The beauty of the ordinary and what makes an artist: Spark + Tumble Photography

The connections we make in this life, across continents and across oceans, are nothing less than astounding, I think.

A year ago I read a book review by the incomparable Lisa Ann Cockrel; a review that closes by noting that the book in question left Cockrel “craving latkes with spiced applesauce.” As I was in Malawi at the time, and craving ALL the things I couldn’t get there, especially food things, I found myself craving the very same thing. So I wrote to Lisa — whom I’d written to before to discuss things other than food — and told her how much I liked the review.

And that I, too, was craving latkes.

“What if we got together and made some?” she said.

Well, that seemed improbable. But we did get together, a few months later, and at our first meal together (which did not, alas, include latkes), I met another Lisa — Lisa Beth Anderson — who makes remarkable photographs.

Lisa B-A’s photographs are magical without being corny. They elevate wedding photographs and engagement photographs and family photographs from something one seeks out because it’s obligatory or customary (“I guess we should get some family photos taken…”) to something you can’t stop gazing at, even if you don’t know the subjects in the photo, because the composition and the lighting and all of it is nothing less than art.

It so happened that Lisa B-A was shooting a wedding in Philadelphia just as I was moving (near) there. She came by just to visit. I didn’t plan on her taking any pictures…we were just moving in! With moving clothes on! And wallpaper peeling and curtains we hated still hanging!

But Lisa sees the beauty that is there even when no one else can see it — or so it seems to me.

Which is not, on reflection, a bad way to define ‘artist’: a person who makes manifest — visible, tangible, edible, audible — the beauty no one else can see.

boys jumping 2 Graeme-mama old chair

"Will it look like I am conjuring the power of the sun?" he asked.
“Will it look like I am conjuring the power of the sun?” he asked.

All photos credit {the remarkable} Lisa Beth Anderson — Spark + Tumble.


Making Beauty Out of Next To Nothing–a post at Convergent Books

Not long ago, I spent several weeks learning to make pottery in a simple studio on the shore of Lake Malawi. Initially I’d been most interested in “throwing” pots on the electric wheel, which is mesmerizing and almost magical in its speed. The spinning surface facilitates the transformation of lumps of clay into vessels of varying shapes with only the slightest coaxing of the hands.

But I soon found the pace of the wheel overwhelming. I drifted away from the machinery and toward two old village women, Gloria and Fatima, whom the studio employs as “traditional” potters.

They spoke almost no English, and I almost no Chichewa, so they taught me as one might teach the very young or very old, with hands guiding mine, with nods and smiles of approval and the gentlest of corrections. A finger would nudge mine into the correct position for forming a curve; a hand placed over my hand would help shape the rim as it should be shaped.

As we made pots, they taught me to speak the names and uses of each pot: this one, an mpica for cooking ndiwo; that one, an msugo for carrying madzi from the well.

Their work, with its deliberate movement and delicate repetition, with its earthiness and its practicality, was remarkable. It was no less mesmerizing or near-magical than the wheel, and, indeed, much like the wheel, but so much slower. It was calming just to watch the women make pots, and it filled me with something like hope. Here were artisans who knew how to take mud from termite mounds and, using nothing but their hands, a scrap or two of bamboo, and perhaps a shell or a bit of broken pottery, would coax it into something useful. And not just useful. Whether they were forming a vessel for common or ceremonial use, they made it beautiful.

Not to mention—once tried by fire—durable.

Gloria’s smile, broad and beautiful, was, like hard laughter, close to its opposite: nearly a grimace. It spoke of joy as well as pain—of making beauty out of next to nothing, since that is what life had given her. Of earthen vessels bearing the weight of glory within them. I thought of the trials that forged but did not crack them, that, I imagine, gave them something of their patience and burnished grace, and etched maps of sorrow and joy around the eyes and mouths of their beautiful faces.

{Continue reading at Convergent. Convergent Books is a new religion imprint from the Crown Publishing group dedicated to an open, inclusive & culturally engaged exploration of issues related to faith.}

The Peace of Wild Things (with photos of animals seen on a recent safari)

For me, there is nothing quite like being outdoors, and, especially, seeing wild creatures, as an antidote to anxiety. I don’t think there is anything particularly unusual or strange in that. God’s strangely comforting words to Job involved proclaiming himself as involved and caring in the lives of the wildest and remotest creatures, Psalm 104 celebrates God as the one who knows the comings and goings of animals, and feeds them, and Jesus points his hearers’ attention to the birds and the flowers as evidence of God’s loving and continuous care.

I love Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” which, to me, somehow expresses all of that. Several years ago, when we were enduring particularly stressful times, I memorized it while washing dishes and repeated it to myself in bed when I couldn’t sleep, and when I longed to put on my hiking boots and wander into the wilderness, but had to stay home to change diapers and put kids down for naps. It’s worth reading and re-reading, I think:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


I am, faith in Jesus notwithstanding, quite expert at “taxing” my life “with forethought of grief,” and that is just one of the reasons I love wild things: they cause me to consider that I am as beloved, or more so, than these creatures that God so loves.

