I suppose it all takes time. To see the ordinary. And to appreciate it. Those of you that follow me here, have come, I hope, to know my grandparents, my mother, my schoolmates, and teachers. Some might say “just plain folks.” And that’s probably true. But maybe that’s the real beauty of it all. To find the spectacular in farmers, housewives and receptionists. To see the extraordinary in the daily living.
And in seeing them, it helps me see myself. Helps me find the gratitude of the day given. Of the toast for breakfast. The smell of coffee. The hand that reaches out for mine.
I am reading the book, “Love, Kurt (The Vonnegut Love Letters). I have this book, only because I have a special friend. Last year, together with our husbands, we went to Stillwater, MN. My friend and I stood in the bookstore as if before the Christmas morning tree. So many gifts in front of us, we had a hard time deciding. We each settled on our present. I loved her choice as much as mine. This year, she gave her book to me. Those simple words don’t seem to give it enough meaning, but I will tell you that it fills my heart. It brings me back to a laughter filled day on brisk streets and slow choices. It, for me too, is a love letter.
In the book, Kurt Vonnegut writes with his young pen, to his young wife, “Angel, will you stick by me if it goes backwards and downwards? Holy smokes, Angel: what if I turn out to be just plain folks?” Tears fill my eyes. I imagine we’ve all had the worries. Will I be special enough to be loved?
It’s these memories, of course, that give me that comfort. That give me the yes. My heart is packed full of the love from these glorious and plain folks. And I have loved them. Love them still. And I am one. Proud to be living with these extraordinary people. It is plain to see, they, we, are more than enough to be loved.
I don’t know when it changed — the moment we dropped the word story and just started calling them books. A part of me wants to bring it back.
The story books were in the basement of the Alexandria Public Library. Maybe it was because we didn’t know how to use the card catalog yet, but so many were on display, not by spine, but full cover. I can still see the bright blue cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was still above my reading grade, and sat perched on the very top shelf. I thought if I finished all the books on the lower shelves, read each and every story, worked my way upwards, that I too could fly.
My mom dropped me off every Saturday morning. I climbed up the outer steps, then climbed down the inside ones. I read for hours. Just before my mom picked me up, I checked out as many books as my orange book bag would hold, and the librarian would allow. She never complained about having to come in and get me. Most of my friends from school sat outside waiting for their rides. Running around in the grass, soon and easily fed up with the quiet words of the basement. But not me. I wanted every moment. And my mother, being an avid reader, understood. She parked the car behind the Ben Franklin store and walked over to get me.
I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote the book Bird Song. Covered in the same blue, it is a collection of stories (a story book) told by the beautiful wings that carry them. But of course it lives within me. The days at the public library. Each word read. Each shelf climbed. I know they brought me to this place. They lifted me. Dared me. And faster than any childhood Saturday morning, I learned to fly.
The stories we create are not weights, but branches. Out on the morning limb, I heart gather all the words – of mother and love and youth and chance and choice and story — I spread my wings, and I fly.
Maybe because I never had to doubt it with my mother, I was able to write about it.
We used to spend hours trying on clothes together. When the “fit” really fit — oh, it was magnificent. Praises of oohs and aahs filled the air. And when it missed, the knee hugging laughter went on through the entire fashion cycle. We were safe. Together. Seeing each other. Loving each other. From the lowest to the highest moments. Finding the beauty of it all along the way.
For a couple of years, the clothing store J.Jill carried my book, “I’m not too busy.” Of course it was also at bookstores. Galleries. Gift stores where I sold my artwork. But this was something special. J.Jill didn’t sell any other books. Just clothing. We had shopped in the Ridgedale store enough for some of the clerks to know us. One Saturday morning, properly caffeinated with Caribou, we began trying on the J.Jill clothing. Continuously giggling in the delight of books being in the dressing room and on display throughout the store. It was the perfect pocket of time.
My mother brought the white linen blouse to the counter to purchase. She looked lovely in it. I told her so. The clerk had as well. My book rested on the counter as my mother reached for her credit card. The J.Jill employee looked at me, in that way that maybe she knew me. And perhaps she had looked at my bio in the book, or maybe she just remembered from last Saturday. It didn’t matter. We all had been seen. And that was the gift.
I have that blouse. Along with those precious moments. I carry them daily. I will never be too busy to remember. My heart giggles, and I am seen.
I suppose we all knew that the “F” in BFFs, (Best Friends Forever) could never really be forever. Things changed so quickly at Washington Elementary. Fights could be resolved with two words, like “just kidding,” or “no offense.” And while we all knew there was both truth and offense in most of it, we moved on. There were new games to play. New promises to keep for a week at a time. And new best friends could be made with a smile, or a heart dotted “i” in an invitation for a sleepover.
