Gratitude

The ache of ephemeral experiences

by Steve Brock on May 4, 2015

Murrow Drawing

Good Friday has come and gone this year. What I take from it is a story both overly recognizable and endlessly new.

What made this story of suffering, death and greater love so powerful this year was the use of sand painting during the Good Friday service at our church. As various pastors and elders read each of the final seven sayings of Christ on the cross, an artist created images of each scene using only her hands and sand. She poured and then spread the sand around a large glass plate while the image was projected onto a larger screen for the audience to see. Her “paintings” displayed great depth, texture and nuance.

The most powerful moment, to me, came when each reader finished his or her narration. The sand artist would then take this incredible work of art and, with a wave of her hand, erase it. One moment we were looking at a rendering of Jesus and the thief, side by side on their respective crosses. The next, steaks of sand shadowing the bright background.

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Last week, I read about an artist, Ethan Murrow, whose drawings in graphite on paper were on display at the Winston Wachter Fine Art gallery in Seattle. My two sons and I were in the area, so we drove to the gallery to view the drawings. Phenomenal, both in technique and concept.

My favorite image of all was one called Wagon Train (shown above). I loved the subject matter but when I looked closely, I realized that Murrow hadn’t drawn this one on paper. Instead, according to our guide there, he had spent four days with a Sharpie drawing the image on one of the gallery walls. And when the show is over, they will, amazingly, just paint over this image (which, if on paper, would likely be sold in the $15,000 to $20,000 range).

One day, beautiful art. The next day, another painted wall.

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I want to hold on to things of beauty. Make them last. Enjoy them over and over. But these two experiences, like certain moments on trips, inform me that there is another way.

Sometimes our greatest experiences are ephemeral. They are momentary, one-of-a-kind wonders that do not, cannot and were never meant to last.

For example, have you ever sat in a lovely restaurant or at a sidewalk café or on a bench overlooking some landscape and you find your heart catching in your throat because the scene, the moment is so beautiful? I have literally ached with a joyful sorrow in places where I never wanted to leave even as I knew I never could stay.

These ephemeral experiences are often some of our most poignant and meaningful. I find myself desperately wanting them to last even as I know that if they did, they would cease to be as special.

And so when confronted with art that disappears in minutes or days, a meal that lasts only as long as it takes to eat, a place where I can visit but not tarry or a person I can meet but not know deeply, I can simply give thanks and appreciate what I have experienced.

We need not possess something to be changed by it.

 

 

 

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Being in a different place for Christmas

by Steve Brock on December 25, 2014

Christmas at church near hospitalI write this on Christmas Eve in a setting I’ve grown not just tired of, but burdened by this year: a hospital.

First, between surgeries and treatments for my wife’s breast cancer over the last year, I spend more time than I care to think about in or near hospitals. She’s doing great now and just finished her last treatment a week ago, but still, it has been a long year.

Then, in May, I spend several days in a hospital down in Bend, OR with my mom who broke her arm and had a pacemaker put in.

Now, it’s my youngest son, Connor.

Yesterday, December 23rd, we leave our home at 6:00 a.m. for a 7:50 a.m. flight to spend Christmas with family in California. On the drive to the airport, Connor, 17, suddenly cries out in agony. He has a piercing pain in his abdomen. We don’t even make it as far as the airport.

A few miles short of there, we pull into an empty parking lot. Connor rolls out of the car and onto the asphalt writhing in pain. We call 911 and soon after the EMT arrives, Connor is in an ambulance to the nearest hospital and I’m frantically racing to drop my wife and other son off at the airport. We figure there’s nothing they can do, so reluctantly they agree to catch the flight that Connor and I will never make.

I rush to the ER, find Connor and wait for doctors to give him pain medication and carry out some tests. A few hours later, they tell us that Connor has acute pancreatitis and must spend several days in the hospital.

We move him to the nearest children’s hospital (I never knew that most hospitals cannot admit minors) and eventually learn that the cause is unknown (which happens about a third of the time with this inflammation of the pancreas). However, the treatment is known: hydration through IV, no food or water, and rest along with medication for the intense pain.

So here I am, the next day, waiting with Connor, grateful for wonderful doctors and nurses, friends who have stopped by during this busy time of year and the news that Connor is feeling a bit better and that we might be able to go home tomorrow.

But here’s the odd thing: When we didn’t know what was going on, one doctor warned this could be serious, even life-threatening. So I prayed desperately for my son. And in return, you’d think through all this I would feel especially close to God. I’ve got plenty of quiet time here in the hospital and a heart filled with gratitude. And yet, where’s that warm glow and intimate sense of God’s presence, especially now at Christmas? I’m not sure.

You know the old saying, “If it feels like God is distant, guess who moved?” So this evening, I choose to try and scoot a bit closer to the Divine. I find out there is a Christmas Eve service at a church a few blocks from the hospital. I decide to go while Connor rests.

