Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017 - No comments

Snow Days in Spring (Sabbatical Part 2)

It wasn’t more than a week after my arrival in Scotland that I spotted The First Snowdrops.    
They were huddled in a clump on the banks of the creek below where I was staying.  Now, for years I’ve wished I lived somewhere that snowdrops grew.  They’ve long been a symbol of “defiant hope” to me - their delicate-yet-powerful white heads forcing their way up through the snow, refusing to let winter win and promising the advent of spring.  There’s a town about two hours away, up in the mountains, that is famous for them, but down here on the Mediterranean coast, we don’t exactly get snow, let alone flowers that poke their heads up through it.  So the prospect of spending February in a place where I could witness their awakening ought to have thrilled my heart.

Except it didn’t.

Snowdrops are all about defying winter.  But I hadn’t come for spring’s “waking up” - I’d come for winter’s “hunkering down”.  And suddenly my favourite little white flowers felt like a threat - an announcement that things were about to get all alive when all I craved was stillness.  And the thing is, I know myself.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist their message of hope.  I’d want to be out there drinking it in, photographing it, reveling in it....  But I couldn’t see how that spirit could jive with the “dormancy” I’d come in search of.  Winter was ending before it had even started, and it had my heart all jumbled.

The thing is, though, spring is kind of irresistible.  It’s seriously hard to resent daffodils and tulips.  Like them, we were made to come alive in the spring.  And as those persistent snowdrops started to take over the glen, and every little walled garden on the way into town, I was won over in spite of myself.  With the appearance of every new patch of flowers (and those crocuses come out early in Scotland!) something woke up inside of me:  a longing to blossom and bloom.

And that’s when the Gardener reminded me why I’d come in search of winter in the first place.  Dormancy was never an end in and of itself.  Bare branches and slow sap flow and the relief of not having to sustain all those leaves was never the goal;  it was only the means by which my tree would get the rest it needed in order to then be healthy and produce fruit.  Winter was as unto spring.  And that’s where the wild Scottish weather was the perfect companion for me - the appearance of flowers didn’t stop the freezing wind from blowing, and I still needed long johns under my jeans for those long walks on the beach.  It was very clearly still winter.  My days were still all about quiet and the work going on deep inside.  I didn’t have to embrace the activities of spring just yet - but I desperately needed the hope it carried.

It was a relief not to have to close my heart to the snowdrops, fearing that they would steal my rest.  They were the assurance that all that “ruthless stillness” had a purpose.  Mine was not a season of rest marked by plain old depletedness.  It was rest infused with the hope of rejuvenation.  Sap would again flow through my veins.  There would yet be blossoms and blooms on my branches.

But even as I was sinking blissfully into my season of hibernation, events were in motion within my closest circle of relationships back in Turkey that made it pretty clear that I’d need to head back sooner than hoped to be a part of some crucial transitions, endings, and new beginnings.  No matter the state of your heart, some things just have to be walked through together.  As I weighed the decision about my return, I struggled, knowing that I hadn’t had nearly enough winter and was so not ready for spring.  Suddenly all those flowers weren’t feeling like friends.  Cutting my still-fragile tree’s dormancy short sounded like being yanked out of the safety of my blanket of snow into the glaring sunlight of spring.   I knew I’d need to participate with my whole heart, and that the season would require me to use the “fully formed fruit” of all the rest and clarity and healing that was still so very half-baked and in process.  I knew it was “the right thing to do.”  But it sounded like a recipe for disaster.  And I was terrified.

I took my confusion to the Gardener.  

I asked Him about my “wintering tree”.  Everything I’d read told me it was dangerous to the life of a plant to force it out of dormancy too soon.  Had winter done its full work?  Would I be ready to bear fruit come spring if I hadn’t gotten all I needed out of the previous season?  Wouldn’t this pre-mature re-entry into my usual world send me straight back to burnout, worse off than when I started?

His answer came on a walk into town.  He drew my eyes to the purple crocuses and bright yellow daffodils scattered on hillsides and adorning every garden.  He pointed out the budding branches, the pink and white blossoms appearing on every twig.  “This is your heart,” He said.  “You’re already in spring.”  

