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creativity | Bethany Suckrow
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SheLoves Mag : “It Starts with a Seed.”

Today I’m over at SheLoves Magazine, sharing my first post with them. Starting next month I will be their Thursday editor (which I announced over on my Facebook page last month and I forgot to share here, oops.)

Those of you that frequent this space regularly (or at least when I manage to post!) know that this year I chose Thrive as my One Word for 2014, and that last month I announced that hubs and I are moving to Nashville (in 5 DAYS. But I’m not panicking or anything…!!!) My post for SheLoves today is a reflection on that decision to thrive in a new place. I hope you’ll read and leave a few thoughts of your own in the comments!

It started with a seed. A question: what if we moved?

It fell on hard ground the first time my husband asked it. It was winter, I was grieving the death of my mother. I felt frozen, numb, empty, barren. I couldn’t look around at my life and see anything for what it really was. I couldn’t know for sure whether the bare branches were hibernating or lifeless. So we waited, the possibility of what could be suspended somewhere in time.

Still, it was a small seed of hope, a tiny kernel of faith, that question. (Read more here.)

 

 

What Creativity Really Demands.

My senior year of college I had to hide away in the bedroom of my dorm apartment to study. My three roommates and I had arranged our desks in the living room, right next to our couch and television because it was all the room we had. But as the semester wore on, my desk sat vacant. I found that my best work happened in that little red armchair in the corner of our bedroom with the door shut. I just couldn’t crank out 15-page papers with Flava Flave and roomie chatter as my background noise. I even swore off social media that spring so that I could ace my 40-page capstone research paper. (It worked.)

Today my writing requires that same level of discipline: a quiet space, no distractions. I have a full-time job and for the last year I’ve been working on my memoir proposal. I sacrifice free evenings and weekends, I wake myself up earlier than I want to. My bedroom is my makeshift office. I shove my phone in my nightstand drawer, perch my laptop on my legs as I sit on my bed, and eventually the words come.

If I want to write, I have to accept the fact that these scraps of space and spare time are all I have to work with.

I thought that was hard enough, but then my laptop display light died last week. You can imagine my horror. The screen went dark and I was absolutely sure that my career as a writer was snuffed out with it. I took it to a techy friend who confirmed that yes, my trusty old 2007 Macbook was finally showing its age, and no, it can’t be repaired. My only option was to buy a $20 adaptor to hook it up to a PC monitor and use it as a desktop. So that’s where I write to you now : not in my cozy, quiet office/bedroom, but in my living room/dining room/kitchen/office (bless the open floor plan). My husband is watching a movie 10 feet away from me and I’m trying to ignore the siren song of that last slice of blackberry pie in my fridge.

Last week a famous author who has been hugely influential in my work wrote a blog post about what writing a book really requires. He told the story of having to spend a week away at a cabin in the woods recently in order to finish his next book. You have to live inside it, he said. You have to go to the cabin; a book will demand your all that way. Think you can’t afford the luxury of time away in a cabin to write your book? That makes me sad, he said, because it probably isn’t true.

Truthfully, his words really stung. Not because I’m opposed to the idea that writing a book takes sacrifice, but because his post implied that the sacrifices I am already making are not enough. I read those words and sat there thinking to myself about my Macbook’s failing health. What I wouldn’t give for a new computer, let alone a cabin in the woods, amiright?! And yet even I enjoy certain privileges that others don’t have : I have a job that pays the bills, I am child-free, I have a spouse that will pick up my slack when I need an extra hour to write, I have a roof over my head; I have a computer that, despite its issues, still works.

I’m not writing this post today to attack that writer for his post, or even the idea that writing a book takes sacrifice. He’s not the first famous author to talk about isolating oneself with their work. He’s not even the first to evoke the cabin in the woods. In fact, this idea isn’t even limited to writing, but applies to nearly every form of creativity. It would be fine, perhaps even challenging, if it were just a metaphor. But when it’s not just a metaphor, when it’s a literal prescription that everyone has to live up to if they want to “make it” as a writer or an artist, then it becomes a classist ideal meant to prop up one’s own elitism. What was meant to challenge and encourage writers to be faithful to their work becomes a discouragement because they can’t afford the cabin.

I’m writing this post today because I want to call this idea what it is : scarcity.

