Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.
The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.
It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.
When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.
Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.
Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.
Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.
This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.
April showers bring May flowers and Coronavirus containment orders. Everything we once knew about our worlds has been upended by the advent of this novel virus. Once we were proud of our abilities to master our planet and to wrest its unruly ways to our wills. Now we meet an invisible, but infinitely small agent that can weigh lay us from some hidden corner or passing person. I have friends who say they don’t want to go to the grocery store without their spouse or partner, for they don’t feel safe anymore. Then there’s the folks who run pell mell into the jaws of death, daring the virus to take them on.
From my rabbit hole, I wonder if the virus doesn’t affect the nervous system and cause some of us to act more fearful and others to act more foolhardy. I think the stress of looking at our four walls of our various hutches, being cooped up with our rabbit families, and dealing with teaching our bunny children their lessons is getting to us all. Maybe raises for those teachers are due in the next go round, now that we understand what they go through every day. The stress is getting to all of us, and even to this rabbit, who’s used to organizing my own time.
People laughed at me back in my seminary days when I brought my appointment book to school, but I blocked off all my classes, set aside time for study, time for meals, and I only worked a half day on Saturday. Sunday I did church and watched the Cowboys, back when they really were America’s Team. I’m retired now, but I still keep a calendar of projects. Since my two art shows got cancelled, I started making masks for those who’ll be opening up shop again soon. I keep up on my pages, my sci-fi spiritual blog, and I started a new painting series, “Postcards from the Pandemic.” I’m down to working about 30 hours a week now, but I’m almost as old as the dinosaurs. The young rabbits can work the long hours and they’re welcome to them.
This May won’t be like any May we’ve ever had before. Whatever model or image you have of the “merry month of May,” you should toss it out the window and let it smash to smithereens like a precious crystal vase dropped from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We won’t be traveling there any time soon, but if you can find a high up window, your fantasies about May will crash with a resounding clash. Then you can have a good cry about it or a stiff drink, whatever suits your fancy.
Just get your rabbit mind wrapped around this idea: San Antonio has cancelled its Cinco de Mayo celebrations and the Kentucky Derby won’t run on May 4, but has deferred this premier horse race to September 5, 2020. The Indianapolis 500, a Memorial Day tradition for 104 years, has been rescheduled for Sunday, Aug. 23. These events haven’t been cancelled forevermore. They’ve merely been postponed to a future date. We can bury the small grief of our delayed gratification, and look forward to a better time in the future.
NASCAR will be the first major sport to return to television, but without fans in the stands. NASCAR will resume its season without fans starting May 17, at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina with the premier Cup Series racing four times in an 11-day span. The revised schedule for now will only race at tracks within driving distance of the Charlotte-based race teams and in states that have started reopening.
Charlotte Motor Speedway will then host the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 to mark 60 consecutive years of the longest race on the NASCAR schedule being held on Memorial Day weekend. The track in Concord, outside NASCAR’s home base of Charlotte, will then host a Wednesday race three days later. The teams won’t travel far, they won’t practice, they won’t qualify, they’ll wear face masks, practice social distancing, and the rules might be adjusted for pit stops, but when the green flag drops, those drivers will forget about these minor things because they have a race to win. Racing rabbits always go for the trophy, as in “Wreckers or Checkers! Baby, I’m using the chrome horn if you don’t get out of my way!”
Some holidays and celebrations won’t change, and we rabbits can be glad for this. I’ve often listed all the commercial holidays ginned up to advertise some food stuff or group, but not this May. My bunny nose sniffs a different wind in the air. In the interest of not working too hard, I’ve picked five good holidays and celebrations for May:
May 1—May Day—love and hope May 4—Star Wars Day—May the force be with you May 10—Mother’s Day—remember your mama! May 25—Memorial Day—honor those who died serving the USA May 25—Carry a Towel Day—homage to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Our age is seeking a new spring of life. May Day once marked the halfway point between darkness and light. It’s half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In Ireland, the pre-Christian Celtic peoples divided the year into two main seasons: Winter and the beginning of the year, which fell on November 1, and the Midyear/Summer, which began on May 1. These two junctures were thought to be critical periods when the bounds between the human and supernatural worlds were temporarily erased.
