What’s creativity anyway? http://bit.ly/dZ7Nhq That question ripples through all 38 Creative Catalyst posts since November 2008. During these three years of exploring the Creativity Question new definitions continue to pop up. Here’s today’s: Creativity is a horse we ride to go wherever we need to go, and do whatever we aim to do. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s not. During the past seven years my trusty horse has carried me through the forests and fields of care-giving.
Starting in 2004 I partnered with my father to care for my mother who died in 2006. My father survived that blow as he has so many others. Now it’s his turn to be cared for as he somehow combines vigor and fragility at the end of his life. At 96 he still writes, plays music, carves little critters, and bosses his crew around to tell them how to fix just about everything. It’s not your typical care-giving situation. No diapers. No hospice. No last breaths to report. Not yet. This care-giving creates a context for my father’s longevity. “Creative Aging” I think it’s called.
On our family team each of us has a job that allows Pop to stay in the home where he grew up, raised his family, nursed his wife the last five years of her life, and now spends his last years. My job is to be Erwin Thompson’s daughter. In fact, I am his youngest. In the time of my great aunts the Younger Daughter stayed home to care for her parents. This was understood. The Good Daughter was a clearly defined role within the family and society. Not so much these days. But, I have to say I’ve been a pretty good Good Daughter. My life now is as anachronistic as my childhood. I carry a portmanteau filled with a passel of jobs that tumble out when I open the lid just a crack: companion, confidant, assistant, attendant, social secretary, executive secretary, public relations director, publisher, cook and housekeeper, hostess, maid, driver, audience…. All the invisible stuff that has made up traditional women’s work.
My job really, though, is to prepare for my father’s death. We’ve done all the obvious stuff over the past five years: obituary (we wrote it together), eulogy (I wrote it in Ghana in 2008), funeral arrangements (he picked his urn), gravestone design and epitaph (with my brother), and getting the family grave site in order (restoring and moving stones), recording his wishes for his memorial service (including which songs to play). He and Mother put their legal affairs in meticulous order decades ago. For most families this would be more than ready.
In ours, though, there’s the heritage and legacy project to harvest not only his life, but the life of our family back to the 1800s. We’ve set up archives in universities, local libraries, and county historical societies. We’ve continued publishing his books (three in the last five years—plus mine—several winning awards). We gave talks and workshops and appeared on the radio. The regional Smithsonian Scholar recorded Pop’s music now released on the Midwestern Library data base. Gosh only knows what we’ve been doing. Even I can’t keep track.
My New Year’s Resolution for 2011 was not to do more, but to do less. My brother and I agreed that our top priority had to be saving our sanity so we could stay the course. I resolved to be a Slacker—to put my Puritan work ethic to the side—and just enjoy Slackerhood. That’s more of a challenge than it might seem. It’s as if I’d founded a nonprofit called the Riehl-Thompson Lineage and Heritage Society. Naturally I was the Executive Director and more than ample staff. I resolved to cut waaaaay back on the staff work and sent the director on long term leave. Bye-bye projects. Not just his, but mine too.
If you’re gonna to do something, you gotta do it well, right? To be a Good Slacker I let more and more things go—while continuing to be My Father’s Daughter and the Woman in His Life. I channel my mother with a nod to my sister Julia who died in 2004. It’s a lot to shoulder, and there’s no way I’ll be coming up to that standard. Of course nothing I do will hold back Death who one of these days will not be chased away from his door.
One of the hardest things I had to do this year was to tell my father “No.” We sat in his office—nominally our dining room—with papers and photo-documentation books and pictures and clippings and tape cassettes piled high on the table. He worked on one of his computers while I read in the comfy Lazy Girl Chair that affords bird’s eye view of the birds flying onward to the Mississippi.
Pop swiveled to face me. “What do you think our next book should be?” His face glowed with all the excitement and anticipation of a kid on Christmas morning. My heart sank. This was the question I’d been dreading.
“I’m sorry, Pop,” I told him straight-up. “But I’m all played out. I just can’t do it. I don’t have the juice.”
His face fell as he swiftly swiveled away from me back towards his computer screen. “Well, then, there’s no use talking about it.” My ear knows the gruff voice of the stoic when I hear it. In a life filled with things that just have to be borne stoicism is a useful tool.
I got up to wrap my arms around him over the back of his chair. “I know you’re hurt and disappointed. I am too. I wish I did have the juice, but I just don’t”
Tears welled in his eyes. He softened, accepted, and we went on. As in any long term intimate relationship we’ve had to find ways to just get on with it. Shedding my Northern California personal-growth-speak I’ve learned once again the power of Midwestern plain talk—with a nod now and again to feelings that clearly are standing in the middle of the road.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing these days with at least half of my life: being Erwin Thompson’s daughter. That’s not a job title that rolls off the tongue in social situations when people ask me what I do for a living. These days it’s about what I do for dying.
In the city I take up my Slackerhood with great glee—as if it were secretly a project. I hang out (and exercise) at my health club, and visit friends, I read—a combination of brainy books and what would be beach reading if I were anywhere near a beach. I cook food I like rather than food Daddy likes. I do my best to do nothing with redeeming social value. I do my best to take a giant step out of Daddy’s World into my world.
My time with my father is likely to be the only ‘til death do us part relationship with a man that I’ll have in my life. His death will be a death of many things. Is there life for me after his death? That’s my biggest project of all: to believe that there is a life waiting for me on the other side of his death. Just as I believe there is a new life waiting for him on the other side when he steps over.
To round off 2011 for Creative Catalyst readers, and for myself, here’s the Creative Catalyst Year in Review. Instead of my ordered plan to develop material for an e-book on Creative Harvesting I ended up writing five posts on Creative Enemies and whatever came to mind. I’m making it up as I go along. That’s one of the skills in being a Good Slacker.
2011 Creative Catalyst Year in Reviews
Creative Challenge: Five Tips for Creative Independence: Don’t sell your soul to the company store
Creative Challenge: How to pitch your creative work without losing your mind: 4 guidelines for actors, authors, painters, and musicians
7.1 Art of Harvesting in Five Tricky Steps by Janet Riehl and Stephanie Farrow
8.2 Creative Enemy: Art Envy
9.1 Daddy Care: Staying the Course (http://wp.me/p14fQq-yG)
Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog. Learn more about our audio book “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.” Become a Riehlife villager.