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A Story About a Painting

I want to tell you a story about a painting – a long and wind-ey story that’s not really about a painting at all. It’s about life and connection and faith and serendipity and how all of those things can make art. And become art.Image

Nolan Jungclaus came to my Studio Hop last summer and wanted to buy one of the pieces on my wall that was not for sale. It was a star – a collage that is actually a version of my business logo sewn from scraps and pieces of vintage fabrics. I couldn’t sell it, of course, and he seemed disappointed. But the exchange got us talking. Nolan is from Lake Lillian where he owns Star View Farm, part of a larger farming operation that has been in his family for four generations.

Turns out, he wanted my art because of the star. It had meaning to him.

Nolan explained that many years ago he’d had the life-changing opportunity to give the sermon at his church during Advent. For inspiration, he’d turned to an old story called “A Child Dreams of a Star” by Charles Dickens. His sermon message, he explained, was how the season of Advent is a time of preparation for a heavenly Savior that too often gets completely lost in our chaotic preparations for the things of this world. Then, he read his congregation the story by Charles Dickens.

Nolan told me that this experience was a turning point for him. So much so, that he named his farm after it. He had also lost his Dad recently, which had been very difficult.

Nolan and I connected that Saturday. He helped me remember why I put myself through all of the self-inflicted stress and work to participate in Studio Hop in the first place since my art is just a sideline to an already over-scheduled life. I was very touched by his sincerity and willingness to share such a personal faith story.

The next day, to my surprise, Nolan came back to my studio with his two kids, a stack of papers and a request.

Would I create a piece of art for him, he asked? One that included a star and took inspiration from his sermon notes and the Charles Dickens story he had read to his congregation that Sunday? One he could hang at his Star View Farm?

I was a little shocked and very humbled. I don’t normally take on commission art projects for lots of reasons, but that day I felt compelled to say yes. I’m not sure why.

But here’s the hard part.

Later, after Nolan left, I finally had a few quiet minutes to actually read the Charles Dickens story he left behind on those sheets of paper. And… oh man… let me tell you… I could hardly get through it.

It tore me up and turned me inside out. So I had to put it away. In fact, I wasn’t sure I could EVER do an art project based on that sad story. It would just be too difficult.

You see, “A Child Dreams of a Star” is about death. At least that’s what it appears to be at first glance. Within the first five paragraphs, a small boy loses his best friend and sister to a mysterious illness, then dreams of her journey with angels up to a bright, shining star in the sky.

It’s a real tear-jerker.

For me, reading that story immediately brought back memories of several dear friends of mine who have lost beautiful, precious children much to soon and much too tragically. It made their immense grief feel tangible again, even after all of these years.

It made me remember that death feels painful and final and often unfairly distributed in this world. And since my life last summer was too busy and too hectic to make time for a deeper understanding of the story, I put it away, along with Nolan’s request. On a shelf. For another time.

Maybe never.Image

Then I attended the “Women of Faith” event last October in St. Paul, and it inspired me to pull down the Charles Dickens story and read it again… more carefully this time, which is when I realized…wow… huh. This wasn’t a story about death at all. This was a story about life.  And love.

It was a story about hope. A beautiful story about hope. Wow.

It was the story about a boy’s ability to see a stunning, glowing star in the sky that symbolized all of the promises of heaven. Promises that gave him hope.

And then I wondered why this story meant so much to my new friend, Nolan. So I kept reading his stack of papers until I got to his sermon notes, where I found this personal story:

I remember a Christmas about 30 years ago. My mom had made a family tree as a present for grandpa and grandma. The tree had each aunt and uncle down the sides and a row of ornaments strung between with the names of each grandchild. Most importantly, at the very top of the tree, was a star. It held the name of “Orlin.” Orlin was the infant son of my grandparent’s who had died some 50 years earlier.

When my grandpa looked over this newly opened present, his eyes scanned across the names of his children and the many grandchildren until they came to the very top of the tree… to the single star with the name Orlin. And his eyes rested there as a tear ran down his cheek.

My grandpa saw the ‘star.’

Now my grandparents did a lot of things for our local church. Over the years each of them developed a long list of church functions and activities that they worked on and donated to.  But did those things give them the ability to see the star?

