D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Category: Art

The Year of the Bully, The Year of the Artist

If I could characterize it, I would say that 2016 was the Year of the Bully. Personally and on a national level this was true for me and mine. If you love all the things that come with oppressive power—perks, privilege, your own empire safely guarded—you probably had a pretty good year. But if you are someone who has suffered at the hands of others, if you are not at the top of any particular ladder, then you know that crushing feeling when you realize it is the one who wants to harm you who once again gets all the power. It was a year where it became crystal clear that our world is oriented towards the abusers. 

When Donald Trump was declared the winner on Nov 8th I could not sleep at night. My own energy already worn thin by life, I suddenly discovered I was down to the dregs of my ability to empathize, and it went to a scary place. I imagined the children sleeping in beds all throughout my neighborhood. I felt their fear, their worry, the way they were grown beyond their years. I saw myself, safe and sound in my house—white, privileged—and I saw everyone around me that I loved be carried off by a wave of hatred. I watched myself remain while everyone else was swept away into suffering. I was paralyzed by grief. In my mind I started prepping for the end of the world.

But as luck (or providence) would have it, I happen to live surrounded by survivors. My neighbors, mostly refugees and immigrants, when they have chosen to share, display a wide range of reactions towards the past year and those upcoming. What they do choose to share is both heartbreaking and inspiring. They will not ever stop putting one foot in front of the other. They push me to do the same.

I’ve been learning from others, as well. People for whom America has never been the promised land. This is the year when the majority of white evangelical Christians were loud and proud about their bullying ways, revealing true natures that I have long tried to apologize for. To save my faith in the wider church my husband and I drank like people dying of thirst from the books and podcasts of people of color. They reclaimed our religious words and infused them with real meaning. Is it possible that the Jesus we have tried so hard to follow really is good news for everyone? Is it possible that God’s kingdom has a place for my neighbors? Is it possible that white supremacy is not God’s dream for the world? These pastors and prophets and poets said yes. Their faith is like diamonds in my eyes, something glorious and true that only comes out of intense pressure and suffering. 

//

I got the chance to go to Montgomery for a few days last week and I took it. I paid my own way, but along with a crowd of other people who spend their lives thinking about Jesus and Justice, I got to spend a morning and afternoon at the Equal Justice Initiative, the place where Bryan Stevenson has poured his heart and soul into. Is it a law office or an art gallery or a museum or a halfway house or a living testimony to a history most people would prefer we forget? It is all these things, and more. I was only there for a few hours and I knew: it was kingdom ground. 

If you haven’t read Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, I urge you to stop now and remedy that (I wrote about it and Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman last year). In Just Mercy, he highlights the dire inequality of the criminal justice system, looking mostly at death row cases in the South. There is a reason Stevenson moved his life and work to Montgomery. As he met and talked with us, he told us just a bit of the history. On the wall behind us in a conference room there were rows after rows of glass jars, filled with soil. They were gorgeous, filling the room with rich tones of red and brown with hints of gold and green. But upon closer inspection, you discover: the soil in each jar is from a specific lynching that happened in Alabama. To stare at that wall, the jars towering above and on either side, knowing this is just one state, these are just the documented ones, this is just the smallest slice in the terrorization of black bodies that has been sown into the very ground of our nation. 

A man came in to talk to us. His name was Anthony Ray Hinton. He was on death row in Alabama for 30 years for a crime he did not commit. He is a lovely man. When he spoke it felt like a testimony in the truest sense of the word. “I wish I could tell you that the state of Alabama made a mistake, but the truth is—they didn’t.” They arrested and tried him on purpose, because he was a poor black man, and they could. Anthony speaks in a gentle voice and tells us funny and sad and poignant stories of how he learned to deal with his life in prison. He told us about how he went away in his mind, how he travelled all over the country, how he came back occasionally to check on his body. He made us all laugh, is the thing, he was and always will be a man with a sharp sense of humor, he made us see how he survived, at what people who are like him have to do to make it out. 

 me and Anthony

me and Anthony

Anthony does not hate. Anthony loves God. Anthony bought himself a California King sized bed when he got out but he still can’t sleep in it unless he curls his knees up to his chest, because that is how he had to sleep on his tiny bunk in his 5x7 cell. When Bryan Stevenson came to visit him in prison Anthony said he heard a voice saying “this is God’s best.” Bryan worked and got famous ballistics experts to prove the bullets from the crimes committed did not match the gun found in Anthony’s mothers bedroom. They had to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court since Alabama refused to re-open the case. And finally, finally when they were forced to, they said they no longer saw what they had 30 years ago. And Anthony walked out, he felt rain on his face for the first time in 30 years.

There was so much more I learned in my few days in Montgomery. I hope to share more about it at some point. But what I want to say right now is this: Anthony is God’s best to me, and to you. He is a prophet, revealing the true nature of our systems, how they only work with those who have power. 

Every year for Anthony has been the year of the bully; for so many people I know and love they can say the same. For me it is new, and it tastes sour like betrayal, bitter like fear—and yet, there is something else. Bryan Stevenson, Anthony Ray Hinton, and countless other people I have been listening hard to this year—they all say the same thing: we have to have hope. Faith is easier, said Bryan. You can keep doing what is good just because you know it is right, without ever believing that you will change anything. Having radical hope in the face of extreme injustice is much harder. And yet, it is vital for the days coming.

//

If 2016 was the year of the bully then 2017 will be the year of the artist, I think. 2017 will be the year when Matthew 25:40 becomes the watershed verse for those professing to be Christians. “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” 2017 is the year we can change who we are listening to. 2017 is the year we stand up to the bullies. 2017 is the year we look for God’s best exactly where our culture tells us to see the worst. 2017 is the year our faith becomes true, and beautiful, and terrible to those who are in power.

And lastly, it is my hope that 2017 is the year the least of these will lead us, in all ways—through stories and songs and testimonies and Facebook videos—it is the year they will lead us to Christ himself.

 

 

 

 

 

*If you have a moment, I invite you to explore the Equal Justice Initiative's website. It is a treasure trove of information

 

 

 

 

On Top of the World

In the airplane, I put on my headphones [this is the first time I have flown since we moved back to Portland 10 months prior, the first time I have ever left my baby behind, the first time I am going somewhere to talk about my writing, the first time I wore boots and a faux-leather jacket borrowed from my sister in order to appear confident, calm, professional, put-together].

The words and music that pour forth unnerve me [ I had listened to my husband’s weird and wild and quirky album before, sure—while I cleaned the house or had the same conversation ten times in a row with my child. My husband knew for some reason I needed to hear it through his fancy headphones, in a suspended place, I needed to pay attention. My husband is bearded, kind, adorable. He hides his angst and is learning to better understand that it is OK to be angry at things that are unjust and unwell].

During my talk, I unabashedly cribbed from my husband and his songs [I said, to a certain extent, that I love to write troubled, to write scared, to approach our life and work and our compulsion towards meaning-making with a bent towards complicating matters. Heaven knows Twitter wants to take my thoughts and make them short and snappy and sanctimonious. Heaven knows I want to be seen as good and perfect and an artist and an activist. Heaven knows we are just grappling, all the time, with the ways the devil convinces us that the world should work]. 

So here, I will just leave them here. The words that reveal so much about our hearts. We long for that equitable kingdom to come. We long for it to not cost us so much. But the very best things are worth everything, aren’t they?

