Brave Wandering Practice

10 23 15

I’m winding my way through the Quest2016 Questions…Here’s some pondering on last week’s prompt from Todd Henry, “foremost voice and authority on how teams and individuals can execute brilliant ideas every day.” He’s also author of a lot of good sounding books*. Here’s the question at hand:

It takes bravery to know your strengths and operate diligently within them. Are you running your race, or someone else’s? 

Races imply finish lines.

That would imply that I have been training and signed up for something and I stood with bated breath at the starting line when the gun went off for some sort of competition. That I am running among some crew of people that are vying to cross some sort of finish line first. Argh. All of that competition makes it so easy to get off course. I know that is not what this question is getting at, but why do I have to be running a race? The competition, the anxiety, the stress, the singular focus?

I know – it’s a metaphor. I get it. It’s probably mean and snarky that I’m saying it doesn’t work for me.

But that helps me hone in on what this question does mean.

If I were to re-write the question, it would ask: It takes bravery to know your strengths and operate diligently within them. Are you charting your own back-country trek, or someone else’s? 

You see, I don’t know exactly what I am doing here. So ‘race’ just doesn’t seem like the right metaphor**. I’m not on a course. It’s not a 5K or a marathon. And it’s not that I’m just not in a race, I don’t particularly want to be racing. That just implies some sort of short term over-exertion followed by a finish line.

I want practice.

Regular. Daily. Practice.


Practice. To get quiet. To tune in to the voice inside. To play. To uncover my strengths, and through repetition, repetition, repetition – hone them to become as easy as breathing deep. So that when there is a race to run (an article due, a house to design, a poem to write, a prompt to respond to, a book to write) it’s second nature to line up at the starting line and stay focused and sprint in a totally-perfect-to-me-way on that one jaunt – and then recover and keep training and be ready for the next race.

Because this isn’t just one race. And if I face whatever this one creative life is as a race – and not a wonder-filled and wandering journey – if I pretend that I already know the route and the destination – I think I’ll be selling myself short. Just think of all of the trees and skylines and vistas and sunrises and sunsets that I won’t see if I am just focused on one thing ahead.

So, instead of #BraveRace, maybe it’s just #BraveWanderingPractice

*Todd Henry’s books:

**Okay, so I am on a little bit of a race. Today is Day #352 of the #365Quote Project, which is really just a year of very specific, yet not-very-specific practice. If this were a race (which is isn’t, because I just can’t quite see it ending on January 10th) that day would be my finish line. And, what have I learned in this race? I’ve learned that I need practice. That it take a lot of wearing-my-blinders kind of practice to stay honed and centered on what my voice is. What it feels like it coming from me, and not what I think others want to hear. And, to stay tied to that feeling of authentic curiosity and creativity that is sparked from within, and from DIT – not just from following some LEGO kit***.

***Building with LEGO kit instructions makes kids less creatives (Psychology Today)
+ Why You Should Care About LEGO and Creativity (Note to Self)
+ Are Legos Stifling Creativity? (UW Business School)


In Service of Clarified Butter

2 9 15
Early on in the #365Quote Project. February 9, 2015.

For this (I’m-super-behind) Quest2016 prompt CHRIS BROGAN asks us

How will you better clarify whom you serve and what you do for them in 2016?

I’ve noodled this. I’ve put it off for a week. Because 1) there is no oomph for me right now – everything in life feels temporarily very stuck – including words and feelings, 2) all the answers are (unabashedly?) selfish feeling and 3) all I can actually think about is clarified butter.

So let’s start there, with the butter – because there is nothing better than butter. I swear it runs in my veins. I’m not kidding. Butter, unlike liquid oils is part fat, a small portion water and 1-2% milk solids. Because of the milk solids and water, it doesn’t take nearly as much heat to brown or burn butter – when compared to other fats. So, clarified butter just the fatty goodness of butter, without the water and milk solids – and it’s required if you are, say, frying or high-heat-long-time cooking something in butter. (Let’s just pause here and say – YUM).

