On Creativity & Sabbatical

When I proposed the Create Challenge I intentionally did not offer an estimated word count, recognizing that, depending on the type of creativity, some contributors would need more or less space. And let’s be honest, some days creativity comes in a concise burst or single image while other days words pour forth like a flooded midwinter river roaring through a storm. Today’s contributor, my friend and co-worker, offered me the editorial hatchet; I picked up only tweezers to tame a few loose hairs. He has a beautiful story to share of living a creative life, through ups and downs, when creative work demands compete for time and space with personal creativity. It’s a story with subtle lessons worthy of steeping into our souls.

Create Challenge #31: Mike Loretto

I.

I stepped out of the van that had shuttled me from the Albuquerque airport to the campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. It was raining. Hard. In the desert. (“Monsoon season,” the shuttle driver explained). I prayed that my guitar case was waterproof enough to protect its contents. It was late – after midnight. I was late – I had already missed the opening evening of the workshop. I was tired. I was wet.

I checked in and was directed toward my dorm room – across campus. Still raining.  Harder.

I ducked out of the rain and into the lobby of Jones Hall and did my best impression of our beloved pit bull mix, Bristow, with a full body, moisture-flinging shake. Then I realized that several other conference attendees were gathered in the lobby and the stairwell of the dorm, getting to know each other, laughing, and now looking with pity on my dripping, bedraggled self.

“Once you get your stuff in your room, come back and join us if you want!” one of them offered. I mumbled a “Thanks,” flashed as much of a smile as I could muster, and found my room.

I dropped my stuff, toweled off, and considered collapsing into bed. But no, I was here – might as well get started on being open to whatever was in store for the week.

When I reappeared, someone made room on the stairs. Someone else offered me a plastic cup of good whiskey. And a poet, a food critic, a pastor, a filmmaker, and a writer of fiction immediately started getting to know me and letting me get to know them. I was soaked, in the desert, and exactly where I needed to be.

Koi pond at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, NM

Koi pond at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, NM

II.

I was in the 8th week of a 9-week sabbatical from my job as the “Minister of Music & Worship” (or “music guy”) at a Presbyterian church. And I was a little bit desperate.

Now, understand: I’m hesitant to even say this because, well, who wants to hear anyone complain about their sabbatical?!  (“Oh, your summer of being paid not to work didn’t go exactly like you hoped? I’M SO SORRY!”)

Nevertheless – I went into it with a certain set of hopes and plans and expectations. And up to that point, most of those had been dashed. The place we were going to stay for free all summer didn’t work out. Unexpected expenses arose one after another. (Car repairs! A speeding ticket! Vet bills! More car repairs!)

Rather than being able to focus on reflection, contemplation, creativity, exercise, and nurturing my marriage to Sarah, I was spending too much time and energy figuring out where we were going to stay next, how much that would cost, and…I was frustrated. There had certainly been some highlights, but both Sarah and I were feeling at least as drained as refreshed. Brief moments of renewed relational connection and intimacy were in danger of being superseded by stress and frustration.

And here in week 8, sabbatical was almost done. It felt like sand slipping through my fingers.

My Instagram photo showed what sabbatical was supposed to be like

My Instagram photo showed what sabbatical was supposed to be like

III.

Selflessly, even though she couldn’t go, Sarah had suggested I register at the very last minute for the Glen Workshop. An ecumenical gathering of those interested in the intersection of “art, faith, and mystery,” the Glen had been a transformative experience for both Sarah and me three years ago when we took the songwriting workshop led by our favorite musical duo, Over the Rhine.

That previous experience had reminded me that I have a deep-seated NEED to create. It’s a central part of how I’m wired, and if I’m not being intentional about creating, I’m not being who I’m meant to be.

My main mode of creation is songwriting. (Sarah and I both write, record, and occasionally perform and share songs under the name Truesdell.) I’ve dabbled in some poetry, some blogging, some other forms of writing. But a well-crafted song, to me, feels like the intersection of heaven and earth.

And isn’t that what creation is: heaven touching, forming, and re-forming the physical? The Divine incarnating itself?

Back to the Glen Workshop: as the songwriting workshop was full, I signed up for the “retreat option.” I had mornings free to read, write, pray. In the afternoons and evenings I heard readings from poets, essayists, and novelists. I saw a documentary film presented by the director. I heard photographers and painters and sculptors talk about their work. So much amazing creation I couldn’t possibly take it all in. I just had to assume a receptive posture, letting it wash over me, and pay attention to how the Spirit was creating new life in me through the creativity of these artists.

IV.

In my church role, a big chunk of the creating I do (along with our pastors) is the content and flow of the weekly worship service. I’m primarily responsible for the music part, but also for helping craft a movement to the whole thing.

