Where I live rolling fields of soybeans, tobacco, and occasionally cotton are the familiar. I imagine it all looks like a patchwork quilt of various textures and patterns, from the sky. Driving by the pastures where the pair of old mules lived and died, on my way back to school at summer’s end, I see something unexpected. Sunflowers. Tall and tangled, bordering a garden. Light-seeking sentinels with open faces and inner resources as myriad as seeds. At sight of these yellow-petaled suns my heart leaps a little. Is this what they’re mostly for, sunflowers? Beyond seed, oil, fiber, beyond cleansing the soil and waters of nuclear radiation, burning with their own silent, mysterious fire just to inspire? I realize as I drive backroads I’ve not driven in a while that they are everywhere. All around me. Whole fields of them where I’ve never seen them before. They buoy my spirit. Whatever task lies before me, I am up to it. I stop at a store to buy sunflower seeds for my workday lunch salads, as if channeling the power of the sun while remembering what Van Gogh said, as he painted: The sunflower is mine, in a way.
My first encounter with sunflowers was in childhood summers spent deep in the countryside. My grandmother’s brother, who suffered trauma at birth and who lived alone in the old homeplace with his siblings looking after him, planted sunflowers in his garden. I marveled at their towering height and how their faces always followed the sun. Fields of sunflowers have indeed been planted to remove toxins from the soil after nuclear radiation. They are cleansing, healing, and surprisingly buoyant: their stems were used as filler for the first life jackets.
There could hardly be a more encouraging motif as the new school year gets underway.
Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the space and invitation to share these noticings in the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge.
It started with the painting on the otherwise unremarkable side of a building in an uptown shopping mall last summer. An unexpected portal:
Got me thinking a lot about imagination, passages, transitions, transcendence, overcoming…and faith. See how prominent the church is. And maybe a touch of magic—who has not encountered mysterious doors leading from one world to another in fantasy novels?
The Starry Night beckoned, took me in, adopted me. It became a personal motif during the COVID pandemic. Consider these definitions of motif:
a usually recurring salient thematic element (as in the arts); especially : a dominant idea or central theme. —Merriam-Webster
a symbolic image or idea that appears frequently in a story. —literaryterms.com
My version: A “salient” (noticeable, as in you can’t miss it) symbol that keeps recurring, that has significant meaning to a narrative. Which is, in this case, my life. For I began taking note of how often van Gogh’s famous painting appeared in my daily existence, and what it could mean. Perhaps it is those deep blues, or those stars, or the peaceful village, or the presence of the church, or all of the above, that impart a sense of calm, benevolence, and well-being to me in the time of crisis. Maybe much as the artist felt when he painted it.
I have The Starry Night on a mask. A sort of literal and figurative protection. I used its imagery in a poem I wrote about awe, the word that adopted me when I turned the pages of my planner from 2020 to 2021 and found it in a quote there on January 1st. Awe and well-being are also deeply linked. When I wrote the poem I was thinking of all those blues in the painting and how blue is the rarest color in nature. Like forgiveness. Hence my closing lines: “The color of forgiveness/in the blue hour.” Those lines were born of awe just after The StarryNight resurfaced yet again in a startling way; one day I will be able to explain, but the time is not yet ripe for that story. Let us leave it at love, for love and forgiveness do not exist apart from one another.
And so we come to February.
Where this quote appears in the pages of my planner:
He just keeps turning up everywhere I go.
I marvel at those words and their truth for an artist, a student, a teacher, a writer.
Furthermore, we learn life by doing it.
One more thing…
I recently stumbled across van Gogh’s paintings of shoes. I wasn’t aware that this was a favorite subject for him. The story is that he would buy old shoes from flea markets and wear them through mud until they were interesting enough to paint.
I have to wonder about the symbolism. Shoes are necessary protection in daily life. A motif with many meanings in many cultures. A fashion obsession and status symbol in some. Deep spiritual connotations in others; shoes are often mentioned in the Bible, especially removing them as an act of reverence and faith. I wonder if van Gogh thought while he painted about the places these shoes had been, the people who wore them, what their life-journeys were like. What stories the shoes might tell, maybe just metaphorically, humbly, in their layers of dust and mud from long, hard travels on this Earth.
Lots to ponder with van Gogh and his shoes.
As I travel through life in my own.
He really does keep turning up, everywhere I go.
I’ve found these to be the most comfortable since breaking my foot, a year ago today. Lots more to explore there, on brokenness and healing.
How perfect is it that they are Vans. Wherever I may Gogh.
written for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Our stories often remind us of where we’ve been, where we are going, and who we are. Writing them leads to surprising discoveries. Sometimes those within ourselves. Sometimes awe, at what lies beyond.
I saw the first one of the season just about a week ago, while driving along a back road on the blackest of nights. Through an infernal, eternal, cold Carolina rain, my headlight beams caught a flash of brown, a glimpse of white cottontail zigzagging like lightning off to the right.
—Spring is near.
The cheery thought sent me into a rabbit reverie.
My husband used to tell our boys when they were small that fog was really the rabbits making soup. I immediately envisioned hundreds of tiny cast-iron pots over miniature campfires out in the woods, with rabbits meticulously stirring and stirring the steaming contents—Where’d you get this fanciful idea? I asked. My husband smiled: It’s what my father used to tell me. To this day, our sons, grown men, look outside on a foggy day and nod sagely: “Rabbits making soup again.”
Baby rabbits hung out on our porch during the spring I was expecting the second of the two boys. The older one, seven turning eight, sat at the windows of his baby brother’s nursery-in-progress to watch them up close: Look, Mom, look! There they are! Easter bunnies!
I decorated the nursery with a Peter Rabbit theme.
The first good animal drawing that I ever did, that my first-grade classmates sincerely complimented, was of a rabbit. I didn’t tell them I’d traced it, as that seemed a totally insignificant point at the time.
I recalled my father mentioning the local radio station of his 1940s childhood, WRRF. He said it stood for We Run Rabbits Fast.
Life runs faster than rabbits, doesn’t it, Daddy. Too, too fast.
With that, all my rabbit thoughts left me as rapidly as they came.
Until I promptly stumbled upon this garden photo with two baby bunnies nestled in a head of—cabbage?
So that’s what this is about. I am clearly dealing with a motif.
Okay, Bunnies, I acknowledge you, your contribution to my life, your secret culinary arts, your near-omnipresence in children’s literature, your real and mystical connections to springtime, even your voracity.
I’m grateful for you.
I’m also thankful that I don’t have a garden for you to destroy, just saying.
And I am really, really sorry that I carried around that rabbit’s foot (dyed aqua) when I was nine. It wasn’t lucky anyway; that’s the year I broke my arm . . .
Seems I’ve long since redeemed myself, little friends.