When I think of metaphors for our identity—the prismatic, shifting, layered, being-becoming self—I sometimes think of landscapes with peaks and valleys, or three-dimensional stained-glass kaleidoscopes, or even the deep expanse of space.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Jessica Brown
When little, bed-bound Rusky Lionheart realizes he is going to die, he talks with his beloved older brother Jonathan, and Jonathan comforts Rusky with strange, magnificent words: “It’s only your shell that lies there, you know? You yourself fly away somewhere quite different.”Read More
George Moses Horton wrote poems, and for a very long time he attempted to sell these poems to purchase his freedom from slavery.Read More
As I step into the new territory of 2017, I’d like Grandma Moses to be a guide. Her paintings teach me lessons that I want to realize, to intend and deliberate, as I go about the days of this new year.Read More
It’s not a story, love—not necessarily—or at least not the story I want to turn it into: a series of arcs with a solid end. Even if the ending is sad, a story offers something ordered. It’s an assurance that makes the introduction of characters—the way she flips her fan, the way he carries home bread—fasten their choices into the security of plot: a rationale that makes love seem safe in the coherence of story-form.Read More
Out of all the treasures in the Book of Common Prayer, to me chief among them are the collects, the compendium of short and beautiful prayers, and chief among these is The Collect for Purity:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid:
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify they holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer was born before the advent of the Book of Common Prayer: a close version appears in the 14-century introduction to the beautiful text The Cloud of Unknowing—a text that prompts openness—nakedness, as the writer calls it—to God. Indeed, this prayer is called the Collect for Purity, but I think it is first for something else. The prayer pushes into the openness required for such purifying work to actually happen in the human heart.
The second half of the prayer (after the colon) does ask for purity—it’s a searing request, beseeching God’s work of purifying, cleansing, making new and re-fashioning our ability to love and praise him. It’s a beautiful request.
But I know my own heart. Or at least, I know it with brave, occasional glimpses down into its depths. I know how slow and weird it is. If I’m honest, I have to ask: how would such a request have any real traction in me—in the wild, wily, frightened and glorious expanse of this soul that I’m asking God to care for?
I think it’s because before any purifying action happens, I have to trust God’s ability to know—to see, behold, stare at, and hold—my heart, desires, and secrets. And I have to trust (as this prayer helps me to do) that God does not just know through cognitive cataloging: here is Jessica’s ugly secrets, here is her sad desires . . .
No. He knows via love.
God’s knowledge is woven, in divine DNA strands of holiness, with love. He cannot grimace or flinch away. That colon, those two dots stacked on top of each other, is kind of like a doorway. A threshold. And as we enter the openness of that first half of the prayer, as we open up our heart and desires and secrets, can we enter even deeper pools of grace?
But let’s face it: this real openness can be terrifying. Encased in elegant words of the English language, the reality of this collect is outrageous—like walking into a clearing during a lightening storm. It’s scary. And it would be foolish to think otherwise, that it’s easy for the soul just to open and ease into being known, when we have endless methods of hiding and the compunction to edit and prettify runs hard in the grain.
But perhaps, gradually, slow like how a tree grows, this real openness may become for us the safest place in the world. Sometimes during this prayer, I think of a little animal burying down into safe, warm soil. A badger tucking into his sett. An eagle settling into her aerie, the protected nook on the high cliff. Or a person, returning to the home where he or she is thoroughly known—the faults, foibles, the heavy and tired secrets, the treasured plans—and is welcomed through the doors.
Abigail O’Brien, an Irish artist, took a decade to complete her magnanimous series of installations The Seven Sacraments. A visual meditation using different mediums—photographs, found objects, needlepoint, sculpture—this series explores the interplay of domestic life and its tangible chores with the tangibility of the sacraments, and their concrete expressions of grace. Basin, water, linen, flour, bread, fish, goblet, lilies, grapes: this list conjures items both mundane and holy—daily tasks in the realm of home as well as those made vital to the public ministry of Jesus Christ and ecclesiastical rituals.
Photographs in O’Briens The Last Supper – Matrimony (1995) are composed so that the lit faces of women preparing for a wedding cannot help but remind us of the facial illuminations in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting. The richly hued lines utter a gleam of holiness in the human face and wine bottles, a wedding gown and wedding cake.
