Years ago, in my Atlanta days, I went white water rafting with a guy I was dating. It was one of those “fun,” “let’s do something different” types of date for us.
As we rode the bus to the rapids, with others who decided to join this early morning activity. the guide shared safety tips. I listened closely and repeated to myself what I heard just to ensure I knew what to do in case of an emergency. It was my first time rafting so, knowing me, I probably asked a question or two.
Minutes later we were on a raft with maybe two other couples and our guide. We had our life jackets on, I had my toes tucked under the tube, as instructed, and my hand on an oar. I was ready.
We hit a few rapids hard, had a few bumps, laughs and screams. And then, next thing I knew, after hitting a rapid full speed and the raft spinning, my upper body was flung into the water: my head submerged under water while my feet stayed stuck under the inner tube.
I knew from the brief orientation we had on the bus that someone was going to pull me up. The guide talked about how this would work in the event someone would fall out. So, I wasn’t worried; I waited (after all, I couldn't move with my legs being stuck). But no one did. No one pulled me back in. Instead, they pushed the rest of my body out.
After the seconds I spent in shock and confusion I immediately crossed my arms over my chest (a tip shared in the orientation), kicked my legs straight out, focused my gaze on the sky, and floated with the rapids.
I was angry, frightened, alone.
But, there I was with no other choice than to be there. I had to let go of my anger in that moment to allow my body to relax so I could allow the current to guide me. I had to work with it and not against it, though it was the last place I wanted to be.
I eventually found my way to a large rock that I could lean against, and I waited for what seemed eternity. (And yes, the guy I was dating came for me -- in a lifesaver type raft.)
Later, when we met back up with the group, I was told by the guide that when I fell out of the raft my head was too close to a rock, and that if my head hit the rock while they were trying to pull me up, it could have cost me my life.
Why am I sharing this? Because I realized in the wee hours of this morning how that lesson fits other situations in my life, and how there are times we find ourselves where we simply don’t want to be.
For you (as it has been for me at times) the boat is a job or a relationship or some other situation. We think, though, that the “boat” is where we are to be. It’s our rightful place. It’s safe and dry. It’s part of the plan. And there is nothing wrong with that.
But then, something happens. Some current comes and there is a shift. You’re somewhere else, somewhere unexpected. Maybe you’re half in and half out, and you want someone to pull you all the way in.
You wait for someone, perhaps, to tell/show you they love you. Or you wait for someone to give you the promotion. Or you wait for someone to save you because clearly they must see you struggling. Clearly, they can, but why won’t they?
And they don’t. They don’t pull you in. They don’t say what you need to hear. They don’t save you. Not only do they not pull you in, but they push you out. Still, you might want to return. After all, this is what represents safety for you – not “out there,” where it’s cold and undefined.
So, what do you do?
Some powers – like currents – you just can’t fight. You have to flow. You have to surrender. You have to let go. And it feels like a death.
Same with heartache. You have to grieve (even though it is frightening). You have to surrender (even though you don't understand all that's going on). You have to know that the waves won’t overtake you (even though they are massive).
And, you have to know that maybe being pushed out is what you need in order to find your own way. And sometimes, maybe, you have to push your own self out, trusting, eventually, you will end up where you need to be.
[Take a deep breath.]
But it doesn’t stop there. There is another layer, which I didn’t know about at the time this event happened to me. You have to also deal with the trauma.
It’s not enough to be on safe ground again. It’s not enough to count your blessings and thank God for getting through it. You have to heal the trauma so it doesn’t become stuck in your body. Learn the lesson but not the fear.
And then you begin again.
In my dream last night, I left a class full of employees on their last day of our series, which I was the trainer. I’m not sure what the topic was but I remember having planned everything and feeling well prepared. I had my outline, I had arrived early to set up, I was ready to celebrate our coming together over a number of months, I knew how I was going to “test their knowledge.” Etc.
But I realized, once everyone had arrived, that I had forgotten something I needed. I was certain I would be able to run and get this item and return before our official start time. As dreams would have it, I got lost on my return to the class.
I was traveling franticly through this campus trying to find my way back. Each turn I took seemed to be the wrong one, taking me further away from my destination. I had been gone for what seemed like hours, and I was certain that many, if not all, had left the class, and that the person who hired me was furious I had been gone so long.
