Girl deciduous.

What I’m about to write is super cheesy, but also, I think, super beautiful.  I learned today that I am a tree.  (It’s a metaphor).  I am a tree and this is winter, and my leaves which seemed so good (and are!) have all been stripped away.  Winter is miserable.  It’s cold and gray, and these naked, skeletal trees such as myself only serve to point out exactly how depressing are the months when our earth is tilted away from the sun.  But all through the winter, something is happening to the trees.  Something is happening inside, where you can’t see it, beneath the bark.  Things are changing.  Life is happening.  And in all due time the seasons will change.  Spring will arrive (it always does) and that life will burst forth.  God is faithful!

Edit: Dang it!  Someone had to go and correct my knowledge of tree types, hence the title change.  I liked Girl Coniferous better, but what can I say?  I am a leaf-loser.

The apparent evolution of a blog.

These days, all I want to talk about and/or write about is the brain. It’s really interesting to me! And it makes me think that I probably made the right decision to enroll in this psychology class, and that makes me happy.

When our house settles it makes these loud clicking noises which I normally sleep through, or else I don’t hear them from my bedroom. But last night for some reason I slept on the pullout couch in our living room. I heard the clicking lightly weaving in and out of my dreams for a few moments, unconscious that it was the house settling or anything else, and then suddenly my brain interpretted those noises as someone trying to take the locks off of our front door, to break into our apartment and do me harm. Instantly I was wide awake, my heart was racing, and my breath quickened. And do you know what was my very next thought (while I was still very afraid for my safety)? I thought, “Sympathetic Nervous System!” which is the nervous system that produces the biological responses to potential danger known as our fight or flight response. Anyway, in my confused but alert state it took some time to assure myself that the noises were simply part of the building (and meanwhile I experienced the “Waiting for the other shoe to drop” phenomenon I had only just learned about that morning while reading Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers at the library… would the prowler just break through the front door already, so I can either fall back to sleep or be killed??) Anyway, I mostly just found it amusing that my first response was to recall a bit of brain anatomy, as if I were being tested on this information even while I slept, even on the brink of a terrible event.

And with that, I’m going to try to stop writing too much more about psychology, partly because I am far from an expert, and partly because it’s not quite under the umbrella of the topical goals of this blog (art, creativity, faith, and various acceptable tangents). But then again, this is the most recent direction my life has taken, and the handy thing about psychology (versus chemistry or calculus) is that it is very relevant to those other things. All of these things that fascinate me take place right there in that gross, squishy, and marvelous organ. I can’t wait to learn about the psychology of faith and religious belief. Or about the ideation process. About taste and preference and opinion and all of that. About emotion! So here, let me take this paragraph and do a 180 and say that you probably will have to read a bit more about the subject here. Or maybe you’ll enjoy that, depending on your brain.

An open note to Craig Thompson.

To Craig Thompson, author and illustrator of Blankets, I have a few things to say. First of all, well done, really. The first time I read this book I read all 582 pages in a single sitting while my friend and host slept into the afternoon. This was in San Francisco, the day after Thanksgiving, 2005. Your book had already been in print for a couple years by then, and I was embarrassed at the time that I had waited so long to read it. You draw the way I wish I could. Just last night I spent a half hour copying your ears into my sketchbook (I always have trouble with ears). Maybe you’re my favorite illustrator, even, I’m not sure yet. I love the way you draw yourself as a child. I love the way you draw Wisconsin.

This time I checked your book out of the library. This time, unlike that day after Thanksgiving, I read your book one chapter at a time, with days in between. There was sadness, just like the first time I read, but the sadness that time had come in a wave at the very end, whereas this time the sadness lapped and licked at my ankles throughout the entire reading experience (even the days in between). I think you meant for there to be sadness, didn’t you?

Here is the one objection that I feel I need to make, Craig. On page 533 your character says, “It [Christianity] denies the beauty of being human, and it ignores all these gaps that need to be filled in by the individual.” I’ll have to say that I whole-heartedly disagree with you on those points, and maybe it will serve as inspiration for future posts here. But for now, how is this? I went to art school and worked from nude models and never once felt guilt over it, and have never ever felt that the humanness of body or spirit was belittled or made profane by an active faith. Even my mother, who rolled her eyes whenever my artist siblings and I spoke of our figure classes, never made me feel sinful for studying the human figure in this way. Maybe the members of your church told you that art is a sin and a distraction, and shame on your Sunday School teacher who said you would never draw in heaven but only spend all of your time in song, but they were wrong. I feel like you experienced one corner of the Christian world when there are certainly other corners which celebrate creativity and artfulness and the individuality that feeds and is fed by those things. I’m not clicking my tongue here and saying “It’s a pity you lost your faith.” I’m just thinking, how sad that in your experience the church severed itself from your creativity, because in doing so they cut off an incredibly talented limb. Keep drawing pictures, please.

