Finding the Art in Everything

28 July, 2010

On My Way
On My Way

05 July, 2010

G is for Getting Started

Nothing feels more impossible to me, most of the time, than getting started. Some people will start 100 things and never finish them. I much more often finish what I start, but perhaps it’s because I start less.

It doesn’t matter what I’m starting, whether it’s for pleasure or obligation, immediate necessity or prudent preparation. I often just can’t seem to do the things that would greatly improve my quality of life.

I just don’t know where to start. Or how to start.

Annie Dillard describes the dilemma well, especially when it comes to writing: “[One] must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it…[But] how to set yourself spinning? Where is an edge—a dangerous edge—and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?”

I’m a master at what Madeleine L’Engle describes as “putting off the moment of plunging in”.

But it’s the “plunge” that’s the problem. The whole image of leaping from a high place into an ice-cold pool is horrifying to me. I marvel at people who embrace that trauma for trauma’s sake. No. I much prefer to wade in, taking the next step after I’ve adjusted to the last.

I went to this leadership camp in high school and several of the training challenges were physically demanding. I have always been literally the worst in any group at these, so I’m very shy when presented with them. I look for any way out. The trainer must have sensed that in me, because he insisted I go first. I didn’t fully understand the challenge and I had never seen anything like it before. So he put a safety harness on me (precautionary, I told myself, it is the YMCA after all) and told me to “start climbing that ladder.” It was a set of pegs leading to a platform at the top of a telephone pole. Everyone in the group was watching—all of the student leaders from my high school. Fine. How hard can this be? I didn’t know enough to protest. Another trainer was at the top to give me more instructions. I’m not scared of heights, so the next part didn’t sound so bad. The trainer attached another rope to my harness and told me I was going to “swing” to the next platform on the next telephone pole, and the rope would carry me. How bad can that be? There were ropes everywhere and I seemed to be attached to all of them.

I took a step off the platform with no concept of what came next: A forty- foot plummet. It turns out the ropes securing me were really, really, long. If I had seen anyone do this before me, there is no way in hell I would have made it to the top of the platform. The adrenaline was so powerful, I started bawling. I was never intended to make it to the second tower at all. I was just suspended in the air, swinging back and forth until I slowed enough to be lowered to the ground. (I never decided that was fun in the end, and I never felt accomplished for what I had done. The Y-camp lessons of risk and reward were lost on me there.) Step by step, wading in, I had fallen into the kind of trauma that drives my procrastination.

It’s the threat of trauma or sacrifice that often holds me back—a pathological resistance to discomfort.

But there’s no room for this resistance in the fullness of life.

We must ask: How can our comfort be more important than the task at hand? How can the tiny, temporary comfort be more important than achievement or victory?

This year, I’ve found a few practical things to mitigate my resistance:

1. I do a tiny bit each day. If I want a cleaner house, I have to clean one thing each day—clear one surface, wash one load, do one chore. Otherwise I’ll never do the big weekend clean.

2. I make a methodical approach. If I know I should go running (but even after nine months, I still hate it), I get dressed. I put my shoes on. I fill my water bottle. I find my headphones. I put the leash on George. (which is the point of no return, because once he sees the leash we’re going somewhere, whether I like it or not). I get out the door. I walk, then I pick up the pace, then I figure I can do that for 2 more minutes. Then another two minutes… and so it goes until I’ve finished my workout without realizing it.

3. I start without the conditions being perfect. In theory, I can start writing even if I don’t have the right pen or the right notebook. (This is the hardest for me to do.) Just because I am not cooking for myself with perfectly measured and consciously chosen ingredients, doesn’t mean I can’t make deliberate, healthy food choices. Just because I don’t have time for a shower after a workout, doesn’t mean I can’t do some strength-training to meet my goal of exercising every day.

4. I keep a daily momentum. If I don’t STOP doing something, then I don’t have to worry about starting—or worse, starting over again. (though daily-ness is also a weakness for me)

And if none of this seems to work, I follow Annie Dillard’s example:

“To crank myself up…I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of an anesthesiologist. There was a tiny range in which coffee was effective. Short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.”

They say “A thing begun is half done,” and I’m sure Dillard is on to something with what fuels her beginning.

04 July, 2010

F is for Fireworks

I've wanted to work in pyrotechnics since high school. My dad blames my high school chem teacher, Mr. Griffiths.

Griff was truly great. I had him only one or two years before he retired. Instead of languishing in the classroom, boring students and biding his time, he chose to blow things up. When I met him, he had no eyebrows because he had blown the windows out of the lab trying to make rocket fuel.

It's hard not to love a teacher whose demonstrations were too epic for even the fume hood. In the dead of Minnesota winter, Griff took us outside for "the important" demonstrations.