There I was, not sure what to do when, without my asking, a young lady who I had never seen before approached me and said that she would show me the way.
The route back to the class I was holding was a long one. I was amazed by the beautiful scenery. Stairs covered in lush vines making them undetectable (“The stairs there – just go down them and they will lead you to the pathway.”) And the size of the beautifully carved doors my guide told me to go through -- ones I never thought were available for "anyone" to pass (“You’ll use that wide wooden door. Just pass through the office and on the other side…”).
I followed this guide’s cheery voice through beauty in the midst of my angst. The vivid colors and personalities of random strangers who popped in and out of my dream spoke to all of my senses so much so that I woke – before arriving back to the class – with the question: “How do you pivot within the moment when plans aren’t enough?”
Literally, that was the question. I wrote it down on the pad I keep on my nightstand as soon as I woke – before coming here to share it with you.
As an artist, facilitator, and entrepreneur whose “day job” often carries the title of trainer, I know the layers of this dream aren’t coincidental. We could dig into this dream and talk about its messages and metaphors – that would be fun – but for now, what about the question? And the answer? I believe the general insights are universal and timeless., and worth sharing.
“How do you pivot within the moment when plans aren’t enough?”
I’m a recovering planner. This time in isolation is helping with that, I think. It’s helping me see myself clearer, with more honesty. Example: I write out each evening what I plan to do the next day. Sometimes I belabor it, but when the next day comes, I don’t go according to the written plan at all. Something comes up that’s often better: a new idea, a phone call from a friend I haven’t talked to in a while, a nap. I’m learning to be okay with that, to not feel I’ve let myself down, or someone else, if every moment isn’t filled being “productive.”
But there is also what the question implies: that plans sometimes aren't enough -- they don’t cover exactly or everything that is needed. Think about what we’re experiencing in the midst of this global pandemic. There are national plans for better care and response. There are plans for financial support. There are plans for more, fill in the blank. And those plans constantly change and we have to change with it.
Yet, whether we look at what we are collectively experiencing or our individual work, we have to admit that we cannot plan everything. Our contingency plans may not cover us either.
So what do you do? The question gives the answer: you pivot.
But how? For me, this dream doesn’t just pose the question, it also provides the answer. If I go back to what happens before the question is offered, I see three keys to pivoting, which I would like to offer:
Be honest about your plans not being enough. It’s great to have plans and guidelines and benchmarks, but there comes a time in the creative process – when you are exploring and expanding – that the plans are blueprints and not promises. This is true in every aspect of life. Look at what we’re experiencing now – there is data and there is speculation. It's okay to admit that you don't have all the answers all the time. It's okay for plans to fall through, as disappointing as that may be. Being honest and accepting that is how you move, how you pivot, from one line of thinking to the next, as seamlessly and gracefully as possible. And I don't mean gracefully as in not falling on your face in front of others (at some point you don't care what people think), I mean gracefully in the way your body on a cellular level handles change best.
Be open to being guided. Truth is, you nor I can’t go this alone. There are those who support you, and those you support. Sometimes you know your guides and other times they “come out of the blue.” It’s okay to seek them out too, to ask questions, to admit you’re lost or confused or scared. It’s also okay to hold the virtual hand of someone who has offered theirs for support. Truly, we are all in this together and we will not get through this pandemic without each other, even with social distancing and virtual connections.
Be willing to be surprised. The beauty comes in the moment (and there is still beauty to experience, my friends) – not in the plans or the ego’s desire to execute those plans and accomplish those goals. In the dream, I was so overcome with anxiety that my only focus was on being where I was “supposed” and expected to be. I would have easily missed the beauty if I had stayed focused on where I needed to be and not on where I was in that moment. If you stay in the current moment even for a little while, miracles and surprises come as gifts. It’s hard to believe sometimes because we are conditioned (fooled) into believing that if we just stay in control that everything will be okay.
I believe we will all walk away from the coronavirus changed. We will be different in a number of ways which are yet to be seen. Let’s record the days and measure our time. Let’s see what we missed yesterday and if, today, we can catch surprises like we catch lightening bugs. Let’s take more time to be in the moment rather than chasing moments yet to come and curing others. Let’s meet the stranger who smiles in our dreams and shows us the way. Let's plan but more importantly let's learn to pivot within the moments of change.
