Life for extroverts in the Age of Social Distancing is difficult. They need people to bounce their ideas off of, friends to hear their tales of daily struggles or victories, and most of all, the transfer of energy between the parties to feel alive. For introverts, most of whom need space and quiet to restore their energies, the “stay at home unless absolutely necessary” directives are more welcome than not. A good book, some quiet music, and a calming drink of herbal tea is a balm for the body and the soul.
Of course, if you have children, activity is your middle name, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of extroversion or introversion. Taking walks in the neighborhood of your city is an opportunity to learn about architecture. How is it built, what are the forms called, and how many styles can you identify as you walk about? You can make an art project from this walk about, by building a shoebox city, a collage from magazines or scrap paper, or making a map.
When my daughter was young, we lived in south Texas, so our walks meant we might stumble upon a limestone fossil creature. She was always amazed some animal from the prehistoric times would find its way into our modern age, even if it were a lifeless stone. To find a treasure from 100,000,000 years ago always added excitement to our jaunts about the home place.
If you live in the countryside, you might have access to the woods or a forest, or you can go there. We haven’t decided to lock down everyone in their home yet. However, it’s my “Dr. Cornie” opinion we all should limit our goings and doings to the utmost necessities of grocery, health, and essential services. While I’m not a “real doctor,” those of us who are “Coronavirus Cathys and Chucks” can spread this disease to others, even if we don’t feel sick or have symptoms.
In this Age of Coronavirus, staying put at home means we “flatten the curve” of the spread of the disease. While many will have a mild disease, too many will have a difficult outcome, especially when they face a lack of hospital beds and equipment to treat them. Let’s think of these others, and not just of ourselves alone.
With this admonition in mind, I invite you to travel virtually in solitude to the woods. Many of my paintings are of nature, for I feel close to God in nature. My parents may have been getting a vacation from me when I went to summer church camp at the old Works Project Administration site at Caney Lake, but I connected with the God who meets us in nature while I was there.
The Germans have a constructed word Waldeinsamkeit, which roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude. The Grimm Brothers wrote many fairy tales, which were also set in the famed German Black Forest: Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood to name a few.
I don’t know if children read these stories today, since they’re a tad scary, but my parents grew up in the Great Depression and fought the Great War in Europe against the Nazis. They helped us through the imaginary, scary events so we could take on the actual, distressing situations. Practicing the easy operations in a safe space helped us confront our fears in real life.
Sometimes I’ll walk in the woods and hear a voice calling me to turn around. It’s not an audible voice, as if an outside agent were speaking to me. It’s also not my own inner sense, as “I should turn around.” Instead, I perceive a stillness from beyond, and the word I hear is “Turn around and look.”
If nature speaks to us, it’s because “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20). Does this mean all persons see God’s hand in creation? Of course not, for some can’t even see the image of God in their own faces when they look in the mirror as they brush their teeth in the morning. Perhaps this is why the city streets are littered, the country roads are trashed, and violence to humanity is a sad trouble in every zip code. If we are God’s people, we’ll care for one another and for God’s world.
Even in the Age of Coronavirus, when our solid underpinnings have been cut down from under us and we have crashed to the ground with the noise of a giant sequoia tearing through its smaller companions, we don’t lose hope and we don’t lose heart. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Walk in the woods, in silence, and renew your soul, with Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Waldeinsamkeit I do not count the hours I spend In wandering by the sea; The forest is my loyal friend, Like God it useth me.
In plains that room for shadows make Of skirting hills to lie, Bound in by streams which give and take Their colors from the sky;
Or on the mountain-crest sublime, Or down the oaken glade, O what have I to do with time? For this the day was made.
Cities of mortals woe-begone Fantastic care derides, But in the serious landscape lone Stern benefit abides.
Sheen will tarnish, honey cloy, And merry is only a mask of sad, But, sober on a fund of joy, The woods at heart are glad.
There the great Planter plants Of fruitful worlds the grain, And with a million spells enchants The souls that walk in pain.
Still on the seeds of all he made The rose of beauty burns; Through times that wear and forms that fade, Immortal youth returns.
The black ducks mounting from the lake, The pigeon in the pines, The bittern’s boom, a desert make Which no false art refines.
Down in yon watery nook, Where bearded mists divide, The gray old gods whom Chaos knew, The sires of Nature, hide.
Aloft, in secret veins of air, Blows the sweet breath of song, O, few to scale those uplands dare, Though they to all belong!
