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.
Metaphors make the world go round, or at least make it spin with interest. Our conversation would be boring if we stuck with flat, non descriptive words to share our thoughts and feelings. Likewise, our artworks die on the wall without emotional inspiration or contrasts in shape, color, value, or dimension.
This Pandemic has stripped many of us of our support structures and social experiences, so we may have become anxious, either because of loneliness or from fear of contracting COVID 19. Others are essential workers on the front lines, who daily risk their health and lives to care for the rest of us. People have taken on tutoring their children or grandchildren. I can remember working with my daughter years ago on fractions, using the “old math.” It was a traumatic experience for both of us. She could have used a paper bag to breathe into to help her calm down instead of hyperventilating. I’ve been on some rough airplane flights for which the paper bag was a comforter.
I have fond memories of the pre Covid days when I could visit the bakery. Entering the front door was a joy, for the mixed smells of hot coffee, fried dough, and sugared toppings could transport me to a happy place just by inhaling those aromas. My anticipation only increased as I hovered before the glass display case, for I was waiting to hear which sweet treat would call my name. Usually it was both the bear claw and the chocolate éclair, but those were the days when I was indulging in over nutrition.
Now comes the Pandemic, and while we can still get our food in a takeout paper bag, we don’t get the opportunity to smell or see the foods. We also miss the interpersonal contact with the workers and with the friends we used to meet for lunch. That same paper bag takes on different meanings depending on its context.
Our first art class back in person was Friday, 130 days since Arkansas entered the Covid Emergency, which was declared on March 11, 2020. That’s about four months, but it seemed longer. Some of my friends have said one day now seems just like another, just like a white paper bag seems to have nothing to distinguish it from the next bag in the package. I’ve set my own personal schedule so I do something different every day. It gives me a reason to look forward to the day, and I don’t get bored.
I have great memories of long, hot summers as a child when I’d make the grave mistake of telling my mother, “I’m bored.” She’d pause her stirring at the stove, look down at me from her grownup height, and reply. “If you’ve got nothing to do, you could dust those shelves full of knickknacks you collect.” Her suggestions were actually directions, but that was how I was raised. After dusting all morning, I’d be glad to entertain myself for weeks without bothering her. My mother might have been the source of my creativity.
If we only see an object or a person for its outward or most functional use, and never dig deeper to know it better or consider it in another environment, we miss its complexity and its richness. If we paint only the outward visage of a portrait, but miss the inner spirit of the person, we’ve done just half the work. If we need practice in this skill, I recommend lying on your back and watching the clouds in the sky above. As the winds above blow, they’ll change shapes. Notice these shapes, call them to memory, associate these shapes with past experiences or make up new stories.
Each person got their own paper bag, so they could hold it, touch it, crumple it, blow it up, fold it, pose it, or whatever they wanted. Because it’s all white, they could choose to paint it in grays, colors, tints, or a monochromatic value scheme. This bag is also a basic perspective lesson also, depending on the point of view. How each person solves it depends on how it speaks to them. Some of us have our art ears plugged up, for listening to the silence of objects is an acquired skill.
Remembering white comes forward and dark recedes is helpful. Sometimes our eye fools us and we paint the opposite of what we see. We get the shape down, but then don’t look again to see where the values are. We just lay on paint. Then we wonder why our image doesn’t match up with our model. Learning to look, paint, look, paint, look, and paint some more is important. We need to be in a continual conversation with the object and our painting.
Glen used to do mechanical and perspective drawings, so he knows how to do this work, but he hasn’t yet found the hidden key to unlock what he already knows from his career so he can apply it to this new activity. This “transfer of learning” means he has skills, but he needs encouragement to use them. I believe he’ll find the key, which is most likely in plain sight.
Gail crumpled her bag and worked quietly in blues to render the various surfaces. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our paintings, but hers seemed to be either a stormy sea or a rugged mountain. Life in the Pandemic has given all of us new challenges.
