Attentive Creation: Making Pysanky Eggs
On the difference between concentration and attention: “To concentrate implies bringing all your energy to focus on a certain point; but thought wanders away and so you have a perpetual battle between the desire to concentrate, to give all your energy to look at a page, and the mind which is wandering, and which you try to control. Whereas attention has no control, no concentration. It is complete attention, which means giving all your energy, your nerves, the capacity, the energy of the brain, your heart, everything, to attending…When you attend so completely there is no recording and no action from memory.” ~J. Krishnamurti, quoted in An Artist’s Book of Inspiration (1996), compiled by Astrid Fitzgerald
An elderly friend gave my daughters and me a gift last week; she taught us the art of “pysanky” (Ukrainian) egg making. At a time when so many of us feel limited in our powers to help Ukraine, doing what we can, but achingly believing it isn’t enough, it felt right to take time to quietly honor Ukraine and its people through learning this careful art. The process of creating pysanky eggs is time intensive, and it took us two days of five hour workshops to complete one, large goose egg each. When my friend specified the time it would take to complete one egg, I internally questioned, “Two days of our March vacation given over to create one egg each? Do I really want to spend this much time creating a decorative egg?” Ultimately, the girls and I surprised ourselves by discovering how much joy we experienced learning the basics of this art, each feeling almost giddy with pride as we took home our intricately designed eggs.
The process of making pysanky begins by penciling a design on a blown out egg. This involves precise measurements and requires a steadiness of hand, a steadiness that I would need much more practice to perfect. Next, a dye is chosen, and the egg is plunged into the high quality pysanky dye for ten minutes. When the egg is removed, a small tool for melting and funneling beeswax called a kitska is used to wax over the parts of the design that you desire to retain the color of the first dye. The kitska is held over an open flame until its funnel is hot, and the wax you have scooped into the top of the funnel melts its way down and out the funnel’s fine point onto the precise sections of the egg you want to cover, preserving the dye. Next, you dip the egg into a different dye, leave it for ten minutes, and when you extract it, wax over any part in the design that you wish to retain the new color. This continues until the egg has been dyed all of the colors you desire, and you have waxed over all of the design as needed to produce the color patterns you want. The most rewarding part comes next. Holding the egg precariously close to an open flame, the wax begins to melt, and slowly you remove the melting wax with a soft cloth to reveal the vibrancy of your colors and the crispness of your design. The effect is almost magical. Your egg must rest for one to two days before being varnished. Nothing is swift about this craft.
My girls and I sat, meticulously warming our funnels over the flame and etching the wax over the designs, while a grandfather clock in the room steadily ticked, and the birds chirped their springtime cheer through the screen door. Otherwise all was silent. I found that an hour passed in this fashion with me barely cognizant of its passing, and a palpable sense of calm, relaxation, and presence came over me. I breathed deeper. I abandoned myself to the moment and to the task. There were no phones ringing. I was not thinking about emails. I barely thought of food or drink. All was attention. I perceived that my daughters felt the same. They too were utterly immersed in the act of creation. It felt like meditation, and I realized it was doing something for my soul. I felt unexpectedly nourished by it.
When our workshops were over, Quinn, Evangeline, and I felt satisfaction in our work and noted how special it was to have created something with a stunningly long, rich cultural history, an art that becomes rarer with each passing generation. Initially, we worried that the patience required for the task would be beyond our supply, but we found ourselves able to settle ourselves into the process, and the fact that it took so long actually became part of the gift. We were able to experience what it is like to slow down into a state of consciousness that is all art and no filler, no distraction, producing a form of art that cannot be completed in a hurry.
I enjoy learning about medieval scribes and illuminators of ornate medieval texts, fascinated by the talent and stillness required to produce works of rare and delicate beauty. As I burned my funnel over the flame and transferred the wax cautiously onto the egg, I imagined the sensation to be ever so slightly similar to the experience of an illuminator, fastidiously brushing on rarest lapis lazuli or gold by candlelight with only scratching of quills on parchment to be heard nearby. I also came away with my interest reawakened in handicraft in general. When I returned home, I went right to a notepad, stuck a note to my counter, and wrote, “sew.” For a short period of time, I was in the habit of sewing, particularly gifts for others, but in the past couple of years, I stopped. The contentment and fulfillment I found in the pysanky egg creation reminded me of the satisfaction of sewing, and I realized I want to get back to that.
One of the gifts offered through the art of pysanky is the opportunity to experience attentive creation, rather than a kind of arduous concentration. The difference between concentration and attention, as explained in the J. Krishnamurti’s passage above, can be understood as the difference between conscious effort and a state of flow. In their article entitled “Neuroscience of the Flow State,” (April 2021) Dimitri van der Linden, Mattie Tops, and Arnold B. Bakker define flow as “a state of full task engagement that is accompanied with low-levels of self-referential thinking.” This description readily aligns with Krishnamurti’s description of attention as “giving all your energy, your nerves, the capacity, the energy of the brain, your heart, everything, to attending…When you attend so completely there is no recording and no action from memory.” The lack of “recording” and/or acting from memory is part of this lack of “self-referential thinking” noted by Linden, Tops, and Bakker. This suggests to me one of the foremost reasons we find a state of flow to be so desirable, so optimal, so enjoyable. A state of flow excuses us from ourselves for a while. As I sat with my goose egg and attempted, however clumsily, to make a thing of beauty, I ceased, for a while, from being a woman with work responsibilities, house chores, and obligations to consider. I wasn’t keeping tabs on the time or considering whether or not I was happy in the moment. I was simply present. I fully attended to the work. What a gift to be released from self-referential thinking for even short periods of time.
The egg workshop brought us into a flow state and alleviated us from self concern for a while. It showed us that we had more patience than we had given ourselves credit for, and it gave us the soul food of long, sustained silence. It reminded us that sometimes exceptional things, exquisite things, require more time than we normally are willing to give any one task. It taught us that the “sacrifice” of the time over our March break was not a sacrifice at all. It was a pleasure and a revelation.
As we applied ourselves to our pysanky craft, I found myself are of the image we made, the four of us, around our friend’s humble, somewhat messy table. My aging friend sat with us – myself a forty-two year-old mother with her teenage and pre-teen daughters – a magnificent array of eggs our friend made in the past on display as reference and inspiration. Out of her comfortable, endearingly cluttered home, she gave of her limited energies to pass down to us a poignant tradition and series of skills. She understood the value in the older generation teaching the younger generations a quickly dying art, and my daughters and I are immensely grateful for her willingness to share her craftsperson’s knowledge with us.
Is there a handicraft you have been wanting to learn or to pick back up? What
makes you feel in a state of flow? When was the last time you made time for that activity? When can you make time for it this month? Is there a new art or skill that would require this kind of satisfying attention that you could take up over the weeks ahead?