The Masters | Anguish and Gratitude: Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers with Heart

Vincent Van Gogh. “Three Sunflowers in a Vase.” Oil on Canvas. August, 1888, Arles. United States. Private Collection.

I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you with all the sunflower goodness this week. Sadly, we’re just two more posts away from the end of “Sunflower Month.”

I am clearly intrigued by the approach of the masters to the sunflower. Many of them seem to have been as taken with its luminescent beauty as I am. I am in no way an artist like the masters featured all week, but sunflowers are certainly the most doodled flower in my journals, sketchbooks, and letters.

When I began this final week of “Sunflower Month,” I had intended to do only three posts, but I got a little carried away because there were more than three sunflower masters in my collection. My favorite, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch Post-Impressionist, was always on the list. Let’s consider the “sunflower tree” a bonus post, because this week of masters will not be complete without attention to his still life sunflower series—especially with the final masters post I have in mind. 😉

Vincent Van Gogh. “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers.” Oil on Canvas. August 1888, Arles. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

From 1888-1889, van Gogh completed seven sunflower still life masterpieces in the studio he shared with Paul Gaugin in Arles, France. He had intended to fill the walls with their brilliance before Gaugin’s arrival. The two featured above are in my postcard collection, thanks to Debbie T, my Love Notes pal (Twelve Sunflowers), and Eepy on swap-bot (Three Sunflowers).

There are four others in the Sunflower Series that were completed in 1887 in Paris. One of them–Four Cut Sunflowers (below)– took my breath away the first time I saw it!

Vincent Van Gogh. Allotment with Sunflower, Paris, July 1887. Oil on Canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

In a letter to his sister Willemien, van Gogh writes:

[…] the desire comes over me to remake myself and try to have myself forgiven for the fact that my paintings are, however, almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflower.  (Letter 856)

Perhaps this tension explains why van Gogh’s “still life” sunflowers are anything but “still.” Each sunflower–in the vases or cut and wilting on a table–is full of personality, life, and movement. Each evokes an emotional response.

I read somewhere that van Gogh wanted to be remembered for his brilliant sunflowers (goal accomplished!) and that people honored his desire by wearing sunflowers to his funeral.

What a radiant sendoff!

Like the Heart

Let me seek You
in the darkness
of my silence

and find You
in the silence
of Your light.

which is
love shining
like the sun

flowing
like a river
and joying

like the heart

Meister Eckhart | Sweeney and Burrows

The Masters | John Bratby’s Sunflowers

John Bratby, Sunflowers I, Oil on Canvas

For our final week of Sunflower Month we will survey a few sunflower masterpieces–works of the sunflower masters that leave us in awe. We cannot possibly feature all the masters, so we will focus on [some of] those who are featured in my personal “sunflower collection.”

The sunflower art above is featured on the cover of Book of the Heart, so it is perfect for our first post of the week. The oil painting was one of many sunflower paintings by English artist John Bratby (1928-1992), best known for his central role in the Kitchen Sink School of Art, a style of realism active in London between 1952 and 1957.

We have reached the point in the pandemic at which we are all overwhelmed, anxious, and restless, so I will be sharing with this week’s sunnies selections from Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for a Restless Soul. In this collection Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows “attempt to [re]voice” the mystic’s thoughts. I hope the posts brighten your days (sunflowers) and stills your soul (Eckhart).

“Sometimes You Have to Break Things”
Meister Eckhart | Sweeney and Burrows

It’s true:
Sometimes you have
to break things
if you want
to grasp God in them.
In the breaking,
we allow what is holy
to take form
in us.  

Be sure to click the links to learn more about Bratby and his art and be sure to join us for more, more, more brilliant masterpieces!

