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 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.
According to the song, we were not yet even “puppies,” but each morning around 8:15 — just after being dropped off of the school bus at Washington Elementary, and just before Miss Green began our 5th grade class — we sang alongside the turntable with Donny Osmond, “And they called it puppy love
Just because we’re in our teens…”
Of course we weren’t in our teens, but even just having a record player, we felt old enough to experience all the emotions. The closest we actually got to boys was playing four square on the playground. We rotated through the boxes, never touching, hovering somewhere between wanting to beat them and wanting to be liked. I suppose we thought the answers would come in the next song. But none of us actually had the money to buy a new 45 at Carlson’s Music Center, so we sang it again and again, “
Someone, help me, help me, help me please. Is the answer up above? How can I, oh how can I tell them,this is not a puppy love.”We began to lean on Mr. Iverson, our music teacher. Each week he gathered us together to learn a new song — new meaning new to us, but certainly old, perhaps older than our parents. We were desperate for new. “Please please please,” we begged, “let us sing something from the radio.” Our hands shot up straight in the air when he asked for suggestions. “Seasons in the sun” was the overwhelming response. They played it constantly on KDWB, the radio station that intermittantly came in from Minneapolis. Unfamiliar with the lyrics, he said he would play the record and decide. He placed it on the turntable and immediatlely his face turned. None of us had heard the actual verses. We were all just mesmorized by the chorus — “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…” Unfortunately, the majority of the song was about dying. Somehow we had missed that. He scratched the record racing to get the needle out of the groove. I guess we were all in such a hurry to become older, at least puppies, that we missed it.
And that’s the gift, isn’t it? I’m always surprised as summer turns into fall. It happens year after year, and I’m still hovering between the bus ride and when class actually begins. Luxuriating in the 15 minutes of unsupervised freedom. Still ready to believe. To become. To begin again.
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 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.
I suppose it’s only natural to get used to things. Even the things we dreamed about for years can become ordinary while living them. And we all want to be comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the shine, I don’t want to lose that. So I make the small changes. Daily.
It might sound silly, but for me, it’s the little things. I change the painting in my direct view from the breakfast table. And this brand new, this shiny comfort, reflects my smile, and the day begins.
After lunch is my usual reading time. I switch up the place. Moving daily from chair, to bed, to outdoor hammock. Yesterday’s sun jumped off the pages as I swayed above the grass.
Being my mother’s daughter, it is not only my joy, but my responsibility, to change my clothes frequently throughout the day. The more challenging the day, the more changes. I will hold the conversation in my head. Clutching my pearls, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary. Humbly offering my thanks. Accepting the worked-for shine that only a mirror and a mother’s memory can reflect.
Now some might say, well it’s easy for you, you live in a beautiful country. You have inspiration all around. Yes, that’s true. But I don’t eat breakfast under the Eiffel Tower each morning. I, like everyone else, am not given a reason to get out of bed…I (we) have to get out of bed and go find that reason every day.
I don’t know what today will bring. I’m not even sure what I’ll wear, or how long I’ll wear it. The clouds overhead say, “you’re on your own today.” I smile. “I’ve got this,” I say. And set out to find my shine.
We were doing so well, until we got into the higher numbers. Not only did we have to learn the language, the French words for the numbers, we had to do the math as well. To say the teacher explained to us — (A “we” that could be only described as a collection of people from the land of misfit toys. Myself – the American, the two women from South Korea, the Cambodian, the Russian, the Mexican, and the 5 Arabs.) — this would be an overstatement. But in her defense, what good reason could there be to stop giving the additional numbers their own names and start combining them in different math problems? For example — the number for eighty is not given its own name, no, it is quatre-vingts (4×20).
Deep in my wandering brain, I thought of the first time I had heard this four and twenty. Yes, yes, baked in a pie…
“Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing.
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?”
It was my first music box. It was red and yellow, shaped like a tiny radio. You spun the knob and it sang the nursery rhyme. This one was my favorite. I dialed it in. The birds survived every time. Imagine that I thought – baked in a pie – and they survived! Glorious! I sang it again and again.
