the silence behind art

There are weeks sometimes when I get deeply, horribly stuck behind a wall of writer’s block. I think any creative person can relate to this feeling. Perhaps it’s not even just a creative thing; maybe all of us sometimes feel as if we’re on one side of a wide brick wall and our best ideas, wildest thoughts, our ability to dream are all on the other side, within an arm’s length and completely out of reach.

That feeling is part of why I’ve been taking a break from this space. I didn’t want a break; I’ve been itching to write, but blanking on anything to say. And a big part of that was because of morning sickness. I’m expecting again – Yay!! But beyond that, I just haven’t taken the time or space to let the ideas I have simmer. That simmer is so important. Vital. The slow process of thinking is where our most curious, creative selves are born. And I think that’s an important thing to talk about.

I read recently that our modern perception of art as solely the artists unique, inner expression taking shape is, well, modern. Art didn’t always exist as a product only of one person’s genius, wasn’t just a window into one soul; it was created in and for community. And I believe that is true, and should maybe be revived, but I still would posit that for any individual to create something artistic, whether or not she creates in community, some part of that expression has to come from the inner world and life of the artist. Perhaps it’s as small as crafting the right shade of blue from a palette, or determining which word to use instead of its imperfect synonym. My theory remains – that all art comes in some way from the inner world.

It’s almost as if the wall of creative block we experience is a wall between us and our own thoughts.

I remember, last spring, feeling as if I had somehow drifted away from being a deep thinker. I felt like I was missing out on some level of thought that other people had access to. Unrelated to this lack I had identified, I was learning to spend more time in quiet and solitude as the warm days passed. I stopped picking up my phone, or bringing it on walks, or keeping it in my back pocket. I stopped being afraid of silence, of the way my thoughts slowly distilled into recognizable shapes.

I have realized, gradually, again and again, that the silence I was learning to practice has infinite value for art. The constant trickle of stimulation we find on our phones, our computers, our messages and playlists and newsfeeds don’t allow us the time we need to process any of the things we’re seeing. We can take things in all day long and if we don’t pause for a while here and there, we’ll never learn and understand it. We won’t have time to slowly morph the beauty on our pinterest boards or the content from Instagram into real inspiration if we don’t slow down and let our creative brains catch up.

I want to remind us to be silent, sometimes. Take walks without your phone, or savor your first morning cup of coffee looking out the window instead of scrolling. Eat a meal on your patio or balcony, in the sun, in the quiet. Replace some scroll time with an interesting podcast. And don’t be too bummed when you don’t feel your creative self coming back right away. It takes time. Give your mind lots of hours to percolate. Practice the simmer. Those deep thoughts will begin to resurface; art just requires a lot of silence.

songbirds

It can be hard to figure out what to write in this space some days. I’m not always a thinker of deep thoughts, a studious philosopher-type.

Some days I just take long walks with the wind a little too cold on my ears and the stroller bumping against my palms and I look for reasons to be grateful. These days the reasons come in the form of songbirds. They sing brazenly from the tops of pines, invisible but vibrantly present. They warm me to my core, ears and all, somehow. I think maybe it’s not even just the birds; maybe it’s the reminder that the long migration of winter will end.

I hear the songbirds and I think of blooming crabapple trees, of smelly Bradford Pears that look like white mist. I think of flowers; some bloom in orderly beds and some grow riotously beyond their own borders and some just pop up wild, like the pink wild roses in tangled hedges at camp. I think of sunshine that feels warm on bare skin. I think of the hours we spend with friends, finally outside again after months of playing indoors, meeting in coffee shops or bundling up for short walks to the park.

Summer feels like freedom until it’s here and then it brings the same regularity of discipline and cultivated habits that I’ve had all year. It’s a strange life to see summers as free time all our growing up years until one day we’re grown up and summers are still work time. But in the middle of the work time that used to be free, I realize again and again that moments of free-heartedness never really left. Because there were songbirds singing here in the middle of winter.

There are belly-laughs in the longest days of parenting. There are breakthroughs in the most drudging hours of writing. The sun breaks through the sky for a sunset glow on the gloomiest cloudy days. There’s always something.

