Thursday, January 29, 2015

Someone made that chair

  A while back we visited a shop called “Empty the Nest.” It’s a small store front stuffed with all manner of junk and treasure. It specializes in helping people “empty their nests” (or their parents' nests) of things they simply don’t know what to do with. You can find a vintage apron. A dresser Grandma owned. Fishing tackle. A box of buttons. A zip lock bag full of drill bits. I usually try to stay away from such places, but that’s where I found a “gasp.” Carelessly cast across a dirty shelf and hiding beneath a broken violin, a gleam of persimmon caught my eye. I lifted the box and there lay – a hand-woven, hand-dyed wool rug. It is small, only about two by two and a half feet, old, but exquisite. The colors are still vivid. No wear or flaws. Some artisan made a perfect rug a long time ago. I exhaled and looked over my shoulder, suddenly filled with an anxious need to own it. Would someone grab it from my hand shouting, “MINE!”? I wondered if I could mount a defense for spending money on it? It was my birthday – it was. Could it be a gift to self from self? Whoever priced it must have sensed that it had some value. I had to pay $25.00 for it. So there it was: an Indian-type rug, perfect for the “baked clay” wall color in the bedroom of our new home. I only wish I knew more about its origin.

That rug was what Maira Kalman would call a “favorite thing” something that makes you gasp with delight. Those are the things, she writes, that are worth keeping. Because of her illustrated book – My Favorite Things and her work (she calls her work “curating a life”) for a museum, I have a fuzzy little gauge, a sweet reminder that it’s okay to keep a few things you really like even as you simplify life. You might even admit you love them. This past year has been one of letting things go before we made our big move last May. Things were given away. Sold on Craig’s list. Taken to Salvation Army. Dumped or recycled. Some things were a little hard to give up – like the fragile “Flow Blue” antique china I inherited from Denis’ great-grandparents. A big old buffet with wood inlay from the 1940s. Those two particular things were easier to give up because a family member was delighted to have them. It was a relief to fling other things out of the house. Old paintings and faded photographs that made me grimace, not gasp – Gone! A large patchwork quilt kept for years out of guilt – Gone! Years ago it was a gift from Denis’ step-grandmother. Wouldn’t that normally be a welcome gift? You would think. But this was one ugly quilt with large patches of polyester prints from old dresses backed by a muddy gold fabric, she warned me I had better appreciate that quilt because it had taken her a long time to make it! So I kept it year after year, even after she died. It didn’t even reinvent itself to become an interesting retro piece of Americana. It remained repellent. I gave it away to someone who dumbfounded me by liking it.

As I wrote in a recent blog post, “I understand that not EVERYthing needs to make me gasp. I don’t want to have a hard time breathing when I climb into bed at night. I mean. There needs to be calm scenes. Functionality. Quiet colors. Soft beds. Crisp sheets. None of that has to make me gasp. We understand. But it is a useful measure I’m going to be checking in with now and then.”

As it turns out, because of a broken ankle, I’ve had more occasion to enjoy it as it hangs on the wall of our bedroom. Certain patterns and colors make me happy. In a Japanese philosophy  called Naikan, people are reminded “to be grateful for everything. If you are sitting in a chair, you need to realize that someone made that chair, and someone sold it, and someone delivered it – and you are the beneficiary of all that. Just because they didn’t do it especially for you doesn’t mean you aren’t blessed to be using it and enjoying it. …[thus] life becomes a series of small miracles, and you may start to notice everything that goes right in a typical life and not the few things that go wrong.”  - The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Bless Your Heart"?

What is it called when the words you say have a meaning completely opposite from their actual  definition? Here's a for instance that is pretty innocuous. Or is it? I'm not sure.

In conversation if you tell someone something and they respond in a hearty voice with, “Good!” or "Great!" You kinda get they don't mean good or great at all. What they probably mean is, I don't have time to listen to your pathetic stories. Or, you are boring me so bad, I’d like to slap you, but I love Jesus. Or, leftovers again? Or….?

