What Makes a Real Christmas?

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I was cleaning up my condo Sunday afternoon because the Pandemic restrictions have caused my housekeeping to need some intensive care. Between all the various projects I’ve done and my new paintings, plus the seasonal change requiring my closet revamp, I realized I haven’t seen the top of my table in months. Since I’m not receiving visitors, I really don’t have to worry about this, but even I can only live with so much disorder and clutter.

When I was in seminary, my roommate and I would make a pact: no cleaning during exam week and ice cream runs every night. Amazingly, some compacts are easily kept, and studying for finals was less stressful because of our sweet rewards. A little chaos for a short period of time isn’t a problem, but months or years of confusion and neglect can bring about disaster.

I realize chaos is the norm for many people during the holidays, even if we’re not attending parties at work, or visiting with relatives or friends. We still have other rituals to indulge, especially if we have children. One year I stopped to list out all the experiences I remember which make up an ideal Christmas. I never imagined the list would be so long, or that my parents worked so hard to make the season wonderful for us children. As you read this list, feel free to add your own traditions to the list.

Natchitoches Christmas Lights
  1. Writing Santa a letter
  2. Traveling to Natchitoches to see the Christmas lights
  3. Pizza and Car trip to see the Christmas lights in town
  4. Hanging Christmas lights on the house
  5. Finding the perfect Christmas tree
  6. Decorating the Christmas tree
  7. Making Christmas decorations
  8. Making popcorn and cranberry strings for the tree
  9. Family ornaments
  10. Watching the bubble lights
  11. Hanging the Christmas stockings
  12. The brass Angel chimes
  13. Finding a thorn bush for a gumdrop tree
  14. Eating ribbon candy from the jar at my nanny’s home
  15. Candy lifesavers in a book
  16. Special foods, such as Ham and yam, and the green bean thing
  17. Christmas breakfast of biscuits and strawberry jam
  18. Drinking from the Santa mug
  19. Christmas plates and mugs
  20. Making fruitcake cookies and cakes
  21. Wrapping and hiding presents
  22. Dreaming while reading the Sears catalog
  23. Holiday visits
  24. Visit to Santa Claus
  25. Gifts from Santa, rather than from the parents
  26. Christmas candlelight service at church
  27. Children’s Christmas pageant and choir concert
  28. Special music
  29. Nativity scenes
  30. Staying up late to assemble toys
  31. Never enough batteries
  32. Stocking stuffers
  33. New red robe or pajamas
  34. Christmas letters from all our friends
  35. A vain hope for snow
  36. Wreath on the door
  37. Wrapping paper everywhere
  38. Handing out presents
  39. Opening presents
  40. Teacher gifts
  41. Making a Christmas list
  42. Dropping hints
  43. Candles in the window to guide the wise men
  44. Advent wreath candles
  45. Advent calendars
  46. Pine cones
  47. Caroling from house to house, mostly off key
  48. Parties
  49. Christmas clothes and Sox
  50. Garish Christmas sweaters

At this rate, I’d have to accomplish 1.7 per day to get all 50 done in between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Like any big project, no one does it all at once. We always divided it up into smaller, achievable experiences, some of which extended over the whole season, and others we did once a week. How we managed to cram a dozen of these into each one of the four weeks before Christmas is beyond me. These days my work ethic is on furlough and if it ever returns, I’ll probably send it on vacation rather than let it clock back into work. I do lead a simpler life now.

My Christmas Tree Today

Any month of 30 days can be converted to one of these units:

  • 2,592,000 seconds
  • 43,200 minutes
  • 720 hours
  • 4 weeks and 2 days or
  • 8.20% of a standard year

These past nine months of COVID, with its quarantines, terrible toilet paper, and bad haircuts have been exacerbated by the illnesses and deaths of friends and family we’ve known and loved. With over 3,000 Americans dying from this disease daily, celebrating a real Christmas as we once did, seems unconscionable. Those of us who’ve lost a loved one look for any light in these dark days. Like Frodo, we might say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring).

When I think of my life of seven decades plus, I remember when I was a child, every one of those two and a half million seconds before Christmas seemed to stretch out to eternity. Just as the three months of summer flew by like an icicle on a hot stovetop, the one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas moved slowly, as if I were watching a stalactite grow imperceptibly across the centuries. Maybe this is why my parents organized this magnificent list of projects to keep us children from whining over and over, “Is it Christmas yet?”

Christmas tree skirt from the 1950’s

I’ve never understood how they managed to teach us deferred gratification. After all, every single day in the month prior to Christmas had some sort of activity, and some of those projects extended over the whole season. One year mother decided to bead a skirt for the tree. She bought a “Twelve Days of Christmas” kit, which contained the white felt skirt, a green fringe, and multi colored felt squares imprinted with the patterns. As we worked each night, we filled each design with brightly colored sequins. Some of these early days were so heavy they had no fabric showing. As Christmas came closer and our project was as yet unfinished, we began to limit our decorating. We also were running out of colored beads and sequins by this time.

Handmade Stockings on an Antique Sideboard

Another year mother made new stockings for us kids, with our names on them. She also sewed a small bell on these so our early arising would wake her up. For the first grandchild, she had more time on her hands. That stocking was fully embroidered and had no warning bell. Of course, it hung at my home, so mother and daddy didn’t have to worry about any early bird interrupting their beauty sleep.

My parents did have a rule that we kids needed to wait until the crack of dawn before we entered the room where the tree was. If we got up earlier, and we almost always did, we took our pillows and covers into the dining room. Our old house had French doors separating the dining room from the living room. We’d pile our bedding down close to these doors and look through the bottom window into the magic darkness of the corner where the Christmas tree stood guard over mysterious packages wrapped in seasonal colors.

“What do you think that big one is?” My brother would whisper.
“It’s probably clothes,” I’d reply, “you know those rectangular packages are usually pajamas or pants.”
“Gross!”
I’d giggle and he’d elbow me in the ribs.

All three of us would strain and crain to see the indistinct shapes back under the lower branches of the fir tree. Until the first light came into the window beside the tree, we could only imagine the treasure hidden there. In our eager efforts and earnest desire to meet the rising sun, we often fell back asleep dreaming of Christmas morning. We’d awaken when our parents began their morning coffee ritual, which usually happened in bed, but on Christmas, they drank their caffeine on the couch and watched our joy, as we unwrapped the presents from Santa Claus.

None of us children were ever hungry on Christmas morning, at least not until we’d discovered the answer to all the questions we’d asked in the dark of night. Once those were revealed and our curiosity satisfied, we could turn our appetites to breakfast. Someone always gave daddy a good jam and biscuit gift in a wooden tub, so it was our go to meal for breakfast. We didn’t eat biscuits often, so they were a treat with huge dripping globs of melting butter. We’d go to one of the grandparents’ homes for lunch soon afterwards, so we didn’t need a big meal.

