Allie Cats: The Whimsy of a Creative Life

Creativity has always been a common thread running through my story. From the imaginary worlds woven into the landscapes of our unfinished basement growing up to the desk piled high with art supplies and magazine clippings in my last apartment, I need creativity to feel whole.

I’ve cycled through various mediums and outlets of creativity. Throughout various times, creativity has manifest itself through dance, acting, sketching, photography, collage art, upcycled furniture, oil pastels, pottery, book rebinding, acrylics, and poetry writing.

Allie Illuminated Creativity

Art was just a way of being for me. But it’s also often been an avenue of freedom.

Acting in high school helped me break out of my painfully shy shell. Journaling through mixed media in college gave voice to an ongoing struggle with depression. Writing on this blog was a lifeline that brought me to a career that feels much more in line with who I am.

This ongoing conversation with creativity has been deeply personal, but mostly a private affair. I filled dozens of journals with writing before attempting to share my thoughts online. I made a few attempts to sell my art, but there was a scant number of interested buyers. When my tentative hopes were met with relative silence, I slipped away from the limelight, tail tucked between my legs. Clearly, I didn’t possess whatever elusive quality the “real” artists had to be successful.

But the success of selling art and the need to create are two very different things. So I kept creating. I made agreements with myself that, for awhile anyways, my art was just for me. It didn’t have to be good. I just had to keep creating. When the bruising of my ego had faded a bit, I kept the possibility of selling art again in my Someday Pile.

Allie Illuminated WatercolorWatercolors have been the focus of my creativity in the past two years. I love the collaboration of pigments and water spilling out on the page. Varied by brush size and the timing, the art is a conversation. Learning the language of watercolor was playful, therapeutic. Just me and the paint and the water.

Right now, traveling around the west coast and house sitting along the way, painting has become a part of my rhythm. Several nights a week, in the quiet spaces of my evenings alone, I paint.

Most of these unfamiliar places I’ve been calling home for a few weeks at a time are housesitting jobs. Strangers welcome me into their homes to care for their pets while they are away. This level of hospitality is rare today, but it has been an unspeakable gift.

So when I was welcomed into the home of a Canadian family this October, I wanted to find a way to thank them. When I first arrived in their home and getting familiar with things, they introduced their two cats.

“Harley is 19 1/2 years old. He’s starting to get frail, but he’s really friendly. We kind of think of him as an old gay art dealer. Very posh and snooty to some, (mainly the other cat) but he’s got a heart of gold.”

Just then, the other cat Oskar came skirting around from behind the couch. “And that’s Oskar. I suppose he would be like a reclusive man living in the woods that believes in conspiracy theories. Not that bright, and really skittish, but sweet once he warms up to you.”

So, naturally, my gift to them was a whimsical watercolored rendition of Oskar and Harley.

Allie Cats Oskar

Allie Cats Harley

I didn’t realize that I had unwittingly stumbled onto potential greatness. Why?

Because people love their pets.

And because we all see the animals we love as having human traits.

And to see these pets as the people we know them to be is delightful.

And because the world needs more whimsy and delight.

Allie Cats | Duke

Allie Cats | Butler Dog

Allie Cats | Smalls | Sailor Dog

Allie Cats | Hawaiian Hikers

And now, I’m finding myself painting portraits of other people’s pets several nights a week! Unexpectedly, I stumbled into this niche market. And it’s working. (It may have everything to do with obsessive love of animals and not as much to do with my artistic genius.) But that’s not the point.

The point is that this is the unexpected and funny way that creativity, inspiration, and opportunity interweave. The success was in the declaration to myself that “the act of creating stirs an undeniable, soul-satisfying need, and that alone justifies worth.”

These are the implications of living a creative life. We vision cast and we strategize and we align our lives with where we want to go. And then we find ourselves delightfully caught off guard by new possibilities we couldn’t have imagined.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Importance of Being Earnestly Receptive (A Productivity Hack)

It’s a quiet morning. Grey Vancouver light pours into the windows as I sit down on the couch next to the dog I’m housesitting for, Maddi. She snores gently as I open up my computer, the blank computer screen illuminating my face.

