empty

No one has to teach us to inhale. It’s instinct. So strong, in fact, that the very first act we perform on this earth is a great, frantic grasp for air.

However, exhaling is something most of us do badly. Or, at least, incompletely. Yoga instructors spend a great deal of time teaching students to slowly and completely empty their lungs. Creating space for air requires great purpose. Filling it does not.

Life looks very like that sometimes…

I am a threshold kind of girl. I love reflecting, evaluating, dreaming, setting goals. I always do this at the threshold of the New Year. But this year it has been difficult. As I have pondered new challenges and activities, they have felt like so much clutter.

Inspired by the OneWord365 project, I thought perhaps I would instead select a word to give shape to the coming months. But this too eluded me. I read posts from others who had selected their words–words like Choose, Begin, Discover. I loved them! I tried to steal borrow their words. But none of them fit.

On Monday night our priest came to bless our home. As we were talking afterward, he shared with us a concern that has been on his heart of late. He talked of how we constantly seek to fill ourselves, when what is required of us as followers of Christ is that we be emptied. In fact, it is impossible to pour into a container that is already full. But emptying is much more difficult, more unnatural, than filling.

Just like breathing.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this. And the longer I pondered, the more I knew that I had found my word. The word that tied together the random longings that have been swirling round in my heart. That bristled every time I tried to decide what I was going to add to my life this year.

empty

I am only beginning to imagine what this will look like for me over the next twelve months. But here are a few places where I hope the word will have its way with me…

To stand silent and empty before God. Without demand, without pretense, without excuse, without words. To be still. To be with. It is harder than it should be. For me. But I am learning. A little.

To empty myself of arrogance and self-sufficiency. To walk humbly with others. Most especially with my family. And close friends.

To empty my life of clutter. Frivolous pursuits (ie: the black hole of the internet, mostly), Items I no longer use (which could benefit another, and occupy space in my home), Things I might like to buy (or that might be a really good deal) but I don’t need, etc…

It scares me a little. This idea of seeking to be emptied. Quite frankly, I have always seen emptiness as something to be fixed. But I believe it is the next right step.

Here goes….

I am not the weather.

God is plotting against me again. A Divine Conspiracy to bring me understanding through a stereo of voices on one topic. Presently the topic is this:

I am not the weather.

The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening—delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm—this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion…then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured and our sense of painful alienation heightened. When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. We are the awareness in which thoughts and feelings (what we take to be ourselves) appear like so much weather on Mount Zion.

~Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land

When someone I Love is hurting, I feel responsible…for causing it…for fixing it.
When there is chaos around me, I become the chaos.
If people think well of me, I am ok.
If they are angry at me, I am not.

I am the weather.

In our candlelight Liturgy for the Feast of Epiphany, Father Stephen spoke of the light of Christ that illumines all and enables us to see ourselves as we really are. As He sees us.

As…a mountain?

Then, this morning, this:

Repentance is a great understanding. ~The Shepherd of Hermas

To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with truthfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.

~Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom

I see.

So….

If it rains, I will be wet. But I am not the rain. If those I love are hurting, I can comfort and care for them without owning their pain.

When a blizzard howls and rages around me, I will suffer the cold of it. But I am not the blizzard. When chaos reigns around me, I need not contribute to it. I can be the still point. Unshakeable.

When warm sunshine and sultry breezes caress me, I can rejoice in their warmth. But I am not the sunshine. When people think well of me, I will give thanks. But I will not covet their praise.

Hail storms may pummel me and pock mark my surface, but I am not the hail. Unkind words pierce like arrows, but they are not the truest thing about me. At least, not the only true thing.

Mudslides might mar me, but I am not the mud. I will sin. I will fail. Over and over again. But I am not the sin. Repentance will heal me and wash me and make me new.

I am not the weather.

Neither are you.

Whoever trusts in the Lord is like Mount Zion: Unshakeable, it stands forever. ~Psalm 125:1

On Eating an Elephant…

“How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bite at a time.”

~African proverb

I suppose there is a certain wisdom that comes with age. Even without purposeful cultivation. A warfare wisdom born of much folly and error.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons is the brilliance of  “one bite”.

I fought it when I was younger…and “smarter”…than I am now.

When striving to master a piano piece, I would “warm up” by playing the portion I already knew. Then work for a bit on the despicable part that gave me trouble. Then play the part I knew well again. And again. Then play it all. And predictably train wreck at the difficult part. Then play the part I knew again to re-assure myself. Etc……..ad nauseum.

