Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Art of Taking Away

"Sculpture is the art of taking away, while painting/clay modeling are arts of adding on." ~Michelangelo originally said in Italian, translated into Japanese, I'm remembering vaguely and translating into English...does it still count as a quote?

After leisurely strolling through galleries filled with Michelangelo and Leonardo's sketches, designs, and sculptures, mostly of the human form, I did a triple-take at the above quote written in large white letters high up on the museum wall. A simple, obvious statement, that seemed to hold so much truth about humanity.

Adding on is great: we learn and grow in many ways throughout life by adding on. But there is something especially beautiful in the refining art of taking away. Of finding the beauty hidden within.

The taking away of chiseling off chunks of marble. Of marble marred with a black streak; of perfectly good marble! But masking the beauty of a masterpiece.
Walking back to the train station I couldn't help but notice how absolutely gorgeous the everyday people around me are. The form of the neck of the woman in front of me with her head twisted down, the way that businessman's pants fold as he walks up the escalator, the lines and variations in lips and noses and cheekbones (and oops! Not staring I promise. *awkwardly quit making eye contact with all these gorgeous people).

But at the same time, I was saddened by how much more full of life Leonardo's 15th century sketches seemed compared to the actually alive faces around me. And wondered whether I look just as done at the end of a work-day. Or if maybe part of Leonardo's genius was showing the life hidden within that can't be seen at a glance walking by.

I wonder if we all need a little more of the art of taking away. The taking away that finds the beauty and life in others, and in ourselves. The taking away of saying "no" to some good things, in order to prioritize the best. Of chiseling off hours spent working overtime, or worrying, or on social media; of packing all our time in the guise of a rich, full life, stuffing ourselves with accomplishments and productivity and glowing screens.

What could we chisel away, or allow to be chiseled away, to become more in the image of the masterpiece we were created to be?

Saturday, February 25, 2017


In Ginza, tucked between thousand-dollar purses and million dollar necklaces are a few priceless hidden gems: free admission art galleries!  My favorite find today was this piece by Tokujin Yoshioka, which the iphone/my lack-of-photography skills/your computer screen will not come close to doing justice, but:
Clear glass prisms beam rainbows of color, gently swaying on the walls and floor, brilliantly transforming as you look from different angles. Maybe it's because the first work I saw by this artist was Rainbow Church several years ago, or maybe it's because I had just finished preparing music and slides for tomorrow's worship service, but I couldn't help feeling similarities between what I experience at this art gallery and in the church.

People gather together who maybe have absolutely nothing else in common. Diverse backgrounds, ages, languages; some alone, some with family or friends; united together because they have come to see, to wonder at, to appreciate, to soak... for all of their senses to be captivated and focused not on themselves or each other but on the thing, the One they look to in awe. 

We can't help but be drawn to the Light. And the longer we look, from various angles, the more we see the infinite possibilities. 

Like most I started far away in the back corner of the room, slowly wandered closer, then turned back to see how it was painting the whole room in light from the perspective of the prism itself. And I saw a small crowd of people facing the prism, their eyes glued... to the screens of their smartphones (to document the shining glass, or check the shot they had just taken). Each and every one was completely oblivious that they had become part of the exhibit: their hands and faces and jackets were painted gorgeously with the reflections of refracted light. Just as mine must have been several minutes before.

Then two ladies visiting together noticed the light on each other. Beautiful! They smiled and instructed and positioned each other to make the most of the light shining on them. 

A beautiful reminder to notice the Light around me, in community, and hold on to a sense of wonder.

Bonus: "Wonder" by Mika Aoki (Such incredible detail and whimsy in these glass sculptures based on microscopic patterns in cells/bacteria...unseen but silently and fantastically breathing life into the world)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Christmas Reflection: A Spark

The world said goodbye to a great man this week. To be honest it probably held on to him a bit too long, his body exhausted as his lungs held on by a thread these past few years.'s hard to let the good ones go. 

Alex Mitchell. My piano teacher through high school. 16 was in many ways the hardest year of my life (another story for another day), but weekly piano lessons with Mr. Mitchell were one of the very few things I enjoyed. I don't actually remember much of that year, a hazy blur of doctors appointments and sleeping, but so many moments with Alex are etched into my memory. At the time and still clear as photographs today, sparks of hope and wonder.

He said if you can play Bach (and Chopin), you can play anything. So straight from the piano-for-beginners-adult-series to Bach's little preludes and fugues I went. Sitting just to my right grasping a sharpened yellow pencil, the sweet tinge of peppermint on his breath failing to hide the familiar musk of tobacco on his clothes ("Don't EVER smoke. Nasty habit") he said Bach isn't about seeing how fast and impressively you can play; Bach is a tapestry. It may seem like a mess. But as you fully appreciate each line, bringing out each unique color and carefully weave them together, the product is not the jumbled mess the back may have appeared to be, but a beautiful tapestry. Not unlike quite a lot of life if you think about it...

