Chipped beauty

The urge emerges in the aftermath of the holiday season, when festivities recede and the mundane winter months stretch out as far as the eye can see, with no end in sight.  Spurts of sparkling snow eventually descend and interrupt the doldrums, painting stark sticks a crisp white and revealing the shape of limbs that have been here all along, blending into the drab landscape. That’s when something shifts in me. I look down at my own pale hands. My subconscious starts to scratch a psychological itch through impulse drugstore purchases. I recognize a pattern emerging in my own behavior. The absence of color awakens my longing. My hands want to come out of hibernation.

The days are dull, diminished, and stripped bare. Like the rest of the world, I am tempted to acquiesce and plod through with my head down and teeth gritted until spring shows up. The rest of my shivering body is layered in fleece, cotton and wool but my hands peek out of my sleeves, exposed. They comprise my essential workforce, the skeleton crew that gets stuff done no matter the season, key employees without whom I cannot function. And now, with everyone else on strike, it’s their time to shine. An uncharacteristic craving rises within me and I indulge in the creamy, lush bottled liquids lined up and waiting for me on the Target shelves.

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They crave attention and burst out in rebellious frenzy. I let them try on costumes in whatever hues strike their fancy: ruby red, dusky periwinkle, innocent pearl, speckled rainbow glitter, luscious grape, robin’s egg blue. This dramatic flair adds weight and presence to my actions. Ordinary gestures now sparkle like the twinkling lights all my neighbors have finally taken down from their trees. The unexpected treat of beauty at my fingertips inspires me to move with more grace and care. These extensions of me dare in their tiny way to push back against the expectations and assumptions that rule my world. Without a word, I begin to resist the status quo.

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My fingernails are blank canvases all my own. They beg to express themselves like mini billboards advertising my moods. Forever growing and being cut back, they become living works of art. They hint at the swirling prints that lie underneath, invisible to the naked eye, marking my unique identity. A lifetime will not be long enough for me to memorize their patterns.

My polished nails perform beautifully, without a smudge or crack, for limited and varying amounts of time. Inattention, interruption, and obligation threaten to disrupt their smooth demeanor before they’ve settled into their roles. Five minutes, five hours, or five days: the countdown begins to see how long my handiwork will last.

When their unvarnished selves start to show, my character is tested. I begin to practice the spiritual discipline of enduring the chipping polish. For the perfectionist, it’s self-prescribed exposure therapy. My focus is challenged as the endgame begins. I wait and suffer, stretching myself to accept the minor flaws as part of the creative process, battling the insecurity that peeks through the layers. The only cure would require me to go without, to silence my spirit, and surrender to a humdrum existence. My game of solitaire continues until it’s time for a fresh coat, beginning again and again until the world warms up and agrees to join me.

 

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the courage to create

On a recent Thursday evening, I attended my very first Wine and Canvas event. This outing was organized by my mom and her two good friends Pat and Rita, whose daughters were also my childhood friends. The six of us went out on the town to celebrate the fortieth birthdays of the younger set, a milestone we will all achieve in 2015.

We assembled our party shortly before six o’clock. Our hors d’oeuvres and drinks filled in the spaces between blank canvases resting on tabletop easels. We joked about how easy it would be to mistake the creamy yellow-orange cheese sauce for paint. Between bites, we caught up on one another’s lives. Our years of shared history make such gatherings feel like family reunions.

My mom’s friend Pat interrupted our giddy chatter to present us with nondescript black gift bags. Inside, the three of us forty-year-olds discovered aprons that made the ordinary black ones provided at the studio pale in comparison. Tying them around our necks,we each displayed Wonder Woman’s body in all her strong and feminine glory.

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After a few laughs and photographs, we felt empowered to begin our creations. Settling onto our stools, we turned our attention to the instructor at the front of the room.

I sat next to Kathy, a college art major who now makes her living in interior design. Within a few moments, she decided to go rogue and create her own original scene. Carrie, two stools down, was open to the adventure as well and had a few high school art classes on her resume. She confidently swirled the paint on her palette, mixing bold new colors, and got to work on our assignment. I tentatively looked down the row at my friends to my right, glanced over at the strangers to my left, and took a deep breath. I had to gather my courage in order to simply make the first mark on the clean slate in front of me.

