The Art of Curiosity

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“Explosion of Paint” by Mark Chadwick. CC via Flickr.

I know next to nothing about art history (or visual art in general), but I love art museums. Maybe it’s because it is a social-ish activity that requires little to no talking (an introvert’s dream) but after spending a few hours at the Minneapolis Institute of Art this weekend, I’m left wondering just what it is that captivates me so profoundly.

I think for one thing, art helps me notice details I generally overlook. A series of landscapes caught my attention this weekend. I was drawn especially to the clouds in several of them: the play of light and darkness, the gentle shadows that set the tone for the entire rest of the painting. Are they heavy and ominous, signaling an impending storm? Fluffy and light, floating above a carefree summer afternoon? I considered the brush strokes that brought the rest of the image into life: the perfect angles and shadows and spots of bright color that turned a canvas into a window looking over the foamy ocean or a distant mountain range or a magically green, sun-spotted forest. Studying these paintings helps me look at the world around me through a different lens, one focused on the brilliant diversity of colors, shapes, lines, and textures that define our existence, even when we are completely unaware of them.

Perhaps another part of my fascination is that art transports us across time and space, offering glimpses of different landscapes, ways of life, and history from a variety of perspectives. Paintings that are hundreds of years old, ancient pottery, and religious relics remind me of my smallness in the great sweeping narrative of humanity. People have been seeking meaning and transcendence for thousands of years. Love, loss, joy, anxiety, and hurt are nothing new. Art serves evidence that we dwell in the great mystery of what it is to be alive together, with those who have gone before us, those who create among us now, and those who have yet to add their art to the world.

I am also often struck by the lack of resolve and definitiveness in many pieces. The wonderful and frustrating thing about art is that it doesn’t tell me (at least with words) how to feel or how to interpret it. I’m forced to let go of my default dualistic framework of right/wrong, correct/incorrect, perfect/imperfect and instead sit with the possibility of multiple interpretations. Art also invites me to experience emotion that completely surpasses my logical, word loving, theory constructing brain and instead begins in a different, perhaps deeper, place. It hints at a different way of being, a way that is much more like poetry and less like a textbook and a way of living that is more open and spacious, leaving room for mystery and wonder. It helps me see life from a different angle without jumping to defensiveness. And it causes me to consider a world that lets me be okay with not having it all figured out – and gives me permission to be present and curious in the midst of the unknowing.

I wonder if some of artists’ greatest gifts to the world are the ways in which they invite us to live counterculturally. Art has the power to inspire reverence, attentiveness to detail, and a slower way of moving through the world. When you enter an art museum or gallery, the goal isn’t to “do” or accomplish anything but to simply take in, to ponder, to slow down, to notice, to wonder.

In a culture of short attention spans, workaholism, overstimulation, and constant information consumption via digital media, to simply stand and notice the details of a painted canvas seems irrational, wasteful, or even boring. But I wonder how much our world would change if we approached all of creation first and foremost with a posture of curiosity and reverence, with the underlying assumption that whatever and whoever we see possesses inherent worth and a perspective worth pondering. Might art invite us into a communal practice of holy curiosity?

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“Live the questions now.”

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“Nature” by ChrisA1995.

I recently came across Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, a 19th and 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist. Rilke’s work is introspective, existential, and mystical, revealing a deep reverence for nature, the self, and the great mystery of the divine. His language is masterful, and yet he openly acknowledges the limits of words to capture the complexity and and simply unknowable dimensions of lived experience. The collection of ten letters that make up Letters to a Young Poet are written to a young man about to enter the German military and are filled with gorgeous prose about the art of writing as well as the art of living. The following passage from Rilke’s fourth letter has especially captivated me this week. What speaks to you?

“I am touched by your beautiful anxiety about life, even more than when I was in Paris, where everything echoes and fades away differently because of the excessive noise that makes Things tremble. Here, where I am surrounded by an enormous landscape, which the winds move across as they come from the seas, here I feel that there is no one anywhere who can answer for you those questions and feelings which, in their depths, have a life of their own; for even the most articulate people are unable to help, since what words point to is so very delicate, is almost unsayable. But even so, I think that you will not have to remain without a solution if you trust in Things that are like the ones my eyes are now resting upon. If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” 

Tokens of Tangible Grace: Sweatshirt Blankets, Ceramic Bowls, and Coffee Stains

IMG_5713 (1)The warm sun, the fresh air, the singing birds, and the hints of budding trees have pretty much transformed my entire outlook on life within the course of 48 hours. Spring is here, and the world suddenly feels lighter in a million different ways.