In theory, making clarified butter is easy. In theory, almost everything is easy – no? Throw your butter into a heavy pan, heat at a low temperature until it melts. Until the (totally delicious) milk solids float to the top and some of the water evaporates off. Skim off the milk solids, strain the liquid through cheesecloth – voila – clarified butter. But, cook it too hot, you get browned butter (still delicious, but not what you are going for). Cook it too hot and too long, hot burnt mess. Don’t cook it long enough, just a pile of melted butter. And, you’ve gotta skim, and pour – and anyone who knows me can voice that I am terrible at pouring anything. So, it takes some attention. Some focus.

Distilled. Impurities removed. Clean. Clear. Condensed. Powerful. Refined. Purified. Specific.

Clarified butter serves a very specific purpose. High heat. You can’t really use it for baking. It’s not so much fun to spread on bread.

But, you’re probably getting tired of the butter analogy, so I’ll move on.

And here comes the selfish part – when I think about who I serve and why – the answer is me me me me me me me. (Oh wait, more butter.)

This has been a clarified butter year for me. Literally. I have been tending to my one hundred and thirty five pounds of butter on the stove. Heating it up. Melting it down. Watching for the white, crackly, solids to float to the top – and skimming them off. Tending to temperature and skimming and timing and – yes – even efficient pouring.

I’ve been finding my voice by standing over that pot and skimming off the tiny bits of floating white. I’ve been distilling my sense of self into something understandable, translatable, powerful, potent and useful for me. I have been refining this thing that I am, stripping away water and milk solids and all of the other things that brown and burn at high heat and intensity.

And all of that time in the kitchen, over the pot of melted butter, has made for one very selfish feeling year. Maybe my most selfish year. (Well, ask my parents what I was like as a teenager, maybe this is nothing like those years). My most selfish adult year. I have, literally, been focused on serving myself. I’m behind on thank you notes and birthday cards and (now) Christmas presents. To say the least.

This past year I have been serving myself. The year ahead…I will still be serving myself. And what – what do I do for this little audience of one?

I write and I hone and I clarify and I craft. Because, as Brenna Layne says it so powerfully: “Writing is how I make sense of the world.” I do it because the writing itself is the process of warming and skimming and pouring that butter through the cloth. The writing is the only way that I can process and filter and file everything soaked in through these six sense (you know, the heart is a pretty big sense). And, quite frankly, it’s all begging to be shared. Maybe the it isn’t begging, but there is something in my brain that just wants to share it. Without even thinking.

Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Maybe it’s because I live alone in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s because I have always been this way. Maybe I am shy. Maybe I just feel most own-it, confident, brazen, brashly myself with pen in hand instead of telling stories at the dinner table.

It doesn’t matter. I write because it serves me. It helps me iron out the wrinkles of the day. It helps evaporate the water in the butter. It let’s the irksome milk solids float to the top.

It doesn’t matter if any of it is good. It (most of the time) really doesn’t matter if anyone reads it. It’s about the process. It’s about making the time to make life make sense. It’s about living firmly rooted in a practice. Because all of those things help me stay present and distilled down to the important, heat-tolerant stuff – and help me keep moving forward. Boldly and bravely.

And here’s the thing, the thing that confuses and bowls me over and blows me away. The times when I write and I am most grounded and most me and most present and vulnerable – those are the times when the most people respond. Respond to something that I have written. And that sets me back to the pot over the stove, to stir and skim and continue to focus on this practice. The practice of being grounded and clear. The practice of sharing.

I will continue to clarify my own butter in the year ahead. To stand over the stove and melt and stir and distill and purify. Because in that clarity, when I make that space for myself – then I can hear and share my own voice most effectively.

And, why does that matter? Because each day as I write more and more, and share more and more, and get braver more and more, and try to find and stay in that place of authentic me-voice-self-ness – I need more and more to be able to find that real voice within myself. The voice that translates and processes and makes sense of everything that I see, and the voice that gets written publicly to share all of those thoughts back out. Because, I need to stay continually grounded in my self and my perspective to avoid getting pulled away by the gusty winds of well, what do they want to hear?*

*Whew, in seeing that on the page, it’s a double whammy. The intention was about my writing. Because I see how lackluster and dull and antiseptic and cloying and boring and dead it is when I try to write with that question in mind. AND, in seeing those words there – holy how if I am now a recovering super-duper-people-pleaser.

