Friday, May 28, 2010

Choosing Hope

I have been exploring other people's notions of hope. Two quotes have been dancing in my mind the last few days. Christopher Reeve said, " Once you choose hope, anything's possible." Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote, " The road that is built in hope is more pleasant to the traveler than the road built in despair, even though they both lead to the same destination."

After actor Christopher Reeve became quadriplegic in 1995, he used his fame to advocate for research that would lead to a cure for paralysis. I am ashamed to admit I was disappointed with his choice. I thought he might champion physical and social accessibility for people with disabilities. (At that point in my life, I had begun to use a cane to walk short distances and a scooter to travel longer ones.) I thought his determination to walk again was an unrealistic waste of time. Now I see it differently. He was practicing choosing Hope.

Until recently I thought I didn't “do hope." My interaction with Julie Neraas, author of Apprenticed to Hope has transformed my thinking. She has helped me understand hope as (among other things) a belief that, in the end, things will be all right. I recognize that moments of that belief have carried me forward through my messy life. Reaching for those moments is the underlying purpose of my insistence on practicing life as a creative process. Surprise: I do hope.

I don't, however, do it well. Zimmer Bradley is pointing out that our future is unknowable and beyond our control. Our road will lead where our road leads. As we travel we can choose our attitude: we can choose hope or despair. I spend way too much time in the unpleasantness of despair.

Can I get better at choosing Hope?

Any parent with school-aged children knows that spring is concert season. In the last week, I have been to two middle school music concerts. They have reminded me how we go about learning and improving skills.

  1. We observe as other people demonstrate. Reading about hope, hearing other people talk about their hope and watching as others live in hope gives me that opportunity.

  2. We break the whole into small, more manageable, parts. What are the pieces of choosing Hope?

    • Choose to choose. When I was a young psychology student, I tripped over the idea that I could choose my emotions. My feelings seem to jump out at me randomly from dark corners. (Yes, part of the problem was that I was shoving my feelings into dark corners.) I couldn't imagine having any control over my emotions. Then I discovered Rational Emotive Therapy and the idea that what I was thinking gave rise to what I felt. Even though my first thought was an unconsidered reaction, I realized I could choose a different thought to replace it. Despite my instinct toward despair, I can practice thinking toward hope.

    • Look for the good. Speaking of middle school music programs, one of my junior high choir directors told us "the pony joke," with the punchline "with all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere." (If you haven't heard the joke, you can find it here.) I've returned to the story many times since. Finding the good in every situation—while admitting what could be the horrible realities of it—can help me choose hope.

    • Choose as an individual. I was a viola player between the ages of eight and 30. I was lucky enough to want to play and, though I'm sure my parents reminded me to practice, I don't remember putting up much resistance. I was playing for the sake of playing, because I enjoyed it and not to get anywhere in particular. Similarly, if I choose hope because I want to practice choosing hope, I will be more likely to do it. Attachment to results will not serve me well.

    • Choose in community. I have to make the choice myself, but I am not alone. Julie Neraas writes and speaks of hope as a communal effort. When I can't find hope, there may be others who can hold it for me. In turn, I may be able to offer hope to others when they lose it.

  3. Having broken the whole into parts, we choose one part and do it slowly so our bodies (or, in this case, our minds) can get the hang of it. If something is difficult, we do it more often. Eventually, we become more fluid.

  4. Practice practice practice. One of my least favorite sayings is "practice makes perfect." Even if things become easy, we keep practicing. Explore the nuances. Add variations. Practice to practice, without attachment to a perfect product.

One more quote: Chinese author Lin Yutang wrote, "Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence."

It's time I made my own hope road.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Attracting hope (in which I go too far with the dove metaphor)

"I hope you remain in good spirits," wrote my friend in the last line of his e-mail. "Ha!" my monster-mind replied. "In order to remain in good spirits I have to be in good spirits in the first place. How long has it been since I've felt in good spirits?" Okay, monster, let's dance.

The free dictionary defines in good spirits as "without losing equilibrium." We use the expression when we are talking about getting over a health challenge or relationship difficulty.

But what are good spirits? I dodged the alcohol and ghost-related Google results, spent some time remembering my experience with positional vertigo during bedrest and finally connected "good spirits" with the best spirit: the Holy Spirit. Pentecost Sunday this year is May 23, 2010. Pentecost is one of my favorite Christian traditions. We tell the story of Jesus' apostles gathered together following the execution of their leader. "Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind. It filled the house where they were meeting. Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak." (Acts 2:1-4)

The Pentecost story is an answer to the question: how do you keep going when it looks like everything is lost?

The answer: the Holy Spirit, something mysterious enough that it sends us traipsing back to the Holy One to say, "hunh?" Now we are in conversation with—in relationship with—God, which is just where God wants us.

I grew up in church with stained glass windows that included a depiction of the Spirit descending like a dove. I am wrestling with the concept of hope this summer, at the invitation of my present church, which is studying the book Apprenticed to Hope. My initial (monsterish) response is that "I don't do hope." The author and my church companions are slowly opening me to the possibility. The dove is also used as a metaphor for hope, thanks to the story of Noah's released dove returning with an olive branch in its mouth.

I decided to see what I could learn by playing with the metaphor of the dove.

How do I await the Holy Spirit? How do I invite hope?

