Tag Archives: Paris

In the Middle of the Art

This was unexpected.  I had arrived in Zurich the day before, with plans to spend two days roaming this city.  En route to a company leadership training in Germany, it was the first time in months that I had left my sandy home town.  I was greedy for some new scenery.

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Zurich at night

A dragon guarded the entrance to my first destination.  The castle-style Swiss National Museum was attended by a German-speaking curator, whose eyes surveyed visitors as if he knew that most would snap iPhone selfies and spend hours ogling his treasures, but have no idea of their real value.  After he had accepted the tribute of a ticket and allowed me to proceed, the heavy double doors opened slowly, automatically, to an enormous room, full of brightly lit display cases and dark red walls.

Prominently displayed in the center were four donkeys.  

An unexpressive Jesus sat stiffly on each one.  The figures seemed to be composed of simple wood and paint; their angles were unrealistic, ugly.

They were hauled through the streets in regular processions for celebrations, hundreds of years ago, a plaque informed me.  But why bother to save four that looked so similar?  And why give something that did not seem too valuable such an exhibition?  I did not understand.

An alarm sounded from somewhere in the room.  Another tourist and I eyed each other with the question, “Is this something we should take seriously?”

The Paris attacks had occurred less than twelve hours before.

The sound— perhaps a falsely triggered security or fire alarm— faded, and I thought again of the King on a donkey.  Of His peaceful entrance, subversively surprising a city in turbulence that was seeking a political savior.  Perhaps we did need all four to help us remember.

Later I visited an art museum, whose features included several moods of Van Gogh; a giant, disheveled Campbell’s Soup can from Warhol; a handful of powerful sculptures from Rodin, stylized Renaissance paintings of love and spirituality; and immense panels from Monet.

My sister and I always look for Monet when we explore— from our first art experience together at a little museum in Rhode Island, to the Met in New York, to the places we were privileged to see in Paris.  One in particular, the Musée de l’Orangerie, features waterlily paintings that cover entire walls; the viewer is encircled by them, immersed in their colors.  The story is that Monet donated this exhibit to the people of Paris, to help heal their souls after the terrible experience of World War I.

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Claude Monet, Seerosenteich mit Iris — Kuntshaus, Zurich

I remembered them as I sat alone before the massive irises and lilies in Zurich’s museum.  A few days later, an artist would host some of our meetings in South Germany’s Art Factory, an abandoned roof tile factory turned into a haven for travelers and artists.  “I have heard it said that ‘Art is God’s secret weapon…,’” she told me.  “It makes sense.  No one would suspect; when things are very dark, art brings hope, it heals, it shows beauty.”

Between museums, I visited Fraumunster Cathedral, with stained glass windows stunning in size and color.  They fell short, to me, of capturing the greatest moments in the story of Jesus.  But the riotous color reflected the infinitude and intimacy of the moments when Christ took on flesh, and awakened my heart to long for more than the representation… for the real.  Each piece of art I saw that day expressed longing, love, or lust from the artists; their disillusionment, depression, and desires to gain peace; their defiance or acceptance of their societies; their fears, pains, hopes, joys.  Maybe the reflection of what is real, and the stirring of longing for more, were the point.

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View of Fraumunster Cathedral in Zurich, from the tower of Grossmunster Cathedral

After I had admired the windows, I crossed the street to Grossmunster Cathedral.  I was expecting less there; I had been captured by the story of Katharina von Zimmern, Fraumunster’s last abbess, who knew both how to lead and how to let go of power in an era where few women were allowed to do the former, and few human beings knew how to do the latter.  Tourists milled around the Grossmunster sanctuary; sound technicians were setting up for a sacred music concert the next day.  I walked up the side and found a postcard, printed in five languages.  The words:

Almighty God,

unto whom all hearts be open,

all desires known,

and from whom no secrets are hid:

cleanse the thoughts of our hearts

by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,

that we may perfectly love thee,

and worthily magnify thy holy Name,

through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

—Book of Common Prayer

The front stage was marked, “Please no conversation here.  Listen to the silence.”

I sat and listened.  A Renaissance painting seen earlier had portrayed Jesus’ baptism with everyday life happening around Him, and against the backdrop of European mountains.  I chuckled at the inaccuracy at first, remembering the “real” wilderness of the baptism site.  Perhaps the artist did not know any better.

But it is more likely that he did, and still had in mind something deeper, more vivid and more real.  The holiest moments can take place right in the middle of life as it usually goes.

All the cathedrals, all the great works of art, they are not the keepers of silence, or beauty, or hope.

They are simply places that we can remember.

Thanksgiving week.  The Young Leaders girls learn how to bob for apples.  Their laughter echoes in our community center; their head scarves are soaked.  I take a break from mixing biscuits and mashing potatoes the next afternoon, as the sun is setting in stunning color, to go to visit the Young Leaders boys; the moon, stunning in size, is rising when I go home.

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Hand turkeys from Young Leaders– part of learning about Thanksgiving in the United States 🙂

The teachers bring their families later that night, an Arab/American Thanksgiving.  Our table is filled with all the traditional fixings, give or take (a two-day turkey search had ended with chicken; and someone brought FullSizeRenderhummus to go with our glazed carrots and green beans). Strong Arabic coffee and sweet tea
accompany homemade aple crisp, blackberry pie, and kanafeh, a local cheese and honey desert.  Someone starts to sing, first in Arabic, later in English; others share stories over dishes in the kitchen.

And my heart is full thanksgiving, from this cathedral, amidst the art.

 

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Beyond All Expectation

Skip school.  Don’t help with housework.  Return anger with a higher degree of rage.  Use coarse language.  Objectify.  Disrespect public property.

Expectations for local teenage boys, in many peoples’ minds, do not rise much higher than this.

