We are finally at the end of this linguistic journey through some of the central themes of creativity. Thanks for going with me. We make so little time to explore subjects that make us uncomfortable; we’d much rather tread on familiar ground. But pushing ourselves to write these letters, (instead of just thinking about writing them) is one way to check out the terrain and see where new roads might lead. We can decide later if we want to take those roads, but if we never get a bird’s eye view of the area, we’re not likely to set out on the adventure.
And so, DIVINITY.
Liz Gilbert was really intentional about choosing this word. She didn’t want to use God, because it carries so much baggage and can also be limiting. In any given audience of real life bodies, or readers, there may be atheists, agnostics, Christians, former Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and others. We all have a different word for the Ultimate Source of Life and Love, and each word carries a different nuance. The Divine has as many manifestations as there are people on earth, birds in the sky, flowers in the field, or stars in the universe. While a mystery is something “ultimately unknowable,” the Divine Mystery might be better described as “endlessly knowable.”1 We’ve been describing it for millennia and it’s pretty clear we’re not losing steam.
Now, a mystic has a very important job. A mystic is someone who has had an intimate experience of the Divine, and it is their sacred duty to share what they learned from that experience. Some do it well and publically, while others do it quietly in their everyday lives, but no matter what time period a mystic lived in and no matter what faith tradition they came out of, virtually every one of them shares the same message. If we believed what the mystics have been saying for thousands of years, it would change everything! While I might have shot for more poetic language, Liz Gilbert nailed it.
We’re all fine! It’s going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.
Let me repeat that mystical message for the 98% of us who didn’t get it.
We’re all fine! It’s going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.
That, my friends, is the “fall out” from a Divine experience. You know you are safe; you are secure; you no longer sweat the small stuff.
As you can imagine, this makes mystics difficult to live with. They come back fearless, taking on their culture and traditions, theologians and authority figures. They don’t want to destroy those things; they just know those things are beside the point! Religious leaders believe it will all be okay too, at least for some of us, at some point, but they believe the only way to get there is through rule-keeping and discipline. Mystics just jump ahead to the finish line. They want to share the gospel, the good news, that it’s all going to be okay and since it’s going to be okay, IT’S ALL OKAY RIGHT NOW!
See what I mean about changing everything?
What would you do? How would you behave? What risks would you take if you knew that the story ends with you in Love, existing happily ever after?
Despite what you might be thinking, this isn’t pie in the sky, airy-fairy stuff! Knowing that it’s all going to be okay doesn’t let us off the hook from trying to change things in this world. Rather, it inspires the mystics to work harder to make what is Ultimately True more true in the here and now. If I believe the mystics and I see my sister struggling, I can’t just say “Chin up; it’s going to be okay!” Rather, I have to engage in her life in such a way that it actually becomes more okay. If my brother is oppressed, I want to get down under that pressure with him and help lift his burden. When it is all said and done, the mystics inspire us to act in ways that make our current reality a greater reflection of the Divine Reality, (which they experienced as the Ultimate Reality during their mystical experience).
So in the final moments of this really special day, LG asked us to consider:
What would you do if you knew it was all going to be okay?
Holy Crap! That’s a big question!
While it might be nice, most of us will never have a mystical experience. We probably won’t levitate, have visions, or experience “union with all that is.” But that’s okay! The mystics can be TRUSTED, Rob and Liz insist, because they never change their story! We are all going to be okay!
If we were willing to go with that idea, then we were ready to write our final letter to our FEAR from the DIVINE. The first letter we wrote in this series was from our FEAR, telling us all the reasons we shouldn’t live and respond from our hearts, whether it was in art, work, or life. This final letter was an antidote to that narrative.
Yes, FEAR is right. We might fail; we might screw up and get our ass kicked, but you know what?
We’re fine! It’s going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.
We might lose a job, get our heart broken, be disappointed, but you know what?
We’re fine! It’s going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.
I like that message. I like how it made me feel. My heart simultaneously swelled with hope and shrank with dread, but that’s a paradox I can live with. That is the kind of creative tension that leads to evolution, to change and growth, inspiration and COURAGE.
