Tag Archives: Annis Karpenko

All who wander are not lost

Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts speaks of Organic Spirituality, “where I listen for what is unfolding, what is the thread drawing me forward, rather than planning the next step.”

This is the faith I have practiced for many years. It is a flow of teachings from many faiths and poets that inspire my life. I learn from reading and discussing and listening to the path other people have travelled and over time, this informs my belief, my thinking and my creativity. I do not have a ready-made life map to consult, the elements I glean from others and the discoveries I make along the way inform my map and in turn, in talk or word, I share the twists and turns with others who may choose to venture onto parts of the road I have travelled or who are guided by my experience as I am guided by others. So I wrote some lines inspired by the poem by Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939) which I share with you.

 “…wanderer there is no way, the way is made by walking.” Antonio Machado

I had some thoughts on this
line from a wise man
and modern technology
got me lost
by deleting my words
my wise thoughts
they were lost
I was lost
and I know they
were really good
gold nuggets
so I’m back on the path
abandoning the thought
searching for bread crumbs
to try and reconstruct
the way
it won’t be the same
not the same at all
full of frustration
win some lose some
there you have it

“…wanderer there is no way, the way is made by walking.” Antonio Machado

notice he says
that the way is made by walking
not running
not skipping
not jumping
not meandering
not moseying
the way is made by walking
not with direction
but with purpose
to make a way
that is strong and good
to make a way
that will sustain
that is serious stuff

have I given my way
the stern look it
has asked for
time and time again?

well… no
I have looked but
like a puppy chasing a butterfly
in the park
and suddenly seeing
a cat, a child, the hot dog vendor
I have looked away

“…wanderer there is no way, the way is made by walking.” Antonio Machado

and so it goes and so it goes
the way is bleak some days
and the thought
of taking one
more
step is really
more than I can bear

but then I close my eyes
and take a breath
and then another
and when my eyes open again
I am revived
to move along
again
perhaps a little slowly
but moving nonetheless

Image – Sacred Trees by Annis Karpenko

On the Road

What’s your road, man? — holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road, chapter 1.

I love nature and I love walking in nature but I have also spent a lot of time in my life driving a car. I have driven the 401 highway from Toronto to Quebec hundreds of times.  I have driven the 20, the 10, the 55 in Quebec, and Interstate 91 from Quebec to Connecticut over and over. I love to drive and while I understand this is a huge luxury and not necessarily an environmentally friendly one,  I have owned or had use of a car for almost 40 years. I have loved all of them. I have loved waking up before the sun and heading off onto the road; each time rejoicing as the trees and sky brighten as the morning dawns. It is magic every time.

As I continue with Soul of a Pilgrim, I realize that driving is a pilgrimage for me. I relish getting lost on unfamiliar roads, patiently awaiting a familiar signpost. I practice trusting my instincts, my heart and accepting the kindness of strangers. The views through my car windows of mountains and valleys, along rivers and lakes, and city street scenes, small towns are always inspiring and sacred.

A few years back, I did a photography project, driving and walking through Toronto streets taking pictures of objects and signs that corresponded to the chakra colours. Common fence posts, signs, storefronts, fire hydrants each held an energy source I could draw from. The last few years I have taken pictures from inside my car while driving – sometimes I’m in the passenger seat (which is handy) but sometimes not. If I’m driving, I don’t focus or even look that closely; I just aim and shoot and see what emerges when I get home. Some shots, of course are blurred beyond recognition – but the light and the texture in those photos often resonate louder than the crystal clear shots. I wear glasses, without them the world looks blurry to me. I understand that view.

As the sun rises, I love the way trees and buildings are silhouetted in stark black contrast against the glowing sky. A trip to Saskatchewan yielded some magnificent prairie shots, miles and miles of yellow, the sky and the earth touching with nothing between. Colours, textures, smells, shapes, symmetry, abstraction, tragedy, comedy, romance… it’s all there on the road; each moment can add to our experience.

