In the Darkness, I can still see America the Beautiful

9/1/11, art, coronavirus, Faith, Fear, Forgiveness, grief, Healing, Holy Spirit, instagram, Ministry, nature, pandemic, photography, purpose, Racism, renewal, Spirituality, vision

On a long ago Monday morning, I had no other pressing issues on my mind other than “More coffee and swing by the local garage for a new battery for the church van.” That’s what happens when a simple van doesn’t come with automatic headlights. When I arrived inside the church, I was greeted by the shocked looks of folks gathered around the radio. “Preacher, the Pentagon has fallen and the Twin Towers in New York have collapsed.”

I was aghast and speechless. I went to the garage, where I knew the TV and the coffee would be on, plus the old boys gathered there would be in the know. I’d kill two birds with one stone. “I’ll be back soon. If folks want to pray, tell them I’ll be here by noon.”

Some Mondays require more coffee than others.

Some churches are family centered, so they want to gather at home and hug their loved ones tight at times of crisis. Other groups don’t have family nearby, so they gather together to offer one another comfort in times of grief. I stayed at the church that afternoon and was there for the strangers who noticed our light and stoped on their sojourn along the highway of life. God meets us where we are.

Right Wing Violence Growing in America
Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City Federal Center Bombing in 1995, which killed 165 people and injured 500 others, and was first blamed on Middle Eastern terrorists, was the second-most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history, except for September 11, 2001.

I mention it because although Americans have always found the “bad guys/others/scapegoats” as worthy of our nationalistic scorn, but homegrown far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Still, right-wing attacks and plots have accounted for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years.

When we remember our friends and fellow citizens who lost their lives in the 2001 attacks, we also must take a moment of silence for the citizens of our world who also lost their lives. 9/11 was by far the worst terrorist attack in American history with 2,977 victims (excluding the 19 perpetrators). While the attacks were aimed at the United States, 372 foreign nationals from 61 countries were also victims. Why is this important? Nearly two decades ago, America saw herself as a leader among nations, rather than as a nation behind a wall, alone. We went to war, not only to avenge our “honor” and take “retribution for our loss,” but also to “make the world a safer place in which to live.”

Citizens Lost at 911 from Nations in Blue

War Against Terror and the Axis of Evil
Before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a new approach to foreign policy in response to 9/11: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Bush declared that the United States considered any nation that supported terrorist groups a hostile regime. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President Bush called out an “Axis of Evil” consisting of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, and he declared all a threat to American security.

I remember how full our church was the Sunday after September 11, 2001. Each person there wanted to know what their pastor would say about the one, true, Christian response to the attack, and where a person of faith should stand on war that was surely coming. I’m sure my people were surprised I didn’t tell them there was only one true way, but several paths Christians across the centuries have faithfully chosen. Thinking for yourself by using the Scripture, the traditions of the church, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the struggle we people of faith are called to make.

Why are we building walls?
Since that fateful day, we’ve thrown up a wall of sorts on our southern border. While it was supposed to be a “big beautiful wall, like you’ve never seen before, from coast to coast,” the truth of it is Trump has promised to build at least 500 miles of new fencing by early next year, but his administration has completed only about 110 miles so far.

Cactus felled to make way for the wall

Nearly all of the new fencing the Trump administration has built so far is considered “replacement” fencing, swapping out smaller, older vehicle barriers for a more elaborate — and costly — “border wall system.” The administration has been slowed because building new barriers where none currently exist requires the acquisition of private land, and many owners don’t want to sell. They would lose access to all of their land by selling a portion. Even with the slated construction goals, most of the southern border will not have a man-made barrier, since the terrain is considered too tough to traverse.

Big Walls Make Bad Neighbors
Where building has occurred, the neighbors haven’t been happy. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery were brought up to the edge of the Oregon Pipe National Monument outside Tucson. There the crews also detonated bedrock to lay the barrier’s foundation. Crews removed cactus and other plant life near the international wildlife preserve to make way for access roads, which Border Patrol say are needed to enhance security. The Army Corps of Engineers in February conducted a series of controlled blasts along a sacred Native American heritage site known as Monument Hill.

These are just a few of the indignities to our natural resources, our environment, and our Native American peoples in the mad dash to protect the country from “marauding caravans.” Remember the caravans? So 2019—they were last year’s scapegoats. The people to fear this year are “people of color who are coming for your suburbs, led by Corey Gardner and the Democrats!”

Good Walls Make Good Neighbors
Of course, if artists and architects from both Mexico and America had collaborated to design the wall it might have been more welcoming as cultural destination. In fact it might have been a money maker for tourism on both sides of the border, but who cares about money in these days?

