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Feeling the Music

In Music, Poetry on September 19, 2013 at 1:01 am
frosty alaska

Photo by Jill Molloy

First Movement

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D
began with a flourish up and down my spine,
fifteen years old and never held before
by bright strings spilling over my father’s head,

pipe in hand, eyes smoky black, jowled
appreciator of the things of man, ex-commie
turned cabby turned lawyer at the end,
how could he sit so still with that tug in

the air, I fell to the green rug with my fist
against my chest, I couldn’t help grinning
around the hurt, a funny kind of halo spun
my head, I still had to live in Maryland but

outside that room all Saturday morning shivered,
a great gold crystal just about to burst.

By Mark Smith-Soto


Photo by Roger Brown

Used with permission (c) 2003, University of Florida Press, Our Lives Are Rivers


Risk is Art

In Art, Creative Living on September 19, 2013 at 1:01 am
upside down planes

Photo by Roger Brown

Editor’s Note:

When we attempt to experience life fully and try new things, and even sometimes scary things — it can be a kind of creativity. We’re creating something new when we risk and step out. The following is a personal account of one woman’s somewhat reluctant experience attending a high-speed driving school. She drove an incredibly fast car around a track at speeds of 100 mph. Many people – most of them men – dream of this kind of chance-of-a-lifetime. She was not one of those adrenaline junkies. Her husband won the racing school opportunity, and invited her along since the prize was for two students. She decided to try it out.

Of course, people can “get high” on danger,  or even become addicted to the thrill of risk. That overindulgence aside, within reason and with balance, we all need to do this almost daily. Risking rejection from our friends and children, spouse or parents for instance, when we decide cautiously to share important truths that can help a relationship grow.


By Laura Senti

I was in the middle of a live version of a nightmarish dream I have periodically in which I am in a play. Starting time is imminent yet I am unable to find a script to read over the lines which I, as a main character, am of course supposed to know. I’ve never been to a practice, I have no costume, and all my fellow cast members appear absolutely unconcerned and separate from my plight and not inclined in the least to help me out. In my dream, I wander around in a growing state of panic before I wake up, always before going onstage.

Yesterday at 1:11, I was actually sitting in the Bondurant High Performance Racing School in Pheonix in a plain gray-carpeted room with a crowd of men, two at each black table. The same men who that morning had each been given a lanyard with a red tag saying “Grand Prix” and politely averted their eyes from my same tag while I knew they were thinking, “Is she something, or an idiot?” The red-shirted instructor man now at the front was happily explaining various diagrams on the screen in the front. I understood perfectly when he explained he was from Michigan about the need to avoid potholes, but felt this same pleasant connection with nothing else he said. “This,” he said, “is how you want to take the turn….blah blah blah blah…..and where is the weight on the car’s wheels now? ….blah blah blah…weight transfer…blah blah…apex of the turn….blah…and now here “– he walked to the white board to point out the squirmy oval at the top–”is the race track.”  Mental sharp intake of breath. Race track? Me?

I had made it through the morning. But only by a narrow squeak. I had almost not gotten into my yellow  Corvette, number 08. But I did. I learned to strap on my four-point harness (just like a baby car seat, my mind encouraged me). I learned to press the top side of the button to set Zero Eight roaring (boy would this thrill my daughter), and had a quick refresher on the way over to the course on how to kill and restart a manual. I had been briefed on how to do a heel-toe shift: something like, Get into third gear and up to 65 miles per hour by these three cones, then when you see these two cones, put the car into second but instead of doing it the regular way — the way you would in a regular car if you were a regular person who wasn’t at a racing school for some unknown reason — as you pop it into second, rock your foot from the brake to the gas and then back again—see, like this—and then put it the rest of the way into second. This will allow you to have more speed in your turns.

Speed? And why would I want speed in my turns?

I was suddenly very sure that this was not for me. I did not know my lines for this play. I didn’t even know what this play WAS.

When it was time for a short break before the driving, I bolted out of the room toward the front desk. There sat Nicki, “Director of First Impressions.”

“Mmm, I need to talk to someone. I’m just sensing this is not for me,” I said with a little bit of a quaver in my voice. She looked mildly surprised. I guess they don’t get many people who pay $5000 to drive as fast as they can, saying they don’t want to after all.

Nicki got another red-shirted man who consulted another red-shirted man, and they told me I could switch over to the two-day course which would be more my speed, literally. “Mmmhmm. Thought this would happen,” they said without saying it out loud. But they were nice about it. Nightmare averted, for the time being. Now maybe THIS was a play I was really supposed to be in, even if it took some quick scrambling to learn my lines.

Our Red-Shirt Man had looked less than thrilled with his hesitant student. I was trying to ignore that—had even used that as fuel for courage as I ripped down the short straightaway getting up to 65 and downshifting to second, though not with that mysterious toe/heel method. He informed me at a break, with slight disgust, perhaps, that I had not been going from 1st to 2nd to 3rd, but from 3rd to 4th to 5th. I had thought it seemed a tiny sluggish for a Corvette, but I drive a 1999 Sienna minivan, not a car that can get up past 60 in second gear, and the Red Shirts had failed to mention this particular feature of the car. Who comes to this place that after all, that doesn’t know that already?

At lunch my husband reassured me over a Cherry Berry Chiller at McDonalds that I’d done great in that morning’s drill–”I couldn’t catch up to you, and I tried!”–but I am so nervous, I said to my husband. And all those other guys seemed so confident. “OH NO,” he reassured me. “They’re all scared, they’re all very nervous.” Momentarily, I felt a very little less fish-out-of-waterish—maybe I was supposed to be in this play after all? But very momentarily he went on to explain that they were all nervous about not being the fastest one. I was nervous about dying.