The #Serve message from Quest2015 lives here: In Service of Happiness

CHRIS BROGAN explores how people use content and community  to build marketplaces around areas of belonging. He is CEO of Owner Media Group , providing simple plans and projects for business success. He is also a highly sought after professional speaker and the New York Times bestselling author of eight books and counting, including his forthcoming book, Insider: Strategies and Secrets for Business Growth in the Age of Distractions

True Stories.

#365quote note, *been. xoxo from dreamland

A post shared by vanessa jean (@maketimefarm) on


May 24, 2015

The country radio station is pushing out noise behind my head (Girl you better get your red head back in bed before the morning), old writing notebooks line the arm of the sofa, on the footrest the same set of markers that have inked my words for years (Hey mom, your daugher’s gone and there they go again. Hey-ehh!), the black dog who has been around long enough to be both my present and my past stretches off the sofa and onto the woven rug below my feet, a weekend in the brave company of an artist I have respected and admired for fifteen years, letters this week from friends I’ve known since childhood. I am looking backward in order to look forward.

A dear writing friend from Portland posed this question as part of her quest: What does it mean for a story to be true?

When I first faced this question earlier in the week, my quick response was “There is something really striking about The Moth tagline, something about ‘true as remembered by the storyteller’. There is something about absorbing your experience and retelling it that makes it real, and authentic, twice-over.”

Lucky me, I got a second nudge on the same question, with a letter from Peggy that arrived in my mailbox Friday afternoon (a glorious mail day, enough to last through the long weekend, and providing today’s quote too). A second opportunity to reflect on her prompt. On truth. On true stories. And after a weekend of full-ness, of recognizing that I am plodding the same route over and over, and meeting the same lessons on repeat, and moving in some weird uphill spiral that may be walking in circles, or growth or both…that maybe the truth is in the stories that stick. The stories that stay the same over time. The lessons we keep learning, in distinctly more detail each time around. Woven with the gold thread of our own selves that stays constant through years. That traces back in time to our roots, and routes back to the deepest cavities of our own heart.

In pulling Spilling Open off the shelf last night, I held in my hand a book that got me through the tumult of first heartaches and coming out. The book that showed me there is a place in this world for my type of creativity and thoughtfulness and words and questioning and solitude. That I belong. A book that I didn’t write, filled with pictures and words that are not mine, that somehow holds a weighty collection of my own memories. I’ve carried it with me from the east coast to the south to the west to the east and to land here, with me, in this place in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the country, the center of my heart.

Yesterday was a back dive into creative-presentness. Last night was a toe-dip into nostalgia and a tsunami of emotions welling up behind my ribcage. Today was an auspicious, serendipitous love-fest with a gallery of strangers becoming a room full of friends who generously handed me everything my heart was craving but I didn’t know I was missing. If I am still looking to understand grace, today it finally hit home. And it all flooded loose this afternoon, on the painted concrete floor of the gallery, amidst my scissors and a spread-out pile of scrap paper and words and ink. The rush of water, and tears, breaking loose stones and boulders and logs and everything jamming up the feeling that was still stuck. Not stuck anymore, sending forth the frayed edge of that sparkling gold thread for me to grasp, and thread back into the pin-point needle of now. Ready to stitch it back through the fabric of my life. Deeply.

That thread connected me to the hand-painted walls of my childhood bedroom, with Jack London quotes and floral patterns and collections of ephemera from the antique stores of South Pasadena. (I may have been the strangest, youngest customer in that stretch of stores. What must they have thought of me, perusing the pull-out drawers of letterpress typeset and wooden fruit crates and Beatles buttons?) I burst with memories of painting furniture by hand in the driveway, thinking I want to do this forever. I don’t want a real job. I don’t want to wear a suit. I don’t want to sit behind a desk. It knit me to the questioning and depth that came out through awkward high-school-age art. My scrawly cursive handwriting still the same, with undertones of quiet authority-questioning and insecurity and simultaneous bravery. How, even then, it felt like a safe way to express everything that couldn’t come out through my mouth. Or at least, looking back, I see the purpose it served. My words have caught up to me now. The collages of college. A crafty small business by hand. Making art as display for the man. The miles of words since then, like kite strings, set forth in notebooks and piles of letters. It’s been there all along, this creativity and this yearning.

