One part of cultivating creativity is that you need to feel safe enough to take risks and be yourself. You have to make a space in your home and your heart to feel free to be you and to write, or paint, or dance, or just be. When I think of spaces like that, places where I have felt safe to be me in all my messy anxiety and insecurity, I think of my sophomore dorm room with its black and white photos and assorted clay crosses.
My freshman roommate experience was challenging. It wasn’t really that my freshman roommate was particularly difficult. She was polite and considerate. She was so polite and considerate that six weeks into my freshman year, we decided that we should just go on living all together the next year. (Unsolicited college advice: don’t decide six weeks into your first year who you will live with your next year.) We were young and insecure, and it felt good to nail down something in that helter-skelter, whirl-wind of changes that those first weeks of college bring. But choices made solely to soothe anxiety often produce complicated and anxiety ridden situations later.
By February, my roommate had decided that she didn’t really want to room with me again. But since we had made a solemn oath outside of an ice cream shop, it took her quite a while to gather up the courage to break that binding-social contract. By the time she finally did tell me, it was only a few days before the next year’s housing information was due. All my other friends already had housing plans.
I like to have things nailed down and planned, and this was a rather large thing to not know. It was a pretty difficult week and half. I asked friends, and friends of friends, and everyone, everyone, seemed to have their housing all situated. Finally, the night before it was due, I got set up, blind date style by a mutual friend, with three girls I barely knew—Jeannete, Liz and Heidi.
But even though I had future roommates for the next year, the living situation with my current roommate became really strained. I don’t know all the pieces of her story, what else might have been going on. But a couple of days after I turned my housing papers in, she took me to the graduate director where she let out 8 months of stored small annoyances and frustrations with me. Two days later, without any other conflicts or time to make amends, she moved out. I felt publicly rejected. And even though I honestly found living by myself really great—on our spring break trip my Dad bought me beautiful prints and crosses to put up in my new space—I had some serious abandonment issues coming into sophomore year.
I worried that these sweet three women who had been practically forced to live with me would also find me so difficult that they might leave me. I remember vividly a few months into sophomore year sitting on our couch all together. Suddenly all the fear that they secretly were piling up resentment and frustrations with me bubbled up. I started to cry–ugly sobs that made it hard to form words. I told them between gulps of air that I was afraid that they didn’t like me and were going to leave me. And what I remember most clearly is that they didn’t say anything. They didn’t tell me I was being silly. They didn’t reassure me that they liked me. They simply sat with me. They sat with my fear and my pain, and they didn’t leave me.
They created a safe place for me to be me. They took me for who I was. They hadn’t even really chosen to live with me; I had just been handed to them. And they took me in, with all the unfinished edges and my raw insecurities. And together we made a safe haven in that very back corner of the top floor of that old dorm building.
We had two joined rooms with a bathroom in between, and we put all four of our beds into one room. The beds were all situated in one corner, so Liz had to climb over Jeannete’s bed and under Heidi’s and my bed to get to her own. They put up with my bossy decorating mandates: we had all black and white photos in the bedroom and our colored photos and assorted crosses in the living room. It was cozy.
We stole each other’s socks. Ok, I think I just stole all their socks, and then since they had no socks they stole my socks. It was such a healing space. A space to be and be known. They brought their rough edges too, and together we worked on smoothing them out and growing up together. We lived together the next year. They are some of my very dearest friends. We’ve journeyed together through weddings, graduate programs, start-up companies, mission work, new jobs, creative ventures, and moving across the country and the world.
If I could, I would take a little time machine back to that couch and sit and write my novel on the faded, covered upholstery. It’s a place I really felt safe and loved and like I could say what I really thought.
Creative work, like friendships, is filled with that bittersweet experience of rejection and homecoming. Cultivating a space where you feel safe and can be yourself is important to being able to do the work. I love that I still have so many of those beautiful prints and crosses around my apartment now.
Sometimes cultivating a space in which to feel safe can be as simple as putting up beautiful things that remind you of the people who love you and want you to be you. Sometimes you might have to call good friends, even if they live several time zones away. Or you might have to let your fears bubble up and spill over so you can examine them by the light of day. You might, like my sweet roommates did, have to sit with those fears and doubts and invite them to be a part of your space so you can, paradoxically, be free enough from them to be yourself and create something beautiful.
Where have you felt safest and most free to be yourself?
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