Category: Reading Nook

A Simple Tool for Making Things Better

Last week I shared some thoughts on navigating big feelings and I heard back from so many that it was just what you needed. All of these emails inspired me to share a simple tool I use all the time, one that can be profoundly helpful when navigating rough terrain and new territory.

When I’m in a tough place, struggling to find my footing and re-align my life, I take some time in my journal to list three things that helped me that day. By “helped’ I just mean that it shifted something for the better, maybe my mood, my situation or my outlook. Any positive shift counts. Here are some examples of things I’ve listed in the past.

Things that Helped

  • Journaling
  • Talking to Justin
  • Getting outside
  • Getting more sleep
  • Getting “dressed and ready”
  • Finally making “that” phone call
  • Finally making a decision (and trusting it)
  • Facing my fear and going to the dentist
  • Cancelling a meeting
  • Getting to my art table
  • Tea and chocolate
  • Playing in my yearbook
  • “Chair and stare” time
  • Tidying
  • Telling a hard truth

In my journal, I’m more specific. I’d specify the decision I made and the hard truth I told. These reflections show me not only which strategies actually helped but they also remind me that things did, even incrementally, shift for the better. As I continue this practice, I am able to notice trends and can start to build a set of strategies to call on in the future. (That is not to say that something that worked once will work every time but at least it’s a starting point.) With each daily list, I learn more about myself and what supports me.

Along with the three things that helped, I also write down three things that didn’t. These could be things that simply weren’t effective or things that brought my energy down instead of up.

Things that Did Not Help and/or Hindered

  • Avoiding making “that” call (It just made me feel worse and kept it on my mind all day.)
  • Sleeping in (I hate feeling like I didn’t have a morning.)
  • Powering through
  • Keeping to myself
  • Chocolate
  • “Bad TV” (Sometimes it’s a welcome distraction but not today.)
  • Going to “x” (I wish I’d trusted myself and cancelled.)
  • Talking to “y” (Wow, that actually always makes me feel worse. I think I need to re-evaluate this relationship.)

With my “did not help” list, you can see I often write a little explanation. This helps me dig for discoveries. For example, if “more sleep” helps but “sleeping in” hinders, it might be smart to try going to bed earlier.

This practice shows me where to stop investing time and energy and where I can make practical and positive change. Without taking this time to reflect, I may stay unaware. I might have felt horrible all day without realizing it was because I was carrying the weight of that phone call with me. Now, I know I have to get that done. (By the way, you may have noticed “chocolate” is on both lists. When things show up in both places, I pay special attention to when and how I invite that particular thing into my day.)

The lists I’ve shared have several items each but generally I keep my daily list down to three things that helped and three things that didn’t. If I can’t come up with three, that’s fine but having that as my goal encourages me to stay with the exercise and look deeper.

This simple daily tool enhances self-awareness and helps with making supportive choices, especially when life is chaotic and you’re feeling unsettled. Each day, lean more and more into the things that help and away from the things that don’t. It’s like navigating a boat away from the rocks and towards the open sea.

Sending blessings for the journey,

When You Are Having Big Feelings

When I sat down to write last week’s newsletter, I thought it would be full of lightness and the fresh energy of this much-anticipated spring but that’s not what tumbled out of my heart.

I am beyond thankful for the return of the sun and the birds, for the tips of green on the trees and the snowdrops coming up from newly exposed ground. I am also thrilled to see so many of my students getting their vaccines, starting to feel a sense of hope and relief, even seeing friends and family.


… and so many are still waiting.

… and so many lives have been lost.

… and in the midst of it all, we continue to face a racial crisis as Asian people are being targeted with violence (which is going starkly under-acknowledged), not to mention that anti-black racism hasn’t disappeared since it came into sharp relief last summer.

… and then there’s the complicated feelings we each might have about things returning to ‘normal’. Will we feel safe when we’re expected to return to work? Will there be work to return to? Will what we used to enjoy, like going to the movies or yoga class, ever be the same? Did the imposed restrictions surprise us with relief at the slower pace? Do we have to give that up?

It’s a lot.

And even as hope arrives in the form of spring, a vaccine and political change, we can find that our feelings don’t abate but intensify. In crisis situations we often push aside intense emotions in order to deal with the necessities. Then, when the pressure lessens, those feelings flow and need somewhere to go.

Whether it is as a result of the current context, something deeply personal or both, if you are having big feelings right now, I want to share some strategies with you.