And so, finally, from the DIVINE:
I see you. I hear you. I feel your pain and I know you are doing your best to protect Ali. But let me tell you, it’s going to be okay. FEAR, dear one, I’ve got her and I’ve got you too. There is no place she can go that is separate from Me, outside my care, or Love. What Ali does best is Love people and when you are in charge, she stops Loving others and starts trying to protect herself. That’s not good for her, or anyone else for that matter. So FEAR, please remember, Ali wasn’t an ugly duckling. That’s what you called her. She was a swan all along; she just didn’t know it and she doesn’t need your Chicken Little shtick amplifying the drama. The sky isn’t falling! Let her remember what she knows deep down anyway:
We’re fine. It’s all going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.
Richard Rohr spoke about this nuance recently at a Living School Symposia and I found the distinction really helpful.
ENCHANTMENT is a funny word, old-fashioned and otherworldly. It reminds me of fairy stories, and William Blake’s poetry. As soon as Liz Gilbert introduced the word, you could almost feel the room get awkward, and a little skeptical. To go from COURAGE and FEAR, such straightforward, active words to such whimsical nonsense seemed like a non sequitur. But because it was Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell and we had paid a lot of money to hear what they had to say, we tried (and some of us failed) to keep an open mind.
ENCHANTMENT is a concept that we might use other words to describe more comfortably – words like our curiosity, soul, spirit, our True Self, or passion. Ultimately, no matter what we call it, ENCHANTMENT is the part of us that knows we are here to do something more than pay bills and die. ENCHANTMENT knows we are here for some particular reason and wants to do something about it. Unlike FEAR, ENCHANTMENT is comfortable with not knowing or having all the answers. It asks us to take risks.
The voice of ENCHANTMENT is subtle, which makes it a little trickier to hear. If FEAR uses a bullhorn, ENCHANTMENT speaks in a whisper. While it is persistent, it is never pushy. And here’s the rub: unlike FEAR, ENCHANTMENT can be silenced, so it needs to be protected from internal and external aggressors, like FEAR, efficiency, and our consumer culture. To gain the wisdom and gifts ENCHANTMENT has to offer, we need to create space in our lives for it to thrive and grow.
LG, a best-selling and award-winning author, has spent the last twenty years of her life learning to listen and play with her ENCHANTMENT. She knows what it wants to do and what it absolutely cannot do. It will fall asleep every time someone talks about money, or market share. ENCHANTMENT doesn’t care about outcome, or failure, or ego strokes. It thrives on experience and risk and joy. Consequences be damned! As soon as we pick ourselves up from our failures, ENCHANTMENT asks, “Can we do it again?”
ENCHANTMENT is the reason writers keep writing, artists keep painting, kids keep creating and we all keep falling in Love, over and over and over again.
Contrary to popular opinion, the voice of our ENCHANTMENT deserves more air time than we give it, so after writing a letter from our FEAR, LG wanted to make sure our ENCHANTMENT got its say. With less FEAR, but still some consternation, here is my letter from ENCHANTMENT:
I am your ENCHANTMENT and this is what I want to tell you. We love our time together. When you are with me, you are happy and immersed in your life and your work. Together, we let FEAR have its say and then it goes to sleep, because when you’re hanging out with me, you know it’s all going to be okay. When we are together, we write, we read, we walk at the beach (and yes! It’s always me who gets you in the car to go to the beach when life is bringing you to your knees and you need to smell the salty air and feel the sand between your toes. I know what you need to be healthy and whole and happy!) Most importantly, together, we fall more deeply into Love. You do your best work for the world and everyone in it when we are together.
Ali, I would always have you with me, but I know, or think, or consider that it might be too much sometimes. Is it? Is it magical thinking to believe that we are our best version of ourselves together? Is this work we do an appropriate use of time and resources for an adult? I hear you thinking this and I don’t know the answer. Is there such a thing as ENCHANTMENT strengthened by realism? How do I find the balance between being who I am and being a “real” grown up?
Just as I recognized the voice of FEAR inside me, I recognized the voice of ENCHANTMENT as well. I KNOW her. I LOVE her. She makes me so happy. My best days on the planet have occurred when she was the only voice I heard. That doesn’t mean I was alone; it just means that there was no static, no noise distracting me from my purpose. On some of those days, I have been alone – reading and writing. On others, I have been surrounded by strangers, speaking and teaching on my favorite subjects – spirituality, literature and life. On some of those days, I have been swimming in the ocean, or lying on the sandy shore. On others, I have been holding the hand of the Love of my life, or hugging as many children as I possibly can. The common theme on every one of those days is that I was immersed in the deepest reality of who I am and what I was made for – to know and serve and be a source of Love (Joy/Freedom/Connection/Insight) to others. That is what my ENCHANTMENT offers me and what I, in turn, can offer the world around me.
