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.

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Grateful Enough? Thanks!

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Every morning, I try to meditate. I don’t actually meditate every morning, but I’ve read that it helps, so I try.

Part of that meditation is an accounting of the things I’m grateful for, because I’ve read that helps, too. Helps with what, exactly? Well, helps to make me the calm, accepting person I always wanted to be. There’s a whole industry around gratitude journals.

Gratitude is a good thing, right?

Because the opposite of gratitude is entitlement, i.e. “Why should I be grateful? I deserve this!” I worked hard to be sure my daughter never felt that way, and she couldn’t even play with toys she received until she’d written a thank-you note to the sender. I am suspicious of people who don’t write thank-you notes. When I was hiring, it was the people who wrote thank-you emails or, even better, notes, after interviews whom I favored.

But now, the scientists who study such things say that some people aren’t wired to be thankful. The ones who are the most independent feel like being grateful means they owe a debt of gratitude, and they are profoundly uncomfortable with owing anybody anything.

I get that, because I will go to extreme lengths to return a book or a loan. I have not run for office because I can not stand the thought of asking for money. It’s funny, when I did public relations for causes, I could easily ask for support for the good cause, but asking for myself? Just can’t.

Gratitude interventions – like the popular gratitude journals — don’t work for everyone, despite the marketing, according to the psychologists. Not everyone benefits from forcing gratitude.

But gratitude is still important, even if we’re not wired for it. The psychologist in the story about the gratitude research says that he would, “worry that people who are uncomfortable with gratitude and with receiving gifts may be undermining their interpersonal relationships.”

So, how do we balance the importance of gratitude with the need to be independent and strong?

Maybe we ought to share some of that gratitude with ourselves. For example, “I am so grateful to be published, because a lot of talented people are not. But I am also grateful for my own talent and perseverance that led to my being published.”

Maybe the secret is giving credit where it is due, not with arrogance, but not with false modesty either.

Oh, and thank you for reading to the end. I’m grateful.

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March On!

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The older I get, the more this rule applies: there has to be a really good reason to put myself in the position of too few bathroom facilities. PortaPotties count, but barely. A corollary to that is that there has to be a really good reason to be friggin’ cold, even though the cold certainly makes the PortaPotties less odorous.

So, you might think those are the reasons I’m not joining the Women’s March on Washington.

And you would be partly right.

But as one who joined the Million Mom March against gun violence only to see gun deaths increase with the years, I am done with marches.

If someone could prove that I could save a life by marching, I’d be on it.

But I worked in D.C. and I put in my time with Congressmen. I was a press secretary for two Congressmen and I may sound jaded, but I can tell you, marches count for nada. They are good optics but they don’t change policy. I can’t name one politician who saw a big march, hit his or her forehead, and said, “Eureka! I’ve been blind, but now I see!”

The Tea Party had great optics – mostly white people in patriot costumes with flags urging the government not to tread on them. They co-opted, and some would say perverted, patriotism and they made for great TV. But it wasn’t until the little worm Ted Cruz stopped government in its tracks with a filibuster that included a reading of “Green Eggs & Ham,” that anyone realized the Tea Party had a little bit of political heft. When the Tea Partiers marched, they were easily dismissed as crackpots.

Don’t get me wrong: I completely support the cause behind this women’s march. I do not want to see women’s health and women’s rights rolled back to some mythical Leave it to Beaver days. I do not believe that the only love that is valid is that between someone born male and someone born female. And I know that immigrants made this country diverse and strong, not weak.

So, march on, sisters and brothers. I just won’t be there.

Rather than marching, I will be working quietly – and not so quietly – in the background. I’ll be signing up for some political committees because I think change starts local. I’ll be sending money to the organizations likely to be gutted by a Trump presidency.

I will be hanging out in places that are warm and have bathrooms – and I will be inviting any gender to use whichever bathroom works. Because, the Halls of Power? They’re warm and they have bathrooms. And they are where real change happens.

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Good Riddance, 2016!

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When the clock strikes midnight (or, in our case, when the glowing white numerals silently flip), I will scrape 2016 off my shoe like something nasty I stepped in.

Because I am done.

I am done with family members dying, I am done with friends dying, I am done with beloved celebrities dying.

I am finished with truculent Trumps on the television and emboldened bigots spewing hatred on social media.

I am over hurricanes that topple ancient trees, and floods that send creatures skittering into our walls for shelter.

I am beyond over zippers that strain and jowls that jiggle and photographs that capture a funhouse mirror version of me.

That is not to say these things will be done with me in 2017. But, like the polite person who pretends to ignore the malodorous lingering of 2016 on the sole of my shoe, I plan to just carry on as though there is no stench. Even if it means I have to hold my nose a bit in order to do so.

Happy new year – finally!

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The Witching Hour & Ghost Voices

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In traditional Roman Catholic teaching, 3 am is the witching hour – when the forces of evil mock all that is good.