Change can be exhausting, frightening, unnerving. It can also be exhilarating, welcomed, a relief. But, for many of us who are living life with coronavirus being front of mind, change seems constant and the pressure to stay above water and ahead of the ball, taxing.
So how do we as artists, professionals, ministers, leaders, employees, and teammates create, work, and live when rules about social distancing, when to seek medical attention, and how and when to apply for emergency funds change almost daily?
How do we create space to catch our breath and gain perspective when we feel we're being chased by something invisible that crosses borders without a passport and sees no color, age, gender, or social status? It shows no mercy.
I was wrapping up facilitating a two-day retreat when the news broke of the spread of the virus within the US. I had contemplated how I wanted to end our time together. On what note did I want to leave everyone? Something in celebration of their hard work and commitment? Or something for them to take as a nugget? How was their concern about the coronavirus going to play into my decision?
I decided to stick with a poem that came to mind during my planning process -- William Stafford's "The Way it Is." These following lines from the poem are what I emphasized to this group and what I want to share with you:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change...
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Just as I asked the team during the close of the retreat, I am asking you to think about your own thread. What is it that isn't changing, that won't change, in the midst of uncertainty? What will you continue to hold on to? What will give you strength, and perhaps, even guidance?
Maybe it's something you don't even think of because is it such a part of who you are, but I want you to name it, to thank it, to honor it, and to be renewed and reassured by it, knowing that no matter what around you changes, somethings -- that you can rely on -- will always be present.
I’m sitting at the one table I have in my home with serves as my desk, craft table, and occasional dinner table. It overlooks a rather usually busy street but on this Saturday morning, only a few are out. Joggers, one lady to whom I want to yell out of the window that she doesn’t have to feed the meter on today, someone walking their dog.
I imagine streets are like this everywhere. Everything is changing, in rapid time, for all of us: when and how we work, where and how our children learn, how churches and religious institutions lead worship. Our grocery shopping. Our staying in. Our social distancing.
It’s easy to get caught up in the panic and angst. How will we care for ourselves and each other? How will we be able to change, on the drop of a dime, our lifestyles and schedules? How do we manage now with different pay schedules, if there is pay at all? How do we work remotely or in isolation when our work is centered around participants, audiences, community?
Every industry is being hit hard, and without much warning. For artists and small arts organizations, the idea of a “slush fund” or cushion is just that – an idea. And so it is only natural that we react and try and fix and go into overtime to prepare for what remains a precarious situation.
But, I want to remind you – artists and arts organizations—of what you already know, of the muscles you’ve already been developing. In face of change (funding, patrons removal of support because they didn’t like the last performance, hard choices), you have been agile, responsive, and resilient.
Though this is a bigger, global change in which the full impact is yet to be known. We’re knocked off course. We cannot make forecasts and predictions. We’re not sure of what we need to do or who we will be when we come out of this storm.
Yet, we move forward. Somehow, we everything we have learning on our journey so far, and with all of our hope, determination, and creativity, we take one day at a time with the hope that we’re all in this together, moving forward towards something better.
I was asked a few days ago what I thought we should do as artists in the midst of this pandemic. I know enough as an artist to say that it’s up to the individual to figure that out. But here’s what I would like to offer to one of the largest groups who thrives in the midst of change, and one of the largest groups that will be affected by this--
Take this time to take care of yourself – your inner space from which your creativity rests and runs. It’s okay to rest. You don’t always have to be productive. Allow this time to be a gift to nurture yourself. Hopefully, soon enough you will be back there running from audition to audition, rehearsal to rehearsal, school to school, meeting to meeting. Take this time knowing that it will aid in you being better fit – mentally, physically, creatively.
Don’t feel pressure to “rise to the occasion” as an artist. Sometimes, our community will look to artists to be healers and problem-solvers (which we our) but remember that you’re going through this crisis, too. Take your time to process your thoughts and feelings. Mull over what’s next. This is part of the healer/artist role.
Reach out for help. Many need external stimulation to create and to be well. Make sure you have a good core group you can reach out to. Set up Zoom or FaceTime chats. Stay connected as much as you need. There are also emergency relief funds for artists in need of financial assistance. Check with your local arts council as well as some of the organizations/funds you will find here
Keep a routine. This might be a good time to start a morning and/or evening routine, if you don’t have one already. Or an exercise routine. With no one knowing how long we will need to practice social distancing, having some semblance of normalcy helps ground and moves us forward.
