when did we decide that we were bad at art?

Here are watercolors, she said. Paint.

birth retreat 1

Here are pastels, she said. Draw.

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Here is clay, she said. Create.

birth retreat 2A gathering of mothers. A time and space set apart. A whole afternoon to ourselves, to pause and pray and ponder what it means to approach pregnancy and childbirth as something spiritual.

At Peg’s retreat, I thought about birth and babies and becoming a mother all over again. But weaving between these weighty meditations were simpler sensations: the chalky smear of pastels on my fingers, the ghost-white trace of clay under my nails, the wavy curl of paper as watercolors dried.

When was the last time I let myself make art for an entire afternoon?

Sometimes I sit down with the kids at their small table in front of the sunny window and I doodle while they draw. Or I dip a brush and make soft strokes while they paint. Or I roll playdough into long coils while they squish and smash their creations.

But I never make art. Not on my own.

Why? Because I’m too busy. Because it’s not what grown-ups do. Because I’m not good at it.

. . .

All the way home from the birth retreat, I turned one question over and over in my mind: when did we decide that we were bad at art?

Many adults I know, who colored and drew and painted and pasted their way through childhood, no longer make time for artistic expression. It’s considered child’s play. Delightfully entertaining or developmentally enriching for little ones, but not a serious way to spend time as mature, productive members of society.

But when did this shift start? When did art cease to be an essential way we explored the world? When did it become reserved for the talented, the elite, the lucky few?

I used to love making art – at school, at home, in classes at our local art institute. I especially loved the pottery classes: the whirl of the wheel between my knees, the slippery slide of the glossy clay between my fingers, the surprising emergence of something new and warm between my hands.

But then I stopped. I can’t quite remember why – maybe sports seemed more important, maybe art seemed less cool, maybe the insecurity of adolescence whispered that I should shy away from somewhere I didn’t excel.

So now it seems daunting to start making art again – how? where? when? Why am I afraid of what used to seem so simple? Is it still the worry of looking like a fool? The intimidation of not knowing where to begin?

Or the primal, pulsing fear of failure?

. . .

Only six weeks left till the due date. Of course my thoughts wind birth-ward every day.

Heavy with baby, I watch my boys scrawl with sidewalk chalk, paint pages with watery doodles, color their latest crayoned masterpiece. I see how they trust themselves to create, how un-intimidated they are by the blank page, how much energy they pour into their work and how much delight they take in showing it to others.

At night when I dip into the childbirth books on my nightstand, I find myself turning over and over one question: when did I decide that I was intimidated by birth? When did this biological capacity become something to fear, medicate, suppress, or evade? Why do I have to psych myself up with the mental focus of a marathoner for a natural process that my body was created to do?

It’s a gross oversimplification of a complicated question, I know. The process of labor and delivery can be complex and dangerous, to say nothing of long and painful. Even if I had seen a hundred births in my lifetime, as other women my age would have in other cultures or eras, I might still be as terrified of the known as of the unknown.

But I can’t help but wonder what difference it might make to laboring women if we thought of ourselves as powerful co-creators.

If birth had remained at the center of our culture rather than being shoved to the side.

If we understood more about our bodies and their potential.

If we didn’t listen to the voices who told us we weren’t strong enough.

If we hadn’t decided we weren’t good at it.

. . .

I’m trying to practice, a little every day. (Easier said than done.)

Breathe, don’t balk, through the Braxton-Hicks contractions. Focus, don’t flinch, when the pressure of baby gets too intense.

Paint something, don’t write, when my mind wants to muse. Sit with the kids, don’t scurry, when they’re creating.

Step aside from the well-worn grooves of thinking one way. Sit with the possibility that there might be another path.

. . .

Yesterday afternoon my son came to me in tears because the tail of the monkey he was coloring had torn off.

“I can’t do it another way!” he wailed when I gently suggested that he might try coloring the animal before cutting it out, so that he didn’t have to color on such a skinny tail. “I only can do it this way!”

What if we tried it again? I suggested. What if he took a deep breath to calm down? What if we worked together to try a new way?

His bottom lip still puffed out in a quiver, he hesitated. And then he nodded yes as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, fingers still stained from the morning’s markers.

What if we were all brave enough to try, again?

the trinity of family life

Give and take. Sacrifice and compromise. The exchanges we make in love.

Our December has turned into a microcosm of our marriage, a portrait of our partnership. First I was gone for five days of meetings, and F had to scramble to stay home with the boys when the babysitter was sick. Now he leaves for a week-long business trip, and I’m the one scrambling to rearrange my schedule.

This month we’re both juggling child care and work responsibilities and housework and errands. We’re sharing dinner duty and diaper duty and sending a zillion emails a day between home and office to coordinate the caring, cooking, cleaning.

One feeds the baby and the other washes the bottles. One makes dinner and the other scrubs the dishes. One does the laundry and the other buys the groceries. One stays up late with the baby and the other gets up early with the toddler.

