Creating From Inside Motherhood Part I: An Interview with Tracee Vetting Wolf

We humans are relentlessly creative, so much so that we hardly notice. In my work I invite people to intentionally focus this inherent power into a process of Creative Inquiry because it is one of the most playful and enjoyable ways to explore our version of Reality, and in the process recover our true purpose, yearnings, and gifts.

This blog post is the first of a two-part series in which I’m delighted to introduce you to two women who take creative inquiry seriously-without taking themselves seriously. Their approach is playful, even mischievous, and demonstrates the value of creative inquiry for cracking open our habits of perception and views of reality, for slowing us down so we can savor our lives, and for awakening us out of lethargy or frustration to spread compassion and even engage in activism.

Both are artists and Moms, and their art-making has its roots in the creativity inherent in Motherhood itself. So much of what I see written about Motherhood these days is mired in one set of arguments or another. But Tracee Vetting Wolf and Suzi Banks Baum use their “role” as Mom to inquire into life, self, identity, connection, love, and voice in ways that are profound and eminently practical and shareable.

The fruits of this inquiry are some of the lovelier hand-mades I’ve ever seen, and, as you will soon discover, make beautiful gifts in time for this Season of Giving.

 


 

LOVE NOTES: An Interview with Tracee Vetting Wolf

 

Tracee Vetting Wolf
Tracee Vetting Wolf

Tracee Vetting Wolf prizes the compass over the map and the adventure of figuring things out. She successfully lived the paradox of working as a creative for logic-driven IBM Research and through her art, writing, and life teaches that “design is a vehicle for knowledge.” She embodies through practice the understanding that art-making is an essential tool for inquiry into personal potential and the world around us. She has amassed an impressive list of professional achievements, but to my mind her most delightful work, and most recent gift to the world, was born out of her love for her son, Max, out of that relentless creativity inherent in each of us that can help us find our way if only we’ll let it.  

 

Sara: Tracee, you began creating love-notes when your son Max started school. You were packing lunch daily because of his allergies. And you recognized that you both had separation anxiety. How do the love-notes express your relationship with Max, and with the world?

Tracee: On his first day of kindergarten, I packed his first lunch. It was hard because he’s allergic to peanuts, milk and eggs, and he was too young at the time to open a thermos, so it meant cold foods. I was sorting all that out. I was a bit stressed about it, trying to make it something he would also enjoy. I wanted to make it special. With the food packed, I looked around for something to add a note to his lunch. At that time, I wasn’t practicing art every day, but I had been playing around with my watercolors making a bunch of hearts. Quickly, I cut one out and wrote a message on the back. I had enough for a week and at the end of the week, I thought “I can’t stop now!”

 

MAX
 MAX

The separation anxiety was hard for both of us. I couldn’t get him on the bus that first day, he was so emotional. I drove him to school and I was that parent who was peeling her screaming, crying child off of her. It was heart breaking for me and distressing for him. His teachers were thoughtful and compassionate: when he felt weepy at school, they’d ask him if he wanted to take a moment to himself and draw his family. In a way, we were both using art to ease our separation anxiety and express our love. The lunch notes expressed how very much Max and I want to be connected. I think that’s true for all of us, for any relationship.

 

from the Wondrous Animals series
      from the Wondrous Animals series

To this day, he brings them back home: he has never lost one. They live for the week on the kitchen window sill, and then we place them in a special box. Every once in awhile, Max and I will take out the boxes of lunch notes and look through them together. “Remember this one?” “Oh, I love this one!” “This was when we did all that tie-dying!” “This was when we got our cat!” “Yeah, second grade was tough.” “Remember your first swim meet?” and on and on. We slip into this quiet, reverent state where we’re taking great care as we look through them. Each is wonderful individually, but we can also see across time with them. We can see our journeys.

Sara: And now you offer love notes in four different packs of six for $6: imaginary creatures, for sweet boys, woman wisdom, wondrous animals.

Tracee: My feeling is that love notes are a sweet little way of letting the other person know that you’re interested in them and reminding them of your connection with them. I make the love notes small, I would describe them as “intimate.” You’re forced to express yourself in just a few words. This creates a paradox where something so small can be of great meaning. Personally, I think it’s lovely and touching. Telling someone you care is a very sweet habit to have in life.

Sara: And the mischief?

Tracee: Spend some time thinking about where to place that love note, to surprise someone, to consider what the other person might receive with tenderness of thought. On their dinner plate? Under their pillow? In their gym locker? Taped to the bathroom mirror? In the silverware drawer? On the lawn mower? On the doorbell? Attached to the cat’s collar?

Besides sharing our connection and love, this act sharpens our creative instinct, a path to a creative life for everyone.


