Finding the Art in Everything

30 June, 2010

Poetry for the Day

I read some breathtaking poetry today.

Much of it was in Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, but that'll see proper post later.

In the meantime, meditate on this:

Death is naked before God;
Destruction lies uncovered.

He spreads out the northern skies over empty space;
he suspends the earth over nothing.

He wraps up the waters in his clouds,
yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.

~Job 26:6-8

29 June, 2010

D is for Dublin

From Ireland 2009

A year ago I was in Dublin, completely alone. But no one is ever alone for long in Dublin. It is, by far, the most hospitable city I know. I had never been there and knew no one, but it never felt like that was the case.

A corner cop helped me locate my hotel, The Pembroke House. It's around the corner from the American Embassy, and it had an Italian concierge who laughed and smiled the way Italian men do at American women, but he also made sure I came back safely that night.

I walked all the way to Temple Bar to find a place that served food in the evening. Irish pubs, unlike English pubs, have kitchens with very limited hours. Touristy Temple Bar made dinner a possibility, it also made watching the USA-Brazil World Cup Qualifier with my countrymen, and Irishmen, a possibility. Dempsey and Donovan both scored and we were up at the half, which is NOT like anything we've seen in the World Cup itself. Guinness, football, "live music" by a cover-playing troubadour, friendly bartenders, and cheering work magic on the self-consciously alone. It was also my first taste of the Dublin magic that made it seem I had been there already before.

My first morning, I walked to Insomnia coffee on my way into the city. I was reading Paul Johnson's Ireland: A History when I was interrupted by Martin, "You're American, then?"
Damn. I was trying to blend in. "It's not you're fault, I lived in the States for years, I can spot an American with no trouble." I know. That's how I am with English people. I call it UKdar. I guess his would be USAdar.

I swear I am not making this up: Martin, a little younger, maybe, than my dad, worked for my dad's former company and knew my hometown. They knew some of the same people. Oddly, I felt like the fake, because all he was saying about his American experience was so familiar to me, he must have thought I was making up the points of commonality! Unlike Dublin, America is incomprehensible in size. How does someone meet a former Seagate employee and Bloomington MN resident an hour (ok, two if you count my lengthy morning routine) after waking up in a foreign city? It's Dublin.

The next day, I went to the National Gallery of Art. Now, I like to be alone in galleries. I wanted to travel alone in the first place so I wasn't rushed or interrupted. But it's Dublin. So I met a man who's as much a fixture of the museum as the Yeats National Collection, volunteer guard, Noel Clarke from Co. Sligo. He had to be 70 yrs old. His was the best small talk I've ever heard--polite chit-chat otherwise meaningless but for its ability to convey such genuine warmth. He says "there ought to be enough space in this world for people to say 'hello' to each other." He said he didn't know a thing about art, but he did know the stories of the paintings. His kind of hospitality with a worldwide presence in Art Museums would improve everyone's opinion of both art and museums.

I also met Barry, from High Fidelity--I mean, from Road Records, Dublin's installment of Championship Vinyl. His name was really Barry. He recommended a couple of cds and directed me to the indie music site, Whelan's Pub, that had previously hosted Damien Rice, Snow Patrol, and Glen Hansard. So the next night, I joined Dublin's open-mic singer-songwriter scene for the evening, even though I was the only one in the crowd who couldn't play the guitar and wasn't Irish. I made friends with a nurse, named Moira, who invited me to a pub "up the road" after the show. One difference between a folk night at Wheelan's and one at The Social: the whole place was drenched in sincerity. Folk-indie music fans everywhere, and not a smug hipster in sight. Half the perfomers were pretty good, half weren't, but no one was too cool to be there. Moira ventured it was because Dublin was so poor for so long, that no one learned how to put on pretense. Sincerity and friendliness were innate to the culture. Any Singer-songwriter scene has an intense localism to it - you know the ones that belong to your city, that you can see. In Dublin, it was all the lovely localism but, for me, none of the nativism.

The show ended early and I walked home, only to be drawn into another pub where trad music spilled onto the street. The bar had a dozen pints of Guinness in a line, already half pulled, just begging someone to come request the rest. What's more welcoming than that? The source of the music was half a dozen musicians around a table in the corner, who finished up their tune, then introduced themselves to each other. They had just made great music together as total strangers! The anthem of Dublin hospitality! I stood with a stomping, clapping crowd until the pub closed.

Truly, no one is alone in Dublin.

