Hey, Jude

Judy (214), 17×14″, compressed charcoal.

Judy and I have been married for 36 years. I started to call her “Jude” for short when we dated. She seemed happy to have a fond nickname, but has put less trust in my other creative activities involving her. In particular, she’s been skittish about letting me draw her as I tend to focus on the gritty details. She recently decided to pull her hair back in a tie as her long hair kept getting in the way. She used to do that when we were first married and when the kids were little. Her hairdo reminded us both of more innocent and carefree days. She let me take some photos. I felt drawn to a shot that captured her warm, loving personality best.

I began to make a drawing from the photo for an on-line class. I needed a step-by-step series to explain the process of making a compressed charcoal portrait.

I felt encouraged when Judy approved of a beginning stage of the drawing. I had a pretty good likeness at that point and wanted to quit while ahead. But I pointed out the rough spots and lurking errors to Judy. She acknowledged that it would be good for me to proceed. (I still needed more lesson images showing developmental stages and had mostly decided to go further.)

I got to the point where the changes I made did little to improve the likeness and feeling of the drawing. I showed it to Judy and told her it was finished.

She asked me to send a jpeg so that she could use the drawing on her Facebook profile. “Are you sure?” I said. She hesitated and queried, “What’s that white streak on my eye?” I said, “That’s a reflection on your glasses.” “Could you get rid of it?” she asked. “But it’s perfectly natural and gives the drawing an everyday sense of realism,” I countered indignantly. An artist has to take a stand for artistic freedom and integrity…I made the alteration later that day and sent her a revised jpeg.

Judy surprised me again a few days later. She had turned in a research paper to a plant biology journal this summer. One of the reviewers rejected it, but the editors encouraged her to do some rewrites and submit it again. She turned it in again about a month ago and expected another rejection. I heard her laughing an odd laugh (a mixture of glee and disbelief) at the other end of the house. I put down some work and ventured into the living room. “You’ll never believe it!” she said. “What won’t I believe?” “They accepted my paper!”

She’s been slowly working on this project for the last ten years. Illness severely restricted her ability to work more than a half hour at a time on it. She laid it aside for months and years at a time but found recent inspiration to make a final sprint. And then she jumped through the hoops to satisfy a reviewer who had misread the paper.

It’s hard to describe how much perseverance and effort it took for her to complete her last research paper. But she’s done it, and we’re all so proud.

Take Three Steps Back

An altercation disrupted our lunch today.  As our neighbors, their son, and the son’s dog approached their driveway, a car pulled up.  The passengers began to scream abuse at the dog walkers.  A canine deposit had been left on the car owner’s yard, so the driver and company decided to track down the culprits.  The back and forth lasted about a minute before the van drove on, but the violent language far outstripped the significance of the offence.  The participants appeared to have collectively reached their last straw.

I suspect that our abraded nerves no longer tolerate normal irritants.  Offhand, innocent remarks can spark arguments and virulent debate.  The personality quirks and odd habits of the near and dear acquire greater potential to annoy than they would have a year ago.  Self-confidence and esteem may have faltered after a period of prolonged stress.  I, for one, have realized that my emotional stamina is not what it used to be.

And some of us have suffered losses and near misses.  Jobs and financial security have been imperiled.  Cracks appear in the foundations of our future.  Our faith may have shrunk.

Reflection, reconsideration, and repentance mark Lent.  When my vision darkens and I’m tempted to hunt down and scream at miscreants, it helps to take three steps back.  The first step is to look at my current state, to notice, for example, that I’m getting red-faced about a minor slight.  The second is to offer a frank confession, the here-I-am prayer.  “Here I am, Lord, getting angry about nothing…again.”  The third step is an act of surrender, an acknowledgment that I’m going nowhere on my own.

Each step brings a different benefit.  Self-examination allows a temporary cease fire from warring emotions to commence.  Confession gives the confessor a chance to drop the burden of making up strained self-justifications.  Surrender offers an opportunity to receive healing grace and redirection from the Source, and to feel that a loving God shares in our struggles.

The Week in Review

Flower collage.