There is Zen on the road.
There is God on the road.
There is Hope on the road.
There is Life on the road.
Whether you take to the road on foot or wheels, close to home or in a foreign land, it doesn’t much matter. Each experience can manifest treasure. What does your road look like? What do you see there? Where will it take you?

Only God is Perfect

For the most part, we artists like to show the works we think have turned out at best, spectacularly and at worst, wonderfully. But because “only God is perfect” is one of my favourite sayings, I thought today I’d illustrate for you A Day in the Life of an Artist as a Possible Failure. I have no problem with this. My self-esteem happens to be intact today. And I know there will be other opportunities for me to show you some stellar creations. So I would like to share a failure, because I can.

I have been creating mandalas as part of the Soul of a Pilgrim course (see previous post). And I have had in my possession for some time now, a pile of white tea towels. I had considered making prayer flags out of them but today I got an idea to put a mandala onto cloth. I also happened to have a brand new set of 24 Sharpie pens so I was kind of excited about the possibility of it all. As I was ironing the wrinkles out of the cloth it occurred to me that I would like to see what would happen if I let the pen ink bleed through to the next layer. My idea was to Symbolize how our Words and Deeds leave an imprint on the Other as they are executed or spoken and that often, that imprint is permanent. They can not be taken back or washed away.

So I folded the cloth into quarters and began drawing out the first mandala with Sharpie pens and no concern of the ink bleeding through. And for my first mandala I used shapes to Signify the Many Shapes and Sizes we All Come In. And I did not measure the spaces between so some of the shapes ran into or over one another and that was ok too. This Symbolized that We Only Have So Much Control of our Lives and Mistakes Happen. I outlined and colored in and to be honest got a little high off the Sharpie fumes. Eventually I pulled the collar of my turtleneck shirt up over my nose fearing brain damage. Fortunately I was the only one home, no one saw me.

“It takes great discipline to be a free spirit.” – Gabrielle Roth

So I carried on and when I was finished I pulled up the first layer and found that the ink had only bled through one layer and the other two were still white. And Sharpie’s are permanent and fast drying so they weren’t going to bleed any more. No Problem! I’m an Artist! I flipped the cloth over and began to create another mandala on the other side and this would bleed into the facing blank quarter. Now I would have Two Symbolic Images leaving imprints. For the second mandala I decided to move away from haphazard geometry into nature. This mandala has flowers and leaves, Symbolizing Nature’s  Sacred Impact on our Lives and how the golden moments gazing at a flower or watching a leaf fall from a tree are Moments of Grace and those moments will also imprint on our souls.

As I continued with the flowers, I decided I didn’t really love the white of the cloth and thought that dying it a different color would be fun. I’m a big tea dye lover and thought a black tea would muddy the work but a green tea would give it just a subtle shade and age the cloth a bit. This would Signify and Symbolize Nothing At All. So after I finished the flower – and was not completely satisfied with the bleed through on that side either, I brewed a cup of tea for me and a bowl for the dye bath. I scrunched up the cloth into the bowl and let it sit there for a while. I was tired now and a little spacey from the Sharpie fumes so I placed the damp tea bags over my eyes to refresh them. Artists do stuff like that.

When my eyes were refreshed I threw the tea bags out and put the mandala cloth and tea water into the washing machine and gave it a spin. Then I dried the cloth for 10 minutes in the dryer and assessed my days work as I ironed it out. Alas, it did not work as I had hoped. The colors were nice, the mandalas fair, but the bleed through was vague and the piece as a whole was not good art. It was Failed Art. It did however make a fine dish towel for our kitchen. The kind of dish towel all artists should have. So all was not lost and I am not perfect and I’m OK with that. Now it is definitely time for a nap.

Soul of a Pilgrim

Robert Wuthnow writes “If spiritual practice clarifies one’s self-identity, including art in one’s practice provides a way to offer a part of oneself to God.[1] So along with lots of reading, I have been participating in an online retreat with Abbey of the Arts. I thought that having some structure to the beginning of my school semester would help me get into a routine. Soul of a Pilgrim is a 40-day Lenten retreat offering each participant the opportunity to explore their spiritual and artistic nature each day. Like Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, this is a pilgrimage to deep understanding of self in relation to God and to art and creation.

