Art and Knowing · Touching Transcendence · Uncategorized

But Still I Write

I met a publisher at a conference and pitched her my book idea about how engaging in imagination and creativity strengthens our relationship with Jesus. She asked for a proposal. Her evaluation: “You’ve hit a felt need about the divine origins of creativity. But I don’t know how to sell it.”

I pitched an agent at another conference. He said, “I absolutely love your idea. But nobody will buy it.” I found out this agent was so impressed he used it as an example during his class—of a great idea that wouldn’t sell.

Another agent has expressed an interest, but no commitments. That’s how the “biz” works. You can spend years of your life writing, end up with a hard drive full of work, and that’s where it stays.

Window, Mount St. Benedict Monastery Chapel, Erie, PA
Window, Mount St. Benedict Monastery Chapel, Erie, PA

I’ve been working on this for a year and a half. I have good friends who write fiction and talk of writing thousands of words in a week. I have spent an afternoon on one page. I’m not only cranking out a philosophy and theology of the nature of artistic creation, I’m also on a personal journey to figure out how it works for me. If I can’t articulate that for myself, then I won’t be able to reach an audience.

I won’t say I haven’t gotten discouraged, because I have. But that nagging Voice says, “Write it. Write it.” If I go a while without facing that blank page, or the pages waiting for revision, I get restless. I have to write. Then I pace around the house, make another pot of coffee, check my e mail for the umpteenth time, all to avoid facing my fear. Maybe I am delusional. Who am I to think this is God? The professionals, whose judgment I trust, say (so far) it’s a non starter.

But still I write.

Art and Knowing · Beauty In Life · Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

Go On ‘Til You Find What You’re Looking For

Those who watch us pursue our passions often don’t understand what they see us do, or why we do it.

This past summer I was on the hunt again for beach glass in an area frequented by boaters and folks playing with their dogs. A couple was sitting on an old picnic table as I approached, head down, scanning the sand.

Beach Glass from an October search
Beach Glass from an October search

The man called out. “What are you lookin’ for?”

I played a little coy. I’ve met other searchers on the beach and we’ve compared our finds. But just then I didn’t want to divulge that location as a rich source of glass. But there was also no reason not to be honest.

I looked up. “Oh, just some pieces of glass, maybe some cool rocks, and I pick up garbage too.” (All true.)

The man chuckled and ribbed me in a friendly way. “From the looks of it you haven’t found much.”

All he could see was me walking with my hands in my pockets. I smiled.

“Yeah, some days are better than others.”

In my pocket my right hand jiggled two dozen pieces of glass from just that day, a “better” one. The man didn’t understand what he was seeing. But I knew what I was looking for.

Could be you are pursuing your passion and loved ones don’t understand what you’re doing or why. They don’t know you’ve found it, or that you’re simply content in the process until you do. All they can see is you don’t seem to be what they consider “successful.”

But still you go on, until you find what you’re looking for.




Art and Knowing · Trust Issues · Uncategorized

Improvising On Three Strings

The story that Itzhak Perlman played a concert on a violin with only three strings  appeared years ago. A string snapped and he finished the piece, “modulating and recomposing” in his head.  Afterwards, Perlman was said to have offered this insight: “It’s the artist’s task to see what music you can still make with what you have left.”*    violin

I think we find ourselves at times improvising with “what we have left.” We may have based a task or goal on certain emotional, mental or spiritual habits. They change. We find ourselves with only “three strings.” So how do we improvise with “what we have left” to stay focused on our goals?

I’m finding out. I have to admit a lot of bravado in my approach to water sports.  I would boast to friends that if I ever capsized sailing, I would eventually drift to shore and get poison ivy. Kayaking? Who capsizes doing that?

Once I launched my sailboat when the wind was too strong, convinced I could handle it. The feeling of being on the edge of capsizing was terrifying. I made it, but that feeling hasn’t left me. Then I capsized my kayak, twice in deep water. Both times I scrambled to safety, but I remember panic as I fell into the river.

Kayaks at Riverside Park, Greenville, PA.
Kayaks at Riverside Park, Greenville, PA.

I’ve overcome those feelings to kayak regularly, but getting out my sailboat has been harder. I can’t blame the lousy weather totally…I have to admit my bravado is gone. Other life events have increased my feelings of vulnerability.

I’ll sail again, but I’ll have to improvise on three strings.

So, Lora, what ‘cha got left?




* There may be issues with this story. See for their research.

Art and Knowing · Spiritual Places

The Search For Peace

Where do you go when you need to find peace?  Do you head to a favorite place when you feel disquiet or distress? How does it help you?

I’m blessed that I live fifteen minutes from Pymatuning, the biggest lake in Pennsylvania (which empties into the Shenango River), and a three minute walk from Conneaut Lake, the biggest spring fed (natural) lake in the state.  My favorite poem, W.B. Yeats’ “The Lake Isle Of Innisfree” reflects the narrator’s love for the water, what he found there, and what he carried with him away from the lake.  Recently I desperately needed peace and that’s where I went to find it: I threw my kayak in the car and headed for Pymatuning.

