On being a creative person about to graduate from college

I spent yesterday traveling to Richmond, Virginia, to photograph a class trip to hear a Wurlitzer organ and see a silent film in the historic Byrd Theatre, and then stayed to listen and also photograph a Sweet Briar woman whose new band had their first performance. Elizabeth Wise and the Shooflies is a bluesy, sultry, soulful group, and leading it is Liz, whose pluck and determination I want to have when I grow up. She is an “old soul,” something I told her soon after we met yesterday, and something a fellow musician also happened to say when I asked him about working with her.

Before the show, while we waited for lunch at The Naked Onion (yum — real food, from scratch), I spoke with a colleague about film and making films and art and how I’m tiptoeing into video.  I know how to make a beautiful still image, I’ve practiced and trained and learned and improved still photography. It’s like what Ira Glass said about storytelling and taste, and I feel impatient and frustrated when I have jumpy footage or crappy audio because I know what I want it to look like and I can’t do that yet.

The conversations yesterday about art and struggle reminded me of an email I sent, unsolicited, to a few seniors last year who were art majors or otherwise creative souls. It’s a little rambling (surprise, surprise!) but I’m going to post it here, because it still says what I want to say.


January 11, 2013:

You are a creative person who is about to be let loose from this place, and it feels horribly overwhelming and you maybe aren’t even sure whether you should pursue a “real” job, or graduate school, or build your creative portfolio and strike out as a freelancer, or…?

I imagine most of you don’t know where you’ll live or how you’ll pay for it. And I know those are all very overwhelming questions, especially when it feels like you have to know the answers by May 19 (oh, the morning after graduation…).

I don’t want to be another “older” person who gives you pat advice. But I do want you to know that, not too long ago, I was in your shoes. I ended up graduating without a real job, and I was broke, bouncing between relatives’ homes when I couldn’t afford an apartment, and stretching leftovers from a restaurant job when I finally had my own place. I worked at a coffeshop and as a dispatcher and full-time at Bed Bath & Beyond one point (I was grateful for the income but I don’t think I want to have to sign someone up for a wedding registry, my main job, ever again in my life).

My journey may not look like yours, or even be what you envision for yourself, so I don’t mean to say you should do what I did, and you will certainly find your own path.

But today, my friend Paul posted something to Facebook. You see, when I was about 24 and he was probably 21 or so, we were both working as baristas at our local coffeeshop. I had just graduated from our alma mater, and he was in the middle of transferring there while taking some time off. We both barely had enough money for gas most days. We listened to Coldplay and vented about relationships and kept dreaming. I bought my first digital camera in those days. I don’t remember if he had a video camera then; he was shaggy and in a band and he wanted to be a videographer but was just on the cusp of really pursuing it.

And then today, he posted this: http://vimeo.com/57182198. It’s his latest production reel. You’ve know my work here at the college, but if you haven’t  seen it, this is my own professional portfolio outside of SBC: www.mdkstudio.com.

You see, in the 6+ years since then, he’s been making his art, mostly still from West Michigan where we first met. And I’ve been making my art here in Virginia. Not all the time, for either of us. But as much as we could, as often as we could.

I’m sure he’ll tell you that he still doesn’t have it all figured out, and I certainly don’t (my latest dilemma is whether to enroll in a low-residency graduate school for creative writing, my actual degree). But regardless, our portfolios did not happen overnight at age 21. And I know this is true for a million other creatives, and that you already know this. But I’m sharing this because these are not folks in LA or New York, or someone who’s famous (yet). It’s my friend Paul and it’s me, and when we were in our early twenties, we were mopping floors in a coffeeshop and hoping we might make money doing what we love some day.

It won’t happen overnight for you, and I know that’s the hardest thing to hear from someone older right now. I know you want to do it all by May 19, to somehow leave this place and be established.

And you know what, I believe in you all SO much. You are incredibly talented people.

But if I can offer you anything, it’s this:

Keep doing what you love, a little bit each day or at least each week. Or even once a month. But do it. Even if your day job is slinging coffee or working at a desk for a company you don’t really like. I hope those days end soon, and that someday you support yourself doing something AMAZING. But remember that a portfolio is a body of work, and that work happens over time. So keep doing it. And you may find yourself looking back, in one year or six or twenty, and being really proud of a body of work that couldn’t possibly have happened overnight.

