For the Arts

Day Seven: Gratitude for the Arts

I suppose it is not terribly surprising that an artist, writer, and career art teacher would be grateful for something that has been such a vibrant force throughout her life, but I realized that I’ve heard very little being said, recently, about the value of the arts in our lives.

I think we’re missing something important, by such an omission. There’s a quote from C. S. Lewis that I’ve seen popping up with fair frequency: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art . . . . It has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things that give value to survival.” For me, this quote encapsulates the problem I see.

I believe it is being circulated because people think it affirms the value of art. But to my mind, it understates and diminishes the value, not only of art, but also of friendship and philosophy.

I may decide I need to get into the particulars of this argument someday, but here’s the short version:

Lewis’s unrecognized devaluation of of friendship, philosophy, and art comes from a narrowed definition of these concepts:

  • The preposterous notion that any man could be an island.
  • The idea that philosophy is only conceived by the most abstract (or famous) of introspective thinkers.
  • An elitist assumption that true art is only created by those operating as high-level professionals in creative fields.

Unfortunately, this understanding is far too widely shared, to the detriment of us all. I think this is part of the reason why the arts have been under siege for years, in this country.

Even as we repeatedly discover that a vibrant arts community is as important a business asset to a city or region as excellent public schools, it remains a dual lesson that painfully few in KansasMissouri (where cuts have impacted all aspects of education, and arts often are cut first), or our national government seem to have mastered.
Certainly the importance–and the powerful positive results–of teaching the arts in schools has been amply documented.

But the power of the arts to continue connecting people with their true selves doesn’t stop when they graduate. The arts are a lifelong enricher of souls, giving depth to the lives of all who are willing to embrace them.

Yet the arts continue to be considered as “frills,” unnecessary, or “a side issue,” by all too many people. If art is understood only to be a grace-note in life, it can safely be ignored (and need not be publicly funded). I think Winston Churchill had a better grasp of the issue.

We live in a bitterly divided society, here in the US. All too often, we seem exclusively focused on the ugly, the evil, and the terrifying. Granted, the tenor of politics, the upward spiral of natural disaster occurrences, and the number of mass shootingsterror incidents, and other violence we’ve seen in the daily headlines recently seem designed to drag us down. In such an environment, it’s easier for nationalist and authoritarian movements to gain a footing.

I think the rise in nationalism and authoritarianism in recent decades is largely to blame for the trivialization of the arts (noted above as “part of the reason”) that has come to characterize many funding battles in the public sector.

Authoritarians have a natural distrust of free-thinkers (who are everywhere in the arts), of empirical research, which is less amenable to ideology than other approaches (hence the all-too-common contemporary negative views of science), and of critical thinking in general (because it too readily pokes holes in authoritarian dogma).

The arts lift us beyond our immediate struggles. They can show us other points of view, new ways of thinking and seeing. They give us a rich context for meaning-making and help us build more complete understandings.

The arts, in their best expressions, build bridges of understanding rather than walls of division. They heal us and grant us a wider vision, so we can see–and therefore seek–a better way forward. That’s the most important reason of all, why I give thanks for the arts.

IMAGES: The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. So is the design for the Eve L. Ewing quote, for which I gratefully acknowledge the BBCWikipedia, and Reuters, via the BBC, which provided the vintage photos. If for some reason you’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post. Many thanks to AZ Quotes for the C.S. Lewis quote image; to The Artful Parent, for the Ananda Coomaraswamy quote image; to The Keep Forever Box, for the Sydney Gurewitz Clemens quote; to Jen Bissou’s Pinterest page for the Churchill quote; and to Brainy Quote, for both the Picasso and Degas quote images. I am deeply appreciative to all.

For Companion Animals

Day Six: Gratitude for Companion Animals

When placed up there next to some of the other massive issues (yesterday I was talking about global food security, for example), the blessing of having a companion animal in one’s home at first doesn’t seem to be in exactly the same league.

But human-animal bonds are ancient and strong. I have argued on this blog in the past that the history and development of humans would have been considerably different without domesticated animals–especially dogs (dogs are my ultimate favorite animals, so I admit I’m sorely biased).

It’s a really incomplete picture to leave out cats, horses/donkeys/mules, cattle/oxen/water buffaloes, sheep, goats, swine, chickens and other poultry, rabbits, guinea pigs, camels, and llamas, though. Indeed, without mice, rats, and other animals, our medical history also would have progressed much differently.

But this post is particularly concerned with companion animals–the very dearest pets, the ones we invite into our homes, and often consider to be members of the family. Readers of this series with exceptionally good memories will recall from the latter paragraphs of Monday’s post that I do consider ours to be family members.

We have several decades’ worth of studies that affirm their value, at this point, though the unenlightened in Western society still all too often insist “it’s just an animal.” Poor things: they simply have no idea.

