Elevating Work into Art

It’s September. Time to shift into high gear and really get prepared for the new school year, which starts officially in two days. I think I did an excellent job extending summer vacation for as long as possible this year! It was so sprawling and free – a time to recharge, reinvent, dive into passions, and focus more attention on developing talents and skills that aren’t related directly to my job but ultimately enhance my teaching practice nonetheless. It’s always a transition when the new year begins and I have to readjust to the routine and workload and to the physical and emotional demands of training a new crop of kindergartners. But this, too, shall pass.

I will miss having the freedom to write essentially whenever the inspiration hits. Time once again to carry around a small notepad to jot down ideas to develop later when I have a chance – and hope that some of the energy and spirit behind the ideas will still be there at that time. On the other hand, I will appreciate getting steady paychecks for the next ten months!

I often envy my friends who are full-time artists and wish I could take that leap of faith and do it, too. Jump out of the bureaucracy that sucks the passion out of the best intentions, and work on my writing and photography full-time, thus expanding the walls of my classroom. I imagine how liberating it must be to have the freedom of greater mobility and the time to create without having to compromise sleep, for there are only so many hours in a day.

But I also understand the realities of the artist lifestyle. Creative professionals have deadlines, writer’s block, and an assortment of other pressures and realities to contend with. One example I am intimately familiar with: My husband, who is an independent musician (both with his band and solo), is always busy booking gigs, maintaining his website, developing new material, fixing equipment, traveling to gigs, setting up, performing, breaking down, doing follow-up work after residencies, and trying to find time to practice and develop more fully as an artist. It’s irksome when people think he only “works” when he is playing a gig or that the fee he gets for a gig is merely compensation for the time he actually performs and doesn’t take into account the countless hours of unpaid work and bills that lead up to it. Like so many other artists we know, he does not receive health insurance (except through me), retirement, or paid vacation and sick days. His work day and work week never really end except for when he is sleeping. Marketing alone is an endless task. Seeing this up close and personal is a large reason why, so far, I choose to continue teaching rather than doing creative work full-time. I love the creativity, but the flip-side of the coin is the self-marketing piece, the uncertainty, and the constant pressure to produce, book gigs, etc.

Recently, I read an article about how modern concert technology on a larger scale leaves many musicians feeling that their creativity and connection with their audience is stifled because the visuals on stage need to be synchronized with the music, and everything is pre-programmed. Similarly, many teachers complain that the rigor of the new Common Core standards compromises freedom, creativity, and their ability to connect with their students.

Structure seems to be infringing on creativity and authenticity in many professions and industries. And what I’m realizing is that true artistry in any field involves the ability to express creativity and freedom through structure. The work is to balance technique and expression, discipline and creativity, structure and freedom – to integrate those polarities and elevate our work into art. It can be extremely challenging. A few examples come to mind: haiku and other poetic forms, musical composition, calligraphy, and – once again – teaching standards. It’s all pretty much the same. There is a structure within which you create, and the better acquainted you are with that structure, the more freedom you ultimately have to create. That in a nutshell is probably a large reason why the last school year was so difficult and unfulfilling for me – why I felt last year’s students didn’t get the best I had to offer. They got the best I could give given the circumstances, but it was nowhere near the potential of what it could have been. The structures (plural) were all new. We didn’t yet understand them. For our work to become art, there must be freedom for interpretation and personal expression, and that comes from a deep understanding of the rules and parameters.

Even with regard to exercise, I find that I am more disciplined when I have a schedule to adhere to. When my days are less structured, I tend to procrastinate, at best.

It’s all about balance and integration. Yin-yang.

This summer, I went really deep into the spiritual and mental dimensions of my being but largely neglected the physical. In order for my spiritual energy to be expressed more fully and effectively, it is important to attend to myself on a physical level as well – beginning with a good night’s sleep! Engaging the magic needs to be balanced with caring for my body and home, as shown in the graphic below that I created to help keep me on track.

As I head into the new school year, I’ve already experienced some moments of anxiety over the rigid, bureaucratic structure within which I (and all other public school educators) must do my job. However, the anxiety comes when I lose sight of my real reason for being in the classroom. When you strip away all the extra stuff, teaching is, at its core, about the relationship between a teacher and a student. I intend to really focus on that connection this year. If I find myself feeling disheartened or anxious, I will need to return to the here-and-now and attune to my connection with my students and with nature.

And the only way to do that:

Be.

Here.

Now.

It’s all about presence. There is a great blue heron that seems to show up on the river when I am in need of “heron medicine.” To me, the heron represents the presence and inner knowing that arises from stillness. It feels important to keep “heron energy” activated this year, which is why I have a picture of my friend, the heron, on the cover of my planning notebook.

So with the best of intentions, I once again turn my attention to my job and believe (as a few friends have urged me to consider) that the children in my care this year are with me for a cosmic reason. And throughout this year – whatever it may bring – my goals are true presence, remembering why I chose to teach in the first place, and keeping alive those vibrant, fun, exciting parts of myself that I discovered or became reacquainted with this summer.

To sum it up: I intend to live an extraordinary, artful life and to allow my true work to be channeled as fully as possible through what I do for a living.

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