Sunday, January 28, 2018

The other place in the mind: learning to draw at 36

When I was a kid I always wished I could draw.

"Before": a self-portrait I drew a month ago
I remember, in one of the couple years here and there that I homeschooled because we were traveling/moving too much that year, how one of my textbooks--a math textbook, I think!--randomly had little pen-and-ink drawings of deer and other animals in it, to fill up the empty spaces. They were my favorite part of math class*, and I remember trying to learn to draw that year. I wasn't very good at it.

* My mom and I have a story about me and math. I came home from elementary school and said "I hate math." How my mom later told the story: she was surprised when she got my grades and it turned out I was performing just fine in math. What I said when I heard the story: "Mom, I said I hated it, not that I couldn't do it!"**

** (You're absolutely right, that is not where a footnote goes. Onward!)

Actually that makes an excellent segue back to drawing: I'm not very good at math now. I could fill out our tax returns but I am extremely happy to let my bookkeeping husband do it, and as for trigonometry, forget it. I'm not very good at math because I hated it from day one--I haven't learned, and I haven't practiced, beyond the necessary. (And I don't regret that!) Innate ability counts for something, but experience and practice count for a lot more. (Something we've taught our son maybe a little too hard--you should hear the way he says "EXPERIENCED.")

But with drawing, people--including me--tend to figure that innate ability is the only thing. That either you can or you can't. Imagine if we had that approach to reading! I ended up figuring I couldn't.

But I can.

Sometime in the fall, the Boy and I were at a thrift store with a little time to kill in the book section, and I found a book I remembered from my art classroom in high school: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (BTW please don't jump up and debunk left/right brain just yet. I'm getting there.) I bought it, partly because "thrift store, why not," and partly because that little secret wish leapt up in me again. I decided to give it a go this winter, and try to learn.

The message of the book is essentially this: most people try to draw with the wrong side of their brain. The left side of our brain, the side that does both language and math, is obsessed with symbols. It gravitates toward drawing symbols--stick figures, trees with green balls on top, the idea of a house without finicking over every crack in the fa├žade. You can play Pictionary with it, no problem--communication is its gig. But it doesn't draw what it sees. Or if it does, it doesn't see what's really there.

I copied this Van Gogh sketch upside down
The right brain, on the other hand, takes in what it sees without naming it, simply. It sees line and shape and color and lets them be themselves. So that when it draws them, what it draws looks like what is there. So that's what we have to do, to learn to draw things that look real: immerse ourselves in right-brain mode when we draw.

Now I know, because Ye Olde Internet Debunkers have been on about it for quite awhile, that the popular conception of right vs. left brain has been proven wrong. The book's pretty old. But what's interesting to me is that on a practical level it doesn't matter: the book is right. It describes a set of symptoms--a sense of wordlessness, of timelessness, of deep focus on a thing in itself without impatience or the need to name or define it--that point to a distinct mental state, which is the state needed to draw well. And in order to draw, I don't need to know exactly what my brain-scan would look like in that state--I need to be able to get there. (There's a super interesting analogy to spiritual things here--maybe I'll explore it eventually. There's a connection also with learning the wilderness--you need that same state.) That's what the book offers--exercises for getting there--and they work. I felt those symptoms, and I felt them when I was finally drawing something decent for the second time in my life. (By drawing upside-down, to cut down on my brain's instinct to name things.)

That's the funny thing--it was the second time. Once in high school, at my missionary-kid boarding school--just once--I was alone in the dorm all one Sunday morning. (It was allowed. Long story.) It was glorious. Remember high school? Well imagine you lived with those kids as well, and unless you were a jock you can probably imagine why it was glorious to be alone. It was spring, and I went out and lay on the green grass under the lilac-trees for a little while; then I went in and got a postcard I loved, of a kitten in light and shadow, and I copied it in pencil and then in watercolors. Time flowed sweet and silent as I painted. I was a third of the way done with the watercolors when the dorm vans pulled in carrying the crowds home from church, and that's how the picture--ten times better than anything else I ever drew--remains to this day. It felt like a magic moment, one I never could recapture. I never tried.

