The point of view determines the perspective of a work of art. One’s point of view, or preconceived bias, can determine how one sees the world and the decisions they make about the information that comes to them. If we think the world is a scary place, resources are few and won’t be enough for everyone, then, we’ll operate from fear and hoarding. If we believe God’s promises are faithful and God will indeed provide for our needs, then we’ll live in trust and hope, even as we order our lives to want less and enjoy simpler pleasures.
I always find it strange how the people in the Bible who have the greatest riches also have the most difficulty following Jesus. Matthew in 16:24-26 speaks to this topic in the section on “The Cross and Self-Denial:”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Of course, even in the 1st century AD, people wanted to have material possessions, a good income, and wealth stored up for the future. When Jesus said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:38), he invited his followers to enter a despicable journey.
The Via Dolorosa isn’t named the Way of Grief for nothing. People walked it, bearing a heavy cross beam, on the way to an undignified death, a punishment reserved for criminals.
Yet Jesus transformed this ancient punishment into a means of redemption. He took a symbol of death and made it into a hope for new life. Because of this , the author of Hebrews 12:2 could write, “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Now we can live the Easter promise written in Ephesians 2:12-18:
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
So we who live on this side of the resurrection have a joy to celebrate every day. For us the cross is a sign of victory over sin and death, and the evidence of new life and love God has for God’s world and God’s peoples. As we read in Colossians 1:19-20—
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.
The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.
Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.
Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.
I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.
When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.
Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.
I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).
I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.
Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.
This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.
Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.
Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.
Nearly a century ago, no one had “Pandemic Shuts Down Halloween “ on their bingo card. The Great Influenza Pandemic griped the nation back in 1918, so most Halloween celebrations were cancelled due to quarantines. At least 195,000 people had died of this novel disease in America by October, 1918. The CDC estimates about 500 million people—or a third of the world’s population—had come down with this killer virus. By the1920’s, at the end of the Pandemic, at least 50 million people died, with 675,000 victims in the United States alone.
At the time, we had no vaccines to protect against influenza and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. Many doctors and nurses were serving in World War I, so the civilian medical professionals around the world tried to control infections with nonpharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, masks, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings. An interesting side note is all the flu pandemics which have happened since — 1957, 1968, 2009 — are derivatives of the 1918 flu, according to scientists at the National Institutes of Health.
The world back then was falling apart on two fronts from the first world war and disease. People at home were dropping like flies. Bodies were stacking up like cordwood and were placed in mass graves. Then, as now, we rabbits, like people, can only take so much stress before we need to release it. Many of us are pots with tight fitting lids: as soon as we reach the boiling point, our lid begins to rattle and clatter. If the cook doesn’t remove the lid and stir down the goo inside, we’ll be an over flowing volcanic mess, much like my morning oatmeal I’ve neglected when I’ve had too little coffee. Then Halloween, with its ghouls, goblins, witches, and other demons of the dark, arrives like Washington Irving’s ghost of the Headless Horseman, which we meet in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written in 1820.
Flu Pandemic Inspired Fiction
H. P. Lovecraft was one of the great horror writers, famous for his zombies, which may have been inspired by the grisly experiences of the influenza pandemic. Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft’s hometown, wasn’t spared the pandemic’s ghastly atmosphere.
As one local witness remembered, “all around me people were dying… [and] funeral directors worked with fear… . Many graves were fashioned by long trenches, bodies were placed side by side.” The pandemic, the witness laments, was “leaving in its wake countless dead, and the living stunned at their loss” (letter by Russell Booth; Collier Archives, Imperial War Museum, London).
Lovecraft channeled this existential horror into his stories of the period, producing corpse-filled tales with infectious atmospheres from which sprang lurching, flesh-eating invaders who left bloody corpses in their wake.
In his 1922 story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” Lovecraft created a ghoulish doctor intent on reanimating newly dead corpses. A pandemic arrives that offers him fresh specimens. This echoes the flu scenes of mass graves, overworked doctors and piles of bodies. When the head doctor of the hospital dies in the outbreak, Dr. West reanimates him, producing a proto-zombie figure that escapes to wreak havoc on the town. The living dead doctor lurches from house to house, ravaging bodies and spreading destruction, a monstrous, visible version of what the flu virus had done worldwide. Lovecraft wrote about a zombie super-spreader even before we knew such a thing existed. Who says “life sometimes doesn’t imitate art?”
Infection, Prejudice and the Viral Zombies
In other episodes and stories, Lovecraft’s proto-zombies suggest an additional thread of prejudice that runs through the zombie tradition, one fueled by widespread fears of contagion during the pandemic. Even before the outbreak, Lovecraft believed that foreign hordes were infecting the Aryan race generally, weakening the bloodlines. These xenophobic anxieties weave their way into his stories, as contagion and pandemic-soaked atmospheres blend into racist fears of immigrants and nonwhite invaders. We hear these same themes repeated today in our pandemic times by white supremacists and far right groups who want a sovereign nation within the land of the free.
