An Ordinary Post on Creativity

Rose 1

 

College instructors’ mental abilities often wither after spring semester like drought-stricken leaves. Mine took a long time to sprout again, a possible sign of burn-out, as is the smoke coming from my eyeballs. I have been writing, sort of, although stopping teaching suddenly freed up time to be tired, detached, and uninspired. It was easier to write when the alternative was urgent lesson plans or grading? Writing got harder when there was more free time, and the alternatives were a novel or a nap? That should not be true, but Alas.

Yes, Gertrude Stein did say that geniuses have to sit around a lot doing nothing. Yes, I quoted her in my other post. But I believe when she said “really doing nothing,” she meant Really Doing Nothing, not watching The Big Bang Theory re-runs. And yes, a major shift in routine can throw off a person’s…routines. I found it hard to regroup, and I think it’s because my CPT identity and my writing had become so important this spring. Art and my spiritual practice were the “special” parts of my day. That Special, separate status I gave them is what the late Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki would call “a mistake.”

Sometimes I have good reading instincts. (Sometimes I claim the Boston Public Library’s Copley Square branch is sentient, cares about me, and makes sure I land on the books I need. If you’ve spent time in that building, don’t tell me you don’t believe it.) I felt urged to read, at the same time, Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Natalie Goldberg’s memoir about waking up as a writer and Buddhist, Long Quiet Highway, especially when I learned his lecture collection inspired the format of her first book. So I’ve just read them together, and the thing they emphasize about the practices they teach, Zen and writing, is that both are immensely Ordinary. Apparently I needed to hear that good and loud.

The habit of treating Creative Work as Special creates weird pressure, and it’s where the excuses spring up: I’m too tired, too depleted, not focused enough, not talented enough to Do It Right today. That’s been my recent experience. While confessing their own struggles, SS and NG reminded me, just do what you do. He said when you sit to meditate, Just Sit, with things as they are, without trying to attain or fix anything. She said, write to Be Writing, if you ever want to write. Both are ordinary practices, like washing dishes or earning a living, not glorious quests for which you need to be sanctified.

Simple, yet not simple when tangled in my own CPT thinking. Oh, I want my Art to be special; after all, I sacrifice to make time for it, and it’s Who I Am. I don’t want it to be unbrilliant, unproductive, not as good as other people’s….Whoa. Stop. The sound overhead is the Ego, tap dancing at full speed on a concrete floor. Hey, people are trying to write down here!

I trust SS and NG to know, but I could have read a hundred books. Until I experienced the reality of what they said, it was going to mean nothing. Being quiet with my own dilemma, I Experienced It. I have to practice the ordinary every day anyway, breathing, walking, and brushing my teeth as I do. I’m never too uninspired to pee. Writing does not need to be Carved Out of the ordinary day, but Added In to the ordinary day. Start with that perspective, and do your practice.

Poet Jane Hirshfield once asked, in a documentary about Buddha, what could be MORE miraculous than coffee in a blue mug. All things are ordinary and equally extraordinary, the secret prize in this cereal box of realigned understanding. Writing is ordinary, and my hands make these marks that signify my thoughts almost before I think. Wow. And as I drink morning coffee, every leaf on the tree ripples silently in a breeze that my skin feels as cool while my mouth holds milky heat. Across the room, little round things I shoved into wet dirt have sprouted live green things reaching for the light. On my walk this morning, the eyes of a mottled rabbit watched me as its jaws worked side to side. And people with their loves and hurts and talents walked through my vision….And here we are in Life… Extraordinary.

How many babies are born each day? What an ordinary event, really. This post is dedicated with awe and love to the Extraordinary Rose Esther N.

The Boats

boats

One of my favorite poems from childhood is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Where Go the Boats?” from A Child’s Garden of Verses, that bouquet of scenes from an innocent (privileged), tree-shaded England. Here it is:

Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating –
Where will all come home?

On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

Granted, the nursery rhyme world of mean spiders, bleeding mice and sticking your thumb in your food had its place in my life. But I always loved this poem my grandmother taught me because we shared a love of the water, and because, thanks to my grandfather, I am a Master paper boat builder.

As a Creative adult, I still love the poem: isn’t it a beautiful statement of an artist’s faith? I think so. As an undergrad, reading Shelley and Keats’s windswept vistas of eternity, I thought Stevenson stated faith in the Immortality of Art, carrying Our Names down the river of time. Well, he pulled it off. But Artistic Immortality is a yacht with a small guest list and a political agenda. I know now the poem is really an artist’s statement of faith in simple Connection, with another person or the world, through Creativity. The only thing the poem promises, and what it celebrates, is two sets of  hands playing with the boats, and the current between them.

Connection, when it happens, can often surprise you, like walking through unexpected lilac scent across a sidewalk. It surprised me this spring, when one of my classes was doing group work. In a moment of whimsy, I made a paper boat from a spare sheet on the desk, and set it among my notes. My student Ha, with the fabulous river of blue hair, came up to ask me a question and noticed it. Laughing, I told her about my grandfather’s lessons. She suddenly began to tell me how, when she was a little girl in Vietnam, they lived on a narrow street that was deep like a gully. It would flood easily in heavy rain, and she and her brother would sit in the doorway of their house, launching paper boats. The water would recede quickly, stranding their fleet, which settled into soggy, colorful masses of accidental sculpture, and, as Ha put it, “We papier-mached the street!”

This amazing image knocks my socks off. Connection over shared Creativity ensues, both a little breath-taking and wholly ordinary.

The humble request to use her story to write this piece is honored with the response, “I would be honored.” I hope this post will live up to the vivid, lovely story shared with me when another child saw my paper boat and brought it ashore.

For Ha Dang and Ida Schwimmer, and for Aaron Schwimmer, who sailed away June 8, 1985. I’m still making boats, Papa. I still know the poem, Gram.