Making It Through Creative Limbo

January is here and I am baffled. Where is the excitement I usually feel?

I like to spend January getting excited about what’s next. I had planned on returning to my novel. Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I had developed a strong daily writing habit. My re-write of Rapunzel was going to rocket forward.

Then my husband hit a patch of ice on his mountain bike and broke his hip.

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Two of the handful of drawings I’ve done in the last month.

As he lay in the ER, Kurt tried to figure out how he could make his meetings the next day. It didn’t occur to him that he would still be in the hospital the next day.

While I was quicker than Kurt was to realize that our world had changed, I didn’t realize exactly how I would be affected. I would have to be his nurse, as well as take sole responsiblity for all the tasks we normally shared, so I expected to be busy. I expected to be tired.

I did not expect to be completely unplugged from my creative self.

Early on, I was so overwhelmed and exhausted that I had to choose. On any given day, I could only do a little. Groceries took precedence. Doctor appointments came first. Cooking and laundry? Essential to the point of being inescapable.

Writing had to wait.

After a few weeks, however, I expected to get back to normal. Kurt was home and we had developed a new routine. Surely I could get back to my writing?

But I couldn’t. I usually write daily. I also knit, quilt, or draw on a regular basis. Since Kurt’s accident, I’ve gone days without creating, and I don’t seem to care.

My lack of enthusiasm frightens me. I feel like I’ve lost a piece of my brain. I signed up for some weekly online inspirational sessions to help me focus on my dreams, hoping this would help me find my way back to my creative self.

It turns out, I can’t do that, either. Attempts to dig deep and look at the big picture are fruitless and frustrating.

Whether I like it or not, I am in creative limbo right now.

Just as Kurt is sleeping much more than usual, I apparently also need to be still. As the days go by, however, I wonder when the my enthusiasm will be back. Like Kurt, I am anxious to return to my normal activities, and like Kurt, I must be patient.

The temptation is to force things, to makes something happen, but sometimes you can’t push it. Sometimes, you have to accept where you are at and go with the flow. We cannot always be making. We have to stop and breathe and let ourselves rest now and then.

Creativity is supposed to go in cycles. My hope is that this flat, gray, unproductive time is just part of the cycle, and that soon I will move on to a new phase.

In the meantime, I must wait.

Keeping Stores Closed On Holidays: What I Learned in Germany

There’s been a lot of stuff floating around on the internet about stores being open or closed on Thanksgiving Day. Having stores open on a holiday is a bad idea, and living in Germany for two years taught me why.

The palace in downtown Stuttgart. We walked past it every weekend.
The palace in downtown Stuttgart. We walked past it every weekend.

When I lived in Germany in the early 90s, the hours for shopping of any kind were limited. Stores were open on the weekdays during regular business hours (8 AM – 5 PM). There was no shopping in the evening and the only weekend hours were in the morning on Saturday, with all the stores closing at noon. Once a month, we had “long Saturday,” when the stores were open until an incredible 2 PM. After that, you couldn’t buy anything until Monday morning. This meant that Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday were free from the sort of errands that are considered common in America.

A typical Sunday afternoon in the Stuttgart park: time to play chess, or just watch.
A typical Sunday afternoon in the Stuttgart park: time to play chess, or just watch.

Coming from the land of the 24-hour super store, I was initially perplexed. Working full-time in the U.S. meant I did my shopping on weekends to keep my weekdays from seeming unmanageable. Fortunately, my job teaching English to Germans left me with some weekday hours free, and I could get to the grocery store then. Saturday morning was the only time my husband could shop, but that didn’t cause any problem. As long as we made lists and planned our shopping trips, we were fine.

With time, I didn’t just adjust to the limitations the Germans put on my shopping opportunities, I grew to love it.
Weekends were not for shopping. We couldn’t buy groceries for the week or the lightbulbs we needed. We couldn’t look for new coats or shoes. We couldn’t even shop for the entertainment value, unless we were willing to stick to window-shopping only.

Me taking a break from playing frisbee. (Odds are, it was a Sunday.)
Me taking a break from playing frisbee. (Odds are, it was a Sunday.)

As someone who doesn’t really like to shop, it surprised me that this limitation still had an effect on me. Our Sundays were holidays whether we wanted them to be or not. The wisdom of taking a day off, of letting everything wait in order to relax, became apparent to me. Every week, there was at least one day I could count on taking a break, and it made my work days easier to get through. The pace of life, with its clear boundaries between work and play, became my favorite thing about living in Germany.

I told myself when I came back to the U.S., I could keep the tradition going. I could treat Sunday as a day off, a day to rest, no work to be done. You can guess what happened. A Sunday came when I needed something for a recipe and I was back in the U.S., where the stores are open all weekend. I could go shopping even though it was Sunday and I did. That dividing line that made Sunday a holiday was gone.

