When Our Weakness Becomes A Strength

A few years ago, I joined my daughter’s class for a school field trip to Thomas Edison’s former laboratory here in New Jersey. The word laboratory sounds very clinical and boring, but in reality, it’s a large warehouse of a building, full of rooms fitted with dark wood paneled walls or heavy machinery or musical instruments. It is a delight.

The music room in particular held my attention. Painted strips of wood covered the walls which were lined with black and white photographs. Beneath our feet, worn oak floors bore the scars of a thousand visitors. The room itself held all sorts of instruments and multiple versions of the phonograph. In fact, the number of phonographs sprinkled throughout the entire complex bordered on overkill, until I learned that Edison spent fifty-two years perfecting this particular invention.

He called the phonograph his “baby”.

I thought all of this was amusing, charming even, until the docent made an almost throw-away comment. She said Thomas Edison, inventor of a device that reproduces the sound of music, suffered from extreme hearing loss since his childhood. While not completely deaf, he was severely hearing impaired.

Edison’s biggest weakness became the impetus for birthing his “baby”–his favorite invention plucked from his imagination.

I’ve thought about this off and on for several years, especially during times when I feel ill-equipped for the task at hand, whether it be a challenge in my parenting, creating, working, serving or simply in loving others well. My weakness can be a place where I flourish in spite of myself. This is counter-intuitive, unless I believe, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians,

“For this thing I sought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest on me.”

Allowing the power of Christ to rest on me results in strength, in courage, in tenacity. Edison showed a single-mindedness for fifty-two years, to create while wrestling against his own shortcomings. This is the kind of gumption I want for myself and for my kids. To stick with it. To dig deep into the well of my weakness, and find Christ there offering me a cup of living water to drink.

I read later that Edison could’ve chosen corrective surgery to improve his hearing, and certainly he could have invented a hearing aide. But, he’d grown comfortable with the quiet his weak hearing afforded him. He allowed books, deep thinking, creation, and invention to fill the silence. And we, the recipients of his long labor, are richer for it.

On Cultivating Gentleness

I noticed it in the way she smoothed the hair from Kaitlyn’s face. Her fingertips slipped over the sheen of sweat and tucked the girl’s damp curls away from her contorted features. She touched her child’s body with a gentleness I couldn’t summon after two years of being her daughter’s registered nurse.

Watching her, I realized I’d lost this sense of tenderness in caring for my patients…

To read the rest of this story on the art of gentleness, join me at In Touch Ministries.

Five Steps to Living More Creatively

This one’s for the artists, the magic-makers, the wannabes. It’s for the closet creatives, the outsiders, the daydream believers. This one is for you, the one with the pocket full of treasures stored up with nowhere to empty them. And it’s for you with the questions and the hollowed out well that houses a dry creative soul.

As creators, we often feel the constant buzz of frustration between three opposing tensions: a soul searching for rivers of inspiration, a desire to create, and a schedule that won’t allow for it. Our well of words runs dry, and we see no clouds gathering on the horizon to fill it again.

I keep a few tricks tucked away for the days when my creativity needs replenishing, performing a sort of rain dance by inviting poetry, novels, or music that call the rains of inspiration. But, sometimes my usual methods wear thin, as does the time it takes to indulge in them.

In the middle of a recent creative funk, my family took a short getaway to Disney World during a school break. I looked forward to the visit, and hoped that by surrounding myself with a cornucopia of sights and sounds created by the most imaginative minds, they would inject life and color into my own artistic endeavors.

Instead, I felt lifeless and drained. When I’m in a creative dry spell, I can find it difficult to enjoy the good work of others–it stirs up envy instead of inspiration. Rather than wallow in self-pity at my inability to produce stories with the fairytale quality of Peter Pan or the enduring sweetness of Winnie the Pooh, I turned my attention away from the carefully engineered and curated magic of Walt Disney.

I turned my gaze to what is most epic and boring and funny and tragic and artful and true–the people rubbing elbows and shoulders with me.

I slipped on my favorite pair of $12.99 sunglasses, and from behind my reflective lenses, I watched as a thousand stories unfolded in the maze of people wandering the parks. The crowds swelled, and when I became attentive, I saw countless small acts of courage, silly antics, and relationships unfolding. I saw individuals with their stories captured in wrinkles, freckles, or tattoos written across their bodies and faces.

I’d been looking for art in the flash and glitter, but the art was written across the lives of the lovers, the families, and the friendships. A cloud arrived on the horizon, and by calling it out of blue skies, it brought rain and refreshment.

If you find yourself in need of inspiration, I offer you a few steps I follow to live a more creative life.

Pay attention:

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” ~Mary Oliver in Upstream

If you remember nothing else, remember this. Paying attention is what separates the artist from those of us who merely dream of making art but never follow through. You must become someone who notices the details hidden in plain sight.

Take note of the withering look she gave him, the soft words he whispered, the hand the child grasped.  The way he moves to music, the tattoo on her left calf, the slant of light through tree limbs. These details fill the well, and will give you something to draw from when your soul feels dry.