Hopefully each week there’s an arc to a service that helps us celebrate who we understand God to be, confess honestly our need for redemption, give thanks for the healing we find, come into conversation with the ancient stories and truths of Scripture, and respond to what we’re hearing. It’s an incredibly fulfilling (and, I believe, important) creative endeavor, and I feel privileged to get to be a creator in my professional life in a way that seems valuable to me, to my community, and to the world.

One of the gifts of my sabbatical, however, was the time away from that privilege.

Let me explain. Often, only certain forms of creative expression (usually music, preaching, some forms of visual art, maybe poetry, and rarely dance, drama, or film) find their way into worship services. And generally only certain themes can be explored within those modes and still be useful or appropriate in the context of a church worship service.

I enjoy writing and arranging church music. But if everything I’m creating is for the purpose of being used in services, then I’m rarely or never creating just for the sake of being creative, just to celebrate that I’m a creator made in the image of a creative God. And if I’m always writing about the themes that are most useful in a worship service – songs meant for congregational singing, that explicitly mention God or Jesus – then I’m ignoring entire rich fields of (also inherently spiritual) subject matter.

Sometimes those non-churchy things are the depths I need to mine creatively in order to be a healthier person and, perhaps ironically, more spiritually attuned. And if my role at church has scratched just enough of my creative itch that I don’t write songs about marriage or politics or nature or sex or what-have-you – and if God is leading me to explore those areas – then I’m not living out my calling as a creator.

I believe all good art is inherently redemptive, even if it’s not explicitly talking about how – theologically – redemption comes about. Sometimes the redemption comes through writing about ugly, painful things, not tying up loose ends in a nice bow, just painting the mess as honestly as possible – then sharing it and having someone say, “Yeah… me, too.”

Sabbatical gave me a chance to focus more on finding God and redemption and beauty in the minutiae and mess of my daily life – and to write about it.

V.

On Thursday night at the Glen Workshop, a guy named Jeff issued an open invitation to gather in an apartment on campus and share our work with one another. That evening turned into the highlight of the week – of my summer, really.

I sat on the floor and sipped wine and listened to 8-10 minutes of work from probably 25 other creators. I heard the voice of God speaking through conservative evangelical memoirists, Catholic poets, agnostic novelists, and progressive Christian essayists. It was amazing to hear the breadth of ways that diverse people can communicate beauty and truth. And then I got to add my voice to the chorus.

I played two of my songs – one that I’d written at the Glen Workshop three years ago, and one that I’d started earlier in the summer and finished that week. Both dealt with the struggle of sharing your life with another person. (I’m sure your marriage/relationship is easy, but Sarah and I have found that it’s also a constant exercise in dying to yourself, which isn’t always fun!)

Neither were songs I would play in church. But it was an incredibly worshipful experience to share them with this group. These creators, who had been feeding my soul with their work, were nodding, smiling, (even crying?) – RESONATING with what I was expressing, and in that moment I knew on a deep level that I wasn’t alone, and that my life, my struggles, and the work that comes out of them are part of a larger story that connects us all.

Here’s the older of the songs I played, written after visiting Lexington, Massachusetts, site of the first battle of the American Revolutionary War. Sarah and I were in a season of, let’s say, stumbling over each other more than building each other up. It’s just a demo, not a professional recording, so excuse the quality:

VI.

Experiencing that living room floor, those people, that beauty, that Thursday evening…if that was all that I got out of my sabbatical, it would have been enough. It led to a new passion, a new sense of direction for me.

I crave the sort of collaboration and encouragement between artists that I experienced that night, and I crave the sense of God being alive and present and active that it brings for me. So (somewhat selfishly!) I’m determined to do whatever I can to help create that sort of space in my locale (the East Bay).

I’m in the beginning stages of organizing an Artists’ Collective, in which anyone who creates has a regular space to share their work, be inspired by the creativity of others, and to reflect together on how our creativity fits into the larger creativity of God. If you’re in my area and interested in an experience like that, I’d love to hear from you and be in creative community with you!

mloretto

Mike Loretto (@mikeloretto on Twitter/IG) is a songwriter, worship leader, husband to Sarah, and feeder of dogs Bristow and Jed Bartlet. He and Sarah write and perform music under the name Truesdell and are hoping to release an album this year. (Find Truesdell on Facebook or @truesdellmusic on Twitter). Mike is passionate about the intersection of art & spirituality, contemplative prayer, good food & drink, Kansas Jayhawks basketball, and Kansas City Royals baseball. He almost never blogs at mikeloretto.tumblr.com. Email: mikeloretto at gmail dot com

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