Architects’ rendering of Border Cultural Destination

Truth and Lies
I grew up in the Deep South back in the awful days when governors stood in school house doors to prevent black children from attending classes with white kids. I thought America today was better than this. While Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful and the vast majority of demonstration events associated with the BLM movement are non-violent, unfortunately disinformation campaigns have convinced some that the opposite is true.

However, in more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the BLM movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity. Peaceful protests have been reported in over 2,400 distinct locations around the country. Violent demonstrations, meanwhile, have been limited to fewer than 220 locations — under 10% of the areas that experienced peaceful protests.

Right-wing Extremism
Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019. In addition, right-wing extremism accounted for over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020. Second, terrorism in the United States will likely increase over the next year in response to several factors. One of the most concerning is the 2020 U.S. presidential election, before and after which extremists may resort to violence, depending on the outcome of the election. Far-right and far-left networks have used violence against each other at protests, raising the possibility of escalating violence during the election period.

Between 1994 and 2020, there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States. Overall, right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority—57 percent—of all attacks and plots during this period, compared to 25 percent committed by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists, and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.

The Truth Will Set You Free
All terrorism feeds off lies, conspiracies, disinformation, and hatred. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi urged individuals to practice what he called “satyagraha,” or truth force. “Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatever; and it always insists upon truth,” he explained. That advice is just as important as it has ever been in the United States.

Mahatma Gandhi practiced Satyagraha or “holding onto truth, ” to designate an attitude of determined but nonviolent resistance to evil. Gandhi’s satyagraha became a major tool in the Indian struggle against British imperialism and has since been adopted by protest groups in other countries. Jesus was fond of saying, “The truth will set you free.”

Tribute to the Victims of Foreign Terrorism
In this 19th anniversary of the Tribute to the Victims of Foreign Terrorism, I wonder if it’s not time to rethink this memorial. The loved ones deserve to be remembered, the brave responders need to be honored, but we need to come to grips with the pain and agonies within our own greater community. The Pandemic has revealed structural inequalities that have been built over generations. Just as our interstate highway system was a great infrastructure project of the 1950’s, but we’ve driven on orange barrel roadways ever since because no one in congress has the will to spend the money on the concrete the people use. Instead they give giant tax breaks to corporations with the thought the money will “trickle down” to those below. When it doesn’t, they try again, thinking “It’ll work THIS TIME.” Now we need to address the cracks in our country and mend our brokenness.

One image depicts a magnificent wall of musical organ pipes, 30 feet tall, punctuated with openings every 20 feet allowing people to pass through. Photo: JM Design Studio

Revisioning and Reimagining Due to the Pandemic
For the first time since 2002, the annual Tribute in Light—the dual beams of light that commemorates the victims of the September 11th terror attacks—will go dark. The organizers, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which manages the installation at the Battery Parking Garage in Lower Manhattan, made the difficult decision, citing the health risks of the pandemic. After consultations, the museum concluded, “the health risks during the pandemic were far too great for the large crew—30 technicians, electricians, and stagehands—required over ten days to produce the annual Tribute in Light.” The twin pillars of light, which can be seen up to 60 miles away, became a fixture following the second anniversary of the attacks.

Birds and Moths caught in the 911 lights

The lights, featuring eight-eight 7,000-watt xenon light bulbs are placed in two 48-foot squares, but they are directly in the path of migrating birds. The convergence creates a spectacle that is eerily beautiful, yet according to one study, endangers some 160,000 birds a year, starkly illustrating the perils of humans and animals sharing an urban ecosystem. The tiring detour through the beams of light can put birds at risk of starvation or injury to populations already threatened by light pollution, collisions with buildings, habitat destruction and climate change. To solve the problem, the lights are switched on and off at twenty minute intervals. This allows the birds to reorient themselves and safely travel on. Otherwise, the light lures them in, and the glass windows of the buildings finish them off.

The pandemic and social distancing has also forced the museum to scale back the commemorative ceremony on September 11th, including a live reading of all 9/11 and 1993 bombing victims that has traditionally been conducted by victims’ family members. A recording from the museum’s “In Memoriam” exhibition will be used instead to minimize the risk of exposure to families visiting that day.

September 11 Victim Compensation Fund
From 2001 to 2004, over $7 billion dollars in compensation was given to families of the 9/11 victims and the 2,680 people injured in the attacks. Funding was renewed on January 2, 2011, when President Barack Obama signed The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act into law, which was named for James Zadroga, a New York City Police officer who died rescuing survivors. In 2015, funding for the treatment of 9/11-related illness, was renewed for five more years at a total of $7.4 billion.

