Building Community by Featuring Followers IV

Time for a Stat-ervention? Checking you blog stats can become addicting. I challenge you to walk away for the month of Oct and see if you can refocus on the joy of blogging.

The statisticians here at “A Way With Words” have advised me some time to put out only one post a day, saying –

Your optimum visits-per-post ratio can best be achieved with a single, targeted daily post. 

I say,

Get a social life.

Tonight I’m in the mood to “share the love” and feature more of my followers, hoping to further build community and simply sow seeds of gratitude for having faithful readers.

To read more, visit my new blog address by clicking on the title below —

“Building Community by Featuring Followers IV”

Building Community by Featuring Followers III

 It’s Sunday afternoon.  Morning worship is over.  The Colts have the game well in hand. Over two hours before evening worship.  It’s time to fire up the virtual grill and welcome a few more followers over, carrying casserole dishes of flash fiction, bags of poetry, and coolers of life reflections.  A good time will be had by all.  To join in the fun, simply visit any of the sites or featured posts and tell them Tony, who has “A Way With Words” sent you.

To read more, visit my new blog address by clicking on the title below —

“Building Community by Featuring Followers III”

Bon Apetit!

the planet blue potluck!

A Thick Brush with Genius: On Seeing Van Gogh’s “Landscape at Saint-Remy, 1889”

          Today, I decided to take a pilgrimage to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  I was a man with a mission.  I wanted to witness a Van Gogh in person.
          The museum is lodged on a beautiful campus not far from downtown Indy.  Admission is free.  Their website indicated a charge for parking, but I found a spot that wasn’t in the main lot (don’t tell anyone).
          The signs were promoting an exhibition of Ai Weiwei dubbed “the most controversial artist in the world”.  I wasn’t enticed.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate controversy as much as the next fellow, but not when it costs me $12 to see.  I like my controversy for free.
          On arrival, I went to the information desk and was told I would need to place my backpack and water bottle in a locker.  Not a problem.  The lockers cost only a 25-cent deposit.  I asked about Van Gogh and they directed me upstairs to the European collection.
          After checking in at another desk, I entered a very spacious area with winding rooms.  The walls were filled with paintings of various sizes.  I recognized Gaugin, Pissaro, El Greco.  But I couldn’t find Van Gogh.  I asked a guard.  A young boy with a clipboard.  A middle-aged woman with a fake tan.  They all pointed me in different directions.
          Finally, I saw it.  “Landscape at Saint-Remy, 1889”.

          While it didn’t take my breath away, I was definitely captivated by this living example of Van Gogh’s work.  It clearly stood out from the other pieces – not just for the thick brush strokes (as if the paint were applied with a putty knife), but for the delicate blending of colors.  The blue sky was seamlessly woven into the grey-ish hills which joined the yellow-green fields harmoniously.
          The small figures of a tree and a man are subtly hidden into the landscape, but as you examine it deeper, they come alive.  They tell a story of survival – the tree is barely more than a paltry collection of limbs with a splash of greenery.  The man in blue is bent over carrying large bundles of hay almost bigger than he is.
          A sign near the painting suggested that in this work Van Gogh reveals his “pantheistic beliefs”,  but I certainly don’t think the piece commands such an interpretation.  Whatever Van Gogh in fact believed, the painting conveys a sense of man’s insignificance in the scheme of Creation as well as the hard labor required for survival.
          Overall, as I reflected on the painting, I gained a measure of peace in the harmony of nature and humankind’s relationship with it.
          The note beside the piece also gave s0me context, that it was painted –
in the provincial town of Saint-Remy, as Van Gogh recuperated from a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve during Gaugin’s fateful visit.
          The painting suggests that Van Gogh, at least for a time, was well into his recovery as the “Landscape” conveys a peace in the harmony of nature and humankind’s relationship with it.
          image above “Vincent van Gogh – Landscape at Saint-Remy – 1889 – Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis from Ceanna Pins in Paintings I Love – 13

Pursuing God in Art: In the Words of Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh  Autoritratto 1887

I’ve been reading Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh and finding there much spiritual treasure.

Van Gogh originally set out to follow in his father’s footsteps as a pastor, but for reasons that are only somewhat revealed, it doesn’t work out.  During this period of preparation for ministry, Van Gogh describes a foreboding sense –

These are really happy days I spend here, but still it is a happiness and quiet which I do not quite trust.  Man is not easily content: now he finds things too easy and then again he is not contented enough.

Though not terribly dissatisfied, Van Gogh senses something is missing, something is not quite right.  He wonders if this “dis-ease” could have a spiritual basis.

There may be a time in life when one is tired of everything and feels as if all one does is wrong, and there may be some truth in it — do you think this is a feeling one must try to forget and to banish, or is it ‘the longing for God,’ which one must not fear, but cherish to see if it may bring us some good?  Is it ‘the longing for God’ which leads us to make a choice which we never regret?

