Janet Lee Carey-Dreamwalks DreamWalks Janet Lee Carey Award-winning author of novels for children and young adults

Unknown Gifts

Welcome to Creative Conversations. Lean in close and eavesdrop on our latest chat about the creative process. Add your comments, too. We’d love to hear from you. Or curl up and relax and receive this gift from us to you. In this busy month of making and giving, I asked my good friend – author, poet, painter, singer-songwriter- Margaret Kellermann to Dreamwalk with me once again to explore the Unknown Gift.

We also wanted to give a Gift this month. Win a Dreamwalker stone and a free 1-hour Creative Consultation with Janet. Find ways to move past barriers getting in the way of your best work. Talk one-on-one about your current work in progress and refuel for the new year. Swing down to the end of our CC to learn more. And now let’s begin.

Janet: Hi, Margaret! I’m here in my upstairs office with hot tea and a purring cat. So good to have you back on Dreamwalks!

Margaret: Thank you! I’m here in a warm coffeehouse with iced spearmint tea and a cat by the fireplace.
J: Ah, the cats!

M: The cats and the tea and the silver spoon. Little boy blue and the man in the moon.

J: Ha! Sounds like a crowded café. I asked you to Dreamwalk again with me. This time about the Unknown Gift since it came up in our recent phone call.

M: Yes, you and I were talking about the number of times people might be touched by our art or writing or music and never have the chance to tell us. So we go on, possibly thinking we are only working for our own sanity (some years it seems that way). And then we hear that a stranger far away was comforted, given peace, by our work.

When I was writing as Margaret D. Smith, I published the book Journal Keeper (Eerdman’s 1992,1994), a handbook on keeping a journal with God, what I call visible prayer.

Not too many fan letters came back, not many that I saw, at least, but there were a few that stood out. One letter especially, from Africa, was from a man who told me he’d heard about my book and ordered it, then read it and shared it around his community. He was grateful that I’d written it and that it had made it all the way to his heart–ach!

J: Ach! That’s so wonderful the way our words can cross the world, touch communities, and single hearts. I’ve received letters (or emails) from readers that read books like Wenny Has Wings that tell about losing someone they loved.

Excerpt from a letter:
“ I read this book back when I was in 5th grade(10 years old) after I had just lost my older brother in a car accident. I remember reading it and healing inside as I turned each page. A little bit after I finished that book, I bought a journal and started writing to my brother. It was probably the best coping mechanism I could have had as a 10-year-old. I filled that entire journal. Just a few months ago, I lost someone I was deeply in love with. Again, to a car accident. I have taken my childhood coping habits and brought them into adulthood. It’s soothing knowing that a book can change something so big for me.”

Letters like this the letters leave me grateful, speechless, amazed. Those are inspiring moments. But most of the time it’s not like that.
We create a gift and never know if what we are making will ever reach anyone. Sometimes the writing takes years and I’m working in the dark (or at least in silence). I hope it will end up a novel that reaches a reader – but that’s just a hope. It is like calling out words that echo . . .

M: …Echo in a cave. Yes. There’s that news story from this week, where they found Indonesian cave paintings from about 44,000 years ago–and they think it’s possibly the oldest storytelling ever discovered because the people pictured have some animal traits, so there’s an element of fiction there. The people were telling a story for about 15 feet across a cave ceiling. So finally, finally, those artists have their audience!

J: Okay, I love this rabbit you just pulled out of your hat, Margaret!

M: I’m “laughing out loud in a quiet coffeehouse.” Something I first wrote in Journal Keeper.

Joyful Making
J: Talking of the cave painting also brings something else up. That the making itself is fulfilling and joyful. A participation in creation. So there have been stories and songs I’ve made that aren’t seen or heard by anyone else. About six months ago, I asked myself the question about a novel I’ve been writing off and on for what 3 or 4? years. “Would I keep writing this if I knew it would never be published?” The answer that came was “yes,” though it felt deeply sad, I also knew this novel had a lot to teach me. Coming to know the characters and entering their world changed me.

M: Yes, You and I have talked about that particular story, and these are what we’ve called hard gifts. I know it will have an appreciative audience, though, as soon as a cubby is made for it! You’re creating a new thing, so this is one of those times the art is made first, and then the cubby is formed around it. Right now your deeply felt story is an unknown gift, unknown except to a handful of people.
This reminds me of a fantastic quote I only heard a few weeks ago: “Art is an act of love.” This phrase was in a poem by Australian poet Francis Brabazon (1907-84):
Art is an act of love
In likeness of itself
Spirit molding into form…
His act in us for him.

(drawing by Margaret’s grandson, Henry – Artistic vision of God making a rainbow)

J: Love Henry’s drawing here. And, yes. The gift is given to “the maker” and hopefully to others when it’s done. Your words bring up the thoughts about something that happened this fall when I went to a Nature Healing for Creatives workshop. The guide took us to the woods and showed us a giant pine that had fallen long ago. The exposed roots were a beautiful natural sculpture people stopped to wonder at and touch. She was dead, fallen. She was giving us all a chance to see something beautiful in her death. We sat to write. Here’s what came:
I will not know
whom I will touch
Whom I will feed
or heal
With the stories
that feed my roots

Whom I will free by falling
And exposing
What was hidden for so long
This fallen tree has
earth’s brownness
Her patterned bark speaks of waters flowing
winds’ blowing

Even the sun’s bright fire grows
in the small orange mushrooms along her sides.