Be creative, even in isolation. This doesn’t have to mean create pieces of art, but it does mean keep your creative juices flowing. Take an hour a day to write, or paint, or play the piano – perhaps something that isn’t your first love. Watch a TED Talk or YouTube video. Take an online class (there are a lot of free ones out there) that will help you stay in touch with your creative impulses and learn something new.
We’re all figuring this out as we go. What may work for your colleague or peer may not work for you. That’s fine.
It’s easy, as artists, to go into fix it mode or to come up with answers. That’s needed and there is space for that. But it’s also important to take space for yourself, even with questions and answers unknown and, to a degree, trust the process as you trust your own creative process.
It's been years since I've blogged here and at 3rd Spaces, but the times call me to be more intentional about writing, 1) as a way to document all that is happening in face of this current pandemic, and 2) as a way, in addition to poetry writing, to make space for my inner voice.
To say that life as we know it is changing every hour, is no exaggeration. Globally, we are all in a state of unknown, and depending on who you talk to this is either a grave time or a hopeful one.
As a poet, facilitator, and coach, I talk a lot about the importance of "creating space." I have recently been asked (and I ask myself) how does one create space in the midst of chaos and the depths of uncertainty in which we find ourselves. I'm not talking about creating social distancing. Rather, how does one create the inner space when so much outside of us is begging for our immediate attention?
No matter what is happening around us we still have control of what is happening within us. How we respond to what we're hearing is key. This doesn't mean we wear rose-colored glasses and pretend that everything is "normal" or will be normal. but it does mean having control of our thoughts and emotions -- letting them come and letting them go.
With this in mind, there are a few reminders and suggestions I would like to offer as you consider creating space in the midst of chaos:
And, just as we create space for our wellbeing, we must give those around us the space to do the same. How might you support those with whom you work to process what is changing in a way that is healthy for them? What might you offer your family and loved ones as they walk this path., too? How might you show up to those who depend on you but to whom you know not what to say? Authentically, I hope.
It's not easy, when life is difficult, to create space to feel everything, but I find it is important in aiding with our daily healing. We are all suffering, to a degree, and it requires us to be more intentional about coming out of this better than how we entered.
It happens when “creative” people like us spend a lot of our time working in what we may consider noncreative fields. When the opportunity comes for us to be free, to drop the worker’s hat outside the car window, we slow down wondering what’s next. The feeling can be freeing yet paralyzing.
It’s the first day off from work in awhile and I’m rattled with anxiety. What do I do to kick off a three-day holiday and extended weekend? How do I fill the space with myself? What should I work on first? What should I complete? Or do I rest? Let my mind run free? Should I vacate my usual to-do list when I have time to do some of what’s on it?
Every morning that I have to get up to go to work (my office job), I lament over having to leave my bed while the sun is rising. This morning, when I can sleep in, I’m wide awake at 5:30?!
What is that about?!
Thankfully, I fell back to sleep about an hour later. And when I woke at 8:00, I felt I could say I was on vacation. But still, the question of how do I create a perfect day was lingering in my sheets. What "should" I do today that will bring me and others joy? How am I to be a good steward of alllllllllll this time “off”? Oh, the burden.
Finally, making my way to the living room, sitting with my cup of coffee, looking out of the window, asking myself these questions one after the other without stumbling across any answer that makes sense, I realized the pressure I put on myself to “create something.” And not just something, but something worthwhile.
It happens when “creative” people like us spend a lot of our time working in what we may consider noncreative fields. When the opportunity comes for us to be free and creative, to drop the worker’s hat outside the car window, we slow down wondering what’s next. The feeling can be so freeing yet paralyzing.
It’s as if this is all the free time we will ever have in our entire life and we wish we had our wishlist ready to see what we want to do now that we have the space and time. But we don’t have our list (well, some of us don’t) and this it’s all the time we will ever have.
There will be days, consecutive days, more vacations and holidays and weekends and sick days (the ones we take we aren’t really sick) to play. And playing is just that. Who says we have to spend all our down time trying to create a masterpiece?!