As I think back on these 1950’s Christmas memories, I was too young to know about the hunger and poverty of others. I do remember the poliovirus and the vaccine in my arm. There was the nuclear threat of the Cold War era and I lived in the time of the McCarthy Hearings and the John Birch Society. This is also the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. My parents may have instituted all these seasonal home grown activities not only for us children, but also for themselves. If they were busy with “Christmas,” then they were focused on a spiritual journey and not on the chaos of the world.

Icon of The Creation of the Stars

When my daughter was small, I began buying her Christmas in August, because that’s when I got my first paycheck as a schoolteacher. I bought one little thing at a time, and put aside a little more money on a couple of larger gifts in layaway. I wasn’t going to buy anything for myself, but the choir at my church gave me a ham and a little love offering so I could have a bright red blouse for Christmas. I recalled the year after my marriage, my husband gave away some of our wedding gifts as Christmas presents “to keep up appearances.” We shouldn’t have to lie to the ones we love, especially at Christmas, but not everyone can live with the truth. Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give to one another, but about the gift God gave to humankind.

Creation of Light

Sometimes it seems like our world has gone mad, and folks can’t tell a truth from a lie. My daddy used to say there were folks who’d say the sun was shining even when it was pitch black outside. I’d shake my head in disbelief, but I hadn’t been out in the world as much as he had. Even if we now live in a world gone crazy, we can take comfort in these true words from the gospel of John (1:1-5)—

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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Icon of the Nativity with Visit of the Magi

Rabbit! Rabbit! Welcome to December!

arkansas, art, Children, Christmas, Civil War, coronavirus, Faith, Food, generosity, grief, Hanukkah, holidays, Israel, ministry, poverty, rabbits, righteousness, Travel

Bunnykins Christmas Plate

December has snuck up on me like a racoon stalking a rabbit. Perhaps I ate too much of the Thanksgiving Feast, or maybe it was the homemade Italian Cheesecake dressed with cranberry sauce and maple pecans that did me in. It thankfully wasn’t the covid, for I had an appropriately socially distanced meal via Zoom, thanks to my niece in New Orleans and her mother in Texarkana. I’ve driven to New Orleans before, and it’s a hard eight hour trip, so I’ve always done it in two legs and made it into an easy jaunt instead. I spent the night in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to see the great Civil War battlefield there, and pay homage to those who fought to preserve the unity of the nation, even if my ancestors fought to keep other human beings enslaved. I also saw some of the grand plantation homes, which were built by slave labor. We don’t think of this history much, and I wasn’t taught it growing up, but it’s time for all of us to acknowledge all the hands who built this nation we call home.

My Decembers as a child growing up in the South were a time of waiting. I couldn’t make the clock hurry up no matter how hard I stared at it. My mother would remind me, “A watched pot never boils.” I’d grind my teeth. Hurry used to be my middle name. Now I seem to putter all day and never worry about it. I may be an aging rabbit, or maybe just a great-grandmother rabbit. Or I may have learned the wisdom of waiting, which is the lesson of the Advent season.

All small children endure the waiting at the end of the year, for the end of the year is full of holidays for many faiths. Today we’re all waiting for more normal times to return, so we can hug one another, kiss each other on the lips, and drink from the same cup without worrying about a dread disease. Waiting was so difficult for me and my brothers, we’d beg and cajole our parents to “Please, pretty please, just let us open one gift before Christmas!” We were the fortunate ones, for when our parents were children in the era of the Great Depression, they knew better than to ask for much. My daddy asked Santa Clause for an orange, boxing gloves, and a book for his older brother. Most of us today think we’d be bad parents if we gave our children only two items, but in the era of covid, when nearly 30 million people are out of work, we might need to readjust our priorities. Keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table could take priority, unless angels bring the gifts instead.

Christmas Crepes and Coffee

Today, I’m listening to Mannheim Steamroller play Christmas music. Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological winter and the Winter Solstice will be December 21. It’s a quiet time in the condo, for I’m alone with my decaf coffee and the furnace is keeping me cozy. One small joy I always look forward to is the opportunity to use my Christmas themed mugs for a whole month. I’ve put up the ordinary dishware and pulled down my collection of red, green, gold, and white cups. When I was young, I looked forward to the gumdrop tree and the Christmas cookies. Decorating and baking every weekend kept mother busy in the kitchen and me helping or getting my fingers in the icing bowl. I learned to share by helping my mom. I never liked her candied fruitcake recipe, however, or the fruitcake cookies. You can keep that to yourself. I think some traditions may need to die, and fruitcake is one of them, but my tastebuds don’t cater to sugared fruit anymore. Her pecan sandies were to die for, however.

If we approach the coming holiday season with anticipation for the small joys it brings, rather than thinking of the losses we’ve suffered, this December will be better for us by far. By this I mean, the tree isn’t the most important thing, for if it were, we’d worship the tree. We don’t worship the lights shining brightly, but the light which shines in the darkness. The presents aren’t the most important part of Christmas, for we don’t worship the gifts, but the gift from God.

Christmas Lights, Hot Springs, Arkansas

While light has been central to many religions across the centuries, it becomes very important toward the end of the year when the days grow short. The Romans originally celebrated Saturnalia as a harvest festival, but then moved it to the middle of December, and changed its focus to a celebration of light, knowledge, and truth. They would gift dolls and treats of fruit, and light bonfires. It began as a home holiday, but became a public feast holiday in 217 BCE.

Another religious festival is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of the oil and its burning for eight days, when only enough for one day was found. Jewish people celebrate their faith by lighting a menorah with nine candles: one is the helper or attendant, and the others represent the days of the ancient miracle of rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. Families always place the menorah in a window, so everyone will see it. As a special treat, families eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes and doughnuts.

Menorah

The tradition is one should spend time in close proximity to the Chanukah lights for, “We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.” The flickering flames may be telling us the following:

1. Never be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Judah Maccabee and his band faced daunting odds, but that didn’t stop them. With a prayer on their lips and faith in their heart, they entered the battle of their lives—and won. We can do the same.

2. Always increase in matters of goodness and Torah-observance. Sure, a single flame was good enough for yesterday, but today needs to be even better.

3. A little light goes a long way. The Chanukah candles are lit when dusk is falling. Perched in the doorway, they serve as a beacon for the darkening streets. No matter how dark it is outside, a candle of G‑dly goodness can transform the darkness itself into light.

4. Take it to the streets. Chanukah is unique in that its primary mitzvah is observed in public. It’s not enough to be a Jew at heart, or even at home. Chanukah teaches us to shine outwards into our surroundings with the G‑dly glow of mitzvahs.

5. Don’t be ashamed to perform mitzvahs (individual act of human kindness), even if you will feel different. Rather, be like a menorah, proudly proclaiming its radiant uniqueness for all to see.

My daddy died one year and my mother died the next. I didn’t much feel like Christmas in my heart. When the Salvation Army representative came calling to the church office, I really didn’t have the energy to help reorganize another messed up program. Then the words of my mother entered my mind: “If you want to feel better about your situation, you should do something for someone in more need than you are.” I can’t say I grieved any less, but I felt better about that Christmas, for I knew I was called to share my blessings with others. I could talk to all the service clubs in town and get them to ring the bells, including the high school service clubs. We made many people in that community able to pay their utilities and rent in hard times.