The contrast from merely a week ago is incredible. In the midst of what seemed like the world’s longest winter, I found myself digging deep for a glimpse of the joy that suddenly seems so much more accessible under the springtime sun. Throughout winter’s long, cold nights and often gloomy days, I was desperately seeking evidence that there was still reason for delight. When I got stuck in my own head in my world of reading and writing and research, I needed a reminder that my life had purpose beyond myself. I needed tangible evidence of a life of adventure and passion and laughter when the girl who readily embraced those things somehow seemed so far out of reach.

Thankfully, I found those reminders in abundance. They bubbled up in relationships, in conversations, in worship, in unexpected adventures. But sometimes these moments of grace also found me in the most ordinary of objects: items made of paper and wood and polyester, decorated with Sharpies and screen print and handwritten letters. Objects that somehow transcend their physicality, crossing boundaries of time and space with their memories and warm reminders of people and communities whose lives have intersected with my own, bringing the purpose and joy that felt so elusive as blizzard after blizzard raged outside my window.

I felt showered in love in the home I’ve shared with two of my very best friends: the once floral/now gray couch where visitors have crashed, that has held us in lazy afternoon naps, and that has offered its magical comforting powers in our tears and its cozy hospitality in movie nights. The dishes on which we have shared meals. The table around which we’ve gathered in conversation and laughter and comfortable silence. The carpet that now sports its share of coffee, wine, and mud stains, evidence of coming and going, of activity and rest.

Peace wraps me in the quilts pieced together by kind church ladies, a reminder of the blessing that continues to offer warmth and protection wherever I go. In the intricately stitched quilt carefully designed by my grandma with themed fabric picked out just for me. In the slightly faded sweatshirt blankets from the Bible camp I love so dearly, memories of songs and skits and silliness and tears and messy, messy love woven in to the cotton polyester blend, the imagined smell of campfire and musty cabins still wrapping me in nostalgia and comfort.

Family surrounds me in the photos hanging on my bedroom walls: My childhood best friends and me on the first day of Kindergarten, gripping each others’ hands in the parking lot and sporting poofy bangs, Disney princess t-shirts, and our shiny Lisa Frank plastic backpacks. The Benson family portrait of my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents all lined up near old John Deere tractors on my family’s farm. My siblings and me on a northern Minnesota dock, proudly showing off a heavy stringer of fish.

Gratitude overwhelms me as I survey the gold beanie from college freshman orientation and the diploma propped up right beside it, bookends of a four-year journey of glorious learning and too much coffee and long afternoons analyzing psychology research and late nights in the campus ministry office and Thursday evenings spent singing camp songs and then shortly after trekking off to the local dive bar.

Humility confronts me in the clumsy blue nesting bowls I made in my introductory ceramics course I picked up “just for fun” my senior year of college. Hidden under the polished glaze are the memories of the early morning trips my roommate and I would make to the ceramics studio: the ring in which my perfectionism, my sense of humor, and my simple desire to create had it out at the potters wheel.

The joy of learning bursts from my bookshelf, stacks of books containing the wisdom of teachers and mentors who continue to guide and inspire: the theologians, the psychologists, the poets, the social critics, the storytellers who take me to another world, only to reveal profound truths about this one. The writers who have given me courage to write. The authors who make me uncomfortable. The well-worn pages that have carried me in faith or pointed me to purpose beyond myself when I feel stuck, lost, or alone, each one a marker on the journey of learning and dismantling and reconstructing and sometimes blindly falling back into a faith story I pray is big enough to hold my questions and doubts and voices that seem so wise but irreconcilable.

Adventure stirs in the tokens of travels: The colorful pottery from Jerusalem, the olive wood nativity scene from Bethlehem. The mini Eiffel Tower purchased from a street vendor in Paris, the scarves from Florence, the wooden necklace from a market in Banos, Ecuador. The seashells from a beach in California, the Mardis Gras beads from New Orleans, the painting of Denver’s golden aspen trees.

Connection finds me in the birthday cards still lined up on my desk. In the yoga mat rolled up in the corner, that when unfolded becomes a sanctuary of sorts for discovering my own strength and for learning to trust myself. In the crisp Palm Sunday palm branch still propped up on my dresser, a reminder that I am part of a profound story that spans across space and time and calls me out of myself and into the world.

