I just returned from Lincoln, Nebraska where I was invited to teach and give the keynote at Makit Together an incredible craft camp. This was my first keynote and I was honored that I got to give it in a place and to people who were so welcoming.
Makit Together is hosted by Christy Nelson of Makit Takit Craft Studio and Kashoan Ward of MYONeedles. Aside from the keynote, I also taught two classes: Dream to Done: A goal getting class and Instagram for Creatives. The week went by in a flash. Christy, Kashoan and their team created a truly cozy and friendly event that was well executed where creativity and new friendships flourished. l loved the experience so much that I’m already counting down the days until the next Makeit Together and if you’re a maker, you should check it out.
Since most of you probably weren’t there, I decided to share the keynote speech I gave at Makit Together with all of you. It centers on letting go and how important presence is to creativity.
P.S. – Speaking of crafty events, discounted early bird registration for Craftcation Conference registration is open! Take a tour and join us for our 12th anniversary!
Keynote Speech - How to Make Einstein Jealous
Four years ago, I was laying on my back on the patio in my backyard crying. Not like cute little tears but like eyes swollen nearly shut from more hours of crying than not crying, like straight up ugly crying which had become my norm.
I was six months pregnant and was just released from a two-week stay in a specialty hospital after going into preterm labor at 24 weeks. Miraculously, and to the shock of all the medical personnel, I was still pregnant. I can’t tell you how many times I saw an ultrasound tech’s face morph from neutral to horror then to an awkward smile when they said, “ummm, technically you’re in labor right now.” to which I replied, “I know… I’ve been in labor for weeks.”
Eventually, my doctor sent me home, with the promise that I would probably be back and this time….. in a helicopter instead of an ambulance.
So there I was, freshly “free” from the hospital but on bedrest (aka house arrest with only my conscience and fear to keep me honest instead of an ankle bracelet). I was in my backyard pretending to do yoga but actually crying and obsessing about the very real possibility of taking a helicopter back to the hospital (I was not a mellow flier) and hoping I’d make it long enough to go to my local hospital and not the special one. I’d been a mess of nerves my whole high risk pregnancy, actually my whole life from inherited anxiety and OCD.
But now, I had real things to be scared of. The probability that things were going to be ok for my baby and me was low. That’s what the doctors and the internet reminded me of again and again, yet somehow I was still pregnant. A bundle of nerves yes but every day, every hour that I was still pregnant the statistics said our chances were better and even if it was just a fraction of a percentage, it was something and I was banking on it.
So, I’m laying there doing my fake yoga and I open my eyes and see this small brown thing slowly coming towards me. I wipe my tears, squint and realize it’s a leaf. I watch it float from the canopy of the oak trees above my patio. And for a few moments, I totally forgot about the doctors and statistics and just watched that leaf.
I mean I really watched it, like I had never seen a leaf fall before and maybe I hadn’t. I mean, who has time to sit and watch a leaf fall? Before I was trapped by doctor-prescribed bedrest and anxiety, I certainly hadn’t. Yet here I was watching this dead leaf sort of dance through the air, swaying back and forth and it was beautiful… the way the tree let go of the part of it that it no longer needed. I thought about how I could capture that moment, sketch the leaf, write a poem about the art and science of a leaf falling and in those moments where creativity took the place of fear, things seemed ok, calm even.
The thing is that the leaf doesn’t know when to let go. It’s the tree that sends out a message via a hormone to the leaf saying, let’s part ways. Then small cells appear where the tree meets the leaf. These cells have one job, to sever the tie. The name of this process is abscission, which literally means, to cut.
I thought about how my anxiety about my pregnancy and life in general wasn’t going to leave on its own, the same way the tree had to tell the leaf to get lost, it was my job to tell my anxiety to go. But, How the F was I supposed to do that?! I was as attached to my fear as the tree was to its leaf. Fear had been in my passenger seat, passing me beef jerky and Doritos on every adventure I’d been on throughout my life and a gentle, “see ya!” wasn’t going to be enough to sever our ties.
But, what I could do was start to let go. I didn’t have to do it in one fell swoop. I just needed to take baby steps. And those baby steps were all about paying more attention to the present moment just like I’d done when I watched that leaf and found something, anything to be thankful for and let the hands of creativity in to push fear aside.
Sometimes that meant writing every feeling and fear down in my black and white composition book the same way I journaled my way through teen angst and my differentness in junior high. Other times storytelling was my cathartic art as I shared with a nurse taking my blood pressure during one of my several times a week check-ins. That was when I started knitting.
My go-to craft has always been something messy or heavy or complicated or big like sewing or painting but I needed something that I could stash in my purse and do in my lap in the hospital and doctor’s offices so I learned how to cast on and knit and purl. It was also very unlike me to do a craft with no endgame in mind.
I’m the queen of trying a new craft and immediately jotting down a business plan, pricing structure and marketing strategy to turn weaving or macrame or clay jewelry into my next small business.
The thing about me knitting was, I couldn’t deal with making an actual thing. I don’t know if it was because my future was so uncertain and I didn’t want to end up looking at a half-done scarf or sweater and thinking of how things could have been if they’d have worked out. But, all I’d knit is these little 4×4 squares and when a nurse or tech asked me about them, I said I was going to stitch them together and turn them into a blanket… someday.
Part of me knew I was lying. I wasn’t knitting for pleasure. I was knitting to survive. I was knitting as therapy. I was knitting because it was my way of telling the fear to get lost like the tree had done to the leaf. Lots of us creatives do that. We make stuff because we literally have to. Because if we don’t, the voices telling us there’s no point to any of it and we have no purpose will get way too loud.
