Monday, October 29, 2012

The Warehouse: an allegory

For reasons unknown to us, we had come in possession of a thrift store.  Still dazed with the shock of the news, we turned the lock to the warehouse and stepped into a massive collection of dust coated castaways.  Rows and rows of shelves stocked full of items, once in use and demand.  Stacks of beautiful doors leaned against concrete walls, telling of weathering paint and finger-print stained windows.  Large vases housed strange dusty imitation leaves, ferns, and blossoms.  Wire baskets filled with a myriad of random.

Beyond that I could not say what filled the store, because dreams are always tinted with a blur and if you try looking closer the blur increases.  Am I alone in this?  How certain details of dreams, the ones that you especially want to understand are impossible to see? 

We had just begun to take stock of this place, when customers walked in, the sign read open.  It frustrated me that we couldn’t close for just a while to make sense of the madness, but alas, the doors continued to open and close to sound of an old bell and the questions.

“How much for this?”

“I don’t believe this is worth the price listed, it is broken here and here.”

“Can you tell me where to find what I’m looking for?”

We weren’t sure how the cash register worked, the line swelled with angry, impatient people. We did the best we could, after a few tries we were learning and the anger diffused.  That’s when the authorities came.

“I am Mr.Wiles, Deputy Inspector of Regulations and Restrictions, I’m here to issue this notice that demands you close down shop.  You are in violation of five codes and the city is revoking your license.” 

He wore an ill-fitting suit with a bowler that no longer resembled any current fashion.  His eyes were dark and I could find no sign of a sparkle in them. I tried to make him understand, that we were new and we didn’t know all the details.  I tried to explain that we had received a letter and a key and how not even an hour earlier we walked in those doors for the first time. 

“Well, then you won’t mind surrendering your papers and key,” he answered in a monotone, borderline non-human way. 

I trembled, but with conviction responded, “I’m sorry, but we can’t do that just yet.  I know that we can do something with this place, I know that we can turn it into something really great.  This place is full of treasures yet to be discovered, but we haven’t had enough time. We need time to search through the junk and the dust to find them. We need time to wash away the dirt. You must understand sir, it takes time and we have only just arrived.  Give us an extension and you will see.

He bit the side of his lips and his eyes shifted back and forth, he was pretending to consider my request.  And before he could reject, a lady with tight wrinkles above her nose and a sour expression on her face approached. She wore a perfectly tailored midnight blue suit, a scarf of the same color tied meticulously around her neck.   Each side of the scarf extended the same amount down in either direction.

“Ms. Withers, ma’am of the Department of System Interiors.  It has come to our attention that we have not received your last monthly filings. I am here to collect articles A through G immediately. If you can not hand them over, we have the right to take into our possession this dusty collection of junk.  As you can see, it can not be of any use to you, these piles of waste.  It is nonsense and garbage and we will happily take it off your hands and put them to more practical uses.”

I looked to see Mr. Wiles standing silently, he too was waiting for my resignation.

More passionately than the first time, I took a deep breath and replied,

“Ms. Withers,  just today, we walked into the building for the first time. We don’t know why it has been given to us or anything else, all I can tell you is that from the few moments I have had to explore, I am certain that this nonsense and garbage as you call it has the potential to be turned into something beautiful.  It may look filthy and pointless, but I know that with time and care, you won’t even recognize this place. I don’t know why the last owner stopped seeing that, I don’t know why he gave up.  I don’t have those files for you, but we am here now and from this point on we will be happy to fill out your forms…”

“But protocol requires those documents, I must have those exact forms. This is my job and without those forms, we cannot continue, the system requires it,” Ms. Withers interrupted, her voice trembled at the idea of not obtaining those forms.

“And I must add, that the list of code violations is damning, you simply cannot do what you say.  This place is nothing and can be nothing and you will be better off turning over your papers and keys,” Mr. Wiles said as echoes of the last statement bounces off the walls.

I surveyed the room, the gray concrete walls hovering high above me. I saw the rows that housed shelves of dusty forlorn items, dismissed and cast aside. The dust so thick that the original color was tinted a dismal gray.  I saw areas of furniture gathered according to type, dented and scratched.  The vases filled with flowers that never lived, but even now were dying.  All around me, I saw a society of wood, plastic, textiles, and glass under the rule of the dust and despair so strong that the colors were no longer visible to the human eye.  The air was thick and a heaviness wafted above our heads.

