John Singer Sargent Notes

Confessions of a Failure

Craig and I took a Scripture memory class at our church. We learned and meditated on two Bible verses a week, reciting each one every day. At the beginning of each weekly session, our teacher went around the room and asked each to report how many days we had recited. The first week all 20-some of us circled up and echoed each other: 7, 7, 7, 7. Likewise for week 2. Week 3 started the same – 7, 7, 7 – until we hit me. I was the first to proclaim 6. I can still feel the awkward silence and see the teacher write my deficiency on his attendance sheet.

We took that class in 1985, nearly 30 years ago, but I haven’t forgotten the shame I felt for that failure – which now I recognize as too small to even register among my many real failures.

Yet I continue to shame myself. Today it’s for blog failure.

I had convinced Craig that we needed to post a blog at least twice a week to show we were serious, to build up work, to make sure readers found and stayed with us. Last week we only had one. Craig had sent me the image for the second one, the above gondolas overlaid with his notes on the painter John Singer Sargent. I had my idea for the copy, how we packed three important things for our trip to Italy: respect, stamina and curiosity. Our Italian-English dictionary represented respect for our hosts, a willingness to speak their language rather than assume they spoke ours. Our walking shoes represented our stamina, much needed in a country where every road seemed to head uphill. Our map and willingness to ask questions represented our curiosity, which took us to neighborhoods, restaurants and stores far from other tourists. I liked the idea, but every time I tried to write it, I sounded rather pompous.

So I stopped writing.

When I sat down at my computer, I checked email and Twitter instead. I played spider solitaire and free cell. I read the newspaper and finished the crossword puzzle. Thank goodness for the intestinal bug that kept me from finishing off the entire bag of Lay’s chips in the pantry. I delayed further by reading Craig’s new Steven Pressfield book, Turning Pro, about the need to stop being an amateur who talks about what you’ll do and actually become a professional who does it. No matter how hard. The book was so insightful. Pressfield seemed to have written it just for a few friends who came to mind.

Pressfield’s mindset has led to a dozen bestsellers. Mine has led to a dozen blog posts.

I thought blogging with Craig would be fun. I hoped others would appreciate our willingness to collaborate and would identify with our foibles and discoveries. I expected my vignettes to be easy to write, but as I develop my voice, I’m afraid to let people hear me sing off-key. I want to avoid the shame I felt at being the first to fail at my Scripture recitation.

It’s time to recapture the traits that defined Craig and me in Italy: curiosity, respect and stamina. Am I willing to keep exploring and learning, to trust I have something to say, and to persevere in saying it?

I think it’ll only work if I also develop another quality: the grace to let myself fail from time to time.

Italy Expense Report

Postcard of a Travel Itinerary

Another reflection from the trip Craig and I took to Italy during his painting sabbatical.


After 10 days in Italy, I came home with wine and olive oil from the castle and farm we stayed at, a 19th-century drawing of the Madonna and Jesus, a 2,500-year-old Etruscan bead given to me by a gallery owner who spent 15 minutes telling us – as best we could follow – about traveling to America with the pope and meeting President Kennedy, gifts for the kids, and a notebook filled with stories of people, places and meals. Craig returned with sketches, photos and pneumonia. He blamed me for the pneumonia.

Craig had envisioned 10 days of relaxation, strolling through Venice, riding a gondola along the Grand Canal, painting the Tuscan countryside, eating pizza in a sunny piazza. We would buy plane tickets, make hotel reservations (or not) and drive to the airport. I call it his “get in the car” – or in this case, “get on the plane” – approach to travel, one he employs for his creative wanderings. With nothing more than a general sense of where he’s headed, he simply lets his trips happen. He walks or drives until he finds something interesting to paint or gets hungry or needs sleep. The unknown is his invitation for adventure.

The unknown is my invitation to miss an important destination. I like guidebooks. And maps. And itineraries. As Craig is watching the hawks circle the field beside Highway 151, I’m calculating our ETA at Pickle-Barrell Subs in Dubuque. If I was getting the chance to see Italy, I’d make sure we planned out what we’d see. I started with guidebooks to outline a reasonable timeline – could we explore Venice and Tuscany and still get to Rome? (No.) I read travelogues to discover back-road charms. I hit the internet to confirm my choices. Then I built a calendar that Craig never looked at.