The Victim Compensation Fund was set to stop accepting claims in December 2020. On July 29, 2019, President Trump signed a law authorizing support for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund through 2092. Previously, administrators had cut benefits by up to 70 percent as the $7.4 billion fund depleted. Vocal lobbyists for the fund included Jon Stewart, 9/11 first responder John Feal and retired New York Police Department detective and 9/11 responder Luis Alvarez, who died of cancer 18 days after testifying before Congress.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Americans have a notoriously short attention span. We’re given to the latest fads. Once upon a time goldfish swallowing was all the rage, as was stuffing telephone booths (we don’t even have those anymore), and planking. Oh my. I remember piling into VW bugs in the early 60’s with the school chum who had a convertible. She got bonus points because we could stack the most petite of our friends on our shoulders in a tower. Photo op for yearbook. With social media and 24 hour news channels, a story can be here today and gone tomorrow. If we were upset at the Tide challenge one day, the cinnamon challenge follow hot on its heels. The next challenge will be how tidy your sock drawer is, and you’ll experience excruciating pandemic pain that you’ve lost the last six months of your life with an untidy dresser.

Final Thoughts
If we are to fight wars, let them be for just causes, with proportional responses against armed aggressors, but not against civilians. Let’s not stand alone against the world, but link arms with allies who share our values of democracy, self-government, and freedom. Let’s also care for the most vulnerable among us and unite with the nations of the world to protect the environment, for all of us are endangered by climate change and pollution.

If the “lights are out” on 9/11, perhaps we can use the darkness to look inside our hearts for the future path forward. If we take a healing path, we can dedicate it to everyone who has lost their life in the America that was before, and then we can build for their descendants the America they have always dreamed of and hoped for: America the Beautiful.

ANSEL ADAMS: Ruins of Old Church, ca 1929, printed 1977

September 11 Tribute Light Goes Dark in 2020
https://gothamist.com/news/911-tribute-in-light-wont-shine-in-2020-a-first-in-18-years

Oklahoma City Bombing
https://www.publicradiotulsa.org/post/ap-was-there-oklahoma-city-bombing-story

George W. Bush: Foreign Affairs | Miller Center
https://millercenter.org/president/gwbush/foreign-affairs

The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States | Center for Strategic and International Studies
https://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-terrorism-problem-united-states

Timeline of September 11 events
https://www.govtech.com/em/safety/Timeline-of-How-the-Tragic-Events-Unfolded-on-Sept-11-2001.html

Brilliant Maps
https://brilliantmaps.com/9-11-victims/

Border wall construction plows through southwestern US undeterred by COVID-19 – ABC News
https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/border-wall-construction-plows-southwestern-us-undeterred-covid/story?id=70649546

Washington Post Deep Dive on Government Wall Documents
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/immigration/border-wall-progress/

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project
https://acleddata.com/special-projects/us-crisis-monitor/

ACLED collects real-time data on the locations, dates, actors, fatalities, and types of all reported political violence and protest events across Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia & the Caucasus, Latin America & the Caribbean, and Southeastern & Eastern Europe & the Balkans.

The US Crisis Monitor is a joint project of ACLED and BDI, the Bridging Divides Initiative of Princeton University. Through this project, ACLED is able to extend its global methodology to conduct data collection for the US, making real-time data available for public use, while BDI is able to use these data to identify emerging risks and to inform and motivate policy and programming discussions within its civil society network.

Designs for Trump’s Border Wall. https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/2086420/designs-trumps-powerful-mexico-border-wall-include

The 9/11 Tribute Lights Are Endangering 160,000 Birds a Year
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/09/nyregion/911-tribute-birds.html?referringSource=articleShare

September 11 Victim Compensation Fund
https://www.vcf.gov/

Listening to Flowers

adult learning, art, coronavirus, Creativity, Faith, flowers, grief, Healing, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Painting, pandemic, Reflection, Stress, vision

Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.

Listen to the Flowers

The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.

It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;
God chose what is low and despised in the world,
things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,
so that no one might boast in the presence of God”

(1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.

When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.

Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.

Tiger Lily

Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.

Carrot Flowers

Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.

Blue Violet Flower

This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.

