Monday, August 3, 2009

On this Day, in 1492

On this day, in 1492, Columbus began his journey to "discover" America. Of course, he had other plans, and plenty of other people had been here before him, some discoverers, some settlers (for a great book on the subject of the "discovery" of America, I highly recommend Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World).

So, if Columbus left today, that means it took him 2 months to get to his goal. I suppose that's not long, in the overall scope of things. And yet, at Charlestowne Landing, I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

I've often wondered if Columbus (and other explorers) ever woke up in the middle of the night and said, "What am I doing here? I could have just settled down with my sweetheart, had a few kids, watched the sunset every night while I enjoyed my wine." Of course, back then, a lot of options were closed to people, and that's why they set off for the horizon. No job opportunities in the Old World? Head west! Sweetheart left you for another (or died)? Head west!

It's easy to feel full of enthusiasm at the beginning of a project. Far harder to keep up that enthusiasm when you're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but your instruments and the stars to guide you, with no sense of how far away the land for which you're searching might be.

I'm guessing that many of us have similar feelings during our creative lives. Maybe we have a manuscript that we feel is good, but no publisher has chosen yet. Maybe we have a batch of poems that seem to go together, but we have no sense of how to assemble the manuscript, while at the same time, we know we need to create 20 more poems. Maybe we have a vision of the kind of job that might support our creative selves, but no idea of how to get to where we want to be from where we are.

What can we learn from Columbus? To answer fully would take more research than I have time for right now. But I keep thinking of the ship's logs and the captain's journals. Perhaps we need to do a bit more journalling/blogging/notetaking/observing/calibrating/focused daydreaming.

Or maybe we need to just set sail, knowing that we're going to be out of sight of land for awhile. Maybe we need to get over our need for safe harbor, for knowing exactly where we're going.

Or maybe we need a benefactor. Who might be Queen Isabella for us?

And we probably need to know that while we think we're sailing off for India, we might come across a continent that we didn't know existed. Columbus was disappointed with his discovery: no gold, no spices, disappointing land. Yet, he started all sorts of revolutions with his discovery. Imagine a life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox."

Still, the metaphor holds for the creative life. Many of us start off with a vision for where we'd like to go, perhaps even with five and ten year plans. Yet if we're open to some alternate paths, we might find ourselves making intriguing discoveries that we'd never have made, had we stuck religiously to our original plans.

1 comment:

Shefali Shah Choksi said...

How about Marco Polo, then? Or Odysseus?
Actually, I use the image of the Silk Road and all the strife, angst, terror, discovery, mystique, and magic connected iwth it as one of my major guiding metaphors.
Is my immigrant self showing?