Post date: Nov 26, 2020 4:57:8 PM
I am excited to share two paintings that are to be permanent installations at the Richard W. Black Community Center (RWB) in Hanover, NH. The paintings are being donated by Christ Redeemer Church in honor of the Upper Valley community and how they have served the physical needs of our church over the last 20 years. Many of the larger church events have been held at the RWB because the church does not have a physical building of its own. When I proposed this idea last February, I did so because both the Upper Valley community at large, and Christ Redeemer Church, have played a vital role in my life. These two paintings are by far my most personal pieces of art.
I have chosen to use the native lady slipper orchids to represent that community is a long term investment. Lady slippers take 10-17 years to go from seed to blossom. The seeds are extremely tiny, consisting of only a few cells. When those seeds are given the right environment, conditions and time, they begin to grow. That growth is very slow, but eventually, they blossom into one of NH's most prized wildflowers. Similarly, community takes time. It must be tended to, cared for, fostered and given the right conditions to allow relationships to form, to allow growth in individuals and for long lasting positive influence to happen. Community must be tended to with care. When this is done, communities grow into something stunningly beautiful.
The second painting is of indian pipe flowers. These fragile flowers contain no chlorophyll for photosynthesis, but obtain nourishment from the rich organic soil. They have a symbiotic relationship with other plants and can thrive in even the deepest, darkest places in our NH forests. We have many in our communities who are fragile and vulnerable among us; people who see dark circumstances and who have little hope. In a community, justice, truth, mercy and love matter. When we provide this richness, even our vulnerable blossom and thrive. Suddenly they give value and dimension, dignity and beauty to our communities.
I have written many things about these two paintings, but I keep finding myself pounding on the backspace button. How can I convey something that I feel so strongly about? How can I articulate visceral emotion? How can I convey the importance of what I have to say? To understand why these are my most important work, you must understand that community actually and truly saved my life.
As an adolescent and young adult, I experienced circumstances that created feelings of intense isolation and loneliness. It was a consuming loneliness - the kind that makes it hard to breathe. It shaped my very core, and became a slow vortex that sucked me emotionally downward; it nearly destroyed me. I eventually became unable to maintain even casual relationships because I literally could not find a path out of the suffocating feelings of not being understood. My sense of isolation morphed into a false belief that I was smited by God, that I contained no goodness within me, and that I was totally unlovable. I believed I was the very essence of bad. With this false belief, I began to expect rejection. My behavior began to mirror my belief, causing a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.
By the age of 19, I was a school dropout, unemployed and living in an unfinished basement, in a house of strangers, 1200 miles from where I grew up. My few belongings were propped up on pallets because the basement sometimes leaked. The basement contained a toilet randomly placed, with no walls around it, not unlike a jail cell. My life became devoid of meaningful connection to others. I was figuratively and literally alone. Let me tell you, that was an intensely dark time.
In hindsight, I see there were many reasons I wound up in such a desperate, despairing state. Some of those reasons were my own fault, but many of them were beyond my control and unavoidable. For many, many years I tried to hide my early life from others. It is not at all comfortable for me to talk about, and when I do, my story comes out in random, non-chronological clumps that are hard for other people to follow. Frankly, it is embarrassing to express how low I was - how depleted - how destitute. When I do try to share, no words are quite sufficient to explain the intense reality of my situation or of my emotions. When I try to explain how I got there, I am often met with dumbfounded consternation, and in many cases, true disbelief.
To simplify my story, I distill it down to this: all of my experiences together caused me to taste a very profound lack of community and it nearly killed me. Community is a feeling of fellowship with others. It can be gained from sharing common goals, attitudes and interests. It can be gained from sharing a common space or by sharing particular characteristics. It can also be gained by simply sharing common experiences. Community gives people a sense of value and belonging. People can only feel love when they are in community. Put simply, community is sharing a common life.
It was community that brought me out of my darkness. We all know that maturity and growth take time. It is more difficult to know that it also takes one another. Mature growth comes from love and forgiveness. It comes from regarding one another more highly than ourselves. It comes from teaching and gently correcting each other. It takes friendship, kindness, compassion, patience, goodness, empathy, serving one another and generous hospitality.
I was fortunate enough to find these things, and though it sounds extreme, I do believe community saved my life, in a very real way. In the late 1990s, it was the community of Walling & Berg Law Firm (where I was employed) that I experienced people recognizing my dark state. Two mentors there - Dorothy Cleveland and Nancy Berg - spent countless hours investing in me. They recognized pain I could not even admit. They shared their own stories with me. They opened their homes. They shared meals. They spent hours talking to me about life and the world and they gently steered me into counseling. They encouraged me to go to school and to work hard, and they provided stability. Amazingly, as creative women themselves, they recognized my need for creativity and directed me towards the arts.
After striving towards an undergraduate degree, I eventually went onto graduate school. It was here that I began to understand peer friendship at a different level. I formed friendships with people from other cultures. I stumbled alongside my peers and learned what it meant to be a critical thinker. I learned to be comfortable with the process of learning and how long it takes sometimes.
When I moved from Minnesota to New Hampshire, my community morphed from one with shared intellectual goals to one with a shared physical location. The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen Craftstudies studios helped me to grow professionally in ways I never would have expected. It gave me the courage to make a radical career shift from engineering to the arts. It pushed me to be a little less critical of myself. It was in the town of Canaan, NH that I learned what it meant to be a good neighbor because neighbors like Patsy Carter and her family and Carrie Cahill Mulligan modeled it for me.
But the community that touched my life so profoundly was at Christ Redeemer Church. Honestly, before going there, my anger caused other people to push me away. At Christ Redeemer Church, I was given space to express my anger at the world and all the darkness I had seen. I was invested in and valued. Emily Tworag, Dori Willeman, Megan Eshbaugh and Lara Mather showed me friendship in profound ways. I did not share the same worldview as them. I didn’t understand theology, or even right from wrong. In fact, I had repeatedly seen people misuse Christianity for personal or political gain, causing me to fear anything religious. But these women loved me in very concrete ways. They wept with me in my sorrow over lost pregnancies and abuse and hard parenting days. They literally fed me when I was too tired and sick to feed myself. They listened to me. They encouraged me to speak. They forgave when I needed forgiveness. They taught me to discuss difficult, emotional things. They taught me to quiet myself to listen. They challenged me to think critically about philosophy and religion. Though they never compromised who they were, they accepted me and didn't try to force my worldview to fit theirs. Slowly, over many years, they came to truly know the rawness of me and they loved me anyway. And that love laid bare over the messiness of my life taught me that I have value. I believe this was Gods grace to me. He saved me through community.
When I say community saved me life, I mean it literally. Statistically speaking there is no way I should have survived the circumstances to which I was subjected. It is all too common that people with similar stories become so alone and desperate they end up homeless, with debilitating addiction, overdosing, suicidal, in prostitution or killed in violence. I have watched it happen to several people around me.
In 2020, it has been easy to get lost in the darkness of our world. While in the midst of a pandemic and with many of us celebrating Thanksgiving without extended family and friends, it may be difficult to see anything joyful. It is even cold and raining outside today. But it is in our darkest hour that it is vital to practice thankfulness. Thankfulness gives life in the midst of despair. I am thankful for community. I would like to invite you to celebrate it with me. This year, please join me in celebrating community by reaching out to someone in your life who you would not normally reach out to. It may end up saving a life, and it will certainly enrich your own.