Strong Coffee

“Eavesdropping, sir? I don’t follow you, begging your pardon. There ain’t no eaves at Bag End, and that’s a fact.”

Every Starbucks is different. Some have nice booths. Some have long wooden tables and leather chairs with strange metal ottomans. Some have little nooks. Some only have two cramped tables. No matter the offering, I know where to go. I prefer to sit near the door, next to a window (as long as there isn’t sun pouring in onto my laptop), my back against a wall, the counter and the door in view. This isn’t because I want a quick exit or am naturally suspicious. It just gives me the best angle to people watch.

I do most of my writing in public. As an extrovert, this is the best way to ensure that I can write every day without turning into a zombie. It makes writing sustainable. It also gives me good material. Sometimes.

Recently, it’s just been making me mad.

You can tell a lot about a culture by what goes on in the local Starbucks. The company’s weaseled its way into being essential by virtue of its “third place” philosophy (to be that safe place that is neither home nor work) and has basically become America’s version of the local pub (with less alcohol and singing, of course). The last Starbucks I frequented had a crowd of nursing students that would cycle through daily. The faces would change, but not the existence of a nursing student. It also had a frequent occurrence of customers who had never been into a Starbucks before and were baffled by what to order. And lest I forget, the two retired couples who would come every afternoon and talk about all their friends who had died/were sick/were making terrible decisions or about the way things used to be (which was better than now, of course).

The Starbucks I frequent now has three types of people. First, the yuppies who come to complain about their jobs. They come in groups of 2-4 and rant about how terrible their bosses are, how much they hate their coworkers, how things would be better if they had their way. Second, the old friends who get together seemingly to have a good chat and end up selling each other something. Either one person’s trying to get the other to apply for a job or buy some product. My least favorite was the 60 year old women having a genuine conversation about caring for people that was really an excuse for one to sell essential oils to the other. Third, the upper middle classies who brag to each other about how much money they’ve spent/their privileged antics. Really? It doesn’t bother you that your teenage daughters all have fake IDs and go clubbing together when you’re all on vacation in some exotic local?

I have way more in common with the people behind the counter than in front of it.

I guess that’s okay. I’m a 20-something who spent the last two years working in food service. But it’s also hard. Caleb and I are planning on being in this apartment for at least two years. This is our home. We want to belong here. But I don’t want to live the high-spending, superficial, manipulative lifestyle we keep running into. In my heart, I’ll always be a starving artist, passionately pursuing an authentic life of creation and craft.

I guess that’s a little too strong for the vanilla bean frappuccino crowd.

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The Art of Worship

I’ve decided that Exodus is one of the most familiar and unknown books of the Bible. The story of Moses has been put on film time after time. The “parting of the Red Sea” is easily mocked (a la Bruce Almighty), as are the plagues and the 10 Commandments. But there’s more to this story than “Let my people go!” or “Thou shalt not…”. Only about half of the book is story-focused. The other half is focused on laws and customs, instructions from God on how to live and how to worship. More than that, there are six whole chapters devoted to describing the artwork and detail of the tabernacle, God’s mobile temple.

Since I decided I wanted to spend my life making art for Christ, this passage has become meaningful. It’s one of the few times specific teaching is given on art and worship. In this case, we even get names!

The Lord said to Moses,  “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah,  and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship,  to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze,  in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.  And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you:  the tent of meeting, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent,  the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense,  and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin and its stand,  and the finely worked garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the Holy Place. According to all that I have commanded you, they shall do.”

I love this passage, as mundane as it is. I love having textual evidence that God calls specific people and fills them with his Holy Spirit to create for his glory. I’ve been taking a slower-reading of the Bible this year, so I spent about a week reading all the specifications for the building of the tabernacle. I read about materials, amount, size, and design. I spent a day thinking about how the walls of the tabernacle were partially created with curtains of scarlet, purple, and blue yarns, especially when churches today are content with beige and industrial grey. God intended for these things to be made with materials donated by the people of Israel themselves. The gold and silver and linen were meant to be donations, so even though not everyone could craft the ark of the covenant, they could participate in giving.

Because I was so focused this year, Exodus 32 came as quite a shock. In one of the rare bits of story in the later part of Exodus, chapter 32 tells the story of the golden calf. Moses has been on a mountain for a while, talking to God and receiving part of the law and the instructions for the tabernacle. The Israelites get freaked out and go to Aaron.

“So, something supernatural brought us out of Egypt and we’re supposed to worship them, but Moses has been gone for a really long time and he’s the one who tells us how to do that. So we need something to worship, Aaron! Give us gods! Moses is probably dead. You’re the one who has to tell us what to do!.”

And Aaron says, “Bring me your gold.”

