Ordinary Art

He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

St. Francis of Assisi is believed to have said this, and I agree with him. I also feel that God intended all people to be artists with different mediums. Some use words or flour and sugar or plants or ideas or house paint. Creating something that hasn’t existed before reflects God’s creative stamp on us and engages and aligns all the layers of a person, which is why I think everyone should regularly create.

I’ve learned that limited mediums help me create more. If the whole world is my oyster, all the choices overwhelm me when I want to make something new. But when I have only a few choices, I know better what to do. Limitations are freeing and clarifying.

When someone at work ordered a big whiteboard, it came in a box taller than me, so I claimed the cardboard before they took it to the recycle pile. Cardboard is the poor artist’s canvas, and I have a different way of recycling it.

I’d pinned this luscious image on my To Paint board on Pinterest. I’d found it on a blog I follow, which is created by a poet, photographer, and writer.

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Here is where most of us artists want to insert disclaimers, before we unveil our work:

What I did is nothing like the picture.

It’s not that great, really.

Someone else could do much better than this.

While all of that is true, I believe there’s something even truer: whenever we create something that didn’t exist before, and if it brings some measure of truth, beauty, or goodness into the world, it’s something to treasure, and not make excuses for. 

There’s always someone better than us, and there’s always something we could’ve done to improve it but there’s so much goodness in the process of creating, in the courage of putting paint on a blank piece of paper or cardboard or wood, that it should keep us from giving much air time to the disclaimers.

Over several month’s time, I worked on this mixed media project. First, I sketched  a rough outline of petals, and swiped the highlights with white acrylic paint to give it a raised texture. When it dried, I propped the cardboard on a chair for my easel and stroked, layered, and blended chalk pastels with fingers and thumbs and palms. Some evenings, I took it outside to work on. I sprayed it with fixative, because chalk brushes off easily, and then saw more colors to add, so I put chalk on top of fixative. I discovered by accident that this really worked well, because the spray gave it a little more tooth, as chalk artists call it, which is roughness of the surface. The cardboard gives it its own texture, which adds to the overall impression.

Some time after it was finished, I came across a line from Robert Capon, and I knew where it belonged, and added it with a gold marker.

Only miracle is plain. It is the ordinary that groans with the weight of glory.

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Another way this evolved is when I cut the upper left corner to follow the contours of the flower. This is the beauty of using cardboard. The downside to it is that the paint made it buckle. I painted the back of it to balance it, which helped, but it’s still curved. The other downside to cardboard is that I don’t respect it as much as a canvas, and poke tacks in it to mount it on the spare room wall, which is probably unwise.

I like all the colors and texture here.

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I keep it because I don’t want to throw it away yet, but also because of the deep joy in smearing, rubbing, and layering all the delicious colors. Creating aligns my head, heart, and hands so that for several glorious hours, all the parts of me aren’t fragmented or confused, and I feel whole and new. I value the process just as much or more than the finished product, and this artwork on my spare room wall reminds me of how fun and exhilarating that process was.

Morning Comes

I was teaching English in Poland in 2013, the year my health spiraled and I needed major surgery. That year was a saga in itself, and not one to tell here except to say that God and His people took care of me in ways that still choke me up.

The day of the surgery, December 4, was easily the worst day of my life. They’d planned for the surgery to be one hour, but it lasted three hours, and my body went into shock in the recovery room where I stopped breathing twice. I was so annoyed at the nurse who shook my shoulder roughly each time and said, “Breathe, breathe!” because I’d finally been comfortable and resting, and I didn’t want to breathe because it took too much effort.

Later, they trundled me into the room closest to the nurses’ station so they could keep a close eye on me, and they clunked a brick of ice onto my stomach, over the incision, and I was out of my mind with pain and freezing cold and anesthesia. Lolita hovered above me and asked what I wanted, and I said, “Music.” She opened my computer and found a few choral hymns that I always loved, but when she turned them on, they were terrible. Tinny and chintzy and awful. I forgot about music in the long, terrible evening as the nurses and doctor tried to get me warm and the pain under control.

My sister came too, with chocolate, and called my family several times to keep them updated. Before she left, she helped me think about what I’d need for the night, and put the stuff in a little tray within arm’s reach. I was confused, and didn’t know what I needed, but she was patient. Swabs. Call button. MP3 player and earbuds.

The next morning, I already felt better. Still lots of pain and achy and awful, but better, and the sun was shining, and it was snowing! I went to this song on my player and listened to it with one earbud on the quietest setting because two earbuds made it too loud. It was exactly right.