Before LG and RB opened up the floor to questions, we had a few minutes to talk about what we wrote. I told my sister, Amy, about my letter and how it changed directions near the end. In the first half, ENCHANTMENT affirmed our work together; in the last half, it seemed worried that we do it too much. I didn’t really know what to make of it, but the concerns seemed reasonable and Amy agreed. However, we shrugged it off and headed back inside for the Q&A.
Right off the bat, a woman got up and admitted that her ENCHANTMENT was actually kind of a Debbie Downer. The letter was snarky, nihilistic, and full of ennui, with no real ideas about what could be new, or fun about anything. This woman’s ENCHANTMENT was a bummer, but HOT DAMN, LG got ferocious FAST.
As Liz struggled to stay in her seat, she asked Rob politely if he would mind if she went first and then she yelled,
“That wasn’t ENCHANTMENT speaking! That was FEAR in disguise! It put on a Groucho Marx mustache and came back in through your subconscious! FEAR will do that! It will put on a million disguises to try to fool you into taking orders. It comes as the voice of reason, boredom, nihilism, perfectionism. ENCHANTMENT knows none of those things!”
As LG’s profanity-laced rant went on, the woman just stood there kind of slack-jawed, like the rest of us, but we got it! Too many of us have no idea what our ENCHANTMENT would say. We can’t even make it up, so we quit before we even start.
We haven’t been taught to listen to the voice of our inner authority about who we are and what we Love. We’ve been trained to submit to the voices of religious, cultural, parental and peer authority. We’ve been taught to view every one of our actions through the filter of FEAR, rationality and effectiveness. We’ve been convinced that every investment of our time and energy should move our personal stock up and to the right. ENCHANTMENT doesn’t give a shit and as LG said those things, I realized that my own letter had also devolved into “FEAR in disguise” when the questions about balance and responsibility took over.
It’s not that they weren’t reasonable questions. It’s that it wasn’t the time for them! I had been asked to let my True Self, my passion, my soul and spirit have her say – for five minutes – and I couldn’t do it.
So this blog is, in part, an apology to my ENCHANTMENT and all she represents – the best, most life-giving part of me. I’m sorry I got scared and cut you off. I didn’t need to. Even when I let you have your say, I am still a rational, reasonable, responsible human being. You don’t turn me into a defunct adult, who doesn’t make good on her promises.
In the few minutes I gave her, my ENCHANTMENT told me the truth: We do DO our best work together! From my morning sits to my ridiculous dance parties, from my creative writing to my contemplative studying and teaching, from my out-loud living to my whole-hearted Loving – that is ENCHANTMENT casting it’s spell on me. And according to the people who love me, they wish I’d listen a little more often.
ENCHANTMENT doesn’t make me flaky; it makes me fun and funny. It doesn’t make me irresponsible; it makes me responsive to the needs of others. It doesn’t make me a loser; it makes me a Lover.
And I bet your ENCHANTMENT does the same thing for you; we just don’t give it the credit it’s due!
If you were willing to write a letter from your FEAR, I hope you’ll be willing to give your ENCHANTMENT equal time. It might not come as easily, but I promise it will be worth it. There is so much negativity, doubt and cynicism in our culture. We have to find a way to hold space for the alternative – for hope and joy and optimism. It is so much easier to know what we are against (our FEAR) than to articulate what we are for (our ENCHANTMENT).
PLEASE, take five minutes to let yourself be enchanted and listen to your heart speak about what kind of beautiful, loving, life-giving work you were made FOR.
Here’s the prompt:
I am your ENCHANTMENT and this is what I want to tell you.
I wanted to include a few image of my ENCHANTMENT and me, doing some of our finest work together.
This post is Part Two of a seven-part series on Creative Living. To catch up, or understand the context, read “Get a (Creative) Life!” , which I posted just a couple weeks ago.
In her last book, Big Magic, Liz Gilbert tackled the very uncomfortable subject of FEAR – what it is, what it does and how to handle it.
Some of us walk around all day, every day, on the edge of FEAR. We are intimately familiar with what it feels like to swim in the warm bath of constant anxiety, always teetering on the edge of panic and overreaction to everything that might go wrong.