Judy got her second Covid vaccine shot this Wednesday. (My parents got theirs Thursday.) I felt some weight lift after we left the building and drove home. It took her three days to get back to her normal energy, but yesterday she managed to putter around in the back yard working at a raised planter. I’ll have to wait until they open up slots for 62-year-olds.

I believe that colleges and schools will return to whatever passes for normal by the fall. I hope to work in the classroom once again. The latest batch of drawings from my on-line college class convinces me that in-person instruction provides a better chance to effectively teach the less motivated. Some of my current students display an unwillingness to read and follow directions. If I send an e-mail warning students about common mistakes, this crew enthusiastically commits the errors I asked them to avoid. Students tend to be more attentive when I stand directly behind them and growl.

Judy and I have spent hours talking about a book called, “The Evolution of God”. The author, Robert Wright, discusses how the god of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) changed his personality according to social and political conditions. Conversations about the book led to reminiscences about attending various churches. Between the two of us, we’ve spent Sunday mornings at Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Quaker, Unitarian and Presbyterian churches. We both meditate. You can’t say that we haven’t tried…

I’ve been looking at collage instructional videos. I’ve got books and magazines ready to be cut up. I made a collaged greeting card today using a Xacto knife, sticky tabs and colored pencils. The final result looks like an overly excited bouquet of flowers. I enjoyed arranging shapes and colors, the freedom from having to draw the imagery, and making a lightweight non statement. It felt almost like playing.

We missed the cold snap that sunk the rest of the country in a deep freeze. Some plants show damage from frigid temps that hit us earlier in the year, and the lawns have browned out. But flowers bloom and most trees still sport green leaves. Pine and oak pollen have combined forces to torment my sinuses and eyes. My vision blurs in the morning, and I sometimes feel like I have an ants’ nest inside my nose and down the back of my throat. I wear a mask whenever I work outside for any length of time to limit my exposure. The neighbors out walking their dogs must think that I’m especially paranoid about contracting Covid.

Weeds and irises have sprouted up all over the yard. Pink oxalis flowers are my favorite volunteer plants. The irises in the backyard sport bright red blooms, while their front yard compatriots continue to look like patches of fat grasses. I haven’t yet been accosted by yard maintenance workers looking for a chance to mow down my flowers. They usually pounce this time of year when the blooms haven’t yet arrived.

Phone Calls: Quaker Front Man

I clerked at a Quaker meeting in Orlando:  I managed affairs and conducted business meetings.  The position was voluntary, and in a spurt of good citizenship, I also agreed to be the contact person.  The message recorder at the meeting listed my home phone number. 

I got several odd calls, some friendly, some hostile.  One man demanded to know what Quakers believed.  I learned from his responses that he already thought Quakers were areligious.  They didn’t emphasize the traditional Christian path, didn’t stress that salvation hinged on belief in Jesus’ sanctity and sacrifice.  At one point, I told him that we didn’t have a pastor, that meeting members ministered to each other.  He sneered, “So, you don’t have a good shepherd???”  I didn’t respond but thought, “And we don’t have bad shepherds either.”

Another man called to ask for assistance.  His car had broken down stranding him and his wife.  Could I come with cash for the repair and give them a lift to a motel?  I asked a series of questions that yielded some inconsistencies in his story.  They’d just arrived in town and had no one else to call.  But earlier he’d revealed that they’d lived here for seven years.  The car had broken down near a busy intersection in Altamonte Springs, but no gas stations or repair shops were anywhere nearby.  The man had money to rent a hotel room but none for a repair.  He had cash in the bank and would repay me but couldn’t seem to locate an ATM…When the man sensed that my faith in his story had waned, he revealed he’d been in the military.  He must have known that Quakers assist military members to become conscientious objectors.  I got the distinct impression he expected me to jump at a chance to make a conversion.  I believed, given the inconsistencies in his pitch, that he would rob me instead of listening to a speech about nonviolence.  I politely told him no.

One day, I got a phone call from the Orlando Rays, our minor league baseball team.  A sales rep wanted to know whether the church would buy a block of tickets for our youth group.  I explained that we had five grade school children in attendance.  She wanted to know if a Bible study group might be interested instead.  I told her that we had about twenty-five members, and that attendance at an average Sunday service topped off at fifteen adults.  She sighed then asked, “What kind of church are you Quakers?”  I gave her the short version.  She followed up with a surprise question.  “ARE YOU SAVED?” she demanded.  I answered, “I’m as saved as I want to be.”  A long pause followed.  Then I heard her snickering.  She finally said, “You have a nice day.”

Portraits

Portrait (charcoal rub-out).

I drew the portrait above a few weeks ago as a demonstration for an on-line portrait drawing class. I chose the subject for her expression of strength. Although I’d never met her and knew nothing of her history, she seemed to have suffered and endured. The slight uplift of the right corner of her mouth gave her an attitude of tenderness that countered the skeptical frown on her brow. She’s a complicated lady.

The process of making the drawing gradually became tedious after I completed the initial stages. Her likeness and some of her personality arrived early. As I continued to make slight adjustments, I began to feel like I was merely taking dictation from the photo, writing meticulous notes from nature. I’ve done that often enough to have lost most of my sense of discovery. When I first worked realistically, the wonder of discovering light effects carried me through the exacting tedium of working out the details. This sort of drawing now feels more like an endurance test. Can I remain attentive and patient long enough to pay the subject due respect?

212 (colored and graphite pencil)

I started making abstract drawings and paintings a few years ago. I wanted a bit more mystery and discovery while making a piece of artwork. I just completed the color pencil drawing, another portrait, today. I used another photo of a woman as the source. The first step involved using a modified blind contour technique (look mainly at the subject while moving a pencil in synchrony with the eyes as they scan surfaces) to generate lines. I modified the drawing to fuse shapes into hybrids. I developed color shapes using six colored pencils for a limited palette. The results look somewhat like a face and somewhat like a disintegrating bouquet of flowers.

The first drawing looks like a still from a silent movie. It hints at a stormy narrative. The second drawing has a light, silly bounce to it. It tells a joke instead of a story. Seeing that life appears all too dramatic for me right now, I prefer the latter.

Don’t Close the Door

I recently wrote a break-up song. It’s about the process of letting go…and revenge.

Chorus: 

Don’t close the door till you say goodbye.

If you got to go, don’t tell me why.

Sit in my chair, watch the dust drift by.

Don’t close the door till you say goodbye.

1.

You were always right.  I was seldom wrong.

Sometimes our fights dragged on and on.

Now I miss you nights.  Do you miss me days?

Memories of love vanish in the haze.

(Chorus)

2.

I can see your smile in my dreams at night.

But the vision fades in the morning light.

Thought I’d ask you back.  Almost made the call.

Footsteps echo down an empty hall.

(Chorus)

3.

Sold your favorite chair, gave away your plants.

Called up your sister—thought I’d take a chance.

Well, she’s not as pretty as you used to be.

But she’s kind and gentle, eases misery.

(Chorus)

The chords are variations on DGA. The vocal, of course, is shaky and hoarse. I’m wearing a hat to cover up a bad case of “bed head”.

The Covid19 Roller Coaster

I recently viewed a video reporting that introverts are, paradoxically, suffering more than extroverts during the pandemic. The introvert’s tendency to withdraw has actually become heightened by the forced cut-off of interaction. In normal times, encounters at work, at school, and at a store would force an introvert to engage with other people. While too much social contact tires an introvert, they still require engagement to feel normal. Extroverts are still getting their “people-fix” by using whatever means available (phone calls, zoom sessions, shouting over a back yard fence to a neighbor). Those at the far end of the extroversion scale have been ignoring the warnings. They’re going to restaurants and bars despite the risks.

I’m an introvert and am riding an emotional roller coaster right now. I feel calm and okay at times but can switch abruptly into a state of depression and anxiety. I take this up and down ride several times a day.

The dark valley. A serious movie about grief and the “In Memoriam” segments on the PBS Newshour have sent me into downward spirals. Each new report about hospitalizations and the Covid mortality count brings back reminders of near misses, of lost loved ones, of relatives and neighbors suffering slow, difficult deaths. Gray and changeable weather (tornado watch tonight!) give me an uneasy feeling that something ominous lurks just out of sight. News reports about continued post-election conflict and the floundering vaccine roll-out erode my faith in progress.