No. What gave them the ability to see that star was the death of Orlin. It was trying to raise a family during the depression. It was the long hours in the field and farmyard…”

Then Nolan’s sermon went on to quote a verse from Romans 5:

…and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us…”

It seems Nolan’s grandparents had learned about hope the hard way – through loss and grief and struggle. And it was a lesson that had become weaved into the very fabric of their family’s story.

Wow. That’s when I got it.

Nolan hadn’t asked me to create a piece of art, so much, as a visual reminder of the hard won faith that this family had so lovingly been passing down from generation to generation. And who could say no to that?

Not me.

So… some four months after I first met Nolan, his request became an adventure that I needed more than I realized. You see, life’s hectic pace had been getting the best of me and my soul had been craving the paint spattered clothes and saw dusty hair of my old artist self. Nolan’s request had given me purpose and an excuse to make time for her again.

I was grateful.Image

I decided to do the painting on a salvaged old farm door I had serendipitously been gifted by a family member just a month earlier. Based on Nolan’s story, it seemed like a perfect canvas. It just needed some brushing and scraping and sanding… all things that I love to do. I’m funny like that.

Once the surface was ready, I layered the weathered planks of wood with grey paint and dark stain. I left a blank spot where the star would glow, then began building that up with layers and layers of yellow, silver and white paint.

What eventually appeared after several evenings and many Imageblissful hours of drawing, painting, lettering, fabric cutting and modge podging, was a bright, glowing star in a dark night sky. The hand lettered text below it is an excerpt from the Charles Dicken’s story and reads “… and the star opening, showed him a great world of light.”

Now let’s be clear. I really love how this whole project turned out. But not because I think it’s a great painting with good technical skill and amazing technique. Not at all. Because it doesn’t have those things and that’s not the point. I love it because of the wind-ey road it helped me travel and the layers of meaning it inspired me to see.

When the painting was finally done in late October, I drove it out to Nolan’s farm in Lake Lillian to deliver it in person. I hadn’t seen him since June, so it was nice to reconnect.

Image

Here’s the message I received on Facebook a week or so after I delivered the painting:

Hi Betsy – I took the painting into my Mom’s to show her and left it there for Sunday for the family to see. I think there was a reason you felt the need to work on this when you did. Sunday was all saints day at church and also my Dad and Mom’s anniversary-1st one since he died on February 29th. We knew it would be hard for my Mom so a number of the kids where there to share the day with her. The painting was an incredible inspiration and focus point to retell the story of doing this sermon and the message as well as the story and gift that you had given to me in Imagethe form of this painting. The timing of this all was so very important to my Mom. We had a great dinner with conversations of their wedding day and stories of their life together. Every one had the chance to read thru the story and sermon and our Pastor and his wife were there to share it as well and were so taken by it all that they suggested that the painting be brought to church during advent to share how this all has come about and the relationships and interactions that bring god’s message to people in such amazing ways. (The story by the way came from William Bennet’s Book of Virtues.) My Mom seems very content to have this sitting at her house for now and she suggested it could stay there till our family Christmas gathering in December. I think she finds great comfort in this painting and how you have captured the vision of this story. I’ll look forward to hearing from you and thank you for listening and sharing your many gifts with all of us – Nolan

ImageNo, thank you, Nolan. For renewing my hope. For reconnecting me with myself. For including me in your family’s faith story which has now become a part of mine.

It was an honor. And so much fun.

The Three Turn Rule

According to my Dad, I was just 5 years old when I learned to ski. He proudly tells the story of trudging up the mountain side to the ski school carrying a tangled arm load of miniature equipment followed by a winding line of five small children, including my brother and three cousins. The oldest was 8.

We were all just learning, and together, we had enough students for our own class. It was the early 1970s in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

For me, what started out as snow plow lessons soon became a race to the bottom. As I got older, I got better, and I got braver. And then I got hooked. Thanks to my Dad and his insistence that our family make the grueling 20-hour-drive to Wyoming each year over barren Dakota plains and treacherous mountain passes, I learned to love to ski.

And I do mean love.

