Creativity and Resilience (thoughts from class)

This post first appeared on the blog for Dr. Linda Garcia’s course “Networks and the Creative Process” at Georgetown University. We discussed the relationship between society and creativity in consideration of Weimar Germany.
 

In the first pages of Peter Gay’s book “Weimar Culture: Outsiders as Insiders” I was most struck by this descriptive phrase: “exiles… did their greatest work in enforced residence on alien soil.” The names of these exiles are not so foreign to us: Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, and the sociologists of the Frankfurt School. This prompted me to think about what it means to be a social outsider, and how that often fuels creativity.

Last night, CNDLS hosted a study abroad blog showcase. Students spent the semester in Italy and Turkey, wrote online about their experiences, and met to share them with others. It’s a common thing people say, that students “find themselves” while traveling. That is not a matter of what is there to find, but what is not there to validate. We don’t know much of our cultural identity until we are out of our context, and the creativity that results from that discomfort is often a beautiful statement of the common human condition, rather than the frustration of differences. One of my favorite Native American authors writes of being compelled by his identity as outsider:

 

“There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” - Junot Diaz

 

In this, we see a resilient quality to the creative spirit. It is something that desires to be heard in spite of (and often because of) restrictive cultural circumstances. This holds true outside of Germany between the Wars.

Gay goes on to explain that in this post-WWI boom in German creativity, “the excitement was… part exuberant creativity and experimentation… and part anxiety, fear, a rising sense of doom.” From this, I understood that the Weimar movement was largely about rebuilding not just Germany’s financial or political strength, but the richness of its identity. Yet, as Gay points out, “Imperial Germany was hostile to the modern movement.” In the push for power that later defined WWII, the zeitgeist of Weimar Culture died.

But we remember it. My professor, Linda Garcia, asks the critical question of how society might deteriorate creativity. She writes, “with the advent of a dispersed networked economy, the free market mechanisms that previously fostered innovation and creativity will now serve to constrain them.” But can a society really constrain its geniuses? Or can it only force work-arounds? The constraints that Garcia speaks of involve a more subtle, structural stifling of innovation. Perhaps that subtlety will give creative people room to adapt and learn “which attributes will be important for their success.”

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Yet in the most extreme cases, where creativity is directly and violently targeted, we see its resilience. I think that resilience will prove true in the face of any type of resistance.

I can think of no better example of this than what Amitav Ghosh describes in one of my favorite books, “Dancing in Cambodia.” In the aftermath of the Pol-Pot regime’s years of mass killing, one of the first things that the new, fragile Cambodian government set out to do was to revive traditional Cambodian dance. And they succeeded.

Life in a Small World

Years ago, I was a blog-happy missionary, bouncing around the world with nothing but a 65-liter frame pack and a lot of good intentions. I came home with a lighter pack, but a heavier load of the stories and images and love of people… like Isaac in Malaysia.

Just after he dropped us off at the train station to leave his city of Ipoh, Isaac sent me a goodbye text. It said, “See you in a small world.”

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I haven’t seen Isaac since then, but our world is definitely small, and I definitely see him in it. I will never hear or read the news without picturing the faces of my friends.

So with Ukraine spinning into chaos lately, this is what it looks like for my world to be small: I find myself looking past the color-coded political maps, the UN sanctions, the military movement, and just wondering if the Biletskys–my host family–are ok. I don’t know what it will mean for their family if they are suddenly Russian rather than Ukrainian. They’ve always spoken Russian–everyone in their area does. But they have so many foster children. What will support their family if their Ukrainian documentations are suddenly considered invalid? Many of their children are disabled. How will they receive the medical care they need?

I skim news articles long enough to know basics. I walk to the Ukrainian embassy to give myself time to think of them. There, I stare at the photos of the fallen protesters and I pray and pray and pray.

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My small world would not be shattered by the shots fired in Simferopol, or by what Secretary Kerry will say to Vladimir Putin, except that those things might mean thriving or struggle to my once-upon-a-time family. My thoughts rarely venture to Kiev or Moscow with the major news sources–but they are often in Frunze or Saki, tiny villages full of gardens that hardly make a mark on the map.

But because I care what happens in Mama Anya’s kitchen in the country, I have to care whose flag is flying above the government buildings in the city. That is my small world: when big things happen, I see small places and real people. The news may never be about Frunze, but that part of Crimea is part of my world, part of me.

I wish I had left each of my friends with the words that Isaac left me. Even if I never visit them again, they have made my world small, and I always, always see them.

Scrapbook Pages One thru Three

One of my classes this semester focuses on creativity. We’re looking at what it means to be creative, how creative people change their domains, and how the architecture of their social worlds matter. But we’re also making scrapbooks to document our own creative process. If it weren’t for the book I have to read each week, it would hardly feel like a class at all. This act of putting pen to paper–freely–has given me space to just be myself. No parameters, no word counts. Nothing is more musical to a grad student’s tired ears.

As I’ve built my scrapbook and delved into how and what I create, I’ve realized that I most enjoy making things–and I care that much more–when it’s something I share.

So here are a few pages I’ve assembled so far. I’ll be sharing more as I continue to work.

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Superb Owl Commericals and Social Assumptions

On Sunday, I had two thoughts immediately following the multi-lingual “America is Beautiful” Coca-Cola ad:

“Wow, that was stunning.”

and

“…cue all of the anti-immigrant backlash.” *cringe*

As an anthropology enthusiast,  former world-traveler, and general people-lover, I enjoy such celebrations of cultural diversity. (…even when it comes from a company like Coca-Cola, who doesn’t exactly have a clean history of ethical marketing. But I’ll set that aside for a moment.) Even so, I was not able to enjoy Coca-Cola’s celebration for long. I quickly anticipated what the fringe conservatives of the Internet would say in the name of patriotism, and I knew what articles the left-leaning blogs would write to properly shame them. I think we’ve all grown accustomed to this pattern.

But when the inevitable public shaming of all of the mean response tweets did appear in my newsfeed, it revealed something alongside ignorance and racism: a sizable percentage of the American public is monolingual, and prides themselves in being so. What’s more, most of the dissenting tweets carried the assumption that because someone speaks a foreign language, they don’t speak English.

A quick look at Coca-Cola’s YouTube channel would prove them wrong. Check out this video of Kennedy, who sings “America the Beautiful” in Senegalese French:

You’ll notice Kennedy also speaks American English. According to a study by Richard D. Tucker on global bilingualism, she is in good company: “there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual.” And in America? This study by Pew Research indicates that 21% of Americans “speak a language other than English at home.” (And of them, only 7% report no English skills at all.) That means, of the estimated 300 million people that live in the United States, only about 0.01% don’t speak English–hardly worth perceiving as a threat to the prominence of our common language.

There is a flood of research that indicates the cognitive and biological benefits of speaking multiple languages. So that’s just one indication that every voice heard in this commercial probably functions better in their world than any of the voices trying to tear them down.

Overall, the ignorance most represented in the negative responses to Coca-Cola’s ad is a case of false dichotomy: that for other languages to be spoken by Americans, English is threatened. This is not necessarily true. Language does not have to be an “either/or” choice. In most of the world, it’s “both/and”.

But this false dichotomy is not new. We are all familiar with what this mindset has done in the past. The prominence of English on our continent came at a cost; many rich and beautiful languages were diminished or wiped out altogether in the wave of immigrants that formed our now-united States. I know I’m in good company hoping to never see that repeated.

Thankfully, one of these surviving American languages had a spot in Coca-Cola’s commercial, too:

Christy, singing “America the Beautiful” in Keres, the language of the Keres-Pueblo people in New Mexico

Anecdotes from the Ivory Tower

Did you guys see this article a while ago? About why we’re all so unhappy? It’s definitely worth a read. But if, for whatever reason, you don’t click that link, the whole thing is summed up nicely in this graph:

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I’ve been thinking about this article since I read it because that’s what I do. Aside from noticing all of the enviable things in your life (yeah, you…), I started looking at my own life as if it were only what I share on Facebook. That life is fairly wonderful:

I have a cool GA job at a famous, fancy school.  I live with a handsome web developer who happily supports both of us.  Our happy wedding pictures are everywhere, and we spend weekends exploring our trendy new city.