It must be true if I can look back and see a trail stretched miles into the past. If this golden thread is thick enough to weave a life into place, into being, it must be true.

Life dreams are perpetual. They get me out of bed in the morning – they get me through my day. I still dream of the same things I did as a child, a quiet house by a river in Vermont, a quiet life, art, solace, water, wandering through days with fits and spurts of passion. Creating, tending. I still have that vision. And that’s all it’s ever been, as firm as an oil painting on the wall, one emotional glimpse of the way things should be. In the intervening twenty years the dream has grown to include a farm, chickens, a dog, writing. Sometimes a woman, once a family, but I usually settle in to a dream of myself, gazing alone into a snow-dusty sky, quiet solitude.

That is the dream I have not let go of. It may be the default image after pressing the reset button on life, it may be an idealized childhood emotion for peace and a still heart that I refuse to let go of. Or it just may be the way things are. There is always this disparity, this distance between the comfortable dream, the longing, that which our soul knows to be true


that of which we convince ourselves, with a tightening heart, pushed and pulled by the things around us that seem dream-like but don’t fall smoothly into the true vision we have for ourselves. And how easy it is to get off track, to stray from the dream.

This is the only dream I have not let go of. It may not be Vermont, there may be no river, no squawking chickens and only a tiny spot for growing heirloom tomatoes – but the peace of this dream I will not let go of.

In thinking through this idea of truth is the thing that persists, my memory fell upon the above response to a writing prompt from my time in Portland. When our creative-writing-through-food-class turned into a delicious-writing-group-of-dedicated-women. We met monthly for words and sharing – tasty morsels on the page and on the buffet table. It was the dark depths of winter, dormancy. And my heart was resting after a thorough thrashing, and my whole self was re-grouping for the proverbial spring ahead. We gathered in the second-floor apartment of M, before she set out on yet another adventure (as this woman defined adventure), before she left town for good. The evening’s theme: dreams. The kind we experience during sleep and the kind that we hold in our hearts with the hope they bloom in the future. I quickly scrawled out the words above to the prompt, “Life dreams. What do you dream of? What dreams have you not let go of?” The passage above could have come out of my pen in the last six months, verbatim. But instead was written seven years ago.

I thought of this all today, as my new friend T scrawled out for me “She went home to the farm, where love lived” without knowing the weight of those words, in a round of Exquisite Corpse. These are the words today that launched the freeing avalanche in my heart. That somehow spring-boarded me backward in time. I remembered so clearly how my words looked on the thin-set lines of that most favorite writing notebook seven years ago, and the very clear vision those words describe. A small room, me, solitude, wilderness outside, full-ness. I can picture it as clear as a painting, and now I can envision it as my life. And as my notebooks are dotted with these notions of solitude, creativity and (in the last ten years, farm) I now recognize they are all metaphors. Symbols for my self, my truth, the gold thread of creativity. The place that I long to come home to, the roof under which I yearn to live. 

she went home to the farm.jpg

These are the things that are true. The stories that arrive on repeat. That are timeless within us because they are ours. Stories that have become part of our own narrative, vision, dream, and help us to return to our core, our best selves. The stories that we keep reliving, throughout different years, with hodge-podge people, at distant dots across the map – these are the truest stories of ourselves.

– – – – –

This is a revised version of the #365Quote Project newsletter sent in the wee hours of last night. After two days at a Sabrina Ward Harrison workshop, I was cracked open and raw and moved and completely content.

Crackled.Sparkling.Ephemera was started to house my writings for Quest2015. It was a stop gap container engaged with no long term planning. Then the #365Quote Project happened. Then the associated daily newsletter happened. (I’m practicing just letting things happen, can you tell?) It’s wonderful to have a daily writing practice, with some sort of quiet agreement with newsletter readers that something will happen every day. But, it’s meant few things are translated beyond preliminary thoughts, and into this space. Maybe more to come, in the mean time you can find me here every day.

Sweet Christmas Wishes

My favorite Saturday is spent in the companionship of the radio, familiar friends keeping me company throughout the day. In the early onset darkness of winter, as the afternoon moves toward night, the voices and stories strike me more deeply.

Last weekend I returned to the car from errands, and was met by his voice over the car radio, casual and smooth and comfortable, like a goodnight bedtime story.

This was a story, I love listening to stories.

I sense it’s just the beginning of the story, and I don’t know how much I have missed or where the narrative is headed. There is a young couple, sledding, a child, and the way he talks about her so longingly and lovingly even though she is right there. The way we talk about the things in life which matter, the things we want to hold on to. It’s fiction, The H Street Sledding Record, but it feels warm and real as memoir. And just as beautiful. Full of the traditional trappings of Christmas like snow and reindeer and gifts, but it’s the tone that digs into my heart. This is not a Christmas story, this is a story of ritual and love and yearning and life, told through the lens of Christmas tradition.

This story, and the author’s voice, are a bit of calm amidst what some experience as the holiday storm, a reassurance that expresses what this season is really about. The narrative has little to do with presents and rush and hustle It’s about quotidian memories and intimacy. It isn’t just about these few holiday moments together, it’s about how the ritual of it knits us together the remaining 364 days of the year, and how those years add up to mean something.

Here is my Christmas offering to you, The H Street Sledding Record by Ron Carlson, read by the author on This American Life. There is no way to explain it, other than to make you listen to it. So do it, listen to it now, all eleven minutes of it.

This American Life, December 21, 2012: Lights, Camera, Christmas!
The H Street Sledding Record, from A Kind of Flying by Ron Carlson

Don’t Disappoint Baby Jesus

The third Quest2015 prompt is brought to us by Michael Bungay Stanier of Box of Crayons. His visionary prompt:

Who are you willing to disappoint or offend or upset or abandon…for the sake of the Great Work that’s calling you for your best 2015?

Somewhere in my parents’ house sits a photo of me as a child, maybe six years old, framed by a slim gold border. A delicate garland of baby’s breath mounted on my head and soft, blond curls. There may be a smidge of velvet somewhere and a thin white ribbon. I know that look on my face. An equal mix of resentment, sweetness and resignation.

I grew up Catholic. Did you?

Christmas season in Southern California. The yellow parrots were on their annual migration, and huddling amongst the tall trees overhanging the church doors. Somehow I was blessed, or inflicted, with a role in the Christmas pageant at an evening mass. I, likely because panic-stricken at the time, don’t remember the details. Possibly my role involved processing down the long church aisle and delivering a vessel to the nativity scene. Maybe it involved speaking in that cavernous, incense-infused place of worship. All I remember was a terrible, gut-wrenching, fear-induced anxiety. I did not, could not, possibly do this thing I was supposed to do. I made this known shortly before leaving the house.

“You don’t want to disappoint baby Jesus, do you?”

I have not particularly cared for Baby Jesus, ever. He was the last piece placed in the gold, spray-painted, paper mache nativity scene in the living room. In my mind he was associated with guilt, presents, coal or oranges. A metaphor for something I couldn’t quite grasp at a young age.

My Mom, possibly frantic at the thought of failing to deliver the vessel that was supposed to deliver the vessel to the nativity scene, attempted to gain my acquiescence with this tack. I don’t think she meant to guilt me, but I was a particularly sensitive child. Exceptionally so when it came to the thought of becoming anything less in the eyes of those who loved me. As if their love and affection were directly tied to their approval. I was young, but I still knew that this wasn’t about disappointing baby Jesus. It was about upsetting Mom. There was duty to attend to in this world. A parrot-filled, incense-scented snow globe of expectation. And it was my job, my responsibility, to step up and accept my obligations. Whether I liked it or not.

So, I did it. I don’t remember what I did, but I followed the rules and met the expectations and walked down an aisle and did something that I did not want to do. I did not like it, it did not end up being fun. Knowing myself now, and then, I probably assented with a mix of resentment and regret, knowing I had given in to something that I did not want to do, and could have done something to change.

