James Dickey, the late American poet laureate and novelist, once defined a poet as “someone who notices and is enormously taken by things that somebody else would walk by.”
You could probably swap out poet for essayist, painter, photographer, quilter, or anyone who has been called to create.
But what’s a frum creative to do when the noticing happens on Shabbos? How are we to channel that inspiration?
There was a Shabbos morning when I stood on the front porch awaiting my husband’s return from shul. A robin flew past me in a flash of red and my mind connected its feathers to the howl of the wind and the wind to the snow draped like a tablecloth over a shrub in the garden and all of it to the time I lost my boot while playing outside after a blizzard as a little girl. It came together in my imagination as a tale of childhood, wonder, and loss, of changing seasons and opportunities. I wanted – no, I needed – to write it down right away, though alas, I could not.
Even if such lightning were to strike on a Wednesday, I would never tell my family or our guests, “Please help yourselves to a bowl of cholent while I disappear into a quiet corner to write.” Life carries on and I write around it, jotting things down on the backs of envelopes and receipts, or whatever happens to be around when I am enormously taken by something.
There is no doubt that the prohibitions entwined with Shabbos complicate matters. For 25 hours once a week, I cannot write at all. My pen and journal hide in the dark of a drawer and my laptop rests at the back of the closet. And yet, that does not stop my fingers from itching for the keyboard, from longing to bring the story of the robin, the snow, and my boot to life on the page.
This abstinence is not easy. I can distract myself during the meals, thanks to the witty banter and my worry that I didn’t make enough side dishes to feed my guests. But in the wireless hush of a Shabbos afternoon, when everyone else has gone up to nap and I am sweeping the dining room floor, I can hear the ideas banging on the door of my head, gasping for air because sometimes creating is breathing.
It often happens soon after I’ve kindled the Shabbos lights, when the tension begins to leave my body and my muscles and nerves slowly distance themselves from the cares of my everyday life. A sentence will appear fully formed in my mind, its language the precise flourish I need to finish an essay. It arrives like a blessing and I am grateful for it because the words have eluded me for days.
Still, I am left to wonder why it is in the peace of a Friday evening that they come to me like that, when in that peace I can do nothing with them. I cling tightly anyway. I recite them like a mantra lest I forget them before Shabbos comes to an end, when I’ll be able to commit them to memory on the page. Meanwhile, I grow impatient. I chase time, checking the sky for three stars, looking at the clock again and again.
This routine of mine plays in a loop each Shabbos until I figure out that suppressing the urge to create is its own kind of creative energy. It may be hard, but there’s enormous value in it, too. We wash our paintbrushes, tuck our crochet baskets away, and shut down our computers, storing the implements of our craft together with our projects on a shelf. We watch the sun set behind the clouds with our hands behind our backs, where they can produce nothing. And then we focus on what G-d has made instead.
It’s astounding really, how He had this vision to divide the world into parts, sketching in oceans and streams, mountains and dry land to create wonder out of the chaos. Into the sky He wove a sun to shine by day and a moon to glow at night, and later, He crafted fish and foliage, painting them in the glorious hues of a rainbow and the million colors in between. Finally, He shaped us out of clay in His own image, endowing us with the ability to make a few things, both useful and beautiful, for ourselves.
After He finished writing the story of the world, He rested. Why would we, small potatoes in the bigger picture, think we don’t have to?
Each time Shabbos ends now, I am no longer surprised when the words that come to me in fully formed phrases on a Friday night seem to have lost their shape or the blossom of a story idea that has taken me by surprise while I’m setting the table has dried into a vague memory. These fleeting strokes of inspiration are l’shma, for their own sake, meant to elevate my experience of Shabbos, not to use later for any creative purpose at all.
Because to notice things, to be taken by something in the world, is to sense G-d’s presence here. It is how we write ourselves into His unfolding story and add meaning to our own.
Because holding back from writing or creating in any way on Shabbos is not about silencing our voice at all. It’s about really listening to G-d’s.