December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ feast day, the saint who most people know as Santa Clause. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra and endured the persecution of Emperor of Diocletian, who put so many priests, bishops, and deacons into prison, there wasn’t room for actual criminals. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, before his death in 343. His generosity was legend, as was his concern for children, the poor, and anyone in need. Europeans celebrated the saint’s day and reserved the day of Christ’s birth for more sober, religious experiences.

Saint Nicholas the Gift Giver

Many people consider Christmas to be quintessential American holiday. When my daughter and I hosted a French exchange student chaperone, she raved about the American Christmas. “The English do the season well, but the Americans are the very best of all. I only wish I could be here in December!”

I laughed. I had too many memories of being up all night assembling Strawberry Shortcake Doll Houses or putting together my daughter’s new bicycle. I’ve always been directionally challenged when it comes to maps, but also when it comes to reading set up plans. I’ve never understood it, since I seem to be able to follow a recipe just fine, but mechanical things are a stumbling block to me. My memories of Christmas are from participation, not from observation.

The first Colonists, who were primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, didn’t bring the Nicholas traditions to the New World. As we celebrate the Christmas of today, we have a hard time thinking of the Puritan tradition which ignored Christmas altogether. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, once the work was done, people would drink and become rowdy. Drunken mobs would roam the streets and scare the genteel classes afterwards. Even in the mid 19th century, Christmas was a regular workday. Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870, under President Ulysses S. Grant.

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. In 1773, New York non-Dutch patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas 1, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, was the first to promote St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and the city. 

In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, but rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; the first church was dedicated to him; and St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”

Another work of the American imagination is the “Visit from Saint Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas,” a poem which still holds our interest. This poem centers around the family and the safe toys for the good little girls and boys, which Santa and his reindeer will bring to each snug and cozy house. This poem is in the public domain, so it’s available on the internet. 

Christmas for many of us in years past has been like the Bunny 500: racing about the countryside as fast as we can to get as many of our to-do lists done. This covid Christmas, we might exchange our tradition of mass consumption for hot chocolate and communication. I’ve always enjoyed reading Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. After two decades of ministry and multiple Christmas Eve candlelight services, I’ve always appreciated the quiet of the parsonage afterwards and the descriptive words rolling off this poet’s tongue. If the poem harkens back to a simpler time, it also reminds us of our lives before we were isolated from one another. As one who rarely saw snow on Christmas, I always enjoyed reading about the snowball fight against Mr. Prothero’s fire, and the Uncles and the Aunts at the meal. After a big day, Thomas said some words to the close and holy darkness and then he slept. 

The light will come into the darkness and the darkness won’t overcome it. Two thousand years ago, even the parents of the holy child could find no place to spend the night but in a cave with animals. They had no crib for their child, but placed him instead in the manger. Their families in town didn’t come to visit, but angels announced his birth to shepherds in a field nearby. Strangers brought gifts from far away, but no one from his family was around to celebrate.

Banksy: Manger, Bethlehem’s Walled Off Hotel

Maybe this is Christmas at its best, when we recognize the one who lives on the margin and isn’t included in the center of the social experiences. If your Christmas today isn’t what it’s always been, perhaps the gift of this Christmas present is the one you need.

May you and your bunnies celebrate this season of light and be a light in the darkness for those who think the dawn can’t come soon enough.

Joy and Peace,

Cornelia

Audio Blessings and Latkes Recipe Link

https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/103874/jewish/Blessings-on-the-Menorah.htm

How the Pandemic is Affecting Supply Chains

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/11/24/coronavirus-supply-chains

Dylan Thomas: A Child’s Christmas in Wales

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0701261h.html

Lifelong Learning

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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.

Family and House

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.

Jasper Johns: Order and Disorder.

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.

Leonardo was a lifetime learner.

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.

Very nice Beauty Berries

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.

Sunlight on an Antique Vase of Beauty Berries

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.

Until next time, Joy and Peace,
Cornelia

Children’s Art Stages
https://www.d.umn.edu/artedu/Lowenf.html

Edible Beauty Berries
https://www.sarcraft.com/news/american-beautyberry

The Brain That Changes Itself—brain plasticity
Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science NORMAN DOIDGE, M.D. https://www.brainmaster.com/software/pubs/brain/contrib/The%20Brain%20That%20Changes%20Itself.pdf

Rabbit! Rabbit! Welcome to October

All Saints Day, art, Children, coronavirus, Creativity, Faith, Family, Fear, grief, Halloween, Healing, holidays, Imagination, Israel, pandemic, rabbits

The Pandemic killed Halloween Then and Now

Nearly a century ago, no one had “Pandemic Shuts Down Halloween “ on their bingo card. The Great Influenza Pandemic griped the nation back in 1918, so most Halloween celebrations were cancelled due to quarantines. At least 195,000 people had died of this novel disease in America by October, 1918. The CDC estimates about 500 million people—or a third of the world’s population—had come down with this killer virus. By the1920’s, at the end of the Pandemic, at least 50 million people died, with 675,000 victims in the United States alone.

USA Red Cross volunteers in 1918 flu epidemic
APIC / Getty Images

At the time, we had no vaccines to protect against influenza and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. Many doctors and nurses were serving in World War I, so the civilian medical professionals around the world tried to control infections with nonpharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, masks, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings. An interesting side note is all the flu pandemics which have happened since — 1957, 1968, 2009 — are derivatives of the 1918 flu, according to scientists at the National Institutes of Health.

The world back then was falling apart on two fronts from the first world war and disease. People at home were dropping like flies. Bodies were stacking up like cordwood and were placed in mass graves. Then, as now, we rabbits, like people, can only take so much stress before we need to release it. Many of us are pots with tight fitting lids: as soon as we reach the boiling point, our lid begins to rattle and clatter. If the cook doesn’t remove the lid and stir down the goo inside, we’ll be an over flowing volcanic mess, much like my morning oatmeal I’ve neglected when I’ve had too little coffee. Then Halloween, with its ghouls, goblins, witches, and other demons of the dark, arrives like Washington Irving’s ghost of the Headless Horseman, which we meet in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written in 1820.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) by John Quidor

Flu Pandemic Inspired Fiction

H. P. Lovecraft was one of the great horror writers, famous for his zombies, which may have been inspired by the grisly experiences of the influenza pandemic. Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft’s hometown, wasn’t spared the pandemic’s ghastly atmosphere.

As one local witness remembered, “all around me people were dying… [and] funeral directors worked with fear… . Many graves were fashioned by long trenches, bodies were placed side by side.” The pandemic, the witness laments, was “leaving in its wake countless dead, and the living stunned at their loss” (letter by Russell Booth; Collier Archives, Imperial War Museum, London).

White Zombie: First Zombie Movie, 1932

Lovecraft channeled this existential horror into his stories of the period, producing corpse-filled tales with infectious atmospheres from which sprang lurching, flesh-eating invaders who left bloody corpses in their wake.