In Kitchen Pieces – Confession and Communion (1998) are photographs of bread, fish, and fruit on a black countertop again gleaming in such a way to reference Dutch and Spanish still lifes, brimming with sparkling fruit and shiny fish, themselves symbols of the sacraments. Photographs of women poised in the act of cooking are arranged in such a way to reference the beautiful comfort of Dutch interior paintings, women cooking or sewing by the glowing hearth.
What do we do, as our brains encounter such material as to make these connections between baking bread or cutting lemons with the grace of God as offered through the forgiveness of sins? I think the most uncomplicated response is one of affirmation: the sphere of domesticity is one that gleams with eternal meaning. The vita activa is not necessarily devoid of vita contemplativa, for our chores share the very tangibility that Christ treasured for his own ministry. The meaning of home can even inform how we enter the sacraments: God offers water for washing, warmth from a well-lit and enduring fire, and indeed, a place at the table set with the nourishing sustenance of wine and bread.
But there is an edge to O’Brien’s work. The Last Supper carries an undercurrent of bizarre but expected performativity, the pressure to carry out ritual in a certain way. The expression of the woman (supposedly the bride) getting her nails done is one of sober consternation. In Kitchen Pieces, the very paintings that refer to the domesticity of Dutch interiors are set in mock-up kitchens in a showroom, literally for show. The last two photographs feature a young girl in a kitchen baking bread; but the in second photo, the girl is gone, with only flour marking her place. Is this what happens when a person enters into the rituals of home-making or religion, that she loses herself?
There will always be a performative, and potentially destructive, side to rituals. The pressure to do things “right” churns within. We want our domestic tasks and the fruit of faith to be excellent, ripe, generous, lovely. And this is when the meaning of sacrament can inform how we enter ritual, domestic or religious. Sacrament is grace, and grace expects not performance but presence. Grace welcomes the transparency to admit our very inability to perform certain expectations.
The installations by Abigail O’Brien are stunning and disturbing. For me, they prompt a prayer. As we affirm the sacramental nature of daily chores—the holy gleam, as it were—may we remember to let grace affirm us, and free us from the burdensome threats of relentless perfectionism.
Where does the voice of a prayer come from? What swirling mass of the soul congeals to form syllables, words, utterances—spoken, or not, into a place we trust is more than us?
My prayers are often rote. I don’t know what soul-mass is congealing to form such flaccid and half-hearted, exhausted petitions. Help me. I’m tired. Thank you. God, my head hurts. Please help me. Oh Lord this is a hard day, help me.
Sometimes I hear my prayers more than at other times: the ear of my ears open, as it were, and I can hear things in my prayers: a strain of distrust, a lash of anger—and so often, the deep, structural levels of selfishness and ego: help me help me help me.
I try to form sentences that are more appealing:
But your will, Lord, not mine, tacked on to please please please please—
or, to feel less selfish, I toss in something like, help others too, help them, Lord, help the people who have to work in an office with such a headache as this . . .
Sometimes the prayers come out as mean: oh my gosh God help me to forgive that crazy lady who can’t figure out how to run a computer and give me my refund . . .
or really angry: shit, God, how much more does this lady have to go through?—please just heal her already—what are you WAITING FOR—
or silly: ohpleaseGodhelpmestopdevoringthisbagofchips!
But mostly they’re just words rushed out from the quick of the brain, not looked at for any long time—it’s too painful, to stare at the meager, flinty words which expose such a lack of wisdom, kindness, balance, all that I want to pray with—slash and dash kind of prayers.
But, slowly, slowly, the ear of my ears, as it were, is opening to another level of sound: not just the immaturity of my prayers (that was one level of honesty) but to something else, something altogether beautiful (a deeper level of honesty, if you will).
And that’s the way God salvages our prayers.
We humans salvage things. We glean and bring home and re-fashion. Ruth in the Bible walked behind the wheat pickers, gleaning the little grains left over in the wake. Some people know how to forage in forests and supermarket stalls alike. The best artists—be it songwriters, novelists, painters—see and hear things that others overlook, and tenderly these are brought home and re-worked into a narrative, or a sculpture, or a song.
