I’m no longer too old to Tango

Tova
Tova

A few weeks ago I received and email from a follower of this blog, a beautiful woman from New Zealand who took the time to write to me to say that my posts had helped her through a bit of a personal melting down.   She said something that a lot of people who write to me say; she mentioned her age and that she felt she was “a bit late” to be going through the changes that she felt were happening to her.   By changes I mean personal changes in behaviour or choices or lifestyle or whatever.   The sort of changes that can come at any time and that a lot of people try to avoid because they think they’re too old or too late to follow through on what they want to do.

Sometimes, and some of you will already know this, I accidentally write big long email replies to people without meaning to and that particular morning was one of those times because her email came exactly when I had just been thinking the same thing about myself.  Here’s the extended version of what I wrote to her.

I used to be a dancer.  Actually, I am a dancer.  I gave it up for more than twenty years then picked it up again a few months ago.  Dancing is my greatest love.  It’s in my bones and my blood and my chest and my gut,  and until recently, one of the greatest, deepest regrets of my life was giving it up in my teens.   At the ripe old age of fifteen I fell away from ballet because I was being bullied by other girls in my dance class and because I had become freakishly thin and because I didn’t know how to commit to a life of something that felt so big and terrifying to me.

I was really good too.

I had been fighting returning to dancing for over two decades.   Seeing dancers would move me to tears, leave me breathless, then furious.  It actually hurt, caused me real physical pain in my chest to see dancers on stage or on TV or even in photographs.  I’d come up with all sorts of reasons why I couldn’t go back and the one that seemed to cancel out every single reason to do the thing I loved doing most was my age.

Even when I was eighteen.

Twenty.

Thirty.

Because one of the easiest and most effective ways to stop yourself from doing something that scares you is to tell yourself you’re too old and that it’s too late, and you know what?  Most of the world will happily back you up because they’re all telling themselves the same thing.

I hear students who are eighteen telling me that they’re running out of time to do what they want to do with their lives. I thought the same thing at twenty five, then thirty five, and now at thirty eight I’m wondering if I’m too old to be a mother and a partner.  It’s easy to tell myself I’m a haggard old crone that no one wants to knock up or settle down with, but how much of that is actually coming from outside of me and how much of it is my own comfort blanket keeping me away from the things that scare me, insulating me from all responsibility for my own choices?

Just before my thirty-seventh birthday I commented on a post on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page and she actually replied with the most incredible comment. She wished me a happy birthday and told me that life expands as we get older.  She told me not to give in to bullshit ideas about which boxes I should fit in to.  She told me that she feels younger in her forties than she did in her twenties.   Elizabeth Fucking Gilbert wrote actual words to me.

At first that felt amazing and exciting and I thought about all the wonderful things that could happen as life gets bigger and bigger.  Then I shrunk.   I thought how the hell will I cope if life gets bigger?  I’m just me.  If life gets bigger it will crush me because sometimes I can’t even handle the small life I’ve crammed myself into.

Tango seemed too big for me, so much so that my first Tango class almost never happened.

Tango has always made my skin hot and my chest hurt.  Always.  I’ve been fighting taking up Tango for most of my adult life.  I saw a Facebook event page for a “Taster class” at an arts venue in Glasgow and I asked a friend to come along to be my partner, because I thought showing up for the class alone would make me feel like a colossal loser.  I booked the class for the two of us.  The prick never showed up.  He text me as I was waiting at the train station to say he wasn’t coming.  I handed my train ticket to another passenger.  The train pulled up. I started to walk home in the rain, a tiny part of me was relieved that I had a solid excuse for not going to the class.

Half way up the road, cold and wet and pissed off, I stopped right there and asked myself; if I was a character that I was watching in a movie, what would I want that character to do next?  Would I really want my character to accept her thirty-eight year old place in life and give up and go home and do something more age appropriate?

I turned around, walked back to the station and got on the next train.  I arrived at the class drenched and braced for rejection.  I sheepishly asked the teacher if I could participate on my own.  She said yes.  I hid in the toilets for twenty minutes until the class started.

As the rest of the class arrived, in pairs and happy couples, I stared out of the window on to the street, fighting back tears and forcing myself to not run out of the room because a horrible voice in my head was telling me that I was stupid to try to be a dancer at thirty eight when I’d clearly wasted my time and not achieved my dreams by the time I was twenty.

Like a kid who doesn’t have a partner to pair up with at school, I had to dance with the teacher.

