But I really had already broken the rules of writing "morning pages," as Julia Cameron lays them out in The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, her book that presents a twelve-week course for developing creativity. You're supposed to wake up a half hour earlier than you usually do and write three, handwritten, stream-of-consciousness pages. But when I got out of bed at 6:00 a.m. allegedly to write those pages, I did a bunch of other things instead: I folded some laundry that had been air-drying; reorganized my underwear drawer; washed a load of dishes; cleaned the sinks, mirrors, and counter tops in my two bathrooms; and--I think that was all. That was ALL? That was enough!
|Photograph by Melissa Rivard|
But dirty dishes and Dorothy--what's going on here? It's a milestone birthday. Time is passing. When I turned fifty, there was still a chance I was only halfway through my life. Unless we discover I'm the reincarnation of Moses,** it's practically a certainty that I won't live to double my age. And would that be a good thing anyway? Tomorrow, even if I buy new make-up as is my plan, I will still look like me, sound like me, act like me. The point is I probably have lots of time, but much less than I did ten years ago. And given how much choice I have about how to spend the ample time I still have --I'm a healthy person who no longer works full-time--there are opportunities for balance, meaning, and satisfaction.
And just as many opportunities for craziness, despair, and fragmentation.
So back to The Artist's Way. In my last blog post, "Field Notes for the Month of Elul," I spoke about my chronic resistance to following through with my spiritual preparation for the Jewish High Holidays as guided by Simon Jacobson's 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays.*** My resistance was the norm rather than the rule, despite the fact that whenever I did follow through, I recognized that I gained something--not always something that felt comfortable, but something worth thinking and feeling about:
The month of Elul was in progress, and inspired as I was by Van Gogh's work, I resisted the 60 Days daily routine, approaching each day's prompts with anxiety and doubt. But a pattern developed: each day I sat down fearful that that I'd have little or nothing to say in response to the prompts--and then I began writing and responding with so much to say that I often exceeded the notebook space I had allotted for the day's reflection.What I've been realizing in the past weeks as I've turned to The Artist's Way to help me become more disciplined and optimistic not just about writing, but also about becoming "a writer," is that I'm replicating that same pattern of resistance. And this even though when I do as Julia Cameron recommends, I am always glad I did.
But trying to establish a new purpose and "work identity" is not the same as trying to negotiate a closer relationship with G-d. Or maybe it is in some ways. Teaching always felt like a calling to me, a means of contributing something of value to individual and collective lives. But while I felt teaching was always both an art and a science (and not only those two things), I never considered myself an artist, even though I was a relatively creative teacher. Somehow, lives devoted to creativity always seemed to me to be the province of people who were talented and imaginative in ways I wasn't. I never felt I had enough vision, enough originality, enough ability to envision what hadn't yet been envisioned to make my creativity central to my productivity.
And it's that productivity notion that continues to dog me. When I finally sat down this morning to write those morning pages that morphed into this blog post, I calmed right down. Outside of my window, which was wide open, it was a rainy, mild, terrible day, and I could hear the heavy rain alternating between torrential downpour and steady sheet. I thought about the weather forecasters' early morning predictions of further weather woes this weekend as the anticipated remnants of the just-forming Hurricane Joaquin passed close to Boston. I also thought about how one of the joys of retirement is doing just what I was doing: sitting indoors next to a window and watching rain fall as opposed to standing on a subway train with other soggy commuters, all of us resigned to our long, damp days ahead.
|Who wouldn't be proud of such a clean bathroom?|
That would have felt productive. Really? What does it mean that I keep setting goals and making plans for myself, and then disregarding them--not to do nothing at all, but to do other things?
Part of my resistance problem is my long history of non-procrastination. This habit of getting things done without delay, a great strength when I worked fifty-to-sixty hours a week, is a terrible weakness during this next phase of my life when my goal--professed and actual--is to explore and adopt new ways of being in and contributing to the world. When I went off to school everyday, my non-procrastination reflected my sense of responsibility, even hyper-responsibility. But embedded in it was a "principle" that I haven't managed to dislodge yet, though my husband Scott advises me to let it go all the time: You shouldn't go out to play until you've finished your homework. Scott and Julia Cameron agree that I owe it to myself to "go out to play" because there will never not be homework to get done. Delaying gratification, delaying me, isn't always the best plan.
