Monday, 19 November 2012

Ten Minute Vacations

Morning Stillness

If only there were ten minutes of peace, undistracted!

Just a momentary sensation...brook’s tumbling waters...warbler’s wonder of song...a restful interlude.

For most of us, urban reality consists of the tailgating barrage of the freeway wars. The only thing resembling a birdsong we experience is being ‘flipped by the bird’ as we choose, even in the slow lane, to leave a car length or two between us the next driver. The entire globe is on a twenty-four hour cycle of constant pandemonium...or...hmmm, maybe it’s just my age!

Some of my adult life and career has been taken up in the madness of the advertising and promotion business. For years I was involved in working with national advertising organizations as an account executive, art director and designer, preparing creative conceptual ideas that would impact sales initiatives or improve brand recognition.

Even before wireless technology, bringing humankind the apparent need to be linked with an all consuming transparent umbilical connection cord, I felt the constant barrage of the ‘tyranny of the urgent,’ with unrealistic, incessant deadlines. Monday mornings were spent in boardrooms laced with curtains, smoke dense blue and constant salvos of X-rated profanity! Bosses pushed incessant...‘What have you done for me lately?’ The television show ‘Mad Men’ set in the sixties, brings me a stark reminder of that reality. At cocktail receptions I was scrutinized and confronted by my superiors as to exactly what I was drinking and or not, as the codependency of what the client interpreted was always seen as preeminent. The insipid, shallow waters of that country club atmosphere and old boys network reigned supreme! 

Sunday afternoons were often spent fielding calls around the country from Oakland to Orlando. Seven days were never enough! Tsunami’s constant roar of the urgent, left a trail of flotsam’s barrage as I was beached, twisted and empty! How does one escape the constance of this tyranny? Obligation to keep house and home together seemed of ultimate import, but at what cost to soul and sanity?

Today the era has changed and so also, the devices linking us to personal enslavement. My tendency to interminable device checking, thumb tapping, tunnel vision aloneness, has led to feelings of even greater urgency and anxiety. I can quickly become enslaved to the unseen, 365 chained days a year!  ‘Vacation’ without connectivity may be grounds for dismissal.

Inter ‘personal’ social interaction is negated, as we sit texting into the cyber night avoiding the audible at all cost. Eye contact is given wide berth. Our breath may brush the other opposite but our thoughts drift as far as ships in the night.

There are always two sides to any coin. The wonders of new technology bring us digital pairing and the potential for ‘a level’ of more constant relationship. It also brings the possibility of invisible leg irons of never ending slavery to unseen masters or our natural proclivity of hiding while in plain view.

Now please...don’t ‘delete me’ as someone who isn’t ‘today’ in his thinking. Not only do I understand that new technology and its digital connectedness has brought wonderful new access to community and information, I too have come to embrace it wholeheartedly. So bear with me a minute! 

I’m merely suggesting there should be much more to our life experience than digitized images, hugs, kisses and key stroke smiles! 

We should also reengage life with skin on!

One way I found a little respite during those crazy days and nights in the advertising game was invoking the habit of creating ten-minute vacations. 

Regular vacations in and of themselves were made up of having to let my boss know exactly the phone number where I could be reached at any given moment, resulting in constant interruption. I felt something like my attempted right brain train of thought was constantly invaded and assaulted by the sledgehammer of my left brained bosses demanding agenda. The consequent chaos worked itself out into a tightly coiled stomach, panic attacks in the ER and ill tempered reactions toward or distraction from my family and friends and our much needed rest and reconnection.

Rather than the rest potentially derived from getting ‘unplugged,’ enslavement encircled and wrapped it’s cord of urgency around my throat of peace and potential tranquility. The world of bash, dash, swallow and gulp engulfed my life rather than a slow rumination on God and the exquisite gifts of the senses He had endowed life with! 

Do I really taste this food called life, or just swallow madly in cold numbness?

