Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 12, 2000
Some of you may not know this, but I am a fan of Bruce Springsteen. A really big fan. [I promise: this will be the last reference to Bruce Springsteen (I think) until after the sabbatical-- which is only seven Sundays away. I figured I had better get one more in while I had the chance.]
I am such a big fan that this summer I made the all-but-mandatory pilgrimage to "Springsteen country" in northern New Jersey. We made our way "deep in the swamps of Jersey," as the Boss would sing. I figured we were in New York, on the way to Baltimore, so-- why not? We were just sort of "passing through" the neighborhood, so we figured we'd drop in...
With my AAA trip-tik firmly in hand, we left the Statue of Liberty one afternoon last August and headed straight for Springsteen's birthplace, the lovely industrial town of Freehold. After asking directions at a Barnes and Nobles and two gas stations, we managed to find downtown Freehold (which is actually not a bad place); then made our way down South Street to the corner of Institute (37 1/2 Institute Street, to be precise), to the rather unremarkable small apartment house (two stories; bluish gray with dark blue trim; bushes in the front kind of overgrown)-- this was it-- the house where Bruce Springsteen grew up!
As you might imagine, the house has earned something of a reputation as a kind of sacred place for Springsteen fans. Maybe it will be even become a museum or a shrine some day, but regular people still live there now-- as the friendly-looking old man taking groceries out of his trunk in the driveway that August afternoon could attest. It is a markedly unremarkable sort of house to look at certainly--no more architecturally significant or aesthetically pleasing-- no more interesting, if the truth be told-- than the houses in which any of us grew up. Its surrounds seem hardly a place conducive to originality or creativity-- let alone genius: it's located in a lower middle class neighborhood of similar houses; on quiet street several blocks down from the main thoroughfare; diagonally across the street from St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church and its parochial school, which Springsteen attended for about eight years (and absolutely loathed).
You know, most of his fellow students at St. Rose of Lima's barely remember Bruce Springsteen. He was, to most of them, a kind a gray blur, sort of on the fringes of things. He certainly didn't seem to excel in any aspect of school life; he barely got by; he sort of blended into the woodwork. Yet, all this time, he was sitting upstairs in that back bedroom at 37 1/2 Institute Street and playing his guitar and writing music and dreaming about rock and roll. And nurturing a dream and a vision of who this scrawny, unkempt adolescent with bad complexion could be someday; and fostering, as best he was able, and in an environment that wasn't always conducive, the wellsprings of his own creativity-- which would, as the years passed, explode into genius, and transform the face of his chosen field.
Having my photo snapped standing in front of that unremarkable three family house in Freehold, New Jersey, the question planted itself firmly in my mind, as it had before: Where does genius come from? From whence does our human creativity arise? Why does it seem to flourish in certain places, certain people and circumstances, and not in others? It's a feeling I'd had before, and have had since-- standing in front of Oscar Wilde's birthplace in Dublin or that of the great Irish tenor John McCormick in County Laoise; in front of the house where Edna St. Vincent Millay was born, just down the street from where we lived in Rockland, Maine; in front of the tenement in Prague where Kafka was born; even as we drove by the small southern cottage in Plains, Georgia where Jimmy Carter spent his boyhood (a house that reminded so much of my grandmother's little cottage in South Carolina).
Why, in these simple places, of all places, did something amazing and brilliant take root? Where does genius come from? From whence does human creativity arise?
In the deepest and most fundamental sense, our creativity arose at the Big Bang itself-- about 20 or more billion years ago.
Creativity is something that natural to all of us as human beings. It is part of who we are; it is part of our wiring, so to speak. You can't be alive-- you can't be human-- and not be creative. Now, that certainly flies in the face of an elitist and consumerist culture which would tell us that creativity-- and genius-- and artistry--are all forces "outside of " ourselves-- beyond us-- bigger (or deeper) than we are; things that have to be produced by "superstars" and "celebrities" that we can only buy and consume. "Who-- me-- an artist?" we might well ask. "A musician? Who-- me-- creative?"
You bet! We are creative, whether we realize it or not. The unfolding universe-- our unfolding lives-- are a constant, evolving creative event. The question is whether our creativity serves life-- or serves death; whether it serves the evolution of the human spirit-- or serves to deaden it instead; the question is whether our creativity liberates-- or whether it enslaves.
In simpler cultures than ours, there is no great wall between everyday life and creativity, between the everyday work or the community and its artistic expression. In simpler cultures (that of rural India for example), the ability to grow one's own garden, to play a basic musical instrument, to sew, tell stories, relate to animals and nature's seasons, are all but universal. In modern society, art and culture are too often seen as passive activities which bring us their images for us to internalize, rather than ushering forth the visions which are within us. We who live in industrial, urban societies have to make a conscious effort to develop the unconscious, mystical, right-brain aspects of who we are.
The great Indian philosopher Coomeraswamy once spoke of his mother, who was a gifted craftswoman, who created truly remarkable embroidery. But he said that she always insisted that her art be used as some part of everyday life, and not as something to be set aside, looked at, merely admired. "I'm giving you this as a gift," she'd say. "But don't put it on the wall-- it's for you. I made it for you to wear. The day you start to put beautiful things on the wall, you will start to put ugly things on your body."
