Finding Myself in the Pickle: The Intersection of Art, Spirituality and Nature

ElaineGantzWright Jewelry

You’ve heard the familiar adage, “the devil is in the details.” Well, last week, I experienced quite the opposite—the yin to that yang—as so often occurs with such idioms. Truth is, I discovered the Divine in the details. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Art @ Mo—a rejuvenating week combining spirituality and fellowship with a healthy helping of creative nourishment—all served up in the midst of the most idyllic scenery Texas has to offer. It was a confluence beyond compare. How fortunate I was to spend five days of serenity and regeneration in the cradle of the majestic Texas Hill Country outside of San Antonio.

I have been to Mo Ranch more times than I can count— with and without my boys, but this year was a completely different experience. I allowed myself to focus completely and unapologetically on the art of jewelry-making, and I’m not just talking about stringing some purple beads and tying a knot (which I have been known to do and to enjoy). This was the real deal, the artisan craft, and I never knew how liberating and captivating such a pursuit could be.

It involved intense study of the painstaking steps and discipline required to make metal jewelry from concept to creation—using fine materials, such as copper, agate, abalone, amethyst, and the like. In addition to producing some wonderful pieces under the tutelage of master jeweler Jean Cofer, I learned some lessons that have given me insight and even a sense of peace and enlightenment in my life as a whole. This brings me to—the pickle.

Pickle is the solution used during jewelry construction to clean away the oxides, imperfections, and discolorations that occur during the prep and soldering process. (I will describe this in greater detail in a moment.) It’s kind of a noxious brew of hydrochloric acid and water heated in crock pot or “cauldron.” It’ll take your skin right off, but damn, it makes gorgeous jewelry!!

As neophytes, needless to say, we mostly treated the pickle with great respect. Even using the wrong implement, such as aluminum tweezers, could cause a chemical reaction and contaminate it instantly. We were careful to use wooden dowels or copper tweezers. One brazen classmate threw an old door knob or something in the pickle one day, and the cloud of foul, sulfur-smelling gas that enveloped the room required our immediate evacuation. Jewelry-making is not for the timid! Of course, sometimes you may decide you want the earthy patina that only contaminated pickle can deliver. Then, it’s more about the art than the science.

ElaineGantzWright Jewelry Design

Soldering: The Beauty of the Dark Side

I’ve always wanted to learn to solder — the process of joining metal using an alloy designed to melt at a temperature lower than the metal base. Both pieces must be heated simultaneously until the solder melts. Upon cooling, the solder solidifies to form a firm, lasting joint. The levels of solder are termed extra easy, easy, medium. and hard—depending on their melting points. Typically, they are used in reverse progression on a given piece. It gets pretty complicated.

Then, you actually use a gas blowtorch that you ignite with a bang and flourish on top of a brick. (That’s pretty fun.) You can use a small piece of screen perched atop a six-inch-tall, three-legged stand to perform what’s called a “sweat” solder. And boy, it’s hot. I find soldering truly a mystical, hypnotic process as you wave the glowing torch in back and fort and in a rotating motion over your work — waiting for the glisten of the shiny silver alloy to “pop” and ooze. Thinking of that Scottish play, “Bubble, bubble toil and trouble . . . ” kind of an everyday alchemy.

You heat your carefully wrought jewel one step at a time—avoiding over-heating and/or complete incineration but cajoling and coaxing in carefully and gingerly to “flow.” Jean, our wonderful teacher, demonstrated how to almost caress the piece of jewelry with the flame and “fluff it” just enough to achieve the desired response at the appropriate moment. The irony is that the pendant, ring or bracelet turns the blackest black, literally soot-encrusted and then seems to almost undulate with rainbow waves of color rolling and rippling across the once-shiny surface. Magic.

In addition to the mesmerizing beauty of it all, the process struck me as such a basic metaphor for life’s challenges—the reality of going through the most intense heat, pain and darkness to transform into a beautiful, bright work of art. Even the terms to describe the different types of solder fit the analogy – sometimes it’s “easy,” even “extra easy” to stay “in flow,” and sometimes it’s pretty “hard,” and we get stuck. So, we start all over again.

