The Restorative Power of Deep Attention

This week I watched “Rivers and Tides,” a wonderful film directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, about the art of Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy works outdoors, often in the Scottish countryside where he lives. He uses elements from the natural world—leaves, stones, moss, bracken, ice—in surprising ways to create beautiful and powerful forms.

Andy Goldsworthy's Rivers & Tides

Much of his work endures only for a few hours, or even minutes, undone by elements as natural as the materials he uses. He brings to his work the expectation that it will soon yield to water, heat, gravity, wind, growth, decay, and time, incorporating nature’s claim on his creations into the viewer’s experience of the art. His ephemeral art, made of elements yielded by that particular place, are offered back to the landscape. Nature reclaims the elements of his work and once again changes their form. He says of a serpentine line of ice, made from icicle fragments and glowing gold in the rising sun, “The very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death,” as the sculpture begins to melt.

In one sequence (you can view a clip here) he uses bleached driftwood to build a beautiful, domed structure with a perfectly round hole in the top, like the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome. He constructs it at a place where river and sea meet, the lines of the rounded walls echoing the swirling motion of the water next to it. As the tide comes in, the water washes up around the dome and lifts a few of the logs at its base. They separate from the structure, encircling it and becoming part of the circular flow mirrored by the lines of the dome. As it yields to the water, the dome becomes an even clearer expression of the motion it is made to suggest.

As Goldsworthy says in the film, “It doesn’t feel at all like destruction.” Eventually it is carried away by that very motion and incorporated into a flow it could only emulate when it was intact. He could be speaking of this circular structure later in the film when he says of another piece, “The sea has taken the work and made more of it than I ever could have hoped.”

Watching this film, I could feel my heartbeat slow, my breathing deepen, my muscles relax. When it ended, I felt the kind of inner quiet and spaciousness that comes after prayer or meditation. A sense of reverence infuses the film. It evokes a sense of wonder and of awe.

Goldsworthy’s rooted presence in the natural world, and his ability to convey it through his work and his words, are a rare gift. He brings deep attention to growth and change in nature, to the details of creation. He knows the characteristics of rocks and leaves, the path of the river, the ebb and flow of the tide. He seems to be exploring how to live in relationship with the overwhelming power of the natural world, finding ways to meet it with his own power as an artist, and working to know the world around him and his place in it.

His work is a reminder that we are part of a miraculous creation, in its enormity and power as well as its specificity and detail. Living with the kind of attention he brings helps us to be present for moments of divine clarity, when life on this earth shimmers with the presence of a reality beyond the one we can know.

What helps foster a sense of reverence in your life?

In the Meantime…or Late Summer

August, for me, is the month before things really get started. Heavy with the accumulated heat of the season, it flattens all ambition. Even as the long days grow shorter, with summer slipping away, there is no energy to spare.

My daughter returns to college soon; life is about to change. Soon it will be time to take on new projects, but not quite yet. If there was ever a waiting time to fill, August is it.

What to do in the meantime? Tomatoes ripen faster than we can eat them, the urgent culmination of the season’s growth. The basil desperately tries to go to seed, anticipating the first frost that still seems far away to me. Summer wanes, yet for the moment I’m not ready to move forward.

I’ve been looking around at what needs to be done, giving the attention that’s harder to bring when I’m in the midst of things. I’ve culled cookbooks and recipe files; kept appointments with the vet, the dentist, the rug cleaners; read through magazines I’ve been saving; cleaned out the refrigerator.

In the meantime is valuable in its own way. A time of gathering energy, of clearing a path through the clutter of to-do lists. It’s a particular kind of waiting, like emptying the dishwasher while the tea steeps, or finding a good read while watching for a friend at a bookstore. It’s a way of attending, not “killing” time but filling it.

John Lennon reminded us that life is what happens while we’re making other plans. Our goals and hopes and plans are important, but so is the life we live on the way to attaining them, in the meantime. It’s good to remember that, because sometimes life surprises us with what is substantial and what isn’t. The things that look solid as a stone wall can crumble, and what may seem ephemeral as a delicate weed can endure among the rubble.