How do I attract doves?

It turns out, according to the folks at the University of Georgia, to be fairly simple. Doves want food and water. They nest in piles of twigs (sometimes in low bushes, sometimes on the ground), but they're willing to travel distances to get what they want. Even if my heart is not the perfect habitat for the Spirit, it's willing to find me and able to put up with a less than perfect host..

Doves like to drink water, that common substance that covers 70% of the world's surface. Yay! I'm common. I also am embarrassed to admit that I didn't quite know what water does for a biological creature. It turns out that our bodies need water to regulate temperature, provide the means for nutrients to travel to our cells, remove waste, and protect our joints and organs.

I can translate those functions into a list of spiritual disciplines. A practice of meditation helps me regulate the extremes. Participating in community and worship allows nutrients to travel to where they are needed. Confession removes spiritual sludge. Practicing the presence of God (prayer) helps protect my functioning parts.

This is where the monster raises its ugly head to say, "Practices! You're no good at practicing. You do great for three days and then you go back to your old nasty habits. That little bird is gonna die of dehydration in no time." Sigh.

painting of MilletDoves like to eat millet, a general term for small-seeded grasses grown in difficult production environments. Yay again! My soul is absolutely a "difficult production environment." Rather than spending hours cooking sumptuous dinners for these little birds, I can find some tiny seeds to scatter that might attract them.

If these practices seem like hard to crack, huge sunflower seeds, what would be millet?

Just for today I can:

  • Pray the Lord's prayer (worship, supplication, confession and practicing the presence in one convenient package)

  • Have a quiet time of meditation—even if it's only two minutes.

  • Call a friend.

Later this week, I can go to church.

What would happen if I lived each day as an invitation to hope and the Holy Spirit?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Repurposing Art and Life

I am in the midst of an art experiment and loving it. I was asked to find artists to show their work in our church’s small gallery between May and August. Our theme this summer (not chosen by me) is hope. I was unable to find anyone to use the gallery in May. A couple weeks ago, I decided to do it myself.

For my series on hope, I developed the following experiment:

Creative ExperIment

Google a word or concept you love (or resist?),
followed by the word "quotes."

Choose your favorite quotes and
respond with art.

(My results)

In addition to the time crunch, I'm getting used to a new level of disability. I am able to use my hands much less skillfully these days. Painting is a huge energy commitment because of the physical work involved to get materials out and put them away. In the last year or so, I scanned my art every time I painted. Sometimes I would paint something simple just for scanning and using later. Now I have a library of scans.

This feels like cheating. I'm not starting from a blank page, but it is my art. I'm not cheating, I'm collaborating with myself. I'm repurposing.

Repurposing. There is a word that was not in my father's (extensive) vocabulary. defines it as “To use or convert for use in another format or product: repurposed the book as a compact disk.” Most references to it seemed to involve home decorating or ingenious use of everyday things.

In my last post, I wrote about my need to reinvent myself. Repurposing my art has been so much fun, I wondered if I could draw lessons from it to repurpose my life.

  1. Necessity is the mother...

    I wouldn't be making these pieces of art unless I needed to do so. Having a purpose and, frankly, being pressed for time motivated me to action. When it comes to reinventing myself, I can leave things as they are while I struggle or I can make changes that will make my life easier and happier. Gently reminding myself of the pain of inaction and the rewards of change may help motivate me.

  2. Be inspired by others.

    I subscribe to Hugh MacLeod's Gaping Void cartoon series. His interplays of words and lines delight me. It was his work that inspired me to combine words, paint and electronic illustration for the series. Paying attention to how others create and re-create themselves may exhilarate my own efforts.

  3. Keep the best parts.

    The quote reminds me of a scan I have available. I open the file, choose the part of the piece that is calling to me and copy it into a new file. Textures and hues in the painting (intentional or accidental) that attract me. Parts I don't like so much, I leave behind. What chunks of my life grab me? What slices do I want to discontinue?

  4. Add something new.

    Existing material may form the backdrop of the new work, but it's only a start. To say something new, I add something new. I can add focus by illustrating an image. Similarly, there may be something I can add to my life that will bring everything around it into a whole, will become a point of convergence.

  5. Adapt as needed.

    I often make changes to the backdrop or older illustrations as I repurpose them. I adjust lines (the woman walking on the road in the Lin Yutang quotation was once dancing to a Hebrew Psalm). I duplicate and darken layers. I make changes to add meaning. Parts of my life (some of them dear to me) must be left behind. What changes can I make that will deepen my experience?

  6. Be prepared to undo.

    Sometimes, when I'm drawing, my hand spasms and the line goes wild. When I am using the computer, I can use command (or control) Z to undo my last move. Thank goodness! I am getting used to using many “undo” commands as I work. How much easier things would be if I lived my life the same way, if I forgave myself mistakes, backed up a step and moved ahead.

  7. Share it.

    The “Hope Quotes” series will hang in the North Como Presbyterian Church Gallery of Gifts in May. Pieces will be added as the series expands. In writing and visual art, sharing my work with others is an important part of my process. Often, in "real life" I withdraw into my shy place. (This happens less often as I age.) I need to remember that living out loud is one way I can contribute to the human community.

It may not be as unexpected and clever as using rain gutters to corral cables, but reinventing—and repurposing—may keep my life doable and entertaining.