My Dublin Top-five:

26 June, 2010


We went to a great bookstore today, even if we had to drive to Timbuktu to get there. It was so terrific, I hardly knew I was in Central Florida. It got me thinking of a few other places, where, though it's far away, help me forget I live in a place I hate:

My top-five almost-too-good-to-be-in-Central-Florida-places:

1. The Social -
2. Brightlight Books
3. Sam Flax - the best art supply store in the area. Real art supplies, not a Craft store like Michaels
4. Total Wine
5. Winter Park Farmer's Market

Megan was posing conversational questions the other day, and she asked, "Who would you want to sing you to sleep at night, if you could pick anyone?" I couldn't narrow it down, but I could give it a top-five:

1. Bono
2. Chris Martin
3. Sting
4. Sam Beam
5. Sufjan Stevens

22 June, 2010

C is for Culture

5And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. Revelation 21:5 (KJV)

8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.
Philippians 4:8 (New King James Version)

C is for Culture.

One of my heartaches regarding Central Florida is the lack of culture here. As an English Literature major an amateur musician and Art History teacher, I live for it. When I first moved here, one of my coworkers tried to convince me there was culture, but I just had to get used to the local kind. Anyone passing through Daytona can see the temple to what he's talking about--it can hold half a million people who live to watch people drive in circles, really fast. No. That is not culture.

Culture is NOT shirtless overall-wearin', gin-jug totin', toothless gator-shooters celebrating their lawn trash.

Yet, culture is NOT the high-minded post-modern celebration of human depravity such as Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary a collage of Mary incorporating cut-outs from pornographic magazines and shellacked clumps of elephant dung. Art is often tasked with raising controversy, but in every literal way, this is just shit.

And still, culture is NOT, as Franky Schaeffer writes in Addicted to Mediocrity, * (and as a recovering Christian-retail worker, I love this list, so here's the whole thing!) "the contents of your local Christian bookstore-accessories-paraphernalia shop:

For the coffee table, we have a set of praying hands made out of some pressed muck. Christian posters are ready to adorn your walls with suitable graffiti to sanctify them and justify the expense... Perhaps a little plastic cube with a mustard seed entombed to boost your understanding of faith... And if this were not enough, there's a toothbrush with a bible verse stamped on the plastic handle... And a comb with a Christian slogan or two impressed on it.

...On a flimsy rack are stacked a pile of records. You may choose one at random, blindfolded, for most of them will be the same idle rehash of acceptable spiritual themes, endlessly recycled as pablum for the tone-deaf, television-softened brains of present-day Christians...

...And finally, the publishing houses churn out (measured by the ton) a landslide of material which can scarcely be called books, often composed of the same themes which are viewed as spiritual, slopped together by 'writers' who would be better employed in another trade."

For rednecks, post-moderns, and especially Christians, it is crucial for the redemption of all things that we find true culture.

So if it isn't any of this, what is it?

Matthew Arnold, an English Victorian poet, social-reformer, and critic defined in his book Culture and Anarchy, "Culture is, or ought to be the study and pursuit of perfection; perfection of beauty and intelligence, where Sweetness and Light are the main characters."

Arnold goes on to argue that only culture of this kind has the power to shape a society--to correct the worst effect of laissez-faire capitalism among social classes, the neglect of the common good. With a collective celebration of Intellect and Beauty for their own sakes, people would be reminded what was good and so be motivated to strive for it.

Arnold was talking about culture chiefly for pseudo-political purposes, the stabilization of a turbulent British society. I think he has the right definition of it, a correct assessment of its power, but aiming toward the wrong end.

Instead, Christians should be working within culture to redeem it and use the best of it to point people back toward the Source of all good things. Christians should break down the sacred-secular divide with their participation in and celebration of all things excellent.

Our post-modern society is marked by individualism and its only end is man's right to do as he pleases for himself. We need something more powerful than that if we are going to make a transforming difference.

Beauty and Intellect are the meeting point between this kingdom where man is god and the Kingdom of God as described by the Gospel.

The beginning of this celebration of intellect and beauty, Sweetness and Light, is marked by the Hellenistic Golden Age in Greece. Greek humanism held intellect and beauty as its highest virtues. We need Christians to be nourished by this tradition of humanism, without being Humanists. As Christians, we know man is not the measure of all things, the Son of Man is.

All things will be made new. God's kingdom will reverse this world's momentum of decay. People, nature, politics, art, relationships--all of it-- will be redeemed.

Christians have an immediate role to play in this redemption: We must use the Truth we have to stop the best of this world from spoiling, not be content with the mediocre. The Gospel deserves the highest creativity and human expression we can muster, and we must use the high accomplishments of creativity and expression as pathways to the Gospel.

