Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Hello 19 Year Old Me...and Goodbye

This morning, I stopped at my local coffee shop for a bracing cup of coffee and a small bite to eat.  The truth is, I had just had my first mammogram, and I was feeling a little shaky.  I was pretty sure it was all fine and I had nothing to worry about, but life is nothing if not unpredictable.

While I was waiting, I turned to see a group of young, beautiful people.  They had small tattoos tastefully applied to various parts of their strong, healthy bodies, and unnecessarily-large glasses framing their bright, shiny faces.  And under their strong arms were thick, leather-bound Bibles.  It was clear that they were meeting together for Bible study, like dozens of other people who frequent this coffee shop.  In fact, it is so overtly Christian there that I leave my laptop and purse when I use the bathroom or fetch a re-fill because the chances of theft are slightly less likely than snow in Arkansas in June.  If the coffee wasn't so dang good, I would choose a different coffee shop just to get out of the baptized oxygen of that place.

As I watched them gather up, earnestly greeting each other, watching the door for later arrivals, with their intentionality fairly spilling on the floor, I half expected to see my 19 year old self among them. Truly, if a tan and toned, long-haired brunette had come through the door with a giant Study Bible wearing a leather ankle bracelet which I made at Bible camp, that said "Robb Jesus Vanessa" (because Jesus is between us, and others before myself)... I would not have been surprised.

Because I was that girl. But I am not anymore. I have become a completely different person.

It's easy to see all the ways I am different from her.  Some things happened because of the passing of time and the birthing of babies.  Some things happened from the entwining of my life with other people, which softened and slowed me down in the best possible ways.  And some of the most shocking changes happened because I determined years ago to completely devote my life to reflecting the love of God to other people.  When I started down that path more than twenty years ago, I thought the road would take me to a secure place, where I wanted to go.  I never dreamed it would keep me far from family and childhood home. If I had seen then where I would go in my theology and my daily concerns, I wouldn't have gone because I would have been too scared. 

I would have said "No, thanks. That's too hard.  That will cost me too much. I don't feel comfortable with that. My family and friends will never understand why I am doing that."

Thank God for bends in the road that keep the future a bit hidden from us, lest we be completely overwhelmed.  Thank God for time and the way it gently holds us.  Thank God for a sense of humor and the penetrating drip of skepticism that gives us a chance to balance ourselves.

Sometimes, on a bad day, I am jealous of that girl.  Not just her skinny thighs but her discipline. Her strength. Her focus. It would be easy to think, based on what people say or the uncreative negativity in my own imagination, that I was better then than I am now.

It was BBC then, and it's Summit University Now.
But in my wiser moments, I am glad that part of my life is done.  Youth is only beautiful when it has parameters.  It gets really ugly and pathetic when you chase the stuff of youth for too long.  I want to believe that God finds this present time of my life just as beautiful and important now as I felt for those kids in the coffee shop today.  The truth is that it wasn't a lack of commitment to Jesus that brought me to where I am today. It wasn't a demand that things be easier. It wasn't a relaxing of my respect for the Bible that brought me here. It was a determination to keep going.  To be all in.  To follow the principles of Christianity into the farthest conclusions and applications.

My life is changing as I write.  I don't know everything, but I know this much:

  1. I'm growing into really enjoying my kids and giving them my attention in ways I never did before, because my time with them all at home is pretty short.  
  2. I am phasing out my vintage Etsy shop. It will take a while to close it, but after it was on vacation for a month or so, I realized that I just didn't care as much about it as I once did.  I cut most of the prices way down and things are selling rapidly with few replacements.  And it makes me feel free.
  3. I will continue to make mosaics, but not in the same way.  I have turned down upcoming shows.  It's not my season for that.  It's partly because of the kids, but it's also partly because... 
  4. I am trying to capture my beliefs in words in an ordination paper that I will defend later this year so that I can be ordained by my church formally as a pastor, minister, spiritual nurturer, guide/cleric (I will have to settle on a word that fits eventually too!)   The larger truth is that I need to craft my life around the call I've felt for most of my life: To love people.  To hear and help them. To give them a safe place to heal from their hurts. To help them know themselves.  To be with them.  To care for their spiritual health. To find expression for what it is to be human and to recognize the spiritual thing about every human thing.  For a long time, I needed money or the chance to express myself, or the space to be creative and I did that through making mosaics. I know there are some new ways of doing that on the horizon for me now; I'm coming back to where I started in the first place. 

