It’s hard to know where to begin to describe this issue’s interviewee, Sarah J. Johnson. Sarah has her Master’s Degree in Counseling from Winona State University in southeast Minnesota, where she makes her home. She serves as the Mental Health Director at the LaCrosse (Wisconsin) Area Family YMCA where she incorporates mental wellness into every aspect of the Y. Yet she is so much more than her training and job title. Sarah is a prolific painter. Her most recent show, a series of pulp fiction inspired self-portraits, focused on the painful process of overcoming heartbreak. She is an avid photographer, tee-shirt screen printer, and found-item archivist. Her home is a collector’s dream: every nook and cranny contains something interesting found at rummage sales or vintage flea markets. She sings old-time jazz and rock and roll with her band, The Old-Fashioneds. Most of all, Sarah aspires to live each moment of her live as a creative gesture, and then, in her own words, “hilarity ensues”. Creative non-fiction editor Cyndi Briggs recently sat down with Sarah to talk about creativity and it’s essential link to healing and happiness.
Cyndi Briggs (CB): I’m curious to hear about the role of creativity in your life? How did you become the luminous being that you are today?
Sarah Johnson (SJ): I’m going to credit my parents directly for that. They were both very creative people. My dad is still alive, and he continues to be a really creative person. But it’s funny because my whole life people have asked me that question, and most of the time I don’t feel creative in the least. And I’m not sure why that is…. is it just how I am in the universe? Or are there pieces of self-doubt or self-esteem that come into play there? Is it that if I were left to my own devices, and didn’t have to worry about money and time, then I could truly be creative? Or all three? So, to answer your question, I’m not creative. I don’t know what you’re talking about… Except I do. I do know exactly what you’re talking about.
CB: I think that’s an interesting point because I think we often dismiss our own lives as mundane. What I see in you are the paintings you create, your music, the hilarious things you post on Facebook. Yet I know that your life also includes things like washing dishes or paying bills… It’s easy to feel as if our own lives aren’t all that creative or interesting. Do you feel that way?
SJ: Well, you’ve never seen how I do dishes. There’s lots of singing and dancing involved (laughs). It’s interesting, because right now I’m in a period of percolation. There’s all these images floating around, just outside of my brain, and I need some time and space for them to take form. I’ve been in a high period of productivity the past few months, and now I’m in more of a meditative space. Even though that’s a really important part of my creative process, I dismiss it as “I don’t feel creative right now…” I don’t give it enough credit for how important it is. I love the active part of creation, the kinesthetic part, so the reflective part doesn’t come as naturally for me. As I’ve practiced mindfulness over the past 10 years, it’s taken my creativity, my whole existence, to a whole new level, and I’ve come to appreciate these lulls when I’m not actively creating something, but my brain and soul and spirit are still creating responses to the universe.
CB: “Creating responses to the universe…” that’s such a unique way to perceive the creative process. I think we often think of creativity in regards to the end product: a painting or sculpture or novel. Yet there’s this holy place within creativity, a spark that is uniquely ours, that exists in response to what’s happening around us.
SJ: I love that. Perhaps that’s what people mean, too, when they say to me, “You’re so creative”. How do I meet each moment of consciousness in a way that tickles me? How do I notice what’s really important? Like right now, I’m watching a hummingbird outside my window hovering around. How do I note those moments of consciousness in ways that strengthen me and, in turn, strengthen others?
CB: Let’s talk about mindfulness. How did you bring that into your life and what does that look like for you?
SJ: I’m trained as a therapist, so about 10 years ago, I started hearing about mindfulness. It was a buzzword in my profession and it sounded like something I could use to help my clients. In about two seconds, I realized “Oh, this is a way of being, and something that could save my life.” My first practice started with my breath, incorporating deep breathing into my day, which is a lot harder than it sounds. I’ve been blown away by how much difference it’s made in my life, just that small change.
CB:What were some of the changes you noticed?
SJ: What I noticed first was that I noticed more. Giving myself space to breath calmed my mind a little and allowed me to notice more about what was going on in my body, in my head, around me. I discovered things I liked better, and taught me what I wanted to focus on more. I learned how to play with my attention span, and where to place my attention. Most of all, it’s allowed me to develop a tolerance for, and an acceptance of things that are uncomfortable, that make me anxious or scared. As a recovering perfectionist, I was much more avoidant of things than I was aware of. I maneuvered my life to avoid things I didn’t think I’d be good at or made me uncomfortable. Mindfulness pushed me to be a little more flexible, or to try things I might not excel at, which opened up new worlds for me. I realized I’d been making little laws for myself, unconsciously, and that I could change the rules, take risks, and benefit from the pay-offs. And, I discovered that when those risks didn’t pay off, it didn’t destroy me. I might have things that I don’t feel great about, choices I’ve made, things I’ve done or said, and that doesn’t mean I’m an asshole, as it turns out. I’m not a despicable person just for being human. It’s kind of cool.
CB: That’s huge! I think a lot of women, in particular, walk around with a tight-fitting suit of armor, trying to hold ourselves in, trying to contain ourselves. We don’t want to feel any shame or guilt.
SJ: It’s been really painful and worthwhile to sit with those difficult emotions and thoughts and actually learn about myself. Some of those feelings have really important information for me about who I want to be. It’s ironic, but by allowing for my own inadequacies to surface, I’ve become more self-aware and balanced, and at the same time I can let life be a mess. We re-evaluate, people die, things change, and sometimes we need to be a mess. I’m allowing myself to be a mess when things are hard, which is the human condition. Awareness and mindfulness keeps it from becoming a messy mess. I’d be a messy mess if I were trying to be perfect all the time. So, I’m a mess, and I’m quite comfortable with that (laughs).
