Musings

“Mommy’s Leaving”: On Taking A Solo Retreat

With the start of 2019, I reflect on one of the best decisions I made last year: I left home. Stepping across the threshold into a rental on Cape Cod in late January 2018 for my first solo writing retreat, arms heavy with books and groceries, I wept…for ten minutes.

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I know why. It took me nearly six months from when my husband first suggested that I take time away to work on my book. Inspired by one of my close friends who had done the same in order to finish her book, I followed her lead. It was a cathartic release from the pressures of home. From the guilt I felt for leaving my kids and for leaving my husband alone with all the responsibilities that came with that. I thought it was selfish to go somewhere by myself. You see, I’ve been a mother for almost twelve years. I had my first child while I was writing my dissertation. That means it has been a while since I have written for an extended amount of time without having to go back home to be with my family or to be home in time to wake up to tend to my children (except for that one time I did any overnighter in my office due to a looming essay deadline). Sure, I travel for conferences and lectures. Those are not really for me. I took my second writing retreat in July; I was reminded all over again what quiet solitude brings me as a scholar and mother.

Here are my thoughts for those of you who are nervous or skeptical about saying, “Mommy’s leaving,” in order to take time for yourself away from home. What should you keep in mind if you take one of these solo retreats?

Relax: A dear friend, who knows me well, told me to make sure that I relax for the week. It hadn’t even occurred to me! I’m serious. She told me that I needed to plan to write for a certain amount of time, and then do nothing for a big part of the day. Doing nothing is hard. When you’re a working mother, there’s always too much on your plate. However, I found myself taking a long, hot bath while reading a New Yorker at one moment or sitting quietly with jazz playing while I ate my salad in another moment. When I wake my very sleepy kids up in the morning, I sometimes encourage them by saying, “It’s a beautiful day to be alive!” I said that out loud to myself one day. It is always a true statement.

Stay connected: My daughter and I had begun using Insight Timer to meditate. She can be a night owl. With guided meditation, she was out like a light when she listened intently to the voice hypnotizing her with warm tones suggesting: “Take a deep breath in…”, “Your eyelids are getting heavy” or, my favorite, “Go to sleep.” For the week, our routine consisted of my daughter and I chatting for 10 min. Next, we listened to guided meditation for 15 to 30 minutes. Then, I listen to her sleep for another 5. Finally, I would fight the sleep the voice has guided me into, get up, and go back to writing with a little more clarity for the evening.

Eat well: I stopped at Whole Foods before hopping on I-95 and bought salads, fruit, expensive nuts, olives, crackers, and goat cheese. With no children to worry about, I could buy only what wanted to consume. No waffles. No pasta (please, no pasta!).  I had wine awaiting me from my host, too. Good thing. Most of the restaurants in Wellfleet were closed for the season. Phew!

Sleep: I slept in the first morning until noon! Ok, I was up until 4 a.m. writing an essay that was due at midnight. I woke up first at my normal get-yourself-dressed-so-that-you-can-get-the-kids’-lunch-clothes-and-breakfast-ready-to-get-to-school-on-time o’clock. I struggled to get back to sleep. I replayed the same guided meditation from the night before that got my daughter to sleep. Worked like a charm! Worked again when I woke back up an hour later. Did I mention I’ve been a mother for nearly twelve years?

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Get exercise: I walked to the Wellfleet pier. I passed exactly three people on the way there (that’s including a baby in the stroller). I stopped and purchased earrings from the only store opened off-season. Thank goodness there was the market where I could pick up the last batch of warm ribs in the prepared section (I was getting sick of salads by day three).

Be present: I watched a small spider spinning a web. I took a minute to really stare at the stars from the skylight over my loft bed. I took pleasure seeing the cardinals and wrens eating suet from the feeder placed on the other side of the glass doors on the back deck. No need to rush off. I just observed. What guilt-less pleasure to just…be.

