Jenni Simmons

Jenni Simmons is the Editor of the Art House America Blog, and a creative nonfiction writer. Her writing has appeared in Comment Magazine and Proximity Magazine, among others. She enjoys many good things in her life, but she would always rather be reading. You can follow her on Twitter @jennisimmons, and see what she's reading on Goodreads.

Editing Suburbia

“This is, mind you, suburbia.” Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”

I do a lot of walking in the suburbs of Katy, Texas, where I live, just west of Houston. I walk to see whatever there is to see, including the grand Texas sky with its impressive cloudscapes, which we Houstonians claim as our mountains, and birds and various critters among the other natural sights. On a disciplined day, I wake early and walk a mile or two around the retention pond in our neighborhood. On a less disciplined day, I walk our dog along one of the streets near our house. On an extra special day, my husband and I walk the trail at a local park, usually seeking out a favorite, quiet stretch of asphalt flanked by particularly tall pine trees whose scent conjures the tonic mountain air of our beloved Colorado. This spot on the trail is also where we saw a deer up close, and I guess too personal, for it scampered back into the woods.

I love my husband’s company, but every once in awhile, I wish I could walk the park’s trails alone, if they were not scattered with suspicious men sitting on top of picnic tables. My introverted personality craves the solitude of the sun-streaked woods and the sweet little creek that bends its will only when it encounters oak tree roots lodged in the soil, then continues on its merry way. This solo-rustic desire was planted within me a long time ago, during seven-mile hikes with my dad and brother in Colorado during my childhood, when my love for that state was born, all the while eating ostrich eggs for breakfast, or being chased down a mountain by lightning.

My love for the natural world grew to maturation when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard in my early, infant 20s, in my tiny studio apartment in Houston. This beloved book is as old as I am, both of us existing since 1974. I thought I understood this paper-paged friend fairly well. I described my adoration for Pilgrim here on The Curator in 2009 — how I learned to see properly and poetically thanks to Dillard’s writing. And loving and rereading this book all of these years has reaffirmed aspects of who I am that will never change: I love books, I love to read, I love nature, I love solitude, I love writing.

So when I came across an article in The Atlantic, “The Thoreau of the Suburbs” by Diana Saverin, where she divulged revealing details about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Annie Dillard’s writing process, I was ecstatic. Saverin’s piece blew my mind and left me wide-eyed, but not from bedazzlement or writerly bliss and inspiration — more like shock and disillusionment. Saverin writes, “[S]he wasn’t even living alone. She was residing in an ordinary house with her husband—her former college poetry professor, Richard Dillard. Before she published her book, she scribbled in her journal, wondering who would take her book seriously if its author was a ‘Virginia housewife named Annie.’ She couldn’t change the fact that she lived in Virginia or was a housewife named Annie, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Her husband never made it into the book.”

* * *

In my previous Curator piece, “On Learning to See,” I almost seemed apologetic that I live in suburbia instead of Annie Dillard’s supposed exotic surroundings. But I wouldn’t have been apologetic if I had known that Dillard herself was a housewife living in and walking around suburbia, beautifully and poetically describing the natural world of her domestic surroundings. I always conjured a dreamy fantasy when reading Pilgrim, one of solitude and beauty and wandering and philosophical epiphanies.

After reading Saverin’s Atlantic piece, I don’t love Pilgrim at Tinker Creek any less—it is still some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read—but I do look at the book differently. Now I know that part of Dillard’s story is missing. It would be more compelling to know that a housewife wrote such a phenomenal book, admitting her suburban reality instead of the typical dismissal of suburbia, deeming such a common life boring or uncool.

* * *

I pulled into the driveway after church one day, talking on the phone with my mom, to find a hawk sitting in the epicenter of a small white bird’s carnage on our side lawn, the feathers spread out like a small, gentle explosion. The hawk’s eyes were wide and steadied on me. I trailed off mid-sentence, my eyes wide too, both enchanted and horrified by the beautiful, bitter, inevitable tragedy of violence in nature. That hawk and I stared at each other for a good few minutes; then it soared gracefully and powerfully away to nestle in a pine tree down the street. The circumference of white feathers remained on our lawn for a few days like a piece of installation art symbolizing the delicate reality of death.

Yesterday as I tended to our breakfast dishes, a tiny snail sidled up our kitchen sink window, a rivulet of slime trailing below its ecru body, its tiny eye-tipped tentacles bending back and forth, assessing the strange transparent terrain, and perhaps assessing the giant human face peering so closely with no respect for a snail’s personal space. I wondered if it was a baby snail. I stepped away for a moment, and when I returned I was surprised to see how fast that snail had booked it up our window, almost out of sight.

One morning, very early, I lugged my weary body out of bed, determined to exercise. I stepped out our back door and inhaled fresh air; I caught the scent of pine high above me. I crossed the street, turned the corner, and reckoned with the oval-shaped path around the pond. Sometimes I see whimsical faces in the long, spindly streaks of tar mending ruts in the asphalt, but that day the faces were inexpressive, impassive — quite frankly, they were bored. The sky was a major disappointment of gray, but I trekked onward with a miraculous determination, seeing as this was pre-coffee. I passed fledgling cypress and oak trees growing alongside each other. A few mockingbirds flitted about silently, not in the mood for mimicry. The typically vibrant colors of neighbors’ flowers spilling over their fences were mute and dull. I felt the groaning of creation mentioned in Romans 8 in my bones and in every living thing around me. On the last stretch of the path, a slender cruciform of white glided through the air in my peripheral vision. I looked upward and to the left to see a great egret swooping low overhead. I could see the fringe of its stately wings, and the narrow point of its beak. That elegant white bird felt like a royal visitation, come down out of the silent sky to speak peace and joy and reviving over me. I wanted to grow small and spry enough that I could jump and grab hold of its legs, climb gently on its back, and fly in tandem wherever we pleased.

* * *

“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

* * *

In light of Dillard’s omissions of suburbia and domesticity, I’ve been wondering about the term “creative nonfiction.” Shouldn’t I write as truthfully as I do creatively? Can’t I do both? If I were to write a memoir about walking in my neighborhood and what I observe, should I delete all details of the suburbs of Houston where I reside? Should I edit out the word “retention” in my great egret account and merely write “pond”? Should I omit my drummer husband and our mundane, peaceful working-from-home life? Should I make my book a strictly Thoreau-esque affair to appeal to the nature-loving masses? And what exactly would such an account be? Saverin also divulged in her Atlantic piece that Dillard was hip to the fact “that there had always been a certain amount of delusion involved in the lone-man-in-the-wilderness narrative.” Thoreau’s cabin sat on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, within walking distance of Concord, and it was rumored that Thoreau’s mom did his laundry. He was no doubt a great observer of the natural world, but again, the truth was made to seem optional and unappealing.

Perhaps I struggle with this impulse, too. Writing requires faith, and part of faith is seeing what is true and not turning away from it, nor hiding it. Perhaps above I should have written that along with an idyllic, gurgling creek in the heart of Cullen Park, trash sits on some of those oak tree roots, also diverting the path of the water. Or that the men atop picnic tables laughed and reeked of marijuana, maybe not so much enjoying it as selling it. Or that we have often walked on what seemed like a secluded part of the trail to the sound of children’s parties blasting celebratory Tejano music through the pines. Perhaps we all struggle with Dillard’s type of writerly omissions, such as many other writers have done before and after the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — to include what we like and delete what we don’t. We probably do this in other aspects of our lives as well, especially in this day and age saturated with social media — the name Facebook even having literary connotations — where we can easily present an image of our lives that we like, and a flattering angle of our appearance with a selfie. But our unfaithful omissions in writing and in life do not reflect reality.

As writers, we need to be honest, which is another component of faith. But this honesty is not so much about describing every single thing I’ve seen in our local park or in my suburban neighborhood, but of giving you a well-rounded mental photograph of my place, my reality. This recalls some of my favorite lines from the novel Peace Like a River:

Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?

No sir.

All I can do is say, Here’s how it went. Here’s what I saw.

I’ve been there and am going back.

Make of it what you will.

This is my writer’s declaration. In order for your reader’s imagination to make of things what it will, I have to give you the materials with which to make, to create. If I omit that I live in suburbia, but describe other waterbirds such as a blue heron we saw in the park, that doesn’t give you a true glimpse of things. You might think I live in a coastland area outside of Houston, living in a simple beach cottage.

Part of the glory of my great egret sighting was that it soared above my head in the mundanity of suburbia. Annie Dillard taught me to perpetually notice: What is happening when I’m not looking, when I’m not seeing? But after digesting Dillard’s decision to edit out the suburban and domestic aspects of her existence, I don’t believe that she taught me how to be authentic in my writing, at least not in this instance. I feel disillusioned by her lone-woman-by-the-creek narrative. I believe that Dillard really did see all of the natural wonders she described in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but the omissions of her suburban neighborhood and her college professor husband fall short of truthful. Aren’t writers witnesses to the good, the true, the beautiful, the banal — all of it? Isn’t that part of the art of seeing that I learned from Dillard long ago?

Part of the glory of nature in the suburbs is that it happens in suburbia, in a place you might least expect to behold beauty. But whether I write that book about walking or not, and no matter what I write, I am a writer. I am a suburban housewife, a resident of Katy, Texas. I live in a two-story brick house with my drummer husband, two cats, and one dog. I plan to write a great many things during my life that have nothing to do with the suburbs, but my place shapes me. I do understand Dillard’s poetic habit of seeing, and I also believe we writers should undertake that artful practice of observation. But the poetic is more powerful if it is rooted in the truthful — what is really “going on here.” I have seen the poetic, transcendent glory in my neighborhood, and I am here to write, my feet grounded in suburban soil.

Forty

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

 

In 20 days I will turn 40. Like everyone else in the world, or maybe just everyone in America, I was hoping to rise above certain negative and personal issues and be a certain kind of awesome person by this particular mid-life birthday, without the crisis part. I have a feeling that this existential reckoning with the age of 40 is mostly an American type of angst, but I’m merely speculating.

I’ve had other such idealistic expectations in the past — when I was very sick with an unknown illness, I wanted to be healed by one of my birthdays. I felt strongly that it would be so. Perhaps this is because a birthday heralds a new year of life. And my birthday, November 26th, always falls in close proximity to Thanksgiving Day as well as the beginning of Advent.

So why not be healed — physically and spiritually — as I give thanks for my life? Why not be healed as we begin a new year in the Church calendar and symbolically await Christ’s birth — the most important life ever to be lived? It seemed perfectly reasonable and poetic to me. But what is reasonable to me is rarely reasonable to God. He did heal me, but not by my 30s or during my favorite season, autumn. He healed me in the summer of 2010 with a surgery of epic proportions. It took 8 hours. My innards were cleansed of “an explosion” (the surgeon’s words) of endometriosis.

So, will I become Super Zen Jenni in less than a month? Will I be a woman who is fazed by nothing, striding through this world with impenetrable confidence? Probably not, but I’ve slowly come to believe that’s okay.

* * *

My 40th birthday wish list:

To not catch the flu. I caught the flu on my 38th and 39th birthdays and it was really lame.

Several hours to not feel as if I have to work, write, clean, do laundry, talk, or run errands and just read a good book with a cup of coffee or tea. Or a glass of red wine.

In the words of Mary Oliver, “I want // to think again of dangerous and noble things. / I want to be light and frolicsome. / I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, / as though I had wings.” It’s been too long.

An Ethiopian food dinner with my husband followed by a good cigar, like a Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story. If nothing else, I am literary through and through.

In addition to my current dream jobs of writer and editor, I would love to have Terry Gross’s job, or one very similar to it. Read books, watch films and TV, listen to music, and talk with the authors, directors, actors, and musicians? Bliss.

Last month I dreamt that a friend gave me a hot air balloon ride — that would also be awesome.

How about a new record player? My favorite CDs on vinyl? A turquoise Le Creuset tea kettle? Cat eye reading glasses? A mani/pedi? Subscriptions to Deeply Rooted magazine and The Paris Review? Books are always welcome.

* * *

In 10 days I will turn 40. I know that my husband and I will celebrate my birthday, and my parents will celebrate at their house when we travel to Dallas for Thanksgiving Day. But other than that, I don’t have a big celebration planned. One friend has joked about my need for a big party, but I laughed it off. The thought of a surprise party doesn’t scare me nearly as much as it did in my 20s, but really, I’m not expecting one nor will I be sad without one. If anything, I’d much rather celebrate with a few friends in the style of something like a Pinterest photograph.

Today a friend and I chatted after church about people’s inquiries of me lately, “Have you done anything exciting lately? Do you have any exciting plans for Christmas?” These types of questions usually pop up at appointments — the dentist, a haircut, etc. Lately, life is good and steady, but not exciting. My friend and I pondered, does everything really need to be exciting? A haircut is pretty exciting in my book. Maybe I’ll tell my hair stylist, “Congratulations, you’re the excitement!”

My friend and I also discussed our love for the mundane, which can also be pretty thrilling. She offered the stellar yet very ordinary combination of a croissant and a cup of coffee. Also, the existence of butter. Today, for me, 30 minutes to read and sip coffee in the quiet of my house before church was amazing. And this moment, as I type: a window table at a favorite Starbucks, a hazelnut Americano, earphones & the music of Sigur Rós, rain, people-watching, pedestrian-watching, train-watching, and a crane at rest over a building in progress in the distance — all of this is not what most people label as exciting, but for an introvert it’s sublunary perfection. And the Christmas lights on the palm trees outside just switched on, and Christmas lights are magical to me anywhere, anytime.

Did I mention that buildings in progress lit up at night give me hope? They are so beautiful in their raw, symmetrical state. One day, they will be whole. One day, I will be whole, too.

* * *

Who I wanted to be by age 40:

A mom.

A better, more selfless, less emotional/complicated wife.

A more consistent house-cleaner and cook.

A guitarist.

A disciplined writer.

A more prolific freelance editor.

A self-employer who could afford health insurance.

A woman who knew what the heck to do with her hair, and had a little more fashion sense. Get a capsule wardrobe already. (What is a capsule wardrobe?)

* * *

“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.” Anne Lamott

Oh my God, I don’t want to break my own heart. I do want to write that memoir (or two or three), my book about daily liturgies, and heck, maybe even a novel. And oh my God, I have been strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing like a bonafide junkie. I’ve been startled lately to discover that my sense of humor is deflated. I’ve forgotten how to laugh until it hurts.

During the past year, I feel like I’ve been grasping for life, white-knuckled. Yet at other times I could feel life coursing through me from head to toe. What do I want to do with my one wild and precious life? To not let go of life and living, that’s what.

I want to be healed from the emotional issues that have plagued me for 39 years—my own Bethseda, a story from the Gospel of John, chapter 5. Jesus asked that man who had been an invalid for 38 years, Do you want to be healed? As for me? Yes. Yes, I do. I’m ready to pick up my mat and walk. Mostly, I want to quit worrying about what people think of me. Quit thirsting for their approval. What do they think of my hairdo? Do they notice that I’ve gained 10 pounds? Do they think it’s strange I work in yoga pants unless I get out of the house and am forced to put on real clothes?

I do not want to worry about other people’s varied, ever-changing, unreliable opinions. I want to cast off the anxiety and fretting and self-hatred that so easily entangle me and choose life. According to Abraham Heschel (and Deuteronomy 30:19 and Twitter), that is God’s chief commandment. Wait, isn’t it to love my neighbor as I love myself? But see, I need to love myself before I can love my neighbor well. It’s tricky.

I’ve been wandering around my own life for 40 years like a damned Israelite in the wilderness. I’m ready to enter the Promised Land, or as a child in Sunday School said last week, “The Lovely Land.” I want my spirit to run wild and laugh hysterically in a wide and spacious place, comfortable in my own skin, clothed in Christ. I want to live.

* * *

In 6 days I will turn 40. It’s not likely that I will be Super Zen Jenni in a week. It’s not likely that I’ll be Super Zen Jenni ever in my life. But I do know that God will continually breathe life into me as He has all of these 40 years. He accomplished quite a bit during the first week of creation, so I know that He will do a great deal of creative work in me this week. I may not see it quite clearly by November 26th, but I will thank Him for all of the soulful, restorative creativity a few days later when I gather with my husband, family, friends, and their children in Houston for an Ethiopian food dinner, and French macarons for dessert.

* * *

Who I will most likely be on November 26, 2014:

A woman with curly, short hair and a petite, curvy body.

A woman who struggles with the conventional concept of time — general punctuality and writing deadlines, especially.

A woman who will continually search for good art wherever it may be found.

A woman who will continually seek God and the beauty of His holiness.

A woman who does not shave her legs every week.

A woman whose perception of her appearance may never size up with all the beauty I see in the world.

. . . And all of this is perfectly okay. If I’ve figured out one thing about turning 40, it’s that this life is not about attaining perfection of any kind. It’s not all about me. It’s just about living and enjoying this one wild and precious and messy and wonderful life.

My Funeral Playlist

 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. —1 Thessalonians 4:13, ESV 

I am not going to die; I’m going home like a shooting star. —Sojourner Truth

After six months of visiting my grandmother in a nursing home every other day, and my mom visiting on the other days; after six months of delivering chocolate milkshakes to fill out Nina’s anorexic frame; after six months of brushing her dark curly hair before pushing her wheelchair out into the sunshine; after six months of reading books aloud as she rested her eyes in bed, we all laughed during a speech my mom had written to cultivate humor as we remembered Theresa Lee Hughes Carter, who did not want the morose of spirit filling the funeral home pews. Nina wanted us to laugh, remember, and listen.

Besides the speech, my mom played a recording of my namesake, Jenni Till, singing “No More Night,” made popular by David Phelps, words and music by Walt Harrah.

See all around, now the nations bow down to sing
The only sound is the praises to Christ, our King
Slowly the names from the book are read
I know the King, so there’s no need to dread

No more night, no more pain
No more tears, never crying again
And praises to the great “I AM”
We will live in the light of the risen Lamb 

After watching Nina wrestle with death in her nursing home bed as fluid filled her lungs, her eyes pleading with me, my parents, and brother, I’m not ready to leave you; after she took her last terrestrial breath and the Lord’s peace and our tears filled the small room, the gifts of mirth and music are a blessed recollection.

* * *

 I’ve paid attention to the art of funerals.

* * *

A friend died way too young of cancer. My legs felt weak and fluid as I passed by her casket covered with a white liturgical cloth laden with gold crosses. I was overcome with grief, and her death was my first real reckoning with my own death since we were very close in age. My friend left behind a husband and a beautiful little boy. I was a newlywed at the time — would I leave Johnny behind on his own? Would I be blessed with children before the Lord took me home? I still don’t know the answer to these questions, but nowadays I smile and choke on joyful tears when we sing the hymn from her funeral at my church, “I Am the Bread of Life” by Suzanne Toolan. My friend’s suffering is over, once and for all — the Lord raised her up.

I am the Resurrection,
I am the Life,
He who believes in Me
Even if he die,
He shall live forever. 

And I will raise him up,
And I will raise him up,
And I will raise him up on the last day. 

* * *

I saved the bulletins from my Papaw’s funeral in 2006, and Aunt Pat’s funeral in 2011. Each bulletin reads like a short memoir.

The liturgy of Papaw’s life begins with “Blessed Assurance,” followed by a hymn he wrote and performed often — “All Because of Calvary.” If I shut my eyes I can vividly hear his comforting tenor and vintage strains from his Omnichord:

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,”
Amazing blessings that abound,
All because of Jesus’ sacrifice for me;
I have a song, my sins are gone, I’ll praise His name eternally;
All because of what He did on Calvary.
Blessed Jesus, Savior mine,
Son of man and Son Divine,
Sacrifice He made for me on Calvary;
My heart is filled, my soul is thrilled for now I have the victory,
All because of Jesus’ death on Calvary.
 

Papaw’s liturgy continues with passages from John and Romans; “Great is Thy Faithfulness;” and “Victory in Jesus.” These hymns and Scriptures remind me why Papaw, a lifelong Baptist minister of music, is one of my heroes, revealing the roots of his courage. He cared for a wife with Parkinson’s disease and three children. He outlived his second wife, and married his third wife, who survived him. He never lost sight from where to glean strength when loss drained him dry.

The liturgy of Aunt Pat’s life is comprised of a quote about community by Dorothy Day; “A Mighty Fortress is Our God;” Psalm 84; the German folk song “How Tedious and Tasteless” (Aunt Pat loved it, but her family found it perfectly named); passages from Matthew and 2 Corinthians; “The Lord’s Prayer;” and “The Love of God” by Frederick M. Lehman, which Pat and Papaw often sang together in church and at family reunions — she harmonized perfectly with her honey alto voice.

The epilogue of Pat’s story is her obituary, and this is my favorite line:

She loved music, ranging from choral anthems to Willie Nelson and Elvis. She loved her niece and nephew like they were her own.

* * *

Two years after Nina died, I meandered the aisles of my favorite record store and mentally ran through my meager budget. Confident that I had enough money for groceries and electricity, I snagged Julie Miller’s Broken Things CD. I loved each song, but “All My Tears” resonated within me.

There in my 3-room efficiency apartment, 24 years old and in full health, I had a sudden thought: This is my funeral song. The thought surprised me, but it did not frighten me.

I didn’t ponder my death very much at the time, and for all that I worried about, the fashion of my demise did not top the list. I suppose it was just one of those divine moments when God speaks and we know it. I knew that one day when my body rested in a simple, no-frills casket, this song would comfort my family and friends with hope and joy, even in death. I admire the straightforwardness of the lyrics regarding the Gospel, and I love the alt-country twang of Buddy Miller’s guitar and Julie Miller’s unique, delicate voice. And if all of my funeral wishes come true, a band of our musician friends will play this song much like the recording, which will be a rousing, encouraging gift — a mini-concert — for loved ones’ recollections to come.

* * *

I’m 39 years old now, and I’ve added to my funeral playlist. It now reads:

“All My Tears” by Julie Miller.
“Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness” by Johann Franck.
“Be Still, My Soul” by Katharina A. von Schlegel.
“The King of Love My Shepherd Is” by Henry Williams Baker.

The songs I’ve added have sustained me through sickness and hardships and times of restlessness, times when I questioned the Lord in storms of emotion. I’d like my family and friends to know where my soul finally settled — in grace and gladness, in stillness and peace, for “thy God doth undertake / To guide the future, as He has the past. / Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake; / All now mysterious shall be bright at last. / Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know / His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.”

I’m not sure how my life will unfold in the years to come, which elations and sufferings might be waiting for me, inspiring more additions to my playlist. Sometimes we sing a new hymn in church and I think, Perhaps this should be a funeral song, too. And so my husband and I discuss such strange things as our funerals because music is especially important to us. We want the songs to be parting gifts, guiding our loved ones’ grief to the only balm that will heal.

I have a hunch that my liturgy will include words from Psalms, chapters from Isaiah, and excerpts from Paul’s letters. I envision my funeral bulletin decorated with a piece of artwork by my friend Kierstin Casella. It includes a bird, a tree branch, foliage, wheat, rye, wine, and the lyrics to “Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness”:

Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,
leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,
come into the daylight’s splendor,
there with joy thy praises render
unto Him whose grace unbounded
hath this wondrous banquet founded;
high o’er all the heavens He reigneth,
yet to dwell with thee He deigneth.

My hope and expectation is for my funeral playlist to be a blessing like a benediction to the liturgy of my life.

 

 

The Art of Waiting

This year feels significant — it has my attention. I turned 39 in November, the last birthday in a decade marked by several years of suffering, painful blows to my health. Other years have been marked by healing and deliverance. I flip backwards through layers of my memory and wince at some images and smile at others. I’ve also been pondering the hardships, and blessings, of two of my heroines: Flannery O’Connor, who died of lupus at age 39, and my grandmother, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 39 when she was pregnant with my uncle. I don’t expect anything quite so traumatic to happen this year. I actually expect, in true hope, to feel well and to thrive. But that word — expect. It involves waiting. It seems like all I ever do is wait, especially in regards to my health. I’ve come to believe that the theme of my life is waiting. Or at least the theme of my thirties. The thing is, I do not wait well. Patience is not my virtue.

Even so, I have one more year in this decade to try my hand at the art of waiting — my 39th year of life, and now, a new year in the Christian calendar which begins with Advent. I love this liturgical season that cries out through every gray day sky and silent night, Come, Thou, long expected Jesus. Though He has come as an infant, we wait for His return that one fine day. It occurred to me that as I’ve observed Advent during this decade, its traditions have tried to teach me how to wait well. Sadly, I must confess that I’ve been disappointed during many Advent seasons. My eyes were focused on other comforts — not Jesus. I wasn’t satisfied with waiting for His arrival. But whether or not I waited as I should have, He waited on me. And He still waits here in the middle of Advent.

My perfectionist personality type is such that I want to be able to proclaim: I’ve mastered the spiritual lessons of Advent! My eyes are not weary with waiting for my unwavering focus is on Christ. I am content with the present and I’ve discarded my deepest expectations. Thus far during Advent, these statements are true some days. Other days, not so much. But on one of the recent difficult days, it dawned on me that I will never master the spiritual lessons of Advent, and that’s not even the point of this season. These four Sundays and weeks proceeding the 12 days of Christmastide are about waiting, yes — waiting to celebrate the birth of our Savior, and waiting to celebrate the fact that He will come again and make all things new, and banish every root of our tears. And waiting involves learning, and learning takes time, relative to each person. God created me to be slow in nature — I read voraciously but slowly; my body heals slowly; and though I eventually “get it,” I learn slowly.

Today the wind whispers and wisps through our pine trees and around the red brick corners of our house. I sit in my rocking chair under a white paper lantern and truly believe there is grace in the learning and the waiting — there is even grace in my earnest, imperfect attempts to glean wisdom and focus from this watchful season. I take a sip of tea, look out the window, and reflect on what I’m learning during Advent this year. It feels important to try and live differently than years past, at least with attention to the arts of learning and waiting.

I am learning to believe God’s promises no matter what I see or don’t see. This has been a year in which He has given me many promises through my prayers — dreams, even. He has illumined the great promises written in the thin, delicate pages of His word. Advent is a season of time set apart to intentionally practice my belief in His promises. It is a space to exercise my faith, and we all know faith doesn’t always involve visibility or identification of our longings fulfilled. I empathize with my forbears in Israel who received glorious prophecies about the Messiah, and how frustrating it must have been to wait on God’s promises to come in the flesh. And wait. And wait. Many generations of Israelites died with a faith in their Maker’s promises that I can only dream of learning. Some of these Adventine nights all I can do is rest in an armchair and gaze at our white Christmas tree lights as if they were stars in the sky come to hang in our living room. I think of God’s promise to elderly Abraham of descendants greater in number than stars in the sky and grains of sand on the shore. I think of the sea of stars above the shepherds’ heads that glorious night when the angels peeled back the sky to proclaim the birth of the long awaited Messiah.

 

Hark the herald angels sing

“Glory to the newborn King!

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled”

Joyful, all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With the angelic host proclaim:

“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! The herald angels sing

“Glory to the newborn King!”

 

I am learning to let my heart take courage as I wait on the Lord. There is not one, but two Psalms (27 and 31) which say exactly that — “let your heart take courage” — in regards to waiting on the Lord. Those Psalms also encourage me to be strong in this waiting and allowing my heart to be courageous. During Advent this has been a quiet kind of strength for me. I set a reminder on my iPhone with a quote by Anne Lamott: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” When this alert pops up on my phone and laptop, I take a long walk around our neighborhood. Two days ago I neared a spindly tree and a hawk perched on one of its fragile branches looking straight at me. I stopped and stared right back. I wondered if this was the same hawk that feasted on a poor, small bird on our lawn as I pulled into the driveway last month. That hawk stared at me, too, with all of its startling beauty. But in both scenarios, I won the staring contest as the hawk flew away in a breathtaking soar.

The quiet strength that I can muster this season involves walking, and walking away. I’ll be sitting and reading or writing and some pesky fear will flit around my thoughts. I walk away from that place in our home and make a cup of tea. I bend over and touch the ground with my palms to stretch my back, stand up and look out a window to assess the weather, and say a prayer for courage, for peace. I’ll do a load of laundry, asking the Lord to clothe me with Himself. I take another walk and pray for anyone other than myself. I do as a festive, red and green glitter-laden decoration on our fireplace mantel says: “Keep Calm and Be Merry.” Or I do as the famous British wartime exhortation said — I “keep calm and carry on” with the matters of my life. Fear can paralyze me, but Jesus, whom I wait upon during Advent, walks with me, giving me courage and His strength. I take yet another walk and He speaks through a neighbor’s lawn decoration, Peace.

I am learning to focus my weary eyes on the glimmers of light that drive out the darkness. The truth is, “ . . . when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me (Micah 7:8).” I’m heartened by sunlight flirting from behind gloomy winter clouds; small flames gently swaying from the tops of purple and  ink taper candles in our Advent wreath; soft, low lights in our bedroom while I work. I plug in the white Christmas tree lights every morning, especially when the sky is gray. I ask my husband to start a fire in our fireplace which crackles with comfort and warmth. I admire our neighbor’s elegant white-lit wire Christmas trees on their front lawn which I can see through a kitchen window as I rinse dishes. I give thanks for light, for electricity, for fire, for eyes to see — I give thanks to the Lord who is my light and my salvation. I recall an old favorite song, “July,” by The Innocence Mission:

The world at night has seen the greatest light: too much light to deny . . .

I am learning to sincerely thank God for each day that He makes with my first waking thoughts, which is a great feat before coffee. But with Him, all things are possible. En route to plug in the Christmas tree lights and turn on the blessed coffee maker, I hang that day’s little wooden piece on our Nativity Advent calendar. I take note of which piece marks the day — a shepherd, a drummer boy, a woman carrying empty water vessels, a boy carrying a sheep, an angel. I give thanks that the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. I give thanks for my sweet drummer husband. I give thanks for clean water, and for Jesus, the Living Water — I shall never thirst. I ask the Lord to speak to me, for I am His sheep and I hear His voice. I am trying my darndest to carry the spirit of thanksgiving throughout the day, and thank Him again as I lay my head on the pillow at night. I am trying to dwell in gratitude. To say Thank You when things are hard, and when they are not so hard.

I am learning to take note of what is beautiful and worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness — a cloud of incense hovering above the wooden altar at Church; crimson autumn leaves set against the concrete sidewalk; golden leaves dangling from white sycamore branches; the ruby-jewel hue of cranberry juice in my mother-in-law’s mocktail. I hold up a clementine slice to the natural light to see the orange flesh glow.

I am learning to rest in the Lord even when I don’t sleep well, or when my body doesn’t feel well. I practice being still physically, and also in my soul. I pray, without ceasing some days if I’m lucky. I read something nourishing — good books, and favorite passages in Isaiah or the Psalms. I eat something nourishing, which reminds me that the people in my life and in my path crave nourishment from my words, from my smile, from my hands. Lord, help me to nourish others, I pray.

I am learning to sing and laugh into the darkness, for we have seen a great Light. I sing along with Sufjan’s quirky and beautiful Christmas music. I sing Advent hymns as we celebrate and worship every Sunday at our Church, and as we carry our worship home. We light another candle on our small Advent wreath and I meditate on peace, hope, joy, and love — I pray to embody these virtues of Christ. We decorate our Christmas tree gradually to match the rhythms of Advent — only white lights the first Sunday; purple ornaments to symbolize Christ’s royalty and our repentance the second Sunday; silver ornaments to symbolize the riches of God’s Kingdom and purity the third Sunday, and our star ornaments to symbolize the angels and the Bethlehem star the fourth Sunday. On Christmas Eve, we hang our eclectic array of ornaments collected during childhood and our marriage. I perch a tiny sock monkey on one of the tree branches for the sake of pure mirth. Then my husband places a Pantocrator icon on top of the tree, we light the white Christ candle in the middle of the Advent wreath, and welcome our King. Then finally we break our Advent fast, feasting with family over mulled wine, my brother’s sangria, and tamales.

I look forward to the Christmas festivities and gifts soon to come, but as of today, it is still Advent. I am still waiting. I am still learning how to wait. Thankfully, in this very moment, my heart is at peace as I type and sip vanilla holy basil tea. There’s quite the late afternoon sunlight show on our bedroom wall. Our cat Milo is curled up under the bedcovers, making contented, sleepy sounds now and then. I am tired, too. I have closed my eyes often today to rest a moment and to pray. And I have heard a still, small Voice say, You are always waiting on Me, no matter what else you think you’re waiting for.

As Father Thomas McKenzie said in his wonderful Advent devotional, The Harpooner, “one day, one of these Advents will be the last one.” May Advent teach us the art of waiting all the days of our earthly lives. Come, Lord Jesus, with healing in Your wings.

Displaced

Several years ago I visited the nursing home around the corner from my church. I felt compelled to encourage the sick and elderly with conversation, Psalms read aloud and prayer. But to my surprise, they encouraged me. I was quite sick at the time. These frail, slow-moving bodies blessed my weak body with their courage and senses of humor. I stopped by room #27 often enough that I befriended a bedridden woman named Billie. Her husband Allan lived in the adjacent room. He was initially checked in for severe depression, but after he recovered, he stayed at Highland Park to be near his wife.