Things to Do When You Have Big Feelings

  1. Move Your Body. Yes, this old chestnut. Choose an activity that supports the energetic expression of your emotion. Maybe you want to run. Maybe you want to dance. Maybe you want to lift weights or roll around and stretch on the floor. Maybe you want to move those big boxes in the garage or rearrange your furniture. Maybe you want to clean your bathtub. Moving your body helps emotional energy move along.
  2. Write. Letting it all out into your journal can be a powerful way of getting that emotional energy out of your system and onto the page. Your journal can hold it all with infinite patience and zero judgment. If you don’t want to keep a record or if you worry about someone finding all you’ve released, write on scrap paper and shred it, safely burn it or find another way to let it go.
  3. Make Marks. As creatives, we know there are many ways to pour ourselves onto the page. Making marks can be a great release of energy and can be less fraught with rumination than writing. What would feel right for your current state? Scribbling with crayons? Pushing hard on a pencil across the page? The smooth glide of markers? The smush of colourful pastels? Try a few things and see what brings a sense of satisfaction or relief. (By the way, both writing and mark-making are also ways of moving your body.)
  4. Water. Water is the element of the emotions. Let it be your ally in working with your big feelings. Have a shower and imagine all that excess energy washing away and slipping down the drain. Make sure you’re staying hydrated. Drinking enough water ensures that your physical system can flush away toxins, including those brought on by tension and stress.
  5. Breathe. Each time we breathe, we bring brand new air into our system and release what we no longer require. Actively imagine all the fresh and good coming into your system and all the strain and pressure leaving. Our breath is also a natural and physical rhythm and rhythm provides a sense of predictability and relief.
  6. Savour. Slow down and allow yourself to receive the beauty and blessings of the world. Sit in the sun and feel the gift of its warmth. Put on headphones, close your eyes and be awash in music. Plump up your pillow and cozy up in bed for a nap. If you have fur babies, give yourself over to cuddles and purrs. Let it be simple and be present to enjoy it.
  7. Talk. Reach out and share your heart with a trusted friend (and when you’re able, be that trusted friend for others.) Everyone needs to share and be witnessed. Some of us, extroverts in particular, only really understand ourselves when we talk out our feelings. Find a therapist who can support you, particularly if you are having trouble coping*.
  8. Take Action. Overwhelm often shows up when we are faced with things beyond our control. Taking action on the things that we do have some agency over, no matter how small, can help. This can be as simple as getting the dishes done or as significant as taking the first step in resolving an issue. I often think of a saying I first heard from Carrie Anne Moss, “When the pressure is on, act, and the pressure is off.”

In Journal Club last week, there were a lot of big feelings. It was a gift to have a place where we could be exactly where we were, a place where the full spectrum of our human experience was welcome. You are allowed to be exactly where you are and feel exactly what you feel. It doesn’t matter if it’s out of step with others or if it’s different than you expected. What matters is that you find your way to support yourself deeply and find a way through. Spring, in all its forms, will be here again.

Creative Resilience

One thing we artistic souls benefit greatly from is developing and strengthening our creative resilience.

The world may draw a portrait of play dates and frivolity, which are a delight, but the creative path is also rife with challenges. Here are just a few that I know you will recognize: self-doubt, comparison, criticism, rejection, perfectionism, procrastination, too many ideas, no ideas, indecision, disappointment, discouragement, discomfort, despair, the imposter complex and a cruel inner critic. Plus there’s always the pain of recognizing the distance between what you envision and what you create and the existential doubt of whether it’s worth it at all. This is just a smattering of internal barriers and doesn’t even begin to address the systemic pressures, expectations and limitations that are placed on creatives based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation or living with a disability.

It’s a lot.

So how do we show up again and again? How do we answer the artistic call in spite of it all and stick with it?

Tend to Your Self

In The Tempest, Prospero says, “We are such things as dreams are made on.” As artists, we create out of our very being and that means we simply must nourish and care for ourselves in order to show up for the work and its demands. When we make sure we tend to our health – physical, mental, emotional – we are also tending to our art. The more resourced we are, the better able we are to contribute to our work and to weather the inevitable challenges and storms .

Have Your Squad

Not everyone will get that art is demanding. You may have experienced some version of this: you mention working on something creative and hear, “Well, must be nice for some” or “I’m glad somebody’s having some fun!” This belief that art-making is simply a leisure activity is common. So common, in fact, that you may have internalized that your creativity is a luxury, something you should do only when all the ‘real work’ is done. This is one reason that it is so helpful to have a community of creatives who get it, who know that your creative work is deep and meaningful and sometimes a struggle, creative colleagues who can offer encouragement and cheer you on when days are tough.