The next day – or week or month – we switch. And the cycle of sharing starts over again.

Sometimes we’re tempted to keep track or keep score. We’ve sacrificed more, we think. We’ve done too much lately, we brood. But that is the temptation away from agape, from mutuality, from self-giving love. Marriage and parenting are never 50/50, but the allure of the equal makes us constantly renegotiate what’s working, what’s not, and how we can change.

This is the dynamic we’re daily carving out for our family. This is the model of marriage we want to give to our boys. This is the way of life that makes the most sense for us – even when it doesn’t make sense. This is the Trinity of family that teaches me daily what it means to love, to give and to receive.

The nature of our God as Trinity is no dry doctrine. Sometimes it seem mysterious or esoteric, but sometimes it is as close as the people in our own home: those with whom we share a table or a bed.

The Trinity is a dance of love among a family. It is the gifts we give and receive as we help each other become the people we were created to be. It can be messy and demanding but also beautiful and divine.

And in the midst of this busy week in a busy month, I’m humbled and delighted to share the glimpse of God that our family life gives to me. Check it out at Picturing God: Faces and Traces of the Divine.

 

inspire your spirit (great websites): picturing God

You know the days. You’ve had them, too.

(I’ve been having too many of them lately, hence the lack of recent postings ’round these parts.)

The days when all you see around you are piles of dirty dishes, heaps of laundry, stacks of bills, messes of toys. The days when email and voice mail and children are all whining for your attention. The days when distraction and disorder reign supreme.

The days when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and you shudder at the wild-eyed, disheveled soul who glares back.

It was a day like this when I stumbled upon a beautiful website while doing research for work. Picturing God: Faces and Traces of the Divine is an oasis of calm amid the internet’s frenzy, a place of prayer amid the online babble.

The website, run by Loyola Press, is exactly what its name suggests: a collection of photos submitted by readers that illustrate glimpses of God. Many are stunning landscapes or skyscapes; other are places or people with spiritual significance. Some are exotic; others are everyday. Certain photos look professional; most are decidedly amateur. They are both simple and spectacular.

But each daily selection has such depth and conviction and beauty behind it. I love that people saw God in that instant, were moved to capture it, and inspired to share it. The world would be a better place if we all woke up each morning with eyes open to find God in the places and faces around us.

Seeing each day’s photo and reading its description have become God moments in my own day. They slow me down and remind me to see. They give me hope that beauty and peace can still be found all around us. They remind me that the world is full of seekers and soaked with the divine.

And on frenzied days like today, my mothering spirit needs that reminder.

Here’s my* glimpse of God for the day. What’s yours?

*My amazingly talented sister-in-law snapped this shot, so I can take no credit. But hey, recognizing others’ talents is a glimpse of the divine, too, right? And the beauty of baby ears…sigh.

parenting in advent: first sunday

“Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands.” (Isaiah 64:7)

At the university where I went to grad school, there is a pottery studio. No mere hangout of artsy undergrads, this is a place of pure creation.

Until I crossed its dusty doorstep and breathed in the deep smell of clay, I never imagined how the work of a potter’s hands could be theological, philosophical, intellectual. But the master and his apprentices have devoted themselves to an art that springs from the heart of the university and the abbey. Theirs is a craft that comes from deep within the land: the clay hidden within the hills, the water that flows deep underground, the wood from surrounding forests that stokes the kiln’s roaring fires.

The few times that I’ve been privileged to watch the potter at his wheel, I marvel at his intense concentration on the clay taking shape beneath his fingers. His hands instinctively know how to bend and curve to produce the cup or bowl or plate he desires. But as he works, he speaks with reverence of honoring the materials and the process by which pottery is created. He honors the life within the art, the freedom of the clay itself to become what it can be, the beauty it can call forth from within the potter.

Isaiah calls God father and potter. Yet the connection between parent and artist is not always immediate. Yes, the raw material of the child is placed in our hands and given to us to mold. But we were not apprenticed in this demanding work; nothing prepares us for this all-consuming call. Yes, the work is less certain science and more attempted art. But it is not always beautiful and attractive; it reveals our darkest sides and our deepest flaws.

Sometimes these words of Isaiah seem too easy: we are passive clay and God is active potter; we lie waiting on the wheel for God to shape our lives. What I forget when I breeze over this image is that God as father is like God as potter: blessing the creation, honoring its freedom, celebrating its unique beauty. There is a gentleness to God’s hands, a loving working on our lives. We are works in process, always spinning round the wheel.

Our work as mothers and fathers is earthy and embodied like the potter’s. The wisdom that guides us is found deep within, even when we struggle to let it shape us. Perhaps this image of God as parent and potter can invite us to see our parenting as art, to see our children as works in process. In this Advent season of preparing, how can we give ourselves into God’s hands to be softened and smoothed into the people we hope to be?