The Spirit of Creativity and Mothering
I have decided
I have decided to find myself a home
in the mountains, somewhere high up
where one learns to live peacefully in
the cold and the silence. It’s said that
in such a place certain revelations may
be discovered. That what the spirit
reaches for may be eventually felt, if not
exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt. I’m
not talking about a vacation.
Of course at the same time I mean to
stay exactly where I am.
Are you following me?
Penguin Books; Reprint edition (September 24, 2013)
How do you feed your creative spirit when there are diapers to change, dishes to be done, and a thousand little details pulling at you? This is the dilemma of a yearning mom. As human beings tend to do, we moms divide our lives into sections, like oranges. This wedge is parenting, this one is cooking & cleaning, that one represents our creative selves. We divvy things up, prioritizing the “have-to’s” feeling squeezed for quality time. And in immersing ourselves in the tasks, we find ourselves desperate for space to experience more soul in our busy lives. We fall asleep and our dreams are full of longing. And then the alarm rings, or the sick child beckons, or there’s a snow day and broken glass to be cleaned, and our longing is swallowed by the sheer demands of mothering. This is what happened to me, until I realized that I was the only one who could change it, and that whatever change I made would become the juice that ran in the blood of our lives.
***I am sitting on the leather chair in our family room drawing, entranced by the muse, immersed in forming lines to shape eyes and the bridge of a nose when the aroma of burning food comes to me. Distracted, inattentive to anything but the portrait in front of me, full awareness rides the molecules slowly.
The wind is howling outside-the temperature is sliding downward, snow is wheeling through the sky, dropping in the shape of stars.
There was a time when a snow day would mean less time for creativity. But I have restructured the way I approach both parenting and time. Granted, it’s easier to do now that two of my three kids are in college. However I have learned some tricks to make it easier. That’s because the T.S. Eliot line: “we measure out our lives with coffee spoons,” runs through my mind like a warning. Eliot-like, we divide our lives by days, and months instead of focusing on this one moment in front of us. We forget that time is a mystery, that the future is tied up in the choices of the present moment, that time is an illusion, that before we know it we are packing our kids off to college, wondering what happened to their entire childhoods. It’s something we’ve all experienced on a macro-level, for instance, during a Facebook binge, when we sign on to check the latest posts and look up from our computer an hour later, blinking, wondering where the last sixty minutes went.
I have learned tools (meditation) to re-focus on the present moment, and in doing so, stretch it, to find the spaces in-between the moments, to make it more meaningful, to make it last longer.
I have structured my life around my practice, built it in to my home life, rather than relying on somewhere else to nourish me.
Of course, like everything else, I do it imperfectly. Right now, as the snowflakes fall, and my pen moves across the page, I am content to draw as I wait for the chicken that I lovingly drizzled with a marinade of olive oil, lemon, white wine and mustard and sprinkled with herbs to be ready. Yet as I sit, I am unaware that the oven, known to run hot on a good day, is somehow cranked up to 500 degrees, instead of a slow and easy 300.
I can often be found here, in the red shaker rocker in front of the fireplace, or if the fire is throwing off too much heat, in the leather chair set a few feet back from the hearth.
This is the room where I winter. I spend most of the day here in front of the golden fireplace, while the kids come in and out (when they’re all here), where their friends hang out playing chess and pool, where my oldest plays piano and my daughter practices her ballet. Where my middle son reads philosophy and plans meals with me. It’s an inviting space for my husband; we often sit in front of a fire on cold mornings talking over coffee. Or to be honest, he talks and I try to cultivate a little more quiet before the details of the day drag me out of silence.
It’s the first place I go upon waking to do my meditation and drawing practice, and then write a bit before anybody even gets up. It’s where I eat my lunch, and where I sit down to write and read. Everything I need is at my fingertips here except my computer, which I don’t generally keep right in the same area because I don’t want the distraction. It’s the place where I ignore the dirt on the floor from the logs, and the dirty dishes which that I put on the floor next to me as I create.
To be truthful, it is just one of the places in my house that I turn a blind eye to, because if I looked closely enough I would see all of the flaws-I would stir the embers of self-judgment, I would feel compelled to clean instead of make art.
I have been thinking about random things as I draw—the shape of eyes, how red looks when it’s right next to yellowish green, and wondering why so many artists squint when they are drawing. My wandering mind has made me deaf to the subtle alarm going off on a more primal level, but suddenly the smell of charred food reaches critical mass, breaking my reverie and I bolt up and run to the oven. When I get there, a cloud of steam puffs out of the oven door when I crank it open, and when I lift the lid to the brand new dutch oven that I waited three years to buy, I am dismayed to find that the chicken has burnt to black and so has the pot. It’s the kind of thing that can derail my day. A ruined dinner, an unexpectedly sick child, a schedule change. There are times when I let it pull me under when I lose whole chunks of time lamenting things that already happened, things I can’t control, choices that didn’t turn out the way I planned.
