I am eager to join my friend Jamie Grossman in her Holidays in Ink Challenge, which will run from Tuesday, November 24, 2020 to Saturday, January 2, 2021. In fact I’m so eager that I was all set to start tomorrow, November 1st, until Jamie reminded me that it doesn’t start until two days before Thanksgiving! I have way too many pens of all sorts (if it’s actually possible to have too many pens), and I love experimenting and drawing with inks of various colors. I’m looking forward to sketching familiar subjects with my accustomed methods and also to stretching myself with new subjects, new techniques, and new supplies (what artist doesn’t love the idea of new supplies!).
One thing I very much appreciate about Jamie is her enthusiasm for learning and trying new things; she’s a great example and is also very generous with sharing her ideas and knowledge. She’s always encouraging her friends to grow as artists, without pressuring them to do what she does. In that vein, Jamie has come up with two prompt lists, one of subjects and one of process prompts. There’s no pressure to follow the prompts in any order or even to follow them at all; they are a resource to encourage experimenting and playing with new ideas while doing Holidays in Ink, not a prescription that must be followed.
See below for links to Jamie’s post about Holidays in Ink and for downloadable PDF’s of the prompt lists.
My focus the past few weeks has been to rest, refocus, and continue to develop a workable, helpful rhythm of life, as I mentioned in my post of August 14th. Grief seems to drain me of creative energy, even when I’m not specifically thinking of recent losses, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading the past few weeks since we lost our sweet Petra. Reading often calms my mind so that I can think constructively and, more importantly, seems to renew my energy and motivation for doing things that need to be done (laundry, cooking, etc.) and for creative expression, whether sketching, painting, or writing. I will often think I’m just being lazy or that I have lost all creative ability, but if I then spend a few hours reading, interspersed with a couple walks with Ramble, all of a sudden I find that I’m eager to start sketching or even planning a painting.
I’ve mostly been sketching trees, either with ink, which I love because of its simplicity and the way it lends itself to both bold expression and subtle nuance, or with watercolor and gouache as I attempt to capture fall colors. I’ve also continued to sketch Stephen as he reads in the evenings, and sometimes myself from my reflection in a window as Stephen reads aloud to me.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet A. Jacobs, is both an easy read and a very difficult read. Easy in that it is gripping and hard to put down, especially knowing that it is a true story. Difficult, especially knowing that it’s a true story, because it is very hard to read of the despicable ways people were considered property and were treated with no respect, no regard for their feelings, and with no hope or expectation of relief. Many times the incidents and situations brought me to tears or made me tense with anger. This is history we should be aware of, not merely intellectually, but also on an emotional and social level, of how it affected countless people in our country.
While I was aware of the fact that these abuses had happened, reading this book drove home the horror of what life was like, in particular for slave girls and women. It also made clear that even though some slaveholders were benevolent and genuinely cared for their slaves, they were still lacking in understanding of how the system of slavery dehumanized and endangered anyone who was considered property.
While I am thankful for the decency, support, friendship, and genuine love shown by those who worked hard to free slaves or end the institution of slavery, I am appalled at the fact that slavery existed as an institution and that it remained for so long. This narrative of Jacobs’ life, with all she and others she knew suffered, drives home the inhumanity of any human being thinking they have the right to own another. The fact that so many people who were considered respectable citizens owned slaves, some abusing them horrendously, others acting benevolently but still not emancipating their slaves, starkly demonstrates how deceived one can be about others and even about oneself. I recommend reading this book with an open heart and mind to learn more about a deplorable chapter in our history and also to learn about human nature, both the dreadful and the gracious and forgiving.
We said good-bye to our sweet Petra yesterday evening. She had been aging but otherwise doing great until late Thursday evening; a week ago she even went on a three mile hike with us in the woods at Taconic Hereford, a place she has always loved. I’m so thankful we took the time for what we didn’t know would be her last hike. She was even playing with Ramble earlier Thursday evening and trotting happily around the house while I prepared the animals’ dinners. Then something suddenly changed and she went rapidly downhill. By yesterday evening it was apparent that she was telling us it was time for us to let her go in peace.
