I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about where to live. Someone once said, choose the place where you want to die. That is an interesting idea. My mother, a dyed-in-the- wool New Englander, never traveled much, not even to a restaurant or movie theater, much less Europe, once said, “Why should I travel? I am already here.” Well, she was right in so many ways living as she did for the last fifty years of a long frugal life in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She wanted my guarantee that she would not have to go to a “warehouse” and wait for death and she lived her last day on earth in her snug little house on a hill. Last month, after vandals had stolen almost everything, I sold the old place, a worn-out building in the overgrown woods. This whole scenario has brought me full circle in a way. When I was very little and living in a foster home while my mother worked as a nurse tending other people, she sent some books for me. The woman-in-charge put them high on a closet shelf where I could not reach them. At the time I thought this was cruelty, but with age and wisdom I realized she was afraid I would ruin them like most kids do with crayons in a clumsy attempt to copy the pictures. Once, and only once, the woman in charge allowed me to look at the books after she brought them down to my level and watched me page through them only once before returning them to their high shelf. One of them, I remember well. It is still in print, and a few years ago after I told a graduate class in the college (where I was teaching a class in children’s literature) this story, a young man gave me a bright new copy that I can read any time I want to. It is called “The Little House.” (irony) How will kids today have such an experience with digital media? Cuddle a Kindle with love and delight? Perhaps. For me, a book is a thing to be revered, and the happy joy is that people keep coming out with new ones all the time. I have had much happiness browsing bookstores around the world, and they are often open elsewhere on holidays. I remember turning pages of an exquisite pop-up book on American farms in Rome on a Christmas morning when trying to avoid the loneliness that hit me being without family or friend on a special day. The experience in the book shop was a gift in itself. I remember the bookshop in Paris (pictured) where I bought a biography of Elizabeth Taylor for a friend at home. And on a Christmas morning in Rome having breakfast in the little pensione owned and operated by the Trinitarian Brothers near the Vatican, I sat at a little table by myself when a lady asked if she could share it with me. Our conversation led to the fact that we were both writers. I learned she is well-known in Italy for her religious poetry and had been visiting a friend at the Vatican, and then she inscribed her newest book of poems and gave it to me. I couldn’t have imagined such a Christmas present, and here it was on a singular Christmas morning. Of course one does not have to go abroad to receive surprise gifts. One Christmas morning when I was new to Los Angeles and beginning my life again after a disastrous marriage that left me close to homeless, I was taking down my trash when I found a large Chinese porcelain lamp complete with silk shade sitting on top of the dumpster. Even now when my life has grown more comfortable, I am proud to read by this beautiful gift from the universe. Now it is a custom I have adopted. I go downstairs early on Christmas Day if I am “home” and leave something there as a present for someone I don’t know. I have lived in my apartment for over twenty years now and I still follow this tradition. One Christmas I left a big bag of troll dolls in all sizes, each dressed by hand and designed with jewels and beautiful clothes, made by a rock and roll singer. This year I am giving away my easel. I won’t be painting anymore.
How, you may ask, could I be poor with such a rich collection of art? Of course this question leads to the point of this post. One is never poor in spirit, in beauty, in soul when awake to the wonders and gifts that spring spontaneously from the hearts of others. Even now, divesting myself of a large collection, I will keep something original from the hand of an artist in my house or cabin, whatever the situation. I have never been poor in anything but coins. The richness of my inner life, my love for art, music, poetry and books, the gifts of the spirit given by a generous God, my religious belief are gifts my mother gave me by releasing me from the-lady-in-charge and putting me in a convent school until, like Jane Eyre, I was told it was time to go out into the world and teach. Another great and rewarding gift that is beyond price. Now, I am thinking of going to live in an alpine village in the San Bernadino mountains to spend the rest of my life. Like Thoreau I always wanted to live deliberately, but I will not ever be able to say I have never lived at all. Like Zola, I always wanted to live “out loud” and by writing much, I have done that. It has been a long and beautiful life, with all the sorrows and joys, all the deprivation and all the gifts….many more gifts than losses. People who should have loved me fell away and people who once were strangers have become dear friends. This is what happens when you live deliberately. You can drop me anywhere and I will make friends; Move me to a foreign place and I will make a nest, no matter how much it takes. This is the gift from a Dickensian childhood. I have traveled the world alone, most of the time, looking and listening for the beauty so freely created by artists, gifts that heal, comfort and inspire. I thank them all. Every one whose gifts I have enjoyed. I wish you the eyes to see and the heart to receive all the wondrous gifts this season brings to you! Happy Holidays! A book, a painting, a photograph makes for a singular gift and is always a welcome present and there is one for anyone on your list, no matter what age. The painting above is by John Crutchfield. Please visit my page of his work and click on his website for the newest paintings from his studio.