If I had applied all that time to only the prickly part, I would have mastered it.

But it overwhelmed me.

Most tasks (projects…goals…resolutions…changes…you fill in the blank) overwhelm if we persist in seeing the whole of it in one glance, when it would yield to us if we would only take on one bit at a time.

I see it in my kids:

Piano scales played badly because mediocre and fast somehow seems better than precise and slow (which would eventually become precise AND fast).

Paralysis to clean a room run amok, when tackling one corner…one shelf…just the floor…would, over time, slay the beast.

Every now and then I still see it in me.

A teenager infested house that “refuses” to be put to order.

Chaotic days…a frantic schedule…that seem out of my own control.

An inability to “find time” to write of late. Which makes me uncomfortable and ill tempered.

Today I began learning a new piece of music. An acapella vocal work with unusual harmonies. Almost without thought, I began dividing it into little bits. I rehearsed each til I knew it, then added the next little bit. Remarkable how soon I was making this very difficult work my own. One bite at a time.

It made me eager to take on another project. Just so I could practice dividing it into tiny, conquerable bits.

In this season when many of us have set audacious goals for ourselves–when attendance levels at the gym will tell the story of grand resolutions made and abandoned–when juicers, and pilates videos, and self-help books will fly off the shelves like gang busters (and show up on eBay in a few weeks)–I challenge you to stop intriguing and buying stuff  and plotting how to eat the whole elephant at once. And just make one change.

Take one step.

One bite.

Then take the next.

And the next.

And watch what happens…..

*Drawing at top of post by Sean Gallo. See more of his fine work HERE.

Top Posts of 2011

Writing is sometimes just for me. Thoughts I need to work out. The words give place to that. But, mostly, writing is about communing with another. And it is always most satisfying when it resounds in the heart of someone…or many someones. These are the posts that this year connected most deeply, based on number of visits, shares, and comments.

Thank you for reading. I would still write if you didn’t. But it would mean far less.

Godspeed  In January, our dear Father Seraphim was laid to rest. He was an artist and a man of peace. He will be much missed. Herein I write my impressions both of him and of the service which ushered him into the Presence. (This post was transferred from my previous blog without comments. You can read those HERE if you like.)

Delicious Agony  A Lenten post. Of the futility of striving to apprehend God, and the extravagant grace of receiving Him. Incidentally, the song featured in this post has become a lullaby for my granddaughter. Would that she could understand the truth of it without the folly and error I required.

Just Show Up  What if all that is required of us…to care for our friends, to live out our faith, to create…is simply our presence? Our willingness to be…

Soul Stink  A confession.

Daughter of My Daughter  An attempt to capture a crack in time. One of those moments that will live in the memory for always. The day my daughter became a mommy.

Dream Wall  A fanciful construct, inspired by David McCullough’s book, The Greater Journey, which struck an unexpected cord. For the lover of art. Or the would be lover of art. An invitation…

Pray in Me  Of the words which bury themselves inside us, if we will let them. Of the Spirit who prays Himself in us with groanings too deep for words…

Before They Leave  Of the books I would have all our children know before they leave home.

You Don’t Have to Shave Yo’ Legs  A playful look at a volatile subject. Love that loves all the time, no matter what. Love that chooses to see good. Plus, a little ditty from Keb Mo. 🙂

Book List: The Lost Books  My most popular book list EVER. If you were stranded on a deserted island, which books would you want to have with you? Be sure and read the comments. They Are GOLDEN!!

Fringe Benefits  Of perseverance and persistence. Of the unexpected gifts that come with doing the hard things.

A Blessing Unsolicited: Part II  Sometimes the most beautiful gifts come in unlikely packages…

Empty  Of a costly exuberance. Of pouring out too much.

Booklist: On Writing  My favorite authors on the crafting of words. Again, some great info in the comments.

Lord, Make Me Humble, But Not Yet  A raw, honest confession. Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.

Of Being a Grandmother  Being a grandmother is, in fact, the bombdiggity. 🙂 Here’s why.

Postcards From Atlanta  Of a spectacular weekend with Women of Faith.

If I Were Really Brave  On daring and audacity, and risking it all.

11 Films to See More Than Once  The most popular of a series of 11 posts I did in October. Films that are so rich that they bear repeating. Another one where you want to read the comments.

