My family has a tradition of handcrafts and needle working skills, passed down from generation to generation, as do many Southern families. I admit I didn’t care much for the sitting still part when I was young, but I really liked the bright sequins and beads of the tree skirts we embellished with the symbols of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The first six days were overloaded, while the last few had only a sprinkle of sparkle stitched to the colored felt, but then we were coming in under the wire by Christmas eve and Santa wouldn’t visit our house if we didn’t get into bed as soon as possible. We just barely made it.
Most of our projects didn’t have such a time limit, however. I remember learning to make doll clothes on a toy sewing machine before my mother trusted me on the electric machine. I made tiny tucks across the bodice of these outfits from the scraps of the materials my mother used to make my school clothes. My Nannie had an old foot powered sewing machine on her back porch. It was often hidden under piles of newspapers or canning jars resting on their journey to the garage out back. From her I learned to sew straight seams, unbeknownst to my mom. My small foot wasn’t able to power the treadle of the old machine very fast and I’d been warned within an inch of my life to keep my fingers a good distance from the needle. I was doing this sub rosa, and that added to my excitement, but my mother probably knew. I only thought I was doing something forbidden.
Soon after this, my mother decided I needed to learn to make simple clothes from a pattern. Not that I would do it unsupervised, but she did have a degree in home economics and a lifetime teaching certificate. I made one of those easy patterns with only a front, a back and a neck binding. Of course, I was too young to need to worry about darts yet, so this wasn’t the most difficult project in the sewing room. I did learn how to pin, cut, and sew with the right sides together so the seam would be on the inside.
Later I’d learn to hem my clothes. My mom always thought I sewed backwards. I suppose since she sewed in the opposite direction, I was backwards. I’ll blame this on my being a breech birth, for if I came into the world backwards, I can do things in an opposite manner if I want to. Sometimes it takes a person who sees the world from a different viewpoint than everyone else to help others make sense of the world, especially when the world isn’t in the order we’ve come to expect it to be.
July is the season of the year when active Methodist clergy move to new churches. I’d hear my friends say, “I’m going to hit the ground running and show them I’m ready!”
I’d nod my head, and reply, “I’m going to take my time, get to know folks, find out where they are, and what they need. Then we’ll figure out where we need to go together.” I was past the age of running anywhere, since ministry was my fifth career.
This pandemic has changed many of our rituals and routines. Gone are our potlucks and coffees, our get togethers and small group sessions. We now meet from afar and we’ve learned to like it, or else we live in isolation, and we’ve learned to endure it. I told a friend, “I’m blessed to be single, because if I get on my nerves, I’ve got no one to blame but me! If I get that upset with myself, I go down to the exercise room for a walk.”
As this pandemic has stretched out, I’ve come to realize treating it like a new appointment might be the best practice. Ministry is more of a marathon than a sprint, for we need to keep a steady pace for a long distance, rather than run fast for a short initial spurt. Throwing all our energies at it in the first few months, especially now when everyone is socially distanced, isn’t going to be the most effective use of our potency.
This is where quilt making comes into play. Quilts can have a structured pattern or they can be various strips of cloth sewn together until they make a square or an entire top. Right now, we’re in crazy quilt land, while we wish we were in structured pattern quilt land. We have to make do with the materials we have at hand and make the most beautiful work with what we have. This is the creative work of the Holy Spirit, which binds the people together, no mater how separated and isolated the community is.
I pulled out some fabric from one of my boxes to make a patchwork pillow. I had no plan, for mostly I was distressed at the brokenness and sickness of our world. I thought if I stitched some strips of fabric together, I would find some order, and perhaps some beauty. Of course, I kept stitching and realized I had more than enough for a pillow, but not enough for another project. I looked at my plain jean jacket and thought it could be improved. I kept stitching, so soon I had enough for the jacket and yet another pillow! This is enough. I’m going to put up my machine and go back to my easel for a while.
I know I miss my friends and family, for they’re like the strips of cloth I’ve sewn together. I try to connect with them by writing my blogs and sharing my spiritual pages, so I can give a voice to the emotions others perhaps are feeling. I write because I’ve never been accused of saying too little, but more often of not knowing when to quit. That’s ok, for someone needs to put into words the feelings this pandemic is putting many of us through.
I hope you’re finding some creative project to do during this pandemic time. I suggest a journal, to write out your memories of your life before this strange time. We don’t know what our future will bring us, and the generations who follow us will wonder what an ordinary life was like back in the day. If we write about the pandemic itself, we may fail to touch the grief of what we’ve lost, and only write about our grievances of today. If we can find an opportunity to note the small blessings of each day, perhaps we can access our memories of our past lives also.
My granddaddy hung his dress jacket in the old wood chifforobe on that back porch where the antique sewing machine resided. The cabinet retained the aroma of his favorite chewing gum, even when he was gone from the house. I can still smell today the juicy fruit chewing gum my granddaddy always carried in his coat pocket.
I hope you’re finding moments of joy and peace amidst this time of pandemic and uncertainty. I’ve attached a poem at the end I think you might enjoy.
Memories are worthy treasures, as this poem reminds us. This is a true story, for the author finished the quilt in 2017. Her husband’s mother had started it and was about a third done with the quilting when she passed away in 1986.
Thirty Years By Ruth Poteet
My closet’s free of a strange parolee, coldly imprisoned for thirty long years; gone with the rest of my walk-in’s debris, I’d marked it “Goodwill” with cynical cheers.
Rescuing the box, my mind shifted gears. And ready to face fair verdict instead, a quilt, yet unquilted, moved me to tears. At seventy-three I finished this spread.
It took just three weeks, while my fingers bled, now “thirty years” rests proudly on my bed.
July celebrations kickoff with the Independence Day holiday. In this Age of Coronavirus and social distancing, we rabbits might not be at a company or church sponsored picnic, and we might not seek out a crowded beach for a vacation since Florida and Texas are currently experiencing peaks from this new disease. I’m still hanging close to home, choosing to enjoy a variety of foods, and starting some sewing projects in addition to my art and writing interests. Due to a past brush with heat exhaustion, I don’t tempt these hot temperatures with my presence. “Stay cool and stay hydrated” is my motto for the next few months. Rabbits and humans both have the same need for water, fresh fruits and veggies, plus lots of shade in this heat. An ice bottle might be a treat for them on a hot day too. I find myself craving frozen fruit for a snack.
While I staycation, which is what I actually do all year long, except for my occasional road trips to visit museums or the grandchildren, I’ve had time to reflect on my past life and the events of today. I began writing this in June, near Fathers Day and after the weeks of protests over the deaths of black men at the hands of the police. One of my family members mentioned, “Your daddy would be rolling over in his grave at all of this mess.” I answered, “If he’s with God, God has cleansed him of all his old prejudices and now he’s rejoicing people are asking for justice and equality.” We got into it after a bit, so we had to take a break for a while. Arguing might not change people’s minds, but I don’t have to affirm antebellum thinking. There’s a reason it’s called a “Lost Cause.” Denying the equality of human beings in the sight of God is to deny God’s love for all God’s people. Not being able to walk in another’s shoes is to deny injustice persists for many people.
The life in God is based in change. If we aren’t able to change our attitudes, we can’t change our behaviors. If we can’t see we were wrong, we can’t turn toward the right. If we turn from God, we also have to be able to return to God. Our love may fail, but God’s love never fails. Some folks think people never change, perhaps because they have no intention of changing. Change is difficult, but necessary. We’re changing from the moment we’re conceived to the moment we leave this world.
