Coming back to our senses. Coming home to ourselves.

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Creative practices and experiences invite all of us to come back to our senses and come home to ourselves. I’ve known this to be true for as long as I’ve been a maker, which is my whole life. And yet, the prospect of opening my maker space has me thinking more deeply about these twin concepts, to consider more fully what they have to offer as I design the curriculum for The Well Within Workshop.

To begin, what does it mean to say that creativity invites us to come back to our senses? Here’s a recent example: I’m sitting here now, writing this post on Wednesday at 2:40 pm CDT, fresh on the heels of learning via email only moments ago that the government-sponsored financial support for small businesses has just run out of funds. My husband and I applied for this support. And by applied, I mean to say that we spent the past 4 days in a frenzied scramble to pull together tax documents; payroll paperwork; bank statements; health insurance premium documentation; all against a disjointed soundtrack of contradictory messages and missives from the Small Business Administration; our local banks; our inflammatory news media; fellow small business owners; interspersed with loving phone calls of care and support from family. We found ourselves relying on bank portals that didn’t work; getting texts from anonymous bankers whom we’ve never met; and realizing that the weekend we’d planned to use in more gratifying ways had now evaporated. We did all of this because we needed to. As small business owners, both my husband and I qualify for these loans, offered in response to businesses whose ability to cover payroll has been devastated by the virus. While not as vital for me, as I am the only employee in my company and still able to generate income, my husband has been paying his company’s crew out-of-pocket since mid-March while unable to work due to the hazards of Corona, a plan that he recognized would soon become unsustainable.

All to learn only moments ago that these efforts were for naught. The funds are gone. The government may authorize additional funds but no one really knows for sure.

But where was I? Oh yes—creativity as a way of coming back to our senses and what this actually means. I’ll tell you what it means to me. To sit down here now and compose this post, to bring all of my thoughtfulness and attention right here, right now, offers an astonishing antidote to the dizzying effects of the past 4 days, with respite that I can feel almost immediately. I’m calmer, clearer. With my spirits lifted, I’m eager to keep writing. My earlier distress and scatteredness have all but evaporated. Out of the corner of my eye I see emails arriving and while there’s some inclination to shift attention—Maybe it’s the bank!—why would I step back into that world of unending reactivity and tension? In the 30 minutes that I’ve spent writing this post, I’ve landed on an activity that’s delivered something as vital as a government-sponsored loan—self-possession. Sovereignty over my time and attention. Something to show for the effort.

Creativity offers this to me so dependably, again and again, and maybe to you, too. I take particular sanctuary in creativity’s ancient through-line. Our ancestors built and baked, wrote and painted their way through life-threatening plagues, pandemics, wars, and complete financial devastation. They signaled slaves to safety via hand-stitched quilts; healed from the horrors of combat through written accounts of peril and survivorship and responded to deadly diseases with the creative co-armament of medicine and music. That we’re all here is living proof of the power of creativity to play an instrumental role in buoying the human spirit and better ensuring not only survival but sustenance. It just did this for me now. I bet it happens for you, too.

I feel better equipped to face the next round with the government and the bank, having tapped this creative well within. Colloquially speaking, I’ve indeed come back to my senses, in this instance, through writing. In future posts, I’ll explore in more literal ways how the act of coming back to our senses relates to creativity more broadly, and how the particular creative experiences and practices offered at The Well Within Workshop encourage and promote this energizing, life-affirming and health-promoting return to our senses in a way that feels like coming home.  I’ll also take a deeper dive into the notion of coming home to ourselves in a farther-reaching way, with its many possibilities and potentials.

I’m wishing you and your loved ones good health, good spirits, and a willingness to reach for whatever creative practices feel most comfortable for you and available to you–I have a handmade quilt at the workshop stitched many decades ago by Elizabeth Kuhns, who cut up her husband’s old suits. It’s well-worn now and of course completely beautiful, as all hand-crafted things that carry history are.

Post Script: My husband tells me that he got an email from the Small Business Administration just now, letting him know that while funds for small-business loans have indeed been depleted, his application came in just under the wire and was approved, that he’ll receive support in the next 10 days.

 

A favorite patron saint

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I hope this post finds you all well and at home, with plenty of food and toilet paper and in good company as we all do our best to soldier on and make the very best of it. And, if the virus has found you, may your case be a mild one and your road to recovery be well underway.

If I ever felt the need for a welcome oasis, it’s now, and I’m finding that in the midst of the colossal workload and unending hijinx at The Creative’s Workshop as we just crossed the half-way mark. I’m loving every minute. We’re asked to post our work (either written or visual) daily and get feedback from our peers; to respond to 3 prompts a week; and, along the way, we’re given rich opportunities to drop into writing groups, book clubs, drawing get-togethers, Zoom calls with coaches and Seth–all in a collective effort to further hone our voices and generous offerings for the people we hope to serve through our creative work once the workshop ends.

