Tag Archives: creativity

A Recipe For Courage

I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.

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Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.

Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.

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Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?

Perhaps.

So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?

Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.

Journal Note Long Ago

Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody
who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man
or woman who is afraid.

I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts
enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must
not ask others to go.

I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon
whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough
to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.

The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.

This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.

My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.

When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.

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Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit—all these inspire me and give me courage.

My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.

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And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.

A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.

Courage.

My daily crime.

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Futility

I just made a note in my daily abbreviated journal that reads: “Don’t think. Just do it!” Yesterday was a day off, and I spent it feeling futile because of what I experience as financial limitations in every direction.

Interestingly, and hilariously, if I could only look at it from that angle, this day of futility was perfectly illustrated by a tiny wasp.

In this house we rescue most insects and put them back outside, even knowing they’re probably back in the house before we are. This is especially true for pollinators, and we believe this particular species of wasp is solitary and does help with pollination. The problem is that I have severe reactions to most insect venom, and a sting means a course of steroids and weeks of pain, swelling and itching.

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When I saw the wasp in my upstairs attic space, my partner came up and caught it and released it outside. Twenty minutes later, a tiny wasp buzzed by me, making for the window I sit next to as I write. We caught it and released it. Twenty minutes later … you get the picture.

I got a roll of duct tape and started putting tape around the window air conditioner unit I’m using, as well as around every widening gap and crack in the old window trim, and tears in the screen.

In spite of my efforts, every twenty minutes or so a single wasp came from the direction of the window with the AC unit in it and headed toward the other window. Was it the same determined wasp, or a different one? Impossible to tell. It was certainly the same species.

I found and taped a gap in the ceiling where the chimney from the wood stove below my workspace rises through the attic. After the next flyby, I noticed a wide gap between the bottom of an exterior wall and the floor. We thought maybe there was a nest in the wall (this has happened in the past with yellow jackets in that place). My partner found an old piece of trim in the barn and we blocked that gap.

A few minutes later, another little wasp appeared.

It was surreal. It was maddening. Given the day I was having inside my head, it was bitterly funny.

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It went on all day, as I spun my wheels and tried to get back on track and do some good writing, some submissions, draft this post—anything creatively productive. After the first three times, I caught the damn things (thing) myself. We released them (it) in different locations, thinking that might make a difference. I even tried shutting them (it) between the window and screen, at which point they (it) disappeared, either finding their (its) way out through the many gaps in the screen or coming back into the attic through cracks in the window frame.

You’re probably asking why we didn’t just kill them (it). When a stinging social insect is killed, it often releases a pheromone alerting the colony to defend itself. We were pretty sure this little creature was solitary, as we only saw one at a time, but if there is a nest in the wall and we killed the wasp inside the room, we didn’t want the whole colony boiling into my workspace.

Aside from that, we the people will not survive if we continue to wipe out all the pollinators.

It’s easy to take a life. I routinely smear mosquitoes and black flies with great glee, and we never meet a tick without taking its head off or drowning it in soapy water. I’m also not a fan of fleas, another ubiquitous little bloodsucker here in Maine that lives in the grass but is more than happy to relocate into the house via shoes, socks, pant legs and pets. We cherish our bat colony and our bug-eating birds, as well as the dragonflies and other creatures that help keep the insect population down.

That being said, these small stinging insects are not aggressive, nor are they looking for blood. They don’t carry disease, as far as we know. They do pollinate and many species help clean up rotting tissue and offal. I don’t hold my sensitivity to their venom against them, and they sting as self-defense, not for fun, the way a yellow jacket will. It just didn’t seem necessary to kill them. It.

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As the day ended, so did the flybys. I never did get going creatively. Some days are like that. I did some cleaning, some laundry, some reading, and went through an exercise routine. I thought about futility. I wondered what mysterious instinct was guiding those little wasps, or the one. How were they, or was it, getting in, and why did this seem like such a good place to be? Why the persistent action that took them (it) from the freedom of the summer world to buzz fruitlessly in an attic against a pane of glass?

Further, why do I myself so often feel sunk in futility? How do I step off into that mental morass, and how do I pull myself out of it? Dealing with the wasp(s) all day made visible the fruitlessness I occasionally feel internally. Hearing and seeing a wasp. Catching it with a plastic cup and a piece of cardboard. Going down the stairs and outside. Releasing it. Coming back up the stairs. Rinse and repeat every 20 minutes. There was something seductive about the inevitable futility of it all. Or do I mean the futile inevitability?

It seems to me I’m just as ineffective at times as that (or those) determined little insect(s), and just as mindlessly driven.

This morning I started by writing myself that note: “Don’t think. Just do it!” About twenty minutes into my submission process, a little wasp buzzed by me. I opened the window for it and trapped it between the closed window and the screen. Refusing to be distracted, I continued working. About twenty minutes later, a wasp flew by me, buzzed around the window for a couple of minutes, and then headed back towards the window with the AC in it. I stayed in my chair and went on working.

Sometime later I came to the surface, got up, and looked for the wasp(s). No sign of one, either trapped in the window or in the room. I have met my daily goal for submissions. It is not a day of futility. I hope the wasp(s) are on to better things as well. I still have no idea how they’re coming in. Or getting out.

