Spring cleaning and magical messes
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
It started with a shoe rack.
Or maybe it culminated in a shoe rack. For about five months, our house has been in a state of pretty much constant clutter. And when I say "about five months," I really mean five months, two weeks, and four and a half hours. On the afternoon of October 10, Dan and I brought home a puppy. I had resisted Dan's wish for a second dog since around when we started dating. At night as we snuggled on the couch with Buddy, he would turn to me and say, "Gedney, if it's this wonderful with one dog, just imagine what it could be like with TWO dogs!!" He would point out where they could fit on the couch, how they might galivant on the beach, how excited Buddy was whenever he got to play with other pups. I'm often the one in our relationship with her foot on the brakes: I've lived most of my life believing there is no providential safety net, and generally don't make decisions without hours, days, sometimes months of research and planning. (I've been known to take 30 minutes to buy shampoo). But after months of Daniel texting me PetFinder links, and either fatigue with my own frugality or a growing influence of intuition over sense, I capitulated. Not just that, I went all in: in a single weekend, I sent out 15 pet applications. Two told us we needed a fence, twelve never responded, and one told us the dog was ours. Enter Moose.
Moose was three and a half months old and ten pounds teeny when we picked her up from a foster farm in Olympia, fresh off a truck from Texas where she and a dozen other rescues had been found on the streets. We loved her instantly, and she took no time making her personality known. Shortly after picking her up, we took her to a field so she could piddle, stretch her legs, and meet her brother. As soon as we put her down on the grass, she started barking at the birds, then at Buddy. Oh no, I thought. Our older dog, Buddy, almost never barks. He never jumps, growls, digs, relieves himself in the house, or chews on anything. Buddy is, and has always been, a uniquely angelic dog. I believe his true aim in life is to love, be loved in return, and get treats.
Moose, on the other hand, began testing our boundaries, our patience, and our sanity from her first night in the house. To be sure, puppies are always a handful, but as we just commemorated her nine-month birthday, it is very clear she came into this world to stir up some shit. Buddy has never cared much for toys, only picking up the odd squeaker once in a blue moon. But Moose loves to play. Moose lives to play. Her first order of business after breakfast is finding a toy. She can spend hours outside in the yard, tossing balls and sticks for herself, just to pounce on them afterwards as if they'd just escaped her clutches. While Buddy naps cozily on the couch, Moose spends her day chasing birds, trotting sticks around, mouthing on woodchips, and on real frisky days eating her own poop. As a result of both her joie de feces and the energy it has required us to train her, exhaust her, and keep our jobs, our home has gradually devolved into what feels like one extended array of different piles: piles of dirty dishes, of clothes, of blankets, of mail, toys, recycling, and trash (paper bags are Moose's preferred object of destruction).
One day coming in the front door, I tripped for the umpteenth time on one of these piles, except this was more like an archipelago of shoes that wound its way from the front door around our entryway. "There has to be a better way," I thought. I promptly sat down, pulled out my phone, and spent the next several hours (yes, hours) browsing WayFair for the perfect shoe rack. I measured different parts of the wall near the door, I compared colors, styles, and prices until finally deciding on a $64, amber-stained wooden shoe rack. I was so nervous about it being the right shoe rack and a potential waste of money I asked Daniel if he was a) ok if I bought a shoe rack ("Are you seriously asking me this?") and b) if this was the right shoe rack (for that one he just left his eye brows raised, in disbelief there could even be a question b).
A week later, the shoe rack arrived, and I immediately went to work putting the thing together, and shortly after moving the archipelago to neat little stacks. As Dan can attest, I've never been a neat freak. However, this moment felt revelatory. Cleaning that little corner was downright empowering: yes, I was still exhausted from work. Yes, it was just one corner of about 10 pairs of shoes. But it was reassuring to know that in the midst of what felt like an insurmountable wave of chores and tasks and messes, I was not completely helpless.
