Tuesday, August 7

Serendipity Art

Serendipity means a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it, according to Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serendipity

Serendipity Art is art that you find when you were not looking for art. It is like finding a gem glistening in a damp cave or along a shallow river bank.  One is at once elated, excited and quietly looking around to see if anyone else noticed it as well. 

One such place of Serendipity Art is at the Atkinson Library (location: 1960 W. Atkinson Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53209 (414) 286-3000 ). It opened in January 1961 as the first in a 10-year program to provide large regional libraries spread throughout the City of Milwaukee. The beauty of the building's unique architecture, highlighted by a beamed, cathedral vaulted ceiling, woodwork and modern stained glass windows, was enhanced by a renovation project in the spring of 1994. 

The branch manager of the library was quoted at the library's 50th anniversary:  "Atkinson Library has a strong African-American collection, excellent career and small business materials, engaging programs for all ages and 26 computers with Internet access. The vaulted ceilings, many windows and woodwork make the library an inviting place to gather." (Brian Williams-VanKlooster in a celebratory hand-out at the library.)

But this is only the ambience that allows one to find Seredipity Art. Two stunning sculptures - one inside, the other outside - capture the essence of serendipity art. Both were done by local Milwaukee artists according to library staff, but preliminary research did not reveal names either. Perhaps, it is art of local angels.

The first piece is called "Four Frredoms" and the library staff had a handout that described the symbolism of the piece.

(written anonymously for the library semi-centennial to explain the sculpture)

An abstract sculpture. Each metal represents a different kind of freedom.

FREEDOM FROM WANT includes ornaments of the sun, half hidden by a rain cloud, the germinating seed, sheaf of grain, open book, flash of energy and five loaves and two fishes.

FREEDOM OF RELIGION consists of basic symbols of the six major religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Confucianism)>

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION is ornamented with a flying unicorn, a pajam-clad child with a book flying carpet, a ship at sea, a tree, and a flame of light.

FREEDOM FROM FEAR includes a brutalized figure of a man, armed with a club and rock emerging from an atomic explosion mushroom cloud.

Also depicted is a broken heart, finger of scorn, the prying eye, the lying tongue, fist and shackle, a listening ear and skull of death.

* * *
The second piece is a beautiful contemporary ethnic sculptured head that has no name. It stands in the middle of the library as a wondrous sentinel.

I was told that an anonymous neighborhood sculptor donated this piece to guard the library's extensive collection of African-American history - and so it does.

Serendipity Art can bring us into a location where we can be blessed with beauty and opportunity to know more about our fellow humans.

Look for Serendipity Art to lead you by your heart to places you will find insight and blessing. Sometimes, it will be found in the most unlikely of places.

Monday, May 14

A Story of Very Small Bear

[Note: A Story of Very Small Bear is a fictionalized account of real events by John-Brian Paprock. Just thought you should know...]

Not every toy and stuffed animal bought has the wondrous journey of the Velveteen Rabbit, although they all aspire to loved that much. Usually, reaching the high state of being loved and becoming real is reserved for the stuffed animals of children who must outgrow their beloved, yet will always cherish the memories of comfort afforded their youth. Even then, it is becoming more and more difficult for toys and stuffed animals to compete with video games and the Internet.  They are discarded sooner, before they can be loved enough to overcome the inanimate state in which they were created.

Occasionally, there are rare exceptions of the service of such comforting angels who come in the form of stuffed animals and become loved in such abundance that the length of time has little to do with the miraculous reality of protecting those that feel vulnerable or sickly. And it is no longer a precondition that the benefit only be available to the young, but to anyone of any age, if their need is sufficient.

This is a story of one lucky bear who happened to made at the right time and was displayed on the right shelf at the right angle to catch the attention of a hurried husband concerned for his wife's condition.

The bear wasn't particularly unique, being among many of his own ilk, except his eyes. His glistening deep blue plastic eyes sparkled real, or at least as real glass. Those blue eyes were sewn in such a compassionate expression it made the stitching of his embroidered smile seem equally compassionate. The husband, although hurried, was surprised how much the compassion expressed by a stuffed animal caught his attention.  He looked through the other small white bears gathered on the shelf (and even the shelf below). None of them had the compassion and earnestness of this special bear. 

