A Cure for Everything that Ails You: On the Healing Power of Art

Because we live on doorstep of NYC, we often find the culture of city life seeping into our everyday. Our highways jam with commuters, and our schedules swell with too much to do in too little time. We pay exorbitant prices for everything from a cappuccino to burgers to real estate. It can be a drag to feel the financial and emotional weight of city life, without the buzz and opportunity of it.

After living in European cities for many years, and taking more weekend city breaks than my children care to remember, I’ve felt the loss of arts and culture more intensely than anything else in our suburban life. Art museums, concert halls, and theaters become houses of worship when I immerse myself in the imagination and beauty of the work. I feel closer to God through the strains of a violin or the brushstrokes of a master artist.

Throughout our ten years in New Jersey, we’ve struggled to find time to schlep into the city despite its siren call, so it was a revelation to discover that sometimes, the city comes to us. I found that one of our local theaters hosts performances by New York City artists, and last week we carried crumpled tickets and plastic glasses of wine into a performance by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. Except we weren’t at Lincoln Center. We were a fifteen minute drive from our home, and I didn’t have to worry about wearing sensible shoes or crying from exhaustion while sitting in traffic at midnight.

Enter jazz. Enter joy.

This particular night of pleasure capped another week of madness in the media. In-fighting, name calling, disasters, political dumpster fires. You name it, we experienced it. I feel the dip and roll of this particular coaster keenly, and I know I’m not alone. If you have a pulse, you probably feel it too. I am tired of living with anxiety over the breaking news cycle. I need sources of joy to pour out like honey over the bitterness stirring up my fear. I need the salve of camaraderie and peace.

Here is a cure:

A saxophone’s solo. The gravel-like voice of a man who has lived through hard times and composed music to tell it. The pathos of a suspended note. A band playing at the crossroads of wildness and restraint. Men whose faces take on the animation of boys when the trumpet sounds into the silence.

I have never seen so much joy among band-mates. They nodded, bounced, and shook their heads in rhythm. They caught one another’s eyes with raised brows as if to ask, “Did you hear that?!” The approval on their faces, the sheer delight, was as much a jewel as the music. Each man had his turn to display his gift, and his mates sat back and reveled in it. The Latino from New Jersey, the black man from New Orleans, the white man from New York City. Each brought something rich and diverse with their own instrument.

Sitting in the audience felt like being invited to sit in on a private conversation between best friends. They spoke their own language in a series of notes, strung like gold across the expanse of the dark theater.

It was everything I wish the world to be in a single evening. I felt whole when I slipped my jacket on and held hands with my husband as we exited. We caught each other’s eyes and raised our brows, and I knew we had experienced equal delight. We held the jewel for a fleeting moment. We heard it.

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A Moment to Breathe: A Book Giveaway

***This giveaway in now CLOSED. Congrats to our winners, Sandra and Sierra!***

….

“Inside, I’m dying with fear,” he said. “I think we all are.”

I read these words in a recent NY Times article, spoken by a seventeen year old boy living in a tumultuous political climate, and I felt them bore deep into my body. Every time I read the news or turn to twitter or scroll through my Facebook feed, my bones melt under the flame of fear. I struggle to stand beneath the weight of all the hard news, the horror, and the helplessness I feel in the face of it.

Inside, I am dying with fear. Fear that I know too much to be silent. Fear that I don’t. Fear that hand wringing and pearl clutching will become my permanent posture. Fear that I’ve given up hope. Fear that this is my children’s inheritance–a broken world of cracked images. Fear that if we no longer recognize the Imago Dei, how will they?

Frederick Buechner wrote “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” and I cling to these words as if they came straight from the mouth of God himself. Perhaps they resonate because this is the essence of the message we discover in God’s love letter to us. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. But, Jesus. The Christ. Redemption. Don’t be afraid.

When the cares of the world of the world feel like too much, I take solace in scripture. I find myself most often in the Psalms, where I reach across centuries and cultures to knit my soul to those experiencing every emotion from lament and anguish, to joy and triumph. I know we need action and real solutions, but this is the place where my heart releases the posture of wrung out hands and embraces a posture of possibility.

