Where Are You?

In October, I invited artists in the area to an Art and Soul Challenge:

The first question God asks of man in the Bible is found in Genesis. He asks, "Where are you?" For this Art and Soul Challenge, I invite you to consider how you would answer this question right now, and how you could depict your answer visually. Use any medium you like, as long as your piece arrives to me ready to hang.

I was reading Trevor Hudson's Questions God Asks Us and it felt like an invitation to walk with God. I thought that a group show would be more effective than a solo show because a variety of answers, methods and viewpoints might make it more likely that a viewer would feel drawn into the conversation. I wanted people to go home thinking about how they might answer God's question themselves.  

The show was up October 20th to December 1st. It was such an interesting mix of new and practiced artists.

I want to share two emails (of many) I received from participating artists because they illustrate what I consider to be the goal of art in the church. I reprint them here with permission. The first email is from DN, a practiced artist, who I am just getting to know and love:

I had fun and it did open some things for me. I "got" the picture in my head.  Hiding in the Garden of Eden....The cross....No longer needing to hide.  But my plan was to put little bandaids or black strips across my figure in several places to symbolize that there are things that I take back, things that I still try to hide from God.  Sins.  But when I put them on the figure, they marred it. The truth was that in my eyes I am marred but in God's eyes he sees me whole and beautiful, His bride.  I made the figure out of paper I marbled.  When I looked at the finished figure, I saw a person full of this gorgeous and flowing creativity and, for the first time, I felt like I saw myself as God saw me and as how He designed/created me.  I saw myself dancing, worshipping.  When God asks, "Where are you?" I heard myself answer.  "I am here Lord.  Speak -- for your servant is listening." This ended up being a profound experience for me.

This second email is from a new artist, MS, who wrote up her experience with this process. Her honesty and vulnerability touch me:

I paint watercolors. Most people don’t know that about me. Well, technically I try to paint watercolors. I dream of painting, but it is a struggle for me. I know many people who are so talented and can lay down these beautiful strokes of a brush with fabulous hues and create these amazing paintings. I find it crazy stressful! Staring at a quarter sheet of 140lb Arches paper, better known as a thick piece of 15x22 paper, can bring such fear. The wonderful lady I have taken some classes from says to herself each time she starts, ‘Going in.’ I tend to think, ‘Oh crap, time to start.’

For me, painting brings up a mix of emotions. I love part of it and hate part of it. I love the colors and interaction of the paint when it hits the paper--how it can swirl and create these patterns that are amazing. The outcome will be different if you put it down on a dry sheet of paper or if you get the sheet wet first. But the imaginative things I see in my head die a quick and sudden death when I try to put them on paper. My brain and my hand are definitely not creatively attached. Heaven forbid I actually do paint a section I like because then I am frozen thinking at any moment I could do something that will ruin the little bit of good I have done. I don’t finish many paintings. I can’t get past the roadblocks in my head.

Life can be kind of like that though. Some of us struggle day after day, trying to do what is right and often failing. But every once in a while, we have a moment where everything comes together. What follows is the fear that our next step could undo all the positive we have done.

Recently, I was included in an email that went out asking people if they wanted to contribute to an art display we were going to have here at the church. We were to answer the question, ‘Where are you?’ in response to God asking that of Adam and Eve in the garden. Where are you right now and how would you depict your answer visually? Better yet, how on earth had I got on that email list?! It had to be a mistake. Well- turns out it wasn’t. After much tossing and turning and turmoil I decided to try. I only told one other person who also paints. That way if I chickened out, only she would know.

Fail, fail, fail. I tried going with the idea that I am still trying to find my wings. I tried a little hummingbird and a dragonfly but I just got stuck. I even tried a little koi fish thinking I could go with a fish out of water theme. Kinda fitting, right? Fail again. That little voice in my head that always says "you are not good enough" was throwing a party. As the days drew closer, I had already decided to quit about 20 times. How could I turn something in when I was so terrible at it? No one would want to see it. Trust me on that one.

A couple days before I needed to turn it in, I was chatting with a friend. We were laughing about how great it is that God isn’t finished with us. We are a work in progress.  Then it clicked. My paintings are like me. Unfinished. So I closed my eyes and turned in all three that I had struggled with.

By Melissa Skeels
'I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.’ Philippians 1:6 NRSV
I am a beautiful work of art in process by God’s grace as He continues to add to my palette with new hues of color while softening my edges, adjusting my perspective, and allowing me to take shape.