See thou bring not to field or stone The fancies found in books; Leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own, To brave the landscape’s looks.
Oblivion here thy wisdom is, Thy thrift, the sleep of cares; For a proud idleness like this Crowns all thy mean affairs.
“Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.” ~~ Ecclesiastes 10:20
“A little bird told me,” my nanny often said, when I asked her how she knew about my doings. “The walls have eyes, honey, and the wind has ears. Nothing done in secret stays hidden very long. You’d best mind your P’s and Q’s.”
If I had been a more fearful child, I might have been afraid to sleep in a dark bedroom. As it was, I was only afraid of what was under the bed and what might come out of the closet, both of which are normal childhood “monster” fears. I kept these imaginary monsters from harming me by closing the closet door at night and by approaching my bed at a dead run, and launching my small body a full six feet through the air until I landed in the middle of my bed. My parents were thankful I forgot about these monsters by the time I was big enough to have done damage to the furniture.
How do we handle fears as adults? Some of us put our heads down into the sands, as if we were ostriches rolling our eggs in our nests. What we don’t see won’t bother us. Some of us self medicate with substances to the point of abuse. We can even use goods in a bad way: overeating, over exercising, overwork, and orthorexia (concern for a good diet) are a few we could mention. A better way is to seek a balanced life, and not to go off the deep end in any one direction.
When everyone else is losing their heads around you, someone has to remain calm. For a long time my motto was “Leave me alone, I’m having a crisis.” Then I went into ministry and I became the caregiver to people in crisis. Folks need a non-anxious presence to be with them, for even if we can’t change or fix their present circumstances, we can be a reassuring companion. While the present moment may be distressing, often the underlying reason is because our applecart has been upset. When our plans and schemes get upended, we have to monitor the new situation, and adjust accordingly. We may not like what we have to take care of, but this is our now, and not some hypothetical game plan.
As one of my clergy pals used to say, “I keep my calendar in pencil because I have to change it so often.” I just use that tape whiteout and write mine in ink anyway. I like the pretty colors, but I know life happens and when it does, i make the changes and write in a new plan in ink. Life is often messier than I’d like it to be.
I just found out all our public spaces in our county will close for April due to the coronavirus mitigation protocols. We have an establishment called The Ohio Club, which has been serving food and drink since 1905. It’s made it through the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the two Great World Wars, and many smaller ups and downs in between. If we have an eye to the better future, and not just to the problems of the present moment, we can plan and work to get through this part of the cycle.
While closing down is a good choice for our community to contain the coronavirus, it means the exhibition I planned won’t go up. I’ll be checking to see if it’s rescheduled or if it will be a virtual display. With everyone on home confinement, we’ll make the best of the situation. There has to be a silver lining in the clouds somewhere. At least we should be looking for the bluebird of happiness to visit us in the coming days.
Here is the poem by the American 20th Century writer, George J. Carroll, that first used the phrase “bluebird of happiness:”
“And in the valley beneath the mountains of my youth, lies the river of my tears. As it wends its way to the ocean of my dreams, so long ago they have gone. And yet, if I were but to think anew, would these dreams evaporate in my mind and become the morning dew upon a supple rose whose beauty is enhanced with these glistening drops, as the sun of life peeks o’er the mountains when youth was full. Then I must not supply this endless fountain that creates the river of my tears but look beyond those mountains where the bluebird of happiness flies.”
Folks tells us to stay in the present moment and to honor our feelings. If we’re in a state of anxiety, however, we need to ask if feeding our fears is the best choice we can make. “What if’s” and “How are we going to’s” are useful fuel for the flames of our imaginations. If we feed that flame, we’ll either take to day drinking or need to be heavily medicated for the public safety. Neither are our best choice. Sometimes we make lists, and then add lists to the lists, as if we could organize the chaos unfolding about us.
In truth, Chaos is confused, unordered, unorganized, and has no distinct form. It’s what existed before Creation. As such, unpredictability is its inherent nature. If we were in one of the closed casinos, the metaphor would be “shooting craps with loaded dice,” since the odds would be stacked against the player in favor of the House.
The best way to keep our wits about us when everyone else is going crazy is to breathe deeply in and out. If we focus on the breath, and remember the source of this life giving breath, we can connect our selves to a greater power.
“Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” ~~ Genesis 2:7
If we remember whose we are, and who we are, we’ll get through this together. Take care of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, and the sick. We are stronger together than we are alone.