Favorite Literary Encounters of 2011

It always makes me a little nauseous. Sitting down to make a list of favorite reads, I mean. Because there will be books I love that don’t make the cut. And they will sit there on the page imploring and asking me how they failed me. And I will want to cry. Because yes, they were very good. And I will remember some exquisite passage and exactly where I was when I read it and what it awoke in me. And I will feel like a traitor.

But the fact is, I have found my most memorable books from the recommendation of friends. And we have time to read only so many books before we die. Therefore, I feel a moral obligation to tell others about wonderful books I read, even if the process is excruciating.

Here are standouts from this year’s crop:

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas  This is one of those novels that demand revisiting. The plot is complex, with subtleties and nuances that will require a lifetime to sort out. A disturbing, redemptive, provocative meditation on justice and grace.

Thirst: Poems, Mary Oliver  This book lies on a table in my bedroom. I can not tell you how many times this year I have picked it up, searching for just the right words. And finding them. Mary Oliver has proved a very good friend. Her poems give voice to rumblings in my soul. Yearnings. Delicious joys.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

~Mary Oliver

New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton  “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being…” Is it any wonder that I love Merton so? His exploration of the interior life continues to compel and instruct me.

Peace Like a River Leif Enger  I recall with vivid clarity the moment I knew this story was not going to have a happy ending. Could not have a happy ending and be true. I almost dug my heels in and refused to finish it. But I could not not finish it. I had invested myself too deeply in these characters and I had to follow it through. The best books are very like life. Messy, painful, but relentlessly tinged with hope. Even when all circumstances prescribe against it. This is such.

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts, Ian Cron  Too fantastic to be true, yet absolutely true. A story filled with intrigue, heartbreak, and renegade joy from a fabulous storyteller: winsome, funny, poignant. Read my full review HERE.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand  Hillenbrand weaves an enthralling narrative around the true story of Louis Zamperini whose plane was shot down in the middle of the Pacific during World War II. We follow his terrifying weeks aboard a life-raft, the horrors of life as a prisoner of war, and the surprising challenge of returning home. It is a survivor story to be sure. But it is also a story of going beyond just survival. Highly recommended.

Stained Glass Hearts: Seeing Life from a Broken Perspective, Patsy Clairmont  Patsy Clairmont, humorist extraordinaire who can captivate a whole auditorium with her stories, reveals her softer, poetic underbelly in this lovely ode to the beauty in brokenness. Contemplative. Poet. She who has a deep ache for beauty, transcendence, truth. Weaver of words who can turn a phrase with a delicate, fragile loveliness that pierces the heart. Read the whole of my rave HERE.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough  While many Americans were heading west to find their fortunes, another group headed east to Paris to study. Art, science, and industry were still in their infancy in 19th century America. But Paris was a cauldron of idea and audacity. And the people who spent time there would return to shape the America of the future. McCullough carries us there with fascinating stories of people whose names will be familiar, though I’ll wager the many of the stories will surprise you. I did not write a review of the book, but you can read a post inspired by it HERE.

A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver  “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.” Yes indeed. Pulitzer prize winning Oliver has much to say about the craft of writing. I found much inspiration and nourishment here.

Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition, John Oliver  O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord. Father Oliver builds his remarkable illumination of the Holy Spirit around this portion of the Trisagion prayers. It is one of the most stimulating books our Tuesday study group has ever read. You can sample a bit of his teaching in this post, inspired by one of the more difficult chapters for me personally.

Hannah Coulter: A Novel, Wendell Berry It is, perhaps, because she seems so familiar. Very like someone I have known. Or, perhaps it is simply Berry’s winsome telling of her story. But this was a comforting, sustaining read for me. More thoughts HERE.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard  I dragged out the reading of it out over a couple of months. Very unlike me. Because I dreaded being done with it. Not walking with her through the woods, over the pond, across the meadow. I miss her directing my gaze to something I would surely have missed. I miss her quirky observations and her detailed explanations. Mostly, I miss her words.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee  I can’t believe I read it for the first time at 45. A rich exploration of life inside the mind of a young girl growing up in the rural south. Some of her experiences very like my own, some completely other. Whimsy, superstition, intrigue, honor, courage, pain. All of these in generous measure. One of the best books I have ever read.

