Shades of Gray

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Years ago a friend of mine decided to enlist a professional decorator to help her enhance the appearance of her home. The artist walked through the house quietly looking around, picking up items now and again, jotting down observations. When she had completed her tour she sat down with my friend and bluntly asked, “How much of this junk are you willing to remove?”

There was a stunned silence as my friend attempted to understand exactly what the designer had just asked her. “All of it has to stay,” was her halting reply. “These are my family’s things. We use everything that you see. They have special meanings to us. I just need you to add some color, move a few things around, arrange our belongings in a more inviting way. The books, music, mementoes and such are part of who we are. They have to be incorporated into your plan.”

With a look of unadulterated disgust the interior artist suddenly stood up while putting away her notebook and pen. She announced with an arrogant emphasis, “I can’t help you. I can’t do a thing for you if you are unwilling to completely change the way things look around here. This is too much. You need to find someone else or do it yourself.”

My friend likes to tell everyone that she was stunned into a state of silence as the decorator promptly left. Later she did all of the rearranging and painting by herself and the results were quite lovely. She realized in that moment that she had chosen all of the things that seemed like clutter to the designer, and they were more than just junk. They were pieces of her family’s history.

I was reminded of this story when I recently read one of those click bait articles that often appear on Facebook. The topic was how to know when your home decorating is no longer trendy. The author consulted with respected interior designers to determine how to know when things go out of style. The entire essay came across as being snooty and out of touch with the realities of ordinary people. It insisted that kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are already passé. It further suggested that homes done in shades of gray and white are hopelessly behind the times. The author knocked the country look, anything resembling a Chip and Joana home, items purchased at Target, Edison light bulbs and so on. The words reeked of the same kind of arrogance that my friend had endured in her one encounter with a professional. The comments from Facebook users tore the suggestions apart, with readers hurling their fury at the unrealistic haughtiness of the writer.

I had to laugh because according to the article my home should be in the “what not to do” hall of fame. Nonetheless I really like the way things look around here. Every inch of my space tells a story about people I have known and places that I have been. The walls are filled with art that either reminds me of trips that I have taken or friends and relatives who created the work for me. I have books in every room that touched my soul as I read them. The furniture is an eclectic mix of inherited antiques and comfortable modern pieces that I like. There are colors that make me happy, not those that happen to be in style. I have plants scattered about that bring in the outdoors and magazines waiting to be read. There is a lovely memory everywhere that I glance, right down to the heart shaped rock that my grandchildren discovered on a back backing hike that I shared with them in the mountains of Colorado. I am more than content with what I see because my environment is personal and meaningful. I never feel as though I am in a hotel or someone else’s space.

I certainly have no trouble with the idea of incorporating suggestions from someone who has studied color, fabric, furniture, proportion and such. I regularly read Southern Living and watch HGTV now and again. I have items from Target and Home Goods but I also sometimes splurge on something special from Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware. I consider my purchases carefully most of the time, but it can be fun to bring something whimsical into the picture, and I almost always find a lasting memento to add to my collection when I take a trip. I have a giant pine cone from California and a lovely print of a sailing ship from Cape Cod. A cobalt blue pitcher that was handblown in Estes Park, Colorado adorns my dining room, and prints of Savannah, Georgia hang in the living room. When I see these things I recall the fun that I shared with my family. They allow me to relive such grand moments again and again.

Decorating is a very personal thing, and I suspect that a truly gifted designer understands that. Years ago when my mother in law was redoing a grand old home she enlisted the help of a professional who wisely surveyed the items that would be used as well as the color palette that my mother in law preferred. Mostly the work of creating a pleasing environment involved incorporating my mother in law’s taste into the final product. The result was picture perfect and best of all it reflected the personality of the owners of the home, not the person who would never live there.

Decorating is fun, but it needn’t be expensive or impersonal. The best homes are the ones that instantly capture the essence of the people who reside inside. A great house is warm and inviting. If done right it doesn’t matter if it is gray or filled with a rainbow of colors, clean and sleek or crowded with interesting accessories. The most important goal of decorating should be to make the people who live there feel warm and comfortable and happy. Once that is accomplished nothing else really matters.

