The Year of Mournful Creativity

My creativity has gone on hiatus.  I try to doodle, but after drawing a few lines, I stop in frustration.  My mind is no longer insistently composing essays, biding time until my fingers have time to complete the typing.  I bought a new camera, but it remains unused beyond a few test shots.  After a long year of mourning by way of creativity, my inspiration feels drained.  For that, I am happy.  Well, not exactly happy, but at this moment in time, I’ll take it.

Yesterday marked a year since I lost my dear brother.  I look at photographs of him, and for a split second, it STILL does not seem real.  In the pictures, he is young, and happy, and full of life, like any second he could just pop out of the photograph and start talking.   But almost in the exact same moment, the realization presents that he is dead.  Sometimes it feels within the picture exists another reality- one where he is alive and waiting to regale me with his latest crazy story.  But I don’t exist in that reality.  I live in this one.

In my life, I have experienced two years of intense creativity and Chris was a major component of both of them.  The first year revolved around a major breakup. After eight years spent with a manipulative, controlling, self-serving individual, I created a space for myself where I was free to do anything I wanted.  I painted. I wrote. I sang in a band and recorded an album.  My brother was the drummer in that band.  Those afternoons, making music, enjoying the camaraderie of misfit friends- those were some of the best days of my life.  That was the year I came into my own, where I put my needs first and got past my fears of not being good enough (well, as much as someone can get past those thoughts, anyway).   In that time, creativity was a joy to be experienced, something I had been denying myself because of intimidation.

This year, creativity took on a new role.  I made things as if possessed.  My hands needed it, needed to be doing something all the time.  Although I talked plenty, creativity seemed to be the language in which I communicated my sorrow.  I look back at pieces I created, and many do not look particularly sad.  They are vibrant, full of color and fluidity.  As I struggle to make works now, I ponder the inspiration behind those pieces. Was I finding beauty in the worst of moments?  Willing that peace into existence?

If that is the case, I guess it worked.  A few friends wrote me yesterday to see how I was doing, worried that it would be a difficult day.  But to my surprise, I felt at peace.  Even though this has been the worst year I have ever known, within that pain was also progress, even joy.

I’ve been reading a book titled Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon.  The book provides glimpses into the lives of people with exceptional characteristics- being deaf, dwarfism, autism, multiple severe disabilities, being a child of rape, a child prodigy, etc.  One of the ideas that struck a chord with me is the different ways in which people communicate.  Being a writer, the concept of communicating in ways other than written or spoken language is uncomfortable to me.  But I look at all of the things I have produced in this last year, the year of mournful creativity, and realize that was the language I needed to express myself in.  The things I couldn’t say, couldn’t figure out or comprehend, they are all there in my drawings, paintings, photographs, and tons of other mediums as I tried everything I could to get the words out.  Yesterday, I did not spend in grief because I have done a very extensive job of getting those feelings out in any and every way I could.

Reading the accounts of families in the book, my first reaction was pity.  I hate to say that. It sounds awful, but it is true.  How could these children and parents function in the face of severe challenges?  My heart broke as I read stories of children who would never walk, or talk, or get married, or have children of their own, who would need constant care, who might not even be aware of their own place in the larger world.

But as the stories unfolded, most were not tales of sorrow.  They were stories of joy.  Many parents became advocates, founding programs to not only help their children but to ensure aid for future families.  They felt if they had not had exceptional children, they would have never been challenged to grow in the ways they did as human beings.  Bridges were crossed as people found new ways to communicate with each other- not just words, but touch, and music, and signs.  One father was describing his son, who can not speak, but seems content most of the time.  He said something along the lines of “Most parents greatest wish is for their children to be happy.  I have that.”  As parents, we often are overwhelmed with fear, anxiety, and unrealistic expectations.  This father knew who his son was, loved and accepted him as exactly that person.

Whether coincidence or providence, I now find myself working with children who are nonverbal.  When I took the job, I was intimidated by this particular aspect.  I work at a preschool.  About half of the students in the class have a delay or disability.  About a third of the students have a pronounced delay or disability.  I don’t even know if those are the right words to use.  I’m still learning.

This week, I was working with a child who is nonverbal, but has a language of about thirty signs.  She signed for me to sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”  I did so, and her face lit up in reverie.  She put her hands on top of my hands, to feel the motions as the spider climbed the water spout.  Seeing I had made her happy, I sang the song 2-3 more times.  My mind, MY mind, began to think she’d enjoy another song.  I launched into “Old McDonald.”  She very deliberately took her hand and moved my face to look at her, to peer into her eyes.  I believe with everything in me, she wanted me to see her.  I stopped singing “Old Mcdonald.”  I resumed “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and her smile grew from ear to ear.

Another little boy cannot speak words, but can tell me when he’s upset.  He sits in front of me, and places my hands on top of, or underneath his.  I start gently running my fingernails along his palms or the backs of his hands, and his cries become silent.  These children talk.  It amazes me every day how they communicate what they need without saying a word.

I may not find myself speaking through creation lately, but I am finding new ways to communicate.  One gift from this sorrow is turning my thoughts outward, not only seeking to find out what is going on in my head, but in the minds of those around me.

I don’t believe I will ever fully get over losing Chris.  Last night, my sons scavenged their closets to find outfits to dress like Michael Jackson, whom they have recently taken a fascination too.  I scoured my photo albums looking for the photo of Chris dressed like the singer, who was my favorite as a child.  At one point, Liam needed a black hat to look like Michael in his “Smooth Criminal” days.  I pulled out the black bowler Chris wore when he served as “Man of Honor” at my wedding.  I took a photo of Liam, and in that moment, I would have given anything for Chris to see that picture.  I wanted to laugh with him about something we did as kids, and that my own children are now experiencing.  But that moment is not going to happen, in this lifetime anyway.  I felt robbed for a second, but then I am reminded of all the beauty in this life and how lucky I am to be living it.

There will never be a day I don’t miss my brother.  I say that with certainty.  But life does go on, and we continue to learn new ways to talk to each other.  It is strange how even in the worst of times, the most beautiful opportunities present themselves.  We can accept them.  Or we can choose to die a little ourselves.  I choose to keep going.


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