The Elegance of Creativity

My husband has rekindled his hobby of making stained glass art. It has been a joy to watch him set up his work space, assemble his supplies, tinker for hours with his designs, and hang the finished products in the window for sunshine to bring them to life. Mike’s creativity had been lying dormant like a seed just below the surface, ready to emerge when the time was right. 

His inspiration was refueled a few weeks ago when we visited a friend’s garage art studio. As Mindy showed us her work area filled with her collection of beautiful handmade jewelry and pottery, my husband’s blue eyes lit up like fire in a kiln. The tipping point was our friend’s casual comment, “I make art as a creative release, and it makes me happy.” And just like that, my husband was an artist again. 

In his book The Courage to Create, Rollo May wrote, “We express our being by creating. Creativity is a necessary sequel to being.” May believed creativity is an essential component of a successful and fulfilling life. We were created to create. 

Our desire to create is seen in the popularity of television programs featuring ordinary people being creative. Watching other people bake cakes, plant gardens, and build tree houses makes for good television, but it doesn’t garner the same positive benefits as rolling up our sleeves and doing it ourselves. Maybe that explains the success of stores like Hobby Lobby.

There’s something innately elegant about being thoroughly engrossed in making something. When we’re creating, our personal problems melt away along with the cares of the world. We fall into a rhythm psychologists refer to as flow, defined as a mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and utter enjoyment.

Minutes flow into happy hours as Mike grinds pieces of glass, as Mindy shapes clay, as my mother-in-law stitches a quilt, as my neighbor decorates sugar cookies. Mihaly Csikszentmihali, a psychologist who died this week at 87, said during intense creativity, “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” 

Even if you haven’t made anything since that diorama for your seventh grade English class, you are creative. Boldly answer your call to create. Paint. Dance. Weave. Sing. Bake. Carve. Invent. Cook. Design. Sculpt. Fix. Plant. Film. Decorate, Sew. Draw. Write. Act. Quilt. Build. 

So what stops us from exploring our creativity? Here are my top excuses and what I tell myself in response.

  1. I don’t know how. You’re smart; you’ll figure it out. Take advantage of resources at the library, bookstore, and the Internet. Remember, we learn by doing.  
  2. What if I’m not good at it. At first, you probably won’t be. Create for creativity’s sake. If it turns out great, that’s just a bonus. 
  3. I’m not inspired. Go outside. Nature holds all of the inspiration we ever need. Hang out with other creatives. Become a patron of the arts.  
  4. I’m feeling lazy. Life is short. Get up and carpe the heck out of the diem!

Research shows being creative can improve happiness, stress, confidence, focus, problem-solving, authenticity, anxiety, self-expression, sense of freedom, resilience, open-mindedness, risk-taking, decision-making, and clarity. How wonderfully elegant. §

“The creator made us creative. Our creativity is our gift from God. Our use of it is our gift to God.”
~ Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

The Elegance of Going to the Theater

I haven’t been to the theater since the pandemic closed the curtains nearly two years ago, and I miss it like a dear friend. I fondly recall the many times I took my language arts students to see a live production of a play or musical. I’m retired now, but I remember how those field trips to the theater filled an ordinary school day with excitement and elegance. 

Learning a little about a performance before going almost always enhances the experience. I enjoyed preparing my students for a production by familiarizing them with the story, the setting, and the writer. Several years ago, my daughter memorized every note of the soundtrack to Wicked before we saw it, and I was glad I studied up on the life of Alexander Hamilton before seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius musical, Hamilton

Another important part of the educational experience is understanding that appropriate conduct and dress show respect for the performers and the venue. A curious thing happens when teenagers dress up; they behave better. I would say that’s true for most of us. When we’re feeling polished, our best manners tend to shine. Going to the theater is a wonderful chance to learn and practice proper etiquette. The more we frequent the arts, the more comfortable we become. 

Every sight and sound at the theater is punctuated with beauty and anticipation. Theaters are often housed in exquisite buildings that stir a feeling of reverence and awe. I loved watching the faces of my students as they looked around the unfamiliar space, some giddy with excitement, others strangely quiet. Before a show begins, we bask in the ornate architecture, dim lights, heavy velvet curtain, and sounds of an orchestra tuning up. 

Finally, there is the elegance of the production itself. Each element, including lighting, costumes, music, dialogue, and movement, is carefully chosen to transport the audience to another time and place. Together, we experience shared emotions we didn’t even know we had, let alone had in common. We applaud the cast and crew as we learn to understand and appreciate theater as a magnificent form of art.   

I realize many of my students liked going to the theater because they got to ride the bus, sit next to their friends, and get out of a few classes. Still, I hold on to the hope that those trips enriched their education and their lives and that as adults they continue to explore and treasure the elegance of going to the theater. Even if I must don a mask and show my vaccination card, I can hardly wait to go back to the theater. §

“I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
~ Oscar Wilde

The Elegance of Positive Body Language

In the Disney movie of the fairy tale The Little Mermaid, Ariel makes the questionable decision to give her voice to Ursula the Sea Witch in exchange for the chance to be with a prince. Ariel asks how she will communicate without her voice, to which Ursula provocatively exclaims, “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language!”

Though evil and misguided, the sea witch was right about the power of non-verbal communication. It’s something I frequently taught my language arts students. In the early seventies, psychologist Albert Mehrabian conducted a well-known study that concluded body language is significantly more important than actual words spoken.

Mehrabian’s Communication Model states that messages are conveyed 7% through words, 38% through tone and voice, and 55% through body language. Body language includes our facial expressions, gestures, and posture. If we want to communicate elegantly, that is simply, positively, and effectively, then we must pay attention to the messages we send non-verbally. 

