Creating space to create

I hope this post finds you well and easing into holiday things. I’ve seen my days take a very nocturnal turn recently, in a good way. Where we are, the sun sets by 4:30 pm. As elsewhere, a longer part of the day is now spent in darkness. We are also currently under a stay-at-home advisory in Illinois, so the usual holiday visits and anticipatory shopping trips have been replaced, this year, by nights at home. These conditions have given me the opportunity to explore the unique qualities and possibilities of nighttime.

I am biased, of course. I have long been a night owl who has had to learn to curb my nocturnal habits in order to participate in daytime things. I love mornings, in theory. Every well-organized sunlit workspace I’ve seen on Pinterest has given me the feeling that daytime is the best time — it’s when we fry sun-coloured eggs in a pan, brew hot energizing drinks, migrate to the work-desk, and expend our efforts. Light allows plants to photosynthesize, makes colours vivid, and makes us feel good. In reality, though, I hit my stride in the late afternoon. My mornings tend to be a bit of a mental jumble. My thoughts flood with the numerous to-dos of the day; it’s as though waking up twists the handle on a spigot and out everything comes, all at once. For this reason, organizing tasks and being productive in the daytime often feels like corralling wayward sheep — doable, but requiring that I marshal my mind’s most industrious herder dogs.

Most days, my inner border collie looks like this… (I’m sure this means that I need better organization methods, or at least more caffeine).

BUT. As the sun sets, a shift happens. The call to activity quiets down, and I properly wake up. A stillness and slowness begins to set in at around 4:30 pm (dusk, here) bringing a feeling of calm and openness — a smoothness to things, and a freedom from daytime rushing around. There’s time to uncoil, and I can almost feel my retinas relax and become newly receptive again. Seeing and sensing the outside things is replaced with seeing inside things in the mind’s eye (characters, scenes, colours… little animals). Night is the time for fireplaces and candles, imagination and inward thoughts. I believe the word-friendship between “hearth” and “heart” is revealing.

I hope I don’t sound like a villain, but I love the night. I’m cultivating this night-time creativity and have started practicing a creative ritual at sundown (4:30-5:30 pm): I light a candle or two, turn on my favourite lamp (the one with the orange glow), queue up a nocturnal playlist, brew a cup of non-caff tea, and give myself an hour to create before dinner — whether writing, editing photos, drawing, knitting… whatever my heart desires of the day. It’s the hour I give myself to set my creative hearth/heart alight. It’s a warm and comforting time for pencils and inks, music, doodling, and orange light. Like all good things, it is bookended by cooking. 🙂 As we approach the cold days, painting and comics have become my staple.

Here’s my messy creative space, replete with handmade pom poms, some unfinished weaving, and deer pals (I am a clutterbug).

The elements of the space are simple and few:

  • colour pencils
  • gouache paints
  • primary watercolours
  • Copic multiliner pens
  • Black Magic and Winsor & Newton inks
  • brushes, brushes, brushes
  • laptop for reference images
  • speakers
  • my big ringed sketchbook
  • a lit candle to signal that the creative light is ‘on’
  • and a copy of Lynda Barry’s Making Comics (2019) which has been inspiring some new artwork and thinking about artwork (more on this in an upcoming post)

In the meantime, here is a little bird-friend — a portrait in gouache of my childhood parakeet, Richard, who was with us for 7 years and was known to mistake a plate of red spaghetti for worms (we let him fly around, he loved it). He is showing me how to glow in the dark.

Until next time. 🙂

The Book of Change

The last days. The last hours. I have found it hard to concentrate, despite my best attempts at unplugging and focusing on the present moment. The present is fraught.

This afternoon, between calls and texts and updates galore, I decided to help myself through this tense collective moment by doing an I Ching reading. It is a thing that I do for myself, once in a while, when I feel in need of guidance or counsel. I Ching: The Book of Change is a Chinese text of divination, completed in the 3rd century BCE. It consists of a series of hexagrams (a symbol made up of 6 lines, see below) which are generated by those who consult it using divinatory actions: traditionally, the division and counting of bundles of flower sticks (from the yarrow root) or, more commonly today, through coin tosses that are rendered into the individual lines of the hexagram.