Indeed, many of Lovecraft’s stories are unwitting templates for how prejudicial fears may be problematically amplified at moments of crisis. Such fears are evoked and often critiqued in later depictions of viral zombie hordes, such as the infectious monsters of Romero’s 1968 movie, “Night of the Living Dead” and the film’s subtle commentary on race, as when the white police force mistakes the main African American character for a viral zombie. Amazing how systemic racism persists in making “walking while black equate to viral zombie” even today.
Small Rabbits Fear Large Monsters
Lovecraft’s proto-zombies also provided a strange compensation for some of the pandemic’s worst memories. Like the covid-19 virus of today and the flu of the last century, these monsters consumed the flesh of the living, spread blood and violence, and acted without cause or explanation. Lovecraft assures his readers that these monsters are far worse than anything they saw in World War I or in the pandemic, the twin defining tragedies of his era. Unlike the virus, though, these literary monsters could be seen, stopped, killed, and reburied. Every decade seems to need its own monster or zombie, and Lovecraft offered his readers a version that spoke deeply to the anxieties of his moment.
Modern Fears Birth Modern Monsters
Our modern monsters are more in tune with the unimaginable horrors of our present world. In the 1950’s we had nuclear terrors, so our monsters were Godzilla and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. In the 1990’s, cloning was a scientific advance we knew could go amiss, so we had dinosaurs run amuck in Jurassic Park. Aliens have always been the most foreign of foreigners, so whether it’s the Thing from Outer Space or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we can scream into our popcorn all afternoon long. If we don’t scream, everyone will know we’re one of the “pod people.” Even before cinema took over entertainment, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds caused mass panic among listeners who believed Earth really had been invaded by Martians on October 30, 1938.
Dangers of Dualistic Thinking
Maybe this is why we rabbits need structured experiences which bring us up to the edge of fear, but in a safe environment. We need to learn to deal with our feelings and emotions as they threaten to overwhelm us. We need reassurance we can handle the frightening experience. We don’t need to be thrown off a cliff, but tested appropriately. If we don’t deal with our inner fears, we’ll see a ghoul in every dark shadow. This is why movies today have ratings for age groups.
When I was young, I was certain monsters lived under my bed and in my closet. I couldn’t sleep unless my closet door was shut. I was in art school before I could leave that door open. Something clicked in my mind, or I realized I was now at the age of responsibility. If this were so, I needed to give up this childish fear of invisible monsters. It was time for me to be the monster slayer in real life.
My daddy had a fear of monsters all his life—he called them communists. As a member of the now discredited John Birch Society, he claimed there was a “commie in every breadbox.” We’re no different today, for we rabbits seem to need our own monsters in the world beyond us. If we can’t deal with the brokenness or fears within us, we’ll project it outward onto an outside “other” group. Just as we too often put certain rabbits on a pedestal and are shocked when they fall, we also put some rabbits in a pit and wonder why they can’t get out of it. We tell ourselves “they don’t try hard enough” or “they aren’t worthy enough,” but neither of these statements are true. People are individuals, so we can’t make conclusions about them as a group.
Mischief Abounds All Night
By the 1920s, Halloween in America had become synonymous with mischief, which young people used as an excuse to break windows or damage property. Mischief comes from the Middle English word meschief, or “misfortune,” which itself derives from the Old French meschever, “to end up badly.” In the U.S., mischief has a legal definition: “Criminal mischief” includes true vandalism, such as the defacement or destruction of property, but also includes fully reversible pranks, like toilet-papering a house. In some states, it covers even vanishingly minor annoyances, like ding-dong-ditch, or ringing the doorbell and running off before the homeowner can answer the door. In 1923, the police chief commissioner in Omaha, Nebraska, went so far as to designate the “city’s worst boys” as junior police officers on October 31 and relied on them to report criminal behavior in an attempt to curb vandalism.
I met two of my young students dressed in black garbage bags as my daughter and I returned from trick or treating one Halloween night. Their too guilty grins as they said hello and hid their hands underneath their costumes was a dead giveaway they were the likely culprits for the artistically draped toilet paper on my giant live oak tree. I let them pass on by and got my car keys to go visit their home, which was just up the street. After a drink and a chat with the parents, we agreed the boys would clean up my tree. My parents also were visited with this “sign of endearment” more than they liked when I was young. I imagine it’s still going on today.
Reflections on a Non Traditional Halloween
While we grownup rabbits think our little bunnies are going to miss Halloween traditions, the smallest ones don’t know what is tradition yet and the older ones can understand why this year will be different. Trick or treating began in the USA after WWII, as a way to discourage mischief, for if the kids get candy, they’ll be less likely to wreck havoc. As far as long term memories go, I’ve stretched mine, and can remember only one neighborhood walk about. I was slowed by my Carmine Miranda costume, while my brothers ran two houses ahead. I was delayed by holding my fruited headdress on my head.
