Autumn is just around the corner: I know this in my heart of hearts. My friends, who have lost hope in this endless pandemic, tell me, “It’s heat stress, nothing more.” I persist in my belief the bright yellow leaves scattered among the green canopies and the orange and red tinged foliage are the harbingers of the cool breezes of fall.
When the thermometer kisses 100 F and the heat factors have blown past that number like a NASCAR driver taking a hot lap for the pole position, my body only wants to swill decaf iced tea and stay close to the air conditioning. When I taught art back in Louisiana, my art rooms were in an old wooden shotgun shack. It wasn’t air conditioned because “it’s tradition, so it won’t be air conditioned, no matter how much you ask for it.” Private schools have their “traditions,” some of which aren’t healthy for either the teachers or the students.
Two days into the school year, I fainted from the heat. A visit to the nurse’s station got me glasses of sugary iced tea and cold compresses, plus it was air conditioned. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Someone drove me to my dad’s office in the Medical Arts building across from the hospital. I got the once over and was sent home to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and not go outside. My couch never looked so good to me. Mom and dad even kept my little girl so I could rest.
I learned later I had a brush with death. Passing out with other people there allowed me to be helped. People who are alone in the heat aren’t so fortunate. Heat can kill a person. The hurricane Ida is already taking out the utilities in south Louisiana, which means they might not be back for weeks. The hospitals full of Covid patients hope to have ten days of power and food, but that’s just to get them through until relief supplies can roll in.
I actually repainted this canvas a second time, since I wasn’t thoroughly pleased with it on the first go round. The Airport image above is the first incarnation of this painting. While I don’t mind the colors in the ground, the overall texture of the work didn’t appeal to my senses and the runway with its numeral stuck out like a sore thumb. It was either going into the trash bin of my work, or I’d leave it alone long enough to find the inspiration to cure it.
Painting is a journey in itself, as the white canvas disappears under the brushstrokes of color. We can think of a pristine sand beach in the early morning, and its well marked surface erased by the high tide under the moonlight, only to be marked again when the sun rises. As Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister in the 19th century once said:
“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
Sometimes we can better solve a problem by ignoring it, for the the problem will find its own solution. Trying to impose our solution upon it just leads to more death, but not to life. Letting the painting come into being in its own time is a better choice, for it can’t be born before its time. In the spiritual life, kairos time is God’s time, while chronos is human time. When we work on deadlines or punch a clock, we operate on chronological, human time, but if we wait for the inspiration from the divine energy, we’re operating in the God moment, or the propitious moment for decision or action.
Along my life journey, I’ve made some unique handmade preaching stoles. When I decided I no longer had use for them in retirement, I decided to cut them up. This is why some of the pieces are the same rectangular size, such as the gold and silver diamonds pattern with the blue and white diagonal stripe in the upper left corner. Some of the pieces are the backings, and others are deconstructed sections. I incorporated several types of gold: acrylic paint, embroidery thread, and a metallic candy wrapper. I also used multiple textures of lace and fabric, some of which I overpainted. All of these come from recycled fabrics. In life, nothing is wasted.
Perhaps this no longer looks like a map of an airport, but more like a place remembered in a dream, when one wants to travel on the whiff of a breeze, which has brought a half remembered smell of a time in the past or a love long lost. Autumn can bring those memories to mind, as well as our hopes for a more beautiful future, for just as a leaf flutters free from its tree, our thoughts can fly away: golden leaves on silver breezes.
Look for the golden leaves, my friends, and let them call to mind those of fond memory and the dreams of journeys yet to come.
A cognitive map is a representative expression of an individual’s knowledge about the spatial and environmental relations of geographic space. Everyone has a unique relationship to his or her own environment, so each person’s cognitive map is different. I learned this the hard way back before the advent of GPS. Folks would give me directions to their homes in the days when I would make sales calls or later on when I’d make a pastoral visit. It didn’t help that some gave me landmarks like “go past the barn that used to be green,” or “turn left where the old trailer used to be.” I’d clear my throat and reply, “What color is that barn now and what took the place of the old trailer?” Often they couldn’t say, for their internal map was based on old programming and not the latest update. Some people still use their old flip phones, like Mark Harmon on NCIS, but that’s his quirk. They can get around, but it’s hard to get others to come on board with these old ideas.
Everyone’s map is different, for sure, but for some of us, the landmarks can change, but our memories aren’t replaced. Some people are like me, who get lost in a tea cup, so I’m unsure of where I am at any given time. This may be why I give some the impression I’m a tad “spacey.” Others can steer a sure and certain course at any time of the day or night to make their way home, like a carrier pigeon with an important message for those who await their arrival. Once I was riding with the men from the West Helena Church to the Methodist Camp for a meeting. I always liked the Methodist Men’s meetings, for they had steaks and other real food, not dainty salads like the women’s groups. Night was coming on and rural roads in the Arkansas Delta look much like one another in the gloom. Our driver could tell I was uncomfortable.
“What’s the matter, preacher?” “I’ve only been to the camp in the daytime. This doesn’t feel right to me, somehow.”
“You know we all grew up hunting in these woods and rice fields. We know these places like the back of our hands.” “I know. I also know I always get lost every time I go somewhere by myself.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about getting lost tonight! We’ll get you there and back.” “It’s probably better you’re driving, since we don’t want to miss supper.”
They laughed. They all had a much better cognitive map of their home county than I did, since they had spent their whole lives there and I’d only spent three years. Of course I grew up in my home town and even there I still managed to get confused about places, so I’m not sure my living anywhere longer would have filled out my cognitive map with more details.
Characteristics of Cognitive Maps:
Diverse in nature and purpose. Cognitive mapping is used in a broad range of disciplines for a variety of purposes. Cognitive maps are the most general type of mental-model visualization.
No restrictions on structure or form. Cognitive maps don’t have to adhere to a specific format. Thus, they’re often abstract and have no consistent hierarchy. They’re flexible and can accommodate a wide set of concepts or situations that need to be represented.
I usually get lost in a teacup, and my typical travel technique is to drive in the general direction of my goal and then circle it until I have it surrounded. I once drove to Springfield, Missouri to find the hospital there. Once I saw the blue H sign, I took the highway exit, and drove until I began to see a multitude of fast food shops along with drug stores and medical uniform shops. Once I saw physicians’ offices, I knew I was close. Then the height of the hospital building was unmistakable. I knew it would be located in this area, for my cognitive map of every city told me “this is how a hospital district is arranged.”
