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…
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.
It was just after recess. Even on the coldest of days, we were always sweaty. We hung our coats back on the pegs. Mrs. Erickson stood at the front of our third grade class. She had a stack of papers in her hand. She told us to sit and take out our No.2 pencils. She gave a handful to the front person of each desk row. We passed the sheets back to the person behind us, along with our comments and guesses of what was to come. Each pass was like a short game of “whisper around the world.”
I held the horizontal lined paper between my fingers. It seemed all good things started with paper at Washington Elementary. The paper was lined, but not just single lines. Groups of three. Two solids middled by a dotted line. I was certain they were little highways. I would turn out to be right.
She used a three pronged chalk to make the same lines on the blackboard and began our cursive journey. She had the most beautiful penmanship I had ever seen. Upper and lower cases flowed along the paper highway, and we were off! We had already learned to read. Mrs. Bergstrom saw to that. But this, she said, was how we would communicate. It would be part of our identity. I opened the windows of my imaginary car. The wind blew through my hair and hand and I began to write. My name. My address. Sentences. Tiny trips at first, and then I was out on the open road. Faster. Longer. Free!
In the tenth grade, they taught us “behind the wheel,” in Driver’s Ed. But it was Mrs. Erickson who first gave us the keys.
I suppose we all have different destinations. I used to walk down Hopkins Crossroad and take a left onto Minnetonka Blvd. The obvious attraction to many was the bright red roof of the Dairy Queen. But not for me.
It was no accident, I suppose, that there was usually a Dairy Queen next to the softball fields of my youth. In dusted and grass stained uniforms, with skinned knees and sweat matted hair, all the young girls gathered behind cones, and cups. Celebrated or commisserated with frozen cream. Intolerant, being a word well above my reading level, I just knew I would get sick. (After two very unsuccessful attempts.) Sometimes I opted for the Mister Misty – the DQ’s version of shaved ice – but mostly I just went without.
I could have felt sorry for myself. My mother didn’t allow that. “Look around,” she said, on her way back to work, “You have a banana seat bike and a beautiful summer day, figure it out…” So I rode. I rode that bike to lakes. To swingsets. To ballfields. And neighbors. The North End. Parks. On gravel and hills. In cemeteries. Empty school yards. To the public library. Ben Franklin. Hugo’s field. I saw everything. I pedaled the paths and when the paths got too thick, I dropped my bike and walked. And walked some more. As I wore the flowers from my banana seat, and the soles from my bumper tennis shoes, without my knowledge or permission, I was indeed figuring it out.
I still think of it as my superpower — seeing beyond the obvious red roof. During my Minnetonka stay, I saw it almost every day, the weeping willow just before the DQ. One autumn, after dancing with it for an entire summer, I came home and gave thanks on the canvas. For the willow. The road. My mother. The love of the dance.
I would always sit in the front row. I loved my English LIterature courses. I wanted to be a part of it all. My hand shot up before my mouth even knew what was going to come out. “You’ll think of something, ” my fingers encouraged as they waved in the air. It wasn’t about assuming I was right. Not about proving my point. I just wanted to be involved. To be among the words. Part of the discourse.
I sat slunched in my chair. Sweating. Sick. My roommate had told me to stay in bed, but I didn’t want to miss out. Within the hour, my mom was on her way to pick me up from college and bring me back home for an emergency appendectomy. When Dr. Merickel gave the diagnosis of acute appendicitis, I smiled. He asked why I was smiling. “You said it was cute.” We hear what we want to hear.
I went back to school two days later, a little lighter, but no less enthusiastic. All that learning prepared me for what was to come. Not in the way you might think. I didn’t learn any foreign languages. So when I moved to France, arms at my side, I feared the conversation. Even the most simple were acute! Trapped inside an introduction, I heard my brother-in-law introduce me as his belle-sœur, I beamed. I heard the word belle and thought “pretty.” And the word soeur meaning “sister.” It turns out that belle-sœur means sister-in-law. But once again, in this need to belong, to be a part of the conversation, I heard what I needed to hear.
I don’t always get it right. I don’t think it’s always necessary. What we do have to be is brave. Curious. Willing to open our hearts and get involved. Be a part of it all. When I raise my hand today, it’s to wave you in. Welcome to my conversation. I’m glad you’re here.
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.