The Arena of the Artistic

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a salsa dancing class. I’ll admit that at the time, this “opportunity” felt more like an obligation. It was early in our years in Galveston and Andy and I were subletting a room in our “too large for one couple” rental home to a UTMB exchange student who had recently come to the United States from Poland. Ola wanted to learn everything she could about the United States and we took her along with us to the many places that we went and taught her the basics of life in our seaside town. Her English was pretty rusty and so we spent many afternoons with Ola’s Polish/English dictionary attempting to explain various items in a grocery store or the aspects of getting around. It didn’t take long for Ola to begin making her own friends at school and before we knew it, she was inviting us to activities that she had learned about too.

For weeks, Ola wanted to know if Andy and I would join her in Houston to learn Salsa. The classes were free at a Mexican restaurant in the city on Wednesday nights and Ola was desperate to try. At over an hour away in Houston traffic, I was less than thrilled with the idea of attending this class in the middle of the work week. After weeks of requests however I started to feel an obligation to give Ola the ride she needed to the class and so, on an evening where Andy had to study for a test, she and I headed north to Houston to learn how to salsa dance.

The class was well attended with 20 or so guys and gals ready to learn some beginning dance steps. Two professional male and female dance instructors lined us up on the dance floor in pairs and showed us the first simple steps. Without fail, over the next hour of practice, the instructors would stop us and remind us: “In dance, you must remember this: The man leads, the woman follows.” We would start again only to be stopped soon thereafter. “In dance, the man leads, the woman follows.” Then we would trade partners and start again. We ladies were assured again and again that we could lead in every other facet of human life, (and we absolutely SHOULD, we were told) but on the dance floor, the man leads and the woman follows or the dance doesn’t work.

They said this over and over again for an hour straight because its likely the hardest part of the entire dance. Learning to lead and learning how to follow. This is not necessarily intuitive when you’re trying to express art with your bodies and yet here we were regardless. If you want to learn to dance gracefully you have to learn this basic dance instruction first, regardless of the type of dance class you are practicing.

Midway through salsa class we all stopped to take a break for water and conversation. At this point I was happy to be there, despite general end of the work day weariness. I chatted with Ola and her dance partner and then grabbed some water and wandered to the corner of the dance floor to wait for class to resume. As I turned around, I’ll never forget what I saw I next. The music we’d danced to during class that night remained on and the instructors were using the time to practice their craft. I was stunned. I’m pretty sure my mouth hung wide open. This man and this woman were just so beautiful. I don’t know how else to describe it. The man was strong and confident and, quite frankly, so was the woman. He used his hands to guide their steps and she twirled and swayed with such authority that you wouldn’t have known who was leading and who was following. And I don’t know if it was the lighting or the music or just God turning the experiential volume all the way up but I swear to this day it was one of the loveliest (and dare I say sexiest?!) things I’ve ever seen to date. I just kind of wish you all could have been there to see it too. You would have been blown away.

Ola and I went home that night, tired and warm, inside and out, from a great time out in the city. And to this day, years later, I can’t help but shake what I saw. Two people submitted to their craft in different roles, making art for the world to enjoy.

I don’t really know what it was about that experience that struck so close to my heart that day. Or what to make of the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it to this day, years afterward. I think it was the confidence that both dancers displayed and the fact that I, as an onlooker, didn’t actually know who was “in charge.” Sure, those things were important when these two professionals first started out. Like us baby salsa dancers that night, they too needed to hear over and over again that “the man leads and the woman follows” or their dance career couldn’t move forward. But this couple had clearly moved beyond the basics of dance instruction. They were in the arena of the artistic, and everyone watching them knew it because what we were watching was beautiful.

So what does all this even mean and why can’t I get it off my mind in a time of such sorrow as 2020. I guess I just believe that we people with brains full of smarts and hearts full of desire (which is my audience of readers as I’ve known them to date, btw) are called to make art with the resources we’ve been given. The world is so polarized right now. We’re either pro abortion or anti abortion. We’re pro capitalism or pro socialism. We’re pro healthcare for all or we’re pro private insurance for the few who can afford it. God forbid we recognize that these problems are hardly ever clear cut. God forbid we lean in and ask for a healthy dose of nuance and creativity to solve our problems. It all makes me fear that we’re really more comfortable standing on the sideline attending a lecture about salsa dance or viewing a slideshow of people dancing than we are with strapping on our shoes to give the dance a try for ourselves.

