A return to my roots

Prairie Lights, my favorite independent bookstore in Iowa City, recently informed me that this week, May 1 – 7, is Children’s Book Week.

The words, “children’s books” contain the exact number of syllables as the words, “treasure trove”, and to me, these word pairs are synonymous and interchangeable. What marvelous magic a children’s book wields! I keep a running tally of many favorite things, but I’m quite certain children’s books rank among my topmost five.

I can’t let Children’s Book Week slip by without mentioning a book I adored as a child, a book whose wisdom set me on a path that shaped me into the person I am today. When I was small, not only was I certain the book I mention was written just for me, I felt I was its main character – a lonely little girl who lived by a pond and wandered through nature in search of someone, anyone, to play with. I was that child, right down to the light cotton dress and white anklets. Allow me to introduce to you this beloved book: Play with Me, by Marie Hall Ets, The Viking Press, 1955.

Reading about Marie Hall Ets in Wikipedia, I learned that she won the Caldecott Medal in 1960 for her book, Nine Days to Christmas. I also learned that between 1945 and 1966, she was a runner-up five times for the Caldecott, an impressive feat exceeded only by Maurice Sendak, who had seven titles which nearly won the prize. (Books that almost were awarded the Caldecott are today heralded as Caldecott Honor Books.)

In Play with Me, text and illustration weave a beguiling tale. A little girl goes off to the meadow in search of a friend. One after another, she asks the creatures she meets, “Will you play with me?” But each one leaps or flies or bounds or slithers away, and she’s left alone to console herself by sitting quietly on a stone to watch bugs making trails in the pond. She is too preoccupied to notice the tender presence of a benevolent sun.

As she sits without moving, her sadness turns to joy as one by one, the meadow creatures quietly return. She realizes that now, all of them are “playing” with her. By becoming observant and unobtrusive, she accumulates a rich circle of friends.

How many thousands of times did I turn the pages of Play with Me, poring over every detail? Young sapling that I was, I absorbed the book’s simple wisdom and carried it with me to the woods surrounding my home. I learned to sit noiselessly among the trees to better observe squirrels and birds. If I didn’t move a muscle, I was rewarded with chances to watch frogs and turtles and ducks by the pond. Sitting quietly, waiting to catch a glimpse of woodland creatures, I spent entire mornings and afternoons studying spring ephemerals while learning to distinguish the songs of many birds. I discovered that a lonely heart is curiously not lonely in the woods: feathery ferns reached out to caress me, violets and spring beauties smiled up at me, oaks and maples waved with glad hands, birds welcomed me with song. I was rich in friendships, there on my wooded hill… (Years later, not surprisingly, another book that captivated me was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I, too, was a dreamer who lived in the woods by a quiet pond.)

It’s really no wonder I grew up to be an introvert. My mother was a poet, and I was raised in her airy home; I spent most of my waking hours in nature, and when inclement weather kept me indoors, I’d page through books or draw flowers or listen to my favorite records. (When I was small, the soundtrack of Bambi was my special favorite.)

For quite a few years now, I’ve described myself as a Hobbit. I vastly prefer nature and the comforts of home and hearth to adventures. I almost always choose solitude over society. Given my inclination to prefer quiet, the terrible accident in October of 2015 that hobbled me for a year and a half was not perhaps as punitive for me, the introvert, as it might have been for an extrovert. Nevertheless, being confined day and night to a chair with a painful, shattered ankle was a trial for me. Once again I was that lonesome child who wished someone, anyone, would come and keep me company…

When one is badly hurt, one can tend to grow quiet, shrink inward. My inner survival mode caused me to withdraw deep into my own roots to wait, to hope, to dream. Just after Christmas of 2015, I decided that since I had to sit day after day in a chair to elevate a throbbing ankle, I might as well put my time to good use. I decided to study my mother’s embroidery books. And that’s just what I did. I spent the early months of 2016 reading about and practicing every single stitch in those books. And in the process, I discovered that all those tiny stitches had become for me a new lexicon, a language I could use to express myself.