My transcendent experience with the shoe rack convinced me the house was a metaphor for my life. There was too much, too much I had coveted or clung to for so long, too much I hadn't found a place for. I bought Marie Kondo's Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and about four other self-help / change your life books. "What's happening to me?!" I thought. I knew these books were scams: they sold the snake-oil of life-hacks as a fix to larger systemic issues like America's obsession with 50 hour work weeks and a lack of a social safety net. These books profited off of making people feel like they were what needed fixing, dangling examples of one-percenters or .1 percenters with six packs, no pores, preparing three-course dinners with saffron grown in their backyard and a multi-million dollar blogging business as proof it can be done. Never once mentioning an economy in which wages have been stagnating while the cost of living keeps skee-doing up up up. Or a government that still somehow finds measures like universal healthcare too expensive for a nation with annual military spending exceeding $700 billion, too radical for a population in which over two thirds of the people (Democrats and Republicans) support Medicare for All . I have historically hated self-help books because so much of what is written off as an individual's lack of focus, lack of discipline, lack of ingenuity, was so clearly driven by recent abhorrent macroeconomic and political trends.
I knew all this. But I still bought five self-help books. What's worse: I read them.
I had heard a lot about Marie Kondo by the time I bought her book. Mostly I heard people laugh at her hallmark practice of holding an object in your hands, and asking yourself if it brings you joy. How woo! How silly! But this wasn't the part of the book that struck me: what struck me instead was Kondo's own reckoning with her compulsive cleaning, which she has been doing since she was a child. Growing up, Kondo would take things from her family she didn't think they were using anymore, hide them, and if they didn't find them or ask about them she threw them out. Unsurprisingly this borderline sociopathic behavior wasn't making her happier. Her big realization came when, in the middle of another purge, she looked around the room and realized she had been focusing on the wrong things. The whole goal of cleaning, she realized, was not about what you were getting rid of: it's about what you keep. The goal of cleaning, for Kondo, is to be surrounded only by things that bring you joy, that you love. Haptic-empath practices aside, I found this really enlightening: I was so obsessed, so focused on all of the things I didn't want in my life (debt, my day job, time crunch, clutter, the extra 10 lbs I gained in COVID), I had completely lost sight of what I wanted in my life. There was no point in going on a purge unless I had a keener sense of what I wanted to treasure.
In the same shipment as Kondo's book was another book called Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Like Kondo, I had definitely heard of Elizabeth Gilbert already, and had decided a long time ago she was not worth my while. I've never read Eat, Pray, Love, nor seen the movie, but I hated them both on principle. Most of all I hated how much Elizabeth Gilbert's worldview had taken over the zeitgeist. I hated how so much of her writing revolved around a white woman going to a foreign place and finding herself through organic olive oil and Balinese dance. I hated that she peddled a story of self-exploration to everyone, when so many Americans struggle to put food in their fridge or pay for a doctor's visit, let alone quit their day job, travel the world, and write a multi-million dollar book from it. I was also maybe particularly averse to Gilbert because I lived abroad for a year without a publisher's book advance, scraping by on an English teacher's salary, and actually had one of the hardest years of my life, financially, socially, and romantically. Elizabeth Gilbert got a Braziliain lover and a book deal, and I got an HPV scare and a muffin top from stress eating pain au chocolat. Elizabeth Gilbert, in essence, was my antichrist.
So why the book? I think it was a bit like the puppy: I was tired of being reasonable, skeptical, cynical and logical. While everything in me screamed how creative manuals are a scam, and Elizabeth Gilbert was a Vampire Karen sucking on the dreams of dissatisfied suburban housewives everywhere, there was also a little voice in me that peeped, "I'm tired of hating everything: maybe we could try hope on for a change?" Gilbert's book seemed so foreign to anything I was thinking or feeling or seeing in my world: 2020 was the year of global catastrophes and tiny coping mechanisms, not "Big Magic." A sense of wonder and possibility was pretty much gone from my day-to-day, but the shoe-rack experience had planted a seed in me that maybe I could do something about it, however small. So I forked over the $12.39 for this pastel-o-matic paperback, and cracked open the front cover four days later.
The premise of the book is rather straightforward, with six different sections each devoted to one of Gilbert's six ingredients to a creative life: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. Each section comprises many smaller vignettes or anecdotes on a given theme, either from Gilbert's life or from people she's known. Pretty straightforward, right? Could something so basic as assorted meditations on these very broad themes actually catalyze concrete, tangible changes in someone's creative life?
