As a young girl I spent weekends at my grandmother’s narrow red brick row home, the one at the end of Poplar Street in Allentown, Pennsylvania, while my mom and step-dad went on the road with their country and western band. To cure my boredom, on Saturday afternoons my grandma would take a small bottle of Elmer’s Glue, some colored construction paper and a pair of child’s safety scissors from the metal cabinet tucked in a corner near the back door and put them down in front of me while I watched at the kitchen table.
Sometimes she poured all the dots left in the bottom of my grandpa’s hole punch into a bowl. Even better was when she gave me the hole punch so that I could make my own dots from the pages of a well read McCall’s magazine. Sometimes my grandma crushed the egg shells she’d saved from breakfasts that week, separated them into three or four Dixie cups and adding a few drops of McCormack’s food coloring to each one.
And then she left me to my own devices. I was free to create textured mosaics with the egg shells or to follow the outline of a pencil drawing with my pile of dots in all shades of color and tone. I sat at that table for hours while my grandma worked around me, grilling sliced onions, mixing horseradish with catsup and frying my beloved Minute Steaks while rolls toasted in the oven for my favorite Saturday dinner.
The act of creating – whether it’s an egg shell mosaic or an egg filled soufflé, a loom knitted beanie or a black bean burrito – can be a balm that shifts our focus from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future to the moment in which we are living. This moment. The present. There is, however, one caveat. While our intent when we’re creating may be to produce something that we’ll gift to others, the act of creating must be something we gift ourselves. Because creating is a mind-freeing act of self-care.
It took me half a century and a global pandemic to figure that out.
I think what catches us up when we consider creating something out of nothing is our predilection for wanting to make something perfect. Wanting to create precisely what we see in our mind’s eye. The perfect portrait. The perfect flower arrangement. The perfect layered cake. The perfect dance. When we abandon those ideas of perfection and decide instead to lean into the question ‘I wonder what would happen if…’ creating becomes contemplative play. As the chaos we’re living through continues to storm around us, creating as contemplative play becomes a gift of self-care that reduces anxiety, changes perspective and sparks joy.
Right now I’m spending my ‘creativity time’ playing with needle and thread, fabric and photographs. I’m learning new skills like felting and sashiko and boro and remembering old skills that I loved as a child like embroidery.
When was the last time you dug out that set of colored pencils you keep stashed at the back of your desk? Or finished the blanket you began knitting two years ago? Or made your grandmother’s lemon bar recipe? Or dusted off that guitar? Or done any activity that lights up a different part of your brain and moves you from the routine to the sublime?