At that time, I couldn’t go to the meadow or wander by the river. I couldn’t even get out of the house without a wheelchair. But with needle and thread for a magic carpet, I was no longer chair-bound. I was free to lose myself in a world of my own imagining, a comforting place filled with beauty and peace.

I’m able to get around on my own again, thanks to a pair of custom orthotics, a pair of sturdy, if unfashionable, shoes, and the great good help of my wonderful physical therapists, Laura and Shari. I’m able to walk by the river or visit the woods. I can spend time in the garden. But I continue to spend hours filling hoops and fabric with the things I knew and loved best as a child: flowers and trees and meadows, birds and butterflies. Having grown accustomed to the deep solitude and isolation of an overwhelming injury, I’m less inclined to talk. I’d much rather speak with needle and thread. Whereas writing is often laborious for me, I find that embroidery is light and pleasant and marvelously meditative. When I take up my needle, I’m not only deep in my roots, I’m growing. I’m creating. I’m happy!

These musings bring me back to Children’s Book Week and the charming book that set my feet on a path which led to the quiet joy of making friends with nature. To celebrate Children’s Book Week 2017, I’m going to order a copy of Play with Me and donate it to my local library. There are lonely children everywhere who long for a companion. What better companion than a wonderful book?

(All embroideries shown here are my original designs, © My Path with Stars Bestrewn.)

Dust from the road

 

dust from the road 1

It’s mid-July already, and here in Illinois, wildflowers are out in abundance. Fence rows are embroidered with delicate medallions of Queen Anne’s Lace; chicory’s starry blooms form constellations in windswept grass; clusters of pale pink milkweed send up their bewitching perfume. It’s the height of summer’s sweet-petaled bounty.

I’ve always loved making bouquets of summer wildflowers that grow along the gravel road that lopes past Prairie View, our family homestead in Iowa. Picking roadside wildflowers is a pleasant pastime, but it’s not without its challenges. At any moment, a pickup truck or tractor may rumble by, and the whirr of wheels kicks up a cloud of dust that lingers in the air. If the dust cloud happens to catch you, you’ll be coated in chalky particulate matter that creeps into hair, eyes, nose, throat, and you’ll learn not to let this happen next time – that is, not if you can help it. When our children were small, I knew not to take them too far down the road to gather wildflowers. I’d keep a wary eye, making sure we all were within easy distance of the farmhouse lawn – our indispensable retreat from the choking dust of oncoming vehicles.

After a spell of hot, dry weather, the casual summer wildflower-gatherer at Prairie View might be disappointed by the dreary appearance of roadside blooms. A coating of gravel dust turns the clean white petals of Queen Anne’s Lace a dingy beige. It fades chicory blossoms to ghostly blue and conceals the blush of milkweed’s rosy cheek.

One morning last July, I perched on the front stoop at Prairie View, soaking up sunbeams, journal in hand. Just for the joy of it, I was recording how many individual birds I could distinguish within the full-throated chorus ringing in from surrounding fields. Red-winged blackbird, killdeer, barn swallow, I wrote… Canada goose, goldfinch, meadowlark…

Then, the growl of an engine. Raising eyes from paper to road, I spied a veritable mushroom cloud of gravel dust billowing up behind a fast-moving truck. Annoyed, I thought to myself, This driver lacks country etiquette. He lifted no hand in greeting as he sped by, neither did he slow down as he passed. On gravel roads, less speed means less dust, and slowing down to pass someone’s home is a gesture of courtesy. No such courtesy was shown this day. VROOM. Away he raced, and the dust of insensitive wheels hung in the air long afterwards. Good thing I wasn’t out for a walk just now, I muttered. And the poor flowers… another rude coating of dust to mask their summer loveliness.

Then it hit me.