Tango is all about connection.  You feel your partner’s movement, and a good Tango “leader” can feel what their “follower” is capable of and an excellent Tango leader can guide their partner into steps and sequences they didn’t know they were capable of.  My teacher is exceptional.  That first night though, I was uptight, twisted in knots and resisting running out of the door and back under my too-old-for-dancing comfort blanket.

When I danced with my teacher I twisted my head to the left, as far away from her as possible, and stared off into the distance while still holding on to her arms.  She told me to look at her heart.   I stood bolt upright like a soldier facing down an enemy.  She told me to lean into her.  Along with the other couples we walked around and around to the music. Basic, simple walking steps.  Ooonne, two.  Threeee, four.   Round and round and round until I closed my eyes, feeling where my partner was moving, following and mirroring her steps, gently, carefully, and then all of a sudden the world flipped upside down as she twirled me around, and as if they were possessed my feet began doing things that I hadn’t told them to do and I was moving as if I really knew what I was doing and it wasn’t stopping and my feet and legs and arms understood all of it.

My eyes shot open and I pulled away as if I’d been burned.  Then I stared at the floor and apologised.

I went back to the toilets and hid again trying to breath in what had just happened.  It was as if someone had sliced right through all the layers of excuses and fear and reasons, held a mirror up to me and said “THIS IS YOU.  You don’t have a choice in the matter any more.  You are not going to be able to ignore this or wrap this up in reasons to avoid it.”

A similar thing happened to me the first time someone described me as an “artist”.

After I plucked up the courage to leave the toilets, I went back upstairs to the Tango class which had now become a Milonga, a social dance event where people dress up in sparkly clothes and shining shoes and dance like they mean it.  Lots of people were showing up and they all knew way more about Tango than I did.   Most of them were older than me.

I sat there watching them and one woman in particular struck me.  She had beautiful silver hair, an elfin face, and she moved like…there is no other way to say this, like light over water.   She looked effortless but sparkling and always changing.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of her feet.  There was a line of beautiful men waiting to dance with her.   She wasn’t the only breathtaking silver haired dancer either.  The thing with Tango is that it can take decades to become good, and most often, at least in my experience, the best dancers are the ones who are older.   The beginners are the ones who look heavy and stiff and creaky and weighed down by the anxiety of getting it wrong and wondering what the hell they’re doing.  The most experienced dancers look the most effortless, light and dare I say it, young.

I used to look back at being a teenager with regret, seeing all the potential that I had and didn’t use. I wished I was younger again so I could take advantage of all of that youth and energy and time, because now I know just how precious and rare and fleeting all of that is. The reality was that when I was younger I was terrified all the time.   Seriously, ALL the time.   I was anxious and self critical and awkward.   I was afraid that I was too fat, too ugly, too intelligent, too outspoken, too weird, too normal.  Nothing I was or did passed without scrutiny, panic and self criticism.  I couldn’t even get dressed without melting down because I was so terrified of getting it wrong.  I never knew what I was doing.  I didn’t yet have enough experience of rebuilding after fucking things up to realise that even if it all went wrong I would get through it so I avoided confrontation by doing as I was told which often got me into more shit than I ever could have gotten into by myself.

Being young was shite.  There’s no way I could have done then what I do now.  There is no way in hell that I would have been able to do any of the things I think I should have done then and that I tell myself I’m too old to do now.

It’s not age that’s held me back; it’s fear of not knowing what the hell I’m doing, of being vulnerable, maybe getting it wrong and being a bit crap for a while until I work out how to be better.  What’s more at “my age”, I worry that I should appear to know what I’m doing so instead of stepping out of my comfort zone I just make excuses and avoid situations where I don’t know what I’m doing.  I’m telling myself I’m too old so I can avoid reliving all of the anxiety of not knowing what the hell I was doing when I was younger.

But some things are powerful and important enough to cut through all of that.

I decided that I had learn to Tango after sobbing uncontrollably while watching two other people Tango dance on TV.  It was on Strictly Come Dancing, a show I don’t even watch.   After that first taster lesson, when my teacher sliced through whatever had been keeping my dancer self buried, I didn’t sleep for two nights.   I booked a course of lessons.  I bought shoes and a new leotard (no one wears leotards to Tango classes) and a bag to carry my stuff to and from class in.  I listened to Tango music on Youtube.

Three months in, I’m changing.  Or rather, I’m returning.  There are other things I had written off that are making their way back into my world.  Music, clothes, friends, things I thought I was too old for.  These things make sense to me again.

