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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Discovering Ourselves in the Face of a Stranger

We noticed a small knot of locals—a group of elderly men sitting together on a bench nearby, chatting in Italian, laughing heartily at jokes that escaped us. My husband and I stood in silence, eavesdropping, while water lapped against the wood dock and the late afternoon sun warmed our skin. Then the men’s conversation slowed as gray heads leaned close and one man began to sing, with the others joining in an a cappella chorus…

To read the rest of the story about discovering ourselves in the face of a stranger, join me at In Touch Ministries. While you’re there, have a look around at the other articles. This month’s issue is fantastic.

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.

Celebrating Advent: A Guide for Beginners

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In our family, life revolves on it’s own little axis around Time. Just as the sun sets the seasons for the earth, Time sets the season of life for us as a family. The years do their work and we adjust our expectations and our decisions accordingly. We may find ourselves in a season of rest or growth or pruning, but as we spin through the seasons, I find myself keeping certain rhythms throughout the year. Rhythms help Time and I keep track of one another. They give me point on which to focus, so I don’t spin out of control.

Growing up in a non-denominational church, I was unaware that the Christian church celebrates its own version of the seasons. My idea of a church calendar looked very much like your average Gregorian calendar with a few extra prayer meetings and pot-lucks thrown in for good measure. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned people observed seasons of Lent and Advent. Well into adulthood, I discovered I have lived my entire life spinning in Ordinary Time.

I have so much to learn about the Liturgical year, and so much to gain from it too. I see it as a set of rhythms rather than a set of rules, on which to build my spiritual life throughout the year. But, Time can be a cruel master, and I don’t have the hours to dedicate to studying the church calendar and understanding with as deep a commitment as I’d like. So, for now, I have built a bridge to Advent, one that is helping me stay focused on this season with little time, effort, or know-how.

I offer you Advent for Beginners:

Look for the Light

I find myself rising early to light the candles in the still-dark rooms below. I sit in the candle light, adding the glow of the twinkle lights on the Christmas tree, and I wait for the sun to rise above the giant oak in the garden. The sun cuts through the morning fog, and for a few moments, its rays split the tree in two. No matter how dark the night, I know the light will come. And with it, a longing for peace, a growing hope, and joy in knowing that the Light of the world has already brought the cosmos into our chaos.

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” ~John 1:5

Invite Poetry

After the lighting of the candles, I start the day with prayer and poetry. There is a time for storybooks and simplicity, but Advent reveals itself to me as a poem. It is rhythm and metaphor and song. It is the most potent truth revealed through a single Word. It is impossible to understand in one reading, yet the longer I sit with it in the growing light, the longer I roll the words in my mouth, the longer I allow the truth to illuminate my spirit, the more I grow in understanding.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men..” ~John 1:1,4

Embrace Anticipation

Apart from the quiet mornings, there is much work to do in this busy season–so very much to accomplish. However, I am trying to see with eyes of anticipation rather than dread. As I participate in the usual rhythms of this season, I remind myself that the building excitement I see in my children should foster a sense of anticipation and excitement in me too. The Greatest Gift has come, and He will return again. Advent focuses my thoughts on the coming Kingdom, and helps me to live in anticipation of the day when all will be set right, when we will see his glory once again, full of grace and truth.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” ~John 1:14

……….

One lovely book I have found invaluable for helping me to center on this season is a compilation by Sarah Arthur called Light Upon Light. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Also, Luci Shaw’s Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.

**This is a re-post from the archives because I still feel like a beginner when it comes to the liturgical calendar. Maybe you do too? Do you have any resources you’d like to share?

Naming the Longing

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Adjacent to the parking lot of our condominium building, sat a clump of pine trees with fine, green needles and dripping sap. The landscapers planted the trees in such a way that, once grown, they formed a canopy above a small, oval opening. If one looked hard enough, and squinted against the sunlight, one might see it.

As kids, my neighbor, Michelle and I, discovered this opening and it became my favorite place to retreat from pesky siblings and the heat of summer…

For the rest of the story, follow me on over to the Mudroom where I write more about naming the longing inside each of us.