Turn to Your Art

We’re so used to thinking of art as ‘fun’ that we forget something profoundly important: we can bring all that we are, all that we feel, all that we revel in and struggle with to our art. We can paint out our fear. We can tell the story of our tears. We can dance our truth in all its colours. One of the many gifts of art – both in its creation and also in its consumption – is that it houses the complexity of the human experience. Think about the songs that have moved you, the plays that have stayed with you, the art that has jolted your awareness. Art itself can help us process and progress. It can help us find our resilience.

Create Sanctuary

If you’ve seen the symbol for Jamie Ridler Studios, you’ll know it is a form of circle within a circle, reflective of the moon but most importantly it expresses my concept of a studio. A studio is an energetic space you create for yourself and your work. It is a circle that can be formed anywhere and at anytime. The key is that it be energetically sound. You must know that within the confines of your studio, you are free to be your whole creative self, free to tell your stories, to take risks, to be honest and awkward, to be dazzling and delighted, to scream, to roar, to cry, to laugh, to dance. It is a place designed by you for you. It is a place where you learn to be free.

And when you are feeling resilient…

The free and creative studio space we build for ourselves can serve as a model for the life we want to live and even the world we want to be a part of. Let us be devoted not only to finding our own way but also to making the path easier for others. Be an encourager. Be a model of possibility, Take a stand against systemic barriers. Where you have learned, share the learning. Where you have squeaked open a door, hold it open for others. Creative resilience matters for each of us and for all of us. Let us nourish our creative resilience as a community by reminding one another, we are not alone.

Your creativity matters. Your resilience matters. You matter.

Love What You Love

Years ago, my dear friend Christine Mason Miller sent me this box full of treasures: a dried hydrangea bloom, a metallic skull, a plastic goat, a seed pod, a tin whistle, a tiny notebook, a brocade pouch filled with lavender, a smattering of seashells and more. I cherish this box of odds and sods. Every now and again I open it up and, one by one, I take each item out and admire it closely. Then, with gentle reverence, I put each piece back and close the lid.

It reminds me of the ‘memory box’ I’ve been keeping for years. The blue box itself is from a gift I received when directing a show for a Turkish youth drama group. Inside is a translucent bow that crowned a gift from my mom, knitted bells made just for me by my childhood babysitter, a pink plastic squirt ring, a Mr Dressup button, a Latvian ribbon from my grandma. Every now and again I open it up, take each treasure out to admire it and then, with gentle reverence, I put each one back in.

This week was the first time I became aware that I do this, that I love this.

In a doll-making assignment in Carla Sonheim’s yearlong art class, Carla pulled out bits of ribbon and fabric and buttons and lace, I got teary. What was that about? During our recent renovation, I had let go of supplies like this. I decided to simplify, to focus on the arts that speak to me most: drawing, painting, photography and collage. I let go of fabric and buttons and wire and yarn and any number of some such things.

It was good to let them go but in that moment I missed them, not because I wanted to use them but because I enjoyed them for their own sake. I love opening up a box of buttons and seeing the array of shapes and colours, hearing them click against one another as I run my hand through the pile. I love the extravagance of ribbons, how they feel as they pass through your fingers. I love old pins with coloured pearls on their tips arranged around a plastic circle or stuck in a satin cushion. Treasures all.

In that moment, I recognized this love and all the ways it shows up in my life.

The top drawer of my writing desk is full of miscellany: a “My 2 Cents” change purse full of coins from travel destinations, a cat toy Shibumi loves but is too noisy to bear, the key we accidentally brought home from our hotel in Nice, an address stamp that stamps my mom’s address, a kaleidoscope and, believe it or not, a piece of wood from the famous Bluenote schooner from Nova Scotia.

And what about jewellery! I open a box and find my pink plastic triangle earrings circa 1984, my mother’s green and gold necklace (which I will never wear but will also never part with), my grandmother’s old watch, a pair of linen gloves, a unicorn necklace from my high school boyfriend, a broken sodalite ring, a moonstone a friend gave me for our wedding.

How did I not know I do this?

This gathering, this love of objects and artifacts is me through and through. I see it right back to the days when I was little and loved to pull things out of my mom’s purse – her wallet, her lipstick, her keys – and then put them all back in again.

Did you do that too?

I think we creatives are gatherers by nature. This is perhaps why we consistently long for order and simplicity while also delighting in abundance and ‘stuff’. We are sensitive to the beauty of things, the simple sensory joy of loving what we love – a shot of colour, a coolness to the touch, a bit of sparkle or softness, a bit of mystery or memory. We read or add in layers of meaning. We see the connections in collections. We understand the autobiography in things.