I fell in love with Petra when I first met her when she was three weeks old and fell asleep in my arms. When I brought her home at eight weeks, she immediately bonded with Stephen and he with her. Then she met Rowan, who was enchanted with his little sister. She was less enchanted with him at that first meeting, and promptly put him in his place, but then, respect having been established, they bonded deeply for life.
Petra was so always so full of life, leaping up trees, running full tilt through woods, playing with Rowan, Milo, and more recently Ramble. She loved people and was a fabulous therapy dog, listening to elementary children as they read to her and talked to her, and demonstrating obedience and doing tricks when she and I did programs for school assemblies. When I sometimes couldn’t sleep or was just drawn outside by the beauty of moonlit nights, Petra was always my first choice for a quiet nocturnal companion as I walked around the yard listening to the sounds of the night and watching for fleeting shadows of the wild denizens of our land.
Petra also had a tender side that drew out a matching tenderness in many people, especially Stephen, whom Petra adored. They would sit on the floor together, face to face, holding long eye contact, as Steve petted Petra and she “sang” to him with happy dog sounds. She was always so gentle with our cats, “petting” them with a front paw, or licking their ears, which they seemed to like. She used to lick Rowan’s ears, too, and he would groan with appreciation while she licked one ear, then he would turn his head for her to lick his other ear. I remember one time when Milo found a rabbit’s nest and started devouring the baby bunnies. I quickly called him away and took him to the house, where I found a squirming baby bunny that Petra had gently carried up and put on the doorstep, presumably so I could protect it.
Petra also had an intensity that showed itself in various ways. She was always vigilant, which meant she was a fabulous watchdog, always keeping an eye on who was coming or going. She was intensely bonded to all of us in the family, and if Stephen or I was out, she would usually sit by the door watching for us to come home, no matter how long we were out. If I told her one of our children was coming home from college and would soon be arriving, she would run to the door and sit watchfully, waiting for even an hour or two for them to arrive, then would leap with great joy. And in her younger years Petra chewed Nylabones so intensely that she chewed them to sharp points—we called it her dagger collection.
There was so much more that is running through my mind like a kaleidoscope of memories and images. Petra was a strong and vibrant presence in our home for over fifteen years, and her passing leaves a giant hole in our lives. Thank you, Sweet Petra, for all you were to us. We love you and miss you.
I rarely write reviews of the books I read, mostly because I am usually well into another book by the time I finished reading one, but sometimes, if I feel very strongly either positively or negatively, I am inclined to review one. I’m hoping to start reviewing a few more, and generally my reviews will be about why I like a book, as I often just don’t finish a book if I don’t like it. But I’m writing a strongly negative review this time.
I recently finished reading A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult, one of my favorite novel writers, whose books I enjoy both for how engaging her writing is (hard for me to put down, so I have to space out how often I read them) and for the well-researched ways she presents the complexity of challenging contemporary issues. I was very disappointed with this book. I’ve enjoyed many books by Picoult and have appreciated the diverse points of view she presents, but she failed to do that with A Spark of Light. One of the things I have loved about her books is the way she presents both (or multiple) sides of an issue with well-rounded characters with whom one can sympathize and relate to. That has made me come away from her books with a better understanding of why people would approach an issue differently than I do, and greater understanding of the complexity of whatever issue the book is dealing with. In some cases that has even resulted in me modifying my own views. Not so with this book. In A Spark of Light, Picoult presents the pro-life characters as shallow, extreme, and unlikable. While there certainly are some who fit that description, it is an unfair and inaccurate caricature of the majority of pro-life people.
In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Picoult states that she interviewed pro-life advocates and they were “not religious zealots…were appalled by acts of violence…weren’t trying to circumvent women’s rights or tell women what to do with their bodies,” and that she had enjoyed conversation with them. So why did that not come across in her writing? I can’t imagine anyone coming away from this book feeling sympathy with any of the pro-life characters. It seems to me that Picoult threw aside one of her greatest strengths in her writing in order to get across a political message. I’ve seen other writers do that, too,and it is always dismaying, even when I have agreed with the point they were making or perspective they were advocating. I may still read some of Picoult’s books I haven’t read yet, but I am less interested in reading her more recent ones.