A recent assignment asked us to identify an individual whom we feel is doing good work in our respective genre. Lynda Barry immediately came to mind for me as someone who’s offered so much in the way of connecting folks with their inherent creative nature.  I respect her and her work for so many reasons: Lynda did things in her own way. She wasn’t troubled by the fact that neither her work, her look, nor her world view was appreciated by much of the mainstream in her genre (comics). From the age of 9, struggling to contend with the challenges in her early home faced by so many immigrant families, then and still, Lynda aligned herself with school and with drawing, spotting an R. Crumb book in the hands of a classmate and finding herself completely smitten with the idea that it’s possible to draw your own world and then retreat into it, as a way of coping with harsh realities that too often for her felt unbearable.

Lynda maintained her drawing practice, at first copying her respected comic artists and then eventually creating an underground comic strip of her own, which led to a series writing workshops and books, all in support of the idea that anyone can write and anyone can draw; that we’re all born creative; and that this world will accommodate even the wackiest of creative products (Lynda has a particular affinity for wacky).

More recently, Lynda accepted an instructor position at UW/Madison, where she’d intentionally cross-pollinate the students enrolled in her class–freshman undergrads side-by-side with Ph.D. students; fine arts majors with science majors. She liked the energy of this combination and felt it furthered the creative challenge and output. Lynda’s on sabbatical now, having been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant late last year. I did a happy dance when I heard this news–her novel, irreverent approach to comics alongside her deep reverence for her creative practice and her abundant generosity in sharing these practices with the rest of us absolutely deserves the highest reward.

As I’m now starting the process of pulling together the classes and practices for The Well Within Workshop, so many of them will have Lynda’s mark on them in one form or another. I’ve recently met a woman at The Creative’s Workshop who had the great good fortune to attend a weeklong writers’ retreat with Lynda Barry, and who is herself offering a writing workshop ala Lynda within TCW. In her promo materials, she underscores the fact that Lynda wished for her teaching tools to be considered “open source,” as a way of spreading the gospel of creative practice as far and wide as possible.

Such a blessing.

(HT to Anaik for your assist with the title of this post!)

 

Who are your peeps?

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Who are the folks that champion your creative work? The ones who ask what you’re working on with genuine interest, who share links and books and constructive feedback and sometimes even creative work of their own?

I’ve just found a few more of mine. I’m in a course offered by Seth Godin called The Creative’s Workshop. While headquartered in NY, this virtual workshop drew 400 creatives from all over the world who are seeking the same thing as me—the necessary watering and feeding so vital to raising their creative work to the next level.

I’m in a group with Daniel, a spirited writer out of Australia who’s working on a book about kindness–which seems to be both his muse and his method. There’s Cheryl, a California writer who counts Krista Tippett as one of her followers (Krista’s post?  “I love your blog.”). I’m exchanging ideas with a podcaster in Sweden, a professor of creativity in Shanghai, a woodworker in Pennsylvania, a painter in Washington State, one more gifted  and energized than the next and all with the mission of bringing their particular song to the world.

I’m indebted to Seth for his workshops (this is my second–The Story Skills Workshop is another winner), his daily newsletter and just his overarching generosity of spirit. All of his offerings have amplified in my own mind what’s possible in my own creative work and, in particular, The Well Within Workshop. I’m not sure it’s possible to capture the full magnitude of Seth’s creative reach and its net effect on the creative continent on this planet. I wrote to him about a year ago, to thank him for all that his bountiful work and encouragement over the distance have meant to me. I’d wanted to send him a loaf of my homemade chocolate chip banana bread (nutty as that sounds…no pun intended). Seth graciously declined the bread but underscored that the best kind of appreciation is to keep doing the work, which is what I’ll be doing.

My family and my beloved friends, professors along the way, students in the years when I was supervising and so many of my clients have all collectively informed so much of my creative work. I’m not sure it’s possible to create without the cross-pollination that comes with proximity to people who matter. I know it wouldn’t be possible for me.

Who are your peeps? Do they know the part they play in doing the creative work that matters to you?

Opening as a way of beginning

On a recent trip to northern Michigan, lying under a canopy of fragrant conifers, I spot a particularly splendid pinecone. With woody scales tightly closed and feeling surprisingly smooth to the touch, I carefully lift the cone and place it in my pocket. Walking back to the inn, I wonder about pine trees at their very beginnings—specifically, how do they seed? I assume it has something to do with the pinecone itself but I’m not exactly sure how it works. Do buried cones give birth to future trees?

Once in the room, I set the pinecone on the bureau and head straight for my laptop, but before I can type in my password, I hear a distinct tinkling sound coming from the cone, similar to that made by snowflakes hitting a warm windowpane. Thinking my new treasure must be housing an insect, I walk back to the bureau, where I now see the cone, scales fully open, surrounded by a scattering of winged ebony seeds.

. . .

Opening is perhaps the optimal first step to beginning anything and so I’m wishing you and me and everyone we know a mindset of openness as we head into the new year. Thank you for your openness to moving along with me here for another year. I’m wishing you sufficient time and space for your own making, whatever that may be, and I’m grateful for the many ways that your making supports my own.