We are asked to set aside time each day to read the email message and ponder the questions posed to us. The questions might ask us about the messages we carry around that may be obstacles to our happiness; our disappointments in life; our hopes for our spiritual and artistic future. We are asked to consider finding a scallop shell to join us on our journey like the pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago each year. The grooves in the scallop shell represent the many journeys a pilgrim could set out on in his or her life from the centre and the shells mcould also be used to gather water or as eating bowls. There are guided meditations and video clips for our further study.

Soul of a Pilgrim’s retreat urges each participant to begin an art journal and to use the mandala model as a basis for our creations – each sacred circle is filled with symbols and colors and words depicting our own personal journeys. Art and revelations are shared among participants online, each of us offering encouragement and support.

We were asked to write a seven-word prayer and then a seven-line poem and mine turned out to be one in the same:

Let this day be filled with love.
Let this day be filled with kindness.
Let this day be filled with peace.
Let this day be filled with forgiveness.
Let this day be filled with creation.
Let this day be filled with grace.
Let this day be filled with God.

Each day or two I create a new mandala – here are some of them.

1. Sacred Shadow: I think we embody a sacred and a dark side but each can be connected by an open heart. We learn and grow from our experiences and when our hearts feel closed we can venture to open it up just a very little bit. I have loved the saying by Ralph Waldo Emerson borrowed by Leonard Cohen. “There is a crack in everything God has made. – That’s how the light gets in.”

2. February 25: Because I have a thyroid condition, a friend suggested I meditate and send my thyroid some love. This is a little iPad piece to do just that.

3. The Crayons Chose Me: I started working on this using my box of favourite markers but then I decided to pull out my 64 box of Crayola crayons and turn it backwards to me. I reached in without looking and whatever color came up – I used all along the edge and in the middle of this mandala – hence the title.

4. Breathe in God: This is a collage/marker piece I did after my seven-word poem took a turn during my morning meditation. As I was meditating the poem I was breathing to changed to Breathe in Peace, Breathe out Peace – Breathe in Love Breathe out Love etc. and then as I carried on, it changed again to Breathe in God – Breathe out Peace, Breathe in God, Breathe out Love etc. and it was such a lovely feeling that I carried it with me all day and created this collage mandala when I got home.

As part of my study I watched the lovely and moving movie, The Way about a bereaved father’s journey on the Camino de Santiago. My husband and I lost a dear friend last year and at his funeral, some of the letters he had emailed back home from his own Camino pilgrimage were shared with us. They were deeply moving and inspiring. Perhaps one day I will venture out to walk the 800 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago but until then, I am making a 40-day pilgrimage from my studio and favourite chair.


[1] Wuthnow, Robert. Creative Spirituality. 2001. University of California Press. pg 135.

New Old Friends

Art is capable of bringing into sharper relief emotions associated with the most profound experiences of human existence.
Robert Wuthnow (23)

I am an artist. I am a self-taught artist. I was brought up in a Christian faith tradition. I no longer go to church except for weddings and funerals. I have had a difficult relationship with a God that hangs out with old Anglican/Episcopalian theology. I have spent my lifetime seeking spiritual solace outside of church, turning my back on my roots by doing so.

But I was born a creative being, an artist. My earliest memories of self include performance, a love of books, poetry, writing, art, music. I did not choose to be baptised and confirmed. I did not choose to be part of the church choir. I did not choose to be Episcopalian. Those choices were made for me. When I was given a modicum of choice, I chose to attend the evening “Experimental Worship” service. My friends and I (of all ages) sat on the floor at the altar, made our own bread for communion, sang our own songs, recited our own prayers and as far as I knew, God did not mind. But when the young assistant minister who organized us left for a new church and a new more traditional assistant took his place, Experimental Worship stopped and my interest in church waned.

Still, the choice not to go to church has dogged me. There are other choices I have made in my life that took me far from my roots, and I have never regretted them. But this space that defines my worthiness in the face of God still niggles me; still fills me with questions.

