Brush Strokes on a New Canvas

Second chances.  We hope for them when we apply for a new position after being fired or for a marriage license after being divorced.  Often we’ve made irreparable past mistakes that could only be redeemed if afforded the grace to try again.  I fail daily, in big and little ways; Lord knows my Italian temper is being tested in its two-thousandth chance.  This weekend, I failed in an attempt to paint a canvas.

Charming scored us a Groupon to Monet Gogh Sip where we’d use a canvas, an array of oil paints, a few brushes, and a lesson to recreate our own Waterfall paintings.  A Sunday afternoon nap preceded a walk to the studio, Yellow Tail Moscato in tow.  Neither of us are visual artists, so we figured we’d just have fun with it, maybe flick a little blue paint at each other.

We noticed that other participants had brought snacks and lamented the tortilla chips and cheese dip back in Charming’s kitchen.  With wine on one side of the canvas and paint brushes on the other, the instructor had us begin by painting the water.  I tried to imitate the placement of this deep blue eye-shaped portion.  It wasn’t until we’d finished the next step of applying red, orange, and yellow paint in sequence to create the autumn-laden ground that I realized I should have placed the water higher.

The problem with simply having fun is that we are two Type A personalities, perfectionists in our own right, competitive to the core.  The desire to get it right is inherent.  I glanced at Charming’s painting.  He had mastered the two-colored-paint-tip approach to the waterfall’s reflection in the water.  I simply had trouble imagining a waterfall that we hadn’t made yet.  If there was no waterfall, how do these streaks of white and blue create its reflection?

Charming had followed the instructions to make small paint dots and smear them into leaves, but when he stepped back to look at his labor, he assessed that he should have made them smaller. Fixing that at this point, however, would have required starting over at the second step.  He opted to cut his losses and accept a little imperfection in his first attempt.

Our instructor had told us not to worry about defining the branches in the sky as they would be covered over in a later step.  Part of the difficulty of painting in this lesson was that later steps revealed the errors made in previous steps though we had followed instructions carefully.  After completing the process, we both found ourselves adding paint to try and cover the branches that were still visible despite all efforts to make them disappear behind layers of oil paint.

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When you look at our paintings from far away, they appear the same (and could probably pass for the original to an amateur eye).  Take a closer look, and you’ll see the low placement of the water in mine, the over-sized leaves in Charming’s, and the undefined branches begging to be hidden.  From far away, there was no failure.  But each failed brush stroke I see is a mistake begging for a second chance.

I’m not sure if we’ll return for another painting session, but I’m certain if we do we’ll bring some cheese for that wine.  If we painted Waterfall again, we would confidently fix our mistakes.  Granted, that doesn’t mean we won’t make new ones, and it doesn’t mean that because we know better, we’ll do better.  Each mistake taught us a technique or strategy for getting it right the next time.

When we’re going about our day-to-day routines, we cannot see the future painting that our lives will be.  We make choices in our colors of paint, our brush stroke thickness and placement, focusing on the step we’re completing without an awareness of the masterpiece we’re creating.  Unlike our paint and sip experience, we’re not given a view of the finished product beforehand.

Like a tapestry, we weave these seemingly unrelated threads into a pattern that will eventually resemble something.  And we want that to be something beautiful.  Certainly, when I married I expected our tapestry would be one of couple holding hands.  Our painting would be one of a family in a meadow.  Our tapestry, our painting – those were finalized in our separation agreement.  And they were anything but beautiful.

From I do to divorce, the sum of our individual choices and decisions made in tiny, seemingly insignificant moments amounted to darkness.  I wouldn’t have dreamed on my wedding day that our painting would be of a man and a woman walking away from one another.  If I was artistically inclined, I’d make them silhouettes.  And it would be raining.

Because every argument was a water droplet on the canvas of our relationship.  Every white lie was a black shadow on our shades of trust.  Every night spent on our own sides of a king-sized bed outlined us moving in opposite directions.  There was no instructor for my marriage, no picture of the expected final product to use as a guide.  I made mistakes.  Some were small, and I could compensate for them as with painting a smaller foreground.

