Free to Fail

My younger son is a musician. He’s played trumpet for six years and picked up the tuba a year ago. As a high school sophomore, he registered for two music classes: Jazz and Symphonic Bands. Music is his happy place, the band room his safety zone.

His private instructor also works at the school; he asked to chat. Apparently, my kiddo did not do well on his jazz audition. But his instructor wanted me to know all the ways I could encourage him:

He did better on the harder of two pieces.
He persevered when he lost his place.
When he finished, the whole room broke out in applause rather than their normal toe tapping, understanding the struggle and the grit.
He did not have the worst audition in the group.
This was the hardest piece of music he will encounter all year,
and now auditions are over until next year.

No accident that I’ve been reading about creative risks and failure and how to go on when you feel discouraged.

Thing is, he knew the audition had been a mess, but he didn’t let it flatten him; he let it go. I reminded him that everyone will blow it from time to time, everyone fails, but that creates an opportunity for growth. And that artists may fail even more so because artists have to take risks, the nature of the creative game. I told him that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly so that you can get better. That everyone is a beginner, and even with experience, we face many, many, many beginnings (like, every new piece of music).

Yes, he agreed. Wise kid. How does he know all this when I’m still learning?

Madeleine L’Engle writes in A Circle of Quiet about receiving a rejection letter on her fortieth birthday. She put the cover on her typewriter in a dramatic gesture to mark the end of her writing career; she walked circles around her writing room, sobbing, until she realized that already in her head she was writing a story about failure. She uncovered her typewriter and got back to work.

Failure requires a response of swift, gracious action. Instead of asking the pityingly poor question, “Why me?” we ask, “What next?” For my son, next meant more music, Symphonic Band, followed by geometry. He kept his head up and kept moving. For Madeleine, it was making the decision to keep pecking away at her typewriter. We do the next right thing, however small and seemingly insignificant.

The creative road can be scary, but we keep walking, step by step. We speak kindly to ourselves, not berating ourselves for failure but commending ourselves for the courage to risk. We may feel sore, like sore muscles after a hard workout, but we persist, assuring ourselves that as we keep at it those creative muscles will also grow stronger.

The next morning as I dropped my son off at the band room, I asked how he was feeling; I knew that morning’s class involved sight reading, not his strength. He said he felt fine, and he was. Having gotten through one difficult scene in the band room, he knew he could do it again. And this time, it was even easier. Next time will be easier still. He’s getting stronger.

 

Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

Sprinkle Kindness Everywhere

Someone left a rock dead center on the sign-in counter at the gym. Painted white with black letters reading “Sprinkle Kindness Everywhere” amidst colorful polka dots, it’s so out of place it caught my attention.

It reminded me of painted rocks I saw while on vacation in Pacific Grove. Someone(s) had painted stones to resemble little ladybugs and dotted them along the walking trail above the seaside cliffs. Some people must have taken stones but, like me, others chose to leave them to delight other passersby. Another house had a rock garden out front with whimsical painted stones strewn here and there which made me smile each time I passed.

I read: “The Venetians conceived the idea: beauty reinforces the good of society” (from Women in Sunlight, Frances Mayes).

We need beauty. We need whimsy. We need kindness.

The creation of beauty enhances the lives of creator and viewer. Random acts of kindness feel good to give and receive. Beauty and kindness, delightfully unexpected and absolutely necessary, make us better people. Make us a healthier society.

Back at the gym, I caught a headline on the morning news: “Hate in America.” It turns my stomach, so much hate.

Let’s focus on sprinkling kindness instead.

Creativity as Spiritual Practice

I read in The Artist’s Way:

Are you contemplative? Yes.
Do you allow yourself to go on retreat? Oh, well…

Shortly thereafter, I saw a magazine ad for a nearby retreat center. An ad for the same center popped up on social media a few days after that; I clicked, and Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, would be speaking there soon. It was expensive.

A week later, I randomly received a yoga catalog in the mail. I flipped through, and saw that Cameron would be leading a retreat at a yoga center on the East Coast. Even more expensive.

Interesting: I’d considered retreat-ing, and opportunities popped into view.

About a week later, another ad appeared on social media: a FREE online retreat with Cameron and one of my favorite artists, SARK, plus five others. The topic: Creativity as Spiritual Practice. In my wheelhouse, do at my own speed, and free? Sign me up!

I’ve listened to two of the seven speakers so far and gained wisdom from both. As I took notes on the second speaker, though, a rather obvious thought grabbed me:

Creativity is a spiritual practice.