I was about to walk out out the door after one lesson when he stopped me with a string of very proper, inspiring sounding words in Latin. But wait, didn't that one word mean... after letting me wrestle with his "riddle" for a moment his eyes sparkled and he grinned, "roughly translated, 'don't let the bastards get you down'". In the moments between figuring fingerings and phrasing he had a knack for knowing when I needed a word of encouragement, a life lesson, or a laugh.

This Christmas I remember again to wait on and for Immanuel, God With Us; a season set apart to remember hope, wonder, light shining in the darkness. Christ of course is all those things for us, but in His ridiculous generosity He gave us more than his more-than-enough self. He gave us Mr. Mitchells. He who put on human flesh calls us to put on...Himself. For our own good, and for each other.

Who has God used to shine light on your darkness? Who might you be a spark of hope, wonder, and light to today? 

Friday, July 8, 2016


Sometimes on my morning commute I play the color game with the unsuspecting hundreds and hundreds of people I pass: spot a person wearing a color besides black, white, grey, or blue. 15 minutes in this morning all I got was 1 green skirt, 1 red-striped pair of capris, and 1 purple shirt. Come on, Tokyo; you can do better than that! ;)

But seriously, I'm a foreigner who sticks out like a bright-pink-minority-of-a-thumb and I've never felt safer in my life.

Meanwhile in America...well, on a good day race is something that is defended; each person given rights and respect regardless of race (or gender, religion, financial status...). But this week hasn't been a "good day". This week every day I see the next headline my heart is wrenched open with sadness and anger: "really America? What part of 'don't shoot each other to bits' is so hard?!"

But it is hard; it's complicated. It's culture and sometimes cross-cultural communication, and laws, and policies, and perceptions, and little every-day actions and comments made without a conscious thought...

But I long for my nieces and nephews to grow up in a world where color is something that isn't judged, but isn't "defended" either. That isn't protested, but isn't the elephant in the room either. I long for them to grow up in a world where color is enjoyed and celebrated.

And in the meantime... this is emotional. I don't want to have a calm and collected debate about right now. I want to be angry about the injustice, on all sides. And pray for mercy for the country that raised me, that my passport says is "home". And I want to do something to make it better.

I'm reminded that maybe the arts were created for moments like these. Maybe music can't fix all the mess and violence and tension and hurt about race. But maybe it can bring us together for just a moment, remind us who we are, give us a glimmer of hope for the day when there will be perfect peace; and help us to simply... grieve together.    ( ↓"Mercy" by Max Richter)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Contagious Beauty

Outlines of leaves delicately carved into the wood bar. Our host recalls the titles of 1960s jazz tunes gently swirling in the air like the steam from our mugs of green tea. Little pieces of artwork appear on our plates one piece at a time: vibrant orange, rich yellow, smooth white; a hint of citrus bringing out the almost sweet flavor of cooked eel; crisp shiso with pickled radish... The flavors, textures, and colors compliment each other perfectly, like a polyphonic violin partita dancing in my mouth. Sushi.

We grin and leave the chopsticks on their holders, copying our host in old-school "real" Japanese manners: this is finger food! He is quick to smile, eager to explain, generous in sharing this country that has been his home for over 70 years with these two young foreigners who have barely skimmed the surface of culture, language, and food. We chat across the bar with the chef as he shows us the different kinds of fish they have tonight, and by the end of the evening the 2 businessmen beside us join in the pleasant small talk.

Up the narrow stairwell and down the back alleyways the train station is still bustling with people,  a whole other world oblivious to the refuge of quiet beauty just around the corner. Filing into the train car, eyes glued to phones, faces masking everything except a bit of tiredness after a long day's work. Across from me a baby twists away from her mom to beam at the businessmen standing above her, a contagious smile that spreads down the line of middle-aged business men before I realize I'm grinning as well.

Maybe it's cheesy, but moments like these are part of why I'm thrilled to call this city home. An appreciation for stepping away for a moment, and cherishing something beautiful. A reminder that beauty, and appreciating beauty, are wonderfully contagious. A hope that maybe through a bite of food, a quiet moment away, a smile, we can each share a contagious fascination with the One who is most beautiful of all.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Remembering Kumamoto

My favorite language mistake so far is thinking the word "takidashi" meant “cookout/BBQ/party”. Turns out the correct translation is more like “soup kitchen”. Oops! As you know, last month I got to join a small team playing concerts in evacuation shelters in Kumamoto after the big quakes. It was a quick and busy trip that’s still hard to put into words. I wrote this journal entry right after with no intentions to share it with the world, but, as it's the best I have to try to communicate the experience, here it goes:

“I'm still picking white paper fragments off my shirt.

