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 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.
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.
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.
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 don’t think it makes me a serial killer just because I like my dishtowel to hang neatly. (They seemed to imply this in the movie Sleeping with the Enemy.)
I suppose I could have gone either way. My grandma’s kitchen was always, well, I’ll say it, a mess. Dishes piled head high. Pots still on the stove. My mother liked a clean sink. The dishrag hung alone over the faucet, testing the humidity level of her apartment. It was a good day for her if she woke to a dry rag in an empty sink.
It’s funny what brings us comfort. An ironed dish towel hanging neatly in the kitchen is enough to start my day off right. And it doesn’t mean I love my grandma any less, I just know what works for me.
There was a tiny plaque by my grandma’s stove. Above the picture of a very pregnant woman it read, “I should have danced all night.” Perhaps my mother took that advice to heart. She never taught me how to cook, but she did teach me how to dance. Her kitchen recipes included “Slow, quick-quick. Slow, quick-quick. 1-2-3, 1-2-3. A heel and a toe and a polka step.” And so we danced in that clean kitchen, never disrupted by a boiling pot.
I suppose there’s a little of both of them in my French kitchen. I know my grandma is watching as I boil the fruit from our trees to make jam. And it is my mother’s hand that gives me the slight nudge to change direction as she dances me through my clean kitchen.
When my son-in-law washes his hands and leaves the towels in a heap, I don’t really want to kill him. But I would like to tell him a story. Of a chubby woman laughing, a tall woman dancing, both leading me in love.
It’s a crazy world. We all have to find our own joyful way. Do what works for you. (And don’t forget to wash your hands.)
Didn’t we say forever? And believed it at the time. Best friends we promised in the middle of the Washington School playground, underneath the monkey bars. And then beside the swings. But forever came before we moved on to Central Junior High, and we promised again. And meant it. We raced to Social Studies and English literature, and around the block for gym, and then changed again. At Jefferson Senior High School, so close to the imagined adulthood, we vowed again. Threw our graduation caps in the air, along with our forevers.
Yesterday we went to a small village here in France. Driving the narrow streets, built long before they made cars, we winded and turned, and backed up, squeezed and turned some more. With no “rights” or “lefts,” we could only look up for direction. “Somebody’s on top of that hill,” I said. “I think it’s the Virgin Mary,” Dominique said, “a statue…” I wasn’t sure I needed that clarification, but I smiled. We parked, or probably closer to the truth is we abandoned the car.
We started climbing the cobblestone paths. Higher. Higher still. Surely we would see her soon. Above the village now. Gazing over the houses. “Where is she?” Confused, I stood beside the ancient obelisque. Then I saw her. Proudly she stood atop the hill on the opposite side of the village. Oh, she moved, I thought. Because surely it wasn’t me. I hadn’t changed direction…
We’re changing all the time. All of us. And that’s a good thing. It’s the only way we grow. The only way we gain a new perspective. Our forevers get nipped and tucked, and some even abandoned. But it doesn’t make any of them less important, less meaningful. Everything has a time. A season. And each day we have a choice of whether or not to enjoy the moment, to enjoy the view.
Take a look around today. It may not be what you thought, but it might just be amazing.