where I live now is the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived. I had a quick trip to the dentist this morning, and thought to bring my camera along to capture a lovely view or two. This is what’s across the street from my dentist.

Further to the right, a church nestled in a grove of trees. It was – still is – a clear, bright day. The sky an almost startling blue with not a cloud in sight. The only sound, the slight hum of the tractor carrying across the fields, and the occasional car passing me by.

I snapped a few photos, but then just stood there, loving watching the farmer go about his mowing, likely the first cutting of the year. I probably should have waved. Out here, you can be pretty sure he’d wave back at you.

Looking down the road, heading west. On a day like this – cool, dry, sunny, and inviting – it would have been nice to go down this road and explore more, see where it would take me. But life being what it is, I had other stops to make, other things to do. In fact, in all the years I’ve been going to my dentist, I’ve never once taken the time to follow this beautiful road.

It’s the downside of our lives sometimes … not accepting an invitation because we’re too busy. The backroads are always a great invitation; I need to open my schedule up a bit.

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The first thing to happen is your brain starts to slowly disintegrate on the way home. Once in the door, you need to tend to anything that needs tending to because your body is following close behind and is not going to be in an upright position too much longer. From stress? Nope – from the incredible rush of attending a two-day conference for writers and illustrators of children’s books. It’s exhausting alright, but in a good way.

Each June my New Jersey chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) holds its big event. There are workshops, round tables, one-on-one critiques, a juried art show, portfolio display, keynote speeches, and more. This year, in choosing my workshops I focused entirely on writing in picture books. Other years, I have mixed things up and taken workshops in middle grade and young adult writing, picture book illustration, marketing/social media, and more. There were some truly fabulous speakers this year who inspired me and will keep me thinking long after the conference.

A highlight of the NJ event for many attendees is the availability of having one-on-one critiques, something not offered at all SCBWI (or other writing) conferences, and I picked very well this year. The picture book I submitted seemed a very good fit for Charlesbridge Publishing, and my mentor was outstanding – knowledgeable, insightful, and beyond helpful. Did I mention thorough? Yes, very thorough. A good editor or agent really knows how to show you where you need improvement without destroying your soul, acknowledge all the things that are right with your manuscript, and point out directions that will help you make your story perfect. And that I got.

The big challenge after a conference like this, for me, anyway, is to keep the momentum and all that excitement going because Monday morning rolls around pretty quickly and I am back at my desk writing and designing for everyone else, i.e., my clients. However, one of the first things I did Monday was to hit the library. I was picking up an adult novel I’d requested on inter-library loan, Before We Were Yours, and also a number of picture books that had been recommended by my mentor and other workshop leaders along the way. I also requested a few more from our main library. (As I did not take any photos of the event, I have included a handful of those books here.) I plan to read them over the next couple days for both enjoyment and to understand what makes them really good picture books. There is always much to learn.

Over the next few days I will revisit the MS I submitted and all my mentor’s notes and look to see how I can make my story shine yet brighter. For all the praise she gave me for this picture book, and there was plenty, it wasn’t enough – at least not yet – to be the one Charlesbridge wants to publish. Not yet.

 

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Yes, I find crows magical, and I am a fan. Whoa, whoa! OK, all you farmers out there – I see you throwing your hands up in the air with a loud and unified “OY!” But hear me out. Let’s look at these magnificent creatures from three standpoints – science, myth and magic, and personal experience.

First a little science. Did you know that crows and ravens (same family) and macaws have the highest brain to skull ratio of any bird on the planet? In fact, their brain to skull ratio is higher than in humans! This in part accounts for their high intelligence, not to mention they have been on the planet for 60-65 million years.  Crows also have a skill accorded to one of the most intelligent mammals on earth, the great apes, i.e. they create and use tools. Crows also will gather around one of their own when it has died to try and determine the cause of its death. They will  learn the facial configuration of a mean human and teach all other crows to know it as such and avoid that human. When a crow leaves its flock and joins another, it immediately acquires their “dialect” by taking on the characteristics of the most popular crows in that flock. No intellectual slouches, these crows. Learn more about them.

The magic. When I designed my own website a number of years ago, I drew the header for it myself. The header featured none other than the crow, and I have utilized that symbol for my blogs. Why?

