art-board

The Best Gift

Causes, Life

I thought long and hard about what to give Bethany, my girlfriend, for her birthday this year. I wanted the gift to be a creative way to remember some of our best moments together. Working my way through many iterations of this potential gift I finally landed on an idea that seemed to have potential.

I found a bulletin board with a natural wood frame and a surface that resembled canvas. Realizing that it was not only Bethany’s style but also a great way remember our adventures, I knew that I had finally uncovered the right gift.

There was no shortage of ideas for how I could arrange mementos and inspiration on this board for her wall. The problem was that even though I like to think of myself as creative she is much more artistic. I wanted to choose the best art and memories and to arrange them in the most aesthetically pleasing way.

A few days before giving Bethany the gift I finally made my discovery. The best gift that I could give her was to empower her to use her creativity to enrich her own life. Instead of doing something else for the day and adding the gift into the mix, making the board together could actually be our celebration.

Energized by this newfound inspiration, I traveled around to art stores looking for artistic additions for our board and even found some old nautical charts at a marine supply shop. Combining these discoveries with the treasures that we had already saved from the past gave plenty of material to add to her board.

The day that I gave Bethany her gift and helped her put it together was one of our best times together yet. Going through our old memories and future inspirations raised engaging conversations. Rather than being a passive recipient, Bethany came alive as an active participant, using her creativity with joyous energy.

I learned something important from this situation. The best gift is not merely to give things to people but to stimulate them to use their creativity to enrich their own lives.

This is making me think about the work that I am trying to do in Africa right now. For the last several years I have been trying to figure out how to help develop a community in central Kenya by helping them secure a much-needed well. Most of the time my thought has been that if the job is going to be done I will have to provide the funds to make it happen.

The best gift is not merely to give things to people but to stimulate them to use their creativity to enrich their own lives.

I attended a conference recently called Ending Poverty Together where Cory Glazier helped me to rethink my approach. The idea that he helped instill into my thinking is that the best gift you can give a community is to help empower them to solve their own problems.

When development is human-centered and the community goes from being recipients to participants, they can discover that they have the capacity to change their own situation for the better. I felt unsettled about my old approach anyway so now I’m rethinking how to give the best gift that I can to my friends in Kenya.

photo 1

Insights From Artists

Life, Spirituality

I have reflected recently on how much insight artists seem to have on life. As they convey their own feelings, experiences and ideas through art they reach us in unexpected ways.

I used to think that I was primarily a philosophical thinker. While pursuing knowledge I began to feel like I was drying up so I picked up photography. I received so much affirmation from friends and family for my initial efforts that I began to lean back toward art as my primary form of expression. This may have been partially due to the fact that I was required to read and write for my education while art was purely voluntary and fun.

When I graduated from seminary and was no longer required to do so much writing I started to enjoyit again as a way to articulate what I was learning from life. Now I’m trying to find where these two vehicles of expression collide. I think and therefore I write. I feel and therefore I express. I want both my writing to convey art and my art to express truth.

At the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit I recently read that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin persuaded more people than all of the rest of the anti-slavery literature and speeches combined. This is the power of art in words.

While listening to Everything is Sound by Jason Mraz, I recently resonated with the Lyrics: “Whether it’s your birthday, or your dying day it’s a celebration to rejoice use your voice, and give wings to any your choice. Whatever you’re choosing right now, it’s right well where you are. You don’t need a vacation when there’s nothing to escape from.”

Travel is a gift that is best enjoyed as a living experience rather than a reclusive escape.

Such a positive outlook challenged me. Paul told the Thessalonians to always rejoice (1 Thess 5:16). From our birthdays to our dying days, God has given us much for which to rejoice and celebrate.

Somewhere along the way we forget that our choices give us a chance to spread our wings. We confine ourselves to merely surviving on the ground. This is about the time that I start need a vacation to escape. Travel is a gift that is best enjoyed as a living experience rather than a reclusive escape.

Unless we should think that Jason’s positivity is unrealistic poetry, he expresses later in the song that, “It’s a song that I’ve forgotten often. It doesn’t make wrong me wrong ’cause we all need the darkness to see the light in our own eyes.”

I have forgotten this song often but it is time to wake up and let the darkness I have experienced lend that much more value to the light in my life. Insights from artists have reached me again.