I’m not a direct point to point person, a fact which drives most of my friends crazy. They also insist on driving when we go places, so I guess they don’t like my usual scenic route. I’m well aware most people’s minds aren’t like mine, so I design my sermons so they can be understood by the greatest number, most of whom are logical or literal thinkers, who like one point to build upon another. This has always been a growth area for me, much like navigating directly to a destination. Yet I’ve always arrived (to everyone’s amazement) and somehow I’ve also found a sermon that didn’t put everyone to sleep. (Those who stayed out all night at the drag races sometimes gave me a challenge to preach in between their intermittent snores, but I digress.)
For instance, when I used to prepare my sermons, I often put notes on a legal pad throughout the week. Other ideas would percolate up to my consciousness and I would jot those down too. I would write some clarifying remarks out to the side and connect them to an idea already on the page. Sometimes I’d draw a circle around an idea, or enclose it in a box to make sure I’d emphasize it. Later in the week I’d number those ideas as to their prominence or order of presentation. This would go on throughout the week as I blindly drew the cognitive map of my sermon for Sunday from the depths of my heart and mind.
I couldn’t bring it in this form for my congregation, however, so I’d have to sit down to make sense of it. In other words, I needed to produce a map or outline of such clarity, a blind person could find their way to the main point of the sermon with ease. Once I got it in this form, it was a strong enough armament to hang a sermon upon. I could elaborate these points with Bible verses and illustrations from life. Then I’d sometimes chop a few limbs off, just to keep from driving in circles, but this is how I mapped out my sermons every week to get people from point A to point B without getting lost along the way. I never learned this direct method to travel in a car, however.
One of the earliest extant maps is the T and O map, first created by Isidore of Seville in 600 AD. It was an early attempt to envision the world on paper. The T in the circle represents the Mediterranean Sea, which partitioned the 3 continents Asia, Africa and Europe.
Most of us are more familiar with maps of city streets, state highways and byways, as well as world maps. If we visit the museums, or do a Google search, we can find interesting antique maps of how our ancestors viewed the world. The British Library has some of the oldest maps in its collection These images are surrounded by water, since people hadn’t sailed across the ocean yet. This world map comes from a beautifully illuminated copy of Beatus of Liébana’s ‘Commentary on the Apocalypse of St John’, a religious text from the 8th century held in high esteem by medieval Christians. This copy was made at the Spanish Monastery of San Domingo de Silos in 1106, a time when the monastery’s scriptorium was producing some of its finest work.
In this old map, Adam and Eve are shown with the serpent against a dark green background representing the verdant Garden of Eden. It’s a picture of a world centered round the Mediterranean Sea virtually unchanged since the 8th century and reflects an even older world-view inherited from Roman times. Beyond the Red Sea is a hint of an undiscovered fourth continent that some ancient thinkers, such as Pliny, the 1st-century Roman author, had suggested must exist in order to balance the known land masses of Europe, Asia and Africa.
In my mixed media cognitive maps, I’ve kept the primary city streets, but selected only the geographic and architectural details which had meaning for me. I’ve used left over fabrics from the Covid masks I’ve made, old needlepoint seat covers from my parent’s garage, and antique crochet my grandmother made that she never sewed onto a pillowcase. I’ve often said, I’m going to “get around to it” and do something with these souvenirs from my ancestors, but this pandemic might not last that long. Also, I have other more pressing and exciting projects to pursue.
The pandemic has tossed my well conceived notions of how I live my life right out the window. Confined to my home, I longed to travel and to wander the city streets as I did in the days before Covid. While I had the grounds of my condominium property to explore, it wasn’t enough. When I began to look at the Google maps of the sites I’d painted before, I noticed I liked the patterns of the satellite views. Sketching out colors and shapes on the images saved from my iPad, I started making some preliminary works. Then I found some old paintings that no longer pleased me and began to rework them with maps of places which have meaning for me.
Now we’re a year and a half into the Covid emergency, but for some of us, our cognitive maps haven’t yet changed. Goldman Sacs estimates the United States would save $1 trillion in healthcare costs with a nationwide mask mandate, whereas hospitalizations nationwide cost $24 billion. We could save many lives, especially those of our vulnerable, youngest children. We also will need to vaccinate the whole world, for this plague knows no boundaries. Until all are safe, no one is safe.
I don’t have the type of mind that can conceive of a worldview in which I abdicate my responsibilities toward my neighbor. I’m too steeped in the biblical worldview, in which God calls Cain to account for killing his brother Abel, but Cain answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s answer is “Absolutely!” The Hebrew ancestors once trusted in their Temple to protect them, rather than God. When the Babylonians took them into exile, they had to get a new vision, or a new cognitive map, of who they were as God’s people, for they had once tied God to the land of Israel only.
Ezekiel had a vision in which God spoke to him in a desert valley of dried bones:
“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” (37:4-6)
When our world changes, we either have to live in exile and despair or we can live in the power and presence of God. If we have a hope to return to our ancestral home, in our case, “the precovid era,” we have to survive this uncertain time. When this crisis passes, we’ll discover on our return the Temple needs rebuilding, the infrastructure of the city needs repairs, and the houses need care to become homes again. We’ll need communities to care for one another, especially for the weakest and the least of our brothers and sisters who live on the margins of society. Perhaps we shouldn’t go back to how “things used to be,” but use this crisis as an opportunity to create new visions for new maps, the maps which represent a better world for all humanity.
Can you believe we’re almost halfway through 2021? My how time flies when you’re having fun! And to think only a year or so ago, we thought our lives were going to be locked up behind closed doors forever and a day! Amazing how following good hand washing practices, not congregating in large groups, and wearing masks managed to stem the larger transmission of this deadly pandemic in most areas, until we could begin getting shots in people’s arms. Now that about half of Americans are vaccinated, the summer months are looking “like the good ole summertime” of memory.
Folks are going en masse on vacation and indulging their pent up travel bug by plane, car, and train, as well as bus and cruise ship. I live in a tourist town, so a goodly number of the 34 million people who kicked off the summer vacation season by traveling in a car are jamming our city streets. We’re thankful for them, however, for they spend money at the local hotels and restaurants, and that means the folks who work there can support their families. The City of Hot Springs has 38,468 people, while Garland County has 96,371. We have year round visitors, with more enjoying our hospitality in the spring and summer. Annually over 2.1 million people visit us to hold conventions, reunions, weddings, and vacations in our fair, historic town. Some days you can’t stir them with a stick. You’d think this was Times Square in New York City, or a rabbit farm.
