A Poem for Post-Christmas

20181224_123008 (1)This year, I spent Christmas in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex and in all honesty, it was hard. It was sweet that Alex and I finally got to spend our very first Christmas together and it was sweet to have quality time with his family and take part in different traditions. But for the first time in many years, I didn’t get to take a starlight walk through a field and imagine the chorus of angels behind the silence. I didn’t perch atop a hay bale under a barn roof and journal with half-numb fingers about the glorious implications of lesser-known Christmas carols. There are no fields here, of course, and certainly no hay bales. What’s more to the point, there is no space for solitude in nature, and I’m finding more and more that productive reflection and rest is really difficult for me to achieve indoors.

One thing I did do was spend two full afternoons in an upscale shopping mall, hiding out in a bookstore and looking for some soul peace. On Christmas Eve, I was there the whole afternoon, thumbing through poetry books, vaguely looking for something to anchor my anxious heart.

The triviality of the world can be stifling and I think we all feel it at different times and in different ways. I feel it most when I’m in the presence of hopeless materialism, when I’m watching people get bogged down and burdened by the tightening chains of things that are without longevity, purpose or meaning. And of course, there’s nowhere like the mall if you want to get yourself a load of that.

One of the books I explored that afternoon in the bookstore was Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems For Hard Times. In his introductory notes, Keillor explains why he thinks poetry has something to contribute to people who are suffering. “The meaning of poetry,” he says, “is to give courage.” And that stuck with me. Because ah. That is what I chiefly need.

Since I couldn’t find any poems that spoke to what I was feeling, I started scratching out a brand new one, pouring my sadness and frustration into lyrical words. But, as so often happens, hope happened at the end of it.

This poem is meant to push back on the dangerous idea that what we’re up against today is somehow worse or less conquerable than what has been in the past. For a traditional artist like me, whose heart beats faster at the sight of hard-copy letters and old-fashioned style and the texture of paper, who feels a sadness in the pit of my stomach when I see isolation creeping into culture or the price of postage going always up; well, this is vital.

It’s vital that Jesus came into a horrible, horrible, world where nothing made sense and everyone was confused. Where truth was murky and beauty was treacherous and self-preservation was central. These things have always been, taking one form or another. And that’s vital.

It’s vital for post-Christmas, when we’re trying to get ready for the new year, for the sorrows that are inevitable, for the loneliness of being human, for the days when faith doesn’t seem to fit anywhere.

Star Of Bethlehem FlowerThe title of the poem refers to the ornithogalum flower, also known as the “Star of Bethlehem.” I took an interest in it earlier this month when I was working on the January edition of the Letters From the Sea Tower. I wanted to make a little illustration for a striking line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. In his exploration of the mythos of King Arthur, Tennyson employs the phrase, “wearing the white flower of a blameless life,” and I chose the small, unobtrusive, starry ornithogalum to be my model for the white flower. But as I began to write this poem, it came to me that if a white flower is a representation of a blameless life, there is someone who wore it far better than even King Arthur. Here’s to Him.

And without further ado, here’s my little poem. May it bring you some courage to face the shallowness of the world with limitless grace and cheerful defiance. May your life in some kind resemble the humble, white-flower life of Jesus.

STAR OF BETHLEHEM [Ornithogalum]

The world was just this way
 	when
Baby Jesus bloomed in the
 	crisp winter and the frost
 		couldn’t wilt him.
People then as now
 	were lost in the unnavigable maze of the self
little guessing there was
 	around any corner
a turn into a passage fragrant
 	with fresh air
 	 	and the urgent invitations of the gulls.
People then as now
 	were shelling out their small, limitless lives
 	for those briefest of commodities:
		pleasure and applause
when Christ came low and
 	behold
the white flower of paradise opening
 	gently in the carpet
 		of the grass.

			

2017 Christmas Cards

20170916_182813 (2)I have to say it. I’m a strong opponent of premature Christmas decorations and celebrations. In fact, if I go into a grocery store or department store in October and seeing tinsel and lights and elves, I try to ignore them completely, since I feel like these things spoil the grandeur of the way the Christmas season ought to spring upon us, much-awaited, with the beginning of December.