It was done, I was done, and I was never going to go through all that ‘turning in a painting’ stress again. Oh- and to make it even better, everyone else’s that were now hanging in the church were these beautiful paintings.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. Today I received an email, “Hi Melissa— your hummingbird blessed my friend today. She talked about going to an aviary in Arizona where hummingbirds fly freely. She plans to go there this week as a treat to remind her about God’s love. We talked about it in the hallway. Then when she was leaving she noticed your bird and said, “isn’t God so good— here I was just talking about hummingbirds and here is a beautiful painting of one.” Thought you would like that and I was thinking...I would love to give your painting to her. Would you be willing to sell it? I know you talked about doing more to it but I think it is lovely just as it is.”

So yeah, that made my cry. My hours of struggle were used in some little way by God. I know that shouldn’t be surprising since God uses people all the time. But I work behind the scenes so I don’t usually get to see my involvement in it. But God is working in us and through us every day. Whether we notice it or feel it or even get to hear about it, He is still there. Shaping and molding. Best of all He promises to keep doing a good work in us until Jesus returns. Thank goodness, right?!

Yes, I plan to keep struggling and painting. Maybe one day it will start getting easier. But maybe it isn’t supposed to get easier. Maybe striving is the point.

Maybe. I think for me, engagement is the point, and I think all the artists who participated gave us that gift. Their willingness to engage their strengths and weaknesses, fears and faith, with God and people through art blessed them, blessed the congregation and blessed me. And, I'm pretty sure God was smiling too.

Broken Pieces: An Interview with Collage Artist Jo Reimer

I never liked collage. There is something terribly destructive about it, and for a long time all I could see in it was brokenness. It made me uncomfortable and sad. My experience with collage as a child was to rip up beautiful magazine pictures in order to create something mediocre. I was not a fan.

One day I realized that art quilting, my first love in art forms, was basically collage. I remember being stunned. At first I argued with myself, I was not destroying things of beauty to create mediocrity, I was redeeming cast off pieces and giving them new life. Surely intent mattered, didn't it? I began to study the history, various artist styles and forms of this medium. I could see it's benefit in trauma healing and in spiritual direction. Slowly, I have grown to appreciate all forms of collage.

One of my favorite people is an intriguing collage artist. Jo Reimer agreed to be interviewed here. 

Michelle: I know you have used several different mediums for expression over your career, what is it that you like about collage?

Jo Reimer: You’re right that I’ve used different mediums for expression beginning with the threaded needle and fiber to create clothing and home goods as well as wall hangings. These items included lots of applique and the vast array of surface design techniques. I’ve explored most ways of painting and I draw a lot, now mostly urban sketching. About 20 years ago, while involved in art journaling and book arts, I began using collage on the pages. It grew beyond my pages. I took it larger, finally settling on collage as my primary medium.  Collage is simply gluing paper to a surface to build up a composition and tell a story. My work is different from that of most other collage artists in that I work with papers that I’ve painted and textured using techniques I learned way back when I was working in surface design on fabric.

Collage is simply gluing paper to a surface. . . to tell a story
— Jo Reimer

M: I love how your work has, in a sense, come full circle in terms of the texturing of fabric and now papers. Would you say you have a visual language? Colors, shapes or symbols that are unique to your work? 

JR: Yes, I do have a visual language which I realized only recently as I was skimming over the hundreds of images I’ve pinned to my collage and paintings boards on Pinterest. I use geometric shapes to build my works… mostly squares and rectangles, with thick and thin lines, and the occasional circle, spot or dot. Those right angles come naturally to me, probably related to my experiences with patchwork and pattern. Try as I might to go organic, I can’t go there.  And color! Everything is colorful although most recently I’ve been loving working with neutrals. They’re so elegant. It’s hard for color to be elegant and I like elegance, and order, and control.  It shows.

M: Are there particular topics that you tend to revisit often? Why do you think that is?

Hometown Girl  by Jo Reimer, 12 x 12 collage of painted papers and images on cradled panel.   JR: " The woman is my mother. 255 was my phone number when I was a child. The bridge is similar to one that terrified me when I was learning to drive because of the parallel boards on which one had to keep the wheels of the car. My dad loved to fish. After work he’d get one of us kids to go with him and row the boat while he fished. And the words, 'Jim had a nice birthday' refers to my brother. This piece is all about my family of origin."

Hometown Girl by Jo Reimer, 12 x 12 collage of painted papers and images on cradled panel.  JR: "The woman is my mother. 255 was my phone number when I was a child. The bridge is similar to one that terrified me when I was learning to drive because of the parallel boards on which one had to keep the wheels of the car. My dad loved to fish. After work he’d get one of us kids to go with him and row the boat while he fished. And the words, 'Jim had a nice birthday' refers to my brother. This piece is all about my family of origin."

