imagination


{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

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{New to this series? I’m writing each day in Lent 2017, using mugs as inspiration, or at least prompts. Why? Don’t get me started.}

Today my oldest grandson turns 17, so it seems appropriate to share another mug he designed in elementary school. His class had been studying rainforSONY DSCests, and the artwork on the mug was Ryan’s imaginative take on the subject.

My own school years are l-o-n-g ago, so maybe I’ve just forgotten by now…but I don’t recall learning anything about rainforests, ever. I suspect that unless you were a biology major in my era of academia, rainforests just didn’t come up in classroom instruction. But when rainforests began disappearing, then teachers and learners took notice.

Here’s what I know now. (Pardon me if this is old news to you, but Ryan’s mug got me thinking…) According to a science website especially for kids, the following are locations of our rainforests: Africa, Asia, Central and South America. The Amazon Rainforest is the largest. Maybe the writer on that site meant to say these were the major rainforests. Because North America has a rainforest I’ve hiked in. It’s in Alaska. And I have a photo that I shared with Ryan when he was studying the topic seven years ago. It’s below.

Interestingly, that site for young learners defines a rainforest as having lots of tall trees, a warm climate, and lots of rain. Well, two out of three. I don’t think Alaska is known for its warm climate. But the main thing is this: rainforests are being destroyed globally with areas the size of New Jersey disappearing annually. Maybe it comes down to greed. At least, we (speaking globally) feel that we need the land for agribusiness, grazing, timber resources, including pulp, and roads, presumably so we can get further into the forests to tear down more trees.

Plus, there’s climate change that brings drought to once rainy climes. Pardon my personal stand on this, but to be clear, it is not a mere cosmic adjustment or realignment that brings about today’s climate change. It is we human beings. And our greed. Our perceived need for that which we could do without if we cared about the future of our planet and maybe our great-grandchildren, to focus it more personally.

The decline of rainforests has a massive impact on the ecological balance of life on our planet. This isn’t the place to go into a depressing list of environmental disasters. Google it, if you must. But I am moved to think about my own complicity in the biological and economic conditions that affect both climate change and rainforest destruction.

For one thing, I need to pay more attention. When Ryan’s mug comes up in the morning coffee rotation, maybe I can use that as a reminder to be more careful, more care-filled, about my want/need decision-making. What impact will today’s choices make in regard to earth-keeping? Every day, we are overwhelmed by how little we can make an impact on enormous problems that confront us. Will turning off an unnecessary lamp help save the rainforests? If I wear this pair of Nikes one more month, or this pair of Wranglers? I already turn off the running water while I brush my teeth. Well, good for me!

I’m paying a premium for fair trade coffee to put in these mugs I’m writing about each day. Some professor writing in the Huffington Post says I’m pretty much being duped. But my church denomination says it’s a good thing I’m shopping for goods with that fair trade designation. I want to do the right thing. If I can just figure out what the right thing is. I’ll keep watch for anything that says it’s rainforest alliance safe to eat/drink/use.

Our prayers of confession, Lent or otherwise, must include our acquisitiveness. That’s a newer name for an ancient sin: greed. We are being sold a bill of goods every minute that we engage in mass media or social media, with advertising designed to convince us that our life would be more fulfilling, happier, if we bought this or acquired that. I once taught a seminar on media advertising and the commercial pitches focused on just a handful of human desires that would be met by almost any product: health, prestige, safety, and appetites (nutritional and sexual). From breakfast cereals to Chevys, from antacids to cosmetics — life would be enhanced if we forked over some money and acquired the product. We all know, though, that life is improved only temporarily by whatever we buy, and maybe, truth be told, life isn’t better at all.

One of my favorite sins, I hearby admit, is covetousness. I break that commandment daily. I don’t covet my neighbor’s wife or donkey, but almost anything I see at the big box store full of electronics would make me happy. Here I am with more than my share of stuff, and yet I’d be estatic to have more. My 40″ LCD TV is aging, and there on the horizon is that 60″ 4K curved screen TV, so perfect for my living room. And then, I’d have to upgrade my DVD player, buy some new versions of old DVD movies, and get a more advanced audio system. And then… I realize it would never be enough. And another tree would fall in the rainforest, and even without my being there, the crash would be deafening.