We call change in the spiritual life sanctification, or holiness. It’s a process, which is led by the spirit and made evident by good works. We can’t do good works to earn sanctification, but our faith is deepened both by the spirit and by our experience in doing the works. If we’re still imperfect when we pass from this world, God’s mercy completes the work of sanctification to make us fit for life in God’s presence. If God is abounding in love for all and we love because God first loved us, God will refine us into the same love for all to fit us for the eternal life with God.
In my state, some folks called the Black Lives Matter events a riot, while others called them a demonstration. I imagine the British of 1773 had an alternative view of the events of the Boston Tea Party from those who tossed the imported monopoly tea into the harbor. Two hundred and fifty years later, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry reads about the same as the History Channel’s entry on the internet. I call this event to mind so we Americans don’t forget our country was born in demonstrations, riots, and rebellion, not in picnics and parades.
The years of dusty history tend to cloud our memories and we weave a narrative to suit our own modern purposes. Pull up a glass of iced tea and find some shade. We have a whole pandemic ahead of us to get reacquainted with the moldering moments of our nation’s nascence.
Even before the Boston Tea Party, a violent incident escalated out of hand on March 5, 1770. Private Hugh White, a British soldier, heightened a verbal altercation to a physical one. White used his bayonet against a patriot at the Custom House on King Street. Then the angry mob countered with a volley of snowballs, rocks, oyster shells, and ice. Bells rang signaling a disturbance, and loyalists and patriots entered the street to see the commotion. As the riot ensued, the British fired their muskets, killing five colonists in what is today known as the Boston Massacre. Today we’d call this “police brutality.” The representatives of the Crown claimed a right to defend the King’s treasury.
The British soldiers, brought to trial and defended by Samuel Adams, had been in jail for seven months. The captain of the guard was found not guilty, six soldiers were also not guilty, and two were guilty of manslaughter. These last individuals escaped punishment by claiming “benefit of the clergy,” a holdover from early English law. This provision held secular courts had no jurisdiction over clergymen and had become a loop-hole for first-time offenders. After “praying the clergy,” the soldiers were branded on the right hand where the thumb meets the palm with the letter “M” for manslaughter. This insured they could only receive the commutation once, and the mark would be clearly visible during a handshake or while raising their palm on any future oath. This was the 18th century’s “get out of jail free card.”
Undue force is always unjust. Escalating a verbal situation into a brawl and then to a massacre is the worst sort of police brutality. Unfortunately, bringing bayonets and rifles to the location was their first mistake. But “hind sight is always 20/20,” as my daddy used to say. “I hope you learn from this experience, young lady.” I’ve always found the school of hard knocks to be an expensive degree.
When the Tea Act was passed in 1773, it required the colonists to purchase only British East India Tea Company products, whereas they preferred to buy from Holland, since it wouldn’t profit the King. When their smuggling routes shut down, the Americans produced their own herbal teas, rather than purchase the Crown Tea. By December, the colonists were fed up with paying taxes without representation in parliament. They gathered in costume, armed with hatchets, and boarded the boats loaded with British Tea. Tossing it all into the sea, with a whoop and a holler, they had to jump down into the water to hack up the bales so they would sink. Our forefathers forgot to check the tides. At low tide they could waded out to the ships.
Most likely the British of the era thought the colonists engaged in a destructive riot, whereas the patriotic participants were hailed as heroes at home. Things bubbled and simmered along for three more years until the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The top portion of the original draft document was written by Thomas Jefferson, with additions and deletions by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson presented the finished Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, at which time the Declaration was signed. Then copies of the text were transported to key cities, such as New York and Boston, to be read aloud. The initial sentence speaks to the heart of every freedom loving person:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration of Independence contains noble and aspirational thoughts. Yet these words were written by a group of men, all white, all free, and all educated as far as their privilege and status had brought them to that day. Women weren’t included in this equality and neither were the slaves the signers owned, since they were mere “property.” In this case “All” didn’t mean ALL PERSONS.
Thomas Jefferson included a passage attacking slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. The delegates gathered at Philadelphia in the spring and early summer of 1776 debated its inclusion with fervor. Jefferson’s passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document. It was replaced with a more ambiguous passage about King George’s incitement of “domestic insurrections among us.” His original language is below:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.”
Not until 1870 and the passage of the 15th Amendment did African Americans get the right to vote. Women got the right to vote in 1920, Asian Americans got citizenship and voting rights in 1952, and even though Native Americans have had citizenship and voting rights since 1924, many states still disenfranchise them. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to remove the barriers keeping persons of color from exercising their tight to vote, yet disenfranchisement still happens in subtle and not so subtle ways.
The Voting Rights Act came 189 years after the grand words of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two people to walk on the surface of the moon They set an American flag on the surface in recognition of our country’s achievement. While we might be amazed we as a nation could come together in this great challenge, nevertheless we might wonder why the majority population has yet to fully appreciate the minority as an equal partner in this land.
Perhaps it’s as Frederick Douglas once said, “There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.” (From the speech, “The Race Problem In America, 1890.”)
When we search for images of Patriotism or Independence Day, almost all of these are white, for America has been to date a majority white nation. After 2045, however, non-Hispanic whites will likely make up less than half of all Americans. Already whites under age 18 are in the minority. Among all the young people now in the U.S., there are more minority young people than there are white young people. This is a sea change. The attitudes of our youth are different from our older generations.
Among old people age 65 and over, whites are still in the majority. Indeed white old people, compared to minority old people, will continue to be in the majority until some years after 2060. What does this mean for our country, for our world, and for our future? How can we as a people live up to the aspirations of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?”
First we need to agree “Truths can be self-evident.” Not just my truth is true, and your opposite truth is also true for you, so whatever works is cool, as some would say, but certain known absolute true facts are real and sure. For the 18th century mind, truth could be known, and a new and better truth could be discovered in time to replace it through wisdom and knowledge, but “alternative facts” or “fantasy figments of our delusions” aren’t truth, but lies we tell ourselves. (As an aside, if the love of your life ever asks, “Honey, does this outfit make me look fat?” your answer should be “No.” and kiss her before she can ask anymore questions. Life will be happier for you.)
Back in the stone ages, “all men” was read as an all inclusive group, but I questioned that understanding back in the 1960’s in high school.
“Why don’t we just say ALL or EVERYONE instead?” “That’s not how people wrote back then,” my teacher would reply.
“Maybe because they thought it meant ALL MEN and not EVERYBODY?”
Then I would get the LOOK from my teacher, by which I knew I’d pushed the limit and it was time to ask no more questions, even though I had more.
After the Civil War, Northern Reconstructionists attempted to educate whites and blacks equally, but ran into resistance from the Lost Cause proponents. When school institutes were formed to continue teacher education, the summer school term was twenty days long until 1906 when one of the Baton Rouge schools started a thirty-six-day summer school program. In 1909, the length of the summer school program was lengthened to fifty-four days for white teachers and thirty-six days for Negro teachers. Someone with two years at the State Normal teacher’s school could teach in the black schools, but to teach in a white school required a four year degree. This is an example of systemic injustice in the educational community.
What does it mean to be created EQUAL, but not be given equal access to an equal education, housing, food, or medical care? Where I grew up, the white schools got new textbooks. When these were worn out, they were passed down to the black schools. It wasn’t right, but this was the way it was. My state had a practice of historic and systemic racism.
My high school was integrated in 1965 with one young black person. He ate his lunch alone the entire year. He struggled because his schools weren’t on the same level as ours, but he persisted. Equal access is all he wanted. Arthur Burton is a hero in my hometown and my high school now has a scholarship named in his honor.