I visited on Sunday mornings before church. I’d knock lightly on Billie’s door. I heard her sweet voice, “Come in, honey,” and Allan would jump up from an armchair at the foot of her bed, smile and give me a hug. Photographs of their early marriage, children and grandchildren quilted the right-hand wall so that Billie could easily see the beloved faces from her bed. I was honored when they asked for a photograph of me and my husband and pasted it on that wall. Billie always asked me to read Psalm 91 from the prayer book — she loved the language of that particular version. And she always looked straight at me and said, “That is why we have nothing to fear.”

God healed me from that sickness, but I haven’t overcome fear. Recently I wrestled with sanity during a month of heightened anxiety while I tried to decrease a medication. But I knew that the roots were old-fashioned worry and emotional myopia. The remedy was to shift my focus from me and the seemingly tragic, and look up, out and around me. Whom could I help? Whom could I serve? What could I immerse my brain and hands into other than writing and editorial work in my home office?

In a city as widespread as Houston, the volunteer possibilities were overwhelming. I decided to start with the familiar. A medical triumvirate sits directly off the interstate exit leading to our house — a Methodist hospital, a children’s hospital and a nursing home. Remarkably, the hospitals did not need volunteers which made me proud of my fellow suburbanites.

I stopped by the sprawling nursing home with a terra cotta-tiled roof and a stained glass chapel by the front door. I filled out a volunteer application in a room with buttercream walls and a sleek black piano. On the back of the sheet of paper, I checked off activities with the residents that interested me, and two caught my eye in particular: writing projects and arts & crafts. My interest in the latter choice perplexed me. I’m comfortable working with words, but I’m not all that crafty.

The enthusiastic Activities Director called me two weeks later. Lo and behold, she needed help with arts & crafts on Wednesday afternoons. She informed me that some of the residents might prefer writing over crafts, but for now, arts & crafts was the primary need. “Could you help the residents paint, make jewelry and things like that?” she asked. I thought about it, shrugged my shoulders and said yes. If nothing else, I can provide comic relief, I thought.

On my first Wednesday, Chastity met me at the main entrance and led me through the Dalí Garden to the Picasso Room, and introduced me to Lael, Barbara and Audrey. An array of wooden objects was spread on top of one table. The women were working on pieces already in progress — butterflies and ladybugs. I selected a square jewelry box. Having zero painting experience, I decided to try and make the box look like its purpose — a jewel. I painted each side of the base and the lid of the box a different color — green, yellow, orange, blue and mahogany wood stain. I dipped the small, skinny paintbrush in a cup of water. I applied the damp bristles lightly to a disc of color. My simple technique was to saturate the grooves of the woodgrain with color, creating swirls of deeper hues over the primary coat. The repetition of this process was soothing — it quieted my frenetic mind.

The women and I talked and laughed as we painted. I felt an instant sense of welcome and camaraderie. Lael applied a coat of silver glitter paint over the blue surface of her ladybug’s wings and proceeded to tell me that she has always been very crafty. She enjoys using her hands. She tended to a garden at her house. Her artistic technique involved an intense focus, determination and confidence. She knew exactly what she wanted to make.

Barbara painted a light coat of the mahogany wood stain on her butterfly’s polka dots. I complimented her atypical color choice and she laughed a bit self-deprecatingly. I assured her of my sincerity and she said, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m having fun.” I looked at my strange little jewelry box and smiled.

As I talked more with Barbara, I learned that when she and her best friend were in their 50s, their husbands died within a week of each other. They grieved, but did not want to do so idly. Her friend suggested that they travel — to Munich, Spain, Berlin, Russia and Turkey. Her favorite destination was Russia, and not just because they served vodka with breakfast. As she described Berlin, she mentioned that her best friend lived there as a child and saw Hitler give a speech in person. I begged Barbara to allow me to help her write these stories. She didn’t see the need, but I’m holding on to the idea. The elderly in our midst are full of rich stories and wisdom that are all too often overlooked as unimportant and commonplace.

We switched to making necklaces for their grandchildren with tiny purple, pink and yellow beads, pink and purple hearts and sparkly purple crosses. I held the long string as Audrey contemplated her pattern of beads and hearts on either side of the cross. We share a love for the color blue, Audrey Hepburn and Mary Jane shoes. Audrey’s memory was slow, but she had an admirable sense of humor regarding this weakness. Trying to remember a grandchild’s name, her eyes closed in brief lament, I waited, and a good minute later her eyes opened in a wry smile and she stated the girl’s name in victory. Every nurse and orderly who walked into the room greeted Audrey and she made them laugh. Her joyful, strong spirit is infectious.

When my allotted time was up, I exited back through the Dalí Garden walking by blood-red roses, a row of white rocking chairs and bungalow-birdhouses. A flock of birds startled into the air. I said goodbye to Deb at the front desk whose turquoise fingernails matched her necklace. I walked out into the dense summer heat and drove home.

The next week, one man in a motorized wheelchair waited for me in the Picasso Room. He stared intently at an incomplete jigsaw puzzle — a snowy Christmas lighthouse scene. Beasley invited me to help him put the puzzle together. He had most of the perimeter of the image finished. Sensing my timidity, he said, “Just try a few pieces. Sometimes you get a lot of nopes. It’s okay.” I did get a lot of nopes. Beasley did not get as many nopes — he is quite skilled at puzzles. He has trained his eyes to see the detached colors: “I call this ‘battleship gray.’” He takes his time, studies the various pieces calmly, and methodically places piece after piece until one fits, which makes his wrinkles unfurl into a warm smile. Eventually, I started to get less nopes, too.

I asked if puzzles were his favorite hobby. He smacked his lips, wiped mucus from his mouth with a tissue and said matter-of-factly, “They are simple. They’re good for the mind. And what else am I going to do?” He did not say this with sadness, just acceptance. He cannot walk, and his eyes are too weak to read books, but he found an activity he enjoys and one that he does well. In that moment my intuition clarified that Beasley and I were not merely doing puzzles — I was learning a significant life lesson right there in the nursing home, the placement of my chair providing a view of the Miró Garden. Whatever I was anxious about could be quieted if I took one thing at a time, did the best I’m able and mustered a little patience and faith until the nopes materialized into yeps. Until the pieces of the puzzle of my life were not so scattered and fractured. Until my eyes could see beauty again. But until then, I could dwell in peace and security, hemmed and hedged in by God’s protection.

The following Wednesday, Chastity left me a note at the front desk:

We are on a movie outing. I pulled out the craft supplies. The following residents need to be picked up from their rooms if you don’t mind. Resident in room #600 (Gail), #708 (Barbara), #212 (Lael).

Thank you!

I meandered the maze of beautiful hallways which looked identical except for different artwork hanging on the walls. I found #600 first. Gail was hesitant to leave her room. “My clothes keep getting mixed up with someone else’s. I’m waiting for a nurse to bring me a marker to write my name in my clothes. I better stay here.” I recognized the aroma of tiresome worry. Looking at her furrowed brow and rigid posture was like looking in a mirror. I replied to Gail as well as to myself, “It might be a while before a nurse can bring you a marker. This problem with your clothes will get worked out. Why don’t you come have some fun for now?” She wasn’t entirely convinced, but she agreed to check out the day’s craft project. I pushed her wheelchair to the Picasso Room, which contains a large aquarium teeming with vibrant, shining fish. Gail’s eyes brightened. I set her up at a table with a clear glass vase, marbles, and a bag of small, smooth stones.

I found Barbara asleep in #708. I almost tiptoed away, but a kind janitor said, “She’s just resting. You can wake her up.” Barbara sat up cheerfully, revealing a John Wayne blanket that complemented the Western decor in her room. I told her that I, too, like John Wayne. “YOU like John Wayne?” she laughed. “I love John Wayne!” I helped her pull on black and magenta sneakers and off we went with the aid of her expert navigation. “It’s nice to be pushed around for once,” she said. “My arms get so tired.”

Lael stated that arts & crafts were better than whatever she was watching on TV. She placed her mug of coffee on the seat of her walker and we strolled the carpeted path slowly. The threesome set their hands to layering marbles and stones in the vases. “Do you have any sand?” they asked. Sadly, I did not. I later put in a request to Chastity who suggested that I could help the residents write words in trays of sand — a combination of crafts, writing and tactile therapy.

Everyone’s layering strategy was fascinating, but what I noticed the most was Gail’s transformation — a smile on her face as she created and chatted with new friends about their favorite flavors of ice cream. She layered her vase with white and gray stones, marbles with green and blue swirls, and shiny pastel beads on top. She looked pleased with her artistry.

Before our two hours were up, Gail went on to make a Denver Broncos door hanger and looked a bit anxious again when the adhesive letters and footballs didn’t fit quite right. Nodding toward prints of Picasso’s art hanging in the room I said, “Your letter placement looks very ‘Picasso’ — not everything has to be in a straight line or linear. And it’s okay to make mistakes — that happens when we create.” Once again, talking with Gail was like talking to myself.

Lael and Barbara went back to their rooms, and I wheeled Gail back to #600. She didn’t mention her lost clothes. Instead she looked around, trying to find just the right place for her craft project. She set it next to a lamp with a granite gray base which went nicely with the colors in her vase. I noticed a gorgeous purple orchid on her dresser and a realistic-looking fake blue hydrangea plant on her desk. Gail knows how to cultivate beauty with her simple possessions and small space. We talked about her love of jazz and John Denver, and I asked how I could pray for her that week. Her sister is dying of brain cancer. Gail and all four of her siblings have diabetes — Gail’s skin was suffering for it. I then realized that her clothes were not the true burden on her shoulders. I promised to pray.

And I promise to keep returning. I set out on this adventure to lose myself and I succeeded — I discovered that by visiting these displaced men and women, offering myself is a humbling form of hospitality. My body is God’s temple, after all, and He is our dwelling place in all generations (Psalm 90:1). And we, made in God’s image, can be dwelling places — shelter — for others.

I confess that the nursing home activities often seem like a waste of time. I don’t initially see the ministry in painting a wooden insect, putting a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle together or making jewelry that doesn’t fit my personal aesthetics. But once we begin creating and making together, I find the collective work of our hands to be simple, meditative tasks that steady me and cheer my friends. The craft projects are childlike joys, and we need the faith of a child, no matter our age. May we set our hands to create all the days of our life.

The Liturgy of the Sky

Wedges of geese flying overhead ritualistically at twilight. Nice to know what we can count on. #summerevenings

—Terry Tempest Williams, Twitter

When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which You have set in place,
what is man that You are mindful of him,
and the son of man that You care for him?
—Psalm 8:3-4

 

I get distracted by the sky.

I begin most days in the armchair in our living room with coffee, breakfast and the Bible. In my right-hand peripheral vision is a triptych of a view: a window-paned door to our backyard flanked by two large windows. When I look up from my reading to grasp a stoneware pottery mug for dear life, the light often catches my eye. Between the neighbors’ rooftops and low-hanging branches of our Drummond red maple, there is a trapezoidal space of sky that I watch with great interest both in the quiet luminescence of morning, and in the warm glow that precedes sunset pastels, which all too quickly fades to darkness. I try to fill my eyes with as much of the changing light as possible.

After a few hours of various quotidian domesticities and work-related emails, I step outside to drive a few blocks away to the gym. I assess two things before I get in the car: 1) the horrifying presence of, or the blissful absence of, wasps between the door and my means of escape; and 2) the current state of the sky, including the particular shade of blue that day, or the lack thereof, and the situation of the clouds. The shape of my emotions often responds to the sky’s composition.

Back home, the moveable feast of writing takes me to the couch in our library/TV room, steps away from my office. The words don’t come easy. I recently read that allowing my eyes and thoughts to wander the perimeter of my surroundings enhances the writing process. And so I look around. One time I gazed at the view from a second story window precisely as a Great Egret swooped overhead and out of sight. I took it as a blessing.

The sky is most distracting, and a tad precarious, when I’m driving around the concrete arteries of Houston. I’ve developed a knack for keeping my eyes on the road, yet peeking at the sky. The other day I tracked a cloud formation that seemed to be the Shekinah glory. It was not so much a pillar of condensation, but three large clouds conjoined at the center, emanating beams of light upward, outward, downward. These clouds stayed in front of my car during the drive home.

Also while driving, I catch birds gliding on the wind in flight, their wings at horizontal ease, their bodies in cruciform shape. I’ve noticed this so often lately that I think God is trying to tell me something. Isn’t He always? I mean, there’s a trinity of Great Egrets in my neck of the woods that fly at dusk — over our roof, over traffic, over the local park, over whatever it is that suburbanites are up to.

I am not the only one to be obsessively wooed by clouds and light and aerial space. John Constable painted 100 cloudscapes during the summers of 1821 and 1822 while living in Hampstead. He called his cloud-watching “skying,” which of course is the perfect term. He continued to document his cloud studies when he took his ailing wife Maria to Brighton Beach in the hopes that sea air would heal her tubercular lungs.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

—Psalm 121:1-2

Clouds often appear to be pastoral hills or august mountains in my imagination. Constable might have imagined similarly as he painted, hopeful for his beloved’s recovery. Perhaps spiritual intuition draws our eyes heavenward as we suffer through valleys of unsettling shadows and pain. This is true for me — I direct my tired eyes to the sky for comfort, encouragement, and  a good dose of beauty. At red lights I snap iPhone photographs of the aesthetically-pleasing intersection of telephone wires and clouds. “You can never be nubilous,” Constable told a friend, “I am the man of clouds.” Dare I say I am the woman of the clouds with my mere Instagrams?

Georgia O’Keefe also looked upward and painted the ephemeral transience of clouds, as did John Muir:

On July 23 [1869]: “What can poor mortals say about clouds?” While people describe them, they vanish. “Nevertheless, these fleeting sky mountains are as substantial and significant  as the more lasting upheavals of granite beneath them. Both alike are built up and die, and in God’s calendar, difference of duration is nothing.”
—For the Time Being by Annie Dillard, pages 71-72

But lately, I sense something other than mere elegance and cerulean hues in the realms of heaven. The sky seems to be at work. I’ve come to believe the sky is at work.

A few months ago I drove away from a friend’s neighborhood with tears sliding down my cheeks. I didn’t approve of some things occurring in my life. I was trying to thank God in all things but could not find those particular words of gratitude and submission. My external and internal vocabularies were comprised of bitter antonyms. My friend is dear to me, and honest. Very honest. She didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. She hugged me tight, whispered the truth in my ear and sent me home with mango coconut grilling sauce.

The sun — an enormous golden orb — sat directly on the horizon, to the peril of cars swooshing over the freeway. Or so my dire sensibilities persuaded my eyes to believe. I did not understand God that evening nor was I interested in talking with Him. He was there anyway. I was heartened for a moment thinking that beatific view would lead me home, but I veered toward a thunderstorm instead. A strata of thick grays and pinks trimmed with strings of dark rain whispered ominous questions ahead. At least a mystery. Perhaps He wasn’t interested in talking to me, either — at least not right then. You know, His timing and all. The conversation seemed to be just between the sky and God — one that I could behold but not comprehend.

I uttered repetitive, nerve-shaken prayers through blinding torrential rain. On the last stretch toward home, a storm raged to my left, and the last traces of a storm gleamed with tranquility to my right — a forecast of the past of eternity. I pulled into the driveway and looked up to an odd transition of gray to ochre lingering above our home. I begrudgingly took note that the drama of the heavens declared the glory of God loud and clear that day despite my tears, petitions, protestations and my eventual quietude. There are times, though rare, that I forget myself enough to recognize the liturgy of the sky.

* * *

I keep a cloud wish list — lenticular are at the top. If I beheld those stacked, ring-shaped clouds whose name hearkens to a penitential liturgical season, would I live more confessionally? Walk in step with humility? A girl can (and should) hope.

* * *

One morning I took my husband to the airport in an hour wee enough to hold a crescent moon and a sea of stars in the sky. I searched for The Big Dipper. . . . my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life . . . (Psalm 23:5b—6a). As I weaved through traffic with the aid of an Americano, the sky awakened in the motions of Morning Prayer. The onyx expanse changed ever so slightly to slate blue, to periwinkle, to baby blue, to the palest blue, to finally, a pink whisper glowing with soft light and sparse clouds shaped like angels’ wings, or the wings of a giant bird.

* * *

The inhabitants of the geography of the sky participate in liturgy, day in and day out — completely apart from myself, and out of my control, which is a strange comfort. This perpetual display of beauty, obedience and worship displays the Maker’s glory, yes, but also His faithfulness. And why wouldn’t celestial beings behave in such a way? They were created within liturgy — an antiphony of God’s voice and creation:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.—Genesis 1:3-8

The cosmology continued, so on and so forth, until the sixth day when God made man in His image, and on the seventh day when He rested from all of His work. But creation did not rest. It took up the liturgy, the rhythms of what we now know as science. To this day, within the bookends of sunrises and sunsets, the sky speaks. The glory of God! I, Sky, am His handiwork. He is. I, Day, pour out His speech. I, Night, reveal His knowledge [Psalm 19].

* * *

I immerse my flesh and spirit into liturgy at church on Sunday mornings, and liturgy kneads itself into every aspect of my life as the weeks and months and years unfurl. Now there are also many other things that the sky does. Were I to write every one of them, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Liturgy — of the sky and otherwise — has always been, is, and ever will be. I believe that my eternal vantage point one fine day will be something like a glorious time-lapse film of the sun, the moon, the stars, birds, clouds, rain, thunder and lightning. I’ve often wondered if I’ll be able to fly. If so, I will befriend the clouds and join in the liturgy of the sky.

My Voice, Lost and Found

“There is something deep within us, in everybody, that gets buried and distorted and confused and corrupted by what happens to us. But it is there as a source of insight and healing and strength. I think it’s where art comes from.”

—Frederick Buechner, Of Fiction and Faith

 

My husband and I woke up late that day. We basked in our again-quiet home after the fun hustle and bustle of family and friends during the Advent and Christmas festivities of the past week. We sipped coffee; perused Facebook, Twitter, and whatnot; and I flipped through glorious new books that I had received as gifts. I pondered a mental to-do list of creative and domestic tasks that I wanted to improve upon there at the tail end of December and onward in 2012 — writing projects waited at the top half of that list.

At some point, Johnny and I looked at each other and he said, “Do you want to see a movie today?” We agreed on a Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol matinee. He ordered our tickets online. With a few hours to kill, we glanced at our new rollerblades, Christmas gifts from my mother-in-law. Mine were beautiful to behold: gray and silver with a hint of soft pink. My husband was a rollerblading pro; I was an excited novice. We both strapped on sturdy elbow pads, wrist guards, and knee pads. We stepped on to our back patio for my first lesson.

Bionic elbow.

Johnny will tell you that I did very well. I became comfortable standing and walking on two lines of wheels as well as slowly rolling over the concrete. Even my first attempts to push off with each foot were typical for a beginner. I fell twice correctly, on my knee pads. I got right back up and kept trying to push off with more finesse. I felt tired from playing hostess during the past week, but I had fun, amazed at my progress. I daydreamed about skating on our favorite wooded trails in the park. We decided to end my lesson in order to make it to the movie on time. I guess my weary body leaned back slightly, my brain signaling the impulse to relax. I felt the slightest sense of accidental rotation under my feet and then time poured slowly like molasses during my descent. My left elbow and the concrete collided to stop my fall. A shockwave of nausea bolted down my entire body. Johnny repeated, “Are you OK?” several times before I managed to whimper, “No. No, I’m not OK at all.” He pulled off my skates and pads and I somehow got to my feet and into our bed.

We never did make it to the movie theater.

We called my dad, a coach who has seen numerous injuries, for advice. After icing my elbow for almost an hour, Johnny asked me to lift my arm. I complied, thankful for frozen water’s numbing properties, hopeful for a severe sprain.

“Jenni, please try to lift your arm.”
“I did, Sweets. See? . . . Didn’t I lift it?”
My husband’s kind face told me that no, I did not lift my arm. “Just your fingers,” he said.

In the car, I held my left arm next to my stomach in the only position that did not cause the sharpest, worst pain I had ever known. I sobbed and prayed in the waiting room of the emergency clinic. I heard my name. The professional, cheerful countenance of nurses melted off a woman’s face as she looked at my tear-stained eyes, then the self-protective clutch of my arm. I noticed her petite frame and crew cut as she held the door and said, “Come on back, honey.”

I have a strong adversity to the inhumane practice of torture, even unto our enemies. That day in the clinic reaffirmed my stance. An X-ray technician asked me to let go of my left arm, place it on a white table, and create acute, right, and obtuse angles. I looked at her in bewilderment. “I will not lie to you,” she said. “This is going to hurt. But I know you can do it.” I cried out for miraculous aid. Moving my arm literally centimeters at a time, we managed to capture three X- rays of my bones. Afterward, I held my arm as if consoling a suffering infant, and watched the male nurse practitioner’s face say, “You have a compression fracture. Your humerus bone pushed into your elbow joint. You need surgery as soon as possible.” I heard Johnny ask him more questions as my eyes glazed over. The eight-hour abdominal surgery I had two years ago to remove stage 4 endometriosis seemed like mere seconds ago. Another surgery? No. Please, Lord, no.

***

I’m not traumatized by the long, jagged scar on my arm anymore. The creepy criss-cross nylon stitches are gone. Now a slowly fading red streak marks my skin like a testimony. I don’t show many people the scar. But when I wash my arm with peppermint soap in the shower and feel one of the titanium plates — part of the new scaffolding of my elbow — I marvel. How far I’ve come. How far I’ve yet to go.

***

My hospital room.

I was rolled to a surprisingly beautiful hospital room — modern decor and soothing paint colors. Vibrant pink azaleas awaited me, an anniversary gift from Johnny. It’s not exactly how we planned to celebrate nine years of marriage. He joked, “Honey, I also got you a new elbow for our anniversary!” My left arm felt like a foreign object due to the nerve block medication. Before surgery, I had serious trepidation about this procedure — I did not like the idea of my arm feeling paralyzed at all. But apparently I woke up in surgery recovery begging for the nerve block. I do not recall this plea.

Back home, Vicodin and a nerve block pump soothed the pain somewhat, but not my soul. I slumped in a chair which provided a view of windows inked with night obscuring the back patio. I looked away from that space of refuge which had turned against me. One of our cats jumped in my lap. I shrieked in pain. I stared at the bamboo floor, looking for shards of my life that broke and fell to the ground along with my body.

Johnny tucked me into bed — on my back, my bionic arm propped on a pillow. I looked past the ceiling fan trying to find God above the slow rotations of each blade. If I couldn’t sleep on my back, I slept sitting up on the couch, a fortress of pillows surrounding me, staring at the peaceful Christmas tree lights through a fog of drugs. Two comforts I had taken for granted — our pets’ affection and restful sleep — were taken from me. My left arm was taken from me. I wondered what other comforts would be swiped from me as well.

Unable to go to church for a month or two, our priest, and our friend who is a deacon, visited our home to minister Holy Communion as the fireplace softly crackled. Friends dropped by to deliver meals and share conversation and laughter. My brother took care of me when Johnny had drum gigs. Other friends sent thoughtful, encouraging cards and gifts in the mail. My parents stayed with us a few days to help with all manner of things — above and beyond duty, typical of their generosity. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for these beloved people in my life. Not only was their help invaluable, but they didn’t care that the only clothes I could manage somewhat comfortably were oversized T-shirts and yoga pants.

It takes two to shower.

The routines and rituals that framed my days ceased to be comfortable. The illusion of autonomy dissipated as pain walked alongside me, persistent. Unrelenting. And Johnny had to help me with everything. Even bathing. During the two weeks before surgery, we passed my broken joint back and forth with tactical precision to keep it still as he slipped on a large plastic sleeve to make the splint waterproof. One little slip and I shrieked in pain again. After surgery, I did not have the flexibility or strength to shower and so my husband continued to help me. I couldn’t explain to him how to blow-dry my hair, so he pulled it back in a ponytail instead. I often thought of one of our favorite annual liturgies at church — Maundy Thursday. The foot- washing ceremony is special to us, and humbling. We kneel to wash one another’s feet, drying them with simple white towels. Then we stand, our shoulders parallel to the altar, and give each other a holy, romantic kiss.

Soon it was time to start physical therapy which ushered in a new liturgy of pain, but I knew that these exercises were the only way back to normalcy. I acted like a tough coach’s daughter as best I could, but one particular exercise almost undid me. A therapist pushed my arm as flat as it could go, then pushed it toward my body as far as it could go. That inward push would prove to be the most difficult motion to accomplish. After a while, the therapist decided to push my arm inward even further. I breathed as if I was in maternity labor, tears blurred my vision, and when he was finished, he said, “Good job! And by the look of your bloodshot eyes, I can tell we made some real progress today.” Johnny had to act as my therapist at home. It wasn’t easy for him to inflict such pain upon me, but we slowly started to see progress and flexibility. And I do mean slowly. Due to unnatural sleeping positions and reintroducing my body to movement through physical therapy, I developed muscular pain in my back — another problem to tend to. We both needed a reward for such hard work, so after sessions at the clinic, we dropped by a Turkish restaurant for hummus, tabouli, beef and chicken shawarma, pita bread, coffee, and baklava.

***

Comfort in baklava and coffee.

 

“Behold, I am making all things new,” says Jesus. The order of my life was revised by the Author of my faith. He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” — an eternal decree to St. John, but also to me, a writer. Elbows and wrists are fearfully and wonderfully made, created to work in synchronicity. But they are also created to suffer in synchronicity. I could barely lift these bone-hinges to type a sentence. I took to henpecking with my right hand fingers. How will I ever write again? . . . Who cares. My writing voice was snuffed out by trauma, pain, fatigue. Disillusionment of the Lord to whom I pleaded.

I should have journaled with my favorite pen. I did read. Jeffrey Overstreet’s fourth novel in the Auralia Thread series, The Ale Boy’s Feast, whisked me back to The Expanse. I yearned for a redemptive conclusion to the imaginative and complex plot twists. I rooted for the people of House Abascar trying to find the mythic city they searched for in faith, and Auralia’s colors which gave them hope in the darkness. I also read Lauren Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, another timely read. I felt stuck in a mid-faith crisis of my own — not only trying to be patient with my elbow, but just trying to be patient, to trust God with what (psychologically) felt eerily similar to what Johnny and I went through during my previous, epic illness and equally epic surgery. I could not figure out why we had to switch domestic roles and endure physical suffering again. I didn’t turn my back on God, but my prayers were tinged with anger, mostly questions and laments.

I managed to snap Instagrams, delighted when I could raise my left arm a bit higher to frame the photographs. One of my favorite subjects were trees on our favorite walking trails. The bare winter limbs seemed as fragile as my bones, yet breathtaking as they reached up to the winter blue sky. I knew by spring they would be lush with green. I looked upward and hoped that my elbow would flourish along with the foliage.

The bare winter limbs seemed as fragile as my bones.

But I still did not write. I let Instagrams speak for me, with meager, malnourished captions. The visuals often surprised me, though — the beauty of God’s creation and peace within our home glowed with a retro, holy patina. I rested on the editorial side of my brain, satisfied to share the words of others on the Art House America Blog, hiding my words behind my back.

Obviously, I used my laptop to publish issues of the Art House Blog. I was able to type with more ease as time went on. Self-denial wore off pretty quickly. I possessed a strange dichotomy: I felt empty, but my being brimmed with words. I desperately needed to process my thoughts with a pen or the percussive rhythm of typing, but I was scared. It wasn’t mere writer’s block. I had pretended that writing didn’t matter for so long that I was beginning to believe a lie.

I forced myself to sit at my desk and write anything — short book reviews on Goodreads, journal entries, and so on. What trickled forth was this very piece. It has been a rough reentry. The process has been physically painful at times and mentally taxing. Dreamy inspiration has not spurred me on — I’ve eked out sentences literally one word at a time. I’ve recorded deadline after deadline in iCal that I did not meet.

I’ve often confessed my lack of writing these past eight months. I’ve repented of falling behind in some of my other work, too, and for the many unanswered e-mails waiting in my inbox. I beg for God’s mercy through the colleagues I’ve disappointed. During one of these quiet moments of contrition, I wept as I recalled a well-known verse from Psalm 51: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that You have broken rejoice.”

To be honest, I never really had a great writing discipline. One mysterious blessing to come from breaking my elbow and all that ensued is a fairly recent but fervent desire to write again, every day. As Anne Lamott is known to tweet, “Butt in chair, bird by bird.“ Word by word. I thought this article would never get written. It is probably not my masterpiece. But it is a piece of writing. And when I click command-S to save these words for the last time, I will have overcome the wordless months behind me. My writing voice once was lost, but now it is found. Come what may, I will never silence it again.

 

All photos are courtesy of Jenni Simmons, whom you can find and follow on Instagram.

The Slow Art of Tea

As we remember the tragedies of September 11, 2001, Jenni Simmons offers a reminder of the small rituals that comfort and root us. This essay originally appeared in The Curator on November 28, 2008.

In some circles, I’m known as the “Tea Lady,” and this cutesy moniker is all my fault. I drink copious amounts of tea, both steaming and iced. I’ve stashed at least forty varieties of tea in my pantry (no kidding). I write about tea ad nauseam on my blog, as if what I’m drinking is late-breaking news. When I mail a card to a friend, I feel compelled to insert a tea bag in the envelope. I do love and drink coffee, but seeing as it’s quite a jolt to my genetic constitution, I’ve decided that if I must become dependent on a beverage, tea will be the one.

What’s interesting about this obsession is that my introduction to tea is sketchy. My parents were not big tea drinkers. My grandmother hated tea; coffee was rationed during WWII, so she remained fiercely loyal to coffee, determined to drink her fair share. My best guess is that I was smitten with tea while visiting my uncle in Detroit. He took my family to an Ethiopian restaurant where not only did my love for exotic food begin, but I drank glass after glass of spiced iced tea, strong on the cinnamon. Later during college, I visited my boyfriend’s house and his aunt offered me a toasty cup of Morning Thunder tea, a kind gesture that warmed me to his family as well. Frequenting a local Vietnamese restaurant a few years ago may have sealed the deal. After steamed spring rolls and peanut sauce, my friends and I ordered a teapot of jasmine green and sipped and chatted until delicate tea leaves graced the bottom of our small white cups.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I’ve read up on tea since I’m both bookish and a bit tea-crazy. It is the stuff of creation myths and other legends, steeped in the mountains of the East. Taoist alchemists considered the “froth of the liquid jade” to be an elixir of immortality. By way of oral tradition, Buddhist priests passed down fanciful tales of monkeys scampering the heights of mountains to gather wild tea leaves from among perilous rocks. Ancient Chinese connected tea to central themes in philosophy and literature, and the Japanese did likewise within haiku. I’m particularly fond of two by Matsuo Basho, the most famous poet of Japan’s Edo period.

A monk sips morning tea,
it’s quiet,
the chrysanthemum’s flowering.

Enduring poverty in life
I prepare a fire on the hearth
and enjoy the profound touch of tea.

Such descriptions incorporated tea as a symbol of a higher good, a spiritual touchstone, and an exemplary way of life. Eastern religious influence on the popularity of tea is more widespread, yet a little known fact is that Christianity also inspired the art of tea. Though the Chinese were notoriously secretive about their tea customs, they granted initial, partial access to Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 1500-1600s who became advocates of tea to the outside world. I suppose they seemed more trustworthy compared to some, and their reports did influence the early trade of tea, especially to Europe.

Photo by Jennifer Causey

In Makoto Fujimura’s exquisite essay, “Psalms and Lamentations: Fallen Towers and the Art of Tea” (IMAGE journal, Issue 32), I learned about Sen-no-Rikyu, a sixteenth-century tea master who is historically considered to have the most profound effect on the Japanese tea ceremony. The Chinese used tea for celebration and banqueting, but Rikyu transformed the ritual of tea to one of communication. One of Rikyu’s wives was an early Japanese convert to Christianity, and as he accompanied her to Mass in Kyoto he was forever inspired by the Eucharistic cup of Christ’s blood passed from person to person. This sparked his vision: no matter if they be man or woman, a high-ranking official or a farmer, a cup of green tea would be passed to each participant in a tea house of peace. Shogun Hideyoshi recognized rightly that the egalitarian nature of tea would destroy his power, so he eventually ordered Rikyu to commit suicide in his own tea house. But Rikyu defined essential principles of the tea ceremony that remain to this day: minimalism, simplicity, purity, harmony, love of nature, graceful composure, politeness, and an eye for aesthetics — particular utensils, and usually a simple painting and fresh flowers. In keeping the ceremony basic, he did away with previous ostentation and kept it within the financial means of the middle-classes.

I’ve never taken part in a Japanese tea ceremony, but I’d love to some day. Until then, I sense the ritualistic aspects of tea within the comforts of my home. I often light a stick of incense. I scoop loose tea into a filter or peel open a tea bag. I select a particular teacup or mug, maybe a bamboo spoon, and I wait. I listen to the rustle of boiling water, and admire the sunlight and foliage right outside my window. I try to be still, view art on the walls of our home, and soak in my surroundings. When the kettle suddenly sings, I pour piping hot water over the bits of tea, the steam warming my face, a prayer often escaping my lips. There is something inherently meditative and beautiful about tea, from the nuanced aromatherapy to a liquid palette of orange, green, red, sepia, and even gold. My own little ceremony is a subtle jump into the day, a respite from my work upstairs, or a vespers of sorts at dusk — almost liturgical, and very therapeutic.

Like Sen-no-Rikyu, I, too, glean inspiration from the Eucharistic table, the ultimate form of hospitality. When we host friends or family in our home, we offer food and drink. Most of our friends prefer coffee, but some of the females are fellow tea lovers.Whether I prepare a single mug of their choice or a teapotful, I think of my priest repeating Christ’s kind beckoning each Sunday, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” And as I learned from my ex-boyfriend’s aunt several years ago, offering a cup of tea makes one feel welcome and at ease without speaking a word. So if my friend takes honey, I stir it in and share the cup to communicate, “Feel at home, be restored, and be well.”

Now, back to my impressive stockpile of tea, some of my favorite brews have been an introduction and a way to familiarize myself with other cultures. For instance, the Camellia sinensis plant is originally a gift from China. This flowering evergreen shrub gives us green tea (unfermented), black tea (fermented), oolong (semi-fermented), and white tea, which is fast-dried versus the roasting of green tea in an oven or pan. I also take a liking to Assam tea and chai from India, Earl Grey from England, rooibos from South Africa, yerba mate from South America, hibiscus mint tea from northern Sudan, Thai iced tea, and any number of herbal blends with ingredients cultivated from soil around the globe or in my own country. Oh, and I crave quirky bubble tea which originated in Taiwan.

Photo by Jennifer Causey

These cross-cultural aspects not only cause me to daydream of world travel, but such diversity also teaches me about human nature. Since the beginning, humanity has explored and cultivated the land, charged to beautify and to survive. As I type, I’m enjoying a mug of yerba mate, a cinnamon stick soaking in the brew. I can’t help but wonder, which South American soul came across this species of holly and thought to steep it in hot water? Hollow out a gourd for the drinking? How did they determine the numerous health benefits long before our current scientific methods and technology? Perhaps these feats are what we’re innately capable of as creative beings. We discover plants, herbs, and florals, and imaging the Creator, we develop them. We invent ways to pinpoint temperatures of water for brewing, hone each flavor to perfection, stamp our cultures with a unique tea, and unearth its medicinal benefits, heeding the adage to “heal thyself” along with our neighbors.

A grocery store’s tea aisle lures me in with all the exotic artistry to be found in a cup. Beauty is a requirement in my life, most definitely including the culinary realm. And each blend of tea conjures endless possibilities. Humankind has pursued the art of tea century upon century, so I love to imagine what else our hands will gather and create, and offer to one another. I think of my friend’s daughter, who once lived for any excuse to throw a make-believe tea party when I dropped by her house. Her face lit up with the delight of sharing invisible draughts of tea, cream, and sugar cubes. She laughed with joy if I asked for a refill in the little pink cup. Even at her young age, she sensed our design to serve others and to enjoy refreshment. How good it is to heal each other, bring ceremony into our homes, employ the art of waiting, share a cup, and take a drink ourselves, just for the sheer pleasure of a spot of tea.


For further reading: The Book of Coffee and Tea: Second Revised Edition by Joel, David, and Karl Schapira

I endorse the following tea suppliers (among many others):

• Adagio Teas
• Mighty Leaf Tea
• Traditional Medicinals
• Yogi Tea

To see more of Jennifer Causey’s photography, please visit her web site.

 

The Liturgy of a Patio

Our church has always been a unique place. It is small, it is Anglican, it is family. We worship with liturgical gusto. Afterward, we gather outside on the patio for our “second liturgy”: conversations of all topics, jokes, sarcasm, inevitable laughter, beer (on tap in the Parish Hall), and the men smoke cigars and pipes. Well, until I joined them on Easter Sunday this year; we smoked on the playground under the refuge of oak trees to escape the blistering sun. (Don’t worry — the kids were playing inside.) I didn’t feel like “one of the guys”; I just felt welcome.

Photo by Jenni Simmons

It all started around November 2010, which was during autumn — my favorite of the two seasons in Houston. I remember a particularly cool, crisp, blue sky day. I walked out through the red doors, squinted and smiled into the sunlight, and pulled up a chair to the patio table full of friends. Fragrant white wisps of smoke swirled and hovered above our heads like the Holy Ghost. I closed my eyes and inhaled. Pipe tobacco has always been one of my favorite smells, but that day, the aroma of cigars caught my attention for the first time even though the men had smoked ‘em ever since my husband and I joined the church. All my life I’d had the notion that cigars reeked, but what I quickly figured out was that our menfolk were cigar connoisseurs. Week after week, I sniffed and asked many questions.

I showed enough interest that our friends offered me a cigar now and again. I hesitated at first. For one thing, I was the only female interested in a stogie. For another, I nearly coughed up a lung in high school trying one of my ex’s cigarettes. My chest burned as if charred by fire and I thought surely it was fatal. Apparently, I just wasn’t cool enough.

But after careful instruction from the men at church, and assurance that cigars were much different than a Marlboro (you do not inhale hellfire and brimstone into your precious lungs), I put serious thought to giving their patio pastime a try. I was six months past an epic surgery to remove endometriosis from my innards; I was literally a new person. I wasn’t shy anymore. I wasn’t as fearful. I was sassy and teased my friends good-naturedly. I was grateful, joyful. Colors were brighter. Illness, suffering, and surgery changed me and rewired my soul and senses, including my olfactory attentions.

A Kristoff Lancero | Photo by Jenni Simmons

So one evening at home I asked my husband, “May I try a cigar? Deacon Dave recommended a Fuente Hemingway Short Story. I mean, it’s even literary like me.” Johnny smiled and said yes, though silently he thought he’d have to hold back my hair while I puked.

He carried my wooden rocking chair and a breakfast nook chair out to our back patio, and reminded me how to smoke: take a draw but don’t inhale, then exhale, and do so slowly. I did not hurl, and I enjoyed the sweet-woodsy taste and warm smell. I was a bit concerned that I “didn’t do it right,” but it turns out I just smoked a cigar like me, a woman. I immediately knew that I would forever enjoy a good cigar.

Johnny and I began to smoke cigars regularly, which was not only the beginning of our back patio liturgy, but also another form of marital intimacy. It seems right and good that such a mutual pleasure would begin in the culture of our home — during warm Texas nights with cool breezes; our Drummond red maple rustling; our heads tipped upward to stargaze in a suburban sky; airplanes gliding overhead; sipping whiskey or bourbon; wind chimes singing lullabies. We often talked late into the night, long after our neighbors turned off their back porch twinkle lights.

Not everyone approved of my newfound hobby in light of potential health risks, and my femininity. I did listen; I understood their concerns, I prayed, and consulted with my husband as well as a few knowledgeable friends. As far as health, I absorb very little nicotine when I smoke a cigar and they are not addictive. Health risks will always and forever surround us. I don’t mean to impart fear or sound simplistic, but we risk our lives any time we drive a car, walk outdoors to air pollution, eat processed foods, or partake of the latest cancer-causing ingredient to shriek across news headlines. As best as I’m able, I enjoy my life to the fullest, which includes ignoring fear, even the fear of what may or may not cause illness or death. My joy also requires that I live not based on every person’s opinion of what I’m doing, but that of the Still Small Voice. If it is not sin, it is not sin.

Photo by Jenni Simmons

As far as my femininity, my husband and several friends assured me that the pleasure of cigars is not only masculine, and that I smoke elegantly, and even with sensuality (says Johnny). Besides, I’ve seen photographs of women walking the streets of Cuba (and elsewhere) smoking cigars along the way — perfectly normal in their country. I’m always happy to discover when a girlfriend smokes cigars, too. And I discovered my love for the Lancero size — long and slender. It’s a bit silly, but I pretend that I possess the ultimate elegance of Audrey Hepburn with her cigarette holder in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Male or female, inhabitants of any country, and even religious types may enjoy cigars, plain and simple. Oh, and on Mary Karr’s Facebook page, I saw a photograph of her smoking a cigar. She’s female and awesome, from Texas, and one of my favorite authors. If that’s not validation, I don’t know what is.

We did find other folks besides church parishioners who approved of our love for cigars. A friend invited me and Johnny to a Zino promotional event at Santa Barbara Cigars. I hadn’t seen my friend in several years, so I thought we’d enjoy catching up with him and his fiancé (The Smoking Hot Cigar Chick, no less) and enjoy a good cigar, but Johnny and I were taken aback. Our “patio fellowship” unfolded in that cozy, smoky lounge; an instant camaraderie clicked between strangers. As Johnny and I walked around the rustic, aromatic humidor, we met all kinds of people — of different religions, political platforms, careers, budgets, and so forth. Whenever we explained that we were newbies still trying various cigars, the kindest of men recommended their favorites, excellent quality of all price ranges. One man even purchased a very expensive cigar for Johnny — an Illusione MJ12 — merely because the man loved it so much; he wanted to share that joy. My friend shared a bottle of Willett bourbon with us and those who circled and talked around his table. The generosity in that place was astounding.

Santa Barbara’s owner, Kenny, was quiet-mannered, but very welcoming and helpful. The Zino representative recommended for me a Platinum Low Rider (a full-bodied natural wrapper) based on my preferences even though up until that night Johnny and I had only smoked Maduros — dark, rich, chocolatey wrappers. We love dark roast coffee, dark chocolate, brown ales and stouts, and now, dark cigars. But that Low Rider, and education from the rep and my friends, opened my eyes to the wide variety of tobaccos, wrappers, geographical regions, and the artistry of rolling and sealing cigars by hand. The names of cigars are like poetry: Joya de Nicaragua, Romeo y Julieta, Tatuaje (“tattoo”), an Arturo Fuente Work of Art, Kristoff, Onyx, Macanudo, Casa Magna, and so on. The cigar bands are tiny works of art, too; I save them in the pocket of my Moleskine notebook for some future artistic project.

Photo by Jim Hime

Cigar events are a surprising, sincere experience of community, but our two patios are special. Church is familial; our home is intimate, and hospitable if we invite a few friends over to enjoy the blessing and pleasure of cigars and spirits. We pull out a few more breakfast nook chairs, go a little redneck and use our cooler for a table — the drink holders cradling fine whiskey glasses — and talk and laugh as the sun sets.

Lest you think I am merely a smoke-fiend, ‘tis not so. Cigars are intertwined with my love for the great outdoors. Jokingly, I think of myself as the “Nature Cigar Chick.” Mine and Johnny’s typical back patio liturgy begins between 8:30-9:00 pm, which right now displays either a glorious sunset or a cool, dark sky. The moon often creates the illusion of daylight, casting a dark tree-shadow on glowing green grass. Lately we’ve been enjoying inexpensive but excellent no-name Dominican Maduros from a local shop and different bottles of bourbon. We draw on our cigars, sip our bourbon neat, and watch the clouds, which for me is always a depiction of God’s mysterious creation of time. The puffs of condensation seem to float by slowly, but if I turn my head for a few minutes, the sky may suddenly be clear, sharing the stars. “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Our liturgy causes us to slow down. You don’t hork down a cigar; you draw and exhale at intervals. I’ve been told that “pipes are the pen of the mind.” I’ve found the same of cigars; they are meditative. As a breeze brushes across my cheek and cigar smoke curls upward, very often a prayer lifts to my mind. Or I’ll read part of Compline on my iPhone. I’ve hummed and sung Bon Iver songs, and hymns. Conversations with my husband dig deeper. As we enjoy the different flavors of the beginning, middle, and end of our cigars, and the same pace of our liturgy, the neighborhood gets quieter as do we. A cicada choir belts out an operatic benediction. “Be still,” I recall. We feel grateful for the incense of cigars and nightcaps aged in wooden barrels. Before we acquired my late aunt’s blue glass flowered ash tray, I smudged out my cigars on the concrete in the shape of a cross. Now we dump our ashes in the outdoors trash can. Either way, I can’t help but remember, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We walk into our house, lay our heads down in peace, and dwell in safety. Another day to come, and another patio liturgy.

An Epistolary Confession

I live for good snail mail days. I either rush out to the mailbox when I hear the mail truck scoot away, or bat my eyelashes and lazily ask of my husband (headed out to a drum gig or errand), “Will you puh-lease check the mail? If there’s anything fun, will you bring it inside?” By “fun” I mean the latest issues of Books & Culture, Comment, Image, Poetry, The Paris Review, the Toast catalog, and the like. Oh, and paychecks.

Or even better, an envelope or package bearing return addresses from family and friends. My mom might send interesting magazine clippings with sweet notes tucked inside. Or a friend will loan me a book with a handwritten poem slipped between the pages that I don’t discover until I’m well immersed in the story.

A recent postal excitement was the thoughtful gift of a ceramic bird-shaped whistle from a friend, which was a thank you gift for a gift I sent her in the hopes of imparting some kind of peace and joy in a very dark time of her life. I was astounded by her thoughtfulness in the midst of personal chaos. Not only did she ship the pretty whistle, but also a thank you note in an envelope bearing an Adolph Gottlieb painting-stamp, two 10 cent “J” stamps just for kicks, and rubber-stamped blue flowers on the front. On the back, a Bunting Bird sticker sealed the message inside — all of it such inspiring artistry. A Brown Wren perched on the front of the card; again, my friend remembered what would cheer me when she needs all the cheer in the world right now. Inside, her penmanship spoke:

Dear Jenni,

Just a little birdie

for your sill. Put a little

bit of water in and then

blow for birdsong. And

when you do remember there

is a friend who appreciates you.

 

Always.

I hung my head, wept, and prayed for my friend, seared by her suffering, strength, and humility.

Another recent snail mail discovery was from a different friend. ‘Twas a white envelope with a comforting texture, and this penmanship I knew all too well. This friend’s handwriting should be an electronic font, honest to God. The seal on the back of her envelope was that perfect script, “Hello! (See, look — I not only call, I send mail too!)” She referred to a personal joke of ours where I pretend to be irritated that she never calls, lives far away, boohoo . . . Whatever. She’s a busy mom for God’s sake.

The envelope did make me smile, but the note inside made me laugh out loud:

Jenni—

So, here’s what happened . . .

this weekend I was looking

through my box of memorabilia

from Italy & I found this post-

card that I never sent to you.

I am not sure why . . .

But anyway — here it is — 4 years

late. [smiley face] See, and now the cat

is even more appropriate since you just found Lily . . .

Enjoy the postcard!

(Now I miss Europe . . . [sad face] )

 

Love.

Her note was written on an old index page of a ledger and she, too, adhered a bird sticker to the faded surface. She ripped the page right out of the book; I loved the spontaneous, rustic aesthetic. The postcard did in fact bear her greeting from four years ago as well as a dignified black cat on the glossy cover along with French writing — she went to Paris, too. Belated, yet thoughtful. I don’t know many people who’d realize they’d forgotten to send a postcard four years ago, then actually send it upon the moment of realization. My friends are a rare, whimsical, priceless bunch.

Though I did send a little gift to my kind, suffering friend, my efforts at handwritten letters and notes have dwindled and ceased.

I once joined the Letter Writers Alliance with sincere devotion to their revolution. I was assigned a lovely pen pal, we exchanged several letters and notes, but then inexplicably, sloth settled into my fingers. We are now Facebook friends, not mailbox friends.

And ashamedly, I’ve even slacked off writing to the Compassion child my husband and I sponsor: Denise, who lives in Uganda. She is in our constant prayers, yet I can’t sit down and write a letter? What’s worse is that she writes to us faithfully, coloring the illustrations on the side of the Compassion stationery: an ingoma (drum), akabindi (pot), ingabo (shield), imbehe (dish), and an icyansi (milk container). She often begins her letters:

Dear John and Jenni Simmons,

To my sponsors.

I am greeting you in the name of Jesus . . .

Such a greeting reminds me of the Epistle books in the Bible, each page delicate as a butterfly wing.

***

My aunt died suddenly, recently. As my family and I sorted through her belongings in her apartment, we kept items that were special to each of us. I gratefully placed into cardboard boxes classic vinyl (the Beatles, Willie Nelson, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan . . . ); children’s books she read to me and my brother; plastic food-shaped magnets I used to arrange on her refrigerator; a green glass jar full of stones with words painted on one side and a short definition on the other; an old wooden piano-music box. My family bestowed to me two beautiful rocking chairs. And they also instructed me to cart back home my aunt’s photo albums, and a plastic bag full of letters and cards she received, organized and bundled neatly by large rubber bands.

I’m slowly finding the right places in my house for each memory of my aunt. The boxes are only partially unpacked. The photo albums wait alongside in a plastic blue crate.

I still feel the scars of guilt and remorse. I’d meant to call her for one of our rich, deep conversations the week before she died. I ache with that standard element of grief: if I’d had one more phone call and oh gosh, sent one more letter or card.

Missing her voice — vocal and written — I sat on my couch and held the stack of envelopes sliced open neatly at the top by a letter opener. She had grouped the correspondence by person: my late grandfather, his wife, my uncle, my mom, cousins, friends, and me.

Me. Before my eyes were cards that I’d carefully selected for her birthdays, to thank her for gifts, or just to say, “Hi.” One coffee & cream-colored envelope caught my eye. I pulled out the card with an angel and a quote on the front:

One is not born a woman — one becomes one.

—Simone de Beauvoir

On the inside I wrote:

Happy birthday Pat!

This card reminded me of

you, since you were a great

part of me becoming a

woman. [smiley face]

 

I love you!

Jenni

(talk to you soon)

As each year of our lives passed, she truly did help to shape me into who I am today. She and my mom (in-laws) used to joke they “co-mothered” me. And my aunt was an excellent card-sender. Sometimes they were her only gifts on my birthdays, but I cherished finding them in the mailbox each November. She picked just the right cards, and wrote just the right loving words in blue ink from aunt to niece.

There is something about grief and death that also resurrects life — through remembering and sharing stories of loved ones. Caring for their possessions entrusted to us, and seeing that person when we pass by or pick up those objects in our homes. And for me, there is a period of introspection.

How could I have been a better niece? I hope she really knew how much I loved her. I hope I am like her in many ways. I want to be a better woman, who God created me to be. I want to live life well.

My grandfather wrote inside one of the cards to his daughter:

I’m thinking of the many

times you have helped

me and mine along the

way. I love you very,

very much.

 

Dad

(Joy sends love)

Continuing to cultivate a life less of myself and lived more for others includes the resumption of hand-writing letters, notes, and cards. I confess my epistolary indolence and now I move forward. I’ll sit at my desk; pick up my my favorite Uni-Ball pen and one of my many neglected boxes of stationery or cards; put together belated boxes of gifts; return loaned books. You’ll see. Check your mailbox. Most likely you’ll spy a brown sock monkey stamped somewhere on your envelope or box, and find a few tea bags inside.

All photos by Kierstin Casella.

A Week Changed My Life

“I’m alive and I’m livin’
in a place where the world’s crust has shifted,
and the stars in the Milky Way,
they’re giving a party for New Mexico.
Yes, I’ve come to the desert just to find my way to forever,
and you are so welcome here, if you’re ever in New Mexico.”
—songwriters Mitch McVicker and Rich Mullins

 

New Mexcio

Photo by Jenni Simmons.

A good friend bugged me for at least four years to make a pilgrimage to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the IMAGE journal’s Glen Workshop. Having read IMAGE for a decade or so, I always wanted to go to this Mecca for artists, but it was either a timidity or monetary issue. The emotional and dollar sign-stars aligned this year, though, so I took the plunge right before I scheduled one of two surgeries. I signed up for Lauren Winner’s Spiritual Writing class for a few reasons. One, Lauren is a favorite author of mine, especially her book, Girl Meets God, which was an early clue to the mystery that not only did I, look-at-the-floor shy, want to be a writer, but I also wanted to write creative memoirs with an honest, spiritual current. Two, when I mailed off my registration information, I didn’t know many writers in Houston — two at the most. Seeing as I felt brave this year, I craved sitting in a room with a great author, fellow writers, and yes, even the possibly harrowing workshop experience.

I trudged through a three-year health saga, survived two surgeries to remedy severe endometriosis, and then a stained glass window of St. Catherine of Alexandria caught my eye at church, so as best I could, I weaved Catherine’s story and mine into eighteen pages, gulped, and e-mailed them in on the deadline day by the skin of my teeth. Only two weeks prior did all the anesthesia and pain meds cooperate with my brain enough to write something. It was my first workshop, and my first time to write a long format-essay, so I knew I’d receive some constructive criticism, but I looked forward to it. I wake up every day wanting to be a better writer.

On August 1st, my husband took me to the airport and helped me check in. I hadn’t hopped on an airplane alone in what, seven years? I believe the last time was to see a friend in Nashville. As we snaked around the long, long line to check in my bag, I felt a pang of fear. I was so accustomed to an environment and routine of illness in our beautiful home. But as of that Sunday, the second successful surgery was 9-10 weeks behind me. I took a deep breath, kissed my husband goodbye, and reluctantly took off my TOMS to walk across what I’m sure was a germ-infested floor of the hellish airport security protocol. I found my gate in plenty of time, squirmed my way in to a middle seat between two nice people on a Southwest airplane, and buckled my seat belt. New Mexico or bust!

When we landed in Albuquerque, I wandered around the airport, passing kiosks draped with New Mexican kitsch, waiting on my aforementioned friend. I ordered an overpriced snack and a paper cup of green tea, sat down to rest, and people-watched. Then I received a text, “I’m here!” and met my friend in baggage claim. As we stepped outside to secure our rental car, the weather made me swoon. It was in the 80’s, but a cool, dry heat — even a breeze. I wasn’t in Houston anymore. And I saw mountains. I believe quite strongly that I’m supposed to live near mountains, but the only such things in my home state of Texas are the Davis and Franklin mountains out west, so I suppose my mountainous conviction is one of those divine mysteries; Houston has skyscrapers, not large, natural elevations of the land’s surface.

Photo by Jenni Simmons.

We drove an hour through clusters of adobe buildings to the college in Santa Fe. As we caught up on our lives over the past five years, I was paying attention to my friend, but also staring slightly slack-jawed at the Sangre de Cristo mountains as we pulled up to campus, fragrant with piñon, sage, juniper, and lavender — some of my favorite smells in the world. Those mountains were painted with hues of brown, gray, pink, orange; others in rich, brick red. The land offered a bleak, stark beauty; it cleansed the palette of my busy mind. Hummingbirds flitted about, and the New Mexico sky and clouds took my breath away. Have you ever noticed how skies are different in every state? My native Texas boasts amazing sky-vistas, but I now tip my hat to NM as well. My friend and I checked in and found our separate dorm rooms. I unpacked, peeked out my window, and marveled, Am I really, finally here?

It was a whirlwind of a week of creativity and fatigue. Within hours, I felt like I was around “my people” — not just writers, but artists: people who strived to always improve their craft, and spied inspiration in odd locations. I met both new and old online friends, such as The Curator’s Alissa Wilkinson, who somehow survived rooming with me for a week, even when I had “happy insomnia.” That’s when I couldn’t sleep because I was processing all of the fascinating speakers: B.H. Fairchild, Rodney Clapp, Barry Moser, Lauren Winner, Jeffrey Overstreet, Joel Sheesley, and Mary McCleary. There were a few other presentations I missed when my still-healing body insisted I trek up what seemed liked a million steps back to my dorm room to rest. That climb left me literally panting; I never did acclimate to the altitude.

The irony for all of us with little magic boxes called iPhones was that our cell reception sucked on campus. My husband packed a nifty contraption in my bag to legally rig my dorm room to be wireless, so after I caught my breath each night, we’d video, audio, or type-chat on my MacBook — whichever happened to work.

Every morning, I’d step out of my dorm building to a cool breeze, a soft morning sky, and native flowers such as the shy Jimson Weed, which Georgia O’Keefe often painted. It unfolds in the early morning and folds back inward mid-morning. The walk downhill to the dining hall was much easier, and I made a beeline for the cafeteria coffee. I was warned beforehand that I’d drink a lot of coffee, a truthful prediction. I even carried a to-go cup to my 8:45 a.m. writing class in Santa Fe Hall. I’m not a morning person.

I didn’t know what to expect from that class. I’d never had the opportunity to learn to write from a favorite author. First of all, Lauren Winner’s vintage glasses were awesome (in the vein of Flannery O’Connor). She was intense about teaching, very challenging, sarcastic, funny, kind, and empathetic without having to say a word to display it. I can count on five fingers the great teachers I’ve had in my life, and Lauren is surely one. She began each class with a prayer (it was a spiritual writing class, after all), or some breathtaking poem, such as one by Mary Oliver. She’d also begin every morning with a writing exercise, but not just any writing exercise. My “favorite” was to write something, anything with only one-syllable words. It is harder than you think, but definitely exercised the writing muscles in my brain. I then realized I sorely lack writing discipline. A singer sings scales, right? Then a writer should write or type the equivalent every day. I’m determined to do just that.

We even introduced ourselves with one of our writing exercises, “Why I Write.” Here is mine, which I quickly scribbled on the pages of my Moleskine:

I feel called to, a calling I could never ignore. I write to witness — capture and share what I see, believe, feel, love, hate. I write because it is my voice, much more than my spoken voice. I write because it is the way I think, much better than I will ever verbalize. I write because I love words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. I love stories and want to participate in that Great Conversation; again much “better” than I could ever verbalize in this room. I write to hopefully , one day, help. And to create and imagine.

I used to fear writing until I had no choice but to do so. I write to become a better writer. To learn a stronger voice, both written and verbal.

Lauren Winner and her famous frames.

Our class consisted of about 13-14 diverse people, but we bonded, often sitting together during meals, I think because we poured our guts out to each other as we critiqued one another’s very personal manuscripts. Initially skimming these writings, I noticed several regarded some form of suffering, which I suppose is no surprise in a spiritual, Judeo-Christian writing class.

And did I survive the critique of my manuscript, “Me and St. Catherine”? Well, the night before, my courage wore off with bleary-eyed fatigue, but as each person went around the table and critiqued my work the next day, I swear to God I enjoyed every minute. Everyone was honest, but also respectful. They started with the positive aspects (a strong writing voice, and occasional humor), and also rehumanized my spirit by telling me what to improve, such as, “There is way too much of St. Catherine at the beginning of your piece. The parallels need to be stronger. Take it apart and put it back together again.” I have a lot of work to do, but I can hardly wait. Those eighteen pages are destined to be either an essay, or expanded into a memoir. I won’t know until I revise it.

Photo by Barbara Lane.

I have so many good memories I’m afraid I’ll forget: dark chocolate, red wine, the Psalms, and prayer with two new friends one night in my dorm room; breakfast with Mary McCleary; meeting Gregory Wolfe; my crazy day off with three friends (another forthcoming essay); The Teahouse; the infamous late night Thomas Parker Society in the Overstreets’ apartment (I vowed to read next year), and the Over the Rhine concert, just to barely name a few. When I arrived home in Houston, I felt an inexplicable sorrow, even though I was thrilled to see my husband’s face at the airport. I quickly befriended everyone I’d met at the Glen on Facebook and Twitter, and pored over their photographs, wistful. I felt like I missed my new family.

I felt oddly uncomfortable. Through Lauren Winner’s excellent writing class, the entire week, and all of the people, I saw a vision of a standard of excellence I craved, yet one that I’m far away from. A week really can change a life because now I’m ready to work my tail off until I reach that standard, then climb to the next one. See ya next year, Glen.

A Live Music Retrospective

Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams in concert (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m pretty sure my first concert was Stryper. I know. See, at the time, my parents had instituted a “Christian Music on Sundays Only” rule, and if there was good music being made by Christians at the time, I was clueless. I guess I heard Stryper on KSBJ and thought, Cool – rock ‘n’ roll! And, if I was going to any concert at a young age, it was with my parents, and it would be “Christian.” To my parents’ credit, they probably didn’t like the band any more than I do now, but they took me to that show regardless.

Even though I now shudder at the thought of that glam metal band, I must admit that something important happened during my first concert. The band I once listened to on the radio or cassette was playing live, right in front of me. I was bit by the magic of live music – yes, even by Stryper.

Thankfully, years later, I met some friends in college who introduced me to really good live music. Little did they know they had changed my life for the better, forever. I heard Ellis Paul at Mucky Duck at least four times because he’s an amazing songwriter (and a friend had a crush on him). The venue was so small we nearly sat at his feet, and she said hi to him afterward, nearly swooning. I also heard Buddy & Julie Miller, which were my first exposure to alt-country, which is awesome. Julie was quirky, funny, brilliant, and right in the middle of her set, she gave her conversion testimony to a crowd of beer drinkers so naturally as if to say, Here’s what I believe. He changed my life. Make of it what you will. And yet, she spoke with sincerity and gentleness – as opposed to the overpowering tactics of Stryper. The room was quiet with awe, then the rowdy music started up again. I sat very close to the stage that night, too, and that combination of artistry and honesty make me admire the Millers’ music to this very day.

A few years ago, my husband took me to a Sigur Rós show, and Jonsí’s voice sounded like a dream as he bowed his guitar like a violin. My Aunt Denise and I saw Sufjan Stevens at the Paramount in Austin, TX; he and his entire orchestra wore butterfly wings while he furtively tucked truthful lyrics into hipsters’ hearts (mine included). My aunt and I also watched Ryan Adams storm on and off stage in Stubb’s backyard. I’ve seen several great shows with my aunt; we bond over words both in music and books. Once at a Kasey Chambers show, the artist covered a classic song, “If I Needed You.” Denise turned to me and said, “Who wrote this song?” Quick as a whip I replied, “Townes Van Zandt.” She beamed and said, “We ARE related!”

You might’ve read here and there that health has not been my forte the past few years; I sit here awaiting a second surgery that should fix my body. But you know what? Live music is literally healing for me. It puts my head in the right place. For instance, recently I heard Waterdeep at Ecclesia/Taft St. Coffee. It was a fantastic show, and during the last song, a rat scampered straight down the wall behind the duo. There was a communal gasp, and everyone looked around their feet, trying to pay attention to the great song that is “Good Good End.” Now that’s live music. We also heard Derek Webb play a Haiti benefit there. Thankfully, no rats that time. The only surprise was Danielle Young (of Caedmon’s Call) joining him on stage. I sipped my usual from the coffee shop: Monk’s Prayer tea (chamomile + peppermint).

Photo: Jenni Simmons

Photo: Jenni Simmons

In April, I noticed on Twitter that Andrew Osenga would play a free set on Ecclesia’s patio one Sunday. Houston had good weather for once, and as the sky darkened, bulb lights strung from the roof lit up. I sipped Monk’s Prayer (again). And right before his first song, Andrew looked straight at me and Johnny and said, “Hey, don’t I know y’all from Facebook?” We looked behind our seats, and to our left and right before we realized he was talking to us. Truly, the wonders of Facebook/Twitter never cease to amaze me.

Andrew was wearing casual, outdoorsy clothes with sandals, and in between songs he mentioned his toes were unusual, unique – we could ask him about them afterward. He played many of his greats with just his guitar, including crowd favorites “Canada” and “Anna and the Aliens.” He is such a great songwriter and guitarist – a master of melody, story, and humor.

So, I had to ask about the toes. He said, “Look at them.”

I counted 1, 2, 3 . . . 7, 8, 9 toes. I looked up, “You were born with only nine toes?”

“No,” he said, “I accidentally mowed one off.”

(Me, horrified) “Did it hurt?!”

He said something to the effect of, “Hell, yes! That’s how I met all of my new neighbors – writhing and screaming in pain on our front lawn.”

Now I ask you, would you hear a story like that just listening to a CD? I think not.

We went inside to buy an Andrew Osenga pint glass (wouldn’t you?) and to sponsor his favorite charity, Ellie’s Run. He said, “If you’re bored, I’m doing this taping thing somewhere next – y’all are welcome to come.” Seeing as my health was behaving, we accepted the invitation and drove over to an old warehouse where Andrew filmed for a music webcast called The Serial Box.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

We walked up the stairs around the coolest old freight elevator, knocked on a door, and entered a small room with old brown brick walls, a few folks, a scattering of chairs, and big cameras looming overhead. I tried to scribble down the set list accurately, but I was too fascinated by the whole filming process, not to mention Andrew’s songs. I’m fairly certain he sang “Memory” and “Swing Wide the Glimmering Gates” – two of my favorites. (Be sure and look up “Memory.” It’ll make you want to cry and go hug your spouse, but in a beautiful way.) All in all, it was a night of good health, great music, and meeting a talented, kind, and funny guy.

On Wednesday of that week, we returned to Ecclesia, this time to hear Jake Armerding and Kevin Gosa for a Provision of Hope benefit show, helping Liberian war-afflicted orphans, widows, and refugees. This was exciting on three counts: helping those in need, hearing Jake for the first time, and meeting Kevin – a fellow Curator writer & editor – my first of these New Yorkers to meet in the flesh! (I’m so proud to report that Houston is Kevin’s favorite city in Texas.)

We sat indoors this time near a stage softly lit by tall candelabras. Yes, I drank Monk’s Prayer tea again, but I think it has a lot to do with the poetic name. The music began, and I’d never heard anything like it. It was folk music, but without that Southern country flavor. Jake is from Boston and Kevin is from the Midwest by way of New Jersey, so I wondered if geography played into the difference – perhaps more of a Celtic, Old World influence. I’d (badly) describe it as jazz-tinged Northern folk. Whatever you call it, I loved it.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

Jake played acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle; Kevin played the soprano and tenor saxophones; and a friend named Matt Davis played bass on a few songs. I never knew a saxophone and fiddle could sound so good together, but the chemistry between Jake and Kevin is amazing – they could really jam instrumentally, and Kevin killed it on the sax. Jake also sang songs about backpacking, a few love songs, a song about the devil, and a protest song about airport security. Can I get an amen? It was a wonderful night of meeting a virtual friend, and hearing a brand new genre.

