Friday, November 23, 2012

Loving the Questions

People who can ask good questions are  a very special breed.  

When I was younger, questions seemed like tests.  Did I know the answers, had I done what I was supposed to,  did I think the right way, make the proper connections?  I did not appreciate questions.  And I did not develop the skill to ask them.

When I was in my 30's a woman came into my life whom I recognized as someone with this skill.  Patty could ask something that provoked deeper thinking, challenged assumptions, but rarely made others feel inadequate.  There was a freedom to examine thoughts, to work out what you did think, related to your own experiences, what you really knew.  Much later, when I read about Socratic dialogue, I realized that her approach was related to this technique.  Perhaps many people learned about this in school.  I had an unusual education, so I don't know if this was just something I missed or if it isn't an ordinary teaching.

My own questions of others often feel stiff, coming out of my own reluctance to be "offensive".  I think I come across as preachy, awkward.  And yet, on occasion I've stumbled on one that has worked well.

One week in Sunday School, we were working on a project and a child was blowing it off.  He was being disruptive, trying to distract others who were quite happily engaged.  I'm very fond of him and yet was annoyed with his behavior.  Instead of trying to reason with him, to get him to go along, it occurred to me to ask him "Is this the best that you can do?"  He just stopped and looked at me, then shook his head, "no".  He settled down and finished the rest of the project, seemingly satisfied with his new effort.

My children and grandchildren can attest to the fact that I'm not well practiced in this art.  I think, sometimes, they must shake their heads to themselves at my clumsiness.  I do have a few friends who are really good at asking the questions.   I make a point of paying attention to how they do this.  How do you have meaningful conversation with people who have different views from yours?  How do you find out how someone came to their position without inferring that they're wrong?  How do we use this tool for transformation in ourselves and for the world we'd like to see?  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Reflections

I love Thanksgiving  Day.   I love holidays where the usual rhythms are interrupted, where the whole day can become a meditation.

My daughter had an online teacher last year who wrote to her students something like "Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate the theft of lands from the native inhabitants."  It was an inflammatory way to raise awareness of or object to a situation that was, indeed, painful, and destructive in our history.

The only way I know to address such wounds is to practice awareness, gratitude, and compassion.

This is not to say I'm very good at it.  And this is why I am happy to have days like this where I can spend a little time with my thoughts, aided by the wisdom of others.

Early this morning, reading some short pieces from John Philip Newell's blog was a good way to start the day.  It set a tone for opening, deepening.  I will do some painting when I finish this writing.  Exploring a bit about the subjects before I start pulls me into another world.  You know, how one thing leads to another ?  Sometimes, when you're doing renovations, for example, it feels like a burden!  But when you're doing research, it can be fascinating.  Children are great for starting you off on this kind of discovery.  I love their questions.  When you have time to really listen and follow up,  it's amazing the things you can learn, the connections that become apparent.

Later, I'll bake some Monkey Bread to take to my daughter's for dinner.  Thinking about the bread offers a whole other area for meditating - how many years have I been doing this?  Who helps make it possible?  How am I connected to all those who have engaged in this work for thousands of years?

Being with family and friends is a joy; remembering those who are alone, ill, imprisoned suffering, reminds us of our limitations.

I've been slowly reading In the Sanctuary of Women by Jan Richardson, and I leave you with one of her blessings:

"On this day and all days,
may you go in the company
of the God who makes
a way for you."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Our Mothers Who Lead the Way: A Window of Tribute

copyright 2012 Becky Nielsen
A few years ago we decided to start replacing the windows in our house.  They were the originals from about 1923 when  our house was built, and we loved them.  But when the weather turned cold, we could feel the air pouring through the edges, wasting our heat.  We decided we had to get more efficient ones.

Not wanting to just have them go off to the dump, I decided I'd paint on them.  They made such great "frames" for certain kinds of paintings.  I've completed six so far.  I thought I'd share the process for the most recent one.

Some of the windows have four long vertical panels that make them ideal for series work - the
Apostles,  Muses, Seasons,  directions, any thing that could be grouped in fours.
I'd been thinking of combining several  African American women whose lives were inspirational for their courage and leadership.  And in this instance, I specifically chose  them because of their relationship to God.  They each felt that they had a calling.

Sojourner Truth (1797 to 1883) was the first one I thought of because of her history here in the Hudson Valley.   Next, I chose Harriet Tubman (1820 to 1913).  She also has connections to this area, through the Underground Railroad, and eventually settled in Auburn, NY.  The third woman I chose was Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 to 1977).  Born in rural Mississippi,  she is less well known by many of us, but worked tirelessly, exposing herself to great danger, for civil rights, especially the right to vote.  And the fourth woman I chose for this window was Thea Bowman (1937 to 1990).  Although she started life in a Protestant family in Mississippi, she gravitated toward the Catholic Church, becoming a Franciscan Sister in an all white community.  She described herself as a bridge over troubled waters, working to unite people of various backgrounds, encouraging women to preach even though the church didn't allow women to preach there.  Google each one of these for more of their inspirational stories.  And you can find youtube videos of Thea Bowman singing and speaking with such great spirit!

To complete these paintings, I first drew  "cartoons" of each woman on paper that I could tape to the back of the window.  Then I painted in the outlines, using acrylic paint.  I find that painting on glass, I have to use many layers to get the paint to stick solidly.  Even at that, if the windows are held up against the light, you can see where the layers are thinner.  Finally, I add the details.

The windows are then wired for hanging.  They are not meant to be hung against another window; the continued strong light might make the paint fade.  And they actually look great against a solid wall, with shadows occurring behind them when the light comes from different directions.