At the end of the day, this stuff is exactly that, just stuff. Sometimes it clutters. Sometimes it distracts. But this stuff also offers the tangible evidence of relationships and learning and self-discovery. They are objects that have become symbols of where I’ve been and glimpses of hope for where I have yet to go, simple reminders of the joy that it is just to be alive. 

Baking Show Binges & Dessert Factory Wisdom

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Gingerbread by Mark Manguerra

I was down for the count with a sinus infection last week (my roommate can attest to the fact that it was a pretty pathetic sight), and I passed a whole lot of time curled up on the couch watching my new obsession: Zumbo’s Just Desserts. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it’s a Netflix Original series featuring Australian pastry chef Adriano Zumbo. Twelve Australian contestants don their aprons and gather in a Willy Wonka style “dessert factory” to face off in a series of baking, piping, glazing, garnishing, and gravity-defying dessert designing challenges. One by one the judges taste and critique the contestants’ sweet creations, and in each episode the two lowest scorers go head to head in a “Zumbo Challenge”: baking one of Chef Zumbo’s seemingly impossible recipes. I don’t know if it was the impeccable background music, the fabulous dessert factory decorations, the ridiculous tasks, the mix of personalities in the kitchen, or watching aspiring chef’s dreams come true or come crashing down in front of my eyes, but after one episode, I was totally sucked in.

I quickly gave up on the idea of ever being able to replicate the desserts the contestants concocted, but it turns out there’s a whole lot one can learn from a baking show binge. So, below are ten nuggets of culinary-turned-life-wisdom from Zumbo’s Just Desserts! (Who said Netflix watching wasn’t a worthwhile pastime? 😉)

  1. Details are important, but you also need to prioritize. Sometimes you just have to call it “good enough” and move on to other elements.
  2. A little trash talk is okay.
  3. Believe in yourself. If you don’t have confidence in your own creative abilities, no one else will.
  4. Balancing your flavors is key. Not all flavors pair well together and some simply overpower the others. Knowing what compliments and what overwhelms is crucial.
  5. Style is great if you can pull it off. But sometimes it’s okay to just get something on the plate.
  6. Take risks…responsibly.
  7. Everyone has a bad day in the kitchen once in the while. The good news is a single failure doesn’t have to define you forever.
  8. Don’t let your fear paralyze you. Perfectionism, lack of experience, seemingly impossible recipes, cakes that literally defy gravity… Take a deep breath, keep pressing on, and enjoy the adventure with a healthy dose of humor.
  9. Sometimes you have to improvise. The mousse doesn’t set. The chocolate mold cracks. Your cheesecake is overbaked. Whatever the setback, trust that all is not necessarily lost! After all, creative last-minute solutions might lead to tasty new discoveries.
  10. Have fun. Seriously. Otherwise just get out of the kitchen.

Story Water (Rumi)

Hey friends,

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Today I want to share another poem that I have been carrying with me the past couple of weeks, this time by Rumi, the great 13th century Persian mystic and Muslim scholar. His words have been calling me into the elusive in-between space of hiddeness and revelation, of mystery and knowing. Today, I’m wonder what it would mean to bathe in each others’ stories, especially in this cultural moment of fear, polarization, and snap judgments. Where do we encounter mystery, beauty, and fullness of each other? Where might we catch a glimpse of, taste, or touch the Divine in our fast-paced, technological world? How might story water clean and quench us even now?

Story Water
By: Rumi

A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that’s blazing
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.

 

 

The Winter that Never Ends (and seeking life in the midst of it)

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Winter Road” by Pavel P

My soul is longing for springtime and sunshine. Winter has left my body feeling sluggish and my thoughts stuck on a never-ending loop of anxiety, angst, and gloom. Little things (assignments, meetings, social or community events) have begun to feel like insurmountable tasks. I’ve been struggling to get my feet under me this semester and to find the motivation and fire that is generally so characteristic of my overachiever self.

So, as the snow begins to pile once again, I’ve decided to take stock of the little practices that have become my saving graces this winter. They have pointed me toward life and joy and creativity during the long winter nights and gray gloomy days. They have helped me foster inner strength and find connection with others. They continue to help me care for my particular needs while guiding me away from self-centeredness.