The speaker talked about being told as a child that she couldn’t draw, so she should find something else to do in life. She cut herself off from creativity and became a successful doctor instead. But she wasn’t whole until she recovered her creative self.

I want to write, “Who tells a child they can’t draw, so find another career?” Except, how many of us heard the same message? Art’s just not your thing, honey. You’ll find your thing, don’t worry.

Hogwash.

First of all, Art and Creativity aren’t necessarily the same thing. Too often we get all high and mighty about Art. Art hangs in museums, so the average human can’t make Art. Maybe not, but we can all create. And it doesn’t have to be your career, although it might be. It can be a hobby that fulfills you in ways you never imagined and influences who you are in all spheres.

Secondly, creativity is spiritual. At the least, it connects us to our own spirits. Creative activity is pure self-expression. As a Christian, I believe that humans have been created in the image of the Great Creator. We join God in co-creating our lives, and we image God most fully as we engage with Him in body, mind and spirit. I regularly practice my faith, praying/meditating, worship, etc. Why not fold creativity into that mix? I connect with God in new ways as I create.

Whatever you believe, creative work is less work than flow, getting things down rather than thinking them up. Receiving, not straining, and expressing. Poet Jon Fosse said, “To compose poetry,” he might have said, to create, “is about listening…it is, so to speak, about bringing forth something that already exists…”

Thirdly, creativity is about practice, not necessarily mastery. It’s not something you do just like anyone else. You do you. Not everyone can be Picasso, Matisse, O’Keefe, but everyone can express themselves. It doesn’t have to look like anything specific, and it doesn’t have to look like anything else anyone has made.

When I practice yoga, it’s my practice. I don’t have to do it perfectly, because the best I can do is breathe and stretch my own body, imperfect and healing and differently balanced each day. I don’t compare, because someone else’s breath and stretch makes for their practice. I don’t practice towards an end, but for the sake of my presence in the process.

When our kids were young, we expected them to participate in a sport most seasons: soccer, basketball, baseball, swim. Hiking and biking with family and friends on weekends. We didn’t expect them to be champions, but to enjoy movement, play a game, be active, learn good sportsmanship. Eventually, they’d tried enough sports to know what they liked and didn’t. They understand that physical exercise is a practice, a discipline for overall health.

Why don’t we treat creativity similarly? So what if you can’t draw, try painting. If not painting, ceramics. Try music or writing or collage, mosaic or poetry, jewelry making or sewing or cooking or…

Why oh why do so many young children hear the message that they’re just not creative, especially at, arguably, the most creative stage of their lives? No wonder so many adults don’t believe they are creative. We lose part of our humanness when we cut off our creativity.

Like playing sports, we can play at creativity. And like anything you practice, it gets easier over time.

Creativity is a spiritual practice. I’m all in. How about you?

Reading: March-April 2018

It always sounds cliche, but I simply cannot fathom how we are almost to May. One-third of this year has slid out from under my feet. The good news: summer is coming up fast, with slower days and more time for reading. Not that I’m wishing the days away, hardly, just wishing for more leisure time to read! (Note: I did not intentionally choose to read back-to-back two books with PB&J cover art. That’s just the comedy my life dishes up!)

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.” (227)

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. At least she thinks she is. Until she realizes she is not, not at all. And then she is.

Through all of it, Eleanor is a complete character (in every sense of the word). She is unlike anyone you’ve ever met. She talks (mostly to herself) so much like a cantankerous old woman that you have to remind yourself that she is just thirty. She is one thousand percent practical. She has no social skills whatsoever. She is searingly honest to the point of being rude, though she has no idea. Which makes her endearingly funny to boot.

Above all, Eleanor is a survivor and a testament to the human drive to survive.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer–a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.” (227)

“I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.” (182)

Sputnik's Guide to Life on EarthSputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Home isn’t a building. People leave buildings. Buildings fall down….Home isn’t a place on a map. Home isn’t the place you come from. It’s the place you’re heading to. All the times you’ve ever felt at home–they’re just marks on the map, helping you to find your way there.” (308)

What an original book! I actually don’t want to say too much, because it should be read and enjoyed for all its originality, humor, and poignancy. Prez and Sputnik–and the Blythes, especially Jessie–plus Granddad have an adventure that doesn’t lead them home so much as to a new understanding of it.

The Serpent KingThe Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gutted! It’s been a long time since I have openly sobbed while reading a book and not just at its conclusion. To be honest, a few chapters in I wanted to hate this book–I hate when people use God or the Bible or faith to hurt others, especially kids. But, too bad, I already liked the kids (almost like they needed me to stick it out for their sake, to be there to stick up for them). Zentner handled sensitive matters gently. He calls this book, his first novel, a love letter to young people who struggle, and the reader feels his love for the young people he portrays.

