On Tending Art, Heart, & Hearth:
Reflections from Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
After Emily and I got an estimate to have a professional paint our stairwell ($10,000?!), we asked our neighbor Kurt who makes his living hanging wallpaper for his advice. Could we paint it ourselves? You bet. Kurt set us up with scaffolding. He even jumped on it, thereby proving it was trustworthy. He also examined the ceiling with its strangely peeling paint, the rim of painted-over wallpaper along the top edge, and the long horizontal crack running the length of our hallway wall. For ten grand the pros would have fixed these. Kurt waved them off. He ran his hand along the jagged split in the plaster. “Nope,” he said. “That’s your crack. It’s for keeps.” read more…
I’m haunted by a memory: Emily is enduring her second bout with cancer, this time preparing for extensive surgery involving her neck, chest, and leg. Like any cancer surgery, it might or might not be successful. The surgeons have warned her that, regardless of the outcome, she’ll likely lose the use of her right arm.
What haunts me isn’t the enormous stress of that time (Gwyn was six months old, still nursing; I drove my baldies back and forth to the Mayo Clinic all summer) but rather the tangle in my heart. With every cell of my being, I wanted Emily to be well. I prayed for this—make her well make her well make her well—all the while guarding myself against a bad outcome. The doctors were decidedly cautious, even pessimistic. I prayed for a miracle. I prayed that all five surgeons would be on their game. I bargained with God (“Okay, we can deal losing use of her arm so long as she can be cancer-free”). I tried praying “Thy will, not mine, be done,” but couldn’t.
And here is the crux, the bit that won’t let me go. I didn’t trust God. read more…
In my dream, I’m late for a radio interview. I’ve prepared but when I arrive at the studio I no longer have my book and notes, and instead am carrying a cast iron pan with a slice of bacon. This makes me panic. At the back of the waiting room, a lanky teenager guards the entrance to a hall which leads to the broadcasting room—soundproofed, protected—at the rear of the building.
What’s up with the bacon? Beats me, but the radio studio feels surprisingly accurate. All of us have this safe, padded space within. It’s a bit of a hassle to get there, especially since we never feel prepared or worthy. We have to get past the ego to enter. Beyond is the inner sanctum, the core, our essence, and it’s from this place our voices get broadcasted most effectively. read more…
Call me a spiritually obsessed literary geek, but the little spiritual wisdom I can claim I’ve gleaned from grammar. For example, take the memoirist’s point of view, first person singular. This is the “I” voice, the one every journal-keeper cherishes, as in “I do love grammar!” After memoirists’ initial honeymoon with the first person singular, during which the “I” is a magnificent, unfolding mystery, they go through a predictable period of discomfort. Alice McDermott described it this way: “The sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down the page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way as too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.” “I” seems self-referential, self-obsessed. Innumerable memoirists try to eliminate the word “I” from there stories for fear of calling attention to themselves.
This discomfort isn’t limited to writers. read more…
Years ago, when flakes of old paint began falling on choir members’ heads, the trustees of my small United Methodist Church spearheaded a fund-raising campaign by parading around the pews carrying signs saying, “Repaint! The time is at hand!” I’m happy to say that moment was the closest to a call for repentance I’ve ever experienced in church.
The trustees’ joke returned to me recently because Emily and I took five days off of work to repaint our stairwell. read more…
A friend of mine died recently. Jeanne Audrey Powers was one of the first women ordained in the United Methodist Church. She worked for the General Conference in Manhattan and traveled the globe, hobnobbing with top religious leaders of every stripe. Just before she retired, she came out lesbian at an international conference, sending waves of dismay throughout the global church in hopes of leveraging transformation. She kept an apartment in Minneapolis and attended my church, which was how I came to work for a brief spell as her personal secretary. read more…
Isn’t curiosity marvelous? Something sparks your interest, and you’re off—questioning, learning, exploring, pondering. Say you meet someone new, share a bit about yourself, and they’re genuinely curious; suddenly you’re deep in conversation, sharing details about yourself or your work that you rarely otherwise disclose, and you begin to wonder whether this person might become a friend. Or say you receive a new artistic medium, a set of oil pastels; you’re eager to feel one in your hand, run it across a blank page, be surprised by the streak of color. Or say you’re a writer with one idea that leads to another, that leads to a few weeks buried in the library stacks and then a few years pursuing a project; you’re absorbed, you’re riding the rails of your heart without a clue where the train is going.
The gift of curiosity is this: We lose ourselves. read more…
When seekers trekked out to the desert in the early centuries of Christianity, the wise Abbas and Ammas there advised them to “go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
I’ve been mucking around in this pre-original-sin wisdom lately, and, let me tell you, it’s mind-bending. Mistakes, weaknesses, temptations, sins—Augustine hadn’t yet made of these cause for guilt and shame, so instead they’re understood as unavoidable, even necessary to the life of faith, and worthy of gratitude. In story after story, thieves create chances for the monks to release material attachments and exercise compassion. The devil comes not as the temptation to do bad things but rather as distracting thoughts. This is a topsy-turvy faith, barely recognizable today as Christianity. read more…
Okay, folks; hang on tight: I’m going to go metaphysical on you today. I think I’ve located a fallacy within how writers think about creation, and I want to unpack it with you. This fallacy is relevant to all artists and everyone committed to transformation, of self or society, so even if you’re not a writer, come along for the ride.
When writers work, we imagine ourselves as the source of an idea or at least as the channel for inspiration. We identify closely with our idea; we generate text; we revise; we as authors are the dynamic moving the project forward. At the other end of our project, we imagine a publisher acting as a gatekeeper to an audience, who will read our work and be entertained or educated or transformed by it. We picture this timeline like this:
A few years ago, I set off on a journey to the heart of Christian contemplation, both in practice and with studies. I began doing Centering Prayer, a form of meditation rooted in monasticism and the teachings of the mystics, and reading works from the mystical margins of Christian tradition—St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Theresa of Avila, Bonaventure, the Patristic fathers—and sharing all this with an international contemplative community. It’s been thrilling. The work transforms me from the inside out, and will have a profound on my writing, teaching, and living for years to come.
Because I love and trust language so much, the hardest part about these past years has been my inability to talk about what I’m learning. I put down a book or return from a symposium feeling like my internal furniture has been rearranged, but I can’t say how, or why, or what. I’m a blubbering fool. read more…
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