Fill the well: what the creative soul needs

Quinta da Regaleira Sintra Portugal by Krista Pepper

A shocking number of my personal breakthroughs come while I’m consuming media. I wish I could say I’m appreciating iconic paintings or listening to underground bands or reading feminist poetry, but it’s usually from bingeing the same crime dramas I’ve watched for ten years. You can learn a lot more from Bones than what a kerf mark is.

In this latest rewatch (#4), something happened that’s never happened before: I started bawling my eyes out. Sure, I’ve cried at the show before–if Vincent Nigel-Murray’s death doesn’t move you, please check your pulse–but this…. This was different.

I’ll try to explain.

By season 8, Angela Montenegro‘s life is completely unrecognizable from the pilot. She started out a free-spirited, world-travelling, sexually prolific, talented artist; now she’s a happily-married mother who rarely leaves her office. She doesn’t paint moving or confrontational art anymore; she does facial reconstructions and runs crime scene simulations. It takes a couple of years, but eventually she sees the gulf between who she was and who she’s become, between the beauty she craves and the ugliness that surrounds her. The look on her face is one of a tiger realizing too late that the security of the cage wasn’t worth losing the freedom of the wild.

Even though I’d seen this episode before, the stark existential grief of a creative person confronting the smothering of their creativity by their own (good and wanted) life poured acid straight into an open wound in my soul. Empathizing with Angela’s struggle wasn’t an exercise of imagination anymore. This time, it was real. This time, it was my life, too.

I cried the ugly cry.

I wept for the vulnerability I once had, the stories I used to tell so fiercely and so fluidly, the ideas that used to interrupt my sleep, the time to dream and produce. I wept for the artist I was, dampened near to death by a good life that I wouldn’t trade to have the old one back but mourn all the same.

I despaired with Angela, now able to see through her eyes by having walked in those shoes.

But because Bones is good TV, it doesn’t leave Angela there–it solves her problem. And as it unfolded, as the fiery artist rose back up in Angela, I found myself rising back up, too.

The answer was so obvious: Her well is dry.

Without something besides work and family to sustain her, Angela couldn’t make the art her soul was designed to create. She had to take a step back (or perhaps to the side), cut her hours at the Jeffersonian, and commit to spending time studying great works of art and following her artistic instincts.

I cried a little more at that. At the realization that my own well is dry.

Between playdates and grocery shopping and temper tantrums and laundry and Finding Dory and housecleaning, I’ve lost touch with what fuels my ability to tell a story: life. In addition to and beyond the baby routine and the housewife duties and friends and family and church. Out there in cafes, museums, forests, waterfalls, concerts, strangers–that’s where the story lives.

I have to fill my well. Because an artist’s job isn’t to create something from nothing but rather to spin straw into gold. No straw, no gold. No inspiration, no art.

(I know I’m mixing metaphors, and I really do not care. We’re all on a journey; don’t judge me.)

See? Revelation from crime dramas. Told you.

And because I never want to waste a good epiphany, I’m taking steps toward filling the well. It’s starting with stretching my comfort zone to mind a friend’s toddler one day while she minds mine another day, giving me six solid hours of freedom for whatever my soul needs to do, see, or create. I’m concocting day trips to Toronto for fun with the kiddo without worrying (too much) about missed-nap meltdowns. Our family is investing in memberships to the botanical gardens and the science center. I’m going to buy a swimming suit for the first time since my honeymoon.

It’s time for me to stop dying to the things that fill up my well. There’s no glory, no reward for martyring myself like that. It’s dumb, and I’m done with it.

I leave you with perhaps the most poignant words I’ve ever read about this kind of art/soul sadness and its cure. Fair warning: it will give you the feels.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver


    • elliedi

      “I could only be their best mom by being my best self” <– 100% gold. This is so true! It's just hard to really live it out when you've trained yourself to squash what you love to raise up others, thinking that's what works.

      I'm very sad for you that they took Bones away from you but also find it a little hilarious how long you've been mad about it. (You can always watch it all again when you come up for your next visit!)

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