Flowers in Vases

Coronavirus Quilt

Ancestry, art, Children, Christmas, coronavirus, Creativity, Faith, Family, Fear, grief, Healing, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Ministry, purpose, quilting, renewal, Spirituality, vision

My family has a tradition of handcrafts and needle working skills, passed down from generation to generation, as do many Southern families. I admit I didn’t care much for the sitting still part when I was young, but I really liked the bright sequins and beads of the tree skirts we embellished with the symbols of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The first six days were overloaded, while the last few had only a sprinkle of sparkle stitched to the colored felt, but then we were coming in under the wire by Christmas eve and Santa wouldn’t visit our house if we didn’t get into bed as soon as possible. We just barely made it.

Antique Child’s Sewing Machine

Most of our projects didn’t have such a time limit, however. I remember learning to make doll clothes on a toy sewing machine before my mother trusted me on the electric machine. I made tiny tucks across the bodice of these outfits from the scraps of the materials my mother used to make my school clothes. My Nannie had an old foot powered sewing machine on her back porch. It was often hidden under piles of newspapers or canning jars resting on their journey to the garage out back. From her I learned to sew straight seams, unbeknownst to my mom. My small foot wasn’t able to power the treadle of the old machine very fast and I’d been warned within an inch of my life to keep my fingers a good distance from the needle. I was doing this sub rosa, and that added to my excitement, but my mother probably knew. I only thought I was doing something forbidden.

First Lesson

Soon after this, my mother decided I needed to learn to make simple clothes from a pattern. Not that I would do it unsupervised, but she did have a degree in home economics and a lifetime teaching certificate. I made one of those easy patterns with only a front, a back and a neck binding. Of course, I was too young to need to worry about darts yet, so this wasn’t the most difficult project in the sewing room. I did learn how to pin, cut, and sew with the right sides together so the seam would be on the inside.

Later I’d learn to hem my clothes. My mom always thought I sewed backwards. I suppose since she sewed in the opposite direction, I was backwards. I’ll blame this on my being a breech birth, for if I came into the world backwards, I can do things in an opposite manner if I want to. Sometimes it takes a person who sees the world from a different viewpoint than everyone else to help others make sense of the world, especially when the world isn’t in the order we’ve come to expect it to be.

July is the season of the year when active Methodist clergy move to new churches. I’d hear my friends say, “I’m going to hit the ground running and show them I’m ready!”

I’d nod my head, and reply, “I’m going to take my time, get to know folks, find out where they are, and what they need. Then we’ll figure out where we need to go together.” I was past the age of running anywhere, since ministry was my fifth career.

This pandemic has changed many of our rituals and routines. Gone are our potlucks and coffees, our get togethers and small group sessions. We now meet from afar and we’ve learned to like it, or else we live in isolation, and we’ve learned to endure it. I told a friend, “I’m blessed to be single, because if I get on my nerves, I’ve got no one to blame but me! If I get that upset with myself, I go down to the exercise room for a walk.”

As this pandemic has stretched out, I’ve come to realize treating it like a new appointment might be the best practice. Ministry is more of a marathon than a sprint, for we need to keep a steady pace for a long distance, rather than run fast for a short initial spurt. Throwing all our energies at it in the first few months, especially now when everyone is socially distanced, isn’t going to be the most effective use of our potency.

Antique Wedding Ring Quilt
Made by My Grandmother

This is where quilt making comes into play. Quilts can have a structured pattern or they can be various strips of cloth sewn together until they make a square or an entire top. Right now, we’re in crazy quilt land, while we wish we were in structured pattern quilt land. We have to make do with the materials we have at hand and make the most beautiful work with what we have. This is the creative work of the Holy Spirit, which binds the people together, no mater how separated and isolated the community is.

I pulled out some fabric from one of my boxes to make a patchwork pillow. I had no plan, for mostly I was distressed at the brokenness and sickness of our world. I thought if I stitched some strips of fabric together, I would find some order, and perhaps some beauty. Of course, I kept stitching and realized I had more than enough for a pillow, but not enough for another project. I looked at my plain jean jacket and thought it could be improved. I kept stitching, so soon I had enough for the jacket and yet another pillow! This is enough. I’m going to put up my machine and go back to my easel for a while.

Patchwork Pillow with Hand Stitching

I know I miss my friends and family, for they’re like the strips of cloth I’ve sewn together. I try to connect with them by writing my blogs and sharing my spiritual pages, so I can give a voice to the emotions others perhaps are feeling. I write because I’ve never been accused of saying too little, but more often of not knowing when to quit. That’s ok, for someone needs to put into words the feelings this pandemic is putting many of us through.

I hope you’re finding some creative project to do during this pandemic time. I suggest a journal, to write out your memories of your life before this strange time. We don’t know what our future will bring us, and the generations who follow us will wonder what an ordinary life was like back in the day. If we write about the pandemic itself, we may fail to touch the grief of what we’ve lost, and only write about our grievances of today. If we can find an opportunity to note the small blessings of each day, perhaps we can access our memories of our past lives also.