A few months ago, during the pandemic lockdown, a friend suggested we each do some writing based on the prompt “Unexpected.” My mind was immediately flooded with all sorts of thoughts, some of which I scribbled in my journal.
Then my father died. He had not been in good health and was increasingly frail, but his death had not seemed imminent until a few days prior, despite the fact that he was nearly 96. Both of these pieces were written before my father’s death, but having experienced yet again that even the expected can hit one hard emotionally, I didn’t get around to typing them up until now. I may yet have more to add on this topic as I continue to process his death, my life, and a world in which hard things, both expected and unexpected, will continue to occur.
Unexpected (April 22, 2020)
“Come Thou Long-expected Jesus”—One of my favorite Christmas hymns, comes to mind every time I think of the word “unexpected.” Since I was a teenager I’ve loved this hymn that speaks of how Christ the Messiah was expected, predicted, prophesied for generations, centuries actually—more than 18 centuries. Expected for so long that he became unexpected, so that even those who knew the prophecies best and were, in theory, waiting eagerly for his coming were not actually expecting his arrival.
How about me? I know he will come again; that coming was also prophesied by multiple prophets, and Jesus said many times that he will come again. But will I be ready, watching for him, expectant? Or will his coming be unexpected, because time goes by and the ordinary continues, as it always does?
Or does it? These days of Covid-19 are far from ordinary. Nothing like this has happened in my lifetime, and our society, along with many societies around the world, is reeling. This level of disruption to our daily life and economy is truly unexpected. Because the unexpected has occurred, the possibility of serious illness and death at a relatively young age for some in our circles of friends and family can no longer be considered unexpected.
Interesting that the unexpected of one sort has made what was unexpected in another realm now likely rather than unexpected. The unexpected makes the unexpected expected. Am I ready? Am I expectant?
More thoughts on “Unexpected” (May 7, 2020)
It seems to me there are two categories of “unexpected.” There is that which is unexpected because one never thought it would happen and most likely never gave it any thought. This Covid-19 pandemic is such—who would ever have thought that our economy would come to a screeching halt, and not just ours, but most economies around the world? Who would have ever thought we’d be under stay-at-home orders for many weeks? This is unprecedented in our country, at least in my lifetime. I suppose there are countless scenarios that fall into this category, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to expend much mental energy on such possibilities, as they are truly unlikely by virtue of being so extreme.
So how can one prepare? I think in the same way one prepares for the other category of “unexpected,” those events that are inevitable but happen earlier than expected. This second category would include what is often termed the “unexpected death” of someone. Actually, dying is one of the most certain events I or anyone will ever face—every one of us will die someday. So by “unexpected” we mean that death came at a time we didn’t see it coming. A heart attack, stroke, accident, violent attack—these are some causes of unexpected deaths,, even though some of these causes are not so uncommon.
So how can I avoid the shock of the inevitable catching me unawares, thus seemingunexpected? I think Moses, millennia ago, had part of the answer:
Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)
If I truly grasp the brevity of my life (or as another translation puts it, if I “number my days”), I will always live with an awareness of possible death and a readiness to face it. If viewed with wisdom, that readiness to face and accept my death, whenever it may come, includes a recognition that God holds all of this life and this world, past, present, and future in his good, powerful, and loving hands. That confidence should enable me to trust him with both the inevitable and the truly unexpected, because I know I am safely held in his hands, and nothing is unexpected for him.
I gaze up at Mars and Venus in the dim sky of early dawn, red guardian of the night and bright herald of the coming day, steadfast in their stately dance through the heavens. Far closer to earth, three bats catch my eye as they swoop and circle, sometimes together, sometimes singly, in constant motion, choreography in the air. A fourth joins the dance, their flight like fleeting lines of calligraphy tracing the sky along lines only they can see. Then, suddenly all four vanish, as if at some secret signal. Perhaps the sun, still 20 minutes from rising, has lightened the sky just enough to announce bat bedtime?
