Draw A Chalk Circle [on Merely A Thought Monday]

There are charts for everything. Definitions and distinctions of value meant to clarify but, in the end, make life seem more and more farcical. For instance, we recently were directed to a worker’s compensation website and learned that losing your hand in an accident is worth 400 weeks of [minimal] compensation. The dominant hand is worth more than the non-dominant hand. Fingers have less value-in-weeks than a thumb. Just imagine the guys-and-gals-in-suits sitting around a conference table discussing the value of a human hand as expressed in weeks. Sometimes I’m certain that we live inside the mind of Gary Larson.

Is it no wonder that we are confused about the value of a human life? We have actuaries calculating human-life-value and making smart looking tables with support graphs to answer this most fundamental question. I’m certain that those guys-and-gals-in-suits sitting around the conference table would come up with a different answer if it was their hand or fingers or toes or life on the chopping block. If it was their child’s eye or foot. Charts, like all data points, are not personal.

We awoke this morning to the news that the latest mass shooting (if 4 or more people are shot it is, according to the FBI, considered “mass”) was in our town. We are number 47 since March 16. March 16 is the date of the mass shooting in Atlanta; 8 people were killed. Here are some nifty and comprehensive charts on gun violence in America.

When I was in elementary school we did safety drills, crawling under our desks, in the event of an atomic bomb drop. Although I was certain that my desk was not going to protect me in the event of an atomic explosion, I was comforted by the knowledge that the enemy was far away, external. Now, our children in elementary school do active shooter drills and they, too, know that their desks offer little protection. But their predicament is dire: the enemy they face is right here. It is everywhere, internal. Sitting under my desk I knew there was an entire military machine between me and the potential dropper of atom bombs. Sitting under their desks, our children know with certainty that there is nothing, not even legislative will, standing between them and the ubiquitous shooter.

I once listened to an author speak about the difficulty of writing a farce about the USA. He said, “Before you can a publish the book, the fictional farce that you’d written will have actually happened.” Our scary farce: the only answer we can muster to daily mass killing in schools, grocery stores, work places, concerts, houses of worship…the only idea that the markets will support in an out-of-control gun culture, is more guns. Sales charts and political donation data drive policy to dedicated inaction. [For some lightheartedness in the midst of this dark-and-dismal post, go here. I laughed aloud when I heard comic Steve Hofstetter riff on gun control.]

What is the value of a human life?

We had a lovely conversation in the grocery store. An accidental path crossing with friends. Sue remarked, as we compared life experiences, that our personal challenges are meant to remind us that we are still here.

What is the value of a human life as determined by those of us who are still here?

Bertold Brecht wrote a play called The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Two women claim to be the mother of a small child. A judge has to settle the case. He has a small circle drawn on the ground. The child is placed in the circle. The judge instructs the women to stand on opposite sides of the circle, each taking one of the child’s hands. The woman that successfully pulls the child from the circle will be declared the mother. One woman quickly yanks the child from the circle. The other will not pull. She refuses. She cannot do harm to her child. She proves herself to be the true mother.

I wonder what we might value if we could put down our charts and data points and amendments-as-seen-in-isolation-from-all-the-other-amendments, step beyond our abstractions, and draw a simple circle in the dirt. What might we discuss if we placed a small child in the circle, and considered the value of that one precious life? My bet is that none of us would yank that child out of the circle of life. We’d do everything imaginable to protect the child from harm. To keep it safe. Sales graphs and actuary tables and every other dehumanizing analytic would drop away. We would, in considering the beating heart of our public dangers, make the safety of the child, of every child, our personal challenge. It would slap us awake and remind us that we are still here. Alive. And, as custodians of the circle of each and every actual life, we are responsible to and for each other.

read Kerri’s blog post about STILL HERE

Walk With Joey [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

We owe Joey Coconato a debt of gratitude. He has unwittingly made our journey through the pandemic-year-of-isolation, not only bearable, but expansive. We’ve hiked with him through the canyons of Utah, the back country of Yellowstone, off trail in Glacier National Park. We’ve crossed glaciers with him, forded multiple rivers, traversed gorgeous rock benches, dodged thunderstorms, quivered at some serious exposure, shivered and sweated. We’ve cracked a beer with him in celebration of standing on a high pass. We’ve enjoyed some box wine and dubious meals while staring into a crackling fire.

