From Then Til Now

Twenty years ago today I met my future wife for the first time… she had just turned 16 the day before.

Hard to believe from looking at this image that we would end up becoming friends, dating, marrying, and traveling the world on weird adventures…

We had this amazing few years I like to think of as “The Cute Years” – when I was still a beautiful baby. She’s always been a beaut. Look at this:

Undergrad Date Nights…

The night was sultry… SULTRY, I SAY!

SO INNOCENT!

Being six years older than her, I was able to go to both her high school dances AND her college dances… I’m not sure what we were thinking with that garter thing… hmm…

Ah, Chi Omega, the cult sorority that Alison was in back at Northwestern…

We did fun things, like attend fish-eyed art openings…

…and read aloud – A LOT. How many books have we done this way, honey?

Through it all, it was you and me. Twenty years. There’s been a lot of hard stuff, but a whole lot of good. I’m so grateful for you.

xoxoxoxoxo

Of Peacocks and Bovine Interlocutors

About this time last year my wife informed me that I was going to be joining two of my friends for a couple days in the wilds of Missouri for an early new year refreshing session.

Bobby and Billy, two of my surest friends of the last decade, put together a little jaunt to a secluded farm AirBnB location. In spite of my trepidation at forgoing my social media habit, I jumped in the car with them.

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It was a few days of quiet time in the brisk air, solo contemplation, good food, good beer, and serious conversation about the deep issues of life.

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It was life-giving. I’m thankful for these guys, and so many of my other friends. Even though we have families and responsibilities and stresses, there is a core of intentional care there.

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In many ways I’m not a great friend. I’m barely hanging on sometimes. I need to be a halfway decent teacher and dad. I wish I was better at both. I wish I was a better husband. But times like this, when I can be honest and straight with people I trust… they make a huge difference.

I’ve been fortunate to have had times like this with a few solid friends throughout the years, and I’m grateful. I’m thankful.

I look forward to the next time, when the peacocks roost in the trees and the asparagus spits on a midnight grill.

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And when the bull makes a visit, in more ways than one.

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One Year After

It has been a year since my heart attack. Since my cardiac arrest. Since the trauma I don’t remember and that my family saw. Since members of my family kept me alive until the EMTs arrived. Since the radical changes of diet and lifestyle. Since the shift in horizon.

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Three days before that I lost my big sister; a life of incredible value and service, gone. Two months afterward my estranged step-father died; a life wasted in self-concern and alcohol.

How would people have summed up my life one year later, if it ended that night?

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Since I didn’t go, I have to assess it myself. I know my life has been valuable. I know I have taken deep draughts of experience and thought. I have been astonished. I have been disappointed. I have known love and sacrifice. I have seen things that made me cry in sorrow and weep in happiness. I have tried and failed, then barely hoped and succeeded. I have yearned and yearned, in spite of cheesiness or irony. I have worked so hard and received so much through no merit of my own doing. I have believed and doubted. All through I have attempted to be honorable and careful, passionate and present. Sometimes I have succeeded.

img_0200I am SIMUL IUSTUS ET PECCATOR.

I am AGATHOKAKOLOGICAL.

I have tried to understand what it all means. I still don’t. But I think I have some sense of how it feels.

~

It feels a little like these songs (click the titles to listen):

 

At Last

I can say that I’ve lived here in honor and danger

But I’m just an animal and cannot explain a life

Down this chain of days I wish to stay among my people

Relation now means nothing, having chosen so defined

And if death should smell my breathing

As it pass beneath my window

Let it lead me trembling, trembling

I own every bell that tolls me.

 

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Driving home I see those flooded fields

How can people not know what beauty this is?

I’ve taken it for granted my whole life

Since the day I was born.

Clouds hang on these curves like me

And I kneel to the wheel

Of the fox confessor (on splendid heels).

And he shames me from my seat

And on my guilty feet

I follow him in retreat…

What purpose in these deeds?

Oh fox confessor, please,

Who married me to these orphaned blues?

“It’s not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder

When the death of your civilization precedes you.”

Will I ever see You again?

Will there be no one above me to put my faith in?

I flooded my sleeves as I drove home again.

 

A Widow’s Toast

Specters move like pilot flames

Their widows toast at St. Angel.

Better times collide with now

The tears are warm, I feel them still.

They’ll heat to vapor and disperse

And cloud our eyes with weary glaze.

