If I were among the stars
Beaming faint across the
The galaxies, sharing
Secrets about ancient Time,
Caressing hearts away
From earthly burdens …
If I could sit among my
Star friends, holding hands,
Singing quietly in light-bathed
Night, weaving dreams from dust,
Hope from the hard stories …
Among the stars
Within their sparkle
In wordless song.
Stars streak the night
But know nothing of darkness,
Like the sun, which does not
Witness its own miracles.
I peer into the world
Emptied of form.
My job is to first to be,
Then to learn, and know.
My knowledge needs
“Tragedy always seems so distant and is beautiful in the reactions it causes. briefly, we are forced to care, we are connected and we pray and promise and hope for change. but the words are quickly lost and our minds quickly w[a]nder to other things even when the problems persist[s] with as much power and vigor than before.”
“our manic-depressive switching from compassion to apathy just results in each feeling negating the other. it’s easy to disregard what we can’t see. emotions are generally distorted reflections. over exaggeration and under exaggeration are common, but usually they are just faked completely. what matters isn’t the initial feeling, but the feelings they evoke in others.” – anonymous
I took both of these images years ago, when I was still living in Toronto, and obsessed with the vibrant graffiti and street art culture thriving there (I’m still obsessed, but from a distance!). I eventually compiled the photos into a book that I was thrilled to sell at the amazing, and sadly now-closed, Pages Books & Magazines, on eclectic and hip Queen Street West, not far from much of the city’s best street art.
I became deeply immersed in the city through two lenses – that of the street artists themselves, and of my own, through photographing their work. It was a human connection through several layers, but a surprisingly intimate one. There are so many beautiful ways to commune with others, to receive, and give back.
The photo I took, below, has stayed with me – haunted me, really – ever since. I stumbled on these two small strips of paper, written in a regular-sized font on a simple strips of paper, glued to a piece of wood in an urban back alley. It wouldn’t be the first thing you saw walking along, but I’d been wandering around this neighbourhood for months, and one day these faded, stained pieces of paper caught my eye.
The author will remain forever unidentified (though I would love to meet him or her, and have a conversation, and know of the experiences that led to the writing of this letter to the city).
In a big city, which to my mind is increasingly a metaphor for the larger, global world we live in, being human often translates into feeling tiny, lost, insignificant. The writer of this plea to the city makes some very prescient comments, alluding to the tendency for our empathy and compassion to come and go as quickly as we’ve now come to experience the updates on our social media newsfeeds in the years since.
Of course, this isn’t empathy at all, or compassion, because when we have learned to cultivate these qualities, they cease to be fleeting, and we become more able to generate a sustained desire to change the world (and ourselves) for the better. To connect, deeply, gently and kindly.
“It’s easy to disregard what we can’t see.” Let’s make a world where it’s not desirable to avoid seeing. Let’s remove the veils behind which apathy and blind eyes flourish.
Speaking out from a small slip of paper, this anonymous writer reminds us that it only takes a moment to put something negative in the world, but a lot longer for the effects of this negativity to fade away. We should remember, in reading his or her beautiful, cautionary words, that behind the facades we use through which to communicate with the world (be it art or social media), we are real beings, reaching out to other human beings, who want to love and be loved as much as the next person.
Not for what we say or do, not only for right now, under these circumstances and not only to get a “like”, but unconditionally. Equally.
This is the beginning and end of what we deserve as we make our way, sometimes fumbling and yes, also dancing our way through the world. In case I never meet this author of these words, I send out a heart full of gratitude for taking the time to formulate these observations and attach them to the urban outdoors, so that we may be duly reminded.
Are we the stories we tell?
Do our stories—that is, our way of conceiving and talking about ourselves—have anything to do with the question, who am I?
Which stories make us feel like ourselves, and how much, and in what way? How much do our stories correspond to the answers we find when we attempt self-understanding?
We probably find that some of our stories, if we reflect on them, make us feel very secure while others make us squirm a little, and that the stories that have these effects are likely to change over time.
Ramana Maharshi, the great Hindu guru and sage who awakened at the age of 16, famously advocated asking the question “Who am I?” as a meditation practice, believing that self-inquiry, and plenty of silence, was the way to evolve to higher planes of consciousness.
“Enquiring within Who is the seer? I saw the seer disappear leaving that alone which stands forever. No thought arose to say I saw. How then could the thought arise to say I did not see.” ~ Ramana Maharshi
We can say that “that which stands forever” is something pure, beyond the mind and the stories we tell about ourselves.
Yet stories are bound to erupt as we ask, “Who is the seer?” Who is the person even doing the asking? Who is it that is seeking his or own true identity? Who asks, “What is true? What is reality? Where am ‘I’ really located and what is essential about me?”