So hang in there. Raise your eyes above the snow drifts and look at the wild blue sky. Even on the darkest night, the stars are still shining above the clouds. Remember the songbirds, because they remember you.

life-changing

“Like I don’t want to hype the coffee up but it will change your life,” the text read. I almost laughed. Regardless of how life-changing the coffee will be at this new place, I am just looking forward to spending an evening with this wild, beautiful friend of mine.

Perhaps because I am a word-nerd and perhaps because I’m looking forward to good coffee, I’ve been thinking about that text message all day. (Heck maybe I’m just crazy for thinking about a text message all day. You decide.) Around lunch time, laughing through a staring contest with my toddler, the silly joy of it all just landed where I needed to hear it: what if you let it change your life?

Not in a big way – I don’t mean that. I’m not going to be stopping here every weekday AM for my morning coffee or anything. But I could let this expectation of great coffee fill my evening up with joy like a helium balloon so sky-bound it tugs against its string.

And if coffee can change my life, why not a silly staring contest with my toddler over lunch? Why not the contrasted flavor of sweet potatoes and a bowl of chili? Sometimes there just enough laughter involved in my grinning boy smearing his lunch across his tray (who says you can’t play with food?!) that clean up brings a memory and a smile, not a groan. On Wednesday the sky was pink with sunset clouds that hovered behind bare tree limbs. I left the sidewalk for the grass and snow, just to be more inside the sweet soft dusky beauty.

Maybe we need more moments like this. Maybe looking up at the smallest, most simple things can change our ordinary lives in the most profound ways of all.

advent

I do not feel excited about advent. I didn’t last year either. My instinct is to ask What is wrong with me?

Anticipation and preparation are the two words most used the last week, talking about advent. Instagram is going wild with it. We’re doing a series in church, and even most of my favorite podcasters are talking about it. But I don’t anticipate advent. I picture myself sitting hushed with glowing eyes while we light the first advent candle and whisper eternal promises to Erik out of an old Bible with gilded edges. And when I see that picture I experience no feelings. Hope doesn’t thrill out of the magic-infused candle that is supposed to remind us of hope. I just see a purple candle.  

And preparation? I scarcely prepare dinner for us three at night, much less seasonal fairy lights, Christmas wreaths, a tree that Little E will pull ornaments off. No, I haven’t prepared for advent.

Really I just feel lonely. Like somehow my cell phone to God is out of range. I could dial and wait for him to pick up, but he won’t because I don’t have any reception. I could talk but it’d be pointless. I know it’s not true but sometimes the untrue things feel so very, very true it’s hard to see clearly what they are.  

Perhaps this is my own advent. A season of quiet. Anticipating. Waiting to give gifts. Waiting to receive gifts. Waiting for the feeling of cold December air and warm December hearts to thaw my frosted-over edges.  

Maybe I don’t need to remember the 400 years of silence that Israel experienced; maybe what I need to know that even after 400 years that seemed to never end, God still spoke. God still came. The Time That Felt Like Forever was over with the birthed babe sleeping in soft straw. My own times that feel like forever will be over too. I can cling to the advent promise even when the cheerful advent heart eludes me. I can watch the flickering Hope-candle that doesn’t go out because maybe it will flicker my own hope back to life.  

Advent, this year, is less the remembrance and more the reminder. God is coming. God is coming. God is coming. It is less the lighted preparation and more the steady looking forward. The silence will end. The ache will end. The loneliness will end.  

It will. I will light a candle and remember; the silence breaks, in the end. Breaks into bright scattered fragments made beautiful when the light shines on them.  

slowly

I let my shoulders relax in a quiet exhale. Does it feel like a music kind of day? I turn on the CD player and Ben Rector spills cheerily out the open windows. Yes, a music kind of day. I smile. E chatters. Perhaps being late to the toddler program is worth the gentle pace of our morning.

I never used to move slowly. Grant loved that about me at first – I made decisions quickly. No dallying over laminate restaurant menus for us, thank you. I’ll have the avocado burger, water to drink, wedge of lemon please? But I also took tests quickly and drove quickly and worked quickly. I made a lot of mistakes. Little ones usually; isn’t forgetting the pacifier a little mistake? But Baby Boy has big lungs.