My granddaddy hung his dress jacket in the old wood chifforobe on that back porch where the antique sewing machine resided. The cabinet retained the aroma of his favorite chewing gum, even when he was gone from the house. I can still smell today the juicy fruit chewing gum my granddaddy always carried in his coat pocket.

I hope you’re finding moments of joy and peace amidst this time of pandemic and uncertainty. I’ve attached a poem at the end I think you might enjoy.

Cornelia

Patchwork Jean Jacket with Button and Antique Crochet Embezzlements

Memories are worthy treasures, as this poem reminds us. This is a true story, for the author finished the quilt in 2017. Her husband’s mother had started it and was about a third done with the quilting when she passed away in 1986.

Thirty Years
By Ruth Poteet

My closet’s free of a strange parolee,
coldly imprisoned for thirty long years;
gone with the rest of my walk-in’s debris,
I’d marked it “Goodwill” with cynical cheers.

Rescuing the box, my mind shifted gears.
And ready to face fair verdict instead,
a quilt, yet unquilted, moved me to tears.
At seventy-three I finished this spread.

It took just three weeks, while my fingers bled,
now “thirty years” rests proudly on my bed.

Ruth Poteet: Thirty Years

https://allpoetry.com/poem/12799690-Thirty-Years-by-Reason

A Happy Bird for a Cloudy Day

arkansas, art, coronavirus, cosmology, Creativity, Faith, Fear, gambling, Holy Spirit, Meditation, Ministry, poverty, purpose, Spirituality, Stress, Uncategorized, Work

Happy Bird

“Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts,
or curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
for a bird of the air may carry your voice,
or some winged creature tell the matter.” ~~ Ecclesiastes 10:20

“A little bird told me,” my nanny often said, when I asked her how she knew about my doings. “The walls have eyes, honey, and the wind has ears. Nothing done in secret stays hidden very long. You’d best mind your P’s and Q’s.”

If I had been a more fearful child, I might have been afraid to sleep in a dark bedroom. As it was, I was only afraid of what was under the bed and what might come out of the closet, both of which are normal childhood “monster” fears. I kept these imaginary monsters from harming me by closing the closet door at night and by approaching my bed at a dead run, and launching my small body a full six feet through the air until I landed in the middle of my bed. My parents were thankful I forgot about these monsters by the time I was big enough to have done damage to the furniture.

How do we handle fears as adults? Some of us put our heads down into the sands, as if we were ostriches rolling our eggs in our nests. What we don’t see won’t bother us. Some of us self medicate with substances to the point of abuse. We can even use goods in a bad way: overeating, over exercising, overwork, and orthorexia (concern for a good diet) are a few we could mention. A better way is to seek a balanced life, and not to go off the deep end in any one direction.

When everyone else is losing their heads around you, someone has to remain calm. For a long time my motto was “Leave me alone, I’m having a crisis.” Then I went into ministry and I became the caregiver to people in crisis. Folks need a non-anxious presence to be with them, for even if we can’t change or fix their present circumstances, we can be a reassuring companion. While the present moment may be distressing, often the underlying reason is because our applecart has been upset. When our plans and schemes get upended, we have to monitor the new situation, and adjust accordingly. We may not like what we have to take care of, but this is our now, and not some hypothetical game plan.

As one of my clergy pals used to say, “I keep my calendar in pencil because I have to change it so often.” I just use that tape whiteout and write mine in ink anyway. I like the pretty colors, but I know life happens and when it does, i make the changes and write in a new plan in ink. Life is often messier than I’d like it to be.

I just found out all our public spaces in our county will close for April due to the coronavirus mitigation protocols. We have an establishment called The Ohio Club, which has been serving food and drink since 1905. It’s made it through the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the two Great World Wars, and many smaller ups and downs in between. If we have an eye to the better future, and not just to the problems of the present moment, we can plan and work to get through this part of the cycle.

While closing down is a good choice for our community to contain the coronavirus, it means the exhibition I planned won’t go up. I’ll be checking to see if it’s rescheduled or if it will be a virtual display. With everyone on home confinement, we’ll make the best of the situation. There has to be a silver lining in the clouds somewhere. At least we should be looking for the bluebird of happiness to visit us in the coming days.