As the husband carried the bear, he noticed that the bear had a hybrid stuffing that was sort-of beanie-baby type stuff and fluffy stuff.  His white fur was plush and soft. The husband found himself petting the bear's head as he stood in line at the store. He glanced around to see if anyone noticed and then, with some embarrassment, glanced down at the bear who seemed to be staring back at him knowingly, and with a compassion that made the husband less embarrassed and even a bit comforted.

"She will love this bear," he thought as he checked out and walked to the car. He glanced into the bag to see where the bear was among the groceries. On the right, next to a bunch of bananas and a bottle of ibuprofen sat the bear, smiling back at the husband as though he could hear the loving thoughts and feel the loving intentions.

 He arrived home, turning the kitchen light on with his elbow as he brought the bag of groceries and placed the bag on the counter.

"Is that you?" The inquiry came from the bedroom.

"Yes. It's me, sweetie. I got something special for you."

"Did you get milk?" He turned around and there she was in her pink bathrobe, grabbing the edge of the bag to peek. The all of the sudden she squealed (well, there may be more dignified words for the sound she made, but she did squeal).

"Awwww. He's so cute!" she said as she carefully pulled a small white furry animal from the bag. The bear was ecstatic for he knew he was made for her.  She delightfully and carefully placed in the palm of her hand so that he sat up as he did on the store shelf.  She stared into his face with such a smile. Her husband recognized her joy bubbling up as she began to giggle.

"Oh my, look at his eyes!" she exclaimed in a whisper as she stroked his fur around his ears with one finger. "They are so blue; almost as blue as yours, sweetie! Thank you!"  She turned and gave her husband a big hug and kissed him on the neck. He blushed a bit and giggled.

"I knew it as soon as I saw him," he said in a self-congratulatory manner. His smile was almost as big as hers.  The bear was inwardly at peace and immediately felt love for these humans. As she hugged her husband, she looked over his shoulder at the bear in her hand.

"He's perfect; just the right size. He is very small, but he is the exact size. He fits into my hand perfectly," she said with adoration as she closed her hand around the bear, softly. The bear let out an inward sigh that the humans could not hear. He felt completely safe and completely loved.

"Do you think the others will be jealous?" her husband asked jokingly, but this was a serious question to his wife.

"I don't think so," she said with a frown on her face. But as she brought the bear to her face for a close up view of his face, she shook her head.  "They will all love him. He's so cute and so full of love. He'll fit right in."

She ran back to the bedroom and introduced the bear to the other stuffed animals on the bed. Basil Bear was a new year bear 1998 and he was the elder of the bed.  There was Zachariah, a beanie-baby type lamb that comforted the wife through a major depression. And Purple Distressed Bear, who always helped when there was a lot of anxiety. And Yellow Bunny, whose name always seemed to be on the tip on the tongue and would always be remembered later. And Flower, a new bunny with pink ears with a flower embroidered on her belly. And a bedtime Topo Gigio, who only said the Lord's Prayer in Italian when his belly was pressed.

"And this is, um, well, this is Very Small Bear," she said as an introduction as she held her hand open palmed with the white bear to entire bed crew.  Her husband chuckled into his hand from the door. He was very happy that this small token of affection had brought so much joy. All of the sudden, she said, "I am so very tired."

"Is there anything I can get you?"

"No, please come to bed," she said as she curled into her side of the bed. The bed crew of animals at her head and neck in the middle. She held Very Small Bear in her hand. On her side, she looked at him closely, petting his head, staring at the compassionate expression and the sparkling blue eyes.  She sighed.  Her husband came over and helped her take off the robe and get tucked in.  She never let go of Very Small Bear. Looking into his face again and smashing their noses together, her husband could hear her giggle as she said, "You ARE a Very Small Bear."

He went to gather his books and the daily puzzle, go to the restroom and undress, so that he could lie next to his wife.  By the time he arrived at the bed, his wife was already asleep. It was not her fault she was so sleepy. The medicine made her very tired. She seemed to suffer so when she was awake. It was good that the medicine helped her sleep, he thought as he kissed her on the cheek and said softly, "Good night, my sweet wife."

