Simple Gifts

Getting my home in order has been my priority for the last couple months.

Step One, initially, was to finish unpacking. That became Step Three when I decided (a) to set up an office after moving boxes out of the dining area in my apartment, and then (b) to rearrange so what was to have been my guestroom became my bedroom.

I currently sit at what was my niece’s dining room table in a previous incarnation (and has become a generous desk for me, complete with office organizers and blotter). From that, it can be deduced my office has become functional. My bedroom walls are lined with paintings, a bookshelf is nestled in a corner filled with books and memoriabilia, and I’ve been using my prayer desk regularly, which indicates work on my bedroom is also finished.

Why, then, have I made so little progress on my unpacking? The blithe answer would be: working at a convenience store, standing on my feet for nine hours a day, exhausts me. When I have time off, I don’t feel like unpacking.

A more honest answer would be subtler, and has its roots in a book I read nearly 30 years ago: THE ZEN ENVIRONMENT: THE IMPACT OF ZEN MEDITATION by Marian Mountain. At the time, I had given up on Christianity.

My ex had come home drunk one night, angry because I wouldn’t leave sleeping preschoolers home alone to join him at the bar, and grabbed me around the throat. He slammed me up against the wall and … well, I survived, but I had bruises from the encounter. The next day I went to my pastor to talk about what had happened, and he told me my husband wouldn’t abuse me if I submitted myself to him.

By the time our conversation had ended, I decided that Christianity and I were parting ways. I would not believe in a God who would put children at risk to keep a self-centered drunk happy. Period. Non-negotiable. But, I was — as I am now — spiritual by nature, so I began to search for another belief system I could embrace.

Zen became my practice for a while, primarily because of  THE ZEN ENVIRONMENT. The worldview reflected by the author was one which offered a way to live which appealed to me by being wholistic.

In an early chapter, she wrote: “The work of taking care of our environment also means taking care of ourself…. When you take good care of yourself, you will take good care of your environment; and when you take good care of your environment, you will also take good care of yourself.”

In the following chapter, she elaborated further: “Taking care of our environmment means getting rid of the old self, the false self, to make room for the present reality. Suzuki Roshi [a great Zen master and teacher] once gave a talk in my old hometown in which he said, ‘When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them.'”

Mountain writes about accomplishing the “housecleaning of the mind” by actually cleaning one’s house — ridding oneself of what is unnecessary. My problem is that I’m not quite sure what is unnecessary at this point.

I have donated to the library dozens of books and DVDs, and  have sold others. One of my brothers — sooner or later — will be picking up the doll furniture which my dad made for my fourth Christmas and which I have carried with me from home to home, even after my children had outgrown dolls. Another brother, I think, is coming to get my parents’ dishes since they need to be used if they are to have meaning for next generation, and I’m not likely to be hosting any kind of family event.

My quandary results from my inability to recognize my true self at this juncture in my life. This is not a new experience for me. I’m a multi-faceted person with the ability to do just about anything I decide to tackle — whether I’m especially interested in the task or not.

(A guy I dated for a couple months once dismantled his bike in my living room because he believed he should be able to do maintenance on it himself. I ended up putting the bike back together for him just so I could have my living room back.)

After a search for self which occupied the better part of a decade after high school, I found myself when I became a mom. Later, that identity was enlarged when I felt called to be an artist. For the last 10 or 15 years, though, I’ve been like  a tumbleweed, blown on the winds of circumstance. I worked as a journalist, became more involved in the life of the church, became a compulsive scrapper (one who makes scrapbooks), and moved four times.

These days I’m intensely grateful God worked through all of this to draw me into a more intimate relationship with himself, but I’m struggling, too — struggling to discern what he would have me DO. I’m a task-oriented person.

He created me. He should know this, and — as far as I’m concerned — should show me.  Certainly, he could get a message to me if he wanted. Angels seem to be quite effective, at least according to Biblical accounts.

But, I have to concede, maybe I’m afraid of the message. Tonight, when I picked up my devotional, I found a meditation by Pope Benedict XVI. He wrote: “I would like to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with him: It is the way of artistic expression, part of that via pulchritudinis — “way of beauty….”

How many time have I said that for me painting is an act of prayer? How many times have I talked about the union I feel with God, the Creator, when I create? Have I not — every time I talked about the 7-day silent retreat I gave myself as a 50th birthday present — extolled the wisdom of my spiritual director in encouraging me to spend time each day working on a pastel painting as part of the retreat experience?

At the end of the meditation, Pope Benedict wrote, “Dear friends, I invite you to rediscover the importance of this way for prayer, for our living relationship with God…”

Could it be that simple? Several weeks ago, I grabbed my backpack and headed out to the park where I did a pastel drawing. I was filled with joy. And, lately, I’ve been thinking of my aborted art career more often than usual. Could God be trying to tell me something?