His YouTube channel, My Own Frontier, is the chronicle of a man who is more John Muir than Steve Jobs. He’s pretty much left the mania of this society for the majesty of the outdoors. His early backpacking films betray a man on the cusp of jumping into the life he wants to live; his look more urban than rustic, a man preparing to find his voice. Within a year, he robustly unzips his tent and in a spirit free and playful announces in a voice undivided, “Well good morning! We’ve made it to day #2!” His enthusiasm for the new day makes us smile. The jump is complete, his hair is long, his equipment is in full disarray from overuse.

Joey walks the earth. He is living the kind of life that most people desire but fear. He’s tossed away his safety net. He stands face to face with the great unknown. He makes a plan but adjusts according to the forces of nature. He places himself squarely within those powerful forces with no shield or 401K. Rather, he invests in a deep respect for the lightning and proper relationship with the bears. Finding a beautiful meadow, enjoying the color of the aspen trees or the rock formations in a canyon, is his gold. He establishes his camp so that he might enjoy the views and spend time with the stars.

He’s quick to tell us that he is not a guide. He enjoys making his films and hopes that we enjoy them, too, but we are not to plan our back country trips according to his story or route. It is the very thing that we find compelling about him. He is clear. He is not invested in any way in what others do or think. He is creating his way. Your way is entirely up to you.

But he is wrong about one thing: he is, without trying, a guide. He is a master of simple appreciation. He’s stripped away the Walmart stampede and cuts through the luxury car illusion. With the wind gently blowing through his mic, standing on the shore of a mountain lake, and lets slip his quiet awe: “Sometimes I’m struck that this has been here every single day of my life. It was here before I was born. It will be here long after I’m gone.” He is a guide of perspective, a teacher of value, one of those rare beings that doesn’t get lost in the glitter and the noise.

read Kerri’s blog post about JOEY

Value The Cake [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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When you choose an artist’s path the odds are you will always be looking for work. In the United States it is the rare artist that makes their living through their artistry. Staying afloat requires a layer-cake-strategy: the bottom layer is the job you take to make money (waiting tables). The second layer is the job you take that somehow relates or comes close to the artistry (teaching). The top layer, the holy grail layer, is the art itself. Few artists resent or resist this reality. They are called to it. It’s more a question of who they are than what they choose to do. It’s also true that few artists survive the hardship beyond the age of 30.

In my life I have dug ditches, cleaned chicken coups, delivered bread, unloaded mattresses from semis, waited tables and been licensed as a massage therapist (to name only a few). I’ve been credentialed twice, been an adjunct professor a few times, founded an experiential learning program, been a general manager and managing director of theatre companies, and an artistic director twice. I’ve had a consulting practice, an international coaching practice, run around in the world of entrepreneurs, drawn cartoons and children’s books. I’ve painted all my life. I’ve directed plays and written plays. I have seven book outlines in my files, none of which will make it to a final form. I’ve performed with symphonies, written and told stories at conferences. At this point, I have a very hard time answering the dinner party question, “So, what do you do?”

What do I do? My friends in Seattle used to tell me that I was the most successful unsuccessful person that they knew. Yes. I am an artist.

If I answer the dinner-party-question with the truth, I am an artist, the inevitable follow-up question,”Do you make a living doing that?” used to make me cringe and feel as though I needed to hide or make excuses for my life. Or lie. “Well, I have this layer cake…” Last year my dear friend, Dwight, popped back into my life for an evening. He asked the question and I started the old tap-dance. I thought if I talked long enough I might find credibility in the eyes of my friend. And, then I remembered that the life lesson is not to find credibility in my friend’s eye, but in my own. I stopped the dance and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” We laughed.

I do know this: I am an artist. I chose this path and it chose me. Sometimes I make money through my work. Mostly I do not. I’ve tried putting that piece of myself on the shelf in the closet and I failed. I can’t do it. Artistry, for me, is about much more than making paintings or plays. It is not something I do. It is something I am. It’s a path, a way of fully living this life.