How we communicate with others is an important life skill that can greatly influence our relationships and our happiness. Every day we have the opportunity to communicate positively with people including our family, friends, co-workers, and strangers. Psychologist and author Rollo May said, “Communication leads to community, understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing.”

We’ve all been in frustrating situations where our words are somehow misconstrued or misinterpreted. Here are some points we can consider to help us send a positive message through our body language.

  • Posture – Slouching signals a lack of interest or alertness. Sit and stand with back and shoulders straight but relaxed. 
  • Arms  – Crossing our arms can make us appear closed-off, self-conscious, or defensive. Placing hands on our hips can seem aggressive. Let them hang loosely and comfortably .
  • Handshakes – Handshakes should be friendly and confident. Be careful it doesn’t feel like a vice grip or a limp noodle.
  • Eye Contact – Looking others in the eye shows we are engaged, but don’t make it creepy. Just look at the person and keep a gentle gaze.
  • Facial Expressions – Genuine smiles and nods show we understand and are listening. Try to relax the face so it doesn’t appear tense or angry.
  • Proximity – Lean in a bit to show interest, but be aware of personal space and appropriate social distancing.
  • Hand Gestures – In general, palms should be open to show, well, openness. Talking with our hands too much can be distracting and make us seem nervous, but an occasional gesture can help make a point.
  • Fidgeting – Fiddling with pens, hair, phones, and other objects can indicate boredom or immaturity.

Body language is a powerful communication tool, especially when we use it honestly and sincerely. Unlike the little mermaid, we don’t have to give up our voice. We can learn to enhance our words with effective non-verbal communication to express ourselves more eloquently and elegantly. §

“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
~ Peter Drucker

Elegant Muses Like Maya Angelou, Bertha Flowers, and You

A muse is a someone who inspires others. The word originated in Greek mythology when the daughters of Zeus presided over arts and sciences. A loftier word for mentor, a muse is really anyone who helps us create our best life. We can all use a muse to inspire everyday elegance, and we should all aspire to be one.

In her poignant autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes a special neighbor named Mrs. Bertha Flowers. About Mrs. Flowers, Angelou writes, “She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her.”

Mrs. Flowers became a muse to young Maya (then Marquerite Johnson) and changed her life by exposing her to literature and other lessons in living. Angelou writes, “She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained through my life the measure of what a human being can be.”

As a literature teacher, I was thankful Angelou’s short story about Mrs. Flowers appeared in our eighth grade textbook, and I looked forward to visiting her year after year. It seemed we could all feel Mrs. Flowers’ elegant presence in our classroom after reading about her.

Just a year before Angelou died at age 86, I was fortunate to attend a lecture of hers. Wearing a beautiful black dress and pearls, she was a queen who sat on her throne bestowing wisdom, wit, and her own lessons in living.

From the moment she walked on stage until the moment she regally exited, a lump formed in my throat, my eyes filled with tears, and I had goose bumps that lasted for days. Only a muse can inspire such a reaction.

Finding a muse, or mentor, is a personal journey. It may be someone you admire from afar, or someone you are fortunate to know well. It might even be a fictional character who has become flesh and blood in your mind.

I’ve been lucky enough to have several mentors in my life, particularly in my roles as teacher and mother. In hindsight, I realize each of these people possessed everyday elegance, including the rare ability to remain composed under the most stressful situations.

While turning to a muse can help us improve our lives, at some point, we should consider paying it forward by serving as a muse, or mentor, who provides motivation, guidance, and support. I can only hope I’ve been a positive influence in someone else’s life along the way.

As adults, we must remember that we might be a muse, mentor, or role model without even realizing it. Whether we like it or not, younger people are watching and learning from us. Remembering this keeps us more accountable for our own conduct and behavior.

We may never fill the shoes of someone like the genteel Mrs. Bertha Flowers, but we can all at least aspire to what Angelou called “a true measure of what a human being can be.”

“Surviving is important. Thriving is elegant.”
~Maya Angelou

The Elegance of Getting Dressed

Mark Twain famously said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” In comparison to serious global and personal challenges, how we dress may seem silly and of little consequence. The fact remains that most of us wear clothes. No matter our personal style, the simple act of getting dressed can add everyday elegance to our lives from morning to night.

For the sake of clarity, let’s define getting dressed as the process of basic hygiene, good grooming, and selection of an appropriate outfit to wear. There does seem to be an increasingly popular trend of not getting dressed, as if life is one big come-as-you-are-party. It probably goes without saying that this choice will not inspire elegance. 

The decision to get dressed each morning can become a pleasant routine that starts the day on the right foot. Wearing something that feels uncomfortable, unattractive, or inappropriate makes for a long day. We might even feel sluggish, sad, or snippy. Once we take the time to get dressed, we can forget about what we’re wearing and seize the day with enthusiasm and confidence. 

Most people interpret the effort to look our best as a nod of respect to ourselves and others. A jaunty hat, a pretty dress, or a sharp jacket can bring smiles from complete strangers throughout the day. Perhaps more importantly, getting dressed will be appreciated by the people in our own homes and the person in the mirror. As fashion designer Tom Ford said, “Dressing well is a form of good manners.”

An evening ritual of changing out of our daytime clothes and getting ready for bed lets our mind and body know it’s time to wind down. This is a good time to consider how our clothes functioned in our real, everyday life. Over time, we can say goodbye to so-so items and curate a closet filled with things we love. It’s also a perfect time to feel grateful for all we have, including  our clothing. 

“Get up, dress up, show up, and never give up,” said contemporary writer Regina Brett. There are many things in life outside of our control, but getting dressed isn’t one of them. The simple routine of getting dressed each day is an opportunity to add beauty and elegance to our lives and to those around us. §

“Never wear anything that panics the cat.”
~ P. J. O’Rourke