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The other day I wrote about how we have just 77 bucks for gas and groceries (and spending in general) for the next two weeks.  A big part of that is because we had the unusual expense of Rose’s choir tuition, a couple hundred bucks for the year of choir (a bargain in kids’ activities, really).  We actually have a little money in savings, and even some more in the checkbook, but all that is untouchable except in an emergency!  I can make do on that 77 dollars because of a few tricks I’ve learned on how to stretch a dollar, so I’m really not worrying about it.  Well, maybe we worried a little when the final tally came in, but not much.

In the not-too-distant past, when we had a shortfall like that, we would’ve made up the difference with a credit card, “just until the next paycheck comes in and we’ll pay it back”.  Well, when the next paycheck comes in, invariably there are a million other things to spend that money on and the credit card bill hasn’t arrived yet, etc. etc. and eventually you’re up to your eyeballs in credit card debt just because of a few large and lots of little “oh this doesn’t count” purchases.

Been there.  Done that.  Much of my “adult” life.  And we’ve got to change our ways!  Is it really worth taking out a mini loan and paying big interest to that huge bank just to have that meal at Taco John’s?  Or those school supplies which are “on-sale-now-and-won’t-be-in-two-weeks” when I actually have the cash?  (Could you hear me hyper-ventilating with fear there in those quotation marks?  Our consumer culture loves to have us quaking in our boots about sales, “buy now!”, “get it today!”, “prices will NEVER BE THIS LOW AGAIN”!)  And you start shaking and think, I’d better get these notebooks now while they’re only 10.cents.each!!!

Oh my gosh, have I fallen for that one.  I was RAISED to fall for that.  Weren’t we all?  Those of us in our pre-teens, teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s seem to have been, at least.  At least since the 1940s.  Since TV, maybe even before.

George and I are really trying hard to stop it, though.  He has a better background than me, having been raised frugally, but one can’t say he’s been the perfect “Frugal Freddie” either (I made that up).  Both of us really know how to stretch a buck, though, when needed.

Some helps I have found are, first, Amy Dacyczyn’s The Tightwad Gazette.  I read this early in our marriage, when we were trying to merge two people with huge school debt (mine) into one income (his).  What I got out of Amy’s books wasn’t so much about how to use juice can lids in 101 different ways, or what to do with old tinfoil, but more a philosophy of thinking.  A philosophy I’ve only been sometimes good at, because sometimes you just gotta rebel and spend some money, eh?  She calls that “spendthrift” thinking, of course…But the main thing that won’t leave my mind from The Tightwad Gazette’s pages is the questioning of each purchase, “is the value of this item to me worth the effort it took to earn the money for it?”  I try to teach my kids to ask the same question.  Do you love it?  How much does it cost you in time to earn/get that money?  Fortunately, I think my kids are really good at it!  Hopefully better than their parents…

Some online sites I’ve found very helpful are:

Hillbilly Housewife–I actually took the time and ink to print out her entire $45 a week meal plan (though those recipes were priced just a few years ago in 2006, in 2009 the same items cost $70 a week–there’s some major inflation for you and no wonder we all feel strapped!) and all the recipes for that menu.  I love her Rock Bottom Salmon Patties, even more than my old Salmon Patty recipe (the most searched for post on my old blog, The Zahn Zone, by the way).  Hillbilly Housewife has lots of good recipes and ideas for feeding the family on a low budget.  For us, of course, having a pantry stocked with good foods purchased on sale, and gardening, has made a big difference in our budget.

Frugal Girls! and Money Saving Mom have been helpful for some “fun” freebies and coupon deals that I otherwise wouldn’t know about.  For example, through them, I heard about and signed up on the Noodles and Company website and got a free birthday meal and a BOGO coupon for another meal, which allowed for some fun lunches out I otherwise wouldn’t have had.

I also love Brenda’s pantry posts at her blog, Coffee Tea Books and Me.  Brenda and her husband live on disability and occasional jobs, and she’s very forthright with how they do it and still have a bit for those “simple pleasures” in life, such as coffee, tea and books (the very same “simple pleasures” that I will spend my last dime on!).  She has many links to her pantry-stocking posts, and other frugal living sites, on the side of her blog.

And lastly, I got most of my stocking the pantry motivation from Sharon over at Casaubon’s Book.  There are reasons other than saving money to have a full pantry, and if you want more information on that do some searching through her excellent blog.

