Enough, Already!

I am in the middle of a painting right now. Not so long ago I was near the end of it, but I have fallen victim to the propensity to do what a teacher of mine some years ago described as over-painting. There is a kind of painting-over where you re-use a canvas. Alas, that may be the fate of this particular piece as a result of the other kind of over-painting – the propensity to put too much into a work. The instructor who spoke to me of this danger told the class that an artist doesn’t need to cover every detail when interpreting a scene. In fact, it is sometimes more effective to allow the human imagination to connect the dots, and finish the painting in the viewing. Perhaps this is most often the best. And it might be that this is a good lesson for life.

I remember as a child, doing a craft project at elementary school. It didn’t much interest me, and its being assigned near the end of the school year provided me with the opportunity to drag it out in the hopes the year’s end might bring to an end my need to finish it. Needless to say, that didn’t go so well, and both my teacher and my parents reminded me of the importance of completing what we start, a lesson that has served me well over the years. It is an important and laudable strategy in life, as long as we remind ourselves that some projects are best completed by not being finished. This latter bit might mean, I suppose, two different things. One the one hand, some projects need to be brought to completion by recognizing that they are not viable. Sometimes we need to say to ourselves, “I gave it a go, but now is the time to let it go.” I had a great conversation with a pastor the other day about just this. She and I talked about the gift of allowing ourselves to fail, recognizing that sometimes what we aimed for just isn’t going to happen with this or that particular project. If the gospel accords us any right, it most certainly accords us the right to fail, and to embrace failure as a gift that is an occasion for learning and growing in the discipline of accepting our acceptance – as Tillich was wont to describe faith. On the other hand, sometimes we complete a project by not crossing every “t” and not dotting every “i.” Sometimes, what a project most needs is a little breathing space; some white between the colours and a pause between the notes.

I find art that is spacious to be the most invigorating, and yet I find it the most difficult to achieve. Being able to know when to quit is an important skill for artists, but really for all of us. Ending well is really a life project. I am grateful for the many ways that life affords us small opportunities to learn to let go; to let this creation or that project make its way into the world, removed from my propensity to add just a little bit more, and in so doing to take away so very much.

Step by Step Home Ownership

Yesterday my lovely wife and I rebuilt the steps for our back deck. We constructed them just last fall, before the snow flew, but we knew as soon as we put them in place that something was amiss. We also knew that it would have to wait till spring, which was of small concern since we don’t use our back deck much in the winter. The weather, now warm, invited us to come and make good on our promise.

It was a splendid day for a constructing job. Neither of us are carpenters. My wife has the knack and I have the muscles but together we make only a portion of the real deal. We enjoy doing projects from time to time, and unlike some couples, work together rather well. Even so, despite having some degree of self-confidence, like most home owners and handy men and women, we do not do jobs often enough to remember how to do things so as to get it right the first time. We always get it done, it just happens by way of a circuitous route. The wrong sized screw, or a missing tool, or the wrong color of paint will send one or the other of us back to this store or that. Usually we book double the time it really ought to take, and it takes us double the time we booked. But yesterday was a good day to double your time outdoors. The sun shone, with that strange April light that comes of a sun higher in the sky, with no leaves to filter it and little green to soak it up when it hits the ground. It was a bright day, but not hot, and thus refreshing. So, off came the steps.

Because we were without steps for most of the afternoon, my wise wife figured out a way to hop up onto our deck using a deck chair. I tried the same, and to my chagrin, discovered that my weight upended a chair that quite happily held hers. No harm was done, but I had the happy chance to roll across the new patio we had installed (this by a professional!) last fall. It was this patio that occasioned the replacement of a very dilapidated stair. Soon railing will follow, and hopefully without any more falls to follow.

The day unfolded as it should, with some happy moments for self-reflection with coffee in hand as Mrs. J ran to and fro with hardware store tasks. It struck me that we both find a kind of satisfaction in knowing our blood (sometimes!), sweat (always), and tears (rarely) are important components that we have personally contributed to bits about our house. A kind of satisfaction comes in knowing that I am in what I now use. It isn’t just about pride, or economics, or learning something new – although some of all of these fit in the mix. It is more about a different kind of ownership, or perhaps stewardship – if you will.

Perhaps some of the joy I find in self-involving repair and renovation comes from it being a kind of practice of resistance against a plug and play world, replete with toss away conveniences, jobs and economies. It is also true, that a bit of work here and there, from time to time, allows us to “own” the home differently, with a bit of sweat equity that we gladly pay on fine spring day.

Grounded in Gratitude

How do you thank a class,
soil for my soul?
Fecund with curiosity
they press me into life and
push me into passion.

How do you teach those
who teach me what I know
and so render me prostrate
before the One who alone knows me,
who sows me into the classroom?

How do you learn, save by rising
like a green blade,
striving for sun and
soaking in spring rain.

In Praise of Easter Monday

After the Triduum with all of its drama and busyness, I have a kind of affinity to Easter Monday. Perhaps it is rooted in my earlier experiences as a parish pastor. Lent was always an astonishingly busy time with the three days, culminating in Easter, especially intense. The Monday after all that action was itself a kind of resurrection for me. This pastor slept in, read the paper, lingered over his coffee, and played with his daughters. Easter was rich, but Easter Monday was sweet. Easter is experienced differently for me now that teaching rather than preaching is the primary shape of my ministry. But still, there is something special about Easter Monday.

In a way, this is a day that is a shadow, or a ripple, or an echo of the day before. It is a softer, simpler version of an event so big that words cannot exhaust it. Monday is not quite so potent, and yet it drips with the after-glow of the resurrection. It is a next day event, when the consequences of a cataclysmic happening begin to sink in and now this experience becomes mine. It is fitting that the lectionary for Easter Sunday Evening (which in biblical accounting of time is already the next day) includes:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. (Isaiah 25:6)

I love the sensual quality of this text. When God spins the world around and we encounter it upside down our senses themselves are bowled over with feast, with drink, with excess. We need to take a breath to take it all in. On Easter Monday we digest Sunday’s excess. In due course we see it as a kind of surplus that is given for the sake of giving. We are filled to over-flowing for the good of all peoples. Easter Monday is a good day to ask ourselves how we might be food for the nations, drink for all peoples, justice for the lowest and righteousness for those imprisoned. Easter Monday is a day to take it home; to imagine that hope has taken up residence in me, in us, in the world.

I have made no special plans for this particular Easter Monday. Marking, above all else, makes a claim on me today. But I will make a special effort to listen to the echo of “Christ is risen”; an echo that has been massaged by the hills to sound just a little like “Allen is risen.” And the familiar refrain “He is risen indeed!” might approximate “He is risen in deed!”

May it be so.

Of March and Mirth

These days seem weighty.
March’s time does not march at all,
but shuffles along, sometimes even losing ground.
In fact just this last week
Tuesday followed Wednesday, which
meant I had to do Wednesday twice
and Tuesday too.

Spring came but just now announced a
reversal of course. Time
it seems, is not always on our side.

Thank goodness for space. Today,
walking home, a lane announced
that hope is in order – shouting out
a colorful mural like a street preacher. And
earlier in the day
an empty parking lot said
“Take a look!” and so I
did and the heavens wrapped me round
like a quilt,
like a mother,
like life.