To alleviate some of this mad cacophony, I came to create a little habit of ‘dropping out’ and finding places of secluded peace, quiet and meditation for a few brief moments throughout my day. Not in the sense of the drug crazed sixties either! Over years of rushing about the city, I searched for and discovered several ‘oasis’ that could be accessed quickly from several freeways, taking me instantly out of the demanding clamor to the sweet sight of a cardinals winter red flash or the thrush singing spring!

Sound is not the equivalent of noise. 

A small pebble breaking the glasslike threshold of a serene pond or northern lake at dawn is a sound that brings a smile to my face and peace to my soul. The haunting call of the wild loon brings invitation to wonder! The first spring sighting of a robin or the raucous call of the red winged blackbird returning to the north bring with them a sense of hope and confidence that warmth is near at hand.

A quiet spring rain playing taps on the stretched blanket of last years autumn maple leaves is an entrance to rejuvenation. The deluge of a downpour and crack of thunder reverberating across the tin roof of a cottage brings a sense of security and deep well being. The thunderclap itself reminds me of my relative size to the grandeur and power of the natural world just beyond.

On and on I could rehearse with myriad examples of how God has given a complete battery of senses to point out my need for stillness and quiet contemplation. Too often I neglect so great a gift by ignoring the depth of my senses and emotional responses.

Without coming aside and momentarily still, I never hear the myriad sounds found in a local marsh at spring or the roar of a torrent cascading over the rock foundation of a mountain stream.

A Thundering Peace

Privileged in growing up on Canada’s west coast and the great rolling plains just east of the mighty Canadian Rockies, it is of benefit for me to cast my mind back and reflect on the sounds and sights of wild experiences I had wandering this untamed country as a boy.

Faced now with living in a giant megalopolis, I’m challenged with the tendency ‘to fall apart’ through a life of imbalance rather than making the choice toward reflection, stillness and places of peace and refreshment. It has been well said that, ‘if you don’t come apart, you will literally come apart.’

Complete absorption in the act of pushing paint around a canvas in artistic endeavor or being lost in richly layered classical, jazz, rock or blues performances brings delight and delivers me to another zone, until...that shrill interruption of an unwanted ringtone tempts me to start throwing things. 

The position of being tied to the attempt of constantly trying to please others and finding personal peace of mind and soul belie my constant struggle.

Scripture and personal relationship with life’s author should be the basis for a life of balance. Clearly my Father wants me to choose to be stock-still some of my allotted twenty-four. He has shown in the metaphor of nature’s call, that it is in coming aside that I can be guided toward Him. In stillness I can hear the quiet nonintrusive voice of His Spirit lead me to consider finding intimacy with Him. Once he has me in the place of stillness, I have a chance of pondering what he is saying to me.

David suggests...
‘Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; 
let me know how fleeting is my life. 
You have made my days a mere handbreadth; 
the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.
Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: 
He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.
But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.”
Psalm 39:4-7 NIV

The Jesus later on...
And He said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while." For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.
Mark 6:31

The challenge that has overwhelmed me often throughout my life is my tendency to ignore my own advice. Too often I forget the wonder of balance offered as I grab the bit between my teeth and try to run life myself. The results are often disastrous and debilitating.

Balance of course can be misconstrued too!

The idea that it is an act of keeping exactly on the trail sounds a lot like legalistic mumbo jumbo, keeping us in a life of complete constriction. Balance, at least in this context is coming apart from the daily grind to seek a little rest for one’s soul by choosing a moments quietude or exploration with expectation...outside the box of others constriction!

Watching television, texting friends, listening to your favorite MP3 file or a myriad of other valuable activities have there place. I enjoy these diversions as much as the next person. 

The issue becomes a problem for me, when any of these ‘good activities’ becomes an excuse for complete disconnect with my Father who wants to bring me to the place of quiet listening and quick obedience to the soft strains of His voice and have me look deep into the eternity of his eyes as he attempts to let me know he is waiting and wanting some personal connection with me!

