Steve and I have a large, rambling house ordinary enough to accommodate an active family and its inevitable mishaps. There are dents and nicks, scratches and stains – the marks of memories in the making. At one point, my computer occupied a corner of a room I call the library. While not a library in its truest sense, it houses most of my bookshelves and some of the African art I collect. Located between our family room, kitchen, and three bedrooms, it’s like the hub of a busy train station. There is always traffic, noise, and interruption. For many years, I didn’t mind. If wanted to write, I wrote at night after everyone was in bed because, at the time, writing wasn’t paramount. I loved it, but had other things that required my attention.
When that changed and I found myself writing on deadline, the noise around my desk drove me insane. I tried to block it out, tried in vain. One afternoon, working on a particularly challenging blog post, it became too much. In the family room, one son played a video game. Another watched a movie in his bedroom. In the kitchen, my husband had an animated conversation on the phone. The cacophony sent a needle of pain through my forehead. I rose in a huff, poured a glass of wine, and went out to the patio in pursuit of quiet. I had just settled myself when the dogs caught sight of something and bounded past me barking and yelping. I couldn’t help it. I started to cry.
Sensing something wrong, Steve hung up the phone and came to join me.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” he asked.
“There is no place in this house for me. The noise is too much. Nobody cares that I’m working. Everybody just does their stuff and it’s like I don’t exist. And what am I supposed to do? Shut everyone up? They have a right to do their stuff, too.”
His face clouded with worry and he looked away, thinking. He tracked horses in the corral, clouds above the hills, and the sun descending before refocusing on me, eyes alight with a solution.
“Why don’t you take a bedroom and make it your office?” he suggested.
“Ugh. It’s fine. It just overwhelmed me for a second,” I said.
“No. Really. I think it would be good for you.”
Some of our six children had grown and gone, but I couldn’t bear to claim their bedrooms. I wanted them to feel they still had a home with us.
“I can’t do that. We need the beds for when the kids come.”
“Take a room. I’m serious. Make a space for you.”
I couldn’t imagine being that selfish and self-indulgent. He didn’t have a room of his own. Why should I? Additionally, if I moved my office into a private room, I would be out of sight and out of mind – disconnected from him and unavailable. That felt dangerous.
“I’ll think about it,” I lied.
A few weeks later, a man fell in love with one of my paintings. Once a passionate and wealthy collector, the recession had cost him. Now, he couldn’t afford to pay for the painting, but would trade if I let him.
I have always believed that if a work of art really moves someone and there is anyway for them to have it they should, so Steve and I went out to his house to view the cabinet he’d offered in exchange. It was massive, ancient, and beautiful. Intricately carved on every surface, it told stories without words. I loved it, but knew we didn’t have room. It was just too big.
At home, I went through the motions – measuring spaces and moving things around to see if I could make it work. I couldn’t and felt terrible. Really wanting the man to have his painting, I avoided his phone calls and ignored his emails while I stewed on the problem. Then it hit me. If I took a bed out of one of the bedrooms and made it an office, I could fit the cabinet. I was elated. So was he. He got a piece of art. I got a piece of furniture, a beautiful office, and my peace of mind.
Giving to that man allowed me to give to myself without guilt and the office is one of my most treasured gifts. Until I created it, I didn’t have Place. My time, energy, and focus were constantly interrupted by those I love. Pulled in multiple directions all the time, I couldn’t find quiet in my heart or mind, didn’t know who I was, or what I even liked anymore. Raising a family, trying to run a business and make a living, navigating relationships, and keeping a home left me exhausted and on autopilot most of time. The office – grounding, quiet, empowering, and inspiring – gave me Place. In it, I had space to figure out who I am and what I need.
Brené Brown says, “Ironically, the only way to free ourselves from power-over is to reclaim our real power – the power to create and live by our own definitions.” When I created my office, I began to do just that.