But I digress. Those who visit us here in the Ozarks seem to be better mannered than those who travel elsewhere. Perhaps because they drive here, they refrain from alcohol until they arrive, unlike the airline passengers who’ve gained their fifteen minutes of infamy on social media and a lifetime ban from traveling on the friendly skies of the major airlines. No one will miss these bad actors on airplanes in these early days of recovering from the pandemic. Instead, we might want to recover some “good old summertime events and activities” in their place.
Vacation Bible School
One of my fondest memories from childhood was Vacation Bible School. I looked forward to it each year for the arts and crafts projects, the singing, and the snacks. I might have remembered the teachings, but I liked being with my friends from across town, who went to other schools. We could see more of each other during VBS. Children who attended my home church always created a traditional craft, the plaster hand cast. I made one in the 1950’s when I put my right hand into a pie plate full of quickset plaster. After it dried, I was allowed to pick one color to paint it. In the 1980’s, my daughter made the same craft, but she could paint it any way she wanted; she always fancied rainbows.
The Helping Hand
If I learned anything in Bible School, it’s we’re called to give our hands to God’s service for good for all, especially for the weak and defenseless. Also, no hand is too small to serve God. The good news is even if VBS isn’t able to be held inside at one place with the usual songs, skits, and crafts, it could always be held in a park, in a parking lot, or by traveling from backyard to backyard in carpools, or “car pods” as we call them today.
Another fond memory is the neighborhood lemonade or Kool-Aid stand. As I recall, this endeavor was never profitable, but it kept us out of trouble for at least an entire afternoon. If we kids managed to keep our noses clean that long, it was likely a world record. Our parents were glad for the peace and quiet, and the opportunity for adult conversation. We kids worked together to solve our own problems and overcome any obstacles to our sales project. Of course, my brothers usually retorted to my suggestions, “You’re not the boss of me!” To which I’d reply, “But I’m older and I know better!” We’d hash it out and find a middle way.
Sometime in the middle of summer I’d get a break from those ornery brothers and get to go to camp. At first it was YWCA Day Camp, then Church Camp at an old Works Project Administration lake, and on to tent camping with the Girl Scouts. While the water might taste like iron in places, if I were thirsty, I’d drink it gladly. Some places we built our own tables with tree limbs and ropes. I learned knot tying and cooperation out in the woods. I also learned how to cook an entire meal in the coals of a fire by wrapping it in tinfoil. As my daddy would say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
Speaking of Fathers, a major holiday for all rabbits is Father’s Day on June 20th. We all have a father who has guided us in the good paths of life, even if this person wasn’t our birth or adoptive father. Often it’s another outside the family unit, such as a teacher, a coach, a pastor or lay leader in our faith tradition. For those rabbits among us who had distressing experiences with their fathers, this is a fraught day, for our past memories can color current events and relationships. If we cannot change our past, we can change how the past affects our present and our future. This is part of the healing process by which we face the pains of the past and gain power over the memories so we can have a better future not only for ourselves, but also for the next generation. Otherwise, our pain can become an unwelcome generational inheritance.
Just as soldiers returning from wars have to put aside the mental and physical wounds of wartime with medical and psychological help, anyone who has suffered abuse at the hands of a father figure also needs healing. PTSD help available through the VA for everyone. They have apps available at the link below anyone can access, but nothing takes the place of a human professional. Your health care provider or clergy person can refer you.
Of course, for fathers, the meaning of “manhood” is always in question, as American historian Timothy Marr wrote in American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia (Sage Reference Publication 1st edition) that in the holiday’s early decades, men ‘scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products — often paid for by the father himself.'” We usually gave Dad a necktie, or handkerchiefs. These are gifts going the way of the dodo bird, so my guess today’s equivalent is sports equipment or tech wearables.
National Iced Tea Day
We have the hot summer of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair to thanks for the popularity of iced tea. In fact, if you believe the tales, more new American foods were invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, than during any other single event in history. The list includes the hamburger, the hot dog, peanut butter, iced tea, the club sandwich, cotton candy, and the ice cream cone, to name just a few.
By the First World War, Americans were buying tall glasses, which became commonly known as iced-tea glasses, long spoons suitable for stirring sugar into taller glasses and lemon forks. Prohibition, which ran from 1920 to 1933, helped boost the popularity of iced tea as Americans looked at alternatives to drinking beer, wine and hard liquor, which were made illegal during this period. Cold tea first appeared in the early nineteenth century when cold green tea punches spiked with booze gained in popularity. Recipes for “punches” began appearing in English and American cookbooks, and called for green tea, rather than the black tea consumed by most Americans today.
In 2003, Georgia State Representative John Noel introduced a House Bill proposing that all Georgia restaurants that serve tea be required to serve sweet tea. It was done apparently as an April Fool’s Day joke. Noel is said to have acknowledged that the bill was an attempt to bring humor to the Legislature, but wouldn’t mind if it became law. This is certainly better legislation than some of the recent laws Georgia and other southern states have passed recently to combat the imaginary boogeyman of a stolen election and voter fraud, although there were zero instances of voter fraud in Georgia in 2020, and only 20 total instances in the conservative Heritage Center Voter Fraud Data Base. The ancient, well worn wisdom is “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.”
We meet the middle of our astrological year on the summer solstice, which will occur on June 20, at 10:32 pm CDT in the USA. The most famous solstice site is certainly Stonehenge, in England. The stone settings at Stonehenge were built at a time of “great change in prehistory,” says English Heritage, “just as new styles of ‘Beaker’ pottery and the knowledge of metalworking, together with a transition to the burial of individuals with grave goods, were arriving from Europe. From about 2400 BC, well furnished Beaker graves such as that of the Amesbury Arche are found nearby”.
Perhaps in American society we’re at a turning point, just as the days are approaching the summer solstice. It’s as if we’ve been on a roller coaster carnival ride on the ups and downs, and now we’ve chugged our way up to the very heights. We’re ready to throw our hands up over our heads and scream all the way home and get off the ride ready to go again. We can’t forget the rest of the world beyond our shores, for if we don’t defeat the virus abroad, it will come back to carry us on the roller coaster ride again. Besides, the generosity of the American spirit calls us to heal the nations of the world, for the good of all.
The summer solstice is the longest day of the year of the year, so all good bunnies should remember to reapply sunscreen every few hours if you’re playing in pools or running through sprinklers or enjoying the waves on a sandy beach. A hat is also good. Don’t forget to drink lots of water, for the warm breezes can dry you out, the activity can tire you out, and then you get cranky in the afternoon. Take a nap in the afternoon, or just rest inside in a cool place and read a book. Don’t wait till August to do your whole summer reading program. You’ll thank your old teacher rabbit for this suggestion, as the days begin to dwindle down again and routines require relearning.
