Creativity, Loss, White Christmas, Irving Berlin, and You

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin offers warmth, inspiration, and the chance to lift one's own voice—wonderful things to cultivate over the holiday season.

I now have a history to connect with the plethora of charming songs written by this unlikely creative hero—and I want to watch those old movies and sing along.

Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, survived a traumatic, impoverished childhood, exhausted a sixth grade education, and created all of his 1200-plus songs at the piano. “Annie Get Your Gun,” and “Cheek to Cheek” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” have all the pluck and humor and resilience of their author.

Hershey Felder, inhabiting the role, is a wonder. He embodies the above characteristics all while performing Berlin’s music masterfully. 

This Portland Center Stage world premier drew me into Berlin’s life, the bittersweet memories of his family, and his idiosyncrasies. Most of all, though, I absorbed the sadness of all the goodbyes said over his lifetime. A simple, sweet song like “What’ll I do?” reveals a hard, heartbreaking question.

What do I do when I have to say goodbye? What do I do when I feel alone?

Recently, goodbyes have been weighing on my heart. I witness Berlin finding his way despite his own untimely losses.

When the love of his life dies, a friend urges him to write a song about it, but Berlin resists. All he has ever done is write breezy stuff. “What it’s not going to do is make it any worse,” admonishes his friend.

It’s true. Creating in grief doesn’t salt the wound; it helps us own and live and grow through the experience. For this reason, my daily journal, my creative walks, and my poetry have become my dearest companions in loss. 

Berlin, too, came to understand that creating was his ally, and this new “serious” songwriting paved the way for something entirely new and beautiful in his career. Those songs of his that we know best touch the deepest, most poignant places of loss.

“I don’t like being alone,” Berlin says. “What a song does is never leave you alone.”

In our creating, in our singing, we find a witness to all our grief. When we pick up the pen or the paintbrush or sit at the piano, we gather hope and sweetness even in the dead of winter; we stumble upon our own “Russian Lullaby,” our forever “White Christmas,” our beautiful, impossible “Always.” 


Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel

Do Hard Things: Hold These Truths

No clear impressions, either from above or without, can be received by a mind turbid with excitement and agitated by a crowd of distractions. [S]tillness (is) needed for the clear shining of light within . . . .

--Caroline Stephen, 1834-1909

The play, "Hold These Truths," at Portland Center Stage, found me in a state of distraction. 

I took my seat grateful for the company of the friend who had joined me. Deep down, though, I was nursing disappointment because of the friend who had cancelled at the last minute. I was prickling with shame about the ambivalent way I was handling an important, long-time relationship. I was worried about my car in the shop. And on top of everything, I was coming down with a cold, dammit.

What I didn't want was to confront these feelings. I found a blanket of Numb, and pulled it over my heart.

Even so, there was a welcoming vibe in Portland Center Stage's downstairs theater, the Ellen Bye Studio. Ryun Yu took the stage with a wonderful, engaging presence, and soon I was caught up in the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi.

Yu starts by bringing Gordon's parents to life for us. Japan-born, they have learned to get by in a world of discrimination. There's his down-to-earth father, saying, "The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit." There's his fussy mother, urging him down a Seattle street after a man yells, "Get out of my country, you f--ing Japs."

We watch Gordon's transformation from a meek, rule-following boy, into a University of Washington student grappling with government orders to shove him and his family off to a concentration camp, which is indeed what these prisons were called. He reads and re-reads the Constitution's promise of "life, liberty, and property."

Then he sneezes.

Ryun's got a cold, I realized. He didn't skip a beat, but made this a graceful part of his performance, even as he had to wipe his nose on his sleeve. It was fitting.

Gordon takes up a political battle which is all about that nail getting hit, again, and again. He is misunderstood, even by his family. He is imprisoned and alone.

It breaks your heart, especially when you know that his efforts as a single person wouldn't change the course of history. More than 120,000 Japanese Americans - U.S. citizens as well as foreign born - were kept behind barbed wire in compounds for the duration of World War II.

Meanwhile, all the ads of that era show rosy-cheeked, white Americans sitting around their tables with their flowered centerpieces, happily making sacrifices for the war effort: giving up butter or sugar.

I think about my own childhood as a white kid in Seattle, and my shock when I moved to a neighborhood where all the other kids were white, too, and my complete ignorance of this historical event until decades later. Nobody talked about what we did to the Japanese.

Give us our blanket of Numb.

The show is peppered with audio bits, including evacuation orders. It was surreal to hear the names of familiar childhood streets and locations: Yessler Way . . . King County . . . Bainbridge Island . . . Puyallup. Within these boundaries, lives and livelihoods were stolen as longstanding community members became outsiders. Homes were ransacked and repossessed. I grew up knowing those places, but I never knew of this horror. 

It made me think about Hard Things.

What power there is when a human being can give up comforts, care, and approval because of who he is, because of his own, unwavering belief in what is right.

How weak I am in light of that.

The play underscores Gordon's Quaker beliefs, and how they centered him during this turmoil. "Before we soar to a great height, we often plumb great depths," Gordon tells us.  

I don't even want to face my feelings. Yet here was someone who was locked away, abused, discriminated against, who felt cold and hunger and darkness and disapproval and . . . who chose this battle.

Plus he probably had a cold.

Seth Godin talks about laziness versus emotional labor. Being too lazy to feel doesn't expand me as a human, and ultimately, it doesn't make me happy.   

A meaningful life isn't about getting what I want. I have no control of the outcome of so many things, including the behavior of others, individuals or whole nations. What I can do, what I might do, is learn to be a little less numb.

Maybe I can be uncomfortable.

Maybe I can turn off my computer, my distractions, my noise, and find the stillness within myself, sitting with hard decisions and frustrations.



Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel/

How to Connect with Your True Nature

One of the best feelings is when a friend recognizes your true nature - through a glance, a compliment, a gift, or a photograph - letting you know you are truly seen.

A dear friend snapped the above photo, and I realized afterward that I am completely and utterly myself here, no pretenses. This shot feels like a window into the "real me."

Our creativity needs us to know and recognize our true selves.

When are you most authentic? What is it you are really about?  With whom do you let your hair down?

Where do you recognize your true nature?

I take nature breaks every week, spending time in the beauty and silence of Creation. In the past year I've climbed and explored mountains, followed abandoned trails, crept behind waterfalls, paused inside of caves, scrabbled up rocky hillsides, pitched my tent in snow or along the beach.

Last month, I backpacked 70 miles of the Lost Coast of California, where Highway 101 was diverted  from the rugged coastline, allowing pristine wilderness to remain. It is a place without cars or Starbucks shops, where pelicans fly with their wonderful wing-heaving grace, where, day by day, Redwoods add years to their centuries-old lives.

It was yet another reminder that being in nature helps me nourish and understand my nature and deepens my creativity. Indeed, I'm interconnected with the natural world.

I believe, in fact, that we all are. And I believe that nature adventures can enrich and inspire and heal us.

I've just begun a wonderful collaboration with Michelle Fox, owner of TreeSong, a nature awareness and retreat center at the edge of the Columbia Gorge in Washington State.  We'll be bringing you creative offerings that will nourish your writing life as well as your inner and outer nature.

I can't wait to bring you along this trail with me! Together we'll see who we really are.

I'd love to share Lost Coast photos with you.

Building Creativity, Creatively

We tend to think we need everything just right in order to do that special thing: to pick up that paintbrush or take that dance class, or especially, to write that novel, story, or poem. 

In these first weeks of fall, we may feel like putting off writing until after the kids are  settled in school, after we've recovered from that first seasonal cold, or after we've adjusted to our new commute.

Forever waiting for the "right" time and conditions, we're succumbing to the illusion that these conditions will exist, ever. If we're going to do the work we truly want to do, we must give it priority now regardless of what is happening in our world. 

“You can't use up creativity. 
The more you use, the more you have.”  
--Maya Angelou

Train yourself to write despite less than ideal circumstances. You can:
  • Write in the parked car waiting for a kid to be done with a guitar lesson.
  • Write during a wait in the doctor’s office.
  • Write while on hold (&@%$*!) with customer service.
  • Write in yoga class.
  • Write in the grocery store line.

What should you write if you can’t think of anything? Just make a couple of notes about the story you would write if you had more time. As you pen those thoughts and ideas, you just might find yourself writing the actual story.

What conditions are you waiting for before you'll write or create? (Smoother schedule, fewer disruptions, more time, better health, more stability, etc.)

How can you creatively find a way around your less-than-ideal conditions? 

Can you view your current "interruption" or challenge as your main creative path right now? 

In what ways can you apply your boundless creativity and imagination to this situation?