Those things are true and I am grateful for them, but they are not the fullness of my experiences. So I want to hand you a few stories the way I handed our church group a plate of slightly-burnt, flat chocolate chip cookies one of the first times we met with them:
I just don’t want you guys to have a chance to think that I have it all together.”

These stories aren’t directly happy or hopeful, but they are real. I think we all need more real.

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This is Not a Food Blog

But we all love food, don’t we? So you won’t mind a few pictures & recipes? Great.

I love a kitchen experiment: seeing just how hard it really is to make something. It’s like science, chemistry, the ultimate multi-tasking. And the best part of all that work is that you get to eat it. 

(Usually. I’m very proud of how far I’ve come since I confused vinegar for vegetable oil in a boxed brownie mix. I was 9. And that one time I confused powdered sugar for flour in banana bread. I was not 9.)

My latest obsession is making my way through this entire book:

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After introducing us to this Columbus, OH favorite, my friend Jermaine helped me try my hand at ice-cream making last summer. We made Goat Cheese & Roasted Apricot ice cream, because there are few edible things in this world that I love more than a good cheese. It was delicious, but rich. My friends thought it tasted “odd”, and I couldn’t finish the whole quart on my own.

But the craft of homemade ice cream was just too fun to call a one-time thing. So when Jermaine gave me my own copy of Jeni’s cookbook as a wedding gift, and my Uncle Pat gave me an ice cream maker, I sort of went nuts.

I made about 15 quarts of ice cream in a month. 

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The DC Decision

Sitting to write this feels like coming out of hibernation.

You may assume my digital silence is due to my status as a newlywed… at least, I’ve heard the assumption once or twice. But as a wise friend told me, “being married is not the work of busyness.” I’d sooner attribute my lack of public writing to the reality that I have Kyle as a constant and active outlet for all of my ideas and thoughts. I feel less compulsion to add to the Internet noise.

But aside from reducing my presence here, it’s a damn good thing I have that man around. Because my time spent not online lately has been spent preparing for our first big adventure together: moving to Washington, D.C.

If you’ve talked to me at all in the past year, you knew this was coming. But what we didn’t publicize so much was that

we didn’t know. At least, not for sure.

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Marriage & Maurine

A friend asked me today to blog about marriage.

And I’d really, really like to.

Three weeks ago, my life changed forever. Maybe there is something important to say about it. Following a time-warp dreamworld of honeymooning in Northern California, my husband and I came home to a week of work, followed by a week of grief.

As much as I want to delve into the complexities and lessons of this baby marriage, it is hard to think past the loss of my Aunt Maurine. My heart is heavy, my body is tired, and mind can hardly catch up.

I haven’t yet experienced enough of marriage to have any complete thoughts about it, but I have thoughts as far back as I can remember about Maurine Rukes.

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WindInTheDoor

On Freedom & Farandolae

Nine days.

I am getting married in nine days.

So all of these long-winded thoughts on commitment, discipline, sexuality, relationships, conflict, and family are about to be tested. But when I pull my thoughts up from those depths, this thought reigns:

how will I ever get ready for any special occasion without having a girl roommate to share things with? 

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“…or something.”

I’ve been thinking about plans. Isn’t that what people do at the beginning of the year?

We make resolutions, set goals, organize budgets, insist upon striving. We’re always making plans. Even while finishing something, we’re mentally on to the next thing. If there is such a thing as in-between time, it is discarded as unimportant, or at least, as vacation.

I’m not much of a long-term planner, so when I answer those New Year’s questions, it usually sounds like,

“I’m going to stick to a budget… or something.”

One of those crazies I traveled the world with had her goals when she returned from leading our squad in Cambodia: “I was to come home and devise a plan where I would put an all time end to child trafficking… or something. As it turns out, the next season of my life was the “or something” season.

And, what do you know, that is the season I have been in, too.

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