Sing the Laughter of God

The communion table pictured here was collaboratively created in December 2012 by the community at Emmaus Way Church: Durham, NC. 

You're afraid. I know that's a bold statement, but I fear I'm right. The discovery that most people are deeply -- perhaps even fundamentally -- motivated by fear has been the single biggest epiphany of my adult life. I see it everywhere now. Behind my even-tempered, rational approach to conflict: abject fright at the possibility of being considered illogical, unworthy, gender-stereotypical, dramatic. At the core of the more free-spirited folk I know: a terror of commitment, of mediocrity, of conformity, of failing to conform to the surprisingly narrow definition of "free spirit." I could go on. Pick your poison; it picked you a long time ago.

I'm being ominous for ironic effect, of course -- a sort of homeopathic hair-of-the-dog. Gallows humor can be sword as well as shield. Besides, conflict management skills and free spirits are wonderful. Sometimes I wonder if we'd really do anything outside of amusing ourselves if fear's motivational properties evaporated along with fear itself. But maybe that's just it. Maybe fear isn't itself so much the problem; rather, the problem resides in how we so often fail to filter fear. Unprocessed fear might make us fight or flight, but it inevitably makes our inner selves curl up like a pillbug poked by a child, at once protecting who we are now and crippling our progress toward where we should be tomorrow. Acknowledged fear, on the other hand, is the raw material for freedom.

The idea that artists channel their negative emotions into the process of creation would be totally cliche if it didn't also feel utterly profound. I know; it happened to me this year, and I'm still trying to sort out why my response to anger, pain, and fear has been an almost overwhelming rediscovery of creativity. Bono once wrote that "the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty." I find that compelling not only for the refinement of perspective it invites, but also for the implicit hint that part of finding freedom is determining which of our binaries are false. What is the opposite of fear?  One would not be wrong to say courage, but what of love, joy, faith, artistry, community? Apart from these there is no courage. 

My church, Emmaus Way in Durham, NC, delights in celebrating creativity within community. During Advent, a season of waiting in sober reflection before the angel says "be not afraid," we collaboratively painted a new communion table. The original design featured concentric circles embracing a point of light. The circles were purple because that color of both mourning and royalty represents the season. It was a lovely concept, yet early in the process something interesting happened that sent us on a new direction. Someone painted a little circle off on its own. I was so impressed with how generously the table's original designer, Katrina Williams, relinquished control and encouraged others to join in casting the vision. Soon the scene was laced with rings in interlocking orbit. Many of us see planets in a great solar system, and for me it calls to mind the old hymn that revels in "the music of the spheres." Together we painted the paradox of a universe that is characterized by darkness and yet bears all the light in existence. One could see that without ever knowing the table's origin story, but those of us who were lucky enough to wield brushes know that sealed in its very genesis is the truth that love and trust freed us all to make something new.

Last Sunday was the first time I got to see the finished table, and Pastor Tim Conder read a prayer that expressed much of how I feel about it. It was originally written in the eighteenth century by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (how's that for a title?), but Tim altered it from first person "I" to second person "we." 

Let us be weary of the dark voices crying doom;
let us be weary of the fearful voices crying only for their nation;
let us weary of the disinherited voices crying in hopelessness;
let our voices sing the laughter of God;
let our voices sing good news to the poor;
let our voices sing restitution of the oppressed;
let our voices sing healing of the violated;
let our voices sing the return of the banned;
let our voices be the laughter of God. Amen.

Praising the Mutilated World

Photographs of oil slicks grace both my SLR gallery and my iPhoneography collection. "Grace" may seem like a strange word for pollution, but it is precisely what I mean. With a flick and a click in an image editor, spilled oil is shockingly beautiful.

I feared for awhile that if, by finding beauty in even these small degradations, I was ratifying them. Art often glorifies destruction, but I'm not sure it ever should. An exception might be in catharsis. I don't think it is actually destruction that is glorified in destructive catharsis, however. At any rate, spilled oil reminds me of the paradox that keeps me happily rooted to my Christian tradition: the notion that grace takes something broken and makes it stronger and more beautiful than it was before. This is the concept of felix culpa I've written about elsewhere. But it goes even deeper. Look at these two versions

Unsharp mask applied:

Original lens blur:

