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.
“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 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.
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).
Your Quest2016 Prompt today: You wake up to discover a knock at your door. A wealthy uncle you barely knew has passed and left you a fortune. It’s more than enough to live out your days in glorious splendor, but there is a condition. To be eligible to collect, you must commit your full-time working energies to the pursuit of an answer to a single question of your choosing for the next 12 months.
You are welcome to continue that pursuit after the year ends, for years or decades if it warrants, but you must remain fully focused on seeking the answer until the last minute of the 365th day. A minute shorter, the entire inheritance goes to your annoying and equally long lost cousin, Philly.
What is your question?
Oh this truly is my dream come true. For most of my professional life I have waited for wealthy uncles to die, but having none, the wait was futile. Which is to say I do have uncles. I have several, some still alive, none with wealth that might extend past their own children; so really, this dream-come-true prompt finally announces the arrival of the ship that I have waited to come in for years and years. Hurray!
Welcome Wealthy Uncle! Come in; let me stir you up a cup of tea while you wipe your chilly nose on this clean napkin laid before you. I am so happy you have arrived. I will turn up the heat so you can shake the December chill while the pot boils.
This condition, of glorious splendor coming if I commit to the pursuit of a single question, comes to me with some questions for you. Does this have to be a new question, or may it be a question I have been working on already? And how transparent must I be with the question? How will you check up on me-oh, I know the answer to that-you will know, just know, right, because when I veer off course, then truly, we will both know, eh?
Okay. Then even before I pour your tea, I can answer you this.
What if I don’t wait until my kids are out of the house to fully unmask my creative fertility? Why wait?
This question: Why wait?
For so many years I have waited for the kids to be grown, for life to find a rhythm like a boat at sea in a steady wind, cutting waves with accuracy and efficiency. But life, she is not like that. And I dare say, though I am not sailor enough to confirm it, that neither is the sea like this, steady all the time.
Life is messy. Life is chaotic. Ships rock. What happens if I write anyway?
Could I have a completed manuscript by the end of 2016? Maybe even a book designer and publisher? Could I work towards completing my manuscript while doing for others what I pledge to do with myself, to unmask creative fertility?
What happens if I write anyway, in the midst of even these questions? What if I show up at the page, every single day, even on vacation (but especially on vacation) and illuminate my literary and visual answer to this question:
So Uncle. Here is your tea. Rose tea, with pear, ginger and lemon infused honey, something to ease you as you warm yourself. I am deeply appreciative of you offering me this gift. If I complete it, may I use it for my own purposes? Could I supply a refugee family with this money? Could I fund my own retreat and supply scholarships for women in need to attend, all expenses paid? Could I re-insulate my whole house and upgrade our systems so that we are more energy efficient? May I use these funds to support the cleanup of the Housatonic River? Could I escape with Jonathan and our kids to a cabana in Costa Rica where we can work, surf, hike and eat more of that salted fish at Selvin’s in Punta Uva? Might I finally get to see the textile museums in the Norse Countries and spend weeks in a cottage up in the mountains working, resting, reading, hiking and getting to know about elk? Oh the places I could go with this money. My children would have the degrees they seek; we’d all have plenty to share, but Uncle.
If I don’t want the money, but want the question, would you hold it for me until I do, when I may use it as I wish? For Uncle, I have found, while waiting for you to arrive, all of these years, waiting to be discovered by the golden aura of success and financial independence, my own tincture of success that heals and eases and excites me beyond anything money could buy. Forgive my Dickensian, Raold Dahlesque, SARK-y digression here, for I am supposed to be writing my response to your generous offer, but I cannot stop my fingers to say, money is nice, but not everything. And in my life, as a woman who mothers, I have found so much. I would not want to lose any of the grace I have discovered when pots are boiling over, a leg gets broken, and we are late for church or soccer or bed. I have found in the cramp of yearning that has colored my years as a mother with creative dreams which knock me off my steady pace over and over again, that in this yearning, in this ache, is a certain medicine that women need. I want to deliver this medicine.
So in asking, you have given me a chance to tell you this. Yes, money would make it easier for my family to live while I work fully and completely, immersed in my book and the next, teaching and making this work available to women in need, it would send me to the Congo to help Eve or to Armenia with John to sit in circle with women whose stories bear agonies I have never known. Money would do all of that. But, if your offer is to ease the life I have, then I would rather that you hold it until I need it for these projects, for I would not want to be released from my hunger to create from inside motherhood, writing from inside a woman’s life.
Oh Uncle, I misunderstood you. I thought this gift came with reconciliation of social norms and our government so that all people in our land value the offerings that caregivers contribute by raising families. I thought this dream-come-true assured me that our health-care and education systems would be overhauled in order that mothers and fathers could have paid leave and thrive fully in their lives. I thought this came with gun control and solutions to climate change, the polar bears and white rhinocerii. Oh. I see, yes, now I see that I have over estimated your gift, I over estimated the power of money. I see this is not your offer. Forgive me.
