The point of view determines the perspective of a work of art. One’s point of view, or preconceived bias, can determine how one sees the world and the decisions they make about the information that comes to them. If we think the world is a scary place, resources are few and won’t be enough for everyone, then, we’ll operate from fear and hoarding. If we believe God’s promises are faithful and God will indeed provide for our needs, then we’ll live in trust and hope, even as we order our lives to want less and enjoy simpler pleasures.
I always find it strange how the people in the Bible who have the greatest riches also have the most difficulty following Jesus. Matthew in 16:24-26 speaks to this topic in the section on “The Cross and Self-Denial:”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Of course, even in the 1st century AD, people wanted to have material possessions, a good income, and wealth stored up for the future. When Jesus said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:38), he invited his followers to enter a despicable journey.
The Via Dolorosa isn’t named the Way of Grief for nothing. People walked it, bearing a heavy cross beam, on the way to an undignified death, a punishment reserved for criminals.
Yet Jesus transformed this ancient punishment into a means of redemption. He took a symbol of death and made it into a hope for new life. Because of this , the author of Hebrews 12:2 could write, “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Now we can live the Easter promise written in Ephesians 2:12-18:
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
So we who live on this side of the resurrection have a joy to celebrate every day. For us the cross is a sign of victory over sin and death, and the evidence of new life and love God has for God’s world and God’s peoples. As we read in Colossians 1:19-20—
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
I love the springtime, for all the colors of green are in abundance. I live on the lake on a property originally developed to be a high rise hotel and casino, until the city derailed that plan. Then it became vacation condos and retirement homes. Since it’s located on a large plot of timbered land, I even see my rabbit neighbors on occasion. My bunny friends usually move about at dawn and dusk. I’m not an early bird, and since Covid, my “out and abouts” have been seriously curtailed, so I’ve yet to see my four legged furry neighbors this year. Maybe I’ll have a better chance to see the Easter Bunny. I did purchase his dark chocolate cousin from Dove, who’s been reduced to a single ounce and will be gone by Easter Sunday. The ears went first, of course.
Our parents found ways in the old days to keep us active and entertained in the weeks leading up to Easter. One of my favorite experiences was egg dying and decorating. Back in Mom’s kitchen, boiling water, vinegar and colored pellets went into the coffee cups before we wrangled the wire holder and lowered the hard boiled egg into the dye. If we dipped the egg all the way in or held it for a longer time, we could get deeper colors. One year I even attempted to use only natural dyes, such as beets, cabbage, and onions. My “science-anthropology” experiment didn’t turn out as pretty as the PAAS collection, but I learned a lot. Crayon resist worked with both dye types, however. Perhaps I never appreciated how fortunate I was my mom taught school and my dad encouraged us kids to learn everything about our world. Almost anything was a science project in his mind.
As a child, I knew I’d arrived when I graduated to the big crayola box with sixty four colors in it. Suddenly I had a year round wealth of shades and hues at my command, plus I could combine them for even more variety: Here are the colors that ended up being in the 64 count box in 1958: orchid, lavender, carnation pink, thistle, red violet, violet red, brick red, magenta, maroon, mulberry, Indian red, red, melon, salmon, orange red, red orange, orange, flesh, maize, goldenrod, yellow orange, apricot, orange yellow, yellow, lemon yellow, green yellow, spring green, yellow green, sea green, olive green, green, pine green, aquamarine, forest green, turquoise blue, green blue, sky blue, blue green, periwinkle, blue, navy blue, midnight blue, cornflower, blue gray, cadet blue, violet, blue, blue violet, violet, plum, tan, burnt orange, mahogany, burnt sienna, brown, raw sienna, bittersweet, raw umber, sepia, black, silver, gray, gold, copper, white. I could make any landscape sing with whatever color my young imagination called forth. My birthday month always calls forth all the colors nature has on her palette.
Of course, not every tree sports a shade of green as its primary dress in the springtime. Some bud out all in white, others in dark red violet, while still others bloom out in light pinks. If I squint my aging eyes today, I can see a haphazard lace design across the landscape before me in multicolored threads, with a few embroidered trunks to give it a semblance of stability. Those trunks might be Indian red (an iron red) mixed with the old Prussian blue (now known as midnight blue) to make a warm black. Using the straight carbon black crayon made the black too stark, or so my portrait painting grandmother told me. The old “flesh color” has been renamed “peach,” in recognition of the diversity of skin color in our world today. Many other colors in the box can be combined to get the perfect shade of a person’s facial tone, no matter how light, dark, yellow, white, red, or brown. The 64 box has enough colors to capture any facial tone, for sure.
When I see the ever changing beauty of the natural world about me, I can’t help but have hope. I look back not only to simpler times, but also forward in hope to a time when once again I will feel the joy of breaking the seal of a brand new box of crayons and when I can revel in the fresh, unsullied scent of pure wax and touch with reverence the clean paper wrappers. Easter dresses always show up in the pastel colors, even if we have to toss our dark winter coats over them when the weather turns cool, as it often does.
Maybe you don’t have such a strong attachment to art supplies as I do, but surely this April is a holy season for many people, and not just for the rabbits who live among us. Some how we people of faith across the centuries and around the world respond to the annual renewal of life and the promise of hope when life seems most precarious. While my faith experience is deeply rooted in Christianity, the worldwide communities of faith respond to springtime with some common traditions.
It’s no wonder one of the great myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans dealt with the changing seasons, but also with the hope of eternal life. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture and crops, whose daughter Persephone was taken into the underworld. Hades kept her there against her will, so while Demeter grieved, the crops failed, people starved, and the gods weren’t honored. Zeus, the king of the gods, forced Hades to release Persephone, but since she had eaten a few pomegranate seeds, she had to spend part of the year underground. This set up the seasons and was the impetus for the famed Elysian Mysteries.
The week long rituals were based on a symbolic reading of the story of Demeter and Persephone. It provided initiates with a vision of the afterlife so powerful, it forever changed the way they saw their world and their place in it. They no longer feared death, for they recognized they were immortal souls temporarily in mortal bodies. In the same way Persephone went down to the land of the dead and returned to that of the living each year, so would every human being die only to live again on another plane of existence or in another body.
The spring rite was the lesser mysteries, without which one couldn’t enter the greater mysteries of autumn. Anyone who was present in the city and spoke Greek could attend, unlike some of the closed gnostic mysteries, which were available only to a chosen few. The whole community participated, for the life of the family, as well as the earth, depended on the abundance of the earth. In fact, the only paved road in Greece in ancient times was from Athens to Eleusius, and a modern road now follows the same path.
Aristotle wrote about the contrast of the cathartic experience of watching a tragic drama whereby the spectator is purged of the negative emotions of fear and pity, while an initiate of the Mysteries would undergo physical, emotional, and spiritual cleansing in preparation for the main part of the ritual— a spiritual identification with the Mother and Daughter in their separation and suffering and then joyful reunion, a transformation from death to rebirth. Through her or his own inner spiritual desires and participation in the rites, the initiate then was prepared to receive a “seeing” into the deepest mysteries of life.
This communal ritual wasn’t just for the individual, but for the family, the city state, and even the world itself. Let’s keep that idea in mind as we consider the other rituals of faith, renewal, and restoration of this spring season.
Our Vice President’s husband Doug Emhoff, 56, is the first Jewish spouse of a vice president or president. “After a year of social distancing and mask wearing, it’s impossible not to feel isolated at times. So it’s events like this one, events that creatively bring family and friends and communities together, that keep us connected and remind us that we’re not alone,” Emhoff said at the Seder ceremony before noting he got to do one of his “favorite things” and introduce the vice president.
“Our family, like so many families in the United States, the state of Israel and around the world, will begin to celebrate the sacred holiday of Passover this weekend,” Vice President Kamala Harris said. “And the Passover story is powerful. It reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of injustice. It urges us to keep the faith in the face of uncertainty.”
“This year, as we dip our greens in salt water and pour out our ceremonial wine and eat our bitter herbs, let us commit, once again, to repairing the world,” she said.
This is the great witness of the Passover story, for it’s a story of hope and liberation. It’s a story of God keeping God’s promises and God’s faithfulness for those who suffer. If anyone needs to hear words of liberation, faithfulness, hope, and promises kept, it’s our whole world, which is suffering with covid, hate, nationalism, racism, and extremism.
Passover, like many holidays, combines the celebration of an event from Jewish memory with a recognition of the cycles of nature. As the Jewish people remember their ancestors’ liberation, they also recognize the stirrings of spring and rebirth happening in the world. The symbols on the table bring together elements of both kinds of celebration. In the ritual, families take a vegetable, representing joy at the dawning of spring after a long, cold winter. Most will use a green vegetable, such as parsley or celery, but some families from Eastern Europe have a tradition of using a boiled potato, since greens were hard to come by at Passover time. Whatever symbol of spring and sustenance used, it’s dipped it into salt water, a symbol of the tears the ancestors shed as slaves. Before eating it, a short blessing is said:
We praise God, Ruler of Everything, who creates the fruits of the earth.
At the end of the meal, celebrants bless the final cup of wine according to Jewish tradition and law. As the faithful have had the pleasure to gather (virtually) for a seder this year, they hope to once again have the opportunity of gather in person in the years to come. The prayer is God brings health and healing to Israel and all the people of the world, especially those impacted by natural tragedy and war. As folks say every year, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Yet another spring festival is the Hindu celebration of Holi, which has been observed all over India since ancient times. Holi’s precise form and purpose displays great variety. Originally, Holi was an agricultural festival celebrating the arrival of spring. This aspect still plays a significant part in the festival in the form of the colored powders: Holi is a time when man and nature alike throw off the gloom of winter and rejoice in the colors and liveliness of spring.
