John Prine sings, “I remember everything…every single blade of grass holds a special place for me.” I hear the words in my heart and I’m back on VanDyke Road. It’s a summer day. Bits of green stick to my legs and I’m soaked in sun. Red shoulders. Cheeks. Carrying a plastic bow and arrow from Target. Arrows not strong enough to puncture the ground, but strong enough to make me a cowgirl, a big girl, as my mother told me to be. A big girl that could stay alone during school’s summer vacation and imagine a ranch of hired hands, working cattle and horses, and filling a backyard with “Big Valley” moments, “Bonanza” rescues, and every Disney movie hero. Only until 4:30, then my mom would come home from work. I let the bow drop from my hand into the blades of grass I counted. Each a different color of green. I dropped my arrow. And I was gloriously small. I was saved. She held me close. Every day. My heart beat full. I remember everything.
I have been commissioned to paint a field of poppies. Looks pretty green for poppies, you’re thinking. Yes, for now. But first the field… my grandfather taught me that, I suppose, on his farm. Each year he would take the browns and turn them into greens, and eventually into gold. “You can’t glamorize the dirt,” he said. It was work. So much work. Rocks needed to be picked. Dirt turned. Seeds planted. Watered. Care. So much care.
And so I paint the same way. I cut the wood. Stretch the canvas. Gesso. Prepare. Underpaint. Start with the field. My hands dirty. My heart full of promise that the flowers will come. Patient. Care. So much care.
Life is very messy. Terribly messy. My Uncle Nick passed away yesterday. I can’t glamorize that. I know he suffered. But I believe in the golden fields. Those of my grandfather. I believe they are there now. Together. Held with care. So much care.
Today, maybe, the poppies…
We’re crossing bigger waters today, but we always find our way to the comfort of shore. And how would I have ever dared without the waves that first rocked me? Gently. Easily. Each one saying, you know there’s more…we taught you well. Go see. And they did teach me well – these 10,000 lakes, this Minnesota. With each arm splashing, leg kicking, breath-losing, breath-taking wave – taught me when to dive, when to keep my head up. Gave me laughter. Washed me clean.
Today is a day to keep my head up. I won’t let my teachers down. Thank you, Minnesota.
My mother-in-law is without time. Some days she is forty years old. Some days 60. I suppose after nearly a century you should be allowed to choose your own age. And she does. Without apology, she is young, she has babies, and thinks you are the crazy one for getting older. She’s probably right.
There is a young girl that I have painted. Little girl blue. She is just about to dance. She’s just a tiny bit afraid, but determined. And you know she will do it. I see her every morning. In my bathroom mirror, her reflection is just beside mine. I put on my dress, and I too, am without time. I, too, have the legs of youth, and can hear the music. There is no yesterday, or tomorrow, just the open blue of today, and I can’t waste it. I let go the fear of time passing, and simply dance.
I had just gotten my banana seat bike for my birthday. I was six years old, this 27th of March, in Minnesota, but the excitement of a new year, a new bike, a new freedom, was enough to cut through the still winter cold. I rode the most beautiful thing on wheels that I had ever seen down the hill. Past Norton’s. Into the “North End.” It sounds more mysterious than it really was, this undeveloped part of VanDyke road. But being a brand new six, on a brand new bike, riding in this uncharted territory was as close to being an astronaut as I would ever come.
There was no sense of time. I spun the tires in the gravel. Raced through rocks and grassless paths. Past barren trees. Over half frozen mud. It was glorious. My only clock was the sun, and it was telling me to go home. I heard a faint call in the distance. Louder as I got closer. It was my name. She was calling my name. Standing frantic at the end of our driveway, her hands raised in the air when she saw me. I’m not sure if I got off of my banana seat bike, or she pulled me off, but I was suddenly in her arms. So tightly held in her arms. I had been gone much longer than I thought. I hate that I had worried her, so I held on too. For the first time I remember letting go first. She was still hugging me. What a glorious feeling. Hugging me with a love, that I somehow knew, no matter where I ventured in this world, would never be lost. Feeling that, it’s my birthday, every day!
