A Villanelle for Creativity Rituals

Go percolate a fresh pot
And prepare yourself to think
This is yours: decide the plot

Inhale the swirling steam, hot
The cups and spoons clink
Go percolate a fresh pot

Are your pencils ready to jot?
And your pens full of ink?
This is yours: you decide the plot

Pour the sugar — a little, a lot
Until it’s sweet enough to drink
Go percolate a fresh pot

What’s scribbled? What have you got?
Are you finished? On the brink?
This is yours: you decide the plot

Now start over on the spot
Toss the old coffee in the sink
Go percolate a fresh pot
This is yours: you decide the plot

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How To Establish a Creativity Ritual

If we have a job or a hobby that requires a significant creative output, it can be frustrating to sit in front of a blank page, fingers at the ready, only to realize that we’re distracted (or worse, empty). Some people, such as Eat, Pray, Love writer Elizabeth Gilbert, refer to their creative self as their muse. Others, such as novelist Steven King, refer to it as “the boys in the basement”, a notion psychologists might understand as being one’s subconscious. But no matter the metaphors used to describe this mysterious force, most people will experience the annoyance of showing up to work without it. It can therefore be helpful to create a ritual that will, in a sense, summon creativity. The ritual serves to snap one’s mind into a state where it’s ready to work. It can trigger that notoriously elusive muse out of hiding. The best part is that our ritual can be personal, and we can tailor it however we want. The following are some tips on finding and establishing a creative ritual.

1. Reflect on What Gets your Juices Flowing
This will be different for everyone, as evidenced by the writer of Katy Perry’s lyrics: “do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?”.  It may not be various detritus that makes us tick, but it could be. For some, it’s imperative that they literally get their juices flowing, by going for a walk or a jog. This can be helpful for generating ideas and the hit of the happy-chemical serotonin doesn’t hurt, either. Some feel the need to perfectly sharpen five pencils in order to get to work. Others will swear they just can’t think unless they’ve had their cup of coffee. It could also be helpful to review how to make the perfect cup of tea. The only caveat here is to choose something that will be beneficial to long-term wellbeing. While moderate amounts of caffeine are generally thought to be pretty harmless, one should avoid copious alcohol and other drugs for their creativity rituals. In the long term, these practices will impede creativity, not to mention hurt our liver friends.

williamslakeview
Unfortunately, it can be hard to go for regular walks in this kind of foreboding weather.

2. Find your Most Creative Time
This may be something you already know about yourself. Sometimes we realize that we do most of our good work late at night, like some sort of vampire who happens to be really amazing at painting. Or we may wake up and find ourselves hammering poems out first thing in the morning. Most likely, these ideal times will coincide with the period in which we are less prone to outside distractions. For instance, early morning or late night hold the benefits of everyone else being asleep. Perhaps a lunch break in which everyone else has fled to the salad bar presents a good opportunity to do some brainstorming. It’s fine to experiment with different times of day, as well. Personally, I’m a sworn night owl, but I’ve found that I get most of my work done if I begin within half an hour of waking up. Otherwise, I am prone to finding all sorts of things to do around town.

therealtime
Your ideal time might be a bleary-eyed 1:44 am. 

3. Carve out a Space
We would all love the broad oak desk in the study with the panoramic windows overlooking the sea. (Or perhaps I’ve spent too much time coveting neighbours while living on Vancouver Island.) While we may not have our ideal space, it’s important that this does not stop us from getting creative. Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro apparently wrote from her laundry room during her children’s nap-times in her beginnings. Some of us may carve out little nooks in our bedrooms, or we may even get our best work done in a certain coffee house, with a stream of java mainlined to our veins. Personally, I write from a seat at my kitchen table, which is somewhat reminiscent of the times I spent hopelessly labouring over math assignments in my parents’ kitchen. But it works. Carve out a space, and feel free to hang up a sign as if belonging to a child’s treehouse: Muses Only.

mattdesk
Pictured: my boyfriend’s desk—it works for him. 

