Light Leaks: Quest 2016 with Debbie Millman
The Visible Difference of Light and Dark
I am steeped in this growing darkness. I cannot resist it.
As a child the glare of tinsel and fat glowing Christmas lights on our tree drew me, but what I most loved was the way that blazing light stood out against the dark of our living room. My own kids used to get up very early to watch dawn happen while the Christmas tree stood in the dark morning. Now, they stay up late, watching it, reading near the tree. (That is- once we put the tree up. We are always the last people at the tree farm on Christmas Eve. We like to put our tree up on the 24th so it can last, you know, until the last day of Christmas, otherwise known as Valentine’s Day.)
What draws me to light is not the light itself, but how it stands against the dark. This may be overstating the obvious and if you have heard all you want to hear this season about light, then scroll on. But if you are game for a discussion of dark, then stay with me.
Last night was the second night of Hanukah. I am married to a Jewish man and in our 23 years together, we have burned many candles, for Advent, Hanukah, Solstice, Christmas, yahrzeit candles and birthday candles, candles when someone we love is in need, candles when we want to make a party and always at dinner, especially in winter. In our family, I am the maker of the holidays. He will roast and trim and gather materials for whatever gift, Solstice spiral or meal we decide to work on. But the actual making, and even the planning, starts with me. So it was quite normal for him to ask about our menorah. But when he said, “Thanks for keeping me Jewish,” I heard his mother chuckle in the ethers, and his Grandmother Fanny elbowing my Grandmother Elsie. I no more keep him Jewish than he keeps me Christian. We do honor our mutual faith heritage and cultivate the practices that make these celebrations meaningful for each other. He is the one who sets off for the tree on Christmas Eve while I am stirring up the gingerbread dough. I went to the basement to find the menorah, the one with Noah’s animals on the ark, each with a candle hole in their head. I picked up more candles at the coop and last night at dinner, we set them to light.
Barbara Mahany writes in her wonderful book, Slowing Time,
“I am waking up to the notion that to usher the season into my house is to awaken the sacred.”
Candles awaken the sacred. I study a candle flame as I meditate in the early morning dark. The flame dodges the wick, which nods back and forth, tiny dark stem with a touch of orange pollen at its tip. The candle draws my attention and lets me soften my gaze. I become receptively quiet. Candles are part of how I usher in our dark season. They stand against umbered space, like the Christmas tree, ablaze, in immediate proximity to dark. I cannot have the one without the other.
Which is why I spend so much time slathering black gesso on to my journal pages. I have to explore this dark time with the tools my hands crave. I knit with black yarn; I cover my journal pages with dark paints and write with lighter colored pens. This has become my habit and like the candles, it helps me usher in the season. I notice things differently when I write against a black background.
In Tracking Wonder’s Quest 2016, our question this weekend was from Debbie Millman. Her impressive bio is below, but I have long enjoyed her books. They are works of literary and graphic expression and so inspiring to me as I write my book. Her question:
How would you do business as unusual in 2016 if you knew – no matter what you chose – you would not fail?
The work I have been doing for 21 years, which has sourced my current work, is that of mothering. While I did not enter the position as a job, I suppose you could say I interviewed for the role and accepted it when it was offered to me. And this work experience, which continues to this fresh second in which you read these words, has taught me much about the value of success and failure in a job that has few boundaries and no fiscal compensation. For what is failure than the inability to meet your responsibilities whether they be financial, emotional or practically, as in the soccer or immunization schedule, get them to church for choir practice or file their camp forms by this certain date? Failure can take catastrophic proportion in this job. Yes, there are many levels of failure in parenting, and I think we all touch some failure every single day in our quest to be just the perfect kind of parents we can never really be. So, if success was assured me in my business as a mother, knowing what I know about failure and the lessons it has taught me, I would continue parenting in the way I have been doing, constantly tweaking my delivery, listening more closely for cues to patterns that may solve puzzles of personality or passion, always looking to support the development of a human being with as much success in the soup as possible, seasoned with some failure to balance the flavor.
Ultimately, I work in spite of success and expecting some failure. I have been around the sun enough times to be familiar with the taste of both and happy to balance my days with them both in the recipe.
But the other work I do, if you want to call it business as unusual is just as familiar with failure. I have hosted classes that no one attends. The fact that I am working at all, that I have watered the little seedlings of my confidence and exercised my writing skills and visual art skills to the point there I am right now, is success. The only failure I could see is not doing the work at all. Giving up. Stepping away from my book, from this blog, from my classes, events and offerings.