If God is within us all, does that mean there is more than one God?
Is being a spiritual being enough? Enough for whom?
As an artist, is the divine gift from God our deep desire to create and question?
How are Art and God/Spirituality and Self intertwined?

It was a great delight to dive into a book recommended to me by Ruth Wallen, my Goddard advisor. The book is Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist by Robert Wuthnow (2001, University of California Press). Reading it over the last week has been like visiting my Self through the experience of strangers. Wuthnow interviewed over 100 artists “candidly about their work, their lives, their spiritual journeys, and their aspirations and hopes. (ix) Through Wuthnow’s thoughtful and illuminating book, I have discovered deep kinship with many of the artists; their questions are my questions, their responses my responses, their emotions my emotions and collectively their stories have offered me the opportunity to revisit my humanness or Berrisford Booth calls it “personhood”. (91)

In my own life, I have questioned my relationship with God, art and spirituality. I have grappled with feelings of inadequacy, the desire to be more, questioning the choices I have made, especially if they were against the hopes and dreams others had for me. I have dug deep down to unearth the old messages that undermine my confidence. And reading about the twists and turns that other artists have taken filled me with a great sense of community. I am not alone. If I bumped into any one of these artists on the street, we would speak the same language.

In one story after a bout of breast cancer, Sharon Thomson writes about the changes that came in her spiritual life which had been heavily weighted in the Christian tradition.

“I felt terrific, and I discovered a whole bunch of thinking about the ways in which we create reality…it is possible to reinterpret, to make a choice about the way in which we want to perceive reality… I wasn’t even concerned at that point about whether this works with Christianity or not. I was much more involved in experiencing the spiritual life, which for me is really about the essence, the point of contact with something greater than myself, the moment when I know that there’s something more going on than this moment that I can perceive with my senses.” (88)

After my own breast cancer experience, I went back to church fearing that my absence had been part of the reason I got sick. It was perhaps an irrational thing to do, but my first instinct was to return to my roots and try to make meaning of this new experience. My Sunday visits to church were no consolation. They filled me with sadness and even more questions. I hated the concept of original sin, the patriarchal voice of condemnation. My spiritual and emotional needs were being stifled there. When I stepped away again, I received a pastoral visit from the priest who wanted to know why I had been absent.  After listening to my story and my decision not to go to back to his church he asked me incredulously, “But you were sick,” he said, “and now you are well. Are you not grateful for that gift from God? Don’t you think you should come to church and show your thanks?” I felt like I was being blackmailed by God himself.

I got some therapy and retreated back into my art (photography and writing) to find solace and spiritual acceptance. Booth’s experience in his own life resonates strongly for me.

“In my art I was trying to ordain myself instead of being ordained from the outside. That’s what I was looking for, the ability to ordain myself with the knowledge that I’m doing this not because it’s running away from anything or running toward anything…but the ability to accept my spirit, the sum total of all my experiences.” (91-92)

My personal quest led me to other forms of spiritual practice. I began to meditate and practice loving kindness and mindfulness in my day. I wrote an article Already in God’s House about my faith, lost and found. I realized I could have a spiritual practice outside the church that was just as viable for me as one inside was for others. From Wuthnow’s book:

Ann Biddle summarizes spiritual practices as “learning how to live your life creatively…It’s about reaching your fullest potential. It’s about creating artistry in any area of your life, through your practice. It’s about opening up your mind to the possibilities of who you are and to see the uniqueness of who you are. It’s about making an impact on the world in a creative, innovative, forward-thinking way.”  (111)

As a self-taught artist, I have searched for my own meaning in the books of Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, Nirmala, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama. Each has brought a spiritual message that has consoled and defined me. Through them, and my spiritual practice, I have created a strong connection with the universe. I believe in angels and saints and mystery.  But Wuthnow’s book brought me more. His almost ten years of interviews and writing brought me a community of shared experience and a renewed faith in art as a viable and important spiritual practice.

