Finding the Art in Everything

27 July, 2008

It Escaped

The other night I couldn't sleep, so I pulled out my paints and watercolor pencils. I didn't know where to start, so I painted a card for a friend.

I mailed it today, so I don't have it anymore. I notice this because as I think of it, I want to inspect it again--criticize it, fix it, or add more to it (which might actually be taking away from it). I don't remember doing all of these things "sufficiently" as I made it last night. I couldn't take the time to take it apart because more important was its installation into a packet that was otherwise complete. More important was making it for my person. More than it had to be perfect, last night, it had to be be for my recipient.

The more I try to call it to memory to analyze it, the quicker my recollection disintegrates. It's no use.

I painted in the colors and the outlines and the patterns as an expression of love, the expression of which was made complete by breaking it off and mailing it away. It doesn't seem it ever belonged to me. If it did, I would have surely killed it.

My sister caught me off guard the other day by asking how long I was going to keep my job because she thought I was going to be a writer. Didn't I want to be a writer anymore? I just looked at her and blinked. I didn't even touch that one. My family doesn't really read anything I write--Not that there is much I let live.

I think this painted card only survived because I threw it in an envelope before I could kill it. I think it survived because I don't feel the same right to wipe out what belongs to someone else.

It makes me wish I had more like it that gives what I make the right to live.

26 July, 2008

When People Leave

"I have three candles here on the table which I disentangle from the plants and light when visitors come. [My cat] usually avoids them although once she came too close and her tail caught fire; I rubbed it out before she noticed. The flames move light over everyone's skin, draw light to the surface of the faces of my friends. When the people leave, I never blow the candles out, and after I'm asleep they flame and burn."

~Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

25 July, 2008

A Month Ago Today I Was in London

Happy is England! I could be content

HAPPY is England! I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own;
To feel no other breezes than are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances blent:
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment 5
For skies Italian, and an inward groan
To sit upon an Alp as on a throne,
And half forget what world or worldling meant.
Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;
Enough their simple loveliness for me, 10
Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging:
Yet do I often warmly burn to see
Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing,
And float with them about the summer waters.
John Keats (1795–1821). The Poetical Works of John Keats. 1884.

24 July, 2008

Not Worth It

"Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare."

~Isaiah 55:2

I was reading Isaiah this morning, again, and I found some questions that seem to have been present in the conversations I've had this week.

I have been reading about Robert Coles, prolific author, Harvard professor, and one of the most prominent psychologists of our era. He says, "We have categories for every person on earth, but who can explain just one person? ... Some reviewers criticize me for saying the same old things about the nature of human beings: that we are a mixture of good and evil, of light and darkness, of potentiality toward destruction on redemption. they wand some new theory, I suppose. But my research merely verifies what the bible has said all along about human beings." He has abandoned modern psychology to explain human behavior, and has looked to the literary wisdom of the ages.

As I read this passage this morning, I felt like I had found it. This passage from Isaiah explains one of the distinct human paradoxes: Why do we spend ourselves on what will not meet our needs? Why do we strive for things that bring us no peace and comfort--or worse--destruction?

I have been talking with a friend who is in a place where the inauthenticity of it overwhelms her. She is watching those who have the highest freedom possible still build their own little prisons with expectations and "supposed to's". For the first time in their lives, people could do whatever they please and be whomever they please, and they choose to live behind masks and chase meaningless things. Why are they laboring on what does not satisfy?

I had another conversation with a friend who learned from her doctor that an estimated 8 out of 10 people is carrying some kind of virus for a sexually transmitted infection. The most horrifying part is that many people don't know they are infected because the body fights it like most other infections for a while. We found that statistic staggering, and we marveled at this horrifying and fallacious notion of "sexual freedom." What is free about being bound to medication for life because of an incurable disease? What is free about the heartache that comes from extricating oneself from that kind of intimacy? What is free about having a physical ailment to represent the loss of self that occurred in fleeting moments of pleasure? Who on earth wants to make the call, "I'm sorry, but you might want to get yourself tested?" Why do we spend money on what is not bread, but in fact, poison? How do we not know this is not worth it?

