Grace So Well Becomes Us

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Before turning in each night, I used to spend time selecting and preparing my clothes for work the next day. The pants or skirt, shoes, shirts and jewelry didn’t need to match but they had to make sense in an attractive but calming manner. They needed a touch of verve–scarf, eye-catching necklace, pewter-metallic shoes. I could have dressed in jeans if I really wanted to. My “casual business” attired mental health agency serves everyone from white collar adults mandated to treatment for DUII to addicted younger adults who violated probation to homeless men and women trying to hang on, to change tough times into better ones. I didn’t want to dress too well or lackadaisically, as how I presented myself could be a boon or a barrier. But once I got to work, I forgot the external presentation. My work is from the inside out and my demeanor or facial expression is far more critical. So it was as much a habit to prepare my clothes carefully for thirty years as anything. But jeans didn’t seem best for work–it was stretch-cotton, ankle-length black slacks that suited me.

I started working in my thirties after my five children were ensconced in school. My first good job was assisting older adults who were disabled by such medical conditions as stroke and Parkinson’s’ disease. Soon I became manager of a large home care services department. I wore high heels and dresses or skirts and tops daily. Our budget was tight so I often shopped at Goodwill to supplement my newer clothes. It was not fashionable to buy second hand clothing but it worked out well. Dressing up for work was a joy after years of wearing jeans and t-shirts. They were both needed uniforms. I had a household to manage; my husband often travelled and I had my hands full.

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(Painting, “Venetian Clothesline”, by Mindy Newman)

I don’t work for a paycheck, as I quit my job in November. (I write,  which most people would say isn’t work, though it feels like it despite no monetary reward yet.) My counseling (or just employee) days may not be entirely over. Thus, work clothing still takes up the bulk of closet space. To be honest, two closets, large ones. I have accumulated a lot of variations of the themes of colors, styles, needs. There are shoes in stacked boxes and sweaters folded nicely in boxes. Off season clothing is in another room. I have more clothes than I know what to do with, yet I hold on.

I wear jeans daily now, with fleece when it is colder or knit tops when the breezes tease us with springy scents. No one see me for days except my husband or a family member who stops over.  So I dress easy. My daughters have told me I have so many t-shirts (with long and short sleeves) I could dedicate a whole closet to them. On my feet, sippers, though I hate to admit it, shoe snob that I’ve been in the past. They do feel great schlepping around my place, writing for hours at the computer.

Today I spotted a pair of white flats at Macy’s as I was lugging a bag of sale towels. I tried to get to the exit–what did I need shoes for?–but they beckoned me. They were on sale. Up close, they appeared comfortable yet stylish, the perfect combination. They had a cut-out motif that made them look feminine without being girly. I tried them on. They looked lovely in the mirror; I could walk without wincing. In warm weather, when extravagant flowers decorated emerald lawns and I could walk to church or stores without needing hiking boots to stay dry and warm, they would look…enchanting. They were be pretty and sturdy at once, my thinking insisted. And if I worked again, they would accent my professional duds.

So I bought them and took them home, put them on the closet shelf for a spring day. Maybe Easter.

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I mused further. I had gotten a new pair of white shoes each Easter as a child. With white gloves, shiny Mary Janes and a pretty dress my mother made, I was all set for church, followed by the family playing music and a  roast beef dinner. Memories of that Sunday table came alive, from the crystal water goblets to the lilac tablecloth. I could nearly smell the steaming biscuits and taste the fruit salad with poppy seed dressing.

Had that been what stopped me as I had made my way out of the store earlier? With spring not far off, a longing for another time and place? My mother dressed beautifully, mostly due to her own creative skills. It was she who taught me appreciation of fine fabrics and elegant lines, how a good seam looked and held, how shorter or longer hems made a difference per eye and each occasion. She would have loved ogling the shoe racks with me; her high-heeled feet looked beautiful into her eighties.

I thought more about the sale shoes. I don’t need them, as I have a pair of white ones. Unless I get another job I will likely be barefoot when the buds unfurl and sunshine makes me want to dance. Or I will be wearing my Teva sandals when I hike in earnest. What makes me want to adorn myself with something I do not need besides our insistent culture of acquisition? When has the way I dressed made such a crucial difference? There are times I have needed to be “appropriate” or even “impressive”, but only in the eyes of this world. I love color and design, yes, but I can make art if that is so necessary to my peace of mind. Clothes are a very small part of everything.