Well apparently they can. Candidly, I loved this book. I have earmarked pages and underlined passages. I've already re-read passages. It now lives on my desk with two collections of Mary Oliver poems, and a book on mythology and dreams. It is without question one of my favorite writings on creativity. I love it not because Elizabeth Gilbert is the best writer I've ever read, or because the book has fixed all my creative problems, or because I think she will revolutionize literature, or even because I see myself in her. We're pretty different. But that's actually part of why I liked it. At some points in the book, I even winced at her wording or ideas, cause they seemed tacky, or corny, or maybe even problematic ( e.g., I don't love her use of the word "voodoo" to refer to something vaguely mystical. It's an actual belief system with rituals, rites, symbols and stories. Read about it, Liz!)
BUT: for all the cheesy anecdotes and a couple vaguely troublesome references, in the three days it took me to devour the book's 276 pages, Gilbert managed to do more for my creative struggles than two years of very expensive graduate school, and maybe even two additional years of writing this blog. I'm a little hesitant to recommend it because, well, it was tremendously revelatory for me, but I really don't know what other people need! It told me what I needed to hear. Most of my friends are creative in some way or other, and not all of them have not struggled with their career, vocation, or purpose in life in the ways that I have. I think all our roads can look pretty different.
What I will say is I've read a lot of different books and blogs to help struggling creatives, and most of them begin by prescribing activities or exercises or prompts or rituals to recommend, to "help" you "fix" yourself. What I like about Gilbert's book is that she actually doesn't do that. In the end, what she does feels much more fundamental, and way less prescriptive: all she offers is a frame of mind, and a set of attitudes, that help foster a creative life. Because let's face it: most of the time the thing holding us back is mostly about our mindset or our attitude than it is about not knowing the right set of tricks or tools. At least in my experience. When I'm in a healthy mindset about myself and my creativity, I don't need as many tricks or tools, or to win the lotto, because I am inside the work and making it happen. And that's all I really need.
The book is so reliant on stories and anecdotes, it's tough to capture what about Gilbert's book was so helpful for me. But as I said, she told me what I needed to hear. So in the spirit of spring, the equinox, rebirth, and inspiration, here are some of the obvious, cheesy things that spoke to me:
"the only thing I really do is make jewelry for the inside of other peoples' minds." - Tom Waits
This actually comes from Gilbert's interview with Tom Waits, but it's one of my favorite nuggets from the book. Even though creativity can be the most meaningful part of a given day, month, year, or lifetime, when you get down to it, the stakes for creating are in fact extremely low (generally). Creating is in fact decorative, or so Gilbert thinks. Whether the object is high art or the new coat of paint you give your bedroom, we create to add flourishes to our lives, not because we have to but because we can and because it's delightful. Let this be freeing, she argues, rather than disappointing. Because if creativity is purely decorative, it means whatever mistakes we make are not actually consequential: a failed short story will not, cannot kill you, or anyone else. Something you make could hurt peoples' feelings, it could offend someone's politics or sensibilities, people could hate what you make or ignore it altogether, but in even the worst of these scenarios the the world does not end. When I struggle to believe this, I simply remind myself of how frigging egotistical you'd have to be to think your mistakes in art are in any way that consequential: who would I have to be, what kind of demigod, if I got onstage and sang flat or played a wrong note, and started WWIII? No one's art is that powerful, or important, no matter what it sells for at a Christie's auction. And we should take that as the ultimate permission to play, be wrong, and play again.
"I never promised the universe that I would be a great writer, goddamn it! I just promised the universe that I would be a writer!"
This one was huge for me. Like tsunami-sized. At some point long ago, I must've made a deal with a mean little demon inside: the deal was he would "give me permission" to be an artist, but only if I could pay him back in being a great artist. I didn't realize I had made that bargain explicitly until I read that Gilbert had made a totally different one. A way better one, in my estimation. I literally didn't know I had another option: I truly believed that I could either be a great artist, and give it everything I had, or I could be an ok artist, but would then have to settle for being a hobbyist and an amateur. What I could not do, what was verboten in my world, was to take my work seriously, call myself an artist, love it, have fun with it, call it my vocation, and make anything less than groundbreaking, game-changing, or genius. Reading Big Magic has done nothing short of helping me tear up that rotten contract I had, and write a new one with a more supportive, if wily, creative daemon: I promise the universe to keep making things as well and with as much zest as I know how, because that is what makes my life worth living. In return I get...the joy of making things. No genius status required. Because whether what I make is great or perfect or naïve or widely circulated or unpopular is actually, truly, besides the point.
