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!

Wealth

I won $25 in the form of an Amazon gift code.  I feel rich.

Just kidding.  I am still super poor, but I wanted to make the point here that most people could lose $25 and not be terribly upset by the loss, while for me it feels like frigging Christmas wrapped in the lottery to gain $25.

Wealth is both relative and not relative.  I have far more than someone living in a hut in the jungle in South America, perhaps, monetarily speaking.  But I also have far less than most people living in North America, monetarily speaking.  So that makes it relative in nature.  But there are really easily applied formulas for figuring out what it costs to live in a particular place, and being from North America, and having no income, I rest way down at the very bottom of the poverty scale.  There isn’t anything relative about that.  I can’t be considered wealthy based on the conditions in which I live. And, frankly, I can’t afford to move to a hut in South America either, so I am stuck within those conditions, and my situation would likely not change were I to live elsewhere in the United States. (Canada is a whole other, and I dare say better, story than here. But I don’t think they give you a visa to utilize better social programs.  They probably prefer people emigrate with useful skills, not disability status.)

So, if we understand that I am stuck where I am physically and financially, we can also understand that I don’t have monetary wealth.  And that presents challenges that I often never considered.

There was a commercial on today for ADT security service that said something along the lines of “even in your nice neighborhood”.  And I was taken aback as a person whose neighborhood would rarely, if ever, be considered nice.  Are they specifically marketing to people in “nice” neighborhoods?  What defines nice?  Who thinks that bad things can’t happen in their neighborhood, even if it fits the criteria set forth for one that is nice?  And aren’t there enough neighborhoods that are not meeting the nice criteria for ADT to make plenty of money?  I know my building has an alarm system on every floor, even though there are no less than four deadbolts between the street and my apartment from any entrance. And it began to sink in that what nice means is a neighborhood with wealth.

Wealth, with regard to neighborhood safety, is also relative and not relative.  There are far more shootings in the south side and west side neighborhoods of Chicago than in other areas, and these neighborhoods are also those that have the most poor households. (We will ignore for the moment that they also have the most people of color—or, rather, are composed almost solely of people of color.) It would seem that money equates with safety.  But when we look closer, and assess types of crime, there are far fewer home invasions in my area on the west side than in wealthier areas.  Nobody wants my not techie, super-old, very cheap electronics, or my Salvation Army furniture.  I’m relatively safe, in that regard.  I’m also relatively safe because my block is filled with families who own their homes and take pride in being good, Christian people, so they either don’t participate in criminal activity, or do so quietly and without drama and violence.  (The neighbor lady sits out back and smokes weed every nice evening, for instance, but she isn’t dealing in heroin and guns.)  So, being impoverished doesn’t necessarily mean you are unsafe, in a relative sense.  But, there is also the issue of extreme poverty—the kind that leads to homelessness, prostitution, hunger, and the like.  This poverty makes you very unsafe.  Have you ever wondered why many homeless sleep in public parks during the day?  It is because sleeping alone in the dark corners of the city is very dangerous, especially for women or children.  The elements are dangerous.  The alternate economies, like selling drugs or your body, are dangerous.  There is no safety in extreme poverty.  This is not relative.  It is simply the truth.

And lately I sit on the precipice of this extreme sort of poverty.

I’ve learned to live in the burden of the relative poverty and the relative safety without too much difficulty.  There were a few years between an innocent youth and aware adult that included sex and drugs and homelessness, and that I do not regret, because it taught me the truth.  It made me know, beyond any uncertainty, that extreme poverty should never be, because you cannot be in it without being in constant danger.  I was in constant danger during those years.  Those years broke me, and started the process of rebuilding me anew.

What I lived then, I never wanted another human being to experience.  I never wanted another human being to choose sex with a stranger over possibly freezing to death in the car.  I never wanted another human being to steal tampons or soap from Walmart, because there wasn’t another way to get them.  I never wanted another human being to learn the schedule upon which the McDonald’s dumpster received uneaten burgers from the previous shift, still slightly warm and wrapped in their lovely papers inside that plastic garbage bag, and ready for consumption.  I never wanted another human being to sleep with an aerosol hairspray and a lighter at the ready, to create an instant blow torch to the face of any who might attack in the night.  Nobody should ever live that way.

I moved from the extreme poverty to the relative poverty category when I had a child.  Then you got all the wealth–$361 of wealth every month!  It was like a heaven.  A heaven where you had to decide between socks and diapers, or medicine and transportation, or tampons and toilet paper.  A heaven where I would unroll all the toilet paper from the church bathroom stall into my purse every Sunday.  A heaven where my daughter missed the 1st grade class trip because I couldn’t come up with $6.  A heaven where I cried myself to sleep at midnight and then got up at five in the morning to do my own homework before I had to wake my daughter for school.

That heaven, sadly, is gone.  I’m no longer eligible for more student loans, and I haven’t qualified for TANF since my daughter was five, and while I do get food stamps and a housing voucher, I don’t get any other assistance.  My light bill and my gas bill and my phone bill and my medications not covered by insurance and my clothes and my toilet paper and a haircut and soap and laundry detergent and whatever else I need, that comes from nowhere.  I’ve maxed out my credit cards and borrowed all that I was able from family, and now there is nothing.  Now it is over.  Now I stare at that space between here and sleeping with aerosol and lighters, and I see it narrowing, and I am afraid.  Can I survive on the street now?  No.  I wouldn’t make it a week out in the elements.  Would it come to that?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that nobody on this planet, and certainly nobody in the United States, should see $25 as wealth when others wouldn’t notice if it went missing.

