• Alastar Connor

Broken Open

Updated: May 25, 2020

Creativity is a way out of suffering.

We are going about our lives when something happens. An unexpected bomb drops, making us unable to continue on our previous trajectory of living, leaving us breathless, curled up on the bathroom floor. The shockwave ripples through our body, at a cellular level, reaching into the recesses of our mind and soul. Our brain will always want what we had and what we already know. What is comfortable, what we dreamt of for our future, what we thought was the only way to feel happiness. Suffering is every kind of loss... losing a spouse, losing financial stability, being injured, getting sick, the end of a relationship. This is why suffering cannot be compared. Our brain reacts the same way, regardless of what has occurred. Our thoughts cycle through the same need.

“Take me back. Put it all back the way it was. I’m out of my element. I’m free falling. This isn’t how it should be, how it was meant to be, how I need it to be. I can’t do this. It’s all too strange and different and scary. This can’t be. It’s all a dream. Erase it. Rewind. Put the pieces back together. Give me back what was. Make me whole again.”

“Mom, does Covid mean no sleepovers this summer? This sucks! All I care about are sleepovers. This summer is going to be awful! What if we have to sell our house, if work doesn’t pick up? I don’t want to move! I hate all of this.”

I know baby. This all hurts. My mama heart aches for you. I know this pain of suffering. I know how it feels when your life is unrecognizable. When you are a teen and each moment is significant. We will work together to find the way through. Let’s sit in the sucks. Dwell there for a bit. But then, as we sit in the stillness of frustration and denial (less still and more movement in your case) we will throw a line into the dark pool of despair, and fish. There’s no telling what we’ll catch...the biggest fish are only as big as you can imagine. Let yourself look deep into the ink mirrored surface of your fear. Imagine what might lurk there. Yes, a great white shark could be lurking, there is always that possibility but that is the easiest vision. The one that all the tales tell of. Now look closer. Lean in. Let go. Dive into that abyss. Tell me what you might find there. I’ll wait.

When I was going through my divorce, I read the book, Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. It’s been 11 years since I read it, but it left a lasting impression. She described that, when an event happens that rocks our life at its core, our life is broken open, obliterated, preparing us for a new beginning. Everything we knew is gone and nothing makes sense anymore. We are a shaken lava lamp. The oily globs unrecognizable, forced to disintegrate into hundreds of tiny molecules of color. During this moment of change, like in addiction or situations of abuse, and even with incarceration, the brain clings to its sense of “normal.” Holding fast to the rules we understand, even when those rules of how life works might even be detrimental to our well-being. When another, more beautiful life possibly awaits us, beyond our current existence. When I explain this concept for people, I often demonstrate it by describing a child. I find that we are more open to hearing truths when it is through the lens of caring for a more vulnerable being. A child with a parent suffering from addiction is not being parented well, the situation unsafe, yet all they want is to stay in the situation they know and understand. Children want what they have. They will fight tooth and nail to stay in their understanding of normal, regardless of if it is best for them or not. However, if they are forced to accept a new normal, after time, they will want the new normal, because it will eventually feel just as safe and comfortable as the last version did. This is how the brain works, at every age. Lesser explains that from this place of loss that has disrupted our patterns, made us question everything we thought we knew, comes opportunity. I see this as where creativity creeps in.

When a person is broken open by suffering, if they can go let go and open their mind, creativity can lift them into a new, richer existence. Creativity is the ability to imagine a new normal. To let go of everything you know, all the rules, all the preconceived notions, to put aside the need for things to be the way they were. To embrace the fear and walk towards it. To find this place, to create an escape hatch from my pain, I tell myself to cast my mind wide.

When life is shattered and I am left holding the shards, I often think of getting my driver’s license. This innocent example is easy to embrace because the stakes are so low to us, the sufferers. Yet, at the time, the stakes felt so high. Suffering is like that, it belongs to the individual, to that moment, and cannot be viewed accurately from the outside, or when looking back. Like childbirth. The meaning comes later, when we are once again safe and calm. My story comes early in my life experience. Before the deep hurts and dramatic curveballs were thrown. When suffering had only peaked its head around the corner to wave, in the form of several moves in the few years prior. I was in a place of having seen life for what it was, unpredictable and sometimes emotionally unsafe, but yet to find out just how unsafe it could be.

