“Creative discomfort.” I know the feeling well, and now I know what it’s called! If you have 36 minutes to spend watching John Cleese talk about creativity, click here. (As a multi-tasker, I did physio exercises whilst listening, but even without the exercises I would consider it time well-spent.)
Here are a few points that really clicked with me.
Be open. Be silly, be judgement-free, play. There is also a time to be closed and to apply your ideas, to bring them to fruition and into coherent shape. But without time to play freely there is no creativity. He advocates a beginning and an end to play. It’s exactly what we all hated as kids: being told that it’s time to come inside and wash up for supper; time to clean up the toys. Playtime isn’t all the time. There also needs to be time to build your invention.
But creativity is not just about playtime, and structured time. It’s also about sitting with a problem that has yet to be solved. It’s about passing by the easy or obvious solutions, and sitting with the problem/subject and giving your mind time to dig into its unconscious and come up with something original. This is a deeply uncomfortable process. I do it instinctively and not without pain — for me and for everyone around me. When I’m working out a problem, I’m irritable, agitated, distracted. (It’s one of the reasons I exercise.) But I can’t help myself. I can’t accept the easy solution. I have to keep looking until I find something else. I’ve sometimes thought of it as a kind of obsessive personality flaw. After listening to this talk, however, I think it might be the single-most important quality in my personal creative toolbox.
A few more points. When we play freely, we don’t worry about making mistakes; we risk being silly and wrong and ridiculous, because there is no silly or wrong or ridiculous. I think of this in my own parenting. I wonder. Am I too quick to point out problems or flaws? Successful collaboration and communal play comes from building on each other’s ideas, not knocking them down. That doesn’t mean you have to blanket every idea with “Wonderful!” but that you help build on the ideas that come. “Could you elaborate on that? Could you push it futher? What if …?” Maybe it’s also like riffing. When you’re in the middle of a good conversation and everyone is carrying everyone else along, not worrying about taking detours, or getting off-topic.
One final point. Cleese is very much against solemnity. He’s not against seriousness — we can talk deeply about serious subjects while laughing, after all. What gets his goat (and also squashes creativity) is self-important solemnity that refuses humour, that sees it as subversive (well, it is!); the ego that refuses to laugh at itself, that is defensive, that shuts down the house for the sake of propriety.
And on that note … I’m off to ponder and wonder and sit with some pretty grumpy-making creative discomfort. But with a light heart, friends. With a light heart.
Have I been writing quite often about my dreams? Maybe it’s because I’m woken on so many mornings by my alarm, pulled out of dreamland, bringing the dreams with me. My kids are not going to remember the 2.0 version of their mother, the one who for thirty-five years or so was the very opposite of early riser. The 2.0 version thought 7 o’clock in the morning was quite viciously early enough, thank you very much. But the 2.0 version has been obsolete for over a year now. She may already have been forgotten. My kids are going to remember version 2.1, up before dawn, coming in from outside in running gear, or freshly showered after spin class. “Where were you this morning?” they ask sometimes, greeting me from their perch at the breakfast bar.
I’ll admit: it wasn’t easy to recalibrate my instincts. But I’ll admit, too: change has brought about all sorts of good things. I’m friendlier, for one thing. Less prone to the growlies. Less resentful, somehow, of the necessary morning duties, more light-hearted regarding the inevitable complaints. (“This toast is too cold!” “This porridge is too hot!”)
This morning, I woke with dreams of my friend’s father still in my mind. We attended the memorial service last night. Let me tell you about one small and extraordinary moment. After the more formal proceedings, we all went to the church basement to eat sweets, visit, and share memories. Among the people who got up to say something was a woman I’d never met. She wasn’t a family member or someone from the neighbourhood. She said she knew my friend’s father from work. She said that she worked as a teller in a bank. My friend’s father had been a customer. She spoke about his friendliness, his stories, his interest in her life, about how, as she came to know him, she would wave him over to her line. She regretted that she hadn’t gotten the chance to say goodbye. She was glad to be able to come to his memorial service. She came to his memorial service. Isn’t that amazing?
This is what it says to me: The potential for meaningful relationships is all around us.
Meaningful relationships don’t have to be conventional. They don’t necessarily require tons of time. They can be as simple as asking your bank teller a question. Being interested. Being curious. Being, most of all, present.
