Author Anaïs Nin said: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” and “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
Today I want to say this. This woman totally rocked. With just these two sentences—one about the power of the individual and one about the power of community—she changed my world. She changed me by saying something that I didn’t know—or that I’d lost along the way—and by inviting me to remember how amazing we humans can be.
As writers, we worry about all sorts of strange things. We worry about not having enough time to write and that we’re spending far too much time on our writing. We worry about internal and external critics and national and family politics. We worry about our own over-education and also our own remarkable cluelessness in any given moment. We worry about the state of our planet, country, neighborhood, and desk. We worry about how prolific we are on any given day and month and year. Some days I think this makes us unique. Most days I suspect this just makes us human.
Today I want to say this.
It’s not the worry that lasts. (And I expect Anaïs Nin—who once wrote erotica for $1/page so she could afford to eat—would agree with me.)
What lasts is this.
We change the world.
We change the world with just two sentences. We change things as both a lens on the world and as friends and neighbors within it. I think that totally rocks.
We are more powerful than we can remember alone. How cool is that?
I was 23 when my first cat found me. She leapt out of a holiday box — a gift from a boyfriend — promptly jumped into my largest house plant, and pooped. We named her Winnie the Poo, Winnie for short. Two years later (different house, different boyfriend, different house plants, same cat), I noticed something else. House cats are their own special kind of completely bizarre. They do all the same things as outdoor cats: stalking, hunting, chasing, pouncing, lounging, and playing, for example. But why they do these things requires new imagination on the part of their humans.
Winnie’s favorite hunting grounds were beneath the kitchen table and chairs. She’d bat a toy mouse into the kitchen across the slick floor and spend an hour peeking around the corner watching it, tail tip just barely fluttering: a distraction intended to lull the toy mouse into thinking the movement was nothing more than a tiny fly. Nothing to fear here. Nothing to fear here. Nothing to fear here, gentle mouse. Go about your toy-mouse business entirely unaware of the giant goofball predator planning to pounce on and embrace you. Sometimes she’d back up slowly and come around through the living room into the kitchen from the other entrance: to throw off the toy mouse entirely. Sometimes she’d jump onto a chair seat and stalk the mouse from above.
Often she’d advance quickly, slide in on her belly like a home base-stealing baseball player, with paws outstretched: the elusive mouse just out of reach on the other side of the table legs. Some days she’d never get around to capturing it at all. Other days, after she captured it, she’d celebrate by dancing and then bat it out of her own reach. And start again.
Lori learns a lesson
Winnie taught me that most of what was happening in her life was within her own imagination. House cats have amazing imaginations. And right along with amazing imaginations, most days, come made up problems…
Living in progressive and brainy Seattle, for years the primary lesson I took from Winnie was one of the dangers of privilege. Those of us who lucked into having plenty in this life, and even many who managed to work their butts off for plenty, having achieved it, can fall victim to spending a lot of time worrying about small things that don’t really matter in the long term. We can become indoor kitties: seeing table legs as insurmountable obstacles, toy mice as fierce opponents, and become out of touch with the real, or most difficult, problems of the world. Early on, I even managed to convey this idea to my husband somehow. Because for many years, when one of us got irrationally freaked out over something small, or we had a neighbor irrationally worried about, say, his fence line behind an old garage where nobody ever went, or a family member freaking out about, say, a small wardrobe decision, we’d look at each other and telepathically think “indoor kitty problem.” Extremely useful to an observer self. And extremely arrogant toward the observed. Not remotely helpful to the “irrational” people experiencing the problem, except, perhaps, as a shining example of how not to be helpful to anyone except your individual self.
Lori re-learns a lesson
I’m older now and lucky to say that six cats have opted to spend their lives with us. We live with Bella, Joey Big Paws, and Batman now (rest in peace, Winnie, Gus, and Bonzai). Lately I’ve been revisiting my early assumptions about Winnie and all the house cats who’ve followed her into my life since. If I’ve learned nothing else, here at 45 I’ve learned that I’m a person who has to listen to at least six cats to have a clue what I’m talking about.
