Meinrad Craighead and The Magic of Synchronicity

“I do believe in an everyday sort of magic — the inexplicable connectedness we sometimes experience with places, people, works of art and the like; the eerie appropriateness of moments of synchronicity; the whispered voice, the hidden presence, when we think we’re alone.”   — Charles De Lint

“Memory”, Meinrad Craighead

I read a statement by a cyclist somewhere, recently, that claimed one of the best reasons for riding was that while doing so the mind has free range to wander where it will. And sometimes, in that wandering, it takes one someplace wholly unexpected. One beautiful afternoon last week, as I rode along the bike lane on Portland Avenue, just as I crossed the heavily trafficked Lake Street, I became aware of my own wandering thoughts. Aware that I had been in an almost meditative state, allowing thoughts and images to float into and back out of my mind without comment, without judgement.

Oftentimes, once you become aware of that semi-meditative or flow state, it’s over. Your very attention to it brings you out of that moment, carries you back into self-consciousness. Occasionally, though, something different happens and you, instead, find yourself in a state of heightened awareness. I felt myself entering that state of hyper-awareness – I felt my tires connecting with the road, the warmth of sun on shoulders, the scent of freshly mown grass in my nostrils. The traffic noises receded, and I could hear only the blood in my veins and my own breath.

That’s when Meinrad Craighead popped into my thoughts.

At a time in my life when I was open to new ways of thinking, I happened to pick up a book called “Seekers of Wisdom: Women Mystics of the 20th Century” by Anne Bancroft. The book profiled a number of spiritual seekers; their lives and words had a profound effect on my own thinking and worldview. The chapter about Meinrad Craighead struck me as particularly powerful. In it, Craighead shared a story about experiencing (as a child) something very like what I felt that afternoon on my bike. ” I held the dog’s head, stroking her into sleep. But she held my gaze. As I looked into her eyes I realized that I would never travel further than into this animal’s eyes. At this particular moment I was allowed to see infinity through my dog’s eyes, and I was old enough to know that.”

As I read Craighead’s story, punctuated with long quotations from her own writings, I found myself drawn to her discussion of the feminine face of God, to her view of our lives. “Life,” she said, “is radically more than the experiences of a lifetime, it is an invitation to a journey back to our origin in God, and our own personal memories form the unique stuff of that quest.” An artist, Craighead became known for her dreamlike imagery and mystical themes of the Divine Feminine. At one point in the chapter, it was mentioned that she had attended an all-women’s Catholic college. I had attended a previously all-women’s Catholic college and remember having the passing thought that it would be cool if we shared an alma mater. It was a fleeting thought, and it soon passed out of my consciousness, though Craighead’s words remained with me.

A few weeks later, I received an invitation to a special series of events on my college’s campus celebrating the anniversary of its founding. Headline billing was given to world-renown artist and alumna, Meinrad Craighead. I was stunned – I’d never even heard of this woman until that spring. And once I had, I certainly did not expect the possibility of meeting her to arise. I was beyond excited, and I made plans to attend her guest lecture and the opening of her retrospective art exhibit on the campus in my hometown. I had never seen any of her paintings – this all took place early in the development of the internet, and a great deal of information was simply not yet available to the world. Meinrad Craighead’s lecture – part explication of her theological and mystical beliefs and part treatise on how these informed her work as an artist, was truly mind-blowing. Slides of her work appeared on huge screens as she discussed each piece. Each one was beautiful, deeply symbolic, and epic in scale.

My head swimming with the ideas she presented, I left the lecture hall and went immediately to the gallery where her work was on display. There I discovered, much to my surprise, that most of Craighead’s paintings were quite small. Their amazing use of color and the degree of detail took on new significance as I realized the discipline exercised in working on such a diminutive scale when the subject matter was infinity itself.

That there was more than mere chance involved in the timing of these events I have never doubted. The encounter with Craighead, through her words, her work and her presence, has continued to inform my own beliefs and perspectives. This was synchronicity in its truest sense – meaningful coincidence, rather than random happenstance.

As I rode my bike, I looked in front of my tire and saw the white painted lines which delineated the bike lane stretching straight ahead of me to the horizon. And in that moment, I realized that I was riding not only toward the Minnehaha Creek path but also into my own future. Every experience I’ve had has propelled me toward this moment – just as this moment adds strength to the forward momentum of my life. I haven’t yet become the person I am meant to be precisely because that person is the culmination of a life’s activities and experiences. As surely as Craighead saw infinity in the eyes of her dog, I saw it stretching before me in the bike lane.

“At the source of our deepest self is a mysterious unknown ever eluding our grasp. We can never possess it except as that mystery which keeps at a distance. The heart’s quest is toward this unknown. There is no respite in the task of getting beyond the point we have already reached because the Spirit stands further on. She stands at the end of every road we may wish to travel by…We never ‘catch up with’ who we fundamentally are.” — Meinrad Craighead


NOTE: Please check out Craighead’s website so you can see her work. Adding to the touch points between us, I learned that Craighead is a resident of the bosque in Albuquerque, New Mexico – one of my favorite places and certainly influential to her work and both our lives!




Word Girl Meets Visual World – Finale

A person who forgoes the use of his symbolic skills is never really free.
Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990

For my final attempt to fulfill the “Winter Silence” challenge, I decided to return to a medium and technique with which I was already familiar – bead applique.  Now, if you have difficulty imagining me sitting, quietly, for hours on end wielding a needle and thread, you’re probably not alone.  But you’ve probably never seen me around beads.  “Winter Silence” took many hours, and in the week leading up to Art Day I beaded until my fingers bled (from sticking myself with the beading needle when I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open).