In his 1922 story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” Lovecraft created a ghoulish doctor intent on reanimating newly dead corpses. A pandemic arrives that offers him fresh specimens. This echoes the flu scenes of mass graves, overworked doctors and piles of bodies. When the head doctor of the hospital dies in the outbreak, Dr. West reanimates him, producing a proto-zombie figure that escapes to wreak havoc on the town. The living dead doctor lurches from house to house, ravaging bodies and spreading destruction, a monstrous, visible version of what the flu virus had done worldwide. Lovecraft wrote about a zombie super-spreader even before we knew such a thing existed. Who says “life sometimes doesn’t imitate art?”

Thriller: Zombie Dancers backing up Michael Jackson, 1983

Infection, Prejudice and the Viral Zombies

In other episodes and stories, Lovecraft’s proto-zombies suggest an additional thread of prejudice that runs through the zombie tradition, one fueled by widespread fears of contagion during the pandemic. Even before the outbreak, Lovecraft believed that foreign hordes were infecting the Aryan race generally, weakening the bloodlines. These xenophobic anxieties weave their way into his stories, as contagion and pandemic-soaked atmospheres blend into racist fears of immigrants and nonwhite invaders. We hear these same themes repeated today in our pandemic times by white supremacists and far right groups who want a sovereign nation within the land of the free.

Indeed, many of Lovecraft’s stories are unwitting templates for how prejudicial fears may be problematically amplified at moments of crisis. Such fears are evoked and often critiqued in later depictions of viral zombie hordes, such as the infectious monsters of Romero’s 1968 movie, “Night of the Living Dead” and the film’s subtle commentary on race, as when the white police force mistakes the main African American character for a viral zombie. Amazing how systemic racism persists in making “walking while black equate to viral zombie” even today.

Small Rabbits Fear Large Monsters

Lovecraft’s proto-zombies also provided a strange compensation for some of the pandemic’s worst memories. Like the covid-19 virus of today and the flu of the last century, these monsters consumed the flesh of the living, spread blood and violence, and acted without cause or explanation. Lovecraft assures his readers that these monsters are far worse than anything they saw in World War I or in the pandemic, the twin defining tragedies of his era. Unlike the virus, though, these literary monsters could be seen, stopped, killed, and reburied. Every decade seems to need its own monster or zombie, and Lovecraft offered his readers a version that spoke deeply to the anxieties of his moment.

Modern Fears Birth Modern Monsters

Our modern monsters are more in tune with the unimaginable horrors of our present world. In the 1950’s we had nuclear terrors, so our monsters were Godzilla and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. In the 1990’s, cloning was a scientific advance we knew could go amiss, so we had dinosaurs run amuck in Jurassic Park. Aliens have always been the most foreign of foreigners, so whether it’s the Thing from Outer Space or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we can scream into our popcorn all afternoon long. If we don’t scream, everyone will know we’re one of the “pod people.” Even before cinema took over entertainment, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds caused mass panic among listeners who believed Earth really had been invaded by Martians on October 30, 1938.

Image Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956

Dangers of Dualistic Thinking

Maybe this is why we rabbits need structured experiences which bring us up to the edge of fear, but in a safe environment. We need to learn to deal with our feelings and emotions as they threaten to overwhelm us. We need reassurance we can handle the frightening experience. We don’t need to be thrown off a cliff, but tested appropriately. If we don’t deal with our inner fears, we’ll see a ghoul in every dark shadow. This is why movies today have ratings for age groups.

When I was young, I was certain monsters lived under my bed and in my closet. I couldn’t sleep unless my closet door was shut. I was in art school before I could leave that door open. Something clicked in my mind, or I realized I was now at the age of responsibility. If this were so, I needed to give up this childish fear of invisible monsters. It was time for me to be the monster slayer in real life.

My daddy had a fear of monsters all his life—he called them communists. As a member of the now discredited John Birch Society, he claimed there was a “commie in every breadbox.” We’re no different today, for we rabbits seem to need our own monsters in the world beyond us. If we can’t deal with the brokenness or fears within us, we’ll project it outward onto an outside “other” group. Just as we too often put certain rabbits on a pedestal and are shocked when they fall, we also put some rabbits in a pit and wonder why they can’t get out of it. We tell ourselves “they don’t try hard enough” or “they aren’t worthy enough,” but neither of these statements are true. People are individuals, so we can’t make conclusions about them as a group.

Mischief Abounds All Night

By the 1920s, Halloween in America had become synonymous with mischief, which young people used as an excuse to break windows or damage property. Mischief comes from the Middle English word meschief, or “misfortune,” which itself derives from the Old French meschever, “to end up badly.” In the U.S., mischief has a legal definition: “Criminal mischief” includes true vandalism, such as the defacement or destruction of property, but also includes fully reversible pranks, like toilet-papering a house. In some states, it covers even vanishingly minor annoyances, like ding-dong-ditch, or ringing the doorbell and running off before the homeowner can answer the door. In 1923, the police chief commissioner in Omaha, Nebraska, went so far as to designate the “city’s worst boys” as junior police officers on October 31 and relied on them to report criminal behavior in an attempt to curb vandalism.

The first known printed reference to “trick-or-treat” appeared in the Alberta Canada Herald on Nov. 4, 1927, according to the Smithsonian.

Modern Mischief Makers

I met two of my young students dressed in black garbage bags as my daughter and I returned from trick or treating one Halloween night. Their too guilty grins as they said hello and hid their hands underneath their costumes was a dead giveaway they were the likely culprits for the artistically draped toilet paper on my giant live oak tree. I let them pass on by and got my car keys to go visit their home, which was just up the street. After a drink and a chat with the parents, we agreed the boys would clean up my tree. My parents also were visited with this “sign of endearment” more than they liked when I was young. I imagine it’s still going on today.

Image of Other Outstanding Mischievous Vandals and Toilet Paper Trees

Reflections on a Non Traditional Halloween

While we grownup rabbits think our little bunnies are going to miss Halloween traditions, the smallest ones don’t know what is tradition yet and the older ones can understand why this year will be different. Trick or treating began in the USA after WWII, as a way to discourage mischief, for if the kids get candy, they’ll be less likely to wreck havoc. As far as long term memories go, I’ve stretched mine, and can remember only one neighborhood walk about. I was slowed by my Carmine Miranda costume, while my brothers ran two houses ahead. I was delayed by holding my fruited headdress on my head.

Another Halloween we had a party at home with apple bobbing, snack making, and games. This was probably due to a fear of poison or pins in candy bars. This fear comes around every year, but it seems to be an urban legend. I also remember attending a school haunted house and walking through the dark and spooky cloakroom. There I touched all sorts of icky, gooey substances purporting to be “brains, eyeballs, and assorted body parts.” I do remember I did everything I could to not be banished to that same cloakroom for bad behavior the rest of year. No sense tempting fate, for sure, my eight year old mind reasoned.

