Being Creative during Quarantine

The paradox of quarantine is that there has never been a greater opportunity for people to be creative in an atmosphere which couldn’t be less conducive to being productive.

Even for the seasoned introvert who is very comfortable getting along in solitude, the forced isolation can be difficult. It comes from the restriction, I think, of not being able to go out when you choose, rather than from any particular desire to be doing more than you currently are. It is a limitation of freedom which hangs around your neck like a weight, holding your loved ones, your neighbours, the whole world to ransom. How are you supposed to work in an environment where Covid-19 prowls, invisible, outside the door, like an eldritch monster that that you cannot predict or see.

The added disadvantage is that for many people things feel busier. This even applies to people who aren’t essential workers, but have set themselves up at home.  For those who have little experience working from home it can feel like a nightmare—everything takes longer, it’s harder to get into the groove of things, and you have all the frustration of technology and delegation and other nonsense. The very mind-set of working from home can take time to cultivate. After all, we’re used to a certain routine: specific hours, specific clothes, specific locations which are all part of the working experience. When you deviate so suddenly from it, it can be hard to engage your brain into work-mode. On top of that, lots of people have the added pressure of doing another full-day’s work in terms of care-giving, child-care and household chores. (Because yes, if a bunch of people are all in the house constantly together, the washing, tidying and cleaning are going to double!)

This is the sort of environment where stress, fear and tension can cultivate, like mould in a petri dish, multiplying and growing more and more deadly. You pace around your habitat, like a tiger in a cage, simultaneously under and over-stimulated. (The whole question of life for animals in captivity is another conversation entirely.) The results can be a sense of restlessness, anxiety, depression, lethargy and hypertension. Your problem-solving brain is trying to engage and misfiring, staring down the barrel of a pandemic where the only viable solution for many is to stay in-doors and do as little as possible.

One of solutions to this claustrophobic nightmare is to engage your mind with something creative. And yet, at a time where our sanity calls for it, it seems to be more difficult than ever.

So why can’t people just allow themselves the release of being creative? Well I believe that actually comes as an unfortunate by-product of our society’s insistence on marketability. Time and materials are resources that you should only dip into if the resulting product has ‘worth’, and the worth of the product is usually assessed on its monetary value. (Eg. “You could sell that!”). In other-words you can only create things if you are doing it at a professional level. We’re no longer allowed to enjoy something, unless we’re good at it, and thus we don’t do it.

For those who are capable of creating to a professional level they have the added pressure of usually having a vocation related to their art. Perhaps it’s a full-time job, perhaps they’re a freelancer, perhaps they’re a student – the point is that their art is intrinsically connected with work. They can’t draw or write for pleasure, because if they’re drawing or writing, they should be working! Only, as we’ve established, working and productivity are currently harder than ever. And can you blames us? With the weighty traumatic terror of Covid-19 looming, how is any reasonable person supposed to balance the added pressure of deadlines, which are hard enough on their own!

Forget fight or flight, we’re all in full fright mode—we’re playing possum, too overwhelmed and petrified to move.

And yet it remains that being creative might just be the only thing we can do right now, to help relieve this pressure, to combat symptoms of anxiety and depression, and to bring a little brightness into the disaster. But in order to take advantage of it though, we have to let go of that expectation that the product is the important thing. At this time the product doesn’t matter so much as the process—the pleasure of writing, of painting, of playing, of baking, of building. It truly is a situation where ‘The treasure is the friends you made along the way’. By giving yourself a task, but relieving the pressure of expectation, you can engage your problem-solving brain, without the paralysis of inadequacy and requirement getting in the way. Whilst some people have been able to dive into long projects—and kudos to you, my friends—for many, now is not the time to try and create your magnus opus. Now is the time to have fun.

Draw, paint, sculpt, even if you’re bad at it. Take out that candle making set you got for Christmas, make your own cookies with spare Easter treats, learn some origami from a Youtube tutorial. Pick up the guitar that’s gathering dust, make models out of playdough or lego, start scrapbooking. And if you’re like me—write. Write whatever you want; prompts, short-stories, poems, ideas, fanfiction…Anything you want.

And for those who can’t convince themselves to try something they know they’re bad at, or for the artists who cannot suppress the guilt of doing something just for fun, I remind you that practising a craft is never a waste of time. It is the best way to improve. Furthermore, without the pressure, many people will produce good things. Think how many of the great innovations came about by accident, or by someone indulging in a hobby. You might come out of this with your magnus opus yet! The point is to remove the emphasis on the result, and place it on the process.

It’s a rough time for so many people. For those stuck at home, for those who can’t see their families, for those who are out there protecting and serving the public as essential workers, and for those who may have already lost someone…We can’t make that aspect easier, but we can try to help ourselves even as we help each other by staying home, and doing our part in flattening the curve.

A personal note:

I have been running a series of Live ‘Writing Retreats’ on my Author Facebook for the last few weeks, which have been really good. It’s been attended by a whole number of people—dabblers of fiction, and dab-hands, professional writers, students and hobbyists. Each session consists of a number of fun prompts, set to engage your creative mind, without the expectation of results. From my standpoint, I have found them beneficial—coming up with prompts and seeing so many cool ideas has been brilliant. Those who attend have also seemed to really enjoy it, and particularly like the social aspect of sharing ideas and work. Naturally all of my readers are welcome to come and join us. The next Live episode will be on Monday the 20th of April, 14:00. Come and join us, if you like! Until then, stay safe and well, my friends.

