The Context Coin

Context creation can operate like the creative equivalent of Universal Basic Income. I want to make sure people’s obvious and immediate needs are met so they can tap into what they already know, but have been too stressed, distracted, and scared to access.

Started down this rabbit hole after getting hung up on the phrase “thought of everything,” which is one of those sneaky compliments that can point simultaneously to expressions of tenderness and anxiety. If I’m obsessed with preparing for every eventuality, where’s the room for surprise? For delight? For exchange?

(My word for 2022 is Return, and one of the meanings that I enjoy in it is the aspect of returning a serve, as in a game, as in conversation, as in play.)

It can be a strength. Someone who thinks of everything is likely good at logistics-heavy things like Kickstarter and self-publishing (hello), willing to go the extra mile to ensure that a project meets certain stringent standards (like accessibility), and concerned about the minutiae of how things feel

This crops up any time I unbox an Apple product. Something as small as how the cellophane unfolds from the device (smoothly, beckoningly) has a huge impact on my experience of receiving it. Someone went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the box would be easy to open, that that textures would be pleasing, that the shapes would nest within each other just so.

This is a very capitalistic example, so it makes me uncomfortable to sing its praises, but the meta-experience is still there. What would it be like to have the resources to devote that much energy to how someone feels just upon opening the packaging of a book I’ve sent them?

It’s stuff like this that had me schlepping out to an industrial paper firm back in 2020, staggering away with armloads of samples, printing prototype decks in my living room, fondling card after card and wondering “woodgrain or linen? 200lb or 300lb? Ecru or Natural?” as if there’s a single right choice.

There isn’t.

There’s the trap. 

When Twyla Tharp asks workshop participants to come up with 60 uses for a stool, she notices a consistent pattern:

“[…] the first third of the ideas are obvious; the second third are more interesting; the final third show flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity, as later thinking builds on earlier thinking.”

There’s a version of context creation that suggests (maybe even only subconsciously) there is “a right way” to participate. I think it’s the version that relies too much on the anxious side of the “thinking of everything” coin. Tenderness in extremis is anxiety.  

I need to provide the context that keeps people on the stool after they’ve exhausted the obvious possibilities, because with that context comes freedom to explore.

At Wayward, we weren’t told what to make. In fact, we were encouraged to approach the week as a period of time during which we didn’t have to make anything. But we were fed, there was a loose schedule, there were comfortable things to nap on. We were held. And within that container—that tender context—things I didn’t even know I had in me emerged. Seemingly without effort.

I want that, and it shows up once I know when to stop trying to think of everything.

Brace, Ebb, Theft

On a call with some of the folks from the Wayward community the other night, someone shared a conversation they’d had with their therapist about emerging into 2021. PTSD, the therapist pointed out, doesn’t generally rear its head while soldiers are on the battlefield. It comes later, when things are supposedly “safe” or “better” and everyone around us is celebrating or relaxing and we’re only just beginning to experience the full impact of what we’ve been through.

It hit me like a pile of bricks.

I feel so far away from my creative self right now. The only thing I keep finding comfort in is learning that a lot of other friends are in the same boat—that maybe a majority of us are actually grieving the loss of whatever creative spaciousness or clarity we’d managed to eke out in the solitude of Quarantine. Or maybe we’re all just braced for the next wave of closures and infections and losses, or finally feeling the full weight of the closures and infections and losses that have already come and gone.

My first family COVID deaths happened in quick succession within the last two weeks—far past the peak of the Pandemic. What does that mean? How am I supposed to feel? They lived in another country, separated by oceans and continents and the 17 years since I saw them last in person. But they were family—a community I struggle to feel connected to at the best of times, even though I yearn for it desperately. I’m vaccinated. My parents are vaccinated. Nothing quite like thinking you’re “safe” and then realizing grief can still snake its way into your circles, no matter the care you take.

I’m thinking, too, about the way I keep brushing off this mental and creative slump in conversation, waving my hands and explaining to friends that “it’s just a phase” and “things will feel better as soon as I get stuck into my next project.”

“This always happens,” I say. “I always pull through.”

But something I didn’t account for is living in house alongside my dad, one of my primary sources of creative inspiration and cheerleading growing up, who genuinely has lost contact his creative self. Dementia is not the seasonal cycle that I usually comfort myself with when I think of the ebb and flow of creative embodiment. It’s a far darker and more linear decline. It makes the threat of permanent loss in these low tide seasons feel more real.

It’s not to say that I’m over here worrying about imminently losing all my marbles. More that…I don’t know. Maybe that I haven’t been making enough space for the enormity of everything. When I make light of this season—either because I’m afraid of it, or embarrassed that it’s happening to me, or something else—I rob myself of the chance to feel my way through into whatever comes next.