This lack of equal access was far reaching. Restaurants back in the day wouldn’t serve nonwhite diners, but required them to pick up food at a to go window out back. There were two water fountains, two waiting rooms, and two of everything, just so the races never mixed. I never saw the sense of it, but it was a strict rule my parents carried forth from the past generation. As they often reminded me, “As long as you live under our roof, you abide by our rules.”
This was probably why they wanted me to live at home and go to college in town, but I wanted to go up north. They weren’t having that, so we compromised on a fine girls’ school in Georgia. At least it was below the Mason-Dixon Line. There I participated in marches for peace and justice, or as my parents called it, “Mixing with a bad crowd that was up to no good, just a bunch of hippies and commies, every last one of them.”
One thing about our family, we say what’s on our mind. At least my education was doing me some good, for my friends and I chose not to be on the front lines in case the police or the marchers began to get angry. The middle of the crowd was safer, especially after the 1968 assassination of Dr. King and angry demonstrations which broke out in some cities. Curfews and the termination of liquor sales finally dampened everyone’s energy, but the same cause for equal access still remains today.
Dr. King has been dead over fifty years, but his dream hasn’t yet died. He spoke in Washington D.C. of the Declaration of Independence as the “signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Unfortunately, as Dr. King went on to say, the founders wrote a check they couldn’t cash for all people, and certainly not for persons of color.
King then offered hope, for God is the author of hope to the hopeless, the lifeline to the drowning, food for the hungry, and the defender of the weak:
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
While this document is yet imperfectly fulfilled today, we are called to work toward perfecting it, so we also may truly say with Dr. King:
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…(and)
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”
So with St. Francis of Assisi I offer this prayer for each of us at this half way point of 2020:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is error, truth; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in self-forgetting that we find; And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Boston Massacre” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1870. Boston Tea Party https://coffeeordie.com/boston-tea-party-history/
Charly Palmer: “Good American,” giclee print on paper, 38×28 inches, 2016. A limited edition work of art depicting a an African American solider walking with his wife as the celebrate the United States of American on July 4th. The print is meant to convey the message that African Americans have helped build this country, are a part of this country and celebrate this country like any other Good American citizen . We are America!
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.
April showers bring May flowers and Coronavirus containment orders. Everything we once knew about our worlds has been upended by the advent of this novel virus. Once we were proud of our abilities to master our planet and to wrest its unruly ways to our wills. Now we meet an invisible, but infinitely small agent that can weigh lay us from some hidden corner or passing person. I have friends who say they don’t want to go to the grocery store without their spouse or partner, for they don’t feel safe anymore. Then there’s the folks who run pell mell into the jaws of death, daring the virus to take them on.
From my rabbit hole, I wonder if the virus doesn’t affect the nervous system and cause some of us to act more fearful and others to act more foolhardy. I think the stress of looking at our four walls of our various hutches, being cooped up with our rabbit families, and dealing with teaching our bunny children their lessons is getting to us all. Maybe raises for those teachers are due in the next go round, now that we understand what they go through every day. The stress is getting to all of us, and even to this rabbit, who’s used to organizing my own time.
People laughed at me back in my seminary days when I brought my appointment book to school, but I blocked off all my classes, set aside time for study, time for meals, and I only worked a half day on Saturday. Sunday I did church and watched the Cowboys, back when they really were America’s Team. I’m retired now, but I still keep a calendar of projects. Since my two art shows got cancelled, I started making masks for those who’ll be opening up shop again soon. I keep up on my pages, my sci-fi spiritual blog, and I started a new painting series, “Postcards from the Pandemic.” I’m down to working about 30 hours a week now, but I’m almost as old as the dinosaurs. The young rabbits can work the long hours and they’re welcome to them.
This May won’t be like any May we’ve ever had before. Whatever model or image you have of the “merry month of May,” you should toss it out the window and let it smash to smithereens like a precious crystal vase dropped from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We won’t be traveling there any time soon, but if you can find a high up window, your fantasies about May will crash with a resounding clash. Then you can have a good cry about it or a stiff drink, whatever suits your fancy.
Just get your rabbit mind wrapped around this idea: San Antonio has cancelled its Cinco de Mayo celebrations and the Kentucky Derby won’t run on May 4, but has deferred this premier horse race to September 5, 2020. The Indianapolis 500, a Memorial Day tradition for 104 years, has been rescheduled for Sunday, Aug. 23. These events haven’t been cancelled forevermore. They’ve merely been postponed to a future date. We can bury the small grief of our delayed gratification, and look forward to a better time in the future.
NASCAR will be the first major sport to return to television, but without fans in the stands. NASCAR will resume its season without fans starting May 17, at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina with the premier Cup Series racing four times in an 11-day span. The revised schedule for now will only race at tracks within driving distance of the Charlotte-based race teams and in states that have started reopening.
Charlotte Motor Speedway will then host the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 to mark 60 consecutive years of the longest race on the NASCAR schedule being held on Memorial Day weekend. The track in Concord, outside NASCAR’s home base of Charlotte, will then host a Wednesday race three days later. The teams won’t travel far, they won’t practice, they won’t qualify, they’ll wear face masks, practice social distancing, and the rules might be adjusted for pit stops, but when the green flag drops, those drivers will forget about these minor things because they have a race to win. Racing rabbits always go for the trophy, as in “Wreckers or Checkers! Baby, I’m using the chrome horn if you don’t get out of my way!”
Some holidays and celebrations won’t change, and we rabbits can be glad for this. I’ve often listed all the commercial holidays ginned up to advertise some food stuff or group, but not this May. My bunny nose sniffs a different wind in the air. In the interest of not working too hard, I’ve picked five good holidays and celebrations for May:
May 1—May Day—love and hope May 4—Star Wars Day—May the force be with you May 10—Mother’s Day—remember your mama! May 25—Memorial Day—honor those who died serving the USA May 25—Carry a Towel Day—homage to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Our age is seeking a new spring of life. May Day once marked the halfway point between darkness and light. It’s half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In Ireland, the pre-Christian Celtic peoples divided the year into two main seasons: Winter and the beginning of the year, which fell on November 1, and the Midyear/Summer, which began on May 1. These two junctures were thought to be critical periods when the bounds between the human and supernatural worlds were temporarily erased.
Many of us have experienced thin times, when we feel the presence of God’s spirit with us more deeply than on other occasions. For me, this is more often when I’m in nature. The great dome of the sky, the clouds lit with the glow of the sun, and the liquid light overflowing and casting its glow on the land below. I can get lost in these thin moments and forget what I’m doing and where I am. If you meet a rabbit stopped for speeding on the highway, perhaps they were in a thin moment and not really a jerk.
There are also thin places, which are places of energy, or a place where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. A thin place is where one can walk in two worlds—the worlds are fused together, knitted loosely where the differences can be discerned or tightly where the two worlds become one. These are places which have been recognized over the ages as connected with the spiritual world. Often overlaid with the most recent god of the newest inhabitants, the place retains its spiritual energy. Many temples in the ancient world were built on the sites of even more ancient holy places, only to have churches built over them even later still.
In this era of Coronavirus, we might not be using our frequent travelers miles, so we could seek an alternative thin space. The holy icons are perfect for this, for since they’re a “window into heaven,” they’re by definition a “thin place.” They usually are given a designated place in the home, called the Red Corner, for the Russian word for red and beautiful are the same. Of course, we don’t pray to the icon, and the object isn’t worshipped, for that would be idolatry. We pray to the God of the saint represented, or to the Son of God, but not to the icon itself, which is merely an outward and visible reminder of the inward and invisible spirit which connects us all to what is good and holy and communal in our socially distancing world.
