Grief and creativity

This week’s ear worm song:

When I tell my therapist that I can’t talk about my daughter’s impending departure for college without crying, she says, “Of course. You’re grieving.”


“Grief” feels like too strong a word. I mean, c’mon. She’s not dying.

But last week, as the time left for her to live with us changed from the unit of month to week, I have found that I often can’t even think about it now without crying. Yesterday as we made breakfast, I had the thought that Cane should make his beignets, her favorite, before she goes, and I was so flooded with memories my body literally couldn’t contain them.

Time has taken on an almost tangible, viscous quality. I have no work-based entries to make into this creative notebook because, I am learning, creativity requires a kind of mental fluidity that’s beyond me right now. I feel suspended in some kind of thick, gelatinous reality that is not reality. Although time is moving, I am not, and it feels I won’t be able to until what’s going to come next is finally here.

It’s true:  No one’s dying. But something is–the life I’ve been living for more than 18 years. It might seem as if that statement’s not true; in that 18 years I’ve changed jobs and homes and life partners. Through all of that, though, my kids were the constant, the one thing I knew I’d never leave, the only thing I’ve ever remained wholly true to.


I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that when you have kids, your life stops being all about you. It becomes about them. You’re no longer the most important person in it.

Um, no.

It’s still all about you:  When you have kids, they have to go where you take them and do what you tell them to do.  They are woven into the fabric of your every day. They become your people, and you are theirs, and you are a family, a unit in the world.

Truth is, I didn’t feel my life really started until they came into it. Now, that life–with both of my children–that’s ending, and it’s happening less than a year after the end of the family life Cane and I tried to create.


So, yeah:  I guess I’m grieving. And it’s kicking the stuffing out of my creative productivity.

Back in the spring, I finally “finished” the house project I’d been documenting here:


This isn’t the final product, but it’s close enough. I did finish it by covering it with a glaze.

I’m not pleased with the final result. It’s too cute; I was trying to express something more serious than this image conveys. The book pages I used to make the house came from a chapter of a history text on the Industrial Revolution. It talked about the terrible housing conditions for the working poor in many cities, and how difficult it was for mothers, especially, to care for their children. The text for the tree came from a children’s book about animal habitats. When I started it, I had recently read a YA novel, The Hired Girl, in which the protagonist runs away from her abusive father and works as a maid for a wealthy family in the city. I wanted to create a piece that would provoke thought about need vs. want, resources, social class, and how we nurture our young (and don’t). The leaves around the edge make this too cutesy/cheery, and I don’t like them.

There are also some issues with my (lack of) skill. Part of the reason it looks too cute is that I don’t have the skill to execute the vision I had in my head.

As a learning piece, though, it’s fine. I learned some things doing this one that will serve me in the next. I’m ready to let it go and move on. Working on this piece, while simultaneously thinking lots of personal thoughts about housing, home, resources, needs, and privilege, has me interested in small (not tiny) houses, particularly those in what were once working-class neighborhoods. Portland (OR) is in the midst of a housing crisis. A deep history of racist housing policies and current gentrification are driving many out of Portland. (If you’re interested, this article recently published in The Atlantic is an important read.)

Although I’ve tried a few times to go into my studio and begin some new work, I haven’t gotten anywhere in there. The most I’ve been able to do is go on walks and take some pictures.  I’m posting them here so I have easy access to them:










Great photography wasn’t my goal. I just snapped these with my phone. I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. These are just interesting to me, and even though I don’t seem to be in a place to do anything much with them right now, I know that will change.

I’ve been doing creative work long enough now to know this is just the way of it. Sometimes, other things in our life use up our creative energy. Sometimes, those very things are the source material for future work. This might seem like a disjointed post–about grief and kids leaving home and…working class houses and gentrification and displacement?–but I know it’s all connected. Just as I know there will be future work.

It always comes back. There are so few enduring constants in any life, but this is one of them in mine.


11 thoughts on “Grief and creativity

    • Rita says:

      That pink house is pretty sweet. 🙂

      I am no stranger to the rough summer with a teenager. I know. Hugging you back.

  1. Marian says:

    Oh, I completely agree with your therapist — “grief” is an entirely appropriate term to use when talking about a way of life coming to an end (or changing appreciably).

    I wonder if the connection between your daughter leaving and your thoughts on “housing, home, resources, needs, and privilege” simply reflects concerns you might be feeling for her future. This — thoughts of the future young people face — is most definitely why I think long and hard on these issues….