To my left Mr.Wiles in his haphazard black from head to toe and Ms. Withers in her midnight blue.

For a moment, I believe them.  I thought of the time and work that would change this place. I imagined the exhaustion and the piles of junk we’d have to sort through to find the treasures.  I felt the weight of the emotional journey that would come from washing away the layers that hid the beautiful.  The case seemed overwhelming, until I saw it in the corner of my eye.  A large industrial wire basket under a table, filled with empty picture frames and pieces of wood, and curiously, one wool blanket, a soft shade of cream, like sweet butter, with stripes of red, yellow, and blue.  The colors as vibrant as an artist’s palette, a tiny palette of color in world of dull.

And I knew they were wrong. 

“I’m sorry, but you must leave. I can not give you what you want, but you must leave now. We have work to do.”

I said it with certainty and authority, looking them in the eye.  The two of them shook their heads, casting unsure glances at each other.  This breech of protocol left them shaking in their well polished shoes. Ms. Withers raised her hand from the piles of paper in her hands in objection, she began to speak.

“I’m sorry, but you must leave. I will not give you want you want.  We have work to do.”

I interjected, halting the speech from her mouth.  I ushered them towards the door, they protested all the way through and once the doors closed, they stood outside pounding the metal.

But I would not listen and I turned to my husband, our eyes searched each other’s deeply and with a shake of our heads, we pushed up our sleeves and walked towards the world tinted of grey.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On terror and bravery, a true story.

Today I’m filling pages with memories and stories and this one just started pouring out.

After college I spent one year working with a non-profit company that traveled the country presenting character education programs to students K-12.  We set up three giant screens and speakers, the video was full of stories and chart topping hits that would engage and encourage students to be kind, strong, and determined people.  The stories spoke of kids overcoming obstacles and making good choices.  It was relevant and well done.  Overall, this tour was a good experience filled with meeting wonderful people and seeing new places.  Some places were harder than others.  Some places were more forgettable than others. This story is not one of them..

This job brought me to places in the US that I would have never seen on my own. I experienced social norms that felt like foreign countries to me. My view of the world grew  during this year in ways I will never forget.

One day, we traveled to a desert town north of Los Angeles.  The district was new, schools, stores and homes. It was beautiful. We were told that the new development was an attempt to get families out of the roughest L.A. neighborhoods. Gang violence was at a high and there were police dispatched to the schools and extra law enforcement, especially in the after school hours. The drop out rate was higher than the graduation rate.  I went to a high school that has rowing, equestrian, and tennis teams. There were 600 students in my graduating class.  I think two kids dropped out that year.

I stood in a gymnasium of five hundred high school students.The only adults in the room were me, my co-worker, and our contact person, a guidance counselor, who was less than courteous. It didn't take long to see that we were merely babysitters for the next two hours. The students were mostly bigger than me, their faces were hazed with apathy and anger. We gave a brief introduction to the video and I couldn't even hear myself through the PA system. I stopped talking and we pushed play.

They talked and laughed and walked over to their friends. Some turned to face the opposite direction. I was furious at the amount of disrespect that I saw, but not really for myself.  Never in all my years of life had I felt such hopelessness in a room, it didn't matter what I had to say, because it didn't matter what they became.  Why should they believe anything different.

I went to the guidance counselor and asked if I could stop the presentation to speak to the students. She looked at me with huge, amused eyes and said, well, if you wish.  I saw her shaking her head as I turned.

The only light in the pitch black room with no windows and two sets of doors was from the three giant screens that projected the video.

I asked my co-worker to hit pause and with 111% fire in my blood and 110% fear, I  walked to the front of the bleachers and said,

“Excuse me. Excuse me,” could they see me trembling, I don't know, I didn't matter. The fire was burning now. I continued,

“Every day, we travel to schools sharing this video, because we want to encourage students who need someone to tell them that they can do great things and overcome trouble, no matter the circumstances. Never before have I seen such rudeness and disrespect from a group of students and I am afraid for you, because if you don't start caring, you will mess up your life and you may not get a second chance. It doesn’t matter if you remember me or this video, but we are here today to share this and even if you don't want to listen, stop talking so that other students can listen. Thank you.”

The room was silent.