Hope wars with the fear of disappointment within me, and that’s why — I strongly suspect — I’m dragging my feet when it comes to unpacking. I need to decide whether to unpack my art supplies — though I did give my easel away when I moved since I hadn’t painted in years — or I need to get rid of them.

What if it’s simply hubris to imagine God is calling me back to something that was once so central to my identity? But what if I’m turning my back on a blessing he longs to pour into my life?

Sooner or later, I will have to find out, won’t I?




Odd Role Model

(Note: I probably shouldn’t write articles to post at 1:30 a.m. after working 11 hours, the last nine of which were spent on my feet. But, since there is a point or two here worth saving, I just edited it rather than deleting it.)

Midnight possibilities have an ethereal quality. Right now, with my feet elevated after working a long shift and ibuprophen beginning to work its magic, I find myself bemused to discover I am being inspired by a recovering drug addict whose most recent claim to fame is portraying a comic book action hero in a popular movie. Not usually my kind of guy.

Inspiration comes from an article on Yahoo! about Robert Downey, Jr. I have to admit I haven’t seen “The Avengers,” but I’ve liked the way he plays Sherlock Holmes. (Note to self: see about getting DVDs.) Consequently, I was curious about the article, “Reinvention 101: 5 Lessons from Robert Downey, Jr.,” by Patrick J. Kiger. 

I was vaguely aware that Downey was making a career comeback, but didn’t know the details. Apparently, he had a bit of drug problem and spent some time in prison. Erratic behavior also prevented him from being the actor-of-choice for television or movies for a while.

Since 2008, he’s turned that track record around. Kiger reports that the nine movies in which he’s starred have grossed $1.5 billion in the U.S. alone. He points out that Downey reinvented himself one step at a time and had help. Since I’ve been mourning my art career, I’ve been wondering if I couldn’t resurrect it by adapting those lessons to my situation.

  1. Concentrate on getting ahead one step at a time. My first step might be to readjust my priorities. When I was working to build an art career, I blocked out a work schedule and stuck to it. Sometimes  I used the time to clean my studio or mix paint rather than to actually paint, but I worked at something related to creating art. I haven’t done that in years. Maybe it’s time to start doing that again.
  2. Don’t be too proud to accept help. Twenty years ago, I read voraciously and networked extensively in order to understand what was necessary to build a career, especially since  I didn’t have a degree in art to use as a springboard. Through the contacts I made, I learned about exhibition opportunities and learned how to begin marketing my work. Maybe it’s time to swallow my pride and start attending events again. Maybe I’ll meet someone willing to help open a door. I won’t know unless I try. 
  3. Believe that in the end, your talent will enable people to overlook your past mistakes. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done. While I do exhibit the work of cherished friends and mentors in my home, the majority of the  paintings on my walls are my own — both portraits and landscapes. I never cease to be amazed by the way I use color and by the way I’ve incorporated other materials into my work. I need to value the original vision which is mine enough to believe others will find it intriguing as well.
  4. It’s never too late to develop self-discipline. In my case, developing self-discipline and taking things one step at a time might involve the same practice — scheduling time to create art and then doing it. I remember when I used to crawl out of bed in the morning and start painting without even getting out of my pajamas because I didn’t want to risk getting distracted by other work that needed to be done. I was that disciplined as an artist. I can be that disciplined again.
  5. Don’t be afraid to play with an ensemble. This actually appeals to me. I think of the group shows at the now defunct Oscar Howe Art Center that Jeff Morrison curated, and remembrance washes over me like a warm shower. What fun to brainstorm ideas with other artists and to see my work hung with those whose work I admired. I was both humbled and exhilarated to be among them as an equal. Once I have created some new work, I need to explore this possibility.

(Those wishing to know how these lessons are reflected in Downey’s career might be able to find Kiger’s article at if it’s no longer available on Yahoo!)

So, I can now imagine how my art career might be resurrected. That’s a beginning. Author and psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen (GODDESSES  IN EVERYWOMAN, THE TAO OF PYSCHOLOGY and CLOSE TO THE BONE, among others) said “Whenever we attempt something new or difficult, we have to be able to imagine it before it becomes possible. It’s the combination of inspiration and perspiration that brings about tangible results.”

God willing, as I reflect on this plan, it will grow within me and before long the will-o-wisp possibility I begin to see tonight will take on substance and inspire action. God willing.

St. Jude pray for me.

He’s Right

My brothers don’t read my blog or I wouldn’t dare to put this in writing … but my  brother Jim was right.

Years and years ago, he told me I was not irreplacable. I don’t recall the full conversation, but we must have been talking about some work situation in which I found myself. I can’t think of another context for the analogy he used.

He told me to think of a bucket of water. He said when I put my hand in a bucket of water, it doesn’t change (which made no sense to me, because putting my hand in a bucket of water changes the water level), and when I take my hand out, the bucket of water remains the same (except, I added mentally, the water level is lowered).