Exploring futility. My daily crime.

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Responsibility

One of my favorite things about life is that changing one subtle thread in the pattern of our behavior and identity can change the whole picture in unexpected but beautiful ways. The overculture promises this if we buy the right product, but that’s a hollow promise. If we really want change, we have to work internally, which is messy, confusing work, often filled with anguish—much less sexy and fun than buying a new pair of shoes or trying a different hair color.

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As I navigate through the process of submitting my first book manuscript to agents and publishers, the necessity to write a strong and appropriate query letter, synopsis, autobiography and pitch has forced me to come further out of hiding than I ever have before.

While sitting on the lifeguard stand at work last week, it occurred to me that one word sums up the change spurred by my creative ambitions and rippling into all areas of my life.

Responsibility.

This is an amusing twist of irony because I have always been overly responsible about everyone and everything other than myself. I’ve believed myself responsible for the health and happiness of every person and animal around me since I was a child. When things become challenging or unpleasant, I’ve blamed myself. When accidents and misunderstandings occur, I’ve blamed myself. When others make self-destructive or boneheaded choices, I’ve blamed myself.

It goes without saying that I’ve certainly blamed myself for all my own real and imagined flaws, weaknesses, mistakes, blue eyes, wide hips, wild hair, cellulite and countless other things.

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Futility doesn’t begin to describe the kind of life this behavior creates.

The literary submission process was not the only catalyst prompting me to reverse my old pattern of taking on responsibility that doesn’t belong to me and ignoring that which does, but it’s certainly a big one.

I’ve been so uncomfortable with trying to present my creative work in a professional, objective, supportive, respectful manner that I haven’t had the time or attention to sit back and view the last two or three weeks with any kind of objectivity, but that particular hour of lifeguarding gave me the pause I needed to see the changing pattern of several different areas in my life.

In my primary relationship I’m gradually becoming more authentic and less concerned about taking responsibility for the needs, wants and preferences of my partner. He’s a grown man, intelligent and able to speak for and take care of himself. He’s also able to adapt, adjust and take his lumps like everyone else. It’s not my job in life to see to it that he (or anyone else) is never uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable all the time, and I manage to live through it.

Letting go of what I was never responsible for in the first place is an enormous relief, but the truth is I’ve always preferred caring for others to caring for myself. It’s not that I don’t know who I am and what I want. I’m not a bit confused about that. Since I came to Maine, I’ve learned to know and love myself.

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What keeps me caring for others rather than myself is the belief that I’m the only person who can love me. Choosing to be more open and real about my own needs, wants and preferences, even though they might conflict (and often do) with those around me, seems like a life-and-death risk. Even sitting here writing about It gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t want to be responsible for myself in this way.

I have a warm, gregarious, big-hearted friend who frequently invites me on activities and play dates of all kinds. At least half the time I say no. I cringe when I say it. I worry. I brace myself for the end of our friendship every time. But no is the honest answer—the real me. I’m a hermit. I like nothing so much as a quiet day or evening at home. My few social needs are well met, and I have no desire to be out and about in the world more than I already am. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty …

See? There it is again. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty, as do I, and that means I must take responsibility for my truths: knowing them, speaking them, and accepting that others will inevitably be affected by them.

I don’t want the responsibility of making anyone uncomfortable or unhappy. Ever. Under any circumstances. (Well, unless I’m really pissed off, like when the fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy at the pool announced during an exercise class that people with tattoos don’t have jobs and he wouldn’t have any such person in his house. Note: I have a tattoo on my left shoulder that’s quite obvious in my bathing suit, which is my work attire (you know, for my job), and I was present at the time. Also, two of my colleagues have tattoos, clearly visible in their bathing suits, not to mention many of our patrons. Fortunately, I’m able to be professional and keep my obnoxious opinions to myself in public.)

One of the greatest gifts of my current relationships is how often I’m forced to be authentic and speak my truth, trusting that those I interact with are adults who can deal with their feelings about my choices (I’m talking to you, fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy), just as I deal with my feelings about theirs. If others are not adults and refuse to take responsibility for their own feelings, well that’s not really about me at all, and those are not the kind of relationships I’m available for.

Suddenly, everywhere I look, I’m watching myself openly say yes or no, ask for what I want and/or need, state my feelings and preferences without apology or justification, and present my creative work with pride, love and belief in its value.

When I reread this, I smile. It sounds so smooth! It’s not, though. I feel a lot of anxiety as I come out from under cover. Challenging these old patterns gives me a greasy feeling of imminent doom. How can I expect anyone to love or even tolerate me if I insist on being a real person with needs and preferences? How can I admit openly what I think, feel, need and create?

No, it’s not smooth. It’s terrifying and exhausting.

It’s also exhilarating and freeing. Life is a lot easier when I give up taking care of anyone but myself. One of the great gifts of aging has been my gradual journey from a people-pleasing shell to sensual creativity, warty wisdom and vigorous connection to my own power and intuition.

Responsibility for myself. My daily crime.

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