Sometimes change happens gradually as you are exposed to a new idea or attempt a new practice.  But sometimes change is a full-on season known as Liminal Space.
 “Participants "stand at the threshold" between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way. Continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. - Wikipedia 
It occurs to me as I have thought about my reaction to those young people in the coffee shop that I feel a kinship as much as I feel different from them.  They too are in a liminal space, trying to launch their lives, dreaming of what they will do in the world and who they will become.  I am so tenderhearted to this stage of their lives.  It is ridiculously hard and almost impossible to prepare for.

The only way I know how to say it is this: Those kids are there, inviting God along for their adventure.  And I am here, inviting MYSELF along for the adventure.  I wasn't a better person 20 years ago. I was just a different person. She was great in her time.  I feel nothing but fondness for her.

But really, I am just wildly curious about what comes next.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Mercy Butterfly - From Concept to Completion

It was back in February when I first heard about Mercy Hospital of Joplin's desire to have a butterfly "decorated" for their garden in commemoration of the the devastating 2011 tornado and consequent new building.  The city of Joplin Chamber of Commerce promoted the butterflies as symbols of hope around the city, with a total of 22 butterflies being erected around the area.  The butterflies are made of steel with a powder coat and were created by Josh at  Forged Waterjet Fabrications.   

When I read the description of what Mercy was hoping for, I knew that this was the project for me, even though I had not yet had "public art" experience.  All those mailboxes I have created were the perfect experience for learning the best process for this metal, outdoor piece.  It took a solid day and the help of my husband to complete the application.  I had not put together a resume in years and I had never made a maquette, but that is what a talented husband and the internet are for!  Knowing that Mercy wanted their logo represented in the design meant I spent a total of about 6 minutes deliberating about the design.  It was really clear in my imagination from the very beginning.  I printed the design specs, did my best to represent mosaic with colored pencils, and cut it out and attached it to a candy stick for the photograph.  It was clear as a bell in my mind, but I was not sure if it would be clear to the jury committee.

Fortunately, about a week later, I heard back that I had been chosen for the job.  No matter that the deadline co-incided almost exactly with The Little Craft Show!  I had total confidence that I could do the work in the time allotted.    It turned out that transporting the butterfly was a major challenge. It was just big enough that I could not fit it in my van.  I had to wait for almost 2 and half weeks before it could be delivered it to me.  By the time we arranged all of that, I had about 3 weeks to complete it.  I spent one of them just looking at it, trying to imagine the logistics of the angles, how much movement the wings would actually have, how to start and how much orange china I would need to find (the red, blue and green seemed easier to round up!)  It was one thing to draw it on paper and a whole other thing to execute on a nearly 6 foot surface, top and bottom, with a significant angle and awkward base. My first reaction when it was delivered was to tell the marketing department that it was a total waste of time to mosaic the bottom:  it sat so low, you would need to crawl under it to see any of the design.  But they were determined, so I pressed ahead.

I was convinced that if I could get the basics of the logo placed on the butterfly, I could get the rest of the wings completed, and so that is where I began. I used solid colored dishes to create the cross and then used a mix of solid and pattern for the rest of the wings.  The cut-outs were trickier than I guessed because I couldn't fit my fingers into some of the spaces.  I can't recall how many nights I worked, but I am grateful for those steady hours I got to work when Whimsy was in bed and I could get "in the zone."

Thank you Natalie for the promo picture!
Obviously, I always work in my Stitchfix clothes 
and my Noonday jewelry

Once all the pieces were adhered with silicone, I let it rest for a few days and went back in with a silicone polymer grout.  It was at this point that things got a LITTLE crazy.  About a year ago, I was able to purchase huge bags of grout at a discount because the bags were ripped.  As I worked on some other projects for The Little Craft Show and The Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, the grout started acting very unpredictably. It appeared to be solid but when it was poked or scratched, fell apart like wet sand.  I was mystified and freaked out and headed off to Google to try to figure out what had gone wrong.  It turns out that grout exposed to the air too much will absorb moisture in the air, and complete its chemical process of bonding.  It seems fine, but ultimately cannot further react with water and falls apart.  It was a tough time for a chemistry lesson, and I was horrified to discover the butterfly was showing signs of expired grout.

I found myself in the driveway with a hose and a tiny poking tool, testing all of the grout and picking out any soft spots with the help of the water.  It was a miserable and frightening time, while I chided myself for my lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of talent!  To top it off, I had just three days before I needed to deliver it for installation.  Soaking wet and scared, I worked steadily for the whole day and was relieved to find that only one segment seemed to have the "bad" grout. I was able to apply a fresh application with a new, never opened bag, which set up beautifully.  I had plenty of time to obsess over the inevitable shrinkage by the grout in some of the negative space of the logo, and to add a 20 year impregnating sealer that will keep the grout solid and clean.

Then came the fun of transporting the butterfly.  My friend Donny offered his truck and I strategized how to pack it, secure it, and get it there safely.  After contemplating a full foam enclosure, I opted for the simplest version of all :  Three bungee cords and a piece of foam to protect Donny's brake light on the top of the cab.  I spent a solid hour imagining any scenario I could think of that I might encounter en-route, jumping up and down in the bed of the truck to test the movement that could cause the grout to pop from its crevices.  It was a proud lady who pulled into the loading dock of the hospital an hour and half later with the butterfly safe and sound. I know all of my crafting and cake decorating friends know the terror of transport. It seems so simple, but movement can be a real challenge after all your hours of creation and care.

The butterfly was on display at the hospital gallery for a week so people could see it up close, and then Josh was able to create a taller base for the ultimate installation.  What a relief!  It is now tall enough to be visible, but I didn't have to work on it with a 5 foot base!  How funny would that have been?!

Finally,  the hospital asked me to come and speak at the dedication and unveiling.  I should have been more nervous about this than I was, but I wrote my talk on the drive there.  My notes kept slipping up and down on the screen of my phone, but this is what I tried to say:


My name is Vanessa and that does mean "butterfly."  You can find me online as The Mosaic Butterfly or Vintage Butterfly Mosaics. Butterflies are a big part of my identity. So this project spoke to me right away. Which kind of makes me feel like my whole life might have ended up differently if my parents had gone with their first idea: Tonya.  
Butterflies are all about transforming something ugly into something beautiful. They are a symbol of hope and life and fresh starts.  As soon as I heard about this project, I had a clear idea of what it would look like and months later, it is just the way I imagined it.

I use broken dishes to create my art. 
Everyone has dishes. They are such an ordinary part of every day life. You could probably look closely at the butterfly and see a bit of a dish you had or your mom or your grandma had. They have memories attached to them of being together, having a meal, living your lives.  
You don't need me to tell you that life is unpredictable. My oldest daughter is here today and so is my youngest. 16 and Surprise! 19 months! Sometimes the unexpected is good but often it is frightening and devastating.  It is my hope that when people see this butterfly, they will be reminded that you can pick up the pieces and go on. That life can be beautiful again after it is ugly.  
I am always interested in what brings real comfort to people when they are hurting. I pay attention to rituals and traditions that people have relied on in the past to face difficult times. There is a Jewish tradition when someone dies that is called "sitting Shiva." You go and sit quietly with someone who has experienced loss. You don't fill up the space with nervous words and cliches. You just sit quietly and be there for them. I find that imagery so beautiful. I hope that when people see the butterfly, they have a sense of someone sitting quietly with them.   
The poet Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is just out of reach. But if you sit quietly, it may a light upon you."  
Thank you for giving me this opportunity   to share my work with you.  I hope it brings hope, happiness and healing for years to come. 

The hospital staff and president were so kind and excited about my work and I was so grateful that Robb,  Mattie and Whimsy could be there with me....especially since it was Whimsy's nap time and she was a total wildcard! The hospital was having a bbq, but we decided to take our cranky baby and go.

As I sit and think of it, my friends supported me so much and helped make this happen.  Donny's truck, Hannah babysitting Whimsy, Natalie taking photos for the hospital's marketing department, and ALL the people who listened patiently while I had minor and major freak-outs... I needed all of them!  It was an excellent learning experience for me as I uncovered some of the unexpected parts of creating a piece of public art.