We are called to be the Salt and Light, after all. Let's get to work.

*Addicted to Mediocrity was written 25 years ago. Since then, it's important to fairly note the strides Christians have made in music and art--however small.

18 June, 2010

Red-Letter Day

It was the end of the day before I noticed how great it was. It was the first day I felt like I was on summer vacation. I know I'm starting it about a week behind everyone else, but today is what it's all about.

I woke up to a relatively clean apartment, which I actually had time to tidy yesterday. I drank the full press of coffee, Whole Foods Organic Red Sea Blend. Delicious. I didn't have to leave any behind or carry it around with me. I could quietly savor it all.

I didn't have to rush through my morning routine; instead, I took delight in each unhurried cosmetic step.

I met my mom and sister for shopping at Millenia, something I haven't done in more than a year. I haven't had an outing with the girls in too long, and the shopping between moms and daughters and sisters is a grand and uniquely wonderful thing.

And then I found some great, and I mean great sales. The best one? My favorite designer jeans, normally embarrassingly expensive, on clearance, for $28.50. Really. Weirdly, they had TWO pairs in my size. I have never owned two pairs of these at once before. In fact, I've only ever owned 2 of these cost-prohibitive pairs in the last six years.

And it didn't stop there! Everywhere I went, it was like there was fairydust sprinkled by the Sale Fairy (who's never before been this powerful) and everything I wanted to buy was magically 70% off!!

I am not sure if my belief in the Sale Fairy is a sign I should shop more, or less, by the way.

During lunch, I got to see the U.S. come back in the second half to tie Slovenia, even if the win was stolen from us by the worst referee in South Africa.

And we had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, which is so glamorous and lovely, and also had the soccer game on in the bar.

We hurried home and I got to meet a friend at Gator's to watch the England match. The game was poor, but the company was great, the conversation enlightening, and the beer so good I almost forgot about Wayne Rooney's uselessness.

My dad came home today, and he was in good form. I'm looking forward to a laid-back weekend celebrating Father's Day.

Finally, I had dinner tonight with my dear friends Jon and Anna, who met me for pizza. I have to confess, I had pizza twice today. It is (unfortunately, for health reasons) one of my very favorite foods. And this was two sets of fine, fresh, gourmet pizza. I'd call any day where a person can twice eat great versions of her favorite food a good day on its own, let alone all of this one's other shining moments.

Last, Jon and Anna are some of my very favorite people. I laughed so hard tonight the people around us were maybe a little annoyed. When I recounted my day to them, it was Anna who totaled it up and pronounced it a really great day.

I could only agree and hope to recognize the next great day for myself before its over.

17 June, 2010

Highschool on TV

I've found I really enjoy movies about high schools, not in the John Hughes sense, but movies whose main character relationships are between teachers and students. Okay, maybe not main ones, but secondary ones at least. I'll concede that the movies are usually about student-student relationships.

I might be the only one I know who really loved the new Harry Potter movie. I like the Harry Potter franchise, but true fans complained that it wasn't what it was supposed to be. I don't know whether it was accurate enough to the book, but I do know that when Harry and his classmates moved from middle school to high school, the books and characters were much more endearing. I found their classroom foibles, romantic blunders, and detentions delightful. I thought: I teach those kids. Not wizards, but I teach teenagers and there's something so universal about who they are 15-18. Even if they are wizards, they still get scolded, boy-girl troubles are the end of the world, and there is nothing like the burden of an impossible teacher.There is a collectivism among the Hogwarts faculty about the well-being and potential of its students to which I can deeply relate. I am blessed to teach at a similar school, where (on a good day) the students are cared for and taught by a community of committed, concerned adults.

I also watched the movie FAME! this afternoon with my sister, where rockstar kids with performing arts superpowers are loosely coached by famous former FAME stars like Debbie Allen. The teachers in this movie had a strong presence with a tough-love approach, resulting in adoration from their students. These kids, too: romantic blunders, distant parents, struggling to achieve in impossible classes, arbitrary stratification into "cool" kids and gifted "outsiders". I found myself rooting for the kids who come from behind to shine at the end.

Then we watched the season finale for the show Glee from the DVR. If you haven't seen this show, it's about a teacher in a Midwest, ordinary high school who tried to revive the school's glee club. It has the deadpan, unapologetic, absurd humor of the office without the mockumentary style. The teacher gets in his glee club the most ridiculous, rejected kids on campus who at least know they can sing. To the ordinary viewer of this show, those kids look like mutants. To me, they look like the inhabitants of Room 5 at the end of the day and so I love them. At the end, the students sang a song to their teacher "To Sir with Love," and it made everyone cry. People may doubt that students are that grateful for their teacher, or that the teacher was that moved by his students--but this is my world! This is why I approach graduation with a breaking heart.

