Art and Eternity · Touching Transcendence · Uncategorized

Turning Down The Noise

In a vintage song Carly Simon thanks her new lover for showing her how to “turn down the noise” in her mind. I don’t know what her lover did that encouraged her to change her life, but she was grateful.

No new lover here. The powerful and moving witness of the 21 Martyrs, the Coptic Christians murdered in Libya, and their families, has compelled me to turn down the noise in my mind. A brother of two of the martyrs was quoted by Kathryn Jean Lopez in “Heaven In the Face of Hell”  (National Review Online): “We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs,” he explained. Lopez asks: “Who would have an ounce of gratitude at such a moment? The answer: one who has hope — hope of something real and eternal.”

Is my hope that real?

Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt By Effeietsanders (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt
By Effeietsanders (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Lopez again: “It sounds crazy to a modern secular society, one that tends to view religious faith as sentiment, comfort, and milestone ritual.” I hate to say it, but many Christians, myself included, view faith as a source of comfort. It’s a cozy way to think about life.

I hunger for a robust faith that speaks as the brother of two martyrs. That’s why I’m so passionate about the arts, imagination and creativity in the Christian faith. The arts give us a way to wrestle with these profound questions of hope and a faith even unto death. A robust art will help me turn down the noise and focus on what’s eternal. It will help me develop a robust faith that can speak with confidence in a God of hope.

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.

Uncategorized

The “Art” of Tree Cutting

It takes a chainsaw to show us that many tasks not considered “artistic” take imagination.

The sound of a chainsaw drew my attention to a very old, very tall maple in a yard two neighbors away. There was a loud crack and a large branch hanging by an orange strap was lowered to the ground.  A while later a whump and a shaking signaled a piece of trunk hitting the ground.  High up the cutting guy was hidden by the remaining leafy branches. I saw another chainsaw dangling from a second orange strap.

Perhaps cutting trees isn’t considered “artistic,” but the workers used their imaginations just the same.  They had to picture, or think visually, how they were going to do the job. A certain cut there would hopefully cause the branch to drop here, while a strategically placed strap directed the falling branch to miss the nearby homes and yards, wooden fence, and tiny shed, all within a spittin’ distance or two of their job.

By Hustvedt (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Hustvedt (Own work)(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The tree guys on the ground yelled a lot, but without alarm. They were quite cheery, going about their dangerous craft with confidence, skill, and yes, imagination.

I believe God’s gift of imagination is for all, not just those who have gifts for imagining in the traditional artistic realm. Some use their imaginations to write, paint, or dance, others use them to build motorcycles, plant gardens, or cut down old trees.

I would like to see us acknowledge “imagination” even in pursuits not considered “artistic.” I don’t think that lessens the gifts of artists at all. In fact, we all might become a little more appreciative of imagination wherever we find it, whether in the symphony or in the trees.

Pleasure of Creating · Power Of Symbols

Beach Glass And Amazing Grace

I spend time looking for what has been “lost,” for what is left from milk, beer, and pop bottles that were tossed into a lake. Over the years that glass has been broken and churned in the sand to wash up on shores as beloved beach glass.

seaglass
Not quite the colors I find, but you get the idea!

I’ve blogged about beach glass and forgiveness. Since then I’ve found hundreds more pieces. I get home from kayaking and empty my pockets. It’s scattered all over the house: in boxes, plastic cups, jelly jars and shallow bowls, or just lying loosely on tables, shelves and my bay window. I had to empty it from my car’s cup holders because I needed the space for coffee.

All this “lost” glass is now found and ready for other purposes. I’ve made earrings and wrapped pieces for necklaces to wear or give away as gifts. I could add glass stain to the clear pieces for some nifty color. Stained glass or wrapping them for a “wind chime” effect would be lovely.

The old hymn, “Amazing Grace” says, “I once was lost, but now am found.”  These “lost” but now “found objects” have given me the chance to think imaginatively (How can I use these? What would that look like?) and hopefully create some beautiful work. All that time, sometimes decades, all that churning in the sand, tossing by the wind and waves, to finally come to frothy rest on the shore. Now dropped into my pockets to be reimagined and recreated into something new.

