Appreciating Creativity in All of Its Forms

toonseumTonight, Brad and I will attend a fundraiser for the Toonseum, a small gem of a museum in Pittsburgh dedicated to the cartoon and comic book arts. Brad and I aren’t particular aficionados of this art form. In fact, our interest probably fits best in the passing fancy category. Our impetus for buying tickets to the event was that a good friend is on the board of the Toonseum, and we love our friend, so we want to support his passion. Meeting Pittsburgh “royalty”—like Rick Sebak, Pittsburgh Dad, and David Newell (Mr. McFeely from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood)—was also a draw, I won’t lie.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that supporting the Toonseum is worth doing just on its own merit. Cartoon and comic book art is every bit as much art as Monet’s “Water Lilies” or Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. It is worthy of saving and displaying and cherishing—not because of how many people might like the art form—but because it represents someone’s creative expression. It is worthy of considering because, like all art forms, it is often a reflection of society, or in some cases maybe, how society could or should be. I may not understand some of it or be drawn to its content or visual form, but it has intrinsic beauty and worth.

If left to my own devices, I’m guilty of appreciating and making time for only creative forms I enjoy most—baroque and classical music, Impressionist and Romantic paintings and sculpture, movies that make me smile, literature with a great story and redeeming ending. But now and then, it is exciting and important to experience forms that fall outside our norm—whether that’s a newly composed atonal piece at the symphony or an entire exhibit with humanoid forms made out of stuffed pantyhose at the art museum.

I’m also guilty of having held a fairly narrow view of what creativity or art is, reserving that designation for something you’d see on a gallery wall, read for a book report, or hear from a symphony or band. However, I am learning to see that creativity takes many forms, and we are all creators in our own ways. Whether coming up with a new superhero, writing and delivering a powerful sermon, growing a garden, or arranging furniture in a room to maximize its use and beauty—(or maybe even writing a blog??)—these are all acts of creativity, and they express something about the character, experiences, and environment of the maker.

The challenge when encountering something creative is to not evaluate it through our personal lens of what is art or what is “good,” but rather to simply appreciate the creative process, the person behind the work, and the fact that our Creator has made us all to be creators.

Hanging Up the Cape

capeLast week was rather upsetting to me as I realized I can no longer continue doing my job 100% when treatments take me away from the office for 15% of the work week. I had to tell a project lead that I needed to pull back from his work for the next month or two. He was exceedingly understanding. And several managers have reminded me that I should not feel like I have to keep doing it all. One person told me that I need to take off my Wonder Woman cape for a little while.

Pushing some tasks off my plate was a big relief; I feel much better able to cope with treatments and life this week. But what I’m wondering is, for so many of us, why does it take a serious illness or another major life event to feel like it’s OK to say, “No, I can’t do everything that everyone wants me to do”? Why do we ever feel like we have to don the Wonder Woman (or Superman) cape?

I have colleagues who work nights and weekends routinely to catch up. Friends who struggle to meet the demands of three or four volunteer positions. Acquaintances who travel so often that they miss family milestones. And fellow mom buddies who feel they must orchestrate elaborate birthday parties, craft homemade teacher gifts, or come up with 25 novel scenarios for their Elf on a Shelf each Christmas.

We end up doing so much that we lose the joy in any of it. We grow resentful of jobs, service opportunities, even kids’ sporting or theater events because there just aren’t enough hours in the day. We don’t have the energy. A generation ago, at least folks observed a sabbath day each week (whether Sundays or Saturdays), reserved for relaxing and family. Today, it’s just another day for running errands or checking work email to avoid starting the new week too far behind.

What would happen if we all took off our super-capes and set some limits? Not because we have to for health reasons, but because we want to. Sure, people will be disappointed. Some things won’t get done. We might even have to give up some status or (gasp!) money. But odds are, nothing that gets knocked off our to-do lists will be essential.

Although we might experience a tinge of loss or a hit to our pride in the short term, what we gain in the long term will be worth it: More time with family and friends. More time to read, enjoy a hobby, or be alone with our thoughts. We’ll set a better example for the next generation. And we might, just might, stop feeling so frazzled and stressed. How about it—Will you try hanging up your cape?

(photo credit: auntbunnysblankets, etsy: https://www.etsy.com/listing/111694506/child-wonder-woman-cape-wonder-woman)

Choosing to See the Good

A friend posted something on Facebook yesterday that really spoke to me:

“‘Recognizing the good’ does not deny the painful realities of life, but instead moves faithfully into the space of contradiction and says ‘yes’ to the good, true, and beautiful things that are all around us.” (a passage from A Movable Feast: Worship for the Other Six Days by Terry Timm)

I have found myself grappling in extra measure this week with being in the “space of contradiction,” trying desperately to fix my eyes on all that is still good and right in the world, yet coming face to face with the painful, tough stuff of life day after day.

