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One Light, One Soul… for the Love of Las Vegas

I took this photo, grainy and somewhat blurred, on my first visit to Las Vegas — about 25 years ago. It’s hard to believe. We were up in the hills around the city near the Mormon Regional Tabernacle. Jeff Powell, my friend and college minister was planting a church in Las Vegas, and this spot was on the intro tour for our spring break college group. He took us there because it was a good view of the city – the old strip and the “new strip” strung out like a shining jeweled necklace in the middle of that city with so many lights. I was there on a mission trip. To give and serve. But, the city and the people – the lights – captured me.

A few months later I came back to Vegas to live for the summer — the first of two I spent in Sin City. That first summer, my friend, Rea, and I would sometimes go to the same spot atop that hill, under the statue of the Angel Moroni, and look out. Just every now and then, to take in that sea of lights again from a distance. And the audacity of that little string of decadent excitement shining brighter than the rest. We went, really, to look at the sea of people. In a place where there were literally as many lights as people. Probably more. And remind ourselves of what we were really seeing.

One light, one soul.

The real challenge, we decided in those trips to the Temple parking lot, was reaching the lights. Touching each light. Each soul. To see the light and the soul it represented. To really see it. And to value that soul no matter what nationality or language or background or lifestyle. To reach out and touch the lights with a true message of peace and love. A message you mean, no matter what. A message lived out in conversations. In knowing hopes and dreams and struggles and sins. The love of a true and unrelenting God that sees and values and woos every living thing in that darkness. So strong was the pull, that Rea painted a sweatshirt for me when I left that summer. An abstract depiction of this view, and the reminder…”reaching the lights.” A goal and admonition pushing me way beyond Clark County, Nevada with all its diverse and complicated landscape.

I walked away from that challenging place with new eyes that summer. Different eyes. Back to humid Mississippi, and the sidewalks of the Mississippi State University campus, and the familiar surroundings of my home, but I was changed. Changed by having spent time away from the South. Changed by the transient resort culture where roots were almost a luxury. Where the night shift could blur normal days and nights into a 24/7 season of need. That summer opened my view on so many things… social issues, race, red mountains, desert, no rain. The dryness. My thoughts and vision on architecture and community development, on places with no antebellum buildings. And faith. In a place where church isn’t so ingrained in culture. Where I believed it was more authentic. More real. More surprising at times. More tested, perhaps. My views of changing the world. Accepting the world. Embracing the world. In seeing and experiencing a place so different from what I knew, I had the chance to see myself differently.

Back in that first summer in Vegas, when we took visiting friends to all the tourist-y spots, we would jokingly ask, “who changes the lights when a bulb goes out?” All those lights lighting up the night until you couldn’t decide if it was even still night time, or if day had slipped in. Glowing like some beacon, seen from airplanes and neighborhoods and even the temple across the valley. One light, one soul. “What happens when one goes out?” And we tried our best to find even one light bulb not burning bright on that strip.

Some bulbs aren’t burning tonight. In the tragedy of today, it’s clear. We’re so broken. We’re so utterly broken. So in need of that unrelenting love. And the champions and warriors who wield it. With abandon. We’re so in need of reaching. Across aisles. Across streets. Across centuries. To build and repair. To strip away and build again. Dozens of lights. Souls. In a few moments, cracked and shattered and snuffed out. And it falls to those that remain to shine even brighter.

Welcome October! [printable calendar]

I’m so excited to be welcoming October into our lives this week! It’s my favorite month during my favorite season of the year… autumn! October usually likes to play with us in Mississippi, with both summer and fall days, but those crisp blue skies and the blooms on my sasanqua camellia don’t lie. Autumn is on the way.

