The Breath of Awen: Creativity as Spiritual Expression
Near the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the character known simply as Granger, the leader of a band of intellectual exiles who have set the great books of mankind to memory in order to preserve them, says this:
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child, or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away” (Bradbury 150).
To me, this passage captures the essence of one of the most powerful expressions of spirituality in which we as human beings can engage: the act of creating art. There is profound peace and satisfaction to be found in the creation of something that did not exist before you put your hands and mind to it; something that only you could have done and that no other person could exactly replicate. We need to nurture and regularly call on this artist lurking inside all of us, adding beauty to the world while feeding our spirits.
My father was a whittler, before age and its accompanying hindrances caused him to give it up. I vividly remember how he would sit down in his recliner in our basement with a roughly square block of wood in his hands that he had brought in from the woodpile out back. He would then take out his overly large pocketknife, open the blade, and hold the wood up before his eyes. “I wonder who’s in there,” he’d say. Then, without another word, he would start to slowly shape the wood, one slice at a time. The end result was always a wonder to behold. Dogs, cats, birds, whales, and turtles would emerge from the wood blocks as if they had been been trapped in there, waiting for release like Michelangelo’s “Prisoners.” My mother collected sculptures of angels, so he carved her one with beautiful, feathered wings, flowing robes—and a derby hat. When I asked why the out of character hat was on the angel’s head, he just said, “Oh, I don’t know. Just thought it would be fun.”
I would often encourage him to set up a booth in the local mall and sell his carvings at art shows, as their quality outclassed most of what I saw regularly peddled in such places. He would just shake his head and laugh. Then, he told me, his joy would become a job, and he didn’t want it to go there. He wasn’t carving for someone else—it was for him. Sure, he would carve gifts for people, like the angel for my mom, or the perfectly proportioned football he carved for me, mounted on top of a felt-lined chest which he had also made and gave me as a gift for Christmas one year when I was a teenager. I still have that chest (the ball came off, but I still have that too); I treasure it, and only those things I treasure most are kept inside it. Those gift carvings were also for him, as they gave him joy to see how happy they made us. Whittling was my father’s great artistic joy, and it nurtured his spirit.
Mara Freeman, an accomplished writer, lecturer, storyteller, and student of Celtic and British sacred traditions who teaches at the University of Creation Spirituality defines the term “awen” as “blowing breath or wind, for inspiration, literally, means to breathe (inspire) in. Although it refers primarily to poetic inspiration, where the words flow out on the breath, it is essential to the smooth and skillful execution of all forms of art, as masters know” (Freeman 271). I see this as a beautiful metaphor for artistic expression. When poets or singers breathe in, the raw air is transformed within them and comes out as art on the wings of their words. Freeman also tells us that “All art involves transformation, and to create art, we ourselves must be transformed. Even if we do not think of ourselves as artists in the usual sense of the word, conscious living is a creative act in which every day is our canvas to paint, our metal to forge, our song to craft” (Freeman 293). Woodcarving was my father’s art, a craft he never taught to me. I suppose I should have asked that he pass it on to me and expressed an interest in learning it, but it always seemed to be ‘his’ thing. Somehow, I needed to find the most appropriate artistic expression for my own spirit. I found it in writing.
I can’t not write. Now, whether I have any skill at that craft is for the reader to judge. Skill or no, it is just something I have to do. When I can’t write—when the other demands of life simply become too onerous and prevent me from doing so—I grow short tempered, glum, and irritable. Imagine having that one thing you cherish doing more than anything else in the world being suddenly taken away from you. How would you feel? How does the athlete feel who suffers a significant injury that permanently prevents further participation in the sport that he or she loves? Such events do happen, and victims of them have to go on with their lives; they have to adapt to their new realities. In the end, though, I am willing to wager that they find ways to be around the activity they love, through coaching it, simply following it as a fan or spectator, or who knows—perhaps even writing about it!
Reader, you are an artist—you can’t deny that. You have a creative gift or talent that is a part of you, that you can’t imagine not doing, and the results of exercising that gift beautify the world. Doing it brings you satisfaction, peace, and fulfillment. When you can’t do it, for whatever reason, you feel empty or unfulfilled. Perhaps you sculpt, paint, or draw. Perhaps you build models. Perhaps you sew or knit. Perhaps you sing in a choir (or in the shower), or play an instrument. You follow a passion, a spiritual passion, through which your creativity is expressed. Never stop doing it. Never. Whatever it is. If you stop, not only will you be miserable, but the world will be a less beautiful place because the results of your creativity aren’t out there in it the way they were before.
I think again of my father—he had to give up his whittling because his eyes just wouldn’t let him continue. Even though he won’t be producing any more carvings, the ones he has made are still out there in the hands of those of us fortunate enough to have received them as gifts or to be able to admire them when visiting his house. His creative addition to the world will outlast him; I will see to that. I show the carvings and tell the stories behind them to my own children, and encourage them to pursue their own creative inclinations with passionate intensity for as long as they can. My father’s example will live on through them, as it does through me, though the vehicles of expression will have changed. Each of us must choose the vehicle that best allows us to express our “awen,” so we can exhale our creativity out into the world in whatever form best suits us. Crafting this very essay was an exercise of love, for the art and for you. I want you to be happy, and to find joy in that vehicle for your awen. Practice it just for you. Hey, if you choose to sell it, publish it, or share it in any way that enriches you beyond the very act of its creation, then that’s frosting on the cake, and others will have the opportunity to revel in it too. With that comes the risk of others judging what you have done. Ignore it. A fridge magnet in my Unitarian church says, “Never apologize for your art.” Yeah. That.
Now, I want you to finish reading this and get up and go do the creative thing you love doing the most. Right now. I don’t care if you think you don’t have time; we have to make time for this because it is one of the most important things we can do. Ten minutes, that’s it (or more if you can!). You deserve it. You owe it to yourself—and it’s beautiful. Remember that. Always. What you do is beautiful, and the world is more so because you do it.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951. Print.
Freeman, Mara. Kindling the Celtic Spirit: Ancient Traditions to Illumine Your Life Throughout the Seasons. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.