I’m in the middle of a condo renovation, so I’ve got very busy rabbits coming and going, with hammering and banging noises all day long. We’re down to the bathroom now, so sometimes I have water and sometimes I don’t, but at least I live near others who can open their homes to me. We’ve all been isolated for the past year, so some of us may take time to lower the walls and learn to once again to trust one another. Not everyone should get the welcome mat, especially unvaccinated persons. Yet hope is on the horizon, for two of the main vaccines have sought full approval from the FDA, and children 12 and above can get the vaccine now.
As we rabbits always say, “Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” ~~ Psalms 30:4-5
Every nation has its Golden Age. Usually, it’s a bye gone time, located in the dim past, and remembered faintly only by the oldest of the old. My Golden Age is my childhood, for I spent much unfettered time out in nature, whether it was in the backyard, the neighborhood, or at camp. I was so excited about camp, I would lay out my clothes for day camp, and pack my dad’s old army duffle bag a whole month in advance for week long camp. Mother would see this overstuffed cylinder, and laugh, “What are you planning on wearing between now and then?” My excitement and my planning didn’t always get all the facts together.
Going out into nature has always revived my soul, even as a child. Walking under trees, beside a lake, and sleeping with the sounds of the wild places instead of civilization has always appealed to me. If I have a choice between traveling on a major highway or on a back road, I often choose the back road. Today with GPS, we know how far the next gasoline station or rest stop will be. The back roads often have the most interesting sites and sights. The main highways are efficient, but the little roads retain their charm.
Whenever I longed for the gentler days and the healing powers of nature, I would seek out the back roads of Arkansas. Sometimes I would get into my car and drive until I found the solace of the natural world. If I got lost, it didn’t matter, for I had no particular place to go. I would find the place I was meant to discover, as Aldous Huxley, the English writer said, “The goal in life is to discover that you’ve always been where you were supposed to be.”
I’ve always trusted the word of the prophet Isaiah (58:11):
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Of course, those who know my navigating skills might question how I ever found my way anywhere. The secret is all small roads lead to a larger road. Also, if I ever grew concerned, I’d stop and ask for directions back to the big highway. I’ve met some interesting folks by getting lost, just as I’ve found some beautiful landscapes. I’ve never been in such a hurry I can’t stop and take a photo. These images I use for inspiration for future paintings. I took this photo by the roadside off interstate 30 west, near Texas 44 west, near Simms, Texas, in 2014.
While the flowers by the side of this road were only yellow, I decided to add in notable reds and blues, since those are well known colors from Texas also. These primary colors represent lazy Susans, Indian paintbrush, and bluebells. The wind and light in the trees were beginning to freshen up, a true sign of spring on the plains. The whole is full of light and has the promise of the new life and hope, which every spring brings to those who find renewal in nature. William Allingham, an English Poet of the 19th century, wrote a poem called “Wayside Flowers.”
Pluck not the wayside flower,
It is the traveller’s dower;
A thousand passers-by
Its beauties may espy,
May win a touch of blessing
From Nature’s mild caressing.
The sad of heart perceives
A violet under leaves
Like sonic fresh-budding hope;
The primrose on the slope
A spot of sunshine dwells,
And cheerful message tells
Of kind renewing power;
The nodding bluebell’s dye
Is drawn from happy sky.
Then spare the wayside flower!
It is the traveller’s dower.
When we speak of a dower, this is a treasure or endowment gifted to a future visitor who passes by. Because of this, all travelers should respect the wildflowers and leave them in situ. All living organisms need to reproduce. Digging up wildflowers, picking wildflowers, or collecting their seed will reduce a plant’s ability to reproduce and will adversely affect its long-term survival in that location. Removing wildflowers from the wild can have a detrimental affect on pollinators and other animals that depend on that species for food and cover. Removing wildflowers from our national forests and grasslands prevents other visitors from enjoying our natural heritage. Most wildflowers when dug from their natural habitat do not survive being transplanted.
Every nation has its Golden Age, an idyllic past in which all her citizens were supremely confident, filled with energy and enthusiasm and utterly convinced that their country provided the heights of artistic, scientific, and civic achievement for all. The Greeks had their Golden Age after the Persian Wars with the building of the great architectural monuments on the Acropolis, the morality and philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and their followers, as well as the physician Hippocrates, who’s considered the father of western medicine. “Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now,” remarked Pericles, the Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens during the Golden Age.
America had her Golden Age also, that period time we know as the post-World War II economic boom when manufacturing and employment were at their peak. Many people my age wonder why these present times don’t continue the past prosperity, but most forget our world economy has changed, especially since the 1980’s. To give an example, I had friends in the oil business back in Louisiana. They let the roughnecks go and they went out into the fields to take their place. At the same time, when oil prices were so low, the private school where I taught art let me go, since they considered my subject an elective. The art classroom was the only place some students could achieve and find positive affirmation during the school day, but the school would oversee the increased discipline needs. Even during this decade, employers were cutting jobs and asking employees to do the work of two people. Labor has taken a beating in the decades since.
In the forty years since, our whole life has changed. When I was young, a high school education was sufficient for many entry level jobs. Back in 1941, less than half the U.S. population age 25 and older had a high school diploma, while today, 90 percent has that achievement. When my dad was a young man, an 8th grade education was more than sufficient for blue collar jobs. Today at least two years at a community college is the new “Union Card” for employment. Why is this, you ask? Our young people need to know more than we did! Our adults also need to keep learning! This is why I keep teaching myself new things, going to seminars, and writing blogs that require research.
I’m very proud of our class members who attend the Friday Art Experience at Oaklawn UMC. Work can sometimes take a priority over this enrichment experiment, and we went on hiatus for part of the pandemic. One of the goals I gave the group was to find their own voice and not to copy mine or someone else’s. We can learn from each other, for we all have a unique perspective on life and how we interact with the world. When we stretch ourselves, we create new pathways in our brains, a process called brain plasticity. A new activity that forces you to think and learn, plus require ongoing practice can be one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy, since eventually our cognitive skills will wane. Thinking and memory will be more challenging, so we need to build up our reserves.
Much research has found that creative outlets like painting and other art forms, learning an instrument, doing expressive or autobiographical writing, and learning a language also can improve cognitive function. A 2014 study in Gerontologist reviewed 31 studies that focused on how these specific endeavors affected older adults’ mental skills and found that all of them improved several aspects of memory like recalling instructions and processing speed.