Today was a day rife with potential challenges. I got up early. I did not nap. I was interviewed on live radio right after the kids left for school. And then I headed off to lead writing workshops for teens. Several fairly major things remain to be checked off my to-do list. But it hasn’t been a hard day, not at all. I feel a little foot-weary from standing. I feel a little wired from more than my usual dose of caffeine. But I feel, also, the worth of every interaction, no matter how small. Pay attention. Whatever is happening in your day, look it full in the face. Ask questions. Wonder. Give it your best.
I thought, today, about how new experiences are always around us. How people, if pushed in the friendliest of ways, will embrace something new. How even the most grownup of us crave to feel those moments so common in childhood — the ones that delight and surprise us. How maybe all of us are waiting to be delighted and surprised. And then I thought, I can do that.
It’s as easy — and as crazy hard — as stepping outside of my comfort zone.
at the farm
When we were driving home from Kingston, post-Easter holidaying at the farm, I was filled with ideas. Future plans. Things I want to do someday. Big things. Let me get them down on the page. (And maybe you’d like to share your big plans in the comments below; I’d love to hear them.)
** Bike trip through Ireland (or another beautiful place). With the whole family, if possible.
** Own a horse. Actually, own two horses, so AppleApple and I can go riding together.
** Write and record an album of songs. (This would require devoting several hours a day to singing and playing.)
** Spend a year training five or six hours a day and run an ultramarathon (like the Canadian Death Race, even though that’s a terrible title for a race).
** Tear down our garage and build a small apartment that could house university-aged children.
** Share a getaway in the country with friends, for retreats, summer holidays, etc.
** Get a dog. (I don’t know why that seems like such a big thing, but it does!)
But upon reflection, this morning, I see that I’ve already accomplished some of the big things I once dreamed of doing, and I want to recognize that too. I wanted to be a mother, and I have children. From a very young age, I intended to be a writer, and I’ve published two books. As a child, I dreamed of being a runner, and now I’ve completed a marathon. As an adult, I was troubled by the fact that I’d never learned how to swim, and I’ve learned. Once upon a time, all of the above were just hopes and imaginings and dreams. I’ve been so fortunate.
Last night I went to a kundalini yoga class. It’s been about a year since I last took kundalini. The experience felt different this time around. In the interim, I’ve pushed my body further than it had ever gone before. But I also learned that my body could be pushed too far, and injured, and that’s changed how I think about effort and pain. I felt so attuned to my own body, last night. It was easy to listen to it, and hear what it was saying — to recognize the difference between the agony of effort and the pain of gone-too-far. I felt more cautious, and yet also more available, more open to the movements, like I could flip a switch and go there. I felt a deep trust — of myself. But here’s the thing. The sense of wonder and discovery is not the same. I’ve learned my body is capable of accomplishing very difficult tasks. I’ve learned that I am strong. When I first started kundalini, now a few years ago, I was utterly amazed, blown away by what my body could do. I had no idea.
Now I know.
That takes away some of the sheen of adventure and discovery. But it also means there is room for a richer, more layered experience. It’s like having the second child. You’re simultaneously more relaxed, more laid-back, and not as blown away by the newness of discovering what it means to be a parent. It’s familiar, it’s known territory.
I think life should have a balance of known and unknown experiences. I’m not sure we get to choose these experiences, at least not all of the time. But I like thinking about what I would choose, if I could. And what I’ve chosen. And how I’m working out that balance in my life right now.
Can I tell you something? I really really really want to write a book in this blog-voice. Not a book based on the blog. But a book that would capture the yearning, reflection, wondering, and experimenting that I feel this blog is really about. Put that on the first list. I have no idea how it would be shaped. But I’m opening my mind to the possibility.
Before her recital yesterday, she displayed all of the emotions so familiar to anyone who has ever been asked to get up and perform. Why had she signed up? Why had I made her sign up? (I hadn’t.) She wasn’t going to do it. No one could make her.
I quickly deduced that the growls and howls were nerve-induced, and did my best not to be too peeved (even while dressing her, which she insisted I do, and which set my teeth on edge having just read a piece in the newspaper about my generation’s ridiculous parenting methods that cater to our children’s every need). Anxiety does unpleasant things to most of us, and when it’s a new feeling, of course we don’t know how to cope.