Another Halloween we had a party at home with apple bobbing, snack making, and games. This was probably due to a fear of poison or pins in candy bars. This fear comes around every year, but it seems to be an urban legend. I also remember attending a school haunted house and walking through the dark and spooky cloakroom. There I touched all sorts of icky, gooey substances purporting to be “brains, eyeballs, and assorted body parts.” I do remember I did everything I could to not be banished to that same cloakroom for bad behavior the rest of year. No sense tempting fate, for sure, my eight year old mind reasoned.
If this holiday is for four year olds to twelve year olds, I can only remember one third of the years. In the short run it seems important, but in the long life of a person, only a few extraordinary moments will rise to peak memory. If this isn’t a year for house to house galavanting, or trunk to trunk acquisitions of treasure, then we’ll use our creativity to make it special, for that’s what we do.
This Is Not the Apocalypse
We rabbits live in a world of apocalyptic scenarios, yet we have safer, healthier, and longer lives than people in any other point in history. Still we constantly imagine our whole world could all fall apart in a heartbeat. We take our worries and translate a lot of our anxiety into fears about our children. If we listen to the new or hang out on social media, we might get caught up in “doom scrolling.” This is the internet version of rubbernecking at a gory traffic accident. Halloween began as the dark and terrifying compliment to the following bright and glorious All Saints Day celebration of November 1st, when the faithful remembered the saints, martyrs, and ordinary believers who have touched the lives of all the living.
The World of the Living and the Dead Meet
In both these festivals, the world of the living and the dead is permeable and fluid. These two days help us meet our fears about death, the uncertainty of our world, and our inability to control the seeming chaos of a world spinning out of control. We look to fallible individuals today for the change we seek, forgetting that we ourselves need to become the change we want to happen. Moreover, we forget the power of faith and the purpose of our combined faith communities called to work for a just and better world, which reflects the heavenly world to come.
The prophet Isaiah (65:17-18) speaks of God’s glorious new creation:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
The promises for the Hebrew people in exile belong also to us today, for we find ourselves living in “exile from the life we once knew.” If we live in the past, we’ll always live in exile from the present. Perhaps we should choose to live in hope for a better future and spend our time in this now making that promise come true.
What is Real? What is True? What has Meaning for our shared lives in community? Is there an Authority for any of these questions, or are we all on our own when we try to figure out how to make sense of our world? The ancient Greeks were onto these questions long before the fateful day when Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
Today we have a branch of philosophy which studies how we know things. It’s called epistemology. The word comes from the Greek words episteme and logos. Episteme can be translated as knowledge, understanding, or acquaintance, while logos is often translated as account, argument, or reason. Logos also means word, saying, speech, discourse, thought, proportion, ratio, and reckoning. In some strains of Greek thought, the Logos was the rational principle which governed and developed the universe. In early Christianity, the Christ was the Logos or Divine Word through which God created and ordered the universe.
Normally, in ordinary conversation, we don’t throw around these fifty cent words, but prefer instead the nickel and dime ones of our fast food conversations. “How was your day?” We answer, “Fine,” but don’t pull up the deeper words of our emotions to share with the ones we love the most. Eventually we come to a quiet acceptance of togetherness, but perhaps also an inherent loneliness also. The isolation of this Pandemic has cut us off from sharing with others, so now we may feel this inner pain more acutely.
I personally miss the brief give and takes between the random strangers whom I meet in the grocery store or at the coffee shop. Just the opportunity to compliment a stranger or to help an elderly shopper find a product makes me feel good. Likewise, if someone does the same for me, I also feel better about myself. Making connections gives us a sense of community and unity in this trying time.
If we put on a brave face, smile, and say, “I’m fine,” are we being Real, True, or merely hiding behind what society has determined is the appropriate response to this time and place in which we find ourselves? Artists find themselves in this position every single time they approach a blank canvas, a lump of clay or a block of stone. “Am I going to do what all the artists before me have also done, or will I look at this in a new light and make an entirely new expression?” When the first Cubist paintings went on exhibit in France in 1911 at the Salon of the Independents, the people who attended were outraged, for the artists had broken every rule of “good painting,” which the attendees could see first hand in the other exhibits.
Cubism broke the plane of the canvas into an overall fractured space, rather than an attempt to render a three dimensional subject on a flat surface. It presented multiple viewpoints of the objects at once, rather than a single view. Picasso and Braque challenged the accepted representation of art: does art have to represent the world as we see it? Do we instead carry the ability to disassemble reality and reassemble it in a way that’s not limited to the dimensions of the real world? These artists were groundbreaking because they actively deconstructed the real form to illustrate the chaotic and puzzling side of the real world. For cubists, artists aren’t just people who paint beautiful things, but people who give others the chance to think about the world they’re living in through artistic expression.