I also like to decorate my house on the cheap, as you know from my kitchen post.  And in thinking about how I’ve learned to do that, I have to say most of it comes out of my own imagination.  I do search for bargains in fabric, or at garage sales, but a lot of it comes down to imagination.  I get a big rush from making something look nice for very little money.  Whereas some people paint, or play music, or scrapbook, making my home look pretty (with as little sewing as I can get by with!) is my “art form”.

Fortunately, I have a husband who’s a willing participant in my art form.  He can take a piece of old ping pong table plywood from one neighbor, some oak 1×2″s from someone’s scrap pile, bead-board we got through freecycle, and some free paint from the county hazardous waste site, and transform it into the back porch window-seat-with-cubbies of my dreams…You’ll see photos of that hopefully after this weekend!  Having a handy husband is essential to my decorating “cents”, though I suppose I could learn to do that stuff myself.  Nah, I’d just do more garage sale shopping and make do with what I found.

Use it up.
Wear it out.
Make it do.
Do without.

~old New England saying

I love that one!

Collages seem like a silly thing to do, kind of like elementary school cut & paste.  But so many “creativity-enhancing” books and classes use them as exercises, and I have to admit I really love making collages.  Since I’m working on The Vein of Gold right now (which I wrote about here), I’ve been doing a lot of collage-making.  Chapter 2, “The Kingdom of Sight”, uses visual aids to explore the reader/participant’s interests and priorities. 

old and new collages of mine

old and new collages of mine

Author Julia Cameron asks readers to make a Time Capsule Collage of images that remind you of your childhood, and to create Treasure Maps using images, largely from magazines and photos, of what you hope for in the future. 

In the past, I’ve read books that have the reader collaging colors and images of what you like to wear, to help build a wardrobe.  I’ve also done a lot of collaging, using magazine images, of how I want my house to look and feel.  I’m strange I know, because I’ve been reading and subscribing to home magazines like Country Living and Victoria since junior high!  Right along with Seventeen and Young Miss, I was reading about home decor and all that from a tender age…

So it’s no surprise I like to collage.  I love pictures and images that evoke feelings.  I love creating good feelings in my home and life, and even in what I wear for clothing.  What does collaging do for me?

  • It helps me to know what I really want/need/love.
  • Knowing what I really want and am attracted to saves money in the long run.  I come home from shopping with far fewer “mistakes” that hang in the closet or sit unused in a cupboard.
  • When I have clarity, I can set goals.  “Treasure mapping” the future using images really helps with that.
  • When I set goals, I can prioritize and know what to work toward and that saves time.
  • Collages help me to know myself better.

Collaging can be very affirming.  I struggle all the time with the question, “what should I do with my life?”  When I did Cameron’s exercise, “Grab-Bag Collage”, I followed the rules and quickly pulled 20-30 images from a stack of magazines.  These images just have to appeal, without any other direction.  After I cut, copied and pasted the images onto posterboard, I took a good look at the photos to find what they had in common and what they might say about me.  Well, on my poster I had a lot of images of happy families and smiling people.  I had a “lightbulb moment” when I noticed that and realized I am doing what I have always wanted to do, by being a mom at home and homemaker.  Being with children, creating a happy home, those are the things that have always been attractive to me. 

This was affirming and helped me breathe a little easier, knowing I’m living my passion.  Sometimes I think I need more passion(s), and I’m jealous of my husband being so clear about his (that being music).  But from the time I was a child, I’ve wanted a loving family to call my own and a home and all the things I’m so blessed with now.  It felt great to realize I do have what appeals to me!  

Collages can also be motivating.  When I was working on my “Treasure Mapping” collage (to which I gave the time period of this coming year), I noticed I pulled out a couple of images of women with their backs showing.  They were revealing a lot of skin.  I thought to myself, why does that appeal to me, and what in the world does it have to do with my hopes for the next year of my life?!  I could only deduce that I’d like to work on revealing more of myself.  Not my skin, sorry!  But my inner self.  Writing involves a lot of revealing of the self, and honestly for me that is the hardest part of writing for publication.  I even gave up blogging for a while because I felt too exposed sometimes.  So many people were reading my blog; I was even listed in the blogroll of a very, very popular blogger’s blog, and that freaked me out.  (I have a pattern of this type of thing.) 

So the motivation part comes in here in that I can look at that collage, and remember I want to work on being okay with revealing more of myself.  Writing is revealing.  I’m going to be careful in what I write and how, but I’m going to try and keep going and work past any uncomfortable feelings that arise.   

Whether it’s for my life work, my home, wardrobe or hobbies, collages are a creative and fun way to find out what I really want, or what I should do, or how I should present myself to the world in a way that works for me.

you get to read a page in my journal!

