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Practice, practice, practice

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. For those who aren’t Christian liturgy geeks, it means we’ve got four weeks until Christmas to sing mysterious minor hymns, dwell in darkness, and wait. The theme of this Sunday is often centered on hope. In my life, hope is a slippery thing. It is very easy for me to slip into despair. I like to tell myself that this predilection for hopelessness is because I have a strong grasp of reality. I mean, if YOU knew what is REALLY happening, you’d be depressed too.

But hope isn’t about facts. The foundation of hope is faith . . . and practice, practice, practice. So when despair lurks around the edges of my soul, the best way to energize hope is to give in to one or more of the practices I have learned that produce hope.

How do we practice hope? Psychologists, and such what, will tell you that hope is rooted in having a goal. This makes hope distinctly different from simply being a cockeyed optimist, a glass is half full, power of positive thinking kind of person. If you have hope, you can see a path towards your desired outcome and you are intentionally walking that path.

As a musician, I understand this need for a path quite clearly. If I want to play a Chopin waltz, I know that I will need to practice the scales involved, the bouncing bass line of the left hand, and then after an adequate amount of practice, play the waltz. While I’m practicing the various bits of the waltz, hope that it will all come together in the end keeps me on the path. This hope is based in my experience that when I practice, I can play. I also know that if a piece is really difficult, I will have to practice a long time.

When I learned to play the piano, I was taught to take pieces apart and practice. And I’ve been doing it so long now that I trust that process completely. Unfortunately, the practices that help me stay on the path towards my goals and desires are not so obvious in other areas, so despair continues to dog me. Over the course of this Advent season, I intend to share a variety of these practices with the hope that you will find one or more of them useful.

Here’s practice number one:

Go see art. Whether I am looking at paintings, sculpture, or architecture, if I really practice looking, I am forced to see beyond my puny perceptions of things and hope springs up. Sometimes it takes awhile, but it always helps when I am willing to stay with it long enough. If you are an artist, you can also make art and that is likely to produce hope for you the way that practicing the piano produces hope in me.

I’m not much of a visual artist, but I do have a little “altar” to hope on my desk. It’s just a couple of rocks and feathers and a little bead that says “hope”, but it reminds me of this wonderful poem by Emily Dickinson.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul — And sings the tune without the words — And never stops — at all —

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard — And sore must be the storm — That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm —

I’ve heard it in the chillest land — And on the strangest Sea — Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb — of Me.

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