Never Compare

I tell worried students to never compare themselves to others. Our starting lines are different in the race to improve work and hone talent. It does no good to either feel superior (you’re not that near the finish line, so keep running) or inferior (you’re no worse than 90% of beginners). What helps most is to steal. If Sarah turns a line in an attractive way around a shape, rip it off as best you can. If Tom develops exquisite transitions in his tonal changes, take a close look and figure out how he did it. We all have innate abilities, but those who make the most progress remain humble enough to pick-pocket their betters…

I recently heard a passage from a book on Christianity that admonished seekers to jump all in. The writer declared that faithful Christians must trust God completely. Anxiety and fear are signs of weakness, a failure to acknowledge that God walks beside us as we make our journey from this life to the next. True Christians avoid doubts.

Perhaps the writer intended to motivate and inspire readers like a cheerleader demanding loud support from a crowd. But I found the strident words annoying. Some of us struggle for our faith. Who was he to judge?

I sometimes envy folks who have a steady belief in the promises of their faiths. They look forward with greater sureness and joy. My steady companions, however, are doubt and dread. They dog my steps like familiar, persistent enemies.

Perhaps there’s still room for hope. I’ve met people at church who are kind, steady and full of hope. They pray for each other and try to lighten the loads of those in need. Instead of just wishing that my spiritual light would shine as brightly as theirs, I could study them carefully like a robber scanning the floor plans of a bank.

Pastor Bob knows that life is tough and full of suffering, but focuses on the goodness he finds in others. I could try that. Irene feels the supporting influence of prayer carrying her through uncertain times. I could pray for guidance and send hope and assurance to others. Ruth is driven to step in and provide help where needed. I could turn away from my troubles and look for ways to be useful. Arthur focuses on finding God’s presence in the Living Moment. Sounds good to me.

In the end, leading a vibrant spiritual life might be a matter of ripping off the right people.

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Volunteer

My wife and I volunteered to teach art and science sections of a Vacation Bible School program at our church. Judy initially thought she’d assist two teachers who would develop science projects and lead lessons. She discovered, too late to back out, that she was the only volunteer. I knew that she’d have difficulty getting through the week by herself, so I agreed to be her assistant.

We ended up having a good time working with interesting kids. Some were unwilling attendees who needed gentle coaxing to participate. We taught them about rocket propulsion by firing balloon-powered missiles along strings running to a planet Mars target. We gave them materials and let them work out designs for Martian landers. Their payloads were marshmallows. If a lander set down gently and didn’t dump cargo on the floor, the budding engineer could eat the marshmallow. One girl made a parasail out of construction paper and string. Her lander floated down slowly with stately grandeur. Her marshmallow barely wobbled at touch down.

Judy and I didn’t know if any of the projects would work and felt trembly at the start of each day. Flopping in front of groups of fifteen to twenty kids can be painful. But by the end of the week our confidence grew, and we had the satisfaction of watching kids learn to enjoy science as they tried new things.

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Earlier this summer, Judy and I took a short vacation at a state park in northern Florida. The cabin had a screened-in porch where we sat mornings and evenings to catch a breeze and look out over a lake. I studied the construction of the porch, the screen door and the deck. I made the mistake of saying, “I think that I could build something like this on our front porch.” Judy’s eyes popped wide open. Oops.

I started on the porch at the end of June. I finished the supports this Monday. I’ve got two weeks left before my regular work schedule kicks in. Three steps remain: fill in gaps between the support frame and the porch roof; build and hang a door with a latch; make screens and install them in the support framework.

I had hoped to finish the project by our anniversary in late August but know now that I’m not going to make it. Perhaps I’ll reach completion by the end of September. Problems keep multiplying, but I’ve been able to figure them out so far. When I run into difficulties, I stare at a trouble spot until an idea pops into my head. Then I discover as I cut, sand, paint, and drill whether my plan works.

I’ve never done a project like this before, and in some ways it feels like I’ve jumped from an airplane without fully understanding how my parachute works. The experience is stimulating and somewhat terrifying. But this exercise in physical labor and problem-solving has given a lot of satisfaction. Every time I step back and take a look at the porch, I see tangible evidence of progress. That doesn’t often happen to me any more.

