solitude is an OK thing to need

The Atlantic did not have to be the one to tell me.

I did not, necessarily, need to read it from the pen of artists who have already ‘made it,’ but I suppose I believed it more easily. I was quick to let the words resonate – to make my solitude-seeking legitimate and unselfish and regular. Maybe it was just that title, “What Great Artists Need: Solitude” that made me first click through to the lengthy article. I want to be a great artist someday (everyday) and I will gladly take all pieces of free, expert advice.

And so Dorthe Nors tells me she learned about needing solitude from the creative genius of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. In addition to having a very interesting name, Bergman is known for directing somewhere around sixty films and documentaries. But Nors points to his writing in The Atlantic article.

All of it resonated, but some little bits are still haunting me almost two weeks later. Because I do battle with solitude. Every time I plan a party or agree to a coffee date there are moments (and sometimes many) when I want to cancel. I want to turn inside myself because it is easier and because I’m out of energy and because there is no way I can attempt all the creative things on my to-do list if I am never alone. Let’s be honest – forget creative… I won’t get to the practical things either like cleaning out the fridge or fixing our bathroom door so it closes or worrying about the baby mouse I have seen scurry across our kitchen floor twice.

Alone time is good to get things like your kitchen and your bathroom and your soul in order. Solitude should not always get the leftovers because many times it is where we do serious business with the demons in our lives. Nors writes,

“Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.

It takes the courage to be there. You run into your own pettiness. Your own cowardice. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you’ve experienced in your life become the writing that you do. And there’s no easy way to get to it, if you want to write literary fiction.

And that’s what Bergman and other Swedish writers have taught me—to stay in that painful zone, discipline myself through it to get where I want.”

This is what Swedish authors are teaching Nors and what Nors is teaching me. It does take courage to be alone – and not just for the baby mouse that needs to be caught in my kitchen. I am a petty person and cowardly and all kinds of ugly. If I’m never alone, I never really feel the weight of those things I am. Nors talks about something Bergman wrote in one of his journals, compiled in a book called Images,

“Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.”

It’s not even about creating the kind of literary fiction that will be remembered like Bergman and Nors. It’s about having the imprint of eternity on our souls… and knowing that the eternal imprint is never contained by a body or inside a day.

It’s a too much feeling that not all the words in all the world could explain. But it is a tension that doesn’t need explanation as much as it needs space.

Rest. Tension. Time. Space. Struggle.

All this, my solitude-seeking, could also be related to my search for Sabbath rest. Artist or not, we all need that.

It was a jumble of reasons that landed me in the middle of reflections on solitude and Sabbath as I read the lessons Dorthe Nors learned from Ingmar Bergman. But, I guess I get it. It is good to be with people, but it is good to be alone – to fight against the too much pushing free of my chest. It is good to do battle with the space between my silent face and an empty ceiling. It is good to sit with the painful, weighty bits of humanity inside that remind me I am weak and poor and ill-equipped for everything I try.

It is good to make space enough for a full swing of the only sword fashioned to win against such a mighty weight, such a mighty too much.

to be a better thinker / Q & A

My cousin Vince started the email with “Carolina!”

He wanted to ask a few questions for a project he is doing at Baylor. Questions are kind of my jam, and for this guy I’d do about anything. He is a really amazing picture of what it looks like to battle in the trenches of the faith while serving the people around him. Every time we talk, I learn more about how I can better live out my faith.

Here is the little Q and A.

Why did you first start blogging?
I attended a conference called Faith and International Development at Calvin College while a junior at the rival liberal arts school Hope College in Holland, Michigan. At the conference, many of the things that had been bubbling up in my spirit collided and I needed an outlet. At the time (ahem, 2006), blogs were the newest and coolest way to give life to creative expression. Although I didn’t consider myself new or cool, the feeling of pushing publish was especially satisfying creatively and I’ve been doing it ever since.

What is the hardest thing about maintaining a blog?
Writing.

I never pretended that my blog was going to be about pictures or quotes or anything especially clever. Well, maybe I considered all of those for a hot second, but I never felt as much pleasure doing anything other than just writing.

I write because I love to write in a Eric Liddell kind of way – in the way that I feel God’s pleasure when I do it. But, writing is also the hardest thing about maintaining a blog. It means writing when you don’t feel like it and writing when you think you have nothing to say. It means starting a sentence when you think it sounds stupid. It means thinking of writing ideas when you are at the park and starting a blog while you are getting your hair cut or while you are riding the subway or while you are putting in your 9-5.

Writing is also the hardest because it is easy to be scared. I am afraid of what I write being less than good – that it will not be as interesting or as alive as it feels when it comes out of my fingertips. Sometimes that keeps me from writing. And if I don’t write, I don’t have a blog.

Would you say that blogging provides an outlet for you to express your thoughts and emotions? How?
Yes, I would say that exactly.

Sometimes, I think blogging pulls out of me what I didn’t know was inside. There are times when I stop myself in mid-conversation because I know the words will sound garbled until I’ve blogged them out first. It’s like therapy, I guess. But it’s also like exercise. It’s exercise for my creative spirit and my soul because I can stretch muscles in my imagination and in my intellect that don’t get used anywhere else in my life.

It’s like a playground where I my mind can run around, climb jungle gyms and swing off monkey bars. It can be (and is probably too often) an escape where I go to sort out the tensions in my heart.

Why do you continue to write your blog?
I suppose I continue to write my blog because it has become an inextricable part of my processing. The way I see the world and the way I engage with the world has a whole lot to do with the way I write the world. When I’ve thought something through and let it run out of my fingertips, I know it better… more fully. I know my weaknesses better and my fears and my vulnerabilities. I know my dreams and desires better. I know where I’ve let curiosity live and where I’ve let wonder roam, but I also know where I’ve hid light under a bushel and closed the doors on joy.

