My second grader came home from school reflecting on his love for abstract art not long ago. He simply stated, “Mom, if I paint a baseball bat, it’s a baseball bat to everyone, but when you look at abstract art, everyone might see something different!” Luke had a childlike way to explain something that many people struggle to see in a lifetime: the invitation to participate with art.
Art, writing, poetry, dance, drama and music are an invitation to the soul. They invite contemplation, admiration, imagination and depth of feeling to be unearthed. When I am the creator, I express my perspective, my feelings, my story, my view of the world, asking others to explore a different viewpoint than theirs. When I am the recipient, I have the opportunity to reflect, view, ask questions, respond, wonder, imagine, and feel about what I have just taken in.
Recently, a rainy day prompted my kiddos and I to head to the Raleigh Museum of Art for the day. Honestly, I am rather stingy about who I meander through an art museum with. I love to go with another who will ask questions, be amazed and stimulated by what they are viewing. With this being said, curious, creative kids are very fun to bring along. My nine and seven year old in tow, we arrived ready to be wowed by an amazing current double-header exhibit of M.C. Escher and pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbook. We were not disappointed.
As we walked among the permanent galleries, Luke diligently wrote in his sketchbook names of the artists. Josh, meanwhile, sketched those images he was captivated by. I perused, gazing inches away from many of the pieces I viewed, stunned by the detail. We left the permanent galleries to head to the exhibits. First up, da Vinci. The da Vinci sketchbook pages were a bit dull for my kids seeing as they were thin, papery pages of long-ago handwriting aside few sketches. However, I stood in awe at the amount of intellectual thoughts streaming from da Vinci. Having known da Vinci mostly as the artist of Mona Lisa, I was surprised by his expansive life as inventor, engineer, architect and mathematician, too. Heading into M.C. Escher’s exhibit brought back my intense love for him during my teenage years. Seeing his work in person was a thrill. The technical, graphic and mathematical skill in his drawings was simply phenomenal. I was astonished that much of his work was woodcut, a printmaking technique. The time and precision involved in each piece was extensive.
I left the art museum a little bit lighter having participated with the creations of these phenomenal artists. By quietly viewing, considering and pondering the artwork, my soul was nourished. This invitation to participate with art overflows into a conversation about all of creation. How am I participating with the overwhelming creation the Creator of Heaven and Earth has given me?
I’ll be honest with you. Participating is not always easy for me. When it comes to participating with other people in their version of “fun” activities, my introverted self wants to run and hide. I’d rather hang with a book and read, silence my friend.
Instead of a participant, more often, I’m a consumer or a brick-maker. As a consumer, I enter into a restaurant, movie, museum, store, or church looking for how this place will feed me and my needs. I can assess the food, the service, the sermon and judge the individual components. This takes all the pressure off myself and gives me the power to evaluate. When I take on the role of brick-maker, “work hard, work diligent” is the mantra of my life. I’m focused on getting stuff done, the outcome. The process is null and void, it’s all about churning out the end product. But there is something poignant about leaving the roles of consumer and brick-maker behind and engaging in life as a participant.
How do I do this, when simply the word participation gives me the shivers? Participation, for me, conjures up images of a large room filled with people where conversation around our active lifestyle is the centerpiece. Because I’ve been in rooms such as these, I’ve noticed the extroverts with the witty jokes, the ones who easily begin conversation, capturing those around them. Instead, I awkwardly smile and inwardly groan at the thought of having to make conversation with strangers.
However, the word participation is slowly being redefined in my life. I am beginning to see the expansive opportunity to participate. It goes back to being created in the image of God and recognizing ourselves as creators. Whether an introvert or extrovert, gifts are given to both. Whereas an extrovert can easily engage and draw others in, introverts often have the gift of contemplation and reflection. Both are needed around a table. I always learn from being around those people who can laugh easily and seemingly love all; they help me to laugh at myself and lighten up a bit. Could it be that my (often) quiet self nurtures others in a different way?
It seems the opportunity of participation is presence, simply showing up and being aware. Instead of being a consumer taking in, assessing based on how the [food, people, event] meet my needs, I have the choice to participate by actively engaging in the space in the way I am created. I will never be the eloquent conversation starter, but I enjoy taking in the beauty of an activity. I often notice tweens and teens and love to outreach to them. Upon leaving, I reflect on my interactions once I’ve left the space to see what I have to give thanks for and what I could have done differently. Instead of being a brick-maker looking for the end product, I have the opportunity to participate during the process. Making dinner becomes a space to slow down and enjoy the chopping rather than merely “getting it done” so we can eat.
By giving myself permission to participate in life the way God created me, my soul becomes nurtured on a regular basis. Instead of being a viewer of my own life whizzing by, judging the contents, I can soak in the goodness mingled in each moment. By being present to the process of life, I find time is savored in a new way. I am not merely looking to finish, but I am grateful in the midst.
Often, I lose sight of the fact that I have this amazing life to participate in. I rush and scurry, take in and assess. But, deeply in my soul, I know each moment is a gift to behold and my participation matters. Life as participation seems to be the continued wooing of a loving God. An invitation to an abundant life. Not a life to get through. Not a life filled with activities, vacations and stuff to critique. Rather, a life to partake in by lending an ear, helping with my hands, being mindful of my words, caring deep in my heart, risking my comfort zone, and creating with the gifts I’ve been given.
When I participate as God created me, not laying bigger expectations on myself, I enjoy the experience. And, it seems, I have less to critique and “finish up”. Instead, I’m able to see other people in my midst and invite them to participate in this bountiful life with me. I’m wondering if in some way, when I live into how I’m created, if the outcome naturally allows others to thrive?
Did Da Vinci and Escher know the legacy they would leave behind as they created day to day? Did they imagine the pursuit of their deepest selves would continue to engage others decades later? By viewing their art, I know I was reminded a bit of who I’ve always been. A contemplater and a thinker. A creator and edge dweller. A ponderer and dreamer. By richly engaging their lives, da Vinci and Escher, still today, invite others to thrive in theirs. This is the beauty of a life of participation: not only that we make the most of our life, but that we help others to flourish in theirs.
How have you defined participation in the past? Do you recognize tendencies as a consumer or brick-maker in your own life? How can you more fully participate day to day?
Check out these great open-ended conversation starters, here
If you are interested in listening to a Podcast about actively engaging in a creative life, check out Episode 12 of Elizabeth Gilbert’s interview with Brené Brown, here.
Thanks to Kristen Rietkerk for continued conversation around helping others flourish.