This month, I’m looking forward to a couple of travels that are sure to give me a fresh change of scenery, some great autumn views, and the chance to experience some new things. Later this week, we’ll be traveling back to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during our school’s fall break, and the children and I are looking forward to seeing the mountains again and getting a glimpse at the beginning of leaf changing season. Then, later in the month, I’m traveling to Asheville, North Carolina, for a public relations conference. I’ve never been to Asheville, and I’m hoping to have a few moments during the trip to explore the downtown area. And, of course, more changing leaves and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

Meanwhile, we took a trip up into the attic last weekend to retrieve our boxes of fall decorations, and the house is slowly starting the reflect the harvest season — with a few spooks thrown in. We’re planning to have our annual “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” viewing with popcorn tomorrow night, so it will feel like the season has officially begun.

I pulled together a few autumn images that are inspiring me today, and I hope you enjoy this month’s printable calendar along with its cutaway art. It’s taken from a similar autumn print in my Etsy shop. You can download at the links below. Happy Fall, Y’all!

PRINTABLE CALENDAR

drawing near . Psalm Two

“Why are the nations in an uproar, and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand…”

What an opening! It’s like picking up at the cliffhanger of some epic confrontation. Where season one ends and season two begins. It feels like an important moment. Like the whole trajectory of the rest of the story is riding on the decisions made right here.

When I browse the news apps or read my Twitter feed, that cliffhanger moment feels pretty familiar. When I look at the plethora of messages facing my children and me every day, I see a lot of uproar. A lot of vain things. I see a lot of people and ideas and circumstances and choices staking claim to our time and our hearts. I see a lot of the same uncertainty and turmoil found in the words of this psalm. It’s easy to question and even be fearful or worried.

Psalm two isn’t one of the touchy-feely ones. It’s not filled with love and encouragement and comfort. No, it’s raging. It’s nations and peoples on a rampage, defiant with the God they’ve misunderstood. It’s an Anointed King taking back what’s rightfully His. It’s rebellion and anger and tearing and scoffing and breaking and the terrifying fury of a just cause coming to fruition. It’s a warning and a call to discernment.

And like the first Psalm, it presents a contrast. A single, final line of comfort and respite in the war that’s being waged.

“How blessed are all who take refuge in Him.”  psalm 2:12

The people described in the psalm are inexplicably seeking to rend and cast away the cords binding them to the one and only place they can ever find refuge. They exchange of a place of uproar for a place of blessing. In their quest for independence, they miss being welcomed into the one place they can be fully free and at peace.

My boys and I have been reading the Chronicles of Narnia this year. We’ve finally made it to The Last Battle, the final tome in this incredible series, and I couldn’t help but think of the story as I read this psalm. There’s a structure in the book  that’s become a pivotal point of fear, confusion and false control for the people of Narnia. As the tale and final confrontation,unfolds we find that this place of such struggle is really a doorway. For those who are willing to believe and seek it, stepping through the door opens up a world of peace and refuge. But, the book describes a group of dwarfs who are intent on resisting the power and truth of Aslan, Narnia’s Great Lion. They are intent on not giving in — on not being “taken in” by the rightful ruler and owner of Narnia. Even as Aslan has opened the door to all the wonder and goodness the others can see and taste, the dwarfs see nothing but darkness and foul scraps of food. As they choose not to believe, Aslan explains that they are “so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” In their own stubbornness, they have shut themselves out of the refuge right in front of them.

This psalm is not an easy one to read and not an easy one to be comfortable with. It’s too revealing. Too much of an expose of the human heart we know so well. Too much of the righteous God we don’t always recognize. But, even in those raging words, there is a glimpse of hope. The hope and confidence of knowing how the story ends. Confidence in knowing that not everyone is wringing their hands. There is a King who will rule. There is an inheritance that will be given. And, therefore, there is a refuge that is available. Even in the face of uproars and vain things. There is a confidence and hope in knowing that although I may not know how to deal with the questions and the choices and the uproar all around us, I know Someone who does. And He offers a perfect place of refuge.

sojourn . Itta Bena, Mississippi

Back in May as our summer plans were just starting to materialize, I knew I wanted to take some opportunities to explore. We had already planned trips to the beach and Memphis, but I was determined that we would spend at least a few days on sojourns to Mississippi places we hadn’t seen before. I felt very blessed to have the children hanging out at home while school was out, and to have the flexibility in my freelance work to “schedule in” some unscheduled time.