That's the thing about the right brain--or whatever it really is, that timeless mode. I remember the taste of it in that moment, the freedom. Freedom was a prerequisite for me then--I couldn't have drawn like that with all those people pressing on me, with their adult expectations or their hair-trigger teenage scorn--but also a result. And as I did the beginner exercises in the book, the ones intended to get you into that mode as you begin, I could taste it again. The book has you visualize images of it, and for me they were green, all green, rock and lichen and leaf and pine, and me climbing. That's the other place the timelessness came for me, always when I was a child--out in the woods, in the mountains, in caves even, in all wild and rocky places where I could use my body and trust it and let my mind be one with it, knowing my foot was firm in the foothold and my balance was clear and strong.

I drew this over this weekend. Me!
It was good, remembering that. I did feel like I was opening doors in myself to long-missed rooms.

The book claims that our education with its focus on symbols and definitions closes those doors, that we're moved more and more away from that experience and the particular skills it brings. But that they can be opened again, with time and practice. The book seems to envision a kind of equality of right and left--I wonder if that's affected by the idea of two paired sides, and whether it would be changed by whatever the real science is on these two (or more?) different ways of thinking. I wonder what would be the full list of skills that the "right-brain" mode enables--hunting? working with animals? my mind always goes to outdoor stuff--and whether more crossover between the two would help the problem I've so often seen in farm interns here, where they're so taken up with the image behind their eyes that they don't see the plants in front of them, don't learn from observation.

(I remember being that person. I remember push-cultivating a row of the garden and not seeing that the weeds hadn't died, because push-cultivating kills weeds by definition, right? Except nothing kills weeds by definition. And if any of the Logic Guys I knew in college are here, don't start in at me about weed-killer. You spray that weed-killer on some weeds and see if they die, and then we'll talk.)

I don't know the answers to all those questions. But to the last one I'd lay money on a resounding YES. I think this other place in the mind, whatever we call it, is indeed something we've tossed aside too lightly, neglected to our cost. The ability to look at the world and see what is there rather than the definitions we rightly or wrongly impose on it--how many mistakes might that have prevented, at the very least?

But it's not lost. It's right there, a path we can walk down if we choose. Who know what we'll find?

For example--as it turns out--I can draw.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The heart of the story ("My God, why have you forsaken me?")

In the end
Everything will be
All right
And if it's not
All right
Then it is not the end

That's how a worship song written by a dear friend of mine goes. Ah, but you should hear her sing it--and her church sing it with her, sounding like they believe.

It struck a chord with me, because for a long long time I've cherished a concept I call "the middle of the story." It's about... well, I should just show you.

The truth is I'm exhausted again. Hopefully this is the last of it. But I looked through my archives and found a write-up of the only sermon I've ever written, and here it is. The topic I was given was Jesus' cry from the cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"


Let me tell you a story.

Once there was a man who was a friend of God. God promised him he would have a son, and be the father of many nations. He waited many years, and trusted God as much as he could; and finally the son came, and was to him like a gift of laughter. And the son grew up happy, and loved, and one day God said to the man: take your son up on the mountain, and kill him.

And the man didn't understand, but he did what God said; he took his son up on the mountain, and he tied his son up, and he got out his knife. And God said stop. God said kill the ram instead. God said, you've passed the test; through you and through your children all the nations of the earth will be blessed. And the man and his son went back down the mountain; and what God had promised came true.

Let me tell you another story.

There was a man, the great-grandson of the other man, who was given dreams and visions from God; that God would someday lift him up high above his brothers. His brothers hated him for it, and sold him to slave-traders, and lied to their father and said he was dead. He became a slave in a foreign country. His master's wife lied about him and accused him of the most unpardonable thing a slave could do, and they could have killed him. And they sent him to prison to stay there the rest of his life; in prison, where God's promise could never come true.

Then he was summoned to interpret the king's dream; because he was known for interpreting dreams. The king saw that what he said was true, and he had him sit down at his right hand and oversee the country to save it from famine. And his brothers came to him, and he forgave them; and his father came, and he saved them all from the famine that had come on the land. And what God had promised came true.

Let me tell you another story. A little story.

When I was seventeen I spent my first summer on my own. My parents were overseas. I lived with a friend, a friend who said we could share the rent, and who didn't tell her landlady about me. I was a stupid kid, I didn't know what was going on, I couldn't find my picture ID for the tax forms at my job and they wouldn't pay me till I did; I'd been working for six weeks and I only had fifteen dollars left when the landlady threw me out. She gave me four days. My parents were overseas and my friend was out of town and I didn't know what to do. I went around to churches, to friends, anywhere I could think of and I got the brush off. I went in to work and there had been a fire. I had put chemical-soaked filters into the trashcan I'd been told to put them into, and they'd spontaneously combusted and destroyed two months' work. And there I was. And I said God, I don't know what you're doing. I guess you don't owe me anything. Whatever.

