marginal gifts

It seems silly to announce that I am preparing for transitions, as the past several years of my life have seen at least one major transition every year, with myriad small transitions in between.  So perhaps it’s fairer to say there’s another crop of transitions on the horizon — housemates graduating, maybe changing house, jobs, cities – and I’m already scared just thinking about these things, much less making any decisions.  Change means loss (even as it also means gain) and many days I’d rather stick with my familiar life than face the uncertainties and anxieties of something new.
However, I recently read a passage by Wendell Berry that has reframed my transition trepidation.  In an essay about life on his small Kentucky farm, Berry describes a moment where he encountered a hawk while plowing a field.  Considering what circumstances made this encounter possible, he poetically muses:
“I feel safe in making a couple of assumptions.  The first is that the hawk came because of the conjunction of the small pasture and its wooded borders, of open hunting ground and the security of trees.  This is the phenomenon of edge or margin that we know to be one of the powerful attractions of a diversified landscape, both to wildlife and to humans.  The human eye itself seems drawn to such margins, hungering for the difference made in the countryside by a hedgy fencerow, a stream, or a grove of trees.  And we know that these margins are biologically rich, the meeting of two kinds of habitat.”
When I read this passage, I immediately thought about the upcoming transitions in my life.  Transitions are precisely these “margins” that Berry describes, the edges where two different worlds collide.  This passage shows me while there may be a precariousness in that meeting of edges, there is also the potential for life.  Thus my perspective has shifted; instead of a fault line where I might fall in, I’m starting to see transitions as a fertile border for new growth.  Out of the meeting of my past, present and future, there may be beautiful chance encounters and a kind of creativity and insight not possible from entrenched routines of everyday life.  I’m hoping that as I walk through this season of change, I can keep my eyes open for gifts from the margin.

Schedules & Sabbaths

For the last five or six years, I have been writing a fantasy trilogy. At times, more so when I was just starting to work on it, I worked on it in spurts and fits. I discovered a couple of years ago, that I needed to find a schedule of writing that allowed me to continue with my regular life, but also continue working on the book. So for two years, I wrote a minimum of 50 words a day, 6 days a week. This kept the basic project going. At times, I I increased my goals. For example, last November, I pushed myself to write a rough draft of the final book, in a month. I was able to do it, and was pleased with the results, but it left me exhausted. Being tired, and having other projects that I needed to get done, I took a break from my books.

Now I’m trying to get back into the rhythm of working on it, and I feel like I’m back at square one. Editing is a different skill than writing a rough draft. It is hard to have a tangible and measurable goal. Also, you need to think a lot more than when you are just writing. When I was just writing and not editing, I could change my mind after I wrote something, and then just start over. The story progressed and changed, to the extent that there are whole characters that are no longer important, but in the rough draft that didn’t matter as much. Now, I need to think about what ideas, story lines, and characters I want to keep.

I knew that this would be a challenge, but when I started to edit, I realized another, more difficult challenge. I have several divergent story ideas, and versions of chapters, all of which I like. I was expecting to hate most of the early stuff I had written, especially the paragraphs I wrote while I was writing a paragraph or two a day. I expected it to be easy, cut off all of the stupid ideas, word plays etc, and rewrite the redeemable parts, but no, I find myself arguing how I can keep both diametrically opposed versions of a chapter, or upset that I can’t keep a character, who I know is extraneous.

I’m not saying it doesn’t need a lot of work, but it has more promised than I remembered. Had I started looking at it when I was still exhausted, I might have hated everything and thrown it all away. However, since I took the time to take a break, a writing sabbath, if you will, I find that the writing has as much promise, or more than the my original idea. Having picked up something, that I was beginning to despair of, has made me wonder, what other parts of my life, spiritually, creatively, or practically have I despaired of too quickly, and not made time to weave them into my schedule. On the flip side, what activities, notions, or relationships am I forcing into my life that might benefit from a sabbatical.

As I try and find the elusive balance, I want to encourage you to think about your discarded dreams, and ask yourself, if now might not be a good time to give it a second, twelfth, or twenty-first chance. Maybe your past attempts are not as bad as you remember, or maybe you know enough now that you can achieve what you were not able to before.

happy writer

In case anyone had noticed that a significant number of my posts are about or reference books, here’s why:

(image courtesy of Alan Jacobs, found variously here, here and here)

Implicit in this chart, I feel, is the idea that writers (and other creators) are engaged enthusiasts: people of curiosity and persistence, who take in (books, music, art, ideas, etc.) and then respond through the dogged belief that one’s ideas are worth hashing out until the bitter end.

It’s a great way to be!

What is art?

In my reading this week I came across this definition of art:

“art can be described as a work of human making that complicates the natural and as a gift that speaks to the community because it captures the spirit of that community; this work critiques and energises, bringing newness and clarity.”

The implication here is that a community that produces the artist is the one who decides on what is art ie. it is that which captures the spirit of that community – that which resonates, makes new and brings clarity to the tradition and culture of that community.

Do you agree with this definition of art? Is art definable?

