little marvels for mother's day in America

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 would tell 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 than “a lot” of money in my wallet, the latter suggesting I remembered to bring cash for parking or I happened upon the hundred dollar bill I once hid between two 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 lady 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 atWealthy 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.

Still, and although I am not his mother, my husband knows I will be annoyed if he forgets to take advantage of the opportunity next Sunday 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. And, every one of those gifts, I have relished, from napping cats wrought of stone and metal, to fading windsocks and wind chimes of bamboo that would toil considerably less were they hung from a cypress tree on the coast of Monterey. 

This year, 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 is because it is Mother’s Day, and it doesn’t even bother me if it feels obligatory; the point is I want frozen in time this time in which she loves to draw,to create, at her own pace, to her own drummer, without pressure of deadlines or from critics. Admittedly, I’m slightly afraid that her 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 and Mary Janes on her feet, or 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 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 delighted with his hand-made toys (he even made a guitar for his brother when he was just ten years old).  This may explain, in part, my love for my daughter’s labors of love, and when she lets me in while wondering aloud what she will be when she grows up, I jump at the opportunity to tell her she will never make enough money to do work that she does not love, reminding me 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 these labors all around me – from Sophie’s drawings to the dark boughs of our Chilean mesquite tree that are 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. His workshop, “Weathered Wonders,” a welcome splash of Dr. Seuss-decor on an otherwise humdrum street in Phoenix, was displaced in 2009 when theubiquitous Circle K moved in. Were it not for that utterly depressing fact, our great mesquite tree would be home to even more of his “avian art.”  As Bruce says himselfFor 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 labored, I long to see the little row of houses he carefully arranged each morning on an urban sidewalk –  little labors of love in better days.

Around his fiftieth birthday, in the 1991 collection of his poetry, Seeing Things, Seamus Heaney writes the beautiful poem, “Fosterling,” the beginning of which finds him recollecting a picture he loved at school, presumably in County Derry:



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 am, on another continent, at fifty, crediting Heaney and home as I ask myself how or why I waited so long to see things above, within, and around me, to credit the marvelous.


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