I can't even remember the principles he was illustrating with some of his biggest explosions. I think it's only the teacher in me now that extends him benefit of the doubt and assumes he even had some. But I do remember the lab that is the chemical rite of passage--the unknown element with the flame tests. We had copper--that most identifiable of elements that burns a bluish green.

After that, I was hooked. How could my calling be anything other than that of artistic explosions?? Put to music? Every year, on the Fourth of July, I'm inspired. I become convinced I've missed my calling.

Dad has never shared my convictions. When I went to far as to change my major to chemistry and seek an pyrotechnics internship, he threatened to end his support of my academic career. I have all of my fingers and toes to show for his wisdom.

As you watch the displays tonight, enjoy the greatest of flame tests. Say thanks to your chemistry teacher for inspiring and training the pyrotechnicians, and say thanks to all the dads who kept the rest of us from practicing.

And for your chemistry fun, here is a table of elements and colors, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chemistry Department:

Also, you can check out the PBS Nova site on the anatomy of fireworks.

Color Compound Wavelength (nm)

strontium salts, lithium salts
lithium carbonate, Li2CO3 = red
strontium carbonate, SrCO3 = bright red



calcium salts
calcium chloride, CaCl2



sodium salts
sodium chloride, NaCl



barium compounds + chlorine producer
barium chloride, BaCl2



copper compounds + chlorine producer
copper(I) chloride, CuCl


mixture of strontium (red) and
copper (blue) compounds

silver burning aluminum, titanium, or magnesium

03 July, 2010

Media Gluttony

During the school year, not unlike my students, I'm consumed by academic material. Teaching 2-3 AP classes and 2-3 classes outside my field (whatever that is) will do that, I guess.

But summer is the season to remedy that. All my media consumption feels like dessert to hearty, nutritious year.

First up: the abandoned magazines. I have several months of Vanity Fair, InStyle, Real Simple, and Relevant to read.

With this cover shoot by Annie Liebowitz on the World Cup, it should be no mystery what made it to the top of the queue:

Ok. A little shallow, but it's a real queue! I swear!

Here's what else I'm working on:

Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life
Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message by Ravi Zacharias
Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader
The book of Acts
The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham
The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World

And what I'm listening to:

High Violet by The National
Sigh No More by Mumford & Sons
Transference by Spoon
Infinite Arms by Band of Horses
Go by Jonsi
To Hell Or Barbados by Damien Dempsey
Seize the Day by Damien Dempsey
I and Love and You by The Avett Brothers
Radical Face: Ghost by Radical Face

01 July, 2010

E is for Empty Space

I decided the empty space in my life needed renovating. It caused me a great deal of grief and anxiety, made worse by my poor attempts to fill it with the wrong things.

Slowly, I changed the way I thought about "emptiness".

I read an Annie Dillard piece about changing seasons--how she longed for "the North where unimpeded winds would hone me to a pure slip of bone." She says, "Winter is the real world, not the world gilded and pearled." The emptiness indicates a kind of purity, the completion of "a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off."

"I stand under wiped skies directly, naked, without intercessors. Frost winds have lofted my body's bones with all their restless sprints to an airborne raven's glide. I am buoyed by a calm and effortless longing, an angled pitch of the will..."

I, too, am buoyed by a calm and effortless longing - it's the empty space. Once identified as such, I no longer needed to destroy the empty space by filling it.

Dillard continues, " The death of the self of which the great writers speak is not violent act. It is merely the slow cessation of the will's sprints and the intellect's chatter. It is waiting like a hollow bell with a stilled tongue...The waiting itself is the thing."

The bell can only ring because of the empty space between its tongue and the walls. And ring it will, but at the ordained moment - the waiting itself is the thing.

Maybe the empty space is less like a prison cell and more like a waiting room.

Henri Nouwen speaks of an important conversion for emptiness--that of loneliness to solitude. One of the hallmarks of my empty space had been what Nouwen calls an "essential aloneness which so often breaks into our consciousness as the experience of a desperate sense of loneliness...It drives us to demand more from our fellow human beings than they can give."

He instructs, "Instead of running away from loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into solitude. To live a spiritual life, we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle, persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. It is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, the outward cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play."

I have become more certain of our innate resistance to empty spaces. My spiritual experience suggests that the more innate my resistance, the more likely my own will is working against my search for peace. The conversion of the dark and empty space to a brilliant garden of solitude is critical. Nouwen points out that "the temptation is indeed very great to take flight into an intimacy and a closeness that does not leave any open space. Much suffering results from this suffocating closeness." Instead of being driven by panic and despair to fill it, I've made a vigilant commitment to always maintain an empty room, with open windows to welcome the bitter, yet purifying North wind.