I recently stopped in at one of my favorite shops in Manhattan, a small boutique on upper Madison Avenue. I try to avoid the place because I love the clothes too much. This time, though, I was happy to see Galit, an Israeli designer who works there when he’s not designing.
After we hugged and exchanged pleasantries, I asked him how he was doing. “Oh, you know, whatever.” What do you mean? I asked. What’s the matter? “Nothing. Nothing’s the matter. We get up, we go to work, we come home. Repeat.”
I know enough about depression to recognize it, especially at this time of year when it gets dark at an unseemly hour. But I also know enough about creative people to know that they need to create, that it is essential to their emotional health.
What have you been designing recently? I asked casually. “Nothing. I mean, why design? People like ugly trends,” he said, pulling out from the rack an ugly trend that can be spotted all over the city.
I urged him to continue designing anyway, but what I really wanted to say was this: The deeper meaning of creativity can be even more gratifying.
It is something I have fully understood only in recent years. Creating beauty — through words, paint, cloth — is a great honor, and often, as Michelangelo put it, a great burden. But creating light for those around us, through acts of goodness and kindness, is an even deeper beauty, and it creates an even deeper happiness.
For some, this comes quite easily. My mother, for instance, had what I can describe only as an eternal flame burning within her. Brimming with optimism and sweetness, she seemed to float through life, always being the bigger person no matter what situation she found herself in.
As a child, she was my entire world; as a rebellious teen, I found her perennial sunshine annoying. It was only in my 20s that I began to realize that her happiness came from giving, from creating light for others — it was a circle of positivity, of beauty.
She inherited this trait from her father, my much-adored grandfather, who brought light into people’s lives through humor. No matter where we went with him, cashiers, waitresses, shopboys always made a point of telling us how much they loved Aba. In his later years, we would park him on a bench so we could take a morning walk along the beach. Every time, we would come back to find the bench filled with people laughing.
It was only after I had my son, spending every precious (exhausting) minute with him as a baby and young child, that I fully understood the larger canvas of creativity.
It was only after I had my son, spending every precious (exhausting) minute with him as a baby and young child, that I fully understood the larger canvas of creativity. And it wasn’t just about him. Freed from the hectic pace of office life, I began to look for ways to help — other children, the elderly, people struggling with groceries. Perhaps the most gratifying moment of all was watching my son create light for others — watching his face fill with the deep joy that this special moment brings.
Of course, we don’t often have the luxury of slowing down time. And because of this, we need to make sure that we nourish our souls so that we can then nourish the souls of others. As I write this, “Ma’oz Tzur” plays softly in the background; it is for me one of the most spiritually cleansing songs of Judaism. Whether it’s music, art, majestic architecture, loving friends and family — we each need to recognize what we need to help us create circles of beauty, moments of light.
And so every year, as I teach my son the story of Hanukkah — the bravery of the Maccabees, the miracle of the oil — I increasingly emphasize a more personal meaning: Just as lighting Hanukkah candles creates a beautiful moment, we can do the same in our everyday lives — through just a smile, a kind word, a sweet gesture. Often it takes just a drop of beauty to light up someone’s world.
Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday). Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.