Some say, “Art is never finished, but only abandoned.” I left my latest acrylic painting for a day, knowing I’d need to adjust some of the sky values, but I was beyond Monday’s melancholy mood. I remembered the sunset of my original experience, and wondered, “Is the end of one day merely the beginning of another? If so, sunrises and sunsets are just markers for us until we participate in eternity with god.” In age of coronavirus, I now think more about time and how we experience it. For me, the now and the present moment take on more importance than either the future or the past. As J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring said:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Not that my cloistered coronavirus days are slowly melting together like Easter Peeps in a microwave, or becoming desperate Survivor Island fare, as the young parents thought who once called me during the pink eye school closures. These always seemed to follow directly on the heels of spring break, and parents would cry into the telephone, “How do you stand this All. Year. Long?”
I’d laugh and remind them, “I always have a plan for the day, and a back up plan too.” Art classes depend on teaching basic skills at the start, so you can teach more difficult skills later. Hand and eye coordination is one skill, but the other more important achievement is the ability to trust one’s self. As an artist pushes forward, he or she can get comfortable and begin to repeat only what they know and what is safe. Of course, this is common to all of life, for we frequently eat the same foods at the same restaurants, take the same routes to work, and drink our favored brews.
Finding a way to break through the wall of the routine is challenging. If we’re always progressing, we may move more quickly than our audience can appreciate us. Then we need to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of art and by extension, what is the purpose of our life? This is why having a pattern of work balanced with reflection is helpful, not only in the art life, but also in the spiritual life. When I speak of the art life, I mean any life engaged in production, industry, sales, or the economy. All could benefit from spending time in reflection, instead of hitting the ground running and always hustling. If we asked ourselves WHY more, and WHAT WILL THE CONSEQUENCES BE, we might be more socially responsible with our practices and care more for the earth which we’ll leave to our descendants. It’s their inheritance and we shouldn’t exhaust it as if we were prodigal sons.
These two paintings are the latest off my easel. The first is an empty lot across from the Transportation Depot in Hot Springs. From the depot side, all you can see is the line of trees on the horizon, but if you drive up Olive Street, you find the vacant lot parallel to the side of the historic 1914 Hot Springs High School. This building was renovated into lofts and apartments, both for government subsidized and market paying rentals. President Clinton attended this school and the property is currently for sale. The vacant lot once had a building of some sort on it, perhaps an elementary school, for I found concrete steps and the remnant of a flagpole. Today it’s gone to seed, and the wild grasses grow as they choose, until the city or some private party mows them down.
I was there on a cool afternoon with a breeze blowing fair. The sun was over my back and I couldn’t see the depot for the tree barrier. Although I was “smack dab in the middle of the city,” I might as well have been out in the countryside. It may be a field of weeds to you or an eyesore awaiting development, but this city block serves a purpose in its ragged glory. These green places act as sinks to cleanse the air and regulate the water runoff. In more developed areas, neighborhood parks and people’s yards store very high amounts of carbon, which help reduce carbon emission levels in cities. This is a benefit of living in a smaller city, for the largest ones have sucked up all the green spaces and filled them in with concrete and steel.
Not only is keeping our yards green important, but instead of paving over an area, keeping green space and plants in a yard makes a difference because a property is part of a much bigger ecosystem and is part of that proven fabric of the city. By keeping your yard green, you provide your city with the ecosystem services that urban green spaces provide. Here are four little known ecosystem services that urban green spaces provide to cities:
- Urban Heat Island—the urban heat island effect has negative impacts on the health and efficiency of cities, including increased energy consumption, increased air pollutants and greenhouse gases, impaired water quality and compromised human health and comfort.
- Carbon Storage— backyard soils can capture even more harmful carbon emissions than soils in native forests or grasslands. Urban backyards and green spaces contribute to reducing carbon emission levels in cities, which makes air cleaner and healthier for its residents.
