Night Sketching

I think I’ll quit before
I’m further behind.
I’ll leave some
blank/blanc/white
despite my propensity
to fill in what should be
left to the eye.

I will try, with all my might
to let seeing supply more
than less and unless
I’m mistaken,
taking this route
is what this pen, this ink
leaves me to ponder tonight.

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.

The Poetry of Bread

This poem in my hands,
this dough rolling round
my fingers sings
of soil, of seed,
of leaven, of levity.
No metaphor, this loaf
is the real deal. Its rise
upends depression
reverses detestation as
flour weds yeast weds water – salted and oiled.
In this feast of chaos, this orgy of gorging,
each ingredient eats the other,
smothered in love’s wager. And then
a miracle emerges – a loaf, no six! – and each one
anxious for flame, for fire – this poem
now ready to be read,
aching to be eaten.

Keeping in Step

We have had something of a roller coaster ride for weather in southwestern Ontario these last weeks. Record colds followed by record warms followed by snow followed by rain and then back into the deep freeze again. Add an ice storm, stir, and presto! You have a mess for commuters.

I am a commuter, but I try to commute by car as little as possible. There are days when work demands I drive, but otherwise, my goal is to ride a bus in the morning and walk home. This last week, on one of my bus days I bumped into my neighbour at the bus stop and we chatted all the way to work, catching up on family, and work, and holiday news. He is planning a trip to Holland in April, and so I had opportunity to experience tulips avant le temps vicariously.

While walking through downtown Kitchener on the way home a week ago last Friday, I unexpectedly bumped into a friend I see from time to time at First Nations events. We stopped and chatted for a time, and then as I began to walk, she wandered along with me. Eventually our paths reached the point wherein they were to part, but we both stood and visited, watching the walk light change to stop and back to walk again, and around and around a number of times.

These are the delights of my daily commute. These are the treasures a car doesn’t afford me on those days demanding auto-mobility. Strange, that phrase “automobile.” To be mobile is to be on the move, and the word “auto” comes to us from Greek and means “self.” I’m really only auto-mobile on my feet. In the car I’m really rather car-mobile. But even on those days leaving me to be truly auto-mobile, the friends I meet, the buildings that pull my eye up and out, the sky that stops me in my tracks, the trees that wave; all of these sojourners with me remind me that I never walk alone. I never truly walk auto.

The bible speaks of a cloud of witnesses cheering us on in our life of faith. We Christians tend to imagine that cloud to consist of those who have passed on in the faith – and for good purpose. I suspect that this is precisely what the author of the book of Hebrews had in mind.

All the same, I have to say that these chance encounters with the many “characters” that constitute the narrative of the street often cheer me along. In sum, I am never auto-mobile, nor do I find myself to be on “auto-pilot.” Others cheer, and this carriage I call me-in-my-entirety is driven by forces beyond my control even while I take control.

All in all, it is a gift to walk; it is a gift to wonder while on feet. I find that it doesn’t take too many steps for the cares of the day to wear away and creativity to come, and then, when I have ears to hear, cheers erupt from glistening frost, from crunching snow, from traffic signal parting the stream of traffic. Some of us have to drive, that I know, but hopefully even such as these can find a way to take a breath before and after and even in the midst of the day’s commute.

First Draft, First Draught

Yesterday afternoon I finished a first draft of a paper I am to give on November 23rd. The respondent needs a version of it tomorrow.

I am never happy with my first draft, but am always exceedingly glad to have produced it. I experience a kind of pressure as the time to write draws nigh. I have generally done the prep work well in advance: read relevant texts, read texts about the texts, thought through it all to the point that a germ of an idea arrives. I review my notes, looking for possible themes, pondering alternative points of entry, imagining how my incipient idea would hold up against the critiques that are sure to come from the floor. The pressure takes the form of anxiety: time to write.

The experience of writing varies from paper to paper. Some papers flow effortlessly. Some are grindingly difficult – every word needing to be wrestled into place. Most papers land somewhere in between. But one thing invariably happens: I begin writing with a thesis in mind, and the thesis gets a twist in the writing. It seems that there are ideas I have, and then there are ideas that have me. The transition from the former to the latter involves putting these ideas to paper. Some ideas will not countenance their concretization in the form I propose. Generally, in reworking the saying of the idea, the idea says something new and a slight – although often significant – shift occurs. This often makes me chuckle, and brings me a measured amount of joy. Rather like the first fervent pull of a good beer or the weighty sip of single malt, this moment gives me pause.

