My sweet summer bliss of jumping off of furniture with my two year old to “Guns and Ships”
came crashing down this week in a frenzy of work emails, video calls, urgent online trainings, mandatory COVID testing, and same day notifications of in-person meetings. I’m a teacher, and I’m going back to work next week. While going back to school after jumping off of ottomans for three months is always hard, it’s been especially hard this year because of all the new, confusing, very intense pandemic regulations and the looming, gray memory of the horrible online teaching experience last spring. Between that and taking care of my very buoyant son, free time has been sparse.
A very full schedule is not unique to me, obviously. Everyone around me seems to have these great expanses of time before them that the calendar suddenly crunches down on to stamp out more seconds than the week can bear.
In weeks like these, how do you keep moving forward with your art and creative quest?
I used to just abandon artistic pursuits as nonessential in a demanding week, but that week rolled into weeks, which rolled into years, and a decade later I’m still trying to get my novel off the ground. Nonessential became nonexistent. I’m bad at this, but in the past eight months I’ve had more success than I have had in eight years, so here are some fairly recent ruminations. While difficult, frenetic demands of your time can actually be an opportunity to reframe how you approach your work, for the better.
1. We are fundamentally not artists. I am an artist, but that is not foundation of who I am. It is maybe a hulking and impressive stone on top of my foundation, but it can’t bear the weight of the building. A person is of value, worthy of love and dignity, even if he/she never creates and expands to his/her full potential. Our identity cannot be rooted in our artistic performance: the work is not mean to bear the weight of self-worth. I am human before I am a woman, human before mother, and human before writer. When secondary things become first things, the secondary things warp from the pressure into a fractured form of what they were intended to be.
If I’m a mom before I’m a person, it dehumanizes motherhood and puts such a pressure on my son’s performance and well-being that it crushes the joy out of him and me. If I’m a human before a writer, I don’t come to the work with expectations it was never supposed to give me. I am loved by God and given my sense of worth and purpose in that relationship before anything else.
How does this fit with the busy weeks? I can take that rest and security to the secondary parts of me. Re-rooting my identity as a child of God frees me to play without the critic and be vulnerable without the calculations of risk. If work is asking me to perform, remembering that my art is not a self-justification but a self-outpouring gives those moments of work meaning, even if there aren’t enough moments to produce what I want. I have often been afraid of taking my identity away from my work for fear that I won’t produce my best without that pressure. However, the best work doesn’t come from ego, but setting a work free from ego to be its true self.
2. Cultivate the small, mundane tasks that fit into the busy schedule. Even if it’s not significant work, momentum is important. When I’m pulling weeds, I look at the tiny green leaves delicately poking their heads into forbidden flower territory, and I wish there were of course fewer. I would rather have a few very difficult weeds, that took as much time to pull as the multitudes gentle grasping vines. The hundred easy tugs of de-weeding just doesn’t seem like worthwhile work. I want something that I can clearly see the results and have the sense of accomplishment in. But, in pulling a small bucket-worth of weeds each day with my son (I’m very excited that this is a chore he will do with me), there is a steady movement towards goals, and keeping that momentum in the busy times is more important than having any sort of breakthrough or triumph. Establishing the habit as sustainable is more effective than dramatic gestures. In my marriage, the dramatic gestures of forgiveness and love have come easier to me—these have the sparkle of greatness in them—than the small, steady tasks of little forgiveness and little acts of love in the everyday. The small care doesn’t have the shimmer of glory, but it has the power of humility, and often that’s where the best love and art work come from.
Tim Keller writes in his sermon The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness that “The truly gospel-humble person is a self-forgetful person whose ego is just like his or her toes. It just works. It does not draw attention to itself. The toes just work; the ego just works. Neither draws attention to itself.” When we approach our art with humility, not looking at it to glorify us, we can do the work we’re really meant to. Sometimes that means reflecting on where our fundamental identity is before coming to our art. Sometimes that means doing the small, little tasks. Both of these make for better work.
There are always going to be busy seasons, and while you might not always be in control of the calendar, embracing the mundane tasks and not placing the crushing weight of self-worth makes art not just possible, but thriving.
As I return to teaching, I have been thinking of one of my favorite works to teach: Macbeth. Macbeth’s struggle with his o’er vaulting ambition, the cruel constructions of gender his wife presents, and the supernatural manipulation, complex characters, and, of course, the language make it a great teaching experience. Also, it has quite enough blood and revenge in it to keep the numbest of students awake. In Act V, when Macbeth’s cruel self-promotion and quest for self is starting to fall apart, he gives his famous soliloquy, stating his inability to articulate grief.
There would be time for such a word,
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
A life in pursuit of self-promotion is a shadow of a life, signifying nothing. As the petty pace of tasks exact from you day after day, take heart that creating art doesn’t have to be o’er vaulting ambition, but can be a self-transcending work, and there is time for such work in the humble and the mundane.