Monday, June 23, 2014

Desert land

This year seems to be a continuing test.  The theme of the past few months has been turmoil.  A lot of things in my life have been shaken up and are relentlessly challenging me.

It started early this year when I got a freelance illustration job that will be completed by October.  It is a great opportunity for me to complete an entire children's book, though it is not for publication and I did not write the story.  When it is finished, I will have a great piece for my portfolio.  However, it does put stress on me to keep up with it and make it 'good enough' according to my own standards.  At first I thought it would not take too long because we were planning to do a 10 page book with a cover illustration.  It has now become a 16 page book with a cover illustration, meaning I have to complete 17 paintings in the course of 6 months.  Half of that time has passed now, and I have done 6 paintings, so the pressure is on.  It was still seeming do-able until my schedule changed.  But first a few other things happened.

In March, I found out that my dog was very ill.  I went through a bunch of worrisome testing and had to make some decisions for which I was not well prepared.  My husband and I were yo-yoed by the vets between hope that she would recover and preparing to lose her.  They told us either she'll be fine because the cause is x, or she will be put to sleep because the cause turned out to be y.  Either way we needed to spend a lot of money to find out if she could live or not.  It ended in the worst case scenario.

In the middle of the week when the dog was dying (or maybe not dying, we didn't know) my friend happened to be getting married.  I had to temporarily let go of my grief and pain to be emotionally present for my friend's wedding and the festivities of her celebration.  It was really challenging for me, as I can't easily hide my emotions without turning into a cold stony facade.

Now around this time, things also started to change at my job.  Changes happen there all the time, but the ones that really impact me are the people that come and go.  I was promoted to assistant manager a few months before, which took some getting used to at the time.  Now someone in upper management whom we relied on for almost everything in the company was leaving, and my own manager was stepping into his place.  He immediately promoted me to general manager.  If it weren't for the confidence of everyone I worked with, I might not have believed I could do the job at all.  It is a lot of adjustment for me, being responsible for so much.  I'm now working 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, and it is very draining.  I come home and my brain is mush, and it's all I can do to put together a meal and crash in front of the TV or under the pages of a book.

On the very same week that I was promoted to my new position, another of my pets fell ill.  This time it was much harder to deal with, because I watched my animal lose the ability to move around, feed herself, or do anything other than breath in and out, and even that seemed difficult.  My heart broke open watching her suffer, and after two days of solid weeping and constant emotional pain, I froze over and retreated from it all.  Nothing could break through to cause me either happiness or sorrow: I was burnt out.  When my pet died, I both mourned her and was relieved that my sharing of her pain could end.

During those difficult few weeks, I halted all attempts to work on my paintings for the book.  Emotional deadness cannot yield creativity.  I fell behind.  Due to my longer hours at work, the  illustration project has become much more of an issue.  I simply don't have enough left in me at the end of a workday to do any painting--all of my work has to be done on the weekends now, which pretty much means I'm never not working.  I worry everyday about finishing the book on time and being successful with my first real illustration gig, since I've always thought that this is the work I really want to be doing.  I don't know if I'll feel the same way after I finish this project.  What do I really want to do?  Right now I miss making art for myself, coming up with my own projects and making them a reality.  I don't really think that I can ever do that and earn money from it though--maybe I need to forget about making a living from my work at all.

The title of this post is 'desert land' because I feel like I've been walking through a spiritual desert this year.  I keep thinking it's over, I've come through it and things are getting better, more meaningful, more life-affirming.  But then I realize that I was just passing a little spring in the desert, and it's still stretching on before me.  I feel far from God on my own end, yet I always sense that He is near to me.  It's like I've withdrawn, even though every time I reach out even the tiniest bit I am awash in God's grace and acceptance, yet still I retreat.  I don't understand why.

He really is here with me though; when I am cold and selfish, when I am shallow; He does not withdraw or forget me.  When I think my lack of effort must be repellant to God, He waits beside me to welcome me back with heartbreaking love.  I can't deserve it: maybe that's why it is so hard for me to accept it as a freely given gift.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


"Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal.  As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.  ...As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty."