Spells of irrational anger pop up out of nowhere. Any disturbance or change in routine can set me off in the wrong direction. I often realize, even as I’m swearing at a hammer or crumpling a bad drawing, that I’m angry at something else. My overreaction to normal mishaps and minor failures is a sign of built up tension.

I sometimes long for a brief moment when I could forget about the latest CDC statistics. While watching old movies, television shows, and recorded sports events, I envy the folks sitting packed tightly in crowds. They yell, cheer, hug, shout, even rage at each other without second thoughts about the consequences of their actions. We were such lucky bastards.

The high plateau. When I hear my granddaughter attempt to say new words, watch her play and explore, my spirits lift. She’s a spark of bright potential. When I finish a painting, read something new in a book, watch Whose Line Is It Anyway?, sit close with Judy on a sofa, share a good meal with her, and work in the yard, the gloom lifts.

Positive notes. My wife, parents, a nephew (who works as a nurse) and some of my friends have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. My brother, his wife and my brother-in-law continue to recover from their bouts with Covid. My seasonal allergy symptoms (coupled with a pinched nerve in my back), while leaving me periodically short of breath, have not developed into anything serious.

What Games Are You Playing?

I’ve been accused on a few occasions of playing games.  A coworker blamed me for working on a project normally assigned to him.  He believed that I was making a Machiavellian move to steal his turf.  A few women have thought that I was making passes because I spoke with them when no one else was around.  My grandmother once told me (when I was six years old) that while I might be able to fool my grandfather, she wasn’t buying my nice boy routine.  In one strange case, a group of three grad students threatened to give me a beating without bothering to announce my alleged offense.  Their squinty eyes told me that they believed I’d played a trick at their expense.

I had trouble, in all those cases, figuring out what my accusers meant.  I had no hidden agendas that I could identify at the time.  Sometimes it took me years to decipher the reasoning behind the indictments.  The finger-pointers assumed not only that a game was afoot but that I had invented the rules.  I realized, years later, that they were projecting their own paranoia instead of making reality-based judgments.  Or perhaps they believed that everyone engaged in games that they played themselves.  I represented, at odd moments, traits they didn’t want to see when they looked in a mirror.

I’m not innocent, of course, and do play games on occasion.  Survival in the adult world requires some dissembling and tactical choices.  Only a fool acts with complete openness and transparency when dealing with bearers of recently sharpened knives.  When engaged with treacherous folks, I reveal the minimum while studying their every move.  I don’t see evil intentions lurking behind every smile and bland statement  but intend not to become anyone’s repeat sucker.

I realize that we all play games of one kind or another.  Some of us try to lap up all the pleasures our senses can provide.  Some crave power and turn every situation into a competition.   Some engage in immortality projects building monuments to promote their enduring fame.  Others seek payback to avenge any wrong done to them. Some go on crusades merging themselves with others in a common cause.  Others walk the woe-is-me trail finding identity in victimhood.  A few seek thrills by flirting with death.  A Wallenda tightrope walker once said, “Life is lived out on the wire.  The rest is just waiting.”

A rare contingent use their lives to serve spiritual goals, to find communion with God.  Social climbing, power grabbing, and pleasure seeking no longer command them.  They play the only game worth playing. Or maybe they’ve stopped playing any games at all.

The Inverse Power of Walking Away

I’ve recently taken some on-line versions of the Myers-Briggs personality test. The results indicate that I’m an INFJ or INFP. The former seems like a better fit in that I’m introverted, empathetic and make (usually silent) judgments about myself and others.

Another trait that fits my set of personal quirks is the tendency to abruptly walk away. INFJs endure a lot from other people but have tipping points. After reaching limits of patience and forbearance, they abruptly go AWOL. Some refer to this as “the door slam”.

I’ve been guilty of this on a number of occasions and sometimes slammed actual doors. At other times, I inwardly withdrew while maintaining physical nearness. I still listened to offending parties but filtered my responses to their words and actions. I started to see them from afar as if they’d already become voices from a distant past. They could get my reluctant attention, when necessary, but not my engagement.