Just as I turn to go inside, a single bat streaks from the silhouetted trees to fly in joyous loops and circles, up and down, around and about, seeming for all the world like a preschooler who’s escaped his bedroom for one last gleeful playtime before being put to bed. Or perhaps a young teenager daring to stay out past curfew just long enough to see if he can, to see what really happens when day begins and bats must say goodnight. Laughing, I watch his youthful antics as a Wren began to sing. After just a minute, having tasted the dawn, he, too, vanishes, the sky now the realm of birds. I look up again; Mars and Venus still dance, their movement nearly imperceptible, their course sure through ages past and ages yet to come.
Stephen reads to me nearly every evening; this has been part of our end-of-day routine for years now. We’ve probably read through over a hundred books by now, the majority fantasy or science fiction, with a smattering of classics and a few other genres. I really look forward to the time to connect, to unwind after the fullness of each day, and to enjoy a good book together. I often sketch while Steve reads, sometimes making cards or sketching the view out the window, but more often than not sketching him as he reads. Here’s a selection of sketches from the past year or two. These are all done without preliminary predrawing; sometimes I have a hard time with proportions, but I’m getting to the point I think I could sketch him from memory. 🙂
It’s been over two months since I posted, and I am planning to start posting art and musings somewhat more regularly. I have recently decided to step back from most of Facebook, which is giving me more time (it’s so easy to lose vast amounts of time browsing through friends’ news feeds and reading comments), and, more importantly, is freeing up more mental energy. I am still posting some artwork and photos on Facebook, but I am reading very little there and am enjoying greater peace of mind and more time to read and to make art, whether painting or sketching.
We came home from Maine near the end of June, and since then I’ve been taking time off from my dog training business to get settled back in after three months away, but mostly to recover from many months of stress that started with my parents’ health issues back in the fall, included some health issues for Stephen and me, then the twins’ premature birth and our temporary and sudden move to Maine, then my father’s illness and death. And then I wiped out on my bicycle and cracked a few ribs a week before we returned home from Maine. I was ready for a break!
During this time I’ve been trying to establish a better rhythm for my days, and toward that end I’ve been reading some helpful books, as well doing much pondering as I walk the dogs and some journaling most mornings. One book which I’m very much appreciating right now is The Pressure’s Off, by Larry Crabb, who has long been a favorite author of mine. I’ve only read the first few chapters, but he emphasizes the absolute importance of desiring intimacy with God over the blessings we would like to have in this life. He says that as long as we believe that if we live a certain way doing the “right” things we are likely to have the life we want (health, comfortable home, children who are doing well, etc), we will be under tremendous pressure to “get it right.” But if our greatest desire is to draw close to God no matter how things are going in our life, the pressure is off, because we aren’t focused on outcomes that we can’t really control anyway, and we can be satisfied at the deepest level of our being that nothing but God can truly satisfy, since we were created for connection with him.
I’m also reading Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton, another favorite author of mine. I’m only in the third chapter, but she starts right out talking about longing for God, about reading Scripture in a way that draws me into the story and then makes the story of Scripture a part of my life, and about solitude– how I love that word as an invitation to my soul to step out from under the pressure of daily life and expectations!
Just yesterday I started reading Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris, which I expect will stir in me a desire for a Benedictine-like rhythm to my days, which will help maintain my focus and dependence on God. I have previously read on and pondered Benedictine spirituality and always found it helpful, but it’s hard to stay on track without some sort of accountability (which is built into Benedictine life). Both Larry Crabb and Ruth Haley Barton talk about the need for spiritual friendships that provide ongoing encouragement and discernment, which brings me to another book I’m reading and discussing with a close friend: Crafting a Rule of Life, by Stephen Macchia. I’ve found it a bit tedious at times, but useful for helping me sort through various aspects of my life, interests, passions, goals, and responsibilities, and I think discussing it with a friend will help with both discernment and mutual encouragement. That seems especially important during this time of somewhat limited interaction with others due to Covid-19.
As usual, I am reading a mini-library, rather than just one book, and the one I’ve mentioned are just a few of my current books. I’m also reading a fascinating, fabulously well-written, informative book called Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance, by Marian Gosnell; A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (just started this, but think it will be hard to put down); Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan (which I think will tie in well with the books on spiritual focus); and A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis; as well as a couple of art books about painting landscapes; and Dog Songs, a book of beautifully illustrated and insightful poems by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite contemporary poets. In addition to all of these books, I am reading through the book of Psalms over and over (about once a month) and Stephen and I are reading aloud through the Old Testament a page or so at a time. And he and I have also been reading through Orson Scott Card’s many science fiction books, which are very engaging I’m planning on picking up The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy sometime in the next week or so, as someone recently recommended it.