But maybe that’s really the case. Maybe we really are just afraid. If I put on those lenses, things start to make perfect sense. Life is scary and if historically we’ve taken the dance floor only to be laughed at or told we’re too fat/short/skinny/lanky/ugly (insert your own shame story here) to dance then who wouldn’t remain seated and want more information before sticking out their necks. I totally get it and I’d be lying if those things haven’t taken me off the dance floor before too. The hecklers on the sidelines are loud and sometimes its just too hard to hear the music.

I guess in the end though, if we can’t hear the music than we just have to move closer to the speakers. I don’t have the energy to compare myself to others any more. Nor do I want to make a habit of comparing you and your story to mine any more either, so help me God. I really just want to know what it feels like to dance in a way that feels beautiful. And at some point, I happen to know, I’ll get tired of dancing on my own. I like to dance not because I want to know who’s in charge or who needs to follow me but because, dammit, dancing is really just SO. MUCH. FUN. Right?! Of course I’m right. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. Ha!

Its Election day in America and that reality is not insignificant. Leadership matters. The last four years have proved that to be true and I have a certain preference for how this election turns out, thank you very much. But when I wake up tomorrow (or later this week?) and find out who my president is, my plans will not really change all that much. The Lord has given me a body to take care of, a marriage to build up, a family to serve and a community to love with the gifts he’s given me to use and I’m prepared to follow His lead as we step out on the dance floor for the next four years and beyond.

He’s so supremely confident, our God is. He knows exactly what he’s doing. I just really hope my feet can keep up. And I hope you will join us out on the dance floor too. The music here is kickin’ and the people who’ve dropped their guard with me are the most enjoyable and interesting people you’d ever want to meet. We’re in the arena of the artistic and while we don’t always know the next right moves we’re committed to figuring it out with the help of each other and our instructor. I sure hope you’ll join us.

Life is too short to listen to lectures about dance. And looking at photos of other people having fun gets old after a while too. If we’ll be honest with ourselves for once we’ll realize that we all want to lead lives of significance and deep joy. And those things happen in the sweat filled, people packed, awkward but ridiculously fun-filled dance halls in cities and communities across the country. So put your shoes on. Or if you’re like me, take them off! However you show up just show up. Its just really not much of a party unless you show up.

Keep it Together

Keep it Together

By: Courtney Beck

.

How do we keep it together

When the ones we love go missing?

Their physical presence, surely.

But mostly, I’m afraid,

the idea of those we love.

.

What do we do when those go

in the ground too

and we’re tired

and alone

and out of ideas…

.

.

.

.

Hey! I have an idea.

Let’s take this table

stacked high with plans and papers

Let’s flip the whole thing over

Like a god-damn savior, in a temple

Let’s be confident and full of fury

Let’s start to deconstruct

.

I’ll snap pictures as the pieces fall

You’ll expose the film

We can work, together, to determine what to keep

Because I can’t keep it together anymore

And you aren’t keeping it together anymore

.

But I can sound the alarm for our Help

You can offer cover from the smoke

We can drop to the floor with our plans

and crawl out to the tree for safe keeping

.

The flames will die eventually

The smoke will clear eventually

I want you to hold my hand

I want to remember what we’ve loved

.

Because I cannot keep it together

And you cannot keep it together

But Maybe, together,

we can see what’s worth

keeping together.

Running Under Water

running shoes

Dear friends,

I miss you. I miss talking to you. Writing to you. Having a moment even to THINK about you and the things we’ve enjoyed discussing here. There’s just no way around it as I type these words.

This pandemic – and all the things that led up to it and all the things that are exposed by it -its all so hard. We are such vulnerable people, are we not?

Recently, I heard a quote from a book that is just the little granule of light and life and wisdom that I want to push forward into the world today. And, I’ll be frank here, every day of my whole entire life.

In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says this:

“One night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God and what I was supposed to do with my life.”

God said, ‘anything that pleases you.’ 

‘What?’ I said, resorting to words again. ‘What kind of an answer is that?

‘Do anything that pleases you,’ the voice in my head said again, ‘and belong to Me.’

Friends, I honestly think this is what I was put on this earth to hear. And then to share.