Bluebird of Happiness

Here is the poem by the American 20th Century writer, George J. Carroll, that first used the phrase “bluebird of happiness:”

“And in the valley beneath the mountains of my youth, lies the river of my tears. As it wends its way to the ocean of my dreams, so long ago they have gone. And yet, if I were but to think anew, would these dreams evaporate in my mind and become the morning dew upon a supple rose whose beauty is enhanced with these glistening drops, as the sun of life peeks o’er the mountains when youth was full. Then I must not supply this endless fountain that creates the river of my tears but look beyond those mountains where the bluebird of happiness flies.”

Folks tells us to stay in the present moment and to honor our feelings. If we’re in a state of anxiety, however, we need to ask if feeding our fears is the best choice we can make. “What if’s” and “How are we going to’s” are useful fuel for the flames of our imaginations. If we feed that flame, we’ll either take to day drinking or need to be heavily medicated for the public safety. Neither are our best choice. Sometimes we make lists, and then add lists to the lists, as if we could organize the chaos unfolding about us.

In truth, Chaos is confused, unordered, unorganized, and has no distinct form. It’s what existed before Creation. As such, unpredictability is its inherent nature. If we were in one of the closed casinos, the metaphor would be “shooting craps with loaded dice,” since the odds would be stacked against the player in favor of the House.

The best way to keep our wits about us when everyone else is going crazy is to breathe deeply in and out. If we focus on the breath, and remember the source of this life giving breath, we can connect our selves to a greater power.

“Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” ~~ Genesis 2:7

If we remember whose we are, and who we are, we’ll get through this together. Take care of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, and the sick. We are stronger together than we are alone.

Joy and a Peace, Cornelia

The Joy of Peter Max

SPRING CLEANING

adult learning, arkansas, art, Attitudes, beauty, Creativity, Faith, greek myths, Holy Spirit, Painting, poverty, purpose, Secrets, vision, Work

Lately I’ve had an extra burst of energy around the house, but this always happens as the light begins to change and the sap rises in the trees. I see the first feathers of blooming green on the tips of trees and realize the grays of winter are no more. The ornamental pears lining our drive are bursting into white and the joy of the pink Japanese magnolias have my spirits and energies both exulting. I was in Kroger looking for the daffodils to bring to art class, but they weren’t in the store yet. I live in a condo, so those jaunty jonquils on our property aren’t mine to cut, since they’re considered community property.

When I arrived at church Friday, it was a fine spring day, the sort most folks would want to be outside digging up a garden. I certainly would, but I have a few pots inside for herbs and call that my “condo garden” instead. Mike and Gail asked, “What? No flowers? We hoped there’d be flowers!”

Yeah, me too. I’m ready for flowers. Just as spring flowers remind us of new life, they also remind us of the fragility of life. In the bulb, there is the promise of the life yet to come, even if it’s hidden underground all winter, just as there’s the promise of our new life to come after our death and burial. When we have a worldwide pandemic of a novel Coronavirus, which has no vaccine as yet to protect us, we depend on common sense behaviors and our faith in times of trial.

Kettle and Frying Pan

For our still life, I appropriated a tea kettle and a frying pan from the church kitchen. Since I returned it, I didn’t use the five finger discount, but merely borrowed it for a bit. As we looked at the still life, I talked about the objects as simplified forms, which we’ve done time and time again. The basic forms may get boring, but they’re the foundational exercises for artists, just as practicing the scales are for musicians.

I pointed out how the tea kettle is more like a big sphere, which has had its bottom sliced off so it can sit on the table. If we can see the ball inside it, then we can capture its fullness. The spout is a cylinder, with a triangular form attached to it. The pan is another sphere, but this one has had its top and bottom cut off. It’s like a globe with only the equatorial latitudes remaining because the top and bottom 45% have been removed. Also, we can see the inside, for it’s been scooped out.

Happy Pan by Gail

Last week I’d shown Gail the trick of using the brush handle to measure the still life and get similar proportions on her canvas. I showed this to Mike today. This is part of the “secret, gnostic, knowledge, known only to a few, and passed on by word of mouth,” which artists teach to students when they they’re ready to receive it. I usually leave the group alone for awhile, and then get up and make a quick check of their work. Gail and Mike are second year students, so they work more independently. We all paint some more, but on the second check is where we’re more likely to get into trouble.

Sturdy kitchenware by Mike

This second checkpoint is about ninety minutes into a two hour session. Our internal clocks tell us to hurry up and finish, so we begin to paint without thinking or looking at our subject anymore. We’re just doing, but not paying attention. If we were slicing onions with a sharp knife for a restaurant, we might lose a fingertip here. Thankfully we’re only painting shapes, which can get covered over with more paint. Art is much more forgiving than chopping onions. Keeping our focus is a skill just as much as learning perspective, color theory, or value. Learning how to step away and check our work is also important.

