The Great Graham Cracker Miracle

First Methodist Church, Newton, Iowa

What John and Charles Wesley would have thought of my youthful Methodism, I can’t say.

To be frank, I’m not certain I knew during childhood that John Wesley had a brother. I loved hymn-singing on Sunday mornings, but it was years before I realized that Charles Wesley had written most of my favorites.

I certainly didn’t know about the history of the denomination, the doctrine of prevenient grace, or why our Greek revival building looked more like the town bank than any of the other churches in town.

I only knew that our church was comfortable, and well-suited for children. No one had to force us out of bed on Sunday morning in order to force us into a pew; we suffered no nightmares because of Jonathan Edwards-style preaching. In spring, we played tag or jacks on the church’s broad, sun-warmed steps. In winter, we sneaked into the kitchen to filch coffee hour cookies: then ate them, giggling, in the narrow, hidden passageway leading to the dome.
(more…)

Appreciating Small(s)

Victorian Tussie-Mussie, or Bouquet Holder

Some of the best words in the world are fading away.

Unless you’re lapidicolous (given to living under a rock), you know language is labile (unstable and given to change). Shakespeare’s forsooth and great-Grandma’s tussie-mussie have disappeared from common speech, along with a gallimaufry (jumble or confused medley) of other archaic, unrecognizable or overwrought words: the linguistic detritus of an older world that didn’t feel itself constrained to messages of 140 characters.

What hasn’t changed is the human need for euphemism.  From the fifteenth century phrase with child to our modern senior citizen, words and phrases like passed away, concrete overshoes, and broad across the beam always have served as a kind of verbal code for cautious or bashful conversationalists.

When it comes to euphemism, my fondness for smalls has endured since childhood.  Each time my mother asked me to hang laundry on the outdoor line, she would admonish, “Be sure to hang the smalls on the inside.”  

Smalls, of course, were underwear: the panties, bras and briefs not fit for public display.  Hanging them on inside lines, between the sheets and the towels, kept them from public view. It was a common practice, meant to save self-conscious, clothes-hanging children from embarassment, and to prevent nosy neighbors or curious passers-by from drawing conclusions about the owners of the garments after scrutinizing the lace, ribbon, patterns or color of the unmentionables. 

Less embarassing was another, quite different collection of smalls. Smalls also referred to the eclectic assortment of sewing remnants, baubles, and bits found in boxes or tins at the back of any woman’s closet.  They were pretty things, frivolous and sparkly. They could keep any child engrossed for hours: sorting, selecting, re-arranging and admiring their glowing, intricate beauty. Snippets of lace, broken strings of beads, buttons and ribbon, tatted flowers: all were as compelling as they were tiny. 

Sometimes, women re-purposed lace to decorate lingerie. Just as often, it trimmed bed linens or Baptismal gowns. Tatted flowers were stitched onto doll clothes, or glued onto stationary. Pearls, faceted glass beads, and bits of jet were restrung into necklaces for dolls, or little girls.  Buttons served as coins in a million play-transactions, while imagination transformed rhinestones into diamonds. Harsh as moonlight on snow and brilliant as the stars, the little gems embedded themselves into a thousand childhood dreams.

Accustomed as we are to a bigger-is-better mentality, we tend to discount not only the smalls of that simpler world, but small in every form. We equate small with insignificant: judging small items to be less valuable, small plans unworthy of consideration, and small events of little consequence.

Such easy dismissal trivializes the power of the small and the singular. Small treasures, distillations of beauty and elegance that fit into the palm of a hand as easily as sunlight fills up a meadow, are approachable, rather than overwhelming. They speak with their own voice, and teach their own lessons.  They reveal their truths with a certain intimacy, and they endure over time, at least in part because of their hiddenness.

My early fascination with all things small only increased with the gift of a small sterling box, tucked into the toe of a Christmas stocking.

The year I received a new bicycle as my “big” present, I was more than satisfied. In my excitement, I turned away from my stocking, until my parents urged me to have another look. When I looked, I discovered the box, buried beneath a cellophaned string of candy canes, a chocolate Santa, and some colored pencils. Perhaps two inches across, filigreed and shining like a star, it was padded and lined with burgundy silk.  Hinged, but without a clasp, it wasn’t suited to hold much of anything. It simply was.   

Not my treasure, but very much like my treasure

Some years ago, I realized the box had disappeared, washed away by the great tide of life. Still, I cherish its memory as the first of an assortment of smalls that have fallen into my life.  

A rhinestone bracelet from my grandfather, gold weights from Ghana, a bronze medicine pot, an intricately carved soapstone candle holder, a wooden fife, a pocket watch, a tangle of silver bracelets bartered for across the sweep of western Africa: none of these treasures would fetch an extraordinary price in the marketplace, yet each is priceless. Exquisitely crafted, inherently beautiful, overlaid with the patina of memory and polished by decades of loving touch, they are my life: ready to be fitted into suitcase or bag.

Today, even as my mother and grandmother hoarded their small collections of treasure, I cherish my own small discoveries: talismans and touchstones that serve to enliven memories of where I have lived, and from whence I have come. 

They also remind me of those who accept the challenge of creating on a smaller scale: painters and writers, musicians, sculptors, and photographers who by accident or design find themselves scaling things down in order to maximize impact.