The nonfiction film The Gleaners and I by Agnés Varda is a beautiful visual exploration of this human activity to glean and salvage—this capacity we have to forage, find, save, reuse, re-value. The potatoes that the potato farmers throw away because they do not fit the shape and size standards become sustenance for nearby gypsies. The heart-shaped potatoes are treasured and taken home by Agnes herself, who films them later slowly, lovingly. Agnes interviews people who find their food in trashcans or street refuse after open-air markets. She interviews others who take advantage of high storms and low tides to salvage all the oysters that the oyster-farmers don’t take. There’s a family who finds a disused vineyard. There’s a man who finds broken fridges, and brings them home to give to neighbors who need them.
One of the gleaners in the film describes what she does proudly, saying how her own mother taught her: “Pick up everything so nothing gets wasted.”
I re-watched the film recently, through this new prism of understanding how God salvages my prayers. It helped me realize that I can trust him to forage, find, save, reuse, and re-value the soul-stuff of my prayers. For if a human being can find such reusable worth and delight in something thrown away, how much more can God the primary Creator salvage from his beloved creation? These gleaners teach me about the tender, artistic, thrifty, imaginative nature of God’s listening ear to my prayers. When Agnes interviews the famous artist Louis Pons, who makes beautiful creations from refuse, he explains, “People think it’s a cluster of junk. I see it as a cluster of possibilities.”
This is the redemptive heart of salvaged prayer.
I think of my grandma Ruth, Dr. Ruth E. B. Smith, who saved up bits and tatters from the clothes that people in her family wore. Others might have thrown out or given away such clothing, but Grandma Ruth pieces together strips and squares to make vibrant, beautiful quilts. When I visit Texas, I sleep under one such quilt, and I know there are piece from my dad’s trousers and my mom’s prom dress woven into blanket keeping me warm.
I think of my father-in-law, who not only makes violins, but repairs them. One day, someone gave him a squashed, broken, moldy violin, asking him to do what he could with it. And Brendan repaired it. It didn’t go into the trash; it was carefully reworked and saved and made beautiful—made ready for music—again.
I think of my friend whose neighbor’s apples were all bruised on the ground and just starting to brown. Emilie brought them home in paper bags and made jars of chutney. They were not thrown in the waste bin, these apples; they were cut and stewed with onions and raisins, served out at mealtimes.
So, I think of my prayers, and then the Lord, salvaging everything. From out of my egocentric prayers, God salvages—maybe a plea for help that’s like robin eggshells, too fragile for breath but just right for a tempura mosaic.
From my angry prayers, does he gather red wool threads, dyed a little too dark for a sweater but perfect for a hot mitt?
From my silly prayer asking him to help me stop eating my chips while I’m stuffing my face: does he gather to himself a briar patch of desperation, good for telling stories about cheeky rabbits and other small creatures?
When I get lost in some meandering prayer-turned-soliloquy, almost forgetting entirely I’m not talking to myself about the miasma of my own problems—He never forgets we are in a dialogue. God gathers everything that has fallen to the ground, all the mussed and bruised words, the ripped and soiled sentences.
God creatively tucks them away, treasuring his lost finds, arranging and re-arranging until some startlingly lovely patterns emerge, designs made together in the merciful and beautifying dialogue of prayer.
Agnes Martin (1912-2004) painted lines and grids and blocks of color. The exhibit of her work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an extensive retrospective spanning the decades of her career, offers visitors a chance to view such simple things as these lines and grids and blocks of color.
The exhibit is on the third floor of the Broad Contemporary Art building. It’s spacious there, filtered light from the glass-covered roof filling the space with restrained luminosity. It’s a museum, so it’s a hushed space too, housing silent canvases and quiet spectators.
All of this—the quietness and light and the high ceilings and big white walls—works to present to us these strange, ineffable creations by Agnes Martin. Six by six foot canvases spread out and open before us. There’s The Rain, on which a gray-softly-smeared-with-grey background floats two blocks of mottled, emerging color—the top a dark blue, the bottom a brown-grey taupe. There’s Night Sea, a white grid of fragile, perfect half-inch rectangles over a muted sapphire blue. From her later work is Innocent Living, a gently stacked row of the softest hues in yellow, gray, blue.