I learned to crave that special blend of air that is only available for drinking at over 8,000 feet above sea level. The kind that smells like crisp, hearty cold laced with snow laden pine trees, brilliant sunshine and just a little bit of heaven.

I learned to love the way a steep face of moguls could make my thighs burn and the way a long groomed run could stretch out before me with promises of speed and adrenalin and impending danger. I learned to love the crunch of the snow beneath my skis and the clunk of the chairlift swinging around the large metal gear to scoop me up and carry me away.

I learned to love that mountain and all it had to teach me about myself, my limits, my strengths and my capacity to face my own fears.

But that wasn’t all.

Thanks to my Dad and his own love affair with that mountain, I learned the most important lesson of all.

Over the years, my Dad and I made a lot of runs together. Too many to count. He was a strong, beautiful skier with an impeccable, parallel posture and smooth, graceful turns. But skiing with my Dad happened at a slower pace than normal, so was usually reserved for pleasant afternoons when the sun was shining and the sky was a brilliant blue.

At least those were the days that I remember most.

I can still picture us standing at the top of Casper Bowl sliding gloves into pole straps and stomping skis back and forth to knock the snow off the top. There were no words necessary.  With a quick exchange of glances, nods, and smiles, we were off.

We both knew the plan. It was the same each time.

I would let Dad go first. He’d step slowly to the side to point his tips downhill. As he gained speed, he’d pull his legs together bringing his skis into perfect, parallel alignment.  Then he’d float down the hill making long wide turns from side to side.

Three times.

Or four. Or possibly five if the hill was crowded and the run was long. But pretty soon, like clockwork, he would slide to a standstill at the next beautiful vista or scenic crest.

He had a pace… a routine… a skiing philosophy we kids learned to call “the three turn rule.”

Three turns, and then he would stop.

Not because he was tired. Or sore. Or struggling.

But because he was happy. So happy… to be there and to drink in that air and to be in good company. He would stop to savor the moment and feast his eyes upon a view reserved only for the hearty few who were willing to make that long, grueling trek across the plains and over the passes and through the valley and up the tram to the top of that amazing, majestic mountain.

A place so far away from our every day lives and so filled with the presence of God himself.

Dad, enjoying the view with my good friend, Brenda, circa 1984.

Ahhhhhhh… I would see his whole body say as I skied up next to him with his big smile and windblown hair and relaxed stance.

Then, inevitably, I would hear some version of the same sappy sentiment.

“Wow,” Dad would say as he looked out from 4,000 feet above the Jackson Hole Valley with its stunning, mountain-lined perimeter and cloud-laced sky and tiny grid of fence lines and winding roads and miniature rooftops. “Isn’t that something?” he would ask, then smile and shake his head and add, “Aren’t we lucky?”

I would nod and smile back. Then off we’d ski to do it all over again, just three turns later.

Even during my busy, impatient teens, I understood the importance of this annual, father-daughter ritual. In fact, the older I got and the harder I skied, the more important it became… to take a few hours off each trip to slow down, pay attention, reconnect with my Dad and give my thanks to the God who made the whole beautiful business possible.

While that mountain taught me many lessons in my lifetime, if not for my Dad, I may have missed that one.

These days, I don’t get back to Jackson Hole very often, which makes me sad. I miss that mountain and that air and that ache it puts in the middle of my chest.

But I carry its lessons with me every day.

Work hard. Make sacrifices. Prepare carefully. Travel long distances, if need be.

But once you get to the top of whatever mountain you are ascending, remember to slow down, reconnect with the people that you love and enjoy the view, if only for a few short moments.

Thanks, Dad. Yes, we are lucky. So lucky.

I love you.

Ode to Wolf Ridge

Wolf Ridge is a 5-day school field trip for NL-S 5th graders. It is a long time to be away from home at such a young age. My daughter is there right now!

***

How long has she been preparing?
Has it been days or years?

What with the growing taller
and the trying new foods
and the falling without any tears.

What with the days home alone
and the hours on the phone
and the sleeping without any fears.

When did her training get started?
Why didn’t I stop to see?

What with the round-off back handsprings
and the endless new outfits
and the begging to “just let me be.”

What with the millions of questions
and the thousands of worries
and the starting to not need me.

Looking back, I think she was ready.
And I know that we’ll both be fine.

What with the beautiful weather
and the adventure ahead
and her classmates all in a line.

What with the overstuffed suitcase
and the throw-away lunch
and my now open bottle of wine.

Inspiration

Who inspires you? And why?

I’ve asked myself those questions many times. The who is easy. The why is a bit harder to explain.

The first time I heard Lauren Alaina sing on her American Idol audition, I was entranced. It was something about her smiling eyes and the way her voice softly lilted at the end of each phrase. It seemed so effortless. So real. So connected to something that was uniquely her.

To me, it sounded like a summer day on Green Lake and it made me want to write on my blog. Does that sound strange?

I remember watching Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuro-anatomist, explain what it felt like to have a stroke at 37 years old. She recounted her career spent studying the brain, then went into great detail about things like microcircuitry, cerebral cortex and corpus callosum… stuff that would normally lull me to sleep. But I was far from sleeping. I was gripped by her story. Her passion. Her delivery. Her manner of interpreting the experience of having a stroke with the logic of a scientist and the heart of a compassionate, caring woman.

She was completely fascinating and made me want to sit in a quiet room and splash paint on a canvas. Does that make sense?

Last February, Joy and I went to Chicago to see Oprah. (We are getting to her, trust me!) On our first night in town, we went to a blues club in the downtown district called Buddy Guy’s Legends. It was a cool place with a local band made up of guys who just a few minutes earlier had been milling around the bar as if they’d just gotten off work from the factory. They were a rough looking bunch with slouchy clothes, stringy hair and a strange assortment of whiskers.

But then they started to play. The Blues. The real stuff. And I had goosebumps.

I’ll never forget hearing those first few notes from the saxophone and those first bluesy phrases being belted out by the short bearded man in the wrinkled plaid shirt. Suddenly, so many things made sense. Like the fact that how they looked or what they might have done all day… lay on a couch or drive a taxi or slog through a twelve hour shift as a car salesman, had no important bearing on that moment. That right then, that second, they were doing exactly what they were put on this earth to do. They were amazing.

And somehow, they made me want to stay up all night and write a book. Sound crazy?

I remember stumbling across a video by Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet, that absolutely rocked my world. She stood in the middle of a large, lighted stage and opened her mouth. And out spilled the most amazing, twisty-turvy melody of a story about being a mom. Her eyes were bright and her hands were gently pointing and moving in cadence with the poem that she sent floating across the room. It was like nothing I had ever seen or heard before.  Sarah Kay taught me that poetry is not always built with short, rythming sentences about sunsets and wooded paths. Poetry can be created using long colorful stories that wind around and circle back and jerk to and fro just like real life and real emotions. And that there’s beauty and connection in that wild ride.

After watching Sarah Kay, I felt peace and excitement all at the same time. My daughters watched her, too. And it made us all want to talk and laugh and fill our notebooks with crazy ideas and flowery sentiments. Of course.

Then, there’s Oprah. My girl, Oprah. After twenty years of watching her on TV, I finally got to see her in person this year. And it was all I had hoped it would be. You see, when I watch Oprah in action, at her best, asking the right questions and introducing everyday heros and sharing aha moments, I have so many emotions that I simply want to burst. I am left with a deep, burning ache to read and learn and be better at my job and keep pushing myself forward. And teach VBS and give back and, of course… go refinish some furniture. Obviously!

Who inspires me?

The answer: So many people!

The real question: Why?

Why am I inspired by them? Because those people have harnessed, if only for a few short moments, that powerful space where talent, passion, hard work and divinity crash together to offer something up to the world that is uniquely theirs to give. And as soon as I see them in that place, I want to go there myself. I want to find my own place like that, with my own recipe of talents and passion and hard work and, hopefully, divinity.

I want to wear down a path to that place so I can get there often. I want to find all of the doors that I can to that beautiful, peaceful room that can fill me up, turn me inside out and make me feel fully myself.

