Friday, February 5, 2016

What I learned from a lobster.

It turns out we are more like lobsters in spirit than in sunburn.

I found out yesterday, in a minute-long video my cousin shared on Facebook.  Though not sexy (as marketers have co-opted the term), the video accomplished the same draw, both with the caption, "Responding to Stress," and a close-up of an old, white-bearded, Nostradamus-looking man wearing a yarmulke. A rabbi? Or maybe just a really wise Jewish guy.

In brief but infinite wisdom, Maybe-Rabbi Guy explained the radical adaptability of lobsters, which he had discovered while reading a magazine in a dentist's waiting room. A lobster, as it expands in size, will shed its old shell and grow a bigger one, time and again. In those highly vulnerable, naked times, what does the lobster do? It finds a quiet, dark spot to hang out until its new shell is ready to be revealed. There was a lesson in this, of course.

To me, the tale spoke this: The lobster is to the sea what the artist is to the earth. As the lobster feels the discomfort of its own existence—as its shell becomes too small for its guts—it withdraws, only to emerge revitalized, having created a work of art.

How often are we too small for our guts? In my life, it's been often. I can look back on those times and understand the rejuvenating power of my pain and anguish and stupid decisions. (I almost typed poor decisions, but that felt harsh, seeing as nothing I've done has had me in jail or beaten up or addicted or homeless or, perhaps most importantly, ambitionless.) Each time, each of its own duration and circumstances, I came out having created something, maybe a new job or a new city or a new friend or a love either lasting or not. Or I created a human—twice over now. Or I used my discomfort to create art: collages decorated with mannequin heads and cassette tape and cigarette-ad cowboys; a purse made from a repurposed dress that was never worn; necklaces and rings made from a long-gone great aunt's reconfigured costume jewelry; shirts and skirts and scarves, ripped and cut and reanimated; and words! Most prolific were my words: essays inspired by leaves and layers, bees and ex-best friends, vintage hats and virile strangers; offspring and off-putting opinions. 

What if I lose my art? 

That question stayed hot to the touch for so many years of my life. What would become of me as a creator if my life lost its pattern of having no pattern? My nontraditional existence—single, capricious, mildly irresponsible—was what had provided food for thought, thoughts for words, words for fulfillment. If that went away, what else would there be?

Last December, shortly before Christmas, as I sat in my rocking chair nursing my big-eyed baby boy and watching the Today Show, I felt vindicated by Adele. It took a minute to get there. At first, given my old Old Navy pajamas whose silver threads defy my distaste for sartorial sparkles, my newly shorn hair from hell, and my post-pregnancy skin discoloration, it was her appearance at which I marveled. Those expertly manicured eyebrows. That impossibly unblemished buttermilk-tinged-with-newborn-pink skin. As the interview proceeded, what she said became much more a thing of beauty. She spoke about losing her art. After exiting a difficult phase of her life and entering a contented one, she wondered what would become of her ability to write. Me too.

I feared the onset of Settled Life for years. If my life were to become settled, wouldn't I be bored? Boring? What would I write about?

Then I met my fear. It wasn't long ago that my life became settled. My days are now routine: I take care of kids. Fret over making creative dinners. Give the dog his glucosamine. Scurry to fit in a 20-minute miracle workout. Fold a grown man's underwear. After being single for most of my adult life, acclimating to this new life was surprisingly smooth. It was not like washing a new pair of sheets to get out the scratchy stiffness; the sheets felt already broken in.

I haven't run out of inspiration for writing. The difference is that I have much less time to write. So wait my muses do; hung up on the walls of my mind. Mental sticky notes galore. While my minutes are limited, my heart is thankfully oblivious and continues to pump the writer's blood into my veins every day. I still work as a writer, though not much since the birth of my second son. Returning to work on a regular basis is a goal. Even closer to that loyal heart of mine is another goal: returning to life as a writer. That means here, in this blog, which is the framework for...something. Something I intend to create, some day, somehow.

On that pre-Christmas morning in my unlike-me sparkly pajamas, I felt a kinship with Adele. We both discovered that art remains within us even when we've stopped giving our lives hell, or, in rarer cases, when life stops giving us hell. 

Today is the first day I've written in months. It feels like home, like I knew it would.

And as I write, I know that chaos still has a place and a purpose in my life, and probably in Adele's and in the lives of countless others who yearn to create. Chaos, like the lobster's ill-fitting shell, pushes us to become vulnerable, to take time to heal, and to re-emerge revitalized.

As lobsters age, their predators become fewer. In fact, the main predator for an adult lobster is an adult human. There is a lesson in this, of course. You figure it out.