Sunflowers & Snippets | In This Very Moment…

Suzette's Sunflowers

I am back with another “Write Together” snippet. This piece was written in response to the prompt “In this very moment…”

In this very moment I am excited by the possibilities of who I am becoming. I am shedding the old casing, tossing aside ideas and versions of myself that no longer serve who I am in this moment or who I am becoming. Up to now, what has made giving up the former self so difficult is that she was good. She was organized, oh-so-together, and well-equipped for the journey—that bygone journey for a me that is skipping into the past of known worlds. This present me spends a lot of time in overwhelming chaos because transformation is not neat and tidy. It’s messy, confusing, and sometimes traumatic. But I’m learning not to fight it. I’m learning to partner with it in a new dance, a new becoming. I see glimpses of this new person. I can’t wait to meet her.  –Chandra Lynn, Write Together, 01.25.21


About the Image: Today’s gorgeous sunflowers were crafted by my Love Notes friend, Suzette R of Desert Blue Sky. She sent the oversized postcard because of my love for sunflowers and my enthusiastic response when she posted them on Facebook. Like many of us, Suzette is also processing grief. Part of her healing this year has been in planting and growing in her garden. Check out two more sunflowers from her garden: Here and here.

Sunflowers and Truth | Hard, Hard Truth

“Birthday Sunflowers” by Christine B.

Today’s truth comes from Grounded Spirituality by author and teacher, Jeff Brown. The short version: Take care of you. Do the work to “deal with your stuff.” It’s hard. It’s continual, but it’s worth it. Your past will no longer control your attitudes or behavior. 

Sunflower by Christine Brooks
“Sunflower Pair” by Christine B.

It’s up to you–it’s always up to you. You can deny, repress, distort, and bury your unresolved wounds all you want. You can reframe them, pseudo-positivity them, detach from them, bypass them. You can rename yourself, hide away in a monastery, turn your story around.  And you can spend all your money on superficial healing practices and hocus-pocus practitioners. But it won’t mean a [darn] thing if you don’t do the deeper work to excavate and heal your primary wounds. The material is still there, right where you left it, subconsciously ruling your life and controlling your choices. This is the nature of unhealed material–it is alive, and one way or the other, it will manifest itself in your lived experience. It will language your inner negative. It will obstruct your path and limit your possibilities. It lives everywhere that you live. And so you have to decide–excavate it and bring it into consciousness where it can be worked through an integrated; or repress it and watch it rule your life. It’s one of the hardest truths we have to face: if we don’t deal with our stuff, it deals with us. There is no way around this. Choose.

–Jeff Brown, Grounded Spirituality
Sunflower by Sheila Delgado
“Sunflower Trio” by Sheila D.

About the Images: The hard pill of today’s post deserves three cheerful sunflower watercolors. The sunflowers are brought to you by my friend and Love Noter, Christine B. She sent the top watercolor  with two more beautiful pieces of art for my birthday (10.02). She sent the other two earlier this year–just because. The final piece is a regifted watercolor, the work of my friend, Sheila D. I’m sending love, light, and many hugs to Christine as she prepares to memorialize her mom next week. [If you’re reading on a mobile device or tablet, click the images to view full images in Flickr].

Sunflowers and Truth | #truthbombs

Martha Slavin Sunflower

Are you familiar with Danielle LaPorte’s #truthbombs? On 4×4 white cards–in beautiful black script–LaPorte offers pithy bits of wisdom, encouragement, and in-your-face truth. Every now and then, I pull a random card out the elegant encasement, and think, “Whew! Now, that’s a word!” The cards offer perfect journaling prompts and discussion starters. [Click the link above for more information, see sample #truthbombs, and download the app. For the record, this is not an ad]. 

Before heading to work yesterday, I grabbed a handful of random #truthbombs from their box and dropped them on my bag. I thought they would complement the sunflowers I’d planned to share on the blog, but yesterday did not turn out as I planned: By 9:00 a.m., I was annoyed with no less than three people. By 10:00, the number had increased to five. By 1:00, I had a searing headache that made me want to pack up and go home. When I finally arrived home just after 5:00, I wanted only my bed and a good book. When today began to feel like yesterday, a couple of short walks and three of the #truthbombs became the medicine I needed:

  • Notice how you feel
  • Defend your tenderness
  • Compassion is so often the solution

Those three sentences “can preach,” as they say. For me, they were a call to pay attention to my responses.