I can personally attest to the importance of companion animals for meeting people and staving off loneliness (yes, that’s me in the photo above, with my current dog Jake). The very best way to meet people in our neighborhood is to take the dog out for a walk.

As to staving off loneliness? My dearly-loved Chihuahua-MinPin mix (who stayed right beside me through three successive bouts of pneumonia one horrible winter, and who still is featured in my Facebook profile pic) died the Christmas before both of my kids moved away to college and took all the other resident animals with them. With my Beloved working extremely long hours, if I hadn’t gotten my little Iggy-girl Brenna that following November I think I’d have gone into an even deeper depression from sheer loneliness.

My daughter spent more than a year, living mostly–except for her animals–alone in California, doing hard, undervalued work as a caregiver to an elderly relative. She did make friends, but her animals helped keep her sane. They still do, even as she faces new challenges.

I also can attest to the beneficial effects of companion animals on children. In my family’s case, two Border Collies and a Bernese Mountain Dog-shepherd mix helped my Beloved and me rear our kids, assisted by several cats and an assortment of gerbils and hooded rats (at our church, my daughter became known as the “gerbil-whisperer” for good reason!).

It is perhaps needless to say that I believe that the initiatives to use therapy animals for everything from the “reading dogs” who help beginning readers strengthen their skills to the “comfort animals” who visit hospitals and hospicesdisaster sites, and nursing homes are well-advised to tap into the almost-magical connection humans have with companion animals.

I’m a strong believer in the value of the human-animal bond. As our society splinters into ever-smaller family units and as people “cocoon” in their homes more and more (the telecommuting fad seems to have peaked, but internet sales still continue to gain on actual face-to-face shopping in brick-and-mortar retail stores), humans’ essential, social-animal nature hasn’t changed. It’s healthier to connect with an animal than with nothing and no one at all. I could argue that our animals are one of the last things keeping us connected to ourselves.

The health benefits of companion-animal ownership–both mental and physical health–are well-documented and hard to dispute. The soul-benefits are harder to define, but no less important.

IMAGES: The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. If for some reason You’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post. Likewise, the three quotes from Allan M. Beck and Marshall Meyers all were extracted from an article by “Anna” on Ethical Pets The Blog, but the photos are variously by my daughter and me, of ourselves and some of the dogs in our lives. I did the design work for all three of those quote-images. Feel free to re-post them, but please include an attribution and a link back to this post. Thanks! The Jane Goodall quote image is from the Eco Watch site, from a post by “True Activist” last April. The Anatole France quote image is from One Green Planet (featuring a photo by Wendy Piersall), via Pinterest. Many thanks to all!

For Food Security

Day Five: For Food Security

I feel more conflicted about this one than I have about my previous gratitude topics. Not that food security is not a marvelous blessing–it truly is, in every sense of the word. 

But I’m aware that all around me–in my community, across my nation, and around the world, there are many, many people who do not share this blessing.

To express public gratitude for it, in the knowledge of such widespread lack, almost feels like gloating. That’s not my intention at all. If I could, I’d extend this blessing to everyone in the world, so that no one anywhere has to go to bed hungry, or wonder where their next meal will come from.

Here in the USA, today is Thanksgiving. Everyone in the country is presumed to be eating their fill, then waddling into the next room to zone out in a “food coma” while watching American football games. However, despite the best efforts of community charities, not everyone will be able to do that. Statesman Jacques Diouf put it well:

Everyone alive should be acknowledged to have a basic human right to adequate, nutritious food. That this is ignored, pushed aside as inconvenient, left to the vaguaries of climate change, governmental style or unregulated capitalism, or even actively subverted so hunger can be used as a weapon is inexcusable. Yes, people have been doing it for millennia; it’s a crime against humanity every single time, in my opinion.

How can persons of conscience work to fight food insecurity? Acknowledging that we who can eat well are blessed, we can make charitable donations on both the local (link to find US agencies) and international (this link: UN) level to help fill immediate shortfalls.

But we also must advocate for longer-range goals: 

Creating systemic improvement is a large, difficult goal, fraught with practical difficulties, cultural pitfalls, and unintended results. It also is desperately necessary, as long as people anywhere are hungry.

Creating changes in public opinion is a way to begin. Funding empirical studies by unbiased researchers is a reasonable step forward. Involving all involved parties in design of solutions is a reasonable, respectful necessity that is likeliest to result in the best solutions. Many initiatives have already begun. We all must work together to bring the best ones to fruition.

IMAGES: The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. If for some reason You’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post. The “Food security definition” quote by Pattie Baker is from Quozio, via Pinterest; her book Food for My Daughters is available from Amazon Smile and other fine booksellers. The Jacques Diouf quote is identified as sourced from Live58, though I couldn’t find it on their site; I did find it on the website for GRIID (the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy). The quote from Ray Offenheiser of Oxfam America is courtesy of The Huffington Post, via Pinterest. Many thanks to all!