You raise your glass and may exclaim,

“I’ll put my hands on the truth, by God!”

But it’s faster, love, than you and me –

Faster than the speed of gravity.

That’s how it catches you from falling

And how it always, always, always slips away.

Specters move like pilot flames

Their widows toast at St. Angel.

Better times collide with now

And better times

And better times

Are coming still.

Neko knows what to say.

~

I find attention, clarity, and rightness in teaching. I find wonderful confusion in my art-making. I find solace and laughter in my wife. I find a strange wine of joy and frustration in my children. I feel both lost and found. I feel both at home (warm, in bed), and far away in the dark (clouds, wind). I’m in orbit around a great truth and yet my tether is strung out miles from safety.

Believe it or not, all of this is so much better than the 3 or 4 years before the heart attack.

I know that some would want me to declare something, some truth, some more faithful words, some thoughts that sound more spiritually centered. I’m sorry.

Today, I want to take the lessons – the cumulative astonishments of being – as they come. I want to have joy and camaraderie in my students. I want to be gentle and full of wonder with my children. I want to continue to cherish my wife. I want to be a better husband, father, son, brother, artist, teacher, mentor, helper, and friend.

No regrets. I have not loved every moment, but I have been given such grace and love. I’m thankful.

~

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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.

**

David and Patch

David-and-Patch2014David and Patch (Professor David Oliver’s Mandala). Acrylic and gold on panel, 30 by 30 inches, 2014. Click the image for enlargement.

Professor David Oliver is an amazing person. He is a husband, father, and grandfather. He is a professor and mentor. He is passionate about life and justice and hope. He is dying.

Diagnosed with Stage IV nasopharyngeal carcinoma in 2011, he knew his days were limited. An expert on aging who had built a long career in Gerontology and understanding end-of-life issues, David knew that he could apply all he’d studied, learned, and implemented to his cancer. In the years since the diagnosis he has produced a series of videos that detail his cancer journey on his blog, written a book on demystifying death, and won awards (along with this wife) for work on improving end-of-life care.

David’s story is certainly inspirational (you can read more at The Huffington Post here), but it also has a personal angle for me. David was my mother-in-law’s mentor nearly 40 years ago when she was a student at the College of the Ozarks and he was a professor there. Over the years they have continued to have a warm relationship, and mom was dramatically influenced by David’s character and understanding. As providence would have it, his career journey led him to the University of Missouri. When I arrived to teach here in 2007 he was an early advocate for me, meeting with me and encouraging me. The mentor came full circle in impacting our family.

I knew I wanted to make a portrait of him for my Becoming the Student series, but I didn’t want to impose, figuring he had better things to do with his remaining days than pose for me. But when he emailed me one day last month to talk to me about a lecture I’d recently given, I ventured to ask about making his portrait. He said that he probably only had a matter of weeks left, and that we’d have to act fast, but that he’d be happy to be a part of it. The next morning I was sitting in his living room making the painting you see above.

Photo Dec 20, 2 01 44 PMDavid and I pose with the portrait in progress, November 2014.

While I worked on the portrait we had a great conversation about education, travel, teaching, and family. After, while I worked to add in the mandala structure, we exchanged emails which added to our dialogue. Here are just a few nuggets from our time together:

On travel:

“Travel is the greatest education.” David has been to hundreds of major cities around the world over the decades, but has spent time in Istanbul, Barcelona, Copenhagen, among others, in the last few years. His eyes twinkle and voice grows excited while recounting past travels through Europe and Asia with family.

On experiencing cancer:

“I can’t tell you what cancer feels like, but I can tell you about how the treatments feel. I chose the non-aggressive path.” David had to make big choices about the sort of care he would undertake to fight his cancer. Though he has had rounds of chemotherapy and surgery, he chose to limit them both. Ultimately he went with palliative and hospice care over more forceful options. “My voice is my life” he told me, so he decided not to have surgeries that would have resulted in a loss of his ability to speak.

Photo Dec 20, 3 41 55 PMAbove: the piece installed above the mantel at David’s home.

On the goals for palliative care and hospice:

“I want to be at Home, surrounded by Others, be Pain-free, and Engaged as long as I can be. That acronym spells HOPE. It’s pretty simple, and that’s the exit strategy. I want to be a role model for another way.” By entering hospice early and focusing on his HOPE model, David has been able to spend a lot of quality time with family and even go to events like basketball games for his beloved Mizzou Tigers.