JR: I visit and revisit the idea of home and family. To me it’s obvious why that is… it’s what I know and where my interests and love live.  From childhood I’ve drawn floorplans. As a six year old I played among the above-ground roots of a big oak tree, naming the spaces as rooms in a home and populated those rooms with stone “people.” My first paintings in high school home economics class were of a living room and a dining room.  I had 6 years of home economics in middle and high school and majored in home economics/clothing/textiles in college.  Home is where it’s at for me.

M: Isn't it interesting how little things from childhood carry though our entire lives? I know you like order and organizing, but your work is so "loose" and expressive. Can you let us into your process a little bit?

JR: Several times during the year I devote a couple of weeks to painting and decorating paper which is then sorted into bins according to color.  I also have boxes of many kinds and colors of papers torn from books and magazines or saved from the trash. I call these boxes “compost” because beauty grows from the combining and mixing of these otherwise useless papers.

When I come to my work table I stir and sort through my "compost" and choose a few papers that interest me for some reason. Sometimes I come to the table empty minded and let ideas form from interacting with the papers. Other times I have something definite in mind… a memory or an idea or simply a geometric composition that I’ve sketched in my studio journal.  I set out my glue pot, a few palette knives, a wet cloth to clean my fingers, and a support… and I begin. I audition the papers which will make the cut and be included in the first layers. I lay the papers in place, repositioning them until the composition is pleasing, and then begin the actual gluing process.  It’s messy and fun. The work changes and evolves over hours and days. Sometimes the collage is finished in just a few hours, but usually I return to the work again and again until it’s finished, adding inked lines and paint where needed.

M: How is your work impacted by your faith, and do you find the reverse to be true? How does art impact your faith?

The work changes and evolves over hours and days.
— Jo Reimer

JR: I’m a Christian who makes art but mostly I don’t make religious art, not the kind of religious art sold in a Christian bookstore.  Over several years I’ve made numerous works of art for my church, alter frontals, banners, replica textiles for a model of the original Tabernacle as well as Aaron’s garments.  I made a series of collage paintings/ illustrations of the sermons of my pastor, 10 of which are used in the children’s department. I completed 54 of these “Sermon Notes” before the series ended and I consider these works to be the best things I’ve made. Definitely my faith was impacted and was driven by the creating of this body of work; however, I feel that everything I do is an act of worship, simply because of who I am and in whom I believe.  I was created to be who I am, to be creative, to draw and paint and glue and make things, so of course my art is impacted by my faith and vice versa.  It’s who I am.

Thanks Jo!

Isn't she interesting? I've blogged about Jo's work before, you can find that article here.
Jo has a website: joreimer.com
And art blog: joreimer.blogspot.com, The title of her blog, One-A-Day, refers to her commitment to make one piece of art every day. The searchable blog contains lots of information on how she makes art.
Photos of her art can be viewed on Flickr.com at https://www.flickr.com/photos/ahmadojo/albums
For information about purchasing a painting contact her at joreimer@comcast.net.

The Pilgrimage Question

Why do you walk?

It is the most common question I got before I left. It is the question the old woman asks me now. She is from Bogota, Columbia. She too is a pilgrim.

"I am on pilgrimage," I tell her.

"Yes," she smiles, "but why do you walk? What is there at Compostela?" I am not sure what she is asking. I start to explain that it is an ancient pilgrimage site. She nods and waves her hand impatiently, "Of course, yes, I know this. What is there for you? ¿Porque caminas? Why do you walk?"

This question has gotten more and more difficult for me to answer. I think I had an answer when in the planning stages. I think I had an answer after buying my ticket. But the last week before I left words abandoned me and the only ones left were, "because I need to go."

There is something terribly lonely about the path, even though there are other pilgrims on it. Perhaps because there are other pilgrims on it. Days 5 and 6 since I left home are so lonely, and the ache in my chest is so heavy that I am not sure I will make it.

My muscles and feet are fine.

And meal times are times of beautiful connection.

But there are lots of empty spaces. Some are for thoughts, some for prayers, some for just being. Some swallow me up and threaten to sadness.

So much is beautiful.

So much is wonderful.

So much is glorious.

So much is plodding in the heat, in the wind, putting one foot in front of the other up a hill while carrying a pack.

I left home six days ago, and the question is asked of me daily on the road, in the pilgrim houses, and the answer has buried itself so deep inside that all I have to offer by way of explanation is completely unsatisfactory. I walk because I am a pilgrim and I need to know what that means.