I resisted moving slowly when E still fit in the infant carrier on my back. I’d tuck the just-in-case pacifier in one pocket, my phone in another, and off we’d go. Now it’s getting harder. We need shoes for the toddling boy, snacks to satisfy when naps aren’t forthcoming. I bring water for both of us and his spare clothes and diapers and wipes and before you know it we’re scrambling to get out the door, grumpy and frazzled about a half-hour toddler program at the library.

But things are changing. Sometimes we make it to the library on time and sometimes we just walk in when we get there and look for books instead of joining in on toddler songs that started five minutes ago. Sometimes we rush out the door to church and sometimes I start collecting the snacks and pacifier and shoes in advance, readying us to get E into the nursery in time to sing through worship, breathe quiet and focus ourselves. We’re learning to live more slowly.

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Slow looks like letting E walk to the park at his own wandering pace, keeping him gently on track. Slow looks like reading the same book again and again because Llama Llama’s Red Pajamas are allowed to be fascinating to a one-year-old. Slow means I lose my own reading time because I’ve spent it with the boy who just wanted to be held. (Hello, molars.)

Slow looks like setting aside the stress, like mindfully planning ahead. Like being ok with forgetting. Slow looks like long walks in the stroller that’s the only thing that calms him down, and long bouts of play when he’s full of giggles. This practice of moving slowly has a trickle-down effect, I’ve noticed. I’ve let my walks become more leisurely. I set my phone down more often (and I’m less hard on myself when I pick it up.) I think more clearly when I’m not hurrying. I let E interrupt me more.

I dare you to think about moving slowly this week. Drink your morning coffee without your phone in your hand. Think of something you could take the rush out of. Start small. Start slow. See what happens.

Colorado Springs, Colorado, Downtown, Pike's Peak, America's Mountain, Autumn, October, Leaves, fall colors

original

light, shadows, fire escape, Colorado Springs, Old Colorado City, originality, Henry Van Dyke,

There is mysterious soulful glory in a community of artists. When you gather with people whose mission it is to manifest the unity between ethereal beauty and true holiness, magic happens. Conversations are spun out of real joy and gentle criticism and intangible dreams that may yet become reality. I’ve joined an Arts Guild. It is the most encouragement my writing has seen in years.

I used to worry that I didn’t think very original thoughts. All my ideas were old; they felt spoon-fed and recycled. I wanted to think fresh things but I didn’t know how. I was envious of the people who seemed to think of new wonderful things without effort; the people who could think a thought and write an essay and paint a picture without stagnating in the same repeated ideas. The ease of their intelligent communities frustrated me. How could I get there? Why was it so hard to think things?

I wanted more of this originality; if not my own, then to sit in on theirs. “They” was non-specific. Podcast hosts who somehow had new ideas every week. Writers whose words were fresh and thoughtful. Friends whose conversations seemed alive and interesting. I remember a conversation I once had about insecurity with a close friend. I don’t usually get intimidated by people who are better than me, she said, I think of them as examples. I can learn a lot from how they work. I have struggled with that idea for years, honestly. Envy is often my default reaction to excellence. I wish I didn’t think that way so often and I’m working hard to change it, but that used to be my default mode of thinking.

So this summer I began trying to change. If I couldn’t bring forth my own original ideas, the next best thing I could do was listen to them, immerse myself in them. So I kept listening to the podcasts. I even found more good speakers to listen to. I read the blog posts and essays that seemed beyond any aspiration of my own skill – perhaps they would rub off on me. I spent time with people who entertained big ideas and philosophies. At least I could learn from them.

I began to lean into knowledge instead of begrudging those who had it. And slowly, I learned: we become like those we surround ourselves with. The more I listened to these original conversations, the more original thoughts and ideas I began to have. I realized that my own mind could generate ideas, craft thoughts and story lines, put together questions and answers in new ways. I was learning how “to be governed by [my] admirations rather than [my] disgusts…” (Henry Van Dyke). It is a beautiful place to be.

light, shadows, Old Colorado City, Colorado Springs, alleyway, alley, Henry Van Dyke, originality, Anselm Society

I might not ever be able to shake my old habit envying everyone who is better than me. It’s a horrible vice that brings a twinge of shame every time I think of it. But I am learning more and more how to think differently. When envy creeps in, I try to pick out a few things I can learn from somebody else’s success. I look for all the ways that artists and writers and thinkers I admire are reaching back, holding out their hands and ideas to bring the rest of us forward. They share selflessly and I want to learn selflessly.