Some mistakes were big, as obvious as Charming’s over-sized leaves; fixing them would require going back in time and starting over at step one or two.  This is life, and not a painting.  There is no time portal.  We have no choice but to cut our losses and move on.  My ex-husband and I did that enough times in our marriage that we wound up painting an image neither of us expected or wanted.

Perhaps if had commissioned a painting of what I wanted our lives to amount to, I would have seen which thicknesses we should have used, which choices we should have made to reflect that image.  But like the reflection of a waterfall that didn’t exist yet, I was simply guessing at color placement.

When you looked at my relationship with my husband from far away, we appeared successful.  We led worship together at church, attended a couple’s Bible study, and started weekday mornings with a routine kiss goodbye as he left for work.  I’m grateful no one can take a microscope to our marriage except us.  The abundance of mistakes when I look closely… it’s well, shameful.

I know if I tried to paint Waterfalls again, I would make it better.  But who wants two of the same painting?  If I get a second chance, I want to paint a different canvas entirely.  If afforded the grace to try again, irreparable past mistakes could be redeemed by using the techniques and strategies gleaned from failed attempts.

I’m not artistically inclined, but one of my young bloggers is gifted.  One of her paintings is on display in my classroom.  She’s a ginger and brave in all her creative outlets, my own Merida.  Tonight, I commissioned Merida to paint my future.  There’s a dark-haired couple cuddling on a front porch swing, a baby doll and a basketball in the foreground, and they’re looking at each other.

Maybe if I could imagine the waterfall, conjure the future product that my present actions are reflecting, then I’d know which colors to choose, which choices to make in my everyday life to reflect that image.  I can do more than imagine with Merida’s painting.

When we’re painting our lives, each decision is a stroke of mostly guesswork.  Even the most Type A among us can’t expect to paint a perfect canvas on our first attempt.  With each error, we develop a plan for getting it right the next time, even if the benefit will be applied to a new, better painting.  One like Merida’s new commission.

Charming and I did have fun at Monet Gogh Sip.  We tried.  We made mistakes.  We laughed.  We toasted.  From far away, our paintings look great.  From close up, I see potential for the next attempt.

Here’s to second chances.

Purposeful Arrangements

This morning at the fabric store, I overheard a mother dismissing the cost of a ring bearer’s pillow.  “You only get married once, sweetheart,” she assured the blushing bride, a young girl who no doubt reminded her of herself three decades before.  Biting my tongue, I resisted the urge to add a sarcastic, “Yeah, I thought that, too.”   I sold my wedding rings early last summer and bought a 9 mm instead.

It seemed a more permanent investment than my marriage had been.  The engagement ring once symbolized a promise, a commitment to become a man’s wife.   The band once symbolized a never-ending circle, a union without end.  But my marriage did end.  The circle was broken.  After we divorced, these tiny in-tact rings of metal and stone became symbols of loss and failed promises.

I didn’t handle any rings at my friend Angela’s wedding this weekend.  I was the flower girl the night before the nuptials; Angela’s kitchen was inundated with fresh cut hydrangeas, carnations, roses, and sprigs of baby’s breath, and I tried to catch her vision.  I was grateful that the other bridesmaids let me take command of the flower post.  Within a couple of hours, all the bouquets, boutonnieres, and corsages were complete, but we still had at least a hundred flowers left.

While the rest of the crew helped set up tents and add finishing touches for the backyard reception, I set to work on the centerpieces.  I was happy to be alone and productive with my pre-wedding jitters. I wasn’t nervous for Angela.  It’s just that the guest book and the twinkle lights and the talk of hair, nails, and makeup sent me back seven years.