Other links:
Butterfly Sculptures Taking Flight Across Joplin :

ShowMe the Ozarks Magazine - Various Butterfly Sculptures around Town

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Chicken Soup that Fights Colds Like Medicine

sick baby before chicken soup 
Someone in this house has been sick for months now.  We've thrown up, coughed, sneezed, and fevered for so long, I am starting to lose my mind.  I know I'm not alone.  The particularly awesome cold that started with a croupy cough, graduated to a snot fountain, resolved at a dry cough and then settled into a fever and sore throat has been wearing down all of my toddler-mama friends as well.  I have a scratchy throat for the third day in a row, but if it doesn't develop into a fever by tonight, I may have fought this thing off for a second time. This is my secret weapon:

My not-exactly-a-recipe for the chicken soup that has comforted us on more than one occasion.  I don't really use recipes too much, so these are ballpark amounts. Feel free to tweak as needed, but don't leave out the secret ingredient.  I usually make this when I have leftover cooked chicken already and so my story really begins there....

Start with a whole onion, the bigger the better and chop "rustically."
That's by hand, not in the food processor and not as big pieces as you'd see in a fajita.

Next, chop a bunch of celery including some of the leaves about the same size as the onions.
A bunch is the amount that makes sense to you.  I like celery and so I do about 4 stalks.

Now for some carrots.  I hate cooked carrots with a passion, but they do something for this soup that I can't explain. Maybe just the color? I usually do about 12 baby carrots. Which isn't much, but I get bored of chopping them into tiny pieces I can't quite taste and I don't want to grate them because they are so tiny I get my knuckles or fingernails caught on the grater.

In a large soup-pot, melt some butter...about 2 tablespoons and start to sauté the veggies, but keep adding the next ingredients.

While they cook, add in an obscene amount of minced garlic.  I don't know how to do fresh garlic, but I love that big ole' jar of minced garlic in olive oil.  It's not the secret ingredient but it's close.
I dump it in straight out of the jar, but maybe you would measure it at about 1/4 of a cup...or more!

Now. The secret ingredient:  fresh ginger.  Peel a chunk about the size of two of your fingers and then chop it tiny and throw it in with the veggies and garlic.

I start spicing the mixture at this point as well:  I like to throw in poultry seasoning, thyme, sage, and some fresh or dried rosemary to really take things up a notch.  If your sinuses were clogged, they should be feeling better over this steaming, aromatic concoction.  May I also suggest generous dashes of cayenne pepper, white pepper, fresh cracked pepper, and of course... salt to your liking.

To this, you can add canned, cooked chicken or leftover chicken or chicken you boiled in broth or baked, broiled or fried.  I really don't think it matters much.  I've done all of the above.  It's almost not about the chicken as much as it is about the broth, so pick whatever you like and toss it in with the spices and veggies to absorb those flavors a bit before adding the liquid.

Next, I mix Tones Chicken Base with water in some semblance of their suggestions on the label. Just don't assume, like one of my children who will remain nameless in this post,  that chicken BASE and chicken BROTH are the same thing and add the whole jar.  Cause that won't taste good.  I shoot for about 8 cups of broth, plus another two cups of water that will steam off.  I heat up the water in the microwave in a batter bowl, add the base, whisk it, and then pour it into the now-soft veggies.

Finally, I add a cup or two of parboiled rice. You can use instant or long grain or brown or whatever kind of rice you like, I just happen to find parboiled rice easiest.

I let the whole wonderful thing simmer for about 30 minutes or until some kid comes into the kitchen asking,  "What's for dinner?"

Even though they can see a pot on the stove that is full of soup. 

At the last minute, I like to go outside and snip off some fresh parsley... a small handful of it...and chop it small like I'm on a cooking show.  It gives the whole thing a great color and I always hear that parsley is really good for you.

We like it with oyster crackers. Or saltines. Or bread and butter.  Or by itself.  I'm not really about rules when it comes to cooking. Can you tell?

Feel better and eat your soup.

sick baby after chicken soup (and a day of sleep)
with all the hair bows she has.

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