Becoming the Student #29: Aarik Emerging

SMALLbecomingstudent-aarikAarik Emerging. Oil on canvas on panel, 13 by 84 inches. 2014-2016. Click the image above for a large version.

My friend Aarik Danielsen is a writer, a preacher, a father, a reader, a thinker, a worker, a lover of his wife and of his life and of the small joys that can pass between people who strive to connect. He’s a willing participant in art and music and making of all kinds. He wants to tell the truth about time and meaning and God. He wants to be thoughtful and honest in all that he does. He is a gentle, genuine soul.

aarik-lipdetailAarik Emerging, detail. Click for large view.

Two years ago I began a project to bring Aarik into my Becoming the Student project. He was willing to go along with my strange request to turn off all the lights in my studio and press my ancient flatbed scanner against his head… for 30 minutes. These scans became the basis for the painting that you see here.

Above: A shot of Aarik from the studio when I was making the scans…

aarik-plaiddetailAarik Emerging, detail. Click for large view.

aarik-detailhairAarik Emerging, detail. Click for large view.

Usually I have an interview to go along with these posts. The thing is that it seems to me that an interview – short, minor, without range – would minimize who Aarik tries to be. This observation isn’t meant to degrade my other Becoming the Student posts. I know they are limited. But I guess with Aarik’s what I wanted to do was focus on his emergence as a father. This painting is a celebration of his transformation – a chosen transformation – into a father. All that being a dad entails is strange and hard. None of us who are dads really know how to do it. And we all deal with issues we never thought we’d have to. So this image of a man appearing out of thick darkness, his characteristics manifesting in tenuous and tenebrist ways, is symbolic of every father’s attempt to become what he believes he ought. The multiplicity of it; each situation bringing about change and instantaneous adaptations… It’s where I find myself and where I imagine Aarik finds himself. It’s a holy discombobulation, fatherhood. One in which we fail moment by moment. By grace we try again.

Thank you for doing that, Aarik – trying and trying again. By grace.

A Eulogy I Never Got To Give

On February 14, 2016, my sister Denya died at age 47. After my mother’s tearful call, we went into robot mode and made plans to get back to central NY for the funeral. It’s always a trial to get packed, organized in the van, and on the road. It was more trying this time, though, thinking about the reasons for our trip. Part of what I was trying to work out was just what to think about losing Denya.

I was asked to speak a eulogy and I had been thinking about it during the drive – I had a good chunk of it formulated in my mind. So after the calling hours on the 17th of February, we went back up to our hotel room and I began writing down what I’d say.  At least that’s what I have been informed happened, because I had a heart attack in the hotel room fairly soon after arriving there that evening. I forgot much of what happened over the previous few days, with only brief snippets remaining.

Providentially, my wife was right there, as were the many EMTs, nurses, and healthcare professionals who were in our family or friends with my sister. Within minutes I was being worked on and transported to hospital. Though I am nowhere near 100%, every day feels like a bit more has returned.

So now I want to share the eulogy that I never got to give.

**

Denya was the definition of determination, clarity of vision, and kindness of heart. At 16, seeing that our stepfather was abusive, Denya decided to leave home and make her own way. She stayed with friends. She got herself to school and work. She did not allow this provisional stage to define her; she aimed toward college. She didn’t let herself get tripped up by small thinking. She didn’t fall into a spiral of foolish actions and relationships; she was wise. Continuing to work and support herself, Denya went to nursing school, eventually rising through the EMT ranks and working in the intense world of Emergency Room trauma.

imageDenya, age 4.

She grew in faith. She grew in family. She had seen her way through difficult situations at home. She worked toward a vision of education and work and made it happen. She found love in the stability and thoughtfulness of a strong, gentle, honorable man – a man who shared her vision for work and family, for faith and clarity of purpose. In marrying Timmy, Denya truly became an iconic example in my life.

imageDenya and Tim on their wedding day in 1993.

She had already been a great example of hard work and applied education, but now she was living out the sort of teamwork marriage to which I could aspire. Together, Denya and Tim built a home that was hospitable, secure, fun, and a stage for dreams. When I think back on Denya, that’s what I see: faith, family, and fun.

I also see someone who persevered through periods of intense physical and emotional pain – losing Cassandra; struggling with the effects of lupus constantly; and nearly dying when Cassilyn and Elisabeth were young. It was not merely going through these and other things that were important. It’s that she went through them with grace, strength, acceptance, and transformation. These qualities were already in her, and they were focused and made more potent through her experiences.

She – along with Tim – modeled long-suffering of physical pain like no one else I’ve known. She – along with Tim – showed us what good parenting could be: parenting with grace, fun, and high expectations. She – along with Tim – demonstrated gentle guidance, constant availability, and true enjoyment of their girls. She – along with Tim – lived life with joy and thoughtfulness. She – along with Tim – crafted a home life that nurtured not only their own family but also the families that touched theirs.

imageDenya with her girls.

