Sunday, November 3, 2013

That Benevolent Stranger, Working on Our Behalf

That invisible, creative force that shakes our inner worlds and makes literary giants and geniuses out of regular human people like you and me is called by many names and nicknames. Among them are “muse” (by ancients) or "the subconscious” (by modernists), or, as writer Charles Haanel called it at the turn of the century, “a benevolent stranger, working on our behalf." 
“We don’t know what, when or how to call it – or even if we should try to call it at all. It’s a vital part of us, that subconscious force that powers our inventiveness, but we’re not sure how it works or where it comes from. We marvel at it, rejoice in it, are a little afraid of it when we sense its power at work in us. It feels like the stirring of the spirit or the whispering of the muse.” (Marshall J. Cook, Freeing Your Creativity: A Writer’s Guide, p. 1).
Although Marshall J. Cook defines this power over us beautifully in the above book, I cannot agree that we don't know what to call it or where it comes from. Quite frankly, my faith provides the answer to that question and makes me wonder, what if every artist, writer, painter, dancer, actor, comedian, film producer and everyone in the arts community understood, as solid as fact, that the elusive "muse" that breathes life into their creative work is none other than the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity? What if every artist realized they had an Advocate to plead on their behalf, to intercede and support and defend them in their inspiration, and that this Advocate was the Holy Spirit, was God himself? Would the world be different? 

You bet it would! It would change everything! 

Because recognizing that “All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:7), means that every inspiration, every creative enterprise, every invention that we have is divinely willed – in other words, it is intentional, which also means it is full of meaning and purpose. It is not a matter of mere coincidence or random atoms bumping in space that one person is more prone to receive than another. It is rather a gift from the Divine Artist himself, inviting us to share in the work of creation. It is God’s personal invitation to that certain, hand-picked individual to bring His image and beauty into the world.

Sure, sometimes those inventions or works of art get twisted in the production (we are human sinners after all!), but God intended all things to be good, and He works all things towards the good for those who love him.

In every book I read about the craft or process of writing, I find nuggets of astounding truth about the spiritual life. In the arts, there is this huge undercurrent of the spiritual, which shines brightly for all who have eyes to see it. Reading the first chapter of Cook's book reminded me of the mysterious relationship between the writer and the Holy Spirit - that power that overshadows our work, who drives our ideas, and who compels us to write or remain forever restless.
But that's not the only undercurrent of spiritual depth I found in the first chapter of this book.

In describing creativity, Cook proposes a few tentative truths about what creativity is. One of them is that “Creativity is the Great Yes.” (You know what I'm thinking!) Imagine if, two thousand years ago, a humble handmaiden had not given her fiat, her yes, when an angel announced God's intention for her to mother the savior of the world? What would have been lost if she had refused to cooperate or accept this gift from the Holy Spirit? 

The whole course of history would be drastically different if Christianity did not exist. In a similar vein, imagine the infinite possibilities of life that could be born into the world if we said yes more? According to Cook, we play devil’s advocate too often and say “no/I can’t/I shouldn’t” when we should be saying “Yes! Why not? What good might come from this?” He proposes that creativity means playing the "angel’s advocate.” Say yes and withhold judgment. You can always say no later. But when we say no to one idea, we close off the doors to other ideas that come from it, and we put a limit on the possibilities of invention. Even if some of those ideas are quite silly or even foolish, Cook says not to worry: “The most creative people I’ve ever met are often fools in the eyes of the world.” 
“Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many where of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 25, 26-31).
So inspiration comes from God; we are meant to be open to it; and sometimes he uses silly methods to do great things. What follows is Cook's next tentative truth: “Creativity Means Getting Out of the Way”! Getting out of the way to me means to remove our own ego from the work and to just let the Holy Spirit move in us. 

Imagine being given a little snowball in your hands. You immediately put it on the ground and start packing more snow on it until it is so big you can hug it; but you decide instead to push it down the hill so it can get even bigger. The best thing to do now is to let it roll and get out of its way. 

Author and artist Frederick Franck writes, “The good drawings I do are hardly mine. Only the bad ones are mine for they are the ones where I can’t let go and am caught in the ME-cramp." 

Cook concludes with one more tentative truth (and nugget of spiritual wisdom): “Creativity Means Being All of What You Are.” “What do you have to offer to your reader if not your unique vision, expressed in your unique way?" he says. "You have yourself to offer, nothing more, nothing less. Offer it all.”

In this offering and sacrifice, writing can be a vocation. Through self-donation, the writer pours out her gifts before God and others and becomes more fully who she is meant to be.

So whether they acknowledge it or not, all artists are instruments of the Holy Spirit, the Great Muse, and one day we shall all arrive at the threshold of heaven, atheists and believers alike, and see for the first time how every good thing we were inspired to do came directly from the Holy Spirit. And I think we can all be astounded at just how much faith and trust God puts in you, oh little artist, to be His instrument in the world. Come, Holy Spirit.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Quiet Writer by Day...Daring Dancer by Night

Without intending for it to be, she felt like it was her little secret, this separate world she belonged to and the range of emotions and experiences that came with it. Sure, she told her friends, coworkers and even strangers that she was a ballroom dancer, but on nights like this one, she felt that no matter how much she tried to explain in words, no one could begin to comprehend the world she inhabited here, nor how much it all meant to her.~

My last blog post was all about seeking out the real and tangible and engaging with the people around us. What better way to do this than through ballroom dancing? 