Sounds like a spiritual lesson here, doesn’t it, describing God’s work in our lives? I keep learning it over and over.

Poetry and Art · Uncategorized

“There’s A Certain Slant Of Light”

You’re probably noticing about now the lengthening daylight hours. I know I am. But we have several more weeks of winter in northwest Pennsylvania. I love winter, but after the particularly brutal one of 2013-14 I admit I look forward to driving to work on I-79 without my hands gripping the steering wheel, flashers on at 45 mph, finding my way through blowing snow.

But along with the increased daylight, I also notice its different quality. The light from its lower position in the sky builds in quality from low intensity to a higher position and higher intensity. The process quickens my blood more than the momentary glimpse of a robin, as welcome as that is.

Roman Mosaic: The Four Seasons
Roman Mosaic: The Four Seasons. wikipedia image

Emily Dickinson’s line There’s a certain slant of light comes to mind often because she was writing about the winter afternoon sun.  But the rest of that poem does not look forward but inward. The sun doesn’t signal a new season in nature, but rather unexpectedly (a common occurrence in Dickinson) brings “heavenly hurt” that drives us to reexamine our priorities and attitudes

We can find no scar,/But internal difference/ Where the meanings are.

Has the sun become something to be feared? Only if we don’t want to look within. Some “heavenly hurt” can cause us to look for and find, changes in our internal meanings.  Hopefully we can welcome “that certain slant of light” for what God purposes through it, both externally and internally.

Pleasure of Creating

God’s Perfect First Draft

I create heeding Anne Lamott’s advice, but maybe I should also write and live according to Evelyn Underhill’s vision. She compares the artistic process to God’s creative activity in us.

Creation is the activity of the artist possessed by the vision of perfection; who, by means of the raw material with which he works, tries to give more and more perfect expression to his idea, his inspiration, or his love. 

I don’t know about you, but when I sit down to create art (in my case, write) I’m not usually possessed by a vision of perfection and I’m much less able to express it. I appreciate Underhill’s lofty goals, but I’m usually possessed by earthly (or earthy) thoughts and it’s a struggle to get them on paper.

Painting by Adolf Holzer 19th century
Painting by Adolf Holzer 19th century

My writing, at least in its early stages, is less like Underhill and more like Anne Lamott’s s***** first draft.  I’m often tempted to stop there because I’ll never attain the “perfection” of Underhill.  It’s not worth the struggle, the hours, or the effort.

But wait, there’s more from Underhill.

From this point of view, each human spirit is an unfinished product, on which the Creative Spirit is always at work.

What an amazing idea: God changes us not to revise a lousy “first draft,” but to craft in us—an unfinished product–his vision of love.  He is the Artist possessed by the vision of who we can be.

Lamott encourages writers to write and not worry about “perfection.” That’s what revision is for.

But I’m glad to know that no matter what we have done, God doesn’t look at us like an imperfect first draft that He needs to revise.  His creative work is to express his vision—of perfection–in us.

Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

Going Back In Our Time Machines

“I’m going back in the time machine;/ I’ll be right back,” my daughter hollers/from the backyard when it’s time/ to set the table. I let her go…in the oblivion/ of imagination I once knew…  (“H.G. Who?”)

We can identify with poet Marjorie Maddox’s lines from her new book Local News From Someplace Else. We wish we could get lost in the “oblivion” of our imaginations again.  It feels like an indulgence, doesn’t it, something we really don’t have time for.

We “boomers” do get lost in our imaginations.  The name of our time machine is “Nostalgia.”  But the daughter in the poem isn’t reliving old memories, she’s moving forward to new adventures.  As Maddox recounts, she is “off to visit the moon/or that strange new solar system/ calling to be discovered.”

The Time Machine
The Time Machine

When my kids were small their rocket to the moon was a large cardboard box with holes for air and entry.  I don’t know what solar systems they discovered, but they spent enough time in the box to find quite a few.  I would listen to them banging around in it while I cooked dinner.  Maddox watches her daughter and also returns to “pot roast and green beans.”