Field Notes

Notebooks: Where Apps Meet Their Match

Life

I have tried out every writing or handwriting app that I could find for iPad and iPhone only to make a surprising discovery. The apps that I liked best most closely imitated physical notebooks. This begs the question, why use an imitation rather than the real deal?

Exploring the intersection between apps and life has become almost a hobby for me. I like discovering ways to do things better. Although apps and a digital workflow present a significant advantage in many areas, replacing notebooks might be where they have met their match.

Apps like Meernotes for iPhone and Paper for iPad create note or sketchbook-like interfaces that are enjoyable to use. Yet every time I go to a bookstore I find myself browsing the notebooks and journals and admiring their covers, bindings and layouts. It seems that it is not just the process of writing things down that matters but the context of quality paper and design in which I write it.

Thankfully there is a company that creates well-designed products that bridge the gap betwen the digital and physical. Livescribe’s Smartpen allows me to write in a notebook and then sync what I wrote to my computer for ready access. I use this to take notes at meetings, conferences and events where carrying a compuer doesn’t make sense.

The other type of notbook I have decided to maintain is a memo book. These pocket-sized notebooks provide a place to brainstorm and write creatively. I am realizing that writing is an art and the more artistic my process is for capturing ideas, the more likely I am to maintain it. Graph paper is especially enjoyable with its design and layout possibilities. Sitting down with a Moleskine memo book, or “cahier”, to sketch out my writing ideas has been revitalizing.

I have been organizing my closet this week and found this old memo book that I carried on my last trip to East Africa. Flipping through its pages brought a smile to my face as I relived that season of life. This confirmed to me that I need keep these types of notebooks handy. I love Moleskine but I have been curious for awhile about Field Notes and just received my first set this past week. I’m looking forward to trying them out.

How do you like to capture your ideas and document life?

We Are More Than What We Do

Life, Spirituality

It is sad how often we try to determine our own value by how much we feel that we have accomplished. There are several problems with this assessment. First, we tend to focus on this evaluation most when we feel the least accomplished. When things have not worked out as hoped in our lives we begin to reflect on our own apparent worthlessness.

The second problem is that the more often we conclude that we are worthless the more likely we are to live as if this is the case. Why try when nothing we endeavor to accomplish works anyway? This notion can be debilitating and can keep us from making progress toward our goals. Hope is one of our primary motivators. With the loss of hope goes the confidence that with time and effort our situation can improve.

The biggest problem with determining our own value by how much we have accomplished is that it leaves us inherently unstable. When we feel good about what we have done we have value. When we seem to fail or when we are no longer able to do what once made us feel accomplished, we are devalued. This ebb and flow can pick us up and beat us back down throughout our lives unless we learn to see our value somewhere higher.

This is especially important to understand during a time when so many are without work and spend many months looking for jobs. Research has shown that a prolonged job search without being hired can have a more devastating long-term effect on the human psyche than almost anything else that we can experience.

For others the challenge is struggling to move up in life while looking around and seeing others within their own age group who are well-established in their careers. This comparison can lead one to the devastating conclusion they they just don’t have what it takes to succeed.

So what is it that defines our worth? While struggling through this issue in my personal life I recently remembered a sermon by Henri Nouwen called “Being the Beloved” that I heard a few years ago. While watching it on YouTube I found strength in the reminder that who we are and what defines is that we are beloved sons and daughters of God.

All our lives we look for our identity, defining ourselves by what we have, what we do, and what people say about us. Each of these things leave us unstable and empty. What truly defines our worth and gives sustained hope is that we are God’s beloved children. This is our identity and our task is to claim it and to live under the influence of this reality.

Only when we understand that our worth is not wrapped up in what we have done but rather in a love that we have freely received, will we be able to break the grip of the idea that we are what we do. Believing that we are more than what we have done will then empower us to live out the value that we have received rather than fighting to prove our worth.

How Visitors Help You Enjoy Your Own City

Life

The best time to enjoy your own city is when you are hosting visitors. The desire to show someone around and to help them enjoy their visit is a wonderful stimulus to explore what your surroundings have to offer. We typically take our own areas for granted while longing for what everywhere else has to offer. The grass seems greener on the other side of the fence until someone comes over to our side and wants to take a look around.

My brother is visiting me for two weeks here in San Diego and we are having a blast. It has been fun for me to slow down and enjoy some time with John in the beautiful place where I live.