And the next day I went in to work, because they hadn't fired me. And it was weekly prayer-meeting so I told them what they could pray for me about. And one girl said hey, there's an empty bed at my house, my sister's gone for the summer, we could work something out. And two days later I moved in with her.

Her name was Grace.

And it was my first experience of the real world, and the first time I truly saw God come through. And without it, I probably wouldn't be up here today.

That's my story.

An author once said that God created humankind because God likes stories. I thought about that; it sounded cool; and then I thought about it some more and it sounded like a condemnation of God. Stories are fine when you're listening to them, they're wonderful, but I've been inside a story. It's something else to be inside a story. What is a story about, when you're inside it; when you're right in the middle? What is in the middle of these stories? Pain. A girl feeling alone, abandoned, afraid she'll have to sleep on the street. A man enslaved and in prison, falsely accused and condemned for the rest of his life. A man standing on the top of a mountain with his son tied up in front of him, his heart screaming “God, what are you doing?” At the heart of a story is pain and darkness.

Let me tell you a story.

God became a man. And that man was a teacher. He taught the words of life, he taught the way, to those who would listen, and he lived it too; and people followed him. He knew that it wouldn't last. He knew that he had to die, for our sins and because of our sins. He knew that those in power did not want to hear the words of life, would rather kill him than hear.

This man was not only God; he was also a man. No one can understand it. And like every man and woman he had to choose, it was his choice: to trust God or not. He cried out in the garden and he trusted, and he said Your will be done. But that was not the heart of the story.

They beat him and they laughed at him, and they spat on him and he couldn't wipe it off. He was exposed, nailed to a beam in front of everybody, and everybody turned away. There was no one there who believed that God was with him; no one. He was the scapegoat, he was hung on a tree and accursed, and even God turned away from him. And he cried out a desperate scream: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

At the heart of God's story is pain and darkness.

The cross of Christ is our salvation in a thousand ways. But for now, for today, let me tell you one small way. Because when we are honest about that moment at the heart of the story, that moment of pain and darkness, when we are honest we admit that there is no way out. That at that moment no courage can sustain us. That at that moment no amount of believing that God is there, even if we can't feel him, can hold up our heads. That at that moment we are alone in the dark. Think. Remember. Maybe you haven't lived any moment like that; but I think you have.

Jesus showed us the way to life, in everything; even in that terrible moment. And what did Jesus do, in the darkness at the heart of the story?

Jesus did not turn away.

He didn't say whatever. He didn't say, I should have known. And he didn't lie. He spoke what he felt, what his heart knew, what was all around him; he cried out the absence of God. But who did he cry it to? To God. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? He cried out like a child to his father and mother, to the only good he knows: where are you? The cry of absence is a cry of trust; because he cries as if God is listening.

And God was listening.

And God was with him, and faithful, and never let him go; and though he went down to the darkest place God raised him up. He brought him to the end of the story, just like he brought Abraham, and Joseph, and me. And in the dark at the heart of our stories, it is still as dark as it ever was; but we're not alone. He has gone before us, showing the way in that darkness. "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Book cover!


Is it weird that I love it even though Elisa would never in a million years wear that scarf? Will probably not even wear that scarf when, God willing, she is 30? But definitely never in Tanieux in 1942, because a) she is poor, everyone is poor, people made their kids' new sweaters out of the unraveled wool of old sweaters for Pete's sake, and b) the last thing she wants (or would enjoy doing) is to draw attention to herself. (Also while I'm at it I really doubt she carries a purse, however mature she is at 16 years old. Whatever. You can barely see the purse.)

But it doesn't matter, because I have learned a thing or two about book covers since my first one, and I've learned the reasons beginning authors always get frustrated at theirs--book covers are symbolic. They're not intended as a factual representation of a scene from the book. That scarf isn't even around that young woman's neck, if you really look--it simply swirls behind her, an embodiment of something, a symbol. A symbol of her indomitable spirit, the flame.

