Recently, I was the WholeheARTed Guest at A Sanctified Art, where I answered questions from Lisle Gwinn Garrity that inspired contemplation of my creative process. Thanks, Lisle, for thinking of me! Check out the resources being created by A Sanctified Art here.
SA: When did you first consider yourself a creative person?
MS: From the time I was a little girl, I loved thinking up stories. I would draw (very bad) pictures of the children I hoped to have and invent names and identities for them. I retold myths and adapted adventures of favorite characters from literature. I especially loved Bible stories and would “tell” them on the flannel board I stored under the high old-fashioned bed in my childhood home. A wonderful Sunday School teacher at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia, gave me permission to expand my storytelling when she developed curriculum for 5th and 6th-graders that taught the Old Testament through drama and the New Testament using puppets. We learned stories, wrote scripts, and acted or performed the stories.
SA: Tell us about how you express yourself creatively?
MS: I experimented with many forms of writing both in school and personally, but I never found a form that suited all my interests until I started writing for church—plays, sermons, and liturgies all felt like lively and faithful ways to use my gifts. Even when I write about my life, as I began doing in blog form in 2004, the most meaningful storytelling happens in dialogue with scripture. I now write prayers especially for pastors. My newest favorite thing is combining words and images using Canva, Prisma, and Instagram.
SA: What is your creative process like?
MS: My creative process almost always starts with a text I will be talking to, and I wish I could say that inevitably means I study and pray, but often it means I read the text and go for a walk, or have to run an errand, or find myself waiting at a child’s choir practice or watching a Little League game, and something flashes through my mind. Ten years ago I would rifle through my purse for a tiny notebook, but today I open the Notes app on my iPhone and one-finger type or dictate the thought before I lose it. It happens that way because I cultivate openness and privilege originality.
I’m having a rabbit hole week as I read “Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life.” In the short chapters, Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms (a priest, a preacher, a speaker and an entrepreneur with a profound emphasis on healing) tells deceptively simple stories, then follows them with questions that go to the heart of things.
I’m particularly grappling with a chapter asking the reader to consider being cooperative rather than competitive. I like to think of myself as being pretty high-minded, raising up others, and I think I’ve done that in my work with RevGalBlogPals, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to feeling like I’m not much of a preacher or pastor or writer or spouse or mother or queer compared to ________ (whoever is the flavor of the month at those things, or has done them longer, or with wide success, or …).
Since reading that chapter, I’ve been falling down a rabbit hole, passing these thoughts over and over, faster and faster:
“I should get back into spiritual direction to talk about these things, but where is the money for *that* going to come from since I am doing all these part-time jobs, and I haven’t been pursuing new writing assignments, and wow, I am really a terrible person for not working harder on that, but I’ve been very busy doing the *other* jobs, but I am not a full financial contributor what with the free-lancing, the part-time pastoring and the start-up ministry” and so forth.
Stevens asks, “Is it difficult for you to be generous to colleagues or neighbors?” That part is not so hard. The trouble is when I cannot see generosity in return – although I realize that is not the point of generosity, is it? Generosity is giving it away without worrying about how we rank on the world’s scorecard.
Then she asks, “Who could you view as your ally and colleague rather than your competitor?”
The launch down the rabbit hole is intense, as I grab at things I can’t hold in my hand, try to recall them in mental pictures and quick phrases as I fall farther. Can I hang on to that jar or pick out those titles on the shelves?
How much farther will I fall?
Answering the reflection questions in Stevens’ book feels like spiritual direction, although I miss having someone to talk to about the questions and feelings raised. This morning, instead of telling myself I’ll never be the one with the best-seller and the publicist (the one sending me advance copies of other people’s books), I’m remembering the ways I know my writing and my work with RevGals have touched others – and imagining the ways I don’t actually know about for sure. I’m considering that maybe all those jobs are too many jobs and picturing a different way of organizing my vocational life.
Alice eventually hits solid ground, then moves on through other adventures, attending tea parties and meeting Queens and finding her way home again. I will get up from the table at Starbucks and go home to real life, take the dog out, fix a sandwich, and then keep writing.
I am terrible at grieving. I grew up in a family and an environment in which crying, generally, and grieving, specifically, were not only discouraged but practically anathema. When my Grandmother Spong died, my father, who was her only child and as close to her emotionally as he was to anyone, told me, “I’m all right if you’re all right,” which was his way of saying, “Don’t cry, or I might, too.”
As an adult, I faced three major losses in my thirties – first my mother, then a pregnancy at 21 weeks, then my father – and in each case, the circumstances made it difficult for me to grieve properly, at least as I came to understand proper grieving, ideas presented in classes at seminary, where I studied pastoral care through the life span and took a whole course on bereavement.
