Cover image for Lifecraft : the art of meaning in the everyday
Lifecraft : the art of meaning in the everyday
Church, F. Forrester.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston, Mass. : Beacon Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xiv, 121 pages ; 23 cm
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BL624 .C495 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In LIFECRAFT, Forrest Church challenges much of the modern search for meaning--indeed, the entire thrust of modern theology. LIFECRAFT reminds us that if we look at our lives as a whole (a spiritual goal many of us after never questioned), "when things go wrong, the entire screen turns dark." Instead, the author says, imagine yourself as "a consortium of personae," rather than as a fixed identity--because otherwise, Church says, we will inevitably think either too much or too little of ourselves.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Unitarian minister Church is an elegant writer of simple, direct prose interspersed with flourishes of poetry and flashes of inspiration. If his words appear effortless on the page, they do not lack weight. On the contrary, Lifecraft is a profoundly moving book that brings to the surface many issues most people think about only when away from the din and clatter of daily living. What is the meaning of life? Where did we come from? Why did we turn up when and where we did? Why are we born only to die? By questioning what life means, Church observes, we try to create meaning. In his view, life becomes a series of works in progress, each not inherently more important than any other, perhaps, but together giving our limited time on Earth form and ultimately a sense of purpose. Lifecraft is full of wise and wonderful moments, in which varied and often conflicting sides of life receive their proper due. Meaning, Church reminds us, is written between the lines. --June Sawyers

Publisher's Weekly Review

Church, senior minister at the distinguished All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan, serves up some thoughtful, brief meditations on making life more meaningful. In Unitarian fashion, the book is replete with provisional, qualified statements about God and acknowledgments of the contextualized nature of all truth. There's no dogma here; readers will find gentle anecdotes drawn from Western philosophy, music and art, as well as from Church's own life and experience. The son of a U.S. senator and the grandson (on his mother's side) of the governor of Idaho, the once-agnostic Church surprised himself and his family by choosing parish ministry as his vocation. He states that life becomes more meaningful when we intentionally divide it up into various projectsÄthe parenting project, the career project, the God project, and so onÄand prioritize those based on our own situations. Those situations will change, and we must change with them, Church asserts, citing a touching example of a professional football player who quit the NFL to spend time with his terminally ill preschool-age son. At the book's close, Church prods those who feel stuck in a rut to simply "turn the page," much as readers who find themselves reading the same paragraph many times without paying attention need to move on. Church does not offer earth-shattering advice here, but readers will be comforted and perhaps challenged by his call for self-examination. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In his ninth book, Church, senior minister at All Soul's Church in New York City and a popular Unitarian Universalist writer, has written a group of meditations on our most challenging question: finding meaning in life. He confronts vanity, illness, death, and the mysteries of prayer from the liberal religious perspective, and his final advice is simply to keep trying: "Turn the page." His book should find wide readership--and not just among Unitarian Universalists. For most collections. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Pictures from an Exhibition We live in all we seek. The hidden shows up in too-plain sight. It lives captive on the face of the obvious--the people, events, and things of the day--to which we as sophisticated children, have long since become oblivious. What a hideout: Holiness lies spread and borne over the surface of time and stuff like color. --Annie Dillard,FOR THE TIME BEING Surely, as we are simple men who pose questions without answer, we must be unceasing, stretch what remains of canvas upon frame. Granting to imagination its due. Apply paint and hope for life revealed. --Daniel Moran, "In Praise of August" Jean Anouilh writes that "the object of art is to give life a shape." This epitomizes lifecraft. Meaning emerges as a composition might, a lifework on canvas or a musical score. First we sketch, then augment and reconfigure our life notes into studies, etudes, that express what we think, how we feel, who we are. As with the oeuvre of great artists, we don't accomplish this in a single brush stroke or composition, but through a series of lifeworks that illuminate one another.     Our lives are like pictures from an exhibition, a special kind of exhibition. We are both subject and viewer, as when we leaf through old family photograph albums. There I am on my first birthday, looking mysteriously like my own son, my father like me. Then, a little later, Forrest Church, five years old, crew cut, big ears, Harvard T-shirt, proudly holds up a pint-sized trout that should have been thrown back. Who is that little boy? He is I, and yet not I. Not only has much happened since to shape and change who I am, but much that happened before, constituting my five-year-old memories and dreams, is all but forgotten. There I am in one picture with my father's father, whom I obviously knew well but now do not remember. We are laughing together. It is a reminder that I too shall be forgotten.     