On May 4th, we can say, “May the Fourth be with you,” and remember the “Force is always with us,” for every time and place can be a thin place if only we rabbits would become aware the greater power beyond us is also operating within us, for “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
We all have Mothers, who gave birth to us. Some of us also have adopted mothers, mothers who raised us, mothers who formed us in the faith, or mothers who took us under their wing and taught us how to get along in the world. Mothers today don’t have to be women, but they do have to nurture and shelter. The church has been a great mother for centuries, nurturing the poor and the marginalized through the ministries of outreach to the neighborhood and the world. These ministries haven’t stopped just because of the coronavirus, but are increasing because of job losses, homelessness, and hunger. If you have the means to share with your local food pantry, please do. Hungry rabbits depend on us.
Memorial Day weekend was for a long time a pause to honor the nation’s war dead. Then it became a three day weekend for backyard barbecues and sporting events. As the toll from the novel coronavirus pandemic in America marches past the total of Americans killed in the Vietnam War, our holidays may take on a more somber nature. For other rabbits, who have an overripe case of cabin fever, a need to break loose in a wild debacle may override their common sense. I know my rabbit friends have good sense, so even if your state flings the doors wide open to “life as usual,” common sense and expert wisdom will prevail instead. Let others test the waters on this idea, and let them be the guinea pigs to see if the curve has actually flattened.
May 25 is also Carry a Towel Day, so if we have a towel, we won’t panic. As explained in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, towels are “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” A towel has both practical value, since it can be used for warmth, shelter, a weapon, and also strangely to dry one’s body. It also had psychological value, for if a non-Hitchhiker sees you with a towel, they’ll assume you’re fully stocked with other necessities as well. The lesson I take from this is while life is serious, I shouldn’t take myself too seriously. Humor will get a rabbit through the thickets and briars of this world better than struggling against the thorns and weeds. After all, angels fly because they take themselves lightly.
I will see you next month, when the June bugs fly. Until then,
Love, Joy and Peace,
Recipe for CLASSIC MINT JULEP for a delayed Kentucky Derby, best consumed while wearing a fancy hat or elegant jacket. This recipe is adapted from “The 12 Bottle Bar,” a fun, informative cocktail recipe book by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson. To make simple syrup, pour one cup of granulated sugar or Splenda into one cup of water and slowly heat on the stove, stirring until the sugar/Splenda is dissolved. Plus a Handful of fresh mint leaves, 1 oz. simple syrup (2 tablespoons), and 2 oz. bourbon or rye, your choice (1/4 cup or 4 tablespoons).
Put the mint in a cup, preferably one made out of silver or some other metal that will keep things nice and cold, and muddle it by pressing it gently against the sides and bottom of the cup for a few seconds (use that muddler you got as a wedding present or the handle of a wooden spoon). This rabbit would use a spoon.
DO NOT MASH THE MINT. You just need to release the mint’s oils, which does not require a strenuous effort. Over-muddling will result in an overly bitter drink. Add the simple syrup. Fill the cup with crushed ice and add the bourbon. Stir gently for 30 seconds or so, until frost forms on the side of the drink. Add more ice if needed and garnish with another sprig of mint. If you don’t have metal cups, make it in any cup cup you have. The metal is traditional, however.
This is a stay at home beverage, or a split between two persons, since it exceeds the recommended one ounce per day consumption of alcoholic beverages. Enjoy responsibly.
For more information on some of the subjects mentioned above:
How many of us get to admire the great creative exuberance of the divine palette strewn across the sky twice a day in our ordinary days? Most of us are too busy breakfast grabbing, caffeine swilling, clothes donning, and storming the door in a mad dash for the morning rush to work. Then we join the misnomered evening rush hour, which actually moves at a snail’s pace. We’re too busy watching the bumper in front of us on a highway to pay attention to the sky above us. If we’re guarding our goods on a subway, we can’t even see the light of day until we exit the bowels of the earth, but then we’ve got our eyes set on home, not on the sky above us.
I wonder if this Age of Coronavirus has changed us in any way, since January 30, when the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency due to the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China. It’s been about one hundred days since the World Health Organization and our everyday world has known about this pandemic plague, but cancelled sporting events and music festivals, working from home, and closed schools are now part of our daily life. The opening day for Major League Baseball heard no crack of bat against the ball and no hawkers in the stands shouting, “Peanuts, popcorn, crackerjack!” Even though the 2020 Olympic flame burns brightly in japan, the games won’t be held this summer due to the virulent virus and athletes won’t earn shining metals.
If today we haven’t these rituals of community as celebrations of our common humanity, we might feel a sense of loss, even grief. Yet we can find a daily reminder of hope, for the sun continues to rise in the morning and set in the evening. When the moon rises and the stars come out at night, we can see the rotation of the constellations according to the seasons of the year. Of course, we have to look up, and not down. We also have to look out beyond ourselves, and not just inside always. When we’re cooped up inside, doing #StayHomeStaySafe for our own good as well as for others, sometimes it’s difficult to look outward.
When I was a child, my family didn’t have many art works in our home, but we always had a colorful nature calendar. My parents were always willing to hang my art in their home, an act I found encouraging. We also made weekend trips to hike in nature, ostensibly to “search for arrowheads,” but more often just to be outside. When I was in active ministry, I would go to nature when I was drained and needed to find the quiet place to restore my soul. There were times when I felt the demands of my superiors for more productivity and the nagging from my congregation about why I couldn’t be available all the time in the office as well as out visiting the home bound were more than I could handle, so I would close up shop and take a drive. I thought I might kill the next person who came in my office, but that’s not evidence of “going on to perfection,” so leaving was a better choice on my part.
I very often served in county seat towns, so I was never far from nature, but even in the city, I knew the location of the best parks. In art school, I even lived next to a park and in seminary I lived next to a creek. Now I live in a national park. I feel like I’ve achieved a life goal. My neighbor at the condo has cultivated quite an interior and patio garden in this Age of Coronavirus. I bought an orchid plant for my birthday, rather than cut flowers, since nursing a living plant seems more hopeful in this time of loss for so many people. My Christmas cactus even bloomed again for Holy Week, another sign of optimism amidst the panic shopping and empty shelves. If there’s enough life in my little plant to bloom out of season, then I trust God’s gift of providence to feed the hungry and care for us all, if we share with one another.
Some people only see the sunsets on their vacations, but never any other time of the year. The sunset lasts less than five minutes, and the best colors are only momentarily part of this time. If we’re addicted to busyness, or filling every available moment of our time with productive activity, then we’ll be checking off our to do list and miss the magic of this moment. We could reframe our attitudes, however, and see our pause for the sunset as a time of blessing for the day. We can break for beauty, awe, and magnificence, and thank God for the whole of our day, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. After all, we’ve made it through another day, and the cycle will begin again, so we can entrust our night to God’s Care also. This is the meaning of providence.
I sometimes wonder if some are closed to creation and therefore closed to God’s love and grace. When I see the damage humanity has done to the earth and the creatures which live upon it, I wonder how much hate or ignorance can exist in people. This virus has exposed structural inequities and inequalities both in the victims and in their previous care. Two groups which are dying from covid-19 in greater proportions than normal are African Americans and men. For the first group, persons of color more often live in neighborhoods with higher pollution and less access to healthy food, plus they have more disease burden with less medical access. Men of all races and economic status have higher incidence of heart disease and smoking, plus they don’t fight inflammation as well due to their gene structure.
