On a spur-of-the-moment day trip to Barcelona, my family and I arrived at the gates of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia only 15 minutes before closing time. Five tickets for such a fleeting visit seemed too extravagant to every adult, budget-juggling fibre in us, but we silenced the sensibleness and paid to enter.
It was the right decision.
What we found was not the cold stone splendour of a Norman cathedral, but a vast white space full of light and soaring height. It’s a place of illumination and intimate grandeur, and a purity that left my heart raw as if it had been scraped and scoured very tenderly clean.
Ninety years after his death, Gaudi’s masterpiece is still under construction. The act of creation he set in motion is still alive and unfurling.
It has the power to leave visitors changed as they walk back out into the Spanish heat, tacitly challenged to live with a little more boldness and wonder.
Humans are by nature creative. Children are prolific creators, as any parent trying to manage piles of loo roll models and paintings and pasta collages will testify.
But adulthood can often signal the waning of our creativity. Untended, it dwindles as we focus on earning a living, building a CV, paying the bills. We become too pressured and distracted to carve out space, too neglectful of the latent spark in us to strike it and see what might happen.
Instead, consumption trumps creativity.
A small number of people are paid millions to make art, design clothes, sing to packed stadiums, cook Michelin-starred food, and then license their products so we can catch their cleverness and keep it in our cupboards. We become passive consumers rather than the conceivers and creators and connectors that I believe we’re meant to be.
But to create – whatever that might look like – is to take part in an act of profound resistance.
Like Gaudi’s masterpiece, it lets the light in.
Here are three stories that illustrate why we need, now more than ever, to silence our inner critic and launch out on some creative adventures.
For the last six months I’ve been working with a charity called Community Albums, whose team of award-winning professional musicians help people who have known little but discrimination and exclusion to find and use their voices. A couple of years ago they worked with Claire. Struggling with anorexia and personality disorder, she initially found it difficult even to make eye contact.
With skill and kindness, the team helped her to find the words and music she needed to express herself, and she went on to write and perform a song called ‘I Am Claire’, which ends with the lines: ‘I am stronger than I think I am. I am more than my illness. Anorexia, you will not define me. I am Claire.’ Her act of courageous creativity has since won her a wide audience and she now blogs regularly for the Huffington Post, using her newfound voice to help bridge the gulfs that so often open up around people dealing with poor mental health.
My friend Jane has a demanding job in child protection, and her work takes her between the UK and India. Together with another friend, Rosie, we meet every few months to share projects and pieces we’ve been working on – written, painted or even sometimes cooked.
A little while ago, Jane read a poem she’d written, telling us as she started that it really wasn’t much good. As she read, time slowed and when she came to the last line we asked her immediately to read it again. Jane’s work means that she knows how broken 'broken' can be. But in a Delhi shelter that is home to children already far too well acquainted with grief and pain, she noticed and captured a force at work that was more muscular and more gentle than anything else she saw there:
Boys Shelter in Delhi
There is light in this place
Immutable in dim surrounds
It illuminates the faces of the boys
And floods the space with gentleness
Dark walls cannot keep it out
It slides under the doors
And pours through the ancient locks
Expanding to the corners of every story
Of each priceless life
– Jane Travis
Abel Meeropol was a Jewish schoolteacher in New York in the 1930s. After seeing a photograph of the lynchings of two black men he wrote a poem called ‘Strange Fruit’ in which he described the ‘Pastoral scene of the gallant South, / The bulging eyes and twisted mouth’ of humans hanging like strange, bitter fruit in American trees.
He showed his poem to jazz singer Billie Holiday and they worked together to set it to music. Once heard, Holiday’s song is not forgotten, haunting its listeners long after the silence sets in. Meeropol’s act of creation sparked into life a work voted the song of the twentieth century, which gave voice to a depth of despair, disgust, resilience and protest that shames the perpetrators of the violence it describes more devastatingly than a judge’s report ever could.
But without the schoolteacher’s poem, the jazz singer’s song would not exist.
Our creations have value in their own right, but they don’t exist in isolation. They are part of something bigger, and the life in them can set off chain reactions that disappear off in directions we may never know. In Lucy Winkett’s book ‘Our Sound is our Wound’ (Continuum Books, 2010) she writes,
‘There will be times when we are asked to rest, be silent, to allow another voice to be heard. But if we don’t sing or play the part we have uniquely been given, someone else will miss their cue.’
Practising creativity helps us to question, imagine, and grow, and makes space for what is not yet but could soon be.
In days like these we can be silent and passive. Or we can choose to act, to create, to trigger who knows what or who – and let the light come streaming in.