When I was younger, I had these friends who would take checks out of their mom’s checkbook and forge her signature and go out to eat and such.  They would take my relative poverty butt along for the ride.  I don’t think their mom ever noticed that they were essentially stealing her money, or she, at least, didn’t care and simply allowed them to continue the practice.  Either way, it was a huge departure from the way I lived.  I could not imagine a world where every penny was accounted for in the budget weeks before any income was expected.  I could not imagine a world where money could just leave your bank account without you freaking the fuck out and tracking down the evil person who took it.  I could not imagine wealth.

I still can’t.

I have friends who I would consider wealthy, and relatives that I would consider wealthy, so I see wealth and have been close to wealth, but my own mind doesn’t know wealth.  It only knows scarcity.  And when you only know scarcity, it is extremely difficult to comprehend or imagine wealth.

I do strange things out of scarcity and the fear of scarcity.  I save bottles of product that are clearly empty, just in case I can somehow get more out, by pressing on the pump a thousand times, or turning it upside down and banging it on a hard surface, or by adding some water to dilute the product and potentially get at least partial benefit from the watery substance that is left.  I keep clothes with holes and things that don’t fit, just in case there is never a way to replace what is in my closet with something else.  I imagine everything needs to be saved and kept, albeit neatly, in the closet.  I accept things from others that I would never choose for myself.  I always take home leftovers, even if I didn’t like the food the first time and know I won’t eat them.  It just seems like I always need to be prepared for a period where I am destitute.  That day seems moments away.  Always.

The stress on my body and mind from believing in this destitute day and my needed readiness must be outrageous.  It is no wonder that people in poverty have shorter life spans.  Stress alone is killing us, never mind exposure or illness or starvation or infection or assault.

I should feel wealth, and not scarcity.  We all should feel wealth and not scarcity.

The other day on the bus I recognized a voice.  It was a man I had spent some time talking with on the bus a year or so ago.  I remembered this interaction vividly, because he was a pianist and a piano teacher, and also homeless.  My mother was a piano teacher and a pianist, so we connected on that topic and he began telling me all sorts of stories about his days as a professional musician.  He traveled to places exotic and new and he performed in all sorts of famous or glamorous or beautiful venues, but people gawked and made scowling faces as I spoke with him about his wealth of experience, because it was obvious that he now had no monetary wealth to speak of.  I heard him telling a woman next to him that he was a piano teacher, and immediately was taken back to the memory of him and our lovely conversation.  I looked over, and I hardly recognized him.  He had the same glasses and the same torn pants, he still had a jacket too light for the weather and curly blonde/gray hair sticking out in all directions, but he had lost maybe 70 pounds and he looked gaunt and ashen about the face, instead of plump and rosy as he had been the day I first met him.  Tears formed in the corners of my eyes and I looked away, putting on my headphones and immersing myself in something other than the empty feeling in my gut.  He had slipped down the slope into extreme poverty.  He is dying.  Slowly, but with certainty, he is dying.  And he reminded me once more of my mother, and the frailty she showed as her body slipped into death.  All the wealth this man possessed was leaving him.  But it should not have been.  That history, that life, that wealth of experience should have been valued and respected and honored.  It wasn’t, because he was poor and homeless.

I deserve to feel my own wealth, for once.  I should be allowed to feel the wealth of knowledge and intellect I possess, and the giftedness of an artist and a writer and a poet, and the depth and the breadth of a life lived with fire and passion and play and purpose.  I rarely feel that wealth.  I never feel that wealth without doing so deliberately.  Because the poverty pushes out all else.  The monetary scarcity—the lack of financial resources—overwhelms any other wealth that we might possess, and leaves us bathed in insecurities and unable to promote our strength.  It strips us of the goodness and leaves us only the worries of never having—never being—enough.

So, today I won $25.  And all of this came out of that little Amazon gift card.  All of this was the result of that one moment, when I declared that I am rich, even when I know that I am clinging to relative poverty with every cell in my body right now.  Even though I know it is a lie.  Even though I believe in scarcity, when I wish beyond all telling that I could trust in abundance.  I don’t.  I don’t know abundance anymore.  Maybe I never did.  And maybe I will go the way of my pianist friend, slowly losing life to homelessness and hunger once more, or maybe I will go the way of others, and win the lottery or write a best-seller or start a business and have millions to spend.  But, somehow, I think that I might always be stuck in this pattern of thinking, no matter which way I go.  Because being poor has become a part of me, and fighting to survive is the only fight I know, and scarcity has been my reality for so long that I don’t know that I could ever believe that it won’t be stripped from me, and that my true, scarce self will be exposed for all to see.

I find that really sad and terrible.  And I do not have a beautiful expression with which to leave you, and a happy ending to this post.  Because this is me thinking aloud and finding the truth in my own post, not me solving the problem to make you feel better.  And, maybe you are a person who would benefit from sitting in this space with me, and acknowledging that the solution isn’t evident.  Maybe sitting in my scarcity will help you see your own abundance, or maybe sitting in my scarcity will give you comfort that you are not the only one, or maybe sitting in my scarcity will inspire you to become passionate about sharing abundance and honoring wealth not monetary in nature.  I don’t know.

All I can say for certain right now is that I am really excited to spend my $25.  Now, should I buy socks or medicine?