Maybe it’s time for me to point my imagination forward instead of backward.  I’ll put dinner in a crockpot and join my (future) grandkids in their box.  Or better yet, I’ll create my own space and go off to find new planets.  (I’ll be sure to tell you about them.)  Why should kids have all the fun?*

*From my article “Five Ways To Cultivate Creativity and Imagination in Everyday Life” in todayschristianwoman.com.

Power Of Symbols · Uncategorized

When A Symbol Isn’t Enough: The Empty Nest

A Little Help Needed With This Empty Nest
A Little Help Needed With This Empty Nest

I’m hunting for another symbol besides “empty nest” to describe this part of my life after my kids have grown and left home.

I’m a single parent, and single parenting via divorce means I exposed my son and daughter to trauma they didn’t bargain on. Honestly, after we moved I doubt they thought of their new digs as a place of comfort. It meant their lives had been uprooted and irrevocably changed.

Even after we got ourselves together, more or less, and I tried to give them a stable home, I never thought I was creating a “nest.” I was just trying to survive. I didn’t receive all that much nurturing, so the “nest” image wasn’t working for anybody in my house. (But the three of us have turned out pretty well, so something did.)

Perhaps Jesus helped us understand the “nest” as a symbol of protection when he said about Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings….” (Matt. 23:37 NKJV). You could say I was creating an emotional “nest,” but that doesn’t do it either. I wasn’t a parent who tried to protect her kids from the world; I thrust them out into it as much as I could.

But that image works for plenty of parents to describe their feelings when children leave home. Symbols carry emotional weight; that’s why they have staying power in our language and imaginations. But I wonder sometimes if we get so locked into a meaning we don’t realize when it may be inadequate.

I need a new symbol. Any ideas?

Uncategorized

Hiking (or not) in Cottonmouth Heaven

The remote mountain cabin where my sister and I were staying was smack dab in the middle of cottonmouth heaven and we were oblivious.  A framed snake skin on the wall (my first clue?) didn’t give me pause.

I was tying my shoelaces when my sister called down from the loft.

“Are you sure you want to walk on the trail?”

“Well, yeah.  Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because it says here that this area has the highest concentration of cottonmouths in Tennessee.”

I sat back in the chair.

“Oh.”

My imagination kicked into gear.  Back home we had rattlesnakes and copperheads but in all my years trompin’ the woods I had only seen black snakes dangerous just to their dinner.

But the middle Tennessee mountains were unfamiliar territory.  Heavy rains had swollen the Cumberland and Harpeth Rivers and created new streams that washed out roads and filled ditches.  Water lovin’ snakes are everywhere; my imagination filled with the images.   Maybe the hand carved walking sticks in the cabin were to beat the bushes along the overgrown trail and scare them away.

The voice from above:  “It also says that tourists–like us–need to be aware of poisonous snakes here because there are so many.”

I took off my sneakers.  The risk could be small but my imagination had created too many pictures to ignore.   I stepped on a chair to check out the real snake skin.  It wasn’t a cottonmouth, but a rattlesnake, killed years ago near where my car was sitting.

Maybe I was right to follow my imagination after all!

Spiritual Places

Tornadoes, Trust, and Art

When the tornado warnings appeared during the writing conference, I was sitting with a poet reviewing her manuscript.

Conference attendees who had gathered in a lounge area hesitated, unsure of what to do. The sky was an ugly green-gray, too similar to the sky years ago when an F-5 ripped through a town near my home. My church had helped with the relief effort and those memories moved me to the basement.

Amid friendly jostling and banter about 20 of us found sitting positions along a narrow hallway. I still had the poems and the poet sat next to me.

We waited. A child started to cry. People began praying or singing hymns.

I prayed, then trusted my gut and continued the critique, keeping my voice low. I wondered if I distracted those praying aloud or singing softly. Maybe as a faculty member I was a bad example because I was working and not asking God openly for safety and peace.

The singers and prayers showed their faith; I trusted God by carrying on with life in the middle of trouble. Using my imagination and focusing on art in that moment was a spiritual practice for me. The poet trusted God by giving her attention to our conversation. Her art gave us something to engage with and opened us to His presence. The prayers and worship surrounding us helped us attend to our work, and perhaps our calm attention to something besides the threat helped settle nerves, including our own.

And the tornadoes?  No danger came close.