Three ‘Unknown’ Artists and the Great ‘Platform’ Debate

Acclaimed photographer Vivian Maier, novelist Franz Kafka, and painter Vincent Van Gogh were all virtually unknown during their lives. All are today acknowledged as masters. To me, this shifts the debate about the artist’s “platform” to an entirely different arena. Continue reading

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This Cake Fights Hate

“I bake, therefore I am (who God made me).” The search for our true identity starts with discovering what gives us joy and also can be gifted to others. I enjoy baking.

This month, I’m baking for two charity events. I’m providing a cake to a prom for special needs adults who weren’t invited to attend their own. Then, I’m baking all kinds of goodies from my family’s organic wild Maine blueberry farm for a fundraiser that supports the local land trust, which could eventually hold our land as a Forever Farm.

The cake recipe I use is one my mother made time and time again. The recipe originates with Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine Republican senator who challenged Joe McCarthy’s demagoguery with her own Declaration of Conscience in 1950. Mom would have found it in Marjory Standish’s column in the Portland Press-Herald, which was later compiled in two volumes of “Cooking Down East.”

What I learned from this recipe is that nutmeg is the perfect spice for blueberries and that it is almost impossible to put too many blueberries in any baked good. What I learn from the life of Sen. Smith is that there can be hope even during very polarized times.


Singer songwriter Woody Guthrie, who would be blacklisted, declared on his instrument his confidence that music was a powerful weapon.

During Smith’s long term in DC, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt targeted legislative foes, government officials, popular film stars and musicians, among many others. More than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs as a result of his slander and innuendo. Celebrities who ended up on industry “blacklists” as suspected communists included singer Lena Horne, filmmaker Orson Welles, aging silent film star Charlie Chaplin, and populist songwriter Woody Guthrie.

Sen. Smith’s denunciation of McCarthy, her Declaration of Conscience, called for the nation to rediscover its strength and unity. The backlash against McCarthyism and a prior generation’s nativism would ultimately help fuel the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our first Catholic president. 


A popular portrait of JFK

We find it hard to imagine today a country where we so feared the Pope’s guidance of his flock that we considered Catholics potentially disloyal to our own civil government and therefore improbable candidates for office. We had to stop and remember our own American selves for JFK’s election to be possible.

Perhaps we will similarly stop and reflect, in light of our current divisive atmosphere, on our core values as Americans. We have been a nation of diligence, community, and service. We have been a country that is formed from “the other” and therefore chooses to be fearless of difference. We have been a country that sees those in need among us and finds ways to serve them, just as God urged Israel to provide from the edges of the field to those without fields of their own (Lev. 9:9-10) and to lend with generous spirit, at no interest, whatever the poor might need to move forward in their lives (Dt. 15:4-11).

Today’s divisions are not the same as those of the 1940s and 1950s. But perhaps Smith’s cake can be a weapon in our women’s warfare against division and hatred. One editor’s commentary on the recipe suggested that the senator could “serve this cake to the Democratic side of the Senate and accomplish in a trice what Dale Carnegie’s book imparts: the winning of friends and influencing of people.” At the very least, this cake is a great excuse to “Go, eat your food with gladness … for it is now that God favors what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9:7).

Who could you win with a cake that fights hate? Try this recipe and find out.

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s Blueberry Cake

1/2 c. shortening
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 c. milk
2 c. sifted flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. nutmeg
2 c. blueberries

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease two 9-inch round or square baking tins.
  2. Cream shortening; add sugar and beat until creamy. Add eggs and beat until light and foamy.
  3. Mix together and sift all dry ingredients.
  4. Add alternately to creamed mixture with milk.
  5. Fold in blueberries. (Hint: If using thawed or drained berries, toss berries in a bit of flour so they won’t sink to the bottom of the pans.)
  6. Pour into pans. Bake for 25-30 minutes until toothpick or skewer inserted at center comes out dry (no batter; may have berry juice).
  7. Cool in tins.
  8. Put layers together with frosting. Sprinkle top with confectioner’s sugar.



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The Writer’s Life, the Farmer’s Day and the Migrant Christian Identity

Terrific Pig Charlottes Web

Garth Williams illustrated Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Above: Charlotte the spider provides lavish encomiums to protect Wilbur the pig from becoming bacon.

E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and a much-beloved writers’ guide, The Elements of Style, offers a wry summary of his day in an essay, “Memorandum.” Farmer and author Eliot Coleman references White in his own “Advice to a Young Farmer”, which was recently republished in The Portland (Maine) Press Herald:

White’s list begins with, “Today I should,” “I ought to finish,” “First, though, I would have to,” “I ought to get some,” or ‘It just occurred to me,” and ends with, “I see it is four o’clock already and almost dark, so I had better get going.”