Who were these people? Who was this man next to me? How could it be that we were so absolutely unlike each other in this? Was it the classic man/woman stereotype showing in brilliant colors? My man, thrilled at the prospect of going as fast as he possibly could, and I unable to think beyond, “Why?!”

Cliff Diver

Competitive Cliff Diver

So it was after this surreal lunch discussion and the ever-more-alarming words coming from Friendly Michigan Red-Shirt Man at the front of the room that I turned to my husband, the only man in the room I knew. Did he really think I could do this? That I belonged here? He had said so at lunch. But, a $6000 deductible. A bit of background is necessary to explain:

You see, we hadn’t paid. We WON this. I mean, my husband won this, the GRAND PRIZE worth OVER $15,000, and he had invited me to go along. “You’ll have fun,” he said in response to my less-than-eager reaction to this grand-prize-experience-of-a-lifetime when he had first told me about it months ago.

“But what IS it? I don’t really get it.” (This is our typical conversation difficulty, I craving context and detail and he blithely persistent in declaring the obvious big-picture facts.)

“All people who go just come out better drivers, and it’s not just for race car drivers,” he assured me.

“I’ll TRY it,” I replied, “but I reserve the right to stop if I don’t like it, because I just can’t see myself doing anything like that.” I’d told very few people where we were going because I didn’t know how to explain it, and truthfully, the whole prospect of sunny Phoenix as a relief from the Michigan winter was greatly dimmed because I was feeling nervous. There’s always the issue of leaving your kids behind while you and your husband both are on the plane, the same plane; and sometimes, planes do crash and I don’t want my kids to be orphans. So I’d been busy dealing with that and hadn’t gotten to the Assuming You Survive the Plane Ride Now You’ll Be Racing Cars With Men Who Want To Drive As Fast As They Can part.

So when I had told anyone about going to Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, I had copied my husband’s attitude toward my going: “I bet it will be fun!” Said sincerely enough, though maybe with not a whole lot of knowledge to back it up.

I got back in Zero Eight again, now separated from my husband—but that was fine, because in this environment he had morphed into another sort of being altogether. I chugged over to Accident Avoidance Simulation (wasn’t this all accident avoidance?) This time the instructor explained the drill we’d be doing, I shot off all the questions I had, such as “Why can’t you put the clutch in when you are braking?” and I made exactly sure I knew the drill. I had figured out by now that I was almost wholly ignorant and figured it made no sense to act otherwise. I wasn’t tricking anyone, and I bet I asked questions that at least a few others in the group might have wanted to ask but wouldn’t because they were tricking others quite successfully. The drill: get to 30 mph in a few seconds; pass through a bottleneck where the cones were close together; then respond to a set of 3 lights that would turn on, that corresponded to 3 lanes that opened up at that point. At that moment, we would “Lift, Turn, and Squeeze” —lift our foot from the throttle, turn to whichever lane had the green light, and then squeeze down on the gas again to proceed. It was fun, even though I was hitting cones with regularity. “Think of them as puppies,” a kind young Red Shirt told me as I drove slowly by for feedback. Now that made sense and I think I only hit one more puppy after that. Next, we got to slam on the brakes when all the lights went red, and see for ourselves how much, much less effective that is than taking your foot off the gas and swerving. This I can do, I thought. And getting that Corvette to 40+ mph in such a short distance was great fun.

Next was the spinny car, or what the Red Shirts called the skid car. A regular enough looking car, it was perched on top of a set of smaller wheels which the instructor could at any time set spinning so the car would skid out of control and the driver could learn how to regain it. Strangely enough, it was applying gas, not brake, that brought the car out of the spin and back into control. I tried braking once—-and we just kept going around and around like a carnival ride.

“You have to keep your eye on the prize,” our red-shirted instructor explained as the car spun wildly out of control. I found it was true: the car will eventually end up pointed toward whatever your focal point is. One time, the cone I wanted was 180 degrees behind me. “Even now, I keep my eyes on that cone?” I asked Red Shirt as I strained to look backward—and eventually, an inch of tire rubber later, I was facing the cone. (The photographer had said the same thing: “Don’t look at me. You will hit whatever you look at.” I found that advice difficult to heed when he was standing at the end of the straightaway where we had to get up to 45 mph and then stop suddenly or swerve to avoid the puppy-cones.) My time driving the Spin Car seemed short. I wondered if it was because I was so good at it that he figured I didn’t need much practice, or so bad it was useless to waste more time on me, or because it was such an intense experience that time flowed differently.

OK, so far so good. I liked not hitting puppies and I liked spinning cars around. It was fun to feel the speed and momentum of those cars, fun to shift up into second as fast as I could, fun to hear the throbbing chug-chug emanating from something I was driving. Then it was time to get on the track. My Red Shirt led us to a little room full of shelves of helmets and advised us to choose one that fit snugly but not too snugly. Hmmm, do I have a medium head? A large? Surely not XL. As I lifted the heavy white padded helmet over my head, I noticed its strong manly smell.

Open Zero Eight’s door, shut door, strap myself in, push that nifty start button. Heavy helmet strapped under my chin. My head is wobbly, too big and heavy for my body. My mouth is dry like I’d gargled with fine dust.  The instructor’s Number 9 car is moving forward. My job is to follow two car lengths behind, as he drives around the track, faster each time. He’s the mother duck, we’re the three ducklings. I’m first duckling. Do exactly what I do, he’d said. So I do. Whip around this corner. Brake slightly at this bend. Accelerate, accelerate, brake, go out wide around corner, cut into this one here, up onto this red and white edge, back around. I’m thinking, I’m the one who can’t tell where I’m going on the fake Mario Brothers race track; it’s strange that I’m out here on a real one. And suddenly, I’m aware, deeply aware, that I am in control of a yellow Corvette zipping around on a trace track, hugging corners, responsible to keep up with Number 9 and not make any mistakes that would cause the two ducklings behind me to crash. Can I DO this? Shut up, I tell myself out loud. You ARE doing it. Now concentrate. Concentrate. You can do this. Watch him. Do what he does. I drive off into the pit lane a lap or two before the others come off, look over to my right to a smiling Cory who has the blue camera trained on me. Gotta got this heavy helmet OFF, this chin strap unfastened NOW—relief to lift it off, noticing somewhere at the back of my mind that the manly smell I thought was from my helmet seems to have instead originated with me. My instructor and other two classmates come off the track; I chug Zero Eight back to a parking place near its other yellow friends. Helmet on table in Classroom #2, all ready for tomorrow’s continuing fun.