And those who challenge expectations face consequences.  So when fifty teenagers piled into the community center, for the first day of our Young Leaders’ “Winter” Camp, their presence defied stereotypes.

They were not taking a break during school holidays, with their peers.  They were sitting shoulder to shoulder, cross-legged on carpet squares, listening carefully as the program director explained the week’s themes: Understand your identity.  Understand the truth.  Understand what it means to be a leader.

They watched clips from a speech by the highly-respected ruler of this nation; he called on youth to become authentic and clear-sighted leaders.  They listened to a story about an eagle who was raised as a chicken: born to ride the wind instead of scratch the soil, but limited by the assumptions she had internalized.  And throughout that hour, they seemed to forget that only a thin square of fabric separated them from the cold concrete floor.

They were locked in to every word that was said.

IMG_4105Two weeks ago, I sat along the beach, wondering what I was called to and searching for one word to lock in to for the next twelve months…. Something to shape my approach to work, friendships, family, faith, and everything else.  No big deal, right?

One word.  But as the sun was setting, I still had thousands of words tumbling in my mind.  Fragments of dreams, run-on sentences of determinations, each lofty but seemingly empty.  I had already tried hard, in the past year, to become all of those things.  I had landed far short of my goals.  Why should I expect my story to be different this year?

The students, when they finish their Winter Camp, will have heard writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDTalk The Danger of a Single Story.  She tells of growing up in middle-class Nigeria, on a university campus.  Later, in the United States, she discovered that many people had a single story of Africa: one of “senseless war,” poverty, and rampaging diseases.

When she– or her novels– did not fit into those categories, she faced others’ disappointment.

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Image from http://www.ted.com

She admits that, at times, she too has believed in “single stories.”  After seeing much Western media coverage on desperate immigrants from Mexico, who risked the breath in their bodies to achieve American soil, Adichie was shocked to travel south of the border and see contented souls, living out daily routines.

And, she says, she was ashamed.  She had bought into the media’s tale, as if it were the defining narrative for all Mexicans.  “That is how to create a single story,” she realized.  “Show a people as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

During the camp the Young Leaders will choose a way to express their condolences, to youth in a similar leadership program, in a city where 136 students and 13 adults recently lost their lives.  They know that many people around the world associate the majority faith here with violence, although they themselves are grieved and horrified by the events in Peshwar… and now also in Paris.  Adiche’s words resound in the context of these tragedies: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.”  

These teenagers face the single story of assumptions from outside their culture, expectations within their neighborhoods– and the limitations they put on themselves.  Will others’ opinions, or their own past failures, define their futures?  Will they internalize false presuppositions, like the story of the eagle who thought she was a chicken?

Or will they figure out who they really were made to be?

Stories soar in the context of relationships.  Sitting by the sea, searching for the right word, I saw that I had limited my hopes for 2015 to what – I – was capable of making happen.  Alone.

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Our words – from friends worldwide.

So I chose a word that is primarily relational.  It depends more on the Author of the story than on anyone else, and it feels like a risk.  If you gave me a word, and I gave you mine, know that I will remember you this year — we’re in this story together.  And if not, but you want in, comment with your word below :-).

Me.  You.  The teenagers in the leadership program .

Will we tell a second story?

New Day Beginning

Darkness hid the mountains as I stepped, for the first time, from the plane onto the tarmac in this new place.

I reached my city well after night had come, six months ago.  My first impressions were limited to what could be illuminated by orange streetlights and neon signs; an inky black covered the rest.

Stepping once again onto airport pavement, three weeks ago, I remembered that first hazy darkness. This time dusty outlines of mountains surrounded me and faded into the dusk.  I was picking up my sister for a week of life here: laughter and tears with Arab ladies at the community center, exploration of familiar and new places together, smiling acceptance of whatever food or drink was offered… She flowed with it all.IMG_1604

And then I was on another tarmac, mid-day.  My flight was shockingly un-delayed by the downpour that had drenched the morning, the rain that had saturated sidewalks and left behind a dull blue-gray sky.  My sister was heading home from our connecting city of Paris. I took a different direction; a group of professionals in similar work had been invited to gather on the coast of Spain.

I held little expectation, except to go to the beach during our free time… or during not-free time if needed.  I knew none of the other participants. I speak no Spanish (once I knew a little, but it is quite buried beneath Arabic for now).

I was unsure of what I would hear. But I came with a desire to listen.

Within an hour of arriving, I was at a local restaurant with a couple that does community development in London… soon after, meeting a young family that works in Afghanistan, English teachers from Africa, and business-developers who live in India.  I started hearing the many stories: smart ideas, failures, restoration, defeat, thefts, provision… Healed, in some cases.

Unhealed, other times.  Life.  Death.  Miracles.  Suffering.  Enduring.

And during our conference, eyes were feasted on seas, sunsets, and World Cup games.  Stomachs filled with good food, mouths with laughter.  Faces washed in tears as we heard some of the experiences.  Because as we came from around the world, many of us carried stories of broken bodies, broken relationships… companies… countries.

We also carried the knowledge of one who was with us. Every celebration. Every dark day.

Some friends and I had the chance to spend the night, last week, in the desert with the Bedouin. The stars– beyond all counting, beyond any descriptions– drew us flat on our backs in a half-circle, facing up. The darkest night displayed un-earthly glory, and all other nights have felt richer since I got that glimpse.

Two days ago, I was at another aiIMG_2184rport, this time to drop off dear friends who had been here to visit. They had taught me to cold brew coffee, hugged like they meant it, and reminded me of the most important things. The sun was rising as I drove home, warm bands of orange and pink that stretched over the desert horizon.

A heart filled up. A broadened view.

A new day.