A world of contrasts lies between the powerful opposites among all the colors we can see. In the space between those beautiful extremes, between the flame of orange and the deep sea of indigo, between scarlet and emerald, is where we can begin to take the measure of our understanding of the visible world. And in the knowing, we can rejoice in the wideness of the visible world that resides between late-night violet and the dazzling yellow of daffodil petals newly sprung, between scarlet and emerald.
When my dad was a collegiate radio announcer, he was known to at least one of my mom’s admiring girlfriends as Heavenly Voice, and between his speech-major skills as an orator, his wacky sense of humor, and that mellifluous voice, it’s no wonder he was able to persuade the rest of the student body to elect him president, nor that later he became a successful preacher, board chair, bishop, and community advocate in various capacities over the years.
He did not, however, use his voice as a deliberate affectation like some people we have known do. There was one cleric in particular whom my family and friends knew to have a naturally light baritone voice but, whether he did it consciously or not in the beginning, he habitually intoned everything he said with what sounded to us like a very stagey, unnatural, and ultimately pompous and pontificating basso that we dubbed his Stained Glass Voice. Dad, thankfully, only ever did such a thing as a joke. His voice was, and is, naturally attractive and engaging enough, and I suppose more importantly, he wasn’t insecure enough to need to pretend he was anything other than his own fantastic self, so we found it highly amusing in our friend and a relief that Dad didn’t fall to such silliness himself. Heaven knows he has mastered numerous other forms of more palatable silliness over the years, so why waste the energy on cartoonish vocal contortions!
Dad is celebrating his 80th birthday today, and it’s every bit as good to hear his voice (his real one) now as it ever was. Maybe more so, given that I live farther away from my parents than I did for most of my life, and that we’re all getting older and a little more conscious of the aging process with each successive year. On the other hand, my father still has the same impish and impudent sense of humor that always made him slightly hard to control or predict but easy to love, so passing calendar years neither make him seem much more grownup nor much older, a few minor scuffles with his own Father Time notwithstanding (hello, knee replacement)!
Now, I can’t begin to imitate anything as impressive and imposing as a faux James Earl Jones voice in which to wish my dad a happy birthday, nor can I sing it to him like a choir of angels. But I do send my heartfelt birthday greetings and love to him, and no matter how scratchy or shallow, Spasmodic or silly I may sound, the sentiments are as real and as clear as any stained glass. I love you, Dad! May this birthday and the whole year that follows it be filled with delight and great adventures. And whatever your heart desires. [Within reason. Nothing that the Glen Brothers and I can’t provide between us, anyway.]
I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.
Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.
Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.
Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.
I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.
He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.
When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.
I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.
It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.
This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.
Have I matured as much in three years of daily blogging as a toddler does in her first three years of life? Highly unlikely. I was, after all, already a half century old and probably set in many of my ways to a degree that could forestall any large amount of progress toward real change, or at least drag it by the ankles dramatically.
Chances are, I haven’t made a huge number of changes as a person in general during the last three years. But I can lay claim to some growth, after all.
Moving to the wholly new world of life here in Texas in 2009 certainly necessitated some change. My aging corpus may not have made the transition perfectly: being over-endowed with the internal furnace function of middle-aged hormonal fun isn’t entirely compatible with the outdoor temperature norms here, and like many transplanted citizens I’ve done some battle with the local slate of allergens new to my system.
On the positive side, what I’ve found as a blogger echoes the best of what I found in migrating from my longtime home in the Pacific Northwest to the new-to-me frontier of North Texas, an entirely different sort of northern-ness. Entering new territories, both the real and the online ones, presented the possibility of encountering insurmountable tasks and challenges, or worse yet, unfriendly natives. Of course, my being still in Texas after five years and still blogging after three tells you that none of those fears proved true. Quite the reverse, in fact, considering that I’ve had some lovely experiences in both worlds during my brief tenure here, and I’ve garnered a whole cadre of wonderful friends in both, as well.
In short, I would amend my initial statement so far as to say that anything leading to such an exponential increase in the size and variety and quality of my circle of compatriots seems to me the very best kind of growth possible. Happy blogiversary to me this week—and more importantly, from me to all of you, who have made the journey so worthwhile and still so inviting. Who knows where the next three years may take us all!
Whenever day’s grown dark and grim
And life, obscured behind a scrim,
Surprisingly, the welcome light
Through colored windows seems less dim–
Though blue and red may look less bright
By day, and screen the moon by night,
What rays come through and lumens pass
These panes set inner bleakness right–
No sorrow ends its storms, alas,
Merely because the beams amass,
But something blest descends on him
Whose heart is lit by colored glass.
If memory serves
It serves us right
To swerve first left
And then to right
To right the ship
And shift our weight
See changes flip
Both small and great
As fools it’s true
But happy ones
And lighted through
By moons and suns
As endless time
Follows its curves
To roll away
Being beautiful is such an ephemeral thing, to be sure. Making art that is beautiful is possibly even more so–after all, the same piece that appeals to one might hardly appeal equally to all, any more than the attractions of any one person might strike any others in precisely the same way. And our own tastes and interests and circles of friendship and acquaintance change so much over time that it’s a miracle if we even maintain contact, let alone a closeness or deep appreciation of each other and our various works and features over any period of time.Case in point: my playful attempts to learn the use of some digital tools for artwork, combined with the way that I tend to recycle my sketches and drawings, has altered both my perception of what I would keep, revise and/or rethink my own pieces to a pretty radical extent in the last few years. I believe that my overall style or the signature character of my art has remained fairly steady and therefore recognizable since it began to emerge some years back, but the tools and techniques with which it’s expressed have mutated enough to bring out some entirely different aspects of texture, complexity and even subject matter. The eccentric character in today’s illustration, for example, started out as a rather typical (if not stereotypical) caricature of a semi-human man who differed little in form from the sort of goofy fantasy creatures and people I’ve drawn for years just to entertain myself, but suddenly when I was playing with the sketch, coloring it in digitally as though I were a little kid with a digital coloring-book, he started to become something entirely different and new, a creation slightly unlike all that have come before him.
Now, because I am both unscientific and forgetful when I am immersed in amusing myself with art, I will probably never be able to replicate precisely the process that led to his looking like a hybrid of a stone-inlay project and a leaded window made of art glass. And though I like the effect and hope I can do something similar again if I work hard enough–especially if I want to make what in my own estimation is a sufficiently prettier character to warrant such a highfalutin treatment–it will hardly be the end of the world if he ends up being my only-ever stained glass and malachite creation. Being unusual and a little bit strange is just something we’ll have in common.
Strange enough that someone saw at hand,
amid a million million grains of sand,
the only water truly born of fire–
that clarity, deep brilliant light and flow,
refractory and sharp and sweet, desire
that stops in time complete and whole, as though
to freeze all thought and memory and time–
and then took flame to capture its sublime
pure rectitude and stillness; who could know
the alchemy that could and would be wrought
by taming elements to strengthen, stain
and shape anew the crystal, blazing hot
sand silicates and yet somehow retain
such potency, such power that a strand
of history would through it then be drawn
to tell the stories, made so much more grand
in glass by tying evening back to dawn,
and in the light transmitted through that glass,
commemorate the ages as they pass.