advent journal: painting a poem


Things started happening early here on West Trinity Avenue this morning. We were out the door at 6:30 to get Ginger to the bus for the 2012 Freedom Ride, then I came home in time to meet Jenny, our vet, who took Gracie with her for the day to see how the little dog is responding to the medication for her kidney infection, then my friends Lori and Terry came by to tell me about the friends so I can inscribe books for them for Christmas, then Rachel left for her Meals on Wheels run and Ellen, our housemate, left for work, and then Nicholas, a wonderful kid from church, stopped by with his mom to drop off cookies in celebration of St. Nicholas Day. When the house cleared, Ella, our youngest Schnauzer, and I took walk through the neighborhood. Then we came back and took a nap.

Our walk took us past Cocoa Cinnamon, our soon-to-be newest coffee shop (along with spices and teas and Mexican drinking chocolate), so we stopped to see how the progress is coming. Areli, one of the owners was there along with Heather, one of several artists who have contributed time and talents to what is going to be an incredible space. Heather’s project is the front room of this converted gas station, which is full of windows and light. Heather took a poem by Rumi (and I think a couple of other poems as well) and translated them into binary code and then worked out a pattern on the floor that visualizes that code. When Leon, Areli’s husband, described the idea to me I asked if the poem would be anywhere in the room. “I don’t know,” he said. “We may just let it be on the floor.”

When I asked Heather how it was going this morning, she said, “I need painters to help to put on a second coat.” There’s still a lot of room that has yet to see the first coat. She was sitting on the floor with a brush not bigger than a half an inch painting one small rectangle after another, displaying concentration and intent that will not likely be noticed by those coming in for lattes in the days to come.Yet she means every stroke and it matters that she does just as it matters that Ginger and the other Freedom Riders are crossing the South in a single bus that hardly anyone is noticing either.

Many Christmases ago, Ginger gave me a Byzantine icon writing class as a gift. Christopher Gosey, who was then artist-in-residence at Andover Newton Theological School, was my teacher and the class began a relationship that lasted a couple of years as I found deep meaning in the spiritual practice of painting the faces of the saints. His move to New Hampshire and then mine to Durham has left me with several unfinished works; one day I will find him again. One of the things I learned about iconography is the paint is almost translucent. We would mix the natural pigments into acrylic medium such that it required a great deal of repetition to bring the lines to life, going over each one twenty-five or thirty times. The point was to move deliberately and intently, to find meaning in the repetition, the ritual of tracing lines that had been handed down and then coloring them with pigments made of dirt and ash until they opened a window into heaven. A thin place. I leaned the Spirit could find me in the concentrated futility of that repetition, the motion that mattered for no other reason than I meant it — over and over. And no one else knew how long I had sat there to find that one line.

The story unfolding as we walk through Advent is a small story about a not-so-normal family struggling to make sense of their circumstance, going through the motions of life in hopes of finding a thin place that will help them understand what was happening. Mary was a hopeful young girl; Joseph was a confused and frightened man. No one in the story could see the poem they were painting. They knew nothing of shepherds and angels and magi. They knew about poverty and need and desperation and rejection. As Rev. William Barber said last night, “Stop saying swaddling clothes; say nasty! The Christmas story is violent! Mary forced to have a baby in a nasty manger.” Yet, they kept coloring in the boxes like Heather is doing and they stayed on the journey the way the Freedom Riders are doing and ended up giving birth to a baby in a barn in a small forgotten town.

Today would have been my father-in-law Reuben’s eighty-second birthday. He was a big hearted man who lived a small and important life. Until he moved to Durham, he had never lived more than ten miles from his birthplace. He spent his life tracing the lines of love that connected him to his relatives, to everyone Ginger brought home with her from school, and to all of those he encountered as he delivered Foremost Milk and Golden Flake Potato Chips. His was not easy and it was rich and full. Whenever you asked how he was, he said, “Fine. Wonderful. Marvelous. Fantastic. If I felt any better, I couldn’t stand it.” And he meant every word every time he said it. Tonight when the bus stops, Ginger will be back in Birmingham, where he was born.

I came home from work at the computer store to find Ella asleep on the couch and Rachel in her room. After a little while, Jenny brought Gracie home and then a friend came to take Rachel to dinner and Ellen came in from work and we all sat in the kitchen and talked about this small day we had all lived, the lines we had gone over once again painting the poems that are our lives.

And then I sat down to write.



  1. I am still in the afterglow of participating in an Icon writing class last week. Why did I think learning the nuts and bolts would help me learn the intimacy of the icon? You gain the intimacy in the relationship of layering, pondering, hoping, waiting and being present to the Message – and the grace of the Master Iconographer.

    I had no intention of painting Mary but as one of the Sisters said “Mary had other ideas.” During this season, having an icon of the Visitation continues to grow and weave itself into my life.

  2. Oh, thank you, Milt. The significance and glory of every aspect of our lives become brighter when you tell us about yours.

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