In the winter of my Minnesota seventh grade, I took my first airplane ride to Cocoa Beach, Florida. I didn’t know what a snowbird was, and I must admit there was a small part of me that hoped they would be donned in feathers. I spotted them immediately at the gate, my grandpa still in overalls and my grandma in a flowered dress, only missing the apron.
I heard the ocean before I saw it. The sound was as big as the sight. I stood in the sand, paralyzed by one thought — that it all was real. It had taken 6 years for Mrs. Bergstrom’s globe to come to life. But there it was! All the blue that she had passed around to us. The blue that we spun with our hopeful fingers. It was right there in front of me. I turned back to my grandparent’s. They shook their heads. I took off my shoes. My pants. And ran into my first dream come true.
It didn’t take long for my lavender winter skin to turn a bright red. I slept soundly on their condo floor.
They took me to all the attractions. Cape Canaveral, the dog track, the outlet mall, and the 4:30pm dinner special. We didn’t go to the “happiest place on earth,” but to be honest, I couldn’t imagine being happier. I basked in the unexpected warmth of winter sun, and their full attention.
Returning to Central Junior High, all smiles, and one less layer of skin, all the other seventh graders, knowing I went to Florida, asked how I liked Disney World. We didn’t go, I said, to their utter shock and dismay. I had no photos. I didn’t own a camera. I had no souvenirs of Mickey or Minnie. “So what did you see?” “Snowbirds,” I said. “They’re real?” “Yes,” I smiled. It was all real. And I had everything. Still do.
We never had a lack of things to judge each other by, and Central Junior High made sure that we never ran out. Of course there was the usual hierarchy of those in advanced courses. The grading system. The hands raised in class. The sulking heads in the back of the room. But then they sent us to gym class. They timed us around tracks and arm-flexed hangs. They measured and weighed us. Tested us through units of gymnastics and every ball game. With no self-esteem to spare, they sent us to the pool once a week. It would have been enough to be on display in our one piece suits and skin-capped heads in front of the other 20 or so girls, but the pool was adjacent to the lunch room, separated only by glass windows. Like the theatre view in an operating room, the 9th grade boys eating cafeteria pizza had a thirty minute view. We longed for the “eyes on your own paper” rule of law.
I suppose the greatest gift was the lack of time. The allotted 5 minutes to shower, dress, and speed walk (no running allowed) with wet hair flinging down the halls, to math, or English, or Social studies, didn’t allow much time for scrutiny. It’s only as I’m typing this that I realize there was really no need for the social studies class, we were living it, from beginning to ending bell.
I only mention it, because I use the skill they gave us, almost daily. I can get trapped in the moment of self-awareness. How do I look? How do I appear? Am I being judged? But really, nothing has changed since junior high. I don’t have the time to worry about what everyone else is doing…so certainly others don’t either. (And if you do have the time for judgement, maybe it’s time to switch course. Quickly. Down another hallway.)
There is so much to learn. I hope I continue. I’m sure I stumble on my way to daily social studies. But then I see you, my friends, my fellows, my human contacts, all trying to make our way, and I smile.
The assignment was on perspective. Maybe it was because it was my first time away from home at university. Maybe it was because my eyes were always filtered through my heart. Because I needed my world to get bigger, broader, more open, I saw the perspective in reverse and drew it. Instead of everything narrowing to a point, looking down the long hallway of the campus dorm, I was the point. Everything at the end of the hall got bigger. The other 18 year olds in class laughed as they displayed their drawings, one replicating the other. The teacher smiled. She gave me an “A.”
We were watching videos with friends last night, showing them tours of Aix en Provence. They were so excited. Ooohing and aaaahing over our ordinary. This is the street, next to the statue of the king, where I buy paint. The church where we laid Dominique’s mother to rest. Cezanne’s house. The place for the best pastries. Where I bought earrings. The fish market. The view of the Sainte Victoire. As their excitement grew, our ordinary felt spectacular again. Perspective.
It’s so easy to get stuck. To lose sight of the glorious things all around you. Trying to force everything to make sense — bring it all to a point. I learn the lesson again and again. To open my eyes. Open my heart. Change my view.
I guess that’s what real friends do — Oooh and aaah you into falling in love with your own life again. They are the point that opens all perspective.
I would always sit in the front row. I loved my English LIterature courses. I wanted to be a part of it all. My hand shot up before my mouth even knew what was going to come out. “You’ll think of something, ” my fingers encouraged as they waved in the air. It wasn’t about assuming I was right. Not about proving my point. I just wanted to be involved. To be among the words. Part of the discourse.