Photo by Josh Zullo
Courtesy Camp Tejas
Giddings, Texas

So I go home with the same thrill of conquest I remember after getting off a roller coaster ride with my sister. I did it! I did it! And Cory, also like my sister after a roller coaster was saying, “Yeah! That was awesome! Let’s do it again! Can’t wait until tomorrow!” I thought my thrill was the same kind as his as I took my fully earned shower and changed out of my stinky clothes into a pretty skirt, but as the evening progressed I wondered. I wondered more when my heart was pounding as I lay down to sleep. And when I woke up at 4:00 a.m. with that same pounding sensation. And more when I was thinking, “I would give anything to be at the end of this day. Seven hours more of this driving.” Could it be the thrill I had experienced was “Wow! I survived! I did it and I’m finished!”

What should I do? Set my teeth and get through it? Stop while I’m living? Disappoint my husband and prove to all those men that I am not brave enough?  That I’m a Boring Person? That I’m Not Capable? That I’m not going to take advantage of this Opportunity of a Lifetime? What will they think? That lady who wanted to take the class and was so jealous of me? People at home that know I’m taking a high-performance driving class? The Red-shirted Men? Why do I even care?

My husband can’t help me when I spill all this to him at 6:55 a.m. I’ve already prayed and journaled out on the balcony. It’s 7:00 now, and we need to be back at Bondurant by 7:45. God, help me. You helped me have the courage yesterday to admit I wasn’t in my element in the Grand Prix class, and that worked out. Will YOU be disappointed in me if I don’t do this? Is there something you want to teach me in this? Are you going to be mad? Like that verse that talks about those cowards who shrink back, and you are not pleased with them? Or can I just assume this has nothing to do with your stance toward me?

Either way I’m in a pickle. Perhaps I’ll have regrets if I don’t do it—almost assuredly. But if I DO do it, I’ll have to drive for the next seven hours, and I am afraid, and don’t want to. Does that make me a Bad Person Unwilling to Take Advantage of Amazing Opportunities? Or perhaps, just perhaps, am I overthinking this and I just don’t like race car driving? Back and forth, like a door on a hinge. Brave? Boring? Yes? No? Go? Stay?

I finally leap: I put on my cute black flip flops, and not the tennis shoes I am required to wear for driving.

And I do feel relief. I’m way friendlier, way more smiley. I tell Nicki when we get to Bondurant with no trace of apology that I won’t be driving today, and I feel solid in my decision.

surfer girl

And as I’m back at the resort hotel, I have more time to reflect.

It’s funny how tame it all looks to me as I write it. I can’t capture the sharpness on paper, just like I can’t capture the sharpness of the red quills of that flower with my phone camera. And compared to what Cory did and is doing now, what I did was so tame. It felt so dangerous, so fast, so edgy. I wonder if it really was, or if it was only because it was so utterly different than anything I’d ever done. Still, if I’d made an error, the results would have been dire, and I guess that’s my personal definition of edgy.

I care a lot what strangers think of me. Why?

It all made me think of “Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith” while you run with perseverance the race marked out for you. (Hebrews 12). I’ve always thought of that verse in relation to the running I’ve done, and I rarely keep my eyes on anything much except my feet, or the trees/flowers I’m passing. But this was different: your focus meant everything. If you wanted to crash, look anywhere, or look where you do not want to go but are at the moment going. Because you’ll panic and slide right toward it and crash into it. You got exactly where you wanted to go. But keep your eyes on the prize, the man said, and that’s where you’ll get. Where you look, that is where you will go. It made me think of the risk of not keeping my eyes on Jesus. I find I think this is oh, a good idea to remember, but I forget it is imperative. Oh boy. Life is fast. Serious. Full of consequences. Not to scare myself into paralysis, but to be aware that everything counts. My eyes need to be on you, Jesus, the author and the perfecter of my faith, of Your View, of You in Me. Nothing else matters; everything else is a distraction if it is kept as a focal point. And it isn’t that other stuff isn’t important. Family, how I spend my time, how I treat others, what I think about, the environment, whatever—all is important but becomes a distraction the minute I see it as the point, the focus, the thing I must do to please God, the thing I should be doing better. Jesus, you be my focal point. Let knowing You, seeing You more clearly all the time, be my focus, and let every other activity and idea take its place in that light.

I guess that is the play I’m in. Not the one called, Be all that You Can Be or Show ‘Em All, but the one with Jesus saying, Know Me and Be Satisfied. I fully belong in this play, and He’ll always teach me the lines as I go.

The Art of Communication

In Creative Living, Music, Poetry on September 19, 2013 at 1:00 am

Photo by Doug Stutler
Lily Lake – Lily Mountain
Estes Park, Colorado

“They can be a great help — words. They can become the spirit’s hands and lift and caress you.”

— Meister Eckhart

By Amy Wilson Feltz

Words have the means within them to create and destroy worlds. We know this about our own conversations, even if we don’t want to admit it. Think about the wounds that you have received from sharp words. Think about the wounds you’ve inflicted. Think about words that have brought a smile to your face. Think about words you’ve shared that made others smile.

