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.
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.
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 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.
Smile by heart.
It was the first thing we always checked — the lighting in the bathroom. Whether hotel or apartment, this was the most important thing, my mother taught me. After all, she explained, a lady had to get her face on in the proper light. And she always did. I watched her do it. Even on her darkest days, she began each morning in the bathroom light. Transferring it to her face. Going to work with a heavy heart, and a well-lit smile. In my younger years, I imagined the corners of her mouth attached like pulleys, lifting her heart into that same light. Just typing it now, mine did the same.
When traveling to different art shows across the United States, I would call her when arriving, and the first thing she would ask was “How is the lighting?” I only just realized, maybe it had always been code for “how is your heart?”
Even in the last apartment she lived in, we checked it first. She used her walker to get into the light. It was perfect, she said. She had already decided. Maybe this is what I loved about her the most — this decision to find the light. To become it. Smile by heart.
She could get her face on in here, she said. She filled the adjacent cupboard with the finest make-up. Moisturizers. Creams. She put them on each morning. Her lip-lined corners once again pulling up her heart.
Missing her now, I’m asked to do the same. And I do. Morning by morning. Smile by smile. My heart gets lifted. Into the light.
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!
It’s no secret that I read a lot. Often they make the books into movies. Often I’m disappointed. For me, the words seem to paint a more realistic picture. A vivid representation of the person or people inside the story. Not tainted or swayed by the pressures of Hollywood. I wonder when we were first sold the idea that people, in order to be a hero, or heroine, had to “look the part.” I, I say with great fortune, have lived a life to the contrary.
I have written about so many that have saved me through the years. Mr. Whitman, the caretaker of the cemetery, dirtied and slumped from the weight of burying the people from town. My grandfather, callused hand reaching behind his stained overalls to bring me along, bring me through. Chubbied Grandmother wiping kitchen hands on apron, just to give us something sweet. Wearied teachers, still finding a way to say the words that just might carry us. Tear-stained mother who laughed with unfaltering grace.
So it came as a surprise to me, the woman in New York standing in front of my portrait of Maya Angelou — a sage I return to again and again. She read the words and seemed to be moved. She praised them. I thanked her. She wanted to buy copies, but whispering sheepishly now, “maybe without the picture.” Whispering even lower now, “you know, maybe she could be a bit polarizing to my customers.”
I laughed. How ironically and completely opposite of the words that she claimed to love.
Kindness. Truth. Beauty. Wisdom. Hope. Leadership. Strength. Love. It comes in all sorts of “packaging.” Each a gift.
Maya would have forgiven her. As she always said, “When we know better, we do better.” I put the words and paintings before you, before myself, daily, in the hopes of doing just that… better.
Certainly they had more money than we did, the women who owned BonJos — an upscale dress shop for the women of Alexandria, Minnesota. They probably had big houses. Nice cars. But when I saw my mom pull back the curtain and step out of the elevated dressing room at the Viking Plaza mall, I knew what class meant. And it was beautiful.
This is not to say that others didn’t have it. People all around us did. At all levels. But what my mother taught me, standing tall above her height and pay grade, was that elegance, grace, true beauty, came from within. And she wore it better than anyone.
And of course she aged. It happens to all of us. But what’s remarkable, I only ever saw that woman — that woman coming out from behind the curtain, daring the town and the mirror to really see her. That woman who never thought she was brave, but dared to extend her height with heels from Herberger’s. I saw her with smiling breath held. And it wasn’t just me, I saw the owners catch themselves in approval. BonJos was lit brighter than the fluorescent of any mall.
Some will tell you that love is blind. I don’t agree. Maybe love is the only thing that truly sees. Maybe love is the reason even well into her 80’s this beauty remained.
Here’s how I see it. I hope we all can see it this way — Youth will fade. Real beauty never does.
I don’t know who it belonged to. It certainly wasn’t my grandma — even though we found it, my cousins and I, in her upstairs closet. Digging beneath the sombrero, the military uniform and the extra bedding, we jumped back, toppling over each other on the hardwood floor. Was it alive? It had eyes! Fur! What was it??? With a pool cue from the corner of the closet, we moved it into view. A dead fox. Long straight, headed and tailed. Did it crawl in from the field for a siesta (under the sombrero on this Minnesota farm)? And then died? We kicked it down the stairs beside my grandma standing in front of the kitchen sink. (She was always in front of the sink, yet the dishes were never done — but that’s another story.)
“It’s just a stole,” she said, “a fox stole.” Not understanding the word, we assumed the dead fox was now some sort of robber. “No, to wear around your neck,” she said. The explanations kept getting worse. It was unimaginable. We threw it at each other. Maybe she said who it belonged to, but I don’t think so. We soon grew tired of it. We would have left it on the kitchen floor, but she told us to put it back, never asking why she wanted to keep it. We loved her. So we did.
The only accessory we knew Grandma Elsie to wear was an apron. And that was enough for us. She donned what some called sensible shoes and house dresses, which made it easy, I suppose, for us to forget that she was not just a grandma, but a woman of this world.
Pardon the reference, but it’s hard to see “everything, everywhere, all at once.” We get bits of people, glimpses really. We grab onto the parts that serve us best, and a lot remains, well, in the closet. This is not to say we need to know everything about everyone. But I think it’s good to realize that we don’t know everything. People have riches and reasons that we will never realize. And instead of being afraid of that, we should respect it, celebrate it even.
I don’t know if my grandma was ever in Mexico. But in my head she was. Possibly even wearing a fox stole. Or maybe it was just Great Aunt Ellen’s. Maybe she bought it at Tvrdik’s garage sale, just up the road. It doesn’t really matter. What I love is that there was a world to discover in her home. A home where we were allowed to run free. To become exactly who we wanted to be. This beautiful farmhouse, with security and surprise, that grew so much, grew so many.