Being a ballroom dancer on the social scene for 13 years, I am passionate about the far-reaching benefits of dance. First off, it’s great exercise for your mind and your body, toning your core muscles and strengthening your arms, legs and feet. They even say ballroom dancing prevents Alzheimer’s disease because you are actively engaging both sides of your brain. Also, it teaches communication through body language and the complementarity of leading and following. I strongly believe ballroom dance is capable of enriching your relationships, and the ballroom community is a welcoming place where respect, understanding and etiquette are fostered. 

This December, I am graduating from Valley Social Ballroom Dance Teacher’s College after completing a year of study in the DVIDA Bronze Level American Smooth and Rhythm dances. My goal is to spread the joy of ballroom dancing to all ages and use it to enrich people's relationships. I hope to start teaching in the area, pursuing venues to teach  lessons, while especially welcoming young adults into this fun and dynamic community.  

Meanwhile, my home is becoming my personal practice studio, complete with a large mirror on one wall and a large, hardwood floor in my living room. Gracing the wall is a poster commemorating the Savoy Ballroom, "Home of Happy Feet," where many ballroom dances evolved. 

If you are looking for an opportunity to enrich your relationships, have fun and learn a new skill, ballroom dancing might be the answer! I encourage you to get out and try it.

“It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance.” - Anonymous   

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Chronicles of Following the Heart

So many meaningful moments have happened over the past few months, that I wanted to capture them and the journey thus far before walking on...I invite you to walk with me.

This summer, I let go of a higher-paying writing job to take a job at a bookstore and experience working retail for the first time. You could laugh at me for this, but in the spring, I had reached a point where I could barely drag myself through another day of writing projects, because I felt so far away from the subjects I was writing about. I wanted work that was face-to-face and tangible. Arriving at that decision to let go of the stability in my life for something risky and new was unsettling, even while my heart yearned for something new.

One night, as I lay asking God for an answer, it dawned on me that my friend worked at my favorite bookstore in the city, and if they were hiring, perhaps she could get me in the door. The next morning, feeling a bit more hopeful, I sent her a text message and was surprised when she texted back that yes, they were hiring. In fact, they were conducting interviews this week! I hurriedly applied that day, feeling this had to be a direct answer to prayer. I got an interview that same week and was offered the job.

The hands-on work, shelving books, CDs and DVDs, and providing customer service at the register was a welcome change from the mind-grueling Internet research and email interaction of my writing jobs. I loved the new experience, being on my feet, assisting customers by helping them find what they were looking for - and the employee discount wasn’t bad either!

People came into Half Price Books for different reasons. Some came to find a specific book. Others were music maniacs and had a daily ritual of searching the LPs for a rare or popular music title. Some came just to browse but left with their hands full and feeling fortunate they had found bargains galore. And I’m convinced some came for the socialization, for the stimulation of getting outside their house, as much as for finding a few more items to add to their book or music collections.

I would frequently chat with one sweet lady, who told me that she stopped here almost every day to get out of the house and around other people. I told her that’s why I was here, too. When she found out I was a writer, she encouraged me to dream big. One day, she commented on the phenomena that many of the authors she read lived in South Carolina. “They all like to live near the coast or the mountains," she said. "I guess they need that beauty for inspiration.”

I was able to find lots of inspiration in the books and music around me; I also learned a lot about culture – being amazed sometimes at the extremes of good and bad growing up next to each other on the shelves -- truth almost smothered out by the myths and falsities around it, yet resiliently emerging, brilliantly and beautifully, in unexpected places, like a desert flower shooting up through cracked rock.

As the summer came to a close, my life changed once again. I accepted a job at the headquarters of the magazine publishing company I had been freelancing for, and the promotion required relocation. I said good-bye to my bookstore co-workers after stocking up on a few books for my home library, and set off to a new city and a new home.

I couldn’t have done it without my cat Ginger. We got through the turmoil of moving to a new house in a different city together and making it feel like “home.” During the process, Ginger complained about the new smells, and I had to get used to doing without some of the luxuries I had enjoyed previously. Such “inconveniences” as not having home Internet access that first month or my own washer and dryer required that I step out of my cubby hole to seek out the nearest Internet hotspots and laundromats in the village.

One day at Starbucks, the skies suddenly darkened and a storm cloud came rolling in. I turned to the lady next to me to ask about the weather, and soon we found ourselves in a discussion of the Catholic Church and the Pentecostals. We were talking about the Charismatic movement and baptism; she was telling me to dig deeper in the Scriptures and I was telling her to read The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn. As the storm hit with a downpour and thunder around us, we finished up our conversation and exchanged names before we rushed our separate ways. I wondered about her afterwards, praying she’d find all that she was searching for, and wondering if this was just a chance encounter or maybe more.

