The Creative Itch and the Importance of Play

I have… an itch.

Don’t worry, I don’t think it’s contagious. But it does make me curious. Why do I have this itch? How do I scratch it? What happens if I leave it alone? Does it go away or does it just pop up somewhere else?

Perhaps you’ve felt the itch, too, the itch to create something – right now.

I’ve found that it serves me well to give in to this itch. Generally, it finds me whenever I give myself just enough down time to breathe and listen to my thoughts. Usually, it’s during a time when I have lots of other things on my plate that I “should” be doing. However, I find that if I give my itch a good scratch, I am able to think more clearly, be more productive and am just happier all around.

We talk so often about finding balance between work, life, parenting, etc. Pausing for a creativity re-charge, no matter how small, is something helps me hold on to myself.

Fortunately, for much of my life, I have been surrounded by supportive family and people who never second guessed my need to scratch. Growing up, my itch was focused on a pursuit of theatre classes, shows, art projects and many a mess around the house.

As an adult, the itch drove me to NYC to chase my itch full-time by auditioning, performing and working as many jobs as possible in between. After several years, the itch that made it impossible for me to pursue anything other than theatre, had waned.

— I felt some relief. The performance itch was no longer constant (although it still surfaces). I found inspiration and stimulation through my work as a teaching artist and administrator.

However, as I said, this itch pops up whenever I have a little downtime. At this point in my life, many things can scratch it: making a photo collage for my daughter, doodling in a sketch book, making up a song on the ukulele or writing a blog post.

I jokingly refer to this itch as ProCraftination. I give in to these overwhelming urges and itches to make something for no other purpose than my own enjoyment. These short spurts of creative dabbling recharge me and keep me in touch with the parts of myself I most value. TakeAMinute

Luckily, my husband doesn’t bat an eye when, after the baby goes down for a nap, I glide past the dishes and laundry, get out some markers & glue and tell him, “I’ll be back, I need to go make something.” Then, once I’ve colored, read, written, sung or built, I’m ready to get back to the tasks of the day (you know, most of the time 😉 ).

In daily life, time is dictated by to-do lists and tight timelines. I am very goal-oriented and love pursuing my passions each day through my work. However, this is different. This is an uninterrupted window to play, with no end result or polished product necessary. I have come to realize that I am not striving for mastery in these episodes, purely enjoyment of the task.

All this to say that my own habits remind me how important it is for all of us (and especially children) to have space in our lives for creative play. The kind of play that allows you to get completely lost in whatever path you’ve chosen, find “the zone” to be lost in your thoughts, actions and itches.

Sometimes I wish my creative itch would compel me to do something like go jogging or make dinner. 😉 Who knows, maybe it will morph again over time. However, for now I’m grateful for rejuvenation from these episodes of creative playtime.

So again, I’m curious. Do you feel this itch? How and when does it show up for you and how do you scratch it?

If you feel the itch and are resistant, think you don’t have the time, skill or tools to scratch, then I want to give you permission — to play and make something, no matter the mess.

xoNatalie

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Yes, And-ing Life and Working Outside My Comfort Zone

I haven’t officially been on stage, improvised with a team (yes, I was a pregnancy drop-out #hifidelities 😉 ) or taught in a classroom on a regular basis, since January 2015. However, performer and teaching artist is still my identity, my passion and very much my comfort zone.

2015 brought some big changes for me. The birth of my daughter was and has been firework, glitter bomb, nutella sandwich amazing, albeit a stretch on my emotions and sleepless sanity at times (new moms, it gets sooo much easier after they sleep, I promise 🙂 ). And my role at my, surrounded-by-super-awesome-artists and creative kids and families, job changed from managing teachers and curriculum to managing budgets, spreadsheets and deadlines. It was the later that really stretched my comfort zone.

I started to feel depressed. I was off mission and off my game. – When you’re feeling uninspired, it’s hard to inspire others. I began to feel like it may be time for me to move on and find someone else to take my job who had the same passion for numbers that I had for messy art projects and making up stories with kids. Well, around this same time, some big changes happened within our parent company and our building. “Closing,” they said. “June,” they said. I felt a rush of conflicting feelings. Of course I didn’t want our business to close. I wanted it to go on to thrive and grow. But here I had almost been ready to leave it behind. Did I want to stay out of a sense of duty to the staff and families? Or did I want to stay because I really wanted to take full ownership of this business?

I could see the life that I loved and knew I could handle laid out in front of me… We’d move, downsize. I’d pull that warm, comfortable blanket of my hometown, people I love and work as a teaching artist that I adore, up over my head and snuggle in to a cozy life with a yard, maybe a dog and grandparents to help with the baby.