Kayaking on the Shenango River, flowing from Pymatuning Lake. That's me on the left in the floppy hat.
Kayaking on the Shenango River, flowing from Pymatuning Lake. That’s me on the left in the floppy hat. (Photo by Helene Dreisbach)

God’s gift of peace through hearing the natural rhythms of “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” and the physical rhythms of paddling helped get me on the path to a spiritual peace.

God uses the natural to get us to the spiritual. Yeats: “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow/Dropping from the veils of the morning….” (If you’d like to hear a wonderful oral interpretation, listen to Anthony Hopkins’ recitation on the Poetry Out Loud website

My favorite Scripture also reflects peace in encouraging me to have confidence, because I will see God’s goodness in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13-14).

But I needed to go to the lake to be reminded of His goodness in my “land.”

Where is your place?

Art and Knowing · Power Of Symbols · Uncategorized

“Enough To Gag A Maggot”

A long dead maggot was still on the fish hook. I removed it from the faux maggot lure I had just pulled from a low tree branch. Each time I kayak along the Pymatuning Lake shoreline I usually find one or two lures to add to my collection.

Some lures found at Pymatuning Lake, including the maggot lure.
Some lures (etc) found at Pymatuning Lake, including the maggot lure.

But the real maggot was an added surprise.

Thankfully, I don’t see many maggots, dead or alive, but this one reminded me of when I saw a bunch of live ones. During my college days I lived in a third floor walkup with no a/c. Once I let food sit in the garbage. It was July. ‘Nuff said.

Last night was an unseasonably cool May evening. As I squeezed the maggot off the hook I also remembered an old boyfriend from that hot summer… ’Nuff said. (My kids read this.)

I’ve always loved the expression my dad would say: “That’s enough to gag a maggot.” So visual. So sensory. So, so, gross as my middle school students exclaim. You could almost admire the beauty of maggots—those little creamy white (and textured!) fat bodies wriggling!—if they weren’t so, so disgusting.

After all, we know what maggots do, what they turn into. But how necessary they are. Because creation is subject to decay, we need creatures—where I live, crows and turkey vultures and maggots—to move the process along. Some may call this “the circle of life.” I see creation groaning, waiting for redemption, and God crafting specific creatures to see us through the decay until redemption comes.

Until then, some things in life will be “Enough To Gag A Maggot.”
(Thanks, Dad!)

Art and Knowing · Pleasure of Creating · Uncategorized

How To Untie A Knot

Knots on a sail boat
Knots on a sail boat

“Better to know a knot and not need it, than need a knot and not know it” is the enthusiastic motto of Animated Knots by Grog (TM). Knots have hundreds of creative names and a quick online check shows an International Guild of Knot Tyers, even knot historians. Who knew?

Knots can be part of an art work because they can be crafted into aesthetically appealing lines and shapes. If you work in fabric or wool you know how knots add beauty and texture to your work. Even knots for fly tying are not just functional, but quite beautiful.

As kids we learned the hard lessons of the granny knot. Other knots are elegant as they come undone, like the grief knot. There’s even an art to it: “It unravels elegantly: as tension is applied, the ropes rotate like little cogs, each one twisting to feed the rope through the knot.” (Wikipedia)

I don’t know about you, but when knots in my life have unraveled, it hasn’t been elegant or pretty. Not much “art” in evidence in that coming apart.

fishing knot

Other knots have had years of wind, weather and tension hardening them into shape, much like the knot on my sailboat’s main sheet (line.) When it finally gives, it won’t unravel, it will snap, and I’ll capsize. (Why I keep checking it.)  Better to undo it and let the wind and weather relax it into a new shape. Better to catch it before.

Can I find elegance in the unraveling?  Can I find the humility to undo the knot?

I am in need of grace. God.

Art and Knowing · Art As Conversation · Power Of Symbols · Uncategorized

“Noah:” The Film and the Horror of Creative Liberty

"The Raising Of The Cross" Rembrandt
“The Raising Of The Cross” Rembrandt

Many Christians are horrified that Darren Aronofsky’s film “Noah” isn’t “according to the Bible.”

Was that the director’s goal? What does “according to the Bible” mean, exactly? If we insist artists tell a literal story, we would never have the The Last Supper, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or the mosaics in some of our great cathedrals. You could add any number of paintings, symphonies, poems or other works of art.

Rembrandt took “creative liberty” when he painted himself in “The Raising Of the Cross.”  Of course that isn’t a literal rendering of the sacred event.

But if Rembrandt is there, maybe I am too.

We don’t know if the Pietà shows what happened between Mary and Jesus after he died. Does it matter? The sculpture brings me to tears. I’m a mother of a son. Even if you aren’t, doesn’t its creative and symbolic power grab you and speak emotional and spiritual truth?