4. Choose your Action
With the preparations now in place, it is time to commit to an action. Think back to the first step and choose the action that most gets you mentally “at work”. Break out the coffee or the tea. Get that sugary sweet snack. Sharpen those pencils. Pour out that paint. Say that prayer, or meditate. Repeat a mantra. Speak to your muse. Take some deep breaths. Light some incense or a candle. Listen to a specific song or a certain type of music. Do some stretches. Compartmentalize your worries and save them for later. Turn off your phone. Set a timer for yourself. Turn off your wifi. There are plenty of ways to trigger the mind into that creative state, but make sure it’s something you can summon day after day.

coffeemug
Copious amounts of coffee have factored heavily into my ritual since university.

5. Practice for at Least Two Weeks
Repetition is the key to acquiring a new habit. In fact, habits really are just repetition. And what are rituals, if not mindful habits? In order for the ritual to be reliable, we must reliably commit to the ritual. Therefore, if we can practice every day for at least two weeks, it will have a better chance of snapping our minds into work mode. Invariably, there will be times when we faithfully do the ritual and we come up empty. It’s important not to become frustrated. We can either work through that emptiness and try to force work out (if writing, we can try to write 300 words and see how we feel afterwards). Or we can use this time to be silly: scribble and sketch, write a dumb limerick, sew a funny hat, design a website for our dog. It may not be our most productive day, but at least we’re being creative, and we’ve deflated the pressure (and sometimes it’s that pressure that leads to creative blocks). It doesn’t matter what we create, just that we respect the ritual and create something. In time, we may have less silly scribble days and more serious writing days. (Though it’s important not to underestimate those silly days, for they may generate some surprisingly good ideas.)

monalisa
Pictured: how Da Vinci came up with the Mona Lisa. Probably.

The keys to establishing a successful creativity ritual is to choose something we can do again and again. We need to be able to create a space for ourselves in which do it, and for best results, do it at a time where we feel most alert. It’s also important to leave behind that critical, self-judging attitude—the voice which suggests we should just give it up and that we’ll never be as good as whomever else. There will be less productive days, but if we stick with them, our creative rituals will be able to snap our minds back from the shallow depths of mundane fixations to the rich worlds of our creative potentials.

Resilience

I want to be your skin, repair
and renew your wounds, turn
cuts and sores from scab to shining
scar. I will soften the aurora
borealis blue starbursts
of bruises. Plot white lightning
stripes as you stretch. Move
from bubbling blister to callus.
I will freckle in the sunlight
and ignite pink blush
under the gaze of strangers
My tacit intent is to protect,
for you I am elastic

How to Foster Resilience

Sometimes life can have us feeling pretty punch-drunk. There’s an old superstition that claims that all bad news comes in threes, but occasionally it feels as though it comes in dozens. That kind of hardship would have anyone cowering in fetal position, on the precipice of a panic attack. So what can be done, when we’re at the mercy of events outside of our control? One answer is to foster resilience, or grit. This is the quality that allows us to get back up, to face a difficult circumstance, and to do it with humility. It takes a lot of practice to add this quality to our arsenal, but luckily, life gives us no shortages of opportunities to try it out. Here are some ways to flex this skill.

1. Step out of your Comfort Zone
Those safe, cushy places have their use for us, but the interesting thing about comfort zones is that they have this near magical ability to shrink. If we’re apt to stay within them, we may soon find that a clamouring club scene we’ve avoided steadily morphs into a night out with friends at a lounge. That old chestnut “do one thing a day that scares you”, often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, is not entirely wrong. (Though perhaps we’re not to go skydiving every single day.) The easiest way to go about doing this is by saying “yes” more often. Yes to invitations, yes to meeting new people, yes to trying something new at work. This will allow us to experience being a little bit afraid or overwhelmed, and give us the opportunity to develop our resilience.

blankies
Today I resisted the urge to blog from within those blankets. 

