Art as Practice

Sunday before last we started a class in botanical drawing, which promises to be a delight.  I have done drawing on and off since I was very young, but never pursued it with any discipline.  I have never pursued nature with much discipline, either, rambling and enjoying distant views and small details equally.  I have tried to capture violets, moss, lichen, bark patterns, and other detail with a camera.  When I saw this class offered, I thought that it would let me both capture the beautiful detail I enjoy outdoors, and learn to really see it.

Our teacher, Ann Payne, teaches at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, but lives in Morgantown and is offering this class in the WVU Community Arts program for the first time.

An artist commented on yesterday’s practice post that artists, too, refer to their work as a practice.  The drawing class is very much so.  Our first class and homework was gray scales – filling in one-inch squares with graduated shades of gray, using three different pencils.  Our second class and homework was filling in one-by-six inch squares with graduated shades of gray.  It demands total attention to what appears on the surface, and in some ways really is, a very simple task.

Ann Payne says, to her classes, as in the video, that anyone can learn to do this; it doesn’t take talent, it just takes practice.


1 a : carry out, apply <practice what you preach> b : to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually <practice politeness> c : to be professionally engaged in <practice medicine>
2 a : to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient <practice the act> b : to train by repeated exercises <practice pupils in penmanship>

I have been doing  insight meditation as part of the Winter Feast for the Soul, and in the talks at the beginning, “practice” comes up often.  Meditation is an important practice in many types of Buddhism, as it is in some parts of Christianity and other religions.  Mindfulness, paying attention to what is happening each moment, is another practice especially associated with Buddhism, but which can be found in Christianity, also.  Prayer is, of course, a practice, as is worship.

I grew up in a part of Christianity, the American Baptist church, which had very few practices.  Study of religion in Sunday School was one, Sunday morning worship, daily individual prayers, and in our family, a daily brief reading and prayer as a family, and grace before meals.  Beyond this, there was not particular guidance on how to live daily life, beyond the Ten Commandments, which tell you what not to do, and Jesus’s overriding command to love, which is not specific.

Like many others in the 60s, I discovered Buddhism in college, and thought about meditation and mindfulness, but didn’t really practice.  Starting my own household, there were a few things I started doing that I meant to put my beliefs into practice: being vegetarian for a while, and then eating little meat; using cloth napkins and sponges instead of paper napkins and towels; composting and recycling; trying to eat “real”, natural and whole foods; living simply.  When I was a new mother and a branch librarian in a Jewish neighborhood, I became fascinated with Jewish household books, which give detailed instructions on not just keeping kosher, which most non-Jews have heard of,  but the many other lesser-known aspects of traditional and Orthodox Jewish life I didn’t know about. I was envious of Jews, who have developed rituals and prayers for everyday acts, to continually remind of the sacred.

We added a few family rituals, lighting candles for family dinners and saying grace.  We tried to add nothing to our lives that was not useful or beautiful, preferably both.  We tried to be outdoors and really see nature often.  But I think now there was not as much real practice as there might have been.  Now that I have more time to explore and to practice, I am trying several different practices, which I will be sharing a bit about here.

Why I Am Not Retired

I’m not retired; I’m just not currently working for money.

All the definitions of “retired” and “retirement” are something like

2 : withdrawn from one’s position or occupation : having concluded one’s working or professional career

I have retired from the employ of the State of Texas.  I am very pleased that my work there has earned me enough, including a pension and health care coverage, that I can get along without paid employment.  But I have not withdrawn from my occupation (if only I could figure out exactly what it is) and I certainly haven’t concluded my working career.

I have been contemplating exactly what one’s obligation is in the way of contributions to the world.  There is the Buddhist “live simply so that others may simply live” and the very American ethic that new, more, bigger, is everything and we all need to work to improve things as much as physically possible (or more).  I am on the simple end of the spectrum, but every once in a while I have a fleeting moment of panic.  What if everyone thought that way – wouldn’t we all still be living in caves?  Of course, if we all felt that way, we would be perfectly happy living in caves, enjoying our roots, berries, the occasional rabbit, and the moon coming up in the evenings.

I’m Back

I had plenty to say, and then, suddenly, I didn’t – or saying it well seemed to be too hard.  Several of the bloggers I follow talked about quitting last week, and two of them actually did.  We started a botanical drawing class and regular workouts at the Y last week.  My daily meditations for the Winter Feast for the Soul were getting harder.  And there was snow.

The snow was beautiful, and our roads were clear enough that we had no trouble getting out.  But we didn’t see the sun for several weeks and I think everyone was down.


One of the professors on my doctoral committee at the University of Chicago was quite thoroughly a city boy. He was Jewish, grew up in Brooklyn, played the violin and had a Ph.D. in physics.  (I could just see him, a skinny little kid in thick glasses and a yarmulke, trundling along the city streets with his violin case.)  I can still see his face when I told him I was taking a job in Tennessee.  He said “How can you move to Tennessee – you won’t even be able to get croissants there.”  I told him only God could make a tree and I could certainly make my own croissants. After only three years, I was tired of the endless limestone, cement, and flatness of Chicago, even though we lived a few blocks from a park on Lake Michigan.

I had baked a good bit in West Virginia, including making my own tortillas and bagels, before I went to Chicago.  Once in Tennessee, I found a recipe in Bon Appetit and made croissants, just to prove I could.  They were a tremendous amount of trouble – all that folding, rolling out, chilling, etc.  Once we moved to Austin,  there were bakery croissants again, most recently at the Upper Crust, two blocks from our house.  But we mostly lived without them.