I don’t know about you, but I was born with only two brain cells and one of them seems to travel regularly to the planet Pluto. I need to be in the studio as often as possible if I’m to call that wandering cell back from its journey elsewhere. Art for me is life, just as a walk among the trees or beside a creek renews my soul. As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 19:1, The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Gail was the only one attending this week. Graduations, which were happening in various academic settings, kept others away. She brought a photo of a field of yellow flowers, with a house up on a hill. In the middle ground was a pond and on the crest of the hill were a windrow of cedars. We discussed the formal elements for a bit. I showed a series of wildflower ideas as a slideshow to give a sense of the varied way artists across history have approached this subject.
Then we got down to work. Note the sense of light and air in Gail’s painting. The windrow of trees shows the direction of the sun and we can sense the breeze coming from the same side. This is an unfinished painting, so we can’t tell if the yellow meadow will have more varied colors, but the first layers of the wildflowers in the foreground give us the sense it might.
Sometimes we can finish a painting in one sitting, but other times, even a small work takes another session. Life is a work in progress. We can’t hurry it. When we finish a work, we often find flaws in it. This is because we’ve learned new skills, and we judge our work by our new abilities, rather than by those skills we had when we began. Artists aren’t like those who look to the past for a Golden Age. Instead, they look to the future.
Benjamin Franklin said, “The Golden Age was never the present age.” Usually the Golden Age is a fondly remembered past, but only the best parts of it are treasured by those who benefited most by it. We need to remember, as William James, the American philosopher reminds us, “There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.”
Or as 2 Corinthians 5:17-20, so aptly puts it:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
If we do this, we can bring the Golden Age into the present for all people.
The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it. It’s different from an actual maze, which may have multiple paths intricately linked. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan labrys or ‘double axe’, which is the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete. The actual word is Lydian in origin and most likely came to Crete from Anatolia (Asia Minor) through trade. Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India among others.
Labyrinths or mazes may have served to help the ones who walked them to find their spiritual path by purposefully removing them from their common understanding of linear time and direction between two points. As one traveled through the labyrinth, one would become increasingly lost in reference to the world outside and, in doing so, might unexpectedly discover one’s true path in life.
On New Year’s Day, I was reading my Twitter feed and came across this image of a seaside labyrinth. The comment was, “My #oneword for 2021 is downwind. After walking the labyrinth today with turns both against & with strong wind, I realized how limitless 2021 can be with the help of those who push me forward and not the wind pushing against me. This year, I’ll ride the momentum downwind.”
The theme of the labyrinth leading to one’s destiny is intricately linked to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived at the heart of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, whose king required the people of Athens to send a tribute of fourteen youths annually. Once they entered the Minotaur ‘s labyrinth, they never returned. Theseus defeats the beast and saves his people, but loses his father to suicide because he fails to remember to change the color of his sails on his return trip as a sign of his victory. There’s even more dysfunctional family relationships, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the ancient gods were wont to interfere with the lives of arrogant humans who failed to defer to the gods and instead acted as if they were masters of their own destiny.
Greek tragedy deals with the sweeping themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between humanity and the gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy committed some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant she or he had been. After slowly realizing the error, the world crumbles around the hero. The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good. The fall of a scoundrel or villain evokes applause rather than pity. Audiences cheer when the bad guy goes down. We feel compassion for someone we admire when that character is in a difficult situation. The nobler and more admirable the person is, the greater our anxiety or grief at his or her downfall.
This idea survives to this day in the proverb, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” In the 5th C BCE, in the founding work of history known as the Histories of Herodotus, we find the statement: “It is the gods’ custom to bring low all things of surpassing greatness.” An earlier expression, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is found in the Proverbs (16:18). These date from 700 BCE to the fourth century BCE (1:1-9:18).
In a true tragedy, the hero’s demise must come as a result of some personal error or decision. The tragic or fatal error, or fatal flaw of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe is known as hamartia, or missing the mark. It’s a metaphor from archery, and literally refers to a shot that misses the bullseye. There’s no such thing as an innocent victim in a tragedy, nor can a genuinely tragic downfall ever be purely a matter of blind accident or bad luck. The tragic hero must always bear at least some responsibility for his or her own doom. In Greek tragedy, the gods may interfere, but they don’t determine our destiny. Likewise, human events and actors may put detours across our path, but though the gods may intervene on our behalf, we can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a true Greek tragedy.
The labyrinth is a symbol for change, for it’s the place of transformation. In the myth, Theseus must enter a maze no one knows how to navigate, slay a flesh eating monster, and return to the world above. Theseus accomplishes this, but still retains his youthful flaws until he is changed by his father’s death and he’s forced to grow up and assume adult responsibility. His experience in the labyrinth offered him an opportunity to change and grow but, like many people, Theseus resisted until change was forced upon him.
The medieval labyrinth is a unicursal labyrinth, with a single, circuitous but clearly delineated path. It’s an image encompassing both shared and individual experience, for we don’t walk the path alone, but we share it with fellow travelers. The unicursal labyrinth is distinguished from a multicursal labyrinth (or maze) by having only a single (though winding) path to its center. While a maze may have little or no symmetry and may not even have a center, a medieval labyrinth usually has both. The great medieval labyrinth on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral is one of the most famous unicursal labyrinths.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, saw the similarity between medieval, Christ-centered mandalas in manuscripts and rose windows, the mandalas of his patients, and the mandalas he created. Jung believed his own mandalas “helped him maintain his psychic equilibrium” and believed “everything points toward the center,”so that he found “stability” and “inner peace” even during the war era.
Medieval labyrinths, and all their variations, including the classical design of which the medieval style is an outgrowth, now appear across the United States in settings ranging from churches and parks to hospitals and museums; they may be painted, tiled, paved, woven into a carpet, constructed of canvas, or cut into a lawn. They’re usually designed to be walked on. Over the last quarter century, the medieval labyrinth has entered public consciousness as a “blueprint for transformation” rather than “an oddity,” as it was at one time. I can remember at least one of my fellow clergy asking if “this wasn’t so kind of new age hooey I was getting into.” Moreover, labyrinths aren’t limited to meditative and ritual use; they also appear in secular and recreational settings and are often noteworthy for their ornamental or artistic value.