Perhaps this disease will take the blinders from our eyes, so we’ll begin to provide better medical care for our whole population, rather than think the coronavirus is just a means of “culling the herd.” That’s a hard hearted way to view a child of God’s creation, made from the dust of the earth, and breathed into life with the very Spirit of God. When I look at creation, the landscape or a sunset, I see the creating hand shaping me and you, and even these hard hearted yahoos, who have the survival of the fittest and wealthiest as their goal. I think somewhere within them is the image of God, even if they’re doing a great job of hiding it. Maybe they need to go in search of more sunsets or a forest. I know I was always a better person after a quiet time in the shade of a forest.
Life for extroverts in the Age of Social Distancing is difficult. They need people to bounce their ideas off of, friends to hear their tales of daily struggles or victories, and most of all, the transfer of energy between the parties to feel alive. For introverts, most of whom need space and quiet to restore their energies, the “stay at home unless absolutely necessary” directives are more welcome than not. A good book, some quiet music, and a calming drink of herbal tea is a balm for the body and the soul.
Of course, if you have children, activity is your middle name, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of extroversion or introversion. Taking walks in the neighborhood of your city is an opportunity to learn about architecture. How is it built, what are the forms called, and how many styles can you identify as you walk about? You can make an art project from this walk about, by building a shoebox city, a collage from magazines or scrap paper, or making a map.
When my daughter was young, we lived in south Texas, so our walks meant we might stumble upon a limestone fossil creature. She was always amazed some animal from the prehistoric times would find its way into our modern age, even if it were a lifeless stone. To find a treasure from 100,000,000 years ago always added excitement to our jaunts about the home place.
If you live in the countryside, you might have access to the woods or a forest, or you can go there. We haven’t decided to lock down everyone in their home yet. However, it’s my “Dr. Cornie” opinion we all should limit our goings and doings to the utmost necessities of grocery, health, and essential services. While I’m not a “real doctor,” those of us who are “Coronavirus Cathys and Chucks” can spread this disease to others, even if we don’t feel sick or have symptoms.
In this Age of Coronavirus, staying put at home means we “flatten the curve” of the spread of the disease. While many will have a mild disease, too many will have a difficult outcome, especially when they face a lack of hospital beds and equipment to treat them. Let’s think of these others, and not just of ourselves alone.
With this admonition in mind, I invite you to travel virtually in solitude to the woods. Many of my paintings are of nature, for I feel close to God in nature. My parents may have been getting a vacation from me when I went to summer church camp at the old Works Project Administration site at Caney Lake, but I connected with the God who meets us in nature while I was there.
The Germans have a constructed word Waldeinsamkeit, which roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude. The Grimm Brothers wrote many fairy tales, which were also set in the famed German Black Forest: Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood to name a few.
I don’t know if children read these stories today, since they’re a tad scary, but my parents grew up in the Great Depression and fought the Great War in Europe against the Nazis. They helped us through the imaginary, scary events so we could take on the actual, distressing situations. Practicing the easy operations in a safe space helped us confront our fears in real life.
Sometimes I’ll walk in the woods and hear a voice calling me to turn around. It’s not an audible voice, as if an outside agent were speaking to me. It’s also not my own inner sense, as “I should turn around.” Instead, I perceive a stillness from beyond, and the word I hear is “Turn around and look.”
If nature speaks to us, it’s because “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20). Does this mean all persons see God’s hand in creation? Of course not, for some can’t even see the image of God in their own faces when they look in the mirror as they brush their teeth in the morning. Perhaps this is why the city streets are littered, the country roads are trashed, and violence to humanity is a sad trouble in every zip code. If we are God’s people, we’ll care for one another and for God’s world.
Even in the Age of Coronavirus, when our solid underpinnings have been cut down from under us and we have crashed to the ground with the noise of a giant sequoia tearing through its smaller companions, we don’t lose hope and we don’t lose heart. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Walk in the woods, in silence, and renew your soul, with Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Waldeinsamkeit I do not count the hours I spend In wandering by the sea; The forest is my loyal friend, Like God it useth me.
In plains that room for shadows make Of skirting hills to lie, Bound in by streams which give and take Their colors from the sky;
Or on the mountain-crest sublime, Or down the oaken glade, O what have I to do with time? For this the day was made.
Cities of mortals woe-begone Fantastic care derides, But in the serious landscape lone Stern benefit abides.
Sheen will tarnish, honey cloy, And merry is only a mask of sad, But, sober on a fund of joy, The woods at heart are glad.
There the great Planter plants Of fruitful worlds the grain, And with a million spells enchants The souls that walk in pain.
Still on the seeds of all he made The rose of beauty burns; Through times that wear and forms that fade, Immortal youth returns.
The black ducks mounting from the lake, The pigeon in the pines, The bittern’s boom, a desert make Which no false art refines.
Down in yon watery nook, Where bearded mists divide, The gray old gods whom Chaos knew, The sires of Nature, hide.
Aloft, in secret veins of air, Blows the sweet breath of song, O, few to scale those uplands dare, Though they to all belong!
See thou bring not to field or stone The fancies found in books; Leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own, To brave the landscape’s looks.
Oblivion here thy wisdom is, Thy thrift, the sleep of cares; For a proud idleness like this Crowns all thy mean affairs.
“Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.” ~~ Ecclesiastes 10:20
“A little bird told me,” my nanny often said, when I asked her how she knew about my doings. “The walls have eyes, honey, and the wind has ears. Nothing done in secret stays hidden very long. You’d best mind your P’s and Q’s.”
If I had been a more fearful child, I might have been afraid to sleep in a dark bedroom. As it was, I was only afraid of what was under the bed and what might come out of the closet, both of which are normal childhood “monster” fears. I kept these imaginary monsters from harming me by closing the closet door at night and by approaching my bed at a dead run, and launching my small body a full six feet through the air until I landed in the middle of my bed. My parents were thankful I forgot about these monsters by the time I was big enough to have done damage to the furniture.
How do we handle fears as adults? Some of us put our heads down into the sands, as if we were ostriches rolling our eggs in our nests. What we don’t see won’t bother us. Some of us self medicate with substances to the point of abuse. We can even use goods in a bad way: overeating, over exercising, overwork, and orthorexia (concern for a good diet) are a few we could mention. A better way is to seek a balanced life, and not to go off the deep end in any one direction.
When everyone else is losing their heads around you, someone has to remain calm. For a long time my motto was “Leave me alone, I’m having a crisis.” Then I went into ministry and I became the caregiver to people in crisis. Folks need a non-anxious presence to be with them, for even if we can’t change or fix their present circumstances, we can be a reassuring companion. While the present moment may be distressing, often the underlying reason is because our applecart has been upset. When our plans and schemes get upended, we have to monitor the new situation, and adjust accordingly. We may not like what we have to take care of, but this is our now, and not some hypothetical game plan.
As one of my clergy pals used to say, “I keep my calendar in pencil because I have to change it so often.” I just use that tape whiteout and write mine in ink anyway. I like the pretty colors, but I know life happens and when it does, i make the changes and write in a new plan in ink. Life is often messier than I’d like it to be.
I just found out all our public spaces in our county will close for April due to the coronavirus mitigation protocols. We have an establishment called The Ohio Club, which has been serving food and drink since 1905. It’s made it through the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the two Great World Wars, and many smaller ups and downs in between. If we have an eye to the better future, and not just to the problems of the present moment, we can plan and work to get through this part of the cycle.
