Last night I was at our church, the Madison Christian Community, to present a talk for the Women's Salad Supper (which, by the way, was delicious). This is an annual event that showcases the amazing women of the congregations, and that's just the audience. This year, the focus was on women entrepreneurs and I was asked to give a presentation. As per tradition, the speaker gets to choose the recipients of the free will offering and (as per Anthology tradition), I selected two local non profits focusing on youth arts in our community: the Teen Bubbler program at the Madison Public Library and the Clare Aubrey Roberts Scholarship Fund at the Monroe Street Fine Arts Center.
Anyway, here it is:
Everything starts with Genesis. And, to be honest, it doesn’t go much further than that, despite the best efforts of Dan Schmiechen and Andrew Rogness and countless Sunday School teachers here at MCC. The idea of people created in the image of a creating God is central to my idea of why we are here and what we are called to do. We are called to be creators.
Creativity is so fundamental to my sense of self that I honestly hadn’t given it much thought until my late 20s. It is just something you do (or, rather, something you make). It isn’t necessarily a job. Running next to, and not especially overlapping, was my career in retail.
My work in retail began right out of college in the handbag department at Boston Store. Later there was Itchin’ to Stitch, a quilt store in Sun Prairie. But the biggest step on this journey came when I saw an ad for an assistant manager job at Little Luxuries, just as I was finishing my master’s thesis. It had always been one of our favorite shops and I decided to apply. I honestly think that working in retail, owning your own store, is an easily-visualized career. I’m pretty sure that my sister and I weren’t the only little kids who had that little cardboard cut-out grocery store that we often played with. So in some ways, I was just returning to a career we had been practicing since childhood.
What started as working for a small independent business quickly turned into a desire to own it. My sister joined me as co-manager, and I began to envision our career as store owners. I was 32. At the time, I imagined our boss close to retirement, choosing to pass the mantle of gift shop ownership on to us. It was presumptuous, certainly, but that was the path I thought I was on.
Through this time, however, there was building in me a desire to incorporate more of my own creative work into my career, but also a sense that too many people were dismissing the creative aspects of their own life. “Oh, I’m not creative,” is something I hear all the time. Stuck in Genesis as I am, you can see why it might drive one crazy to hear that from children made in the image of a creating God. To have time to create is a critical part of my well-being.
I imagine likewise for all people, as children of a Creator God. Whether we garden, paint, sing, connect people, build places, we are acting in God’s likeness. In our own little ways, we create the stars and the seas, we create light where once there was nothing.
Little Luxuries already had its vision, created by the owner. Our specific areas of interest and expertise didn’t particularly mesh with that vision. My creative life was still mostly separate from my professional life. Then came 2007. Our boss started talking about restructuring the business and our jobs, in no way towards the creative element that I so wanted. I started to feel like the goal of owning the shop was getting further out of reach, started questioning all the time I had spent on the path, even questioning my own worth and ability. I started to feel that there was no place for me in this place that I considered mine. I was stuck for a long time in my expectation that I would be store owner of that place. Since the option seemed to be closing to me, I felt closed off from my own possibility.
A friend later shared with me a cartoon that she shares with her business classes. In the first frame, a terrified skier is looking down a steep hill. But then the picture pans out and there is a bear charging from behind. She tells her students: this is what becoming a business owner is like, at some point, it is more terrifying to stay in place than it is to go forward.
Well, I spent most of 2007 stuck on the top of a hill with a terrified face. I can see why having faith is such a big test. During that time, I can’t really say that I had faith in the process. I am thankful that I had people around me who had faith in ME, who saw value in me even when I felt devalued. It is only in hindsight that I can say those difficulties were setting the stage; that I had to go through that time in order for any other risk to seem small compared to the risk of staying where I was. But in the middle of that, there was a lot of crying and a lot of second-guessing, wondering if years had been wasted and what I was actually going to do with the rest of my life.
And then there was light. Specifically, around 6 am the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 2007. I woke up with such a clear vision: My sister and I would open a store! It sounds like should have been a foregone conclusion given how much I had talked about owning our own store.
Perhaps there is no way for me to adequately convey how deeply I had connected being a shop owner to being at that specific shop, and how I had almost given up on being a shop owner simply because that particular path was closing to me. At that time, I found the passage from one of my favorite authors, Brian Andreas:
"I don't know how long I can do this, he said. I think the universe has different plans for me & we sat there in silence & I thought to myself that this is the thing we all come to & this is the thing we all fight & if we are lucky enough to lose, our lives become beautiful with mystery again & I sat there silent because that is not something that can be said.”
This passage resonated with me because I felt like most of the year had been a battle with trying to keep myself at my job and when I gave up on that idea, suddenly a whole new path opened up to me. It was suddenly less terrifying to ski down the hill than to stay in place.
