Flow

I read an article today that posited that financial blocks are indicative of creative blocks.  So, I thought it probably wouldn’t hurt to try to write a bit—maybe suddenly money will arrive if I put my creative mind to some creative writing.

But moments later, I realized that where my creative blocks are might not be here on this page.  Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, more aptly expressed) has never been hard for me.  I’m pretty sure that I wanted to be a writer from around 2nd grade.  I didn’t fully know that writing was my passion just a few years after, and it took me about 35 more years to get back to that passion, but I did want it at a young age.  I won’t go into the upsetting details about why I lost that focus, because even I am tired of hearing about the wounds of my history.  What I will say, is that at some point in my development—or maybe many small, important moments in my development—I had that passion pushed out of my mind.  I lost that knowing.

Understand that some of that loss was due to trauma.  You forget who you were before the trauma, they say.  I suppose I believe them.  I formed very little of my personality before I forgot it, so I didn’t have all that much to grasp at and hold onto.  But I know that I loved to do things that were artistic and creative.

I remember dancing.  Always dancing.  I remember singing.  Always singing.  I remember writing stories and poems and making picture books.  I remember sitting in the art room during recess on any occasion I was allowed to do so, and working on a painting or some clay dish.

Unfortunately, I also remember being judged.  And I remember coming up short.

Competition is a thing I hate.  Ask my brother-in-law, the lover of board games, and he will tell you that I am no fun because I never want to play.  That isn’t entirely true.  There are cooperative games that I really like to play, and there are particular groups of people with whom I like to play such games.  What I don’t like, is the measuring stick and the terms “winner” and “loser”.  There are a lot of people who won’t understand that I hate these things.  They might say I am a sore loser, or that I am just not as good a player, or that I identify too closely with the millennials who all get trophies and don’t know how to lose.

None of those are true.

I don’t like the way that certain people judge others, and I don’t like the way the worst comes out in people when competition is put into play.  Hehe.  Pun.

Seriously though…

I remember not having the best picture book in whatever grade that competition took place.  I remember not having the best art piece on any of the occasions.  I remember that my words weren’t honored and placed on walls with gold stars or blue ribbons.  And it isn’t that I am upset that I didn’t win—although as a child that may have been partly the case.  What bothers me about this system of measurement that was constantly reinforced, is that I was really, exceptionally gifted in all sorts of creative arts, but I never won the contests, so I thought that I was bad at what I loved most in life—to paint, and to sing, and to dance, and to write.

Around my junior and senior year of high school, I finally started to understand that the games and the contests weren’t the true measure of skill.  And at that point, I wanted to invest my time and my energy into learning to hone those skills that I somehow, inherently, had in the creative arts.  I said that I wanted to take a photography course, but I wasn’t allowed, because I hadn’t taken Art I and Art II and whatever other requisite courses one needed to pursue an art course.  But I didn’t want to paint fruit on platters, or learn how to shade well in my pencil sketches.  I wanted to take photos.  I wanted to be a photographer.  I found beauty in spaces where many could not, and I feel that I would have been skilled at photographing that beauty, and showing it to the world.  I wasn’t allowed.

I started to dance when I made the dance team in my first year of college.  I don’t know why I believed during this period that I could do things I was never allowed the chance to do when I was younger.  But I tried out, and I made it.  I was ecstatic, and it was amazing.  But the following year, the team that danced at half-time wasn’t a thing, and instead there would be a series of showcases.  The ballet jumps and the spotting during turns wasn’t something that anyone ever taught me.  I never had access to lessons.  I fell in front of all the people trying out, and I felt like the previous year—when I did an amazing job dancing my heart out in front of people—didn’t even exist anymore.  I wasn’t a real dancer.  I didn’t make the cut.

All of these moments—these competitive moments, when I was meant to prove my salt and come out on top—instead turned into a huge lie and a core belief that I held for many, many years.  I wasn’t an artist.  I wasn’t good enough to be on stage acting.  I didn’t even make the annual theater performance program when my own father directed the show.  He said he couldn’t cast both his children, or it would seem like favoritism, and it was The Music Man, so he needed my brother more than me in the cast—boys who love to dance and sing on stage weren’t quite so popular and accepted thirty years ago in small-town, rural America, I suppose.  But, even if he did wish to cast me, he didn’t.  Which made me feel like all those other girls were the talented and pretty and deserving girls.  Which meant that I was not.

I don’t know why competition is a thing.  I don’t know where it started.  I don’t think it ever ends.  But I do know that constantly falling just short of the cut, and not winning the praise and validation, made me stop working in the fields that I loved.  I stopped singing.  I stopped dancing.  I stopped playing the piano.  I stopped drawing.  I stopped painting.

Or, at least, I stopped doing them in public, or anywhere that other people got to judge my work and my skill in any way.  I couldn’t stop doing them altogether.  They are part of who I was meant to be.  I was always, as my little girl self felt, a writer.  I was always an artist.

And shame on each and every person who made me believe that couldn’t be true.  I had a love of the arts.  That alone was enough to qualify me and to give me permission to pursue a life and a career in the arts.

The blocks—the places where my creative energy doesn’t flow—are the doors that I closed on the dancer, the painter, the photographer, the writer, the poet.  The blocks come each time I feel like dancing, but don’t.  The blocks come when I am passionately pounding out a deep and layered piece on the piano, and I hear the garage door next to the music room open, so I quickly stop, put things in order, and rush upstairs so that nobody will know that I was playing—usually weeping as I do, because the piano has a language that can express my despair, my pain, my joy, and there is no other language I know that can do the same.  The blocks come when I look at something I have created, and deem it unsatisfactory, honing in on every possible perceived flaw, even while others are gushing awe and praise for that creation.

The blocks are there because I stopped believing I could be an artist, somewhere between the 2nd grade and today.

I don’t know if letting my creative expression flow will make my bank account attract the funds to pay the electric bill and get me some groceries.  But I do know that letting it flow will do other things that are good and necessary for me now.  I need to trust in my abilities.  I need to believe that what I love matters.  I need to know that no matter what anyone else thinks of my expression, it is valid, and it deserves to have a space in my life and in the world.  My creative side isn’t here to make certain I have scrapbooking group opportunities where I can find respite from caring for the kids.  (Though that is totally a worthy cause, people!  Scrapbook away! No judgment.  I suck at scrapbooking.  Which is kinda ironic, since most of my art is collage work of some sort, so I should be awesome at layering paper.)  I digress.  The point is that we love things because we need them and they need us.  My creative side is here to flow—to pour out upon the earth and to exist there.  And maybe your creativity is in the solving of difficult equations or positing really awesome stuff to prove and disprove using science or setting an amazing buffet before a crowd of people.  It doesn’t need to mean “the arts” for all of us.  But it should be recognized and validated and praised for all of us.

It is hard to put your heart out into the world and have people step on it.  And I don’t think that needs to happen.  Maybe everybody doesn’t get a trophy every time, so the kids still learn that life has ups and downs, and we don’t always get what we want.  But maybe everybody can be recognized, encouraged, and praised for showing up and trying, or for improving, or even for quitting!  When my daughter quit basketball or piano or French class or school, I praised her for knowing what she loved and what she didn’t love, and I praised her for trying, even if it wasn’t the right fit and the thing she wanted to continue to pursue.  And I helped her find the right fit, whenever possible.  (I still owe her a violin, by the way, because that was the right fit, but I couldn’t afford that fit and promised she would get one “someday”.)

I think that letting what naturally flows out from our hearts is usually beautiful.  Even when it is messy and complicated and not perfect, I still think what flows naturally is beautiful.  I’m in the minority with this view, I know.  Most of the people I know consider humanity flawed or cursed or sinful, and we just keep striving to be not that or better than that for a lifetime.  I don’t see it that way.  I think that humanity is stifled and broken and cut off from the beauty that naturally flows by competitions and bigotries and selfish motives that we learn over time.

Think about what you wanted to be when you were a child.  A fireman?  Superman?  A doctor? A mom?  Not many of us would have said “a ruthless investment banker who works himself or herself to death”.  But some of us turn out to be just that.

So, what if our earliest notions of self are actually the purest, but society convinces us that they are not, by pitting us against one another, and telling us that some of us win and some of us lose?

That thinking is very evident in recent weeks.  I’ve literally had people say to me that I am the loser in the game of healthcare. And what I lose is my health and possibly my life.  (Can I at least get a fucking participation trophy before I die, asshole?!)  The idea that some of us win and some of us lose, and that we don’t need to change that because it is the natural order, is one that devastates many, and allows us to harm others without conscience.  That is a terrible idea to foster and encourage!

