A Seed of Hope

"Dear Young Artist:

Remember your first love—how much you enjoyed creating as a child. If you ever lose that sense of joy, you will need to reflect on why you lost that spark. Of course, the craft of expression takes much “dying to self” and much discipline. A discipline of any form takes perseverance. But when we are going through a period of training, we must remember the reason for our training. Our journey needs to have a specific direction. Our direction need not be toward being successful and being famous. We need to start from your first love; what we cherish, what we are, and what we value. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” "

Several months ago, "artist, writer, and creative catalyst" Makoto Fujimura posted "A Letter to Young Artists" (go on, read the whole thing, totally worth it). He begins with the above address, reaching out to a community of young artists who may have forgotten why they're doing what they're doing. Fujimura goes on to reaffirm that the creative journey is not an easy one (those of us who are artists have known this since we were born). He quotes a beautiful passage from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity that I love:

“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature...But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so…The lumps on the shoulders…may even give it an awkward appearance.”

The lumps. I know those lumps. Fujimura implores the young artist to be patient with the lumps, to seek great opportunities of wonder and mystery, but also, to experience much failure. Failure has become such a taboo word in a world that is driven by success, always striving for better, faster, more. I had a teacher in art school who loved my failures. You know, those paintings that should never leave the studio, the endless works in progress. She'd tell me it was a so-so painting or needed work or was a good start, all those teacherly ways of saying I had failed, but then she would hang it up in her office. Consequently, she has a collection of bad art in her office, but am I ever grateful. Typically I knew when I had kind of dropped the ball on a piece, but she would break it to me gently, hang it on her wall like a Renaissance masterpiece, and tell me to get back in the studio. I love that about her. She helped me get through my first big exhibition. And she helped me learn how to love my lumps.

Most days I still feel pretty lumpy. And most days I still wonder what the hell I'm doing. But I appreciate artists like Makoto Fujimura who remind me of my first love and give me hope, as an artist and a Christian. I had the opportunity to hear Fujimura speak at an event here in Chicago several weeks ago. He shared about his latest (and greatest) project The Four Holy Gospels, featuring several major paintings and illuminations for a new publication of the four gospels of the Bible (our copy just arrived in the mail: an absolute masterpiece). It was Fujimura's discussion of his chosen theme for the project that marked me most. He settled on the well-known verse from the Gospel of John, "Jesus wept." Why did Jesus weep? What purpose did that serve? He already knew he would raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, so why weep? And herein lies art. Fujimura plainly stated that his artwork has no purpose, it is useless and unnecessary (how often I have thought that about my own work). But it is because of Jesus weeping that art-making is utterly essential. 
Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ), Makoto Fujimura

In his "Letter to Young Artists", Fujimura goes on to note Mary, the rule-breaker and perfume-waster from the Gospel of Mark. She anoints Jesus' feet with an expensive perfume, shocking everyone but Jesus, who says, "She has done a beautiful thing to me..." Here Jesus recognizes Mary as an artist. Like Jesus' own tears, Mary's perfumed act is extravagant, unnecessary and an expression of love and grace. Jesus' tears and Mary's perfume give reason to my making. This, this is why I am an artist and why we must all journey on.

I am incredibly grateful to Makoto Fujimura for this seed of hope. And to Jesus and Mary for their creativity and rule-breaking. 

May you also embrace the lumps, seek opportunities of mystery and wonder, and keep a good heart. 

(Also, go listen to Suite Bergamasque, Clair de Lune by composer Claude Debussy. I'm listening to it now and wishing that it could be broadcast across the universe, especially in Libya and Christchurch, NZ, because I just know it would make things a little bit brighter.)


It's Tuesday

"We're Tuesday people. "  Ever since I read Tuesdays with Morrie I've had this thing for Tuesdays.  I like to think that along with Mitch and Morrie, I'm a Tuesday person.  I don't know, I guess there's just something about Tuesday.  Who says you have to live for Friday, what's wrong with Tuesday?

One of my favourite moments in Tuesdays with Morrie is when Mitch is "complaining about the confusion of my age, what is expected of me versus what I want for myself."  I think about that all the time, because most of the time I don't live up to what is expected of me at all.  Most of the time I feel like I live in the tension, the "in between."  Sometimes I hate expectations and I hate that we feel the need to live up to them (because let's be honest...none of us can live up to all that is expected of us).  On the flipside, I guess expectations are good in that they give us a goal, a standard, something to strive for, and perhaps a little bit of shaping of our character and our behavior (let's hope so).   But I love Morrie's response to Mitch's complaining, it gives me hope - for myself, for society, for the world:

     "Have I told you about the tension of opposites?" he says.
     The tension of opposites?
     "Life is a series of pulls back and forth.  You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else.  Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn't.  You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted.
     "A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band.  And most of us live somewhere in the middle."
     Sounds like a wrestling match, I say.
     "A wrestling match."  He laughs.  "Yes, you could describe life that way."
     So which side wins, I ask?
     "Which side wins?"
     He smiles at me, the crinkled eyes, the crooked teeth.
     "Love wins.  Love always wins."