After a lifetime of five different careers caring for other people and working sixty plus hours per week, I’m glad for retirement and the slow lane. I enjoy the quiet and isolation, for I feel like I’m on a long term spiritual retreat. This is a time of joy and creative production, so if my paper bag glows with rainbow tones, this is my pandemic experience.
I’ve always told my students, “Each of you are unique. You look at the world through different eyes. You should make your work as special as you are. Don’t copy anybody else. Be your very best. After all, if our fingerprints are unique and our DNA is singular, why wouldn’t our art work be individual also?”
While the pandemic has given us masks and spread us out for the class sessions, it can’t damage our enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to painting flowers next week.
My family has a tradition of handcrafts and needle working skills, passed down from generation to generation, as do many Southern families. I admit I didn’t care much for the sitting still part when I was young, but I really liked the bright sequins and beads of the tree skirts we embellished with the symbols of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The first six days were overloaded, while the last few had only a sprinkle of sparkle stitched to the colored felt, but then we were coming in under the wire by Christmas eve and Santa wouldn’t visit our house if we didn’t get into bed as soon as possible. We just barely made it.
Most of our projects didn’t have such a time limit, however. I remember learning to make doll clothes on a toy sewing machine before my mother trusted me on the electric machine. I made tiny tucks across the bodice of these outfits from the scraps of the materials my mother used to make my school clothes. My Nannie had an old foot powered sewing machine on her back porch. It was often hidden under piles of newspapers or canning jars resting on their journey to the garage out back. From her I learned to sew straight seams, unbeknownst to my mom. My small foot wasn’t able to power the treadle of the old machine very fast and I’d been warned within an inch of my life to keep my fingers a good distance from the needle. I was doing this sub rosa, and that added to my excitement, but my mother probably knew. I only thought I was doing something forbidden.
Soon after this, my mother decided I needed to learn to make simple clothes from a pattern. Not that I would do it unsupervised, but she did have a degree in home economics and a lifetime teaching certificate. I made one of those easy patterns with only a front, a back and a neck binding. Of course, I was too young to need to worry about darts yet, so this wasn’t the most difficult project in the sewing room. I did learn how to pin, cut, and sew with the right sides together so the seam would be on the inside.
Later I’d learn to hem my clothes. My mom always thought I sewed backwards. I suppose since she sewed in the opposite direction, I was backwards. I’ll blame this on my being a breech birth, for if I came into the world backwards, I can do things in an opposite manner if I want to. Sometimes it takes a person who sees the world from a different viewpoint than everyone else to help others make sense of the world, especially when the world isn’t in the order we’ve come to expect it to be.
July is the season of the year when active Methodist clergy move to new churches. I’d hear my friends say, “I’m going to hit the ground running and show them I’m ready!”
I’d nod my head, and reply, “I’m going to take my time, get to know folks, find out where they are, and what they need. Then we’ll figure out where we need to go together.” I was past the age of running anywhere, since ministry was my fifth career.
This pandemic has changed many of our rituals and routines. Gone are our potlucks and coffees, our get togethers and small group sessions. We now meet from afar and we’ve learned to like it, or else we live in isolation, and we’ve learned to endure it. I told a friend, “I’m blessed to be single, because if I get on my nerves, I’ve got no one to blame but me! If I get that upset with myself, I go down to the exercise room for a walk.”
As this pandemic has stretched out, I’ve come to realize treating it like a new appointment might be the best practice. Ministry is more of a marathon than a sprint, for we need to keep a steady pace for a long distance, rather than run fast for a short initial spurt. Throwing all our energies at it in the first few months, especially now when everyone is socially distanced, isn’t going to be the most effective use of our potency.
This is where quilt making comes into play. Quilts can have a structured pattern or they can be various strips of cloth sewn together until they make a square or an entire top. Right now, we’re in crazy quilt land, while we wish we were in structured pattern quilt land. We have to make do with the materials we have at hand and make the most beautiful work with what we have. This is the creative work of the Holy Spirit, which binds the people together, no mater how separated and isolated the community is.