Poetry gives those words a rhythm, a heartbeat, and draws us into the Life Source.

There’s only so much talking we can do about poetry. To experience it, we need to read some.

We Shake with Joy

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.

What a time they have, these two

Housed as they are in the same body.

— Mary Oliver

There is power in words to heal and transform.

I waited patiently for the LORD;

he turned to me and heart my cry.

He lifted me up out of the pit of uproar,

out of the miry clay,

he set my feet on a rock

and gave me a firm place to stand.

He put a new song in my mouth,

a song of praise to our God;

Many will see and fear the LORD

and put their trust in him.

— Psalm Forty, verses 2 and 3


Photo by Tami Bok
Yellowstone National Park

Poetry is also a great vehicle to explore matters of faith.

From Spring, by Wendell Berry:

He goes in spring

through the evening street

to buy bread,

green trees leaning

over the sidewalk,

forsythia yellow

beneath the windows,

birds singing

as birds sing

only in spring,

and he sings, his footsteps

beating the measure of his song.

His footsteps carry him past the window,

deeper into his song.

To his death? Yes.

He walks and sings to his death.

Not much of a surprise to people of faith because most of the Old Testament was written as poetry in the Hebrew Language, and in that original language we find rhythm and rhyme and plays on words that we miss in the English.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I fear no evil, for You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

— Psalm Twenty-Three, verse 4

Gingko grove at the arboretum in VA - Susan Speer

Photo by Susan Speer
Gingko Grove

What a lovely reminder that it isn’t just the content but the form of the words that can inform and shape us.

The Psalms in the Old Testament give us a way to connect with something universal about what it means to be human, to love and to fear, to grieve and to rejoice.

Poetry in general does this, too.

I Want to Write Something So Simply

I want to write something

so simply

about love

or about pain

that even

as you are reading

you feel it

and as you read

you keep feeling it

and though it be my story

it will be common,

though it be singular

it will be known to you

so that by the end

you will think—

no, you will realize—

that it was all the while

yourself arranging the words,           

that it was all the time

words that you yourself,

out of your heart

had been saying.

— Mary Oliver

Poetry doesn’t just happen. It grows out of awareness. Out of experience with humanity and the divine. Out of an expression of beauty or sorrow that resonates with what it means to be a human being. It is the work of God in us, printing itself in black and white for the world to see.

In poetry, we remember that God is in all things.

Yellowstone Lily pads

Photo by Tami Bok
Yellowstone, WY

In All Things

It was easy to love God in all that

was beautiful.


The lessons of deeper knowledge, though, instructed me

to embrace God in all


— Saint Francis of Assisi

That God lives in us.

The beautiful thing about relationships is that, when they are valued and nurtured at least, they can provide the context and the safe place needed to clarify comments and actions that could be misunderstood.

In a correspondence between two poets* Peter O’Leary remarks that when he thinks about redefining God, he actually means that he’s been set free from making declarative statements about God by the invitation to, “Be still and know that God is God… Not to define God so much as to identify aspects of the radiating diadem of God’s afterimage.”

I think what he means by this is that if we are aware enough to know that God is with us, we’re going to be moved to describe our experience of God or our need of God.

Alicia O’Striker seems to agree, as she says, “My writing is a spiritual practice. My writing is my prayer. I imagine this is true for many poets.”

So, in the sense that poets are human and experience life as human beings do, their expression of their experiences become the expression of humanity. It’s not so much that they speak for us but that they give us the words for which we are searching to describe what we see and touch and taste and hear and feel.

In this way, poetry is very much a communal act.

Sometimes the Psalms and poetry in general can lose meaning when they become too familiar, when we just run our eyes over the words without registering their meaning. Or sometimes our minds are too full of other voices to makes sense of the words and we miss their meaning in the first place. Sometimes we write the Psalms and poetry in general off as being irrelevant, archaic even.

But the stuff of life is in there. Silence can help us find it.

Photo by Roger Brown Costa Rica

Photo by Roger Brown
Flower at Cafe Milagro
Costa Rica

Being still is not the same as freezing. To be still is to wait patiently until it is time to act again, with God’s prompting. Being still and trusting in God affords us the opportunity to take inventory of the many ways God is at work . . . and to be thankful. The spiritual disciplines of being still and then acting upon God’s prompting can be followed by deep and meaningful growth. Thanks be to God!

Alicia Ostriker said, “I believe that God is pregnant with his exiled, mute, amnesiac, repressed feminine side. Pregnant and in labor. Pregnant and in pain, for I believe our human pain is God’s labor pain, and that we can all collectively be midwives bringing the goddess back into consciousness.”

This is the work of poetry and the work of the Psalms, to invite us to see God, whole unbroken, so that we, too, may live in the divine image, whole and unbroken.

Ostriker’s words compare to Romans 8:22-23: For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. And not only they but ourselves, also, the first fruits of the Spirit, even groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, for the redemption of our body.

Feeling that God is hiding from us is cause for groaning, to be sure, but our inner silence and our inner voice and the voices of our community remind us: Absence from God is an illusion.

All we need do is Be Still. And Know that God is God.