As the nursery rhyme repeated in my head, the teacher had already gotten to the nineties. It was even worse. In the nineties, you have to multiply and add. You can imagine the nightmare that 99 brings for a non-French speaking person — quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (4×20+10+9).
I suppose it will come as no surprise. To test out of this first unit, we had to hold imaginary conversations with the French officials. The first scenario, she explained, was in a store. I was to be the clerk selling dresses (so far so good.) She would be the customer. I looked at the pictures she gave to me. It showed a dress hanging on the rack. As big as life the tag read, $99.99. My heart sank. She asked how much it was. I started doing the math. The numbers raced in my head…all clunked together with the Song of Sixpence. I began my quatre-vignt-dix-ing… then stopped and said, in my best French — this dress was on sale. (Wasn’t that a dainty dish, I thought?) She laughed. I passed the exam.
I have been given the tools I need to find my way in and out of life’s pie. And so I keep singing!
The first time I visited New England was with my mother. I was just out of college. Up until then all of my “vacation” time had been used to have surgery. To say we both fell in love immediately would not be an exaggeration. The main street was lined with seemingly freshly painted white houses. Porched and welcoming. A street sweeper (by hand) waved us in. Washed windows revealed the contents. Clothes. Beautiful clothes for sale lived in this house. My mother looked at me and beamed. We walked the white stairs and opened the door. Was that the slight hum of angels singing? Or just my mother’s heart.
It was all like this – this understated elegance. Lobster on paper plates. Lawns mowed. Cars washed. Nothing gilded. Nothing shouted – it wasn’t necessary, it showed.
I visited again. Several times. I have never harbored a New England address. And though I may have never actually “there,” I have lived in it, here.
There are so many gorgeous places around the world. I have been lucky enough to visit so many of them. And as the saying goes, “if you’re lucky enough to be here, you’re lucky enough.”
I have, in the past, been guilty of waiting — waiting to be happy if I was in the right place. I’m learning, daily, to create those places, those feelings, that joy, that comfort, in the exact place that I am. Making the hotel breakfasts. Dressing up to go to the grocery store. Eating slowly. Seeing the day for the first time, because, aren’t we all? Today is really our vacation from yesterday. Our journey towards tomorrow. I’m going to take those photo opportunities along the way.
The electrician was here the other day. He finished his job. I don’t know his name. But I invited him inside. He vacationed for a few brief moments at our kitchen table. A cup of coffee. A plate of cookies. I smiled, hoping, for these few moments, that maybe I was his New England. He asked where I was from. And, as so many people do, asked which place I liked better, the US or France. How could I explain that I was trying to live in the best of places. That I carried a piece of it all within me. That I was a French breakfast in a New England town. A relic of Rome. Dancing to the joyful music in Spain. Dangling my feet in a summer Minnesota lake. Standing in front of my own painted “Mona Lisa.” My heart jimbled at the thought. I could hear the angels softly sing, my mother now one of them. “I love it all,” I said. And meant it.
I’m here. And I am home.
A passing moo!It was the first language I ever tried to learn — cow.
Of course the car windows weren’t automatic. We had never even heard of such a thing. You had to turn the handle round and round to make the window go down. (I think I still make the cranking motion to indicate opening a car window.)
There were lots of fields en route to my grandparent’s farm. Sitting in the back seat of the chevy Impala, I waited to see them — the giant black and white beasts. If I caught a glimpse at 55mph, I cranked the window and urged my mother to slow down. I sucked in a giant breath and mooed out the window. They stopped chewing for one brief moment. Staring at me with such confusion. Almost bewildered by what was coming out of my mouth.
I stare into that same look quite often here in France. With deep breathed delivery, I converse in what sounds to me like perfect French, but I understand what they are hearing — a passing moo.
Some days, I really have to crank to return to that childlike confidence. That willingness to open myself to the world around me. To be brave. Vulnerable. Present.
I suppose we all have to do that for varying reasons. Every day.
The sun is up. I crank my arm round and round with youthful vigor! I am ready! I am here! Mooooooo!