I now strongly suspect that cats really don’t give a rat’s ass about the abstract concept of privilege. I suspect that cats don’t give a rat’s ass about most abstract concepts, or teaching life lessons to spectators most days, at all, either. They’d prefer an actual rat’s ass, thank you very much. Cats don’t teach abstract lessons to outside observers about what not to do: that would be inefficient and cats cannot be inefficient. Cats demonstrate what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. Whether anyone happens to be watching or not. Just in their being. I also now strongly suspect that it is me, not progressive and brainy Seattle, that can tip into arrogance when not paying close enough attention. So I’ve been paying closer attention…
Small things do matter.
Small moments. Small worries. Even entirely imagined problems matter deeply.
Life is lived and learned deeply in the smallest of moments.
And viva la irrational! Dear God how I love us unceasingly irrational, imperfect earthlings!
10 tips about something, I forget just what now
When a cat is walking determinedly somewhere, then encounters a sunbeam, changes her plans on the spot, and curls up to lounge and nap, that is a direct invitation into deep living to a watching human.
Don’t think about it. Try it yourself. Stop for that sunbeam. Curl up in that sunbeam. Being careful not to shade said cat. Sunbeams are a gift to be savored.
When a cat attempts a leap to the top of the tallest bookcase, or the peak of the roof, misses entirely, flails momentarily yet lands on his feet, on the ground, with surprising grace and self assurance, that is a direct invitation to try leaping and falling to learn about things like gravity, self-centering, and grace. Leaping and falling repeatedly are gifts too, for those interested in learning about grace, gravity, and the abilities of their own bodies and feet and egos.
When someone shows up to play with you, don’t think about it. Play. Play is a gift too.
Most of what is happening in my life is within my/our shared imagination. We have an amazing imagination. And right along with amazing imagination comes made up problems that actually deeply matter, whether we know it at the time or not. Problems are imagination stretching exercises coming entirely from within. Or, if you prefer, one imagination trick I enjoy is stretching my “outside” out around the problem, until it is, in fact, within me. Yep, I love this one: no matter what words we use.
Whether we find ourselves lost among kitchen table legs, alone in the jungle and listened to by no one, or living on a very pissed-off planet dripping with busy humans and insurmountable problems, deep learning and living are available as options every single small moment. With every breath. Try learning something new from everyone touched by you and everything you touch. Then try not to. Curl up in a sunbeam. Play with your own toy mice. Watch and listen even more closely. Revisit assumptions again and again and again. Allow ample time for embracing all parts of yourself. Leap and fall repeatedly to learn gravity, self-centering, and grace. Dance with aplomb. Bring back into fashion words you deeply love: also with aplomb. Know that your very being demonstrates the world you want. So lounge as if you yourself were put here to hold up sunbeams. Plans are good: play is better. Most days. Name yourself. Demonstrate what your true name is, again and again, until you could not possibly be called anything else. Then re-name yourself and start again. Later–when all the power of the world is in the palm of your hand–play with being named by others, like my friend Bernie, game designer, play guru, and CIH (chief imagination hippopotamus) of my life.
And never, ever forget to laugh at “I am just….” I am just a toy mouse, a house cat behind a table leg, and a woman watching their story unfold: three of the most important things in the universe at the moment.
The point. For me, sustained creation appears to be the result of having self-chosen routine. I allow my life to revolve around two routines: an individual, somewhat orderly routine and a collective, chaotic routine, both of which I myself choose each day:
- An individual routine is a sequence of actions that I regularly follow. I choose to do this for myself, and it is somewhat controllable by me. I stick with it without much outside help. It is even easy when I drop my I Shoulds (which come from elsewhere, not me). For me, this is my routine as a poet and writer.
- A collective routine is one that your larger self creates for you. A collective routine is not controllable by an individual and is chaotic by nature. Many days I feel like I don’t want this one. Some days I feel like I didn’t chose it, and it’s way too hard. However, by staying with it each day I am, in fact, choosing it, too. I choose this piece of chaos. For me, this is my routine as part of a family caregiving team centered around my parents. My mom Linda has been living with Alzheimer’s disease for 9 years. My dad Jim has been primary caregiver those years, and his health and well-being has begun to suffer as well. Team Jinda (those of us supporting them, and ourselves, in the process) is my collective center. My chaotic routine.