Writing at its best is really a lot like drinking (you choose the beverage). There is the thought of what it will taste like – maybe even well formed by virtue of memory. But the initial swallow? Well that is something altogether unique and shaped by the convergence of any number of factors: How thirsty am I? Who quaffs along with me? What’s the weather outside? Inside? Was my drink properly brewed? On and on it goes. Every first draught is unique, even if not earth-shattering. But there is a joy in the expectation of discovery and that mirrors, in a fashion, the process of writing.

I think this experience is what makes writing addictive. The arrival of an idea in the moment is exhilarating, even while I realize that most often this inspiration is not of the highest order. All the same, I am too bewitched by the pen to gainsay that experience in whatever degree it offers itself. Writing, in this sense, seems to be life writ small: the wonder of discovery as delight writes itself into our efforts to say something intelligent, or beautiful, or inspiring, or any combination of the above.

Of Poetry and Echoes

“ECHO!”

Do you recall the first time you called out that word, eagerly anticipating hearing your voice’s return? Maybe it was at summer camp, or while hiking with friends, or visiting a cottage by a lake. There is something magical about an echo. There is something arresting in hearing my own voice’s arrival, not from within, but from afar. In that first moment, when I encounter me outside of myself, I am ecstatic – I stand (from stasis “to stand”) outside (from ek “outside of”) myself.

Echoes are magical, not only because they are a low tech – and so a more satisfying – form of replication, but because an echo is a replication with a difference. My voice returns to me having been shaped by hills that soften, by cliffs that sharpen, by the lake that lilts my voice with sound waves that wash back to cochlear shores. Echoes introduce me to me with a difference. Unlike parrots, who mock me with their parody, and unlike an mp3 which freezes me with its cryogenic clarity; echoes inform me. They allow me the opportunity to meet myself anew.

Poems are echoes. Poetry echoes me by allowing me to hear my voice with a difference. Words wind their way through my body when I write a poem, when I hear a poet. The world comes to me in a different key when I hear this, for example. Poetry is language’s echo. It takes speech and twists it. Poetry rebounds words off the world. Poetry allows me to see from the perspective of a tree. It allows me to feel with a street’s point of view. Poetry takes the familiar and drops it off a cliff, so it bounces back to me shattered and true. I am left asunder in the wonder that words do what I cannot imagine. I cry out, and words echo back to me strangely familiar: strange in their refracted nature and familiar in their refusal to remain strange. Claiming me poetry names a new world for me. Echoes become me because I am beholden to the fact that even my words come back to me differently than I imagined they would.

Word makes its way as it leaves home;
It sounds the world as flesh and bone.
Word works love’s sway, it echoes true;
It marvels me with coloured hues.

Don’t “Like” this Post without Reading It, Please

The other day I noted a new follower of my Twitter account. I’m not the most popular guy in T-world and so tend to scope out followers on those rare occasions when someone signs on. I was interested to find a little URL associated with my new friend and so thought I should see where it led me. Imagine my surprise to discover that at this very site I could get more followers overnight! And to think I thought I needed to write clever, or funny, or inspirational, or thought provoking Twitter tomes to coax folk to follow where I lead. It turns out all I need to do is fork out $20 (on sale!).

This rather reminds me of my otherwise wondrous experiences with blogging. Sometimes, I’ll post a blog, and within minutes will have some “likes.” “Cool,” I’ll think, “I should check out where my fans are from.” I then go to the handy-dandy tool for scouting out those scouting you out, and discover that no-one has visited my blog. They “liked” it from their blog reader, which means they (might have) read the first 50 words or so. I have since discovered that they don’t “like” my blog so much as they would “like” it if I “liked” theirs by returning the favour. All of this got me thinking (this doesn’t always end well).

Do I write for myself, for readers, or for the subject matter?