I can’t tell you what everyone clinged to. What grounded them to this perpetual moving playground and school. But for me, it was the Weekly Reader. The magazine all about books. The magazine, that if you were blessed with a mother that also loved to read, and if that mother allowed you to spend her hard earned money on words — this was the magazine that indeed saved me. My constant. My balance. My future. My ever.
Of course we had library day. And I was grateful for sure. But there was something so very special about knowing these words didn’t have to be returned in two weeks. These words could stay beside you. In hand. On bedside. Wherever. Whenever you needed them. In this world that moved as quickly as grade school hands on monkey bars, it was the assurance I needed. It was the “F” I could really depend on.
There is an uncertainty in living a visa-ed life. Dominique and I are both dependent on those who allow us to stay…but at the same time, could say, “just kidding…” and our lives would be changed forever. We’re in a bit of an anxious moment. A moment in which my brain tells me, it will all work out, but my heart says, maybe we should go buy a book… So we did. Yesterday. The smell of the print is familiar. The weight in hand is a “there, there…” for my soul. Time disappears as I begin to read. Worry gets lost on the page. And I believe again in forever.
From my mother’s pursestrings, to the grasp of my husband’s hand, I suppose it was really always love that saved me. Love that saves us all. It’s the one true forever. But still, it’s always nice to have a book nearby. Weekly. And forever.
It just occurred to me this morning who she looks like — the woman I painted on my bookmark. Mrs. Paulson. My fourth grade teacher at Washington Elementary. Never during that entire school year did I see her undone. Hair coiffed. Dress pressed so impeccably that I waited, watching for a wrinkle to appear. She wiped the chalk from her hands on a cloth that sat on the corner of her wooden desk. Not one to plop, she lowered herself slowly into her wooden chair. Her fitted dress followed. Not fighting, as if it knew the routine, and I guess it did. When she rose again from that wooden chair (too elegant to just “get up”), she smoothed her chalk-free hands firmly down the skirt of her dress, and it responded perfectly. Wrinkles never dared the hands of Mrs. Paulson. She stood tall. We listened.
Of course she taught us subjects and predicates. But she constructed more than sentences. For those of us paying attention, and I have to believe that most of us were, (as so elegantly commanded), we received lessons that far exceeded the normal classroom. Some might say, “Well, anyone could do that,” and that may be true, but not everyone did, nor does.
In the fourth grade I began to think about things like posture and elegance. Mrs. Paulson saw to that. Shoulders high and back, I sit at my desk and try to pass it on daily. With the help of all those who came before, I have indeed found my place.
I raced the stairs to his class. He was a stickler for detail. One must be on time, or you will get a “greenie.” A greenie was a small piece of green paper, denoting some poor behavior – like being late, talking out of turn, not doing an assignment. And a certain amount of greenies resulted in detention or grade reduction. Of course this was incentive enough to race the halls of Central Junior High and up the stairs to his classroom, but it was more than that, I was excited for his class, English Literature. I was excited to see him. He postured straight at the front of the class. Suited and bow-tied, a pocket filled with green paper, one finger pressed to lips like a conductor waiting for the orchestra of the English language to begin.
In his fitted plaid lime green jacket he introduced us to T.S. Eliot. He read to us in perfect pitch “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The boys giggled. Mocked. Rhymed words with “frock” and quieted down after receiving their greenies. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” the lyrics danced in my heart. Never to be careful, ordinary, predictable, monotonous — this was the lesson. I put it in my heart and quietly vowed the same.
In my mother’s silverware drawer, there was one spoon different from all the rest. Before I knew of words and poems, or even what was ordinary, I loved this spoon. It was the only one I ever used. My mother made sure that for each meal it was clean. My spoon. My different spoon. Not matching. Not safe. Extraordinary.
When I moved to France, the hardest thing, (the only thing that could have made me stay) was my mother. In the first weeks, my lonesome heart ran through the doubts. Had I done the right thing? No one can give you life’s permission, but I waited for a sign. A letter arrived. Small, but an odd shape. I opened it. My spoon. My different, glorious spoon — a love song in silver.
It sits by my desk. Telling me daily to choose the extraordinary. The sun comes up. I race its stairs to the beautiful unknown.
We didn’t have lawn furniture. We had blankets — old blankets that took their place beside the winter weary hanging coats and resting boots.
