Here’s another Island story. When I moved to Vashon, I had no idea it would shift my understanding of ‘gardening’ from something about seedlings and weeds to something more about trees and tractors. In the woods, gardening means cutting away what’s dead, or sickly, or things that aren’t native, or what stands in the way of a greater “wholeness.” Sometimes it means removing a thing for the sake of creating what sculptors call negative space: an absence that becomes a presence. Whatever the form, it’s an act of creation.
Perhaps you’re already tuning in to the metaphors here.
On my land, this kind of gardening creates piles of limbs and brush. A lot of piles. Enormous piles. This is stuff that, in rural areas, one disposes of by burning. But this year, just as the weather got dry enough to burn, it was too dry to burn and the whole burning thing was banned.
And by the end of July, I’d reached the limit of places for the piles I was making.
Whenever something fell in the wind, I had to leave it in place simply because there wasn’t anywhere else to put it. Ideas that came to me about opening a space in the trees or clearing out blackberries or other kinds of unruly understory went on hold. The chainsaw went silent.
It’s said the mystics have an understanding that the outer world and the inner one are not two. Now, whether that’s so or not, I can tell you that since there wasn’t any space ‘out there’, I began to feel there wasn’t any space ‘in here’. Whatever creative ideas I had were stillborn: there was no room to do anything with all the dead structure in my way. Stagnation began to spread through my life: I grew bored, listless, even a bit depressed.
In October, though, burning again became a thing, so I took a shovel, a hose and this weed burning thing that’s an actual flame thrower down to the fire pit. But as I looked around at everything there was to burn, I was filled with an enormous lethargy. After the first armful of brush was consigned to the flames, I’d have to trudge back and forth, back and forth. Brush pile to burn pile to brush pile… And it didn’t take long before I found myself staring into the fire, slack-jawed and empty of thought, until the intensity of the heat forced me back to work.
There’s a figure in mythology whose fate it was to push boulders up this massive hill, only to see them roll back down just as he got them to the top. Like Sisyphus, I despaired of ever finishing this job.
But as the rosy dawn turned to noon, I understood the true horror of my situation was more like that of a different mythological figure. The gods had chained this man to a rock. Every day they sent an eagle to eat his liver and every night it grew back. I now realized that my brush piles, just like Prometheus’s liver, were immortal. Everything I’d cut down and burned would eventually return.
After lunch that day, returning to this seemingly endless work, I heard what seemed like the voice of God whispering to me. The whisper sounded awfully like “Take your chainsaw”. So I did. On the way to the fire, I lopped off some limbs crowding the path. And that scrawny holly tree shouldering its way between the cherries? I cut it down.
Was it my fate, that day, to feed that fire? Of course it was. Yet something else happened as well. Every stick that disappeared took something with it: a little bit of the lethargy, a part of the despair and some of the stuckness I’d been feeling also disappeared.
And in their place? Inspiration was returning.
If you haven’t been reading this as metaphor, here’s what this has to do with coaching.
The real power of human beings is that we’re able—you might say it’s our destiny—to transform inspiration into structure. We use our vision, our imagination, our desire to bring some-thing into the world that never existed before. We obviously do that through music and art, yes, but inspiration also pours through our dreams, our visions, the relationships we’re part of and even our work. It’s miraculous and the beauty of it can be stunning.
Inspiration has to become structure if it’s going to ‘land’ in the world but, paradoxically, structure gets in the way of inspiration. We all know what it’s like when there’s too much structure, like too many rules in our work or relationships: there’s no room for innovation. The structure is deadening.
While structure has a way of accumulating in our closets and garages, it also shows up in our lives. It shows up in the form of habits, identities and the limitations we put on what we think is possible, often because of past trauma. Whenever we feel stuck, it’s this kind of structure that’s in our way, just like those brush piles had been in mine.
Burning seems an apt metaphor for one way we release internal structures that were once quite necessary but have lost their utility as life carries us into different circumstances.
As a coach, I help my clients see what’s on their burn pile, and what wants to be. And then I help them set the match.