The creative life is deeply rooted in the experience of play. But as we grow, necessity knocks hard on our door, and the ability to play is replaced by other things. We’re told these other things are more important. Like the need to learn how to work. It’s disconcerting because..well, I guess we thought work was play and play was work. But gradually it became a struggle to reach that place at all.
You learn that the life of being a maker is something you have to fight for. There’s opposition to it. Because creativity is freedom and freedom must be won.
My parents, especially my mother (my dad wasn’t around as much) always championed my creative work. I’m deeply grateful. Mom was always encouraging, positive that anything was possible. I drank it up. One of the earliest memories I have of creative play is when I began to draw with her cheering me on. It was about 1952 in our home in San Luis Obispo. I never stopped.
I also liked to play in the fort in the backyard which my dad built. He was an excellent carpenter. Zimmerman actually means carpenter in german, and Gilbert Sanford Zimmerman married Florabel Jo Carpenter.
My father was a Methodist minister. For me the spiritual has always been wed to the physical, all of it a place of adventure and beauty. I suppose you might say it was because of the spin Dad put on things. But I think it was much deeper than that. I always felt both he and God enjoyed building places for us to play in!
The fort itself was a wonder - a fantastic fortress one day and sailing ship the next. It was two floors high with walls so we couldn’t fall out. There was a ladder in it so you could climb to the “upper deck,” which had a ship’s wheel installed, overlooking the high seas.
We were allowed to play either in the fort or in the house. This was mostly okay with me. I was only five. But I must’ve wondered why was it called a “fort.”
Here I start to wax philosophical.
Perhaps it was called a fort because the place of play is located in a contested realm, a place of danger. All true creative efforts are challenged efforts. You can’t just leap out of a boat on the high seas and expect to survive. Arrows penetrate the skin very easily. Both the home and the fort are places of protection. When we stay inside we’re supposed to be safe.
Of course, from an artist’s perspective, it’s not always possible or even desirable to be safe. At its root creativity never is. Breaking new ground is always risky. Living out on the frontier can be perilous.
Again, back when I was five, I remember breaking a rule my parents laid down to keep us safe. “Don’t go in the swamp!” “The Swamp” was an soggy tract of land across the street from our house. We gave it that name because it had a lot of marshy areas you had to cross by walking on logs, boards or rocks to keep your feet dry. “But those trails are for adults, not kids,” my dad said.
But the place was deeply mysterious and attractive to me. I was forbidden to go there. Maybe they thought it was just too easy to slip off a wet rock and get into the muck. No, there was something more perilous than soggy ground out there. It was the old railroad bridge under which hobos were known to hang out.
“Hobos! What are hobos, Mom, Dad?” I learned that they were men without homes, who “..wandered about and slept under bridges (instead of houses) or hopped on trains to go from town to town (instead of driving in cars like we do.)”
I don’t think they actually told me this, but what it came down to was they were afraid I might run into the hobos.. that they might do something terrible to me. “Just DON”T go out there,” Mom said.
Well.. I ended up not being able to resist the temptation. One day I scurried across the street and into the forbidden zone, staying mostly out of the muck. I saw a lot of frogs but never caught sight of a hobo…but I definitely caught something when I got back home with soaked pant legs: a lickin’! It’s the only time I remember getting spanked, and it was a fierce paddling. Mom did it.
My mother was a woman of great strength. Her maiden name was Carpenter, and the roots of her family reach way back to the Plymouth Colony. Alice Carpenter Southworth was the second wife of William Bradford, whose first wife died soon after arriving on the Mayflower. They were married in 1623. I come from pioneer stock.
When my mother’s grandparents settled in Greeley, Colorado it was still a stockade. I’m told it was built more to keep liquor and lawless drunkards out than it was to protect the settlers from armed attack. It was the frontier.
The creative realm still is. When you work out on that edge your work invites conflict. Each of us must learn what the fight means for us personally. We need to know what it means for us to go out, and what it means for us to come back in.
Opposition can rise up within the walls of the fort as well. Disease is always a threat. So are spies and the duplicity of human nature.
Spies typically present themselves as someone different than they actually are. They can pose as friends, even, but their intent is to bring us down.
In a war one needs allies. But the spy and the liar would convince us that our friends are our foes and our foes our friends. So. it behooves us to be wise.
I suppose there are those who might say they’re fine, that they don’t need a home, that they prefer to live alone. But I would counter that if you say you don’t have need of protection or at least comfort, you must be a man of steel, or a man like no one I’ve ever met.
A child needs shelter, but it is also needful for a grown man to find protection when he needs it. It seems to me that men often have an over-inflated sense of their own strength.
It’s in a man’s nature to crave exploits. But he also needs cover.
It’s been hard for me to let myself be covered by the roof of my own home. I like to go out, filled with the counsel of my own heart. It’s been much harder for me to turn around and go back in. I did some awfully stupid things as a young man. But then again, what adventurous man doesn’t? You can’t always be safe. Nevertheless, any man, young or old, is foolish if he thinks himself invulnerable. Especially in this war.
Notes on the vicissitudes of the creative life.