winnowingI slept horribly last night, and not for lack of trying. It happens when I’m approaching a creative jag, most commonly around the equinoxes in spring and fall.

I know I’m not alone in this pattern – I work with enough writers to know this is the blessing and the curse of the creative mind: very little sleep ultimately yields fully formed thoughts and pages that take shape in our heads long before pouring out of us effortlessly upon waking.

My husband has found me many times crouched on the edge of the bathtub in the middle of the night, madly scribbling notes on a scrap of paper with only the dim night light to illuminate the page. He once watched me for a half hour as I wrote down my thoughts in the pitch dark of our bedroom while laying in our bed, trying to ascertain if I was asleep (and enacting a bizarre dream) or, in fact, awake (and possessing a freakishly odd talent for writing in the dark). It was the latter, by the way.

At the age of forty-four, I’ve come to appreciate the need to strike while the creative iron is hot – to ride the wave of inspiration as it’s rolling to shore. As much as we’d like to, I firmly believe we can’t schedule or force moments like these – they are just born. Or at least that’s what I’ve been telling myself these days as inspiration finds me in the middle of the night.

It beats the hell out of the other reason: Perimenopause. That would just be sad.

Here’s the seed of inspiration that found me as I tried to sleep last night – and I think it’s pretty apt, given the season we’re in: Winnowing. It’s a concept I share frequently with my clients, and it seems to find a home with them as they navigate change, and find themselves sorting through what they want, and what’s just old and coming along for the ride.

The concept of winnowing is ancient, but my story with it begins when I was eight or nine. At the time, we had a parakeet named Happy (how odd that we had a bird, and how telling that was his name…). My job everyday was to change Happy’s cage and make sure he had plenty of food and water. On special days, I got to cut the leafy ends off of the celery and toss it into his plastic “bath” that snapped onto the side of his cage. The bird would go nuts with excitement on those days, offering up one of his many swearwords he favored (also telling…), but I digress…

The most challenging part of my job was to separate out the old husks of his bird seed from the uneaten ones. Ordinarily, this would be a daunting task for a young girl with limited patience, but my mom –  wise woman that she was – made it fun and easy for me. She sent me out into the back yard with two old Folger’s coffee cans. Demonstrating the process to me, she taught me how to fill one can with the seeds from Happy’s cage and then, holding my arms out, pour the seeds from one can to the other repeatedly, letting the wind carry away the empty hulls. I still get goosebumps as I think of those old seeds simply flying away on the wind.

I remember being mystified by the process, like I was some high priestess offering symbolic seeds to feed the sky gods.

As a “grown-up” now, working with people navigating change, I find I use this metaphor a lot with my clients to illustrate how simple and effective the process of “culling” one’s life can be. It can be fun and easy, leveraging the wind in our life as an unassuming ally to rid of us of that which is no longer serving us. “Empty seeds” in some cases might be friends who would rather we not change or grow, old stories we keep telling ourselves out of habit, or “shoulds” and outdated expectations we’ve been carrying with us without even realizing it.

Pass the seeds from one can to another, and watch what drifts away on the wind. 

Give it a try. Step out into nature – find a patch of grass or go whole-hog and climb a mountain – and bring your “can of seeds” to sort, literally (I’m all about the ritual..) or just figuratively. Don’t over think it. That’s not what this is about. Let it be about motion, the elements, and the wisdom of the wind. Watch for what flies away and see if you can name it…feel it leave you. Say goodbye to it, and thank the seeds from past meals for their nourishment. Notice how your can feels lighter, and yet more solid – full of substance and free from waste. All meat, no fillers.

That’s the good stuff you want in your can. Happy food.

Don’t worry if you feel like an ass doing this. You will, trust me. Especially if you’re not eight and don’t have a pet bird swearing from his cage in the corner. But know that you won’t be alone. You’re actually in good company. This is happening more than you realize. Just think of that every time you feel the wind on your face.

Winnowing: It’s not just for the birds.