Category Archives: life

to strike, then to speak

The journey of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery and into the land has informed some recent visual work. There’s a curious episode with water coming out of a rock that strangely happens twice: once at the beginning of their sojourn and then again right before they enter the land promised them. Both times the people are thirsty and near riotous. Both times God gives Moses instruction. Both times Moses needs to take action. But the action the first time is to strike the rock and the second time Moses is only to speak to it. It’s a fascinating repeat with an important distinction.

Patterns and parallels catch attention. When something repeats, be it sound or sight, there’s a resonance of some sort. There’s potential being built. We’re hardwired, I think, to be alerted when there’s a repeat. Curiosity gets engaged—something intentional seems to be happening. When a strange chirp repeats I know it’s more than random, so I go looking for it. When the 2nd plane hit the towers, there was universal recognition that we were no longer dealing with accident. I watched that 2nd plane hit, and was startled at how instantly that repeat was a game changer of terrifying consequence. Everyone who saw that knew instinctively.

I was in a workshop this past week with an artist who’s done a lot of reading about how our brains perceive and then recognize. He posited that we’re all visual learners; we all take in data and start making connections. But it’s in the investigating where real learning gets sealed in our memory. And that takes some time and consideration.

So back to Moses, why was he tasked to strike the first time but only speak the second? For me this parallel of two rock stories is really pregnant, there’s more here. Moses had learned about striking. And by the end of the long wilderness journey he was oh-so ready to strike again. Why twice this rock thing then at these completely different times/locations? There’s nothing particularly distinguishable about the rocks in either episode. What is God teaching here in the narrative? It’s not random. There’s much that is not explained in the text, but some particulars are very clear. Needed water came out of rock both times and the people were sated. God gave words, both times. But Moses failed miserably at the 2nd rock because he applied an old instruction to the parallel. At the repeat episode, he was only to speak to the rock. Most find this biblical episode harsh, as if we gift-receivers have any high ground for critiquing the gift-giver. But God poured out that gift of water—both times, in spite of Moses’ fail. I am wondering if the parallel isn’t more deeply meaningful than our memories can yet gather in.

Moses personally addresses God later as “The Rock!” and he does so with overflowing praise at God’s perfection in all His ways. Moses had learned these ways of God, even through severe disappointment. I am not a good listener, so this story stills me. I am an activist who gets angry easily, therefore my empathy for Moses is pretty deep. But deeper still is the provision from the water giver, unseen but present within each of these common rocks. The first time the rock was to be struck. The second time: only spoken to.

 

Hot. . .or cold

Maybe it’s my age. But maybe it’s the age we’re all in. For, I am sensing the rumblings of a cosmic shift. I’ll let the culture watchers detail it for you, but if your ear is to the ground, then you’ve already felt it. Here’s my summary: The real are getting real-er, and the fake are showing themselves. And here’s the best news: if you know the Creator, then you don’t need to fear (He said so). I feel like Caleb, who after 40 years of wandering finally was being allowed to see it. I listened to a young Swiss millennial at a gathering; rather than saying “amen!” shouted exuberantly “C’Mon!” Many were right there with him. This past summer in So.East Asia, we witnessed the next generation plan and lead the genesis of a movement that will influence nations. Here’s just a glimpse.

This past week, while the news was telling you of a truck bomb in Somalia and another Priest murdered in Egypt, I saw brothers arm in arm who are turning Africa inside out. You wont hear about this on the news. Politicians and religion-extremists cannot ignite something so holy, and they cannot stop it either. C’mon!

I was going to write about beauty this week, for it often captivates me, illustrating, hinting how more is coming. These bits are better. Eugene Peterson said it this way: “Wonder can’t be packaged, and it can’t be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement.” You wont want to be sitting on the fence any longer. You’re either all in, or. . .

deception (Lord, I feel it)

It was time to paint the walls of my husband’s office. And knowing that the color I had hand-adjusted for our other rooms was a winner, and that we still had a good amount left in the 5 gal. container, we set out to use it. Whew, it did not work in there! He has one window in that small room, and the lighting is completely different. My wonderful color looked dark and morose in a different placement. So, back to Lowes we went. Color is a fickle thing. It is entirely dependent on context.