In truth, it seems your offer is simply to let me live in my question so fully, so that I could just keep living in to it, like wind in sails, they don’t ask, they just fill. If that is the case, Uncle, I must tell you I don’t need the money. You can hold on to it until it is my time to go to the Congo or run that retreat with scholarships. Yes for that work, I will take it, but only when I need it.
Dear Uncle, thank you. Let us meet again in December 2016. I will have the pot on the stove, tea will be ready.
Your Quest2016 Prompt today: What I most need to tell myself about 2016 is…
The Quest is back. My loyal tribe of business artists making their way in to 2016 with clarified aims and newly discovered wealth and spirit is back to it’s robust sharing around the web. Since December 2014, I have applied myself to this quest mostly because I really love to work collaboratively on a topic and sometimes my writing life feels lonely. Yes, I teach. Yes, I have friends who I meet for tea. But all of my work is surrounded by the quiet solitude I need to listen, create, craft, and hone. To know that others are doing the same, questioning their aims and inspirations and owning their own gifts gives me immense courage. If you are curious about Tracking Wonder’s #Quest2016, go here.
Today’s prompt is from Susan Piver. Close readers of Laundry Line Divine might recall that I read Susan’s book, Start, Here, Now earlier this fall. Susan’s introduction to the practice of sitting meditation has completely enhanced my daily practice. Through her simple instruction, I have increased my sitting practice, which makes me feel more inner resilience when things get hot in the kitchen with my kids and allows me a clearer path to my creative work. As you may know, I am devoted to daily practices that support my well being and my work, with pleasure dwelling at the center. Susan’s approach to meditation has offered me a wealth of tools.
But, now, of course, she shows up as the first mentor offering a prompt today. Great. Of course, it is a question that I have wanted to answer; of course, she taps a vulnerable spot, which yields a few tears with the asking of it.
What do I most need to tell myself for 2016?
Here is the list:
1. That I am enough, just as I am.
2. That my work is worth the time I invest in it and my work is worth being paid a decent reliable sum.
3. That I can write anyway, even when I don’t feel the fuzzy thrum of ideas burbling, even if I don’t have a clue where I am headed, like right now, and even if my book feels like a large beast standing in the dark, being described by tiny little ant creatures feeling it with their tiny ant hands.
I have learned so much this past year. I have taught some amazing women from whom I have learned much. My brilliant mentors have bounteously taught me this year, way more than they likely realize, but gifts, gifts, gifts have cluttered my path all this yearlong.
“What we fear is more private, mysteriously belongs to everyone.”
But hearing is hard at this time of year, even when what I tell myself is what I most want to hear. The clanging of carols and the impending holidays amp up our sense of necessary doing so much so that our own self care can waddle off to a corner and wait out the month. My dear pal, Dr. Deb Kern posted about rituals that can support us this season here.
Like Deb, I amp up my rituals this month. I was raised in the Lutheran church and for all the distance I have between doctrine and my faith practice, I have held close the rituals that warmed me as a child and passed them on to my children. Even now, the Advent calendar is in the window and the dinner table is lit with a one candle for this first week of Advent. Catherine and I attended church this past Sunday and sang songs she has known since she was a tiny tot. I learned a few years ago how much I benefit from more quiet writing and art journaling during Advent. I apply lots of black gesso to my pages and write with white pens, silver paint and gold lettering. I begin to feel the season inside me, rather than feeling it foisted upon me. The more I let myself witness the dark, the more I feel advent happening inside me.
Something about light
how it comes surprisingly,
just when you’d accustomed yourself to dark,
surrendered to this now dark way as forever.
a cloud thins,
You just had to wait for it.
-Suzi Banks Baum
a small poem I wrote yesterday.
As we approach the Winter Solstice, you can expect lots of posts about seeing light. There will be a very special event here on Laundry Line Divine around the Solstice. Until then, I urge you to think of the image of a campfire this month. Set it to blaze in your mind and then bank it up, don’t let it flame out of control; don’t let it get too spread out. Gather your inner resources close by. At the grocery store just now, I bought small packets of scented bath salts on sale. This is one small move of self-care that increases my resilience in December. Baths warm me, and are a perfect time away from doing. My girl cut a board just longer than the edges of our bathtub so I can read a book safely while soaking in eucalyptus scented water.
To bank a fire is to cover the coals or embers with ashes or cinders, thus keeping the fire low but alive.
Let your fires burn low. Just as I found that definition of “banking a fire,” just beyond my screen a large red-tailed hawk landed on an oak branch just to the right of this sentence. Hawks appear in my life when I am beginning big adventures and this month, this Advent, these weeks before Solstice, before the holidays, before the arrival of 2016 feel just like that. A big adventure.
And what I most need to hear, when embarking on an adventure is, “I am enough. I am worth it. My work is worth it. And I can work, no matter what.”
Thanks to Susan Piver for the QUESTion today.
Please leave me a comment and let me know how you bank your fires during December. Also, share this post with a pal who may need a little boost in her self-care.
Thank you, always, for stopping in at the laundry line,
With a salute to the hawk,
Here are some of my other posts about Advent and art journaling my way towards the New Year.