The Slow Days of Summer

I’m not a fan of summer heat. I never have been, always preferring mountains to beaches, winter to summer. The heat gets to me, but neither do I like being cooped up in air conditioning, so I have tended to wish away the summer as I impatiently await the coolness of autumn. But a few weeks ago our pastor said something about enjoying the slow days of summer, and that’s been sitting in the back of my mind as we go through an extended stretch of very hot days.

I remember the summer of 2011, when I knew that my cat Bituminous’ days were winding down, and I wanted to cherish the time I had left with him. He and I enjoyed many slow, relaxed days together on the deck, before his time came in August. I sketched, read, watched and listened to birds, and held Bituminous.

The summer of 2016 was Rowan’s last, and he was no longer up to going out and about with me, as he had for many years as my Medical Alert Service Dog. The bond between us was strong and deep, and I was loathe to leave him behind any more than necessary, so once again I spent long, slow summer days on the deck with a beloved companion. Those days were precious, and I’ll always remember the poignant peace of that final summer with Rowan. I read, sketched, watched and listened to birds, and enjoyed Rowan’s presence and also a sense of God’s presence giving me peace in the midst of anticipation of loss.

This summer has been full with travel and multiple family visits– very enjoyable, but not exactly a contemplative pace of life. Following one visit with family, I came down with Covid-19 and spent the next six weeks recovering– not exactly my plan for this summer. But those weeks were slow by necessity and became a rich time of reading, sketching, watching and listening to birds, and becoming more deeply aware of God’s presence with me, despite less than ideal circumstances. Or, looking back over these three slow-paced summers, perhaps because of less than ideal circumstances.

Have I been so driven by my desire to accomplish things or so focused on the discomfort I feel on hot days that I have needed less than ideal circumstances to refocus me on what really matters? I am thankful to be fully recovered from Covid-19 and very thankful neither of my pets seems to be nearing the end of their time with me, but I want to heed the words of our pastor to enjoy these slow days of summer. I want to take time to sit on my deck with Stephen or Ramble or a friend, to read, to sketch, to watch and listen to the birds, and to become aware of God’s presence and his quiet voice that is easily drowned out when my life is fast-paced without pauses for slow, reflective time. I am thankful I haven’t wished away this summer, and that there are still slow and, yes, even hot days remaining before the delightfully crispy days of fall arrive.

Bluebirds!

This summer and last we’ve had two families of Bluebirds nesting nearby and visiting our feeders every day. By this time of the summer we are seeing youngsters of various ages; the first clutch that fledged in mid May and a second clutch that has fledged more recently. In the past week we’ve had the treat of seeing Mama Bluebird and sometimes Daddy Bluebird feeding their young on our deck railing right outside the kitchen window.

Lessons Learned from Atka- Available for Pre-order!

Atka was an Ambassador Wolf at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY. I spent many hours sketching him, always enjoying his quiet, regal presence. Atka was an amazing and unusual wolf; he enjoyed traveling and being the star of educational programs, and he was comfortable with the people who were part of his “pack.” I was not one of his pack, having made Atka’s acquaintance later in his life, but Lois Kral, who was one of the people he was close to, has written a book commemorating Atka.

Lois’ love and respect for Atka is obvious on every page of Lessons Learned from Atka. Written in verse, the book expands on Atka’s life adventures to underscore lessons taught in the Wolf Conservation Center’s educational programs. Atka traveled to New York City, Washington D.C., and many places in between. He seemed to thrive on interaction with people, and he was a fabulous ambassador for wolves, showing how social they are by nature (though not usually so social with humans).

I was honored that Lois asked me to illustrate the book, and I did so with a technique new to me. I used fountain pen ink for the page backgrounds and then painted and drew the illustrations using bleach. It was a bit nerve-wracking, with a steep learning curve, but it was also fun. The unique challenge of painting with bleach is that, unlike working with watercolor or gouache or any other medium, when one draws or paints a line with bleach, it doesn’t show up right away, as it takes a little while for the chemical reaction to cause the ink to be bleached. That was disconcerting at first, but did teach me to take my time and work slowly and carefully– a lesson I learned from Atka.

Lessons Learned from Atka is now available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million. 20% of proceeds will go to the Wolf Conservation Center.

 

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.