AND I have moved into my new studio.  Being back in a studio complex with other artists and designers has brought me back to the time twenty years ago when I started Art School, but this time without all of the anxiety and fear and panic.  I’m realising that this time in my life shouldn’t be about all the things I’ve left behind; it should be about all the things I am able to build without the fear of getting it wrong because I’m old enough now to work out how to get it right, and sort it out if I get it wrong.  I feel younger now than I ever have.

Saying that, I managed to bruise my toe and knacker my hip after overdoing it a bit dancing to Beyonce the other night, so there are some limitations, but still…

IMG_3375

 

 

Advertisements

What Facebook wanted to know

I have been wanting to write a new post for a while but I’ve been struggling to come up with what to actually write about, so instead of musing it over or thinking too deeply I caved in and asked my Facebook page followers what they wanted me to write about.

I really didn’t have a lot of expectations about asking others to ask the questions, but there were some that have triggered other things I want to write about so the next few blog posts will be a direct result of some of the questions asked.

This post is like a warm up for them. I’ve become so reluctant to get something out there in the last few months. Having a blog post go accidentally viral just ended up freaking me out but it’s been way too long since I last wrote, so here goes.

Here’s what Facebook wanted to know.

 

Talk to me about what inspires you or talk to me about your creative space.

My creative space is currently a little desk in a corner and a couple of old cardboard suitcases rammed full of threads and bits of fabric. I have a new studio opening in the new year. It’s part of an old market building in the East end of Glasgow that’s being renovated, so I’ve been waiting a few months to actually get in to it and get comfy. Because my current creative space is a cramped little corner I try to make sure that the music I listen to while I work and the things I pin to the wall behind my desk are all useful to me for whatever project I’m working on. It can be hard to focus while working in a tiny little space but as long as I keep my mind on what I’m doing it’s all good.

I don’t tend to pin images onto my studio wall; more often it’s things like twigs, leaves, sea shells, bits of fabric and quotes. I love quotes.

What inspires the most are trees and the changing seasons. It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s true.

 
Is there anything that you’ve wanted to make but have been hesitant to do so because of a fear or an unknown technique?

No, I tend to be inspired by techniques rather than finding techniques that suit my ideas, so I don’t find that I’m limited by how to do things.

BUT there are more things in my mind that I want to make than things in the real world that I’ve actually made and that drives me mad. Your question has really made me think about why it is that what I actually get round to making is just the tip of the iceberg of what I want to do, so there’s a whole other blog post on the way about it.

I think the short answer is that the only thing that seems to stand in my way is lack of time, but I suspect that I have a habit of filling my time with distractions to avoid starting projects that are too far out of my comfort zone.

Rook drawing in progress
Rook drawing in progress

 

I am interested in your personal goals for your dolls or other art in the new year. Do you set goals for yourself or do you create as the muse visits?

I work with a mixture of both. I think if I just made things as and when it suits me then I’d be in a pretty dangerous position financially, so I try to balance work that feels steady and goal orientated with making time for work that’s more intuitive and experimental. I also find that working on things that are predictable and steady tends to bring up ideas for more creative work precisely because I don’t have the time to work on those ideas while I’m working to meet a deadline. I always have a little green note book in my bag so that if a random idea for a piece comes into my head at an inconvenient time I can write it down and come back to it later.

I have some pretty big goals for the new year and if I’m going to be completely honest I don’t want to share them yet because I kind of feel that I need to keep them under wraps to keep the momentum to follow through on them. I’ll definitely be telling you about them as and when they happen though.

 
What are your thoughts on being able to make space for reverie when life sometimes seems designed to squeeze it out? And do you remember childhood sources of reverie?

Reading your question triggered Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights in my head, and it’s still there while I’m writing this, so the first bit of my answer is music. For me music is a short cut to whatever state I want to be in mentally or creatively. In terms of reverie, my never fail musical direct lines are just about anything by Kate Bush, the soundtrack to Twin Peaks, the soundtrack to Labyrinth, and Avalon by Roxy Music. Heaven or Las Vegas by the Cocteau Twins is a pretty safe bet too.

My childhood sources of reverie are the same as my adult ones; trees, the sea, moss, lichen, always the natural world. When I was a child I could get immersed in movies in a way that I don’t tend to now. My favourites were Labyrinth, The Never Ending Story and Splash. I could get completely drawn into the other worlds in those movies.

There’s going to have to be a whole blog post dedicated to this question because my mind is wandering way too much to keep it all in this one little answer.

 
What is the story of your first “doll”?

I don’t remember. I’ve been making little dolls and creatures since I was really little so I’m not sure what the first one was like. There are two types that I remember making a lot though. The first type were little wrapped wool dolls. The second type was made from crab apples, leaves and twigs.