There was something oddly therapeutic about snipping stems and arranging blossoms.  It occurred to me that if I ever married again, I would enjoy doing my own flowers.  One of the guys helping took to calling me The Botanist.  Given my toddler-aged hobby, it makes sense that I would feel most at home with the greenery.  My task was in opposition to that in my garden, and the irony struck me.  In my hands were plants that had reached full bloom, and they were serving out their purpose of beautifying the world in Angela’s wedding. I fight in my garden beds to keep them alive so they might fulfill a purpose someday, too.

When I’d finished, Angela handed me tiny wooden signs to add, reading, “You and Me, Love, Mr. and Mrs., Best Day Ever, and Happily Ever After.”  They were just cut flowers before.  Now, they were symbols of the beauty of this union, Angela the baby’s breath to her husband’s rose.  With the addition of a few simple words, my labor had achieved a significance I hadn’t intended to be a part of.

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Because when I read them, I had to resist that same urge as in the fabric store this morning.  I’d experienced what I thought was the best day ever, and now I pray that there would be one better still.  I was a Mrs., now I’m a Ms.  My happily ever after withered away like discarded bridal bouquets.

No one plans for that.

Certainly not Angela.  The difference between this blushing bride and the one in the store is that she, like me, has uttered her own share of sarcastic always-and-forever comments.  She’s endured trials in her lifetime that enemies wouldn’t even wish on her.  At some point, she held other rings in her hands and wondered, like me, what they symbolized afterward.

Though, I am sure she didn’t wonder long.  She dove into her dream of earning her nursing license.  She shuffled her three kids back and forth between homes and made sure they would never have to doubt her love for or commitment to them.  She couldn’t have known she would meet Rob, that they would fall in love, that their children would come to treat the others’ as siblings, that they would buy a home and get married and try happily ever after one more time.

She just set out to live life richly.  Angela doesn’t waste time worrying about things she can’t control, and it’s one of the many qualities about her that inspire me.  If she had never met Rob, her life would have been different, but I have no doubt that she would have ensured it was equally rich.  My list of Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties is my blueprint for following in her confident footsteps.  In eight months, I’ve accomplished eight goals.   It may not come in the form of a wedding gift, but I want a happily ever after for myself even if it doesn’t look like I thought it would.  Like with the floral arrangements, I think we have to take what we’re given and make beauty from it.

When Charming suggested I spend more time visiting him this summer, my first thought was for my gardens.  I’ve toiled in the soil too hard and too long to let my plants whither in the unforgiving summer heat.  I need to be here to water and nurture them.  Left unattended, they’ll surely fail.  If Angela’s centerpieces with their wooden signs symbolize the beauty of their union, then my garden represents my commitment to live life fully. When my garden thrives, I do, too.

My very first tomatoes and cucumbers should be ripe by weeks’ end, and I plan to pick the baby spinach and enjoy my first homegrown salad.  I’ve enough parsley, cilantro, and basil to share.  Tiny shoots of green and white indicate my red onions and garlic are coming along.  In the front yard, the evening glories just started climbing the front porch slats, and the caladium ties together the begonias, impatiens, and green, leafy mums.

I’m learning as I go in my garden, and I never repeat the same mistake twice.  I observe the plants almost daily, attending to any needs.  My knock-out roses won’t be used in any wedding decorations, but they greet me when I get home, saying, “Something beautiful lives here.”  The only sign in my garden is one made by my aunt boasting my last name.  My last name.

My garden surrounds something beautiful, and I long for my life to reflect the same growth and prosperity as I see in the petals of my hanging fuchsia baskets.  When I cut the stems on the first cucumber and tomato, I’ll be making a different arrangement that’s equally therapeutic as painstakingly placing each bud in just the right spot in the vase to make the final product greater than the sum of its parts.

Angela and Rob’s wedding was also greater than the sum of its parts. I’ll admit I was excited to see all of my floral arrangements on display, from the lapel of the groom’s father to the sweetheart’s table at the reception.  As much as I strive to thrive on my own, I’ll also admit that what put this day in running for the best day ever was Charming.