 

 

Top of the World 

By The Maiden Name

 

 

top of the world 

bourgeois at least 

it’s clear it’s engineered 

for folks like me 

top of my game, I mean top of the game 

but then again from my end I didn’t really have to compete 

 

white, straight, master’s degree 

cards lined up in hand, so it’s guaranteed 

that this world will work for me, was built for me 

my demographics is my skeleton key, 

 

at least this system runs 

so let’s tweak it gently 

yeah, when the Kingdom comes, 

let’s, let’s change things gently 

 

power isn’t a problem 

gotta get it in the right hands 

fingers in front of me are fit enough 

just watch, I’ve got compassionate plans 

 

let’s raise wages just enough 

don’t raise the prices 

and don’t lower my salary 

or take away any of my write-offs 

 

we’ve basically arrived, right? 

seems like it from where I stand 

at the top the game, it’s good 

offer the less fortunate a helping hand 

 

justice vs. compassion, take the latter every time 

it feels better to give than to pay a proper dime 

 

let’s raise the valleys 

without tearing the mountains down 

I want justice to roll down like river 

but I’m afraid I might drown 

 

I’m opposed to violence 

and I’m opposed to not feeling safe 

and when those two come head to head 

I’m still not sure which choice I would make 

and I used to avoid paying war-taxes 

by keeping my income low enough 

but with both of us working 

can’t bring myself to donate the surplus 

and my neighbors next door 

yeah, they’re on the run from war 

while I’ve been sitting on my sofa 

writing theology behind closed doors 

yeah, I’m safe and I’m secure, 

even in my neighborhood 

they say it’s the hood, hood 

but I know that I don’t look like you’ll think I’m up to no good 

 

so I walk down dark streets 

and I don’t look over my shoulder, 

and if there’s no one I have to meet 

then I’ll walk a little slower 

without a worry or a care 

I take my walks without falter 

maybe that’s the reason why never had 

any use for the Psalter 

 

question: can I ever be saved? 

you know my face looks enraged 

but I have slave trade chocolate 

silently running through my veins 

before we give these valleys a raise, let’s wait 

cause I’ve escaped the curse at the cost 

of inequality’s iron rod 

of others being crushed by the weight 

of a system I did not create 

but I’ve bought into it in a literal way 

my money for products at a low wage 

my vote working in what I pay 

my heart in exchange for what I gain 

my soul in exchange for what I save 

I’ve never worked the ground from which I was made 

-can I ever be saved? 

 

Up on a mountain looking down 

you only see loss 

so when the Kingdom comes 

I know it will come with a cost 

I know it cost someone like me a lot 

 

I want to justice to roll on like a river 

its current to flow strong and mighty 

but I want to keep my feet dry 

and from what I hear that’s just not likely 

 

what did I go out into the desert to see? 

a wind-swayed reed? 

did I hope to stay as I am? 

or did I hope to be redeemed?

 

 

(You can listen to the song/hear the rest of the album here)

 

 

 

 

Colder Than Mars

My husband wrote this song last winter (which was a hard and good one for us). I love how he weaves in so much (references to The Abyss, an obscure McSweeney's book called Giraffes? Giraffes! and all of our favorite snacks). I also love how it showcases his deeply earnest yet totally goofy personality. As my friend Nate Allen describes it: this is the kind of music a therapist records in his basement. Because it totally is. Anyways, it seems like creativity has been a key component of mental health for us, balancing the weight of the world we find ourselves in and getting lost in words and beats. To all of you who, like myself, the winters can be hard on, this song is for you.

 

 

 

[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=2571148603 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=3321551353]  

 

 

Colder Than Mars

by The Maiden Name

 

we go to malls when it snows and we don’t buy a thing and hold keys to cars we don’t own on our rings and when we lie down, I can feel the oxytocin flow like the Mississippi runs in the spring if we'd stuck to applied sciences, we might have ended up with better appliances but anthills pop up through the carpet, yeah our apartment’s kind of an armpit, yeah no pork at our parties, chicken is safest, and in minneapolis sambusas are the greatest orange fanta, sans-ice goat, basta, injeera, ricemy wife swears the vikings are a hockey team because of the ice I correct her, "that's a basketball team, you know" but I try to say it nice

we shop at the co-op, pick up some supplements at the food-shelf we buy what we can from the farmers, and then get what we can where we can wherever else. pita or pancake? why is everyone snacking on my sidewalk? spiced with ginger and mandrake! I’m not gonna pick it up and put in my pocket we drink what it see, drain it down, even up to the dregs let it sit deep within us, like fruit juices in giraffe’s legs

what if to submerge is like the Abyss? I mean the film from 1989 that I watched in 7th grade, with horror, as that rat’s eyes met mine he shrieked and tried not to drown, but he couldn’t resist, such a struggle in the brine his lungs filled with water and he survived with clenched fists [I mean paws, clenched paws]

its colder than mars here, and we import snow by the pounds and doors are locked and closed, from the first snow til the thaw of the ground we’re all gonna die of loneliness, cozy with just ourselves, only ourselves and a bottle of vodka taken down off the shelf across the hall, paper thin walls, our salvation is bound up together it’s not what we saw, but we heard the falls, as we waited day and night through the weather and if the sun ever comes out to greet us, we’ll beat it with a brick and threaten, "if you ever try to defect again, it’s over, we’ll finish the job, and this time we mean it."

credits

from Colder Than Mars Demos, released 15 March 2015
Be sure to go check out his bandcamp page. He is the best boy.

 

 

Reasonably Bright, Reasonably Average

"David Foster Wallace once said that he thought good nonfiction was a chance to "watch somebody reasonably bright but also reasonably average pay far closer attention and think at far more length about all sorts of different stuff than most of us have a chance to in our daily lives."--from Austin Kleon in Sell Your Work

 

 

 

Drawing by the unbelievable Chris Clother (for Cordella Magazine)

 

 

A reminder for myself on a day like today. A day where everything is so very normal (slow walks to the library with a small, curly-haired child, a messy kitchen, faint and ebbing headaches) and where the world is cracked in every direction that you look. Our tiniest decisions, thoughts, purchases insurmountably inane and important, I can never quite remember which one. I dream some day of being a wise old turtle, calm and peaceful, one of the cloistered kinds of saints. But for now I am rather more like the unhinged ones, stumbling about and repeating the truths as I find them, aware that they never quite sink in. This is why I so struggle to identify as an artist, or a writer. Being honest about the restless heart within me, and pursuing it--it is not safe and it is not exactly what I had planned for this life. 

 

But to be awake--that's all God ever wanted for his artists, anyways. To pay attention, to cry when everyone is laughing, to laugh when everyone is crying. To be all wrong, all out of sorts, ridiculous and hopeful, so plain and so honest and so frail. In that vein, I wanted to point you to an essay of mine that I wrote about for a dear friend's gorgeous new literary magazine called CordellaI wrote a bit about my own story wanting to be like Joan of Arc, and how that never quite panned out. Head over to the site to see the piece, and then check out the rest of the first issue.

 

Here's to a weekend of being our (un)reasonably bright and average selves. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Ben's Life

Well, this is officially the first book in this series that I haven't read--so I best be getting on that (seriously, now I really really want to). Ben is an IRL friend of mine from lovely Portland. I love the way his literary mind is in constant conflict with the beautiful and terrible world that he finds himself in. Do yourself a favor, read this essay, and then get on over to his website where you can find more of his writing. 

 

 

 

unnamed-3

Winter's Tale

by Ben Bishop

 

“A lot of people hate heroes. I was criticized for portraying people who are brave, honest, loving, intelligent. That was called weak and sentimental. People who dismiss all real emotion as sentimentality are cowards. They’re afraid to commit themselves, and so they remain ‘cool’ for the rest of their lives, until they’re dead—then they’re really cool.”

- Mark Helprin

^  ^  ^

I’m infatuated with New York City. My fascination is of a particular variety, the kind that comes from visiting a place, immediately becoming enamored, and then returning numerous times without ever actually moving there and having to suffer its more dismal aspects. It’s an infatuation rooted in the aromas of history and raw ambition I get a whiff of every time I walk through Manhattan’s cobblestoned alleys, or drift over the timeless span of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York is a romantic city in the fullest sense of the term, at once exhilarating and unpredictable, a grand old place, occasionally desolate, seeming to have a thousand faces. 