I pulled out some fabric from one of my boxes to make a patchwork pillow. I had no plan, for mostly I was distressed at the brokenness and sickness of our world. I thought if I stitched some strips of fabric together, I would find some order, and perhaps some beauty. Of course, I kept stitching and realized I had more than enough for a pillow, but not enough for another project. I looked at my plain jean jacket and thought it could be improved. I kept stitching, so soon I had enough for the jacket and yet another pillow! This is enough. I’m going to put up my machine and go back to my easel for a while.
I know I miss my friends and family, for they’re like the strips of cloth I’ve sewn together. I try to connect with them by writing my blogs and sharing my spiritual pages, so I can give a voice to the emotions others perhaps are feeling. I write because I’ve never been accused of saying too little, but more often of not knowing when to quit. That’s ok, for someone needs to put into words the feelings this pandemic is putting many of us through.
I hope you’re finding some creative project to do during this pandemic time. I suggest a journal, to write out your memories of your life before this strange time. We don’t know what our future will bring us, and the generations who follow us will wonder what an ordinary life was like back in the day. If we write about the pandemic itself, we may fail to touch the grief of what we’ve lost, and only write about our grievances of today. If we can find an opportunity to note the small blessings of each day, perhaps we can access our memories of our past lives also.
My granddaddy hung his dress jacket in the old wood chifforobe on that back porch where the antique sewing machine resided. The cabinet retained the aroma of his favorite chewing gum, even when he was gone from the house. I can still smell today the juicy fruit chewing gum my granddaddy always carried in his coat pocket.
I hope you’re finding moments of joy and peace amidst this time of pandemic and uncertainty. I’ve attached a poem at the end I think you might enjoy.
Memories are worthy treasures, as this poem reminds us. This is a true story, for the author finished the quilt in 2017. Her husband’s mother had started it and was about a third done with the quilting when she passed away in 1986.
Thirty Years By Ruth Poteet
My closet’s free of a strange parolee, coldly imprisoned for thirty long years; gone with the rest of my walk-in’s debris, I’d marked it “Goodwill” with cynical cheers.
Rescuing the box, my mind shifted gears. And ready to face fair verdict instead, a quilt, yet unquilted, moved me to tears. At seventy-three I finished this spread.
It took just three weeks, while my fingers bled, now “thirty years” rests proudly on my bed.
Some say, “Art is never finished, but only abandoned.” I left my latest acrylic painting for a day, knowing I’d need to adjust some of the sky values, but I was beyond Monday’s melancholy mood. I remembered the sunset of my original experience, and wondered, “Is the end of one day merely the beginning of another? If so, sunrises and sunsets are just markers for us until we participate in eternity with god.” In age of coronavirus, I now think more about time and how we experience it. For me, the now and the present moment take on more importance than either the future or the past. As J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring said:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Not that my cloistered coronavirus days are slowly melting together like Easter Peeps in a microwave, or becoming desperate Survivor Island fare, as the young parents thought who once called me during the pink eye school closures. These always seemed to follow directly on the heels of spring break, and parents would cry into the telephone, “How do you stand this All. Year. Long?”
I’d laugh and remind them, “I always have a plan for the day, and a back up plan too.” Art classes depend on teaching basic skills at the start, so you can teach more difficult skills later. Hand and eye coordination is one skill, but the other more important achievement is the ability to trust one’s self. As an artist pushes forward, he or she can get comfortable and begin to repeat only what they know and what is safe. Of course, this is common to all of life, for we frequently eat the same foods at the same restaurants, take the same routes to work, and drink our favored brews.
Finding a way to break through the wall of the routine is challenging. If we’re always progressing, we may move more quickly than our audience can appreciate us. Then we need to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of art and by extension, what is the purpose of our life? This is why having a pattern of work balanced with reflection is helpful, not only in the art life, but also in the spiritual life. When I speak of the art life, I mean any life engaged in production, industry, sales, or the economy. All could benefit from spending time in reflection, instead of hitting the ground running and always hustling. If we asked ourselves WHY more, and WHAT WILL THE CONSEQUENCES BE, we might be more socially responsible with our practices and care more for the earth which we’ll leave to our descendants. It’s their inheritance and we shouldn’t exhaust it as if we were prodigal sons.