I pulled the load of clothes out of the wash, no longer smelling of smoke from outdoor grills, no more stains of mud from unloading supplies at the evacuation center on that rainy morning. Clean. New. Fresh. And covered in tiny bits of clean white paper. Not a smudge of ink. Not a trace of the hastily written note "なりた... (Narita)" and a phone number. I wrack my brain for a memory of those 10 digits, but they're gone. My mind is as bright a white slate as the paper bits that fall off my jeans and float to the ground like Sakura petals. A reminder of our fleeting moment of friendship and connection. 

Our team of 5 walked into the hallway of the elementary school-turned-evacuation-center, arms loaded with thin insulated mats. They would at least be more comfortable then the single layer of cardboard or tarp currently serving as beds on hard floors of 2nd grade classrooms. She was right at the top of the stairs, almost as if she had been waiting just for us. She sighed in grateful relief when she saw what we carried. Actually she had been about to leave, but quickly guided me through the maze of staircases and hallways to point out the areas of greatest need. 

She told me her house is OK, so she's not staying here- just volunteering as she can. Her neighbor's house is marked with a bright red "don't enter- dangerous" sign, and she wears a hard hat if she goes outside, afraid one of the aftershocks will send debris or chunks of wall raining down. Her family is all fine. She tells me her daughter lives in Tokyo, and her grandson has started university. Out of the worry and hurry comes a smile, unique to proud grandparents everywhere.

We stop to chat with 2 young girls, sitting on a table with legs swinging, and I hope that in their memory this will be a fun camp-out, where school was cancelled and they got to have sleepovers with friends for 2 whole weeks. They eagerly chime in as Narita tells me what a wonderful music teacher this school has, who serenades the students with music during lunch time. "Music is wonderful, isn't it?" Actually, it so happens our team is musicians, and under the mats our van is packed with a violin, keyboard, and portable pipe organ (that's right!). Maybe we could play a concert during lunch time here?

She arranged it with the shelter leader, and an hour later the gym was a concert hall, the pop-tents prime box seats, and I silently prayed over the room as rhythms and melodies of Bach and Vivaldi gushed to fill the empty hall, fill in the unspoken fears of "where will we go next", fill in the cracks of stress on worried faces.

After talking with our precious audience for an hour I looked for another glimpse of Narita-san, who herself put into words my feeling that we were somehow instantly old friends. We exchanged phone numbers, and I told her to call me if she ever came up to Tokyo.

I wonder if she will. I wonder if my phone number is still there in her folder. I pray that even if our relationship is as over and gone as Sakura season, maybe it made as much an impact on her as it had on me. Maybe like the cherry blossoms our encounter will be all the more precious for its brevity. Maybe she'll think back and remember those Christians who floated by with a glimmer of Christ's light and love flowing from black and white keys and vibrating bow strings.”

Friday, April 15, 2016

And So It Begins!

After a few days of placement tests and a week and a half of classes, we had our 入学式 today (school entrance ceremony - uber Japanese thing where they say welcome and 頑張りましょう!a lot. And of course sing a song. And take pictures.), so I am officially in language school now. Here it goes!

One of the 50ish kanji I've learned this week is 解 - "kai". It's a character packed full of meaning, from "unbind" to "cancel" to "solve", and combined with other characters makes the words "understanding", "solution", and "release/set free".

Dissecting the parts of a kanji character is key if I want to have any hope of actually remembering them the next day. This one is 角 (corner/edge) 刀 (sword/knife) 牛 (cow). Totally random, right?

But it so happens, our church devotional book this past week is starting through Leviticus, with several detailed chapters on sacrifices. How they were to lay hands on the head of the bull and kill it, putting the blood on the horns of the altar. Pretty powerful imagery. The edge of a knife, the corners of the altar, a corner, a turning point, for both the sacrifice and the sinner.

And what's the point of it all? Forgiveness. Guilt atoned for, canceled, unbound from sin, a solution to the problem of our ridiculous uncleanness so we can be at peace and stand in God's presence.  Set free.

I can't help but be thankful for Christ, who sacrificed Himself so we could be free. He whose cleanness and beauty goes far beyond my imagination, who reminds me of Himself even in Japanese study.

1 kanji down... 2,000 to go?!?!  ;)