But then what happens to this big, beautiful opportunity in front of me in this moment? What happens to the families who depend on our classes and space? What happens to our dedicated & talented team? Wait a minute… I’m feeling… that feeling… You know, that horrible, anywhere but here, pit of your stomach, want to crawl right out of your skin feeling?

Ugh. This is the feeling I so cavalierly talked about with my students and staff. “Welcome that feeling” I said. “It’s a good thing,” I said. “When you feel that anxiety, it just means that your comfort zone is stretching.” “Take a breath and push through it. The more you broaden your comfort zone, the less that icky feeling comes up.”

I decided to say, “Yes” to the offer in front of me. “Wait! This can’t close. I want it.”

I now own (another) business. A big business. A beautiful business. A business with lots of moving pieces, an exceptional team, high expectations and the need to relocate to a new location come the end of June.

Holy socks, I am now seriously out of my comfort zone. We’re talking meetings with banks, investors, architects, contractors and money … lots of money. Wait, didn’t I have like a numbers phobia or something?! But now it all ties back into my passion for arts education and moving forward to build something I believe in.

However, that doesn’t make it any more comfortable. At least not right now. I’m trying to catch up and learn as much as I can to move this forward successfully. Part of that includes saying, “Yes” to those people around me who are willing to help and working with people who complement what I bring to the table. Who will end up a part of this cast that makes the production artistically satisfying … and will put butts in the seats?

Throughout this process, I have to remind myself to let go of controlling the outcome, the ending of this scene. Right now, I need to be in the moment, listen and respond. – That’s easier said than done, though!

The other day, I sent a laundry list of questions to my potential business partner and at the end of it, I added, “Thank you for your patience with me. I am beyond out of my comfort zone!” My husband, who is being awesome and supporting me through this learning curve, saw this and said, “Stop self-deprecating. There is no need for that. You’re asking competent questions. You know what you’re doing. Do it and don’t apologize for it.” Of course. That makes sense. I would never walk into an audition and lead with, “Sorry, this may not be very good, I have a cold.” Or, “I just got these sides, so I might not be at my best.” Or, “I improvise much better with people I know.” I would walk in confidently, give my very best 16 bars, read or scene, say, “Thank you” and walk out knowing I did my best and I’ll get the part if it’s the right fit.

So, what am I saying here?

  1. That I need to take my own advice. Improv and theatre rules apply to just about every situation. Just because I’m out of my comfort zone in one element doesn’t mean I ditch my training – it all applies on stage, in life, in business!
  2. As a teacher and manager, I want to remember this uncomfortable feeling. I want to have more compassion in helping others work past the edge of their comfort zone. As adults, we almost always have the choice whether to push our comfort zone or not. However, each day children are faced with brand new experiences, people, rules & anxieties. Acknowledging their discomfort and helping them develop tools to work through it, is a big part of social-emotional development and just as important as any prescribed content.

Soon I will be posting about this new, exciting and certain-to-be-successful thing I’m doing. But in the meantime, I thought I’d share how totally freaked out I am … and how much I’m learning in the process. 🙂

Yes, annnnd we’ll see what happens next!

xoNatalie

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Learning from Children’s Books: Barney Saltzberg’s, Beautiful Oops!

beautiful oops1A dear friend recently sent Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg to my daughter and I immediately fell in love.

Beautiful Oops! is a lovely representation of all the ways our mistakes, missteps and misunderstandings may turn into something more. It is a bright, whimsical and charmingly illustrated book of coffee spills, paint dribbles, crumpled paper and smudges turned into opportunities to create, devise and explore.

This book is a wonderful way to teach children (and remind adults) that a mistake or a failure is “an opportunity to make something beautiful!” This line of thinking is so important, especially as our students and teachers continue to be faced with the pressures of standardized testing, black and white answers and assessments. A recent article in The Atlantic talks about the academic pressure hoisted upon students as early as preschool. Fears about “school readiness” have permeated play and art-based programs. Recess, art and music have been swapped for “seat work” and vocabulary. Students are conditioned to think there are black and white answers to questions – very clear yes’s and no’s. Life described in multiple-choice bubbles.

Meanwhile, as many schools are feeling top-down pressure to raise test scores, research demonstrates that when it comes to predicting life-long success, other factors may outweigh academic knowledge. Nobel Prize-winning economics professor, James Heckman, emphasizes the importance of non-cognitive skills such as persistence, curiosity and motivation, but how can teachers best foster those traits in students?

Art. Drama. Music. Play. Story. Open-ended materials – and space to make mistakes.