The "Pieta"
Michelangelo’s “Pieta”

You can argue that “Noah” doesn’t come close to Biblical notions of the man Noah. Worse, the film portrays a God quite different from the God of the Bible and that’s where you draw your line. Fair enough. (Even the examples I used, “The Raising Of the Cross” and “Pietà” have some connection to Biblical narratives.) But does the film deal with universal truths? Does it ask questions about sin, redemption, or the consequences of our choices? Does it show how a specific portrayal of God shapes art and how we view it?

Of course, I’m not putting “Noah” on the same level as the masterpieces I’ve mentioned. You might think I’m defending it. My goal is to use the film, whether you see it or not, as an opportunity to discuss our assumptions about the relationship between “art” and “truth,” and how artistic expression speaks to our faith—or not.

Agree? Disagree?

Art and Knowing · Uncategorized

Thirty Shades Of Gray

Last year some teaching artists and I taught inner city students in Erie about historical landmarks in their neighborhoods. We talked to the students about noticing what makes the landmarks distinctive, including colors and architectural shapes.

I cut apart paint chips and gave each student several shades of each color: whites, browns, reds, and blues. They compared them to the paint on the Erie Lighthouse and decided which shade of color was the closest match. I don’t know if the students had ever considered that there is more than one “red.”

We really notice the many shades of color when we stand in a paint store agonizing over choices for walls and trim. I’ve blogged about choosing paint for my home’s exterior, and how after it was applied I realized it wasn’t the color I had chosen. The sun catches the red in the tone and creates “Butterscotch” instead of “Only Natural.” A friend notes that “It’s like light on an otherwise dim street!”

Actually, it kinda is! Speaking of—light–the withdrawing ice on the Conneaut Marsh (what we locals call the Geneva Swamp) is reflecting yet one more gray day in northwestern Pennsylvania. The last sign of winter is many shades of gray, and I don’t mean the book.

View Of Conneaut Marsh at Hartstown, PA
View Of Conneaut Marsh at Hartstown, PA

I had forgotten gray also has that quality. The uncombed hair of swamp grass caught in the gray ice shakes a dry whisper, a secret of approaching spring.

Let’s hope.

Art and Knowing · Feeling God's Pleasure · Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

The Decision: “All In”

Photo taken at Fresh Grounds Coffeehouse, Greenville, PA
Photo taken at Fresh Grounds Coffeehouse, Greenville, PA

An artist friend told me recently that he is quitting his job and devoting himself to his art—painting–full time. “I’m all in,” he said, “I don’t want to come to the end of my life having never done it. The time is now.”

This artist has worked hard for years and has the talent to achieve his dream. Will he? He doesn’t know. But he has to try.

His words witnessed with my spirit. I shared how I have recently come to understand my call and how I’m pursuing it. I love teaching, but have devoted myself to discovering the intersection of faith and creativity through writing.  I’m not quitting my day job, as this artist is, at least for now. But I am “all in.”

For me, “all in” means distinguishing between choices and making decisions, what I do and not do, where I go and not go, who I spend time with and who I don’t, based on their relationship to my call. I measure my life each day by that standard. It really is that simple, though following through often isn’t.

“God has given me a great gift,” I told the artist. “I have to find out if I’m worthy of it.”

Like my artist friend, I don’t know if I will “succeed” or not.  I don’t know what else this gift will  demand of me.  But I don’t want to reach the end of my life, however long or short it is, not having pursued God’s highest purposes.

I’m “all in.”

Art and Knowing · Creativity of Language · Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

a Kempis, Critical Thinking, and Spiritual Knowing

I teach the language and skills of critical thinking to my first year college students, emphasizing it is their job “what” they think, mine “how” they think it.  I use the “cognitive domain” defined in Bloom’s Taxonomy, which focuses on the “verbs” of learning: know, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate, with dozens, even hundreds of synonyms.  Many images, from the simple chart, to a pyramid, to a flower within a circle visualize these abstract ideas.

Bloom's Taxonomy visual
Visual “wheel” –Bloom’s Taxonomy

But the idea of different ways of “knowing” predates even our contemporary educational researchers.  A prayer of Thomas à Kempis, the 15th century German theologian, strikes me as a petition for learning how and what to “know,” but in the spiritual sense:

Grant me, O Lord

                To know what is worth knowing

                To love what is worth loving

                To praise what delights you most

                To value what is precious in your sight

                To hate what is offensive to you.

                (May I) search out and do what pleases You, through Jesus Christ our Lord.*                                     

Many centuries before Bloom, à Kempis recognizes different ways of spiritual “knowing.”  His “verbs” are simple and few:  know, love, praise, value, hate, search, do. He offers no lists of synonyms, pie charts, or colored graphs. We could spend our whole lives focusing on and living out his verbs.

Thomas a Kempis
Thomas a Kempis

Rather than critical thinking as a goal, à Kempis points to Wisdom Himself as the measure and end of all knowing.  As an educator I value critical thinking; but as a Christian I value even more spiritual knowing, of Jesus Himself.

*From Prayers for Today A Yearlong Journey Of Contemplative Prayer by Kurt Bjorklund  (Moody)