Each morning, I am greeted by radiation techs who are smiling, warm, and caring—doing their best to make me comfortable. By all measures, beautiful examples of health care providers doing things right. Yet, I cannot deny the looming, buzzing cancer-killing machine that sits mere inches from my body. And the whole process of radiation remains a space of contradiction to me. It is intended for healing, yet with each passing day, I notice signs of the effects on my body that feel like anything but healing.

I found myself behind a hearse the other day. A shiny, silver Cadillac decked out with chrome trim, padded vinyl top, and curtains in the window. Inside, I could see the glossy, rounded top of a casket, the inside of which was no doubt lined with pleated, white fabric and a fluffy pillow to dress it up. The vehicle and the casket were intended to be beautiful and stately, bringing a measure of class and dignity to the deceased. Yet, the whole reason for their existence is death. I couldn’t help but think that somewhere, there was a family whose hearts were breaking at the loss of a loved one.

The grittiness of life exists alongside potential good and beauty in so many situations we encounter. It is a conscious decision to focus on the positive, the beautiful, the blessings. Sitting on my porch on a sunny, warm Saturday morning and enjoying the bustle of life in my neighborhood, that’s not so difficult. At other times, it is a hard-fought resolution not to be mired in the ugliness in the world—whether in my own little sphere or across the globe somewhere.

There’s a verse in Philippians 4 that tells us, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” I think that verse is in there because God knows we need to be reminded where to direct our minds in this world that is at once so broken and so glorious.

I know this post echoes others I’ve written—that idea of hope and good in the midst of trial or pain. Perhaps that’s a natural mental space to hang out in when facing a situation like mine. Then again, maybe it’s not so natural. There are plenty of folks I have encountered in the waiting room who clearly do NOT have that bent. Their faces are hardened into a frown, they complain often, and they seem, at least to me, to be miserable. So, I suppose I’m OK with not getting points for originality in my recent writings—if it helps me (and maybe the couple dozen folks who read this blog) to remember to choose to see the good.

Cancer Community

radiation room

Today I embarked on a journey to boldly go where… well… far too many people have gone before. No, this picture is not part of a Star Trek set. It’s the radiation suite that will welcome me for the next 32 business days. Each day, I will lie on this table, place my hands behind my head in a mold made to position me just so, and hold still while technicians flip a switch that sends a field of radiation into my body.

What struck me when walking into the room the first time was the many molds just like mine hanging on the wall, and another wall of shelves filled with various other molds. Each of those molds represents another person who, like me, had their life interrupted in the last few months by the monster called cancer. A person who will carve out about an hour of each day for weeks in a row to shrink a tumor or kill potential stray cancer cells left after surgery. A person with a family, maybe a job they’re missing, probably plans for spring or summer that have been replaced instead by a treatment plan.

It makes me sad to think that so many others have been added to the roll of cancer patients. At the same time, there is some comfort in knowing dozens of others walk through the foot-thick door to the radiation suite each week. Maybe it’s a sense of safety in numbers? Although I will probably meet few, if any, of those people, I somehow feel a certain connection to this little cancer community, in our shared experience. And I pray that each of them makes it through radiation treatments without a hitch.

The Holy within the Harried

church of holy sepulchreEach Easter, I recall our trip to the Holy Land, which took place the week after Easter 2008. While scriptures are read and we sing songs about Christ’s resurrection, what springs to mind typically is the Garden Tomb—one of the places in Jerusalem that claims to be where Christ was buried. I blogged last Easter about why that’s the spot I associate with the Easter story.

But this year was different. This Easter, in hearing the familiar verses from the Gospel of Luke, my mind went instead to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the other spot that claims to be the site of Christ’s burial. There we strolled around a large, beautiful church, marveling at colorful mosaics and shiny relics, before settling in a long line to wait our turn to enter a tiny, enclosed altar space that commemorates the location of Christ’s tomb. The space is big enough for only a few people at a time, hence the long line.

What struck me in recalling our visit to that place is not what happened when we reached the altar and knelt before it, but what happened in the long line. What I experienced there was an acute juxtaposition of holy and harried. Most of the people there were with tour groups like our own, groups with places to see and schedules to keep. It’s a tour of the entire Holy Land in just a week to 10 days, after all—no time for delays. As the line crept forward, people began to push a bit, they grew impatient and irritated, they grumbled as they shifted their weight from tired foot to tired foot, and there was some fussing when it appeared folks were trying to cut in line (the last shall be first? I don’t think so).