The next day, we drove through a sea of bluebonnets to Dallas to see my parents, and to go to a Patty Griffin & Buddy Miller show at The House of Blues. As I mentioned above, I have a serious musical crush on Buddy & Julie Miller. I’ve also been a drooling fan of Patty Griffin ever since I was hypnotized by her very first record, Living with Ghosts, on the radio in Austin, TX. So you can imagine my excitement when Buddy Miller walked out on stage, that crazy white hair under his hat. I believe he opened with “Chalk,” which undoes me to the core. Then Patty walked out with her beautiful, crazy red hair, and the crowd went nuts. But she just stood there, very demure, obviously as in awe of Buddy as I was. She simply backed him to greats like “Gasoline and Matches,” a song that his wife, Julie, used to get him to stay home one night. She grabbed her guitar, yelled out the song, and he stayed (Patty played spoons on that one). He also played “All My Tears” (written by Julie), which is my funeral song. Weird, I know, but what could be a better song to celebrate the end of a good life?

When I go, don’t cry for me
in my Father’s arms I’ll be.
The wounds this world left on my soul
will all be healed and I’ll be whole.
The sun and moon will be replaced
with the light of Jesus’ face.
. . . It don’t matter where you bury me,
I’ll be home and I’ll be free . . .
all of my tears be washed away.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

Next was Patty’s main set, and she sang a wide spectrum of songs from her records. She informed us that “Heavenly Day” is a love song to her dog, which I found quite charming. And then she sang several gems from her latest album, Downtown Church, which she did in fact record in a Presbyterian church in downtown Nashville (and Buddy produced). She sang with soul, grit, Truth, rock, and blues. I sipped Chardonnay from a plastic cup and watched the patchwork curtains bleed red, purple, and blue light. I don’t think Patty is a regular church-goer, but I’m here to tell you, the Gospel breathed on every person in that dark club. My health began to fail me a bit, but I listened and swayed with the worship of the weary. Before we waded through the crowd to our car, Buddy announced that they’d partnered with World Vision for this tour – yet more great musicians giving to those in dire need.

We drove back home through the Texas countryside and I thought to myself, We just traveled to another city for live music. Good grief. And here’s why. A CD or digital file becomes “incarnate.” The musicians are there in the flesh, their songs taking on a whole new being – real, live, and breathing. Instead of endlessly consuming both free and paid-for music, we should migrate to an artful space and see, listen, and ingest the songs – let the volume pummel us for a bit, for the good. Oh, and be sure and document your experience with bad iPhone photography. It’s all the rage, you know.

We even need to venture out to hear unknown artists – you’ll never find the good unless you seek. The musicians need to see their fans, too, not just record sales. No matter if they are your favorite songwriter in the whole world and you’re very geeked up – they are just regular, hardworking people. And yet, you might get a chance to shake their hand and thank them for their many sacrifices to bring you good music; to commune with you.

When we go hear live music, we do join a community – so important in these days of isolation. Money is tight in our economy, but let us go and support live music together as patrons, and if it be a benefit show, even better. Music often rouses our hearts to give to those around the world, and paints music & lyric of people living in horrific conditions we can’t even imagine. Music can help save the world.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

Unfolding Our Imaginations One Thread at a Time: An Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet

Last June, I had the pleasure of attending the Trinity Arts Conference in Dallas, TX, which was inspiring on every artistic level. One night, I settled into a chair in an auditorium to hear author and film critic, Jeffrey Overstreet, give a talk called “A Little Willingness to See,” the title taken from a quote by Marilynne Robinson in her book, Gilead:

Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?

Every speaker at the conference was amazing, but Jeffrey’s presentation was out of this world – by far my favorite. He gave a brief tour of his personal history with film based on his book Through a Screen Darkly (on my to-read list). His talk was funny, insightful, moving, and very wise. He incorporated Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ephesians 5:11, Acts 17, and the beauty of trees and sky (among many other things). I madly scribbled down insufficient notes and wished he could extend his talk deep into the night.

Afterward, I stepped out into the lobby and wistfully meandered around Eighth Day Books’s tables, one of which held stacks of Jeffrey’s books – including Auralia’s Colors and Cyndere’s Midnight, two fantasy books in The Auralia Thread series. I picked up each book and read the descriptions on the back covers; they seemed magical to the touch. I couldn’t afford either one that night, but I added them to my to-read list as well.

I am happy to report I finally read Auralia’s Colors and Cyndere’s Midnight between December 2009 and January of this year, and I wholeheartedly gave each 5/5 stars on Goodreads. I read one after the other as quickly as I could, breathless.

Jeffrey’s writing is beautiful, sparse, poetic prose, but an unfamiliar style. I can honestly say that I had never read anything like it. I had to read slowly and meditate on the otherworldly details of House Abascar and the Expanse. Northchildren and the Keeper. King Cal-marcus and the ale boy. Maugam and the beastmen. Firewalkers, stonemasters, and wildspeakers. I’d never read a character like Auralia, a mysterious crafter of colors. She not only perplexed me, but also her fellow characters in the book. Then there’s two of my favorite characters, King Cal-raven and Jordam the beastman. I was spirited away into this mysterious, dark, and beautiful world.

As you can imagine, I was entirely geeked up to read the 3rd “gold strand” in The Auralia Thread series: Raven’s Ladder (releases on February 16). It was better than the first two books, if that’s even possible. So I was thrilled when Jeffrey agreed to answer some of my questions about these books, writing, so on, and so forth . . .

JS: I’ve heard some authors talk about how their characters were birthed. For instance, if I remember correctly, Marilynne Robinson once said she was sitting in a hotel room and sensed an old man writing a letter to his son, just as real as he could be, which came to be Gilead.

Did Auralia come to life in a similar way? Or did you see the Expanse first? And does one of your characters birth another, and another, and so on?

JO: Well, if I’m ever inspired the way Marilynne Robinson is inspired, that’ll be a glorious day. She has a magnificent gift. I love Gilead.

Auralia did appear out of the clear blue, yes.

I was hiking near Flathead Lake in Montana with my wife, Anne. We were talking about the imagination. I suddenly had a “What if?” moment. What if an entire society folded up their colorful and creative work and put it away? I saw a colorless city set in the middle of this beautiful forest.

And then I saw a person – a young boy or a young girl – looking out over the city from a high place. Eventually, I decided it was a young girl, and she was weeping. The more I thought about who she might be, the more I became convinced that she was an artist. She would try to help that colorless city by bringing them a gift of art.

The rest of the characters in Auralia’s Colors flowered out of that idea. I found characters who were curious about Auralia’s colors, and characters who were inspired by them. I found characters who were threatened by them, and characters who wanted to exploit them. Then, in Cyndere’s Midnight, I became curious about the monsters that were lurking around the edges of the first story, and wanted to know how they would react if they encountered Auralia’s colors.

I like learning about new worlds by looking through the eyes of different characters. How does the Cragavar forest feel to a Gatherer? To a child? To a soldier? By the time readers get to Raven’s Ladder, they’ve seen the Expanse from a lot of different perspectives.

Several times in this series, your books reminded me of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – an epic-scale story occurring in more than one location in the Expanse; otherworldly characters interconnected in surprising ways; divided kingdoms; and so on. Is Tolkien a big influence on your writing?

Who are your other influences?

Tolkien’s a big influence, I’m sure. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over between the ages of 9 and 29. But Tolkien’s nonfiction inspired me, too. He made me very curious about how the imagination works, and how mythology helps us begin to understand parts of the truth that the rational mind cannot comprehend or express.

Tolkien’s perspectives—and those of C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle—all made me want to explore and discover a story of my own. I eventually grew tired of stories about dragons and elves and dwarves and bloody battlefields. We have too many of those. I wanted to find a story that didn’t remind me of anything else.

I can guess at who might have influenced my style. I still love Richard Adams’s beautiful novel Watership Down. I’ve been reading a steady diet of books written by Patricia McKillip and Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve spent a lot of time with Mervyn Peake. I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while writing Cyndere’s Midnight, and that affected my dreams about the world of the beastmen. And I listened to an unabridged audiobook of Moby-Dick all the way through during the early drafts of Raven’s Ladder. I have no idea what that did to me, but I loved it.

What is the appeal of fantasy books?

That’s hard to narrow down. It depends on the reader and it depends on the fantasy.

I’ve written an essay called “The Eagles Are Coming,” which is published in Response, a magazine produced by Seattle Pacific University. In that article, I tried to sum up why fantasy appeals to me.

In short, I think there are powers and mysteries at work in the world that can only be expressed through fairy tales. Fairy tales allow us to cast nets into mystery and catch things that are otherwise inexpressible. Tolkien said that fairy tales can give us a glimpse of our eventual redemption in a way no other story can.

At its best, fantasy provides us with an escape from the narrow, restrictive perspectives of modernism. And with its emphasis on the primal, it returns us to engagement with the elements, with the stuff of rocks and trees and fire and rivers and mountains. Since those elements of creation “pour forth speech,” according to the Psalmist, we’re able to hear some things more clearly when we meditate there.

But fantasy can be destructive, too. I’ve seen people who are dissatisfied with their lives attracted to the violence, to sorcery, to the ideas of tremendous power that are celebrated in some fantasy stories. I’ve watched people become severely irresponsible, abandoning engagement with their own world in order to indulge in fantasy role-playing games or non-stop fantasy media. Fantasy is dangerous territory and it demands discernment.

There is a lot of beauty in your books, but also a lot of evil and darkness. I remember finishing one of the chapters describing Maugam (Auralia’s Colors) right before bed, wishing I had read further for my dreams’ sake. Do you think good fiction must include this darkness in order to be great art?

Oh, I don’t think good fiction needs to have monsters like Maugam. I included Maugam because the story led me to him. I encountered this frightening dungeon master, and I needed to understand where he came from, and what experiences had made him. He was a creature who grew in a world without light, without color, without love or art.

Sometimes, though, we need to see visions of distortion in order to understand what is good. We can learn about the light by studying what happens when living things are deprived of light.

In Cyndere’s Midnight and Raven’s Ladder, I loved the hope for redemption of the beastmen. It made me wish the same for the Orcs (Lord of the Rings). One of the beastmen’s healing, Jordam’s, began when he first saw Auralia’s colors in the caves. Does this convey a belief of yours, perhaps that art is healing? That “beauty will save the world”?

I find healing in art almost every day. Music or a good movie can lift my spirits after a troubling day. I look forward to concerts by Over the Rhine and U2 because their performances always fill me with hope and joy. Books by Annie Dillard and poetry by Scott Cairns and Jane Hirshfield move me powerfully. And I love it when I lay down at the end of the day and listen to Anne read the latest poetic entries in her journal.

Several beautiful lines caught my eye in Raven’s Ladder, such as:

“The exhausted prisoners seemed to draw strength from that rhythmic ritual [singing House Abascar’s Morning Verse], prodding at the darkness until it bled hope.”

“You, boy . . . do you have the strength to tell us a story, to help us remember who we are?”

“Lesyl sings the truth. That’s the foundation of New Abascar.”

“’Isn’t it strange,’ she had said, ‘how most of us reach an age where we just fold up our imaginations and stuff them into our closets? I think I’ve learned more about you from these impossible dreams than from anything else you’ve said.’”

Are such lines glimpses of artful tenets that you believe?

It’s interesting that you’d single out that line about “folding up our imaginations.” That’s almost exactly what Anne said to me in 1996, while we were hiking at Flathead Lake in Montana. It was that question that gave me the idea for the story that became Auralia’s Colors.

I believe creation is a language that few of us learn to read. And when artists create, they’re often surprised as their work conveys ideas they never anticipated. Most of what I’ve learned about the world, about God, and about myself has come from nature and from works of art. So I suppose it doesn’t surprise me that some of my characters come to similar realizations.

What does a typical writing day look like for you? How do you make such a solitary act work in your marriage?

Anne and I spend a lot of time reading and writing together every week. That’s what our dating life was like—we’d ride out on Puget Sound ferryboats and critique one another’s writing. It’s an activity that never gets old. We’re learning about each other as we work, and we’re exercising our powers of observation together.

I won’t pretend it’s always easy. She’s a poet, and she likes quiet and solitude. I’m a busybody, and I tend to stir up activity wherever I go. It’s good for me to spend time in her quiet world, and sometimes I draw her out into “Hurricane Jeff.” It’s a complicated dance, and we stumble a lot. But it’s worth it.

On a typical day, I’m at the office working as an editor, a nonfiction writer, and a marketer for a university. So I don’t write much fiction on weekdays. Weekends give us a chance to go to the beach, or the coffee shop, or the library, or a hotel in a nearby small town, where we can break loose from distractions and demands and dream for a while. I get my best ideas while I’m walking. And I do my best writing with a good cup of tea or strong, black espresso.

I tweeted once that I really love the character of Cal-raven – a king who cares very much about his people, but also the restoration of art, color, and beauty. You tweeted in response, “I hope I never meet him. He’ll kill me for all I’ve put him through in Raven’s Ladder.” Now that I’ve finished the book, I know what you mean! Is it painful for you to put your characters through so much suffering?

Yeah. I feel like I’m right there, watching, with my hands tied, as things play out. But it’s worth it when I get that sense that the scenes are leading me to something that rings true. Finding meaning in my characters’ suffering helps me find meaning in my own, and it helps me trust the creator who’s in charge of my own life story.

There’s an interesting tension of people in the Expanse – do they believe in the Keeper and the Northchildren, or just believe they’re the stuff of dreams? It seems a common struggle of humanity – what do we believe? Do you think that’s an important struggle to convey in literature?

It’s strangely unpopular in our culture to discuss what we believe. People think religious convictions should be “private.” Me, I think faith is the most important subject of all. And the art I love best is alive with implications about spiritual matters.

But notice, I said “implications.” The best thing a work of art can do is suggest. Art is about “What if?” When art starts instructing or persuading, it stops being art and becomes something else. I go to art for an experience, not an explanation. I like stories that make me wonder, not stories that try to stop me from wondering.

There’s such a cinematic quality to Raven’s Ladder – to the whole series, actually. Does that have anything to do with your love of cinema? And by the way, these books would make great movies – any plans in the works (I wish)? Who would your dream cast be for Raven’s Ladder?

I don’t know that I’ve seen an actor who would be the right Cal-raven yet.

Pete Postlethwaite would make a perfect Krawg, and David Thewlis would be a great Warney.

Recently, someone suggested Emily Blunt as Cyndere, and I like that, but I also imagine either Romola Garai or Summer Glau in that role. And speaking of Firefly cast members, I think Moreena Baccarin would be enchanting as Emeriene. I’ve met both Summer and Moreena, and they’re amazing.

I’d love to see Benicio Del Toro play Jordam the beastman. And the young actor who played the Boy in The Road would be very good as the ale boy.

You’re writing the last book in this series, correct? When is it due for release? Any hints you can give us? Probably not, but a girl’s gotta ask . . .

The last book is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2011. There are some wild revelations at the end of Raven’s Ladder, and they really complicate the story, so I have a lot to untangle in the final volume.

We’ll see the ruins of Abascar again. We’ll fly kites. We’ll visit House Jenta for the first time. We’ll finally spend some quality time with that meandering mage, Scharr ben Fray. And we may get to see the world through the eyes of a Northchild. That could solve a lot of mysteries, or it could reveal seemingly ordinary things to be mysterious.

If I told you we’d fly to the moon above the Expanse, would you believe me?

You know what? I just might.


You can hear Jeffrey speak about the need for good stories at this year’s IAM Encounter, March 4-6 in downtown Manhattan.

Albert Hastings and Other Strangers

“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see just not their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame that we see them in.”
– Frederick Buechner

I am an unabashed people-watcher. I don’t mean to be rude; I’m just fascinated by humanity. I furtively watch people in coffee shops, bookstores, grocery stores, in their cars (at stoplights), and so on. Just the other day, I took a hellacious glucose/insulin tolerance test and was in that waiting room for a good six hours. I packed a good book, but I kept peeking over the pages at the blank stares of others in that medical purgatory.

A Hispanic male nurse called my name every hour to draw blood. Along with light blue scrubs, he wore a black yarmulke bordered by silver stars of David, and cobalt blue Hebrew tattoos were etched onto his forearm. I was utterly intrigued – people-watching up close and personal – and we chatted while I looked away from the needle. When I looked back, I noticed he had scratches on his face. He winced at one, laughed, and said, “I got these on Hanukkah, can you believe that? It started out well, but it didn’t end so well.” The writerly side of my brain was madly screaming, “What IS his story? He’s a story to be written!”

Photo: KayLynn Deveney

I love photographs of people for the same reason. I pore over photographs on Flickr almost daily, and within that community I discovered a beautiful book that captures the essence of friendly people-watching: The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings. The photographer, KayLynn Deveney, and her husband noticed Albert as they walked to and from their basement flat and the city center in southern Wales every day. The old man often leaned against his building, his quiet yet lively presence contrasting the architecture’s decay. He watered the gardens to sustain life. Others might have overlooked this lonely man, but KayLynn was attentive to a light in Albert’s face that made her want to know him.

She felt a bit shy to transition from watching to meeting Albert, but she mustered up the courage and he greeted her warmly. Soon after, she asked if they could work on a photographic project together. As they got to know one another, she noticed his daily liturgies – how he thoughtfully organized his belongings and his time. And through conversations with Bert, she realized that their perceptions about photography differed. To allow Bert to converse with her camera, she asked him to jot down captions in a pocket notebook. KayLynn’s empathetic, honest photography and Bert’s thoughts became a dialogue that eventually grew into this book.

In the introduction of The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings, KayLynn states:

I believe photographs of our possessions and domestic patterns can be portraits, just like the photographs of our faces.

This truth shines forth from images of Bert, his small home, and his neighborhood. He poured “his inevitable cuppa chai” into two cups, not one. He salvaged a wind-broken daffodil by stabilizing it to a mug with a rubber band. He laughed into golden lamplight enjoying his evening whiskey. He looked straight at KayLynn’s camera and wrote, “Could this be a presumptive picture of my futuristic soul regarding a past world and friends?” He folded his pajamas on his bed. He washed his socks and hung them on a coat hanger to dry. He placed a Fedora on his head to go out. Birds alighted his hand. He listened to the radio. Interspersed within the photographs are Bert’s poems, drawings of his clock hobbies, his handwritten TV schedule, and old photographs of his late wife, daughter, and grandchildren. Each smooth page in the book seems to literally speak of Bert’s hospitality, compassion, simplicity, comfort, humor, humility, grief, and dignity.

Albert reminds me of my late father-in-law, who also lived a quiet, lonely life. They even resemble one another, and both served in their country’s military. My father-in-law’s primary joys were his dog, Twit; mystery novels; his cowboy boots for kicker dancing; Blue Bell homemade vanilla ice cream; and dinners with me and his son, where he always ordered salmon. His Air Force medals hung on the wall. These details and daily rituals of my husband’s father, and those of Albert’s life, are important and noteworthy because this is how they lived, and every life matters.

KayLynn documented Albert’s day-to-day life with creative tenderness. They collaborated to create both friendship and art. It inspires me to ponder the possibilities of our interactions with strangers outside of our social comfort zone. We could start by befriending and serving them, then really see our neighbors through art – perhaps by photography, recording or writing their stories, or making a short documentary film. Or we could simply talk with them, know who they are. Our society tragically tends to ignore the lonely, poor, and elderly.

KayLynn reminds us of this again in a beautifully painful portfolio entitled “Edith and Len.” She began photographing Mr. and Mrs. Crawshaw shortly after they moved into a Welsh nursing home for their combined failing health, though Edith was in slightly better shape at age 93; her husband was 92. These photographs are difficult to view just as any nursing home is difficult to visit.

I used to visit a couple in a nursing home around the corner from our church that reminded me very much of Edith and Len. Billie and Allan lived in adjacent rooms, but every Sunday morning I found Allan seated in an armchair at the foot of his wife’s bed watching a church service on TV. I will forever associate that elegant woman with Psalm 91 – it was quite possibly her favorite piece of poetry ever. She requested that I read it every Sunday morning and always said, “See? How can we fear anything?”

Yet I felt their displacement like the weight of an anvil on my shoulders, and I feel this same sense of the mourning of home in the portraits of Edith and Len. But I also see the beauty of the elderly – every line and wrinkle of age traces poems of the joys and tragedies they’ve lived, and the wisdom planted deep within. One of my favorites in the “Edith and Len” portfolio is a sad photograph of Edith’s beautiful old face, her furrowed brow looking upward seeming to say, “O Lord, how long?” KayLynn kept diary entries for this project and that particular photograph’s entry reads:

October 30

The seasons are changing today.
The sky is darker and more wet.
The leaves are dancing around the
streets. Edith asked me today if I
could imagine what it’s like to sit
there all day, every day, the way
she did. I thought, I am desperately
trying to imagine it.

Certainly, nursing homes are full of tragedy: neglected residents, suffering, and an unchosen home. But we cannot and should not look away from the tragedy depicted in KayLynn’s work. It is a powerful encouragement of how to live better: visit nursing homes often, or when you’re able, welcome elderly family into your home. But regardless of what we’re able to do, we must not forget anyone who lives and breathes in this world. Albert’s, Edith’s, and Len’s stories were written before they were born; it’s our job to learn their stories, share, and do likewise.

Click on the thumbnail to see the full-sized image.

A Rally Cry for Literary Independence

I’ve lately been reading all manner of goodness on The Rabbit Room. The blog’s title is a nod to The Eagle and Child pub where the Inklings met to discuss their writings, drink beer, and be merry. As a rabid Tolkien and C.S. Lewis fan, I was sold on the virtual concept immediately. I geeked out further when I discovered that The Rabbit Room’s proprietor was none other than singer/songwriter and authorAndrew Peterson, and contributors included his brother, Pete, Eric Peters, Randall Goodgame, Ron Block, and several creative others. If I have repeatedly insisted that you read Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, well, you have Curt McLey to thank for that.

As I followed these folks’ artistic insightfulness, I discovered that their personal talents crisscrossed between genres – music, books, visual art, pastoring, and so on. Pete Peterson is”a film aficionado, book-lover, cheese-maker, sandwich critic, chair-sitter,” and the author of the forthcoming novelThe Fiddler’s Gun (December 1, 2009). But the book’s cover lists the author’s name as A.S. Peterson. Confused? Pete/A.S. explains, “I grew up going by ‘Sherman,’ which I never much cared for. You can probably imagine how well that went down in school. So after high school, I joined the Marine Corps and there ‘Peterson’ got shortened to ‘Pete.’ . . . I think ‘Pete Peterson’ would look silly on a book cover, so I use ‘A.S.’ instead.”

The book’s main character, Fin Button, came to life in Peterson’s cinematic imagination several Christmases ago when he had the genius idea of building treasure chests of gifts to bury on his parents’ farm, drawing a map for each family member, and making them hunt down their treasure and dig it up. One recipient was to come across a grave marker in the woods bearing the name “Phineas Button,” but Peterson accidentally carved “Phinea.” ” Initially, I thought I’d have to start over and recarve it, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the way that leaving the ‘s’ off made the name feminine. So I kept it and for the rest of the season I wondered who Phinea might have been and how she came to be buried there and what stories she might have to tell,” said Peterson.

Such a sudden genesis of a fictional character gives me goosebumps. As with all my favorite books, Fin is yet another legendary character that began to live and breathe in the room where I sat and flipped page after page – from the minute she was born on September 25, 1755, to her growing up into a redheaded tomboy at the Ebenezer orphanage.

The Buttons left behind a bundle of red curls and unwanted promise, and Matilda-Mae uttered a silent prayer that her thirteenth baby girl would somehow know a full life in spite of her unkind beginnings. The Baab sisters of the Ebenezer orphanage were ready and willing to answer that prayer and see it through, but time has a way of leading a person along a crooked path. Sometimes the path is hard to hold to and people fall off along the way. They curse the road for its steep grades and muddy ruts and settle themselves in hinterlands of thorn and sorrow, never knowing or dreaming that the road meant all along to lead them home. Some call that road a tragedy and lose themselves along it. Others, those that see it home, call it an adventure.

The poetic rhythm of that paragraph hooked me line and sinker, with all its heartaching, foreboding beauty. I jumped in Fin’s corner, rallying for hope and redemption through her many adventures to come. I’ve stated before that I loathe reading most accounts of history – dry textbooks, facts, and such. But the grand scope of reality, I believe, is that we dwell in history framed by a much bigger story written by One greater than us all. Great books like The Fiddler’s Gun give a lifelike voice to historic characters on whose fictional shoulders we stand. We peer into Fin’s story through the eve and eye of The Revolutionary War. There’s her best friend Peter LaMee, her foe Sister Hilde; humor, romance, betrayal, grand ships, swearing sailors, pirates, gallows, Red Coats, Tories, and the hunger for American independence. Though within the epic framework, Fin just craves acceptance and love, to be an orphan no longer – to belong.

She has the endearing, headstrong spunk of Swede Land (Peace Like a River), which sometimes finds her in dire predicaments. As a stubborn female going through difficult times myself, I was heartened by the honesty of this young woman’s suffering, and the merciful shielding from the very worst case scenarios. In the darkness, there was always hope. She learned to do as her friend, the orphanage cook Bartimaeus, often advised, “Beautiful, that’s what you got to do with that hurtin’, you got to turn it beautiful.” And too, a good, tall tale does this for us all, thanks to the author. Peterson made Fin’s pain and peril beautiful with salvific strokes.

As inspiring as the hard work of a writer is, there’s more to it than just a well-written story. With the same spirit of the Americans fighting for independence – for their own name and identity and not Great Britain’s – Peterson resisted writing for just one genre or age group. The Fiddler’s Gun is historic, but not historic fiction per se. Along with the adventure, it’s literary, and resembles a young adult novel until the point where Fin is forced to mature for survival. The story quickly grows with her right before the reader’s eyes.

Peterson waded through the query submission process, nearly drowning in sixty rejections before finally finding an agent who submitted his book to a few of the big names such as Random House and Scholastic. But they all said no. One would think that a novel so versatile to genres and ages would be appealing to publishers, but it isn’t usually so. They want books that are easy to categorize along with the latest bestsellers, whether good writing or wretched. So Peterson faced a lot of rewrites that would make The Fiddler’s Gun more audience specific, but he was afraid he’d alter the voice of Fin’s story in ways he just didn’t like at all.

Living in Nashville, he looked around, inspired by his community, many of whom are independent musicians. They’re often outcasts in the radio-loving recording industry, yet they make it work, excel artistically, and create a loyal, lifetime following. And then it occurred to Peterson that he, too, could go that route; he could publish The Fiddler’s Gun on his own terms. “And if I was going to publish independently, what better book to publish than one that is, at its core, about independence?” he said.

Unlike the myopic process of self-publishing which often produces poor quality, Peterson gleaned wisdom from his peers. For an editor, he hired his friend, Kate Etue, who has an extensive background in professional editing. He formed a writer’s group of people whose skills and mindset he admired and readily took their advice. He had beta readers point out flaws rather than heap praises at his feet. He hired another friend and fellow Rabbit Roomer, Evie Coates, to design the cover artwork.

But the life of a writer always involves solitude. This whole independent publishing process took about a year, and most of that time was spent editing, rewriting, revising, and editing again. Living on a day job’s budget, Peterson also took on the typesetting himself. He had a little background in print design, but even so, this task of designing the book’s interior nearly made his eyes explode as he pondered margin sizes, fonts, font sizes, line spacing, spacing between words, spacing between letters, and so on. Furthermore, he balanced quality and budget and decided on paper with good color and texture, the heaviest cover stock he could afford, and selected a matte-finished cover because well, shiny covers are loathe-worthy. And he went with rough-edged pages to complement the cover depicting dark beauty on a calamitous sea.

Pete’s journey also inspired The Rabbit Room Press, the independent publishing arm of the aforementioned online pub. Their aim is to produce books that readers can trust – the kind of book you can’t help but recommend to everyone you know. Says Peterson, “Branding is something that Pixar has done masterfully in the movie world. I’ll go see a Pixar movie just because Pixar is willing to put their name on it. I trust them. I know their track record. I appreciate the respect they have for the art of storytelling. The book industry needs that type of branding. Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s have done a lot in that area and I hope the Rabbit Room Press will one day be able to claim that kind of trust and discernment.”

But neither Peterson nor The Rabbit Room Press have won the lottery (that I know of), and so he beseeched fellow bibliophiles and good story-fanatics to be patrons of his craft. There were the inspiring Renaissance patrons, of course, but these days, more and more artists are pursuing the patronage option, or at least considering it. Prog band Spock’s Beard and fellow Rabbit Roomer Eric Peters did so with their latest albums. Likewise, Peterson offered two tiers: for patronage of $50, the reader received two signed trade paperbacks of The Fiddler’s Gun, a copy of 100 signed and numbered Letters to Peter Companion, their name printed in the acknowledgments, and priority shipping before December. For patronage of $30, the reader received two signed trade paperbacks of The Fiddler’s Gun and a printed acknowledgement. Now his novel is off to the printer, so he can’t print any more patrons’ names (though he’d love to), but he “considers anyone that offers their support a patron. And believe me, I couldn’t do it without them,” Peterson said.

As one who’d like to publish books myself someday, I find the artful layers of Peterson’s Fiddler’s Gun publishing saga to be inspiring. There are good books released under the big names, but as the publishing industry changes with almost every day, it seems, an author treks on precarious ground. Here we have a book that is a New York Times bestseller’s equal produced in the very fashion of redemption.

Against all odds, Peterson forged through rejection and confining genre labels to create a classic-to-be. He invites us to be a part of his story, Fin’s story, and the age-old story of artistic humanity: ’tis good to give and receive and cultivate good art. And let us write great stories that ring true, and do so independently, if you have the courage of Fin Button.


Click here to download a PDF sample of The Fiddler’s Gun. Then be a good patron and pre-order Peterson’s book here. Fin’s story will be continued in a sequel – The Fiddler’s Green – now in progress. I’m a supportive [impatient] patron myself.

On Learning to See

A few years out of high school, I became a big fan of Sixpence None the Richer. I haven’t listened to the band in years, but I still remember one particular EP which remained in heavy rotation. Smitten not only with Leigh Nash’s beautiful voice, but with the album title (Tickets for a Prayer Wheel),I read the liner notes like literature and discovered that the poetic phrase was borrowed from the title of a book of poetry by Annie Dillard.

After devouring that book, contemplating “The Shape of the Air” and other such lyrically scientific matters, I wandered around a Half Price Books store to find more of Annie Dillard’s writings. I felt something like a magnetic pull. There are times in my life where God shines a beam of otherworldly light directly onto a book on some shelf. Though it is invisible to other eyes, I know that that book is illuminated with a similar (though much less divine) revelatory sentiment as the angel spoke to St. John:

Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.

There is a gastronomical upset brought upon by reading God-awful writing, but that is not the kind of which I speak. If these books which lure me do yield any bitterness, it is because they turn my world upside down with an unveiling of reality. They change me and form me – and sometimes reversing my mindset is a bit unpleasant. Not meant to be a quick gulp of novelty or escape, these are books to read, eat, and chew; slowly, like meditation.

So it was with a book aglow on a wooden bookshelf at Half Price all those years ago – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Once again, the title caught my eye – a little slice of poetry. I began to realize why a college professor inexplicably said I have the mind of a poet. I am not a poet, but I discern the poetry of life – all the intensity, emotion, mystery, and rhythm.

The very first paragraph minced no words, and beauty and violence walked side by side:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back . . . And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses. . . . What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth.

I was both captivated and startled. Cats are cute, but bodily fluids? Such visceral, poetic writing prodded my five senses to life with each word. I kept reading. I took the first steps away from a timidity of words – providential seeds planted to cultivate who I am today, how I see the world, and what I write. As best I can describe, the book reads like a scientist-mystic’s journal, a bizarre narrative that might seem like a collection of essays as Dillard’s unusual mind jumped from philosophy to science to religion to absurd humor to meditation on nature, but there is a thread of continuity – her connections and conclusions arrive like a slap on the back. “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, ” she said.

Dillard lived near the suburban forests and mountains of Tinker Creek in Virginia, which teem with hordes of lively animal life. She walked outdoors by day and read voraciously at night. She filled twenty or so journals with quotes by Thoreau, Van Gogh, Marius von Senden, Pascal, and Galileo, as well as her observations of the natural world in her neighborhood. She transferred prime excerpts to notecards, and within eight months, she created the book that is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This literary madness granted her the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 when she was just 29 years old.

My copies of Tickets for a Prayer Wheel and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are browning, the pages soft and familiar. They bear my maiden name on the front pages in blue and black ink, respectively, such a sweet bruising to my writerly soul. Both were published the year of my birth, so I feel a tender kinship with them. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not straightforwardly Christian; Dillard cites Jesus and the Bible, but also Judaism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Eskimo spirituality. I am one of those conservative Biblical types, yet this weaving of religion and art and startling beauty gave my writer’s voice its first breath. I was inspired by words and sentences for the first time.


. . . and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny? . . . if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.