I told a friend recently, that if I were to die tomorrow, I would want it to be said that Courtney “went after what she wanted.” And I think she knew what I was saying. I think she knows me well enough to know that what I want had surely better be wrapped up in capital “J” Joy or I’m not interested. Joy, in my experience, is a settled and confident delight. Joy is worth fighting for every time. And joy, at least for me, is grounded in the love of a whole-hearted parent or spouse who understands his beloved from the inside out enough to say: “Go do what you feel led to do. Just stay connected to me while you do it.”

There’s a part of me that grows irritated as I consider these things during a worldwide pandemic. I know in my bones that this way of living is what we were created for, and yet so much of the living of it feels like trying to run underwater in these difficult days. Every single thing is difficult. No tiny thing is easy. What gives?

I don’t really have any good answers right now other than an inkling somewhere up in the foggy distance that there are people in the world right now who don’t understand what its like to truly belong, to God or to people. And they don’t understand what its like to belong because its taken a pandemic to realize that they’ve lived among people their entire lives and are suddenly unbearably alone and unknown. Its the kind of alone that can happen in a room full of people. The kind of alone that only God can expose (now, at large, through a pandemic) and that only God can start to fix (through his extraordinary means of grace).

So, while I don’t really have any choice, I do think this makes all this running underwater a potentially valuable strength building exercise for me, and perhaps most importantly, for my community. Maybe we’re just building the strength to hope. Maybe we’re just building the strength to trust this difficult process. And maybe we’re just building the strength and muscle that we’ll need when this crisis finally passes over us and we can start to build our communities back up again. Maybe this time it will be a little more joyful and a little more communal. Maybe this time we’ll know what its like to belong to God and to each other. Maybe this time we truly will be able to do what pleases us with full confidence and great delight because we will belong to the Lord and each other so fully that we won’t have to suspect each other any more. We can just live freely, together, in pursuit of the good things God wants to show us.

Maybe this is all a little naive and its likely good and proper to remain realistic.  But I don’t think I’m aiming for utopia. I understand our human condition a little too well at this point to shoot for that. I think its just that I happen to know what pleases me and what it feels like, if only in moments and brief seasons of my life, to belong to Him. And what compassionate person wouldn’t want that for her neighbors if they could have it too in this difficult and lonely year?

So each morning this fall, I’ll put on my shoes and my suit and wade into the proverbial pool for the workout this season requires. I don’t really get it. I thought we were ready to fly in 2020, I really did. There have been times, and there will be more, when I’ve wanted to pull the plug on this whole endeavor. But God has other plans and I’m willing to stay in the gym if it means we can throw a few more friends into this boat we’re building at the end. I don’t really know what its going to look like when we’re done. I’ll just hold onto the hope that its what we would have wanted if we’d known we could have had it this way in the first place.

Be well,

Courtney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry: This Easter Pilgrim’s Prayer

IMG_6181

This Easter Pilgrim’s Prayer

By: Courtney Beck

 

To the Lord of the life I’ve always wanted:

On our walk to the empty school last week

I passed the oak tree the workers had cut down

the week before. We watched them do it

my kids and I. We had hurried quickly by in

fact, to avoid the noise of the chainsaws and the

cars that distracted us from Springtime pinks and greens

we felt sure would unfold before us, just for us.

 

We hustled to the abandoned school

But the workers were there too, cutting

the grass in perfect lines that would, for a minute,

absorb my daughter’s heart as she sang to the

walls and the bees and her baby brother.

And for that minute we were all so blissfully

unaware of that oak tree up the road,

cut to the root for no apparent reason

but that it’s life was in the way of someone’s progress.

 

Our apartment is too cramped and the school,

we now know, is too empty and so

I’m left wondering how you intend to help us?

The children are clamoring, the chainsaw’s roared to life

and we lie down like dead oak trees with the sap

dripping down the record of our endurance.

We wait in dimmed and depressed concern for that

life we’ve always wanted

but found cut down, cut back and left for dead.

 

It must rise from the earth someway, somehow

like the Springtime, just for us.

And also for these children at this

empty school who would surely sing about the trees

if they came to life before their very eyes.

If they came to life despite us.

If they came to life like a miracle,

just for us.

Whats Saving Your Life Right Now?

ring picture

Greetings All!

