How do you start a blog post like this? I made this painting for one of my best friends and soulmates on this earth, Shareese. It was made to reflect a place where she is in her life right now. But this painting, and the past week I spent in Lexington, Kentucky, took part in refining me. Honing me.
Refining is painful. In Malachi, God is compared to a refiner’s fire – to fuller’s soap. Imagine a blacksmith beating on a sword. It is not a gentle process. A fuller was stretching, beating, bleaching, and scrubbing fabric until it was fit for use. None of that is polite or gentle.
I sat across from Shareese in Panera on Sunday night, and I found myself in the spot where I’ve been countless times over the past five years. Talking to someone who matters deeply to me about what I am supposed to do with my life. I’ve found myself saying this is a ‘mid-twenties’ thing that many people in my generation struggle with. That middle place. That ‘how do I put my dreams and plans into practice’ place. But the truth is, by saying that it has almost excused my inability to take ownership for my life. I am constantly excited about the next thing within my business or even outside of it, but when that thing either comes to fruition or doesn’t, the emptiness and the feeling of waiting to move forward doesn’t go away. I struggle with the pain as I grow and change and as God points me to what he wants me to do.
Sometimes people don’t know what to say to me when I’m bouncing new ideas off of them, and I don’t blame them. Or they offer encouragement, they say they’re excited to see where this next road leads me. Shareese just looked at me and asked, “When are you going to say ‘Yes’ to God?”
I didn’t even have an answer. I felt the unsuitable answers bubble up. “When I’m ready….Soon….When I have more money….When I figure out what I want to do with my life….When I have the right plan in place….When my website is perfect.’ But therein lies the problem. When I figure out what I want to do. When I’m ready. This is my kingdom, my timeline, my life. I’m white-knuckling. If the ball is always in your court, you don’t have to worry about what you’ll do when it gets kicked back at you, because it never will. You’ll always live in perpetual hope for what comes next, even if you aren’t taking the steps to move toward it.
She left me with my thoughts for awhile, and I sat in that Panera, listening to an album a friend had sent me. The words floated into my ears.
“I am desperate,
if nothing else,
in a holding pattern
to find myself
No one can unring this bell,
Unsound this alarm, unbreak my heart new.
God knows, I am dissonance
Waiting to be swiftly pulled into tune.
I know the further I go,
The harder I try, only keeps my eyes closed.
And somehow I’ve fallen in love
With this middle ground at the cost of my soul.
I’ll go anywhere you want me.”
Those words are from ‘Mercury’ by Sleeping at Last, and they sounded like my own words. I was convicted. I have fallen in love with the thinking, planning, dreaming middle ground of my life. Depression eats me up and pulls me down like a bully, and I think it is a side effect of my constant state of inertia. My inability to know how to move forward. And my soul sings a hymn. “I’ll go anywhere you want me.”
Oh, while it is beautiful, this refining hurts. It hurts to feel beat down and torn apart to become something new. Because that is what has to happen. There is no easy road, there are no shortcuts. Even if you don’t believe in God, you have to acknowledge that life is not polite. We are all stretched, bent, broken. We all have the opportunity to be made new.
I don’t think Shareese is wrestling with the same exact feelings as I am, certainly not the same situation. But she’s coming up against resistance in her life and in her career. She’s entering a stretching, a refining, a growth stage. It is wrapped in tumult, it is wrapped in beauty. I thought about Psalm 139 while I painted Project #6 for her:
“For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance….”
As a portrait photographer, I have photographed and connected with a large number of amazing and beautiful women. But none have been quite like Shareese. There is something fearful and wonderful in her. She wears that unformed, untamed substance of God a little closer to the surface of her skin than most, because God made her that way.
Every time I talk to her, God reveals something deeper about myself to me. I feel more deeply loved and understood, and not just by Shareese, but by God also.
Last Friday, she invited me to meet a new friend and collaborator of hers, the beautiful and exceptional Marjorie Guyon. I didn’t even know what I was in for as we climbed the stairs to her beautiful studio in downtown Lexington.
Marjorie asked me about myself from across the glass table in her studio, and I came up blank at first. I gripped my wine glass and took a drink, praying for words to come. I felt dwarfed by the beautiful, textured, layered, complex paintings that surrounded me. I sat with two women just as beautiful, complex, layered. I am so used to people asking me what I do, not who I am. It is easy to hide behind, “I’m a photographer.” I had been feeling so much about who I was and what I was supposed to do in the days leading up to her question that I didn’t even know what to say.
So she, a much wiser and more confident woman than I, told me her story. She talked about being an ‘art kid’ who got her hands into whatever art she could. I know that space. That was me. I listened to her tell the story of a girl who wanted to be a painter but who was told she wasn’t going to be one. So she became a poet. But even the power of her beautiful words, of which she possesses many, could not keep her from pursuing the tug she felt deep within her to paint. I spent time soaking up her confidence, her story, her beautiful paintings, and her poetry. I stood in front of her massive paintings and listened to her poetry and imagined my beautiful friend Shareese collaborating with her and the only thing I could do was cry.
Marjorie’s story, her presence, her words, and her advice that I should open the vein of my creativity, waiting for it to carry me, have left me changed forever. Somehow I walked out of that studio more myself than I have felt since I was 17. I felt like I was finally saying ‘yes’ to God. That I don’t need anyone’s permission to paint or to create or to tell me I’m an excellent photographer. I was born to make, to encourage, to love people like God loves them. I still feel like these words in this space don’t come close to expressing the expansiveness of my soul that God is opening up.
I imagine this isn’t my last painting for the 52 projects series. I have a lot more that I want to paint. Abstract art is pretty new to me, but something feels so good about just embracing texture and color to express something deeply complex.
Days after returning from Kentucky, I feel grateful that I’m doing these 52 Projects in the first place. I am only on the sixth one and I’m learning so much about myself and who God made me to be. And I feel grateful that Shareese is in my life–to have someone who makes me more myself each time I’m with her. I’m so inspired by her soul, her creativity, her beauty, her vision. And for Marjorie, whose words are giving me the courage to create from the endless source. She said many things I won’t forget that night, but one of them is really on my mind.
It doesn’t matter if things seem to get in the way: life, patrons, donors, collaborators, none of it. Because they can’t take it away. Let them (or it) take the shine off of it. Because we can always renew it.
There are no closed doors. There are no “used-tos”. I’m still that 17-year-old who interviewed with art professors to go to college for painting and singing. I am still a painter, an artist, a photographer. God made me that way. So yes, God. I’ll do what you ask me to do. I’ll encourage, I’ll create, I’ll celebrate you.
And I won’t wait for anyone else’s permission.
This post is part of a series I am doing in 2015 called ’52 Projects.’ To read more about why I’m doing this, click here.