I went looking for a new house plant yesterday afternoon. One that loved bright, direct light. I had a spot all ready to go and it felt like a good day to add a new member to the plant family in my house.
Arriving at The Garden Spot nursery, I get Remi out of the car, clipping her leash on, then we high tail it past racks of fragrant hyacinths, just past their prime. Remi drags me forward, headed for the desk where she knows employees have treats. I try to keep up. “Let’s go this way first,” I tell her as she stops, fixed at the counter, then reluctantly following me. Eventually, we find our way to the one spot with house plants that like direct, bright like. Succulents. Cactus. And Hoyas. I don’t really know much about Hoyas.
"They love to be root bound," the employee, a young woman with cropped blond hair and colorful rimmed glasses announces as she bends down to look at the waxy, thick-leaved plants with me.
"Really?" I ask, pleasantly surprised, taking in the varied leaf shapes and patterns of color, stripes and solids, greens and whites. I've always known plants don't want to be plopped from a very small pot into a very big pot when being transplanted. But I hadn't realized some plants thrive being root bound all the time.
I am one of those plants, I think to myself, shyly.
I've never really liked this about myself. That I do best when I’m root bound. When I have tight structures around me that I can riff off to motivate and move forward.
Like one hour before my class at WWU. Then, I have no trouble getting myself motivated to plan. There’s a clear challenge. Tight time constraints. Students coming minutes from now. Suddenly my brain cares and can focus: priorities and decisions happen quickly and I move on instead of endlessly consternating or struggling to decide. Tight constraints mean I get things done. Whereas staring down a pile of mulch I want to spread over my flower beds with no real deadline means the pile will be there months later. Until Mike tells me he’ll be taking the wheelbarrow to our land on Lopez in two days. Then, with a significant challenge and a hard stop deadline, I spend the next two days madly shrinking the pile down to nothing. Which I find fun instead of boring.
Still, I wonder why I can’t do things like moving the mulch the way Mike does: little by little, methodically, easy peasy, without a deadline and a mad dash. Especially when maintaining things instead of creating them anew.
But I can't. And Lord knows I've tried. One thing after another over the last few years. Maybe I can teach myself how to work with the empty space of an entire day, I hope. Without it being such a struggle. Maybe I can make myself more like Mike. More like those other house plants who don't need to be root bound or in intense direct light to thrive. But structuring my life in ways that work for others never ends up working for me. No matter how much I want it to.
I have made some headway. Like preserving a morning writing time that I stick with consistently. I can motivate to do this because there’s always something new to discover when I write. And because I have a writing group I meet with weekly, sharing words and engaging in dialogue around our work.
But holding structure entirely myself for every aspect of my day is still tough. My brain likes to decide what it will do based on how I’m feeling at the moment and based on what information is coming back to me from life and the world. But this is an overwhelming way to exist in the world. Sometimes it’s incredibly helpful to know what you’ll do on a given day because it’s a default activity: like teaching my classes at WWU. Or going to Lopez for a meeting with someone. Set activities are like anchors, solid shapes in a painting or my life which give form to everything else in my day. I can use them to do the little things without planning or scheduling. This keeps me from tanking emotionally or spinning out in overwhelm. As long as the structures in place are the right kinds and leave enough open space for me to work with.
The rebel part of me doesn't want this to be true. Why can't I just enjoy the day without anything planned all day every day? It believes the only way it will ever be happy is to do whatever it wants whenever it wants at all times. And it’s important as a creative to make open space for this sort of ambling, curious exploring, and following impulses. But I’ve road tested living without anything planned during the pandemic and while on medical leave most of fall and winter. And, for me, it’s simply not true that I'll be happier without anything planned. I do better when I’m root bound. Less languishing and depression. Less struggling to motivate. More purposeful action backed by space. More enjoying my creative work and gardening and open space because it's not the only thing I have in my life. This is probably part of the reason I’ve been in school my whole life (either as a student or a teacher/professor). It provides a clearly defined (and somewhat flexible and open) structure.
Which makes me wonder: What if I could see structure and productivity as a positive force? Instead of at odds with my creative spirit? What if struture and stability were actually catalysts for creative work?
The Hoya reminds me this could be true: creativity and structure can work together. Instead of sword fighting and being at odds with one another most of the time. All living beings rely on physical structures and environments to survive and thrive. So for neurodivergent and/or creative brain types like me (that resist authority and rules but also have a high need for structure and consistency to stay regulated emotionally) it's all about finding the right types of structures in appropriate amount to keep my experience of the world manageable and fulfilling instead of overwhelming and frustrating. Here are a couple of the structures I know help me survive and thrive and that I’m now inspired to build into my life even more consistently, thanks to the Hoya:
- Structured time for my creativity to start my day and then some unstructured time to unwind afterwards (I do a 1-2 hour block of time followed by physical exercise before letting niggly details of the day fill in the gaps; I don't need every minute planned; but I do need to know generally how I will spend my time during the day).
- Regular human interaction surrounding the activities in my life that I want to do for sure (I often need dialogue and outlets to new ideas to keep my brain from being bored with whatever it’s come up with; and I also need regular accountability to keep myself moving forward).
- Lots of physical activity and movement (like riding my bike to work or teaching in person instead of driving and walking or teaching online).
- Mixture of solitary/quiet/alone time and time interacting with people (deep, interesting, creatives not just anyone).
- New activities, experiences, people and contexts on a regular basis. (I don't maintain or do the same old thing very well; if I have to do the same old thing, I have to find ways to set it up so that it’s dynamic and alive not just the same thing as last time).
- Time to unwind, especially in nature (it's easy for me to get overstimulated; and it's just as easy to be understimulated).
- Information and complexity from stuff that's happening in the world that I can turn into something not just generating everything from the inside then bringing it to the world.undefined
What structures and supports do you need to thrive? And to do your creative work?
Do you need more open space? Or more tight windows of time to work within?
Do you need your day planned down to the hour? Or just need to know one or two of the things you'll do everyday (and when) so you can flex around these?
What is your preferred speed for various activities? Even if you can slow down or speed up when you choose. (I tend to love running, doing things quickly, and doing lots of things which often surprises people around me: "You have more energy than anyone I've ever met," I often hear.)
Do you need relationships with other people (or consistent support) around what you do? Or more solitude? When and where in the creative process (and your life) do you need both of these?
How much movement and time in nature do you need? How much play?
Do you need to go out and seek new experiences, people and contexts to regenerate and fill yourself up so you can create? Or do you need to turn inward for a time?
How can you put all these things together so you structure an environment for yourself where you thrive as a creative?
It's not easy to be a creative in the world. A sensitive being who feels so much so hard. Who sees so clearly. Who operates in ways that diverge from the norm while constantly being reminded that we're not normal. But being a fully expressed creative is a mightily important way to be in the world. Even if the world doesn't realize it needs us.
So today, for me, I want to remember it’s ok to be a lot like the Hoya.
I like a tight pot. Intense bright light. No wet feet. And it's ok that I thrive being rootbound. As long as I'm in the right pot. And the right environment.