As we continue to journey toward spring’s elusive warmth, I invite you to take stock of your own life-giving practices – and maybe even try something new! Some of my favorites are listed below. They may or may not resonate, and some of them might not even be accessible options for you. But I’d love to hear about what keeps you going this time of year!

1. Yoga.
Sure, yoga’s the latest trendy thing and is quickly becoming one of the most “basic” white girl past-times, often totally separated from it’s deep, spiritual, Eastern origins. But, at the same time, my home practice has been one of the most life-giving disciplines I’ve taken up in the past couple of years. Yoga helps me ground myself in the moment, reconnect with my body and my breath, and tap into my own inner strength and balance. It’s helped me discover the power of creating space, trusting myself, breathing into potential challenges, and claiming my own power. It invites me to find connections between my body, spirit, and all of creation and to trust that all will indeed be well. (For a truly amazing home practice series, check out Yoga with Adriene! I’d love to geek out with you about her practices and insight.)

2. Reading for enjoyment: fiction, poetry…anything really.
As a student, I read all of the time, and what was once a joyous hobby can easily become a never-ending to-do list. But I’m carving out time this semester to read for fun: poetry, blog posts, spiritual memoirs, even a little bit of fiction. When I slow down enough to appreciate really good writing, it seems to seep directly into my spirit and infuse it with life and roomy creativity. Words have carried me off to warmer, more colorful landscapes and have helped me discover meaning and purpose in the midst of the gloomiest of winter days.

3. Spending time with actual people.
It seems obvious, but for an introvert like me this isn’t always as intuitive as it probably should be. My instinct when I’m feeling down is usually to isolate, to go into my own little cave of self-protection and self-comfort, and to shut out the outside world. I think there is a place for this type of self-care, but, in my experience, there is a fine line between isolated self-care and self-destruction. This winter has left me feeling overwhelmingly grateful for the people who continuously call me into community: to shared meals, to coffee dates, to happy hours, to outside adventures, to explore the city, even simply to phone calls and group texts that remind me that I need others to ever truly be myself. Also Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, while great, does not count as real people time. Also, too much social media = jealousy, anxiety, and political fury. Just saying.

4. Running.
I know. It’s the worst. And trust me, when I run it’s not pretty. I turn a sweaty, gasping-for-air mess. (And to be honest I use the term “running” pretty loosely in the first place. “Jogging,” “walking with brief stints of faster walking,” or “flailing wildly on the treadmill” are probably more accurate terms.) Anyway, as much as it absolutely sucks, it also gets me out of my head, helps me start to see myself as “powerful,” fills my body with fresh air, and overall just leaves me feeling the tiniest better about life.

5. Cooking. (Real food. Like, vegetables.)
Sure, it involves some pre-planning and forethought and a little extra time, but I have learned to appreciate how cooking forces me to slow down. It’s a practice that invites me to pay attention to nuances of flavor and color and aroma and texture. And when I cook a real meal, I’m much more likely to either a) share that meal with real people or b) at least slow down long enough to eat it, to really taste it, and to actually enjoy it. Plus, when I eat real food with real nutrients, turns out both my body and my mind feel a whole lot better.

6. Writing
Writing helps me pay attention. It invites me into a space of connection making and creativity and reverence. It forces me to notice details and to tap into all five senses. It simultaneously calls me to turn inward, to wrestle with what I’m really feeling and to claim and explore my own experiences while also turning outward to wonder about what others might be experiencing, to be curious about other people’s stories, and to notice the beauty and mystery and longing of all of creation.

7. Music.
Like good writing, music has the power to dance right into my soul. Taking time to actually listen to music (from classical NPR to my favorite jazz, bluegrass, and folk Spotify stations to my Top 40 workout playlist) nudges me to life and creativity in an entirely different way. Sitting down at the piano or picking up my guitar provides an outlet for the emotion that I haven’t been able to articulate verbally. And, it teaches me grace and humility as I let go of perfection as I claim my mediocre-musician status.

8. Gratitude.
It’s probably super cliché, but keeping a gratitude journal has done wonders for me. Sitting down at the end of each day and lifting up a couple of things or moments or people that have given me life and joy has the power to literally rewire and re-direct our thinking to one of joy, thankfulness, and mindfulness.

