First Sunday of Advent

As every woman who has been pregnant knows, there comes a time when, no matter how tired and uncomfortable, swollen ankles or not, a deep urge to clean house rises from places primaeval. Often called "the nesting instinct," the compulsion was so strong a few days before my youngest daughter's birth that I canceled house guests so I could organize my closets. To this day, I feel a twinge of regret I just didn't have them down no matter what.

The liturgical season of Advent is set aside so that we may welcome anew the Spirit of the Christ child, preparing ourselves for the miracle of a personal incarnation which brings peace, freedom, forgiveness and joy. But as anyone who has cleaned house knows, the process is not always pleasant. To get deep into corners may require opening up some boxes tucked away in hopes of being forgotten, or scrubbing grimy layers formed by neglect. God, in his desire to fill us more and more with his love, gently nudges us to open up each room, each closet, each cupboard so that it may be refurbished and infused with new life. 

When I think about the courage that it takes to be open to God's Spirit in our lives, I am inspired by my daughter, Aletheia. About two years ago she took up ink and yupo and began to create art that came straight from her soul. We were all caught off-guard by the intensity, color and movement that jumped off the page. Soon her apartment was stacked with art supplies, canvases, and frames. I've pulled a few of her pieces into a slide show above.

Aletheia, whose name is Greek for truth, talks about her art this way: Art has become the agent for freedom in my life. I was bound by perfectionism, control, and inadequacy; painting has allowed me to get messy with my hands and be ok with messiness in my heart.

It's this same willingness to embrace the messy that I think Rumi is getting at in his poem The Guest House. Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi mysic, knew the wisdom of what we might call the spiritual exercise of reflection, sitting quietly with our experiences. In this state, our thoughts and emotions are to be welcomed, invited to a cup of tea while we listen to what they tell us of our past hurts or present joys. By welcoming these unexpected visitors with grace we will be led to new freedom; allowing the violent sweeping will only clear us out for a new delight.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! 
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Note: Aletheia's art can also be found here.
Are you wishing you could visit an amazing art show this weekend, but can't get away from the house? Check out the homepage of Artprize, a one-of-a-kind art show put on yearly in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had never heard of this art show until my friend Sybil mentioned it to me a few weeks ago. She'd been attending for several years and this year a friend of hers was entering a piece.

There are several things that make ArtPrize unique. First, the cash awards (and they total over 500 thousand dollars) are chosen by a combination of popular and juried vote. Unfortunately, this post comes too late to give you a chance to vote, (that ended last night at 11:59) but there's always next year. Voting happens through the website, which has pictures of each piece of art with links to the artist statement as well as some bio information.

Art can be installed anywhere in Grand Rapids; those places which can offer a venue connect up with artists needing a place to display in the months prior to the show's opening. When opening day rolls around the entire city, both indoors and out becomes an art gallery - this year's entries came to a total of 1517!

I spent a little while looking through this year's contributions and here are some that caught my eye. Each is linked to the site for additional information.
Stick-to-it-iveness by Richard Morse
Richard Morse, whose sculpture made it into the Top 10, is a cancer survivor. The horses, rising out of the water symbolize "the struggles and perseverance, the simple grace yet powerful attitude that everybody needs in difficult situations." Each horse is created from fallen branches, bringing "nature back to life."
Friends by Nnamdi Okonkwo (Nigerian)
Nnamdi Okonkwo was born in Nigeria and came to BYU-Hawaii to play basketball, but he was always drawn to art. His chosen medium, sculpture, gives him a way to express the "beauty and nobility that is in humanity." The female figures in this piece were chosen since Okonkwo feels that women best "exemplify the noble virtues such as serenity, love, hope, humility, charity, and inner strength, which enable us to face and transcend the adversities of life."
Small Parts - Comfort from 2000 Cups of Tea by Lynn Johnson
Lynn Johnson collected tea bags from those cups shared with family and friends to create this mixed media piece of art which measures 10.5 feet high by 5.5 feet wide. Johnson feels that "recording and lending significance to individual social interactions," allows her to "celebrate the value of the personal connection that is achieved through our everyday social routines and rituals." I love how the lighting creates warmth through the tea bags, mimicking the comfort we often feel when having a cup of tea or coffee with a friend.

Beautiful Day by Carol Shelkin
Carol Shelkin "works with the constant rhythmic sounds of breaking glass" as she creates her stained glass works of art. Drawn to portraits, she is especially intrigued by eyes, and seeks to capture unique moments. The rich infusion of color and wide variation of tones drew me to this piece.
Sunflowers, Mums and Heather in Blue Mosaic Vase by Kris Carlson
I like this breezey poem by Updike, capturing many things I love about this month, although we haven't seen much morning haze. The last few days have been perfectly clear, so sparkling that it's been almost impossible to repress a smile out of doors. Pick-your-own apples are starting at the nearby orchard, so applesauce-making won't be long in coming, and the library is hosting a Bee Festival over the weekend. There's still zinnias to pick, and late beans to harvest. What's not to love about September?

John Updike (from a Child's Calendar)

The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-

Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers, 
Chalk, and such.

The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hums,
And Mother cuts

Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.
Horizons by Neil Dawson
Ever since I was introduced to the movie version of the Lord of the Rings,  directed by Peter Jackson, I've had a longing to head to New Zealand and soak myself in the amazing landscapes which formed the backdrop of Middle Earth. Now, thanks to a picture in the Culture section of a recent Time magazine, I have another huge reason to think seriously about visiting this lovely country. Turns out there's some amazing sculpture to be had as well.

The photo above shows just one of the many pieces of art to be found on Gibbs Farm, whose 1,000 acres hosts myriads of sculptures, fashioned by more than 20 artists. Each piece was commissioned by Alan Gibbs, who worked with the artists to conceive something which would flow with the land, on a scale often beyond their previous work. Te Turihangi Contour, by Richard Serra, was several years in the making, and required not only finding an iron manufacturer who could create 20 feet tall pieces of steel, but innovative engineering to place the pieces in the contours of the hill it rests upon.

Arches, by Andy Goldsworthy, also caught my eye. I love how the arches move from the tidal flats into the sea; pictures show the movement of water against the stone, and then the starkness as it rises from the sand. According to the artist, this work "looks back along lines of geneaology, migration and architectural traditions." But the "gradual weathering of stone by water, wind and fetch...brings the viewer face-to-face with the ever-changing character and power of its surroundings" which gives an immediacy to the work as well.

There are videos as well as a brief history of the Gibb's farm project at their website here. Links are also made to the artists whose work graces this impressive and innovative sculpture park. I hope you enjoy browsing as much as I did.

Te Tuhirangi Contour by Richard Serra
Arches by Andy Goldsworthy
The Birth of Venus by Botticelli
Here's a smorgasbord of art, music and poetry sparked by the transit of Venus, which occurred this past Tuesday and Wednesday. The passing of Venus in front of the sun, which happens twice in 8 years and then not again for 130 more, had interest not only to scientists but also to those who are tuned into the meaning of astrological signs.

The planet Venus, named after the Greek Goddess, is a symbol of love, harmony and peace. Gustav Holst, in his orchestral work, "The Planets" entitles one of his sections, "Venus, the bringer of peace." (You can hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Holst at the bottom of the blog.) It was the desire for more peace, more harmony in the world, the longing for and yearning to partner with an outpouring of love which caused groups all over the world to stop and mark this event.

Love, harmony and peace are gifts that are eternally important. They make us human, and more than human. Mystics from many traditions find that the underlying energies of the world are love. Those who have near death experiences often describe a sense of peace and unity with a powerful love. But the discordant noise that makes up much of our days, our busyness and worry, wars against our living out of these gifts of grace. It is true that we catch glimpses of it in our interactions, but many times the most sure way to connect with this deep reality is to head into nature itself.

This is the path that Wendell Berry, the renowned writer, poet and essayist describes in his poem below. Throughout his life, Berry has been encouraging living in harmony with nature, including deep connections with the land, local sustainable farming, and intentional community. In this poem, he offers his personal remedy for those times he is caught in despair. Leaving his anxious thoughts, he wraps himself in the beauty of nature, comes into the peace of wild things, receives the light from the day-blind stars, and rests in the grace of the world.

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the  least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Sunrise, April 15, 2012 by Debbie Wagner
Sunrise, April 12, 2012 by Debbie Wagner

For years, the dawning of a new day has symbolized hope. Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean poet and the first Latin American winner of Nobel Prize for Liberature, explores this theme in her poem, Daybreak. As the night wanes, the poet waits expectantly for the sun, her heart swelling to make room for the fiery cascade of the Universe to enter the cavern of her soul. The power and glory of the new day fills her to overflowing, leaving her at once breathless and erupting into spontaneous song. It's the humble reception of grace, found in things both lost and recovered, that eventually overcomes the paralyzing darkness resident in our souls. Vanquished, the Gorgon night loses its power and flees.

Coming across this poem, I was reminded about the story of a woman named Debbie Wagner, a survivor of brain tumor surgery. In an article written by Laura Coffey, Debbie related how the aftermath of her surgeries left her without the ability to pursue some of her favorite pasttimes, including reading, writing and mathematics. Five or six months after her surgery she took up painting. "It just happened, she explained. "I had to express myself." One morning, after rising early from a fitful sleep, she found herself gazing at a vibrant Kansas sunrise. “I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if I can paint that?’ And I did!” Wagner said. "It was so exhilarating that I did it again the next day, and the next day...Now the devotion to it is effortless for me because I get such a rush from it.” 

Wagner's approach to life captures the essence of Mistral's poem. By facing the morning daybreak with an open and expectant heart, she finds herself on the receiving end of grace. As she mentions in the article,

“When I look at a sunrise, it represents a new beginning. I’m just so happy to be here another day and see my kids do different things and go to dinner with my husband. I suppose that’s the addiction of it — it puts me in a state of mind focused on gratitude.”

As Wagner sits before the sunrise with an open heart, it's not song that erupts from the overfilled cavern of her soul, but paint. And as the colors flow onto the canvas, the night disappears, dissolving into gratitude and a new beginning.

Gabriela Mistral

My heart swells that the Universe
like a fiery cascade may enter.
The new day comes. Its coming
leaves me breathless.
I sing. Like a cavern brimming
I sing my new day.
For grace lost and recovered
I stand humble. Not giving. Receiving.
Until the Gorgon night
vanquished, flees.

Note: For more information on Debbie Wagner and her art, you can click here.
Bathed in Light by Loriann Signori

I've picked up another book by David White, author of The Heart Aroused,  whom I've blogged about in the past. In this book entitled, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, Whyte encourages us to view our work as the arena in which our selves are discovered and grow. He begins by referencing William Blake, the famous 18th century poet.

"William Blake, that unstoppable creator...seemed to have a direct and conversational relationship wtih the wellsprings of work. Over a lifetime he exhibited a continual inspiration, a profound vision and an indomitable ability, despite his poverty, to follow through with the tiniest details of his art. Blake called his sense of dedication a firm persuasion. To have a firm persuasion in our work--to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at  the exactly same time--is one of the greatest triumphs of human existence."

But what about when our work is not suited to us, when "personal fulfillment"--that oft-quoted but rarely encountered entity--is non-existent? Whyte continues the chapter by saying, "To have a firm persuasion, to set out boldly in our work, is to make a pilgrimage of our labors, to understand that the consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task." (my emphasis). 

I remember years ago, while raising small children, I determined that even if child-rearing was not my forte, and even if I felt like I was not engaging fully in my vocation, I had the opportunity to use those family years as a means of growth. In fact, I had seen many who had done valuable things--even on a worldwide scale--whose families and personal lives had become bankrupt. If I had to choose, I would choose to raise my children well, and to develop my soul; further influence could wait, or not come at all.

It's in the rough and tumble of every day life, whether in work, or "at home" that we are engaged in the process of making our souls. A few weeks ago, I was in Bethesda, MD, visiting a friend. Entering an art gallery, I was instantly drawn to the paintings of the featured artist, Loriann Signori. Her exhibition, entitled "Quietude," consisted of many beautiful landscapes, mesmerizing not only because of the colors which pulsated and glowed and almost sang, but because of the layers that were used to create the finished artwork. In her artist notes for the show (which you can find at her website), she, like Whyte, takes up the metaphor of a journey. 

Signori's creative process sounds eerily familiar to that of forming our own lives, themselves layered and textured. The art undergoes constant change, the paint may be glazed, then sanded, then glazed again, allowing a translucence to affect the next layer. Signori finds that even as she struggles to capture the image on the canvas, she needs to "surrender some measure of control and pursue the unanticipated." When she is finished, however, the paintings glow, infused with a magical luminescence. 

I like what happens when I layer Blake, Whyte and Signori. They shore up my firm persuasion to become something good, even as I seek to do something good. As a pilgrim, I embrace my life as a piece of art, layered, textured, in process, something over which I "must surrender some measure of control and pursue the unanticipated." And still there are stages in this journey, including opportunities to stop and reflect, - moments of "quietude" - when I can walk through the gallery of my life, reflecting on where I've been, what I've become, and relish the beauty that's been created.
The Garden by Joan Miro
Saying a fond farewell to March, whose drumbeat brought us an early and delightful spring.

Lucy Larcom

"March! March! March! They are coming
In troops to the tune of the wind. 
Redheaded woodpeckers drumming,
Gold - crested thrushes behind;

Sparrows in brown jackets, hopping
Past every gateway and door;
Finches, with crimson caps, stopping
Just where they stopped before.

March! March! March! They are slipping
Into their places at last. . . 
Literature white lily buds, dripping
Under the showers that fall fast;

Buttercups, violets, roses;
Snowdrop and bluebell and pink,
Throng upon throng of sweet posies
Bending the dewdrops to drink.

March! March!  March! They will hurry
Forth at the wild bugle sound,
Blossoms and birds  in a flurry,
Fluttering all over the ground.

Shake out your flags, birch  and willow!
Shake out your red tassels, larch!
Grass blades, up from  your earth - pillow.
Hear who is calling you. . . March." 
Perhaps it was the Cirque de Soleil at the Oscars, or that Dan is reading Night Circus, a new novel by Erin Morgenstern. Maybe it's that I'm still in the mood for fun! Anyway, I've spent some time today searching for art that depicts the circus and came upon these iconic paintings by Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec and Chagall. All three were post-Impressionists and their use of color and style depict the whimsy, magic and mystique of the center ring.

The Circus by George Seurat
Seurat was born in France in 1859. Perhaps best known for his painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, Seurat was the father of pointillism, a technique which used thousands upon thousands of small dots of paint to achieve the effect he desired.
The Circus Horse by Marc Chagall
Le Jongleur de Paris by Marc Chagall
Chagall was a prodigious artist, who worked in many media outside of painting, including stained glass, tapestries and sculpture. Born in Russia in 1887, into a Jewish family, his larger works also include many religious themes. His paintings are well known for his explosive use of color. 
In the Circus by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Another Frenchman, Toulouse-Lautrec was not only a painter, but also created prints and posters. A friend of Van Gogh, he spent much of his time in Montmartre, the district that was home to many artists of the time.

For additional fun, here's a video of Alexander Calder, well-known for his playful mobiles and sculpture. In this video, he shows off his fantastical circus creations. Isn't it great to see how much fun he's having???
The Bride of the Wind by Oskar Kokoschka

Last night, friends and I watched George Clooney's The Descendants, a story about a family in the process of losing their wife and mother. The impending death provides the opportunity to untangle a jumble of emotions - grief, anger, loss, betrayal, sadness, hurt, regret, thankfulness. Unruly and at times unwelcome, each makes its presence known, demanding both an acknowledgement and a response.

All of us yearn to love and be loved deeply, and because of that openness and need, it is the relationships we care about most that not only bring us our greatest joys, but also deal us our deepest wounds. Still, as a friend said after the movie, by watching the complexity of other relationships, at times we can see the truth about someone who has hurt us in the past, and recognize that things are not as simple as they seem.

It's the awareness of these inner complexities that anchors the following poem by Robert Hayden. Sometimes the contradictions between longing and hurt, between love and anger cannot be resolved. We state the truth: the consistency of "banked fires" blazing, or good shoes being polished (and all without thanks), but we state with equal certainty that "chronic angers" produced a cold that was never splintered or broken.

And yet, even these truths are not the end of the truth-telling. That, too, must be acknowledged, for what do we really know of another? The whole truth, like life itself,  remains unfathomable

Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Note: The painting above shows Kokoschka and his lover Alma Mahler as a shipwrecked pair in stormy seas. "He satisfied my life and he  destroyed it", Mahler is quoted as saying. Born in 1886, the Austrian painter, poet, and playwright is best known for his intense expressionistic style.