Maybe I can do all three. Probably I do. OK, I do. But it seems that one or the other takes priority. If my first priority in writing is myself (perhaps to boost my ego), then writing moves in one direction. If I write for readers (perhaps to boost sales), then writing moves in another direction. But if I write out of passion, or even vocation – because not writing seems to be a betrayal of deep longings or persistent proddings – then yet another realization emerges: the subject matter matters. It isn’t that the subject matter trumps writer or reader, but it makes a space for us to gather together. In other words, I want readers who don’t only like what I write, but read what I write because what I write about (writing in this specific post) is more important than my popularity or the reader’s enjoyment, inspiration, etc.

I suppose I have a certain luxury in not needing to make my buck with my luck at likes. Maybe I’m a romantic. Maybe that’s not so bad. At any rate, I am so happy for all who have made it this far in this rambling rant, and am quite content to find a small community of interested writers and readers to share in this journey that doesn’t end in with the full stop.

From Retailing to Retelling Tales

In my Introduction to Theology class this week we viewed “The Danger of a Single Story” by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. Adichie spells out the danger of cultures captivated by a single narrative, especially when that narrative is told by colonizers who turn tales to their advantage. We were all inspired by her challenge to ponder what kinds of stories are told by us, and of us.

A good discussion followed. Some pondered how the Bible itself is a compilation of multiple narratives. Others worried about the manner in which those same stories can be made into a monolithic master-plan. Yet still others noted our need to have some sort of over-arching story making sense of our existence. Counseling students heard the lecture more at the level of a commentary on personal narrative, and drew insights regarding how narrative can be used to heal souls. Everyone took something different from Adichie. In sum, the discussion that followed demonstrated that not only a plurality of stories makes community rich, but a plurality of hearings as well. Yet the richness of the hearing was only possible because we took the time to listen to what each heard from the presentation.

It strikes me that we don’t really take enough time together to tell tales and to relate tales told. Increasingly, technology turns us in on ourselves. We spend more time on our own, consuming popular culture, and less time creating cultures that retell our realities. Why is this? Public story telling was once a noble vocation. Every family, every village, every people had and celebrated great story tellers because telling stories is the way that peoples the world over renew their compassion, their community and their creativity. In large part storytelling today is relegated to billion dollar businesses that benefit few and numb the imaginations of many.

I suspect that we can only renew this life giving gift by sacrificing those very things that strip us of a rich narrative existence: mass communication, obsession with stars, and the relegation of the arts to spin doctors and slick salesmen. What would happen if everyone in our communities found and celebrated their own ability to tell tales, or sing sagas, or paint strong truths? What would happen if we refused to delegate our collective creativity to those only too happy to tell us a single story?

Cloudy Visions

I’ve been painting clouds, and they have gotten the better of me.

I have at least three problems. The first is that if I like what I paint when it is seen up close, I don’t like it when I stand at a distance. The second problem is that if I like what I paint when seen from a distance, I don’t like what I see up close. The third problem is that I’m not really that fond of my results either up close or at a distance. Plus, I am ever wiping my brow in exasperation or ponderously stroking my chin and so get paint on my face!

But I’m having fun all the same. In fact, yesterday evening I painted for close to three hours and it was as five minutes. It seems to me that in some ways painting is a parable of a life of faith.

On the one hand, we like to “see” God up close and personal: a face to face God who will speak to us of unconditional love, and remind us that this divine presence is ever beside us. This is a God near and dear to us. But sometimes we want a God who is powerful and transcendent: a God who can set the world right. But then I remember that setting the world right means setting me right too, and I’m not necessarily so thrilled with that vision.

It seems that it is as hard to speak “God” as it is to paint clouds. Yet I persist at both, and in speaking God I join a host of others across denominations, and lands, and tongues, and creeds. Why? Because God is a “mystery” in the best sense of the word and mysteries draw us in by ever evoking in us a posture of curiosity. God is not a riddle to be solved but an adventure to be lived. The more we know God, the more we know we don’t know God and that is a humbling, yet strangely fulfilling knowing. In fact, it gives us the freedom to admit our ignorance; it frees us to try and to fail; it encourages us to persist in faith rather than certainty. A life of faith means that ignorance is strangely now a virtue rather than a vice.

I suppose, in some ways, I experience the same when I venture in paints all the while allowing myself to fail. When I let go of the need to be perfect, I enjoy the journey as much as, if not more than, the destination, and along the way I have the joy of messy fun. In some ways, the life of creativity and the life of the Creator meet in mystery, curiosity, and sheer joy. May your New Year be full of such graces!