I think Pink was in that place when she sang “Glitter” on the Grammy Awards last year. I think my Dad visits that place when a grateful patient sits in his dental chair and thanks him for relieving the relentless pain that has plagued them for years. I think my friend, Michele Steffen, has a place like that in her gourmet garden where she grows delicate herbs and vegetables that I have never heard of, but make her food taste like pure heaven. I think Women of Faith speaker, Patsy Clairmont, enters that space when she has an arena full of 20,000 women laughing so hard that they cry… which completely opens them up to receiving her message about how much God loves them.

I’ve seen athletes train for years, put it all on the line, and then revel in that space.  I’ve witnessed teachers quietly and humbly connect with their students in that space.  I’ve also heard life-changing sermons preached from that space.

Me, personally? I’ve had glimpses of my space and my recipe, but I’m still hoping to spend more time there. To find a straighter, more consistent path to that room that is uniquely mine and waiting for me to waltz in and get comfortable.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for the people I’ve run across along my journey who have shown me what it might look like. Who have offered up to the world, along with their amazing gifts, a little bit of inspiration to the rest of us.

###

Lauren Alaina:
http://youtu.be/ZOYgAG5oRcg

Jill Bolte Taylor:
 http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

Sarah Kay:
http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sarah_kay_if_i_should_have_a_daughter.html

Pink:
http://youtu.be/3stsDXki__U

Patsy Clairmont:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwHIqfejQgg&feature=related

This post is dedicated to all of the women I know who are living with this question on a daily basis, myself included.

***

What should I do with my life? asks the woman to the world. No matter her age. She could be 60. She could be 27. Or she could be 45, like me.

She is torn and confused. Grateful, yet unsettled. Aching with the knowledge that her gifts have not been fully given. To the world. To her family. To whoever or whatever it is she has been put on this earth to change or fix or nurture or teach or create.

Her work here is not done. And she knows it.

The grief of that very fact sneaks up on her in the quiet moments when the TV is off, the house is still, and the silence pushes aside her usual daily chaos. Something is missing.

It is not a limb or a child. But that does not discount the seriousness of the loss. It is a part of her that has fallen by the roadside somewhere along her journey when no one was looking or seemed to care. Least of all, the woman.

Am I too late? she wonders. Too late to solve the puzzle? To start the quest? To do the work?

She glances through the self-help books stacked by her bed. Hoping to find answers. Desperate to understand.

No.

Never.

You are never too late, the world seems to answer.

We need you out here, says the trees and the sky and the faces is the coffee shop. We need who you are, who you have been and who you can become. Desperately. You being here, with us, in the mix, is part of the plan.

Don’t you see?

So go. Gather your things. Yourself. Your talents and your gifts. And bring them, out here, to us.

We will grow them and stretch them and give them back to you in a bigger, shinier box than you could have ever built for them on your own. If you had kept all the treasure for yourself.

What things? What treasure? asks the woman, back to the world. Which self?

The answers float in like dust in a sunbeam. Look for the stuff, whispers the light, that slides over your soul like a worn pair of jeans or a boyfriend’s old shirt. Stuff that soothes you and comforts you and reflects unique pieces of you back to a world that is waiting and hoping to hear from you soon.

Look for the things you get lost in. Lose time doing. Shed fear trying.

Things that make you feel 14 again. Or 20. Or 32 if that was the last time your thoughts were clear enough to notice the gravitational pull of certain types of art or music or pastimes or subjects of study. If that was the last time you felt fully yourself in your own body, and not just someone’s wife or mother or substitute Sunday school teacher.

When you come out here, into the world, bring the self that hasn’t been lectured to or redefined or made to conform to a life shaped by other people’s opinions and expectations of just who you should be.

It might take some looking, but finding that vintage version is the best chance you have.

Go back. And get her. Tell her it is ok to think that she is funny or smart or a good writer or a mystery to the world. She is a mystery. She still is, after all of these years. A wonderful, delicious mystery just waiting to be studied and solved. Page by page. Clue by clue.

Tell her not to worry about the time that has passed. It was part of the plan. The falling in love, the having babies, the crying at funerals, the making a living.

Tell her that she needed to be there for those things. She needed to do them. Well and with all of her heart. And she did.