I was 16 and had just gotten my license, after failing my first test, and I was a cautious child. Not to be confused, as it often is, with lacking bravery. I have found, through later life experience, that I like to dip my toe in first to the cool churning water, for perhaps a little longer than most, cerebrally assessing, watching the lines of the crashing waves, figuring out how, with minimal upper body strength but quick action, I could make it past the huge break. Spectator eyes daring me, my friend and teacher urging me on, his confidence in my ability pushing me forward, before I could finally paddle out to surf hurricane swell that is beyond anything I have ever experienced. Comments from fellow surfers, when I drag my accomplished yet utterly exhausted and almost drowned body up on the beach, have made me realize that bravery can come from knowing yourself. It may appear, at first, that I am overly cautious, helplessly underprepared, but when I am ready, when I know it’s time, once I jump, I fly.

My parents had given me an old Honda Prelude with a standard transmission as my first car before I even got my license. My mom’s old car kept for me when she got a new one. I had finally passed the test, small plastic badge in hand, but I wouldn’t drive the car. It sat, day after day, in the garage, waiting. I was scared to drive a stick shift, imagining I would not be able to get it into first gear and would roll into the car behind me. I wouldn’t even drive it for the 10 minute trip to school. Mind you, I lived in a relatively flat area, but the smallest rise in the road, at the one stop light on the wayl, seemed like a mountain to me. My perception of the potential drive, the unknown, caught me, calling my cautious nature, until one day, my parents refused to drive me to school. They gave me the nudge, showing me their confidence, urging me, to step into the unknown, to go into the fear.

I leapt and I flew. Once I drove to school that day, my mind began to change. My future, my dreams, the possibilities, potential, all shifting. Once I let go of the fear, of what I knew, my mind opened, and creativity took hold. I can drive to the mall. I can drive to another town and go to a museum. I can drive to another state, I could drive to Canada. I could get on a plane and fly to another country, rent a car, and drive on the other side of the road. I could move to France. I allowed myself to cast my mind wide.

When I see others suffering, I want to show them the adventure before them. I want to tell them that what they knew isn’t the only reality. That it takes being broken open before you can imagine something outside the edges of what you know. I want to tell them, “Creativity is your escape!” but my call will fall on deaf ears. This is something you must discover for yourself.

When I was in my 20s, I was lost. My career hadn’t opened up the way I had imagined. My self image was rocked, my confidence crushed. I had moved back home, regressing to the place of child being parented. I couldn’t find my way forward. I was stuck. My cousin invited me to visit him in Central America. I didn’t know any Spanish, but I wanted to learn. It seemed like a fun opportunity to have a change of scenery. When I arrived, amidst a bustling city, the adventure did not look like I expected it to. Surrounded by nothing I understood, fear grabbed me. My brain wanted what it knew. I was among an unrecognizable culture, unable to communicate, alone. Even when my cousin arrived, introducing me to people, the native-speakers so patiently trying to communicate, I just couldn’t catch the words. I was forced to rely on my cousin’s assistance. He brought me deeper into the country, dropping me off at his vacant house deep in the countryside, in the jungle, on the top of a mountain, with no transportation and only Spanish speaking company, while he went to attend to some business that would take him away for over a week. There was no other choice. I had to embrace another way, to release myself from the constraints of what I knew. To release my need to control, to understand, to predict, and to step out of my comfort zone. I was forced to face my fear, and after many days, my brain was finally broken open. From that place, I finally began to understand. Spanish worked its way into my ripe brain. The world opened its possibilities to me, and my imagination soared. Why couldn’t I buy a car? Why couldn’t I drive all over the country? Why not drive to other countries? I’m going to get a tattoo. I can explore anything I want to. Volcanos, ziplines, national parks, surf breaks, and love. I could find love here. Any kind of love. My future is endless possibilities and creativity is painting the path. What do I want from my life? There are more ways to find my happiness than I thought! I can be anyone. I can do anything. Once I let go, stopped clinging to my preconceived notions, previously created blueprint, imaginary boundaries that the world established for me, that I established for myself, I allowed creativity to exist, and creativity gave me wings.

