lenten journal: don’t read alone


    I woke up this morning to images of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. Today is Fat Tuesday. Based on the way I ate yesterday, it was Chubby Monday. Like the old blues song says:

    They call it Chubby Monday
    I got Fat Tuesday on my mind . . .

    In our house, today holds two traditions: Ginger clears the house of anything chocolate and I start putting together my reading list for the season to serve as raw material for my daily commitment to writing. This year, the process is a bit different because I’ve been writing regularly all year long. In the past, the forty-odd days of the Lenten season were when I wrote consistently. A couple of years ago, I kept writing weekly after Easter. Since last Lent, I’ve written five days a week on average, finally allowing myself to really feel like a writer. The reading list, therefore, takes a different place in the season because, thanks to work, writing, and other choices, I’ve not been a consistent reader. I want to be consistent in the practice of reading.

    I stumbled on one of the books I’m going to carry with me in the bookstore today: Life, Paint and Passion: Reclaiming the Magic of Spontaneous Expression by Michelle Cassou and Stewart Cubley. While I was waiting to meet Ginger for our Tuesday afternoon Panera date, I started reading and came across these words:

    Our experience, after working with many different types of people, is that a hidden wave of passion lies just below the surface of most people’s lives, a passion yearning to be liberated from the paralyzing myths of talent, skill, inspiration, accomplishment, success and failure, and just plain not being good enough (xix).

    At a certain point you must make a choice in painting between the process and the product . . .You cannot serve two masters. You cannot embrace product and process at the same time. If you paint freely, you will most likely end up loving what you do because of your intimacy with it, but in the meantime it is necessary that you let go and surrender. You do not need an incentive. The process is enough (23).

    As I copy the quotes, I’m thinking of my artist friends, who work hard on both product and process, and wondering how they hear those words. I hear them with a poet’s ears: as metaphor. I find a deep and resonant attraction to art as metaphor for faith. God created us and the universe with reckless abandon, an obvious sense of humor, and, it seems, a passion that grows out of process much more than product. (Seriously – what’s up with the manatee and the platypus?) The earliest chapters of the Bible remind us we are created in the image of our Creator and imbued with the same sense of passion and play.

    “Consider the lilies,” Jesus said.

    “If you want to see God’s realm, become like a little child.”

    Jesus said that, too.

    Where the analogy between art and faith becomes even more interesting is when we begin to talk about how to be an artist within a community of artists. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen something painted by committee. That thought’s a little sobering. Can we paint with passion and abandon if I want to draw purple flowers in the same place that you are determined to paint pink polka dots? It reminds me of Woody Allen’s essay years ago called “If the Impressionists Were Dentists” in which he wrote as though he were Van Gogh:

    Mrs. Sol Schwimmer is suing me because I made her bridge as I felt it and not to fit her ridiculous mouth! That’s right! I can’t work to order like a common tradesman! I decided her bridge should be enormous and billowing, with wild, explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire! Now she is upset because it won’t fit in her mouth! She is so bourgeois and stupid, I want to smash her! I tried forcing the false plate in but it sticks out like a star burst chandelier.

    As a community of artists, process becomes the product, in a way. The calling is to come together, create together, and encourage one another. As soon as we allow ourselves to believe that the institution is the product, all the color drains from the room. What if we were determined to create an environment that freed one another from “the paralyzing myths of talent, skill, inspiration, accomplishment, success and failure, and just plain not being good enough”?

    Lent traditionally has the rep of being a dark season when some think the point is to remind ourselves we are lower than pond scum (but saved by grace) and others see it as a walk through the Valley of the Shadow on the way to the Cross. A former choir director thought Lent was the time to sing “all the bloody songs.” Certainly, Lent is a season of reflection and focus. We are on a journey that takes us to Death before we can experience Resurrection. They don’t call it ASH Wednesday for nothing. And, if passion is artist’s fuel, Lent is also a season to create, to live with the same abandon, even if the nights are long and cold. In the quiet, perhaps, our “hidden wave of passion” can finally break on the shore.

    Part of the reason I add things to my life during Lent is I don’t learn much from giving stuff up. I just get surly. Another part of adding things is it makes me come to terms with time, which is one of my most precious commodities. “I didn’t have time” is one of my favorite rationalizations for why things don’t get done. So, for Lent, I will engage in the creative process of making time to read. I’m not after product. I’m not assigning myself the task of finishing all the books I put in the stack for the season, or even having to mention them when I write each night. If Lent is the canvas, then my books will be my brushes. I’ve always loved to read, but many of the books I’ve read have been to fulfill an assignment, to give an assignment, to lead a discussion, or to mine for quotes. My reading today calls me to think about how I can read without adding up the pages or trying to make a point. Perhaps I’ll pick up a random volume each day and see what I find. Perhaps I will juxtapose passages from unrelated texts. Perhaps I’ll just read for a half an hour and then begin to write. Who knows.

    What I do know is it matters to me to create in the context of community. I’m a more faithful writer because I come to this page most everyday because I know you come around as well. I don’t like to eat alone; I’m better when I don’t write alone.

    I guess I won’t read alone either.



    1. So true Milton! I resonate greatly with this analogy.

      You know, no child ever picked up a set of crayons and started drawing thinking that some great judgment would befall them at the end. We perform a terrible disservice when we decide that we are just not good enough.

      Jesus said “come to me as a child”. Perhaps that means with a free spirit.

      I shall draw something today.


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