Photo by Roger Brown

Photo by Roger Brown
Singing Sands
Dunhuang, China



Meister Eckhart, The Spirit’s Hands, “Love Poems from God” © 2002 Daniel Ladinsky/Penguin Group

We Shake with Joy & I Want to Write Something So Simply “Evidence,” Poems by Mary Oliver © 2009 by Mary Oliver/Beacon Press

Psalm 40:2,3 New American Standard Bible/New International Version/original Hebrew

Psalm 23:4 NASB

Spring Excerpt, “Wendell Berry: New Collected Poems” © 2012 Wendell Berry/Counterpoint Press


In Art on January 30, 2013 at 4:27 pm

By Bekah McNeel

The question has been posed: is the act of creating inherently selfless? I don’t know the answer, so there is no cohesive argument here presented. But, here are the thoughts that led me toward no conclusion…

In 2006 I saw Kevin Spacey perform in Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten at the Old Vic in London. All of the actors were wonderful. They were clearly well-trained, believable, evocative, and committed. But then Spacey came on stage. Or rather it was as though he grew out of the stage. Like some sort of fleshly vine winding around the dialogue and blocking. The cast was full of exquisite actors…but he was James Tyrone, Jr.

Afterward, like good American celeb fanatics, my girlfriends and I headed to the rear stage door (a cheery split door in an atmospherically dodgy alley) and met the estimable actor when he popped his head out like the doorman of Oz to sign autographs.

Kevin Spacey, or the specter thereof, looked haggard. He was clearly utterly spent by the wrought performance. Or perhaps from years of such performances. We stood and chatted with/at him, got our photos and left.

It’s common to hear creative people say that they are doing the thing that they can’t not do. In other words, they must do. I must write. My husband must design. It’s our gravitational pull and to deny it would be misery. So in some ways it might look selfish, like we’re just doing the thing we like to do, regardless of the fact that we’ll never be “finished.” Like the only reason we create is to throw pennies into the void.

glass sculpture sky

Photo by Roger Brown
Glass Sculpture

But what separates this telos, this mysterious gravity, from selfishness is that its pull on me has absolutely nothing to do with how much I like doing it or hope to benefit from it. Some days it is all out war. Some days I avoid it. Some days I feel sort of “eh,” about it. I have no idea if it will render me rich, famous, and happy; or if this passion will slowly eat away my soul and leave me mumbling about the greatness that just slipped my grasp.

Whatever it was made Kevin Spacey look like he’d been run over by a truck.

Two years later, I witnessed this drained, vacant face again, this time on a much younger man. A friend of mine was playing in his final recital for his doctoral degree in piano performance. While he was on stage, the energy was incredibly similar to the organic fusion of performer and medium that I had witnessed between Spacey and the stage. Afterward, we all filed backstage to congratulate and gush over the 27-year-old pianist. Rather than the jaunty buzz of a performer enjoying applause and accolades, he was propped against a wall, barely upright, and rather pale. His gracious wife ushered us all through, helped him give polite words of thanks, and then escorted him home.

Creativity at its best, is painfully exhausting. It’s the sort of thing that leaves one staring into the void, emotionally wrung and utterly satisfied.

resurrection bay

Photo by Roger Brown
Resurrection Bay

The painter Jacinto Guevara told me that he has to get his ego entirely out of the way in order to paint anything worthwhile. When he’s trying to impress people he can see it in his work, compromising the subject.

It’s not thankless work, though. Looking at something you’ve created is incredibly gratifying. Knowing that something exists that did not exist before is a really awe-inspiring thing. If this sounds a lot like how parents view their kids sometimes, that’s not surprising. Often generativity is treated as a creative act, hence the term procreation.  And certainly there is an amount of selflessness involved in parenting.

In the end though, parenting is different in that if it is done well, it is eventually unnecessary. A painter cannot paint so well that one day she comes to her studio to find colors appearing on canvas without her consent or design. Yes, some artists, especially actors and writers, talk about the work taking over, about the characters doing things that surprise them. But in a physiological sense, the hand of the artist cannot leave the brush if they want the paint to be on the canvas, while a parent’s hand must leave the child’s shoulder if he is to properly grow. Paintings can take on “life” but not volition.

So in some ways, creativity is like having a constant infant in a constant state of need, and while it gives great joy it also uses every bit of energy.

Point Lobos

Photo by Roger Brown
Point Lobos

How do we reconcile this with the popular image of the self-absorbed artist dressed in black, brooding on about the hollowness of society? Or the drug-addled starlet talking about her “process?” Or the basic hedonism we expect to see from the artistic community?

Well here are some theories on how the arts got a reputation for selfishness:

1)     Celebrity often makes people behave badly, whether they are artists or not. The only reason we are hearing about the great icons of art behaving badly is because they are icons. They are famous. It’s not painting or singing or acting that makes them act badly, it’s the fawning.

2)     Artistic temperaments are prone to introversion and/or iconoclasm, which renders them largely misunderstood. The assumption is that they are saying, “Screw you, I do what I want.” Some are, but they are more politicians than artists. Artists, if and when they are off-putting, are probably just saying, “I’m not sure I get you, and you sort of scare me. Please go away.”

3)     Artists can be a bit needy. But then again, when your life work is judged only by critics, ticket sales, and public opinion, the need for affirmation is probably stronger than, say, a job where doing well means taking home a fat bonus check.

4)     A lot of people like the image of the arts more than the arts themselves. They were once called imposters, in a more romantic era. Later the vogue term became frauds, phonies, fakes, jerks, posers, and tools. By any name, they are the unfortunate trolls under the front porch of the arts community, waiting to greet visitors and tell them all about their “craft.” The magic word to make them go away: “so show me what you’ve been working on.”

5)     Some artists are selfish.

Theory number five highlights an important truth. An artist is not his work. An artist is a person, and most people struggle with selfishness to a degree. However, the process of creating doesn’t demand that a person be a creator all the time. Only in the moment of pen going to page, voice going to ear, and chisel going to stone does the artist need to be free of ambition outside of one singular goal: this piece, this song, this scene. Unless you are wholly devoted to it, then something else crams itself onto the canvas and muddles the picture.

