Whenever I get stuck and don’t know what to do, my hands start to itch and twitch…like they’re hungry.
My hands want to paint rocks or knit or organize a closet. They want to tear into a cookbook and make a meal we’ve never had. They want to build cairns by the river—or a faerie village in the woods. They want to dye that sweater a new color because the old one makes me look like I’ve got tuberculosis.
But do I “give in” and do that? Honor it? Not enough.
Do you know why?
- I’m too busy—I don’t have time.
- It’s not really productive—what’s the point?
- I’m feel like I’m procrastinating—avoiding doing the things that really matter.
- I don’t know what I’m doing—and I don’t wanna take a class.
Isn’t it sad the things we say to deny what is so primal?
Quick—raise your hand if you’re an artist.
(See that? What your head did just then—and what your hand most likely didn’t do?)
That’s what we do as adults—we deny (I wouldn’t say I’m an artist or anything…), we discount (I could never do half that stuff I see on InstaFace…), and we disassociate (I used to do creative things when I was younger…)
If I asked that same question to a group of four or five year old kids, most of the hands would fly up. Kids get it.
Creating isn’t about producing something or being an artist.
It’s about joy and color and mess and expression. It’s about life.
- I was an art major in college and I didn’t even use the word artist to describe myself until I was in my early 50s. Kind of like I finally started claiming the word writer after I wrote two books.
- Brené Brown talks about her own journey to creativity, quipping in an interview: “I used to think I didn’t have time for A.R.T. because I have a J.O.B.”
- Elizabeth Gilbert talks about creativity like a dog—”if you don’t keep throwing sticks for it, you’ll come home one day and it will have eaten the couch.”
- Sir Ken Robinson talks about how we “kill creativity” even though it’s as important as literacy: “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves”
- Tama Kieves writes about how our society has a way of take the joy out of creation with our obsession around criticism, perfectionism and achievement: “Like vultures, we’ll peck at the carcass of a piece until we lose all sight of its feathers and flight.”
How heartbreaking, right?
And yet…those hands continue to itch and twitch. Hungry, looking at the couch.I’ve worked with clients to create conscious transitions for nearly two decades, and I see the critical role our hands plan in helping us to unlock the doors to parts of ourselves we didn’t even know were there—or had forgotten.
And it generally goes the same way…
Client: I’m not doing anything remotely productive…I’m totally avoiding what I know I need to do. I’m doing stuff that has nothing to do with where I need to go.
Me: Huh. So what are you doing instead?
- I’m absolutely obsessed with building this stone wall in my backyard…Every chance I get, I find I’m sneaking outside to place a few more stones and then half a day goes by.
- I can’t stop thinking about this fire pit I want to build…and I finally bought the stuff. I ended up just going to town on it this weekend—I totally lost track of time.
- I drove by this chair someone was giving away, and next thing I knew it was in the back of my car and I was headed to the store to get fabric to reupholster it—I’ve been working on it all week and now I’m thinking about painting a dresser.
- I have this old wooden canoe I salvaged years ago that’s covered in bright yellow paint. I went into the garage for something else and ended up working on it all day, using a hand-planer to remove layer after layer of paint to get it back to the original wood.
- My dad left me one of his looms and I’ve never done much with it, but now I’ve been thinking about pulling it out and playing with it to see if I could figure it out.
All of these clients end these admissions with some version of this: It’s crazy, right? I know I’m totally wasting time….I’m avoiding…I’m procrastinating…I’m such a loser…What’s wrong with me?…Why can’t I get my $hit together and focus?
My clients then ask for some version of this from me: Call bull$hit on me, tell me to stop wasting my time, help me to see how ridiculous I’m being, kick me in the ass, get me to focus…
I don’t. Because change and transition follow rather predictable patterns, and I’ve been doing this work for long enough to see how they work to move people deeper inside their truth—and then forward to more inspired action(s).
I’ve seen what “wasting time” can yield and if that’s wrong, I don’t wanna be right.
So I say this instead:
- You know you’re building more than a stone wall out there, right? Do you see how you’re building your life—stone by stone, with a lot of intention and care?
- Do you see how a fire pit represents a place to gather—to burn the dead wood and illuminate the dark of night, even be nourished by a meal? Isn’t that what you said you wanted?
- Honoring the itch to repurpose, reupholster, and reimagine all the functional “furniture” in your life…do you see how you’re seeing things around you—and what’s possible—with fresh eyes?
- You know you’re scraping more than bright yellow paint off that old canoe, right? And by lovingly returning it to its natural state, you’re returning yourself to what you’d forgotten about yourself?
- Do you see how that old loom your dad gave you will show you how to take all these disparate threads of your life and weave them into something beautiful and strong?
It’s not that this is all my clients do to get where they want to go.
But it generally begins by giving their itchy and twitch hands something “productive” to do—so their mind, body, spirits—their soul—can really start speaking to them.
What if instead of talking about making art or being creative we simply asked,
How have you been using your hands these days?
Last year, a client of mine insisted I drop everything and go get a copy of the book Making a Life: Working by Hand and Discovering the Life You are Meant to Live by Melanie Falick.
You simply must have it, Lael (my clients are quite emphatic.)
The first chapter sung to me like an aria.
Keep Looking at Your Hands.
The author talks about going to a conference and attending a lecture from this guy who was all about information graphics. Instead, he held up this small wooden boat that he had carved for his grandson.
“He reminded us to never let the lure of technology or business overshadow the value we place on working with our own hands….Technology is a great tool, but it will never be a substitute for human work and ideas. Keep looking at your hands.”
Think of anything that has even been created—a business idea, an entire industry, a book you loved, your favorite restaurant, an ATM, an iphone, a Netflix series, a well-crafted argument or bombproof resolution, an award-winning podcast or Broadway play—and you can trace its roots back to someone who was just “wasting time”
Tricia Hersey (author of Rest as Resistance: A Manifesto) talks about it this way:
I am all about disruption and pulling back the veil, so naturally this idea intrigued me.
“Rest is a vehicle to disrupt the grind. When you’re in the grind there is no time to make connections. The more I rest, the more connections I make. Connections are what help to pull back the veil. There needs to be a pause—and we’re going to have to take it. No one is going to give it to us.”
It feels deliciously heretical, counter-cultural, and wonderfully subversive.
So this winter, I’m experimenting with taking a sabbatical to really go deep into experiment for four weeks.
I recently read Katherine May’s book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times and it seems she experienced much the same “itch” that coincided with winter:
“Winter is a time for the quiet arts of making…In winter, I want concepts to chew over in a pool of lamplight—slow, spiritual reading, a reinforcement of the soul. In winter, I can spend hours in silent pursuit of a half-understood concept or a detail of history….Winter opens up time.”
Her best advice?
Keep your hands moving.
So while I have a ridiculously ambitious pile of books to read (eyeroll), but I also have two hands that will keep me honest—and pull me back into true.
But unlike the summer months when I plow ahead and move with bold actions and the clarity of sight that comes from the sun being high in the sky—the winter months are my time to be humbled by what I don’t know.
To follow where I’m led. And notice where I’m being taken.
I swear it all begins with looking at your hands. They will show you the way forward if you let them.
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