My brother was diagnosed with leukemia over three years ago. These years have been the most challenging, emotionally exhausting and heart-expanding years I’ve ever known. I was trying to describe this to a friend the other day and the best analogy I could come up with was that if I were an elastic band that can bend and stretch and twist most of the time, I am taut these days, with little room to expand. I haven’t snapped, but sometimes I feel on the verge. There are things I can do, however, that give me some emotional elasticity and replenish my energy levels. These things include bike rides, hot baths, yoga, dinner with friends, a good dance party every once and while, laughs with my brother and making tasty food or colorful art. Often I have to push myself to pursue my happiness as my energy is lower than usual, but when I do, these activities help me take care of myself and in turn help me care and support my brother through his cancer treatments.
Other than laughs with my brother, creativity has been the most effective medicine in reducing my anxiety and helping me find calm. Doing something creative allows me to slow down, hear my own thoughts and tap into some colorful life-affirming energy that energizes me while counteracting the sterile walls of the hospital. Throughout my brother’s illness I haven’t always had the energy or the creative will to make “Art” with a capital A. It can be difficult to find the space to focus and the energy to “create.” But I have found other ways to exercise that same muscle. Everyone has it, it’s just about finding the thing that allows you to access your creativity.
When my brother was first hospitalized many years ago, I had spent little time in hospitals. They scared me. As I rode the elevator up to my brother’s room I couldn’t believe it was my brother I was going to visit at Princess Margaret hospital. I wasn’t used to thinking of my brother as a cancer patient. The newness of the beige walls, the sounds of beeping and seeing him hooked up to blood bags and IV tubes was an assault on my emotions. As I sat beside my brother while he lay in bed, I hadn’t the energy to read, I didn’t feel up to making art and the bad Wifi connection at the hospital prevented me from mindlessly scrolling through social media (which was actually a blessing). I had some blank paper and some pencil crayons in my bag and all I could do was fill the pages with color.
I found myself coloring in each page with a single color. I became kind of mesmerized at the spreading color across the page and the textures my pencils made as I shaded in the periphery of the paper, pencil stroke by pencil stroke. Eventually I had a stack of textural colored paper and I began to tape them up on my brother’s room. They became a patchwork of color that spread across his wall over times. For me, coloring was an easy act of creativity that helped me find some peace as I sat in my brother’s hospital room for long hours of blurred time. His nurses began to comment and gasp with delight when they entered my brother’s room and found a wall of color. He told me he loved looking at it when he was alone, as it made him feel closer to home. For him it became a protective wall of love.
My experience of the healing potential of art in times of pain, grief and trauma has inspired me to create spaces for artmaking with others going through hardship. I’ve seen kids open up during art workshops in a hospital in ways that has shocked the art therapist. These kids were able to talk more freely about their personal experiences, not because I asked them to, but because they felt a little bit less sick and a little more comfortable talking when they were busy collaging or drawing beside me. I’ve seen the delight a piece of colorful art on the wall can bring to nurses who pass, and I’ve observed the smiles a pom-pom garland hanging off an IV pole can bring to everyone sharing the elevator. It doesn’t take much. I really doesn’t.
Another thing I do when I lack the energy to make art is cook. Preparing food satisfies my creative impulse, but it’s also less daunting than a blank canvas. Cooking comes with instructions. I get a lot of pleasure in finding new vegan recipes and trying out new combinations of ingredients. I find myself constantly browsing my favorite foodie websites: First Mess, Oh She Glows and My New Roots. Food is medicine and so it’s deeply satisfying to create new, delicious meals for my family and my brother to keep them strong and healthy. I usually put on a podcast on as I chop vegetables and sauté onions to take my mind off things. My choice podcasts at the moment are On Being, This American Life, Radiolab, How to be a girl, Two Dope Queens and Rich Roll’s podcast. I’ve learnt a lot from them all.
Keeping yourself busy by doing something that feels creative to you can help ground and center you when life feels crazy and totally overwhelming. Finding creativity can instill a sense of belonging and warmth in an institutional space, open up conversations or distract from the weight on your shoulders. Many of you are probably thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me because I’m not a creative or artistic person.” No way! I believe that creativity is an innate quality we all share. What brings it out may differ from person to person, but it’s there. You don’t need to create a work of Art to be a creative person, because it’s not really about the result of your creative efforts anyway. It’s about how those efforts make you feel while you’re doing them. If you are overwhelmed or daunted by exploring your own creative spirit, start small. Make a card for someone you love rather than buy one. Giftgowns is hosting its own Card-Making for Caregivers, a free event offering art materials and good vibes for anyone who wishes to create.
You could also find your creative spirit by arranging flowers yourself, arranging some plants on your window sill, writing a letter, journaling, painting a fence, baking banana bread or knitting a scarf. If you’re stuck on where to start, here’s a list of some of the materials that usually help me get the ball rolling:
- Glitter paper from dollarama
- Washi tape in bright colours and blank cards from Kid Icarus
- Glitter tape from The Good Egg
- Old magazines from BMV for collaging
- Japanese paper scraps from “The Paper Place”
- Pencil crayons!
- Neon anything
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have,” wrote Maya Angelou. And it’s so true! Creativity gives more energy than it takes. The hard part is starting, but when your heart is heavy and your elastic band is taut, making something, anything, can bring some bend back, some focus, some grounding, some peace. It’s a superpower for fighting sadness or depression. And who knows, you might discover a part of yourself you never knew was there before. Flowers grow out of the darkness, after all.