“…if you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things” (327).

Take This Bread: A Radical ConversionTake This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book based on a recommendation by another author I respect. I started, and stopped, and started again several times before committing to read it all the way through. Sara and I aren’t on the same theological page, and yet (or because of that) I learned so much from her. Her memoir challenged my faith and strengthened my determination to listen to people with whom I may not agree, or with whom I would anticipate more disagreement.

And, at my core, it caused me to remember: God can use any and all things to bring people to Himself.

A few quotes:

“Christianity wasn’t an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn’t a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow.” (274)

“To say that communion means we are ‘eating Jesus’ reminds me of how risky—and how thoroughly physical—the encounter with God is.” (287)

“First, do something. Feed, heal, help. Don’t just argue about ideology. Second, pray for your enemies. Don’t pray that they become different, or start doing what you want them to do. Just pray for them.
“You don’t get to practice Christianity by hanging out with people who are like you and believe what you believe. You have to rub up against strangers and people who frighten you and people you think are misguided, dangerous, or just plain wrong.” (289)

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday LifeLiturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Warren takes the ordinary–waking up in the morning, brushing teeth, searching for lost keys, fighting with my spouse–and reminds us of how very sacred those ordinary events truly are. Now, when I wake up in the morning, sometimes I remember that God looks at me as lovingly as I looked at my tousle-haired, warm-sleep-smelling babies. Now, as I make my bed, I remember that God cares about the small, simple moments of each day. Overall, I appreciated the simple and profound nature of this book and anticipate returning to it time and again.

Everything is Perfect When You're a LiarEverything is Perfect When You’re a Liar by Kelly Oxford
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF.

I cannot remember where I heard about this book. It’s rare for me to get halfway through before ditching a book. I kept trying to give her one more chapter, one more chance. But I just can’t!

The intro is poorly written, but includes cute kid-quotes from her own babies who don’t want to be in the book. So I kinda thought it would be a fluffy/snarky mommy book.

Halfway through and she’s only seventeen years old. And she’s not nice. Adventurous? Yes. Crazy? Probably. Funny? Well, she tries…

She’s also mean–obviously smart, and she can (at least mostly) write–and I just don’t like her. At All. And I like most people.

Maybe I just don’t get her sense of humor. But God bless her kiddos having to grow up with this sense of snark!

Proof of God’s Existence

I stand in awe of people with the kind of artistic ability you’ll see in today’s guest post. In fact, creative talent of this caliber, in any form–painting, drawing, making music, dancing, writing–seems to me proof enough of a Creator in whose image people were created to create.

re:create recess #21: Jae Moon Lee

Coincidently, during one of my walks, I found a stone that caught my eye likely because its formation looked so similar to one I remember from the place where l spent most of my time in childhood.

Probably not only me but many people must have had a similar experience, that somehow you have seen something before or you have been somewhere before though you might not have, actually.

In China the very first word people learn is “chun.” It means “the whole universe,” no matter where you are, since we all live under the same sky.

The second word is “ji,” meaning, “mother of earth,” like the stone and the dust. No one invented these words specifically. They just spread out among the people for many, many years.

The sky and earth.

The Bible, on the very first page of the Old Testament, also clearly proclaims that God Himself created the universe and the mother earth. I think this similarity between the eastern and western hemisphere is not a coincidence. Am I silly enough to think about it this way? But I like to believe that we are all connected in inexplicable ways.

An atheist skateboarder, mistakenly missing his momentum while showing his flipping technique for nothing, went straight into the bushes like a falling kite. Of course we can easily hear that first word coming out of his mouth: “Oh My God! It hurts!”

And then we say, “Thank God he was wearing a helmet!”

Why is it we mention God so often without giving it a second thought?

In my mind this is proof that someone already controls us from a long, long time ago in secret—or maybe in plain sight. We are all unconsciously programmed in our minds by someone very powerful. We cannot live even one day away from Him or escape Him as long as we are living on Earth.

No matter what we do, our future is already planned, decided by one God who is the pure artist himself.

Lately I paint stones, or rocks, even pebbles that might know the secret of the ancient times. I observe first the color and the lighting carefully, then I will put again and again on the same piece of rock a lot of details here and there, over its own universe and time.

Thanks, God. You are giving me strength and the Spirit to finish more paintings for an exhibition.