Traumatic events like September 11th and this Pandemic also “disassemble our reality” and may cause us to reject it outright, hide from it, deny its impact, or find a way to make sense of a fallen and broken world. We can either become wounded healers or we can become wounded people who keep on wounding others. Nothing can take away the losses we’ve suffered, but we can learn to make use of our grief to help others get to better places in their own lives.
Art often serves as therapy for traumatized persons, as does journaling. This is because both are physical means of expression and both require focused breathing. I find I can’t paint when I’m agitated, but if I do a little cleaning of my palette and preparing of my work area, I begin to calm down enough to concentrate. With writing, I like using old fashioned pen and ink on paper to let the good ideas flow, but I can also tap, tap on the iPad if I have a well conceived idea beforehand.
If we let the thoughts inside of us come up to the surface, we can become aware of them and deal with them. Sometimes we don’t like these painful images that arise, for they remind us of old trauma and grief, which may depress or anger us. We need to look these feelings in the face for what they are: emotions only, but they aren’t the definition of our eternal Truth. These are mere moments in time, not forever moments, unless we choose them to be. As a person living with chronic depression, I had to learn how to think positively and stay appropriately medicated, as well as to do the healthy self care behaviors to enhance my ability for an optimistic outlook on life. We can be survivors, not victims. If I ruminated on my sad thoughts or anxious feelings, I wouldn’t be able to take positive steps forward. Learning how to refocus my thoughts took time and practice, but the effort was worth it.
Art pushes our boundaries outward, so we are more resilient when we meet struggles in the world. If we struggle and fail on a painting, we still learn from our work some lessons to apply on the next one. Art is a series of building up of failures until you get competency surrounded. One day your hand, eye, heart, and mind all click into one circuit. Suddenly your art looks like you seem to know what you’re doing. It has a voice unique to you and begins to speak to the world beyond. This is the moment when your inner spirit and emotions are at work, for you have enough technical ability to get the meaning across.
How long does this take before your work takes on its own personality? We all have it from the beginning, for we each have our own unique insight into the world built up from our past experiences. The better question we ask is “when does our work look good?” At this point we’re asking, “Is it Beautiful, Technically Competent, Engaging, or Appealing?” Sometimes we’re asking, is it commercially viable, or will someone buy it? If the test of great art is someone will purchase it, Rembrandt’s later works and most of Van Gogh’s oeuvre don’t make the cut. Yet, history proves these are museum worthy paintings. This means we don’t need to concern ourselves with this question, but we shouldn’t quit our day job anytime soon.
A recent study found if a family has an annual income of $100,000, a child is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise the annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, for every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, a person is two percent more likely to enter a creative field. This is why we see so few persons of color in the art world today, for historically their art was not only disparaged in early American history, but today people of color have lower median incomes than whites, partly due to systemic racism resulting from inequalities in education, but also lack of entry into home ownership due to redlining.
Art is like ministry: we don’t do it to get rich. We do it to live our best life. We do it because we have a need to express the deeper voice which we hear in the depths of our hearts and mind. It isn’t the call of the world, but the mysterious calling of the Divine Word, which we remember from John 1:1-5, was “The Word Became Flesh:”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
When we make art of any kind, we reassemble a new reality, for we proclaim we’re living in the power of the creating God. We know we aren’t a god, but we share God’s image and God’s work of creation. Because of this, we can rebuild the broken world, heal the broken people, and show love and compassion to all we meet. For many of us who grieve or judge ourselves harshly, maybe self compassion and self love is the first reconstruction of our world we should work on. If we aren’t painting or sculpting, we can bake pies or cookies, keep gardens, grow flowers or veggies, or do any other life giving endeavors.
Art gives us an safe space and an opportunity to build a new world. If it doesn’t hang together, we can always paint over it and try again. Or we can start afresh on a brand new canvas. How many of us wish we could wipe yesterday from our memories? Or come to tomorrow clean and new? We can have hope, as Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
On a long ago Monday morning, I had no other pressing issues on my mind other than “More coffee and swing by the local garage for a new battery for the church van.” That’s what happens when a simple van doesn’t come with automatic headlights. When I arrived inside the church, I was greeted by the shocked looks of folks gathered around the radio. “Preacher, the Pentagon has fallen and the Twin Towers in New York have collapsed.”
I was aghast and speechless. I went to the garage, where I knew the TV and the coffee would be on, plus the old boys gathered there would be in the know. I’d kill two birds with one stone. “I’ll be back soon. If folks want to pray, tell them I’ll be here by noon.”
Some churches are family centered, so they want to gather at home and hug their loved ones tight at times of crisis. Other groups don’t have family nearby, so they gather together to offer one another comfort in times of grief. I stayed at the church that afternoon and was there for the strangers who noticed our light and stoped on their sojourn along the highway of life. God meets us where we are.