I create constantly now and with little worry about what I’ll create next. I suspect it’s because I have self-chosen routine. I have found, named, and accepted these routines. I create one and choose the other. I honor both. I love both. I do both. Even when they frustrate the holy crap out of me.
Meandering to it
Writers and caregivers (and, I strongly suspect, most artists and creatives, including parents) seem to have a different relationship with chaos and routine than other humans. We may not always love routine, but at some point in our process we recognize that we deeply need it. We may not always love chaos either, but we eventually learn, usually after some kicking and screaming about it, that we are well served by chaos, too.
I prefer the original definition of chaos (vast chasm, void) to the common modern definition (complete disarray, disorder, confusion). But whichever way you define it, chaos teaches that we are not in control of everything, which leads to letting go, which helps us embrace/get past our petty side, which leads to lightening up, which pulls similarly lightening-up and getting-over-it friends to us like magnets. Together we laugh and cry more often than before. Similarly lightening-up friends + laughter + crying more often allow us to find even more beauty in life on good days. They help make our worst days bearable.
Our individual and collective self-chosen routines help us maintain the frame of being we need to make friends with chaos and order. These routines create a doorway, or a connection point, for little me to connect with the infinite. A way to approach the vast unknown regularly, willingly, and humbly. Together, they keep that door open.
As a writer I have a writing-centric routine that I can control, a little bit. As a caregiver I have a parent-centric routine that I have very little control over. Yet I can enjoy it, too, thanks to other members of Team Jinda. Thanks to both routines–one I can control a bit and one I have given up trying to control anymore–these days, most days, I experience chaos as an enormous, unfathomable artist’s palette, smeared with paints that are mixable by unending beings in unending combination.
That’s right. You heard me. One controllable self-chosen routine + one uncontrollable collective self-chosen routine with deeply loved others as partners in crime = one very fluid and non-stop creative Lori who drips creativity as she moves most days. Today, when I look at those massive photographic images of space that capture multiple galaxies spinning at once, I see a dancing ocean of artists’ palettes, each galaxy swirling itself around a center hole into which I am certain a distant artist puts her thumb to hold on for the ride.
I’m regularly asked “Don’t you worry that you’ll run out of things to write about?” and “How to you keep coming up with new things to say?” On the flip side, I also get asked questions like “How do you stay so focused?” or “Out of everything you could possibly write poetry/essays/books about, how do you decide what to do next?” It occurs to me that my answer to all these questions is the same. I don’t worry about it much. Because I have an individual writing-centric routine and a chaotic, collective caregiving routine. Both of which I love. Both of which are really hard and really easy. Both of which I chose again each new day. They keep me on track. They push me off it.
Together these routines usually allow me to find beauty in chaos. Some days that means standing in the center of hell, burning and raging, because the pain is so deep that rage and screaming is warranted. Routine is often misunderstood I think. Self-chosen routine isn’t for the timid. And it isn’t about taming or controlling chaos either. It isn’t ultimately about constraint at all. Routine is about giving myself enough time, and coming to understand myself enough, that I know how to open my eyes to what is. Know how to move myself into a state of being that is me again: conscious, aware, and able to recognize beauty in everything. The beauty of chaos when I’m in the state to see it is tough to capture with words alone. The closest word I can think of is “Wheee!” combined with that excited, empty-pit-of-stomach feeling we get when leaping from a great height while fairly certain that we’ll land safely.
So back to sustained creation…
It’s because of my connection to unending beauty that I don’t fear running out of things to write, ideas to try, things to say, ways to be, people to know, friends to make, options to see, perspectives to consider, work to do, and so on. Within unfathomable chaos is unending abundance. And I regularly stand in chaos. When connected to unending abundance, I also don’t fear looking stupid, because I know the very next moment I could look like a total genius. Looking stupid is no big thing when anything is possible the next moment.
Self-chosen routine also gives me the limits I need to find focus, know when I need to re-create something (I recreated this very article in January 2015: I first wrote it in April 2014 but it wasn’t finished), or create something new and finished for now.