Art is not about altruism, wanting to give something to the universe. That would be far too high a demand. If universal goodwill were required in order for anything to be created, then the body of worthwhile work would consist of a cross and a crown of thorns, because that’s pretty much the only act I know of wherein the agent correctly assessed his power and desire to save the world. If artists thought that they could “give something to the world” the hubris would do as much damage as any amount of selfishness. Ego by another name. It’s how we get preachy art.

Inherently, an artist must believe that what they are doing is noble enough. If their goal is to create something good, true, and beautiful, then that is, in my opinion, enough. Let them use the rest of their life serving self or others. But the surest way to create a load of crap is to create something that aspires to be more or less than the best book ever written, best painting ever painted, or best song ever sung. (It is also my opinion that when done in the knowledge of God’s presence that this is worshipful.) The art will demand all. Make no mistake, the rest of the world will benefit as it sees fit.

All this being said, I have to acknowledge that there are people so skillful, so talented, so at the top of their game that they can create really great stuff with their ego and world-saving ambitions all crammed into the frame. There are some people who make pretentious art, and it’s good. Some didactic movies that are fun to watch.

At the end of the day, creativity is not a magic virtue that belongs to a special class of humans. It’s a basic trait, endowed in varying degrees to flawed creatures. And while talent, vision and inspiration are rare, the ability to create something is common. All humans have it.

In The War of Art, Pressfield describes a creative process that is more akin to chaining oneself to a desk than sitting by a bubbling brook and waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s certainly this way for me. It takes two hours of writing total garbage to crank out a sentence or two of my best work. Hard work is the courtship of the muses.

As much as I want to believe that some art is special, that there’s a raw, real, gut-wrenching purity to the best art, I don’t know. I love the Rolling Stones. I think they’ve got soul, and energy and all the good stuff. But they’ve been performing for 50 years. Surely not every one of those nights was magic. Piet Mondrian painted squares and lines. They are brilliant. They are provocative. They are visionary. But I could not point to Composition No. III Blanc-Jaune and say, “this has the spark” and to Composition No. 10 and say, “this one was done with selfish motives.” Who could?

Somewhere within the complex mixture of practice, talent, inspiration, skill, and desire, there’s bound to be fits of selfishness. However, there is a great deal of potential for generosity, sacrifice, and devotion as well. Without those latter things we would have art, but what good would it do us?

dew drop

Photo by Roger Brown
Dew Drop


In Art on January 30, 2013 at 4:26 pm

There’s something very compelling about sculpture that says come inside and be part of this—engage at some physical level. Art is good at intimacy.”      — Anish Kapoor

By Heila Rogers

People create art for different reasons. To work through feelings, to communicate strong beliefs, to document beauty, or because they feel compelled.

We’re motivated to leave our mark, or to get attention.

Thinking about all of this, I found it fascinating to encounter works by Anish Kapoor.

I was captivated in Chicago, by his sculpture “Cloud Gate.”

It’s his most well-known work, unofficially called “The Bean,” and looks like a completely reflective, one-story drop of mercury. It’s enthralling.

Watch the video below of someone as he approaches the sculpture.

In a large park setting in the middle of downtown Chicago, people walk up to it, touch it, and photograph themselves and their infinite reflections. It’s irresistible. People of all ages forget they’re not alone, gaze into its surface and slowly spin in a circle. It being in public is part of its appeal.

Watch the un-selfconscious interactions in this video:

People approach it wondering, camera’s at the ready. They reach out and touch the smooth, cold surface causing their reflections to appear to reach out and touch back.

Viewers walk underneath, look up and see millions of “themselves” reflected in the curved, shining surface.


Photo by Heila Rogers
Underneath “The Bean”
Chicago, Illinois

One interacts with all art in some way.

Gazing at a painting can stir thoughts and emotions, or simply cause appreciation of technique. Certain music can bring tears or stir memories.

Kapoor’s sculptures got me thinking though. Is it a different kind of interaction, when Kapoor creates a sculpture that intentionally, physically draws in a viewer? A unique kind of sculpture that’s not just permissible to touch, but one where touching it is an integral “part” of it.

Could the meeting, interacting and blending mean that the people then by definition, are a part of the art?

In Atlanta’s High Art museum, Kapoor’s “Light Scoops” are installed into the ceiling of an exhibit room. Natural light from the sky outside flows through round openings shaped like ice cream scoops with their bottoms sliced off. Fuzzy shadows outline each opening.


Photo by Heila Rogers
Light Scoops / Anish Kapoor
High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Another of his works, this one at floor level, is a person-sized, purplish gray bulge. As if a giant punched a wall of slime and it hardened.

Photo by Heila Rogers/High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Photo by Heila Rogers/High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Photo by Heila Rogers/High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Photo by Heila Rogers/High Museum of Art, Atlanta

The cavity beckons. We know it’s just a void but there’s a pull to look inside. I was compelled to walk around and also check out the back. It almost feels alive. Yet it’s certainly not. Something about the shape and the size, and how it’s made seems to speak.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, [Kapoor] was acclaimed for his explorations of matter and non-matter, specifically evoking the void in both freestanding sculptural works and ambitious installations. Many of his sculptures seem to recede into the distance, disappear into the ground or distort the space around them … many … have carved apertures and cavities, often alluding to, and playing with dualities (earth-sky, matter-spirit, lightness-darkness, visible-invisible, conscious-unconscious, male-female and body-mind).”

Another sculpture – an upright, mirrored dish, taller than a person, and made of many small, mirrored triangles, has a mesmerizing audio element. If you stand in front of it and speak softly into the center, your voice is magnified and vibrates across the room. Meanwhile, it splits your image into many shattered, unrecognizable pieces.


Photo by Heila Rogers
“Untitled” by Anish Kapoor
Atlanta – High Museum of Art

William Furlong said about one of his works:

… drawn into it, somehow one is drawn into oneself … because of this endless blackness that one is facing.”