Why, I wondered after I read that, had I ever seen anything before? I don’t believe I hadn’t, but I made my own plans to see from that day forward. Her reflections left me breathless and wide-eyed: the frog sucked dry to mere skin by a giant water bug right before Dillard’s eyes; a still Osage orange tree suddenly released one hundred red-winged blackbirds; a mockingbird took a nosedive from a roof gutter straight toward the ground only to pull up seconds before death. She described the “night . . . knitting over my face an eyeless mask,” and boy howdy, I saw what she meant one starless night in Houston.

Soon thereafter, I moved into a small studio apartment with old wooden floors. I hung an Indian tapestry over the one big window in the main room. I marveled at how sunlight filtered through the fabric like fiery coals, threatening to lick the floor with flame and level my little home to ashes.

Now I dwell in the ‘burbs. Not as picturesque as Tinker Creek, but I still do this seeing, and I still revere this book. I reread the whole narrative from cover to cover, or I flip around and meditate on a paragraph or two. Either way, it is born again and new in a cyclical fashion. Oh, how a writer should see! There is so much to see and write and share – one just has to make the time.

I take a shower and see one long, thin vein of a spider web cascading from the ceiling light to top of the shower stall, glowing eerily with artificial light. You’d think I would knock it down, but I leave it for awhile, admiring the arachnid’s ingenuity.

My husband and I name a lizard who hovers on a window outside most nights. He’s “Marty.” Our cats peer with intent confusion, craving the prey. I walk into the kitchen and see Marty’s cousin swinging on a slat of the mini blinds on his tummy – no joke. He’s no threat to me, so I just let him swing in peace, tiny dots of eyes blinking. Would I have looked so closely before?

I often sit in a favorite chair and look to our backyard and pray for answers. Our tree and the neighbors’ trees sing and sway tipsy with praise. They shake off rain with sudden convulsions of tears, but for the joy of cleansing and the sun – healing and restoration. I move a rocking chair to the back porch and monarchs with fire-wings of grace flit overhead near enough to touch! The old wooden fence sings the sun through its weathered planks. I walk around my neighborhood to see all there is to see.

It all rings true. Jesus asked us to “look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” – to pay attention and not look past anything. The Bible is the icon of truth; beauty and tragedy are neighbors. Wars and persecutions; victories and loss; triumph and betrayal; violence and peace; and ultimately, death raised to life. These same realities echo through nature, and all things are made new.

And so, I see all there is to see not as mere scenery or just the weather, but creation: alive, speaking, waving, praising, mourning, groaning, awaiting redemption just like me. As a writer, and a Christian, I feel the weight of my responsibility to do as Dillard proclaimed:

. . . take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

I make my pilgrimage through what is truthful, beautiful, good, and tragic, and Annie Dillard is one of my lifelong guides.

The Liturgy of a Neighborhood

When my husband and I started to discuss where to look for a house, our preferences did not quite align. Johnny leaned toward the affordable suburbs of Katy, and I presented an unrealistic argument for a pricey, historic bungalow in one chamber of the heart of Houston – the Woodland Heights, our church’s neighborhood.

My husband’s practical wisdom prevailed, and walking into the two-story house in which we now live, we experienced the surprisingly truthful cliché: We just knew. I made it my mission to see the suburbs as I now see everything: to seek out what is rehumanizing right here, chain stores and all. Our neighborhood is very walkable, most of our neighbors are friendly, and we consider Cedar’s Mediterranean Grill & Market “our place,” offering the best hummus, hookahs, and Arabic music videos on the TV. We now feel as if the ‘burbs are home sweet home. However, if we won the lottery, we might be persuaded to move to one of those bungalows. Until that improbable day, my urban aesthetics are assuaged by driving to church every Sunday through the absence of notorious Houston traffic – it’s like God’s gift to the faithful.

As creatures of ritual and pleasure, our Sabbaths consist of a geographical trinity to which we migrate like birds to their homeland. We both work from home, so Sunday is our earliest day of the week. I am not a morning person. But, gratefully, Antidote Coffee is our first stop, its atmosphere just buzzed enough to gently wake fellow grumpy, slow risers. Cheery, multi-colored patio furniture awaits outside, and eclectic vintage furniture inside. Red brick walls sport local art and photography. The menu offers organic and fair trade coffee roasted in Marfa, Texas; organic artisanal tea, beer, wine, homemade baked goods, watermelon gazpacho, red bean hummus, and other delights. Happy hour includes spirits, of course, but also $1.00 espresso shots. The Beach Boys, The Kinks, and Old Country play overhead. They spin bad music at times, too, but at least it’s obscure bad music. The staff is attentive and kind – by now they know that Johnny takes his cappuccino wet with organic milk; they wait patiently as I rummage through the tea selection indecisively.

It’s a small, intimate space. I can’t help but eavesdrop on most conversations as they bounce off the stained concrete floor. And there’s no finding a secret, introverted nook in which to work or read. As I select a small wooden table or a velvet couch, I often have to ask a person, “Is this seat taken?” One afternoon, I poured my teapot of organic breakfast and spilled some of it in the process – very characteristically of me. A soft-spoken man chuckled in sympathy and asked what I was drinking, or spilling. I asked the same of him (Sencha green) and we oohed and ahhed over varieties of white tea, as well as our mutual preference for dark roast and chicory coffees. I discovered that he was born in France, adopted by an American family, and is now part of both families – he visits the French countryside regularly. I shared that my mom was adopted; her biological family is from Louisiana, and she, too, is part of both families. And when I said that just that morning, Johnny and I daydreamed of visiting Paris, the man said, “Oh, you should – there’s still a lot of magic in that city.” I marveled at this conversation with a kindred spirit-stranger.

Kaboom Books is right next door, a brilliant pairing. More rainbow-hued tables and chairs adorn the storefront, encouraging the enjoyment of coffee and used books here or there. The second Kaboom location is a little bigger and five minutes away, and our church is situated in the middle. The owners are a good-natured married couple, transplants from New Orleans after Katrina. We met the spunky red-haired wife, newly a Houston resident, and to our delight and surprise, she reported that they love their new hometown and neighbors.

I am not above a Barnes & Noble/Starbucks combo, but I do have a special place in my heart for the unshakable independents in our culture, and for the smell of old books. Kaboom’s tall, crude wooden shelves hold more mystery than a polished new store. Their selection musters up a literary faith in the face of uncertainty. Lately, I believe that I will find Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter on that high shelf with the B’s, though I cannot yet see it. Like the old bungalows in the neighborhood, these books spin yarns and tall tales to complement the story their pages hold. The front page might bear a reader’s name written with pencil or ink, provoking a sort of reverence in me as I flip through the pages, as if that long-lost soul is loaning it to me. Kaboom opens later than Antidote on a Sunday morning, so I wistfully peek into my dusty little sanctuary until I can step inside again. Sometimes we do so after church, or during the week. Our liturgy of the neighborhood is not just for the Sabbath, you see.

We hop in the car with to-go cups of caffeine and weave down Euclid Street for two minutes toward church. This neighborhood provides something suburbanites should cultivate: a deeper sense of community and beauty, which naturally pours into my soul as I spy porch swings, rocking chairs, hammocks, wind chimes, lush gardens bright with flowers, protective oak trees, and quirky art sculptures planted in front yards. The amicability also speaks from the bungalow architecture itself, with most homes boasting wide front porches that make hospitality visual. Friends drink wine on those shady havens in the evening, or sleepy-eyed fathers enjoy breakfast in solitude the next morning. History resides in these streets as well – old, tattered bungalows sit alongside newer models, but the Woodland Heights is committed to preserving “a hometown near downtown since 1907” and beautiful American Craftsman design. Change is good at the right time, but I still admire this small town within the big city, one determined to conserve historical architecture which tells a large part of Houston’s story.

The impetus for our Sabbath migration sits on the corner of Beauchamp and Byrne: Church of the Holy Trinity, a small Anglican parish. “Worship is primary theology. It is also home, which, as the saying goes, is the place where they have to take you in” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace). I grew up with Baptist mega-church roots, and so our little liturgical church feels exactly like our second family (after in-laws) with differences, squabbles, hugs, laughter, shared tears and joy, and all the rest. I actually know my priest – a far cry from a distant pastoral association, with a stage and bright lights. Fr. Doug loves local coffee shops, whiskey, good tobacco, the Coen Brothers, John Donne, Wendell Berry, and slow food, just for starters.

The liturgy suits people like me and Johnny, and many in the congregation – the artful-minded, craving visuals and symbols. We walk in the door to dip our fingertips in cold, holy water; trace a cross from our forehead to our chest; light a candle cupped in red glass to symbolize prayers weighing heavy on our hearts. I take a wooden pew under the St. Catherine of Alexandria stained glass. There is a still, sweet reverence under the wooden nave which looks like an upturned ark, drying out from a tragic flood. As we do “the people’s work,” peaceful repetition – kneeling, bowing, crossing – we embed Scripture and worship into our souls and movements. Liturgy is found in the pages of Genesis, the 1st century early church, and onward until now – more history rooted within a bustling, modern city. The music is both traditional hymns and new songs on guitar, piano, and djembe. Candles light the altar; incense tickles our noses and represents our collective prayers. When we walk out the door and gather on the patio, some smoke a cigar and others grab a Shiner (on tap in the kitchen). We adults sweat in a Houston summer, and the kids run helter-skelter on the playground. We take our worship back out into the old-and-new-bungalowed neighborhood – as they welcome us, we hope to welcome them into our home the next week, signaled by church bells sounding through the ‘hood.

Urbanites seek refuge from the traffic and workweek cacophony, and our activities are almost unconscious liturgical repetitions. We work with our hands in our home or in an office, completing similar tasks over and over again. We frequent our favorite places to eat, drink, and refuel. We are created to gravitate to rhythm, order, beauty, and our incarnational five senses. Or perhaps we rebel against these forces, our fallen dance.

But we are to live within our culture, our eyes roving for what is true, good, and beautiful – such as the Menil neighborhood, houses of art which continue to nourish and protect me. But even more nourishing and protective are our church, Antidote’s small town hospitality, and Kaboom’s cozy inspiration – making the Woodland Heights our second neighborhood. It’s like Isaiah said: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” And so we drink coffee & tea, read, and worship; return to our suburban neighborhood, rest, repeat – revisiting the rhythm of our Bayou City Sabbath after Sabbath, a world that ought to be, without end, amen.

Harmony in the Middle East

I sort of loathe reading most accounts of history and politics. History and politics are two great humanity-shaping forces, and I recognize the importance of absorbing such information. But all too often, these accounts are poorly written: arid deserts of facts and dates, with no mention of stories of the actual people who lived out these events. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ve cultivated more of a mature interest in these subjects by reading the newspaper, and listening to NPR and a few podcasts.Even so, his or her story will always spark my concern of worldwide tumult before arguing talking heads.

The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy broke my heart with the beautiful epic of Kristin’s life in medieval Norway. I read the Maus graphic novels, and saw Schindler’s List, and was forever fascinated by the tragedy of the Holocaust. The Persepolis memoir-graphic novels helped me understand the mayhem of Iran’s history; Khaled Hosseini’s novels did the same for Afghanistan. Art helps us to see, to live a better life, and good stories help me understand the world.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has constantly been in the headlines as long as I can remember, and before then. The contention has always been about land: this land is not your land, this land is my land. The genesis of the entire clash can be traced back to the late 19th century when Zionists purchased land from the Ottoman sultan, but the fire of the modern day conflict as we know it was lit in 1948 when the UN created the State of Israel after WWII, displacing countless Palestinians and furthering their hatred of the Jews. Unceasing hostility led to the Six-Day War in 1967 which Israel not only won, but they also seized extra land – the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Believing these regions to be rightful spoils of war, the Israelis built small settlements to secure their possession.

But this friction was not palpable to me until I watched The Band’s Visit, Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin’s debut feature, quite the opposite of a war movie, framed with bleak beauty. The film begins with the introductory narration printed in both Hebrew and Arabic on a quiet black screen, and the English subtitles read:

Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian
police band arrived in Israel.
Not many remember this,
it was not that important.

A sad, slow piano tune begins, and the band suddenly appears in blue uniforms, looking around in confusion at the hushed airport. They check their watches, and look expectantly for a ride. They were scheduled to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center, but due to poor communication, nobody was there holding a sign. Tension is thick in the air as Lt.-Colonel Tawfiq, the conductor, argues with another band member, Simon: Shall they call the Embassy, or try to manage on their own? Their Egyptian pride is evident, but so also is the extreme awkwardness of being dangerously stranded in Israel.


Sasson Gabai as Tewfiq Ronit Elkabetz as Dina
and Saleh Bakri as Haled

Tawfiq orders the handsome violinist, Haled, to verify their intended destination of Petah Tiqva, but his comical flirting with the woman at the ticket counter results in the band arriving at the town of Beit Hatikva, in the middle of nowhere – one of the aforementioned Israeli settlements. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is dropped off right in front of a common diner owned by a brazen, sensual woman, Dina, who said, “There is no Arab center here. No culture, no Israeli culture, no Arab – no culture at all.” Clearly bored with her uneventful life, she stares at Tawfiq in amusement as he asks her if they could have something to eat, pay in Egyptian money? Upon telling the Colonel that the next bus doesn’t roll by until the morning, a glimmer of sympathy flickers across her face. She offers her home to Tawfiq and Haled, and convinces two friends to do the same for the rest of the band, much to her friends’ protest.

They all begin to communicate in English and the subtitles disappear, the first subtle clue of what is to come. Each pairing of the characters is a set-up for disaster, yet their immersion into each other’s lives produces scenes full of unexpected warmth and absurd humor. Dina takes Tawfiq to a small restaurant, encouraging him to ignore raised eyebrows, saying that her neighbors live in the Stone Age. Tawfiq unchisels his mental blocks against her gender, race, and immorality. Overnight, he grows to romantically respect her and see past her wayward behavior to who she might truly be. His forgiving eye beautifully balances how Dina’s kind, free-spirited personality melts his rough exterior. After all, director Kolirin did say, “The language of the film is a fairy tale.”

Haled invites himself out with a set of double daters to a roller skating rink, and instead of seducing a woman as he usually does, he teaches the ways of romance to one of the clueless guys. Simon and the rest of the band find themselves in the home of a less than ideal marriage, accidentally barging in on the wife’s birthday celebration. What could have ended with clenched fists, fighting, or worse turned into a portrayal of grace. The small Israeli community welcomed their enemy, and the Arabs gradually cast off their fear and suspicion – all due to the art of hospitality. It’s an inspiring peek into what could happen if we all opened our doors to a controversial stranger.

Going on blaring headlines alone, one would think that Palestinians and Israelis are destined for perpetual racial cacophony. Yet this film presents a world that ought to be, and already is in parts of the Middle East. In the documentary on The Band’s Visit DVD, I was surprised to learn that even the making-of process reflected the deep beauty of the film, a healing of racism. Palestinian and Israeli actors worked in harmony together, the most surprising being Sasson Gabai, one of Israel’s leading actors who played Egyptian Lt.-Colonel Tawfiq. As Jewish actress Ronit Elkabetz (“Dina”) said, “This meeting between Palestinian and Israeli artists . . . there’s nothing more lofty and more wonderful than our ability to be with each other and create. Why, this is the cure for everything.” The director stated that he didn’t set out to make another “Arab and Jew” film; he and the actors believed they came together to find their own truth inside each and every soul. In my opinion, they uncovered the truth – that all things are possible: Arabs and Jews can overcome the world, conquer politics and hatred, extend simple kindness, and stand alongside one another.


Ronit Elkabetz as Dina
and Sasson Gabai as Tawfiq

The Band’s Visit communicates all of this with a lonely, quiet allure, which is interesting in a film featuring a band of musicians. It’s as if music is another restrained voice in the film. There are times when people just stop and hear music. Dina requests a ballad to play overhead in the restaurant, to flirt with Tawfiq. In the tense, dysfunctional Israeli home, Arab band member Simon plays a bit of his symphony-in-the-works on the clarinet. In another scene, nameless band members sit under a silent night sky and play their instruments, which seems to comfort them in an unknown land. Even Haled’s shameless flirting involved the pickup line, “Do you like Chet Baker? ‘My Funny Valentine‘?”

At one point, it’s revealed that the police orchestra might be disbanded for the sake of economy and efficiency. Tawfiq protests this notion, and the soundtrack does, too: the music leading up to the band’s performance at the end is a lovely traditional Egyptian song with exotic instruments such as contrabass, goblet drum (darbuka), and a qanun. This small orchestra audibly teaches us that unlike the beginning narration stated, their arrival in the wrong town is important. They share culture with Dina and her community who were previously deprived, and both clans mutually surrender their racism. As music is crucial to the healing of these awkward relationships, so may art be for the world as we try to forbear with strangers, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Sigur Rós Redeems
the Music Video

I haven’t watched MTV in years; the last time I tuned in, the programming schedule didn’t include many music videos. Inane game shows and morbidly fascinating reality shows were about it. Any actual videos jarred my psyche like a fingernail dragged down a chalkboard. It wasn’t the various forms of gratuitous vulgarity that disturbed me – it was bad art. The lyrics were ridiculous. The music wasn’t what I would call “creative.” The choreography was repetitive and boring. Were they singing anywhere near on pitch, or was it all Auto-Tune matched to a pretty face? With very few exceptions, I was convinced that the music video as art was doomed.

But one evening three years ago, as I wrote and listened to the music streaming from my husband’s computer in the study, I heard a melody so haunting and beautiful that I stopped typing, my fingers frozen above the keyboard mid-sentence. I just sat there, all ears.

“Sweets,” I yelled, “Who is that?”

“A band from Iceland a friend told me about: Sigur Rós. It’s the video for their song ‘Glósóli’ – you gotta see it,” he said.

An unconventional melody from an Icelandic band, surely far away from the musical-visual shores of MTV. I bolstered my artistic reserves and walked into the study. Did my eyes behold a music video? I was floored by stark, quiet, light-suffused melancholy scenes and the wide-open geometric Nordic landscape. It looked more like a short film. This telecine magic was directed within three days by natives Arni & Kinski and captured on 35mm film by cinematographer Chris Soos. But the video would not be what it is without a band of überphotogenic children found in Reykjavík.

The story of “Glósóli” – a childlike rendering of “Glowing Sun” – opens to a little towheaded drummer boy sitting by a lake. He looks down at the drumstick in his hands. He taps his boot to the slow rhythm of a bass drum and a music box. He stands and slings a drum over his shoulder. Lead singer Jón Birgisson softly wails in his mournful, ethereal voice:

Nú vaknar þú (Now you are waking up)
Allt virõist vera breytt (Everything seems different)
Ég gægist út (I look around)
En ég sé ekki neitt (But I see nothing at all)

The boy hikes over black lava rock, pauses, and beats his drum. Two girls emerge from behind a stone tunnel, one wearing a fuzzy-bear hat. The drummer gives them a kind, knowing smile, and they skip a step to follow him. As the light grows, he continues to attract and collect those with whom his path crosses – a boy and girl kissing in the shelter of tall grass; a hesitant freckle-faced boy; two misfit boys about to torch an old car; and two girls building a stone altar.

The children follow the leader through night and day, until he rouses the ragtag lot to charge with abandon toward a cliff, seemingly toward a certain plummet. But Sigur Rós’s otherworldly music soars and sails and their story comes to a surprising close.

I suppose there are many subjective takes on the visual story set to “Glósóli,” but I can’t help to see the Gospel narrative. The little drummer boy never says a word, but his eyes speak, “Come, and follow me.” The children drop what they’re doing and obey, and trek behind him without looking back. Sigur Rós’s frontman, Birgisson, plays a part in the story, too, as the voice of the Other who sings the way for the drummer and his short motley crew to go. Most songs I listen to are nonfiction, or poetry, but “Glósóli” is fantasy. As each child takes that last step off the stone cliff toward the Other, the unexpected and miraculous occurs – optimistic, in our often nihilistic society.

I cannot stomach MTV to this day. For me, “Glósóli” was the redemption of music video. Music and cinema are fused creatively in the hands of Sigur Rós. Most music videos are obviously a commercial advertisement for an album, when a song should be able to stand alone as a work of art. Sigur Rós accomplished an exquisite piece of non-commercial art with magical visuals deep enough for a big screen, and even a redemptive melody. Between bookends of music box chimes, the intellectual, post-rock song quietly, steadily crescendoes to a climax – Birgisson’s ethereal voice like another instrument – perfectly matching the pace of the video. The melody makes the ache of melancholy beautiful. I love the entire album (Takk), but I both listen to and watch “Glósóli” repeatedly and never grow weary. From comments I’ve read online, I’m not the only one mesmerized by the video – it’s as if we all recognize that there is a song of the Other guiding us on our pilgrimage; we are a people acquainted with sorrow, yet also with triumph.

But in the end of the video, one lone little boy cannonballs off the cliff instead of following the others. Does he live? Was he just doing his own thing? Did he take a leap of faith, then follow his friends after the camera wasn’t looking? Is the conclusion real, or was it merely a dream? One really doesn’t know, and it’s that element of unanswered mystery, even possible tragedy, that makes art good and true – it reflects those parts of our lives that will never line up with logic. The “Glósóli” video is not so much ambiguous as it is a contemplation of mystery and transcendence.

Tell Me Our Story

* Warning: Minor spoilers.

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
-Frederick Buechner

Some movies are comfortable beginning cryptically, easing you into the story. But The Fall starts off with a bang. Black & white images flash slowly, set to a score of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7: a head rising from beneath water; a cowboy; a feather floating; a coil of rope thrown downward; a dog yelping; a train with sunlit smoke like a pillar of cloud; men shouting; a dead horse pulled from the river on a levee. There are no voices, but in the style of a silent film, tragedy is written on everyone’s faces – a bad dream you shouldn’t forget.

The scene shifts to a Catholic hospital in 1915 Los Angeles, tinged with sleepy brown and green hues and natural light. Alexandria, age five, stands between two long rows of sick beds. One arm is broken, suspended midair in a cast. With her good arm, she carries a cigar box of things she likes. She wears a white gown, gray cardigan, black Mary Jane shoes, and her hair in pigtails. Her front teeth are missing – possibly the cutest little girl ever to appear onscreen. She looks at her fellow patients: a drowsy boy, a dejected girl leaning on a tray, and a crying baby tended to by a nurse. Wandering out of the children’s ward and into a room of adult invalids, she meets Roy Walker, a paralyzed stunt man with sad but kind eyes. “Did you know you’re named after Alexander the Great, who was the greatest warrior who ever lived?” he asks in a Southern drawl. Alexandria is curious, but timid of Roy’s malady.

When Alexandria is less than impressed with Roy’s tale, he spins a second epic to gain her trust. Reality becomes intertwined with story. He speaks of the Indian; Otta Benga – an ex-slave in a horned helmet; dynamite-happy Luigi; Darwin and his monkey, Wallace; and the masked bandit – all of whom possess a fiery hatred for Governor Odious. Roy paints this mythical band’s adventures in the spirit of an old Hollywood Western, but Alexandria’s mental image of “Indian” is of an East Indian in a green turban, instead of a Native American in feathers. We see Roy’s story through her imagination, flavored with the architecture of India.

Deserts, horses, and a palanquin caravan are shot with all the vastness of Lawrence of Arabia. Whirling dervishes spin in white and blue vestments on a cathedral floor. The “reality” scenes between Roy and Alexandria are quiet, private, and intimate. The story, and Roy’s motive in telling it, are elusive, and the “fantasy” scenes are full of otherworldly, painterly images – locations no one else could find.

The costumes are bright and vivid, as if sketched and painted right on the actor’s body (Darwin’s peacock-plumed coat and black top hat are particularly memorable). The stunning cinematography sweeps through tall spaces, perfectly framed and saturated with color. When I first watched this movie in the deep of night, it was the best kind of bedtime story, illuminating the darkness. The panoramic shots evoke desolation and frame the way in which the two convalescents connect.

In my favorite scene of the whole movie, Alexandria, new to the English language (both on- and off-screen), offers Roy a Communion wafer that she innocently swiped from Father Augustine.

Roy: Are you trying to save my soul?
Alexandria: Hmm?
Roy: Did you understand me?
Alexandria: (smiling) What you said?
Roy: I said, are you trying to save my soul? . . . The Eucharist, that thing you gave me, it saves your soul. . . . Are you worried about me?
Alexandria: What?
Roy: That little piece of bread. . . . It’s like strength.

Realizing that the chapel was located near the dispensary, and that Alexandria has gift for petty theft, Roy has an idea. His story becomes a lure – he would only continue if she delivered morphine pills; he intended to fall asleep forever.

The Fall is a surreal combination of their psyches, yet fused with realism. It’s a collage of countries, exotic architecture, and time periods. During the narration of Otta Benga’s history – a black slave in India who escaped his captors – the music is a slave song from the old South, sung by a Russian Orthodox choir. The intricate, mixed-up details of Alexandria’s imagination and whimsical associations can be easily missed if you aren’t paying attention. Governor Odious’s menacing black army looked like the hospital’s X-ray technicians in heavy, protective clothing; Luigi was the one-legged actor who came to visit Roy; Darwin was a hospital orderly; Alexandria’s deceased father was the bandit – Roy later replaced him as her mind conjured the story in grand, cinematic style, and as she befriended the paralytic. Even the props on set are a scavenger hunt of clues to the story.

The DVD includes some fascinating special features. I was astounded by writer-director Tarsem’s (The Cell) tireless dedication to his art. Making any movie is hard work, but I could not believe the lengths that Tarsem went to in order to birth his vision of The Fall. After a failed relationship and unwilling financiers, he sold everything but his house to fund the movie. As Tarsem put it, “It had to be made by somebody at a mad junction in his life.”

He trekked around 24 countries for 16 years scouting locations, saving time and money by doubling his efforts – he would only film TV commercials in locations suited for The Fall. In a New York Times article, David Fincher (who presented the movie along with Spike Jonze) said that Tarsem “told me when he was going in that ‘my production value is going to be the earth; I’m going to use the entire world as my backdrop.'” He traveled to the Great Wall of China and Argentina for a single shot, and with a friend’s help, snuck into Hagia Sophia early one morning to film for just ten minutes. He even staked out dangerous locations, bribing a contact in order to film in front of a beautiful mosque which has guards known for stoning unwanted visitors.

There are few special effects here; when a butterfly segues to a remote island, or a priest’s face to mountainous desert, it is only Tarsem’s recognition of similar shapes and film layered upon film. That elephant is actually swimming under blue-green water. What looks to be a digital homage to an M.C. Escher piece is actually black-clad actors performing symmetrical choreography in an old well of interlocking stairs. When the bandit and his companions spy a blue city below, it is a Brahman town, the inhabitants only allowed to paint their walls a certain shade of blue – just “the right amount of realism,” said Tarsem in the DVD commentary.

This realism was also crucial in the performances, so as in the making of The Fall, Tarsem took his time with auditions. After a weary search for his child-muse, he found Catinca Untaru from Romania. He knew that in a few years, she’d lose her naturalism and innocence. He admired Lee Pace’s (Pushing Daisies) performance in Soldier’s Girl, but he was so convincing as a transvestite that Tarsem had to confirm his leading man was indeed male. With the two most crucial actors in place, Tarsem set to filming right away, shooting the “reality” scenes sequentially in a South African hospital – Untaru’s missing front teeth grew in during these sequences – and the “fantasy” scenes in India. To further enhance Untaru’s authenticity, Pace pretended he was paralyzed, and that his name was “Roy.” This unorthodox method worked. Untaru drew pictures for Pace and took care of him, much like their film personas, and Pace grew despondent while stuck in bed and a wheelchair.

Aside from its fantastical realism and visual opulence, The Fall‘s overlapping stories mirror reality: each of our stories are part of a bigger story. Storytellers and art-makers should tell the truth; listeners and patrons must have childlike faith, believing in what we cannot see.

Alexandria grows frustrated as Roy’s emotions hinder his storytelling. She says, “You always stop at the same part, when it’s very beautiful and interesting.” And in a heart-wrenching scene near the end of the film, Alexandria begs Roy not to destroy the story.

Roy: (crying) There’s no happy ending with me. . . . It’s my story.
Alexandria: (also crying) Mine, too. . . . You are making this up.
Roy: No, I’m not.

But he was; it is possible for a work of fiction to be a true story. Like any good tale, Roy’s was collective, connecting the storyteller, the listener, and all of reality; it wasn’t just Roy’s story, because it had become Alexandria’s, too.

As storytellers, and human beings, it is sometimes a fearful undertaking to believe, to go where our story leads. It takes courage to listen, to hope, and to fight. Their story ends with redemptive sorrow, so rich with detail and emotion that you want to watch it again and again – happy, but not trite. One pleads with Alexandria for Roy to not be fearful and selfish, but to paint the truth.

In fact, I feel the urge to replay the whole movie over and over – truth is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Thanks to Tarsem, who, like Roy, fought with courage to make his story truthful and breathtakingly beautiful, The Fall resonates with humanity.

Mere Beauty


Candace Profile, 2004.
Oil on canvas, 16 x 16 inches. Private Collection.

Though I was raised in a creative household, I didn’t fall in love with visual art until college, for a few reasons. First, I cannot draw to save my life – stick figure-people in boxy clothing, and wire-looking flowers and mustache-shaped birds have been it since age three.Second, I strapped on literary blinders and didn’t look up from a book for the longest time. And finally, I attended a private Christian school for my entire education, and while I had many great teachers, my art education in general was a bit skewed. For example, the Hell’s Bells 1 and 2 documentaries were required watching in Bible class. Who knew both Whitney Houston and AC/DC could induce a satanic stupor?

Thankfully, after I graduated from that sheltered evangelical scene, I poked my head out and really looked at the world that God made.I met friends who introduced me to good music.And I took an art history course in Austin that forever altered my eyes, an eclectic visual account of humanity:the ingenious prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux;jewel-toned Byzantine icons and mosaics; Rembrandt’s stories of shadow and glimmer; Van Gogh’s bedroom and an ink-blue starry night; Chagall’s dreamscapes; Rothko’s “sandwiches of color” (as named by Billy Collins in this poem). Since then, I’ve been on a continual quest to find a painting able to lift me out of my life into another, to give me new eyes to see this world.

Last year, I discovered the work of Jacob Collins through Rev. George Grant’s blog. I’d never seen anything like Collins’s classical realism, certainly not within the modern art scene. He paints whatever is lovely to behold, yet each piece seems misplaced in time – haunting, as if viewing the present day through a lens of the past. I stared in wonder as I clicked from one image to the next on Collins’s web site – an unwrapped chocolate bar,the American flag with fifty stars, a Ford pickup truck, a pint of beer and popcorn, figs and chevre, and Vermont maple trees -each smoldering with traditional, natural light akin to Caravaggio, but painted by a man alive and well in 2009 and married to Ann Brashares, the bestselling author of the quite contemporary Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.

Jacob Collins’s childhood love of drawing pirate ships, airplanes, revolvers, and Spiderman kindled a reverence for the great draftsmanship of the Old Masters such as Vermeer, Velázquez, and Rembrandt.Skillful from a young age, Collins sketched and painted fervently under the guidance of his grandmother, Alma Binion Cahn Schapiro, an artist trained in Paris. To this day, his disciplined passion is the framework of a normal life working from home: “I take the kids to school, go back, and draw and paint all day. Once the kids are in bed, I draw and paint, and then I go to bed. We do other things, but on the ordinary, it’s pretty streamlined – days of drawing and painting.”


Orange, 2007. Oil on panel, 8 x 12 inches.

I’d almost forgotten the straightforward, elegant beauty of classical still lifes, portraits, nudes, interiors, and landscapes – layer upon layer of craft and complexity. Instead of the modernist spin on reality – personal, inward assessment – Collins merely presents creation and daily life, quiet and beautiful, with near-photographic realism (though he does not work aided by a camera).There is beauty to be found in the colors and shapes of modernism, but to Collins, each form he paints is “in our midst, in our world – things, vistas, scenes, the natural environment, the manmade environment, and the people in it – that’s the actual world, what it looks like, and what it is.”His stillness and simplicity of line, atmosphere, and warm and neutral colors beget the mystery of anatomy – not only of the human body, but also the elements of earth, water, air, and the fire of a picked orange, peeled and glowing with natural light.

Collins faced tough challenges learning classicism in the face of modernism, including resistance from many of his teachers who assumed that beauty in and of itself is not enough – it ought to be dismantled. Even if they partially supported his traditional vision, they also believed it wasn’t something a real artist would pursue anymore, especially given the 1980s visceral bias against reviving classical art.He was made to feel foolish, as if his pursuit wasn’t worthwhile or relevant, or that it was “art from another time.”Prophet-like, he didn’t retreat to the nineteenth century, but leapt over modernism to carry the classical torch forward, learning from the beauty of history.

Eventually, his dogged work paid off when he located kindred spirit teachers such as Michael Aviano and Ted Seth Jacobs at the New York Academy of Art when it was new (he studied with Jacobs further in France).His fellow student and older friend, Tony Ryder, was also a profound influence in his life and career.No longer stumbling in the artistic dark, Collins gained skill and confidence, and now he is the most prominent representative of classical realism, or as he prefers, “traditionalist painting” or simply, “classical painting.” His solo exhibitions at Hirschl & Adler Modern (New York), John Pence Gallery (San Francisco), and Meredith Long & Company (Houston), among others, are evidence that classical realism is not antiquated.