Our answers are bound to tell us something about the stories we tell and the relationship we have, and think we have, with them.
What are some of the ways we tell stories?
We write works of fiction.
We make movies.
We tell the truth.
We share anecdotes with friends.
We explain things to children.
We explain things to each other.
We draw pictures.
We discuss our memories.
We remember things, and then re-remember them, over and over.
We sit under a great big sky and wonder about things.
We put two and two together.
We fill out forms and questionnaires.
We answer the question, “How are you,” and explain to people what we do for a living.
We react in predictable ways to things that cause pain, and joy.
We say things like, “I wouldn’t do that. I love those kinds of things. I am the type of person who hates when that happens.”
A story is never just a story. It is the culmination of an entire system of thoughts, beliefs, conditioning and identifying markers. As they form, they become infused into us, and it becomes hard to distinguish the stories from the person, the “I” who has absorbed and reformulated them again and again.
“The body does not say ‘I’. In sleep no one admits he is not. The ‘I’ emerging, all else emerges. Enquire with a keen mind whence this ‘I’ rises.” ~ Ramana Maharshi
How empowering, then, to recognize that, just as we are not our bodies (if we lose a finger, we still think of ourselves as us), or our feelings (feelings come and go, but we still feel we have an “us”), and our minds (our thoughts are a virtual revolving door of coming and going, yet here “we” are), nor are we our stories.
Our stories can be beautiful things. We are creative beings by nature, and storytelling (and extensions of that, myth-making and the formation of all kinds of grand narratives) are a natural part of the fabric of being human, in both the individual and collective sense.
It’s when our stories threaten to limit us, overwhelm us and hold us fixed to one spot (especially when that spot is not serving us and we no longer want to be there), that we may wish to learn how to separate from our stories.
Our stories have gotten us here, to this point, no matter where we are or what our aspirations might be. This isn’t good or bad; it’s natural, and intrinsic to our way of being human. We can’t so much as look as cross the street without a whole host of stories running through our head, some of which help us know how to cross that street in the first place.
We all exist in relationship, to other things, beings and people, and to our own history, and what is the strongest glue bringing us into connection, if not our stories?
But notice how they are among the first things to rise to the surface, explode into chaos and reveal their impermanence when we sit down to meditate, breathe and fill ourselves with silence in a space of calm and rest.
They bubble up and ask to be witnessed. They shake; they are fragile and hesitant and wavering and very demanding of our attention. They poke and threaten to disappear if we let them.
Do we let them?
How much do we hold on, terrified to lose our grip on what we’ve come to know as our reality, and how much do we let go?
If we hold our stories in our hands and scrutinize them, will they change or will they disappear, and doesn’t the former mean the latter? If something takes on a different form, it is no longer what it was. This means that we can dislodge it from its stronghold and it loses some of its power over us.
Sitting quietly and observing our stories stomp into our minds in a relentless bid to take over is one way to recognize that we aren’t our stories; why would the deepest, most lasting parts of ourselves give us such grief and be so susceptible to transformation? Journaling—writing variations of our stories down—is another powerful way to get them out, separate from them and begin to see them for what they really are.
Which takes us that much closer to who we really are.
Let’s love our stories, and honour the humanity that allows us to have and share them, and to learn from each other in this way. Let’s mindfully remain aware that we are creating something every time we tell a story, and that this act of creation has come about to serve a purpose. Only we can determine what that purpose is and how we feel about it.
And when and if the time comes, let’s recognize that there is so much more to who we are than the stories that have brought us here, and that we have the power to lay them gently aside as we continue on our path of evolution.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
~ Maya Angelou
“Curving back within myself, I create again and again.” ~ The Bhagavad Gita
The word “creativity” can be a daunting one.
It conjures images of world-famous artists—visual artists, writers, dancers, among others—bringing breathtaking works into the world, and being validated by certain criteria (by no means objective) for what makes good art.
But in an age when we are becoming increasingly aware of the toll social media and information saturation is having on our brains, and of our need to become more grounded and in sync with the rhythms of nature—our entire sense of well-being depends on this—it’s more important than ever that we really embrace a definition of creativity that makes it available for all of us.
In other words, let’s not forget that for every Mona Lisa, there is a 10-year-old finding a “creative solution” to avoiding punishment by his or her parents, and for every “Moby Dick,” there’s a grandpa captivating a roomful of relatives with an amazing story.
Nobody fully understands what creativity is or where it comes from, which is why there is so much fascinating talk around the subject. I’d like to humbly offer a few opinions here, and would love for them to be taken as inspiration for discussion rather than the final say on the matter.
Considering creativity as the exclusive domain of the fine arts, as we tend to do, can end up an act of self-sabotage, which is why we need to remember how broad creativity really is, so that it stops being such a potentially terrifying word, representing something that is beyond our grasp.