If this holiday is for four year olds to twelve year olds, I can only remember one third of the years. In the short run it seems important, but in the long life of a person, only a few extraordinary moments will rise to peak memory. If this isn’t a year for house to house galavanting, or trunk to trunk acquisitions of treasure, then we’ll use our creativity to make it special, for that’s what we do.

Carmen Miranda Fruit Hat

This Is Not the Apocalypse

We rabbits live in a world of apocalyptic scenarios, yet we have safer, healthier, and longer lives than people in any other point in history. Still we constantly imagine our whole world could all fall apart in a heartbeat. We take our worries and translate a lot of our anxiety into fears about our children. If we listen to the new or hang out on social media, we might get caught up in “doom scrolling.” This is the internet version of rubbernecking at a gory traffic accident. Halloween began as the dark and terrifying compliment to the following bright and glorious All Saints Day celebration of November 1st, when the faithful remembered the saints, martyrs, and ordinary believers who have touched the lives of all the living.

The World of the Living and the Dead Meet

In both these festivals, the world of the living and the dead is permeable and fluid. These two days help us meet our fears about death, the uncertainty of our world, and our inability to control the seeming chaos of a world spinning out of control. We look to fallible individuals today for the change we seek, forgetting that we ourselves need to become the change we want to happen. Moreover, we forget the power of faith and the purpose of our combined faith communities called to work for a just and better world, which reflects the heavenly world to come.

The prophet Isaiah (65:17-18) speaks of God’s glorious new creation:

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.

The promises for the Hebrew people in exile belong also to us today, for we find ourselves living in “exile from the life we once knew.” If we live in the past, we’ll always live in exile from the present. Perhaps we should choose to live in hope for a better future and spend our time in this now making that promise come true.

Carve a Bunny Pumpkin for Halloween

Pumpkin Dance
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4IC7qaNr7I&app=desktop

Herbert West: Reanimator
https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hwr.aspx

Vintage Halloween – What Halloween Was Like the Year You Were Born
https://www.countryliving.com/entertaining/g460/vintage-halloween/

The Sinister History of Halloween Pranks
https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/a-sinister-history-of-halloween-pranks/264127/

American College of Emergency Physicians// 1918 Influenza Pandemic: A United States Timeline
https://www.acep.org/how-we-serve/sections/disaster-medicine/news/april-2018/1918-influenza-pandemic-a-united-states-timeline/

The Myth of Poisoned Halloween Candy
https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/10/31/18047794/halloween-candy-poisoned-needles-pins-razors

‘The 1918 flu is still with us’: The deadliest pandemic ever is still causing problems today
The pandemic ended in the early 1920s, but the virus left its mark for the next 100 years.
By Teddy Amenabar
https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/09/01/1918-flu-pandemic-end/

Your Halloween zombie costume may have its roots in the 1918 flu that killed 20,000 Philadelphians
https://www.inquirer.com/health/zombies-1918-flu-pandemic-philadelphia-20191030.html

The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918: A Digital Encyclopedia – Browse newspaper clippings
https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/browse/titles/h.html

Open Air Police Court, San Francisco, California, 1918 Flu Pandemic
https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/historical-images.htm

Rabbit! Rabbit!

arkansas, art, autumnal equinox, change, Children, coronavirus, exercise, Faith, Family, garden, generosity, nature, pandemic, Prayer, rabbits, Racism, trees

Welcome to September 2020.

Not too many days ago I felt the seasons change. This is an imperceptible feeling for most people, but for artists, and perhaps also for those who make their living off the land, this transition from summer to autumn was important. The autumnal equinox won’t be until September 22, at 8:30 am CST. After the autumnal equinox, the Sun begins to rise later and nightfall comes sooner. This ends with the December solstice, when days start to grow longer and nights shorter.

Green Space: Trees Across from Emergent Arts, 2019

I had already noticed the first edges of color on the trees around mid August, a change my less optimistic friends claimed was “just heat stress.” However, fall foliage colors aren’t due just to current weather conditions. Leaves change color because of the amount of daylight and photosynthesis. Fall colors don’t begin to appear in the Ozarks and other northern sections of Arkansas until the second week in October and then continue to flow slowly southward. Mid to late October generally provides peak fall color in the northern portions of Arkansas. October and November are two of the most popular months for visitors due to the beautiful fall colors and favorable weather.

Some of us are happier than others…

The technical term for this color change is “leaf senescence,” or deterioration with age, much like this year, which has only 121 days to go. This old rabbit must be feeling a chill in her bones, or perhaps this Pandemic’s pervasive pain has crept also into my heart. Usually in September I’m eager and ready to buy new ink pens, journals, and art supplies as my “back to school” routine I’ve kept up since my own entrance into first grade or my child’s progress through school. Even now I want to buy crayons in the big box, just to see all the pretty colors and sniff the wax, but I came home to mix colored paint on a canvas instead.

Covid anxiety may have struck some of you other bunny families out there as you prepare for more on-line schooling. As a former teacher, I would remind my bunny friends of all ages to get up and move around at least once an hour. Sitting all day long in one place isn’t good for heart health for anyone of any age. Blocks of time can keep a young bunny focused, knowing they get a break or a snack afterwards. Rewards and incentives are good.

While we wish we could have school, church, life, and sports the way they were before, we all have to live safely in the current Covid environment to get to that happy place. No one wants this disease, especially since we don’t know the long term after effects. No one wants to bear the responsibility for giving this disease to a vulnerable person and possibly causing them harm or death. We bunnies have to be responsible not only for ourselves, but also for one another. After all, we all live in the same carrot patch.

Today I offer a prayer for all of the bunny families who’ve been touched by the coronavirus. I pray for consolation for each of you who’ve lost a loved one, for all of you who have a loved one in the midst of this illness, and also for each of you who are trying to stay healthy and keep your family safe. We can get through this together, by the grace of God, who cares for the least of the creatures of God’s world, as well as for the great unnumbered stars of the night sky above us. We may not see God’s guiding hand in this time of trial, but God can use this struggle for good, if only to help us see clearly what is truly important in life.

Or get into Good Trouble…

Right now, persons of color, under the age of 34, with less than an associate’s degree have the highest unemployment. White men over 55 with a bachelor’s degree or better have the least unemployment, but it’s still around 9%, to which no one would give a prize for excellence. Is this a matter of achievement, or is it systemic racial injustice? It’s easy for a bunny to win a race if they get a half mile head start. We have underfunded schools in non white neighborhoods for over a century. This Pandemic is bringing uncomfortable truths to light.

Running Rabbit

The Great Depression of the 1930’s had unemployment rates of nearly 25%, the Great Recession of 2008’s unemployment rate was 10% in 2009, and this Pandemic Recession has sent unemployment from 3.5% in February to around 13% in May. Since some workers weren’t counted, the rate was likely even higher. Every bunny has been tightening the belt a notch tighter, since many jobs haven’t yet come back on line.

The World Bank considers the Pandemic Recession to have begun already, with recovery not on the horizon until we have a widely available and effective vaccine or herd immunity. One of the contributing factors to this current recession was prior to the pandemic, some richer countries were moving away from global trade and cooperation, which hurt developing countries by reducing investments and cutting off markets for exporting oil, metals and other goods they provide. Without income, developing countries didn’t have the economic resources to put toward hospitals, schools, and roads. This keeps them from advancing and giving their people a better life.