 

I hope you are nourished by Tracee’s story, and I’m sure you’ll be tantalized by the beauty of her line of “hand-mades” called  little Love. Buy your love notes HERE.

Learn more about Tracee HERE.

 

Watch for Part II of this series and my interview with writer Suzi Banks Baum on Writing From Inside Motherhood coming December 16.

 

However you observe this season, may it bring healing and awakening to you and your world.

Essential Questions: Wrestling with the Imperfection that Life Is

I want to share some essential questions with you that I’ve developed from a teaching that was at once a challenge and a touchstone for me from the moment I first read it.

The following words belong to Ben Azzai, a 2nd Century Jewish Sage:

You will be called by your name,
you will be seated in your place,
you will be given what is yours.
No man touches what is meant for his fellow.
No kingdom touches its neighbor by so much as a hairsbreadth. (Yoma 38 a-b)

This teaching held out a life that was so different from my own experience that I really had to wrestle with it, and I did so with the help of healing friends and professionals who helped me to make myself the first object of study in the light of its wisdom.

What made the teaching a challenge were some of the “givens” I had lived (and daily died by):

  1. When my name was called, I knew I was in trouble.
  2. I seemed to be the only one at the Table of Life who had no place card, no seat.
  3. I was more likely to envy than celebrate even a friend’s success.
  4. I carefully guarded my own little stash, not to mention my “self” from being touched.

Over time, I developed a practice of personal inquiry out of this teaching that I will share, because self-study is an essential practice in living this imperfect human life.

The Essential Questions

Pick one.
Begin anywhere,
Just begin.

A practice for cultivating a willing, open-hearted stance in the here and now.

Showing up in your life: “You will be called by your name.”

Who or what is calling you? Are you listening? Do you recognize your name? The biblical response of our ancestors was “Hineni,” “Here I am.” You don’t need to be bible-loving to try this.

A practice for resting more and more in yourself, in all your goodness, brokenness, and complexity, and precisely where you are in life.

Being a “good enough” woman: “You will be seated in your place.”

Do you long to feel at home in this world, rooted within yourself? Can you be at ease with your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, even as you grow in character? Can you bear to enumerate and talk with them? Can you allow yourself to be a “good enough” but not complacent woman?

A practice for befriending the people and events in your life, and serving them in beneficial ways.

Befriending and serving: “You will be given what is yours.”

Do you long to understand and serve your singular purpose in life, to know your innate wisdom and see it flourish amidst your daily activities? Can you let yourself know what you know about your purpose and your wisdom?

Because no one else’s kingdom touches yours by so much as a hairsbreadth.

And as you begin to live into this, isolation melts and whole new worlds of connection, relationship, and intimacy begin to appear.

Really, this is how things work.


 

What givens have you lived by that may be challenged by this teaching? Which questions will you be wrestling with? Please share your thoughts in the comment area below. 

The Linden Tree: A Cautionary Tale

 

When I left for California a few days before Halloween, the leaves on our linden tree glowed golden to the top of its sixty-foot height, and when the temperature hit the mid-seventies for a few hours some afternoons, the warmth was not yet ambivalent.

When I returned eight days later, she was almost bare, having dropped her fall motherlode over the dying-back medicinals at her feet: wild ginger, wild yam, black cohosh, goldenseal, golden ragwort among others.

Her generosity saves me the job of mulching the front yard beds, and also brings extra frown lines to the faces of my neighbors: they worry about wind and wonder when for heaven’s sake will I get to raking. Their yards are impeccably leafless shades of grassy Crayola greens, proclaiming that their caretakers have acquitted themselves of outdoor duty and retired for the winter.

Rain has intervened. It is one thing for me to rake dry leaves, quite another effort category entirely to corral them once they have cohered according to their own laws of physics, into slimy, gummy sheets and clumps.

All this to say that sometimes the rhythm of my own life – say, the delight of flying across the country to bake gingerbread pumpkins for a family Halloween party and participate in bringing home a new family pet, a trembly fluffy lapful of Lion-Headed Bunny – runs up against the rhythms of the season. And when that happens, when I miss Nature’s window, I know I have to summon extra effort to get the same job done.

Right now I am holding off on the raking, watching the weather for five consecutive days without rain to let the leaves dry out.

Are you in or out of sync with the change of season?
Share your wisdom – or cautionary tale – with this good-enough tribe.

An Exaltation of Particulars

My prescription glasses are made for a near-sighted woman, but for most of my life I have taken a long view, “seen” sweeping possibilities, open-ended choices, many right answers to a question.

So when a teacher or colleague told me I was being too general, too vague, the only response I could figure out was to name, elaborate, and catalogue the details.

