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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tell Me a Small Christmas Story

It's a well-known fact that the things we remember from events that are supposed to be Big Events are rarely the planned-for memories. When you look back on all the Christmases of your past, what populates the home-movie-screen behind your eyelids are small moments, no? Tell me your story. By the way, you can read some of my own small-but-big moments by clicking on the pic.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What It Looks Like

Sometimes what it looks like is a gray stone wall. You know there’s light because some of the gray is grayer (shadows), but you don’t see anything you’d actually call light. It’s just a wall of ugly rock, sheer and taller than tall — tall without end — and even if you had your spiked climbing shoes, what could be the point? Behold the cliffs of Mordor.
And so you are still for a while, and that’s fine. Stillness, even scary stillness in a fetal position, can be part of how the soul accomplishes some of its quiet work.

Eventually, you can no longer be still, and so you shout and rage and cry. This is also good. We would not have these vocal tools if they, too, did not have their place in the fascia that connects our worldly and spiritual experiences.

Eventually, the raging rages itself out. Maybe now you are moved to pray.  For some of you, prayer comes first, and God love ya. (I’m sure he does.) For others, the act of prayer is like dancing — something you prefer to leave to more confident people, because it makes you feel self-conscious. In the gilded sanctuaries of your youth, you were taught to speak to God using someone else’s words, and it felt like lying.  Or it filled you with guilt, made you very aware of how far you were from the sacred person the elders wished you to be.

Or maybe you gave it your best in-the-name-of-the-father shot once or twice and concluded no one was listening. But now here you are, Mordor before you and a desert of despair behind you. With nothing left but your hands and feet and broken heart, you pray in ragged words. You shout out “Help!” Or: “GOD! Help me, would you?”

And in your desperation, you think you’re asking for a helicopter to deliver you back to the world you knew before you woke up at the base of the infinite rock. You think you’re asking even for a godforsaken rope ladder, the kind you’re supposed to have in your bedroom to escape from fires. You think maybe you’re even asking for part of the rock to suddenly topple down and crush your head, because that would be better than the lightless rock face and the desert.

It does not matter what you think you’re asking for. That’s what I believe – though it’s important to add that I do not pretend to know. All the pretending-to-know under gilded arches drove me farther away, while the wondering and watching, the asking and receiving, brought me closer to – well, I’ll just leave it at “closer.”

So here is what I believe. When we ask for help at the base of the cliff, sometimes we get the helicopter. And sometimes we get just enough energy to lift a leg and find a foothold. We get footholds and crevices to grip.  I think we become inspired to move a little and maybe we’re struck with the sudden wisdom to stop looking for the helicopter, and to just keep groping for purchase and moving up.  We get the temporary relief of a distracting and beautiful memory, something to make us stop grimacing for a moment while we climb.

I believe we might have gotten these things even if we did not ask, but that because we asked, we are given help. It’s the one reliable. “Ask and ye shall receive.”

Reiteration: I do not know how this works. I do not know what God looks like. I do not know why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why children and animals are born only to be abused, or where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours.  I don’t know why my brother decided to go to that concert  on that night in that car with that friend, and I don’t know how or why the miracles happen, either. I don’t know why the same field of wildflowers blooms every spring without fail. I don’t know what to think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or whether the Bible is the Bible or a book of poetry or a novel or the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the Wisdom Traditions of the World. I do not know, I do not know, I do not know, and I do not need to know.

But whenever I have asked or shouted or raged for help, or pleaded in a little-girl voice, or awkwardly muttered for it, help has arrived. Sometimes it has been in a very direct, “Your meal is served, ma’am” way, and sometimes in a form of grace that I wouldn’t have dreamed up on my own. So I’ve decided it’s best not to be too specific when I ask.

I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know. But when I woke up, feeling (as perhaps you did) that today I needed to do something about other people’s pain, I knew this: I can ask for God’s grace to be delivered to them as they climb the cliff face. Grace, in all its disguises, will arrive.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Drawing Ladies

Young kids who like to draw usually like to draw something in particular: horses, dogs, robots, super-heroes. They usually grow up to become adults who don't draw.

When I was a kid who liked to draw, what I liked drawing was fashionable ladies. Then I kind of stopped drawing for a while. And when I returned to it, as an adult, I knew that drawing all kinds of things — buildings, people, flowers, patterns — was important because to me it was all about illustration, and you never know what you're going to have to illustrate.

Recently I got a job involving the illustration of some costumes, which sent me immediately to books about fashion illustration. And then it sent me to drawing ladies in fashionable clothing (and men, too), and it all came back, like the way the aroma of a just-opened box of crayons whisks you back to third grade.

I had so much fun imagining outfits and trying to make the lines look elegant. Unlike my child's approach, I studied what made some fashion illustrations so great — so artful — and that allowed me to do a few things in my own drawings that kind of mimicked the look.