I am finally seeing that originality does not cohabitate with isolation. Just as giving gifts and having less brings spontaneous joy, so sharing ideas and relying on others for thoughtful community cultivates our own original thoughts and ideas. May we live into this paradox of artistic friendship with joy and generosity.

light, shadows, fire escape, Colorado Springs, Old Colorado City, originality, Henry Van Dyke,

 

discipline

hiking, pancake rocks, colorado, fall colors, mountains, friends

“Discipline is supposed to serve you; you’re not supposed to serve the discipline.” She wasn’t talking to me but I heard and remembered.

Were we halfway through the summer when those words sank into my heart? I held on to them the rest of the weeks we remained at camp. Discipline is supposed to serve you. I could list the ways I discovered that this summer.

One day in May I finally decided that if I sat down every day for a long time then I could finish a big writing project. I counted out the days and set a count-down widget on my phone to remind me time was ticking. There are 152 of 258 days left until my self-imposed deadline. The goal I set for myself is almost met. I’m in awe, and a bit afraid of my own progress, and eager to set a new goal. I’ve always been nervous about writing, but discipline served the ball back into Fear’s court. I’ve written a lot this summer, with gratitude to discipline.

I was handed a Bible study booklet in the last week of May to begin prepping for the study I would lead for four of the counselors. The nine steps of Bible study that were laid out in the beginning of the book startled me. I didn’t know how to begin – it had been so long since I studied scripture that way. So I broke the study down into chunks. I made it look manageable and I sat down to study every morning or afternoon while Erik napped. I learned so much about God, about scripture and about study this summer. A summer of discipline has gotten me excited to study God and his word more.

I have had to be disciplined with my parenting too. It’s incredibly self-sacrificing to hand little Erik a spoon when I’m giving him a bowl of oatmeal or Greek yogurt and let him try to shovel a few bites into his mouth. Things are a lot less messy when I just feed him. But will he ever learn that way? It’s important to me to teach him the things he needs to live life well, love God well. It’s taken a lot of discipline to consistently choose the messy education experience instead of the tidy spoon-feeding.

I don’t really like discipline. That’s not the point of this post. But when I’m not in the thick of parenting I usually have enough perspective to reframe it. “Step by step, one travels far,” J. R. R. Tolkien says. I think discipline is applicable to more than just the hard things that challenge you at the core of who you want to be. There’s other things – like looking for small beautiful moments in you day or remembering to write down what you’re grateful for. Little by little, one unpacks every box after moving to a new home, or learns to love healthier foods. Little  by little the autumn colors roll down the mountains each October. Maybe the longer we practice discipline the more we discover that it’s pure gold.

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I’m in the thick of everything right now – the parenting, the writing, the unpacking, the study. The fall colors. Don’t think I’m advising back over my shoulder from the other side. I’m stuck hating the act of discipline right alongside you (trust me.) I’ve just seen the outcome before and I’m willing to work for that.

There’s a song called Keep On Keeping On by Colony House that tends to fall flat to my ears in the middle of my best seasons. When life is easy, I can’t listen. There’s no real keeping on to do. It’s in the mirey middle sections of trying to do things that won’t be finished for weeks or years that I have to have that anthem running through my head and heart.

So, friend, keep on keeping on. You’ll get there. Remember, “Little by little, one travels far.”

hiking, pancake rocks, colorado, fall colors, mountains, friends

old and new

Colorado Springs, Colorado, Anselm Society, Fanciscan Retreat Center

Maybe they were just rust spots but when I walked by slowly I felt the orange-printed echo of fellowship. These weird patio stains happened because people sat here, talking. They argued and they laughed and they encouraged and they cried and whole friendships left their tattoos on the concrete patio for the rest of us to see and take hope.