These two paintings are the latest off my easel. The first is an empty lot across from the Transportation Depot in Hot Springs. From the depot side, all you can see is the line of trees on the horizon, but if you drive up Olive Street, you find the vacant lot parallel to the side of the historic 1914 Hot Springs High School. This building was renovated into lofts and apartments, both for government subsidized and market paying rentals. President Clinton attended this school and the property is currently for sale. The vacant lot once had a building of some sort on it, perhaps an elementary school, for I found concrete steps and the remnant of a flagpole. Today it’s gone to seed, and the wild grasses grow as they choose, until the city or some private party mows them down.
I was there on a cool afternoon with a breeze blowing fair. The sun was over my back and I couldn’t see the depot for the tree barrier. Although I was “smack dab in the middle of the city,” I might as well have been out in the countryside. It may be a field of weeds to you or an eyesore awaiting development, but this city block serves a purpose in its ragged glory. These green places act as sinks to cleanse the air and regulate the water runoff. In more developed areas, neighborhood parks and people’s yards store very high amounts of carbon, which help reduce carbon emission levels in cities. This is a benefit of living in a smaller city, for the largest ones have sucked up all the green spaces and filled them in with concrete and steel.
Not only is keeping our yards green important, but instead of paving over an area, keeping green space and plants in a yard makes a difference because a property is part of a much bigger ecosystem and is part of that proven fabric of the city. By keeping your yard green, you provide your city with the ecosystem services that urban green spaces provide. Here are four little known ecosystem services that urban green spaces provide to cities:
Urban Heat Island—the urban heat island effect has negative impacts on the health and efficiency of cities, including increased energy consumption, increased air pollutants and greenhouse gases, impaired water quality and compromised human health and comfort.
Carbon Storage— backyard soils can capture even more harmful carbon emissions than soils in native forests or grasslands. Urban backyards and green spaces contribute to reducing carbon emission levels in cities, which makes air cleaner and healthier for its residents.
Water Regulation—green spaces keep untreated water out of lakes and rivers, and let sewers work without backing up
Economic Savings—green areas increase property values
The cluster of trees isolated in the ocean of grass are much like a family in the pandemic: tense, taught, tightly tucked together, and removed from all others to survive. We might all have days like this in our quarantine, and then we’ll have days when we want to reach out to others, in real life or virtually. Social distancing can quickly devolve into isolation and then into fear of going out of our homes. This has a name: agoraphobia or fear of open places. It’s a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed. You fear an actual or anticipated situation, such as using public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in line, or being in a crowd. Just going on a Kroger run today can feel like a mission behind enemy lines. If our days take more energy from us than they used to, we need to adjust our expectations of how much we can get done, just as we slow down when it’s a 110 F in the shade during the summer.
This is possibly the reason after all these years, I’m still in the beginner class of the Pacer Clinics, but walking isn’t the skill I’m actually trying to improve. Becoming more aware of the present moment is an achievement level worth unlocking, so I’m practicing “opening myself to the holy.” We can find the holy in any moment of time, not just in those times set aside or designated as sacred. We all have different goals, and getting from one place to another in record time might not be the most important end result or best use of our time.
Perhaps this pandemic has caused us to reassess our arbitrary borders between work, home, and worship, since many of us have been doing all three from one place. Can we say that only one time or one place or one day is more sacred than any other? Or should we look again and see all of our days and all of our ways are a sacred endeavor? If this is so, we have to check if our faith undergirds and empowers our daily acts, and not just once a week. Another way to express this is, “Do we live our Bible, or does it gather dust on the coffee table?”