I set the microphone down and walked across the floor. In that moment, I felt like I could climb Everest and crumble into a sopping heap of tears at the same time. It took me five minutes to stop shaking. I was thankful for the darkness. My co-worker looked at me stunned, but proud.

It didn't take long for some noise to resume, but the levels stayed at a minimum. The bell rang just before the end of the video, the students filed through the doors. We torn down our equipment alone, usually students helped. I can't remember if the guidance counselor said good bye or not.

I won’t soon forget that day.  For all the fear that shook me, I could not breathe another moment of the apathy and disrespect that filled the room.  And still, I knew that sitting in those bleachers were kids who did care, kids who had big dreams, and kids who just needed even a sliver of hope. 

The intoxicating mix of terror and bravery are forever scribbled into my memory.  Even as I typed this out today, I trembled remembering those steps to the front of the room.  More than the fear, I remember the presence of the courage and how I shook with fear the entire way, but the courage was leading my steps, pushing me forward. Standing before one thousand eyes, hundreds of lives full of good, bad, beautiful, heartbreaking, hopeless, and hopeful.

There are moments that shape and define us, and even if every single one of those kids walked out of that room unaffected, I drove away with that desert gymnasium forever imprinted in my soul.

I think we forget, I think we’ve been playing by the wrong set of rules and I’m pretty sure that if courage and fear were a game of paper rock scissors, courage could beat fear every time.

Because courage fights for hope and light. Fear fights for darkness.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  John 1:5


So when your hopes on fire

But you know your desire

Don't hold a glass over the flame

Don't let your heart grow cold

I will call you by name

I will share your road

(Hopeless Wanderer, Mumford & Sons)

Monday, October 15, 2012

On the process and who we are

Today, I started with grey and blue heavily mixed with water,  they dashed and dripped downward, making their own way with happy freedom. Colors washed over each other, changing, becoming, never staying the same.  The thick paper became heavy with layers and depth, wrinkled and full of details and secrets. 

For a brief time there was an arrow and a bird, but they didn't stay, they were only temporary, leading me forward.  As I swept the brush over them, they did not cease, but became part of the canvas, giving way to new possibilities.

And then scraps from torn pages, seemingly insignificant pieces became the focal point. Sometimes, the very smallest things are crucial to the forming process.  So many colors and drips and smears in the painting. 
Mixing and dipping the brush and meeting the page, over and over and over.

Layers were peeled off and sections were wiped clean. 

Until it was done.  In the way that God created the world and when he was done, he stopped and saw that it was good.  It’s like that and so cliche, but you just know.

I thought about the process, how so many times I was unsure of the outcome and I wasn't exactly sure what I was creating, but I knew I must continue, I knew it would come and make all kinds of sense at just the right time.   I wondered if people would see it and be overwhelmed by the uncertainty, when all I saw was this great sense of peace in this act of surrender.  The surrender of letting the paint fall and the colors mix, allowing the layers to build a foundation.  Being open to the uncertainty, and hopeful of the results.

This story of the creative process, it’s the story of us, isn't it.

Are we the paint, the brush or the artist?

And won’t it be so much easier if the brush stopped trying to be the artist, so that together they could create something beautiful?

Friday, October 12, 2012

On fitted sheets and God.

So you know how you click over to the place of Pinterest and there are ten-thousand ever-loving re-pins of the secret to folding a fitted sheet?  I was folding laundry today during my weekly folding afternoon and I pulled a few sheets from the basket, because I have a kid who doesn’t wear diapers anymore, not because I wash all the sheets every week.  I certainly do not.

And every time I take a fitted sheet in my hand, I pause and it makes me think about the caption of that pin, “FINALLY, the secret to properly folding a fitted sheet!  All your problems have now been solved. There is nothing to difficult for you now that you can fold a fitted sheet.  You have arrived.”  It probably says that, I don’t know, I scroll down as quickly as I can.  

I don’t want to know how to fold a freaking fitted sheet. ever. 


The thing is… the internet is obsessed with having a linen closet ready to be inspected by the Queen of England.  Has she showed up to any of your places, because she’s not been here.  And what kind of guest arrives and immediately asks to tour the linen closet? I mean, I have nothing against perfectly symmetrical and poetic linen closets (well maybe I do), but this post isn’t really about such things. (What I really want to do is mess it up a bit, to grace your life with a bit of chaos as my best friend in high school called it.) You see, she had a very classic style, nothing bold or dramatic or too bright.  Her closet was a monochromatic shrine to navy blue and I loved her for it.  But then one day after years of influence, she bought a bright pink one shoulder tank on her own and it was one of my proudest moments in life. 

