Friday, October 31, 2014

Truest beauty from the finest artist of all

In my book, this has been one of Michigan's loveliest autumns. The weather has been comfortably cool without being too cold, and the trees have been such brilliant hues of red ...

A maple near my office in Walker, Michigan. (Photo: Perception)

yellow ...

The tree in my front yard. (Photo: Perception)

and all the colors of the spectrum ...

Trees along M-46 between Lakeview and Edmore. (Photo: Becky Howard)

It makes me want to take time out to confess that of all the fine art I could possibly enjoy and celebrate in this world, whether it's music, poetry, film, literature, painting or other visual arts, none of them could exist were it not for the Creator by whose power the universe was formed.

And who can top the beauty in His world? 

Today, while I was walking on the trail that cuts through my office park, a strong wind rushed through the trees and set them to swaying, and a golden brown leaf tornado spun up from the ground as I watched. 

In that moment, hymns began playing, one after another, in the symphony of my mind. These are the hymns I heard:

"For the Beauty of the Earth"

For the beauty of the earth, 
For the glory of the skies, 
For the love which from our birth 
Over and around us lies; 
Lord of all, to thee we raise 
This our hymn of grateful praise. 

For the beauty of each hour 
Of the day and of the night, 
Hill and vale, and tree and flower, 
Sun and moon, and stars of light;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise. 

For the joy of human love, 
Brother, sister, parent, child, 
Friends on earth and friends above, 
For all gentle thoughts and mild; 
Lord of all, to thee we raise 
This our hymn of grateful praise. 

"This Is My Father's World"

This is my Father's world, 
And to my listening ears 
All nature sings, and round me rings 
The music of the spheres. 
This is my Father's world: 
I rest me in the thought 
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; 
His hand the wonders wrought. 

This is my Father's world, 
The birds their carols raise, 
The morning light, the lily white, 
Declare their maker's praise. 
This is my Father's world: 
He shines in all that's fair; 
In the rustling grass I hear him pass; 
He speaks to me everywhere. 

This is my Father's world. 
O let me ne'er forget 
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, 
God is the ruler yet. 
This is my Father's world: 
The battle is not done
Jesus who died shall be satisfied
And earth and heaven be one.

"How Great Thou Art"

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed:

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, How great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, How great thou art!

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
I hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
And hear the brook and feel a gentle breeze:

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, How great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, How great thou art!

I'm so thankful for Creator God, the finest artist, the best composer, The Word Who Became Flesh.

Read more posts in the Fine Art Friday series here

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The music of 1914, from blues to ragtime

This is my 100th blog post. Since it's Groovy Tuesday, the day I write about music, let's travel back in time 100 years and see what music was written in the year 1914.

"Twelfth Street Rag"

This ragtime song written by Euday L. Bowman was later used as the theme for television's "The Joe Franklin Show," and a ukulele version has been featured in the background of the show "SpongeBob SquarePants." (Bet Bowman wouldn't have seen THAT coming, eh?)

"Your King and Country Need You"

Keep in mind 1914 was the first year of World War I. This British song, with lyrics by Huntley Trevor and music by Henry E. Pether, was written for the purpose of recruiting soldiers to the Allies' cause. 

"I Want to Go Back to Michigan"

Irvin Berlin composed this charming but cheesy song in 1914, and its most famous performance was by Judy Garland in the 1948 film "Easter Parade."

"Saint Louis Blues"

By far my favorite of the crop, "Saint Louis Blues" was composed by W.C. Handy and has been performed by tons of famous blues and jazz musicians. The Louis Armstrong/Bessie Smith version above was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993.

Here's a list of more songs composed in 1914. Do you have any favorites?

Read more posts in the Groovy Tuesday series here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What's your point of view? Lessons from novel-reading

In the past couple of weeks, I've dived back into novel-reading, a favorite pastime I was neglecting in favor of some other spare-time pursuits: yoga, running, writing and Netflix-watching.

But, as workshop leaders reminded me recently at Breathe Writers Conference, the best writers spend as much time reading as they do writing. Reading strengthens the muscles of the imagination, teaches the brain about the flow of language, etc.

So I picked up a couple of novels at the conference, and I'm back in the game.

A word on perspective

Here's one thing I noticed yesterday and today while reading the novel "When Mountains Move," by Julie Cantrell: I feel close to the protagonist, Millie, because the novel's point of view is third person limited. 

If you need a refresher on what point of view is, here's a definition from

  • Point of view: The perspective from which the author tells the story; the narrator's position in relation to the story. 