Prelude to a Kiss

Unfinished portrait with alterations.

I took an unfinished portrait, blocked in some alternative colors and shapes, turned it sideways and began to play. I added tones, color lines and more shapes. I let the painting journey along a Modernist path: make decisions based on how the basic elements of art interact; don’t worry about subject or narrative.

Same painting rotated counter-clockwise.

Two heads emerged from the mix despite my intentions. They refused to become attractive or desirable, yet lingered close to each other. The head on the right leaned forward with closed eyes and pushed out lips while the left head smiled reluctantly and waited for whatever came next. A half-pulled shade showed up in the dark background (a window looking out on a dark street in a noir movie?). I wondered if the two had decided on a midnight rendezvous…They regretted things the next morning if they did.

The title: “Prelude to a Kiss”. I think of the painting as the worst possible cover for a romance novel.

Prelude to a Kiss, oil/canvas, 16×20″.

Back cover blurb: A matter of Fate drew Heather and Roger together. They resisted the attraction they felt for each other even as their longing grew. They knew that once they pressed their lips together for the first time, there would be no going back!

Who’s Afraid of Whom?

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” Walt Kelly, Pogo.

Storm clouds darkened the sky to the north and south early this afternoon. I drove Judy to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, to get her a tetanus shot, and to get a flu shot. The paperwork took a long time. Once completed, Judy and I sat in the waiting area as the pharmacist prepared the shots. I glanced out the window to check the weather. The light dimmed, the wind blew, but no rain fell.

A woman approached the counter to pick up a prescription for her husband. She and a pharmacist tech discussed an uptick in the cost. The woman had some of his documents but thought she could get a better price if he sent a picture of a missing insurance card to her. She gave him a call.

She sat near us as she waited for hubby’s e-mailed photo to arrive on her phone. We struck up a conversation. I told her that I usually picked up prescriptions for Judy, and that the pharmacy had begun to question my identity and relationship to Judy. I had to hand over a photo ID when I picked up one particular drug.

The woman agreed that things could get complicated and sticky at the pharmacy. We talked about Medicare coverage, doughnut holes, supplemental insurance, HMOs, PPOs, copays, deductibles. She added, “It’s too bad they don’t take the same care as they do when handing out pills to stop people from coming across the border to kill us.” She spoke in an offhand manner, but the undertone sounded bitter.

I grunted, turned my head away and looked at Judy. I thought about the two Americans who shot up a Wall-Mart in El Paso and a bar queue in Dayton, Ohio (my home town). I looked back at the woman and noticed that her hair thinned at the scalp line, wrinkles creased near her eyes, and that she looked tired.

Early this morning, I read an article reporting that Uruguay and Venezuela have issued warnings to travelers headed for the U.S. Unrestricted gun ownership and frequent mass shootings were cited as reasons for caution. Friends of ours just returned from Europe reported that strangers often approached them after hearing their American accents. The French expressed disbelief about the current state of American politics and everyday life. They demanded an answer to the following question: “What the hell is going on over there?”

I drove Judy home. The sky had begun to clear, but the south still looked ominous. I told her about the pharmacy customer’s remark (immigrants coming to kill us). Judy said, “How awful it would be if you really believed that.” I said, “I think immigrants have more reason to fear us than for us to fear them.”

Rain Today (August 3)

The wet weather season in Florida follows a daily pattern: the sun blasts till four or five in the afternoon; sea breezes collide with hot, humid air; thunderstorms rage for about an hour. We’re not used to overcast and persistent light rain. We get depressed after a day or two passes with no clear skies and puffy cumulus clouds to cheer us. We are spoiled.

The remnants of a tropical wave are sliding up the east coast of Florida today. The cluster of clouds too far away to send us even a breeze has gifted us with an influx of abundant moisture. Intermittent showers soaked us the last two mornings and afternoons. A puddle on the front porch lingers from a yesterday afternoon downpour. The damp air slows evaporation to a halt even though the temps are in the high eighties.