A few days later at the Laundromat, as I was figuring out how to get the machine to work, two middle-aged men volunteered to share their expertise with me, telling me all about which washers to use and which ones to avoid. “Those didn’t get the sweat stains out of my t-shirts!” one man said, lifting up his large, work t-shirts to show me the stain marks. Both men agreed there was a better laundromat just down the road past the Piggley Wiggley supermarket, which I made a mental note to check out the next time. Even though I was a little cautious about their friendliness, I felt really grateful for their help. And the event humorously reminded me that too often we find ourselves each to our own little cubicle, little hotspot, little device, little comfort zone, fearful of strangers. Has our social media age handicapped us to engage with others in the real world?

I wonder. I have no problem reaching out to someone online but in person, there is risk; there is reality. Nonetheless, it seems to be what we really want deep down.

“I don’t think your purpose for being here is [this job],” ventured a close friend of mine during my first month here, always able – in her discerning way – to shine a light over the intersection of my life and God’s plan. “It may be the reason you came here, but I think God has a bigger purpose for you here, and this is just what brought you," she said. "I have this feeling, because you were in a hurting place before...and really followed your heart to get here.” 

Where is your heart maybe prompting you to go, to take a risk and pursue your purpose?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday Morning Raptures

On every other day of the week, the morning steals in softly like a whisper. The sky erupts in pastel colors, silently, to surprise the unsuspecting onlooker, and the wind whispers the freshness of a new day. But on Sunday, it is as if the very stones cannot contain themselves with the joy of it for one more day without breaking into song.

Here in the village where I live, Sunday mornings commence with a symphony of church chimes and musical strands from every direction. The melody of "The Church's One Foundation" pours through my open kitchen window on the upper level of the duplex, followed by the ting-tonging bells of St. Paul's United Church of Christ and hymns from Good Shepherd Catholic and St. Mary's neighborhood parishes joining in heralding the Lord's Day.

Today, I let my feet follow the bells to St. Mary’s, walking about four blocks from where I live to the brick church that was built in 1902. I take my time walking through the neighborhood to get there, enjoying the old, unique homes along the way, many of which were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with large porches and beautiful gardens. I walk under a canopy of trees in full autumnal splendor. Anne of Green Gables would have been right at home here, naming everything, or walking in a trance under the trees like me, enchanted, day dreaming. 

One of the reasons I love old houses is the mystery of the stories contained in them. Who all lived there? What was it like back then when things were simpler, when people had to depend on their neighbors? What elements of history, if any, still leave their mark?

I have to cross a bridge that goes over a river that runs through the village. The water down below gurgles over the rocks and glimmers like broken glass in the sun. Inside the walls of the church, it is warm and cozy. Soft light glows through the stained glass windows, while the corners of the church are still in shadow.

The old priest, who has to sit down often, has a surprisingly rigorous voice and the fervor of a newly ordained priest saying his first Mass. 

“There is an ugly, ugly word that the world doesn’t want you to say because the world doesn’t want to admit it exists," he bellows after the opening prayer. "That word is SIN. They want you to think we all just go straight to heaven when we die. The world would think you are crazy for coming to celebrate the Eucharist and beginning by confessing your sins. But we are REALISTS. We know that we sin and we ask for God’s mercy...”

During his sermon, he sits up front, speaking to us from his chair, like a grandpa sharing wisdom with his family members gathered around. He says, “I don’t know when all this bull started – thinking we don’t NEED God.” He said, “People are full of themselves.” A little girl going up to him one day and saying, “I’m a princess!” and he responded, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.”

This old realist priest reminded me of what writers are all about. If we write for any purpose at all, it is to illumine truth. To strip off pretenses, labels and stereotypes, and find the living, beating, bloody heart beneath it all.

"'I want to write one true sentence,' he said. 'If I can write one sentence, simple and true, every day, I’ll be satisfied.'” (Hemingway in The Paris Wife, p. 81)

This week, I finished reading a book that wrestles with this realism, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. The novel is about Hadley Richardson and her marriage to Ernest Hemingway during his first years striving to become a literary figure. It took me two days and a couple of nights to fly through the book, my heart cresting and breaking over the waves until the final page, when I cried my eyes out. 

We want to pretend like sin doesn’t exist, like it isn’t hurting our souls or our hearts or the people we love. Yet at some point, that sin, which seems so glamorous and luring to begin with, becomes the sword. It hacks away at our relationships and turns everything sour, and in its reflection we see the heartbreaking truth about ourselves… 

 "He was quiet for a moment and I could hear static coming through the line, a low cackle that seemed to stand for every sharp thing that had come between us. 'No,' he finally said, his voice very soft and sober. 'That’s not it at all. I ruined it.'" (The Paris Wife, p. 312)

We totter on the brink of grace and despair, only these two choices, because in the end, there is only life or death to choose from. Hemingway would have said the same thing, while enthusiastically watching the bullfighting in Pamplona, “This is what it’s all about. Life or death.”

Too serious a subject for a bright and beautiful Sunday? Yet living through the changing seasons in the Midwest, nothing could be more on my mind. I'm basking in each one of these warm days of fall and feasting my eyes on the green grass and colored leaves, before all of this richness dries up, and Wisconsin has to endure another long winter. Today might be all we've got.