A bit of Instructions on How to Live a Good Life: How to be an Artist, a Parent, a Creative, a Dreamer
So you asked how?
I’ve been thinking about your question, the one you asked the other day, about how — how to be an artist, a mother, a creative, about how to live your life?
I don’t know much. And there’s a lot more than just this.
But maybe it’s a bit of how Mary Oliver put it: Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell About It.
And somedays I think maybe she sorta stole the words of Jesus, because they sound like the essence of a life of communion, a life of thanksgiving, a eucharistic life:
Instructions for living a life
Forget paying for the borrowed life because it ain’t real and every single one of us is already living on borrowed time.
Pay attention to the shades of the sky over you and the smell of the soil under you and the unexpected ways of the souls all around you, pay attention to redemption and exceptions and confessions and His reflection and pay attention to resurrection.
Pay attention to the lilies of the field, to the soft carpet of hair on the curve of a baby’s ear, to the warmth of sun as you lay on the back lawn and breathe.
Pay attention long enough to experience life and you buy your brain enough food so it doesn’t starve.
Turn off your phone. Be still. Be present — and you get the gift of now.
Do it often: grab a lifeline by stepping offline.
You’ll find your true self when you look for your reflection in the eyes of souls — and not the glare of screens.
And be okay with not being seen or heard. It will let you hear and see better.
And be okay with not being liked: life and art are never about applause — and always about altars.
Pay Attention and forget paying for the internet things, because that can catch you up and leave you empty.
And forget paying for the credit card things because that can leave you feeling disoriented and discontent and discredited, forget paying for the things that make your closet hurt and your wallet hurt and your very soul hurt because the frame of your life wasn’t meant to carry the burden of their stuff.
Pay attention to the ugly beautiful and the beauty of Christ playing in ten thousand unlikely places and and the face of Christ in the face of suffering and pay notice before your life is given notice and pay it forward and pay attention because this is how you spend your one life well.
You buy awe when you pay attention.
Practice paying attention and you daily practice the scales of creativity.
The only way to spend your life as a creative is to pay attention to the world.
Pay attention — and let go of perfection.
Perfectionism is slow death by self. It will kill your skill, your spark, your art, your soul.
Pay attention and don’t sell out. Because I think what they say is true: Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.
Remember to pay only for the things that are guaranteed to fit the size of your soul and you can go ahead and lose the receipt because His grace makes you the forever recipient, only pay for that which will make your soul sing in the midst of a fire: Pay Attention.
And then go ahead and Be Astonished.
Grow beautifully deaf to the scoffing of the cynics who suit up in their every day steely sarcasm to numb themselves to a vulnerable joy, the cynics who only wear armour to shield the heart from the beauty that wounds, the weary who steel themselves against the wounds of all this glory. It can seem easier to reject the world before the world hurts you.
The thing is: guard your heart long enough with a shield of cynicism and that shield of cynicism becomes a lidded tomb over your heart withering up, numb and dead.
The cynics, they can only speak of the dark, of the obvious, and this is not hard. For all it’s supposed sophistication, it’s cynicism that’s simplistic. In a fallen world, how profound is it to see what’s broken?
It’s the brilliant who don’t deny the dark but who always seek the light in everything. So yeah, go ahead and be astonished.
Be astonished by the depths of grief which are but the foundations of the heights of joy, and grief and joy are of the same landscape of any soul really alive.
And be astonished by oppression and aggression and transgressions and be astonished, be a psalmist, and be admonished to just be ravished, by a world that makes children laugh wonder at the spray of sprinklers and the splatter of water balloons and go ahead and be like a child and say again, again to the rising of the sun, and again, again, to the crashing of waves and be astonished like the children for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Astonishing writing is a function of being astonished, startling writing births from being startled by glory, arrested by beauty, awed by all this.
Don’t go to bed at night until you’ve read from the dictionary, the lectionary, and pages of poetry are absolutely necessary.