His point, of course, was that the water itself didn’t change; its elemental or chemical composition was the same — H2O — whether my hand was in the bucket or not. In the same way, organizations are relatively stable regardless of who works for them. Employees are,  for the most part, interchangeable.

Since I didn’t understand the analogy, I doubt if I took his advice. I know now — with 20/20 hindsight — that I have stayed with more than one job longer than was wise. I came to this realization while reading THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING: A SPIRITUALITY FOR REAL LIFE by James Martin, S.J.

I’ve been reading this book for months, though it’s easy to read and understand, because it’s functioned in my life like a spiritual director. I will read a chapter, discover it stirs up the mud of my subconscious, and find I need time to reflect on what has come to the surface before I’m ready to move on.

Most recently, I read Chapter 12, “What Should I Do? The Ignatian Way of Making Decisions.” As with Ignatian contemplation, imagination can play a role if one uses what Martin (and probably St. Ignatius) called the Second Method.

“First,” Martin wrote, “he [St. Ignatius] suggests you ‘imagine a person whom I have never seen or known,’ and imagine what advice you would give to this person regarding the same decision you are facing. This can help free you from excessive focus on yourself.”

I was trying to decide whether to apply for a couple positions in the area which interested me. After being unemployed for six months, I began to work at a convenience store a couple months ago. Since I live in an area of the country with an economy that relies heavily on tourism, and the tourism season is just beginning, the store’s busy season is just beginning.

Because of this, I was torn. I like the manager and I know how difficult it has been for him to find reliable employees. I really hate the  idea of  leaving him high and dry at the beginning of the tourism season. On the other hand, neither of the positions that interests me — both of which are in my field — is likely to open up again if the right candidate is hired, so passing at this time is passing on the positions altogether.

I know exactly what I would have done had I not read this chapter. I would have passed on the job opportunities that interested me, because I would have felt it was selfish to put my needs ahead of the needs of the organization. I’m a caregiver by nature. I care for those who come into my sphere regardless of whether they appreciate my efforts or not.

Twenty years ago, I worked as a library technician at a university library. The head of the department in which I worked was not very well organized, was not a good problem-solver and had somehow managed to alienate her entire staff by the time I started six months after she was hired — about the time she was entrusted with a major project. After mastering my job responsibilities, I tackled a few of the procedural challenges in the department which eased some of the tension among co-workers.

Then, I became concerned about my supervisor, because it  was painfully obvious she didn’t know how to tackle the project. Working with my co-workers, I developed a system which would enable us, as a team, to accomplish the project which had been assigned to her. When evaluation time came around, she gave me a mediocre evaluation, failing to note the contributions I had made which enabled the department to function more smoothly and enabled her project to move along in an orderly fashion.

Thus was the beginning of a difficult seven-year relationship. Twice during that time, I was asked by other department heads to apply for promotional positions. I didn’t apply either time, because each time my department was in the middle of a major transition, and I didn’t trust the department head to get the work done in a smooth, systematic manner. Eventually, after an especially appalling evaluation, I quit.

Had someone I didn’t know asked me what to do, I would not have advised them to do what I did. If they were asked to apply for a promotional position, but hated to leave a project half finished, I would have asked: who is the responsible for the project? (In my situation, it was my supervisor.) Then I would have asked whether the individual was interested in the position being offered. (In my situation, I was definitely interested in one.) My final question would have been: so, if you’re interested in the position and you’re not responsible for the project, why are you hesitating?

After reflecting upon this question for several days, I have an answer I don’t like: pride. I thought I was irreplacable.

In his book, THE CATHOLIC WAY: FAITH  FOR LIVING TODAY, Cardinal Donald Wuerl writes, pride “is defined as the need, the tendency, of persons to exalt themselves, their gifts, their ability over others and even over God’s plan.” In my case, I strongly suspect that in exalting myself in this way, I may have (ironically or, perhaps, tragically) thwarted God’s plan for my happiness.

Father Bernard Bro, a French Dominican priest, is quoted in the May 2012 issue of  THE MAGNIFICAT as writing, “Whether or not we wish, we cannot escape the thirst for happiness; we are made for it. Whether or not we wish, we cannot acquire it without human means. The kingdom of God is not established outside of or beyond our lives, but each day as a result of the most insignificant acts. We actually enter into collaboration with God when we begin our search for happiness.”

That being the case, it’s altogether possible that ignoring an open door out of an exalted sense of my own abilities, I missed the opportunity for job satisfaction, job security and … yes, I’ll use the word … happiness. Sadly, that’s been a pattern in my life which I will have to confess when next I receive the Sacrament of Reconcilliation.