Soon and suddenly, we’re pulled into the forward momentum of September. It happens so fast I’m in it almost before I see it coming. This year August has cooled down early here, with the autumnal weather bringing a corresponding change of pace for me. Those languid days seem slow, but they pass quickly by. September will soon be upon us.

What do you do in the meantime?

The Path Back to the Garden

I’ve recently read two good books: Women Food and God by Geneen Roth and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. At first glance they seem to be about very different subjects—making peace with food and making art. But reading them in close proximity has me thinking about them together and finding connections I didn’t expect.

Geneen Roth’s work arises out of her experience with compulsive eating and her years of helping others separate food from the emotional issues tangled up with eating. But her insight is into addictions of all kinds. Seeking refuge in the addiction is how we abandon ourselves, withholding the attention to our own hearts that can show us what we most need to know.

She describes it as:

an attempt to avoid the absence (of love, comfort, knowing what to do) when we find ourselves in the desert of a particular moment, feeling, situation. In the process of resisting the emptiness, in the act of turning away from our feelings…we ignore what could utterly transform us.

Steven Pressfield’s work is about overcoming the resistance that arises in anyone attempting to do something new. An artist must recognize and conquer the impediments that inevitably arise when we try to shape a new creation, realize a new vision, or express a new idea. Resistance would enforce the status quo, having us abandon our risky calling and with it our highest self.

He writes:

To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.

Both writers see the work we’re called to do as deeply connected with the divine. Both understand how easily we are kept from that work, and the heartache that ensues. Roth urges us to remain present to ourselves when we’re tempted to flee. Pressfield insists that we show up to do the work even when it feels impossible. They are connected.

Being present to ourselves allows us to do the work. Doing the work makes us present to ourselves. Both place us in the presence of God. Taking refuge in addiction is a kind of resistance to the life we’re called to live. Allowing resistance to come between us and our true work creates a false refuge in which we can never find a fulfilling life. Both are an attempt to hide when God calls our name.

An addiction cuts us off from the Tree of Knowledge standing in the center of the Garden. But as soon as we bring our attention to our behavior, to the thoughts and emotions driving it, the addiction shows us the way back. Likewise resistance keeps us out of the garden we were created to tend. No other work will give us satisfaction until we climb over the walls that stand between us and our calling.

What’s the next step leading back to the garden?

Clearing Space

A couple of days ago I noticed some interesting shadows in the evening light. The setting sun cast images of swaying trees and silhouettes of dancing leaves into the house. The most picturesque shadows were on the kitchen wall, below a board full of mementos. I set it up years ago to display children’s art work, but in more recent years it has held newspaper clippings, photos, and memorabilia from their activities. I wanted to get a picture of the light and shadow on the wall, but once I had my camera I realized there was too much clutter in the frame. Posters, newsprint, and a handkerchief hanging from the bottom of the board interfered with getting a good shot, so I quickly removed them before the light changed. I ended up with something kind of interesting:

I’ve been meaning to dismantle that board for over a year. Its role has passed. I’m still proud of my young adult children and their accomplishments, but it’s not about displays. The newspaper is yellowed, the medals are dusty, and the whole thing has been there, unchanged, for so long that no one even sees it any more. But the job I had been putting off—what do I do with all that stuff when I take it down, anyway?—is now underway.

It’s not an insurmountable job to remove the miscellany and open up the wall space, but it does mark the end of an era. Actually, the era has already ended and I’m just now catching up. The board was a simple and effective treatment for an abundance of artwork: a piece of matboard with clothespins glued to it, held on the wall with thumbtacks. It’s still in good shape. If you live nearby and need a way to display your children’s creativity, I’ll be happy to give it to you.

It feels odd to get rid of something that’s been part of the furniture for so many years. On the other hand, it will open up a lot of wall space. There’s something exhilarating about clearing out the old and making room for the new. I’ll enjoy the open space.

I wonder what will go there next.

The Seasonal Work of the Soul

Ecclesiastes is the source of a beautiful passage that has been on my mind in recent days:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to throw away;

A time to tear, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace.