She smiled but did not wake up. He notice that her hand was completely relaxed and yet Very Small Bear lay perfectly in her hand against her fingers with his head poking out.  It was almost as though he winked at the husband to reassure him that she would be fine; that all the love he felt for her was held in this very small soft furry stuffed animal body and, while in her hand, a transference of security, comfort, support and warmth flowed into her heart and melted away all illness, all pain in both of them.  The husband laid back, turned on his light and opened his book. Evey so often, he would glance over at Very Small Bear who joyfully continued his work through the night.

The amount of love Very Small Bear was almost too much to hold within his very small body. At one point, during the night, the wife's hand loosened enough, so that, when she turned, he fell to the floor.  He found himself quite animated, able to walk around.  He began to explore the area next to the bed, looking up at the wife and wondering how he was going to get back into her hand. 

The other animals of the bed, came to the edge and leaned over.  They had all sorts of questions, but none of them offered to help him back up to the bed. Finally, he asked directly for some help and they devised a way of reaching him with blankets and pillows cases and a few arms and legs. Topo Gigio said the Lord's Prayer in Italian, mostly because the wife grabbed him while she was sleeping. 

All of the sudden, she woke up, disrupting the bed crew's rescue plans. She ran into the bathroom. With the sound of the flushing toilet, she slowly walked back to the bed. She stopped abruptly and looked at her hands in the hallway light streaming into the bedroom.  "Where is Very Small Bear?"

She was distressed and began to look, calling for him, "Very Small Bear. Very Small Bear. Where are you?"

Her husband woke up and asked, "What's going on?"

"I can't find Very Small Bear," she said almost tearfully. And he began to look as well.  Just as he was reaching for the main light, she exclaimed "There you are! Don't wander too far away when you are on the floor. Remember, after all, you are a very small bear."

She pat him on the head and held him close to her. "Did she know?" thought Very Small Bear, but it really didn't matter. 

Very Small Bear felt he had found his purpose because of the ease of comfort he felt as she wrapped her fingers loosely around him. She kissed him on the head, curled back up on her side of the bed, and then quickly sat up. She leaned toward her husband and reached her empty hand for him.

"Thank you, my swee', so very much for the love of Very Small Bear. He fits perfectly and comfortably in my hand. It's like he was made for me. My heart feels better with him here. Thank you." She leaned over and kissed her husband.

He smiled and said softly, "Good night, my love, and good night, Very Small Bear."

the author sound asleep with the bed crew friends of Very Small Bear
some of the bed crew animals

a real very small bear
photo of baby polar bear
source: Facebook unknown

Sunday, April 22

Remembering Earth Day

The first Earth Day was established in 1970 by Wisconsin statesman Gaylord Nelson.  I was nine years old, but I already understood the natural world was a treasure that was freely accessible and glorious to behold.

photo by JBP c 2000

Some of my earliest memories are: shifting through the grass with my hand, following the ants and other small bugs crawling through the thatchwork at the base of the lawn; putting my face into red flower; playing with the garden snails after the Southern California rain brought them out in droves, giggling as they reacted to touch and breath; looking in Pacific tide pools filled with wondous diversity affected by every wave.

From the forest to the desert, from the ocean to the lakes, to the rivers, to the mountains, to the caves, I am truly blessed to live in a land rich in diverse natural beauty and a country with a rich history of those who care enough to help the future generations experience the same awe and wonder of nature.

It is in this love of God's creation that my love of photography emerges and extends to the interface of human creations and natural wonders, to the purely human creative urge from which all forms of art and expression find their beginnings and fruition.

But we have found out, after the industrial revolution of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, that our creative ability can have a devastating and polluting effect, poisoning the very elements of the natural and living world we need for any quality of human existence.  By the mid-20th Century, the damage we can inflict became painfully obvious to those who followed in the footsteps of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. The loss of the passenger pigeon through excessive hunting became a poignant example, among a growing supply of examples, that rang an alarm of an inter-connected and inter-dependent dying that would lead to our own human destruction.

Earth Day emerged as a single day every year for the remembrance of the beauty of creation and a call to action for every human being.

Litter and trash thrown along the roads and walkways, choked the scenic beauty of even the most rural parts of America, the Beautiful.  I remember the early Earth Day "celebrations" as days for picking up litter and trash. Now we have whole municipalities, states and nations dedicated to recycling as much as possible. In most places in America, there are laws that prohibit littering and encourage recycling.