It's interesting about book covers, about illustrations too. When I read a book--or maybe this isn't so anymore, but it was very much so when I was younger--the image that's presented to me with it colors it vividly for me. I still have the vividest memories of some of the art that was used to illustrate the poetry in my senior Lit textbook--especially a very strange (well it had to be!) painting on the page opposite T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men. Sometimes a piece of writing without an illustration--sometimes something I wrote myself--produces a strong impression in my mind of a certain type of art. I see the images as line-drawings, or oil-paintings. The reading I wrote about Jesus' birth always makes me think of a certain painting, in which a very ordinary, humble Mary bends over the very rough and ordinary manger and a light pours upward from it, lighting her face. (I can't find it. Wish I could!) I
This isn't it but this also reminds me of Jonas & Sally
don't remember if I saw the painting before writing it or after--I like to think it was after, and I said Yes that's it! Or my friend Rich's novel Jonas and Sally--I told him this once, and I hope I expressed it well enough that it was clear this was praise--makes me see a sort of graphic-novel illustration in my mind, done with strong lines and clear watercolors, wide spaces, very fresh greens and blues.

So I kind of wonder what images Flame in the Night will raise in readers' minds, and I wonder if they'll be affected by the cover. Sometimes I imagine other covers it could have had, other images--a farm with a ancient stone barns, people walking in streets piled deep with snow, a young man on a path with the green and golden light of oak-woods around him, a group of people walking along a ridge high in the Alps. Or maybe the back of a watching Gestapo officer... (Though that might have garnered me a bunch of two-star reviews that boiled down to "I thought this was a thriller and it wasn't.") I mean some of those could have been gorgeous, yeah, but I don't care. I swear--for most of this week I've had a PDF of my cover open on my computer just so I could look at it again and again.

It's the spirit of it that's right. A book cover isn't representational--it's meant to make you feel something. (Specifically "desire to read this book," of course...) It's meant to give you a powerful instinctive sense, in a split second, of what it would be like to read this book and whether you would like it. It's meant to put a finger right on that pivot point between "meh" and "hmm..." and push down till your hand goes out toward the book and you flip it over to read the back. And to achieve this there's a whole silent language of form and color, which I don't fully understand, but a little better than I used to--I understand now why putting a bright color into a black-and-white image is so different from putting a pastel color in. That's what (after looking at a whole bunch of WWII book covers) I ended up  suggesting to the cover designer, and that's what they ran with, with a ton of style. I think what this cover communicates is that this book will be striking. And I think (well, it's just my personal opinion!) that that's true.

A lightly color-washed example
Incidentally there are some really, well, interesting ramifications to that split-second factor in cover design. One of them is racism. I ran across this concept (there's a fair amount of blogging about it, because to anyone who sees a large sampling of book covers in the course of their work it's pretty obvious) a few years back; here's a good sample post about it. To boil it down: most publishers are afraid that if we white people people see a black person or other person of color on a book cover, we'll pivot toward "meh, not for me." That though none of us would admit to not wanting to read about people who look different from us, we have instincts which, in that split second of "do I want to give this book a chance?", will lose them money if they put too much melanin on the cover. So they have all kinds of dodges, from actually changing the character's race on the cover (NOT COOL, publishers!) down to little techniques to make the character's race less obvious: weird lighting, weird angles, silhouettes, even fading everything out into sepia or some other color-wash so that if you look closely you'll see a person of color but at least it won't jump out at you in that crucial split second. A bunch of those individual decisions could be very well defended (come on, that's a gorgeous, artful silhouette, come on, portraying the fight from above looks amazing) but it is awfully... interesting the sheer overwhelming proportion of times this happens to these types of books--whereas no U.S. publisher ever turned a hair at putting an attractive white girl on the cover.

Well. I'm doing WWII Europe, so I didn't really have to face that particular question. Though I'll note that as far as attractive white (Jewish) girls go, Elisa is actually not pretty. She has bad acne and also much more urgent things to think about. But then the cover doesn't tell you if she's pretty or not. It tells you that her back is straight and her spirit is strong and bright, that the darkness around cannot quench the life within her.

So yeah. I'll take it. And say THANK YOU!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The battle of the pipe and other Christmas stories

Well it's been a memorable Christmas for sure.

I was more tired than I thought I was—a lot more tired. Thankfully my hand pain is gone after some enforced rest, and the rest of me is mostly recovered as well.  And a good thing too! We had a pretty normal Skype-all-the-grandparents Christmas, and then things got adventurous.

We've become the caretakers for the empty houses here over the winter. In the big triplex down the hill one family is still living, but here up the hill it's us and four empty houses. Draining the water out of all their pipes (a technique that would allow you to shut off the heat in an empty house) wasn't possible, so they're all being heated to 55 degrees or so. Nobody thought it was going to be a big deal—we were in for another mild winter, we all thought. Yeah.

Not so much.

The Christmas season was merry, all right, but it was also a constant war against the cold, which we mostly thoroughly enjoyed winning. Going down the hill twice a day to light fires in the wood-burning furnace of the big house, to keep it from freezing while the other family was away from Christmas; pulling a
The boy's first artwork
wagon through the fierce cold to the far woodpile to keep our own woodpile stocked. Then coming home and playing swordfight with the Boy, who just got his first wooden swords and is obsessed with being Saint George and killing dragons. (He's also having his first art experience, thanks to his aunt and uncle who sent him a paintbox. I never could get him to color, but he likes to paint between the lines with me guiding his hand.) We could feel the cold pressing in at the windows, but we kept our homefires burning and our Christmas lights lit, and the Boy danced to fiddle reels on our Irish Christmas music CD. (He can't keep his feet still during them. Must be in his blood!)

The-e-en the pipes started to freeze.

There's a weakness in the plumbing system here, a spot near the pump that supplies the whole complex where the pipe is too narrow and exposed. It used to freeze up about once per winter. Now, with less usage and such harsh cold (and with the house that sits over that spot much less heated) it started freezing up daily. The week after Christmas, turning on a water tap felt like Illinois roulette. Water? No water? Great, I was gonna take a shower… The only thing to do for it was to go over to the empty house, boil about a gallon of water in the bunch of assorted kettles we gradually gathered there, then go pour it little by little over the relevant place in the pipe.

The homefires
My favorite moment in the great pipe battle of '17 (it was done by the time '18 rolled around, thank God) was the second time the pipe froze up. Paul had fixed it the first time of course, being a champion at taking responsibility and also “the fixing man” as the Boy would say. But the second time it happened I was home alone. Hm. Wait, or take initiative? He had told me in great detail the story of how he'd fixed it… but as for the placement of the pipe, I only knew it was “under the house.” My first assumption about placement turned out to be wrong—I could tell, because there were no tracks in the snow there! I followed the well-beaten trail I did find into a shed built into the back of the house, and behold, there were many bootprints in the dust in front of a low square door. I got the water flowing again, and very much enjoyed telling Paul how I'd tracked him to the place.

It got less fun the next day when it happened again; we took turns fixing it for the rest of the week until Cal, the pastor who's involved in the Hungry World Farm project and is also an electrician and all-round handyman, came by to see what he could do for a longer-term fix. I ended up contributing to that one, too: my string of outdoor lights (little incandescent bulb in flexible plastic tubing), which I normally use as a cheap alternative to the kind of heating mat greenhouses put under certain seed trays to aid germination, is now wrapped around that pipe with insulation and plastic wrapped around it. Just enough warmth to keep things flowing. The battle is won! For now…

This one is Beowulf
Well, I know this is more like a family letter than a blog post, sorry. I'm still working on getting out of vacation mode. (I was so tired, you guys.) The race to the finish for my deadline was stressful and complicated (due to more factors than just the deadline… I'll tell you someday), and after it I checked out completely. It honestly took days of lying on the couch before I felt myself again.

But one more thing I want to leave you with! One of our Christmas presents from Paul's mom was a CD of Paul's grandmother, originally from Hungary, talking about the Hungarian dances that several families used to do together every month when she was a girl. (Our kid's got more than one kind of dance in his blood!) We listened to the CD one night during family time, and the next morning I asked the Boy (since he's curious about languages) if he wanted to know what Hungarian sounded like. We went on Youtube and discovered this incredibly charming little kids' cartoon series based on a book by Hungarian author Erika Bartos. It's about these tiny bug kids (the main characters are a ladybug and a snail) and their adventures in their little forest world, and it's the most wholesome, colorful, fascinating-to-young-children thing you ever saw. And it's translated into English too! The Boy and I were so charmed, though, that before we discovered that fact we watched about fifteen episodes in Hungarian…

In Hungarian:

In English: