When the Ash and Smoke Settle

Life can get hard.  It can get so very hard somtimes.  Our scars are a reminder of just how hard this life can get.  We have days that leave us feeling too rubbed raw to pick ourselves up and start again.  Other days we are faced with the unrelenting demand for answers we know we can never have.

I have a rule that I don’t explain my artwork.  I tend to do more abstract art, so I get asked a lot to explain.   I think the beauty of art is that it speaks to each of us individually. Each person sees what they need to see.  I don’t want to ruin your interpretation by forcing my own upon you.

Which is why I created my rule (the one I am about to break).  Only I am not going talk about all of the symbolism and such.  Instead I want to talk about the inspiration behind this series.  This series is about a topic that has been on my mind a lot the last year.

This series is our human ability to mend and to bounce back after incredible defeat. These paintings were inspired by my trip to Africa, were hope and despair are found in equal abundance.  They dance around each other like a perfectly stepped waltz.  You can’t have hope without despair.

There is a Russian word Toska, I think it is one of the most hauntingly beautiful words I have ever found.  Toska as defined by Vladimir Nobokov:

No single word in English renders all the shades of Toska.  At its deepest and most painful it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause.  At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long form a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning.  In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness.  At the lowest level it grads into ennui, boredom.”

That feeling when hope dies, and we feel lost without any hope of being found.  This painting pulls you in with its fire and anguish.

Burning and consuming.

Turning life into ash and smoke.

Turning hope into a distant memory that was never meant for our lives.

Toska

Photo Credit: Lori Rensink

There is also a beautiful Portuguese word -Saudade- which as defined by Dictionary.com “A deep emotional state of melancholic longing for a person or thing that is absent.”

The budding leaves gives us a picture of a better world coming our way. The moment when we first allow ourselves to believe that there is more, that there is something better.  Although it may be out of our grasp, we can feel how close it is.  It is a chance for something better and we are hungry for it.  

It’s this hunger that causes our greedy fingers to pull tomorrow’s promise into today’s reality.

Saudade

Photo Credit: Lori Rensink

And finally like a breath of fresh air, hope draws us in with its childlike whimsy.  The ashes and smoke has settled replaced with raw unadulterated hope.  We thought we would never be okay again, but then subtle and without notice one day we were.

Hope

Photo Credit: Lori Rensink

People are made to mend. It’s what we do. We can’t stop ourselves from hoping again, from falling in love again.  Our hearts are made to be malleable.  They were made to break and mend and change and grow.

Strangers will become friends and friends will become strangers.  Hearts will break and hearts will mend.  On the days when you feel broken into so many pieces that you don’t believe there is a way for the all of the pieces to ever find each other, remember this – people were made to mend.  You were made to mend, and mend you will.  

Cherished Blogfest

Our van pulled up to the marketplace in Livingstone, Zambia.  The air was hot and sticky.   The air was always hot and sticky.  It was the type of heat that makes you forget what it is like to be cold.

Within a few short days, the Zambians we had partnered with already felt like brothers.  They promised to help us navigate the market place, but there were much more of us than them.

With big eyes and Kwacha (Zambian Currency) in hand, I took my first steps towards the market place.

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Photo Credit: Michael Liedtke

They barter everything in the market place.  I would eventually barter my hair tie for a nice hand carved wood bottle opener for my brother.  Bartering is kind of intimidating to me in itself.  I am not a demanding, forceful person.  I could never work in sales.

So here I was trying to barter for my first time.   Of course it would be with a foreign currency.  Not that it really mattered since I had no idea how much any of this stuff would be worth in American money.  Add to that the fact that my white skin screams I have money and no idea what I am doing.  I was basically a moving target for disaster.

The marketplace vendors were indeed happy to see a van full of mzungas (white people) pull up.   I wandered off on my own.  True to their word, my Zambian brothers came to help me.  They helped the marketplace vendors take me more seriously, but besides that they were mostly there for moral support.

If I played confidant, maybe the vendors wouldn’t catch on that I had no idea what I was doing.  One thing I did have going for me, is that I can read people really well.  I could tell which vendors were trying to take advantage of me.

The first thing on my list was a chitenge (a chitenge is a long colorful piece of fabric that the women wrap around themselves as skirts).

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Photo Credit: Michael Liedtke

I know that I paid too much for it, but I also knew that I didn’t care.  The woman was nice and I had talked down the price enough.  Plus she needed the money more than me, and it felt greedy to pay any less.

I had bought my first chitenga.  Oh I would buy others.  In fact I cherish everything I bought in Zambia.   But my first chitenga would always be special to me.  It reminded me of a girl who was fearless, even when she had no idea what she was doing.  It reminded me of the girl who wasn’t afraid to jump in and get her hands dirty.

It reminded me of my last night in Africa.  When I stood barefoot in the orange African dirt looking up at the stars.  The wind was gently whipping my chitenga around my legs.  I scrunched my toes into the dirt and promised myself that this would not be the last time my feet touched African soil. 

**** Michael Liedtke is a professional photography that went to Zambia with me.  To see more of his amazing photos from Zambia, click here.

**** Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read my blog.  If you have a cherished object you would like me to read about, please put in the comments below.

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The Great Unknown

“You just need to push off and swing to the other side.”

The Just implied that it was easy.  A piece of cake.  What the experienced rock climbers, safely planted on the ground, were really telling me was that I need to let go. Obviously.  Just let go.

It was my first time rock climbing.  I felt a twinge of fear as I looked at what I was about to climb, but I silenced it.   I have always been good at climbing.  My family likes to tell me about how when I could barely even walk I would love to climb up the step stool we kept in the kitchen.  I would climb up, fall down, dust myself off, and climb back up.  I don’t remember this at all, either from being too young or from hitting my head each time I fell.  My point is that  I have always loved climbing things, as a child and yes still as an adult.  So my excitement about rock climbing quickly squashed any nerves or fear I had.

That is until on my first run up.  I managed the first half like a natural, and then I got stuck.

“You just need to push off and swing to the other side.”

Yeah okay, sure, easy peasy, I’ll get right to that.

I tried to use my unnatural long limbs to reach to the other side, so I wouldn’t actually have to let go and swing over.  I had half let go, but I was also half still holding on for dear life.  What sane person wouldn’t when they are that far above ground?  At that height you forget that you are being supported by a rope that will catch you.  At that height all knowledge that you are safe feels like a lie trying to trick you, and suddenly there is no way you are letting go.

Undeterred, I tried a second time on the second rig.  Once again I was climbing quickly and easily.  Look at me go.

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Then I fell.

I don’t remember how it happened.  I just remember one minute I was reaching, the next minute I was falling, the next minute I was caught, and then I was fine.  After that falling didn’t seem so scary anymore.  I took more risks, and yes fell many more times.  But each time I was fine.  The more I fell, the less I was afraid of falling.

My next attempt back on the other rig, I got stuck in the same place.  And you know what I did without even hesitating?  You guessed it, I let go and pushed myself to the other side.  Not only did I survive, but I realized that letting go was ridiculously fun.

Letting go can be scary.  Until it isn’t  Although that is easy to say in rock climbing (relatively) it is a lot harder when you are talking about something more personal and permanent.  Especially since in life it often seems like their isn’t a rope to catch us when we reach too far.  So we convince ourselves that our dreams our merely meant to be pretty pictures put on our shelf of someday.  Thought about and admired but not something we ever dare lived.

I have been a dreamer ever since I can remember.  I use think that when I grew up and finally started living my dreams it would be like running through a field of daisies as I easily glided into happily ever after.  Not even a little bit.  It is more like being stuck 50 feet in the air the first time I decide to rock climb.

Terrifying.

Truthfully,  I have found the moment when fulfilling one of my dreams is in my grasp to be some of the most terrifying moments of my life.  It would have been easier to stay in my comfortable shell only dreaming of my dreams.  Going to Africa has been on my dream shelf for many years.  Until one day I took it down.  The days leading up to me leaving was very surreal and very terrifying. I imagined the worst possible scenarios, and I had a few freak outs.  Not that I ever admit it to anyone when they asked.  “Aren’t you nervous to go to Africa,” they would ask me with wide eyes.  No of course not, I am tough, I am brave, I will be fine. And then I just let go, and got on a plane to fly to the other side of the world.

My first five hours is Zambia looked like this: Don’t drink the water unless you are positive it is safe,  oh and there are geckos staring at you in the bathroom, oh and watch out for snakes they are posionous,  oh and you have to use your hands to make this corn mush into a bowl so you can eat your veggies.  But that was the worst it got.  All of my freaking out and I had been fine.  Of course I knew that, otherwise I would have never got on the plane.  However just like rock climbing, it’s hard to be rational when you are 50 feet above ground; or thousands of feet above the Atlantic ocean.

For me right now, letting go looks like letting go of the life I think I should have for the great unknown of what I believe I actually want.  Which is scarier than rock climbing and flying to Africa combined.  When it comes to careers and education, I have always been practical.  In college I majored in Criminal Justice and Business (both of which I enjoyed), but if I had been truly honest with myself then I would have realized that my true passions lied in art and writing.  But I hadn’t allowed myself to want those things because they were not practical.

At one point I had a political science minor, for one of my classes I was going to take international affairs.  I was actually a bit excited for it (nerd alert), until I found out I would be one of four students with a professor I did not really like so much.  I dropped the class, changed my minor, and never looked back.  Until now.  Until now when I realize that Masters in International Relations has a nice ring to it.  Especially if it meant I got to meant people like this:

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And I thought – Huh – that sounds pretty cool.

I feel like the last three years of my life have been building for me to go to law school.  I have been putting law school on my someday dream shelf.  But I keep putting it off, and I realized that maybe it wasn’t what I actually want.  It is what the practical side of me wants, but it don’t know if its what I want.  My brain always gets this annoying idea in its head that I should do a little more, go a little further, live little more adventurously, and climb a little higher.  What I want feels a lot like this song . . .

Keep up your head up
Don’t take your eyes off the road
Oh, you’re never gonna change
By doing what you’re told
You don’t want let yourself down
So don’t be scared to stand out
There’s a thousand voices saying
The time is now

So let go
You’re on your own
There’s something waiting for you
There’s something waiting for you
So let go
Of the world
You know
There’s something waiting for you
In the great unknown
The great unknown

Read more: Jukebox The Ghost – The Great Unknown Lyrics | MetroLyrics

And maybe that means me letting go of my practical plan to be a lawyer for a much risky plan that I am not sure about.  Letting go will probably be terrifying.  Until it isn’t, until I am fine.  It can be terrifying to let go of our comfort, of our safety, of the life we thought we had wanted.  But what is even more terrifying is the thought that we can miss out on the best parts of our life because we were too afraid to let go.

Catching Chickens

It was a beautiful morning in Zambia.  The thrum of life was so evident all around you that it felt as though it were synced to your pulse.  Such mornings simply do not exist here at home.  Africa has a vibrancy to it that is so distinctly well African.  But there is also this sense of community.  A dependency on life to continue life.

It was on that morning as I sat in this place,

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when a hoard of ants came past right in front of me.  Ants are bigger and scarier in Africa.  I just sat there frozen as they seemed to just. keep. coming.  That was the closest I came to death in Africa.

I am being dramatic because of course I didn’t come close to death at all.  The ants barely even noticed me as I sat frozen in fear.  Yet everyone keeps telling me how brave I am for going to Africa.  For some reason America seems to have this picture of Africa being a land where death lurks around every corner.  Which is completely an inaccurate depiction of a land filled with so much beauty and life.

In that moment, after my near death of killer ants, I couldn’t help but wonder what on earth am I doing here? I spent months preparing.  I spent three days traveling, crammed into airplanes and stuck at airports.  I had been ready to brave the huge spiders and the deadly snakes.  I had put up with months of people telling me I was going to get Ebola, or malaria, or death by those water flies.  Yet I came anyways.  Then I discovered this idea of Africa that I had painted in my head was not even close to accurate.  While in Zambia, I did not see a desolate or broken land.  Zambia is very much alive and filled with hope.  Life begetting life all around me.  Zambia doesn’t need me.  Not even a little bit.

So what on earth was I doing here?  

God tends to find us the most useful once we realize how utterly useless we actually are.

So that morning in the prayer loppa, I asked God to help me understand why I was in Africa.  Do you know what He gave me?  A chicken. Other members on team did really amazing things that day, like heal people and make a dry well flow with water.

I got a chicken.

Not that I’m bitter.

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We were talking with two ladies, Ceca and her mother Harriet.  Somehow it was decided that they would show us some of their daily life, and somehow that ended up with us at a cage of chickens.  They wanted us to feed their chickens.  An awkward silence filled the air as they waited to see which crazy American they would get to trap in the pen with the chickens.

I volunteered, and instantly regretted it.  I crawled through the tiny hole and prayed the chickens wouldn’t attack the first white person they have ever encountered. Don’t worry, I survived unscathed.  Soon Ceca and her son her were crammed into the tiny cage with me.  I am still not sure how we fit without squashing any chickens.  Ceca picked up a chicken by the wings, looked at me, and said, “Here hold it.”  Haha yeah no thanks.  But Cesa just kept insisting, and I got the feeling she wouldn’t let me out until I held it.

I grew up on a farm, I am not scared of chickens.  Much.  But I have never picked up a chicken by the wings.  That seemed akin to poking a bear and hoping it didn’t bite you. So of course I decided to pick up the stupid chicken.  Ceca and Harriet had a pretty good laugh at the ridiculous white girl holding one of their chickens.

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“God sometimes uses the completely inexplicable events in our lives to point us towards Him.  We get to decide each time whether we will lean in toward what is unfolding and say yes or back away.” – Bob Goff

Sometimes the biggest miracle we will see in our lives is that we said yes when a normal sane person would have said no.  I don’t think that God ever intended us to be spectators in life.  I think he intended us to do foolish things like try to walk on water or feed chickens.  I think he intended us to engage with the world around us.  Life moves fast.  If you don’t stop to catch a chicken every now and then you might miss it.