It was a cathedral I had to fill, my first solo show in France. I laughed as I made one canvas larger than the next, because it had been all I had prayed for — space.
I used to paint in my small apartment’s bathroom in Minneapolis. It was the only place that I could spill and clean. The seating was built in. Small canvases were easy. Large ones I could balance on my legs, the towel bar and the edge of the tub. I guess I hadn’t been all that specific in my prayers. I didn’t know the answer would come with a move to another country, but there I was, in the south of France, covered in paint, love, and “well, this is what you asked for…” so I filled the space with my story. Canvas by canvas.
Perhaps it is the most open I have ever been. And maybe that’s what love gives you — space. And I don’t just mean romantic love (which does help a great deal!) but also love for yourself, love for the chances that life offers, love for the answers that come as a complete surprise.
I have it now, in home and country and studio, but I still pray for it daily, for my heart That I will find the space for all those trying to share their stories, their talents, their imperfections, their lives. May I be open to them all.
One of the best lessons I learned as an artist was not in the creation, but in the white space. Whether it is on the canvas, or the wall around it, there has to be space for the eye to rest. The white space. To see the art, to really be able to feel it, there must be space around it, so it can breathe, it can live. When it all becomes too cluttered, then nothing can really be seen. Not even the best of art.
I suppose it’s the same with living.
There are a million books written about it. Grief. It only recently occurred to me — looking at my grandfather’s portrait. I’m living in that white space. Missing my mother. (My grandpa and grandma too.) But it made me feel better, seeing it this way. It’s all part of the big picture. This white space — this emptiness — it shows us the real beauty of life. And it’s not separate from the art of living, it’s a necessity. So I feel it. And I know that I’m lucky. What a privilege to be a part of these glorious lives. To rest in the space beside them. Knowing that we are all a part of the same work. We are together. Always.
I only mention it because maybe you are missing someone. Maybe you are resting in this space. And maybe, for a moment, you too can see the beauty of it all — the endless art of this living…
It’s ironic, I suppose, that she was singing, “If I could turn back time…” — this Cher hologram or avatar (or holographic avatar, I don’t know…) in my dream early this morning. We were shopping in a large department store. Tired of her following, her singing, or both, Dominique grabbed her imaginary face and kissed it. “That should keep her quiet,” he said. But it only seemed to make her angry. Maybe not so much, Cher, but the Roomba-like machine that was giving her life. It began following us around the store. Sirens blaring. We couldn’t escape. It’s hard to stop the passing of time.
Sometimes I think of how strange it would be to try and explain this all to my grandmother. I don’t mean the dream, but the iPad that I’m typing on. The phones that follow us everywhere. The cameras and clocks attached that are always with us. At the farm, the only thing that told time was the bird that popped out hourly from the coo-coo clock in the living room. And oh how she would have guffawed at the notion of taking her picture while she baked in kitchen. If Paul Harvey was on, it was noon — we didn’t need a clock in her car. She knew everyone in town. This was her social network.
Obviously I love technology. I use it daily. I’m not sure I could find my way without GPS. But I don’t think that in moving forward, we have to leave everything behind. Human contact will forever be the all. The everything.
We are going to go to the mall today. Even the Apple Store. And I’m excited. My grandma never wanted to go to the mall. But oh how my mother did! And OH the times we had. Because times do change. And that can be beautiful! Today, I will go with Dominique. And the experience will be new. We are forever changing. Time, no matter what Cher sings, cannot be turned back. But it can be carried with us. Nothing is lighter than joy. Keep it close beside you. Within you, as we all make our way.
The assignment was on perspective. Maybe it was because it was my first time away from home at university. Maybe it was because my eyes were always filtered through my heart. Because I needed my world to get bigger, broader, more open, I saw the perspective in reverse and drew it. Instead of everything narrowing to a point, looking down the long hallway of the campus dorm, I was the point. Everything at the end of the hall got bigger. The other 18 year olds in class laughed as they displayed their drawings, one replicating the other. The teacher smiled. She gave me an “A.”
We were watching videos with friends last night, showing them tours of Aix en Provence. They were so excited. Ooohing and aaaahing over our ordinary. This is the street, next to the statue of the king, where I buy paint. The church where we laid Dominique’s mother to rest. Cezanne’s house. The place for the best pastries. Where I bought earrings. The fish market. The view of the Sainte Victoire. As their excitement grew, our ordinary felt spectacular again. Perspective.