Many of us have experienced thin times, when we feel the presence of God’s spirit with us more deeply than on other occasions. For me, this is more often when I’m in nature. The great dome of the sky, the clouds lit with the glow of the sun, and the liquid light overflowing and casting its glow on the land below. I can get lost in these thin moments and forget what I’m doing and where I am. If you meet a rabbit stopped for speeding on the highway, perhaps they were in a thin moment and not really a jerk.
There are also thin places, which are places of energy, or a place where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. A thin place is where one can walk in two worlds—the worlds are fused together, knitted loosely where the differences can be discerned or tightly where the two worlds become one. These are places which have been recognized over the ages as connected with the spiritual world. Often overlaid with the most recent god of the newest inhabitants, the place retains its spiritual energy. Many temples in the ancient world were built on the sites of even more ancient holy places, only to have churches built over them even later still.
In this era of Coronavirus, we might not be using our frequent travelers miles, so we could seek an alternative thin space. The holy icons are perfect for this, for since they’re a “window into heaven,” they’re by definition a “thin place.” They usually are given a designated place in the home, called the Red Corner, for the Russian word for red and beautiful are the same. Of course, we don’t pray to the icon, and the object isn’t worshipped, for that would be idolatry. We pray to the God of the saint represented, or to the Son of God, but not to the icon itself, which is merely an outward and visible reminder of the inward and invisible spirit which connects us all to what is good and holy and communal in our socially distancing world.
On May 4th, we can say, “May the Fourth be with you,” and remember the “Force is always with us,” for every time and place can be a thin place if only we rabbits would become aware the greater power beyond us is also operating within us, for “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
We all have Mothers, who gave birth to us. Some of us also have adopted mothers, mothers who raised us, mothers who formed us in the faith, or mothers who took us under their wing and taught us how to get along in the world. Mothers today don’t have to be women, but they do have to nurture and shelter. The church has been a great mother for centuries, nurturing the poor and the marginalized through the ministries of outreach to the neighborhood and the world. These ministries haven’t stopped just because of the coronavirus, but are increasing because of job losses, homelessness, and hunger. If you have the means to share with your local food pantry, please do. Hungry rabbits depend on us.
Memorial Day weekend was for a long time a pause to honor the nation’s war dead. Then it became a three day weekend for backyard barbecues and sporting events. As the toll from the novel coronavirus pandemic in America marches past the total of Americans killed in the Vietnam War, our holidays may take on a more somber nature. For other rabbits, who have an overripe case of cabin fever, a need to break loose in a wild debacle may override their common sense. I know my rabbit friends have good sense, so even if your state flings the doors wide open to “life as usual,” common sense and expert wisdom will prevail instead. Let others test the waters on this idea, and let them be the guinea pigs to see if the curve has actually flattened.
May 25 is also Carry a Towel Day, so if we have a towel, we won’t panic. As explained in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, towels are “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” A towel has both practical value, since it can be used for warmth, shelter, a weapon, and also strangely to dry one’s body. It also had psychological value, for if a non-Hitchhiker sees you with a towel, they’ll assume you’re fully stocked with other necessities as well. The lesson I take from this is while life is serious, I shouldn’t take myself too seriously. Humor will get a rabbit through the thickets and briars of this world better than struggling against the thorns and weeds. After all, angels fly because they take themselves lightly.
I will see you next month, when the June bugs fly. Until then,
Love, Joy and Peace,
Recipe for CLASSIC MINT JULEP for a delayed Kentucky Derby, best consumed while wearing a fancy hat or elegant jacket. This recipe is adapted from “The 12 Bottle Bar,” a fun, informative cocktail recipe book by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson. To make simple syrup, pour one cup of granulated sugar or Splenda into one cup of water and slowly heat on the stove, stirring until the sugar/Splenda is dissolved. Plus a Handful of fresh mint leaves, 1 oz. simple syrup (2 tablespoons), and 2 oz. bourbon or rye, your choice (1/4 cup or 4 tablespoons).