Yesterday, I was extremely disturbed by individuals who acted selfishly and lacked compassion. When it comes down to it, this was no different than any other day. Almost every day I encounter people who look out for themselves and show little regard for others unless they can benefit in some way. Of course, by the end of the day, I’d pretty much gotten over it and pushed the experience out of my mind. I realized I had to cut those folk some slack. They are human after all, and like me, they deserve room to be just that–human–and perhaps there were good reasons for what I considered their not acting with the decency I expected under the circumstances. 

But I was still bothered by my own reaction: Why was my response so different? Why did I allow myself to become so uncharacteristically entangled with other individuals’ attitudes and behavior? And why am I again feeling out of sorts and bothered?

Annoying people, gloomy weather, frustration over lecture notes I can’t find. All of that is superficial, the easy things to focus on because the real thing–the underlying thing–is big and scary and too much to handle at the beginning of a packed work week. The #truthbombs were a reminder to pay attention to my feelings and not just stop there. I had to get to the root. And I did.

I miss my sister. Her birthday is tomorrow. There will be no celebration. 

Thankfully, the sunflower provides light…in the darkness of the cave in which I have to dwell for a moment. 


About the Image: The watercolor sunflower is the work of my Love Notes friend, Martha S. She was one of my exchange partners in Louise Gale’s Global heART exchange. It was a pleasant surprise to find a postcard from one of my snail mail regulars in my mailbox. Thanks for this gorg sunflower, Martha! It has brightened my days and will soon find its place my the sunflower wall. 

Dream Week | The Rock

Dream-1

Last week, in the middle of the agonizing, true-to-its reputation Monday morning, I dropped by the Associate Registrar’s office to get clarification on a particular policy. While there, I noticed the cutest tiny Zen garden. I was drawn to the sand and calming turquoise, but I fixated on the rock that held the word “dream.” An hour or so later, I sent my friend Cy a text telling her I needed to take a mental break and write a blog post, but I hadn’t decided on a theme for the week. She suggested that I do a Dream Week. Her suggestion confirmed what the “dream rock” was trying to tell me, so here we are—a week later—hosting “Dream Week” on Pics and Posts. 

If you had asked me about my dreams a couple of years ago, I might have told you I have none–if I were being honest. I came to this realization early one morning while reflecting on a statement from Howard Thurman’s “The Inward Sea,” the first section of Meditations of the Heart:

Keep alive the dream; for as long as a [wo]man has a dream in his [her] heart, [s]he cannot lose the significance of living.

I asked myself, “What are my dreams?”

Crickets.

Nothing stirred inside, and I felt like a hollow vessel.

I thought, “Have I achieved so much in life? Am I so perfectly content that there’s no need for dreams? Or have I fallen so far down the “well of despair” that I could no longer muster up the courage to dream?” 

I could have psyched myself into believing that I had no dreams per se because I’d worked my dreams into plans and plans into action. But I knew that would be cute, but not true.

I was troubled. I once had deep, colorful, audacious dreams. Where were those dreams?

The question unsettled me; for I knew without dreams I was merely existing, and that was not enough living for me. 

Then, the more critical question emerged. Why had I stopped dreaming? After I took the time to soul-search, I arrived at the answers:

I had stopped dreaming because I was afraid to dream. I had stop dreaming because I was grieving loss after loss after loss, and while I had to function on all fronts in my outer life, in the inner life I could lay it all down and no one would know. I had stopped dreaming because I was wounded and “stretched out” while I processed the blows that took me down. I had stopped dreaming because there were too many disappointments and too many devastating realities.

I had stopped dreaming so I could pour all my energy into surviving. 

It took some doing—an additional year or so of soul work—for me to trust life enough to really dream again and to know that my dreams can be as boundless and wild as my imagination allows. 

I don’t have any solid plans for this Dream Week, but that’s the nature of dreams. Join me, and let’s see where the dreams take us. 