So, on a Wednesday in the middle of June, we picked up breakfast donuts and headed west on Highway 82. It was the first day trip in our new car, which made for excitement with the kids in checking out all the bells and whistles, and I had heard that the B.B. King Museum in Indianola was pretty cool. Even though I was born and raised in Mississippi, I really haven’t spent a lot of time in the Delta, and the kids had never been to that part of the state. I was eager to take time without an itinerary, to soak up my little ones on the journey, and to explore some of that storied part of my home state.

There’s something mesmerizing about the sudden flatness of the land as you move out of the “hills” region of Mississippi. The sprawling farm fields, the succession of small towns popping up along the way, and so many broken down structures out of time. My children have tagged along on enough adventures to know my tendency to wander down side roads and stop on various Main Streets to capture photos of historic buildings, hand painted signs, and the curious sights of the small town South. This day trip had its share of those kinds of stops!

After pizza and visiting Indianola’s homage to Riley B. King, the kids indulged me in the short right turn onto Mississippi Highway 7 in Leflore County, down to Itta Bena. We wound past fields and water towers to a small square of a downtown with a city park surrounded by half cobblestone streets and nearly vacant storefonts – no evidence of the fast food spots and quaint downtown shops found in some of the other Delta towns we saw. It was late in the day and not many businesses were open. Not many businesses were there. We saw cars gathered around a few storefronts including a small convenience store, and a few folks were gathered on benches near the park. We drove around the square several times, across the railroad tracks and through the surrounding streets, stopping to capture the “place” of the place through my camera lens, and trying not to look too conspicuous.

Itta Bena seems to share part claim to Mississippi Valley State University with its neighboring county seat, Greenwood, just twelve miles East. The community also stakes claim to the birthplace of B.B. King, technically in Berclair, three miles to the West. I learned that Itta Bena comes from a Choctaw phrase, “iti bina,” meaning “forest camp,” and was named by a state senator who relocated his plantation there and built a home in the mid 1800s. He called it “Home in the Woods.”

We didn’t see much “woods.” We’ll seek that out for the next trip, but I enjoyed the glimpses into shops and businesses gone by and what I most often seek out on these adventures – the haunting and beautiful blight common in so many rural Mississippi towns. The gutted gas station. The vacant lunch counter featuring “Southern Cuisine”. The old structures you find give a hint to entrepreneurs and business folk who once made downtowns like these thrive. So that what you see is indelibly tied to what you imagine you would have seen twenty or fifty years ago. And sometimes the make and model of parked cars blur the difference.

The bricked pavement. The railroad tracks. There always seem to be railroad tracks. Military cannons and statues in the park memorializing one conflict or another. Buildings bear the remnants of their last use, sometimes overcome by weather and decay, but still vibrant with color. Sometimes the structures are just a shell with no roof remaining, and their own rural garden of weeds growing where countertops and store shelves used to be. Mom and pop restaurants, corner convenience stores and beauty salons are often the last hold-outs of downtown commerce, displaying store windows with the current price of a six-pack or posters of the latest beauty inspiration. Churches and public buildings are well-kept, but the interesting finds are those structures with a tell-tale hodgepodge of styles revealing their changes through the years. The boarded up remnants of stained glass windows and worn plaster ornament.

And, I love the signs. In addition to the faded out brands – logos that have since been updated to meet today’s visual appeal – small towns often show great examples of hand painted signs and repurposed banners showcasing a business owner’s pride. Somebody’s initials. Somebody’s name. Somebody’s stamp on the world. The local Big Star grocery became Big Star Tobacco, and even that has since gone defunct. Warehouses and old train cars usually provide an overlapping series of letters as the sun fades one generation of signage into the one before. The past, present and a citizen’s ingenuity.