I am in the job hunt cycle again. Writing resumes feels akin to answering the dinner-party-question. How can I make you see that I have value when the only value you recognize is monetary? I can’t. How can I make potential employers see value in my rich diverse set of experiences and, therefore, skills, when the bot weeds me out because I am not singular? I can’t. What the HR-world sees as unfocused is, in actuality, a hyper focus. How can I make the HR-world see the rich value of an artist when they only understand the word as an ego-uplift-phrase for hard working sandwich makers? I can’t.

I just read this question: what are the limits you have set for your life? Many years ago I worked with a man. He owned a tent and party supply business. He worked very, very hard. He drank too much. He bought the business on the day he forever stopped playing his trumpet for a living. I asked if he ever missed playing. He looked away and said, “I can’t think about it.”

I think about it everyday. And, luckily for me, I know beyond doubt that my artistry is central, essential. It is who I am, not what I do. It is not a word I’d pair with “sandwich.” It is what calls me beyond limits. It serves as a constant threshold. It stirs me, challenges me, causes me to listen deeply and feel keenly. It requires me to take chances. It asks me to open my eyes and see beyond what I think. Is there value in that?

 

read Kerri’s blog post about ARTISTS (sandwich and otherwise)

 

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Mourn The Loss [on KS Friday]

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28 years ago, on this day, Kerri’s older brother, Wayne, died of lung cancer. If you want to know how she feels about it, you need only listen to LAST I SAW YOU. Grief made utterly beautiful in its yearning.

It is the gift of the artist to transform, to turn the darkest day, the breaking heart, into something bearable. It is the gift of the artist to communicate what cannot be captured in language, to transport us, in a safe way, into and through the hurt so we might touch the unfathomable depth of love. It is the gift of the artist to open new pathways and possibilities, to guide communities into and through impossible conversations. To point the way to a new story, a new perspective growing from an old and ancient root.

In my mind it is the greatest loss when an artist turns against their artistry. The entire world loses on the day an artists says, “Why bother.” There’s no money in it. The artist loses most of all because they’ve bitten the poison in the American apple. They wither and die. Not everything is or should operate like a business. Education is not nor ever should be a business. Worship is not a business. Healthcare is not nor ever should be a business. Run them that way and the priorities flip. The greater is lost in the lesser. When making money becomes more important than health or care or spirit or the expansion of minds, we lose our way. We send our kids back to school during a pandemic to open the economy. Sacrificial lambs. Throw them into a volcano to make it rain.

What we value in this nation is abhorrent.

And then there is Kerri. What a gift. What a loss. She read today that someone is now making silverware out of old CDs. “Look,” she said, showing me the article. “We have a basement filled with CDs! Maybe we should have gone into the silverware business!” Proving to herself once again that her gift is less than worthless. Worth less gift. No business.

Great! I thought but did not say. A world filled with forks but void of your music. No one to lead us through the dark, no way to reach the truly beautiful.

“My paintings,” I said, feigning alliance, “are destined for a thrift store.” I’ve given up the fight with her (though, by this post you can see that I am a liar).

I continue to paint with no illusion about “sales” or “showing” or the other necessities of “business.” It’s for me, now. Transformation of dark to light can be selfish, too. Personal. After all, for me, it’s always been a spiritual path. Business necessities pale in the comparison.

If you want to know what I [and Wayne] feel about Kerri turning her back on her artistry, you need only listen to LAST I SAW YOU. Listen for the strings. It will break your heart.

 

LAST I SAW YOU is on the album THIS PART OF THE JOURNEY

 

read Kerri’s blog post about LAST I SAW YOU

 

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last i saw you/this part of the journey ©️ 1997 kerri sherwood

meditation ©️ 2015 david robinson

Read Marc’s Notes [on DR Thursday]

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One of my most prized possessions is a handmade notebook, stitched together by a young DeMarcus Brown, mentor of my mentor, in a time before corner drugstores and readily available school supplies. It is filled with the fading pencil notes Marc made when he was a student learning about color, probably in 1918 or 1919. It occurred to me as I wrote that guesstimate of time that he was scribbling notes about color during a pandemic.