From the little that I understand (I am still studying), the principle underlying the I Ching is that the world is constituted by Heaven and Earth (agentive forces and receptive forces) which interact and generate the cosmos in a state of constant flux and change. The I Ching rests on a concept of reality as dynamic, generative, ever-emergent and coming into being. Its use participates in, and is a part of, this reality — consulting it is what translator David Hinton calls “a distilled moment in the process of change” (2015, xi).

Given this understanding of continuous unfolding, the role of the I Ching was to help people discern where they were in a process of transformation, and provide wisdom in choosing the best course of action for the future. The I Ching is a tool of practical philosophy, consulted in the spirit of agency, making decisions, and viewing these decisions in connection with cosmological forces and processes.

Consulting the I Ching will often produce one or several hexagrams (out of a set of 64 possible outcomes) that help the reader understand a current state of affairs and discern a course of action. In other words, a reading doesn’t “predict the future” but is more of an image-rich, evocative, and poetic description of the forces that guide change in a given circumstance. If you flip through the book, you’ll notice that each of the 64 symbols is a metaphorical world unto itself. Each one explores transformation through features of nature — an element, a process, a characteristic, a particular image from the natural world, and the qualities associated with it. From the themes, symbols, and images that emerge, readers can find what is useful for them. To be sure, there are many cultural concepts that may not translate easily for modern-day users — themes around emperors and kingdoms, concepts of consciousness and its relation to the Cosmos, and gendered ideas that I continue to question. But, then again, the hexagrams describe facets of transformation that continue to resonate, evoke, and stir echoes in ways that still prove meaningful for readers today.

Well. This is a lot of preamble to say that I did a reading — not to call the election(!), but to help myself reflect throughout this week while providing myself with resources for adopting a generative outlook, come what may. SO, coins were tossed and a hexagram was made. Not an expert and very much a dabbler, I’ve taken bits and pieces, direct quoted, from different translations of the I Ching [a combination of selective translations by Richard Wilhelm (1968) and David Hinton (2015)] to constitute an I Ching poem that says something discernible to me. I welcome any thoughts from more seasoned readers and users.

The hexagram that arose reflects on the theme of Confluence, which the Oxford English online dictionary defines as the “junction of two rivers.” The themes, images, and symbols that emerged (below) feel very timely and seem to resonate with the situation and challenges ahead. They are helping me to reflect on commonality; find possibilities for union in difference; and find a center in an uncertain moment. A tall order. None of which I feel prepared for. Can I, for instance, truly appreciate and realize that “confluence begins with strangers”? Can I tend to it and nurture it “with the dedication of a bird sitting on eggs”? Questions.

Anyhow. An unusual post for unusual times. I hope that you’re finding hope and solace this week.

hexagram 8

Holding together, union, junction, merging, confluence

Associated image: water on the earth, converging, flowing together

What is required is that we unite with others, in order that all may complement and aid one another through holding together. But such holding together calls for a central figure around whom other persons may unite. To become a center of influence holding people together is a grave matter and fraught with great responsibility. It requires greatness of spirit, consistency and strength. Therefore, let him who wishes to gather others about him ask himself whether he is equal to the undertaking, for anyone attempting the task without a real calling for it only makes confusion worse than if no union at all had taken place… But when there is a rallying point, those who at first are hesitant or uncertain gradually come in of their own accord….Common experiences strengthen these ties… (Wilhelm translation).

Begin in confluence, with the dedication of a bird sitting on eggs, and you never go astray. Live as a vessel brimful, with the dedication of a bird sitting on eggs, and you live at ease with good fortune whole and through to completion.

Begin in confluence from all that lies within you, and good fortune is inexhaustible indeed.

Confluence begins with strangers.

Inquiring at the source with shaman-flower sticks*, where you live all origins inexhaustible and on and on. How could you ever go astray? In this, you live centered as a steely mountain in cloud.

(Hinton translation)

[*traditional method of I Ching divination by dividing + counting a bundle of 50 flower stalks]

Macramé

There’s something about macramĂ© that makes me very nostalgic. Not for the 1970s, but the 1990s.

A dear friend and I spent a holiday night, last January, crafting macramé keychains for the fun of it. As we knotted the thick ropes, I realized that macramé resembles one of the very first crafts I ever learned: friendship bracelets (remember those?).

Camilla Gryski’s Friendship Bracelets, which sold at my elementary school book fair, was the first craft-book I ever used to teach myself a new skill.

