Are you building a cathedral?

Sage CohenFierce writing, The life poetic4 Comments

In one of my favorite allegories, a traveler in medieval times comes upon a stonemason at work. He asks, “What are you doing?” The man looks weary and unhappy. He responds, “Can’t you see I am cutting and laying down stone? My back is killing me, and I can’t wait to stop.”

The traveler continues on his way and comes upon a second stonemason. “What are you doing?” he asks. “I’m building a wall,” says the stonemason. “I’m grateful to have this work so I can support my family.”

As the traveler walks on, he encounters a third stonemason who seems to be doing exactly the same work as the previous two. He asks the man, “What are you doing?” The man stands up straight. His face is radiant. He looks up at the sky and spreads his arms wide. “I am building a cathedral,” he answers.

All three workers are technically doing the same work: laying the stones of an edifice. But the story they tell themselves and this traveler about their labor shapes how they feel—and most likely the quality of their work.

At my Fierce on the Page launch event at Powell’s City of Books, I shared this allegory. I passed out index cards and invited everyone in the audience to name their cathedral. Then, together, we placed our “cathedral” cards on an altar built by my beloved, Mark. This is a glimpse of the hundreds of big dreams we ignited together that evening.

Here are a few of the “cathedrals” that were named and claimed:

“To write poems that are so strange, vulnerable, uncompromising, and emotionally true that they call others to unbury their pain and heal it.”

“To encourage each person to find their love of learning.”

“To change the conversation about the treatment of animals.”

“To help women find their voices!”

And now I ask you: Which stonemason are you?

Are you the first laborer, producing writing fueled by a sense of drudgery and defeat, perhaps focused on praise or publishing or competition or envy, and discouraged by how slow the process is, or how intermittent the affirmation along the way?

Are you the second laborer, focused on doing quality work and appreciative of the evolution of your craft and results?

Or, like the third stonemason, do you have a vision so compelling, so meaningful, that it fills you with a sense of joy and purpose to show up at the blank page day after day as you do the righteous work of erecting your cathedral?

I believe that no matter what story you may have been telling yourself until now, everyone has a cathedral we are building (and writing) toward—an energy source that can fuel our work for a lifetime. If you haven’t named yours yet, I invite you to lift your eyes a little higher.

What is your cathedral?

Try writing it down and posting it in a sacred space in your home, maybe with an electric votive candle flickering beside it. Then reference this declaration any time you are stuck, afraid, or need a boost.

I’d also love for you to share your cathedral here. Because something alchemical happens when we articulate and share our big dreams, commitments, and visions—and are witnessed by people who are invested in our success.



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