Written by C.S. Lewis in his book "The Screwtape Letters", a correspondence between two devils discussing the temptation of a Christian believer, this excerpt puts into words something that I think all of us have found to be true.  The thing that intrigued me when I read this was that he so easily acknowledged a difficult truth that society today tends to avoid or ignore.  From every direction, we get promises of 'this will make you happy!'  'Finally find the happiness you've always been searching for!'  'Live happily ever after once you have X!'

So much advertising or so-called 'positive thinking' gives you the false impression that you can actually arrive at happiness.  Who among us really believes that a human can live out their life at a sustained peak of happiness--and yet wishful thinking leads us to want to believe it when it is offered.  Even when it comes from the good intention of trying to motivate people and give them hope, as in any self-help inspirational book you pull off the shelf, it creates a false reality that people will strive after in vain.

In Lewis' writing, it is refreshing and reassuring to hear the truth about happiness.  It comes and it goes.  It's not an end goal, it's not a destination: we cannot pin it down and hold on to it.  Consequently, it is a relief to realize that neither is unhappiness a permanent state.  Life as we experience it is like waves in the ocean, with peaks and troughs and never-ending motion.  You can know that the valley will never extend down and down into oblivion; you also know that the peaks are moments to be thankful for, and they will always recur eventually.

You can't control the undulation, but how you react to it is up to you.  You can cultivate strength you will need for the troughs.  You can practice appreciation for the peaks.  And you don't have be afraid of the natural perpetual motion of life.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Photo an Hour

I got this idea from another blog I like to read (The Clothes Horse) for a photo project that seemed like fun: a photo every hour, as a way of documenting one day of your life.  Without further preamble, here is my Saturday, from 8:00 to 8:00:

My morning view.  Despite setting my alarm every day for 6:45, I'm not truly awake until 8.

By 9:00, I'm at work with the place to myself for a half hour.  Sipping coffee, counting coins.

At 10:00 we open the store and start processing books to go on the shelves.  It's not busy yet, so I chat with my fellow cashier and finish the morning reports.

We're having a crazy sale today, so from 11:00 to around 1:00 I am rooted to the register.  Thank God for this shabby spongy mat shielding my feet from the concrete floor.

At 2:00 I get to take a break for lunch.  This is the view from the lunch table...a combination of found objects and original works (we're a creative crowd at the bookstore).

After lunch around 3:00 I go run an errand for work, and it's nice to get out and smell the spring-like air.

4:00--I get out of work early today, and because it's so mild outside I feel the need for a walk.  I took a drive to a place where there's fields of farmland edged with woods and enjoyed an iced latte while I walked.  I don't get out in nature as much as I want.

By 5:00 I'm home, greeting my bunnies.  Fuzzy bunny pats, then washing dishes.

At 6:00 I take off the dish gloves and spend some quiet time with this great book.

From 7:00 to 8:00, I'm in the living room while my husband watches TV, toying around with a website builder.  Hopefully I'll have an art portfolio website finished in a few weeks :).

This was a fun project, it's neat to see a little slice of your life in pictures.  I can imagine looking back at these and being reminded of the day-to-day experiences from this time.  You should try it!

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013's path

When I look back on this year, it seems like I spent it moving backwards.  OK, to be fair, it was more like 2 steps forward, 1 step back.  I started the year with the overwhelming need to face my own shortcomings and do something about them.  I wanted to be honest with myself about how I was living, versus how I wanted to live.  It was clear that I was nowhere near where I wanted to be.

I was led to read a book ("Celebration of Discipline") that really helped me get some focus in my life and accomplish some things that were really important to me.  I started some habits that were healthy for my soul.  I began to follow some disciplines that made me feel self-worth because I was finally living out my beliefs in a solid way.

And then I stopped.

Somehow around March my habits were thrown off (probably when I went away for vacation) and afterwards I could not find the strength to restart them.  I fell back into the longing to be disciplined, but the despair of feeling that I could not do it.  It felt like a solid wall had been built, and no matter how much I wanted to I could not push through it.  I became apathetic again.  That fed my self-doubt, the feeling that I wasn't strong enough to live a spiritual life.  I was pulled farther and farther from feeling anything significant.  I let my time and my mind be flooded with things that weren't all that important--I felt I couldn't manage anything more.