Right Wing Violence Growing in America Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City Federal Center Bombing in 1995, which killed 165 people and injured 500 others, and was first blamed on Middle Eastern terrorists, was the second-most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history, except for September 11, 2001.
I mention it because although Americans have always found the “bad guys/others/scapegoats” as worthy of our nationalistic scorn, but homegrown far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Still, right-wing attacks and plots have accounted for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years.
When we remember our friends and fellow citizens who lost their lives in the 2001 attacks, we also must take a moment of silence for the citizens of our world who also lost their lives. 9/11 was by far the worst terrorist attack in American history with 2,977 victims (excluding the 19 perpetrators). While the attacks were aimed at the United States, 372 foreign nationals from 61 countries were also victims. Why is this important? Nearly two decades ago, America saw herself as a leader among nations, rather than as a nation behind a wall, alone. We went to war, not only to avenge our “honor” and take “retribution for our loss,” but also to “make the world a safer place in which to live.”
War Against Terror and the Axis of Evil Before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a new approach to foreign policy in response to 9/11: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Bush declared that the United States considered any nation that supported terrorist groups a hostile regime. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President Bush called out an “Axis of Evil” consisting of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, and he declared all a threat to American security.
I remember how full our church was the Sunday after September 11, 2001. Each person there wanted to know what their pastor would say about the one, true, Christian response to the attack, and where a person of faith should stand on war that was surely coming. I’m sure my people were surprised I didn’t tell them there was only one true way, but several paths Christians across the centuries have faithfully chosen. Thinking for yourself by using the Scripture, the traditions of the church, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the struggle we people of faith are called to make.
Why are we building walls? Since that fateful day, we’ve thrown up a wall of sorts on our southern border. While it was supposed to be a “big beautiful wall, like you’ve never seen before, from coast to coast,” the truth of it is Trump has promised to build at least 500 miles of new fencing by early next year, but his administration has completed only about 110 miles so far.
Nearly all of the new fencing the Trump administration has built so far is considered “replacement” fencing, swapping out smaller, older vehicle barriers for a more elaborate — and costly — “border wall system.” The administration has been slowed because building new barriers where none currently exist requires the acquisition of private land, and many owners don’t want to sell. They would lose access to all of their land by selling a portion. Even with the slated construction goals, most of the southern border will not have a man-made barrier, since the terrain is considered too tough to traverse.
Big Walls Make Bad Neighbors Where building has occurred, the neighbors haven’t been happy. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery were brought up to the edge of the Oregon Pipe National Monument outside Tucson. There the crews also detonated bedrock to lay the barrier’s foundation. Crews removed cactus and other plant life near the international wildlife preserve to make way for access roads, which Border Patrol say are needed to enhance security. The Army Corps of Engineers in February conducted a series of controlled blasts along a sacred Native American heritage site known as Monument Hill.
These are just a few of the indignities to our natural resources, our environment, and our Native American peoples in the mad dash to protect the country from “marauding caravans.” Remember the caravans? So 2019—they were last year’s scapegoats. The people to fear this year are “people of color who are coming for your suburbs, led by Corey Gardner and the Democrats!”
Good Walls Make Good Neighbors Of course, if artists and architects from both Mexico and America had collaborated to design the wall it might have been more welcoming as cultural destination. In fact it might have been a money maker for tourism on both sides of the border, but who cares about money in these days?
Truth and Lies I grew up in the Deep South back in the awful days when governors stood in school house doors to prevent black children from attending classes with white kids. I thought America today was better than this. While Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful and the vast majority of demonstration events associated with the BLM movement are non-violent, unfortunately disinformation campaigns have convinced some that the opposite is true.
However, in more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the BLM movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity. Peaceful protests have been reported in over 2,400 distinct locations around the country. Violent demonstrations, meanwhile, have been limited to fewer than 220 locations — under 10% of the areas that experienced peaceful protests.
Right-wing Extremism Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019. In addition, right-wing extremism accounted for over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020. Second, terrorism in the United States will likely increase over the next year in response to several factors. One of the most concerning is the 2020 U.S. presidential election, before and after which extremists may resort to violence, depending on the outcome of the election. Far-right and far-left networks have used violence against each other at protests, raising the possibility of escalating violence during the election period.
Between 1994 and 2020, there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States. Overall, right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority—57 percent—of all attacks and plots during this period, compared to 25 percent committed by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists, and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.
The Truth Will Set You Free All terrorism feeds off lies, conspiracies, disinformation, and hatred. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi urged individuals to practice what he called “satyagraha,” or truth force. “Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatever; and it always insists upon truth,” he explained. That advice is just as important as it has ever been in the United States.
Mahatma Gandhi practiced Satyagraha or “holding onto truth, ” to designate an attitude of determined but nonviolent resistance to evil. Gandhi’s satyagraha became a major tool in the Indian struggle against British imperialism and has since been adopted by protest groups in other countries. Jesus was fond of saying, “The truth will set you free.”