Laura Ingalls Wilder book in one hand and blanket dragging from the other, I told my mom I was going to read in the grass. “Haven’t you already read that one?” she asked. “Not outside, no,” I said racing through the screen door. She smiled, seeming to understand my youthful summer logic.
I learned quite early on that the words took on new meaning outside. Let loose in the warm air, they wiggled like white winter toes set free. Bouncing in breezes. Flapping with wings. It seemed to me that I was returning the favors given by each book read in the trappings of the cold. Housed in the wintertime, they allowed me to climb inside each page. To travel without fear of inclement weather. So on these sun-filled days, it seemed only right that I would let those same words out. And the language they took on was magical. The voice of freedom. Maybe all things (and mostly people) tell a better story without restraints.
Yesterday I finished reading the book Flâneuse,by Lauren Elkin, from the luxury of a lawn chair. ‘Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], a noun, from the French, a form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer. This is indeed a book made to be read outdoors. I wandered, and yes, even dawdled through each luxurious sentence.
I suppose my love, nor logic, has never lived indoors. I wish for you the same — words filled with so much meaning, they need open spaces. Lives filled with wandering paved and gravel paths. Loves so vast, so high that the birds envy and try to reach. Throw those curtains wide. Fling windows and doors. Step out into the wiggle of toes and heart. Breathe. The day is opening!
Maybe it was my grandmother with her apples. My grandfather with his knowledge. Or my mother with her love. But I had already learned the lesson that Mark Twain wrote of, long before I read it : “If you want love and abundance in your life, give it away.”
— Mark Twain
It was in our green house on Van Dyke Road. In the bedroom I shared with my sister. Above the renters who lived below us. I leaned against the wall. My feet perched on the bed to make a table for my book. Tom Sawyer. I devoured the words. So engrossed in the story I wasn’t even bothered that she kept kicking my feet off the bed. Space was not our plenty. But since the first day Mrs Bergstrom taught us to read at Washington Elementary, she knocked down every brick wall of that school and told us we could go anywhere. Anywhere! Each word was a ticket and I turned mine in. Over and over. My abundance.
You can ban the books. We already have the words. You can lock the doors to the church, we already have the love. You can overprice the school, we’ve already knocked it down.
Today I’m waking in the lovely home that our dear friends share with us as we travel. Basking in their abundance, offering you mine. We all have something to give.
Just one letter separated the two words. And barely even a letter, only the slightest curve between the “a” and the “o”. Hallowed. Hollowed. They were in the poem she sent me. It was beautiful for so many reasons, but for me, this tiniest of movements that could change one word to another, one emotion to another, filled me with hope, filled me with love.
That’s why I have always loved words. Books. Therein lies the possibilities.
We went to Book in Bar yesterday – my favorite bookstore in Aix. The comfort was palpable. As we stood by the coffee bar, waiting for our cappuccinos, I saw it. Flâneuse, by Lauren Elkin. A Chicago friend had tagged me in a post about it just the day before. I have never been one to ignore magic, so I picked it up, sat with it at our table. Hallowed.
I suppose I think, if I live in the word, I might too possess the skills to make the same changes. To take an empty day, and fill it.
As I wander (the meaning of flâneuse) through the “a”s and “o”s of my day, I will choose the magic. Choose the hope of each word and place it into that hollow part of my heart, and fill it. I will write my story. Live my story. Share my story. For I have to believe — it’s the most beautiful magic of all!
I was only six when I was walked into the library of Washington Elementary. The door opened and it hit me immediately, the familiar scent. I didn’t have the words for it then. The knowledge. Certainly it could have been explained away with paper, and time. The aging, a slight dampness to it all. But I had smelled this before, this comforting familiar. And I needed no explanation, because I was home.
This welcoming scent – it was the same as the entryway to my grandparents’ home. Coats lined the wall. Dampened with work and story, they welcomed anyone who opened the door. They said, come in, you and your heart sit down. It was there I learned to trust. Trust in those who made the effort. Trust in those who worked hard to create something. Create a life.This library of coats. Of living.
When Mrs. Bergstrom, my first grade teacher, let go of my hand, I wasn’t afraid. She set me free in this open and beautiful world. There was life all around me. Book after book. Page after page. The words brushed against my arm, warm and worn, as the sleeve of my grandfather’s coat.
Some might say it is only nostalgia. But what is nostalgia? For me, it is not wanting to live in the past. No, for me, I see it as proof. A living and palpable proof of how it feels to be open. It is a reminder of how glorious life can be. A documentation of the extraordinary doors — the doors that let you in, the ones that set you free.
I don’t know what today will bring. But I know what it feels like to be open. I need no explanation. I brush against the familiar, and walk into the sun.