I can hear the loving voices of my mountain of social justice-centered friends in my head. They tell me that not everybody has access to self-chosen routine. That to have it is a privilege. I hear you and believe you. My perspective is that everybody has access to self-chosen routine because for me access to the infinite comes from within. I watch as Viktor Frankl walks out of a Nazi concentration camp with a self-chosen faith in humanity. His parents, his wife, his brother all tortured to death at the hands of their captors. Even with all apparent power in the world, they couldn’t take away what he chose for himself.
I think there’s great power in deciding to see both your individual routine and your chaotic collective routine as chosen by you (little you and larger you). No matter what the world is doing around you. Because I see them both as chosen by me, I’m the one who gets to make changes at will. I’m not stuck waiting on somebody else. It helps me imagine them as a temporary structure that allows chaos to show up for me today in personally receivable chunks. It increases the chances that I’ll notice beauty. And the likelihood of me raising my voice and calling “Bullshit” when I don’t. I think of self-chosen routine as the tap on the faucet and one place that I can reliably go for water. Not that I experience self-chosen routine as easy for humans. It takes a lot of selves, pulling together, to make self-chosen routine possible for me here in Lori Land.
Without self-chosen routine, I get stuck in the mud of chaos. It makes me feel like a tiny helpless trapped creature. To the point that the idea of connecting to unending beauty sounds like a pipe dream, a fantasy, or a ridiculous and cruel joke. And the idea of being a really good poet, writer, and caregiver in this messed-up world can feel like both an up-hill battle and a completely lost cause.
In our family, there has been discussion this year about what makes somebody an artist. The artist men in my life have practically come to blows on the subject, which has made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. I imagine our cats thinking “Artist fight!” Men. God love’m. As if it was important to agree.
For me, being an artist has to do with what we value. Fishermen value fish and fishing and the culture of fishing. Farmers value the earth, the weather, farming, food, and the farming culture. Artists value creation, and human creation, in all its guises, and we’re drawn to people who like to talk about humans and animals as creators. Those recognized by others as artists dedicate themselves to their creations and their individual routine, at least, reflects that. But to recognize ourselves as artists is something else. It requires dedication to our chaotic collective routine. To our larger self. Our individual routine revolves around creation to the extent it can–that pushes open our tiny doorway to infinity and then closes it. The choice to prioritize your own collective chaotic routine keeps the doorway open.
To have sustained creation in my life, I needed sustained access to the infinite.
Tapping into the infinite may feel like magic some days, but sustained creation isn’t a trick. And it doesn’t feel like a talent or a strength or a privilege most days, either. Sustained creation is about valuing creation, and your part in it, so much that you prioritize creation and co-creation regularly, despite the odds and with your individual fears along for the ride. Sustained creation is about prioritizing what you love to create (even as that shifts) and who you love (even as that shifts) and allowing or asking others to do the same.
The act of recognizing, naming, and owning both my individual routine and my collective routine has allowed creation itself to become my routine, while being supported by, and supporting others doing the same. It’s been about learning to let go and move on to the next thing when a voice from my own doorway says “Done. At least for now.” And about learning to never give up on the humans and the work I love most—even when they’re impossible. Simple, right?
This post is dedicated to my new friend Joey Gray, who told me upon our very first meeting this week that, at age 43, it’s high time I move past my stubborn insistence on always being the learner in the room and never, ever, the teacher.
Here’s what I’ve learned about when to create, by watching myself and other creators the past few years…
- Create when you’re grateful. You are channeling a force larger than yourself, without trying to, when filled with gratitude. This force pours through your fingertips and causes what you create to be simpler, more profound, and less contrived than what you come up with when using just your brain. If you’re not feeling grateful, a very solid option is to stop, take a breath, go out and experience something that makes you grateful, and then return to creating.
- Create when you’re howling at the moon. One of my poet muses, David Whyte, calls this despair. I’m not a poet yet. I need more words. The longer you create, the more you realize that much of your own earlier work that you’re still in love with years later sprung forth from some deep despair. Moments when you felt/thought “Fuck my life. Fuck this _____. Fuck everything.” and then proceeded to create as a red-faced child stamping both feet in fury and frustration. This might even involve intentionally or accidentally destroying something you created earlier, which can be an important part of seeing something new entirely. If you’re interested, a bit more about despair follows this list. I have a surprising amount to say about this one.