It’s so easy to get stuck. To lose sight of the glorious things all around you. Trying to force everything to make sense — bring it all to a point. I learn the lesson again and again. To open my eyes. Open my heart. Change my view.
I guess that’s what real friends do — Oooh and aaah you into falling in love with your own life again. They are the point that opens all perspective.
I suppose everything is about context. It’s not like I’d normally be afraid of a pony. (I’ve even painted them.) But yesterday, when I looked up from the path to turn the corner and almost ran into one, I must say it was alarming. And he wasn’t alone. There was a donkey. A llama. Many sheep. Rams. Other ponies. I don’t know who was in charge of this gang by the river. There were no other humans in sight. Neither the sheep, nor the donkey seemed to care that I was there, but what I can only assume as the lead pony, looked at me like I was the suspicious one.
After taking pictures, I kept walking. The whole path seemed different. I felt disoriented. This path, that I could normally navigate in my sleep, suddenly felt completely strange. Had that always been there? What about this? Did I miss my turn?
I started to take inventory. I knew this rock. This tiny bridge. To walk up the slope on the left side. The smell of these trees. The purple flowers growing out of the concrete fence. I knew this path.
Life can throw you the strangest curves. And you can’t prepare for everything. And sometimes each step can become unfamiliar. When it happens, it may sound silly, but I always take my own inventory. Am I safe? Yes. Am I loved? Yes. Do I have to be afraid? No. I step aside from the wayward pony, smile, and keep walking.
I don’t think it makes me a serial killer just because I like my dishtowel to hang neatly. (They seemed to imply this in the movie Sleeping with the Enemy.)
I suppose I could have gone either way. My grandma’s kitchen was always, well, I’ll say it, a mess. Dishes piled head high. Pots still on the stove. My mother liked a clean sink. The dishrag hung alone over the faucet, testing the humidity level of her apartment. It was a good day for her if she woke to a dry rag in an empty sink.
It’s funny what brings us comfort. An ironed dish towel hanging neatly in the kitchen is enough to start my day off right. And it doesn’t mean I love my grandma any less, I just know what works for me.
There was a tiny plaque by my grandma’s stove. Above the picture of a very pregnant woman it read, “I should have danced all night.” Perhaps my mother took that advice to heart. She never taught me how to cook, but she did teach me how to dance. Her kitchen recipes included “Slow, quick-quick. Slow, quick-quick. 1-2-3, 1-2-3. A heel and a toe and a polka step.” And so we danced in that clean kitchen, never disrupted by a boiling pot.
I suppose there’s a little of both of them in my French kitchen. I know my grandma is watching as I boil the fruit from our trees to make jam. And it is my mother’s hand that gives me the slight nudge to change direction as she dances me through my clean kitchen.
When my son-in-law washes his hands and leaves the towels in a heap, I don’t really want to kill him. But I would like to tell him a story. Of a chubby woman laughing, a tall woman dancing, both leading me in love.
It’s a crazy world. We all have to find our own joyful way. Do what works for you. (And don’t forget to wash your hands.)
It was only out of complete desperation that I ate the semi-sweet chocolate chips in the upper cupboard of our kitchen. We didn’t have a continuous stock of candy in our house like my grandma. I stockpiled from each holiday and saved a bit from the Ben Franklin run before the Saturday matinee, so I was able to keep a small stash for afterschool snacks. On the rare occasion that I ran out, I frantically searched the house. Checking first the milk glass candy dish in the living room, but it only contained what my friends called “grandma candy” – usually mints. (Which I never understood, because no one had better candy than my grandma.) Only one other option remained. I pulled the wooden dining chair in front of the corner cupboards. Climbed up. Standing on the orange formica, I spun the lazy susan to the baking goods. Found the chocolate chips. Prayed for the off chance that we also had butterscotch chips to mix with the semisweet. We rarely did. Sitting on the counter’s edge, I poured a handful of the dark chocolate, still hoping for something sweet.
I mention it only because I marvel at my youthful expectation. After countless climbs, it was always the same result — bittersweet — yet I remained ever hopeful. I suppose believers always believe.
I don’t know what today will bring, but there’s a part of me that wakes, ready to push the chair, make the climb, hoist my feet and heart, in search of something sweet. I still believe.
In Greek mythology, Antaeus had super strength whenever he was grounded. Touching the Earth (his mother), his strength was always renewed. In combat, even if thrown to the ground, he was invincible. It was Heracles who discovered the source of his strength and, lifting him up from Earth, crushed him to death.
