There is a natural instinct, I suppose, when you experience something wonderful, to want others to feel the same. “You’ve gotta taste this,” we say. “You’ve got to see this!” And I enjoy sharing things from around the world. But these are the obvious things. The guaranteed positive response. The Eiffel Tower, example. The Vatican. I feel blessed to have stood beside the Colosseum. Floated in Venice. But it’s not a surprise really. I expect people to like these photos.
Winter in Minneapolis. Not the expected destination for travel. But there is beauty. And I see it. Maybe it’s all just a reflection of the people I’m with, but the light!!!! The beautiful light of this city. One that I claim. This is something! I shared the image with my French family. When she replied, in French, how beautiful she thought the light was, it made me feel special. Not just because I took the photo. But that she could see it too. We were a little more connected. Sharing this truth.
It’s why I share the stories of the places I love, but even more so, the people. When I wrote this poem about my mother, The Truth about you, I did it because sometimes I just can’t imagine the incredible luck, the pure blessing, of having such a mother, and I just want everyone to know. To see it. To see her. So pardon my repeats, as I keep spreading the news. The joy. The love I have for my mom, my city. This world.
The light is coming in from the window. I hope when you see it this morning, you will know, it’s for you too!
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’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.
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 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,
My shipping department.
There is an empty space where the painting hung. It sold yesterday, Lake Agnes. My first thought, of course, was of joy, but my second thought was of Herberger’s. More specifically, the Herberger’s store that used to be in Alexandria, Minnesota.
My mom, served as the unofficial ambassador. She knew every clerk. Every shopper. For her, and a majority of the town, Herberger’s was not just retail, but social.
Carol worked in the shipping department, right next to the office. My mom would see her when she went to pay her bill. They became friends. It was only after a few conversations that my mom was retrieving empty cardboard boxes to bring to me to use for shipping artwork. I was shipping daily to stores and galleries, so my box bill would have been a fortune. They had a need to recycle — it worked out well for everyone. My mom would fill the back of her hatchbacked Ford Focus and drive them to me in Minneapolis. We then took the time for coffee, wine and shopping. By Sunday evening her car was filled with bags from Anthropologie or Sundance or Macy’s, and the joyful cycle continued.
Of course nothing was the exact size. I became an expert at creating boxes. I could score and trim and shrink wrap and tape with the best of them. It might sound odd to say, but I was proud of it. Still am.
Yesterday I went to the garage and found two scraps (I use the term with affection) of cardboard, and a large amount of bubble wrap. The cardboard was from some garden tool that Dominique ordered, and the bubble wrap from a guitar that was given as a gift to the kids. They weren’t dirty, but still I vacuumed and wiped each piece sparkling clean. I wrapped it with precision. The box is square and strong. The painting is, and will be safe.
I smile as it sits beside me. Knowingly part of my story. Even as I live a country away, and Herberger’s is long closed, I know what, who, helped get me here.
The world is changing. Artificial intelligence is nipping at our heels. People are contemplating if it will take over the arts. I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. Sure, I suppose it’s possible to create the painting. But what you can’t manufacture is the story. The lives involved in one piece of art. Carol folding boxes. The Herberger’s store manager helping my mom load the car. My mom. Her love and support. Telling all who would listen. It fills me still.
This painting that I sell today is of Lake Agnes. One of the first lakes I knew in my hometown. It will ship from France and travel to Arkansas, carrying the stories of those who first lifted me.
We never make the journey alone.
There were no smartphones to capture the moment. Only real film. Real cameras. No google to tag the time and place. We relied on the story. Packaged it deeply into our hearts and brains. Told it again and again to keep it alive.
I came across the photo of my mother on her hands and knees, in her bra and short pants, all smiles, ironing her blouse on the carpeted condo floor. That’s Hilton Head, South Carolina. I can’t see out any window. There are no discernable markers. But I know the story.
It was my first real vacation from my first real job. We packed our non-rolling suitcases and put them in my GPS-less car. We drove from the Minnesota winter to the beaches of South Carolina.
Having only real film to document our journey, decisions had to be made. It wasn’t like it is today with digital. No, there was a real cost to each photo, so I had to be frugal with my image choices. With all the beauty that surrounded us, the sand and sun, blues skies and flowers, you may be surprised that I used precious film to capture the moment of my mother ironing her blouse on the condo floor. But this WAS the story. The one I wanted to remember. Because I knew the landscape could and would change through the years, but it was our relationship, this was the most important thing of all.
I can still feel the heaving of laughter in my belly. Struggling so to keep the camera still, and focus on the image. It wasn’t really “funny,” — it was just the release of so much joy. This freedom to be ourselves, to be our best selves. So much joy, all we could do was laugh.
I know I took some pictures on the beach. I’ve misplaced them through the years. They weren’t that valuable. I saved what was important.