*Honorable Mentions: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury I found both of these to be terribly troubling. Mostly because the disturbing worlds they predict have so very much in common with the world in which we are living. Worlds where reading is banned and thinking for oneself is a thing of the past. Where we are spoonfed beliefs “for our own good” and for the “benefit of society”. I find it difficult to call them favorites when they made me so uncomfortable. But I haven’t the least difficulty calling them important.

What books did you read this year that rankled, inspired, or captivated?

Christmas in Appalachia…a Remembrance

I run my fingers over the velvet cloth of my dress. Hand-stitched by my mother. Like all of my clothes. It is a wonder to me; this cloth. Like fur. So delicious under my hands. Dark blue. Too wonderful to be real.

I click my black patent leather shoes together and listen to the squishy sound they make. It will scuff them, I know. I can’t not do it.

An excited hum fills the church as everyone scoots together to make more room. So many people. Some of the men pull out folding chairs to put at the end of the pews, and I know that this night is not like others…

The fragrance of cedar mixes with a scent I can only describe as colored light and tinsel. Warm. Artificial. But good. Very good. Delicate icicles sparkle against the lights, and I know someone very like my mother (it might have been my mother) has hung them. One at a time. Draped carefully over the end of the branch. Personally I always favored the technique of throwing them against the tree and letting them find their own place. I usually got two handfuls thrown before my mother very unceremoniously put an end to that mess.

In my mind, I rehearse the words I have practiced over and over. A poem. Short. About a box. A gift box that folds out to form a cross. It is clever. I know that. But I am not really sure why.

The singing begins. My dad always fusses about the crazy harmonies of Christmas carols. They don’t behave properly. And men and women who know nothing of the shaped notes in the hymnal…who find their pitches “by ear”…will be chasing these chords all night. But I like them. These strange songs. These only ever at Christmas songs.

I couldn’t tell you what is happening inside me. I only know that it is other. A flirtation with something beyond my little world. I know it in that most important knowing…the inside knowing.

Without words.

In abject defiance of language.

The time comes for our class to mount the stage. My heart pounds. I search for the words like they are floating in the air somewhere. I feel sick at my stomach. My aunt Janice looks at me. My turn has come. Marvelously, the words find me just in time. I say the poem. Words in a pattern. Words I do not thoroughly understand. Yet they strum against something inside me. Stoking a fire of wonder…of mystery.

It is beginning.

It is more important than I could know.

I don’t remember what happens after the poem….until…brown sacks are retrieved from beneath the tree. Every person will receive one. There is an orange, an apple, several unidentifiable nuts in their shells (these I will give to my dad),  fragrant peppermint, and vanilla cream drops cloaked in chocolate.

And everything that is this night coalesces in a jumble of impression and awe. It is old-fashioned, perhaps. But it very capably says to a little girl of the mountains that this night is like no other. That everything you think you know is being undone. That the miracle of Jesus in the world has the power to transform ordinary into extraordinary.

I have worn it. I have breathed it. I have eaten it.

And the reality of this plants itself deep inside me. And I will never be content in a world without wonder. I will spend the rest of my life chasing that which I first tasted in a simple, ordinary, extraordinary Appalachian Christmas.

A gift for you. A remnant of my little girl Christmas in the mountains. A song we sang every year. One that has proper harmonies. 🙂 Enjoy.

Exultant Explosion

Joy

The Incarnation is…..a very complex thing.

Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes;
of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear,
but also of vigilance and drama…
There is something defiant in it also;
something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight
sound like the great guns of a battle
that has just been won.

All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere
only hangs in the air as something like
a lingering fragrance or fading vapor
from the exultant explosion
of that one hour
in the Judean hills
nearly two thousand years ago.

But the savor is still unmistakable,
and it is something too subtle
or too solitary
to be covered by our use of the word
peace.

~G.K. Chesterton

 

*Artwork: Soliloquies-Joy by Makoto Fujimura

Tidings of Comfort and Joy…

Every year I pull them out with the decorations. They go into a basket in the living room. And we read them over and over. And they are just as funny, or sweet, or troubling as they were the first time. Some of them have Christmas stickers or crayon marks lovingly added by little fingers over the years. And they are one of the threads that ever weaves us together as a family.

Christmas Books

Picture books. Advent devotionals. Classic literature. All have a place. And when I hold them in my hands, a panorama of other Christmases in other places, but with these same dear faces, plays before my eyes. And the fire of gratitude is stoked inside me.

Here are a few of our family’s every year favorites. I would love to know yours.

