You know the adage: “The past is the past,” oftenspoken as if the past is over and no longer a dynamic force in our lives.
But is that so? Doesn’t the past still act upon us? And if that’s true, can’t we be a partner in the exchange and shape the story that we make about our experiences?
This weekend, wanting a dose of inspiration, I listened to a marvelous interview between author-educator Parker Palmer and journalist Steve Paulson, exploring the topic, “Creativity and Aging.” I transcribed it so I could offer a few highlights for you to use, regardless of your age.
Parker defined creativity broadly as anything you do that is life-giving. He offers this caveat:
“You can’t live a creative elder life if you’re still tangled up in regrets about the past.”
Our relationship with our regrets and our pasts is something we can make more conscious and possibly transform. To develop this idea, Parker shared a poem by David Ray, titled, Thanks, Robert Frost
The poem begins:
Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear…
“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done you are fierce with reality.”
You can’t rewrite your past, but you can shape its story. By claiming your past as an amazing experiment, you transform regret into something you own, a fertile compost from which to create something new, something bold, something that is indeed fierce with reality.
While Texas struggles with the aftermath of unprecedented flooding in Houston (last week’s stats: 51 inches of rain, 56,000 calls for help, and 450,000 people who may need federal disaster assistance), here in the Northwest we are facing a different kind of emergency: crackling dry lands and massive wildcat forest fires burning in eastern Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
As a striking September sun glows red in the sky and smoke and ash fills our clouds, the plans my husband and I made weeks ago for an easy jump-in-the-camper road trip through western British Columbia have morphed into (you guessed it) a “staycation.”
But what about our sought after break time? Vacations may be at risk in our work-obsessed culture, but they are super important to our well-being. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less presents compelling evidence to support how rest, from sleep to vacation, not doing more, is key to our productivity (I recommend reading!).
So with our trip canceled, my husband and I are challenged to continue the vacation spirit while staying at home. Vacations aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be, but a great one is when I return home renewed, feeling a new spaciousness. (Even if I’m not, I admit, always rested.) So how will we keep the magic of adventure while sticking around home? And celebrate the joy of just being together, which is what we really wanted from our planned vacation?
I’m fortunate to live on an island, where many people come to vacation. However, even living in a vacation-able location, we’ve surrounded ourselves with a small plantation of projects, each as hungry as the carnivorous plant Audrey in The Little Shop of Horrors, with her irresistible, “Feed Me!” I can’t walk anywhere without tripping over one of them.
Some of my projects feed my spirit, like writing and riding my horse, so I may choose to continue with them, even on vacation. (Hey, I’m writing this blog!) But how to limit myself to just a few select projects without listening to the full chorus of items on my to-do list shouting, “Do me! Do me!”
Trust me, I can create new projects quicker than a whippet can fetch a ball, especially when they’re going on my husband’s “honey-do” list.
This will be an experiment and I’ll share the results.
As we start, here’s the seven-step strategy guiding us:
1. Create a few vacation priorities.
Not too many. Our vacation was going to be a time to simplify. Priority number one: enjoy each other. Priority number two: a few fun things. (I’ll include writing, riding and dancing.) Priority number three: relax. When we go camping, just fixing a meal together becomes an adventure. Why can’t we create that same feeling at home?
2. Let go and take a break.
One key as we start is to let go. No sense thinking about the vacation that might have been. (A good idea to remember for life…)
My husband’s first request was: take a break from our routines. Dead on! Our first event was to hitch up the camper and travel to nearby Tacoma to take a walk. Was the camper necessary? No, but it gave us a little feeling of adventure on our very small jaunt off the island.
3. Do it with joy
A question guiding our choices is: Will this bring you joy? Anything we do, including some of those projects, can be done with a spirit of surprise, gratitude and joy. If we stay at home, watch movies and experience joy, we may be better off than if we’re running ourselves into the ground on a stress-inducing, action-packed, we’re-supposed-to-be-enjoying-ourselves “Fake-ation.”