It reads like an enthusiastic discovery of miracles. On page one the word COLOR is triple underlined. “Light is a form of radiant energy transmitted by wave movement through SPACE and is perceived VISUALLY. Opposite is DARKNESS. Qualities of Light: 1) Physically – Life giving. 2) Mentally – Intelligence. 3) Spiritually – Divine Wisdom.”

From Marc, on page one, on day one of his study of artistry, I learned that color is life giving, intelligent, and a source of divine wisdom.

“Objects reveal light.  All forms and substances REFLECT or ABSORB LIGHT. THINK OF COLOR AS LIGHT REFLECTED.”

There are other words and phrases: vibration, proportion, visual sensation, light is individualized by its contact with substances into color. COLOR is Light PROPORTION.

All of this awe is written in block letters on the first two pages. His enthusiasm is palpable. As you move through Marc’s notebook of discoveries, his writing shifts to cursive, he matures in color and intention. His passion intensifies. He is beginning to see.

Toward the end of his notebook, in his growing sophistication, you’ll read these phrases:  “Train our eyes to DEGREES of Neutrality. Establish relationships of Intensity. Hue. Value”…and a reminder “vibrating surface!”

The stitching that holds the notebook together is impeccable. Beautiful. Careful. Considered. It took him time to make his notebook. It mattered.

I can’t help my metaphor mind from finding a universe of guidance in Marc’s notebook for a nation that perpetually struggles with color – or, ironically, the negation of color. The fear of color relations. A commitment to a narrative of dominance, this or that but never both. A palette of loss. We’ve limited our color study to a polarity and eliminated the infinite shades of possibility in the picture we might paint. Insistent chiaroscuro.

What happens when the door of possibility opens? When change, that big blank canvas, sits on the easel?

In the middle of his 90’s, Marc gave me his paint brushes, his paint box. “Use them!” he said, “Don’t save them for remembrance.” He knew I was sentimental. “Reverence is off limits. These are not meant to collect dust on a shelf.” He laughed, “Use the damn things. Don’t be safe!”

Color. Vibration. Relationship. Proportion. Life Giving. Intelligent. Divinely Wise. Walk into the unknown. Learn to see.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about COLOR

 

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Doubt It [on DR Thursday]

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In our vast catalogue of projects-that-went-nowhere is a single panel cartoon proposal we called At The Door. A dog and a cat at the door. One wants to go out and explore the world. The other is content to stay forever inside in a known and predictable world. One dreams of adventure, the other dreams of lunch. The progressive instinct meets the conservative impulse.

Because it was largely existential and mostly not funny, we were certain that it would never gain traction. We developed it anyway. Why?

One of the great mysteries of an artist’s life is the Riddle Of Attraction. Why are some pieces popular and others are not? The crux of the riddle is this: what I consider my best work usually collects dust on the shelf while the pieces that I think inferior fly out the door. Kerri and I write everyday. We have a ritual call-and-response when we write something that we feel is meaningful or has real depth. I’ll say, “That’s a really good post.” She’ll reply, “That means no one will read it.” And, inevitably, it is true. The maddening moment comes when we post work that feels lacking and it is read widely across the globe.

There can be only one logical explanation: we must be the worst judges of our own artistic expression. We must have an inverted relationship with what has value and what does not when it comes to our own pieces. It must be true that artists are the last to objectively see their work. It’s a terrifying notion; if I think it is awful, it must be good. If I think it is good, it must be a delusion.

And so, we happily wrote and drew a cartoon with a dog and a cat at the door. Both critters looking out on the big world, one pulled to it while the other is repelled. It seemed like a bad idea so it just might have been good!

 

read Kerri’s blog post about AT THE DOOR

 

 

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Ripple [on KS Friday]

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“you make a difference in their life, even though they don’t know who you are, you make a difference.” ~ Kerri Sherwood, You Make A Difference

I catch myself in webs of my own weaving. There are things that I know to be true but willingly ignore when I am feeling blue and indulge in a warm bath of self-pity. For instance, my move to Wisconsin brought me to my great love but also came as a career killer. I have, in the past few years, spent inordinate amounts of time pondering my worth to the world. Beyond “husband,” who am I now that “no one” finds value in my work?