So while her death is horrible and sad, and we wish we could have had many more years with her, in a very real way – at least to me – her death is not tragic. What I mean here is that nothing was wasted. She had no dead years, no years of lost potential. She redeemed the time. She made the most of what was given to her. There were no excuses in her life, no regrets. She didn’t live in anger or sorrow about what might have been. That is a triumphant life – a life full of meaning. It’s a life we can be thankful to have witnessed and been a part of.

Denya’s death is a huge loss. Yet each of us has been allowed to bear witness to her example, to her grace, and to her laughter in some way. Seeing her working at the Super Duper. Seeing her pursue her nursing education and succeed at it. Seeing her Camaro with the airbrushed roses on the sides. Hearing her infectious laugh. Watching her play the Red Queen in a high school production of Alice in Wonderland. Maybe you’re even one of the lucky ones who experienced her jumping out of the twilight shouting “I’M DA BREATHER!!!” at you, scaring you half to death.

imageAn airbrushed rose from the side of Denya’s Camaro.

I will miss you, Denya. I’ll miss your love and faith. I’ll miss your sense of humor and your grace. But I know that these things clearly live on in those who knew you, loved you, and built lives with you. We are so thankful to have had you with us for this time, and we know that you carry on.

imageA recent note from Denya.

**

Atticus Garrett Ballou

image 2

The boy cometh.

I have to admit that I have fears about raising a boy. Sure, I have worries about my girls, too… but I am a male. I know something about being a boy. Perhaps in some sense the otherness of girls is a comfort, or a kind of blessed distance. And I just don’t think of females as the ones creating epic problems – starting wars, hurting others, crafting systems of denial, demagoguing themselves into power… that is all stuff that men do naturally and perennially.

And so that scares me. Am I up to instilling something true and real and deep in this little guy? Can I give him the transcendent perspective that helped me? Can I encourage him to learn the lessons only his mom and big sisters can teach? God knows I needed the presence of my mom and sisters and wife and mother-in-law and daughters to temper me, transform me, change me from a yell-happy dolt to someone with a bit more self control and thoughtfulness. The process is forever ongoing, and it’s all a matter of grace that it has worked at all. It’s taken me 37 years to be halfway acceptable as a human and it terrifies me to think I’ll be responsible to make a man of someone else. If I can’t force it to happen in myself, I certainly can’t manufacture it in anyone else.

image

Of course, it won’t be all my job, thank Jesus. But I’m wary of the process.

And so it’s important to name well. To cast a vision with that name. To use that name as a witness and a source of power. I’ll think about our son’s namesake right now to quell some of these fears. I’ll speak his name as a prayer of hope and a charge of confidence. Atticus:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

~

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

~

“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

~

“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.”

~

The quotes above were spoken by Atticus Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

~

To close, here are a couple momentous posts from when #1 and #2 were named: MGB and MCQB.

Banality

I’ve had a number of what could be termed crises of faith over the last few years. Given that my life isn’t particularly compartmentalized, arenas slide over and influence one another. This can be for good or ill: A car needing to get fixed shows up on my choice of palette. The sickly child informs my lesson plans. A poorly executed drawing demonstration syncs up with indigestion.

One of the difficulties I have found in teaching the fundamentals of drawing and painting (something I’ve been doing for nearly a decade) is that I have become more and more detached from the epic expansiveness of potential meaning I once saw so easily in everything.

If that seems counter-intuitive, you’re right. On the one hand, I’m opening up this huge world for students and advocating for its meaning-making properties. Sometimes I do a good job at this; sometimes it clicks. On the other hand, however, often I have to break things down so far that they become divested of their mystery. This is probably because I’m not the best teacher – nor the best student – I could be.

But it is also that, amidst the urgency of schedules and diapers and curricula and learning goals and policy committees and trying to eat right and falling off ladders and mowing the lawn and hoping I’m a good dad, the horizon of my universe has shrunk. I can no longer connect to the mysteries. When I look in their direction they seem blank – I seem blank. I look at pictures that used to inspire me and fire me up… I can feel the echoes of what I felt 10 or 20 years ago, yet they seem vague, hollow, incomplete, impotent, and affected attempts. I painfully sense the depths to which I once could swim, but realize I no longer try those fathoms. The shallows, it seems, are the extent of my aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual submersion these days.

All of the hard-fought attempts I’ve made as an artist and writer seem to, generally, make little or no connection to others. This is not a statement meant to engender pity toward me. I’m not begging for praise. I simply recognize that the average viewer/reader receives perhaps 10% of the passion, reflection, or depth I intended. I am thankful for that 10% of understanding. I’m thankful for every picture I’ve had the honor to show or sell and grateful for every piece of writing I’ve had the privilege to publish into the world. Yet I feel that I can no longer put so much time or energy into these things. It’s not that I don’t want to do it, it’s that I don’t have the depth anymore. Those corridors are closed off. I have shrunk. The extent of my vision has stalled. The infinite chiaroscuro of the universe has fled from me.

I’m not writing this to garner sympathy. I’m just trying to be honest. I think this is part of the life of an artist. Perhaps this too shall pass. I only know that my ability to believe in the value of plumbing the depths is all but gone, and I’m almost not even sad about it. What happens when you no longer feel tethered to what used to be your deepest motivation?