For my Callings

Day Four: Grateful for my Callings

The idea that one has a “purpose” or a “calling” on one’s life is another one of those universal thoughts that many different spiritual traditions have identified. I’ve connected to mine through my Christian faith, but you don’t have to be a Christian to know you have gifts and talents, or passions in life that call to you.

I think it’s part of human psychology, deep-rooted in our social-animal nature, to want our lives to make a difference in the world. We find our reason for being in what we perceive to be our life’s purpose.

Conversely, I don’t think I’ve ever met any more unhappy kind of person than those who don’t think they have any particular purpose, no reason to exist. They swell the ranks of the suicidal, because they really don’t believe they matter–even when they very much DO.

My faith-tradition tells me that I was uniquely created by God, and placed here in this moment and location for specific reasons–with tasks set before me, which I was specifically crafted to do well. It is part of my faith-walk to seek out my callings (we all come with several), and fulfill them as faithfully as I can.

That means I must know myself, in as much honesty and fullness as I can. I must look at myself critically, and evaluate my strengths and weaknesses to the best of my ability, nakedly before God (God already knows, of course; there’s no fooling, or faking God out).

What am I drawn to do? Where do my skills, talents, and natural abilities lie? If I was created by God to fulfill certain callings as faithfully as I can, then I must also believe that God has attuned my heart to them (why else would they be identified as callings, after all?). When I am fulfilling the best uses I can find for the callings I feel most passionate about, then I believe I am operating at the heart of God’s will for me.

I don’t know any other way to faithfully answer my calling. Some things–some causes, some works–resonate more deeply for me. Throughout my life, it has been the same: Writing; artwork; teaching; giving; nurturing the animals and people entrusted into my hands. God and I have pretty much reached an understanding, six-plus decades on. I do the work as I understand it; God provides the way to sustain it.

So far, that’s working for me. I hope you’ve found your own path–the one that works for you. Blessings come, along your calling’s paths. Follow your passion, when you think you’ve lost your way.

IMAGES: The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. If for some reason You’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post.  Many thanks to Chellyepic on Instagram, for the “things that excite you” quote image; to Heart and Soul Coaching for the Mark Twain quote image; to The Soul Purpose Project, for the Picasso quote image; and to Awesome Quotes on Tumblr for the “purpose and passion” quote image. I deeply appreciate all of you!

For Peace

Day Three: Grateful for Peace

Peace is a slipperier concept than you might at first think. For starters, what kind of peace am I grateful for?

Do I mean inner peace? Yes. Do I mean domestic peace? Yes. Do I mean peace in my community? Yes. Do I mean peace in the world? Yes. I am grateful for whatever moments, or fragments, or aspirational visions of peace I can grasp.

It seems ironic to me that everyone seems to want peace, or at least they say they do–but still there actually is so little of it to be encountered in the world. If we really want it so badly, why don’t we have it? Lots of reasons, I think. There are many forces working against peace, no matter whether we are talking about personal, inner harmony, or our larger communities. We live in a perpetual state of seeking a balance.

Forces such as a struggle to survive, to thrive, and to control aspects of one’s life are not necessarily bad, in and of themselves, but there are times when they produce strife. Forces such as greed, hatred, and intolerance normally are looked upon as evil or sinful–in others. We tend to give ourselves a “pass” when they crop up in our own mental landscapes.

Is competition good, or does it stir up divisiveness? The answer to both is: it can be/can. Is self-interest essential to individual survival? Yes. Can it also lead to destructive selfishness? Absolutely.

I think the first step for any of us is to find a way within our own selves to cultivate peace. As Anne Frank said:

The imperative need to act lovingly toward others is affirmed in many faith traditions, but you do not have to be Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or a follower of any religion at all, to see the sense in this. If we treat others with love and respect, it is much easier for them to respond in kind.

But it is the “love and respect for others” part where so many of our peace initiatives break down. If we go into a situation believing that the “other” is angry or hostile, it is harder to display peacefulness.

If we start with the assumption that the “other” is stupid, evil, or automatically wrong, we have already decided not to respect them. Granted, there are a lot of people whose opinion we find it hard to respect! But we don’t have to like what they say to agree that every person deserves a foundational level of respect, if we seek for peaceful relations with them.

I think respect is the essential difference between the peacekeeper and the peacemaker, no matter what the setting or the scope of the dispute.


In our lives, our local communities, our social media, our national discourse, and our international relations, I think the people we need most are peacemakers. Blessings upon them! How can we find ways to be them? The road is deceptively simple. Kind of like the idea of peace itself.

