tornadoes, books, and art - oh, my

I signed up for the Trinity Arts Conference for a few reasons: I love art, I want to improve as a writer, and it's high time to overcome anxiety. During the past two years of health issues and slow healing, I not only became (more of) a homebody, but I also developed a phobia of getting out and about all by myself. I would drive around our part of the city, but otherwise, Johnny did the driving. There were times when his help was valid - like when I was too dizzy to drive - and of course married folks should spend time together, but somewhere along the way I convinced myself that I couldn't travel alone. Something catastrophic would happen. I'd be too tired. Too weak. Really, my imagination did acrobatics in the fear department. Yet the lineup for the conference was a great motivator to shake my phobic behavior: Gregory Wolfe, Jeffrey Overstreet, Mary Kenagy Mitchell, Sedrick Huckaby, and Doug Burr. The theme of the conference piqued my interest as well: "The Gift of the Unknown."

Johnny helped me load up the silver Monte Carlo, a leather Cross and tiny black djembe hanging from the rearview mirror. I placed a Pyrex dish of cookies in the passenger seat. The drive through Texan countryside was sunshiny and blue. The light slanted over farmland like something out of a movie. I listened to Fanfarlo and a Timothy Keller sermon on marriage. I stopped for tea in Ennis, TX. But as I drove into Dallas, I knew my idyll had ended. Leaves were swirling upward in the shape of small cones and the sky was a greenish-purple, vomitous hue. I tried to think positive, but as I missed an exit and meandered through skyscrapers downtown, I heard loud sirens. The sirens repeated. My stomach sank into the pit of my soul and I thought, "Uh, oh. Oh, NO. A Texas tornado."

My phone rang, my Dad calling. He said, "I don't want you to come any farther north. It looks horrible out here. Electric wires are snapping and flashing like fireworks. You need to find shelter quickly." When I asked if he could make it home safely, he said, "I hope so." Not really the answer I wanted to hear.

It should not surprise you that the shelter I conjured was a bookstore - a very large Half Price Books on NW Highway. Bookstores have always been havens to me, so if I had to wait out a tornado, a big bookstore was where I wanted to be. Of course, my nerves were so frazzled that I couldn't remember where the store was to save my life. With Johnny's help, I finally made it to the bookstore and ran inside. The wind ruined my umbrella and I got drenched, but I was inside, thank God. I promptly ordered chamomile tea (I really needed Merlot), checked on my Dad (he was OK), and browsed beloved old books.

I found the neatest little book with black & white woodcut illustrations: A Cafecito Story by Julia Alvarez. How could I pass up a book with the subtitle, "A story of love, coffee, birds, and hope"? I also found a book for me and my husband to share: The Power of Prayer in a Believer's Life by Charles Spurgeon. After the tornado finally scooted away from the Dallas area, I got back in the car, purchased a few groceries at Whole Foods, and wearily stumbled into my parents' cozy house.

All of that storm-related stress was worth it, though. I hugged my parents necks, two of my favorite people. I petted their sweet, feisty dogs: Jake and Kujeaux. And my Mom spoiled me yet again with a bag o' goodies including a tea mug, notepads decorated with birds, and so on, but best of all, she gave me two blue & white pillowcases hand-sewn by my grandmother, Nina, in the 1950's. I will use them sparingly, and every time I do, I'll think of how Nina rubbed by back - one hundred slow strokes with her long fingernails 'til I drifted off to sleep.

OK, at this point I'd planned on writing a lengthy, poetic description of each day of the conference. But I have a Curator article due this week, and there was almost too much creative goodness to absorb and process by today. Everyone who spoke uttered humor and wisdom. I took notes furiously. Slowly, but surely, I relaxed in a crowd of strangers, introduced myself to a few folks, and just took in the art and intellectual stimulation. I'm so glad I set out for the unknown because I received many gifts:

-The beauty of the University of Dallas campus. I mean, rabbits were hopping around. Seriously. Dallas was h-o-t like my native Houston, but the post-storm weather produced some jaw-dropping skies. The conference was held in the Haggarty Arts Center, a long modern building with a backdrop of deep, tall trees. This iPhone photo doesn't do the beauty justice, but the scenery was very meditative and peaceful:

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-Something painter Kim Alexander said on the first night: "You can know you are here because we prayed for you. Be who you are - you fit."

-Lunch with Christine at Jason's Deli. However, we almost didn't find the restaurant - not even with my handy iPhone - because Jason placed the sign for his deli across the street. Ahem.

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-I started purchasing loot from the Eighth Day Books tables the very first night, and on the last day, I tucked these into my luggage:

* If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. I've pored over Eighth Day Books' (free) catalogs for years wanting this book. It spoke to me from the table, "Buy me." So I did.

* A handmade Post-a-Quote card with a quote I simply could not pass up:

"Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you can see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little, and have a cup of tea."
[-Elder Sophrony of Essex]

* A lovely Transfiguration icon for Johnny, and also for our wall of icons in the living room.

* Doug Burr's CD of Psalms set to folk/alt-country tunes - The Shawl. The conference staff opened up Doug's concert to our friends and family, too, so my pal Jenny joined me on Saturday night. She geeked up over the banjo and I geeked up over pedal steel. That's just how we are.