4. Take easy excursions to rekindle wonder.
I want maximum enjoyment with minimum hassle, like our short trip off the island. What matters isn’t where we go but how we go. I want to walk with that wonder-filled gait I’ve used to explore small alleys and cobbled streets in Europe or India. (And a relaxed vacation state of mind makes it easier to miss a ferry without fretting!)
5. When we choose to work on a project, do it with clear intention.
This is the tricky part. We may desire to do a few projects, because they’ll be fun (or occasionally, necessary). But when the project “on” switch gets thrown, it’s hard to turn it off. I’m trying this four step process: 1) Be clear about our intention in doing a project; 2) Set a time limit; 3) Clock in by acknowledging the start and out at the finish; 4) Complete the process by celebrating with each other what we were able to do or learn. (Hmmm. Wonder if I’ll want to keep this system after the staycation!)
6. Nourish the creative.
When I can take time off to explore my creative side, I am nourished. So the camera I was packing for vacation becomes my ticket for exploring the neighborhood with new eyes.
7. Be grateful
Above all, this is an opportunity for us to take note of the simple stuff we often take for granted: the very fact that we can take a vacation: how talented my husband is fixing our camper; the tastiness of our home-grown raspberries. The tastiness of our home-grown raspberries.) Nature is a living at-home art show! Last week, I was fascinated by the intricate design of the bug’s wings I found smashed against our bathroom walls. Now, I’m looking forward to the spider webs of September. (Fortunately, in my house, there’ll be plenty!)
William Blake once suggested:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
This week, I hope I’ll have time to experience timelessness, and find new eyes with which to observe my old life.
Maybe we’ll spend a night in the camper just to remember how comfy our bed at home is! Or learn to create more mini-vacations in our densely packed lives.
Did you know that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, and it was to his brother? Throughout Van Gogh’s life, his brother was his main admirer, even as the world didn’t understand, at the time, what Van Gogh had produced.
If he hadn’t created in spite of the lack of recognition, what would the world have lost?
Tim Buckley’s brilliant cover rendition of Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah, has moved listeners around the world. I’m sure you’ve heard it. Buckley only released one studio album, Grace, to mixed reviews and a small audience. But years after his tragic passing, his Hallelujah continues to be heard by millions. (Watch the haunting video below of Buckley in concert.)
In our fame-crazed culture, selling one picture, making one album, or appealing to one person doesn’t seem like much. Celebrities in every field set a high bar for the kind of audience you need to appear successful.
And what’s the point of creating, if you’ll never do it “like that.” How would you dare call yourself a writer, artist, poet, singer, doodler, cook, designer, builder or creative spirit of any kind if your work may never reach beyond the people you know?
I can get swayed by that kind of thinking. After all, top bloggers have hundreds of thousands of followers. Then I recalibrate and remember that YOU are reading this blog right now. And that’s what matters most to me.
Big numbers aren’t always the prize.
Wanting to go viral can rob us of the joy of creating. Why not create for one person—and that person could even be you? You can have a big impact that’s not connected to big numbers.
Happily, some of my poems have been read, acknowledged and had an impact on the one person or small group they were intended for.
For example, I wrote a poem:
For a friend when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She loved the poem, and kept it close to her.
As an early Father’s day gift for a friend who had recently lost her Dad. She was moved to tears.
For my Mom to let her know how much I loved and acknowledged her. (How glad I am to have done that before a stroke took away her ability to communicate.)
For a women’s gathering, reflecting on an activity we did together; it was very appreciated.
For my husband to reflect his goodness back to him. He keeps the poem tacked to his office wall so he can read it while he works.
When one person reads my poem and is moved, I feel like my work has been rewarded.
Sometimes I write poems that will never be read by another, because a flow of words happens to please me. The effort settles me, inspires me, and allows me to step into my role as creator.
