3.29.2011

More questions than answers

What do you think about when you see this image?

And this one?

What about this?

What about these ladies?

And these men?  What do you think when you see them?

What's the difference between them?  The first image is from the protests and crisis in Libya.  The second is of the tsunami wreckage in Japan.  And then you see a little boy standing in the smoke that is the result of mass genocide in Rwanda.  Those feisty looking ladies with the bedazzled glasses were a part of Civil Rights protests in the States.  And this scraggly group of men were in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.

So, what's the difference?  And how are they similar?  Does it matter?

What are we doing about it?  What have we done about it?  And how are we doing it?  Is that right?  Or should we have done it differently?  Should we do it differently now?  What have we learned?  What does your neighbor say about it?  What about your president? How about the Democrats?  And the Republicans?  Does it matter?  What would your grandma think about it?  And your kids?  What about our votes, our resources?  And our hearts and minds, what about those?

What does God think of it all?  Can you see him in these images?

These days I have more questions than answers.  I still can't fully reconcile these images, these events, these people with the all-powerful, loving God I spoke with this morning. But I'll end the day with my faith intact, knowing I'd rather go it with the God I don't fully understand than with no one at all.

There are three things I believe to be true about all this:  

First, that God weeps with us.  
Second, I imagine that God is weary of being called down on both sides of an argument.
And thirdly, love wins.

3.24.2011

My name is...

The other night I dreamt I was a Jewish painter.  Freighted with the responsibility of my culture and my faith, but born with a gift.  

I had just finished reading Chaim Potok's novel "My Name is Asher Lev," and I think I carried the gravity of the story of Asher Lev with me into the world of dreams.    In the murkiness of my dream, I could almost feel the weight of responsibility both as a Jew and as an artist that Asher Lev carried.  I wept when I read the conclusion of the story, realizing all that Asher had lost and gained (yes, I know he is a fictional character, but at the time, it didn't seem to matter).

One of my favourite parts of the book is an exchange between Asher Lev and his artist-master, Jacob Kahn:
Often in the early mornings, I came out of the house and walked across the dunes to the beach.  The dunes were cool then on my tefillin.  Those mornings, the beach was my synagogue and the waves and gulls were audience to my prayers.  I stood on the beach and felt wind-blown sprays of ocean on my face, and I prayed.  And sometimes the words seemed more appropriate to this beach than to the synagogue on my street.
One morning, I finished praying and came back across the dunes and found Jacob Kahn on the porch.
"I was watching you," he said quietly.  "I used to pray once.  Do you talk to God when you pray?"  
"Yes."
"I have lost that faculty.  I cannot pray.  I talk to God through my sculpture and painting."
"That's also prayer."
He smiled faintly, the morning sun on his face.  "The Rebbe said precisely that.  You are following the party line, Asher Lev." 
This story of a Ladover Hasidic painter is told from Asher Lev's perspective.  It begins with a boy who cannot keep himself from drawing.  A boy who cleverly uses the ashes from a cigarette to complete a drawing of his mother.  An Orthodox Jew who absentmindedly doodles in a Chumash (a book-bound edition of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible).  As a child, he can barely begin to understand the weight of this "gift."  With a mother and father who see it as a curse and a community that rejects him as an outcast, Asher Lev is very much on his own from the beginning.  Under the tutelage of an established Jewish painter, Jacob Kahn, Asher Lev begins to cultivate his skill and establish himself as an artist.  With every drawing he makes, Asher moves further from the expectations of his reputable father and must juggle the commitment to his faith with the genius that compels him to make great art, regardless.  The climax of this subtly epic story is Asher's distressing completion and exhibition of the two greatest paintings of his artistic career: Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II.  
"Asher Lev, Hasid.  Asher Lev, painter.  I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted.  There was power in that hand.  Power to create and destroy.  Power to bring pleasure and pain.  Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time...  Asher Lev paints good pictures and hurts people he loves.  Then be a great painter, Asher Lev; that will be the only justification for all the pain you will cause.  But as a great painter I will cause pain again if I must. Then become a greater painter.  But I will cause pain again.  Then become a still greater painter.  Master of the Universe, will I live this way all the rest of my life?  Yes, came the whisper from the branches of the trees.  Now journey with me, my Asher.  Paint the anguish of all the world.  Let people see the pain.  But create your own molds and your own play of forms for the pain.  We must give a balance to the universe."
Reading the story of Asher Lev, I came to realize the gravity of our gifts.  I have often wondered why it is that I have been gifted the ability to paint, the mastery of light, or the means to put lines and letters together so that they tell a great story when others have an ability that is much more tangible, useful, and accepted.  I cannot begin to understand the intentions of the "Master of the Universe" when he knit us together just so. But I do know that it was done with great purpose.  I think we have a responsibility to honor our gifts.  To live in gratitude and in fullness, seeking to "give a balance to the universe."  When the branches of the trees whisper, "Be great at what you have been given.  Yes, you will cause pain.  And yes, you will feel pain," therein lies the story and the affirmation of a Creator who has given us the grace to see it through.