Art comes from seeing beyond the literal, to externally express the internal. We’re told to think outside the box, but rarely are we taught how.

Thank you to Barney Saltzberg for this visual representation of resilience, creativity and reinvention in Beautiful Oops! You never know where a spill, chance meeting or so-called, mistake, may lead.

How do you embrace “oops” moments in life?

Beautiful Oops

“Holes in your paper are worth exploring.”

 

 

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Blending Families and Holiday Traditions

One of my favorite things about being married is that, in addition to my own little nuclear unit, I have a whole new family to enjoy! Our Connor-Ellis-Nelson-Bechler-Monterastelli traditions have evolved considerably through the years as our family has grown and changed.

Here’s a little glimpse into our past and present holiday traditions and how we’ve blended some of our favorite traditions to make new memories for our little family:

Grandma Ruth Connor was our lovely and talented matriarch on my mom’s side of the family. Her parties and feasts never lacked for amazing food and her house was always sparkling clean and comforting. My memories of early Christmases are filled with family, warmth, fancy dresses, St. Paul’s church, pie and chex mix.

In 1986, when I was six years old, my father, Joseph Ellis, started a new tradition. At the time, I doubt he knew how much this gift would mean to me and how long his tradition would carry on. The December after his terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he penned a short story for his children. The Nutcracker. A famous story indeed. 😉 However, his story had a personal twist. The crafty and clever nutcracker came to life and used his crunching abilities to munch and maneuver initials to give them new meaning. When the nutcracker took a peek at my name, Natalie Lynn Ellis, he bit off the first initials, rearranged them a bit to create, NOEL – my nutcracker name. 🙂 That year, my father gave me my first nutcracker to go along with the story. That was his last Christmas with us, but not the nutcracker’s … each year, another would appear, thanks to my mom ( in the guise of Santa) continuing the ritual. I grew to look forward to this gift most of all as each unique and fragile nutcracker was a reminder of my dad, his whimsical sense of humor, wisdom and love of storytelling.

The First Nutcracker 1986

The First Nutcracker 1986

In 1994, our family traditions shifted again as my mom remarried. – A wonderful gift to both of us to become a part of the Nelson family! We were quickly embraced by loving father, Doug, Aunt Sonny, Uncle Stu, cousins Shelley and Stefanie and Doug’s bright and witty mother, Selma. We continue to celebrate Christmas with the Nelsons, although this year, to accommodate new marriages, babies and travels, we celebrated on December 19th so that we could extend the party and have plenty of time with all sides of our growing families. Our gift-giving traditions have evolved with our family as well. This year, we chose to focus on our gratitude for the time together, new babies (Mira and Annika) and the opportunity to share another year with matriarch, Selma — Who is a spry 96 years old! Our turkey feast evolved to Chinese food and the large gift exchange has turned into a fun white elephant game, with plenty of laughs and mischief.

And of course, the nutcracker of the year is always there.

Nutcracker1

Nutcracker3

In 2013, when I married into the Monterastelli family, I gained the opportunity to be a part of even more festive family traditions at their home in Wyoming. 🙂 The Monterastellis (coincidentally, from Ottawa, IL – like the Nelsons) have a rich family history that they commemorate through a fun and lively yearly party called, GenoVino! Appropriately named after Geno Monterastelli who owned a bar/restaurant in Ottawa, where pizzas were made and eaten every Saturday night. During this pizza party, the Monterastelli’s family home is transformed into an Italian Ristorante for the evening, with pizzas baking and wine flowing! It’s impossible not to have a blast!

Nutcraker4 Nutcracker5

This year, all of our family traditions were made even more special because it was our first time enjoying this season of love with our baby girl, Mira! We are so grateful that she will have a lifetime of sharing in wonderful times with these amazing people and will go on to create new traditions of her own.

I would have opened my 30th nutcracker from my dad (and mom 🙂 ) this year, but instead, we decided it was time for Grandpa Joe to spread the magic of the season to another curious girl.

 

Nutcraker6Mira Joseph Monterastelli received her very first nutcracker this year …

And of course, he’s a Pizza Boy! 😉 A loving blend of our family traditions with anticipation of new rituals and adventures to come.

Wishing you and yours much joy, love and fond memories during this holiday season and in the new year!

xoNatalie, Tony & Mira

ChristmasMira

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Best Gifts for Baby (according to my daughter)

Best Gifts for Baby

Wondering what kind of special gift will tickle baby’s fancy this year? Here are a few things on the top of my daughter’s list:
(Click an image below for slideshow view)

 

 

 

Thanks for checking out some of our favorite gifts for this season. 😉 — And if you have more than sarcasm on your list this year, check out Bump Club and Beyond’s awesome 2015 Holiday Gift Guide – great options for the whole family!!