Certainly, when I wake up at 3 am, it is never good thoughts that flood my mind. It is shame over my inadequacies, worry over things that probably won’t happen, but might. A few times, I have even been awakened by the silence from my husband’s side of the bed, convinced that I’ve been ultimately abandoned by his death. He does not know how many times I have rested my hand on his chest just to feel him breathe.

Sometimes, as I lay in bed, I hear muted voices. It sounds like a conversation, a calm conversation, but I can never quite make out the words. Maybe it is the neighbor’s television, through thick antique walls and over a driveway. It could be. Charleston is funny that way; sometimes I can hear my neighbor’s laughter louder than my husband calling from the kitchen.

Or maybe it is the voices of ghosts, trapped within this 175-year-old house, words that echo across generations. The tone is so measured, that it is not arguments or passion captured here. If these are ghosts, they are discussing the mundane, chores and meals and minutiae.

You might think that ghost voices would add to the dread of the witching hour. But I treasure voices of the past.

There are some voices I would give anything to hear again.

I recently switched cell phone carriers. They assured me I would keep the speed of my connections, that my old text messages and contacts would appear like magic. They neglected to mention that I would lose voice mails, and I never thought to ask.

And so, the message from a friend, her voice already a bit breathy from the lung cancer that would kill her – gone. The message from my dad, wishing me happy birthday, the one I planned to play next March when I have my first birthday without him – gone.

I have photos so my eyes can remember, but already the feel of my father’s big fingers in mine, gone. The smell that was uniquely my mother’s – I think I would recognize it, but I can no longer describe it. And now, the sound of my father’s voice, a memory growing more distant.

Hearing, robbed. Another sense gone.

So the ghost voices of the witching hour?

They don’t frighten me; they offer comfort even if I can not make out the words.

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The Blame Game

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Female executives are no longer wearing big shoulder pads; they’re shouldering blame instead.

I was wondering why in the recent election between two flawed candidates, the accusations seemed to roll right off the male candidate’s back while the female candidate was repeatedly investigated, exonerated, investigated again, exonerated again. And it wasn’t because the accusations against the male were false…we heard him on tape saying things he later denied.

So why did the vitriol seem so much harsher against the female?

I found what I think is at least a partial answer in a recent study of female CEOs. The media often is accused of having a liberal bias. But there’s another bias that may have played a role.

According to a study by the Rockefeller Foundation and public relations/research firm Global Strategy Group, females receive a disproportionate share of blame, at least in the media. The study says that almost 80% of digital and print media stories about companies in crisis blamed the CEO when the CEO was female; only 31% of the stories blamed male CEOs in similar situations.

Another difference? Like the “What are you wearing” red carpet question that seems to get asked only to actresses and not actors, the news stories talked about the female’s personal life in 16% of the stories and 78% talked about her family and children. For the men, a personal life was mentioned in only 8% of the stories and none mentioned family and children.

Now, certainly in the presidential campaign, both candidates trotted out children and spouses and personal lives. But, if it seemed that one candidate’s flaws were described as foibles or “locker room talk” and another’s were crimes that should result in “locking her up”…well, maybe the media had a hand in that.

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Laughing Matter

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What makes me laugh won’t necessarily be the same thing that makes you laugh.

There is humor that is infantile (remember bathroom humor when you were little?) and some so intellectual that you need a PhD to get the pun.

Maybe it’s an only child thing, but I have never understood the kind of humor that belittles someone. I think that kind of humor may have its origins in sibling rivalry and those with the tougher skin from brothers’ or sisters’ pokes and prods certainly seem to enjoy that humor more than I do.

I’ve been thinking about humor a lot lately because, as we wind up the most divisive Presidential election in my memory, my social media is filled with people offended by the humor of others, and those others protesting at the lack of humor of the “politically correct” who are offended.

This week, a friend of mine called out a man at a bar dressed for Halloween as a bottle of Rohypnol – roofies. She tried to have a conversation in which she helped him understand why, in a country where one out of five women have been sexually assaulted, a costume representing the “rape drug” isn’t funny. The response was that the man was a feminist and his costume was satire. She was not amused.

I was not amused either.

The kind of comedy that makes me laugh is comedy that laughs with, not at. The rueful observations about the maladies that befall us all. The kind of comedy that makes you feel at one with the comedian in bemusement, not attacked or belittled, and not watching someone else feel that way either. Comedy that unites about this crazy old world, not divides the world into even more craziness.

I know that people under stress will cope with gallows humor. As a reporter, I did it all the time. I know doctors do too. But we all knew it wasn’t really funny, it was just an escape valve to let off the boiled-over emotions in laughter, which was far better than the alternative.

There are those who will still laugh at the racial slur, who will snigger at a Presidential candidate flailing in mimicry of a disabled reporter. Who feel that those who disagree with their politics must be idiots, and who then make jokes at their expense. It’s not a Right Wing thing or a Left Wing thing. It’s just a thing.

Is it politically correct to want that to stop?

Or is it just grown up?

Maybe it’s time we stop confusing the nervous laugh of discomfort with humor. Maybe it’s time that we learn how to use humor appropriately.

Sure, I used to laugh hysterically when someone would blurt out the word, “poop.”

I was two at the time.