Recognizing when something we're engaged in is no longer (or not from the get-go) nourishing or enlivening to us; finding permission to stop or not to start engaging in these processes that feel like "too much work."
Too Much Work
If it feels like "too much work" it's probably not what you
need to be engaged with right now. The struggles that are
truly enlivening never feel like "too much work" even when they're intense, persistent and exhausting!
In the early mid-eighties I was renting a magical, beautifully converted two-car garage on a sweet piece of property. The area around my little cottage, though, was a mess. Excavated boulders, rocks and an assortment of construction debris littered the back and side yards.
I spent the first two years there focused on healing from the devastating end of a troubled and troubling relationship, tending the wounded Little One inside of me. When not working my two days a week or wandering in the mountains and canyons of Ojai, I was also slowly transforming the cottage into a cozy home for the Little One and me.
When the inside space felt right, I began considering the messy, neglected outside yards. At first, I simply wanted to create a place for a hot tub and an area to lie comfortably out in the sun or moonlight. I started by gathering up the construction debris and hauling it away. Then, I rearranged some of the rocks and boulders to make a terrace for the hot tub and a clear space for lying about.
Each bit that I did filled me an exhilarating sense of satisfaction. I was hooked. I continued rearranging more of the rocks and boulders. I formed rock gardens, low meandering rock walls, little terraces and then a sacred space of concentric circles with a central fire pit.
For almost two years, I worked long hours at the rock piles, often well into the star- or moon-lit nights. I dug and levered and pried up huge boulders, often sitting down in the dirt with my back against a huge rock, digging in my heels and using my back to push it where I wanted it to go. In my struggles to free the really deeply embedded ones, I'd use a thick and pointed six-foot long stake that I'd raise and drop repeatedly to loosen the earth around them. Then I'd use the flat end of the stake to lever the boulders out of the loosened earth. Often it felt as though the Grandmothers or the spirits of the place were helping me, pushing the boulders up from underneath.
Some weeks I worked at the rocks from early morning till well after dark, day after day. Often food seemed irrelevant. Water to replenish what I'd sweat away was all I needed or wanted. I loved hurling small and midsize rocks over the hill into the wild chaparral. Cursing or breathing fiercely as I hurled made it an unbeatable way of releasing the anger, frustration and rage that sometimes rose up in me those days.
When I'd run out of steam, I'd take a break and spend several days wandering around the mountains and canyons of Ojai's backcountry. I'd lie naked on rocks in the river watching the clouds, the water, the leaves and the birds, mindlessly drifting and dreaming.
Then I'd come back to the rock pile or to digging fertilizer and soil amendments into newly created flowerbeds. Or, I'd head to the nursery to find flowers and bushes to experimentally plant in all these beds. The work was strenuous, unremitting and exhausting. At the same time it was exciting and deeply gratifying.
My friends shook their heads and joked about my days with the rocks. I was fascinated by the pull the rocks exerted on my being; intrigued by the way that, rock by rock, boulder by boulder I was transforming what had been mess and debris into something of beauty and wonder. All this just by rearranging what I found around me: a fitting metaphor for that season of my healing.
It was a daily exercise in patience. No expectations. No goals. No rushing. Just moving one rock at a time. Never thinking about how long it would take to finish or where it was leading or how much there was to do: just rock after rock in timelessness.
Several years later, in the nineties, I was drawn in and similarly captivated by something quite other than rocks. After I'd spent almost six years immersed in inner work, Spirit began nudging me back out into the world, into sharing the harvest of this inward cycle and interacting with more than just my small circle of friends and clients.
The Rememberings and Celebrations Cards had begun emerging. At first a few at a time and then, quite remarkably, a whole deck of 64. A catalog took shape. New versions of all the cards and amulet-gifts I'd created over the past many years for friends and clients got printed and assembled. I started being invited to speak at Women's Councils (on aging, on power, on the Sacred Feminine). Each time, I'd bring along a few catalogs and a small stash of my growing collection of treasures to offer for sale.
A woman I was just getting to know in those days was creating drums and rattles for women's ceremonial use. Spirit had been nudging her into traveling to sell her creations at various women's gatherings in California and New Mexico. She started taking along the overruns of my Rememberings and Celebrations Cards to give away to women who stopped at her booth. And, she sometimes also took along samples of an emerging line of T-shirts with my words and images on them. She brought back intriguing anecdotes about the responses women had to my words/work.
Before long, her tales had gently seduced me into toting my goodies off to many of the same gatherings. There were Women's Music and Comedy Festivals, Goddess Festivals, Women's Spirituality Festivals, Art Festivals and Gay Pride Festivals. Sometimes I'd present small workshops at these events.
We started caravanning to the events, renting adjacent booths, hanging out with each other between customers. As we got to know each other better, we moved on to exploring sharing a single booth and together creating Sacred Feminine space into which women could come to explore our wares.
It was an exciting and often challenging time. Collaboration was a revolutionary notion for me, especially when it involved my otherwise quite solitary creative life. Taking my words and work out into the world and becoming accessible to numbers of people was equally revolutionary for my reclusive self.
The coordinating of space, esthetics, personal styles and rhythms was a stretch for me. Some of it flowed surprisingly easily. Some of it was pretty bumpy. As with the rock moving, everything we did seemed to open the door to something more to do. Being in a collaboration meant adjusting to having the next steps sometimes come through someone else's intuitions rather than through my own. This required a good bit of internal rearranging, an increase in radical trust and, sometimes, a lot of reciprocal articulation of needs and feelings as we processed together. (See The Sacred Feminine for more about this.)