There are three possible points of view: First person (The narrator is the protagonist and speaks in "I" terms), second person ("you") and third person ("he/she/it/they"). 

The story can be told in first person singular or plural, that is "I" or "we."

Second-person narration is very rare, but not unheard of. If you'd like some examples, here's a roundup: Books about You - Novels Written in the Second-Person Narrative.

The story can be told from third person omniscient or third person limited perspective. That is, the narrator can be an all-knowing storyteller who shows you the thoughts and feelings of every character or several characters, or the narrator might only share the feelings of the protagonist.

In Cantrell's novel "Into the Free" and its sequel I was reading yesterday, "When Mountains Move," Millie Reynolds is the main character, and her story is told by a narrator who lets you see her thoughts and feelings but not those of the other characters.

It's a way to let the reader feel close to the protagonist without limiting him/her by first-person narration. First-person narration constrains the story in a couple of ways: 1. It offers a spoiler: The narrator ultimately survives the events of this book because s/he is writing about it later. 2. We only get to perceive the supporting characters from the eyes of the narrator, who can't know their hidden motivations. 

I should note that I have enjoyed novels that use first person and third person omniscient points of view. 

First person examples: 

  • Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" is narrated by the titular character, and it feels as if we're reading her memoir. None of it feels stale, though; it feels like we're in Jane's head, traveling through the events as she remembers them. And we trust that she remembers accurately.
  • Holden Caulfield also narrates his story in first-person, past tense in "The Catcher in the Rye." But he tells us straight off that he's an unreliable narrator: "I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. If I'm on the way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera." So the novel is fraught with tension as we try to sort out fact from fiction.

Third person omniscient examples: 

Many 19th-century authors used an omniscient point of view, most notably:

  • Jane Austen's "Emma" and most of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility" are written using an omniscient narrator who gives glimpses of all the characters' thoughts and motivations, while spending the most time letting you into the inner lives of Emma, Elizabeth and Elinor.
  • Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby"

As the novel developed in the 20th and 21st centuries, the third person omniscient point of view became less common in favor of third person limited, which allows readers to enter into the feelings of the characters and helps move the climax of the novel forward.

What's your favorite point of view?

As I mentioned, second person narration is pretty rare. Can you think of any novels, besides the ones mentioned in the blog post I linked to, that use second-person narration?

Do you have any favorite contemporary novels that use an omniscient narrator?

I'd love to hear from you. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook Community page, Perception blogger.

Read more posts in the Storytelling Sunday series here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Discovering the joy of painting and the art of letting go

(Stock photo: Free images)

I'm a perfectionist. If you know me, this won't come as a surprise to you. If you're also a perfectionist, who, like me, has good taste but little artistic ability, I recommend you try something new: social painting.

If you've never heard of this trend, allow me to explain: It's where you go to an art studio with friends and follow instructions to recreate a predetermined scene while drinking wine and having a good ol' time. It's also been called a wine and canvas event.

I kid you not, when I went this week, I almost refused to drink any of the wine because I wanted to keep all my faculties sharp and blow that painting assignment out of the water.

But then, my sister-in-law offered to buy me a drink, and, well, the whole "getting it perfect with a completely focused mind" thing started to seem really overrated. 

At the place we chose, called Arts and Carafes Cafe, the studio owner, Jackie Sporte, and the on-duty teacher/artist, Taylor, walked us through the whole thing step by step. 

The scene of the day was an autumn forest, specifically a wood full of birch trees. Taylor, the artist, took us through the basics, from taping the canvas to start the underpainting, to what brush to use, to when to rinse it, to how to mix the colors, to when to switch to a different brush.

It reminded me very much of watching a favorite PBS show from childhood, "The Joy of Painting" with Bob Ross, only instead of just watching, this time, I was participating. 

I technically never took an art class, so my experience with painting has been limited to sporadic 4-H classes and "The Joy of Painting" show. I didn't pursue either very proactively because it wasn't an area of natural gifting for me.

Here's my painting! (Photo: Perception)

As you can see above, it still isn't. 

But here's something I learned during this night out with my sister and sister-in-law: You've got to let go of that self-criticism. The pursuit of creativity is always worthwhile, even if it's painful to you because you don't like how your work turns out. 

Why? Because your hand and brush connect, you mix the colors, you flex your creative muscles and you exert power over your canvas. You listen to toe-tapping music, feeling the wine on your tongue. You hear the laughter of your friends, and you feel in your bones that you've just made something. Something that didn't exist before.