Scarcity says that without the cabin, we’ll never be a published writer.

Scarcity says that our story, our words, our resources, our daily lives are not enough.

Scarcity keeps us from starting where we are, because we can’t afford the perfect writing conditions – total isolation, total freedom, total separation from our daily responsibilities.

Scarcity demands perfection and privilege, and those will kill creativity. Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, says Anne Lamott, and she’s right – I can’t write with those voices in my head, telling me that I’m not enough.

So what does creativity really require of us, then? Abundance. Faithfulness.

And that looks different for everyone. For some, it’s a cabin in the woods. For others, it’s late nights and early mornings and spare moments.

A very wise – and I should say published – friend said a few days ago that writing is like the loaves and fishes. What we have to offer seems so meager and inadequate, but we give it anyway, and somehow it multiplies. It becomes more than enough.

So from one artist to another, from one Macbook-turned-makeshift desktop to another, I want to offer you abundance today.

You have permission to write in the imperfect, un-isolated insanity of your life right now. If you’re writing on the margins of your life because it’s all you can afford, if you’re writing in the middle of the night while your kids and partners are sleeping, if you’re writing in the early morning hours before you go to work, if you’re writing in between half-a-dozen part time jobs, if you’re writing from the basement of your parents’ house, if you’re writing in a scrappy little notebook on your lunch hour (or during a boring-as-hell staff meeting), if you’re writing in the bathtub with the doors locked because it’s the only place where you can get some peace and quiet, I want you to know :

Your story still matters. Your words still matter. Your dream is still worthy, still possible, still real. You are no more lazy or less dedicated than me or the New York Times Bestseller hangin’ out in a cabin in the woods.

May we be artists that acknowledge our privilege.

May we be artists that honor one another’s creative processes, even when they are vastly different from our own.

May we be artists that start where we are, rather than sacrificing our work at the altar of perfectionism and elitism.

May we be artists that are faithful with our work, faithful to the daily miracle of creativity.

May we be artists that work from a place of abundance.

Where Have All the Millennials Gone? Entitlement in the Economy and the Church.

One of the first things I noticed when I met my husband was his kindness. He can have a good laugh just as much as the next guy, but he never does it at anyone else’s expense. Sensitive girl that I am, I was immediately drawn to that quality. I felt safe. I trusted him.

This same sensitivity to others’ feelings is what makes him such a great musician and songwriter. He’s attuned to beauty and art. He tells me he’s not articulate about his feelings, but he wears his heart on his sleeve. He sings it.

But those same qualities that inform and inspire his talent as a musician are the things that keep him from thriving in his job as a security officer. It’s just not the work he’s cut out for. He’d rather use the talents God has given him to work as a full-time musician. And yet, for the past six years since he graduated college, he’s pretty much worked any job he can so that we can make ends’ meet, even the ones he hates. When we first got married, we held seven part time jobs between the two of us. From August to March of the past year, he worked as a security guard part time, taught guitar lessons, and led worship at our church. Today, he works full time as a security guard and teaches guitar lessons after his shift ends. He does odd jobs to make a little extra cash. He knows he has to get creative about earning an income as a musician. He’s no stranger to working hard.

But I’ve lost count of how many times our “loved ones” have made that implication whenever Matt talks about work. He’s been told everything from “you’re lazy and entitled and selfish” to “your music is just a hobby, now go out and get a real job” to “suck it up and stop being a pussy about your work ethic.” (Yes. Someone actually said that.)

Some men look at him and see his traits of kindness and creativity as weakness. But I look at him and see strength.

The narrative that my husband is lazy because he pursues a different kind of work than his father, a construction foreman, is the same one that the rest of my generation is being told when we talk about our desires to thrive in our work and pursue fulfilling careers.

You’re entitled” has become a straw man argument for why a large percentage of millennials  are struggling in the job market.

But is it really the job market we can’t hack? Or is it the 9-to-5/mortgage for a house in the ’burbs/2.5 kids + Fluffy the Dog lifestyle that is unrealistic? (The very same lifestyle in which even our parents are getting taxed out of affording?)