In our family pictures, we are both viewer and subject, and not just one subject, but rather a series of subjects, familiar strangers, growing, changing, negotiating rites of passage, entering and passing through new stages of life. Not only do we change over age and time, but also we are known through our relationships. We play differing roles, both in the ways we behave and in the nature of our intimacies, attitudes, and personalities.     Think of the stunning Picasso retrospective that showed at New York's Museum of Modern Art in the late 1980s. On view were Picasso's pictures at an exhibition, paintings of life and from his life's experience, running from his early representational work through cubism, and on to the most evocative forms of abstract art. They compose a story in stages, of passages and changes. We feel Picasso's imprint on every canvas, and yet how different they are one from another. There are differences of mood within periods and between them. On his canvases are wars and rumors of war, evidences of pain deeply felt, his own and that of others. There is tragedy and compassion, but joy as well, and ample testimony to love, given and received, taken and betrayed. As Picasso himself once said, "Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires."     The ancient Gnostics believed that we have power over those forces or demigods who would destroy us, but only if we know their names. Picasso seized power, or wrested meaning, from the world by giving form to his terrors and desires. He named them on canvas and through sculpture. In his lifelong struggle for self-expression, medium and method changed many times. But as a constant, Picasso himself remained fully engaged, alive, and growing until the day of his death. Did he discover meaning and then give it form, or by giving form to his terrors and desires did he create meaning, or neither, or both?     The answer is "Both." If our lives have meaning--or, better, meanings--we both discover them and create them. To the extent that we do neither, our lives may indeed be meaningless. This is not true for most of us. Through a process of discovery and creation (with certain projects short-lived and others works of a lifetime), meanings emerge, taking shape over time, developing according to experience.     Much like Picasso's oeuvre, our lives, too, fluctuate from rose to blue. They are representational for a time and then abstract. Sometimes they scream from the canvas; other times they blend harmoniously into their own landscape. Cardinal Newman once said, "Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." By such a definition, Picasso's art--if not his life--is as close to perfection as it can be, daring each of us to liberate ourselves from the life-denying strictures of fear and rigidity. We should not accept all dares, but when we cease daring to grow and risking the changes growth will surely bring, not only is life's animating spirit stifled, but opportunities for the creation and discovery of meaning are suppressed.     Great artists explore the human situation not to dissect it but to present it whole, as it is lived, without fear or favor, without concealment or exaggeration. They help define the art of meaning. Think of Shakespeare. Procrastination surely has not been the same since Hamlet, jealousy since Othello, or opportunistic ambition since Macbeth . Nor, for that matter, have sunsets been the same since Turner, or the entire choir of heaven and of earth since Bach and Beethoven. Those who have seen furthest (and most dispassionately, for great art suspends judgment) have brought back from the deeper and less accessible layers of consciousness what is going on all the time beneath the surface in each of our lives. In studying their contributions to life's meaning, we anticipate the decisive and dangerous moments of experience and are more or less ready when they come, not only with the comprehensiveness of thought and the promptness of action but also with the inwardness of appropriate feeling.     Another set of pictures that illuminates the art of meaning is a piece of music written by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81), in which a troubadour leads us through a gallery and describes, one by one, the paintings there. Mussorgsky's inspiration was the death of one of his closest friends, the artist Victor Hartmann. As a tribute, he chose to set his friend's art to music. Mussorgsky composed Pictures from an Exhibition for solo piano. Subsequently, it has been scored at least five times for full orchestra. The best-known transcriptions are those of Ravel and Stokowski. In the former, the voice of Mussorgsky's troubadour is written for an alto saxophone, in the latter for an English horn.     Each version might be seen as the original child come of age. In either case, the simplicity of the original is lost with full orchestration. Ravel added layers of complexity, whereas Stokowski's rendering, to me at least, rings untrue to its promise. It is brassy and inauthentic. The same piece of music is recognizable in either case, but of such different quality.     This recalls the argument of nature versus nurture. Which is the principal instrument of our development? "Nature" proposes that we are limited and determined by accidents of birth. We are born with certain genetic, or to follow my example, thematic lines. We cannot change the essence of who we are. "Nurture" responds that others, particularly parents, teachers, friends, and colleagues, orchestrate our development. Also, by purposive action, we create who we will become. In balance, both arguments have merit and correct one another. Novelist James Baldwin rightly says that "we take our shape, it is true, within and against that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth, and yet is precisely through our dependence on this reality that we are most endlessly betrayed."     Even as each child enters the world as an original composition with a given nature--with a set, as it were, of themes and melodies--others shape and change us, adding harmonies and dissonance. We also shape and change (or orchestrate) ourselves. Mussorgsky discovered something in his friend's paintings and created a new language by which to express that discovery. Ravel, Stokowski, and others then discovered in Mussorgsky's masterpiece a subtext for their own creations. In our own lives, we discover the meaning that is given. That which emerges from our actions, or "projects," we help create.     Even as every flutter of a butterfly's wing or fall of a sparrow slightly, if imperceptibly, changes nature, in the art of meaning our every thought or action, if ever so slightly, changes the world. Changes are not always for the better. Destructive endeavors can shatter life's meaning, our own and, directly or accidentally, that of others. An abusive husband or drunk driver can destroy life. Less dramatically, unsustained projects reduce our life's meaning to a chaotic shambles.     On the other hand, constructive projects we sustain give coherence to our lives, and in turn evoke meaning from them. As with Stokowski's and Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky, when others and we orchestrate our innate tune, our lives become complex or simply complicated, complete or overwrought. This is the challenge, burden, and promise of freedom.     Pictures from an Exhibition sheds light on our quest for meaning in an another sense. Mussorgsky selected sketches and portraits that run the gamut from birth (the ballet of unhatched chicks) to death (the catacombs), from imperfect innocence (children arguing at play) to thwarted love (a knight's plaintive appeal to his distant lady), from injustice (a rich man rejecting a poor man's appeal) to life's daily tasks and burdens (women gossiping in a marketplace and, poignantly, workers laboring in a field). In its original form, Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition is itself a search for meaning: what his dead friend's and his own life mean, what the world we live in means, how we can reconcile evil and God. As for the third of these triptychs, leading us from evil as a reality to redemption as a possibility (magically evoked by the music), the final two pieces do this brilliantly. First, the Russian witch Baba Yar makes a threatening appearance, and then the exhibition ends with a stirring tribute to the artist's proposed design for a grand gateway to Kiev. On Mussorgsky's musical canvas, life is painful, sometimes grotesque, suddenly beautiful, often filled with struggle, and, potentially, redemptive. Describing his own art as "not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity," he later added this caveat: "the boundaries of art in the religion of an artist mean stagnation."     By breaking down the boundaries between painting and music, Mussorgsky defied stagnation. In Pictures from an Exhibition he explored lost love, the burden of heavy labor, the reality of injustice, the superficiality of much human interaction, the presence and persistence of evil, even the democracy of death. Yet, after wandering through this gallery, first as a spectator and then (the music makes this clear) as a participant in the dramas he was pondering, Mussorgsky composed his thoughts into a rousing moral affirmation.     Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition represents one man's search as unveiled through a work of art, but in each of our lives the art of meaning finds expression in like ways. We ponder life's great questions, drawing insight from those who have preceded us. We color their experiences with our brush. We change mediums constantly and inspire others to shape their own reflections in combination with ours.     Reflecting on a single aspect of our own life or the life we share, sometimes we despair. But by sustaining our search through dark passages, and by collaborating on meaningful projects, aspects of the Hartmann/Mussorgsky model emerge in our own lifecraft. Although constituting a partial and limited model for the art of meaning, the creative processes leading up to Mussorgsky's masterpiece and following its completion indicate how lifecraft works.     Life's meaning has public as well as private dimensions. In our search for meaning we must contemplate, as did Mussorgsky, pictures of poverty and injustice, forlorn love, human vanity, evil, and death. Investing lifecraft with a moral dimension demands engagement with the world, its melancholy and even its tragedy. Failing to do this, the moment tragedy visits we will be unprepared to view our own lives in a larger context. Without a broad perspective on life's potential beauty and abiding squalor, the fragile meanings that bubble up out of the privacy of our self-absorption may turn to vapor.     Here Mussorgsky presents a splendid model, not for a happy life (he was a very troubled man) but in the ways he wrested meaning from his setbacks and losses. Inspired by his friend's imaginative vision, and through his own artistic endeavors, he found ways to affirm life over death, order over chaos, beauty over meaninglessness. His final affirmation is a triumph. For succeeding generations of seekers, Mussorgsky let the bells ring.     Even as Ravel and Stokowski shaped the same piece of music in such different ways, our existential freedom to move within and fill out the limits of our essential being is both exhilarating and chastening. When we refuse to shape our oeuvre or arrange our galleries by retaining what is good and abating what is bad, we diminish our own and others' lives by failing to discover and create meaning in them.     