2. Cut out the Negatives
While it isn’t always possible to sever ties with a rude coworker, or with an overly critical family member, we should, when possible, eliminate these circumstances from our lives. Enduring a negative situation is different from stepping out of our comfort zone, and we can tell the difference with a simple test: “how do I feel afterwards?” If the answer is “empty” or “emotionally drained”, chances are it has not been an enriching experience. If we boldly step out of our comfort zone by visiting a new friend, and we feel as though they’ve only talked about the dramatic circumstances in their life, we may feel as if we’ve been captured by an emotional vampire. Likewise for the pointless online arguments, the job that fills us with dread, the nights out that make feel empty afterwards. Wherever possible, we should cut these needlessly negative experiences out of our lives in favour of experiences that fill us with a range of emotion, but ultimately leave us feeling somehow empowered.

drain
Flush them right down the drain, like so many metaphorical spiders. 

3. Observe your Feelings
Anyone who has experience with meditation will recognize this statement. The act of observing one’s feelings was a practice I’d first encountered while reading about Buddhism. In basic terms, it asks us to separate ourselves from our emotions by watching them. We can sit back and see that we feel frustration or sadness. Yes, we may feel slighted about something, but this doesn’t make us less competent, valuable, or worthy. What we feel is not who we are. (And as someone who deals with major depressive episodes, this was an important discovery.) The next time we feel hurt, we can acknowledge the weight of that feeling while simultaneously realizing that it does not affect the wonderful friend, lover, son, mother, or caregiver that we are.

nocs
You don’t need binoculars for this kind of observation.

4. Don’t Give into Self-Pity
We’ve just seen that we can observe our feelings, and nurture compassion for ourselves by realizing that we are not our feelings. Sometimes there is a feeling that masquerades as compassion: self-pity. Self-pity is usually propped up by fatalistic, false beliefs: nobody loves me, I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I’m the ugliest person here, etc..  But beliefs are not the same things as feelings. We can observe feeling hurt, but when we see the belief “I’m a bad person”, we should stop and unravel it. If we think about our favourite literary heroes and the terrible circumstances they need to face, the thing they most have in common is a lack of self-pity. They may feel doubt, apprehension, or fear, but rarely do bemoan, chapter after chapter, “why me? I’m the worst!” (For the reader, this might become one of those emotionally draining experiences and we would be better served tossing the book.) We can challenge the false beliefs that build up self-pity by examining them: “Am I really the worst daughter ever?” And then we can replace them with something true: “I’m not a bad person. Sometimes I overreact and say harmful things I don’t mean. Next time I feel angry, I’ll take a moment to reflect before I speak.” This statement includes a solution, a way to change the behaviour, and this has the effect of giving us our power back. We now have an accurate statement and a way to get up and improve.

soldier
This knight is ready to fight self-pity.

5. Practice Self-Talk
Correcting our false beliefs is part of self-talk. Self-talk is sort of like being our own cheerleaders from inside our minds. We can offer encouragement, validation, and, with practice, our own inside jokes. (The most inside of all inside jokes.) These are things we often desire from outside sources, and while it is nice to be told we did a good job (great blog post, for instance), we will strengthen our esteem by providing it for ourselves. (Not to mention dash the heartbreak that comes with unmet expectations.)

buddha
With practice, hopefully we can all look as happy as this guy. 

Practicing positive self-talk will help foster resilience, because when someone tells us something we now know is patently false, we can raise our heads and think “I know I did a good job, and that person is acting like a wiener.” Afterwards, if we realize that this person is constantly telling us false things with the purpose of making us feel bad, we can cut them right out of our lives.