Holi also commemorates various events in Hindu mythology, but for most Hindus it provides a temporary opportunity for Hindus to disregard social norms, indulge in merrymaking and generally “let loose.” The central ritual of Holi is the throwing and applying of colored water and powders on friends and family, which gives the holiday its common name “Festival of Colors.” Holi is spread out over two days (it used to be five, and in some places it is longer). A large communal bonfire burns in the town center to light the evening festivities.
The entire holiday is associated with a loosening of social restrictions normally associated with caste, sex, status and age. Holi thus bridges social gaps and brings people together: employees and employers, men and women, rich and poor, young and old. Holi is also characterized by the loosening of social norms governing polite behavior and the resulting general atmosphere of licentious merrymaking and ribald language and behavior. A common saying heard during Holi is bura na mano, Holi hai (“don’t feel offended, it’s Holi”).
This festival has transferred into western culture as part of the celebrations at the end of races and other communal bonding events, a fact which leads some to charge the west with cultural appropriation, but the followers of Holi aren’t offended if the intention is good.
While Easter in the western world has become a cultural celebration of cleaning house, redecorating, wearing new and brighter clothes, and doing brunch with lighter foods, in the Christian church, Easter still retains its central place of honor. As Henri Nouwen writes, “When Jesus was anticipating his own death he kept repeating the same theme to his disciples: “My death is good for you, because my death will bear many fruits beyond my death. When I die I will not leave you alone, but I will send you my Spirit, the Paraclete, the Counselor. And my Spirit will reveal to you who I am, what I am teaching you. My Spirit will lead you into the truth and will allow you to have a relationship with me that was not possible before my death. My Spirit will help you to form community and grow in strength.” Jesus sees that the real fruits of his life will mature after his death. That is why he adds, “It is good for you that I go.”
While Jesus did reach out to those ignored by the traditional faith community of his day, he was also concerned for the whole community over and above the individual alone. While the church, who are the “ones called out,” is composed of individuals, we’re called to gather together for worship, prayer, instruction, and to be sent out to do ministries in the name of Jesus. Some today put their personal relationship with Jesus above their relationship with the beloved community or with the suffering body of Christ, which is found in the marginalized people beyond the church door.
So along with Nouwen, we have to ask, “If that is true, then the real question for me as I consider my own death is not: how much can I still accomplish before I die, or will I be a burden to others? No, the real question is: how can I live so that my death will be fruitful for others? In other words, how can my death be a gift for my loved ones so that they can reap the fruits of my life after I have died? This question can be answered only if I am first willing to admit Jesus’ vision of death, as a valid possibility for me.”
Since Easter is the celebration of the great resurrection story, it’s the story of the renewal, not only of life, but the renewal of hope and faith. When our world looks its most bleak, we can still hope for a better future. When our God seems to have abandoned us, we can still trust in God’s unfailing promise to fulfill God’s commitments to God’s well loved people. When Mary Magdalene runs to meet the risen Christ in the garden, he tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
We don’t keep good news for ourselves, but spread it to others. This is the best argument for the communal nature of resurrection faith. It should change us, so we should want to change God’s world and God’s people for the better. If we’re transformed by love, we also should transform the world with love. If we’ve been justified by the grace of God’s mercy, we should want to bring justice to marginalized communities who’ve experienced systemic injustice.
In summary, what ties all these spring festivals together is a hope for a new creation and a better life, either in this world or in the world beyond. Sometimes we need to have assurances of the life to come to live well in this life, while other times we need a hope for this world in order to live for tomorrow. Likely our faith practices speak to our deep human need for freedom and also to the need for our suffering to have meaning. Only if we change our suffering into a catalyst for relieving the suffering of others can we being these faith promises of spring renewal into reality. Then the ancient hopes of slaves, who were liberated, can come true today also. When the fears of death and life of everyday people are healed, their hopes and dreams are made possible by the power of god working through them. Then we too can sing the songs of freedom, put our energy into freeing others who are in bondage, and bring about God’s new creation, even as God’s spirit is renewing the face of the earth.
True Colors: Creating Natural Food Dyes at Home — Edible LA
I’ve always been a weather watcher, even as a small child. One of my first memories of the weather was my Dad putting the finishing touches on cutting the front lawn just as the first raindrops would fall from the sky. When I grew up and had my own home, the scent of an impending thunderstorm would send me outside frantically to mow my own lawn. I finally asked Daddy why he always mowed just before the storm.
He replied, “It’s too hard to mow when the grass is wet and the ground is soggy.” I thought to myself, “Why don’t we just pick a sunny day, but that might be too easy, or we’re off doing fun things on that time.”
In Arkansas, our farm communities pay close attention to the weather, for the crops which are their livelihoods depend on it. In ancient times, keeping track of the seasons and knowing weather lore was important. Today we depend on weather forecasters for this arcane knowledge, but if we follow basic science, we learn about global patterns which affect our weather: El Niño, La Niña, the Polar Vortex, as well as the extremes brought on by climate change, such as more active hurricane seasons and intense temperatures, both hot and cold.
My parents grew up during the Great Depression. Their grandparents were the first generation off the farm, working either in town or on the railroad. When mom and dad first started out in a one room garage apartment, they practiced frugality. Later on, they always bought an extra can of whatever was on sale at the grocery store. They were always prepared for the emergency of another mouth at the table or a sudden ice storm, not that one often happened. Since I was following the national news, I had stocked up ahead of time on rice, beans, mixed veggies, chicken, and coffee. If snowmageddon were to arrive, I would meet it on a full stomach. It was only after the streets thawed several days later and I ventured out that I saw the stark emptiness of the grocery store shelves. Starbucks was out of many products also, since their suppliers are based in Texas.
Gary Joiner of the Texas Farm Bureau estimated damages to the agriculture sector alone could exceed $500,000,000 statewide. “The bulk of that will be in the Rio Grande Valley where the fruits and vegetables grown there really took a hit. Consumers will see an absence of some Texas products for a period of time because of the freeze.”
Texas cattle ranchers were in the midst of calving season, so to protect the newborns, they built hot boxes with heat lamps or brought the animals into their homes. Extreme weather calls for extreme acts of compassion.
Let’s contrast our modern views of Nature with the views presented in the Wisdom book of Job. In the book of Job, we hear one of his friends tell him, “God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth’; and the shower of rain, his heavy shower of rain, serves as a sign on everyone’s hand, so that all whom he has made may know it” (37:5-7). This friend wants Job to understand God’s ways are inscrutable to mere human beings and neither Job, nor any of us, should question why bad things happen to good people.
Of course, Job won’t have any truck with this argument, and must have given his pals the look that says, “You boys take me for some kind of fool?” This sends his friends into a tizzy, so they keep piling on:
“From its chamber comes the whirlwind,
and cold from the scattering winds.
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
They turn round and round by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
Whether for correction, or for his land,
or for love, he causes it to happen.” (Job 37:9-13)
His friends remind Job how God uses even natural events for God’s purposes. God can cause a snow storm to humble us (correction), to refresh the water supply (for the land), or to bring a community together (for love). We saw evidence of this during our recent snowstorm, which impacted not only Texas, but also the Lower 48 states, where by the morning of February 16, 73% of the continental USA was blanketed by snow. This was the most widespread snow cover in the contiguous U.S. since 2011. If we say “Mother Nature hit us with a whammy,” I wonder why we weren’t also blaming Old Man Winter. This is International Women’s Month after all, and we ought not to blame only the women for bad things!
Lots of bad things did happen, just from the back to back winter storms named Uri and Viola. In Texas alone, estimated losses from the extended freeze and power outages in Texas could reach $90 billion, with around $20 billion of those losses covered by insurance. Compare that to the entire 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. According to a new report from AccuWeather, the 2020 hurricane season was responsible for $60-65 billion in economic damages. This figure includes property damage as well as wage losses, business losses and bankruptcies, contamination of drinking water, municipal and state costs, federal assistance, cleanup costs and health costs.
One of the local electric providers, Just Energy, has sought bankruptcy protection due to unexpected costs. “The weather event caused the ERCOT wholesale market to incur charges of $55 billion over a seven day period, an amount they ordinarily incur over four years.” Brazos Electric Power Company has filed for Chapter 11 and Griddy is out of business, since its 10,000 customers have been given to other companies due to its violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The Texas Attorney General is seeking refunds for customers. Other utility companies are considering bankruptcy, or perhaps amortizing the high bill across ten years and letting their customers pay for it on time. Since these same companies failed to make the suggested winterizing changes to their physical plants a decade ago, I wonder why their problem is now their customers’ problem?
In this instance, everyone points a finger at everyone else. People died due to the cold weather and the utilities failure to prepare for it. Insurance rates are going up, not just in Texas, given that some of these companies have a national portfolio. Food costs are going up, due to scarce supplies and longer distances for delivery. Citrus will cost more for years until the orchards recover. So it’s an object lesson for the rest of us. As my old nannie used to say, “A stitching time saves nine,” while my daddy took the Texas plan of “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.” Unfortunately, his plan could leave me stranded on the side of the highway in a broke down car. I tend to take better care of my vehicle. He also never realized my brothers were fixing his car on the sly because he had that ornery streak.
Of course, current temperatures are now in the mid 70’s and low 80’s, so everyone is using the air conditioning. They went from the dead of winter into springtime. For parts of California and Arizona, this spring leaf out was the earliest in the 39-year record. Every one to four years, Texas has an early spring, whereas central Arkansas has a late spring every five to ten years. The further south you go toward the equator, the more pronounced the seasonal extremes become.
