Why, no matter how much we do, no matter how much we have, are so many of us dissatisfied with what we are?
In my life, I can attribute it to a struggle for meaning. This is at the heart of it. Why art is difficult. Why life is difficult. To make something meaningful, do something meaningful, and feel like I have purpose and a reason for being. The trouble is, meaning is so notoriously difficult to articulate.
I just finished a rather excellent book. The Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel. The central thesis of the book is that we need to make different kinds of meaning in different aspects of our lives. The meaning that we associate with our work is different to the meaning for our life plan and the meaning gleaned from passing moments.
Maisel writes, “The hour or two or three that you do your creative work may mean the most to you, but the rest of the day is not a void, a blank, an incipient meaning crisis.”
This was a revelation. For thirty years I’ve been someone who applies the kinds of meaning I make in my work across the board. Without realising it, I’d nutured a belief that if I wasn’t working, I wasn’t making meaning. Where did that leave me when I was resting, cooking, parenting, socialising, sleeping? It left me feeling guilty and disconnected to potential meanings in those interactions. By naming potential meanings in these other aspects of my life, I am able to be more present to them.
Creativity can be drawn out into so many other things in the day, too. Creating does not always have to mean creating art. Creating a home, adventures, friendships. Creating space, a meal, a reprieve, a happier childhood for your children. All these things are as important as creating art, and some much more so.
By ‘collecting’ ideas about meaning, and allowing each meaning to be fluid and malleable, allowing multiplicity of meaning, I can be more at peace about how much work I get done in a day. This is so necessary as a mother, and is allowing me to relax into a domestic space without playing a role or resenting the time spent away from work.
However, some days it will be difficult to make meaning even with these prompts in place. Two weeks ago I had such a day. I’d named my meanings, what makes me come alive and what I find true and good. I had one of those days, frequently experienced by mothers, where you are stretched just a little beyond what you can cope with, trying to keep it together with my heart and mind filled to capacity. Something has to give, and as usual it was my sense of self and purpose. Suddenly the meanings I’d constructed so carefully sounded hollow, as most things do in moments of despair, and I was at a loss at how to rebuild them. I was lucky to come across Simon Amstell’s standup act Numb that day. His curiously uplifting take on disconnection and loneliness in modern societies shook me out of that headspace, made me realise that sometimes, meaning making is not in answering the questions you put to yourself about life and living. It’s about asking questions that are meaningful in themselves.
Maisel is absolutely right about one thing. There is no meaning without action. Sometimes you need to just put your head down and trust that by working, you’ll get where you’re going.
How do you make meaning?