The Ritual of Friendship

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
– Anais Nin

I am a loner by nature but one of my most favourite rituals is the ritual of friendship. My life has been blessed by friends over and over again. That is an odd thing for an introvert to say. I crave long stretches of alone time to read and ponder. But I love people and their stories. And I strive to keep my heart open to the possibility of a new adventure happening with each person I meet. I am rarely disappointed.

During our first Residency at Goddard, sixteen strangers came together and bonded through our newness to the experience and our confusion. Each person arrived miraculously with the same open heart and in absolutely no time, we acted like old friends, laughing, crying, eating and sharing our stories together. In eight short days, we collectively wove together a magnificent life cloth that we each took home with us. And the cloth, a kind of symbolic comfort blanket will sustain us in our work. We maintain our friendship through Facebook and email. A few have spontaneously met in person in other locales. And for the next two and a half years, we will remain connected by our Goddard experience. After that, some of the friendships will drift and others will grow stronger – and it doesn’t matter at all which is which.

In my life I have had numerous “situational friends”. These are the people I bonded with through shared experience at work, in school, with my children or with the dog; in the neighbourhoods I have lived and places I have travelled. These friendships were deep and meaningful; I learned many new things; I shared many experiences. When the situations altered by a move, a death, a new job, the time devoted to each friendship diminished and often we just faded out of each other’s lives. But these friendships were no less important; each and every one shaped who I am today.

Each new situation also manifests lifelong friendships. You don’t really know it at the time, but there is a click, continuity to the talk, an ease in the relationship. These friendships flourish over distances and absences and each time you meet or talk again, you pick up the thread exactly where you left off and conversation flows fluidly like you never stopped at all. There is no need to explain things. These friends know instinctively when you need a call and when you are alright even though time has passed by since the last conversation. They know if they need anything, they can call you and that you will in turn call them.

I am blessed in all the friendships I have and have had. They enrich my life and days. They bring me new ideas, new ways of thinking, new hope when the days are dark, an opportunity to be kind and honest and loving in my life. They sustain me like prayer and quiet. How is your life coloured by others? What shared experiences with friends do you cherish?

An Interview and The Girl of the Limberlost

Literacy in Action (LIA) is a not-for-profit organization located in the Eastern Townships of Quebec where I live. I have had a great partnership with LIA, first  creating the organization’s First 25 Years Bulletin with Director Kathy Richan, then the first draft of a Strategic Plan; I contributed to the Clear Writing Manual and I also got to design a health literacy bookmark for them. Needless to say, it has been a lovely relationship and I was thrilled when Kathy asked me to be her first interview as part of the Life-long Learner Series. You can read our interview Here.

I have loved books since I was a little girl and remember vividly curling up on the wooden fire escape at my grandfather’s cottage lost in the glorious pages of The Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. Elnora Comstock was my hero and sitting with her on hot summer days, as she collected moths to fill her loneliness, created a summer friendship I have not forgotten. Elnora faced her life struggles with hope and benefited from the kindness of others. She helped me navigate the lonely days of my own adolescence.

I cherish the moments when I lose myself in a book. Books are magic and transformative and you know it is a great book, if when you close the last page the characters linger in your heart. You miss them and hope that new friends will come soon to take their place.

My grandfather was a voracious reader and it was he or my grandmother that perhaps gave me The Girl of the Limberlost to read that summer. When our Grandfather had his 80th birthday, my sisters and I composed a a limerick for him. Twin Brooks was the name of his property which was bordered on the left and right by… you guessed it… babbling brooks.

Our Gramps, who lives at Twin Brooks,
is always giving us books.
He says we must read,
our minds we must feed,
one can never get by on good looks.

Years later, I found a copy of the book in a used bookstore and bought it. And the bookstore owner, Janice, found and sent me a book called The Moths of the Limberlost, also by Stratton-Porter. It was filled with beautiful watercolor and photographic images of all the moths Elnora had collected. I have both books on my shelf still. Both books are included in the Project Gutenberg collection as free downloads if any of you would like to read them.