These words may sound familiar if you know Pete Seeger’s, “Turn, Turn, Turn” from the popular recording by the Byrds. The words set to music convey a beautiful sense of everything held safely by the author of life.

This passage is around 2500 years old, but it speaks timelessly. Its wisdom is in accepting the variety of circumstances and challenges that arise as life unfolds. It passes no judgment as to what is good and what is bad; what should be sought and what should be resisted. It’s a radical kind of acceptance that differs from resignation or passivity as a response. It’s about not wasting our energy in trying to deny how things really are.

No single approach is right all the time. Life is too changeable, its phases too fleeting. What’s required of us in one stage may be all wrong in another. It doesn’t mean we were wrong before or that life mistreats us when it requires something new. We spend years raising children who will leave to make lives of their own. We devote ourselves to careers that eventually come to an end. We expend ourselves on work that is all too soon forgotten. Yet life goes on. Perhaps we have always cast away stones, but we may be required to gather them together, regardless of how strange it feels. If we’ve spent our lives in silence, it may be time to speak, as uncomfortable as it may be.

We don’t make the seasons in which our lives unfold, and it is beyond our power to change the forces that are so much bigger than we are. Life flows through us, manifesting in different ways at different times. We try to respond to the needs of the season, giving ourselves over to what the time calls for.

Ecclesiastes consists of “The words of the Teacher.” The title given to the speaker is a translation of the Hebrew Qoheleth, which is sometimes rendered “Preacher.” The Teacher, or Preacher, reminds us throughout the book that everything changes, everyone dies. Nothing is permanent; no one is spared. The flow of time and seasons carries us in ways that are non-negotiable. Within our lives we make choices, but the context in which we live them is given.

The Teacher also knows that ultimately we can’t get ahead. We don’t beat our fellow players or the game. Life is bigger than we are; all we can do is live it. “Vanity of vanities,” laments the Teacher. “All is vanity.” Yet in spite of the frustrations and reversals that make up so much of our days, he sees that God grants the gift of enjoying life.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes has more questions than answers, which is probably why I love the book. What he does know is that we are given work to do, and our best hope is to find enjoyment in it. Be humble. Be grateful. Do what we can. Fix what we can. Let go of what’s out of our hands. Accept both our lot in life and the gifts from God that allow us to take joy in it.

What kind of season are you living, and what kind of work does it hold?

The Moment of Creation

Lately I’ve been immersed in creation stories. These tales of the world’s beginning offer delightful images–from the universe on the back of a turtle to a spider’s weaving the world–unique and meaningful to the culture from which they emerge. They speak poetically of the meaning and value of life on earth, through the way they describe its origins.

Surprisingly often, they also share elements in common. Many stories begin with the loneliness and longing of the creator, and often involve wresting order out of chaos. Sound familiar? These themes echo through creation of any kind.

The ancient accounts of how the world was created hint at humanity’s deepest understanding of how something new comes into being. These rich stories offer brief sketches of the mystery of the creative process, and connect creativity to the source of life.

The story below is an example from the Hindu tradition. It’s part of the Nasadiya, or “There Was Nothing” hymn from the Rig Veda.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water bottomlessly deep? There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night, nor of day. That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond. Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence. Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.*

Creation is the work of the gods in these stories. When we echo this process in our own endeavors, we find that the human work of “little c” creation is also a monumental undertaking, if on a smaller scale. To bring something new into the world, we must transform the raw material we find within ourselves and in the world around us. Great effort and imagination is needed for the alchemy that changes experience into art. We need an infusion of divine energy to carry it out.

Beginning next week, I’ll be leading a workshop designed to gently lead artists of all kinds into their own creative process. Over a period of four weeks, we’ll look at how creation stories can inform the way we approach our work and encourage us in our creative efforts. We’ll allow the elements of the stories to move us into the work we long to do. The workshop is called Archetypes of Creation, and is offered through the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Kentucky.  I’d love for you to join us.

What in you is asking to be brought into the world?

*This story is quoted by J. F. Bierlein in Parallel Myths, p. 37-38. Ballantine Books, New York, 1994.

