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The Birch Tree Leaf Newsletter Issue 2 - Christmas 2018

Good Tidings of Great Joy

I wanted to tie this newsletter up so neatly (and plenty early), as if it had the perfect paper and thick satin ribbon in the most perfect bow — just like my domestic hero, Martha Stewart, always does. That is not to be, my friends. You will find below the random ramblings of a scattered person — a victim of Christmas holiday season overload.

If I were to identify a Christmas miracle in all this, it would be the fact that I was able to be productive writing and creating at all these past few weeks. This newsletter came together over many days of a little writing here and a little writing there — in-between the shopping and wrapping and baking and celebrating and lecturing myself to lower my expectations for EVERYTHING…including this newsletter.

This year I had the opportunity to create two unique Advent/Christmas-centric works of art:

  • A card design for our church conference pastors
  • A card design for our family

I love the adventure of creating something unique for the special season of Advent and Christmas. People often ask me: “How did you come up with this?” I thought you might find it interesting to read through the steps involved with creating the two card designs I completed this past month.

ENVISIONING SCRIPTURE

Taking a Scripture text and transforming it into a visual image is a challenging yet rewarding task. It can never be accomplished in one brain-storming session. Mostly, the work feels awkward and clunky — nothing feels sure. But as choices are made, the passage begins to live in image form, and that’s when it gets exciting.

The Christmas card for the conference pastors of Central Plains Mennonite Conference was designed by meditating on the following text from Micah (which the pastors had chosen for me):

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace. — Micah 5:2-5a

Step 1 — identify possible visual elements from the text:

  • Bethlehem skyline
  • Shepherd
  • Sheep
  • Earth

Step 2 — Identify key words of phrases that could be incorporated into the design:

PEACE — this word stood forth immediately and brought to mind a card design I had created for my family a few years ago. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed right to use this text design again but in a new way.

2016 Christmas card design for Colin Hofer family

Step 3 — Collect resource photos and brainstorm possible layout options

Rays moving out from the star in the PEACE design in all directions signifying “come forth”, “strength”, “majesty”, “to the ends of the earth”

Step 4 — Create preliminary sketch and send for feedback/approval

I decided on a layout that included 3 rectangular boxes: One for PEACE, one for Bethlehem skyline/ends of earth, and ? Didn’t know about the 3rd box so I asked for feedback about possible ways to fill this box. The suggestions I gave were:

  • Image of shepherd and sheep
  • Image of one lamb
  • Mirror image of 2 lambs
  • Text excerpt from the verses

The first and second options were preferred. I gave myself some time to further think what would fit best and then decided to go with the shepherd/sheep and put them at the top of the card to signify words from the text: “one who is to rule”, “he shall stand”, “he shall be great”.

Step 5 — Finalize sketch and chose medium and materials for artwork

I chose pen and ink with chalk pastel coloration. The text design for PEACE is inspired by Celtic gospel illumination, an art form done with pen and ink.

Step 6 — Complete the artwork

Step 7 — Scan artwork and complete card layout on computer

Step 8 — Send completed card design for approval and files for printer

2018 Christmas card design for conference pastors of Central Plains Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA

ENVISIONING WONDER & POSSIBILITY

2018 Christmas card design for Colin Hofer family - front

The designing of my own family Christmas card took shape by another method…rumination…or as google dictionary defines it one way: chewing the cud.

I’ve been busy working with a few different painting subjects in the past year and I’ve been especially fond of Elijah’s raven. Years ago, I picked up a book of readings for Advent and Christmas: Watch for the Light. It’s a wonderful volume of collected essays by Christian theologians, inspirational writers and a few poets. A poem by Sylvia Plath called Black Rook in Rainy Weather has been a favorite reading of mine and regularly comes to mind as I work on my raven pieces. I half decided at some point that I should feature that poem on our Christmas card this year along with a black raven visual.

As the Advent and Christmas season approached and I got a little more serious about what I would design for our greeting, I wasn’t sure a black raven sitting in the rain would make for an appropriate image for the celebration of the birth of Jesus…maybe if I was Edgar Allen Poe or something. I didn’t want the card to seem too odd or unrelated to Advent/Christmas. More time was needed for the right idea to manifest.

I knew I would be creating this image using the same painting process and methods as my current work. I decided on using a background that had begun as a fresh fun minty and leaf green number that I then had applied some rich blue over. The background had plenty of energy and just enough mystery to it.

I love the parts of Plath’s poem that indicate the possibility of an angel appearance:

The long wait for the angel,

For that rare, random descent.

These lines call to mind the experiences of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds while at the same time speak of the personal longing we all have for miracles in our life and the lives of those we care about. It was then I then decided that adding an angel into the raven’s scene might work.

2014 Christmas card design for conference pastors of Central Plains Mennonite Conference of MCUSA

After unsuccessfully trying a few different angel forms to incorporate, I went to a resource image I had used a number of years ago for another card design. In my internet searching back then I had discovered a beautiful bronze angel sculpture that hangs above the entrance to the chapel at Shepherd’s Field outside of modern day Bethlehem.