You won’t find ironed blouses in the Hilton Head brochures, but in my heart, the laughter, the joy, the real story lives on and on.
I’m not sure if the tellers were elevated, or if it was just my five year old vantage point, but everything at First National Bank of Alexandria seemed important. I held my mother’s left hand as she struggled to remove the deposit slip from her purse with her other. I needed her to balance me as my head circled the high ceilings. Everything smelled of wood and dollar bills. When the transaction was finished, the teller thanked my mom by name. She knows her, I thought. I was so impressed! She handed me a yellow safety sucker from the bowl behind her desk. (Red was my favorite, but I still said thank you.)
I was taught that it wasn’t polite to stare, but I couldn’t look away. I could see just the tip of it. It was a flattened cardboard pig with tiny slots filled with coins. “Would you like one,” the teller asked, “to start saving?” More than anything, I thought, and gazed up at my mom to see if it was ok. She was smiling, so I agreed. She handed me the empty cardboard pig and I thought my heart would explode. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I was part of the transaction. And I felt as high as a First National ceiling.
My little pig got heavier with each dime and nickel slotted into place. Months later, when it was full, (from the random couch coin, or my weekly allowance), my mom asked if I wanted to put it in the bank. The real bank. I did, but I wanted to hold it for a while longer…feel the weight of it, the beautiful weight of my transactions. “Hold them as long as you need,” she said.
It feels the same with memory. Each day I place one in a heart slot, and hold on. Banked. Feeling the beautiful weight of all the joy of my days. All the hands held. The smiles exchanged. The love passed back and forth. The comforting weight of my transactions. “Can you still feel it?” they ask. “More than anything,” I reply…”more than anything!”
Hold everything dear.
Enjoy may be too strong a word, but my mother did get a real satisfaction from ironing. Combining this with the skills passed along to us by Mrs. Ballard and Miss Pfefferle, our home economics teachers at Central Junior High, I suppose it’s no surprise that today I iron everything, including my kitchen dish towels.
I think it was Miss Pfefferle that taught us to weave a pot holder. We had little iron grids and multi-colored loom loops that we weaved up and down. I thought they were beautiful! I don’t know how efficient they were — at this point I wasn’t really allowed to do any cooking, even though in Mrs. Ballard’s class we did learn how to make nougat and an apple pie (not the staples in my mom’s, nor my diet). But I was proud of my potholder. And I knew just who I wanted to give it to — my Grandma Elsie. It was a slight risk though – because she was an expert. She had her own loom afterall. Not a handheld one. No. This loom filled nearly the entire bedroom, upstairs next to the sewing room in her house. It seemed to be a combination of a church organ, a giant craft, and a carnival ride. She moved with her feet and her arms. I held onto her chubby waist from behind as it jiggled each “rag” into place. Everyone loved her woven rugs. They were gorgeous. And I wanted to be a part of it. I thought if I giggled along with each jiggle, that I indeed was. So, yes, to bring my humble woven potholder to this proven expert was surely a risk. I knew it didn’t compare. How could it? But it was my best attempt. It was an effort made. It contained her every jiggle, and I hoped, I prayed, I banked on, her feeling the love in that. With my two hands held flat and outward, I presented it to her. This gift. Her held tilted a little to one side. Both of our breaths held. She took it also with her two hands and clutched it to her heart. I beamed. Then suddenly my face was pressed against the potholder that pressed against her heart. I was inside the jiggle. She did feel the love, and gave it right back to me.
Some might laugh that I iron my dish towels. That I hang them straight. But it’s only out of love. Out of respect. For all the women that took the time to teach me the real value of this living — (it makes perfect sense now, this word economics). When I see something beautiful, create something beautiful, it is these women that I see. And I know, on my very best days, when I create something that you enjoy, that you find beautiful, that you too, are seeing them. You are inside the jiggle.
“If you know wilderness in the way you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go.” Terry Tempest Williams
Maybe it was because one of my after school Thursday chores was dusting. Or that my tennis shoes were never white. That winter’s snowballs often contained bruising tiny pebbles. Or that my mom’s car forever needed washing. There were many reasons to dislike the gravel of Van Dyke road. I felt unmodern. Somehow behind. I had a sense of urgency to catch up. To go beyond. And certainly the graveled pace of this childhood road was only slowing me down.
I chased the pavement. Off to school. Jobs. Apartments. Books and art. Creation. Life. Smooth beneath, it all went so fast. My bike. My car. Even my shoes clicked along at a feverish pace.
A country away, I hear it again, the slow crunch of gravel beneath my feet as I walk my daily route. My feet found their way back to the wilderness they ran from. Tiny pebbles say, “but you were hurt there.” Yes, I whisper. Massive rocks that line hills and turn into mountains say, “But you were loved there.” “Yes!” I shout.
I have paid and paved my way in dust. Love walks with me. Slowing me down? Enough to see, I think. To feel. And I will never let it go.