Beginning (Again)

I am not sure exactly when the desire to pilgrimage was planted in me. I don't know how long it incubated and then grew. I do know that it hasn't disappeared. There are things I hear on pilgrimage that I cannot hear any other way, any other time, or anywhere else. Pilgrimage is a great metaphor for Life. However, it is not Life. That means that I require the actual living of Life after a pilgrimage to begin to understand what I learned while walking.

It has been about 10 months since I left for Portugal to begin walking The Camino. I wanted the first stamp in my pilgrim passport/credential to be in Lisbon. The geography matched the landscape in my heart. I wanted to see the broken pieces, I wanted to witness the renewal.

Cobblestone sidewalk Lisbon Portugal pilgrimage

Lisbon is a city built of rubble.

The three biggest natural disasters to hit the city happened all on the same day in 1755. First, there was an earthquake that brought down many of the main structures. Scientists estimate that quake was between 8.5 and 9 and that it lasted for 3 minutes, collapsing stone walls, demolishing filled churches and opening up 2 meter-wide gaps in the streets. The shaking ground caused candles to fall over and fires tore through Lisbon and surrounding areas burning wooden structures. It took 5 days to get the fires under control.

The epicenter of the quake was in the Atlantic Ocean. Townspeople trying to escape falling debris and fire ran to the docks. Within 45 minutes of the earthquake the first of 3 tsunami waves hit those docks. The wall of water was 9 meters high when it reached the city, the worst recorded tsunami to hit Europe. 90% of the buildings were destroyed. 75,000 people in Lisbon died as a result of the 1755 earthquake.

How do you recover from something like that? Everything was broken. Everyone was broken. Every single person left alive was grieving someone, grieving home, grieving.

The mayor surveyed the rubble and said,




tile Lisbon Portugal pilgrimage

We rebuild.

Bury the dead.

Heal the living.

Gather the pieces and start again."

The roads in Lisbon are cobblestone streets, but they are not made of big stones like in other cities. The stone streets are made of smaller rocks. The sidewalks are also built of bits of stones. The buildings went up quickly too. Providing dwellings kept the remaining population from illness. There was no time for decorative carving or for painting these new buildings. Lisbon was known for tiles and many of them were still whole. In fact, they had piles of them, so as buildings went up the exteriors were covered with those stacks of tiles.

Lisbon is a city built of rubble. There are bits of pieces everywhere. And it is beautiful.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when a pilgrimage begins. Is it the day we start walking from a specific point? Is it when we start packing? Or when we first realize we have the idea? I'm not sure it's possible to clearly identify the beginning, however, once we get started, each day is a decision to start anew.

Every day is a pilgrimage.

Every day we get up again, no matter how sore or broken.

Every day we begin again.

We gather the broken pieces and make a way.

We build atop the rubble.

And Life is Beautiful.       

A Call to Worship: The First New Blue Pigment Discovered in the Last 200 Years

There are many around the world suffering from senseless violence. Here in Portland, Oregon we have lost people needlessly as well. I wrote this call to worship last week, after 3 men were stabbed for rising to the defense of 2 teenage girls on a train who were being verbally assaulted. Thanks to Cedar Mill Bible Church for giving me the opportunity to deliver this call today:

We are not innocent
we are not guilty
what we are
is Sad
(have you heard of the discovery of a new shade of blue?)
we are sad for the city, we are sad for the children
we are sad for two teenage girls on a train
just kids
and we all lost something when hate screamed and then
tore red holes in the world
we are sad that we needed the helpers and heroes
and the temptation is to huddle in the upper room
to say, “Now what Lord?
Now what?
Now what?
This is a new shade of blue.”
When Christ looked at His city, He cried too.
How did the disciples know it was time?
to leave the room and enter the streets?
no speech, no word, no voice was heard
and yet love breathed courage and called them,
Knock on a door
because this is not political
You Know
You Know what is critical here,
a sorrow shared
a universal tongue
a hand outstretched
a hand taken
lives given for one another
we ask God, “How will you heal?
What will you do?”
And He answers, “That, my child, is why I made you.”
—Michelle Winter, 2017

Air and Water: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Alli Rogers

I have this friend.

She is fascinated by the ordinary. She inhabits the earth, the wind, the Real Things that we miss. She notices breath and notices clouds. She feels the tremors beneath our words. Because she embraces what is true, she elevates the ordinary. Her noticing makes it sacred and she invites us to see through her eyes, to feel through her heart.

I wanted to share her poet-soul with you. She said yes. Alli Rogers is visiting with us today, talking about writing and inspiration:

Alli Rogers

Michelle: Are there metaphors or symbols that are particularly meaningful to you that show up often in your work?