- Water Regulation—green spaces keep untreated water out of lakes and rivers, and let sewers work without backing up
- Economic Savings—green areas increase property values
The cluster of trees isolated in the ocean of grass are much like a family in the pandemic: tense, taught, tightly tucked together, and removed from all others to survive. We might all have days like this in our quarantine, and then we’ll have days when we want to reach out to others, in real life or virtually. Social distancing can quickly devolve into isolation and then into fear of going out of our homes. This has a name: agoraphobia or fear of open places. It’s a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed. You fear an actual or anticipated situation, such as using public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in line, or being in a crowd. Just going on a Kroger run today can feel like a mission behind enemy lines. If our days take more energy from us than they used to, we need to adjust our expectations of how much we can get done, just as we slow down when it’s a 110 F in the shade during the summer.
This is possibly the reason after all these years, I’m still in the beginner class of the Pacer Clinics, but walking isn’t the skill I’m actually trying to improve. Becoming more aware of the present moment is an achievement level worth unlocking, so I’m practicing “opening myself to the holy.” We can find the holy in any moment of time, not just in those times set aside or designated as sacred. We all have different goals, and getting from one place to another in record time might not be the most important end result or best use of our time.
Perhaps this pandemic has caused us to reassess our arbitrary borders between work, home, and worship, since many of us have been doing all three from one place. Can we say that only one time or one place or one day is more sacred than any other? Or should we look again and see all of our days and all of our ways are a sacred endeavor? If this is so, we have to check if our faith undergirds and empowers our daily acts, and not just once a week. Another way to express this is, “Do we live our Bible, or does it gather dust on the coffee table?”
And what of those essential workers who daily face the contagion? Can they still find any holy moments in these dread times? Or are they so busy throwing themselves into the breach, they have no time to notice the still, small voice of god? When life is overwhelming, we often can’t hear God’s voice because the press of our problems pushes out all other inputs, even the hopeful spirit of god. We then have to trust if we take care of business, then god will take care of the outcomes. As the ancient voice of wisdom in Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD.” When our day is done, we can rest in god and restore our souls and health.
This pandemic has ripped the curtain off the hidden division in our culture. Those workers considered “essential” may be high or low wage earners, but the difference in resources they have to meet the difficulties of their new lives is eye opening. Nearly 60% of adult Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and what’s even more amazing is about 1 in 5 people earning over $100,000 annually also live paycheck to paycheck! If you owe your soul to Visa or MasterCard, you have an existential need to earn a living, and not just a calling to fulfill. It’s not because folks are squandering their resources, but the cost of living is high in many places, plus many have student debt, mortgages and car loans. In truth, some of us owe our soul to a plastic god because we have chosen to live too high, rather than to live a simple life.
Now the pandemic has caused the greatest job dislocation since the Great Depression when 25% of the workforce lost their jobs. The latest unemployment rate is almost 15%, which is roughly double what the nation experienced during the entire financial crisis from 2007 to 2009. The most telling tale is 40% of the workers making less than $40,000 per year lost their jobs during this pandemic, according to the Federal Reserve. The lowest paid workers in the leisure and hospitality industry suffered the most. If we are looking at our lives and grumbling at our inconveniencies or loss of “freedoms to come and go at will,” perhaps we need to recover the simple joys of life: reverence in the silent moments when we’re in a cool and shady spot, joy for the sunlight dappling on autumn leaves, or the ever-changing reflections in a running brook.
I was in a better frame of mind when I painted the sunset beyond the trees. The colors are lighter, and the spaces are more open. I can always tell when I’ve been sick, for even a sinus infection turns my energy and vision inward. In this work the trees bend toward one another and their leaf crowns unite in a yellow communal mass. They may be separate life forms, but they all are rooted in the same earth and nourished by the same water. As the prophet Jeremiah says in 17:8—
“He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
May we all be like the trees planted by the refreshing streams of water, even during these drought times.
Joy and Peace,