Of course back in biblical times, folks had weather lore, but no satellites to observe the land from on high. They could keep oral and written accounts of the past weather events, so the memories of the elders were treasured. Job’s friends try to make the events of nature the result of God’s actions, but then God answers Job out of the whirlwind:
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war?” (38:22-23)
I’d never accuse God of mansplaining to his creatures, but maybe “Godsplaining” is a better term: “Are you competent to answer this question? How do you know for certain? What experience have you had that allows you to speak of things you can’t possibly know?” We human beings haven’t been privileged to walk among the clouds or to know the hidden halls where the frozen treasures are stored. Yet we persist in talking about the hidden wisdom of God as if we were initiates to privileged information. We can’t know God fully as yet, for God is fully spirit and we are both body and spirit. As Paul reminds us, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The amazing climax of this book is God’s appearance to Job and his affirmation of Job’s understanding of God’s nature. Job tells God:
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).
Job might have said today: My bad. I’m just saying words. Many words. The best words. Now I know it’s all just a word salad. Don’t listen to my friends. They mean well. Just trying to help. What do they know? Like me—not much.
Since we in Arkansas didn’t get the brunt of this storm, our emotional reaction to it wasn’t strong or deep. This might have been different if we had gone through an extended period of time without power. Many of us noted only the closings of local businesses or the lack of certain products on the shelves. My utility bill wasn’t much higher than last month. Our paintings of the recent snowstorm reflected this experience. I asked our group to bring a photograph of the snow from their home life. Mike brought his backyard deck and Gail brought her tree filled landscape. I worked on a traditional landscape as seen from my window high above the lake, looking out over the bridge. Our snowscapes were calm, quiet, and serene. There wasn’t a sign of trauma anywhere, unlike the ongoing mass trauma event still affecting the state of Texas.
However, the extreme weather changes aren’t just limited to Texas, for currently about 1% of the world’s population lives in a hot zone that scientists expect to expand to affect about 19% of the world’s people. Already people in Guatemala are leaving land that is getting too hot and too unpredictable for rainfall to grow enough to feed their families. Climate change is bringing them northwards. We can expect our crop plantings to move northward as the temperatures warm, even though this may take decades. We can prepare to welcome climate migrants or we can help restore and renew the face of the earth so they can live in their homelands and be able to raise and feed their families in peace.
In the map above, we can see the temperature difference between summer and winter months (per decade) from 1979-2016. Red shows a large temperature difference between the seasons, while blue shows a small temperature difference.
God’s promise in Genesis 8:22 after the destructive flood still holds true: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” God doesn’t promise us the world will always stay the same, for we have the freedom to change our world for good or ill. We can work in cooperation with God, or against God’s desires. As the Psalmist reminds us:
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (104:30)
March is Women’s History month and the time of the Vernal Equinox. Spring can’t come too soon for this old rabbit. While my heater keeps my den cozy and at an even temperature, I’m convinced my bones are a xylophone knocking a chattering tone inside the multiple layers of clothing and afghans in which I’m wrapped. Going outside isn’t on my list of things to do. I’m actually thankful for zooming and online shopping.
Every year my local community has its brush with a false spring, only to have another round of winter weather come round to slap it silly. In New York, the maple syrup run begins about March, while sap starts to flow between mid-February and mid-March. Farther south, in the Ozark Mountains, sugar maple sap can be collected as early as January. The exact time of year depends upon where you live and weather conditions. Sap flows when daytime temperatures rise above freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit /0 Celsius) and nighttime temperatures fall below freezing. The rising temperature creates pressure in the tree generating the sap flow. This is basically a transfer of the sap from the tree above the ground and the root system below the ground. The sap generally flows for 4 to 6 weeks, with the best sap produced early on in the sap-flowing season.
While I don’t have any maple trees in my neck of the woods, I do believe in using real maple syrup on my pancakes and crepes. I keep a homemade pancake mix ready for those days I really need a comfort food breakfast. All I have to do is add a couple of beaten eggs and some water. The instant milk, flours, salt, and baking powder is already included. No one needs to buy this in a package. I can add chocolate chips, chopped nuts, or bits of fruit for variety. It’s so good and filling with uncured bacon and only a tablespoon of syrup. Of course, this plan only works if I have utilities at my rabbit den. Otherwise I retreat to the condo hallway, where the condo association’s generator keeps the emergency lights on and two live outlets. Crockpot food and hot coffee become the food of the rabbit gods in such crisis situations.
A wonderful coincidence of joy In New York and New England is the sap starts up in the sugar maples the very day the bluebird arrives, and the sugar-making begins forthwith. “The bird is generally a mere disembodied voice; a rumor in the air for two or three days before it takes visible shape before you,” as John Burroughs wrote in Wake-Robin, first published in 1871.
January through March, November and December are the usual months with snowfall. The month with the most snowfall in Hot Springs is February when snow falls for 1.7 days and typically aggregates up to 0.94″ (24mm) of snow. This February in two days we had more than two feet of snow from back to back polar punches. It was cold, but not record setting, unlike the state’s coldest day, when the city of Gravette set the record at -29° F on February 13, 1905. The latest snow in Arkansas history happened in May of 2013, when Decatur, a town near the northwest border, got five inches of snowfall! I’m hoping we don’t get a late spring snow, post vernal equinox. Mother Nature would add insult to indignity.
While we Arkansas rabbits were iced in, we didn’t have to endure the ongoing trauma of our fellow Texans to the south. Sadly, they were out of power and/or water for several days running. Extreme weather events will catch us bunnies by surprise if we don’t listen to those who know about the changing climate. Of course, if it costs money to prevent systemic utility failures, sometimes we decide to take a chance the weather situation won’t repeat itself. Suffering costs money too: lost wages, insurance claims, health risks, vehicle accidents, and food shortages. An article in Bloomberg estimated about $50 billion in damages from this recent winter storm season, according to AccuWeather, a commercial forecasting company. In comparison, the entire 2020 hurricane season caused “only” $60 billion in damage.
Rabbits need to ask if saving money in the short term is worth losing money over the long term. Another way to ask is how much risk are we willing to take? Mrs. Rabbit is always telling Peter and the others, “Don’t go into the garden when Mr. McGregor is there. You’ll come to no good end.” Of course this is when all the foolish, inexperienced rabbits go to the garden! My mother rabbit continually reminded the younger me, “Experience is a hard teacher and a diploma from the school of hard knocks is very expensive.” Like her, I earned every strand of my grey hairs.
Usually in the springtime, we’re thinking of our gardens and perusing seed catalogs. We can count on our local Walmart having some early plants to set out to brighten our gardens, but this year we’re all looking for snow shovels. The winter haiku of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) clearly expressed his own viewpoints comparing it to the other seasons. While October to December was winter in Japan, as the old calendar designated it, his poem still fits Arkansas’ late spring snow:
Let’s go out
To see the snow view
Where we slip and fall.
But the snow won’t last forever and neither will standard time. Yes, just as the days begin to get longer and we revel in the wonder of a sunrise and a sunset while we’re still awake, along comes the annual conversion to DST, for daylight saving time begins on March 14th, also known as Pie Day, because 3.1417 is the number of Pi in mathematics. If you make an apple pie for Sunday, you might want to add a few drops of green food coloring to the apples, so your leftovers will be good for St. Patrick’s day on the 17th.
Of course, the vernal equinox is our big excitement in the month of March, for this full moon governs two religious holidays celebrated by Jews and Christians. They’re linked, of course, because Jesus was a Jew. The Passover is celebrated to recall the people’s release from bondage in Egypt and their time with God in the wilderness until they reached the promised land. Because Jesus was crucified on the Eve of the Passover, Palm Sunday and Easter typically fall around the time of the Jewish Passover. The spring equinox falls on March 20, which also marks the Persian New Year. Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox, which signifies the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere.
These times of renewal celebrated in the various faith communities remind us spring is a time of new beginnings and new growth. We can have a renewed hope when we shake off the cold burdens of a long winter. We can have a new spirit awaken in our heart when we hear a songbird sing its melody. When the trees leaf out in their first green lace, our frowns begin to thaw. One day in the month of March, we may find ourselves throwing back the curtains in the morning to greet the cerulean sky with a song:
Blue skies Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies Do I see
Bluebirds Singing a song
Nothing but bluebirds All day long
(Irving Berlin, Blue Skies, 1927)
March is a month of hope and optimism, for who plants a garden except in hope? We don’t know if we’ll get sufficient rain or sun, or if we’ll have too much of a good thing. Farmers and gardeners are like parents, for they bring new life into this world with the hope they’ll be able to tend the gift God has given them. As Emily Dickinson says in her 1891 poem, “Hope,”
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all, ….
This rabbit still thinks hope endures, and if “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow, why, then oh why can’t I?” I’ll have another cup of hot mint tea and contemplate this journey in my deepest heart. May your garden always grow the fruits of Joy and Peace,
Every blade of grass outside is a uniform tan, for winter’s pale light has sucked the life and green from its living cells. Each colder breeze separates yet another straggling leaf from a sleeping stick attached to the limbs of a hibernating tree. The sap won’t rise until mid February, when the days are warmer and the nights are still freezing. The ornamental pear trees lining the entry to my condo are beginning to bud, so I’m sure they’ll be covered with snow before Easter. I’m almost wishing for a good snow to change up the colors outside, to cause some excitement of a bread aisle clearing stampede, and the joy of eating pancakes at every meal “just because it’s a snow day.”
Instead, I’ve brightened my interior spaces with fresh flowers. This is an early reminder to all you lovers out there: Sunday, February 14 is Valentine’s Day. Be sweet to the special person in your life by bringing something beautiful or joyful into their life. Our art class has been working with the palette knife instead of the brush lately. This is a different tool to get the paint on the canvas. With the brush, we can make lines and broad strokes, as well as dots or blobs. With the knife, we have to pick up colors on the metal end, push and press with varied strength and wrist twists to get the paint to go where we want it and to mix at the same time.