Channel 13 News every week, it seems, has some horror story about a teacher abusing his or her students--the kind of story that makes the holy task of relational teaching very difficult. These non-fiction accounts of the modern high school setting get it so wrong according to my experience. Teaching isn't about power and abuse - or worst, sex - that might be the "real world", but it isn't teaching. Real teaching, I've found, is cultivating the mind and spirit of extraordinary people through life-changing relationships.

I instruct my students to disregard Hollywood's approach to most things because of the glamorization and romanticizing inherent to film. But in the case of students and teaching and those relationships, there seems to be much more truth in the fiction than anything I've heard about in the "real world".

16 June, 2010

B is for Basketball

I am writing this as I watch Game 6 of the NBA Finals--cheering for anyone playing the Celtic, as I was instructed to do.

This spring, to the amazement of everyone around me, I learned to follow a sport. Basketball.

It's no secret that I am a stranger to the sports world, and this certainly didn't change that. It's also no secret that I didn't pay attention to basketball for the love of the game.

I was blessed this year to have nearly the entire MVA varsity team in class. They truly are a group of extraordinary men. In class and out of it, they are smart, challenging, funny, and considerate men who made my classes more interesting and enjoyable. I appreciated them as students so much, that appreciation overflowed into one for them as athletes--sort of.

The Junior class fundraisers more or less mandated me to be at every home game--which is fine because I loved cheering for these guys. I just didn't know what I was doing. I loved them, but I had no idea if these guys were playing well or poorly. I could deduce the basics of basketball, sure, but that's not enough to connect with them in, for many of them, their most important place of performance. It felt so strange to care so much about something I knew so little about!

So I did what all teachers (not really) would do in my situation: I made a class project out of my NCAA March Madness brackets. These basketball guys helped me with my bracket picks, and we did a debrief about the previous night's games in the morning. I watched the games with a notebook and would bring in my commentary and questions. Five weeks of this, and I am a basketball Jedi. ( Ok. Maybe Not. But I can now give a decent play-by-play using the right terminology.)

It's true that I live to learn and Basketball gave me a new subject to explore. It is true that I have an uncommon affection for my students in general, and I would have cheered for these terrific guys if they had chosen to be mimes in boxes. And it is true that it's very easy to cheer for a team that enjoyed the success and exposure that ours did this year.

But more than all this, Basketball for me was my Missio Dei. To develop some basketball expertise was to become indigenous to my student culture. I maintain a Facebook and text-message like my life depends on it for the same reason. I even adapt my playlists and learn to love the music they love in order to love my students better.

Basketball became crucial to my scheme of what's called Missional Living.

According to Floyd McClung, former director for Youth with a Mission,

"Missional living is about investing in the lives of other people. It is not a program. It is certainly more than organized outreach activities. Being a missional person means intentionally building bridges to other people – for the sake of them knowing Jesus and discovering what it means to be a fully alive, free human being. It is an attitude that says, "I will invest my life in others for the sake of Christ and his purposes on earth." It means I will live that way in every sphere of life and every day of the week."

And according to Dr. Ed Stetzer and Phillip Nation in their book Compelled by Love,

In an alliterated sense, missional living is an incarnational (being the presence of Christ in community), indigenous (of the people and culture) and intentional (planning our lives around God's agenda) focus on the power of the Gospel to bring the reign of God into people's lives."

Nation and Stetzer also directed me toward 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 & 18:

"For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer C)">live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf... 18Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation."

I started attending a bible study (of sorts) with my basketball players, and we had open and important conversations about faith and reason and even race and culture (Did I mention most of them were West African?) --the kind of where Jesus shows up and we see a glimpse of eternity. The kind where true reconciliation of race and gender and culture and age and lost and found really begins. I had the privilege of exploring the truth of the Gospel as it applies to all things--even basketball.

And--as a surprise blessing--I am amazed by the power and art of this sport. I can't believe those jump shots go in from 40 feet away. It's exhilarating to see the ball run up the court so fast, and when they catch those passes from half a court away and drive in to the basket with precision and agility--fireworks!

For me, I saw there is church and basketball because there is Mission.

Missio Dei.