I only experienced brief times of meaning, like little gasps of air while drowning.  Those times only amplified the feeling of loss; loss of focus and determination and discipline.  I've learned about my own weakness this year.  I've learned about how my enemy snatches at each and every opportunity to drown me in nothingness.  To distract me.  To make me believe in the strength of my own weakness.

But I've also learned about how God uses even the briefest of moments to speak to me.  In the dwindling times when I devoted my mind to His disciplines, He used them to give me important messages.  Messages about how to grow, about how to break out of a rut like the one I'm in, and about how to look outside of myself and care for those around me.  They were quite personal messages that spoke specifically to my life and my situation--given at precisely the right moment in order to mean something to me.  That is how I know they were not of my own devising.

It's difficult to look back on this year and not feel ashamed and disappointed.  There were other highlights too though.  I learned to be happy at work this year.  I made friends with my co-workers, and accepted where I was and what I was doing.  They helped me see that I could have fun with my work and even take some pride in what I do, humble as it is.  I've been so focused on what I'm NOT doing, that I had no care for what I AM doing.  But now I'm starting to be ok with it.  I don't know if I'll ever reach some of my goals; if I'll ever have the time or motivation to make my own book or graphic novel or web comic or whatever.  But I can't let my life be about what I can't do.

Here's what I CAN do:
~Finish reading Celebration of Discipline.
~Promise myself that I will keep trying to re-instigate the disciplines.
~Not forget about what I want for myself--the life I want to live is still possible.
~Take it one day at a time; one art project at a time; one brush-stroke and then another.  Don't worry that I can't see the finished piece yet.  Keep putting pencil to paper.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Not as we know it

I've always loved quotes and song lyrics.  I used to keep a journal of them and go back through to read them every so often.  Now I jot them down in my sketchbooks at random.  Sometimes they just break through some layer of me and mean something important.  Today's lyrics are from Sara Groves' song "Love".

Love -- I made it mine
I made it small, I made it blind
I followed hard only to find
It wasn't love, it wasn't love.

Love--of songs and pen
oh, love of movie endings
takes out the break, leaves out the bend
and misses love.

Love, not of you
Love, not of me
Come hold us up,
come set us free
Not as we know it,
but as it can be.

Love's reality
is not a passing bravery
it holds out hope beyond what's seen
the hope of love.

Love, not of you
Love, not of me
Come hold us up,
come set us free
Not as we know it,
but as it can be.


Monday, August 5, 2013

Stone Heart

Sometimes it is easy to give up on ourselves: to say to God, "I'm not worth your time.  Don't bother about me: I've tried over and over and I'm just never going to get it right."  Recently I began to feel that if I cannot give God that which he deserves (my mind, body, and spirit; all the time, for the rest of my life) then I cannot offend him by giving him less.  So give Him nothing.  Close my heart and let it become stone.

Nothing may be done with a stone heart: nothing goes in, nothing comes out.  Cold, hard walls encase frozen emotions.  All attempts at living a Christian life cease: prayers die on my lips before I can utter them, and guilt, regret, and loss are all that can be felt when my thoughts turn to God.  I can do nothing with such a heart.  But what if we consider that my heart is in God's hands--what can God do with a stone heart?

Looking back at the stories in the Bible, I observed that God has actually been able to do a lot with stones.  In Exodus when Moses was leading God's stubborn people through the desert and they had no water to drink, God instructed Moses to strike a stone with his staff and water flowed forth from it, keeping them alive in that barren place.  Many altars to God were made with stones throughout the Bible, marking places where God had done great deeds.  In 1 Kings when the Israelites were worshipping idols, Elijah was instructed to build an altar of stone with wood atop it and cover it with enough water to fill a trench surrounding it, and then he prayed that God would reveal himself to the disbelieving people, asking that "this people may know that You, O Lord, are God, and that You have turned their heart back again".  Then "the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked the water that was in the trench."  The people fell on their faces saying "The Lord, He is God!"

In the New Testament, Jesus told the people that with faith even as small as a mustard seed, they could command mountains (stone) to move.  Jesus also said that if his people failed to worship him; if they kept quiet, then the stones would cry out in praise of him.