Back to fitted sheets.

Before the madness of the pinterest, it was one of the great mysteries that people just accepted, like no one really knew how to fold them, but they gave it their best try and called it a day and no one lost any sleep at night.  We were all together in a peaceful state of poorly folded sheets. Those were the days.

The reason I don’t ever want to follow the step by step how-to-fold tutorial is because of God.  That’s right. God.  I’m a girl who likes a little mystery in life.  I like to know that there is this great force in charge of knowing all the answers and giving me the ones I need.  Knowing all the answers would be an incredibly taxing and heavy job.  It keeps me small, in the good way. Like, it’s my job to clean and use the sheets and take care of them and do the best I can with the sheets I’ve been given, turning them into something beautiful, but that’s all.

However, sometimes I freak out and I’m all, I WILL FOLD THIS SHEET PERFECTLY.  I WILL SOLVE ALL THE PROBLEMS AND HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.  I WILL MAKE MY KID’S SANDWICHES LOOK LIKE MATER. (No I will not. My kid  barely eats his sandwiches, why would I waste my time doing that?)  And I get lost in a frenzied state of angst because basically what I’m trying do is live my life in the way that someone else told me I must, in a way that would make Martha and the Queen so proud. That’s when things turn into a mess, because I forget that I’m small and I forget that I don’t want all the answers. I try to help God do his job, which he does very well and that is always a bad idea.

Basically, am I saying that the how-to-fold-a-fitted-sheet-tutorial is the same as the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden?

Maybe. Probably.

And that why fitted sheets remind me of God.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

October 3, 2012

The world is ablaze with season right now, sprinkled, drenched, smeared with colors of the best kind.  Every window becomes a frame for a masterful, temporary work of art.  Today as I drove into town, the residents of Minneapolis were out in full force.  In fact, I believe every bike was biking, every path was filled with walkers, every al fresco chair was filled with diners and afternoon coffee drinkers.  It’s almost like it was the first warm day of the year, when the masses suddenly appear.  Except, it’s probably the last. These people know this and they are soaking it up, every last drop, because not sure if you are familiar with Minnesota winters, but they are not friendly.

Today as the sun danced over the trees of red, yellow, and orange, there was a serious energy,  a rare 80 degree day in October, a gift.

Tomorrow the thermometers will read 40 less than today.

My creativity comes in seasons too and this extended warmth was like a jolt of make, make, make.  There was so much making, so many ideas, which is never a bad thing.   It’s harvest and I was constantly reaping the bounty. 

But, yesterday, I found myself trying to sew items for the shop.  I was frustrated at every turn, the machine was annoying, the colors of thread I needed were gone, everything was a challenge.  I was trying to finish these items so quickly that I was resenting them.  I had lost the sweetness of the creative process and traded it for the end result.  Way wrong answer. We are not machines.  We do not exist for the sole purpose of creating a finished product.  The magic is in the process, in the molding and in the creating.

I walked away from my machine.  I needed a break.  It’s tricky sometimes when your art is also a business, even a tiny, little one like mine.  It’s easy to lose sight of why you are writing, sewing, painting, etc.  Yesterday, I was frenzied and frustrated.  This kept sounding in my head and in my heart.  It was a fresh breath and hope.

It is not by coincidence, that the seasonal shift is in sync with my creativity or rather the other way around.  The colder weather has a way of bringing us in and slowing us down, because we need it.  Circumstances beyond our control take the lead.  We get so busy with busy and life and art and everything that the fall sort of picks us up by the collar, dusts us off and sets us back on the right path.

Seasons are so intentional in that way, the shift of nature, the constant waves of change: life, growth, energy, pause, death, re-birth… and again.

Cease striving and know that I am God. Be still and know that I am God.  This message is everywhere for me, in conversations with friends, in things I’m reading and seeing and feeling.  I can hear the whispers in the rustle and crunch of the leaves, in the color parade of the trees, in the brisk wind warmed by the sun.

We tend to get pretty good at striving, in fact, our days are spent perfecting the art of striving, but this message is life and we are invited to rest in that sustaining power and in it find all that we need.

