Lately I have been pondering the murky, polluted underbelly of purpose. It sounds like such a good word, full of optimism to the untrained ear, and dangling with hope, like a flashy lure on a fishing rod. Yet the problem is, for most people, purpose is inextricably linked to what we do, not who we are.
Whereas the creative process, and living art-fully, is given birth by who we are not what we do. Sure we have to turn up and set time aside for writing, painting or making music, but beyond that, art cannot be quantified, pressured or forced. Our spirit is the tool of our trade, and spirit seldom obeys clocks, time cards, or graphs.
I have just recently emerged from a writing desert – after nearly fifteen years of silence. Actually, in reality, it is more accurate to say that my Art has emerged from the desert after fifteen years of banishment. I sent her off without food or water to roam a vast, red and barren landscape. I was afraid to allow her power in my life.
I knew that if I opened the door to her, she would awaken feelings, responses and memories that were far too painful to process, much less write about. Even now I still wrestle with the monster (that is my desire to control things). Having had so little control over the abuse of my childhood, I now hide behind purpose. It is very easy to do, because the world values purpose. People pat me on the back and say, “Good on you, you hardworking lass”, and hold me up as an example of excellence, someone for others to aspire to. Only I know the truth.
Over the last few months though it has grown harder to keep my Art at bay. She has begun to haunt me daily: I would open a book to read and suddenly the page would be sodden with tears, and my hands shaking. At first I couldn’t explain this: I tried many times to rationalise and explain this bizarre occurrence away. I was tired. I was sick. I was stressed. Except I wasn’t any of these.
Like Jonah in the Bible, I had rebelled against my calling, and the symptoms I was experiencing were signposts designed to illuminate the fact that I was refusing to acknowledge my voice. I was not being honest with myself, and as a result all of life was conspiring to set up circumstances to make me face my dishonesty. The only way to freedom was to meet my fate head on, to venture forth and not shrink back.
So I sent out a search party, and eventually I found her – my beloved. As I approached, she backed away. Her eyes were downcast and wouldn’t meet my gaze. I reached out to touch her arm and she recoiled, as though burning acid had been applied to her skin. She didn’t trust me anymore.
“Mea culpa”, I cried. I am guilty, I was wrong, I am sorry. “Come home and I will make things right.”
Coming home was hard, for both of us. She had been gone for so long, and I no longer remembered what my life was like with her in it. In many ways I had to start from scratch to create space for her again. The biggest problem though was the fact that we had drifted apart and we had become strangers, we no longer knew how to have fun together.
I had to choose to remind myself of all the good times we had, creating literary, fantastical adventures, and even more so delighting over selecting the perfect words and phrases to vividly describe the everyday routines of our characters – from the soapy bubbles of washing dishes, to the grazed knees of soccer practice.
Rebuilding trust came slowly. After more humbling apologies, we settled into a routine of curling up on the couch and reading books together, arguing over plots and grammar – neither of us willing to concede a point. Eventually, despite the arguments and the fact that we were still not writing together, we fell into camaraderie once again.
Over the past few months my Art has been teaching me some valuable lessons – both about writing and life. She has shown me that writing is actually about listening and receptivity. My Art speaks gently, and travels through me like a soft current. If my mind is busy, and I am occupied with my own importance and sense of purpose, I cannot tune in to my Art, and I miss her energy. Her words travel off into the wind, and no matter how fast I chase after them, they are not coming back. I also realise that there is no place for my ego in the creative process. My Art is not impressed by my need to be an achiever –her sole desire is to feel wanted and loved, she needs to know that she is enough, and in this respect she is a lot like me.
Am I enough?
This is a question many of us ask at some point, and for the majority of us, we try to get an answer from people outside of ourselves. As artists and writers and humans in general we try to become productive and purposeful, and we yearn for outside validation: an award, getting something published, a positive review. We are urgent for success, and our urgency drives us to produce fast-food writing. Our need to achieve tends to stifle our gourmet, seasoned, tender writing, and we can be lulled into accepting less than what our Art – our love – deserves.
She craves intimacy and a relationship. She needs the reassurance of a gentle caress, affirmation and quality time to feel confident enough to let her true personality, and the enigma of her soul be seen by the naked light.
She needs to know that you won’t edit out her vulnerability, put crosses and scribbles and red lines through her openness, and tear pages from the notebook of her dreams. She is not a formula, she is the serendipity that destroys all your best laid plans, just to take a stroll with you.
Today I am out for a walk with my Art. Whenever I am getting too introspective and stuck in a rut, it is a good sign that I need to put on my sneakers and get some fresh air. This isn’t to say that I do so willingly. Often I do so begrudgingly – there is after all a certain comfort attached to simmering in my own misery, even though I know it to be unhelpful. My Art however loves these walks, she skips along the pavement, and exchanges greetings with people passing by. She stops to pick up treasures –rocks and feathers and such things – along the way, and points out things with child-like enthusiasm.
I follow after her today, and we keep walking, until eventually we reach an old oak tree, with a tall nodulated spine, and long limbs attired in autumnal foliage. She motions me to sit down. “We are here.” I look around unimpressed, we have passed hundreds of trees on our walk. What makes this one special?
I sit down, resting my back against a groove in the trunk. It is so comfortable, sheltered and quiet, yet not totally isolated. Off to one side and in the distance there is a family playing with a labrador. As I watch them my mind slows down and despite my impatience, I feel it just for a second: that in that moment I am most fully what I always am, and always have been: a writer.
My realisation doesn’t come from producing an amazing piece of writing, but rather from the change in attitude, the fact that someone like me so obsessed with things I can see and hear and touch, took a chance today and allowed myself to become unsettled, and venture into the land of imagination.
Imagination is the realm of children, and as someone who has never been around children, and never really was a kid herself, I feel like an imposter. What do I know about such things?
I initially thought I had purpose in my life. I had plans and goals and to-do-lists, but what they all lacked was heart. I was doing things for the sake of doing them, without understanding their meaning. Now I realise that this isn’t purpose at all. True purpose is the freedom that comes from fulfilling my function. It is not easy however; at times it feels like hanging from a ledge over a crevasse, my muscles taut with fear. It is hard to reform old habits; some days I go for a walk, come home, brew a cup of coffee and sit on my bed and write, but mostly I think to myself, writing can wait, there’s laundry to do.
Michelle is still making amends with her Art, and still cries every time she reads. If you have any tips for her on how to be more spontaneous and less purposeful, you can email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.