Those glimpses of a small town – like the ones we captured in Itta Bena – are interesting and layered and sad and curious and indicative of how time passes. And sometimes passes by. Looking back through the images of our drive made me wonder what I keep trying to capture. When I seek out these broken and aged views of the small, worn South. I think maybe they are a glimpse of the greater challenges we have in our state. The wrestling of past and present, of sustaining opportunity, of growing and overcoming, of how we clean up our messes. Of capturing the moment in time. Or letting it go. All told, we spent less than an hour on our drive down to Itta Bena. That’s not enough time to know the place. Not enough to see what’s really gone and what remains. Not enough to see what might be emerging.

drawing near . Psalm One

I’m starting to make a little progress on my Drawing Near series, and still working through a manageable routine — giving myself the time to paint, but also the time to reflect and let the words of the Psalms get below the surface of my thinking. To meditate on them.

It’s a fitting pursuit for today’s psalm, since one of its main themes is the value of meditating on God’s word.

“But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. And he will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.” psalm 1:2-3

As I’ve been reading through Psalm 1, I’ve been struck by what a great contrast the words portray. The difference that occurs when we find our delight and focus our attention in God’s word is clear. As His law becomes our filter for how we conduct life, we find ourselves cultivating not only faith in Him, but fertile ground for ourselves to flourish. It’s hard to mistake the comfort found in the words “firmly planted by streams of water.” The passage describes a whole ecosystem of security and growth that is starkly contrasted with the meandering and searching found outside of this fertile ground.  The imagery of wheat chaff blowing aimlessly in the wind, and of wanderers who can’t decide whether to walk or stand or sit pales in comparison to the nourished, verdant, fruit-bearing image of the tree. It depicts the quality of life emanating from a heart that is committed to understanding and internalizing God’s words. The strength and singleness of purpose, the firmness realized in that place of meditation is not easily swayed by lesser voices.

I needed this reminder today. I’m asking myself, what type of heart ecosystem am I nurturing? Is it an ungrounded, distracted, and withering place where fruit can’t be sustained? Or is it an ecosystem that produces real growth and prosperity and fertile ground to nourish my soul? One seeded by a delight in God’s true word?

reading log . The Wander Society

Dead poets. Cryptic messages found in old book shops. Underground publications tacked to light poles. Faces blacked out in old black and white photographs. Mysterious hieroglyphs. Collages of artifacts and inspiration.

The world of The Wander Society by Keri Smith is a mysterious one with a call to explore the unplanned and the unexpected. The book begins with an experience in a book shop where the author finds a dog-eared copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and discovers a hand-written reference to “the wander society” with the directive, “Solvitur Ambulando” — Latin for “it is solved by walking.” In a short 175 pages, Smith describes her pursuits to discover more about this mysterious organization, encounter thinkers and writers who have espoused the precepts it embodies, and develop the practice of wandering herself.

Reaching back to some of the most prominent literary figures of the past several centuries, and including a great many naturalist authors and thinkers, The Wander Society offers a kind of “suggested reading” list for those interested in the pursuit of meandering and the transcendentalist approach to living connected to the present moment and the natural world of one’s surroundings. Part arts and craft instruction and part camping handbook, the book also includes an eclectic mix of how-tos, like how to find a “talisman,” how to pack for wandering, how to make a “wander station”, and how to carve a wandering stick. Beyond that, Smith offers a collection of wandering exercises to help Society members notice their surroundings in new ways, research and document their environment, and grow in their tolerance for unscheduled exploration. In addition to the instructions and literary inspiration, The Wander Society treatise also includes a subplot of chance discoveries of artifacts and handmade zines left by wanderers before, clues to finding wanderer hang-outs, and even a mysterious professor researching the organization.

