Moving along finishing some pieces. These two little critters have been almost-done for several weeks. The cat is 5″ long, the armadillo 4″, not counting their tails.IMG_7236IMG_7237

Heaven knows we aren’t going to have room in our suitcases even for the things we’ve made and bought, but I think we need to buy more unpainted alebrijes to bring home. We’re already thinking, “Alebrijes-painting party!”–for the munchkin’s next birthday if she wants, sure, but also for grownup friends.

Some art works start with an image that comes to my mind, some with an idea I want to express, some with something I see that begs to be re-created on paper. And then there are some that begin with a powerful desire for an excuse to buy more fine-tipped markers.

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I think I’ll be doing more in this vein, but I’ve promised myself: no new pieces until I’ve finished most of the ones that are half-done.

 

With a printmaking class coming up starting September 3, I thought it would be a good deadline for finishing the various half-done pieces I have in process. It’s been luxurious to start any piece that comes to mind, knowing I have lots of time to cycle through them, but when I counted I thought of eight pieces currently in process, not including a couple of designs that will probably be turned into prints. I often find it difficult to call a piece complete, and I wanted to nudge myself to just do it.

Well, today’s Tuesday, I thought. We’ll be going to the studio where we do ceramics, and our pieces will be out of the kiln, so I’ll glaze my two–a great start toward my goal for September 3. However, when we got there, the pieces had not returned from the kiln. So I . . . . started on a new piece, a linocut. Which, of course, is now unfinished piece number nine. Oh well! At least I can finish it at home, having splurged on a set of tools yesterday.

During one of our weekly staff meetings several months before my sabbatical began, our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, said, “Well, not that you’re looking for another sabbatical project, but if you were . . . ” It turns out that he sees a real need for a book of stories from the Bible for Unitarian Universalist kids around nine or ten years old. There are UU curricula introducing kids to this heritage (e.g., Timeless Themes), but he would love to have a volume to give each of our Religious Education students at that age. We could publish it ourselves, as he has done with his early history of Unitarians in Palo Alto and the Yuletide Song and Carol Book. In fact, we have funding for such a project thanks to a memorial book fund generously created by the family and friends of Sherwood Sullivan, a former president of our congregation who died late last year.

I wasn’t particularly in search of a project. Living in another country, learning Spanish, making lots of art, meeting regularly with my spiritual director, and expanding a program to teach Unitarian Universalists about modern slavery seemed like enough to grow on for six months. However, this idea sparked my imagination. The book Bible Stories retold by David Kossoff was a staple of my childhood, with its beautiful painted illustrations by Gino d’Achille and the writer’s vivid, down-to-earth voice. For example, when I think of the story of Absalom, who was killed as a traitor in the civil war he’d launched against his father King David, I always, always hear how Kossoff prefaced the famous passage:

The news was brought to David, and the people saw no triumph, no elation. Just a heartbroken man who’d lost a son. “O, Absalom,” they heard him say. “Would to God I had died instead of you. O, Absalom, my son, my son.”

(You can actually hear Kossoff himself, who was an actor as well, reading some of these stories on YouTube–see link below.)

As a religious educator, Unitarian Universalist, minister, parent, and lover of literature, I also have a voice to bring to these ancient, abiding, disturbing, inspiring, confusing tales. When Dan mentioned the idea, I immediately thought of some of the religious questions and ideas I’d developed around the age of nine or ten, and the stories that inspired them. I’d have to tell the story of Jonah, who is one of the most humanly flawed, and thus one of my favorite, characters in the Bible: a prophet, called to summon people to repentance, who is angry and disappointed when they actually do repent and gain forgiveness. And the story of Abraham bargaining with God to gain mercy for the people of Gomorrah and Sodom, which our Hebrew School teachers taught us as evidence that Jews’ God does not desire unthinking obedience, but respects a principled argument–in other words, that we are meant to use our reason and conscience to challenge even the God who gave them to us.

The fact that the same God, four chapters later, told the same man to sacrifice his beloved son like a sheep, and honored him for being willing to do it, raised so many painful questions. Were we supposed to be obedient after all? What the hell kind of God would ask such a thing? How did Isaac feel about it?

How will I introduce “texts of terror” like this? . . . that’s one of the many questions before me. But however I manage it, encouraging children’s questions and independent thinking is one of my goals for this book. Whether they’re UUs or just curious, engaged thinkers, they should wrestle with the text and the tradition, just as the Biblical Jacob wrestled with his brother, God, and himself–another story that will probably need to be included.

And I’ve got a reader on hand to raise questions and give me feedback from the target readership: a bright, questioning Unitarian Universalist nine-year-old. She’s also interested in creating illustrations, which I have promised she may do. I might do a few of my own as well, if the spirit so moves.

What stories would you include?

Bible Stories: the story of David, part 1, as read by the reteller

Last Saturday we went to a workshop on barro negro (black clay) with an artist from San Bartolo de Coyotepec. Incredibly, the method is pure pinch pot: building it up with one’s hands, without coils (for the most part), slabs, or pottery wheel. I really liked the vase I made, but the bottom is much too thick and has developed cracks that would break it right apart in the firing. So I am going to dissolve it back into clay and start over–now that I’ve documented what it looks like.