Each of us is the curator of his or her life. In our galleries of meaning, certain displays may be chaotic at times, but meaning emerges by the very act of trying to arrange our treasures, even by accepting what cannot be rearranged. More important than the final result is our willingness to work at our lives in the same way a curator might work on his or her collection, keeping the storage rooms in order, rehanging this gallery or that. As curators we are also artists. We can paint new canvases and restore old ones, as well as mounting and displaying them. Setting priorities and holding to them is more important even than the matériel given us to shape or the talent we are born with. There are limits to life itself, but no expiration date on making or finding meaning within it. For the things that matter most--the parent project, the child project, the partner, friend, and God projects--the only limit lies in our willingness to take such projects seriously. When instead we neglect them, reacting helter-skelter to every little demand life imposes, we squander the most important gift we are given both as artists and as curators of meaning, the gift of time.     I'm seldom impressed when people tell me they are busy. "Busy" people are less likely to be engaged in meaningful work than trapped in a cycle of frenetic futility, like flies trying to get out through a closed window. If we put off things that really matter or, as some people are fond of saying, wait to do the things we know we should be doing until we "get our life back," we will never get our life back. We'll never even "get a life."     Think of meaning in terms of project management. If our life is living us rather than our living it, we cede our project management to others. Rather than making the most of what we have, we fritter it away in starts and stops. Some life projects are prone to interruption by definition, the parent project, for instance. But even here we can work to balance long-term goals with short-term demands. A meaningful parenthood is proactive as well as reactive. Most of us expend roughly the same amount of energy parenting our children whether we do this mindfully or not, but the contrasting results will be pronounced. Good project management requires parallax vision. Even while flitting from task to task, or responding to unavoidable little demands, meaning can emerge from but a few moments of simultaneous reflection on the larger importance of the matter at hand.     Try this experiment. You are tending your children. Imagine for just a moment that a trapdoor swings. You or one of your loved ones drops out of the picture. The backdrop of our lives at any given instant may seem mundane or chaotic, but the bond between ourselves and our loved ones in the foreground is both unimaginably precious and very fragile. One day either you or they will be left with nothing but memories. A little nostalgia for the present prevents such memories from becoming reflections on lost time, lost meaning, and lost love.     Thornton Wilder gives voice to this in his play Our Town, which focuses on the burial of Emily Webb, who has died in childbirth during her twenty-sixth year. In the cemetery, she recognizes friends and relatives who have died before her and discovers that one can return to the land of the living to visit one's past. They advise her not to hazard this, but Emily can't resist. The day she chooses to revisit is her twelfth birthday.     STAGE MANAGER: We'll begin at dawn. You remember it had been snowing for several days; but it had stopped the night before, and they had begun clearing the roads. The sun's coming up.     EMILY: There's Main Street ... why, that's Mr. Morgan's drugstore before he changed it! ... And there's the livery stable.... Oh, that's the town I knew as a little girl. And, look, there's the old white fence that used to be around our house. Oh, I'd forgotten that! Oh, I loved it so! Are they inside?     STAGE MANAGER: Yes, your mother'll be coming downstairs in a minute to make breakfast.     As it turns out, Emily's visit is not sweet, for she can no longer make a difference, but only watch the world go by.     EMILY: I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back--up the hill--to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by. Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners ... Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking ... and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up.... Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute? One of her dead companions replies, "Now you know! That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those ... of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years."     Such a life--unexamined, unappreciated, and soon over--may indeed, in retrospect, seem empty, even meaningless. But not if we take the same set of pictures, select them, arrange them, mount and treasure them while we can, and then pass them on--today, not after our loved ones (or we) are gone. When we do these things thoughtfully and considerately, patterns of meaning begin to emerge.     We are free to choose, and therefore free to change and grow, with each passing day. We are also free to use our memories in ways that will invest our lives with meaning, sustaining rather than diminishing our self-image and, accordingly, our hopes. We can dwell on our failures or losses, refusing to let go of the darker sides of our past; this is like saving only the pictures we hate, darkening our walls, ruining our scrapbooks. Or we can do the opposite and keep alive fond memories. Each of us has loved a spouse, parent, or friend who is lost to us in death. We can remember the love or dwell on the loss. As John C. Meagher writes, "Tell me what you keep as your historical landmarks, what pictures are in your private album, and I will tell you who you are. But I remind you that you are, in substantial part, who you choose to be."     As we arrange the pictures of our life, we choose the images we wish to remember. While pressing them in our scrapbook, we might also take the time to crack open and dust off a half-forgotten page, to lovingly reflect on earlier seasons gone by: departed loved ones' smiles and sparkling eyes; friends who left this world before us; grandparents, parents, spouses, sometimes, sadly, even children. Whether saved in a book or fixed in memory, these are the pictures of our lives, our most precious keepsakes--most precious, because they remind us that we are what we love. Copyright © 2000 Forrest Church. All rights reserved.