"I exist as I am, that is enough."
I fell in love in New Orleans. I was wandering through a crammed antique shop, meandering without any sense of time or purpose, enjoying the handsome legacies of earlier artisans. On the second floor, my eyes met the desk of my dreams. The slender, 18th-century spinet-shaped desk was made for writing. Slots, drawers and cubby-holes for inks, pens, paper, sealing wax faced the writer while the curved and sloping sides encircled the desktop, and each lifted to reveal a hidden pocket, waiting for some secret cache of letters, or poems. I lingered, stroking the numinous wood, imagining Jane Austen writing there. As I explored each clever nook, I saw the carpenter’s joy at his work, his art. In the presence of that creative genius, I wanted to write, to put his beauty to work for my art, to create in appreciation of, and inspired by, his creation.
I called my friend, also a writer, over and we admired the piece together, respectful of its sanguine beauty, and appreciative of the talent of its maker. We imagined who might have owned such a luxurious piece. We imagined the brilliant writing we’d surely produce if we owned a desk like this one. We imagined how we’d die a little if one of our cats should scratch its surface. If I’d had the money, I would have paid it without blinking; however, imagining was all I could do, given my tenuous employment, my small salary, and the $4,000 price tag.
Still I lingered at that desk, as now it lingers in my memory, and when I eventually came away, I possessed something more significant, sparked by the artist who, two centuries earlier, had put his hands to work. What emanated from his art, and that whole city, was the creative radiance of inspired delight.
That was my last visit to New Orleans, six years ago. My life changed that year. I lost the tenuous job, moved suddenly to a new, equally tenuous, one. When that ended too, I was adrift in unspent wishes and altered dreams. I moved home to Austin, a city of uncommon lives, and into my parents’ house. There I began a long, slow rebuilding. In the midst of my personal chaos came the larger chaos of September 11th. Though Septima Clark may “consider chaos a gift,” I could not rejoice. In the midst of the chaos, my creative brain was off.
Instead, I leaned on the creativity of others. Digging to the foundations of my education, I listened to Emerson telling me to be self-reliant, to have the courage to try many things, to be undaunted by the challenges we name failures. I re-read Thoreau. Since I felt I had nothing, his edict to simplify seemed easy enough to follow! I thought many times of the unconventional life of Emily Dickinson, living in her parents’ home her whole life. I looked around and saw others in my city living creative lives, living “weird” as we proudly say. I let go of orthodoxy, focusing instead on joy.
In Finding Your Own North Star, Martha Beck stipulates two rules for using joy to chart a course toward your north star:
- Rule 1: If it brings you joy, do it.
- Rule 2: No, really, if it brings you joy, do it.
Of course, she also cautions that it’s not as easy. It is impossible in the midst of chaos. It can, however, be a way out of chaos. After some of my chaos settled, I laughed that I had read Transcendentalists for personal gain. What a clue to who I am! I noticed my obsession with writing -- another little clue to that north star of mine. I returned to teaching, as an adjunct instructor, and loved it anew. I cobbled together writing, teaching, and also built a practice as a writing mentor. In this creative city, no one batted an eye, accepting my weird life as normal, and it wasn’t nearly as weird as some! Surrounded by creative lives, I found the courage to begin again. Eventually, I found I had something to say, and my writing erupted because, like Alice Walker writes, “there is a place the loss must go. There is a place the gain must go. The leftover love.” After great chaos, creativity arises. In the middle of creativity, creativity flourishes.
If you are in the middle of great chaos, anchor in the safe harbor of others’ creativity. “Human life itself may be almost pure chaos,” Katherine Anne Porter wrote, “but the work of the artist ... is to take these handfuls of confusion and disparate things, things that seem to be irreconcilable, and put them together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning.” Seek music, seek literature, seek art. Stand outside in the creative genius of nature. Put your hands on a fine piece of furniture to feel the spirit of the carpenter who loved his work. Connect with all surrounding creators. Begin rebuilding.
Amy L. Wink teaches English at Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Tex., and at Austin Community College.