Whether the existence of The Wander Society as a secret organization is factual or just the very creative product of Keri Smith’s vivid imagination and curiosity, the effect is the same. It’s a mesmerizing collection of visual images and ideas to inspire the reader to forge connections with the physical world around us, and indulge in the discipline of letting go of time and schedule constraints. Although I’m not a subscriber to the book’s suggestion that those stops along the wanderers path and the mystic talismans found there should be elevated to a sacred status, I loved its premise of setting aside opportunities to simply allow ourselves to go where the next step takes us. As we’re surrounded with what seems like a thousand channels and devices feeding us information, each one has an ability to schedule our every moment while removing nearly every element of uncertainty or surprise from our radar. The result is that the value of quietness, wonder, and exploration are sometimes overlooked.

This concept of wandering played a wonderful role in some of our summer together this year… even down to the fact that we began to rename some of our experiences as adventures! Although we didn’t spend much time wandering by foot in this Mississippi heat, we enjoyed several automobile adventures, giving ourselves the freedom to take unexplored highways and roads through scenery and towns we’ve never visited. We set aside times to let the French concept of “flanerie” govern our travels, stopping from one town to the next, wherever an interesting building or shop or hand painted sign captured our attention. I don’t know if that makes us unofficial members of The Wander Society, but I know it helped us make memories and find inspiration in the most unlikely of places. I’ve been wandering in a different way through some of the many photographs I took on our adventures, and I can’t wait to share some of the sights and inspiration from our wanderings. Stay tuned for upcoming posts to the sojourn field guide, my Frog Kisser category archiving some of our backroads, rural adventures, and wanderings.

Drawing Near

It’s the first day of school for my kiddos, and I always seem to take it as a new beginning for myself as well — the first day of a new season, a new schedule, a new routine. I spent part of the morning cleaning my studio and organizing supplies and inventory to help me start my new “school year” on a fresh foot. Last week, I wrote about some of the challenges of this time of year for me as I find myself in more quietness during the day. Getting my creative space in order helps to keep my thinking uncluttered, as I embrace a little more productivity as a tradeoff for missing my little ones. It helps my creativity stay ripe for growth.

My husband, Mike, was a landscape designer. He told me once that, like many professions, the professors in his degree program often had a different definition of things than your average gardener would. For example, we talk about dirt, but landscape designers talk about soil. “Dirt” was relegated to a decidedly less glamorous position… “misplaced soil.” Likewise, in the world of landscaper-speak, a weed is a “misplaced plant.”

I thought about that the other day, as I’ve been thinking and dreaming and evaluating lately. Kind of weeding through my heart, pulling out things and pursuits and “priorities” that seem out of place. We’re all planted someplace, a place that may or may not be of our choosing, but as we set down roots, that place begins to reflect who we are, what we want, where we’re going. At least, in an authentic and conscious life, it does. And that’s the kind of life I want to live. It’s the kind of life I want to build for my children.

It’s been almost five years since Mike died, and the coming weeks and months will hold a number of “anniversaries” for us. As I’ve been weeding through those little bits of heart-outgrowth I mentioned earlier, I’ve recognized that I’ve spent a great part of the last five years trying to reclaim or make up for things I thought I lost when he died. Things I was afraid my kids would lose in not having their dad. And trying to figure out my place in the face of what’s happened. Whether I am that “misplaced plant” now that my life looks so much different that I expected. But, as I absorb this distance from what seemed like a defining moment, I’ve begun to let go of that pursuit. I’ve begun to finally dig in deeper in this place where I’ve been planted. And as I look around, I realize I can flourish here. It can be — it IS a place of abundance. It’s a place where I’m seeding all kinds of new possibilities. For myself and for the sweet little souls who inhabit this place with me.

So, I’m weeding through my heart. I’ve started to let go of some of those things and feelings and commitments that don’t seem to grow well in this new and time-seasoned place. And, I’m realizing some areas that need tending if the right seeds are to grow.