Hug her. And reassure her that she is good and strong and beautiful.

Tell her not to be sad or confused by the darkness and fog that comes over her from time to time, adds the dust floating down in the sunbeam. Tell her I know. We know. We all know.

That she feels lost in it sometimes. Swallowed up by it sometimes. Alone in it sometimes.

But tell her that she is not alone or lost or swallowed up.

She is just living. In a self with missing pieces. In a life that was built around ideas and roles and frameworks that don’t always feel good on her body or look right in the crazy tie dyed rooms of her imagination.

But her time is not over. Her chance is not gone – to solve the puzzle, to start the quest, to do the work.

Tell her that she can be a mom and a wife and a Sunday school teacher and still find time to trek back by the roadside to pick up the pieces, the ideas, the dreams, and the talents, that somehow got left behind.

She can. And she must.

The woman sobs.

The fog breaks free from the damp ground and moves away to the far horizon.

The dust dances in the sunbeam.

The world spins quietly, giving her time to take it all in.

We need you out here, repeats the trees and the sky and the faces is the coffee shop.

All of you. Don’t you see?

That’s what you should do with your life. You should gather yourself up and get out here.

So go.

Oprah: An Inspiration

[A million thanks to my best friend, Joy, for sharing a once-in-a-lifetime moment with me. She never gave up, never stopped writing in, and finally got us both tickets be in the Oprah Show audience last week. It was such a thrill. Such a trip. Such a great way to celebrate our 20+ year friendship. See Joy’s blog for more details!]

***

I am inspired by Oprah. Maybe that is it. I am not so much entertained by her… although she is very entertaining… but challenged by her, made to think by her and pushed to be a better person by her. And I love her for that.Oprah

These are the things that have been running through my mind as I’ve tried to sort out all of the reasons why I cried last week when Oprah walked out… as Joy and I sat in her studio audience, hearts thumping with anticipation and eyes riveted to the short, carpeted runway that was her entrance to the stage. My first glimpse of her was the top of her head. Then, ever so slowly and deliberately, she strolled into the studio dangling a pair of leopard print, red bottomed, LouBoutin shoes off of her fingers. “These things?” she would say later, “These are beautiful shoes, but they are not meant for walking… I can tell you that!”

She took her time. She was in no hurry. Along her short route to the two white chairs on center stage, she touched hands, said hello, and met the excited eyes of the many lucky women along her path, one by one. Later on, after the taping, she spent another 45 minutes with us, sharing personal, candid stories, introducing her staff, and thanking us all for taking the time to find sitters, do our hair and travel cross country just to be there.

When I say she was glowing, I mean that she was beautiful. It wasn’t just her expensive gold sweater, her silky, black hair, or her perfectly applied makeup. No. She had an aura about her that was stunning. An energy that entered the room with her and filled up the air around the stage.

Is that what made me cry?

I don’t know. Maybe. But I don’t think so. When I saw Oprah that day, I also saw so much more.

I saw all of the times that she has said exactly what I needed to hear, or introduced me to someone that I never knew existed, but had a story to share that would make my life just a little bit better or my world view just a little bit broader. I saw all of the people that she has fed and clothed and educated and built houses for. I saw her love of reading and her belief in the goodness of others. I saw her sense of humor. I saw her kindness.

I saw someone that has chosen to use her incredible power and wealth and fame and talent to do good in the world. To put out positive messages to the masses. To offer others a leg up. To give people hope.

That is inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, I think it made me cry.

What if we all did that? What if we all used whatever power we have, whatever resources we have and whatever talents we have been blessed with, to do good in the world? To be a positive force? To help people find hope? Wouldn’t that be something?

Oprah makes me want to try. In fact, I could cry just thinking about it!

Welcome

Welcome to my blog! It’s a place I’ve created to start nurturing my creativity, more specifically, my growing desire to do some writing. It all came about a while back when I stumbled across some essays I had started and never finished, along with some old journals I hadn’t read in years.

Those discoveries got me writing again. Just for fun. Just to see how it feels. Just to have an excuse to hide away from my busy life and take time to think.

Feel free to poke around and leave me your comments. Thanks!