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In fact, who I am is not very present in what I put on my body. It is a simple truth, but hits me soundly. I may be missing my work a bit– the camaraderie of working with others toward a common goal–or fancying the past. But who I am and will be is right here within me. The whole me, who does not have daily, professional support or even criticism. I long ago discovered I am not dependent on others for a secure sense of self, my “identity”. Who I have been, as a seven year old excited for Easter, a young adult struggling with challenges or a counselor who leans toward my client as his suffering is laid bare in exchange for a little peace–it all has origins here, within the invisible. My soul. We all have one, and no clothes or other accoutrements are needed to alter, hide or even adorn it.

I had a dream last night, a strange one wherein I was surrounded by people who were more like beings of another sort, without recognizable feature or form, yet full of vibrant, clear energy. No one spoke or said they loved me but I knew it by the way I felt as I floated among them. It was so powerfully magnetic that it pervaded every inch of me. One of them communicated without spoken words: “You are very pretty”, and I put my hands to my face and loudly protested. I  knew better. But they smiled at me, and the realization came that they might see me differently. And if here, in this dream place, I looked even a little as they did to me, I truly lived in beauty. How did these beings see me? I thought to educate them, and explained that my life wasn’t like theirs, it had been hard and not without significant failures. No one cared much. The love actually felt stronger; everyone shared it. When I finally heard “We have to leave you now”, I was terribly sad. I wanted that love to never end. But I awakened, deeply rested and at ease, and the awareness of whoever/whatever they were is with me still. We all need reminding of Divine Love. Everlasting love.

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So maybe that is what the shoes are about, odd as it sounds. I remembered my childhood at the store, and Easter coming. I love shoes, it is true. But at the center of all this is the knowledge that I inhabit not just flesh and bones, but a soul. In fact, I am certain I was first and will last be that, alone. Everything in between is just filler. Tasks and travels. A chance to make good on the love we are given. Grace makes the difference. The grace of God, and also the grace we can cultivate in our daily lives with others: fluency in our conversations, finesse in our diplomacy, benevolence in interactions with those we do not understand, forgiveness of those who mean harm. We can train ourselves in discernment and decorum. We can live in graciousness, which becomes us all. The perfect raiment for this world, as well.

Still…I know you may be wondering about those sale shoes, which is where this piece began. One thing has led to another, and I’m thinking it over. There is a decent chance I’ll keep them for Easter and beyond. They look fun to wear, which matters, too, as long as I live in this body.

(Photo of the gorgeous iris–“A Graceful Dancer”–is attributed to Dorothy Mae.)

Under the Baby Grand Piano

IMG_2343Under the baby grand piano was an undisturbed expanse. Sunlight brightened beige carpet and sage green walls. The legs of the piano were mammoth, at the end of which were brass rollers, in case anyone thought to move it. If I lay still and touched the wood, I could feel the vibrations of the chords and melodies brought alive by my siblings or father. I could watch feet at work on the pedals, altering the presentation of notes. I could see the underpinnings of the piano and marveled that it held everything needed for such sounds, especially when the top was propped open. If I was quiet and my father wasn’t giving string lessons, I could stay undisturbed a long while.

I brought pillows to create a miniature home within the small domain. My dolls took their seats or made their way through a maze of textured softness, to the length of curtains, behind which they would wait. They came out to converse, fume and laugh, to smile and bow. Then back they went into their pillowy house where we would listen to the piano’s bountiful voice, enchanted. Sleepy. I put them to bed with brilliant scarves my mother gave me; they doubled as dolls’ clothing and impromptu partitions. I covered my face with a floral scarf, then lay back. This was a front row seat. This was my own hidden world, and I was stage manager, director, actors.  The music surrounded me–piano joined by cello or violin or clarinet– and fluttered or blazed its way into mind and heart. My dolls had to be told what I already knew: this was simply home.

Such found spaces were the start of an obsession with dwellings that stayed with me. As a child, it was the piano space and the hideaway behind the evergreens in the back yard. It included the aging maple tree, as well, for branches could be chairs, leafy limbs could be walls and stairs to, depending on the number of climbers, the treetop look-out.

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I grew up in a three bedroom, one bath home that housed seven persons. It was a household that welcomed neighbors, frequent visitors, or students of my father. My parents entertained regularly and fit a number of people into the modest but attractive dining and living rooms. The Michigan bungalow was less accommodating than what was preferred, especially since it was not as large as the rambling old Missouri house referred to by the street corner it was on, “Trenton and Lamb”, with its many fruit trees, breezeway and larger rooms. But the house I grew up in didn’t feel that crowded to me. The bedroom we three sisters shared was adequate. My brothers were a dash across the hall. We learned patience and fought quietly. There were ways to create space within space, with books or blankets or a closed closet door. Or a piano. And our yard and the tree nursery behind were heaven.