When you look at your life, are there areas in which you are hesitating to claim your role as a creator, because it feels like others have done it better, or because you see recognition distributed to only a few celebrities? What would it take for you to start creating?
As I start working on my new book, a voice inside wonders if my work will ever be published or distributed to more than a few readers. Fortunately, a wiser, more writerly voice says, “Write anyway. Imagine your audience of one and write to influence one life.”
You are a creator, and it’s time to claim your place at the table of creatives. No one but you gets to vote on this.
You can create for one. Even if that person is you.
Sometimes I open the door to my mind to write and there’s nothing there. Depending on how I’m sitting (or what I’m hoping to do), this can feel like a blessing or a curse. As I was pondering what to write this week, all I could come up with was a poem by James Broughton.
THIS IS IT
This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That
O it is This
and it is Thus
and it is Them
and it is Us
and it is Now
and Here It is
and Here We are
so This is It
Staring at the empty page, I ask my brain “What can I write?” And my brain, acting like that awful boy Richard in 3rd grade who taunted me relentlessly about being smart, decides to mock me and says “Nothing.” Nothing to write. No ideas. Empty.
The power of nothing.
When I dive into nothing, I always find something, But when I insist on finding something, I may only come up with nothing,
So what now?
Ring a chime. Light a candle. Just sit. Feel the muscles of my butt in the chair. The tinnitus that rings in my ears. Allow the it to be it. Sip tea. And wait.
And the words will come, or they won’t.
And you will read and enjoy, or you won’t.
And life goes on either way.
This summer, I hope we all can enjoy more beloved It-ness.
What does it mean to work creatively, and to know that you are doing the creative work that is uniquely yours to do?
These are questions I’m asking myself as I begin writing Meeting the Muse at Midlife: Finding your creative work in the 3rd act of life (book title, TBA).
Is “creative work” defined by the work itself, the project, the artistic endeavor? Is it a spirit that one brings to the process of creating? Is it about what you produce, the results?
I’d love to know what the question means to you!
The dictionary doesn’t help much. The Oxford Dictionary, defines “creative” as:
“Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something.” Google’s web dictionary adds “especially in the production of an artistic work.”
That’s a simple enough definition for something scholars have spent lifetimes exploring. (There are 2772 books with “creative’ in the title in our local county library system.)
Encountering my creative muse in mid-life
In my mid-50’s I became consumed by the urge to bring more creative expression into my life. For 25 years, I had been tethered to the notion of being productive and making something of myself. My heart was tired.
Flying back from an assignment teaching in Japan, where I had been awed by the Japanese, “wabi-sabi” way of bringing artistry into day to day life, I made a commitment to myself: I would find new ways to bring creativity into my life. I would start with arranging flowers. Beyond that, I didn’t know.
Re-entering my world in Seattle, I signed up for a class on Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, a practice I am still studying. I looked for other ways to experiment with being creative and decided to wrap all my Christmas presents Japanese-style, with fabric and beautiful design, a time-intensive process that was so different than my take-five-minutes-to-stick-on-some-wrap-and-a-bow technique. I began composing music, if only in my head.
And the muse started to show up.
Listening to the muse
The muse, (that person or force, real or imaginal that inspires artists, writers and creators) kicked into gear when she discovered I was listening to her. Seeing how hungry I was to create, she began feeding me more ideas. She invited me to explore the world of gardening, and I threw myself in, big time. I experimented with developing and performing theatrical-style stories. Story-crafting opened the door to writing, which I then whole-heartedly pursued.
My muse got more interested.
One she knew I was committed, she began offering ways I could transform my business practice–to bring more games, laughter and improv theatre, into my work. Soon I was facing a threshold: I knew my consulting practice had to embody this new creative spirit and I could no longer return to my old, productivity-obsessed, habits.