I could fix the softness of the pavement, but in doing so, I lost the glow, the light, the gentle gradations of color. This edit actually looks marred by pixelation, though it isn't. Even if there had been no lens blur to remove, I'm not sure sharpness would have enriched the image. In this case, "perfect" isn't perfect. Of course you may prefer the sharp edit, or you may have good advice for me on how to restore the positive attributes of light and color while keeping the unsharp mask, or you just might think I'm crazy for photographing and (over)saturating spilled oil at all. That's not really the point. Regardless of the relative merits of either image, my concept of perfection itself needed to change. Most photographers would consider overprocessing to be the mark of a rookie editor, but perhaps there is another, deeper case against it. Overprocessing is an assertion of control. It leaves no room for happy accidents or movements of a spirit outside of the artist. There's no humility in it.

When it comes to control, I'm guilty as charged. Yet here's another happy accident, whether you call it subconscious association, synchronicity, or the still, small voice of a Creator guiding the creativity of the created. I just realized that in cropping the oil slick into four bars, I'd echoed two great traditions of religious art: stained glass and mosaic. All this is grace: things broken and spilled, set together like gems in a new, unexpected, and more glorious whole.

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"
by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 

Chattanooga

I'm prone to falling in love with places I've never been, and I'm rarely disappointed upon arrival. I sure hope that is true about Chattanooga, because at 40 minutes from my new home, it will be my source for arts, dining, and maybe even church in less than six months. If this nationally award-winning film bears any accuracy whatsoever, I'm about to be seduced.

P.S. I wonder how long this tilt-shift trend will wield so much influence. It is fascinating that such an old technology could suddenly spring to the fore, thanks mostly to iPhone app developers.

+ Video produced by the Johnson Group, in partnership with Atomic Films and Jack Parker Photography. Song by Allen DiCenzo and Roger Vaughn.

iPhoneography

The rumors are true. iPhone photography is the most addictive legal pursuit in the world. I've been doing it for one delightful week, having begun in the wake of the Great Instagram Fiasco of 2012, and I've already become a total hypocrite by twiddling my phone in social settings. Apologies to both those I've reprimanded for it in the past and those I've offended by it in the present. Perhaps one day soon we'll edit via hologram so that our conversation partners can see what we're doing and not be bothered -- sort of like knitting while talking. In the mean time, I have to tear myself away.

If you'd like to see what I was doing when I was supposed to be sleeping on a redeye, cooking a balanced meal, or making eye contact in a  l o n g  discussion about agripolitics, visit my new gallery or my Instagram page. I'm still learning the ropes -- that's why there is a rectangular picture in there that will doubtless lose the trust of the purists -- but my creative ambitions are reaching intoxicated heights. Now if I can just turn down that danged competitive streak . . .

Care To Give Me Some Advice?

It is time to go shooting again. As I pulled together my photography portfolio, I was reminded that the best image is always the one I haven't made yet. However, it is also time to do some excavating of my file junkyard, a.k.a. the "dumptique." In the past few years I've become a much better editor, due largely to my work at the William Blake Archive. I see solutions for images I thought were hopeless, and I see ways to curtail the over-editing that always seems to plague a Photoshop newbie. The shots below fall in the latter category, I think. What to help me figure out how to revive them?

Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

1a. Unedited Original
This is nearly straight out of the camera, though I cropped it. The exposure is pretty solid, though it needs some sharpening. I like the color contrast and the harsh textures. It looks like a cold day, and it was.

Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

1b. Newbie Edit
I really can't imagine an outdoor photographer who hasn't at some point riffed on Ansel Adams. (Oh hi, Rose and Driftwood.) I went black and white to bring out the texture of the fence, which I nevertheless failed to sharpen enough.

Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

2a. Unedited Original
Of this shot someone once said, "I don't know what it is, but I like it."  That's kind of how I feel. Practically speaking, it is a motorcycle mirror sitting on an oil drum littered with old tools. Symbolically speaking, I think it says something about hope and hard work. Right now it is underexposed and has a blue cast. It could also use some sharpening. All that is easy though -- I'm just wondering where to take the tonal mood.

Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

2b. Newbie Edit
I wanted to emphasize the gritty farm atmosphere of the shot, and I was in love with the wood and rust textures in the lower right. (I still am.) Sepia seemed to be the answer, yet most serious photographers these days would tell you that sepia is never the answer. Plus I cut that nice red paint right out, not to mention the blue sky and yellow butterflies. (I mean really, Katie,  you want to say "hope," so you cut out blue skies and yellow butterflies?) On the other hand, if anything is a candidate for sepia, a Montana farm would top the list. The geometric and textural elements come to the fore in a monochromatic image, and those two attributes are my favorite parts of this fairly busy scene.