I must curb my enthusiasm for adding to the clutter of my life. No matter how shiny, advanced, or enticing that stuff might appear. I must rein in my desire for new things, release my hold on some old things, and remember it is not the “things” that matter anyway. My happiness is centered on being more than content, downright fulfilled, with the loving relationships that bless my life: my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my church family.

We share a planet that seems more fragile than when I was born over seven decades ago. When we realize how much the earth is threatened by just one or two generations of human beings whose wants and desires far outstrip their actual needs, the word “stewardship” comes to mind. We are caretakers of this creation if we think about it. Maybe caregivers would be a better term, since our constant “taking” is part of the problem.

Among the many Bibles of various translations on my bookshelves is an edition called The Green Bible, published by Harper One. All the scripture passages that mention the environment are printed in green ink. There is a lot of green ink involved here. References to water, wilderness, the land, seeds and sowers, the earth, meals and sunlight… all in green, plus essays added by Desmond Tutu, Barbara Brown Taylor, and others, and an Earth Day message by Pope John Paul II — along with a “Green Bible Trail Guide” (a study guide on environmentalism) — these features make up an impressive and helpful resource for those committed to earth-keeping.

Thanks to Ryan, his art, and that mug, I’ll remember the rainforests and my own half acre and try to be a better steward of this good earth.

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Alaskan Rainforest

SONY DSC{By my count, we have just passed the halfway mark of Lent 2017. If I’ve kept up with my own posts, we should be at day 21 now. Here is the 21st mug from the Kellam kitchen cupboard.}

This is one of three mugs that carry the artwork of my grandson Ryan. I wrote about his 2007 mug earlier in this series. Two years later, then, came this interpretation of Atlantis. I assume that he had read a book about the lost continent and was inspired to draw this picture. I love the details I see in it.

And I love that, like our dreams, our art is influenced and shaped by the stuff we live and experience day by day. Ryan read a book, and was inspired to illustrate what his imagination conceived. Pardon the pun, but he drew on his imagination, didn’t he? A song I subconsciously heard during the day, or an ad on a passing truck, or an aroma…a color…a voice — all might be a seed that springs forth in a dream one night. Or, if someone assigned or suggested it, I might use colored pencils to sketch my own Atlantis.

Of course, dreams come to us uninvited or involuntarily. Art is more intentional, unless we are the genius whose muse is so insistent that our hands cannot help but shape the clay or splash colors over canvas. (This reflection of mine is running awfully close to my first Ryan’s mug musing. So, on the cusp of redundancy, I segue to the next paragraph.)

Muse. There is the verb. And there is the goddess. First, the action word, and then the actor. To muse is to be absorbed in thought. The word has a French derivation (“muser”) and the now obsolete meaning is (was?) “to meditate.” The more contemporary meaning is “to waste time.” That is, to trifle. How sad. As a daydreamer from way back, I can identify with that kid in the middle school classroom whose seat was right by the window, the window looking out on springtime, on a warm, sunny day that beckons, invites, or to use another obsolete meaning, beguiles, said child to play hooky at least in his/her mind.

Naturally, the word is akin to “amuse,” to entertain, which is in itself another form of escape (deviation), from that classroom or from life’s routine. The response to being amused is to smile or chuckle (guys chuckle and girls giggle, right?), or laugh aloud at absurdity or irony or silliness that has tickled us. Why do people go to amusement parks? To enjoy a great escape from the ho-hum-drum rhythms of the everyday.

Still, I like the very idea of musing. It is no waste of my time to reflect, or to pause for a few quiet moments, and let some pleasantry restore my soul. I should muse more deeply over these writings. I should spend (or waste — see above) more time thinking before sitting at the computer and pecking at this keyboard. But, there is only so much time, even in Lent, to accomplish this quirky ambition: writing inspired by mugs. So, I guess I could say I am content to depend on The Muse.

We move to the noun. Turns out that in Greek mythology, there were nine muses, goddesses who inspired literature, science, and the arts. When writers say that they are awaiting the muse, they may not be able to name the one of the nine they await (Godot isn’t one of them), but they would be content, I’m sure, for any muse to show up with a plot, the right words, one damned good sentence! The muse who appears transforms blank pages into the great American novel or the deeply satisfying short story or some piece of trashy tripe that the author mistakes for fine literature. If it’s a waste of pulp, blame it on the muse, or on the muse not showing up. If the Nobel or Pulitzer is in view, credit the muse, but only if you are humble. Otherwise, grab the credit and run.