My mother used to keep a list, a laminated list, of all my surgeries. I had had over 20, so to remember the dates and places, was just too much. There was no MyChart, or other computer app at that time. We didn’t have cell phones, or ipads, so she typed (on a typewriter) each procedure, laminated it, and kept it in her wallet. And each time I went to a new hospital, of course they would ask about my history, and she would whip it out, no explanation required.
What a gift to have someone who knows you. Knows your history. Because she did that, you see, with all my emotions. Whenever something came up in my life, I didn’t have to relive the past. Didn’t have to justify my feelings. Never had to explain why this event would trigger something in me. She knew. She knows me. She always knows me. The events of my life are laminated in her heart. And hers in mine. Forever safe. Forever understood.
I hope you have that with someone. I hope someone has that with you. What a gift to be understood. What a gift to understand!
“Why didn’t you tell me I was small?” she asked her mother.
“Because I never thought so,” she replied.
“No really. Am I small?” she asked again.
“You fill my heart with joy. Could anything small do that?” her mother replied.
She smiled. And felt a world of possibility.
“I wish I were beautiful,” she told her mother.
“You light up the sky, my love.” Her mother showed her the stars.
“What if I’m not smart enough?” she cried before leaving.
“You are stronger than you think.” Her mother held back her tears.
“What if I’m not strong enough?” her mother asked the open sky.
“I love you,” she sang to her mother as she flew.
Love held her. Could anything small do that?
(Chickadee – from the book “Bird Song” by Jodi Hills)
I found something huge yesterday. (Yes, I’ve been deep diving in the cleaning department). Well, what I found is only about 1″ x 1/2″, but to me it’s huge! A pencil sharpener. Even in its original packaging. Unopened. Sometimes the universe just knows what you need. (Or maybe it always does, and we’re just not looking.) And the most important thing of all – it works!!! That may not seem extraordinary, but believe me, I have a lot of pencils, for all types of drawing, and I, until yesterday, did not have a pencil sharpener – that worked. I have one that you just spin and spin and spin and nothing ever happens. I don’t think you should have to lose weight while sharpening a pencil. I have another that, no matter what you put in, it only takes out that one side, and you’re left with the shard of wood that you try to pick off, and it gets stuck in your fingernail, and you start all over again, getting the same result. I have another that absolutely fits no pencil that I own. I have no idea what it’s for. And my last one, has the most voracious appetite, eating everything inserted. None of these I actually purchased. They were all left behind from Dominique’s family. (Maybe left behind for good reasons.) But yesterday, aah yesterday, I found it. I opened it with such hope — oh, the tenacity of HOPE! — yes, I opened it and tried the closest pencil. The most perfect point. I tried another. Perfect. Easy. I tried charcoal. Yes. Lead, yes! Colored – sure, why not! Soft – no problem. Perfect points all. I wanted to fling open the doors of the studio and shout to the world – it works – it really works! I raised up my best Sally Field’s impression to the sky, “You like me – you really like me!”
I know it’s a pencil sharpener, yes, it’s small, but it takes that one thing in my life and makes it so much easier, makes it delightful. Nothing small can do that.
I guess it’s always the little things that make up a grand life. If you look at the ingredients of a croissant, it’s almost nothing, and extremely ordinary, but rolled and rolled, it becomes something magical. And shared with someone you love — even better. While eating our croissants at breakfast my husband said, “We have to find or make these for your mother, because she would really love them.” I told my mom that later in the day. She beamed – I could feel it over the telephone. He had thought of her. Just a little thing, but oh, so magical. The universe does this for us every day. Certainly we can do it for each other.
It can’t be too personal. That’s what they taught me about writing at the University. The reader doesn’t want to know that anyone could have written it. They wanted to know that you wrote it. You knew it. You felt it. And you shared it with them. And so I did.
When I paint. When I write, it is never generic. It is specific. It is personal. When I write about a house, it is a big, yellow, house, with a yellow so inviting, that if you were to walk by, just being you, it would call to you, “come in, you and your heart sit down.” When I write about my mother, people say, “Oh, that’s my mother.” “That’s my sister.” “That’s so me.” When I write about my heart, being overwhelmed or overjoyed, people say, “How did you know exactly what I was feeling?” And the power of these words show me, every day, I am not alone. We are not alone.
I made a painting of my grandmother’s hands. It has been purchased from Chicago to San Francisco. And I know that a piece of my grandmother gets to go there. She gets to pass over Wrigley Field, through the Magnificent Mile, into the loving arms of Illinois. She crosses the largest bridge a girl from Minnesota could ever imagine. And she shows them her hands. These strong and beautiful hands. These hands that could raise nine children, could also build bridges and stadiums, and we were not that different. We were a part of it all. She was. I am.
Each painting holds a story. Each picture, each phrase, is me, with my nose pressed up against the window pane, on Van Dyke Road, nearly wearing the window through with wishes and plans and dreams. Connecting us all, they would take me farther than I even dared to dream.
One day in the late 1930’s a boy came up to his librarian and she suggested the he read about King Arthur. The boy replied, “Aw, I don’t want to read about kings. I want to read about human beings.” The librarian, Miss Beverly Bunn, knew what the boy meant. As a child she had felt the same way – she was sick of reading “wealthy English children who had nannies and pony carts or poor children whose problems were solved by a long-lost relative turning up in the last chapter. Beverly wanted to read stories about the sort of children she knew.”
This was the beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary. I did not google this information. I researched her in our University Library. I will sound old, perhaps, but consider me lucky. I was born before google. I was born when you had to go across campus, in the winter, (oh dear, this is almost sounding like one of those I walked a mile to school every day stories, but stay with me), look for your book titles in the card catalog, in other books. Find the aisle. Run your fingers across the shelves. Grab your book with delight, grateful that it wasn’t already checked out. Do this over and over. Then go to a silent table and read. Yes, read. You had to read complete books, not just a blurb spit out by a computer. Sometimes you would read an entire book, and realize it just led you to another book. But what a glorious gift. The smell of the leather, and slight must of the pages. The silence all around. You could feel the power of the words.
And so I researched Beverly Cleary. The assignment was to write about an author who had a great influence on you as a child. And she did. Every Wednesday, at Washington Elementary, the year after I had finished the Cowboy Sam series, and before I started the Little House on the Prairie books, I read Beverly Cleary. They lived on Klickitat Street, Henry Huggins, Beezus,Ramona (the pest), Henry’s dog Ribsy, the neighbor Scooter. You could say they lived in a world where nothing was special, but in that, I thought everything was special. The Huggins home was as real as the Norton home to me. As real as my VanDyke Road. It was a neighborhood I visited every week.
Perhaps the best gift that an author can give you is a glimpse of yourself. When you see a reflection of yourself, you see possibility. You see hope. And you begin to see yourself, just a little bit more.
On my returned assignment, the professor wrote, “Perhaps you should think of doing some professional writing yourself!” An exclamation point. For me! I had been punctuated.
No one should be denied a chance to live on Klickitat Street, or VanDyke Road. So I write.
I went for a walk this morning. The sky was mostly gray. The ground wet from last night’s rain. I listened to a few podcasts for inspiration. The words were good, but they didn’t really leap into my heart. So I kept walking. Looking. Turning corners, passing trees. And then the prettiest little bird flew directly in my path, landing in the tree that guards our garage. The most elegant mix of blues and yellows. I know that bird. I have painted that bird. It was, in fact, the first bird I painted in France. The first bird I heard in France. With a song, so delicate, so lovely, saying, “Every day she decides to be happy, and sings.”
I was visiting with my mother on the phone yesterday. Remember when I told you that I know my grandmother’s handwriting, and how important that is? Well, maybe even more importantly, I know my mother’s laugh. It starts almost as a little chuckle and grows into the most delightful giggle. In this laugh she is young, and possible and cancer free, and she sings. She sings a song so beautiful, that when I start to laugh with her, it becomes a dance. Because it was just yesterday when she felt the breezes from Lakeside Ballroom, dreamed of Frank Sinatra, gave her heart, smelled the youth of her children, broke her heart, and trusted her heart again…It was just today when the wind brushed her skirt, and she hoped and twirled like a little girl.
What a gift she gives me with her song. What a gift we all have been given – another day! Another day!!!! Be happy! Sing it out loud!