This is an image of the seam in a handmade book of mine, that included a castoff process xerox from artist Juliann Cydylo who was my studio mate at the time. This was a chance layout that I particularly enjoy. It has a lot of white space around it, and some mystery, much like the beginnings and endings of a year, which can also feel kind of like an upside-down time.
Below is a bit of a year in review for us both. Before I share how things unfolded to me, I'd like to invite you to pull out a journal and pen, make a cup of tea and settle in to reflect on your own year. I have included a list of simple reflection prompts at the end of this post, and I have spent many a new year's day with friends or somewhere in the week before Jan 1, considering what's gone on in our lives for the past 365 days or so.
What did you lose in 2021?
What came into your life in 2021?
What is different from a year ago?
What are you loving in your life right now?
What is not working right now, and what does that tell you about what might work better for you?
Three + favorite moments from your year:
Three things you can place on the altar and release from 2021.
What surprises you most about this past year of your life?
What is a constant in your life through this past year and beyond?
What qualities of experience do you want to invite in moving forward?
Please use the comments below to suggest other prompts as you are inspired to share them, and any insights into your year you'd like to share.
I started to write my year in review in a period of great striving. Since then, the duracell bunny in me has kind of run out of batteries for the season. There was a little sadness and concern about this at first, but then I started to feel the telltale signs of freedom and inspiration that come with any form of surrender.
I could just tell you how great it all was, and wish for you that your life was equally as great, with a wink and a smile. But I will not do that.
Here's how my year went, as I reflect on it now.
A book came out in March. It was confusing because it's the same title as my first book, but its a different book. It's a lovely little book, which you will really enjoy if you like my two other prayer books. I spent about six months contorting myself into pretzels to be ready for the launch, and then just felt a little lost and confused about why and what for.
My art studio is a complete bright spot, and now too a warm spot, as I finally figured out how to work the wood stove. I have the right wood and the right fire building technique. There is less soot settling on my drawings, and when I leave at night, I do a little bow because I can't believe that this space is mine to use every day.
I was very intent on doing a whole bunch of art book fairs and pop ups, really laser focused on this. And somehow with all of my striving, I have ended up participating in only one of the seven I had wanted to participate in, which comes up in early December. It's a wonderful little day-long pop up event and now I am happy that this is what I'm doing.
I set up a few talks online with bookstores and libraries, and saw how hard people work to facilitate and share these - staying at work into the dark hours, dealing with zoom, following up. Everybody works so hard. It's also very cool to see how these things always have the flavor of the group that ends up attending, whether there are fifty of us, or three.
I did a deep dive to figure out how to 'connect with my audience' and 'get my stuff into circulation' more, and have concluded that what is involved in this is a huge huge amount of lifelong, ongoing work that does not spark joy in my heart. I put all of it down, surrender that project, and await with curiosity to see what happens next.
I have begun to archive the work of Janet Gallup, a printmaker and the deceased wife of our friend Al Gallup here in Ann Arbor, who has all of it in a shed he bought for it, after he and his kids dispersed as much of it as possible. I don't know exactly what is compelling me here, but I am very interested in what happens to a body of work when the artist's body is gone, and Janet's is here to attend to - and it's a beautiful collection. I will share more on this soon.
I have made a few death books and will make three more soon, and made formalized this project in 2021.
So in this year where I feel more alive than I have ever felt, there is a lot of a theme of death, surrender and stopping. These are not new themes, but they are newly applied in ways that surprise and interest me, and lead to freer experiences of the life that's here to be lived. I have absolutely no idea what is to come in 2022, but I wish you a balance to whatever has felt like too much or too little, some quiet time in the wee hours of January, and a creative spark of joy in your heart.
To counter the Dark Side of December post, here is a lighter angle on the holiday season we are in. First off, Happy Winter solstice! As of the 21st, we have officially lived through the darkest, shortest day of the year. Go us! Go planet earth and all of the sun worshipping creatures alive today!
There is also a lot of twinkly light and color at the holiday. Things that smell nice, and usually a little break. Sometimes one is completely alone. Sometimes there is no family. Sometimes the invitation to share the holiday was declined, devastatingly. But still, opportunities are there for listening in the silence, in the dark, in the big hush and pause of the whole thing.
For a while in my life, my holiday was piggybacking on someone else's holiday. For a while it was lots and lots of pie making, and then pie giving away. There were the drunken years, living to join friends at the bar after the family meal, and the breakup at holiday time, which is a brutal no fun experience.
In the end, there is a kind of Christ light coming into the world that I sense at this time of year. Interpret that however you like, in the lense of whatever your beliefs. Some seed beginning to germinate that really hasn't broken the frozen ground. The miracle of all of the animals that somehow survive the cold and bare outside for the whole year. A chickadee for example: how does a ping pong ball size bird manage to stay alive, let alone fly and sing, in the northern part of the US, all winter long? Also, there are the little twinkles and the tiny bells, magicking out the dark.
How do you personally, sense the quiet light of this time of year? What brings it clearest into focus for you? I find that with every year, what I love gets easier to identify and then to bring forward as a way of relating to and being in this time. What is it for you? Let's pool ideas.