Ascend, then, comic friends, then, Mother hen.

Last week I declared that I would be writing a post about the Ascension, which is now 11 days in the past and still, here, unwritten about. Not for lack of time, and not because I forgot about it. I just couldn’t rouse myself to the task. The message connected to the Ascension, that Christ reigns victorious, is exciting, but it is also convicting. Or at least, the message we were delivered on Ascension Sunday, which said, in simplified terms: “Jesus’ ascension to heaven (after spending 40 post-resurrection days on earth) puts him on the throne of God. He is not limited to any one physical place, as a body on earth is, but he continues his ministry–omnipresent–from there.” And then comes the convicting part: “The Ascension means that Christ ministers to others through us. As his witnesses, we are to show others that his reign of hope, healing, love, compassion, and justice has already begun. We must demonstrate this through our lives.” It’s not a passive holiday, the Ascension. Well anyway, I would probably have let it go unmentioned–I don’t have anything very insightful to add here–but I can’t stand leaving an allusion unanswered. I have also noticed that I can be very lighthearted and maybe even a tad humorous in this blog, but as soon as the topic turns to religion or faith I become immediately stiff-backed, as if I am afraid to have any fun with the matter, as if I have been convinced by ages of rigid, starch-collar, religious formalities which were actually, for the most part, absent from my religious upbringing. I think we need to take God seriously, of course, and I doubt if God minds the sobriety. But I don’t think my witness can do too much good if it gets a reputation of being boring, and readers skip past any mention of God here. God is not the dry thread that runs around my otherwise amusing life, flossing teeth perhaps. God is inextricable from all of these other parts! He is deeply entwined with my creative process, both the lighthearted and the serious. That was the original point of this Easel Ain’t Easy, after all. Time to get back, perhaps?

To say a bit about the creative process as it stands currently, then: I’m taking a break from painting. I could go into all of the details behind this decision, but I will focus on the one that is most exciting: I’m in on the ground-floor of a very promising collaborative project. It will be a graphic narrative, and the goal is to have it viewable online once things get rolling (hopefully in an ongoing form, that is, with regular updates building on the story). Our team is a solid one, featuring one award-winning author, one acclaimed graphic designer/illustrator, and myself, a… spirited believer in graphic storytelling. And, well okay, I’ve got a few credits to my name. The plan is to get things started on a small scale, and then once it’s somewhat established, to invite more creative talent into the fold. So listen, if you are an artist or a writer, don’t be surprised if you’re asked at some point to contribute. It’s a team thing!

Finally, it’s Mothers Day, so naturally I started writing a post about my mother. However, the degree to which I love my mother requires that the post be nothing short of perfect, so I’m going to sit on it a bit, work on a few more revisions, and post it sometime in the near future. In the meantime, moms are the bombs, especially mine. I love you Mom!!!

American Idol Worshiper (or Focus, part two).

If something does not draw me closer to God, it brings me further away from him. There is no standing still. Everything is an action. If I have felt a distance from God in the weeks since Easter it is because I took an action to turn my eyes away from him. I don’t want to be so simplistic to say that giving certain things up for Lent was my way of drawing near to God, but, while it did afford me plenty of time to instead meditate on God, what have I done with my free time since then?

I have spent hours poring over my music and looking for new artists, I have spent hours watching movies and reading books that are unhealthy for me, I have spent hours worrying about my health and human relationships, I have spent hours watching stupid videos online and hovering around pointless websites, I have spent hours sleeping while dishes lay dirty in the sink and laundry collects in a heap on my floor. These are all active choices, and why don’t I call them what they are: they are idols (at least for me in my context). And I am an idol worshiper.