What of the subject matter, though? What inspires us to paint? We may be asking the question, “What is beautiful?” A corollary to this is “Does the subject need to be beautiful to be art?” The ancient proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been around in one form or another since the 3rd century BCE in Greece. I remember standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829) in the Tate Gallery in London when I spent a winter term there during my grad school days.

Turner: Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus

I was making a small drawing of the scene, which I remembered well from my days in Latin class, and was paying attention to the details of the one eyed cyclops and the tiny figure shaking his fist in the boat below, when an older gentleman came close, inspected the art work, stepped back, and then looked hard at the painting once more. A brief moment of silence passed as he continued to study the work before him, then he leaned forward once more and read the painting’s title out loud. “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—no, I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.”

I almost dropped my sketchbook in amazement. It was as plain as the nose on this man’s face, but he couldn’t see it. This painting currently isn’t on exhibition, so perhaps many people had the same reaction as the gentleman viewer, and not enough had my joyous response to Turner’s painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an untrained eye won’t recognize esoteric beauty even if it’s labeled “work of beautiful art.” If we don’t have fine arts education in our schools, then children grow up without an appreciation for their creative spirits and their own unique voices. Art is a field of exploration which allows for many types of expression and interpretations of “beauty.”

Cornelia’s Orange and Blue Kitchen

In our world today, we’ve turned so many activities over to professionals. While I wouldn’t want someone who stayed in a Holiday Inn last night doing brain surgery on me, I’m not ready to let fast food cooks prepare all my meals. This attitude of outsourcing ministry to the professionals is a dated concept, for now the most prevalent understanding is all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, and some are set aside for special service to the church and the world through ordination. In art terms, we all are part of the arts and crafts movement, although some of us have special training to elucidate our greater gifts.

Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy:

“In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” ~~ 2 Timothy 2:20-21

Still Life with Copper Cauldron (c. 1734–35), Jean-Siméon Chardin.

Lest we get a swelled head, thinking we’re special utensils, or get depressed believing we’re only ordinary utensils, we all need to remember we’re both useful in our Father’s household. In our everyday lives, we need to care for those in our community who exist on the margins of life, many of whom are hourly workers who stitch together several part time jobs to make ends meet, but don’t get health insurance anywhere.

Our elderly are another marginal and vulnerable group, who often have multiple health conditions and declining incomes, fewer social contacts, and less mobility. Once they were the special vessels, made of gold and silver, but now they get treated like ordinary wood and clay, too easily broken in their fragile days. Our elderly carry the dreams and memories of our history together, so they can tell the stories of perseverance when the times get tough.

The wonderful promise is all of us can be “special utensils,” dedicated to God, ready and useful for every good work. We merely have to show up. We don’t have to hire professionals to do all our work, but we can enjoy the experience of our own creative efforts. Learning new skills builds confidence as well as competency, so we get a double benefit. God will give the promised Holy Spirit to the entire priesthood, for we’re are all called to do God’s good works for the sake of the kingdom.

Still Life with Copper Cauldron (c. 1734–35), Jean-Siméon Chardin. Photo: © Roger-Viollet/Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder.html

Cloud Illusions and Creativity

adult learning, art, Attitudes, beauty, change, Creativity, Faith, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Love, Ministry, Painting, Philosophy, Valentine’s Day, vision

I was watching the Super Bowl on Sunday. Two evenly matched teams kept the score tight until the last quarter, when an interception by Kansas City put the game into the hands of Patrick Mahomes. This young quarterback proceeded to shred the 49ers with 21 unanswered points for a comeback win. If San Francisco came away feeling shell shocked, they had every reason for their disbelief. They were ahead by 10 points going into the last quarter and KC hadn’t won a Super Bowl in 50 years.

When I was in art school, the most difficult task was learning how to see the world in a new way. Our art history classes tried to prepare us for this undertaking by teaching us the changing styles of beauty across the ages. Some of us never got it, however, as we persisted in thinking the ancient works were just “ugly and deformed” or the modern works were “lacking in realism or talent.” We students weren’t asked to have preformed ideas already, but to learn new ways of looking at the world and the ways of representing it.

Mondrian: Ginger Jar and Apples

When I went to seminary twenty years later, I hit the same wall in philosophy class. We were studying the ancient Greek philosophers, who each defined reality in a different way. I was confused for a moment, until I realized the great artists across history all sought a different form of beauty. When I explained this to my classmates, the “aha moment” also came alive for them. In our world, we often think a word means one thing and one thing only, but this isn’t so.