Always the attentive student, I tried to focus and follow the steps we were given. My hopes were two-fold: to end up with a painting that resembled the example and to make it my own. Both goals were lofty for a rookie like me. I wondered if they might also be mutually exclusive. IMG_20150827_193343877_HDR-001

In this environment, I discovered that many decisions would be required in quick succession. This presented a problem for an inexperienced perfectionist like me. At one point, I tried to follow Kathy’s example and go off-script, selecting a color for the sky that would reflect the orange/yellow/pink real-life sunsets I’m always chasing with my camera. I spent a few panicky moments trying to mix the color I saw in my mind. Finally, I caved and went with the purple the instructor recommended. I couldn’t afford to get too far behind in the instructions.

As the night progressed, I did what I was told for the most part, slowly forming the wildflowers and leafy vines on a scenic backdrop. But the concentration required for me to make myself put brush to canvas slowly drained me of energy. I continually looked around, comparing my sloppy brushstrokes to the accurate replica being created by the stranger to my left. I sighed in jealous frustration as I watched my talented friend capture the scene from her own imagination to my right.

Hours of poor posture from leaning over the canvas strained my back. My eyes ached as did my weary brain. My anxiety mimicked the ticking clock, building steadily as we inched toward the end of our allotted time. But in the end, the time limit proved to be a lifesaver. I eventually had to abandon my unattainable vision of glory and settle for progress. It turned out that the more I wanted to be done, the more decisive I could be.

The instructor finally finished guiding us through the finishing touches, and the projects were deemed complete. Our group assembled with our paintings for a photo shoot. Laughs were shared and compliments were given. Completing the craft felt like an accomplishment and it had been fun to share the experience together.

As I drove home, I decided to pass my project on to my eight-year-old daughter, hoping she’d see the beauty in my efforts. I wouldn’t dare placing it in a spot I would frequently see in my house. I knew its imperfections would constantly pick at me, reminding me of my inadequacy.

When I arrived home that evening, my kids were already asleep. I laid the canvas on the dining room table and headed up to bed. In the hustle and bustle of getting them ready for school the next morning, I almost forgot to show it to them. When I did, I wasn’t disappointed by my daughter’s reaction. She proclaimed it to be a great work of art and wanted to know how I’d done it. Looking at it again with fresh eyes, I was surprised at what I’d created. I still wasn’t ready to put it on the living room wall, but I didn’t hate it.

Stepping out of the context of mass production and removing the element of comparison made the colors come alive. High art it wasn’t, but it was my little masterpiece. In the forgiving light of a new day, I felt satisfaction when I considered how I had transformed a blank space into an actual picture of recognizable objects. It deserved a place on the wall if only to remind me that I need to constantly be challenged to express myself in new ways. pic on wall

Creativity grows from awkward beginnings. A certain amount of mess and risk and discomfort is required in order to give birth to something new and beautiful. Trial and error is how we move steadily closer to the goal of having our creation adequately reflect our vision. There are no shortcuts.

I had spent the evening envious of my friend Kathy’s freedom when she sits down to create. She considers – but feels equally confident disregarding – instructions from others because she’s spent so many hours with those elements. She has honed her craft; her eyes and hands have learned to work together. She hasn’t let the “perfect” become the enemy of the good.

A quote from an excellent book I read this summer came to mind as I reflected on our evening: “Fear is the shadow of creativity. When we choose to create, we bring light to our fears. The darkness does not prevail over us. The creative act is inherently an act of courage. We are born to far too many fears and far too great a darkness. It is only when we find the courage to create that we are freed from those fears and that darkness.” (The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus)

It took an invitation and a little positive peer pressure to get me to try something new. It took a good night’s sleep and a break from comparing myself to others in order to appreciate the beauty in my creation. Though I don’t aspire to be a visual artist, the act of stepping out of my comfort zone wearing the costume of a superhero made me just a little braver. This birthday outing proved to be a field trip for my soul, providing some hands-on experience for the growth I desire in this next season of my life. Here’s to stepping out of the shadows and living my next forty years with the courage to keep creating!

holy ground

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I never feel like going. It’s so much easier to not go. There are always a million reasons, some legitimate, some not so much, to ignore the need and go about my own business. And yet every single time I do, I’m changed. Yesterday was no exception.

My church opened a Care Center about two years ago, and it has become an amazing resource for our community. It welcomes families from all over Hamilton County who need assistance. The main draw is a choice food pantry, which is set up and run like a small grocery store where no money changes hands. Donations are received from local stores and individuals, and neatly arranged on shelves. A large garden called Project Eden in the back forty of the church’s property helps to supplement the produce aisle. Frozen and refrigerated items are available as well. The quality and variety of items, along with the dignity that comes from being able to make one’s own selections, make this a popular place.

It takes a small army of staff and volunteers to make this happen. The center is open to shoppers two evenings and one morning each week. Whenever I’ve volunteered there, I’ve served as a personal shopper. This role involves walking with guests through the store, helping them keep track of their allotted points (based on their family size) and assisting them with loading groceries into their vehicles. Because this ministry seeks to help more than just fill bellies, we’re encouraged to ask for any prayer requests and to offer to pray with our friends on the spot.

On any given visit, I know I will encounter the awkwardness of being on one side of a language barrier that prevents much conversation with at least a few of the guests. I don’t speak Spanish, Russian, or any of a number of other languages heard there. (My French degree has come in handy exactly zero times so far, but I keep hoping!) I confess that it is a relief when I am able to accompany a fellow native English speaker. Despite this challenge, I’ve found that kindness goes a long way. I’m amazed but by the end of each shopping trip, I’m usually able to feel a connection with each person.

And every once in a while, I meet someone who truly surprises me. These unexpected encounters make a lasting impression.

Yesterday, the last person I assisted was a man with a grey beard and an ornate silver-studded cross hanging from his neck. He looked a little rough around the edges. He walked with a limp and moved slowly toward the entrance. I imagined he’d done some hard living or seen his share of trouble in his approximately sixty-five years. By the time I met him, he was a little frustrated at the fact he’d been waiting to shop for an hour and a half in the waiting room. The ten points listed on his intake paper told me that he was likely only shopping for one. He shook my hand as I introduced myself, then threw his cane into the cart  and started pushing it through the produce aisle. Though English was clearly his first language, he wasn’t feeling very chatty. I took his lead and we got down to business.

He didn’t take any fresh items. Instead, he moved swiftly and picked out a few packages of prepared food. The ten points dwindled quickly. We parted ways at the checkout; he went to get his car while I gathered the frozen items he’d ordered. I rolled the big cart to the parking lot where he waited in his blue sedan with a handicapped license plate. I placed his bag of groceries and half-gallon of milk on the floor of the back seat. Shutting the door, I leaned on the open driver’s side window and asked how I could pray for him.

Though to this point we’d made only small talk, his face softened and he tentatively said that he had a crazy request that day. He wondered if I was open to that. I told him that I take all requests, big or small, while secretly wondering what in the world he might be about to say. In a quiet voice, he asked if I’d pray for him to find a companion. Not a romantic relationship, he clarified, just someone with whom he could go out to dinner, someone to talk to. He told me he’d been married three times before, and lived through the deaths of two of his wives. His last one had died a year ago, and he was lonely.

I couldn’t have been more surprised. His gruff exterior seemed in sharp contrast to this humble, heartfelt request. Of all the broken places in the world, it’s this one – isolation – that does me in, every time. I was shocked by his vulnerability and willingness to share his deep hurt and need with me, a mere stranger. It seemed to me far braver than the (significant) humility required to ask for help with filling his refrigerator. I was honored to have been trusted with something so close to his heart.

I closed my eyes and prayed aloud for God to meet his need, to open his eyes and bring someone into his life that would provide connection and friendship. He enthusiastically murmured in agreement as I spoke, affirming my supplication on his behalf and thanking God for how He will provide. He gratefully smiled after I said “amen,” and said goodbye before going on his way.

Time slowed down and an image flashed in my mind as I stood at his window. We had begun our morning as a team before the shoppers arrived that day with a short devotional. The center’s director had asked us to remove our shoes before we prayed, reminding us that whenever we are open and let God love others through us in that space, we are standing on holy ground.

There was no burning bush on the blacktop. But I realized that I had, in fact, landed on holy ground in that parking lot, when I least expected it. I left with a broken but full heart, humbled and inspired by my new friend’s example.

broken bones

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I overheard the thud from the next room, where I washed dinner dishes at the sink. The playful laughter ceased abruptly, replaced by a sharp shriek of pain. I rushed around the corner to find my almost four-year-old son lying on the carpet, clutching his elbow and sobbing. I gathered him up to comfort him, trying to assess what had happened. He sputtered through his tears that he fell off the couch and hurt his arm. Since our couch was only about two feet high, it didn’t seem possible that a tumble from that height could have done too much damage.

But this time, our usually happy-go-lucky guy didn’t bounce back from his boo-boo. He finally calmed down, but he would not let any of us touch his arm. He refused to straighten or use it. When he continued to whimper in pain at bedtime after a dose of Tylenol, my husband and I knew we’d better get the injury examined.

The next morning an x-ray revealed an area near his elbow where there was a tiny bit of pooled blood. Though no fracture was evident, the doctor explained that it was likely hidden under the blood and recommended a cast to help protect the whole area as the bone healed.