In the 21st Century, the beauty and awesomeness of the natural world can be found in the densest of urban communities where parks and trees are demanded by citizens for quality of life. It can be found in the great expanses and wondrous scenic opportunities of national and state parks. Their protection and accessibility paid for by citizens through taxes, and encouraged by a clear conscience of voters, ensuring future generations and future centuries can bear witness to the natural world as we can today, one of the many Earth Days worth remembering.

photo by JBP c 2012

+ + +

For more information about Earth Day:
Earth Day: The History of A Movement
Some of Wisconsin heroes have been given special recognition:
Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame
Over 70 Hall of Fame Inductees: Wisconsin has historically pioneered new concepts and ideas. A number of progressive steps toward the conservation of natural resources have originated in Wisconsin, including: the first rural zoning law in the U.S., the first pilot soil conservation demonstration project in the U.S., the first general conservation curriculum, and the first bond issue for outdoor recreation.

Thursday, April 5

Good Bye Cantebury Love

I remember the moment
I knew I loved you.
It was a moment that I did not capture in a photograph, but it is indelibly etched into my heart; such precious spiritual moments are rare enough.
Cantebury's Coffeeshop was fairly busy that day. The sun streamed into windows. I sat with my coffee, blowing off the steam. As I blew, you sat down across from me.  You were telling me something significant at the time, but I do not remember your words.  The noise of the store became a background hum as the piped Renaissance music lilted through the air.  

I remember,
you tossed your hair
as you crossed your legs and
sipped your hot Chai tea.

I was,
at that moment,
completely smitten. 

Instead of an acquaintance that was becoming a good friend, you glistened like a pearl of great price, sparkled like a precious gem on some routine jewelry that when noticed consumes the attention so that everything else fades into the background.

Its beauty only glows and grows,
until it becomes the source
of light in any room.

Everytime I sat across from you,
for the years that followed,
I smiled
(if you take the time to remember every time, you will see my smile).

I smiled
as I saw that same pearl and gem
through your eyes
from your heart.

I attempted to get a photograph of that glow, that dazzling charm, that enticing and spiritual light. Several times, I almost caught it.

I always knew you were a gift to my lonely life and a companion for my journey. 
You had to leave for a while
shortly after that Cantebury afternoon.
When you returned, I knew I could not give you much,
but I did promise my heart and an adventure.

And years later, I am still smitten by 
that glistening pearl and
sparkling gem of your heart
that you were
that you are
that you will always be
to me.

I love you and will always love you
You no longer sit across from me
I will miss being in the presence of that Cantebury love
but the memory of that love
I discovered that afternoon
will endure

(photos and words by JBP April 5, 2012)

Sunday, March 11

Enigmatic AND Effective: Farewell to a Spiritual Light of Madison

Sunset at Holy Wisdom Monastery - March 6, 2012
Chuck Pfeifer's Farewell Dinner
photo by John-Brian Paprock
 Making Community Better Uniquely The Way God Made You

There are a few people in my life that have been crucial in my spiritual development. Charles D. Pfeifer has been one of those people. Past tense is used not because Chuck has passed on, but because he is leaving Madison, finally moving closer to his adult children and their families.  I am glad he will be an example of the good in humanity to his grandchildren.  That's part of the reason I am sad to see him go.

We have not been in much contact since his retirement from Madison Urban Ministry, but I have always known he was close by.  He has been a shining light among the people that make Madison shine among the cities of America.  I have made many referrals to him for spiritual counsel to those of similar thread.

There is so much about Madison and about me that would not have come about if Chuck was not seeking the good, the best of people and our community.  At the same time, he did not flinch in the face of true darkness that so often seeps into the cracks, blending into the floor or the walls.

During his 25+ years with Madison Urban Ministry, Chuck worked hard on the problems that seemed to be on the edge of people's consciousness and sometimes ignnored by their conscience - even if they were going to get around to helping with that problem at sometime. Chuck challenged the morality and the ethics of waiting around for someone else to do it. 

Charles "Chuck" Pfeifer
and Rev. John-Brian Paprock
March 6, 2012
photo by Christo
Under Chuck's sometimes reluctant leadership as executive director of Madison Urban Ministry: a model family program to help troubled families was started (aptly named Family Enhancement); as was a program to assist the elderly with home repairs and remodelling (Project Home); and, when I got involved, Chuck and MUM were in the midst of dynamic work to resolve homelessness in the Madison area.