This took me by surprise.  I didn’t feel strong.  I didn’t feel ready.  But as He walked me back through my weeks there on the North Ayrshire coast, I saw that He was right.  No, I hadn’t read “enough” novels, or done all the writing I wanted, or climbed every hill I’d wanted to explore.  But what I had done was the hard work of letting my heart be transformed.  I’d surrendered my heart to the Gardener’s shears, allowing Him to prune and bind up and heal.  “Coming away into winter was right at the time,” He told me.  “But it’s not time to fight to stay dormant any longer.  See all those buds on your branches?  It’s time to let them open up and bloom.  They’re still tender, they’re not fully formed, but they’re buds nonetheless.  Now is the time to ask Me to protect them so they can mature.  To keep them safe from biting winds and late frosts that would snap them off or snuff out their life in their infant stage.  To ask for favourable conditions so they can flower and flourish and bear much fruit.”

He promised that He wouldn’t abandon the work of His hands.  That He was ready and able to shepherd my tree out of winter and into spring.  He was fully aware that the work wasn’t done yet, but He asked me to trust Him with the care and nurturing of my branches - to believe Him when He said that He was going to accomplish in the context of community what I thought could only be accomplished in solitude.  That what I thought could only happen on the rainy coast of Scotland was indeed going to come to fruition under the hot Mediterranean sun.  

And then, in the middle of a brief but magical snowfall that tickled the daffodils and crocuses with white, He spoke the most reassuring promise:  “I will still give you snow days in spring.”  Those words dispelled the last of my anxiety about my return home.  “Snow days” conjure up images of staying home from school in cozy pajamas, of hot chocolate and Hardy Boys books and card games and generally getting to hit pause on normal life, just for a bit.  It was the assurance that I didn’t have to leave all my “winter’s work” behind in Scotland - that there would be time, even in the bright sunlight of the new season, to step out for an hour or a day and continue to let the stillness do its work.  

I could trust the One who holds the seasons in His hands to bring mine to completion.

And you know what?  He has been so true to His word.  I came home to one of the most emotionally intense, relationally trying seasons of my life.  But there’s been so much grace.    And what I feared would happen - that my fragile little buds would crumple under the weight of so much upheaval and transition - hasn’t happened at all.  Quite the opposite.  In the midst of - and I dare say because of - new configurations in my closest community and the major transition of moving from my home of ten years in the village to a brand new world in the city, the work that was happening deep inside me was accelerated.  It’s been complemented and completed, rather than stolen from or aborted.  The intensity of this spring has solidified what began in the stillness of winter, and in rising to the occasion, I’ve been able to walk out into the newness of what’s happened inside of me.  Those buds have become full-on flowers.  

Now that the boxes are more or less unpacked in my new home and most of the relational puzzle pieces that were thrown up in the air a few months ago have settled snugly into their new configurations, I’ve been able to enjoy a few more “snow days” in recent weeks.  I’ve spent time reading through journal entries from the past year, making paintings and photographs to immortalize the gems of the season, and trying to bring some closure to it all before I head home to Canada for the summer.  But I’ve been finding that, more than “finishing up heart-work that still needed to be done”, these snow days have been times of recognizing and celebrating the incredible work that has come to completion without me even really realizing it.  

He who holds the seasons in His hands truly knows how to bring out the fullness of each one, even when they overlap or seem to come out of order.  I’m no longer looking longingly back at winter, wishing it could last just a little longer.  I’ve run headlong into the “new life” of spring, and am ready to embrace all the joy that summer promises.

(Right on time, too, cuz it’s 32 degrees out and I’ve got friends coming to town for a birthday celebration next week.  And I am so not wearing my winter coat to the beach!)  ;)

Friday, June 9, 2017

Friday, June 09, 2017 - 1 comment

Winter's Work (Sabbatical Part 1)

There’s a famous story told around these parts involving me, a plant with pretty purple flowers, and a pair of scissors.  One late summer’s day, many moons ago, my roommate told me it would be a good time to harvest the basil from the plant out on the balcony.  So with visions of pesto and a well-sprinkled salad dancing in my head, I grabbed the scissors and went outside.  A few minutes later, my roommate came into the kitchen and gasped in horror as she saw me rinsing a colander-full of leaves from the one plant the gardener hadn’t killed while we were gone over the summer.  The basil, with its slightly lighter purple flowers (and, I now know, rather different-shaped leaves) was still sitting happily in one piece in its pot on the balcony.  And all I wanted to know was, “Can I still use these leaves in the salad?”