I saw a tree that had been strung with barbed wire to make a fence a decade ago or more. There was a crease around the rusted wire and dark green moss was growing into that old scar and it was beautiful. Scars have no need to end in ugliness, I thought, and the thought gave me hope.

We sat in church one week, listening to passionate teaching from Colossians, learning verse by verse the ways Paul tells us to live like Christ. “We’ve all heard that we should live like the world is about to end, like this is our last day. But what if we lived like this world is about to be made new? What if we lived like heaven was breaking into Earth?” My soul grasped at that thought and has not let go since. I realize it with cartwheel-inducing joy: that is the vision that has slowly been taking over my sight this year. Scars twisted away from ugliness towards glory? Rust stains cemented proof of relationship? This is beautiful. This is real.

This is, somehow, the beginning of something. There are whole wide reams of sight and knowledge to rediscover. Lean into this with me. Look for the newness. Look for the magic. Don’t all our favorite fairy stories end with the world being regained, recovered, evil fought back and goodness reinstated? I know there will be a new heaven and a new earth one day but let’s not write this one off just yet. Maybe if we look closely, his kingdom is coming on earth as it is in heaven. Coming right here in this old imperfect globe.

Colorado Springs, Colorado, Anselm Society, Fanciscan Retreat Center

stir-fry

Sometimes lethargy reaches long fingers into our weekends. Sometimes we’ve spent three or four days at camp, working and walking and keeping Erik busy and ourselves being kept busy that when we get back to the house on Galileo Drive we just get too comfortable on the couch for too long while little E chases matchbox cars in giggling circles and makes toddling forays down the hall.

Sometimes shame piggybacks on laziness until not doing anything becomes a fear of doing anything. It might just be me, I know. But after months of not cooking meals and inventing recipes for our family I get nervous in the kitchen. What odds and ends do we have in the house? Is there protein around? How do I season this dish? Google and I are good friends.

And then yesterday when I was in the kitchen throwing the odds and ends we had in the house into a deep skillet, the lethargy slipped off. I shook my shoulders free and sprinkled soy sauce liberally, garlic less liberally, ginger most tentatively of all. Maybe I put too much turmeric and olive oil in the cauliflower rice that turned yellow but I served it up anyway, trying not to make self-deprecating excuses to hide behind.

Dinner was good. Grant and I made wow faces at each other, sampling the shredded chicken and veggies over the yellowed rice. It was really, really good. Well credit to Google; I just threw together what was in the house and looked up how to season it, I shrugged. No, credit to you, Grant said directly, You cooked this.

I did cook it. In fact I’ve cooked a lot of good meals over the last year. Who cares if they were mostly from cookbooks or online recipes: they’re still my work. I swirled my wine in my glass, feeling more at home in the goosebump-cool evening air than I did with my own thoughts. I can… cook. I sit with the realization for a few moments, trying to make it sink in. My years of trying to put together meals and studying different ways of eating – Paleo, sugar-free, gluten-free, Whole30 – those practice meals and experimental dishes have paid off. I can throw together a good meal.

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I’m not a virtuoso cook or anything. Somebody else would have put those odds and ends together faster or seasoned them just a little bit better. But honestly, I think it’s ok to acknowledge the thing well done because it helps me throw off shame.

My goal is real humility, not just yummy stir fry. But I believe humility is way more closely related to the intersection of confidence and selflessness than it is to shame. Shame is who I’ve hung out with for years but I’m over it like a needy romantic in a comedy who’s really, truly trying to be over it and finally breaks free in the happy kissing-in-the-rain scene at the end.

So feel free to acknowledge your success. Don’t let shame convince you that you can’t cook, that this aromatic dish sitting on the table owes you no credit. And once you’ve realized you have some skill in something after all, shape your confidence towards selflessness. Cook for others – invite them to your table. Nourish their bodies with your food and their souls with your listening. These words are my own dream too.

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looking for rest

This is one of those weeks where all the challenges circle around like the steps on the stair climber at the gym. No matter how long you climb or how fast or slow or how tired you are, they just keep coming at a steady and predictable rate. Being consistently tired and having tough mornings or minutes or months isn’t even taking you by surprise anymore.