Alli Rogers: I am constantly writing about water. As a child growing up in Iowa, we spent a lot of time in the summer at my grandparents cabin near the Mississippi river. That was probably where my fascination with water began. It was just so mysterious and powerful. Why was the water moving so fast and where was it going? Why were the sandbars constantly changing? Why was my grandmother so scared of the current? I later became acquainted with the ocean and its overwhelming beauty that still calms and terrifies me all at once. Water represents a longing often in my writing, it remains for me an image of our journey through life, and it illustrates a unique take on the biblical truth of weakness being strength.

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
— Tao Te Ching

I also tend to come back to the moon and stars in my writing. I find it interesting that these two things are sources of peace as well as fear for me. I suppose I write about that which confounds me, in my attempt to make sense of it, as well as to remember that God is God and I am not. The fact that there is so much out of my control or understanding is in fact proof that God exists, and the beauty of it all is  proof that He is good. That is how I see it. 

M: Can you let us into your process a little bit?

AR: My process has changed with different life seasons but a couple of principals have been good guideposts for me. First, the idea of working regardless of inspiration has been something I come back to. Inspiration is wonderful and every artist and poet depends on it, but you cannot wait for it to hit before you pick up your pen. That kind of thinking also negates the value of the learning that happens through writing many bad poems and songs. Each throw away is part of the process, or at least that makes me feel better! It helps to work regularly to get your creative muscles in shape so you are ready when the inspiration does come. Madeline L’Engle says it like this: “One must write every day. Otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, you will not be able to heed it”.

The truth is that I have gone long stretches where I’ve let my creative self get lazy and I have paid for it. So this is my ideal process, one that I thrive in, but it has been hard to implement in these years of raising young kids. 

Write to pray, write to process life, write to remember, write to apologize, write to understand, write to grieve, write to celebrate, write to give thanks, write to notice.
— Alli Rogers

The second principal which I picked up from a songwriter friend is that when inspiration does hit, just write and edit later.  if you’ve experienced it you know it is like riding a wave. When you are on it you don’t think about having perfect form or balance, you just go. It is the same with writing. Editing comes later. Editing can be painful but that is another topic of discussion that I could talk about at length! 

My process is essentially: Write as often as I can, about everything I can. Write to pray, write to process life, write to remember, write to apologize, write to understand, write to grieve, write to celebrate, write to give thanks, write to notice. And then after that, edit if needed (it usually is) and decide if it’s purpose is to share or not. Sometimes songs never get shared and that can often feel like food spoiling on the counter. Little deaths. But I think there is something essential there also. Even a discarded apple core can become food for the earth and maybe it is like this with songs.

I sure hope so.

Thank you Alli!

This is one of my favorite things: to open all the blinds on a Thursday morning and fill my space with the sound of Alli's voice singing the things I didn't even know were in my heart. You can listen to her music here: 

Alli’s latest release Breathe is on iTunes click here.

Her website is AlliRogers.com

And here is a gift for you from her generous heart. A song to listen to while looking out the window:

Playing With Opposites

I love paradox. I love seeming contradiction. I love putting them side by side. Just like complementary colors when placed side by side, create an edge that seems to shimmer, paradox expands our knowing into understanding.

This week I have been playing with those ideas in poem form. This is an unfinished poem, but I wanted to share where I am in the journey. I decided to write about the autumnal equinox because it is one of two days in the year when day and night are the exact same length. That equality of contradiction was exactly what I wanted to explore.

Autumnal Equinox
I stand
in dry weeds
               hip high
and in short
               damp grass
at the edge of the vegetable garden
between the spent blue lake beans
               gone to seed
and the pregnant yellow-blush tomatoes
The air from the pasture
rises warm alfalfa sweet
leaving the ground beneath it cold and sharp
And that sound
the scream that masquerades as silence
               at the insect changing of the guard
               half the swarm readies for rest
               half charges the dusk
Attacking my ankles
               I am become a bistro to the miniscule
               I know better
                              but I refuse to wear long pants
                                                                           or socks
                                                                           or shoes
I bite into a warm tomato
               juice crawls down my arms
               drips onto my cold feet
I am 37.

Poetry for Healing

I talked about how I stumbled into leading arts-based groups here. I still love poetry as an avenue into healing. Often survivors of trauma or loss are not quite sure how to make sense of what happened. Trauma memories are stored on the right side of the brain as fragments of image, sound or smell. Playing with imagery blurs the walls between our compartmentalization of senses and meaning, allowing us to experience a more holistic way of knowing. It allows us to access our imaginations through our senses and connect them to meaning or verbal expression, which is housed on the left side of the brain, in a non-threatening way.