Just Being.

Colleen Persimmon

Sometimes just being needs space to relax. It needs time to pause from the pressure of living up to the duties and expectations of a rigid framework, or rest from showing up in full armor every day to protect a tender internal truth.

Colleen Blueberries-2

Or sometimes just being needs to cry and feel into coarse emotions for a while.

Colleen Blackberries-2

Whatever it takes for all the layers of what has built up inside begin to unwrap the gift you truly are, deep within, just being. —Susan Frybort


About the Images: The photographs in this post were all shot a few days ago in a moment of “just being.” The ripening persimmon, blueberries, and blackberries are just a few of the treats growing in Colleen’s garden–recently renamed [by me] “Colleen’s Private Farm and Botanical Garden.” Her father spends time in this garden planting and cultivating and just being–a reminder of the beauty that can be produced when we create space to just be.

#ThursdayTreeLove (But It’s Friday) | Between Water and Trees

Joe Wheeler State Park-1

For I [fully] satisfy the weary soul, and I replenish every languishing and sorrowful person. —Jeremiah 31:25

I spent four days this week working, resting, and resetting in a tiny bit of heaven—between water and trees—at Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville, Alabama.

I resisted this work “retreat” because it was…well…more work, and I already had a long list of tasks that wouldn’t get done if I spent time there. My internal tantrums were driving me nuts, so I took a moment to whisper a prayer and ask God to help me change my attitude.

By the last morning, I had to apologize to God for my earlier grumbling. The mornings were work-intensive, but fun and interactive, which is my preferred method of collaborating. I am not a fan of long, long meetings, but I don’t mind getting down to business and doing the work.

Thanks to careful planning, this was the first time (for me) a “work retreat” actually felt like a retreat. I enjoyed the morning meditations, spiritual gems dropped throughout the sessions, the time spent in work groups, and getting to know my brilliant colleagues in a different way.

Most of our afternoons were spent in leisure and recreation, so I was even able to work some of the “long list” referenced earlier.

It rained most of our time there–offering a soothing, steadying rhythm, perfect for the contemplative soul. However, the weather did not hinder encounters with nature. I was able to participate in a two-mile nature hike, deer watch (deer post coming soon), and enjoy the sweet tweets of baby birds as I walked the breezeway from my room to meeting spaces.

Joe Wheeler State Park-3

I had time to sit, write, and think on a balcony with a gorgeous view of Wheeler Lake and time to spend with Sylvia G, one of my dearest friends who has known me since I was a child!

I did not realize the full impact of limited movement for 15 consecutive months on my mental and emotional state until I was able to spend significant time away from my home and campus. My being positioned between all that luscious nature offered the respite I needed to clear some of the cobwebs and move some thoughts forward.

If you know just a little about me, you know I find in trees my most experienced counselors. You also may know that something stirs excitedly inside this NOLA girl–who grew up down the street from the Mississippi River–whenever I am near any body of water.

Joe Wheeler State Park-2b

I’ve been languishing [see previous post]. Of course, the retreat was not planned for me, but God knew I needed a strong dose of therapy, that I needed to be situated between water and trees to truly rest, reset, and hear His voice clearly.

He always delivers, even when I’m standing in my own way.


I am joining Parul Thakur for #ThursdayTreeLove every second and fourth Thursday of the month. If you would like to play along, post a picture of a tree on your blog and link it back to her latest #treelove post.

Are You Languishing Too?

2021-06-09_151738The school year ended for my son last Wednesday. We have been looking forward to “the end” almost since the beginning. This pandemic year has been hard for everyone, and even though I’m still very much engaged in the daily grind, a tremendous weight has been lifted because at least my son can breathe a little easier and hopefully recuperate “enough” before August.

Some weeks ago, as I listened to Dr. Anita Phillips’ podcast, In the Light, she “hit a nerve.” As she introduced the episode “Beautiful Things,” I heard the word languishing and listened a little more closely:

It is a stealthy emotion […]. It sneaks up on you little by little […]. It is really easy to miss. The feeling of languishing is one of stagnation and emptiness […].