Don’t Do What I Do

I’ve been trying for two days to write a post about maintenance vs. creativity. I wanted to look at how the endless chores of maintaining a life are necessary, even as they consume the energy needed for creative work. A paradox. I struggled unsuccessfully with the writing, but phone calls, paperwork, appointments, meetings, shopping, cooking, and laundry I’ve done.

I wanted a spiritual approach to making peace with what’s required of our limited time and energy. I wanted to offer some wisdom about the legitimate need for order, valuing the effort without being a slave to it. But I have no mastery of this subject.

I have not learned how to balance tending the details and rising above them. Instead, I keep riding this pendulum. I push away to-do’s that need attention until they’re so thick I can’t move. Then I set aside everything else to focus on the neglected tasks, desperate to be free of chaos and disorder. Only then can I turn my attention to the work I’d rather do, and the cycle repeats.

I’d like this blog to offer something of value, but in this case I can only say don’t do what I do. I don’t even want to do what I do. I know that maintenance and vision doesn’t have to be either/or; we call that a false dichotomy. Stacks of mail won’t obliterate creativity. Errands can’t negate a fulfilling life. But balance is elusive. Quite simply, I want to be freed from disorder and from the work of putting things in order. But I live in the inherent conflict of these desires.

Maybe the totality of my life will average out to be balanced—orderly enough with a glimmer of creativity. But I keep swinging past the sweet spot, overdoing it one way or the other.

Lord, have mercy.

Make Us Free to Dare and Dream

Graduation day at Lexington Theological Seminary is announced with bagpipes. The piper, in full regalia, fills the air with tradition. The past is present as we look to the future. Today the Class of 2010 walked down the green hill of the LTS campus and across South Limestone, led once again by the piper, Will Young.

The sound of the bagpipes carries, whether across the moors or across a busy city block. The tones evoke a sense of ancient memory and speak of spiritual longing. The graduation procession winds down the hill, leaving the campus of the seminary—a fitting ritual for commencement. The traffic of modern life pauses for a moment as the line of choir, faculty, trustees, and graduates threads its way across the busy street to the swell of the piper’s chords.

The church has been changing for centuries upon centuries, and the education of its ministers has changed as well. Those connected with LTS are now living through the necessity of change, its uncertainty, and the arduous effort it requires. The seminary is making a transition into new ways of reaching and educating students, and the churches its graduates serve will be finding new ways to reach out and to embody Christ in the world.

Through all the change, we continue to be shaped by memory and longing. The wail of the bagpipes is a way of describing the place where we stand. In our own lives, and in the lives of the institutions we foster and depend on, we stand between what has been and what will be. We hold the teachings and traditions we have received, with our hopes and longings for the world we want to see shaping the way we pass our faith along.

It was a privilege to hear Rev. Dr. William L. Lee, Senior Pastor of Loudon Avenue Christian Church in Roanoke, Virginia give the commencement address. He spoke about the power of being “Chosen,” and the responsibility and accountability that comes with such a designation. He reminded the graduates: you have not just been invited—you have been chosen. Jesus has done the choosing; he knows you for better or worse, and yet he chose you anyway. He sees in you what you cannot see in yourselves. So don’t dwell on what you are not; focus on what you have. God’s grace will always be greater than any failure. And when you no longer believe in God, know that God believes in you. “God knew just what she was doing when she laid hands on you,” he assured them. You can know that, because you have been chosen.

One of my favorite aspects of the LTS graduation ceremony is the hymn, “God of Wisdom, Truth, and Beauty,” sung to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It names God in fresh and revealing ways, ascribing divine presence to a vast scope of human endeavors. It offers encouragement to all of us who stand in the transition between what has been and what will be. I leave you with these word to the hymn below:

God of Wisdom, truth, and beauty, God of Spirit, fire, and soul,

God of order, love and duty, God of purpose, plan and goal;

Grant us visions ever growing, Breath of life, eternal strength,

Mystic spirit, moving, flowing, Filling height and depth and length.

*

God of drama, music, dancing, God of story, sculpture art,

God of wit, all life enhancing, God of every yearning heart;

Challenge us with quests of spirit, Truth revealed in myriad ways,

Word or song for hearts that hear it, Sketch and model—forms of praise.