You get to read a page in my journal! (and egads, I see I would make a terrible hand model--freckles, scabs, wrinkles, oh my!)

Every morning (well, okay, not every but most), I sit down and write three pages by hand in a ten-cent ruled school notebook.  I learned, from Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, to call them my Morning Pages.  A rather romantic name for stream-of-consciousness journaling, which I’ve done much of my life in some form or other.

Well, okay (again), maybe not that much of my life but sporadically throughout my life since I was in junior high.  Actually, if I had been writing these pages every day for more of my life, I’d probably be an even more prolific writer and perhaps even a more-published author.  I only wish I’d been doing them more deliberately for a longer time.  I do them quite religiously now, though.

Morning Pages are an essential part of working through Cameron’s many creativity-enhancing books.  They must be done daily and in the morning, they must be three pages long, and they must be written by hand–according to her rules.  I think if anyone does any amount of journaling on most days, for whatever amount of time fits their life, it would be helpful to them.  As it stands for me, the Morning Pages rules work well, however.

So many people want to be writers, and so many of us ask published writers “how do you get to be a writer?”  And the answer that always comes first is this, “write every day”.  Write every day.  No matter what it is, just write.  Make it a habit, make it a job, do it!

I can attest to the fact that writing my Morning Pages every day helps me write more in other areas.  When I first started my Morning Pages, working through The Artist’s Way, it was summer of 2005.  I spent the twelve weeks of summer on that book, and on all but I think two days I wrote morning pages.  I remember that well, because I had two really crabby days that summer–both of the days I didn’t start by writing my pages.  (Another thing Morning Pages help with, whether you want to be a writer or not, or work on your creativity or not, is emotions.  More on that later.)

Then later that fall, in November, I wrote my first novel.  In a month!  I participated in and completed the 50,000-word NaNoWriMo challenge, which I’d heard about on NPR and decided I had to do.  And you know what?  It wasn’t that hard!  Since I was a success at it, people asked me, how did you do it?  I would tell them that in the group of NaNoWriMo writers in my area, I was the only one who consistently wrote the 1,667 words each day that was necessary to write 50,000 words in one month.  I did it in about two hours each afternoon, usually taking Wednesdays off due to burnout and then writing a bit more to catch up on the weekends.  I attribute my ability and relative ease in doing that directly to my Morning Pages habit, begun only months before.

(I’m not saying that novel was very good, but the fact is I did it and I’m so proud of myself for that.)

Besides keeping me in the habit and practice of writing, some other benefits I get from writing Morning Pages are these:

  • Some days I just make three pages of lists in my notebook.  Lists that help me organize my thoughts and the day ahead, or my life in general.  This can really help me make it through my day or week without losing my mind!
  • Other days I work out emotions, maybe from the day before, or something that’s been percolating a long time.  I might write out what I want to say to another person, and whether or not I actually ever say it I feel better for having written it.  Some days I might feel like writing down what I’m grateful for; then the pages serve as a good reminder of how blessed my life really is.
  • Morning Pages are often a place I write down dreams or try to figure out what I want from life.  They help me in pursuit of my goals.

The notebooks full of my life stories now sit stacked in a cabinet in my home.  Who knows what might come from them someday?  Maybe I’ll be such a famous writer I’ll be asked to write a memoir.  Then my cheap notebooks just might be worth a fortune…I can always dream, can’t I?

I have titled this blog Lisa Zahn Writes for a few reasons.  One, it’s simply what I’m doing here–writing.  Two, I have always written.  But three, and most important for me, it’s a title that makes use of creative visualization for my present and future life.  Self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.  I want to write even more than I have been, and to make a career out of it.  So my blog title, Lisa Zahn Writes, is supposed to remind me that yes, this is what I do and I need to keep doing it.

A few years ago, I had a lot of fun, did a lot of writing, and gained some personal insight while working through Julia Cameron‘s famous book, The Artist’s Way.  And now I’m working through her book, The Vein of Gold.

The phrase “working through” fits here because the books aren’t meant to be just read and absorbed.  They are meant to be worked, as they are filled with exercises (mostly fun) designed to help you find your creative wellspring and make use of it in your daily life.  I like this quote from Amazon‘s review of The Artist’s Way:  the book sets forth “the basic principle that creative expression is the natural direction of life”.

Cameron’s belief is that we are all artists and an artist doesn’t have to be depressed or going through a hard time to make good art–it should be a natural and daily part of our lives.  “Art” in this case can be anything you want it to be.  Sewing, baking, writing, drawing, painting, making music, decorating your home, woodworking–if it draws on your creativity, it is your art.