How does this happen? It’s magic! Or luck, or practice until you figure out how the paint feels under your hands. I can best describe it as being willing to do finger painting, but with a palette knife. We also have to let our adult mind go sit in the corner, while we let our five year old come out and play. Another way to think of this is to compare religion and faith. Religion has rules and boundaries for how to “do it right.” We spend most of our lives in this mode, trying to measure up to a severe standard, rather like the older brother to the prodigal son. In faith, we trust we’re enough and God’s mercy and grace are sufficient for us, so we yearn to please God even more. What we can do in love, for love’s sake, will bring the world into the love of God.
This is why no one copies my art work, but goes on their own journey to find their own way of seeing. This is one of the hardest parts of making a painting, to isolate the primary forms and shapes, and then to set them in a space. As we look at a three dimensional world, we have to come up with our own visual language to write on a two dimensional surface. As we invent our own language, we’re creating a new vocabulary, grammar, and conjugations, which take some time for us and the world to understand. We don’t worry if we’re “good,” for we are painting these to grow our minds, stretch our boundaries, and by learning new skills, building new brain connections and endorphins. We get joy from our work, so it gets us through the doldrums of winter.
There’s a wonderful poem by Robert Frost, of a bouquet of flowers, and two birds in winter:
Wind and Window Flower
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the cagèd yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
“Wind and Window Flower,” a poem written by Robert Frost, speaks of how we can sometimes love someone who can’t leave either the safety of their window sill or the prison of their cage. With this in mind, it’s best for the bird to fly on by in order to find true love or purpose somewhere else. Some of us will watch the cold world from a safe distance as it goes by, while others will leave our cozy homes and go out into the cold, sharp winds to seek another path. We may regret leaving the caged bird behind, but we have to go and find our highest purpose in life. I often wonder about the bird left behind, if the cage ever got too small or if security was more important. The fresh flowers won’t ever know the outcome of this story, for they’ll be gone before the week is out.
Even these small and insignificant works of the creator are not outside the care and concern of a loving God. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:26-33—
“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?
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
“Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.” Plato quoted an older Greek thinker about life’s being constantly in a state of flux or change. We can’t dive into our rabbit holes at every quivering leaf or shadow of every cloud passing over the sun. We rabbits know the world is changing all the time, even if we don’t like it, but we still have to venture outside of our den and hutches to find tasty carrots and spinach leaves.
Fear of Change—
Yet some rabbits have a fear of change or fear of changing the order of things. This goes by another Greek word, Metathesiophobia. This is a new word for this old rabbit, so I guess I’ve modified a few brain cells in learning this. In fact, when we learn new words, we actually get happier! There’s even science behind this. In a study, “increased subjective pleasantness ratings were also related to new-words remembered after seven days. These results suggest that intrinsic—potentially reward-related—signals, triggered by self-monitoring of correct performance, can promote the storage of new information into long-term memory through the activation of the SN/VTA-Hippocampal loop, possibly via dopaminergic modulation of the midbrain.”
Even if we don’t understand the scientific jargon of that sentence, we know learning new things gives us a feeling of pride and accomplishment. We feel good about ourselves when we accomplish a new trick or master a new skill. Repeating the same experiences over and over leads to dullness,even if we find safety in the predictably.
If we were small bunnies, we’d never find the refrigerators in our homes, since they’d be covered up in our latest glorious art project. Every rabbit parent raves about their genius offspring, if they’re raising them right. We always want to catch our small ones doing something right and praise them for it. We’ll get more cooperation than if we’re always telling them NO, and GO TO YOUR ROOM.
I ask you, which rabbit among us doesn’t want to be happier in this world? Currently we’re in the midst of the worst crisis most of us have ever experienced. We rabbits need to name it and face it, rather than deny it, for this pandemic isn’t not going away anytime soon. This causes some of our bunny friends to find a “boogeyman lurking in every dark corner.” When I was young, my parents scared me, or scarred my memories, over my messy closet.
“You’d better clean up that pile of clothes in there, young lady! If you don’t, a rat might come crawling out of those clothes piled up on the floor!”
EEEK! I was so frightened, I untwisted an old metal coat hanger and stood outside my closet while I fished out my dress up play clothes, one article at a time. If a rat were to come out with them, I wanted a running head start. I was on my own in art school over a decade later before I could sleep with the bedroom closet open. This was a long standing fear to shake. Not everyone can put aside their fears and coping mechanisms, however.
I’ve had rabbit friends who get up in the middle of the night to make sure their closets are neatly arranged, with all the shoes in the right boxes and all the clothes facing the same direction on the hangers. I have no such anxiety, for I hang my clothes up and don’t worry once I’ve done it. I have other tasks to tackle. Uninterrupted sleep is a worthy goal for rabbit health. Plus I have other creative tasks to engage me, and I’m learning new things every day. In any event, I know my salvation won’t be impaired by this failure to act on my part, just as it won’t be earned if I keep a perfect closet.
Change is moving swifter than the atmospheric river that’s currently dumping rain and mudslides on the Pacific coast and ice and snow on the Atlantic coast. Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow regions in the atmosphere—like rivers in the sky—that transport water vapor, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Drastic swings from extremely wet to extremely dry and vice versa will be nearly twice as likely, occuring on average once every 25 years, by 2100. Dramatic swings are becoming more common and will continue to do so in the coming decades thanks to man-made climate change.
Of course climate change isn’t the only change we’re dealing with in February.
Today we have one holiday to celebrate Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Back in this rabbit’s kitten days, we had two holidays for these two presidents, but the times change and the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers.
At the time, Congress thought setting three day weekends would end employee absenteeism. Today the coronavirus pandemic has put most white collar workers out of the office and many blue collar workers out of a job. Until we get this pandemic behind us by vaccinating as many of our people as possible and continuing safe practices, we won’t get back to any semblance of normal any time soon. This virus hunts a host, and it’s sure to find a rabbit to use as its own personal Petri dish.
Super Bowl LV—Next Super Spreader Event?
On the first Sunday in February, the big game goes down. While the 7,500 health care workers who’ll be the stadium attendees will be following COVID protocols, the fans at home remain susceptible to infection. A recent Seton Hall Sports Poll collected answers from 1,522 adults spread all over the country from Jan. 22-25. That data shows 25% of respondents said they would gather with people outside of their home (defined as those who aren’t roommates or cohabitants) to watch the game. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they would not attend a gathering and 11% said they weren’t sure.
Among avid fans however, 40% of that group said they would indeed gather with members outside of their household. The CDC doesn’t recommend holding these types of gatherings, especially if they are inside and last for the duration of the game. The Super Bowl will be played in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and is scheduled for Sunday, February 7, with a 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff, with an estimated game length of four hours, not counting the additional four hours of preliminary extravaganza programming.
I’ve always gathered the various rabbits who live in my condo building for the game festivities. It’s a good opportunity for us to socialize and since everyone always waits for “someone to take charge,” I just step up. We won’t do it in person this year, however, for we rabbits can best observe safely the whole shebang from the comfort of our couches and Zoom or find other other media connections with our loved ones and friends so we can have a real party next year.
Super Bowl LV Firsts—
There are new changes to the Super Bowl this year. Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet, will recite an original poem before Super Bowl LV, as part of both the in-stadium pregame ceremony and the TV broadcast. The poem will honor three everyday heroes who have been chosen as honorary game captains by the NFL. These people include Trimaine Davis, a Los Angeles teacher who fought to secure internet access and laptops for his students amid the pandemic; Suzie Dorner, a Tampa nurse who managed the COVID ICU at Tampa General Hospital; and James Martin, a Marine veteran who has helped veterans and their families connect virtually through the Wounded Warrior Project.
Gorman isn’t the only pregame excitement. Miley Cyrus will perform as part of the TikTok Tailgate event for the Health Care Heroes. This will also be televised. Then there’s the The Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show, which is the most-watched musical performance of the year, with more than 104 million viewers tuning in to last year’s show. The rhythm and blues artist known as The Weekend (Abel Makkonen Tesfaye) will be the featured performer.
“The Weeknd has introduced a sound all his own. His soulful uniqueness has defined a new generation of greatness in music and artistry,” said Shawn JAY-Z Carter. “This is an extraordinary moment in time and the Pepsi Super Bowl LV Halftime Show is going to be an extraordinary experience with an extraordinary performer.” This rabbit has been listening to his oeuvre on Apple Music, and I’m quite excited to hear the show. It ought to be a bang up program with no wardrobe malfunctions.
JAY-Z and his company, Roc Nation, have worked over the past year on the selection of artists playing the Super Bowl Halftime Show as the league’s official Live Music Entertainment Strategists. The partnership aims to “nurture and strengthen community” through music and support the NFL’s Inspire Change social justice initiative, and also has Roc Nation serving as a co-producer of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
GRAMMY-nominated artists Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan are set to pair up for the first time to sing the National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LV pregame festivities. Grammy-award winning artist, H.E.R., will join the pregame lineup with her rendition of America the Beautiful. In addition, on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), Warren “Wawa” Snipe, acclaimed Deaf rapper and recording artist, will perform the National Anthem and America the Beautiful in American Sign Language. For Super Bowl LV, the National Anthem will be arranged and produced by Adam Blackstone.
“Sarah Thomas will made history again as the first female Super Bowl official,” NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent said. “Her elite performance and commitment to excellence has earned her the right to officiate the Super Bowl. Congratulations to Sarah on this well-deserved honor.” She will be a down judge on a seven-person crew of distinguished game officials. You go girl!