The instruction for actually living a life of creativity, a life of communion, are simple: Pay Attention. Be Awed by God.
Then go Tell About It.
Tell about what happens when you pay attention, when you are astonished, when you have tasted the Gospel. Tell it to the kid lost in the park, the guy lost in the dark, the family losing their matriarch, a lost generation that needs to be marked by Him before then can make a mark for Him.
Tell About It.
Tell about it like the writer Walt Wangerin did to a boy from his inner city church Charlie, Charlie, who was raised by his grandmother in the rough part of Chicago.
Charlie was an exceptional student who after high school joined the army where he was an exceptional soldier because this is what the brave always do: Quit trying to fit. Why try to squeeze all your extraordinary into ordinary?
After leaving the army, Charlie came home to Chicago and… kind of didn’t know what to do. Charlie lost a part of his idea of who he was after the army, forgot a part of who he was, forgot where he came from and forgot where he was going, and when you forget, you start falling because this is the thing: All the brokenness in the world begins with the act of forgetting.
So Charlie fell in with the wrong kind of people— doing drugs, selling drugs, being drugged. Then he mugged a guy right outside the cop station and yeah, got caught.
And that’s where Walt Wangerin met him again, the boy who once sat up front on Sunday, now sitting behind bars — well really laying sprawled behind bars. Because when Walt was brought to Charlie’s cell, he found him laying face down, naked, on the floor, as though he were dead.
And Walt sat beside him to talk with him, to tell him about it, about a life of paying attention and being astonished, but Charlie was unresponsive… Answering with an occasional grunt, but no words. No Word.
Walt decided to keep talking and tell him about it, about the stories of things going on in the old neighborhood, things he had paid attention to, seen with his eyes, heard from the old women, overheard by just really listening.
Walt told Charlie about his grandmother, told him that he paid attention to the calendar and paid her weekly visits now that she no longer came to church on account of having lost her “uppers” — you know how it goes when you lose your upper dentures. Charlie grunted.
And Walt leaned forward and Walt asked it with a tease and twinkle: “You mean to tell me, Charlie, that your grandma has her uppers, but isn’t telling me that so she’s got an excuse not come to church?”
And Charlie opened a bit, Charlie resurrected a bit, and mumbled: “Yeah — Something like that.” His first words spoken in weeks!
And Walt came back the following day, and the following day and the following day, because our actual theology is best expressed in our actual hospitality.
How we open up our calendars and our doors and our schedules and our agendas and make room for people, because this is how we make room for God.
And this time Charlie was brought to a private room to sit with Walt. Charlie was mostly unresponsive. Though when someone knocked at the door, Charlie jolted, startled and confused.
And Walt paid attention to it — how Charlie had become so disoriented in his own life that he could no longer understand what the sound of someone knocking on the door meant.
And there are how many people down the street from you and across the table from and on the other side of the microphone from you — who are so disoriented that they don’t understand what the sound of Someone knocking on the door of their everything means. This is a world chalk-full of Charlies.
And Walt kept coming back again and again, sitting with Charlie, reminding him of his story and weaving the gospel into it and paying attention and being astonished and telling Charlie about it — Charlie as the prodigal coming home, Charlie as Lazarus coming back to life, Charlie as the One Whom Jesus loves, Walt kept putting skin on the Gospel — Charlie’s own skin.
Walt believed that Charlie had become so disconnected from his own life that he had disconnected from his soul, disconnected from humanity, and Walt believed that by weaving The story around him, the Word around Him, that he would be able to connect him to the story of his own life, and find a
path again to walk out of the darkness he’d been lost in.
In time, Charlie came back to the land of the living because his story had been woven through the Land of the Living — and it happened to him, just like Madeleine L’Engle said it would:
“Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos, we see despite all the chaos.”
The story named Charlie, helped him to become whole, to find the broken pieces of himself.