For so many years of my life, I was caught up in my studies and my social life.  I went to school and did school work at home; after a certain age I held down various part-time jobs; and I spent time with friends.  Through those years I always wrote–something–and enjoyed it.  In my often-lonely and bored junior high and early high school years, I wrote the most.  I submitted poetry to magazines like Seventeen (did you know it still exists?!) and even attended a school writer’s group and writer’s workshops.  I planned my future at those things!  I was going to be an English teacher, and by 10th grade I even knew I was going to Ausburg College because several English teachers I knew had gone there.  Including the Minnesota poet Phebe Hanson, whom I had met at one of those writer’s workshops.

I was so confident.  I had everything mapped out.  I was on top of my game, as they say.

But then came marriage.  And quitting school.  (I had already earned my much-anticipated B.A. in English from Augsburg, but had skipped the teacher part and went to Seminary for an M.Div.  instead, but that didn’t work out.)  And then we were living in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, which probably should’ve led me to write but instead I opened up a daycare business as the only way to have a decent job and make some guaranteed money to pay my student loans.

Our own children came shortly thereafter, with all the shock and glory that brings to one’s life.  And somehow my confidence and sense of direction got lost in all that.  Somewhere I lost my sense of “me” and for years now I’ve had the hardest time figuring out what I should do with myself in those moments when I’m not acting as mom/housewife/etc.–there are at least a few of them these days.

Now I loved having babies, and I love being a mom.  I don’t regret one thing about it, and I feel having children and being a stay-at-home-mom/homemaker is probably the most creative, challenging, stimulating thing a woman can do.  But even in the midst of all that and especially as the kids get older and more self-sufficient, there’s always been a certain restlessness I’ve felt.  It’s probably a product of our age, or maybe Betty Friedan was right, many women want more than “just” being home.  Whether or not we choose to work outside the home, we’ve got to have something that’s just for us.

So here’s where Julia Cameron’s books have been helping me “re-discover” my passions.  The Artist’s Way took me back into my past a lot, and helped me to re-discover the creative outlets I’ve always instinctively “done”.  The Vein of Gold is doing the same, to a deeper level.  What is the vein of gold?  Cameron defines it in many places in the book, and it’s a little hard to grasp in one short phrase.  Basically, it’s what we (as individuals) care about most.  It’s “those habitual lines of thought, those areas of speculation that we rake over again and again” (Vein of Gold, p. 102)–what we think (even obsess) about, what we read about, what we make art about, what matters to us most.

Cameron quotes late film director Martin Ritt as saying this about the vein of gold in the case of an actor:  “All actors have a certain territory, a certain range, they were born to play.  I call that range their ‘vein of gold’.  If you cast an actor within that vein, he will always give you a brilliant performance.”  Think of Meryl Streep when she plays wealthy heroines like Isak Dineson in Out of Africa, or Jodie Foster fighting for justice in Silence of the Lambs, and Kevin Kline as the funny guy in A Fish Called Wanda, or your favorite actor in his or her best role.  They were probably playing a role they cared about most.

Sometimes I get embarrassed when I’ve written passionately about something I care about.  And all the times rejection is hard to take.  I got a lot of rejections when I submitted my poetry as a tender young teen-ager, and even though some encouragement came along with it, it was the rejection that spoke loudest and so I stopped.  I stopped writing (formally, at least).  I stopped submitting for sure.  I really stopped doing what came most naturally to me, and I started pretending it wasn’t important.

But it is important to work our creativity along the line of our vein of gold.  Three different psychics at five different readings in the last few years have all told me “You are a writer”.  And the last one, a medium who has told me twice that my only deceased grandma watches over me (something I know, by the way) said that my spiritual guides wanted to know “why are you afraid to be the writer you are?”

Why am I afraid?  I’m working on that, and I have been finding some answers.  Even putting this little essay out there is scary for me, but I’m doing it.  Maybe it will help others.  For sure I’d recommend to anyone, in any walk of life, to go out and get Julia Cameron’s wonderful books.

But whatever any “psychic” tells me, it’s my own heart that speaks loudest.  Do what you were born to do, Lisa!  As Cameron says in The Vein of Gold, the real question we should ask ourselves isn’t whether we’re “good enough” or creative enough, it’s this:  “What if I have gifts and abilities and in this lifetime I never find the courage to use them?”  It doesn’t matter if I ever get my writing published–I’m having a blast right here just writing my blog.  I just have to do it.

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