Yeah, I know it's not a rose. But that's not really the point.
My mother was a sign reader. Not the cosmic kind. No astrology or tarot cards. Like actual signs. Store signs, billboards, street signs, yard signs. We’d be driving down the road, anywhere USA, and out of her mouth, aimed at no one in particular, would come: “Jimbo’s Gulf Shrimp,” “Yard Sale, July 1st, 8 a.m.” or “Martin Luther King Boulevard.” Usually, the observations floated in the air and landed nowhere. Certainly not on my deaf ears. But one day I was in a particularly snitty mood about who-knows-what and found myself annoyed by what I perceived as incessant musings about the obvious and the nothing. I made some sort of comment about her sign reading habit that wasn’t kind. I can’t remember what it was, but I knew by the change in her expression and the stiffening of her body that it had hurt her feelings. Of course it did!
I would love to say that it was a product of my sullen teenage years, but alas, I was well into my 20s. What a brat. A grown-up brat. Any one of those signs could have been a springboard for a conversation — from something as simple as weekend rummage sale plans to hearing some invaluable insights from someone who had lived in the heart of the Deep South during that tumultous time. All I had to do was say something like, “Yep, another MLK named street. Seems there’s one in every town.” Then maybe I might have learned a thing or two. She did, after all, grow up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 60s. Or maybe I could have responded to her reading an advertisement in the newspaper with, “Oh yeah! Let’s go to the sale this weekend at the Body Shop.” (Side note for younger readers: The Body Shop was an 80s equivalent of Abercrombie and Fitch or Aeropostale — only way, way worse.) What I wouldn’t give to go back and engage in those discussions or to make those plans. And maybe slap my self-indulgent 20-something self while I’m at it.
My mother observed the world around her. She took it all in. Not just the signs, but everything. Sometimes the obvious things, like rainbows, fragrant flowers and that rare, perfectly unbroken, seashell along the seashore. But also little things like strange bugs hovering by the light above the doorway to her house or an interestingly shaped stone lying among hundreds of others that to most would appear to be just like all of the rest. She could lay for hours on a blanket staring at the sky, calling out all of the different images she could make out as they morphed from one shape to another.
By nature, she was an optimistic person. She took pleasure in little things. To her the world actually was rose-colored. She was often called a “Polly-Anna.” Sometimes it was in an appreciative or commendatory fashion, but at other times it was lobbed as a snide slight. She took it as a compliment no matter the intent of the sender. Always.
For most of my life, I failed to observe or engage with the world around me, much less take an active interest in it. I usually didn’t even take the opportunity to simply notice it. I was too busy moving from one academic or career goal to the next, from one relationship to another, from one work-related stress to some work-related drama, from one hangover to another, or from one nail polish color to the next. Well, not really on that last one, I have hideous hands and fingernails not worthy of the time and effort, but you get the point.
I was so absorbed in the minutiae and management of my own life and its day-to-day trials and tribulations — some real, some imagined and many self-inflicted—that I rarely, if ever, noticed the wonder and beauty happening all around me. I can’t help but imagine how much more meaningful and fulfilling life would have been, and therefore would be today, if I had allowed my attention to be diverted just once in a while and to stop and smell the roses. It certainly would have made for less time spent dwelling on those trivial, ultimately meaningless things and less room for negative thoughts and vibes. All of that freed up time — and emotional and intellectual space — could have been filled up by some much-needed positivity and emotional growth just by looking, listening, seeing, smelling, touching, talking and thinking.
At the risk of sounding trite (but screw it, I write using clichés, quotes and truisms as the launching pad for my musings after all):
The world — my world, your world — yes, in the great global sense— but also equally as important: the one right there in front of us, under our feet, up in the sky or out in the backyard is filled with beautiful, miraculous, awe-inspiring, thought provoking wonders.
If you aren’t already a person who puts into practice stopping to smell the roses, I can’t think of a better time than now to start.
Next time you see a butterfly, who graciously sits still long enough to allow it, take a moment to gaze at the intricacies of the design and the menagerie of colors on its wings. Marvel at its ability to use those painted wings to fly. Ponder its ability to transform from its former life as a strange little fuzzy caterpillar into this stunning creature. Perhaps allow it to let you think about what changes you want to make in your own life, and to believe that change is possible. Or maybe, just simply notice the uplift in your mood by taking that moment to stop and “smell the rose.”
As with so many things, I’m still not perfect at it. By miles. I’m blessed because my youngest, much like my mother, is also “sign reader.” And simply by his very nature, he often reminds me to slow down and soak it all in. To be sure, I can’t say that I don’t still get bogged down by the sludge and drudge that can be this life when I let it. But today I’m a helluva lot better at making the time and space for appreciating what is right there in my own backyard. My life is richer for it, and so, I hope, are the lives of those around me. At least the ones who don’t tune out my incessant musings about the obvious, but the everything.
“Everything has beauty, but not everyone notices it.”
P.S. I made a commitment to myself (and to a select few in my orbit) to be more judicious in my use of post-scripts — I’m guilty of overuse — especially when I’m mad and the “P.S”. takes on a form more like “And another thing…”
This time, however, I think it’s warranted:
My mother’s name…was Merry.
Sound off in the comments below about something in your own “backyard” that brings you a lot or a little bit of joy, comfort, appreciation, awe or even just made you smile.
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