Put the mint in a cup, preferably one made out of silver or some other metal that will keep things nice and cold, and muddle it by pressing it gently against the sides and bottom of the cup for a few seconds (use that muddler you got as a wedding present or the handle of a wooden spoon). This rabbit would use a spoon.
DO NOT MASH THE MINT. You just need to release the mint’s oils, which does not require a strenuous effort. Over-muddling will result in an overly bitter drink. Add the simple syrup. Fill the cup with crushed ice and add the bourbon. Stir gently for 30 seconds or so, until frost forms on the side of the drink. Add more ice if needed and garnish with another sprig of mint. If you don’t have metal cups, make it in any cup cup you have. The metal is traditional, however.
This is a stay at home beverage, or a split between two persons, since it exceeds the recommended one ounce per day consumption of alcoholic beverages. Enjoy responsibly.
For more information on some of the subjects mentioned above:
Change is the theme of March. We can count on the weather to vary, for old proverbs tell us, “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” The reverse holds true too. March is the boundary line between winter and spring, with the Vernal Equinox occurring March 19, 2020, at 10:50 pm Central Time.
Folklore tell us that you can balance a raw egg on its end on the equinox, something attributed to the Earth’s “balance” on that day. While this sounds like a fun activity, there’s no basis in fact that egg balancing is any easier on the equinox, according to NASA. The U.S. space agency conducted an unscientific experiment and found it was no easier to balance an egg on the equinox than on any other day. What did make it easier was finding an egg with small bumps on its shell, something that NASA said made the “seemingly impossible task achievable.”
Super Tuesday on March 3rd is the first coast to coast opportunity to select a presidential candidate to oppose the one currently in office. As I write this, every single TV commercial is a political one. We should be glad for this, for some countries don’t have this luxury. I hear a big rain event is forecast for Arkansas, so I recommend early voting, but not often voting. Remember we practice “one rabbit, one vote.” If you want to stuff a box, don’t let it be the ballot box, but fill a food drive box. While some rabbits do prosper in our economy, other rabbits still struggle due to health problems, job losses, or other difficulties in life.
Purim, beginning at sunset on March 10, marks the leadership of Queen Esther, who advocated to the king for her Jewish people, to protect them from a royal death decree back in the fourth century BCE, as told in the Book of Esther. The mark of a leader is to risk their own position to benefit those who are subject to injustice.
“For if you keep quiet at such a time as this, help and protection will come to the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Yet, who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you were made queen?” (Additions to Esther 4:14)
On March 15th we celebrate the Ides of March. The Ides are nothing more than the name the Romans gave to the middle of the month, just as we get excited about Hump Day or the Weekend. Life moved slower back in BCE, but they didn’t have the internet and were still using ink and parchment. We first find the expression ‘Beware the Ides of March’ in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1601, when the soothsayer whispers to Julius Caesar a warning of his impending death. Shakespeare also added the famous retort to Caesar’s assassins, ‘Et tu, Brute?’ History records no words from Caesar when the dictator, who was launching a series of political and social reforms, was assassinated by a group of nobles in the Senate House on the Ides of March.
Free Agency is another way to change leaders, and it’s far better plan than assassination, a practice only used in pirate and authoritarian organizations. March 18, at 4 pm ET begins the fruit basket turnover we know as Free Agency. Drew Brees and Tom Brady, quarterbacks who rank first and second on the all-time NFL passing touchdowns list, will both have the last two years of their current deals void on the eve of the new league year. While they’re the two oldest position players in pro football, new contracts in New Orleans and New England are likely. Even if those deals don’t come together, it’s possible either (or both) could retire.
In the United Methodist Church, springtime is appointment season. Clergy who’ve grown long in the tooth decide to retire, others change relationships to the annual conference due to health or geography, and then there’s the pulpits that need a pastor. While our church tends to move on a regular calendar nationwide, those denominations and congregations who call their own pastor need to seek one whenever they have a need and take the best of what’s available.