This is no revelation. I’ve always suspected music was an idol of mine, which is why it felt good to give it up on the times that I have. I probably should have suspected all of those other things were idols too, and while there are plenty of things in the human experience which I don’t idolize (fashion, television, celebrity, intellectualism, material accumulation – generally) a single, tiny idol is one giant idol too many. This morning I was reading in First Samuel the story that takes place right before the Israelites demand a king for themselves, where they are being afflicted by the Philistines and Samuel offers a sacrifice to the Lord to bring deliverance. Right before he makes the sacrifice, Samuel says to the Israelites: “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” It couldn’t be clearer. I need to get rid of these idols. Everything eternal depends on it.

Yes, yes, just when I was starting to sound fun again I go and ruin it by writing a post like this one. But let me clarify something (I feel like I clarify this a lot). I don’t think there is anything wrong with music or movies or comics or romance or naps, and I don’t think God is expecting me to cut those things out of my life completely. But they need to be rightly ordered. I’ve gone through extreme phases where I thought entertainment in any form was inherently evil, but I’m certain now that it’s not. We are meant to have some fun in this life. Music and film and all of those things can bring glory to God, and often does! But it can also suck me of my devotion. It comes back to the matter of focus, I think, and it comes back to the line I opened with: If something does not draw me closer to God, it brings me further away from him. It’s about time I reordered a few things.

Easter snow.

Though your sins are like scarlet you will be white as snow, and today, on Easter, it snowed.  Today it snowed giant Christmastime flakes and perhaps it was an attack on our fledgling spirits but it didn’t even faze us, there was just too much love in the room.  Although my drive to my parents’ house was complicated by this Spring blizzard, the roads home tonight were clear and dry, and was there music?  Yes, there was!  Maybe you are dying to know what my first post-Lenten album was.  I hadn’t given it too much thought before hand, and in the end my choice was predictable but nonetheless perfect: Sufjan Stevens, Come on Feel the Illinoise.  After 47 days without playing music there is no lovelier way to welcome it back into your life than by listening to this album during a car trip.  Was there Cherry Coke?  I have to admit that there was, mainly for the sake of staying awake while driving.  It felt a little weird to be drinking it again and I’d like to take that as a good sign, that maybe I’ve really kicked the habit (but I won’t make any presumptions here, not when it comes to Cherry Coke).  But, all right, what is this Easter business really about?  Why all the build up?

Though our sins are like scarlet we will be white as snow.

We sang a song in church this morning that I have always liked, but on Easter morning it seems extra fitting, especially the last two verses:

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

– From “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend

He lives that we might also.  White as snow!

Prince of Peace in a war-torn world.

I thought I’d write a little bit more about Mary and Joseph this Advent and in the end I didn’t write a thing about them.  Guessers may suggest it was a Protestant reaction against the virgin Mary (which is not true) or a skeptical mistrust of the earthly father of Jesus, who is barely mentioned after the Nativity story (Did he even stick around?).  But the truth is, I have all kinds of respect and devotion when I think about the parents who raised Christ in this world, I just didn’t have the time to write much about them.  In my private thoughts I did consider what it would have meant for a scared fifteen year old virgin to learn she was pregnant with the son of God, and why her fiance would stand by her in a time in history when it was not only acceptable but even expected that men put women in their place.  I know there was a lot of divine intervention through all of this to make sure that things went on as planned, but even considering that it is pretty evident that Mary and Joseph were some incredible human beings.  Those are the things I didn’t have time to write about this Advent, I apologize.

I have a little time today though, on this Christmas Eve of 2007, and I wanted to just say a few things about the Prince of Peace whose arrival we will celebrate tomorrow.  Something I have been wondering this season is, “Where is the peace?”  Since the birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension of Christ there have been countless wars and holocausts, genocides and massacres, and what’s worse, many of those were exacted in his name.  (My grade school mascot was the Crusader, for crying out loud!) Jesus may have been a pacifist himself, but we don’t go around calling every kind-hearted soul the Prince of Peace.  Even Ghandi didn’t get that kind of a title.  I don’t pretend to know history–I have no idea if the cummulative blood shed was greater in the time before his life or after his life, but I know that this post-Christ era is seemingly infinite and the body-count is growing.  How can we call Jesus the Prince of Peace when there is no end in sight, where violence is concerned?  Jesus may have saved the souls of this world, but he left us here on earth in no better condition than when he came.  Right?  So why the “Prince of Peace”?