In the next days, the cloud of pain and anesthesia cleared and the only music that connected with me was that song, “Morning Comes When You Call,” and an album by Voices of Praise. I forget the title of that album, but I especially loved “I’m in His Care-Oh” and I always skipped “America the Beautiful.”

Two years later, I saw this picture in a little booklet,

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and I knew what to do with the latent memories of that worst day of my life. On a wintry Sunday evening, I took my chalk pastels and card stock to a well-lit table, and made this:

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My favorite feature is the yellow of the sunshine edging into the scene and bouncing off some trees. I asked a friend to do the lettering because I wasn’t confident enough to do that, and she said it was an honor.

The picture shows the crisp, snowy sunlight the day Ria came to see me in the hospital. She didn’t want to hurt me so she hugged me gingerly, after walking in from the bus, and her black wool coat was still cold, with drops of melted snowflakes.

The picture shows the contrast of light and shadow, the night and morning, the clouds and stunning light I experienced in that terrible, wonderful week. The day after the surgery, the surgeon checked in on me, and as she left, she said, “You were a very sick girl. Now work on getting better!”

I didn’t get all better that day. Recovery took a long time, and mild PTSD has stayed with me, but it’s improving. I keep thinking that, on every level, I feel healthier now than I ever was in the last ten years. I don’t have enough words to say how wondrous the on-going gift of healing has been.

To be accurate to my experience, the shadows in the picture should be darker, the night more visible on the horizon. But I like that that’s how it is with healed memory—it mostly sifts out the terrible, and the predominant memory, arching over everything, is light and joy and deep peace.

Already But Not Yet

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Quite a long time ago, I saw these paintings on Pinterest. The blue one caught my eye and it looked simple enough for me to do. There were even directions to go with it but I didn’t follow them because I wanted to tweak it.

A year or two later, I came across Conspirare singing Let the River Run, and it moved me deeply. It wasn’t intended to be a religious piece, and “New Jerusalem” wasn’t referring to heaven, but I heard enthusiasm and excitement, a call to dreamers, and bright hope for what will be, which, of course, for Christians includes the new heaven and new earth.

I asked an artistic friend for advice on how to paint a cityscape with a river, and she said to consult Google images and drawings in black and white. That gave me some ideas, so on a hot summer day, I found an empty study room with AC.  I gathered a few paints, a wet rag, several paintbrushes. I found the large 27″x30″ calendar I’d squirreled away for this project, put it face down on a table, and started painting a blush-pink sky: the dawn behind the gold.

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My favorite feature is the pink dawn shining where the gold is thin.

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I added black to a bright blue paint to make a midnight blue city. It didn’t take long, and it was so. much. fun. I loved the simplicity and the flexibility. If a spire didn’t work out right, I could put gold over it. I messed up the writing, but covered it up by changing the shape of the river. If it’s stressful, I don’t do it, and that’s why my artwork is super simple.

Part of me thinks that if I repurpose old calendars, maybe I should respect my art enough to put it in a frame. The more pragmatic part of me says part of the message is the medium, the thin metal strips stabilize it, and it’s ok. For awhile, I used thick tape on the back side to mount it, but that wasn’t nice in several ways, and now I use tacks, though that’s probably not respectful either.

I like having it on my sliding closet door. To me, it shows the already-but-not-yet that I live in. It promises a golden city coming down someday, but for now we can walk beside its river.

 

 

 

Fingerpaints of Venice

For something different, I’m starting a little series about the artwork I have in my house and the stories that go with each piece.

Four years ago, I was a student at Faith Builders and figuring out how to live in the US again. I flew here with just enough belongings to settle into a small dorm room and be a student. I didn’t have an envelope when I wanted to send off an application and I didn’t have a jar or rubber band to make kefir in my dorm room. (I’d brought the grains though: priorities.)

Apparently customs officials had riffled through my suitcases and found what seemed to be a large nut, and threw it away, but it was actually a dear little carved nativity scene that had been gifted to me, and I still miss it. I’m not that attached to stuff, but it still felt like a loss. The biggest loss was my rich connections with people who now lived an ocean away.

It was a topsy-turvy season, shattering and bewildering. Many, many good things happened, but mostly it was hard.  Beautiful, loving people surrounded me but I felt like my heart was mostly vacuum, hollowed out, shivering. There were weeks when I cried every day.