When my eyes and heart clear, I know that I have willingly stepped into the single greatest trap plaguing the Western world: investment in the notion that my experience – my life on this earth – is a product. That I must, as John O’Donohue writes, “…strive to garner a quota of significance from the world.”

How isolated we are, searching for purpose, trying to make a mark, seeking an experience, trying to find our voice,…have value, like so much property or stocks to be traded. Reduction. People as bottom lines. What is my value? What is yours?

I’ve decided that my favorite movie is ABOUT TIME. The main character, Tim, is afforded the opportunity to live each day over again. The second time through, instead of grinding out his task list and exhausting rush to achieve, he pays attention to the little things, the relationships he has all throughout the day. He is afforded the opportunity to shift his focus from “life as a product” to “life as relationship.” He makes a difference, not because he makes millions or wins the case, but because he smiles at the clerk of the convenience store. He pays attention to the “space between” and realizes he is nothing more or nothing less than a relationship. Ultimately, he has no need to live each day twice because he ceases throwing the first chance away. He releases the life-dulling-I-am-a-product-mentality and embraces the life-giving-I-am-a-relationship reality.

Sisyphus, in his first trip to the underworld, watches as a thousand souls wander the river bank, so lost in the fog of their own stories that they, each and every one, believe that they are all alone. Finally, their manic little stories play out, the fog surrounding them dissipates, and they see each other. In that moment, they return to their natural state, their most powerful state. They blend together into a single, vibrant mist (relationship). In that moment, Sisyphus is forever changed. He comes alive, returning to the upper regions, knowing that the real vitality, crackling life, is available if he looks beyond his isolating story-fog.

Instead of reducing his life to a measurable value, a few gold coins extracted from the world, Sisyphus expands beyond his little story-prison of worth-seeking to paying attention to what he brings to the moment, focusing on the shared space between. His life ripples and those ripples have no end. In fact, he understands that his life is a ripple.

Instead of trying to be somebody (separation) he simply recognizes and fully inhabits the utter miracle of his being (relationship). In that simple, profound shift, the difference is made.

It’s in Kerri’s song. You make a difference in their lives, even though they don’t know who you are. Your life, and their life, are one and the same thing.

 

YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE is available in iTunes& CDBaby

 

read Kerri’s blog post about YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE

 

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you make a difference ©️ 2003 kerri sherwood

Value It [on DR Thursday]

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“Creativity is a dance where the flow of the eternal gleams through the brittleness of time and the distance of space.” ~ John O’Donohue, Beauty

The arts are so often seen as unnecessary. They don’t pencil out. Hard to make money, yada yada. The budget just submitted by the current administration once again is attempting to cut the funding for and kill the National Endowment for the Arts. “A waste of money,” they say.

No way to measure it. Can’t be reduced to a spreadsheet.

Kerri was recently asked by her employer to calculate how many hours per week she spent working on her music. “What constitutes working on it?” she asked, “I think about it all the time. I’m constantly listening for and searching out good music. Does it qualify as working on it when I sit to play, to compose, to noodle on an idea?” She sighed the sigh that all artists sigh when asked to reduce their artistry to a number. “Maybe 125 hours a week? Does a lifetime playing, composing, conceptualizing, conducting, rehearsing and leading choirs count in my working on it” she quipped. They didn’t smile. The committee got together and determined her value based on their spreadsheet.

We know that when a society disappears from earth it leaves behind art and artifact. We discover what was important to the society by the arts they produced.  The architecture, the pottery, the scribbles on a cave wall. Their values expressed. Their arts – like ours – are the eternal gleam pressed into specific forms.

The arts are nothing less than the glue that keeps a society together. The common story is, after all, a story, and it is told through literature and theatre and dance and music and painting.

One of the necessary first acts of every dictator, after identifying a scapegoat, is to eliminate the artists, the thinkers, and the educators. It is a control strategy: rend the common story. Split the people. Then, make questioning and expressing a crime. Diminish reason. Eliminate the voice of imagination and reflection. Vilify the voice of dissension. Appeal to the reptile brain [that part of your brain that deals with the basic functions but has no reach into higher order thought].

