Catching Creativity

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(Editor’s Note: This appeared initially as a blog for SKIRT Magazine)

I was never much good at catching fireflies.

In my youth, fireflies would twinkle in the soft light, creating magic on the back lawn.

My cousins would burst out into the twilight, armed with glass baby food jars, their legs streaked with the blood of the last swatted mosquito like some kind of warpaint. The evening would be filled with the fwop-fwop sound of their palms slapping to seal the fireflies inside the jars. They compared who would have the brightest firefly nightlight at their bedside.

I would wander much more slowly through the dew-slick grass, an ambler where my cousins were marching warriors. The fairy lights attracted me but once I captured a firefly, it looked puny in its glass prison, its magic diminished with captivity.

Eventually, I let the fireflies be.

As an adult and a writer, I found that the bright sparkle of creativity too would diminish the harder I tried to tame it. Grabbing onto a muse was like trying to pick up a raw egg yolk with your fingers – it slipped and slid just out of your grasp.

Creativity is supposed to be a spark, implying that you can just strike two blunt things together repeatedly until it happens.

It doesn’t work that way for me. I can’t force creativity directly. I can’t even sneak up on it. If I stare at it directly, it wisps away. I can only catch it out of the corner of my eye and let it sneak up on me.

Creativity sparks when I shamelessly eavesdrop on other people’s dramas, the tears of an overwrought stranger watering my creativity. It sparks when two disparate things suddenly seem related, like butterflies and physics. And it sparks when it is most inconvenient – nudging me awake at 3 am to get up and capture a scene or a dream.

But, the times I sit alone before dawn at my keyboard, hammering out the words that seem to come at the speed of light?

Creativity hovers like a bright cloud of fireflies.

fireflies-long-exposure-photography-2016-japan-19

Memory Keepers

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We lived in a planned suburb and our back yard jutted up against Farmer George’s rickety old white clapboard.

Farmer George had a tenuous relationship with the suburbanites. We could hear his roosters and some would complain; the neighbor’s dog escaped and chased one of said roosters, and he complained. My family was cordial with him and I was fascinated by this stubborn man, clinging to his last acreage.

Until the exposure incident, when I was forbidden to ever talk to him again.

One night, my mom happened to be looking out the kitchen window, which faced Farmer George. And, according to my mom, there he stood in his window, naked and erect, fondling himself and looking, it seemed, right back at my mother.

It happened a few more times. My dad called the cops. But, they explained, there was no law against standing naked in your own house, and there was no proof that he was “aiming” at my mother. My dad wanted to go beat up Farmer George. My mom’s cooler head prevailed. And, later that night, my dad, for the first time ever, cried in frustration and helplessness at being unable to protect his family from who knows what perversions.

That’s how I remember it.

I can’t know if Mom or Dad remember it differently, because they both have died, taking with them the certification of my memories.

In a family so bound by storytelling, when the only ones who were there as you created memories die or go away, you are left wondering if your stories are the right ones. In my extended family, stories are repeated, burnished, embellished at every family gathering. Like some Japanese movie, each participant has his or her unique point of view.

But, my stories? Who will I share them with, and, if they are wrong, who will correct the details for me?

I know the incident with Farmer George happened. But did it happen exactly that way? I remember my father crying. But was something else happening at the time?

I won’t ever know. My memory keepers have vanished.

memory-box

Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

My Katrina

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We mourn more when a pretty woman sustains a disfiguring injury than when an ugly one does. It’s not right, but we do.

So, when New Orleans, that sly seductress, was torn open and apart by the fury that was Hurricane Katrina, the nation felt it viscerally. It didn’t seem right that the lovely Party Girl that was NOLA, one who so generously shared her graces, should be brought low.

New Orleans is my home town, although I haven’t lived there since I was a little girl. My extended family does, though, and even now they greet me with that nonchalant disinterest in my adopted cities, because none could ever be as glorious as New Orleans, so why would they care? New Orleans has always been a city immodest in its many blessings: great food, drink, music, literature, beauty.

All of that changed 10 years ago, when Katrina scarred the beauty that was New Orleans and left it humbled and bewildered.

My first concern was for people. I remember the frustration of fallible technology as I waited for days for family members to check in. My parents, riding it out in an RV with my aunt and uncle, just barely out of the path of Katrina’s fury. A cousin, hiding out in Houston. An uncle, living on his boat because it just seemed safest when so much of New Orleans was water anyway.

And, then, my concern was for the homes. Roofs lost. Refrigerators full of old food and mold. Grand trees toppled. One aunt in Lakeview whose home was submerged, and an uncle whose car engine was soaked with the ugly, smelly water that filled the streets.

And, finally, the city itself and waiting to see if the lovely party girl of a city would rise from her knees, laughing at fate as she has always done.

For this last, I am still waiting. There is laughter, the kind of grim gallows humor the city does so well. But there is a shadow behind the eyes too. I see it in the poorest neighborhoods that haven’t quite recovered, in the Third World buckling streets the city hasn’t found the money or the gumption to fix, in the families who lost close ones to the floods, or to the floods of refugees who left for Florida or Texas and never came back.

When I visit, New Orleans has the look of a woman still beautiful, but whose gaiety has been dimmed by the knowledge that even a beautiful woman can be knocked down and, if it has happened once, it can happen again some time.

Katrina Boat