This kind of interaction is unique, and I admire the way it engages.

In the end, I’m talking about myself. And thinking about making nothing, which I see as a void. But then that’s something, even though it really is nothing.”      — Anish Kapoor

Sources: Modern Painters, Nov. 2008, Sarah Kent, Mr. Big Stuff/BOMB Magazine, Spring 1990, Anish Kapoor/

Be the Art

In Art, Life in Society on November 4, 2012 at 10:18 am

Photo by Lewis McNeel
“Graft,” by Roxy Paine
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
Washington, D.C.

By Bekah McNeel

“Be the art!” I shout, and two grown-up, educated, professional women (plus I, myself) immediately strike the above pose.

This is a tradition among us. We who travel together, and find ourselves needing to commemorate the moment we saw an amazing piece of art. We decided we didn’t want our pictures with the most inspiring, redolent works of creativity to look uninspired and indolent. We started at the Eiffel Tower when, as my best friend Lee and I looked around we saw tourist after tourist in the same pose with the same back drop. So I flipped her onto my back and we matched the energy and audacity of the tower built to represent the age of Science and Industry and the spirit of France at its centennial birthday party: the 1889 World’s Fair.

That stroke of brilliance soon led to deliberate interaction with art and architecture that, in our opinion was true to the spirit of art. Boldness. Iconoclasm. Embodiment.

This is a contrast to the way I usually look at art, which is quietly.

I’ve heard it said that art museums are the sacred spaces of our day. It’s true in many ways. More than libraries or churches, in our age, the stark white walls and hushed halls of galleries serve as shrines to impenetrable icons deliberately distributed across the wallspace. Philosophy is smeared onto canvas and carved out of stone. Serious people go to museums, the devout. Creative people go to museums, the mystics. Pretentious people go to museums, the Pharisees.

Wherever I first heard museums compared to sacred spaces, it was definitely in the context of a lament. Something to the effect that our godless culture has exchanged God for paint and prayers for wire sculpture. However, I see this reverence as a sign that our culture has not yet completely lost its concept of God. The fact that we can study and be taken in by the ineffable is proof that we hunger for something beyond the finite number of our molecules. So I’m a fan of quiet art museums.

It was in a quiet art museum that I discovered, I mean really discovered, grace. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art was my haven in college. I went to escape the scrutiny, intensity, and conformity of my tiny Christian college. I loved the anonymity of being in the city, and the feeling of being in the massive courtyards, one among many. I went to a Diane Arbus exhibit. It was deliciously brazen, like the way scotch tastes. Around me many people were trying to say intelligent things about the series of photos of wrinkly, paunchy nudists and transvestites. They were trying to be either blasé or profound. When faced with the sagging breasts and dimpled belly of a particular subject, I was glad I was alone, and not having to make some comment to validate my discernment (either to the art crowd or the Christian college crowd).  And I found that I could look at it and see the beauty. I didn’t have to make a list of the flaws before I reveled in the goodness. In fact, if I wanted to just walk away without a list of sins committed by the great photographer, that was okay too. I loved Jesus just as much when I left. Maybe more.

I don’t think you have to be able to find grace at a Diane Arbus exhibit. I don’t think you have to like modern art at all. Years later I would visit the Byzantine Fresco Chapel at the Menil Collection in Houston, where the space is designed to evoke the sacred origins of the art. It was dark, cold, and quiet, an atmosphere all the more potent by the fact that we had stumbled in out of the 3pm August sunshine. We, my architect husband Lewis and I, sat in awe for a long time. A very long time. We were alone and we were worshipful.

Down the street at the Rothko Chapel, we witnessed another version of the modern sacred space, again this time deliberate. The Rothko Chapel welcomes guests to choose from a table of sacred texts, and to use the space for prayer and meditation.

Inside the Basilica, Old Town Quito, Ecuador

Photo by Roger Brown
Inside the Basilica
Old Town Quito, Ecuador

So the question arises: why violate this sacred space? Why transgress the unspoken pact that I the patron have made with the artists and curators to take the art as Mary took the Annunciation and ponder it quietly in my heart?

Because of slides. In 2006 Carston Höller installed spiraling tube slides in the London’s Tate Modern. They carried sliders from each of the four storied floors to the ground floor. Patrons of the museum donned helmets and rode in potato sacks and often squealed as they sped down the slide.

“For Carsten Höller, the experience of sliding is best summed up in a phrase by the French writer Roger Caillois as a ‘voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind’. The slides are impressive sculptures in their own right, and you don’t have to hurtle down them to appreciate this artwork. What interests Höller, however, is both the visual spectacle of watching people sliding and the ‘inner spectacle’ experienced by the sliders themselves, the state of simultaneous delight and anxiety that you enter as you descend.”

I happened to live in a flat behind the Tate Modern for the entire length of the exhibition, and passed the entrance on my way to classes. I made use of the slides often enough, as there is no admission fee to the Tate. Standing under the silver spirals was stunning. The sort of thing that makes you feel the need to say something profound. But instead of musing about the form, a cascading shriek reminds you of the function.

It was unconscious, because the “Be the art!” movement was not premeditated or in any way serious, but the irreverence of people hurtling down playground equipment inside a bastion of London culture shifted my thinking. Throughout history, art has transgressed social norms and values. Art has poked fun at things we consider important. Surely there is a place for some tomfoolery in the consumption of art.

lotus denver botanical gardens

Photo by Roger Brown
Lotus Flower
Denver Botanic Gardens

If we are free to interact with art not as something austere and high-minded, but instead respond with honesty and enjoyment, even in the form of silliness and play, maybe more people would enjoy it. Perhaps if we were less worried about the appropriate response, and just responded, we would get more out of interactions with art.