Maybe I don’t know any of these things better because I blog, but it sure feels like I do. And that’s why I keep blogging.

My mom called me from Iowa recently. She said, “Honey, I’m glad you finally blogged again.” I was kind of surprised to hear that she knew I was in desperate need of some blog time. “Mom, how’d you know?” Maybe in my cross country move or my new job and new relationship the need is more obvious than I realize. But, not everyone assumes a person needs to blog. “Well, I just know that sometimes you need to blog in order to think,” she told me.

Maybe that’s really why I write my blog – because it makes me a better thinker.

*If you want to know more (and feel better about how often/not often you are awkward in social situations) check out this post on my very gauche life.

gauche

shaken and stirred

Kris Orlowski is not in the indie/folk Nashville crowd I usually electronically network to mine for new melodies, but maybe that’s why I’m hooked to his arrangements.

They are not simple – they didn’t just accidentally happen in someone’s garage (nothing against spontaneously inspired music in the middle of the night after friends reunite). These notes are artfully placed – pulled by strings and strums and voices and drums.

Maybe I’m just in that kind of place where music has more sway, maybe I am vulnerable to greater affection. Maybe. But maybe we are designed for such affections to stir us awake. Maybe we are far too easily pleased with the aesthetic menu of the top 40.

I think it’s more than maybe.

I know, not everyone feels a shift in his or her soul at the same sound, it would be silly to expect such a thing in a world with so many glorious differences. But, I do think we were created with a soul that senses beauty and greatness and … well, the fingerprints of the Creator in this created world.

When we have those moments of sight or sound or touch, I think our soul is shaken out of the far too easily pleased rut to desire more of the best the Creator offers. The beauty and earthly glory in music is a signpost that awakens my heart and points to what is most beautiful. Lesser things start to sound flat and dull and pale.

My musical preferences may not be for everyone, but I do believe God is inviting my soul into wakefulness to appreciate what He has made beautiful when the world settles for far lesser things.

This past weekend, I heard the acoustic version of this new song by Leeland and the story of how the song came about. The original words were penned by Lawrence Tribble in the 1700s after he was inspired by the famous preacher George Whitefield (more here) who preached revival during America’s Great Awakening with Jonathan Edwards.

Are we ready to be awake again?

Here are some of my new favorites, shaking my soul from its “too easily pleased” stupor.

Kris Orlowski – All My People
Myles O’Mainnian – Incandescently Happy
Cody Fry – Underground
Sea Wolf – Old Friend

What music shakes YOUR soul into wakefulness?

turning up the stones of my own discontent

Today feels like all my hidden sorrows have huddled to make aching war on my lower back. It’s just one of those days where the question, “Oh, how long?” seems to be the only appropriate thing to say, followed by a decided and desperate, “You won’t let me go.”

Isn’t it strange how you start to think the world is falling apart when your body aches / your brother will have face surgery / national politics looks to spin out of control / there might not be enough food this winter for the breadbasket / you’re still trying to figure out how to let love fly like crazy / the song in your soul sounds a little sickly?

No, I guess I don’t think that’s strange at all. Maybe the world is falling apart.

I better start singing this line, “You, You won’t let me go.” And then I better sing it again.

art is dead. your death killed it.

I was talking to one of my very talented, very artistic friends recently and he made this strong suggestion:

“Art is dead.”

At first, it didn’t sit very well. The period at the end is so… so defeating. If this statement stirs up a response, even indignation inside you like it did me, then I wonder why. Why are you offended by this idea that art and creativity have died a painful death?

I’m offended because I want to believe it’s not so. Somewhere deep down, beneath the indigestion and tortillas, somewhere in that “gut” region people refer to when talking about instincts, I refuse. Something in me revolts at the finality – there is no room for explanation. Just a period and that’s it.

It’s like falling off the monkey bars on the playground and landing flat on my back. I’m laying there, with the wind knocked out of me, unsteady and unsure of what just happened.

After I caught my breath, I realized I agree with him. Nearly everything “creative” these days is a well-dressed marketing ploy to respond to our basest desires. With all our technology and supposed intellectual advancement, we tread the very same trail to bark up the very same tree, whose roots reach only as deep as our most carnal desires.

Instead of searching for music or entertainment that makes us think and question and understand life, we look for a spoonful of sugar so that (what we pass for) art goes down easy. We don’t want art to challenge us or move us or convict us because… well, that doesn’t feel good. We want to take in a movie like we take in the uber-buttered, theatre popcorn… without thinking. We want to walk out with our heads bobbing, digesting the plate full of artistic pudding without questioning the grumblings in our bellies for something of more substance.

The second part of my friend’s thought took a step closer to my offended spirit. He suggested I’m to blame. Art is dead and my death killed it. I again had to shake the shock of such a suggestion, but again arrived at a convicted conclusion. I agree.

How can something dead make something living? How can an unconscious potter work with clay? How can life come from death? We re-work the same ideas, plots, notes, melodies, story lines centered around sex, money, jealousy, and greed. Then we pronounce it “version 2.0” and, with some clever advertising, have people believing they are consuming something that has “never before been seen.” I almost apologized just now for being so cynical, but I held back because it wouldn’t be genuine.

The Original Creator took great care in designing the smallest details, from the juice pockets in oranges to the strange mating habits of penguins. Creation is so complicated that we will never, ever exhaust its intricacies. If we let ourselves marvel, we will never be bored and the subject will never be dull. Never.

How does God accomplish this? How does He keep our attention?

He lives.

This is certainly not the end of my musings on this subject, but please chime in with your thoughts!

Also, I read this article over at The Gospel Coalition and I really appreciate the views on creativity, the arts, and the church.