Share, Listen, Think

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Suppressing Art

In Art, Life in Society, Music, Poetry on October 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm
Snow Geese NM:NWR

Photo by Roger Brown
Snow Geese
New Mexico

By Heila Rogers

Why did poets, musicians and dancers of the Stalin-era Soviet Union continue to create? Why not just stop, when they saw their loved ones and other artists being killed, or sent to the Gulag or jail?

What compelled them?

Why is art often suspect?

And… what is art actually … for?

Regimes like the Soviet Union, or Hitler’s Nazism,  – all have controlled, suppressed and hated art and artists.

This suppressive way of thinking is alive and well in every country.

Yet Adolf Hitler painted paintings. Propaganda was used in the above systems. As is sometimes the case in advertising, images were made especially to sway or manipulate.

If that’s not what art is for … then what is in fact its purpose?

Artists have been referred to as “parasites upon society.” There is a perception of making art as being a waste of time.

Glimpses of a world without art can be seen when looking at the functional-only blocks of apartment buildings in former “Soviet Republic” countries.


Much of nature consistently inspires people. Looking around us, at gloriously different varieties of creatures and plants; or unique, everyday sky and cloud patterns, we feel hopeful … and often moved to create.


Photo by Roger Brown
Sandstone Formations
Petra, Jordan

When we feel, think and conclude – from an artistic place within us – we make things.


Photo by Roger Brown
Petra Cave Entrance

Why is this threatening? What causes such a strong reaction against art and artists?

Human beings want to control other human beings. Perceived control makes us feel safe. When we tell others what to do, we have an illusion of safety. Really, we all think we know best, and how the world should be run. Therefore we’re ready to organize everyone and everything accordingly. So when someone (or something) challenges that, it must be suppressed. Or else we won’t win or succeed. We think.

This is the fatal flaw of totalitarianism. All forms of it eventually fail, because they don’t take into account (or understand) long-term reality. There is a force in the world and in human beings which will resist inappropriate control.

Whereas within art, although there are certainly elements of control and discipline, it’s viscerally about freedom. About exploring, questioning … and listening.

Real art loves, expresses truth, explores truth, attempts to honestly communicate what is true.

That doesn’t mean everything created is good or used for good.

It also doesn’t mean that everyone fights or resists wrong control. In the short-term, or without a certain perspective, it feels better to control others or to submit to (undue) influence.

Very obviously: humans can warp or misuse … well, pretty much anything and everything. But, the grace to create is there. It’s there for everyone. This might be a strange thing to say, but what if Hitler were not suppressed himself as an artist? His father forbid him go to art school. Might history have been different if he himself were not abused and wrongly controlled?

Take for example the swastika – the flag of the Third Reich, created by Hitler.

The arrangement of colors and the symbol together are visually attractive. The bent cross symbol is actually an ancient one – the root Sanskrit word “svastika” means  “to be good/lucky.” Many cultures use variations on the form:

[symbol, origin]

The Nazi swastika is self-described as being, “the symbol of the creating, acting life.” Wow. Wishful thinking on Hitler’s part? The four-arm crooked form was already being widely used in a folk-national movement, among others, when Hitler adapted it for his now infamous emblem. It is still used widely in Indian religions. [Wikipedia]

Hitler wrote (in Mein Kampf) what he wanted the symbol to mean: “As National Socialists, we see our program in our flag. In red, we see the social idea of the movement; in white, the nationalistic idea; in the swastika, the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work.” [63]

He robbed from widespread, already popular images to make, in an evil-genius way, a powerful (albeit warped) standard. He wanted so much to be an artist. Instead of representing what he stated above, the Nazi flag now represents horror, evil and … suppression.

Divergent or analytical thinking – a part of art – is discouraged and punished. As well are disagreements with policies. This intolerance for disagreement instead of being a strength, in fact indicates weakness. If someone called Stalin “a murderer and peasant slayer” (O. Mandelstam below) and the words were not true, what power would they have? But then, because propagandists have experienced success using words cleverly to manipulate people into believing certain ways, they suspect others of doing the same.