- Create when you’re feeling playful, silly, and/or naughty. Mostly because it’s fun and also because what you create joins you, itself becoming playful, silly, and naughty. This is where many of the coolest, most surprising and unexpected innovations come from I think. Also, if you’re not careful, babies come from here too. So be safe out there people.
- Create when you’re feeling lost and a little tense about it. I’ve spent a surprising amount of time over the last decade living in a gentle (and sometimes not) fog, not quite knowing where I’m going, pulled by a call I don’t really understand, and feeling slightly freaked out by that. I realized recently that choosing the foggy path is actually that: my choice. I’m also now pretty sure that feeling lost is part of the life of a creator, so I might as well get used to it and dispense with some of the worrying and the whining about it. I’ve come to think of creating as leaving myself breadcrumbs to find my way out of my latest fog. And since the blogs and ebooks are searchable – and physical objects such as books, stuffed monsters, sock monkeys and other things we create are hold-in-your-hand tangible – there’s the bonus that I know I can always come back and get help from what I create during future fogs.
- Create just after you catch yourself at complete peace with a moment. Lots of glow-in-the-dark breadcrumbs here you can gather that will be useful to help pull yourself out of a future fog. You may not want to create in these moments themselves. You may just want to be present and soak them in all sponge-like. That’s terrific. Soak away. Be the sponge. Vitally important to creation. Also ok to jot down a phrase or snap a photo of what’s happening and then use those to help you recreate the moment later in your memory and create from there.
- Create when you fail. This may be the best part about working as a collective self, with a partner or small group of people you love. On our own, when we fail it can feel like running head first into a brick wall, and we may need to give up creation for a long time to lick our wounds. When we fail while with people we love, often it can feel more like a speed bump or a challenge or an ignition spark or simply something new we learned how to do or not do. Eventually it can feel like just part of the fun. We may even giggle out loud while saying “What a bunch of morons we are!” or “We didn’t want to work with them anyway!” or “Oh! That happened. What’s next? At dawn we ride!” Birds, animals, plants, water, and imaginary friends all tend to be excellent creation partners too in this regard, not just other humans.
- Create before communicating with others. I learned this one just this year, because I adore creating as collectives with others I love and leap in to listen to others most days. But individual creation is important too. Duh. What I mean by this one is to create before the day job if you have one. Before any energy-draining responsibilities. Before social media and news of any kind and before email. Create while you are brand new: before you are reminded of your limitations. While you are full of energy, awake, and powerful. Your world needs this, and so do you. If this is impossible for you right now, then this is impossible for you right now. It won’t always be.
- Create after a walk alone to clear away the clutter of the day. This idea was added by Upsana to the original list, and it’s a great one. After her day job, she walks for a while to clear away the clutter from the day, before creating in the evening. I love it. Thanks Upsana!
- Create after a crisis. This idea was added to the original list by Ali, who unfortunately had a crisis last week. We can be brought to a very clear and creative space when it is brought to our attention that we have a limited time in this body, in this place, and/or in this time. Thanks Ali! I recommend reading more from Upsana and Ali in the comments below.
Here’s that bit more about despair and creation for those interested…
It takes great courage for adults to pour themselves fully into their own creations most days. It can actually become easier at the bottom, when your despair is so deep that you figure, “Fuck it all, creating couldn’t possibly make things any worse.” Despair is a source of empathy, and eventually you figure out that it’s part of you and needs to be part of your work too. If you never share this part of you, you limit the number of people who will connect with you and your work to those satisfied with only the surface, which is a surprisingly small number of humans despite evidence to the contrary. The fun part about despair is that when you’re this low even the smallest thing you do – making a sandwich, tying your shoes, doing the laundry – is often noticeably a win, noticeably an act of creation or defiance in its own right. I don’t go looking for despair: there is plenty that finds me. I’m now attempting to just be present enough to stay with it a while, so I can see its value and learn when to let it go, when it does occasionally find me.