This is just one more change for a world that spins 360 degrees daily and moves around the sun on its invisible circular river which it completes every 365 1/4 days. Our planet never stays in in one place as it courses through the unseen river of time in the heavens, but we see ourselves think we have a fixed place in the universe. If we observe nature, the rising and setting of the sun moves along the horizon line as the seasons change and it rises higher into the sky during the summer than the winter. These changes are part of our ordinary life, and give a structure and rhythm to our days and time upon this world.
Speaking of firsts, the Chiefs are trying to become the first team in 16 years to win back-to-back Super Bowls. The last team to do it was Tom Brady’s 2003-04 New England Patriots. Tom Brady is set to become one offour quarterbacks to start a Super Bowl for multiple teams and he could join Peyton Manning, who is currently the only quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl start with multiple teams. So while the seasoned champion with a brand new team goes against a young champion trying to make the magic happen two years in a row, we should have a good game, rather than watching it for the commercials.
In other firsts, the Super Bowl is almost always the top rated TV show for audience numbers. Only the final episodes of M.A.S.H. and Cheers have ever pushed it to number two. The commercials are first class also. CBS’s asking price of $5.5 million per 30-second spot is merely the cost of reserving the requisite airtime; after production expenses, ancillary social-media investments and agency fees are accounted for, the actual outlay for a single Super Bowl ad can swell to $20 million. That’s a lot of rabbit feed.
We won’t see the Budweiser Clydesdales for the first time in 37 years, for the company will be focusing on supporting Covid vaccine awareness education spots instead. Other companies related to restaurants may be missing due to lower sales and profits, but this gives other companies an opportunity to take their place. The pandemic has changed our economy in many ways. Avocados are in demand because we rabbits eat our salads at home, not in a restaurant. This is good for grocers, but bad for cooks, wait staff, and restaurant owners.
While parts of our economy are currently staggering along, the middle class and poor are lagging behind, as if they had chains and a huge millstone binding their bodies. Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody’s Analytics warns. People would go to work, but the businesses are either closed or the parent needs to stay home to school the child. Unpaid rents affect landlords, and roll on to the bankers who hold those notes.
The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, launched in April 2020, has provided nearly real-time weekly data on how the unprecedented health and economic crisis is affecting the nation. Nearly 24 million adults—11 percent of all adults in the country— reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days. Adults in households with children were likelier to report that the household didn’t get enough to eat: 15 percent, compared to 9 percent for households without children. Hunger in America or food insecurity is linked to a greater chance of cardiovascular mortality in counties throughout the U.S. Researchers believe if the pandemic goes on long enough, more people will begin to die of hunger or famine related circumstances than the disease itself.
Some want to spend a little and let it “trickle down,” but my grandmother rabbit always said that was “penny wise and pound foolish.” After WWII, American generosity rebuilt Germany, the home of the Nazi enemies. If we rebuilt the country of our enemies, I wonder what keeps us from rebuilding our own land? We need a Marshal Plan for America.
St. Valentine’s Day—
As a small bunny, I fondly remember classroom Valentines Day Parties, mostly because I got to decorate a shoebox as my “Valentine Mailbox” and enjoyed all the dime store paper valentines from my bunny friends. Mostly I really enjoyed the pink icing on the chocolate cupcakes and those Necco candy hearts with their pithy, saucy, love quotes. In this pandemic world of Zoom classrooms, gone are class parties, valentines for everyone, and a special gift for the teacher. As a former teacher, my hope is we can get our school teams vaccinated and get our little bunnykins back in a communal setting, so they can learn socialization skills as well as educational materials.
Some grieve about this year as if it’s lost year, and it’ll never be gotten back. This is true, however, there’re other great crises our little bunnies went through in our history, through no fault of their own. The Civil War was one, for it disrupted some youth we wouldn’t let have keys to a car today. One of my grandfather bunnies dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work on the railroad when his own father left home. He made sure his own little bunnies got their education, even if he didn’t get his.
Just because we have a twelve year program for public school doesn’t mean we have to finish it in that length of time. If we have a large monkey wrench thrown into our best laid plans, we might need to cram those twelve years into thirteen years. If we live to seventy-nine years, the average life span in America, this extra year is only 1/79 or 1% of our lives. We spend more time than this sleeping, since we spend about 33% of our lives asleep. No one seems to grieve about this broad swath of time in bed in fact, more of us rabbits are trying their best to get either more or better sleep! Perhaps we need to reframe then way we look at some of these problems to reduce our anxiety about them. Then we’d have more strength to cope with the day to day struggles, which are real and difficult.
Ash Wednesday is moveable feast day, so its date varies. It depends on when Easter is celebrated, and that too is dependent on the lunar calendar. My old daddy rabbit had this ancient piece of lore memorized: “Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.” While we may be able to move certain holidays around the calendar, Easter and its connected rituals of faith, Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent, move every year.
Because of coronavirus protocols, the hands on imposition of ashes by pastors, priests, or worship leaders will change in this pandemic year. Some churches will sprinkle ashes upon people’s heads, while others will give out packets of ashes for self imposition. The ashes are a traditional sign of humility. We may ask, if the ritual changes, is it as effective as it once was? The better question to ask is, “Does the ritual save us or does the power of God’s Holy Spirit flowing through the moment change us for the better?” Sometimes we put too much emphasis on the outward and visible elements, rather than the inward and invisible experience of God at work in us.
The Constant in the Midst of Change—
In the midst of a world intent on stoking our fears to a fever pitch, some of us rabbits find ourselves pulled down the proverbial rabbit hole into vast conspiracy theories, which purport to connect unlikely coincidences, but actually push anti-Semitic, far-right or white-supremacist ideology. Some of these ideas are as old as the Middle Ages, while others came from Russia and got passed into the American milieu during the first Red Scare in the 1920’s.
One of the worst examples is “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a classic of paranoid, racist literature. Taken by the gullible as the confidential minutes of a Jewish conclave convened in the last years of the nineteenth century, it has been heralded by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are plotting to take over the world. Since its contrivance around the turn of the century by the Russian Okhrana, or Czarist secret police, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” has taken root in bigoted, frightened minds around the world.
When the world is in chaos, fearful rabbits look for a demonic figure to blame, when they should look instead to a positive source of power and strength. Fear paralyzes us, but the power of God sets us free to change our world for the better.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
~~ Psalms 46:1-3
May you make enough small changes every day to get new wrinkles in your brain, rather than on your brow.
Joy and Peace,
Intrinsic monitoring of learning success facilitates memory encoding via the activation of the SN/VTA-Hippocampal loop | eLife
Millions of Americans are heading into the holidays unemployed and over $5,000 behind on rent. Hefty bills will come due in early 2021 for rent and utilities. Economists warn many unemployed families won’t be able to pay without more stimulus aid from Congress. By Heather Long
Leonardo da Vinci is the ideal Renaissance man: a supremely gifted painter, scientist, inventor and polymath. Da Vinci has been widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest minds, whose extraordinary talents included painting, mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany, sculpture, and human biology. He once said,
There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.
When small children draw, they first make experiments with whatever medium they have in hand. They’ll put their whole body into it, cover the entire page, and sometimes even eat the materials. Even though they’ve been given a limited arena to explore, such as a sheet of paper, if you turn your back, kids will want to see how the crayons or paint work on a wall, on their bodies, or on the family pet. Parents think of this as more cleanup work, but it’s just another learning experience for the children. The pandemic may have brought this lesson home to roost in more than one home.
Later on, children make symbols for the objects in their world. This is why all early grammar school art looks very similar: the blue line across the paper’s top represents the sky, the yellow sun blazes in an upper corner, a house has exactly one door and two windows, and the ground is green grass. Once a child is 9 to 11 years old, they begin to draw realistically, and over the next few years a child will develop their eye for accurate color and detail.
Sometimes children get the idea they have no artistic ability, and develop a bad case of the “I can’t do this-itis.” When I taught art, I had kindergartners cry when they couldn’t cut out a snowman perfectly on the fold. “Oh, sweetie, no one cuts it perfect the very first time! The first time is just for practice. Let’s see what you were doing that got you two pieces instead of one.”
I knew they were holding the cut side, rather than the folded side, when they made made their cut, but they needed hands on instructions to get the lesson. “Oh, look, you need to hold the fold in your hand, and cut on the flappy sides. That’ll give you the whole piece. Try that while I watch.”
It’s just amazing what happens when the scales fall off their little eyes! In the book of Acts (9:17-18), Ananias laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. When we find the magic key to unlock the storehouse of hidden knowledge, all the possibilities of the world beyond us seem to be close at hand. It only takes a few successes to gain confidence.
Once young people get up to middle school age, they begin to sort themselves into “groups.” Those who think they’re Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s heir apparents often think they only need to do a minimum of work, since their native abilities exceed the best efforts of the less talented students. In mandatory art classes, everyone needs to work under the same grading system. Otherwise systemic structures would always prefer and rank higher those students who had the benefit of prior training, cultural experiences, and native talent.
I always leveled the playing field by grading on heavily on the work ethic, the amount of improvement, and then gave the finished product only 25% of the overall total. This meant if Michelangelo goofed off, but dashed off a winning project, he’d most likely fail the first grading period. His parents would get his mind straight and then his art works would begin to improve by leaps and bounds.
Likewise, the students who never had a chance at succeeding in art class could give their best efforts, seek to solve the assignments, and discover they could improve! It was as easy as A—B—C—Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences. If we began with a positive attitude, we made positive actions, and got good grades and improving art works. Plus we began to feel good about ourselves. If we kept a negative attitude, we wouldn’t try, we’d goof off, be slow to improve, and get a bad grade. Why feel bad about yourself when everyone else was having a good time in art?
The fancy name for this process is brain plasticity. Our brains can form new information and structures, not only when we’re young, but also as we age. The brain is a muscle, which we can exercise. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we don’t just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. You might ask, “How often must I practice tennis, guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” This is the question about brain plasticity, since you’re asking how frequently you must practice an activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another. The simple word for this is “Use it or lose it.”
