There's this challenge that artists do every October where we draw something in ink every day of the month and post it to social media. Inktober. Pretty cool. It's inspiring to see everyone else's work, and it's challenging to have the accountability--just what I need.
And I failed again this year. Been trying to complete this month-long challenge for four or five years now, and every time I drop off around day 15-20. This time though, the excuse was worthwhile. A weekend away celebrating the wedding of a good friend, followed by a surprise short-term foster care placement put the art challenge on the back burner. From beauty to brokenness, and a reminder of why I make art.
It was a wild week, coming off my first weekend away from my one-year-old daughter (this was hard), enjoying a wedding, time with old friends, and making new ones (this was fun).
And two days later my wife and I are wrestling again with a world that eats its children, and trying to find our role in it. That’s what much of my work is about. A world that's uninhabitable for innocence, where vulnerable people are disposable. And what you do in response.
You figure out how to help, how to preserve what's still intact, and maybe repair what's broken.
And then--what is much more difficult, achingly so--you realize you're not God. And can't do the saving.
A lot of my art is motivated by those realities, and by the desire to preserve that inherent good in children amidst an evil world. There’s so much of both--the good in kids, the evil in the world. I'm fascinated by kids' naive and beautiful, naked and unashamed, complete lack of self awareness. Which corresponds to a certain purity, curiosity, and boldness that we old folks seem to have lost long ago.
Sure, sometimes the children choose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil on their own accord-their own choice, succumbing to their own inherent vice--and then they fall from grace and reap those horrible consequences. But what I’ve seen too much of is that they're forced to take the bite, or never even bit, but someone else did, and it's the kids who have to endure hell. Forced way too early to grow up, way too fast, bear burdens no child ever should. Instability. Abuse. Trauma. Or just the squashing of their creative spirit. A hardening that comes too early.
The calloused layers they build up over the years in order to cope, or just to survive, often never go away.
As a teacher and foster parent I’ve tried to teach children a lot of things over the years. But there’s an old cliche heard in educator circles that has never been more true for me than now—they’ve taught me far more than I’ve taught them. They teach me to see, and hope, and not care what others think of me. They teach me to believe in good, and Art, imagination, and Mystery. To unlearn--to remove those layers of security we've piled on our childlike self, smothering it, in order to cope with the brutality of the world. That is, to be naked and vulnerable again.
A terrifying place to be, all exposed like that.
Like Jesus on the cross.
I think this unlearning is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said "unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven". Certainly, this is at least in part what he's alluding to when he calls us to be "born again."
The children, or their experiences rather, also teach me how ugly the world is. And they teach me to grieve, deeply, like Christ did. To beg that cups be taken from me, or really from these children, and to submit to some higher purpose, even as I hate it. To submit them, even, to some higher purpose, completely outside of my control. Giving them over to God or another parent, both of whom you wonder sometimes if they are good or scary or harmful or what. These experiences teach me to call out to God (or to what Camus called the “Absurd Silence of the Universe”) and to try to hope.
No...to actually hope. I do hope. I think.
I certainly hunger and thirst.
James K.A. Smith says:
"Discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all—a vision encapsulated by the shorthand “the kingdom of God.”"
If that's true, then I'm certainly close to Jesus these days.
So here's to hungering and thirsting, along with the whole hungry world: