Then, as an adult, a burbling desire to make something began to nag me. I eagerly bought blank shadow boxes and watercolor pencils -- but after playing with these once or twice, I stuck them on the shelf. The pottery class I tried also ended in disappointment. Seven weeks' effort resulted in just one small bowl. I felt doomed.
Things changed recently, though, when I facilitated a self-care retreat in which artist and creative life coach Noelle Remington led a collaging workshop that helped illuminate our inner worlds. Imagine my surprise when I found myself completely engrossed in a luscious morning of creative play -- and, even more stunning, satisfied with what I made. My newfound curiosity continued at a Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreat that involved art, again for the sake of self-expression. Then a minor miracle: One Sunday I found myself creating an assemblage in one of those shadow boxes I had bought years before. It seemed that certain synapses in my brain and soul had finally connected.
As my interest in art deepened, I noticed that I wasn't alone. Many of the women in my life were in the midst of rediscovering their creative sides, too. Elizabeth had started sketching a mandala every morning. Josie followed an urge to take ecstatic dance classes. Lain knitted, collaged, and scrapbooked. Suzie started piano lessons after a 20-year hiatus. Lu Wi rediscovered sewing. Everyone talked about their experiences with the same tone of awe and confusion: Why now, when I've never been busier? Why painting or singing when I ruled it out years ago? Why am I so obsessed with something so impractical?
The answers tend to run counter to the mind-set that drives our daily aspirations. We need these creative adventures that are not marketable, not ambitious, not linked to recognition. We do them for the sake of exhilaration, for the sake of feeling alive, for the sake of love. These tender, often awkward and scary forays into play allow us to thumb our noses at the modern inclination to produce and be efficient. We declare, "I am doing this only because it feeds me." As therapist and author Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., explains, "Women often return to the things they abandoned in pursuit of fame, likability, or recognition. From the get-go, these activities are not about exterior measurements."
Like a spiritual retreat, creative play opens us to fresh energy and wider, richer ways of knowing as it brings purpose and direction to our lives. When we experience something not for any gain or planned outcome but for the love of the process, we live life at its most mysterious and lusty -- the very qualities that often get squeezed out of our busy schedules. To guide you on your creative journey, I've shared a few ground rules that have helped me. Use them to create a life that reflects a mature, potent, and soul-satisfying blend of desire -- rather than accomplishments alone.
What do you yearn to experience, to express? If you knew you couldn't "fail," what would you create? Write for 10 minutes on this question, keeping your hand moving. Read over your responses and see if you find any clues. Seek additional insight by thinking about what shops you tend to (or yearn to) visit, such as a bead emporium, a photography gallery, or a knitting store. What do you always say you can't do or don't have the time for? What art and craft supplies have you relegated to the back of your closet? Your pursuit of passionate play can begin here.
An intimate link exists between mystery and passion. In that alchemy, the creative juice flows. You might not immediately know how to play again, like you did as a child. So just try to do something -- anything -- regardless of outcome. "Creativity involves being willing to show up and take what you get," explains artist, author, and workshop instructor Lynne Perrella. In the beginning, you might find it helpful to find a forum that guides your play, such as a workshop or a class. However you enter the process, though, if it's been a while since you last followed your muse, don't rush the process. Expect that things will need to take time.
Don't be surprised if the push to produce returns after you've made a successful foray into play. Lain Ehmann, a business writer and mother of three, negotiates this feeling frequently. "My desire to create is often eclipsed by the feeling that I should be doing something productive," she says. "It helps if I create safe boundaries and have a purpose." Rather than telling herself, "Now I'm going to play," she'll commit to something specific (making greeting cards, for instance) or doing a project a week. Then, within that structure, anything goes. Perrella views creating as a very intimate act that can make you feel fragile. "In the end, you may not have anything to show for your efforts," she says. So it's no surprise that doubt can creep back in.
The cure for the be-productive blues lies in knowing that waxing and waning are perfectly normal. It's just that your productive side gets nervous. In a journal, note the changes that happen in your life when you are creating. This will give you a reason to keep going.
Keep It Personal
When I mentioned to a colleague that I was working on a collage, she asked, "Do you ever sell your work?" After I finished guffawing, I felt a familiar feeling prickling me: ambition. For one terrible moment, a fantasy of becoming a "real" artist spun through my imagination. But to feed me, my art exploration must stay nonessential and agendaless. The magic happens only when I suspend my efficient, work-mode mentality. It isn't that I can't learn, deepen, or share my art, but I need to keep it deeply personal and completely detached from an outcome for it to stay genuine.
It's normal to want to grow in knowledge and ability. And who doesn't like a pat on the back for her efforts? But this runs counter to the influence of creative play. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from the pottery painters of ancient Greece, who rarely signed their work. Rather, they thought of themselves as agents of the gods, anonymous and egoless. When we surrender in a similar way, we attain what can never be measured. Then the true play begins.
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