* Painter Sedrick Huckaby's program to his exhibition Big Momma's House. His slide show presentation was beautiful - image after image of his grandmother, her room, her hats, and her quilts. During the last slide of her empty bed, he played a tape recording of his grandmother singing a favorite hymn. Huckaby's work is full of the South, warmth, rich color, and intricate composition. I wish my photography could do his paintings justice, but these will have to do:

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Also, Sedrick has a daughter named Halle-Lujah Huckaby. Is that a perfect name or what? They call her Halle; his grandmother's name was Halle, too.

-Gregory Wolfe's plenary and closing addresses - "The Gift of the Unknown" and "Inexhaustible Mystery." One of my favorite quotes by him was "Poetry is art in real time." He read a lot of Scott Cairns's poetry as well. Everything Gregory Wolfe said was remarkable, just like his amazing editorial essays in each issue of Image.

-Panel discussions with all of the speakers - "Mystery . . . It Might Not Be What You Think" and "Wrestling with the Angel." Please tell me these conversations were recorded and will be for sale. Please?

-Mary Kenagy Mitchell read her brilliant short story one night, and the next morning she gave a great talk entitled "You Should Expect to Fail: Humility and Humiliation." That talk was so great that it ought to be published. Oh, and somewhere between her short story and talk, I decided that yes, I do want to write fiction. I've thought this many a time, but Mary said something to the effect of, "Creating people is very exhilarating." A voice resonated inside of me in agreement. It's funny how my desire to form people on pages was birthed during this time of waiting for God to create little people in my womb.

-Jeffrey Overstreet's plenary - "A Little Willingness to See" - was out of this world. He gave a brief tour of his personal history with film based on his book Through a Screen Darkly (on my to-read list). His talk was funny, insightful, moving, and very wise. He incorporated Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ephesians 5:11, Acts 17, the beauty of trees and sky, and two of my favorite quotes (among many other things):

"If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists . . ."
[-Frederick Buechner]

"Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?"
[-Marilynne Robinson]

As much as I loved the entire conference, Jeffrey Overstreet's talk was my favorite. I keep mulling over things he said.

-I should say here that I drove back to my parents' house during the workshops each afternoon. I didn't realize we needed to bring work with us for the writing workshops - I thought they were lectures on writing. DUH, I know. But it worked out well. I was pret-ty weary and it helped to rest before the evening speakers. Next year, I will be healthier, and I'll bring my fiction (or creative nonfiction) for critique.

-Good food and conversation and laughter with my parents at Abeulo's (chicken fajitas, charro beans, pico de gallo, and fresh avocado) and La Madeleine (mega custom omelette with bacon, red bell pepper, and spinach, and cinnamon apple tea). My Dad, the dogs, and I took a walk to the lake around the corner from their house. And there was an afternoon where I really thought my healing body couldn't go on. Not even art enticed me. But my sweet Mom held my face in her soft hands, smiled her pretty smile, and prayed for me. She says she prays simply, but I say she prays perfectly - full of peace, love, and wisdom.

-On my way out of Dallas, I stopped at Fat Straws for a large iced vanilla berry truffle rooibos tea. They even added Truvia which I had in my purse. Yum-my.

-More Fanfarlo and Tim Keller on the way back to Houston. At one point, I was so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open. I blared Radiohead until I found a Starbucks in Huntsville. I gulped down that Americano - a very rehumanizing beverage - and played Pandora's Wilco radio. The two combined with prayer got me home safely. As I veered around the Sam Houston tollway, golden-pink evening light fused through parallel electric wires and tall, steel angels ushered me home. I had a fun, forever-inspiring week, but home is where Johnny is.

I highly recommend Trinity Arts Conference, even if you live elsewhere than Texas. Come on down in the summer of 2010 - I'll be there to say hi.


allison said...

I'm so happy you got to go. Next stop Santa Fe. Thanks for the vicarious visit.

Frosty said...

Your thoughts were not fuzzy but crystal clear :) I am so glad you got to go and experience all of it, even the storms. I know it all happened exactly as God wanted it to happen for you.

kate o. said...

sounds like such a great conference, jenni. glad you got to roadtrip by yourself. they should make bookstores official tornado shelters and then you'd have street signs to them ;)

Jamie Rives said...

I loved reading this, Jenni! Glad you got to go--sounds like it was well worth the emotional distress ;)

Christine said...

Glad you ended up going the second day too and that it turned out well! I loved seeing you, even for a short time :)

Lindsay said...

The conference sounds amazing. I'm glad you had a good and inspiring time. :) Oh, and I might need to get my hands on that writing book. It really sounds interesting.

Margie Haack said...

Woman, you are brave. What blessings it got you!

Robyn Jones Clark said...

fabulous entry! :) i had the blessing of going to the image journal conference one year in jackson, mississippi. absolutely wonderful. i read your tweet about tornadoes.. had no idea you were actually avoiding one at half priced books! ;) i can't wait to read more about your notes.. .but it sounds like it was very inspiring. i love love love kitty ann. you are blessed. :)

shari said...

tornadoes are so scary. glad you were able to wait it out in a bookstore (in typical jenni fashion). ;) i love that brenda copeland book. it's so so so inspiring.

Lauren said...

this is such a lovely post, jenni! before you broke off into bullet points (which were also great, and have me saving pennies already to trek to texas next year!) i found myself thinking- jenni is just getting to be a better and better writer all the time <3

thanks for sharing with us!

jenni said...

Thanks, y'all!

laura said...

wow ... it sounds so wonderful! i wish i could have been there. thanks so much for the tour of all the wonderful things you experienced, plus that amazing truffle berry iced concoction you described ... yum!