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ARTICLE How Art Makes Life Better (With Creative Prompts for You and Your Students)

Some people think of art-making as the attempt to create a great masterpiece. I don’t see it that way. I think about it as a practice that helps me get through the day. This is true in normal times; it’s even more true now.

I’ve loved writing and music since I was a kid. I went to college and grad school to study my craft, and I put in my ten thousand hours of practice, and I work hard at my art. But in the end, I make art now for the same reason I began long ago: it’s a way for me to deal with the hugeness and vulnerability of how it feels to be human. A way to process all the emotions I experience in the course of a normal day. Plus, it’s fun.

In addition to my love of making art, I love using art in my teaching. Whether it’s writing or dance, collage or sculpture, knitting or TikTok videos, art is a miraculous tool. Art allows us to create our own small world – a natural tendency of humans, since we are made of the image of God. It gives us a way to keep our hands busy, which is more important than it might sound. And it lets us chew on deep, juicy human questions in a small, manageable way.

How can we make our surroundings (our clothes, or bedrooms, or notebooks) line up with what’s inside us? What really matters; how should we live; how can we deal with our own emotions, our desires, and the parts of our lives we feel like we can’t stand for one more moment? And I’m serious about the TikTok videos; anyone making one has to ask, what do I want to keep to myself, what do I want to reveal to the world, and how do I do that?

If this sounds appealing (or if you could use a break from everyday reality right about now), try one of these creative prompts below. I’m offering them in the form of writing because it’s one of the most accessible ways of making art, since most of us use it every day anyway – but if you feel more comfortable in another medium, simply translate these prompts into your favorite art form. No matter what form you choose, I encourage you to try and approach it with a sense of playfulness, not deadly seriousness! Have fun, and see what comes out. You might be surprised. And you never have to show anyone, so you can be totally honest.

-Write a poem in the form of a list of questions. Write as many as you can think of. They can be silly or serious, angry or bored, relevant to your daily life or totally wacky. The only rule is that you’re only allowed to write questions. See where it takes you!

-Write a short letter to your future great-great-grandchild. You could choose an occasion like their b’nai mitzvah or a specific birthday. What do you wish for them? What do you want to pass down to them about this moment in your life? What’s a memory you’d like to share with them? A secret you’d like to tell them?

-Create a post in your favorite social media (or, if you don’t like social media, write a poem or draw a cartoon) that gives the world a glimpse of who you are inside. It can be something funny you notice in the world around you; a serious observation about your inner or outer life; a skill most people don’t know you have; or a quote you agree with.

-Find a quiet corner, take a few breaths, and write a poem or a few sentences about what’s happening inside you, beneath all the noise. How are you? What do you need? What are you learning about yourself? Is there any way you could be more gentle with yourself?

– What’s something you’ve secretly dreamed about creating, or never thought you could? A fashion design, a memoir, a play, a dance… create a low-stakes, two-minute miniature version right now!

A Bat Mitzvah Tutor’s Blessing

I hand you the yad,
silver pointer to trace the letters
as you chant,
and you place it
beneath a letter on the parchment
and breathe in.

You conduct
the electric current
now. It is your turn.
So many mouths have held
these letters.
So many teachers,

so many students,
all of us both at once.
There is no early or late in Torah,
say the rabbis,
just this moment,
which is every moment:

you chanting, a spring
flowing from thousands
of years ago, living in you.
If you are a vessel,
and we all are,
may you be filled with love

and wisdom,
with teachings which are yours alone.
And one day, when you are
as impossibly old as I am,
may you too have the privilege
of passing down

what you have learned.

How to Sail

Scrape the curse off the parchment. Stir the broken letters

into a jar of water. Make a woman drink it: thus said Elohim. But why: thus said Molly, twelve years old. Now I was the teacher. We sat there, two black flames in a room of white fire. We were sailing on a wind that passed through the open window of a room next to the marketplace, two thousand years ago.

(reprinted with permission from Divinity School by Alicia Jo Rabins (American Poetry Review, 2015)

How to Graduate

God wrote me a letter in invisible ink. But I got overwhelmed: the parchment, the lemon juice the light and the candle. I accidentally set it on fire. For forty days and nights, the smell of caramel surrounded me, and when it receded, I sent out my only dove.

(reprinted with permission from Divinity School by Alicia Jo Rabins (American Poetry Review, 2015)


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