How goes your existential dread these days? And do you need a tiny weird project?

Let’s just skim over the doom, while giving a cursory nod to the maniacal monster elephants in the room: pandemic + climate emergency + psychotic nuclear terrorist invading a country — and say, if you’re experiencing moments of existential dread these days, that is a very human and emotional attuned thing, utterly legitimate, and good job noticing.

Might I suggest: Take a breath.

I do not say this in a patronizing way. (Nothing has aggravated a stress attack more in my life than someone saying, just take a breath. I will say no more about that without a therapist at hand.) I say “take a breath” with this sense of curiosity and awe and a sneaking suspicion that the technology of breath might actually be a superpower we can all tap into, but that we don’t really talk about, and because we can do it without thinking, we assume it mustn’t be worth thinking much about.

But what if, for a second, you do think about it. And you invite your attention to notice your breath. And to notice the shape and texture of it… short and shallow? a bit ragged feeling? maybe raspy or gaspy? What if you give it a moment to deepen? What if you imagine that you are not doing all the work of breathing, but that you are, in some wildly mysterious way, being breathed.

What I love so much, about being invited to pay attention to my breath, is it helps me settle back into my body, remember I am a body, and not just a brain shooting electricity madly in all directions in a turbulent sky. Also, a body. Also, touching the earth. Also, capable of grounding all that charge, by just noticing my breath, and noticing my body, and the places it touches and interfaces with other solid real things, like my bum on the chair, or my feet on the ground, or my elbows on the table, or my head on the desk where I’m am repetitively banging it. Haha. Just kidding. That’s such a writerly cliche.

If you feel a little tiny bit settled in this one tiny moment, may I drop a little seed in your lap?

It came to me via Courtney Martin, and I found it delightful, and my delight radar is switched on these days, after reading Ross Gay’s collection of essays, the Book of Delight, and I am tracking delight wherever I can, because it is there, and it is easily overshadowed by doom, and yet, it brings us medicine. And it’s a kind of beautiful defiance, to say, sure doom, you’re taking up all the air in the room, but I am noticing this particular delight right now, so step aside.

And the delight that Courtney Martin, an American writer, shared, is this: don’t overlook the power of your weird, small projects. They might just be the opposite of violence.

It’s a lovely long ramble, but the nub of it is here:

In caring for a little piece of earth, one rejects the idea that scale is all that matters, or that all worthwhile labor is paid labor. One creates unruly beauty for its own sake. In creating small, weird projects, one reclaims one’s energy away from destruction, plays like a wise child, sheds illusions of perfection. One finds an outlet for the unspoken and unbranded.

Courtney Martin
Making your stairwell into a gallery of collages you made with your kid is a weird small project that stands in defiance of doom.

Martin writes, “I have found—even in the midst of a pandemic, war, environmental collapse, racial reckoning, especially in the midst of a pandemic, war, environmental collapse, racial reckoning—that weird, small projects keep me alive.

What do I mean by weird, small projects? I don’t mean my book projects, which are a deep honor to work on, but also anxiety-producing and mammoth and rich with ego delusions. I don’t mean my entrepreneurial and consulting work, which is fun and interesting and “of service” in a way that lights me up, but involves email and deadlines and deliverables. I don’t mean my organizing and activism, which is hard and can be joyful and helps me keep growing up and taking responsibility.

I mean, the stairwell of collages that my daughter and I created over the course of a few weeks during pandemic days.

I mean poetry that I write and don’t imagine anyone ever reading.

I mean the little piece of garden I am tending, complete with painted stones and glass bottles filled with witchy children’s brews.

I mean the slow, pleasurable accumulation of Goodwill sweaters and blouses and that constitutes my 1970s-librarian-who-loves-hip-hop-and-rides-horses signature style.

I mean making the perfect playlist for my new found love of cooking a vegetarian meal while drinking a Racer 5.

There’s a part of me that finds this list deeply shallow in a time of death and inequity, but I also know that humans get by via the smallest of adjustments—as if the difference between surviving another day is sometimes as small as the slight turn of the radio dial to hear a song with more clarity. Your soul settles into survivability. Your heart remembers that there is creativity and surprise alongside the depravity and sad predictability of violent men. Your hands are working on something and this is so comforting after your brain working so hard on so many terrible things…

The people I am most drawn to right now are those whose days are spent in serious pursuits, but also in small bursts of tender creation. Our hearts should be broken, but we should not surrender them to a simple narrative of destruction. There are things being planted and painted all around. There are dreams being written down. There are stones being collected and sweaters being knit, and we will keep connecting with each other and our artistic instincts like this along the way. It’s the only way I know to survive being human.”

Well, that little newsletter in praise of weird small projects generated such a response from her readers, that she experienced an outpouring of responses, of people raising their hands and saying, yes me! yes that’s me! i too have weird small projects in which i make things with my hands and pour forth my hopes for something better, in which i am a conspirator with unruly beauty.

Martin gathered up the list of offerings from her readers, and it made me think, what can we blow our breaths into, right now… What weird small projects would you shrug off, or dismiss, if someone asked what you’re up to, being so insignificant and kinda deeply personal… but that, if pressed, if pressed to confess by a persistently tender asker of the question, what is bringing you delight?

My jar of preserved lemons sitting on the counter – a little kitchen witch goes Zero Waste experiment, is. I will share more details later this week… And the pack of coloured pens that I dropped $10 on (I don’t shop often, I have neglected my stationery fetish for so long that that was shocking to me), to make my journal and dayplanner look more unicorn-bombed, has turned the diary into something a little more bullet-journally and inspired me to sometimes write out a poem, or write outside the lines, or not even write in full sentences! Ah. It really is the little things. I’d so love to hear what delight you are tending to in your lives, in these days… And I’ll put the ask out on Facebook, and see if anyone is willing to share… after all, delight shared is more than delight doubled. It’s exponential. And this is one “weapon” we have in the war against doom.

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