Park and Walk

sunset on high bridge 3-27-16

Sunset on High Bridge, captured by Marley

There was the time where we stumped the map lady. Really. We were zipping along, following her directions, trying to be patient when she loudly interjected herself into our conversation (“Turn LEFT onto BROAD STREET in ONE CORDER MILE!”) (Have you ever noticed the map lady has trouble saying “Quarter?”) and then out of the clear blue, she informed us: “Park vehicle and walk to your destination.”

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“You have arrived!”



Beg pardon, map lady? Park and walk? We are in the middle of the Lower Alabama countryside without any kind of landmark or visible destination and you just abandon us here?

To reinforce her point, while we kept driving, she turned herself into a stubborn little blue stripe that refused to move. Anywhere. We were moving, and she was pouting. I mean really.

And THEN map lady turned herself into a STICK FIGURE! I kid you not! She took herself out of her little invisible parked vehicle and turned herself into what she must have intended to be a walking stick figure! She wasn’t speaking to us, but it was okay…by then we were laughing so hard we wouldn’t have heard her anyway. Note to self: map lady/stick lady does not respond to hoots of laughter and demands for more directions.

While we were still driving, a little more slowly because #ABANDONMENT, Jenessa spotted a sign. We headed toward it. And found this:

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But the destination that map lady stubbornly refused to get us to? So, so, so worth it.

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Waiting to be discovered…

Five buildings of architectural salvage. Big buildings. Barns full of old doors, and shutters, and ironwork, and furniture, and hardware, and all kinds of treasures from all over the world.

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No one hovering as we wandered from one building to the next, marveling like moonstruck extras from “American Pickers.” (I know. They don’t use extras on there. But still.) The best part, apart from the amazing selection? They don’t bother you.

They let you wander around forming half-words, hauling out a tape measure, squinting at various pieces jammed cozily against each other, tapping thoughtfully on drawer fronts and table tops, exploring dovetails and cubby holes and wear patterns and ingenious solutions to needs of years and cultures gone by.

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I discovered a large stack of sturdy grain bags with a beautiful purple stripe down the center – how perfect is that for fall! – and resisted the urge to buy them all. Barely. Mostly because I was reminded by a more practical family member that we don’t have grain in that kind of quantity, and they don’t all need a new home with us. Ditto on the dough bowls, cast iron bathtubs, shutters, and doors made from 1870s French lumber. I know. France, even! The thing is, old captures me in a way new never will, because, as my beloved best girlfriend says, “New doesn’t have a story.”

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Fairy tale inspiration

Everything at this place had a story. You could hear the murmurs of conversations before you ever entered a building. The whole property fairly thrummed with it.

We’d probably still be there, except some of us got hot and some got hungry and some encountered banana spiders and got discouraged and then we ended up turning the map lady off completely because we found our own way out and made tracks to a gas station where we could not, to save our lives, find one single healthy piece of food. There was no fruit, no salad, no fresh made deli sandwiches. It was a shrine to all things processed and preserved, and we were lucky to escape with cheese puffs, corn chips, a single bag of Bugles (“Corn! There’s corn in them!”), a couple king size candy bars (“They’re healthy! They have peanuts!”) and some cans of soda that I didn’t even know was made any more. (“It’s not like it goes bad, Mom.”) The girl at the counter just grinned hugely when we assured her it wasn’t dinner. “I know,” she nodded. “This here’s SNACKS.”

Will we go back? You know we will. Map lady can find her own way. We’ll stick to our own off-the-beaten-path.

The Lesson of the Keepsakes

In a previous post entitled Ten Random Things About Me, I mentioned a penchant for wandering through antique shops, looking and listening for things that seem to need me. Antique shops are, by nature, needy places. They’re full of things from other peoples’ pasts auditioning to become part of someone else’s life. They’re like the animal shelters of memorabilia. Everything in there needs a new home.

This year I read a book I really enjoyed. The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to be Perfect to be Beautiful, by Myquillyn “Nester” Smith, changed the way I look at my home and how I choose my surroundings. Even after I was done reading it, I kept dipping into it. I carried it with me because I felt better when it was nearby, like it was a constant, reassuring influence. I gave copies away as gifts.

And then…Nester herself invited me to participate in an online course that would help me put into practice what she’d written! I jumped on that immediately, along with about 200 of my (not-yet-met) newest friends. We mingled and chatted, introducing ourselves, and waited anxiously for our first assignment. (Yes! Homework! For our homes!) We got to interact personally with Nester! The glorious wonder of the digital age!