Stranger

I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone,
I am to wait—I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
“To a Stranger”, Walt Whitman

You sit, scribbling on a napkin
halfway across the café. Sipping
steaming cups of cappuccino
with maraschino lips. I know
I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone

From your bag comes every book
I’ve cradled in the bath and treasured
on my nightstand. They have been written
for our conversations, and yet
I am to wait —I do not doubt I am to meet you again

Finally you rise. The buttoning
of your coat precedes the forward
scraping of your chair. We share a glance
before you find the door and step through.
I am to see to it that I do not lose you

How to Talk to Strangers

We’ve all been in a situation which we’re minding our own business, engulfed in our own thoughts (or worries), when someone really intriguing comes along. This person might be wearing an interesting outfit, they might be carrying an amazing book, or they might be hanging out with a really cute dog. How do we make a connection with them without being painfully awkward? Even the most outgoing of us can end up with a foot lodged firmly inside of our mouths. The following is some tips to avoid that unfortunate acrobatic feat.

1. Frequent Areas Conducive to Friendly Chatter
Most of us live far away in both space and time from the great communal bonfires of our ancestors. In fact, many of us journey from lonely one-bedroom apartments, to lonely one-person cubicles with only the human voices on our music playlists to keep us company (and even those are increasingly robotic). The interactions we have in shops are courteous, but usually devoid of any real substance (speaking of robots.) It is therefore a good idea to frequent public spaces, or spaces with an atmosphere conducive to chatter. For students, these places are widely found across campuses in common rooms, foyers, and even hallways. For those of us who don’t attend school (or are too cool for school, perhaps), we might have some luck in coffee houses, hobby stores, parks, or communal areas in libraries. Places where we wait around can also work, such as line-ups and waiting rooms. It is, however, important to respect a person’s space. It would be unkind to follow someone into an alleyway for a conversation (especially while shouting, “But wait, I like your t-shirt!”), likewise to subject a person to soliloquies while they’re using public transportation. They key is not to hold a person captive. There must be an escape route for them, should they want it. Conversations are best when they are mutual.

garage
 
Parking garages are highly unrecommended places to greet someone.

2. Know Body Language
This tip goes along the same lines as not holding a person captive. We must be aware of our stranger’s body language as well as our own. For instance, we can seem approachable and non-aggressive by keeping our arms and legs uncrossed, by smiling amicably (read: not like Jack Nicholson in The Shining), and by tilting our head slightly to indicate interest. We don’t want to stand too close, touch them, or lick our lips while rapidly raising and lowering our eyebrows (save that sort of behaviour for close friends). Signs to be aware of from our stranger: their arms are crossed, their eyes are darting to the ground or to their phones, they are not smiling or their smile seems forced, they are looking at others around them (possibly for help), or they are giving us a firm and unshakeable middle finger. These are all signs to disengage at once, no matter how neat the person seems.

headphones
 And if someone is wearing these, it’s best to leave them be.

3. Offer Compliments
Living in a city, a suburb, or even certain rural areas can lead to a sense of anonymity: everyone is a stranger. We come to feel that it’s advantageous to have our guards up, because there is no way of knowing if someone is friend or foe. It can therefore be beneficial to offer a compliment by way of introduction, in order to disarm someone. The caveat, however, is that the compliment should be genuine. Most people can tell if you don’t really like their purple hair, especially if you immediately follow the compliment with “But why would you do something like that?” Even if the remark is out of genuine curiousity, it usually comes off as an affront to their tastes, rendering them more on their guard than ever. The other caveat is that it is best not to compliment a stranger on their body. People have hang-ups about their bodies. Of course, freckles, scars, and birth marks can be interesting and beautiful, but they may also be something the person is sensitive about. (And while it is nice to compliment friends and family about these things, my be-freckled sister will attest that this can also be annoying.) Furthermore, telling a stranger “you have super nice boobies,” is a tough opener, because where do you possibly go from there?  Basically, we want to find the thing about them that makes us want to reach out, without making them uncomfortable.

sky
 Giving compliments will also avoid resorting to gripping topics like the weather.