Brothers & Sisters

I love my siblings.  All four of them.  I actually just have one older sister and one younger brother biologically, but I gained two just as lovely siblings through their marriages.  And I couldn’t have asked for a better foursome.  I didn’t realize just how much I loved them until I was away.  I found myself talking about them all the time – things we had done together, stupid jokes and stories and shared meals.  And I noticed no one else I was with talked about their siblings that much.  Suddenly I realized that my brothers and sisters are actually my friends.  I mean, we are all grown-ups now.  We don’t just live in the same house and we have to play with each other when mom says.  We are adults; we’ve been here and there and done this and that, but we have stayed close.  If anything, I would say we have become closer as we’ve grown older.  I guess not everyone can say that.

I feel like maybe I treasure this even more so because I am the only sibling unmarried.  When my sister and brother got married, I wondered how that would change things.  Naturally, things did change – they have their own families and homes now.  But, if anything is a testimony to the strength of our relationship it’s that when my brother’s wife is away or working late, Aaron just might call me, his boring older sister, to hang out.  He is ridiculously cooler than me, so a phone call in and of itself is a joy.  We probably won’t do much of anything other than eat quesadillas and watch the latest episode of the Office, if I’m lucky I’ll get to hear one of his made-up songs, but we’re being our lame selves together.  And that’s all that matters. 

One year when I was in college, I was determined to spend my spring break in California visiting a friend.  But flight prices were not in my favour and I ended up buying a flight to Canton, Ohio to see my sister and her husband instead.  Hmm, Canton or California for spring break???  You tell me which one you’d prefer.  I was happy for the opportunity to spend time with my sister, but she knew that Canton was not my first choice getaway.  So when I walked into their apartment in dreary Ohio, this is what I saw:

Leah knows just how to make a girl feel special.  She is one of the smartest, most committed, most organized people I know – and she has really good hair.

In my brother-in-law, John, I gained someone who knows something about everything.  He is my fellow “looker-upper.”  He is also one of the most thoughtful and generous guys I know.  When I was in need of a new bike, he went on this crazy search all over Chicago for this random guy he heard about who collects old bikes.  And he found him.  And he found my bike – one of the loveliest things I own.  An old 3-speed straight out of England, deep green with a leather saddle and a rack on the back – you know, for my library books.  He and my brother fixed it up and it rides like a dream.  Took it for a spin today, in fact.

(You're jealous, I know.)

And Jody, my brother’s wife, is one of the most ridiculous and loving people I know.  We needed someone just as ridiculous as my brother for him to marry.  She shares my love for children and sweet potatoes.  She’s the only one who will sing songs from Mary Poppins and Les Mis with me, and she would give me the shirt off her back if I asked for it.  For my birthday one year she gave me a lovely copy of the Book of Common Prayer, which has since become one of the greatest resources in my life of prayer and spiritual formation.

They are my go-to people when I’m looking for someone to see a movie with, share a bottle of wine, or try my latest recipe.  And if we all happened to be around, we hang out.  Just because.  Because we can be our truest selves together, we know each other deeply, and we love each other even despite our imperfections.  


Flowers / Flours

Sometimes I wonder.  I wonder about just how well we know each other, how deep our relationships truly are.  I suppose we all have varying levels of relationships:  the once-in-a-lifetime encounters, the acquaintances, the general circle of friends, the confidants, and the family, spouse, love, and soulmate.  I often wonder why it is that certain people are a part of our lives.  Why do we know and relate to some people for a lifetime and others for a mere moment?  When I have traveled or lived somewhere else for a while, I often think about the people I have met and befriended during that period.  And why? Why do you think our spheres of life overlapped for a time?  Certain people I say goodbye to and I know that I will never see them again.  Others, I can feel in my spirit that our lives will always converge.  Like a soulmatch.  

Someone who knows you up and down.  Someone to shoot the breeze with (I love that phrase).  Someone who doesn't mind when you need a minute and will sit with you in silence.  Someone who knows you adore Pride and Prejudice.  Someone who knows you prefer white over red and tea over coffee.  Someone who laughs at your worst jokes and at times, loves you despite yourself.  Someone who shares the last slice of cake.  Someone who knows just what kind of flowers you like best.

For the past week I've been temporarily working as a floral designer for a local florist during the Valentine's rush.  I had no idea just what I was getting myself into.  It has been a joy to realize my creativity in a completely new media.  But let me just say, roses are so overrated.  I'm quite over a dozen reds.  Maybe a bouquet of daisies?  They're much friendlier.  Or a spray of stargazer lilies perhaps?  They just holler of spring.  I just love a crisp bunch of tulips.  I can hear them cheering each other on.  