We all laugh … reminded that the life we have chosen is complicated and multifunctional, with more features than most people can imagine. But there is no joy in doing anything poorly. We get our satisfaction out of doing it well.

Coleman refers specifically to the many details of running a small organic farm, just a few of which include:

  • planning a harvest that extends across Maine’s entire (short) growing season,
  • acquiring seed for perhaps 35 different vegetables, in multiple varieties that ripen at different times
  • having a plastic-clad greenhouse and heated flats ready to start seed before our weather cooperates with the farmer’s task, and finally
  • having identified the markets where everything can be sold and
  • ensuring there are sufficient crates to haul it all.

Farmers, like many of us, work jobs where the odds of good results can be improved, but guarantees are limited. Coleman and White together remind how essential our own effort is to the development of a good harvest — and how easy it is to find another reason to postpone the effort. As the Spanish proverb says:

Tomorrow Busiest

Or, as our God reminds us:

A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied. (Proverbs 13:4)

Jenny McGill BookAt this season in my own life, I’m focused on making diligent efforts to transform my character. I have been reminded recently by Miroslav Volf (via Jenny McGill’s fascinating Religious Identity and Cultural NegotiationReligious Identity and Cultural Negotiation) that “self-denial” isn’t about denying who I am. “Self-denial” is about refusing to live out the ways that sin has deformed my character, my behavior, and my view of who God created me to be.

A time of transition is challenging me to become more clear about what is the core of my true self, what are just habits that have worked in some settings, and what are problematic habits that obstruct me from focusing on actions that bear fruit …. problematic habits that God is challenging me to overcome.

I welcome your prayers as I seek to clarify my own true Christian identity during this time of spiritual and personal migration in my life.

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Comedy or Tragedy? I Choose the Happy Ending

SirWalterAndQueenLandscapeWhen Sir Walter yanks the cape out from under you and you’re flopping in the mud in your best frock, will you laugh or cry? The difference between comedy and tragedy depends, not on the course of events, but on the end of the story.

I expected my life to have a certain shape as I approached 60.

Mrs Piggle Wiggle

My childhood dream was to live like the widowed Mrs. Piggle Wiggle in an odd little house filled with fascinating and transformative artifacts … a house regularly invaded by curious neighborhood children in need of some help.

Then I got married and reshaped my dream. We bought a cute little suburban townhouse, collected some antique hymnals and other artifacts, and accelerated payments so we’d be secure at retirement.

Over time I discovered that my husband’s home was his castle. I could have a prayer partner over once a week, but otherwise the house was not to be opened to any person. Instead of human guests, we had online friends. Mine were on Facebook and I recounted their news to him during television commercials. His, it turned out, were of the female persuasion. Or at least of female personas. As was he when he visited with them.


As Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman played an out-of-work actor who created a new persona to win roles.

I overheard his Southern belle self in conversation late one night when I awoke. She was online in the next room, chatting about recipes and the ethics of stem cell research. Her tones were honeyed, her accent as perfect as you might expect from an almost-native North Carolinian. Dustin Hoffman should have been such a good Tootsie. My husband’s voice would be exemplary among this century’s various leading ladies of the gender transition.

In person, he probably would be equally outstanding. As a result of some kind of family loyalty, he never trimmed the wild, overgrown bushes that grew above his eyes. His late father’s eyebrows had been equally extravagant. When I imagine my husband in drag, I see a face rather like Ugly Betty, minus the colorful braces.

ugly betty

America Ferreira as “Ugly Betty”

So now instead of living in that little house full of our lovingly accumulated stuff, I live in my parents’ gigantic barn of a New Englander, full of more than a century’s worth of “might need it someday.” There aren’t any curious neighborhood kiddos here: our part of town has become a trendy location for up and coming professionals. Their attitude toward the memory-filled artifacts carefully handed from one generation to the next is described in almost identical words by two of my peers: “No one gives a shit about your crap.”

The question is … Will I play it as comedy or tragedy?

Rug pulled. I made a lifetime commitment to a man who hadn’t made a lifetime commitment to being a man.

Pride takes a fall. Or maybe it was greed. Or maybe it was fear.

I could have told the church. He would have lost his church job. And in our “no fault” and “equitable division” divorce era, my status as primary breadwinner through most of the marriage could mean I’d end up owing him alimony, as well as the house and a quarter of my IRA.

That was too much. I left him with the house and the money from my retirement. He also got the business we were running from the house. I suppose that was his “alimony.” The business’s annual revenue when we separated was more than our church paid him. He had the region’s best LGBQT family lawyer, and my funds for legal support were running low. I cut my losses.

The audience laughs. Actually, I’m not sure what the audience has been doing. The theater seems to have gone silent. Is the story ended?

She dusts herself off. I’d love for this to have been more graceful. But pratfalls aren’t something I’ve practiced. Not that I haven’t had plenty. I just manage to do them all badly. I always seem to end up with aches and bruises. Case in point: I had to sit on a coccyx pillow for most of the first year after I found out about my husband’s alter ego. Since there had been no physical injury, I have to guess my body was trying to tell me that this situation was a real pain in the you-know-where.

Everyone hugs. Forgiveness! Well, since I live 900 miles away, and since he stopped having any kind of real conversation with me long before we stopped living together, I don’t know if I’m going to see this occur literally in the real world.

On the other hand, I think perhaps the comic finale just popped up on Facebook. A new colleague who regularly goes out of his way to encourage me just posted a photo of himself rocking silver stilettos at a drag party.

silver stilettos

Comedy or tragedy? Today, when we say “comedy”, we might think about television farces with heavy doses of sexual innuendo and other broad humor – perhaps The Office or The Big Bang Theory. Romantic comedies throw obstacle after obstacle between the two who are fated to fall in love: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or, for the more classically inclined, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


British painter Edwin Henry Landseer was particularly known for his animals. No wonder he gave us such a wonderful image for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But the word “comedy” didn’t always include connotations of farce and chaos. Its Greek roots are words that mean revel, delight or happiness (komos) and singer (aoidos). So at its roots, a “comedy” is simply an epic (traditionally presented as poetry, which can be sung) that has a happy ending.

Divine ComedyThat’s why Dante’s epic poem is the Divine Comedy. Dante’s epic poem is the first in Western literature whose protagonist is the author – an ordinary person instead of a legendary hero. Its happy-ending story is the story of his own long journey to recognize and repent of his sin, be sanctified, and finally see God.

So comedy or tragedy?

I pick divine comedy. How about you?

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‘Redeeming Ruth’: Love Redeems What Suffering Tried to Steal

” … a beautifully written contribution to our collective remembering that Jesus calls us to suffer, and that our greatest acts of love can produce suffering bigger than we thought our hearts could hold.”

Meadow Rue Merrill’s memoir, “Redeeming Ruth,” offers a holy antidote to the strain of Christianity that demands happiness and success as the outward and visible signs of our God’s inward and spiritual graces. Meadow Rue Merrill dreams big and lives where God puts her, which means she often lives in the discomfort of a person who feels out of her place. She hopes to serve God among African orphans, but finds herself a small town wife and mother to a growing family. Money is tight enough that it takes hard work, ingenuity and trust in God just to get by, even before a layoff decimates the most carefully managed financial plans. She trains her children in the words and the ways of God, even while she wonders: Did it mean anything that I dreamed of serving God’s orphans from Africa? Is this dream forever deferred?

Then God puts before the Merrill family an opportunity. Would they adopt a disabled orphaned infant from Uganda?

The prospect is staggering, seemingly impossible. But the costs of the adoption appear, piece by faith-filling piece, just at the moments they are required. Visas and other travel documents are completed literally moments after they are required – and are accepted despite being late. These are the “miracle” stories that build faith.

Then comes the rest of the story. Living with Ruth as part of their family requires overwhelming levels of effort, as every special needs parent knows and no one else can truly imagine. Merrill gives an outstanding picture of both the challenges and rewards, for herself, her husband, and Ruth’s three siblings. She draws the reader along as she alternately spirals into joyful hope and collapses into doubt and despair.

Adopting Ruth allows Merrill the long-desired chance to visit Africa. There, instead of serving orphans she meets African Christians who care for orphans and whose faith inspires her.

In the long run, adopting Ruth requires the Merrill family to live through the heartbreak of finding their much loved, much wanted daughter dead in her sleep – a not uncommon result of her disability. Merrill is transparent about her long struggle with self-accusation and guilt after Ruth’s death, but stays in her story instead of getting stuck in her own head.

Merrill is a veteran journalist, using her habit of collecting facts to amass the context and details for this beautifully told story. The reader sees what Merrill has seen, falters when she falters, celebrates when she celebrates, attempts with her to draw on God’s strength in challenging times. Only at rare moments does she allow her readers to hear a few of the difficult “objective” journalist’s facts she learned along this journey: How many children from Uganda are orphaned, how few options there are for disabled children in the non-Western world, how Ruth’s disability could have been prevented by a medical test that costs less than $1.

“Remembering Ruth” is a beautifully written contribution to our collective remembering that Jesus calls us to suffer, and that our greatest acts of love can produce suffering bigger than we thought our hearts could hold. I will recommend this book to everyone I know who is in grief.

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