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I have spent most of May trying to get my bounce back. The euphoria that followed the successful defense of my doctoral thesis at the beginning of April lasted a few weeks. It carried me through the minor revisions and the final submission of my dissertation eleven days later. Then, it lent wings to my words as I crafted a paper and subsequently presented that paper and also participated in a play reading, responded to a theatrical performance, helped lead a liturgy, and hosted a table at a women's breakfast at a conference at the end of April. After I returned home, I was definitely ready for some down time. I had been warned that after finishing a PhD, I would probably experience a bit of depression or a sense of being lost. And this is to be expected, considering the fact that something which has taken up most of my thoughts and energies and focus for the past five years (8 years if you count my qualifying year and my master's degree) is suddenly no longer there.
I was not burnt out, but I was very depleted. Feeling the pressure to do something with my degree, I started looking at job opportunities and they all seemed to require so much effort. Instead of exciting me, job listings filled me with dread. I could never measure up to a university's expectations. And the application process itself was so involved. And there were usually hundreds of applicants for every position. It was overwhelming. I knew I needed some time to replenish, so I turned to a book that had been sitting on my shelf for the past few years and decided now was the time to work my way through it.
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is a book which guides the reader through 12 weeks of exercises and readings meant to unblock the artist within. It seeks to give one a road-map for ongoing creative flourishing and freedom. The material itself (at least thus far) is not totally new to me, and I already have quite a bit of freedom in the creative process, but the exercises have helped a great deal in uncovering unhealthy pressures and restrictions in my life. Years of being a doctoral student and a lecturerer led to an unspoken pressure to be the person who knows things. Every subject which came up, I had to know something about it, and if I didn't, I immediately started researching it. It was always a losing battle, let me tell you. One of the exercises in the course is reading deprivation. Just the thought of it sent me into a mild panic, but I decided it was important for me to learn contentment in not knowing, to learn that I did not have to research every little thing that came across my path or came up in conversation. I told myself it was okay not to be the expert, to say I don't know and leave it at that. Being knowledgeable is a pretty big pressure in academia, and it is a burden I have carried for many years. I want to see knowledge as a gift, not a burden.
Cameron offers two basic tools in the book: morning pages and the artist date. Morning pages are simply three pages of longhand written every morning, stream of consciousness, whatever comes out of your head and heart and hand. It is a means of listening to yourself and listening to the Holy Spirit. At its most basic, it is uncensored prayer. The artist date is a means of feeding or replenishing your artist, your inner child. Each week, you are encouraged to take yourself on a date, to do something which makes you feel alive and refreshed. These simple excursions have made a noticeable difference in me. I no longer rush away after our church meetings, totally worn out by speaking and ministering to others, but find myself talking, smiling, and engaging with people during our informal lunches together. That hasn't happened in many, many months, perhaps years.
I missed going on an official, intentional artist date last week because I was away on a trip, and it didn't take a psychologist to tell me that I have less energy to give to others and to my tasks this week. Artist dates are food, and without food, everything starts to fall apart. The creative self feeds on images, on touch, on delight, on nature, on story, on movement, on adventure, and on connection. Cameron suggests that long walks are a good place to start; in fact, she incorporates a daily regiment of walking into her schedule because she has found it helpful in maintaining a healthy balance in her life. For my first artist date, I went to a place I had meant to check out for a few years (one of the cat cafes in the city) and I was as excited as a kid going to Disneyland. It was a beautiful, warm spring day and everything around me teemed with new life. I might even have squealed a few times during my outing. My second artist date focused on the sense of touch. As I walked through my neighbourhood, instead of just looking at things, I touched them. I touched grass, flowers, leaves, rocks, brick, bark, wood chips, and cool water. I took off my sandals and walked barefoot. It was amazing how much pleasure I derived from this simple sense exercise which reminded me of my childhood (kids are always touching everything in their world). These days, we are so oriented to the visual (screen time is a big factor) and the virtual, that we are often out of touch, quite literally, with our environment.
My artist date this week will be doing something badly and delighting in it. Again, this is something children do quite naturally: producing a lovely mess baking cookies, boldly making awkward scribbles on a white page, and laughing through wobbly moments while learning to ride a bike. I plan to sit outside in the park tomorrow and sketch the scene in front of me. It will no doubt barely resemble the real thing, but I will enjoy being free to create without the pressure to do it perfectly. Just yesterday, I felt the old familiar tingle of excitement over a possible job opportunity and I actually started thinking about crafting a proposal for consideration. It has been two months, but I am slowly starting to dream again. The bounce is coming back.