Others of us walk around completely unaware of our FEAR, confident that everything will turn out okay and taking risks that others might call foolish.
Most of us walk the line somewhere in the middle, complacent in our patterns, secure in the knowledge that we’ve got our bases covered, until, that is, we decide to do something new. That’s when FEAR gets us. In any endeavor, which takes us beyond our comfort zone, FEAR is our most ready companion.
But the funny thing about FEAR, LG observed, is that it doesn’t always show up in its most obvious form – the racing heart and sweaty pits. Most of the time FEAR arrives in a fantabulous disguise. It walks into our psyche dressed up like reasonableness, maturity, cynicism, depression, or my FEAR’s personal favorite, perfectionism, which LG calls, “FEAR in high heels.”
While the cultural narrative about FEAR is that we have to “kick its ass,” and “shut it down,” LG takes a kinder, gentler approach. She thinks we should welcome FEAR and appreciate all that it’s done for us over the years, all the ways it’s kept us safe from muggers and rapists and getting into cars with drunk drivers. Our FEAR is the reason we’re alive. But, and this is a BIG but, FEAR is one voice in our head – not the only one and so we shouldn’t give it exclusive decision-making power. LG clarifies that “Fear gives us information; not orders. It is there for risk assessment; not project management.” When her FEAR gets bossy, LG gently reminds it: “No one is going to die if I write a bad poem.” Truer words were never spoken and it applies to 90% of the things we’d try if we weren’t so damn afraid.
According to Rob Bell and Liz Gilbert, the antidote to FEAR is COURAGE.
When they mentioned that word, I cringed. “Darn,” I thought. “I don’t have that. I guess FEAR will be making the decisions forever.” I think of COURAGE as a big, showy virtue, something that manifests itself as you ride into battle, or fight cancer, or save someone from a burning building. There are not a lot of threats waiting behind bushes in suburban San Diego.
But, as RB pointed out, COURAGE can be a little thing too. It shows up in the way we just keep going amidst all the daily failures that take place in our lives and work and family. If we haven’t quit and run by this point, we have manifested COURAGE. “Courage is the thousand little steps you took to get here” – to this moment (RB). The lives we have took COURAGE to achieve, so the least we can do is give ourselves some grace for just getting up off the floor.
I liked that and sat up a little bit straighter in my chair.
LG talked more about BIG COURAGE – about making changes, taking risks, living creatively, more beholden to our dreams more than our fear. “Creative living,” she said, “is any time you make decisions more out of curiosity than fear. Then your life becomes your work of art. You are co-creating with the universe.” The universe is essentially creative – new things are always coming up, growing, arising. Having steadfast COURAGE means you live that way daily – choosing curiosity, possibility, and Love over FEAR.
If that sounded like something we’d like to do, a way we’d like to live, then LG had a task for us – to write a letter to ourselves from our FEAR. What if, instead of denying, or suppressing it, we just said to our FEAR: “What is it that you’d like to tell me? If I promise to listen without freaking out, or shutting you down, what would you like me to know?”
Feeling a little stuck in my creative process, I decided I’d take the challenge and ask my FEAR the question.
And with great vulnerability (and FEAR), I’m sharing (most of) its response here. Remember, this wasn’t an exercise in rationality, or objective truth. This was an exercise in uncovering the subconscious narrative that dominates our psyches and shapes our lives in ways we aren’t even aware of.
I am your fear and this is what I want to tell you:
From the time you were small, you were afraid of being rejected. You felt dorky, unaccepted, unwanted and “less than” in so many ways – mostly from your peers, but maybe even sometimes from your super-sporty dad. But when you approached your late teens and early twenties, you started to come out of that phase and find some acceptance. You felt like the ugly duckling that became the swan. And yet, this is our problem! I am afraid of you being unmasked and being seen as the ugly – stupid, failing, out-of-place, desperate – duckling again. When you send out those query letters to agents and publishers, I can’t stand it. It’s like you are begging for acceptance and affirmation from the “cool kids” again. And so every bit of failure, of non-response, or not being chosen, or being ignored, makes me terrified that the mask is being stripped away and you will end up the ugly duckling again.
All of life these days – the getting older, gaining weight, trying to write a book, get published, get speaking jobs, self-marketing, all the ways you aren’t succeeding, tells me that I’m right. I know deep down that the swan is just a façade and the ugly duckling is the ultimate truth of who you are and I want to protect you from figuring that out! What if you really are the sum total of your failures?