It is significant that the Bible pinpoints this paradoxical human tendency so precisely, because it gives credibility to the second half of the verse: We see that God offers an alternative to the pattern of self-destruction: "Listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fares." Elsewhere in the Bible, we find abundant explanation for the Fare and its richness. We then have the power to measure cost, benefit, and the risk against a Love we can trust is not jeopardized by inauthenticity or its own inclination toward self-destruction. If we look enough at the Alternative, then what isn't food doesn't even appeal to us.

23 July, 2008

Hooray for Hipsters

That's right, folks, the word of the week is hipster. These creatures, relatively foreign to me, have shown up in my music, in my email, and then as a herd of free-thinkers who threatened to wreck good music with their smelly, bad-manners. My limited exposure to them has led me to think they are a limited phenomenon--limited to a particular city or university, to art majors, to a particular age group, but extensive research in the last 24 hours has indicated otherwise.

What, exactly is a hipster you ask?

Christian Lorentzen, for TimeOut New York defines it as, "Under the guise of “irony,” hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity. Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates."

This amalgamated originality has the potential for wacky charm, but there is an underlying evil to it.

First, Hipsterism is anything BUT original. Go to any indie-rock show to find its uniform:
  • "found-object" shoes--known to the less-tact as "P.F.UGLY" shoes
  • clove cigarettes
  • skinny jeans
  • a superfluous scarf
  • an affinity for an unruly facial forest
  • horizontal stripes
  • one of Kurt Kobain's tour shirts bought on Ebay for $1300
  • enough hair products to shower every day, yet still make oneself look dirty.
  • thick-rimmed vanity glasses
  • a plasticity that puts Fischer Price to shame.
That "original" ends up looking uniform is hardly the irony that hipsters claim to seek--it is ugly, oxymoronic idiocy, and it looks more like the emperor's new clothes than anything to be emulated.

Second, hipsterism feigns good taste while celebrating the opposite. While this alone could be dismissed as simple self-destruction, its danger lies in its ability to cultivate followers. Nothing is worse than hipster disciple. The hipster disciple takes the derivative of the hipster's unoriginality, drawing a tangent line that is even dumber and uglier. Celebrating the opposite of taste is more acceptable when it is done alone.

And they probably won't grow out of it.

I think of the hold the counterculture movements of the 1960's and 1970's has on politics, academics, music, and social movements. I wonder what kind of legacy the Hipsters will have in 30 years, or if it is already too much nonsense to matter.

16 July, 2008

Favorite Things

I am working on some photos of my favorite things, which include my pen, journal, books, and coffee, but it is posing quite the photography set of problems. I am struggling with getting a wide enough depth-of-field to incorporate all of the detail I want, but still being close enough to concentrate on small scale and details. If I put everything in the same plane, there is too much emphasis on geometric simple shapes. I am also struggling with lighting and setup in my apartment. Nevertheless, here are a few shots of the shots I like so far. Any technical suggestions for my camera?

15 July, 2008

Post Secret

On Sunday, I went to the PostSecret exhibit at the Brevard County Art Museum with Jen. She is one of several I know who subscribes to the updates from the website and owns the books. PostSecret explains itself as "an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard."

I went because I'll go anywhere the word "exhibit" is used, but I wasn't really ready for what I experienced. The exhibit was arranged in Plexiglas so you can see the ACTUAL cards, both front and back. It is one thing to have these cards show up in my Reader feed, but these were real. Real handwriting, real tape, real photos--real people.

You who are familiar with the weekly post have read enough of these to know how twisted and horrifying these are--seeing the postcards makes all that pain real. What is more, all of that hiding is real. I am scared of the kind of pain and hiding that motivates the mailing of one of these cards. I hate feeling their pain and the pain of having to keep these things secret. I feel so much of their shame. I quit reading the Sunday Secrets a few months ago because I found them so distressing. To see the real cards magnified that horror tenfold.