While closing down is a good choice for our community to contain the coronavirus, it means the exhibition I planned won’t go up. I’ll be checking to see if it’s rescheduled or if it will be a virtual display. With everyone on home confinement, we’ll make the best of the situation. There has to be a silver lining in the clouds somewhere. At least we should be looking for the bluebird of happiness to visit us in the coming days.
Here is the poem by the American 20th Century writer, George J. Carroll, that first used the phrase “bluebird of happiness:”
“And in the valley beneath the mountains of my youth, lies the river of my tears. As it wends its way to the ocean of my dreams, so long ago they have gone. And yet, if I were but to think anew, would these dreams evaporate in my mind and become the morning dew upon a supple rose whose beauty is enhanced with these glistening drops, as the sun of life peeks o’er the mountains when youth was full. Then I must not supply this endless fountain that creates the river of my tears but look beyond those mountains where the bluebird of happiness flies.”
Folks tells us to stay in the present moment and to honor our feelings. If we’re in a state of anxiety, however, we need to ask if feeding our fears is the best choice we can make. “What if’s” and “How are we going to’s” are useful fuel for the flames of our imaginations. If we feed that flame, we’ll either take to day drinking or need to be heavily medicated for the public safety. Neither are our best choice. Sometimes we make lists, and then add lists to the lists, as if we could organize the chaos unfolding about us.
In truth, Chaos is confused, unordered, unorganized, and has no distinct form. It’s what existed before Creation. As such, unpredictability is its inherent nature. If we were in one of the closed casinos, the metaphor would be “shooting craps with loaded dice,” since the odds would be stacked against the player in favor of the House.
The best way to keep our wits about us when everyone else is going crazy is to breathe deeply in and out. If we focus on the breath, and remember the source of this life giving breath, we can connect our selves to a greater power.
“Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” ~~ Genesis 2:7
If we remember whose we are, and who we are, we’ll get through this together. Take care of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, and the sick. We are stronger together than we are alone.
Some people are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer in this germ conscious age of Coronavirus, but we who practice the art life are also stocking up on Liquitex heavy body acrylic paint and canvases plus coffee, so we can make the best of a bad situation. We’re also giving encouragement to all we meet or greet, for we know we’re all in this together. When our local officials call for “social distancing,” some think this means individuals have to take care of their own needs only, but this isn’t so. This “social distance” only refers to the space between us, not to our ignorance of the needs of others.
Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome (2nd CE), wrote in one his Meditations, “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee,” (Book VI, 54). If we don’t work for the good of all, we aren’t doing good for ourselves. I met our condo maintenance man the other day as I was returning from our last art class before spring break. (Our return date is flexible, depending on the coronavirus situation.)
“Did you hear when Walmart runs out of food, they’re going to close it down and not reopen it till all this virus blows over?” “What? That’s crazy. They’ll be selling food till the end of time. Money, honey, they wants it and food, we needs it.”
“That’s what I hear. We’re all gonna starve.” “No, we won’t starve. I have enough dried beans, pasta, canned tuna, and the like to last us a month. It might not be appetizing, but we won’t starve. If you get hungry, you just come to my place and I’ll feed you. Do not worry about food.” “There you go,” he said as he drove away. Maybe he just needed to hear reassurance from someone who wasn’t wearing crazy pants for a change.
Sometimes we get caught up in everyone else’s crazy and forget the words of faith:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:26-27).
Worry is a topic in every age. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd CE, who favored the Stoic philosophy. For a Stoic, the vagaries of life didn’t produce happiness or any other emotional experiences, but virtue alone was the source of true happiness. Stoicism was an ethical way of life, in which order and the good of the community were more important than personal indulgence.
“Does the sun pretend to perform the work of the rain, or Aesculapius that of Ceres? What of the several stars? Are they not different, yet all jointly working for the same end? (Book VI, 43).”
In that ancient age, the Romans thought the sun, moon, and stars were all divine. Asclepius was the son of Apollo, the sun god, and a mortal woman, but he was raised by a centaur, a half horse-half man, who taught him healing powers. Ceres was the goddess of grain and of life itself. Famine, fertility, and the harvest were all under her power. Indeed, for the Romans, the entire cosmos was divine, and was organized in favour of providence. Marcus mentions “the whole cosmos is organised like a city, that is to say, each part is so organized as to serve the good of the whole.”
“Consider frequently the connexion of all things in the Universe, and their relation to each other. All things are in a manner intermingled with one another, and are, therefore, mutually friendly. For one thing comes in due order after another, by virtue of local movements, and of the harmony and unity of the whole (Book VI, 38).”
In the age of coronavirus, we sometimes think if we aren’t at risk, or if the harm is negligible for us or our families, we aren’t obligated to practice the same healthy practices recommended for other risk based groups. We would be thinking wrong, however. If low-risk people don’t socially distance, then the entire containment process is ineffective. Generally, there are fewer high-risk individuals — the sick and the elderly — and they don’t tend to move around as much as lower-risk individuals. Therefore, it’s more likely that a low-risk individual will expose a high-risk individual to the virus.
When we paint a still life of flowers in art class, we have to pay attention to the “harmony and unity of the whole.” Often I show several famous artists’ works before we begin, partly to expose my class to great art, but also to comment on certain design elements that they can incorporate to make their works more interesting. The Cezanne vase of flowers has an off center or asymmetrical subject balanced by the strong linear shapes dividing the background. Sometimes our own lives are off kilter, but we can stay balanced if we make sure to keep the weights on either side of the fulcrum point proportional according to their distance from the balance point. A large mass near the center point will balance out a lesser weight more distant from the pivot point.
We’re talking about the different types of balance in art: symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, and mosaic (or all over) balance. When our lives become unbalanced, we need to institute order. Some of us house clean, others do home repairs or work on our golf games. Others of us cook up a storm and ignore our normal routines. Lately in this age of coronavirus, folks have taken to panic grocery shopping. I went to Sam’s for some usual bulk items and thought we were going to be hit by a freak one two punch of a spring blizzard and hurricane over the weekend. All the bread, chicken, paper goods, and cleaning products were gone. The next day I went to Kroger and saw the same thing, plus all the vegetables and fresh fruits were wiped out.
I paused to chat with a produce clerk. “I guess I picked a bad day to shop. Has it been like this all day?” She paused her straightening of the half dozen shallots remaining in the empty produce display case. Rolling her eyes, she sighed, “It’s been like this since we opened. Forty people were waiting at the door at 7 this morning.”
“Oh no! That’s too early to be out and about!” “Agreed! They’ve cleaned us out. Buying all that toilet paper, like we wouldn’t get a truck tomorrow.” “You get delivery every day?” “Oh, yeah, this is a big store and everything turns over quick. We’ll always get more tomorrow. “
I wished her luck. She looked tired and overwhelmed, but ten hours of an apocalyptic panic filled crowd had to have been unnerving. If we can’t see the danger beyond us, we often do whatever we can to help us feel like we’re taking charge of the situation. In reality, washing our hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. After this, limiting personal interaction or social distancing, is the next good we can do for one another. My old mother had a prescription for trying times: “If you want to feel better during hard times, take care of someone less fortunate than you. Quit worrying about yourself.”
In art class we took some time to share how our lives would be impacted by the closings and postponements of upcoming various events. Some have new babies to celebrate, children to care for when schools close, and I have a 50th college reunion that got cancelled. I have an upcoming art show, which I anticipate will get cancelled also. These things happen, and while I won’t see my girlfriends from long ago, we can possibly make an alternative plan for the art show. If not, there’s next year, and we press on, knowing the year of coronavirus isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but a distraction that will bring out either the best or the worst in us.