What are some of your baby’s favorite “toys?”

PS- Save the box for us! xo

Simple Keepsake Ornaments

I love symbols, sentimental mementos and any sort of visual representation of a memory. However, storing or displaying these objects (without losing track of items in boxes or making the house look like a museum) can be a challenge.  That’s why I love these transparent, “make your own” ornaments from Michael’s. They make it simple to put together a beautiful keepsake ornament to commemorate a memory or event.

After Tony’s & my wedding in 2013, I made an ornament to mark our first Christmas together as a Ornament2family. Shortly after the celebration in June, I pressed the petals from my bridal bouquet in between the pages of the Complete Works and left them to dry for a couple months. That winter, I took a few minutes to fill an ornament with the petals (and some fine glitter, of course) and now, each year when we decorate for the holidays, we have a nice reminder of our wedding as well!

2015 marked a special and exciting year for us as we welcomed our daughter, Mira, and so it’s time for a new ornament.  I’ve kept her hospital bracelets, umbilical clamp and ribbons from one of her first presents tucked away for the past several months (nine and a half to be exact ;)) and am excited to put them into a small and simple display to revisit from year to year.

Ornament3

First, I sprinkled coral glitter hearts in the bottom of the ornament and swirled them around so they stuck to the sides as well.  Then, I poured a healthy amount of very fine glitter into the ornament to create a translucent, sparkly coating all over. Next, I filled the ornament with keepsake items.  For this ornament, I started with the curly pink ribbon, putting in just enough to fill the ornament and then added the hospital bracelets last so that they could be easily seen. Finally, I added a simple pink ribbon and ornament hook and voila, all done!

Ornament4
It only takes few minutes to create a unique and beautiful keepsake ornament to store your memories in a way that your whole family can enjoy each year.

Happy Memories, Glittering and proCraftination!!

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The Guilt Spiral

MommyGuiltTextThe tightness in my chest starts early and stays late … What’s next on the list? What am I forgetting? How many birthdays did I miss this week? Do my friends still know I care about them? Does my staff feel supported at work? Was I too short with that comment? Does my husband feel appreciated? Am I still an artist? Did I drink any water today? Am I making my milk supply disappear? Is the baby eating enough? Does missing naps cause brain damage???

At any given moment, I am fighting a battle in my head to stay calm and grateful, keeping things in perspective while the guilt spiral tugs at me, threatening to pull me under.  “I’m not at work enough, I’m not at home enough…”

At the core of this is the feeling that I am not enough.

I recently sent (a belated) birthday message to a friend saying that I think she’s an amazing mama and I admire the way she takes care of her 3 babies, teaches and keeps it all together with a sense of humor. 🙂 She wrote back that it was “nice to see me through your eyes!” but she wasn’t really sure how together things really were.

Today I’m looking at myself through friendly eyes.  Those eyes don’t care that my house is a mess.  They don’t care that I haven’t made an actual meal at home in months. They see a beautiful baby, happy family and passionate, driven mama, who also likes to sit on the couch and eat salted-caramel gelato at 8am while watching The Blacklist. 😉

Hugs to anyone else who may be in a swirl of their own!  Know that no matter how your life looks from the outside or inside, you’re enough and so am I.
xo

MiraBurrito

 

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Nicknames my daughter will need to shake before running for office

The JEB! campaign got me thinking about a very important issue. What if my nicknames for my daughter stick?? I mean, John Ellis Bush is a nice name and he doesn’t get to use it!

Growing up, I only knew my mom’s sister as Aunt Muffy. Her dad started calling her Little Miss Muffet when she was little and it stuck.  I had no idea she had a different name until I was a teenager and my mom instructed, “Everyone at her office calls her Cathy. We need to stop calling her Muffy.” I guess for some reason she didn’t feel like Muffy was suitable for work?!

Hmm all of this made me wonder, how would my little Mira-Pie’s nicknames fly in the office??

My name is Smooshie

“Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce our first speaker this morning, the esteemed, Ms. Smooshie Monterastelli.”

 

“Wow, Lady Poops-a-lot, you really have a way with spreadsheets!”

 

 

Teamwork

 

“No, seriously, Milk Bandit, you have to tell that story in the meeting!”

 

Woman Using Laptop Relaxing Sitting On Sofa At Home Talking On Phone

 

“Yes, this is Miss Plumperton. How may I help you?”

 

BlogName8

 

“That’s Mrs. Sweety-Muffin to you!”