It was the late 90s, and I was in my last years of elementary school. In our small schoolyard world, friendship bracelets were right up there with GAP perfume, jeans with torn cuffs, and over-sized Disney-NBA jerseys. I remember that a few of my friends bought Friendship Bracelets one year, and we started the hobby together. I remember going to the local mall-craftstore to buy a handful’s worth of embroidery floss. I remember how we challenged ourselves to try more complicated patterns — first, the simple “spiral” cord, then diagonal stripes, the arrowhead, then X’s and O’s. The brave and determined makers tackled the formidable ‘double-thickness’ bracelets. I remember the process of choosing from all those vivid colours of floss, the feel of the smooth, separable strands, and the sheen of the little completed knots, lined up like tiny pearls. The point of all of this was to trade what we made. The swap brought its own joys — the moment of reveal, the rite of tying a bracelet to your friend’s wrist at recess, the warm feeling of loved-labour given away. Creativity, new skills, and sharing — aren’t those the things most beloved by craftspersons?

But I digress. To return to the macramĂ©… Last April, I was in the process of winding up the last bits of thesis writing. Being homebound and under lockdown meant getting much more acquainted with my inner critic (!) than I’d expected. It was a nervous time. I needed a way to wind down. Not too long before, I had borrowed a copy of Fanny Zedenius’ MacramĂ© – the craft of creative knotting for your home and had recently ordered a large spool of cotton cord.

I was grappling with a few writing tangles at the time, and I guess this knot-based craft felt comforting and appropriate. MacramĂ© suggested, in its form, that a ‘knot’ was not inherently a bad thing. In the right situation, a knot was a design element (this made me feel better about all of the “knots” left in my paper… it’s just written macramĂ©, after all).

So I started a new project. An hour before bed, I’d hang my dowel on the back of the bathroom door where the light is good, queue up a talk or podcast, and let my fingers do the rest.

It was a straightforward project, but it helped me get through a tricky writing period. The cords are substantial — full of heft and weight and texture. In contrast to knitting and crochet, macramĂ© makes you wrestle a bit. And when I finished the project, I hung it proudly on the wall of my crafting/writing nook.

My favourite part of the project was combing out the rope-ends to make swishy tassels, then cutting them level — very “doll hairstylist” (though it seems I cut a tress too short. Whoops).

Now, I’m trying to figure out what this cotton spool can do next…

Happy Monday. Wishing you good things on the make!

Back to the Blog, Take 2

It has been exactly one year and 12 days since my last blog post. I feel like that last post was just a blink ago. So much has changed since that time. Big things and small things. Thinking back to that period makes me realize how much I took for granted, and how much I am grateful for.

I thought it was about time to reflect on where the time has gone, and take an inventory (even if only for my own edification). Here are some highlights:

A Retreat

I spent some time in September 2019 on a silent (solo) retreat at an Anglican convent. I am not an Anglican, and it may sound like a strange thing to enter a convent right after getting married(!). But I found myself approaching the end of 2019 — after months of planning, and still attempting to make a dent on my academic work — in need of a serious period of recharge. The community of kind sisters at St. John the Divine (in Willowdale, Ontario) allow guests to customize their own retreats, and I thought the idea of spending some time in nature and silence would be restorative. I ended up spending a little over a week with them in solitude, reflection, and the green quiet of their grounds. Even meals were taken in silence. The stay was the perfect time & place to rest and recover. They had a medium-sized stone labyrinth that gave me many happy moments of walking meditation. If you have not tried a labyrinth, I recommend it.

After years of late-night work sessions and an irregular grad student schedule, I found the bell-timed rhythms of convent life very regulating and calming. The sisters, I discovered to my delight, also produced some truly beautiful lacework. No surprise that the contemplative life gives time to yield beautiful things (and finish puzzles, it seems).

I found myself leaving the retreat feeling much more centered.

A new job and a Defense under lockdown

This rest prepared me to start a new job in October, and eased my transition to part-time teaching again after 6 years of research and writing. Maybe it was the effect of the verdant surrounds with the sisters, but something in me felt green and open-hearted, ready to instruct and mentor students. It took some time and patience to make the shift to teaching after being in writing mode for so long, but I truly enjoyed this work.

Come January, I decided that 2020 would be the year that I finally earned my degree. My time in my Ph.D. program had dragged on into well over a decade (12 years!), and the resources spent were beginning to take a toll, in several senses. I was determined to graduate. I spent the subsequent months writing what was left to write (an Introduction and a Conclusion) while allowing myself to focus on only the most-needed revisions.

