It's been hot here, we hit the 90* mark today. In a rambling hundred year-old farmhouse that boasts of no artificial cool, this means I move slower. There is no running up the stairs or dashing to the front door when the bell rings. The laze of summer heat makes my limbs drowsy, as if the air is sweet honey and I'm swimming.
Ribs on the grill and watermelon. Long hours spent sipping gin and tonic, reading on the front porch with Hazel stretched out by my feet. The breeze, balmy and soft, ran fingers through my hair and brought the scent of basil and rosemary from the planters on the rail as it plucked at the strings of my sundress. Birds trilled, neighbors waved, I stretched and turned a page.
Dusk and kisses and freshly clean heads tucked into beds, the house quiets. As is my ritual each evening, I head up to the claw foot tub in the room next to mine, waiting for me. I delight in water, especially at the end of the day, it washes my frets away as well as the sweat from my skin. The smell of the night slips in through the open window...grass, cooling pavement, somewhere a bonfire burns.
Delicious waves sluice down my spine, I sigh, tilt back my head. Filling my palm with shampoo, I ponder the day. I'd chatted with our neighbors, chuckling over how we had "seen each other at our worst." From child temper tantrums to covered in sweat and paint; filthy from the garden, sick as hell once in a while. She mentioned that she loved how intimate our street was. That word has clung to me today.
The funny thing is, though our homes and lives are separated by mere yards, there are oceans of things unknown. While we've shared meals and walks and a slight disconcertion about the overly friendly mailman, they know so little of my thoughts...fears...battles and triumphs. In complete contrast, I take you, you reading this, everywhere in my mind.
Tonight there was a comment waiting for me that meant the world, made me well up with tears...warmth. I contemplate the words, turning them over and over in my mind much as I would relish a bite of decadent food. As the razor glides up the inside of my calf, suds ivory white against the sun-kissed skin...I think of you. I wonder at times, how vulnerable I am here in this electric world. How frank and honest. I have yet to be hurt here, though I'm sure this is more a matter of time than anything else, and so bare much....often.
My neighbors may share my afternoon, my porch.....but you share my shower. How has this intimacy grown so deep?
I've sat here, staring at the keyboard for over thirty minutes. I've typed two sentences. Erased them both. I am...stumped, feel incapable of communicating my thoughts. The precipice of a chasm, completely unforeseen, that snuck up and sucker punched me on a splendid sunny afternoon.
First, I should say that most of you may think this ridiculous. But to each soul is its own solar system, the gravitational force that keeps the balance....that which maintains. As varied as the fish in the sea are the suns that ground each of us. I went upstairs today to finish a painting. It sold quickly but needed a signature, a touch or two, and a wire. I remember the tumult of the night I'd previously worked on it; a thunderstorm, heartache and a sick child. Interruption and hurry and comfort and....
I opened the window today. Soft breezes scented with lilacs and the color green drifted into the room along with the distant sound of dogs and arguing birds. I flipped the stereo on, chose, pushed play. Hazel settled with a bone to gnaw in the patch of sunlight that pooled on the floor while I piled my hair up and tied it with a scarf out of the way. Humming, I filled the chipped teapot I use for water....and saw it. My brush.
She was shy, unsure. Timidly she stacked the paints and brushes on the scuffed black counter, blushing as she bungled it and tubes tumbled to the floor. He was older, totally "artistic," and oceans out of her league. He smiled and held up a brush with a bright red handle. "This is a really good one." It disappeared into the bag much as she did out the door, cheeks aglow, a checked-off class list clutched in a sweaty palm.
Twenty years ago. I had a tool box I used as my art kit. The little compartments and trays were perfect for charcoals and pastels, graphite, erasers and paint. I remember the smell of the studios in college, blank paper and raw promise. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. How does one find one's place, establish a root within a tangle of talent, and grow?
The years plummeted by, countries and oceans and lives changed. Do you know I painted the twenty-eight canvases for my first show in a windowless basement lit with three bare bulbs....and I was selling plasma to feed my toddler boys. My fingers rubbed the red paint from the handle, and forests fell upon fabric. I sold out.
Betrayal. Divorce. The red paint flaked and I composed skies and oceans and apocalyptic deserts. New love....ferns and sunlight and rivers of liquid hope. The equator leveled.
I didn't rinse it.
Twenty years, not a brush lost. And it was THE brush. Now stiff...rigor mortis. Bristles caked solid with forest pigment, the color of dark wet moss that drapes the ground, kneeling beneath kings and queens of bark. I was interrupted. I forgot. While I have dozens more, liners and fans and tapers and.....there isn't a canvas with my name on it that hasn't felt the stroke of that brush. The handle had warped to fit my fingers.
It's the only way I know to paint a sky.
Most mistakes can be absolved. Apologies and grace and even reparation made. The concrete can be replaced, right?
Do you know, as my awareness of the dependence I had upon this particular brush dawned, I have searched for years for another. Twelve stores....four states. I laughed it off, knowing--absurdly arrogant--that I never forget to religiously cleanse my tools, my fingers, the channels of my dreams into tangible reality. I am absolute. I am careful.
I am...terribly human.
I have purchased over forty brushes in the last three years trying for kin. Tonight I toast the final painting of my crimson brush. I actually sit here wondering if I can do the same with another. Perhaps that is madness to you, but hundreds of dollars trying to find one with the same grip, the sweep, the swirl and glide and hush....
In a day which held darkness and joy of such variety for so many, I am stilled by hairs congealed with neglect. Mine.
A older gentleman changed my day today. All by himself. In about two minutes. It happened next to the banana table, across from the avocados. I was rummaging around for a nice green bunch as those are the household favorites, and a cart pulled alongside me. I glanced over; he was in his late 60's I'd say, a little gray but neat and tidy in that comforting way I remember my grandfather being. He was looking at me. I blush easily and so, looked down. He said, "You have such beautiful hair. My wife had hair like that....have a nice day." He smiled, I smiled back. "Thank you." Turning the corner just past the bakery, he was gone. I picked out cucumbers and tomatoes.
And kept smiling.
It wasn't a good day. Full of my own doubts and accusations, fears and worries. The skies were black and it was pouring which makes my bones feel as if they're being twisted inside my flesh. Additionally, my heart has been weary as of late. Grocery shopping on such days leaves much to be desired, but three boys under 13 make it necessary lest you find holes in the woodwork and missing carpeting.
It was just one sentence. And I was smiling.
I've read several things lately about poverty and need around the world. Commercials on tv with starving children and beaten dogs. Unexpected suicides haunt the headlines. Sometimes it seems the need is an ocean....how can we, how can anyone make a difference in an ocean?
After my years in Guatemala and Mexico, I went to Philadelphia. While my time spent within the walls of orphanages and health clinics was amazing; nothing--not even those months on a rope and stick cot, the legs sprayed with raid to keep the tarantulas off in the jungle--nothing prepared me for the culture shock I was to experience in Philly.
We lived in an old warehouse on Kensington Avenue. The bad part of Kensington, under the El. (elevated train) Rusted razor wire ran in spiky loops across the tops of our fences and walls. There were four locks of various natures on the front door, three on the back, and a wrought iron grid over every window. Two bullet holes in the paneling near the television seemed to watch us as we watched it.
'Daily Bread' was the name of our soup kitchen. Lines would stretch out for blocks when the temperature dropped close to zero. Lines of broken hearts and damaged souls. To prevent the arrogance that comes with mission/outreach work, (and if you doubt this, a few hours with many "do-gooders" who do not keep this in check, will convince you) once a week we were all required to dress in our grubbiest, sans lipstick and scent, and stand in line among those we normally served. Pick up a tray, a handful of silverware, eat whatever was served. We sat, side by side, with the shattered. Crammed onto benches, my thigh pressed against one wearing jeans that hadn't been washed in over a month....and I listened to the wearer tell me he used to be a banker. Had a wife and two girls. There was a holiday party at the office and someone had brought a crack pipe...three years later he was eating scrambled eggs and pickles next to me.
The depth of this sore, this cancer, was overwhelming. Sometimes I couldn't breathe for it. This was here, in my country. Blocks on end of devastated people...and above us, trains of suit-wearers, new heels and leather briefcases. Faces looking down...looking, but never seeing. I remember confronting many of my own preconceived notions; the idea that if they really WANTED out, these people just had to work harder to get out.
Juanita changed that.
Juanita was a whore. An ugly whore. She went for just $5. Can you imagine? That's how much a rock of crack cost two streets over. One night there was banging on our door. We had a rule about not opening it after a certain hour, but there was a desperation in this pounding. I saw it was her...she had a black eye. I made hot chocolate.
The rest of the house slept as Juanita and I ate mac and cheese, watched Wheel of Fortune reruns, and talked. Somewhere near dawn she told me how she became a prostitute. She had been sold to a man by her mother when she was seven, And then given drugs to manage the trauma. Juanita never had a choice or a chance. I pulled a blanket over her after she fell asleep on the couch and I wept. Never before had my blessed and protected life seemed so terribly unfair.
Juanita stayed on my couch often after that. Once when she was high I had to turn her away, but she came by the next afternoon with a donut for me and apologized. We sat on the curb, cold sunshine on our cheeks and powdered sugar on our fingers. I told her I was scheduled to leave the next day. She smiled. Do you know what she said? "Aww, Chantel, you such an angel I knowed I couldn't have you all to myself. You got other lives to touch." And she was happy I was moving on. I wept again, my tears icy in the wind.
She helped me pack my boxes into the truck. She smelled like strawberry lip gloss when I hugged her. Juanita waved like mad as we drove away, the bald spots on her head gleaming in the sun. I waved back; hoping, praying I made some kind of difference in her life.
I returned to life as I knew it. A paying job, dinners at Taco Bell. However, I lost many friends. Even the relationships within my family were different. For I was not the Chantel that everyone kissed goodbye and joked with about living out of two boxes for so long....no, that Chantel didn't ever come back. I did. Humbled and bruised, with very different eyes. I'd seen behind the curtain and lost Peter Pan for good. Juanita had come to live in my heart in his place.
Since then life hasn't fallen quite so neatly in the rows I'd planned. It's unfolded with more creases....sometimes holes I've vainly tried to patch. But those years in some of the darkest and most challenging places--they changed the mother I am. They changed my art and my voice, the colors I see. They altered the neighbor I've become, they laid the foundation for the daycare centers I ran. They shaped the wife and woman that types these words.
That is what kindness does. It doesn't necessarily dry up the ocean, but it permanently transforms the mind and soul of the giver. And every life they come into contact with after. Kindness isn't about curing the disease, but changing a day. One day can alter the course of a lifetime.
Or just make someone smile, as they pick out cucumbers.