I knew the best time to visit the Basilica of San Marco in Venice (late, as the tours were leaving) and the Accademia in Florence to see Michelangelo’s David (first thing, with a reservation), how to pack light, and where to find the rundown abbey where The English Patient was filmed, the butcher in Panzano who fed and entertained people on Saturday afternoons, and the farmer selling his dried herbs at the Wednesday morning market in Castellina. I learned about agriturismo, where farm families supplement their income by renting out rooms to tourists and feeding them from the animals and produce they raise.

Craig indulged my obsessiveness – even welcomed it – as long as I understood he needed time to wander and paint. No problem. I could schedule that in too.

So we meandered … toward the church I wanted to see. Craig painted … while I read up on our afternoon’s destinations. We sat in piazzas … where I talked with students who told us we had to walk the Stations of the Cross along Via Margherita. I penciled it in. We each lived our ideal vacation … until Craig got sick and couldn’t keep up.

We didn’t know he had pneumonia (I might have been more sympathetic if we had), but our last two days he was tired and wanted to head back to the farm by early afternoon. We missed castles and gardens as we lay by the pool. How could we ever see Italy if all we did was sun on the terrace overlooking the patchwork of vineyards and orchards rolling up to the majestic towers of San Gimignano?

I applied more sunscreen and sipped my glass of wine.

Tree Swing on Barker Road

Six-Word Tributes

With our big families, there’s almost always a birthday or anniversary for me to overlook, with fall being a particularly busy time to disappoint people with my forgetfulness. Admittedly, I set a poor example for the wife of a greeting-card artist. But I’m thankful for a friend who told me about six-word memoirs, an initiative from the online SMITH Magazine. Her idea helped our families pay tribute to our parents for their most recent milestone birthdays.

SMITH Magazine began in 2006 as a website to promote personal storytelling and launched its six-work memoir project later that year. You can go to the site to post your own memoir and read thousands from others. My friend changed the idea of writing a memoir of yourself to writing a tribute to another; she and her kids used this poetic form to honor her husband, who loved to write poetry. Craig and I aren’t poets, but I’m an editor, and I love the concept of saying as much as possible with so few words. As my mom planned a family party to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday, I sent out the call for all my siblings, their spouses and our kids to come with our six-word tributes.

Some people were apprehensive … until they started writing Then they couldn’t stop. Even grade-school-aged cousins had fun composing their thoughts. At the party, we gathered in the living room to eat cake and to read Dad our tributes. We let the time flow organically: One person read one, another person followed, usually with a related thought, and on it went until we had finished. We laughed, we cried, we remembered, we asked Dad to say more about the memories we had stirred up. We could never have anticipated how powerful our words would be in expressing a full picture of Dad and our love for him.

That fall, we repeated the tribute for Craig’s dad and mom, who were turning 80 and 75, respectively, and the next year for my mom for her 80th birthday. Each party had its own personality, as our parents do, but each was an evening of celebration, honor and love. Here are some examples:

To Lee’s Dad from Ed: Retired bowler, lawn bowler, Wii bowler.

To Grandpa George from Andrew: Thanks, Grandpa, for the bald gene.

To Lee’s Mom from Cathy: Best mentor ever for modeling hospitality.

To Grandma Rita from Rachel: Colorful shoes, colorful personality, colorful language.

To Craig’s Dad from Michele: Wonderful laugh, shaking shoulders, twinkly eyes.

To Grandpa Tom from Rachel: Outlined tools; everything has a place.

To Craig’s Mom from Craig: Complete compassion, family passion, ankle fashion.

To Grandma Joanie from Amber: Mom’s bed made; Grandma was here.

So today, Craig and I have written our six-word tributes, he to a mentor and former boss, me to a friend.

To Levi from Craig: Man within whom hope springs eternal.

To Julie from Lee: From powerful pen, discovery, growth, beauty.

Now we invite you to post a tribute in the Comment section below (and even send it to that person). We all want to matter to someone. Please take a minute to let another know how they matter to you.