And sometimes, I still feel like that six year old girl. Less and less so now that I have taken such drastic steps to reclaim myself and my happiness. But much in the past years. Heavy with guilt and fear of disappointing the world, and those people who hold expectation in me. Weighing that mix of resentment and regret for my *lack* of action, for not speaking up and acting out enough to make sure that deep voice of compassionate honesty in my heart is satiated.

I started my #Quest2015 in late November, without really knowing it would become my quest. It was time to step out of that dark and unhealthy place, and reclaim a lightness and spark that was buried. I packed up my bags with essentials (clothes, shampoo, ten years of journals, stationery, dog food), ran through the frost-crunchy pasture one last time with the dog, opened my heart, laughed, lifted the weight, and allowed myself to feel what my heart has been trying to exclaim for a while now: that freedom, joy, openness, passion, love, creativity and spirit are out there waiting for me. AND I DESERVE THEM. I just have to stop clinging to what isn’t working and embrace the unknown and live in impermanence and leave. That leaving wasn’t quiting. Leaving was actually starting. So we, the black dog and I, embraced that unknowing, and drove away.

And there I learned the lesson. In this leaving – this abandoning of expectation and the person I was supposed to love most and permanence – I was greatly disappointing some, while simultaneously delighting others. That this disappointment was not the end of the world, but the beginning. Most of all, I was doing something that spoke truth to myself, for no reason other than BECAUSE I DESERVE IT.

It’s a practice of strength, but I am reveling in my new found focus: my care for myself, my heart, my truth, my peace, my future. It feels both selfish and right on. Maybe my evolving ‪#Quest2015 is to be at peace with ‘what is’, listening most closely to the guide that is the tightening in my heart, and nothing else. I will soothe myself with the notion that my big-hearted quest is of value, worthwhile in this world, my first priority. That is it strong to relinquish, renounce, forgo and discard anyone or anything that does not serve my mission. That, in fact, I should practice it. Maybe walking through the world with temporary blinders against expectation isn’t a bad thing, as long as I look straight ahead at the amazing community right in front of me.

Who am I able to abandon, disappoint, upset and offend as I walk this path?
Everyone but mySELF.

Maybe this year, when I visit my family for the holidays, I’ll give gratitude to that gold, paper mache baby Jesus on the mantle. Thanks dude, for helping me recognize that disappointing you isn’t the end of the world, quite the opposite.

Running Free

I Hope God Thinks Like That

There is a dog I sometimes take for a walk
and turn loose in a field.

When I can’t give her that freedom
I feel in debt.

I hope God thinks like that and

is keeping track
of all the bliss
He owes


Tonight, after closing up the chicken house, the dog and I walked the front pasture. No headlamp needed, we were lit by the full moon. Bare trees, moon shadows, movie lighting. Barely cold enough for gloves. Grass frozen, and sparkling with moonlight when I catch it just so. The dog ran ahead, through the far gate, to check the two dead chickens we earlier laid to rest on top of a patch of snow. Two girls lost in two days, to health and hawk. I could bury them, but why not return them to the cycle in a different way. I hear the hawk was small. A battle in the coop, a mess, a loss. “So much depends on us.” I’ll fire Bert the scarecrow owl if this happens again.

[Two lost girls in two days.]

The dog and I found each other over eight years ago. I love her. More than love her, I feel responsible for her. Her well-being, her health, her dog-happiness, her freedom. Her joy is somehow a proxy for my own.

There was a short time when we lived in a quiet neighborhood, a block away from an elementary school with a large soccer field, playground, asphalt painted with a colorful map of the United States of America. We’d walk the short block of small houses built originally to house shipbuilders in the war, pass through the opening in the fence, I’d unclip her leash and she ran free. Sometimes coming when called, sometimes not. Her bliss was evident with every jowl-flop, tongue loll, eye sparkle. She was happy. Her freedom always calmed me, like a big, audible exhale.

When I can’t give her that freedom, I feel in debt.

That’s how I feel to see her run through the pasture here, or anywhere. My freedom comes from hers, and my heart is happy. The question is, why don’t I feel I owe myself, or deserve, the same freedom? Maybe Rabia has the answer for me.