It was a cathedral I had to fill, my first solo show in France. I laughed as I made one canvas larger than the next, because it had been all I had prayed for — space.
I used to paint in my small apartment’s bathroom in Minneapolis. It was the only place that I could spill and clean. The seating was built in. Small canvases were easy. Large ones I could balance on my legs, the towel bar and the edge of the tub. I guess I hadn’t been all that specific in my prayers. I didn’t know the answer would come with a move to another country, but there I was, in the south of France, covered in paint, love, and “well, this is what you asked for…” so I filled the space with my story. Canvas by canvas.
Perhaps it is the most open I have ever been. And maybe that’s what love gives you — space. And I don’t just mean romantic love (which does help a great deal!) but also love for yourself, love for the chances that life offers, love for the answers that come as a complete surprise.
I have it now, in home and country and studio, but I still pray for it daily, for my heart That I will find the space for all those trying to share their stories, their talents, their imperfections, their lives. May I be open to them all.
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.
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 would be hard to see at first glance, I suppose, but the chairs I recovered when first moving to France, remind me of my grandfather.
He didn’t say a lot. My grandma was the talker. So to know him, you had to watch him. It was his actions that told the story. And the truth that I saw was that he could fix anything. His tools were simple. Most, it appeared to me, could fit into a small handled, rusted box that he could carry in one hand from the shed to the field, where the tractor waited patiently.
This was business. He took it seriously. But one time he let me walk with him. Two steps to his one, I bit my lips to mute the million questions in my head. Just watch, my brain kept telling my curious heart. The music of the tools rattling seemed to lead the dance. With great precision he flipped and turned. Jolted and eased. Mumbled under breath. And the tractor started again. I sat on his overalled lap and he drove me back to the house. I told him I would return the toolbox to the shed. It wasn’t just to be helpful, I actually wanted to feel the weight of magic. It was surprisingly easy to carry.
When I first moved to France, I needed to find a way to fix the time. The real “difference,” was not just seven hours ahead, but how it could be filled. I didn’t understand the television. My phone didn’t work. Stores were often closed. People spoke in an unfamiliar rhythm. I had my painting. My writing. But there was still time to fill. I went to my heart’s shed and grabbed my toolbox. I decided to recover two chairs. I had never done it before. Never even knew that I wanted to, but here they were, these two chair frames, so I began to work. With Dominique’s help, I found the fabric, the stuffing, the upholstery nails, the sandpaper, the paint. And began. The sanding and the painting went well. The stretching of fabric over the cushions took some trial and error, but I figured it out. Then the nailing — the endless nailing — hour after hour of nailing. But I did it! I did it, I said again to the heavens. And as I placed one in the entry and one in our library, I could hear the engine roll over, feel the puff of smoke, and the tractor wheels turn. It was magic.
Without saying it, he taught me to find a way. Each day has its challenges, but I’m carrying a box of magic.
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!
We were never asked the question when we were young — “How do you identify?” I smile now, thinking about it, because I probably would have answered — “A cardinal.”
I didn’t see it for the blessing that it was at the time — maybe that’s the way with all blessings — but despite time and distance, it has stayed with me, this feeling of belonging, being, and I remain a cardinal.
Even on the teams we didn’t play for, we still came together in our red and black. Sometimes on the field. Sometimes in the band. Sometimes in the bleachers. Forever donned in our mascot, the Alexandria Cardinals. Because no matter what we were, hoods, geeks, nerds, jocks, preppies, we were always cardinals. We stomped and clapped to the Cardinal beat. Competed. Learned. Fought. Made up. Grew. Fell. Got up. Together.
I put on my second-hand Cardinal T-shirt yesterday. Wondering why it couldn’t all be this simple. Weren’t we, aren’t we, all a part of something bigger? I’d like to think so. Maybe the red and black is never all that black and white. But it is something to be connected. To be a part of the bigger picture. I want that. For all of us. For this world. We could come together. And identify as one.
I was watching a German creator who recently moved to Los Angeles, California. She was lonesome. Missing her friends. She walked around the streets and picked up odd objects. From the ground. Abandoned buildings. Seemingly useless stuff, but she could see something beautiful. She made a light that turned on by an automatic switch, notifying her of the German time between 9am and 9pm — the time she could safely call up a friend in Germany. Her best friend. To hear the sound of her voice. I love this idea. This simple reminder. A light to stay connected.
Because that’s everything, isn’t it? Just to be connected to the ones you love.
I search the house. Photographs and spare parts. Metal. Wood. Scraps. I know I can make anything. My heart smiles and tells my brain, “I’ve got this.” The flame that lights my mother’s memory is shining brightly. There’s only one thing I need to know — what time is it in heaven?
I suppose it was at the beginning of each school year that I began waiting for Christmas. Ticking off the markers. The autumn sports on fields or in bleachers. The Halloween candy counted, saved, stretched until Thanksgiving. The first snowfall. Cars and snowballs pushed through the white, making tracks to Christmas. The forever that it seemed to take, now looks like a blur. Maybe my head rested in waitful agony during the math class that explained “time plus time equals speed” — but it’s oh, so clear now.
It seems too many of us have missed the lessons.
Today, all I want is candy corn, and for time to slow down. If I found such a sack of delicious treats, I would pull them out kernel by kernel. I would eat the white tip. Then the orange, then the sweet yellow. The yellow is my favorite of all. You will never be able to convince me that each color tastes the same. Not for me. But if I found this sweet candy, I wouldn’t rush the yellow. I would give thanks for the white. Praise the vibrant orange. And pause, twirling the golden tip in my fingers. Sweet yellow. As sweet as Christmas morning. Time held in my hand.
I’m learning the lessons. Still and again. Trying to enjoy the minutes. The hours. The day. Not waiting for “someday”. Our “someday” is now.
I know you know that’s not a typo. Those who knew you called you Alek, not Alex, or even Alexandria, for we, I, knew you with an intimacy that required something familiar, a term of endearment, like Alek.
And we were intimate, weren’t we? Those hot summers, almost endless with the first sun, the first swim…rolls in that green grass. And then bundled together in the whites of winter. Yes, I knew you. I knew you on school buses, through mutual friends. and fleeing family. You made me smile, you made me cry. You heard me sing. And watched me hope.
But if we’re being honest, I couldn’t get away from you fast enough. After high school, I ran as far as I could. I hope I said something like “we can always be friends,” but I’m not sure I did. I think I didn’t look back.
There was so much to see. So much I have seen. And Alek, the world is really
beautiful. So beautiful. It has taken so much time, as I suppose all good things do, for me to see that you too are part of that. You, who knew the beginning, should deserve to know the middle – I pray it’s somewhere near the middle… Because life is good, Alek, so good, and I can share that with you now. I can tell you that I’m happy. And I can see you now, so much clearer, and I need to tell you that. I need to tell you that I hold everything dear. The good days remembered, the bad forgiven. I hope you can do the
same for me. Remember my good days, forgive my bad. Because we had something special. We gave our love, didn’t we? We even gave it big, sometimes. And that has to matter.
So, Alek, you gave me my youth, and I thank you for that. If I may be so bold, I ask for just a little more. Take care of my mother’s memory. She gave you her heart, the best heart maybe you will ever know. And watch over my family, especially the young ones, they will give you the future that you so deserve. And one more thing, Alek, keep me in your heart for a little while, you are forever in mine.
All my love,