It was inevitable, really, the arrival of that day. I was little, not yet five, when my dad decided to take my brother, two years older than me, fishing. As they prepared to go, my mom looked my dad square in the face and matter-of-factly stated: “You’re taking her too.” Seems Mom was happy for some time without both of her young children. I’m not entirely sure what Dad thought about the whole thing but he quite willingly took me along that time - and every time after. We’d hop in the car and make a stop at the convenience store where we’d stock up on worms and a box of Jaw Busters jawbreakers each – the ones in the green box. Dad would pick a fishing spot and we’d park the car and walk to the river. We would find a perch on a rock or log as he readied our rods and bated our hooks. Then, having armed us each with a bated hook in the water, a tin of worms, a box of jawbreakers, and a dull pocket knife, Dad would go fishing. See, there’s no talking in fishing. You might scare the fish away. So Dad quite cleverly occupied our young mouths and hands while we waited for the fish to bite. We learned patience as we slowly sucked on jaw breakers and whittled small sticks with blunt pocket knives while keeping an eye on our fishing lines. That’s when I first whittled. As we grew up the jawbreakers and whittling naturally disappeared from our fishing trips. We were old enough to actively fish without distraction – my brother’s pentient for bumbling into the streams was distraction enough.
Decades later, I whittled again. I found myself on the side of a Colorado mountain listening and watching as John Paul Lederach explained the reflective process of making talking sticks. When the introduction was finished, I excitedly picked my bit of wood, pulled out my knife, and froze. I knew I needed to whittle the bark off the wood. But how does one do that? How does one whittle? My mind was a blank. I took a deep breath, put blade to bark, and began to relearn what I’d known since I was small. Back home in Bangkok a few months later I found myself introducing a friend to talking stick making. We chatted about it, he picked a bit of wood, and we settled in. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. He was sitting there with his wood and his knife, frozen. We started a conversation that day that I’ve been thinking about since and that resurfaces every time I see this struggle. Why do we forget these things? When we were small, we painted and created and sang and danced and dreamed and imagined. Much of my childhood was spent outdoors playing varieties of characters in endless imaginary epics set in forests and fields, submarines and pirate ships. It’s what we did. And we whittled. Now we’re all grown up and like good adults leave all that to the professionals, as if it is some sort of specialized skill one must have. Sure. If you want to make a living at being creative, you need a lot of specialized skill. Yet why do we automatically dismiss the possibility of creative living? As if unless we are good enough to make money doing it we shouldn’t even dabble in creative arts for our own fulfillment. And so we gradually squish our brains and souls into a sensible box, leaving creative expression to the professionals and keeping for ourselves only the periodic treat of viewing the creative through a window, and never touching it. And slowly, slowly, the creative spark inside starves for oxygen and fuel. Somewhere along the way society fed us this lie. That creating art is for artists, not for us. When I started whittling again as an adult, I couldn’t put my knife down. The creative inside was peeking out and questioning this lie. There are cultures in the world that spend countless hours creating beautiful and intricate displays of art for regular rituals that end with the creations being burned or washed out to sea. Those among us focused on the end product sigh with regret and a feeling of loss. But these cultures have a different motivation. The emphasis is not on creating something beautiful and lasting. The point is in the process. Yes, one prefers to end up with a perfect specimen of art to offer to the gods, yet that finished piece is not the only offering. More important is the process the artist went through in making it, built on years of experience honing the craft. So now I whittle and work wood into talking sticks. I focus on the process as I spend hours hand crafting them, learning as the shavings fall, and in the end giving them away. I'm not a great artist and that's not my goal. I'm just me, exploring this creative outlet and seeing where it leads. For me, it’s about the process, and the giving, and somehow that makes the pieces all the more meaningful.