Thursday, January 29, 2015

Someone made that chair

  A while back we visited a shop called “Empty the Nest.” It’s a small store front stuffed with all manner of junk and treasure. It specializes in helping people “empty their nests” (or their parents' nests) of things they simply don’t know what to do with. You can find a vintage apron. A dresser Grandma owned. Fishing tackle. A box of buttons. A zip lock bag full of drill bits. I usually try to stay away from such places, but that’s where I found a “gasp.” Carelessly cast across a dirty shelf and hiding beneath a broken violin, a gleam of persimmon caught my eye. I lifted the box and there lay – a hand-woven, hand-dyed wool rug. It is small, only about two by two and a half feet, old, but exquisite. The colors are still vivid. No wear or flaws. Some artisan made a perfect rug a long time ago. I exhaled and looked over my shoulder, suddenly filled with an anxious need to own it. Would someone grab it from my hand shouting, “MINE!”? I wondered if I could mount a defense for spending money on it? It was my birthday – it was. Could it be a gift to self from self? Whoever priced it must have sensed that it had some value. I had to pay $25.00 for it. So there it was: an Indian-type rug, perfect for the “baked clay” wall color in the bedroom of our new home. I only wish I knew more about its origin.

That rug was what Maira Kalman would call a “favorite thing” something that makes you gasp with delight. Those are the things, she writes, that are worth keeping. Because of her illustrated book – My Favorite Things and her work (she calls her work “curating a life”) for a museum, I have a fuzzy little gauge, a sweet reminder that it’s okay to keep a few things you really like even as you simplify life. You might even admit you love them. This past year has been one of letting things go before we made our big move last May. Things were given away. Sold on Craig’s list. Taken to Salvation Army. Dumped or recycled. Some things were a little hard to give up – like the fragile “Flow Blue” antique china I inherited from Denis’ great-grandparents. A big old buffet with wood inlay from the 1940s. Those two particular things were easier to give up because a family member was delighted to have them. It was a relief to fling other things out of the house. Old paintings and faded photographs that made me grimace, not gasp – Gone! A large patchwork quilt kept for years out of guilt – Gone! Years ago it was a gift from Denis’ step-grandmother. Wouldn’t that normally be a welcome gift? You would think. But this was one ugly quilt with large patches of polyester prints from old dresses backed by a muddy gold fabric, she warned me I had better appreciate that quilt because it had taken her a long time to make it! So I kept it year after year, even after she died. It didn’t even reinvent itself to become an interesting retro piece of Americana. It remained repellent. I gave it away to someone who dumbfounded me by liking it.

As I wrote in a recent blog post, “I understand that not EVERYthing needs to make me gasp. I don’t want to have a hard time breathing when I climb into bed at night. I mean. There needs to be calm scenes. Functionality. Quiet colors. Soft beds. Crisp sheets. None of that has to make me gasp. We understand. But it is a useful measure I’m going to be checking in with now and then.”

As it turns out, because of a broken ankle, I’ve had more occasion to enjoy it as it hangs on the wall of our bedroom. Certain patterns and colors make me happy. In a Japanese philosophy  called Naikan, people are reminded “to be grateful for everything. If you are sitting in a chair, you need to realize that someone made that chair, and someone sold it, and someone delivered it – and you are the beneficiary of all that. Just because they didn’t do it especially for you doesn’t mean you aren’t blessed to be using it and enjoying it. …[thus] life becomes a series of small miracles, and you may start to notice everything that goes right in a typical life and not the few things that go wrong.”  - The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Bless Your Heart"?

What is it called when the words you say have a meaning completely opposite from their actual  definition? Here's a for instance that is pretty innocuous. Or is it? I'm not sure.

In conversation if you tell someone something and they respond in a hearty voice with, “Good!” or "Great!" You kinda get they don't mean good or great at all. What they probably mean is, I don't have time to listen to your pathetic stories. Or, you are boring me so bad, I’d like to slap you, but I love Jesus. Or, leftovers again? Or….?

The satirist at The Cresset, (a literary and art journal published by Valparaiso University) – Tom Willadsen, wrote a little rant about what "Bless your heart," really means, and it got me thinking about my own use of handy verbal punctuation and a little habit I have of taking others to task for their use of it.

I've had some conversations about that very phrase and my friends agreed that, for example, if someone says, "Bless her heart, she's trying to lose weight" what that really means is: “I’m sure glad I’m a size 4!”  Or, “too bad she can’t stay on that diet, because she’s a big momma.” Or, “I lay money on it. She’s a closet eater.” I had already decided not to use that comment again. But there are others I need to excise. Just saying I’m not exactly snow-white here. 

Willadsen wrote:

“I now use the phrase as a verbal crossed fingers behind my back. I say “Bless your heart,: but I mean:
·      Each day in my prayers I lament that you had children, or
·      As far as I can tell, your sole purpose on the planet is to irritate everyone you encounter, or
·      Given a choice between having white-hot tungsten spikes thrust through my lungs, and accepting your invitation, I’m going with the spikes, or
·      Remember that device I told you about that measures my hostility? Your request has rendered it obsolete, or
·      I hate you.”

My thinking this is funny might reveal something twisted in me. I can yammer on about how we ought to be living and growing in the fruit of the spirit – in fact, only the other day I pressed hard on someone who was verbally unkind to another. This could be dangerous, like I’m the self-righteous, brickhead Publican dumping on the Sinner over in the corner.

On the other hand, if satire is, as the dictionary defines it, “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices;” and if satire is what Willadsen is doing, then, he succeeded and maybe we can laugh because we see ourselves and humor helps it go down a little more easily.