So what do you think?  Where should I take these photographs next? Probably only one will make my portfolio, so which would you pick?

Poems From Thin Places: Nativity

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruined abbeys are my favorites. As I type that, however, I feel a pang of guilt; I'm fearing I might be falling into my old trap of valuing the natural sublime over the messier beauty of community. Can I defend myself? I think there is actually a special sort of community at a ruined abbey. The one at Whitby teeters at the edge of England, on a high cliff battered by the North Sea. Its roofless arches point straight to the majesty of the sky. Underneath all that glory, however, the comic effects of wind and the abundance of climbable stonework allow something just as worthy as awe or meditation. Whitby's ruins make an exhilarating place to play.

Whitby's most famous story reminds us just how vulnerable and sacred the act of play can be. The Venerable Bede -- he of that loveliest of names -- tells us that once upon a time, when the abbey was just as windswept but still had a roof to its credit, all its denizens would gather of an evening to pass around a harp. Caedmon, the lowly shepherd, could not sing or rhyme. Ashamed, he would creep out and sleep with his sheep rather than reveal the terror these entertainments induced. One night, an angel came to the stable, expressly demanding he sing. How frustrated he must have been! If one can't squawk out a tune for a bunch of unwashed monks and farmers, isn't it a bit cruel for a member of the heavenly host to demand a command performance? And what was he to do but try? Yet one would hope an angel always knows what he or she is about, and this one surely did. That night Caedmon, the first English poet, found his voice. 

Nativity 
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

In Whitby,
where the ribs of the ruined abbey 
card sea mist like wool, 
I think of the shepherd Caedmon 
going early to bed in the barn 
for fear that the harp would pass to him.

I think of him lying in the musty hay 
away from the warm light, 
the laughter, and the honey-colored mead 
inside, where he longed, but could not bear, to be.

Beside him the herd jostles quietly, 
steam rises from manure,
and wind seeps through the cracked door.

Then sudden crush of whiteness, 
chaos of animal screams,
and the voice of the angel
slicing away all other sound.

"Sing, Caedmon."
"I cannot!"
"Sing of all Creation."
So we lift our heads 
and sing.

Felix Culpa

Castlerigg Stone Circle. Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved.

I was quite literally shooting from the hip. The moment I saw the older couple at Castlerigg Stone Circle in England's Lake District, I started trying to nab an image. Near the end of the human lifespan, they were nevertheless infants next to the stones of that prehistoric human-made monument. The scene was at once an analogy and an a juxtaposition. It was also entirely sweet.

The results were plagued with all the technical problems one would expect from clandestine photography. I painstakingly sharpened, cropped, and brightened the picture, and I even removed several tourists who were lolling against the stones. I could fix the composition, but I was asking more of those pixels than they could bear. At its full size, the image looks like it narrowly survived the smallpox.

I still love it.

Honoring flawed work is rather a proud moment for one who thinks her perfectionism renders her far from perfect. I don't like it because it is flawed, though -- only in spite of that. Yet I do wonder if some art is improved by its flaws. 

Like many teenagers, I once had a bulletin board full of quotations. One read "Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Google reveals that these lines were by Henry Van Dyke, who wrote the lyrics most commonly set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Aesthetically, he did a better job with the latter. However, Van Dyke's sentimental and hackneyed bird quote is in some ways brilliant. Its tortured meter embodies its message.*

Examples of perfection through imperfection, or what Gerard Manley Hopkins might call "pied beauty," remind me of the medieval concept of felix culpa -- the fortunate fall. If humanity had remained in Edenic innocence, the rather unusual logic goes, than we would never have experienced the wonder of divine redemption. 

Maybe I can actually love my stone circle photograph because of its flaws, rather than in spite of them. If these flaws help me overcome my perfectionism, they're fortunate. If, like Hopkins' marvelous poem, they invite me to a definition of beauty that transcends narrow aesthetic rules, they're fortunate. If snatching a permanent record of a moment in time resulted in technical imperfections, well, that is very  fortunate. It embodies the paradox of human mutability, and -- lucky me -- the paradox of human mutability just happens to form the central motif of the scene.