While each one of us walks the same path, no one has the same experience on the labyrinth. We’re all on the same journey, but we’re traveling on a different part of the path. We entered at a different time, or we came to the labyrinthine journey at a different period of our spiritual journey. Some of us will move slowly, while others will hustle along the way. If we came with troubles and worries, we may have been looking for THE ANSWER. The labyrinth isn’t a one armed bandit. We don’t put our money in, pull the handle, and get a payout. The walking is instead an opportunity for reflection, a time to give our selves to the service of God, and set aside our pride.
I’ve walked on the labyrinth on different occasions and had different experiences, since I’ve been “residing in different inns along my spiritual journey” during the years as I make my rounds about the sun while I live on this planet earth. I’ve been to the holy land twice, and been to Greece and Turkey to walk in the footsteps of Paul to see the churches he planted across the Mediterranean. I spent a summer in Italy during art school, while living in a small town and taking field trips to see the historic sites nearby. I took an interterm during graduate school to visit London and visit all the museums I could devour in that short time, along with some excursions to the seaside. Still, I’ve yet to see Stonehenge, and I’ve not seen Paris.
The question is, do we walk the labyrinth as a tourist going to a destination, expecting to stamp our passports, bring back photos, and buy souvenirs, or do we go expecting to meet Christ along the way? On the tour groups, folks sort themselves fairly soon into subgroups. The ones who want to go quickly to the site, give it a once over, take a few photos, and hit the souvenir shops before they have a coffee or a drink, will find each other and share their daily haul as they relax and wait for the stragglers to roll in. The stragglers come in two groups: the ones who took their time, and the ones who took the wrong turn and got lost. Thankfully, I didn’t get lost as I often do here at home! My notorious ability to take the wrong turn and my poor map reading skills are legend. The virtue of group travel is we leave no one behind.
While each person enters the labyrinth alone, others may also be on the path also. When we meet another, we perform a silent dance of giving way, first one to another, then the other to the one. Two can’t be in the same lane at the same time, but we can “dosie do” to let one another pass on by. This is life in community, where we share the spaces and the journey. When we walk the path of the Labyrinth, we enter a space/time/continuum. This is where up/down, left/right, and forward/backward all exist in one time dimension. Time passes differently inside the Labyrinth, for the twisting path appears to take us first directly toward the center, but just as we approach it, we are forced to follow the path directly away from the center instead. Then we wander around the outer edges of the labyrinth until suddenly, we arrive at the center. If we think we’ll never reach the promised land, we’ll find ourselves suddenly cast upon its shores as a Jonah spewed from the belly of a big fish. What seems like three days of darkness in a labyrinth may only be thirty minutes. Clock time gives way to God time on the journey.
Thus we enter into the timeless paths of all the pilgrims walking before us, those who never made their way to the holy land, but found the holy in the land in which they lived. The labyrinth has a way of uniting all the time of the past, the future, and the now into one dimension. In this way, when we walk the labyrinth, we enter into the kairos time of God, as opposed to the chronos time of humanity. No longer are “on the clock,” but we walk in the appointed and opportune time for us to experience the holy.
If we’re surprised, and emotionally disconcerted as we walk these twisting paths, it’s because we discovered we had no control over how soon we could get to our destination. We can stay in the center and be humbled by this awareness, but often we act like tourists instead. We get our passports stamped after an appropriate rest, and head back home. As heroes who’ve been to the center, we journey back to the outer world as changed people, ready to bring new truths and understanding back to the world. If we are like the Greek heroes of old, however, our tragic flaw will be living for ourselves only and forgetting to do good to all.
The energies of the labyrinth aren’t self-contained to the paths or to those who walk it. It is a holy space, so like the energies of space time, in which space and time are relative, observations depend on the viewer’s speed. If we rush through the labyrinth, we don’t have the same opportunity to meet Christ on the road to Damascus, as Paul did, and have an opportunity to change our lives. We need to drag our feet a bit, as the grieving disciples did on the road to Emmaus, so we might have the privilege of recognizing Christ in the central act of blessing the bread when they invited him to stay with them at the end of the journey.
The hurried life isn’t for the contemplative person, so even those whose lives are given over to getting many things done can benefit from a quiet time now and then. Otherwise, we can become the heroic Theseus who depends upon his own power, rather than giving credit to the powers of the gods, for all his great deeds. This is why his arrogance and pride is his undoing, even though he had a transformative experience in the labyrinth. Not until much later did he process this experience and grow from it.
When I began my painting, I started out with the actual forms, in homage to the many walks I’d participated in over the years. Soon I thought of burying the image, and uncovering parts of it, as if it were an archeological dig in process, but I only buried the outer edges. Then the idea of energies of the innumerable pilgrim walks percolated up into my consciousness and I began to paint the intersecting colored arcs. While I lost the paths, I was painting my emotional experience of the walking. I’ve been on quite a journey this past year, even though I’ve gone nowhere, due to the covid pandemic. Confined to home, I’ve longed to journey elsewhere, but the labyrinth is a journey anyone can take safely without fear of a monster who devours human tributes. I’m looking forward to the new year and new works, and perhaps some actual journeys. God bless everyone. Thanks for reading this.
December has snuck up on me like a racoon stalking a rabbit. Perhaps I ate too much of the Thanksgiving Feast, or maybe it was the homemade Italian Cheesecake dressed with cranberry sauce and maple pecans that did me in. It thankfully wasn’t the covid, for I had an appropriately socially distanced meal via Zoom, thanks to my niece in New Orleans and her mother in Texarkana. I’ve driven to New Orleans before, and it’s a hard eight hour trip, so I’ve always done it in two legs and made it into an easy jaunt instead. I spent the night in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to see the great Civil War battlefield there, and pay homage to those who fought to preserve the unity of the nation, even if my ancestors fought to keep other human beings enslaved. I also saw some of the grand plantation homes, which were built by slave labor. We don’t think of this history much, and I wasn’t taught it growing up, but it’s time for all of us to acknowledge all the hands who built this nation we call home.
My Decembers as a child growing up in the South were a time of waiting. I couldn’t make the clock hurry up no matter how hard I stared at it. My mother would remind me, “A watched pot never boils.” I’d grind my teeth. Hurry used to be my middle name. Now I seem to putter all day and never worry about it. I may be an aging rabbit, or maybe just a great-grandmother rabbit. Or I may have learned the wisdom of waiting, which is the lesson of the Advent season.
All small children endure the waiting at the end of the year, for the end of the year is full of holidays for many faiths. Today we’re all waiting for more normal times to return, so we can hug one another, kiss each other on the lips, and drink from the same cup without worrying about a dread disease. Waiting was so difficult for me and my brothers, we’d beg and cajole our parents to “Please, pretty please, just let us open one gift before Christmas!” We were the fortunate ones, for when our parents were children in the era of the Great Depression, they knew better than to ask for much. My daddy asked Santa Clause for an orange, boxing gloves, and a book for his older brother. Most of us today think we’d be bad parents if we gave our children only two items, but in the era of covid, when nearly 30 million people are out of work, we might need to readjust our priorities. Keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table could take priority, unless angels bring the gifts instead.
Today, I’m listening to Mannheim Steamroller play Christmas music. Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological winter and the Winter Solstice will be December 21. It’s a quiet time in the condo, for I’m alone with my decaf coffee and the furnace is keeping me cozy. One small joy I always look forward to is the opportunity to use my Christmas themed mugs for a whole month. I’ve put up the ordinary dishware and pulled down my collection of red, green, gold, and white cups. When I was young, I looked forward to the gumdrop tree and the Christmas cookies. Decorating and baking every weekend kept mother busy in the kitchen and me helping or getting my fingers in the icing bowl. I learned to share by helping my mom. I never liked her candied fruitcake recipe, however, or the fruitcake cookies. You can keep that to yourself. I think some traditions may need to die, and fruitcake is one of them, but my tastebuds don’t cater to sugared fruit anymore. Her pecan sandies were to die for, however.
If we approach the coming holiday season with anticipation for the small joys it brings, rather than thinking of the losses we’ve suffered, this December will be better for us by far. By this I mean, the tree isn’t the most important thing, for if it were, we’d worship the tree. We don’t worship the lights shining brightly, but the light which shines in the darkness. The presents aren’t the most important part of Christmas, for we don’t worship the gifts, but the gift from God.
While light has been central to many religions across the centuries, it becomes very important toward the end of the year when the days grow short. The Romans originally celebrated Saturnalia as a harvest festival, but then moved it to the middle of December, and changed its focus to a celebration of light, knowledge, and truth. They would gift dolls and treats of fruit, and light bonfires. It began as a home holiday, but became a public feast holiday in 217 BCE.
Another religious festival is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of the oil and its burning for eight days, when only enough for one day was found. Jewish people celebrate their faith by lighting a menorah with nine candles: one is the helper or attendant, and the others represent the days of the ancient miracle of rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. Families always place the menorah in a window, so everyone will see it. As a special treat, families eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes and doughnuts.
The tradition is one should spend time in close proximity to the Chanukah lights for, “We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.” The flickering flames may be telling us the following:
1. Never be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Judah Maccabee and his band faced daunting odds, but that didn’t stop them. With a prayer on their lips and faith in their heart, they entered the battle of their lives—and won. We can do the same.
2. Always increase in matters of goodness and Torah-observance. Sure, a single flame was good enough for yesterday, but today needs to be even better.
3. A little light goes a long way. The Chanukah candles are lit when dusk is falling. Perched in the doorway, they serve as a beacon for the darkening streets. No matter how dark it is outside, a candle of G‑dly goodness can transform the darkness itself into light.
4. Take it to the streets. Chanukah is unique in that its primary mitzvah is observed in public. It’s not enough to be a Jew at heart, or even at home. Chanukah teaches us to shine outwards into our surroundings with the G‑dly glow of mitzvahs.
5. Don’t be ashamed to perform mitzvahs (individual act of human kindness), even if you will feel different. Rather, be like a menorah, proudly proclaiming its radiant uniqueness for all to see.
My daddy died one year and my mother died the next. I didn’t much feel like Christmas in my heart. When the Salvation Army representative came calling to the church office, I really didn’t have the energy to help reorganize another messed up program. Then the words of my mother entered my mind: “If you want to feel better about your situation, you should do something for someone in more need than you are.” I can’t say I grieved any less, but I felt better about that Christmas, for I knew I was called to share my blessings with others. I could talk to all the service clubs in town and get them to ring the bells, including the high school service clubs. We made many people in that community able to pay their utilities and rent in hard times.
December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ feast day, the saint who most people know as Santa Clause. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra and endured the persecution of Emperor of Diocletian, who put so many priests, bishops, and deacons into prison, there wasn’t room for actual criminals. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, before his death in 343. His generosity was legend, as was his concern for children, the poor, and anyone in need. Europeans celebrated the saint’s day and reserved the day of Christ’s birth for more sober, religious experiences.
Many people consider Christmas to be quintessential American holiday. When my daughter and I hosted a French exchange student chaperone, she raved about the American Christmas. “The English do the season well, but the Americans are the very best of all. I only wish I could be here in December!”
I laughed. I had too many memories of being up all night assembling Strawberry Shortcake Doll Houses or putting together my daughter’s new bicycle. I’ve always been directionally challenged when it comes to maps, but also when it comes to reading set up plans. I’ve never understood it, since I seem to be able to follow a recipe just fine, but mechanical things are a stumbling block to me. My memories of Christmas are from participation, not from observation.
The first Colonists, who were primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, didn’t bring the Nicholas traditions to the New World. As we celebrate the Christmas of today, we have a hard time thinking of the Puritan tradition which ignored Christmas altogether. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, once the work was done, people would drink and become rowdy. Drunken mobs would roam the streets and scare the genteel classes afterwards. Even in the mid 19th century, Christmas was a regular workday. Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870, under President Ulysses S. Grant.
After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. In 1773, New York non-Dutch patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas 1, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, was the first to promote St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and the city.
In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, but rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; the first church was dedicated to him; and St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”
Another work of the American imagination is the “Visit from Saint Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas,” a poem which still holds our interest. This poem centers around the family and the safe toys for the good little girls and boys, which Santa and his reindeer will bring to each snug and cozy house. This poem is in the public domain, so it’s available on the internet.
Christmas for many of us in years past has been like the Bunny 500: racing about the countryside as fast as we can to get as many of our to-do lists done. This covid Christmas, we might exchange our tradition of mass consumption for hot chocolate and communication. I’ve always enjoyed reading Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. After two decades of ministry and multiple Christmas Eve candlelight services, I’ve always appreciated the quiet of the parsonage afterwards and the descriptive words rolling off this poet’s tongue. If the poem harkens back to a simpler time, it also reminds us of our lives before we were isolated from one another. As one who rarely saw snow on Christmas, I always enjoyed reading about the snowball fight against Mr. Prothero’s fire, and the Uncles and the Aunts at the meal. After a big day, Thomas said some words to the close and holy darkness and then he slept.
The light will come into the darkness and the darkness won’t overcome it. Two thousand years ago, even the parents of the holy child could find no place to spend the night but in a cave with animals. They had no crib for their child, but placed him instead in the manger. Their families in town didn’t come to visit, but angels announced his birth to shepherds in a field nearby. Strangers brought gifts from far away, but no one from his family was around to celebrate.
Maybe this is Christmas at its best, when we recognize the one who lives on the margin and isn’t included in the center of the social experiences. If your Christmas today isn’t what it’s always been, perhaps the gift of this Christmas present is the one you need.
May you and your bunnies celebrate this season of light and be a light in the darkness for those who think the dawn can’t come soon enough.
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.
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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.
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.
How long does a new and unusual aspect of our environment need to be in place before we notice it? On the other hand, how long does it have to persist before we treat it as the new normal and begin to ignore it?
My mom and dad were married right after World War II, so they’d lived together for nearly forty six years when I came home for a visit from seminary one weekend. Right off the bat, I noticed something differ about my dad.
“You’ve gone and grown a mustache.”
“You like it?” He asked, as he smoothed the unruly hairs into place.
“Oh yeah! You look like a perfect Southern gentleman.”
He smiled. Perfect and gentleman was his aim.
My mother, who was sitting in the identical chair next to his, separated only by a small table with a lamp and magazines, craned her head around that lamp to look at him.
“When did you grow this mustache?”
“Mother! You’ve slept in the same bed with daddy every single night of your entire life. You always kiss each other good night. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed the hair on his upper lip!”
A little rattled, she replied, “It’s always dark when we go to sleep.”
I laughed. My daddy smiled. My mother always had an answer for every thing. I noticed his mustache because I hadn’t seen him in a while, whereas mother had watched the slow progression of the hiding of his upper lip. I should say, it’s been my experience the husband usually fails to notice his wife’s new haircut, an act which causes much family drama.
When I travel, I don’t go from point to point with the goal of arriving as soon as possible. If that were the case, I’d fly. In my car, if I see an interesting place, I’ll go visit, since the journey is more important than the destination. Once I’ve arrived, I even make side trips, just for a little exercise. I was walking around Lake Bridgeport, in the town of Runaway Bay, Texas, when I stumbled upon these grasses, flowers, and small trees. The afternoon light caught the center stalk so it glowed its reds and golds. The few leaves left from autumn’s color, which hadn’t been blown away by the seasonal rains quivered in the light breeze. A few flowers added color to a rather grey afternoon.
Why would ordinary weeds catch my eye? There’s nothing remarkable or heroic about weeds. Most people spend good money to rid their lawns of ugly and invasive weeds. Here around the lake is a wild place, however, and the weed is in its natural state. This red weed is unique among the other natural grasses, for its not a single blade, but a stem with alternating leaves. I had to pick my way through some underbrush to find an opening from which I could take a good photo. I felt as if this weed had called to me.
I’ve often wondered how long the bush burned in the wilderness before Moses looked up from counting his father in law’s sheep and said, “What is this? I must go see it!” Extraordinary events happen all the time, yet we’re too consumed with our day to day busyness to see the glories of God’s hand at work in the world. Or we come to a watershed moment, when the bush would burn brightly for us, and throw water to quench its fire, for “it’s never been done, it can’t be done, it’s always been this way, and people will never change.”
If Moses believed this, he’d have never followed God’s call back to Egypt. The Hebrew children would still be slaves in Egypt. But Moses trusted God. This is called a sea change, or a transformation. We don’t do this just on our own, but by a power at work greater than our own. We might resist, but God persists.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh,
and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you:
when you have brought the people out of Egypt,
you shall worship God on this mountain.”
~~ Genesis 3:11-12
What sea change is happening in our world today? Are people finally fed up with treating human life as a cheap commodity? We do this if we treat people as objects to be used and then thrown away when they’re worn out or too sick to be worked hard. When we fail to fund schools and health care for all, we don’t get the best people for our citizens or our employees. If only the wealthy can afford health care and a quality education, then our democracy suffers, for we will have a permanent underclass and a qualified few. This bifurcation doesn’t bode well for the future. Does a bush burn in the wilderness for any of my readers?
Are we tired of exchanging precious human lives for a shibboleth? The word means “stream” in Hebrew and was used as a sorting test to distinguish warriors of Gilead from those of Ephraim. Today, the 2nd Amendment serves the same purpose, because the National Rifle Association gives politicians large amounts of money for their campaign coffers and spends extra money on their behalf also. The NRA is the front for gun manufacturers, who profit if they sell more guns. They never want any restrictions on any freedom, but we don’t live in an anarchy, so a democracy can restrict certain aspects of gun ownership and use.
Public mass shootings have occurred on average every 172 days since 1982. Since September 6, 2011, there’s been 14 mass shootings at an average interval of less than 172 days. These don’t include domestic violence or criminal activity. Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history have taken place in a school, including Sandy Hook elementary and Virginia Tech University. The deaths at Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida were the 180th mass shooting since 2009 and the third mass shooting in 2018. By Valentine’s Day in 2018, 17 school shootings had been reported, and in the week after, even more.
Schools now receive an average of 50 threats of violence daily, compared with 10 per day at the end of 2017, NPR reported. Since I began this blog in 2011, mass killings in public spaces have snuffed out the lives of 270 persons in grocery stores, church sanctuaries, schools, post offices, and restaurants. In seven years, an average of 38.6 individuals did not celebrate with cake and ice cream on their next circuit of the earth around the sun. I didn’t know any of these personally, but we may have lost the next Steve Jobs or the next Mother Theresa, or someone who would have fought happiness to their small corner of the world.
Some want to arm the schools, but what about the other places of mass shootings? Why not just ban the weapon which enables the taking of mass casualties? Or are the lives of grocery shoppers less valued than school children? Ask an orphan if a parent is valued. We don’t want to become an armed state in America, or at least I’m not for it. Perhaps the NRA wants this, for the gunmakers would boost their bottom lines. They make enough money off the rest of their product lines.
Some would say, opioids take MORE lives, as does tobacco use (1,300 deaths per day). These substances are legal and on the market we expect people to use them responsibly. They’re also addictive and controlled. The largest incidents are mostly since 2004 when the ban on semiautomatic weapons lapsed. These weapons, civilian equivalents to military type issue, are meant for mass killing, not for sport, hunting, or target shooting. Their high velocity ammunition doesn’t just pierce flesh, but obliterates it. Survival rates are slim and none.
I wonder if this moment in our nation’s life is our burning bush, our opportunity to hear the voice of God calling to us, and we rise up to set our people free from this pain and insanity.
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,