By the way…I really do like the style of Chip and Joanna, my appliances are stainless steel, I often shop at Target, and I still have some Edison lightbulbs. So there…!

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Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.

Celebrate Difference

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I remember having a discussion about beauty and what is really is. From century to century, place to place the definition of what is pleasing to the eye often changes, and is indeed in the eye of the beholder. That being said, we are continuously bombarded with images designed to show us what is most attractive and how to achieve such distinction on our own by honing our bodies and purchasing products designed to bring out our best. We are made to feel that there is a particular kind of appearance that is lovely, and if we work hard enough we too might recreate ourselves in such likenesses. Billions of dollars are made by the purveyors of the world of beauty.

I do not wish to demean those who offer us the chance of enhancing our natural state. I partake of cosmetics, lotions, exercise, healthy choices, hair products, vitamins perfumes and all sorts of aids. I enjoy how they make me feel and I am happy that that they are available for they surely add a bit of joy to my life, but I worry sometimes that our emphasis on such things also contributes to making many people feel less than. I’m old enough and have enough confidence to find my own skin to be quite comfortable. I am long past the days of worrying that I do not measure up or impress. I don’t mind being seen without makeup, but I my skin enjoys the lotions that I feed it each day so I indulge in pampering myself. Still I worry that there are people both young and old who somehow have been made to feel not so beautiful by a society obsessed with pulchritude.

I love the movie The Greatest Showman because its theme of the variety of loveliness resonates so beautifully in the songs and the scenes. The circus acts are peopled with unique individuals who are beautiful in their own right simply because they are alive. The anthem This Is Me shouts the gloriousness and importance of every life, something that we don’t impress on our young nearly enough. I suppose that if we were to teach our everyone to see that there is no one way of being or appearing we would all be a bit happier.

So many of our problems occur simply because of appearance. The color of skin, texture of hair, height, weight, composition of features often tell us stories before we even have the opportunity of knowing someone. Even when we don’t mean to be that way our biases sometimes cause us to judge. There are those who laugh and make fun of shoppers at Walmart as though their choice of merchants tells us all we need to know of them. We see someone and begin making all sorts of unconscious assumptions about them often without even realizing we are doing so. Our eyes lead us to draw conclusions when instead we should be reserving our thoughts until we have had time to truly understand the person we are seeing.

I think of times when I was guilty of reacting to appearance and later realizing how incredible the person that I judged actually was. When we truly get to know an individual it is amazing how much more beautiful he/she becomes to us. We cease to focus on flaws and instead notice the kindness, the smile, the determination, things that are far more meaningful than looks.

So how do we better appreciate the uniqueness of each of us? I believe that it begins with easing out of our comfort zones. It’s important that we make efforts to be with people unlike ourselves. We must learn more about those who appear to be strange, for in the process we may learn that they are not so different as we may have thought. We all love our children and want the best for them. Much of what motivates us revolves around providing them with better lives. Sometimes we simply need to remind ourselves of that simple fact whenever we react negatively to someone based only on looks.

In times of distress when we are all in the same sinking boat we are more likely to set aside our biases and prejudices. With the common cause of survival we are not so concerned with appearance, particularly with the good soul who is saving us. Why should we have to wait for tragedy to set aside superficialities?

One of my all time favorite photographs is a famous image from the dustbowl era. It shows a woman of indeterminate age who is suffering from the poverty inflicted on her by climate and economic depression. She sits with her hand on her face in a gesture of hopelessness. Her eyes are blank with a faraway look perhaps of fear or remembrance of better times. Her hair hangs lifelessly without over her furrowed brow, and yet she is so beautiful to me. No movie star or royal personage might be as lovely. She seems to represent a part of each of us that fights to be heard and seen and survive. I want to reach out to her and take her hand and tell her that I understand. I want her to know that she is pretty and important and that she will see better days.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be celebrated by the people around us. It’s fun to paint our toes, style our hair, brighten our faces. We just need to always be aware that these things do not represent our souls or those of others. Inside each of us are hopes and dreams and needs. The packaging of them should never prevent us from seeing and realizing them. Look beyond the exterior. Celebrate difference.   