After Walt had finished telling about it, finished all his sentences, and Charlie had finished his one sentence, Charlie walked out of jail and into the world and paid attention and was astonished and found a wife and had some kids and told them about it, because a story, all the stories, had given Charlie back the pieces of himself, his name, who he was.
And that’s what you do.
You pay attention and you be astonished and you tell all the Charlies, all the kids, all the neighbours, the Story, their story, weaving His story around them and through theirs —
and your words are like handrails through the chaos so that all the Charlies find their way through to their own story that connects them to the greatest story of all.
There’s a certain tribe in Africa tribe, a tribe called the Himba, and when a woman of the Himba tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes out into the wilderness with a few friends and together they wait till they hear the song of the child to come.
Because they know that every heart has its own unique beat… it own wild purpose. And when the women attune to the song of the coming child, they sing it out loud.
And then they return to the tribe and teach this child’s unique song to everyone else.
And when the child is born, the Himba tribe gathers and sings the child’s song to him or her. When the child begins school, when the child passes through the initiation to adulthood, when the time comes to get married, at each milestone the village gathers and chants the child’s song.
To the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits sins, falls short, or loses her way, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.
They sing their song to them because the Himba believe that change most happens when we remember who we are — remember our identity — Whose we are… that change most happens when you are named out of the chaos, when your name is sung into the cosmos
And that’s what all you creatives and writers are, all you painters and mothers and musicians and fathers and dreamers are—- you are the Himba Tribe, you are the psalmists who know the beat of Charlie’s heart when all the Charlies have forgotten how to be.
You are the artists, the friends, the parents, who know the rhythm of their return when the Charlies don’t know the road back.
You are the creatives who know the lyrics of why they are loved — when the Charlies, the kids, all the peoples, can’t remember quite how to live….
You are the soul sculptors who will sing their song — God’s song for them — when the Charlies have long forgotten the words to His Word — to their very souls.
You are the creatives who will just keep singing Charlie’s song
Till it perches in his lost places,
Tuning him to what grace is
and the lovesong of His Father
who never stops singing at all.
So go live communion. Go name the gifts in the midst of the chaos, and you make your life art, because it is the act of naming that is behind all art.
Look into the faces on the street corners this week, watch the faces at the grocery store and feel communion, the gratitude for the color of kids’ eyes, the wrinkling of the beautifully wise, the way the melody of us all coming and going rises and falls and disappears and rises again right there in an airport.
We’re all here and communion is made up of all these moments of thanksgiving, naming the gifts He gives and finding the names to ourselves again and telling the Charlies about it, so they find their own names.
It is too easy to exist instead of live.
Unless you know there is a clock ticking.
Live everyday like you’re terminal. Because you are.
Live everyday like your soul’s eternal. Because it is.
Robert Frost once said that a poem ‘begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.’
A poem is never a thought to begin with. So put down the phone and shut out the noise and silence the screaming to-do list long enough to pay attention — to pay attention long enough until you feel it too. Till you feel the poem of communion.
Pay attention long enough until you feel the burning ember of a lump right there in your aching throat, pay attention to the children running slipshod on the grass and look into the eyes of the woman looking lost on the street corner and listen to the seeking sound of the wind in the dark and pay attention till you feel the profound sense of right in this world, the profound sense of wrong, till you are wild for Home and God and a Love that is guaranteed to never end and start there.
Start to pay attention long enough that your one heart breaks open a bit in unabashed thanks to the One who loves you, till you live loved, till you do what you love, till you don’t stop till others have felt His love.
Pay attention, Be astonished, Tell others About It — about Him —- and don’t waste a moment because these are your startling gifts. Start now.
Not when your schedule opens up a bit, because it won’t, not two weeks from now when it gets easier, because it may not.
Pay attention, be astonished, tell About It — about Him — live the eucharist of thankful communion…
simply begin Now.
Related: My own story of learning how to pay attention and see life as art.