Stars of the heart, now open wide!
All frozen roots that once had died,
rise again, oh rise!
from Carol of Hope by Jane Tyson Clement
I sit having brunch with a sweet friend who also happens to be widowed with two young children. I am telling her about part time work that I’ve recently accepted. “It’s such a small step,” I say. “but a big one…” she answers back with certainty and strength.
A couple of months later I order business cards with vintage typewriters on the front. I register for a writer’s conference where I might actually get some use out of them. I snap a picture of my business cards on my phone and send them to another friend. “It’s your business card!! AWESOME!!!” this very enthusiastic friend replies. “Small steps,” I say. “Small but huge,” she responds.
So many steps have been forced for so long. So many things had to be done that were all about letting go, ceding. So many lingering to-do lists about tearing down, raking up. The theme of small being large is not unfamiliar territory. Closing a shared bank account- small, but so huge. You keep the final banking slip. You can’t let that go also. Changing the sheets on a shared bed for the first time “after”: a simple act, but monumental. That takes nine months. Finding yourself sitting in the middle of that queen sized bed one afternoon four years later for the first time- in…the…middle. Small steps, but such a very long distance. You just sit there silently, gazing around at the strange, new topography.
I begin to move out of my foxhole. Last spring I printed out a sign that says “Small Steps Every Day” and leaned it against the books at my desk where I see it every time I sit here. “Nothing happens until something moves,” said Einstein. Small steps are movements towards being unstuck. A little like the steps I took in my Brooklyn neighborhood at 41 weeks pregnant trying to kick my body into labor to avoid being induced, down Ridge Boulevard and out to the pier where I could see the tip of Manhattan on one side and the Verrazano on the other. Labor started on the way home.
Even small steps can be very, very frightening. We don’t know exactly what we’ll birth when movement starts. We are moving out of what is known–even if it’s completely awful, it is known– into… what is unknown.
But once you have taken them, never underestimate the momentum set in motion by those first weak and wavering steps. It’s not just physics: mass and velocity. It’s the force of life itself- “all this juice and all this joy,” as Hopkins describes it in his poem, “Spring.”
What we’re really doing in these small steps is incarnating the invisible. That’s why it sometimes feels premature and awkward. To create a business card when you don’t really have a business? Come up with a blog name when you have no blog? Take a job when you have no idea where it’ll go? Only the Creator spoke things into being. Our first task was just the naming of things. We build more slowly- with scaffolding and cranes. But in the process of incarnation, we build a home for what we’re trying to call into being. We clothe the invisible so that we can see it.
I take a walk almost every day, but sometimes I plan it and have my workout clothes on and other times I squeeze it in my day and wear whatever I had on. I’ve found that when I’m wearing my workout clothes my walk is much more focused and productive. I put on the clothes of a walker or runner, and I am one. In a similar way, I recently hung up a bunch of quotes by writers I enjoy by my desk. I didn’t put them up there for decor or for anyone else. I was incarnating the writer in me- creating a home for the body of my work. I sit at the desk with quotes and photos of Didion and Plath beside me, and I am a writer.
The act of writing itself is an act of incarnation- to sit with trembling fingertips at keys or with pen in hand and to call forth something invisible. Each word is an incarnation of the idea. One does not know what one will birth and that can be downright frightening. Dorothy Sayers, in her important work, “The Mind of the Maker,” said mans’ creative process reflected the integral structure of the universe and is Trinitarian by nature: first, the Idea or imagining of the work; second, the Energy- or incarnation; third, the Power- the meaning of the work, often determined by its audience. She likened each part of the process to the Father, the Word, and the Spirit. “When the writer’s Idea is revealed or incarnate by his Energy, then, and only then, can his Power work on the world,” wrote Sayers. The Idea is timeless and complete when it’s begun. But the Energy- that is the work part, and for me, often where I get stuck. I am never at a loss for ideas, with “writer’s block,” but I am often terrified of what I will birth. Will it live up to the Idea currently in my imagination? Or will it collapse like clothes with no body, no substance?
When I write I rarely go into it with resolve: “I’m going to sit down and write!” because that is just too scary to make known. I usually try to sneak in unbeknownst to myself by opening up a blank page and saying I’ll just write the title, and then getting up to make a cup of tea, write a few more words and then scroll around online looking for something for the house- a few more paragraphs and let me look something up in that book that might work here- and eventually I’ve lured myself in and hours have passed. If you must take your steps this way – so be it. It still works.
While Idea does not live in space, Energy incarnates Idea so that it lives in time-space.Be wary of letting ideas atrophy because you lack the discipline or follow through to incarnate them. You can not take your steps in your mind.You must take them in time-space and make them material. Create the business card, paint the picture, play the piano keys. Because the creative act, whether you’re starting a business, making art, or recreating your own identity, takes place in space- your surroundings are often very important. Your physical space may be the home of your incarnation in many ways. That might be the “magic of tidying up” that the trendy Japanese organizer that made me start folding my socks instead of balling them up is speaking of.
For a long time now- over a year- my bedroom has been a mess- I mean, really a mess. I’ve been stepping over things to get into bed and sleeping next to a pile of stuff. I’d spoken about it with therapists and my best friend. They told me to start with one section. My friend told me to just donate it all and not try to sell it. “You’ll feel so much better,” she said. There were practical reasons for the mess- we have a small apartment and I’d been redoing my daughter’s whole room and while I was trying to sell all of her old toys and furniture- I shoved them in my room so the rest of the house could remain presentable for guests and livable for us.
Still, I have always been extremely neat and organized, so there also seemed to be something the draining energy of that room, with the door so often closed to hide its mess, was saying to me. I mentioned it to my 93 year old spiritual director the last time I saw her, and she suggested I sit in the space and ask God why it was like this. I realized there was very little of “me” in the room, and therefore little space for me. There was a ton of my daughter’s old clothes and toys bagged up, and there was a large desk that was my husband’s staring at me from the bed. No one sat at it and it just collected dust and other items on top.
In the room I saw a grieving woman and a mother, but I did not see myself. I had been hesitant to incarnate and make space for the new identity that was emerging. There are many reasons for that. I bagged up about six or seven big IKEA bags of stuff and donated it. I sold a few other things. There was a little improvement, but nothing striking. Then I took one of those small, but huge steps. I sold my husband’s desk. It was strange to see it gone, but immediately I felt that momentum kick in. Incarnation in present time-space takes Energy, and energy is drained when we are holding onto things from a past time-space. Every step forward is usually a step away from something else. I let my daughter sleep at her grandparent’s house and spent a few hours cleaning that room one Friday night. Surprisingly, what looked like such a mess only took a few hours to completely clean up.
In Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir “Carry On, Warrior,” she talks about a similar clean-up after her first AA meeting. She describes how she and her sister sat on her bed in silence after the meeting looking around at her disastrous room which she describes as looking “as if my insides had spilled out onto the floor.” But her sister starts to pick up one piece of trash at a time, and then Glennon joins her, “We hung up every piece of clothing, wiped down every gritty surface, poured out every hidden bottle of booze. We worked silently, side by side, for two hours. Then we sat back on my bed and held hands. My room looked so different. It looked like a place where a girl might want to live…it was the beginning.”
Glennon had taken the first small steps towards her reincarnation. She had made material space for the new person she was becoming.
The Easter bunny brought Audrey a lovely compilation called “Easter stories,” and we read the first one together Sunday night. It’s called “The White Lily.” In the story, an old peasant named Ivan, lives near a village with his mangy dog and neglected six year old nephew, Peter. They were dirty, and their cottage was filthy and unkept. People feared them because of their appearance and unpleasantness. Not a single flower grew in their garden, only weeds. But one day while everyone is waiting for spring to come, Ivan sees a man coming towards him on his way back from the village. For some reason, Ivan, who usually makes no eye contact, looks at the man, who smiles at him. The man is holding beautiful white, glowing lilies and says, “One of them is yours.” Ivan says he can’t pay for it, and the stranger says that all he has to do is “keep the flower clean and pure.”
Ivan carefully carries the lily home and once there, Peter and Ivan decide to put the flower in an old wine bottle, but before they touch it, they must wash their hands, and then they bring the bottle to the well to wash it also. When they put it in the window sill, “its glow lit the dim and dingy room, and as they looked at it a wonder rose in Ivan at all the filth around him. ‘This fair lily cannot live in such a place!’ he said aloud. I must clean it.” And so you can imagine, that one small step leads to another until Peter and Ivan have cleaned their whole house, themselves, their dog, and their garden. Neighbors find them unrecognizable. The lily vanishes after seven days leaving them with a transformed life. “The lily still lives, though we see it no longer,” they say in the last line.
Audrey and I talk for a long time about the story. She points out to me that if Ivan hadn’t chosen to take the flower, he never would’ve had the chance to transform his life. She seems really fixated on this point. The flower brought to life, or incarnated, a different Ivan and Peter. Its beauty gave them the impetus and Energy for transformation. And the Power was seen by their neighbors who befriended them. “It all started with the white lily,” Audrey says. “Yes,” I say, “and Ivan didn’t ask for it and was given it for free. That seems like grace right?”
After I cleaned my room that Friday night, I sat browsing online for a few ways to make it prettier. I order a linen duvet cover in lilac, nightstands with plenty of room for books, and for over the bed- an oversized black and white photograph of cascading flowers.Just living our lives is a great creative process full of decisions, small steps and incarnations. It is not the shallow transformation we enjoy watching in movies or makeover shows to a catchy soundtrack. It is often the slow, persistent steps of someone with very little energy working to the soundtrack of concentrated silence. It is not necessarily the glorious sunlit blossoms of spring, but the intensity of dark soil and buds breaking out of painful confinement. Birthing rooms are messy. There will be losses and letting go. You may have to sneak in or tiptoe around your terrified Ego to get the work started. “Nobody but a god can pass unscathed through the searching ordeal of incarnation,” writes Sayers. But the reward of the scaffolding, cranes, and labor pains is rich: new life, new creation.
Happy Easter. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never put it out.”