Ali, when you are centered in your silence and stillness, when you stay in your lane, the places where you know you belong and shine – like being a mom, a wife, or even a blog writer at this point – I can calm down. In fact, I hardly notice any danger at all, so I don’t need to act up, but you trying to publish a book, or expand your dreams makes me crazy! Terrified! Please, stop all this striving nonsense and let me go back to napping in the corner! We both liked it so much better when you could just ignore me!
Sigh. I hated sharing that letter here. It feels absolutely humiliating. As a matter of fact, I asked Tim to read the post and tell me if he thought I absolutely had to include it. He rolled his eyes at me and said, “Who am I talking to? Ali, or her FEAR? Because the letter’s where it actually gets interesting.” To be fair, he wasn’t trying to be mean; he had just already heard the set-up in person.
Damn, FEAR’s sneaky ways! It manifests beautifully in the editorial process, encouraging me to remove any signs of weakness.
But after I wrote the letter and reviewed what my FEAR wanted me to know, I understood something new. I hadn’t thought about “The Ugly Duckling” story in years, though I had always loved it. Apparently my subconscious had been waiting for just the right moment to bring it up. The story of “The Ugly Duckling” isn’t just about becoming beautiful. In fact, beauty is never really the issue. The story is about trying to fit in, be accepted and affirmed for who you are; it’s about finding your tribe. No matter where the ugly duckling went, no matter what he looked like, he was ostracized.
Friends who have only known me as an adult frequently express surprise, or disbelief over my insecurities, so here’s a picture. It’s a great snapshot of my “ugly duckling” days in more ways than one.
In this photo, circa 1980, I am nine years old and seated next to Anne Ketchersid, the prettiest girl in our age group, which was a real confidence booster. Check out the pale, freckled skin, mousy brown hair and gap-toothed grin. If that visage weren’t enough, I was also figuring out who I was, which turned out to be smart, religious, and overly eager to please my teachers. Those traits earned me all sorts of unpleasant nicknames from my classmates, mostly the obvious ones like Freckle Face, Skinny Bones Jones, Teacher’s Pet, Narc, Goody-Two-Shoes, or Goody Good, (to which my sweet, but utterly unhelpful teacher, Ms. Hobbs, said I should reply with “Well, you’re a baddy-bad!” As unsavvy as I was, even I knew that retort was a terrible idea).
Even though I might have been unhappy with the way I looked, I wasn’t uncomfortable with who I was and I honestly had no idea how to be otherwise. I had no appreciable qualities that a wider swathe of the student body would have found attractive. I wasn’t funny, sporty, musical, theatrical, stylish, or even simply rich, which left me with a quite small, eclectic tribe of other ugly ducklings. (Hi Mary Beth and Jenny T!) In sixth grade, we spent most of our lunches in the library, reading the Little House on the Prairie series over and over again until the librarian, Mrs. Deakers, told us that we weren’t allowed to come in any more. The principal had decided it wasn’t healthy for us and we needed to spend at least some time outdoors.
We outsmarted her though. Instead of embarrassing ourselves by attempting to do something athletic, or foolishly trying to join the scary flock of junior high girls, only to be shooed away, we moved to the outdoor lunch tables out of sight of the office and founded the Uno Club. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds and no, we never got anyone else to join. For months on end, we played Uno against each other, handing out prizes to the high-point winner when the bell rang. The lucky girl might walk away with a mini-sewing kit, a stick of gum, or stale Tootsie Pop. While our peers hung out in co-ed groups, listening to Spandau Ballet on their boom boxes, we perfected the art of “otherness,” one that has stayed with me to this day, even as I “fit in” more easily.
I will admit, I blossomed, physically and socially, but it was a gradual process. This is one of the first pictures taken of me when I felt confident in my own skin. I was a senior in high school. I was still smart, still religious and still managed to make friends with all my teachers, but I had learned to camouflage those qualities behind a curtain of long blonde hair and a love of laughter. I was funny, it turns out, in a Lucille Ball kind of way. Pratfalls came naturally to me, since I had so many years of practice, tripping and falling over my own feet. If people are going to laugh at you anyway, you might as well seem like you’re in on the joke. I became a good swimmer, got a job as a lifeguard in Huntington Beach, and began to date regularly, though never anyone for very long. It was too hard to keep up the pretense that my insides matched my outsides.
