Since returning home from the Kilimanjaro climb, I’ve had a number of friends and co-workers ask me when, or if, I was going to publish a blog post on my experience. In the form of life lessons, distillations of wisdom, or a trove of teachable moments. Eh, at some point. Maybe. The truth is, I have been feeling as though I’ve wanted to write about the climb. It was, in many respects, a life-altering experience. The seven days I spent unplugged from the world, sleeping (though not terribly well, mind you) under the stars, focusing only on the physical task at hand, battling altitude, fatigue, and weather conditions, led to some real bouts of self-discovery. And created the perfect climate for me to successfully reorient my perspective on some key life issues and events. I don’t, however, feel exceedingly compelled to write about those things. That is, perhaps, because I’m still grappling with their significance.
Yet, with regard to my experience and the way it relates to the topics discussed on this blog, there is one point to which I continually return. A pivotal point. A matter of certitude. Despite the hype, the magnitude, and the risks of such a venture as climbing the world’s highest free-standing mountain…
Being creative is harder.
And, I don’t mean a single act of creation, but each of those acts, as they are representative of who we are. As they comprise an irreducible and irreplaceable aspect of our personalities, our identities. Of how we think. Interact. Forge professional lives and relationships. Of how we live. That is, a lifetime of being creative–and all that entails–is, from my perspective, far more challenging terrain to navigate than climbing Kilimanjaro was. (And yes, I made it to the top.)
Naturally, I don’t mean to diminish my accomplishment. And some of you, surely, expect the discussion that will follow to border on the absurd. Maybe, for some of you, it will. My creative activities form an integral part of my life. Like breathing. I derive from them a kind of innate satisfaction that is unparalleled. Yet, being creative is also my greatest struggle, sacrifice, and often feels like the solitary bane of my existence. It is, for me, the nature of the obstacle—and the kind of strength that each demands of me—that differentiates these two challenges.
Here are some thoughts:
To be creative is to (always) be at odds.
It may be said that a climb like Kilimanjaro necessitates being at odds with nature and with oneself. Altitude. Lack of sleep. Climate. Terrain. All are obstacles. All are temporary. At least, that was how I viewed it. My climb was seven days long. In seven days, I’d be down that mountain whether I’d made it to the summit or not. How successful and enjoyable an experience I had was up to me. Impermanent challenges can be opportunities for growth and reward.
To be exist at odds, whether with oneself or the rest of the world (or both), is a far more difficult situation to grapple with. To be one who thinks differently. Who does not fit into any well-defined career or life path. Or who stubbornly resists—often out of integrity—sacrificing one’s own gifts for the sake of abiding by someone else’s rules is not an easy existence. And it’s not a fleeting challenge, either. It is the wall creatives continually find themselves up against.
Creation implies a critical activity on a number of different levels: the artist is at odds with the world, and at one moment or another of his life he must question the reality, the truth or the value of this world; he is at odds with the works of art that surround him, whether contemporary or from the past; and before and above all else, he is at odds with himself and with his own works. -Octavio Paz
To me, this is the struggle of being creative. Or, the primary conflict from which most others stem. I am deeply aware, for example, that I am at odds with my world and even with myself and my work. I have never been one who “fit in.” More importantly, though, nothing outside of me fits the vision that is inside of me. My internal life is much richer and more purposeful (and purpose-driven) to me than the order that exists around me, for which, generally speaking, I have little respect or regard. (I tend to make a rather bad employee, by the way.) In some areas of my life, I refuse to yield to that order. I just can’t do it to myself. I just can’t punish myself that way. This is a great sacrifice. It is a wellspring of suffering.
Some works of art approximate, or replicate, my internal vision. Even those I create never wholly, satisfactorily articulate it. The satisfaction of execution is partial and fleeting. My inner and outer realities are always, to some degree, at odds with one another. I have noticed, though, that, the older I get, the less I care about it. And the greater the drive to be true to myself alone. Another source of sacrifice.
Creativity doesn’t come with a prize.
I have plenty of photographic evidence that I reached Uhuru Peak. I even got a signed certificate attesting to my accomplishment that, I suppose, I could frame if I wanted to. And, now, I will never have to do it again.
The same cannot be said for my creative endeavors. For writing. Blogging. For the countless hours of reading, researching, brainstorming, drafting (and then promptly deleting most of what I write). And all for what, exactly?
There’s no prize at the end of this race. I’m not going get a brass ring after I publish my best-blog-post-ever. Am I going to get a publishing gig? A new career? Discover, as a result of all of my heard work, a new life path? Or, better yet, am I going to be discovered? The only thing I know for certain is that, with this site, I’ve been able to successfully carve out a space for myself where I can say what I want to say the way I want to say it. Which is a freedom no institution or organization I have ever had the (not so) pleasurable experience of being associated with has ever afforded me.
How many of us are going to be rewarded for our creative work here—beyond the internal reward of doing what we love (and often simultaneously hate), what it is engrained in every fiber of our being to do? Most of us never will be. But, we’ll do it anyway. And, we’ll do it in spite of ourselves. We’ll do it when we feel inadequate. We’ll do it when we feel like giving up. When we feel like frauds. Like copycats. When we hit “Publish” and the rest of the world stays silent. When we get rejected. When the way forward is entirely unknown and failure seems inevitable. And when we feel certain that nothing we ever create will ever make a difference in anyone’s lives, least of all our own. And we’ll do it because we have to.
Our day-to-day processes can mask what holds us back.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t do battle with myself on that mountain. Especially during our climb to the summit, an 8-hour trek that took place in the middle of the night, so we reached the peak at sunrise. That night, I had my moments. I think we all, silently, had our moments. (As a side note, I was fortunate to climb with a wonderful group of people.) Because OH, MY GOD, I’m 19,000 feet up, and I’m gonna cry/puke/pass out. And, it’s cold. And, my nose is running. And, I haven’t slept in 26 hours. And, I haven’t showered in five days. And, I’m thirsty, but my Camelback is frozen. And, I’m hungry, but my Lärabars are frozen. And, I’ve been climbing for the last seven hours STRAIGHT. AND, I WANNA GO HOME! And, why can’t somebody PLEASE just airlift me the hell OUT OF HERE because I CAN’T DO IT!
My inner dialogue became intense. Suck it up, buttercup. The music in my headphones saved me. By the light of my headlamp, I stared at the heels of the person in front of me and marched upward 4,000 feet in altitude, one (very tiny) step at a time.
But, there was a moment—a very poignant moment—in which I felt I was able to step away from that whining, complaining, sniveling version of myself. The silly little girl who doesn’t want to do what’s hard (ego, maybe?). I got a good, hard look at her.
How much rule does she have over my life? Is she the pit of my insecurities? The seat of my fears? The source of self-sabotage? The cause of my distress? Is that sniveling face my greatest, most debilitating limitation? NO.
Yes. Shit. I was dumbfounded. I was aghast at her. I was ashamed. The insanity. The absurdity. The stupidity of the whole ordeal.
She’s always there. Just over my shoulder. But, I never saw her as clearly as I did that day. I promised myself, then and there, that I’d never forget that moment of clarity. That I would see her the next time she started to wreak havoc on my life. That I would remember how indescribably ridiculous she sounded. That, enshrouded in that moment, would be the single, greatest lesson the mountain taught me.