The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle with paintings of Giotto  The Nativity as framed by one of my favorite storytellers, accompanied by the sumptuous paintings of Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto was a landmark artist; the forefather of the Renaissance. And this series of paintings is one of the more remarkable in all of western art. Add that to the beauty of L’Engle’s words, and the beauty of the story itself, and you have a masterpiece worth revisiting, over and over.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore Just a few nights ago I was up during the night with Kenzie. I recited this poem to her. Twenty years rolled away in an instant, and I was holding her mommy as a brand new November baby, reciting the same poem into the night. I memorized it as a little girl. By osmosis. By listening to the Perry Como Christmas album approximately 478 times every year. (My brother and I double stacked it with the Chipmunks Christmas. Side one of both. Then flip the stack.)

The Cajun Night Before Christmas and The Hillbilly Night Afore Christmas My aunt introduced us to the Cajun version when she lived in New Orleans years ago. We love it! I later found the Hillbilly version. When I read it,  Appalachia is in my voice and in my heart.

Twas the night afore Christmas
‘Twixt ridgeback and holler,
No critter was twitchin
Nary hog dast to waller

Each keerful darn’t stockin’
War’ nail’t near the chimbly,
A hopin’ that Sainty’d
Be a extry bit fren’ly….

On the Incarnation by St. Antanasius It is one of the most important books I have ever read. Just over a hundred pages, but throbbing with the essence of the gospel. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In language precise and potent, Antanasius defends the most pivotal truth of Christianity. This year, I make it part of my preparation…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss I never get all the way through without crying. My children indulge me. We all know someone like the Grinch whose heart is “two sizes too small”. I suppose I never want to forget that all of those someones can be made new. And that my family and I can be part of that. One of Kenzie’s favs so far. Can’t decide, though, if she just loves the black, white, and red illustrations. 🙂

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson Speaking of lost causes…. 🙂 No one has ever seemed more of a lost cause than the Herdman children. And yet, remarkably, they will help all of us see Christmas with new eyes. We laugh our way hysterically through almost the whole book, until that moment when things get really quiet and my kids say, “Mom, are you crying?” Beautiful!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens There is a reason why everyone and his brother has wanted to tell this story. To give it their unique imprint. In it we see ourselves. Our best selves. Our worst selves. And, more than anything I think, we are reminded that it is never to late to choose a new course for our lives. This is a message we need to hear again and again. Some of us more than others. Read it aloud to your family. It is the work of an afternoon. It will spark wonderful discussion. and the language is delightful.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas I read it every year. Yet, I find that the events of the year…the hard things, the joys, the new experiences…color the familiar stories, and I see something I have never seen before. Beautiful, hard, thought-provoking words from some of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle…that draw me deep into the longing, the mystery, and the magic of the season.

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen Nouwen has been a very influential voice in my life. I enjoy having him near in this Holy season. Short writings that orient my heart for the day.

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson This story haunted me as a little girl. I could not get it out of my head. Or out of my heart. It haunts me still. But I still read it. May I always have eyes to see the unseen people in my world. May I be so discomfited that I must do something to help. I highly recommend the edition with Rachel Isadora’s luscious illustrations. They are positively captivating.

Your turn. What are the books you read over and over in this season?

Lonely…

Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger. Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, without distance closeness cannot cure. Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures…
~Henri Nouwen

This has been a raw, cantankerous, no one will answer my emails, tired, overwhelmed, everybody needs something from me, tears in the dishwater kind of week. I am not sleeping. I have no talent for sleep anyway, so it is usually the first thing to go. That, of course, only makes matters worse. I am frenzied, withered, spent.

I have been here before. And I have come to understand that when it seems as though everyone is conspiring to make me insane, the problem is probably not with “everyone“.

And even though it never works, I begin by trying to eliminate the stresses in my life; by wishing everyone would just do what I need them to do.

It’s kind of like putting perfume on sweat. The first impression might be tolerable, but it doesn’t take long before the stink wins out.