I’d used crafting as therapy in elementary school when I was the creative weirdo and made shoebox dioramas, crafting little bedrooms for imaginary dolls from cardboard and paper towels that were more comfortable than the world I was in at school where I always felt less than. I’d done it in my high school sketchbook, drawing nude women to unknowingly work through my feelings of queerness.
I’d done it in my journals since I wrote my first entry in my Hello Kitty diary in first grade which was “Today, I did see my friend,” l know, genius right. I started then and kept going my whole life… processing through making art and writing down everything about my heartache or fears or dreams.
Making stuff wasn’t something I had to make time to do. Making stuff was the thing that made me feel connected and purposeful and better.
Somehow as what I did to survive, making, became the thing I did for a living when I turned my crafts into a business in my early twenties, I started losing that primal need to make and the freedom that came with not caring how what I made would end up because no one was probably going to see it, unless I wanted them to.
I was tangled in the business of making. I judged every idea, everything I made, every craft I tried from the perspective of how it would be perceived by the world. Would someone love it and give it a home? Would someone shower it with compliments when they saw it in my booth at a craft fair? The unconditional love that I had for what I created had been replaced by pressure for my art to perform.
I rarely made time for making for pleasure. How could I when I didn’t make time for paying attention? Because like illustrator and art agent Lila Rogers said,
“Downtime is essential for creative thought.”
Us creatives have to make time to pay attention because those moments, like mine with the falling leaf are the ones where art is born.
We take that seed home and plant it in the soil of who we are and who we’ve been. That’s where we impart our perspective on that experience. The stories we’ve been told about ourselves from the people who raised us, our cultures, society, all of that plays a part in what we’ll create.
Then we see that little speck of green, the seed has sprouted and that’s when we rush to our sketchbook or sewing machine or knitting needles. That’s when our feelings and thoughts and emotions get transferred into creativity.
Then we nurture that plant by lovingly stitching or painting or drawing until those raw materials become something.
Now, this last step doesn’t always happen but it’s the part when you let go and plant it in the world for others to enjoy. This is when you share your art with the world. This part is not easy. It’s not easy to let go. It’s not easy to share the thing you poured yourself into with the world and hope they love it and care for it as much as you do.
Truly meaningful and magical things rarely are easy. But when you do share it and the right person sees it, they see not just the beauty of what you made but all the parts of you infused in it. You have recreated your experience in the world and if they’re paying attention and your art is meant for them, they will be moved, they will feel less alone, more connected and transported to the moment when you found that seed that became your art.
Creatives are miracle makers, we create something new from raw materials. We put our whole selves into what we make and then we muster up the courage and act brave even if we don’t feel 100% brave and we share it with the world.
I remember sitting in that hospital room frantically googling premature babies, desperately looking for success stories. I found out that Albert Einstein was born two months premature in 1879. That made me feel better. I just had to make it to 32 weeks. I mean Einstein was a literal genius and neonatal medicine was virtually non-existent nearly 150 years ago. It’s no surprise with a backstory like that to find out that Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
That’s how we creatives are meant to see the world, as though everything is a miracle. We are meant to pause and feel that miracle, be it a leaf falling or the sound of your teenage neighbor practicing violin (which by the way Einstein played) on a Sunday afternoon. Because if you pay attention, everything really is a miracle.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a snowflake, I mean really saw one. I was sitting on a porch in Lake Tahoe working and it started lightly snowing and I looked down at my black jacket, pulled my arm closer to my face and my brain almost exploded when I saw that a snowflake actually looks like how they’re depicted. They really are these tiny lacey mandalas that disappear in a few seconds. I wanted to run down the street and shout to every stranger I saw, “Have you seen a snowflake? They really look like snowflakes!”
I’d never taken the time to really see one before. I drew a snowflake in my sketchbook, which was a pretty literal translation of that moment that moved me. Sometimes the way we turn our miracle moments into art are more subtle. Maybe it’s that feeling of ethereal beauty that you had that comes out in a scarf you knit or dress you sew.
I want to have more leaf and snowflake moments but to have them, I need to pay attention and if you want those moments you’re going to have to pay attention too.
We must train ourselves to see the world and all the things in it as if we’re seeing them for the first time, paying attention and making art is how we remind ourselves and the world that everything is a miracle.
Of course, we can’t do this all the time. We’d be walking around like we were high 24/7, like, “Man, look at the tree. It’s such a tree. Dude.” We’d lose track of the things we have to do to be functioning adult members of society because if we’re constantly looking at every tree as if it’s as breathtaking as the Sistine Chapel (even though it is) we wouldn’t have time to go to Trader Joe’s or fold the dish towels or pay the bills and snacks and clean towels are pretty awesome too. We can’t marvel at everything all the time but we can make room for more, dude, look at that amazing tree moments.
My son, Luca was born (full term and healthy by the way) and two months later, a pandemic was also born. Luca and I spent a lot of time at home alone and in our backyard. He’d rest his head on my chest and look up at the same tree that had reminded me to pay attention, to let go, to be grateful and to make things.
He looked at the next generation of leaves and watched them dance in the wind with amazement, as if it was the most interesting thing in the world – which it was to him because he was seeing it for the first time. I was reminded again to be present and make time and space for creativity. I looked at the tree and at my baby both utter miracles that Einstein would have marveled at.
That’s what I want for you. More miracle moments. More marveling at everyday things. More space for creativity and time to transform what you experience into art. Now, all you have to do is pay attention and make some moments that would make Einstein jealous.