Someone told me at the wedding that I looked like a Disney princess.  Charming made sure that I felt like one.  When I tended to bridesmaid responsibilities, he engaged in dancing and conversation.  When we hit the photo booth, he tried on silly hats and made funny faces.  When the DJ played Charming’s specially-requested swing set, he spun me around the dance floor.

We watched my best girl marry the next love of her love, and we celebrated the second chance at happily ever after.  I didn’t catch the bouquet. The truth is, I didn’t even reach for it.  Because as much as I long for forever and always, I don’t want my happily ever after to be contingent upon that end.

So I’ll learn Italian and grow a vegetable garden and achieve my ideal weight.  And while I’m at it, I’ll look into Charming’s eyes as he dips me on the dance floor and feel what it must be like when my evening glories’ first blossom opens.  My garden is a symbol for abundance.  It’s much preferred to the brokenness of in-tact rings of metal.

I admire Angela because she has always found a way to thrive by taking what she has at hand and turning it into something beautiful.  It’s what I did with her centerpieces.  I hope I can do it with me, too.

A Second Chance at the First Tee

Seven years ago, I ensured I would never again have to grab for a bouquet in a gamble against single ladies where the odds were always stacked against me.  I tossed a floral arrangement over my shoulder in the banquet hall of a Presbyterian church in Nashville, a wedding band affixed to my throwing hand.  Some other hopeful girl caught dreams of nuptials that day.  And my marriage began.

We were young and fearfully optimistic.  Stubborn and hot-tempered.  My targeted intentionality met his slow, steady pace with frustration.  My direct, straightforward speech stirred his calm demeanor just long enough to glimpse the passive aggressive mass beneath the surface of the silence.

But give us a piano, and the silence abated.   We loved each other best in music.  I’ve yet to meet another man with whom my mezzo-soprano voice mingled so effortlessly.  He had a Triton keyboard we could record on.  Sometimes he’d play me Brian McKnight or John Legend.  Sometimes we’d sing worship songs.  Sometimes we’d write music together or translate a favorite tune from Spanish.

So when my librarian friend Melissa offered me a free piano, I didn’t hesitate.  It was mammoth – it took five guys and a few hours to move it and not without injury.  It was a vertical, nearly as tall as it was wide.  It was a Victorian, chestnut in color with ornate, decorative woodwork and a mirror that cracked when we moved to our last home together, and our friends swore they would never lift the monstrosity again.

That piano was our piano.  Back when “we” and “our” were pronouns that naturally meant my husband and me.  My friend Angela is getting married this weekend.  Like me, she’s been divorced.  Naturally, she wants “we” to be permanent this time around.  She’s fearless and assertive to an inspiring degree.  Angela doesn’t even let songs with past significance interfere with her ability to enjoy them now.

But my husband and I made music together.  It was an experience.  I can’t imagine a day when hearing Back at One doesn’t conjure the memory of his voice and his passion.  His fingers finding the right keys even while he’s looking at me, and my voice finding the harmony to complement his melody.

That’s why we loved each other best in music.  He took the lead.  He was confident and committed.  He picked the songs.   And I complemented him.

It isn’t surprising, really, in retrospect, that shortly after we stopped playing that piano together, we stopped altogether.  Mom flew down to help me move some of my things to a storage facility before heading back to Syracuse to live with her and Dad.  There was no moving the piano with just the two of us.  I left it with him.  Like listening to our treasured songs, playing its keys without him would feel hypocritical.

Weddings are obviously an altered experience for the post-divorce attendee.  I was reminded of this on Saturday when Charming took me to his friend’s wedding.  During the ceremony, when they approached the exchanging of vows, I could feel my muscles tighten.  I was aware of Charming’s hand in mine.  The best character attribution I could conjure in that moment was that I was a fraud… and if everyone weren’t staring at the beautiful bride and groom, I was certain they could know that just by looking at me.