Because in certain cultures and mythology, the crow is believed to be the symbol of magic and creativity, something near and dear to every artist’s soul. In some cultures the crow has been the symbol of evil and/or death, juxtaposed against the white of the dove and purity. I don’t see life in black and white terms, and for all their brilliance, I like the crow’s mythology in Native American terms and Crow Medicine. As such, Crow is a guide on the path to spirituality and enlightenment and is the keeper of sacred law. It is said that Crow has known the darkness and when they appear in our lives, may be guides through our own darkness on the path to enlightenment. Granted, these may be mythological ideas, but it can be said that all religious/spiritual beliefs are mythology, just different. I am not arguing that point, just drawn to the many inspiring aspects of the beautiful and intelligent crow.

Personal experience. I have a very deep back porch, and during the day, next to my back door, is a bowl of water and dry food for my neighbor’s cat. I’m working at my computer when I hear a rather loud caw. “That sounds mighty close,” I think. I look out the back door, and there is a good-sized crow pilfering the dry food. She sees me and flies away. Not 10 minutes later, I hear the caw again. I appear and she flies away. Shortly thereafter, out of the corner of my eye, I see a flash of black through the side door window. She has learned in only two incidents that her caw brings me to the door, and now flies in silently. Seeing me again, her next attempt was from a different angle that I could not easily see.

Another time, I hear muted crow noises and slip quietly and unseen to watch four of them on the porch. They are talking amongst themselves and jostling for position, pushing one another away from the cat food bowl. I take their verbiage to mean “Wait your turn” and “Get out of my way.”  It is likely a dominance issue. I knock on the window and they disappear, but I could have watched their antics for hours; they were quite amusing. Now, as a result of this, I have to bring in the dry food for a while.

Occasionally, I will see a crow on my walks or on the fence near the window where I work. I always say hello and am sometimes acknowledged with a look and a “caw”. When a crow -– or any animal – appears unexpectedly and/or repeatedly in my life, I may look into its possible meaning. In the case of a crow, I might be at a crossroads, looking for or ready for a change, and need to pull more on my own intuition. Even if that has nothing to do with the crow, when is it ever a bad idea?

One last thought .. there is so much amazing art regarding crows, among them gorgeous paintings by Susan Seddon-Boulet ( above left), but also in a favorite children’s book, Crow Call by Lois Lowry and revered illustrator, Bagram Ibatoulline.

The natural world is filled with wonder and beauty. Depending on the day, I could happily write about pangolins, pandas, or hammerhead sharks. Today, it’s crows.

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There are times in life we turn in and times we turn out. Times to read and times to write. Times of loss and times of moving past. Times we feel lost and times we feel found.

Feelings shift minute by minute, day by day, hour by hour, or maybe even year by year. We humans are such complex creatures. We have the capacity to feel so much. Even so, we might deny our feelings. We have the capacity to know so much … not in the sense of book knowledge, but the knowing of who and what we are. We can deny that, too.

We have moments, however long or short they may be, glimpses, when we know and see all that we are and all that we can be. Life has given us the challenge to make those moments last longer and longer until we are so brilliantly ourselves. And here we may have something to overcome – years of believing that it cannot be so. It doesn’t always matter precisely how those beliefs came to be; but they most likely came from others who were unable to see their own light. Had they been able to see it, they surely would have given us our brilliance long, long ago.

The best of ourselves resides within, and we need ways to find that best and treasure it. To that end, I am a fan of Louise Hay and her wonderful daily affirmations. Each day when I turn on my computer, I open a few sites (including my own, of course) but always hers, to give me an inspiring thought for the day. This past year, I even treated myself to a daily desk calendar with a new affirmation for each day.

As you can see, this page is already 30 days old, but it’s the one I haven’t been able to toss in the wastebasket. I want it – some days, need it – as a reminder. So on my desk it will sit. I’m sharing it with you, in the event that you might need a reminder, too. I believe, one day or another, we all do – the days when we forget our own brilliance or just can’t find it, no matter how deep we reach.

“I am so much more than I give myself credit for.” Say it – for you are so much more than you give yourself credit for. Believe it. And whether you are in the midst of turning in or turning out times, or whatever  times you might be in, hold on to that thought, because it is always true for all of us.

