"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Creativity in the Face of Distress

I haven’t written an essay in a long time. While I was in Europe, one of my sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently underwent a bilateral mastectomy. There are four of us, and her diagnosis rocked our world. I completed my trip, returned to San Antonio, and started a long spell of just sitting on the couch.

Eventually the real world intervened. Deadlines to meet, contracts to sign, classes to teach. A daughter with a lead foot and a string of minor car accidents. Cancelled auto insurance. Screw ups at the bank that would have curdled my day a year ago. None of it seemed to matter very much. A shift in perspective, I guess.

But I couldn’t write. I didn’t know what to say. Where does creativity fall on the scale of important life stuff, anyway? It felt rather pointless. Plus my spiritual beliefs were crashing and burning. I know bad things happen to good people, and that disease is never a punishment handed out by a vindictive God. I know love, compassion and forgiveness are the only real keys to a meaningful life. But somehow I couldn’t hold on to my convictions. I couldn’t make this better. I couldn’t fix it. I didn’t know what to do. I felt doubly bad.

I am still sitting with these realities. I want to get a handle on how to be creative when it comes to facing down the crummy stuff you never think will happen to you. Because some of it will. And if not to you personally, for sure to someone you know and love.

Two thoughts guiding me as this unfolds. First, it isn’t doing my sister any good for me to feel helpless, scared and disconnected. If anything, this is the time to be selfless, find the good and funny and beautiful in Life and share it with her. Be happy just because it might help. Stay connected.

And keep creating. It would be easy to sequester myself in the studio in an escapist fashion that would keep me from being available. That’s not the answer. But a centered Jane is a more useful Jane, and spending time in the studio is both solace and therapy. Some of my strength comes from being there. The studio has been calling me and maybe that’s why.

So creating is important after all. Sometimes it’s the glue that holds things together, and sometimes it’s the release valve that blows off steam. Either way, it’s one way to seek balance. I bet I’m not alone in this experience. Your thoughts?


  1. For almost an entire year after my mom died (age 55) I couldn't do anything that she loved to do, or planned to do in her retirement. It didn't matter that I loved gardening or quilting, or even that I had been active in it since college and she was just beginning. I just froze. Then one day instead of only thinking and not doing, I managed a small amount of stitching, then planned a flower bed, gradually I as able to even think about it for myself and not just as what she would never do. That year adrift was very important, as I got serious about honoring the need to be creative in daily living. Art was always something other people did, I just dabbled in craft. And 19 years ago that all changed.

    So yes, you are not alone, and I know you will find your balance, some days it will be easier than others. Just like it is without these major life moments. You will come thru it, and will be stronger for it. Wish you didn't need to hurt, but I guess it is required to feel the joy life gives us as well. Thinking of you and your family.

  2. After my brother died (and me and my DH's subsequent diagnosis of the same condition) my world also seemed to shatter. I think what you are going through is necessary, and the fact that you are questioning it shows that you are beginning to recover your footing.

    Life *does* go on. We learn how to live with the pain because the bad stuff makes the good stuff all that much sweeter. Trite, I know, but true. Life is precious, short and being creative, learning how to express the pain and the joy, is all a part of it.

    My thoughts go out to you and your sisters during this extremely difficult time. I have a fridge magnet with a quote by Winston Churchill. It says "When you are going through hell......keep going."

    Don't stay stuck in the pain. Use it in your creative work. The only way back is through it.


  3. The first time I had breast cancer - in my late 40s - I was quite devastated, but I had such wonderful and energetic support from my family. I couldn't stay catatonic for long. I have now had breast cancer two more times. I have a mangled chest of reconstruction and a mastectomy and so what. It does not change who I am or what I can do with my mind and my hands and my heart. Breast cancer is so curable now. I am a living example of the power of the medical advances in cancer treatment. The power of positive thinking is very palpable. Do just one thing. Then do one more thing and soon you will be on a roll again.

    I am sending you and your sister lots of healing hugs and thoughts.

  4. One day the sun will come out again. You will see with new eyes and an altered soul.

  5. Time away from creating is NOT wasted time. Images and energy are still in there changing, altering, being stored up for the future. Perhaps reality will shift and you will take a slightly new direction, but your experience will come out in your work eventually.

    One last thing...you live in SAN ANTONIO??!! I am astounded. I shouldn't be. It's right there in your About Me section. I just moved here in May to Fort Sam Houston and am thrilled to know you are here. I quite admire your work and love your thought processes that you share with us. Thank you!...and do you show your work locally?

