The other day, my Dad asked me why I keep decorative skulls around the house. “That’s no thing for a preacher!” he said. It does well to remember that death is at our doorstep. We fool ourselves to believe otherwise. It shouldn’t be something to be feared and pushed aside but pondered in the everyday.
We have a set number of days upon this earth. Fewer every day. Every moment is important and any moment may be your last. What are you going to do with them?
I know it’s cliché and all the rage right now but I’ve been working on drawing a coloring book. I had hoped to have it ready for friends and family and anyone interested to purchase them by Christmas but that obviously didn’t happen. You see, like every other mortal, I have been forced to choose how to use my time.
In life you are either filling up or pour out. Exercising creativity, however you might do it, is pouring out. It takes time, energy, thought, resources. It costs something of the creator. I don’t know what it’s like for other people but I am not an endless well. I know people who seem to overflow in creativity. Every time you turn around, they have created something new and, like the Energizer Bunny, they never seem to need recharging.
But my coloring book project (which I will finish, by the way), no longer felt exciting, it felt like a chore. I wasn’t creating from an overflow of creativity, I was creating to finish a product. And every minute I spend on a project like the coloring book, I cannot spend on something else. If I am spending my time and energy pouring out, then sooner or later I will run dry. You can’t keep pouring out without filling up.
So, instead of working on the coloring book, I have been reading a lot lately. I’ve read and/or re-read some classic literature over the past month or so. Flannery O’Connor, Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut, just to name a few. It has been an encouraging, challenging and refreshing time for my mind and soul. I’m the 39th-best aspiring writer in my neighborhood, so I am enamored by how well some people can choose their words. It’s a gift that is made better with hard work and it is a gift greater appreciated seen in full bloom. Good writing inspires creativity.
And so my coloring book was not ready in time for Christmas. Because we are born dying and every minute we live is a minute less we have to live. We must choose how to use every day. Every minute I read is a minute I am not drawing. And vice versa. Since the coloring book project is something that I am very excited about, this reading hiatus has reminded to me redeem the time; to be mindful of how I spend my days because how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. That should be on a plaque somewhere. Actually, I think that’s where I saw it.
But not only must we fill up in order to pour out, consciously numbering our days reminds us to be mindful of what you fill up with. My family sometimes watches The Amazing Race and there’s one episode in an early season in which several of the contestants fill up their automobiles with the wrong kind of gas. Inevitably, the cars break down.
If I am going to take a break from creating to fill up on someone else’s creativity, I want something that’s going to inspire, challenge, provoke, incite or just plain make me think. I have, over the years, been accused of being a snob in music and movies because I rarely celebrate what is most popular. Now, I’m not some sort of elitist but I do find, as a general rule, the more popular something is, the more watered down it is in order to appeal to the median (lowest common denominator?). I am not as inspired by Titanic as I am by Wes Anderson.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the in and out, the filling up and pouring out of a creative life requires a certain level of self awareness. Each person must know what media (music, movies, books, etc.) is going to benefit them and what is going to drain them because it is possible to think that you are pouring in while, what you’re putting in to your system is actually having a negative impact on your creative being. You can’t expect to fill up with hours of mainstream television every day and pour out something new. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the value of the lost art of silence but that’s probably a post for another day.
It seems to me that successfully creative people have learned enough about themselves and the impulse to create that they know when to fill up and what to pour in.
What is true of the creative life is true of the spiritual life. You will exhale what you inhale. That’s why Paul tells the Philippians: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8) and the Colossians to set their minds “on things above” (Colossians 3:1-2).
I have to remind myself of this, especially during our country’s regular political rhythms. I find myself being easily distracted and discouraged when I hear some of the things our candidates are saying and how their supporters justify them. I need to tune out this noise because, even though it might be incoming information, it is not filling full/fulfilling information. It does not incite creativity or fill my soul.
Creativity requires not only self-awareness but intentionality. Towards the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Granger tells Montag:
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
So please have patience with me if you’re one of the three people who has asked when the coloring book will be finished. I want to be a gardener, not just someone who cuts lawns.