Ebb and Flow

Color blobs

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere
and don’t notice it.”

Alice Walker in The Color Purple

Confessions of Two Fundamentalists

Color blobs

Craig’s image usually flows from my words, but today I wrote from his watercolor.   


“You’re such a word nerd,” Craig teased. I had just finished listening to an audio on apostrophes – why it’s okay to write farmers market but not womens shoes* – and I embraced the accusation. I also wondered if he caught its irony from where he sat at his computer, as he had most every evening the past month, experimenting with images of snow.

Yet I see why I’m the nerd in our relationship. People are intrigued by an artist’s eye – how cool to see that a white mound actually contains a rainbow of colors – but give an icy shoulder to an editor impassioned by proper possessives, pronouns and punctuation.

SnowballThanks to Miss Claeys, my ninth-grade English teacher, I’m a stickler for the fundamentals. She taught me what makes a sentence whole and how I tear it up if I dangle participles or misplace modifiers. She demanded perfection. If an essay had misspelled words, the highest grade it could receive was a B; with a run-on sentence, it earned at best a C. In my quest for A’s, I kept my dictionary open and followed every subject with a predicate and period.

Craig also espouses the basics, not the ABCs, but the ROY G. BIVs. He spent three hours every day of his first year at the American Academy of Art with Vern Stake, his very own Miss Claeys, learning the Fundamentals of Art. Every week in class he drew or painted from a still life arranged at the front of the room and was brutally critiqued on his form, lighting, perspective and color. Every week at home he painted a color chart that filled our kitchen table, a carefully constructed grid or wheel with dozens of colors, each hue a smoothly brushed square or triangle butting against another box a small gradation lighter or darker.

He mixed and applied color every night, oblivious to his new wife’s hope for a little attention. I staged a protest one night, lying on the kitchen linoleum next to the table where he painted. He stopped working long enough to cover me with a blanket after I fell asleep.

Each of us is rather fanatical about our craft.

If we’re not careful, we become peevish. When Craig and many others at our church were praising a new novel’s portrayal of the Trinity, I couldn’t slog through the overwritten scenes. The painting I bought at a charity auction hangs at work because Craig said it was based on a formula, not fundamentals, and he refused to let me hang it at home.

But usually we remember that the craft is only the foundation, that it’s simply the support for the work we’re building, the scene being rendered, the hope or outrage painted with words or brushstrokes. We don’t use the fundamentals to seek perfection, but to express truth. To create art. Beauty found in the swirls of color breaking through the lines. Truth sometimes proclaimed in fragments. A square’s edges softened by the flow.


* Click here to listen to the fabulous Grammar Underground lessons of June Casagrande.


His Eminence


Cardinal seen from the family room window

What’s Love Got to Do with It?


The cardinals have migrated to the Vatican, roosting in the Sistine Chapel to pick a new Bishop of Rome. The closest I’ve come to a cardinal is watching redbirds through my kitchen window. But I have met a bishop, the Most Rev. John Donovan, who stood before the altar of St. Ann Church in the spring of 1967 to confirm me as a soldier for Jesus. I was 9 years old and seeing red, and not because of the scarlet robe the bishop was wearing.

My classmates and I had prepared for weeks. I had somehow messed up two years earlier on my First Communion Day – according to Sister Margaret Mary, God sent rain that day because we second-graders had been disobedient – so I wanted to get my Confirmation Day right.

Everything I needed to know – the answers to our 103 catechism questions – was contained on the sheets Mrs. Gabel had mimeographed and stapled into my yellow catechism folder. The bishop would quiz us during the service, as he would the confirmands at all the parishes in the diocese, and we didn’t want to be the class that disappointed him … or her.

I intended to prove myself worthy. I carried my folder home every day. I wore its cover thin from studying those questions: Who is God? What is man? Name the 12 apostles. The 7 sacraments. The 10 commandments. I learned every answer, word for word, even the hard sacrament (Extreme Unction). I could impress Bishop Donovan with my knowledge of papal history: The first pope was Peter, picked by Jesus when he said, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”

We packed the front pews on Confirmation Day, brimming with maturity. We girls had traded our wide-ribboned hats for lacy triangular veils, our white anklets for nylon stockings. I stood on my black patent toes to see Bishop Donovan at the end of the procession of altar boys, Father Mayer and the other parish priests. I rose and knelt and sang and responded through the liturgy until His Excellency came around the altar and descended the steps to stand before us. I sat upright, my hand ready to shoot up. It was quiz time.

He posed his first question: “What is the greatest commandment?”

Greatest commandment? I mentally flipped through my folder. I didn’t remember the commandments being ranked. I glanced around, hoping someone else knew the answer.

A hand went up. “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have any other gods before me?” It was more a question than an answer, but a good choice. God put that commandment first, so it must be the most important.

But it wasn’t.

Another brave soul ventured: “Honor thy father and mother.”

He probably got points with his parents but not with the bishop.

The next guess, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy,” was another great choice – we were sitting in church after all – but still wrong.

All good commandments, the bishop assured us, but not the greatest.

After much coaxing, he eventually got some version of the answer he wanted: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.”

“Now,” the bishop continued. I sat up for the next question, glad the hard one was out of the way. “What’s the second greatest commandment?”

What? Another ranking? If we didn’t know the greatest, how could we know the second greatest?

By some miracle, and a lot more coaxing, someone eventually got it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I hoped the bishop was finally ready to ask a question from our catechism folder – he had 103 to choose from. Instead, he turned and climbed back to the altar. The service was moving on.

That’s why I was mad as my name was announced and I stood before him. After weeks of preparation to understand our faith and show the bishop what we’d learned, we never got the chance.

I hoped Mrs. Gabel wouldn’t yell at us on Monday. We knew our prayers and creed and the difference between mortal and venial sins, even our state of original sin thanks to Adam and Eve and the serpent. It wasn’t our fault the bishop only cared about love.