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If your life is anything like mine, it’s hard to find time to do some of the special things we love. Among them for me, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is baking. Today I had changed my plans and decided to make some muffins. From scratch, of course. Chocolate chip muffins.

I searched through my collected recipes, but did not find one for chocolate chip muffins. Everything but. So I turned to my good friend Betty Crocker. No matter how many cookbooks I have or how often I’ll search out a recipe online, I will never be without a Betty Crocker or Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. Why? Because it always has so much basic cooking and baking information as well as a variety of recipes both easy and complicated to make. Forgot how long to poach an egg? How many tablespoons of butter are in 1/3 cup? How many cups of chopped nuts you’ll get from a 1 lb. bag? And although these things can always be found online, the internet can be a big time suck and have me looking at all kinds of things I don’t need to be looking at. Just give me the facts, Betty, and I’m good.

I looked up Betty’s basic muffins, and they seemed a little too basic to me. Soooo … I went online to a place where I’ve had great muffin success in the past – Mr. Breakfast. And right there on the home page was #1 of their Top 20 Favorite Recipes – chocolate chip muffins. OK, I’m in!  I read glowing reviews and then compared them to Betty’s version; Mr. B’s are sweeter and more fattening to be sure – butter instead of traditional oil, and a bit more sugar. I’m still in.

The bottom line here is that baking these muffins made me happy. It’s time well-spent – a small gift I can give to myself. It’s something we don’t do for ourselves nearly often enough, sometimes even when we do have the time. Between all the things that really must  be taken care of and all the ways we can lose our time to distractions (and here, I repeat, the internet), what about the things that fulfill us? Whether that be writing, art, music, gardening, baking, crafting, restoring furniture, reading a good book … what about spending a little extra quality time with loved ones/pets … whatever it is, why not give it to ourselves?

Speaking for myself, it doesn’t really take much to make me happy, a trait that I am enormously grateful for. My guess is there’s probably a whole lot of little things that make you happy, too. Be kind to yourself; allow yourself to be happy, and enjoy those little things.

p.s. The muffins? Maybe a bit more chocolate chips than I need. I had already cut down from 12 to 9 oz. Ghirardelli’s Dark Chocolate Mini Chips (what I had on hand), but 6 oz. would certainly be enough. Other than that? Mouthwateringly delicious and worth every second making them. Yum!

 

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The Delaware River in her many moods extends a never-ending invitation to be photographed. Just three houses away, I’m able to easily see whatever weather-inspired beauty is happening on the river on any given day.

One of my favorite views is after rain or snow, when the fog in the area has cleared, and a cloud all her own has settled on the river.

I’d already started my work, but when I looked outside, I couldn’t resist, so slipped out with my camera down to the edge of the road.

There’s just such a moodiness at this time of year to how that cloud sits low, and the wintery colors are as rich in their own way as the green vibrancy of spring. If I were able, I could happily just pull up a chair and sit for hours.

This very old concrete structure had something to do with the railroad tracks and the trains that once ran here, I imagine. Oddly enough, I’ve never inspected it more closely, and today that ground was a field of mud beneath the leaf litter.

An ancient twisting tree of the sort that inhabits mysteries and horror stories. One of the joys of the winter months is in appreciating the skeletal silhouettes of so many different types of trees.

Rising from the misty shrouds is a ghostly white hotel on the far river bank in Pennsylvania, appearing to be much closer than it actually is.

On drier days, I can go over the tracks and much closer to the river’s edge, but the muddy ground was soaked, and on the bluff overlooking the river at this point, undoubtedly quite slippery. So I just counted myself lucky to live near such beauty, and returned, inspired, to my work

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One of the shortcomings of we creative folk, I find, is that we generally don’t share our gifts proudly with others, or even give ourselves a pat on the back all too often. Writing a blog, and especially if it includes our own artwork, photography, videos, or images of our various accomplishments, is one way we do that. Even so, many of us only shyly take credit for the beauty, wisdom, intelligence, and creativity we put out into the world through our blogs. We all deserve a pat on the back, so please – give yourself one!

A corollary to this is if our creativity is available to others … as in a business. For those of you who check in on me regularly, you are likely to be aware I’m a graphic artist. But how many know that I actually promote my graphic design services on the web? Not enough, I’m sure, so I am taking this opportunity to introduce you to my graphic design blog – Jeanne Balsam Graphics. Please take a toddle on over and see what I do. I am growing my business, and have a particular interest in helping people self-publish by putting an attractive and professional product out there. (The picture book above is my design/layout, and includes some original artwork, as well.)