I always wanted to do the sleepover. But when the sun began to set, when it was time to go to bed, the battle began. It didn’t matter if it was a best friend’s house, or even in the beginning at my grandma’s house, I just wanted to go home. And home was with my mother, the source of my power. 763-5809 was the life line that grounded me. Making the call, without question, she dropped what she was doing and came to pick me up.
I suppose some would call that spoiled. I call it loved. You might think, oh she’ll never learn if she isn’t forced to do it. On the contrary. I would come to learn because of it. Secure in this love, I was able to go beyond my wild imagination. And not just physically. But emotionally. Artistically. I had the strength to dare in it all. To brave my heart and soul. To live. To love.
There are a million things, people, that try to pull us away from what we know. What we believe in. Sometimes it can even be our own silly worries that try to rip us away from the very thing that gives us strength. And I can see it. Feel it. When my feet begin to lift off the ground. When defeat feels imminent… I return to the story. I write it again and again. The love is always there. Will always be there. Invincible. And I am forever strong.
It wasn’t certainty, but the complete absence of the need for it. It was only a moment. Perhaps it will take even longer to explain than it lasted. But it did happen. This morning. I walked out the back door. There was no change in temperature. It felt like the world was one big room. Everything equal. I walked around the yard in my swimsuit. I can only describe the feeling as enough. I felt thin enough. Pretty enough. Clever enough. (Not because I had changed, or gotten better, it was just that everything was connected. There was no better, no worse — we all just were.) I was loved enough. Given enough. Not wanting. Nor waiting. Just being. A part of it all.
And I hope you can hear the joy, the gratitude in the word enough.
I jumped into the pool. Still the same temperature. I swam my laps in the blue that held no separation. Was it sky or water? Swimming or flying? I wasn’t sure. But it was enough. Leaving the pool, the water beaded upon my skin. Under the sun. Slowly drying. I was embraced. Framed. Just as the woman in the painting. Golden.
By the time I reached the house, it had passed.
Only to be felt in glimpses now. But those glimpses, I smile knowing, they too, will be enough. I’ll catch a flash of it, walking past her, hanging on the wall. Or maybe walking on the street. I’ll smile as she randomly strolls by, effortless, this stranger, not known by name, but by frame, both feeling, it is indeed golden — just to be — and we are enough.
I sit now within and between the labored breaths of my mother-in-law. How many more? It’s not certain. But there’s no need for it. Not now. In and out. Pausing. And there it is — the slightest smile between the gasps. A glimpse of just being. And I know it’s enough. It has been so beautifully enough.
She’s somewhere between water and sky now. Her arms, merely twigs, make a flutter. The sun is calling. She, I, we, all caught in the golden glimpse. It is more than enough.
I’m not sure if the tellers were elevated, or if it was just my five year old vantage point, but everything at First National Bank of Alexandria seemed important. I held my mother’s left hand as she struggled to remove the deposit slip from her purse with her other. I needed her to balance me as my head circled the high ceilings. Everything smelled of wood and dollar bills. When the transaction was finished, the teller thanked my mom by name. She knows her, I thought. I was so impressed! She handed me a yellow safety sucker from the bowl behind her desk. (Red was my favorite, but I still said thank you.)
I was taught that it wasn’t polite to stare, but I couldn’t look away. I could see just the tip of it. It was a flattened cardboard pig with tiny slots filled with coins. “Would you like one,” the teller asked, “to start saving?” More than anything, I thought, and gazed up at my mom to see if it was ok. She was smiling, so I agreed. She handed me the empty cardboard pig and I thought my heart would explode. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I was part of the transaction. And I felt as high as a First National ceiling.
My little pig got heavier with each dime and nickel slotted into place. Months later, when it was full, (from the random couch coin, or my weekly allowance), my mom asked if I wanted to put it in the bank. The real bank. I did, but I wanted to hold it for a while longer…feel the weight of it, the beautiful weight of my transactions. “Hold them as long as you need,” she said.
It feels the same with memory. Each day I place one in a heart slot, and hold on. Banked. Feeling the beautiful weight of all the joy of my days. All the hands held. The smiles exchanged. The love passed back and forth. The comforting weight of my transactions. “Can you still feel it?” they ask. “More than anything,” I reply…”more than anything!”
Hold everything dear.