I need the words of the Psalmists of the past to speak into my present and remind me that there is nothing new under the sun.  Beautiful and terrible things have happened and will continue to do so. How will I be a part of creating beauty? How will I seek redemption for God’s kingdom here and now, while holding onto hope for the not yet?

I believe my place is to speak peace to the rising fear. It is to speak Jesus to the terror and horror of the news cycle. And not only to speak to the larger-than-life fears, but to speak to the small fears that blister our souls with their heat. I want to speak peace and hope to the fear that we are not enough, we are unlovable, we can’t change, we aren’t a good friend, mother, daughter, wife, Christian. These too are the fears that melt our bones, and keep us from becoming warriors for shalom in our own homes.

I recently had the pleasure of contributing to a beautiful devotional called “A Moment to Breathe: 365 devotions that meet you in your everyday mess.” curated by the (in)courage community. It releases today, and I’d love to give two copies away to readers. Eighty women contributed their words to create this devotional as a means of reaching across the divide. Just as the Psalmists are my companions, the writers of “A Moment to Breathe” would like to become your everyday companions too. We may not have the divine inspiration or the poetic cadence of the Psalms, but we have our hearts, handed to you across the page.

If you’re in need of a moment to catch your breath between news cycles and outrage and dishes and deadlines, please leave a comment below to enter your name for the book giveaway. If you prefer to get on with it, you can purchase a copy for yourself (and perhaps a sister/co-worker/friend?) wherever books are sold.

I will choose two winners to receive one book each by the completely unscientific method of pulling your names out of a hat. Or, more likely, a salad bowl. Giveaway closes on Tuesday, October 10th. Leave a comment below telling me how you combat fear in an age hell-bent on inflaming it.

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When Waiting is Your Destination

I recently lamented to a friend about my growing sense of impatience with the current state of my work life. I no longer have any deadlines circled on the calendar–every paper, article, and book project has reached a stage of completion or been scrapped entirely. Without dates scribbled and double-starred in black pen, I find myself at loose ends, wondering what comes next. The words of Patti Smith come to mind as my calendar–starless as a cloud-cloaked sky–fills with the redundant tasks of daily life.

Smith writes, “No one expected me. Everything awaited me.

It is the most radical thought I’ve had in recent weeks. After wrestling (with much fanfare and melodrama) through the stages of grief over the loss of a professional dream, and spending too much time stroking the wild-haired head of anger, I find myself once again in a place of waiting.

As I lament the familiarity of this space, my friend reminds me that waiting isn’t a passageway to a more spacious place. It is more than a temporary hold on forward motion.

Waiting is its own destination.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon wrote, “Waiting is the rust of the soul, implying that waiting is a time of decay, a time of gathering rust and dust, rather than a time of expectancy. Action doesn’t exist in decay, and waiting is a word of action. It requires an active and ready posture. It is an open-handed pause with the expectation that everything on the other side waits for your arrival once the good, hard work of waiting is complete.

No one expects me. No deadlines anticipate my pen to strike them through. I have no idea what comes next, and I’m beginning to see the freedom that comes with this active posture. Rather than inviting rust, I feel the slow rumble of ideas gathering in the sky. Creativity grows best in uncomfortable spaces.

Relief returns as I remind myself this is a place for renewal and strength-gathering. On the other side, everything awaits me.

……

“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
    they shall walk and not faint.”

~Isaiah 40:31

On Being Kind to Ourselves

To celebrate a special day last week, I gave myself an entire day of permission. I gave myself permission to do whatever pleases me, and to refuse anything that does not. This means I spent the better part of my birthday ignoring the dishes calling me from the sink and the silent washing machine begging to be put to use. Their voices shout, loud and demanding, so I filled the empty space with other people’s voices from the pages of a book.

I gave myself permission to read for an entire day while the kids were at school. In a manner befitting Marie Antoinette, a manner of utter indulgence, I drove to my local library and gave myself browsing rights with no time limit. I gathered an armful (eight, to be exact) of books I want to read and I brought them all home. One is a large, coffee table book of an artist’s rendering of the green pastures and white-capped mountains Switzerland. The thought of browsing through it page by page, allowing it to spark vivid memories of our time living there, gives me pleasure.