We have thrown the frisbee at Ocean Beach, overlooked the city from the lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument, walked the boardwalk from Mission to Pacific Beach, visited the local Drive In theater, played games at Dave & Busters, watched a Padres game, spent a night in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter overlooking downtown and enjoyed coffee at some of San Diego’s finest coffee shops. It has been a joy to host my brother and I’m so glad we’ve made the time for this visit.

One of the best things about living in San Diego is that it is a place where people love to visit. I’ve seen and hosted more visitors here than I likely will anywhere else. Welcoming visitors lends a unique perspective to how I look at my city. It causes me to look for and notice the places that would be good to take people to enjoy. I am a travel guide of sorts and this helps to keep me alert.

While longing for a vacation is it possible that we are overlooking some of the beauty and intrigue that is all around us? Use your next opportunity to host visitors as a chance to explore your own area with renewed interest. Buy a travel guide and look up new places as if you were a visitor. I hope this helps you to enjoy your own city.

The door to the ironically named New College, one of Oxford's oldest colleges founded in 1379.

Oxford: A Place That Inspires

Life

The door to the ironically named New College. It is one of Oxford's oldest colleges and was founded in 1379.

Oxford, England is one of my favorite towns in the world. There are many reasons for this but one of them is because it inspires me to dream big. I love history and the first time I set foot in Oxford I was enamored with its intriguing past. Studying at a college that patterned its educational methods after the Oxbridge model only added to the intrigue. As I walked the historic streets I found myself musing about how much I would love to study at Oxford University someday.

A few years later I went back to explore the possibility further. I’ll never forget standing outside of Queen’s College hesitant to ask for academic information. While I waited the words to a song reminded me that this was my time and to live every moment leaving nothing to chance. I faced my fears and spent a beautiful day wandering around Oxford, gathering information, meeting faculty from the University, and learning as much about the town’s history as I could discover.

I ultimately decided that it would be best to pursue a Master’s Degree at a seminary in the US first. Whether or not I ever complete a degree program at Oxford I still hope for a chance to study in some form as part of my education. Meanwhile, it continues to inspire me as a place that reminds me not to give up on my dreams and settle.

Since the prospect of studying for a Ph.D. is looming in front of me, I have started editing pictures and posting them to my daily photo blog at JustAndyPhoto.com for inspiration. Click here to see more.

What places inspire you?

Wellbeing #3: An Engaging Career

Life

The Gallup Organization has conducted research over the past fifty years and then assessed the results from across many different nations, languages, and life situations to determine what it takes for one to experience wellbeing. Discovering five common strands threaded through the many results they have released a book called Wellbeing to describe them. The first element is “Career Wellbeing” which they define as “how you occupy your time” or “liking what you do every day.” Reading this chapter has led me to several observations that are really impacting the way I think about how I view my life and work.

My first observation is that what makes one’s career fulfilling is not necessarily the same thing as what makes them a living. We define our careers far too narrowly. When we think of a career our minds turn first to our job, or maybe the type of job that we wish we had. Certainly our careers involve what we do to make a living but on the larger scale our careers are made up of what we do with our time and what we work at accomplishing. “You don’t need to earn a paycheck to have thriving Career Wellbeing. But you do need to find something that you enjoy doing — and have an opportunity to do it every day.” In some cases our jobs can help us to directly fulfill our goals and in other cases they are what facilitates accomplishing what is most important to us.

As we become “responsible adults” and become more and more busy with our work, we often misplace every other ambition in our lives. Someone asks what we have been up to and we respond “oh, just working I guess.” Yet Gallup’s research shows that only 20% of people can answer a strong yes to the question, “Do you like what you do every day?” What this means is that in general we do not like our jobs and yet we hope to live satisfying lives with our schedules and goals revolving solely around what we do to make a living.

Perhaps part of the reason why do not like what we do for work is that we have not taken the time to plan or prepare for something that we would love to do. We can spend most of our lives making excuses for why we did not end up doing what had once set out to do. We like to say things like “well, we have to be realistic” to make ourselves feel better. This leads to the second observation that our career wellbeing is far more important to our lives than we realize. We cannot afford to keep putting off the kind of effort that it will take to lead us toward engaging our time with that which matters to us.

Wellbeing puts it this way, “But Career Wellbeing is arguable the most esential of the five elements. If you don’t have the opportunity to regularly do something you enjoy – even if it’s more of a passion or interest than something you get paid to do – the odds of your having high wellbeing in other areas diminish rapidly. People with high Career Wellbeing are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.”