And I know that these are both commercial portfolios, and maybe you want to pursue fine art. But what I’m saying is probably true for Paige Critcher’s portfolio, or John Casteen’s poetry. And I hope in some way that helps you.

So, as you get ready to return for your spring semester of your senior year (!!!!!!!!!!!), I hope that my words are in some way helpful. You’re welcome to ask me (politely, I hope) to never offer you advice again; I’m a older sister so I’m kind of used to that. 🙂

I can’t wait to see what you do in this world!


And I need to take my own advice. I’m nearly a decade down the line from those coffeeshop days, but I need to remind myself that I’m not done yet. There’s still possibility, and there’s still adventure waiting. And there’s a whole lot of art to create.

I’m dwelling, Emily

I am writing these words because if I don’t, it will be another three months without them. I wrote my last post just before returning to work again, this time as a mother of three (three!) children.

I am just now coming up for air again.

I know that saying this will jinx it, but it’s the point when I start to breathe again. We’re mostly past the sleepless nights of newbornland, though teething is just around the corner (not welcome, just unavoidable). We are mostly sleeping. I (we) have survived the transition of a new school, riding the bus, and making school lunches. We are easing into this new stage of our life.

I’ve been looked at in awe, asked how I balance it all (I don’t), and complimented when I walk around the farmers market with three children, by myself. The truth is, I’m always one tantrum, missed alarm, or spike of fever away from shambles. The beautiful slings you see me wearing with Hannah are one part pretty textile obsession and one part utter freakin’ necessity. I only have two hands; I am already out-numbered, and Farhan has recently mastered the art of disappearing.

And so I sling my youngest child (tying her to my body, literally), enjoying the sweet nuzzle of her head against my neck as try to keep up with the others as they dance on the top stair that is makeshift stage for the acoustic band playing for the veggie-shopping crowd at the market. I squint at my calendar, trying to decide what can be shifted for a few hours or a day so that I can take the afternoon shift of staying home and cuddling my sweet boy, as long as Adeel can take the morning.

I’m enjoying the feeling of getting into our groove. There’s a new crack in the plaster on our bedroom wall; at least, I think it’s new, or longer anyway. We’ll get to that, eventually. Lately, I’m feeling peace, a sense of being at ease with exactly this moment of my life, with my flaws and with my possibilities. It’s not easy; anxiety is often just around the corner. I hadn’t realized just how stuck I’d been feeling, watching these young women graduate from Sweet Briar and feeling jealous of all that lay before them.  But then I was inspired by this story, from last year, of an 81-year-old woman who finally got a degree, and by Diana Nyad’s swim from Cuba to Key West. I’ve always told other people it’s never too late, but somehow stopped believing it for myself. As if I’d reached the end, and there were no hope of a master’s degree, or of writing again, or….you get the idea. But I want to be that 81-year-old on a stage someday. I want revisions, and I want a few new chapters.

So there are some things in the works. Some sketches from my dream book that might finally take shape. Some ideas that I’m finally giving myself permission to explore. And some essays I’m finally giving myself permission to write (silly how we’re often the only one in our way). I’m excited.

But for now, all three kids are asleep, so that’s my cue to rest.

On being a working mom, and the end of maternity leave…

This will need to be quick. The baby’s asleep, but just. The toddlers are still stirring, “reading” as dusk falls in their room. There’s a hush, but I know it’s only momentary.

For a few weeks, I’ve been thinking about how to blog. Part of why I haven’t kept it up in recent years is because I wanted to settle on a theme. But would it be writing? Photography? Motherhood? Cooking? I realized, finally, that it’s all of those things, because this is is my life. I’m a creative woman who works full time, and I often still feel like I’m adjusting to motherhood (even three kids down the line…).

But for tonight, I’m prompted to write because lately another topic has been on my mind, after lots of conversations with friends here in town. I think a large part of what and why I’ll write is the topic of being a working mom. Because, for now, I work full time, and it sometimes feels so very lonely. The local motherhood group is fabulous, but it mostly meets on Monday mornings, so I’ve only ever gone while I’m on maternity leave or the rare day off.

There are nights that I’ve cried to my husband about how isolated I feel, because work means I’m racing home to pick up my kids, put dinner on the table, and cuddle as much as possible before sending them to bed and doing it all over again. So friendships are forced into pockets of weekends or rushed lunches. One of the things I’ve realized while on maternity leave is how many playdates I’ve tried to set up before going back to work–and how one of them was actually, technically the very first we’d ever had at our house, and you guys,  my daughter is already four years old. We’ve met up with friends with kids for dinner parties before, sure, and she’s got friends at daycare–a playdate at our house,  something so simple, was four years in the making.