Earth Sun Wind Water
She is all things
And herself
You will not know
whom you will touch
whom you will move
whom you will feed
In your life

In the giving over of your body

You will not know
Whom you will free by falling
And exposing
What was hidden for so long

M: That’s so heart-tugging, Janet. Thank you for writing and sharing it. I interpret it as a heart cry about laying oneself bare for others. Without saying anything about sacrifice, you are telling me, as I see it, that it’s a hard thing to be an artist, laying oneself on the altar of the world. Amen.
One of the hardest things for any artist, I imagine, is for her work to be ignored, never shared around the community. Or maybe the hardest thing is to be told, “No, this is not your community anymore. It’s ours.”

A Story
I want to tell you a story about the Native people where I live in Northern California. (I’m trying to condense it in my head) There was a struggle going on last year between the Native population and other residents about the relocation of a memorial lighthouse. The Natives didn’t want it–understandably–sliding down the hill and falling into their Native cemetery at the bottom of the hill on the beach. I came to the spot where the lighthouse was sitting precariously on its cement foundation–the metal lighthouse base had already been sawed away– and I listened to some of the Native residents telling me about their struggle.

I asked if I could play a song on guitar overlooking the beach where the people had lived for centuries before being removed. The tribal elder’s son shrugged, “I guess.” I can only imagine what kind of happy-go-lucky song he thought I would sing. I brought my guitar out of my car and played a soft, repetitive song, all the lyrics being “Wide river flow; so seek the sea.” Over and over. When I finished, I packed up and was leaving, when he called me over and told me his 6-month-old daughter had been humming along with me. He added, “The grandmothers were singing down on the beach.” He was listening to his ancestors. His wife said, “We need all the help we can get.” I loved that holy moment, for so many reasons. But the most unlooked-for gift was the sense that the three of them as a family were participating in my song, as well as the long-ago grandmothers whom one had heard, and one believed. (Oh, if that could be turned into a story…but I don’t know where it could go.)

J: It sounds like you were deep listening to the song the grandmothers wanted to sing, upholding the place and the people who belong there by those waters. As always, you take me new places. I used to think I could control the creative ship – I was the navigator. But more and more, I’m beginning to see my job is to listen and participate in a larger story. I may be giving in ways I don’t know or will never see. This Unknown Gift is something all of us are doing all the time in our lives, touching people in ways we will never know – perhaps are never meant to know, and that’s beautiful.

Also, having no control over who the story (or song) reaches means I just have to follow the current, be a part of the larger ocean.

So, we take the ego out of it and just get down to the beautiful work of Making.
I recently listened again to Episode 12 of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons Podcast episode 12 Big Strong Magic
Brene Brown ends the podcast with: “You are a born maker. And we need what you can bring to us because you are the only one who can bring it.”

M: Thank you so much for this. I need what you bring, Janet because you bring heart to everything you write and sing. You and I have known each other since the 1990s–somehow we were even in the same small university in the 70s, but we didn’t know each other then–but we got another shot at it! We were together for 10 years in the Seattle area, playing music and being part of a small artist’s support group. That was a lovely time, and it helped me navigate my way through a few books. And I loved listening to your book-making process. You’ve always been an inspiration to me, the way you go into your room and type up a book! Though it takes years, you don’t stop until it’s finished. Who DOES that?

J: For years I knew you as a poet, author, songwriter.

(Janet, Margaret, and friend Jill singing on the beach some years back – photo by Heidi Pettit)

Exploring All the Gifts

Back then, I didn’t know you also painted. Sheesh! The creativity in you, girl! Anyway, I was wondering if you could show us the “sunset painting — can’t recall the title, you just did and tell us how it came to be so we can participate in its creation?

M: Yes, I recently met a Russian artist who lives here part of the year. She asked me to teach one of her college classes a couple of weeks ago, talking to the students about my process in doing abstract paintings. So I brought a canvas and paints and set up an easel and talked with them about the process, while the students each painted an abstract seascape with the same general colors of deep yellow-orange sky and dark blue ocean on their own canvas. It was a meta meta meta process. Somehow it worked. As I painted, and as the paint dried, I decided to scrape the paint off my canvas and leave the impression, almost a colorful shadow, of the original painting. Turns out I liked it better that way.

J: And here it is!
(“Better Day” (2019) by Margaret Kellermann)

Janet: Did you work from a photo of the sea or . . .

M: I walk by the water all the time, so I have the memory of the ocean in my eyes, like when you stare at something, then close your eyes and still have the picture of it.

(“Unnamed Source” (2019) by Kellermann, and Luke the dog)

I have the memory of the ocean in my eyes

J: Ah! do you think a story can create a memory of a place or of people the reader has never been before?

M: Oh yessss. Think of The Secret Garden. I read that novel as a young girl and had an absolute feeling of being inside that walled garden, as though I’d been there…in Eden, maybe. There’s also a passage in Frederick Buechner’s book Godric about leaving a piece of your heart behind when you leave a place, but also throwing a piece of your heart ahead of you, so you know the place when you arrive.

J: That reminds me. When I’m writing, I think of the setting as a part of the character. The person lives in the place and the place is also a larger embodiment of the person. As we create — We are our own maps.

M: Yes. Beautiful. I’m also reminded of a friend a couple of years ago, in response to me asking, “Do I need to do something differently?” saying vehemently, “You don’t need to do anything different, you don’t need to say anything different, you don’t need to look different, you don’t need to do anything! Just be MORE Margaret.” That was the unknown gift my friend gave me that I often repeat to myself when I feel like caving in and making something that might make other people feel better but isn’t really coming from the core me.
J: Yes, please be more Margaret. Thank you for walking with me (and us) today. For each of you Makers, may your eyes be full. We love you. We need you in the world.

Dreamwalkers. You gift the world. We want to give you something.

Win a Dreamwalker stone and a free 1-hour Creative Consultation with Janet. Find ways to move past barriers getting in the way of your best work. Talk one-on-one about your current work in progress and refuel for the new year.
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