My point?  I am not a gardener.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  

And yet, despite my uncanny ability - by overactive scissors or watering cans-  to kill green things, pretty much alllll the revelations I’ve had in the last year have involved plants.  Well, trees, mostly. Roots and leaves and rings and sap.  Buds and blossoms, too.  So I’ve taken to reading articles about pruning and photosynthesis and forest growth just to understand what’s being spoken to my own heart.

Last year was a rough year, to put it mildly.  An extended summer at home due to wanting to be with my mom through a difficult season of health problems had allowed for a degree of rest, but as I prepared to return to Turkey in November, I felt like I was returning having only “come up to zero.”  The thought of trying to jump back into life and somehow muster up vision and energy was a tiring one.  I felt about like this pathetic little branch - desperately wanting to bear fruit, but lacking any sort of life in my empty hands.

It was then - through some conversations with some wise friends - that I started to sense a call to dormancy.  To winter.  To a season where this little tree could hunker down, cease all activity, and rest as unto coming back to life.  

Dormancy, I learned, is when trees shed their leaves and use all the energy they would have spent “feeding them” for what’s happening inside and underground.  “It’s similar to hibernation, since most animals who hibernate store food as fat, and then use it to run their essential systems during the winter, rather than grow any more.  The tree’s metabolism also slows down during dormancy...  Since it has to conserve the food it has stored, it’s best if the tree uses it up slowly, and only for essential functions.”

One article talked about the danger of forcing a plant to “skip its period of dormancy” by controlling the temperature and light in its environment.  But this dramatically shortens its lifespan and is bad for the overall health of the plant.  I realized that by not giving myself the chance to rest and refuel that I so desperately needed, I was doing something that might seem “productive” in the immediate future, but would seriously hinder my ability to make it over the long haul.

So I started to make plans for a sabbatical.

In the time between getting the “invitation” to come away for winter and actually leaving for my sabbatical in Scotland, I would notice bare, leafless trees whose branches had been cut back to stubs and think, “I can’t wait to be just like you.”  While winter often sounds “bleak and depressing”, I craved its ruthless stillness.

In its portrayal of the seasons our souls go through, Mark Buchanan’s book “Spiritual Rhythm” perfectly captured what I was after:

“Pruning is another winter’s work.  A tree’s dormancy strips the thing to bony nakedness, fruitless, leafless, ugly.  A tree in winter is useless and unsightly.  But it has this one advantage:  you can cut the wood deep, right back to its trunk if you must, and the tree will survive.  If it’s done right, the tree will be better for it come springtime:  stronger, shaplier, more vigorous.  Above all, more fruitful.”

“Pruning strengthens our core.  It takes energy that is dissipated over a wide span, branching every which way, and distills it into the trunk and a few solid arms.  That means spring will find you lean and strong, ready to bear much fruit.”

“Winter is when you submit to the vinedresser’s pruning shears.  Winter’s not for adding things, but for cutting things.  It’s the best season - the safest one, actually - to look closely at all the tangled branches of your life - the travel, the committee work, the various projects, the hobbies that have become burdens or obsessions, the trivial pursuits, the diversions; or the ingrown snarl of things, the lists in your head of people and situations to worry about, the proliferation of responsibilities that aren’t really yours - and ask honestly if  those are bearing fruit or just sapping energy.  And then, without apology or even caution, cut to nothing all that gives nothing.”

That was my goal.

The end of January was the beginning of my “winter season.”  It found me in Scotland, on the wind-whipped, rain-drenched, and occasionally (if only for five minutes) snow-graced Ayrshire coast.  My spacious, bookshelf-lined room was the perfect introvert’s haven, and the bare trees in the glen just a few steps outside my door were the ideal backdrop to my season of being “cut back to nothing.”  Things might have looked bleak on the surface...but I knew that a deep work was going on underground.