Before life came to be, God spoke a Word into the darkness, and the barren, empty stone that was the Earth burst forth in light and life, and was covered in creatures and growth and fruitfulness. 

When He sent his only son to Earth as means of deliverance and his own people rejected him, the stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone.

What can God do with my heart of stone?  "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:26).  No matter how I harden my heart and refuse to believe it can be renewed, God's unrelenting love will find a way to change it.  Sometimes all it takes is a simple word of truth, spoken by someone who cares, to bring the thaw.

"Captive", acrylic on paper, Daphne Powers
Our stone-hardened hearts cannot stop God's goodness toward us.  It overflows our cups: every net is full to bursting with fish; every hungry mouth is fed even from one small basket of food; the oil in our lamps burns days longer than it possibly could.  We have to remember: He created us to delight in Him, that he may delight in us and give us goodness that never runs dry.  "The glory of God is man fully alive" (Saint Irenaeus).

So though we may give up on ourselves time and again, God will not give up on us, ever.  I cannot always be waiting for the day when I will 'get it right'.  God does not expect perfection; neither should I.  "He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles" (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters).  I think that rather than perfection, what God really wants from us is a sincere and devoted heart. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Listening Prayer

I have been gradually learning a new form of prayer that I don't think is talked about enough.  It comes under many different names: a few I've heard used are contemplative prayer, meditative prayer or centering prayer.  I like to think of it as listening prayer though.

You'll forgive me for paraphrasing a paraphrase, but when I was in college a professor once told my class about this type of prayer.  He told us a story about Mother Teresa being interviewed and asked about her prayer life.  This is what I remember him telling us:

Interviewer: "When you pray, what do say to God?"
Mother Teresa: "I listen."
Interviewer: "And what does God say?"
Mother Teresa: "He listens."

This struck me as a revolutionary form of interaction with God. 

Many people, most of all non-believers, have come to think of prayer in roughly two categories: asking God for things and thanking God for things.  If you take the time to investigate prayer, you undoubtedly would find that these two forms are simply the tip of the iceberg.  Listening prayer is something I found when I plunged beneath the surface, and it is worth talking about.

Being still and silent is not a common occurrence in our society.  Everything is rush and go and get it done amidst constant noises from the alarm clock to the radio in your car to the babble of the TV.  Some days you may not experience more than an hour at most of relative silence.  We may think of monasteries as the only places where sincere listening to God can be done, but I think we can create our own "monastery bubble" (yes, I'm coining it) around ourselves in order to have quiet to listen for God.

And really, what could be more healthy for the mind and refreshing for the soul than a space of silence?  I think we've forgotten that we need to be quiet sometimes.  To cease planning, stop worrying and regretting, take a break from the endless tasks and just breathe deeply.  When I intentionally make time and find a place to do this, I find it becomes a spiritual moment in my day without really trying.  It is a time to let God be God, and humble myself by realizing that I don't have to say anything to Him (what do I have to say that is more important than what He has to say to me?)--I simply need to be still and listen.

There is so much to learn about this new way of prayer or meditation, I don't want to ramble on about it when I'm really just skimming the surface.  But my experience with it so far has been good.  I try to find time in the morning when there is a natural peace lingering about, before the rush of the day even begins.  It is a much bigger challenge than I considered to actually quiet my thoughts, and I think it's the type of thing where practice really makes a difference.  My mind needs to be trained to let go, to stop the constant agitation of thoughts floating around like socks in a washing machine.  

But sometimes I have found, when the dust settles in my brain and my mind is peacefully waiting, a sort of story unfolds behind my closed eyes--something that I did not invent unwinds itself like a film reel and shows me something about faith or life or some facet of truth that I hadn't known before.  Sometimes it's just a place for me to be quiet, like imagining an empty room with a flickering candle.  Sometimes it's more like a parable with a clear message.  I could choose to believe that my mind makes these things up because it is bored or because it wants to feel good, or I can choose to believe that God accepted my invitation to speak to me, came into my bubble of silence and murmured something He wants me to think about.

Often we cannot imagine the things people will tell us if we only give them a space of quiet and a listening ear.  Imagine what we might learn from God if we stop the babble and give him the quiet space to speak.