That being the case, I long debated whether to make this post at all, but I ended up deciding that it might be worth it to some people. So if you’re like me and cringe when you see Christmas things out too soon, don’t worry – I’ll keep this short.

20170916_182413Ever since I opened my Etsy shop two years ago, I’ve dreamed about designing a set of watercolor and calligraphy Christmas cards. This year, I finally had an opportunity to make that dream a reality and I spent part of the summer working on these new paintings and calligraphy pieces. I then turned this original artwork into printed cards that can be used as traditional Christmas cards or framed to be gifted or displayed as unique works of art.

And these new cards are available in my Etsy shop NOW.

So many of my favorite things about Christmas are classic and old – like the rich and beautiful carols and poems celebrating the advent of Christ. My other favorite thing about Christmas is the spirit of generosity and grace that we celebrate and attempt to extend to others during the season. This Christmas, I wanted to make art that would express both of these things and for this reason, 50% of net proceeds from any Christmas card purchases from my Etsy shop will benefit the work of Compassion International, a humanitarian aid organization serving children in poverty around the globe.

20170916_181840 (2)Although it’s only the beginning of November, I wanted to let you know about this now so that you have plenty of time to order them. Please note that these cards can be ordered in any combination you like! There is a listing in the shop for a set of three, and also individual listings. However, if you find you really like two of the designs and don’t care much for the third, you can order as many of these two cards as you like. If you send a custom order request, I can create a listing for you that will include your entire purchase in one listing and will cut down on your shipping costs. I usually respond to convos very promptly and you shouldn’t have to wait long for me to create the listing for you.

Alright, friends, that’s all. You can return to your normal routine and wait for Christmas to come at its proper time.

An Update and Such

HomeAtLastIt’s been the sort of semester where an empty hour is a precious rarity and face-to-face interactions have more or less replaced the virtual world. I haven’t been reading less, but most of what I’ve been reading is textbooks. I haven’t been writing less, but most of what I’ve been writing is academic papers and conversations in text messages with friends who want to talk about all the issues involved with just living and how we bring all our high ideals into gritty reality. All this is very alright and my days are as happy as ever. But when I got off for winter break and came back to the web to catch up with all of you and your Goodreads lists and your websites and your artwork and your creative minds, I sure did wish I hadn’t been away for quite so long.

My break has involved a lot of hot tea and starlight walks and the happy sounds of running water all over the farm. My little brother still cares a lot that we all sleep under the Christmas tree at night and he’s been reading The New Treasure Seekers to me by the Christmas lights while I catch up on filling in pages and pages of my commonplace book. Last night he read the saga of the Conscience Pudding in as quiet a whisper as he could manage but we couldn’t manage to keep from laughing out loud when the Bastable children washed the currants with Brown Windsor soap. I’m glad you never have to get too old for Edith Nesbit.

But the best thing about being on a break is the chance to make a studio out of the breakfast table in the kitchen and take out watercolors and ink and work on art projects for hours at a time.

The calligraphy piece at the beginning of this post is an illustration of lines taken from The Ballad of the White Horse. My first calligraphy project was a rather crooked and deficient rendition of this quotation and I thought it would be fun to make an updated version. Here are a couple of other projects I completed this week as Christmas presents:

DoNotDare - ResizedThis watercolor features Shasta and Bree from The Horse and His Boy and a quotation from that book added in ink. “You poor, proud frightened Horse,” says Aslan to the conceited and self-conscious Bree. “Draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.”

It’s an era full of empty rhetoric about pursuing what we want and who hasn’t seen Shia LaBeouf yelling don’t let your dreams be dreams!! ? But when C.S. Lewis puts these words in the mouth of his Lion King, I don’t think that’s what he’s talking about. There’s a dream that is higher than ideal careers and condos in Florida. And this is the one we owe it to ourselves not to shrink back from chasing as hard as we can.

The model for this illustration was the Narnian castle Cair Paravel where the Hebrews2 ResizedPevensies reigned as kings and queens and once you’re a king or a queen in  Narnia, you’re always a king or a queen. Aren’t we Royalty in a Kingdom that’s coming and is among us and will be here even before we know it?