On the morning I went, I had a conversation with a friend urging her not to bury painful things, and then I came to this place where I could see what people are burying. Here, the reasons NOT to bury things were illustrated. I can't imagine that the pain of hiding these things is any less than the pain that would come from being seen with your secret. In fact, I wonder how much of the pain comes from the hiding of them. Furthermore, in their hiding, dark things become so much more toxic because they can't be evaluated by the light of love and truth.

The curator for the exhibit, and Frank, the collector of the postcards, mean for there to be something meaningful and beautiful in the courage that it takes these people to share their secrets. But unless we know to whom the cards belong, it is not really sharing. These people think they are freeing their secrets, but so what? What gives the secret its power is when it is owned, or if the secret is big enough, what the Secret owns. But seeing secrets without ownership is little more than spying on someone's shame. The secret itself does not have the power to free the person who feels forced to keep it.

Frank, the project guy said, "Some of the most beautiful postcards in this collection came from very painful feelings and memories. I believe each one of us has the ability to discover, share, and grow our own dark secrets into something meaningful and beautiful." The thing is, does mailing a postcard really transform pain into something else? Could that be possible?

When I looked at the postcards, I just saw hundreds of people who were still bound to their secret and all of the circumstances that comprise the secret. Frank says that it is cathartic, that it means something to put the secret out there. But I wonder if it does? Wouldn't the anonymity that is supposed to bring liberty actually strip it of its meaning? It seems like a really false freedom.

And then I wonder: Why don't those people have someone who loves them enough to bear their secrets?

I struggled to relate to this because I rarely have the urge to hide. I think this comes from having the deep-seated belief in an omniscient God. More than this, it is a God who, in His first exchange with people in their new tainted Genesis condition, calls them out of hiding. King David says of God, "O LORD, you have searched me /and you know me...even the darkness will not be dark to you; / the night will shine like the day, /for darkness is as light to you." I find it freeing to know that nothing can be hidden from where it could matter most to hide it. It is freeing because there is perfect Love to match that omniscience.

When we left the exhibit, I felt so heavy and deeply grieved. I am glad Jen went over the bridge to the beach. As I stood there letting the water wash over my feet, and felt the cool breeze, and smelled how fresh the air, I felt the heaviness lift. It was a really serene stretch of beach.

I read someplace that beauty can heal the deepest pain, so maybe that explains it. Maybe only something as beautiful as a late-afternoon beach, (and the surprise delight of seeing dolphins) can fill and bind up the the gashes that come from going through life.

Or maybe that is nonsense.


There are some coasts
Where the sea comes in spectacularly
Throwing itself up gullies, challenging cliffs,
Filling harbours with great swirls and a flourish,
A theatrical even that people gather for
Curtain up twice daily. You need to know
The hour of its starting, you have to be on guard.

There are other places
Places where you do not really notice
The gradual stretch of the fertile silk of water
No gurgling or dashings here, no froth no pounding
Only at some point the echo may sound different
And looking by chance one sees 'Oh the tide is in.'

Jenny Joseph (b. 1932)

05 July, 2008

Real Political Change


A friend recently asked me, "Obama or McCain?" and I still don't have an answer. I hate them both. Politics has been a long-time hobby of mine, and people who know me marvel at my detachment from the current election. I, too, am startled by my own ambivalence.

But what is there to care about? I don't think either candidate is offering truth, love, and justice in their campaigns of partisan unilateralism that run so contrary to Christ's ministry of humility and reconciliation. I am deeply disturbed by all of the questions people aren't asking about all of the things the candidates aren't saying. In t his campaign frenzy, we have still failed to reach any point of real meaning. As a history teacher, I have spent the last year grappling with the weight of cause-and-effect. I have seen how nothing happens in isolation from any part of the past or the future. The campaign promises of both candidates show no grasp of this.