Tribute to the Victims of Foreign Terrorism In this 19th anniversary of the Tribute to the Victims of Foreign Terrorism, I wonder if it’s not time to rethink this memorial. The loved ones deserve to be remembered, the brave responders need to be honored, but we need to come to grips with the pain and agonies within our own greater community. The Pandemic has revealed structural inequalities that have been built over generations. Just as our interstate highway system was a great infrastructure project of the 1950’s, but we’ve driven on orange barrel roadways ever since because no one in congress has the will to spend the money on the concrete the people use. Instead they give giant tax breaks to corporations with the thought the money will “trickle down” to those below. When it doesn’t, they try again, thinking “It’ll work THIS TIME.” Now we need to address the cracks in our country and mend our brokenness.
Revisioning and Reimagining Due to the Pandemic For the first time since 2002, the annual Tribute in Light—the dual beams of light that commemorates the victims of the September 11th terror attacks—will go dark. The organizers, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which manages the installation at the Battery Parking Garage in Lower Manhattan, made the difficult decision, citing the health risks of the pandemic. After consultations, the museum concluded, “the health risks during the pandemic were far too great for the large crew—30 technicians, electricians, and stagehands—required over ten days to produce the annual Tribute in Light.” The twin pillars of light, which can be seen up to 60 miles away, became a fixture following the second anniversary of the attacks.
The lights, featuring eight-eight 7,000-watt xenon light bulbs are placed in two 48-foot squares, but they are directly in the path of migrating birds. The convergence creates a spectacle that is eerily beautiful, yet according to one study, endangers some 160,000 birds a year, starkly illustrating the perils of humans and animals sharing an urban ecosystem. The tiring detour through the beams of light can put birds at risk of starvation or injury to populations already threatened by light pollution, collisions with buildings, habitat destruction and climate change. To solve the problem, the lights are switched on and off at twenty minute intervals. This allows the birds to reorient themselves and safely travel on. Otherwise, the light lures them in, and the glass windows of the buildings finish them off.
The pandemic and social distancing has also forced the museum to scale back the commemorative ceremony on September 11th, including a live reading of all 9/11 and 1993 bombing victims that has traditionally been conducted by victims’ family members. A recording from the museum’s “In Memoriam” exhibition will be used instead to minimize the risk of exposure to families visiting that day.
September 11 Victim Compensation Fund From 2001 to 2004, over $7 billion dollars in compensation was given to families of the 9/11 victims and the 2,680 people injured in the attacks. Funding was renewed on January 2, 2011, when President Barack Obama signed The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act into law, which was named for James Zadroga, a New York City Police officer who died rescuing survivors. In 2015, funding for the treatment of 9/11-related illness, was renewed for five more years at a total of $7.4 billion.
The Victim Compensation Fund was set to stop accepting claims in December 2020. On July 29, 2019, President Trump signed a law authorizing support for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund through 2092. Previously, administrators had cut benefits by up to 70 percent as the $7.4 billion fund depleted. Vocal lobbyists for the fund included Jon Stewart, 9/11 first responder John Feal and retired New York Police Department detective and 9/11 responder Luis Alvarez, who died of cancer 18 days after testifying before Congress.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind Americans have a notoriously short attention span. We’re given to the latest fads. Once upon a time goldfish swallowing was all the rage, as was stuffing telephone booths (we don’t even have those anymore), and planking. Oh my. I remember piling into VW bugs in the early 60’s with the school chum who had a convertible. She got bonus points because we could stack the most petite of our friends on our shoulders in a tower. Photo op for yearbook. With social media and 24 hour news channels, a story can be here today and gone tomorrow. If we were upset at the Tide challenge one day, the cinnamon challenge follow hot on its heels. The next challenge will be how tidy your sock drawer is, and you’ll experience excruciating pandemic pain that you’ve lost the last six months of your life with an untidy dresser.
Final Thoughts If we are to fight wars, let them be for just causes, with proportional responses against armed aggressors, but not against civilians. Let’s not stand alone against the world, but link arms with allies who share our values of democracy, self-government, and freedom. Let’s also care for the most vulnerable among us and unite with the nations of the world to protect the environment, for all of us are endangered by climate change and pollution.
If the “lights are out” on 9/11, perhaps we can use the darkness to look inside our hearts for the future path forward. If we take a healing path, we can dedicate it to everyone who has lost their life in the America that was before, and then we can build for their descendants the America they have always dreamed of and hoped for: America the Beautiful.
ACLED collects real-time data on the locations, dates, actors, fatalities, and types of all reported political violence and protest events across Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia & the Caucasus, Latin America & the Caribbean, and Southeastern & Eastern Europe & the Balkans.
The US Crisis Monitor is a joint project of ACLED and BDI, the Bridging Divides Initiative of Princeton University. Through this project, ACLED is able to extend its global methodology to conduct data collection for the US, making real-time data available for public use, while BDI is able to use these data to identify emerging risks and to inform and motivate policy and programming discussions within its civil society network.