The Israelites do. Aaron melts it down and makes it into the image of a calf, which the Israelite set up as their “gods”. Aaron throws together an altar and sets up a feast day. And all of this is recorded immediately after God gives Moses the instructions about Bezalel and Oholiab.

I never saw the connection before, but now it smacks me in the face. Both pieces focus on the use of art to worship God. The instructions about the crafting of the tabernacle are long and detailed. There are many parts and pieces, and many people are involved. Bezalel and Oholiab help teach others how to join them. This is a community project taking much time and effort. In case we don’t get that, this book spends an additional five chapters describing how Bezalel gathered the materials and created the pieces. That’s eleven chapters in all! Do you know how long this book spends on the creation of the calf and subsequent altar? Five verses.

I can’t help but see a parallel to the way art is currently addressed in regards to worship. How much time do we spend crafting the design of church sanctuaries and buildings? I’m not talking about things looking pretty. I’m talking about the intentional, crafting of a space to glorify God. Who is involved? Is it just one person who volunteered, or is it a community? Where do the materials come from? Is there time (maybe weeks or months) spent prayerfully seeking how to arrange the space? And how is the music and the service put together? Is there a community of musicians who contribute their gifts and work as a team to point others to Christ? Is there time spent crafting and designing the announcement and worship slides?

Or do we go to the assistant pastor (or random individual) and say, “Hey, can you make this look or sound good for us?”.

Are we still surprised when our spaces look blah, our music sounds canned, and our service feels empty?

20-something Disillusionment

When I began this blog in August, I intended to write about art, about making and enjoying it, about the difficulties and controversies of being a Christian artist. Looking back now, I see that I’ve written less about art, and more about the muck of being an emerging adult. It’s hard transferring into “real life”, having so many of my ideologies stamped on, watching them wither away. The most important thing I’ve learned as I’ve thought and written about my experiences is that what I’m experiencing is completely normal. My 20-something friends comment on my blogs with understanding, like I’m writing about their lives too. I read a blog the other day that referred to “the 20-something bubble of expected success and artificial invincibility”. I’ve decided that this should be amended to “the college student bubble of expected success and artificial invincibility” because I’ve heard very little from my friends in the “real world” that sounds invincible, and a great deal that sounds worried, frustrated, and grateful for small things.

I don’t think this age is alone in producing such young adults. I think some people must have forgotten what it was like.

I know my novels will take years to revise and publish (if that ever happens), so it’s important for me to hold onto the dream that something will come of them. I have friends who encourage me in this, but they mostly communicate through facebook, which isn’t as reliable as some would like us to believe. So when I find myself alone in the apartment while Caleb is teaching, it’s easy to get caught in the Web or self-medicate with Netflix. I try to do housework (among other things), and I like to listen to music while I clean. It’s here that I’ve found my encouragement, my fellow 20-something, disillusioned idealists. I found them in RENT.

This was a surprise to me. I’ve always stayed clear of that show, for various reasons. I first heard about it when the film version came out my freshman year of high school. My theater friends got really into it, and I was subjected to the soundtrack on multiple occasions. Well, not the whole soundtrack. I heard “Seasons of Love” enough times to make myself sick. Then there was “Tango Maureen”, a quirky tango about a lesbian cheating on her girlfriend that features awkwardness and an f-word. And of course, the favorite, “La Vie Boheme”, a list song celebrating the triumphs of the Bohemian lifestyle. Mostly, I think this song was popular among my friends so they could sing “bisexuals, trisexuals, homo sapiens,/ carcinogens, hallucinogens” and laugh. (I’m holding to this theory because this was the only line of the song I knew other than “You bet your ass” because they sang it so many times). I never got a rise out of singing about “forbidden things”. I’m not a big proponent of unconventional lifestyles. Heck, I got married at twenty-two to a man I dated for five years and didn’t have sex with.

I wouldn’t have listened to the soundtrack at all if it hadn’t come up on my Sondheim Pandora playlist. As I mentioned in a previous blog, this playlist took a long time to learn that I wanted to listen to music by Stephen Sondheim, instead choosing to play mostly Disney music. It also decided that RENT must be what I was looking for. I desperately wanted a Broadway show, so I liked it, hoping it would send me at least some Jason Robert Brown. It didn’t. It just sent me more RENT. But then I started hearing songs I’d never heard before, and I began to change my mind about this show.