My winter was one of long, bundled-up tromps on the beach, pounding my questions out over miles of dark sand and receiving the peace that came with each wave that lapped at my Wellies.  It was strolls through the glen, feeling a sense of kinship with the wintering trees, seeing my own heart in their stripped-bare branches.  It was steaming mugs of coffee and rain streaming down window panes and page upon page of untwisting my heart and mind in my journal.  It was a table covered in pencil shaving and eraser bits, brush pens and a watercolour palette as I explored new creative ways of expressing what was going on inside of me.  It was times of going deep with people who were like assistant gardeners, aiding the Vinedresser as He chopped and pruned, extracting unhealthy thought patterns and beliefs, and getting rid of dead branches so the living ones had space to flourish.  It was breathing deeply of fresh, clean air and feeling the tingle of sap flowing through my veins once again.  

It was a long stretch of dormancy as unto coming back to life.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017 - No comments

On Moxie and Marshmallows

West Kilbride, the town where I’m staying during my sabbatical, has branded itself as “Craft Town Scotland.”  Apparently in the ‘90s the town centre was derelict, with storefronts boarded up and merchants suffering from the lack of foot traffic.  But an initiative led by the townspeople to rebuild the town around the idea of being a “craft and design destination” really revived the community, breathed new life into the local economy, and gave the locals a sense of pride.  

This wasn’t necessarily the reason I chose to spend this season here - that was more about being hosted by people who’d created an atmosphere of rest - but it became apparent to me as I prepared to come that West Kilbride’s creative spirit was going to be a key part of my time here.  I arrived with hopes that some of the “boarded up storefronts” of my heart would have new life breathed into them through my interactions with local artists.

A little over a week ago, I went into the village to find out what’s what in the creative scene there.  I felt bold on the outside, timid on the inside, as I often do in situations like that where I know I’ll need to declare out loud, “I am an artist” and sound like I mean it.  Even though it’s the truth - I have a legit photography business, for goodness’ sake - I still often feel like I’m playing make-believe, acting out a role that I’d love to inhabit but that’s still a bit big on me.  It’s the same way I feel when I wear the outfit I wore into town that day - a cute heather-gray shirt-dress and black leggings, with my classy new black peacoat, autumn-plaid blanket scarf and tall black boots with a bit of a heel:  like a little girl playing dress-up and dearly hoping she doesn’t trip in the middle of the High Street.

Somehow just “cold-calling” at the different studios felt a bit overwhelming, so I decided to start small.  I made my way up to the Barony Centre - this gorgeous old church-turned-gallery/cafe.  They’ve got all sorts of art on exhibit there - paintings, pottery, jewelry, photography, glasswork.  And all, as far I could tell, by local artists - or at least Scottish ones - with a distinct Ayrshire coast flavour.  There were a bunch of hand-drawn and painted cards for sale and I bought one of a bare tree that really spoke to me as a symbol of this “pruning” season.  

I told myself I was just there to observe.  To get a feel for the town.  To sit and have a coffee and take it all in.  I didn’t have to ask a lot of questions just yet - I just had to get a feel for it.  There are a whole February’s-worth of days left for questions.  (Gosh, I would’ve sucked as a reporter!)

One of the things I’m working on while I’m here is continuing with my online travel writing class.  I’d thought about how fun it would be to do a story about some aspect of “Craft Town” - to interview different artists and craftspeople who have studios along Main Street, or exhibits at the Barony, or work in the bookshops or galleries to find out what it’s like to be part of an “intentionally creative community”, to mark art for a living, and to get paid to do what they love, right there on the high street, for all the world to see.  (I bet it’s highly motivating to “get down to the business of crafting” when any passerby can see if you’re zoning out on Instagram when you ought to be blowing glass!)

I sat and had my flat white in the Barony’s cafe, next to the window, watching the “lollipop man” get all the newly-liberated school children safely across the towns main street, his bright yellow vest and giant hand-held stop sign halting traffic so they could run safely over to the football pitch or down to Candy Man Craig’s (a.k.a La Dolce Vita) for a hot dog or an ice cream or both.  Boys in shorts and girls in hiked-up plaid uniform skirts and knee socks paraded past the window - they sure make ‘em hardy around here!  

A group of three not-quite-elderly ladies were having coffee and pastries in the corner next to me.  I would’ve assumed they were all locals, but that just goes to show you how not-good I am at differentiating between British accents.  One of them mentioned that she’d never heard of “toasted scones” until she came to Scotland.  “Tea cakes, yes.  But not scones.”  So, an English transplant, I presumed.  