And what of those essential workers who daily face the contagion? Can they still find any holy moments in these dread times? Or are they so busy throwing themselves into the breach, they have no time to notice the still, small voice of god? When life is overwhelming, we often can’t hear God’s voice because the press of our problems pushes out all other inputs, even the hopeful spirit of god. We then have to trust if we take care of business, then god will take care of the outcomes. As the ancient voice of wisdom in Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD.” When our day is done, we can rest in god and restore our souls and health.
This pandemic has ripped the curtain off the hidden division in our culture. Those workers considered “essential” may be high or low wage earners, but the difference in resources they have to meet the difficulties of their new lives is eye opening. Nearly 60% of adult Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and what’s even more amazing is about 1 in 5 people earning over $100,000 annually also live paycheck to paycheck! If you owe your soul to Visa or MasterCard, you have an existential need to earn a living, and not just a calling to fulfill. It’s not because folks are squandering their resources, but the cost of living is high in many places, plus many have student debt, mortgages and car loans. In truth, some of us owe our soul to a plastic god because we have chosen to live too high, rather than to live a simple life.
Now the pandemic has caused the greatest job dislocation since the Great Depression when 25% of the workforce lost their jobs. The latest unemployment rate is almost 15%, which is roughly double what the nation experienced during the entire financial crisis from 2007 to 2009. The most telling tale is 40% of the workers making less than $40,000 per year lost their jobs during this pandemic, according to the Federal Reserve. The lowest paid workers in the leisure and hospitality industry suffered the most. If we are looking at our lives and grumbling at our inconveniencies or loss of “freedoms to come and go at will,” perhaps we need to recover the simple joys of life: reverence in the silent moments when we’re in a cool and shady spot, joy for the sunlight dappling on autumn leaves, or the ever-changing reflections in a running brook.
I was in a better frame of mind when I painted the sunset beyond the trees. The colors are lighter, and the spaces are more open. I can always tell when I’ve been sick, for even a sinus infection turns my energy and vision inward. In this work the trees bend toward one another and their leaf crowns unite in a yellow communal mass. They may be separate life forms, but they all are rooted in the same earth and nourished by the same water. As the prophet Jeremiah says in 17:8—
“He is like a tree planted by water,that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
May we all be like the trees planted by the refreshing streams of water, even during these drought times.
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.
Some people are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer in this germ conscious age of Coronavirus, but we who practice the art life are also stocking up on Liquitex heavy body acrylic paint and canvases plus coffee, so we can make the best of a bad situation. We’re also giving encouragement to all we meet or greet, for we know we’re all in this together. When our local officials call for “social distancing,” some think this means individuals have to take care of their own needs only, but this isn’t so. This “social distance” only refers to the space between us, not to our ignorance of the needs of others.
Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome (2nd CE), wrote in one his Meditations, “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee,” (Book VI, 54). If we don’t work for the good of all, we aren’t doing good for ourselves. I met our condo maintenance man the other day as I was returning from our last art class before spring break. (Our return date is flexible, depending on the coronavirus situation.)
“Did you hear when Walmart runs out of food, they’re going to close it down and not reopen it till all this virus blows over?” “What? That’s crazy. They’ll be selling food till the end of time. Money, honey, they wants it and food, we needs it.”
“That’s what I hear. We’re all gonna starve.” “No, we won’t starve. I have enough dried beans, pasta, canned tuna, and the like to last us a month. It might not be appetizing, but we won’t starve. If you get hungry, you just come to my place and I’ll feed you. Do not worry about food.” “There you go,” he said as he drove away. Maybe he just needed to hear reassurance from someone who wasn’t wearing crazy pants for a change.
Sometimes we get caught up in everyone else’s crazy and forget the words of faith:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:26-27).
Worry is a topic in every age. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd CE, who favored the Stoic philosophy. For a Stoic, the vagaries of life didn’t produce happiness or any other emotional experiences, but virtue alone was the source of true happiness. Stoicism was an ethical way of life, in which order and the good of the community were more important than personal indulgence.
