The One Question I Ask Again and Again

“Good writers are monotonous, like good composers. They keep trying to perfect the one problem they were born to understand.” ~Alberto Moravia

For forty years, I’ve asked the same question, “What does it mean to belong?” I’ve “lived the questions”, as Rilke so lovingly suggests, and I still feel as if I’m hovering around the answer, searching for a place to land. Belonging is more than fitting into the shape of a place, but rather feeling at home in one’s body, mind, and spirit. It is belonging to a family. To a cause. To a community. To an ideal. To an art form. It is belonging in one’s skin, and being fully at home with one’s self, and this is a journey I continue to travel. Searching, circling, seeking a way in.

One of the great joys in life is discovering by what means we find a way in to the problem we’re meant to understand. Words are my way in, the means by which I seek understanding. I tie them like small scraps of string along the path to help me journey towards the problem, but also to find my way into the answers. So often, understanding comes not only from moving forward, but from making our way back. Back into our past relationships, seasons of life, and life experiences. Back to the familiar questions knocking at the door of our heart.

Moravia’s words have proven true not only in my life as a writer, but simply as a human being. One doesn’t need to be a writer or composer to identify and seek answers to the common themes in their life. I wish someone had told me to look for the threads tying my life together–look for the themes and questions that continued to knit their way into my soul. It took me nearly seven years of writing to discover what problem I’ve been trying to understand and a lifetime before that.

I’ve asked so many questions and spilled so much ink while asking myself what it means to belong, and yet I feel so far from perfecting an answer. I feel comforted by the fact that I’m not the only one who continues circling around the same idea–all of the great artists do. And the not-so-great artists. And the rest of us ordinary people too.

Every day I step out into the questions in faith, I grow closer. I tie my scraps of string, moving forward and back and forward once again. It’s a journey with paths that diverge and cross and lead to places of loss and also wonder. What a miracle it is to step into the mystery with my words as a guide, making peace with the fact that I may never find the answers, but perhaps the  answers will find me.

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What is the one problem/theme/idea you find yourself returning to again and again? What helps you understand?

When a Meal Becomes a Work of Art

This year, I gave my husband the gift of an Italian cuisine cooking class at a local cooking school for his birthday. We spent the evening creating a meal of white bean tapenade smeared on crostini, porcini roasted beef, and bianco risotto cooked in saffron and vermouth. Together we sliced and diced vegetables for the radicchio fritelle, and quartered strawberries for the crowning glory of the meal, a mascarpone torte with prosecco berries. It was every bit as wonderful and full-bodied and delicious as you might imagine.

On the drive home, I asked my husband what he thought of the end results of our labor…

Join me at Grace Table for the rest of this adventure in art and eating Italian.

One Word 2017: Artist

“I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ” Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses…” ~Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water

In ancient Judaism, Jewish men bound small boxes, called tefillim or phylacteries, to their forehead and their arm. These boxes contained words of the Torah printed on scraps of paper, and they served as a reminder that the words of God should be at the forefront of our minds and the inspiration for the work of our hands.

I chose the word Restore as my touchstone word for 2016, a word I believed was birthed in the heart of God for me, and I carried it with me throughout the year. I wore it strapped to my heart like a tefillin wraps around the forehead or the arm of a devout believer. I wore Restore as a symbol, a beacon to guide me in prayer, in thought, and in action. For most of the year, I wore it with desperation, while so much of what I hoped for was stripped away. A job offer, a book proposal, my confidence as a parent, a friendship, peace of mind, my voice, a sense of hope–all disappeared under the weight of this word.

I thought I held a promise, and instead I clung to a word that brought doubt and defeat. It was a difficult year of waiting and watering seeds that never seemed to grow. And yet, as the year draws to a close, I see restoration taking root. A few opportunities slipped into my open hands. Prayers for my children bore fruit. I wrote words and released them into the world. I discovered points of light guiding me in the darkness.

During this dark, imperceptible work of restoration, a deeper longing began to grow, and it birthed a word to carry with me into 2017. “Artist” is my touchstone for the New Year, the word that will serve as a beacon and symbol–a phylactery bound to my hands and feet and chest. This is a year of becoming, of creating courageous art because creation requires more than imagination, it requires a lionhearted act of courage. It is about consuming art not as a diversion, but as inspiration to create more of my own.

“And the idea of being named for an artist. A person could be reborn on the strength of that.” ~Barbara Kingsolver in Flight Pattern

I have always coveted the name Artist, but I’ve felt embarrassed and ashamed of this desire. Ashamed that I couldn’t claim this name for myself, but rather waited for someone else to give me permission and to name me.

Shame forces us into the shadows, and this year I am stepping out of the shadows and into starlight and sun. I want to live into the fullness of myself as an artist, rather than in the shadows of others’ art. This feels very vulnerable to admit out loud on the internet, but it is a first step towards a reclamation of my name. A first step towards creating courageous art.

I don’t know what this becoming will look like, but I stand ready to embrace imagination and discipline my way towards acts of creation, to step out of the shadows, to drink of the light, and let it pour out like drops feeding the lake of good and true and incarnational art.