Their conversation (which I had no choice but to be privy to) bounced around from one lady’s daughter who turned 29 today and had cried on the phone because she’s doomed to never get married (“She’s in Miami, you know, and she said it’s just dreadful there, with that new refugee law...sending all the people back from the airports.  They won’t even let some flight crews off their planes! Causing all kinds of chaos...”) to the mice wreaking havoc in another one’s garden, to how much hypnotherapy had  helped one during her first pregnancy, to a niece who once had a job tutoring the children of the King of Jordan.  They commented on “how nicely” the South Asian barista spoke, passed on advice about switching their phone plans to Giffgaff, and discussed how it could be spitting out when the sky had been so clear just twenty minutes ago.  (I thought only the meteorogically uninitiated asked things like that upon arriving on the North Ayrshire coast.  Made me feel better about all the times I’ve thought, “Why did I bother bringing this scarf?” only to be pulling it tighter ten minutes later.)

The gaggle started putting their coats on right about the time I finished my coffee.  So, with no one else’s conversation on which to “practice my observation skills”, I had a decision to make:  tell myself “looking at the exhibits” and “getting a feel for the vibe of the place” were enough and that I could come back with my courage and my questions another day, or gather up my gumption and at least ask what sorts of event or classes might be on while I’m here.  Deciding that the more I play the role of “the artist” while I’m here, the more it’ll start to feel true, I took a deep breath and went for Option B.  

The volunteer at the gallery - a nice lady of about sixty wearing purple eyeshadow and a kind smile, whose only regret from her Alaskan cruise-Rocky Mountain - Vancouver retirement trip was that they didn’t allot more than a day for Vancouver Island - didn’t know much in terms of events at the Barony, but she took me back into the cafe so I could “ask Rose.”  

Rose and a friend were seated at a table just inside the door.  Rose, it seemed, was “the one who knew things.”  

I’m not sure they knew what to make of me.  Honestly, I’m not sure I knew what I was making of myself.  I told them I was here on a bit of a “creative retreat” and was looking to get my juices flowing.  I’m sure I sounded terribly vague, asking if they had any “groups or classes or anything”, but not specifying whether I painted or knitted or made things out of bottle caps.

I think I half-expected them to ooh and ahh over the foreigner who’d come all the way to wee little West Kilbride cuz she’d heard of its famed creative spirit and wanted a taste of the glory.  Not so much.

Enrollment had already closed for any classes I might have been able to join in on, but they did point me in the direction of a few studios whose owners would be worth talking to - “the ones up at the corner at Happy Hills Studio” and Rosalyn who does the felt and fabric cards.  Apparently Maiden Aunt’s Knitting and the glass blowing place also do classes, though I’m not sure baby booties or glass swans are too far up my alley.  But I suppose it could help me tap into some deep creative well and “unlock the flow” and make me a better photographer and writer.  :)  You never know.  

It was getting on towards dusk by the time I left (meaning it was all of 4PM - winter!) and I still needed to pop by the grocery store on the way home, so I decided to save the studio conversations for another day.  But before eggs and milk, I had one other very important stop to make:  Candy Man Craig’s.

Craig is precisely the sort of man you’d expect to run a shop that sells ice cream and gum drops and Scottish tablet and fancy chocolates and fizzy sticks.  When I was here in November, I’d gotten accustomed to his red and white striped apron and politely jolly demeanor as he’d ask, “With whipped cream and marshmallows, then?” when I ordered my near-daily hot chocolates for the walk home through the glen.  

At first I didn’t think he recognized me - so proper was he when taking my order.  But once we’d established that I did indeed want marshmallows and cream, he asked (in his blessedly intelligible Scottish accent) “So, you’re back for a wee bit, are you then?”

Somehow I felt much more confident telling him about my ‘creative sabbatical.’  I suppose it’s hard not to feel good about yourself when surrounded by jars of candy.  

I’d heard that he has a “studio” of his own - a little workshop where he makes chocolates to sell in La Dolce Vita.  Now THAT is my kind of creating!  I decided I definitely wanted to do a piece on him while I’m here.  Something about the man whose creativity keeps the whole town licking their lips, or something like that.  I’d sit down at the sole table by the window with my creamy hot chocolate and my notebook and take notes on his interactions with all the kids who come in after school and spend their allowance money getting their hot dog cards stamped and stuffing their faces with fudge.