This may have helped move a project along in the moment, but failed to solve my dilemma, which, I came to understand, was not so much a failure to see the details as a contempt for them.

The contempt was a shell covering fear – as a child it was much safer to avert my eyes from what was going on around me.

It was when I began to celebrate the details, a journey helped along by playing with images, in collage, and in poetry, that a new level of healing unfolded.

An exaltation of particulars

by Sara Eisenberg

You will not find me in a long silky skirt,

covered buttons to the throat,

hair piled gracefully on my head,

held in place with a carved horn

butterfly…the look of my maternal

grandmother Fanny in the one

surviving photograph.

These are not my mother’s dress-up pearls.

These are not Kali’s trophy skulls clad

in space, held in

the womb of time.

I stand on my own particulars,

pants loose at the waist,

jasmine tea fragrant in a small cup adorned

with rabbits dancing by moonlight,

sleepless nights an ally now,

and truths spoken haltingly but

spoken.

I lay up my treasures as working riches,

refuse to become a museum,

though I offer you these observations.

Visit again and again and the curator will offer a different gloss.

If you like, unstring these small transparencies,

fling them up into the sky:

their lights will arrange themselves for you,

constellations,

sky stories,

draw you back into your own.

Birthday Gift

The anxiety of being human runs through our soul, fiber, bone and blood, attending both the existential anxiety of death, and the more personal anxiety that rides on it, schooled even from the womb by our mothers’ mood and stress, and by the ways our infant bodies sense the ever-changing shapes and forms of our immediate surroundings.

But we are also birthed into, of, and held by the larger rhythms of the natural world, which is utterly without anxiety:

human nature, Mother Nature, inseparable.

 

birthday gift

by Sara Eisenberg

Tendrils of intelligent vitality
creep in at every pore,
embed me,
another green being in a sea
of sentient Ones.

I conspire with
plain-speaking pine,
cicadas courting with their forewings,
while the landscape whispers
in myriad tongues,
“There is no longer
in your face
the anxiety of being human.”

The Answer to Your Big Questions

Like you, throughout my life I’ve grappled with the big questions – the same ones philosophers, theologians and awakening humans of all eras have had:

Who am I? 

Why am I here?

What am I supposed to be doing?

Sometimes I asked these questions as a general plaint, in a context devoid of particulars, with a kind of existential shrug.

Other times I posed them as dilemmas arose: Do I take this job?  Do I stay in this marriage? How much do I invest in this friendship?

The way I asked implied there was Someone – Oracle, God, the personal voice of my Destiny, an Inner Guide, who could see further, discern relative consequences, and who surely had the answer.

What I got was silence.

So I muddled through, and repeatedly asked yet another question:

How come I never get answers to my big questions?

An answer to that question came one summer during a brief ashram stay:  

Because you don’t listen to the answers to the small questions!

The full truth was – I didn’t actually ask the small questions. How do I respond to the check-out clerk’s obvious distress? What is the helpful thing to do here? Which words would be most appropriate? How might I begin this day to allow for more ease?

The small questions belong to moments, and they have an immediacy, an intimacy, that suggests the answers have a limited time frame and consequences.

It turns out that we don’t really know what constitutes big and little, the full reach or impact of any single action.

I distinctly remember how I taught my toddlers about “big” and “little.” I conveyed big by pointing to or holding out a large ball or cookie, by holding my arms as wide as I could, and speaking in a forceful, deep, and booming voice.

For small I  peered, squinted closely at my pinched-together fingers and spoke in a high squeaky voice.

If only it were this easy to know the extent of our reach or impact of any of our actions.

Our words, thoughts and feelings are all actions, and all leave traces. Our human perspective and knowledge are limited. And our days are nothing but one action after another. Even refraining, keeping our own counsel, are actions.

I suspect that the answer to “Why am I here” and the other big questions may come tucked into the pocket sewn from our countless small daily thoughtful actions.  

Nourish Your Immune System

In the North we’re adjusting to shorter days, cooler temperatures, dampness, and, for many, allergy-provoking leaf mold.

During this fall transition, herbs that uplift, warm, keep things moving in the body, and support immune function are welcome supports to self and family care.

In herbal language, a tonic herb or combination of herbs are used to optimize healthy function, restore a challenged body, and maintain well-being.

I keep a pot of this soup on the stove through most of the cold months – it reminds me of  Baby Roo’s tonic from Winnie the Pooh.

