I’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.The photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.People even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.Thing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.So the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!
The Georgian era gave us, along with a whole raft of other creative gifts for sweethearts and mementos of important occasions, the piece of portraiture-cum-jewelry known as the Lover’s Eye. Something of an oddity, to those of us in the modern day who don’t happen to be of that individualistic bent that swallows capsules of a late wife’s ashes with daily vitamins, wears vials of a lover’s blood as a pendant or keeps the deceased boss’s body as a nice piece of taxidermy so that he continues to sit in on board meetings in perpetuity. Yes, all realities for some folk. Not so much for Average-Joan. Portraiture is generally so very much more socially acceptable.A portrait of a lover’s eye, even if it happens to be shown without reference to and other, presumably equally adorable, parts of said person, isn’t quite so unsettling and freaky then. Of course, that assumes that one’s dearest has eyes, at least one eye, that is pretty attractive in its way. I got to thinking about this whole little question when I had the allergic attack recently that made my eyes so distinctively disgusting. However, I was reminded by that very episode that love is genuinely, in its way, blind. My darling husband didn’t cease to treat me with the usual kindness and affection and sweet intimacy, and while I know there was for both of us an underlying hope, nay, assumption that this was a temporary appearance for me, the possibility of permanence existed as well.What did this prove? Nothing in and of itself, really. It did, though, remind me ultimately of the age-old truth that love makes us see the objects of our affections as good, desirable, as beautiful. That beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My spouse saw the Me he loved, without necessary reference to how I looked at the moment. And he does, after all, love me either despite knowing I’m a little bit weird and kooky, albeit (I hope) pleasantly so or, weirder and kookier yet, because I’m that way. Probably not especially hankering to wear around any new jewelry, my beloved. Least of all, jewelry with a little picture of my eye staring at him all of the time, as if my gawping at him in person, however admiringly, isn’t enough to send him up the wall. I’m not absolutely certain that a prettified version of my healthy eye would be markedly better than a silly and outrageous portrait of my eye in its bizarrely bloodshot wackiness, as jewelry goes. But my guy, he looks pretty fabulous no matter what he’s wearing. So there’s that. Wink, wink.
When a singer’s voice takes hold and sways me, I imagine a pearl dropping into a deep, deep well. Its subtly rich sheen and its smooth look of perfection rolls at speed through the air yet seems to flow through it with an attenuated grace as though purity and love buoyed it up delicately and cradled it gently downward. At last, reaching the depths, the note, the pearl, begins its plunge–the fulness of the water embraces its fall–the ear draws in the note and pulls it soul-ward.
When the choir breathes out in flawless song, I am lost in the jeweled depths. Gorgeous and welcoming, the magnificent impossibility of such beautiful sound carries me, too, in its cradling care. And I fall–in darkness, in love, in joy.
Of course I’m vain. I would love to be thought of as a great beauty. Not that many people on earth could probably say with full honesty that they wouldn’t like to be thought attractive and compelling and engaging in the slick social way, no matter how sincerely they live the principles of much deeper character. But, that confession aside, I can also say that I am not so exclusively vain that I mind having others be indifferent to, or even dislike, me. Let’s just be realistic enough to say that that would be beyond impossible.
So I really can’t have too many qualms about making fun of myself and exaggerating my own failings and shortcomings and even pasting on ones I don’t think I actually own, if it buys me any artistic pleasure. After all, there’s a bunch of fun to be had in clowning and playing characters and being someone or something new and weird and ridiculous. There are reasons we still have art and theatre and fiction all around us. It’s amusing to make the stuff and amusing to see what others have made.
I guess that makes me a cheap sort of witch or magician, maybe, when I’m making up my fictions in visual and verbal imagery. Kind of a fun vocation, when I get to play at it. Abracadabra, here I am for your amusement. Poof! Now it’s your turn.
No matter what the language, no matter the land, if one is purposeful, hopeful, loving and a little bit lucky, life is full of dreamlike beauty. My recent wanderings on holiday reminded me of it in the larger sense of being with beloved people and going to marvelous places, having plenteous desirable free time (and deeply-loved sleep), delicious food, and delightful small adventures. I was also reminded of it in the more intimately tiny sense of prettiness all around me and well-being inside of me. So I give you a selection of small, visible tokens of those joys and remind you that whether you say it ‘Que Lindo Sueño‘ or you row your boat around singing that Life is but a dream, whether you’re in Russia or Morocco or Iceland or Texas, the astonishing and lovely is all around you for the looking, listening, tasting, and holding. Sometimes all it takes is to be aware; to pay attention. I wish you a year full of beauty!