CB: If we go to a movie about a person with a perfect life, the movie starts to get interesting when that person’s life begins to fall apart. That’s when we start liking them, when we start relating to them. We’re drawn to people who are having a really authentic experience in life, yet we don’t feel we can allow that same authenticity in our own lives.
SJ: I don’t know why we do that to ourselves. I’m interested, too, in how we all share the same things that are hard. And so many times, I’ve been honored to be with someone who is going through something really difficult, who has hard things to say, yet I might still hesitate to say those true things myself. Yet when I have, the world hasn’t fallen apart. It’s not a catastrophe. Being honest about what is hard is freeing. It’s pretty awesome.
CB: It sounds like you’re living your life like a giant experiment.
SJ: What else are we gonna do? I’m an adult. I can do the dishes anytime I want. I can say difficult things out loud, and what’s the worst that’s going to happen? They might not like it. That’s OK! It’s very exciting and terrifying at the same time. I literally don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know what I’m going to do after this phone call. I can choose. It’s super exciting.
CB: In your own life, how have you found creativity to be a healing experience for you?
SJ: I don’t know how I would be alive if creativity wasn’t an option for me. Every major trauma in my life, I’ve used creativity to help me process it. Kinesthetic creating has been what really helps me break free from sticky thoughts, memories, or experiences. My most recent art show was about the difficult process of healing after heartbreak. I felt fundamentally different after hanging those nine paintings on the wall in the space where I showed them. The difference between having them on the wall and out of my head… I can’t really put words to it. A corner was turned. It’s not that I was totally free from the pain of the heartbreak. I’m not done yet. But something major shifted in me, from the inception of the paintings to putting them down in my sketchbook, to posing for the photos (it was a self-portrait series which was so hard to do)… every part of the process was healing for me. Creativity saves my life in many, many ways.
CB: You’re a visual artist, but you’re also a singer and musician. How do those compare for you?
SJ: They’re very different. Music has always been a part of my life. As a young person, I lived and breathed music. I started piano lessons at age four. For the record, if any of my piano teachers are out there, I’m sorry. I never practiced. I know you knew I was sight-reading every lesson. I’m not disciplined. I’m sorry. I lived and breathed music, and then for a long time, I didn’t have an outlet for that, other than singing and dancing everywhere I go, all the time. That’s just me (laughs). So performing now gives me an outlet for that creative impulse. I don’t remember music theory, so I don’t feel like the best team player sometimes when I’m working with other musicians. They’ll ask me what key a song is in or what time signature, and I’ll say, “I don’t know. I don’t remember anymore. That’s like math,” (laughs). Music is a really great expression of emotion… it’s kind of like how some people run to clear their heads… music is like taking a run for me. It helps settle my brain, get energy out, and connect with other people in a fun way. Painting and multimedia work is deeper. It’s more of an expression of the harder things about being human. The messier parts of being human. I’ve got some songs writing themselves that touch on those deeper emotions, too. I need to create some space for those to be born.
CB: I’m intrigued by the language you’re using to describe your process: “being born” and “creating space”. You described yourself as undisciplined. What do you make of that?
SJ: There’s value to daily discipline. It makes sense to me. But it’s not how I work. Forcing creativity is not being true to my own process. I need to give myself permission to be who I am and to process how I do. Sometimes I’m judgmental of myself, “I should be more disciplined.” But that’s not who I am. What I need most is space and time to create, spontaneously.
CB: I think that’s great validation for those of us who might struggle to create space in our lives for the creative. We might be dismissive of those things that aren’t our “job”, that don’t earn us money, and not give them a place of importance in our lives.
SJ: Absolutely. Ironically, my dream job is to be a “happiness fairy”. I’m here to try and create a culture where we live lives of balance. I see that as my purpose, my cause. So when I fall out of balance, the incongruence is that much more obvious. What I encourage others to do, I have to do as well.
CB: Let’s go back to mindfulness. Some of our readers may be interested in incorporating mindfulness into their lives. What advice would you give them?
SJ: Start with the breath. It’s the most accessible place to begin. Put your hand on your belly, take a deep breath in, feel your belly expand, and let it back out. Do that one time. That’s it. Learn how that feels. That one step may not change anything dramatically, but by doing it, you’re learning what mindfulness is. You’re trying it out, practicing, paying attention. That’s mindfulness. Mindfulness is not our natural state of being. That’s why we call it practice. I’m terrible at it. I burned hard boiled eggs while writing a curriculum for a mindfulness workshop. I’ve got hot fudge all over my sunglasses because I wiped my them on my dress,which had hot fudge all over it. I’m not a mindful person at baseline, which is why I practice it. So practice. Put reminders in your day to practice, like a mindfulness bell on your computer that goes off every hour to remind you to take a deep breath, or build it into your phone, or have a friend remind you to breath, or Post-It notes. Whatever you can build into your daily schedule to help you remember to take a deep breath, that’s how you start. My cat is my role model for mindfulness, by the way. He’s mindful all the time. He’s always in the moment.
CB:Cats are amazing teachers. Not only are they mindful, but they never feel guilty about taking an afternoon off to sleep. We have so much to learn from them. So, as we wrap up this interview, what else would you like to add to the conversation?
SJ: My biggest thing is I don’t think any of us know what each moment could be. And I’m struck by how radically different things can be, and how much life can change moment to moment. I value leaning into my natural inclination to be creative, without even thinking about it, and to build on those strengths to become more flexible in my day to day life. We’re not in control of much in this universe, and I’m grateful that I love being creative, because I can use it in the hard moments, in those moments when I feel challenged, or when things are hard or scary. And I love seeing the infinite ways that people can be creative, to connect with others and learn from their process, too.
To learn more about Sarah J. Johnson:
Facebook Page for her band, the Old Fashions
A recent art exhibit, Grounded, a meditation on grief + loss