Sara’s Tonic Miso Soup

  • Chop 3 large onions. 
  • Lightly saute with a handful of Shiitake mushrooms in just enough virgin olive oil so they don’t stick to the pot.
  • Add 4 cups water.
  • Add miso paste to your taste – red miso for a hardier and white miso for a lighter flavor.
  • Add 4 strips of Astragalus root.
  • Simmer 45 minutes.
  • Add handfuls of baby spinach just before serving, stir until thoroughly wilted.
  • Remove Astragalus root before serving.

Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus), a member of the pea family, is a mildly sweet and warming herb that can often be found in Asian groceries. The slices  look like tongue depressors.

Astragalus is used traditionally in Chinese medicine to nourish the body and protect it from invasion. In Western Herbalism Astragalus is used as a general tonic, to enhance immune function, especially resistance to recurring respiratory  infections.

You can also prepare Astragalus in a traditional way by baking or stir-frying it with honey and a little water to enhance its nourishing qualities.

For a more robust and heating preventive if you are fighting off cold or flu:

French Garlic Syrup

  • 4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 2 tsps fresh or 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 Tb honey
  • Cover the garlic with honey, and let sit for 2-3 hours.
  • Crush to extract all the juice, and strain.
  • Drink 1 tsp 3x/day or more.

(From Anne McIntyre’s Drink to Your Health, Simon and Schuster 2000.)

Fall Rhythm Tip:

It is normal to gravitate towards more carbohydrates and more rest as we shift seasons. Give some thought to adjusting your routine to be more in harmony with the season in the best ways for you and your household.

Thank You: A habit-breaking practice

It was one day too many that I woke up to a lovely, sunny day in a “Monday morning” state of being – ready to turn over and pull the covers up over my head, anything but gather myself to sit up, put my feet on the floor, enter the day.

I’m not talking about any particular dread of what I anticipated the day might hold – just an unruly streak of crankiness and a night of unrestful sleep.

That was the day I took a green Sharpie, printed THANK YOU on a small yellow post-it, and laid it next to the small alarm clock on my night table.

I intended THANK YOU to be a cue to help me enter my day with more awareness, and it worked.

Some days I was aware of softening as I alighted one after another on breath, spouse, health, roof, running water, the whole order of my physical world that had not been upended while I slept. On such days I was reminded that in spite of the fact that all does not depend on my personal acts of will and exertion, I do still have a place in the world.

And some days I was unpleasantly but equally usefully aware of a gap between my wanting to and my inability to feel thankful. Either way I was more whole, more awake, and able to bring that into my day.

THANK YOU is not just good manners, or WD40 for a civil society. It can be a habit-breaker.

When we habitually fail to notice what is around us, and that we are a part of it, we unconsciously say No thank you! to life, and cut ourselves off from aliveness and connection. Because everything in life has the vividness of its distinct existence, and the power of its connectedness.

Try a THANK YOU post-it on your night table, bathroom mirror, fridge, or screen saver.

Or maybe your habit-breaker is PLEASE or YOU’RE WELCOME.

Let me know how it works.

Summer Morning Arrythmia

The texture, color and mood of our lives is often set below the level of daily awareness.

A succession of grey days, cold and damp. Or sunny, hot and humid.  Weather that invites us outside or draws us indoors for a warming drink and fuzzy slippers, invites longer hours of activity or of rest.

And we each respond to these shifts of temperature, light, moisture, the movement of air, in our unique ways.

Gusty winds of late winter and early fall challenge me. An hour of weeding on a sunny mild day can nourish me for a week.

Still, in the midst of summer, activity can also increase my restlessness, upset my rhythm, and lead me to seek out a winter moment. All the more so if I have not had my fill of quiet and rest during the cold months.

Summer morning arrhythmia

by Sara Eisenberg

a persistent garden fly nips at my bare legs.

i have more sympathy for him than usual,

i cannot seem to land, swat myself from one

temporary landing to the next,

come and go amidst summer clamor,

a fruit out of season,

pining for the winter spruce

of lower-case

calm.

A Virtuous Woman Weary

“I’m sick and tired of ____ !” 

This phrase sounds to me now like dialogue from a bad sitcom.

But there were years, decades, when I spoke them regularly as a reaction to the demands life made on me.

I thought I expected a lot of myself.

In truth, I expected more of life – of family, friends, colleagues than of myself.

With large applications of honesty and kindness, and with ample healing support, I began to perceive, acknowledge, and take responsibility for behaviors and consequences.

That is when a true and life-giving weariness set in.

a virtuous woman weary of her trade

by Sara Eisenberg

weary of:

lying down

in the bed I’ve made

lying still

unable to exhale

lying by

appearance

omission

commission

lying to

shore up

look good

avoid trouble

lying in

the interest of

equivocation

prudence

a finely rendered manual of evasive tactics

whose spine shows signs of wear,

whose pages are smudged with thumbing.

ships free.