Regardless, during times of persecution and distress, the following artists were a part of creating – which sometimes did mean protest and disagreement with governmental policies or actions:

(Data, except as cited, from the book, “The Soviet Image: A Hundred Years of Photographs from Inside the TASS Archives,” by Peter Radetsky © 2007)

Anna Akhmatova:

A preeminent Russian writer of the twentieth century and a renowned poet, “In the presence of [her] I looked at the world as if I were on a new planet,” said writer Lydia Chukovskaya. Her husband was executed for alleged antigovernment activities, her son was exiled to Siberia, many of the people closest to her would be imprisoned or killed, she suffered a ban on her poetry that lasted, on and off, for three decades. She never left her home country and wrote the following in her poem “Requiem”: “No foreign sky protected me, / no stranger’s wing shielded my face. / I stand as witness to the common lot / survivor of that time, that place.”

Photo by Roger BrownPetra, Jordan

Photo by Roger Brown
Al Khazneh Ruin
Petra, Jordan

Osip Mandelstam:

Was arrested and died in the Gulag in 1938. “Poetry is respected only in this country,” he said. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” Circa 1925.

‘This is what I most want’

This is what I most want

un-pursued, alone

to reach beyond the light

that I am furthest from.

And for you to shine there-

no other happiness-

and learn, from starlight,

what its fire might suggest.

A star burns as a star,

light becomes light,

because our murmuring

strengthens us, and warms the night.

And I want to say to you

my little one, whispering,

I can only lift you towards the light

by means of this babbling.

Note: Written for his wife, Nadezhda.


The treasury, Petra, Jordan

Photo by Roger Brown
The Siq (The Shaft)
Petra, Jordan

Lydia Ruslanova:

Folk singer who toured the front constantly during the war and performed for the troops. A beloved entertainer, she performed on the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin while parts of it still smoldered. Because of her popularity and friendship with Marshal Zhukov, Stalin began to regard her as a potential threat. She and her husband were sent to the Gulag in 1948. Upon Stalin’s death, she was released and resumed performing until her death, in 1973.

Dmitri Shostakovitch:

In August 1942, during the darkest days of the siege, his Seventh Symphony was performed in Leningrad’s Philharmonic Hall. Loudspeakers broadcast the concert throughout Leningrad and, as another act of defiance, to the German troops stationed outside the city.

“Regardless of when Shostakovich initially conceived the symphony, the Nazi attack and consequent relaxing of Soviet censorship gave Shostakovich the hope of writing the work for a mass audience instead of a primarily esoteric one. To do so, he had to express his hidden feelings in a way to make them accessible to the audience, allowing it to experience catharsis. A model on how to do this was Igor Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms. Stravinsky’s compositions held considerable influence over Shostakovich.[13] and he had been deeply impressed with this particular work.[14]

Shostakovich’s plan was for a single-movement symphony, including a chorus and a requiem-like passage for a vocal soloist, with a text taken from the Psalms of David. With the help of his best friend, critic Ivan Sollertinsky, who was knowledgeable about the Bible, he selected excerpts from the Ninth Psalm. The idea of individual suffering became interwoven in Shostakovich’s mind with the Lord God’s vengeance for the taking of innocent blood (Verse 12, New King James Version).[14] The theme not only conveyed his outrage over Stalin’s oppression,[16] but also may have inspired him to write the Seventh Symphony in the first place.[17] “I began writing it having been deeply moved by the Psalms of David; the symphony deals with more than that, but the Psalms were the impetus,” the composer said. “David has some marvelous words on blood, that God takes revenge for blood, He doesn’t forget the cries of victims, and so on. When I think of the Psalms, I become agitated.”[17]

A public performance of a work with such a text would have been impossible before the German invasion. Now it was feasible, at least in theory, with the reference to “blood” applied at least officially to Hitler. With Stalin appealing to the Soviets’ patriotic and religious sentiments, the authorities were no longer suppressing Orthodox themes or images.[18] Yet for all the importance he placed on them, Shostakovich may have been right in writing the symphony without a text, in view of the censorship that would eventually be reimposed.[14]”

The treasury

Photo by Roger Brown
Narrow gorge, East entrance
Petra, Jordan

Artists who are trying to express and share light and beauty as real and existing; along with describing the human condition, and grief, and the wrongs they see — speak in important ways for all of us.