That's what creativity is all about. 

What do you make?

What kinds of creations have you made with your hands? How did you feel during the creative process, regardless of the end result? I'd love to hear your story. Leave me a comment below or over at my Facebook Community page, Perception blogger.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A song for when you are wrong

(Stock photo: Free images)

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Brandi Carlile has a song for every one of my moods/experiences/thoughts/emotions. We can add her song "That Wasn't Me" to the list today.

I woke up thinking about one of the shows Brandi did at the Frederick Meijer Gardens amphitheater — it was either 2012 or 2013 — where she sat down at the piano and began to tell a story about this song before her performance.

She said she visited a women's prison after this song was released as a single, and the inmates were clamoring to hear her perform it. They said it resonates with them because it feels like an open letter to their families and to the families of the people they wronged. 

It's a plea to be remembered as a whole person, not defined in a lasting way by the choice or series of choices that landed them behind bars.

We all want to be characterized more by our good and beautiful acts, don't we? 

"That Wasn't Me," by Brandi Carlile

Hang on, just hang on for a minute
I've got something to say
I'm not asking you to move on or forget it
But these are better days
To be wrong all along and admit it, is not amazing grace
But to be loved like a song you remember
Even when you've changed

Tell me, did I go on a tangent?
Did I lie through my teeth?
Did I cause you to stumble on your feet?
Did I bring shame on my family?
Did it show when I was weak?
Whatever you've seen, that wasn't me
That wasn't me, oh that wasn't me

When you're lost you will toss every lucky coin you'll ever trust
And you'll hide from your God like he ever turns his back on us
And you will fall all the way to the bottom and land on your own knife
And you'll learn who you are even if it doesn't take your life

Tell me, did I go on a tangent?
Did I lie through my teeth?
Did I cause you to stumble on your feet?
Did I bring shame on my family?
Did it show when I was weak?
Whatever you've seen, that wasn't me
That wasn't me, oh that wasn't me

But I want you to know that you'll never be alone
I wanna believe, do I make myself a blessing to everyone I meet
When you fall I will get you on your feet
Do I spend time with my family?
Did it show when I was weak?
When that's what you've seen, that will be me
That will be me, that will be me
That will be me

I think the thing that's so powerful about this for me is that it's not denial of the wrongdoing itself. The bad deeds are already on the table. What I see here is an insistence that those terrible sins aren't who I want to be. 

I don't want to do the terrible things I do ... hmm ... where have I heard that before?

"It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge" (Romans 7:21-23, The Message).

I join those women at the penitentiary in their humanity, their brokenness, their desire for a day when they can again make themselves a blessing. Don't we all?

Read more posts in the Groovy Tuesday series here.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

I'm gonna buy myself ... er ... fix myself some new shoes

Behold, one of my favorite dress shoes of all time. 

I just did something I've never done before. I took my shoes to a shoe repair shop instead of ditching them and buying new.

And guess what? It was a great experience.

I had two pairs of shoes in need of repair. One pair was damaged when I was strolling on a walking trail with co-workers recently. The heel of my left boot tore off and flew backward into the grassy embankment next to the path. I quickly retrieved it and limped around one-heeled for the rest of the workday. (This is why you should always bring extra shoes to work. Or wear walking shoes if you're planning to take a walk.)

My damaged boots look similar to these ones. 

The heel of the other pair was damaged a while back — I believe when I stepped on the crack of a sidewalk as I was leaving the YMCA. (This is why you should always jump over the sidewalk cracks.)

During the former excursion, the co-worker with whom I was walking mentioned she has had good luck with a local shoe repair shop on Leonard Street, Mieras Family Shoes.

I decided to give it a whirl.

Mieras is on the West Side of town, a short drive from where I live. It has been a family-owned business since 1922.

When I walked in, I was greeted by a young man behind a cash register who was wearing an apron. (Men wearing aprons are always a good start to a customer service experience.)

He directed me to the workshop in the back of the store. The place smelled strongly of what I imagine was leather polish, caulks, glues and resins of various kinds. 

"Jimmy, you've got a customer," the young man said, gingerly approaching a much older man with thick glasses and wild, wispy gray hair. 

Jimmy at first appeared not to hear, but then he shuffled over toward me and, without greeting me or looking at me directly, waited patiently for me to state my business.

I was instantly charmed. It was clear the young man was the one with the social ease and sales persona, and the older man was the fixer, the craftsman, the quiet fella with no taste for chatter.