In the midst of that final push, our state’s COVID “shelter in place” order began; it started in March and lasted for 3 months, until the end of June. The good news, for me: classes were taught (online), students mentored, the thesis was done and submitted, and the degree was received. But my inadvertent switch to passive voice points to the stress and strangeness of the past 7 months — the ways in which, while ticking the TO DO boxes of life, I also felt somewhat dissociated and at a remove from things.

My Zoom thesis Defense happened in the living room, in front of two screens, some written notes, a cup of tea, and a picture of mom and dad back home.

Nowadays

These days…coping with multiple-scales and sorts of stressors has become the norm; I know that I am very much not alone in this. This period is acquainting me with anxiety all around — viral, professional, political, existential, relational (and on and on) as the bonds in my and others’ lives become even more tenuous. The relief of zoning out into everyday tasks — laundry, a trip to the grocery store — alternates with moments of gut-squeezing immediacy and realness. From my position as a person with Asian & African American heritage in particular, I feel ongoing grief at the current political and social situation — at witnessing systems of rhetoric, policing, and viral threat collude to harm and bring about the loss of precious lives. I dare to believe that a more just world is possible than what we have created, and want to align my energies towards that world.

These days, I am healing by making space for hope. Blogging will be part of that hopeful space. I’m opening myself to discovering different ways to serve, be present, amplify voices for justice, and steward recovery, within my capacity (even if small). I stay afloat by reading all of the wonderful books I wasn’t able to in past years, and am drawing strength from heroes, old and new.

I’m doing research and diving deep into my history, heritage(s), and identity, endowing this knowledge with value, sharing it with family and others, and holding it up as a shining gem; in doing this, I counter the words and actions of those who don’t yet see the value of the lives and legacies I hold dear. During tougher moments, I remind myself, simply, to take care of myself.

I hope that you are all staying as well as can be in the midst of these times. I hope that you’re finding a sense of safety and support from your near-and-dears, and I hope that, whatever your hands are working on, making is helping you to create spaces of peace, rest, relief, and love.

Speaking of makes, there are projects to discuss. I promise lighter reading on future posts! Things have been made, and they will be written about! Until next time. ❤️

Hip to be Square

Hello, folks. I hope mid-February finds you well. Happily, I am coming out of my yarn pause. Not by knitting something new but by learning a new skill: I’ve decided to make good on my effort to start learning crochet.

In early 2017, I took up the hook and tried some rows of single crochet with an old scrappy bit of bright rainbow acrylic yarn – the first skein of yarn I ever bought in high school with which (YES) a garter-stitch belt was made! (and worn). Single-crocheting, I felt confident and even hazarded a hacky sack formation.

Revisiting my first skein of yarn, ever. Bought at the White Rose craft shop in Scarborough, Ontario.

I met my match, however, in the form of the granny square. Despite the tutorials, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around granny square logic. I frequently lost count of my stitches, shells, and chains. Diagrammed patterns confused rather than clarified. After making one too many lopsided square-ish things, I resignedly put down my lone hook and decided crochet just wasn’t for me.

Fast forward 2 years and a month: I catch a glimpse of a granny square garland on Pinterest and feel my crochet-fingers re-ignite and search out that little lone hook, long-hidden under a clattery heap of DPNs. And, what do you know – the first square happened that very night (with 5 more since then!). The stitches suddenly clicked into square-shaped place. Proof that sometimes learning takes place during (lots of) time off.

I am happily waking up to crochet. I like the “verticality” of crochet chains, the way they grow up and outward really fast. I like the smooth, metallic bend of the hook, designed to find its way through stitches easily, but not the other way around. I like that crocheting requires a much lighter hold with the yarn-hand – it eats up yarn quite voraciously, so any clutching or tightening of yarn only results in tight stitches and slowed flow. I like the logic of crochet, too – chains upon chains upon chains, all held together in different configurations. And, I like the toughness of crocheted fabric – it’s thick and solid and feels strong enough to walk on.

I placed my very first successful granny square with my doe doll. I’ve assigned her the important role of Keeper and Guardian of the Granny Squares and, accordingly, Steward of the Crochet Spirit, with the hopes that I don’t lose my crochet verve again. Is that too loopy? (pun intended). Either way, I think she enjoys her new gig.

What are you making this month?

Until next time, looking lightward!