Some people are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer in this germ conscious age of Coronavirus, but we who practice the art life are also stocking up on Liquitex heavy body acrylic paint and canvases plus coffee, so we can make the best of a bad situation. We’re also giving encouragement to all we meet or greet, for we know we’re all in this together. When our local officials call for “social distancing,” some think this means individuals have to take care of their own needs only, but this isn’t so. This “social distance” only refers to the space between us, not to our ignorance of the needs of others.
Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome (2nd CE), wrote in one his Meditations, “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee,” (Book VI, 54). If we don’t work for the good of all, we aren’t doing good for ourselves. I met our condo maintenance man the other day as I was returning from our last art class before spring break. (Our return date is flexible, depending on the coronavirus situation.)
“Did you hear when Walmart runs out of food, they’re going to close it down and not reopen it till all this virus blows over?” “What? That’s crazy. They’ll be selling food till the end of time. Money, honey, they wants it and food, we needs it.”
“That’s what I hear. We’re all gonna starve.” “No, we won’t starve. I have enough dried beans, pasta, canned tuna, and the like to last us a month. It might not be appetizing, but we won’t starve. If you get hungry, you just come to my place and I’ll feed you. Do not worry about food.” “There you go,” he said as he drove away. Maybe he just needed to hear reassurance from someone who wasn’t wearing crazy pants for a change.
Sometimes we get caught up in everyone else’s crazy and forget the words of faith:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:26-27).
Worry is a topic in every age. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd CE, who favored the Stoic philosophy. For a Stoic, the vagaries of life didn’t produce happiness or any other emotional experiences, but virtue alone was the source of true happiness. Stoicism was an ethical way of life, in which order and the good of the community were more important than personal indulgence.
“Does the sun pretend to perform the work of the rain, or Aesculapius that of Ceres? What of the several stars? Are they not different, yet all jointly working for the same end? (Book VI, 43).”
In that ancient age, the Romans thought the sun, moon, and stars were all divine. Asclepius was the son of Apollo, the sun god, and a mortal woman, but he was raised by a centaur, a half horse-half man, who taught him healing powers. Ceres was the goddess of grain and of life itself. Famine, fertility, and the harvest were all under her power. Indeed, for the Romans, the entire cosmos was divine, and was organized in favour of providence. Marcus mentions “the whole cosmos is organised like a city, that is to say, each part is so organized as to serve the good of the whole.”
“Consider frequently the connexion of all things in the Universe, and their relation to each other. All things are in a manner intermingled with one another, and are, therefore, mutually friendly. For one thing comes in due order after another, by virtue of local movements, and of the harmony and unity of the whole (Book VI, 38).”
In the age of coronavirus, we sometimes think if we aren’t at risk, or if the harm is negligible for us or our families, we aren’t obligated to practice the same healthy practices recommended for other risk based groups. We would be thinking wrong, however. If low-risk people don’t socially distance, then the entire containment process is ineffective. Generally, there are fewer high-risk individuals — the sick and the elderly — and they don’t tend to move around as much as lower-risk individuals. Therefore, it’s more likely that a low-risk individual will expose a high-risk individual to the virus.
When we paint a still life of flowers in art class, we have to pay attention to the “harmony and unity of the whole.” Often I show several famous artists’ works before we begin, partly to expose my class to great art, but also to comment on certain design elements that they can incorporate to make their works more interesting. The Cezanne vase of flowers has an off center or asymmetrical subject balanced by the strong linear shapes dividing the background. Sometimes our own lives are off kilter, but we can stay balanced if we make sure to keep the weights on either side of the fulcrum point proportional according to their distance from the balance point. A large mass near the center point will balance out a lesser weight more distant from the pivot point.
We’re talking about the different types of balance in art: symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, and mosaic (or all over) balance. When our lives become unbalanced, we need to institute order. Some of us house clean, others do home repairs or work on our golf games. Others of us cook up a storm and ignore our normal routines. Lately in this age of coronavirus, folks have taken to panic grocery shopping. I went to Sam’s for some usual bulk items and thought we were going to be hit by a freak one two punch of a spring blizzard and hurricane over the weekend. All the bread, chicken, paper goods, and cleaning products were gone. The next day I went to Kroger and saw the same thing, plus all the vegetables and fresh fruits were wiped out.
I paused to chat with a produce clerk. “I guess I picked a bad day to shop. Has it been like this all day?” She paused her straightening of the half dozen shallots remaining in the empty produce display case. Rolling her eyes, she sighed, “It’s been like this since we opened. Forty people were waiting at the door at 7 this morning.”
