Tea with Bilbo

I wrote this 10 years ago and find it helpful for my frame of mind to read it every year during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Maybe this week I’ll have tea with Ramble…

Bilbo watched me expectantly, his stub tail wagging, as I put the kettle on, took a mug out of the cupboard, and rustled in the tea cabinet. He knew what that meant: time for afternoon tea. Bilbo, a rescue Australian Shepherd with an unknown history, had a tendency to become anxious if anything in his routine changed. And, of course, most routine went out the window for our family of five during holidays, with three active teenagers and their friends in and out of the house. Add to that my tendency to become stressed during the holidays, and neither Bilbo nor I was a happy camper.

One year, as Bilbo’s anxiety mounted and my holiday-related stress rose, an idea occurred to me. Why not share a cup of tea with Bilbo? I started making a pot of chamomile tea each afternoon, knowing the calming qualities of chamomile, and looking forward to a few quiet moments for myself. Very soon, Bilbo and I were both looking forward to this daily interlude of quiet connection in a busy time of year. I’d make the pot of tea, pour some in a bowl and add a couple of ice cubes, pour myself a steaming mugful, then give Bilbo his tea at my feet, while I sat in my rocker with mine. He would lap, I would sip, and both our stress would retreat for a time. After drinking his tea, Bilbo would settle with a sigh, always touching one of my feet. I would sit quietly so as not to disturb him, and we would enjoy a few moments of quiet connection.

Each dog has given me different gifts; one of Bilbo’s gifts to me was a way to slow down and enjoy simple peace and quiet in the midst of holiday stress. Bilbo is long gone, but those quiet moments shared over a cup of tea are some of my most precious memories of him.

Sketching as Prayer Retreat January 8, 2022

The turning of the calendar provides a context for looking back in evaluation of the year just past and looking forward as we give thought to our trajectory for the coming year. The future is unknown to us, but we can have the certainty of knowing that we are in God’s loving hands, and all our days are known to him. With myriad health concerns and general societal turmoil, though, it can be easy to feel at loose ends and anxious about what lies ahead, unless we take time to draw into Gods presence and allow our minds to slow down. That’s often easier to do in the presence of others who are also seeking God’s presence, so you are invited to a day of retreat and reflection.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
 You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
 You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways…
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!   (Psalm 139:1-3, 17)

While most of us would like to be mindful of God’s presence and able to discern his thoughts (at least some of them), it is often difficult to notice that which is quiet and subtle, especially when so much else clamors for our attention. God more often whispers than shouts, and leaves fingerprints for us to search out rather than neon lights flashing in our faces.

Every aspect of creation bears marks of its Creator, signs pointing to the ongoing presence, stability and love of God, who is still watching over and sustaining this world through all the turmoil of this present time. I find that sketching or writing as I observe creation can be one pathway to being present here and now, seeing God’s fingerprints in the world around us, and becoming aware of his presence. And when we become aware of God’s presence, we are drawn into prayer, either with words or in silent communion with and worship of the Master Artist and Author of our faith.

In this retreat we will open our sketchbooks or journals, eyes, and hearts to God’s presence and look with eyes of faith into the world around us to see God’s touch, as we draw apart for a few hours from our responsibilities and worries to rest in his presence.

Details:
Saturday, January 8, 2022
9:45 AM – 3:00 PM
Immanuel Church
Wappingers Falls, NY

We will alternate brief presentations with periods of silence for meditation, prayer, and sketching, followed by a time to share thoughts, observations, and sketches.

All are welcome and artistic experience isn’t necessary, but you will need a few supplies. Email me (melissafischerartist@gmail.com) for more details and to register.

Holidays in Ink!

Holidays in Ink 2020 Sketchbook

The holiday season can be challenging for me because of the lack of a regular schedule, which, combined with more social time than usual, often makes it hard for me to fit in time for art. And since my art, particularly sketching, is an important part of who I am and how I quiet myself in God’s presence, I really need to set time aside for some art on a regular basis. Last year Holidays in Ink provided helpful structure, combined with the necessary flexibility for adapting to a changing schedule and variety of activities, and I am looking forward to sketching my way through the holidays this year, too.

My friend Jamie Grossman and I have again worked together on a list of suggested prompts to inspire us and to stretch us to improve our art. Last year I loosely followed the prompts, not pressuring myself to do them all, but picking and choosing what I was in the mood for and what fit with whatever was on our family schedule. I was surprised to find that in the end I had done most of the prompts in some form or other!

This year’s challenge is to complete a sketchbook cover to cover during the course of Holidays in Ink, which goes from Monday, November 22nd through Sunday, January 2nd– 42 days. I considered making my own sketchbook (you should see the beautifully bound sketchbooks Jamie has been making!), but decided that I wanted to keep things simple, so I’m planning to use a sketchbook I’ve bought– either a Handbook Paper Co. Travelogue Watercolor Journal that has 30 sheets (60 pages) or a Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook with 26 sheets (52 pages). Both have papers that handle ink and watercolor well and they have a reasonable number of pages to complete in 42 days.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how I want to approach Holidays in Ink this year. Ever since my three day retreat in early September, I’ve been trying to simplify my schedule and clarify my focus, since I realized that I was driving myself into state of ongoing stress. While we’re calling Holidays in Ink a “challenge,” I tend to think of it more as a guide for time and stress management that will help me stay focused and calm. And I’ll have fun experimenting with new inks and ways of drawing, all while improving my art!

I’m planning to use my ink time as quiet time apart from the hustle and bustle of the season to (literally) draw into God’s presence through the pages of my sketchbook. As I try to improve my page layout to have a pleasing balance of drawings and white space, I will give thought to how I plan my days with a balance of activities and quiet time for reflection. As I sketch familiar scenes or aspects of daily life, I will ask God to help me appreciate the beauty of these common sights. And as I experiment with the 25 new inks in the Diamine Inkvent Calendar (can’t wait to see what they’re like!) during Advent, I will ponder Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas with fresh eyes to give me a renewed and eager anticipation of Jesus’ coming.

We’d love to have you join us for Holidays in Ink! You don’t need anything fancy; just a sketchbook of reasonable length to complete in 42 days, and a ballpoint pen will do. Or, of course, you can play with all sorts of inks and pens or brushes. It’s fun and a great way to improve your art while stepping aside from the pressure of the holidays.

Here’s a link to Jamie’s post with all the details about Holidays in Ink: Holidays in Ink 2021-22 Information and Prompt List

And here’s a PDF of the prompt list: Holidays in Ink 2021 Prompts

Sketching as Prayer Retreat October 30, 2021

Join me for a day of retreat, rest, and renewal as we open our eyes, our sketchbooks or journals, and our hearts to God’s presence in his creation. This is an invitation to give yourself a day to slow down and renew your focus on our steadfast God through silence and prayer before the busyness of the holiday season is upon us. We will have times to encourage one another with the thoughts, insights, and sketches or written words that have come from our observation and meditation. Artistic experience is not necessary; you can sketch with any kind of simple art supplies or you can “sketch” with words.

Details:
Saturday, October 30, 2021
9:45 AM to 3:00 PM
Wappingers Falls, NY
Email me (melissafischerartist@gmail.com) for more details or to let me know you’d like to participate.

Sketching People at Classis

I was away the past two days at Classis, our denomination’s biannual regional meeting for pastors, elders, and deacons to discuss church business, planning, and policy. This was my first time as a delegate to an actual Classis meeting, as our spring meeting was by Zoom, due to Covid. I am not ordinarily a fan of business meetings and wasn’t sure how I’d feel about sitting through an evening meeting followed by much of the next day in meetings, but I loved being at Classis.

Of course it helped that Classis was held Camp Connri, a beautiful location in the quiet Northeastern corner of Connecticut, where I could sketch outside before it all started Wednesday and then early yesterday morning.

There was such an atmosphere of love for God and of a desire to honor him by serving and loving people, both those in the church and in the community at large, that the deliberations were inspiring to me on multiple levels. I especially enjoyed connecting with other delegates and hearing their thoughts and experiences of prayer and of ways of encouraging spiritual growth in ourselves and others. It was a privilege to meet with these very inspiring pastors, elders, and deacons in our region! I also was very inspired by sharing sketches and ideas with a fellow deacon from our church who’s also an artist and with an artist we met who is a leader in an Indonesian church in New Hampshire.

Of course I sketched people throughout the meetings, and as I look at my sketches now, I am reminded of those people and of some of what they said during the meetings and in conversations I had with them; in that sense my sketches function as notes, and also as prompts for prayer.

Catskills Retreat

Pratt Rock View

Mountains framed against cloud-mottled blue sky; orange monarch butterflies dancing over fields of goldenrod bright yellow in the sun; thunder rolling and echoing between mountains; silence broken only by the rushing and gurgling of a tumbling creek; warblers flitting among wildflowers; star-besprent sky resplendent with Milky Way and shooting stars; naps in a sun-warmed hammock; breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the deck overlooking forest and mountains; and days of rich silence…

I spent three days this past week on retreat in the Catskills. A personal retreat, to spend time with myself and God, and of course Ramble, who goes most places with me. I checked in with Stephen each evening, but otherwise spoke with no one the whole time, other than the woman at a farm stand where I bought deliciously fresh kale and new potatoes and also colorful chrysanthemums to plant back here at home. The Airbnb cabin I stayed in was refreshingly quiet and private, with a wonderful deck where I spent most of the past three days, except when out hiking. And except for during a thrilling thunderstorm the last evening and the peaceful pattering of rain the next morning. During those times I pulled a comfortable chair right in front of an open sliding glass door and simply sat enjoying the sights and sounds of the weather.

I’ve been longing for a time of solitude like this, and it more than met my expectations. I took a variety of books and sketching supplies, and I meandered between them and times of silent meditation and prayer.

I started out loosely working through Note to Self, by Charles LaFond, also referring to Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms, as I pondered and worked on a basic outline for writing my Rule of Life– personalized reminders for how grow into the life I wish for myself and that God desires for me, the process of spiritual transformation and growth. As Barton puts it, a Rule of Life seeks to respond to the questions, “Who do I want to be?” and “How do I want to live?” or “How do I want to live so I can be who I want to be?” I came up with seven broad categories I want to address, with each category broken down into more specific sections, on which I’ll write briefly, so I can then review one section each day, kind of like a daily Post-It Note to myself. I plan to work on fleshing out those chapters with encouraging, motivating, and challenging words over the next few weeks.

I then turned to The Gift of Being Yourself, by David Benner, which I’d read a while back and was ready to reread, and Christine Labrum’s Journey to Become. Throughout my retreat I punctuated reading and pondering with a few hikes, a couple of naps, some sketching of wondrous views, and times of simply sitting in silence. Both Journey to Become and The Gift of Being Yourself gave me much to think about as they helped me look at my life to better see where I am now spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and even physically. Journey to Become is laid out in short chapters combining artwork with insightful questions, so was perfect for a retreat, and I would often read a section, then ponder it as I hiked or sketched.

It will take me while to process all that came up during those times of reading, journaling, pondering, and praying, but the nutshell version is that I came away with a greater understanding of how weary I have been in body and soul. And I realized that much of that weariness is due to the many ways that I have been living according to other people’s expectations of me or, more accurately, my perception of other people’s expectations.

As I sat with that realization and allowed myself to feel the weariness, I sensed God’s invitation to rest from expectations, other people’s and my own, and enter a fallow time, when I may not be as externally productive as I like to be. I’m sure that will be hard for me at times, and I will have to resist the temptation to evaluate myself based on my productivity, but I am confident that as I rest in that way, my inner being will heal and expand more into who God has made me to be.

Of course, I have regular life to keep on living, with various responsibilities that are still here, so the challenge in those areas is to do them without slipping into feeling like I need to be better or stronger or in any way more than I am. I am planning to continue reading and pondering and also discussing some of these thoughts with Stephen and some close friends, and am hopeful that that will help me not simply return to my former patterns of being.

Another realization I came away with was that my weariness and weakness is exactly where Jesus can best meet me. As long as I am trying to be someone other than who he made me to be or to do all sorts of things to meet other people’s expectations, I am relying on myself and not on him. As the Apostle Paul said, “But  [Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10)

Vinegar Hill State Game Refuge

 

Sketching as Prayer Retreat– Saturday, August 28

Sketching as Prayer Retreat
August 28, 2021
9:45 
AM to 3:00 PM

Immanuel Church
Wappingers Falls, NY
 

Join us for a day of retreat, rest, and renewal as we open our sketchbooks or journals, eyes, and hearts to God’s presence in his creation and look to discover his fingerprints all around us. This is an opportunity to slow down and renew our focus on God through silence and prayer. We will also have times to encourage one another with the thoughts, insights, and sketches or written words that have come from our observation and meditation. Artistic experience not necessary; you can sketch with any kind of simple art supplies or with written words.

Details:
Saturday, August 28, 2021
9:45 AM to 3:00 PM
Immanuel Church (Wappingers Falls, NY)

Email Melissa Fischer (melissafischerartist@gmail.com) for more details or to let her know you’ll participate.

The Insanity of God– Book Review

The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken & Gregg Lewis

The Insanity of God is one of the most inspiring and challenging books I have read. Inspiring because of the many stories of believers who are steadfast in their passion for Christ, even while experiencing extreme persecution for their faith. And challenging as I contemplate the strong prayer lives of those Christians and realize how fickle my own prayer life is by comparison.

Nik Ripken (not his real name, in order to protect those whose stories he relates) starts out by describing the overwhelming and discouraging years when he and his wife were doing relief work and ministering in the devastation of Somalia in the 1990’s. His commitment to serve in obedience to Jesus’ call to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28: 19-20) in an extremely dangerous environment was challenging and has caused me to evaluate my own response to Jesus’ words.

After their son Timothy suddenly died of an asthma attack, the Ripkens returned to the States for a furlough in order to rest, recover, and deal with their discouragement, grief, and questions. Nik then embarked on a series of lengthy trips to regions of the world where Christians have been or still are severely persecuted for their faith. He relates details of many interviews with believers in former Soviet bloc countries, China, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and more. There were many stories that stood out to me, and what impressed me the most were the prayer lives of these persecuted believers. They depended on God and were guided by him in ways beyond my experience, but which rang true in how they glorified God. It was amazing to read about how these believers didn’t seek primarily to avoid persecution, which they could have done by remaining silent about their faith. Instead, they sought to share the good news of the Gospel in whatever ways they could. They were cautious and tried to avoid drawing the attention of authorities, but they didn’t let fear of persecution control or silence them.

This book has left me with a prayer (that I prayed often while reading the book) that my passion for God would grow and would lead to an ever-deepening prayer life. I want to know Christ more intimately and I want to love nothing in this world more than I love God. I have long considered Christ to be my greatest love, and I have hoped that if push came to shove, I would abandon anything else if challenged to declare my love for Christ. On a daily basis, though, I know that I am distracted by many things, and God often does not have the priority he should in my days. Reading The Insanity of God has given me a deep desire to more fully experience the work of the Holy Spirit in me, and through me to those with whom I interact.

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…”
Philippians 3:7-8

Spring Bird Sketches

This time of year is full of distractions for me; I sit down to read a book, but the bird activity outside every window draws my attention and makes it hard for me to focus on the written word. I am occupied nearly all day long “reading” the wonders of nature, of new life and of hard-working parent birds, in addition to the glories of spring flowers of all sizes and colors. The birds are singing their most vociferously, and they are coming and going from our feeders all days long.

