faith&foolishness

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Posts Tagged ‘community’

Passing the Mantle

Posted by Sarah Jane on January 9, 2010

We are a culture that embraces youth. Our grandmothers wear sexy lingerie, our church elders play Twister with the junior-high youth group, and our retirees learn to snowboard or play the electric guitar. There’s no age at which people are required to stop being desirable, playful, adventurous, or cool — and that’s good.

In our boundless fascination with youth, though, I worry that we have forgotten how much we need our elders to be elders, too. And maybe we have forgotten what a burden that role can be. It must be scary to offer a lifetime’s worth of experience and observations to a younger generation who may not appreciate or embrace what you have to give. My parents’ generation once rallied to a cry of “Never trust anyone over 30!” — will they now be willing to embrace the role of elders, to share their stories and their wisdom? Perhaps it’s especially hard to take up this mantle if you live in a culture that puts youth on a pedestal and goes to incredible lengths to avoid any sign of aging.

But we need elders. We twenty-somethings need someone to tell us all the stories of our families and communities — the stories that explain where our values come from, and how things came to be the way they are, and what we have learned along the way. We need someone to reassure us that our world really can change and sometimes drastically — that Hitler and segregation and the Berlin Wall were real, and that they were brought down by real people, too. We need someone to listen to our fears and concerns, and help us to think about them within the context of a world where wars and unemployment and health care and political struggles and religious questions are nothing new.

So this isn’t just a plea to my parents’ generation to take up the mantle; to carry it wisely and well. It’s also a plea to my own generation to cherish our elders, and listen carefully to their wisdom, and celebrate the riches they have to share with us. One day we will be the ones to pass that wealth along.

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Nobody goes hungry in my kitchen!

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 12, 2009

“Nobody goes hungry in my kitchen!” Those are the words of my mother-in-law, who practices generosity and hospitality with something akin to religious fervor. Long before he ever considered a culinary degree, my husband understood the importance of making sure everyone had  a place and felt welcomed.

And so it has troubled him that a co-worker, a Pakistani Muslim, was unable to eat at many of the company events because none of the food was halal. For a recent holiday potluck, he decided to remedy this situation by making a dish especially for his friend. And so it was that I came home to find my blond-haired Baptist husband, armed with some internet research and a bit of advice from the manager of the halal market, up to his elbows in lamb jalfarazi.

It was a success. The co-worker was deeply touched that someone had put forth that effort to make sure he would be able to eat, and gave high compliments to my husband’s Pakistani cooking. But the gesture was confusing to many of their office mates, who found my husband’s actions strange and incomprehensible. They couldn’t understand why he would go out of his way to accommodate someone else’s eating requirements like that.

That troubles me. Hospitality is about a fundamental respect for other human beings. It’s not exactly optional.

Neither does it require that we understand or agree with everything that someone else believes, but only that we respect her enough to learn what we can do to make her feel welcome. And it doesn’t require that we get everything right on the first attempt. It isn’t our perfection that makes people feel wanted and welcomed, but the fact that we notice, and care, and try.

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Nurturing Creativity, part 2

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 1, 2009

A performance, a reading, an exhibit; all artists need to have their creative work showcased and celebrated in a public setting. The creative process is largely a private one, but it depends on the response of an audience — the acknowledgment that this work is important and meaningful to the broader community. One of the most effective ways to affirm and validate our artists is to provide opportunities for their work to be experienced by others.

In working with lots of young artists, one thing I’ve observed is that there are relatively few informal venues for displaying artwork or hosting performances — venues available to artists who don’t yet have (or perhaps aren’t seeking) formal gallery spaces, theatres, or concert halls to showcase their work. It’s a role that’s sometimes partially filled by coffee shops. But the need is greater than that, and can be filled by a broad array of organizations; a church can host an evening of recitals by community musicians, a library can sponsor a poetry reading or show an independent film, and a doctor’s office can feature an exhibit of local artwork.

I’m a big fan of such unconventional venues for art events. The artist is able to share his or her talents with a broader audience — not just personal friends and family, but also a variety of strangers who frequent the venue already — and benefits from the encouragement and validation of that experience. In addition to being enriched by the creative offerings, the venue welcomes in a crowd of newcomers and is able to better serve and connect with the whole of the community.

But this is when things get really serendipitous. When art moves out of the gallery and the opera house, and into the spaces where people live and work and spend their time, it reaches a much wider audience — an audience of people who might never have gone out of their way to listen to poetry or look at a painting. They may never have had a meaningful experience with theatre before, or they may feel unwelcome in a posh concert hall. But art doesn’t belong to the elite; it’s a fundamental part of what makes us human. And so I believe (and my experiences back this up) that these people, too, may be moved and transformed by an encounter with creative work.

And finally, at the end of the cycle, it begins again. There is nothing to spark creative thought like coming into contact with artists and with the fruits of their creative labor. If we want to inspire future creativity, one of the best ways to do so is to showcase and celebrate the creativity we already have.