Art lifts us, and somehow helps us to be free.


The Art of Faith

In Art, Life in Society on October 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm

A Day is Like a Thousand Years and A Thousand Years Like a Day*

By Laura Senti

Usually when I hear someone say that God is working things out, or that God operates on a different sense of time, I think, “Yes, God is slow.” I’m even a little patronizing: “Be patient, it takes God awhile to get things done.” If I’m feeling frightened or doubtful I think he is inactive, and “his own time” means “He’s paying no attention and is absent from the scene.”

My life seems to me to be eerily still lately. I want something new to come along. I’m struggling to see what is next for me. I crave a stronger sense of direction and purpose, yet the days and months pass on in much the same way as before. I watch what I perceive to be dynamic action and movement in others’ lives and wonder if God stuck me on a shelf in a rarely-opened closet.

It seems to me that God is slower than me.

But what if he is in fact, being lightning fast and I’m the slow one? We know that time is relative. Speed is relative, too.

What got me thinking about this was watching the SlowMo guys on YouTube. One of my favorite clips is Lloyd the Cat jumping to the top of a tall fence. At 2500 frames per second—100 times slower than we normally see–I could see the unfolding miniscule movements of the spring, the boost midway up the fence, the light landing on top. A cat in motion is power personified, a beautiful thing to watch.

All the frames together add up to a beautiful tableau, but what if I could see only one frame per hour? Might I lose interest and forget that the cat is in fact, in the midst of that energetic jump to the top of the fence? And what if I didn’t even know, to begin with, what I was seeing, and just saw one frame out of context? I don’t think it would be that riveting; it’s the fluidity of the action, the succession of frames, that gives meaning to each individual frame.

I am impressed by quick changes, quick growth: explosions, that experiment in high school science that suddenly changes the color of the solution; the factories and machines that pop out products and whip through tasks. Why am I so impressed by fast? Maybe because that’s what I can see most easily in our human time. But the deeper, more fundamental time frame is God’s.

If in the physical realm I miss so much and see so coarsely unless events are slowed way down, might this also be the case in the spiritual realm? Maybe our sense of time is actually slow motion. We see things unfold bit by bit, assuming that we’re perceiving time as real. But what if God’s time is real time? He’s doing countless amazing things millisecond by millisecond, whereas in human time that translates into day by day, month by month, year by year. His time frame is so much bigger, that we have to have faith to believe change and growth is actually occurring.

So in the midst of this time in my life when I perceive God to be excruciatingly slow, He is actually in the middle of his usual giant, slow-motion-to-me action, one that I don’t yet know and never will fully know because it’s so grand and complex, involving far more than just me. Maybe the cat is only poised at the bottom of the fence, so I’m not noticing any movement yet. I am seeing one frame, maybe two, on this still September day in His lightning-speed, dense movement, specially slowed down for human minds to watch, wonder and savor.

I’ll trust that He’s up to something good.

*2 Peter 3.8

Running horse

Photo by Roger Brown
Running Horse

The Art of Running

In Creative Living on October 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm

By Bekah McNeel

The starting line of a marathon is a funny place. At some unholy, still-dark hour a mob of adults in spandex hop from foot to foot like the kindergarten “potty dance” and nervously chatter. Piles of cast off warm-up gear lie along sidewalks where only the most loyal girlfriends, boyfriends, and roommates stand holding posters that say, “Run, Suzy, Run!” (Spouses, parents, and children will show up later in the race, with the crowd who is not trying to prove their devotion to anyone.) It’s a weird scene, even weirder because of how happy everybody is to be there—everyone except the boyfriends, girlfriends, and roommates.