I heard the disillusionment of Roger, his inability to write music in the wake of his girlfriend’s death. I heard Mark’s struggle with isolation and detachment. I heard people who were going through what I was going through, balancing the pain of the “real world” with the need to make art. I heard the song “What You Own” and found myself nodding, my soul aching with the last chorus: “Dying in America/ at the end of the Millennium,/ We’re dying in America / to come into our own./ And when you’re dying in America / at the end of the millennium, / You’re not Alone. / I’m not Alone. / I’m not Alone.” Keeping things in perspective here, I don’t have AIDS. But I have sat with friends as they grieved the loss of a mother from cancer. I have watched two college campus’s reel as beloved classmates died suddenly, for stupid reasons. I know something of pain, and I know that ache of wanting to make something important, or as Mark puts it in “La Vie Boheme”, “The need to express, to communicate.” I’m not a Bohemian with AIDS (or consumption or syphilis) living in my garret with my deviant lover and a bag of cocaine (or bottle of opium) sitting on the desk. But I’m still a 20-something artist in my “garret”, trying to hold onto my idealism as the world around me gets harder to live in, struggling to put words on the page in a way that will change the world.

In some ways, it’s easier to hold onto my idealism than for the characters in RENT, because I have my faith in Christ, and the hope of the Restoration. I know that this real world muck isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Eleven-year old boys aren’t supposed to be dying of brain cancer. Eighteen-year-old girls aren’t supposed to be the primary caregiver for their dying mothers. There should be no such thing as single mothers scraping a living off minimum wage, or fathers losing themselves in their jobs. Isolation, barrenness, ugliness, and injustice: None of these things should be. I know that the universe is held by a Creator who makes beauty come from ashes. I get to be part of his re-making. Of his making-beautiful. And yes, right now it’s hard.

I think of Jesus himself, who had to wait until he was about thirty to start his ministry. He also had to sit through his twenties, waiting for the moment when he could do what he was made to do. None of the gospels talk about that time. We can only speculate. But he had to watch the world ache for what he would begin with his death and resurrection. One of the cool things about the Incarnation is that Jesus knows what it is to be human. He has some idea of what it’s like for me to sit on our Wal-Mart futon, trying to write what I’m not ready to say with the laundry I haven’t folded yet covering the floor.

This part of my life kind of sucks. But with Mark and Roger and Jesus, somehow I’ll get through.

“The opposite of War isn’t Peace. It’s Creation!”

A Thanksgiving Prayer for the Starving Artist

Father,

Thank you for today, for the clouds that cover the sun, filling us with longing for all that is yet to come. Thank you for the cold that blows in through our air conditioner, leaving us shivering under the covers, so we remember how much we need each other. Thank you for the snow flurries that fill the air with magic. Thank you for the snowflakes’ exquisite shapes, reminding us that you are The Artist, sculpting molecules with haunting perfection. Thank you for reminders that I need not compete in art, insisting that my work is much better that so-and-so’s, because you have surpassed all of us, setting an unachievable standard. Thank you for removing the pressure.

Thank you for a roof over our heads, for so much more space than most of the world. Thank you that I have room for all my books and wall space for the paintings of our friends. Thank you for computers that work so I can write and edit easily. Thank you for inspiring Dropbox, so I know my books are safe even if the laptop dies. Thank you for a husband who knows about things like Dropbox, so that my work is safe. Thank you for a husband who wants to protect my work and cares about what I do.

Thank you for a refrigerator, an oven, and enough counter space to fit a cutting board. Thank you for our generous family and friends, who gave us baking dishes, cookie sheets, cutting boards, and the checks that bought our knives. Thank you for exactly the money we need to eat well. Thank you for Meijer, that it’s sometimes cheaper than Wal-Mart and is so much healthier and better quality. Thank you that we have an option. Thank you also for the exotic fruit we always laugh at…for buddha’s hand and dragon fruit, pictures again of your Art. Thank you that there are so many beautiful things that are not symmetrical, that perfection is not a perfect pattern.

Thank you for a job with a company that treats me like a human being made in your image that wants me to acknowledge your image in others, to serve them. Thank you for teaching me the joy of being a servant. Please help me to forgive those who treat me like a slave. Thank you that even though my hours have been cut, I still seem to manage more than twenty hours a week. Thank you that I have a job at all when unemployment for women entering the work force is at twenty-five percent. Thank you for parents and mentors who have taught us to save, tithe, and pay our credit card bills in full, on time. Thank you for the mercy of the widow at Zarephath, that even though my paycheck keeps dropping, we still have leftover money in our budget.

Thank you for libraries, where we can enjoy books and movies for free. Thank you for books at all, for the wonder for falling into the written words. Thank you that your Book is filled with many types of writing: history, poetry, wisdom literature, prophetic words, biography, letters. Thank you that words are sacred, that this world exists because you spoke it so. Thank you for the honor of using my crude craft to tell stories with hope. Thank you for films, for stories told with pictures. Thank you that you still shine in an industry consumed with itself. Thank you for the people brave enough to make art even when it pays more to make merchandise. Thank you for music, and how your voice pours through strings, winds, brass, and chorus. Thank you for giving me a voice that people fall back on spiritual words to describe. May I learn how to point it to you. Thank you for the new genre of video games, for the excitement of stepping out in an immersive medium in your name, learning more and more what it means to play for your glory.