The mid 20th century Bauhaus instructor Joseph Albers was a master at helping his art students understand this. Using color chips and simple exercises, like “make five colors into six”, they learned the relativity of color. “In order to use color effectively, it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually”, Albers said. Here is one exercise exampled. The brown squares are the same exact hue, but the reading of each is influenced by its surrounding colors. A dark context makes the center color lighter, a cool context makes the center color warmer and vice versa.

This relativity, this prone-ness to deception, is of interest in the time we’re in as a culture. Have you been in conversations with those who see things entirely differently than you do? It’s remarkable to me how a news story is interpreted so conversely by two folks with some of the same information. Context will determine whether the ‘facts’ being presented are orange or dark brown. I say, examine closely. Look at the context. Do some experimenting. Ask questions. You can stand and insist that orange is orange, but you could be easily wrong. Be sure about what is sure, and aware of what simply morphs. Be a humble sounding board, willing to test and to explore the assumptions being bantered and felt as ‘true’.

Deception is in the air. It’s good to do some work on this. Go back to the elementals. Albers’ students learned well because they were forced to wrestle with it. What is ‘color’ (changeable) and what is ‘fact’ (stable). What is surface charm and what is structure? What is emotion, and what is reliable here? What stands the tests of time, and what is a passing dew on the grass?

 

value

One of the best reasons for standing back from work is being able to see the whole forest for the trees, that is: the strengths of the groupings of the lights and darks in the composition as a whole. Having been bent over the details, and being the one holding the tools, it’s too easy to get compulsive about the minutia. As mini-creators, we/I think I’m in charge too easily. I need to back up, take a breath, blink several times and then look again. And time makes a difference here too, kind of like cleansing the palate, or clearing the slate from a mind-frame that just isn’t seeing it well at all.

This little sumi ink drawing was done 15 years ago. I gave it to my Mom and just got it back. It was a view out her then window. She’s gone now. This is just a material thing, but it holds memory for me from some sweet times with and for her.

I remember that when I made this, I was a little disappointed for the real view was so much better than this! I have two of these. One looked out a west window and this one looked east. This one is much stronger than the other for it’s value arrangement. But I couldn’t see that then.

I am working now on a larger drawing that will become a painting. I am mapping out the value arrangements ahead of time, aiming to keep this in mind:

  1. That my impetus is unique.
  2. That my vision however can get so easily clouded, and
  3. It’s only time that will show the real value

 

“but purple is important to me!”

Her face was darkened and remained that way for the hour or so that she hovered around me. Her shoulders were hunched, her mood dour, and she was only 11. It was pitiful, and yes, I felt sad for her. But it wasn’t too long before my empathy turned to impatience and then to decisiveness.

We were involving the kids, all 65 of them, at Rise Up!’s after school program. Having saved out an area where they could put their mark on the mural, we were cycling the kids through one by one. This 11 year old angrily eyed everyone else getting their hands in the paint, while she argued with her teacher and then with me. Did she want to be involved? It was hard to know. Six pans of color from the mural palette were set out, but by the time this little friend agreed to get her hand dirty the purple and the red were decommissioned (artist’s prerogative for many kids kept choosing the darker colors).

This really set her off and she was now determined to tell me and everyone else what she had to have. We worked with her, we explained the color balance, we coached her not to miss her opportunity, and finally we were done. 64 hands are on the mural now, but one is missing.

Later that evening I reviewed the afternoon’s project “did I handle that well enough?” “Could we have better helped her be involved?” “What was more important: color balance or wise coaching of an angry child, or a life lesson that may or may not have been going on there?” What struck me as I weighed this was that one resistant child took more emotional energy than all the other 64 kids combined! She was determined not to budge, and she wanted us to know it. We did.

Adamantly, she took her stand “but purple is important to me!” even though she was repeatedly coached that the purple was no longer an option. When I think of stubbornness and insistence, I will think of this little girl’s will. She just could not soften. The time was up, the plates of remaining color were scooped into the trash, and she was surprised to see that her opportunity was really over.

That’s the part that makes me most sad. Things end.

green like I mean it

So I did a little exercise to test my “strike” resolve (see last post on the burger billboard). Abstractions made concrete, thoughts made real. The green has been shouting at me for attention, so I dug in to bring it home.