In the earliest days I'd been hauling around a few boxes of inventory, a couple of tables, some portable folding display panels I'd designed and built and display boards that could be hung on those panels. There were always fresh flowers, velour tablecloths, objects for an altar and a shade tent along as well.
Including an adjacent sacred-play tent in our traveling show was an idea that came through my colleague. It meant carting additional boxes of art materials, face paints, goddess coloring books, portfolios of my own and other women's writings and a collection of my large fiber masks, the Spirit Mother Totems: a lot more hauling, but all for what proved a very lively addition.
Our experiences at these shows run by others inspired us to create a series of Women's Fine Craft shows in Ojai. These collectively designed Sacred Feminine spaces where participating crafts women worked as an ensemble involved us in lots more processing and work: press releases, flyers, and the coordination of intricate lines of communication with all our crafts women.
The excitement generated by these shows birthed a vision of creating sacred space for women's drumming gatherings. This venture brought more stretching as we wove together the separate, sometimes similar, sometimes very different threads of our visions for the happenings.
We produced a series of women's drumming nights at the solstices, equinoxes and a couple of the cross quarters in 1995 and into 1996. For each evening we hauled all we'd been hauling for the other shows along with a collection of miscellaneous percussion instruments I had been gathering at my cottage.
Each month we came together for composing the images and intentions on the invitations, getting them and the flyers printed, getting out our mailing and press releases and posting our flyers. The day of the drumming involved the elaborate setting up of either the indoor or outdoor space we'd rented: masks, art materials, wares for sale, percussion instruments, arranging a large communal altar, a communal food table and a threshold altar at which the entering women would receive a water blessing as they moved into sacred space and time. There was Oshu, the 48" in diameter ceremonial drum my friend and colleague had built, four five-foot tall hand carved redwood goddess totems from which Oshu hung and a large collection of hand-made beaters for women to use when drumming on the big drum.
Over the year, more and more women came to these drumming nights – with or without their own drums or instruments. Many were local but increasingly, as word spread, women drove considerable distances to join us. The joyful noise we raised together, the chanting, the dancing and the food we brought to share, the creation of Sacred Feminine Community – it was quite phenomenal.
As with the solitary rockwork, there was in all of this collaborative process an organic progression: one step unfolding into the next, nowhere to get, a timelessness, a sense of being in just the right place at just the right moment. It was growing me into a person who could work-and-play-well-with-other(s), something I had never before been able to do with much equanimity or skill. It was intense and sometimes exhausting, just as the rocks had been. It was also as exhilarating and as deeply gratifying as the rockwork had been. Until, one day it wasn't. Suddenly, it all felt like too much work.
Holding a safe container for the increasingly larger number of women who showed up was a big strain, especially after we had had to deal with some serious intrusions. This degree of responsibility made it much less possible for the two of us to feel free to simply be in the container that we were creating/holding. It felt to me like being the Mommy for everyone else. Repetitive, draining cycles of packing and hauling and setting up and dismantling and cleaning and packing up and hauling for us – while everyone else got to have fun playing with our toys.
As I shared these feelings with my friend/collaborator, we saw that hints of my growing disenchantment had begun creeping in some time before the day when it finally became too much work for me: We had recently asked some of our dedicated regulars to help us with the setting up and blessing as well as with the dismantling and cleaning up because it had started feeling like too much to handle by our selves.
The moment when none of it felt enlivening for me was a difficult one for us. There was a whole community of women who had come together around these drummings. All along, it felt that Spirit/the Grandmothers had been leading us, stepwise in a process of expansion that brought us to the creation of the Sacred Feminine space in which the drummings unfolded. It was unclear where Spirit was moving us now.
As we explored this shift in me, my friend/collaborator began to see that it had become more responsibility than she, too, felt comfortable holding. Finding our way to letting go of it all with skillful means was daunting. Reaching agreement about the how and when of announcing the end of our tenure was perhaps the greatest test yet in our collaboration. Here, our different styles and needs were the most discrepant.
The work of reaching consensus without violating what each of us needed to have happen in the closing ceremony took us both through a good deal of anguish and tears. We stayed committed to the belief that, if we could tolerate sitting in the middle of that pain without pushing, a resolution would emerge that would give each of us 100% of the essence of what we needed. We did, and it did. Our last evening was a bittersweet celebration as we gracefully gave and received thanks to the whole community and invited other women to step forward to continue the tradition.
I've learned that it's not okay for me to do things or to be in relationships or situations that feel like too much work. There are still many things that I do, many relationships and situations that I am in that do involve me in considerable amounts of concentrated work and energy. When that to which I'm devoting so much of my self is truly nourishing and really right for me, it doesn't ever feel like too much work.
Again and again, when how it feels to me changes into – or when how it feels to me at the start is – the too much work feeling, I practice giving my self permission to stop or to decline from participating. This uncompromising permission for my self allows me to find my way out of whatever it is honestly and care-fully no matter what my earlier agreements may have been. Repeatedly, and with less surprise each time, I see that others survive my openly named and self-caring withdrawals – intact and without rancor. Sometimes I can see that my willingness to withdraw when I need to helps inspire others to give themselves the same option.
Consider exploring the possibility of giving your self permission to stop (or not to start) doing things that feel like too much work.