Set near the turn of the 20th century, Mark Helprin's "Winter’s Tale" takes place in an alternate version of New York. Recognizable as the real thing, the city’s subtle deviations from reality are revealed only gradually, as the novel unfolds. “Winter’s Tale” traces the life of Peter Lake, master burglar, including his exploits as a thief, his encounters with an enchanted white horse, his pursuit of a beautiful woman dying of consumption, and his running conflict with a brutal gangster. It is fundamentally a fantasy and a work of magical realism, although it operates within (and, just as importantly, was acknowledged and received by the powers that rule) the world of literary fiction. Verbose to the point of intoxication, the book includes some of the best names I’ve ever encountered (a street gang named the Dead Rabbits? come on), and is both a paean to New York City and a document chronicling the author’s love affair with the English language. 

When I first encountered "Winter’s Tale" two years ago, I was deep in the throes of trying to sell my first novel, a process that involved trying to understand my place within the world of fiction. Who was I writing for? What was I trying say? Who was going to read my book? I furrowed my brow and reflected with great sobriety on the Good Books I’d read or had recommended to me over the past decade. Meanwhile, there was a moment during my devouring of "Winter’s Tale" when I began to realize what the distinct-yet-not-unpleasant twinge I’d been feeling since the first page was. It dawned on me that the sliver of undefined matter lodged way back in the molars of my brain had as much to do with what I was not encountering in the book as what I was. Several hundred pages into the story I was surprised to find that I was not ankle deep in existential despair. Try as I might, I simply could not find any artful ennui, nor any of the other neuroses I’d come to associate with much of the literary fiction I'd read. The lead characters were not grappling with suburban desolation, the disintegration of the nuclear family, or that postmodern ambivalence which, while sometimes useful, is all too often symptomatic of a corrosive, humanistic resignation. 

Yes, you say, but did the book change your life? It did. From nearly the first page, I was captivated by its earnestness. Here were characters who believed in the eternal power of love and the ultimate weight of justice. Here were clear depictions of good and evil and the struggle to choose one and not the other. Here was the promise of immortality, and a clear-eyed embrace of the spiritual reality that underpins the material world. And yet it was not a naive work. Neither, miraculously, was it sentimental. You can’t elide the realities of depravity and despair and also tell a human story of any consequence. Not if you want people to believe you. Yet the overall tone of the book—the exuberance of the language, the almost obsessive preoccupation with light and color, and the simple yet powerful claim that things like faithfulness and selflessness are not only possible but vital—was so fundamentally and unapologetically optimistic, that upon my exposure to it I felt something inside of me resonate like a sounding bell. 

Of course, not all of what we would call literary fiction is depraved or morally relativistic. Not by a long shot. Still, I cannot deny how clearly I was struck by the difference between the story of Peter Lake and many of the novels featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Indeed, I wonder if there has ever been as tantalizing a description of a book as the one that ran in the September 4, 1983 Times review of “Winter’s Tale": 

“There’s far more that I would wish to say about the book - so much more that I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.” 

As someone who has grown up reading and studying modern American novels, I’ve absorbed numerous unspoken rules, including the one that states that it's simply not cool to hold up people who are gentle, hopeful, generous, or altruistic as heroes. Novels that celebrate virtue wholeheartedly, without irony or shame, are exceedingly rare. Those that are canonized are even rarer. That a reviewer for The New York Times would say of any book, let alone this book, that he is nervous about failing to adequately display its brilliance surprised me, to say the least. 

You will note that I have not told you much about the plot or characters, save a cursory overview. I haven't talked about the moment when I roared with laughter while alone in my bedroom while reading. I haven't told you about coming to the final scenes of the book, and how I mourned finishing it. I haven't done any of these things because I want you to have an unadulterated experience of the novel for yourself, to discover its joys on your own and thereby forge your own memories. Before I ever thought about "Winter's Tale" on an intellectual or critical level, I simply drank it in as a story, and in drinking it in I was powerfully moved. By the end, I found myself agreeing with another reviewer who once wrote that Helprin’s work "exists to remind us that… it is sometimes wiser and more fulfilling to cherish our deepest ideals than to mock them.” 

Last Christmas, I unwrapped a gift from my sister; a copy of "Winter’s Tale." She didn’t realize I’d already read it. When she did, she was crestfallen. She offered to take it back, get me something else. 

“No,” I said, waving my hand. “No, no. Absolutely not. I’m going to read it again."

 

 

 

Ben Bishop lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

East Of Eden

The Giving Tree

The Irresistible Revolution

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book that Changed Kurt's Life

I met Kurt a few weeks ago at my amazing Collegeville writing workshop. Kurt has the spiritual gift of editing (having both a keen eye and an enthusiasm for beauty) and it was such a pleasure to meet him. He encourages me to read well, to write "tight and bright" and I really resonated with his thoughts on Steinbeck here (about time for me to re-read ol' East of Eden). 

 

 

EastOfEden

 

 

The Book That Changed My Life

Kurt Armstrong

 

When I was 23, I moved back to the family farm in southern Alberta to help my mom and dad with the harvest. I was broke and depressed and the two-year MCC program I’d been counting on was cancelled because funding had been dropped. That summer someone had stolen my bike from outside my apartment and someone at work swiped my camera. Someone else dumped me because she recognized me as a half-hearted boyfriend and knew she deserved better. (Correct on both counts.) So I moved home for a couple months, and in the evenings I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Steinbeck sets out to tell his own family’s history, but about eight pages in he gets sidetracked for about 535 tumbling pages and then, oops, he never gets back to what he supposedly set out to do. It’s moody, brooding, and dramatic, overwhelmingly masculine – very few women other than the nearly-silent Eliza and the shape-shifting, nearly-demonic Kate – and some of the characters seem more like caricatures than the more complex, layered flesh-and-blood humans you or I might be related to. It is not a perfect novel.

But East of Eden is a bold, ambitious modern midrash on Cain vs. Abel, touching on the timeless, perennial struggle of sons to honour their fathers without being damned to echo all of their shortcomings. The sins of the father run thick through the book, as in human history, and Steinbeck’s flawed novel proclaims a hard-won hope that even though inherited sin may be an unbearable yoke, even heavy yokes can be broken.

It’s nowhere near as iconic as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath: too subjective, too narrow, too intimate of a story. But where Grapes of Wrath weaves politics and parable into the tale of a family, thus narrating the experience of an entire generation, East of Eden reaches back to ancient, primordial myths and touches on a more universal, and much more personal story. James Joyce said that “In the particular is contained the universal,” and it is precisely because East of Eden is such an intimate, particular story that it rings true on such a fundamental level. “Here’s your box,” Steinbeck writes in the dedication, a note to Pascal Covici, his editor at Viking Press. “Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full.” How true. It is a sprawling book, full of sin and redemption, loss and hope, suffering and love, and soaring above it all, the great, terrifying gift of human responsibility – and yet there remains ample room for readers to find themselves. Forty-seven years after it was published, it was obvious to me as I read it: a story this personal is much, much bigger than the little box contained between its covers.

East of Eden touched me more deeply than I knew a novel was capable of. Broke, depressed, and heartbroken, I was highly sensitive to it’s high drama. And being home on the farm, practicing the simpler pace of farming – more demanding and more direct than any of my city jobs had been – clarified my own thoughts and feelings. Steinbeck’s book got into my bones; the mood and images stuck in my everyday imagination for months afterwards.

It’s rare that I re-read any books, especially novels. Having wasted too much of my youth in front of the television I spend a lot of time reading because I’m already so far behind. But I’ve read East of Eden three times now, and each time I’ve found it more surprising, refreshing, and moving than the last. I know I’m in the minority, but I consider it by far the better of Steinbeck’s two “big books.”

 

 

 

kurt

Kurt Armstrong is the author of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment (Wipf & Stock) and has written for The Globe and Mail, Paste, Image, and Geez, among others. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and works at Saint Margaret's Anglican Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

 

 

 

 

 

Writer's Gonna Write

from Austin Kleon, "The Life of a Project"  

 

There's this thing where writers tag other writers to answer questions about writing. I would hate it if it wasn't so darn interesting. My fancy writer friend Christiana tagged me (she's in my online writing group, she writes killer YA, and she is bursting forth into the world with her wonderful creative non-fiction--where she writes about Mennonite intentional communities, chickens, and death. Also, she is a poet, and once sent me a magazine of poetry in the mail. Swoon.)