As Joni Mitchell says in “Both Sides Now,”

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down and still somehow

It’s cloud illusions I recall

I really don’t know clouds at all.

We’re only looking at the clouds or illusions of what we think is beauty or reality, for we don’t know reality at all. A painting could be a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space or form, or it might be colors and shapes floating on a flat surface, meant only to evoke emotions in the viewer. Some paintings are sculptural in form, so they straddle the boundary between dimensions.

The challenge for beginning art students is to look beyond what we know and what we think we know. This also a challenge we have in our everyday lives. Do we keep repeating the same recipes because we KNOW how to make them and we KNOW our people enjoy them? Do we want to get “healthy,” but we want to keep eating the same food and keep our same lifestyle, even though these are the very things which have made us unhealthy? When our health care provider asks, “What is one small change you can make this week?” Will we answer, “eat cheese with only one meal per day instead of three?” This is a small change; next week we can add another one.

Artists also keep repeating forms and styles, sometimes because they love their subject matter and other times because they feel secure doing this. How can we stretch our creative minds and build our mastery beyond our current plateau? We do this because we’re human, and human beings like short cuts, and the easy way out. If it were really easy, everyone would be doing it. We can all do it, but only one in a million may earn a living from it. The rest of us are glad if we earn our art supplies from our work. Everyone can enjoy the benefits of the creative life, however.

Mondrian: Ginger Jar and Cheeses

This past week our class looked at two Mondrian paintings of the same subject: a ginger jar still life. In the earlier work, his attention to detail, the planes on which the apples rested, and the background are treated realistically. We know these are objects from his household and his kitchen. The later painting has the ginger jar, plus some food items, perhaps cheeses, but Mondrian has broken up the whole surface of the painting with intersecting lines, which touch the edges of the objects on the table. The painting as a whole is more important than the individual objects. We don’t ask which is “better,” for each one is a good example of the style of painting the artist was pursuing. Later Mondrian would leave the objective world all together and paint right angle lines in red, yellow, blue, black, and white.

Shrine of the Madonna

Erma brought a photo of a fine mosaic shrine she made. I suggested she try working with that as her inspiration. Translating from a flat photo to a flat painted surface seems as if some of the problems would be solved, but colors and shapes which work in 3D don’t always work in a painting. These are things we learn by doing. There aren’t any mistakes in art, only opportunities to make changes for the better. If we artists had to do things perfectly, none of us would ever get out of bed, for one look at our bed heads would send us back to our comfortable cribs and we’d be pulling the cozy comforters over that mess. Our muffled voices would call out for coffee, but we’d only poke our heads out long enough to grab the proffered cup and back into hiding we’d go.

Hearts in Space

Mike had valentine’s day on his mind, since he plans on goose hunting on the holiday. I think I see the image of the sun in the background. NASA recently released some high-quality photos of the boiling surface of the sun. Mike has an affinity for the bodies in space. We bemoaned the loss of Pluto as a planet, it having been relegated to the category of “dwarf planet,” by @plutokiller, aka Mike Brown, of California Institute of Technology. We also talked about pointillism, the technique of using dots of paint to make an image and to mix the color in the eye.

Landscape Through a Window

Gail chose to do the landscape seen through the fellowship hall window. The background has the parking lot stripes, the tree, and the asphalt. The light stripes in the foreground are the vertical window shades. It’s unfinished, as are all the other class room works. It’s hard to get even a small work done in an hour and a half, but we get a start on it. I don’t get mine finished either. It’s a small landscape of the green spaces in Hot Springs, for an exhibition I have in the springtime.

Autumn Landscape

I have works, which I live with for a certain time, to see if they stand up to my eye. If they pass muster, I let them loose upon the world. If not, I destroy them by cutting them up, reweaving them, and painting a new work on the recycled canvas. Sometimes I’m painting when I’m sick or distracted, so I’m not in the best of sorts. When I’m feeling fine, I have a flow. Of course, since one can’t plan for the flow to happen on a certain day or time, going ahead and painting is the surest way to catch it in the act!

Eventually, however, all art is never finished, but only abandoned, for whatever we have learned on this work is enough, and now we go onto the future with the knowledge we’ve gained. The new work we initiate is full of all our past successes and failures, and it contains the promises of the future breakthroughs. We always work in hope, for while we breathe, we always hope. If we come to the blank canvas full of hope and believing in the promises of the future, we are then open vessels for the holy spirit to fill and quicken. Then we can paint or make what ever beautiful work god moves our hand to create.