The key learning for me was that every step is essential. No skipping this or that to speed up the process for us impatient, big-picture types. Trust the process. Hmmm . . . Seems I’ve heard that one before. This was the spiritual gateway for me –where I was able to leave behind all the “recent character-building” experiences of my Dallas life and find a renewed sense of feeling centered and at peace. The Zen of soldering, indeed. Each step is a piece of the puzzle.

Like “flux” – the substance you must always use in soldering to facilitate the flow and the bond. Now, that is poetry right there. It’s all about the steps and sequencing. Very instructive stuff on my latest enlightenment journey.

Plus, I walked away with treasures I am proud to own and wear—along with memories of laughter and song. Win-win-win.

Next up: Annealing and Praying . . . don’t you love it?

Penetrating Thin Places

“Pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

– Aeschylus

I’m writing about something different today.  Since my mother’s death, I’ve been thinking about thin places.

“Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer” was the headline of a New York Times article from earlier this year.  The writer highlighted divinely infused places near and far–but added that they need not always be sacred in nature.  One might find an airport, a bar, or your front porch at sunset just as soul inspiring as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

In fact, he held that such significant places may even contain “the confluence of the sacred and the profane”—such as Jerusalem, for instance, combining the timeless profundity of the divine with the historical weight of unending conflict.  And Weiner added, “Getting to a thin place usually requires a bit of sweat. One does not typically hop in a taxi to a thin place, but sometimes you can.”

While I agree with the sweat-equity notion, the actual voyage required can vary significantly—depending on the measure of time, physical distance, heart, mind or soul required.  I have written about the phenomenon of locations as thin places in the past – Mo Ranch and Montreat, the locales that Presbyterians revere so passionately.  Mo Ranch is nestled deep in the heart of the Texas Hill Country on the Guadalupe river and requires  many, many hours in a car (a particularly lengthy trip when traveled with a rambunctious collection of adolescent boys.) And Montreat is cradled in the lush, majestic Black mountains in North Carolina’s remotest wilderness.

Yet in recent months, the thin places I have experienced have been characterized less by place and more by spirit. Curiously, they have been almost ubiquitous—those mystical portals to the realm of the soul—where the gossamer veil that separates us from our Source feels more permeable somehow.

These are places where God’s presence is palpable.

I believe I have been encountering this phenomenon with increased frequency—not because there are more around me—but because I have been graced with their recognition as a means of comfort through an extraordinarily difficult time in my life.

The priest who officiated at my mother’s memorial service in August referenced “a thin place” as he endeavored to placate my family in the poignant moments prior to stepping into the St. Michael’s and All Angels Chapel, where my mother’s public waited.  Father Kevin Huddleston framed it in almost Spielberg-esque  terms—as if we might notice the stained glass windows behind the altar dissolving into a hazy image of heaven—thus providing a glimpse of my mother’s welcome release from pain and earthly struggle as she crossed to the other side.

I deeply appreciate the concept of thin places, but ironically, they have a cumulative weight.

But now I know—the thinnest places of all are not on a hill, in a river, or in church building. They are not behind a stained glass window or on a beach. Don’t get me wrong. These can be small pockets of heaven—true glimpses of the divine creation. But, I now know the thinnest places we can know are in the heart.

Somehow, for most of my 50+ years, I lacked the heart connection I so yearned for with my mother and father. There are many reasons and circumstances around this reality, but they are in the past. This makes the bittersweet gift I received during the last few weeks of my mother’s life even more precious and meaningful.  I literally felt the hand of God in our interactions. Undeniable and visceral. Though her stroke completely destroyed the brain cells responsible for her speech, cognition and movement, she was able to make noises, cast her gaze and react—caught in a physical prison offering few options for more than two and a half years. In the moment with my mom, her state was simultaneously devastating and sublime to witness—truly the confluence of the sacred and profane.