But as much as I love a vase of fresh flowers, in all truth, my choice of "flowers" are more akin to the ones Harold Crick brings to Ana Pascal (Stranger than Fiction, a delight and two hours of film you won't regret).  She a baker.  He an IRS auditor.  An unlikely pair to be sure.  He barely knows her, only as her OCD auditor, whose life is suddenly narrated by writer Kay Eiffel (that's Emma Thompson, because who else could so beautifully narrate the brushing of one's teeth and the ocean-like sound of filing folders?).  Though they are off to a rocky start, Harold Crick already knows Ana Pascal is the kind of girl to share the last slice of cake.  He knows she dropped out of Harvard Law to change the world with cupcakes and cookies.  And he loves her despite her tax flaws.  In my favourite scene, Mr.Crick tracks down Miss Pascal with a flat of small brown sacks...

Buckwheat, bread, whole-wheat, rye, semolina, rice, corn, spelt.

He brought her flours.  I love that.

He knew just what kind of flours she liked best.  Brown sacks of flour may not speak of spring like a bouquet of fresh flowers.  But it's not about that.  It's about knowing.  And I know just what I'd do with those flours:



It's Monday.  That means I spent the morning with the Sisters at Missionaries of Charity. They run a soup kitchen on the west side of Chicago that I discovered at the beginning of this year.  I joined their ragamuffin cohort because I believe in serving the poor, feeding the hungry and I have come to love the Sisters of MC as my own.  Today they were laughing at me because I went all the way to Kolkata, India and Rio de Janeiro, Brasil to work with MC before finding them in my own city.  Let's just say my way of going about things has never been "normal."

That said, this past week has been anything but normal.  The city of Chicago still seems to be burrowing its way out of the 20 inches of snow we received in a day, which I have found to be a delight.  Last week the city literally stopped for 24 hours, which I have never seen before.  Last Wednesday, I ventured out, bundled and be-shoveled, to survey the damage, make some angels, walk down the middle of Lake Street without a care, and maybe shovel a pile of snow or two.  It was miraculous.  People exchanged greetings with a smile and we all seemed to look around with a giggle.  There was a refreshing sense of camaraderie, service, and dare I say, love.  No one went to work.  No one went to school.  We all just sort of stumbled around in the bed of white, incredulous and joyful.

The week continued with more protesting and violence in Egypt.  But an amazing thing happened.  Beauty amid the chaos.  A sliver of hope in desperation.  A photo was published on the internet depicting a group of Egyptian Christians who by linking hands created a circle of safety for Egyptian Muslims to gather for prayer in the street during the protests. This gave me great hope.  Like the beauty of the snow, it allowed me to see beyond the disaster, beyond the violence of the protests, and beyond my own frustration with the Christian church.  For which I am incredibly grateful.


The thread of grace that seemed to make its way throughout the week culminated in my long awaited attendance at a performance of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.  This is perhaps the greatest fictional story of redemption I know.  Now you have to understand that I have been waiting for this day for a decade.  I have been telling people for years that Les Mis is my favourite musical (but I had never seen it).  My parents saw the show when I was young and brought home the soundtrack, which I listened to endlessly, memorizing all of the words and the story, like you do when you're twelve.  I saw the movie.  Read the book.  But somehow never made it to the show.  Saturday's performance was the culmination of many years of waiting and anticipation.  I walked into the theatre beaming with excitement and nervousness. What if I hated it?  What if it didn't live up to my expectations?  And admittedly, it didn't.  How could it possibly live up to the images my limitless imagination had created?  It couldn't.  But it was breathtaking.  There was a measure of disappointment amongst my party regarding Jean Valjean's performance and a general lack of emotion in a show that typically bursts with emotion.  Yet the ensemble numbers were astounding and Javert's show-stopping solo "Stars" brought tears to my eyes.   As an artist, I further appreciated the show when I discovered later that the projections they used for the set were taken from Victor Hugo's own portfolio of paintings.  The murky, chiaroscuro images seemed to punctuate the redemption, the grace that weaves its way in and out of Les Mis.  I left the theatre chilled by the beauty of something so simple yet remarkably poignant. 

Lately, the perfect conclusion to a day sprinkled with grace is Mumford and Son's latest album, Sign No More, which I have shamelessly been listening to on repeat since it landed in my iTunes.  Without a doubt my favourite song is Timshel (go ahead, put it on now as you read).  This may have something to do with my love for John Steinbeck and East of Eden, his greatest novel.  Timshel is a Hebrew word used in Genesis 4:16, when God is speaking to Cain.  It means "thou mayest."  God says to Cain, "Thou mayest rule over sin."  Isn't that beautiful?  It gives a choice.  It says the way is open.  It means we have been enabled. This, this is what gives me hope.  It tells me that in man's great weakness and filth, in Egypt's violence, in the life of Jean Valjean, in my snowy Chicago neighborhood, we still have a great choice.  In the words of M & Sons, 

"And you have your choices, 
And these are what make man great, 
His ladder to the stars."

(maybe these are Javert's stars they're talking about here, "the sentinels")