Saturn puts a ring on Jupiter tonight (or at least that’s how it’ll appear) and, with 2020 vision, we’ll bear witness to this lovely engagement. May your Winter Solstice be the beginning of ever-increasing light, wherever you may need it.
Saturn puts a ring on Jupiter tonight (or at least that’s how it’ll appear) and, with 2020 vision, we’ll bear witness to this lovely engagement. May your Winter Solstice be the beginning of ever-increasing light, wherever you may need it.
We’re inundated on a persistent basis by toppling amounts of information, five times the amount consumed daily in 1986. This is tantamount to reading 174 newspapers a day, cover to cover. So says Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., neuroscientist and the author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload. Are you keeping up? Silly question—the reasonable part of us knows that’s no longer possible.
Try telling that to your brain, though, sold as it’s been on the merits of binge information consumption, often combined with multitasking—that well-marketed illusion that obscures the fact that the brain is primarily designed to focus on one task at a time and, when it’s called on to multitask, it does so at a cost. Productivity, accuracy, and levels of personal and professional satisfaction all suffer. There’s a neuropsychological price, as well; extreme periods of unrelenting brain on-ness deplete glucose and other metabolic resources, vital neuronutrients that would otherwise be used for deeper, soul-feeding levels of immersion and focus. In Dr. Levitin’s words, “Multitasking is metabolically expensive.” From the vantage point of the human spirit, it’s downright dispiriting.
Add to this the ballooning number of choices we’re called on to make in our increasingly-congested marketplace—podcasts, cold-pressed drinks, phones, news feeds, pens, IG posts, running shoes, microbrews, etc.—against a backdrop of the too-often alarming soundtrack of our broadcast and social media and you can begin to hear, if you listen closely, the unmistakable sound of your own besieged, beleaguered brain begging for relief.
Fortunately, you know just where to find it. You’ve known this all your life, having mastered these kinds of skillful reprieves as a young one romping in the park, darting through the forest, or losing yourself in the reveries of your own imaginings, those days when your curious, meandering mind led the way in the direction of the possible.
The brain is like a see-saw, Dr. Levitin offers, shifting naturally between two modes of attention: task-focused and mind-wandering—the brain’s day-dreaming mode which, Dr. Levitin suggests, is the mind’s natural state. We’re born into this mode, inhabit it for much of our early life, and often carry an overarching, aching wish to return. In mind-wandering mode, there are no performance goals or productivity benchmarks. Instead, the mind freely roams, led by the allure of piqued curiosity and unquenchable interest. That initial spark of insight that often precedes task-focused problem-solving and creativity is most likely to occur in mind-wandering mode. Perhaps most important, this meandering, dreamlike mode replenishes and restores supplies of essential neuronutrients drained by too much think-think/go-go/do-do.
The benefits of mind-wandering are indisputable if we’re to bring full mind capacity to those tasks commanding our attention. And yet, we can find ourselves treating the meandering mode as discretionary and even disposable, “child’s play” that we can no longer shoehorn in. Yet, the research is clear: Disproportionate involvement in task-focused activities without a commensurate level of mind-wandering is tantamount to placing a foot on one side of the see-saw and then wondering why the ride is no longer fun.
It’s possible to inoculate, restore and replenish your brain and your being with ample amounts of mind-wandering and, fortunately, it doesn’t take a whole lot to make it happen. Is there a park within walking distance of your front door? How about a deep forest? When was the last time you visited? Too much rain or cold or snow or darkness to venture out? No worries—you can reap fortifying, neuronutritional benefits by mind-wandering from the comfort of the chair you’re sitting in right now, as the portal into this mode can often be found at the threshold of good reading. In her seminal work, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D. observes:
There is around us and about us a constant beckoning world, one which insinuates itself into our lives, arousing and creating appetite where there was little or none before. In this sort of choice, we choose a thing because it just happened to be beneath our noses at that moment in time. It is not necessarily what we want, but it is interesting, and the longer we gaze at it, the more compelling it becomes.
When we are connected to the instinctual self, to the soul which is natural and wild, then instead of looking over whatever happens to be on display, we say to ourselves, “What am I hungry for?”
Is that on the smörgåsbord? Maybe yes and maybe no. In most cases, probably not. We will have to quest for it a little bit–sometimes for a considerable time. But in the end we shall find it, and be glad we took soundings about our deeper longings.
Image: Wassily, My Muse. Watercolor, pastel, collage
Our world is noisy at the moment. Cogent discourse, insight, and illumination can now find themselves overshadowed and over-shouted by who knows what? Opportunities to learn, to grow, and to heal remain as strong and abundant as ever, yet unfavorable conditions created by the overwhelming abundance of noise can make moving on these opportunities–and even seeing them–more difficult. And while there’s been plenty of commentary on the clamorous situation at hand, from every conceivable side, in the end, these, too, regrettably, contribute in unhelpful ways to the noise.