9. Switching up my routine.
It’s amazing how a simple switch in routine can re-orient me to life outside of myself. For me right now, that sometimes looks like working at a coffee shop instead of in my apartment, for creating space in my schedule to study with friends instead of by myself, or for going for a walk in the middle of the day. It means exploring my own city, maybe taking a different route home, or trying a new restaurant. It means being open to adjusting my schedule and to making space for the unexpected last-minute adventure.

10. Worship.
Even as a seminarian, I find myself dragging my feet on Sunday mornings (or during chapel time at seminary.) And yet, regular worship has been of the greatest gifts I’ve received this winter. Worship puts my life and my often self-centered struggles in the context of a much bigger narrative, points to the promise of new life and unconquerable Love even in the midst of our world’s mess, and connects me to the Body of Christ across time and space. Worship tunes my heart to the mysteries of the Divine and re-sharpens my ears to hear the cries of my neighbors. It reminds me that I’m deeply loved in my imperfection but also reminds me that it’s actually not about me anyway.

 

Off-Key Hymns and Laughable Promises

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“Methodist Church, Battle Center, Iowa” by keeva999.

I’m sure I’m not the first seminarian to suddenly find herself critiquing every sermon, analyzing hymn choices, questioning the use of the worship space, exegeting the lectionary texts, and evaluating each and every transition, but I have to admit that seminary has turned me into a bit of a worship snob. Over the past few years I’ve been lucky to be able to worship with a variety of communities that have taught me much about intentionality, creativity, and beauty. Some meet in grand cathedral-like sanctuaries, others feature impressive works of art, top notch preaching, powerful choirs, or creative twists on ancient tradition.

This Holy Week, however, I find myself plopped down in a pew next to my family in my tiny home congregation in rural South Dakota. The contrast is stark: our sanctuary is simple and small, our singing is sometimes painfully out of tune, transitions between different parts of worship can be rough. We all know way too much about each other. We get nervous any time the order of service is switched up or we have to sing a song out of the dreaded baby blue hymnal. Our paraments are sometimes the wrong color. Last night we had a couple mishaps in communion, culminating with a chalice of wine nearly ending up all over the floor. Announcement time can feel like a chaotic town hall meeting. As a general rule, we aren’t fancy or polished or detail-oriented. We are stoic and stubborn and, like any church I suppose, we argue about the newsletter and who put the utensils in the wrong drawer in the kitchen and, lord have mercy, what if the kids spill on the carpet?

It drives me crazy, and I love it.

Because, like it or not, this is the particular messy and imperfect human family who welcomed me into this beautiful and sometimes straight up contradictory faith tradition. These are the people who promised to walk with me in faith at my baptism. These are the patient Sunday school teachers who told me stories about Jesus over plastic cups of Kool-Aid and paper plates stacked high with Oreos. This is the community who has held me in prayer and showered me in endless support and encouragement as they sent me off into the world, to college, to camp, to Urban Servant Corps, to seminary. These are the people who assure me that there is always space for me here, always a place to be seen and known and loved, however imperfectly.

This a community made up of stoic farmers who might not talk about Jesus a whole lot, but who embody Christ’s command to love the neighbor through endless property upkeep and sidewalk shoveling and Easter breakfast cooking and community fundraisers for people who are sick and visits to folks in prison. It is a community comprised of faithful women who patiently piece together quilts for Lutheran World Relief, who prepare meals for funerals and treats for fellowship hour, who organize meal serving at the local soup kitchen, who make it a priority to keep the Sunday school program up and running, teaching kids songs and stories and reminding them over and over just how loved they are. It is a community who, despite declining membership, persistently gathers together each week for worship and prayer, who might not talk about their faith in regular conversation, but who know that for some mysterious reason, it is important to keep gathering to hear these ancient stories and to cling to the stubborn hope that the Spirit still moves among us.

It is a community who gathers these three days to remember the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection. To touch, to taste, to see, to hear the strange and beautiful promise of Christ’s body and blood broken and shed for us. To witness anew the horror of the cross. To be comforted by the hope that there is no place too lonely or dark or horrifying that God has not already gone. And to gather together once again on an otherwise ordinary Sunday morning to remind each other of the seemingly impossible: that Love gets the final word, that the darkness does not overcome the Light, and that death has been defeated.

And because of all this, we cling to the otherwise laughable promise that God dwells among us here, even in our off-key hymns, clumsiest of worship services, and most imperfect attempts at loving each other. After all, from the manger to the cross to the road to Emmaus, our God has a habit of showing up in the places we least expect.

Blessings on your Holy Week. ❤