Day 309: A Midwest Mural

One of my friends teaches art at a small university in rural Iowa. Recently, she and a group of her students completed an outdoor mural as a public art project.

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In some ways, it’s a study in community – not only because it was created through the cooperative efforts of a group of talented students (and their professor) but also because it celebrates the history of the community in which it was created. It also acts as a very visible – and very literal – connection between “town” and “gown.”

In some ways, it’s a study in contrast – the vintage, photo-realistic, and primarily monochromatic service station and automobile contrasted with the modern, abstract, and unabashedly colorful background. You might not even expect those things to work together. The results, though, speak for themselves, with each quality complementing and highlighting the other – and the piece wouldn’t be nearly as striking without those contrasts.

In some ways, it’s a study in (perhaps entirely unintentional) metaphor – a reminder that our differences don’t have to divide us. Despite our differences (or maybe even because of them), each of us has the power to contribute something essential, unique, and beautiful to our own community.

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Day 308: “No One…”

One of my friends, who’s currently traveling in Spain, posted a picture of this book (which he ran across in the English-language section of a used book store in San Sebastian) to his travel blog yesterday.

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No, this isn’t the picture he posted; this is just a standard publicity image. (I’m using this version because I want to emphasize the words on the cover, especially since most of us don’t typically pay that much attention to the title of a book.)

I bought my own copy several years ago. Despite pulling it off the shelf several times since then, I’ve never been able to finish it. Even so, I still love the title – and its simple message of affirmation to us all.

Day 290: Manchester

I’m tired of reading headlines like this, perhaps moreso than I’ve ever been before.

What happened last night in Manchester wasn’t the first terrorist attack to happen in my lifetime. I know it also wasn’t the last terrorist attack to happen in my lifetime. I’ve never really been a fan of Ms. Grande’s music (although I do have one of her songs on my iPod), and I have no connection to Manchester. For some reason, though, this particular attack is affecting me more than many of the others that have happened in my lifetime, and I don’t know why.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent my entire adult life working with teenagers and so many of the victims were teenagers – and even children. Or maybe it’s because the victims were part of an audience that, only minutes earlier, had been united by their shared loved of the performance, and whatever else might have separated or divided them was forgotten as they shared that time together.

As an artist and an educator who teaches literature and performance, my heart goes out not only to the victims and their families but also to Ms. Grande, who, despite being physically unharmed, likely will forever associate her performance and her art with what happened at her concert last night.

That’s one of the things I love most about performance: its ability to bring people together in a collective experience – something that seems to become rarer and rarer with each passing year, as individual technology – laptops and tablets and smartphones and headphones – becomes more and more prevalent.

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As frustrated – and saddened – and angry – as I am about what happened last night, I have to remind myself that the actions of a terrorist weren’t the only things that happened.

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Last night, people came together.

Last night, as they celebrated, people came together, united by the power of music and performance.

Last night, as they mourned, people came together, united by the power of compassion and love.

Last night, as they opened their hearts and their homes, people came together, united by the power of strength and solidarity, of trust and love.

Last night, the people of Manchester came together – and, together, became an example to us all.

Day 278: Weeds, Wishes, and Wildflowers

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about dandelions the past few days. One thing I’ve learned in that time is that they’re definitely not one of the easiest things in the world to photograph, especially once they’ve gone to seed.

From a distance, they quickly blur into the grassy background. Even close up, they seem like simple balls of fluff that fade into the richer greens behind them. I didn’t even realize the complexity of the nearly omnipresent fluff-balls until I tried my hand at photographing one of them earlier this week (a process that proved to be considerably more challenging than I expected), but in that process, I realized that if you look really, really closely – and really, really carefully – at a dying dandelion, you begin to appreciate the complexity within those seemingly simple balls of seeds.

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To some of us – mostly those who prize a perfect lawn – dandelions are nothing more than weeds – something to be destroyed, another bothersome element in an already unpleasant chore. To some us – mostly those who still hold onto (or try to revisit) their innocence – sometimes they’re wishes, waiting to be made…and sometimes, when we’re feeling more “adult,” they’re just wildflowers. And to some of us – perhaps most us – they’re somewhere in between – something that we don’t really notice at all.

No matter how we feel about them, though, we can’t change them.

We can love them, loathe them, accept them, or ignore them, but we can’t change them (or even really control them).

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Life is full of dandelions – and not just the ones that grow on our lawns. Every day, we encounter dozens of them – seemingly simple, seemingly inconsequential experiences that we can love, loathe, accept, ignore, overlook, fail to understand, and fail to appreciate… but that we ultimately can’t change, can’t control, and can’t avoid.

The only thing we can control is how we react to them – and how we allow that reaction to affect the rest of our day: try to turn your head when you start to see the weeds, and let your eyes (and maybe even your heart) linger for a moment to really appreciate (and understand the beauty of) the wishes and wildflowers.

Day 269: “Sunday Afternoon Breakdown”

A week ago at this time, I had just finished a four-day road trip to Wheeling, three and a half days of which went incredibly well. In fact, despite the occasional hiccup, almost everything that I did and experienced – the performances, the student talkbacks, the “Battle of the Bard,” the time I spent interacting with the rest of the company – was even better than I had hoped it would be. And then, on Sunday afternoon, after watching the weekend’s final performance and having birthday cake and lemonade with the audience (and the rest of the company) to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday (as well as commemorate the anniversary of his death), I got in my car for the roughly three-hour drive home.