So that’s where I am again, learning this life long lesson.

October 4, 2012

Today the wind is tearing leaves from branches and composing an emotional song, leaving no loose item untouched.  It reminds me that we are small and that we must let the process happen, we must trust the maker’s hands, and remember that all of our breaths and all of our days are the process.  It’s our story unfolding safely in His hands.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Us vs. Them: A true story, a tragedy.

For all the complicated matters of life, there are two distinct groups of people.  Both of these live under the little roof of our home.  What you are about to read is a true story.

The facts are that once a week, I am forced to rise early, before the sun rises, when the world is still dark.  I am forced to wake up to the hideous sound of an alarm clock rather than the noise of silly children in the next room.  And that sound is an assault to my mind, body, and spirit.  Clearly the inventor of alarm clocks was a mean, hateful person.

It was on this morning, on the third of October in the year 2012, that I had to drive my husband to work so we could have the car for the day.  He goes to work very early, hours before the world should be alive and moving.  I had to wake up at 6:00 AM.  I know, I know, awful.  I will accept sympathy gifts of coffee.

When it was time, I opened the door and stepped into the room where not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse (THANK GOD!)  and in that darkness slept two little ones.  And a moment at the turn of the handle,  at the burst of light, she quickly stumbled to her feet and shouted, “Daddy?”  It is a wonderful morning in her opinion, when she sees her daddy first thing.  I lifted her from the confines of her bed and she barreled down the hall into the blinding light, “daddy! daddy! daddy!”  The other child did not flinch.  No eyes opened, no response to the assaulting light or noise. 

I sat down gently on his bed and rubbed his back, saying softly as all morning actions should be, “Hudson, it’s time to wake up.”  He moaned and turned to the other side, scrunching his face, eyes still closed. 

And from the other room, the horror of all horrors, that husband, he started singing!!!  The horror was not in fact his voice, but that he was using his voice in such a loud, rambunctious way at such an hour.  I mean, of all the inconsiderate things to do, singing in the morning, unthinkable. 

He walked into the room with a talking baby girl in his arms and a song on his mouth.  My son, he looked up at me and crawled into my arms, his head flopped down.

The rest continues below:

Matt: Good morning, good morning, you slept the whole night through…

Me:  Stop, why would you do such a thing?

Matt: It’s our job to wake our kids up in an obnoxious manner.

Me: No, no, it is not.  It is our job to protect our children from terrible things. No one wants to wake up to singing.  You guys are noisy.

He just laughed and then walked away with the small, loud one into the blinding light from the kitchen.  I stroked the little boy’s head still nestled in my arms and said, ‘I’m sorry they are so loud, I’m sorry they don’t understand us.” He let out a giant sigh, eyes not yet opened. He was glad to know he wasn’t alone in this. We didn’t move until it was absolutely necessary.

The moral of this story is clear.  The protagonists and antagonists are obvious.  The tragedy is real and it has been happening for ages and worst of all, it’s happening in my own home.

Let’s make the world a better place, people. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

The greatest time of year.

An ode to fall and the creativity that I wish for you, words from Bittersweet

Fall is harvest, when we’re getting all the good stuff that someone took the time to plant many months ago. Someone planted it, and now we benefit from it.  And that’s how it is when we make art.  We struggle and push and pant seeds deeps underground, and it doesn’t look like much for a while.  But them someone comes along and listens to your song or sees your painting and reads your poem, and they feel alive again, like the world is fresh and bursting, just like harvest.

Plant something today that will feed someone many months or many years from now.  Plant something today, because you’ve feasted on someone else’s carefully planted seeds, seeds that bloomed into nourishment and kept you alive and wide eyed.

Use what you have, use what the world gives you.  Use this first day of fall: bright flame before winter’s deadness; harvest; orange, gold, amber; cool nights and the smell of fire. Out tree-lined streets are set ablaze, our kitchens filled with the smell of nostalgia: apples bubbling into sauce, roasting squash, cinnamon, nutmeg, cider, warmth itself.  The leaves as they spark into wild color just before they die are the world’s oldest performance art, and everything we see is celebrating one last violently hued hurrah before the black and white and the silence of winter. 

Fall is begging for us to dance and sing and write with just the same drama and blaze.

-Shauna Niequist