When Love Is the Way

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I used to sit next to my father listening to him read fairytales to me from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. It’s such a warm memory for me and I suppose that it is part of the reason that I am somewhat of a cockeyed optimist. Still, reality has a way of rearing its ugly head all too often. I put those books away for a very long time after my father’s death when I was only eight. Somehow it was too painful to see the stories that had been so much a part of the most wonderful times with him. It was not until I grew older that I realized that having those books and reading the tales inside of them actually brought me to a very peaceful place in which I was able to recall how wonderful it was to have those very special moments with my father. Instead of making me sad, the books now represent something very beautiful in my life and I cherish them and the feelings that they bring to me.

My own life has been punctuated with many trials and tribulations, but I have been mostly blessed. I have a family that has helped me through the most difficult times and friends who have been like brothers and sisters. I enjoy my own fairytale with my husband Mike. We’ve managed to be the best of friends for almost fifty years and I can’t even begin to imagine being with anyone else but him. We laugh and cry together and even find a bit of fun on the most ordinary of days. I suppose that I’ve had two Prince Charmings in my life, my father and my husband.

The world can be cruel and ugly sometimes, just as it is in some of those old stories that fascinated me. In most of them, however, there are happy endings that provide hope for humanity. The good guys win and the bad guys lose. It’s a simple formula, but one to which we all want to cling even when it seems a bit too easy compared to real life. Particularly these days its far easier to be cynical than positive when it feels as though we are surrounded by hatefulness and violence. It’s funny though how life sometimes imitates art, and we find ourselves watching a real fairytale coming true before our eyes.

The love story of Prince Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle has enchanted much of the world, and this past weekend the two became one in a magical ceremony that left us feeling more elated than when Cinderella and her prince lived happily ever after. These two have given us all reason to hope that there will be a triumphant victory over the evils that plague us. In their union there is so much love and the explicit understanding that we are all one people who need not be separated by the kinds of artificial barriers that create misunderstandings and sometimes even hate. All Harry and Meghan see when they gaze at one another is another loving heart. Their romance is the stuff of the imagination or the Hallmark Channel, and yet it is so real and inspiring.

Who would ever have believed that a member of the royal family would fall in love with an American, an actress, a woman of mixed race who had once been divorced? There were so many barriers to overcome, and yet true love won the day. None of those things mattered because their souls are in unison. They complete each other, and their feelings were on full display this past weekend in a ceremony so lovely that few of us who watched will ever forget it. Undoubtedly it was better than even the best fairytale because it was real and we all got to share it.

Harry was dashing in his military uniform with his older brother who will one day be king standing by his side. Meghan was simply gorgeous in the simplicity of her dress. Her beauty literally radiated in her smile and her eyes each time she looked at her prince. Her mother was as regal as the queen, and there was something quite breathtaking about seeing an African American woman whose ancestors had been slaves walking so grandly among royalty.

I always cry at weddings, but this one was extraordinarily emotional for me. It seemed to be joining nations and cultures, not in a political way, but through the very pure power of love. I found myself thinking of Harry’s mom, Diana, and feeling as though he had remembered her lessons just as I had always cherished the teachings that my own father had left in my heart. She had changed the royal worldview even in death, and she would have been so very proud of her son. He has become the man that I am certain she wanted him to be. I felt that she was there in every song, every word, every aspect of the ceremony right down to the Forget Me Nots in Meghan’s bouquet. She would have surely smiled as openly as Meaghan and embraced the spirit of what was happening with unabashed joy.

The union of traditions was particularly touching. Bishop Curry’s address was a stirring homage of the power of love, and a challenge to all of us to embrace it. It is true that when love is the way the world becomes a better place. That was the theme at the heart of the most romantic fairytales and it is more important today than ever. If only we were able to start a powerful domino effect that would lead to loving solutions to all of our problems, the world would be so much the better. Perhaps Harry and Meghan will be a catalyst to remind us of what is truly important.

I went to a fairytale wedding all because two people fell in love. I left understanding the power of that love and believing that there really is hope for our world. I saw my father’s smile in my mind and heard his voice reading to me. I remembered the giving nature and grace of Diana. I listened to the words of Bishop Curry and the angelic voices of the choirs. There was redemption and courage and most of all comfort in all of it. I believe in happy endings once again. We will overcome the strife that now so burdens us. Love will lead the way. 