I was awake last night. In the middle of the night. Again. This time, instead of repeatedly calculating exactly how much sleep I will get if I fall asleep right now, or fretting over everything in my life that needs to be done for the next 2 weeks years, or trying to escape by planning our next vacation… I picked up a book…one of the books I began reading at the beginning of Advent…and found the familiar, but forgotten, words above. And I began to understand…

I had made a worthy start to Advent. Finding time for stillness. For peace. Peace that I could carry with me into my days. And give to others, if need be. I’m not sure where things went wrong…

You cannot bring peace to others if you do not have it yourself.
~Fr. Alexander Elchaninov

Today, roughly half way through the season of expectation and longing, I begin again. Pursuing loneliness. For myself. For my family and friends. I will follow the One I love to the lonely place. I will sit with Him. And I will invite Him to set me aright so that I might love as He loves. So that the sweet aroma of Him might linger upon me…

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. ~Mark 1:35

Cross-training Creativity

Because I am an old lady, I rarely run more than three days a week, even when I am training for an endurance event. I rest one day. And the other three days I cross-train. This consists of varying combinations of Plyometrics, Core work, Yoga, Biking, Swimming, Weights, etc… This lessens the stress on my joints. But, it also has the added bonus of making me more wholly fit. This, in turn, makes me a better runner. Ironic, huh?

I would like to submit that the same is true about creativity. Though it is certain a great part of honing any craft is the frequency with which we practice it, it just might be that we can also breathe life into our work by cheating on our genre, just a bit.

For example:

A writer who studies painting will refine his vision. Subtleties, nuances will reveal themselves. And his settings will become more vivid; more evocative.

A painter who visits the symphony, or another live music venue, may find her work suddenly more fluid, or whimsical, or turbulent.

Encountering expression of an unfamiliar form has a tendency to provoke. To vivify. To inspire.

Here are some suggestions for ways to nourish and invigorate your creative impulse:

Visit an art gallery or museum. Don’t study about the works ahead of time. Just encounter them. Let them speak to you. Be open and receptive.

Learn to play an instrument. It’s never too late. And you may find that when the right words won’t come for your story, picking up the guitar or sitting down at the piano for a bit blows the dust off, loosens whatever is bound.

Read a poem. Aloud. Several times, if you please. Till the rhythm of it…the breath…the silences…work their way into you. If you commit it to memory, all the better. Then you have it at the ready anytime that part of you that creates beauty needs a place to rest and be refreshed. You can always find something lovely in Garrison Keillor’s collection, Good Poems.

Play. Fingerpaint. Buy a can of playdough. Go all Andy Goldsworthy, and create a little environmental art. Compose a poem of nonsense words, a la Jabberwocky (Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…). Cut photos out of magazines and make a collage. This is not for publication. This is for fun. To let your imagination run wild for a bit. To silence the inner critic.

Practice Yoga. I know yoga is a hot button among many people of faith. Approach it like anything else in your life, with discernment and circumspection. Yoga is very helpful for learning to still the mind. And it helps you liberate creativity held hostage by the body. Shiva Rea makes wonderful resources for use at home. Yes, they do include eastern concepts, but she leaves lots of room for you to bring your own faith, or lack thereof, to your practice.

Go out of doors. Take a walk. Occupy a bench. Go for a long, slow drive. Bundle up, and sit on your back porch. It doesn’t really matter what you do, so long as your attention is free to soak in the beauty around you. Breathe deep. Pay attention. Expect to see something beautiful. You will, if you are looking for it. Watch the clouds. Listen to the birds. Pick up a single leaf and gaze long at it…

Read a book. Not a book about creativity. Read a story. A really great story. You will be amazed how it will fire your creativity. Not sure where to find a great story? Check out these resources: The Joy of Reading and Invitation to the Classics. Or, ask a friend. Find books my friends recommend HERE and HERE.

Go to the Theater. There is something intoxicating about live theater. The way the actors spin their art right in front of you, til you feel you are part of it.

See a film. Cinema, well done, is a synergy of storytelling, music, painting and poetry all. To find a truly great film, you might start with the American Film Institute’s 100 Years 100 Movies. Or sample their favorites from the last decade HERE.

Visit a live music venue. You pick the style. The important thing is to sit in the room and let the music wrap itself around you…to seep into your very pores. To watch the players interact with their instruments. To feel the energy as a whole gathering of people you don’t know are woven together in this one experience.

Have a long, deep conversation with another creative. Or, better yet, a whole table full of them. The most remarkable flourishing of art has always happened when artists converge. Think of Renaissance Florence, the salons of 19th century Paris, Harlem in the 1920’s. Be part of a mutual provocation society. Be generous. Receive.

These are just a few ideas. I would love to hear yours.

How do you nourish creativity? When you are weary, what revs your engine?

*Artwork at the top of the post by Glenn Grubbs.

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