Jae Lee is a native of Seoul and has made the Bay Area his home for the last 30+ years. Having earned a BFA in Painting and Printmaking, Jae has made a living in the Film, TV, and Theater industry as a Scenic Painter.

The Sad Song

I had a rare treat last weekend: a Barnes & Noble sat across the street from the hotel where we stayed. Since most bookstores in our area have closed, I relished the opportunity to spend an hour meandering, collecting a stack of books that attracted my attention for various reasons, and sitting in a corner with them, slowly turning pages.

One book addressed our fear response to life’s hard times. The author wrote, “We habitually spin off and freak out when there’s even the merest hint of fear. We feel it coming and we check out…The most heartbreaking thing of all is how we cheat ourselves of the present moment” (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart).

Yes, and yes. Life is hard. We feel badly. We check out and cheat ourselves.

Or we could not. Listen to my friend Mike advocate for a different approach…

re:create recess #19: Mike Loretto

I might be a little bit odd.

I had this thought recently when I was feeling the need for a break–for recreation–and my first impulse was to reach for…

…the saddest music I could put on.

I love sad songs. I love them. And I love them because–hang with me now–they make me feel sad. I actually love feeling sad. I know. It’s weird.

When I’m in the thick of the busyness of life and feel that internal prick of “I need to recreate, to play,” I have learned that some of the things that felt like recreation when I was younger don’t call to me as much. In those needful moments, I still might reach for the remote control, a tennis racket, a video game, a drink, a book, or any number of other things. Some of the time those things are the right decision; some times they’re really not. Most of them have no inherent goodness or badness. They all have the potential to be informative or celebratory or good exercise or just plain fun. They all also have the potential to be avenues for escape.

And I’m prone to escapism. Some combination of my personality, my experiences, and the myriad ways that modern culture offers us to escape our reality have, for me, led to 37 years worth of finding creative ways to escape. To not be present to what’s really going on in my life. To not be attentive. To not, in all honesty, be fully alive in many moments.

Sadness and grief can be paralyzing. Depression is no joke. I say all of this from experience. Intentionally diving into the waters of sadness isn’t always the right move, either–sometimes escape is a survival technique. Everything in its season, and everything in moderation. But I find that my default setting is one in which I’m not really letting myself grieve the big or small rips in the fabric of life that I encounter. The ways I’m broken. The ways the world is broken. The pain of people I love. The pain of people I’ll never meet. And I need regular doses of art, conversation, experiences that will prod me to do that grieving.

That’s where, for me, sad songs come in. A well-written, well-performed sad song has the capability to take me right to the core (or at least to dig into the mantle) of feelings I’ve been avoiding. When I turn on Patty Griffin’s “Rain,” or the soundtrack of the musical “The Last Five Years,” I access the pain and grief of relationships not going like we thought they would, hoped they would, needed them to. When I listen to Jason Isbell’s “Elephant,” I’m seared by the sadness of death and dying and of loving someone deeply. I remember in college listening to David Crowder’s “All I Can Say” on repeat, and feeling the desperation of spiritual longing, of the “dark night of the soul.”

Sometimes the sad song might end on a hopeful note. Many of the best don’t. The hope is found in the alchemy of turning grief into beauty, and in the “Oh, you too?” recognition that breaks us out of our isolation. There is something incredibly moving to me about a piece of art that tells the truth about the hard parts of life and somehow begins to redeem it in the beauty of the telling. The craft of the lyrics, the choices of instrumentation and rhythms and chord progressions, the sigh of a steel guitar line or the weeping of a mandolin, the voice soaked in the waters of experience–the right combination of these things cracks me open and brings me to my knees.

My faith and my experience tell me that the world is (and that I am) flawed and broken, and also that even good things must eventually burn down to let something better rise from the ashes. Being intentional about accessing sadness is, for me, a way of sifting through those ashes and finding the building blocks of new creation. As an (often frustrated) songwriter, I find that listening to a song that gets me in touch with my sadness is one of the best avenues for finding the head- and heart-space in which I do my best creative work. It’s a way of touching the live rail that energizes creativity. It hurts, but the hurt motivates and animates.

So here’s to the sad song. Turn it up and cry it out, my friends.

Mike Loretto (@mikeloretto on Twitter/IG) is a songwriter, worship leader, husband to Sarah, and feeder of dogs Bristow and Jed Bartlet. He and Sarah write and perform music under the name Truesdell and are hoping to release an album this year. (Find Truesdell on Facebook or @truesdellmusic on Twitter). Mike is passionate about the intersection of art & spirituality, contemplative prayer, good food & drink, Kansas Jayhawks basketball, and Kansas City Royals baseball. He almost never blogs at mikeloretto.tumblr.com. Email: mikeloretto at gmail dot com

Phoenix

It can be hard to find beauty as you walk in the wasteland… And some days, seasons, in our lives feel just like that: devoid of beauty, wasted, bleak. But there is hope, friends, always hope. My friend Kristi reminds us to look to the phoenix. Grieve the losses, yes, but look for the new arising from the old.

re:create recess #18: Kristi Grover

Phoenix: a beautiful mythological bird resembling an eagle. It burns to death at the end of its life cycle…and from the ashes another phoenix arises.

As a young child I was absolutely fascinated by the phoenix myth I encountered through story. As an adult I continue to be intrigued by the imagery. I can look back over my life and clearly see many parallels when I consider various eras, relationships, and energies as they emerged, blossomed, and later flamed out—some slowly and quietly and others in a sudden whoosh of flame, leaving behind only ashes.

Yet, each time, those ashes held the promise of re-creation. Ashes are, after all, soil for new growth. They may appear to be a dull, gritty waste but they are in fact rich with nutrients and conducive to vibrant new life. Re-creation.

In the story I read as a child the protagonist is a young boy who has experienced a series of losses. He is lonely, suddenly living in an unfamiliar place, and not clear about what to do next. He strikes out on a solitary, aimless ramble in the woods and comes across a tiny phoenix emerging from what looks like a campfire. They become friends and share wondrous adventures until one day when the phoenix disappears.

The boy’s search for his trusted companion leads him eventually to the same place they first met. He witnesses the flames engulfing his dear friend, and grieves as he accepts that their time together has ended. Eventually he gathers himself to leave until a small sound causes him to look back and he sees a tiny new phoenix emerging from the ashes. Suddenly there is hope and the promise of new adventures.

In my life I have seen this pattern repeat in various ways. A good friend moves away or some other change causes the end of a once close relationship. A dearly loved family member dies. A move severs connection on many levels. A health challenge suddenly arises which effectively closes off meaningful work.

Even good, happily anticipated changes hold some significant loss. I was overjoyed as I anticipated being married to my beloved one, yet also privately needed to grieve significant losses as my life changed quite dramatically. As my children grew into maturity and moved off into lives with their own families, friends, and work, I could rejoice in the new beauty I saw as they grew into the promise of early years, yet there was also bittersweet acknowledgement that a precious window of time closed—family life on this particular level. What helped me in these times, and others like them, was knowing that a new era of life would open up eventually with its own extraordinary beauty.

Each time I needed to accept the change, grieve what was lost, and honor memories. And then I needed to wait patiently until it was time for a new beginning. As a woman of faith, I needed to trust that God was working things out in ways beyond my understanding and that He would bring into my life new relationships, work, or insights which would open the way to new adventures in my life journey with Him.

It is hard to wait, harder still to wait in hope with an open, trusting heart. I have often thought at such times of the answer I would give to young children in my care when, school day over, they waited while all the other children were picked up by a parent or led off to another activity. “When is my mom coming?” they would ask, sometimes with tears. And my answer would always be, “She’ll be here at just the right time.” For young children, waiting is very hard, even agonizing.

Even a two-minute delay feels like forever when everyone else has someone to be with or something wonderful to do. But Mom or Dad or Nanny or Grandparent always did show up eventually and they’d embark on new adventures together, grief eclipsed by the promise of excitement ahead.

In my “wisdom years” now, I’ve lived with chronic pain, cancer, tough challenges to my marriage, deep concerns for my children’s safety as they headed off time and again into dangerous places to do the work they believed God had called them to do, the end of relationships with various family members and friends due to death, moves, changes in work, and many other challenges.

Each loss has needed a time of grieving: remembering the good and trying to learn from the difficult. And always, always, at just the right time—not necessarily the time I would choose but the right time—new opportunities, new challenges, new relationships have emerged. I am given the opportunity to be “re-created” once more. The ashes of loss are real but the promise of new adventures ahead is also real.

I will choose to both honor the beauty of what is gone and welcome the beauty of what lies ahead.

some things that are true about me

My work in life is as a teacher and storyteller.  I take joy in many things – time spent with children and my family and friends, working in various ways for justice, hiking along high mountain ridge lines and walking in the woods and sitting quietly to stare at the ocean, hearing people share their life stories and affirming them, writing and reading, rainy afternoons by the fire with my small grey cat, listening to music and singing and dancing, intelligent conversation and laughter, making a home.  These and other things are true about me but the truest thing is that I am a child of God.