The church I visit is old (see photo above). The services, contemporary. The people are welcoming. The music, classic carols done to rock arrangements. A woman with a lovely voice reads a new but touching rendition of the Christmas story from Luke chapter 2. The pastor delivers a short, but poignant message. We pass the light of our candles to each other as we celebrate the coming of Light into our world.

And somewhere along the way, Jesus and I get reconnected in a powerful way. Was it the music? The lighting? The words spoken? Likely all the above. But most of all – apart from the sheer grace of God – it was that I was in a different place: physically, emotionally and spiritually.

This is a good reminder at Christmas that God came to a different place – our world – just to be with us. He moved closer even as we, in our proneness to wander, drift away.

Movement and place affect us more than we realize in ways both subtle and profound. But the Christmas message tonight makes me realize that no matter where that place is – even a hospital room on Christmas – we are never, ever alone.

Emmanuel. God with us. Wherever we find ourselves.

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Gaining when we lose

by Steve Brock on December 20, 2014

Greatest BooksOne reason for starting my new blog, www.StephenWBrock.com was to focus not just on travel alone, but on the intersection between travel and creativity.

When you look at that intersection, one immediate commonality is learning. Sometimes we travel just to get somewhere. And sometimes we create without actually acquiring any new skill or experience. But for the most part, we pursue both travel and creative endeavors primarily because we do want to learn. We desire to explore and broaden our understanding of the world.

As I’ve been doing some research on the ways in which we learn, I came across some interesting insights from Professor Monish Pasupathi in The Great Courses series,“How We Learn.” In a section on learning languages, she notes that unless we learn a second language as we’re acquiring our first in our youth, it is very difficult to become fully fluent in another language. We can reach high degrees of proficiency, but even that comes easier the younger we start.

Most of us who have tried to learn a second language as adults can attest to the challenges, so none of that was news to me. What did stand out, however, was this: In the process of learning our primary language as infants and children, our brains actually close down and shut off the ability to master another language to the same degree.

Apparently, our brains are efficient machines that know when they have what they need (at least for language). Ever wonder why a child can hear a word, often just once, and retain it? In childhood, our brains are still in the formation stage. As we gain increased mastery of one language, it’s like our brains know they don’t need additional input in that area, things like knowing how to decipher other sounds or form those sounds physically. So we actually cease being able to learn another language in the same way.

With languages that use, for example, clicking sounds formed in the back of the throat, once you’re an adult, you physically can’t reproduce those sounds. You don’t have the muscle ability to pull it off and likely you never will be able to develop that completely.

So what does all this have to do with meaningful travel? The obvious answer is that learning new languages is hard. The less obvious but more interesting idea, at least to me, is this: God has created us in such a way that to master some abilities like our primary language we have to lose abilities in other areas.

What? Cut down on our options? That seems un-American or something. We love choices. The more, the better. No matter that more choice actually tends to overwhelm and confuse us. Or that having more choices usually undermines satisfaction with the final choice we do make.

What I’ve learned from my work in branding and in my study of calling, however, is this: More isn’t always better. Knowing your brand or knowing your calling helps you say “No” as much as it helps you say “Yes.” Just as great authors create great stories as much by what they leave out of the tale as by what they include, so it is for us. Often less really is more.

In a world where we’re bombarded by choices, it’s reassuring to realize that saying “No” may be one of the most freeing things we can do. Whether it is limiting what you see on a trip – going deeper rather than wider – or mastering one particular skill rather than flitting from one experience to the next, saying “No” can actually set us free.

I could mourn that I’ll never be fluent in another language. Or I can rejoice in the one I have and delight in using it to my best ability. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to learn other languages. It simply means I should keep my expectations realistic and be grateful for the language I have.

In fact, this is a good reminder at this time of year to be thankful for all I do have. To celebrate the gifts I’ve been given and not to worry about those I do not possess. And to express in the words of my mother tongue this simple yet profound thought:

Merry Christmas.

 

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A fortunate trip

by Steve Brock July 17, 2014

As another trip to Oregon revealed, not all trips go as planned. But often what seems like a nightmare at the time can turn out to be the best possible thing that could have happened.

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Remembering what we don’t understand

by Steve Brock January 27, 2014

Why we remember aspects of trips long after the event is a mystery. We don’t have to understand them. But we can reflect and thereby enjoy the trip anew.

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When your trip goes awry – Part 5

by Steve Brock January 31, 2013

We begin to make sense of hard trips only when we realize that where we thought we were heading isn’t our actual destination. What I learned about travel and life from an Andrew Peterson concert…on a trip.

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When your trip goes awry – Part 4

by Steve Brock January 25, 2013

When I finally make it to my destination after many missed flights, gratitude should be my first response. But why isn’t it?

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