If the rest of our generation is anything like Matt and I, they’ve been working their asses off in crappy, unfulfilling jobs for close to a decade in a broken economy, and it has come down to two choices : surviving or thriving. Either we work the job we’re not fulfilled in and weren’t cut out for so that we can fit the lifestyle, or we adjust the lifestyle to thrive in the career to which we were called. And it is almost inevitable that changing our lifestyle means moving. To somewhere less costly, to a community less bent on pressuring people into living a certain way.

The job market hears us expressing a desire to work fulfilling jobs and pay our bills, and responds by telling us we have a false sense of entitlement. But I listen to it and hear my generation saying that they want to create a system in which classism is the system that gets broken so that the economy can thrive for everyone equally.

When Rachel Held Evans posted her article for CNN a few weeks ago “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” social media and the blogosphere erupted with reactions, and reactions to those reactions. On and on it went, while I watched quietly as a familiar pattern emerged.

The same people looking for more fulfilling jobs in a broken economy are the same people looking for more fulfilling faith communities in an abusive and apathetic church culture.

And as younger generations expressed disillusionment with the system in which they’re expected to function, older generations decried their laziness and entitlement. The straw man argument returns.

Indeed, my discussions with my husband about finding more fulfilling work and a less expensive place to live feels eerily similar to the discussions we had when we were desperate to find a healthy faith community. We found ourselves in church after church where we were expected to function within the system without asking too many questions or seeking too many changes. We’re asking ourselves the same question, “Is it time to move on?”

Millennials see these abusive power structures and harmful theologies and say, “This system is broken and unless it changes, I can’t thrive here,” but their concern is met  with shaming and silencing tactics. We’re being told to “suck it up” and “work harder” and “stop acting like a bunch of pussies” and “in a few years you’ll realize that this is where you belong,” and “I don’t have a problem with it; why should you? This is just how things are.”

If the parallel between an economy suffering in the hands of the corrupt and a Church suffering in the hands of the abusive makes you uncomfortable, GOOD. It makes us uncomfortable, too.

Older generations of believers look at millennials’ desire to engage culture as catering to secularism and weakness toward sin. But I look at it and see a desire to embrace the marginalized and oppressed.

Let’s get real. It isn’t the millennials’ attitude that broke the economy. It isn’t the millennials’ mass exodus that is breaking their churches. The cracks in the system originated much earlier than that.

The cycle of shame that perpetuates hurtful comments about my husband’s manhood and work ethic is the very same one that oppresses our economy and sends masses of people heading for the church exits. There are huge, ugly parallels between “man-fail” shame and the “laziness” and “entitlement” shame that older generations are heaping on younger ones in a broken economy and the way that churches shame their fleeing congregants. It’s called patriarchy, and it functions for no one, not even the men.

It isn’t how we’re meant to live. It’s not how we’re called to thrive.

Yet at the same time, this discussion is not about pointing fingers and blaming the older generations for corruption and abuse, either. Are these the same struggles that generations before us experienced? Absolutely. Will we deal with it the same way as they did, too? Definitely not. Every generation is different. Even amongst members of our own generation, it will be as varied as unique as we are.

We have to get creative about all of it – about the ways that we earn our living and the ways that we thrive in the workplace and the ways we experience God and the ways we engage our culture.

Some of us will need to go off into the wild in order to better hear the voice of our Shepherd. Some of us will stay and tend His sheep. Some of us will keep watch for wolves. Some of us will tell stories and sing songs of the peaks and valleys of this faith and this time. Let us remember that no matter what each of us choose, all of us belong to the flock, and that the Shepherd doesn’t say to His sheep, “Suck it up.” A healthy community doesn’t shame its people into functioning within the established order when it fails to keep everyone safe.

We need to take an honest look at our strengths and our weaknesses – double-edged swords that they are – and learn to wield them well. I have hope that this is possible.

Some people look at all of this, the broken economy and dying churches, and see the end of everything. But I look at it and see a new beginning.

[Image.]

Nature’s Faith.

“The people I trust the most are the folks who feel and respect the rhythm of life. Nature tries to teach us how that works. Like the ocean waves – how they gather power and then roll in, and back out. In, and back out. And how the trees respect life’s seasons. How they blossom and then go dormant. They know that creating beauty is not about pushing through. It’s about respecting the seasons. I don’t think the trees spend a whole lot of time worrying that if they rest – if they go dormant for a season like they were made to- that they’ll become obsolete. They know life will go on without them for a while and that’s okay with them. They will blossom again when it’s time. Trees have faith.” – Glennon Melton.