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Then, yesterday, we went to Burro Press and got a lesson in linocuts, called suelografía in Spanish, to my amusement–suelo means floor. Here’s the first proof of my first linocut, and the placa (what’s it called in English? plate?) below.

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There are two changes I’ll make now that I can see how it’s come out, and one change I wish I could make but can’t. I will make the sky and the area around the door more purely white, and I wish I could change the cross-hatching on the left-hand building (left-hand in the print, that is, not the plate). I wanted it to look lighter in color than the building to its right, but I think it is too busy. If I had it to do over again, I would use the same technique of vertical white lines, but make them denser.

And I will have it to do over again, because I’m taking a class in woodcut and linocut at the Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña starting in two weeks. (I won’t really re-do this piece, though. I have other plans.)

Joy & Munchkin made beautiful pieces in both media, and we’ll be picking up their fired barro negro later today.

In my struggles with procrastination, I’ve tried inner appeals to duty and responsibility, organizational systems, you name it. I’ve gotten better over the years but it’s still hard. Then, some months ago, I had an insight that seems to be helping.

I was in a hurry to leave, and grabbed my sneakers out of the closet. I often pull my sneakers off without untying them, a minor but real act of procrastination that means that the next time I wear them, I have to undo the double knots before I can put them on my feet. But this time I found the laces untied and ready to go. It was as if someone had left me a small, thoughtful present. That someone was myself.

When I took my shoes off later that day, I remembered that feeling. I wanted to give a gift to my future self. I’d give her sneakers that were ready to wear. So instead of saving my current self a few seconds by pulling the shoes off still tied, I untied them.

I’ve been remembering this and building it up to more significant acts of just-do-it-now, for lack of a better antonym for procrastination. I dislike the task of putting my clothes away each evening, but my future self is grateful not to have a pile to sort through after ten days. I have a goal of finishing the first draft of three sections of a writing project before the end of the weekend (i.e., tonight); last night, even though I was disinclined to work on it, I did a chunk rather than leave it all for today. The feeling of having received a gift that eases my way is a better motivator than duty or any other I’ve tried.

Have you struggled with procrastinating? What has helped you?

As I shared in a 2013 post, the Unitarian Universalist ritual of Water Communion can be more than a recitation of where people spent their summer vacations, if we give it careful attention. Dozens of comments on that post and responses in other forums have revealed that many congregational leaders are doing just that. Another change we’ve made in our Water Communion in Palo Alto is the timing, and I’m wondering if other congregations have made a similar change.

As in most Unitarian Universalist congregations, our Water Communion service is also our Ingathering service: the official start of the church year. (We have services every Sunday–no “summer off”–but there is still a rhythm to the liturgical year; the circle of the year has a beginning and a closing.) A few years ago, our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, noted that due to changes in the local school districts’ schedules, our church year was no longer in sync with the school year, and proposed that we re-align it. We have done so ever since, and this year’s Water Communion will be August 21, the first Sunday after the beginning of the school year for most of the children in the area.

In most Unitarian Universalist congregations, the church year has long aligned with the academic year. That in itself might reveal an upper-class bias if it were only about post-high-school education. But in U.S. secular life, there are two major beginning-times: January and the start of the school year. Not surprisingly, therefore, these are some of the peak times for visitors to check out a new church.

People move house most often in the summer. Children begin new routines such as extracurricular activities when they settle in to the new school year. If a parent is contemplating introducing a child to religious education, the chances are they think about it in coordination with secular school. So the first few weeks of school are a natural time for church-shopping. In Palo Alto and neighboring towns, that no longer means the week after Labor Day as it once did, but mid-August. Until we made the switch, our church year, including the Sunday School year, began almost a month after the first day of school.

If you have an Ingathering service, is it timed to coincide with the beginning of the church year? Is your Ingathering service a Water Communion Sunday, or are they different days? Do you have an Water Sunday at all?

I was pleased to discover or re-discover a blog by my distinguished predecessor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, Ken Collier. He writes with profundity and clarity about matters from death to the nature of time to whether Donald Trump is fit to be president. I recommend The Colliery highly.

I’ve loved the story of John Henry since I first heard it, and I was really jazzed to learn that an excellent writer, Colson Whitehead, had written a novel about it. I am now reading it (John Henry Days) and it is not disappointing me. There are so many elements packed into that succinct legend: the struggles of African-Americans (and by extension any people coping daily with oppression); pride and strength and their limits; the shifting meanings of work and our dignity as machines do the work once done by human hands; the relationships among labor and capital, white and black; what it means to triumph over death. I don’t know yet where Whitehead is going with this, but so far he seems to have given deep thought to them all.

I’ve finished the building phase of two ceramics pieces, both coil built. Eventually they’ll be fired and ready for the next phase.

Vase with roots (approx 10″ high, 4″ at widest point):

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Walls of Oaxaca (approx. 6″ high, 10″ wide):

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