Asking the question “why” and challenging the group-think is the artist’s and academic’s job. To discern between truth and lie. To open eyes. To open hearts. To open minds. Value beyond measure in a free society if the society values its freedom.

Yada yada.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about NEW MOTHER

 

 

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new mother ©️ 2017 david robinson

 

Spin Off Center [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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I’ve always been a bit mystified by the hyper-charge surrounding the word ‘change.’ It doesn’t matter which way the word slices, it will either evoke great fear and trepidation [we’ve always done it this way!] or it will reach to the deepest depths of yearning and impatience [we need to be different!]. Guard the bastion. Explore new worlds.

Organizations try to manage change. Yet, organizations sell their products as cutting edge. They promote themselves as leaders of change.

We celebrate change-makers. Game changers. We also honor the keepers of the flame. Rule keepers. We pride ourselves on our innovative spirit while pondering the loss of tradition.

Creative tension. Push, pull. It’s a balancing act, yes? A continuum. Where exactly is the hard line between progress and tradition?

Stepping into the unknown is never easy though, isn’t it true that each day of life is, in fact, a step into the unknown? The wheel spins on and on and on.

Growing old is not for wimps. That’s what Beaky said. We all do it. Movement is life and life is change.

We live in an interesting time. Everything is recorded. Evidence of change is everywhere. Actors get old. Politicians vehemently defend the opposite of what they vehemently defended 20 years ago.

The question is not about change or not change.  It is more about what we desire to be  steadfast in the midst of change. Circumstances change. Opinions change. Beliefs change. Traditions change. But, what is in the center of the wheel? Values like ‘honesty’ and ‘truth?’ Agreements of decency? A constitution?

What happens when those hubs are manipulated and simply fall away?

 

read Kerri’s blog post about CHANGE

 

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Know The Value [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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“What’s it worth?” This seems to be the least answerable question of our times. Its cousin question, “Is it real?” is under assault and so qualities like ‘value’ or ‘worth’ are less and less discernible.

For instance, I laughed heartily recently when I listened to a podcast Horatio sent my way. It was about the billions of dollars spent on our educational system of testing that has produced minimal results. It doesn’t work. Data, brain science, and common sense have known this for years. I can hear Tom now (and see his famous sigh-with-eye-roll), “It has to be real. It’s about relationship. It needs direct application.” Do the tests make for better education? No. Of course not. The opposite. And, we knew that before implementing the system of testing. So, what is real? What was it worth? The system consumes itself.

A few years ago, Kerri and I went to the Chicago Art Expo. We came upon a gallery installation, a single piece. It was priced at $40,000.00. A line of twine stretched across the booth. Clipped to the twine was a single household sponge. It had been dipped in paint. Kerri, using her outside voice, said to all who could hear, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” It was purchased. What was it worth? Was it real? It was the precursor to artist Maurizio Cattelan’s recent piece. He duct taped a banana to a wall. He’s now sold three versions for $120,000 apiece.  What is it worth? What is real? Art commenting on art. The system consumes itself.

Politics in America. It’s all about crowd size regardless of what the photograph reveals. [sorry, I couldn’t help myself]. There are so many that we actually keep a running tally of the presidential lies. We are slack-jawed at those who nod their heads and bellow their agreement with the demonstrably untrue. What is real? What’s it worth? The country hungrily consumes itself.

We haunt antiques stores. We rarely buy anything but enjoy the exploration. At School Days Mall, one of our favorite adventure antique grounds, Kerri turned and gasped. A paint-by-number landscape wearing a Minnie Pearl tag. “I recognize this painting!” she said, wide eyed. Her mom, Beaky, liked to paint and had a paint-by-number phase. The painting evoked a good story. It evoked a momentary possibility that this might be THE ONE Beaky painted. Kerri sent a text to her sister. They shared a memory. They reached through time and had a moment with their mother. Priceless.

Watching Kerri, so excited, text with her sister, it occurred to me that one reason we go to antiques stores is to touch stuff that comes from a time when value and worth were better understood. We go to the throwaways to find some substance. What is real is not in question.

Banana taped to the wall or paint-by-number landscape? What’s real? What’s it worth?

 

read Kerri’s blog post about PAINT-BY-NUMBER

 

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