I frequently go through periods where my writing feels dormant. During these times I am thinking and processing hard, the cogs are turning and the ideas are spinning, I am jotting down notes and producing terrible drafts, but my writing voice has receded beyond the page, I have nothing to say. (Yet.)

The hard part about this, at least for me, is that the internet has given us this burden to constantly produce. So when the voice has receded and my “platform” of public writing has fallen silent, I feel like I’m not doing my job as a writer. It creates an extra dose of anxiety that pushes that voice of mine out further still, and I go swimming after it in desperation. It is exhausting and entirely fruitless, and I find myself flailing for a way to reach back toward shore. I am going against the natural ebb and flow of my creative process. I start to believe that I may have lost the voice forever.

Eventually, when I stop fighting and give it time, the tide rolls in and my writing voice pours forth with all the ideas gathering in my subconscious.

I loved these words from Glennon Melton and the idea of following nature’s faith in the creative cycle, of allowing ourselves to draw back into the depths and “gather power” like the ocean waves.

This doesn’t look the same for everyone. And when you think about it, it applies to so many different parts of life, too. Sometimes we need to know when to stop pushing and pursuing so hard, when to go with the natural ebb and flow of life, when to trust life’s seasons, when to follow nature’s faith in the creative cycle. For me today, that looks like writing more notes and waiting patiently for the thoughts to fully form, no pressure to produce necessary.

What does that look like for you?

Picking or Planting.

He’s been asked to pick weeds, but he wants to plant a vegetable garden.

This is what he tells me as we sit at the table, poking remnants of our dinner and digging through the hard soil our lives have fallen upon.

You know the feeling when everything you’ve done that day – many days – has yielded nothing?

It’s an apt analogy for this music man of mine, who, when not wrapping his long, curved and calloused fingers around the body of a guitar, loves to wrap them around a shovel to till the ground and make things grow. Herbs, peppers, zucchini, tomato, potato, beans, broccoli. He loves to bring a small harvest home for a good meal.

Today he feels about ready to bury it all – the hope he’s had for his music, the earnest effort of a decade practicing and playing, practicing and playing. It has yet to yield a real career, and he’s tired.

And so I hand him the shovel and take up my own and we keep digging, side by side, separating weeds from wealth, fear from truth.

I have dirt under my finger nails and I can hardly catch my breath but here is what I know :

It is not true that our effort is wasted.

It is not true that we have been given talents and passion that we will never use.

What is true is that some days we have to pick, and some days we have to plant. Some days we have to uproot the lies and wrestle with the weeds and do the tedious tilling.

What is true is that whether we are picking or planting, we will come away dirty and spent, all our work hinged on hope for those seeds we have laid in the soil.

What is true is that soil is made of layers and layers of dead things - shit - and that all that mess is made new when we wait long enough, and with hope.

What is true is that today the ground is cold and the season hasn’t turned. That time is coming, but it is not yet now. And so we wait and work, worry tossed aside as a weed so that our dreams can take root and grow.

 

[Image.]

Because I’m No Mechanic.

My car wouldn’t start this week. In the subzero temperatures blowing through our Windy City, my car battery decided it had lost the will to live. First time it happened, I was secretly happy to be stranded. Second time it happened, it meant missing my therapy appointment and spending money I didn’t have on car repairs. The engine clacked emptily, as I wrenched the key into start.

Nothing.

I pressed my head against the steering wheel, hands white-knuckling it, and cried bitterly, like a petulant child.

I’m home now, in Michigan. I made the long, quiet drive between snow banks and trees after dark, slipping quietly into the house after midnight and between the sheets of the spare bed.

The thing is, I’m no mechanic. I stick my head under the hood of the car and stare blankly at all the foreign parts, a complicated mess that all seems broken and beyond repair.

My brother and father are the motorheads. They’ve taught me over the years to handle some things for myself – how to determine when I need an oil change, how to jump my car, how to put air in my tires, how to read the service engine codes, how to stand my ground against the sleezy sales guy at Autozone. But when the fixing needs doing, I go to them.

I woke up this morning and my brother had already replaced my battery.

