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Small Wins, Big Magic

Today marks a big day for post-pandemic PDX Vox. Members will gather this afternoon for a singing retreat, learning songs that all 4 groups will have in common. It's a fun tradition that highlights the mission of the a cappella program, to build community through music. Sadly, I won't be part of the celebration, as I'm out of town for a family event, but I know that Aaron, Alison, Hannah and Steven have an engaging plan in store, as always. On a personal level, I haven’t been living the creative life nearly as much as I want. Or nearly as much as I preach, in my teaching, coaching and social interactions. It’s been a hectic couple of months, wearing several hats that require me to be organized, analytical, disciplined and watching the clock and calendar. I’ve also been asked to show up and provide support for my family more than usual.

Don’t get me wrong. In some ways, in spite of everything, I’m happier than I’ve been in a while. I feel useful, needed, and smart. I’m solving problems that the people around me care about. At the end of the day, I'm satisfied that I’ve checked lots of items off my list. I’m ringing the bells that I can ring and putting my energy into where it can do some good.

And. A piece of me is missing. You know the piece. That creative part that makes life sparkle and feel worth living, in spite of everything.

Fortunately, while I was packing for a recent trip to visit a family member, I grabbed my copy of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. When I first read this breezy book back in 2015, it seemed like a more whimsical version of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, the bible of my artistic awakening. I enjoyed it, but it didn't feel like new territory for me. As I re-read the book on the plane and throughout my trip, Gilbert's words felt like the medicine I needed.

Big Magic is chock full of wisdom for creative folks, but these are the 6 nuggets that especially spoke to me at this juncture:

1. Creative living is broad. It isn’t only art-making. It’s "the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you." And it's "a life that's driven more strongly by curiosity than fear."

2. The process is the best part. “What you produce is not necessarily sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spend working on the project.”

3. There will never be enough. Throughout history, "most individuals have never had enough time, resources, support, patronage, or reward. Yet still they persist in creating, because they care and they are called to be makers."

4. You must be smart about providing for yourself. “To claim you are too creative to think about financial questions is to infantilize yourself (which is) demeaning to your soul.”

5. Do it because you like it. "You are not required to save the world with your creativity. Your art doesn't have to be original. It also doesn't have to be important. Creating is a gift to the creator."

6. Engage in stubborn gladness. Gilbert opens the book with a story about poet Jack Gilbert, to whom she was not related but professionally connected. He wrote, “We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” Jack told his students that they must live their most creative lives as a means of resistance - a timeless message for coping with the larger struggles we face.

Bathroom Surveillance, or Vanity Eye by Martha Rosler

Big Magic reminds me that I'm not alone in trying to keep my creative life going while taking care of business in its many forms. There will never be enough time. Bills will always need to be paid. Loved ones will need care. And more broadly, Democracy must be saved. Justice must be pursued. The planet must be healed. We all have a long to-do list.

And the same time, the Gilberts help me see how risky it is to lean into productivity and practical matters, and to rate my day by the checkmarks on that to-do list, even if those to-do's feel noble and necessary. It places my sense of curiosity, wonder and delight on the margins, to the point where they seem pointless. But I know from experience that the deepest pleasures sit on those margins and light up the rest of the day. They give me the strength to persist, in spite of everything.

For now, I'm keeping my creative candle burning by writing a short poem every night before bedtime. It doesn't feel like a lot, but it's a habit that delights me every evening. And who knows? It might turn into something bigger. Then again, the Big Magic is in the process.

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