It’s the distinguishing feature of our mammalian species to be able to use words in the service of solving problems, to better understand, connect, and expand. What happens, though, when our words–in private spheres, including in our conversations with ourselves, but as important now, in our public arenas–find themselves appropriated by the reptilian angels of our nature? What can help?
One possibility might be a retreat into silence, stepping away from the cacophony of words that comprise the surface-level noise within and without, drawing inward to that core of deep and abiding silence that resides within all of us, wordless, that quintessential well from which we all sprang. This doesn’t require an extended getaway to some exotic destination for sanctuary, inconceivable for many now in any event. Rather, it’s something of a practice to discover within the center your own being a kind of retreat house, a reliable haven that offers comfort, peace, and quiet which can serve as a fortress and a fortification for whatever lies on the road ahead. Stillness is our native land. Silence, our native tongue.
The Quakers hold that we should speak only if we can improve upon the silence. I’ll let John O’Donohue have the final word:
In post-modern culture, the ceaseless din of chatter has threatened to kill our acquaintance with silence. Consequently, we are stressed and anxious. Silence is a fascinating presence. Silence is shy; it is patient and never draws attention to itself. Without the presence of silence, no word could ever be said or heard. Our thoughts constantly call up new words. We become so taken with words that we barely notice the silence, but the silence is always there. The best words are born in the fecund silence that minds the mystery.
A Man Lost By A River
There is a voice inside the body
There is a voice and a music,
a throbbing, four-chambered pear
that wants to be heard, that sits
alone by the river with its mandolin
and its torn coat, and sings
for whomever will listen
a song that no one wants to hear.
But sometimes, lost,
on his way to somewhere significant,
a man in a long coat, carrying
a briefcase, wanders into the forest.
He hears the voice and the mandolin,
he sees the thrush and the dandelion,
and he feels the mist rise over the river.
And his life is never the same,
for this having been lost–
for having strayed from the path of his routine,
for no good reason.
While it’s understandable to feel freighted by the unrelenting challenges and stakes our world is facing right now, including the gravely concerning, deeply disturbing, and undeniably life-threatening, we’re called on to continue finding effective ways of coping. One small but sturdy strategy, which can be adopted as a daily practice for added benefit, is to ask yourself, What’s not wrong?
You can start with your own body if you like. Do your eyes work? Your ears? How about your hands and feet? Can you wiggle your toes and bend your knees and ankles at will? Can you breathe? When you wish to tap on a keyboard, move a pen across the page, or a brush over a canvas, are you able to do this? If you get a taste for a cup of coffee or tea, do you find yourself reliably carried by your body across the kitchen to the pot, your dependable arm reaching as a sturdy set of fingers wrap themselves first around the handle of the carafe, and then the cup, allowing you to lift the warm beverage to your lips?
Astonishing, all of it, when you think about it.
Andrew Weil once commented that he’d rather be tasked with landing a 747 aircraft at full capacity without a single flying lesson than to be responsible for the functioning of his own liver. The same might be said about the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart–splendid organs, every one of them, operating day and night, often without much conscious effort or involvement on the beneficiary’s part. If your body is healthy and fully functioning, this is well worth celebrating. Thich Nhat Hanh would often invite participants in his meditation retreats to notice whether they had a toothache and, when they realized that they didn’t, to take a moment to celebrate this absence.
But what if you do have a toothache? What if your body isn’t functioning fully? What if you’re dealing with health concerns, mild or more serious? Molecular biologist and mindfulness expert Jon Kabat Zinn, speaking to a group of medical patients participating in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at UMass Medical Center, offered an illuminating observation, illustrating for these patients that, no matter what had brought them into treatment, the human body is a vast and intricate landscape with many neighborhoods and even continents, some of which are not in any way touched by the chronic pain, cancer, or acute anxiety, concluding, “There’s so much more that’s right with you than wrong with you.”
From the not-wrongness with your body, you can expand from there: Did your car start this morning? Is your roof without leaks right now? When you turned on the tap to fill that tea kettle, did clean water come out? Do you have food in the fridge? A good book or two in the house? We have a wild patch of milkweed on the side of our driveway and every time I’m near it I find myself wrapped in its sweet, enveloping scent. Offering pollinating possibilities and generative potential, any number of bees and an abundance of butterflies (monarchs, tiger swallowtails, and others) arrive at this fertile destination spot, reminding me that nature, as ever, continues onward.
But can we afford to pay attention to what’s not wrong? Isn’t it a luxury to turn attention away from the grave challenges at hand? Won’t that siphon off vital time, resources, and brainpower from the very real work that needs to be done?