To be clear, fashion illustration is its own discipline. I am not a fashion illustrator. But for a while, for this project, I remembered the joy of a kind of drawing that captured my imagination for a while as an unfashionable kid. Lovely.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Does Your Newspaper Mean More Than You Think?

This image has little to do with the text below. It's just the stiff sketch I made after not having drawn much for a couple days.

I want to be Christmas shopping right now, but I can’t. I have to do this instead, because of all the things occupying my gray matter these days, the one item rolling around there at all times, worrying me, making me sad, is the state of the American newspaper.

“Boo-hoo,” you say?

Stay with me. Please. I’ll keep it short. Ish. I’ll keep it shortish.

Or not.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a decent local newspaper – not even a really good one, like my Plain Dealer, just a decent one – then you are privileged. But the sell-by date on that privilege may be fast approaching, and it is time to take action.

I’m not going to reiterate the cultural and economic issues that plague print newspapers. If you’ve made it even this far, you already know them.

What you might not know, or quite believe, is that however long you’ve lived with your local newspaper, and however much or little you have read it, the paper has been making your community better. That’s right: EVEN IF YOU NEVER READ THE PAPER, IT HAS MADE YOUR LIFE BETTER.

How can I be so sure? Because simply by existing, the newspaper has reached readers – your neighbors, friends and community leaders – and explained their world to them. It has informed their votes, pointed them to new restaurants, and opened their eyes about corrupt politicians. Perhaps the mere existence of the press has even inspired some such politicians to stay on this side of the law. (We’ll never really know, but it’s possible.)

Now, perhaps you have some beef with your local paper. Everyone does at one time or another. My beefs can be stirred up by something as small as a typo that I think should absolutely never have seen print, and DOES ANYONE EVER EDIT THIS THING FOR GOD’S SAKE?

Perhaps your beef is beefier. Perhaps the newspaper did a story you think misquoted a friend involved in some controversial issue. Perhaps you think the writers and editors are in the bag for your political opponents. (I can find you plenty of people on the other side who say the same thing.) Perhaps you find yourself yelling at their football columnist every week. Or you think they don’t do enough investigative work. Or they write too few positive stories.

I have a list, collected over decades, of the typical gripes that people nurture about their local newspaper. I don’t laugh about them or mock them; people feel very passionate about these things, and I respect that.

But if your grievances have soured you to the point where you think your community is better off without the local rag, I’m here to tell you that you’ve lost your grip. And that you are – and I say this with affection and love – wrong with a capital WRRRRR.

Whether you love everything the paper does or not, every day that its reporters ask questions and meet captains of industry and transcribe the first versions of history, your community is better than if they weren’t doing that. Not a little better, either. A lot better.

And every day that the paper comes out, and you don’t at least glance at it, and find at least a story or two to read, you consent to making your world a little smaller than it should be. You’re a little less of an asset to those friends and neighbors who count on you to know stuff and be involved and act as a good citizen acts.

Guilt trip? So be it. Just as I passionately endorse your right to be pissed at the local paper for the ingredient they left out in last week’s recipe on the food page (does your paper still have a food page?), I passionately believe that it is impossible to be a contributing member of a healthy society without reading the local newspaper.

And don’t tell me you get all you need to know from the local TV news. TV news serves a fine function, but it does things differently. And it doesn’t come close to serving the citizenry in the way a daily or even weekly newspaper can do.

While I’m at the whole judgment-slinging thing, I will add that just as it’s also not really cool to boast how bad one is at math, it is SO uncool to boast about how one doesn’t have time to read the paper. So if you are one of those people, please be properly abashed. And if you hear one of those people boasting, tell them they’re far less sexy than you had previously thought they were, and there is absolutely no chance now that you will ever hit on them.

Here is what I’m asking.

If your local newspaper isn’t doing a good job, complain. Gripe to the editor. Write a letter. Call them to better behavior.

But for crying out loud, keep reading the paper. Challenge it to higher standards, because their writers and editors ARE the fourth estate and carry power and privilege for a reason, and it’s not to justify their mass comm degrees.

Subscribe, because for now that’s still how newspapers tell advertisers how many people read their effort. And it matters.

Buy an ad. Buy an ad for your church rummage sale. Buy a graduation announcement for your niece. Buy a big full-page display ad for your thriving business, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Be a part of the ecosystem of an informed public. It matters.

And no, it’s not too late. Our culture has slowly learned to accept the myth that newspapers are dead. But accepted ideas change all the time. Look at the Arab Spring. Look at leg warmers. Look at how people view cigarette smoking now versus just a few decades ago.

Finally, if you are a passionate newspaper reader: Thank you so much. On a personal note, you ensured a great career for me and for beloved colleagues for a long time. That’s a nice thing, though it is not the crucial thing.

Far more importantly, you get what it means to be informed, to be a reader, to think and engage and connect. If you’re a newspaper reader, you’ve made things better.

So thank you. And carry on.