I got a text from a friend yesterday. We don’t see each other often or even know one another that well, but she’s the kind of person that constantly casts light from her corner of the world, her corner of the internet in which, there, we keep tabs on each other.

The conversation was short, but piece by piece, she helped me break down some hurt and confusion I was struggling with. It’s clear where her gifts lie, and where her particular wisdom fuzes understanding for those outside of her education and experience. Her words were a spark by which I better understand my own gifts.

And this now, I know :

My hands don’t belong in the belly of an engine or in the muck of every messy paradigm, but resting on the keys of storytelling, where the tension we live meets the truth of grace, healing the cold mechanics of the human heart.

He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” – Ephesians 4:15-16

On Being Married to a Musician.

I bought him a Hohner Harmonica in G for his birthday with a harp-holder so that he could play it as he strums his guitar, just like Neil Young. He was thrilled with the gift, and I know this because the thing has barely left his lips since he got it. A few days ago I found him standing over the sink doing dishes and practicing “Heart of Gold” at the same time.

It dawns on me, even as I sneak off to the bathroom to escape the shrill tones of a song I can’t recognize, how lucky I am to be married to someone who is so unabashedly passionate about his art.

I am so often self-conscious about my work, afraid of revealing any underdeveloped idea, that I forget that the best way to really learn something is to play it till you know it in your bones, and take joy in the practice of creating.

The Last Thing You Wanna Do.

Neil Young : “…What happens in the lyrics happened because they happened; it’s not because you thought of them. That’s the last damn thing you wanna do is think of something. That is death.”

Jian Ghomeshi : “What do you mean ‘think of something’?”

Neil : “Think up an idea. That is the last damn thing you want. The worst songs I ever wrote were written that way – I can’t even put ‘em out. I got a few that are hidden – carefully hidden – no one will ever find ‘em. They’re awful.”

Jian : “So it has to come out almost like you’re expectorating?”

Neil : “It’s like Schubert said, ‘I don’t make up music; I remember it.’ I remember what I’m doing… That’s Schubert said, and he was a great composer. He remembered what he did – who knows from where – but there it is. And you’re there with it, and the only responsibility is to take care of it. Make sure you’re in good enough shape to deliver it, and make sure you know what you’re doing enough that you care about the moment that you do it.”

Neil Young’s Exclusive Interview with QTV, circa 2010.

[Image.]

Bleak Branches.

The trees are nearly naked now, their last vigilant leaves hanging on for dear life in the November wind.
Lately I see myself in the trees and long to be as apt to change as they are, season to season. Because I need to live where there are seasons, even seasons I hate.
I love summer, when everything is alive and wild and the days are long and we bask in the glow of heat and light.
I love winter, when everything is covered clean with a blanket of white and the twinkling glow of hearth and home.
I love spring, when everything is green, when my fear and doubt are cast out with signs of new life.
I love fall, when everything is vivid and brilliant with abandon.
But I hate these between seasons, when the earth is brown and bare, when the vividness vanishes from the roadsides, when the darkness presses in and there is no blanket of white to brighten our days. It could change tomorrow, or three weeks from now, or it could linger the whole length of winter; I don’t know.
Maybe this is why I need Thanksgiving so badly : to remind myself, leaf by falling leaf, hour by darkening hour, to count the good things, to remember the life that thrives inside of bleak branches, to distinguish a season of bareness from barrenness.

Autumn Abandon.

“All the trees are losing their leaves, and not one of them is worried.”
- Donald Miller

They stand, half naked with skirts of vibrant orange, bright yellow branches reaching like hands outstretched to a gray sky.

They are exuberant in the losing, brilliant with abandon, and I am both awestruck and jealous.

His use of the word whiny actually made me smile, even though (and maybe because) it was about my writing.

Criticism is what I crave right now. I need someone to correct my grammar, to straighten my crooked reasoning, to remind me not to be too precious with my posts.

What a relief it is to hear someone say, you can do better.

I want to paint like the branches, bursting in cadmium, crimson, cabernet. Iron oxide, ocher, olive, emerald.

I want to shed my words like those leaves, unafraid of what I am losing, so to let my soil mature for spring. The right words will come back to me later, when I’ve grown up a little.

We are most vivid when we’re willing to let go of our laurels.

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