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.
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.
The walk of temptation was extraordinary for a five year old. My mom parked the Chevy Impala in front of Ben Franklin that Saturday morning. I could already see the candy through the double glass doors. My impatient feet jittered up and down next to the parking meter as she rummaged through the bottom of her purse for a quarter. I rolled my eyes as she pushed aside Kleenex and breath mints. “C’mon,” I would never say out loud, but released through the clenching and unclenching of my chubby fingers. The coin dropped and the red flag moved aside. We were free. I raced past the front cashier and stood in front of the penny candy. If I saw it today, with grown-up eyes, the square plastic bins stacked on an end cap, might not seem so magical, but then, oh, then, it was glorious! It was Tinkerbell’s wand waving over a colorful rainbow of sugar. I could feel my chin drop. “Wait!” I said as she led me down the aisle. “Can’t we just get a little bit..just one color even…just a piece of red…” “Next time,” she said, “We have better things to do.” Better things, I grumbled underneath my breath. Impossible, I thought. And dragged my bumper tennis shoes along. The aisle became stacked with toys. Beautiful, plastic covered toys! Yes, I thought. These must be the better things. I began to touch everything. I wanted it all. Or anything! Something pink and shiny! Please, I begged, perhaps out loud, or just with heart-reaching urgency. I felt her hand on my shoulder again. “Better…” she promised. It couldn’t possibly be, I thought. Yet, she had never lied to me. But here, in the center aisle of the Ben Franklin, I must admit, I had my doubts. We walked through the back door. A large pillared building stood in front of us. I began to near the grass, but she pulled me to the sidewalk. “You need to see all of it,” she said. We stood in front. The Alexandria Public Library. It was beautiful, but what was inside? “Books,” she said. “They give them to you. With just your name.” I could only breathe the word, “OHHHHH…” We walked up the stairs and opened the doors. “It smells like words,” I said. She smiled and led me down the stairs to the children’s section. I could barely move. Every spine, every cover, called to me. “Take your time,” she said. Each letter tugged at my sleeve until my arms were filled. I signed (printed) my name on the small mildewed card. My heart beat sugared from the inside. “Do you want me to help you carry them?” I shook my head no and carefully maneuvered myself and the precious cargo down the stairs. I started walking up the sidewalk. “Don’t you want to cut through?” she asked, pointing at Ben Franklin. “No,” I said, “this is better.” We walked the long way to the car. Books in hand, I held the keys to the kingdom.
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.
There is a reason we call it spelling. The magic of the letters, when put together to form words, can indeed cast a magical spell within and around us.
She stood in front of the class of first graders. Mrs. Bergstrom. Tall and straight. Not with a robe, nor a hat, but she did have a wand. Some might remember it as just a teaching pointer. But not me. As she tapped it against each letter chalked perfectly on the blackboard, white dust — fairy dust I was sure — sprung into the air. We were spelling. And it was magic.
That magic moved from the blackboard to our Big Chief notebooks. Then marched with us single file to the library down the terrazzo halls of Washington Elementary. With each book we moved into neighborhoods. Made friends with dogs. Rode horses with cowboys and bloomed into teenage girls, and boys with paper routes. Everything was possible in the words.
I’d like to think it still is. As I type each morning, I take that magical journey. With each letter I make a path. Sprinkling it with a stroke of Mrs. Bergstrom. Because it’s all beautiful, even the hardest of days — when wanded into the words of “look what we survived,” and “look what we’ve become” — are nothing short of magical! I still believe it. I have to believe it. I hope we all can.
Because she didn’t just give us the happy words. She taught us how to spell. How to make our way through it all. Today, I too will stand straight and tall. And I promise, I will not waste the magic.
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 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.
It wasn’t certainty, but the complete absence of the need for it. It was only a moment. Perhaps it will take even longer to explain than it lasted. But it did happen. This morning. I walked out the back door. There was no change in temperature. It felt like the world was one big room. Everything equal. I walked around the yard in my swimsuit. I can only describe the feeling as enough. I felt thin enough. Pretty enough. Clever enough. (Not because I had changed, or gotten better, it was just that everything was connected. There was no better, no worse — we all just were.) I was loved enough. Given enough. Not wanting. Nor waiting. Just being. A part of it all.
And I hope you can hear the joy, the gratitude in the word enough.
I jumped into the pool. Still the same temperature. I swam my laps in the blue that held no separation. Was it sky or water? Swimming or flying? I wasn’t sure. But it was enough. Leaving the pool, the water beaded upon my skin. Under the sun. Slowly drying. I was embraced. Framed. Just as the woman in the painting. Golden.
By the time I reached the house, it had passed.
Only to be felt in glimpses now. But those glimpses, I smile knowing, they too, will be enough. I’ll catch a flash of it, walking past her, hanging on the wall. Or maybe walking on the street. I’ll smile as she randomly strolls by, effortless, this stranger, not known by name, but by frame, both feeling, it is indeed golden — just to be — and we are enough.
I sit now within and between the labored breaths of my mother-in-law. How many more? It’s not certain. But there’s no need for it. Not now. In and out. Pausing. And there it is — the slightest smile between the gasps. A glimpse of just being. And I know it’s enough. It has been so beautifully enough.
She’s somewhere between water and sky now. Her arms, merely twigs, make a flutter. The sun is calling. She, I, we, all caught in the golden glimpse. It is more than enough.
Soaring birds that wish to stay aloft without flapping usually fly INTO the wind for lift.
I suppose that’s the goal, isn’t it — a lot less flapping, and a lot more lift. And I mention it only as a reminder to myself. Oh, it’s so easy to get upset over the little things. “But they did this! – again…” and “she always does this – every time,” and “look at that, c’mon!” (So much flapping.)
And we all know the goal. To get higher. But ooooh, those words — when someone tells you “to just get over it…” I’m not sure why exactly, but they sound like fighting words. Like it’s all your responsibility. Like why do I have to do it? Why do I always have to go higher? (Oh, that flapping!) So I tell myself in different words, be the soaring bird. And my heart stops fighting the wind, but using it. To glide. Higher. And I always feel better. Always.
I’m so human. I learn the lesson over and over. But I’d like to believe I become the bird a little easier, a little more quickly, with each passing lesson. I hope so. Because the view! Spectacular!
Maybe you’ve already mastered it. If so, I say bravo, little bird! And I make you this promise (me, too often here among the flappers) — I’m learning — and I’ll see you up there!
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.