He assessed my shoes with a bit of prodding and flexing of the damaged areas and determined within 30 seconds or less that they were fixable.

"I've even got some new light-colored heels that will be just perfect for this pair," he said, indicating the damaged tan pumps.

My receipts from Meiras Family Shoes.

He took out a couple of tickets and a pen and wrote down my name, phone number and the date, then ripped off the stubs and said, "We'll call you in two weeks." 

The shoes were ready in six days. They charged $10 per pair.

Read more posts in the Storytelling Sunday series here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Vespers: The beautiful evening prayer

This is the sheet music to Rachmaninoff's "Vespers, Op. 37."

This post is about a beautiful kind of classical music I recently learned to love: sacred music, specifically vespers.

Since I was not raised in a liturgical tradition, I was unfamiliar with the concept of canonical hours, including vespers, the evening prayer, until very recently.

For the uninitiated, canonical hours are periods of prayer throughout the day.

My first exposure to the concept of vespers (thank you, YouTube) was Sergei Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil, Vespers, Op. 37," written in 1915. It's an a capella composition for the Russian Orthodox Church — which, interestingly, Rachmaninoff did not attend at the time of writing — using its liturgical chants as source material for the first six movements.

Have a listen:

Isn't that beautiful? After my first hearing, I haven't been able to get those lovely sounds out of my head. Not that I want to.

The lyrics, translated below, remind me of a hymn I grew up singing: "Come Let Us Worship and Bow Down."

Here are the English words to Rachmaninoff's Vespers:

"All-Night Vigil, Vespers, Op. 37, O Come and Worship"

O come, let us worship before the Lord our Maker.
O come, let us worship and fall down
before the Lord Christ, our God and Maker.
O come, let us worship and fall down
and kneel before the Very Christ,
our God and Maker.
O come, let us worship and fall down before Him.

That's just the first movement. The complete piece has 15 movements and would take more than an hour to hear. 

So, if you ever have an hour to kill and feel yourself in need of healing via complete and utter peace and beauty, I highly recommend it.

Read more posts in the Fine Art Friday series here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The perfect song for winter

It's no secret. Winter can steal away your soul if you let it. Especially Michigan's new favorite kind of winter: The Polar Vortex.

Since I hear we who live in the Frigid North are about to experience another PV — have you SEEN those woolly bear caterpillars? — here's an anthem to claim during the long, dark, cold days ahead.

It's about winter, and hunkering down to work, and not letting your fears and frustrations stand in the way of tending to your soul.

Re: genre. Expect it to sound like a pleasant commingling of bluegrass, country, folk and I-don't-know-what. I saw these guys at a house concert here in Grand Rapids once, and I was instantly a fan.

"Books," by Bridget Kearney for Joy Kills Sorrow

I got lots of books and my house stays warm in winter
so I don’t go out too much these days.

We have lots of fun because we don’t make too much money
I get a bit more work done everyday.

I move so carefully slow
because I don’t know where I should go
and I’m holding on tight to my soul.

I try my best but I know I’m still a sinner
and my good intentions help to pave my way.
I don’t stay out too late and I sleep in on the weekends
I get a bit more work done everyday.

I move so carelessly slow
because I don’t know where I should go

and I’m holding on tight to my soul.

I don't know about you, but "holding on tight to my soul" is a thought to which I'll gladly cling this winter. I'll think of it when I'm shoveling the sidewalk for the millionth time, or trying to squeeze into an ever-narrowing-due-to-snow-mountains parking spot, or navigating rush hour traffic during a snowstorm, or layering up times a billion just to take out the trash.

About songwriter Bridget Kearney

Did I mention Bridget Kearney is a freaking amazing musician? If you don't believe me, check out her work in the past with Joy Kills Sorrow and currently with Lake Street Dive.

And feel free to read this enlightening Q&A with Kearney about how she learned harmony, upright bass and the other instruments she plays, making her a versatile backing musician and a first-chair quality asset to all the bands for which she's played. And she's a songwriter. Yeah.

Thanks for listening

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Groovy Tuesday. You can read past posts in the series here

As always, I'd love to hear your suggestions for what songs I should write about next. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook Community page, Perception blogger.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Fighting the lie that beauty is all I've got

Breathe Christian Writers Conference was founded in 2007. 

This morning, in light of something that happened yesterday, I am trying to rest in a promise I was taught in a workshop at Breathe Christian Writers Conference: I am God's beloved. I am the one Jesus loves, and He delights in me.