Today we live in a world in which many children don’t get to explore a wide variety of interests. Some of this is because our schools have focused on teaching just the basics, so art and music get shuffled off to the outermost edges, or dropped if finances get tight. We live in a more structured world than fifty years ago, so children don’t often interact with their environment unless they’re camping or on a field trip. Many don’t play sports because teams are competitive, time consuming, and don’t allow children to have outside interests. I’m not sure why we want children to become professionals too early in life, when they could be exploring the world in all its vast wonder instead.
Maybe this is why as adults we come back to discover our true selves and take up a hobby we never thought we’d ever try. We have to drop our preconceived notion that our abilities and success in one area of our lives will mean we’ll quickly progress in a new field. Some have said we need 10,000 hours of practice to attain excellence, but others say it depends on the field. Deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. In tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. If we were to start up a brand new business , we might need to break some of the rules.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook, “Shadows which you see with difficulty, and whose boundaries you cannot define… these you should not represent as finished or sharply defined, for the result would be that your work would seem wooden.”
We sometimes see with difficulty, and our hand isn’t yet fully connected to our eye, so the boundaries of our shapes don’t match what we see, but we find joy in the act of painting. We keep looking ever more closely, increasing our powers of observation, and training our hand to follow our eye. Some of this is keeping a memory in our mind long enough to put the image on the surface, and the other part is to still the mind of extraneous thoughts so we can hold that thought for the few seconds it takes to make the line.
We do this for our mental health, to keep our neurons fresh and our brains challenged by the problems of representing color, shadows, light, and space. We approach our art work as if we’re little children eager to discover a new way to describe our world. Each time we set brush to canvas, we grow, if only in humility.
Gail brought us some beauty berry bushes. Unlike nearly every other fruiting shrub in North America, beauty berry flowers and fruits in clusters along its stem at the leaf joints, rather than on a separate fruiting stem. Flowers are clustered sprays of pinkish-white tiny blossoms that appear in mid to late summer. Berries are a bright, intense purple, tightly packed in balls of fruit along the stem. The berries are edible when they’re deep purple, but they require lemon juice and sugar to make a good jelly.
The leaves can be used in nearly every way to fight insects: you can crush them and rub them on yourself for a quick fix, you can make an infusion and dip your clothes in it, you can distill out the essential oils and combine them with other plants to make a bug spray… it all works. And it’s not just folklore, either. In 2006, scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service working at the University of Mississippi isolated three chemical compounds from beauty berry leaves— callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. All three proved highly effective as repellents for mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, fleas, and other pests. Later studies confirmed their findings, and actually proved callicarpenal to be more effective than DEET at repelling insects, without the harsh side effects. The last hurdle is making the process financially feasible.
I brought another of my antique 1930’s glass vases from my grandmother’s house. Filled with water, the stems appear distorted underwater and don’t line up with the stems above water. This proved more difficult to paint, so I suggested to Gail a way to simplify the leaves. If the basic yellow shape were filled in first, then the shades of green could go next, leaving thin streaks of yellow for the veins. This is easier than painting a thin yellow line. A thin red edge could highlight certain areas to get the shadow. This takes a steady hand and controlled breathing. Hurrying to get somewhere fast won’t get it done. She paid close attention to the berries and their highlights.
Mike had an errand of mercy to attend to, so he made an appearance and left to help someone who was in trouble. Trouble is just another word for the opportunity to be the hands of Christ in the world. Anytime I had interruptions in my daily plans, I always knew God’s plans were superseding my well planned calendar.
My little still-life has all the autumn colors. Gail brought in a variety of branches and a red sumac also. We only have about 90 minutes to paint after I show some examples and have time to cleanup afterwards. Therefore, I choose to simplify the subject before me. I decide what is most important and necessary to convey the image, to set it into the space, to give it a mood, and to let it speak. If there’s an air of sadness about it, it’s because I painted it on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. If there’s a mood of mystery within it, the changing season is one of harvest and celebration. The earth gives forth its bounty, then goes into a form of rest, until it rebirths itself in the springtime.
If we’re going to paint not only the subject before us, but also share our true selves in the finished work, we need to become as little children who put their whole selves into their work. Although I’d hope we would have learned by now not to eat the paint.
Next Friday we’re going to make decorations for the harvest season. Mike is bringing in leaves, branches, and spray paint. I’m bringing a drill, glue guns, wire cutters, and wire. If you’re coming to make a wreath or mantle piece, bring your “autumn stuff,” as well as a wreath or log. Please wear a mask.
One of the best genres of painting is still life: it doesn’t move, it never gets tired, and it never fusses about sitting in one place for a longtime. It’s only drawback is it might rot if you take too long to do your art work. Most of us won’t have this problem, since we’ll either take a photo of the piece or go on to paint something else before that happens.
Still life painting as an independent genre or specialty first flourished in the Netherlands during the early 1600s, even though parts of earlier paintings paid detailed attention to flowers or fruit within the whole. The rise of still life painting in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands, mainly in the large city trade centers, reflected the increasing urbanization of Dutch and Flemish society, which brought with it an emphasis on the home and personal possessions, commerce, trade, learning—all the aspects and diversions of everyday life. These still lifes featured imported flowers and fruits plus expensive objects such as Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware, and silver-gilt cups and trays, all of which were usually rendered in a glistening light and with a velvety atmosphere.
A noted Flemish master of the 17th century, Jan Davidsz de Heem, enjoyed combining multiple flowers from different seasons along with ears of corn, a spider, a ladybird, ants, and butterflies in a glass vase on a slate ledge with red currents, a violet, a snail, and a caterpillar. Photorealistic paintings like this were in vogue then, but as the years rolled on, modern artists began to explore other directions. Cezanne retains the luxurious drapery of earlier still life paintings, but simplifies the forms of everyday objects. He’s the father of the cubist painters, represented by Picasso’s bottle still life.
Another artist shows us how to handle the reflection of the background in a glass vessel. Matisse freely paints the colors and shapes of the plants, the window, and the bright goldfish plus all the highlights from the light sources. He even lets some of the white of the unpainted canvas show throughout his work to add to the feeling of airiness.
A current painting from Pinterest is a quieter and more sedate rendering of the goldfish theme. The overall drawing is good, but it lacks energy. There’s no vibrancy in the light coming through the window and the shadows on the goldfish are too dark. Muting the values of the colors toward grey and brown will decrease the “pop” of a painting every time.
We also looked at a painting of a clear bottle with lemons in the background. Objects behind a glass will often be displaced by the surface, just as water also shifts the position of anything underwater. We’ve tried bottles and jars before, but this is the first time we’ve focused on them entirely. As a collector of ancient and odd things, these are old beer and soda bottles I’ve found over the years. They aren’t THAT old, with the oldest being about 1905. They’re all mould blown and have distinctive air bubbles and seam lines.
One is from the bottling company of my hometown, the Star Bottling Company, which first produced the Uncle Joe and Aunt Ida soft drinks, before becoming part of the Coca Cola bottling family in 1904. Before the Coca Cola Company created a line of flavored drinks, most of the bottlers created their own brands, with orange, root beer, strawberry, grape and fruit-flavored drinks. Because they weren’t allowed to put them in bottles with the “Coca-Cola” script, the bottlers developed their own “flavor bottles.”
The writing on many of these bottles indicated they were property of the local Coca Cola bottling company. Collectors can find an enormous variety in flavor bottles, and most are very inexpensive to collect. Mine are of the nondescript, ordinary variety, but I have fond memories of the experience of finding them. Plus the excitement of a field trip to the bottling plant, which both got us out of school for a morning and introduced us to the wonders of industry.
The earliest known man made glass date back to around 3500 BCE, with finds in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia. Discovery of glassblowing around 1st century BCE was a major breakthrough in glass making. Archaeological findings in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia indicate the first manufactured glass dates back to 3000 BCE. The oldest fragments of glass vases found in Mesopotamia date back to the 16th century BCE and represent evidence of the origins of the hollow glass industry. Beside Mesopotamia, hollow glass production was also evolving in the same time in Egypt, in Mycenae (Greece), China and North Tyrol (now part of Austria). The first glassmaking manual from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (669-626 BCE) dates back to around 650 BCE.
Because glassmaking was slow and costly, it was luxury item and few people could afford it. Around the end of the 1st century BCE, Syrian craftsmen discovered the new technique of “glass blowing.” This revolutionary event made glass production easier, faster and cheaper, so that glass, for the first time, became available to ordinary citizens. The tools and techniques of glass blowing have changed very little over the centuries.
The Romans traded glass across the vast RomanEmpire and beyond. They were the first to use glass for architectural purposes when clear glass was discovered in Alexandria around 100 CE. Venice was the center of the glassmaking craft.
The art of glass making flourished during the Roman Empire and spread across Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Glass was one of the most important items of trade beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The Romans were the first ones who began to use glass for architectural purposes, when clear glass was discovered in Alexandria around AD 100.
Other examples in the image above of the Roman expertise in glass blowing include a pale green bottle, with the four-sided mould-blown body with rounded shoulder and tapering cylindrical neck, the wide strap handle attached to the shoulder and curved under the lip, 5¾ in. (14.5 cm.) high; a pale green jug, the squat spherical body with diagonal ribs, a pinched handle attached to the flaring neck with trailed ring, 4¾ in. (12 cm.) high; and a pale yellow unguentarium, 4 5/8 in. (11.8 cm.) high. These were from an auction lot at Christie’s.