*

God of atom’s smallest feature, God of galaxies in space,

God of every living creature, God of all the human race;

May our knowledge be extended, For the whole creation’s good,

Hunger banished, warfare ended, all the earth a neighborhood.

*

God of science, history, teaching, God of futures yet unknown,

God of holding, God of reaching, God of power beyond each throne;

Take the fragments of our living, Fit us to your finest scheme,

Now forgiven and forgiving, Make us free to dare and dream.

***

Love Letter to Leonard Cohen

Dear Leonard,

If I may call you Leonard—I don’t want to presume. It’s hard to know how to address you, of whom I am in awe. But “Mr. Cohen” seems terribly distant for someone who has touched me deeply, though we’ve never met.

The part of me that navigates everyday life feels silly about this endeavor, as if what I wrote about you in Responding to Beauty should have been enough. But the self that finds this letter necessary is driving. I’ve lived well into my forties without writing a fan letter to anyone, but apparently it’s time.

Yesterday I sat behind the wheel on Chinoe Drive waiting for the light to turn. I was listening to your Live in London recording, as I’ve been doing for many days now. But in that moment, as you spoke the words to “If It Be Your Will” I felt a piece of the great puzzle slip into place, easily and exactly. When the tears came, I had to find some way to respond, though it’s hard to know what to say. A connection, with another person, with the divine, is a gift that goes beyond words.

The crowd in London enjoyed your turn of phrase in “The Tower of Song” about being born with this golden voice. I take pleasure in the laughter and the line, and in how they turn back on themselves. Because your voice is truly golden: black gold, like coal. It lies beneath mountains to the east of here worn smooth by the passing of eons; it’s brought forth at great risk to the miners who work those underground seams. A chunk of coal is beautiful—dark and shining—with edges that cut the skin, and dust that marks a blue tattoo when the wound is healed. It yields heat beyond most anything else that burns. Not unlike art, sometimes. Like yours.

Your voice rumbles up from deep within, where the soul lies longing to rise. Your songs walk the earth with an ear attuned to the whispers of angels. They draw me in, break me open, and give me a heart of flesh.

I can’t help but wish I’d known you years ago, but won’t complain because I’ve found you now. What better time exists, for anything at all?

I don’t expect these words to reach you, but nonetheless I will say I’m grateful for the gifts you share. And if some sense of my heartfelt thanks were caught by the breeze to carry a blessing for you, an echo of the blessing you have been for me, I would be glad.

Thank you for your beautiful work. May you be well.

Yours sincerely,

Susan Christerson Brown

Meeting Beauty Halfway

It doesn’t seem hard to find beauty in springtime. The world is woozy with blossom-scented air; flowering branches shower the earth with petals. The breeze carries birdsong and life is abundant again.

But I keep thinking about your thoughtful responses to my previous post. The insights there remind me that it’s a gift to be able to appreciate these things, and that there have been times when the capacity to enjoy them has been beyond me.

I know what it’s like to miss out on spring, worried about something going on, or not going on, in my life, or even how I’ll look in summer clothes. Being blinded by those concerns, large or small, is a kind of imprisonment. Life can be hard, and even harder when the restorative experience of beauty is beyond our reach. The view is oppressive when we can’t see past ourselves.

It’s good to do what we can to be open to beauty, to try to meet it halfway. But when our own efforts aren’t enough to haul us out of a dark place, the possibility remains of being seized by something beautiful. It can break through walls we didn’t realize were there, and reveal something wonderful about this world. Beauty seeks us out, calls to something within us, urging us to open our eyes and see.

When I watch the light recede from the landscape and gather in the sky before dark, nothing seems more important than the changing color on the horizon. I don’t know what allows me to be caught by the scene. Maybe I’ve learned something about getting beyond myself, or maybe the patient presence of beauty through all these years has finally permeated my distracted mind.

At least I understand enough now to be grateful for the light, and also for the ability to notice it. I try to pay attention, but I don’t know whether appreciating a glorious sky is a reward for my efforts or simply the creation shaking me awake. In either case it’s an unearned gift. In either case I’m grateful.

Have you experienced something beautiful lately?