    For an uplifting moment try this site:
    http://pinkglovedance.com/ So many caring folks are working hard for those with breast cancer!

  6. Thank you gdline54 for the pink glove dance site. I just celebrated 25 years of breast cancer survivorship last week and tears ran down my cheeks as I watched.

    Strange to say but cancer turned out to be a gift. It taught me how to cut through the crap and know what is really important.

    Hang in there, Jane. The sun will shine again. My thoughts are with you and your sisters.

  7. "I couldn't make this better." Powerlessness is paralyzing. What's the point of all that we do--working, believing, nurturing, cleaning, cooking, shopping, creating--if it won't help those we love when they need us? That's the wall we run into. But the wall is permeable and you're finding your way. "So high, you can't get over it, so low..." Your hands are touching that wall, searching in the dark for the opening. Listen to the studio calling, maybe just go sit in there for a while. One solid step after another, work will come. As you said, “Stay connected. Keep creating.” God creates; so do we. Believe. Much love to you and your sisters, take care of yourself too.

  8. Thank you so much for this entry Jane.
    This is just what i needed right now.

  9. Dear Jane,
    I've been thinking about you all day. I wish you some magic. Some magical images to brighten your heart, some magical sounds to cheer your soul. Warm arms to hold you. A touch from God that you are loved, for you are.

  10. Whenever I go through a stressful time, I also tend to stop creating. As much as I try to fight it, I have just come to accept that I need that time, before I head back to the studio, and then get back in there and start working again.

    I am sorry to hear about your sister, and the other stresses in your life right now. Sometimes it all feels uphill doesn't it? *hugs*

  11. Hello Jane,
    Today i got a call from my surgeon that i have a sprinkling of cancer cells in my right breast. Atypical cells in my left breast. Bilateral mastectomy is in my near future. Uneasy feelings are going all over the place for me and my children.

    One foot in front of the other, baby stepping with my hand holding tightly to the Creator of the Universe is exactly how i will get through this life learning lesson.

    Sorry to hear about this happening to your sister.
    All Shall Be Well ;~)

    Carol Ann

  12. I lost a baby early in the pregnancy. It took several years of sadness and what ifs popping up at strange times until I took a good friend's advice and created something. I made a cloth doll into which I poured my feelings of loss, hopes and dreams for that child. The process helped me get thru the grief that I had carried with me for many years.

    I wish you the best.

  13. Jane, Sorry to hear about your sister - sending
    Prayers to you and your family. I agree with
    Gerri in that breast cancer is curable today.

    When my husband first had his triple by-pass (7 yrs. ago) and then 2 valve replacements and then a defibrillator -
    I made sure that I had my crocheting with me - I
    had to do something with my hands. So every trip
    to the Hospital or Dr. Office; I had to make
    sure I had it with me.
    My rectangle doily which was supposed to be
    only 11" x 11" was then 11" x 63". It now
    lies across my triple dresser; it helped me keep
    my sanity.

    Just this past year my husband was back in the
    hospital and then 6 months in a nursing facility.
    I brought another crochet project
    and also fabric, thread and needle to sew shibori patterns to prepare them for dyeing. I needed to do this...
    It helped give my life some structure, made me
    concentrate pattern and colors and do
    something that was under my control! I could make pretty things (and useful) and feel some peace in doing them because my world was falling apart.
    My husband was used to seeing me do these things
    At home, so I think it made him feel a little more Comfortable seeing the familiar.
    My husband passed away in July.
    I truly believe that art is therapeutic and besides We’re imitating our Creator. So it has to be Good!

  14. Oh, Jane, my heart goes out to you. Deep love, healing & comfort to all of your family. The soul finds it's way differently each time. There is no right or wrong way as long as we stay listening. After my mother died in '06, after a few years of declining health, I cried & talked about her life; the stories helped me heal.
    In '07, when my fiancée died of cancer, creating was my healling-I finished 9 quilts that year.
    In 2008, when my son was killed, I worked my job& sat on the couch for 6 months. Very gradually, life started whispering me back into involvement...
    Each of those modes were appropriate in the moment.
    No judging, no pushing, no staying planted beyond it's season...
    You will know what to do & when.
    Just keep listening. <3

  15. I read your post the other day and have been thinking about it ever since because I am one of those artist who has never been able to "create through pain" like some can. My muse puts a cap on my creative well and I am unable to draw from it. I hit the sofa and putter around the house but the studio lights stay off until the shock of whatever it is that's driven me out of the studio begins to dissipate. In some situations that's taken a couple of days two and in others weeks and the desire to get into the studio returns and the lights get turned back on again.