To make a long story short, ten minutes or so into the drive, my car left me sitting (quite literally) in the middle of the eastbound lane of US-40. It still was running, but it refused to move. I turned off the engine, turned on my emergency flashers, switched the key to accessory, shifted into neutral, got out, made sure there was no oncoming traffic, and pushed the car off the road (and into the nearest lawn) — after which I noticed at least a gallon of transmission fluid all over the road where the car had been sitting. I called AAA, and two hours later, I climbed into the passenger seat of a rollback tow truck for a three-hour, 190-mile ride back home to the Eastern Panhandle.

No, it wasn’t the way I would have chosen to end the trip. But in retrospect, the entire experience could have been much worse (and I’m still thankful that it wasn’t).

I could have broken down on Thursday morning, when I was on my way to Wheeling, instead of Sunday, when I was on my way home, and I could have missed the entire weekend.

I could have broken down earlier that morning, when I was on the interstate, driving another company member down to Morgantown, surrounded by traffic traveling at seventy miles an hour, and I could have been involved in a potentially serious accident.

I could have broken down on the interstate, surrounded by traffic traveling at seventy miles an hour, instead of a quiet, lightly traveled secondary route, and I (again) could have been involved in a potentially serious accident.

I could have broken down in the dark, instead of daylight. I could have broken down in the rain or cold, instead of sunshine and warmth. I could have broken down due to a major mechanical issue instead of what I later learned was a simple broken hose (and the resultant loss of a couple gallons of transmission fluid).

None of those things happened – and, in the end, when I look back on those four days in Wheeling, I’m not going to focus on the breakdown; of all the things that happened that weekend, that’s not one of the ones that really mattered.

No matter how much we might dream of, hope for, and work toward perfection, life, no matter how good or affirming it might be at any given moment, is ever going to be perfect. That means we have to make a choice: either focus on the moments of imperfection or focus on the rest of the experience – and all the beautiful, imperfect wonder that it brings.

Day 260: “You Be You”

Later this week, I’m taking a road trip up to Wheeling, WV, to meet the rest of the members of The Rustic Mechanicals, the Shakespeare company I joined last summer, for a long weekend of performances and other events to commemorate the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday (and death) on April 23.

As the company’s dramaturge, it’s my job to help the cast and crew better understand the text and context of the script for each show, which means that I do my work behind the scenes, long before the performances ever take place.

It’s basically a combination of literary analysis, research, and teaching, three things I’ve done quite a bit in my life, but my familiarity (and comfort) with the basic components of the process didn’t make me any less nervous about my first presentation to the company last summer. I had a basic idea of the general topics our director and producer wanted me to include in my presentation, but he hadn’t given me any specific guidelines beyond that. (Since it was my first time working with the group, I’m not sure either one of us knew exactly what to expect from the process.)

The one thing he did tell me, however, was this: “You do you.”

In some ways, it almost sounds like a brush-off, but that isn’t how he meant it.

In a lot of ways, it was probably the most affirming, freeing thing he could have said to me. With those three words, he let me know that he trusted me and that he wanted me just to be myself when I presented my work to the rest of the company.

“You do you.”

It’s an incredible thing to say to someone, but it’s only meaningful if it’s said with sincerity. That’s the challenge for us all – not only to tell the people around us that we want (and trust) them to be themselves but also to accept them, love them, and appreciate them when they are.

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This week, challenge yourself to let your actions (and, if you want, your words) tell someone that you love, “You do you.”

You might be surprised just how much it means to them.

Day 253: Take Five – “Like It’s the First Time…or Like It’s the Last”

From Yahoo! News UK:

“Carsten Flemming Hansen was told by staff at the Aarhus University Hospital that he was too sick to undergo surgery on his stomach and would die of internal bleeding. After being informed of the news by his nurse, Rikke Kvist, he told her of his final wish — to watch the sunset while enjoying one last glass of wine and a cigarette. She was only too happy to oblige — despite smoking being banned at the hospital.”

Read the full story at the Yahoo! News UK website.

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Mr. Kvist’s requests were a simple, unassuming trio: a final cigarette, a final glass of wine, and a final sunset, but despite (or perhaps because of) their simplicity and their familiarity, Mr. Kvist chose to savor them one last time – a poignant reminder not only of the beauty of simple kindness but also of the beauty of the seemingly inconsequential – and all too often overlooked – moments of joy life offers us every day.

For the next week, slow down and really enjoy your favorite little thing every day. Maybe it’s the first cup of coffee in the morning – not just the taste but also the smell. Maybe it’s the sound of the birds outside your window – or the way the robins stop and tilt their heads to the ground. Maybe it’s a great song on the radio on your way to work. Maybe it’s the warmth of the sun on your skin in the afternoon. Maybe it’s seeing that one special star when you look up at night. Maybe it’s a cup of tea at bedtime.

However you define the perfect moment, take five to stop and let yourself enjoy it like it’s the first time…or like it’s the last.