 

These are the things that keep me up at night!  No, just kidding – it’s my teething, Smooshie-Moosh-Moosh who keeps me up at night. 😉

While we’re on the subject, what nicknames do you have for your kids?

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6 New Mommy Milestones to Celebrate

What if we celebrated our postpartum mommy milestones the way we mark each of our baby’s first accomplishments??  It might look a little something like this…

  1. Mommy Said Her First Word! Ibuprofen
  2. Mommy went Pee-Pee on the Potty! (with some assistance) Let’s face it, going to the bathroom postpartum can be TERRIFYING! But I did it … just like riding a bike (eek, not that I would MommyMilestones2recommend riding anytime soon!!)
  3. Mommy’s First Time Rolling Over! (Well, first time in 9+ months, that is) – Ahhhh no more wedging myself with pillows or wrestling with the snoogle in order to stay put sleeping on my side all night. Oh yeah, check me out, going to sleep on my back, my side, my stomach (at least for a couple hours at a time).
  4. Mommy’s First Bite! (of sushi… and cold cuts… and whatever the heck kind of cheese this is) It feels so great to lose (at least most of) the anxiety about what I can and can’t eat.  Now, if I could only MommyMilestones3embrace being told, “Wow, you’re getting so big!!” and “You’re such a good eater!” as gracefully as my daughter, I’ll be set. 😉
  5. Mommy Sat Up for the First Time! (without that inflatable donut pillow) and those disposable ice packs are finally a thing of the past, hallelujah!MommyMilestones1
  6. Mommy Slept Through the Night! (without waking up to check baby’s breathing or to stare at her on the baby monitor). Well, maybe I just watched you for a few minutes, but then I self-soothed with a little Facebook scrolling and went back to sleep without a fuss.

BTW, as of now, I’m 1,820 weeks old!
#1820weeks #420months #enjoyeverymoment

MommyMilestones4

I love everything about being a new mom… including making fun of some of my new day-to-day realities, and of course, the photo ops. 😉 Thanks to my awesome husband for affirming my tomfoolery and for being my Papa-razzi!

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Postpartum Fashion Short-Cuts!

I am about the furthest thing from a fashionista 😉 however, I have settled into a quick, comfortable and presentable-for-work routine post-baby that I thought I’d share!

I loved this post by Matilda Kahl about why she wears the same thing to work everyday!  She opted for a sharp, comfortable and professional look that she could throw on each morning without putting too much time or thought getting dressed each day.

This is also a great approach for new moms as they enter the difficult “4th Trimester” phase where the focus shifts from highlighting the baby bump to hiding the inevitable (post)baby bump. Having a baby adds a whole new element of fun to the getting-ready process in the morning, so you want to make things as simple as possible! Granted for the first few weeks, when both the upstairs and downstairs of my body were going through new breastfeeding and post-delivery pain, I focused on wearing things that were very soft or would touch me as little as possible.  However, now that things have healed, here is my post-partum uniform:

  1. Nursing Tanks – Whether nursing or not, the long, stretchy fit of these tops smooths over lumps and bumps and work well in any season. I received some of these tanks as gifts from fellow moms and bought a
    My easy postpartum uniform

    My easy postpartum uniform

    few more to round out my collection so that I can wear one each day to easily nurse my baby while at work or on the go! (Hint, these run small, so order a couple sizes larger than you’re used to wearing)

  2. Stretchy Pants, Skirts and Maternity Jeans – I fully intend to keep wearing my favorite maternity jeans. 😉 I am now totally spoiled and have no desire to wear a pair of pants with a zipper or buttons again.  Just kidding… kind of. 🙂 My mainstays are low-cut waist yoga paints, maxi skirts annd maternity “skinny jeans” (which is an hilarious turn of phrase).
  3. Long, Flowy CardigansThese are a life saver!  Their length works wonders by creating a slimming effect and there are so many great colors, patterns and styles of these in-expensive, layering sweaters, that enable you to easily add a little fun and variety into the “uniform.” 🙂

One more tip… I have all of my sure-fire-sure-to-fit postpartum clothes in one section of my closet and I don’t even take a second look at the rest of my closet right now!  Time is so precious and fleeting with my new, little bundle, that I don’t want to waste any more time trying on old dresses that won’t quite zip, shirts I’ll just leak through or pants that make me feel less than confident.

Long, flowing and comfy makes this mom happy!

Long, flowing and comfy makes this mom happy!

I couldn’t be happier with my post-baby life and I’m embracing my post-baby body as well – that’s one amazing & strong belly I’m strategically covering! 😉

xoNatalie

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