The course wasn’t exactly what any of us might have expected. If the book was enjoyable, the course took everything I thought I’d learned from the book and from life, put it in a box, shook it up, and dumped it out…in front of 200 complete strangers, no less. It was enlightening. It was revealing. It gently nudged us all to new places of accountability, but among friends who were also going through similar struggles, frustrations, and discoveries. (Most, if not all, of our husbands have giant recliners and even more giant big screen TVs. And they like them. A lot. Exactly where they are.) We listened to each other. We encouraged each other. We teased each other. We saw things outside the course and thought of each other. We studied each other’s Pinterest boards and saw things in our new friends they couldn’t see in themselves. (Pinterest! I showed up late to the party! But wow!)

The course lasted a very short four weeks. Those of us who participated have maintained a very strong connection. Some of us haven’t finished our first assignments. Some have and are moving on with new assignments. We all seem to thrive on the organic, reassuring dynamic that has become the group. We have invested in each other in ways that transcend our project rooms.

I’m not a “groupie.” I don’t like small groups, though I’ve seen them work well. I generally loathe group projects because (come on let’s be honest) there is always someone who overcommits and underdelivers. There are personality conflicts. There are topics that don’t inspire. There are bossy take-charge people who intimidate others that also have good ideas worth sharing. There are people with agendas, people with histories, people with no interest in doing more than the absolute minimum, people who just don’t get it and show up week after week and bring nothing and expect everything and eat all the good finger foods. First.

But this group! We put in our best effort, shared candidly from our hearts, and an amazing thing happened. We began overcoming obstacles (“lovely limitations”) and tackling things we’d been postponing or avoiding for, in some cases, years. Even decades. People began unpacking not just stuff, but ideas and convictions, and giving themselves permission to use stuff in new ways. Or get rid of stuff altogether. We rearranged. We painted. OH MY SOUL did we paint! If it didn’t move, chances are it got painted! I myself, solidly in the non-painter camp, painted walls and bookshelves and furniture! We hung our drapes correctly! We learned about lighting, and gallery walls, and shopping the house, and footballs! We spent a lot of time on pillows. A lot! We laughed about “boob lights,” wrestled with how best to hide the 1,000 cords and wires extending from our televisions, and began to grasp the concept of how the things with which we surround ourselves should relate to each other. And how we should feel when surrounded by them, which is how they should relate to us.

We probably single-handedly influenced the all-time high usage numbers on sites like Pinterest, Ikea, and Rugs USA. (No. I’m not advertising for any of them. I’m just saying.) We became our own trusted resource — everybody had experience with something, or at least an opinion, and just throwing out a question, or a photo, or both, was enough to get a lively conversation started.

In the very first week of the course, there was this simple question: “How much of your house and your life is dictated by other people’s expectations?”

I grew up in a parsonage. That means I spent most of my formative years in houses that didn’t belong to us. We could make them our own…to a point. Everything we did, or didn’t do, in our home was subject to someone else’s expectations, whether real or perceived. And if my dad changed churches, we changed homes. This was a possibility on a yearly basis.

I don’t remember being terribly upset by all this. I do remember loving visits to my grandparents’ homes, places where the people and things that mattered most to me stayed put and formed a rich, memorable, rock-solid backdrop for my favorite memories. When I haunt antiqueries (you knew I would eventually get back to my original point, right? If I even had an original point to start with?), it is almost as if I am looking for things that connect me to those memories. Or if not those specifically, to things that evoke a certain sense or feeling about a time or place.

What does all this mean? I hold on to a lot of memories. Which means, a lot of stuff has accumulated around the edges of my home and life, stuff from people I like and love, stuff that reminds me of times or places, stuff that looks like it relates or belongs together even if all it has in common is that it is not actually related but instead just showed up, grabbed a plate, and fell in line.

I work with museum exhibits, too, and there is that niggling occupational hazard of constantly curating my surroundings. A little tweak here, a door-size section of leaded glass from a long-forgotten English church there…it creeps in.

Then I read another book. In fact I’m still reading the book, because I get a few pages in and realize I have to stop, to think about this, to let the thought absorb or digest so I can fully appreciate it. Today’s nugget (excerpted) was this: “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past. To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too. It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure. This is the lesson these keepsakes teach us when we sort them. The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” That’s Marie Kondo, in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

A gifted writer friend, Jonalyn Fincher, said this so beautifully in her thoughtful book/grief guide, Invitation to Tears: “We will feel a tension between honoring the world as our loved one made it and changing the world in honor of who we lost.” She’s so very right. So this year I’m learning the lesson of the keepsakes. Subtitle: It’s Not About The Stuff. And one of the most important things I’m learning: it’s not about the project. I thought I was just working on one not-very-large, not-very-inviting room. Instead, what I’m learning is working on ME. The most enduring changes don’t start on the outside and work their way in. They start inside and work their way out. I can shuffle my keepsakes around all I want and accomplish nothing. In the end, it’s not about enshrining things that represent who we used to be. It’s about embracing who we are, and who we’re becoming.