There are plus sides to working. I get lots and lots of interaction with adults, and in my particular job I’m in a creative and intellectual environment, and absolutely love it. And every time I think about the possibility of staying at home with my kids (something that is just not in the works for us right now), I worry that I’d miss my job while I struggled to fill the days with the right balance of playdates, finger paint and pb&j.

There’s a lot more I want to write here, about adjusting to pumping, or balancing sick days with hubby, or post a few updates about creative projects I’ve got coming up. Or the curry chicken salad recipe that I get requests for a lot.

But tonight, I want to talk about one more thing, quickly (baby’s stirring! I knew this was going to be short!). In a week and a half, I return to work. And it’s just as hard as the first time. On my first day back to work with my firstborn, a kind colleague sat down in my office and asked how it was going being back–and I said it was ok, so long as I didn’t have to think about being apart from my daughter. The same will be true this time. I’ll drop her off, go to work, put my pump in the drawer, and then try to forget her sweet smiles for just a little while. It never gets easier, you just get used to it.

A few months after I returned to work that first time, I watched another new mother, an acquaintance here in town, drop off her son for his first day of daycare at our facility. And it was one of those moments that all the kids were crying, or noses were running, or there just weren’t enough arms to hug all the babies. And I saw it in her face. She left that morning, with her baby, and quit her teaching job and has stayed home with him ever since.

And you know what? I get it. And I felt guilty being the one who said goodbye that morning. Because every day, every single day, I want to turn right back around to go home with my babies.

For now, I’m going to sign off and go cuddle my sweet girl who’s waking up and who, at ten and a half weeks, will give me the biggest grin you’ve ever seen. And we’ll cuddle as much as we can for these next few days. And, let’s face it, I’ll probably cry.

On bringing baby “home”

And so it is…I wrote this on April 2, and just realized it’s been sitting in draft mode this whole time. Can we say newborn fog?!


I am sitting on a king size bed, a tray of room service on one side (how lucky that the hotel restaurant serves Peruvian cuisine) and my sleeping newborn on the other. Tomorrow is her due date, but she’ll be five days old, picture of health, except we are not home yet.

A week and a half ago, Farhan had the flu. Then, on Sunday when the kids were supposed to come meet their new sister, Sofia started throwing up and by the end of the day, was running a low grade fever. Our pediatrician suggested the hotel, since there’s no way to quarantine a newborn at home from excited new siblings who don’t understand things like spinal taps or NICU (both very likely outcomes if our wee one caught the same bug).

So, here we are. Mama and baby Hannah, getting a little more uninterrupted bonding time. Sofia has been fever free for 24 hours, and has kept food down since lunch yesterday. We’re playing it safe and making sure nothing changes (or that Adeel and Farhan don’t come down with it tonight), but I should finally be going home tomorrow.

This quiet has been wonderful. Perhaps because she’s the third child and I’m a little more accustomed to both postpartum and newborn care, or perhaps it’s the wonderful sunshine through my window, Peruvian treats, and a sweet, laid back baby girl…this time around feels different. I feel calm, capable. Or maybe it’s just a softened version of the first week’s euphoria. After all, there are a lot of sleepless nights ahead.

I think it helps that it’s spring. This is my first spring baby, and the longer days will go far to combating the baby blues.

Last night was the first night of waking every two hours…so, I’m signing off to eat some food and get ready for an early bedtime.

Coming up for air…

Originally published on February 21, 2010, on my old bloggity blog.

So, three weeks ago, I started running a fever. And coughing. After five days, I finally went to see my doctor: turns out, I had pneumonia.

Isn’t pneumonia one of those things that went the way of the dinosaur? I mean, I know a small handful of people who have had it (including my daughter), but it still seems obsolete to me.

Needless to say, I was dead to the world for almost a week and a half. I missed nearly nine days of work, between caring for Sofia the week before and then my own sickness. She’s fine (it was just a virus) but I’ve been slowly coming back.

And then, this week hit: I was back to work full days, with two special events this weekend (I work for an arts non-profit, so it’s all hands on deck). Between deadlines that gathered dust while I was gone, and preparation for the events, PLUS my own life & home to care for, it’s been a very, very long week. The hubby has been great and was my backbone while I was sick, but even he’s been on his last bit of strength after carrying most of the weight for two weeks.