But no matter the reason, no matter the why, the simple truth is this: we are allowed to love what we love.

This week I discovered my love for little collections. What love is calling you?

PS My sister Shannon hooked me up with a supplies for the class – a box full of love and treasures!

How to Supercharge Your Learning (a secret you might not want to know)

I know there are a lot of avid learners in this studio and you’re probably one of them, Jamie. Your creative life is no doubt richly nourished by inspiring books, creative classes and YouTube videos. Me too – both as a student and as an instructor!

Today I want to share with you a well-kept secret that will supercharge your learning. It’s a secret that we often keep even from ourselves. It’s called… doing.

Let me tell you about a brilliant client I worked with. He was fascinated by Buddhism, particularly the power of meditation. When I encouraged him to give meditation a try, he said, “Nah, I think I’m happy reading about it.”

Sound familiar? So many of us do this, especially if we are highly sensitive creatives. It’s so much safer and cozier to tuck into a book or to watch another tutorial than it is to clear off the table and paint or to sit down and write a first draft or to figure out how to use that dang sewing machine.

But here’s the thing…

All of these fascinating creative pursuits come alive and into focus when you dare to do them!

For example, imagine you want to learn to draw faces. You watch tutorials. You buy classes. You read books. All of that gives you a great foundation but you still don’t know how to draw faces. The only way you’re really going to learn is to…. draw faces.

You make a first attempt and it sucks. You try again and it sucks too. But if you can stick with it, if you draw another face and another and another, each one becomes incrementally, maybe imperceptibly, better than the last. You develop a sense of proportion. You start to find your way of drawing a nose, a chin, an upper lip. You remember what you’ve read and understand it in a new way. You try what you learned in class and maybe it clicks. You start to discover things that no one can teach you, like how you love pink and yellow side by side or that blending makes you sigh with joy so you use pastels and abandon markers.

You find your way.

It’s the same with any medium. Only when you start creating in the kitchen, do you begin to recognize how dough feels when it’s ready or that you scoff at recipes that ask for only one clove of garlic. Only when you work on knitting projects do you realize what the right tension feels like in your hands or that certain types of yarn glide through your fingers and others have you cursing like a sailor.

With every step, with every action, not only are you learning but you are also becoming.

You are becoming the artist that you want to be.

All of the wisdom that people share is a blessing and a gift. Each resource you draw on is like a precious map for your creative journey but the adventure truly begins when you do.

Do You Miss Coffee Shops?

Jamie Ridler sitting in a coffee shop looking out the window
photo credit: Suzie Ridler

As we stay close to home due to COVID-19 restrictions, one of the things I have truly been missing is spending time in coffee shops. What a joy to pack up my pencil case, a journal (or three) and a good book (or two) and take a few hours to fill my well.

This weekend I decided that if I couldn’t go to the coffee shop, then I would bring the coffee shop home. With about 10 minues of care and creativity, Justin and I were able to relish hours of café time, reading, writing and relaxing.

How to Create a Coffee Shop Experience at Home

First let me say this isn’t about ordering a bistro set or investing in a cappuccino maker. If you can and want to, by all means, go ahead! I just want you to know that nothing extravagant is required to create this experience.

Space: Choose a small and manageable location to serve as your “coffee shop”. You just need a spot to sit comfortably, somewhere to set your coffee and, of course, a book or a journal! Maybe your kitchen table would be perfect or a corner of your couch or your bed and nightstand. The important part is deciding, “Here is where I am setting up my coffee shop.” And remember, this isn’t meant to be a massive undertaking. It’s a simple and magical way to shift the energy, have some respite and enjoy a bit of a change!

Once you’ve decided on your ‘where’, it’s time to work some energetic magic and welcome in all that you love about coffee shops. You can do that by focusing on the senses.

Sight: How can you quickly and easily make adjustments to bring a café vibe into your space? A quick tidy-up is a good place to start. Maybe even a spot-clean. It does wonders for an energy shift! Tuck away some of the ‘stuff’ you associate with the space’s regular identity and make a bit of room. Add a touch of beauty. Bring over that plant from the windowsill. Add a pretty little tealight beside it. Do you have a mug or teacup you adore? How about a lovely plate for a cookie?

Taste: Speaking of cookies, I learned from my Dutch father-in-law that in Holland, whenever you order a coffee, you always get a little treat on the saucer, perhaps a small cookie or chocolate. This will definitely be a constant for our coffee-shop-at-home experiences! Justin and I have also ordered ground coffee from a coffee shop we love. Not only does that “Bards Blend” evoke sensory memories but our order supports a local business at a difficult time. What flavours will you bring into your café?

