We weren’t allowed to swim at night, for obvious reasons. I suppose they were the very reasons why we did it.
I was staying over night at her house. She lived just across the road from one of 10,000 lakes. We had put on our pajamas. Gone through the list of “have you ever”s… been kissed by a boy…stolen penny candy from Ben Franklin…snuck into the Andria Cinema… all the usual questions that we knew all the answers to, but asked them just the same. When we heard her parents turn off The Tonight Show and slipper down the hall to bed, we changed from our pajamas into our swim suits. Neither one of us would ever claim ownership to the plan, it was just something we were doing. Night swimming.
There was always talk of it late in the school year on bus rides home. The teenagers would speak softly of the magic. The lure. Still in our preteens, time couldn’t go fast enough. We felt immortal, and ready to prove it at any given moment.
Our hearts fueled with Mountain Dew and no previous knowledge, we barefooted out the back door, through the yard. Stopping dead in our tracks like spiders on a wall as one of us clinked the chain from the swingset. No lights turned on. We proceeded. We thought of flashlights after the fact. Even our hindsight was dim. Each step became slower. Each night sound became louder. And creepier. The sounds of our breathing said we were both willing to turn back if only one of us would admit it. Neither did. It was hard to tell the difference between grass, sand and water. But for the feel, all were black. Toes were dampened first. Then ankles. Our hands reached out at the same time. Grabbing tightly, we walked to our knees, sure that our heads were already under water. We grabbed the opposite hands, forming a circle now. We stood still.
There is an unexplained magic to friendship. We are given the right gifts at the right time. “I want to go back,” we both trembled the words together at the same time. “Jinx!” We laughed. Hooked our pinkies together. “What goes up the chimney… Smoke!” With linked fingers we ran on bare tiptoes back to the house.
There are a million challenges that I have gotten beyond because of friends. Through the darkest times they have been there, clasping hands. No common blood pulsing through our pinkies, just trust, just love. They have challenged me. Lifted me. Saved me. I give thanks for them, for you, every day.
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.
Bracing her hands against her knees, still looking up at the painting, smiling, joyful tears filled her eyes. I stepped closer in, wanting too, to be caught in her moment of happiness.
It isn’t often that I get to finish the sale in person. Normally it’s online, and then I ship it out. The grateful emails are nice, but nothing like being face to face. Yesterday, I got to witness her reaction. In real life. In real time. Of course the money is always nice. There is validation to the dollar amount. But to see the reaction. To know that this painting brings her and her husband home, this is priceless. This is why I keep painting.
There is an intimacy to this life, that should never be missed. When people allow you into their moments, be it tears of joy, or sorrow, go all the way in. Stand beside the raised arms or bent knees and feel the moment. It is the most precious gift we have to give. We have to receive. It takes courage, for sure, to do both, but the rewards are immeasurable.
I hope you see these words each day as doors. As windows. Come in, you and your heart sit down.
It’s ironic, I suppose, that we only played freeze-tag during our Minnesota summers. Lit only by the tenacity of the hanging summer sun, and the surrounding porch lights, we gathered in the vacant lot next to Dynda’s. It was usually Lynn or Shari Norton, being the oldest, who decided what game to play. I loved kickball. And softball. Even kick the can — though I’m not sure I ever understood the rules. The only game I didn’t love was freeze tag. If the person who was “it” touched you, you had to stop. Immobilized. Standing still. Alone. While others tripped in giggles and weeds, you had to just stand there. Excluded from the fun. Hoping that someone would come and touch you to free you.
It was just a game. I knew, standing there, I still had cool sheets to rest in. A kiss good-night waiting from my mother. But still. It became pretty clear to me, even then, that we need each other.
There are so many distractions in this world. It’s easy to lose sight of the lost. Those frozen in time and space. When maybe just a simple tag, a touch, a smile, could set them free. I’m as guilty as the next person. But I want to get better. And let’s be honest. It really doesn’t take all that much. A returned email. A letter. A phone call. A knock on the door beneath the porch light that waits. Maybe one day, we can all be tripping in the giggles and weeds.
The first set of paper dolls I received was for my 7th birthday from Wendy Schoeneck. My mother had always taught me to smile when receiving a gift. I didn’t know why she had made such a point of it. I suppose up until then, I had always been thrilled with my presents. Wendy was smiling so intently, watching me tear the wrapping paper. So pleased with what was about to be revealed. I scraped the yellowed Scotch tape from the last reluctant piece, only to reveal, to my horror, Buffy and Jody paper dolls. Not only had they spelled my name wrong, but Jody was the boy. I glanced up at my mother. I knew she knew. I guess her constant reminders paid off, because I forced a smile in Wendy’s direction. She couldn’t seem to tell that it was more pain than gratitude.
We played music. Pinned the tail on the donkey. Dropped the clothespins in the bottle. Passed around the presents. Laughed and held sweaty hands in circles. All had been forgotten and forgiven.
One of my presents was a Winnie the Pooh giant story book. We all started to sing the Pooh song, when one of the girls noticed that Winne the Pooh could quickly and easily be translated to Wendy the Pooh. Others joined in. Some giggled. But not Wendy. I knew she felt bad. I opened the box of paper dolls and my mom got out the scissors. We cut out the clothes and quickly forgot about both Poohs. It was a good gift after all. Wendy was smiling. My mom was smiling. And so was I, for real this time.
Sometimes it’s hard to see life’s gifts. They often come ill-wrapped at unwelcomed times. But even the hardest day is kind enough to pass. Find the good. It’s out there.
It’s easy to think it’s beautiful at first glance. The perfection of the unused pastels. Pristine. Untouched. And I will admit I open the box slowly. Remove the padding. And let it sink in, all the possibilities. But for me, this is not the real beauty. No, things have to get messy to become beautiful. The pastels will lose their perfect shape as I stroke them against paper and canvas. The colors will cling to my fingers and get wiped on pants legs and on cheek bones as I bring the painting to life. I’ll be covered in the evidence of creation when I bring the finished product from the studio to the house. Viewing the colors still on my face, my husband will call me a warrior. And I proudly smile, because I am. I joyfully give my all.
I suppose it’s the same with love. With life. Some will never risk getting hurt. Never take a chance on anything. Never using the pastels of their heart. Not me. I want to get in deep. Covered in the evidence of experiencing it all. Even the shattered pastel has the ability to color. To create. To make something beautiful. Your heart is going to feel it, sure…but oh, the colors — the glorious colors of scattered love. It’s not to be missed.
I wake to this sun, labels peeled, middles cracked, rubbed uneven, and joyfully covered in love’s evidence. It looks like an imperfectly beautiful day.
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.
David Hovda and I were wandering, slowly and aimlessly around Jefferson Senior High School, both in knee-high plaster casts. (This was in my dream last night. I’m sure he’s actually fine.) I had no idea what my schedule was. The halls were empty and the classroom doors were closed. The bell had rung. And I didn’t know where to go. The cast part was real, but not once in my high school years did I ever forget my schedule. It surprises me that I would still have this dream.
I woke up before either of us found our way. I’d like to think we went to the Superintendent’s office. That’s where our parents would have been. His father. My mother. And in typing this, the dream just made sense. My mother sat too close in age and distance to Dr. Hovda. When he passed away first, something told me it wouldn’t be that long.
In high school, I suppose I thought that I would just learn things, and that would be it. The knowledge would stick, and everything would be fine. I had no idea how many times I would have to learn the same lessons. They first told us that we would understand when we got bigger, when we got older. We did both, but oh how the world can make you feel so small. So lost. And you have to learn again. Grow again. And find your way.
Normally a dream like this will unsettle me. But I didn’t wake up afraid. I guess it’s because my heart knows where the Superintendent’s office is. I know I can walk down the terrazzo hall, open the door, and my mother will still be sitting at the front desk, full smiles, overhearing something that Dr. Hovda shouted from his open-door office. And I, we, will all be saved.
It still surprises me the amount of candy one could receive just by donning an old pair of sweatpants and a paper sack from Olson’s Supermarket over your head. Even if we would have had the money, I’m not sure it would have occurred to us to buy a costume. Surely better results could not have been achieved with a store-bought mask. Nor could it have been used as a backup sack when your premier trick or treating bag, also a sack from Olson’s, became filled, or the handles ripped off. Because the women of VanDyke road, and just beyond by the cemetery, would indeed fill your bag. Homemade popcorn balls. Carmeled apples. Full-size Hershey bars. Cookies. We said “Trick or Treat” with full confidence. We were only “treated.”
It would be hard to imagine now, I suppose. But it was real. Mrs.Vacek, beyond grandma old, opened her door, and walked us past the linoleum porch to sit at the kitchen table. Frank, her husband, perhaps only feigning affection, still managed to sit at the table, head in hand, and asked us one by one, not the standard question of “who are you supposed to be,” but he asked, “Who do you belong to?” “Oh, Frank,” Mrs. Vacek would say, knowing full well who we were. “The green house, on Van Dyke road,” I would reply. (Not completely comprehending, although we had walked far in the early setting sun, we were still on Van Dyke road.) Each of us responded with the like — the yellow house, the white house… Because we belonged here – in this neighborhood, in these houses, on this road. A real community, that was the real treat, I guess. We belonged.
It’s what I wish for you. For all. On this, and every day, that you have an easy answer to Frank’s question. Happy Halloween!
It was my mother who taught me to be a come-with gal. Both by being one, and by asking the same of me.
When I started having surgeries in my teens, on every joint available, my mother was there. She made appointments during her lunch hours. She used vacation time for hospital stays. She overnighted in questionable parts of strange cities to be there when I woke the next morning. She was the driver. The nurse. The companion. The entertainment. Each and every step of the way, she came with.
Returning home, still releasing anesthesia through tears and hanging limbs, she would say, “Well, I’m going to the mall.” I didn’t want to miss out. She knew that. She also knew this would get me off the couch. On crutches, or slinged, sometimes both, I slapped on the lipstick that she already had raised from the tube, and I limped along beside her. She tried on every outfit that Herberger’s had to offer. Some to stun. Some just to make me laugh. And I did. I got over, because I came with.
Just the other day I sold a painting that turned out to be a two-fer. Sometimes when I run out of canvas, or panel, I paint on the opposite side. As I was wrapping up the painting of Lake Agnes for shipping, I smiled, because there she was, the woman on the other side of the painting — the come-with gal. How appropriate, I thought. On one side, the image of where I came to life, Lake Agnes of Alexandria, Minnesota. And on the reverse, the symbol of how I came alive, just by coming with.
No days wasted. My mother saw to that. The sun is calling, and I must go.