Thankfully, I’ve been able to both rest this weekend and catch up a bit today. The sun is shining and we opened up the curtains and cut off the heat for a few hours in the house. It’s like a breath of fresh air.

All of this to say: I feel like February sort of swallowed me alive. And that this week has been intense. Most of the time, we’re running around like crazy trying to get everyone where they need to go on time, making sure we’re keeping up with deadlines and stocking the fridge and keeping the pile of dishes from ridiculous heights. And yes: I realize this is only one kid. That we haven’t even seen anything yet.

But last week, in the middle of the whirlwind, I saw this episode of House and gosh, but it was great. So often, tv shows seem to give only the gloss of motherhood, of working motherhood. Or show the extremes: you’re either a shabby, tired housewife (this irritates me so much!) or a sharky working woman. And House hasn’t shown much of Dr. Cuddy except as a working mother; becoming a mother was an important plotline, but because the diagnoses were the point of the show, we haven’t seen more than brief mentions of her life as a mother.

And then last week’s episode was devoted entirely to Dr. Cuddy (to the point that you only saw the diagnostic team when they were asking her permission for certain tests, etc.).

See the episode on Fancast here.

If nothing else, watch the first five minutes or so: the whole time, I was like yes! That’s it! So true! Of course, she’s got a nanny, but still, it was a familiar montage. But TELL me you aren’t annoyed with her boyfriend’s insistence on a morning rendezvous, how he prances in, oblivious to everything she had to do to get to the office!

If you have time, the rest of the episode is interesting as far as gender politics. The plotlines are a bit far fetched and dramatic, but it’s also raw: she gets called a bitch & an an idiot twice. And the whole stereotype that women can’t be successful in business because “emotions” get in the way is thrown in there, too. I would assume it’s intentional that she doesn’t cry during the whole thing, which actually, almost wasn’t believeable (if it were me, I would have needed a minute in the bathroom to collect myself). But what’s great is that not only didn’t she cry, but her only display of emotion is concern for her daughter (in private) and then a moment of joy later in the episode. No tears, no drama, just calm leadership through the frenzied day.

It was a relief to see, even if it was fictional, and overwrought in its own way.

I’m curious to hear your reaction: there’s a cross section of working moms, stay-at-home-moms, and everything in between, in my collection of reader friends. Even if you don’t have time to watch the whole episode, tell me what you think of those first few minutes, and how it relates (or maybe doesn’t) to what you’re experiencing as a mother.

I hope you’re all experiencing better health that I have! And that sunshine is making is return to your corners of the world.

Here’s to keeping our heads above water! :)

Conversations on Christmas Eve

I’m sitting in my aunt & uncle’s kitchen, my coffee long cold, listening to my grandmother ask the same questions every five minutes. The baby is still sleeping upstairs, my mother is still on her way for Christmas, and there will still be twelve of us around the table.

Oh, Gram.

My grandmother is fading fairly quickly into the locked depths of Alzheimer’s, which was finally officially diagnosed in the past few months. She’ll likely factor into these posts, though this isn’t a blog about Alzheimer’s, but about my life and endeavors as a woman who strives for creativity, love, hope, and who writes it all down along the way.

I was previously at This Beautiful Heartache, but while I still love the name (a line from my favorite band, Over the Rhine), the name and the URL aren’t quite right. I started that blog toward the tale end of the “angst years.” The URL, visitcuba.wordpress.com, while personally significant, comes up in travel searches, and it’s just not a good fit.

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m typing this in a brief lull before twelve of us crowd around the table to enjoy my uncle’s smoked chicken, followed by creamy tembleque (coconut pudding). And we’ll try to get the kids to sleep so we can unload the boxes of wrapped presents under the tree. It’s still a new feeling for me to be a parent on this holiday, and it’s the first year that Sofia (my oldest) can understand, and she can’t wait for morning!

I’m hoping to find my voice again in this space, and I hope you’ll join me, and be part of the conversations here.

For now, I’m shutting the computer to go have the same conversation, again, with my grandmother. We may do this for what feels like an infinite number of times over these holidays, but in reality, the conversations are repetitive but ultimately numbered and we’re all quietly aware of that.

Merry Christmas, and to all a good night.


Me and my sweet boy, all tuckered out from family on Christmas Eve.