Having been born a cradle Methodist, I prefer our way of sending new leadership. As my mother used to say, in one of her many unfiltered moments, “If you don’t like the preachers in the Methodist Church, think of them like the weather. They’ll change pretty soon, but don’t get your heart attached, for they’ll have to move on elsewhere. It’s their nature.” Of course, I’m not sure my mother ever had any filtered moments, but the rabbits always knew where they stood with her.
The Ides of March may be the sifting or winnowing date for the Democrats in their presidential primaries. The magic number to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president is 1,991 delegates. It could take months to officially get there, but a total of 1,344 delegates will be allotted on Super Tuesday alone — about 33 percent of the total. Then 11 more state contests are up for grabs on March 10 and 17. By the time March 17 rolls around, 61 percent of the pledged delegates will be allotted.
We could either have a pretty good sense of who the Democratic nominee will be by the Ides of March, or the primary could still be contested, as it was in 2016. If the latter, the contests to decide the winner will happen from March 18 to June 6. Those three months will be when the remaining 39 percent of delegates will be allotted; the most important day in this stretch is April 28, when New York and Pennsylvania vote, among others.
Presidential candidates are all competing for a majority of 3,979 pledged delegates. Separately, there are also 771 automatic delegates, otherwise known as “superdelegates.” Again, it’s worth noting the biggest DNC rules changes were around superdelegates. The change stems from the tumultuous 2016 primary campaign, in which Sanders’ supporters accused the superdelegates of having too much influence over the outcome, since the overwhelming majority of them supported Clinton. That means these 771 superdelegates will not vote on the first ballot, unless there’s already a candidate with a supermajority of pledged delegates. While some hope for a contested convention, this rabbit thinks the end of the race will find fewer taking the checkered flag than after the Big One at Daytona International Speedway.
Rabbits can help us find a better leadership style. The typical Rabbit Leader has the following characteristics:
Overwhelmed and running around
Trying to do to many things at once, micromanaging
Neglecting to delegate
Always “busy” when people asked how it’s going.
Definitely “late, for a very important date.”
Work expands to fill the time available, but working harder doesn’t always mean greater rewards. Working smarter, not harder, is the better choice. If we don’t take time to reflect, plan, dream, and vision for the future, we won’t give our best efforts to endeavors. I used to tell my team I didn’t need to have all the decisions run past me, such as flowers for Sunday, the acolytes, or the ushers’ names. They had responsibilities for these and didn’t need my second guessing their choices. I have only one brain, and it’s a very small funnel. It has a tendency to get clogged if too many details get crammed into it. I kept my eye on the big picture and the team helped me keep the day to day details filled in.
The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us to be the most effective leader, we need to be our real self and allow others to love us until we’re worn from use. It isn’t easy to be vulnerable, but this is the mark of a leader.
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’ ‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit. ‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ ‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ ‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That is why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
We rabbits shouldn’t fear change, and certainly not in the month of March. We have the Romans to thank for the months of January and February. The God Janus was two faced, looking both forward and backward. February was a month of purification. March was the original first month of the Roman year. If the spring flowers and new leaves bursting forth from the frozen earth cause you to revision your goals for turning over a new leaf, now is the time for a change!
Plutarch wrote in the 1st CE, “It was also natural that Martius, dedicated to Mars, should be Romulus’s first (month) and Aprilis, named from Venus, or Aphrodite, his second month; in it they sacrifice to Venus, and the women bathe on the calends, or first day of it, with myrtle garlands on their heads. But others, because of its being p and not ph, will not allow of the derivation of this word from Aphrodite, but say it is called Aprilis from aperio, Latin for to open, because that this month is high spring, and opens and discloses the buds and flowers.”
Perhaps the greatest change in March all the rabbit denizens undergo in the neighborhood is on Saint Patrick’s Day. Suddenly everyone has kissed the Blarney Stone, or perhaps that’s the Guinness speaking. All wear a touch of green to avoid the pinch that turns them red. Every bunny is Irish for one day.
If you visit Hot Springs, Arkansas, you can attend The First Ever 17th Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, all 98 feet of Bridge Street! Foghat, the legendary rock band that created “Slow Ride” and other hits, will play a free public concert on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, immediately following the First Ever 17th Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Hot Springs.
The day prior, Blues Traveler, the legendary rock band with 13 hit albums to its credit, will play a free concert on Monday, March 16, 2020, on the eve of the First Ever 17th Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Hot Springs. And…the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, plus local floats and marching groups. The Ides of March should beware the St. Patty Party at Hot Springs National Park, which was once known as Hot Springs Reservation. It was set aside in 1832 to protect the Park’s primary resource, the hot springs. This type of Reservation was an early version of the National Park idea. Hot Springs was actually the first area in the United States to be set aside for its natural features.
Until next time, every bunny stay well, get plenty of sleep, keep washing your hands, and remember March 8th begins DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME: Spring Forward and enjoy the extra hour of daylight in the late afternoon.
Happy New Year to everyone! I like nothing better than putting an old year down for the count, cleaning off my desk, and starting fresh. While I may be the same old gal, at least I have good intentions of improving myself over the next year. Since we have an extra day in 2020, I might meet my goal! My first act in the studio was to clean my palette, since it had an accumulation of color layers. I find the old colors distracting when I want to paint a new color scheme.
I was glad to meet some new students at Oaklawn UMC, where I volunteer to teach an art class for adults on Fridays. In addition to Gail and Mike, who’ve learned my own language and now need minimal guidance, I’m blessed with some new folks who’ll get an opportunity to get out of their houses and into the creative spirit.
Exploring the creative process is a wonderful way to come close to the God who created us in God’s own image. Since God is always creating, we who’re made in this image are also creating. Sometimes we make art, design homes, style our clothing choices, or plant gardens. Also we’re making families, cooking meals, or building birdhouses. Even in our sleep, we create a dreamworld unlike anything anyone else can imagine. We’re all artists, but most people quit thinking they can “do art” about the age of eight. This Is a sad commentary on peer pressure, but it also reflects our society’s preference for professional specialists. We tend to identify talent early and track students accordingly.
The practice of making art is beneficial at any age. Our goal doesn’t have to become the next Picasso or Michelangelo. In art class we learn new skills and put them to use in our own unique solution. This bolsters problem-solving skills and satisfaction that we can take into everyday life. I always tell my classes, “I expect everyone to find a different solution, since you’re all different personalities.” They never disappoint me!
Art class gets us out of the house, so we’re not looking at our own four walls. It can help alleviate boredom and keep our minds busy, and may even help prevent feelings of depression. It also helps with hand-eye coordination, cognitive abilities, and concentration.
I’ve always subscribed to the “works righteousness” school of teaching art: those who work will improve more than those don’t. If we keep on working, over time, we’ll show improvements. This will foster self-esteem and self-awareness and cultivate emotional resilience. We have to trust the process.
When we critique a work, it’s not to criticize or only to give negative feedback. A work always has positive aspects, those parts which meet the goals of the day, and negative aspects, or room for improvement. Approached in this manner, students can grow in their skills because the critique reduces and resolves conflicts and distress, which comes from being judged, and it helps to promote insight into their work for the future. As an aside, it might even enhance social skills, if they begin to speak this way in their own conversations outside of class.
Art class isn’t about being the best artist in the room. It’s about the connections between creative choices we make and our inner life. Too many of us are so busy taking care of others, we haven’t time to listen to God or to ourselves. If we take two hours on a Friday to do this, we can touch the part of us that yearns to speak within the silence, and give voice to the creative spirit within our lives.
I hope I assigned the correct name to each person’s art. I may be old and could claim “sometimer’s disease,” but I have the school teacher’s DNA which causes me to mangle my students’ names for the first month. I’ve done this since I was in my 20’s, so I might be incurable. I can edit this, however, if I’ve accused folks wrongly. Doing Art is wonderful, for we learn from our mistakes, so they bring us closer to perfection, rather than diminishing our goodness.