About eight months into re-entry, we had a group activity where we divided into teams of four. Using poster paints and our fingers, each team replicated their choice of painting from the Impressionist masters. Our team chose Monet’s Sunset in Venice:

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Claude Monet [Public domain]

We started dabbing colors onto the margin of the big poster paper.

“I’m not an artist.”

“I don’t know how to do this.”

This is what some of my team mates said, but they went to it as if they’d done it all their lives. They studied the original, dipped their finger tips in paint, and dabbed it carefully. I flitted around, sketching briefly, maybe mixing some colors.

I don’t remember which part I did, but my predominate memory is that I cheered and cheered for how their success surprised them, and my fingers and palms were smeared with great colors, and I started breathing deeper and easier than I had for a long, long time.

We ended up with this:

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My favorite feature is the rippling reflection of the spire:

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We left it to dry overnight, and I felt like a new person.

All the teams displayed their paintings in the hall for several months, then threw them away, but I couldn’t part with ours. I found a frame for it, and I don’t have wall space for it, so it’s propped against the wall in my hall. Maybe sometime it’ll find its way to the dumpster, but not yet.

I wonder if I’m more attached to stuff than I thought.

Life is for Living, Regardless

Recently, my friend Abby told me that she read my book when she was 10 or 11 and I laughed and laughed. She was definitely not the demographic I had in mind for an audience when I started writing it back in 2004.

Still, she said the book started her thinking about living fully and she decided then not to be shriveled and shrunken. The way she lives now, more than ten years later, demonstrates how well she internalized the book’s message. A big chunk of her heart is still in Greece with refugees after she worked there for five months. Now she invests her time in helping in special needs classrooms in public schools.  She’s dating a wonderful young man, and I cheer for their vision for life, and I know that they will become even more attractive, effective, vibrant people as they live well and don’t wait around.

When I wrote the book, I heard that the average marketable life of a book is 1-3 years. However, I expected it to stay in print for a long time because I thought that every year, another group of young women will discover they’re single and want guidance in it because there’s not a lot of great help out there, at least not in the pro-family conservative Anabaptist culture.

It seems that young women discover themselves to be single at different ages, depending on their context and the expectations of people around them. I was pushing 30 when I looked around me and realized that most of my friends were married and I wasn’t. I hear from girls who feel very single at 18 and I want to say, “Honey child, you’re not single, you’re just growing up yet!” But in their context, grown ups marry at 19, so of course they feel left behind, forgotten, not-belonging.

It’s almost 12 years since the book came out, and what has surprised me most is how many moms and preacher’s wives tell me that it connects with them.  The book isn’t a how-to book for singles, but an exploration of what it looks like to pursue living well in the middle of Plan B.

Turns out everyone is living in a story they didn’t plan, and we all need to know that there are ways to do well with adjusting expectations and learning how to flourish.

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You can order the book at Christian Learning Resource. Order from the website (it’s not out of stock even if it says so) call (814) 789- 4769, or email clr@fbep.org.

Alternatively, it’s an ebook, available here, for only $4. If you or a friend speaks Spanish, you can download it for free here!

I don’t know how long I’ll keep the book in print. For now, it’s puttering along, leading a life of its own, and now and then a nice story comes tripping back to tell me what it did. It’s a very happy stage to be in, because I care about God’s people living good stories, and if my book can help with that, I’m delighted.

 

Practical Principles about Virtual Reality

I felt offended the first time I went to a McDonald’s and couldn’t place an order with a person but had to order at the digital screen. I felt it was an affront to our humanity to have a screen mediate our transaction, and I’ll probably never be ok with it.

When I think about how to spend my limited resources of time, money, and technology, I want to live out of an abundance mentality, rather than scarcity. What good and beautiful thing can I throw my energy into? When God dreamed me up, what did He intend for me to be? I know He didn’t intend me to be a dour, nay-saying person.

What’s my biggest YES?

God and His purposes are the the non-negotiable part of my life. Beyond that, my biggest YES is connected to people and words.

Being sure of my main YES is wonderfully clarifying. I’m convinced that He intended me for:

  • Action rather than passivity
  • Creativity rather than consumerism
  • Interaction rather than spectating

These convictions help me sort out what to say YES and NO to regarding technology and devices. It even shapes my policy not to use the self-check-out machines at Walmart, because they cut out one person that I could interact with.

Passivity, consumerism, and spectating tend to shrivel and diminish a person—not what God had in mind when He dreamed up humans.

In contrast, action, creativity, and interaction make us fuller, better, healthier people.

Flourishing would describe it, and is surely what God designed us for.

Below are some practical ways that demonstrate my ideals and my main YES. When I know what to say YES to, it filters out clutter. I have more time for what I really love. I get to live in abundance, not scarcity.

But first a qualification: I really enjoy social media. I love Instagram. Also, I know loneliness and the magnetic pull for more, more, more faces and profiles and witty exchanges. Dopamine is a chemical we all like to feel, but the soul translates its absence as loneliness, and I feel it too. I’m not speaking out of a distant, Luddite attitude. Not at all.

I mostly watch videos only  if they’re classical music, choral music, painting, or lettering because they speak to my creativity. Who has time for cat videos? How are cats connected to anyone’s big YES? Oh yes, the people who work in catteries. But I’m not a kill joy, honestly. I love a good laugh. Oh yes, and I love, love, love Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet because he makes me laugh every single day.

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I’m very Marie Kondo about my feeds. If something doesn’t spark joy, I unfollow it. Simple. I followed a very talented artist, and learned from her, and liked what she did, but she complained all the time, and I decided I don’t need that negativity. Same way for someone who consistently rants about their pet grievance or enthusiasm. If it’s about politics or multilevel marketing, it’s out. It’s nothing personal but it’s a boundary that gives me space to interact with the people I really want to hear from.

Friends or strangers

I accept most friend requests because I’m an author and welcome interaction that extends beyond the book. But with little or no exception, I don’t follow people I don’t know in real life, unless it’s a public page relating to creativity or people. Nobody is keeping track of how many friends or likes I have, and if they do, they must not get out much.

Real people vs virtual connections

People are colorful and unpredictable and quirky. They have all these stories and insights covered up in their souls, and I refuse to miss out on that by burying my face in my phone. Are some people boring? Yes. But they stay boring if I don’t engage with them.

And yes, interacting with real humans can be awkward and risky on all kinds of levels.

But how can people live their hours behind a device and then be vibrant, wholesome, contributing, flourishing husbands and wives and church members and mentors and artists and teachers and committee members?

Passivity and consumerism bleed into crippled, selfish relationships where I must feel good and cozy all the time, or I’ll escape into a device. Saying YES to interacting with real humans now exercises the muscles necessary later to love the difficult son or daughter, the awkward small group member, the selfish committee member. Refusing to interact in real life results in shriveled, diminished humans, which is an ugly alternative to what God dreamed for us. Is interaction with real people easy? Nope, not always.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Be all here

My phone shows only my Whatsapp, Messenger, and email notifications on the lock screen. I don’t need anything else when I’m working or socializing. I don’t have to know what’s going on on Facebook or Instagram until I’m alone and have time to open the app.  If I leave for an evening and I’m not the driver, the phone usually stays home. Others have heavier responsibilities than I, and don’t have the luxury of being as untethered as I am. But if they’re not a Person of Pressing Responsibility, I wonder why the phone can’t stay on their table a few hours until they get back.

This extends to taking pictures. We’ve all seen the circle of friends who are looking down into their phones at the pictures they’ve just taken instead of out into each other’s eyes. Or they’re contorting themselves to take a Instagram-worthy picture instead of internalizing the moment.

It makes my heart hurt to see that, but I feel the rub. Last Monday evening I was in a choir rehearsal. I’m so excited to be in an 80+ voice choir for Larry Nickel’s “A Cappella Christmas Cantata.” Part of my job is to publicize the event, and pictures do that best, right? But I felt so conflicted because I could either be a good choir member and stay engaged with the singing. Or I could take action shots. But I couldn’t do both, and when I tried, I failed on both fronts. sigh

Then yesterday I spent the day with a small group of pals critiquing writing projects. It was a lovely atmosphere, and I kept thinking about how I could capture part of it in a picture. After several hours of being all there, I tried surreptitiously to take a picture, but it wasn’t a good one and it still derailed the conversation toward styling a picture and talking about #vscobasics. Some conversations can afford to be interrupted with a camera, and some can’t. I’ve decided that my best moments don’t make it to the internet because they’re so sweet and precious, not for public consumption, and too valuable to interrupt with a camera.

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The disrupting shot

There are people in my life who have shaped me enormously, and they do it by being completely present with me. When they talk to me, they make me feel like I’m the most important person in their world. They ask thoughtful questions that show me they remember our last conversation even if it was a long time ago. They’re not grabbing at a pocket, or glancing at a screen when it dings. They have a million other things to do, but in that moment, they’re with me, and my soul is soothed in a way that no screen can mimic. The tilt of the head, the squint of the eye, the wink, or touching my arm tell me that they are all there, and I find it deeply restorative. We don’t have a selfie to document the moment but something real and lasting happened inside me.

This is the kind of presence and intention that will shift a person, a community, a world, and I want to be part of that.

Join me?

Last week, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion about practical ways to approach life and technology. This is the expanded version of what I shared there. I’m also indebted to my co-writers yesterday who helped shape this into better coherence. It was a case in point: presence over electronics!

Autumn Epiphanies

I had an epiphany recently. Actually, two.

Every fall, I hear women making endless happy sounds because it’s PSL weather, and time for cozy sweaters and boots, and happy fall ya’ll, and my favorite season is pumpkin spice latte season, and pumpkins/candles/fuzzy socks/coffee, and fall shows us how beautiful it is to let things go, ad nauseum.

It makes me want to curl up in a corner and whimper.

I don’t care about any of the hype. I don’t care about the positive spin. The leaves are brilliant, and I love, love, love all their colors, but I can’t cheer because it’s fall.

Fall means things are dying and we’ll have more night than day, and we have to put on  eight to ten layers to go outside and I see nothing to be glad about any of that. Even the word FALL is negative. The British have something over us because they call it autumn.

The first epiphany was this:

Only the privileged get to chortle about their favorite season.

Most people in the world don’t have the luxury of choosing a favorite season and changing their wardrobe and décor accordingly. Most people are just trying to survive, find enough food for the next meal, and have enough shelter from the elements to stay alive.

If I complain about the season, it shows how privileged I am, how entitled I am to feel comfortable all time, how I deserve to reject or praise whatever season I want to.

It’s ok to have an opinion. I have lots of them.

But it’s not ok to be grumpy or complaining because something about the season doesn’t suit me. This epiphany has the potential to change my life because I’ve done more than my share of complaining about mice moving into the house when it gets cold and snow keeping me from driving where I want to and six-month long winters.

I still don’t like orange, and I still wince at inconvenient cold and I still get super stressed driving in snowy weather. I will probably never stop fantasizing about living in Italy or Greece. But I’m rich beyond belief, and have more than I deserve, and I should never complain.

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Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed. –Mary Oliver.

My friend Hannah did this calligraphy on a chalkboard and I cried when I saw it because it’s so beautiful and true.

Then, the 2nd epiphany:

I don’t like pumpkin spice lattes because spice doesn’t belong in coffee.

Coffee belongs in coffee (and maybe cream) but spices belong in tea. So bring on the spicy chai! I dream of pots and pots of creamy, spicy chai every week for the next six months. Take that, winter.

This was the first one, in a tall mug, with friends at a darling coffee shop in Manheim, PA.

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I discovered I can make a mean batch of chai. It wants to be made in a batch, not just a single serving. In case someone else out there shares my sentiment for un-spiced coffee, you might like this alternative.

This is not a recipe, but a guide:

Count on 3 tea bags per cup you want to serve.
Put them in water that comes to half the amount you want to serve. (The other half will be milk. The idea is that you’re making super strong tea.)
Turn on high to bring to a boil.
While the water and tea bags warm up, add:
Cinnamon (about 1 tsp. per 3 servings)
A very small sprinkle of cloves
A knob of grated fresh ginger (or 1 tsp. dried ginger–you must have ginger, or it’s not worth drinking, as I discovered recently when I served mediocre ginger-less chai to friends)
About 1.5 cardomom pod per serving, or a generous dash of ground cardomom (this is where the magic comes: the wispy, ethereal aftertaste that’s almost there, then gone)
A good sprinkle of black pepper

Simmer all of this for 20-25 min. Taste to check the spices, taking in account that it’s going to be bitter and strong. But does it have the right spice balance? This is the question.

Remove the tea bags, leaving in the cardomom pods for maximum effect. This is your chai base, to use now, or refrigerate for later.

To serve, warm the chai base, add approx. 1/4 cup brown sugar, and enough milk to nearly double the volume. If it’s too milky, it’ll cover the spice, so be conservative with the milk to start with. The point is to have it spicy enough to be almost peppery, but sweet and milky to be warm and comforting. Heat until steaming (if you let it boil over on the stove, you’ll be sorry, as I was many times), use a whip to stir and froth a bit, and serve. You might want to strain the spices out or you can just let them settle.

You can take it to the next level by squirting whipped cream on top and drizzling caramel sauce over it.

Probably no Indian or African would claim this as their chai. It’s pretty blatantly American, but ever so warming and comforting.