We have a great deal at stake in this presidential election, though it is hubris to say that it is more or less than any other era. Now, we are facing the first effects of our economy's own fragility, and we don't know how to fix the fractures because we act like we didn't even know it was breakable. Furthermore, fixing a fracture, in medical terms, causes permanent damage. And I don't think this serves as a bad metaphor.

But more than blaming the candidates for what feels like futility in the upcoming election, I think a big portion of my ambivalence comes from my loss of faith in structural power. What makes me a conservative is that I'm confident government is far from inherently good and should be as small as possible. But not matter the size, it is slowly becoming clear to me that our government is powerless agains the causes that really mean something. It can neither heal pain or mane peace, and any order it creates is hardly a guarantee for true justice. It can make laws, but those laws rarely reflect the kingdom of God where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

I have been fascinated by the quandary of Christians' role in politics. But maybe as Christ's followers, we should start by shaping society the way He did, which shows that love can only be applied person-to-person--not through any kind of structural reform or program.

You want to end hunger? Get your friends together and disburse food to 5000 people working with my friend Cassie at Feed My Starving Children. Jesus doesn't end hunger all at once, and He doesn't call on the Romans to care for their poor better. He meets the immediate needs of the people around Him a few thousand at a time.

Before the Civil Rights Act, before Brown vs. Board, my grandmother was feeding and teaching Black people in her kitchen from her house on wealthy, all-white Watauga street in Tennessee. She saw the worth and dignity in them as human beings and acted on that long before the law told her to.

Afraid of terrorists and the Islamic Jihad against the West? Certain that those people should hold no political or military power? Consider the Roman treatment of the Jews. Recall Jesus', with peace in the sovereign nature of God's plan, replacing the ear of His Centurion captor in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter had just cut it off in a fit of confusion and anger. I tis not a perfect model, but it is enough to second guess a policy of retaliatory aggression.

You want to end prostitution and take a stand against pornography? Meet a prostitute in her place of shame, and love her like Jesus did at the well in the middle of the daytime. Meet her where she is and offer a loving alternative.

You think gay marriage is wrong and those people are leading a life of sin? Have lunch with Zaccheus like Jesus did, and show that love and reconciliation are more important than his relationship to the laws that you know.

It costs us less to hold a government accountable for problems and solutions than it does to love a prostitute or feed 5000 personally. But these are not tasks Jesus turned over to the government. All of these changes are not a product of a vote or a campaign image. Indeed we should try to put people in office who are going to best administer the principles of love and justice (according to our finite understanding) but more important is the face-to-face love of your neighbor, and in this, the celebrity images of Obama and McCain are irrelevant. We vote because we are to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's," but we should probably stop confusing the one with the other.

02 July, 2008

High Points

I was uploading some of my photos from my trip to print, and I found myself amazed at all we saw and did. I have led this trip 4 other times, and none of them were as fulfilling and fruitful as this one. So even though I have been home for a few days, I thought I would blog about the high points, city by city, before I forget them.

Out of a dozen days in Rome, these couple were some of the very best. While in Rome, our tour guide through the Vatican took us through the Papal apartments to the Raphael rooms, which included the School of Athens. In front of the painting by Raphael of Plato and Aristotle (and Heraclitus), our guide explained Platonic epistemology to the students in terms they understood. Jen and I also identified some core teaching tendencies in the two of us, and vainly located ourselves in the painting as well. I am Plato, she is Aristotle.

I also saw the Keats and Shelley museum for the first time, which was a treat because I love the Romantics' fascination with Italy. I have often cited Keats as my favorite Romantic, (on my more stable and grounded days I say Wordsworth) and the museum at the spanish steps is the apartment where he died. The museum had a huge stack of first editions, letters, and collected works, as well as a writing desk in the place of Keats. It made me want to write odes.