Love over suffering, always.
When I read this, I immediately thought of a time I was at a friend's apartment in New York. This friend is a filmmaker, a deeply skilled and dedicated one, and he was working on finishing his first full-length documentary. The process was getting drawn out. He knew this film was going to be significant, it was a big next step for him, (it ended up winning several prizes and accolades!) but the weight of the project, how much it meant to him, and how high his hopes and expectations for it were, were definitely pressing on him. While we were hanging out, he told me about a conversation he had at a party the week before when someone asked him if he was having fun finishing his film. We both laughed at the absurdity of the question. My friend had responded wrly: "Does the beetle push along his ball of shit because it is fun? No. He pushes it because it is what the beetle must do." We laughed even harder at this. Both of us had spent a fair amount of time in Eastern Europe, in which there is an intense streak of the artist martyr mentality. While we thought that extreme version was funny, it also just seemed so obvious that you didn't make things because it was fun: you made it because it was the cross you bore.
What horse shit (or beetle dung)! My friend may have been mostly joking, but I wasn't, not really. Somewhere along my journey I mistook misery or unhappiness as a given, something I had no choice but to endure if I wanted to be creative. I used to watch my partner go into his study every night, enthusiastically noodling and creating cool new songs night after night. Sometimes he'd spend 20 minutes in there, sometimes two hours. But he never seems drained, or angry, like he'd just been in a fight. He seems restored, happy, or even normal. He never comes out of his studio looking wounded or tortured or consternated like I know I did. It's just not fair, I would think. Why is it fun for him? Why can't it be fun for me? Well as it turned out because he chooses to do the things that he loves, that don't make him suffer. Whereas I was often torn between choosing what was the most fun and what I thought would help me pay back my debt to my demon: what would make me great. Nothing was ever great enough in the little demon's eyes, and so I never ever had fun. (Hint: "greatness" is a vague and ever-moving target). Reading this line shook me awake to the fact that it is not "a cross" I've been given: it is a choice. I choose the bargains I enter, and I can choose instead to do what actually makes me feel good and happy.
If you're going to live your life based on delusions (and you are, because, we all do) then why not at least select a delusion that is helpful? Allow me to suggest this one: The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.
This quote hit me deep for two big reasons: First, growing up, my family communicated in movie quotes, and one of their favorite references is the film Bull Durham. One of the lines from this film I heard constantly as a kid was "The world was made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness." And I kind of agree, which is why I appreciate this quote so much: if the world is made for people like that, ask yourself, who would you rather be? Standing smugly in the corner of the self-awares, or dancing in the middle of the room with the self-deluded weirdos? This is a real choice, and for a very long time I stuck to the corner, only dancing when I knew all the words to the song and there were lots of other people out there so my dancing wouldn't stand out. But I've started to realize that I can't take my smugness with me. And at the end of the party I may have my dignity, but I'll also be walking heavy under the weight of all the wiggles and jumps and turns my body was longing for, that I held inside. I'll take a a little self-delusion for a good night (or lifetime) of dancing openly.
The other part of this quote though that was so profound for me was the idea of the work choosing you. I have this experience from time to time, often with songs. I don't really know how to explain it except that every once in a while, I'll hear a song on the radio or live and I just know I'm supposed to sing it. This calling knows no bounds of genre or vocal range or time period: when you hear it, you know. I've had it happen with Russian folk songs, mid-century classical art songs, old Christian spirituals, and pop music. I stopped listening to this feeling for a long time: remember, I had signed a contract that I would be a great artist, and I was pretty sure great artists didn't just sing old Russian songs or Linda Rondstadt covers. Great artists wrote challenging, witty feature films, or made evocative, huge installations on capitalism and stuff. So I pivoted from making the work that was tapping on my shoulder and kept slogging away at projects that I was sure would deliver on that greatness I owed my little demon loan shark. That stopped working after a while, and eventually stopped me from making work altogether.
But when I have listened to that tap on my shoulder, the experience has always been nothing short of transcendent. Of the five to ten songs that have called to me in my life, I can tell you every time I've sung one in public something profound happens: it's probably what most people call an out-of-body experience, except I don't feel out of my body or high so much as I feel totally present, alert, and steered along by someone else's hand. And everyone else in the room is completely directed along the same path, as if the song is a river we are all floating down together. I have worked to become a better singer over the years, but I don't accredit this phenomenon to anything special about me. Other singers I know have felt it too. This kind of experience simply happens because the song is asking to come in: all I have to do is say yes.
Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest will take care of itself.
This little mantra comes early on in the book, and it feels like the backbone that carries everything else. It's closely tied to the deal I made with the little demon, my choice of "shoulds" over loves, and a deep lack of trust. If you had showed me the list of Gilbert's six essential ingredients before I read the book, I would've told you I had courage, permission, and persistence problems. I was too scared of failing or looking foolish, I didn't think I was young enough or talented enough to have permission, I gave up too easily. But reading through this book I see that none of this is exactly right. I've followed through on a lot of projects, I've submitted my applications for work to loads of festivals. What I was really missing was trust.
For a long time I haven't trusted what causes revolutions in my heart: I didn't trust my heart, and I didn't trust that if I really went for it, the universe to take care of me. As I mentioned earlier, given trends in how our government and economy are structured, evidence suggests the universe won't take care of me. Not like that. But reading Gilbert's book I saw just how little that attitude, that hyper-structural awareness, that focus, and that lack of trust got me. And then I looked at Elizabeth Gilbert, who went into life with an attitude that was totally anathema to mine, and she seemed much happier, well adjusted, and frankly, prolific. She just keeps writing. Is it the best work of literature since Toni Morrison? Nope. Is it ideologically perfect? No way. Do I like her fiction? No, I don't. But I think my problems are far more with the publishing industry and Oprah's book club than they are with her. And I have to believe there's a way to be clear-eyed about the systemic barriers that exist in the world, fighting against them, while still having faith and trust in one's self.
I bought five self-help books because I thought I had a clutter problem. There was too much! I needed order, and cleanliness, or so I thought, in both my house and my creative life. But really the shoe rack was not a metaphor for my life: I just really needed a shoe rack, and maybe a little more daily attention to tidying. What I needed in my creative life was different: you don't get focus by deciding you need focus. You get focus by honoring what's really important to you, and trusting that. My life is far from over, but I feel like any minute longer spent either not making something because it's not good enough or making something because I need to prove I have a right to be here and be creative is a minute I don't have the luxury of throwing away anymore. I don't want a shelf of ideas and songs and poems and films that sit on a shelf because they were not great enough. I want shelves of books and recordings and let's face it hard drives or cloud connections filled with imperfect, or even mediocre, things I made. And I want everyone else to have that too. I'm going to keep working on the Dumpster Diaries, but from now on I want them to take on a different bent, one not so much focused on the garbage but on what can be done with it or in spite of it: I want to move out of this pensive time of untangling and into a new phase of weaving. I am ready to climb out of the dumpster.
This means a few things are going to happen this year:
I'm recording a full-length album this year. I'm friggin excited. For reasons of budget, it will likely not drop till this fall, but keep your eye out for Soft Animal, 2021. I've already started putting the demos together and I am pumped.
I'll be doing a live stream on April 30. The concert will celebrate some of my favorite female and non-binary songwriters, and, I hope, help me get over my terror of performing in public. Save the date!!
I am launching a podcast/radio show called Voiceover, to premiere by the end of May. The show will be an exploration of vocal expression, focusing every episode on a vocalist, an album, or a genre that expands on what we think is possible to express or do with the voice. We'll also look at the social and cultural implications of the voice, and the ways in which issues around class, race, and gender get negotiated in how we vocalize. There'll be an episode about Aretha Franklin, Anohni, Bulgarian folk singing, whales, protest songs, valley girls, and everything in between.
I'm going to put out three more Dumpster Diaries this year, one for every season. Consider this your Late Winter edition!
This list looks nice and orderly, but there are still a lot of messes in my house and my creative life. Finishing this book came with a flood of ideas and projects I had set aside or not made enough time for, and it is too much. But I'm feeling less fussed about it, and am not going to wait until everything is clear and tidy to get started. Instead I'm going to trust: trust that the best way to clarify is through making these things, trust that if I keep going, whatever ends up falling to the wayside was meant to fall to the wayside, and what sticks was meant to stick. If I climb out of the dumpster, the work that wants to be made through me will get made.
Wishing you a magical spring...