I think through the to-do list, trying to prioritize. I have a client call in an hour and I’d like to finish revising the article I wrote yesterday. But I didn’t write a blog post last week, and there’s an email that I still need to respond to. A dozen other tasks filter through my mind, vying for importance.

I take the last sip of my french pressed coffee; gritty silt clinging to the rim. That familiar tightening in my chest clenches—the nagging reminder that I don’t have time to waste.

Productivity.

This is one of my biggest triggers for anxiety and shame. The daily evaluation of whether I was Productive Enough. The chase for Utmost Efficiency in accomplishing the tasks on my list. The meticulous analysis of whether or not I’m Wasting Time. 

productivity vs. receptivity 

(And inevitably, ironically wasting time reading productivity hack articles online… Am I the only one who does this?)

This near idolization of productivity has been engrained in me. Raised in the hardworking Midwest, bootstrap-pulling was brought to an Olympic-level. The demonization of laziness was a part of the ethos. Then I chose a profession that glorified those who made work an all-consuming lifestyle. The five years that I was an elementary teacher were accompanied by a constant buzz of guilt over not doing enough.

Without explicitly announcing it, my worth sidled up to my ability to Get Things Done. How I felt about myself when my head hit the pillow at night was directly related to how productive I felt that day. We get a release of dopamine when we accomplish tasks, but I’d become addicted to the hit, needing it to feel secure.

I left the relentless pace of the teaching world with the hope to live a life that felt more…human. But old habits die-hard. A few months into freelance writing, I’m still struggling with the same battles.

The problem with obsessing over productivity is the collateral side effects. It requires that I act like a martyr, isolating myself to avoid all distraction or any threat to my efficiency. And beating myself up at any sign of weakness or failure. I stake my happiness on an impossible standard of perfection. When I dig down, demanding productivity is really an attempt to create and maintain and image of worthiness.

It’s true—I’m still facing the same old lies. (To be honest, I wouldn’t trust a quick-fix solution anyway.) But the bravery that has been showing up and whispering new possibilities is giving me hope that this isn’t the way that it has to be.

creativity and being receptive

What if I actually believed that my worth wasn’t dependent on what I do or how much I get done?

What if my primary responsibility wasn’t to muster up the effort to Accomplish Everything, but to remain receptive to what is needed only for this moment?

See there’s a big difference between valuing productivity and honoring receptivity:

Productivity requires a constant hustle. Receptivity means submitting to a rhythm.

Productivity demands specifics outcomes to feel ok. Being receptive chooses to gently trust the process.

Productivity is fueled by an anxious suspicion of scarcity. Receptivity invites a hearty hope in a generous world.

Choosing a posture of receptivity means remaining open to possibility. When inspiration flows through, I roll up my sleeves, but I don’t force it to perform on my own terms or timeline. It means being hospitable towards ideas and projects along with the uncertainty and risk that come with them.

If I’m going to be a receptive human, that means that things like getting good rest and taking breaks are not wasted time. It means showing up consistently, expectant to be surprised in the best way. Because being receptive acknowledges that things aren’t only up to me. I’m invited into collaboration—with others, with Inspiration, and The Creative One.

Being receptive requires paying attention to the present moment with open hands. It means letting go of expectations and accepting my limits. (The paradox is that I am often able to accomplish far more when I’m not obsessing over productivity, however.)

receptivityThis morning, I choose to close my computer screen, choosing to put the to-do list on hold for a second. There’s still a gap between what I’m learning and processing about receptivity, and the evidence of freedom in my reality.

I am slowly learning to retrain my thought patterns–because a receptive heart has to believe in its enoughness. And freedom happens in a collection of small moments.

The dog looks over at my big sigh as I set my computer on the coffee table. “What do you think Maddi, want to go for a walk?”

Ten Reasons I Love Road Trips

open roadI’m about to head out on the biggest road trip of my life. I mapped it out the other day and I’ll be putting in over 2,400 miles in the month of September. That’s a lot of time with me on the open road.

