From Miró to Hawking: Finding inspiration all around

What inspires you? We all have things that inspire us to create, dream, acheive and hope. Have you thought much about what brings you inspiration? Do you take the time to cultivate doing these things? This is a subject I think about from time to time as I seek inspiration as a writer and human being. In fact, as I write this I realize that just thinking about inspiring times brings me inspiration. It is a powerful emotion.

For many of us, great works of art inspire. There is something about seeing a beautiful painting or reading a well-constructed novel or listening to music that gives us the desire to craft our own art or at least feel a sense of well-being and hope. It is certainly very individual. I remember 20 years ago, on a trip to Barcelona, standing in the Miró museum and feeling an incredible sense of both peace and excitement. Here in this beautiful city was a museum filled with striking modernist paintings of bright blues, yellow and reds. The subjects were simple. “Woman and bird.” The canvases were large and filled with color and the museum itself was bright and cheerful. To someone else, Miró’s works might seem too abstract and simple or even silly, but for me the paintings were both elegant and whimsical. I felt buoyant as I passed through the halls and wondered if I could ever achieve such beauty. Sometimes I remember those paintings when I need a boost of creativity.

Often times we are inspired by someone’s personal story, especially if it is a story of overcoming the odds. Last year I read the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and it’s no surprise it was on bestseller list. In the book, Sotomayor, the first Latina to join the court, recounts her journey from living in the projects in New York city with an alcoholic father and absent mother to attending Ivy League schools and eventually reaching the nation’s highest court. What helped Sotomayor succeed? Partly her success can be attributed to her natural intelligence and being in the right place at the right time, but what is really inspiring is her determination to follow her dream from a young age. She talks about first being inspired to be a lawyer while watching Perry Mason shows on TV and reading Nancy Drew. She worked hard in high school, joined the debate team and asked for help to learn to study better. She made it to Princeton and when that turned out to be tougher than she thought, she buckled down and spent summers with a professor improving her writing, learning new words and reading classics that she hadn’t read as a child. In short, she kept focused on her goals and never gave up. This is a story I remember as I work on my goal of speaking Spanish fluently. I’ve worked at it steadily for many years now and although I still have a lot to learn, I don’t get discouraged.

Like Sotomayor, it’s also no surprise that Stephen Hawking’s life made for such an engaging story in the recent film “The Theory of Everything.” In it we see him succeed despite his progressing disease. The most inspiring part of the film for me was towards the end, when Hawking is confined to a wheelchair and must use a computer to communicate. Despite his limitations, he doesn’t give up and continues to pursue his dream of finding one theory that can explain everything in the universe. In one key speech toward the end of the movie, he tells the audience that everyone has a special talent they can give the world. I thought about that scene a lot and what my special talent might be.

Stories that inspire don’t have to be from famous people, of course. I remember once being in a writing class that included a 40-year-old African-American man whose story was striking. Every week he came to class dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, coming from his marketing job. He spoke with authority and conviction about many topics. As the class progressed, we learned that he had grown up poor, oftentimes homeless, moving with his mother and sister from relative’s homes to apartments to homeless shelters in innercity Los Angeles. One week he told us the story of how he had dreamed of going to Pepperdine University in Malibu. Pepperdine was about the farthest thing from his experience, being located on the hills facing the ocean in swanky Malibu. He applied to Pepperdine but didn’t get in. Undaunted, he made an appointment with the admissions department and he and his mother traveled to the school. Within an hour in the appointment he had convinced the admissions officer that he should get a place in the school and the school admitted him. It was a great story and made me realize that i would never have thought to argue my case with an admissions department. It was a bold move. I often remember it when I am faced with barriers in my own life.

Perhaps one of the best ways to be inspired is traveling. We get a chance to see, feel and taste how others live and even subtle differences in lifestyles can make an impression. J recently spent a week on the East Coast visiting colleges with my son. In Boston we stayed with friends who have a teenage daughter. They live in a old Colonial-style house with two tortoises and an iguana (they are allergic to cats and dogs). I’ve known this family for 25 years but have never stayed in their house before. For the first time, I got to see their habits (what time they got up in the morning, when they went to sleep), what they liked to do in their free time and the food they ate. I was impressed that both days we stayed with them, the couple made a point to go to the gym. It seems to be an activity they enjoy together. They came back from the gym looking refreshed instead of tired and it made me think maybe I should give going to the gym another try–or at least exercise more. One morning when they went to the gym their daughter Anna made beignets, donut-like fried pastries. She said she had learned about beignets on a trip to New Orleans and has made them ever since. I watched her carefully as she mixed the dough, rolled it out on a board and dropped each piece in sizzling oil. Meanwhile one of the tortoises walked by and found a warm spot to rest in the kitchen. Outside, the day was sunny but cold, with snow still covering the yard. Soon we had a big plate of steaming beignets sprinkled with powdered sugar and we had a wonderful conversation about her school, activities and family. At that moment I hoped I could demonstrate that kind of hospitality to my future guests.