At the same time, we tried to focus on the somber beauty of the place and remember that here—or somewhere close to here—is where Christ the Lord was buried and then rose again. Behind our group were some older women. From their clothing and language, I’m guessing they were from Eastern Europe somewhere. They seemed oblivious to the crowd. Some bowed their heads, others gazed in awe at their surroundings. And then one woman began to sing a beautiful tune. Again and again, she sang quietly, “Veni Sante Spiritus”—Come, Holy Spirit. The melody cut straight through all of the grumbling and irritation, and my spirit was lifted. Christ again became the center of my experience in that place (as He should have been to begin with).

This has been a stressful year—one of illness, surgery and treatments, unexpected home expenses, costly vet bills, parents struggling with various issues, and less than smooth sailing in raising teenage boys. It is easy to get caught up in the chaos of life and resort to grumbling and shoving. Although there is little I can do to stop the harried pace of life and the challenges that come my way, I can remember that the risen Christ dwells within me. Like the woman in the line, during the waiting, frustration, and jostling in life, I, too, can choose to sing—or cry out—Come, Holy Spirit.

Even with Hope, Death Stings

There’s a verse in 1 Corinthians 15:55 that asks, “Where, O death, is your sting?” I know that’s referring to the fact that, because of the resurrection, death doesn’t have the final say for followers of Christ. But this week, I’m feeling that death does have sting, and plenty of it—at least on this side of Heaven.

On Monday, my parents attended the funeral of one of their dear, old friends, the wife of a couple they met in the very first house they owned. My brother and I spent long summer nights playing with their kids, while the parents sat, talking and laughing over beers and a barbecue grill. This friend leaves behind a husband of 40+ years, two grown kids, and several grandchildren. Her husband was a wreck at the funeral. Yes, death stings.

Yesterday, half the people in my office attended the funeral of a colleague who died of cancer. She was in her 40s, I believe. Her husband now has to raise their two young children without the love of his life by his side. And their kids will win sports games, attend school dances, have their first kiss, and experience the many other milestones of their youth without the eyes of their mother looking on. Indeed, death stings.

For the families of the 149 people killed in an instant when a pilot intentionally downed a German airliner, death sure as heck stings, especially as they hear the story told and retold in the news.

When a member of your family or circle of friends passes away—particularly when it’s sudden or at too young an age—grief takes hold, and it’s hard to imagine a day when the sun will shine brightly again. Those who trust in the Lord know that death does not get the victory. Although this brings hope for tomorrow, it doesn’t erase the raw pain and emptiness that death can bring. Even Jesus was deeply moved at the death of Lazarus, before he called him out of the tomb. I guess the trick is learning to live comfortably in a space of both grief and hope—confident that over time, hope will tip the scales.

The Cost of Health

reduce-healthcare-costI got a bill today for my surgery. Apparently, a lumpectomy with associated pre-op, anesthesia, and a couple hours in recovery runs just over $25,000. That’s on top of $2700 for an ultrasound, $4500 for an MRI, $3000 for pathology, $2500 or so for genetic testing to see if I have BRCA mutations (I don’t), and another several hundred dollars at a pop for various consultations with the surgeon and oncologists. I’m bad at math, so I won’t add all that up. But, it’s an awful lot!

Thankfully, we have great health insurance that includes a health reimbursement account and a fairly low deductible and out-of-pocket max. So, this illness will not have a terrible financial impact on our family. But for some families, cancer, severe injury, heart attacks, etc. lead to serious financial hardship or disaster. And even if insurance pays the lion’s share of the costs, someone is still paying for the care.

Several of the projects I work with relate to prevention—initiatives and programs at local, state, and national levels that aim to change personal behavior, policies, systems, and community environments as part of a comprehensive effort to reduce the burden of disease in the United States. Frequently, I see figures that estimate the cost of health care in the United States—figures in the trillions of dollars. Figures in the billions for treating individual diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or stroke. And although those figures are impressive (not in a good way) and keep me excited about the work our department does, they are abstract numbers that are hard to really wrap my mind around.

Seeing that $25,000 charge on a bill addressed to me, however, drives the point home much more concretely. The cost of health care is outrageous. They say “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Obviously, there is great wisdom in that—not only from a financial perspective, but also from a pain-and-suffering perspective. I’m grateful there are many people and organizations—my colleagues included—who are working to help prevent illnesses that take such a huge toll on individuals and society. And I’m grateful to be able to contribute in my own small way to that purpose. I’m hopeful that in my lifetime, we’ll see real progress with dramatic reductions in diseases that cost a fortune and rob millions of people of a long, full life.