Winter Silence: Third and final piece

While the photos don’t fully capture the final piece (which is framed, making it difficult for a novice like me to photograph), I loved the final product.  Why?  First, because it conveyed the theme without words.  Second, because it does so without being directly representational.  Third, because I envisioned this scene in my mind and the end result is not too different from the original conception.

Imagine show and tell on the second Art Day…each person unveiling their attempt(s) to create something within specific parameters, using a specific set of objects.  Each person brought completely different projects to the table. Stephanie’s son commented that hers looked less like “Winter Silence” than like “Winter Slaps You in the Face”, but I loved seeing them all individually, and their diversity as a set.

We have now had five Art Days.  Each day, each project, has been different.  Each of us is developing a small collection of challenge pieces.  One Art Day was devoted entirely to stained glass projects, Paula’s forte.  The most recent saw us all arrive with so many supplies that they took multiple trips from car to house to get everything into the work room.  We still laugh a lot, and talk, but there is a lot more actual work getting done, too.

So, why have I taken three posts to share the story of Art Day and my recent efforts to explore a more visual form of expression?  On one level, it is a way of honoring the experience and the wonderful women with whom I have shared it.  On another level, though, I want to share an experience I am growing from.  Like many people, I suspect, I am reluctant to try new things unless there is a certain level of success guaranteed. I avoid situations in which I feel or look foolish.  Which, for most of us, is what happens when we try something we’ve never really done before.

Art Day has helped me keep at it, learn how to play without undue emphasis on the end result, to compare and contrast my work with someone else’s without a need for ranking the results. I am learning to communicate in actual images rather than verbal imagery. And the sheer fun and concentrated effort required to create is truly a joyful discovery.  Art, and as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a joyful life “is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.”  In other words, living life is an art: our time, energy, activity and emotion are the media we have to work with. And in order to live fully, we have to stop waiting for only those things we can do perfectly from the start.  Risking being an amateur or a failure or a fool…that’s how we work our way through to the joy.

Word Girl Meets Visual World – Part 1

Other kids loved art.  Finger painting, coloring, sidewalk chalk.  It was ok.  When I colored, I liked to color hard to get the most vibrant hues.  I never understood those kids who drew lightly with their crayons, filling the space between the lines with pale apricot-ty pastels.  But that was about the sum total of my opinion on arts and crafts time for kids.

Then, in first grade, I discovered words.  Spelling. Vocabulary. And best of all, the art of writing stories.  It was a book, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, that rocked my world.  Having been taught to read with the famously boring Dick and Jane readers, I had never understood that storytelling could go where “The Peppers” took me:  into an imaginary world not of my own making.  The rest of that year, Mrs. Burns, my teacher, was constantly yelling at me to stop reading in class.

I’ve been a talker and a writer ever since.

Which isn’t to say that I’ve never appreciated other art forms.  I have always known musicians and artists, even the occasional serious dancer.  My brother Jeff has spent his life as an actor, director, playwright and sometime songwriter. I have been deeply moved by various works and mediums.  But I have primarily remained a spectator, not a participant (except for a brief but disastrous period in which I took classical guitar lessons in college – I still owe the world an apology for that one!).

And then along came Art Day.  While there were many experiences and influences leading up to my foray into the visual arts (namely my siblings Anne and Matt and our dear friend the artistic genius Syndy Ziegenfuss), Art Day seemed to arrive out of the blue.  Here’s how it happened — one November a few years ago, my aunt and cousin invited me to an in-home show and sale of their work, and I took my friend Sue with me. I believe there were five women in that show, and their pieces ranged from jewelry and home decor items to truly stunning works of art, such as Stephanie’s bead mosaics and paintings.  Over hot cider and cookies, I heard myself say to Steph, “We should get together and spend a day working on stuff.  It could be fun.”

Where did that suggestion come from?  Like many times in my life, my mouth seemed to open of its own accord, and out came something completely unexpected…surprising even me.  Stephanie accepted immediately, as did Sue. Within minutes my aunt, Paula, made it clear she did not intend to be left out of the so-called “fun”.  It was only later that Sue and I, probably sipping chai tea in some coffee shop, confessed to thinking the same thought:  Holy crap. What did I just get myself into?

Where does creativity come from?

I am reading Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet by Matthew Fox.  The book is provocative, as is its author. (Fox, a proponent of Creation Spirituality, was censured by the Vatican, officially “silenced”, and dismissed from the Dominican order)  To illustrate, the title of Chapter 5 asks the question:  “Is original sin the refusal to create, and is redemption the liberation of creativity?” I haven’t gotten as far as Chapter 5 yet, but I am interested to read Fox’s answer.

Back in Chapter 3 (“Where does creativity come from?”) which I read earlier today, the following quote struck me:

“Artists need an inner life just like everyone else.  They also need an outer life, that is to say, a cosmology, an awareness of how we got here and what “here” constitutes in its holy vastness and its unimaginable diversity and creativity.”

As I thought about this concept, two artists whose work has had a significant impact on me came to mind.  The first is Faith Ringgold, whose story quilts offered an entirely new idea of art and the artist’s role to me when I viewed them for the first time in the late 1980s.  The second is my cousin, Stephanie Failmezger.  Stephanie has created a medium she calls “bead mosaic”, which is unique and which she often uses to express her cosmology.  Her latest piece, made up of 24 3-inch beaded quilt squares promises to bring together her influences (such as Mexican art) and the profound spiritual vision underpinning her artistic vision.  While Stephanie and I don’t share the same cosmology, the appeal of her work is that this subtext is expressed so eloquently that her pieces can, literally, be read on many levels.  They speak to the heart even while the mind is grappling with the technique used.

While I don’t have any hard and fast answers to the question asked in the title of this entry, I do believe that it is worth asking not only where creativity comes from, but who is the one doing the creating?  These are questions I am trying to answer for myself.

(I encourage you to check out Stephanie’s work at the following link )