Copyright: J. Douglas Thompson 2012, SDG.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Autumn Gratitude...Beside Still Waters

Sun washed early morn –
Dampened grasses dew bent low –
In heavy mornings weight –
Diamonds...liquid clings exquisite to branches pine–
Micro mirrors dazzle...wonder reflected –
Trails hidden...but, to a few –
Ribbons green run just off planks of tarmac black –

Simultaneously –

Mad rushes after mad, passing, crazy, north –
Metal nostrils buried into tails like steeds in heat, seeing naught at all–

Aside...come just aside it calls –
Trails, coniferous green...miles of sequestered forest...for taking free–
Stroll into quiet depths...broken solely –
With high hat play of distant woodpecker warmups –
Silence screams like pharmaceutical withdrawal –
Calling loud for addictive distraction...fill this gaping void –

Blue diaphanous mists breeze sensuous cross sunburned neck –
Cool translucent kisses caress a wet and furrowed brow – passing flowers, melt with wisps of smile –
Mockingly here...and gone –
Dissipated memory.

Through back lit forest floor...regal grouse, she struts her stuff –
Shouting literary memory –
I’m OK?...and pharisaically clucks off –

I turn, an old familiar left –
Trail burned memory like synapse routes forged deep and long –
Decades of burnt out long neglect –

Come to waters edge the Master calls –
Tears of recall –
Just up and to the right –
The place we used to sit, chat, plan and ponder –
Yes, and...hope –
Small tranquil pool...known only to pintail, stag, the doe...and me.

It is here –
I used to come...lost alone in silence long – 
Worshipful...with gratitude for all bestowed –


The long lamentation years –
The dark –
The cracked and dry...the loss with desert heat –
Lips split, and spitting blood –
Throat parched gravel...angry wandering –
Black holes and endless numb through fogs of grey –

Ah –

Cups with water cool –
Refreshment proffered –
Small band of caring few –
Reaching out, obedient touch –
In Jesus’ name...

Hints of restoration...and then again –
Periods long with silence scream –
Freedoms distance on the move –
A shimmering mirage?
Too good to be called true?


In kind pursuit He called again –
In providence He brings to view –
The pawn moved there –
The rook afar –
He brought them close –
Then pushed away –
The bishop, knight and queen –
And each...He used to Him direct –
The King –
Of undisputed love –


Yes, a sign of freedoms ring –
It does exist –
Yet deeply laid ‘neath layered sludge –
In crevice, broken...shriveled soul...with filters clogged –
Shalom resides...and moves toward the light –


Words of rescue –
Again resound –
Short notes of sacrificial love are read –
Streams found in crusted desert space –
The springs begin to gurgle forth –
Return in slow –
Shoots of green with purpose raise –
Visage shy while mists of blue dissolve –
With hopeful rays as affirmations touch are brought.

He waits...and yes, initiates...from others wounded hands and feet –
Ready to attend and serve...and more...embrace –
To fill the void that never filled –
With drops of hope and streams of grace –
For me –
For you –
A very present help in times of long and stumbling trouble –
Gratitude resumed.

Soli Deo Gloria
J. Douglas Thompson...SDG
Copyright 2012

Sunday, 16 September 2012

An Artist Looks at Habits...on keeping on, keeping on!

Habits for the artist, just as in any of life’s other endeavors are pathways toward satisfaction, wonder and freedom or a debacle of dysfunction and chaos. They are in effect the development or changes to synaptic routing's, initiating potential actions with either positive or negative results. They are repetitive choices to think and act either in ways that uplift toward character building or black ice decisions that send us slipping toward destructive action, inaction and meaninglessness. 

The habit itself isn’t aware and doesn’t ‘give a rip’ whether it will bring productivity, be ultimately helpful, or tear down and become destructive. All it wants is to maintain its own superiority and autonomy. Habits could also be described as either an unengaged drifting down stream or the fight to conquer higher ground and new territory. 

