While we were away on holidays I got to listen to some podcasts. Having a baby that feeds 2 hourly through the night will give you that kind of time.
I was really excited to see that Liz Gilbert had started Season Two of the Magic Lessons podcast – you may remember me talking about how it blew my mind last year here. This season includes more of the same – readers give Liz their creative dilemma, she (and some of her expert friends) pep talk them through it and help them unpack and move ahead in their creative pursuits. It’s a really valuable listen, at least it has been for me. I caught up with the first episode in this series and it really struck a chord – I’ll explain why in a bit.
You may know that most of my working life has been spent tackling issues of injustice and exclusion: various roles have seen me bringing diverse cultures together in contentious communities, raising awareness of human trafficking and exploitation, supporting homeless women, finding diversionary activities for young people that society has written off, making sure people get the right coffee in the right sized cup in speedy time. OK, so that drive-thru Tim Horton’s job in High School might not have been a strategic career move towards humanitarian work, but I did get to make people happy by giving them donuts, so yeah. Small things are important too.
That’s me up there giving all the serious chat at an anti-slavery exhibition. Serious Mel. MBE Mel. Down with all the terrible things in the world Mel.
Anyway, you can see that much of my life gravitates to the big issues; to playing a small part in changing things from the front line and I count it a huge privilege to do what I do – I freaking LOVE my job. I grew up in a house full of compassion and was exposed to lots of ways we could help others so it is pretty natural for me to end up here where I am, doing what I do.
Being on the front line of any kind of work like this can be consuming – it can make you serious and heavy hearted and feisty and strong. It can also make you question just about everything, picking things apart, digging deep to find the roots of the problems; wanting to desperately scratch away all the red tape and distortions and misconceptions in order to see problems and issues for what they really are so you can begin to properly help. It can be exhausting.
This is me. And yet – this is not all of me. There is also a part of me that craves frivolous creativity – and that’s where things get interesting. It’s the part of me that loves mid-century interiors, fashion and whittling away the last moments of the day by the light of pinterest on my phone in bed; the part of me that loves music and singing and harmonising around the piano til the wee hours of the morning; that buys too many ceramic mugs because they speak to me from the depths of stinky charity shops; that loves to set a table all pretty, to make recipes that will nourish and comfort, to find the perfect light for a picture, to source the perfect fig scented candle, to hoard magazines and stationary just because they are beautiful to look at, to swoon over tiles and colour combinations and textures of fabrics. All of these things are part of me too. And so I struggled.
Up there, that’s frivolous creative Mel. Getting the right shot for a nice instagram pic Mel. Pinterest Mel. Beautiful stationary Mel.
For quite some time, and even sometimes still, I struggle to marry these two areas of my life. Surely someone so serious about the darkest issues facing humanity cannot also care about beni ourain rugs? Surely you can not get excited about setting a beautiful table for dinner and also be tuned into the turmoil of millions of our fellow humans being sold, displaced or exploited? Surely the matters concerning the world right now are more important, more pertinent than any frivolity mentioned above?
This has been an on-going battle for me – coming to terms with my own creativity and allowing it to unashamedly be part of who I am. Does everything I do or put out there in the world have to lead to something meaningful? I know I’m not alone in this because I have talked to others in the same position – people who work on the front line of some of the most difficult issues, afraid to move in a creative realm for fear of losing their credibility or edge. Afraid to tether themselves to anything too lighthearted in case it is mistaken for being shallow. Interestingly, some of the most creative people I know are people who spend their day jobs dealing with the dark stuff of the world. I wonder if there’s not something more to be said about that?
What I have learned and am continuing to learn is this: creativity – whether it is writing or drawing, photography or dance – will not be controlled. It does not like to be bottled or treated like the enemy. In fact, the more I lean into this tension in my life, the more I realise is that creativity is actually the ally of life on the front line. It is not only the pressure release valve, but a middle finger up to all of the mess in the world. Being true to your own creativity amidst a chaotic world is a beautiful, honest, necessary thing. It is not a scramble to erase the dark stuff, but an opportunity to drown it out by adding to the beauty. And oh, how the world needs us to add more beauty.
In the first episode of this season of Magic Lessons, Liz talks to Jo – a woman who from a really young age wanted to be a comedy writer – she wanted to make people laugh. Somehow, Jo ended up doing a PhD in Holocaust Studies and became a feminist campaigner! Hilariously ironically the opposite of a comedic author. It was so refreshing to listen in to their conversation as Jo explained how she had stifled this desire and how eventually, the stress and strain of her heavy work led to her being physically ill and hospitalised. By denying her creativity, not allowing that part of her make-up to also shine, her own body was objecting. How incredible. Liz gently talked her through this process of how she needs to allow herself to be creative – not to push it down as frivolous but to see it as a gift to a hurting world. I just love that.
I am finding my own way through this tension, saying yes to creative ventures, acknowledging that part of who I am. I don’t worry so much about how that part of me comes across anymore because I know that it’s healthy. I love that creativity and caring for the world don’t have to be mutually exclusive ways of life. They merge and blend and contribute to the fullness of a world that is desperate for both truth and beauty, for help and inspiration.
Maybe this is you too? It would be great to hear what you think about this. Are you being true to all the areas of your life that make you come alive? How do you give yourself permission to be creative and light in a world that is heavy and dark?