Later this week, I plan to write up a few reviews for the books I’ve been reading, and before I head back to school for another semester of studying, I’ll be restocking my Etsy shop with a collection of new art creations. So things should stay interesting around here for awhile. Come back! And I’d love it if you come and let me know what you’ve been doing or thinking or reading.

The Truce of Christmas

P1050453 - Copy
Merry Christmas, friends! Here’s a snapshot of a little painting I did for the holiday this year. The text is from The Truce of Christmas by Chesterton, naturally, who writes the very best in nativity poetry.

I hope your celebrations are really splendid — because it’s something to be so very glad about: that into our abject poverty the Lamb has inserted himself to abide with us. And nothing has ever been praised enough.

The Little Drummer Boy: A Love Story

StarI learned to love Jesus at Christmas-time. I mean the kind of loving where your heart dances right over some of its beats. Where you become the sort of fool who sings in the grocery store and the parking lot on just ordinary days because you don’t know what to do with all that happiness.

This was three years ago and it wasn’t like beforehand I wasn’t trying. But there’s a difference, says an uncle of mine, between loving Jesus and loving the idea of loving Jesus. And when I heard it, I was a little uneasy, a little afraid that was me. Because in the US of A it’s not hard to spend all your days with a label on your forehead that doesn’t match your labor and your living. It’s not hard to take possession of the form of godliness and forget about the fire altogether.

nativity2011 was the year of weighty drought and the summer that droned into November. Come December, I was low and just getting through my checklist. One grey day I heard a sappy song I’d heard every other year, and suddenly it made me hungry and grieved because “Baby Jesu, says the little drummer boy, “I am a poor boy too.” And,

I have no gift to bring
that’s fit to give a king.

I felt I was hearing a deeper lament than I could comprehend, a cry of deficiency welling up from an encounter with a glory I didn’t know about. I didn’t know what it was to be all wrapped up in this intense need to have something to give. And to be blocked out of this understanding was like being a homeless tramp locked out of a house full of lights and supper-steam and packages. I didn’t know about this kind of love.

Then, a few hours later, I did.

I had a late night writing a column and packing suitcases for the Christmas trip kicking off in the morning. When I fell into bed, it was already tomorrow and only a few sleeping-hours were left – but in those hours, how many things changed!

Because in a dream I was on my knees at the feet of the Desire of Nations, and time was utterly still and I wanted to never move an inch through all the eons ahead of us. Also, there was something else I hadn’t expected – there was this crying need to have something worth offering, to be something worth offering. And I wasn’t.

The words of the prophet seemed suddenly sensible:

Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts
.

You can’t explain this agony of insufficiency to the unacquainted, just as no one could ever explain it to me but my own two eyes. You can’t explain how it’s at one time brilliant and terrifying, woeful and wildly glad, how when you meet the Pearl at the heart of the planet and it’s everything you are not, you’re at once so reassured and so regretful that you can’t be sure if you should laugh or cry.

When I woke out of this moment and was startled into my own humdrum house, the first thing to come was bleak disappointment. “Just lost when I was saved!” says Emily Dickinson of this kind of waking:

Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Little Lamb scan esizeAfterwards, though, something else came – relief that there was time still left, days unwritten that could be sunk into the pursuit of a gift I wouldn’t be ashamed to pull out at the manger.

so to honor him
when we come

This is the hallmark of love – that it changes things because it changes us.

This year, in memory of this awakening of adoration, I put together a little poem, which if you read it I hope will drive you to remember the highest place of homage in your history — and get back to it as fast as you can.

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY

I am a poor boy too, I said
my knuckles are gnawed and split
but the black sky is split with song and I
can’t keep from hearing it.

No, to the keepers of the sheep,
go on your merry way,
if I should see the baby, I
should never know what to say.

If I should see the baby and
his hair should be full of light,
I should go poorer than I came,
back to the ceaseless night.

I should go smitten with poverty,
– I who was never full –
emptied because found empty
in the face of the beautiful.

What if I sit at the cradle and
gnaw on my knuckles and weep?
Weep for the emptiness of my hands,
the hours, the waste and the sleep?

Over the hills and far away,
how can I block out the bells?
They are threading the paths like rivers
and the ribbon of music swells.

Suppose I should creep to the manger,
put my knees in the dirt for awhile,
and suppose the baby should look at me
and suppose the baby should smile