I hope everyone is muddling through alright in these crazy times…One of my favorite Christian podcasters is the hilarious Jen Hatmaker, who quotes Barbara Brown Taylor at the end of each of her interviews with the following question: “What’s saving your life right now?”

As I attempt to find a few spare brain cells amidst the chaos that is two children under 4 amidst a pandemic (WHY?!), I wanted to share some resources that have “saved my life” in the past as I’ve dealt with anxiety. These are anxious times and I think its a rare person that doesn’t need some additional support to make it through. Here are some helpful resources!

Mindfulness Resources:

Mindfulness is a trend that I think should stick around for the foreseeable future. These practices help us to stay in the present moment with our thoughts rather than race ahead to an unforeseeable future.

Sarah Bessey’s “Breath” Prayers – prayer can be a mindful experience. I appreciate Sarah Bessey’s take on this.

The Headspace App – This Phone app saved my life a few years ago, when I had a job that I felt I could not handle. Every day at lunch I would do my 10 minutes of mindfulness and it would help me get centered again for the second half of the day. I still just use the free trial version and find it so centering.

Counseling Resource:

One of my mother’s wisest sayings sticks with me to this day: “Don’t be cheap with your mental health.” I think this is one of my top five lessons from my mom and I pass that along to you in the form of a connection to my personal counselor, Janice McWilliams. Janice has offered herself as a resource to my readers in the form of “virtual counseling” if you live in the Maryland area. If you DO NOT live in the Maryland area, you can reach out to her for a one on one virtual “anxiety assessment” OR you can purchase her new course that she has just released TODAY that will help you specifically manage anxiety during this pandemic. Y’all, Janice is the best. Reach out to her if you need a partner or download her course.

Spiritual Resources: 

Sunday Services: The Village Church of East Atlanta (my home church) is doing a virtual Sunday service each week during the pandemic. We “attended” last Sunday morning from the comfort of our home and found it quite edifying. All are welcome this Sunday morning! Just log in here from your couch.

Sermons worth Listening to: There are dozens of pastors out there that will be helpful to you in your journey. I think though that in a time like this, you cannot go wrong with Pastor Tim Keller from New York City. Many of his sermons are posted on his podcast page located here.  I like to listen to sermons when I’m doing chores around the house and I think you will find Keller’s teaching insightful, encouraging and enlightening. Have a listen! It’s like listening to a wise grandfather speak directly to your heart.

Bible Study: I have been studying the book of Isaiah for lent, and I am amazed at how incredibly timely this has been. If you are the “studious” type, I’d highly recommend Ray Ortlund’s study of the book. It can be a bit heady but I have found it quite instructive for this Pandemic!

Book Study: Last year my friend Heather and I studied the book of Jeremiah, thanks to a book entitled “Run with the Horses” by Eugene Peterson. Frankly, any book by Peterson is a gem, but I REALLY enjoyed this one. It was an engaging read that explained the book of Jeremiah well for people who are not theologians. That would be most of us. Highly recommend!

These are the things that are coming to mind this lovely Friday. I hope you find them helpful. So, what’s saving MY life right now? Well, at this very moment, my husband is. He’s attempting to work from home with our two children while I sit in our empty church office and write to you fine people. Truthfully, we are exhausted by the needs of our tiny people right now and we are doing our best to handle this thing well. There’s just no getting around the difficulty though.

Additionally, though, what’s often saved my life is a statement that Janice shared with me eons ago that I come back to again and again: “It takes a 100,000 mindful moments to create a new neural pathway in the brain.”

Folks, our brains and our societies have tread some strange ground in recent decades. We have become more like widget counting robots than the creative humans we were meant to be. I think the pains we are enduring now are opportunities to tread some NEW ground. It’s taken 100,000 tiny acts of faith for me to trust that God knows what he’s doing. Its taken 100,000 breath prayers for me to not panic at every possible assault to a peaceful mind. Its taken 100,000 podcasted sermons for me to form a knowledge base for the way God works in the world and with his people. And its taken 100,000 Sunday services for me to realize that the people of God are my people and the house of God is where I will find the strength to do what the Lord has called me to do.

The actions we take over and over again create pathways for change. What are the things you can be doing with your heart, mind and body, over and over again, to create changes that bring you and the world some joy? Let’s start creating environments of spiritual, mental and physical health, even in our quarantined spaces. 100,000 moments from now, we may turn around and realize that we are different than we were before.

With love,
Courtney