The starting gun goes off, and for the next four hours we (me and all the people going my speed) lope along together. The first mile is mostly about dodging the people around you, as runners settle into their pace. It will string out considerably over the next twenty-five miles, but for a while there, it’s close quarters. Somewhere around Mile 4 or 5 things get roomy enough that I can look around at the faces of those with whom I will share this great accomplishment. Inevitably, as the miles wear on, I find myself looking for a pace keeper. Someone whose butt I can stare at for the next ten miles. Butts are perfect for this; feet move too fast, and heads are too far from the ground. A butt is close enough to the ground that I can watch for tripping hazards and it doesn’t move as much as feet, so I don’t get motion sick.

Finding a butt moving at the right pace invites me to ponder the shape of the various butts around me, and how surprisingly dissimilar they are.

When we hear the phrase “she’s a runner” a certain imagine comes to mind.  A long, wiry woman with the gait of a gazelle and the neck of a giraffe, rock-hard abs and defined deltoids. Those specimens exist in the running world, to be sure. But for every one of them, there are two stockier, curvier, or shorter types. There are women with hips, breasts, and behinds. I’ve now had three people say to me that they were surprised at the typical body types of runners and triathletes, both recreational and elite.

For years I thought that if I ran I would turn into one of those gazelle creatures with the silky swishing ponytail and the six-pack. Turns out no amount of running is going to get rid of the bust my grandmother gave me.

On my 25th birthday I took a ten mile run, and, instead of calculating how many calories I’d burned, I used it as an opportunity to give thanks. For the first time in my life, I gave thanks for my body. I didn’t look like the gazelle of my dreams; instead I was doing something I’d never dreamed of. I was training for a marathon.  I thought to myself, “If my body can do this, then it can’t be bad.”

I think that’s the most empowering thing about running, and why it’s caught on in such numbers. It requires that we free our bodies from the constant scrutiny of being “thin enough” or “toned enough” and simply enjoy doing something with them. I hear the same thing from people who dance.

People often use the saying “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” to describe certain endeavors. Like ministry. Or marriage. I always knew what they meant; but between Miles 7 and 10 I start to feel what they mean. My average training run is six miles. So Mile 7 signals to me that this is not a training run. This is not a casual jog, I can’t turn around whenever I want to. This is a marathon, and there’s a lot more ahead of me than behind me.

Endurance is a character trait. It’s one of the few that, in my experience, carry over from the physical to the emotional/spiritual. At Mile 7, the excitement has worn off and I start strategizing about how I’m going to make it to the end. I do some math, calculate water stops, plan when to eat my next Gu. Ultimately I realize that there’s only one way to get to the finish line: keep putting one foot in front of the other. Isn’t that so much of life? We calculate and plot and plan, but it all comes down to putting one foot in front of the other and being faithful to the course.

Somewhere between Mile 12 and Mile 16, I usually get a second wind. This is that endorphin-rush, zen place that runners wax on about as though suddenly running became a day at the spa. Well, it doesn’t transform into a massage and a mimosa, but it does become immensely pleasurable.  I become the pacer. My legs fall into a rhythm and my heart rate finds an easy jog. This is when I do some of my best thinking, and the miles start to fly by. The miles up to this point may have been social, chatting and cheering to make it up steep hills, or just to take my mind off the growing blister where my camelback is rubbing my armpit raw. But now, past the half-way point, it’s game time. Even if I’m with my husband or my running partner, I’m all alone during this stretch. Cruising.

Running by myself enables me to come as close to meditative stillness as I can in waking hours. Something about the slow burn of my quadriceps and saltiness of my skin is like white noise against the to-do lists and preoccupations that come with being clean and presentable. Whether I’m simply focusing on each step of a hard climb, or pondering a deeper dilemma to the pounding of my footsteps, those hours of running have proven invaluable to my mental and spiritual health.