My third observation is that our goal should be increasing engagement with the things that matter to us rather than retirement. Life is not primarily about how much money we make or how much we are able to own as a result. Real life is about how we engage with that which is most important to us and the rich experiences that result from this engagement.

Gallup’s research shows that people who are engaged with their work have extremely different experiences with it than those who are not. Their stress is lower, their happiness and interest are higher, and they do not have to live for the weekends because they remain engaged both at work and away from it. People who are engaged with their careers are healthier. One study identified that of those who live to age 95 the average retirement age is 80. This is up from the nationwide average of 65 and shows that longevity is linked to engagement.

We are told that a successful life is blazing through our careers, making as much money as possible so that we can retire and finally engage with the things we love as soon as possible. Engagement is what keeps us healthy and interested throughout our lives. We should take small “retirements” along the way to recharge and keep our interest strong so that we can continue to pursue with increasing vigor that which matters to us.

What do we mean by “that which matters?” That’s for each one of us to decide personally. It is shaped by many influences such as our spiritual lives, family situation, and a variety of other interests and concerns. Reading this made me think about my grandmother. She is no longer working for a living but she has not ceased to engage that which matters to her. Grandma Nafziger travels around visiting and caring for her family. If you strike up a conversation with her at any time she will be able to share the latest concerns, developments and celebrations of every member of her family. She is truly engaged with that which matters to her most and I think that this is part of what keeps her so healthy and mentally sharp. I want to live my life well and hope that as I grow older I am marked by an ever increasing engagement with that which is most important in my life.

The Journey to Wellbeing #2

Life, Spirituality

There are certain points of pain that magnify our need for wellbeing. I think the one that impacts me the most is the social, which the book Wellbeing describes as “having strong relationships and love in your life.” I want to know that I am contributing to the lives of others, that I am a good friend and that I am loved by those in my life. When I returned from my travels I found that San Diego had become a lonely place. My group of friends it seems have scattered and moved on to new places or aspects of their lives and I have not done much for the last few years to replenish my relationships here.

When we don’t feel well connected to community we begin to beat ourselves up and to think that there must be something wrong with us or we would have more friends. The vicious cycle begins when we so dislike ourselves that we think others don’t care for us either. The more we retreat into isolation the more our insecurities are affirmed until we have walled ourselves into self-made prison cells of isolation.

I think that part of the reason why we struggle to make changes even when we know that we need to is that we allow ourselves to be tied down by the way things have always been. I could connect more at my job or at my church but I have been at both of them for several years without doing so. How am I supposed to all of the sudden engage now? I think this is part of why travel is appealing. There is no history to hold me down. What’s to lose? Engage every person you meet, enjoy every meal and take a picture of every place. What do you have to lose?

Somehow we need to remind ourselves that it is not impossible to create new routines. We have to believe that if life is worth living the way we live it is worth changing. I think that at the heart of believing life can change for the better is the underlying faith that we are beloved children of God and that he wants us to live our lives to the fullest. We may not always know what this means or how this can be true in light of our current realities, yet if we truly believe that God loves us as much as he says does, it will change our outlook.

Henri Nouwen once said that we all hope for a good life and define what this means in various ways. We sometimes base the value of our lives on what people think of us. At times we build our confidence on what we have accomplished. Other times we define ourselves according to how much we possess. Throughout our lives each of these will go up and down. Sometimes we will feel loved and other times criticized or disconnected. At times we will have a lot and sometimes we may lose it all. There are times where we feel like we can accomplish whatever we want and others where we feel hopeless to do almost anything. If we are counting on any of these for stability our lives will always fluctuate above and below the line of wellbeing.

The one thing that holds true through all of these is that we are God’s beloved children. He says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” (Jeremiah 31:3) This is just as true when we feel worthless and that our lives are over as it is when we feel accomplished and like things are going quite well. If we can begin to believe how much God loves us, we will see our lives and the people in them through new eyes. This will raise our perceived limits on how much others can love us and how good life can be. This is the place to start in the journey back to wellbeing.

The Journey to Wellbeing #1

Life, Spirituality

There are seasons of life that demand so much attention in particular areas that we lose sight of others. Finishing up four years of seminary has caused me to think about this a lot in recent months. I learned to survive working full time and studying at the graduate level by a selective focus that allowed me to ignore areas that seemed to difficult to initiate or to maintain. The routines that I developed in survival mode have become harder to shake than I would have thought. Reentry from graduate studies into the rest of my life is not automatic as it turns out.