Thank you that we are not alone. Thank you for giving us communities of Christians and connections with other artists. Thank you for those who have gone before us, teaching us how to live and how to create. Thank you for families who have supported us, listening to our ideas and encouraging us to dream. Thank you, God, that you are a community of artists: Creator Father, Story-teller Son, and Inspiration Spirit. Thank you for pulling us into your holy artist’s colony.

Thank you for creating many different kinds of people, scientists, logicians, pragmatists, communicators, and naturists, as well as those who dream and create. Thank you that you are the God of both the right-brain and the left-brain. Thank you that you make us all live together, so we can learn more about who you are and how to serve you.

Most of all, thank you for your son: his death that killed pain and discord, his resurrection that brought life, and the coming restoration where those promises will be fulfilled, all will be made whole, and your grand story will really start.

In Jesus’ name,
Amen

Creating and Consuming

Two posts ago, I wrote about how my lack of energy has kept me from being able to write. Here we are, two weeks later, and I have added one more sentence to my revision. I also embarked on an hour long research frenzy into whether I was calling a location the “Northern Castle,” the “Country Castle,” or the “Country Palace.” For nearly a month now, my guitar and my violin have been sitting in our apartment. I haven’t touched them. The beloved chalk pastels that were locked up during my time in college are packed away in a box upstairs. In high school I used them to create beautiful portraits. I was so happy to get them back. I haven’t opened them.

I have, however, watched over a days worth of Foyle’s War. Caleb and I watched the fourth season of Doctor Who. I have reached level 23 in “Robot Unicorn Attack” on Caleb’s phone. I’ve listened to Pandora for hours on end. I’ve eaten through all of our bread and bagels and drunk the last of our orange juice. Caleb came home today to find me sitting in front of the computer, watching Netflix, and eating the toffee his parents sent as a gift. Sometimes I just refresh facebook, starting at pictures of my friends with people I’ve never met before.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been active. I make dinner most nights, and I’ve been trying to keep the kitchen clean. I’ve also been burning out. I spend 6-8 hours a day keeping busy, taking orders, stocking shelves, refilling the lemonade, slicing lemons, rinsing out the coffee maker. Then I come home with that same burning desire. Clean, clean, clean. Keep busy. You have to keep working to show you care, to do a good job. And then I realize that there’s no team to contribute to. There are no customers to serve. There’s no rush to keep up with. Instead, there is a messy apartment with a husband so swamped with work that he hasn’t noticed. And I collapse.

I have to confess: I’ve lost my temper too many times. There’s something out of joint in my world and I’m confused. So much of this is new. I don’t know how to do everything. So I collapse. I consume. I watch and listen and eat and browse. And all the while, at the back of my head, is that burn to create. I want to write. I want to feel the story pour out of my fingers. I want to sing and act and make music. But it’s always too late. Or I’m too tired. Or the dishes haven’t been done. Or the fridge is empty. Or Caleb needs me to drive him to class because he missed his bus in order to finish the homework he didn’t do yesterday because he was planning for the class he teaches, which he didn’t do the day before because he was working on his final project.

I spent this spring in a similar state. I consciously decided that I had to give up creativity in order to graduate. I felt my insides drying out, my soul shriveling. Then, I did it to reach a goal. Now, I do it because I feel responsible. Unfortunate situations in my youth have left me with a sense of practical guilt. If the kitchen is dirty, I can’t write. If the laundry isn’t folded, I can’t write. If there’s a job that needs to be done, I can’t write. But now the guilt is no longer attached to an external, motivating source. So I run away.

Caleb has tried to be helpful. He’s tried to make me go write. He’s told me to forget about the messy kitchen and pull out the laptop. But I can’t. I can’t leave the maddening guilt. I can’t leave what I have to do in order to do what I want to do. And I don’t want to do anything…so I consume.

It’s terrible, this gluttony. I’m bloated and tired. I even put off writing this blog because I had to make dinner. And then anesthetize myself from that frustration with Netflix. Eating and Doctor Who followed that. And now I’m going to be late for bed because this piece of writing has a reason. It has customers to serve, a shelf to keep stocked, and lemonade to refill. It’s work with a purpose.

That makes it practical.

This is the part of writing one doesn’t think about when one races through a gripping novel. One thinks of the great storms of inspiration, the sea battle with character development. One forgets that, like the sailors of old, our lives are mostly boring, spent staring at the same scenery, drifting for days under a hot sun with no wind.