A flourishing glass industry was developed in Europe at the end of the 13th century when the glass industry was established in Venice by the time of the Crusades (1096-1270 CE). Despite the efforts of the Venetian artisans who dominated the glass industry to keep the technology secret, it soon spread around Europe. Eventually all the great gothic cathedrals of Europe would have stained glass curtains or large windows of colored light illuminating their interiors.
Because stained glass is translucent, we see both the color and the light. When we paint with acrylic colors, the light reflects back from the pigments in the binding medium. In watercolor, the white paper adds brightness since the colors are transparent. This means we have to “fool the eye” and use highlights plus color values near to the background colors to give the illusion of clarity.
Gail is getting good at analyzing the shapes and setting them down on a small canvas during our short class period. This still life had both the extra solid apple and the very clear bottles in contrast. It was more challenging than it sounds. How do you balance the heavy with the light, the solid with the transparent, and the cool blues with the warm reds? Adding a strong background color helps tie the two together.
Another way to bring everything together is to ignore the apple all together, as Mike did. This is called artistic license. He included the red in a cloth crossed by another golden fabric. He uses multiple viewpoints, for the base of the bottles are on one plane and the tops are flipped forward. I don’t know if he changed position or just sat up straighter when doing the bases. I also gave him one of my brushes to use in class, since he’s been using the same one forever. He wants to paint a straight line, but is using a round brush. He needs to take a lesson from Tim, the Tool man Taylor, and “use the right tool for the right job.” Of course we all know that means the one with “more power!”
“Here, use this flat edge artist’s brush. I think you’ll like it.” “Wow, it really paints a smooth edge.”
“Yep, I been suggesting you get a better brush, but you keep using the old one. I finally decided you needed to experience what a real brush feels like in your hand.”
“If I go in the store, do I need a special license to buy a real artist’s brush?”
“They’ll take your money. That’s the only license you need.”
He laughed. I’m glad he has a sense of humor. We’ve been doing this class for about two years now. It takes us a while to learn from each other. We have to learn how to be transparent and open to one another, much as a clear glass bottle is open to light shining through it. The greatest challenge for any of us as adults is accepting any instruction or critique at all. In seminary, I always opened my tests and papers after I repeated my mantra, “I am not my grade.” If I got a good score, I didn’t let it go to my head, but worked even harder on the next effort. If I didn’t score well, I took that grade as an opportunity to define my arenas of insufficient knowledge. I could work on that for the next time.
As we read in the scriptures, the apostle Paul writes: All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. ~~ 2 Timothy 3:16-17
If we weren’t willing to be transformed, why would we read our Bibles or attend to the teachings of God’s holy word? If we let the good word go in one ear and out the other, and it never makes an impact on our hearts, minds, or lives, we’re dead in our faith. We’re called to have a living faith, one full of hope, and actively bring that same hope to our hurting world.
Johnny Nash, who recently passed away, had the number one song on Billboard’s Hot 100 song list in 1972, called “I can see clearly now.”
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain is gone All of the bad feelings have disappeared Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Oh what a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I hope you have a bright, bright, sunshiny day, Cornelia
Who had hurricanes named with the Greek alphabet on their 2020 Bingo card? In a season when catastrophic west coast fires cause Pumpkin Spice skies, we shouldn’t be surprised. Heat lightning striking drought parched national forests and a gender reveal party blunder set off the blazes. Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wild land fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute. But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year’s fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Hurricane Sally knocked out power to 320,000 people along the Gulf Coast and caused initial damages of over $29 million just to roads and public buildings. Homes and personal property damages have yet to be counted. Folks are waiting for flood waters to recede for that estimate to accrue. Over thirty inches of rain fell at the coast, with lesser amounts inland. A major section of a three mile long bridge collapsed, with no date for repair.
None of the dollar costs account for the loss of precious lives, the impact on businesses, or the quality of live in these hard hit areas. Is New Orleans the same post Katrina? Are Miami and Puerto Rico thriving yet? Most of Houston has recovered from the $127 billion loss due to the 2017 hurricane and flooding of the lowlands in the city, and now a large portion of its residents believe climate change is a clear and present threat to future flooding.
The climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is around the second weak of September, which means that August is normally when we start to see a major ramp up of tropical cyclone activity. The year 2020 being, well, a crazy pants year, 2020 is writing a new script. Records are dropping like flies this season as we’ve come to realize those 21 names aren’t going to be enough. Already Tropical Storm Beta, the second letter in the Greek alphabet, is threatening the Bahamas
According to the National Hurricane Center website, “In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic basin in a season, additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.” In 2005, six storms were named with the Greek letter alphabet. During the Great Depression in 1933, hurricane season was also great, with twenty-seven named storms, which beat the former record of 21 storms, according to NASA. Zeta formed December 30, 1933, after the official end to the season.
The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time due to several causes. These include increased exposure or values at risk of possible loss, and vulnerability or how much damage does the intensity of wind speed or flood depth at a location cause. We also consider how climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of weather extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters. There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States in August 2020, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.
A wonderful 1934 oil painting, “The Line Storm,” by John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946, possibly inspired by the approach of a derecho-producing storm in Curry’s home state of Kansas, shows the dramatic approach of the shelf cloud driven by the straight line winds.
These storms and their costs weren’t a record, but warming temperatures do account for more frequent and intense weather events. This is important because a report commissioned by President Trump’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued dire warnings about climate change’s impact on financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions. In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008. The wildfires in California this year alone have burned 5 million acres of forested lands. To grasp the size, compare Arkansas’s forests, which cover 19 million acres or 56 percent of the State and contain 11.9 billion trees.
Sometimes we’re like Egyptians who live along De-Nile. If we can ignore the problem today, someone else can take care of it tomorrow. Unfortunately, this isn’t the order of God’s world. In the beginning, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Genesis 1:16)
Moreover, “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
To rule and to have dominion are both terms related to sovereignty, just as Christ is Lord. We don’t talk much about kings in a Democratic society, but we humans have authority over nature. Unfortunately, we don’t always use our power well. We waste resources, fill oceans with plastic, or buy single use items destined for landfills that won’t decompose. As we approach autumn stewardship season, we might want to reconsider our attitudes and relationships towards nature.
In the central Great Plains, the 100th meridian roughly marks the western boundary of the normal reach of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the approximate boundary between the semi-arid climate to the west and the humid continental (north of about 37°N) and humid subtropical (south of about 37°N) climates to the east. The type of agriculture west of the meridian typically relies heavily on irrigation. Historically the meridian has often been taken as a rough boundary between the eastern and western United States. This area around the 100th meridian, was settled after the American Civil War, beginning in the 1870s .
In the United States the meridian 100° west of Greenwich forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma, which traces its origin to the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819 which settled the border between New Spain and the United States between the Red River and Arkansas River. Dodge City, Kansas lies exactly at the intersection of the Arkansas River and the 100th meridian. The latitude of Hot Springs, AR, USA is 34.496212, and the longitude is -93.057220. This means we’re east of the 100th meridian and in the “humid, subtropical south” section of the USA. Of course, spending a single summer here in the Spa City would convince any skeptic of the truth of this. We should have no “weather deniers,” even if we have “climate change deniers.”
Yet we here in Arkansas are far removed from the coastlines of our nation. We have our tornadoes and occasional floods, but we think of these as facts of life. If these disasters don’t impact us, or someone we know, too often we can shrug them off as just another sad occasion. We might collect flood buckets or give a few dollars to disaster relief, but the emotional impact of the life and death circumstances of other human beings doesn’t often register in our households. I’ve often wondered about this, but perhaps we grew numb during the Vietnam war to the nightly body counts and the images of war gore on television. About 62,000 service people died in the Vietnam War, a number which pales in comparison to the number of deaths during this pandemic, which now number 204,202 souls.
Since art carries with it the notion it should be “beautiful,” subjects about social commentary or politics often run against this grain. “Executions on the Third of May,” by Francisco Goya is an example. On 3 May 1808, Marshal-Prince Joachim Murat wrote to the Infante Don Antonio Pascual that he had executed about one hundred Spaniards, ‘Peasants . . . our common enemy’. Later police reports recorded that the French executed mainly artisans, laborers, one or two policemen and beggars during the street protests in Madrid.
The Death of Marat, by Jacques Louis David, is another social commentary painting. Marat was a popular radical French politician, political theorist and journalist, who advocated for basic human rights for the poor during the French Revolution. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, a royalist from Caen, purchased a knife in a nearby store, walked into his home, and stabbed him dead while he was soaking in his bathtub. David, his friend, painted this memorial to the man who was working up to the last moment of his life for the common good of all the people.
In our faith life, we first learn to pray for our families, then for our friends. With spiritual growth, we can pray for strangers who are like us, and finally we learn to pray for our enemies. When we grow ever closer to God’s presence, we discover we also grow closer to our neighbors. The lawyer who tested Jesus with the question, “But who is my neighbor?” went on to discover the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the stranger. If we want to be true neighbors, we must be the first to show mercy to the strangers in our midst, and not wait for them to “deserve it” or “give mercy to us first.”
How can we make emotional connections so we can do this? In art, as in other endeavors, we can stick with analysis and order. This is our problem solving brain. “What’s the quickest route from point A to B?” We look for one and done. That’s how we operate in most of our lives. Creative solutions, however, seek multiple options: “How many uses can I find for a brick? How many ways can I use a stick?” When we paint a still life, often we stick with the problem solving skills of our brains, and under use our emotional skills. Sometimes this has to do with our timidity regarding our technical skills, so eventually we’ll gain more confidence in our handling of the media. The expression will come through once we are comfortable with the media. It’s a matter of practice and time.
Putting emotions into our art work is also difficult because we’ve been trained since childhood to repress our feelings. Many of us can’t own our feelings. Perhaps we grew up in families with substance abuse and saw our parents out of control. If the other parent told us, “You don’t really see this,” or “We’re just fine, so go to your room,” we might be confused about how we actually feel. Learning to sort the truth from the lie is hard, but we can learn it at any age. Others of us have been taught to “get along with others by smiling a lot.” Another way of saying this is “don’t speak about anything that will upset anyone.” It’s also known as Peace at Any Price, or Prilosec for Everyone.
Marsden Hartley painted Ghosts of the Forest in 1938, in the woods of his home state of Maine. He saw the giant logs, felled by the forest industry, as if they were bones leeched white on a desert. He had returned from New York to find his own individual voice in the landscape he knew best, in the place in which he was born. (Hartley also wrote Adventures in the Arts, which you can read as a free ebook through the Gutenberg ebook project).
In art class, we talked about how 2020 has been a snowball rolling down from an avalanche high up in the mountains. It’s been one catastrophe after another. I know some young folks who’ve quit watching the news altogether, since they can’t handle one more piece of fuel thrown onto the conflagration of the chaos of their lives. Older people, who’ve survived other chaotic times, tend to breathe in, exhale, and say to themselves, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We know once this pandemic passes, some other excitement will take its place. We’ve learned to focus our energy on things that matter to us, rather than on the chaos which the world throws at us. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps us to meet the world calmly.
In art, we call this principle imposing order on disorder. Every work of art, no matter how abstract, has an internal order. Sometimes the order is a limited color scheme, such as a cool or warm palette. The balance may be evenly distributed on both sides, as opposed to a large central shape. Each of us has our own personality, of course, so we show our creative streaks differently.
Gail’s energetic painting of the flames eating the trees came from her heart. With her long experience in the park service, nature is a close companion. The fires in California have made a big impact on her, for she can imagine such a fire in the Ozark’s of Arkansas. This is empathy, which is a characteristic of a good neighbor.
Mike’s painting recognizes the need for city planning. Out west, people want to live next to nature, just as we do, but having homes near drought stricken forests is a prescription for calamity and combustion. The beginning of his design reminds me of his last year’s Day of the Dead altarpiece, which was quite the elaborate project. When we learn from other people’s mistakes, folks call us intelligent. If we repeat the same mistakes others have made before us, folks don’t have kind words for us. That’s when we wish they would practice smiling more, and speaking less.
I often do traditional landscapes, with a foreground, middle ground, and background. I’ve always wanted to do some paintings based on maps, or aerial views, so I looked up Oaklawn UMC and the racetrack. I brought some scraps of clothing, canvas, glue, and scissors to add some dimension to my work. While it doesn’t have my usual palette colors of yellows and reds, maybe the grays are like the smoke filled skies overhead. This California smoke has traveled on the jet stream as far as Northern Europe, or about 5,000 miles.
The whole purpose of art is to stretch our minds and push our boundaries. The more we encounter the world around us, the more likely we come close to the edge. That’s scary for some folks, but it’s just paint, canvas, or other materials. We aren’t jumping off a tall building. That would be an irreversible harm to life. If our end product looks sad at the end of the class, we can work it over later on. We get second chances, and another opportunity to improve. We learn from our mistakes. As my grandmother, a portrait painter, used to say, “Fail again, but fail better each time.”
We can also redeem our world, for we still have time. This is how we can live out our image of God, co-creating and recreating a better world.
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” ~~ Psalms 104:30
What is Real? What is True? What has Meaning for our shared lives in community? Is there an Authority for any of these questions, or are we all on our own when we try to figure out how to make sense of our world? The ancient Greeks were onto these questions long before the fateful day when Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
Today we have a branch of philosophy which studies how we know things. It’s called epistemology. The word comes from the Greek words episteme and logos. Episteme can be translated as knowledge, understanding, or acquaintance, while logos is often translated as account, argument, or reason. Logos also means word, saying, speech, discourse, thought, proportion, ratio, and reckoning. In some strains of Greek thought, the Logos was the rational principle which governed and developed the universe. In early Christianity, the Christ was the Logos or Divine Word through which God created and ordered the universe.
Normally, in ordinary conversation, we don’t throw around these fifty cent words, but prefer instead the nickel and dime ones of our fast food conversations. “How was your day?” We answer, “Fine,” but don’t pull up the deeper words of our emotions to share with the ones we love the most. Eventually we come to a quiet acceptance of togetherness, but perhaps also an inherent loneliness also. The isolation of this Pandemic has cut us off from sharing with others, so now we may feel this inner pain more acutely.
I personally miss the brief give and takes between the random strangers whom I meet in the grocery store or at the coffee shop. Just the opportunity to compliment a stranger or to help an elderly shopper find a product makes me feel good. Likewise, if someone does the same for me, I also feel better about myself. Making connections gives us a sense of community and unity in this trying time.
If we put on a brave face, smile, and say, “I’m fine,” are we being Real, True, or merely hiding behind what society has determined is the appropriate response to this time and place in which we find ourselves? Artists find themselves in this position every single time they approach a blank canvas, a lump of clay or a block of stone. “Am I going to do what all the artists before me have also done, or will I look at this in a new light and make an entirely new expression?” When the first Cubist paintings went on exhibit in France in 1911 at the Salon of the Independents, the people who attended were outraged, for the artists had broken every rule of “good painting,” which the attendees could see first hand in the other exhibits.
Cubism broke the plane of the canvas into an overall fractured space, rather than an attempt to render a three dimensional subject on a flat surface. It presented multiple viewpoints of the objects at once, rather than a single view. Picasso and Braque challenged the accepted representation of art: does art have to represent the world as we see it? Do we instead carry the ability to disassemble reality and reassemble it in a way that’s not limited to the dimensions of the real world? These artists were groundbreaking because they actively deconstructed the real form to illustrate the chaotic and puzzling side of the real world. For cubists, artists aren’t just people who paint beautiful things, but people who give others the chance to think about the world they’re living in through artistic expression.
Traumatic events like September 11th and this Pandemic also “disassemble our reality” and may cause us to reject it outright, hide from it, deny its impact, or find a way to make sense of a fallen and broken world. We can either become wounded healers or we can become wounded people who keep on wounding others. Nothing can take away the losses we’ve suffered, but we can learn to make use of our grief to help others get to better places in their own lives.
Art often serves as therapy for traumatized persons, as does journaling. This is because both are physical means of expression and both require focused breathing. I find I can’t paint when I’m agitated, but if I do a little cleaning of my palette and preparing of my work area, I begin to calm down enough to concentrate. With writing, I like using old fashioned pen and ink on paper to let the good ideas flow, but I can also tap, tap on the iPad if I have a well conceived idea beforehand.
If we let the thoughts inside of us come up to the surface, we can become aware of them and deal with them. Sometimes we don’t like these painful images that arise, for they remind us of old trauma and grief, which may depress or anger us. We need to look these feelings in the face for what they are: emotions only, but they aren’t the definition of our eternal Truth. These are mere moments in time, not forever moments, unless we choose them to be. As a person living with chronic depression, I had to learn how to think positively and stay appropriately medicated, as well as to do the healthy self care behaviors to enhance my ability for an optimistic outlook on life. We can be survivors, not victims. If I ruminated on my sad thoughts or anxious feelings, I wouldn’t be able to take positive steps forward. Learning how to refocus my thoughts took time and practice, but the effort was worth it.
Art pushes our boundaries outward, so we are more resilient when we meet struggles in the world. If we struggle and fail on a painting, we still learn from our work some lessons to apply on the next one. Art is a series of building up of failures until you get competency surrounded. One day your hand, eye, heart, and mind all click into one circuit. Suddenly your art looks like you seem to know what you’re doing. It has a voice unique to you and begins to speak to the world beyond. This is the moment when your inner spirit and emotions are at work, for you have enough technical ability to get the meaning across.
How long does this take before your work takes on its own personality? We all have it from the beginning, for we each have our own unique insight into the world built up from our past experiences. The better question we ask is “when does our work look good?” At this point we’re asking, “Is it Beautiful, Technically Competent, Engaging, or Appealing?” Sometimes we’re asking, is it commercially viable, or will someone buy it? If the test of great art is someone will purchase it, Rembrandt’s later works and most of Van Gogh’s oeuvre don’t make the cut. Yet, history proves these are museum worthy paintings. This means we don’t need to concern ourselves with this question, but we shouldn’t quit our day job anytime soon.
A recent study found if a family has an annual income of $100,000, a child is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise the annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, for every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, a person is two percent more likely to enter a creative field. This is why we see so few persons of color in the art world today, for historically their art was not only disparaged in early American history, but today people of color have lower median incomes than whites, partly due to systemic racism resulting from inequalities in education, but also lack of entry into home ownership due to redlining.
Art is like ministry: we don’t do it to get rich. We do it to live our best life. We do it because we have a need to express the deeper voice which we hear in the depths of our hearts and mind. It isn’t the call of the world, but the mysterious calling of the Divine Word, which we remember from John 1:1-5, was “The Word Became Flesh:”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
When we make art of any kind, we reassemble a new reality, for we proclaim we’re living in the power of the creating God. We know we aren’t a god, but we share God’s image and God’s work of creation. Because of this, we can rebuild the broken world, heal the broken people, and show love and compassion to all we meet. For many of us who grieve or judge ourselves harshly, maybe self compassion and self love is the first reconstruction of our world we should work on. If we aren’t painting or sculpting, we can bake pies or cookies, keep gardens, grow flowers or veggies, or do any other life giving endeavors.
Art gives us an safe space and an opportunity to build a new world. If it doesn’t hang together, we can always paint over it and try again. Or we can start afresh on a brand new canvas. How many of us wish we could wipe yesterday from our memories? Or come to tomorrow clean and new? We can have hope, as Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.