3.17.2011

Take off your shoes

Sometimes I wonder about humanity.  And I marvel at God's patience.  I think I would have given up long ago.  This morning I was sitting, meditating on this first week of the Lenten season, asking God to grant me patience as I await life's next journey.  Something made me stop my petition and rearrange the subject of my prayer:  God, be patient with me.  When I stop to examine the darkness of my own heart, I realize just how perfect God's character is and the greatness of God's patience since the beginning of time.  

I was reading in Exodus when God selects Moses to go before Pharaoh to request the release of the Hebrews, and even after seeing a burning bush, a staff turned to a snake, a hand turned leprous, and water from the Nile turned to blood, Moses doubts God's wisdom in choosing him.  God's patient and forthright response reminds me of Job:

"Who gave man his mouth?  Who makes him deaf or mute?  Who gives him sight or makes him blind?  Is it not I, the Lord?  Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say."

I love that.  I gave you your mouth.  I will help you.  I will teach you.  God uses Moses in his weakness.  Hadn't he just taken his sandals off?  Hadn't he just been standing on holy ground, blinded by the flames of a bush burning with God's presence?  Moses' doubts and fears are bigger even than a burning bush, but God speaks to him as the Creator and reaffirms that Moses is the humble and imperfect man he has cultivated to be a leader of Israel since his untimely birth.  

This reminds me of God's love and great purpose.  The fact that he knew that when he created man, man would reject him, his people would rebel and doubt for thousands of years, and eventually he would send his beloved son to die for the redemption of the world, and yet he still created man.  God predestined that his son would die but went through with the mess that is humanity anyway.  What love is this?

The Psalm for the first Sunday of Lent according to the church lectionary is Psalm 25, of David.  Reading verses 14 and 15, I hear David's confidence and fear, I feel like Moses, and I remember:  "The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.  My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare."

As I consider this season of fasting and anticipation, I ask that in these next forty days (and forever, Lord, truly) that God would be patient with me, that he would open my eyes to the sacred in the ordinary, and that he would confide in me as I center my gaze on him.

Sometimes there are these moments, if I'm very attentive and watchful, where I can see the movement of the holy so vividly.  It is a person, or an act, or an image that is so clearly and so subtly sacred that I am nearly moved to take off my shoes.  

I have always loved these lines from poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

"Earth's crammed with heaven, 
And every common bush afire with God:  
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries."

I pray that God would grant us the ability, the vigilance to see the sacred in the everyday.

3.09.2011

Remember that you are dust

"We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength.  We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord."

Today is Ash Wednesday.  The beginning of the Lenten season - the forty days of fasting, anticipation, and prayer leading up to Easter.  Traditionally, the palm fronds from the previous year are burned and the ashes are smeared across the forehead in the form of a cross, with these words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

I am incredibly humbled by these words.  At today's Ash Wednesday meditation, I knelt at the invitation to a Holy Lent - moved to a position of surrender and weakness.  I rose to receive the blessing and ashes, commencing the season's journey.  Together we prayed the psalm, but before leaving the space, the leader of the meditation encouraged us to take a moment of silence - to rest in the significance of the day and to breathe in the air around us.

In the quiet of the church, I inhaled the spirit and sighed out everything I had brought with me from the street, grieved by what I have done and what I have left undone.  
Have mercy on us, Lord.

Going out into the world with this cross of ashes on my forehead - the sacred and the secular converged.  I carried out with me this symbol of repentance, mercy, and remarkable hope - like an emblem of God's promise.

I am reminded of a lovely Lenten poem from writer Jane Kenyon, with imagery both startling and expectant:

Looking at Stars
The God of curved space, the dry
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood splattered
the hem of his mother's robe.

3.08.2011

Give us this day our daily bread

The table.  

Last year I had the opportunity to meet artist Sheryl Oring at the College Art Association Annual Conference here in Chicago.  Sheryl was a part of an artist panel entitled "Artist Citizen:  What is to be done," a collection of extraordinary artists and activists examining the relationship between art practice and political or social issues, declaring that art practice can and should spark social change.  Sheryl concluded the panel by presenting one of her most recent projects, "Creative Fix: Looking to Artists for Change."  The project is comprised of a series of short video clips of everyday citizens proposing their Creative Fix. Sheryl asks, "What would you do to fix the country if you could do anything at all?"  The responses include everything from a nationwide distribution of disco balls to a $1 charge for entering/leaving the U.S. in order to fund food and housing for the homeless.   After hearing Sheryl share about the project and watching some of the video clips, I was inspired to offer my own Creative Fix as a small contribution to Sheryl's compilation of artists for change:  community dinners, gathering around a table to break bread together, coming together around our common need for food and fellowship.

There's something quite remarkable about "the table."  It is an object.  It is also a symbol. The table levels the playing field.  When we gather around a table, we don't carry our titles, social statuses, or "stuff" with us.  At the table, we come together around our common need for food and for community. This is something that all of humanity shares. When we break bread together, something happens.  One of my favourite scenes in the movie Once (can't find the clip, you'll just have to watch the whole film...shucks) is when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova find themselves at an informal dinner party.  The table is crammed with people - everyone finding a corner or a sliver here or there to squeeze in with their beer and a bowl. Then they just sort of start singing and playing, sharing whatever musical gift they have with the table.  It is a lovely hodgepodge of Irish folks, food, and music.  A beautiful image of the table, of community, and the magic that happens when we break bread.