In the same book I was introduced to this wonderful serigraph by John August Swanson, “Inventor” (1975)

Inventor 1975

by John August Swanson

Conflicting Muses

Reading Jill and Christina’s blogs, these last few weeks, has made me think a lot about Creativity and Community. Both of which are things that I long for, and which I enjoy when they are combined. To me a Creative Community is one where you are free to be yourself, and to create things that matter to you. At times this is done on your own. Once you are satisfied, or completely at a loss how to fix it, then you share your art with the community. Other times you create all together, in the same space. Both are extremely fun and rewarding, but the weird thing is that each individual requires a different amount of noise to create.

I myself fear noise. I like quiet when I write, unless I am completely blocked or writing an essay, but several of my friends need noise to write. Specific music, or the hubbub of a coffee shop. Usually, this noise is background, and quiet, but for some people a noisy bowling alley is more conducive to creativity than a quiet bedroom. There are times when I crave this noise, but for the most part I want silence, except the ticking of the clock, or the wind over the water. Often just having someone else in the room distracts me enough that I cannot write. Even if they are quietly reading, or having a nap.

These differences work well when we write, paint, crochet, etc. alone, but what happened when someone who fears noise wants to collaborate in the same space, at the same moment with someone who needs music/background noise. How do they work together? How does their collaboration build community and creativity?

These are questions that I don’t know how to answer, and I don’t think there is one easy answer. I think like all of life/relationships each interaction needs to be handled with grace and a willingness to listen. The art of conversation is the best teacher for collaboration, it is only as we give and take, listen, and truly hear what other people are saying can we collaborate. In the same way that the best conversations weave a web of knowledge, and truth, that goes beyond what the individuals know and ends up in unexpected places, collaboration should bring out the unexpected, and be greater than the sum of the parts.

In the same way that there needs to be give and take when we collaborate, I think we need to be conscious of people’s different levels of noise enjoyment in corporate worship. As a person who thinks better in the quiet, and whose thoughts are quickly wrapped up in external noise, especially music. Time of personal reflection in corporate worship is hindered by the presence of music. I’m sure there are other’s who need the music to keep their mind focused, but for me it is a distraction. However, that being said, the corporate worship, like collaboration is by its very nature about the group and God, not about me and God. If I find it hard to with God because of the distractions, I can at least not be a distraction for others, and enter into the corporate body of Christ, and our joint worship.

Whether worshipping or collaborating in a group, there are challenges, but the joy of community is that by addressing these issues with grace and a willingness to listen. The whole of our worship, or art will be greater than what each of us could do separately. As well, as we enter into community we learn and grow about ourselves and are better able to enter into relationship with those around us. Creative Worshipping Community is difficult, but a wonderful experience.

making space

Over the past few weeks I’ve been slowly reading the very intellectually satisfying and spiritually convicting “Playing God” by Andy Crouch.  In the book, he explores a Christian (theological, biblical, cultural) understanding of power.  I’m nearly at the end, in a section on “gleaning” of all things.

In this section, Crouch is describing how Old Testament Hebrew law functions as a system to redistribute power periodically.  Citing the sabbath day, sabbath year, and jubilee year, he says, “At each stage of this escalating ‘sabbath ladder’ the powerful are asked to relinquish more of their power and, especially, their privilege–the accumulated fruits of their successful exercise of power.”  Gleaning, the practice of leaving some of the harvest in the fields, to be harvested by the poor, is seen as a similar practice of letting privilege drop and using agricultural power to make space for others to live.

Crouch goes on to apply this idea to our current time, saying that our equivalent of gleaning or jubilee must be to make space for other people to exercise their skills and abilities, particularly if we are at the top of the competency pyramid.  This is an especially pertinent warning to me as I’m doing a lot of collaborative work right now and I can feel the temptation to cling to my bits of power; to do everything myself, to explain everything instead of inviting questions, to make sure things are my way.  I had the same struggle when planning to lead CreativiTea in January – I wanted everything to be perfectly bounded and laid out, within my control.
Then as now, I need this reminder to get out of the way and make space; true creative power makes space for other people to exercise their creativity.  I’m reminded of a quote from the trailer to “The Sea In Between” where musician-singer-songwriter Josh Garrels says: “You can wield your profession, your craft, in a way that hurts people, because you’re so good.  And so, when someone can present it in a way that is inviting people into their joy, that’s when the most beautiful things are formed.”

The Sea In Between – Trailer from Mason Jar Music on Vimeo.

What is the artful life?

What does it look like? How do you sustain it?

This video may begin to answer these questions. Featuring three artist friends of mine, it gives a beautiful insight into the art-filled lives of people working in different creative disciplines.

“I think of the artful life as a way to describe how we pay attention to our world. Maybe art, beyond just paying attention, it’s then inviting others into that little focus, that little focal point, because maybe that’s all we can take… A moment, a little snapshot, one 250th of a second, or six words on a page, or one turn on the dance floor… to get a glimpse of holiness and what wholeness can look like, what’s true and beautiful.” ~ Sandra Vander Schaaf

And if you’re in Vancouver this weekend come and see Vania and four other artists share their art and story at WeMakeStuff Studio Series 004 (8pm on Friday night).