On a recent trip to New York, Lewis and I visited two major artistic venues: the Whitney and the Lincoln Center.

At the Whitney, we were taken by a piece of video art that seemed generally pleasing until we realized it was produced in 1926. Oskar Fischinger’s Space Light Art: A film environment was so far ahead of its time it seemed impossible. But it was also playful. Fischinger was enamored with the potential of the new medium to intoxicate the viewer. In the dark of the room we geeked out and surrendered ourselves to the mesmerizing pulse of color and shape on the wall in front of us.

Later, we went to see the New York Ballet. Surrounded by little gray haired ladies who were no doubt responsible for the existence of the New York Ballet, we watched a modern selection of dances, including a particularly affective pas de deux. When we walked out, Lewis turned to me and said, “That was soft porn.” I was tempted to argue with him about the nature of sensuality in art until I realized that he was getting it more than I was. Yes, that was what they were getting at, sex. It was sensual almost to the point of eroticism. Rather than being so consumed with being at the ballet Lewis was interacting with it. And he needed a breath of fresh air.

He had the same reaction to Marilyn Monroe by the way, the first time he saw her in a motion picture. When she sauntered up the stairs in “The Seven Year Itch,” Lewis cried out, “That’s obscene!”  Lewis gets art, perhaps inherently. He feels what it’s going for. That was part of why I fell in love with him. Before him, there was Chagall.

jelly fish

Photo by Roger Brown
Jelly Fish
Monterey Aquarium

I fell in love with Marc Chagall at age seven. My grandmother took me to San Antonio’s museum of modern art, The McNay. There was Dream Village, all colors and broad strokes. With a dancing cow. I loved it then and I love it now. As I mentioned, in college I sought refuge in art museums. After a particularly restorative visit to the Getty, I was looking through the bookstore while waiting for the tram. I found a book that used Marc Chagall’s lithographs Daphnis and Chloe to illustrate the 1956 Paul Turner translation of the myth by the same name. I had no excuse to spend museum prices on a book, but I bought it on the spot. After college I took a trip across Europe to, as my mother put it, see what condition my condition was in.  I found myself at the Albertina in Vienna where Chagall’s illuminated Scriptures were on display. The intersection of the playful style that had delighted me as a child and the sacred text that shaped my life was a near ecstatic experience at a time when I was most in need of one. And even after that, my indie music hound sister gave me a song by the Weepies. Their soulful sound spoke to my heart during a phase of longing, and as I searched for more of their music, I came across their song “Painting by Chagall.”  Over time a dreamy, playful, Chagall motif developed in my times of contemplation and awakening.

Chagall is, to me, an example of the many roles that art can play in our lives. His bold use of color, simplified forms, and dreamscapes are at times exuberant and playful, at times iconic, and at times heartbreaking. He also channeled genuine religious experience, which like stained glass windows and illuminated texts of old, remind us that art has always interacted with the Sacred. Like religion, I think that art must be robust in its place in our lives. In art we can engage not only our more high-minded sensibilities of expression and communication, but also our sexuality, our sense of humor, and, yes, our reverence for the ineffable.

The Basilica and part of Quito

Photo by Roger Brown
The Basilica & part of Quito

Poem Trio

In Poetry on November 3, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Photo by Amanda Brack
Fall Tree
Louisville, Kentucky

Fun Loving Grandmas
Hey, Barbara! Remember the time —

I’m sure you know this has to rhyme –

Remember the day little Josh came along?

We were on our way to work, doing nothing wrong.

When you got the call, I put the car in high gear.

We flew down I-20 like we had no fear.

I’m not sure if you prayed that we met no disaster.

Or, if you were thinking, “Can’t we go any faster?!”

We made it to Hendrick, no troopers in sight

And there you met little sunshine and light.

I’m sure God rode with us on that crazy day.

He kept us safe in His own divine way.

He watches us still ‘cause He knows who we are –

Fun loving grandmas behind the wheel of a car.

Georganne Conway

Copyright© August 2, 2008

Photo by Roger Brown

Photo by Roger Brown

Through Jesus’ Eyes

I wish that you could know me,
See into my soul.
I know that I’m not worthy,
But Jesus makes me whole.

He gives me hope when I’m afraid.
He lifts me when I’m down.
He sends me joy and a smile
To replace an ugly frown.

He runs to meet me every time
I call upon his name.
He lets me know that I don’t need
Riches, clout or fame.

I guess I’m really special
‘Cause Jesus tells me so.
He wants to spend some time with me
And always lets me know.

He wraps his arms around me
And holds me really tight.
He warms my heart and gives me rest
On a cold and lonely night.

He walks with me along the way
And never leaves my side.
He forgives me when I cannot see
Through all my foolish pride.

If only you could see me
The way my Jesus does,
We’d be friends forever
With forgiveness, faith and love.

Georganne Conway

Sunset Cranes

Ageless Dreams
To my fellow cancer survivors and all who support them

Threadbare carpet,
Worn woven shades,
Days gone by,
Memories of parades –

Towels with raw edges,
A sofa sunken deep,
An old, old freezer,
Bought when food was cheap.

Dresses out of style,
Shoes with signs of wear,
Hats in a pile
No longer cover lack of hair.

Some things wear out.
Don’t stand the test of time.
But my dreams are ageless
And live on in my rhyme.

Georganne Conway
Copyright ©2004

Photo by Amanda Brack
Canoe on Lake Chelan
Stehekin, Washington

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

Children’s Literature – Illustration

In Art, Education, Life in Society on August 7, 2012 at 3:06 pm

NCCIL Art Camps

Wonderful video, featuring a marvelous teacher, about an art workshop for kids at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. Future professional (or everyday) artists learn from the work of established ones. Students make art and enjoy themselves doing it.

~ H.R.