In fact now, a thought flares in my mind that I didn’t sign on for this. For the trillionth time as a mom I miss the life I don’t lead: some nomadic existence that involves mountains and travel, oceans and fields, and a lot of silence and meditation. A lot of revelation, the kind that Mary Oliver talks about in her poem. But when it comes right down to it, as much as I dream about meditating on a whim in a peaceful spot where my spirit can touch what it reaches for, I know that I mean to stay exactly where I am. I have learned that this is what monkey mind does. It throws up resistance, tries to convince me that enlightenment is somewhere else, when I have learned that the possibility of it is right here in present moment, in how I respond to what life throws at me, in the choices I make about what’s actually happening now.
It took a long time to realize that, and it’s a practice that I can’t always access. But I spent a lot of years vacillating between gratitude and restlessness, slicing up my insides into quarters, this part of me is mom, this other one is artist, and so on. Over the years I have come to fully understand that as it teaches in the philosophical tradition that I study that “that which gets in my path is my path.” Instead of constantly mediating between the spiritual pull of creative mystery and the mundane demands of mothering, at my best, I remember that they are one. The imperfection of overcooked chicken becomes the perfection of healing chicken soup; broken plans become the pieces of whole day to make art. Everything from my meditation practice to my mothering, to my art and everything else is part of a cohesive, imperfect, glorious whole. I don’t have to wait for “me” time to be me. It is inseparable from family life.
It’s something I came to when my kids were little. I decided to blur the boundaries between the tasks between “mom” and “person.” Sometimes I feel guilty about the dishes in the sink, or the laundry piled on the dryer instead of folded neatly in drawers. If you saw the inside of my linen closet I would be embarrassed. But for the most part I don’t care. If life is short, then I plan to make the most of it. I have a bucket list running in my head, and having a perfect house isn’t on it. Sometimes I have to remind myself to put myself first. That isn’t as selfish as it seems. Putting myself first means prioritizing creativity. It means including my kids in my process.
It means letting things get messy. It means letting my kid smear (washable) paint all over his face, and it means painting his face at four turns into me painting portraits on skin years later, or me reading poems to my toddlers becomes me writing a poem at dinner, turns into my son writing a book of poems in college. It means drawing the sugar bowl and teacup while someone is doing homework because that’s what’s right there, making found poems from the newspaper while a cake is baking, and using the old dried flowers to decorate the cake. It means reminding myself of what I want for not only myself, but for my kids- remembering that I don’t want their lives to be about having spotless homes either. I always figured that if they saw me feeding my soul, they would learn to do the same. And in fact, they have. Because I meditated and did yoga with them, they all meditate now. If I had chased inner serenity in an ashram (not that there’s anything wrong with that,) my kids might not have learned to develop their own practice. If I hadn’t rolled my yoga mat out on the carpet in the bedroom and let them do downward dog right under me, they might not know what it is.
Because I let them paint their faces and draw pictures in my own journal as kids they now keep journals, and draw. Because we listened to music constantly, and because impatient, tapping hands were taught about drumming, they now make music. Because art was offered as balm, as salve, as connective tissue, we all seek it out together and separately.
While I purposely avoided some household arts, like learning to fold a fitted sheet, or folding every pair of socks, I’m not a slob. My house is not chaotic-if it was, I couldn’t create or be organized enough to get my kids where they needed to go. But I have found ways to marginalize housework, yet still get the most important stuff done. Ever since they were able, I included the kids in the housework, so they’d grow up knowing what it’s like to take part in the work of community. I do dishes early in the morning while the oatmeal is burbling on the stove, and start dinner prep just before driving to school. I give myself permission to have “me” time as soon as I get home from drop-off. I give myself permission to leave piles of books of counter-tops, dirty glasses on dressers and beds unmade for days at a time. In other words, I put my own oxygen mask on first so that when things get challenging, I can breathe.
There are times when it doesn’t work and the tasks pile up and I feel overwhelmed by the lack of organization and the sheer demands of it all. But I have learned to use that tension as creative fuel. I carry a notebook with me and make the most of in-between times. I jot down ideas while on line for school pick-up, draw portraits on napkins in restaurants, write down three small observations about what’s happening around me that later get folded into poems or blog posts. I make lists and set intentions early in the morning, and then hold myself to it. Now that my kids are 21, 18 and 15, I look back and think that if I had it to do all over again (and oh, how I would love to)! I would let more dishes sit, let more clothes go unfolded, keep the “shoulds” at a minimum. I would spend even more time outdoors, lying on the grass with my kids and talking about the stars, more time melting crayons to make candles, more time counting the raindrops and looking closely at flowers.
There’s a saying in yoga that you need to root to rise. Being a vibrant, spiritual, creative mom is what roots me, it’s my mountain. But I’ve come to learn that it’s also what makes me rise, what makes me see that everything I need is right here, where I am. Are you following me?
Please find Mary Oliver’s poem here.
Lori Landau is an artist, photographer and writer who uses a variety of mediums to explore the nameless force that seeks connection between self and other. She is intensely engaged in the hidden emotional structure of things, and her work investigates the poetry of the ordinary, the tension and soul that’s concealed beneath the obvious surface. Landau views her pen and her camera as a third eye, to intuit what she cannot put into words, and as an ear to listen deeply to what often remains unsaid.