So much of what happened in the best work I’ve made over the last 20 years can be chalked up to faith. I can see passages of paintings and drawings where I had faith, where I had belief in the work. What happened in them was beyond technique and ability, beyond solid ideas or philosophical underpinning. The best ones went far beyond my knowing how to make them. When you lose that faith, how can you ever see or do those things again?

I know I am lucky. I get to teach, get to make paintings and drawings and prints. I get to show my work. But in doing all of that I can see how things atrophy and become stilted. The raging river stagnates. Will I be making tame pictures of flowers in 20 years? I hope not. Yet I feel a domestication growing. When one has a creative itch to scratch but no longer has emotional, spiritual, or intellectual access to the deep things of life the result is often the height of banality.

So artists, pundits, and mass-shooters proliferate. Another day, another war, another hundred thousand more orphans. Google knows what Star Trek-themed trinket I’m most likely to buy (and I actually consider buying it). I remember less and less of the awkward dreams of the 20-year-old me while the 40-year-old me who can no longer run with his kids comes more and more into focus. Perhaps it’s all an episode that would pass with a couple more hours of sleep each night, or with actually cutting red meat out of my diet. Or perhaps it’s just how things are, and I’ll have to figure out how to reach those old depths again after another decade and a second wind.

Remembering the Shapes and Textures of China

In just a few hours we’ll be leaving the People’s Republic of China. We are ready; home and friends and family call to us.

Right now, though, CaiQun sleeps nearby. She has no way of realizing how much her life will change. We don’t either. As I looked into her eyes tonight, giving her a final bed-time bottle in her native land, I thought about how rich and beautiful and strange and amazing her country of  birth is. We leave it, and hope to return. She is beginning an amazing journey. I’m priveledged to go on it with her, for at least this part.

As we depart China, I again make a post that features some (for me) lasting images of this Land. Two and a half weeks is certainly not enough time to really know much of anything about a country, but we will be forever changed by what we’ve seen, heard, felt, and known here. These images are just part of the rememberance I’ll take with me.

Enjoy. Click to enlarge. Visit China. Hear her sounds and see her sights. Love her people and acknowledge her history.

We’re a part of this world.

IMG_5607[1]IMG_5608[1]IMG_5610[1]IMG_5559[1]IMG_5611[1]IMG_5612[1]IMG_5614[1]IMG_5615[1]IMG_5613[1]IMG_5616[1]IMG_5618[1]IMG_5617[1]IMG_5619[1]IMG_5621[1]IMG_5620[1]IMG_5637IMG_5638IMG_5643

Working It Out

There’s my daughter Miranda doing some complex equations on the chalkboard. She’s working out something profound there.

I’ve been trying to work things out, too. We’ve got a new daughter in China – Madeleine Cai Qun. We just found out yesterday. I’ve been thinking about it, trying to work out how it feels this time – this time being a dad. In some ways – between all the different sorts of work that I do, and trying to be a good dad, and trying to be a good husband – I often don’t know how I feel. My mind is usually full of research, various readings, lesson prep for 4+ classes, a whole range of concerns with my graduate students, community projects, church stuff, family stuff, house maintenance stuff, following up with friends stuff, the logistics of just being-where-I’m-supposed-to-be-when-I’m-supposed-to-be-there, and on and on… Often I don’t know what I feel or if I feel things at the proper proportion because I’m not being reflective enough – not being present enough, really – to have full awareness.

I know this is a season of my life and I know it’ll pass. But when I think about Madeleine and Miranda and Alison, I want to be totally clear.

When I see Cai Qun’s arm raised – little Madeleine Cai Qun Ballou – I’m perfectly clear. Let’s go get her now. I’m ready. I want to be her dad RIGHT NOW.

I guess that’s all I feel: let’s get this flight planned and the paperwork filed and roll. It’s transition time. It’s life-change time. I thank God for my awesome wife who has had the passion, dedication, intelligence, and intensity to follow through and pull this off. This is the sort of adventure we looked forward to a decade ago when we decided to get married. We never knew the specific character of the challenges or what particular form the dreams would take, but we worked it out. Sovereign movements indistinguishable from chance and incomprehensible without faith.

Seven Years

220,924,800 seconds; 3,682,080 minutes; 61,368 hours; 2557 days; 365 weeks; 7 years.

What a life. So far we’ve…

..gone through that sweet but pretty geeky early stage: meeting, falling in love, and making a start at life…

…did each others’ hair…

…and got building on the future.

We had fun, partying with tutus around my neck…

…or building forts together in the living room…

…then hanging with kids (like Roman here), teaching them about (among other things)…

…like art…

…and bratwurst…

We also had adventures…

…high atop the Duomo in Florence…

…and on the Via Michelangelo (with Barry).

Then we had Miranda.

Yes, what a life, what a love. I am so grateful, so full… and looking forward to the future.

Thank you for being my bride and my friend, Alison.