I love this stool. In my studio now, it is serving as a dedicated second egress route, much like a ladder might in a second story space, so that if things are burning and the door is blocked, I can just climb out one of the two wide-swinging windows. It's got two steps, and a handle in the top step for easy carrying. I love especially how sturdy it is, and sometimes I stand on it just to get a better view out my windows. It works as a chair or a table, it sometimes comes with me to a table-based event, and could even be used for display. I like this stool because it's so versatile and sturdy, which makes it reliable, like a good friend. When we were building the space, I was constantly up and down on this stool, hanging windows, nail-gunning stuff, working in the hard to reach corners. It used to be in my kitchen.
It's never going to collapse under me or become rickety, or break a seat. So thank you stool.
I have noticed that when meditation comes up in conversation, I often hear the phrase 'I should...' followed by some description of how someone is failing to live up to some ideal way of doing it. After meditating in a group of people where there's some kind of check-in afterward, I commonly hear descriptions of either a difficult/disappointing experience, or a lovely, special state type experience. When you're learning to do something like say, skateboard, and you go out there and try your hand at it, and come back either having wiped out, dusting yourself off, or successfully land without wiping out - what a rush! A positive, confidence building experience. I always wanted to be that guy having the rush, not the one who became increasingly aware of the intense kink in her shoulder over the course of the sit.
Meditation however, is not a performance. It's worth exploring this because otherwise, it's another thing to make us miserable. Some kinds probably are performative. But presence isn't something that you do, and this term meditation is simply about presence when all is said and done, or "This" : whatever's happening right now.
Instead, it's what is never not there. You aren't doing being presence, or doing being. Like the sky, or say, noticing you have socks on, the presence of socks is not about you, they're just, well, on your feet. The sky is never not there, whatever your level of interest in, focus on, or idea about the sky may be.
The other day I heard great table metaphor that may illustrate this. There's a table covered with books. Lots of books. That's you - the table - with all kinds of interesting books on it. The books are the identifiers we have - the things that when we're gone and everyone who knew us is also gone, go as well, because they are a shared thought. This includes your history, your plans, your opinions, your life story, your nationality, your preferences, how you vote, your personality, your style, your body, your chronic pains, your psychology, your turns of phrase, your reflection in the mirror, what you love and don't love about your body, your closest kin, your habits, your address, your drivers license number, your social security number, your CV and resume, your skill sets, pedigrees, your successes, your failures, your traumas, what you overcome. Your memories, others' memories of you, your reputation, your good deeds, your misdeeds, your credit score, your best moments, your bank account balance, your possessions, what you've made, what you failed to make, finish, accomplish or complete. Also, time, objects and space can go there too but that may be another conversation.
When the 'books' are removed, like when you're tidying up in the living room, you find there's a table underneath them. It's always been there. It's never not been there. It's familiar to you, as it's what you have used to access and read these books, and to refer to your 'self' in the form of each of these books, these programs or information packets about yourself. You may put your feet on it or put your dinner plate on the table too. Meditation is just awareness of This, or you could say, awareness of what is the ground of experience. The big attainment is actually just - the table is here, where it's always been. How spiritual!
The idea of meditation as a performance is just another book or glossy yoga type magazine on the table, with a picture of yourself perhaps, doing whatever idea of your meditation performance is. It's pretty funny and incredibly amazing how thought co opts even just This - what's happening right now. The flow of one thing after another, a live stream of you.
To take the table metaphor a little further, it's not even 'your' table - with a style, with a level of wear, perfectly reflecting all the books that were on it. It turns out that everybody's books are on one table, one gigantic table, again, just a metaphor this table, but it's not actually an object, and nobody owns it, or dusts it, or made it. It's not a thing like a galaxy is a thing, or a pebble. It's just that we are built to see and talk about and interact with objects, so that's as good a metaphor as any: table.
This big wide foundation or ground on which all the objects form a fleeting impression of the story of you and your life, is always here, always offering up the next thing, and is in fact, you, and me, and this word, and the sound you're hearing, and the plans for the next hour, and the irritations and concerns, and the gratitudes and questions, and the dog and the cat, the wad of tissue that didn't make it into the trash can lying on the floor, and the tree shimmering out the window.
Nothing, no book, no passing object of experience, and the presence underneath, is not you.
Here's a suggested way to let this sink in a little further.
Cue up a song or two, get a glass of something, maybe a snack. Sit in a chair and look out the window. Five minutes we're talking. Maybe set a timer. Let the flavor of your food and drink mix with the sound of the music or the kids fighting, mix with the sight out the window, the movement, inside/outside blending, and constantly changing, coming and going.
OR When you get really annoyed, overheated, or suddenly tired and notice this, plunk yourself down with that - sensations, the litany of thought, sounds, the taste in your mouth, how your body is, the temperature. Nothing needs to change and no one needs to do. Like a piece of cardboard lying on the side of the road, just being.( In this case, an agitated or overheated piece of cardboard.)
When you are in conversation with someone, notice what that's like, what the body feels like, the sounds, the gestures, emotions, distractions, how space and arrangement of bodies and body language is. No need to put ideas to anything, just become curious without getting involved in thoughts about it.
That to me, is what they call - meditation - or even better - it's you - the one talking, the one listening, the one reading, the one writing, the weather outside, the weather inside, the flavors and the smells, the ungainly and the very compelling. The pull and the push away.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.