 

So here I go. Writer's gonna write (especially about themselves!)

 

1. What are you working on?

Big picture: I already finished the manuscript for my first book, and it is currently off in the wilderness. I look forward to a rigorous editing process, hopefully sooner than later.

Small(er) picture: I currently have 2 different book reviews due (I love reading and I love talking about books--but writing about books can be so difficult at times). One is Americanah by Chimamanda Adiche, and the other is Life, Interrupted, a book on trafficking into forced labor. Reading these books (especially the latter) has led me down many rabbit trails, specifically in the area of how the U.S. has historically treated migrants (hint: abysmally). I have been sucked into the worlds of James Agee, Robert Coles, and an exceptional Edward R. Murrow documentary. I think I have something else due as well, but it is currently escaping me. Not very professional, D.L.

I am also working on some other creative non-fiction stuff (which isn't fit for public consumption). And I would die if I didn't journal/do morning pages nearly every day.

 

 

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

How do you answer this question without sounding terrible? To be honest, sometimes I feel like I am in a unique position of being someone who lives and works among the poor but who also devours McSweeneys, Image, and O! magazine (just keeping it real). People writing about life in the margins of American society tend to be male, make their own clothes out of burlap, and are not too concerned with literary merit. I love those guys, but that ain't me. I do, however, have a similar message in regards to finding Jesus in the outskirts of the Empire.

I like writing about poverty and privilege, and I also like taking a piss at myself every now and again. I am also deeply interested in how writing can be beautiful, and am not too terribly concerned with things being tied up neatly (either theologically or in a story arc). Where I live, there is a lot of sadness, despair, death, and destruction. There is also so much beauty and humor and people who transcend the word "survivor". I really, really like to write about failure, which seems to not be a super popular thing to do. So I guess that is different? I also use a lot of the "passive voice" and "run-on sentences" which I think is arty but my good friend Amy makes me edit out anyways.

 

 

3. Why do you write what you do?

My life choices are an obvious jumping point. I often find myself overwhelmed with life and writing helps. I also see huge gaps in the narratives we are being fed about who the blessed really are; I see how many of us have no real concept of what it means to be poor in America. As I catch a glimpse now and then I can't help but share what I am seeing, mostly out of a sense of isolation. If it was prime-time news I think I wouldn't feel the urgency.

I wrote my book primarily because the world could always use another reminder that the the upside-down kingdom is here, all around us. Also I think it is intrinsically an interesting story--one where I start out trying to convert everyone, and slowly start to realize how heretical my own view of God is. As an activist at heart, a small part of me must believe that what I write could change a minds towards a belief in the words of Jesus. Because once we start to believe what he said, everything starts to change.

I also have made a conscious decision to write for people who might not agree with my conclusions. It is important for me not to get bogged down in an echo chamber of agreement--only interacting with other writers/readers/thinkers who believe the same thing. I like writing about WIC for conservative Christian websites. I like disguising an essay on downward mobility and reconciliation as an argument about alcohol for a traditional Christian magazine. I like being surprised by what I read and I want to do the same thing with my writing.

Remind me of this the next time I complain about the haters, mmmmkay?

 

 

4. How does your writing process work?

 

I am forever in the throes of a busy season. I teach ESOL to non-literate learners 4 days a week. I also take care of my daughter in the afternoons/evenings. I have a variety of community events/relationships I am involved with and I also have multiple commitments with the non-profit I work for.  For an up-coming writers workshop I am supposed to write down when I write. Thus far it looks like this:

Wed: write during nap time. 40 minutes.

Saturday PM: write for 30 minutes, fall asleep.

Every Other Friday: write for 1 hour, check FB and Twitter for 45 min.

 

Soooooo, not great. The problem is that by the end of the day there is not a blessed thought in my head. But I am loathe to wake up early (as my many talented friends do). I am hoping for a few reshufflings in my schedule for the fall, but I never know what will happen. For now it is a very part-time gig, and I have honed my skills at writing fast and furious when I get a chance.

As far as what I choose to write--when the mood strikes, I often pitch ideas to various places and usually find myself writing at least 1-2 essays a month. I try and scare myself a little each time I write. Blogging is currently not a huge priority for me (see: time) and as I have said before the crazier it gets the quieter I have to be in my writing. For now I take the stolen minutes I get and type into my laptop (usually sitting on my bed, or the couch) and I consider myself lucky. When I get super stuck for ideas or I hit an editing fog, going on long runs really seems to get my thoughts in order (also, cake helps). Being in an online writing group has been the best motivation ever (they believe me! they really do!) and now I am in an awesome IRL one as well. I am basically surrounded by beautiful, talented writers who force me to keep producing content. It is awesome, and I highly recommend this to everyone.

 

 

 

 

Oh man. Now I'm done talking about myself and my "craft"! So now I get to gleefully tag two writer friends so they can also answer these questions and populate the world with more art and beautiful (and sometimes cranky) words.

 

The first writer is Becca over at Exile Fertility. I just love everything that comes out of her mouth. She gets it. She gets that everything is terrible and everything is beautiful. She is my favorite writer when it comes to womanhood, birth, beauty, and radical self-care. I wish she would write more, but I understand that her arms are very full at the moment. Go on over to her place and check it out.

The other writer is Kevin Hardagan, who I think is the Joel Osteen/N.T. Wright of Ireland. He could go either way, really. He is wicked smart, a little cantankerous, half the time I do not know what he is talking about but when I DO I really like it. And he always makes me think (a good sign, right?). I would dearly love to know what he is working on in regards to his PhD (I think it has something to do with mammon. Mammon!) and everything he writes is funny. Including a response to a blogging round robin.

 

 

So there you have it. I would love (and I mean this from the bottom of my heart) to hear from any of you in regards to what you are working on, what your process is, and how you see yourself fitting into the writing world. So please comment and share!

 

 

 

 

 

A piece of the body torn out by the roots

   

 

photo by Walker Evans. Please go look at all of his gorgeous photographs right now.

 

Sorry I have nothing to write about. Life is extremely loud and incredibly private, etc etc.

 

However, I have been thinking about Artists, Experts, Poverty, War Photographers, Sentimentality, Detachment, Acceptance, Fame, Privilege, Power, and Money. I have been thinking about all the people I know and the exquisite terror of how beautiful and complicated and made in the image of God they are. And, as always, I have been reading. Here is a long quote I have been mulling over:

 

 

 

"If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite the novelty; critics would murmur  yes, but is it art; and I could trust the majority of you to use it as a parlor game.

A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

As it is, though, I'll do what little I can in writing. Only it will be very little. I'm not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live.

As a matter of fact, nothing I might write could make any difference whatsoever. It would only be a "book" at the best. If it were a safely dangerous one it would be "scientific" or "political" or "revolutionary". If it were really dangerous it would be called "literature" or "religion" or "mysticism" or "art" and under one such name or another might in time achieve the emasculation of acceptance. If it were dangerous enough to be of any remote use to the human race it would be merely "frivolous" or "pathological" and that would be the end of that. Wiser and more capable men than I shall ever be have put forth their findings before you, findings so rich and so full of anger, serenity, murder, healing, truth, and love that it seems incredible the world were not destroyed and fulfilled in an instant. But you are too much for them: the weak in courage are strong in cunning; and one by one you have absorbed and captured and dishonored, and have distilled of your deliverers the most ruinous of poisons; people hear Beethoven in concert halls, or over a bridge game, or to relax; Cezannes are hung on walls, reproduced, in natural wood frames; van Gogh is the man who cut off his ear and whose yellows have recently become popular in window decoration . . .