So why can’t we do that opposite?

What is the worst that could happen, if we encouraged all the kids to dance?  What is the worst that could happen if the world had 80 million firefighters?  What is the worst that could happen if all the 2nd graders were acknowledged for something they loved?

Today, I’m thinking that we should all just let our creativity flow—whatever that means for us.  I would love to see rivers of creating in the streets, and not rivers of blood caused by all sorts of violence.  I would also love money to be attracted to me, and have cash flow mimic that creative flow, but that is a secondary goal.

So, tonight, despite my aching joints and without having the results of my lumbar spine MRI to diagnose a reason not to, I am going to dance.  And should a piano find a way up my stairs, I might pound on that passionately, even if my family members could hear.  And I will likely put my newly cleaned studio to use one day soon and layer some non-scrapbook related paper together to create some art.

Because writing this has definitely helped—even if my bank balance stays the same.  It has helped me to see and understand those blocks, and to begin on a path that removes them.  It has helped me to once again claim the title.  I am an artist!

Excellence

Sometimes it feels like a challenge to hold on to the good qualities I have, and not get stuck in an endless cycle of negativity.  The whole growing up in a Dutch Reformed area where you are constantly told how depraved you are thing probably didn’t help matters.  Having a mother who followed compliments with a “but…” certainly didn’t help matters.  And the added weight of shame and confusion and pain from childhood trauma compounded the focus on the bad things, and the distance between me and the knowledge of my skills.

And our society didn’t help me to hold the good qualities.  I was recently reading a theory of how school takes what was creative and forces it to be linear.  Blobs with legs are left behind, and in their place sit letters and numbers with distinct requirements and a lack of creative expression.  And as we become more and more focused on the “correctness” of penmanship and math equations and memorization, we start to lose confidence in the blobs with legs and the ways that we expressed our thoughts and emotions through our drawing or singing or dancing, without a care of skill or proper technique.  This theory struck a chord with me (no pun intended).

I was one of those children who loved to draw and paint and sing and dance and run and climb and express myself with abandon.  I know this, not because I remember doing those things as a child, but because my spirit still cries out to do these things.  And I rarely do them, despite those cries.  I haven’t sung alone in public since high school, perhaps.  I haven’t painted a picture since elementary school, I would guess.  And dancing only happens when I drink too much at a club or when I am shuttered away behind the most closed of doors, even though my body wants to throw out my arms and twirl more often than I might like to admit.  Something in me still desires all of that expression.  Bits of it spill out at times:  singing in the college choir, decorating a cake, doing a bit of DIY furniture refinishing, tapping my foot in time with the music streaming through my headset while I ride the bus.  But, for the most part, my artistic self is hidden behind walls of “not good at” and “not appropriate” and “just something I threw together” and plain old avoidance of the production of art.

“But you write, Christy”, might be a response that has occurred to you already.  It occurred to me too.  But I realized that it has taken many years to for me to embrace my writing as a skill or an art form or an outlet for emotional expression.  And I also spent many years practicing that skill and art in secret … writing poems or letters in hidden notebooks that never met eyes other than my own.  And I did so, because I feared the judgments of others, and felt like my expression wouldn’t be “good enough”.

I have the word “Enough” tattooed on my arm.  I see it every morning when I get dressed.  That tattoo is meant for the whole of me—to see myself as enough as I am, without outside affirmation or some need to perform as others would prefer.  But I think that this word also applies to accepting my expression as enough, whether others judge it so or not.

I remember when I was in elementary school I loved to work on my paintings.  And at one point, probably around grade five or six, there was an art competition for our grade.  I spent time before school and at every recess working diligently on perfecting a landscape that would be entered for the competition.  I put all of my heart and soul into that picture.  And it was eliminated in the first round of competition—just picked up and placed aside, for a reason I would never learn, in the pile of rejected art.   It broke me.

Having my expression judged as unworthy hurt me. Deeply.

And that wasn’t the first time, though it stands out as a stellar example.