Will general conference be postponed or annual conference? We don’t know as yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. While we can want our lives to run on our time and our schedules, there is a time and an order that belongs to God alone. Some people of faith can’t allow their minds to include the natural process of death and disease in the workings of God’s providence, while others see these as God’s just punishment for sin.
If God is at work for good in our illness and death, then it’s because God quickens the human heart to help and give care to others, rather than to lead us to care only for ourselves. If the poor and the vulnerable are most at risk in a pandemic, then the pervasive providence of God’s mercy is poured out for them through the hands of those who love and serve God. As people of faith, we believe “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Fresh flowers are fragile and not long lived. As such, artists choose to paint them in place of human subjects, who also have limited life spans. Flowers have the extra benefit of never complaining, “I’m tired. When can I get up and walk around?” They also don’t fuss if you paint them blue, if their actual color is pink, or say, “Well, I don’t think it looks very much like me.” I vote for flowers any day.
Gail rendered a fine asymmetrical design and paid close attention to the details of the flowers. Mike had an exuberant design with emotional use of color and texture. I asked both of them to try a new technique for mixing colors: pick up several colors on the brush and mix them on the canvas itself, rather than mix up one flat color, as if they were buying a bucket of paint at Lowe’s. I painted over an old canvas from last year. The bright colors of springtime give my spirits a lift, even if I know the skies are gray and drab.
Our art class Tuesday was much diminished by the threat of the coronavirus, but since many of us in the group are older, I’d rather they stay home and stay healthy, so we can meet to paint another day. Many things are changing now, so we need to adjust our minds to the new normal of life in the age of coronavirus. Just as schools are now doing distant teaching via the internet, churches will be live-streaming preaching and using small choral groups or soloists as their musicians. My favorite Starbucks will likely become a drive through, and restaurants will become get and go food distribution sites. Public places, such as movie theaters, museums, and bars will also close their doors. Prepare for the internet to slow down, with everyone streaming entertainment, school lessons, and shopping at home.
Since we don’t know how long this contagion will continue, our art class will not meet together in person until we know we can do no harm to one another by our gatherings. Our usual rule is if the schools are closed, we don’t meet. This more often applies to a weather emergency, but a health emergency is just as dangerous. When we’re cooped up at home for inclement weather, we can keep our spirits up, for we know the days will be temperate or tolerable soon enough. We find a way to keep our hands and minds busy as we mark our time of confinement. It always helps if we keep a sense of calm about us.
The ancient International Wisdom Tradition prized order not only in nature, but also in the community. Those who practiced this way of thinking in the Hebrew world could relate to Ben Sira’s words:
“In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. From morning to evening conditions change; all things move swiftly before the Lord.” (Sirach 18:25-26)
The solid Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Do you dread change? What can come without it? What can be pleasanter or more proper to universal nature? Can you heat your bath unless wood undergoes a change? Can you be fed unless a change is wrought upon your food? Can any useful thing be done without changes? Do you not see, then, that this change also which is working in you is even such as these, and alike necessary to the nature of the Universe? (Book VII, 18)”
Just remember, as an artist, you are a change agent. This is your nature, your being, and your purpose. You bring beauty to the empty canvas, you make sense of a lump of clay or a slab of rock. You can take cast off objects found on the roadside and recreate them into a new object full of meaning. You can change the fears and anxieties of your community by encouraging others to have hope and optimism. If we find the small ounces of courage within us, and share the teaspoons of it with others, we’ll find more courage welling up within us to flow out to others. By being willing to change our own lives, we can change others, and together we change the world.
I will keep you posted with my plans and projects, for I don’t plan to waste this time of seclusion. It’s a great time to catch up on reading, make some new paintings, try new recipes, and maybe even finish some chores about the home place. We won’t lose connection with each other, for if you keep me in mind and I keep you in mind, we will all keep the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
Keep one another safe until we meet again. Joy and Peace, Cornelia
Lately I’ve had an extra burst of energy around the house, but this always happens as the light begins to change and the sap rises in the trees. I see the first feathers of blooming green on the tips of trees and realize the grays of winter are no more. The ornamental pears lining our drive are bursting into white and the joy of the pink Japanese magnolias have my spirits and energies both exulting. I was in Kroger looking for the daffodils to bring to art class, but they weren’t in the store yet. I live in a condo, so those jaunty jonquils on our property aren’t mine to cut, since they’re considered community property.
When I arrived at church Friday, it was a fine spring day, the sort most folks would want to be outside digging up a garden. I certainly would, but I have a few pots inside for herbs and call that my “condo garden” instead. Mike and Gail asked, “What? No flowers? We hoped there’d be flowers!”
Yeah, me too. I’m ready for flowers. Just as spring flowers remind us of new life, they also remind us of the fragility of life. In the bulb, there is the promise of the life yet to come, even if it’s hidden underground all winter, just as there’s the promise of our new life to come after our death and burial. When we have a worldwide pandemic of a novel Coronavirus, which has no vaccine as yet to protect us, we depend on common sense behaviors and our faith in times of trial.
For our still life, I appropriated a tea kettle and a frying pan from the church kitchen. Since I returned it, I didn’t use the five finger discount, but merely borrowed it for a bit. As we looked at the still life, I talked about the objects as simplified forms, which we’ve done time and time again. The basic forms may get boring, but they’re the foundational exercises for artists, just as practicing the scales are for musicians.
I pointed out how the tea kettle is more like a big sphere, which has had its bottom sliced off so it can sit on the table. If we can see the ball inside it, then we can capture its fullness. The spout is a cylinder, with a triangular form attached to it. The pan is another sphere, but this one has had its top and bottom cut off. It’s like a globe with only the equatorial latitudes remaining because the top and bottom 45% have been removed. Also, we can see the inside, for it’s been scooped out.
Last week I’d shown Gail the trick of using the brush handle to measure the still life and get similar proportions on her canvas. I showed this to Mike today. This is part of the “secret, gnostic, knowledge, known only to a few, and passed on by word of mouth,” which artists teach to students when they they’re ready to receive it. I usually leave the group alone for awhile, and then get up and make a quick check of their work. Gail and Mike are second year students, so they work more independently. We all paint some more, but on the second check is where we’re more likely to get into trouble.
This second checkpoint is about ninety minutes into a two hour session. Our internal clocks tell us to hurry up and finish, so we begin to paint without thinking or looking at our subject anymore. We’re just doing, but not paying attention. If we were slicing onions with a sharp knife for a restaurant, we might lose a fingertip here. Thankfully we’re only painting shapes, which can get covered over with more paint. Art is much more forgiving than chopping onions. Keeping our focus is a skill just as much as learning perspective, color theory, or value. Learning how to step away and check our work is also important.
What of the subject matter, though? What inspires us to paint? We may be asking the question, “What is beautiful?” A corollary to this is “Does the subject need to be beautiful to be art?” The ancient proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been around in one form or another since the 3rd century BCE in Greece. I remember standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829) in the Tate Gallery in London when I spent a winter term there during my grad school days.
I was making a small drawing of the scene, which I remembered well from my days in Latin class, and was paying attention to the details of the one eyed cyclops and the tiny figure shaking his fist in the boat below, when an older gentleman came close, inspected the art work, stepped back, and then looked hard at the painting once more. A brief moment of silence passed as he continued to study the work before him, then he leaned forward once more and read the painting’s title out loud. “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—no, I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.”
