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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
Long before ever hearing of the word “blog,” I put words to paper to keep a record of our lives. We called it writing.
For my highschool graduation, my mother gave me a small journal and a cross country train ticket to Washington State. In a class of 400 or so, I graduated 13th. To commemorate, my sister-in-law gave me 13 cans of Hi-C grape drink (my favorite at the time). My mother and I packed our non-rolling suitcases, along with the Hi-C and boarded the train.
As we rolled along the uneven tracks, often reaching 50 miles per hour, I began writing down the details of our adventure. We couldn’t afford the sleeper cars, so for more than 24 hours we watched the other passengers. I wrote down everything I saw. The man handcuffed to the federal agent (possibly just local law enforcement). The man kissing the “other” woman between cars, then returning to his seated wife and children. The older couple cutting their food so finely it could almost be described as pureed. The fielded landscape that passed so slowly outside the window allowing me to describe stalk by stalk.
I wrote it all down. We passed the journal back and forth. Laughing loudly with purple stained lips.
I still have the journal. Reading through it, one thing becomes quite clear — I stopped writing once we reached the destination. I suppose it has always been, and always will be, about the journey. These are the most precious moments.
I recently bought a booklet of handmade paper from a small French mill. Far from being filled, it has already given me hours of entertainment. It won’t be for sale. The profit comes in the daily escape. The magic as the images come to life. The stories behind their expressions. The lives revealed. The wheels of brush to paper click along at a reduced Amtrak pace, and I’m able to see everything. To feel everything, below the speed of this summer afternoon.
You can call it whatever you want. Journaling, writing, creating, blogging. However it is you fill your day. And you can do it for whatever reason you want — that is not for me to say. But if it’s purely for “likes,” for approval, the destination… you could be missing out on the most fantastic part of living.
This is the advice I give to myself — Relax. Breathe. Don’t worry. Look around. We’re all going to get there.
The sun is rising. Let the journey begin.
“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.
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.
I raced the stairs to his class. He was a stickler for detail. One must be on time, or you will get a “greenie.” A greenie was a small piece of green paper, denoting some poor behavior – like being late, talking out of turn, not doing an assignment. And a certain amount of greenies resulted in detention or grade reduction. Of course this was incentive enough to race the halls of Central Junior High and up the stairs to his classroom, but it was more than that, I was excited for his class, English Literature. I was excited to see him. He postured straight at the front of the class. Suited and bow-tied, a pocket filled with green paper, one finger pressed to lips like a conductor waiting for the orchestra of the English language to begin.
In his fitted plaid lime green jacket he introduced us to T.S. Eliot. He read to us in perfect pitch “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The boys giggled. Mocked. Rhymed words with “frock” and quieted down after receiving their greenies. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” the lyrics danced in my heart. Never to be careful, ordinary, predictable, monotonous — this was the lesson. I put it in my heart and quietly vowed the same.
In my mother’s silverware drawer, there was one spoon different from all the rest. Before I knew of words and poems, or even what was ordinary, I loved this spoon. It was the only one I ever used. My mother made sure that for each meal it was clean. My spoon. My different spoon. Not matching. Not safe. Extraordinary.
When I moved to France, the hardest thing, (the only thing that could have made me stay) was my mother. In the first weeks, my lonesome heart ran through the doubts. Had I done the right thing? No one can give you life’s permission, but I waited for a sign. A letter arrived. Small, but an odd shape. I opened it. My spoon. My different, glorious spoon — a love song in silver.
It sits by my desk. Telling me daily to choose the extraordinary. The sun comes up. I race its stairs to the beautiful unknown.