“All of writing (and art) is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake.” ~Jean Rhys in the Paris Review

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Your word for the year may not relate to art in any way, but I want to encourage you as you enter the new year, to begin looking for ways to bring light into the shadows. Where do you find yourself hiding? What would a courageous next step look like for you in 2017? Once you’ve identified it, write it down and bind it to your heart in some way. Give yourself the name you’ve always longed to hear, feed the lake of your passion, embody courage.

Craving Balance

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“His ears were made of real rabbit fur, and beneath the fur, there were strong, bendable wires, which allowed the ears to be arranged into poses that reflected the rabbit’s mood — jaunty, tired, full of ennui.” Kate DiCamillo in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

I hunch over the steering wheel, or the sink, or the weedy garden. I bend into a pose that would indicate I carry the weight of the world, when I carry only the concerns of my household and my little family. Why does the small feel so very heavy? I am tired of tasks. I am tired of lists occupying my creative spaces. I am tired of feeling like creating is a luxury, rather than a necessity. When I sat down to write this morning, I found nothing but a heap of single letters scrambled up, lying in corners. One word escaped, and I bent into the curve of it. Ennui.

ennui:a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom

Have you ever felt it? For such an enchanting word, it has the potential to be deadly. It kills Charisma. Joy. Imagination. Originality. Ennui tells us nothing matters. It says, we are the check list. We are the tasks. We are the dead end job or difficult marriage or boredom magnet. Ennui comes from an imbalance, from having too much of one thing and not enough of another.

Sometimes ennui masquerades as laziness. It tells us we must vacate our everyday lives and fill the daily-ness of it, with a lounge chair on the beach and empty spaces on the calendar. Sometimes this is necessary, but often times, it’s not vacating we need. It is adding depth and richness back into lives that have been stripped down for the sake of productivity.

When ennui creeps into my days, I feel the urge to stop everything, when really all it calls for is a shift in my priorities. In my life, this looks like too much routine and not enough rhythm. Too many duties and not enough pleasure. I’m especially susceptible to ennui when I deny myself the enjoyment of art or when I refuse to take a Sabbath.

We are not the tasks. We are the heart and soul flaming behind them. What makes the world come alive in you and through you? My guess is, it’s not finishing a list of tasks or reaching the bottom of your laundry basket. It’s probably finishing a chapter of a good book, or taking a hike, or listening to music, or engaging in a life-giving conversation. My guess is the antidote to ennui is a combination of hope and velvet and sweet tea and laughter.

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Are you feeling an imbalance in your life right now? If so, what is one step you could take to correct it?

What Hollywood Taught Me About Real Life

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We sat in the rented min-van hurtling through the Hollywood Hills, the two youngest on probation in the back seat, the oldest in the middle pretending she couldn’t hear any of us, the mother-in-law with nerves of steel next to her. He and I sat in the front, not speaking. Oh, we’d been speaking. We spoke through gritted teeth with words that cleverly hid everything unspoken behind them. We spoke with a false politeness that raised itself into something akin to yelling. Then we stopped speaking altogether because everything we wanted to say could not be said with other ears listening. My mother-in-law, she with the endless stream of words and the patience of a real-life saint, said absolutely nothing. I couldn’t tell if she was appalled or enjoying the show that was our family–hungry, disobedient, frustrated, turned around in a new city.

Before the Hollywood Hills, we had a great morning touring a television/movie studio. We walked under hundreds of lights and cameras on Conan’s sound stage, and sat on the sofa at Central Perk, and took photos of almost every single item of Harry Potter memorabilia. We all sat under the (real!) sorting hat. I am in Slytherin. This did not bode well for the rest of our journey. My daughter told me during the tour that she wants to be an actress. I prayed, please Jesus, no. Then I contemplated becoming an actress myself for a brief moment because I like to bring all the drama. If you knew me in real life, you would not believe this unless you put a ring on my finger or happen to be my sister.

Later, Hollywood had it’s way with us. We parked and walked around and my kids realized immediately that the glitz and glamour are an illusion. Something I knew already, but with the kids fighting incessantly behind me and the husband refusing to feed us lunch until we squeezed in ‘one more’ landmark, and the half-naked girls dressed like hookers/policemen (a bizarre combination if ever there was one) shaking their boobs at my son, and the sad desperation of artists lining the streets trying to shove their music or art or street performance at anyone who made eye contact–the curtain pulled back a little farther to expose the little man playing at a big one.

Once we escaped Hollywood itself, and drove through hills and hills of mansions, I couldn’t help but think of all the lost souls looking for work in that town. All the artists working as waiters, all the women afraid of aging, all the “aspirings” hoping for a big break and forgetting to live the life they have in the process. I am an artist (on my good/delusional days), I am an aspiring, but my life is so full. Full of people who love me in spite of my drama and my tendency to become hangry. Full of work and words. Full of life and love and anger and frustration and joy and hope. I fear that I will miss out on what I have sitting in the mini-van rental for the want of everything outside of it. The illusion of success. The mansion in the hills. The creative expression. It is a desire to be known, to be bigger than I really am, to be admired, to be talented, to be wanted. But, I already am all of these things to the people fighting in the seat behind me, and sitting silent in the seat beside me.

We ended the night laughing over a meal together at the Cheesecake Factory, but only after slamming car doors and real yelling and some people losing their electronic privileges. Most days this is the art I am making–no illusions, no hair and makeup, no fawning fans. Real life–I’m pulling back the curtain.