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  • Elise V Allan

Refuge


First published January 2018


“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands ... to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone with everything is to succumb to violence.”

Thomas Merton

Many of us are very busy. In employment, or trying to market our creative work to pay the mortgage, the rent, and maybe a studio too. Applying for funding, residencies, working to deadlines, submitting work to open exhibitions, looking for a publisher, building our websites, volunteering for committees, networking. Add in bringing up a family, looking after elderly parents, clearing a late parent’s house, looking after our own home, cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry. I know more than a few people who’ve reached burn out.

I don’t blame those who give up their creative practice.  But usually they blame themselves. “I know I should be getting back to drawing/writing,” they say, “I’m embarrassed.” And those who are juggling their creativity with all the pressures of daily living also use the ‘should’ word to apply a little more pressure. “I should be better organised, more disciplined, more focused. I should be better at marketing, I should be keeping my accounts up to date, I should be getting my studio cleaner and tidier.” And then we identify ways of inspiring ourselves or potentially taking pressure off – a daily walk or run, yoga, meditation, some fun creative projects. But we use ‘should’ to turn it into another pressure. “I should meditate but I have no discipline. I should make time for walking but I don’t get round to it.” “I should get round to making those cushion covers from the vintage fabric I’ve had for years.”

“It’s normal to find refuge in language… in music if you are a musician, or if you are a painter, in colour.”

Hilde Domin, poet

It can feel like there’s a war between the daily pressures and the longing for refuge. We might try racing through the ‘should’ chores to get to the studio more quickly only to find that the racing has left us so wired that the time saved is then lost in the struggle to find enough quietness to listen to colour, words, or melodies. We might have beautiful rituals in place to prepare and transition from busyness or business mind to creative mind. The transition certainly gets easier when our practice is part of a daily rhythm. That can remove the pressure of having to make the decision to start. But I don’t know of anyone who’s completely free of the need for transition time. And the longed for refuge, itself, can end up becoming a battleground.

What if we decided to end the fighting?  I wonder how many areas of our lives could potentially provide moments of refuge that support the spacious mind we need for our creative work, and make the transitions less of an issue. We might bring more spaciousness into our daily tasks, treating them as meditation, like Shoukei Matsumoto, the Zen Buddhist monk who has written about the power of cleaning in helping us to have clear minds. We might use our playfulness to vary our approach to the “have to-do” list.

The discomfort of a tight mind, whether triggered by the anxious impatience while queuing, the irritable feeling of valuable time being lost while ironing, the heavy dread of de-cluttering and handling objects loaded with memories; what if those moments became a part of the day where we practice offering refuge to the pressure, where we invite some of our creative wisdom to support us. We might already know how to hold a space of non judgement at the tentative beginnings of new work; we could (not should), practice it during those other moments of pressure. We could learn to use the calming and centering of ourselves we’ve learned to do when we arrive at the studio or the desk in other situations.  And our curiosity and capacity for observation about exploring new creative possibilities could shift our attitude to the (hopefully internal) tantrum we’re having.

And sometimes, we can bring what we’ve learned in our busy lives into our creative work. We might have learned to shift from a frenetic pace of working to dropping everything to care for an ill or unhappy child; we could adapt that ability and choose to drop goals that are incongruent with our values, allowing ourselves to risk losing face, pace, or income that’s not absolutely necessary for survival needs, to take care of the fragile magic that’s at the heart of our creative motivation. We might have learned to delete emails that are nothing but a distraction; we could use that clarity a little more in the studio to clear clutter.

If I really cared for myself, what would be the best thing I could do to prevent myself from succumbing to the violence that Thomas Merton wrote about? What other areas in my life could potentially provide refuge?

image - Matisse in his studio, photograph by Cartier-Bresson

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