The satirist at The Cresset, (a literary and art journal published by Valparaiso University) – Tom Willadsen, wrote a little rant about what "Bless your heart," really means, and it got me thinking about my own use of handy verbal punctuation and a little habit I have of taking others to task for their use of it.

I've had some conversations about that very phrase and my friends agreed that, for example, if someone says, "Bless her heart, she's trying to lose weight" what that really means is: “I’m sure glad I’m a size 4!”  Or, “too bad she can’t stay on that diet, because she’s a big momma.” Or, “I lay money on it. She’s a closet eater.” I had already decided not to use that comment again. But there are others I need to excise. Just saying I’m not exactly snow-white here. 

Willadsen wrote:

“I now use the phrase as a verbal crossed fingers behind my back. I say “Bless your heart,: but I mean:
·      Each day in my prayers I lament that you had children, or
·      As far as I can tell, your sole purpose on the planet is to irritate everyone you encounter, or
·      Given a choice between having white-hot tungsten spikes thrust through my lungs, and accepting your invitation, I’m going with the spikes, or
·      Remember that device I told you about that measures my hostility? Your request has rendered it obsolete, or
·      I hate you.”

My thinking this is funny might reveal something twisted in me. I can yammer on about how we ought to be living and growing in the fruit of the spirit – in fact, only the other day I pressed hard on someone who was verbally unkind to another. This could be dangerous, like I’m the self-righteous, brickhead Publican dumping on the Sinner over in the corner.

On the other hand, if satire is, as the dictionary defines it, “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices;” and if satire is what Willadsen is doing, then, he succeeded and maybe we can laugh because we see ourselves and humor helps it go down a little more easily.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Curating with gasps

I recently discovered the artist and writer Maira Kalman and am utterly charmed. In the first glances at her work I wondered if I was looking at a child’s art project because her drawings are folky and simple. But what quickly emerges is cunning truth about the subject and a subtle humor that reveals a mature hand behind the work. Her gift is to give you pause. To reconsider what you nearly passed by, what you so quickly consigned to the trite and ordinary, to pause for a minute and find unexpected meaning and/or beauty.

BrainPickings describes her work as having: “a spartan sincerity … an elegantly choreographed spontaneity – words meticulously chosen to be as simple as possible, yet impossibly expressive; drawings that invoke childhood yet brim with the complex awarenesses of a life lived long and wide.”

She has published a number of books but the one I discovered first was My Favorite Things. I had to get past the title  – at first, all I could hear was Julie Andrews droning on … “these are a few of my favorite things… da-da, da, dah..” But the book quickly invites you to look at her list and think in new categories. At the same time she asks the reader a serious question: “How do you curate a life?” I ask, how do you curate your life? Or mine?

 “…We begin with a portrait…” she writes.

In her hand-written, plain prose she tells us she has been chosen to curate an exhibition for a small museum in New York City, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and what a dilemma it is to choose from among centuries-worth of objects! Post cards from the Hotel Celeste in Tunisia. Hats. A fragile vase carefully painted in red and green and signed – someone loved it enough to keep it over a lifetime then pass it on.

This is why her work captured me: It struck me that her filter is one through which we could all strain our own collections. She writes: “The pieces I chose were based on ONE thing only – a gasp of DELIGHT.” Then she asks, “Isn’t that the only way to CURATE a LIFE? To live among things that make you GASP with delight?” (p. 9)

Of COURSE, not everything is going to make you gasp. What inspires me may quietly turn you off.  (If you are kind you won’t mention it. And I promise your inspirations won’t make me sign you up for an exorcism.) I began to realize that is why some of the very things others pass over will make another “gasp with delight.” It can be quite an individual matter. For example, I could see by the cover illustration on her book that Kalman enjoys photos of dandies from the 1930s. The way they dressed and paraded across the sand in their garish red and white stripped suits on the beach at Coney Island looking all satisfied with themselves. They make me smile.

I understand that not EVERYthing needs to make me gasp. I don’t want to have an asthma attack when I climb into bed at night. I mean. There needs to be calm scenes. Functionality. Quiet colors. Soft beds. Crisp sheets. Most of my bedroom is not required to make me gasp. We understand. But there are things I might now keep and others I may shed because she has named this way of curating.
I am intrigued by possibilities. By a new way of thinking about what everyday things can delight. What causes us to gasp? In this world with so much that is broken, broken, broken, I wonder if we could keep some of those good things, and also share a little. Like the annoying “Little Drummer Boy,” (oops. I guess he’s not on my gasping list.) perhaps I can give you what I have, which isn’t much, I admit. I can give what I write this year. I can keep on trying to stay focused long enough to make something of it. If my writing can cause you to, well, if not GASP with delight, but perhaps give a slight twitch in your nucleus accumbens (look it up.) that would make me very happy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Work, writing, and dodging rotten fish

 Tell me what made you think I’d want to read about what you did yesterday? Your books didn’t arrive on the UPS truck when they were supposed to and now all your orders are late? You need new socks because all your old ones have holes? Waaa. Hearing about whatever it is you are up to is a waste of my time. Throw rotten fish.

There is a person in my life who sits on my shoulder, watching, someone who lifts an eyebrow and a corner of the lip while reading my sentences. I sense a cynical vibe asking, why aren’t you doing something more meaningful? Feeding the hungry? Something valuable. Perhaps you should clean your closet or something. But stop this bushwa.

We (Denis & I) often talk about how every square inch of life and reality belongs to the Lord Christ. That includes calling and vocation. Part of my calling right now is writing. Working on another manuscript. Posting to my blog. Writing my quarterly publication “Letters from the House Between.” Answering mail. Even after all these years of understanding the importance of being faithful in what you’ve been called to do today and not imagining some big sensational save or Pulitzer Prize for your astonishing work, I can have doubts about what I do.

This isn’t strictly a “Christian” problem; people who don’t necessarily practice a faith also suffer from the guilt of living in a world with so much misery and sorrow and trying to reckon the worth of what they do. Recently I watched a 60 Minutes program about Syrian refugees that was so heartbreaking I sat on the couch and bawled. How could I be living in safety with a bowl of popcorn and a can of Coke while thousands were escaping up a hill into a Jordanian refugee camp  - their wounded bodies and hearts repositories of violence – their faces pinched with starvation and fear – How could I go about being a barista or a software developer or a writer? Especially a writer? (Opportunities to help do abound. And we can find them. That is a good topic for another time.) But, I’ve needed to reaffirm that it isn’t just okay, it is good to write.

Molly Wizenberg concludes her book Delancy: A Man, A Woman, ARestaurant, A Marriage by trying to work out their dilemma regarding the significance of opening a restaurant and her choice to write.
“…when I decided to quit graduate school, I was newly broken up with a boyfriend. He was a very kind, serious, thoughtful guy, someone who tutors kids with severe learning disabilities in his free time. I remember feeling so frivolous in comparison, so guilty, as I thought about giving up academia to try being a food writer. Food writing wasn’t important. It wouldn’t save a life. I did it anyway, because I wanted to, but I certainly couldn’t justify it on the grounds of world peace. That justification doesn’t work for opening a restaurant either. But there is something about Delancey that, to me, matters just as much: We get to make people happy. We get to give people a good night. We get to spend our days doing work that we can be proud of, and when we’re done, there’s all the pizza you can eat.”  P 225.

What I do everyday does matter. It may not be worthy of a Ten Best Books list, but I know this is what God has for me to do right now. If I listened too much to my doubts or to that person who sits on my shoulder sifting my words, paralysis would set in. Wizenberg may not be able to say “God has made me for this purpose” and understand that because they are making the best pizzas they can and she is being a good food writer honors God, but I can say it. He has created humans to live and work before him and it pleases him to bless us however big or small, significant or insignificant our work.  

Friday, November 21, 2014

"One only lives to make blunders"

Today I came across a piece of correspondence written by Charles Darwin in 1861.  Many of us enjoy making a devil out of him. But, he was, after all, human. A man made in God's image whether or not we ever acknowledge it. This letter makes me think we could have been friends. I realize that may reveal a streak of depression and a fondness for bombast in myself, even so ....
                   ...But I am Very Poorly today and very stupid & Hate Everybody and 
                   Everything. One Lives Only to Make Blunders. - 
                   I am going to write a Little Book for Murray on Orchids 
                   & today I HATE them worse than EVERYthing.
                  So Farewell & in a Sweet FRAME of mind
                  I am
                         Ever yours
                                   C. Darwin

HOWEVER, my orchid after refusing to bloom despite being babied for several years, has at last glutted itself with flowers. That is something to love about life. Or at least note.
Creamy Orchid

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Fort Lauderdale here and there

Taking a short break from my ordinary. Yesterday, I finished writing the next issue of Letters from the House Between. (Although it will be another three weeks before it gets mailed out.) Wrapping always gives equal waves of relief, regrets for what I wrote – never good enough –  and the urge to leave. Perhaps it’s a common feeling when something is completed, something you pour yourself into, that you have a sense of emptiness? To persuade myself not to pay much attention to that, I go to a coffee shop. Lingering, then moving on to the next thing. Today it was Patisserie 46. Denis dropped Anita and I off while he went on to Bethel University to visit their library and book store, doing some research for a project. I see why 46 gets raves – I had an almond croissant – never one this flaky, melty-good – and a creamy almond latte. Feeling better.
Almond latte at Patisserie 46
 We leave for Fort Lauderdale next week. Not vacation, but work. We welcome this trip, though. It’s a chance to connect with people who love the arts, are interested in creativity and how popular culture reflects human longing for meaning. So if you are a friend who lives in the area, or would like to BE our friend,  join us in discussion. I will be reflecting on the ordinary: how it carries traces of the sacred (are you shocked? No?) and reading from God in the Sink. Denis will be giving lectures on film and how they can give windows of insight into our culture. (His lectures are always prime. Truly, I am his severest critic, trust me):

Here is where we’ll be:
Monday, November 10, St. Mark’s Episcopal, Fort Lauderdale. Evening session.
Tuesday Noon, November 11,  I will be at Kenny Lunsford’s Book Club in Boca Raton.
Tuesday Evening, November 11, we will be at Coral Ridge Church, Fort Lauderdale sharing an evening session.
Wednesday Morning, November 12, Dianne Garvin’s Book Club.
Wednesday Evening, November 12, New Covenant Church, Pompano Beach, for their evening supper and service.

Please forgive my bumbling efforts to get a workable button on the sidebar. It looks anything but professional. I can’t get the entire book cover to show, just “the sink” part. You can still help launch this little book into the world if you pre-order God in the Sink now. It’s on sale for $9:95 until its release in mid-November. At that rate, everyone you know could receive a copy for Christmas.  Or for any reason, any time. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"...a reminder of who I'm supposed to be..."

 "...which I forget from time to time, as we all do."
          -  Bill Henderson, founder of Pushcart Press.

A friend sent me this link, saying something about it made her happy. Me, too. I think it's partly the image of determination. Him hefting, hauling rock after rock to build a cathedral. 

It's easy to forget who we are and what we are to be about. A few days away this last week helped
Away Place
 reestablish some of those things I know I should be doing. Or being. Picking up, starting again, back to square one; we say it over and over: Get up. Get up. Do it again. It can be tiresome and discouraging. We imagined the decision was made a long time ago to not forget, to not slip into old patterns. To not be human? Really? Why am I always so surprised?