As I grew up I began to sketch houses as a way to challenge myself and indulge a love of design. Rooflines slanted this way and that; living rooms incorporated glass ceilings or streams; screened balconies were big enough for pajama parties in humid summer nights. I drew the houses I wanted to live in when I grew up: cottages on lakes, glass and fieldstone forest homes, habitations that hid in the sides of hills. And an old, narrow brownstone, of which I had read and thought quite exotic. Once, when I was old enough to accompany my parents to the swanky home of their arts-patron friends, I was overcome with glee when I saw a tall tree rising through the rooms, through the roof. Anything was possible, I decided. I saw what could be done, how people could match houses to dreams.

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I lived a lot of places after leaving my parents’ home. As a college student and newlywed, I once inhabited a chicken coop that was more likely a shed. It had, of course, been fully renovated but one could barely walk in and out of the tiny spaces we called rooms. At the peak of the roof in the kitchen and bathroom we could stand up full height but without elbow room to move. I can’t say I was fond of it, but it was unique, and was shelter enough for a time.

IMG_2351By age thirty or so, I stopped counting how many times I moved, either for school or work. Over time there were several children joining us. Then divorces. Buying a house seemed a far-off dream.  For someone who had grown up in one house, it was surprising how easily I adapted. I was, in fact, excited about each new city or town  and with it, the discovery process of making new friends. I had an expansive appetite for adventure; the apartments and houses were part of it, the setting for a life.

Without money to burn or a gift for either decorating or domesticity, I had a few challenges. There were my own paintings at first, then prints and photographs hung. There were ways to make things feel intimate, eclectic, homey. Candles blurred imperfections. Incense camouflaged telltale remnants of previous tenants. Books overflowing bookshelves fixed any dull spot. My cello and a few guitars looked handsome in the corner. Handmade ceramics lent an artistic, earthy feel. Colorful pillows and wall hangings (harkening back to life under the piano), children’s art work, warm color on well-used walls: it could be a place to call one’s own, if even for a short while. Add love and we were set.

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Then we were transferred to Tennessee, where we bought an A-frame house on a half-acre of land. It was built into a hill and from the road the A-shape looked deceptively like one-story. An anomaly in the small, southern town with a village green, it reminded us of northern Michigan homes. With four bedrooms, two baths and two spacious living areas it was large enough for five kids and then some. There was a murky pond which we soon found attracted snakes. There was gardening space which rendered a few good vegetables despite ignorance and weather. Insects abounded, which interested me, except for the black widows in the woodpile–but they were worth a quick look. Facing away from the road, on the ground level, were two bedrooms, a family room, kitchen, all of which looked out onto a large yard and woods. We had a woodstove to use in winter. I kept the fires going while my husband worked long hours. I loved the work, the country- modern feel of the house. I dreamed of getting a big dog but the neighbor’s German Shepherd mix visited daily. The cicadas rasped and buzzed in the deep heat of summer and we watched thunderstorms roll past our large windows. The kudzu vines that grew rapidly were mighty and strange. It was green hilly country coupled with good architecture.

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When we left less than two years later, it was the dog who made us cry. He leapt up and licked our faces as we closed the door. We left too soon, but a career called us to another place and a new start once more: Detroit. Still, we found a place in the outskirts, in a suburb that looked like a village putting on fancy raiment. It was not what we’d hoped, smaller and older and in need of a facelift. There would be changes again in a few years. And more after that.

Today I live in the inimitable Pacific Northwest, where the land itself takes my breath away. If that isn’t enough, my city offers a panorama of structures; it favors both old and new. I remain enamored of structures and gardens–of houses, in particular. I pour over good architecture magazines and books. You will find me walking our distinctive neighborhoods, eyes scanning placement of windows, finesse of a portico, the way a veranda encircles a house to bring the outdoors in but keep family and friends close. I take my camera everywhere. I don’t want to miss the odd element or small detail.

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You might be surprised: I don’t live in a wildly imaginative or beautiful home. I live simply. It is what we need for now and suits me. But I sometimes long for, even dream of just the right house. I still secretly draw, add a warm watercolor sheen, light dappling a courtyard. As we are apt to do as we get older, I wonder if becoming an architect rather than a counselor would have been a good path. Regardless, you and I inspire our dwellings, create whatever we need them to be, and they can inspire us in return. They are, as in my baby grand piano fort so long ago, our places to be fully ourselves. Home.

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