I told myself this month would be crazy. I wanted the advance warning, so I looked at the calendar and took myself by the shoulder and said, “Yeah. It’s going to be wild. October is a long ways away. So instead of looking at the busyness, look for the rest. Don’t wait until next month to sit down, read a book, admire the mountains, invite someone over for dinner. Look for the rest this month, right now.” I wasn’t mistaken about the schedule. We’re five days into the month and the best summary I can think of so far is that yesterday when I gave up my one unscheduled hour to pack for the week, a container lid fell on my nose and scraped it hard – the only reward for my labor. Oh well.

I’m not good at resting. Anyone who knows me can tell you that. I like to achieve things. I like to have worked hard for a long time. I like to have the dishes washed and the high chair clean and the laundry done and the packing finished. I like to sit down only when I can survey my little domain tidy and comfortable. September doesn’t get to be that way.

In the effort to savor what I have instead of wishing for what I don’t, I’m looking around for the things I’ll miss next month, back in the city. I’ll miss the mountain, with our drive-by view of Pike’s Peak’s profile, misted over today, with snow on the rocky slopes running down towards the trees. I’ll miss the way the aspens are turning so slowly. Already the bright green leaves that blanketed the hills are turning to rust and gold with the cool breath of fall. I’ll miss the wood tones of the furniture in staff housing. Our home will be lovely in the Springs, but less woodsy. This is the month to lean into the things I could overlook too easily.

I’m asking myself, too, whether this month is bad or just hard. Bad things happen; car accidents, illnesses, crime, injury. This isn’t one of those. This is living farther away from friends, parenting longer hours while Grant works, balancing our life between a storage garage, a suburban basement-home and the spacious housing at camp. It’s challenging to cook without my kitchen appliances or wonder which box that needed item was put into, and when I’ll find it again. But it’s not bad. It’s just a hard thing, and it will end.

Beyond all those things, truth is the anchor I need most right now. I opened Psalm 27 today, wondering how I could go for so many weeks missing out on the social occasions that I crave, introvert though I am. Is this loneliness just going to pervade the rest of my life? Will I always feel a bit purposeless, a bit alone, a bit worn out while I chase a toddler around and have nobody to talk to? But Psalm 27:1 says “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

My courage and joy don’t depend on friends, on being walking distance from a good coffee shop, on getting to sleep in while somebody else gives Erik a bottle and his first diaper change of the day. My life is held in the strong grip of God. Verses 13-14 of the same Psalm say, “I believe I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; Wait for the Lord!”

I do believe it. I do believe I can find rest, here in the Aspens shedding their summer summer colors for a short-lived autumn glory. I will wait for the Lord. I will make my heart take courage. I will look for the rest.

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memory

Today I made raspberry cobbler in a jar. They were the raspberries I picked at Eagle Lake this summer. I wanted to remember.

I picked those raspberries, picked through the rain and the scratches on my calves and the mud. Washed the bugs and the dirt off the berries and learned how to flash freeze them so they wouldn’t stick together all tumbled up in a container later. I learned where the best picking was; behind staff housing, up by Raven’s Craig, down on The Darn, along the road towards the dining hall.

We stopped our strollers along that road, picking two or three berries before we turned around and offered them to the babes. I held them up for Erik strapped on my back, handed them to Addison in her stroller, Abby and Alice running back and forth looking for their own berries. We left staff housing early for lunch, allowing ourselves to get distracted with the picking, offering, savoring. We talked and planned about how we should make jam together. We could get little labels printed with Eagle Lake 2018 and each of us keep a jar.

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In eleven minutes the steaming scent of fresh raspberry cobbler will probably tempt my husband away from his audiobook to ask what I made, what smells so good. Remember those wild raspberries, I will say, how bittersweet they were? Taste this.

That’s how I want to remember our summer. I want to take the bittersweet and bring out the wild flavor. I want to transform the memories into happy recollections; there’s no way to erase how hard the summer was but that’s not what I want to do. I just want to frame the memories in the best way; serve them up gently with our thoughts heavy on all the goodness. We need good memories like we need good food.

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