15 June, 2010

A is for Annie Dillard, Continued

In my last post, I mentioned that Annie Dillard wrote my favorite two pages in anything I've ever read. I don't know if they'll be as powerful for you as they were for me, and I'm sure I don't have permission to post them, but there they are:

Thomas Merton wrote, "There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues. " There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won't have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have "not gone up into the gaps." The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit's one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clifts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple-a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you.

I live in tranquility and trembling. Sometimes I dream. I am interested in Alice mainly when she eats the cooky that makes her smaller. I would pare myself or be pared that I too might pass through the merest crack, a gap I know is there in the sky. I am looking just now for the cooky. Sometimes I open, pried like a fruit. Or I am porous as old bone, or translucent, a tinted condensation of the air like a watercolor wash, and I gaze around me in bewilderment, fancying I cast no shadow. Some-

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times I ride a bucking faith while one hand grips and the other flails the air, and like any daredevil I gouge with my heels for blood, for a wilder ride, for more.

There is not a guarantee in the world. Oh your needs are guaranteed, your needs are absolutely guaranteed by the most stringent of warranties, in the plainest, truest words: knock; seek; ask. But you must read the fine print. "Not as the world giveth, give I unto you." That's the catch. If you can catch it it will catch you up, aloft, up to any gap at all, and you'll come back, for you will come back, transformed in a way you may not have bargained for-dribbling and crazed. The waters of separation, however lightly sprinkled, leave indelible stains. Did you think, before you were caught, that you needed, say, life? Do you think you will keep your life, or anything else you love? But no. Your needs are all met. But not as the world giveth. You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see the creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you're gone. You have finally understood that you're dealing with a maniac.

I think that the dying pray at the last not "please," but "thank you," as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.

          * * *

14 June, 2010

A is for Annie Dillard

If you spend any time at all in conversation with me, guaranteed I reference this author. It's no secret that I really like Dillard - her voice resonates in me like it's coming from my own chest. She starts the conversation between her readers and their everyday worlds, and it continues long after the reader closes the book.

I finally finished Pilgrim at Tinker Creek this spring, about a year after I started it. Its a series of illuminating personal essays--meandering responses to nature and the rest of Dillard's solitary, literary world. It's image-saturated prose that's carried by a poetic cadence toward transcendence, turning and directing itself like flowing water. Her writing has the honesty and power of something that is both fully human and fully vision. It's the most truthful writing I've ever read.

And I love the truth.

God, I want to write like that.

Dillard says "Poets read poetry; novelists read novels." Dillard wrote my favorite two pages of anything I've ever read. Reading her changes the way I see--even breathe. If a writer often defines herself by what she reads, what does that make me? Nothing, because I haven't been writing. Writers write, but I haven't been because I've been too self-conscious about lack of talent and poor craft. Dillard explains this, " You try, you try every time to reproduce the vision- to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come a long with a bushel and hide it."

If that's the case, why bother?

She answers, "Because acting is better than being here in mere opacity."

Really, the only people who read my writing are family and friends--and there's a paradox there. They're the hardest to write for - they're people to whom I feel compelled to prove something. There's a fear that I can't write well enough to earn their approval and respect. But this kind of concern misses the point entirely.

To whom did Jesus do most of His teaching? His closest friends and family--the disciples. More of Christ's conversation and lessons were directed toward the people who knew Him best. He didn't aim for fame or notoriety, or even polished delivery. He aimed to save his own people--to serve His fathers Vision.

Do I actually think the clumsiness (at best) of my writing is worse than not serving the Father's vision with the capabilities He bestowed on me?

Among many, many things, Dillard reminded me that serving the vision is more about trusting Power is made perfect in weakness than any other measurement of success.

God did not give us "a spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline."

A is for Annie Dillard, but there is a great chance she'll show up in other letters, too. Just watch.

13 June, 2010

Coming Back

I'm embarrassed by my posting performance for the six months - maybe this whole year. I'm not embarrassed because I think I'm letting anyone down - heavens no, there's only a handful of people who read this - I'm embarrassed because I should have made a better public record of all I've learned and read and taught.

I should have deemed the lessons important enough to write out, organize, and post properly. I shouldn't have been so self-conscious about how I write and let that deter me from sharing new insights. Sometimes learning from reading keeps God from having to teach me with "the hard way". If I am sometimes spared the "hard way" by reading, maybe I should write more and other people can be spared my same lessons by reading.

Or maybe that's not how it works.

I am inspired by Jadepark's alphabet list--though her focus is more of a memoir. I think I need something to get me started--something that lets me move forward and backward in the chronology of things. I think I'll do an alphabet list of lessons.

I'm a teacher, after all--alphabets, plans, lists, and lessons are the nasty side effects of our trade.