Drawing, 2004. Oil on canvas, 28 x 48 inches. Private Collection.

He finally found a successful niche, but “once in awhile,” admits Collins, “it bothers me a little, the fact that the major cultural mouthpieces – The New York Times, serious art criticism, or the museums – still seem to be relatively uninterested in artists trying to use classical techniques.” So he is cultivating change primarily by the work of his hands, with like-minded souls, making beautiful drawings and paintings – inevitably, the artist’s job.

“I don’t want this to sound negative,” says Collins, “but honestly, I don’t think the existing art culture – the avant-garde, institutional-modernists of the establishment – are ever going to be interested, or even able to come around to the art values that I care about most.”He believes that those who are enthusiastic about the values of modernism – rejecting traditional methods – should follow their own vision. They, too, have the right to freedom of expression, but some of their rejection is so complete that they don’t make room for classical ideals. Collins is driven to be kindly subversive and create a parallel culture, one he envisions to be comprised of “artists who make poetical images and touching, emotionally-resonating art using traditional skills, and even a vocabulary of images – the language of classical art.”

Because neither he nor his heroes learned alone, Collins founded three schools of art: The Water Street Atelier in the basement of his New York home, The Grand Central Academy of Art, and The Hudson River Fellowship. Artists of old evolved and thrived by befriending, sharing, competing, and sharpening other artists in a community, and Collins longed to establish similar shelters, to be part of something bigger than himself, to pass on an artistic legacy, and to make a contribution to a world that ought to be.He is stimulated by talking about drawing and painting and preserving that passion within other people who want to create mere beauty.Collins muses, “I imagine that I’m trying to make the school(s) that I wish I could’ve gone to, so that kids exactly like me can have it better than I did.”

The students of the Hudson River Fellowship also learn to rediscover American soil through the artistic and spiritual values of the 19th century Hudson River School painters such as Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford R. Gifford, and Albert Bierstadt. They defined the poetry of creation by painting outdoors – en plein air (“in the open air”) – creating a meditative piece for a wall indoors.This new tribe calls us to step outdoors and remember that where we tread is holy ground, vividly depicted in Collins’s Vinalhaven Sunset (2008) – treetops licked with sun-flames, both under a cloud-cathedral and below a mirror of water, a congregation of rocks.

He recognizes that “in the 20th century, we’ve become a little crazy with how we use the land – our willingness to carve a highway through anything and everything, and pour concrete over beautiful landscapes, and sprawl our way across the country.” Instead, he hopes we hear the prophetic call of these neo-Hudson River painters living in our commercial wilderness: Honor and protect the land; save it from ugliness!

It’s an invitation to survival. Poet Kate Daniels said, “Without art to translate for us the ambiguous intensities of our lives, we exist in a kind of emotional hell – whirling and spinning through the darkness of undifferentiated, undiscriminated feeling that declines to reveal any pattern to us.” When art only pitches its tent in the vast lands of modernism, it “belittles the complicated and powerful ideas of beauty” spoken in classical paintings.

Collins and his peers have a right to be neighbors of modern art. Beauty is everyone’s dwelling.


Vinalhaven Sunset, 2008. Oil on canvas, 36 x 70 inches. Private collection, Houston, TX.

John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco, will host a collection of Jacob Collins’s recent oil paintings and drawings from May 2 – 30, 2009.

The Small Things

“The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”
-G.K. Chesterton

When I was three, I liked to scatter my mom’s magazines on the floor, sit in the mess, and flip each glossy page. She figured out early that I was the literary type who needed a room of my own. Though we lived in a cramped apartment, she converted the generous closet space in my bedroom to a playhouse with a table and chairs, yellow wooden toy chest, and a bookcase. After setting stuffed animals on the window sill and hanging my artwork on the walls, she looked at all that she had made and saw that it was good. She also kept coloring books, water paints, paper, and crayons on the coffee table in the den – a room often filled with music, dancing, family, friends, and general, festive chaos.

Both of my parents shaped us to have artful mindsets, but my mom sees the world through different eyes than most. She finds a way to make every task fun, imaginative, and colorful. It’s carried into my adulthood – I have never seen more beauty in the world than I do now. I don’t have children yet, so I take advantage of these quiet times to plan and think forward. I bookmark kid-friendly web sites when I’m feeling wistful and dreamy.

One site I revisit is Small magazine, started by two friends, Christine Visneau and Olivia Pintos-Lopez, who bonded while sharing an apartment in Brooklyn, and continued a friendship all the way to their current hometown of Dallas, TX. They first thought to publish an online magazine when Christine had difficulty drumming up publicity for her children’s clothing line, Baby Bean. Feeling the collective pain of often-overlooked independent designers who cannot afford the advertising rates of traditional magazines, they reached into their entrepreneurial spirits and unearthed Small in the spring of 2007, offering a free e-mail subscription. Their friendship-based business expanded to include Christine’s photographer/drummer husband, Steven, as the photo editor. The market for “creative people working on a small scale and for the smaller sized” was thirsty – a year ago, the two innovative editors had over 100,000 smitten viewers around the world.

Diminuitively Creative
The magazine is called Small because it focuses on children and items tailored to their diminutive stature, but it is not a parenting magazine. Each diptych of virtual pages presents a feast of visual poetry for aesthetically-sensitive readers, who find whimsical fashion spreads of vintage and hand-sewn clothing worn by winsome children – the styling is often the co-editors’ handiwork. One page peeks into rooms with furniture crafted by small, independent designers. Another sprouts treehouses on your screen, and eco-friendly handwoven willow playhouses straight from a fairy tale-dream. There are dollhouses, built with modern architecture. Bento boxes trump the standard metal box and thermos contraption.

The table of contents presents regular, varietal features such as “Small Draw” – a coloring book pieced together by printing a black & white PDF of an artist’s work from each online edition. “Small Bites” are recipes that put Lunchables to shame; the Spring ’09 edition featured a honey nut granola bar recipe by Heidi Swanson of the 101 Cookbooks web site and the Super Natural Cooking book fame. “Small Beats” interviews kid-friendly independent musicians as opposed to baffling pop culture icons. “Small Photo” is a conceptual project asking a photographer to respond to the idea of “small.” I love “Small Something,” a collage of delightful items never to be found in a garish Toys ‘R Us store. New “Small” features are added with each edition, making for a publication that strives to improve, and the only child-related publication to catch my pre-kid eye.

Care-fully Creative
Small magazine understands the importance of creative parenting, much like my artistic mother and family members who handmade some of the clothes I wore as a child. Some say that motherhood is boring, but they may simply lack imagination. Small fosters an imaginative daily family routine, one apart from the materialistically dictatorial TV commercials. Our culture needs parents who care for and play with their children – grown-ups need to play, too. Adults ought to plant an artistic spirit inside of kids so that whatever they grow up to be – painter or pediatrician, musician or mathematician – they will think creatively in their field of expertise. They will see beauty in any sphere of life and grasp for what is truly good.

Child-rearing is a heroic vocation. Florence Nightingale said, “I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.” As the owner of two cats, parenting seems daunting; my friends are some of my heroines, full of courage and selflessness. They give up so much as the world whizzes by. Understandably, they often feel as if more significant events occur in a public platform or an exotic location, but in reality they have the opportunity and instincts to raise up people of importance right in their hearth and home.

Small also brings good art into all things childlike, inside the modern homestead. It introduces little ones to photography, design, and visual art that any adult would admire as well – I can’t take my eyes off Julie Morstad’s narrative, color-flooded work. Small proves that the transcendence of art is reciprocal, able to speak to any age as long as it is crafted well.

The eclecticism promotes the Renaissance kid, one interested in all things, not just the typical, pre-fab line of items based on the latest cartoon, or the standard palette of pink or blue. It promotes wise consumption in an age of greedy consumerism. To find the items featured in Small, you have to hunt further than the local Wal-Mart. Parents can find safe, handmade playthings that keep them from having to succumb to toxic toy scares. It is even an artful utilization of cyberspace, a positive web location for mother (or father) and child to view and enjoy together.

Small is pro-kid. It takes parenthood seriously enough to display it beautifully. Children – our own or those in our sphere of influence – are the future culture-makers. Their minds will soak up truth and beauty like a sponge. Perhaps when all seems wrong in the world, it is good to dive into the mind of a child by way of Small.

Peace Like a River:
Make of It What You Will


Leif Enger, Peace Like a River,
Atlantic Monthly Press: New York, 2001.

Peace Like a River begins with a miracle. Helen Land gives birth to a son, Reuben, but instead of the typical, healthy shrieks of newborn fear, his lungs did not cooperate with the rest of his anatomy. Reuben himself steps in to the narrative to say, “I was gray and beginning to cool. A little clay boy is what I was.” His father had been pacing and praying outside, but with prodding from God, he ran inside to the delivery room. Jeremiah lifted his ashen son and commanded in a normal voice, “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God, I am telling you to breathe.” The baby obeyed, his chest received and released sweet air, and my eyes bugged.

Just fourteen pages later Jeremiah paced again – this time on the bed of a grain truck – and prayed again. Intercession is kind of a big deal for this guy. He was immersed in his petitions, visibly troubled, lips moving, clenched fists pressed to his closed eyes. Reuben interjects into his narrative, “Did I say earlier that the flatbed sat up off the ground about three feet? Because I should have; it matters here.” As the young boy watched from behind the corner of a barn, his Dad walked right off the edge of that truck onto approximately a yard of thin air, above thistles and thatches of tall grama which waved as if blown by the wind. He paced about thirty feet, paused, and returned. He did not fall, nor was he aware of his supernatural acrobatics. Reuben was caught off-guard to hear his own name within Jeremiah’s unsettled pleas.

At the precise moment I read this extraordinary scene, the light bulb in a nearby lamp burnt out with an abrupt click. I can be a little dramatic, so I gasped. I could see the fictional moonlight, no matter my own Houston sunlight. I heard Jeremiah’s steady footsteps on the flatbed, then “his feet noiseless, hitting nothing.” A miracle occurred right before my eyes without any flowery prose. This is the marvel of Leif Enger’s sparse, yet poetic writing. It’s as if no time can be wasted to introduce stark realities and supernatural goings-on. Nor can beauty be spared to hearten the soul with old-fashioned prayer, miracles, and the possibility of what these familiar personalities have up their sleeves.

Characters Familiar and Complex
Enger acquaints us with Reuben so dramatically because he is a witness – to his father’s otherworldly handiwork, and to a crime. Though he lives and breathes, it is the labored effort of asthma, perhaps to help him keep his head. He beholds the world with the same matter-of-fact insistence of the New Testament epistle writers, invading the personal space of whoever might serendipitously pick up the book:

I believe I was preserved, through those twelve airless minutes, in order to be a witness, and as a witness, let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.

He talks like that the whole time, remembering his eleventh year, which makes for an epic yarn of a tale set in 1960s Minnesota. And as both a witness and storyteller will do, he observes everyone and every event surrounding him with wit, wisdom, and tender vulnerability. It’s not a comfortable story to ease into. Along with the preternatural, there’s an early foreboding, adventure, and a close-knit, complex family. Through Reuben’s eyes, the whole crew barged into my psyche. He loved them, and so I couldn’t help myself.

Jeremiah is a humble janitor, as unassuming as one could be while performing the miraculous. He’s a kind, easygoing fellow, yet fiercely protective of his children. Reuben often operated as a pair with his younger sister – I’m not sure there are words to describe the likes of towheaded Swede. She was typically drawn to unladylike or age-inappropriate activities: hunting, playing with dead geese feet, and reading Robert Louis Stevenson, Zane Grey, and historical accounts of heresy. Her vocabulary is impressive, and she once snickered when someone said “onus eye” instead of “evil eye.”

Then there’s the eldest: sixteen-year-old Davy, very complicated and strong. He and his Dad butt heads in the early miracle-packed pages regarding Jeremiah’s involvement in a conflict with two infamous town thugs. Davy disagreed with his father’s definition of justice. Reuben described his brother as having “Dad’s own iron in his spine”, but not his heart. When their own family’s safety was threatened, Davy shot their enemies dead, rendering himself a fugitive. Jeremiah and the young children set out to find the wayward son in the North Dakota Badlands. Swede penned a Western epic to mirror and foreshadow the imminent events of their journey inspired by the sacred, the godless – Old Testament grandeur and vintage police dramas.

A Cult Following
I’m an avid reader and used to work in a bookstore, so I have a compulsion for recommending great books. I’ve taken my compulsion to a whole other pesky level with this 2001 bestseller. It is too broad for one genre, but it does modernize and revive the Western. Two of my own heroes, my grandfather and father-in-law, lived and breathed the Old West, wore cowboy boots and bolo ties, and loved reading Westerns. For me, reading Peace Like a River breathed new life into my respect for a good Western – though Enger’s version replaced a horse with the Land family’s silver Airstream trailer. Davy is the lone, good-natured renegade running from a federal agent. Further down the trail is the persona of evil, Jape. And there is chivalry from Jeremiah, Rube, and Swede toward a friend, Roxanna, who offers them shelter. She changes before their eyes with something like the Transfiguration. For as Swede said, “every Western is a love story, you see.” And this love is reflected everywhere in the Land family: a father to his volatile son, the son toward his family, young siblings to their father and brother, and a family toward this new free-spirited lady friend. Enger plumbs the depths of all this with a shimmering beauty of a plot that I can’t divulge to spare you the spoilers.

Peace Like a River‘s cult following is also formed by the depiction of a wholesome family without a load of dysfunctional garbage. Mrs. Land did leave town and Davy is a wild card, but the bonds between Jeremiah and his children are unusual. Fathers are not typically portrayed in such a respectful light, in a literary landscape in which men are feminized and fathers are derided. Enger’s Jeremiah is different, a man of good character and integrity. He’s honest and cares for his children; he loves them sacrificially and believes in their potential. He is the kind of man to sit down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the King James Bible, a hymn upon his lips. We need that kind of man back in our imaginations and in our lives – a real hero.

Faith on the Bestseller List
To write about faith well is tricky. To write popular fiction that espouses Christianity so unapologetically is even more precarious. Yet Leif Enger succeeded, writing a book with broad appeal with appeared on several bestseller lists including Time magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. No matter what a Christopher Hitchens might say, the culture craves both good art and faith. Not one or the other, but an artful belief in the God who gave miracles to Jeremiah’s hands.

The faith of Peace Like a River is not a mere panacea. Tragedies certainly occur. But Enger paints faith to be just what it is – the gutsy notion that all will be well despite the evidence before you. He also gives an honest portrayal of humanity in the Land family as they travel to find Davy with ambiguous intentions. As a federal agent catches up with the family, he asks for help to locate the refugee, and Jeremiah struggles viscerally, even intimating disapproval in his prayers. Faith is rehumanizing, but it’s a bold art for any man to master.

Leif Enger’s most brilliant accomplishment is to make the supernatural believable and palatable through Reuben’s sincerity. Instead of mawkish sentiment, he relates, “Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true. They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave – now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.”

Most days, I fully expect to see miracles, yet I’m just as much human as I am spirit. I long for wonder, but I’m sure accustomed to this earth. Peace Like a River inspires a faith in the supernatural, an almost artistic endeavor requiring something akin to imagination. I read Peace Like a River when I was first diagnosed with a few health issues and embarked on a slow trek to healing. I took Reuben’s asthmatic affliction to heart when he said, “The infirm wait always, and know it.” Reading this novel was timely, boosting my tenacity. I was ready and primed with a weary body and a heart ravenous for the seemingly impossible.

Madeleine L’Engle once said that story erases physical pain. If you are immersed in story, you forget pain. And if the story shines goodness and truth, we take to it like a child with a unflinching belief in the magical. Jeremiah never summoned the miracles. They were God-given, sometimes odd and freakish, but always gleaming with realism right ’til the breathless climax.

Through Reuben Land’s robust, conversational narration, we are encouraged by the restorative power of literature. Peace Like a River is a comforting book in these days of anxiety and uncertainty. But it is not merely a story by which to escape, though. Reuben asks something of you, the reader:

Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?
No sir.
All I can do is say, Here’s how it went. Here’s what I saw…
Make of it what you will.

The San José: A Hotel with a Soul


Photo: Jenni Simmons

Back in my formative, single days, I read an influential article by Paul Soupiset in Communiqué. He received a clever gift from his wife – a weekend getaway/personal retreat in room #26 of Austin’s Hotel San José – and he deemed the urban bungalow lodging “a perfect spot for meditation, prayer, and contemplation.” I was newly enamored with Kathleen Norris’s book, The Cloister Walk, and so his description caught my eye. At the time, I imagined my tiny studio apartment to be my own monastic cell, and I mimicked Norris’s observance of the hourly offices as best I could while sitting on my blue futon. I went from Baptist to Anglican for the sake of poetic liturgy. Reading both pieces birthed my love for quiet, clean-lined spaces, with ample room to think and pray.

Through Soupiset’s words and photographs, I was whisked away to what Hank Williams III described as “Mexico meets Japan”: cacti and bamboo stalks outside, cowhide rugs and rice paper lanterns indoors, minimalist yet comfortable, with strong lines and simplicity. It sounded peaceful and funky enough to suit my eclectic tastes perfectly. And yet, all monastic notions aside, I wasn’t too keen on sleeping over alone, nor did I have appropriate budget, so I tucked the idea away for my marital future. When I finally said “I do” to a drummer, we spent our honeymoon in Gruene, TX, and returned the following year for our anniversary. The bustling city of Austin is nearby, so we saved our pennies, booked a room at the San José and tacked on a night to our annual getaway, thereby establishing a tradition. Since we entertained life in a convent and monastery (respectively) during singlehood, marriage seemed a celebratory occasion on which to splurge.

Reading a great article is one thing, but experiencing Hotel San José in the flesh is a very incarnational experience – it touches on all five senses, while heartening the spirit. We’ve stayed there four times, and it’s like a deep, meditative breath each time we’re handed a key. We step from the parking lot through a wide, wooden-slatted door to modern oasis landscaping courtesy of Austin’s Big Red Sun. There’s a Zen garden quality as gravel crunches underfoot; large wooden eggs are placed here and there. Lush greenery hangs from wooden trellises overhead. Birds flit from clay birdhouses hidden in tree branches. Stairs are framed with twigs and vibrant porcelain colors. Terra cotta planters nourish desert plants and succulents. You can read and sip tea on vintage patio furniture or an assortment of geometrical wooden chairs placed throughout the sculpted gardens. The hushed calm is something of a sonic miracle seeing as cars whiz by on S. Congress just steps away.


Photo: Jenni Simmons

The buildings are quite satisfying to those of us who appreciate the honesty of modernism. Lake|Flato architects, believing that such a style “should respond to its particular place, enhance a site or neighborhood, and be a natural partner with the environment,” transformed an old tourist court into a sanctuary of vernacular architecture. This bungalow-style hotel is framed by stucco and gray brick walls; Spanish tiled roofs and large, olive green doors imprinted with white room numbers. Inside is a fresh take on monastic living – well, except for a flat screen TV and the mini bar (a wooden box cradling items such as Shoyeido incense, dark chocolate, and a bottle of cabernet). The white rooms display the most beautiful austerity illumined by bright, natural light, heeding another of Lake|Flato’s philosophies to explore “how the light of a specific region enlivens a space, brushes a wall, and animates materials.”

We slip off our shoes to feel cool, concrete floors and simple wool rugs woven with Rothko-esque blocks of color. The minimalist aesthetic is offset by vintage music posters on the wall, and platform beds and couches covered with tapestry pillows and hippie blankets. We slide open a massive, industrial sliding door into a sparse, white bathroom scented with the San José blend of pepperminty soap. Other furniture consists of Bertoia chairs and Saarinen tulip tables straight out of Dwell magazine. If I didn’t have an aversion to theft, I might have smuggled the red Eames rocking chair into our car when the staff wasn’t looking.

You’d never believe what this chic place used to be if I told you. I couldn’t visualize it myself, either, until I watched the documentary, The Last Days of the San José (2000), co-produced and directed by Saint Liz Lambert (as I like to call her). She purchased what was then a very ramshackle, squalid San José Motel with a vision of what it ought to be. But she acted as owner and manager for three years while she courted banks all over Texas to finance the renovations. In the meantime, she chronicled the lives of some of the tenants – a diverse lot. There were prostitutes, drug addicts, transvestites, runaway teenagers, and a self-instituted handyman attending anger management classes. There were more winsome characters, too, such as street musician Gerry Van King (the “King of 6th Street”), and Diana and her son, just trying to get by until they could afford rentable housing. One young female tenant described her surroundings as “a mini rundown Melrose Place.” And so it was.

Yet one glorious day, when Lambert finally sweet-talked a bank into a loan, it was time for all of her tenants – the good and the bad – to pack up and find other living arrangements. My heart shattered at that moment in the film. I had some less favorite characters, but I wondered, what happened in their childhood and their young adult life? Were they ever shown kindness?


Photo: Jenni Simmons

There’s a scene in which the hymn “Softly and Tenderly” (sung by Robert Sean Leonard in Chelsea Walls) plays softly while scenes of the city flash slowly –

Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home,
Honestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling all sinners, come home.

In that subtle, poignant moment, I got the impression that Lambert cared a great deal – she befriended many of her patrons – but a place of filth and crime is no kind of shelter. Even if their lives resembled a dark tale penned by Flannery O’Connor, Lambert extended mercy by closing down the disreputable motel. It was not a home, and needed to recapture the positive atmosphere of its beginning as an “ultramodern motor court” in 1939. If we book a swank room at the Hotel San José here in 2009, we should not forget the people who struggled in its seedier rooms, nor the story behind the bungalows. These pieces of old architecture have quite the redemptive story to tell. With the eye of an artist, Lambert looked past syringes in sinks, crack pipes tucked away in random crevices, tattered curtains, soiled bed linens, and a sickly lime green exterior. She tore it all down to create a thing of beauty, a transformation akin to the resurrection – a motel’s dying breath raised to new life.

Through her work, Lambert also restored this particular neighborhood to safety and boosted the local economy, a salvific act to any location. Today, some of the best shopping in all of Austin resides on S. Congress: the fair trade of Ten Thousand Villages, local wares at Parts & Labour, the folk art of Yard Dog, the eclectic antiques of Uncommon Objects, worldwide crafts at Tesoros – and the literary Mecca of BookPeople is just minutes away. There’s good food and drink to be found at Guero’s, Home Slice, Hey Cupcake, Woodland, and Farm to Market. There’s even great music to tap your feet by right across the street at The Continental Club, which has seen Hotel San José through the worst of times, back in its days of squalor. All of this variety is very representative of a very grateful, zany, welcoming city.

In the same spirit, Hotel San José has mastered the art of hospitality in an inspiring, creative fashion – which is why it’s called “a hotel with a soul.” They offer a rare selection of perks for rent: Americana CDs, obscure films on DVD, bicycles for gasoline-free transportation, typewriters to peck out your memoirs (though there’s also free wireless internet), and Polaroid cameras to capture the tranquility on film. Your dog is even welcome. The rooms are no longer $30-40 per night, but if you have a worthy splurge (such as an anniversary) and you’re into the Tex-Mex-Orient vibe, the quality of stay speaks for the price, in my opinion.

With her creativity, Lambert redeemed the kitsch of the utilitarian motor court aesthetic with something more personal and less dehumanizing. In addition to Hotel San José’s funky, minimalist decor, the rooms are stocked intentionally with an eye for detail. For cleansing, the toiletries are small bottles of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and other exclusives created by a local Austin spa. A stack of single tissues are stacked neatly on a window sill. In each bathroom, a poem is nailed near the mirror to read while brushing your teeth. The small wine bar is the place to be, yet not raucous.


Photo: Jenni Simmons

But perhaps the prime example of their artful hospitality is the room service – breakfast in a bento box. This, too, is worth every penny we save each year – maybe the most beautiful presentation of a meal I’ve ever put in my mouth, compartmentalized and all. My favorite menu consists of big bowls of plain yogurt, granola, and berries along with grapefruit juice and a Bodum urn full of Jo’s coffee (an outdoor shop next door). To top it all off, we plug in my husband’s iPod to the complimentary bedside iHome and enjoy Aradhna while waking up.

I’m never quite ready to check out at noon, so my husband and I might forgo Gruene one of these years and spend two nights at Hotel San José. It is a soothing refuge, and we rather like that our favorite out-of-town accommodations have such a redemptive story. We’ve taken something away after each visit, at times unaware. Lately I’ve noticed that our house mirrors a similar eclectic minimalism, even the same warm green paint color. We purchased our home with a serious intent to offer hospitality to family, friends, and neighbors. After staying at the San José, we strive to make our dwelling just as artful and serene – a place where the cheerful and downtrodden alike can come and rest; wine and dine in good health; take a book off our many shelves and read. I’ve come to believe this is what any hotel should be – a home when you’re called away from home. And surely, a place where you feel free to kick back, pray, and cleanse your scattered thoughts.


To book a room at Hotel San José and/or purchase The Last Days of the San José DVD, call the very kind hotel staff: 800.574.8897.

Sweet Land:
the Waltz of Olaf and Inge


Elizabeth Reaser as Inge in Ali Selim’s SWEET LAND.
Photo Credit: David Tumblety

* A warning: here be spoilers.

I’ve loved a good story for as long as I can remember. At annual family reunions in west Texas, I listened to my raucous relatives tell story upon story filled with both humor and gravity. I carefully observed the familiar faces, some of which I recognized when I looked into a mirror. As a shy child, I didn’t say much, but I often wondered, “Who the heck am I?” After a few summers of eavesdropping, I realized that a large part of who I am is due to the hilarity and pain of those who came before me, even more than the grandparents I revered.

I think this is why certain books of fiction resonate – stories set in rural areas of earlier America. The characters worked with their hands at backbreaking labor, hours dictated by the weather and the rising and setting of the sun. They harvested the land in direct provision for their family. They persevered in unbelievable hardship against all odds. They owned only what they needed, and extravagances were few, such as apples and oranges piled under the Christmas tree. They cultivated simple beauty by sewing a new dress or whittling an animal out of wood. They valued honesty and lent a hand to their neighbor. And the sharing of coffee is mentioned so often within the pages of these books that I get up to brew a pot myself, then sit back down and pick up where I left off with these people of integrity, flawed and lovely and strong.

I also take a liking to such characters on film, but I didn’t find too many until I saw Sweet Land (2005), a rare, surprising movie from my Netflix queue. Managing a graceful flashback-within-a-flashback format, grandson Lars recalls a story told to him thirty years before by his grandmother, Inge (Lois Smith), about her life fifty years prior. Upon Inge’s death, Lars wrestles with a decision: to sell her land or save it for family to come? To glean wisdom, he sifts back through her story, which, like all of history, is not a list of facts and figures; it is memories. And in this case, Inge’s – not in black and white or antique sepia, but in full color, appropriate for Inge, a cultured city girl who saw the world through painterly eyes as she fell in love with Lars’ grandfather, Olaf Torvik.


Tim Guinee as Olaf in Ali Selim’s SWEET LAND.
Photo Credit: David Tumblety

This spirit was breathed into Inge by writer/director Ali Selim, who birthed Sweet Land after working on a wearying string of antacid commercials. Enamored by Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat”, he knew it simply had to be his first film project. Selim befriended the simple characters of a seemingly simpler time, but he learned that making a period piece set in a 1920s Minnesota farming community was no easy task. Fourteen years after his literary epiphany, he finished shooting the film in twenty-four days on a meager $1 million budget. In a true “Americana Indie” spirit, he shot each scene in 35mm instead of digital. But that decision was not intended to be revolutionary. Selim said to Studio Daily, “I just think it’s that kind of story. There are things that should be shot digitally. It’s like, when do you use a pencil and when do you use an oil brush? It’s a decision you make based on the final outcome. It’s not ‘is digital as good as film?’ It just feels different. And this felt more like an oil painting.”

Indeed; the use of 35mm preserves an authentic past and yields the most vibrant hues – the sky so blue and the grass so green that you ache for the intense beauty of it all. The cinematography was inspired not by Selim’s favorite films, but by the American realist painters Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, as well as the clean lines and rich colors of Mark Rothko. As the story unfolds, skylines of wheat stretch across prairie land as far as the eye can see. Olaf’s white house sits starkly upon his land in a wide open, breathtaking frame. Natural light and shadows play out an unusual pace and feel. Lone figures dwell in this small rural town; there’s a bleakness, a sadness, yet a warm glow of hope and love. Through tender and intelligent writing, we’re properly introduced to the people who fill this quiet heartland.

Selim had no idea if his subtlety in storytelling would work, but the film received six wins (including an Independent Spirit award for Best First Feature) and two nominations. His vision takes its cues from Andrew Wyeth, who said, “You can lose the essence by detailing a lot of extraneous things.” The cautious approach suits the two main characters quite nicely. We meet young Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) at a train station, a mail-order bride from Germany lugging a gramophone along with her suitcase. She looks around her new surroundings head-on, but also with uncertainty, and keeps unfolding a photograph, a well-worn crease right over the man’s face; she can only make out his horse. She has no idea who to look for and speaks very little English.

Long after the trains quit running for the day, Olaf (Tim Guinee) arrives with his quirky, expressive friend, Frandsen (Alan Cumming). Inge’s shy fiance is socially inept and keeps to himself, barely looking her in the eye. Straightaway, he takes her to the local church to be married, but things go awry as soon as Deutsch escapes her lips. In an insular, mostly-Norwegian town during the post-WWI period, a German socialist woman was not welcomed, not even by a man of God (leading a church founded by another German, Martin Luther). Minster Sorrensen (John Heard) refused the marry the couple until Inge obtained U.S. citizenship papers. But to complicate matters, the rampant fear in the town kept the judge from cooperating with the well-meaning immigrant.

One of my favorite humorous scenes takes place after Olaf and Inge leave the church. Inge is told she must stay with Frandsen, his wife, Brownie (Alex Kingston), and their nine children. Inge’s fiery side is revealed as she blurts expletives in both German and Norwegian, very obviously taking out frustration over her unwelcome residence on poor, quiet Olaf who she eventually provokes to a yelling match as well. Frandsen takes Olaf aside to say, “Are you sure you want to marry this one?” But after a time, she and Olaf begin to get to know each other, and even live in the same house, though he sleeps in the barn. She brings beauty into Olaf’s plain life: gramophone music while they harvest, the poetry of Keats, waltzing, strong coffee (“not like the women in church”), and good cooking – including pie. Olaf offers a strong steadiness to balance her, the art of hard work, and a belief in a God who makes his beloved crops grow.

The two could not be more different, but they do fall in love slowly and truly, and doggedly pursue the right to be wed. Today, the idea of marriage is subversive. Good, old-fashioned wedlock is not as trendy as it used to be. It was astounding to watch a film that portrayed holy matrimony with such a shimmering, heartbreaking beauty. The story is so well told that there’s no need for the all-too-common, gratuitously lurid sex scene. Mutual chemistry is palpable as Olaf and Inge thresh and sift golden wheat face to face, their weary bodies nearly touching, their passion unrequited. One of the last scenes shows a respectful Olaf at the foot of his stairs, bidding goodnight to Inge, timidly inquiring if she were naked to shield her privacy. When asking this before, he was denied permission, but now that they had done everything humanly possible to be married, they felt as if they were man and wife, so Inge says kindly, “Komm.” As Olaf slowly climbs the stairs in wonder, it’s about as sexy as it gets, folks. It’s high time we have to use our imagination while movie-watching in regards to sensuality.

Now, there’s a jovial, sinister banker, Harmo (Ned Beatty), who lives to foreclose the farms of anyone, even his third cousin, Frandsen. Olaf, being a reserved man, avoided disturbing the peace, yet he was more than willing to fight in his own manner. When he hears the auctioneer’s call from Frandsen’s home, he rushes over with Inge, disheveled from harvesting acres of wheat by hand with no help from their neighbors. With dirt smeared on his face, Olaf looks at his hopeless friend, then speaks up, “Four thousand five hundred. Five thousand five hundred.” Then, “Seven thousand dollars,” quieting the other bidder. He turns to Inge saying, “I don’t have seven thousand dollars.” She knew, and her gaze was another subtle, romantic moment; both she and Olaf’s eyes are deep wells of emotion. She loved this man who would risk his livelihood for a friend.

Olaf’s selfless courage also humbled Minister Sorrensen, so much so that he and fellow farmers rallied together to collect the money to save both Olaf and Frandsen. Finally, the community is able to overlook racial and political differences and offer a good man salvation. They united against the true problem – a money-hungry businessman trying to stamp out the Family Farm. And the minister began to learn the art of mercy. He began to honor the law, not abuse it. That’s another thing about history – the wisdom and warnings are timeless. Today, the United States’ headlines shout of agricultural issues, and anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new. Prejudice against those who are different than ourselves is still a strong temptation in our time of war and conflict. While we ought to look to government to protect our country, we should be careful to not be gripped with fear and misunderstand our brethren.

And in a reversal of roles, Inge teaches the church about faith, not vice versa. After their final attempt to obtain her papers (this time with the minister’s help), the three stand on Olaf’s land, discussing their predicament:

Minister Sorrensen: I’m sorry.
Olaf: This is her place now.
Minister: How can it be?
Inge: You can let it be.
Minister: You don’t have the papers.
Inge: Now, I am married. I am citizenship. In my heart, I believe.
Minister: That’s not enough, Inge, in your heart to believe. It has to be real.
Inge: You believes God?
Minister: [bewildered, smiling] Alright. In my heart, I’ll see you both on Sunday.