With the advantages of the internet, working together is no longer limited by our physical proximity. I have local clients as well as in California, the mid-west, and more. Maybe I can help you or someone you know with a fabulous design piece. If so, you can contact me anytime through my graphics blog.

OK, so that’s me finally patting myself on the back a bit and sharing more of what I do. Now it’s your turn!

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One of the wonders of nature is the movement of large numbers of animals in a synchronization we can only observe in awe. In fish, we see schools, in insects, swarms, and in birds, we see flocking. It is a mesmerizing dance. Above we see crows, below starlings.

In the video linked to here, titled The Starling and Falcon Dance by Nick Dunlop, set to the most perfect music, we see thousands of European Starlings migrating south. They have attracted a prime predator, the Peregrine Falcon, and in attempting to evade him, they fly in synch and create amazing patterns in the sky. As fascinating as these photos might be, they cannot show you the magic created by the birds in flight.

Please take a look at one of nature’s miracles.

 

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The sun attempts to break through an almost white sky. The weather report tells me that this is the best it will do today. Some high winds later on, and for Christmas, perhaps a dash of snow in the morning. This suits me fine – my days of longing for a white Christmas vanished as soon as I had to drive in it. As I looked out the window, I searched inside for my Christmas spirit. I found it to be a little lacking, having been pulled in many directions the last week. I knew one remedy, of course – images and words that bring a smile and/or inspire.

So here you see my gentle snowman, standing at my front door, ready to greet you. His candle lights at dusk, and he blows it out at dawn. But tonight it will burn steadily and all through the day on Christmas.

Inside, the beautiful oak washstand of over 100 years shines as always, with silk poinsettias, my very favorite ice balls holding tea lights, and just a peek at the photo of my Mom and Dad’s wedding portrait.

And though from a winter past, the snowy roofs and lightly dusted bare branches put me in a festive mood.

But what about words that inspire? I remembered some years ago, my Christmas present to loved ones was a print of the piece below, a longtime favorite of mine, to which I added original artwork of forest animals in each season in each of the print’s four corners. I felt my contribution was small in the shadow of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata. I share it here with you, with my warmest wishes for a Christmas filled with the sparkle of magic, hope, and peace.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

~ Max Ehrmann

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The internet is an incredible source of so many things, and some incredibly wonderful. This is one of those, and brings tears to my eyes each time I watch it. So simple, so beautifully and brilliantly done. Just 3 minutes you won’t regret. Go full screen.

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I say `taking back’, because it can be too often that we have given it away. To others, to circumstances, to fears. And sometimes without even being aware that that is why we feel the way we do. I am musing on this because I watch myself, sometimes undulating like the waves, feeling strong, and then suddenly, even if for only a moment, powerless. I remind myself, we are never truly powerless. Even though it can certainly feel that way at times. It’s another life lesson – taking back our power, and remembering that we always have the choice to do so. If we feel we can’t? Well, as one of my favorite people, Louise Hay, has always said, “It’s only a thought, and a thought can be changed.”

Here’s another woman’s thought about that. Susan Polis Schultz says, “This life is yours. Take the power to choose what you want to do and do it well. Take the power to love what you want in life and love it honestly. Take the power to walk in the forest and be a part of nature. Take the power to control your own life. No one else can do it for you. Take the power to make your life happy.”

Happiness is also a choice, much as taking back our power is and they are inexorably intertwined. When we feel in control of our lives, we tend to be happy. We are not living according to the fear of others’ expectations (be they past or present), or of what will happen next. We are not filled with doubts.

This is our time on this planet. We can live in our space and our truth, and know what’s important to us. We have the right to pursue and find what brings happiness and tranquility into our lives. It may be a journey, but I do believe we can be there in this moment. We can live lighter and more freely, more optimistically.

In addition to my classic A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh books, I also have a book by Benjamin Hoff titled The Tao of Pooh in which we realize what a zen-like – and therefore, powerful – character Winnie the Pooh really is.

In the wise words of author A.A. Milne,

“What day is it?”
It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
My favorite day,” said Pooh.”

And that’s how it’s done.

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