Morning Song

The scent of bread and vanilla beckoned me to roll out of the guest-room bed. For some strange reason I was salivating as I stumbled past the open door. I bumped down the hall, my shoulder knocking the photos lined as straight as soldiers along the family wall of fame. Ahead, molten light enveloped a robed silhouette and guided me forward. The light was pure white, fiery sunspots dancing around the figure, the angel, my mother, made all the more welcoming by the gurgling coffeepot harmonizing with the birdsong from the east window. Fresh-baked rolls and fresh-brewed coffee were the right blend to awaken my slumbering imagination.

As I neared Mom and observed her contemplative devotion to the baking task before her, I imagined a halo holding her long gray ponytail in its bun. With my eyes now fully open, I was transfixed by the sugary butterhorns fresh from the oven, soft crescent puffs, the bread of life in my family. I was at the kitchen altar laden with the elements of family Eucharist.

My timing was lucky. Mom had just pulled the final dozen from the oven and was applying the last of the buttercream frosting, a sacred ritual she had performed thousands of times before. As I watched, I felt like a star-struck groupie who had just met Paul Simon for a private concert. With a heavily loaded spatula in her right hand and the fresh pillow of goodness in her left, she spread out the sweet covering like a crisp bedsheet. It was cool on warm, each one painted thickly and then placed on the tray to cure. The frosting puddled down, like snow and ice shifting in the spring sunlight on a Wisconsin lake. I wished for a moment that I had sunglasses.

So it was done. Without a word spoken, she met my inquisitive eyes with “Yes, you can.” So I did. Just then I realized I was not dreaming. It was going to be a good day.

Photos by Craig Lueck

If you want to have a good day but don’t live near my mom, Joanne Lueck, you can click here for her recipe.

Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute

I went to Italy to learn more about watercolor painting in the country where masters like John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer painted. In Venice, our first stop, I looked across the canal at the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute and began my education.

Postcard from a Pilgrim

Another reflection from the trip Craig and I took to Italy during his painting sabbatical. 


We visited churches every day in Italy – Renaissance basilicas, Romanesque abbeys, stone churches along country roads. We stood dwarfed by towering architecture, gazed upon masterpieces and followed narrow staircases to once-hidden rooms. We were halfway through our trip before I realized I was entering every church as a tourist. What would happen if I became a pilgrim instead? If I, a Roman Catholic turned evangelical turned Christ follower with lots of questions, changed my secular eyes to sacred?

I started lighting candles. I gave my offering. I let my prayers lift heavenward to be united with the chorus of saints praising Jesus.

Would St. Catherine of Siena notice me lighting a thin white taper at her altar at the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena? If so, it would be with her new body, as her earthly and quite shriveled head and finger were on display – a mighty popular one at that – in the church. I couldn’t decide if I should be horrified or fascinated at the gruesome relics and those of us praying before them. Catherine spent her short life in service to Christ and seeking peace and reform in the church. Were we guilty of idolatry, or were we humbly seeking connection with and inspiration from this 14th-century mystic? Could my identity with a fellow pilgrim who centuries ago walked these roads I was walking this week help to deepen my experience of her country, bring holiness to this adventure? I confess to being earthbound in my understanding of the communion of saints.

My insight ascended a bit heavenward as I wandered by myself through the coastal village of Vernazza. Entering the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, I recognized the cadence – if not the words – of the priest saying Mass and the female voices responding. I stopped midway up the staircase. To enter would be disruptive, so I stayed on the steps and recognized each new phase of the liturgy – the consecration, the priest’s prayers, the women’s responses. I stood for 10 minutes, my head visible to the two women in the front row. One gently beckoned me to join the worship celebration, so I climbed the remaining steps and slid into the third pew. Now there were six of us joining the priest to remember Christ in the breaking of the bread.

After Communion, the women and priest sang a cappella, and their hymn resonated in the 14th century stone church. Their voices were those of the angels, clear and strong and praising, these five elderly Italian women carrying on the traditions of their faith. I too praised God, not with my voice but with a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the heavenly chorus that surrounded me. When Mass ended, I lit a candle.

Fattoria Poggio Alloro