Make something meaningful.
I wrote those words over a year ago. Then, thousands of others. Eventually they all shuffled together to become a book. A passion project. 178 pages more or less on a subject I knew most in the world. Those words became my creative north star, and eventually its title. I was about to take the final steps. Edits. Illustrations. A purchased domain. Just about to push the button. And then the world went haywire.
Events were cancelled. Schools were closed. First for an “extended spring break”, then indefinitely. All were asked to go home – and stay there. Everything turned upside down. I watched as my self-employed friends were told to shutter their businesses. Not forever, they were assured, just indefinitely. Maybe a few weeks. Months. A year. Hard to know.
Writing suddenly seemed futile. Creating anything suddenly felt wrong. How can you do something so trivial while people are dying?
It doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t even look like a real word.
How are you supposed to write when you can’t even tell whether a word is real?
So I stopped. I went through the motions, but it felt wrong. How could I create when the world was upside down? I felt selfish.
Selfish for having a creative job while others were in harm’s way. Selfish for having a private studio that couldn’t be shuttered. Selfish for having a longstanding online business as colleagues scrambled to create one. Selfish for having enough savings to lean on. Selfish for being able to stay home. Selfish for my privilege.
I walked outside to breathe in the fresh spring air. Our ducks scurried around me to say hello and beg for a handful of feed. The Rouen with the brown flecked feathers tilted her head and studied me. No food, she deciphered and wandered off as if nothing was amiss.
She didn’t know things were haywire. Neither did the chickens, nor the wild birds. They all acted as if everything was normal. As if people weren’t sick or shuttered or scared. As if we weren’t all suddenly living a fragile existence.
Our darkest duck limped up next to me. She has feathers the color of an oil slick and a patch of white on her chest. About a month ago there was a coyote attack. The pond where she normally stayed froze suddenly overnight. We lost several of her siblings. She was injured. She was usually quite reserved, but that next morning she left me pick her up and carry her to shelter. We had a special bond after that. A quiet connection.
She looked up at me for a long moment, then suddenly blurted out a loud QUAW QUAW QUAW, as if to say quit your whining. She knew full well that life was fragile. She had the limp to prove it. But she had work to do.
I went back inside and looked down at the clumps of papers on my desk. My manuscript. Chapters pinched together by binder clips. Scribbles of blue and green. A half finished cover tossed on top. Make something meaningful.
I heard a tiny little voice.
Make Something Meaningful.
There it was again.
Make Something Meaningful Chris Zielski
It was talking to me. In giant 84-point letters. WITH SERIFS.
I stared at the cover. Of course it said my name. I wrote it. I brushed it all aside. It didn’t mean anything.
Or did it?
Why had I spent all that time writing if it didn’t mean anything?? Since when is creative work hollow?
I heard the duck outside the window again. Quaw quaw quaw, she called from a distance, as if to say get back to work. Life is fragile. It always has been. You’ve just been pretending otherwise.
Still, some things must change in times like these. We band together, in person or online. We help each other out. We seek shelter. It creates a bond between us that lasts even after the world is righted again.
My book isn’t important right now. But something else is. I set it aside and dove into a different kind of creative work. What do people need? How can I help? Alan started baking sourdough in the mornings and we mailed loaves to family and friends. I offered art supplies to school kids stuck at home. I watched as others stepped up in a myriad of ways. 3-d printed hospital masks. Delivered lunches. Online yoga classes. Remote book clubs. Everyone had something to offer, and they all began to give.
It isn’t selfish to be creative, I now realize. In fact, it’s exactly what the world needs right now. We have an obligation to use it, if we’re able. To give others help. To give others hope.
I don’t know how long the world will be upside down, but I know I have work to do. And I know this: