About a month ago, I finished this third Fox painting. (Yay!) Not knowing what title to give it, I posted the art on Facebook and Instagram for impressions and feedback. I wanted to know what others would see in the image without any words attached. Right away, many people offered rich ideas and insight! The painting definitely caught some attention. And yet the trend of responses was different than I expected.
When I made this painting, I was wrestling with difficult news in the world and in our family. The US headlines and reporting blistered my heart with stories of three mass shootings in just as many days-- in El Paso, California, and Ohio. Greed, injustice, and denial poured through just about every other article or TV segment I saw. The unchecked power of a few violent or self-interested men threatened over and over to drown out the will and well-being of the people.
At this same time, my wife, Hollin, was undergoing additional testing while recovering from breast cancer surgery. Her medical situation was already compromised by her chronic illness, which made even the tests themselves painful and dangerous. We were anxious waiting for results under the threat of more cancer or complication.
In the midst of these stressful, frightening situations, I returned to an unfinished painting of a dark circle full of scratchy and powerful marks. It mirrored my internal grief and anger. It felt like the lostness and mystery of pain. And then I waited.
(Well, actually... I fretted a lot about that waiting, because really I wanted to make a kind of timely statement about gun violence and fear. I wanted to Say Something in the wake of those shootings and Hol's serious allergic reaction to a CT scan. But nothing quick or perfect appeared. So I waited some more.)
Eventually, Fox let me know s/he wanted to be facing that darkness-- looking toward it and not away from it. Waiting in it and with it. Whether the dark represented pain, grief, lostness, mystery, unfolding, or possibility, it called the Fox to stand right there. In fact, once Fox stepped into the dark, I felt/knew the Fox was joining a candlelight vigil.
Back on Facebook and Instagram, people more often saw fireflies in this painting. They used words like "wonder," "hope," "witness," "wholeness," "illumination," etc. Because of my personal experiences of struggle during its creation, the cheerful and positive interpretation in many of these posts felt a bit disorienting to me. For a moment, I wondered whether I'd failed to communicate through this art.
But then I got interested in these two perspectives side by side. For shorthand, I'll call them pain and hope. I became fascinated by the conversation the two were having inside me. And I noticed them engaging each other in the world around me too. I decided to hand write the words from the social media posts, along with my own ideas for a title. Then I typed out words about strife and struggle that I found in the news media and within Hol's cancer surgery and treatment. It's quite a powerful thing to read them:
What do these lists feel like to you? When I read the words about wonder and hope, something in me says, "Yes, stand right here in the strength of creativity, imagination, and joy." When I read the painful word columns and actually imagine the suffering, at first I want to pull back. But then something deep in my soul calls me to stay with it, and not look away. I notice that both hope and pain ask me to be present, to be open, to be right here, keeping a sacred vigil.
In the painting, I imagine that Fox has stepped into this practice of presence. Whether the points of light are people holding candles in El Paso or fireflies pulsing in unison in the forest, Fox is standing there, witnessing.
Sometimes Fox is keeping watch alongside pain, fear, anger, sorrow. Maybe Fox is looking directly at the truth about immigrant imprisonment, the pervasive reality of sexual trauma, or the impact of global climate disruption. Yet sometimes Fox is keeping a "vigil of mystery," as poet Jessica Powers says, on the lookout for miracles, beauty, and the possibilities available in the unknown. Maybe Fox has a fierce faith in transformative justice movements, the healing power of claiming our stories, and the wonders of intuition and invention.
In my wisest, wild imagination, Fox leads us even further, toward a capacity to be present simultaneously with both pain and hope. When I've experienced it (in moments, by grace, I think) it's quite a powerful thing to keep my eyes and heart open to suffering AND to faith or creativity at the same time. For example, although it’s no easy thing, a little more often I can sit with my wife's fear and ache without bracing against it or trying to fix it, knowing her wisdom will guide her through. Once in a while I can humbly hold my belief in her healing alongside the very real stories of her setbacks. Oh dear ones, I wish I could better explain how freeing it feels when I don't have to choose between pain or hope, without diminishing or closing my eyes to either one. In those moments, I get to be more fully present, here, and available. More connected. More ready to respond.
I believe we need this solidarity of presence right now, in order to address the stress and wounding in our times. We simply cannot look away from either pain or hope in any of our relationships-- personal, political, economic, global, ecological, etc. What could it be like to bring our open eyes and hearts to the dark stillness in a spiritual gathering, to give witness to both suffering and to possibility? I wonder what call we would hear then?
Like Fox, I'm asked to step in and keep that sacred vigil. You're invited too.
It's all so much these days-- too much, almost-- even though I believe the Spirit promises to help us bear challenges and suffering. Lately, in moments of deep grief, overwhelm, and anger, a Fox has appeared twice in my new art images.
First, the Fox came several months ago as a sleeping figure. She was nestled in a calm background of warm ground and peaceful night. And although the image edges might be fraying, a glowing center of hope or protection calls our friend Fox into trust and rest. Little did I know, soon after I made this painting, my wife, Hollin, would be diagnosed with low-grade breast cancer on top of her chronic illness (ME/CFS). When I woke in the night and couldn't get back to sleep, I remembered this nestled Fox image as a prayer and a way to soothe my heart. I practiced coming back to trust, over and over and over, the way I had circled the moon and the Light with colored pencils. Over and over and over.
Just a few weeks ago, the Fox returned in an emotionally turbulent painting. I began by making hundreds of cathartic marks-- some of them smooth for the practice of trust, faith, and centeredness, and many of them chaotic and tangled to represent questions and heartbreak, anger and turmoil. My Hol was scheduled for surgery, and just about everyone I knew was dealing with some kind of upheaval or hardship. My heart was in knots about children in prison camps, violence against our immigrant neighbors, corruption and abuse at every turn, suppression of truth, and ever-increasing climate disruption.
Then our Fox came and sat right there, in the midst. And of all things, she looked rather curious. Curious, really?!? I thought she would be growling, or moaning, or hiding. But she showed up in another form of trusting: in wonderment.
I'll be honest, I don't always understand my paintings. It sometimes really bugs me that when I'm feeling the most anxious and frustrated, images come to me with some element of invitation, grace, or opening. The moon shows up, waxing. Here we are in tumble and turmoil, and the Fox stays curious.
Ironically, I often asked my former students or clients to consider curiosity as a useful first response. When something "goes wrong" in art-making, can we wonder what happens next rather than judge ourselves for screwing up? If someone unloads a negative attitude, can we first be curious about how they are hurting or wounded? It can be a powerful practice to start with curiosity. Yet even today writing this, I'm still surprised that Fox came to ask me the same thing!
I suspect this Fox is inviting me to take curiosity to another, deeper level. For example, can Hol and I return to wondering what happens next, staying open to faith and the richness of life, after each medical appointment? [So far, Hol's prognosis is good, and we are so grateful for friends and family supporting us!] If I hear today's news stories of horrific injustice, abuses of power, or harm to our dear planet Earth, can I remain engaged in the process of envisioning change, always on the curious lookout for my parts to play? When I am overwhelmed, will I choose to circle back to trust, over and over, listening for spiritual guidance?
Impossible challenges and real suffering are all around us. Nevertheless, here's the Fox knowing we can make and hold spaces for each other where it's still safe to dream. Even so, Fox brings an invitation to stay curious.
May these images and practices give us a bit hope in the midst of it all.