Phillips, a trauma therapist, also referenced a New York Times article, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing:”

Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

I backtracked and listened to that part over and over.

Languishing.

Is this why I have little interest in doing things I usually enjoy? Is this why it seems I’m working all.the.time but have little to show for it by the end of the day? Why I don’t feel like cooking or cleaning? Why sometimes my brain seems completely devoid of thought?

I know I am not depressed, but I feel out of sorts and disconnected from my usual rhythms.

Languishing.

The word perfectly describes the state I’m in and the state of others with whom I’ve spoken recently about their mental and emotional state during this phase of the pandemic.

We once flourished; now we’re doing our best if we can climb out of bed in the morning. Of course, there are ways to combat this state of being, but for me, it really comes down to the very thing expressed in a Washington Post title on the same subject.

“We all need a break.”

We need time to take care of our mental health and process what we’ve just gone through and what we’ve come through. We need time to grieve the losses and celebrate the gains. We also need time to look ahead and dream of the possibilities once we are truly post-pandemic.

Is that doable right now when we’re barely doing life?

The whole thing is “a lot,” as some say, so it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the “too much” of it. But we must pay attention and we must deal with our languishing because as the NYT article points out, languishing, in some ways, may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness. Furthermore, as Dr. Phillips emphasized in her podcast, “the mental health impact [of this moment] will far outlast our return to physical safety,” so we must take the time now to “honestly identify and name how [we] are feeling.”

I have many coping strategies [journalingcreatingshutting down technologylisting, sleeping, spending time with trees, and praying], but I am taking Dr. Phillips’ advice of identifying and naming, expressing my feelings, and spending time with those I love. Additionally, because confronting the mental and emotional chaos can be all-consuming, I am processing in small moments. The few minutes while doing the dishes. The walk from building to building while running errands on campus. The half hour or so spent grocery shopping. Whenever I can find even just a moment of quiet, I take the time to process, to exhale, and to heal.

I pray you’re doing the same.


Note: I am not a psychologist or therapist, so I encourage you to read the articles and listen to the podcast linked in this post for more information, tips, and tools for dealing with this mental health challenge–and of course, seek professional counsel should you feel your issues are much larger than you can handle without help.

About the Image: The image above features the artwork of illustrator and designer Eunji Jung. It was this bit of gorgeousness that “introduced” me to my new Love Notes pal, Kathi G. I admired the postcard after another Love Noter posted it in the group, and Kathi kindly sent one my way. Thanks, Kathi!

I Can…

Earlier today I had a conversation with one of my students. She was having a moment—one of those moments when getting out of bed is difficult and facing the day feels impossible. I’ve been having those days quite a bit lately. In fact, today was one of those days.

I felt it as soon as I forced myself out of bed at 5:09. It hung over me like a heavy weight while I showered. It stuck “in my craw” while I prayed and journaled. It slowed me down as I dressed and packed my bags and offered all the reasons to hide under the covers and try again tomorrow. But, of course, being an adult, I had little choice but to “suck it up” and face the day.

It’s not anything in particular that places us in these “ugh” moments. It’s the accumulation of “life stuff.” Our operating in a pandemic for the last year certainly doesn’t help—the isolation from those we love, the death toll, the uptick in technology use. It’s downright wearying. It’s depressing, and we have to do everything we can to take care of ourselves and avoid slipping into a deep well of despair.

I told my student to get out of bed, open her curtains, let some light in her room, seek counsel, and meditate over scripture. I shared with her on those days when I feel like I just.can’t.do.life, I repeat over and over and over again the only Bible verse I have the energy for—

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. —Philippians 4:13

I can. She can. You can. And we wake up the next morning, realizing, we’ve survived another one of those moments.


About the Image: My Love Notes friend, Arielle W, sent the sunflower above for International Women’s Day 2021. She sent it with IWD wishes and a cheerful spring greeting. What a beautiful way to begin the week!