Now as primarily a landscape abstracter, I’ve come to learn that it’s the long view that entrances me, not the pretty things right in my reachable surroundings. It’s the far things that send me; not nice pictures, for their own sake. What gets my brushes moving is something far more mysterious.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while sitting in a Nazi prison, said something like this in a letter to his soulmate. Comparing the landscapes that come out of northern climes versus southern, he said “ The southerner has the beauties of nature, while we long for them wistfully, as for a rarity.” It’s the longing that produces the better work. It’s the hunger that opens the door to what is more valuable than the easily attainable.

Does it always have to be such a stretch, I wonder? I wish not as I am in my 6th decade. But for me, “it” keeps on needing the stretch because of its value, and because of my desire to get closer to it, anyway I can.

Here was all this GREEN right in front of me though. I had to do something with it. I had to mean it too. I thought of an early comment made once to me, “We all know you love the color green” Startled, I wondered what in the world this older lady was talking about when she said that! I was a young Pastor’s wife, and we were renting a house, which had a putrid green on all the walls that I could not change. Her/their “knowing” of me was incorrect. But I was learning quickly that “we all” were viewing my life. That may be when the longing started, the look to far things.

I give thanks now to the God of the horizon, the God who made and loves greens, the God who uses every dumb thing said, keeping me in spite of greenishness. And so to celebrate, I made this little close up. This was green I could change, green I could explore and modulate and play with. Isn’t “it” grand.

 

“eat like you mean it”

I didn’t stop on the highway to photograph the strange burger-joint billboard, just thought about it for the next, oh- maybe, 30 miles. There was the standard burger, and then the exhortation to “eat like you mean it.”

“What does it mean to eat like I don’t mean it?”

I rolled this around in my head at 65 mph. Can someone actually sit before a meal and not “mean it”? Maybe that’s true. Maybe you can just absently take something into your body and not be attentive or even care. That’s called “going through the motions” and yes, I’ve probably done that tons of times.

We had miles to go, the tank was pretty full, and my trusty co-pilot was asleep. But I was hungry. Then, all the more so as the miles moved on and I kept thinking about burgers. I guess that’s the point of ad campaigns. Or maybe it says something about the importance of hunger itself. Hunger motivates for “meaning it”. At that point, remembering the image, and feeling hungrier, I think I would have meant it if I bit into a real burger with melting cheese and crisp lettuce.

How about painting like I mean it? I think there’s a hunger that motivates doing that, otherwise I am just covering up something with a brush.

Or driving like I mean it? I need to be attentive, and aware at least. . .

How about living like I mean it? I learned this night of a man my son’s age who wasted his life and now is gone. His chances to be aware and alert  are over, done, finis.

“Two things are infinite” Einstein reportedly said, “the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe.” And what a dulled state of affairs we’re in when money is spent on an ad campaign because people live a “don’t mean it” kind of way. It seems to be in the air in this Laodicean age. It seems people have lost hunger to “mean it” , “just sayin”. I’m breathing in that same air some days.

And so I am calling a strike. I’m calling a strike on mindless eating, and careless laughing and loving, and pointless life. There’s too much at stake to miss the preciousness of oxygen in the lungs and birdsong in the ears.

Ghandi said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” That’s aspirational. But “as if” is not good enough for me. The burger on the billboard was an “as if”.

But living forever? I happen to be convinced I will, based on Jesus’ words, backed by his impeccable resurrected life. My confidence is not in how much I mean it, but rather how much He meant it. He lived mindfully; even when he was mad, even when he was excruciatingly disappointed, even when he was dying. How can I then just “go through motions”. I aim to not be doing that. How about you . . . hungry yet?

 

images are appetizer

You’ve been to the events—hungry and wondering how long until the meal would be served. Then someone shows up with a tray of small things, artfully arranged, inviting you to take. It’s a welcome thing. It leads you in and tides you over. Small tastes, like tapas, awaken the buds. A meal of this would not be enough, but the little bit is like a promise: that more is coming and that it is going to be good.

Images are like this. They awaken, and they prompt forward. They are unobtrusive, quick, and just enough to get one’s hunger pangs a little more hopeful.

