I walk past this particular house regularly: a huge, red, rambling home on a corner lot, every inch of yard thoughtfully landscaped without looking stiff or effortful. Reclining chairs nestle in nooks created by open-slotted fences and furry shrubs beckoning passersby, at least this particular passerby, to lean back and enjoy a cup of coffee and a good library book. Artwork hangs—outside—tastefully and cheerfully. A metal sun sculpture looks down from one apex of the house and a moon from the other, a painting hangs near the front door under the porch roof, and found-object sculptures decorate the trees in the strip between the street and the sidewalk.
One day when I walked by, a woman pulled some minuscule offending plant from the lush strip of green between street and sidewalk.
“Is this your house?” I asked gesturing toward the front porch.
“Yes,” she said, a tad warily.
“I love all of the art you have displayed. I appreciate it every time I walk by.”
“Thank you,” she said, and returned to her work.
The thing is, I’ve been making assumptions about the homeowner, this woman. Not only does she have well-considered taste in art and landscaping, she’s wealthy to have such a huge and well-tended old house. If she still works, it’s because she does something meaningful and her unique talent is in demand, something like fundraising for Doctors Without Borders, or managing logistics for Mercy Corp.
I’m not envious. Well, okay, a little, because I also assume she rises early each morning, well rested, brews her coffee, chooses an outdoor nook and blanket or an indoor spot near books as carefully collected as her art to sip her coffee and start her purpose-filled day, knowing she can come home in the late afternoon to her solarium—the room with the tomato plant suspended outside the window drooping heavily with shiny red fruit but somehow not splattering any on the garage roof or onto the stone path below.
But yesterday, I realized something.
The poem currently displayed, the one I’ve read three or four times, is spoken by a man who has been awake and working since 5am at something meaningless and dreary. He wonders if his life adds up to anything at all. However, at 8pm, the poem shifts to present tense, and the man describes giving his son a bath with blue battle ships floating in the water and Buzz Lightyear shampoo. The man feels his life has led him to this moment of purpose, and he thanks his son for turning a day of emptiness into this one moment of ecstasy.
The poem makes me teary-eyed each time I’ve read it. It evokes that meaningless feeling so exquisitely that you don’t realize you’ve stopped breathing as you read the poem until the smell of the shampoo and the color of the toy battleships bring a flush of oxygen back into the air. And, if you’re me at least, you look down to cast your hat brim over your face in case someone’s around to see your eyes turn red and the slightest bit of water gather at the top of your cheek.
What I realized the other day when I read the poem again is that the homeowner posted this poem.
She took the time to remove the last poem, choose this one, print it, and slip it into the display case.
If you go to the trouble to build a poetry pole, you don’t just toss in any rhymed couplet that comes across your path. You choose something that matters to you.
Besides, as natural and lush as her yard looks, this woman has not placed, pruned, or nurtured anything without deliberation and intention.
The homeowner chose this poem.
Therefore, this homeowner knows emptiness.
At some point in her life, maybe at many points, maybe at this very moment, she has felt meaningless and empty. She has questioned the value of her efforts and the purpose of her days.
She too has had doubts or fears or failures, or all three.
How else could she identify with this poem? Why else choose this poem to display?
And yet, here she is, taking good care of an old yard and home, every square inch exuding warmth, beauty, and color.
When my days weigh down on me with doubt or fear or failure or all three at once, I am quick to assume all is lost. My vision for what’s still working, for what’s beautiful in spite of my disappointment, blurs.
This house with the poetry pole shows me that of course a woman can know emptiness, know it well enough to recognize the pain in a particular poem and choose to post that poem outside her house, while also being strong enough to nurture green, compose peaceful resting spots, and quietly express her warm spirit simply by the color of her house’s trim.
I guess I’m learning the same lesson again (like this post): difficult moments don’t have to mute the beautiful ones. They can even reside together, a woman experiencing emptiness while encouraging blades of grass to stand a little taller so their shadows deepen their particular shade of green.
She nurtures the gorgeous in her life while acknowledging the rest with a poem that turns emptiness into art.