The heat of summer hasn’t yet passed, even though we’re past “seasonal summer” and are almost at “meteorological fall.” Yes, the autumnal Equinox is almost upon us, arriving on September 23, at 2:50 am CDT. Even though the term means “equal night,” the day is longer than 12 hours on an equinox because Earth’s atmosphere refracts sunlight. Why does day insist on exceeding its boundaries, you ask, and not be content with with “equality?”
Refraction, or bending of the light, causes the Sun’s upper edge to be visible from Earth several minutes before the edge actually reaches the horizon. The same thing happens at sunset, when you can see the sun for several minutes after it has actually dipped under the horizon. This causes every day on Earth – including the days of the equinoxes—to be at least 6 minutes longer than it would have been without this refraction. The extent of refraction also depends on atmospheric pressure and temperature. It’s the nature of days to want to be longer, or if they’re like my little girl, to want one more story or just one more drink of water before the lights go out for nighty night.
This is the season of sunflowers, and they bring light inside when we want to keep the shades down or the curtains drawn to keep the hot sun from cooking our dwellings and driving up our air conditioning bills. I’d bought some blooms to brighten my home and enjoyed them while I repainted my condo. They died during this weeklong endeavor. Afterwards I took a break from wall painting to do some canvas painting. I decided to paint the dying sunflowers.
Van Gogh painted numerous sunflowers, often in vases, but he also painted canvases of the flowers with no background or container. One had double heads, but the other larger one had four life sized dried heads and is approximately 24” x 39.” He painted it between August and October, 1887. Van Gogh often painted flowers to practice color combinations. Some think he saw the sunflower as a symbol for the bright sun of the south of France, the light of which permeates his paintings. His friend and art colleague, Paul Gauguin traded his work for one of Vincent’s dried sunflower paintings.
Van Gogh’s Four Dried Sunflower Heads
Doing a homage to a masterpiece helps an artist grow. The artists of old never worried about their “brand” or “style,” for they made the art they needed to make. It also helps to identify areas the artist needs to develop, such as color combinations, design, drawing, negative vs. positive space, texture of paint, and light vs. dark. Because the artists aren’t invested in “their own motifs or symbols,” they can concentrate on these focused areas.
Of course, none of us can make an exact copy, for we don’t bring the emotions or vision of the original creator to the piece. This is especially true if we use live objects rather than making a direct copy of the original painting. Not many of us have the intensity of Van Gogh’s short and chaotic life. I’m not given to sticking with natural color, so my five sunflowers all have different seed heads, rather than the same brown. The stems change color, but not as much as Van Gogh’s painting.
We can aspire to perfection, but attaining perfection is difficult. All artists and creative types have to learn to deal with this incongruity of life and work. Even in the spiritual life, we can know the truth that sets us free, but live a life in bondage, for we don’t allow God to work in our lives and set us free. It’s as if we can know the laws of perspective, but not execute them on the paper, with the result our drawings of buildings look out of sort.
I make a painting, hang it on my wall, and I can almost immediately see room for improvement. Sometimes I work some more on it, other times, I call it good for now, and go on to the next canvas. A year or so later, I might repaint it, or cut it up and reweave it into a new opportunity for creativity. This sunflower poem by William Blake speaks to the aspirations of our earthly journeys for their ultimate destination with the holy.
By William Blake
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
Of course, we don’t need to die to unite with the holy, for we can become one with God when we dedicate our lives to loving God and neighbor with all our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits. Doing art is a form of meditation, for if you focus on the image before you and the act of painting, you aren’t thinking of politics, eating, paying bills, hurricanes, or family problems.
“Doing it right” means losing track of time, learning from your mistakes, and keeping a positive mental attitude. It also means giving yourself some grace, for your desire to do better is only a challenge, not a barrier. It’s also what fuels your energy to get up every day to say, “What beauty can I bring to the world today?”