Develop a habit of remembering:

It’s not enough to pay attention, we must also capture the things we’ve heard and seen. Develop a habit of remembering in a manner that works best for you.

I write little notes to myself in my phone or longer entries in my journal, or I snap a quick photo. Sometimes, I tell someone what I’ve seen because through the act of telling, I bury the memory deeper for recollection.

It’s important to not only remember the details of the experience, but also how that experience made you feel. Be as vivid and specific as possible in your descriptions. You will thank yourself later.

Invite stillness:

We stood at attention, we wrote notes to remember, and now we must let all of that inspiration sink deep into the parts of us where quiet and stillness keep company. We unearth meaning through stillness.

In this space, we allow everything we’ve gathered begin a conversation inside of us without our input. We let the voices chatter and the images converge, until a form begins to rise out of what once was shapeless.

Welcome inspiration:

I have rejected ideas or new forms of creativity because I didn’t like their shape on arrival. Worse, I have declared some experiences useless, a waste of time, or boring. Inspiration can come from anywhere or anything, but we have to welcome it on its arrival.

Paying attention is the first drop in the well of inspiration. What would it take for you to receive a drenching rainfall?

Create from a place of  trust:

If we pay attention, develop a habit of remembering, invite stillness, and welcome inspiration, we find ourselves in a posture of receiving. Once we receive, we can create from all that’s taken place under the surface, as the waters of inspiration rise.

At this point, I often feel afraid that I don’t have enough to draw from, that I’ll release a bucket to gather the words, and it will come up empty. Creating out of a place of fear is different than creating out of a place of vulnerability. Vulnerability invites trust, leading to a full-bodied work of art. Fear invites doubt, leading to a thin, pale version of what our work could be.

Trust that you’ve done the work. Trust that your artist soul knows what to do with it. Trust that you are the one to shepherd this work of art into the world and offer it to the rest of us.

We are waiting.

How to Make Space at the Table

In our twenties, my husband and I thought nothing of using garden furniture for indoor dining. The wrought iron chair with the crooked seat cushion scraped against the pine floor as my neighbor pulled it up beside the table and sat down. Theresa eased her pregnant body into the world’s most uncomfortable chair with a sigh, while I puttered in the kitchen, preparing our make-shift meal. My daughter kept Theresa company from her high chair, kicking her feet in staccato against the foot rest, which Theresa politely ignored…

To read the rest of the story, join me in the kitchen at Grace Table.

Looking Back and Learning to Love Your Past Self

A few weeks ago, my husband decided to clear out the basement for the third time since we moved into our home nearly four years ago. As we began The Great Sort Out of 2017, boxes and bins I’d shoved and forgotten behind old picture frames and stacks of throw pillows made an appearance. We found our wedding album stashed away with the few photos left over from my childhood. On the highest shelf, we re-discovered three small, nearly empty bins I’d set aside for each of our kids’ keepsakes. I found most of their keepsakes–tiny pre-school t-shirts, stacks of drawings, and pottery pieces shaped like fairies or snakes–sitting in forlorn piles next to half-empty paint cans.

For days, I snatched moments here and there to flip through an album or rifle through old school papers with German vocabulary words from the kids’ school in Switzerland. There is nothing more bittersweet then realizing the keepsakes of motherhood are no longer of the fingerprint and ceramic variety, but rather memories you file away and watch unfold again and again from behind closed eyes.

As we shuffled things from one spot to another, I discovered a box filled with photographs I’d torn from my favorite home and interior design magazines. I began the collection fifteen years ago, long before Pinterest made its debut. We lived in London, and I was the mother of a toddler and had another little one on the way. I remember the quiet days of life with one child and an increasingly round belly, with the soft British lilt of cartoons on the tv keeping me company, while the rain tracked patterns down the windows. I sat with a cup of tea and a few biscuits, and every week, I carefully tore out sheet after sheet. Photos of baked bread, English gardens, and toile wallpaper rose up to greet me. With each page I saved, I’d planned for a life I didn’t yet live, creating a home I could only see in my mind’s eye. A home filled with children, home cooked meals, whitewashed french furniture, candlelight, and vintage china.

One afternoon recently, I gave myself the gift of a few hours with my younger, fanciful self, and I sat down to look through all of the paper and ink dreams I collected over the course of fifteen years. The memories hit me with a wave of longing for the girl I used to be, and with each turn of the page, I felt my affection for her grow. How rare and sweet to discover I love her and her dreams, however unrealistic. I never did bake that bread, and my version of an English garden exists only in my imagination. But, I see the current, middle-aged me sitting there beside her, in waiting. How unexpected to realize that she birthed forty-year-old me into being.

All of the worn pages my younger self tore out, all of the days spent dreaming of the future, all of the long walks to the antique shops to search for bargains, all of the recipes collected, the books read to squirming children, the tea cups filled to brimming– they created more than a few memories boxed in the basement. They created the life I wake up to every morning. Much to my surprise, my imagined-future became a living, breathing reality. The location is different than I expected, as are the ruts and detours we’ve encountered along the way, but the essence captured by my collection is alive in our home and our hearts today.