However this may be, this is a book about "sharecroppers," and is written for those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down in the South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats; and in the hope too, that he will recommend this little book to really sympathetic friends, in order that our publishers may at least cover their investment and that some kindly thought may be turned our way, and a little of your money fall to poor little us."

 

James Agee, introduction, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

 

 

 

Your correspondent, has a very bad head cold and needs to go think some more thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: A Carcass in the World

  Matthew Shedden is a friend and editor of mine (he is the praxis editor for The Other Journal, a lovely and smart enterprise). He has excellent taste in books and now we get to reap the benefits of his excellent taste in art. So many parts of this essay (and the artist) spoke to me, but my favorite line is in regards to self-satisfied middle-class Christians: "they spoke of the assurances of life while staring at me anxiously”. The haunting nature of these paintings will not leave me for quite some time. Which is good. I need them to tell me about life in the thin, black-and-white spaces. 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: A Carcass in the World

 

by Matthew Shedden

 

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“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Toward the end of last year, I took the long hard dive into reading Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch. As I read through this novel, I was drawn into her language around paintings and art. It gave me a desire to connect to paintings despite the fact that I have no real knowledge of the art world. But on a trip to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon I pressed myself to find the art section and explore it in hopes of finding at least one book. As I wandered lost among the shelves of books of fine art I remembered an artist that I wrote a crummy paper on in seminary. I wasn’t sure where I had come across his art before but when I had seen some of his simple images, they ripped open a whole new place inside of me. They are, as one friend put it, haunting. Knowing his last name began with a ‘Rou’, I gave up exploring the whole art section and settled on finding his book.

The artist’s name is Georges Rouault. He was born in France in 1871 and passed away in 1958. One of the things that drew me to Rouault as an artist is the intertwining of life with his art. He once wrote, “My life and my art make a single whole”. Rouault was raised in a poor family, but more than that he was someone who saw the horrors of both World Wars as well as the Franco-Prussian war. His family was poor and destitute in many ways and it was the prompting of his grandfather that encouraged him to become an artist. I haven’t researched much of Rouault’s early life, but as he grew up he at times referred to his body as a “carcass”.

This notion of being a carcass in the world brings out what many consider the central theme of Rouault’s work, which is suffering. Many people, after seeing his paintings, remark about the raw nature of his art, the anguish in his subjects. This shouldn’t be a surprise because his subjects are often clowns, prostitutes, the sick, elderly, and the suffering Christ. For him, saints were those who suffered, and so he took time to paint them all in relation to the suffering one.  His portrayals of the middle class bourgeois are more startling. He especially disliked the Christian middle class for the way they spoke to him when he was young and starving for they “spoke of the assurances of life while staring at me anxiously”.

The book I picked up that day in Powell’s is one that captures one his greatest exhibits, Miserere et Guerre. Literally translated “Misery and War”. However, it is clear that the word Miserere comes from the first line for Psalms 51 in the Latin. These paintings, entirely in black and white, hit you with an overwhelming weight of suffering, but also provides a glimpse into the human condition. One clown painting is titled, Who does not put on make-up? But when you look at the picture it looks back at you asking about your make-up. Rouault accepted that we all wear masks that proclaim our role in society, but the poor wear the thinnest mask, that is, if they have one on at all.

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Another painting that challenges the notion of what is right side up and what is upside down is plate 55, Sometimes, the blind man consoles the seeing. In this image you see one person clearly in lament looking toward the sky, and another reaching out to him. It appears the seeing man is the blind man and the blind man is the seeing, but the one with the hand out and hand down is the one offering consolation. In the gospels it is often the blind who receive sight, but Rouault captures for us the consoling touch of another that opens us up to another kind of healing.

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One that has become my favorite as I’ve spent time with this collection is “Tomorrow will be beautiful, said the shipwrecked man.” The title comes from a poem Rouault wrote to accompany the exhibit, and I think it clearly draws out how we can look through his paintings and see hope. Suffering is a part of this life, one in Rouault’s mind, which we should not try as hard to avoid. In suffering he see us as people who become more than the masks, the make-up, and disguises we wear. But through it we, like the shipwrecked man, can proclaim tomorrow will be beautiful with the hope that comes through the resurrection.

Rouault viewed this series of paintings as devotional art. Because of this the curators of the exhibit, chronicled in the book, placed biblical quotations alongside his images. They remind us that although “rendered with thick black outlines and diffused gray tonalities  that evoke smoke and darkness of a world destroyed, the Miserere prints simultaneously have the luminescence of stained glass, hinting of light breaking through the darkness. While somber, they nonetheless allude to the promise of redemption, for as Rouault knew well, behind every shadow is a source of light.”

 

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imageMatthew Shedden is Praxis editor at The Other Journal and an associate Pastor in rural Oregon. He writes more at mshedden.com and on Twitter @sheddenm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Good Friday Edition

The art I want to talk about is hardly under the radar--Time magazine named it the "song of the century" in 1999. But still, it has the currents of the upside-down kingdom in it, specifically in speaking prophetically about injustice. Take a moment to listen/watch the video of Billie Holiday perform "Strange Fruit". For more information on the man who wrote the original poem, click here. For the image that inspired the poem, click here  

 

 

  [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs] Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

 

 

Quite a few years ago, my husband and I attended a small, progressive church. For the Good Friday service, there were stations set-up all around the small basement room we met in. I don't remember all the stations, but one is stuck in my memory for eternity. It was in a dark corner stage, curtains pulled so that the fluorescent lights didn't show through. My husband and I sat on a faded velvet couch and listened to Billie Holiday wail her song at us. On the screen, an image of a tree with bare limbs flickered. In my memory, there were birds on the branches, but my memory is not reliable.

As an installation piece, it was rather tame. A dark setting, a song, an image projected. But I had never heard the song before, and I had never had to face the picture of history being presented to me. On Good Friday, as I sat and let the words of sorrow wash over me, I was overcome. I stared at the image of the tree, and I imagined the strange fruit, the bodies waving from the branches. And instead of being horrified, of feigning shock, a deep sense of sadness filled me. At that moment, in that church basement, on that old velvet couch, I knew: I had killed those people. I was the one who had hung the nooses around their neck.

On that Good Friday, time and space and all that simply didn't matter. I was painted a portrait of what sin is, and how it affects us all. I was not allowed to look away, to gain distance or perspective. I knew I was the same as those people who lynched the boys, so full of anger and self-righteousness and a sense of satisfaction. I am no different from them, and I never was. All my life I had been told how my heart was black before Jesus came. But it's one thing to color in sin, neat and tidy in the boundaries of your heart. It's another to realize what makes someone kill another is the same that is within yourself.

I don't mean to sound hyperbolic, or overwrought, I am just trying to explain what I felt that day. What I feel when I listen to songs about John Wayne Gacy Jr., or the genocide in Syria, or the killing of Trayvon Martin. You can spend your whole life running, trying to make it appear white as snow. But in the end, we are all the same, and we don't get to claim otherwise.

The true bitterness of this crop is that we are all growing it.

 

//

 

The other station I remember from that day is the one where we took the Eucharist together. Coming from a realization of my own brokenness, into the harsh light of the basement room, I was finally ready for it. The simple bread and wine ceremony, the realization that this is why He came. He came to pour out his blood, to break his bones over death. He came for those boys, the ones who swayed in the trees. And he came for us lynchers, the red-cheeked, the nonchalant, the ones who are fine with how very wrong the systems of this world are--the ones who profit from it. I ate that bread so slowly, sipped the wine like it was the first time I understood what it was.

It was my first sense that forgiveness often feels like death, and I haven't been able to shake it since.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

i am the beggar of the world

url I was at a writing conference over the weekend, the first one I have ever been to. The highlight was meeting up with my friends, my lifeline, my cheering squad, my angel editors--calling them a writing group does not even begin to cut it. I also had the strange sensation of trying to match people up to their online profiles, with varying degrees of success. I knew, even before the conference began, that everyone would be so much more interesting than I could possibly believe. I wandered from session to session, from poet to writer to thinker to theologian. Sometimes I skipped and sat in the grass with good people. By the end, I was overwhelmed in every way.