I am coming to grips with the fact that the feeling of “otherness” that my FEAR so desperately wants me to avoid is, in fact, unavoidable. If I want to live authentically, then I’ve got to admit that I am both the swan and the ugly duckling. I can’t separate the two and I can’t control how people perceive me. My FEAR is always going to want to protect me from pain, but it’s just not possible. That is what I need to remind my FEAR: “It’s okay if it hurts. I’m not nine years old any more. I can take it.”
But my FEAR keeps talking, keeps begging me to hit delete, especially on a blog like this one. It is supremely aware that each time I post, especially something like this, I run the risk of “fitting in” a little less. And each time I ask an agent, or a publisher to accept my work, and am told, “You’re not our tribe,” the ugly duckling in me feels pecked away yet again. I get why my FEAR wants to protect me from those feelings, but I have to keep pressing forward.
So, where does that leave me? Where does that leave any of us who hear our FEAR’s impassioned pleas to play it safe and make “good” decisions?
Here’s my take, based on some sage advice from RB and LG:
First, acknowledge your FEAR, the what and why it’s trying to communicate to you. Once you recognize where its coming from, you can feel sympathy towards it and yourself, instead of confusion and shame. Then kindly ask your FEAR to ‘stand down.’ Our lives are not in danger, only our egos and they can take a few more lumps than we’d like to admit.
Then, remind your FEAR that everything is a risk, and NOTHING good comes if we risk nothing at all. You wouldn’t be married, have a child, a job, or even know how to ride a bike if you never risked being rejected, ridiculed, or run off the road. Remember, COURAGE has been present in your journey all along! Give yourself all the credit you need for making it this far.
Finally, remember that FEAR only works in advance. And so, while it’s true that to act is a risk, doing nothing is risky too. As RB so eloquently put it: “There is a risk in denying your True Self, a risk in dying to your dreams and future plans.” Ironically, your FEAR won’t tell you about those risks. It isn’t able to look back and see all the things that went wrong by staying the same, or staying in the same place for too long. FEAR loves the comfort zone, even as it becomes more cramped, less honest and emotionally available. How many dramas and divorces and deaths occur, because we’re too afraid to have the conversations we must and take the actions we can that will lead to greater health and wholeness? Good luck ever getting FEAR to admit when it’s been wrong, but keep pointing it out, because you never know…
When I stand in this place as a woman, a writer, a wife and mother, I have to honor my FEAR. I have to admit how badly I want to listen to it, and then I have to write anyway! I have to live and Love anyway, even as I do it imperfectly. I have to set a good example for my children that FEAR should never have the last word about who you are, or what you do. FEAR is one voice in our heads, but thank God, not the only one and hopefully, not always the loudest.
So, there you go, the first word: FEAR, or rather COURAGE, which is what we’re striving for.
If you are up for it, may I share Liz Gilbert’s prompt for starting the letter from your FEAR?
I am your FEAR and this is what I want to tell you:
I hope you’ll find the time and the COURAGE to hear what it has to say!
Last week, I had the privilege of attending an all day creativity conference led by authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell, two of the most lively, original and creative people I’ve ever met. The joy and enthusiasm they bring to their work is remarkable and for me, it is their most unique and significant contributions to the arts. For too long, our culture has ascribed to one narrative about what it means to be an artist and it’s a dark one. To be an artist is to struggle – depressed, anxious, alcoholic, and anti-social. Rob and Liz blow up that stereotype, not only by their own natural tendency towards optimism, but also by their insistence that your life is your work of art, which means we are all in the game. You are the medium. What you create (externally) is secondary to how you live.
In essence, the creative journey is anything you are doing that is creating YOU – a new you, a better you, a more vibrant, powerful, lively you.
Rather than ascribing significance to some arbitrary metrics of talent, production, or economic reward, the true measure of your work as an artist, or an individual is how you choose to live.
If you want to be more creative, here are some questions you might ask yourself to see where you might step up your game.
Are you creating something new within yourself? Are you getting out of your comfort zone once in a while, mentally, emotionally, physically?
If you don’t know where to start, read a non-fiction book and apply that knowledge to your life. Get therapy; have that hard conversation with a loved one you’ve been avoiding. Go on a hike; get out in nature; head somewhere new for vacation, or even just for dinner. One of the most important habits we should be in is breaking our old habits! We’ve all heard, “Life’s too short; take chances!” My take is that life is waaaay too long to just keep doing the same old thing. Do you really want to be the same person at 50 that you were at 30, in any way? (Please, don’t even consider your physical image! Honestly, it freaks people out when someone doesn’t age and too much plastic surgery is NOT a good look!)