The walk-away starts as a defensive act. INFJs can sympathize and see multiple points of view causing us to linger in destructive relationships. We can understand an attacker’s logic and somewhat justify their actions. Since we judge ourselves harshly, a negative verdict from others doesn’t shock. But after enduring long interludes of mistreatment, we reach a point where we’ve had enough. We surprise our acquaintances by swerving across several lanes to hit an exit ramp. They don’t realize that we’re not coming back.

Exhilaration marks the walk-away moment for an INFJ. A surge of power and well-being quickens our steps and opens the horizon to fresh possibilities. Sweet freedom. The only problem with enjoying moments of liberation is that the pleasure can become addictive. Friendships and relationships marred by minor problems may get discarded too quickly as an INFJ looks for another opportunity to experience the rush of newfound independence.

The obvious pitfall for INFJs is the isolation we eventually bring upon ourselves. Negating relationships pushes us further and further away from warmth and companionship. Paradoxically, that which frees us encases us in loneliness.

However, as I get older (and as the pandemic drags on), I’m starting to see the value in not wasting time waiting for the tipping point to arrive. Life is short and fragile. Why wait to push open the exit door? A friend who seldom calls deserves an equal amount of consideration. A colleague who leaves behind classroom messes for me to clean up isn’t really a colleague. I don’t have to lend an ear to a pastor preaching jarring messages running counter to my spiritual welfare. Who wants to spend time and energy scrubbing rhetorical mud out of their minds?

My circle may narrow radically, but will I suffer a true loss?

Jonah’s Learning Curve

The story of Jonah depicts God performing several roles.  He pursues and disciplines Jonah, not unlike a drill sergeant punishing a stubborn recruit, for refusing to carry out orders.  He shows mercy to the Assyrian citizens of Nineveh like a kind parent giving straying children another chance.  He acts at the end of the tale as a teacher. First He causes a gourd to grow and give shade to Jonah. Second He allows a worm to destroy the gourd.  When Jonah mourns the death of the plant and complains about his subsequent discomfort, God asks him to consider the following question:  if Jonah feels grief for a lost plant, isn’t it fitting for God to mourn a lost people? God teaches Jonah compassion by giving him loss. 

I feel some sympathy for Jonah.  God called on him to minister to implacable enemies of Jonah’s people.  The prophet would have directly encountered their aggression or would have known family and friends who suffered at their hands.  He would have developed a justified fear of and loathing for those now targeted for forgiveness and reconciliation.  And to add insult to injury, Jonah would act as the instrument of their salvation.  I’d complain if I were a child forced by a parent to share toys with the neighborhood bully.  If Dad wanted to be kind to a punk, couldn’t he himself go out to give a new football to Johnny?

I’ve faced situations where my evident duty ran counter to my comfort and inclinations.  On some occasions, I balked and fled.  I reasoned that someone else would pick up the slack.  On two notable occasions, however, I bowed to the inevitable.  A “hand of God” feeling accompanied each of these moments.  I got the direct and inarguable impression that I wouldn’t even make it to the boat much less end up in the belly of a whale.  Both times the message seemed to say, “Don’t even bother to squirm.  You’re going to do this.”

Some believe that our lives are prewritten before we come to earth, that we have missions to fulfill. We’re not aware of the plan, however, and have wiggle room to make a few decisions.  Jonah’s flight from his task, in this view, was just a temporary delay that led to fear and misery.  I’m not sure I agree completely with this conception.

I think that we come to this world with pre-set patterns that invite certain choices, that create issues we eventually must face and resolve.  I might run away from a conflict, but similar ones will follow.  An example:  if I’m born with a short fuse, then I’ll face countless situations inviting me to learn how to control my temper.  In this belief system, God is a teacher setting up exercises for our benefit.  Similarly, after I teach students the principles of perspective, I give them assignments forcing them to apply that knowledge.  They only learn how to draw a building correctly by trying to draw a building.  It would be easier for them if I just lectured on the subject and took their word that they understood the material.  But real progress can only be made by putting knowledge into practice.

It takes courage to sign up for this life course.  An Indian guru advises his followers to face misfortune, not by complaining about the injustice of life, but by considering themselves brave.  They’ve shown their mettle by volunteering for difficult but rewarding lessons.