“There is no one definitive creative path. There are many ways to be creative—not only intuitive ways but organized, logical ways, too.” ~ Theresa Bayer
We are all creative. How do we know this? Because we’re alive.
We don’t just know this because evidence goes back at least 17,300 years, when Paleolithic images depicting animals were painted onto cave walls in what is now France as an early instance of the tendency toward art-making.
We are not creative exclusively because we have the urge to manifest images (or audio, or words) representing ourselves, the human experience, and our world—and the workings of our mind and psyche. Rather, we do these things because we are inherently creative. There are so many factors that play into how we end up fostering and nurturing this innate creativity within us.
Being alive is always and already a creative act. We were created by our parents are our ancestors before them. We are borne of a pretty magical and fortuitous act of making, and our lives are the most beautiful possible and foundational form of the creative process.
“The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day.” ~ Samuel Beckett
This must be why we are drawn to express ourselves and our “creativity.” We want to give back, to express, what was put into our own making. To be in harmony with the universe is to be an ever-evolving creative force within a larger creative entity.
But then we get stuck. We think we have to “be creative.” Not everyone, or all the time. But I think most of us get that restless feeling where we “should be doing more,” or “doing something creative.” Then we bury our deepest impulses under a pile of insecurities and assume creativity is best left for others.
When did creativity become such a problematic and loaded idea for us?
Why do we “play house” or “play doctor” when we’re kids? Why do we pick up our crayons and draw flowers but also completely invent creatures as kids? Right from the start, we are emitting the passions of the world, seen and imagined, right back into it. This is such a beautiful thing.
Kids don’t think about art shows or critiques or external validation. Without consciously knowing it, they understand that to live is to be creative. They play, and what is more creative than playing, and unleashing the imagination without concern about outcome?
We do this as adults too, in our less self-conscious moments. We trail our fingers along the sand, making patterns. We arrange food on our plates in aesthetically pleasing ways and we daydream magnificent creations for our lives.
Certainly, our natural creativity can translate into beautiful art, and even in this realm, we get stuck. We are conditioned to feel that painters can’t also be musicians, that writers cannot be good sculptors, and so on. When we start showing an interest in an art form, we’re encouraged to “stick to one area,” that this is where our natural abilities lie.
Have you seen John Lennon’s sketches? Have you seen John Mellencamp’s paintings? Many musicians, in fact, are known for their visual artwork; a general search for crossover creativity online will generate many examples.
In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered what they call “neuroplasticity,” that we have “plastic” brains. At any point in life, we can forge new pathways in our brains, which effectively means that our brains are highly creative in themselves (as mirrors of the universe, they must be!) and allow for us to ever-expand our abilities. The reverse holds true, too. What you don’t use and cultivate, falls off to the wayside.
I know that every time I take a break from painting (often) or journal writing (far less often), I have to work the kinks out of my head and oil the proverbial machinery before I can really get a groove going.
Anything, though, can be a creative act, as an extension of our inherently creative being. I’m not a writer because I’m an artist; rather, I write because this is one of the many possible ways I can honour the world and my relationship to it. It’s a form that I instinctively and naturally feel drawn to, and we can all find our own unique sources of enjoyment by seeking out what moves us.
To me, creative living means doing what you do with passion, authenticity and integrity, with a genuine desire to communicate our own unique presence in the world with others. We can do this by planting tomatoes, tie-dying a shirt, helping those in need, really listening to someone when they speak to us.
The tiniest actions laid bare with passion are already creative, and can very well lead to a motivation on our part to be ever-more creative, until we finally understand what was there all along: creativity is not a goal, but the foundation of our (ideal) mode of being. What flows from this might be a staggering revelation about what we want and have the ability to do.
The way to be what we already are—daringly, gorgeously creative—is to acknowledge that we already have all the tools we need, just by being fully and consciously ourselves.
And now, here it is: 10 ways to get the ball rolling and find yourself already, unexpectedly creative:
1. Listen to a new song twice; once for the melody and once for the lyrics.
2. Have an in-person conversation, and try to scale back on the talking and focus on the listening.
3. Look for shapes in the clouds.
4. Try writing with the hand you don’t normally write with.
5. Write a letter or postcard to someone by hand.
6. Look in the mirror and draw your face on a piece of paper without looking down at what you’re doing.
7. Go out and take take photos of 10 things you’ve never noticed before on your street.
8. Organize your mess of computer files (or, if they’re already super organized, organize them into a new set of categories).
9. Attempt a headstand or handstand so you can see the world from upside down.
10. Close your eyes, and pay attention to every detail of what’s going on in your navel as you take three deep breaths.
Here’s a great quote by Ira Glass on how creativity needs to, and can be cultivated:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”