Inge’s faith gave her the gumption to arrive on strange soil with little more than a promise of love. She continually forgave a community who would not reciprocate the courtesy. And though she and her beau were shunned in the eyes of the law, they triumphed by having faith in each other. Like any good love story, they found something they needed in the quiet eyes of the other. The end credits roll as Inge teaches Olaf to waltz far out from the house on that brilliant green grass. Olaf’s clumsy dancing with his graceful German paints a redemptive, celebratory scene. There really are good people in this world doing hard work and loving each other. Perhaps that’s why I listened so intently to my aging relatives – we need to hear truth and simple virtues, and pass them down to those who come after us. Life is far from easy, and full of pain and hardship, but we can find our place. There is happiness to be found in the bigger story in which we live. So love your spouse, work hard on your sweet land, befriend your neighbor, and spin a good tale.

Top Ten Reasons to Love Snail Mail

I eagerly awaited the mail every day of 2008 for the following periodicals, since finding one in the mailbox makes me very happy. There’s always something worthwhile to read in each room of our house – I sure do like good brain-food.

Image.
This is my favorite periodical, ever. I am utterly inspired by the fusion of “art, faith, and mystery” in short stories, poetry, essays, interviews, and contemporary art; I’ve discovered some of my favorite writers and visual artists through these pages. It’s a challenge to combine faith and art and do it well, but the folks at Image make the combination an art form in and of itself.

The Sun.
Other than great writing, the two best things about this magazine are the amazing black & white photographs, and the Readers Write section (I keep meaning to submit a piece).

Dwell.
I’m not a textbook minimalist, but I lean in that direction. I love this beautiful magazine full of clean lines and modern architecture – flipping through each issue makes for good mental housecleaning.

Poetry.
The design of this journal caught my eye; the cover art, in particular. It’s just the right size to stick in my purse, and of course, it’s filled with great poetry (the November 2008 issue featured two poems by Billy Collins).

The New York Times.
As much as I love online publications, I’m adamant about reading at least one physical
newspaper a week. However, the local Houston paper leaves a lot to be desired. I take the
Sunday Times for well-written articles, the Book Review, the Magazine, Arts & Leisure, and
newsprint on my fingers.

Eighth Day Books catalog.
Firstly, this voluminous catalog is free by merely joining the mailing list. And not only do they offer the best book selection, but the reviews are beautifully-written. I’ll curl up with any book of fiction they recommend.

Books & Culture.
I love this oversized periodical for great book reviews covering all manner of culture, especially history and science in which I have a healthy interest. But I don’t read the two subjects enough, so I appreciate a nudge in the right direction. I’m particularly fond of the reviews by one of my favorite authors, Lauren Winner.

Mars Hill Audio Journal.
The only exception to snail mail on my list, this bimonthly MP3 journal is perfect for my iPod and Houston traffic. The audio articles are the same intellectual quality as my favorite NPR programs, yet “committed to assisting Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.” I’m a big fan of the classical music between each segment, too.

Good.
This is the most creatively designed magazine I’ve ever seen, and each article features people doing good all around the world.Every single dollar of my subscription goes to the charity of my choice – I’ve selected the likes of Room to Read and Slow Food USA; you can’t beat that.

Paste.
Well, who doesn’t love a free sampler CD with every issue? I’ve discovered so many incredible musicians by popping those samplers in my car stereo. I dig Paste’s whole vibe of finding “signs of life in music, film, and culture.”

* Honorable mention: Toast catalogs.
You have to fill out an online form for each seasonal catalog, but they are free, too, and by God, the photography is gorgeous. I’d like my wardrobe and life to look just like a rustic Toast catalog.

A Medieval Christmas
(Downe in the Heart of Texas)

I’ve been surrounded by musical types all my thirty four years of life. My Dad plays piano and guitar, my Mom can do a lovely harmony, my Grandfather was a Baptist minister of music, my Aunt sings a warm honey alto, another Aunt and I share a genetic admiration for certain albums, and musicians were always the boys to catch my eye. My friends are often musical, too, or über-artistic, and through a few of these chums, I met Kemper Crabb several years ago. I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone like him. His off-the-wall sense of humor was quite a shock to my shy little soul, he had a Gandalf-like demeanor (which is probably a result of how many times he’s read The Lord of the Rings), and he always spoke wisdom like a sage. Furthermore, he’s a native, die-hard Texan, an Episcopal priest, and a gifted teacher – quite the all-around modern Renaissance kind of guy. I’m grateful that we’ve remained friends – largely because, as fate would have it, I met my drummer-husband via Kemper and another scheming couple. Kemper’s been one of my greatest teachers, changing my worldview for the better, often by recommending a fantastic book.

Back when I met Kemper, I was in the midst of a folk-only musical phase, foaming at the mouth over the Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, The Story, and so on. Kemper’s music stopped me in my Birkenstocked tracks. There are ten albums in his discography, but my introductions were The Vigil and A Medieval Christmas. I should be able to describe his genre, yet the music of Kemper Crabb is nearly impossible to pin down. The Vigil, for instance, is a concept album based on a knight’s ritual of preparation, and possibly his most popular album to date (impressing the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn). And I have lamely tried to classify him: “art rock“, “old world/new world”, “ancient/future exotic-acoustic”, “head-spinningly eclectic.” You must hear his music to understand my dilemma, and luckily for you during this month of Advent, you easily can.

Just in the nick of Christmas-shopping time, Kemper released a DVD and CD entitled Downe in Yon Forrest: Christmas From the Middle Ages – footage of a concert filmed at Church of the Holy Apostles in Katy, TX, and its soundtrack. This festive project is a new, expanded arrangement of his earlier album of holy-day hymns and carols (A Medieval Christmas). And, a version of Downe in Yon Forrest will air on PBS this month on select stations nationwide. I’m pretty happy about all the hype because I’ve attended several of his Medieval Christmas concerts over the years, and ignoring any personal bias, I never find the set list to grow old – a relief to my Muzak-saturated ears this time of year.

Actually, there’s an upside to that annual, dreadful slaughter of good music in elevators and chaotic shopping malls at the onset of Thanksgiving. The innocent melodies themselves are lovely, many written by artistic medieval folks. People from that time are often branded as Dark Aged dolts or dimwits in history books, yet their songwriting expertise is hard to ignore. We can’t help but sing these songs every single year, and few know that we’ve caroled with gusto and cheer for over a millennium. Some of these tunes were written as early as the 8th or 9th century (and some lyrics date all the way back to the 4th century). As Kemper likes to say in concert, “The medieval Christmas carols are the greatest hits of the Western musical canon.” In more recent decades, countless musicians have tried their hand at these beloved songs, too. I own a mixed bag of Christmas albums by Johnny Cash, Over the Rhine, Emmylou Harris, and Sufjan Stevens, and as much as I adore them, Kemper’s take on Christmas is something magical and multicultural, displacing our sense of time.

His current lineup is a black-clad troupe playing a motley crew of ancient and modern instruments: Kemper, of course (mountain dulcimer, recorder, mandolin, bazouki, vocals), Ryan Birsinger (bowed psaltery and harmonium), Garett Buell (tabla and various percussion), Christina David (violin), Frank Hart (cello, sitar, vocals), David Marshall (guitar, recorder, bazouki, mandolin), John Simmons (um, yes, a close relation; djembe, doumbek, shakers, vocals), and Chris Whittington (guitar, vocals). On the Downe in Yon Forrest DVD, this harmonious bunch perform seated in a semi-circle, book-ended by percussion; religious icons and falling snow are interspersed with the live footage.

The ringing doumbek kicks off “What Child is This”. This is one signature aspect of Kemper’s vision – the percussion is prominent, to reflect what this music might have sounded like on medieval streets, versus the more refined courtly tradition of the time. With tribal flavor and a gypsy, raucous vibe, Kemper makes common songs new again and restores reverence to age-old lyrics with his smooth, lilting tenor. Modern takes on antique arrangements with riffs, Middle Eastern drones, and satisfying, head-bobbing rhythms help us to hear that “music of the Middle Ages was a fusion of (at least) three major things: Church music, Church chants, and indigenous European music with Muslim influence through the Crusades and centuries of trade.” Singing in rounds and three- or four-part harmonies brings out the joyfulness and beauty that our Medieval brethren intended as they celebrated Christmastide on the Church calendar.

Aside from friendship and toe-tapping music, I am forever grateful for Kemper’s history lessons during each concert. History gives us direction, and my faith is literally rooted in the historical. Another Kemper-proverb is, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you cannot know where you’re going.” This is the honest-to-God truth. Yet, all too often, history books are dry and poorly written, a monotonous list of dates instead of the story of the people who came before. But creativity and teaching are deep within Kemper’s soul, and by incorporating audio and visual aspects, he gives us one of the best types of history lessons and rollicking songs to boot. Some years ago, I might have mused that people from the Middle Ages were simpletons, not nearly as advanced as we are in 2008. Then I heard Kemper state in concert, “I’m always amused by how superior moderns think they are when you consider that modernity gave us Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, chemical warfare, nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and the abortion holocaust. More people died in the 20th century than had died in all the rest of human history together.” He goes on to say that we can look to medieval society as one that self-consciously attempted to replicate what they believed to be the city of God on earth. They failed of course, but “the fall injects a little bone-headedness into everything we [all] do.” My two cents is that I don’t see much architecture comparable to the Gothic cathedrals in Europe; not enough, anyway.

In today’s America, there’s a craving for the lyricism found in the artistry of these hymns and carols. The very words teach us truth, and why this season is celebratory at all. Commercialism has elbowed the beauty out of December for most intents and purposes. In my little suburb, for example, the most hideous lawn decor is propped up with pride, and I’m talking giant, inflatable snow globes and Santa Tigger. You might see some sort of Nativity scene, but don’t count on it. My husband and I hole up in our living room and order as many gifts online as possible in a desperate attempt to not set foot in a mall full of frantic, stressed-out shoppers. I do believe giving packages tied up with string is a lovely symbol of the greatest gift to our culture, and to the world – a swaddled infant Jesus, crying in full humanity while already King. But I think gift-giving has now reached ridiculous proportions and lost the richness in simplicity and meaning. Many people come to Kemper’s holiday concerts and find a vapid hole filled; a place to sit, hear, see, learn, and remember that there are more than enough days in this month, and these days are holy. The old lyrics keep us grounded in reality, too; as Kemper says, “Our society is fairly unrooted, so a lot of what’s driven the return to Celtic and more ancient forms of music is the desire to sink into what we can conceive of as roots versus the endless novelty.”

Good art speaks to people, no matter the time period. Bringing diverse elements together is part of the cultural task of an artist as well as making creative works their very own. I know that, for me, the namesake of Kemper’s newest project, the song “Downe in Yon Forrest”, is captivating every single time. In some modern circles it simply isn’t hip to say “I love my Lord Jesus above anything”, yet I challenge anyone to not find that song stunning. The lyrics are utterly poetic and the musicians play in such a way as to make my heart ache with the sheer beauty of it all, so finally I just asked Kemper, “Who wrote that amazing song?” Sadly, the author is unknown. It’s often thought to be an Appalachian song, but one thing Kemper does know for certain is that the song is British, dating back to the late 1400’s or early 1500’s. A song by an unknown medieval songwriter is still popular today because it was passed down from family to family, church to church, century to century, and historian to an avid reader (Kemper fits that bill). As he performs these ancient carols, we’re reminded that for all the good of contemporary music – and there’s a lot – we must not forget the old songs; it would be to our peril as a culture.

The diverse instrumentation also opens our ears to cultures with which we may not be familiar. And since our relationship with the Middle East is, well, a little tense, you might be intrigued by how many songs make use of their native drones and dissonance. Many believe the Eastern cultures are dead ends, but this simply isn’t the case. I’ve always found Islamic art – the lush, intricate shapes and patterns – to be beautiful. Muslim people (and those of every culture, far and wide) are made in the image of God. They, too, have something to contribute to what is truthful. There will always be something lovely to behold whether it be food, drink, visual art, music, or otherwise. I don’t ascribe to their religion, and I find in their offerings broken forms of beauty. But at the same time, it is my job to cultivate what is true and beautiful from multicultural sources and reflect back the complete picture, as best as I’m feebly able. And lest I and my fellow Christians forget, our faith originated in the same locale. Kemper wants his music to be a symbol of hope for the future as we exchange artistic, economic, and political ideas with the East once again (as in the Middle Ages). And that we’ll “walk away from these songs with an appreciation of the fact that our forebears could produce things of surpassing beauty.”

With such a great brain to pick, I just had to ask him my favorite Curator-related question: “What do you find to be rehumanizing in our culture today?” He notices a renewed search for mystery, with people grounding their meaning in some kind of narrative, and sees that much of art is drawing people out of themselves into a larger dimension. Yet, with the straight-shooting wisdom he’s known for, he summed it all up by saying, “It’s only through things that ultimately lead back to God; if they don’t find the connection to Christ – the only one who lived out humanity in its fullness without jacking it up in any way – then they’ll never be completely rehumanized.” I can’t tell you how much I love to hear someone state that opinion so plainly in the month of December. Since our art inevitably reveals what we believe, Kemper’s matter-of-factness is the primary reason I love the Medieval holiday music. Whether you share his faith or not, you’ll never hear Christmas music quite like this, at least not in the mall. Step away from the Muzak and into the Middle Ages.


To see Downe in Yon Forrest, please check your local listings or call/e-mail your local PBS station.

To purchase the Downe in Yon Forrest CD and DVD (and Kemper’s other albums), please visit the Kemper Crabb store.

To purchase the Downe in Yon Forrest DVD as seen on PBS, please visit the PBS store.

The Slow Art of Tea


Photograph by Jennifer Causey

In some circles, I’m known as the “Tea Lady”, and this cutesy moniker is all my fault. I drink copious amounts of tea, both steaming and iced.I’ve stashed at least forty varieties of tea in my pantry (no kidding).I write about tea ad nauseam on my blog, as if what I’m drinking is late-breaking news. When I mail a card to a friend, I feel compelled to insert a tea bag in the envelope. I do love and drink coffee, but seeing as it’s quite a jolt to my genetic constitution, I’ve decided that if I must become dependent on a beverage, tea will be the one.

What’s interesting about this obsession is that my introduction to tea is sketchy.My parents were not big tea drinkers. My Grandmother hated tea; coffee was rationed during WWII, so she remained fiercely loyal to coffee, determined to drink her fair share. My best guess is that I was smitten with tea while visiting my Uncle in Detroit.He took my family to an Ethiopian restaurant where not only did my love for exotic food begin, but I drank glass after glass of spiced iced tea, strong on the cinnamon.Later during college, I visited my boyfriend’s house and his Aunt offered me a toasty cup of Morning Thunder tea, a kind gesture that warmed me up to his family as well. Frequenting a local Vietnamese restaurant a few years ago may have sealed the deal.After steamed spring rolls and peanut sauce, my friends and I ordered a teapot of jasmine green and sipped and chatted until delicate tea leaves graced the bottom of our small white cups.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I’ve read up on tea, since I’m both bookish and a bit tea-crazy. It is the stuff of creation myths and other legends, steeped in the mountains of the East.Taoist alchemists considered the “froth of the liquid jade” to be an elixir of immortality.By way of oral tradition, Buddhist priests passed down fanciful tales of monkeys scampering the heights of mountains to gather wild tea leaves from among perilous rocks. Ancient Chinese connected tea to central themes in philosophy and literature, and the Japanese did likewise within haiku. I’m particularly fond of two by Matsuo Basho, the most famous poet of Japan’s Edo period.

A monk sips morning tea,
it’s quiet,
the chrysanthemum’s flowering.

Enduring poverty in life
I prepare a fire on the hearth
and enjoy the profound touch of tea.

Such descriptions incorporated tea as a symbol of a higher good, a spiritual touchstone, and an exemplary way of life.Eastern religious influence on the popularity of tea is more widespread, yet a little known fact is that Christianity also inspired the art of tea.Though the Chinese were notoriously secretive about their tea customs, they granted initial, partial access to Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 1500-1600’s who became advocates of tea to the outside world. I suppose they seemed more trustworthy compared to some, and their reports did influence the early trade of tea, especially to Europe.


Photograph by Jennifer Causey

In Makoto Fujimura’s exquisite essay, “Psalms and Lamentations: Fallen Towers and the Art of Tea” (IMAGE journal, issue 32), I learned about Sen-no-Rikyu, a sixteenth-century tea master who is historically considered to have the most profound effect on the Japanese tea ceremony. The Chinese used tea for celebration and banqueting, but Rikyu transformed the ritual of tea to one of communication.One of Rikyu’s wives was an early Japanese convert to Christianity, and as he accompanied her to Mass in Kyoto he was forever inspired by the Eucharistic cup of Christ’s blood passed from person to person. This sparked his vision: no matter if they be man or woman, a high-ranking official or a farmer, a cup of green tea would be passed to each participant in a teahouse of peace.Shogun Hideyoshi recognized rightly that the egalitarian nature of tea would destroy his power, so he eventually ordered Rikyu to commit suicide in his own teahouse. But Rikyu defined essential principles of the tea ceremony that remain to this day: minimalism, simplicity, purity, harmony, love of nature, graceful composure, politeness, and an eye for the aesthetic qualities – particular utensils, and usually a simple painting and flowers. In keeping the ceremony basic, he did away with previous ostentation and kept it within the financial means of the middle-classes.

I’ve never taken part of a Japanese tea ceremony, but I’d love to someday.Until then, I sense the ritualistic aspects of tea within the comforts of my home.I often light a stick of incense.I scoop loose tea into a filter or peel open a tea bag.I select a particular teacup or mug, maybe a bamboo spoon, and I wait. I listen to the rustle of boiling water, and admire the sunlight and foliage right outside my window. I try to be still, view art on the walls of our home, and soak in my surroundings.When the kettle suddenly sings, I pour piping hot water over the bits of tea, the steam warming my face, a prayer often escaping my lips.There is something inherently meditative and beautiful about tea, from the nuanced aromatherapy to a palette of orange, green, red, sepia, and even gold.My own little ceremony is a subtle jump into the day, a respite from my work upstairs, or a vespers of sorts at dusk – almost liturgical, and very therapeutic.

Like Sen-no-Rikyu, I, too, glean inspiration from the Eucharistic table, the ultimate form of hospitality. When we host friends or family in our home, we offer food and drink. Most of our friends prefer coffee, but some of the females are fellow tea lovers.Whether I prepare a single mug of their choice or a teapotful, I think of my priest repeating Christ’s kind beckoning each Sunday, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”And as I learned from my ex-boyfriend’s Aunt several years ago, offering a cup of tea makes one feel welcome and at ease without speaking a word. So if my friend takes honey, I stir it in and share the cup to communicate, “Feel at home, be restored, and be well.”

Now, back to my impressive stockpile of tea, some of my favorite brews have been an introduction and a way to familiarize myself with other cultures. For instance, the Camellia sinensis plant is originally a gift from China.This flowering evergreen shrub gives us green tea (unfermented), black tea (fermented), oolong (semi-fermented), and white tea, which is fast-dried versus the roasting of green tea in an oven or pan. I also take a liking to Assam tea and chai from India, Earl Grey from England, rooibos from South Africa, yerba mate from South America, hibiscus mint tea from northern Sudan, Thai iced tea from Thailand, of course, and any number of herbal blends with ingredients cultivated from soil around the globe or in my own country.Oh, and I crave quirky bubble tea which originated in Taiwan.


Photograph by Jennifer Causey

These cross-cultural aspects not only cause me to daydream of world travel, but such diversity also teaches me about human nature.Since the beginning, humanity has explored and cultivated the land; its tasks to beautify and to survive.As I type, I’m enjoying a mug of yerba mate, a cinnamon stick soaking in the brew.I can’t help but wonder, which South American soul came across this species of holly and thought to steep it in hot water?Hollow out a gourd for the drinking? How did they determine the numerous health benefits long before our current scientific methods and technology?Perhaps these feats are what we’re innately capable of as creative beings.We discover plants, herbs, and florals, and perhaps imaging the Creator, we develop them. We invent ways to pinpoint temperatures of water for brewing, hone each flavor to perfection, stamp our cultures with a unique tea, and unearth its medicinal benefits, heeding the adage to “heal thyself” along with our neighbors.

There are worse things I could be addicted to than tea, but a grocery store’s tea aisle lures me in with all the exotic artistry to be found in a cup.Beauty is a requirement in my life, most definitely including the culinary realm.And each blend of tea conjures endless possibilities. Humankind has pursued the art of tea century upon century, so I love to imagine what else our hands will gather and create, and offer to one another.I think of my friend’s daughter, who once lived for any excuse to throw a make-believe tea party when I dropped by her house. Her face lit up with the delight of sharing invisible draughts of tea, cream, and sugar cubes.She laughed with joy if I asked for a refill in the little pink cup.Even at her young age, she sensed our design to serve others and to enjoy refreshment. How good it is to heal each other, bring ceremony into our homes, employ the art of waiting, share a cup, and take a drink ourselves, just for the sheer pleasure of a spot of tea.


For further reading: The Book of Coffee and Tea: Second Revised Edition by Joel, David, and Karl Schapira

I endorse the following tea suppliers (among many others):

Adagio Teas
Mighty Leaf Tea
Traditional Medicinals
Yogi Tea

To see more of Jennifer Causey’s photography, please visit her Web site.

3191:
A Year of Beautiful, Ordinary Mornings

Lord knows I spend too much time on the Internet. There’s Gmail, Facebook, Etsy, thought-provoking online publications (ahem), an endless string of inspiring blogs, Flickr, Goodreads, Pandora, and iChat, to admit to only a few. I mean, the Internet’s other name – the World Wide Web – is just that; while visiting one online destination, I find myself in another cyber-country within a mere click or two. Through the blog of my dear editor, I discovered what is now one of my favorite online hangouts – The New York Time‘s Paper Cuts. As a writer, my favorite feature is “Stray Questions For: [insert an author’s name]”, particularly the question, “How much time – if any – do you spend on the Web? Is it a distraction or a blessing?” Most authors are honest to say that yes, they do frequent the Web for both productive and frivolous reasons, and I must confess to the same.

For example, iChat is especially helpful for marital communication, since my husband works from the garage in his drum studio, and I write on the second floor of our house. But on the flip side, iChat is a bit ridiculous when he works from a computer located in another upstairs room (right across the hall). Likewise, while I strongly believe in the preservation of a handwritten letter, I am grateful for Gmail, and even Facebook, which easily keep me in touch with family and friends.


October 10
Maria Alexandra Vettese (left) & Stephanie Congdon Barnes (right)
 

You might not consider viewing photography an essential task, but since I am visually oriented, I do. In the words of musician Jeremy Casella, I “mine for truth and beauty” in every aspect of life, and if I can see a good picture of these two virtues, the work of my hands and the words I write are better for it.

And so for me, time spent browsing Flickr is time well spent. Through this massive database I discovered the photography of Maria Alexandra Vettese and Stephanie Congdon Barnes; their respective photostreams – mav | port2port and little birds – remain two of my favorites. These ladies have benefited from the Internet social sphere, too, for they initially “met” through their blogs and eventually in person – briefly, yet long enough to discover a true friendship. As Maria peeked at Stephanie’s Flickr photos, and vice versa, each was smitten with the other’s aesthetic. Though Maria’s roommates consist of two cats, she was inspired by Stephanie’s family life, appreciation for good craft and the handmade, and her digital captures of utilitarian objects such as a cup of coffee and a newspaper – so enchanted, in fact, that she approached Stephanie about a project composed of morning photographs. Since Stephanie was taken by Maria’s bent for simplicity and how it translated to her letterpress art (not to mention her own stunning photographs), she readily agreed, even though she was trying to whittle down her computer time.


October 29
Maria Alexandra Vettese (left) & Stephanie Congdon Barnes (right)
 

After realizing they live precisely 3,191 miles apart – Stephanie in Portland, Oregon and Maria in Portland, Maine – their project launched online with the name 3191: A Year of Mornings. Every morning for a year, and without any early morning discussion, they each took a snapshot of their life (the camera of choice is the Nikon D50).Stephanie emailed her image to Mav (Maria’s online persona), who paired the two photographs, posting them on the Year of Mornings blog.

Neither woman had any intentions of fame, but their project instantly charmed people across the globe.Nearly three thousand visitors dropped by this quiet space each day during the annual cycle of January to December 2007.They couldn’t take their eyes off Mav’s photo on the left, Stephanie’s on the right.Nor could I.And collectively we saw startling connections between each pictorial set. The women, however, cannot explain such magic. My best guess is that humans see creation in a particular way; it’s in our nature. There is an equality in all things that we recognize despite our fallenness. A common thread runs through our lives connecting us one to another.


November 1
Maria Alexandra Vettese (left) & Stephanie Congdon Barnes (right)
 

Traditional still life photography is a deliberate arrangement of inanimate objects to create a beautiful picture, much like still life paintings.As much as I admire those art forms, I believe Stephanie and Mav take still life to a new creative level.Instead of controlling a picture, they honed the skill of noticing accessible beauty in their line of vision.With poets’ eyes, they revealed the peacefulness of domesticity even with the chaos of kids and cats underfoot.One often sees a glimpse of Stephanie’s quite animated children in a photo, for instance.

And the only intention in their photography is a reflection of how they live – their personal, deliberate philosophies. Stephanie’s family eats locally-grown food and cooks from scratch. They walk to many places instead of using a car. They take things slowly. Influenced by Montessori principles, her children use breakable glasses and bowls, not plastic. She said, “I don’t think about it much, but occasionally someone will ask me why I didn’t take pictures of cereal boxes or morning cartoons, but those things are just not part of our home life.”


November 13
Maria Alexandra Vettese (left) & Stephanie Congdon Barnes (right)
 

Mav/Maria is equally intentional, carefully considering every object she brings into her home. If there’s a plate or mug, she wants to know its story. Yet neither is overbearing; they simply enjoy living. Maria muses, “I suppose my domestic lifestyle is to have less and appreciate it more. It works for me (and makes me happy), but I certainly am not preaching it for others. One has to do what works and this definitely works for me.” Such personal visions inspire me to live with like-minded thoughtfulness and creativity, sharing my beliefs with guests as they witness the rhythms under my roof.


November 15
Maria Alexandra Vettese (left) & Stephanie Congdon Barnes (right)
 

As I viewed their work every dawn, I began to see the rooms in my house and the view from my window much differently. I’d often recall favorite lines from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead:

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.”

I’d see those fleeting moments so clearly as the light changed in the kitchen, or dust glittered on the coffee table like snow. I wasn’t born a morning person, but this project slowly transformed me into one – at least a late-morning person, and not very talkative. I began to look for daybreak more than watchmen.I carefully established morning rituals and grew to be grateful for the possibility of a new day, a better attempt.

The visual language in each diptych also tells three stories: Stephanie’s, Mav’s, and the viewers’. Regarding the the pairing from October 3, Mav said (in an interview for The Morning News), “On this day I remember feeling very sad, perhaps I was ill, I can’t remember. Of course you can’t see that in the shot, but I believe you can feel it.” It actually is tangible through Mav’s wooden bowl cradling a piece of bread, and an overcast sky in Stephanie’s Portland. Other photo groupings tell fairy tales with small white pumpkins in golden light, a mosaic of autumn leaves, frosty cottage windowpanes, feathers stuck in the sand evoking Hermes’ helmet, or a tea kettle singing an aubade. Let’s not forget the humble commoner in such legends – in these morning photographs they’d be folded dish towels, spilled baking ingredients, piles of laundry, unkempt bed linens, brown eggs, chipped paint, kids’ shoes abandoned on the floor, and dirty dishes, yet all possessing a certain elegance.


November 22
Maria Alexandra Vettese (left) & Stephanie Congdon Barnes (right)
 

They have since removed the Year of Mornings blog, so I was elated when they published the diptychs in a book with a similar title – A Year of Mornings: 3191 Miles Apart (Princeton Architectural Press). As good as their art was online, it is taken to another, immediate level, tangible when I hold it in my hands. Each photograph almost gleams with reverence.The book is structured by the liturgy of the four seasons, so as I flip the pages, I honor the passage of time, the moment in which I find myself, the very minute and hour, and the seasons (though they’re not as grandiose here in Houston).And turning a page manually is a signal to slow down; these photos are meditative and serene. One can really see what Stephanie describes as “the interplay of light, colors, textures, negative space.” Whenever my day becomes too frantic or rushed, I can sit down, turn to a favorite morning, and take a deep breath.

I believe the Year of Mornings blog was a worthy use of my Internet time. Usually, it was my first click of the day right after email, checked with a cup of coffee nearby (and thanks to these two and their selection of dishes, I often warmed my hands with a White Forest Pottery mug). To further appease and delight their rabid fans, Stephanie and Mav embarked on a new online project: 3191: A Year of Evenings. This project will end in December 2008, so I’d advise you to check it out now.


November 29
Maria Alexandra Vettese (left) & Stephanie Congdon Barnes (right)
 

These bookend projects give me a satisfaction and deep peace that I liken to the Christian tradition of Morning and Evening Prayer – an acknowledgment that this is the day set before me; come what may, it is very good. Besides, their joint photography is a brilliant example that great art can be crafted using the very online technologies that so many cry out to be the downfall of society. The 3191 projects are even a splendid use of the Internet to cultivate online friendships – which I appreciate, since many of my friends do not live in Texas. And since neither woman is a professional, and neither took digital photography lessons, they should be an encouragement to take up our cameras and document the beauty in our own daily lives – to use our hands for creativity, and learn as we go.

But don’t forget to enjoy a good breakfast in the sanctity of first light.I think Stephanie and Mav would agree it’s the most important meal of the day, and possibly the most beautiful.


You can purchase the book A Year of Mornings: 3191 Miles Apart from Powell’s Books, Amazon, and Princeton Architectural Press.

For more about Stephanie Congdon Barnes, visit her current Web site, and her retired blog (where she and Mav first met).

For more about Maria/Mav, visit her blog.

For more about both women, peruse 3191: A Journal.

Sandra McCracken:
A Red Balloon of Hope (Part 2)

This is the second of a two-part interview with singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken. You can read the first part here.

Is there a certain atmosphere in which you write best? A time of day, room in the house; tea or coffee?

It happens sporadically; it’s somewhat unexpected when that actually occurs. If I feel inspired to write something, I have to take advantage of it as quickly as I can because they are fleeting moments, those clear moments of inspiration or a clear thought; journaling is really helpful. The music part can happen a lot more easily and regularly. If I sit down, I can chip away at something and I’ll come back to it and reevaluate and reshape it. But especially the lyrics and ideas – they happen when they happen. The challenge is to carve out enough space in my brain and schedule where I can be open and listening to that voice in my head.

I do like to record and sing vocals in the morning. Having a home studio is really conducive to that. When you’re paying for a studio by the hour, there’s often a lot of pressure. It’s such a different environment than having a home studio and going upstairs with a cup of coffee, still in your PJ’s, and recording something before you have time to over-think it. We did a lot of that on Red Balloon.

In “Storehouse”, I noticed a nod to Emmylou (the first waves of wisdom swing like a wrecking ball); and in “Big Blue Sky”, another to U2 (I still haven’t found what I’m looking for). How influential are these artists on your songwriting?

Those are both very influential artists/bands, and Wrecking Ball is in my top five. I listened to a lot of U2 during high school a little before that; they made a big impression – I love the approach lyrically. I don’t have to say that Achtung Baby and Joshua Tree are such culture-shaping albums and they certainly affected me in those ways, too. And I didn’t come into Wrecking Ball until a few years after it released. It’s just a quintessential piece of music from start to finish as a whole. Emmylou Harris and U2 are so different, but they’ve both made me who I am in a lot of ways.

Some of your songs reveal a beauty in melancholy and suffering, and at the same time, they’re comforting and empathetic. Are you conscious of this as you write?

It’s definitely a reflection of my personality and the way I see the world, the way I absorb things that happen around me. I’m conscious of trying to be as genuine and honest as I can with every lyric and everything that’s written. Sometimes I lean towards the ballads; it makes sense to go that way with the temperament I have. As long as I’m being honest, I don’t want to filter it too much as far as where it should go, but I certainly try to weave hope into even the darkest bits. As an artist, I think it’s appropriate to ask challenging questions or to open the door for people to ask their own challenging questions without feeling like you have to answer them or tie it all up neatly in a bow. I’m very conscious of the idea that there is a thread of hope that runs even in the darkest fabrics. I want to put that in there because in our season in life – where we are as a culture and in the world – I think cynicism can take over so easily. As a follower of Jesus, even, I try to weave that thread of hope into these songs and words. Hope is like a muscle we exercise; we choose to believe in these moments that these things will be made right. This is what we hope for. It’s like a new freedom to allow your heart to be broken because if you didn’t have hope, that would just be a bottomless pit. Those two things have a delicate balance, where we find ourselves living somewhere between the brokenness and the hope.

Listen
• You can hear songs from Red Balloon at the sampler on NoiseTrade.
‚Ä¢ To buy Red Balloon, visit Sandra McCracken’s web store, iTunes, or Amazon mp3.
• Sandra is currently on national tour with Derek Webb, Sara Groves, Charlie Peacock, and Brandon Heath for the Art Music Justice tour.

