“I’m all alone because all my friends have died. I’m not doing anything because I don’t have anyone to do them with anymore. I’m just waiting to die.”
I have a variation of this conversation every few weeks with my grandfather each time I come to visit him at my parent’s home, where he has been living since my grandmother died a couple of years ago. Each time I hear those words, I both sympathize with the sentiment, and in the back of my heart I sense a small uprising of protest. The fibers of my heart rebel against the idea that my grandfather is a worthless man, even if he is continually confronted by the sense of abandonment which waves of deaths must bring. Even yesterday afternoon, after having another of these conversations, we received a phone call that my grandfather’s sister had died. He retreated to his room after getting the news, understandably shaken again.
The day before, I played the piano for a funeral of a friend from church who was four years older than I am. He died unexpectedly from a heart attack. The morning of the funeral, I learned that another friend’s husband was just diagnosed with cancer. And when I went to church, I spoke with a friend whose family is in Liberia, West Africa, living near the center of the city where the Ebola outbreak is exponentially killing thousands of people. I come home, and turn on my computer to catch up on the news from my second home in Hong Kong, where students and citizens are protesting the Chinese government, fighting for open elections and the ability to chose their own leaders. I fear that many there will die for their efforts fighting for justice. All the while, another close friend lies in bed from a curable, but painful illness which takes months to heal from. In my circle of relationships, the world is groaning right now. I know I am not unique.
Lately, my art has taken a rather surprisingly abstract turn as I am drawn to create colorful, but undefined imagery, leaving my geometric, linear figurative work for this time. It is as if God is allowing me to explore in my devotional imagination what it would be like to create as if the things of this world are less and less my home. However, in many respects, the more I am drawn to be close to God, the more the world seems to be more vibrant, more important, more full of possibility in a spiritual sense. I am catching glimmers of the spiritual reality immersing our world, which often is just out of sight. It is as if God is calling to each of us to become more and more holy, shedding the things we cling to for control, and allowing ourselves to freely float as He holds us in the waters of His love. He is washing us clean, helping us to stop clinging to all those things which we think give us security, identity, and meaning and focus more and more on enjoying the sensation of floating in God’s mercy and grace.
God, my cravings for control is the debris on the river bottom of my life. Burn these waterlogged sin-tendencies up, so that what flows out of me, while you keep me on this earth, is clean, pure, life-giving … so much more like You.
I am 41 years old, and am starting to know who I am. I think a lot of people don’t need to think about this to find strength for their lives, because life is busy and full of the daily tasks of surviving day-to-day. But I lost three jobs in three years, jobs which I had unknowingly taken pride in and defined my worth by. I thought I was somebody, and I am, but not for the reasons I previously thought.
Losing my job over and over again pried loose the death-grip I had on my identity one stubborn finger at a time. I believed my job was a way to prove to everyone that I was noble, doing difficult things for society and helping people whom the world had turned its back on. I took a lot of pride in this, and it is a little embarrassing to see these words on a page. But while I was making art all along the way – both with music and paint – I was not doing what I needed to do to live my life in a sustainable way. I was willing to sap all my energy into causes, and ignore the people around me – and my own health.
Losing my job made me face things I was unable, or unwilling to face. Here are a few of them that come to mind here:
– I cannot do everything I set my mind to. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to do things, or give up easily. It does mean that I need to be wise about what is good for me to do in the sense of being well equipped to do them. In my case, it means being 100% committed to doing work that does not routinely put myself in physical danger, or in jobs where dealing with threatening situations is part of the work. With a resume that makes me look well-suited for this kind of work, this is a hard thing to do.
– My wife loves me. I really struggle with the idea that my wife can love me when I feel like less. I don’t want to define what “less” is, because it is a shifting thing in my mind. It is pretty easy for me to beat up on myself for being less of this thing or that, comparing my present self with who I idealize my past self to be. But a couple of weeks ago, on vacation, we were having tea-time in this little Singaporean eatery in Hong Kong and talking. I really heard her tell me that she loved me even though I was – in this case – working and earning less. It is two weeks later, and I still can remember her saying this – and that I wanted to cry pretty badly afterwards. Maybe she said this before, but this time, I heard it. I can remember it. I feel fortunate, because I couldn’t accept this before … and now I can.
I need to be around nurturing and supportive people. I am really lucky to have found several part time jobs to string together to make money last year and this coming year. Two of them are working for incredibly encouraging supervisors. I’ve never had a boss or supervisor who wanted to invest in me, and the feeling is often emotionally overwhelming to the point of tears. Oh, that’s another thing – tears. Tears for me are the sign that my heart is still working. When I was in my other jobs, I stopped feeling things that deeply. I developed depression and anxiety, and still need to be diligent about taking my medications, though I no longer need weekly therapy.
I also have a family of friends who care about me, who listen to me, and who know my shadow-side. It is humbling to know that they still choose to be part of my life.
Art is the fruit of my newly pruned life. For a while, while my depression was strong, I stopped making art. Painting is the time where I feel closest to God, in the silence of my studio. I just couldn’t stand being in that quiet place with all the rage and panic I felt swirling in my stomach. The thing is, in the past couple of months, I’ve wanted to paint again, and I’m just happy each day that I feel that urge again. For now, I’m just going to take it as it comes, and try not to force myself to create.
Because I was drowning, and now, for the first time in a long time, I’ve surfaced above the water, and know that I can keep my head up while I paddle towards shore.
I have been greatly blessed the past few weeks, though I have been pressed to my limits at work. I have had a number of difficult situations at work with patients, insurance reviewers, and staff that have been quite distressing to me. But through it all I have been able to create beautiful art.
I had a very fortunate thing happen to me the other day. I was interviewed by the Grand Rapids Press and they ran a rather long article on artists serving the church in the RELIGION section of the paper which was a wonderful article. I will provide a link to it on the website for those of you who would like to read it. However, the article mentioned that my work would be a part of the Celebration Exhibit which opened this weekend at I United Church.
Well, wouldn’t you know it … the two artists interviewed for this article both were cut by the juror! It was ironic. But what was really ironic to me was that though it never feels good to be rejected from an exhibit, I was quietly at peace about the whole thing. I think the nice surprise of being in the paper more than made up for the disapointment of being cut from the show. The funny thing is, I have not sold anything for over two years now … and in my heart I know that I am creating some of my best work I have ever made. I don’t know what God is up to, but I am curious to see what comes next.
I wanted to show the painting here, because I TOTALLY love it, and it is hanging in my living room right now – just perfect for Chinese New Year. It is a metaphorical dream image of the parable of the lost coin, and I love the sense of movement and dynamism that I am exploring lately.