Yesterday I had a team helping me flesh out some of the images sketched on some mural walls. The kids who use this space after school each day are watching the progress magically appear. Even the littlest ones have opinions about which figure is the prettiest princess, about where the path is going to go, about whether their own face gets to be included in the final result.

The artists meanwhile worked intently to get the strokes and the colors just right, while I was slapping the landscape connectors in like a banshee. I am the one who knows how much more needs to be done. There is metaphor in all this for me. I’m affected to tears even as I type just thinking about the “meaning connectors” and how this all speaks to my life.

There are little ones who want their faces included. There are bigger ones who want their work to shine, and there is one (in charge) and in a hurry who is somehow going to get it all done in time. I identify with every one of these motivations. Seems to me it’s all part of a much bigger picture. I’m the little kid, I’m one of the struggling artists, and I am working with the One who is moving toward a much more important and satisfying finish. All this is just appetizer.

continuum

A personal note this time: My very closest friend took her last breath 11 days ago. The suffering for her at the end was rough and so her mortal conclusion was a relief. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen: ‘it’s a sad and it’s a lonely hallelujah’. Now she is safely home, for she knew the One who holds the keys to eternity. And now I know what it looks like to finish well here on this hard ground. For that, I am most particularly grateful.

She was my faithful friend while here, but now she’s much more than that. Looking back gives a weight of perspective once an ending has come. Kierkegaard mused that life (for those of us still here) must be lived forward but it can only be understood backward. There’s truth in that. The backward part is appreciated when we have clarity enough to measure what has significantly passed. The forward part is where there still needs be, for me, a marshaling of strength and commitment to reach what is valued. And so, I am going forward but rather slowly. Grief does that.

Another friend and I worked this week on the huge mural project we started last year. It too is a continuum. It starts at the beginning of historical time and ends where the kids in the program we are serving, can look into a mirror. All along the way are emblems of the grand story, punctuated by avatars of the very kids who walk this hallway after school. We’re hoping to lift their vision even as we are lifting our own.

 

departing light

I will end the year with a simple post and a simple piece. After the workshop I taught, putting materials away, I decided to play on my own just a bit more. This one is a success and I matted it with an Emily Dickinson poem I have loved:

 

 

“By a departing light

We see acuter quite,

Than by a wick that stays.

There is something in the flight

That clarifies the sight

And decks the rays.”

#1714 in Johnson’s Dickinson Chronology, posted on the winter’s solstice, mourning a close friend’s departing, even as we light candles to remember the son of all light who came into our darkness to save us, and surely He did.

 

a kindness multiplied

avery-head-printI’m not dressed for printmaking. Instead this one night, I attended an art opening of politically motivated art accompanied by an interesting lecture. The show’s juror, Eric Avery is a retired MD and an accomplished printmaker, who has been involved in humanitarian work throughout his dual career. A compassionate man, grappling with human despair, Avery is still mining an early experience he had viewing a man’s bisected skull during an autopsy.

The artist had shipped up to TN before his arrival a large carved block to be printed in our studio here at the University. My friend John Hilton, who teaches the printmaking courses this term was the printer for Avery, spooning the block print onto fragile mulberry paper. After the lecture, knowing John would be working late, I went up to say hi and got to put my hands on the emerging print.

It is only because John is such a generous friend that he let me work Eric’s piece for a few moments. It was only because Avery mentioned John with thanks that I knew this was going on. And only because Avery shared his own heart in the lecture that I understood the reasoning and the depth of pathos behind the head image. I am just a bystander to this particular story, but a graced one. Avery himself was a bystander during the autopsy that occurred early in his career. Sometimes though, grace gives you a stark and disruptive glimpse into the horror of death, the particular vacancy visible when all that’s left is gaping tissue and fluid. Where has what was precious gone then? None of us can be bystanders to this concern. We can barely handle this, indeed I think we cannot. We go numb. Avery keeps retuning directly to it in his graphic images. God says repeatedly through the prophets to “Consider” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Haggai). The fact that there are artisans and prophets who ponder in time and try to awaken us is just another kindness. For me it comes down to this: horror is mediated in ways that allow us to participate in a very necessary exchange.

Thank-you Eric, thank-you John, thank-you thank-you Jesus, the champion over death, the flesh reconstituter, the kindest of grace giving prophets.