I don’t really like to admit that my Advent meditation was, at times, less than adoring.  We’re supposed to focus on the savior, after all, and didn’t I even write a few words about that, about our expectations being horribly misaligned from God’s?  So I continued to ponder it and slowly my skepticism was clouded by a realization.  In Advent we are not only remembering what it is to anticipate a savior–a savior who has already come, as those of us in the A.D. know–but we are waiting this very day for his return, when he will bring peace!  This is one of those ideas that I’ve heard a thousand times–the second meaning of Advent–but I guess I needed to come to realize it on my own for it to fully sink in.  We celebrate the birth of a savior who presently brings peace and quietness to our troubled souls, but we also await a prince of peace who will return and obliterate the suffering of this world!  This is something to get excited about, this Advent.  Peace is coming!  And that name bears all relevance: we await the Prince of Peace.

What were we expecting?

As chores go, there are a few which I absolutely dread. Doing laundry. Scraping ice off of my car. Updating my website. I’m not talking about this blog, which is relatively maintenance-free, I’m talking about my painting website which I haven’t touched since January, almost a year ago. I have new paintings that I haven’t posted or even photographed. I have other projects that I am neglecting to highlight. And even if it were up-to-date, the overall design is just sloppy. As a painter I am average. As a webmaster I am awful. I just don’t enjoy it! But this whole marketing thing is something I plan to work on in 2008, even if it means paying someone to do my website. Graphic designers, place your bids.

Anyway, today is the third Sunday of Advent and after a wonderful service at church I was really hoping to write a post about it. But it’s not easily coming to me. Which is frustrating, because for the first Advent in my life I feel like I am actually approaching an understanding of this season, what it means to anticipate the Messiah and wait patiently for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Yesterday I did a small amount of Christmas shopping. I’ve been trying to stay at smaller, independent shops this year, partly to avoid the crowd and also to support local businesses. Well, for a reason that is unimportant here, yesterday it became necessary for me to brave not just one but two major shopping malls. By some Advent miracle I was able to find parking spaces with ease and keep narrowly avoided car accidents to a minimum. And when the wave of industrious holiday shoppers hit me inside the doors of Barnes and Noble I was able to smile to myself and think, “This is not what Christmas is about.” It’s not about buying things, but it’s not about admonishing consumerism either. In Girl Meets God, Lauren Winner writes:

“Christmastime may be the hardest season for churches. We are inured not only to the Christmas story itself, but also to our pastors’ annual rants against consumerism. Every creative attempt to make the season meaningful, to steal it back inside the church, away from the shopping malls and cheesy radio stations, has been tried, and most of those creative attempts have proved wanting. Perhaps the problem is that we don’t know what the meaning of this holiday, of Jesus’ pushing into the world, is. If we did, we wouldn’t have to worry about consumerism; if we knew what the Incarnation meant, we’d be so preoccupied with awe that we wouldn’t notice all the shopping.”

Right, so if it’s all about the pending Incarnation and not about anti-consumerism, then what does the Incarnation mean? Surely God could have found a way to save us without getting dirty down here in the business of being human. God Incarnate spent nine months holed up in the womb of a girl–that was his advent. We look at that and say, “How nice that God would make himself relatable to us!” And, “How humble, to be born in a stable!” Of course, that’s what it means, but is that all it means? In the sermon today it was suggested that God had another motive for writing his story this way. The Israelites were expecting a mighty King to deliver them from Roman oppression, to bring justice and peace in that order. And along came a baby, and it’s as if God said, “No, we’ll do this my way, thank you.” We were reminded this morning that Jesus didn’t come to meet our expectations, but to shatter those expectations and make room for God to do things the way he knew best. When Jesus came we didn’t need the swift administration of justice. In fact, if justice had come before the crucifixion we would all be a lot worse off. The Gentiles would be condemned and the Jews would forever need priestly intercession. I can’t imagine we would rush to the shopping malls to celebrate such disappointment. I don’t think we would even sing carols. No, it had to be in this order. First we needed a savior. Justice will come, I’m sure, but in its rightful time. I think that’s what we are waiting for on this side of the Incarnation.

Anyway, I realize this has been a mostly incoherent post which is what I meant when I said it’s not coming easily. I have plenty of thoughts about this stuff but it’s tough to articulate in a concise couple of paragraphs. You indulge me so by reading this far, really.  Here is where I should say something light and witty to remind you that I do occasionally offer something entertaining here, and that’s why you’re not about to delete me from your bookmarks, right?

Choose to bruise.

Somewhere in my dreams last night I had a thought about free will, which was piggybacked by the thought “You should write about this when you wake up.” It seemed so vivid in its brilliance last night, but like so many dreams upon waking, it has since lost some of its luster. I think, though, that after such an effort to remember this, I owe it to my subconscious to report.

