Opening the Fridge
I have a hard time pointing to specific things I’ve done that I’d call “creative.” In fact, there’s something about the very word that puts me on edge, a bit like too-sweet candy. If we’re talking about creativity and art—the truth is, even stick figures challenge me. I’ve never written much that wasn’t required of me, and I can’t imagine constructing fiction or poetry.
I suppose you could say I’ve suffered from an inhibition of creativity. During my early school years, being told to draw filled me with anxiety. Kids are often asked to draw, so I came up with something I could produce whenever it was needed. The drawing was a refrigerator, its door closed. It didn’t require much of the artistic skill I seemed to lack. People never had any trouble figuring out what it was, which saved me lots of embarrassing moments spent trying to explain what I’d intended to draw.
As I grew up, creativity continued to feel alien to me. Somehow I managed to get myself to college a thousand miles from home. I convinced myself that the humanities were out of my reach because I couldn’t do the creative sort of thinking they required. I studied mostly science, especially biology. Genetics and reproduction fascinated me, but working as a biologist was boring. I left my job and had babies.
Babies are a lot of work, in part because they completely open their hearts to you. They expect the same in return, and make it impossible to refuse. As I cared for my sons, I thought about the refrigerator, and felt sad for the girl who’d drawn it. Its door was still closed tightly, and it seemed to inhabit a world that was colorless, cold, and mechanical.
My sons grew into inquisitive, energetic toddlers who challenged me at every turn. They threw themselves into life with a vigor that was awe-inspiring but disturbing and unsettling to me. During the years when words and reason didn’t mean much to them, I learned to share their passions and their voracious enjoyment of the world they encountered. Meanwhile I continued to think about the refrigerator. The door was still closed, but now it looked more like a strongbox guarding a mass of inchoate memories and faintly menacing emotions. The refrigerator was getting to be a lot more interesting.
I began graduate school and psychoanalysis at about the same time. School went well until it was time to write a dissertation. Finding a topic and creating a research project seemed beyond me. Analysis didn’t help at all; I just became more angry and despondent. After a year of this misery, salvation arrived in the form of a group—a sort of AA for people in constant peril of falling off the dissertation wagon. My depression lifted, my anger dissolved, my analysis went better, and I got my Ph.D.
It was only around this time that I began to visualize the refrigerator filled with food. Its door could now be opened, revealing an assortment of provisions—not necessarily all delicious, but inviting and nourishing. As in most refrigerators, you could also find the occasional container of forgotten, moldy leftovers stuck behind everything else. Meanwhile my children continued to grow and thrive, and I practiced my new profession with increasing satisfaction.
The refrigerator in my childhood drawings seems very different to me now. Yes, it was a machine, made of metal and icy inside, but it sheltered and pre¬served the seeds of a life that’s grown to be rich, productive, and satisfying in ways the girl who drew it couldn’t let herself imagine. Those sparse, cramped sketches both depicted and foretold an authentic creative act.