On Winter

Cold settles in like a carnival, the winter wonderland presenting itself as pockets of entertainment, pockets of intimacy, pockets of warmth, and fully of the oft odd carney.

Today is not so cold as to elicit daggers of ice, not cold enough to steal away one’s breath, but it doesn’t feel that far into the future that such cold will settle.

Summer, for its warmth, entices a sort of open happiness: enjoying cold drinks on a café patio, walking the streets and being surrounded by others doing the same, working the land, visiting the beach … Summer is the season of open community.

Winter, for its cold, entices a sort of isolated happiness: enjoying hot drinks from the comfort of a sofa while wrapped in myriad blankets, walking streets with others wondering what the hell is the matter with you, working the kitchen, visiting the fireplace … Winter is the season of closed community.

In winter, we have the opportunity to develop very close relationships, as we haven’t the crutch of summer to rely upon. In winter, we must be intentional, whereas summer is a season of frivolity, of whim. To venture out requires layers. To visit friends requires more commitment to being on time. The cold requires a discipline the heat does not.

In winter, there are the crazy souls who stay out all day, and love it. In summer, there are the crazy souls who stay in all day long, and love it.

Each season brings with it its own foods and drinks, its own friends and family …

I think about the idea of a carnival … It pops up for a brief time, it lives within its barricades … Winter brings about boundaries. It erects walls. It has some fun, like sledding or ice skating, but it severs summer ties. It hides from us the long days and short nights. It makes most people want to hibernate, to imbibe hot drinks only with those suitable for cuddling and binge-watching Netflix.

Winter isn’t awful or unbearable, but it enhances isolation, desolation. It stresses the limits of our marginal friendships. It brings only short bursts of community contact in the elements.

Love it or hate it, winter is here.

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Paradise Paved. Maybe.

To state the obvious, loss is experienced in different degrees and contexts all through life. Some losses are brought about by our own actions (and, really, there is no such thing as inaction as inaction is a chosen action of its own) and other losses are brought about by the actions of outside forces.

I’m reminded of the “Big Yellow Taxi” lyrics:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot

As I sit here writing, I’ve a pair of crutches leaning against the wall, just off my left elbow. About five weeks ago, I was in a car accident which left me with a destroyed minivan and broken and sprained ankle. There is a sense of loss there, but there is also the sense of finding.

What is freedom? What is paradise? Certainly, there is a freedom in being able to move about town as one wills behind the wheel of a motorized behemoth capable of transporting not only ourselves but our possessions, our friends, our families, but there is also a liberation found in not possessing nor being possessed by such things as automobiles, whatever form they may come in. Sometimes, after paradise is paved over, it decides to fight back and reclaim its space.

I think the real loss wasn’t the minivan, but my general mobility. Those who know me even somewhat well know that I like walks, fairly long walks of up to 20 miles or so, and bike rides. On crutches and in this boot, I can’t even manage one mile in a go on foot and the idea of hopping on my bicycle is a bit far off yet. But, even in the midst of the loss, there’s a finding of dependency upon others, which isn’t always a bad thing. Dependency fosters compassion. Dependency fosters community. Dependency fosters appreciation for others that may otherwise be brushed off in the busyness of life. In the first days, I couldn’t even change my own sock on my right foot. In the first weeks, I couldn’t carry my own food or drinks. Even now, I have to struggle, sometimes more than a little, to ascend and descend stairs. As winter has solidly befallen the Great Lakes region, I must be hyper-aware of patches of ice.

So often, throughout my life, I am forced to deal with what may initially appear to be negative: the loss of loved ones at the hands of death, the loss of friends at the hands of distance, the loss of hope at the hands of failure, the loss of romantic relationships, the loss of possessions, the loss of words, the loss of creative spark, the loss of appetite, the loss of health, the loss of mobility, the loss of money, the loss of time … Losses can be found with barely one eye open. I have them, you have them … But, what comes of them? How many of the losses are losing true paradise? How many of the losses are paradise reclaiming its territory?

As a photographer, I create images while looking through a lens (usually – there are those shoot-from-the-hip or shoot-from-way-up-high-with-an-outstretched-arm moments). What I choose to include or exclude in my framing can, in and of itself, bring about even more insight into the scene before me. The moment of the loss is a snapshot, but what is the full context? The moment of loss can be poked, prodded, and mourned, but without the benefit of what was, perhaps, excluded from the framing, we cannot always see it for what it is. Art mirrors life in that the viewer is subject to the bias of the artist; the viewer is, in a sense, limited in ability to see based on the will of the artist. I think that, often, we must fully experience some pains for what they are, even without knowing the full context, so that we can appreciate the gains and joys, so that we can learn compassion for and from others. There is certainly more to be had from the experiences than that, but it’s a start.

I think back to the car accident just those weeks ago … I think of what could have been different. Had I not ventured out for the pumpkins that evening, had I not remained longer than I had originally intended in this place, had I chosen to wear my sunglasses rather than my prescription glasses, had I taken a different route … I think about the airbag inflating in that instant, assaulting my chest and sending my glasses and ball cap sailing off my head and into the space of the van. I think about the impact with the car and the brake pedal being forced so violently into my foot that it fractured bone. I think about the steam rising out of the radiator, of immediately hopping out of the van and running, so much as I was able, to check on the people in the other car, of collapsing in pain on the side of the road as the adrenaline began to fade. I remember them deciding to leave my boot in place and the hurried and pained ride to the emergency room …

“You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”

Sometimes, that includes chains.

I am presently a bit marooned on this island of immobility, but at least I’ve had time to think, to pray, to write. At least I’ve had time to learn, to grow in dependence.

Snapshots are of fleeting moments. Don’t live in the snapshots. Explore them, but move beyond them. Explore the context behind the snapshots. Explore the context of your pain. Explore the context of your joy. I have no idea what’s coming, but while I’ve still a breath within me, it’s going to come. Even now, as I write, I am just sort of winging it. I felt the compulsion to pose some questions and make some points, but there really isn’t a full conclusion. Maybe that’s the conclusion.

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The kingdom of heaven is like … Christmas?

As we have, in the United States, just passed through this Thanksgiving holiday and enter fully, albeit a bit hurriedly, into the Christmas season, I have been thinking a great deal about the idea of heavenly home, earthly home, treasures on earth, and treasures in heaven. Maybe too much? Maybe too little?

The kingdom of heaven is like …

In the New Testament, Jesus starts off a few stories with these words, which makes me want to pay a little more attention. After all, if we follow the scriptures as they pertain to living a Christian life, they indicate that we become citizens of God’s kingdom, strangers in this strange land. We are told to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” and, instead, to “be transformed.”

One of these stories is about a man who finds a treasure in a field, buries the treasure again, then sells everything he owns to buy the field. Christ mentioned cutting off a hand if it would be the limiting agent in our entrance into the kingdom. The New Testament, especially, it seems, is replete with examples of being called to sacrifice, being called to live differently.

In the church I’ve been attending on this leg of my journey, we’ve been talking about Abraham, who earns prominent mention in the so-called “Hall of Faith” chapter, Hebrews 11. Even there, Abraham and his wife Sarah are described as foreigners in the land, on a journey of faith. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” In James, it’s written that “faith without works is dead.”

I think, even without the benefit of scripture, we as people can understand that beliefs drive actions, drive words, drive thoughts. A great many influences affect our system of beliefs, but when you see a person doing one thing or another, even the most random or seemingly disconnected action, there is, at least in some part, an active belief behind it. As one who suffers from persistent, treatment-resistant, major depression, my thought patterns and beliefs, especially as they relate to my sense of self-worth, dictate a great many actions or lack of actions. Self-worth is daily called into question and, as a result, there are daily doses of self-sabotage, and other self-inflicted mental abuses.

Beliefs dictate thoughts, words, actions. It’s interesting to think of how everything ties together. An action begins in words, and words begin in thoughts. The tongue is compared to the rudder of a ship, directing our course. In another reference, there is the text that “life and death are in the power of the tongue.” But, then, there is the reference that, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

Treasures. Beliefs. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Where your heart is, your words will be. Where your words are, your actions will be.

What are your treasures? What are mine? What are the pillars of our beliefs?

For those of us who are Christian, we are told repeatedly to live by faith, not by sight. We are told to not sit in a seat of judgment. We are told to be compassionate, loving. We are told to cut out everything that might stand between us and right treasures, right words, and right actions. I certainly can’t tell you what all the right actions are and are not, but I know some stuff that’s pretty black and white.

Did you go Black Friday shopping this year? I’m not trying to judge or condemn you, if you did; rather, I would just like to introduce the idea that while you may have been standing in line, coveting a 60″ flatscreen television, there are people all around us who are homeless, who are hungry, who are broken-hearted. Again, I’m not judging you if you chose to go after that great deal, just wanting to pose the question of where your heart is. As I write this, I’m sitting in Starbucks because I can’t concentrate when I’m working wherever I’m staying. I don’t know why, but it’s the way it goes. I have to change environments. All you freelancers out there probably know where I’m coming from – too many distractions, too much of the “normal,” such as home life can have anyway, etc. But, rather than spending my few bucks on giving food to people, I bought a latte this afternoon. Some would consider my spending frivolous, I consider it a cost of doing business, a cost of creating, of thinking. Maybe a 60″ flatscreen TV is good for you in some way. Maybe it isn’t?

As we edge closer and closer to Christmas, I get asked what I want by a couple of people. I don’t really have much of an answer. All the little stuff is, more or less, taken care of, save my expenditures for such things as coffee and cigarettes. Big stuff, no one I know has the means to go in on (you’d be surprised how much full-on, top-end photo gear goes for, how much it costs to live in Paris for a year, etc.). So, I think, instead, about where my treasures are, and I realize more and more that I don’t really want much. I want to live in Paris because that’s where I feel at home. I want photo gear, because that’s part of my life mission, my passions. Beyond that, I don’t care if I have a car or if I don’t. I don’t care how big my wardrobe is. I don’t care about a lot of that stuff anymore. Except Moleskines. Moleskines and fountain pens provide a much better tactile writing experience for someone like me who digs analog more than digital platforms. But, what’s the cost of it all?

The kingdom of heaven is like …

What are we willing to give up to gain the kingdom?

Could I give up my coffee? My cigarettes? My Moleskines? My camera gear? I’d like to think I could. I’d like to think my heart isn’t invested in what will fade away. I would like to think my heart is into so much more than what I can’t take with me when I die. I would like to think that my heart is into more than what could be stolen from me, what can break, what can corrode …

So, Christmas … It’s more blessed to give than it is to receive. No matter where you are in the world, there are probably people who need some help. Maybe it’s a good season to think about giving to them. Do your kids have enough toys? Do you have enough gadgets? But, do all your neighbors have enough food?

Also, as a practical suggestion, if you live in a college town or a community replete with displaced persons, such as it is in Paris and other large, international cities, there are always people who will be all alone for the holiday. Could be a good thing to seek some of them out and build some new relationships. Community is one of the core spiritual disciplines, you know, and community is reciprocal. Sometimes you give, sometimes you receive, sometimes there is no distinction.

What would Christmas look like if it actually resembled the kingdom of heaven?

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Sacred and Secular Musings

As an artist who is a Christian, I have neither the desire nor ability to separate my art and my faith, despite the potential for negative responses from within the art community if I, in their estimation, venture too far into overt Christian messages or symbolism or from within the Christian community if I, in their estimation, venture too far into the secular. I cannot speak to the plight of previous generations’ artists, but the artists of old seemed to not have an easy path to tread either. There were some exceptions who created religious works and are now accepted as exceptional artists, but there are also those who were less than “sacred” in their creations who are equally regarded among the greatest artists of history, even by those within religious communities.

What is sacred? What is secular? (As a quick aside, if you’re not up on all your buzzwords, “sacred” is a word often used to describe religious elements, implements, and traditions and “secular” is used to describe what does not seem to fall within the realm of religion.) This is a theme which arose during one of my weeks of lecture while I was enrolled in one of Youth With a Mission’s Discipleship Training Schools in Herrnhut, Germany a number of years ago. There were some valuable insights to be had from the lectures, but that setting was not the first nor most recent forum for examining the balance of faith and art.

The church, the corporate church, that is, should not be so dismissive of the secular and the art community should not be so dismissive of the sacred. What I propose is the idea that the art be true for the artist.