The story of the dolls that led me to becoming a doll maker is here .

 
Of all the materials you’ve incorporated into your art, what has been the most unexpectedly enjoyable?

Wood. Definitely wood. It was a material that I’ve always been drawn to but never had the courage to work with. I found a second hand hunting knife in a thrift store in Oslo that cost about £5, took it home and cleaned and sharpened it, then started whittling twigs and branches with it. There’s something amazing about working with a potentially dangerous tool, it really calms and steadies your mind. Wood is such a beautiful material too, it has it’s own life. I love to carve into a piece without knowing exactly where I want to take it, then the wood can make some of the decisions for me.

Carved Juniper wood doll
Carved Juniper wood doll

And there’s the scent of wood too. I didn’t know that freshly carved wood smells like the fruit of that tree. Apple wood smells like apples, Juniper wood (my favourite) smells like juniper berries, Elder wood smells of elder flowers. Lilac wood actually has gorgeous lilac colours in the grain. There’s a whole world in wood that’s only revealed when it’s carved. I love it.

 
Has there ever been anything that you’ve thought about making but you just can’t quite bring yourself to make it yet?

Bit of an odd answer, but the only thing I haven’t quite found a way to get my head around is how to make male dolls realistic without them being comical or obscene. I’ve made a couple of male dolls and I’ve always caved and given them trousers to cover their manly bits. No one seems to find the breasts or crotches on my female dolls obscene but there’s something different about peoples perceptions of male bodies. It’s the only thing that I’ve wanted to do but thought I maybe shouldn’t do.

 

What has been the biggest surprise in this journey?

The fact that it’s happening at all.

Ripples in the pond and finding solid ground…

Gilda
Gilda

It’s been really hard to decide what to write next, following the freakish, completely unplanned and totally unexpected success of my last post.

Honestly, I do not plan these posts. I just write. I’m not a writer, I’m more of a compulsive journal scribbler. I write every day in a journal and have done for most of my life, more as a way of ordering and settling my own thoughts and feelings than anything else, and when I write a blog post it’s usually just a journal entry that I’ve decided to make public and I write in exactly the same way; beginning, middle, end, post.

So when the last post went viral, twice, it was a complete shock and It’s taken me so long to post again simply because instead of just writing what’s on my mind, I’ve heaped all of this pressure on myself to write something important or meaningful.

It’s been nearly three months since the last post, so I’m just going to write this, tell you what’s been happening since my self value revelation, and see how it ends up.

I was going to write about what if feels like to have something you’ve put out into the world go viral, but let’s just say it’s overwhelming. It is also incredibly humbling to receive so many heartfelt messages saying “me too!!!”.

It’s safe to say that following my wake up call, there has been a knock on effect in almost every area of my life, most obviously in my work. As a freelance designer, I usually take on as much then a little bit more than I can handle at any given time. I rarely take days off and I almost never take holidays. I often work twelve hour days and sometimes over night. This has been down to an ingrained fear that if I don’t work harder than everyone else, I will lose out and not be hired again.

Not so any more.

Shortly after the train journey when the penny dropped, I had an email from a regular client to ask if I would be able to take on a large project and complete it in a few weeks starting immediately. I really love working with this client and it was a great job, but it would mean dropping all of my other plans and working exclusively for them for a few weeks and delaying everything else around me. So I told them the truth, said that I was fully booked and if they wanted me they’d have to wait two months. I also added that if the project was urgent I could take on half of it within the next month then complete the rest at a later date.

I was worried they’d turn me down and simply find another designer.

Instead they thanked me for taking the time to get back to them so quickly, told me that they’d be delighted to wait for me to fit them into my busy schedule, and then thanked me again for being so generous with my time.

Ok…….

Then it happened again. Another client got in touch to say that they would like to arrange a meeting about an upcoming project and could I begin work as soon as possible. Again, I could have managed it if I had given up my weekends for a month and a half, but instead I told them that I would love to meet them for a chat but that I wouldn’t be able to begin work until later in the year. Again, if it was urgent I could fit them in earlier. The same thing happened! They thanked me for fitting them into my schedule, we had a great meeting and now they’re delighted that we’re going to be working together.

I told my business mentor about this in our last meeting. She asked me how it felt, and I told her in all honesty that I felt like it should have been a bigger deal but in reality it just seemed like this is how it should be.