It was pure, raw, authentic spirit– unfettered by any conscious understanding of her paralyzed confinement in a wheelchair. Her essence seemed to transcend her circumstances—the angry bed sores, deep purple bruises and expanding edema that rendered her atrophied limbs almost unrecognizable. Even with the misfiring synapses and unpredictable responses, her heart and soul were discernible.  She could not be squelched or muted. Her life force burst out through her eyes and enlivened her playful, coquettish smile. She reached out to me in a way she never had—expressing volumes in a simple squeeze of her hand.

Swollen, paralyzed, aphasic, and racked with by infection in those final days, my mom was unable to comprehend the world around her in conventional ways. But I was certain I was seeing her soul. My eyes would well with tears as I acknowledged the holy privilege of witnessing my her pure spirit – her unvarnished, unadorned, raw being – her Divinity.

What is this heart connection—this exquisite vulnerability that defies description? It is the unique imperative of our being, and yet, it eludes so many of us in our lives. Who are we – beneath the words, languages, thoughts, and unconscious programming? Who are we behind the artifice of the person we think we are, the person we feel we need to be or the person who we want to be? So often, we seem to allow our fears and the perceptions of  others define us—obscuring who we are at the very core. What a remarkable sight to have seen.

It’s nothing short of a miracle – this very thinnest of places, this glimpse of eternity.

Connecting in Isolation

Montreat, North Carolina

I just returned from four days in a miraculous place— Montreat, North Carolina. The peaceful, picturesque village sits nestled in a perfectly pristine pocket that exemplifies some of God’s finest handiwork. Though the temperature hovered near the single digits, the still, stately Black mountains seemed to envelope the eleven of us like a lush, tonal blanket—sprinkled with glistening stars of ice in the day and shimmering droplets of light in the deep, velvet night.

The event featured many fascinating people, presentations, and workshops—intertwined with personal introspection and self-discovery. It is what many have deemed a “thin place”—a location on earth where the veil separating the spiritual realm and the material world is slightly more diaphanous—perhaps, even permeable at times.

This is a place where hearts hunger and souls search.
It is a place where the emotional epiphanies are as significant at the intellectual insights—where relationships with acquaintances deepen and the murkiness of life’s choices becomes profoundly clear.

But this serene setting was only part of the magic. The Rev Brian Blount, President of Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, a commanding, compassionate presence, proclaimed during the first night’s session, “You are those God has called” to help nurture and guide our youth. And much like Dorothy, who travels to the exotic Emerald City in search of what is missing in her life, I found the most potent wisdom right there among the very people who accompanied me to this remarkable destination. Silly and seasoned; sassy and sweet; sardonic and soothing—these special spirits shared rich truths and many a poignant moment.

I was humbled and honored to be in this eclectic First Presbyterian Church entourage.

Erika Funk, Youth Initiative Minister of Broad Street Church in Philadelphia, spoke about the lack of empathy she sees in so many of our youth. Is the pseudo interaction of texting and IMing developing a false sense of intimacy—impairing our ability to measure, assess, and manage interpersonal communication effectively? Fundamentally, are we losing the ability to truly “be” with people? It’s a disturbing notion. She is concerned that our young people may be stepping back and away from those in need. “I see a fear of the homeless,” she says. She suspects this may be the consequence of this under-developed empathy and increasing personal isolation. It’s as if our powers of observation and understanding are evaporating.

“There are just fewer and fewer instructions for being human,” Funk laments.

That resonated with me. The paradox is chilling. Is our humanity really waning as we mindlessly create more and more ways to connect? ‘Tis a question worth pondering—in many realms of life—especially since turning back the hands of time is not really a viable option. If this “erzatz engagement” is the new reality, perhaps it is time to revise our expectations of interaction. Or, is it? What does it mean to the way we approach and frame our communication—now and in the future?

What are your thoughts? What do you think about the behavior changes media drives?

Peas in a Pod

ElaineGantzWright’s blog is for people interested in using the Web and online marketing to drive social change. Elaine covers social media for nonprofits, philanthropy trends, online giving, cause marketing, random life musings, and more.