And that’s just the beginning. We opened Anthology in March of 2008.
Life might have been beautiful with mystery but it was also really stressful and filled with long hours, hard work, low pay and a tremendous sense of risk. Both of our parents worked for the UW and we didn’t have a lot of experience with small business ownership. I remember a friend of mine told me that it was going to be a LOT of work and in my mind I kind of blew him off: “maybe it is for some people….” But, yes, it is a LOT of work. We wondered if we would be able to even reach minimum wage for the hours we were working. I cried over the phone to the IRS, and I cried in the car when I had an unexpected $25 co-pay for a doctor’s visit. I contemplated getting a second job stocking shelves at the grocery store at night. Yet I also felt that I had no time or energy to spare since it was all dedicated to Anthology.
However I came to see that the flip side of that risk is tremendous reward. I felt everything so much more deeply - the risk and failure, but also the success. Even though there was stress and worry, there was a feeling of giddiness, of joy, that our time and energy was being welcomed by other people. Every single day, someone comes into the store, compliments us and thanks us for our work, whether by their words or their deeds. Something even as simple as buying a postcard is fraught with gratitude. Yes, it was scary, and not just because of the money. So much time and energy was going into it, it was hard not to take rejection of the store and its goods as rejection of myself.
I am thankful for the advice of a college professor. His advice was geared towards us as women in the male-dominated field of geology, but it holds across fields. He told us to start a "warm fuzzy file," into which we would put letters of recommendation, awards, other compliments. Then, when we were doubting our ability or our direction, as would inevitably happen, we could open the file and affirm our path and our selves. At Anthology, this takes the form of a little notebook into which I record overheard and compliments about the store. Whenever I'm feeling unappreciated or that my effort is coming to naught, I only have to open this little book and I can see all the ways that I have had effect in the world. I cannot recommend this approach enough.
Of course, I know that I won’t please everyone; I don’t expect everyone to buy something or even “get” what it is our store is about. At the same time, by putting so much of myself into our shop, when people DO respond positively, it acts as an affirmation of my work and of my very self. This acceptance of self brings a deep sense of satisfaction and joy, and it comes only by taking the risk of sharing my true self with others.
On a side note, I don’t know how familiar you are with the Myers-Briggs tests, but one of the qualities is a scale from extrovert to introvert. I am about as far over into introvert as one can possibly be. So, yes, there is something in me that would be very happy to just sit at home in my cozy little studio in my flannel pajamas. It takes a lot of energy for me to be on the sales floor six days a week, to be nice to so many people I don’t know. Yet I am fueled by the overwhelmingly positive reaction, to the business, and, by extension, to ourselves.
And so the first few years of store ownership passed. My sister and I settled into our strengths, which truly complement each other. People often tell me that there’s no way they could ever work with their sister and I won’t claim to have the secret to eternal sisterly bliss - we definitely have our old baggage that might not make the best partnership. Perhaps this is just my bias as the bossy older sister, but I think that our strengths fill in really well for the other’s weaknesses. When one of us is feeling nervous about finances, the other is usually feeling confident. My sister delivers excellent customer service; my excellence lies more in accounting software. She does the hiring and training; I do scheduling and payroll; we split the ordering pretty evenly, though I do all the budgeting. I think that stores can distinguish themselves most readily if customers are allowed to hear the creating voice of the owner, and I think it is to our advantage that we have two voices setting the tone.
We certainly weren’t done learning and growing. There was a lot of work to be done in terms of balancing work with the rest of life, but I had strengthened my faith and trust in process and in the rewards that accompany risk. I am so grateful for the tremendous support of our customers and the Madison community. Our business was continuing to grow and I could see the path ahead for us, selling note cards and wrapping paper and locally made crafts. We made buttons for Obama’s first campaign but mostly considered ourselves an apolitical paper and craft shop.
Which brings me to 2011. mid February to be precise.
It’s a funny thing - the world of the small business owner seems so independent, almost American cowboy-ish in its mythology. There’s that notion that you are taking tremendous risks and going out on your own, making your own way without the support of a larger system of a corporation or a department. Yet one of the biggest things that being a small business owner has taught me is our utter dependence upon each other. I could work every hour of every day, and that work will come to nothing if not for the work of my sister beside me, if not for the many artists, if not for our customers. That starts a cascade of dependence, upon employers, employees, family, students, delivery guys, artists, taxpayers. There’s no end to it, of course. That’s the point.
So when the Governor first introduced his budget, my objections were on behalf of those we depend upon. The budget went against what I see as the role of government, it went against how I think Jesus wants us to be at work in the world. Before we owned our own business, I took politicians at their word when they told me what small businesses wanted. Yet this obsession with taxes is completely at odds with my own experience. I don’t want lower taxes - I want all the things that taxes pay for. Our well being depends completely on that of our customers, and this budget didn’t seem helpful at all. So, yes, we were feeling mad and scared, unheard and upset.