And when I told him I was working on growing my travel journalism skills and asked if I could come again and do an interview with “the village chocolate artist”, he was happy to oblige.  I have an appointment for tomorrow!

Turns out all it took to get my creative courage flowing was a couple of marshmallows and some cream...

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tuesday, February 07, 2017 - 1 comment

Leave to Live: First Fruits of the Season

"It is a grand thing to get leave to live."  
- Nan Shepherd, Scottish poet

These words - a message from heaven on a five-pound note - were my invitation into the season of sabbatical I'm in now.  They carried with them a whiff of freedom, permission - no, a charge - to dream without boundaries, and a beckoning to come test the limits of "life more abundantly."    

As I've settled into my temporary Scottish home (has it really been a week and a half already?), I've taken these words to heart. They've guided how I spend my hours and my days.  There is a vastness in them, but also an urgency - the sense that this time is a gift and I need to really get down to the business of living

They've led me on romps and rambles, up into the green hills and down the windswept coastal paths.  They've taken me into the depths and dark places in my heart, where lies and hindrances to life are exposed and uprooted and I get to taste the glory of true freedom.  And they've called me to create.

So much of this time is about re-connecting with (or discovering for the first time) who I am and how I was designed.  Unearthing the “me” that comes to the surface when the weights of fear and over-responsibility are removed and the dust of heart-crushing lies blown off and I’m able to see - and delight in - the good that was deposited in me as I was knit together in my mother’s womb that I’m meant to share with the world.  

And - surprise, surprise - so much of that has to do with creating.  

One of the words I got before moving to Turkey was that I was going “for the display of His splendour.”  That there is a unique facet of my Father’s personality, character and beauty that I’m meant to be showcasing and reflecting and shining a light on.  That word still burns in my heart, but it hadn’t seen the light of day in a good while.   It was high time I pull it out again and give it the place it deserves - in my heart and in my day planner.  (Yes, I still use a day planner.  Long live paper!)  If m1n1stry is “the best of what He’s poured into me being poured out into other people”, I need to make cultivating that “best” a high priority.  And for me, a big chunk of that means creating.

It’s always the things we were actually created to do - the ones that shine the best of Him through the best of us - that are so relentlessly and insidiously opposed.  This season is about fighting back.

It’s a season where I’ve been given not just permission but a mandate to give space and weight and honour to my creative giftings and to develop them - not for the sake of producing anything, but for the sake of joy.  For the sake of coming alive.  It’s a time to run headlong after those things I always think I’ll do “when I have more time” - the ones that get relegated to the bottom of my never-ending to-do list because they don’t seem “urgent”, but are actually the ones that would infuse life into all the other parts of my life if I’d let them.  The ones that allow me to uniquely display His splendour.

All that to say, I’ve been doing a whole lot of “creating” since I got here.  I’ve vowed that I’ll create (at least) one thing every day.  Taking photos and logging writing hours and getting down some of the stories that have been percolating inside me for months are an obvious part of that.  But I really wanted to find something else I could do - something more tangible and immediate and hands-on - that I could pursue during this time to really get my creative juices flowing on a daily basis.  

Half on a whim, I bought a book on creative lettering and had it shipped here so it was waiting when I arrived.  I can’t draw worth squat.  (Remember that grade 6 report card comment from my art teacher?  “Great improvement from last year.  She now draws her people with necks.”)  But what I CAN do is doodle letters.  And it turns out that’s a thing.  Incidentally, a very marketable thing.  But also just plain fun.  It's something I'd love to get good at.  But for now I'm just enjoying the freedom to play.  And this book has turned out to be one of my favourite companions on this sabbatical journey.

There’s so much pleasure in hand-lettering for me.  I’m loving playing with fonts and strokes and learning about things like “filigree” and “serif” and “drop caps.”  It’s been a great way to document some of the words being deposited in my heart during this season, and to get them on the wall where I can see them and be shaped by them. are some of the first fruits of this creative season...

This one makes me laugh cuz it conjures up images of some 
1970s orange juice container...but still, I kinda like it.  :)