IMAGES: The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. If for some reason You’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post. The “You cannot find peace” quote image is from The Things We Say; the Anne Frank quote image is from Affirm Your Life; the Tabarani 6067 quote image is from e Islamic Quotes; the Angie Lichtenstein quote image is from Pixteller. I profoundly thank each one!

For my Family

Day Two: Grateful for my Family

We humans are shaped and often defined by our families, for both well and ill. We can inherit everything–and anything–from our forebears, including any or all of those listed below:

  • Genetic vulnerabilities or resistances to diseases
  • Family recipes (be they sublime–or dreadful!)
  • Attitudes (political or otherwise)
  • Catchphrases (do you ever hear your parent’s or grandparent’s voice coming out of your own mouth?)
  • Childrearing practices (boy, can that be a two-edged sword! For you, and your kids!)
  • Knicknacks (from worthless dust-collectors to priceless heirlooms)
  • Traditions, (for holidays, special occasions, or anything at all)
  • Wealth (along with its entanglements.)
  • Poverty (different kinds of entanglements, but at least as many, here)
  • Or, all too often, dysfunctional patterns that over time can take on the likeness of a “generational curse,” if we’re not careful, thoughtful, and brutally self-reflective.

Blessings? Curses? A little of both? Yes. Families can be all of those. They even can be all of those at the same time.

If you regard your family-of-origin with little short of horror, I get it.

If you see them mainly as a pain in the patoot but you love them anyway, you’re in good company throughout most of the planet.

If you never knew them, I offer my deepest condolences–and pray you may be empowered to surround yourself with the kind of friends who love you like the most positive kind of brothers and sisters.

But if you’re like me, you not only remember your siblings and parents–you still have at least some of them around to deal with, care about, and/or worry about.

A bit rude, maybe, but more accurate than not.

In my case I have a house I have almost reclaimed from the hoarder-esque piles of inherited household goods after some eight estate liquidations since 2005, a recently-turned-93-year-old father, a Beloved who lost his 89-year-old mother this year, and two adult children with a variety of strengths and challenges–plus assorted canine, feline, piscine, and even Eublepharine household members with challenges of their own.

They are, in many ways, the reason I get up in the morning (well, them and the novel!), the delight of my life, and also the sand in my gears. I wouldn’t trade them for anything, and I know I’m incredibly lucky to have them. Every single one I’ve lost, I’ve lost under extreme protest. Every single one I haven’t yet lost, I cherish with all my heart.

IMAGES:  The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. If for some reason You’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post. Many thanks to Boardofwisdom, via Your English Library’s summary page about About a Boyfor the quotation image from Manwadu Ndife, and to iFunny for the graphic about family being like underpants.

 

For Religious Freedom

Day One: Grateful for Religious Freedom

On many calendars, this is the first day of the week, so I figure this is a good place to start my Seven Days of Gratitude project for the week of the US Thanksgiving holiday. Throughout my life, gratitude and thankfulness have repeatedly come up as important themes. I welcome this holiday each year as an opportunity to explore them once again.

My daughter recently started a “Gratitude Journal,” a daily recording of at least one thing each day for which she is thankful. Thinking about her project has given me my theme. As a practicing Christian, it is my belief that I have myriad blessings each day to celebrate with joy and thanksgiving to my God.

Massive among of those blessings, for me, it the United States Bill of Rights guarantee that I may practice my religious faith freely, without fear of persecution. It should be a source of great joy to everyone in the USA that this not only is guaranteed to me, but to everyone in my country, whatever tradition of faith–or however much absence of religious expression–they cherish.

Ironically, I think this is the single most important reason why so many people in the United States still say they believe in God (89%, according to a 2016 Gallup Poll. Compare that to most other industrialized nations, many of which have long histories of state religions). It seems to me that if you are free to believe in the God of your innermost spiritual being, you are more able to find reasons to believe in any God at all.

Or not. And that won’t get you thrown in prison either, thank . . . the Bill of Rights.

Our strength, yet again, lies in our diversity. That’s why I shudder when I hear people say “America is a Christian nation!” Many of the founders may indeed have been some variety of Christian (pretty broadly defined, though: consider how many were Deists, or how Thomas Jefferson felt free to create his own “good parts” version of the New Testament), but asserting any specific religion as “the” American religion would have been “fighting words” to them.

And rightly so. I believe that all of us in the United States should be deeply thankful for our guarantee of religious freedomand I believe that we must remember and defend it, any time we see the rights of any religious community under attack. Bad as that is, though, I think it’s even worse when the values of any particular religion are imposed upon others, especially by people acting in the name of some level of government. Any advocacy for either abuse should be “fighting words” for all true Americans.

IMAGES: The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. If for some reason You’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post. The illustrated quote from Sir Patrick Stewart is courtesy of We F**king Love Atheism. Many thanks!