This spring we have a Robin pair nesting in the entrance to my garden shed, right under the deck below our front door. I’m trying to minimize how much we go in and out that door, so as to lessen disturbances that frighten the mama off her nest. When she’s not on her nest I sometimes slip over quietly to take a quick photo so I can then sketch the nest. I prefer to sketch from life for my sketchbook, but I can’t see into the nest without disturbing the mother, so photos have to suffice in this case. (If you click on the image you’ll be able to read my notes about when the eggs were laid and when they hatched.)

We have two pairs of Bluebirds nesting in natural holes in stumps of dead trees in our woods. One pair is in the woods on the western side of our yard and the other in the woods on the eastern side, across the stream.

The nesting hole of the Bluebirds on the western side of our woods (BW) faces east toward the back window of my bungalow where I start my mornings in prayer and Bible reading, and they have provided plenty of distraction, since I can watch their comings and goings unobserved. I watched early on as the female was clearly spending most of her time incubating eggs, with the male going back and forth, then I was able to see the last baby being fed before he (or she) finally left the nest to join his siblings in the trees. Now the parents are constantly back and forth from our deck, filling their beaks with seed or suet, then flying back to the trees.

The Bluebirds on the eastern side (BE) have their nest higher up in a much taller, thinner stump. Their nest hole also faces east, so I haven’t been able to observe it easily, since I have to go way back in the woods to see it. What I have been able to observe, however, is the differences in behavior of the two pairs.

The BW male seems to be dominant, and he frequently perches on top of the tall corner posts of our deck, from whence he chases the BE male away. Once I saw the BW male chasing the BE female away, and I’ve seen the BW female chasing the BE female away. The BW male also seems to have become so territorial that he often starts tapping at his reflection in or kitchen window. Fortunately leaving the kitchen lights on seems to lessen the reflections enough that he desists from that vain effort and returns to feeding his family (and fortunately our lights are LED’s so they don’t use much electricity and don’t generate much heat).

We’ve also been enjoying the beautiful singing of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks! On April 29th we had a beautiful, mature male stop by. We haven’t seen him since, but a female showed up briefly on May 5th, and then yesterday and today we’ve had a first year male singing off and on all day, including while standing atop out feeder pole! I haven’t sketched him yet, but here are my sketches of the mature male. As with all the Bluebird sketches, the sketches were done from life, with color added later.

 

Zoo Sketches

Much as I enjoy landscape painting, my favorite subjects are animals, especially wildlife, and, more than anything else, I love sketching them from life, when I can observe their behavior as I capture them in my sketchbook. It’s not easy to sketch live animals unless they’re sleeping, but that’s a challenge I enjoy. I tend to have many partially done sketches on a page and may or may not complete any, but those are some of my favorite sketchbook pages to look back at. Even looking at sketches from years ago, I can almost always remember the specific animals and their actions.

While I prefer to sketch wildlife in the wild, I appreciate the variety of species I can observe, learn about, and sketch at a well-run zoo. Here is a sampling of my Zoo sketches, most from the Bronx Zoo, some from the Trevor Zoo that’s run by the Millbrook School here in Dutchess County, and some from the St. Louis Zoo. These are all sketches done from life, sometimes in freezing or raining conditions. Generally I leave them as I’ve done them at the zoo, but sometimes I add watercolor later. I don’t consider these great art, but they were great fun to do, and I look forward to more sketching at the Trevor Zoo and the Bronz Zoo now that Covid restrictions are easing.

The hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” by Cecil Francis Alexander is a favorite of mine that I think about often as I enjoy many aspects of God’s creation, and it seems a fitting conclusion to my A to Z Blogging posts.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all. 

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

The purple headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Author: Ce­cil F. Al­ex­an­der, Hymns for Lit­tle Child­ren, 1848

A to Z April Blogging Z