During the sessions, my mind would sometimes wander. The conference itself was such a small microcosm: dismayingly white, educated, Christian, social media savvy types. I would think about my other life, the one back home. I kept thinking about my students, about the beautiful chaos of my classroom, my friends. As I listened to smart people talk about smart things, hovering between being accessible and literary, I was thinking about cell phones. I was thinking about how every morning I teach, the cell phones always ring, over and over again. I had given up on outlawing them; dozens of times a day I politely yet firmly tell my students to get up and go to the corner of the room to talk, so we can get on with class.

At the conference, I sat and listened to people talking about Novel of Ultimate Concern. My hand wanted to shoot up, to ask the same question in every session I went to: What about the poor? I should get the question tattooed on my forehead. I should make it backwards, just so I have to ask myself it first thing in the mornings when I look into the mirror.What does any of this mean if it is only available for a few?

I am thinking about how my ESL students are at the very bottom of our Empire, but whose lives are very much of ultimate concern. I am thinking about the cell phones, going off every few minutes, similar to the poor around the world, adapting to our shifting, stateless world. I am thinking about how they always answer the phones--not because they do not respect me or because they do not want to learn. They answer every phone call that they receive, because each one is of equal importance to them. They never know who is calling--a family member in Africa, a case-worked in America. They have to answer every single one, because it might be life or death, like so many things are.

They answer every call that comes in because they cannot read, not even the numbers.

 

 

I went to a session with Eliza Griswold, author of the Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, a women who has been on the frontline of war and poverty and religion, all over Asia and Africa. She talked about her new book of poems by Afghan women which she collected, and what they mean for those who create and recite them. Why does she share them? Because they are valuable. Why does she share them with us, with the world? Because she sees the limitations of how we portray people in the media, and she wants to subvert that. "I am not interested in the headlines," she told us. "But I am very interested in the places where the headlines are happening".

I'm taking that one for a new life motto. I am uninterested in the stories of poverty that you and I already know. I am very invested in the ones that surprise us, thrill us, knock us on our asses. The humor, the pathos, the sin, the ingenuity. Griswold shared with us one of the poems in her book, from which the title comes:

 

In my dream, I am the president.

When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

 

As you would expect, the rest of the poems are stunningly varied; tragic, violent, romantic, naughty, hilarious, contemporary, ancient. Reminiscent of my students, my friends, my neighborhood. Today, in class, another crisis was revealed, and I at a loss for how I can help, limited by my language and knowledge and the overwhelming magnitude of the problems that the poor and the non-literate face in my corner of the world. The beggars of the world is how some would view it, and I confess at times I am tempted to do the same. But we are not headlines. We are real people, real women, real stories. We are living in the places where the headlines take place, and I on a quest for the work of the kingdom of God in the midst of the violence and greed of our world.

I am thinking of the phones, ringing constantly in my ear, of what it means to never know who is on the other line. I am thinking about the frustration of never knowing how to translate well. I am thinking about how much I enjoy erudite, complex, academic conferences, and how ashamed and small it makes me feel. I am thinking about all the wonderful people I met this weekend, the gifts they are to me. I am thinking about all the people who weren't there, who felt excluded in some way--due to race or education or religion or money. I am thinking about how rich we are in some currencies, and utterly poor we are in others. I am thinking of how in order to tell stories well we must first be obsessed with them, how love covers a multitude of transcribing sins.

 

I am thinking about cell phones. I am thinking about how little I know, what a beggar of the world I am.

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

It's trite to talk about culture/art allowing us to break down walls, but in my experience it is so true. Books, music, movies, paintings--all of it has brought me outside of myself and my own carefully constructed ghetto of imagination. I love Bethany's perspective, because I too have had similar experiences. When you catch a glimpse of culture at it's finest, so strange and beautiful and free of appropriation. In our world, where cultures vie for survival, for power, the influence of joy cannot be understated. I am so grateful to Bethany for writing this beautiful piece on the legacy of culture.   

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

By Bethany Bassett

 

When Marcus Mumford and his band of indie folk-farmers hit the scene back in 2010, I had never heard the term hipster. I didn’t know suspenders were the new rubric of cool; I just knew that their music spoke to me, that Mumford’s “newly impassioned soul” plucked the strings of my own longing for a full-volume life. I queued up Sigh No More and played it on repeat for the next six months. Chances are, you did too. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200 and was the third most downloaded album of 2011. Everyone, it seemed, was getting his or her British bluegrass on.

 

But this story isn’t about Mumford & Sons. It’s about an almost impossibly obscure group of musicians from rural India who recorded an untitled EP with them.

Image from last.fm user rahsa

 

They went by Dharohar Project (pronounced “Dah-RHO-har”), and the only thing I knew about them was my own disappointment. I’d been hoping for a fresh dose of the barn-dance rock I’d been cycling through my stereo—not the wailing and twanging I associated with traditional Indian music. I gave the MP3 samples a once-over, but they only confirmed what I already knew: Jaw harp just wasn’t my jam.

 

My perspective landed on its head, however, once I saw the video of their live performance in London:

  [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EskBsvN5tDU]

 

The quality isn’t amazing, but I didn’t need HD resolution to see the joy reverberating across that stage, bounding from banjo to bhapang, rippling down from Indian bells and up the soles of British feet. Do you see it too? The way they laugh and beat their drums and move to the pulse of their collective art? Do you hear their delight? I had goose bumps within thirty seconds, wet eyes within ninety. This was no gentrified performance with cultural differences smoothed conveniently away; this was harmony at its freest, tribes and tongues and traditions rollicking together to create a new song. I couldn’t shake the impression that I was watching a six-minute preview of heaven.

 

Dharohar Project fascinated me. I wanted to find out more about this group who had brought so much color to my view of Kingdom-come, and as I researched, my goose bumps returned full-force. I learned that the nine Indian musicians came from different castes and religions. Some were Muslim and others Hindu. They came from social classes with barriers as thick as history, but they united to test their belief that music can overcome cultural differences. No wonder I saw heaven in their performance; Dharohar Project’s very existence is a redemption story.

 

I know to some extent what it’s like to break out of oppressive traditions masquerading as birthright. For the Dharohar musicians, it was the caste system; for me, it was the Quiverfull movement. Like them, I was born inside a series of walls, and learning to see the humanity of those on the other side required some hefty dismantling.  I learned through that experience, though, that God is in the [re]construction business: beauty out of ashes, new songs out of olds spites, a bright and harmonious Kingdom out of discordant humanity.

Image from last.fm user rahsa

 

I don’t know if Dharohar Project is still together or not, but I do know that what they created together is here to stay. It’s right there in their name, in fact—what their redemption story entails for their community, their children, and those of us still facing down walls. “Dharohar,” you see, is a word that has crossed from ancient Sanskrit into modern-day Hindi, quietly defying all attempts to confine it to the past.

 

It means legacy.

 

 

 

unnamedBethany Bassett is a fundamentalism survivor, a sedentary snowboarder, and a cappuccino junkie. She originally hails from Texas but has been adventuring in Italy with her husband and their two little girls for the last seven years. She blogs at coffeestainedclarity.com, where you’ll find out quickly that grace is her favorite thing in the world.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream

Some of the people who are most deeply connected to the joys and the sufferings of the world seem to lose their minds for the opera. I am not there yet, but I want to be. I absolutely adore this guest post by Newell, because he is writing about himself being the outsider--the one writing the operas for funsies. The history of the form and music also surprised me, in the best way possible. I encourage you to check out Newell and his other writings. This little post is like a teaser for his great, mysterious, music-filled life.   

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream

by Newell Hendricks

 

I am in the process of publishing a collection of stories from my life.  One section of the book is five stories about major musical compositions I have written.  The last story in this section is about my opera, ASCONA.  The excerpt below is near the ending of that story.  