Don’t worry about perfection, but keep on painting or creating! Each day is another step towards your ultimate goal. We can’t climb Mt. Everest if we don’t leave home and travel to Tibet. Like the ancient desert dwellers, we travel by stages, from one oasis to another. Sometimes we rest a bit at each place, as we gather strength for the next part of the journey. Picasso, Rembrandt, and other famous artists developed several styles along the way, since they lived long lives. Those artists’ lives whose were cut short didn’t have such an opportunity.
May you live long and splash joyful color throughout your days,
How many colors exist in creation? Many more than we can buy in a tube at the art supply store and even more than the number of paint chips at our local building supply store. Recently I gave my adult art class an assignment to use their primary colors and white only to mix new colors, since I noticed they were not getting middle values in their paintings. I too enjoy the brightness of the primary colors, so this was also a challenge for me.
Power of the Cross
The following week I needed to do less geometry and more nature, but I came back to the cross theme once again, for these flowers are from a photo of the Easter “Living Cross” at my church. While we can’t see the arms of the cross, anymore than we can see Jesus today, we know the cross is there, just as we know Jesus is present for us in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This makes Christ alive, not only in our hearts, but also in the lives of all who suffer: the poor, the immigrant or stranger in our land, and the oppressed. Even the land itself, which suffers from human caused climate change, can be a place where we meet the living Christ.
The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem is a powerful place, for it was where Christ was handed over to his captors by a former friend. From there he went to death on the cross and resurrection for our salvation. This garden retains this energy of struggle: Jesus prayed to get his will in line with God’s will.
If the story ended here, we’d have no living crosses full of beautiful flowers on Easter Sunday. Out of pain and struggle comes great beauty. Most of us will avoid any challenge in our lives, thinking the easy way is the best way. Intentionally causing others to suffer pain isn’t acceptable for moral reasons: “do no harm” is a good adage, as is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Setting achievable goals and challenges are different. These cause us to grow. They may also cause us discomfort, but this isn’t pain.
On this canvas, Spring Flowers, I had to overpaint and scumble to create the textured grays of the background. I even had to repaint the wispy border flowers several times to get their petals colored and straight, plus to get the ground varied enough to make them stand out.
One of the artists I most admire is Picasso, for he was always reinventing his style. Today artists pick a style and stick with it. Perhaps this is lucrative and makes economic sense. Still, I wonder what happens to the creative spirit when it’s not nurtured, challenged, and expressed. Of course, this may be the difference between a great artist and a good artist, and only the centuries will tell which among us now will be great.
We had a bright taste of spring in last Friday’s art class with the yellow daffodils from Gail’s yard. She and Mike have come a long way in their powers of observation and rendering. They take their time to see, study, and really observe intentionally whatever objects are before them. These two students have been to most of the 26 classes to date, beginning back in June 2018. They’ve come a long way.
We can get lost in the busyness of the world with all the competing claims for our attention, but if we take our time, breathe, look for the most important things first, and then deal with the details, we’ll usually have a better outcome. This is an art studio principle we can carry over into life.
I happen to be doing something entirely different. It’s a woven painting, from two old works I’m no longer keeping. As part of my recycled/resurrection series, it belongs to a theme of change. In Luke 9:51, we hear
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up,
he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Sometimes we have to set our minds on what God wants for us and deal with the consequences. As we head into Lent, I recognize as a teacher most students today don’t want to suffer, but want the prize of achievement without the sweat of practice. Some say 10,000 hours is the mythical threshold to acquire competency.
Will we then all be Leonardo’s, Picasso’s, or Monet’s? Some of us will work 100,000 hours and still be ourselves, but we’ll be so much more than we were when we began! It’s like the Christian life: if we aren’t intentional about giving ourselves into God’s service, we won’t practice it often enough to grow in love and grace.
I had a dream about this image I’m working on now. Jesus knows the cross is before him. He’s already seen it in his mind. When he goes down to Jerusalem for the Passover, things won’t go well for him. He can go to fulfill his mission or turn tail and run. The prelude to his ministry was the temptation in the desert, which we remember during Lent. He goes forward to the certainty of his ministry and also his death and resurrection.