If we always see creativity as "outside ourselves", we'll neglect the wonderful creative aspects of our day in/day out living.
In a beautiful book called Painted Prayers, a scholar from Maine named Stephen Hyler presents examples of the glorious artwork done by "ordinary" women in "ordinary" villages throughout southern India. Every day, Hyler writes, millions of women in India begin the day by sprinkling rice flour in a design in front of their homes, a visual prayer to the goddess Lakshimi, inviting her to bring prosperity to the people who dwell there. Of course, this painting is quickly scuffed away as people walk by and life passes over it. But the daily ritual honors the creative force within all of us; it reminds us that creativity is mostly about process, and not product; and it points us toward the bridge that creativity creates between body and soul, between humanity and the divine.
In India, too, other "more important" days-- festivals, celebrations of life's passages, holy days-- call for more elaborate works of art-- large paintings that take up whole walls of the house, or creations made with hundreds of flowers. Even the poorest women can take part in this creative process. From this perspective, art is open to all; it is owned by everyone-- not just by "celebrities". The art of the people is seen as the chief connector between everyday life and the life of the holy.
We are each called to be artists of that sort, to engage our holy creativity. None of us here may be a Beethoven or a Walt Whitman-- or a Bruce Springsteen. But we all have precious gifts. We all have talents; we can all be creative in some way. Creativity is not linked only to certain spheres of living-- to the fine arts (say), or to writing literature or scientific discovery. Howard Gardner, in his book Frames of Mind, discerns seven different kinds of human intelligences-- seven kinds of creativity, which any of us might exhibit: linguistic, musical, logical/mathematical, spacial/visual, bodily/kinetic, intropersonal (that is, within a person), or interpersonal (or, between people).
Gardner says that we tend to think of creativity as existing in only certain kinds of intelligence, but there is the potential for creativity in all these kinds of activities. Think of how creative some people are in their interpersonal lives: the parent who helps siblings resolve conflict without bloodshed; the teacher who can awaken the mind of a student who though he hated school; the friend or therapist who can be there, and ask the right questions, to help us talk through a problem and maybe see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Great discoveries-- flowerings of genius like these-- are possible in all areas of human intelligence. They are the radiance-- the blessed ah-ha moments which make living these human lives of ours worth the price we pay. We are all creative and can be ever more creative-- perhaps especially in the most routine parts of our lives (that's where we spend most of our time, after all): We can let the human-divine light of creativity shine on how we cook meals for our families; how we go about putting a child to bed; how we negotiate disagreements at work or at home; how we decide which charities to support, or where we're going to shop, or how we'll spend our (all too precious) leisure time.
If we value being alive, we will find opportunities to be creative in our lives. We will nurture those possibilities of genius within ourselves, and provide space for others to exercise their possibilities as well. But that means not allowing ourselves to be so busy, so stressed, so trapped by society in just getting through the day that we cannot be open to the deeper things which are within us. That means making some really importantspiritual choices in how we're going to live our lives.
For, you see, at its heart, creativity is, obviously, a spiritual issue. It's about being aware of our world-- open to the currents of life that are flowing within us and through us and among us. It's about being focused, disciplined, and passionate about those aspects of life we truly value. It's about letting go of the fear of doing something wrong-- and daring to do something different-- daring to listen to one's own inner voice at times, even if that means the rest of the world be damned.
The Indian scholar Satish Kumar once wrote that "the artist's role is... to somehow be the bridge, or the instigator, for developing a sense of reverence and beauty [among all people]." It doesn't matter what we're doing, or what are particular talents are: we are constantly creating those bridges of beauty and creativity. As Kerry Mueller has written: "It doesn't matter if you're storytelling or dancing or painting or making music or planting a garden or preparing a meal for special friends or knitting a sweater. Art is available to us all." A creative pathway is open to us all.
"Let's think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world," the writer Ann Lamont has written. "The alternative is that we stultify, we shut down. Think of those times when you've read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting glimpse of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone's soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as [artists], I think; to help others have this sense of-- please forgive me-- wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in our small bordered worlds. When this happens, everything [in life] feels more spacious. Try walking around with a child who's going, 'Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky! And the child points, and you look, and you see, and you start going, 'Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at that scary dark cloud! I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world-- present and in awe."
"Creativity is our yearning for immortality," Rollo May once wrote. "We human beings know that we must die." Our creativity, May says, is our rage against death-- our insistence that our lives, as bordered and limited as they are, will have some deeper meaning, will reverberate further in the life of creation.We can make our everyday lives works of art that touch others, that serve life, that bless the world in ways too numerous to count:
As the ads for the film American Beauty remind us: "Look deeper."
Take risks. Try to see what you're doing in a whole new light.
Don't insist on doing it perfectly, either. As Ann Lamont has also written: "I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, then you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."
Slow down. Look deeper. Take risks. Do something different. Look at things a whole new way. And have a lot more fun while you're doing it.
There's the mission statement we all need to become artistic souls-- creative beasts-- precious geniuses and divine shares of the gifts we have been given-- to become timeless, ageless singers, each and every one of us, of the blessed song of this remarkable human spirit.