 

Writing operas was a wonderful way to spend my days.  I loved it – getting lost in my imagination – feeling the most extreme emotions and trying to capture them in sound and form – living a fantasy life to the max that actually had a tangible notation and had the possibility of being reconstructed by performers and experienced by audiences.  It was a constant high – living in ecstasy as long as I could maintain the energy and distance myself from obvious reality.

That reality is that the socio-economics of our day does not lend itself to the production of operas.  The larger musical forms of western culture evolved under a very different socio-economic system, one in which there was a highly talented, highly skilled, completely exploitable class that could perform the music.  In the Renaissance and earlier, the choir schools of the major cathedrals were where musicians were trained.  The church was also the institution that took in orphans.  This was the pool from which musicians came.  Some of the great composers of the Renaissance were Josquin de Pres:  “Joe from the field,” and Pierre de la Rue: “Pete from the street.”  Well into the Baroque period, many musicians came from orphanages.  All of the Vivaldi violin concertos were written for girls at the orphanage where he worked.  In the Classical period, the cathedral schools were still the center of musical education.  The Kapellmeister would go out into the rural countryside looking for talented peasants, take them back to the school as scholarship students, and train them and use them for their music program.  Hayden was such a student.  Even at the height of his fame, Hayden, the most renowned composer of Europe, had to dress up in his servant’s uniform and report to his patron for duty every day.

And well into the twentieth century, musicians were low down on the economic scale.  They were tradespeople.

It is true that in the nineteenth century a few musicians did achieve star status and became extremely wealthy.  Accompanying the phenomenon of the superstars was the cult of art as religion with these stars having their devoted worshipers.  Opera composers and singers were certainly in the center of this cult and Richard Wagner reigned supreme as the high priest.  His opera Tristan und Isolde was commissioned by a wealthy count who not only paid him a handsome sum to write the opera, but set him up in his summer villa to compose it.  Wagner responded by seducing the count’s wife, making that the story of the opera, selling the finished opera to someone else, and saying that it was a story about “ideal Christian love.”

What was I thinking, wanting to be an opera composer?

I loved writing opera.  It fit with the day dreaming, but I balked at the social role expected of one in this profession.  Denise Levertov, who had written the libretto for my oratorio, El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, told Karen, librettist for my last 2 operas, that she had never known anyone as bad as me at promoting his art.

The year I lived under a tree I had a job conducting a church choir in Isla Vista, the student housing community for the University of California at Santa Barbara.  The popular service for the students was at 11:00 and was a joyous celebration with balloons ending with people dancing around the communion table singing Lord of the Dance.  I played string bass in the band as a volunteer.  But the church was funded by older people who, for themselves, wanted a more traditional service.  This was the service for which I was paid $8 per week to provide a choral anthem.  I had three women in the choir.  I sang tenor and the organist sang bass and we rehearsed at 8 a.m. before the church service on Sunday.  There was a time when I would go into the church on Thursday night, after the bulletin had been printed, and look at what the minister had written as “The Collect” words that were read by all at the beginning of the service.

For three weeks in a row, I took this text and on Friday and Saturday wrote a simple anthem using these words.  The bulletin simply said “anthem.”  No one ever asked or wondered how I had found the piece which used the same words as the Collect, but it felt good to me.  I was contributing in a special way to the worship experience of this community.

 

I think I would take that feeling over the adulation that Wagner received.

 

 

 

unnamed-8Newell Hendricks, as an opera composer, received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts to write an oratorio: El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, with poet Denise Levertov.   In honor of his 50th birthday, Richard Dyer, reviewer for the Boston Globe, wrote a feature article on him with the headline “An interesting and productive career outside the mainstream.”   This headline would equally apply to his later work leading popular-education-style workshops, his homesteading activities, or his political activism.  Newell lives in Cambridge, MA, with his violinist wife, Barbara Englesberg.   They have two adult daughters, and two granddaughters. Website: newellhendricks.wordpress.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/newell.hendricks
For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

Upside-Down Art: Bakerwoman God

  Alissa's post today stems from a beautiful poem that encourages us to see God in new ways. I love it. This is also my year of reading/learning to love poetry, so I greatly identified with this piece. Isn't that the point of art--to help us connect with people/Christ in new ways? To create threads between the world we experience and the ones we don't? I'm so grateful Alissa shared this gorgeous piece, and gives us all a chance to think about the One who is kneading us. 

 

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Bakerwoman God

by Alissa BC

 

 

 

 

 

The summer I found myself perusing the shelves of the public library like it was my job, I was a newlywed, unemployed, college student in a new city. God had grown increasingly and unrelentingly distant over the past year, and by that summer I had become unable to pray, read my bible, or relate in any way to the God I knew, white and bearded in the clouds. So I filled my days with piles of books from the library and old films from the DVD section, alternately attempting to fix and distract myself from my new spiritual realities.

One afternoon, knee deep in the religious section looking for the God I seemed to have lost, I happened upon a book called The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Published in 1984, the copy I held in my hands was old and worn, with an outdated, mustard design on the cover and what I assumed would be outdated contents.

Still, the concept intrigued me. I had not been raised with any sort of awareness of divine feminine nor with the option of calling God She. For most of my life, I had struggled with the concept of a male-only God, but I never once thought to challenge the traditions that had been passed down to me, to see God as both Father and Mother. That kind of thing was forbidden in the evangelical circles I inhabited, condemned as "goddess worship," and I obediently accepted the restriction. Instead, I had worked quietly for years at overcoming the baggage that a male God carried for me. I tried my best to imagine a Father God who was nurturing rather than authoritative, who was loving rather than stern. But by the time I encountered The Divine Feminine, I had lost all ability to feel any sense of intimacy with or trust in the God of my youth. I took the book home.

Over the next few days, I pored over it in small chunks, soaking up each bit of wisdom I found within its pages. Despite having read the Bible in its entirety several times over, I was astounded by the amount of distinctly female imagery for God to be found there. As I read, I took my little neglected Bible and found every verse said to allude to the Divine She, highlighting each one in bright orange so I would never forget it. I learned to see God as Nursing Mother and Midwife, Homemaker and Mother Hen.

But the imagery that captured me most, was that of the baking woman. In this section of her book, Mollenkott quotes the first two stanzas of the poem “Bakerwoman God” by Alla Renee Bozarth:

Bakerwoman God,

I am your living bread.

Strong, brown Bakerwoman God,

I am your low, soft, and being-shaped loaf.

I am your rising bread,

well-kneaded by some divine

and knotty pair of knuckles,

by your warm earth hands.

I am bread well-kneaded.

The imagery wrapped it arms around me with its warmth. As I read, I could see Her hands, calloused but soft, moving silently over some divine countertop dusted with flour. I could feel Her knuckles, strong yet tender, digging, digging, digging into the doughy depths of my being. Bakerwoman God was gentle in Her firmness, kind in Her correction. Her kneading was not painless, but it was filled with love. I felt safe in Her hands.

This description of God felt more true and comforting than any I had ever known. It came as a brief but refreshing sip of cold water to my soul that year, allowing me a glorious peek into God's love at a time when I had all but lost sight of it.

Even now, years later, as my feelings of distance from God remain, I often find myself returning to the image again and again. Sometimes, in my darkest moments, the nights when God feels like little more than a deep chasm of absence, I'll close my eyes and remember Bakerwoman God, who even in Her silence is making me bread well-kneaded.

 

unnamed-7Alissa BC is a writer, wife, and mother. You can find her at alissabc.com, where she writes her heart out about doubt, mystery, and other everyday discoveries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Disappearing, Endless Love

I so resonate with Deidre in this piece. I am not a huge modern art fan myself, but when I do find a piece that speaks to me--it sort of takes my breath away. I am so grateful for this beautiful, succinct essay on finding universal themes of sorrow and love in art--and how similar we all are despite our world doing it's best to convince we are all alone in our miseries. Any piece of art that asks us to crack our hearts open just a bit wider is to me a blessing from Christ himself.   