I actually called Chuck 25 years ago, during the spring of 1987, when the date of my ordination to the priesthood was set.  I called about community ministry for the small mission in Madison I was being ordained to serve.  It turned out that as many things as we had in common, we seemed to have even more that set us apart.  Yet Chuck always seemed to dwell in our common-ness and I learned that, in actuality, we had much more in common at a deeper level.

We were from different Christian denominations, very different. He was a founding member of a progressive United Church of Christ congregation and I was an Orthodox deacon serving a mission chapel being ordained to Orthodox Christian priesthood. Yet our intellectualism left us both open-minded enough and curious enough to find ample common ground.  It also helped that were shared a similar heart, a deep and affectionate attitude to the poor and marginalized in society.

As a young Orthodox Christian man interested in serving humanity, I guess I was something of an anomaly.  Chuck was more interested in where my motivation for service was coming from.  After articulating my service motivation, he referred me to a couple of other people and institutions.  I found my way to serving in hospital chaplaincy and a few ecumenical activities, but it was the ideals of urban ministry that continued to intrigue me.

Charles "Chuck" Pfeifer
and Rev. John-Brian Paprock
March 6, 2012
photo by Christo

 When we had a nasty racial incident happen in Madison in the late 1980s, our self admired progressive city was confounded. Chuck and Madison Urban Ministry immediately moved to deal with the issues of racism.  We established a Race Relations Task Force and had clergy meetings, but the underlying problems of institutional racism proved to be a much larger issue than MUM had dealt with before.  Victories, even progress, was hard to identify at times. MUM itself would be transformed as we sought to heal racial inequalities and related problems.  25 years later and these issues still tug at the fabric of our society; as do all the issues that MUM had the foresight to grapple with.

Nevertheless, Chuck worked hard to have MUM reflect the needed changes we sought in our more-than-90% white city - a city that was seeing a dramatic increase in cultural diversity.  25 years later, that diversity continues to grow.  I was honored to serve as president the first intentionally culturally diverse board of directors of MUM.  It was an experience I will always treasure.

Chuck also surprised me by inviting Jim Forest, founder of the Orthdox Peace Fellowship, as the speaker at the MUM annual banquet that  year.  I have always felt honored and respected, safe, in my Orthodox Christian beliefs and with my cultural identity ever since.   

The depth of Chuck's spirituality and his continuing search for understanding of God's message to us made our discussions on spiritual and mystical topics treasured and memorable to me with their connectedness and in a certain quality that transcends information and even intellect, although we both use our intellects to arrive at that threshold.  There was always a pragmatism that grounded our conversations.

Compassion and love being principle qualities of spiritual development were not lost on a philosopher's intellect. Rather Chuck was able to demonstrate tremendous compassion and care. He was able to step off the platform of intellectual thought and direct his energy toward genuine concern.  This is a quality I admire and emulate, and, as a recipient, remain grateful.

So, I was personally invited to Chuck's farewell dinner. Among the invitees were many I recognized from ecumenical and interfaith activities over the years; many I admire for their spirit of good will for all people. I looked around at all the people and added my remarks to the accolades of the evening.  But, I asked myself, "do I fit in with this crowd?"

In my remarks that evening, I simply reminded everyone of the race relations era. I mentioned that when I met Chuck, I found it helpful to meet someone else who was a bit eccentric, even odd, that could do good in society. To which, everyone chuckled.  Then, I added that I most admired the questions he would ask.  "From one spiritual brother to another, keep asking questions," I said directly to Chuck and he nodded emphatically.

I reluctantly said good-bye to a gentle mystic philosopher, Charles D. Pfeifer, who ran an urban ministry and changed the direction of my own ministry, getting me to serve in a manner closer to the way God made me; a light that shines in my memory, helping me see the road ahead.

When I had the chance for a big mutual hug, I realized I had asked myself the wrong question earlier.  The question was not, "do I fit in with this crowd?" but "how do I fit in with this crowd?"  Chuck had always been my reminder and seeing Chuck brought me back to a core truth: I am already part of this community.  And he would ask, "So, what am I going to do about it?" 

Farewell Dinner for Chuck Pfeifer with aabout 100 of his invited friends
Sponsored by Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, Wisconsin
March 6, 2012 ~ Photo by John-Brian Paprock