As a young boy I had opportunity to wander in the coastal mountains of British Colombia. During spawning season, streams run blood red filled with brilliant mighty Salmon, facing the reality that their days are short.

Intuitively they recognize that the baton must be passed, that the arc of their lives is setting momentarily in the West. They stop at nothing to arrive upstream at that place of inception to leave their mark of reproduction. Pushing themselves hurdle over hurdle, they work out the best way to succeed in their effort to give another generation a chance at life and success. Nothing close to a bed of ease marks their last ‘retirement’ year, but rather an unselfish instinct to leave a legacy by making their kingdom grow and flourish as they end their life’s journey. To them the process is innate. 

To change habits of any kind there is always an ‘aha moment’ and then a choice to modify and become, to turn 180 degrees and go the opposite direction. To ‘repent’ if you will. At that stage, the decision is but a remotely possible resolution. Habits of value become fulfillment when chosen repeatedly despite the challenges of pain and discouragement. They are the very personal, lonely and difficult exercise of continually fighting upstream against the crowd, cultural norms or toward deeply embedded lost longings.

The act of making art is an exercise of repetitive habit making. By continuing this uphill journey I hold out hope that in some way the activity will bring some value to others. Whatever medium I choose to use, or subject I am inspired to represent through the process, it brings to me the creator, a mental stimuli. It could be a sense of romance, well being, or possibly its opposite, feelings of despair.

I have overheard superficial ‘romantic’ conversation regarding the act of making art and its subsequent perceived rewards. Often simultaneously, the same people who comment or consider it an activity of enjoyment, relaxation or hobby making, also consider it an easy route to fame and fortune. Just a few weekend seminars and we’ll ‘make it!’ That, to be sure, is the only way to get your 15 minutes of very local success, if that!

It never seems to cross their minds the idea of literal years of lonely, frustrating journeying in a consistent direction. The reality is that it is an odyssey full of pitfalls, disappointment, extended stress-filled nights and years and years of rejection upon rejection. 

It is here one might introduce a deeper question as to the ‘why’ of developing habits of excellence that lead upward toward goodness versus those that don’t. If there exists no ultimate moral compass, then why would we strive to be intentionally upright? If there were no ultimate purpose to life, and we are merely DNA dancing on the head of a pin, then why wouldn’t we let our lives and our art slide to the lowest common denominator in a mad rush toward depravity, fulfilling our basest hedonistic instincts just to please the high priests of the cultural elite? In that sphere of the art world, Christ hanging on the cross encased in a glass of urine or rotting cow flesh draped on a wire human figure, is applauded as the ultimate in creative endeavor and funded through the national councils for the arts. Anything that draws us to consider beauty and dignity, let alone the source of creativity is denigrated and mocked, let alone funded!

All human endeavor of value is about struggle with the implementation of either positive or negative habits. ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’ as stated by Eugene Peterson gives us the idea. As in any undertaking, creating art of value doesn’t allow for short cuts. To be successful I must learn to ‘see.’ To ‘see’ I must develop the disciplined habits of sensitive observation and contemplation. To achieve this, the idea of pondering, meditation, solitude, and quietness need to become part of my habitual life. Over time my eye becomes trained to ‘see’ and begins to pick out negative shapes, values, graduation of tone, warm versus cool color relationships, lost and found edges and a thousand other observations and possibilities.

Having seen, I then must apply what has been observed as an impression onto whatever substrate I’m working with. In painting, as in any structure with lasting value, a foundation must be established. The acts of painting directly or indirectly, glazing, reworking, subtracting and adding are part of the process. There are no quick fixes. 