The great thing about inspiring moments is that you can savor the memories and retell them. In sharing them their power expands to more people and to yourself. These stories can become like legends, shaping your worldview. The more we share, the more we can combat the negative stories in the world and the modern sense of malaise we sometimes feel as cogs in a big wheel. Personally, I need lots of inspiration to live well and I’m glad I live in a time when I have access to so many books, movies, news, museums and people. The next source of inspiration is just around the corner.

The quality of light, healing and experiments with watermelons

Coming in from the bright October sun, the room seemed a bit dark but cozy. Just one window let light into the triangular space. I was surprised when I sat down and the priest sat across from me without turning on a light. Tell me your story, he said. For the next hour I recounted my life story, my faith journey and especially the story of my last year, my life in Spain and my mysterious illness. He listened with the kind eyes of someone who has heard many stories and absorbed much joy and pain. The dimness of the room somehow made the space more intimate, more sacred. I realized the dimness was intentional.

At the end of my account, Father Al suggested I read a book about healing. He told me the story of a faith healer he had once heard speak and who had written a book. It’s all about the light, he said.

We left the dark room and I followed him down to the foyer of the church and waited a minute. He returned with the book and with a rosary for me to borrow. It was made of thin strands of colorful rope, braided together by hand. It looked Latin American, maybe from Guatemala, a country I’ve been to twice.

I appreciated Father Al’s time and his gift for listening. At the same time I felt tired. It had been six months since I first started experiencing strange symptoms and I have had to tell my story to countless doctors. Some are empathetic and some are not. But six months with no clear answers and hard work of following a strict diet and undergoing tests has been frustrating and difficult. At least with Father Al I could experience the understanding of someone who believes in the same God.

I left the church and drove to Kaiser to pick up some medicine. Unfortunately, when I arrived I discovered there had been a mixup of some sort and the medicine wouldn’t be ready until Monday. These mixups or delays have happened many times with all sorts of things. I had to make four trips to the DMV to replace my driver’s license that was stolen in Madrid last year. Each time something went slightly wrong.

In any case, I knew the trip to Kaiser was still important for another reason. I had planned to stop and buy watermelons from a truck that is always parked near the hospital. I had stopped once before and met a friendly man who spoke Spanish. This time, though, I was buying 12 watermelons for my son’s birthday party and he was especially friendly. (I decided not to tell him that we were only planning to launch the watermelons off our deck for fun, not eat them.) As he lugged the 12 melons to my car, I found out he was from Guatemala and that he occasionally went to church. I told him I went to church. He looked at me, maybe at the strange rosary, and said, Cristiana? I said yes. In Guatemala there is a wide gulf between Protestants (Cristianas) and Catholics. Cristiana meant he was not Catholic. I told him my church would be a good place to learn English. He smiled. I added that there were young people there his age, maybe a girl. He smiled even more. I had made a friend.

I haven’t been back to see my friend with the watermelons, but I’d love to tell him they were a hit. Five 10- and 11-year-old boys launching watermelons off a deck is not a sight many people get to see. By the end of it my son and one other boy were slip-slidding on the plastic mat we had placed on the lawn to catch the rinds of the broken melons and melon juice. Finally they sat amidst all the chunks and began eating pieces. The effect looked like a living Jackson Pollack painting, gleaming in the afternoon sun. We had to wash their clothes. Everything smelled like watermelons.

I have seen Father Al once a week since our first meeting. He remains a gentle, guiding presence in the RCIA group I am part of. At some point I became aware that Father Al must be approaching 90. Somehow, with his sharp mind and keen interest in life I had thought he was younger. But when he mentioned fighting in World War II it occurred to me that he was older. Recently he told me he was afraid of earthquakes. Most people I know aren’t especially afraid of earthquakes. He says he’s not afraid of the quake but of the aftermath. He remembers the chaos of war and is afraid of the chaos that would follow an earthquake. Even he has fears, I thought. To be alive is to have a fear of some kind.

Father Al asks about my health and I can now tell him that mostly the mystery has been solved; at least I have ruled out the scarier possibilities and it seems to be simply a condition I’ve had to some extent all my life but got exacerbated by living abroad for a year. I continue my diet, my supplements, try to drink lots of water, avoid stress. Some days there are flare-ups of inflammation or fatigue and there is still an unknown edge. There is fear but I also remember Father Al’s words about the light: It’s all about the light. Now, more than ever, I want to remember those words.

In these darker, colder days of winter looking for light is imperative, an intentional act. And fortunately, light is not too hard to find. Christmas is just around the corner and holiday lights are starting to appear. I was in Chicago last week and was amazed to see some workers out late at night, in the biting cold, stringing lights up over Rush Street with long poles. It wasn’t even Thanksgiving! I’d rather see the sunlight, but these artificial lights can point us to hope. I’m glad that someone long ago decided to celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December, even though he was probably born in the spring. We all need more light, hope and love at this time of year.