Accepting the Challenge to Create

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Skyline view of the Boston Public Garden, oil pastel by Kristen Allen

In the beginning, God created a writer. And it was good. Still, the writer was convinced that she could not draw, paint, or sculpt. Visual arts were not a gift meant for her to enjoy.

By and large, I suck at visual arts. I have some challenges with spatial relations, and getting things out of my head onto a canvas or drawing pad rarely works out. It’s just not my jam. I am a Word Girl through and through. I even dream in narrative. Seriously, most of my dreams have an off-screen narrator telling me what I am watching.

As my husband was putting our Christmas decorations away in the attic, he came across some boxes that needed repacking. As luck would have it (or the Almighty Creator willed it), he found the only art portfolio I have ever assembled. It was for the drawing class I had to take in order to get my final three fine arts credits to graduate with my BS degree.  Oh, I dreaded that class. I hate sucking at things, and here I was paying an obscene amount of money to suck at something that someone else was going to judge and assign a grade to.

The class was life-changing. The professor, Iris, was a quirky, earthy-crunchy, painter-teacher-spiritualist. I could not help but love her. This was a summer course, so she had some liberty to do some unconventional things—like have the class meet at a different location around Boston each week. We went to the Arnold Arboretum, the Boston Public Garden, the top of a campus building in Porter Square in Cambridge, and we even took a boat out to Thompson’s Island in the middle of the Boston Harbor, one perfect summer day. (You may know the island as the site for the film, based on the Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island.)

Slowly, but surely, throughout the course, my perception of the lofty “ART” changed. I found that I began to look at the world differently. First I started noticing details, then color, light and shadow, texture. I began to see in pictures, not just in narrative.

The most remarkable change was when I was sitting under a tree, by one of the abandoned school buildings, on Thompson’s Island. I realized that I had started thinking about WORDS differently.  I was seeing narrative descriptions in terms of color and texture. Words began to have a flavor. A new phrase would swirl around my mouth like the first taste sample from a bottle of fine wine. I suddenly understood toddlers’ compulsion to repeat a word or phrase incessantly, a preschooler’s delight in reading the same story over and over.

That class was a very long time ago. I still suck at drawing and painting. I still cannot cut a straight line. I still am not a visual artist.

I am a writer.

I am a writer who has a better understanding of the gifts that paintings, drawings, statuary, pottery, needlework are. I am a writer who is looking forward to seeing—and experiencing—my visual artist sisters’ and brothers’ view of the world for a bit. I’m a writer hungry for some new colors, textures, flavors.

 

In the Beginning (of 2019), Let There Be (Clumsy) Creation

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I have never been a visual artist.

This is partly a lack of natural talent, and partly a lack of training. My hometown did not provide funding for arts education for most of my elementary school years, so my main memory of art class involves being instructed to draw a portrait of myself brushing my teeth in kindergarten. I recall being frustrated at how awkward and unrealistic I looked on paper, how big and clumsy the hand was that held the toothbrush, and especially how my art teacher praised the way I added the detail of the toilet paper trailing down from the roll in the background. I know now that she was using a standard technique of good teachers everywhere: find something to praise. At the time I latched onto it for dear life. In my head, I was The Official Drawer of Toilet Paper from the Side.

There’s not much call for my specialty.

More than forty years later I’m still focusing more on toilet paper rolls than organic forms, more on drawing lines than on color and shade and nuance. I can see and appreciate many forms of art: thoughtful gardens, paintings and sculpture, textile and fashion, beautifully decorated cakes, intriguing makeup, architectural whimsy, even graffiti. I just don’t see myself as a co-creator in any of it. Don’t tell anyone, but I suspect I consider it a waste of my time.

I don’t consider the appreciation of art a waste of time, and I don’t consider someone else creating the art a waste of their time. I firmly believe that art is an important part of life. I have simply disqualified myself from the process because I’m not good at it, so it isn’t pragmatic.

I’m not sure when I became afflicted with pragmatism. It wasn’t during childhood—I could spend hours sitting and watching the waves on the water, or listening to music, or making “acorn soup” in a frisbee to leave by the trees for the fairies. (Feeding fairies may actually be pragmatic, depending on how you view fairies.)

Somewhere between shoeless summers spent in the lake and now, things got busy. I became a responsible adult, with the emphasis on responsible (more on that another day). I still take time to enjoy things in my life, and I still create to a certain extent through writing. But even writing has become something I do with an end goal in mind: did I finish the blog post on time? (Hint: this is at least three days late.) Where could I submit that poem? If I take the plot of this story down that rabbit hole that will likely dead-end, isn’t that a waste of time?

I realize that I have begun to value time and activity in terms of the end product. A number of friends recently shared this article, which intrigued me and inspired me to reconsider how I structure my time. But even its counterintuitive suggestions are still justified by an end goal of greater output.

If I were to list out my beliefs and priorities, the importance of production would not be anywhere on the list. Not just not at the top—it wouldn’t be anywhere. I believe that life has value because it is. I believe that people have inherent dignity because they are. Yes, we have to make a living and earn money for food and shelter; I’m not talking about providing the necessities of life but of the things that preoccupy our hearts and minds. I believe that we are not only capable of joy for its own sake, but that it can and should be found in surprising places and in surprising ways, and that if we are in fact aiming to please our Creator, we do so best when we take joy in creating.

When did I stop applying this to myself?

I don’t really know, and I’m not going to waste time on the answer. What I am going to do is try to spend some time this month creating—joyfully, messily, poorly—for its own sake. Not with intent to produce, or sell, or even display for evaluation, but just to spend time creating in the presence of my Creator. “I am here, creating with You.”

It may be the most sincere prayer I can offer for 2019.

person making clay pot
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Advent, 2018: Reflections on–and of–Light

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The name of our blog came about from a conversation Mary and I were sharing with some writer friends a year ago, as they were discussing their Advent practices. Most of the folks in the discussion were enthusiastic about the season and the celebrations for Christmas. Several had suffered catastrophic illnesses and losses, so were struggling, but still looked forward to the joys the season has always brought them.

Mary noted that for a whole host of reasons, including mothering children who rely upon consistent routine to get through their days, the holiday season has become something she endures, rather than truly celebrates. She quipped, “I guess I’m just made for Ordinary Time.”

To my surprise, I realized that I agreed with her.

See, I absolutely love the trappings of Advent and Christmas—the traditions, decorations, the cookies, the eggnog, the celebrations… I am one caroling-party away from being a character in a Cable Network Christmas Movie. Underneath all the trimmings, though, I have to confess that I am always let down by the season. The extra demands on my time and attention exacerbate my health problems for starters. More critically, though, is my ongoing wrestling with the Almighty to hang onto my faith. Advent forces you to contemplate your beliefs, ideally in expectation of rejoicing in birth of the Savior, and in the promise of the Second Coming. When you wake up on Christmas morning not sure of who or what you believe in, well, it’s a bit dark, eh?

I would like to say that this year, here in this public forum, I will finally figure it all out. I’d like to believe that this year, someone—perhaps a charming-kid-next-door type with an adorable dog—will come into Mary’s life and show her and her family the Meaning of Christmas so powerfully that their hardwired anxieties will be overcome in an hour-minus-commercial-breaks.

This is no holiday television special. That’s not how any of this life business works. We know. So, for this Advent, we share a more modest goal:

Find the bits of light that come this season and pay attention to what they illuminate.

We invite you to join us as we struggle along the way in the dark together.