I need to interpret. Interpretation requires specific tools. Tools like habits are inanimate objects. They lie there, not caring whether they will have value or not until they are picked up and integrated. A mark in and of its self doesn’t allow me to interpret. The act of habitual ‘mark making’ finally reveals uniqueness and style, something recognized from afar as unique and different and having value. It is in this unique language that finally one is ready to make a statement. These habits require time, discipline and a warring against the easy route. They require saying no to the good in exchange for the chosen best. They require the artist to take control and have the last word.

The clay says regularly to the potter that its preference is not to become a pot, and fights back. The artist/potter must invoke habits of mastery over the tools and materials required. It is interesting to note however that the potter gets intimately involved with the clay...right up to his elbows caked deeply in the mud, willingly involved in the mess. He expects the pot to fight back, reflecting relationship and not the numbness of the automaton. The wrestle includes him using his providential will as he intentionally places the pot into a fierce crucible of intensity to be hardened for endurance. This may happen on more than one occasion as he beautifies the piece, layer by layer, ultimately making something that even centuries later can be still of great value and beauty. 

The act of picking up a marking device and making a mark sets me off on the marathon. A series of marks made regularly with consistent repetitiveness brings the beginnings of something subconsciously habitual. Years of mark making bring me a little closer to the idea of the pain threshold the runner often experiences...that of breaking through to that second wind where I can fly and compete. This is the ongoing discipline of back breaking repetitive and yet fulfilling lonely endeavor. No one else can make the marks for me. No one else can live our life for us. One must have the courage to make ones own marks. Habits in the arts whether writing, sculpting, haute cuisine or music making all have the same foundation. To consummate excellence is to have achieved the disciplined habits that are chosen and developed through the deep waters of secluded adversity, instead of being easily discarded.

The relationship of this metaphor to the Christian life is of course a similar process. The beginning of that journey is one of infantile ineptitude. Being born only gives us the ability to recognize we are needy. We begin this life by responding to our reflex action of taking what someone else provides, expelling and then complaining when our next request is not immediately responded to.

Growth occurs when tools that bring us toward maturity are presented and acted on as options. Slowly, very slowly, these options are recognized as having value and can become habitual activity.

Almost immediately we understand that we are hardwired to accept the route of least resistance. We seem programmed to aim at the lowest common denominator. Only with regular contribution from some outside source, can we begin to recognize that there may be value in growth, community and maturity. If allowed, others can come alongside, giving us tools and insights that can become positive helpful habits, which can in turn become the venue for value to others. 

Serving and enhancing another’s life is really ultimately what the making of art is about. As a Christian artist, my first objective is to bring honor to my King, through making art as an act of personal worship. To bring a sense of awareness of what others may miss while passing same the scene is what I hope to achieve as they involve themselves in what my mind and hands attempt to interpret.

Just as in mark making, believers in Christ must be engaged in habit forming, simple repetitive processes, failing often, and yet being encouraged and encouraging others to start over and over if we are to make a mature mark of significance on others.

I’ve noticed that although artists often work alone, they are for the most part, when asked, generous in opening the doors of their knowledge and insights to others, whereby those recipients in turn come to learn, achieve and give away. Often they long to share their time and knowledge with a small group of like minded journeyers. It’s called fellowship. We as fellow strugglers, some, further down the path in our Christian journey, need to be generous in supplying those coming behind or alongside, a few helpful avenues and habits that have been learned by encouraging them to get up again, keep on going and renew the challenge to keep on trying, repeatedly.

Ultimately, it is up to me, an individual traveler, to see and accept the directions and secrets that bring success, implement them into my own palette of regular positive habits, if my life is going to end up anything more than just a series of disparate marks or if it will to become a work of value or even a small masterpiece.

“But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.” Jeremiah 18:4 NIV

“But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” Romans 9:20-21 NIV

“You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!
Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it,“You did not make me”? Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?” Isaiah 29:16 NIV

Lakeland Mist 40" X 60" Acrylic on Canvas

Copyright: J. Douglas Thompson 2011