We need to speak those words out loud, author Suzanne Burden said during her workshop called "Writing the Hard Things to the Church and the World."

Burden said claiming those words is the Christian writer's first step toward being able to tell the truth in writing.

In that spirit, I'd like to share a true story from yesterday, Day 2 of the conference. (It is Storytelling Sunday, after all, folks!)

The liar returns

I strode confidently into my second-to-last workshop of the conference, "Glimpses of God: Reading and Writing Theological Memoir," led by Martie Bradley, one of the Breathe conference organizers.

As I walked by a table full of women, one of them broke free of her conversation and turned to me to say, "You are so gorgeous. I love your hair, you're so tall, you've got the whole look going, great posture, thin and everything. Do you model?"

My heart sank to the floor. The blood rushed to my face and neck, my eyes began to throb and palms began to sweat. I sat down and began unpacking my book bag, pulling out my note-taking materials with my eyes downcast.

"No," I said, eager to change the subject. "I don't."

"Why not?" they all chorused, expectantly.

A little voice in my head whispered, "You missed your calling."

I answered the voice with a silent scream torn from the lungs and vocal cords of my mind: "You're wrong! I know fiercely and truly that a life spent fixated on the beautification and presentation of my body would miss the mark. I would be ignoring my gift and passion to write!"

Aloud, I said with an apologetic grin, "I like to eat too much." The women smiled or chuckled and returned to their conversations. Thank you, Jesus, for ending this quickly.

But the voice inside my head kept talking: "You're only as good as your looks. You've always known that."

I've been fighting that voice my whole life. It's a liar. It's a liar whom I think all women believe, whether the version we accept is "You are good enough because of your beauty" or "You are not good enough because you are not beautiful enough."

Both lies take our focus off the truth: fulfillment and acceptance in Christ and knowledge of our identity as His beloved children.

As writers, it is simply not acceptable for us to believe and peddle lies. We are keepers of words. It is our responsibility to speak the truth with clarity and precision.

"Beauty is fleeting."

This is my challenge to you

Christian women, I challenge you today. Before you speak, consider whether what you will say is helpful for the spiritual, emotional and mental edification of your listener.

Consider these passages. I have been immersing myself in them this morning, soaking up the richness of the truth and beauty therein.

"Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (Proverbs 31:30).

"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12).

"Your beauty should not come from outward adornment. ... Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight" (1 Peter 3:3-4).

"Listen, my child, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching. They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck" (Proverbs 1:8-9).

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Gone Girl": Does this film say anything about life?

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike star in "Gone Girl."

Last weekend, my dear husband and I went to see the box office hit "Gone Girl."

The movie is based on the bestselling novel by author Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the film's screenplay. It's directed by David Fincher — who's responsible for "Fight Club" and, more recently, "The Social Network" and "House of Cards." The cast includes Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne and Rosamund Pike as his wife, Amy Dunne.

Nick gets called home from work one day by a neighbor who says the Dunnes' cat has escaped the house and is hanging out in the driveway. When Nick goes home, he discovers signs of a struggle, and his wife is nowhere to be found. A police investigation and media frenzy ensues, and we're given a tour of the Dunnes' formerly happy five-year marriage via Amy's journal entries read in voiceover.

Before watching the movie, I read a couple of reviews for my job that described it as a psycho-satire and suburban noir.

I think both of those descriptors are apt, the former because main character Nick is no Liam Neeson straight-man/hero, and the latter because this is not your typical tidy missing-wife drama. None of the characters are truly likable, not even the ones we root for.

All of that aside, there's one thing that's been sticking with me since my husband and I discussed the movie. 

He said that while he thought the story was gripping and engrossing, he didn't think it said anything about real life, and that's ultimately why he wouldn't give it five stars.

I've been thinking a lot about that. While I agree the psychotic plot twists don't come close to mirroring anything in our life, I think the film does comment on reality.

Marriage is a character in this movie, and so is the media. The protagonists are shaped and changed by both, just as we all are in reality.

Nick and Amy Dunne's relationship plays out in an extreme way, but it is an example of unchecked human dysfunction and psychoses. We can find similar examples in history or even in present-day reality.

I just hope I don't have to run into any of them. ;)

Share your perspective

If you've seen the movie — and please, no spoilers for those who haven't — I'd like to hear if it speaks to you about real life. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook page, Perception blogger.

Read more posts in the Fine Art Friday series here.