The Connective Tissue of Art

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Photo by Magnus Lindvall on Unsplash

Tonight, my friend Emily showed me the series of paintings she's been working on this summer -- all impressions of movement, reflection, shadow. A cloudy lavender sunset. The gentle play of rippling shadows on a stone wall, or amongst eager shoots of grass. Twinkling sunlight filtering through rustling leaves. She explained that the cornerstone for her series is a favorite quote from Mary Oliver: "My work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished."

"But, I don't know," she said, putting her phone back in her bag. "I still feel like I'm not doing anything important."

I get where she's coming from. Both creative types (Emily is getting her MFA in painting and I have my words), we've expressed a mutual fear that we're just not doing important work. Physicians? They do important work. People who work for nonprofits with noble mission statements? They're doing important work. My college friend who is volunteering with the Peace Corps? She's doing important work. Another college friend who is earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry and is (I feel certain) going to find the cure for cancer one day? She's doing important work.

So many people setting the world ablaze in ways that excite and inspire me. It's easy for me to affirm their work and question the value of creativity, which can feel self-indulgent and not as earth-shattering.

And yet, still reeling from the beauty of the works Emily shared with me and the profound implications of learning to stand still and view the world through new, ever-astonished eyes, I said, "You are doing something important. What you just showed me changed my heart. It changed the way I want to engage with the world. And that's pretty amazing."

She nodded. "I think all art is like that," she acknowledged, leaning back on her hands. "Connective tissue."

Let's just say it's been a while since I've taken my last science class, so I needed to refresh my memory on what, exactly, connective tissue is. The good news is that it's pretty self-explanatory: the first Google result that came up defined it as "tissue that connects, supports [and] binds... other tissues or organs..."

Tissue that connects, supports, and binds.

I'm thinking now of a line from the opening number at this year's Tony awards that has stuck with me since hearing it for the first time. In referring to all of the nominees who would walk home empty-handed -- and heck, everyone in theatre who never even garners that honor -- Josh Groban, Sara Bareilles, and ensemble members from each of this year's nominees for best musical sang, "If you make art at all, you're part of the cure."

We live in a world that is fractured in so many ways. And art -- in all of its manifestations -- helps bring us together. Whether it's the art of fine cuisine and a shared meal together; the art of a good conversation; the art of a quality piece of literature, poetry, film, music, theatre, or dance; the breathtaking visual art produced by a professional or the fingerpainting at the eager hands of a five-year-old... art is connective, supportive, binding.

So go make art today, friend. Take photos. Sing into your hairbrush. Dance along to your current favorite song. Learn calligraphy. Sketch the tree outside your window. Write a poem. Write a story. And please, for the sake of the original Artist, our loving Creator, whose work we share in every time we do something creative, don't worry about making it perfect.

Create. Share. Connect.

What Surrender Looks Like

Monday, June 4, 2018

Photo by Will Li on Unsplash

I've always thought that to surrender looks like letting go.

Like a balloon drifting quietly away into the atmosphere, surrender must involve a relinquishment of some kind.

And I've been on enough retreats, and sufficiently combed through Scripture, and heard enough about the lives of the Saints, to know that surrender also means a total abandonment of oneself to God.

In other words, surrender is an act of letting go.

But it's also a tenacious holding-on.

To surrender is to let go of what isn't important, and to cling to the One who is.

I've been thinking a lot about my future lately, because my first year of graduate school is over already, and in less than a year I'll either be a) navigating the job market again, or b) preparing to continue my studies if I decide to pursue my doctorate.

And I am trying to picture what it would look like if I surrendered both of these options to God. If I said, "Okay, Lord, here's what's on the table. These are the two things I see myself wanting. You know how indecisive I am, so why don't You just take it from here? Throw up roadblocks if you need to. Plant obvious signposts by the exits I'm supposed to take. Just get me wherever it is I'm supposed to go."

Of course, there are action steps I need to take to move in both of these directions. Network. Set up informational interviews. Research companies I'd like to work for and schools I'd like to teach at. Polish my resume and CV. Work on my writing sample. Solicit letters of recommendation from faculty members. Write that personal statement.

And honestly? I've been looking at this list recently and feeling paralyzed by overwhelm. It's just as tempting to stand back and say, again, "Okay, Lord, here's what's on the table. Why don't You just take over and do the thing?" But surrender that arises from a place of paralysis is not really surrender, either.

So what is surrender, exactly?

In Catholic tradition, one figure stands out as being the epitome of what it means to surrender: the Blessed Virgin Mary. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her she would conceive of the Holy Spirit and bear Jesus into the world, she had every reason to react with paralysis and fear. But she didn't. She surrendered to love, and said a bold "yes" to what was asked of her in the moment. And she continued to do so for the rest of her life.

Mary's surrender wasn't as much of a letting go as it was of a holding tightly to God's will for her life, and an eagerness to always do the next right loving thing.

On a seemingly different note (I promise it's related!), I love how excited kids get to share their artwork with other people. "Look at this!" they'll say, holding up an abstract fingerpaint masterpiece, or shaking glitter onto the floor from their latest project. I sometimes think of God this way, grabbing me by the hand and leading me through my days looking (to use one of my sister's favorite phrases of late) "pleased as peaches" to show me all of the good things -- all the works of art -- He's giving me right now. No waiting required. "Look at this! Now look at this! And this!"

But usually I am too caught up in what I want to see that I don't notice the blessings right in front of me, and the myriad opportunities to say "yes" to love again and again.  I'm usually too worried about the logistics of how it will all work out to realize that God will take care of it if I just keep showing up. To surrender, I'm slowly learning, is to let myself dig into the reality of where I am, of where God is finding me in this moment, and of how He is asking me to serve others and myself.

To surrender is to hold a little less tightly to my expectations for life. Instead, it asks that I hold a little more tightly each day to the outstretched hand God offers me, and follow wherever He leads.