So here. In the dream I was talking to someone (who?) about concepts surrounding God. We came to free will, and I must have explained (although I don’t remember this part) that God created us with free will because he loves us and desires for us to love him back because we want to, not because we have to. The response from this shadowy person was something like, “That’s stupid. If God really loved us he would have omitted free will from our design. Better to be robots who are happy and free from pain and suffering. Better to be robots in tune with their creator than lost and wandering free thinkers.” He went on to explain, “What is the alternative to free will? If we were programmed to obey God and follow his commands we wouldn’t be capable of sin and would never have fallen away from God. We would not need a savior to attain God’s desire for us–eternal fellowship with him–because we would already have it. We might not have chosen it, but everyone would have it and if God really loved us he would want that, he would want to make sure that we were all polished up and neatly put into our places at the end of the day. Instead God has given us the right to choose, putting our salvation at risk, along with our earthly wellbeing: free thinkers dieing of murders, war, cancer, famine, rape, neglect, abuse, disease, poverty, depression, loneliness, suicide–all a result of our choices. This is where our free will ultimately gets us, and maybe some will still choose to seek God through all of that, and to one day spend a perfect, painless eternity with him. And they have chosen to, which pleases God, but isn’t that a rather expensive cost? To turn his eye from so many others, because they wouldn’t tell him what he wanted to hear but he refused to make them tell him? Isn’t this just selfish, on God’s part?”

In my dream I didn’t have an answer, I was more intent on committing the idea to memory. I could come up with a response right now in my wakeful state but it would feel defensive and contrived. My subconscious wanted me to present this side of the argument right now, which is strange because I don’t agree with this side of the argument, and I have never really heard anyone suggest this side of it. The person in my dream genuinely wanted to be a robot! I expect people to say “It’s my life, I can do what I want,” and “If God can turn a blind eye on suffering then I don’t want anything to do with him.” Those are sentiments I can understand, not the desire for programmed response. Who despises their freedom, and the God who gave it to them? Apparently some facet of my subconscious does.

On another day I’ll write my response. I’ll write a love poem about free will–a sonnet, maybe. I think it’s a wonderful thing, although it makes life much more difficult. I think to love someone, you have to let them choose.

It is snowing again. I’ll mention every time it snows, it’s a reflex. You’ll get used to it. I’m trying to get in the habit of using tags, but I think I’ll throw the “weather” tag out the window. I mention the weather a lot, but I don’t want people to get the impression that this is a blog for meteorologists (in case you were starting to wonder). So long weather tag.

Those talents are not meant to be buried.

In Bluebeard, Vonnegut writes:

A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions.

Yes, how many of us moderately gifted people would second this? How many times in this blog alone have I moaned about being good at something but not great? I’m not a champion writer, painter, cartoonist, musician, conversationalist, poet, critic, or philosopher, though I may have some amount of skill in any one of those things. And how often I find myself resentful of my mediocre status, wishing to excel in one thing–in any one thing. But do you know what? This is greed. I’m given a portion of talent and it’s not enough. I want more talent, I want better talents, and I focus so intently on my lack of “championship” (as defined by the world, no doubt) that I neglect to realize that a gift is a gift and how greatly I’ve been blessed to have been blessed at all. To have any amount of talent is a gift from God!

I wrote about this very thing just a few days ago. I mentioned how I’d like to play the drums, but since I’m not a gifted musician by the world’s standards, that I should stick to something in which I stand a chance of being acknowledged. I was wrong. Since modern communication has alerted the world to talent like Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan and Sufjan Stevens I will never be considered a world class musician, but dang it, I like writing a song every now and then. And ironically, that modern communication which Vonnegut referred to has, since then, increased to such a degree that I can put my songs up here and here and, amateurish though they may be, they are out there for the entire world to hear. I can put my paintings, however unrefined, here, and my stories and essays here in this blog or wherever. I can put my comics in those papers who graciously oblige me, I can take part in an art show when the opportunity comes up. And I can be grateful and humbled by the fact that I have even an ounce of talent at all. To be labeled a “community treasure” feeds the prideful part of our nature, after all. To be spared such an ugly beast as pride is just another gift. I will joyfully embrace the talents I’ve been given, in precisely the magnitude they’ve been given to me.

You, reader, should think about this as well. I know you have talents.

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