Quite the opposite. In her research on the evolutionary role played by positive emotions in our ability to cope and even to survive, UNC-Chapel Hill social psychologist Barbara Frederickson underscores the fortifying contributions made by feelings of joy, interest, gratitude, happiness, and contentment. Positive emotions survived evolutionary extinction, Fredrickson posits, because they “broaden-and-build” our repertoire of possible responses to trouble and turmoil, bolstering physical, cognitive, psychological, and social coping resources in ways that negative emotions such as anger and fear cannot, enhancing well-being and emboldening resilience. Further, positive emotional states assist in down-regulating the physiological impact of negative emotions that pose cardiovascular risks for such conditions as heart attack and stroke and help to undo the harmful psychological and emotional effects of unchecked negative emotions that can lead to anxiety and depression.
Consider asking yourself what’s not wrong in your life right now. How are you coping? Running, art-making, gardening, enjoying a cup of coffee or tea with a friend, if you’re privileged to have time for any of these, are all worthy pursuits in these troubling times. Are you able to marinate in the joy, contentment, and happiness that these activities and connections bring, knowing that by doing so you’re fortifying your capacities for more effectively moving forward?
In a dwindling number of hours, The Creative’s Workshop will come to a close, meaning that the expansive multiverse of prompts, interviews, daily writings, instructive videos, and earnest, generous exchanges with creative comrades from around the globe will disappear like the finest, fiercest flash mob that ever was, a 5-month-long cross-pollination of poets and memoirists, photographers, illustrators, filmmakers, podcasters and the like, all now packing up and getting ready to return home to regular life.
Except that there can be no returning to regular life. Seth Godin and his team accomplished what I imagine was their goal at the start–to give all of us the chance to know what it feels like to be running with a pack that’s hungry for living their most creative life and to allow the warmth of that proximity to provide nurturing, support and protection of the creative process in ways that regular life doesn’t always do. Even from the middle of the pack, and sometimes pulling up the rear, I know that hunger well. It’s not perfection, I learned, nor genius, that makes the creative life possible. It’s not waiting to be picked. It’s committing to creative practice no matter what–no matter the mood, energy, finances, the pandemic or the state of the world—and generously supporting others in their creative work. When this happens, as I witnessed and experienced first-hand, it expands what’s possible for both the artist, the work, and the world.
The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
This might suggest that the creative work must be big, bold, and wildly popular to justify its existence and yet none of this is required. Instead, I learned about the smallest viable audience and how involving this small group of caring others as the process moves along not only supports our creative work but also shapes it, honing it and crafting it in ways that enhance both the process and the creative offering. I heard many creative success stories over the course of the workshop and at least as many about disappointment and failure. The open, encouraging climate made it easy to have these kinds of exchanges and, with my eye on the clock and knowing that this level of generosity and candor is an all-too-precious thing, I found myself seeking them out and then watching the effect of these contributions on my own work. I’ve determined that I like creating in spaces where fear doesn’t get the final word and so many of us spoke so directly about all that would hold us back if we allowed this to happen.
I’ve been in two different workgroups with members from 5 different timezones for the better part of my time in TCW, one focused specifically on the business and practice of artmaking and the other an eclectic group of writers, filmmakers, professors, and coaches. We’ve made plans to continue working together after TCW closes down and I’m glad about this. There are parts of that multiverse that I’m not willing to part with, components that would be the ideal cornerstones for The Well Within Workshop. Here’s an example of just one, illustrating the tenet that you’re either working to make something happen or working to make sure that it doesn’t: Early on in the workshop, I’d commented in one of my written exercises that I very much wanted to read more but that I found myself struggling to find the time. I got a reply to this post from Helena, a TCW participant living in Sweden, who suggested that I needed a “Reading Retreat.” I responded that I absolutely did and then I asked, “What’s a ‘Reading Retreat’? Helena let me know that she had no idea but trusted that we could come up with one. And we did—we arranged to meet over video chat every Monday morning from 8-9:30 a.m. (the middle of the afternoon for Helena) to read together. Sitting silently in our respective spaces with our respective books, holding quiet space for one another in our co-created virtual library, has indeed been a retreat like no other. Anyone can do this. There’s no magic to it. Nothing complicated and it costs nothing but time, though technically the time is spent either way—I’d spent plenty of time bemoaning the fact that I didn’t have enough time to read. Maybe you don’t have a free hour and a half. Anya, from Seattle, for whom the start time for Reading Retreat is a bit too early, joins for the last 30 minutes. Works for her, works for us. A dedicated 15 minutes can work, too.
Who’s in your pack? In what small and not-so-small ways are you supporting your own creative work and the work of those who travel along with you? Are you offering the level of generous support that you’d love to receive and when your creative kinfolk offer their kind appreciation and championship, are you able to welcome this, to take it in? From where you sit right now, can you picture where you’d want all of your creative efforts, ideas, and kinship to land? Can you see it like it’s already here?
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.
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.
(HT to Anaik for your assist with the title of this post!)
Photo credit: Lynda Barry
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?
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.
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.