I’m not sure I got any better at grieving. Instead I learned to squeeze my eyes shut and keep the tears inside.
Crying, you see, frightens me. I associate it with a severe postpartum depression twenty years ago, a time when nothing seemed as if it would ever be right again, a time when everything seemed that mattered seemed poised to slip over the edge of an abyss. I said I had cried all my tears, but what I really meant was, I am not going to let things get that far out of my control again. If something threatens to hurt me, I will armor myself against it.
Just about the only exception to that armor was my first dog, Molly. She was charming, winsome, life-rearranging. I was 41 and had never lived with a dog before and had no idea how much it would feel like having a baby, another child to raise. A Bernese Mountain Dog, she had the terrible joints that some Berners do, and the crippling arthritis to go with them; that she lived to be almost 7 years old was a testimony to both my commitment to her and her incredible joie de vivre.
After her death, I did allow myself one good cry. (Emphasis on “allow,” which implies control, no?)
I always tell people who are afraid they will cry at a funeral that it’s exactly the right time for it, that their tears are a tribute to the person they loved and will miss, but I am confessing to you how poorly I do it. You may know what I mean. We hold ourselves together for the sake of others, because who doesn’t want to be a hero. And isn’t it a more secure feeling to be that hero than to let the feeling flow through and out of us? If we can only hold it all inside, we will never have to admit to vulnerability.
To mourn, to fully and consciously engage with the truth and pain of loss, is agonizing. It is something so difficult and frightening that incredibly successful people who are otherwise driven and aggressive risk-takers stereotypically shy away from grief.*
Grieve fully, feel Gratitude profoundly, and be humble enough to do the Grunt work!
Which is the hardest of the three g’s for you to practice to keep your faith simple? Grief, gratitude or grunt work?**
Books, darn it, sometimes make me think about things I would rather not, make me feel things I would just as soon compress into the components of more armor. Not long after reading both the quotes above and confessing to my journal that I am terrible at grieving, I opened Facebook on my iPhone and clicked on the daily memories they now provide whether I want them or not, and there I found this picture.
Now, he may not prove to be my final Berner, but Hoagie was the last of the Berners I had in Maine, a rescue who came to us at a time when my daughter and I really needed him even more than he needed us. He would have come with me to Pennsylvania, but he developed cancer and did not live long enough to embark on the new chapter of life with us.
“Oh, Hoagie,” I said to my iPhone, to Facebook, to no one in particular, as I sat in bed in the early morning half light. I blinked, because if you blink hard enough, or scrinch up your eyes just right, the tears will go away. Except that they don’t. Something calcifies. After kathrynzj’s Old Man Dog died last fall, we started talking about when and whether to look for a new dog, and where, and whether to get a puppy, and although my loss was further in the past, I could not say I was ready. I didn’t really grieve, I realized. I set my eyes toward the horizon, and I hardly stopped to let myself be sad, to grieve for the dog, the dogs, the life I thought I had, because of course the future looked favorable and many good things lay ahead.
I looked at the picture again, and I remembered the words I scrawled in my journal the early morning of the day before, and I looked at the picture again, and I cried.
At my house there is a new dog, this crazy puppy Teddy, a lab mix who loves my slippers, who is not a Berner, who is mouthy and likes hard pets and peeled carrots, and whose short coat feels different but good to the touch.
He likes to stand on his back legs to see what’s on the table or the counter, just like Molly.
He does this at the storm door when we leave the house, front paws up like a child, sending his heart with us in little cries of love and longing.
An armored heart cannot love that way. An armored heart cannot move into joy.
It was a joy to edit this collection of stories and prayers written by me and over 50 of my colleagues who are members of RevGalBlogPals. We represent 14 denominations, 5 countries, and more than a dozen seminaries. Our stories will bring both laughter and tears as well as a unique perspective on the number and kind of plates clergywomen keep spinning in amazing fashion.
“In ministry, we constantly balance the sacred and the ordinary, juggling the two as expertly as we manage a chalice and a [baby] bottle. Even as we do things as simple as light the candles, set the table, break the bread and pour the wine, we invite people into a holy moment…. The women [in this book] not only have a wellspring of deep wisdom, but they also have the ability to dish out their knowledge with side-aching humor…. I am thrilled that their great wisdom and intelligence will be bound into the pages that I can turn to, lend and appreciate for years to come.”