Be a mom (optional): My daughter called me two hours before our regularly scheduled time. I could tell she was having a rough evening. She was cranky. She wanted yet another snack. She didn’t want to finish her homework. I was in the middle of prepping my syllabi for classes the following week, and I felt dragged back into the life I was trying to escape so that I could focus. I realized that my husband could probably use the break himself. I spoke with her for a bit, then she handed me to her little brother. He decided that he’d read What is the Great Wall of China? to me (FYI: The Who Was book series is phenomenal). I actually learned a lot. I was even disappointed when his father said it was time for him to get off the phone. He bookmarked the page where we left off. My daughter called back about 35 minutes later to meditate. I went back to prepping my courses.

This is optional, of course, because I have had to learn that my kids can survive at home without me. If you need to completely unplug for you own sanity, do it! I only spoke to my kids before bed.

Write: No student emails. No nagging chores. No meal prep for the kids. I needed hours of thinking and free-form writing. I worked on the book. I worked on my syllabi. I had the time and space to do so. In solitude, I seized the opportunity to think and write without interruption. 

Find inspiration: I hang a Toni Morrison quote from her brilliant essay published in The Nation, “No place for Self-pity, No Room for Fear” (March 23, 2015). I place copies on the wall where I need it most: my home office, my campus office, and my bedside (so that I go to sleep knowing what my purpose is for the following morning).

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak. We write. We do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Of course, I greatly value my children, and I would do anything for them. However, I have had to learn that my writing matters, too. I write for them, my students, for the discipline of Art History. Also, I write for me. (That last point. Let that one sink in, Nikki).

So did anything go wrong?

The only snafu was that in my eagerness to write I brought way to many books! I carried too many (that I didn’t really need) into the house. The next morning, I could barely bend down because my back was in such excruciating pain. I later picked up a heating pad that was less than a mile down the road. Ahhhh, relief.

Any regrets?

Yes. I wish I had done this sooner. I needed to go away months, even years ago. I didn’t know how finding a quiet place with so few people to interact with would allow me to hear my own voice with no white noise of the daily demands. This was one of the best forms of self-care I have incorporated into my life as a working professional. I learned that to care for my voice, my body, and my spirit is critical for my own journey to find joy and fulfillment as a scholar and parent.

Sounds expensive!

Well, I am fortunate to have the resources to do this. If time or finances do not allow you days to get physically far away, spend quality alone time in easier, economical, and practical ways:

  • Take yourself out to lunch while the kids are in school (or camp during the summer). Have a smoothie or a glass of wine. Order a special dessert that you do not have to share.
  • Go for a long walk in your neighborhood.
  • Get cozy in your favorite coffee shop for a couple of hours. Better yet, find a new one with a different vibe. See if new surroundings can assist your creative process. 
  • Attend a matinee of a movie that does not have to cater to the kids’ or your partner’s tastes. 
  • Luxuriate in the bath after the kids are asleep or before they wake up! (The latter has provided me much needed peace and positive energy to start my day)
  • Take breathing breaks. Lots of apps for this. Set an alarm to remind you to do so.
  • Call your friends. I love when I can have an hour (or three) to just catch up with the folks who know me best. They let me just be me. I need that more than I recognize.

Cheers to a prosperous 2019!

May you find yourself alone and at peace.

May you find yourself alone.

May you find yourself.   

See The Grind for more of my thoughts on the work-life balance.

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Featured post

“New Perspectives on Portraiture”: Symposium & Book Release at the National Portrait Gallery – Sept. 20-21

The National Portrait Gallery’s Scholarly Center, PORTAL= Portraiture + Analysis, has announced the Edgar P. Richardson Symposium “New Perspectives on Portraiture” to be held in the museum’s Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium Sept. 20 and 21. The two-day event will bring together scholars whose work expands people’s perceptions of the diversity and complexity of portrayal in portraits. Speakers will investigate the power dynamics between artists and their sitters, the manipulation and evolution of portraits as physical objects, the dissemination of images and other aspects of this artistic genre.

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beyond the face cover.jpgCoinciding with the release of the new publication Beyond the Face: New Perspectives on Portraiture, which features essays by symposium participants, the two-day event will conclude with a book signing and public reception in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard. I will be presenting on my essay, “Habla LAMADRE: María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Carrie Mae Weems, and Black Feminist Performance.” The book and the symposium have already been reviewed here. This event is free to the public, but registration is required.

As the National Portrait Gallery celebrates its 50th Anniversary, the scholars brought together in Beyond the Face reconsider and expand the boundaries of the very definition of portraiture. As Smithsonian.com recently summarized in “How Can Museums Democratize Portraiture?”

Essays from an assortment of academic portrait experts, including the University of Delaware’s Jennifer Van Horn, the University of Georgia’s Akela Reason, and Wellesley College’s Nikki A. Greene, aim to bring portraiture to the people, showing how evocative images can be appropriated and re-contextualized to fuel social movements, and how seemingly crass variants on portraiture—ranging from newspaper caricature to the modern selfie—have often had the greatest lasting effects on American history.

My take on Campos-Pons’s and Neil Leonard’s (co-collaborator and husband) performance of Habla LAMADRE in 2014 considers how her insertion within the Guggenheim Museum stands as an exemplary performative portrait of a black feminist artist that is at once present and absent, still and in motion, familiar and foreign, historical and contemporary. In concert with the self-portraits and video performances by Carrie Mae Weems that were concurrently on view during her retrospective, Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video. They each distinctly reveal how the portrait of an African diasporic body acts as a site of difference, rupture, fantasy, and indeed, self, in ways not traditionally available in feminist art history. The essay will be expanded in a chapter of my book, Grime, Glass, and Glitter: The Body and the Sonic in Contemporary Black Art (Duke University Press, forthcoming).

See the full program below. I hope you’ll join us!

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Photos by Nikki A. Greene. All rights reserved.

Attendance is free and open to the public. Please register at the following links:

Day 1  | https://richardsonsymposium.eventbrite.com

Day 2 | https://richardsonsymposium2.eventbrite.com

Scholars will discuss such topics as the power dynamics between artists and their sitters, the manipulation and evolution of portraits as physical objects, and the dissemination of images. The symposium will explore how portraiture has evolved and how images of people reflect codes of behavior, social and political environments, and the rhetoric of the day.

Schedule:

Thursday September 20, 2018 2018

8 a.m. Check-in

9 a.m. SESSION 1: Materiality and the Profession of Portraiture

  • “Body Politics: Copley’s Portraits as Political Effigies during the American Revolution”

Lauren Lessing, Director, University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art

Nina Roth-Wells, Paintings Conservator

Terri Sabatos, Associate Professor of Art History, Longwood University

  • “Prince Demah and the Profession of Portrait Painting”

Jennifer Van Horn, Assistant Professor of Art History and History, University of Delaware

  • “The Other’s Other: Portrait Photography in Latin America, 1890–1930”

Juanita Solano Roa, PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

  • “Meaningful (Dis)placements: The Portrait of Luis Muñoz Marín by Francisco Rodón at the National Portrait Gallery”

Taína Caragol, Curator of Painting and Sculpture and Latino Art and History, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

11 a.m. Break

11:15 a.m. SESSION 1 | Panel Discussion

Moderated by Kim Sajet, Director, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

12 p.m. Lunch on your own

1:45 p.m. SESSION 2: Dissemination: Furthering Social, Political, Economic, and Religious Agendas

  • “‘Capital Likenesses’: George Washington, the Federal City, and Economic Selfhood in American Portraiture”

Ross Barrett, Associate Professor of American Art, Boston University

  • “Caricature Portraits and Early American Identity”

Allison M. Stagg, Visiting Lecturer in American Art History, Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

  • “Reconstruction Reconsidered: The Gordon Collection of the National Portrait Gallery”

Kate Clarke Lemay, Historian and Director of PORTAL, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

  • “Cloud of Witnesses: Painting History through Combinative Portraiture”

Christopher Allison, Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities, Affiliate Faculty Member in the

