The Empty Altar: What Uncertainty Dares Me to Create

The Empty Altar.jpg

By Day Schildkret

sweeping altar

sweeping altar

It happens every time. The morning of. As I go off to forage. Before, during and after building the art. And especially, as I release it to the larger world. As it descends, I try to be out to lunch, unavailable to pick up, too busy to pay attention or too hidden to be seen. But it always finds a way in as I try and find a way out. This is my heartbreaking dance with uncertainty and perhaps you know the dreaded choreography I speak of? 

When I create a morningaltar, my impermanent earth art, I have a practice that always precedes the creating that I call, “clearing the earth.” More often than not, if I return to build my art in the same spot there are the remaining leftovers of the last altar present: Half eaten berries, dried and decaying leaves, the shells of devoured acorns. What was once a clean and precisely placed altar now shares the resembalence to a well feasted-upon dinner plate with only a scattering mess of bones, skin and sauce. When I sit down to build new work, I must first encounter the remains of the last. And in order to make room for the new altar’s arrival, I must clear away what came before it and reveal some empty earth. 

Empty earth is my blank canvas. At first it feels so satisfying to have brushed away yesterday’s mess and have opened up space for the possibility of creating anything. Yet there is something so knee-bucklingly intimidating about revealing a blank canvas that seems to humble me every time. It’s as if I am not only revealing the bare earth but also my own insecurity that doubts that I can once again create something worthy and valuable. This devastated wondering has crossed my mind more than a few times that perhaps I just cleared away the remains of the last great thing I would ever make and the well is dry. Yet from that place, from that very place of “holy shit, I don’t know if I can do this again” the true labour begins. That empty earth dares me to rise up and create in the midst of not knowing what I’m going to create. When everything within me wants to run and flee and doubt and abandon the process, it is a simple courageous act to stay and start.  

Yet from that place, from that very place of “holy shit, I don’t know if I can do this again” the true labour begins

Samuel Beckett wrote a book entitled: “I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On” and this, my friends, is the proper and honest sentiment for how I proceed with my artwork. Feelings of doubt, despair, lose of confidence, hesitation, fear may indeed be what surfaces in the face of not knowing, but that doesn’t preclude me from continuing anyway. When I clear the earth, I am not just making room for the new artwork - I am actively participating in the renewal of my relationship with the enduring mystery that pervades my art and life itself. This relationship, while at times is terribly uncomfortable and unsettling, is a very real way to practice surrendering my control of how I think things should be as I stretch my capacity to connect, listen, wonder and receive. 

Now of course there needs to be some degree of certainty and choice that is required of me to actually begin, build and complete my work. Within the vast sea of possibility, I do eventually gather myself to head in a direction, even if I continuously change course. But the big distinction is: Am I making a choice to just escape the unsettled feeling of being unsure or am I  moved and directed by an impulse that I am only able to hear because I have cleared enough space within myself, my mind and heart, to truly let something else speak through me?

Martha Graham, the incomparable modern dancer and choreographer speaks about the uncertainty as a channel that must be kept open: "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."

'the empty altar'

'the empty altar'

This blessed unrest is the space where uncertainty and certainty meet. They are two wings of the same bird. They are both needed and necessary appendages in the creative movement and, therefore, must be well tended and balanced within my awareness and my process. Too much uncertainty and I’m paralyzed to lay down a leaf without questioning and judging it: “Is it the right one? What if there’s something better? Did I do this before?" Too much certainty and my art looks overworked, overthought and unimaginative. Yet both need each other to keep each other in check. My self-assigned task is to proceed in the presence of both being present and allow the space where they meet - this dynamic, electric, unsettling tug of “I know /  I don’t know" to crack me open and let something sincere through. This way is not for the faint of heart. 

I like to think that the bare circle of earth I clear is the first altar I make: The Empty Altar. It is a way for me to stop outlawing the uncertainty, to cease banishing it and wronging it and othering it into a monster that I dread encountering and instead, to actively court it back into its magnificent and magisterial role within my creative process, seated right beside my certainty. Clearing away, revealing and recognizing the bare earth as an altar itself helps me reconsecrate the space again and reinstall The Mystery back to its proper central place of honor and respect. And, by doing so, I can more easily remember myself, not as the creator per se but as a conduit, whose duty is to keep my channel open and clear to the urges that dare to move through me. 

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Day Schildkret is known internationally for 'morningaltars' and has inspired people of all ages to forage, build and pray with earth art all over the globe. He also mentors and coaches creative and spiritual folk who are stuck with their purpose and projects so they can emerge and animate their life's calling. For more information on his mentorship practice, visit www.legacyaslivelihood.com. To follow 'morningaltars' on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter: @morningaltars.

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