Here are some of the wild things that gave me peace and grace this week:

impala. so beautiful.
into still water
into still water
wild, beautiful trees

{All photos by the Stone family. Feel free to share so long as you link back here. Thanks!}

Before You Talk to God, Make Sure You Brush Your Teeth

Recently I read back through just a bit of Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman by Anne Ortlund–because I vaguely remember that there was something in there that had once had a grip on my mind–and I only had to suffer through 43 pages until I found it:

“ advice to all is: when you first become conscious in the morning, get decent. I know some people say [pray] first, but don’t you sort of feel sorry for God when daily he has to face all those millions of hair curlers and old robes? What if you were the Almighty, and got prayed to with words spoken through all those unbrushed teeth? It seems to me like the ultimate test of grace.”

(Hm, so I should have compassion on God and look good before I pray?)

She goes on to pose a number of questions like these:

“How are your hips, thighs, tummy?”

“Do you need to get into that jogging suit and run?”

“How is your hair?”

“What kind of program are you on to stretch, bend, and stay supple, to stand tall; to be a good advertisement of God’s wonderful care of his children?”

(So I have to look good not only for God but for everyone else, too?)

From about age 15 or so, I used to get up early to use the NordicTrack or to do some idiotic aerobics routine before school, for 2 reasons:

1. I didn’t think I deserved to eat breakfast until I’d exercised


2. I didn’t think God wanted to hear from me unless I was ‘disciplined’ enough to exercise regularly.

Being a typical American teenager, it didn’t even occur to me that God might have bigger things to worry about than whether I reached my target heart rate or ate too many grams of saturated fat. I’m pretty sure 1996 had enough injustice, war, natural disaster, famine, and other stuff going on that God wouldn’t have minded hearing the prayers through unbrushed teeth or from girls who chose to do something with their spare time besides fitness and beauty maintenance.

surely I'm not the only one who had a caboodle?

I’m pretty sure that somewhere, deep down, I knew that God didn’t care what I looked like. Nonetheless, pleasing God by looking good was bound up in my mind and body with actually doing good in the world.

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that the pressure on women to attain to an unrealistic standard of beauty has  increased along with women’s freedoms in other areas of society. A study of archived letters from students at Smith College suggests that women before suffrage (1920) were more likely to worry about needing to GAIN weight, while women after, almost universally, worried about needing to LOSE weight.

This problem, it’s not unlike my Audrey Hepburn problem. But it’s worse in some ways, too, because claims like Anne Ortlund’s use God as backup for enforcing white middle-class standards of beauty and grooming.

And her book isn’t the only one to do that. Lots of the ‘Christian’ diet books out there do the same thing. And that’s what had me so upset about the article in Relevant last week.

Because what’s good? And what does God want from us?

{100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups every morning? Detoxification ‘cleanses’?}


To do justice.

To love mercy.

To walk humbly with God.

My Audrey Hepburn Problem

From about age 15 or so, Audrey Hepburn was my idol. I worshiped the iconic film star, watching her movies again and again, poring over books about her life, and searching for images of her online.

I could have done worse. Hepburn was, by most accounts, an extraordinarily lovely person, both inside and out. In Roman Holiday–my favorite Audrey movie–she’s lovely without trying to be, and the beauty and dignity of her character is apparent even as she portrays a very convincing princess in disguise. In her later years, she was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, having once herself been on the receiving end of emergency food aid as a child in post-WW2 Europe.

Sadly, although I admired Audrey’s humanitarian legacy and reputed grace and kindness, I was most inspired by her thinness. In the days of my Audrey obsession, her brilliant film performances were less important than the visibility of her long, lovely bones in her various stunning Givenchy and Edith Head designs. That her thinness was likely due to an eating disorder rooted in the wartime starvation she suffered as a child did not dissuade me; neither did her struggles with depression and self-loathing (which are demonstrated side effects of starvation.)

No. I saw a thin, beautiful, kind person who didn’t need to eat AND STILL had the energy to save the world. I wanted to be thin, most of all, and then be kind and save all the starving kids with the food I didn’t eat. After all, Audrey herself loved a poem that seemed to make this connection (“for a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”) When I looked in the mirror, I saw broad shoulders and curves. I berated myself for being unable, like Audrey, to subsist on next to nothing.  ‘That’s the end of me doing anything worthwhile,’ I’d think–‘what good can I do if I don’t look like Audrey? Surely that figure was the fount of all her goodness?’

Of course, this sounds crazy now. It didn’t then, partly because I was not incredibly well nourished (needed some brain food!) and partly because the idea that “you are worth something only if you look great” is a message that’s broadcasted endlessly and ubiquitously–especially to girls. Do a little experiment–listen to what people say to girls, even little ones. How many comments do you hear that are related to appearance (whether of clothing, hair, or whatever)? Do the comments that affirm (or simply call attention to) character outnumber the ones doing the same for appearance?

There are all kinds of beauty, and all kinds of ways of doing good in the world. I still like Audrey Hepburn’s movies, and I can enjoy them now without obsessing about the difference between Audrey’s figure and my own, but I still regret Hollywood’s move (beginning, some say, with Audrey) toward ever-increasing unreality in the area of women’s bodies. And so, for years now, I’ve actively looked for female role models who embody beauty that I find compelling and unusual and unrelated to body size, like Wangari Muta Maathai–women I can imagine sitting down to a meal and eating with–with gratitude and goodwill, and no guilt.

Because I want people like this girl to know that she can save the world, be beautiful in every way, and eat a great meal–and maybe all at the same time.

my niece Elli, helping pick an early spring salad