One thing I’ve noted early in this collection of letters to his brother Theo is that when Van Gogh describes something about pastoral ministry, his words are distant and generic.  When he describes the visual world or artistic representations of them, however, he comes alive.

As we have in our Brabant the underbrush of oak, and in Holland the willows, so you can see here the blackthorn hedges around the gardens, fields, and meadows.  With the snow the effect just now is of black characters on white paper, like the pages of the Gospel.

After a disruptive experience in his academic pursuit of a pastoral vocation, Van Gogh moves to Brussels where, thanks to a small stipend from his father and monies from Theo, he is able to eek out a living while devoting himself to his art.  He first concentrates on studying and copying the masters where he tries to “understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious matters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God.”

Ultimately, he picks up his pencil and finds great relief.

Though every day difficulties come up and new ones will present themselves, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have to taken up drawing again.  I have been thinking of it for a long time, but I always considered the thing impossible and beyond my reach.  But now, though I feel my weakness and my painful dependency in many things, I have recovered my mental balance, and day by day my energy increases.

I look forward to reading how Van Gogh’s describes his pursuit of God in his art, (and discovering how this pursuit was perverted as his mental illness progresses.

I’m also interested in hearing from you.  What do you see in Van Gogh’s art and what does it “tell you” that leads to God?

(image above “Vincent Van Gogh Autoritratto 1887” from Alessandro Tanner in Vincent Van Gogh)

Madness in Media

I’m currently working on “The Study” chapter of my book Delight in Disorder: Meditations of a Bipolar Mind in which I will reflect on a few books that have had a significant impact on my understanding of my mental illness.  I also plan to include an “On the Shelves” section in which I list more resources (literature, visual art, movies, music) worth further exploration.

This is where I could use your help.  Below I’ve listed some of the resources I will either review or list.  I’d love to hear your experience with “media-depicted madness”.  Have any of these works touched you, or do you know of other works I might explore?


The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Manic: A Memoir by Terri Cheney

Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness  by Patty Duke

Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher

Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison

Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by Kathryn Greene-McCreight


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The Dream Team

Benny & Joon


A Beautiful Mind

The Soloist


Vincent (Starry Starry Night) – Don McLean

Visual Arts

“Scream”  – Edward Munch

“Vase with Twelve Sunflowers” – Vincent Van Gogh

“Spirit of the Dead Watching” – Paul Gaugin


What would you recommend?


(image above “Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night” from Rae Leff in Art I love)

Saudi Arabia, Art’s Perspective, and Piranha

This afternoon I attended a reading at Boxcar Books sponsored by the Writer’s Guild at Bloomington.  There were three scheduled readers and an open mic.


Molly Gleeson opened up the program with a reading of her memoir My Heart is a Wilderness about her experiencing teaching English in Saudi Arabia.  Gleeson poignantly depicted the black-robed women as the “walking dead” and the white-robed men as the “ghosts” who haunt them.  She described keeping house in a “palatial” yet “entirely beige” apartment.   She visited with other international teachers, but admitted she felt very much alone – a stranger in a strange land.

Next up was  Beau Vallance.  Vallance has served as education director for major museums.  She explained her approach to encourage students to imagine stories behind the works displayed.  She read examples of this work from an article she had published “The Adventures of Artemis and the Llama”.  The stories told tales of how the art was formed, acquired, moved, misplaced, collected, and finally displayed – both from a narrative point of view and in 1st person (as the work itself).  The Llama as a play companion with a G.I. Joe.  Artemis as a lawn ornament weaved the stories into the narrative of “Toy Story”, reflecting both on the value of being “handled” and being “admired”.


The featured reader, all the way from L.A. (though with roots in Bloomington) was  Frank Montesonti.  Frank read from his 2011 Barrow Street Prize winning collection of poems – Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope.  His poems are vivid and concrete.  They tell a story – at times through dialogue, at times through images.  The titles are descriptive – “Best Deaths” about an ancient Spartan who died after his son won the Olympics and Don Doane from Ravenna, Michigan, who died after bowling a perfect game.  “Those Anomalies at a Party When Everyone Suddenly Falls Silent” and “Inventors of Sadness Learn to Use What They Have the Wrong Ways” and “When You Left I Started a Garden” serve as self-contained stories (and the poems themselves only enhance them).

One of my favorites was “Piranha” – which he said was about teaching creative writing.  I obtained Frank’s permission to reprint it here.  I would encourage you, however, to consider purchasing Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope through Barrow Street Press.


I try to tell my students to use images:

                say, a piranha eating an apple

       or a piranha flying through the air

               and biting a woman’s jugular.

Maybe you could say that when the blood

sprays from the woman’s neck it looks like, hmm,

a red Chinese fan.

When I’m asked what a poem should be like,

I simply state the fact that a full-size cow can walk into a river

and a school of piranha can devour it in two minutes.

They work their way into the belly and eat out the soft organs.

Then the skin and head dance on top of the water.

Frank, do all our poems have to be about piranhas?

a student asks — the piranha.

No, no, not if you don’t want them to be about piranhas,

I tell her, of course

I really don’t see the point

of not writing about piranhas:

that moment when the water starts to break and pop

before the frenzy.


The open mic afterwards went well.  I read the scene “The Walmart Way” from The Pursuit of Happiness.  There were no “amens”, “hallelujahs”, or “preach it, brothers” – but I did get one laugh which felt very nice.

Nothing Better to Do (than write)

In God’s economy, the writers of the Bible did not have something better to do with their time and ability than to be artistic to the glory to God.   (Leland Ryken)

God created us to be creators.  While there are certainly words of warning in the Bible not to create something to take the place of God, the Bible itself gives us the best example of a work of art that points to the greatness of God.  The Bible is God’s story, compiled by God’s human agents, designed to inspire us to glorify God and enjoy God always.  In the Bible, the Word of God is expressed in words we may not fully grasp, but that nonetheless lead us forward in faith.

The book The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing contains reflections from Christian writers, artists, and thinkers on the role of creative work in expressing our faith.  Christians have, throughout history and into the present, had a very ambiguous relationship with all forms of writing outside of Scripture, but particularly fiction and fantasy.  Yet, some Christians (like C.S. Lewis) have produced marvelous fictional works as a way of expressing, not compromising their faith.

Theologian Abraham Kuyper provides a faithful basis for creative writing when he writes –

As image-bearer of God, man possesses the possibility both to create something beautiful, and to delight in it.

To be faithful as creative writers, we need to focus first on creating something beautiful, something delightful.  We are to first focus on writing a good story or a good poem and only then can we effectively convey a message through it.

A good story can draw us into a world where we can be re-shaped in the image of God.  C.S. Lewis writes –

C.S. Lewis

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality… In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.  Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.  Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Losing ourselves in a good book, then, is not just literary escapism.  Or it doesn’t have to be.  We can get lost so that we can be found, in a better place.

(photo of C.S. Lewis  from Devin Gosberry in My dinner with Andre and/or people I would like to dine with.)

Art Imitates Life (for better and for worse): “The Poetics of Artistotle – II”

882 Classic Greek drama by jasonvance

Following on the heels of my previous post (“Telling the Truth in Fiction“), I was pleased to read section II of The Poetics.  It begins –

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. It is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true to life.

As my former theater professor pointed out to me, good drama is founded on action.  The action of the characters in a play reflect reality, but they extend it for the sake of the story.  In “Liberty”, my current work-in-progress, I am trying to pack 4 years worth of college experience into 2 weeks in the story.  Naturally, I will be condensing and exaggerating certain behaviors.  Some good actions will be better than they were.  Some bad actions will be worse.  If it works well, the end product will be “true to life” though the particular details may be anything but the what really happened.

Section II of The Poetics continues –

Now it is evident that each of the modes of imitation above mentioned will exhibit these differences, and become a distinct kind in imitating objects that are thus distinct. Such diversities may be found even in dancing, flute-playing, and lyre-playing. So again in language, whether prose or verse unaccompanied by music. Homer, for example, makes men better than they are; Cleophon as they are; Hegemon the Thasian, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares, the author of the Deiliad, worse than they are.  The same thing holds good of Dithyrambs and Nomes; here too one may portray different types, as Timotheus and Philoxenus differed in  representing their Cyclopes. The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.

Only the devout student of Greek poetics would follow the many and varied names mentioned here, but the sense of this passage comes through readily.  Basically, each writer must decide precisely how to portray the action  of his/her characters and follow this consistently.  A question that arises in my mind is – could you portray a character who was both better and worse than real life?  It’s possible, I think, to create a complex character who, on some occasions, acts more benevolently than s/he would have while on other occasions, more malevolently.  This may well detract from the consistent believability of the action, however.  Still, a good drama might have an SS soldier open fire on random Jews in the courtyard yet care for a Jewish housekeeper with whom he has fallen in love (in fact, I think they did just this in “Schindler’s List”).

One of the challenges of modern drama, I believe, is to address moral questions in a world that defines itself as amoral.  Or, said better, where moral standards shift and there is no consensus on what is right and wrong.  My hope is, by focusing on the story, showing what the characters do and fail to do and what results as a consequence of their actions and inactions, there will ultimately be a life-affirming “moral” to the story.

(image “882 Classic Greek drama” from jasonvance, some rights reserved)