I don’t feel daunted by that. Well, maybe a little. But mostly, I feel excited. I have always loved a good road trip. Here are my top ten reasons that going on an adventure makes me feel most alive.

|Reason #10| The best conversations happen in the car

My affinity for road trips probably started when I got my first car. A 1999 Chevy Cavalier. Forest Green. My best friend from high school and I would roam the streets of our small Iowa town. We’d alternate between going through the Arby’s drive-thru, ordering curly fries in a British accent and wandering the streets, “philosophizing” about life.

There was something magical about my little forest green car. Driving aimlessly, reveling in the freedom of our pre-curfew hours, Jaci and I would have the best conversations about anything and everything.

Maybe it’s the stretches of time on long trips. Maybe it’s the sense of possibility in the air. Being en route has a way of helping people drop their guard and open up.

two girls on a car|Reason #9| Quality time with an audio book

It doesn’t take long for my not-so-subtle nerdiness to come out.

It hit me the other day why I’m not that familiar with the popular music from my era. I have to just smile and nod my head along to the vaguely familiar beat when everyone sings along at weddings and parties.

When everyone else was driving around, listening to the top 40 songs, I was probably listening to The Count of Monte Cristo (a 24 disc feat) or The Series of Unfortunate Events. I love delving into a good story when I have a long drive ahead of me.

Turns out you can have too much of a good thing. I’ve noticed that if I listen to an audio book for too long, the calming British voice will start narrating my thoughts.  I try to balance out my stories with music or a phone call with a friend, but I still feel giddy at the thought of getting lost in a novel or podcast.

I’m sure many people have looked over at a stoplight and seen me talking back to the narrator or gasp in surprise at a plot twist and gotten a good chuckle. There is something distinctly wonderful about the human love for a good story.

|Reason #8| The (sometimes not so) unexpected detours

One time, my friend Jamie and I went on a “Choose Your Own Adventure” road trip. We set out with no destinations in mind, ready for the open road and the spontaneity that would ensue. In the console between our seats were cards that we’d draw at random, saying things like “Take the next exit and find a place to go on a picnic.” or “Ask a local where to go to dinner tonight.” This trip resulted in us heading over 800 miles of travel in under a week. There were so many unexpected delights that we never would have come across if we had planned everything in advance.

The small hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The quirky little towns and well kept secrets of America. How else will we find these hidden gems unless we get in the car and go?

girl in front of van|Reason #7| Road trip snacks

I always associate traveling with giving yourself permission to splurge. Especially in the food department.

On the first day of vacation, my family would always pile into the car and head to the grocery store. This was the one time a year where the answer to any “Can we get…” question was always yes. Rice Crispy Treat Cereal? Yes. A king-sized bag of Peanut M&Ms? Yup. Two bags of Bugles? Why not?

My desire for what to splurge on has taken a somewhat healthier route, thankfully. V-8, pistachios, and a Cliff Bar are my usual gas station purchases. (Ok, and sometimes still Peanut M&Ms. I can’t resist!)

I love the sense of extravagance that traveling brings. The simple pleasures that you gift yourself add to the joy of the trip.

|Reason #6| Creativity born out of an escape from boredom

There us a distinct brand of goofiness that comes from being in the car for what feels like forever.

I became an expert at long stretches of car travel from the summer vacations our family went on every summer. Armed with a bag of toys, blankets, and some Rope Twizzlers, my two siblings and I would pile into our Dodge Caravan for the long haul to some idyllic destination. It wouldn’t be long before the blankets were webbed into a fort and the Twizzlers were fashioned into a red, braided beards on our faces.

Then in college, several of my friends decided to road trip to Charleston. We piled into this oversized 80’s van and drove halfway across the country and back in the course of a magic-filled week of epic adventures. Between the evenings of city exploring and camping in the Smoky Mountains were long stretches of time in the car. Being the creative souls that we were, we filled that time with storytelling. Joe spent the entire state of Virginia recounting the epic tale of The Lord of the Rings. This lost art of storytelling was rediscovered. We were literally a captive audience, with nowhere to go in the giant van. But we listened with rapt attention, drawn to Joe’s larger-than-life recounting. 

Someone said that only boring people are bored. So what else is a creative person to do when there’s 200 more miles to your final destination, and conversation runs dry?

|Reason #5| Concert: Party of two

I am not one to sing in front of an audience. Karaoke makes me cringe. But with the right person, and the right song, in the right car, and I’ll belt it out with the best of them.

Hand motions and car choreography included, I love a good car concert! (My roommates and I once had the idea to go “car-oling”–a version of Christmas caroling that included a choreographed dance to the N’Sync Christmas album. This was one of our better ideas as a collective group, I think.)

Who needs an open mic night? My car is all the stage I need.

|Reason #4| Margin is created in the in between

We don’t follow the normal rules of behavior when we are in transit. In the unavoidable commute time between point A and point B, we find space to just be.

I find driving to be an almost meditative experience. The mental clutter settles like flakes in a snow globe as the endless ribbon of highway slips by. Especially in a culture that accepts the frantic pace of unceasing activity and productivity, this quiet intermission is often mistaken for an annoyance rather than a gift.

girl truckI always get my best thinking done in the car. For awhile, I worked in a town thirty minutes away from where I lived. While others would drop their jaws at the length of my daily drive, I would look forward to my commute to and from work. Turning off the radio, I’d let my thoughts unfurl as I processed my day. There is something so helpful about driving in sorting out thoughts and ideas.

As I was planning out my route to the west coast, I have some eight, nine, and even ten hour days in the car. I get a week where my full-time job is to drive. It will be a living out of this in-between space, as I physically and mentally shift into a new season.

|Reason #3| Connecting with Strangers

One of my favorite things about the trips I’ve taken is the people I’ve met. Getting out of your own stomping grounds opens you up to the possibility of encountering other colorful characters.

Like the guy I met at a coffee shop in Colorado Springs. Self-proclaimed “Hobo Greg” struck up a conversation with me shortly after I sat down with my cup of coffee and journal. Not long into the conversation, he mentioned that he was a poet. He shared some of his poems, one part sheepish, two parts proud. We talked about the ways that writing can bring people together. Before I left, both of us had written a poem for the other person.

Or the time that my parents came to visit me when I lived in Brazil. We rented a car for the weekend and explored the state of Goiàs, relying on my very patchy Portuguese to get us around. The people of Brazil continually surprised me with their generous hospitality. Many times we had to stop to ask for directions, and without fail, smiling and gracious, they listened to my attempts at communication and pointed the way we needed to go.

Some end up being kindred spirits. Others are people that I’ll never see again, but I still think of them occasionally. With all the people I encounter, I am shaped and changed by their stories, and their willingness to hear mine.

|Reason #2| Being in the midst of ordinary beauty

I am a child of the Midwest. The “flyover states” as coastal folk like to dismissively label us. It’s not a destination. Not one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But there’s an unmistakable and unassuming beauty about the rolling hills of cornfields or the stubborn wildflowers growing in the ditches. Long country drives expose us to the beauty we might otherwise pass by.

I can’t wait to pull over in the foothills of the Rockies. To feel the smallness of the wide open plains of the West and marvel at the winding roads of Highway One.

There is beauty that we seek in our destinations, but surprising vistas can catch us off guard while we are on our way.

|Reason #1| Being found by getting lost

girl on top of carRoad trips lead me on detours that end up being remarkable. I love figuring out how to get somewhere without using Google Maps. (Admittedly, this is the way that everyone drove ten years ago but still…it makes me feel like a bad ass.) I love the process of finding my own way. Inevitably, letting go of the certainty of GPS, I have moments or miles of feeling lost. I stumble upon places that I didn’t intend to go. 

“The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning you didn’t even think to ask.” — 180° South

The process of getting lost (intentional or accidental) feels like a tangible metaphor for living out the questions to which you don’t know the answers. Right now, there are so many unknowns. So many questions that don’t have answers. So many roads I will be traveling on that are unfamiliar. But an adventure outward into uncharted territory is just as much an inward adventure.

The risk of unknown does feel scary, but the beauty of possibility beckons.

So what is it that you love about road trips? I’d love to hear from you! Plus, I’m putting together a “Road Trip Kit Giveaway” with all of the essentials that you would need to hit the road with a friend in these last few weeks of summer!