DeLee—Face Set Towards Jerusalem”
Those of us who like Easter, but not Good Friday, will one day have to deal with suffering: our own, someone’s we love, or the suffering of humanity. We can’t escape suffering, for it’s part of the human condition. Some of it we choose, like training for sports, but some is visited upon us unkindly, such as the dread illnesses and wars of our world. Some were born into suffering by geographic location, and this causes mass refugee populations to move across national borders in search of hope and opportunity.
When we’re painting these pretty pictures of flowers, we can think of those who have put their hope in God’s hands and remember we are Christ’s hands in God’s world.
My weaving is a dream image of a transformational point in time when you see what is both before you and behind you. You choose to go ahead anyway, even knowing the consequences. Both the hero and the artist have to risk the danger. Otherwise we’ll paint pretty canvases for nice homes and be the Christians who wear our decorative crosses, but we’ll never bear the cross for the sake of Christ, his kingdom, and the better world God calls us to recreate.
The Christian life calls each of us to be a hero, one who suffers on behalf of another. If our lives are too easy, we aren’t walking like Christ. We aren’t called to suffer at the hands of another, or to be harmed by others, but there’s a real need in our lives for “structured and guided suffering in a safe environment,” such as learning a new skill or getting outside of our comfort zone.
Flowers please us because of their colors and forms, but also because of their fleeting beauty. While the class was painting, I threw some colors on an old canvas. It is a sketch, since never got to the dark accents of the petals. The paint was wet, so I would have had mud, not two distinct colors!
In our weekly adult painting class at church, we talked about Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Gauguin’s friendship with him, and how other artists have approached the subject of flowers. Not painting every petal or detail, but capturing the energy and emotion of the flowers is more important.
This requires a leap of faith! Of course, if we aren’t sure of how to mix a color, or how to draw a shape or make a form, a student is loathe to move off a safe path. Van Gogh had this struggle also. His early paintings were dark and lacking the energy of his late works.
Still Life with Earthenware, Bottle, and Clogs
Van Gogh, Sunflowers
Unfortunately some of Van Gogh’s most iconic floral artworks in the Van Gogh Museum, painted in 1888 and 1889, are now facing the test of time.
Vincent Van Gogh painted his iconic Sunflowers in vibrant yellows and golds, but after 130 years, his bright lemon-yellow hues have begun to wilt into a brown muddle. A new X-ray study confirms what researchers and art lovers have long suspected: Van Gogh’s paints are fading over time. In 2011, Sarah Zielinski at Smithsonian.com reported that chemists were looking into how the old colors were holding up. They found exposure to UV light—both from sunlight and the halogen lamps used to illuminate paintings in some museum galleries—had led to oxidation of some paint pigments, causing them to change color.
A 2016 study looked deeper into the matter to find one of the bright yellow paints Van Gogh liked, a mix between yellow lead chromate and white lead sulfate, was particularly unstable. Under UV light, the unstable chromate changed states and the sulfates began to clump together, dulling the color. Unfortunately, the process is not currently preventable. Currently, the darkening of the paint and the wilting of the sunflowers is not visible to the naked eye.
As the book of James (1:11) reminds us about impermanence:
“For the sun rises with its scorching heat
and withers the field;
its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.”
In class, we talked about light permanence and pigment choice. If we want to make works of art for posterity, we should choose pigments able to stand up to the test of time. I choose lightfastness I when I work. Likewise, if we are going to be in business or relationships, we want to use the highest ethical principles so we can have long lasting interactions and high quality products. Cutting corners with people or resources will always come home to roost eventually.
The rest of the verse in James continues,
“It is the same way with the rich;
in the midst of a busy life,
they will wither away.”
Of course, if we put God first in our lives, rather than our own priorities, we will pay attention to the “first things,” and fading away like a sunflower will be the least of our worries.
Joy and Peace,
To read the whole discussion on paint discoloration and how museums are conserving art works to prevent further damage from light read: