I have learned that what I ask for never shows up in the way I think it should.
I have learned not to let that minor point keep me from asking.
The Ragged Phoenix
The celebration of Christmas isn’t over for me. There’ve been years I feel a let down on the 26th, but not the past few years. Rather than the end, this feels like a beginning. Every Christmas, every Winter Solstice, every turning of the dark season toward the light, is more an opening to continue expressing the light than an ending of anything. I no longer rush to take down my little tree. It is no longer a chore but an unfolding, a changing of the environment gradually.
It is a relief to let it be beautiful a while longer. To know it will be tucked away when the time is right for me. To know it is all a process of Love.
Whatever, however, you celebrate this season, may you linger in the warmth.
May we carry it forth. May we be changed.
True abundance isn’t a substance that can be banked; there is nothing of “grabbing and snatching and stashing” that relates to Life’s wealth.
Nope, real abundance is experiential; it is fully experiencing one’s own Life; it is active.
Right now I’m inventing the term “abundance” as a verb.
He, she, it abundances.
It is born of allowing ourselves to stay with what is showing up: The expansive moments and the tight emotional spaces that are claustrophobic, the exhilaration and the sorrow, the generous and the miserly gestures, the tension and the release.
Abundancing is waking up with the realization that an intention has become tangible with substance as solid as the mountain that has finally been tunneled through. It’s knowing that a decision has arrived under it’s own steam rather than been determined by analysis, as if Life were a game and decisions toted up in won/loss columns.
Abundancing is hearing the train leaving the station and getting on board with a ticket stamped “Trust the process.”
Let the abundancing commence.
I am spending Black Friday in my studio, keeping my creative account in the black.
It’s not Black Friday here. It’s Gold Orange Violet Blue Yellow Glittery Shimmery Friday in my space.
A painting is coming together.
It’s gone through the “why did I start this?” stage where I entertain the idea (on which I sometimes act) of painting over the whole thing and setting it aside for weeks or months. Occasionally for years.
It may not be finished. I am learning to stop before a sense of being done arrives.
Now I play with it.
This process of making art is a model for Life. It has the capacity to heal my life, to bring integration and wholeness to my bit of the living experience, when I allow it to do what it does and flow with it.
So here I am at this point with it and I get to play with my view of it. How do I turn the thing? Compositionally it ought to work from any position, being nonrepresentational. Yet, the feel of it shifts as I shift it on the easel. Same elements, but more satisfying to me when viewed from some perspectives than others.
It’s mine. I get to choose my perspective.
The details that are lost on a camera phone from across the room beg to be investigated. They silently say “Come closer. Stay with the tension. Stay with the sharp edges and the shimmer. Get to know me.”
Layer upon layer of color and texture. Time passes. More layers.
So I’ll live with it and I’ll play with it and I’ll tweak it.
We’ll hang out together, this painting and I.
Pretty much the same as my Life.
The Ragged Phoenix
All images and words are the property of Jaylene M. Whitehurst, The Ragged Phoenix.
There were no clattering skeletons hanging in the back of my parents’ closet. Nary a rattling bone fell out of the drawers to turn my unsuspecting world upside down.
No, the sounds were softer than that, more of a rustling between my fingers, as I moved through the work that was in front of me. This house was crammed full with sixty-three years of marriage and two years of widowhood. A younger generation had an expiring lease looming and needed to call it home. Time to get busy!
Many of us have been in a similar position. It’s not unusual to the human experience to find ourselves parentless, and, at the same time, facing the adult task of sorting through a house fallen silent, inhabited only by the lingering energy of memories. It’s an age old situation, but it was my new reality.
When my grandparents died, I’d helped my parents clean out their houses in a superficial way. I’d pop in and clean out a drawer or two after I got off work, but the hardest jobs were mostly theirs. When my mother-in-law died, my husband and his brother had their own system for working through the household. Once again, I played a supporting role.
Suddenly, here I was, one of the leads. My brother came from Huntsville to help, leaving with a few Saturdays’ worth of furniture and family items, but hardly a dent was made in the marathon of sorting and evaluating what to keep and what to dispose of. There I sat in the midst of it, grieving, tired, and out of sorts. Grumbling is what I do best when I’m overwhelmed and you had better believe it: I was doing some first class grumbling. I’m great at being peevish when I can’t get my bearings.
Friends, who knew I was under a time crunch and who were probably sick of listening to me moan, practically begged to help me go through the house. Without fully understanding why, I said “No.” It was, surprisingly, in not accepting their generous offers, but in finally accepting that this was a sacred task, and mine to do, that I found my way.
I am intensely grateful that I did.
The house in which I grew up was modest, with no sprawling attic of trunks and armoires. Beyond the trappings of daily living, were simply drawers and drawers and drawers of cards, clippings, receipts, photos, notebooks, church bulletins. The tidiness that we’d managed to keep up throughout Mother’s Alzheimer’s-driven ramblings belied the sheer accumulation of what had been left behind. To a stranger’s eye, a good deal of this documention would have looked ephemeral, papery and fleeting.
For me, it was priceless, an unbound journal of the marriage of two children of the Depression and their relationships with family and community. Every scrap of paper was a fragment of the past, significant to them in ways I can only guess, touching in its simplicity and poignant in its complexity, the threads of their stories weaving through generations before them and after them.
It takes so long to know a parent, to know THE PERSON that existed before we were born and after we left home. Perhaps we can never truly know those closest to us, least of all while they are alive and able to guard their hearts. We accumulate experiences, stored in the closets of memory, and unless it’s jogged loose with a question or reminder, the past lies hidden, a silent mystery.
We hold back parts of ourselves from those closest to us, maybe to protect ourselves from our frailties and disappointments, maybe to protect those we love from family truths that would set them free, if only we could find a way to bring them to light.
Hard edges develop in relationships when we constantly protect ourselves or others from our stories. We call them “rough patches” in my family, and if your family is anything like mine, you know exactly what I mean. The edges may need only a quick sanding or they may be absolutely jagged, but we’ve all had some degree of bumpiness.
In what my parents left behind, I found unexpected tenderness for the rough patches.
Beneath neatly stacked newspaper clippings, in a flat paper bag that I’m sure came from Sterling’s dime store, my mother left four magazines, undoubtedly tucked away for me. The woman with whom I’d had an uneasy relationship, who was intensely private and spoke of her own rough patches with difficulty, had saved for me an issue of Good Housekeeping from May, 1954, the month of my birth, along with copies of Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest from the month of my marriage.
Those magazines touched me in a way that nothing else did. She’d kept every card I’d ever sent, every report card, even notes of phone calls from me, but those magazines weren’t about keeping anything of mine. They were about leaving a marker of the times for me, for the woman I would become. And they were about leaving a part of herself with me, a mother who could express herself more easily in unspoken actions than in words.
There were receipts that brought tears to my eyes. My heart broke for the bereft couple that my parents had once been, arranging the funeral of their first child at McPeters Funeral Home, his having been born too early to survive; ordering his simple headstone; paying his hospital bill. I don’t remember a time of not knowing about their baby, Stephen Jay, but seeing the steady signature of our grieving father on a receipt from W.E. Boatman Monument Works took my breath away.
There were others, finds that blended the daily activities of house holding with the sad times and the celebrations of life. Photos and receipts, obituaries and awards, birthday cards and letters, all these formed a collage illustrating the intricacy and resilience of their modest lives. But if I’d found only the magazines and the funeral receipts it would have been enough to make real to me that there is only so much we can know about those closest to us.
If we’re fortunate to find clues and if we pay attention, we may someday pencil in the unknown aspects of those who’ve gone before us. When we face our own hidden stories and frailties, we have a chance to touch those parts of previous generations who left legacies in ways they couldn’t foresee.
Whether we leave skeletons in our wake or a string of receipts, our stories keep unfolding for those who care to follow our trails.
Magnolia Regional Hospice in my hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, asked me to create a piece representing our community to be part of a traveling exhibit honoring the hospice experience. The exhibit will travel for fifteen months throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. The handprints belong to the staff of Magnolia Hospice. The fragments are broken mirror pieces.
Following is the essay I sent along with it, as it begins its journey today:
You Lift Me Up: The Crucible of Compassion
Acrylic/Mixed Media on canvas
I am not at the end of my life, not yet. When that time comes, if I have illness or am wearing out (as compared to an accident), I want the kind of compassionate support that hospice offers, to ease me and sustain those who love me, as I make my transition back to the Light from which I came.
The hands of Magnolia Regional Health Center Hospice employees form a crucible of support where the patient can face transition with support, many hands blending to shape one unit of compassion, a vessel, in which palliative care eases suffering and lifts the patient tenderly toward transition.
The bits of mirror reflect that the experiences of dying, death, and caregiving are unique to each person. As light bounces off the mirrors, constantly shifting as we move around the painting, our experiences shift as we move through the processes of caring for the dying and as we face our own mortality.
The mirror fragments are symbolic of a transition to a state where we are no longer broken, but where we are freed from pain and illness.
It doesn’t matter to me whether you see the winged shapes as angels, birds, or something else. It matters to me that you bring your life’s experience to this image and allow it to be what it is to you. Trust your own vision.
My perspective will not be yours and yours will not be mine. Yet, there is a common longing to see Light at the end and to know that our lives have mattered.
The supportive crucible of Hospice holds the patient, the family, and the staff itself in its embrace, where all lives matter.
The Red Toolbox is now mine. An open wooden rectangle, cobbled together from leftover scraps of previous projects, it’s not too big. Made for use, it has a round dowel handle, easy to grab and go.
That old box has been a part of my world for so long that I have no idea when my dad made it. The red paint’s worn a bit chippy from decades of projects and repairs, a disconcerting number of those at our house. “Go get my hammer out of the toolbox.” “Put the toolbox in the truck.” “Leave that tape measure in the toolbox.” The thing was ever present. I grew up and grew older with it.
Oh, sure, there was a bigger toolbox, also handmade, but The Red Toolbox was the go-to box with the dependable basics: Daddy’s favorite hammer, nails and screws, heavy duty tape measure, a couple of crescent wrenches, several screwdrivers, nail set, small chisel, pliers, scissors, those flat carpenters’ pencils that intrigued me as a child, and a couple of last-minute items that got tossed in.
Daddy always kept a few tools in his vehicles, a set of wrenches and a screwdriver. But if he was going out of town, The Red Toolbox rode in the back. Just in case….
His toolbox and his workshop were basic to my image of him and the foundation of how I knew the man. I called on him to fix everything because I thought he could. As a son of the Depression and sharecropping parents, keeping tools and machinery in repair was a way of life that stayed with him.
Giving care to what he had was a ritual of appreciation for the use of what God had given Daddy. He attended to what he used. Keeping things in good shape was his giving back; fixing what was broken was his creativity. Leaving things in better shape than he found them was his “Thank you.” He was a simple man and it was simply the right thing to do.
In my own life, attending to brokenness took a different form. I became a counselor, an attendant to the pain of being human.
Caring for brokenness calls upon a common wisdom, whether it’s a human spirit grown dry or a hinge, un-oiled and rusting. Both creak for attention, habitually and loudly. Wisdom doesn’t rush the process of caring.
Daddy brought to his projects what he brought to his life: practicality, confidence that he could figure out a solution to whatever was awry, and a worrisome stubbornness that left me thinking he was determined to get hurt rather than get help. The man would look at a problem inside out and upside down with a dogged determination that could my impatience threadbare.
It was exactly that tenacity that had him putting a motor in a car when he was eighty-one because he’d never done that before but he thought he could, if he took his time.
Clearly, when it comes to a model for dealing with whatever is broken in this experience of being human, I don’t have to look far.
Daddy never jotted down a list of rules. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t need to.
These tenets were simply how he lived:
1. Be sure your foundation is solid. Fix it if it’s not.
2. Get familiar with the problem you’re tackling. Look closely. Look at problems from every angle. Get down on your hands and knees
3. If small repairs need to be done before the big job, DO them. There are no shortcuts. It’s time well spent.
4. In painting or staining, do the prep work. Prepare the surface to be receptive. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
5. Keep The Red Toolbox handy. You never know which tools you might need. Put the tools back in it when finished.
6. Buy the best quality materials you can afford.
7. Seeing a job as a puzzle of small pieces makes it manageable. Oh, and lay the pieces out in the order you removed them so you know where they go. Every piece has its place.
8. When a job isn’t coming together, take a break. Go work on something else awhile, even a little task. It’s good to accomplish something, even if it’s not what you intended.
9. If that still doesn’t help, do the best thing you can come up with at the moment. If it doesn’t work, you can rule one thing out.
10. Have good resources: make friends of the guys at the local hardware store and garage. The folks at Biggers’s Hardware and the Gilmore boys are your friends.
11. Good tools make the job easier. Keep them sharp and dry. Never put tools away dirty. Absolutely never!
12. Fixing one board saves a whole wall later. Do the job while it’s small.
13. There are times, when in spite of your best efforts, repairs won’t hold. The original is simply too worn to work with. That’s when it’s time to let it go and start fresh.
14. ALWAYS clean up after yourself. The job’s not finished until the floor is swept.
No, Daddy, you had no need to jot them down. You were living them.
I was watching.
Happy Father’s Day,
July 11, 1923—May 9, 2009
This column was published in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, Sunday, June 15. 2014. I am happy to share it with you here.
Atop the bookcase in my blue room sit two metal dollhouses, circa 1950s. They are sentinels over the gathering space of my studio/office, high enough above the mix of chairs and throw pillows that they call no attention to themselves. I suspect some visitors hardly notice them.
The one on the left is the dollhouse I thought I found; the one on the right is the one I did.
When I was young, older than a toddler but not yet school-aged, our next door neighbors were Gladys and Elbert Jobe and their two daughters, girls edging into their teen years. The family doted on me. Martha, Alice, and their parents were a constant presence, keeping an eye on the tot I was, especially when my mother was ordered to strict bed rest while she was pregnant with my younger brother. The almost adolescent Martha was my playmate. I adored her.
My best guess is that I was about two and a half the Christmas that they gave it to me: THE dollhouse.
All I have to do for the memories of my dollhouse to surface is close my eyes and be still. In the quiet, I am there, back in our old living room. The chill of the uninsulated linoleum floor rolls under me, stretched out, stomach down before the open backside of the dollhouse. The chill penetrates my cotton camisole and red corduroy shirt with a shiver, while an insistent hiss from the gas heater is background noise. Warmth and chill coexist as I arrange and rearrange the tiny furnishings and determine the movements of a plastic family that I can control.
Bright lithograph colors on thin sheets of metal, all right angles and structured together with deftly folded tabs, it was sturdy. And that’s a good thing, because it was magic; and a sturdy kind of magic was needed by the child that I was, playing my way through the changes my family was experiencing.
Between the years when I was three and five, my mother buried a brother and her grandmother, both deaths shocking, with the abrupt cruelty of accidents. There was loss on my father’s side of the family too, not so cruel, but change producing, nonetheless.
The adults around me were juggling, emotionally and physically. This wasn’t an era when the impact of death on children was supper table conversation. We were fed, clothed, kept warm, and taken to church.
And we played. My imaginary friend, Mattie, and I held power in the magic realm of the dollhouse.
Somewhere along the years, I suppose my mother gave my dollhouse to another little girl, though I can’t say when that happened. Thinking I’d outgrown it, probably by second or third grade, I imagine her passing it along to a friend’s daughter, maybe a three year old who fit perfectly in front of its tiny rooms.
I hardly let myself miss it.
Until I started tapping this keyboard, pecking around for words that have taken me down a forgotten path, I wasn’t aware that my dollhouse mattered so greatly to me. Nevertheless, I’ve grown curious, fifty-five years after the fact, why the memory of it sent me out, years ago, to find its vintage twin.
One of my earliest forays into the world of eBay was the mission to find a replica of my dollhouse. I saved my search, kept up with new postings, and compared them against the image in my mind. Nope, not that one. Maybe this one…. but no. Oh, this one looks like it. Yep, that’s it!
I didn’t have a clear memory of the facade, since most of my time was spent at eye level with the interior, and I was sure that the one I’d bought was the exact same style as mine, red roof and all. There was no doubt I’d found it.
There was no doubt, that is, until ten years later when I found IT.
A red-roofed image, unexpectedly familiar, caught my eye and a gulp of recognition stuck in my throat. Displayed in a local shop window, I recognized the printed stone design on the exterior of a fifties era dollhouse. The tiny stones were amazingly similar in color to the faux stonework I’d painted during my mural painting years.
At gut level, I knew that I was looking at the origins of my own pink-green-blue-gray rocks. This was imagery that had become hard-wired into me. I cannot paint stone without those tones mixed in. I don’t even want to.
Here in front of me was evidence of how my childhood attempts to make sense of an uncontrollable world had become instinctive, part of who I am at the core. The comfort of my dollhouse with its dependable design, the setting where I could direct the action, the impact in my later life of what I was doing as a three-four-five year old, had been hidden away beneath events that I saw as more significant than my being Mistress of the Dollhouse.
It was all hidden until I began to write this essay about neighbors and loss and finding a dollhouse. Tapping away at the keyboard, gently rapping at the door to poignant and dusty places that want to see the light of day, it began to come together: I still love colored stone and arranging houses and scene setting and red roofs.
I found my old neighbors, still living in my heart.
And I still believe in the power of play.
Now, excuse me, while I dust off my dollhouses.
It’s been a while. Okay, it’s been a long while since I’ve blogged. Seems I hardly got started before I was missing-in-action. Maybe you’ve had those seasons of Life yourself?
Here’s the clincher: I’m not sure where I’ve been.
I’m wondering if I was MIA or ME (Me Exploring) or if it even matters. Still, a vague something about the months-long process seems significant. I’m continuing to process what the “something” is.
There’s been action: major house repairs/remodeling with one change birthing another, health concerns in the family, storm damage, death in the family and the changes that grief brings. I’m going to call that messy mix LIFE, in all caps.
Still, when I step back, the action is less significant than the internal exploration that followed the intensity of change, especially the uninvited change. I’ve been hurled into the melee that I think of as relationship realignment. It’s what happens when what slams one person ripples throughout the system.
Ripples. That fits if I allow the ripples to fluctuate into waves and the occasional tsunami. It’s the need to create meaning within my Life changes that’s had me riding the ripples into the coves and inlets of roles I’ve played with before but not dived into.
A poetry group I’ve been a part of for a couple of years now has a larger place in my Life. Hearing the perspectives of others, as we explore the human experience together, has given me welcome connections and new community.
With these folks, I’m creating meaning for these moments. For NOW.
Here’s a recent poem:
She came across the journal,
College-ruled and bound in black and white.
Hardly used, it ended,
Bluntly with unexpected words:
“Maybe I shouldn’t have called,
But if I hadn’t
I’d have never heard
The tone of his blindness
Morph into fatal words.
I tasted the bitterness of his anger,
But I did not swallow.”
As she was set on forcing the blind to see
She came across the journal again,
Not at all by chance.