The cleansing effect of running is physical as much as it is psychological. In addition to the endorphin rush, my body has its own rituals during the second part of the race. It begins to involuntarily perform, recalibrate and balance in ways unnecessary outside of endurance sports. Early in my distance running, I noticed that the skin on my arms began to emit a strange, bitter smell as I ran. Not body odor, but something less organic. I casually mentioned this to my doctor on my next regular visit and he simply said, “You sweat out all kinds of stuff, and you have all kinds of stuff on your skin.” The bitter smell meant that I was either flushing out or washing off, and I welcomed it from then on.

I also usually stop sweating after this point, unless it’s abnormally hot. I’ve never been one to pee during a long run, or to sweat inordinate amounts. People tried to tell me for years that this meant that I was dehydrating. However, recent studies have shown that our bodies are master regulators and that what I was experiencing was perfectly normal for a fully functioning execretory system.

It’s not just my own odor that I notice. My awareness of all smells intensifies as I run. The heavy, regular breaths bring in more stimuli, and the flow of air clears the passageway. I love running in spring, because the mountain laurels and honeysuckles that are about in our area give off the most invigorating smells. I’m also more sensitive to bad smells, of course, and it makes me much more aware of the surrounding dumpsters, car exhaust, and fast food chains.

For me, like most marathon runners, there comes “the wall.” This can be anywhere from Mile 18-22. During my best race I made it to Mile 23 before I hit it, but usually it’s waiting for me at Mile 22. The wall is where “game on” becomes “the fight.” And that’s how it is until Mile 26. Every step is a fight; the field has spread out so that it’s entirely possible to be running alone. Whatever was helping at Mile 12 is not working anymore, and there is one small reason to keep running: the last three months and the last twenty-one miles have all been in preparation for these last five miles.

If you’re ever temped to run a marathon in order to look cool, just take one look at the limping, sweaty, salty, puffy finishers and ask yourself, “Does that look cool to me?” Better yet, go camp out at Mile 22 and ask the runners passing you if they feel like Olympic superstars.

So that’s Mile 22-26, the fight. But a marathon does not end at mile 26. There’s still .2 miles left. These are the glory strides. The finish line is in sight, the crowd is roaring, the finishers are among them, and their cheers mean the most because they know how much my feet hurt. And there’s no longer the lingering question of whether or not I’m going to make it. I’m there. And I’m flying toward that finish line with energy released from somewhere deep within, reserved for moments of triumph.

Distance running is empowering. The demons we face could be as physical as cancer or as emotional as heartbreak, and somehow every step of a tough run feels like an anthem to the ability to thrive. We love it in movies like Rocky, Rudy, and Chariots of Fire, and we love it in ourselves. Hollywood so tritely dubs it “the triumph of the human spirit.” To put it in more certain terms, it is our ability to take back our lives from the forces that steal our agency, our ability to overcome obstacles, and the way we become stronger through struggle.

And then I cross the finish line. Twice now, upon crossing the finish line, I’ve cried. One would think that it was from the blisters, aching feet or general soreness. Or from exhaustion. But it’s not. These are the kinds of tears that I cry when people stand up and applaud for an honored veteran or when a child with Down syndrome gets a part in the school play. They are tears of overcoming. Tears of triumph. Running a marathon is not as momentous as fighting in a war or flourishing with a learning difference. But it’s the same elemental place in each of our hearts that wants to raise our fists into the air and let out a roar because victory is upon us.

After this glorious, moment, my emotions normalize, and I go get my medal (like the rest of the finishers), get my free snack food, and survey the landscape, so very different from the start.

The finish line is actually pretty comical at times. For every person who crosses the line with arms in the air, in the throes of elation, there’s one who crosses nearly doubled over swearing that they will “never, ever do anything like this ever again.” Lots of people have marathons on their bucket list. Cross the finish line and it’s checked off. But for others, the process makes the finish all the better, and they’re ready to feel that again.