On Patch:

“I’m a spectator in my own body – I call him Patch. But I’m thinking, feeling, acting, and taking advantage of every moment I’ve got left. I have millions of moments to experience, so I’ll let others worry about Patch. Patch is off doing his thing; the hospice team is taking care of him. I was able to let him go. I think people who continue to treat their body view themselves as one holistic entity… they’re not able to separate to understand what’s inward. There are many things in the body that are happening and you can’t stop them. But I am not my shortness of breath or anything else that may be happening to Patch. I’ll just let hospice patch him up.” Calling his physical body by the name Patch is a way for David to both embrace the care that body needs and reinforce the distinction between his identity and his body. That body is passing away, but David sees his inner life as separate from the vicissitudes forced upon his “shell” by cancer, medications, pain, and general breakdown. David has found a way to grasp his embodiment without seeing it as absolutely necessary to his personhood.

David-and-Patch2014_angleAbove: The portrait shown at an angle to show the change of reflected light in the gold leaf.

~

My notes about this piece:

The most significant material I have used in this painting is gold leaf. Gold leaf is a traditional medium to suggest the divine and sacred. I also chose to build a complementary-colored mandala as the field upon which the portrait is embedded. Additionally, I centered the transition between David’s physical portrait and his inverse, transcendent manifestation around the Crown Chakra. The Crown Chakra is is associated with meaning and identity in the context of divine consciousness and enlightenment; the part of us that passes beyond this mortal coil. Surrounding that arena of transition and transformation are laurel leaves, traditional symbols of victory and attainment. This piece is meant to connect David’s personal associations (his name, his body, his visage) with broader, more universal conceptions of moving from one state to another – higher, entirely other – state. I combine Eastern conceptions encapsulated in the mandala with Western notions included in the idea of the memorial portrait. In some sense this is an apotheosis artwork (as an example, see The Apotheosis of Homer by Ingres).

The painting is meant to suggest that a binary group is being presented: David and Patch, bright gold and dark black, transformation and deterioration, transcendence and impermanence, immaterial and material, contemplation and dissolution, enlightenment and illusion, and the circle and the square… there are many others that could be named. These all speak to ancient alchemical oppositions.

~

I am honored to be able to celebrate this humble and gentle man. Even in the last days and hours of his life he is encouraging, hopeful, loving, and inclusive. He has been given the great gift of applying his life-long study of aging and dying to his own direct experience, and he’s drawn others into it with joy. I’m so thankful I got to include David in my portrait series.

Thank you, David!

PS: And a thank you to Debbie, David’s wife! She crafted this beautiful handmade textile piece for my new son:

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Atticus Garrett Ballou

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Making My Work Mean So Much More

My wife, Alison, and I are beginning the process for an international adoption. It’s something we’ve thought about for a long time and something we’re excited about.

Above: me and my daughter drawing. 

There are a lot of reasons we’re interested in this and there are a lot of logistics and options to consider. There’s tens of thousands of dollars to raise, most of which we don’t have just laying around. My wife is much more skilled than I am at holding all of these different issues in mind. She’s able to plan and strategize at a level that I can’t really even understand. So in the midst of this process I really just want to be able to DO something, to add something to it, to help make it happen. 

As I think about this huge thing we’re getting into, I really just want to make sure that one of the other huge things in my life – my art-making – plays some role. I want to make my work mean more than perhaps it would on its own, more than it would do just hanging on a wall. I want my work to actually do something about the nearly 150 million orphans in the world. If, by some miracle, my artworks could help us bring one or two kids to a life of love and intentional care, then I want to do whatever I can to cause that to happen.

Above: Seven Mandalas for the Murky History of Beginnings and Endings, #5. One of the pieces for sale to help fund our adoption. My daughter Miranda helped me make this one.

So I’ve opened up a little etsy shop that features about 50 different artworks, with more to come. My hope is that I can have these works – images that I love and worked very hard to craft – become part of the means by which Alison and I do a different kind of work in the world… something that can make all the difference to a child who needs a mom and dad. 

If you resonate with this sort of thing, I hope you’ll consider going to my etsy shop and purchasing a work. If you don’t see anything there you’re interested in, please check out my flickr and my main website as some of those works are still available as well; I’d be happy to hear from anyone who’s interested in any of the works.