My last six months of seminary wore me down. It was all I could do to try to maintain a positive outlook on life. It seemed that several years of unbalanced living had caught up to me. Staring at the finish line awoke my senses to the rest of my life that was still there and needed to be addressed. In school mode I trained myself to focus on completing the next assignment, finishing the current class, making it through one quarter at a time. A graduation is called a commencement, however, because it is really only a beginning. Finishing a degree program is not meant to complete our pursuits but to ignite us to follow them with enligthened vigor. This overwhelmed me as I pondered how much of my life I had learned to tune out just to get by.

Several months after graduating I found myself living the same life that I did as a student. I was staying up too late, working on too many projects at once, rushing from place to place, not taking care of myself and feeling increasingly disconnected from friends. The only thing that seemed to snap me out of my routine was traveling.

During the road trip that I took back in July to Northern California and Southern Oregon, I had to constantly remind myself to slow down and appreciate the moment. Although I thought this roadtrip had set me straight I found that within six weeks I was still stuck in the same rut so I bought the All You Can Jet pass from jetBlue to take a journey of reflection and rediscovery. Travel does not repair anything and it is not an end in itself but it is one of the few things that pulls me away from the daily thoughts and routines that weigh me down. It helps me to appreciate the beauty of the moments that I overlook at home.

Now that I am back I am trying to begin anew to understand what it means to live a good life post-graduation. This quest has caused me to begin reading a book called Wellbeing for which polls were taken all over the world to determine that the five essential components of wellbeing are career, social, financial, physical and community. The spiritual is what motivates many through each of these areas. We tend to focus on only one or a few of these at a time and as a result the areas that we let slip wear on us throughout our daily lives.

I resonate with this because I have experienced how much one or another area of my life can affect my perception of everything else. In my next post I will talk about which of these areas seems to impact me the most…

grant-pecoff-artist-wide

The Trees Don’t Have to be Green

Culture, Life

I love artists who develop unique styles that are compelling. Grant Pecoff is a painter who grew up in Encinitas, California and has a gallery in San Diego’s Little Italy. I have often admired his impressionistic style and in particular his paintings of sailboats and local city scenes around San Diego. Noticing the gallery open this evening, I stepped in and to my surprise found Grant there painting. He has spent most of the last ten years traveling and painting from various destinations so I had never met him.

He explained to me that since he was in town for awhile taking care of family matters, he recently decided to take a road trip to New Mexico to see what inspiration he could find in our own region. What has resulted is a series of works that he is currently painting featuring the strong adobe oranges and vibrant sky blues that he loves. At that moment he was painting a picture of a beautiful home in the Santa Fe area.

Mentioning that I loved his style, I asked Grant how he came across it. “I was taking a class on art history”, he explained, “and began to really admire the works of the impressionists. One of my assignments in this class was to pick a scene and paint it with an impressionistic style. I chose a Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul. As I painted the walls a deep orange and the sky blue, I realized how striking these colors were together. I tried to figure out how I could keep this color scheme because I was about to paint the trees green since green is the color that you paint trees. Then I realized, I don’t have to paint the trees green. And that is how it started. I began to focus less on details and more on the essence of things.”

I found this story quite inspiring. Discoveries are made when we challenge the way we have always seen things and how they “have to be.” Our self-imposed limits are often a mere lack of creativity. We think that we cannot accomplish what we hope, fulfill our dreams, or do what we feel called to do because trees always have to be green. We get caught up in details like the trees that make us miss the forest. We want to see the big picture but usually struggle to do so unless we find some way like travel to free up our minds from cluttering details to allow ourselves to think again.

Grant found a style uniquely his own when he colored outside the lines. We find our own voice and purpose only as we think outside the box of what we are almost sure that we can and cannot accomplish and begin instead to pursue that which we love and what makes us come alive. Grant and I engaged in lively conversation about travel and living on sailboats, something that he and his wife have also done. I’m so glad that I had a chance to meet the artist whose work I so admire.

For those of you in the San Diego area who love art, you need to check out the Grant Pecoff Studio at 1825 India Street in Little Italy. The best time to visit is on the weekends and if you are lucky you might meet Grant and find him working on one of his beautiful works of art.