It’s weird though, because there’s this idea of neutrality in the business world. That because you would take money from everyone, you have to represent everyone’s views, or at least stay neutral to them. I find that disingenuous. We only have to dig a little bit into trade organization lobbying and super PAC donations to see that business is far from neutral. Certainly the way politicians portray business needs is not neutral. I was disinclined to let others speak on our behalf. Add to that the existing lessons about risk and reward, and we were not poised to stay silent.
It did feel like we were breaking some unwritten business rule, but it also felt that there was no other option than to stand in solidarity with teachers, with public schools, with state workers, with state parks and public resources. First the UW Students marched to the Governor’s office to deliver love letters in support of programs he would underfund. Then the rest of the protestors arrived. So we wrote on our sandwich board and hung signs in our windows, we went to the protests, we watched as people streamed by our shop on their way to the Capitol. We felt that it was important for us to participate and to be witness, but we didn’t really expect this to be a money-making moment.
On Thursday of the budget week, a regular customer came in and said: “where are your buttons?” On Friday, an old school friend and union member commented: “You must be selling buttons like crazy! Union people love buttons!” I told her that we were still on the fence because even though we felt strongly about the issues, we weren’t sure if it was opportunistic to make buttons. She said: “Make those buttons, girl!” Since that week in February, we have sold over 60,000 buttons. Our Dad regularly tells us that we should send a thank-you note to the Governor. Instead we send proceeds from our button sales to the public school foundation and the many other programs who funding he has diminished.
There were plenty of times that I felt overwhelmed with anger and frustration, times when I worried about how our shop would grow when paychecks were shrinking, times when I feared for our state. It did feel like we were taking a huge risk to speak out as business owners. Many other businesses were quiet. It is to the credit of our upbringing in the Madison Christian Community that we were not. In hindsight, taking such a stand in the liberal hotbed of Madison wasn’t that much of a risk but it felt like it at the time.
I remember once there was a man lingering outside our store for a really long time. I started to wonder and worry, was he going to get a bunch of friends to block the door because he disagreed with us, would he try to smash the window or come in and yell at me? I am not immune to flights of fancy that take up way too much energy preparing for things that never materialize. But I try to refocus my mind. There are buttons to be made, after all. There is comfort and action to be found in the work of creation. Ultimately what I object to in others was the way they allow fear and anger and pain to set the tone for their lives. That is not the life I want to live. These are not the offerings that God asks of us.
There is a wonderful piece of text from Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves. I recommend looking up the whole thing, but in one part, she writes:
"There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate."
Yes, it is a constant challenge not to pull out a chair for sorrow and anger, to instead embrace the fear that comes from risk, knowing that it will be overcome by reward, that there is connection that I cannot allow anger to sever. I believe God wants us to take risks, to be daring in our expressions of love and creation. And if you are stuck like I am in Genesis, you know that there’s only one way through anything, and that is creation. Can you find a way to make an offering of your joy and love and creativity? Can you turn your anger and pain and fear and sorrow to creation? Oddly enough, making buttons began a new phase of my offering.
I am filled with gratitude that we took that risk, that we participated in that moment. The button table was often surrounded by people – they were laughing, they were sharing their stories and pains, they were chatting about clever signs they saw. So many people came to us who had never stepped in our store before. There was a strong sense that we were all overcoming feelings of being alone and being powerless. I grew and so did the store.
We forged new connections to people and businesses; there was a lasting sense of togetherness and power. To my great joy, I was reminded that Creation prevails. The turmoil and anger was met with such creativity – screenprinting, hilarious signs, chalk writing, decorated cars, t-shirt making, singing and songwriting... and yes, buttons. It made me proud to be a Wisconsinite, to be among Creators, and to be a child of a creating God. It has given me a lasting sense of solidarity, a keen awareness that the worst of the troubles usually start the second you start thinking that you are alone.
And yes, I will confess to a sense of deja vu and tiredness as we see this all repeated on the national scale. My objection remains the same, to those who would cede life to fear and anger, view the world with rigidity and an idealized past, to those who are unwilling to face pain and sorrow but instead distract themselves with rage, closing their minds and hearts to other ways of being and doing and connecting in the world.
That is not the life that I want for myself. That is not the life that God calls me to. That is not the life of a Creator child.
I draw my comfort and strength from the risks that I take and the rewards I am met with, the way that being a store owner allows me to constantly connect with other people, and to meet the world with love, acceptance, fluidity, and with courage to face pain and sorrow with a heart and mind that are open.
I draw my strength from the way I enable myself and others to fully meet our potential as creators living the Creator’s likeness. I'm sticking with Genesis.