This was my fifth post-divorce wedding, so I knew the feeling wouldn’t last past the church parking lot.  I was already laughing again by the time my heels clicked on pavement.  The reception was held at The Congressional Country Club in Maryland.  Excited to have squeezed into an impossibly small dress for the evening, I coaxed Charming’s friend into snapping some photographs with the backdrop of the most exquisite golf course I’ve ever seen.  (Though I’m not sure I could drive off the first tee with an entire wedding reception looking on from the balcony enjoying horderves and an open bar).

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We literally danced the night away.  The band’s selection of wedding dance music was divine intervention.  For a few hours, no one else existed.  Charming and I rivaled the swing moves my brother and I made at my Aunt Becky’s wedding back in high school.  A couple complimented us after spinning our way through Build Me Up Buttercup.  I thought about my ex-husband during the ceremony, but not the reception.

The pronouns “we” and “us” don’t refer to him anymore.  There was a different “we” sweeping the dance floor.  And there’s a different piano in my dining room.  It’s an upright, fitting perfectly in front of the windows without blocking the light.  It’s cherry in color, its woodwork and Queen Anne’s feet matching my living room furniture.  Really, the piano is a better fit for me.  It’s different, but it’s better.

And of course that’s what I hope about the current “we”.  Charming and I followed our day of nuptials with an outing to church, an afternoon celebrating his grandma’s birthday, and an evening making repairs to his rental property up north.  Each weekend event highlighted the blessing that our second chances afford us.  Our common interests, couple routines, and shared desire to correct past shortcomings had me driving back to Hampton with a smile on my face… despite my broken A/C unit.

No doubt Charming was thinking about his ex-wife during the ceremony, too. We both made those vows to other people seven years ago, within a month of one another.  Both of those marriages ended.  They were supposed to be forever.  When I stand up for Angela on Saturday, I vow to support her union long after the rice has settled.  I believe for her that this “we” will be permanent, that this second chance is all she’ll need, that these vows won’t ever be broken.

The vows will be tested, though.  We know that now, the post-divorce wedding attendees.  At the surface level, we’ll jest about what we would have done differently at our own ceremony or reception, but rarely will you hear us share openly about what we would have done differently in the marriages that followed.  I spent six months of my life and loads of my parents’ money on a day that marked the start of a marriage that wouldn’t make it more than four years.

There wasn’t a bouquet toss last weekend, much to my relief.  I’m not an optimistic, young, single hopeful anymore.  Like fairy dust, the magic of catching the bride’s bouquet would probably only work if I believed in it.  At Angela’s celebration, I will undoubtedly be reminded of my wedding day.  It’s natural.  As natural as “we” used to mean someone else entirely.

But this different “we” that Angela is forming is a better one.  We believe that this one will be the last one.  That’s why we’re willing to make the vows again, someday, even those of us who feel like frauds.  It’s when we’re dancing with Prince Charming after our hearts have been broken that we dare to believe in second chances and happy endings.

Getting it Right

Everything I need to know, I learned from the board game Life.  Decide early if you want to pursue the college or straight-into-career path.  Lose your job, and reconsider higher education.  Give generously to celebrate your friends when they marry.  Unexpected lawsuits cripple even the financially blessed.  Life will throw you curve balls, unexpected adventures and losses.  But there’s no divorce in the game of Life.

On Saturday before exciting excursions to the Blackbeard Pirate’s Festival and Fort Monroe Beach, Charming and I recovered from our work-weeks by playing a board game at the dining room table.  Encompassing the board were dollar bills of varying denominations, bank loans, Spin-to-Win and Life tiles, property deeds, and a mass of career cards.  Charming popped a blue peg into his green car’s driver’s seat and met my pink peg in a blue car at the starting line.

Not surprisingly, we both started on the college career path.   My boyfriend drew the Computer Consultant.  As I randomly chose my card, I hoped I wouldn’t get the Teacher.  Let me dream a little in this game, and I did, as an Accountant.  Charming was way out ahead of me early on, both in distance and money.

Then he got married, and I was admittedly jealous, hating to fork over $10,000 to celebrate his success in the face of my own failure.  I played by the rules, as I have so often done in the past.  Countless friends have married and started families, and I dutifully gave gifts off registries and from the heart.   When my little brother announced they were pregnant two Christmases ago, I cried.