Departments of History and Art History, University of Chicago

3:45 p.m. Break

4 p.m. SESSION 2 | Panel Discussion

Moderated by Wendy Wick Reaves, Curator Emerita of Prints and Drawings, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

Friday September 21, 2018

8 a.m. Check-in

9 a.m. SESSION 3: Reassessing Subjectivity

  • “Soul-Searching: The Portrait in Gilded Age America”

Akela Reason, Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia

  • “Photos of Style and Dignity: Woodard’s Studios and the Delivery of Black Modern Subjectivity”

Amy M. Mooney, Associate Professor of Art and Art History, Columbia College, Chicago

  • “Side Eye: Early Twentieth-Century American Portraiture on the Periphery”

Jonathan Frederick Walz, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of American Art, The Columbus Museum

  • “Making Sense of Our Selfie Nation”

Richard H. Saunders, Director, Middlebury College Museum of Art, and Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Middlebury College

11 a.m. Break

11:15 a.m. SESSION 3 | Panel Discussion

Moderated by Kate Clarke Lemay, Historian and Director of PORTAL, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

12 p.m. Lunch on your own

1:45 p.m. SESSION 4: Theatricality, Performativity, and Play

  • “‘Let Me Take Your Head’: Photographic Portraiture and the Gilded Age Celebrity Image”

Erin Pauwels, Assistant Professor of Art History, Temple University

  • “Playing Against Type: Frank Matsura’s Photographic Performances”

ShiPu Wang, Professor of Art History and founding faculty of the Global Arts Studies Program, University of California, Merced

  • “Call It a Little Game between ‘I’ and ‘Me’: Mar/Cel Duchamp in the Wilson-Lincoln System”

Anne Collins Goodyear, Co-Director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art

  • “Habla LAMADRE: María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Carrie Mae Weems, and Black Feminist Performance”

Nikki A. Greene, Assistant Professor of Art History, Wellesley College

3:45 p.m. Break

4 p.m. SESSION 4 | Panel Discussion

Moderated by Asma Naeem, Chief Curator, Baltimore Museum of Art

5 p.m. Book Signing and Reception in Kogod Courtyard

L+M Lecture Series with Nikki A. Greene @ Express Newark – May 5

Nikki A. Greene - L+M Lecture Express NewarkI am deeply honored to return home to Newark, NJ to present “Newark: My Home in the Arts” as the inaugural speaker of the L +M Development Partners Lecture Series as an invitation from The Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience
The lecture precedes the grand opening of Express Newark, a community-university collaborative space of Rutgers University-Newark. As a native Newarker, this art space in the former historic Hahnes Building is simply a dream-come-true and will serve the Newark community in meaningful ways.

Express Newark, an arts incubator conceived by Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) faculty, staff, students, and community arts leaders, will occupy 50,000 of the structure’s massive 500,000 square feet. Building on an already high level of synergy among Newark’s anchor institutions, Express Newark will partner with community arts organizations in the city’s socially, economically, and culturally diverse neighborhoods. RU-N arts classes in Express Newark began with the spring semester on Jan. 17. Entrance to the building is at 54 Halsey St.; the building is designated as HAH on RU-N class schedules.

Express Newark is a bold plan to cultivate local artistic expression that resonates globally by facilitating public scholarship and community engagement, opening an exciting new chapter in the city’s cultural history. RU-N envisions Express Newark as the fulcrum of the city’s burgeoning Arts District, linking well-established institutions such as the Newark Museum, the Newark Public Library, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Military Park, and WBGO public radio, with Halsey Street’s studio art spaces and the Great Hall at RU-N’s 15 Washington Street. Designed by Goldwin Starrett and renowned for its striking architecture that embodies the department store aesthetic of early 20th Century urban America, Hahne’s has been an iconic focal point of the downtown Newark streetscape since opening in 1901.

Come celebrate with us!
Location: Express Newark Lecture Hall. 54 Halsey Street, Room 213. Newark, NJ.

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