4. Ask Questions
We’ve all been in the unfortunate one-sided conversations where a person will yammer on about their current big project, and how successful they already are, and how they own a yacht, and how they are actually seen as a prince in some countries. (No? It must be my unfortunate luck to meet these characters.) The point is, engaging people in conversation is simple, because people love to talk about themselves. If they are carrying something that interests you, such as a specific phone model, a book, a bag from a favourite shop, or sports equipment, then we can ask questions related to these things. If we notice something about their behaviour, (perhaps they are looking for something,) then we can ask them about this. If we see the same person at the same time and place we can allude to this as well (though only if they show recognition as well, since knowing someone’s schedule without their knowing us is apt to seem suspicious.) Getting a person to open up is like most things: we can improve our skills the more we practice. Eventually we develop an intuition as to which topics to pursue and which topics to avoid.

erotica
Like maybe not all books are appropriate to open dialogue with.

5. Know When to Stop
Every conversation comes to an end. And if that conversation is with a stranger, it should err on the side of short and sweet. When our stranger begins to shift, then they are likely needed elsewhere, and it’s time for us to gracefully bow out. We can do this by saying “Well, I should be getting back to work now,” or a genuine “It was really nice talking with you.” We can thank them for the chat. We can introduce ourselves if we haven’t had a chance yet, and let them know that we’ll see them around. What we want to avoid, unless the stranger volunteers, is to jump into the promise of being best friends. This means that asking for personal information, unless there is a clear business objective to the exchange, is likely to make the person uncomfortable. We can try this if we see the person on more than one occasion, but it’s important to make them feel in control. Therefore, we should leave our contact information with them, rather than demanding theirs.

goodtime
 Do not leave your information as such. 

And there we have it: easy ways we can strike up a conversation with just about anybody. If we make a person feel comfortable by approaching them with relevant questions and in an open space, they are likely to respond positively and we may just score a new friend out of the deal. If nothing else, we’ll have had face-to-face contact with another human being and perhaps learned something about ourselves in the process.

Making Tea

The lavender and lemon balm leaves
were grown from seed—little specks
rooted under sun, cloud,
fog, and morning steam
They fed bees with black and gold rings
and bugs with backs like shining glass

Dry them next to hibiscus petals like ruby glass
and fragrant spindly green raspberry leaves
tied with twine, spun around them like rings
Brush away their collected dust specks
Keep them away from steam—
those tendrils of errant indoor cloud

A muggy thought akin to cloud
deserves no fragile crystal glass
but a sturdy cup made for steam,
adorned with painted leaves
and dotted with gold specks
the colour of treasured rings

Let the kettle kiss the burner rings
the cast iron sighing out a cloud
and sputtering little water specks
fog creeping up window glass
hiding roads and trees and leaves
until solitary with whistle and steam

blow swirls of breath against the steam
make ripples in the mug, creating rings
Pull out the mound of swollen leaves,
a heavy dripping rain cloud,
leaving ochre tea like tinted glass
with a few swirling specks

The future is set in green specks
and visible through steam
no need for balls of glass,
no mirrors, no mood rings
Part the smoke and the cloud
with the patterns of the leaves

You see the specks, will you read the leaves?
You breathe the steam, will you gather the clouds?
Will you shatter the glass, will you toss the rings?

How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea

Every morning, thick fog has been rolling into the small valley I call home. This is a sure sign that winter is approaching, and with it comes with the insatiable craving for warm, comforting drinks. Tea is my beverage of choice. Depending on the brew, it has the power to jolt the senses, clear up sinuses, provide relief to a sweet tooth, or lull to sleep. However, for such an ubiquitous drink, tea can be surprisingly intimidating. With elitists demanding that one use only glacier water and bring it to five degrees short of a rolling boil, to purists insisting that adding anything to a cup of tea is criminal, it can be difficult to know what exactly constitutes a perfect cup. The following is a guide on how to do just that, no matter one’s preference.