Well, I wasn’t originally planning this to be a post primarily about books, but that seems to be where my thoughts have gone. I do find that reading slows me down from the overly fast and pressured pace of life dictated by modern technology and issues and often helps to establish some rhythm to my days. It also gives my wonderful cat Acadia time to snuggle on my lap, where she makes sure I don’t get too deeply absorbed in whatever I’m reading. If you have any recommendations for me, please feel free to mention them in a comment. I have a long, long list of recommended books, but I’m always happy to add to it.
This has been a deeply sad week for me. My father died last Monday, Memorial Day, which seems fitting for a veteran. We had some very good times, and I am overflowing with wonderful memories, both from my childhood and from more recent years. Sadly, though, we also had times throughout my life when there was tension between us. The last two years were not good for us, though thankfully in his final weeks I felt that we had some renewed connection. It still does not seem possible that he is no longer here; I was so hoping for more time to reconnect, to hear his stories, to show him my sketchbooks, to sit with him watching the birds and chipmunks he so enjoyed.
I was thinking during the weeks of my father’s recent decline about how all people are both broken and beautiful; broken by others or by their own choices, beautiful because all people are created in the image of God and bear something of that image, no matter how broken they may be. That was very true of my father; he had significant brokenness that, along with my own brokenness, strained our relationship, but he was also an extraordinary person with many talents, who was people-oriented and generous. I am thankful for many of the interests and abilities that I carry on from my father and, going forward, I hope to pursue them in his honor and to God’s glory.
Here is what I wrote to be shared at his funeral:
I’ve often been told I look like my father. I don’t know if I do or not, but I know I am like him in many ways, and Papa is a big part of who I am. I owe much of my love of nature and appreciation for and beauty to Papa. I still picture walking with him in Butler Sanctuary, admiring a long black snake draped across the rocks on Blacksnake Hill; finding morels on a steep, rocky slope; picking bayberries to make bayberry candles. One day when he and I walked in our own woods, an enticing scent suddenly caught my attention, and I turned to see oyster mushrooms climbing a dead tree. FIVE POUNDS of oyster mushrooms, as Papa often told me with delight and obvious pride in me for finding them. I think of that day with Papa every time I see oyster mushrooms.
I remember the day not so many years ago when Papa took me to an exhibit of Van Gogh drawings and paintings. We went through the entire exhibit together, quietly discussing many of the pieces, then decided to go through separately to each study our favorites. I focused on a number of drawings and a few paintings; Papa just sat in front of his favorite, a large, colorful painting, silently observing it, deeply appreciating the opportunity to simply enjoy it. I so admire his ability to sit quietly, whether observing a painting; watching a hummingbird hovering in front of him; or taming the chipmunks that gamboled by his feet, on his hands, even in his shirt pockets.
Papa, like most of us, was a complex person with a blend of strengths and weaknesses and, sadly, he and I had a frequently strained relationship. He didn’t always show an overabundance of sensitivity to others’ emotions, but one occasion will always stay with me. I’d heard at the bus stop that a black and white cat had been hit by a car a ways up Chestnut Ridge Road. As soon as I got home I told Papa, and he immediately drove me up there. I had been wondering if it was our semi-feral Bilateral Symmetry, but when we drove past on the other side of the road, I stiffened as I saw a long-haired cat lying beside the road—Dis? Papa turned the car around and stopped by the cat. It was indeed my beloved Dis. We drove home, me in tears with Dis on my lap, then Papa dug a grave in a beautiful spot in the woods by the rhododendron-covered pathway. Papa took Dis’s body, laid her gently in the grave, covered her with dirt. He spoke with me some about death; I don’t remember specifics, but I have always remembered with gratitude what he said right afterwards—that he had buried Dis facing east with her head uphill.
Papa, I trust that on the last day you will rise up, facing east and rejoicing to see Christ come to take us home. I love you always and will be looking for you then.