But – pain au chocolate, chocolate croissants, that is a different story.  The bakery in Chicago did not have them. Those were the days before filled croissants were fashionable, in any case.  I had read about the French bread with chocolate; it seemed odd, but then…  In any case, at some point chocolate croissants showed up at Texas French Bread, an Austin institution which was also the first place I ever had scones.  Later, they became a standard treat on Sunday mornings, from Upper Crust.  Here in Clarksburg, you can get them at Panera’s, which is conveniently on the way to the place we thought was the only place to get the Sunday New York Times. A while back, we realized we weren’t really reading much of the paper, and the croissants weren’t that good, so we have done without both lately.

Then I saw this post on How To Make Chocolate Croissants Without Taking An Entire Day on Jellypress (which I highly recommend).  I picked up a couple of bars of good bittersweet chocolate Tuesday (senior citizen’s day at Kroger’s ;-) and got with the plan.  It was easy, not nearly as much work as I remembered, and the steps are spread out over four days, each taking half an hour or so.  Yesterday I finished up and froze a dozen, leaving four out to bake for the two of us this morning  (it was a Valentine’s treat, after all) .

They were indeed a treat; better than bakery, if I do say so myself.  And there are enough in the freezer for another month of Sundays!

If you go over to Jellypress and try these, there are a couple of things I would do differently.  First, these were so buttery we almost couldn’t taste the chocolate.  Next time, I’ll try just two sticks of butter instead of three.  Second, the recipe doesn’t specify unsalted butter.  Use unsalted butter, or don’t add salt.  Finally, I cut the dough in half for the final roll-out, because my bread board wasn’t big enough for a 15×20 rectangle.  After rolling out 15×10, I realized I had cut the wrong dimension in half, so I just cut it in half the short way and quarters the other (for pieces 5×3 3/4).  This also gave me 16 instead of 15, which worked out better with the 8 squares of chocolate in a bar.  (And Robert and I won’t have to argue about the odd croissant.)

And Ye Shall Know the Truth

or not.  The West Virginia Board of Education is currently debating curriculum guidelines for high school environmental science courses. Part of the discussion included whether teachers needed a background in social studies or debate to teach it.  Staff said science certification was needed “because the courses involve a hands-on lab.” Notice it is not because environmental science is actually science and not social studies or politics.

State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine said a balance must be struck on issues related to the environment and coal.

“There are tremendous occupations out there that involve environmental education,” he said.

On the other hand, he said, “we rely on coal to fund education in a major way.”

as reported in The Charleston Gazette

Apparently what is best for the coal companies is more important than teaching facts or preparing students for jobs, but I’m a little surprised that the Superintendent of Schools would actually say it on the record.

In Defense of Government Bureaucracy (Sort of)

I did summer stints on the sweater factory line and as a waitress and one Christmas season as a dime store clerk.  My father, as his father and grandfather before him, was a watchmaker and had a small jewelry store; I worked for him clerking, inventorying, gift-wrapping, and doing minor clock repairs.  I spent half a year once working for a professional organization.  Otherwise, I was a government employee.  For the last few years I had management who had come from the private sector, which of course they maintained was far superior.  And for my entire career, I had to listen to friends and acquaintances bash government.  This, of course, was never specific to a particular agency or situation, as the little criticism of business and industry was; all government was de facto inefficient and ineffective, if not evil and corrupt.

So it was refreshing to see this essay on bureaucracy, which points out that bureaucracy is bureaucracy, no matter who funds it.

Meanwhile, walk in the kitchen and turn on your tap.  Look out your window.  Is traffic moving? Is anything on fire? Are the buildings intact? Are  there gunmen in the street?  Thank your governments, federal, state, and local. The private sector didn’t provide any of that, and what the private sector is able to provide depends on the governments, which are only organizations we have created to coordinate our society.

We sometimes forget in our complaining about government that there are many places in the world where there is not a government that functions well enough to provide even minimal health and safety for everyone.

The Color of Depression

Yellow is the color of happiness, and gray the color of depression.  Apparently the blues is more actively unhappy, but that wasn’t addressed.  See this study.

It is gray here today.  It is raining now on the weekend’s foot of snow, but is supposed to turn to snow again tonight.

Awaking last night, I discovered “white nights” are the effect of falling snow.  The cloudy sky was much darker than the snowy ground and trees.

“A War Zone” – Really?

“This is something that I haven’t seen and, I mean, it looks like a war zone up here.” Our governor, Joe Manchin, on the snow in Marion County just north of here.

1) Has the Governor ever been in a war zone?
2) Are there bodies strewn about?

Seems to me that describing Haiti as “like a war zone” might be justified, Marion County under 18 inches of snow is not. There were some power outages, but fewer than there were in the storm before Christmas, and most of them were fixed in a few hours, not days.

For those of you who might be concerned, no deaths or as far as I know, injuries, have been reported, and Robert made a run for Chinese takeout last night with ease, although he said it was getting icy.

More Sledding

By the time I decided to shovel the front stoop and walk, the snow was 10 inches deep, which is just the distance between the bottom of the screen door and the stoop. Any more and opening the front door becomes problematic.  This is, as the Weather Service had warned, a heavy wet snow, and I couldn’t use my usual technique of pretending to be a miniature snowplow. (Making the engine noise is the most fun, but the neighbors think it’s odd.)  I had to actually lift and toss the snow aside.  This is a much better workout, but more tiring.  I got as far as the driveway, and went inside, where Robert had grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup waiting.

After lunch, Robert went out and finished the walk and enough of the driveway that we can get the car out if necessary.  Then the reward – another round of sledding.  This time, it took several trips to pack the snow enough to slide.

Here’s an album of photos.