It’s no secret that I am a retired pastor, a preacher who dislikes the very implication of “preaching.” It’s gotten a bad reputation, akin to harangue, droning, moralizing, and pulpit-thumping. Yet, almost every week in my last two churches, I had to preach. I had to redeem that form of speech, so that the Word, the Gospel, would as the old saw goes, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” in a loving, faithful, and creative way. Oh, and effective. And while I did “muse” over the ancient texts, I did not wait for or count on any “muse.” That would be a misnomer for the Holy Spirit, which I take far more seriously than a mythic goddess of old.

Some who read this may well consider any religious or theological God-figure “mythic.” But it wasn’t a myth that called me into a life-long commitment to ministry (I could have been a deejay, you know). It wasn’t a myth that showed me authentic life-signs of healing, hope, family, love, peace, and redemption. As a ninth grade kid, I had what I have come to call a “God-consciousness.” I know how weird that sounds. But from that point on, to this moment, I can’t shake this Holy Presence, this Light, this cosmic Christ whose embrace has drawn me into communities of faith that muse and amuse, that serve and salve, that anoint head and heart for something more than daily trifles.

So, I have to assume that anything I’ve written that contained some fragment of truth, some helpful word, or trustworthy comment was inspired, given breath, by the Spirit. And that sentence is written in both humility and gratitude.

Thank God children read books, draw pictures, sing songs, and daydream. Thank God the child in us adults is led to do those same things. I hope that this Lenten day, we can take the time to find a window, look out, and muse. And may the Spirit turn our best daydreams into better days ahead.

 

DSC07357.JPG{Another day in Lent, and another mug. Yes, it is a mug.}

This is the newest mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. Joan gave it to me for Christmas, having chosen it from similar ones that weren’t quite as realistic. On the plus side, it IS realistic, and it’s insulated so it keeps coffee hot. On the negative side, look at the narrow bottom. But it’s not supposed to be practical. It’s fun!

And it’s so me. I’ve been taking pictures since I got my first camera for Christmas, maybe 1957? It was a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash. Then, an Ansco Color Clipper. And on to a variety of 35mm and digital cameras. Add the video cameras, and you can imagine how much fun it is to travel with me. If I can’t pause to capture memories…why even go?

My brother Kim is also a photographer, and is far more artistic than I, more creative, I could say without being redundant. Kim pointed out not long ago, in complimenting me on a Facebook-shared photo, that I had a way of seeing things in the moment, noticing the potential of a glimpsed scene, and capturing that picture on film, or digitally as is the case these days. Kim, too, has a keen eye for such potential. He can make a manhole cover into stunning photographic art. I agree that some of us do have a way of looking at things and seeing something special in the ordinary.

Isn’t that true of every artist? A certain grain in granite or mahogany inspires the sculptor or carver. The curve of the river suggests a painting. An iris’ soft color insists it be preserved by pastel chalks. Someone else just walked by and glanced (or didn’t), but the artist saw something enticing, and responded. The words occurred to the poet; the musician heard a rhythm. Pen, brush, shutter, chisel, chalk, fabric. A scene, a moment, a vision, a risk.

It occurred to me just now that I know many artists! Judy makes jewelry in her basement. Joan and Bill are musicians. Matt and Bob write stories and publish books. Carol, Joanna, and Kim are wonderful photographers. Jack is a fine poet. Some artists are twice blessed, now that I think about it. Joan is also a quilter and Matt is a musician. Oh, I could go on, of course. I don’t have room or words to list every person I know who has a way with words (Pat), music (Mike), or even flowers (David)!

I used the word “potential” in a preceding paragraph. The artist sees potential in a piece of metal, in the way light strikes the snow, in a chance encounter at the market. A pendant, a photo, a poem results. Potential: latent power. Art is power awakening. And the open-eyed artist is powerful. Art is political, and can change the world one perception at a time.

For me personally, photography and videography are usually just ways to preserve enjoyable times, as on vacations. I want to relive, remember, even restore the good times by looking at my albums, my computer files, my DVD “movies.” But now and then, and not often enough, I am startled to see some beautiful thing I had overlooked in the 1/60th of a second. The bee in the aster or the twinkle in the eye of a child. IMG_20170304_115812297_HDR[1109]Or, just recently, the color, the light, the angles, the sweatered dachshunds staring up at me in my daughter Wendy’s kitchen. It’s a memory. Is it art? Why not?

