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.
She was sitting just a table away from the band. Was it a wedding? In between the ceremony and the dance? To see her sitting there at the table, my not-yet mother, early twenties, I know her. One eye on the other woman at the table. One ear on the music. Size tens slightly tapping under the table. Ready for the dance.
It wouldn’t have been “old time” dancing then. Just dancing. Surely there would have been a polka — I see the tuba. But she was good at the in betweens, my mother. Teaching me that what we had, was exactly enough. It was easy as a child to get caught up in the next of it all. Rushing through Halloween. Making a path with the candy to lead to Thanksgiving. Clear the table. Get the dishes done so we can decorate. Wrap the gifts. Shake the gifts. Unwrap them. Happy New Year! But she taught me to enjoy the middle.
We both loved to read, so she compared it all to a book. Those center pages, when you are so immersed in the story, you don’t want to stop reading, but you don’t want it to end. This was the glorious part of living. This is where I want to live. Still.
It’s still easy for me to get caught up in the what ifs and whens of it all, but then I look at the photo. And I sit in the moment just before the dance. Breathe in the music. I will be happy. Right here. Right now.
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.
Sometimes it takes me a while to get there, but I usually do.
I’m no different from the next person when it comes to packing a suitcase, if that next person is slightly neurotic and overly excited. It’s still three weeks away, but the neurons in charge of organization have already begun counting underwear and creating a capsule wardrobe. “Wouldn’t it be great,” they urged, “if we had packing cubes, and other various sorting devices for the suitcases…” I nodded inside my own head and began searching the web. The options, while infinite, didn’t seem exactly right. I searched through sizes and colors and prices. The right price was the wrong country of origin. The right color was the wrong size. The right size was the wrong price. I searched and fumbled. Added some to cart. Backed out. Searched again. After about an hour and forty-five minutes, it became clear that I could use the random tote bags given free from the pharmacy and the stash of bags my mother gave to me from the make-up counter promotions. I take a breath. I take a pause. I have everything I need. What a relief to quit searching…unless that is, I need more clothes… That’s when I play fashion show from my own closet and once again realize, I have more than plenty.
I suppose it’s true with almost everything — we don’t need more things, we need more ideas. Of course there are specific times when you require a precise tool, object, (even scarf or scarves to match your autumn overcoat), but most of the time I find, if I’m creative enough, thoughtful enough, I already have the perfect solution. And it usually feels great! To shop your own closet and create a new look. To sand and sand the abandoned wood and make a new frame. To create a delicious recipe out of the left-overs. To give the neurons a break and let my heart and hands take over.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for commerce. I bought two new books yesterday. (I will use the french bag as backing for a framed picture, but still.) And I want you to buy pictures and books and cards, even from me (insert shameless plug here). So what was my point? I don’t know…maybe Marie Kondo had it right, about all the “sparking joy.” I like that. I think it’s a good idea…I guess that was the point, after all, more ideas — more joyful ideas! Wishing you a day filled with them.
Pause, and spark!
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 was thirty-something when my bike was stolen. I ran up to my apartment for just a few minutes. Left the garage door open. How quickly things slip away. When I returned, it was gone. I called the police to report it. I remember thinking how casually he walked, this police officer, to my garage door. Like he saw it every day. Well… He asked for the brand and style of bike. I asked if they ever found them. “No,” he said. And then he proceeded to talk about how the drainage system in our garages wasn’t correct. So that was it? My beautiful bike was gone and we were talking drainage. He put the report in his pocket and left.
I stood alone in front of my open, improperly drained garage, and thought about my first bike. My beautiful banana seat bike that I pedaled into the ground. That I abandoned in ditches on VanDyke road. In the Olson’s Supermarket parking lot while I ran in to cool off in the refrigerated section. In the front lawn of the public library while I read for hours. On the beaches of Lake Latoka while I splashed until summer’s end. I stood in the gaping mouth of my open garage, missing much more than my bike, wanting so desperately to feel surprised. Wanting to be that banana seat bike riding girl, that girl who trusted everything and everyone.
I wrote about it — that beautiful feeling of trust — in my book, Leap of Faith:
“It was the greatest. All my friends loved it. (my banana seat bike)
But Ididn’t even need a lock for it. Nobody ever stole
bikes from the beach. It was kind of like our sacred
ground. . . and we knew that in order to get to our
sacred ground, you had to have a bike, and to take
that away from someone, to take away their chance
to fly on the way to that glorious one of 10,000
lakes, well that would just be a terrible crime, so
we didn’t do it. I don’t think I realized how beautiful life without
mistrust really was. . .How could I know?
You can’t. . .until it is taken away —
and only in those rare moments,
when you let yourself remember innocence,
can you feel the slip of beauty.”
I reread that passage often, and I think, as Joan Didion wrote in her book, Slouching towards Bethlehem, “Was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.”
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.