    Sending you and your family healing thoughts and prayers of comfort.

  16. Having just spent this past week with my adult children mourning the loss of their father this is a timely discussion for me. I had been divorced from him for many years but we were on friendly terms and all of his family came and were at my house over the last few days off and on. He and I were teens when we married and had 3 children and more or less grew up together so it felt like losing my past as well as a likeable but irresponsible guy. Now there is time to reflect over time and for me getting back into the studio to just get the creative endorphines going seems appealing. Fortunately I have some things already started that will carry me through that sort of blank creative state. Also I work out hard every morning and that helps so much to balance those contemplative spells. These periods of high emotional drains can for me be a period of growth in my work. I'm not sure how that happens because it's not a conscious part of my
    inner search. When my parents each died I made shifts in my creative process that I could see and feel but they weren't as apparent to others. Being able to get creative again though ultimately saves me in so many ways.

  17. Jane-
    i'm glad to hear you have found a balance where creativity can rise and hope can prosper once again in your life.
    this is a subject of great personal interest to me as creativity has indeed been the glue that has held my life together since i was a child. i realized early on that much stress could be worked out through a journey with my creative self- from living with a schizophrenic mother at 2, to no mother at 4, divorce, remarriage at 7, a whole new family which included a hostile stepmother, 4 new siblings-one of which was a predator, my grandfather's suicide, to the illness and ultimate death of a husband at 28, a bad re-marriage, a divorce including all the nonsense of threats of physical harm, the recent death of my father, and now i embark on the caretaking of my elderly post schizophrenic compulsive hoarding mother of 80. art and creativity have been my saving grace and lifeline to an overall pretty good life. i am blessed with two great and healthy kids now in college.

    the thing i really worry about is that the removal of arts from the schools (and as a general option in life for many) will preclude those who might otherwise find solace from the harshness of life in creativity, will not have this as an option as i did. creating is a hopeful and inspiring pass time and has so much to offer us. i believe it is important. thanks for sharing your story.
    in trust- glennis

  18. much wisdom and healing wishes came to you because you so openly shared your sister diagnosis and the way it stopped your creativity. sometimes the arms feel leaden and the thoughts go off track when the heart is in pain...just breathe... is a place i started when my mom passed away a few months after my 23 year equine companion 5 years ago . now i had to call up all that so-called book and street wisdom gleaned in my 6 decades and apply it to myself.one book i stumbled upon at that time was "When Things Fall Apart",heart advice for difficult times, by Pema Chodron. this year we had 4 more sad losses.i picked the book up again . that seems to be a time to be kinder to yourself,take your own time to being your new life as it is.and to calm that monkey mind chatter that you have any control of things at all. it is a time of shift .i always go back to fabric and when i can at last go back into studio, i start picking things up , perhaps sorting , painting,writing,taking time to sit and stare at the clouds swirling by because mayhem will come and art is still a good way to find our way back to the new normal.
    best to you and your sister and family at this difficult time.

  19. Honor your grief...it will ease over time. And please remember all any of us have is today and being creative is a lovely and important way to spend your day (life).
    I say this as a breast cancer survivor who is living with metastatic cancer of the bones...walking my talk.

  20. Jane, I will always remember my trip to Art Cloth Studios for the Personal Imagery class just weeks after my brother died in the tractor accident at the vineyard. Those three days lost in creating, discovering I could sketch, working from within inspired by Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gifts from the Sea, the freedom and encouragement so freely given by my classmates who didn't know of my grief. And the overwhelming love and support when I could finally talk about it. Yes, creataivity can be a blessing when fear and tradegy strike and knowing that you are loved by all whose path you cross, either directly or through your writings, will sustain you. And let the anger come out. I was amazed at how angry I was at my brother for dieing and leaving me all alone. The eldest surviver in the family was a lonely place, one with great responsibilities to the younger members, especially the little ones who loved their grandfather so very much. I still cry, and still make art works from the pain, but knowing I have loved ones like you, my husband and Pat Lamb make everyday a blessing I look forward to and am determined to not waste. Love you and will always carry you, Zenna, Elinor, Ann, Ruth and Mary in my heart and prayers.

  21. Thank you for all the powerful and humbling comments. I have been buoyed and touched by each of them, as have other readers. The grace and courage of my artist friends, colleagues, and readers never ceases to inspire me.