There's additional wisdom in what Scott and Julia Cameron advise: not all of the work that will be there to be done is equally valuable. When I had an education job that didn't require me to stand in front of groups of kids multiple times a day as dictated by a ringing bell, I quickly realized that I could be busy all the time--and could easily be doing all the wrong things, the things that wouldn't really help students and teachers do better and feel better. Behind the facade of energetic activity, you can hide from the things you fear doing and don't fully understand, from things that intimidate you or make you unhappy.
So yes, you can--I can--stop cleaning, producing, organizing, planning; I can stop responding right now and even later on to all the demands, temptations, opportunities that the virtual and face-to-face worlds serve up. Which doesn't mean that it's easy, even when you're almost sixty years old, to know precisely when to say "yes" and when to say "no." But what does seem important is to answer non-neurotically, in ways that enlarge oneself, open doors, serve one's own best interests, and do right by the world.
Yes, I'm deliberately including the phrase "do right by the world" in the list of considerations for choosing what to do. Because since I've begun reading The Artist's Way, I've stopped assuming that "one's own best interests" probably run counter to the best interests of others. This recognition of an earlier negative assumption has allowed me to identify another very significant contributor to my resistance: my sense that my pursuit of creativity could only be selfish, could do no good.
|"One Short Moment of Dread" by Scott Ketcham|
But thanks to The Artist's Way, 60 Days, and Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World,***** I've begun to think of creativity, its sources and its purposes, differently than I did even three months ago. All three books view "spirit" as the source of creativity, however individuals might choose to name or envision that "spirit," and all three view creativity as essential to the world.
So yes, my dread is slowly dissipating. But my old habits and mindsets persist in being difficult to change. And that's where Julia Cameron's instructions help--all the more so because they reflect the view of the cosmos offered by 60 Days. I first stumbled upon the felicitous connections between Cameron's and Jacobson's books while reading "Week One" of Cameron's creativity course. In it, she provides a list of "creative affirmations,"****** directing her readers/students to choose to "work with" any that resonate with them, or to create and explore some of their own.
Some, like, "I am willing to learn to let myself create," seemed like encouragements that might help me stay the course when I got the urge to run for the Windex or balance my checkbook. Others, like "As I listen to the creator within me, I am led" and " I am willing to let God create through me," echoed the ideas from 60 Days that I was already contemplating: part of the work of each Jew preparing for the high holidays is to strive to unmask and cultivate his/her inner Divine spark so that it can reach out both into the world and toward its source, G-d. Yet other affirmations, like "Through the use of my creativity, I serve God," filled me with equal amounts of guilt, hope, and uneasiness. I'm changing, making progress toward new understandings, but not yet confident that my own creativity is sufficient to sit at the heart of my "work." That said, I do recognize that over the years, I've been the person who most limited my own creativity.
|The Wellesley College Sukkah Under Construction|
Still, I've never felt spiritually evolved enough and safe enough to embrace Sukkot's central message, symbolized by the Sukkah and explained by my 60 Days book as follows:
"The huts remind us of our total dependency on G-d--that our seemingly sturdy man-made shelters are nothing in the absence of His care. These huts remind us of the 'Clouds of Glory' which hovered over and protected the Israelites as they wandered in the desert on the way to the Land of Israel" (118).There are developed and underdeveloped parts of me that resist "total dependency," but there is no part of me that resists the idea of sitting outside in the moonlight during the warm nights of early fall. And I love that this holiday requires people to build, to create--in this case, shelters that are deliberately insufficient to shelter them, but plenty sufficient for family gatherings and good times. It's safe to say that lots of people have been celebrating since my first sixtieth birthday last Monday.
On the eve of my second sixtieth birthday, my official American one, I am wandering, trying to trust by acting as if I already trust, trying to be for me and not against me as I strive to embrace and develop my creativity. I am making progress. There's plenty of time left. Expect more blog posts, supermoons, and rain.
* Melissa Rivard's photograph is shared with her personal permission. She posted it initially on her Facebook page.
** My Moses action figure, a gift from my husband Scott during my "Bible as/in Literature" teaching days.
*** Jacobson, Simon. 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays. 2nd Revised ed. New York: Kiyum, 2008. Print.
**** More of Scott's paintings can be found at <scottketcham.com>.
***** I am so grateful to Omo Moses for having recommended this book to me--and can he write!!!
****** Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002. Print. Cameron's creative affirmations appear on pp. 36-7.