Is meaning something we find or make?

by Kristin on October 4, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

The golden leaves are suddenly making themselves at home on our porch, as if an open invitation was issued with the recent flipping of our kitchen calendar to October.

I’m out with a broom, on a day that started wet and has reluctantly agreed to share some splashes of late afternoon sun. As I sweep, I admire what I’m working to clear away—the brilliant color, artfully scattered by the wind and adhered securely to the floor with the damp of this week’s rain. It’s nature’s decoupage.

There are still a few leaves on the porch when I decide my job is done. Maybe I’m acknowledging the futility of perfectionism in the face of nature, of things I can’t control. The wind will blow again. New leaves will join the few I’ve left on the porch. I will return to sweeping in a few days. It’s a cycle I will choose to be a part of, rather than fight.

Or maybe I stop before the job is “finished” because not being a perfectionist is a way of acknowledging the beauty in the mess—of recognizing that the beauty isn’t found in a perfectly-swept surface, but in the few golden shapes of fall still clinging to the bright blue of the floor. The beauty is in the fact that I can see them as beauty, rather than seeing them as obstacles standing between me and some false sense of “completion.”

Back inside the house, separated from the fall air and the methodical arcs of my broom, I laugh at myself for trying to figure out what those few remaining leaves might mean—what they say about me, about life. If anything, they’re probably just evidence of something banal, like my “good enough” mentality when it comes to housecleaning. Why do I bother trying to find meaning in everything?

* * *

That was yesterday, though. Today I have a different thought. Maybe appreciating meaning in the everyday is a fine thing—a good thing, even. Maybe the exercise isn’t wrong, I’m just getting the order of operations wrong. My tendency is to hunt for the meaning that caused a certain action or response. I want to think things happen for a reason, that I always act with intention, that the meaning is buried there, deep at the roots, and if I dig and grope I’ll unearth it.

But what would be wrong about ascribing meaning after the fact? Is that “cheating?” Does it make the meaning any less meaningful?

It occurs to me that for much of my life I’ve been responding to the wrong job description, assuming my role is detective rather than poet. I’ve been using my magnifying glass to look at details as clues, rather than as found objects that could carry many layers of meaning and be transformed into art.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that much of what happens in our lives from day to day just happens. Circumstances line up, or sometimes collide. Often we’re distracted and respond in the moment, intuitively, without pause and thought. Those little things—sweeping away leaves, waiting for the kettle to boil, hearing a sound through the open window that reminds you of some moment in your past—just are.

If we let those everyday moments drift by, they are nothing more than what they seem at face value. If we hunt for clues, hoping to uncover inherent meaning, we might come up frustrated, and empty-handed. But if we see ourselves as poets—as part of the creative process, in a world where there can be more than one answer—we will see the mundane transformed into meaning.

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  • Ed_Cyzewski

    It certainly has been hard to train myself to simply observe and reflect without always trying to wring meaning or a lesson out of everything. It’s like I’m trying to unlearn my Bible training that always pointed to an application!

    • Kristin T.

      I agree! It’s an odd combination—this mix of artist and analyst. Is it a “writer thing,” I wonder?

  • Sarah Askins

    I have never been satisfied as a detective. I could never deduce well enough, come to the right conclusions, and it left me frustrated with life. Worse still, missing things that were beautiful and ordinary and poetic. it has taken me years to identify myself as a poet because I thought to be a poet meant I wrote sonnets about all the really big grand things(all my attempts at sonnets end badly). But to be a poet is simply re-learning how to see the world as it is not how I want it to be.

    • Kristin T.

      Yes, the detective role is so often one of frustration! I imagine that actually writing poetry would help me embrace that side of me and how I see the world (and I’m so glad you’ve embraced the poet in you!).

  • Leanne Penny

    I’ve never engaged myself in this thought process but I am deeply glad that you have. The freedom of the poet is more fitting and enticing than the methodical plod of the detective.

    • Kristin T.

      I love how you put this: “…the methodical plod of the detective.” It seems like detective work should be much more exciting than it usually is!

  • pastordt

    Fascinating piece, Kristin. Just came back from the Writers’ Retreat at Laity Lodge and the primary speaker was a brain scientist named John Medina. Get his book “Brain Rules” for an interesting take on these ideas. One of the points that has stuck with me is this one: the brain is designed to process meaning before it processes details. It’s a very primitive function, actually – does what’s in front of me represent something good for me or bad for me? Will it eat me or not? Can I mate with it or not? Can I eat it or not? Those are meaning questions, not detail questions and it’s how we’re wired. Thinking about that truth and how it might influence our creative abilities is kinda mind-boggling, actually. And I think that’s what you’re touching on with these good musings. Keep musing!

    • Kristin T.

      This is really fascinating: “…the brain is designed to process meaning before it processes details.” It makes sense, and you’re right about the mind-boggling ways it must influence our creativity. Thanks for pushing my thinking a bit further, and for the book recommendation!

  • Lisa Colon DeLay

    This is so reflective and poetic. In your delivery you’ve shown that moving past fact-finding to poetic perceptions is far more healing…not just for you, dear one. In reading this I too feel more healed.

    What a lovely sweetness for my day. Thank you.

    • Kristin T.

      Ah yes. Healing through poetry. Of course, I’m always in need of healing, but sometimes I think I’m least aware when I most need it. That was the case when I wrote this post, I think. Thank you for stepping into the experience with me!

  • Annie |

    I wrestle with this too – the beauty of poetry and the drive to find meaning. I’m thinking that I need both, to cultivate some kind of rhythm to it: learning to ride the waves and roll with the seasons – sometimes pulling back to soak in and other times pressing in the engage the creative process. This has me thinking this morning.

    • Kristin T.

      I really like how you’ve differentiated the steps in the dance: the “pulling back” and the “pressing in.” I do think we need to do some of both. I also think that some of us are more naturally inclined to do one than the other, so we need to be more intentional about finding that rhythm and balance.

  • Margaret

    I think we all wrestle with this question at least once. Maybe a bit of both?

    • Kristin T.

      I agree—we have to do some of both. Each of us usually just has to be more intentional about one perspective than the other, I think, don’t you? Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Ron S

    Great reflections. I too think we both find and create meaning. And, thanks for the push to think about how this can both be the work of the poet and the detective.

    The huge theological/philosophical question seems to come down to is there meaning beyond all of our cultural and personal meanings that holds everything together and gives history and life a genuine big picture purpose? That one would have to come from God.

    • Kristin T.

      Yes, that is the big question: “…is there meaning beyond all of our cultural and personal meanings that holds everything together…” I guess that’s the question I was sort of dancing around in my post. While I do believe there is a foundational Meaning (with a capital M)—an underpinning of this life we live here on earth—I’m not so sure that “everything happens for a reason,” which is a common way for Christians to think about things. Maybe I’m saying that I can seek and find God in every big and little thing, but that God doesn’t write the meaning into every little thing in my life. He wants me to bring who I am and how I think to the day-to-day life he has given me. It’s part of being co-creators with him. He made the golden, falling leaves, but I can ascribe the poetry.