GOOD Magazine recently posted an interview with Michael Hebb - "Tables to Change the World."  Michael Hebb is a "long-time believer in the idea that having dinner can change the world."  Hebb believes that "the table - the place where people come together to share food - is our society's most important cultural site" (and I quite agree with him). Hebb is the initiator of a movement of people coming together to share a meal.  In his interview, Hebb states, "I think that the unique thing about gathering people around a table is that it has a very finite scale and you have to rely on a much older sense of how the world can shift - the idea that committed people getting together and talking passionately about things that they're actually interested in can change the world."  At the table, there is not only the powerful element of community, but there is the incredible potential for problem-solving, for conflict resolution, for sharing our passions and our dreams in hopes that we might actually make this world a better place.


Sunday night I saw a story on 60 Minutes on the "Hard times generation: homeless kids." It was incredibly heartbreaking to watch elementary school kids having to grapple with issues of homelessness and hunger.  More and more lately, I find myself pausing before a meal, looking down at a beautiful plate of food, incredibly grateful for the abundance of my daily bread.  I am blessed.  I have always thought I lived rather simply, but now I think I live a rather extravagant life.  

My grandfather made our table.  By now, it is full of cracks and bruises, rather beaten and worn by all the hands, bowls of hot soup, mugs of steaming coffee, and heels of crusty bread.  I consider it a symbol of my family.  They say the hearth is the center of the home, but we don't have a hearth, so maybe ours can be the table.  It's not a very big table, but I'm sure we've seen 10 people around it.  I know that when we all scootch in, pause for a blessing, and begin passing, dipping, and serving - nothing else matters.  The world may be in turmoil (and, it is), but at that table, I remember: 

"The worst has already happened and been repaired...All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well" (Julian of Norwich).

3.02.2011

She saw the trees begin to glow

"One of the things that happens when you give yourself permission to start writing is that you start thinking like a writer." -Anne Lamott

It's true.  Ever since I started writing "publically," I seem to think of things to write about, words or phrases I like, and images or stories to share.  I've realized that writing helps me to process the world around me.  I guess to a certain extent I have always known this, being an avid journaler and someone who has always enjoyed putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard - doesn't have the same ring to it though).  Writing about my art helps me understand better what I'm creating and why.  Writing about the world helps me cope, process, and thoughtfully consider.  Writing about my faith brings depth to my spiritual practice and sheds light on my soul.  And writing about food (lately, homemade bread) is quite simply...fun.

That said, I am grateful for the opportunity to share my stories and musings with the world.

Whenever I have spent significant periods of time traveling or living abroad, I have been committed to documenting it - all the stories, questions, experiences, concerns, joys, fears - all of it.  And when I am back "home," on my own soil, in my own space, I still continue to keep a journal and enjoy my writing but not so avidly.  I guess the newness and strangeness and emotions of a unique place give me more reason to write.  But that's part of what I love about this whole backward process.  This thing, this public writing, began after one such period of dedicated journaling.  I'm just here.  Home.  In between. There's something quite grand about it's non-grandness.  The lack of the great and the glorious (wait, who says the everyday isn't great and glorious?) makes me more sensitive to the essence of life in its smallness.  Not that I don't still long for adventure with every fiber of my being, but there's something to be said for the bits and pieces, this and that.

I noticed something really lovely the other day.  I was on my way home in the middle of a steady rain after we had a series of uncharacteristically warm days here in Chicago.  The trees were tricked into spring and even started to show their buds.  As the temperature dropped and the rain fell, the freezing droplets of water formed little globes of ice around the tree buds.  When the streetlights shown through the ice encrusted tree buds, they looked just like little Christmas lights.  As if the tree had done away with the tradition of leaf or flower buds (that is so last year) and decided to grow little globe lights instead. I kept my eyes open for fireflies and fairies, thinking that would be just the tree they would alight.

I couldn't be more excited for these subtle notes of spring - whether they be trees of buds or lights.  My Seed Savers Exchange catalogue arrived in the mail last week, a glorious collection of heirloom seeds and every gardener's dream.  I sat on the floor like a 6 year old with the latest American Girl catalogue, earmarking the varieties of fruit and vegetable seeds that tickled my fancy.  Red Velvet lettuce.  Garden Sunshine peppers. Pennsylvania Crookneck squash.  Italian Heirloom tomatoes.  Yes, please.  I almost feel like cutting out all of the beautiful images of fully ripe fruit and veg and pasting them to the frozen ground outside - just a little encouragement and a hint of hope, a whisper of what's coming:




If that doesn't give you hope of spring and inspiration for a poem I don't know what will. For now, I guess I'll just keep noticing elements of the everyday, writing, and waiting.  

I bid you dreams of trees budding with orbs of light, berries bursting with sunshine, and various other bits and pieces of the ordinary.