“Does the sun pretend to perform the work of the rain, or Aesculapius that of Ceres? What of the several stars? Are they not different, yet all jointly working for the same end? (Book VI, 43).”
In that ancient age, the Romans thought the sun, moon, and stars were all divine. Asclepius was the son of Apollo, the sun god, and a mortal woman, but he was raised by a centaur, a half horse-half man, who taught him healing powers. Ceres was the goddess of grain and of life itself. Famine, fertility, and the harvest were all under her power. Indeed, for the Romans, the entire cosmos was divine, and was organized in favour of providence. Marcus mentions “the whole cosmos is organised like a city, that is to say, each part is so organized as to serve the good of the whole.”
“Consider frequently the connexion of all things in the Universe, and their relation to each other. All things are in a manner intermingled with one another, and are, therefore, mutually friendly. For one thing comes in due order after another, by virtue of local movements, and of the harmony and unity of the whole (Book VI, 38).”
In the age of coronavirus, we sometimes think if we aren’t at risk, or if the harm is negligible for us or our families, we aren’t obligated to practice the same healthy practices recommended for other risk based groups. We would be thinking wrong, however. If low-risk people don’t socially distance, then the entire containment process is ineffective. Generally, there are fewer high-risk individuals — the sick and the elderly — and they don’t tend to move around as much as lower-risk individuals. Therefore, it’s more likely that a low-risk individual will expose a high-risk individual to the virus.
When we paint a still life of flowers in art class, we have to pay attention to the “harmony and unity of the whole.” Often I show several famous artists’ works before we begin, partly to expose my class to great art, but also to comment on certain design elements that they can incorporate to make their works more interesting. The Cezanne vase of flowers has an off center or asymmetrical subject balanced by the strong linear shapes dividing the background. Sometimes our own lives are off kilter, but we can stay balanced if we make sure to keep the weights on either side of the fulcrum point proportional according to their distance from the balance point. A large mass near the center point will balance out a lesser weight more distant from the pivot point.
We’re talking about the different types of balance in art: symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, and mosaic (or all over) balance. When our lives become unbalanced, we need to institute order. Some of us house clean, others do home repairs or work on our golf games. Others of us cook up a storm and ignore our normal routines. Lately in this age of coronavirus, folks have taken to panic grocery shopping. I went to Sam’s for some usual bulk items and thought we were going to be hit by a freak one two punch of a spring blizzard and hurricane over the weekend. All the bread, chicken, paper goods, and cleaning products were gone. The next day I went to Kroger and saw the same thing, plus all the vegetables and fresh fruits were wiped out.
I paused to chat with a produce clerk. “I guess I picked a bad day to shop. Has it been like this all day?” She paused her straightening of the half dozen shallots remaining in the empty produce display case. Rolling her eyes, she sighed, “It’s been like this since we opened. Forty people were waiting at the door at 7 this morning.”
“Oh no! That’s too early to be out and about!” “Agreed! They’ve cleaned us out. Buying all that toilet paper, like we wouldn’t get a truck tomorrow.” “You get delivery every day?” “Oh, yeah, this is a big store and everything turns over quick. We’ll always get more tomorrow. “
I wished her luck. She looked tired and overwhelmed, but ten hours of an apocalyptic panic filled crowd had to have been unnerving. If we can’t see the danger beyond us, we often do whatever we can to help us feel like we’re taking charge of the situation. In reality, washing our hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. After this, limiting personal interaction or social distancing, is the next good we can do for one another. My old mother had a prescription for trying times: “If you want to feel better during hard times, take care of someone less fortunate than you. Quit worrying about yourself.”
In art class we took some time to share how our lives would be impacted by the closings and postponements of upcoming various events. Some have new babies to celebrate, children to care for when schools close, and I have a 50th college reunion that got cancelled. I have an upcoming art show, which I anticipate will get cancelled also. These things happen, and while I won’t see my girlfriends from long ago, we can possibly make an alternative plan for the art show. If not, there’s next year, and we press on, knowing the year of coronavirus isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but a distraction that will bring out either the best or the worst in us.