For now, though, I am willing to consider the possibility that God’s hand may be at work in my awareness of the positions that interest me. I am willing to at least submit applications. If God is not opening doors … well, obviously, I won’t be offered either position. And if He is, I have — at least in this instance — been able to put His will above an exalted sense of my own gifts.

For this, I am grateful. Thank you, Father Martin, for opening my eyes.


Good Grief

I want people to like ME.

That’s what  she said — an employee I supervised about 15 years ago when I was director of an art center. I had discovered my trust in her had been misplaced, and difficulties I was having resulted from the way she was manipulating me and others in order to achieve her agenda. In the process, she was shredding my reputation and my credibility.

Classic example: I would go to the office, and as I walked through the door, she would stop me to say, “The curator wants me to put work by so-and-so in the gift shop, but I just don’t think his work is right for us.” I would answer, “OK, I’ll support your decision.” Then, she would go to the curator and say, “I would be more than happy to put so-and-so’s art work in the gift shop, but Mary says it’s not appropriate for our venue.” Then the curator would come to me — after contacting a couple board members to get their support — and be furious because he had already assured the artist that we would carry his work. I would tell him — and board members when they called to find out what was happening — I was simply supporting the gift shop manager’s decision, and she would coyly say with a smile, “It’s not my place to make those decisions, it’s yours.”

Because she’d been with the organization longer than I had, the board would accept what she said as truth, and chastise me for failing to take responsibility for my actions. While these irritating, frustrating, maddening contretemps were occurring on a too-frequent basis, I was attempting to deal with other organizational challenges. Unfortunately, because the gift shop manager had systematically undermined my credibility with the board, members did not trust my judgment.

When I tried to explain to the gift shop manager what she was doing with her little games, she smiled and said, “But, I want people to like ME. You’re paid to be the bad guy.” I was stunned with that response, because I believe each of us must be responsible  for our own actions. Of course, what I believed or didn’t believe was irrelevant. Within months of that conversation, I was out of a job.

That phrase — I want people to like ME — has haunted me for more than a decade. I would be washing dishes, and find myself arguing with the gift shop manager about that. I would be folding clothes warm and fresh from the dryer, and it would pop into my head, taking the pleasure out of the comfortable, homey task. I would be driving down the highway, gazing at a fieldof harvest-ready corn at dusk and be lifted with joy by the golden glow, only to be smacked down as that phrase ran through my head.

And, I have hated myself for being so hard-hearted and unforgiving. I profess to be a Christian. I profess to follow the risen Christ whose gospel advocates forgiveness. I pray the Lord’s prayer daily — “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Why did this comment come back to me unbidden over and over?

Why was I stuck there? I’ve had a couple other unpleasant job situations since then; why did that one stick with me when I’ve been able to move past the others, when I’ve been able to see the blessings of open doors created in the other difficult situations?

A couple weeks ago, an answer spontaneously came to me: because I was stuck in grief.

In 1989, I visited the Chicago Institute of Art for the first time. While there, I had an epiphany: if I did not create art, my life would be wasted. I’d been painting for about 10 years by that time, primarily for personal pleasure. I knew as I looked at Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sky Above Clouds IV” that I needed to pursue an art career seriously.

I returned to South Dakota, conducted research in order to determine how to proceed, and set goals for my career. Within a year, I had achieved my one-year, three-year and five-year goals. During the following years, I had a number of solo exhibits, had work included in several touring exhibits and saw some of my work accessioned into museum collections. Equally as important, my social circle was primarily comprised of fellow artists.

When the gift shop manager — the same individual who later shredded my professional reputation — began to nag me about becoming director of  the art center, I was positioned to support myself as a practicing artist. I had just received a three-year grant which would have made it unnecessary for me to work beyond doing some residencies in area schools. I could have immersed myself in art rather than balancing an art career with another job in order to pay bills.

By the time I was fired and escorted from the art center by two board members, all of that had been destroyed. Only a couple friendships survived, and I was so burned out that I didn’t paint again for years. When I did begin to paint again, I made no effort to exhibit my work. I didn’t have the energy — or courage — to begin again. I had only to attend a couple art events, and have former friends turn their backs on me rather than include  me in conversations, to see how difficult it would be. I didn’t have the heart for it.

What I did not realize for a very long time was that I needed to grieve that ending, the death of my dream, of what I believed to be my life’s work. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed in her book ON DEATH AND DYING, that there are five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I came to realize that I have not been hard-hearted or unforgiving during the past 15 years; I’ve been stuck in the anger stage of grief — with short forays into bargaining.

I wish this realization had released me to move immediately to acceptance, but it hasn’t. Instead, I find myself crying about just about everything these days, and thanking God for releasing me to move beyond the subconscious anger which has plagued me for years. I know these tears will lead to acceptance and healing — and maybe create in me a place for a new dream. Only God knows.

Only God knows — and I am willing to wait on him.