I always felt that having the opportunity to work is a privilege, and I still think it is, but I now see it as a give and take situation. I work better when I am well rested and well prepared, not pushed to my limit and under extreme stress. I used to think that I was only good enough to deserve my job if I worked at the very limit of my endurance.

And here’s the thing… now that I believe in the value of the work that I do, and I am giving myself realistic timescales to work within, and earning a realistic wage, my work has stepped way up a level.

Clients now feel lucky to have me, but if I don’t deliver and deliver well, then they’ll feel let down and not hire me again.  I feel more valued and I work better because I have more time, the client feels glad to work with me and they get a good result that’s had all the time it needs to be completed.

I used to think that being self employed meant that I wasn’t able to get a “real” job with a steady salary and a predictable income. I thought that I had to take whatever jobs were offered to me and be grateful for the opportunity. I kind of see why that was important early on when I was finding my feet and building my client base, but I think it’s about time I became a bit more selective about what I’m willing to stress out over.

It’s not hard to see where that idea comes from. When you’re self employed people have the most ridiculous ideas of what you do and who you are.

Here are just some of the things people regularly say to me when they find out I’m self employed.

  • How much do you actually earn?
  • Can you sew on this button/fix this zip/adjust this hem for me?
  • I’ll tell all of my friends about you so you can sew on their buttons/fix their zips/adjust their hems for them.
  • Will a tenner cover it?
  • Do you have to do all your own paper work then?
  • And can you manage that all by yourself?
  • Seriously, how much do you earn?
  • Are you sure you know what you’re doing with all your paperwork, it’s really quite complicated isn’t it?
  • That thing you made looks really professional!
  • Make some posters and I’ll put them up in the office.
  • Are you really earning enough to get by?
  • It must be nice having so much free time.
  • You earn HOW MUCH???
  • I suppose folk will pay for anything these days….

I’m not even joking.

The questions about how much I earn are the most common. Can you imagine asking that about someone else’s job? Can you imagine meeting someone at a party or in a bar, finding out they’re an engineer or a sales assistant or whatever, then asking them the highly personal question of what they earn? I guess it comes down to people not knowing what industry standards are, plus the whole mystery surrounding creative industries and just plain curiosity, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just rude.

I think the one that pisses me off the most is the “that looks really professional” comment. To be fair, my own parents have said this to me, and I don’t think people mean any harm in it, but it shows a real lack of understanding of what self employed people do. The fact is I am a professional, the problem is that I’ve only just realised it!

So far everything had been lining up in support of my new found self worth and respect for my work, then just a few days ago something else happened.

I’d applied for another “thing”. I’m applying for lots of “things” right now, and this one wasn’t a big one, and it wasn’t directly linked to my work but they’d asked me to take some of my work along to show them.

They didn’t get it.

They so didn’t get it. I took along my portfolio of photographs of my work and Gilda and her wooden doll, one of my favourite pieces, and they had a good old patronising smirk at every single thing I showed them. They “played” with Gilda chucking around her from person to person and talked about how “sexy” her stockings were and how “clever” I was.

It was like fucking Mean Girls.

I’d realised about twenty minutes before the dolls came out that I didn’t want to be involved in this “thing” I’d applied for, but seeing these people making fun of me made me feel weirdly calm. I knew for sure that I didn’t want anything more to do with them.

I was really keen to get a critical appraisal of my work but this was just plain old school kid mockery, so I packed up Gilda and zipped up my portfolio thanked them for their time and left, absolutely certain that I really was fine with it and for the first time in my life, someone not respecting my work didn’t bother me one bit.

Gilda and her wooden doll
Gilda and her wooden doll

Even a year ago, that sort of experience would have broken me. I would have kept my portfolio shut indefinitely, I would have hidden all of my work from my sight and brooded over how horrible those people were to me and how I didn’t deserve it, then wondered if maybe I did because maybe they were right, then I would have brooded some more. This time, for the very first time, it was shrugged off the minute I left that room.

It actually felt good! It’s easy to feel good about what you do when the people around you are praising you and backing you up but it feels amazing when you can still feel good about what you do when you’re being ridiculed.

So what I thought might be a little change in perspective has ended up being massive shift.

And, getting back to the blog post, it’s been amazing to know that so many other people have struggled with the same things. It’s also connected me to some really amazing new people, blogs, Facebook pages and general goings on. I’ve had literally hundreds of messages and it’s been very difficult to reply to everyone personally, so if I haven’t yet replied to you please know that your message has been read and that it means the world to me.

The full impact of the response to that last post is still too overwhelming to write about so maybe at some point later down the line. For now, I’m going to sign off and say thank you.