Inside my mind: Of genius and couscous and steam shovels

In order for the sprite to find you, you have to show up

The next few posts are proof that creativity comes from everywhere and that for me, it usually ties back to mothering – or vice versa. From my bulletin board: an old magazine article about children’s book author Virginia Lee Burton. From several friends, reminders about a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert that I needed to watch. And from my public library, the largest book I’ve ever checked out: A Day at El Bulli. All of these have been roiling around in me for the past week, doing that cool thing where one Idea sloshes over the other and recedes, like a wave pushing back the sand to expose a series of lovely little shells that weren’t there before. And eventually, each thing, from the world’s most exclusive restaurant to the thoughts of a best-selling memoirist or the legacy of the woman who brought us Mike Mulligan, becomes brighter and more worthwhile to me.

Part of what speaks to me about these three items currently sloshing in my brain is the passion they exude. Passion is what drives us to create, of course. It’s what has been getting my friend Eve out of bed at 5:00 AM all week for our 24-week assignment. It’s what has me here right now when I should be tallying phone bills for my taxes or sending out queries. (Ok, avoidance can do wonders, too.) My experience is that many people with “day jobs” are envious of artists because of our passion. It’s easy to forget the less swell parts of passion, like the unknown payment plan or the lack of benefits. The urge to feel that electric liveness is what appeals. Whenever I talk to my oldest friend who works as a project manager for a pharmaceutical company, a job she’s clearly excelled at over the years, she’s always in awe of what she dubs “my calling.” You are so lucky to know what  you want to do! she exclaims, as though she doesn’t. (And I don’t know what I want to do; I don’t feel I have much choice, actually. But that’s another matter altogether.)  


Elizabeth Gilbert speaking at TED Conference
Elizabeth Gilbert speaking at TED Conference

Gilbert gets at the charismatic sway of creativity, the idea of being on fire, in her talk about genius. (Though she doesn’t speak about the venue at which she’s presenting, TED, I find it ironic that part of the appeal of this annual conference and the presentations posted online–20-minute talks by leaders in every field imaginable–is that it is a window into genius. For twenty minutes, we hear the thought-processes of brilliant people who are often surprisingly and refreshingly unrehearsed.) The author of  Eat, Pray Love, talks about the origin of genius – which I’d define as passion combined with talent and luck and effort. Is genius something you’re born with and, hence, responsible to/for? Or is genius more like a sprite that moves with and around you, a separate force over which you have little control? (I’ve been unable to successfully embed the talk, but you can see it here.)

Gilbert, who wants us to consider the latter possibility, says, “Letting one mere person believe that he or she is the vessel, the essence of all creative, unknowable, infinite mystery is a smidge too much responsibility for one fragile human – like swallowing the sun.”

Just as with reading Lewis Hyde’s book  The  Gift about the creative economy, I was reminded of the parallels between motherhood and creativity. Children experience their parents as being responsible for the unknowable world; we are infinite and omniscient. This is a huge and scary power to possess, especially when you blow it or when you step out from behind the curtain and your child understands that mama isn’t really pulling the world’s strings. I don’t mean that I try to stay behind the curtain – I actively work to deconstruct parenthood for my kids all the time – but they persist in this way of thinking, which is a survival mechanism. Because we all know that when you discover no one is in control, when the thought of no parent or no God is a possibility, life gets very scary and very overwhelming very fast. The MYSTERY is too great, too dark.

An example of this has been any number of times my children have fallen off of play structures or out of trees. They get up, shakily and give me a look of disbelief seasoned with a dash of anger: “Why weren’t you there for me?”

Which is sort of Gilbert’s point about genius – you  just have to be there. Maybe not right where the child lands, maybe not at that exact moment, but you have to be nearby with your eyes open and ready to soothe and listen and hug. OR you have to be in your studio or at your desk if the idea is actually going to make it from the lightbulb stage to the real deal. In order for the sprite to find you, you have to show up. 

An artist friend who is going through some dark personal times told me yesterday that she is worried she’s too distracted right now to be a good mom. “Have you had some happy times with your kids lately?” I asked, and she immediately smiled and nodded Yes! “You’re doing just fine then,” I told her. She’s connecting, she’s showing up.  I see her kids at school, schlepping instruments for band practice or a faux sword made out of a green umbrella. They’re fine. Good enough is enough a lot of the time, especially when we’re in the midst of crisis or trying to get out a project of magnitude.


corn cob couscous with avocado pear from el bulli
corn cob couscous with avocado pear from el bulli

Likewise, the project that might feel insurmountable doesn’t need to be a best seller or even a critical success. Don’t worry about what it’s going to be down the road. Just let your passion take you where it will. You might just end up with “mini corn cob couscous with avocado pear.” Or with a soggy mess. You might write a book that’s sold millions of copies worldwide. Or you might write a poem that makes you laugh with its silly naivete a month from now. Your art, like your parenting, needs first and foremost to be authentic. That’s good enough.

And somehow that leads to Spain and then to Mike Mulligan… Just like a TED talk – stay tuned to find out how quirky brain operates! 😉


1 thought on “Inside my mind: Of genius and couscous and steam shovels”

  1. i could not agree more with that first statement! if i’m not engaged in what’s going on around me, that little sprite just flits on by.

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