My sweet boy was a trooper. He patiently cooperated as we went from one appointment to the next: first the pediatrician for the exam, then the imaging center for the x-ray, and finally the orthopaedist for the cast. He smiled bravely as the technician wrapped his bent arm with brightly colored fiberglass that would harden within minutes. We teased him that the royal blue and red stripes he chose would blend in perfectly with his superhero costumes. I rewarded his good behavior with an ice cream treat. Overall, I felt pretty good about the doctor’s prognosis that three and a half weeks would allow enough time for his tiny little bone to heal.

When we got home, however, I realized that in all our explanations of what it meant to wear a cast, the doctor and I had left out a very important detail. Not five minutes after pulling into the driveway, he ran to his room to change into his dress up clothes. He called me upstairs and asked me to take off his cast. When he heard the bad news that it wouldn’t come off until our next trip to the doctor, the tearful tantrum began. It took thirty minutes of crying, but he finally surrendered to the reality that he would have to live with this limitation for a while.

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We’ve once again arrived at the tail end of winter. Like silly schoolgirls, we’re falling for every flirtatious tease of warmer weather we get. Hope is in the air, but at the same time, the landscape is dry and brown. It hasn’t yet sprung to life. The trees are still naked, mere tangles of bare bones.

For two-thirds of our calendar, the trees in our Midwestern town are dressed with bountiful leaves. While adorned with the buds and blossoms of spring, the healthy green glow of summer, or the jewel tones of fall, their branches play a supporting role, going mostly unnoticed. Then the year winds down, and their coverings are stripped by harsh winds, leaving them exposed. Seasons shift, and their skeletons show. The lifeblood of the trees must have drawn from deep roots throughout the cycle in order for them to maintain health and withstand the winter. Gazing at the barrenness of the woods behind my home made me ponder my own inner structure and its ability to endure winter.

Our physical network of bones are responsible for supporting and enabling movement, absorbing impact, allowing us to stand upright, and giving us our shape and strength. Our foundations are hidden from view, exposed only by x-rays or when an outside force cuts through our skin and lays them bare.

Without proper nourishment from a vitamin rich diet, they become brittle and weak. Exercise is required to challenge them to build density. When force is placed upon a bone, it breaks down and then rebuilds itself a little stronger, enabling it to handle more stress the next time. Sudden trauma from a fluke accident, a daredevil stunt gone awry, or intentional abuse can cause bones to break.  More subtle fractures, appropriately named repetitive stress injuries, can grow gradually as well.

Beliefs form the soul’s skeleton. These are inherited from our families of origin, imprinted on our psyches by the words our parents spoke to us. Our surrounding culture and circumstances shape the way we see the world. Our understanding of the person and character of God is built by listening to, watching and interacting with those who claim to know and represent Him. Both consciously and unwittingly, we test our hypotheses in the real world of our experiences. Over the years, we gradually cement our concepts of who we are, what the world is about, and where we fit into it. Even if we can’t articulate them clearly, our beliefs fuel our thoughts and behavior.

As I look around at the lives of my friends and others in my peer group, it’s obvious that we’re in the thick of it – real, hard life. We’re longing for spring to return as we walk through the reality of the stresses and pain of this life. Unwelcome diagnoses, broken family relationships, wayward children and demanding jobs weigh us down, and a low-grade anxiety permeates the air we breathe. Some of us frantically reach for makeup and accessories, titles and accomplishments, jam-packed schedules – anything – to stay covered and maintain the illusion of an eternal summer in our lives.

But winter comes around in every life. It is no respecter of persons. And when it does, we are exposed. We all have our own particular flavor of brokenness that hinders our happiness and tempts us to cover up. But if we are brave enough to bare our souls and take time to nourish them, winter can be our most productive season.

Just like with my little one’s injury, healing begins with examination. When we take a closer look, we may find that untended wounds from our past have stunted our growth. Lies we believed have left us with weak spots in our souls. Hidden and ignored, these cracks make us unable to bear the weight of life’s stresses and threaten to make us crumble, overwhelmed.

Old breaks may require the painful process of being reset – rebroken and then realigned – to allow our cores to grow stronger.  Injured souls, like broken bones, must be supported and protected for healing to occur. Relationships that give us the freedom and grace to ask the hard questions, encouraging us to go deeper in our search for God and truth and meaning, can help us gain perspective and fortitude. We have to invest the time to build our strength. And our advanced age means a mere three and a half weeks of suspended superhero play won’t quite cut it. Whole, healthy souls are built incrementally.

Bone pain can be intense and isolating because no one can see the injury from the outside. But when we are brave enough to have others help us examine and treat our wounds, we can begin to heal.

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