Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Community College Collage

Spiritual revelation at community college? It happens.

It was the fall of 1998. I had just lost a job and felt raw and vulnerable. In an attempt to turn lemons in lemonade—instead of sitting around the house and muttering, “Those bastards!” I decided to attend North Seattle Community College full time. I enrolled in all the classes I’d always wanted to take.

French 101 was like jumping into an unheated swimming pool. I gasped and sputtered with shock. Nothing was familiar. I couldn't read the words, let alone pronounce them. Throughout the class the professor would put a hand behind his ear and say, "Ecoutez!" Listen. Attention! Pay attention.

Oddly, I would hear his voice in my head at different times during the day—while talking with a friend, while witnessing an argument in the grocery store, while hearing the wind whisper through the trees. Ecoutez! And I found myself listening the same way I did in class: wondering what can I learn from this? Attention!

If French was a cold pool, Drama was a bubbling hot tub. I was comfortable and hungrily gobbled up everything my professor said.

"Nothing is random, everything is intentional," she said, meaning that in a play, every word, gesture, action and prop had meaning. Could this be true of my life? Looking back it did seem as if everything, even difficult things, lead to a place I would not have otherwise gone.

Then there was Drawing. The first day my professor intoned: "Get the big picture first. What are the major shapes? What is your perspective? Check your proportions."

His words went straight to my heart. How many times had I failed to see the larger context? Or looked at situations from only my perspective and then later dared to see it from another side and found myself suddenly understanding? And as for proportions—I could be the Picasso of reality perception.

We learned about lights and shadows. "Without shadows, your picture has no depth, no dimension." I knew he was talking to me. Nothing is random. Like most people, I wanted to avoid life's shadows. But he was right: without them life was flat and superficial—a cartoon drawing versus a Rembrandt.

It was our study of "negative space, " the space between objects, that set me to hours of pondering. He gently chided us: "Don't focus so much on the object. Without negative space, your picture is just a cluttered mess. And don't forget that half of drawing is standing and looking—not making marks on the paper. How else can you see what is needed?"

But if I wasn't making marks on the paper I felt lazy and irresponsible—the same way I felt watching the clouds or drinking a cup tea. Guilty and unproductive! But perhaps I needed to make "negative space"—time between activities, so I could stand back, look at my life and see what was needed.

In our culture, negative space is not valued. We cram our lives with more objects and activities until our lives feel like cluttered messes. Just take a look at the annual Christmas letter. Have you ever seen one that says, "After work I come home and putter around. On weekends the kids goof around in the yard or whatever. Sometimes I see them just talking to each other."

Singing class brought more insights. "Stay in your body and sing what you're feeling!" my teacher bellowed. "Breathe from your back!"

We breathed. We huffed. We puffed. We gave each other shoulder massages. We pretended to yawn to lift our soft palates in order to hit the high notes. We sang with our tongues hanging out.

After a while I started to get more comfortable with the high notes—they just sounded bad. "Your problem is that you hit every note with such force," my professor said punching her fist into the air.

I blinked. Well, that's how I do everything in life, I thought.

She continued, "You need to learn to sing the note gracefully—you don't need all that force." I didn't need all that force? That's a revolutionary concept. Could this possibly apply to the rest of my life? Stand back and look.

I went to learn about theatre, art, singing and French. But I came away knowing about listening and attention, negative space, lights and shadows, force and grace.

Community college—I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Christmas Story

I was in the fourth grade when my father got the idea of putting a 12 foot aluminum Christmas tree on top his ham radio tower. My sister Lynie and I were wild with delight. "Yeah, Dad, do it, do it! Please. We'll help. It will be so-o-o neat. " My mother rolled her eyes.

Every day after school we would come home to find my dad working on Project Christmas Tree. My mother called it Project Stupidity. Lynie and I helped by putting the aluminum branches into the silver painted trunk. Spurred on by our enthusiasm for the project, Dad also decided to put a motor on the tree so that it would spin around. Then, in a moment of true genius, he installed two floodlights so that it could be seen at night.

At last the moment came to crank the tree up into the sky. "Wait," Lynie said. My dad and I looked at her expectantly. I was expecting something dopey to come out of her second grade mouth. "Ornaments," she said.

"Ornaments!" I yelled running back to the house. I knew just where my mother put those boxes of new red glass balls.

Nobody spoke as we reverently hung the balls all over the tree. I hung up the last ornament. "It's beautiful," Lynie said in whisper. She was right again. It was prettier, more wonderful, more fantastic than any tree I'd ever seen. It was alive--it shivered as the wind blew through it's aluminum needles. Finally my dad cranked it up, up into the sky.

"We have to get some distance," my dad said. "It's like looking up a flagpole at flag. You can't really see it. Let's go over to the Gemco parking lot after dinner and look at it from there." Gemco was about half a mile away as the crow flies.

I could hardly eat dinner I was so excited. My mom didn't want to come to Gemco with us--she was mad that we took her new Christmas ornaments. Lynie and I covered our eyes the way to the parking lot. We didn't want to spoil it. We got out of our Dad's van and there--up in the sky--there was the silver tree. It looked like it was floating. It was magical.

You couldn't really see the Christmas balls, but you could tell it was spinning round and round like the ballerina in my jewelry box. It was so beautiful I started crying, but managed to croak out, "Project Christmas Tree is a success!"

But not for long. Two nights after Christmas, we had a terrible storm. It rained heavily and a gale force wind came up.

The next day, and for several weeks afterward, people, known and unknown, came to our door. Usually they would hold out one of the aluminum branches and ask, "Is this yours?"

My mother would thank them, take the branch, close the door and then mutter "Stupidity!" under her breath. All the branches blew off except for two. All the ornaments were missing except for one. And that one my dad broke when he took down what was left of the tree.

Lynie and I didn't talk about it. That is, until Easter vacation when a strange man rang our doorbell. He said he lived over by Gemco. He carefully reached into the brown paper bag he was holding. "Is this yours?" he asked. He was holding one of the Christmas tree's red glass balls. But now it was actually pink. "I came across this in my garden," he said smiling.

Lynie gasped. "The Christmas ornament that turned into an Easter egg," she said. "It's a miracle." My mother thanked him, took the ornament, shut the door and didn't say a word.