Goodness, the relief I feel knowing that I don’t have to write my next poetry book over my low maintenance Thanksgiving break (though it would be nice). I don’t have to come up with the next great business idea. I don’t have to have the “aha,” that I wonder if it’s ever coming, THIS WEEK.
Yes, time is precious and we should not waste it on the frivolous (I could spend an hour at a time on Facebook, if I allow myself). But there is also the time to do nothing. (Plus, just because we aren't externally creating doesn't mean our Muse isn't internally creating while we rest!)
Being creative doesn’t mean we always have to be actively creating or thinking about it or planning it or wishing for it. It includes resting, playing, surrendering, creating for the fun of it, messing up, sleeping in, goofing off. It does not have to include self-induced stress over not filling our time creating for the sake of being successful. In a lot of ways, that's contradictory to the creative process and to who we are called to be as artists.
What will I do today and the days that follow? I have no idea. I have no plan. I have no creative self-imposed deadlines. Will I regret that come Monday when I have to be back in the office at 8 a.m.? Maybe. But something tells me that what I need more than more scheduled, orchestrated “to do” lists is time to dance in the middle of the floor while singing off key to a great '80s hit, like Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," or Michael Jackson's "Beat It." And with that folks, I'm hitting the dance floor (i.e., my living room floor) to do the Moon Walk!
I decided to turn from the news, that stayed on throughout the night, to watch Super Soul Sunday on OWN. I thought a shot of spirituality would help give me the proper perspective in dealing with the grief being felt around the world and inside my soul.
My mind wasn't on the television much as I'm visiting my Mom, who isn't feeling well. Still, I was able to catch the last segment of the repeat show from last week. The question was, "What makes you happy?"
Excerpts of stories of about five people flowed on the screen. Each saying they found what made them happy in their childhood. Each continuing into adulthood as a painter, or swimmer, or horseback rider, etc.
Naturally, I asked myself that same question. "What makes me happy?" I began to journal and the answer surprised me. What others might say and what I thought might be my response was different than what landed from my gut and onto the page.
I found my voice through poetry at a young age but it wasn't until my early 20s that I had my first poem published. As a quiet child, I spent a lot of time by myself. And, I enjoyed writing as it was a way to imagine a different situation. (Looking back, I had a lovely childhood, but at the time, there was always something different I wanted; you know: more friends, later bedtime, you get the drift.)
I didn’t have an imaginary friend. It was writing that gave me an outlet where I felt most accepted. I journaled. I wrote plays. I wrote poetry. But, that isn't what made me happy. Most of what I wrote about was sadness. Writing made me feel whole, but feeling whole and feeling happy aren't necessarily the same thing.
Then, there's paining. As a child, I loved painting class because I could wear one of my Dad's oversized old shirts to class (I wish I still had one of those shirts). I don't remember "loving" painting or being good at it. It wasn’t something I did outside of the public school’s art class. But as an adult, it's something I go to that brings me peace and joy.
So, what's my response to what makes me happy? Perhaps it's yours to. It's creating. Being in the middle of the creative process -- Whether it's writing, painting, dancing, cooking, conversing. It's the feeling of being in the moment, surrendering expectations, allowing myself to be free and trusting what will happen next.
That’s it. That’s what makes me happy.
I was at first terrified by this bubbling up of an answer because I thought it would make my life more complicated moving forward. If there isn't one thing I love then what one thing will I focus on?! But here's the gift: we don't need "one thing" or one person or one gift. We just need one moment.
The gift is being in that moment and being a part of creating that moment.
What will I do with now knowing what truly makes me happy? I will resist the temptation of having to know what that looks like for me ahead of time. I will be attentive to what I need and those around me need, and prayerfully, be a force that will help create something better, be in through a poem, a painting, a meal or a smile.
What have I learned so far on the journey? Your creative joy doesn't have to come from childhood. It doesn't have to be something you've done all your life. It doesn't have to be one thing. But once you discover and accept your creative joy, it does need you to embrace it, to share it, to make room for it to breathe. That's, after all, when you truly begin to live.
I tell people I'm a poet, if I'm asked. But I what I realize today, as honored as I am by that title, is that I'm a creative catalyst. We all are. The fact that we breathe dictates our ability to create.
Now, let’s go create something beautiful simply by being who we are and doing what makes us happy. Whatever those many things may look like.