Body for Life, the Universe, and Everything

Being a description of the author's thoughts on the experience of participating in the "Body for Life" Challenge, questions of great philosophical import, and randomly selected topics of no significance whatsoever

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Location: Missouri, United States

In no particular order, I'm a professional lettering artist, a yoga practitioner, a cat lover, a vegetarian, a reader of everything from books to cereal boxes, married to a very attractive guy named Tom (nope, no kids), an exercise enthusiast, and a lot of other things I don't care to admit in a public forum. I have a BS in applied math that I haven't used in over 10 years, and I can put both feet behind my head. What else would you like to know?

Friday, June 03, 2005

Deep Thoughts on Art and Self

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I read a lot. I mean A LOT. (Until I realized that I wasn't getting much else done and *forced* myself to cut back, I was regularly reading on the order of one to two books every day--fat novels, not slim volumes of poetry. Does that seem like a lot to you?) And I read faster than anyone I know, which is what enables me to get through so much material in the time I spend doing it and still have some kind of a life outside the printed page. I received from my parents the tremendous gift of both the intelligence and the training/education to understand complex ideas and advanced vocabulary. But lately I have come to realize that I have some kind of mental block about reading non-fiction--I just shy away from it, for some reason. Perhaps it is some sort of wish to stay in a juvenile fantasy world; I don't know if that theory is correct, but to tell the truth, I can't see that the reason is very important at this juncture.

Regardless, I recently had recommended to me, in a rather serendipitous fashion, a book I had never heard of by one of my favorite authors--NOT a novel, this time, but a book of philosophical reflections. I checked it out from the library, but after reading a few pages, my "non-fiction anxiety" took over and I put it down again, and it stayed firmly on the nightstand with the bookmark all but glued in place, while the time I had left for keeping it checked out (without late fees) grew shorter and shorter, and finally elapsed. I am a stubborn cuss (well, I am from Missouri, after all--you have heard about Missouri mules, and about the state slogan? ["I'm from Missouri, and you gotta show me!"]), so I was determined to actually read this book, because I knew it would be well worth my time to do so, if I could successfully fight the desire to put it down and pull out something with a storyline. So this morning, I decided to read the first two chapters and then stop and think about it, and after I had thought about it, read the next two chapters at some later juncture--perhaps tomorrow. This blog entry is an attempt to put into words my thoughts on it.

The book is Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, by Madeleine L'Engle, who wrote the book A Wrinkle in Time (and its sequels), which instantly became one of my favorite books of all time when I first read it at about the age of ten, and has remained a favorite in the many years since. The book's subtitle pretty much explains the theme, but to expand a bit, it is a collection of her thoughts/meditations on art/artists and Christianity, and on how they relate and interact and influence each other. Of course, her primary experience as an artist, and what she bases many of her examples on, is writing, but she also has a strong background in music, and theatre, and to some extent in visual art, so she pretty much covers all the bases.

Reading this book, I felt both inspired and humbled. Inspired by things like a quote she included from a writer named Jean Rhys, who said this in an interview: "Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake." And then both inspired and humbled by her comments on the same topic: "If the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about....When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist....When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens. But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer....The prayers of words cannot be eliminated. And I must pray them daily, whether I feel like praying or not. Otherwise, when God has something to say to me, I will not know how to listen. Until I have worked through self, I will not be enabled to get out of the way. Someone wrote, 'The principal part of faith is patience,' and this applies, too, to art of all disciplines. We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it." And here is a quote from a theologian, Timothy Kallistos Ware, that sums up beautifully: " abstract composition by Kandinsky or Van Gogh's landscape of the cornfield with a real instance of divine transfiguration, in which we see matter rendered spiritual and entering into the 'glorious liberty of the children of God.' This remains true, even when the artist does not personally believe in God. Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is 'something divine' about his work." And finally, from Tchekov: "You must once and for all give up being worried about successes and failures. Don't let that concern you. It's your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite quietly, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures."

Whew! It makes me want to run right to my studio and start creating! (Side note: I do hope I have not quoted an inappropriate amount of the book in this blog.) I, like probably nearly everyone who would like to think of themselves as artists of one flavor or another, have often wondered whether the ideas that came to me were worth the trouble of putting down on paper (or the equivalent), not because they were bad ideas, but because I wasn't sure whether my level of talent was adequate to the task. Things like this book counter that feeling of uncertainty and inferiority.

I have a quotation, beautifully lettered and illustrated by a fellow calligrapher, next to my working area in my studio, which reads, "The woods would be silent if no birds sang except those that sang best." I keep it there to remind me to do what I am called to do, no matter how inadequate I may feel I am. A member of my church with whom I have been on several committees, Carl, has a saying he likes to repeat when similar worries are expressed: "God doesn't call the equipped; he equips the called." I believe that if I am called to do something, to create something, to share something, I will be provided with whatever I need to do it. Sometimes I wonder if I am being called to do this or that or the other thing, but I never have those doubts when it comes to creating art. I know that if an idea of something to create appears in my head, I am supposed to do it, especially if it keeps reappearing.

Why, then, if I believe I have been called to create certain things (I have a long list of ideas for calligraphy projects that I have never even attempted), and if I believe I will be given whatever I need to bring these ideas to life, have I never even started the vast majority of them?? Very simply, fear. Fear of failure (which in this case seems to mean lack of recognition, given my other beliefs). Fear of success. Fear of having to discipline myself to work through the rough spots inevitable in the creation of anything [I hear that giving birth is no picnic :) ]. Fear of starting. (Not sure what that is all about, but I'm leaving it in there anyway.) Fear of not being satisfied, on a personal level, with the end result.

Something that may or may not seem related has popped into my mind here: I remember when Tom was doing a particular show (community theatre) a few years ago. It was his first true lead role, so he was pretty excited about doing the show. The cast was great, the script was great, the set was great--but the director was a complete witch. She did nothing but criticize for two solid months. (And no, it's not a female-director thing--the director he has worked with a number of times and, I think, liked the best out of all the ones he's worked with, is also female.) Tom probably had higher blood pressure during the two months of working on that show than he has ever had, before or since. It was a horrible, stressful experience for him (ironically enough, the show was a comedy). And yet...that may very well be the best show (from the audience's perspective) that he has ever been in, and he's been in over twenty of them now. The crux of this whole story is this: some people we had invited from my church came to see that show, and afterward one of them (who had been going through a divorce) came up to Tom and said, "I haven't laughed so hard in years...and I didn't realize how much I desperately needed to laugh right now." And Tom was profoundly moved by discovering the result of what he (and others) had done to serve the work, despite the difficulties of doing so. The moral of the story is that the artist--any variety of artist--is called to focus on serving the work, without being sidetracked with worries about other people's response to it. That seems like kind of a weak way to say it, but that is the essence. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, among other intensely thought-provoking and life-changing books, points out the utter futility of trying to control results. All you can control is your actions. You cannot control the actions of other people, and you cannot control the results of your own (or anyone else's) actions. Focus on your actions. Focus on your actions.

And serve the work rather than fussing about yourself.


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