The McGregor Boot

When I would read Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny stories to my little girl, she always asked, “Why did Mr. McGregor chase the rabbits out of his garden?”

“Darling, he thought he didn’t have enough to share.”
“But he never went hungry, did he?”
“No, sweetie, he always had enough for his family and all the bunny families too. Now sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite!”

In the Garden of Plenty

“The summer ended. Day by day, and taking its time, the summer ended. The noises in the street began to change, diminish, voices became fewer, the music sparse. Daily, blocks and blocks of children were spirited away. Grownups retreated from the streets, into the houses. Adolescents moved from the sidewalk to the stoop to the hallway to the stairs, and rooftops were abandoned. Such trees as there were allowed their leaves to fall – they fell unnoticed—seeming to promise, not without bitterness, to endure another year.

At night, from a distance, the parks and playgrounds seemed inhabited by fireflies, and the night came sooner, inched in closer, fell with a greater weight. The sound of the alarm clock conquered the sound of the tambourine, the houses put on their winter faces. The houses stared down a bitter landscape, seeming, not without bitterness, to have resolved to endure another year.”

― James Baldwin, Just Above My Head

Unemployment Demographics
https://www.deptofnumbers.com/unemployment/demographics

CARES Act Facts
https://usafacts.org/articles/what-will-cares-act-and-other-congressional-coronavirus-bills-do-how-big-are-they/

World Bank Report on Economic Recession
https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/06/12/873065968/world-bank-recession-is-the-deepest-in-decades

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

Alone in the Woods

art, Attitudes, Children, coronavirus, Creativity, Faith, Family, Garvan Woodlands Garden, Health, Imagination, incarnation, nature, Painting, renewal, Spirituality, stewardship, Stress, texas, Travel, trees, Uncategorized, vision

“Turn Around,” I heard the voice whisper.

Life for extroverts in the Age of Social Distancing is difficult. They need people to bounce their ideas off of, friends to hear their tales of daily struggles or victories, and most of all, the transfer of energy between the parties to feel alive. For introverts, most of whom need space and quiet to restore their energies, the “stay at home unless absolutely necessary” directives are more welcome than not. A good book, some quiet music, and a calming drink of herbal tea is a balm for the body and the soul.

Of course, if you have children, activity is your middle name, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of extroversion or introversion. Taking walks in the neighborhood of your city is an opportunity to learn about architecture. How is it built, what are the forms called, and how many styles can you identify as you walk about? You can make an art project from this walk about, by building a shoebox city, a collage from magazines or scrap paper, or making a map.

Fantasy Forest

When my daughter was young, we lived in south Texas, so our walks meant we might stumble upon a limestone fossil creature. She was always amazed some animal from the prehistoric times would find its way into our modern age, even if it were a lifeless stone. To find a treasure from 100,000,000 years ago always added excitement to our jaunts about the home place.

If you live in the countryside, you might have access to the woods or a forest, or you can go there. We haven’t decided to lock down everyone in their home yet. However, it’s my “Dr. Cornie” opinion we all should limit our goings and doings to the utmost necessities of grocery, health, and essential services. While I’m not a “real doctor,” those of us who are “Coronavirus Cathys and Chucks” can spread this disease to others, even if we don’t feel sick or have symptoms.

In this Age of Coronavirus, staying put at home means we “flatten the curve” of the spread of the disease. While many will have a mild disease, too many will have a difficult outcome, especially when they face a lack of hospital beds and equipment to treat them. Let’s think of these others, and not just of ourselves alone.

Autumn Sunlight at Poverty Point, Louisiana

With this admonition in mind, I invite you to travel virtually in solitude to the woods. Many of my paintings are of nature, for I feel close to God in nature. My parents may have been getting a vacation from me when I went to summer church camp at the old Works Project Administration site at Caney Lake, but I connected with the God who meets us in nature while I was there.

The Germans have a constructed word Waldeinsamkeit, which roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude. The Grimm Brothers wrote many fairy tales, which were also set in the famed German Black Forest: Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood to name a few.

I don’t know if children read these stories today, since they’re a tad scary, but my parents grew up in the Great Depression and fought the Great War in Europe against the Nazis. They helped us through the imaginary, scary events so we could take on the actual, distressing situations. Practicing the easy operations in a safe space helped us confront our fears in real life.

Creek Side Reflections

Sometimes I’ll walk in the woods and hear a voice calling me to turn around. It’s not an audible voice, as if an outside agent were speaking to me. It’s also not my own inner sense, as “I should turn around.” Instead, I perceive a stillness from beyond, and the word I hear is “Turn around and look.”

If nature speaks to us, it’s because “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20). Does this mean all persons see God’s hand in creation? Of course not, for some can’t even see the image of God in their own faces when they look in the mirror as they brush their teeth in the morning. Perhaps this is why the city streets are littered, the country roads are trashed, and violence to humanity is a sad trouble in every zip code. If we are God’s people, we’ll care for one another and for God’s world.

Even in the Age of Coronavirus, when our solid underpinnings have been cut down from under us and we have crashed to the ground with the noise of a giant sequoia tearing through its smaller companions, we don’t lose hope and we don’t lose heart. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)

Walk in the woods, in silence, and renew your soul, with Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Waldeinsamkeit
I do not count the hours I spend
In wandering by the sea;
The forest is my loyal friend,
Like God it useth me.

In plains that room for shadows make
Of skirting hills to lie,
Bound in by streams which give and take
Their colors from the sky;

Or on the mountain-crest sublime,
Or down the oaken glade,
O what have I to do with time?
For this the day was made.

Cities of mortals woe-begone
Fantastic care derides,
But in the serious landscape lone
Stern benefit abides.

Sheen will tarnish, honey cloy,
And merry is only a mask of sad,
But, sober on a fund of joy,
The woods at heart are glad.

There the great Planter plants
Of fruitful worlds the grain,
And with a million spells enchants
The souls that walk in pain.

Still on the seeds of all he made
The rose of beauty burns;
Through times that wear and forms that fade,
Immortal youth returns.

The black ducks mounting from the lake,
The pigeon in the pines,
The bittern’s boom, a desert make
Which no false art refines.

Down in yon watery nook,
Where bearded mists divide,
The gray old gods whom Chaos knew,
The sires of Nature, hide.

Aloft, in secret veins of air,
Blows the sweet breath of song,
O, few to scale those uplands dare,
Though they to all belong!

See thou bring not to field or stone
The fancies found in books;
Leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own,
To brave the landscape’s looks.

