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…
If Herberger’s was ever low on pantyhose, there was a distinct possibility that my mom just restocked her drawers.
She was always prepared. Had she been a scout, and they offered a fashion badge, her sash would have been decorated immediately. Eagle status. Not only did she have the right pair for every outfit, and any future outfit, she kept them in pristine condition. After wearing and washing, she folded them back into their original packaging and filed them neatly, easily visible by color, into her pantyhose drawer. On days when the world just didn’t make sense, I, we, could look to that drawer and find hope.
Sure, it may sound silly. And it probably was. But so what. It brought her joy. It brings me joy. Still. When I see the advertisements to “Shop Small,” this holiday season, I think of her drawer. I think of all the little things she gave to me.
I think we can all get caught up in the “it has to be bigger, grander, more expensive,” to mean something. But, I suppose, it’s always the little things. With gifts. In life. In love. It’s the small things that we will carry. That will fill us for our entire lives.
I bought a pair of green pantyhose two days ago. They match perfectly with my green dress. I wore them yesterday, with all of my mother’s pride. And I saved the packaging. My heart is filled with small mercies.
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.
I can feel her eye roll all the way from heaven as I sit in the hotel breakfast lounge. Not for me, of course. She would never have allowed me to go out into a public area dressed like that. She led by example. Hair, make-up, clothes — even when at their most casual — impeccable. And I wanted to be just like her.
When I was old enough, she got me my own starter kit for make-up. Most likely they were the free gifts from her purchases. She wanted me to learn with my own products. And not to mess up hers. This was clear from my earliest of memories. If I wanted to dunk my cookie, she gave me my own cup of coffee. And so it was with make-up. With clothes. I could admire her shoes, but never walk around in them. Because these things were special. They meant something. She took pride in herself. To be tall in stature was good, to be tall in self-worth was priceless.
And so we dressed for the occasion. Each day was just that. Whether we were toasting, or just going to the lobby for toast. I finished my morning coffee, not in judgement, but in thanks. I stand tall. Every day. My mother still sees to that.
In the “wee, small hours” of the night, when thoughts can get so big, I have a practice to calm them down. She has been gone for so many years, my grandma, but she continues to walk me through those uncertain hours. And it could be for anything really, tiny chaotic thoughts, or grand concerns — she’s there, unworried (as she always seemed), as I recite the poem of her life. It’s a long poem, as is her legacy, but it usually only takes the first line or two, and I am saved…
“She was a beauty like he’d never seen,
When Rueben looked back
He knew for sure
That she’d be in his heart for a while.”
These words are the hands that held my mother’s, and my mother’s hands that held mine.
I have a weird little pinky finger. I will need a small procedure to fix it. The condition is apparently genetic. He asked if I remembered my mother’s hands. My heart’s response, of course, was to say I’m still holding it, and my grandma’s too… but certainly I remembered no imperfections. How could I? Their beauty will forever be unmatched.
Maybe it’s all the imperfections that make us beautiful. Or how we use them. I only know this for sure — they held, they gave, they touched. Beauties, that I’ll ever see…
I can’t say it was the most comfortable lap, my grandfather’s. If you wanted something soft, you went to my grandma. Her lap was pillowed with sugary treats, and as soft as the toasted marshmallows she loved to eat from Jerry’s Jack and Jill grocery store. You could easily get lost in her folds of love. So what was it that my grandfather had? First of all, I rarely saw him seated. He was skinny. The farm saw to that. He smelled of earth and pipe tobacco. And just where my head would reach, between his chest and shoulders, were the hooks and buttons of his overall straps. The real comfort came, I suppose, straight from the heart. To be let in, this was the magic. To be offered these rare moments of respite. Between the field and the plate wiped clean with a sheet of bread. To be given the time, when time was currency. This was pure love. Perhaps it’s not visible to the naked eye, but I know the button imprint remains on my cheek, and somewhere deep in my heart.
People often ask me, “Do you come from a long line of artists?” My first thought is the quote from Vincent Van Gogh — “There is nothing more artistic than to love people.” My grandmother’s quilts still keep me warm across the sea. The portraits I painted of my grandfather keep me safe. Protected. My mother’s blouses wrap me in a love that will never die. I was loved. I am loved. Still. I walk daily within this gallery given. So, YES! The answer is always yes! I come from a long line of artists. Today, in my most humble of ways, on canvas and paper, I attempt to pass on the line. To pass on the love.
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.
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.
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!