I was happy for them but simultaneously shocked and jolted.  It hadn’t occurred to me that, five years my junior, he would be a father before I was a mother.  I could still remember holding him in my skinny pre-pubescent arms; my own living doll was going to have a son.  In the living room, busying myself with cleaning up torn wrapping paper and ribbons, I felt the weight.  Always an auntie, never a Mom.

When that giggling bundle was placed in my arms for the first time this past Christmas, those initial sentiments were long-forgotten in the abyss of things our families all know about but never talk about.  I think it’s possible to be genuinely happy for another person’s success and still grieve your own losses, but envy is never profitable.  At Charming’s behest several months ago, I cleared the air with my sister-in-law the day I met their son.  It was good to consciously unburden myself of the jealousy, thereby undercutting its power over my subconscious.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that the first reaction in a simple game mirrors my personal, natural reaction.  I couldn’t know that the tides would soon turn, that a completely random spin of a number would move my car just the right number of spaces to unleash my jealousy on my opponent by suing him for $100,000.  He had to take out a loan to buy his starter house.  Now, I was succeeding.

I’d sue him two more times before the game was over, but that was only after we’d both married and lost our jobs.  See, there are certain spaces that all players stop on for major life events.  Getting married is a guarantee in this game.  Losing your job is another.  And in these two spaces are one beneficial life lesson and one common misnomer.

While we may advance through our lives and never lose a job, the likelihood that we or someone we know will experience that major life event warrants a game played for fun that also helps prepare us for potential courses of action if we find ourselves there in reality, decades after playing Hasbro’s game.  While at play, we reevaluate options the way we must at every decision point.

I opted to go back to school, supporting myself as an Entertainer to finally earn my MD and essentially seal my win over my opponent who’d foregone more schooling and chosen a living as a policeman… but he made money off me for speeding a few times whenever I’d spin a ten.  I couldn’t be satisfied.  He had three children, and I had none.  I sued him again.

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I had a daughter just before hitting midlife, and my career was flooding my bank account.  I sued Charming a third time.  If this were real life, I would think, “What have I become?”, but luck was shamelessly in my favor.  I thought my chance to have a son was over when I entered the stretch before retirement, but at the last possible space to offer the chance, I had a tiny blue peg in the back seat.  Charming had three kids to put through college on nothing but bank loans, and I’d bought a bigger home out of pocket.

This was the life, right?  Family, career, financial freedom?   But in this game, a marriage at least, was guaranteed, a stopping point on all players’ journeys.  There is no divorce.  There’s never a question if you ended up with a kid (and I’m sure if I counted the tiles, the odds are statistically in your favor) that you didn’t first have a spouse to shoulder the burden, or at least take the wheel and find my pink peg in the passenger’s seat (which you can be sure actually happened).

On the game board, there is no chance that the person you claimed forever as the love of your life won’t be around for children or grandchildren.  Charming and I have both witnessed our marriages bite the dust, both seen missed opportunities like those spaces we’d hoped we would land on if the numbers had just worked out.  They didn’t work out.

And there are no instructions in the game of Life for that.  Maybe some things I needed to know, I learned from a game; however, there are more curve balls possible in real life than there are spaces on a game board.  The most important take-away from a Saturday morning beating Charming at Life is that you make choices and they have predictable and unexpected outcomes; you will experience the good (publishing a book, family vacations) and the bad (being sued, breaking a leg).

On a lesser note, I suppose a most encouraging reminder in my late-life pink peg’s surprising fertility is that time is not against me.  And for Charming, perhaps he would be encouraged to take a occassional risk in life as he did in the game, letting it all ride on a Spin to Win bet and gambling his way to a close second-place finish that saw his kids through college.

I’ve always loved this childhood game.  When I play, I feel like I have a chance to get it right.  Maybe the real, practical lesson in Life is that we always have a chance to get it right further down the pathway.