“Oh no! That’s too early to be out and about!” “Agreed! They’ve cleaned us out. Buying all that toilet paper, like we wouldn’t get a truck tomorrow.” “You get delivery every day?” “Oh, yeah, this is a big store and everything turns over quick. We’ll always get more tomorrow. “
I wished her luck. She looked tired and overwhelmed, but ten hours of an apocalyptic panic filled crowd had to have been unnerving. If we can’t see the danger beyond us, we often do whatever we can to help us feel like we’re taking charge of the situation. In reality, washing our hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. After this, limiting personal interaction or social distancing, is the next good we can do for one another. My old mother had a prescription for trying times: “If you want to feel better during hard times, take care of someone less fortunate than you. Quit worrying about yourself.”
In art class we took some time to share how our lives would be impacted by the closings and postponements of upcoming various events. Some have new babies to celebrate, children to care for when schools close, and I have a 50th college reunion that got cancelled. I have an upcoming art show, which I anticipate will get cancelled also. These things happen, and while I won’t see my girlfriends from long ago, we can possibly make an alternative plan for the art show. If not, there’s next year, and we press on, knowing the year of coronavirus isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but a distraction that will bring out either the best or the worst in us.
Will general conference be postponed or annual conference? We don’t know as yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. While we can want our lives to run on our time and our schedules, there is a time and an order that belongs to God alone. Some people of faith can’t allow their minds to include the natural process of death and disease in the workings of God’s providence, while others see these as God’s just punishment for sin.
If God is at work for good in our illness and death, then it’s because God quickens the human heart to help and give care to others, rather than to lead us to care only for ourselves. If the poor and the vulnerable are most at risk in a pandemic, then the pervasive providence of God’s mercy is poured out for them through the hands of those who love and serve God. As people of faith, we believe “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Fresh flowers are fragile and not long lived. As such, artists choose to paint them in place of human subjects, who also have limited life spans. Flowers have the extra benefit of never complaining, “I’m tired. When can I get up and walk around?” They also don’t fuss if you paint them blue, if their actual color is pink, or say, “Well, I don’t think it looks very much like me.” I vote for flowers any day.
Gail rendered a fine asymmetrical design and paid close attention to the details of the flowers. Mike had an exuberant design with emotional use of color and texture. I asked both of them to try a new technique for mixing colors: pick up several colors on the brush and mix them on the canvas itself, rather than mix up one flat color, as if they were buying a bucket of paint at Lowe’s. I painted over an old canvas from last year. The bright colors of springtime give my spirits a lift, even if I know the skies are gray and drab.
Our art class Tuesday was much diminished by the threat of the coronavirus, but since many of us in the group are older, I’d rather they stay home and stay healthy, so we can meet to paint another day. Many things are changing now, so we need to adjust our minds to the new normal of life in the age of coronavirus. Just as schools are now doing distant teaching via the internet, churches will be live-streaming preaching and using small choral groups or soloists as their musicians. My favorite Starbucks will likely become a drive through, and restaurants will become get and go food distribution sites. Public places, such as movie theaters, museums, and bars will also close their doors. Prepare for the internet to slow down, with everyone streaming entertainment, school lessons, and shopping at home.
Since we don’t know how long this contagion will continue, our art class will not meet together in person until we know we can do no harm to one another by our gatherings. Our usual rule is if the schools are closed, we don’t meet. This more often applies to a weather emergency, but a health emergency is just as dangerous. When we’re cooped up at home for inclement weather, we can keep our spirits up, for we know the days will be temperate or tolerable soon enough. We find a way to keep our hands and minds busy as we mark our time of confinement. It always helps if we keep a sense of calm about us.
The ancient International Wisdom Tradition prized order not only in nature, but also in the community. Those who practiced this way of thinking in the Hebrew world could relate to Ben Sira’s words:
“In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. From morning to evening conditions change; all things move swiftly before the Lord.” (Sirach 18:25-26)
The solid Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Do you dread change? What can come without it? What can be pleasanter or more proper to universal nature? Can you heat your bath unless wood undergoes a change? Can you be fed unless a change is wrought upon your food? Can any useful thing be done without changes? Do you not see, then, that this change also which is working in you is even such as these, and alike necessary to the nature of the Universe? (Book VII, 18)”
Just remember, as an artist, you are a change agent. This is your nature, your being, and your purpose. You bring beauty to the empty canvas, you make sense of a lump of clay or a slab of rock. You can take cast off objects found on the roadside and recreate them into a new object full of meaning. You can change the fears and anxieties of your community by encouraging others to have hope and optimism. If we find the small ounces of courage within us, and share the teaspoons of it with others, we’ll find more courage welling up within us to flow out to others. By being willing to change our own lives, we can change others, and together we change the world.