The disruptive challenge: My age
All of this happened as I was tracking towards my 60th birthday, a milestone too big to ignore. How odd it felt to be kicking my creative impulse into gear and having my work/life come alive, at a time when society said I should be readying myself to retire. Was it too late to develop my creative passions/
My heart said “NO!” and that’s part of why I am writing this book: to prove to myself and demonstrate to others how this “3rd Act” stage of life (usually age 50 + but not always defined by age) might be one of our most creative.
Who knows? It may be easier to express our creative yearnings as we age, come into ourselves more, and let go of the preoccupation with what others think of us. At least I’m going with that story!
What does it mean to you to work creatively?
For me, it’s work that feels like I’m called to it, where I experience a feeling of flow; where I can approach it with a sense of wonder, curiosity, experimentation, and artistry and where the joy of creating is as important as the need to be producing.
Now why I turn this back to you, to learn how you experience working creatively.
Is it looking for ways to do common things in original ways?
Is it feeling that you are called to work out of a sense of higher purpose, vision or contribution?
Is it working from a sense of flow?
Is it tapping into the energy and joy in your work?
Is it an artistic project or desire to be artistic?
Is it challenging yourself to routine work in an artistic way?
Is it time spent hanging out and just listening to your muse?
Is it waking up energized in the morning, knowing that you have a special project ahead of you?
Whatever it is, in your language, I’d love to know.
Since you’re going to get older, why not get a bit bolder?
I heard those words last week from Dr. Bill Thomas when he offered a live, theatrical event entitled Life’s Most Dangerous Game, designed to disrupt how we think about aging. Bill, whom I had the privilege of interviewing earlier this year, is the author of Second Windand is a force for changing the public’s perceptions of elderhood. Combining medical science, music, movement, and stories into an evening’s entertainment, he challenged us to see new possibilities in aging.
Like living a little more dangerously.
And why not? In letting go of caring so much what people think of us, we, with either age or acquired wisdom, may find new voices within ourselves to speak out about issues where we once would have remained silent. We may speak out to include people whose voices aren’t being heard in public debate. Or, we may choose to stay silent, when we decide that some of our small annoyances don’t need to be expressed.
For example, in Washington State, few politicians dare to address a very critical issue: state tax reform. You know who does? A group of vocal elders in one of Seattle’s retirement communities. They are speaking out about the issue. They are choosing the dangerous game.
One way to live more boldly is to dare to express more of yourself. Even in how you dress.
It’s interesting that so many large stores, like Nordstrom, tend to ignore the 50 plus woman, as if they’ve forgotten who controls much of the country’s purse strings. They use fashion models and mannequins that look like they’ve barely escaped puberty. I say, “No matter.” Letting older women fly under the radar of the merchandisers might be a good thing. It gives us more freedom to enjoy ourselves on our terms.
When we dress to go out, we don’t yearn for cat-calls, wolf whistles, or future reproductive partners (if we ever did). We can dress to express ourselves and have fun.
My elegant friend, Anna Martinsen, a former image consultant and personal shopper, told me that your style comes out of knowing who you are. In that, older women may have a distinct advantage.
For many of us, it’s time to be bold as we express our style. Say good-bye to trendy. Good-bye to trying to fill the holes in our socially-punctured self-esteem by buying stuff we don’t really need. And good-bye to most of the rules that have told us how to be.
And hello to becoming dangerous.
One of my friends in Seattle, Alene Moris, has been an advocate for women and social justice for many years. Last November, when her friend, Hilary Clinton, lost the presidential election, Alene was devastated. At 89, she knew that her dream of a woman president of the United States would almost certainly not be realized in her lifetime.
She grieved. And then, persisted
Age has just made her bolder. She continues to inspire people to keep working for the changes Alene herself may never see. Her work will not end with her. That’s why she’s doubly dangerous.
When you’re committed to working for something that’s out of reach in your lifetime—you’ve got real power.
Bill Thomas was right: aging may have its merits. We get older. We grow bolder. We become dangerous.