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For A New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

                                                     ~John O’Donohue

Agency work

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In a washed-out pasta sauce jar on our kitchen counter, I watch as a monarch caterpillar morphs into a chrysalis. I stand here in utter astonishment, refusing to blink for fear of missing a single second. When it’s all over, what had once been a caterpillar is now a self-contained, lime-green, acorn-shaped encasement hanging from a single silken thread. The whole process leaves me speechless and yet I’m moved to write about this mysterious, almost magical event, a literal encapsulation of one of nature’s finest feats, a miracle that in six decades on this planet I’d yet to witness with my own eyes.

But first I have to make sure that I’m spelling chrysalis correctly and so I quickly grab my phone to double-check and while I’m there I’m invited by the device to view photos I’d taken five years earlier. How can I resist, what with that one tantalizing photo icon of a shimmering sunset on Little Traverse Bay offered as a teaser?

So I find myself accepting the invitation to go down that memory lane and while there I get an urgent warning from my phone that my Google Drive is running dangerously low, that a number of my phone’s key functions will fail to operate properly unless I purchase additional memory.

By this point I’m frankly trying to remember what it was that I was doing before all this photo-teasing and fear-mongering began.

Our moments and our days and really much of our lives are governed in large measure by the agency we bring to our existence— that volitional energy that’s driven and propelled by our own wants, needs, interests, longings and desires. Yet we find ourselves inundated like never before by ever-expanding, multi-tiered marketing efforts in which time is money and therefore the more of our time that a phone (a site, a social-media post, etc.) is successful in procuring, the weaker our own personal agency becomes.

At the present time it appears that agency is in need of increasing amounts of muscularity if it is to do its job at directing our lives in the manner in which we ourselves choose, so that we’re able to devote our time and attention to activities and purposes that feel meaningful—be it a white paper, a work of art, a community garden, a blog post or a pleasant disposition following a self-permitted nap. Perhaps the muscle that agency needs will only come from resistance. Similar to resistance machines at the gym, we strengthen our agency by resisting the pings, pangs, pops, dazzling distractions and disproportionate warnings delivered by our devices while remaining grounded as much as possible in the real world, with living creatures, the no-legged, two-legged, four-legged and beyond.

In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, artist, writer and Stanford University professor Jenny Odell offers this:

In the long meantime, as I sit in the deep bowl of the Rose Garden, surrounded by various human and nonhuman bodies, inhabiting a reality interwoven by myriad bodily sensitivities besides my own—indeed, the very boundaries of my own body overcome by the smell of jasmine and just-ripening blackberry—I look down at my phone and wonder if it isn’t its own kind of sensory-deprivation chamber. That tiny, glowing world of metrics cannot compare to this one, which speaks to me instead in breezes, light and shadow, and the unruly, indescribable detail of the real.

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As for muscular agency in the real world, this lovely creature shows me how it’s done. I watch as she clings to the stick that lifts her out of the jar. With unwavering determination she begins to move her wings, tentatively at first and then with fuller motion and momentum. She falls to the ground more than once but continues onward, eventually gaining lift-off in her first few low-altitude flights, then a few more and now full throttle into the neighbor’s yard and then with remarkably insufficient fanfare she’s gone. I’ve been video recording all the while but I eventually come to my senses and put down my phone.

Some memories are better in analog.

A seemingly-purposeless activity

There are times in the studio when I’m able to just let myself play. I’m not intending to produce beautiful art, not freighting the process with the expectation of delivering something frame-worthy. I’m just moving the brush wherever it wants to go and I follow along. Sometimes when I’m working like this I like to experiment, dropping this color into that one just to see how they play together. If I don’t like it, who cares? Why don’t I work like this more often? I ask myself. It feels so energizing, psychologically and even physically, to work in this way, fostering a palpable vitality that I can feel in a physical way, an openness of sorts, that fills me with a delightful sense of possibility. It tends to leave me feeling really happy.

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I was working like this not too long ago, just playing and making marks as the impulse moved me, “taking a line for a walk” as Saul Steinberg once described it. I didn’t produce anything spectacular, though I did experience an undeniable spike in energy along with a solid sense of flow.

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Sometime shortly thereafter, I was in the studio with no particular ideas in mind when this came out:

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And this:

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Many followed:

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It’s a year and a half later and they’re still showing up. I had no idea these were floating around in there and I’d never produced anything that even remotely resembles this work and yet I’m convinced that it was that initial playing around practice that loosened them up.

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Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute of Play, suggests that humans are hard-wired for play and that we foreclose on this seemingly-purposeless activity at our own peril. In his 2007 interview with Krista Tippett, Dr. Brown noted:

At least for the last 200,000 years or so, our capacity as a species to adapt, whether we’re in the Arctic or the tropics, the desert or a rain forest, appears to me to be related significantly to our capacity as developing creatures, to play. If you look more closely, you find that the human being is biologically designed to play throughout the life cycle. From my standpoint as a clinician, when one doesn’t play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, lack of adaptability, no irony — you know, things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.

Too many demands leave two of our natural resources—time and attention— in need of protection. Play, with all its seeming uselessness, can be a useful antidote.

 

When Death Comes

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When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

                                                                ~ Mary Oliver

R.I.P.  …  I miss her already.