 

Upside-Down Art: Disappearing, Endless Love

Guest Post by Deidre Sanchez

 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Image from the Brooklyn Museum

 

I am not one for contemporary art. Most of the large scale displays in the big museums fail to evoke any emotion in me. I always feel so disconnected from whatever the artist is trying to say. As if we live on two different planes of meaning and we’re talking to cross purposes. It’s always the Pollacks and Van Goghs that I linger in front of. The O’ Keefes that steal my breath. The Chagall’s that draw me to wonder.  When I visit museums, I dutifully walk the floors of contemporary art, sometimes almost at a run. I don’t want to miss something creative and beautiful just because of my own prejudice but I am always prepared for disappointment. In the Chicago Museum of Art I was (almost) running the top floor, smirking inwardly at the two hipsters stopped in front of some tangled up string engaged in a very serious discussion on how this was so derivative of Lindberg. (I know. I’m the worst).

 

I enter a new room and a flash of glowing color catches the corner of my eye. I spin right. There is a luminous heap of something. Glass? Lightbulbs? I’m not sure what it is that's piled in the corner of the room. It seems so alive, iridescent, incandescent. I thought this pile must be lighted up from the inside: pulsing with color and light as I move towards it. I read the card. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA). Ross Laycock was the artist’s partner and died of AIDs. The pile was originally 175 lbs worth of cellophane wrapped candy, which represented his ideal body weight. Visitors are encouraged to take a piece of candy to represent his slowly diminishing body weight. The artist asked that the museum replenish the pile “thereby metaphorically granting his partner perpetual life.” Love. The word rings like a gong struck in my head. All the pain of loss and love sitting on the ground in front of me. I reach my hand out to take a piece, meditating on the pain of watching someone you love shrink smaller with disease. Is that a universal experience? Do we all at some point lose one we love to deadly disease? Watch them disappear piece by piece. If we could all grant them perpetual life in the vast array of  colorful glory in which they lived!

 

I have the piece of candy still. It’s sitting in the basket by my bed. The cellophane wrapper dulled with dust, less stunning now that it’s separated from its mound. Every once in a while I take it out and roll it between my fingers. I don’t know Gonzalez-Torres. I wouldn't recognize him if I passed him on the street. I don’t assume that I have much in common with a gay, Cuban-American artist. And yet his work threw out a thread and drew me in. Into his pain. He tied our shared experience together with one stroke of breathtaking imagery. And when I close my eyes I see the glow of cellophane wrappers lit by a skylight overhead and I think of Ross.

 

 

unnamed-6Deidre Sanchez is a Jesus-follower, wife and mother, a disillusioned optimist, amateur cook and obsessive reader. She currently writes at agapeeverywhere.wordpress.com. Her blog is a personal exploration of the nature of love. It’s an experiment in how far love can go, what it looks like and how people experience it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the Upside-Down Art series (and to submit your own!) click here.

 

 

 

 

Upside Down Art: Anita's Appalachian Art

This simple post is about one of the oldest forms of material story-telling: quilt making. I love thinking about the history of quilts, and how Yvette brings to mind that there is still a desperate need to help keep people warm in many parts of the country. Quilts are practical, and a form of expression--which is pretty great if you think about it. In many ways, quilting reminds me of hardcore DIY culture--and I am starting to think I might like to start myself . . .  

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Anita’s Appalachian Art

by Yvette Autin Warren

 

So much of what we call “art” is simply the ways in which others tell their stories. Artworks are often celebrations of the lives of everyday individuals. These celebrations can be created in many differing forms. In Appalachia, a common way to memorialize special moments, beliefs, and memories is with quilting. It was not uncommon, in years gone by, to see quilt frames fastened to the ceilings of family living rooms with pulleys for lifting them out of the way when the room was needed for other purposes.

 

Women would sit around the frame, telling stories as they stitched stories from fabrics not large enough to be used for anything other than quilt pieces. Most of these masterpieces were actually used to keep kids and other family members from freezing. In many areas of Appalachia, quilting has evolved into an elaborate art form.  At the home of Anita, in Coker Creek, Tennessee, this evolution is amazingly advanced.

Anita seems to quilt like other people breathe, both as gifts for her family and for many whom she will never meet. She is involved in an effort to soothe children who are experiencing trauma with the gift of the handiwork of many women who quietly care. In the tiny artists’ hamlet of Coker Creek, Tennessee, hundreds of quilts are made by dozens of women working separately and together on artistic Quilts For Kids, which happens to be the name of their organization that spearheads the group’s efforts. For more information on the group, you can click here.

 

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©2014 Yvette Autin Warren

 

Yvette Autin Warren is the author of 3 books, available here. Her other writings can be found on Patheos here or TnMtnHome.blogspot.comOneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com, and http://worldpulse.com/user/13827/journal.

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the Upside-Down Art series (or to submit your own essay!) click here

 

 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Prison, Beauty and Common Grace

I'm so excited for this first guest post in this Upside-Down Art series. RO contacted me about an area she is passionate in--prisons and their inhabitants, whom she views with such grace and love. I had heard of writing/oral history classes with prisoners, but never art projects. This post eloquently explains the horror of incarcerating people and withhold from them the beauty of the world--while still showing that God is still there. A challenging, thoughtful post for us on the outside.   

 

 

 

Prison, Beauty, and Common Grace by R.O.

 

There have been times in my life where depression and anxiety have walked every step with me. Their weighty bodies cemented to my shoulders like gargoyles, mouths permanently open-wide, hissing into each ear: “You are not good enough. You don’t work hard enough. You will mess up everything good in your life.”

But even in the midst of these lies, God finds ways to remind me of his truth. So often he does this through the beauty of the world around me. I see pink light from the setting sun angled on a grey building, hear something as simple and amazing as an echo, feel cold air sting my cheeks. And I think, “even if I fail at everything, no one can take this away from me.” This everyday beauty of the world, available to me in some form no matter my circumstances, is God’s common grace to all people. It is our Father reminding us that his love for us does not depend on our good performance.

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It seems sort of simple when compared with all the atrocities of prison— the state’s misguided idea that trading violence for violence will end violence— but the profound indignity of denying a person God’s common grace of this world’s everyday beauty is striking to me. Prisons are designed for exactly this. They replace the beauty of creation that God would give to every person with cinderblock walls, artificial lighting, a stainless steel bowl acting as toilet a foot from your bed, access to an “outside” patch of concrete surrounded by walls for maybe thirty minutes a day—day in and day out, all the same.

And still there is beauty.

Prisoners become artists, creating the beauty that prison denies them, and I consider myself blessed to have heard some of their stories. There is the fourteen-year old boy who wrote poems in his cell, the man who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole who paints scenes of the world he hasn’t experienced in over thirty years, the girls at the youth prison who wrote and performed in their own musical, even the tough-looking young men who draw intricate and delicate designs on the backs of their letters.

These are people who are often excluded from that popular new category “creatives,” but they still are made (and are making) in the image of our Creator God. They create because there is no beauty unless they make it themselves. They create for the same reasons we all do: to comfort, to entertain, and to tell their stories. There are still more imprisoned people who are without the support of prisoner-arts programs, some without even pencil and paper, some in solitary confinement; let’s not forget that they are creatives, too. This is God’s common grace, which no one can take from us, that he has made us in his image; he has made us all creatives.

“For his participatory project, Some Other Places We’ve Missed artist and photographer Mark Strandquist held workshops in various jails and prisons, and asked prisoners, ‘If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?’ Along with the written descriptions, individuals provided a detailed memory from the chosen location, and described how they wanted the photograph composed. Strandquist then photographed and [an] image is handed or mailed back to the incarcerated participants.” from Prison Photography:

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R.O. is a Midwestern law student who will soon be a Southern public defender. She loves to talk (and learn) about justice and mercy, living in the upside down kingdom, and criminal justice reform. Her Enneagram type is 5 and she is an INFJ, if that means anything to you.

 

For more information on the Upside-Down Art series, click here. And submit your own essay!

 

 

 

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