Oblivion here thy wisdom is,
Thy thrift, the sleep of cares;
For a proud idleness like this
Crowns all thy mean affairs.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Project Gutenberg Free PDF
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2591/old/grimm10.pdf

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.iep.utm.edu/theo-nat/

Rabbit, Rabbit! Welcome to February!

art, Children, chocolate, Family, Healing, holidays, Imagination, Love, Ministry, nature, purpose, rabbits, Valentine’s Day

Early handmade puzzle Valentine

“The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”

If I think Christmas comes too quickly at my stage of life, I could say the same for the rapid passing of my days. My parents in retirement would collapse in their matching gold fabric chairs after a busy day of volunteering and ask each other, “How did we ever manage to work, have children, get them to all their after school activities, and keep home and hearth together?” They’d shake their heads in wonder and think about going out to eat that night.

For some reason, as the body slows with age, the perception of time speeds up. Small children perceive time as unmoving, or slow moving like molasses poured out on a frosty morning into fresh fallen snow. Since I lived in the Deep South as a child, snow was a rare and wonderful experience. On the infrequent occasions when we’d see the white stuff, our newspapers would give the event a banner headline, schools would close, and we children would put on our heaviest sets of clothes to play outside. I never had a proper set of snow boots until I went up north to the land of snow and ice, so I wore my rubber rain boots instead.

Small children often will pay more attention to the excitement of an exotic experience than to their comfort or safety. By the time I arrived home, my hands and feet were numb from the snow, but my dad warmed my feet and hands with his hands before the gas fireplace. No rubbing or hot water to hurry the process, for that would have done harm. This was a clear instance of “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”

Lewis Carroll never wrote this.

I’ve always thought the White Rabbit of Alice in Wonderland fame said this famous quote, but like other aphorisms found on the internet, it just isn’t so. Likewise the quote,  “Have I gone mad?” “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” This is from Tim Burton’s 2010 film, ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Just because we can find it on Pinterest doesn’t mean it’s true. Our memories are made up of the interwoven threads of the books, movies, and conversations we’ve had with others about the subject. Eventually, it all gets woven into a new creation, which seems to us just as real as the original.

Most of my rabbit friends are bonkers, but they’re in denial. A few of us have been to the river Nile, marched up and down its banks, and then were pushed in. We clambered out and now we’re no longer in the Nile. Rare is the rabbit who isn’t in denial. We live in a post truth age.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

A word all rabbits might agree upon is LOVE, which is the great celebration at the heart of February. Of course, every day should be a celebration of the love of life, for consider the alternative. Without life, we couldn’t love! Without love, we wouldn’t be living. We should find a way to express a love or joy for someone or something every single day. At my age, I’m glad to wake up and have another day to love god, drink coffee, paint, and write.

Listen to God in silence.

Groundhog Day is when the rodent predicts the type of weather to follow for the next six weeks, or until the spring equinox. Candlemass was a celebration on February 2nd, when Christians would take their candles to the church to have them blessed to bring blessings to their household for the remaining winter.

As time rolled on the day evolved into another form. The following English folk song highlights the transition to weather prognostication.

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

Shadow portends more of winter’s snow or rain.

This “interpretation” of Candlemas Day became the norm for most of Europe. As you can see, there’s no mention of an animal of any kind in the preceding song. It wasn’t until this traditional belief was introduced to Germany that an animal was introduced into the lore, and the weather got involved. If, according to the legend, the hedgehog saw his shadow on Candlemas Day there would be a “Second Winter” or 6 more weeks of bad weather.

When German settlers came to what is now the United States, so too came their traditions and folklore. With the absence of hedgehogs in the United States, a similar hibernating animal was chosen. The first American Groundhog Day was celebrated in Pennsylvania in 1886, and continues to the present day with Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog predicting the weather annually. They are gadding about in a fever pitch in those frozen climes, but you can follow them on Instagram @PUNXSYPHIL on February 2nd, from 3 to 8 AM. (I will catch the video replay on Instagram, due to a need for sleep and/or caffeine.)

Some of my rabbit friends will get their workout later in the day on February 2, with Super Bowl LIV, America’s all day long food festival. Many gather only for the commercials, the community, and the calories. This day marks the end of many people’s Rabbit Food Diets, Restrictive Eating Plans, and New Year’s Resolutions. This is a blessing in disguise, for Valentine candy is about to go on sale. Don’t wait for someone to give it to you—buy a box for your own beloved self! And yes, you can share these sweet treats with anyone else you love in this world.

Speaking of love, the Duke of Orléans sent the first Valentine’s Day card to his wife while he was he was a prisoner in the Tower of London in 1415. In the United States, Valentine’s Day cards didn’t gain popularity until the Revolutionary War, when people took up the habit of writing handwritten notes to their sweethearts. In the early 1900s, mass produced cards for the holiday became popular. Today about 1 billion Valentine cards are exchanged, second only to Christmas cards, with women buying approximately 85% of all the Valentine`s Day cards sold.

Hand painted heart design

On Valentines Day every year, there are at least 36 million heart shape boxes of chocolates sold. The first Valentines Day candy box was invented by Richard Cadbury in the late 19th century. There are enough sweetheart candy hearts made each year to stretch from Valentine, Arizona to Rome, Italy, and back again. The number of these candy hearts produced is approximately 8 billion.

Sweethearts are the bestselling treats made by NECCO, the country’s oldest multi-line candy company. In keeping with tradition, Sweethearts have been made from the same simple recipe since 1902, when they were first introduced, even thought the original assortment included candy in the shape of horseshoes, baseballs, postcards, and watches. Conversation hearts were invented in the 1860s by the brother of NECCO’s founder. These first hearts had printed paper notes tucked inside. The lengthy, old-fashioned sayings included such wistful thoughts as “Please send a lock of your hair by return mail.”

Shout out for February monthly observances: Black History and American Heart Month. If you want a daily holiday to celebrate, check out Holiday Insights: http://www.holidayinsights.com/moreholidays/february.htm

February 2020 is 29 days long because it’s a leap year, so the good news is, no matter whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not, the spring equinox will be here on March 19th. Too bad we won’t know what the weather will be! Rabbit wisdom, however, always claims those who love never worry about how cold it is outside, for a warm heart cheers the coldest room like a good fire.

NOTES:

Quotes misattributed to the White Rabbit and other characters in Lewis Carroll book and Actual quotes from Alice in Wonderland—http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/chapters-script/alice-in-wonderland-quotes/

Alice in Wonderland quotes—Alice-in-Wonderland.net

Legend & Lore | Punxsutawney Groundhog club—

https://www.groundhog.org/legend-and-lore

NECCO Candy history—https://www.infoplease.com/spelling-love-candy-hearts

Valentine’s Day History of Candy Hearts—

Valentine’s Day Tidbits—http://www.softschools.com/facts/holidays/valentines_day_facts/148/

Art for Life

adult learning, art, Attitudes, Children, Creativity, exercise, Faith, Fear, Ministry, Painting, poverty, purpose, renewal, Spirituality, Stress

As part of my ministry in retirement, I take my prior callings as an artist and a pastor with equal passion and joy. I call my studio ARTANDICON because my paintings aren’t just pretty colors, but always have a spiritual content. You may think I’ve painted a pleasing landscape, but my intent was to glorify the God who created this world and gave us the mandate to care for God’s creation.