    On the inability to be creative while grieving … this is making me consider that (for me, at least) there might be two different types of creativity. There is “novel” creativity, which requires *actual* creative thinking (focus and innovation and problem-solving), and then there is “rote” creativity, in which yes, one is “creating” something, but it’s actually only a copy of something someone else has already thought up, and thus the process is more mechanical and meditative. I think that my creativity is mostly of the rote variety: find a pattern and go with it, and allow the busyness of my hands to work to calm the busyness of my constantly churning thoughts/worries/fears. I think/know that rote creativity has actually saved me from going off the deep end at several stressful points in my life; I also know, without a doubt, that novel creativity would have been impossible at those times.

    Sending you a hug, Rita
    Marian recently posted…Randomly, On a Summer’s DayMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, I know many of my thoughts about home, etc. come from concern over my children’s future. Things are much different for them than it was for me. I worry about not being able to provide things I wish I could provide. I know it’s all a big jumble of connected things.

      I’ve had times of what you’re calling rote creativity, too. I would like it if I could get there right now. Maybe that’s what I need to do–sew some things. We have been doing some house projects, and that helps some. The problem with painting walls, though, is that it doesn’t require enough mental energy. In fact, the opposite. Sometimes all I do when I’m doing that is spin in circles in my head. Sewing, though–that requires me to think! Or, I need something I can do while watching/listening to something.

      Appreciate the hug, and sending one back to you. Us mothers of fledglings need to stick together!

    • Rita says:

      I will not lie: It has been brutal. But I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming (and crying) into every new stage. I remember being so blue when we bought big-kid beds and took the cribs down. (I remember my dad thinking I was ridiculous.) My mother assures me, though, that it gets better and that this is actually the hardest part. I am more of a “rip the band-aid off” person, so this long, drawn-out ending is torture.

  2. May says:

    Absolutely it is grief! Loss of a stage of life is loss regardless of the fact no one died. I have little mini-grief episodes every time the kids and I separate again. It hurts much because you love well!

    I love the house art. Love it. Keep in my mind that I didn’t know your original vision. But even knowing the message in the pages doesn’t disturb me with the final product being lighter in feeling. Perhaps a good reminder that appearances can be deceiving??

    The video clip at the beginning made me smile. Last fall on the eve of my son leaving for a school year in France, we made that very same video-the two of us. I played it several times during the year because–sure enough–I missed him when he was gone!

    Go easy on yourself. You are indeed grieving. Time helps. Hearing of her adventures and growth helps. Still….it is loss.

    • Rita says:

      Have been thinking of you and wondering how it’s all going. And I think you’ve got plenty of creative doings going on! You’re not just birthing a baby, but a whole new life. It’s momentous. Sending you good vibes right back.

  3. Kate says:

    I agree with your counselor. She’s not dying but it IS an ending and those hurt. I’m not there yet (I’m still only facing the little twinges of “first summer camp” and “how did he get to be a second grader ALL READY?!?”) but some of these little twinges knock my breath away…I can’t imagine how breathless I will feel when it’s time for them to leave.

    Also, I love your little house pictures. This is unrelated/related but while we were in Michigan we drove by one of the houses we lived (we usually do take a tour of the six homes we lived in while children) and I couldn’t believe that we had six people living in a house that would easily fit within my first floor today. I’ve always felt conflicted about big houses and I look at those little houses and they just scream HOME to me. Especially the couple that you can tell are a little rundown but a whole lot loved. (I think the 3rd and 4th in your pictures).

    Hugs, Rita!
    Kate recently posted…This Last Week, Part TwoMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I think no one tells us that motherhood is a series of little deaths. I know that sounds morbid, and I don’t mean it to be. They keep dying and being reborn, over and over and over again. I remember an uncle telling me, when my kids were small and I was lamenting the passing of a stage, that he did miss each stage as it passed, but then he would discover how wonderful the new one was. They were all wonderful, just in different ways, he said. I didn’t really believe him during the height of middle school, but I even look back at much of those years with fondness now.

      And yes on small houses and big houses! I thought my grandparents had HUGE houses when I was growing up (probably because they had a second story, which I longed for and didn’t have), but they were actually quite modest by today’s standards. Those little houses speak to me, too. I’m struck not just by how small they are, but also by how little storage they had. People in the past had less stuff. I want to be more like that. I know I’m going to be in this big old split-entry a while longer, but my next house will be smaller. I’m looking forward to that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.