She had two white plastic lawn chairs, a large steel pot, one mattress wet from the rain, an orange bucket, and one remarkable painting. I was nervous. I’d never been in someone’s home where I couldn’t speak the language. My friend, who was semi-fluent, sat and spoke with her. As they conversed, my eyes darted around her home. My eyes fell to the large gaps in the floor where water, mice and any other sort of varmint could run freely in and out. There were missing cinder blocks where the tin ceiling attached to the walls allowing rain and wind to blow in. Several of her children sat politely on the wet mattress on the floor. They were sporting their bright yellow Vacation Bible School t-shirts they had worn faithfully for three days in a row. The orange bucket sat in the corner. I knew the bucket was used for bathing, as I had seen several children being scrubbed down, underwear and all, while standing inside a small plastic bucket of their own.
In stark contrast, above the white lawn chair, hung one remarkable painting. It was at odds with the rest of the scene. Brilliant colors, fine details, an expression of class and beauty.
I pointed and asked in English about the painting. My friend translated, and the woman immediately stood up, took the painting off the wall and handed it to me.
“She’s trying to give it to you.” My friend said.
Shocked, I shook my head emphatically, “No”!
The woman insisted, but I did, too. As she reluctantly placed it back on the rough cement, I asked my friend where she got it. As my friend translated, the woman’s face lit up. The woman had painted it. She had attended college to become an artist. She left college to get married, as women do, she pointed out matter-of-factly. Now her husband was in jail. She had no job and was surrounded by a parcel of children, a stock pot, an orange bucket, and a museum worthy painting.
I knew art supplies were far beyond her financial reach. Her life was not her own at this point. It was marred down with the day to day task of genuine survival. I grieved at the injustice of it all. We in the US have so much, and here so many had so little. Here was the most difficult part to absorb. Amidst all the hardship, inability to carve out a life, pursue her gifting as an artist-she seemed happy. Her kids appeared happy. How could this be?
I’ve often thought of her throughout the years. She was given financial help to pursue work and begin the journey of developing a stable home. Yet that day in the humidity, within those dark, dreary, grey cement walls, I remember three colors. An orange bucket that represented survival, yellow t-shirts that encapsulated hope and joy, and a painting that was awash with everything. Pain, goodness, sorrow and love. Somehow those colors were a prism for genuine happiness. An experience that confounds me to this day.
When it comes to our own lives, many of us have the privilege of not having our children sleep crowded together on a wet mattress. Yet, we do find ourselves in a life we didn’t expect. There are holes in our past where negative thoughts and memories can freely invade. Unexpected storms blow through the cracks of our carefully crafted protective walls- causing anything from annoyance to downright fear. It’s easy for us to notice the lack, the cold, the loneliness in the place where we dwell. In contrast, if we are to look back over our lives there are pops of color that represent the good: happiness, joy, generosity amidst all that is grey.
The longer I live, the more I’m convinced life is an intrepid mix of good and bad. When I let go of fearing the negative and accept it as part of living, I find a strange peace.
When life seems overwhelming, ask yourself these simple questions:
-What is it that I am focusing on? The lack or the big picture?
-Can I see any good (color pops) anywhere?
-Am I unhappy because everything isn’t perfect or within my control?
-Am I willing to be uncomfortable, to take risks, to live in a way that I may experience some difficulties, in order to live a life that is rich and beautiful-much like that painting?
You can live in a way that gives over to the injustice of not having the life you planned. You can brood in your grey cement walls that were supposed to protect you. OR you can allow your life to become the painting-a broad-stroke of colors that encapsulates it all.
May you have a prism of happiness amidst any grey today.
Stacy Pederson is a Colorado based Humorist and Funny Motivational Speaker who is incessantly insecure with a chronic Thai Food / Netflix binge habit.