Imagination feeds art and art returns the favor. We see things in new ways, refreshing ways. Art enlivens us, informs us, inspires us. (Thus the essential National Endowment for the Arts, to help preserve that which so enlivens, informs, and inspires!)

Now, Kellam, how are you going to tie this into Lent? Look! During this forty day time of turning around, reflection, and preparation for the new life to come, isn’t it a good time to keep our eyes open to potential, to see old things in new ways, to imagine how a moment of insight might have lasting benefits? We needn’t have the ability to paint a portrait of Jesus in the wilderness, or to write a cantata for Holy Week. It may well be enough to glimpse a vision of peace. And to create the space or the energy in which that peace grows from potential to lasting wonder, when the Spirit moves…or muses.

During Lent, open eyes and perceptive creativity can lead us from shadows to Easter. Focus on that for awhile, that art is theological.

 

 

 

 

{This year during Lent, looking for some creative writing theme, I happened on this idea: check out the mugs in the Kellam kitchen cupboard for ideas. Odd, I know. But it is what it is.}

Today’s coffee found its way into this vessel. It was a Christmas gift in…well, it says right there: 2008. And the artist is Ryan, my oldest grandson. I’ve forgotten what inspired this elementary school arDSC07329.jpgtwork, but it’s special.

Now and then I run across some artwork our children brought home from school or maybe created at the kitchen table over three decades ago. The edges of the paper are mangled, the colors faded a bit, but what treasures they remain. I know coloring books are popular now, even among adults, but the idea of drawing whatever springs from your imagination in the flash of a moment has more appeal than just coloring inside the lines someone else put there.

Look at Ryan’s crayoned creation. A flower within a flower? Some jagged lines, some straight. Every color in the box. What did he “see” before he drew? Or, did he draw without anything in mind, letting the hands-fingers-crayons just do their thing without thought? The original is now no doubt lost among the hundreds of other artworks that didn’t make it onto coffee mugs. But there’s that one, still appreciated by his Papa. (This is actually the first of three Christmas mugs in a row (2008-2010) that I unwrapped; the others will appear here later in Lent.)

Do you remember any particular artwork you made that you wish you still had? I recall two, and rather vividly. One from fifth grade was to depict “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” I had drawn a movie projectionist. I’d never been in a projection booth, so the picture was purely imaginary. And I drew myself way too short. The second artwork was from ninth grade. It was a pastel chalk architectural drawing of a modernistic church, and my art teacher Mrs. Bryan was quite impressed with it.

This reminds me of a finger-painted artwork given to me by young children at a church I once served. I was leaving the church after many years there, and that painting, rendered by one child in particular, was a “parting gift.” Many years later, that child and his family visited us in our new community, and I noticed the boy taking a particular interest in looking around our house, room to room. His mother told me he was looking to see if we still had his artwork hanging somewhere. It meant a lot to him to have created it, to have gifted it, and to find it still appreciated. Sadly, he didn’t find it. I had stored it away. Somewhere. I shared the boy’s disappointment, and was thankful I could retrieve it before the family left for home. At least he knew I still had it…and still do.

A child’s creative expressions, whether scrawled cursive stories or finger-painted  splotches of gooey colors, are always worth saving, though practically speaking we can’t possibly keep each one. But a representative few, framed and hanging in the living room or pressed into a scrapbook in a closet, serve as reminders that children have rich imaginations, fanciful and artistic ways to tell stories or share feelings. “Tell me about your picture,” we say as we open the door to what might be a deeply meaningful conversation we recall long after the artwork has disappeared.

Is there a connection with Lent here? Like drawing a cross on someone’s forehead with the ashes of last Palm Sunday’s fronds? No, that’s too much a stretch. But it’s odd that this comes to mind: the last time I drew anything that found its way public, it was a pencil drawing of Jesus before the crowds during Holy Week. I hadn’t thought about ordering a special Good Friday bulletin, so I drew my own. And the critic in me told me the shadowed scene was just OK, and that my Jesus looked awfully short. Maybe he was…ever think of that? It wasn’t as good as most Sunday School art. But (ahem) I still have it.

To paraphrase Jesus, “Let the little children draw something for me, and forbid them not.”