One of the areas I’m committed to growing this year is my closeness — my nearness — to God. My Father and Creator. The One who’s carried me through so much sorrow into joy. The One I recognize has shown us mercy in all things. The One who Fathers my children. The One who provides for our needs and brings peace to our fears.

I’ve wanted to be more intentional and diligent about drawing near to Him, recognizing that this drawing is bringing me closer not only to Him, but to the place He has for me, I haven been enjoying with him lately and we have the best times. “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good,” the psalmist described it.

So, I’m beginning a new painting and lettering journey. A series that lets me explore those thoughts and “draw near” through the book of Psalms. Because I so often process my thinking by writing and painting, I hope to use watercolor as a way to slow my thoughts and record them and the lessons I learn in a more meaningful and memorable way. I know this series will not be a daily one. I don’t want to create pressure for myself with another daily painting commitment, but I plan to start with Psalm 1 and move through at a pace that lets me absorb something new (or familiar) about God in each chapter. I will be sharing the painted journey along with some of my journaling here on the Frog Kisser blog and also on my Facebook page, so I hope you’ll follow along. I don’t do this to hold myself up as any strong example of Biblical wisdom or Christian faith — only as fellow journeyman in need of the Mighty One. I hope you’ll be encouraged by what you see.

August Beginnings [printable calendar]

August is here, and it brings our last week of summer vacation. Next Monday, my little ones (who have grown considerably taller almost before my eyes these last few weeks) head into a new school year, and my routine shifts again. It’s hard not to focus on August as an ending… the end of our carefree days together. The end of summer. The end of  unplanned trips and soaking up my loves. In fact, sometimes August is a really challenging month for me as I transition from noise and questions and activity and giggles in the house all day, to the quietness of alone time as my children are at school. After finally adjusting to grabbing time for work and creative projects in between the excitement of so much summer fun, I find that nothing zaps creativity and productivity quite like the deafening quiet of an empty house! Still, there is a kind of rest in the order of more scheduled days and the discipline of making new commitments. Last week, I came across a quote by the philosopher and theologian, Meister Eckhart, that really resonated with me… “And suddenly you know: it’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.”

Trust the magic of beginnings.

I forget sometimes that the magic of new possibilities rests in any beginning. We only need to keep our eyes open to notice it. These last few weeks, we’ve been making decisions about what extra-curricular activities the children want to be involved in this year, and I’ve been narrowing down some new directions for my businesses and new product ideas. I feel the pull in a few key areas for our family, and I’m actually excited to see what God has in store for us as we begin to follow. I’m excited that we’re actually paring down a couple of our evening activities so that we can focus on building faithfulness and continue to strengthen home base. I’m praying that as we say goodbye to all that we love about summer, we will be keenly aware and open to the new things God is bringing our way in this new season and schedule. I’m praying that we will trust the magic to come, and be prepared to wonder at how things settle in just as they’re meant to.

I decided to paint a portion of the Eckhart quote as a cut-away part of this month’s printable calendar. I hope to create a larger piece with the full quote, so watch for that! Meanwhile, I hope you’ll grab this little piece of free art to mark your August days. May it remind you to trust the magic in each one. Enjoy!

sketch journal 070417 . Let Freedom Ring

My country, ’tis of thee,’
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring

~ Samuel Francis Smith (1831)

Hello July! [printable calendar]

July always starts with a bang as bunting and fireworks take center stage! This midway point of summer is a fitting time to celebrate the birth of freedom in America, plus take time to be thankful for the blessings afforded to us living in this great country. I’m trying to get back into the routine of creating more printable artwork to post here, and I decided to update one of my designs from last year for July. I hope you enjoy this way of marking the days! The calendar includes a little extra artwork at the bottom so when the month is gone, you can clip it off and send as a card or display on your desk. Happy July!

[DOWNLOAD CALENDAR]

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