I remember working so hard on penmanship—practicing the letters over and over and over—and having a big “unsatisfactory” mark on my report card anyway.  I remember sitting alone at a table during the lunch recess and attempting to be faster in the timed math quizzes, and never improving.  I remember working tirelessly to memorize spelling words in grades four, five, and six, because I was a terrible speller, and working my way from the lowest level to the highest and then losing the spelling bee because of the word commitment, which I gave an extra “t”.  Shattered over and over by the ways I tried and failed, I didn’t give up like you might imagine I would.  I kept trying.  But I kept failing.  And it wasn’t that I failed because I wasn’t skilled or creative or capable, but it was failure because I expressed myself in ways that weren’t what others desired from me.  Dark paintings, a loud voice, not the right height for the part, a penchant for modern when what we want is classical, playing by ear instead of reading the notes, and on and on and on.  I was too much, or too little, or too big, or too small, or too raw, or too stiff, or too…

I was never quite right.  My expressions were never quite right.

So, I stopped telling the truth.  I stopped expressing myself truly and deeply and passionately.  I started being what was expected and acceptable, and in the process I stopped being me.  I stopped knowing me, in many ways.

I did begin to write again, in those secret notebooks, after a book I was reading encouraged me to look back at my childhood self and to try and remember what she loved.  As a woman in her twenties, who had a toddler of her own, I finally looked back and saw that I loved to climb trees and to play with my easy-bake oven and to dance around and to act in plays and to draw and to paint and to sing and to express art in all sorts of ways.  One of the first things I wrote was that list of things that I loved as a child, and inadvertently, I sparked the knowledge that I love to write.  I loved to tell stories.  I loved to say all the things.  But I was silenced by modern academic practices and the idea that performing well was more important than the trying and the expression and the feeling of creating.

So, today I stand as one who still, ultimately, judges every word and every post and every page and every canvas and every project and every single thing about her work with harshness and perfectionism, because I can’t seem to be that child who loves to do the things and say the things, even though I now have full knowledge of her and what she wants and its importance in being whole as an adult woman.  Because I am her and she is me and that which was silenced needs to find its voice once more.

I am learning that what is excellent is not, necessarily, performing in ways that meet the expectations of others, or some arbitrary standards, or to the public perception of success.  What is excellent is being free to express the whole of me, and to say and do and create with that freedom.  Expression itself is excellent.

It is our right to express things, in theory—freedom of speech.  But somewhere along the line that “freedom” started to mean the ability to promote the status quo, in the minds of many.  And true freedom of expression is lost to us.  Offering the whole story, or having the narrative be told by the ones who experience the events firsthand, or allowing the narrative to change based on new information, or letting all voices be heard and judged with equal merit and weight, or just listening to a new perspective is practically non-existent.  What we offer instead is the acceptance of that which meets our criteria and the rejection of all else.  People get put in the pile of rejected art, without ever knowing the reason.  Nations get put in the pile of rejected expression.  Religions get put in the pile.  Races get put in the pile.  Redheads get put in the pile.  All sorts of arbitrary conditions now threaten to put you in the pile of rejected expression, because you didn’t meet the standard of expectations.

And I have yet to figure out who created the standard of expectations.  My best guess would be white, male, heterosexual evangelicals in positions of power or with wealth…or both.  Because patriarchal heteronormative expressions with straight lettering and correct math seem to be accepted above all. (Well, the math is questionable, because things like the number of shooting deaths correlating to the number of accessible handguns seem to be frequently ignored or misrepresented.) Because things that declare the name of Jesus seem to be accepted above all (even when Jesus himself NEVER SAID THOSE THINGS).  Because things that make rich white guys more rich seem accepted above all.  Because “traditional values” like the racism and oppression of the 1950’s seem to be accepted above all.  Basically anything that promotes the white, male, heterosexual evangelical with power or wealth or both is accepted above all, so it is safe to assume they are the ones writing the rule book on acceptable expression.

But regardless of who created the standard of expectations, we need not appeal to that standard.  We are capable and skilled and creative whether the current standards say so or not.

And we ALL spent time as children creating blobs with legs and calling them Grandpa, so we all have the capacity to create without the linear expectations of an alphabet controlling the outcome.  We have enough imagination to flood the world with expectation-breaking media!  We have the ability to sing and dance and climb and paint our way into a new world, where each of us is enough, and where nobody gets put in the pile of rejected expression, but every narrative is told and every story is honored and heard.

Rich, straight, white guys don’t get to tell us what to say.  Mothers that don’t know how to compliment us without adding “but…” on the end don’t get to tell us what to say.  Teachers who care more about an Oxford comma than a beautiful expression of life don’t get to tell us what to say or how to say it.  Judges at the grade six art competition don’t get to tell us what to say or how to say it.  We can take back our right to speak, and use it as a form of expression that sets the world ablaze.

I think often of people who set the world ablaze with their expressions.  Organizers,  poets, composers, pastors or priests or popes, writers, philosophers, politicians, bloggers, and parents or teachers or mentors who let the truth of their stories and ideas flow freely and who influenced people or events or movements or generations with their expression are my heroes.  And even the writers of the super hero comics use creative expressions to offer us ideas of justice and peace and good. (Those are some of my favorite expressions.)  Any voice that counters the violence and injustice of the patriarchal heteronormative narrative that is so pervasive in our society and world at present is heroic and beautiful and good, in my opinion.  Because every incidence of counter-expression is a little nudge toward true freedom.  Every example of free expression fights against oppression and fascism and maintaining the status quo. And I am all about fighting against oppression and fascism and maintaining the status quo.

I think my childhood art expressed that fight, regardless of whether anyone understood such art.  The pictures were dark because my life was painful, and my voice was loud because I needed to be heard, and the raw me was too much because it expressed a difficult to bear narrative, and the stiff me was too guarded and kept because I recognized the way the raw me caused people to flee.  And the truth of my self and my story was locked behind closed doors for many years.

As my young self emerges, and as my art emerges, and as my story emerges, I am still met, at times, with judgments and shaming and rejections and people who would prefer all of it stay hidden.  But that doesn’t break me anymore.

My story and my expression and my art have become stronger than the voices of dissent and disagreement.

I have begun to see the excellence in my expression as expression.  I have begun to travel a road toward recognition of my right and my need to place my feelings on paper and to act them out with my body’s movements and to paint them on canvas and to craft them in various ways, and toward recognizing my desire and my intent and my action in doing so as excellent.

Just because you don’t fit in with the normative standard of the society doesn’t mean that you are not excellent.  It might mean that the normative standard of your society is shit!

So, to inspire you, and to affirm me, here is a list of excellence to get you thinking about your own excellent self and expressions:

The Excellence of Christy

  • Christy makes excellent soup
  • Christy has excellent toes—super cute ones
  • Christy is an excellent painter
  • Christy makes excellent baked goods
  • Christy is an excellent advocate for her own health and wellness
  • Christy decorates cakes with excellence
  • Christy finds excellent clearance sales to create a cheap but excellent wardrobe
  • Christy excels at writing well and beautifully
  • Christy is an excellent dancer
  • Christy excels at napping
  • Christy has excellent listening skills
  • Christy excels at showing compassion to others
  • Christy crafts excellent, diplomatic, and kind Facebook comment rebuttals
  • Christy is an excellent friend
  • Christy excels at talking on the phone for hours
  • Christy is excellent at finding value in objects others cast off
  • Christy excels at treating the marginalized like they are human
  • Christy navigates public transit (with one hand and two grocery bags) with excellence
  • Christy is an excellent researcher, teacher, and student
  • Christy gave birth to an excellent child and became an excellent parent
  • Christy excels at seeking assistance when shit gets difficult
  • Christy is excellent at getting others to rally around a cause she finds important
  • Christy has an excellent singing voice
  • Christy excels at inventing songs throughout her day, so it seems as though she lives in a musical
  • Christy excels at watching musicals
  • Christy excels at swallowing a handful of pills at one time
  • Christy performs Harry Potter quizzes with excellence
  • Christy draws excellent self-portraits
  • Christy is excellent at cleaning up after her dog, and at feeding him too many table scraps
  • Christy is excellent at not defining her sexuality
  • Christy excels in finding partners just slightly less neurotic than the last
  • Christy excels at learning tasks very quickly
  • Christy is excellent at pinning items she will never create to Pinterest
  • Christy excels at making lists about how excellent she is (Just kidding…that was actually kind of difficult, but a good exercise, nonetheless, and one I think you should also try—only about you, not me, of course, and then go out and express yourself in those excellent ways! I’m going to make some soup and take a nap.)