Trauma and loss explode us into fragments, separate and divide us from ourselves and others. God invites us to bring our bits to Him and He will make something beautiful from them. Art is one of His gifts to us. Art collects the pieces and helps us to hold the shrapnel in God's Presence.

When we read poems that resonate with our experience, we feel less isolated. Those poems can help us to name what was unnamed. They can help us find our voice. We when speak words we know deep in our bones, but didn't write, we join ourselves to others who have experienced something similar--and survived. Those words can become a catalyst for releasing our own writing.

When we write poems we have to examine our experience from many angles. We make meaning where there was none, or worse, where there was wrong meaning. We enter into shared humanity with our own stories told in our own voices and in our own ways.

These are two of my favorite resources for poetry and healing:

Finding What You Didn't Lose by John Fox

Poetic Medicine by John Fox

A Listening Poem

This William Stafford poem is about authenticity and listening closely for each other's hearts. There is so much here that reminds me of the parables of Christ: the call to awake people to be awake, the call to care deeply for The Other. May we be challenged to alert attention, to recognize what is sacred in the persons around us.

You can listen to William Stafford reading this poem here.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give - yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
~William Stafford

Streams of Themes

Though we might be different in the details, we are all so similar in the broad strokes. We all have interior structures that help us to understand new information, to navigate the world and absorb fresh perspectives. We all have streams of recurring themes in our lives: something we never learn, topics that always fascinate, mistakes we always make, concepts that we always struggle to understand.

When I was working on building a relationship with my father he became a common topic in my work. It wasn't conscious initially, I just had him on my mind. Frequently. I sent him every poem I wrote about him except the last two that I wrote when he died. Those poems became portals for us to reach each other. Here is one of them:

A Visit With Grandpa

My kids surround my father

They’ve grown, he’s lost, 3 inches

Photographs pass back and forth

My father’s stories hover over and underneath

Soak into them

A gift of belonging

I pluck at the pictures, hopeful

“He loves me, He loves me not, He loves me…”

He walked with giants and ran with horses

And weathered the ebb and flow of me

Courage passes easily

between them, these people

who bookend me

Things I should say

And questions—unanswerable

Slip back down my throat

And since I cannot do the words

I make a lemon pie.

                              —Michelle Winter

Do you see it? I didn't at first.

The bridge between us, the portal towards one another?

It's in the lemon pie.


This morning I think about gratitude, attending, noticing. These things all imply a posture that leans forward, that bends towards. At the same time I am cultivating an attitude of receiving rather than taking and that implies pulling back, resting, lowering. Just trying to walk through life this week has turned into a workout. How far can I lean into something before it becomes a chase? How far do I pull back before I become absent?

This is Wednesday of Holy Week. The week starts with shouts of joy, and ends with shouts of hate. It starts with a triumphal entry and ends in a disgracing execution. How quickly things turn around completely. 

Contradiction floats over everything right now. Perhaps this is always true. I wrote the poem below during a sermon one Sunday. The Bible uses metaphors and symbols to explain concepts, but sometimes the ancient agricultural symbols can get lost on a modern urban audience. This particular Sunday the sermon explained threshing, the removal of chaff, the papery and insubstantial husk, from grain. All that's important is in the grain. During threshing the seeds were shaken or beaten so as to loosen the husks, then tossed into the air. The wind carried away the chaff, the grain was caught and saved. You can imagine what we were meant to glean from the sermon. However, I found I identified more closely with chaff than grain.

I Am Chaff
I am chaff
A flibberty-gibbet
Wind guided
As I tumble in the eddies,
I am dancing on God’s warm sigh.
               —Michelle Winter

Perhaps stepping forward and stepping back can become dancing. Perhaps shouting emotionally can become singing. Perhaps contradiction can become poetry.

Poems About Noticing: People

We think we know the people we love just because we love them. The truth is that people carry entire worlds within themselves that we have yet to discover and appreciate. Each person is complex, beautiful and endlessly fascinating. I think that is what God thinks of us as well. One of my favorite moments in the gospels is when Jesus is surprised by the faith of the person in front of him (the centurion). To think that we can surprise God makes me happy.

Here is another poem on noticing. This one is about how we so easily miss what is happening inside the people around us.

On Being Three and Waiting in a Lunch Line
he chants
savoring the sounds with his lips
bouncing the syllables bodily.
“Don’t you want a hot dog?”
asks his wispy mother.
“Um-hmm,” he smiles.
“Two hot dogs,” she orders
from Ted
the hot dog man.
the little boy sings
And she wails
as her purse slips off her shoulder
“but this is a hot dog stand
there isn’t any pizza here . . .”
while her joyous boy dances to his own music
          —Michelle Winter

Poems About Noticing: Nature

I am constantly surprised by how little I notice. Perhaps that is why I am so fascinated by the topic. This poem is about mistaking the ordinary for being . . . ordinary.