Place is a gift that bears fruit again and again. It can be an office, an altar, a garden, or an easel. It doesn’t have to be a room. It just needs to promote wellbeing and encourage creativity. After Place, creativity is the most important gift we give ourselves. When we’re creative, we nurture the beauty inside us so it shines in every corner of our world.
Most think creativity belongs to someone else, but, like beauty, creativity is innate.
One of my favorite stories is of an artist and his daughter at the breakfast table. She had turned seven and was finally curious about where he went every day. He told her he worked at the college.
“What do you do there?” she asked.
“I teach people to draw,” he replied. Her eyes grew round and her mouth opened in dismay.
“You mean they forget?” she asked.
Society tries hard to convince us that creativity belongs to the rare few. In addition, it condemns activities without practical merit. Why draw when we can do the laundry? Why write when we can go to work? Why garden when a neighbor needs a favor?
Our creativity has been pounded to a pulp by a system that values what we give to others more than what we give to ourselves. Service to others is critical to its survival and keeps us powerless. Creativity empowers because it fuels passion, voice, and agency. When we make things – a piece of art, a strong body, a beautiful garden, or a well crafted bench – we erode the system that keeps us pinned.
For centuries, women were told they couldn’t be artists or, more recently, that if they were artists they couldn’t have children because children would compete with their focus and passion. The myth is that artists must give art their all. They must sacrifice for and be consumed by it. Good artists are unfit mothers — dark, moody, unpredictable, erratic, sexually deviant, fundamentally unstable, and who wants to be that? Better to be normal. The myth helps ensure women don’t empower themselves.
What the myth doesn’t tell us is how creativity works. No one ever went into a studio and said, “I’m going to create a masterpiece today.” Instead, they sat in front of a blank canvas, blank page, or weed-filled plot of land and simply started. Sometimes the work is hard and doesn’t produce much. Sometimes it seems to flow naturally. Regardless, creativity requires commitment and, like a flower from a seed, the commitment starts small and grows naturally.
I set a goal I can achieve. I choose a specific time to write and commit to writing five hundred words in that time. That’s it. Two and a half double spaced pages and I’m done. Most often I write considerably more, but there are days when the magic just doesn’t happen and I refuse to beat myself up for doing something I love.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard women say, “I would love to paint (insert write, dance, sing, play an instrument, or other creative endeavor), but don’t have time.” Not making time for their creative pursuits gives them yet another way to berate themselves for not being good enough. When they do that, the system wins and they remain powerless.
If you want to give yourself a gift that really matters, commit to doing something you love for fifteen minutes a day (or a time allotment that works for you). Don’t worry about being good at it. Instead, play like a child. Your sentences may sound like gibberish. You might break or eat the crayons, but eventually, if you stick with it, a form will emerge. That form might be a novel or a song, a fabulous crop of vegetables or the stamina and strength to enter a race. It doesn’t matter what the end result is. What matters is doing it.
Years ago, when just learning to sculpt, I used to buy molding plaster in 100 pound bags from a large company in South Boston because it was substantially less expensive than buying in smaller quantities. The company had a strict policy. They would bring the product to the loading dock. Customers had to get it from the dock into their cars.
I’d show up in my rusted Ford hatchback with three little kids in the back seat. The men at the dock took pity, broke policy, and loaded my bag for me. Embarrassed, I’d flash a weak smile and drive home. Once there, I’d drag that bag out of the car, up a hill, down some steps, and into the house – a trail of white dust marking my progress. After a year, I didn’t have to drag the bags anymore. I could throw them over my shoulder. Telling the guys on the loading dock I could handle myself was a moment to remember.
I wasn’t a good artist then. I knew a piece was done when I hated it so much I never wanted to see it again, but that didn’t matter. Just the act of making brought me joy and physical, mental, and emotional power.
Those first sculptures gave me the courage to end a disastrous first marriage and create a better life for my kids and me. When I created my office and started writing for real, I gained the courage to be honest. Creativity is not a pastime or hobby. It is essential to accepting and loving ourselves.