I almost dropped my sketchbook in amazement. It was as plain as the nose on this man’s face, but he couldn’t see it. This painting currently isn’t on exhibition, so perhaps many people had the same reaction as the gentleman viewer, and not enough had my joyous response to Turner’s painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an untrained eye won’t recognize esoteric beauty even if it’s labeled “work of beautiful art.” If we don’t have fine arts education in our schools, then children grow up without an appreciation for their creative spirits and their own unique voices. Art is a field of exploration which allows for many types of expression and interpretations of “beauty.”
In our world today, we’ve turned so many activities over to professionals. While I wouldn’t want someone who stayed in a Holiday Inn last night doing brain surgery on me, I’m not ready to let fast food cooks prepare all my meals. This attitude of outsourcing ministry to the professionals is a dated concept, for now the most prevalent understanding is all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, and some are set aside for special service to the church and the world through ordination. In art terms, we all are part of the arts and crafts movement, although some of us have special training to elucidate our greater gifts.
Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy:
“In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” ~~ 2 Timothy 2:20-21
Lest we get a swelled head, thinking we’re special utensils, or get depressed believing we’re only ordinary utensils, we all need to remember we’re both useful in our Father’s household. In our everyday lives, we need to care for those in our community who exist on the margins of life, many of whom are hourly workers who stitch together several part time jobs to make ends meet, but don’t get health insurance anywhere.
Our elderly are another marginal and vulnerable group, who often have multiple health conditions and declining incomes, fewer social contacts, and less mobility. Once they were the special vessels, made of gold and silver, but now they get treated like ordinary wood and clay, too easily broken in their fragile days. Our elderly carry the dreams and memories of our history together, so they can tell the stories of perseverance when the times get tough.
The wonderful promise is all of us can be “special utensils,” dedicated to God, ready and useful for every good work. We merely have to show up. We don’t have to hire professionals to do all our work, but we can enjoy the experience of our own creative efforts. Learning new skills builds confidence as well as competency, so we get a double benefit. God will give the promised Holy Spirit to the entire priesthood, for we’re are all called to do God’s good works for the sake of the kingdom.
I’m currently reading Noah Gordon’s The Physician, the story of a Christian masquerading as a Jew so he can study in the ancient medical school in Persia during the Middle Ages. Authors have to describe their characters and the world they inhabit in order for the reader to imagine a realistic place, even if the location could only exist in the imagination. I find this book a great escape from the histrionics of the recent news cycles.
An artist who wants to render a three dimensional scene on a two dimensional surface has the extra challenge of learning a new visual language to describe the scene. Drawing in perspective is a brand new way of seeing and rendering a multidimensional world on a flat surface so the appearance of depth and solidity is realized. In some paintings, the artist’s style of painting depicts objects with photographically realistic detail. These works can “fool the eye” of the viewer.
The realism of Gerrit Dou’s “The Doctor” allows us to see the portrait of the physician through a window niche. The bas relief sculptural rendering on the wall is partly covered by a luxurious rug, on which a burnished copper dish rests. The window behind the Doctor adds a back light, but he uses the primary light from the niche opening to observe the liquid in the specimen container. His assistant is in the dimmer light of the background. We are looking through this window and watching him pursue his calling.
In other art works, the “realism” isn’t so much concerned with photographic accuracy, but with the emotional experience of the space rendered. The Scream, painted in 1893 by Edvard Munch, uses classical one point perspective to introduce the sensation of depth with the bridge. The two people walking away balance the one facing forward, who screams from the gut. The colors and shapes of the landscape are emotional reflections of the interior, psychic experiences of the screamer.
In art class last year, we had several lessons on perspective. Most students, no matter what their age, dislike these basic lessons. They want to jump right in and learn to paint a still life, figure, landscape, or a building. Unfortunately, if they jump over these basic instructions in drawing, they struggle to set a form in space or have difficulty getting the proportions of the objects correct in relation to eschew other. Art school students usually have have an entire semester class devoted to the multiple forms of perspective. I remember drawing the overhead pipes, book shelves, the corners of rooms, and anything else that had a vanishing point.
Perspective teaches us how to see by eliminating the extraneous and unnecessary information and concentrating instead on only the simplest and essential forms and lines. We can hold our paint brush handle up to the objects to measure them. This helps us know if the cone is twice the height of the cube, or 2.5 times. When we lay in our first sketch in a pale yellow wash, we don’t worry if it isn’t exact, we can adjust it with the paint. Why don’t we draw it in pencil? This tool tends to confine our creativity, since we’re used to small movements for writing and filling in correct answers from our school days. It has an eraser, so we struggle to get it “right.” Then we don’t paint with our hearts, but mechanically fill in the lines of a paint by number design.
Last week I was sick, and when I came back from the dead, others were down for the count, working the polls, or working in the salt mines. Gail and I were the only ones in attendance. She’d had the benefit of doing this lesson before, so I suggested we take the setup as a springboard for our imagination. We looked at some modern architecture, which depend on geometric forms for their design interest. One that caught our eye was a simple stacked design of rectangular blocks in a smoky atmosphere: Charles Willard Moore’s “Late Entry to the Tribune Tower Competition, Perspective,” 1980.
When we got busy painting, I put on Dvorak’s New World Symphony, since we were creating a new world for our new buildings to inhabit (the link below is to you tube, if you want to listen along). I also ate a few Girl Scout Samoas, since I bought several cookie boxes from Gail. They reside in the freezer now so I don’t eat them all before Easter. I’m sure Gail can supply you if you want cookies.
While painting, I often lose track of time, perhaps because I enter into this “other world” of my creation. I focus on the image I see and the image I paint on the canvas. My problems fade away, for all I can think about are how to bring the form closer to the foreground: do I need a lighter, brighter color or do I need to change the direction of my brush stroke too? I may need to darken the shape behind or the shadow below it to best evoke the depth of space. Sometimes just a line across the back is enough to set the objects in space, but if we’re trying to build a new world, we might have to indicate some form of landscape.
We talked about the science fiction movies which invent an entire language complete with syntax and vocabulary for the various peoples and architecture suitable for their worlds. If we lived on a planet of crystalline structures, we’d always see the individual parts of white light. Then we’d be people who analyzed the world about us and looked for multiple meanings in the simplest of sayings. If we lived on a hot desert world, we might yearn for cool, dark places, so caves would be our preferred dwelling places. There’s a home for each person, for as Jesus reminded his disciples in John 14:2—
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
What is real, you ask, and what is true? What comes from the heart and mind of the artist is real and true. It may not be of high quality, but proficiency comes from putting your true self into your work, without holding back. As the hand gains competence, the heart and mind have to struggle to remain true to the unique person who creates the work. The great danger is we become proficient at pleasing others for the sake of fame or fortune. Then we make pretty pictures, which will decorate walls and match furniture, but we may not reach the depths of the human heart and emotion required to produce lasting works of art.
None of us in our art class are here for fame and glory, yet we are progressing as the weeks go by. I like the rich texture of Gail’s Martian landscape and the red dust filled atmosphere of her painting. The odd geometric shapes look right at home on the extra planetary body. My landscape has a spring fondant look of a non-Lenten pilgrimage hostel or BNB. If anyone wants to journey elsewhere, the road is open before us, and is limited only by our imagination. Art class is where we let our minds stretch to consider the impossible and then create a structure to take us there. This is why VISION, HOPE, and OPTIMISM are also part of the artist’s toolbox.