30 January 2021 -- Be on the Side of Creation

Not gonna lie: It has been a very difficult last few months.  

I remember distinctly – after six months of quarantine and working from home and social distancing and disinfecting and Zoom sickness – six months of living in a siege mentality, just hanging on from day to day and waiting, waiting, waiting for even a shred of good news – hearing someone on the television say “It is 100 days until the election,” and thinking, “Holy shit. I am never going to make it.” 

And there were days there when I was pretty sure I was going to jump right out of my skin, just pacing endlessly around the house as the TV news informed me about ever more desperate attempts to create a fascist state here in the U.S. The last four months have been the single greatest test of my sobriety in over 30 years, and that period includes 9/11, the mass murder at Virginia Tech (my university), and the deaths of my parents. The last thing I wanted was to be was more sensitive, more in tune with my feelings, more aware of the precariousness of life as I know it, more vulnerable in sharing this awareness with others. In other words, the last thing I wanted to be doing was to be writing and playing my music.  

Not surprisingly, I have been less and less active in my creative pursuits. I began this website by blogging every day, but it has now been six weeks since my last post. I did write one truly new song in the last four months, something for my annual musical Christmas card, “Hang On,” and it was very helpful, medicinal in fact, allowing me to render and transform my sociopolitical dread into the more hopeful darkness and anticipation I feel every year during Advent as we wait for light to come into the world. Otherwise, I simply rounded out the process I began months ago as I worked out new solo acoustic versions of songs I had already written. True, that work is creative in itself, but I wasn’t bringing anything new into being.  

But I find myself daring to be hopeful these days. As I have told my students, I find myself looking forward to looking forward to things, which is a decidedly new state. We seem to have somehow avoided collapsing as a culture and a country, at least for the moment, and while there is still an enormous amount of work to be done, while the threats to our freedom and well-being are no less real, they seem less directly existential. Things seem to have come apart precisely so they can be put back together in a better, healthier way, which suggests that the last four months – indeed, the last four years – may well have been a necessary (but not at all funny) comic arc. [See my post 30 November 2020 – My Holiday Advice for Students.] 

I am one week into teaching a new course titled “Creativity as a Transdiscipline,” which I hope will give the students enrolled the structure and encouragement and support they need to do their own creative work this semester, whatever that might be, since creative work always seems to be the first thing to fall out of students' lives upon entering the university, the earliest casualty of their contemporary higher education (unless they are pursuing a degree in the arts themselves). And I hope to lead by example as we work through the next 15 weeks, doing exactly what I am asking them to do: recommitting to the love and discipline needed to express our unique ways of being in the world. 
The readings I assigned for the first week of class include the following excerpts from Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song (Penguin, 2020) and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit (Simon and Schuster, 2006), which are a good expression of where I find myself at the moment.  

Jeff Tweedy 

Each act of creativity is an act of defiance in a world that often feels determined to destroy itself. 

We have a choice – to be on the side of creation, or surrender to the powers that destroy. 

At the core of any creative act is an impulse to make manifest our powerful desire to connect – with others, with ourselves, with the sacred, with God? We all want to feel less alone.  

Twyla Tharp  

Every act of creation is also an act of destruction or abandonment. Something has to be cast aside to make way for the new. So, pick a fight – with the system, the rules, your rituals, even your everyday routines.  

When it all comes together, a creative life has the nourishing power we normally associate with food, love, and faith.  

Creating dance is the thing I know best. It is how I recognize myself. Even in the worst of times, such habits sustain, protect, and, in the most unlikely way, lift us up. I cannot think of a more compelling reason to foster the creative habit.

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