*In a similar vein, I typed and deleted the final prose lines of my post on the Book of Kells many times before I decided to let a really a bad pun prove its own point. It still makes me feel vulnerable, though.

Susan Cain On Honoring Introverts

My mother used to laugh when I'd invite a friend over just to read next to him or her. Thus, I grinned to hear Susan Cain give the exact same example in her Ted Talk on introversion. Deeply introverted, I have nevertheless been rather wary of all the press lavished on this quality lately. Introverts tend to be perfectly happy doing our own thing, so I didn't see why we'd need authors to champion us. I've never felt like a victim. Cain, however, makes a compelling case that our culture favors the charisma of stimulus junkies and sends the quieter types to second class -- a practice that benefits no one.

"Stimulus junkie" is not Cain's term or mine. An extrovert I once knew described himself that way, and I'm now inclined to challenge his diction. Maybe the word "stimulus" has been co-opted by the extrovert majority. Do you think of bright lights, loud clubs, and city streets? I do, and I suspect that's what the self-proclaimed stimulus junkie meant. Perhaps unwittingly accepting this definition is one of the "self-negating choices" that Cain says introverts make daily in order to function within our culture. Dancing in a glittering city can be fun, but most of the time I prefer noting bird migrations, studying the serration of a leaf, pondering art, or conversing over wine. These are stimuli too -- magnificent stimuli. Everyone is a stimulus junkie!

I have many more thoughts, but I'll save those for a forthcoming post on introversion and intellectual property. Besides, a well-adjusted introvert will value the opinions of others, and I want to hear yours. What is your experience of the introversion-extroversion spectrum? If you watched Cain's talk, what stands out to you?

Poems From Thin Places: Incarnation

Only a green velvet cord separated me from case after walnut case of exquisite volumes. Marble busts gazed self-contentedly at the fourteenth-century oak harp that symbolizes all Ireland. A barrel-vaulted roof crowned what some say is the most beautiful library in the world. Nearby a different page of the gloriously illuminated Book of Kells is exhibited every day.  

Folio 201 Recto:  The Genealogy of Christ.  Book of Kells.  Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Folio 201 Recto:  The Genealogy of Christ. Book of Kells. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That is what Google Image Search tells me I saw at the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin.  

I do remember it. I do. But you know how the impression you take from a long-sought experience is rarely the impression you expect? There's generally a gift in that. We're patterned to expect a gift in that. Thomas C. Foster tells us that in a quest narrative, the real purpose for the journey is never what the quester initially seeks.* There's a reason why "expect the unexpected" is a cliche;  Western culture tends to breed quest narrative junkies, and after awhile, everything starts to look like a journey.

I'm pretty sure I've already tripped your convention sensors. Now all I have to do now is fill in the blanks.

What I remember most about the library at Trinity College Dublin was not the oak or the marble. It wasn't really evenThe Book of Kells, though I can tell you that the going Medieval rate for blue ink was pretty steep. What I remember most was a hole.

There is a tiny hole in The Book of Kells. In fact, there are many, and there always have been. The book is vellum -- calfskin -- and very good vellum too. It is just that vellum can't help but be perforated in places, because vellum was once alive. I looked closer. I saw hair. Hair and the faint branches of bloodless vessels. Hundreds of calves died for that incarnation of the gospel story. These were violent and sacrificial deaths, in which flesh became word.

Well, of course I had to write a poem then. I later heard that Billy Collins, at the time my favorite poet, had the same idea. I haven't seen his version yet, but I'm sure it is better. That's okay. We all have to create meaning with the substance we have. We all have to play with that convention that the journey itself is the destination, and that the destination is never something we can expect or control. We all bear in our flesh stories that are not our own, and then we make them our own. We are full of holes. Holy.

Book of Kells
by Katherine Leigh Carlson

It's the colors they worry about:
crimson, purple,
costly blue.
Mustn't let you fade.
Just turn, turn
turn you--
a daily mass
for gawking pilgrims.

I love
the unpainted places of your skin:
faint branching of empty veins,
straggling hair
they could not scrape away,
the holes from blade

or pen--
Did it hurt when your flesh became word?

Did they feed you a last supper;
one-hundred eighty-five voices lowing
over fragrant, final grain?
Perhaps you brushed noses over a fence.
Perhaps you only met
afterward.

*Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor:  a Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York:  HarperCollins, 2003. 3.