Our Innovations

Finding the Lost Spark

By Bridget McNulty

Illustrations by Ping Zhu

Sometimes all our creativity needs from us is a dose of fresh air.

08 Min Read Time


My candle burns at both its ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!

Julia sipped on her Old-Fashioned and sighed. An actual, full-throated, obnoxious sigh. Lately it felt as if the poem were running on repeat in her mind, an annoying reminder of her previous life, where she could happily live by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words and burn her candle at both ends.

These days? Not so much.

“Julia!” hissed her boss, Samantha, through a forced smile. “Could you stop looking like you’re at a funeral and try to be even a little bit charming to our clients? Please?” Then she clinked glasses with Julia and gave a fake little laugh, as though they were sharing an inside joke.

The joke was that Julia felt like she was at a funeral. Never mind that she drove up from LA for the night, finding herself at a terribly hip bar in the heart of Oakland, sipping on a truly delicious cocktail. Lately she felt like her senses were blunted: All the things that should have brought her joy were hidden at the end of a long tunnel. And who had the energy to go exploring dark tunnels?

Still, she was staying in Oakland at the Oakland Marriott City Center for an evening schmooze with her Bay Area clients, and schmooze she must. How hard could it be for her, lead designer at Samantha Ruhm Does Wearables, to muster some enthusiasm for the new women’s wear line she was about to start work on? But creative anything felt like a stretch these days. Julia downed her drink and was en route to the bar for another when a hand reached out and touched her arm.

“Julia? Julia Conklin?” She turned and was rocketed back 10 years, to her graduation from Berkeley. Tearful goodbyes and promises to keep in touch as their burgeoning art careers took off. An enveloping certainty that life would be deeply, wildly creative.

Tim hugged her, hard and long and deep. The kind of hug she hadn’t felt in years.

“I can’t believe it’s you!” he said, holding on to her arms once he released her from the hug. “I was actually just thinking about tracking you down on Facebook last week, but thought that would be weird after all this time … And now here you are.”

“Here I am!” she offered weakly, consumed, suddenly, by embarrassment. Nothing specific and everything all at once: Her black shift dress was boring and pilling in spots. Her hair was in an uninspired bob. She was sure that three years of broken nights thanks to two small people who didn’t like sleeping had prematurely aged her.

Tim, on the other hand? Fabulous, vibrant Tim had only continued on his fabulous, vibrant trajectory since college. Here he was, in full color, wearing a beautifully tailored suit, not looking a day over thirty.

She stood up a little straighter, took a deep breath, dug deep for some energy. “So, what brings you to Iron & Oak?” she asked.

“Work,” he replied, grabbing the cocktails that he’d somehow ordered without her noticing and handing her one. “Well, artwork,” he said with a cheeky smile. “That’s why I was thinking about you! Remember how you used to go on and on about how a life immersed in art was the only option and that every day had to be its own work of art?” Julia did remember, somewhere deep down. It seemed like a line from a movie she’d watched once: The Before Time.

As in: before she knew much about real life. Before two kids under three and a delightful but frustrating husband and a career. Before being constantly and exhaustively needed, needed, needed. She was sure Tim could see it. That the color and spark she used to have had been leached out of her.

Julia dialed back in to hear the end of Tim’s enthusiastic spiel — “so I did all the artwork for the redesign here at the hotel, and when they asked me how to describe it, I said they had to write ‘Artwork — it’s actually real art.’ That was practically your tagline in college!”

His phone buzzed, and he looked at it quickly and grimaced. “I have to go. But can we please meet up for a real catch-up soon? I’ll friend you on Facebook for real this time. What a treat seeing you!”

And with another bone-crushing hug, he was gone.

Julia looked around. Her boss was still shooting her passive aggressive daggers, but the clients looked happy enough, and in Tim’s wake, Julia felt … something. Something odd yet strangely familiar. A quickening in the pit of her stomach that she couldn’t quite place — not excitement, exactly, but something. She needed some air, some space, to figure out what it was.

The pool deck was still and warm. Dusk hung in the air like a promise, and the pool glimmered softly in the fading light. There was nobody else around, nobody to hear or see or ask anything of her. Just that feeling … like the beginning of a good idea.

The water took her breath away as she dove in, slicing through the brain fog and making her giggle underwater. Was she really night swimming in her dress in the middle of a work function? She pushed to the surface for air then raced to the other end. Stroke, stroke, breath, stroke, stroke, breath, stroke, stroke, breath. The feeling in her stomach was growing with each splash. Stroke, stroke, breath, stroke, stroke, breath, stroke, stroke, breath. Swimming had always felt like meditation, but this was something more — something coming alive and fighting for air. Stroke, stroke, breath, stroke, stroke, breath, stroke, stroke, breath. When had she stopped demanding that every day be a work of art? Why had she let the daily drudge suck the life out of her? When had she forgotten that design was art, too?

Julia swam until her arms ached and her lungs felt raw. Then she pulled herself out of the pool and sat, panting, on the edge, looking up at the deepening night sky, the first stars twinkling beyond the city lights, the tower of windows lighting up like fairy lights.

In her previous life, she had been ballsy. Bold. A coloring book with every inch of space filled in bright hues, never mind the lines. She took pride in not caring what other people thought, joy in the ridiculous, delight in the smallest of details. Where was that girl? How had she allowed her to get so lost?

Leaving the pool in a dripping-wet dress that clung to her mother-of-two body felt like a step in the right direction. Walking gracefully through the lobby toward the elevator bank felt like another. Looking at herself — really looking, actually seeing — in the elevator mirror as she rode up to her room on the fourth floor felt like opening her arms to a long-lost friend.

Julia shivered lightly as she entered the air-conditioned room, goosebumps lining her arms and legs. The room was pristine: The platform bed artwork in and of itself. Neutral woods played off dark metal accents, and a chaise lounge invited her to the window, opening up the city like a picture book.

She sank, briefly, onto the bed, ruining its crisp lines. She was tempted to switch her phone off and spend the rest of the evening in this beautiful room — luxuriating in the bliss of a night without wake-ups or crying or having to cook dinner. She could wrap up in a robe and barricade herself in with snacks and wine and bad romantic comedies.

Julia let her mind walk down that path for a moment before standing up to take a closer look at Tim’s artwork hanging above the bed. It was, as he had promised, real art. And it sent a frisson of excitement through her. If Tim could do it, why not her?

She walked to the window. Outside the sky had darkened, but the view was glowing from nearby buildings downtown. Below she could see the pool deck lit and empty and felt that same feeling she had grasped for underwater. That same sense of possibility …

She felt giggles rising through her throat at the thought of her clients seeing her swimming in her dress, and with that, a determination to head back to the bar and dazzle them. After a quick but heavenly hot-rain shower, she slipped into a dress she had packed as a second option and headed back to Iron & Oak.

Samantha rushed over with a look of utter disbelief. “Are you out of your mind, leaving me alone with the client for a half hour?”

“Well, sorry, I … ”

“Your hair is wet.” Samantha took a step back and looked Julia up and down, bewildered.

“Long story. But come with me to the table. I had an idea.” “What?”
“You’ll see … Swimwear.”


*Names and characters are fictional.

Oakland Marriott City Center







Oakland Marriott City Center