One of the best-stated points that arose during the lectures is that if God is concerned with the entirety of our being, then all things matter to God. God can be found in the secular and the sacred; it is not an exclusive relationship. Just as Solomon penned an entire volume, which, incidentally, happens to be included in the canonized scriptures, addressing his love for a woman, to love God is to also love all that was created. Solomon’s appreciation was not limited to the internal, but addressed the external in great detail, yet it has become, somehow, sacrilegious for us in this modern era to do so.

Love, sex, personalities, mental illnesses, physical illnesses, our passions, our desires, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, the plights of the downtrodden, our systems of government, our systems of belief, gender inequalities, racial inequalities, pieces of music, pieces of literature, photographs, paintings, sketches … These all matter to God, because they matter to us, because they are a part of our life this side of eternity. God may not put the stamp of approval on everything we choose to do with our free will, but the entirety of our being, the entirety of our lives matter to God.

As an artist, it is essential to create from a place of passion; if you are not invested in the creation of your work, if it does not require a piece of yourself being a part of the finished piece, it doesn’t count. Perhaps that is more an opinion and less of a concrete fact, but it seems to ring true with the work I make as well as my interactions with other artists. If the artist has trepidation about selling the work, that’s a pretty good sign they’ve put themselves into it. It is, in a way, like selling your offspring. It is work that, no matter how long it actually took to create, is born of a lifetime of influences, of study, of practice. Artists share themselves with the world in this way because they feel compelled to. To deny an artist the ability, and even encouragement, to express what they have in them clawing to get out is to deny the artist.

That’s where things seem to get a bit dicey.

Morality comes into play, from the perspective of a Christian support system, and the idea of selling out or not making “real art” comes into play from the perspective of the secular art community. In either case, the artist may be justified in creating the work, but to be vulgar simply because that is the current trend is just as much selling out, etc. as depicting crosses, sheep, and rolling green hills. The truth is that life, even the life of a Christian is not all crosses, sheep, and rolling green hills. And, the life of even the non-religious person may be influenced by certain aspects of a religion, not just Christianity. Or, like me, a Christian may be affected by other religions. I am affected by the cross, but I am also affected by the Muslim call to prayer, by the meditative practices in Eastern religions, by the strict observance of certain practices within Judaism, etc. Likewise, even some of my atheist or agnostic friends can appreciate and identify with the compassionate message of Christ, the non-violence preached by Christ or Gandhi, the meditative and introspective practices of Buddhists, the spirituality and connectedness with the earth of the Native Americans, or a host of other aspects of world religions.

My family, which is comprised of conservative evangelical Christians, does not see positive value in some of my projects, specifically the nude photographs. Were they to read my journals … If you don’t hear from me for a while, make sure I’ve not been swept off to some re-programming facility (mostly kidding). But, I also have friends who are dismissive of any work I may create which has to do with my commitment to my Christian spirituality. The best I can do is to be true to the passions, the works that are in me to create. Chaim Potok, in his novel My Name Is Asher Lev, communicated something to the effect that if others will suffer because of the art you create, the absolution comes in creating great art. It may not be the answer everyone wants to hear, but sometimes the art that is created and shared with the world that so decidedly cuts you off from your family, your friends, your community is exactly the right art to make.

Having said that, though, I want to reiterate the idea that we should not create with the purpose of alienation. Alienation, abandonment or rejection, verbal abuse, etc. have sometimes been a by-product of my work, or work that I have commissioned in the form of piercings and tattoos, but I neither created nor commissioned with the purpose of rejection. I have created and commissioned because I felt very strongly that they were crucial to my evolution as an individual and evolution as an artist or because I felt it was something that I needed to explore or communicate.

So, to wrap this post up: If you are an artist, be encouraged. You are most decidedly not alone, whether you are religious or not, in experiencing rejection or abuse. If you are someone in a position to support and encourage an artist, please do so. You never know when we might portray you as a villain if you don’t, such as Van Gogh’s intentionally painting church windows to communicate darkness while the rest of the town was brightly lit under the night sky.

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#TBT on Instagram

I’m a little bit anti-acronyms as they relate to social media posts, but it happens to be Thursday and I happen to be putting some older stuff on Instagram. I finally broke down several months ago and started posting a few photos to my account. Nothing earth-shattering, but if you’re interested, you can track me down there. You might see some things there you won’t see here, but there’s always the Instagram slideshow plug-in I’m currently using that you can see in the sidebar.

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