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Thursday
Oct032013

When Words Fail

This article was originally published by The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture.

"Mapping the Future" by Susan Finsen

The Greek word koinonia has many translations into English. At its root, it involves an intimate sharing, a sense of community, and daily celebration — and it requires responsive action in order to be complete. Truth be told, I fight this. I don’t always appreciate the rub that comes with relationship. But I continue to receive reminders that beyond the friction is a greater gift, and that my own calling will never be complete in isolation.

I see that I am often limited by my self. I reach a full stop at the edge of a swift river finding I long for the other side but have no means of passage. In these places my own purposes are thwarted, if not for the intimacies of others. My brother is strong-shouldered and can ford the river with me on his back, bringing me safely to dry banks before returning with another uncertain traveler in his arms. My sister has the melody to sing the words resonating in the empty space within me, making audible the powerful, nameless feelings which compel.

I have learned that on my own, in my response to the call of creation and the Creator, I am finite. I understand a few small truths and can reach only so far alone. I cannot teach myself all that I need to know and understand. When I find myself pushing the constraints of this finitude, I need the gifts of others to pull me through the fog into the next clearing. I will not reach my destination — nor even understand it — without them. I would like to. I long for independence and self-actualization. I want to do things on my own. But the fact is, I lack much. I can hear the vox of God, singing over me gently. Yet without other people, apart from my engaging the art of their responses to truth, lies, and everything in between —  there are things I will never be able to discern. I can only work things out in koinonia, and it is humbling to be schooled by strangers in this regard. When someone I’ve never met changes my life with their work — whatever that may be — it’s fireworks in my belly. New light shed in shadowed places, in bright and glorious ways. In these small explosions, often strangers become friends.

The letter below illustrates one such time.

January 17, 2013

Dear Susan,

I came to the Torpedo Factory on a sparkling day last fall. I was giving myself the treat of a full day — no agenda other than to wander and soak in light and life and see other people’s art. I am a writer. That day, I wanted to be inspired by other kinds of artists. I stumbled into your studio and met you. You were so gracious, giving me your time and sharing a few ideas about your work. I looked at everything, thoughts swirling, mostly quiet because I was moved beyond speech by the sights. I bought some postcards, and walked on.

Later, I wandered through the rest of the factory, but only saw your work in my head. It colored the rest  of my day bright, and started some deeper ideas percolating in my mind, rising like mystery into something not yet known.

Later still, I had an argument with my husband. I don’t even really remember what it was about, though I know well all the originating streams behind it. As I always do, I wrote and wrote my feelings out on the page, trying to sift and sort them, to understand and unburden myself from the hard words we’d shared.

As I wrote, the words took on shape and hue and color and they reigned me in from the confusion of my feelings into the frame of truth. Your work, such bright and ordered chaos, joined the storm in my head and gave it movement and light. Your visual images told me something that I couldn’t have told myself.

Your swirls and circles, well planted in my mind, gave a specific picture to my confusion.

I could see, as if it were a piece on a gallery wall — my life as an ongoing work of art. I saw at the top of the canvas a very bright array — a wholeness, an ultimate goal. And I saw myself and my husband also on the page, not as people but as lines, both moving from the bottom of the page to the top towards that same ultimate goal. We did not, however, move in the same rhythm or direction. We crossed paths, on occasion, in sparks of unity or passion — or in the fire of anger and confusion. One of us moved as a tight spiral, straightforward from the bottom of the page to the top, always moving but revolving in a small arc around a central plane. The other, the swirly-whirly one, moved in wide looping circles from bottom toward the top. It takes time and distance to see and feel and perceive — and I saw this vividly in your images. There is color and light in our twisting and turning. There are corners of darkness, too — shadows here and there, those darker places we don’t want to know or reveal. They were there in my imaginary painting. But the glory and the hope and the joy were in all the bright colors, and the fact that we were moving together towards a common destination. There was, and is, a holiness to this mess.

In a surprising and comforting way, your work gave shape and meaning to my interior confusion on that day. I never saw in your studio a painting that looked like the one that appeared in my mind, but your work inspired the vision. Your swaths of pigment lent a framework. Generally, I learn myself and my feelings by writing them until I see my way clear. But sometimes the language is not enough. I can’t corral the feelings. Words fail.

I am learning that on those days, I need someone else’s art. I need the hope of a place to hang these emotions, or a resting place to lay them down for awhile. Thank you for being that place for me on that October day. Thank you for your tangible reassurance that from a distance, all this mess is colorful and inspired and is going somewhere good. I have not forgotten this, and I am deeply grateful to you for the lesson you didn’t even know you taught me.

One day, I am going to walk back into your studio and ask you to paint this piece for us.

Most respectfully,

Allison Gaskins

I did walk myself back into Susan’s gallery one day a few months later, hemming and hawing and feeling awkward. She was gracious. We talked about work and life and the ways we express what we know. She is working on a commission for me in response to my letter. Quite literally, it will be her response to my response to her own work responding to something else.  And I see now, such a word requires receptiveness and unity. Co-mission. Moving in a direction, together, even strangers can become intimates. Koinonia.


Allison Gaskins writes beneath a window in a snug closet in her Virginia home. She is the author of several books, mom of five, and wife of a patient man. She works for Mantle Music and Art House North when she is not busy staring out the window, gathering words. Her garden currently nourishes weeds and hens.

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