I have a love-hate relationship with prompts and challenges. On the one hand, a theme or topic nudges me to think about something I might not have considered and sometimes leads me to create when I might not otherwise. On the other hand, prompts can generate distraction and send my mind into a tailspin. When presented with Gather Academy’s January theme “rooted,” the resulting stream of consciousness went something like:
roots … plants … houseplants … root rot … am I overwatering my plants? … why can’t I remember how much each need? … why can’t I remember much of anything, actually? … do I know where all my children are? … what’s for dinner? … kale … potatoes … are tubers roots or something else? … how did I miss the memo that peanuts grow in the ground … I should check to make sure the epi-pens haven’t expired … ad nauseam.
The theme was “rooted,” and I generated “scattered.”
Scattered is not new or unusual for me—on a regular basis my family reminds me to finish one sentence before I start another. While I understand that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, I’m much more Spirograph. Some fun discoveries have been made along the way, but if I’m being honest, it’s also caused a lot of despair. I’ve had a lot of starts, stops, and redirections along the years. Most have been exactly what needed to happen, and most have represented growth, but in the moment, many have felt like failure.
Almost two decades ago, around the time I realized my college major had been a misguided decision and when I started to accept my first few years of work experience as lessons in what I didn’t want to do with my life, my boss and mentor offered advice that has stuck with me since: barely attempting to conceal the smirk of life experience, he suggested that I go ahead and pursue whatever felt right in the moment, however different that might be from what I was doing at the time. I was baffled at the prospect of literally starting over. He went on to explain that in his adult lifetime he had been a PhD student, a ski instructor, a professional dancer, an advocate for adaptive sports programs, and a corporate executive. How could this be? He was quite possibly the most grounded person I knew. He assured me that in time, if I listened to my intuition and if I was patient (ha!), I would start to see the line connecting each of the phases in my life…even when I felt each on its own was a fruitless dead-end.
I’m now starting to understand what he meant. We are so much more than what we have or what we do. When we are able to step back and look at things from a wider perspective, it’s possible to see that, underlying even the most eclectic and disjointed set of life experiences, is a constant driving force. Whether we call this a set of core values, a vision, an outlook, or something else entirely, it’s what remains when we strip away all the extraneous noise. As humans, we evolve over time, and as artists our work might also shift. We might experiment or go through phases, yet when we look carefully, there remains a constant essence in what we create and communicate.
In much the same way a plant’s roots are an integral part of its development, as artists our roots—those foundational experiences, beliefs, and influences that shape who we are—affect how we see and the way we approach our work. Like the roots of a plant, our paths may at times feel like directionless, snarly jumbles, but nonetheless they are feeding our work. Just as a plant’s roots provide stability and deliver sustenance, our experiences ground us and give us opportunities to grow beyond where we are planted, possibly finding new sources of nourishment along the way. What happens within each of us when we create (or even when we struggle to project our voices) comes from something deep within us, like the subterranean structure of a plant that produces the lovely blossoms or foliage that are on display for all to see. Indeed, often it can take a lot of beneath-the-surface work to make something beautiful.
With this in mind, my own personal challenge for 2020 is to reconnect with what keeps me grounded, to consider the directions in which I want to grow, to honor the paths that have brought me here, and to give myself the time and space to cultivate new work. What does “rooted” mean for you? How will you let it guide you in 2020? We’re working on ways to keep this community strong and vibrant—we hope you’ll stick around and grow with us.