So my goal was to keep her going, get her there, reassure her (even while wondering, gee, has she actually practiced enough??).
And then she played with complete confidence. She smiled, she introduced herself, her fingers met the keys firmly, and she bowed afterward grinning from ear to ear. Had I been another parent watching, I might have envied having such an apparently confident and well-prepared child. I would have been wrong, of course; she was as roiling with nerves as any of the others, and she rose to the occasion, playing better than I’d ever heard her play at home. Mysterious things, performances. It’s fascinating to see what gets drawn out of us when we’re called on. My heart was pounding with pride.
She was not amused by our April Fool’s joke this morning, however. I told her that she’d been asked to come back and play again today. Only the best performers had been asked, Kevin added. What? No way, nuh uh! Not going! She missed the compliment altogether.
An odd thing happened on Friday afternoon, after I’d posted about feeling aimless and wanting to bring good into the world. I went out for lunch with a friend, then stopped in to say hello to Kevin at his office, then stepped outside again and saw, directly in front of me, not three feet away, an elderly woman struggling with a walker. It took me half a second to reach her, and help her sit and rest. She’d had a fall and was rattled, confused. She’d walked a long way. She could not remember the name of her destination, but could describe it and knew what she was going there to do. Together, after some rest, we set out to find it together, and we did. It cost some time, and little else. She thanked me, but it was I who wanted to thank her. It was a pleasure to be able to help.
Later, reflecting on it at home, I thought about how grateful I was that I’d had the time to stop and help. When I’m rushed (which is often), it is harder to see, to stop, to take time. I also thought about how much I love helping; and I thought, this is what I would like to do with my life. But of course, how often do such situations present themselves, such simple one-to-one equations of need to ability to help? When I think about helping in more formal/institutional settings, it feels more complicated. I question my motives; I question my helpfulness. For example, when I helped this woman find where she was going, that was all I did. I did not delve deeper. I did not get to the root causes or make an attempt to prevent the situation from occurring again. I asked whether she’d been hurt in her fall, and she told me that she was fine, and I accepted that. She said she had family in town (I asked), and I accepted that they would be looking out for her in the future. I sensed that she valued her dignity. At what point does help become meddling? These are boundary questions. I tend to err on the side of caution. Because I don’t know the answers. Not all of them. Not even most of them. All I know is be kind.
There is much need in the world. Patterns recur. Pain fragments. Hurt multiplies. Some problems go deep, deep, deep.
How easy it is to take soup to a sick friend. How easy it is to quietly hug one of my children when he or she is sad. How easy it is to help a lost stranger find her destination. Is helping as simple as that? Or does it — should it — go deeper?
Here’s what the kids do when they’re not being closely supervised.
Giant mudpools in the sandbox?! I don’t recall authorizing the use of the hose. Um, Kevin? You? No?
Here’s what the parents do when they’re not being closely supervised.
At least, it’s how we polished off the remains of a Saturday night without children (who were once again sleeping over at Grandma’s … we could get used to this). Except it occurs to me that we shouldn’t get too used to it. I am not my discplined self without the children around. In fact, it got me wondering whether the children have made me who I am. I think they stake some major claim.
Yes, it’s fun to play without supervision. But a little oversight may not be an altogether bad thing.
muddy Sunday in the woods
Quiet house. Beans soaking on the stove. All children at school or nursery school. Empty coffee cup. Just breathe.
Every day holds so many in-between moments. January felt like an in-between month. February has the same feeling. Is it because I’m not working on a definitive project that will box up the scraps and tie things together? Last night I dreamed we owned two houses, an imperfect one in which we were living, and a perfect one to which we were thinking about moving. The catch was that the perfect house would take us away from our friends. In the dream, I kept listing off the perfect qualities of the perfect house — on a lake; huge sweeping lawns; quiet street; a separate guest house — but it always came back to not wanting to leave the imperfect house we already had.
Nothing about this year so far has been perfect. But it’s a frivolous aim anyway, isn’t it? Perfection. When I look at the photo above, taken on Sunday afternoon, I see an in-between moment. And I see the potential of the in-between moment. Balance is fleeting, but not elusive. Lift arms. Pause. Breathe.
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