“Woah, where’d ya get those?” my dad spouts as I emerge from the house in boots more appropriate for a waste collector in Maine.
"Yep, they say they’re good enough to withstand temps up to negative 30 degrees. From my time in Jersey," I gush, enjoying the delayed imprint of stepping on fresh snow. I had to dig for them in my parents’ garage, which I never thought I’d do this winter, but in ripe pandemic fashion, a polar vortex shocked Texas with unprecedented temperatures this week. It was 1 degree on Tuesday. Before I lose you with that buzzword, I want to make a little meaning out of ground surprised by layers of powder-y-mountain snow. Blanketing for some, burdening for others, these uncharacteristic freezes in life unearth mysteries in all of us, and if we take notice, the thaw that will follow could reveal a beautiful path forward—one we might have missed if the sun never missed us.
The pandemic has been long. With the one-year anniversary swiftly approaching and the end murkily in sight, it feels wearisome in a new way. I’ve finally accepted I’m not going back to what was, or at least back as the same person, but I also have no idea what lies ahead. We know it will end. But, if you’re like me, waiting for your industry or a certain location to make more sense, then questions may be rattling around about how to reconcile this reality and make something in the meantime. Last March, the pandemic began to freeze so much of the life we need, the one we create with others. Breath—what was once inspiration from another—suddenly became kryptonite. While we still await the day we can create life together again, how do we march on in our creative endeavors, still isolated and discouraged? The short answer: process over product; practice over perfection.
I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, some posts were shooting around about Shakespeare’s suspected prolificacy during the time of plagues. People oozed that seemingly empty encouragement of an Instagram influencer to “stay strong”, “dig in”, and “start producing your King Lear”. I’m positive there are people out there who have been doing just that, but I’m also positive I’m no Shakespeare. So much of the necessary work I’ve been doing during this time bears little for the eye to see, and as someone who wants to be productive, I struggle accepting a season of shadow work.
However, a still, small voice tells me that this time has been golden in its own way. The pain of waiting sinks the heart deep, but we dredge up lasting refinement when our waiting leads us to listen. And it is that very act of listening that guides our work to reach beyond ourselves, inviting another to listen. I’m convinced that still, small voice had little to gain until my passions were silenced beyond my control. When it felt like all was lost, I was invited to listen.
I’m very interested in the idea that everything we do forms us; all the little things adding up to our whole self. This is both a rewarding and terrifying thought. With this idea applied, the mark of a truly productive maker would be a person who works at making every day, not necessarily someone who’s work fills a museum. Indeed, I’ve heard with creative work “there’s no done, only deadlines.” Maybe that’s true for all work. Thus, there is an undefinable dance between listening to our imaginations and letting them “body forth” (as Malcolm Guite describes) into something we work out until the work begins to speak on its own. This, in time, awakens the only reasonable response: to listen again. Madeline L’Engle, in her devotional work on faith and creation, Walking on Water, summarizes: “We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not; otherwise, when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it.”
There have been so many days this past year where merely getting through the day felt like work enough, and I know that’s a lot of what existence is, pandemic or no pandemic. If anything, we’ve certainly been making history, but I know we want more than that—the romantic, artistic heart says, “I should still be creative during artistic drought, environmental unsafety, collective confusion, and unhealthy levels of disconnection.” Should is a tricky command anyway, and nevertheless, I ask myself why my heart says that. (Yes, I’m the romantic heart over here!) After Marie Kondo-ing my mind, I am beginning to find the answer— a simple, solid ground where the roots reach deep, and things are allowed to grow because they are allowed to die. Affirming, this ground reminds me that I was made to make things, regardless of being seen.
Why we do anything at all is first and foremost engrained deep within our human nature and personal history. The very essence of motivation is its ability to develop—or fester—far underneath the surface of things. Imagine a world where we spoke our motivations on the surface. “I am motivated to keep the peace no matter the personal cost of denying my voice in this situation that I will say (or not say) whatever it takes to get your emotions to deescalate.” Or, “I’m motivated by certainty because I need to feel in control, so I’ll be finding a new friend if you disagree with my viewpoints.” As much as I love an honest conversation, that kind of literalism gives me a headache. Conversation, human interactions and connections that normalize instantaneous analyzation would be unnatural, stripping us of nuance, wonder, and the mystery of another human life. Also, this model would demand that all people know their motivations in real time, which is impossible, even for a neurotic. The very heartbeat of conversation is curiosity—an art we seem to care less and less about.
Moreover, motivation isn’t always pure and can become quite tangled with compulsions, false paradigms, unrealistic fantasies, and banal survivalist instincts; it’s too cumbersome to over-indulge on the microscopic level. However, for the deep-seated passions, innate longings, overarching ideologies, and especially when you feel resistance build for any of those areas (thank you Steven Pressfield), knowing your why could be the difference between living and dying, for your art and possibly for you.
As silence has called me to listen, I’ve seen where I’ve been and how I would like to move forward. The how is far less etched out than I would like to admit because the past required more grief and forgiveness than I would have expected. Nevertheless, this deep dive into my own motivations has helped me get to know what used to lead me and why that why isn’t sustainable. To be still and know yourself is the first step, with honest compassion and a few supportive people along for the ride as sounding boards. Then, and only then, can you define why that compass may or may not be serving you well. However, I’d be a fool to chalk up my own creative shortcomings during a pandemic to one failed motivational pull. There are so many factors for why I’ve felt unable to sit down and do the things I feel called to do, but I’d also be a fool to think that I could emerge out of that frenzy without a clarifying reason to try again.
Know your why
Until you know your why, you cannot change it. And while your why is as unique as you, the sustainability of a motivation relies upon its connection to your specific body. The closer it is at respecting who you were made to be—both as a unique individual and part of the collective human species—the easier it will be to honor. Additionally, this motivation must integrate that which you are and that which you want to be, and all of the specific limitations in-between. There is no choice to make between imagination and reality, but rather we must integrate them if we want to live a creative life, which embraces that dance from the unseen to the seen. We will fumble at first, but as we grow more comfortable with the process of bodying forth our imaginations—that is, processing while in process—we will gain coordination after coordination until we are full of grace and truth.
Are you scared of how much you have to give, or how little, even if you can acknowledge the gift inside of you? Maybe too, the question of how weighs heavily when the essentials are hard enough. As my life has gone through this period of full stops, I recognize what compels my spirit to make anything at all when no one is looking: love. Fear only guides when I need an audience and shames me to fritter when I don’t. But love conquers that fear, and ushers me into whole-hearted attention, the only sustainable place for creation. That is my simple prayer, to attend to the only moment within my grasp to make anything at all. With Mary Oliver’s humility in hand, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention…”, and Madeleine L’Engle insights in my heart, “bad art is bad religion,” I have peace knowing that this artist’s journey has been trod before and yields all kinds of fruit.
Our attentions are sacred not only because they allow us to make, but also because our attentions are making us. The sun will shine again, and when it melts away this plague (layer at a time), where will you be? Panicking over some momentarily shiny product, unrealized or not? Or, will you be found in process, beginning again the sacred life-practice of paying attention?
This is life,
This is creation,
Our process of attention.
How to pray? How to give-in?
Whether frozen or free,
Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water
Malcom Guite’s talk – The Imagination Bodies Forth - https://youtu.be/d8IpDVn5xEk
Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day
Steven Pressfield – The War of Art