Shepherd's Field Chapel, Beit Sahur, southeast of Bethlehem, Palestine
Bronze sculpture by Duilio Cambellotti

I like this angel, I like the hand gestures, I like the weighty appearance, the thick wings, and the determined expression on the face. This is an angel with a mission. It also feels like the kind of angel you absolutely would react to in fear just as Mary and the shepherds did. Plus, I like the fact that this bronze sculpture is the angel you will meet should you venture to the place of those very frightened shepherds from centuries ago in Bethlehem.

As I worked with the angel, I thought about that very startled response to a sudden angel appearance:

Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” — Luke 2:9-10

I decided to leave my angel a little on the dark and frightening side since this felt authentic. It also resonated with my own journey this past year — sometimes dark, sometimes fearful. In addition, I really liked how this card image reflected the two subjects I have worked most with over the past year: angels and Elijah’s raven.

On the back of the card the poem is presented along with a faint appearing of the Luke text.

2018 Christmas card design for Colin Hofer family - back

I FORGOT THE CATS

Well, I didn’t do it on purpose. My Christmas card for years has included our house cats in the artwork. It was always my challenge to incorporate them into the design. I had given this a little thought this year and had concluded that they would need to have a spot somewhere with the text and not in the front imagery. But when I got to working on the text layout, I forgot the cats altogether. I’ve been a little bummed about it.

2009 Christmas card design for Colin Hofer family - front

JOURNEYING THROUGH ADVENT

For years, I looked out the window over my kitchen sink at a very odd shaped tree. Most definitely several miles away, this lone tree stands tall and slender with a crown of foliage that resembles the feathered crest of a Trojan helmet. On a whim one summer Sunday afternoon, our family decided we would go to the tree — see it up close.

We turned here, we turned there, following the tree. The drive took us down gravel roads we had never ventured on just a few miles from our home. We reached the tree and pulled over. An old towering cottonwood, the tree stood right along the fence line. Getting out the Jeep, my husband Colin was the first to reach the base of the tree. And as quickly as he crossed the ditch, he immediately turned around and called for everyone to return to the vehicle.

What? Why?

Uh…just get back in the car.

There in the hollow base of the cottonwood, Colin had spotted a family of skunks. Yep! We didn’t need to personally meet all of them. Our journey to the tree could have ended very badly.

Now being the person I am, a lover of great analogies, the story of our tree-following quest comes to mind in my reflections this time of year. It was nothing like the venture of those kings who followed the star to the home of the Christ-child. Reaching our destination meant running for cover. Rejoicing upon finding the tree was very short-lived. Ironically, the journey towards Christmas can feel less like that of the boy King worshippers and more like that of the skunk family discoverers.

On several different levels, the season of Advent and Christmas is a journey:

  • We journey at the physical level navigating the never ending buffet of treats and sweets and the fatigue of a schedule in overdrive.
  • We journey at a mental level in working to keep expectations low and manage daily stresses. We must continually remind ourselves to stay in the moment, stay positive, look for the joy. If there are additional burdens and trials this can seems impossible.
  • We journey at the soul level as we reflect on personal growth and the maturing of our faith. We ask ourselves again if we really understand what the birth of a Savior means to us.
  • We journey at the heart level trying to fathom a God whose love is incomprehensible. Perhaps we are finding our way through the holidays holding the grief of a loved one’s absence or a broken heart.

Each time we reach Advent, I set out hoping to journey smarter, journey lighter, journey calmer. Yet, all it takes is a non-stop week or weekend in December do me in…which did happen again this year. I’d love to say I have the perfect advice for not having the season feel at times like a skunk spray to the face. Alas, I do not, but I can say this:

Hold everything lightly, lavish grace on yourself and everyone you meet, and KEEP LAUGHING.

If you need some research to convince you specifically of laughter’s benefits, read this:

Around our house, I will acknowledge the fact that I’m having a challenging day by sometimes saying, “I need a vacation.” My husband responds with the question: “From you problems?” It makes us both laugh. We picked this little routine up from the movie, What About Bob? In the film, Bob’s psychiatrist, Dr. Leo writes Bob a prescription to take a vacation from his problems. Ironically, the plot of the movie is how Bob’s persistent presence in the vicinity of Dr. Leo’s vacation home eventually drives the doctor absolutely bonkers as he is unable to handle his own biggest problem: Bob.

Photo: Yahoo Entertainment

Dr. Leo handing Bob a new prescription: "Read it."

Bob: "It says: Take a vacation...from my problems."

Dr. Leo: "I'm giving you permission to take a vacation -- not a vacation from you work and not a vacation from your daily life, but a vacation..."

Bob: "...from my problems."

Dr. Leo: "Exactly!"

Bob: "This is incredible, this is astounding...You've given me a great gift, doctor...the gift of life! You're a great man! I knew coming up here was the right thing to do."

Dr. Leo, somewhat anxiously: "It feels right because your here and it feels right because you're leaving."

