The walk of temptation was extraordinary for a five year old. My mom parked the Chevy Impala in front of Ben Franklin that Saturday morning. I could already see the candy through the double glass doors. My impatient feet jittered up and down next to the parking meter as she rummaged through the bottom of her purse for a quarter. I rolled my eyes as she pushed aside Kleenex and breath mints. “C’mon,” I would never say out loud, but released through the clenching and unclenching of my chubby fingers. The coin dropped and the red flag moved aside. We were free. I raced past the front cashier and stood in front of the penny candy. If I saw it today, with grown-up eyes, the square plastic bins stacked on an end cap, might not seem so magical, but then, oh, then, it was glorious! It was Tinkerbell’s wand waving over a colorful rainbow of sugar. I could feel my chin drop. “Wait!” I said as she led me down the aisle. “Can’t we just get a little bit..just one color even…just a piece of red…” “Next time,” she said, “We have better things to do.” Better things, I grumbled underneath my breath. Impossible, I thought. And dragged my bumper tennis shoes along. The aisle became stacked with toys. Beautiful, plastic covered toys! Yes, I thought. These must be the better things. I began to touch everything. I wanted it all. Or anything! Something pink and shiny! Please, I begged, perhaps out loud, or just with heart-reaching urgency. I felt her hand on my shoulder again. “Better…” she promised. It couldn’t possibly be, I thought. Yet, she had never lied to me. But here, in the center aisle of the Ben Franklin, I must admit, I had my doubts. We walked through the back door. A large pillared building stood in front of us. I began to near the grass, but she pulled me to the sidewalk. “You need to see all of it,” she said. We stood in front. The Alexandria Public Library. It was beautiful, but what was inside? “Books,” she said. “They give them to you. With just your name.” I could only breathe the word, “OHHHHH…” We walked up the stairs and opened the doors. “It smells like words,” I said. She smiled and led me down the stairs to the children’s section. I could barely move. Every spine, every cover, called to me. “Take your time,” she said. Each letter tugged at my sleeve until my arms were filled. I signed (printed) my name on the small mildewed card. My heart beat sugared from the inside. “Do you want me to help you carry them?” I shook my head no and carefully maneuvered myself and the precious cargo down the stairs. I started walking up the sidewalk. “Don’t you want to cut through?” she asked, pointing at Ben Franklin. “No,” I said, “this is better.” We walked the long way to the car. Books in hand, I held the keys to the kingdom.
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.
“If I were a bird,” she thought, “I would fling myself from limb to limb. The breeze would take away all the weight of being, and I would feel alive.”
“If I were her,” thought the bird, I would change out of my yellow dress and lie, pillowed, comforted, and still.”
It’s so easy to see what we think the “others” have. It takes a special effort sometimes to see it in ourselves.
Yesterday, I took two hours to hand paint a single bookmark. As the woman was coming to life on the paper, she looked so familiar. Someone I knew? I couldn’t quite place her. As I cut her, tasseled her, gave her a sleeve, I saw it — the yellow bird painting. She was the yellow bird. And that’s when I heard their voices.
I’ve heard those voices before. In my head. The ones that compare, Oh, the French do this, or the Americans have that… and I can get lost in this battle of others. It’s so ridiculous, and never makes me happy. I’ve seen people do it online, comparing their lives to the manufactured world of social media. Ugh. But it seemed so simple, when I saw the yellow birds, the yellow-dressed woman — we all have everything we need, we just have to see it. To live it — live our best yellow. When I want to fly, I must fly. When I need to rest, I can rest. There are no “ifs,” there is only YELLOW! And when comparison tries to whisper in my ear, you don’t belong here, you’d be better off somewhere else, I simply fluff my winged dress and say, “Oh, but it IS my place!”