I’ve got an electric mower and can’t mow in the rain, so the lawn had a chance to grow unheeded even as my neighbors braved the weather to cut with gas powered models. Skipped a few chances to get the job done during the week to devote time to a remodeling project. A strip in the side yard grew to nine inches in the meantime. Managed to mow the lawn this morning before the drip began.

I worked for about an hour, picked up a few mosquito bites and came in soaked with sweat. My shoes dragged sand into the house. The mower quit on me once when a fuse inside the outdoor outlet triggered for unknown reasons. Had to flip the mower over twice to clear mucky wet grass clippings from around the blade. Hit two fire ant mounds with the mower but managed not to get bit. They usually seethe out of the ground when disturbed but seemed to find the dull, wet weather dispiriting. They only felt like putting on a moderate show of aggression.

The gloom makes me gently sad today. It’s a French sort of melancholy, a cozy slide into Thelonious Monk “Round Midnight” blues.

Read a post by my brother recalling that August 3 is the anniversary of my sister’s death. Six years have passed. The pain has faded somewhat. The soft rain seems appropriate.

Is the Past Ever Past?

Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Kazuo Ishigura’s latest novel, “The Buried Giant”, develops the idea that the past may temporarily be forgotten, but consequences still play out. And memories of the past, once regained, lead to vengeance, destruction, regret, loss and sorrow. No one can escape the past’s role as karmic hunter drawing ever closer to its prey. No one can truly make amends and move on with clean hands and a clear conscience.

This sort of thinking dooms us. Imperfect creatures in an imperfect world make mistakes. The repercussions of past choices and actions pummel us as we try to make our next moves. How can we move forward if the past keeps pulling us back?

Christianity offers an out. If we admit our faults and seek forgiveness (usually after pledging fealty to The One who voluntarily sacrificed himself to sponge away our sins), we can walk again on a clean, well-lit path. The past hasn’t disappeared, but we are no longer bound to it.

Buddhism offers a second remedy. By focusing our attention on the ever present, ever changing Now, we open ourselves to infinity. The past is discarded like as snake shedding its skin. Every second is boundless, and so is the next. We die to the past moment by moment as we focus our awareness on the emerging Newness. The only problem, of course, comes when we run out of time. We can’t focus on Now when dead.

Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest and psychologist, offers a third path. He states that to be a Christian, one does not have to follow Christ’s example. By living in awareness we enter into Christ Consciousness. Christ’s example of sacrifice, of showing love and mercy to those in need, flowed from an intense awareness of the living presence of God within each moment. We may have sinned. We may have made mistakes. But we can still enter heaven if we learn to walk in Christ’s state of consciousness. In that state of being, a new and perfect Creation continually flows forth from God like water from a spring.

De Mello’s way seems the most attractive, but leaves open an obvious question: who among us can hope to achieve Christ Consciousness?

The Dog Park

Baldwin Park Dog Park

Folks take their dogs to Baldwin Park, a few acres of land on the shores of Lake Baldwin in Winter Park, Florida. Many let their dogs off leash so they can mingle with canine compatriots. Impromptu packs form, but few pecking order conflicts erupt. They seem to believe that they are on holiday from the dictates of their masters and want to revel in their freedom. Why waste time establishing orders of dominance when they can chase around and sniff butts to their hearts’ content?

Some owners remain engaged and throw frisbees to their dogs. Some let their pets go wading in the water, and a few fools throw tennis balls out into the lake for their pups to fetch. I’ve never seen a gator cruising near shore in Lake Baldwin, but there’s got to be a few lurking in the weeds somewhere.

Folks who go to the park without a dog sometimes meet resistance from dogs patrolling their territory. Terriers seem especially able to sort out pet from non-pet people and treat the latter with suspicion. They bark and growl at leash-free strollers as if doubting the good intentions of those who choose to live in a flea, dog hair, and drool-free environment.

Our rat terrier, Sammi, died back in 2003. We haven’t visited Baldwin Park in 20 years, but memories linger. I’m working on a painting that began with clouds of random marks. Dogs and the figure of a woman emerged out of the chaos. I couldn’t identify the subconscious source of the imagery until I decided to add a strip of water near the top. I knew then that memories of Baldwin Park had returned for a visit.

Dog Park, oil on canvas (unfinished), 20×16″