A swan in the Stuttgart city park.
A swan in the Stuttgart city park.

And that’s why I’m so distressed about the stores that want to be open on Thanksgiving Day. There are very few days in the U.S. where stores are actually closed, where we stop the commerce and focus instead on time spent with family and friends, on rest and relaxation. We need to set aside more days like this instead of working and shopping ourselves to death.

Even though there will be some stores open this Thanksgiving, I won’t be doing any shopping. How about you?

We Need Breaks, Even From Activities We Love

I suck at relaxing. Like most Americans, I suffer from the Puritan work ethic: we must always be doing, and the doing must be productive. Thanks to my health issues, I’ve learned that I must rest some of the time, but even when I decide to take a break, I often struggle to truly relax.

I always look for ways to make my planned down-time useful. Instead of reading for fun, I read a book related to my current writing project. Why watch a silly movie, when I could soak up a lecture or a TED talk? Even play time in the studio can be made into work if I ignore what I want to be doing in that moment and instead pick up an unfinished project merely to finish it.

This kind of productive relaxation time isn’t as relaxing as the real thing. I’m still working even though I have “play time” written on the calendar. The article Reducing Your Guilt About Not Being Productive recently reminded me of why doing nothing is important.

Of the six tips included in the article, the one that resonated the most with me was number three: wasting time can be productive*. Our best ideas often come to use when we aren’t actually working, like when we are in the shower or exercising. Agatha Christie claimed she did her best thinking while washing the dishes, and I believe her. I used to plot story chapters while pushing the mower around my two acre yard in New York and was often astonished at the wonderful ideas that would come to me as I plodded along.

photo by Kurt Fristrup
photo by Kurt Fristrup

While on a camping trip, I was unable to go on a hike due to knee pain. I decided not to do anything while I waited for the others to return. Instead, I rested in a hammock and watched the clouds rolling through the sky. The clouds clumped and stretched as they drifted, changing forms quickly, reminding me of the fleeting thoughts that roll through my mind. The only real idea I got while I was lying there was that I need to spend a little more time being, a little less time doing.

After I got home from the trip, I realized that every time I thought about writing a blog post, I cringed. Even my novel, which I love dearly and am eager to revise, feels like a grand piano I need to move up three flights of stairs by myself. Despite the fact that my week was full of emergencies that kept me from writing, I felt like I was going crispy around the edges. I swear I could smell smoke. Burn out was right around the corner.

The time has come to take a break from writing, even though I adore it. Creation is draining, and while it is a good discipline to write regularly and post on my blog according to my schedule, taking a break can be a good discipline, too. I’m taking off the month of August; no blogging for four weeks. It will give me a chance to recharge my batteries, collect fresh ideas, and re-discover my enthusiasm for writing. When I took a week off from the blog this spring, I came back to the task excited and inspired, so I have great hopes for what this month off will do.

photo by Kurt Fristrup
photo by Kurt Fristrup

So, dear readers, I’ll see you in September! Right now, I need to go watch some clouds.

*Of course, it’s the argument that not doing anything is actually productive that got my attention.

Do you take breaks from your favorite activities? How do you decide when you need a break?

Overtaken By Events: Why My Blog’s Been Idle

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First, my laptop died. All my writing — novels, blog posts, journals, even packing lists — lives on my laptop. Losing that tool was like having an arm cut off. I would think of something to do, then realize I was missing most of the parts of myself I use to do that thing.  Bewildering and frustrating.

Before I could adjust to my situation, my husband got sick. I got busy helping him get better: making chicken soup, buying ginger root, pouring him another cup of tea, keeping him company. It was easier than solving my “now what?” dilemmas about writing (although I’m pretty sure if I’d gotten some paper and a pen, I could have written something).

Then, as he was getting better, I got sick, and that was the final straw. I find sinus headaches incapacitating. I can read or watch TV, but only if it isn’t too challenging. Any independent thinking seems impossible, like someone replaced my brain with frozen slugs.

Once I realized I was truly sick and needed to take a few days off, I let go of my writing goals. I could have worked on my novel or drafted a blog post, but the effort would have been extreme and there would be no way to tell if the results were worthwhile. (I find a slugafied brain a very poor proofreader.) Better to declare myself on leave and let go of my usual goals until I was well again. I hated doing it, but it gave me room to rest, relax, and heal.

My convalescence is over. My new computer is up and running, with my recovered files on board. Best of all: I am in the mountains for a writing retreat, with my days open to a schedule of my own devising.

I want my top priority this week is to be my writing, but even now I have to compromise. I will write, probably a lot. But I must also continue to heal. I have to rest as well as write, and it pisses me off that this is the case.

But I’m happy that I get to write again, and even happier that the slugs are out of my brain.