I sat slunched in my chair. Sweating. Sick. My roommate had told me to stay in bed, but I didn’t want to miss out. Within the hour, my mom was on her way to pick me up from college and bring me back home for an emergency appendectomy. When Dr. Merickel gave the diagnosis of acute appendicitis, I smiled. He asked why I was smiling. “You said it was cute.” We hear what we want to hear.
I went back to school two days later, a little lighter, but no less enthusiastic. All that learning prepared me for what was to come. Not in the way you might think. I didn’t learn any foreign languages. So when I moved to France, arms at my side, I feared the conversation. Even the most simple were acute! Trapped inside an introduction, I heard my brother-in-law introduce me as his belle-sœur, I beamed. I heard the word belle and thought “pretty.” And the word soeur meaning “sister.” It turns out that belle-sœur means sister-in-law. But once again, in this need to belong, to be a part of the conversation, I heard what I needed to hear.
I don’t always get it right. I don’t think it’s always necessary. What we do have to be is brave. Curious. Willing to open our hearts and get involved. Be a part of it all. When I raise my hand today, it’s to wave you in. Welcome to my conversation. I’m glad you’re here.
I can’t say it was the most comfortable lap, my grandfather’s. If you wanted something soft, you went to my grandma. Her lap was pillowed with sugary treats, and as soft as the toasted marshmallows she loved to eat from Jerry’s Jack and Jill grocery store. You could easily get lost in her folds of love. So what was it that my grandfather had? First of all, I rarely saw him seated. He was skinny. The farm saw to that. He smelled of earth and pipe tobacco. And just where my head would reach, between his chest and shoulders, were the hooks and buttons of his overall straps. The real comfort came, I suppose, straight from the heart. To be let in, this was the magic. To be offered these rare moments of respite. Between the field and the plate wiped clean with a sheet of bread. To be given the time, when time was currency. This was pure love. Perhaps it’s not visible to the naked eye, but I know the button imprint remains on my cheek, and somewhere deep in my heart.
People often ask me, “Do you come from a long line of artists?” My first thought is the quote from Vincent Van Gogh — “There is nothing more artistic than to love people.” My grandmother’s quilts still keep me warm across the sea. The portraits I painted of my grandfather keep me safe. Protected. My mother’s blouses wrap me in a love that will never die. I was loved. I am loved. Still. I walk daily within this gallery given. So, YES! The answer is always yes! I come from a long line of artists. Today, in my most humble of ways, on canvas and paper, I attempt to pass on the line. To pass on the love.
I recently bought a new ring. It was still in the heat of summer, so my fingers carried a bit of extra fluid. I carefully measured my summer finger to get the right size, but by the time the ring arrived, the cooler air had slimmed my fingers down significantly. It spins round and round. I suppose with everything, it’s hard to get the perfect fit for all occasions.
I have been blessed though. This I know for sure. I have a few friends that I know will always be there, through any situation. It’s easy to find your summer friends — when everyone is running with the bounce of bare legs, lit perfectly under a bright yellow sun. The heart swells with youth. And all acquaintances gather. But the ones that remain in the fallings of autumn, in the bareness of winter, these are your true friends. Those who will spin round and round with you, in your smallest of times.
I look at the new green stone. From the front of my hand. From the back. It reminds me of how lucky I am. To have such friends. And I don’t wish anything away. Every season brings growth. Reveals the truth of friendship. True love will always gather in.
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.
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.
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.
I suppose everything is about context. It’s not like I’d normally be afraid of a pony. (I’ve even painted them.) But yesterday, when I looked up from the path to turn the corner and almost ran into one, I must say it was alarming. And he wasn’t alone. There was a donkey. A llama. Many sheep. Rams. Other ponies. I don’t know who was in charge of this gang by the river. There were no other humans in sight. Neither the sheep, nor the donkey seemed to care that I was there, but what I can only assume as the lead pony, looked at me like I was the suspicious one.
After taking pictures, I kept walking. The whole path seemed different. I felt disoriented. This path, that I could normally navigate in my sleep, suddenly felt completely strange. Had that always been there? What about this? Did I miss my turn?
I started to take inventory. I knew this rock. This tiny bridge. To walk up the slope on the left side. The smell of these trees. The purple flowers growing out of the concrete fence. I knew this path.
Life can throw you the strangest curves. And you can’t prepare for everything. And sometimes each step can become unfamiliar. When it happens, it may sound silly, but I always take my own inventory. Am I safe? Yes. Am I loved? Yes. Do I have to be afraid? No. I step aside from the wayward pony, smile, and keep walking.