Will general conference be postponed or annual conference? We don’t know as yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. While we can want our lives to run on our time and our schedules, there is a time and an order that belongs to God alone. Some people of faith can’t allow their minds to include the natural process of death and disease in the workings of God’s providence, while others see these as God’s just punishment for sin.
If God is at work for good in our illness and death, then it’s because God quickens the human heart to help and give care to others, rather than to lead us to care only for ourselves. If the poor and the vulnerable are most at risk in a pandemic, then the pervasive providence of God’s mercy is poured out for them through the hands of those who love and serve God. As people of faith, we believe “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Fresh flowers are fragile and not long lived. As such, artists choose to paint them in place of human subjects, who also have limited life spans. Flowers have the extra benefit of never complaining, “I’m tired. When can I get up and walk around?” They also don’t fuss if you paint them blue, if their actual color is pink, or say, “Well, I don’t think it looks very much like me.” I vote for flowers any day.
Gail rendered a fine asymmetrical design and paid close attention to the details of the flowers. Mike had an exuberant design with emotional use of color and texture. I asked both of them to try a new technique for mixing colors: pick up several colors on the brush and mix them on the canvas itself, rather than mix up one flat color, as if they were buying a bucket of paint at Lowe’s. I painted over an old canvas from last year. The bright colors of springtime give my spirits a lift, even if I know the skies are gray and drab.
Our art class Tuesday was much diminished by the threat of the coronavirus, but since many of us in the group are older, I’d rather they stay home and stay healthy, so we can meet to paint another day. Many things are changing now, so we need to adjust our minds to the new normal of life in the age of coronavirus. Just as schools are now doing distant teaching via the internet, churches will be live-streaming preaching and using small choral groups or soloists as their musicians. My favorite Starbucks will likely become a drive through, and restaurants will become get and go food distribution sites. Public places, such as movie theaters, museums, and bars will also close their doors. Prepare for the internet to slow down, with everyone streaming entertainment, school lessons, and shopping at home.
Since we don’t know how long this contagion will continue, our art class will not meet together in person until we know we can do no harm to one another by our gatherings. Our usual rule is if the schools are closed, we don’t meet. This more often applies to a weather emergency, but a health emergency is just as dangerous. When we’re cooped up at home for inclement weather, we can keep our spirits up, for we know the days will be temperate or tolerable soon enough. We find a way to keep our hands and minds busy as we mark our time of confinement. It always helps if we keep a sense of calm about us.
The ancient International Wisdom Tradition prized order not only in nature, but also in the community. Those who practiced this way of thinking in the Hebrew world could relate to Ben Sira’s words:
“In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. From morning to evening conditions change; all things move swiftly before the Lord.” (Sirach 18:25-26)
The solid Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Do you dread change? What can come without it? What can be pleasanter or more proper to universal nature? Can you heat your bath unless wood undergoes a change? Can you be fed unless a change is wrought upon your food? Can any useful thing be done without changes? Do you not see, then, that this change also which is working in you is even such as these, and alike necessary to the nature of the Universe? (Book VII, 18)”
Just remember, as an artist, you are a change agent. This is your nature, your being, and your purpose. You bring beauty to the empty canvas, you make sense of a lump of clay or a slab of rock. You can take cast off objects found on the roadside and recreate them into a new object full of meaning. You can change the fears and anxieties of your community by encouraging others to have hope and optimism. If we find the small ounces of courage within us, and share the teaspoons of it with others, we’ll find more courage welling up within us to flow out to others. By being willing to change our own lives, we can change others, and together we change the world.
I will keep you posted with my plans and projects, for I don’t plan to waste this time of seclusion. It’s a great time to catch up on reading, make some new paintings, try new recipes, and maybe even finish some chores about the home place. We won’t lose connection with each other, for if you keep me in mind and I keep you in mind, we will all keep the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
Keep one another safe until we meet again. Joy and Peace, Cornelia