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Creative Living

By Mary Summerbell

I tried not to cry while watching “Lost in Living” at Beloit International Film Festival. But tears came several times as I strongly identified with the struggles and issues of the women featured in it. The write-up of the movie says that it “confronts the contradictions inherent in….the complex realities of….the messy intersection of motherhood and artistic expression.”

Not a fast-paced film, in moments almost boring, but saved by its verging on voyeuristic quality, it quietly captures the inner action, the dramatic depth and intensity of in-the-moment reactions in real life. It shows the mucky, and murky, reality of getting stuck in the mundane when your soul aches to be creative.

Obviously art and life constantly, continuously, inseparably intersect, intertwine and overlap in complex, intensely fascinating, infuriatingly frustrating yet ever-inspiring patterns. But the challenges involved in this interplay can only be resolved in the details of individual lives, in the daily, minute-by-minute decisions made by those whose hearts hold more than one true love.

In this documentary we meet and get, not a peek, but a long, deep look at the lives of  four mother – artists and how they adapt, adjust and cope as they each try to publicly retain an artistic identity and a body of work, and also privately maintain a marriage and raise a family. In seven years of observation and interviews, professional and domestic worlds meet in realities that are unique yet similar.

As the film begins Kristina, a filmmaker, and Caren, an artist, best friends since school days, are both thirty-six and pregnant with their first child. We see them sharing the excitement and anxieties of pregnancy and birth, then finding surprising distance in their differing parenting styles. Kristina, despite childcare difficulties, makes three movies the first year of her son’s life, earning an award for one, while Caren laments the loneliness, depression and lack of time needed to work on her art. We see them uncomfortably exploring their changing views of each other, each cautiously yet honestly asking what’s behind new feelings, each concerned with judgment from the other. The relationship continues to shift as Caren has another child and Kristina does not. As the friendship evolves, the bond seems lasting yet somewhat tenuous.

Merrill, a writer, approaching seventy, has three daughters. Margie, in her early sixties, is an abstract painter and mother of seven children. The older women address issues of art and family in the context of their generation’s socio-political environment and attitudes, including the influence of Civil Rights, Feminism, and the Vietnam War. Merrill speaks of social gatherings where she sat with the men, seeking her place as a writer, rather than sitting with the women as a mother. Remarkably, her husband relocated to enhance her career chances. In contrast, Margie, who moved to another state for a more stable family life, divorced after thirty-eight years of marriage.

Margie describes her parenting style as “benign neglect” and of her children candidly admits that she was “happy to have them be a bit afraid of me.” Their long-held, bitter resentment of her do-not-disturb-me-while-I’m-painting attitude is clear in their interviews. Mother-child relationships were obviously damaged for the sake of art, with lasting pain and estrangement. As adults her children still question her costly, continued pursuit of her art above all.

Merrill speaks of “three pair of braids” and “three meals for five people three times a day” for all the years that she was writing and mothering. Her daughters complained, as did others, about her using their lives as material for her articles and books. Her very first published article, about a relative’s funeral, brought angry queries of “Why did you reveal so many family secrets?” Ultimately she decides that it is not worth risking her relationships for the stories and she sadly stops writing for publication.

This movie stirred things up in me. It was thought-provoking, emotion-evoking, soul-touching, gut-wrenching. I felt tense, watching it – a wrestling with inner conflicts that persists even now as I reflect on the issues this film explores. I felt sad, depressed, trapped, curious about personal relationships and coping techniques and envious of artistic accomplishments.

In these women’s stories, I see myself. Though not on their level professionally – my only artistic income being meager amounts paid for set painting in community theater – still, I have felt the dreadful tugs of dealing with a sick, or crying, or naughty child – or a happy, playful, engaging one, while trying – or longing to – write, draw, paint, even read or watch a movie. Once thinking this all behind me, in my sixties, now, with an adult child and grandchildren living with me, I am, again, distressed, making those ongoing choices about who needs what when and struggling to find time for creative self-expression.

To ease my tension in this situation, I try to look at living as the ultimate art – my life, my ultimate masterpiece. I tell myself that being a mother, a grandmother, is creative, is an art. That life experience enriches art, as art enriches experience. That the art of living is a matter of balance in all aspects of life. Instead of seeing my roles in life as separate – either mother or artist, I try to regard every honest response as self-expression on a spectrum of creativity, considering all sacred and honoring all equally.

It helps, sometimes, thinking this way. Other times I’m not convinced, and this idealistic philosophy is no comfort – sorely lacking in satisfaction on any practical, applicable level. Really, now – changing poopy pants, wiping snotty noses and other kid survival necessities just don’t have the aesthetic appeal of writing a poem or painting a picture. Trying to write this article with my grandsons whining, fighting, screaming and crying nearby is not a pleasant experience. This movie is true. Things are lost in living. Time, space and matter confine spirit. And it’s a struggle to flutter free.

The reality is that if we choose parenting and artistic pursuits, then we choose the perpetual challenge of balancing both, juggling these with all other aspects of our lives every minute that we live. And sometimes it sucks. But that’s just life. For everyone. No one can do all they want to do. I try to keep reminding myself of this, and noticing and enjoying good times as they come. For things are lost in life – but things are also found. My grandsons can be sweet, with their cuddles and giggles, hugs and kisses, their lilting duet of “ah – low” (hello) when they see me coming.

Parenting, and Art, and Life are all full to overflowing – sometimes overwhelming – with choices and challenges. These perceived more keenly, more acutely, more poignantly, perhaps, by those of creative nature. But artistic inclination or disposition doesn’t have to be all angsty anguish and anxiety. There are ways to ecstasy beyond the agony.

What I realized from seeing “Lost in Living,” and writing this article about it, is that it’s the longing that causes the suffering. Willful inner resistance to the intrinsic limitations, the basic necessities, of physical existence, and resentment of life’s inherently predictable compromises, keeps us closed to happier alternatives. Human nature, I suppose, this tendency to let our personal preferences interfere with providence. So easy to slip into sulking self-pity when life doesn’t favor our way.

But the more we can accept the realities of the moment, the better we can move with them, able to see, consider and embrace unforseen possibilities. So I try, as much as I can, to focus on the gifts of the moment – to stay open to what I can do and what I am doing, right now, this very minute, rather than wastefully wishing it away. And I find myself content with whatever option(s) I choose. The more I do this, the more brilliant, easy, funny and fun possibilities occur to me. I find this flexibility amazingly fulfilling.

The great irony is that the very creative traits and aspirations causing our inner conflict can also be what help us most to cope with it!

Ultimately, I find my greatest consolation and satisfaction in feeling that my creativity, and whatever artistic efforts I am able to attempt, give so much meaning to my life – meaning I would be lacking if I didn’t have that spark, that desire to be uniquely original and express it in every way I can. I have discovered that I love my artistic abilities, my quirky approach to all I meet. For me, the fruit is worth the trouble of the reaching for it. Living creatively is an attitude that gives great meaning to life. I wouldn’t be without it – my creative attitude!

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