1. Decide on the Desired Effect
The first step in making a great cup of tea is to choose whether we want something to wake us up the during morning and afternoon doldrums, or whether we want something more soothing. The caffeine levels in tea will help us gauge this. Black tea has the highest amount of caffeine, and this includes blends such as English Breakfast, Earl Grey, and the classic Orange Pekoe. Black tea produces a dark, full-bodied brew apt to snap anyone out of a brain fog. Green tea has less caffeine, but still provides some stimulation. It has a more delicately roasted flavour and is often paired with jasmine flowers. Next is white tea, which has the lightest flavour and is sometimes paired with dried fruits such as apple or peach. These teas all come from the same plant, of which there are two varieties:  Camelia sinensis or Camelia assamica. (It’s okay if your eyes glazed over at the sight of Latin names, just know that it’s the roasting process which determines whether the tea is white, green or black.)

There is also a red tea, or Rooibos, which comes from an altogether different plant. (Aspalathus linearis, for those of you who do enjoy Latin names) It’s popular for being caffeine-free and having a mildly sweet flavour.

Finally, in the caffeine-free realm, we have herbal teas, which have been made with various ingredients since close to forever ago. Some common ingredient parings include chamomile with valerian (for frayed nerves), eucalyptus with juniper berry (for sinus afflictions), and ginger with mint (for tummy issues).  With herbal teas, the only precaution is to look up ingredients before consuming them, especially if one has a medical condition, takes regular medication, or is pregnant. This is because certain herbs themselves have medicinal qualities, and can create undesirable interactions.

teatypes
Pictured here: white, black, herbal, red, and green tea. (Yes, those are sprinkles.)

2. Choose to Hang Loose or Bag it Up
Now that we know which type of tea we’d like. we need to choose the format. While it may be less intimidating to buy an ubiquitous box of Red Rose tea, loose leaf tea definitely has its merits. We can choose the amount we want to steep much easier this way. From personal experience, I usually steep between 1 1/2 – 2 Tbsp of tea for one cup. I tend to add more if it is a light tea, such as white or herbal, and less if it’s a green or black tea. Loose leaf tea also permits us to make our own blends. The chief reason to consider choosing loose leaf over pre-bagged, however, is the amount of packaging one saves. Between the cardboard box, the individual packaging, and the bag itself, it’s much simpler to re-use a metal strainer that can be rinsed after each use.

teastrainers
My tried and tested tea strainers have gotten me through many an all-nighter.

3. Steep it up
After the kettle screams, I personally prefer to wait a couple of minutes before I pour the water (if I have the time.) This is because boiling water can sometimes “cook” the tea leaves, imparting a bitter taste. This seems to especially be the case with  the usually mellow white and green teas. Equally important is the length of time we steep the tea. Black teas and green teas are usually ready after two minutes, unless we prefer a stronger, bitter taste. White, red and herbal teas can range from two to five minutes. This will largely depend on personal preference and whether one is going to add anything to their brew.

blacktea
This steamy black tea is good to gulp. 

4. Add-in Until the Tea is Appealing
Finally, we have a nice steaming cup of tea. Some purists would end their guides here, but adding milks or sweeteners is also perfectly valid. With experience, I’ve found that adding milk (whether dairy, or in my case, almond) to certain herbal blends and green teas or white teas is not recommended. Herbal teas sometimes contain citrus, which can curdle the milk. As for green and white teas, it’s simply a matter of preference. Sweeteners can include things such as sugar (of course), honey, or agave nectar, if avoiding animal products. This, too, is according to taste.

milktea
A sweet and milky Rooibos tea for those after-dinner sugar cravings.

5. Do not re-steep
Treat yourself to a freshly steeped cup, you’ve earned it. Save the used, soggy tea for the compost.

teabags
Or use it to make some modern art. 

As we’ve seen, making the perfect cup of tea has more to do with discovering our personal tastes than submitting to rigorous rules. Stay tuned for the poem on tea-making, and happy steeping!