Scent: The smell of coffee is the obvious choice here. Maybe now is a good time to amp it up by grinding your own beans. And remember, coffee shops aren’t just for coffee!! You can also savour the scent of your peppermint tea or chai. If you’re someone who relishes café patios for the fresh air, open your windows. If it’s a little chilly, all the better! You’ll remember exactly what it feels like to be out and about at this time of year.

Touch/Feel: At a café, do you always pick a chair and a table so that you can write or do you gravitate to the cozy armchair in the corner? The kinesthetics of your body posture are a part of how an experience feels. What clothing would you wear to a café in autumn? Is it time for a chunky sweater? If you want to don your beret, go for it! For me, the best at-home addition to the coffee shop was a cozy throw! And of course, consider the feel of your mugy, your book, your journal, your pen.

Sound: One of the joys of coffee shops is the music.* Whether it is welcoming and familiar, full of new discoveries or even a bit corny, the music always creates a unique moment in time. Both Spotify and YouTube have playlists that will provide an appropriate soundtrack for hours. You can even listen to soundscapes that create the feeling of a coffee shop – even a coffee shop in the rainHere’s what Justin and I listened to for our coffee shop date.

With a bit of ingenuity and intention, we can call in a familiar experience in a brand new way. I know that I’ll be relaxing at Chez J&J today. I hope you have a wonderful time Chez Vous.

Finding Creative Freedom

Every year my sister Shannon and I sign up for Carla Sonheim‘s year-long art course. We’ve explored collage, worked through the alphabet, followed our creative spark. My art table has been covered with paints, papers and pastels as well as wires, books and stuffed animals. It’s always an adventure.

This year’s topic is Words & Pictures and the course features lessons from many different artists. This week I caught up on a class by Kara Kramer about keeping a messy notebook. The concept is to have a sketchbook in which anything goes and to dive into it for 15 minutes a day.

As I watched Kara work in her own messy journal, I was moved by her absolute lack of hesitation. With assuredness and immediacy she would grab an oil pastel and make confident marks. She would reach for a paintbrush and slap on striking colours. She’d grab a piece of paper, cut out a word or a shape and quickly glue it onto the page. Her moves were bold and instinctive. Her hand was strong.

That’s what comes form having a regular practice.

That’s what comes from being creatively free.

It’s taken me a long time to feel free with the visual arts. I had childhood art wounds that left me believing this was simply not a venue for me, Even though drawing and painting had always brought me great joy, I turned away from them for a very long time. It was only when my little niece came over and we went out for art supplies and then spent the whole day painting that a love for the visual arts rekindled inside of me*.

After that day, I slowly found my way back. It was a long, hard and frustrating road. I signed up for community art classes and would leave each night in tears, weeping out of the sheer frustration of having a desire that couldn’t find its way out of me and working with teachers that didn’t help. It was like having something I deeply want to say without having access to any words at all and it was painful.

Over the years I found better teachers, including Carla. I started to understand that it’s that unrelenting impulse to express myself that makes me an artist and the development of skills over time that makes that visible.

You don’t start out knowing how to speak.

You don’t start out knowing how to draw.

You learn.

Bit by bit, you learn.

And a part of learning is making crappy drawings and messy art. It’s not easy at first because each bit of wobbly artwork seems to affirm what your inner and outer critics have been saying for years, “You have no talent. I mean, look at that!”

This is where you must build the most powerful artistic muscle of them all: devotion. You must keep going, keep experimenting, keep learning and growing until you start to discover and recover the artist that you are meant to be. You must not give up on yourself or your art. You must find your way through.

When you do, you will remember that making a mess with paint is a blast, that playing with colour is a joy, that making marks is your birthright and you need never let any of it go.

And so it is that today, instead of crying in frustration at not having a language for my fingertips, I am here with you on a Sunday morning, eyes misty with the joy of knowing I am healed, that I can spend hours drawing and painting, making a mess or attempting something ‘finished’. The visual arts are mine and I am theirs and we will not be separated again.

Now I am delighted to have a sketchbook open on the table, to be surrounded by supplies. Now I can reach for a marker, a paintbrush, a pastel and, without hesitation, make marks on the page.

I hope that you’ll give yourself a chance to experience this too. Create a safe space for the journey, whether it’s a sketchbook, your kitchen or your backyard, to experiment, discover and grow. Find your teachers. I hope I am one of them. Weep if you need to. And heal.

Find your way back to your art. Find your way back to yourself. And once you do, never let go.

* Remember, you are the keeper of your creative fire.