More than giving myself permission to enjoy the gift of time on my terms, I promised I would only say good things about myself all day. This played out in the battle field of my own head. I decided to reject every negative thought about my own shortcomings, every ugly thought about how frustrated I am with my meager accomplishments, every bitter word I speak about my own self. Not only did I reject these thoughts, I forced myself to replace them with a kind word, a gentle internal gesture of gratitude for the person I’ve become.

It was nearly impossible.

It felt more indulgent than anything else I experienced that day. Even the celebratory slice of carrot cake, thick with whipped cream cheese icing was easier to place in my mouth than a kind word about my own self. I hadn’t realized how ingrained the negative thought patterns have become. Why is it so hard to simply like one’s self and celebrate her? It feels undeserving somehow, and yet I am made in God’s image. I am known and loved by Him, and by family and friends too. Yet, it’s difficult to extend myself this same love, difficult to say “I am loved. I belong here. I have good and important work to do.”

I gave myself one day of permission to simply be me, to enjoy the things I love, to look in the mirror and call this creation good. It was such a small thing, but it shifted something hard and cold inside of me. Today, I want you to give yourself permission too. It may not look like an armful of books, or Swiss art, or carrot cake. But it should certainly begin with kind words of love for your self. Begin to cut new paths of good, gentle, joy-filled words about the inner person you know yourself to be. Become a raconteur of your life’s story. You’re the only one who can really tell it.

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***As I process my recent disappointments, I’ve received so many words of encouragement from readers and friends. At the same time, my inner dialogue has been harsh, filled with “if only” statements that never end well. I resurrected this post from the archives because I need the reminder to be kind to myself and to speak life to my own soul.

Maybe you need it too?

 

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How to Sit with both Sadness and Hope

 

“Grief may be joy misunderstood…” ~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

It’s nearly autumn in New Jersey. I sit under a canopy of leaves and watch as a single orange-tipped leaf floats to the ground in slow motion. It’s a season of small, delicate deaths–where the joy of reaping a harvest mingles with the sadness of the ground turning fallow once again.

This summer, my heart cradled hope in full bloom, like a basket of fresh-cut flowers. Yet, autumn has ushered in a season of dying one small death after another.

After months of planning and preparing, I opened the door on a classroom of college freshman and stepped in as a teacher rather than a student. I soon discovered teaching isn’t a part of my natural skill set. Rather than opening the door to an assumed strength, I opened the door to a weakness–the kind of weakness that makes me want to cut and run. I died to the confident vision I had of myself every time I stand behind the desk and sweat through a session.

Despite this rough start in the classroom, my inner self hummed and painted blooms on the walls of my heart. I carried inside me a private joy the color of blush pink English ramblers. After years of writing and re-writing content, my book proposal had finally made its way into the hands of publishers months earlier. All summer, I waited for news.

I learned this fall that my book will not be published. Nor will the next book I propose. Or the next. The reasons are best left contained within a trail of sad phone calls and emails. Again, I died to the vision I had of myself holding a copy of my book and smiling for the camera.

As these dreams have died, I’ve spent countless hours trying to spin new ones. But, it is autumn. A single leaf drops to remind me. In my sadness, I have found myself drawn to the story of Sarah, a woman who longed for and dreamed of children to circle around her ankles and call her Mama. A woman who, in her weakness, began to spin dreams that were birthed in grief rather than joy. For years, God’s promise to her went unfulfilled. She dreamt in partial solutions, and Ishmael was the result.

In my disappointment, I have wanted to force an Ishmael into my life. I have turned in circles looking for partial solutions when the only answer is to sit with my sadness and wait. I sit with Sarah and watch autumn unfold as summer dies to itself. I don’t want to force an answer apart from the will of God, and so I pray for a spirit of steadfastness and resilience instead.

The joy Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks of lies in the knowledge that autumn lasts for a season. Spring and summer will come again. Warm winds will blow and seeds will bloom, but first autumn and winter. First dying to self, first sitting with sadness, understanding the heart of Sarah.

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