A song from Red Balloon – “The Tie That Binds” – is on the Art Music Justice tour compilation. How is this tour different from others you’ve been a part of?

It’s very different. We’ve just begun, actually. I’ve done a few collaborative tours with various artists and they’re always really enjoyable and interesting because each artist is so unique, one to the next. That’s a great thing for audiences to experience. The Art Music Justice tour is similar in that way to things I’ve done, but it’s different in the sense that it’s centered around using music, story, and what we have as artists to raise awareness for International Justice Mission and Food for the Hungry. IJM does incredible work with human trafficking by way of international law – going in, rescuing, and breaking down these rings of oppression of various kinds all over the world. It’s totally different than a normal tour for us. It’s a great feeling to put yourself aside and come together for a larger purpose, something that’s bigger than you just making another album. And the shows are mostly in churches, which is a different kind of venue, and the turnouts are bigger than one of my normal shows would be. I feel really honored to be a part of it.

What does justice mean to you?

It’s funny being a part of this tour. There are five of us and I think I’m more abstract – some of the spiritual meaning is a little more implicit in the way I write. I don’t really have protest songs like my husband does, so I didn’t know if I would fit into the tour. But as we started talking about how to pursue these shows, I started thinking about how justice (and the other themes) are written into and implicit in a lot of my relationship songs and in some of the presuppositions undergirding this material. Justice to me means the being made right of all things. There is a sense in which we can’t fix everything, but we work toward it and we try to relieve people that are in oppressive situations. I don’t have the resources to go into a brothel and make the situation right. But IJM does, and if I can play a few songs and they can go in by way of money generated from raising awareness on the tour, it’s one piece that I can contribute to this larger story. So to me, justice is all wrapped in that. I want to be the best writer and performer that I can be so that it gives some credibility toward people who can go further down that road and actually be the hands and feet of bringing justice and light to those dark places.

I downloaded the AMJ tour compilation from NoiseTrade, a revolutionary project. How has it benefited you as an artist?

Well, it’s been great – it’s paid the mortgage a month or two. And it’s been amazing to have people who like your music get the word out. They can give it to people who’ve never heard of you and help give exposure to someone like me. I don’t have a big budget behind me to get a song on the radio or anything like that. So a NoiseTrade campaign allows me to get more people to listen to my music. People who are interested can really latch onto that. They end up coming to a show or they can pay what they want, and there are so many other avenues in which they can come back and support you as an artist. It all really starts with that bonding: me giving away an album (or a batch of songs). It’s the least I can do to connect and find more people who might be interested in hearing it. It’s been a really great experience.


Albert Lamorisse’s film The Red Balloon

I read about the new album’s title on your blog, namely Albert Lamorisse’s film, The Red Balloon. What spoke to you in the film and how did it inspire the concept of your album?

I thought long and hard about this title. I saw that film when I was younger and they just did a re-make [Flight of the Red Balloon] that I need to see; I heard it’s really amazing. The original film [The Red Balloon] traces this story of a little boy and a red balloon and everything is in mostly black & white except the balloon. It’s in French, but I don’t know if there are any subtitles because there’s hardly any dialogue at all. There’s all this beautiful, playful interaction – the balloon follows him to school and gets him in trouble; stays with him and becomes his friend. At one point, there’s a group of boys that are picking on the one kid and they come after him to steal his balloon. The mean boys pop his balloon in a moment of tragedy and in the next scene, you see a bunch of balloons find the little boy and take him for a ride over the city. It’s a crazy, beautiful story. It’s very much like a children’s story, but it has these layers that I think are pivotal to the human experience: the friendship, the tragedy, and the ultimate transcendence, and how that traces our greatest story lines. The movie is so simple and doesn’t require any explanation in a sense, even though I just explained a lot of it.

I wanted a title that was whimsical and had an element of childhood because of some of my journey over the last year, but I also wanted something with other layers that you could peel back and find ways that it all fit in. “Red balloon” is a lyric in “Big Blue Sky” that I co-wrote with Katie Herzig and I wasn’t thinking about the film at the time, but then it came back around and seemed like a perfect fit, to nod to the film. And it’s just a striking image; it seems to capture the spirit of this record.

I’d like to see both of those films. Now, The Curator looks for what is rehumanizing in our culture – goodness, truth, and beauty; signs that point to “a world that ought to be.” What do you find to be rehumanizing in our culture?

That’s a great question that we should keep coming back to because it’s always going to be a different answer depending on your life stage, and it’s always worth asking. Something that’s been on the front of my mind the last few years with these transitions is caregiving – really caring for the people that you live with and that you love. People want to find their soul mate, get married, and have this perfect thing, but then it’s almost like a stepping stone because once you’re in that relationship, it’s so easy to look past it to your career and other things. But to really think about caregiving, day-to-day living, and caring for the people closest to you (in your life) is such an important work. It not only reflects our character, it builds our character, and it really has the power to change everything. Having a husband that loves me well and that affirms me has been so shaping and healing in my life. It sounds like a kind of simple and maybe a romantic idea, but it’s really not.

I heard someone (maybe Tim Keller) say that if you tell somebody something every day – even if it’s not true – they’re going to believe it. So if you keep saying, “You’re overweight”, they’re going to think that no matter what. They could be 5’5″ and weigh 90 lbs. and still feel like that. The thing is, the reverse is true as well. You should affirm someone unto the end by saying, “I know that you have this in you. I know that you can do these things. I know that you can reach your goals in life. I know that you have this.” Whether it’s a child, a friend, or a spouse, caring for and serving each other seems to be the primary catalyst for bringing and restoring good in my life and in the world around me right now. It’s a super-messy work. I see that in my family and with people I’m really close to when there’s unexpected and long-term sickness, or alcoholism passed down from one generation to the next. When you watch these things and you enter into them, it is never easy. It always feels like you want to throw your hands up because you have no idea what to even say in some of those moments. But that really feels like the fundamental inner-workings of who we are and who we’re becoming, and how we can make this place and this life more as it should be. For me, it’s relational and revolves around those primary relationships.

That is a great answer. Thanks so much for doing this interview, Sandra.

I’m really glad to do it – this was fun and it’s good to hear you.


For Further Listening
– Check out her discography which can be purchased on her web store or iTunes.
– Also on iTunes, you’ll find Sandra’s songs from the Caedmon’s Call albums In the Company of Angels, Back Home, and Overdressed, and the song “Ten Thousand Angels” (featuring Derek Webb) which aired on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
– Check out Sandra’s work on the Indelible Grace records.

Sandra McCracken:
A Red Balloon of Hope (Part 1)

Singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken has crafted beautiful, thought-provoking songs for seven albums now. Musically, she’s well-known for folk-rock, pop, and Americana sensibilities; lyrically, she frames attentive, abstract ideas. On her latest album, Red Balloon, she marries her trademarks with innovative layers of electronic sound creating a work of ethereal spirit, as in the first song, “Guardian” – an organ note pressed down, sounding like a hovering over still waters. One by one, electric piano, guitar, and a drum loop form music out of a singular resonance. Sandra’s soulful, honest vocal sings with consolation, an empathetic melody:

Hold on to me
when you are so tired,
when you are so tired
of holding up your hand.

Steady on your feet
I will not let you stumble,
will not let you stumble,
I will not fall asleep.

When you go out,
when you come home,
like a hedge,
like a shield,
I’ll be your guardian.

And so her lyrics remain conceptual and run deep – yet in a lovely paradox, words from Red Balloon relate more directly to each listener. The genesis of these changes to unfiltered production and intimacy began on a duet EP, Ampersand, created with her husband (fellow songwriter Derek Webb) in their upstairs studio. The freedom of making music on the home front worked very well – so much so that they continued the process on Red Balloon, inviting their friend from the neighborhood, Cason Cooley, to join in the musical and production efforts. In this familiar setting, spontaneous captures reveal the most genuine, uninhibited performances from McCracken to date.

Listen
• You can hear songs from Red Balloon at the sampler on NoiseTrade.
‚Ä¢ To buy Red Balloon, visit Sandra McCracken’s web store, iTunes, or Amazon mp3.
• Sandra is currently on national tour with Derek Webb, Sara Groves, Charlie Peacock, and Brandon Heath for the Art Music Justice tour.

Another recurrent idea on Red Balloon is motherhood (she gave birth to a son last year), yet these maternal concepts are blanketed with symbolism – not only to women with children, but to anyone seeking protection, care, and guidance. She points to where such solace can be found, and writes essential songs for our culture – a society in which marriages shatter every day and motherhood is diminished from its vital role in shaping humanity, in which we neglect to truly care for our neighbor, and where the bone-weary tread desolate terrain with almost every step. Sandra McCracken’s songs remind us of the fundamentals of goodness, the hopeful truth of restoration, and our part in this healing.

Red Balloon is a quintessential record – in my top 10 – so I was excited for the chance to pick this musician’s brain. With a cup of coffee in hand, I settled into my own upstairs “studio” to talk with Sandra, a very kind, good soul.

Well, I love the new album. It’s pretty much all I’ve been listening to lately.

Thank you so much.

I hear similarities in production on Ampersand and Red Balloon. Is that due to a change in how you and Derek worked together on both projects?

Yeah, we kind of hit a stride in the way we approached Ampersand. We were thinking about this next record and it definitely seemed like one spilled right into the other. Some of it was intentional because that duet album was such a carefree experience of being able to make the record sound like anything we wanted. There were no constraints, no labels; it was such an open, creative experience. We wanted to set the tone like that for Red Balloon as well, and there was even a little overlap in the recording process, so it’s interesting that you noticed.

Did any musicians inspire you to be more experimental with elements of electronica, layers, and so on?

There were a few things we were listening to. The last couple years, I loved the orchestration of Sufjan Stevens and the way he experiments with sound. His records really keep me coming back. There’s so much to listen to, and it sounds so human. At the same time, it’s not just polished ear candy. He takes a different approach entirely; it is orchestration, but it’s not over-thought – it’s still very spirited. And Derek was listening to a lot of Gnarls Barkley. He’s working on another project that will have lots of electronica elements – even like the Trent Reznor record, The Slip. He’s been listening to a lot of things that are heavier in terms of programming.

For a long time I was resistant to that idea because I wanted my records to be timeless. So, after making a handful of records, I started to feel a little liberty. I shouldn’t hold myself back or restrain the sound of the record just because something is modern, current, or hip. That sounds backward, because a lot of people pursue that cutting-edge sound quality. I’ve almost resisted it because I didn’t want the records to sound dated when you look back. So this album joined two philosophies: maintain a timeless, soulful performance, but also use the newest tools from the moment. In this case, we used a program called Stylist to build and work with the loops. It was part of the writing in these songs, almost like another musician – having this other technological part involved, like you’re dealing with some other inanimate being.

Why does the Red Balloon packaging include two discs with five songs each? Is it a thematic layout?

There was some talk along the way of making two EPs, partly because making and getting feedback on Ampersand was such a good experience. There are six songs – it’s like a full meal, but it’s not so long that you lose the last four songs, and end up only knowing the first half of the record. People listen to music differently than they did even ten years ago as we move from a CD format to the iPod. I wanted to make two sides with smaller, digestible bits of art, though they’re definitely made to go together. It’s a different listening experience, where you can drive from your house to a lunch appointment with one record, and one on the way back.

I keep linking two songs – “Saturn’s Fields” and “The High Countries.” They’re both at the end of a disc; both describe embarking on a train or bus to unknown, otherworldly scenery. Is there a connection?

They do have similar themes, but they were written at very different times. “The High Countries” was written some years ago, inspired by C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. The images are pulled out of Lewis’ imagination. He talks about a purgatorial state, as if you had a moment to look back over your life and think about the decision of whether or not to have faith. It’s a fascinating, very imaginative story about the characters and the things they held onto in their life – what they were unwilling to part with in order to embrace faith.

“Saturn’s Fields” is a personal reflection of stepping off a ledge into the unknown of a new place in your life. Preparing for some unknown change is like planning to move to another planet – you have no idea how to do that. You just have to go and get on that train and find yourself in a new place. So, the songs are very different in terms of inspiration, but they both have almost a fictional setting that helps you go to that emotional place.

Fiction often does that, just thinking out loud.

It’s a useful tool for sure. Fiction can be a remarkable place to tell real truth because it’s so disarming. It takes you out of the confines of reality. You stop thinking, “Oh, that could never happen,” and start exploring the possibilities on many levels.

Does C.S. Lewis have a big impact on your art in general?

I have read a number of his writings over the years, so I’d say so, but there are other books, too, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Shack, A Wrinkle in Time, Many Waters, and Spiderman graphic novels. I used to feel like I should only read things that were concrete and easy to find your way into, but I’ve really enjoyed fiction a lot more over the last few years, some of Lewis’ as well. As an artist, I’m scolding myself for having missed that because fiction is such an inspiring medium for me as a songwriter.

I read a few biographies and autobiographies the past couple years, too, like Cash by Johnny Cash this last summer. I just love hearing people’s stories – their real stories as well as fiction, things I had overlooked and came back to, books I should have read and missed somehow. Maybe it’s because we had a baby and I’ve had little blocks of time where I could digest more reading. It sounds funny because you would think you have less time, but you have a different kind of time.

Why did you choose to revisit “The High Countries” after writing it for Caedmon’s Call [Back Home]?

I had been playing it live and people asked for it at shows. It has such an ethereal quality that seemed to really match some of the material on this record; the story it tells. It seemed to fit and it never really had before. When I wrote it I didn’t plan to record it because I imagined Danielle [Young] singing; it was very much tailored for her. I wanted to see if we could come up with something fitting for this album and also would feel like I could try it on myself. I think it was a good match.

Definitely. It is interesting how it’s the same song, yet both versions are very different and match both of your voices so well.

Thank you.

I gathered “Storehouse” is about your son – it’s a fun, inspiring look into motherhood; such a great song. How has motherhood affected your creative process?

I think I expected that my creativity would slow or come to a screeching halt. That is true in the very beginning – you’re kind of in a fog right before and for a couple months afterwards. That transition is so intense and takes your whole being to make that change. But soon after, I started journaling and writing down thoughts that didn’t make a lot of sense at the time and some of these songs came out of that. As we got into the groove, I did have large blocks of time where I was at home and felt really creative.

Motherhood is such a creative work, and it definitely begets more creativity. It’s like your creative muscle gets started and flexes in different areas. I was relieved, and it helped me feel like a whole person – that I was still able to create music and songs and have things to say. Some of this was about that experience, but some of it was other reflections on what was happening around me and within me, not related to having a baby. It was important to me to try to draw from all of it, from the whole experience, not just one narrow view of it. That was a goal in writing this batch of songs. I wanted to personally reflect on the change that had been going on, but also be accessible to people that didn’t go through this specific year that I did. Maybe that’s a good ideal to maintain as an artist because you want to connect and you also want to be vulnerable. You have to have both sides.

The conversation with Sandra McCracken will be continued in the October 17 edition.


For Further Listening
– Check out her discography which can be purchased on her web store or iTunes.
– Also on iTunes, you’ll find Sandra’s songs from the Caedmon’s Call albums In the Company of Angels, Back Home, and Overdressed, and the song “Ten Thousand Angels” (featuring Derek Webb) which aired on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
– Check out Sandra’s work on the Indelible Grace records.

She Spoke to Silence


Photo: Houston Chronicle

For a little over a year, I’ve struggled with a variety of health issues. The particulars are boring (and odd), but I will say that most people bounce back from such ailments in 1-2 months. Obviously, I am not one of those people. I’m healing all right, but at a maddening snail’s pace. I strive for a martyr-like demeanor, yet I won’t acquire sainthood anytime soon. I’m not a good sufferer. I’ve grasped for comfort all the year long day, primarily by way of reading. Somewhere along my book trail, I discovered the poet Vassar Miller, a fellow Houstonian, afflicted with cerebral palsy since birth (1924). I was humbled by this lady who suffered with more severity, and more grace than I have. I was inspired by poem after poem, like spoonfuls of medicine when my words seemed to fall short.

I remain enchanted, wishing we had met in person. Vassar Miller was a poet of great courage and skill, a crusader for the disabled, a self-taught theologian, and a teacher of creative writing at The University of St. Thomas, near her museum-district home. She had a raucous, bold laugh, even if she fell from the motorized cart which whisked her to class and back home again. She would proclaim, “Don’t help me. I can do it myself.” Bach oratorios, chocolate ice cream, her dogs, friends, and Sundays were among her favorite things. If asked her life-mantra, she’d say, “To write. And to serve God.” Frances Sage described her as “a rather shy, friendly woman with intelligent eyes, warm, and interested in conversation.”

Though her speech halted and skipped, her brain was sharp and she did not avoid poetry readings. With her typical, healthy sense of humor she described this in “Introduction to a Poetry Reading”:

I was born with my mod dress sewn onto my body,
stitched to my flesh,
basted to my bones.
I could never, somehow, take it all off
to wash the radical dirt out.
I even carry my own rock
hard in my mouth,
grinding it out bit by bit,
So, bear me
as I bear you.
high, in the grace of greeting
.

She was who she was largely due to her parents. Her bookish Dad lugged home his typewriter from work for Vassar to play with, and criticized her early, trite poetry. Her stepmom encouraged her to read and write; both parents took on her education at home until she entered junior high. After receiving B.S. and M.A. degrees from UH, Miller accomplished more than most able-bodied people. She published nine volumes of poetry, edited a literary anthology (Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems), was included in numerous periodicals, selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (1961), named the poet laureate of Texas (1988; alternate in 1982), and inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame (1996).

She was admired by such peers as Donald Hall, Denise Levertov, Miller Williams, and most famously, Larry McMurtry. He hadn’t the greatest opinion of Texas writers (in 1981), but he singled out Vassar Miller as an exception, “That she is to this day little known, read, or praised in Texas is the most damning comment possible on our literary culture.” Even so, at age 74, she died virtually unknown (though there is a Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry). There might be a few clues to this mystery.

She had decided to live in Houston, outside the mainstream of poetry in New York. A woman of unflinching faith, she dipped her lame feet in two churches: St. Stephen’s Episcopal in the morning for the rituals of liturgy; Covenant Baptist in the afternoon for the music and diversified congregation. She often wrote in traditional forms, bucking against the popular poetry of her day – the Beats and Confessional poets – though her words were of common, American language. She unabashedly used themes that disturbed many – suffering, isolation, the silence of God, the naked self, the ineffable, and self-acceptance of her life’s constraints.

Regardless, Miller’s timeless, poetic voice upholds her reputation to this day. The core of her vision was that complex, unsentimental faith, with nods to the mystics, John Donne’s anguish, and George Herbert’s fervor. At times there’s a similarity to Flannery O’Connor as well. Both women were straight-shooters, right from the hip. They never apologized for their beliefs and often confounded their faithful brethren. Their respective afflictions were not the impetus to write, though I think it toughened them into sages. Whatever was in their mind’s eye is what you get. And as Levertov said, Miller did not care if her peers were listening. She rarely read her contemporaries. She believed that poets write to their deepest selves. Miller has also been deemed the Emily Dickinson of the 20th century, for her sources were personal and domestic, scenes of her solitude and feelings. Whether she recalls another writer to mind or not, she was in fact a living paradox: a successful, modern religious poet. “Without Ceremony” is just one poem of many that sums up her identity:

Except ourselves, we have no other prayer;
Our needs are sores upon our nakedness.
We do not have to name them; we are here.
And You who can make eyes can see no less.
We fall, not on our knees, but on our hearts,
A posture humbler far and more downcast;
While Father Pain instructs us in the arts
Of praying, hunger is the worthiest fast.
We find ourselves where tongues cannot wage war
On silence (farther, mystics never flew)
But on the common wings of what we are,
Borne on the wings of what we bear, toward You,
Oh Word, in whom our wordiness dissolves,
When we have not a prayer except ourselves
.

In my reading of Vassar Miller, a few critics felt she was a Texas poet, though not a poet of Texas; they could not find the geography in her work. As I’ve lived in Houston most of my 33 years, I must respectfully disagree. I’ve listened to the droning sing-songs of cicadas all summer, thinking of this elegant lady. Cicadas, hurricanes, endless summers of heavy heat, and drab, snowless Januaries appear in her poems quite often:

Unwinding the spool of the morning, / the cicada spins his green song,
(“Invocation” from Onions and Roses)

Hurricane, hurricane, / blow me away,
(“Invocation” from If I Had Wheels or Love)

. . . the cicadas’ antiphonal choirs / one memory’s and one desire’s . . .
caught in the yellow honey of the heat
.
(“High Noon”)

Even if a sense of place is not a prominent theme in Miller’s work, these glimpses of the Gulf Coast make me swell with Texan pride, proof-positive that her genius resided in my city. I’ve just about raised Vassar Miller to heroine status, among a select few: Mother Teresa, Flannery O’Connor, Billie, a local nursing home resident, my mom, my aunts, and my grandmothers. Each of these women looked head on in the face of suffering and survived. They not only survived, but extended their hands to anyone within reach. Intentionally or not, they impress on my frail heart how to persevere, smile, and even laugh when darkness settles in; they teach how to look beyond pain to service. My paternal grandmother did all of this and then some. When I was too young to philosophize, she taught me an invaluable lesson. As Parkinson’s Disease ravaged her nervous system, I witnessed that the disabled are not defined by handicap. As a child I didn’t know the term “Parkinson’s.” I knew “Memaw.” My grandmother and her soft, radiant smile whenever I walked in the room. In adulthood, this is how I vividly remember her.

Through her quiet, humble, successful life, Vassar Miller teaches us to see the physically handicapped in just this way. Not a twisted body, but a human being. To not gawk, stare, or point. Look into the eyes of every person – medical jargon is not their name. Do not fear or pity a bent spine, a shiver of tremors; be patient with a stuttering tongue. Love our neighbors with an artist’s eye, with imagination, for there is surely more than meets a healthy eye. Have courage; you might be surprised to find beauty within illness, perhaps more than you can bear. A broken body it may be, but a glimpse of restoration shimmers below; a reminder that the Fall is not forever.

In the introduction to Despite This Flesh, Miller speaks directly to the handicapped: your greatest crutch is to be ashamed in light of society’s erroneous opinion. Remember the Body from which you come. Whether they’ve learned so or not, our culture desperately needs each foot, hand, ear, eye, nose, body. One arm may be lame, but in another time, it will be whole. And to writers: you have a special eye – you see what some cannot. Poets: your eye is especially free from prejudice, or so it should be. Hold your mirror to what is truthful. The race does not always belong to the swift.

Obviously, Vassar Miller’s poetic sensibilities and her faith cannot be ignored. She stated them as her connecting vision of life, “Liturgy has always seemed to me the poetry of worship, humanity’s poor best for the infinite. Formal language and syntax have always been my personal struggle for order in what has often seemed my disorderly world.” In a very real sense, religion and poetry were, to some degree, her stay against shadows and madness, part of her trinitarian view of poetry: it is sanctifying, creative, and redemptive. Sanctifying in that poetry bestows order on erratic emotions and events. Creative in that it gives shape, makes a relic, where only a mass of thoughts and sensations were before. Redemptive in that a poem makes art from cast-off words, giving them value.

Vassar Miller was well-versed in theology, and she probably knew quite a lot about St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians wherein he stated, “we are His workmanship.” Miller’s life being immersed in words, I bet she knew that in the Greek, workmanship is “poiema.” Human beings are God’s poems. If I may further speculate, I’d say that’s why she championed the handicapped. Despite cerebral palsy, she knew that in her Maker’s eye, she was crafted well. Her body was out of order, but her soul held rhyme and reason.

Some of my best teachers are writers. And to my (selfish) benefit, they leave behind lessons I can turn to again and again. Vassar Miller teaches me to not cater to whim or sensation; write and live what is true and timeless to humanity; have tenacity in the face of suffering. Keep speaking toward the silence of God. And believe it or not, for all the beauty and groaning of sunshine, autumn leaves, sparrows, gardenias, or sheltering clouds, it is you and I – our bodies broken to some degree, our tongue a dangerous thing – who have memory, sin, suffering, and something to look forward to, even now:

The sun has no history.
Only I, bearing
my Adam and Eve on my back,
dragged under, dragged down, may leap
up to the saddle of hope
.
(from “The Sun Has No History”)


For Further Reading:

If I Had Wheels or Love: Collected Poems of Vassar Miller

Heart’s Invention: On the Poetry of Vassar Miller (Steven Ford Brown, ed.)

Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems (Vassar Miller, ed.)

A Genius Obscured” (published in Sojourners)

Three Sanctuaries

Give or take a few years, when I was too young to recall my surroundings in North Texas or when I lived in Austin during college, Houston is all I’ve ever known. I call it home. I’ve grown accustomed to frenetic city life which seems to buzz 24-7, the concrete arteries of interstate, all too often clogged with cars wasting precious, overpriced gasoline, and the heat, dear God, the heat. The humidity is not for the faint of heart, because you will drip with sweat (or as a Southern lady might prefer, “glisten”). Something inside me bonds with the fast pace and bountiful resources at my fingertips, though in a quest for sanity, I seek out havens of quiet. One such place is the Menil campus, tucked into a neighborhood of bungalows and shady oak trees.

My regular pilgrimage is devoted to the main hub, The Menil Collection, and two satellite structures – the Rothko Chapel and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. I’m drawn there not just to escape the chaos of urban life, but also the racket of my soul. Stepping foot into any of the three buildings hushes my spirit and cleanses my psyche. As a Christian, I am drawn to the two chapels within walking distance of each other, as well as the Byzantine icons housed in the elegant Menil Collection: religious art particularly dear to Dominique de Menil.

John and Dominique de Menil and their five children have been compared to the Medicis of Italy. One could say that what the Medicis did for the Renaissance, the de Menils did for modernism in Texas, though if you could travel through time and share this comparison with the couple at their wedding in 1931, they might have scoffed at the grandiose idea. John worked in a Paris bank with a normal income, and seven years later he joined Dominique’s family oil well-logging business, Schlumberger, Ltd.. John and Dominique fled France as the Nazis invaded, and they landed in Houston, TX. The city was never to be the same. They built a modernist, flat-roofed house amidst white columned-mansions in River Oaks, championed civil rights in a city still imprisoned by segregation, and of course, collected modern art considered to be peculiar, to say the least.

The de Menils were Catholic, yet ecumenical, and they found a mentor in Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a French Dominican priest who was an artist himself. He was instrumental in uniting the work of Matisse, Rouault, and Leger with churches in France. Father Couturier took the couple around to numerous art galleries in New York, teaching them his love for modern art. He not only infected them with his passion, but also opened their eyes to the beauty of Cubism, to the work of Mondrian, and other types of art that previously seemed foreign to their eyes. And as John de Menil said in a lecture at the University of St. Thomas in 1964, “We were very fortunate because those times were extraordinary times for collecting. First the great masters, the Cubists, Picasso, Braque, Gris, were still available at reasonable prices. The Surrealists cost practically nothing. And on top of that African art was coming on the market.”

All of this good fortune resulted in one of the most impressive private collections in existence. John and Dominique always planned to share their finds in a museum, and after John’s death, his wife birthed their dream by christening the Menil in 1987. Though John might have preferred great architecture, Dominique aimed for a functional space, one that appears larger and more luminous than its unassuming, simplistic exterior. I must say, her idea works. Whenever I walk towards the austere building, I’m struck anew by the genius of its placement in a cozy neighborhood where people live, the true life of a city. The idea of sanctuary comes alive between the quiet streets. I’m soothed under the shade of old, twisting oak trees. I take refuge from the sweltering Texas sun by snagging a bench under the high, undulating awnings outside, or by opening a tall glass door to the Menil itself, flowing with cool air and natural light filtered by means of louvers, skylights, and massive windows.

Inside, the de Menils’ eclectic collection hangs at eye level, spaced at comfortable distances on wide white walls. Very little text is near each piece, allowing the art to speak. As modernists, John and Dominique believed in a spiritual connection between art of all cultures and times, and they believed in erasing those borders. As I walk from room to room, I see this very clearly in the diversity: Greek and Roman cultures, medieval and Byzantine work, indigenous art of Africa and Oceania, modern and contemporary art (including Ernst, Magritte, Leger, Matisse, Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Warhol), and current rotating exhibits. To my eye at least, I begin to see a common thread in the eclecticism – both the creators’ and collectors’ search to see beyond what we can see, past ourselves, into the beautiful, in order to discover what is truthful, what is good, what is everlasting; when before our eyes, what is tangible seemingly crumbles.

The Menil Collection was not the first project to bear the de Menils’ influence. Inspired by the fusing of modern art and spirituality in Mattise’s Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, they commissioned a chapel adorned with somber paintings by Mark Rothko and architecture by Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry. The Rothko Chapel opened to the public in 1971 when John was still alive, literally “open to all” in its nondenominationality, honoring the de Menils’ egalitarian beliefs and their desire to provide a sacred space for the city of Houston.

I’ve walked the sidewalk from the Menil to the Rothko Chapel many a time, always feeling like I’m taking a trek into mystery. I arrive at a modest brick building facing a pool of water in which Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk sculpture presides. The steel structure was placed there in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to symbolize the de Menils’ passion for civil rights; the love of God and neighbor cannot be separated from justice. The obelisk’s stare prepares me for the stillness inside the Rothko Chapel. Fourteen large canvases, including three triptychs, loom around the octagonal room. The paintings emanate hues of black, brown, deep maroon, and plum, framed only by the gray walls and lit only by a single aperture of natural light above. Crude benches face each other in the framework of a square. Though I feel the rhythm of the geometrical beauty, my impression is also one of emptiness; a space waiting to be filled. This void serves its ecumenical purpose, allowing each person to bring in what he or she may. It isn’t my personal belief of worship, yet I do think the Rothko Chapel is a rightful sanctuary from the cacophony of life. We are saturated with moving pictures, flashing lights, and noisome information on nearly every communication medium we see or hear. That is why a chapel of stillness with meditative modern art beckons me to step inside a place where I can slow down, sit, drink in beauty, and hear my own thoughts. At the opening of the Rothko Chapel, Dominique de Menil made an interesting observation as well, likening the art’s hushed tones to the voice of God as heard by Elijah – not in the heavy wind, not in the fire, but in a small whisper.

The final destination of my pilgrimage to a trinity of sanctuaries is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum which opened in 1997. Dominique happened upon two 13th-century frescoes stolen from a votive chapel in Cyprus, and cut into 38 pieces. She salvifically rescued the shards, paid for their restoration, and asked her architect-son, Francois de Menil, to design a building “to restore the sacred fragments to their original spiritual function.” He was a novice architect at the time, but he created one of the most dazzling sites I’ve ever seen.

Like the Menil campus in its entirety, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel’s exterior is restrained – simple blocks of concrete. As the door closes behind me, my eyes adjust to the dim light, quite a contrast from bold Texan sunshine. I walk across the narrow vestibule tower, gently illuminated by the light monitor above. Within a few more steps, I see the glass and steel chapel structure housed first under concrete, then a hovering black metal liner, more specifically named an “infinity box” by Dominique. The freestanding chapel appears to be billowing white glass, an abstract re-creation of the original Byzantine chapel in size and scale, only pulled apart – like a paused explosion. This visual effect symbolizes how the frescoes were ripped from their original home. The box within a box structure, and the rescued sacred art evokes a reliquary – profound, since the two frescoes were originally part of an entire living liturgy on the walls and floor of the Cyprus chapel.

Underneath the opaque glass, a large Christ Pantokrator fresco hangs directly above in the dome, and a Virgin and Archangels fresco rests in the apse, exactly where they resided in the Cyprus chapel. These icons are the only source of color in the building, but they provide ample warmth with rich tones of royal blue, mustard, and brick red. A small golden cross sits on the altar. Where the Rothko Chapel seems empty, the Byzantine Chapel is filled with images. Even the benches present a different idea – most face the altar, the others placed near the front on each side, creating a cruciform shape. The last time I visited, I sat on a forward-facing bench and thought I could remain there all day. I realized that the frescoes do for visitors what they did for Byzantine parishioners – teach what is alive in the cosmos beyond mere visibility. An older man walked in, knelt at the altar, and crossed himself: a very moving sight. I imagine Houstonians and world travelers alike are grateful for this welcoming, devotional place.

Friends arrive in Houston and ask me, “What should I do while here?” I’m pretty infamous for directing them to the Menil neighborhood, to these three shelters of art and spirit. Houstonians are proud to claim these renowned buildings, but we are also eager to share. We’re inspired by the generous souls of John and Dominique de Menil and lessons they left behind for anyone who will listen. Even now, they teach us to be enchanted by the sanctity of art, to embrace a variety of work – catholic, if you will – to share with one another, welcome the stranger, beautify our surroundings, behold what is lovely, and seek for the truth. The word “sanctuary” means different things to different folks. To the Greeks, sanctuary was a plot of land deemed a sacred zone. For Christians, sanctuary is the space of a church focused near the altar. Broadly, sanctuary is refuge from the wind-whipping deserts of our lives, shelter from whatever storm may shake us. A place to retreat and give us strength to get back out there. Every city could benefit from two such saints as the de Menils and the sanctuaries that bear their vision.

For further reading, check out Sanctuary: The Spirit In/Of Architecture, edited by Kim Shkapich and Susan de Menil and published by the Byzantine Fresco Foundation.