Lately, my brain feels like a giant bowl of spaghetti: tangled up, messy, chaotic.
“Hmm, it’s more like a giant bowl of yarn,” a friend says when I tell her this. “Or thread. Spaghetti doesn’t tangle.”
Fine, my brain feels like a bowl of yarn. Look, we’ve been in a state of emergency since March—my metaphor game is a little off.
The point is, my brain feels like a giant bowl of something that’s all knotted and confused. I want to untangle that yarn, or noodle, or whatever, and lay it out nicely in a straight line to make sense of it. But the more I try to do that, the tighter it gets. Pull it from any direction, and it just tangles up more. So what can be done?
It’s pretty common and fairly normal to feel this way in 2020—at least, that’s what I keep telling myself. This year has been a constant state of spaghetti brain: confusing and contradictory. I find it impossible to get anything done. All the projects and pursuits that would normally give me life now feel overwhelming and maybe even pointless. But in other ways, I’ve also been oddly productive. My fridge has never been more organized, my inbox is at zero, and making spreadsheets is my new karaoke.
How is it possible to be productive and simultaneously feel like a useless blob? Why does productivity feel overwhelming and calming at the same time? It’s a question I’ve been mulling over for months, and I think the answer comes down to my cat Theo’s paw prints. I’ll explain.
When I sit down to write something creative, and I see Theo’s grimy little paw prints on my desk, it feels a little stressful and obnoxiously unsettling. I can’t concentrate in a paw-print riddled environment, so I clean the desk. But then the bookshelf is slightly dusty, so I clean that, too. Then I notice my dirty baseboards from across the room and I get the vacuum…
Conclusion? Maybe it’s not the paw prints at all.
When there are wildfires spreading on the coast and a constant stream of news alerts pinging my phone, it’s hard to live with a mess. In 2020, what we want more of than anything else is a sense of control, a way to make it seem like life isn’t utterly and dismally chaotic. But there’s only so much we can do about it, so we cope by cleaning our baseboards and organizing the fridge. (Okay, some of us do this. If your baseboards have never been dustier, no judgement.) Meanwhile, the parts of us that used to get excited to do creative things wither away a little, and we find ourselves wondering what’s the point of anything.
All I wanted was a clean desk, and now I’m in the middle of an existential crisis.
When you think about it, it makes sense that creativity feels like an inaccessible luxury in times of distress. Creativity requires sitting with a mess. It’s the act of being imaginative, finding new connections and patterns, looking at the world from a different point of view. And you don’t get to do all that without getting a little messy. Control might feel good in the moment, but creativity requires you to let go of it.
That might not feel great right now, but there are plenty of reasons to ease up a little and tap into your more creative side. For example, a 2010 paper explored the relationship between artistic pursuits and reduced stress and anxiety, among other physiological health benefits. Creativity can feel unimportant during distressing times, but, ironically, embracing your creativity can help you cope with that stress. Music therapy and creative writing has been shown to reduce the anxiety associated with chronic illness, too. Visual arts, like drawing, can serve a similar purpose, and creative movement made patients feel like they had an “enhanced quality of life,” according to the paper. Overall, researchers concluded that “art can be a refuge from the intense emotions associated with illness.”
Being creative is also a form of play, which adults should definitely embrace more. Play—the act of doing stuff that makes you happy without having a concrete end result—can also help reduce stress and improve your overall well-being. If there was ever a time for that, it’s now.
Audre Lorde said that “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity for our existence,” and I think the same is true for creativity in general. Sure, some of us have more time, space, and mental bandwidth to work on creative pursuits, and that bandwidth is certainly a luxury and often a privilege. But creativity itself shouldn’t be something reserved for the privileged. Creativity alone isn’t going to pay your bills. But in a world where everything is about paying bills and making money, creativity is a reminder that you are more than the ability to get things done or generate revenue. We need that reminder more than ever in difficult times, when humanity itself seems to be on the line.
Yesterday, I was planning to organize the shed in my backyard, but I created a new banana pudding recipe instead. The shed was a disaster, and it would’ve felt good to fix that problem. I wondered how I could waste time figuring out how to make banana pudding more delicious (easy: peanut butter) when everything feels like an emergency. There are so many problems to solve. Creativity feels guilty, like I’m not doing enough somewhere else. I won’t pretend like I had some grand epiphany or that the anxiety magically resolved itself. But it felt a tiny bit heartening to relinquish control and get lost in some pudding.
The rest of that Lorde quote:
[Poetry] forms the quality of light from which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.
You can be creative and efficient. You can come up with new recipes and also want to organize the shit out of your refrigerator. You can get messy and then clean up. Sometimes we make too much room for the latter at the expense of the former, however. We covet people’s perfectly curated Instagram feeds, their beautifully symmetrical homes, their color-balanced dinner plates. We don’t want to see the mess, but the mess might be worth indulging, even (or especially) when your brain feels like a giant bowl of spaghetti.
Have you been more or less creative than usual this year? Do you have any tips for finding ways to embrace your creative side in the midst of chaos? Let us know in the comments!