avian art, Birdhouses Feeders and Baths, celebrate the ordinary, Circle K, crediting marvels, David Bruce, Dr. Seuss, garden art, greeting card industry, Hallmark, Home and Garden, Inspiration, Lewis Hyde, Life Lessons, mesquite tree, mother's day industry, Phoenix, Shel Silverstein, weathered wood bird houses
In a special for CNBC, Anna Andrianova shares the National Retail Federation’s estimate that $20.7 billion will be spent next Sunday, Mother’s Day in America. How easily that number rolls off the tongue – twenty-point-seven-billion-dollars – but what does it mean? A lot, of course. Years ago, I told my students to avoid using “a lot” in their compositions, because it was too vague. “A lot” of money to, say, Oprah or Donald Trump, is something altogether different from “a lot” of money in my wallet, the latter implying I remembered to bring cash for parking or I happened upon the hundred-dollar bill I once hid between two wallet-size photographs, knowing I would forget about it and be surprised when I found it. Typically, I only carry a debit card, and if I have cash at all, it is probably the result of returning to Marshalls a thing I didn’t need in the first place and opting for cash instead of a credit to my card when the nice cashier asks how I would like my refund.
To help me appreciate what one, let alone twenty billion dollars looks like, I did some poking around and found at Wealthy Matters which may or may not be a reliable online source, that for this sum, I could stay at the Burj Al Arab luxury hotel
in Dubai. For 137 years (at $20,000 a night). Or I could spring for forty idyllic private islands. Multiply that by twenty, and you will come very close to understanding just how well Hallmark will fare on Mother’s Day followed closely by those in the business of flowers, jewels, and chocolate. On their corporate page, Hallmark proudly declares, “cards reflect our culture.” I’ll say. There is a greeting card to capture almost every sentiment and to exploit every ounce of guilt.
Still, and although I am not his mother, my husband knows I will be annoyed should he not take advantage of the opportunity the second Sunday in May presents to commission for me a work of art by our teenage daughter. There are twenty-point-seven-billion reasons why he does not need to trudge to the mall, our girl in tow, searching for a “for my wife on Mother’s day” card or a gift he can purchase for me on her behalf. True, there have been birthdays, Mother’s Days, and Christmasses past, when my favorite duo visited very antique shop in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, on a quest for something bijou that would bring whimsy to our backyard. Every one of those gifts, I accepted with glee, from napping cats wrought of stone and metal, to fading windsocks and wind chimes of bamboo that would toil less were they hung from a cypress tree on the coast of Monterey.
I know my odds of acquiring a piece of original art by my daughter are greatly increased if her father asks her to do it and if his request coincides with a federal holiday or a special occasion on the United States calendar. Of course, she will do it because it is Mother’s Day, and it doesn’t even bother me if it feels obligatory; I want frozen in time this time in which she loves to draw, to create at her own pace and to her own drummer, without pressure from deadlines or critics. Admittedly, I fear this passion for art might disappear as though a phase to be outgrown, a bit like the way she eventually took umbrage against pigtails in her hair, Mary Janes on her feet, playing the piano, and leaving notes for Tooth Fairy Zoe and an assortment of pixie pals that live in the trees in our backyard.
As a child, I was imaginative, but there is little hard evidence of it. I was not a “maker” of things, unlike my mother who, out of necessity, made clothes and cakes and what would now be called “artisanal” paper packages tied up with string and my father who made gardens grow, cars run, houses more spacious, and children happy with his hand-crafted toys (he even made a guitar for his brother when he was just ten years old). Maybe this explains my enchantment with my daughter’s labors of love, and when she lets me in while wondering aloud where life will take her, I jump at the opportunity to tell her she will never make enough money to do work she does not love and to remind myself of something I underlined in red a long time ago, in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World:
Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus–these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify … writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.
The older I get, the more I appreciate evidence of such labors all around me – from Sophie’s drawings to the dark boughs of our Chilean mesquite tree weighed down with a haphazard assortment of wind-chimes and rusty things that twirl and spin in warm desert winds. From the uppermost branches, hang bird houses of weathered wood, veritable treasures crafted from trash scavenged by artisan, David Bruce. In his hands, scrap lumber and sheet metal, random doorknobs, rusty garden fixtures, tarnished silver forks and spoons turn over and into art.
For about a decade, Bruce constructed these whimsical abodes that could withstand the extreme Phoenix temperatures in his workshop, “Weathered Wonders.” A welcome splash of Dr. Seuss-decor on an otherwise humdrum street in Phoenix, it was displaced in 2009 when the ubiquitous Circle K moved in. Were it not for that utterly depressing fact, our great mesquite tree would be home to more of his “avian art.” As Bruce says himself: “For some people, these birdhouses are like Lays potato chips. They can’t just have one.”
I am one of those people and driving by that space where he once labored, I long to see the row of houses he set down each morning on an urban sidewalk, little labors of love in better days.
Around his fiftieth birthday, in the 1991 collection, Seeing Things, poet Seamus Heaney writes the beautiful “Fosterling,” the beginning of which finds him recollecting a picture he loved at school, presumably a landscape of the County Derry of his childhood:
“That heavy greenness fostered by water“
At school I loved one picture’s heavy greenness –
Horizons rigged with windmills’ arms and sails.
The millhouses’ still outlines. Their in-placeness
Still more in place when mirrored in canals.
I can’t remember not ever having known
The immanent hydraulics of a land
Of glar and glit and floods at dailigone.
My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind.
Heaviness of being. And poetry
Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens.
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.
And here I sit, on the south-western corner of another continent, far away, and at fifty crediting Heaney’s poetry and back home and wondering how or why I waited so long to see things above, within, and around me . . . to credit the marvelous.
Happy Mother’s Day.