Me, God and the Atheists

A Catholic and an Atheist walk into a bar. Ok, no, scratch that. A Catholic and an Atheist walk into a party. The Catholic is dressed as a clown, the Atheist as a French Onion Seller. By the end of the night, the Atheist has the Catholic’s phone number, and few years later they’re married.

There’s no joke here, though all the elements are pretty much there. The Catholic and the Atheist come to know each other Biblically, or, Biologically if you prefer. Over the course of two years, two children pop out. Cute little half-breeds – Atheist/Catholic, Atholics-Catheists, a veritable yin-yang of contradictions and belief, existing harmoniously. The Atheist agrees the children will be raised Catholic. The Catholic agrees that the children will be given the choice of whether to stick to the faith.

The Atholic-Catheists grow up. They experiment with their beliefs. They question. They exist in a pleasant between that constantly shifts.

And then, the Catholic gets sick and dies.

And that’s where we are now.

Incase any of you aren’t very good at guessing, I was one such Atholic-Catheist, my father the devout Athiest, and my mother the sceptical Catholic. And this post is about my very personal relationship with God and the Atheists. (There’s a band-name in there)

When people ask me now a-days how I would define my belief, I am usually quite unwilling to respond. My reasoning for this is that I have a deep-seated fear of fundamentalists on either side of the spectrum. Perhaps the advantage of being raised by a lukewarm Catholic and an Atheist who enjoys Church music, is that I never had to pick a side, because there was always a middle ground.

I am suspicious of anyone who is 100% certain of anything because, as Obi-Wan put it, only Siths deal in absolutes. And because I’m a John Mill girl, personally, and I believe that we should be willing to question everything. Blind faith, in whatever form, is utterly abhorrent to me, and it makes my flesh crawl.

Until recently however, it wasn’t something I paid much mind too. Depending on the company, I defined myself differently, willing to play Devil’s Advocate and challenge conceptions. Since the loss of my mother however, I have learnt to keep a tight lid on my spiritual beliefs. And this is because of the ugly habit fundamentals have of attempting to use my grief and bereavement as a recruitment tool. I don’t know, maybe they get a ‘Faith-Miles’ for every person they convert.

I remember the moment it became clear to me why I was so uneasy with people telling me my mother’s death was part of God’s plan. You see, nothing could endear me less to a God than the idea that the entity of whom I should rely and pay homage to was actually directly responsible for the loss of my mother. Why on earth should that make me feel better? I’ve just been told I have to worship an invisible asshole, who sits on his ass, picking off people by the millions and leaving us to suffer and guess as to why.

I was always more comforted by the idea that God did exist, but that he had no control over us in our earthly lives. He was just there to listen, to understand, and to welcome us when we died. Like a benevolent pen-friend we’ve spoken to for years, coming to pick us up at the airport. Except there’s no return ticket. The pen-friend kidnaps you, gives you a harp and puts you on a cloud to chill for eternity. Awkward.

Atheists, as it turns out, aren’t much better at the comforting thing. I can’t talk to them about my uncertainty of the whole “God’s Plan Malarkey” without incurring a torrent of cynical, self-satisfied mockery about the baseness of the belief and its ludicrousness. (Because sure, comfort me about my dead mother by insulting her, and what she believed: that’s smart). For all their criticism of religion, I’ve never met a fundamental atheist who hasn’t acted like he’s an elite member of a ‘Chosen people’, going out into the world and leaving debasing comments on religious posts like an inverse-missionary, spreading the word of science.

“You’re right, of course Madeleine,” they say, “There is no plan. There is no God. When we die, that’s it. We are extinguished from this earth. Worms eat us. Or crazy grandchildren keep us in a pot on their mantelpiece. End of.”

Thanks guys. Great. Fucking. Comfort.

I know what you’re thinking at this point – Madeleine, you can’t live as a contradiction for the rest of your life, becoming more Atheist in the company of Christians, and more Christian in the company of Atheists, but currently I don’t see a way around it. I want the comfort of Catholicism without having to associate with a misogynistic, militant pedo-ring and their Machiavellian God, and I want the empirical nature of atheism without having to join the smug-club and their ‘hope you enjoyed the last few months with your mother, cus you’re never going to see her again’ attitude.

I don’t want to call myself an Atheist, but the day my mother died, I was no longer a Catholic. And it wasn’t because I was angry at God. It was because she was my link, my connection to the crazy bastard, and when she went, there was nothing in me any more to believe in him. Maybe I stopped believing in him a long time ago.

So where do I stand? Agnostic? Pagan? Spiritual? Where do you go after living 22 years as an Atholic-Catheist, only to lose the Catheist?

I think the worse problem is that there’s no answer to these questions which isn’t religious, and apparently I’m thoroughly allergic to those. It’s no good telling me that she’s with God, because I won’t believe you and it’ll just be uncomfortable, and it’s no good telling me that she lives on inside of me and my recollections of her, because that’s not good enough.

At the end of the day, I keep my religious belief to myself because I am un-swayed. I live in perpetual flux. I am a rambler of religions, a tourist of spirituality, and if anyone tries to – however kindly – impose any one ‘right’ answer onto me, I will run a mile, screaming the other way.

“But then Madeleine, what do we say when you’re upset? What do we do to comfort you when you come to us, desperate for answers?” they ask.

I don’t know. How about shut up, and give me a hug?