—from the Foreword by Rev. Carol Howard Merritt
Intended for laypeople, women hearing a call to ministry and clergy of all denominations, these stories and prayers will resonate with, challenge, encourage and amuse anyone who has a passion for their work and faith. A group reading guide will be available on the SkyLight Paths Publishing website – consider choosing it for your book group!
One of the things I don’t like to tell anyone is that there are some days having auto-immune arthritis means I don’t go anywhere or do much of anything. I know in my higher mind that these are days spent recovering from doing too much the day (or days or weeks) before. Still, it bothers me to have any days like that when there are so many ways to spend my time.
Yesterday was one of those days, so I was glad to see a NaNoBloMo prompt that I could do, even if I didn’t have the hand available to turn it into a blog post at the time. Mary Beth suggested looking out a nearby window, taking a picture, and then writing about what you could see in the picture that you hadn’t noticed while simply looking outside.
This is the view from our living room window across to the Presbyterian Church. It is a view I love, and I was hard-pressed to imagine what I would find that I hadn’t noticed before.
Meanwhile, kathrynzj was coming home with a load of things from our townhouse in the back of her van, and she pulled into the driveway, then backed out again to turn the van around. I took the picture at that moment, having no idea she was back from her errands.
I didn’t type anything yesterday I couldn’t manage on my phone with my left thumb. (I wrote 0 words for my novel.) Today is already better.
It turns out I am more of a promoter of NaBloPoMo than a participant in it. I have, however, been working on my novel, which is fun, although I do not have enough time for it, not really. Today I plan to spend some time on the novel, some time on a sermon and some time on overdue essays for Lectionary Homiletics, a sermon publication. That’s a full day of writing.
Every day this week has been a full day of living. Among the hats I have worn are Long Distance (College Student and other grown up people) Mama, cook, laundress, furniture duster, Pastor’s wife, Bible study leader, non-profit ministry Director (with it’s sub-categories of technical support, Social media minister, event planner and erstwhile visionary), book editor, novice novelist, floor plan researcher, freelance curriculum/sermon resource writer, colleague, friend, Facebook friend, Words with Friends player, step-mom, stationery supply shopper, cat owner at vet (twice, each with a different cat), leader, reader, pray-er, Stewardship letter writer, pastor myself and wife (minus Pastor’s for the times that isn’t the priority).
That leaves off a few descriptors for things I didn’t get around to doing.
Juggling multiple part-time jobs (Interim Pastor, Director of RevGalBlogPals, writing/editing) requires me to learn compartmentalization, a skill I have both envied and resented in others. This week I spent time on that task by setting up another email just for church and a connected Evernote account that works across devices. That’s my to do list just for church. And the truth is, I really only look at that Evernote in the blocks o time assigned to working at the church. It goes against my nature, but it has to be that way if I’m going to keep to the 20 hours a week for which I am contracted and also have time to do other work and be present to my family.
Oh, and God.
There are a lot of days in this season of life with its delicious if sometimes exhausting fullness when I count on God’s presence more than I invoke it. I think a lot about what God wants for and from me, from RevGalBlogPals, from the church I am serving, even from the church my wife is serving. There is not much downtime in which to regroup, much less to be contemplative, but I can feel the need for it. I made an appointment with my Spiritual Director — much-needed — but I can see the pace is going to continue this way for the foreseeable future.
So, I may not blog every day. But I am writing every day, at least a little, and I feel good about it.
At that rate I’ll get to 50,000 on January 6, 2015. Ah, well.
Early morning is a great time for writing except for the fact that I have Rheumatoid Arthritis and wake up with stiff hands. Adjustments may be required.
This morning I realized that if I want to write about a family, and that family lives in a house, I need to have a clearer sense of the floor plan of the house. I decided to save that research and contemplation for later, but it actually matters where and how these people live, so it can’t wait much longer if I am to have a hope of upping the daily word rate.
I’ll admit I didn’t write (or blog, for that matter, NaBloPoMo) yesterday. Sunday really needs to be a writing Sabbath for me, because by the time church is over, I don’t have much in the way of words.
Some of the most fun-sounding NaNoWriMo meetups in my area are on Sundays, which makes sense for people who work at other jobs Monday through Friday.
I did finish knitting a Christmas present. On an unrelated note, I have been knitting like a boss all through 2014, and some of my NaBloPoMo will likely be pictures and descriptions of Finished Objects.
This is my day off, and kathrynzj’s, too, but it’s more chore day than Sabbath. We’re blessed to have churches that don’t expect much, if anything, of us after worship, so although we start it late, the rest of Sunday really is Sabbath time around here.
This morning she found some unopened boxes, so they await me on the dining room table. We’ve only been here six weeks, and we are definitely still unpacking.