I will keep you posted with my plans and projects, for I don’t plan to waste this time of seclusion. It’s a great time to catch up on reading, make some new paintings, try new recipes, and maybe even finish some chores about the home place. We won’t lose connection with each other, for if you keep me in mind and I keep you in mind, we will all keep the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
Keep one another safe until we meet again. Joy and Peace, Cornelia
I read a wonderful journal, Psychiatric Times, which has a free subscription online. I began reading it because it helped me to understand the diseases of the mind, which cause people to be at dis-ease in their lives and to cause dis-ease in whatever community in which they belonged. In today’s modern world, our first choice to treat dis-ease is medication. However, the ancient practice of meditation is another choice, either as an adjunct treatment or as a stand alone, depending on the person’s need.
I recently read of some tech entrepreneurs who decided to shut off their phones, computers, and all other electronic devices for one day in every seven because they were over stimulated and never rested. Their creativity and original thinking were diminishing, and this was “hurting their brand.” Those of us in the spiritual world would say they needed to practice sabbath rest, and also to take time away on a daily basis also. If you feel “always on, 24/7/365,” you’ll wear down or burn down sooner or later. Even the Lord Jesus was given to finding secluded places to withdraw and restore his physical body and his spiritual energy. We often overlook these texts, in our rush to read the miracles and action of the salvation story.
Dr. John J. Miller, editor in chief of Psychiatric Times and founder of Brain Health, wrote this wonderful piece, which follows:
In our western culture, which values intellectual knowledge and material rewards, the concept of mindfulness is often initially difficult to grasp. Busy schedules, lengthy “to do” lists, commuting, work, family time, and group activities leave little time for self-reflection and inquiry into the nature of our minds.
In fact, all of these activities serve to keep us running on automatic pilot, and strengthen behavioral patterns previously learned that create efficiency when automatically enacted. An analogy I often use to explore the question of the potential benefits of practicing mindfulness is to ask which of the following two individuals is truly an expert on the experience of what a strawberry tastes like:
An individual who has studied the science of strawberries to the degree that he or she is considered to be the world’s expert—agriculture, botany, genetics, human taste receptors that send gustatory information that is decoded in the brain, digestion, visual responses to seeing a strawberry, and the author of over 100 books on all aspects of strawberries—but, has NEVER eaten a strawberry?
An individual who is uneducated but has just paid close attention to all of the sensations and experiences of taking a fresh strawberry, looking at it, smelling it, placing it in his or her mouth, observing the taste and texture as he or she bites into it, and mindful of the plethora of the “here and now” strawberry experiences?
The answer is usually self-evident and conjures an image or feeling of the warm juice of a strawberry sloshing around in your mouth. Mindfulness is the practice of experiencing each moment like the strawberry.
Common mindfulness adventure Broadly speaking, there are two subtypes of meditation: concentration and mindfulness. As a general principle, it is important to become proficient in concentration meditation before expanding into mindfulness. Concentration practice involves choosing an object, like the breath, a phrase, or a word that becomes an anchor for the mind’s attention.
The instructions are simple: watch the breath as it moves in and out of the body, choosing a spot to watch it that feels natural (the nose, mouth, lungs or movement of the abdomen). Inevitably, the mind’s attention will be distracted by some thought, feeling, sound, or emotion, and the mind starts to drift down an endless path of mind content. As soon as you are aware of having left the breath, without judging yourself, the task is simply to return to the breath. The same basic steps are followed if you are using a phrase or a word.
Here’s a common example: awareness of the inbreath and the outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . you hear a car driving down your street, and your mind drifts to the thought of the car . . . my car . . . my car payment . . . bills to pay . . . do I have enough money saved to buy that new iPhone . . . images of the cool new camera on the iPhone 11 pro . . . wait a minute, I left my breath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . the muscle in my left calf is starting to cramp up . . . I need to start stretching my muscles again . . . why did I stop stretching regularly . . . I should rejoin the gym . . . the last time I was at the gym I saw Tom . . . Tom was a great college roommate . . . college was such a great experience . . . maybe I’ll drive out there and take a walk on campus . . . college is so expensive these days . . . how will I pay for my child’s college tuition in a few years? . . . oh yeah, my breath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . .
This is how much of the time practicing meditation is initially spent, and usually is so frustrating that most people stop meditating long before their attention is strengthened. With perseverance and practice the mind slowly develops the capacity to stay with the breath for extended periods of time. This commonly results in calmness, relaxation, mental clarity as well as an anti-fight or flight physiology.
Once the mind’s concentration has stability, that focused awareness can be intentionally refocused on the mind’s activity itself, and this is the beginning of mindfulness. A holding environment of sorts is created whereby impersonal and non-judgmental attention is watching the many mind states that come and go, the only task being to stay present and learn from what is observed with open acceptance. As mindfulness strengthens, the underlying themes and patterns that fill our mind automatically are seen clearer, and it becomes easier to disengage from them, remaining in the present moment with pure mindfulness. Like exercise, continued practice sustains the ability to be mindful, while lack of practice allows a regression to automatic patterns.
The practice of mindfulness In our roles as clergy and clinicians, we recognize we always have more to learn, and more experience to be gained. Such is the case with mindfulness—it’s always patiently waiting for us to resume that selfless non-judgmental awareness of the present moment—with more to learn about the patterns and themes of our own mind, and continued opportunity to choose a different thought or behavior. As 2019 draws to an end, the practice of mindfulness is but a breath away, and is a worthy companion.
The Light of the Body: meditate on this verse
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” ~~ Luke 11:33-36
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.
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.
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.
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
The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?
Danaë was a princess of Argos in Greek mythology. Argos was an island kingdom ruled by Danae’s father, who had no sons to inherit his throne, but a prophecy foretold his fate: his grandson would kill him and rule in his place.
To defy the gods, Danae’s father sealed her up in a prison so she’d never get pregnant, but Zeus, the king of the gods, transformed into a rain cloud, came to her in a shower of gold. As a result, she bore a son, Perseus. The king put his daughter and grandson into a chest, set them adrift upon the open sea, and left them to their fate. They would either drown in the sea, or drift so far away, they couldn’t harm his kingdom.
As fate would have it, Danaë and her son washed up on a far land, where a fisherman took care of them. It’s at this point I chose to enter Danaë’s story and combine it with images from my travels and imagination. This seascape is from a photo from a journey to the Oregon coast. The sunset’s crepuscular rays reminded me of the golden rain of Zeus’s disguise. Magritte has a famous painting of a “merfish” (a Fish headed body) on a beach with a seascape similar to this one, but Picasso’s beach paintings are more like the figure itself. All artists owe a debt to the images from our culture and history. We can trace our artistic DNA from the masters who went before us, just as we can see the influence of our forebears on the faces and health of our children.
While Danaë already had given birth when she washed up on the beach, this is a dream construction of her memories prior to that time. The stress of losing her parents, her home, and her support system must have been overwhelming. Add to this the burden of knowing her own child will kill her father. On top of this, she had conceived by unusual means, which portends ill for those who attempted to circumvent their fates. The giant sea shell is a reminder of her sexual union with the god, as well as her openness to the power of the gods. Danaë doesn’t resist her fate, but surrenders to it.
In the ancient world, the Greeks believed humans were foolish if they attempted to manipulate fate, for the gods had their own designs in mind. In the Greek myths, you can run, but you can’t hide. Destinies are fixed and immutable, due to fate. The three fates wore white robes and were incarnations of destiny. One spun the thread of life, another wove the cloth, and the third snipped the cord to determine the length. They controlled every mortal from birth to death.
Happiness comes from accepting one’s lot in life, for the gods will prevail. Today, we are more likely to believe we can change our destiny by our own efforts and will. Gone are the days when women submitted to powerful men, whether they were fathers, husbands, employers, or “gods.” In the context of the #MeToo movement, women today read this myth and say, “I reject a destiny of submission to another’s power over my own body. I claim the right to my own body, not only for the sake of love, but for the power it represents when I give it to another. No one takes it from me.”
Today women are more likely to chose the hero route, to take on the role of Perseus. As Perseus grew up, the king of the place sent him on a quest for the head of Medusa. While he was gone, the king tried to marry Danaë, but Perseus returned, just in time, and froze the wedding guests into stone with the dread head.
With his mother free, Perseus and Danaë returned to Argos. His grandfather had fled to Thessaly to avoid his fate, but while Perseus was competing in athletic games there, his wayward throw of a quoit, an iron ring, struck his grandfather in the head, killing him instantly. He couldn’t bear to rule Argos, so he swapped city states with another king, and ruled there instead.
If this story sounds familiar to you, perhaps you’re thinking of Jason and the Argonauts, a hero of later myth. He and his hero pals sailed in the Argo, a ship built by Argus, who was from Thespiae, the city of the Muses. His hero story shares many similarities with that of Perseus, but that’s for another day. For each of us today, the ancient myth calls us to reconsider how we relate to one another, from the most toxic evils of date rape and sexual harassment in the workplace to the commonplace demeaning behavior known as “mansplaining.”
If men need to rethink their behaviors, women need to choose to speak up and risk public humiliation, rather than staying silent with private shame. Silence only enables bad actors by giving them continued cover. The heroic women, who take on the quests to defeat the monsters they fear, redeem their mother’s shame and silence. They also make a better world possible for the next generation. The DNA of gods and heroes flows through the veins of Danae’s descendants.
Nine years ago…how time flies when you’re having fun! I was at a crossroads in my life, however, with a preexisting health condition I’d managed to live with successfully through three high stress careers since 1977. Accumulated stress isn’t good for the body, so my seizure disorder began to make itself visible.
When my neurologist told me I’d never be able to do the work of a full time church pastor again, I had to revision and rehear my calling from God. If we define a role so strictly it’s a one way highway, it can become “my way or the highway.” This extreme dividing drives clergy and laity into producers and consumers, instead of encouraging shared ministry experiences.
If being a “source of all blessings for everyone” is a short term good for a pastor’s ego, it can also lead to a long term harm in health costs or emotional burnout. For the laity, losing the opportunity to live out their shared witness to the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ means they don’t fulfill their roles as the priesthood of all believers.
ARTANDICON in 2009: Bravely Smiling
The basic teaching of “make disciples of all nations” doesn’t have much effectiveness if we first are not disciples ourselves. So the old saw is true, we may be saved by the grace of God, and not by our good works, but if we want to become learners or disciples, our spiritual life takes some work, just as doing good for others is a hands on job.
I count myself fortunate to have a creative and curious mind, for I’ve always been the child who asked, “Why,” or went, ”Oh, I need to look that up and learn more about it!” Learning for the test, only to forget it later, has never been my strong suit.
The system as a whole also interests me more than the individual parts (I confess this is my shortcoming in relationships, since I have a few deep friendships, many good friends, and lots of friendly folks I like, and many people I know. Not enough people to count on one hand to say I totally dislike, although some I’ve set boundaries for their presence in my life because of their addiction issues).
When I set my preconceived notions of my ordination aside, I listened for a new calling from God. If I couldn’t serve IN the church BUILDING , perhaps I could still serve in the church as the BODY OF CHRIST. The body of Christ exists everywhere, both within and without the edifice we call the sanctuary, for we come and go.
In fact, we have people without churches, people who believe in god, or who are merely spiritual, all around us. Most of us are too busy dealing with our own congregations to reach out to these people. They don’t need traditional stories or sermons. I started a science fiction journal on faith.
Why not? Who else is doing it? Will it make money? Who cares? Do I get feedback? Not often. If we’re in this for the affirmation from human beings, we’re worshiping a false god. Idolatry. I can say things like this and not worry about ruffling the big givers. The taste of freedom is sweet.
Of course, I said this type of thing anyhow my entire ministry career, so I moved a lot, but the churches had good stewardship while I was there and repaired all their unmet facility needs. I left it better than I found it because the people came together to make it happen.
In the solitude of your own studio, writing room, or hangout, there’s no people to gather together to make it happen. A person only has the thoughts of what once was, what has been lost, and what will never be again. It’s the first stage of grief, a shock. It can turn into despair or depression, for everything is overwhelming.
Medication, or “better living through chemistry” can help lift the brain fog so a person can get their ducks in a row. This is no easy task, if you’ve ever tried to herd ducks. Worse than herding cats. Ducks will turn around and peck you. Trust me on this. Childhood memory.
Some people think a prescription is a faith cop out, since they should trust God’s grace alone to sustain them in a difficult time. I think God’s providing grace gave us the knowledge to create the medicine to help us heal our bodies. God can heal by ordinary means, such as health providers or medicines; or extraordinary means, such as miracles. More often God’s working in the ordinary, or we wouldn’t use the exclamation point after miracle!
I also returned to my art, for I find painting the holy icons and natural landscapes both bring me closer to God. As I got more used to being on the computer, I taught myself how to set up WordPress blogs and Facebook Pages for my special interests in health, spirituality, and art. Actually all of these get combined together, because of “systems thinking,” since we can’t lop off art from spirituality, or health from cooking, or any other combination thereabouts.
Antique Aluminum Jello Mold
Now nine years later, I’m in a good place, enjoying my new callings, and in much better health. I will always have my condition, but my condition does not have me. Of course, I have to maintain a disciplined lifestyle, unlike the rest of the world, which runs at pellmell pace until it runs out of gas and crashes. But of course, you wouldn’t do that—you have too much good sense for that, I’m sure.
How to do it as an artist or any other professional.
Or lollygagger in the workplace.
I personally like #8—Why don’t you ever paint landscapes in normal colors?
I get this question all the time. How do we know our greens and blues of today are “normal?” We live in creation after the fall, not in God’s original creation, as God’s hand first formed it and God’s mind first imagined it. What if all the rainbow of colors was God’s Plan A for the earth?
Of course, I get a blank stare from almost everyone, since most aren’t used to thinking about the created order and our relationship to it. Even fewer think of the fall, or what that means, for this world is all they know.
If they press me on it, I tell them, “I like colors and the emotional joy they express. And I’m not fond of wide swaths of green.”
They nod. I nod. They walk away. They probably haven’t quit talking about me. A voice comes into my head, “These are not the patrons you seek. Move along now. The Force will be with you.”
We hear that same word from the Apostle Paul, spoken long ago to the people in Galatia:
“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
At some point in time, we each have to hear the inner voice and make the choice to take the well trod path or the path less travelled. Each one has its own consequences, both for ill and for good. If we make fame or prosperity into a god, we might start churning out well pleasing pieces for our market, but our creative inspiration might begin to suffer, to the detriment of our souls. This can lead to various self medicating behaviors, none of which are good. It also leads to depression or anxiety, as 1, 3, 7, and 10 incite these conditions.
We can develop the good qualities needed for our futures. Independence is a character trait of leaders. An artist spends a good amount of solitary work inside the studio, and faces rejection for many years. Cold calling for Insurance might be the only worse occupation for rejection. I’ve done both.
My old teachers used to egg me on when I was studying in art school. “Who are you working for, me or the other class?” I’d be bothered, but I’d answer, “I’m working in my sketchbook.”
About the third time he passed by to interrupt my work, I’d had enough of his gruff. “I’m working for myself–go away and leave me alone!”
“That’s what I was waiting to hear you say,” he smiled and stuck his pipe back in his mouth as he strode off. I didn’t see him anymore except when I was in class with him.
Doing art in solitude is preferable to cold calling because the rejection is at the end of the process and you have beautiful work to appreciate, whereas with cold calling, all you get is a list of numbers crossed out and the hope 3% of the people will give you a reason to call back. In all this we remember,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Time to remember my mother. Everyone wants a good death: free from pain, remorse, and regret. We want to meet death on our own terms, looking at it nobly and peacefully, but the executions of two murderers last night in Arkansas brought the question of this concept into the arena of “who deserves a good death?”
The survivors of brutal attacks justify their decades of waiting for justice to be served, no matter how much or how long the perpetrators suffer indignity or harm in the process. They believe they cannot be healed without this. I wonder they ever consider the ripples of harm which roll out beyond the executions of these death sentences. The multiple events scheduled back to back here in Arkansas have our people riveted to the TV, witnesses lined up to view the gory deeds, and stressed lawyers for both sides working overtime. The prison staff has the emotional burden of ending the condemned’s life.
If we feel sadness when someone dies by accident or intention on our streets, I wonder why we feel less emotional burden when the state carries out a judgment of death. Have we decided some people aren’t valued enough to live? Yet we feel deep distress when animals are put to death in shelters when no one will adopt them. Are we now at the point animals are more valued than the image of God, no matter how flawed and broken this image is? Have we decided we can stop the work of forgiveness and reconciliation in this life, for this perpetrator and for the survivors of the crime?
Maybe we use the death penalty as the short cut in dealing with our emotions. We say “This is our magic bullet,” and then we go on with our lives. We may kill the perpetrator, but we need to kill the hate in our hearts. Until we find the path to forgiveness, and the source of love, the magic bullet is only a poison pellet.