Bob as he walks off: "Have a great vacation."

Dr. Leo: "You too, Bob."

Bob: "A vacation from my problems! You bet I will!"

Ha ha ha ha! If only it where that simple!

BY A DIFFERENT ROAD

I shared in my autumn newsletter that things have been especially challenging for me the past year plus. I’d like to say a bit more about that and one day I will maybe share the full story.

In a somewhat gradual progression over the past 7 years, the ministry and work I was involved in with our church congregation grew challenging and then came to a screeching halt. The past 2-year struggle to press on in the hope that this work could one day be revived has been incredibly difficult. I really believed I would just stay in the same place doing the same things I was doing for a lifetime. The whole complicated ordeal has caused me a fair amount of self-doubt and questioning and there have been some significant disappointments and hurts as well. If you have ever gone through such a struggle related to your gifts and calling, you understand how it cuts to the core of who you are.

I can say with assurance at this moment, God is showing me a different road. Our family presently worships in a small house church, something I’d never even imagined I’d one day be doing. The past year has not been the familiar work. It's been new work, challenging work:

  • I’ve committed to creating daily.
  • I've put myself out in the public eye like I've never done before.
  • I've made a concerted effort to sell artwork and create products.
  • I've even had to work with numbers, of all things!

Perhaps the biggest gift to come to me through this life event is the confidence in God’s call on my life. I have not doubted His guidance through everything. I feel as though I have such an incredible clarity right now in how I can use my talents — this has been amazing. Opportunities to do good Kingdom work outside the walls of a church keep appearing along with affirmations and encouragement from those engaging my artwork and writing. It’s all a bit more like walking into a small house in Nazareth and finding a newborn king and having an angel tell you to travel home by a different road.

THE EPIPHANY SEASON

— LET’S HYGGE

2015 Christmas card art for Colin Hofer Family

According to the Christian church calendar, the season following Advent and Christmas is known as Epiphany. It begins on January 6th and will end this year on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019. The Day of Epiphany, always January 6th, has been called by many names and celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child: Three Kings Day, Adoration of the Magi, The Day of Lights. The word epiphany is defined as “a new revelation or insight” or “an illuminating discovery.” Thus, Epiphany is the celebration of the “light coming into the world” and the “light and life of all men” through the coming of Jesus Christ into the world.

Now all this talk about light during Epiphany combined with the fact that for many of us this season occurs during the dead and darkness of winter brings me to another subject I’d like to leave you with…it’s called HYGGE (pronounced HOO-guh) and it is known as the Danish art of contentment, comfort and connection. Have you heard of this? The cool thing for me is that I am one quarter Danish ancestry so having discovered this feels a bit like returning to my heritage.

Here in South Dakota we are experiencing winter and all its many facets, and we need some hygge like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t need to explain to any of you who live in this climate how depressing, wearying, sad, cold and long this season is. “I hate winter” is a common sentiment. So how is it that folks who live in even colder and darker regions of the earth, like the Danes, can be so happy and content during winter? Somehow these folks have learned to accept and even love this portion of the year, and I am all in for learning this for myself, my family and my friends. It’s time.

I’ve picked up 2 excellent books on the subject (some of my friends can look forward to receiving copies from me to peruse and enjoy for themselves because we are totally doing this together):

The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomson Brits

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking

Hygge is used as noun, verb and adjective by the Danish. It describes all aspects of winter survival. It is winter survival. I like the Hygge Manifesto shared in Wiking’s book:

  1. Atmosphere - turn down the lights
  2. Presence - be here now
  3. Pleasure - coffee, chocolate, cookies, cakes, candy
  4. Equality - “we” over “me”
  5. Gratitude - take it in
  6. Harmony - it’s not a competition
  7. Comfort - get comfy and cozy
  8. Truce - no drama, save the politics
  9. Togetherness - build relationships and narratives, reminisce
  10. Shelter - this is your tribe, this is a place of peace and security

Community and gathering with family and friends often is a big part of hygge — this applies to both work and home lives. Nothing could be worse to the Danish than spending long winter days and nights alone.

And for those who need immediate hygge, Wiking suggests the following in his Hygge Emergency Kit:

  1. Candles
  2. Some good-quality chocolate
  3. Your favorite tea
  4. Your favorite book
  5. Your favorite film or TV series
  6. Jam
  7. A good pair of woolen socks (Remeber, there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.)
  8. A selection of your favorite letters
  9. A warm sweater
  10. A notebook
  11. A nice blanket
  12. Paper and pen
  13. Music
  14. A photo album

With that said, I will wrap up this newsletter with a simple Shakespeare inspired word of blessing.

Now may this winter of discontent be made glorious summer by the coming of God’s Son.

Thank you all for your warmth and love (which you often express to me), may you find it in you to continue extending such grace and hope to others that the whole earth may be filled.

Madeline, Colin, Claire, and Michelle needing a vacation from their vacation - summer 2018
Created By
Michelle L Hofer
Appreciate

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