Not too many days ago I felt the seasons change. This is an imperceptible feeling for most people, but for artists, and perhaps also for those who make their living off the land, this transition from summer to autumn was important. The autumnal equinox won’t be until September 22, at 8:30 am CST. After the autumnal equinox, the Sun begins to rise later and nightfall comes sooner. This ends with the December solstice, when days start to grow longer and nights shorter.
I had already noticed the first edges of color on the trees around mid August, a change my less optimistic friends claimed was “just heat stress.” However, fall foliage colors aren’t due just to current weather conditions. Leaves change color because of the amount of daylight and photosynthesis. Fall colors don’t begin to appear in the Ozarks and other northern sections of Arkansas until the second week in October and then continue to flow slowly southward. Mid to late October generally provides peak fall color in the northern portions of Arkansas. October and November are two of the most popular months for visitors due to the beautiful fall colors and favorable weather.
The technical term for this color change is “leaf senescence,” or deterioration with age, much like this year, which has only 121 days to go. This old rabbit must be feeling a chill in her bones, or perhaps this Pandemic’s pervasive pain has crept also into my heart. Usually in September I’m eager and ready to buy new ink pens, journals, and art supplies as my “back to school” routine I’ve kept up since my own entrance into first grade or my child’s progress through school. Even now I want to buy crayons in the big box, just to see all the pretty colors and sniff the wax, but I came home to mix colored paint on a canvas instead.
Covid anxiety may have struck some of you other bunny families out there as you prepare for more on-line schooling. As a former teacher, I would remind my bunny friends of all ages to get up and move around at least once an hour. Sitting all day long in one place isn’t good for heart health for anyone of any age. Blocks of time can keep a young bunny focused, knowing they get a break or a snack afterwards. Rewards and incentives are good.
While we wish we could have school, church, life, and sports the way they were before, we all have to live safely in the current Covid environment to get to that happy place. No one wants this disease, especially since we don’t know the long term after effects. No one wants to bear the responsibility for giving this disease to a vulnerable person and possibly causing them harm or death. We bunnies have to be responsible not only for ourselves, but also for one another. After all, we all live in the same carrot patch.
Today I offer a prayer for all of the bunny families who’ve been touched by the coronavirus. I pray for consolation for each of you who’ve lost a loved one, for all of you who have a loved one in the midst of this illness, and also for each of you who are trying to stay healthy and keep your family safe. We can get through this together, by the grace of God, who cares for the least of the creatures of God’s world, as well as for the great unnumbered stars of the night sky above us. We may not see God’s guiding hand in this time of trial, but God can use this struggle for good, if only to help us see clearly what is truly important in life.
Right now, persons of color, under the age of 34, with less than an associate’s degree have the highest unemployment. White men over 55 with a bachelor’s degree or better have the least unemployment, but it’s still around 9%, to which no one would give a prize for excellence. Is this a matter of achievement, or is it systemic racial injustice? It’s easy for a bunny to win a race if they get a half mile head start. We have underfunded schools in non white neighborhoods for over a century. This Pandemic is bringing uncomfortable truths to light.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s had unemployment rates of nearly 25%, the Great Recession of 2008’s unemployment rate was 10% in 2009, and this Pandemic Recession has sent unemployment from 3.5% in February to around 13% in May. Since some workers weren’t counted, the rate was likely even higher. Every bunny has been tightening the belt a notch tighter, since many jobs haven’t yet come back on line.
The World Bank considers the Pandemic Recession to have begun already, with recovery not on the horizon until we have a widely available and effective vaccine or herd immunity. One of the contributing factors to this current recession was prior to the pandemic, some richer countries were moving away from global trade and cooperation, which hurt developing countries by reducing investments and cutting off markets for exporting oil, metals and other goods they provide. Without income, developing countries didn’t have the economic resources to put toward hospitals, schools, and roads. This keeps them from advancing and giving their people a better life.
When I would read Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny stories to my little girl, she always asked, “Why did Mr. McGregor chase the rabbits out of his garden?”
“Darling, he thought he didn’t have enough to share.” “But he never went hungry, did he?” “No, sweetie, he always had enough for his family and all the bunny families too. Now sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite!”
“The summer ended. Day by day, and taking its time, the summer ended. The noises in the street began to change, diminish, voices became fewer, the music sparse. Daily, blocks and blocks of children were spirited away. Grownups retreated from the streets, into the houses. Adolescents moved from the sidewalk to the stoop to the hallway to the stairs, and rooftops were abandoned. Such trees as there were allowed their leaves to fall – they fell unnoticed—seeming to promise, not without bitterness, to endure another year.