Every time my life ceases to look as I imagined it, so many times over the years, I feel myself being broken open. When a car accident repaints my senior year, a surprise unwed pregnancy steals my career, divorce drops me into the unknown paradigm of single motherhood, fracturing my reflection of what a good parent looks like...the suffering comes. Each time, I can’t help but feel it, deeply, fighting against the tide, being pulled out further and further until I am forced to let go. Tuning out the fear, the loud voices in my head of what should be, what isn’t any longer, I cast my mind wide, reaching for the outer edges of my reality, for the fuzzy areas that are a little out of focus, and creativity allows me to be born again. Creativity inspires my imagination to construct, little by little, a new reality. Possibilities I never entertained before inch their way into my mind’s eye. I feel a new sense of relief as alternate paths towards fulfillment reveal themselves. As the fog clears, creativity points out the moments of joy speckled in amongst the pain. The sun shining through the clouds, the musical sound of laughter, the pleasure of a warm embrace, even the simplicity and humor of a bad date, or once, the new experience of sitting at a local bar alone on a Wednesday night after being stood up. Imagining the stories behind those weary souls sitting beside me, listening to the conversations and wondering. Our creativity points us towards life’s mystery and asks us, “Why?”

Creativity gives us company in our suffering. A book, a young girl singing the National Anthem, a zoom presentation of a cancelled Broadway musical, a piece of art, a walk-a-thon. The beauty of an offering, held up by another heart that is also hurting, can reach us sometimes where no one else can. Just knowing that we are not alone, feeling someone’s love reaching out into the universe through self-expression, can tap a small hole in our armor of protection. Taking us out of our fight and flight which tells us to run the other way, to get as far from our fear as we can, denying the way forward. The creativity of others can shine a light, guiding the way, making the vulnerability and risk of new pain seem a little less scary. It takes courage to open our hearts again, but feeling the support of others who have done it, imagining the joy that could be just around the corner, helps us find that bravery in ourselves.

Creativity gives suffering meaning. It takes our sorrow and relates it to a famous quote. It allows us to make something big, to start something that will survive beyond us, to reach beyond ourselves, to leave something behind, to comfort others through their hurt, to reach them when they are unreachable. Creativity makes reinvention possible.

Over the years, I’ve gotten better and faster at summoning my creativity to pull myself out of pain. The courage I need to draw from, to be brave and dive in, comes quicker, with less study and more knowing. I don’t wallow quite so long in the stillness of the pain before I notice the beauty around me, reminding me of possibility. I have developed my tool kit, where Creativity with a capital C, sits ready, the pick ax that I use to claw my way out of the deep crevice where I am caught. I know how to look around, to see the beauty in the pain, to let others truth and artistry comfort and inspire me, and to cast my mind wide. So here I am, writing for the first time in years, churning the words out of my soul, to process our current moment, loss of life as I know it, holding my children’s hand as they ache, walking my found and chosen sister to death’s door and saying goodbye, missing hugs from friends, contemplating losing my home...yet, in my mind’s eye, the possibilities are endless. When I cast my mind wide, I see opportunity, an alternate existence, where new rules mean new ways, where change can catapult my life into a better place, maybe a place with less suffering than I currently know and cling to, and I can fly.

“Come with me son. Leave the past behind. Let’s imagine. Imagine a summer of fire pits, sitting with your friends late into the night, speaking your truths and quaking with deep belly laughs. Sleeping bags on the cool damp grass, six feet away, stars sparkling above you, doves cooing in the early morning to waken you from your slumber. Let’s brainstorm how we can keep our house. Maybe we get a roommate. A cool interesting person who can teach us something new about life. Someone who has been where we haven’t. An adventure guide. They will open our eyes to even more than we know and bring us new affection that will comfort our weary souls like our foreign exchange student last year, who brought us another entire family to belong to, from all the way across the open ocean. Maybe Joe and I will find new jobs, that make us less stressed, that we enjoy more, that feed our souls and create meaning we have never experienced before. Cast your mind wide, son. Reach for the edges of everything you know. Dive into the murky water. Let’s see what you find.”

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