The Web
It appeared one morning
Knit into the upper left corner
Of the backdoor frame
Pine needle tassels along the side
Preserves hanging like ball fringe from the top
“Why did you knock down the spider web?
It was so beautiful!”
“Oh!” he said, wide-eyed
Examining the loose threads
Body bending into the mystery
 “I didn’t know
that it was beautiful.”
          -Michelle Winter

Holy Hour

A week of noticing. A week of paying attention. Holy ground, holy people, holy moments. Parts of my list are starting to look like poems. Here is one:

Holy Hour
In the calm of night
After the heaviness lifts
And the sounds widen
When everything breathes deep and wise
Dreams no longer hover threateningly,
               but permeate like healing ointment,
I rise and
Barefoot, make pilgrimage to holy ground
There I sit
among the relics of my domestic church
               cracked boots still warm by the woodstove
               a pink oval hula hoop
               a snail shell
               And a smooth rock
I wait
And poems find me.
              ~Michelle Winter

Is there something on your list that wants to become a poem?

The Breath Giver

God breathed Life into me, and yet I know His Presence by the way He steals my breath: 

  • at the beach
  • during a sunset
  • beside a waterfall
  • during a meteor shower
  • at the birth of a lamb
  • when my husband puts his arm around me
  • when my kids laugh

Evidence of the Breath Giver is breath-taking.

You know those moments, you stop for them. You allow yourself to experience the wonder. You receive the gift. These are moments we can't control or command, we can't take them. They are moments that are given and we receive them. This is the foundation of faith--wonder. This is the heart of the psalms, and the heart of so much poetry. We notice the ordinary and we wonder at it.

And that impulse to stop, to breathe it in, to write it down? Another name for that is worship.

I looked up the definition for wonder and it is this:

to be surprised by beauty

And that is exactly what wonder feels like isn't it?

We have been keeping a list of what we notice to be sacred. We started it on the first day of this month, and it is good, right? To unclench ourselves and open our hearts and eyes? To receive the gifts already given? The practice alone is good.

But perhaps we might use our list to write some poetry. Ummmmm, won't that be good too?

Being Lost

Sometimes, for me, getting lost is a spiritual practice. When I start to notice that I am holding things too tightly, overly concerned about order, control, or doing things "right," then I know I need to get lost. The name for this spiritual practice is "Wandering." Centuries ago, Celtic Christians took their wandering very seriously. Today I do this on a much smaller scale. I turn left instead of right, I take paths that are unfamiliar to me. I walk until I don't know where I am anymore.

And yes, sometimes I feel afraid.

It is an opportunity to trust that God never loses me, He always knows where I am and what I need. It is a reminder that I am not in control and that God is never out of control.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
                          ~by David Wagoner

Noticing the Way Marks

Before I left for the pilgrimage in Spain I had heard that the way would be clearly marked. No one said exactly what those marks would look like, just that they would be obvious. It turns out that every district along The Way keeps its own way marks, so they all look different. And yet they were similar enough to easily recognize and follow.

After the resurrection, Mary Magdalene went back and looked into the tomb. Just as trauma survivors do, she had to look again at the place of intense trauma. And the tomb was empty.

But, wait.

No, it wasn't empty. It was filled with memories of the horror and grief of the past few days, but it also housed the sacred. What she found there were way markers pointing to evidence of God's presence, Christ Himself.

Today I hold my tender places in God's gaze and ask Him to reveal for me the way marks hidden in my memories. Lord, where were you in those times of trial? Show me where the tomb of grief houses what is sacred.

Today I add to my Sacred List: The hospice room where my father died two years ago. It was truly a place of grief touching the sacred.

Poetry For Saying Stuff

What is a poem? When I was in college I had an entire textbook dedicated to answering that question. Honestly, I still can't answer it. Not reliably. My answer changes with the weather . . . or the tides.

But ultimately, one of the reasons poetry is relevant in every age is because it is a curated voice. We are respectful of the form, careful with the genre. We want to use it to say stuff, but after we have placed our guts neatly onto the page we always ask each other timidly, "Did I write a good poem?" Which means that we are curating the way we shape the invisible. We want to speak the underlying Truth of Things.

