Art of Transformation

A teacher once told me that strong writers are expert collectors. We gather the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of our surroundings, bring them home to our wily minds and allow them some space so we might become curious.  We, along with Inspiration and Practice, sift and separate our collection: these valuable collectibles until there is a fit. Finally, when there is a fit, an arrangement, we’ve made something new. Novel, even.

This is art-making. And whether it is parenting, listening, cooking, composing or writing there is usually an untrimmable light in the artist’s eye–it’s the joy of the creative process.  It isn’t magic and it isn’t sentimental… it’s art-love, and usually, this kind of love has to do with re-arranging, emptying out, maybe chucking a few things before filling up with something a bit lovelier. Come and see what you do not know, artists say to themselves and to the world. And once you see it, we start again. Curiosity and possibility keep them in love and and open. Art comes out of a deep, deep unknowing which, let’s face it, makes anyone angsty, yet the creation somehow, someway, always gets at the heart of things and makes it lovely.

People-making,  people-working, people-helping…this is artwork too. I know I’m not the only helping professional who gets pegged as saint-like. I suppose it’s nice to be called nice, but I would also say that I don’t like my work because it lets me be nice. I would say that I like my work because it lets me be artsy. Relationships are curious and open-ended and really, really artsy. At least the ones I’m interested in having. The problem is, whether you see yourself as a helper-saint or a helper-artist both involve some serious ego so things can get a little dicey. Especially when you feel like your art is not unfolding itself like art should.
When someone tells me the deeply intimate details of his life and I listen, look, and try very hard to communicate an appreciation of their “collection”–all of its eclectic, human and relatable matter—from their beliefs to their eye contact to their self-image to their parents to their addictions to their style—all of it–and I say:

I see this!!! Here is an idea. What if we take this tiny, special, little piece of your collection and use it to support this other rougher part of your collection…what if we try that. Shift it. Just a smidge. Could we? We’ll do it together. This would be a small, creative, change—a tiny little change— and there would be just the slightest new arrangement. Verrrryy, verrry slight. It would be strange, but also, still, familiar. Remember, that is how art works. And remember? You are art. Let’s. Just. See. How. This. Fits.

It’s not been like that for me. Not only is it not like that, it feels impossibly like that. Instead the moment and the interaction and the whole creative process that I promise I am trying to trust feels closed up and unable to play out. And I know that running too fast and pushing too hard shortens moments instead of widening them, so I really am trying to go easy. But still, the moments feel abrupt and uninspired.

Nevertheless, I am not called to give up on the art of transformation. This is how my work and my faith must be together forever because when my work and my God say, “Go! Break into darkness” and the people, this art before me say, “I much prefer the protection of this darkness. STOP MESSING AROUND WITH THE DARKNESS. I would like to make a very big hedge around my heart and you, crazy hopeful lady, are making me want to make it BIGGER.” And while the particular instance to which I’m speaking may be a professional one—the dynamic is perhaps, even more accurately a relational one—the one that happens between parents and children and friends and neighbors and husbands and wives and if it’s not happening it may just be that together, there is not enough push for true authenticity and true community. Because, art is also one of the grandest ways human beings have ever come up with to make the strange and the bizarre and the unknown BEAUTIFUL.

So if my patients are refusing to be beautiful for me I have no choice but to turn up the soil of my own heart and pray as organically as I know. Please God, could you recycle my human-matter and the world’s human-matter, and any other skunky matter that has crept in the past couple of weeks… could you please recycle into anything really, but it would be lovely if you could recycle it into something made of more wisdom made of more patience made of more goodness. Lilacs maybe? Could I grow a lilac bush in my heart please? If its truth, I need it. And not only does God have the license, but God, really can create the most beautiful out of the most inconceivably beautiful. I believe this. God can create tens of millions of lilac rows out of this pitted mulchy mess.

So, already, there is comfort in this. Isn’t there? Comfort in this for my unpleasant patients who despise others and themselves and the constant reminders that this is so, comfort for me who is beginning to dislike my unpleasant patients because they make me look at me and remember that my heart is not so big and certainly not creative enough for all of this. Comfort for the parent trying to protect uncontrollable children that they love to smithereens but must set free at the same time. Comfort for the woman trying to understand what it means to care for herself and love others with courage and kindness. It’s comforting not just because it’s possible but because it’s the same prayer all around. No one can say that they do not need the soil of their hearts turned up. In the hardship, whatever it is, there are invitations for even greater re-arrangement and masterpiece because we are all workmanship and we are all too sacred to ever be finished. Love works on things. And in love, God works on things. No one likes to be “worked on.” So, thank God, we are not alone. And thank God that love working on things might mean there begins to emerge within us an even greater semblance of truth.

The deepest reminder of this is the way God, who is beyond any kind of loveliness, sent a divine person, Jesus, to work on things. A person, Jesus, to be light in dark things.  A person, Jesus to re-arrange things. To majorly, majorly overhaul the soil of all things. And this person, Jesus, was strange because of where He came from, and who He sat with, and what He said. And what may have been stranger still, is how people clung to this strangeness. In droves, all of them, together, they went to him and clung to his garments and his strangeness. Jesus embodied the strange AND the familiar and these things together, made the Gospel truth. Truly. So they clung. They lingered. Because Jesus was grace and truth incarnate.

So, today, God is using people, and community and each other, so that we might cling with our hearts, to all of the strangeness, because there is speck of it that resembles truth. And then might we let ourselves see a larger speck and a larger speck and before you know it we we will totally shoveling out our heart soil….all of it….over and over again…even the lilac bushes….saying here, take it, each day, take it. We are giving ourselves up to God and each other, longing for more transformation. More art. There is always more art! These are the saints, to me. Not necessarily the big hearts, or the nice hearts or the creative hearts or even the most inspired hearts. They are not necessarily the most responsible ones, or most hard-working ones, or most passionate ones. The saints are the ones whose hearts have been so shoveled out that every day, they look up and give up and in faith, make more and more room. And say, yes, yes and yes.

Everything will be made beautiful in its time.

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4 thoughts on “Art of Transformation

  1. The hardest thing for me as a painter-artist is trying to paint an object to find I can’t. My technical skills are there, but once again, my brain distorted my perception. How could I be fooled by a stupid rock?? So as i sit there, by a rock, staring at it. For hours. Sketching it, questioning it (sometimes out loud), finding the answers in it, In time I begin to understand that it’s defined by what’s around it. The light, shadows, reflections, etc.. In time the object on my canvas begins to resemble what I now see anew. And when I stand up to go home, every rock I see has changed. They are now longer rocks, but a partial glimpses at everything around it and a clear reminder of what remains to be discovered. If in a few hours, nature has taught me a “simple, stupid” rock has unspeakable beauty imagine what a lifetime of painting in nature will reveal!! Imagine what those you see will teach you about yourself! If you tried to paint them, could you? What did you assume? What questions does it bring up?…You are indeed an artist and a loving one at that. Great article! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Steve– those are really really great questions. I think if I painted my clients (which I couldn’t but if I could ;)…) they would look different every day…and it would be this slow journey of figuring out how to focus on them instead of me. You’re right…over time, so much truth can be revealed! Love it. Thanks for the inspiration and the encouragement.

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