A delightful example of “small is beautiful” can be found at the Little Gems exhibit currently showing at the West End Gallery in Corning, New York. Highlighting the work of artists who may or may not work regularly on a smaller scale, it includes several works by GC Myers, whose thoughtful and thought-provoking Redtree Times is one of my regular reads.

His extraordinary style translates beautifully to smaller-sized works, proving that strong lines and bold color don’t require a large canvas for their effect. This year’s pieces seem to continue a movement toward more jewel-like tones, making the paintings even more appropriate for an exhibit of “Little Gems.”

Wisdom of the Wind ~ GC Myers 4″ x 6″
Trailblazer ~ GC Myers 4″ x 6″

Of all the paintings entered into the show, I find myself most drawn to The Outlier’s Home. Apart from my fondness for his use of amethyst and turquoise, and the subsequent transformation of the iconic Red Tree, I find myself delighted by a perceived echo of Mark Rothko’s work. I first encountered Rothko’s bold, brash canvases as part of the Menil collection in Houston, and I love imagining the sight of The Outlier’s Home hung next to something like Rothko’s Green Over Blue (1956).

The Outlier’s Home ~ GC Myers 4″ x 6″

As Gary has proven over the course of several exhibits, small doesn’t have to lead to art that is prissy or precious. I suspect that, seen in person, these small canvases would do even more effectively what they do well enough here: focus the eye, the attention and the heart in arresting and memorable ways.

Ribbons and lace, a scattering of beads. Sterling boxes gifted by love and silver bracelets discovered by chance.  Washes of paint and smudges of charcoal arranged by an artist’s hand. Each of these tiny treasures reminds in its own way that, while bigger always is bigger, it isn’t necessarily better. In life as in art, even the small has its place. 

Storms Are On the Ocean ~ GC Myers  4″ x 6″ 

In the ages-long struggle against adversity, the smallest gesture counts.  In the midst of the world’s anonymous masses, the most insignificant and unnoticed person is worthy of infinite respect.  The most hidden event may alter the course of history forever, and the larger forces pulsing through society and occasionally raging through the natural world are not the only harbingers abroad in the land.

In the midst of the blizzard, each single snowflake counts. In the midst of the flood, a single rock stands firm. In a forest of doubt the straight tree of truth still rises up, and in the midst of every flock flies the small and solitary singer, lilting its heart to the sky.

To see Gary’s Little Gems paintings full-sized and read his comments about them, please click here.  Comments are welcome, always.

Tree Houses, Books, and the Joys of Reflection

To my parents’ chagrin, I was a climber. Long before I walked across a room, I was climbing stairs.  I clambered over picket fences as easily as those woven from wire. After I scaled Mt. Refrigerator, on a quest to reach the chocolate chips hidden away in the highest cupboard in the house, Mother laid down the law. If I wanted to climb, I would do it outside, in the trees.

No doubt she knew the maples in our front yard were too large for me to climb, just as the crabapples were too small, and the elms too brittle. But a cherry tree in the back yard turned out to be just right, with strong lower branches, and a sandbox nearby to use as a ladder. An agreement was reached. Once the fruit had been picked, I was free to scramble up as high as I could go, until branches began to snap. Then, I promised to retreat to a more secure spot. (more…)

Published in: on October 25, 2014 at 9:01 pm  Comments (99)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Autumn Trilogy III – A Season of Unleaving

Colleen was our hand-waver, the slightly obnoxious one who bounced in her seat, caught up in the throes of enthusiasm. “Me! Me, Miss Hudepohl. Call on me!”

On the other side of the room, shy Valerie dedicated herself to perfecting the role of a disappearing third-grader. Content to remain in the back row, she spent her days sinking lower and lower into her one-armed, wooden desk until she resembled a puddle of Silly Putty, ready to flow away beneath the door, down the hall, and out of our lives forever.

Neither a shrinker nor a hand-waver, I asked for and received a place in the front row of desks. Since our teacher spent most of her time distracted by hand-wavers or trying to draw out the shrinkers, I rarely was called on. When it was my turn, I’d squirm a bit, pretending not to have heard. Sometimes, I’d shake my head and shrug my shoulders in a gesture of casual detachment, as if to say, “No, I don’t have the answer, but you already knew that, so why bother?”
(more…)

The Runaways

No, that isn’t me. And no, that isn’t my pet elephant.

On the other hand, it could have been me and it could have been my elephant, or so I imagined as a toddler when a serious infatuation with Dumbo led me to run off to join the circus. I’d forgotten that sudden childhood impulse until I came across the story of Lilly and Isa, a pair of  elephants who traveled years ago with the Carson & Barnes Circus.

I first heard of Lilly and Isa when I visited the circus’s winter quarters in Hugo, Oklahoma.  As young elephants, they became famous for running away from the circus, not toward it.  Still, there were similarities in our experience. Neither of us had a clear destination in mind when we decided to make a break for it, and neither of us had a real plan. We simply saw our chance and took it, hot-footing it down the road for all we were worth, determined to outrun our pursuers and evade capture. Lilly and Isa were more successful when it came to long-term evasion, but by the time it was over I suspect all three of us had decided that one escapade was enough. (more…)

Published in: on May 19, 2013 at 12:35 pm  Comments (95)  
Tags: , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,580 other followers