Here Andrea Gibson has given voice to a girl bullied on the playground. This voice is graceful and strong, not the voice of a victim. The poet reads her poem in the clip below and the sound gives shape to courage. The video is of 13 year old dancer, Nataly Santiago, who embodies the poem. The words, sound and movement speak the underlying Truth of Things. From the outside it might look like we are in opposition on the playground, but actually, we are two persons. Write back soon.

Here is the transcript from the clip:

maybe there are cartwheels in your mouth
maybe your words will grow up to be gymnasts
maybe you have been kicking people with them by accident
I know some people get a whole lot of rocking in the rocking chair
and the ones who don't sometimes get rocks in their voice boxes,
and their voice boxes become slingshots.
maybe you think my heart looks like a baby squirrel.
but guess what? you absolutely missed when you told the class I have head lice
because guess what? I one hundred percent absolutely do not have head lice
and even if I do
it is a fact that head lice prefer clean heads over dirty ones
so I am clean as a whistle on a tea pot.
my mother says it is totally fine if I blow off steam
as long as i speak in an octave my kindness can still reach.
my kindness knows mermaids never ever miss their legs in the water
cause there are better ways to move through an ocean than kicking.
so guess what,
if I ever have my own team
I am picking everyone first
even the worst kid
and the kid with the stutter like a skipping record
cause I know all of us are scratched,
even if you can't hear it when we speak.
my mother says most people have heartbeats
that are knocking on doors that will never ever open,
and I know my heart is a broken freezer chest
that's why I can't keep anything frozen.
so no, I am not always crying.
I am just thawing outside of the lines.
and even if I am always crying
it is a fact
that salt is the only reason
everything floats so good in the dead sea.
and just cause no one ever passes notes to me
doesn't mean I am not super duper.
in fact, my super duper might be a buoy or a paper boat
the next time your nose is stuck up the river
'cause it is a fact
that our hearts stop for a mili-second every time we sneeze
and some people's houses have too much dust.
so maybe sometime if somebody would sit beside me on the bus
and I could say,
guess what, it is a fact that manatees have vocal chords
but do not have ears.
just like Beethoven made music
even when he could no longer hear.
and I know every belt that has hit someone's back
is still a belt that was built to hold something up.
and it is fact that Egyptians slept on pillows made of stone
but it's not hard for me to dream
that maybe one day you'll write me back
like the day I wrote the lightening bug to say,
I smashed my mason jar and I threw away the lid.
I didn't want to take a chance that I'd grow up to be a war.
I want to be a belly dance or an accordion or a pogo stick
or the fingerprints the mason left
in the mortar between the bricks
to prove that he was here,
that he built a roof over someone's head
to keep the storm from their faith,
my mother says that's why we all were born.
and I think she's right.
so write back soon.
sincerely yours.
~Andrea Gibson, 2010

Sacred Sounds

A few years ago I started listening for the silence between sounds. It is an interesting exercise to listen for the pause in birdsong, or the space between waves coming and going at the beach. There is an intimacy in it, almost like hearing the earth breathe, like sitting next to someone while he sleeps. There is a sacred immensity to it, like being invited into someone's vulnerability.

Poetry sounds. If poetry and prayer are about paying attention with my whole self, then what would I hear if I listened with my entirety? What is a holy sound?

This morning as I walk I listen. I listen for the sound of the sacred. I wonder what it will be, what might stand out as holy noise. No place is truly silent and today there is much to hear.

I listen hard, I listen intentionally . . . until I forget I am listening. I'm not sure when it happens. I was so determined to listen well, but there are smells and sights and the chilly air is invigorating and . . . my concentration evaporates completely.

And then, when I am not listening at all, I hear it. And it shocks me.

It is the sound of my breath. My own breathing.

Part of me can't accept it and I wrestle with the idea as I walk. Is it ok to put myself on my Sacred List? Am I really holy? Though it is not difficult for me to see some one else as sacred, the thought of seeing myself that way is somehow terrifying.

It's not until I'm home, fumbling with my pen, slowly printing my name on my list, that I realize my cheeks are wet.

How is your Sacred List coming along? Each day for the month of April I am looking for the holy in my life. Join me?

The Hundred Names of Love

We are celebrating National Poetry Month and today I get to introduce you to one of my favorite contemporary poets.

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Annie Lighthart several years ago. She is a generous and genuine soul. I love all of her poetry, but I wanted to share this one with you because it illustrates "Noticing the Sacred" which is where my heart is right now. I remember those exhausting early days of parenting, waking up in the middle of the night to the cry of a child. These moments become luminescent when Annie shines a light on them, helping us to notice the sacred in the ordinary.

The Hundred Names of Love
The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.
Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.
One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart

Want more? She has a beautiful book of poems here.

And her website is here.