June was a stressful month for me, for many reasons. But in any case, most of us don’t need “reasons” for stress—the rigmarole of upkeep can be exhausting in most seasons. So when I walked onto that third floor, there was a part of me that was frayed, nervous, elsewhere with my to-do’s.
And then, kind of like still ponds or warm pools of light, Agnes Martin’s paintings were waiting. But in using the metaphors of pond and pool, I do a disservice. It is really the paintings’ soft, profound emptiness of form that pours itself out into the viewer. The formlessness rolls across the room in soothing undulations, strange lullabies that catch a restless child off-guard. Martin herself wrote, in her famous poem “The Untroubled Mind”:
These paintings are about freedom from the cares of the world from worldliness
In her lack of form, in her deeply restrained palette of shape and color, it is as of she unearths deeper spaces for us to enter into. “My paintings have neither object nor space nor line,” she wrote, “nor anything—no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness . . . You wouldn’t think of form by an ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything.”
We enter into the painting, and something is caught, ignited, remembered and recollected. The paintings somehow allow us to present ourselves, in the moment, with all the accumulated moments pooled within us. The grid waits before us like a matrix of inner being, a delicate and endless structure designed for us to hang our moving, wrestling shapes of psyche onto.
The generosity of the grid—of the mind of Agnes Martin—is just that. These pieces have such restraint that they can become spaces for emptying and opening. Marin wrote, “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.”
Untitled #3 from 2003 waits for someone to approach it. The top section, a delicate shade of pale dove-wing gray with long, hand-painted lines going down, hovers over the bottom section, a soft, natural brown. The color is reminiscent of sand, wood, dirt, clay. It’s hard not to think of a horizon line. Shore and sky. Or a table in a quiet room, waiting for schoolwork and dinnertime. Or a desert, a long vista to travel, to travail, to mark with footsteps. Or a windowsill, looking out and out and out . . .
It fosters a deep gratitude, the painting does, for the scores of tracts inside of us, that we can meet such seeming emptiness with such rich play and recollection. It isn’t emptiness of course, but the kindness of an artist to make such an open space as it would seem so, one part of a two-way dynamic: the created locale waiting for the human counterpart to perch, enter, and perhaps, be restored.
The exhibition Agnes Martin will be at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art until Sept 11, 2016.
“I held on to Ginnie Hempstock. She smelled like a farm and like a kitchen, like animals and like food. She smelled very real, and the realness was what I needed at that moment.” –Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The novel, like many fantasy novels, is about good and evil. But masterfully—pointedly?—Neil Gaiman casts the large-scale drama of frightening, abusive forces against the forces of kindness and sacrifice in the little theatre of domestic life. It’s all on one lane, this drama, set in a family house, a farmhouse, and the little patch of land in between. It’s a seven-year-old boy who participates in the fantastical adventure, too: there’s a kind of little theatre there, in a narrator who still needs looking after.
As I read the book and just after, that’s what impressed me most—the scale. It was the drama of fantasy-novel proportions set in a family story. The wily, scary tactics of the antagonist are aimed at breaking up a family. And the savior who saves this boy and his family? It’s three generations of Hempstock females living on an old-fashioned farm: an ancient granny, a strong middle-aged woman, and a young girl. And it’s not only their mystical powers and heroic care that saves the boy. Their home is a place of sanctuary and salvation.
And that’s what, after I returned the book to its place on the bookshelf, emerged as most precious about the story. All the scenes in the Hempstock farmhouse had warm, rich hues in my mind, even brighter and more memorable than the bizarre, fascinating elements. It was the farmhouse with its whitewashed walls, jug of daffodils, flagstone floors, and warm hearth that I took away from the book and held close. Like the young boy observes, as he finds refuge in the house after a horrible escape, “I felt safe. It was as if the essence of grandmotherliness had been condensed into that one place, that one time.”
Maybe I remember the farmhouse scenes because of the meals served there. I don’t think this is accidental (or because I happen to love food). Gaiman crafts the description of food that these ladies serve with extra, superb detail; it’s as if the camera slows so that we can take in every loving dish that the Hempstock ladies made. The boy’s first meal is paper-thin pancakes, rolled up with lemon juice and plum jam. Before he leaves, granny Hempstock slips him what must be one of the most comforting treats imaginable, a little saucer of honeycomb and cream. Another time the young boy—arriving to the house freezing wet—drinks hot, rich broth in a warm bath. How comforting does that sound, liquid warmth within and without? Another meal is roast beef and potatoes, buttered nettles, “blackened and sweet” carrots, and a gorgeous, homey apple pie with thick yellow custard. After a breakfast of toast and homemade blackberry jam, thick porridge with cream, and rich black tea, the young boy feels like he could purr, as the kitten beside him does—the feeling of utter contentment.
Why would Gaiman spend such care describing the homey details of hospitality? I think it’s because, when epic fantasy unfolds in the reality of a domestic drama, hospitality—genuine, caring, expressive hospitality—emerges as a primary force of goodness that does defeat evil. Making a safe, cozy, cheerful space in the dark, cold, abusive world is not a small thing. It’s kindness at its most practical and welcoming. It’s refuge for those—and that’s all of us—who need a touch of looking after. Like the boy realizes, as evil forces whip and howl around him, as he’d held close by the middle-aged Ginnie Hempstock, her kitchen and the food made there, are real things. That’s sometimes exactly what we need to provide, and what we need to receive. In the big drama of evil and good, a place at the table is, truly, sanctuary.
I pass by the novel on my bookshelf, and it reminds me of all this. May the “essence of grandmotherliness” thrive in my Los Angeles apartment.
A few Christmases ago, I heard Johnny Cash’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” for the first time—and heard words in the song I never had before. That gravelly voice brought a certain realistic cadence to the carol, the cadence of a human soul before the Son of God, lying as he is in a container that holds food for cows and donkeys. And it’s also, I realized, the cadence of a musician, an artist, giving what he has. (The video of Cash singing the carol is well worth watching.)
How can I not picture the man we know as Johnny Cash into the persona of the drummer boy? For here is Cash, singing first-person about the little drummer boy who had nothing to give but his drum-playing. When Cash sings the line “I played my best for him,” it’s hard not to compress all the songs he sang in all those jails into such passionate, self-giving words. This is the privilege when craftsmanship and faith infuse—they spur each other on, with whatever material we’ve got—paints, words, muscles, pebbles, flour, sound.
But there is a line in “The Little Drummer Boy” that says more about this faith-craft connection. The drummer boy, in the first verse, is called to bring a gift to the king. The second verse starts with the drummer despairing—
Little Baby, pa rum pump um pum I am a poor boy too, pa rum pump um pum I have no gift to bring . . .
I am a poor boy too. When Cash sings this line, he somehow gets the whole meaning of the word poor—not just without coins or trinkets—but poor as in poor in spirit, in need of help and courage and a way forward.
There’s days when I have a kind of zest for the craft work of fiction writing—figuring out a plot, re-tackling a dialogue exchange for the twenty-third time, researching how beeswax candles were made in the fourteenth century. But other times it frightens me how empty my well is. Exhaustion seeps into the edges of the page, turning my words into inky and confused puddles. Ideas feel brittle and old. Why is the story so frayed, my vision so fuzzy? Will I be able to make what I yearn to? What do I really have to give?
After the drummer boy admits his poverty, he picks up his drum and plays. Any craftsmanship I’ve practiced is certainly a gift I can give—but I wonder if I’m wrong to assume I should give from my strengths. What if I were to create from my poverty? What if it’s okay to make, fashion, create, labor, from a place of having very little? I am poor. I am in need. I don’t have the right words or the right story; my opaque heart makes it hard for me to be honest, even on the secret white page. But all this, the blurred edges and scared inadequacies, is part of the gift.
To create from this place of being “a poor boy too”—what else does it yield?
Maybe a gentleness towards ourselves, working as we can in the edges of the day. Maybe a gentleness towards others making what they can, be it poems or children’s lunches, in tiredness and constraint. Perhaps too, to create from a place of lowliness means creating out of a deeper human awareness towards those who feel they have nothing to give. The little drummer boy, empty of a gift, saw that Jesus was poor too, and this gave him courage to play.
This meekness of Jesus at birth curls into the heart of craftsmanship. We can pick up our worn drums and play the best we can, and play whatever we can, under the stable’s low eaves.