*** The kinds of arrangements I’m describing here could be initiated by the organization wanting to host the event — but they could just as easily be proposed by the quilters or cellists or poets seeking a venue for their work. Either way, I recommend creating a written agreement in advance of the event, which can prevent miscommunication and protect both parties.

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Nurturing Creativity, part 1

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 30, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently that it’s not enough for a community simply to acknowledge and embrace the diverse gifts brought by its various members — that the community also has an obligation to seek out and discover the as-yet-unknown gifts of its various members, and then to intentionally create opportunities for those gifts to be shared and celebrated.

We already know how to do this; we do it all the time with our children and teenagers — encouraging them to try music, athletics, church groups, etc. until they find something they enjoy and want to pursue. And we work hard to celebrate the results: watching their concerts and ball games, listening to them sing in church, showing off their artwork on the refrigerator. We put forth a lot of effort figuring out ways to nurture and support their budding talents, and our kids reap the benefits as both their abilities and their confidence soar.

And yet, once those children and teenagers turn into thirty-somethings or fifty-somethings, that encouragement evaporates. You want to run a triathlon, design clothing, or write a children’s book? We listen politely but without enthusiasm, and then carelessly dismiss these budding passions — what interesting hobbies! it’s great you’re enjoying them so much. And so we reduce a neighbor’s beautiful hand-made quilt to a mere diversion, and a friend’s excellent home-brewed beer to an idling pastime.

We fail to recognize that the whole community is enriched by this outpouring of creativity — that the trifling hobbies we casually dismiss are producing a wealth of good things that benefit all of us. As a result, we do not honor them as we should. We do not encourage our neighbors to pursue their creativity with passion and focus. We do not actively seek out and create opportunities for their talents to be showcased, appreciated, celebrated. And so our gloriously creative artists and gardeners and cheese-makers slowly come to believe that their talents are no more than selfish diversions — and all too often lay them aside in favor of more “practical” service to their families and communities.

We are all poorer as a result.

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Members Together: Thoughts on Living in Community

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 19, 2009

I spent a good chunk of yesterday planning my next artwork — an interactive piece that will debut in January’s faculty exhibit. The theme of this year’s show is “Presence,” and I’m thinking about what it means to be fully present within one’s community: what kind of engagement and participation that entails. I’m also considering what is lost to a community when some of its members are absent, whether by personal choice or forcible exclusion.

Community has been on my mind a lot recently — the question of what it is to be members together of one body, unified as one while still retaining all our uniqueness and diversity. Many times we seem to take an easy way out and simply remove ourselves from potential sources of conflict, either by opting out of community altogether, or by glorifying bland sameness in place of genuine unity.

Both of these actions, though, keep us from bringing our unique gifts to the community, and from benefiting from the diversity of gifts that others in the community have to offer. We miss out, too, on the validation of having our gifts celebrated, appreciated, and welcomed — and the opportunity to affirm the gifts of others, as well.

Those aren’t insignificant losses. I suspect that in abdicating our membership in the community, we also diminish our own identities, callings, and humanity.

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It’s Not About Me

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 14, 2009

I believe the call to art-making is primarily about serving and enriching my community. It’s not about expressing my private angst, marking my artistic territory, or creating a name for myself in the circles of wealth and fame. Short version: it’s not about me. It’s about my community, which has a need for visual meaning and embodied truth.

That’s not to say that I am unimportant or interchangeable with any other artist. The only truth I have to tell is the image of God hidden within my own soul, and no one else can speak it for me; if I fail to discover and to tell this truth, it will go unspoken this side of glory. The fulfillment of my calling hinges on a willingness to crawl down inside my soul and search out the truth I have been given to speak to the world.

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An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 1

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 8, 2009

Over the past couple of years, my artistic process has increasingly involved collaboration. Sometimes I’ve worked with other artists, but most often I have worked alongside friends and family members: people who are deeply invested in me and in my work, but who would not ordinarily identify as artists. And I’ve struggled for a while to give words to the deep rightness I sense in collaborating with non-artists — a significance that goes beyond the simple pleasure of doing something I love in the presence of people I love.

I’ve long been bothered by the specialization of art — the notion that only a chosen few should have the power to create objects and meaning, and that their efforts should be appreciated and interpreted by a similarly-elite class of curators and critics. And what happens beyond this charmed circle who have been initiated into the complex code of contemporary visual meaning? We don’t know, and we don’t care, the contemporary art world seems to say.

So cheerfully inviting non-artists into the artistic process is a satisfyingly concrete rebuttal to the image of the solitary artistic genius. The work we produce is no longer the product of my own genius (if I do possess any genius, it hasn’t surfaced yet), but of relationship and cooperation. And the art itself no longer belongs to the cloistered elite, but to the whole of the community — to the critics, yes, but equally to the priests and students and farmers and auto mechanics.

That, to me, is art worth making.

Coming soon: thoughts on the difference between excellence and elitism — does accessibility come only at the expense of quality?

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