At night, from a distance, the parks and playgrounds seemed inhabited by fireflies, and the night came sooner, inched in closer, fell with a greater weight. The sound of the alarm clock conquered the sound of the tambourine, the houses put on their winter faces. The houses stared down a bitter landscape, seeming, not without bitterness, to have resolved to endure another year.”
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.
How many of us get to admire the great creative exuberance of the divine palette strewn across the sky twice a day in our ordinary days? Most of us are too busy breakfast grabbing, caffeine swilling, clothes donning, and storming the door in a mad dash for the morning rush to work. Then we join the misnomered evening rush hour, which actually moves at a snail’s pace. We’re too busy watching the bumper in front of us on a highway to pay attention to the sky above us. If we’re guarding our goods on a subway, we can’t even see the light of day until we exit the bowels of the earth, but then we’ve got our eyes set on home, not on the sky above us.
I wonder if this Age of Coronavirus has changed us in any way, since January 30, when the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency due to the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China. It’s been about one hundred days since the World Health Organization and our everyday world has known about this pandemic plague, but cancelled sporting events and music festivals, working from home, and closed schools are now part of our daily life. The opening day for Major League Baseball heard no crack of bat against the ball and no hawkers in the stands shouting, “Peanuts, popcorn, crackerjack!” Even though the 2020 Olympic flame burns brightly in japan, the games won’t be held this summer due to the virulent virus and athletes won’t earn shining metals.
If today we haven’t these rituals of community as celebrations of our common humanity, we might feel a sense of loss, even grief. Yet we can find a daily reminder of hope, for the sun continues to rise in the morning and set in the evening. When the moon rises and the stars come out at night, we can see the rotation of the constellations according to the seasons of the year. Of course, we have to look up, and not down. We also have to look out beyond ourselves, and not just inside always. When we’re cooped up inside, doing #StayHomeStaySafe for our own good as well as for others, sometimes it’s difficult to look outward.
When I was a child, my family didn’t have many art works in our home, but we always had a colorful nature calendar. My parents were always willing to hang my art in their home, an act I found encouraging. We also made weekend trips to hike in nature, ostensibly to “search for arrowheads,” but more often just to be outside. When I was in active ministry, I would go to nature when I was drained and needed to find the quiet place to restore my soul. There were times when I felt the demands of my superiors for more productivity and the nagging from my congregation about why I couldn’t be available all the time in the office as well as out visiting the home bound were more than I could handle, so I would close up shop and take a drive. I thought I might kill the next person who came in my office, but that’s not evidence of “going on to perfection,” so leaving was a better choice on my part.
I very often served in county seat towns, so I was never far from nature, but even in the city, I knew the location of the best parks. In art school, I even lived next to a park and in seminary I lived next to a creek. Now I live in a national park. I feel like I’ve achieved a life goal. My neighbor at the condo has cultivated quite an interior and patio garden in this Age of Coronavirus. I bought an orchid plant for my birthday, rather than cut flowers, since nursing a living plant seems more hopeful in this time of loss for so many people. My Christmas cactus even bloomed again for Holy Week, another sign of optimism amidst the panic shopping and empty shelves. If there’s enough life in my little plant to bloom out of season, then I trust God’s gift of providence to feed the hungry and care for us all, if we share with one another.
Some people only see the sunsets on their vacations, but never any other time of the year. The sunset lasts less than five minutes, and the best colors are only momentarily part of this time. If we’re addicted to busyness, or filling every available moment of our time with productive activity, then we’ll be checking off our to do list and miss the magic of this moment. We could reframe our attitudes, however, and see our pause for the sunset as a time of blessing for the day. We can break for beauty, awe, and magnificence, and thank God for the whole of our day, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. After all, we’ve made it through another day, and the cycle will begin again, so we can entrust our night to God’s Care also. This is the meaning of providence.
I sometimes wonder if some are closed to creation and therefore closed to God’s love and grace. When I see the damage humanity has done to the earth and the creatures which live upon it, I wonder how much hate or ignorance can exist in people. This virus has exposed structural inequities and inequalities both in the victims and in their previous care. Two groups which are dying from covid-19 in greater proportions than normal are African Americans and men. For the first group, persons of color more often live in neighborhoods with higher pollution and less access to healthy food, plus they have more disease burden with less medical access. Men of all races and economic status have higher incidence of heart disease and smoking, plus they don’t fight inflammation as well due to their gene structure.
Perhaps this disease will take the blinders from our eyes, so we’ll begin to provide better medical care for our whole population, rather than think the coronavirus is just a means of “culling the herd.” That’s a hard hearted way to view a child of God’s creation, made from the dust of the earth, and breathed into life with the very Spirit of God. When I look at creation, the landscape or a sunset, I see the creating hand shaping me and you, and even these hard hearted yahoos, who have the survival of the fittest and wealthiest as their goal. I think somewhere within them is the image of God, even if they’re doing a great job of hiding it. Maybe they need to go in search of more sunsets or a forest. I know I was always a better person after a quiet time in the shade of a forest.
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