This is usually my favorite stop on the tour with the students because of the relaxed pace. There is also a tour guide there we have had three times on whom I have more than a small crush. It is always a pleasure to see Giovanni again, who taught me how to order a cappucino in Italian, showed me were the Brancacci chapel was for the Massacio frescoes, and this time showed me where to get my tickets for the Uffizi. I had never been able to get tickets to this incredible gallery, where I saw the Renaissance-era work that is my speciality. Unfortunately, they put the most notorious works behind highly protective glass. This is to keep flash photography from ruining the image in the long term, but as you can see with the light reflections, the image is ruined in a different way, anyway! The best part of this museum, though, was the way we went through it. It is a rare thing to have a companion in a gallery who travels as I do. Jen and I bought the same book, read the same information about the paintings we were seeing (in person!) as we went, and then discussed what we read and saw at the same pace! How much more I digested and kept because of this! When I see a piece of art in person, it becomes part of me, and every reproduction of it reminds me of the time I "met" it. I have never in one day "met" and known so many masterpieces, and I'll continually be delighted because these are some of the most reproduced works.

The highlight of Paris for me was my world history lesson in the Louvre to about half of my group, including my little sister. I walked them through the Italian painting wing, and taught them about Counter Reformation art, and introduced them to DaVinci (both the Mona Lisa, and Madonna of the Rocks) and the picked up how to identify key figures based on colors and symbols, identifying which ones were divine and which ones were human. I used this for a mini theology lesson on the dual nature of Jesus. Then I took them to the French Neo-classical wing and we examined the propaganda paintings by David for Napoleon and talked about modern media and politica propganda, I used Gericault's Raft of the Medusa to teach compositional fundamentals, and I used The Oath of the Horatii and Winged Victory to teach about neoclassicim and the impact of this intellectual trend on modern democracy, natural rights philosophy, and the extension of art to the masses. At one point, I had a trail of eavesdropping strangers who thought I was giving a tour. My glee was uncontainable.

We had great weather in London, making for really lovely days. I got to tour the students (myself!) around Parliament square, up through Trafalgar Square, through the theatre area to Picadilly Circus, narrating as I went. I pointed out 10 Downing St, and explained Nelson's victory over Napoleon. It was so thrilling to teach my students about my favorite city in the world. My sister said I was insuffereable, but I could not have been more delighted. Another favorite time for me was my walk with Jen along the length of the Strand, my blog's namesake, to Fleet Street. This is a picture of me crossing the Strand. I hadn't walked its full length in ages, and it is a lovely, photogenic walk that lets you commune with the literary saints and pass a free afternoon.

01 July, 2008

Momentary Continuity

I was comforting a friend today who is facing a straining transition, and new dichotomy emerged. I am not yet ready to claim it as universal, but I think moving on and forward in life means you are always moving between a daily experience that is either full of continuity or fragmentation. (I am still working on the labels for things).

When I am in a place long enough, my experiences each day seem to match the other days, and I find meaning in the habits and routines, and regular relationships. What comes each day matches about what I expect, so I find meaning in the reliability of my experience.

But any major change can disrupt this continuity--a relocation, the ending of a relationship, new circumstances, failures. It is here that I find meaning in single moments, where each hour or day can only be filled with its own things. Meaning has to come one conversation at a time, one person at a time, one simple delight at a time, and often these things are not big enough to fill anything else but their own moment. They are not big enough to reach continuously through one day to the next. If I am content with conversations instead of relationships, then I have what I need to get me through the lonely or dark hour. If I reach for continuity when all that is available is the momentary, then I am miserable.

Whats more, I think both places of meaning, continuous and momentary, are equivalent. I seem to frequently fluctuate between the two. BOTH places are only temporary, and the agony comes in mistaking either one as "normal." Recognizing them to be part of a cycle keeps the pervasive lonliness and displacement from becoming despair.

And I think we need these big changes to remind us that daily and continuous isn't necessarily permanent. These disruptions remind us that each year, month, day, hour, minute, and breath are always Sustained one at a time, whether we recognize it or not.