Transparent Geometric Figures

In art class we not only learn art lessons, such as how to render a realistic 3-dimensional geometric form on a flat piece of canvas in perspective using size and scale, but we also learn about the color wheel. Colors which are warm tend to come forward, and cool colors tend to recede. These examples from last week’s class are a case in point.

Colorful Geometric Figures

I didn’t make it easy on them, for we learn more when we’re faced with a challenge. Adults in particular need to have continuous learning experiences to keep their minds nimble and active. Learning new and complex skills is one of the six pillars of Alzheimer’s prevention, along with social engagement, regular exercise, healthy diet, quality sleep, and stress management.

This is the 2nd year of our class and they’re showing improvement over last year. They can draw the forms better and we’re working now to free them from making a line and filling it in like a coloring book. This is a sign of “needing to get the design right before I start.” Most of us are “afraid” most of our lives—will we measure up, what will people think of me, what if I make a mess, and worst of all, can I live with myself and know I’m not perfect?

Each person in art starts from where they begin. Art is one of the few classes in which working hard will help improve your skills. Plus students aren’t judged against against an abstract criteria, but for how well they managed to fulfill the parameters of the lesson and their overall improvement. Faith, not works, may get us to heaven, but works, not faith, get us an art work.

Colorful Geometric Figures

In art class, we have to drop all these false masks of “competence and perfection.” Every day is a learning experience and every work we do will have some small part which we know “I could have done this better.” Yet we have to let this work go out from under our hands and take this lesson to the next work. If we truly learned that lesson, we’ll learn a new one on this next work, and the cycle repeats. We call this the growth cycle in art. In life, it’s called “growing pains” or suffering. All artists “suffer for their work” if they’re making progress and growing.

In the spiritual life we can be comfortable or suffering. Those of us who are comfortable aren’t aware of the suffering of others, the injustice of systemic oppression, or environmental harm. We aren’t meant to merely co-suffer, but are called to act to relieve suffering and change the systems that cause suffering in the world and her peoples.

In art class, students tend to draw one object at a time, without checking the scale of it to the nearby objects. Then when they paint it, they focus on getting the one object looking good, even if they ignore the original shape. Rather than correct the other shapes of their drawing, they go ahead and fill in the lines. This is a problem many of us have in life. We pay too much attention to one thing, to the detriment of everything else. We work on it, trying to get it right and then everything else is out of whack. We’re like a three year old who gets the scissors in hand and works diligently to even out his or her selfie haircut. It doesn’t go well for us. It’s like cleaning the kitchen, but letting the rest of the house go to pot or worse.

Art class is a place where you learn life lessons as well as art. Art is for life. It’s a place where you can get encouragement for your best efforts. We all make the same mistakes. Great artists can see flaws in their own work the average person doesn’t have the eye to see. If they are truly great, they’ll be truly humble, for they know how much more they have to learn. If we could bring these art lessons to life, many of our interpersonal relationships would be much more successful.

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” ~~ Romans 5:3-5

Homage to Morandi

adult learning, art, Children, Creativity, Faith, Love, Ministry, nature, Painting, shadows, Spirituality, trees, United Methodist Church, vision

Morandi: Still Life

My students in the art class at the church have shown much progress since we began last year. I’m proud of them for sticking in there and taking this journey down a path less traveled by others. Most art education classes begin with the idea of a model and the students should all try to match it. This is typical of “right answers” in most schoolwork, such as math. Indeed, 2 plus 2 should equal 4, and not 3 or 5. We can’t get creative in our answers in math class, but we can have room for creativity in art class. If we have a still life to render on a page, we should have something that’s recognizable as the objects, but Cubism has taught us the objects don’t have to be painted as Realism. We can paint them different, emotional colors, as in Fauvism, or in a monochromatic scheme, like Georgio Morandi.

Mike’s Most Recent Work

Another growth area we have is continuing to observe the subject while we draw and paint. Children draw the idea or symbol of the thing they’re representing. If we’re attempting to render a realistic subject, we need to constantly check back to the objects to notice the negative spaces and the shadows, as well as the forms themselves. This is a matter of discipline, which all artists have to undergo. I spent many an hour in art school drawing models without ever being able to look at my work—this is how you train your brain to connect to your hand. The first efforts are pretty goofy looking, for sure. You have to leave your ego at the door if you want to become an artist.

All beginning artists try to make a shape perfect first and then color it in, much like filling in the black lines of a coloring book. This year we’re working on losing our need to be perfect from the start, and begin to paint from the first. This lets us have more emotion and feeling in our work. We do this by drawing with a brush and a light, yellow wash on the canvas. We can easily paint over it with our thicker paints. If we don’t get it right, we can scribble over it, or use a pale pink wash to make a different line. 

Gail’s Most Recent Work

About the age of nine, children begin to draw what they see, but still have no real sense of perspective or scale. The most important object is the largest. About the time they become teenagers, they show an interest in realism and the artistic skills needed to produce these tricks of the eye. More precocious children will begin earlier, and others may never show an interest at all. Some naive painters will retain childish forms, but have strong pattern and design elements, such as Grandma Moses, who painted the memories of her childhood. 

Last year I started the class on basic perspective. It might have been too difficult for some, or too uninteresting for others. Yet basic perspective is a building block lesson for any art lesson that is more than decorating a flat surface with pretty colors. Likewise, making a shadow study of basic geometric forms is important because all objects in nature can be reduced to a geometric form: tree trunks are cylinders, fir trees are cones, oak trees are spheres, houses and churches are rectangular solids and pyramids, and bridges are rectangular solids supported by piers, which are more of the same. A complex landscape becomes easier to sketch out in block shapes if the artist can identify the basic components of what he or she sees.

Last Year: Boxes on Top of Boxes

People think art is “Just something I can do when I feel like I’ve got nothing else to do.” This is the description for finger painting for kindergarteners, if you think about it. Art is for both thinking and feeling, since both the brain and the heart need to be active at the same time. Some say only the heart needs to be active, but the head is exercising choices and making decisions to limit the red or to add more yellow or to rip a huge black down the side of the canvas. Only the artists who are unintegrated will contend they work only from the mind or from the heart. We actually work with both, even if one is diminished in nature.

Cornelia’s Homage to Morandi

If the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” means anything in the art life, it’s we aren’t meant to separate any one part of our experience from any other part. In our art expressions, as in our faith expressions, our heart, soul, and mind needs to be fixed on love of God, as well as love of neighbor, for loving our neighbor, in whatever form, fashion, or fix our neighbors find themselves in, is the same as loving the image of God in which they were also made. By loving our neighbors, we love ourselves also. If we hate our neighbors, we hate ourselves. God didn’t mean for us to hate God’s image.

These are the wonderful spiritual truths we learn in art class. It’s more than learning how to mix colors or draw a box in perspective. These are art skills. Life skills are way more important. Take a look at the work from last year and this year. You can still join this class. You aren’t competing with anyone, but you will be working to improve over time. Going onto perfection takes time. Now is a good time to begin!