Running

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There is nothing as stunningly lovely as watching a human or an animal in the act of running, particularly when the form and the speed are nearing perfection. The mechanics of moving fast display bodies at their utmost acheivement of beauty and adaptation to the environment around them. Runners unleash energy and power that seems to overcome the very forces of gravity. We may never be able to fly without a machine, but like gazelles and cheetahs we humans have the ability to push ourselves to move like the wind. When that skill is honed to its highest level it is no less inspiring than a symphony.

Even with our best efforts those who stand erect and run on two legs have never quite found a way to outrun some of the creatures that live around us, but we have bonded with one that has carried us from place to place and in and out of life’s events. That animal is of course the horse, and it is the one creature that I find to be the most strikingly handsome in all of the animal kingdom. Of course that is just an opinion, but one to which I have returned again and again, based solely on the feeling of elation that I always experience whenever I see a horse running wild and free. It is a sight that never fails to take my breath away.

If I seek a friend, I will get a dog, but if I want aesthetic satisfaction I must watch a horse or a group of them doing the things that are so natural to them. They are indeed among God’s most incredible creations, and even though I have never had opportunities to own one or ride one more than passingly, I have had a secret adoration of them. I have been especially envious of  those whose lives have intersected with horses, because I suspect that there is a kind of spiritual union between humans and horses that must be experienced to be understood.

Growing up in Texas I have had ample time to view horses, and I have known many people who owned such animals and enjoyed a kind of oneness with them. Horses became a kind of passion for them that has enriched their lives with a bond between themselves and their animals that releases them from the stresses of daily living. Their horses do not disappoint or become disloyal. Human and horse share a kind of friendship that belies the differences between them. I have seen the faces of those lucky enough to be with horses when they speak of their steeds and the delighted light in their eyes tells me how wondrous it must be to know what they know.

I have two grandsons who are talented runners. When they are moving down the track they leave me breathless both from the realization of how fast they are moving and the loveliness of the mechanics of their bodies. So it is for me with horses, which makes me particularly happy for my granddaughter who is now learning how to ride. She hopes to one day be a veterinarian and hers is not just a childish dream. She is already studying and planning and creating goals to realize her ambition. Learning to ride a horse is part of that objective. She understands that she must become familiar and relaxed with animals if she is to one day care for them. She must know them with all of their tendencies and traits. I admire her so for following through on her passion just as my grandsons do with their running, but I am also secretly thrilled that she will ride horses regularly as I have always wished to do.

It’s too late for me to join my granddaughter on the back of a stallion. My bones are brittle and easily broken. I have been warned by my doctors to stay away from sport that may result in a fall, so have put away my skates and sold my bicycle. I have to keep my feet as firmly planted on the ground as possible, but nothing can keep me from watching and observing. I can still enjoy the sight of my grandsons running with so much grace. Nothing is stopping me from enjoying the image of a horse running with or without a rider. It is such a glorious sight that I am able to picture it in my mind, and it always makes me smile.

We humans dominate nature and its creatures. We should always remind ourselves to be stewards of the abundant blessings that have been bestowed upon us. It is incumbent that we care for what we have and never forget to appreciate what we have been given. Life is precious whether it be a a flowering garden, an animal living beside us, or a baby in a womb. We have been tasked to make the most of all of earth’s treasures, and just as we care for our own health we must be conscious of the health of our planet and all that exists on it. I would hate to think that we might one day awake to find that the trees and flowers have turned brown or the waters are clouded with debris. Even worse would be losing our animals. Like many native Americans I believe that the horses and dogs and bears and bees are our brothers and sisters. They were meant to be as much a part of our earth as are we, and so we must remind ourselves to honor them as best we can.

I can imagine the sight of powerful horses running with precision, but I don’t want to imagine a world without them. I don’t believe that any of us are on the brink of extinction, but I do believe that without curbing our own hungers we might destroy far too much of our world. Our rule should be to find moderation in all things. Waste not want not is a very good motto. Turn out a light. Walk more. Eat less. Repair rather than throw away. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Keep the horses running. Keep humankind at its best.