Are you pushing at the boundaries of what you were told your life should look like, or are you simply following all the rules handed down to you?
So many of us were taught exactly who we should be, how we should behave and what we should want. Our careers were mapped out for us, as were our aspirations in terms of relationship, material success and values. Are you still striving for those same goals, even as you’ve meet them and find them unsatisfying? Have you discovered even one new thing about who you are, or what you want that has nothing to do with what your family, or culture expects? If you are still playing by all the rules, dig deeper! You are more than just your mother’s child, the teacher’s pet, or a coach’s dream. Explore your own soul and see where it might be calling you.
Are you living with integrity and authenticity?
We all like to think we are people of integrity, living by the high standards we profess to believe in. Even the politicians who are working so hard to get our votes this election year claim personal integrity, despite the many public examples to the contrary! Even though we are loathe to admit it, we all fall short – very, very short – from time to time. For me, living with integrity has come to mean (as the root word, integer, suggests) living as a WHOLE. Am I embracing the whole of who I am? Are my head, heart and gut integrated, especially in response to difficult circumstances? Artists are not often known for their personal integrity, but if my life is my medium, I’ve got to step up.
I love these messages about creativity, even as I struggle to embrace them. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as an artist. In fact, artistry was pretty much dismissed in my Catholic, Anglo-Saxon upbringing. Artists were self-indulgent, while productivity and achievement reigned supreme. I might have been a talented writer, but I never thought of being “a writer.” I thought I would use my skills in service of my job, or a family. Even as I gravitated to a more creative way of living, I couldn’t even acknowledge the movement within myself.
Just a couple years ago, when Keara first started shaving her head and decided to pursue a theater degree, I asked my friend Jen, “Where did she come from? How did I end up with this artist?” She looked at me incredulously, like I was joking and said, “What are you talking about? Where else would she come from? She is you!” I was dumbstruck. In my mind, there was nothing creative about me. I was still a good, Catholic girl, grown up to become just a plain, old mom.
In the course of the conference, Rob Bell told a story about an ancient Jewish rabbi named Akiva. One evening, Akiva was walking home by a Roman fort and the guard on duty called out, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Akiva walked on and again the man shouted, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Akiva stopped and called out, “How much do they pay you to ask those questions?” The guard gave him a number. Akiva replied, “I will pay you twice that much to come to my house each morning and ask me those questions.”
Who are you? What are you doing here?
My goodness, we’d love to know the answer to those questions, but we rarely do the work to figure it out. Most often, we put our head down and keep going. And even if we want to live just a little bit differently, so many things work against us. Some of the most powerful (but really sneaky) blockages are the family histories that are embedded in our DNA – generations-worth of messages about who “we” are and what “we” do. Compound that with our actual upbringing, our cultural milieu, our own inner critic and our paths are pretty much set. We think we are free, but unless we are pushing hard enough to feel the chain at our neck, we are merely being good dogs on a long leash.
For better or for worse, I have never been a pet person – neither keeping, nor being one.
Growing up, my family went through several dogs. (I was told they went to better homes.) My kids begged for a puppy, a kitten, a fur-covered mammal, but all they ever managed to get through the front door were goldfishes won at fair games and a cold-blooded, hand-me-down snake, which I adored, but accidentally killed with kindness.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the most I can keep alive is the wild, little animal inside me and the most I can offer to my children is a big, safe yard and a leash made of the thinnest chain possible, so that when they are ready to run, the inevitable backward tug, doesn’t actually stop them from going. For all the ways I’m raising them to be good citizens of our culture – to aspire, to work hard, to have discipline, to save and to serve – I’m also trying to raise them to be creatives.
The poet Mary Oliver has given me the perfect question to ask them:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
In other words, who are you and what are you doing here?
Don’t be afraid to ask the question – of yourself, or your children. Start old if you have to, but start young if you can. Give the people you love, including yourself, permission to find the fullest expression of who they are.
Over the next couple months I plan to unpack the six words that Liz and Rob offered us at the conference to lean into our creativity and help us answer those questions. Look for the series: Fear, Enchantment, Persistence, Permission, Trust, and Divinity.