My failures I accept as lessons and I carry on. I learn from failure.
What do I have to learn then, from the repeated request I make of my husband who has, for about 3 months, failed to call the plumber? We have a leaky and getting leakier faucet and this is his department. When we set up housekeeping there were divisions made about certain things like holidays and plumbing, so just as I tend to the candles and the menorahs, he tends, or usually tends, to leaky faucets and leafy gutters. Without tending to it, this becomes a failure. I am not successful in making a request that gets him to call the guy. He fails at tending to a household need. We mutually fail as householders because leaky things leak energy and this is one place we need shoring up.
To me, the more compelling question, applicable to my work-writing, book building, collage, teaching, speaking, producing events- as to our family dilemma about the leaky sink is:
Why wouldn’t you do the work now? Failure or not. Why wouldn’t you pick up your pen, light a small candle and write in the early morning quiet, before the kids are up, before you have to get to work, before life pulls you out in to the world? Why wouldn’t I write this book? Or propose classes at conferences and arts centers?
Feeling ready is one consideration and surely, diving in to a project requires the necessary tools, the wrench, the pen, the gesso. But, Debbie’s question, an assurance of no failure, suggests that moving forward could be inevitable if I take action and so I say, like I have said before, “Why wait?”
Why wait to call the plumber?
Why wait to start doing what you long to do, even in small ways with tiny steps?
I have tolerated the leaky sink because I don’t have the tools to fix it myself. Yes, I can call the guy. That it a possible move for me. I have tolerated years of not doing what I longed to do because of two very real children who did not so much assure my failure, but were just plain too fully demanding. I did not realize I had the tools to work from inside mothering until the day came when I began to invent them. I borrowed the tools from my newfound mentors and started. Which has brought me to where I am today.
So, to bring this long writing to a close, I suggest to you, in this dark season when candles help, and the dark can be a fertile place to dwell in, notice what is leaky around you. How do you approach the coming darkness? Where does light leak in? And where is your time or energy leaking away from you? What small moves can you take, what tools can you pick up to handle those leaks?
In her post about electricity, another household necessity, Vanessa J. Herald writes:
“Nothing’s wrong here. It is just time to slow down and match my insides to respect the slow and short days of approaching winter. To bundle up and take care. To take the time and effort, or call an electrician, to reconnect my inner ground wire. Or, to pound a grounding rod into the damp, still-not-frozen early December soil.
It’s time to slow down. It’s time to reconnect with rhythm. It’s time for silence and peace on the inside. It’s time to get grounded.”
-Vanessa J. Herald
An assurance of no failure is slim comfort. I work in spite of it. I work because I know my success may not be grand, but it will be mine. And I work because even now, when the days are short and the holidays press panic buttons in so many of us, my tools of writing and working in my journals, of teaching others to express from inside their life experience are tools I have come to count on to see the dark and the light, to watch the dance and to shore up the leaks.
If you would like to “Imagine your life richly” as Jeffrey Davis invites us with Quest 2016, please take a look here.
If you would like to pick up some tools for expressing from within your own life experience, please stay tuned. On the Solstice, I will be announcing my upcoming Powder Keg Sessions Online Writing Workshop where we will make the simple sacred and write together for a month of weekly writing sessions.
And if you, like me, find failure to be less of a threat than not doing the work, then please subscribe to this site. This rising forth of engaged women making sense of their lives through creative practice, however that looks for you, is my dream.
Thank you for reading me here.
Before you wander off to find your candles, take a look at some of my Questmates posts.
About dragons and failure, Brenna Layne.
Taking permission to new places, Leslie Watts.
The healing power of poetry, with Tania Pryputniewicz on Ginny Taylor’s Women of Wonder.
and, Surrendering to dark and light, Sally Drew.
Named “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA, Debbie is an author, educator, and brand strategist. As the founder and host of Design Matters, the first and longest running podcast about design, Debbie has interviewed more than 250 design luminaries and cultural commentators, including Massimo Vignelli, Milton Glaser, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, Barbara Kruger, Seth Godin and more. Debbie is the author of six books, including two collections of interviews that have extended the ethos and editorial vision of Design Matters to the printed page: How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (Allworth Press 2007) and Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (Allworth Press 2011).