One of the chapters of Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies is an account of a health scare she had with her son Sam. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective (and mental health), we had a similar experience this week with Gabe. But before I tell you about that, I want to show you this picture by Toni Frissell, a female photographer in the 1940’s and 50’s.
It’s from an underwater shoot of models all wearing white, fluidy gowns. To me, it evokes many things: surrender, descent, freedom, and something of the seductive power of depression. It also reminds me of the scene in “The Piano” where Holly Hunter almost drowns because she lets her leg get tangled up with her piano when it falls overboard. (Hunter plays a mute woman in the 1850’s who is sent to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. Her piano is, quite literally, her voice). She is very calm at first, quietly observing the water around her, gracefully allowing herself to be pulled down, down, down. Then suddenly it’s like she wakes up and realizes what is happening, and she struggles to free herself and swim to the surface. The camera shows her discarded boot sinking slowly deeper, while she swims up, towards a life that she is not sure she wants, certainly one she knows nothing about, but one she is not ready to give up.
The most romantic moment of my winter this year was on New Year’s Eve, standing in the bathroom watching my husband try out his new nose hair clippers. And this not to imply that there is no romance in my life, or that the moment itself wasn’t romantic. It really, really was.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve with my sister-in-law and her husband by getting dressed up and doing karaoke downstairs in the family room, which was more fun than I can say. And one of the things I love about being with my sister-in-law is that she has the ability to made life feel like an occasion. She makes the effort. She wears red lipstick every day. She uses her best dishes on a regular basis. She pays attention. The big difference between the two of us is that I am a “Why bother?” person, and she is a “Why would you not bother?” person. It’s very refreshing.
New Year's Eve 2009
My friend Tom once shared a story of a woman he knew who kept a journal about gardening. One entry that always stuck with him was a short observation on a day when the slow transition from winter to spring seemed to sharpen into visibility. She wrote: “Things mostly green.”
While we can definitely feel the return of life to the ground here in east central Illinois, things are mostly not green. The air has been more forgiving, the sunlight gloriously welcome, and yes, there are a few tiny shoots poking through in the yard, but this is the time right before the green, the time between.
not quite winter, not quite spring
Today is the first Friday of Lent—no meat for those observing Lenten practices. And here’s some interesting Catholic trivia I found while looking up Lenten fasting: “abstinence,” which in this case refers to not eating meat, does not include “meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consommé, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are not forbidden. So it is permissible to use margarine and lard.” Mmm! Also, “even bacon drippings which contain little bits of meat may be poured over lettuce as seasoning,” and (thank goodness someone has cleared this up once and for all), “no one considers gelatin or Jell-O to be meat” (Father John Huels, The Pastoral Companion). So you can’t eat a burger, but you could eat, say, a salad with lots of bacon bits, or even pasta with marinara sauce. And in case it was theological doubt holding you back, go right ahead and enjoy that Jell-O, guilt-free.
Like almost every woman in the Western world, where we have the luxury of worrying about eating too much, food is sometimes often almost always an issue for me. I have used it to play out a variety of neuroses over the years—mostly by hypochondriacally imbuing it with magical healing powers–and have practiced vegetarianism, veganism, low carb/high proteinism, and most disastrously, macrobiotics. I once asked one of my friends who is up on a lot of Asian practices what he knew about macrobiotics and he said, “I think it involves a lot of small containers.”
A few weeks ago, I was talking with my dad about what he and my mother plan to do after they retire in June. Somehow the conversation got around to where they wanted to live, “down the road,” which I took to mean when they are quite a bit older, and when they may need more help. My parents and siblings live on the east coast and I live in Illinois, which I believe my east coast father thinks of as “the prairie.” I told him that they were very welcome to live near us, mentioned the lower cost of living, the relatively good healthcare, the proximity to us, and he said, “Well, the thing is that you have terrible weather. All year.”
Still wondering about creativity, still immersing myself in some of the vast quantities of material out there, and am very grateful for all of the amazing work that has been and is being done to explore the connections between creativity and “madness.” But to steal (and probably badly paraphrase) a line from “Beowulf”: “tis not very far from here and ’tis not a pleasant place.”
Poet David Whyte has said that stifling your creativity is not a passive act; he likens it to letting the smoke build up in a chimney–the greasy, black smoke that slowly backs up into your whole house, and if you did light a match to it, it would burn your house down. This is suffocating and paradoxical imagery–you need to allow creativity to move as a force, but some forms of its movement are life-threatening.
I’m in the midst of preparing for a Heartland Writing workshop on creativity that I’m giving on January 30th, and being “in the midst of” is just what it feels like. There is so much material on creativity out there, so many points of entry into it as a “topic”–creativity as a marketable workplace asset, creativity as a skill to be taught, as a mode of behavior, as a stereotype involving either chaos, alcohol and mental illness, or bright colors, trips to Michael’s, and pieces of felt.
The two biggest categories for me with regard to creativity are: safe and unsafe. Is being creative safe or unsafe or both? I don’t know, and that’s why I’m doing the workshop, which is called Creativity and the Quest for Meaning. My planning for this workshop has been stealth planning–read a little bit of this, think about a little of that; try not to feel overwhelmed. Mostly it’s been sitting in or next to the midst of material in my head, heart and study, and closing my eyes and not thinking at all.