Life’s hardships can come like a speeding truck on a gravel road. One minute it’s sunbeams and birdsong, the next you gasp for breath in the gritty aftermath of Things Beyond Your Control. It’s harsh and bewildering to be caught in a cloud of unforeseen adversity, but you can’t very well fall down by the side of the road, clutching your throat and raking your hand across your eyes. There’s really no logical choice but to trudge on, tears streaming, knowing the dust will eventually settle. Coated head to toe as you are with the soot of inescapable circumstance, your true beauty may not be readily apparent, just like roadside blossoms. Dust has a way of traveling with you. It might be a while before you’re able to stop and rest and rinse away the residue of what you’ve been through. It might take time before you look and feel like yourself again…

dust from the road II

As the careless driver roared away and vanished, I watched the pitiless after-cloud descend, covering everything in its wake with grit. I was quiet for a long time…. Then I wrote in my journal: Don’t be so quick to judge. What you see at first glance may be dust from the road.

love gathered softly to place in her hands

love gathered softly to place in her hands

It’s spring again, miraculous spring. Every street in town is lined with flowering dogwood, crab, pear – everywhere, boughs are in riotous bloom. In my gardens, something new unfurls daily. The woods are awash with wildflowers, and all along the driveway, violets gem the grass…

For me each year, the first violets of spring bear on fragile stems the weight of perennial tenderness. I stoop down to hook a finger beneath a bowed purple head. As I study the contour of this familiar face, I’m amazed by the power one simple flower wields over my heart and mind…

From the time I was old enough to toddle off to woods’ edge, I kept my mother in fresh-picked wildflowers. The first bouquets I carried home to her each spring always included several long-stemmed wood violets. One year, when I was seven or eight, Momma sent me off to the woods on a special mission to select only the choicest violets. I returned with dozens of flawless specimens. Together, we washed the flowers, a delicate task. We shook them gently dry and arranged them on clean white dish towels, taking care not to bend or bruise any petals. We snipped blossoms from stems. Then, after using tiny brushes to paint the flowers with a wash of egg whites and water, we sprinkled each one with a shower of sugar crystals.

Later, the house filled with the aroma of angel food cake pulled fresh from the oven. When it cooled, Momma frosted it with a white sugar glaze into which she pressed a pattern of sweet sugared violets. It was simply a vision, that cake, and young though I was, I was limp with the romance of a cake covered in violets…. (Alas, no photos were snapped of that eye-popping confection, but in my heart’s album, it glistens on a page all its own.)

Twenty years of violets bloomed and faded…

Then came a day like no other, a day I could never have imagined when I was a child wandering among the wildflowers – the day I held a newborn flower in my arms, a blossom fresh-plucked from heaven: our first child, our sweet Margaret, a precious baby girl newly home from the hospital, bathed and swaddled and dressed in a long white hand-smocked gown Momma had made for her. Margaret was just a day or two old when I looked from her face into Momma’s eyes and said, “I so look forward to all her firsts – her first smile, her first words, her first steps…”

My gentle mother had more poetic firsts in mind for her granddaughter. She said softly, so softly I barely could hear, “Imagine showing Margaret her first violet, her first star. . .” Momma looked at me, yet somehow right through me as the words fell from her lips. For a heartbeat or two, time stood still for me, just as it does when I chance to read a line of perfect poetry: the words ring and resonate – beautiful, mysterious, fleeting, bells in the wind…

When the snows of winter melted away to reveal Margaret’s first spring, I showed her her first violet with deep emotion. I showed her her first star. Sang her every beautiful song I knew, read her every good book I could find, pointed her toward every lovely thing I could think of, filled her days with as much beauty and poetry and joy and mystery as I could – love gathered softly to place in her hands, like the wildflowers I carried to Momma so many years ago…

As Mother’s Day nears, I have asked myself, what does it mean to mother another soul, to nurture another life? I believe it is to pluck from one’s surroundings the good things, the beautiful, the eternal, the true, and place them in another heart, like a bouquet of violets.