Unexpected Smiles in a Simpler Life
Do you see the smiling face in the parking meter above this post? And in all the other ones behind it? Do you ever notice things like that in the world around you? I think it is easy to be struck by the beauty of seascapes and mountains and gardens and art, but there is beauty in the stark and the bleak and the unexpected as well. Beauty that is the result of natural processes, erosion, rusting, decaying, and aging, can be savored in a simpler life, when we can take the time to notice. If you look closely at paint peeling off of a porch post, right up close, you can see the grain of the original wood, and the curl of a layer of paint, or maybe several layers, each color bound to the next but released from the weathered wood; wind and rain and time had their way with the man-made. You can see it in the grass and weeds which determinedly arise through cracks in an asphalt parking lot, nourished by tossed cigarettes dissolving in the sun and the rain.
It is the accidental thing, however, that brings a special smile, like the face made by a parking meter’s structure. I’ve never seen the Virgin Mary in my toast, but I have seen a sort of Smiley Face burnt into it by toasting bread on a stovetop griddle. That was a good one, should have taken a photo of it. I’ve seen the Great Lakes states mapped out in the plaster patching on a ceiling. That one was above my bed as a child. Driftwood is good for turning up shapes from animals to tripods. We’ve all seen clouds that look like bunny rabbits and torpedos.
I admit I used to see this sort of thing a lot more often when I was a child. Or perhaps I just remember the childhood ones more because I was more easily convinced they were real. Tolkien’s Ents had nothing on the fellows that glared at me from the trunks of the oak trees in the woods near my childhood home. My dad’s workshop was full of metal faces, long-handled tools forming beaks or bird legs, eyes formed by scissor handles, and there was a time I thought there was a strong possibility they all talked to each other when no one was around to hear them. There was one giant pair of tin snips that looked like a smiling pelican and one time when the blades were slightly open I thought it was smiling and it liked me, so I stopped being unnerved by it. Other tools, however, never lost their sinister quality.
The relationship to such things changes when your role in life changes, commonly called Growing Up, but I would argue that definition. When my dad put me to work helping him remodel his workshop, the tools quickly became just tools, or stuff to move out of the way while we moved or put in a new wall. The map of an enchanted island on the old concrete floor that was created by time, water, spattered paint, and oil changes faded away as we cleaned it up and patched and painted it. I was excited to learn new things, happy to be of use for a change, and never really looked back at what was until now.
These days I’m seeing more of the accidentally anthropomorphic, and discovering anew patterns of imaginary places. Some of it is the result of uncluttering life and home and letting go of a lot of bourgeois busyness in favor of sitting still and being in the moment. For instance, the wood flooring in this house doesn’t just have the “patina of age,” it also has many little wood-grain cartoons and quite a few deep scratches like the one next to my chair: it looks like a drawing of a planaria from high school biology class. They don’t talk to me or spook me nor do I think they take on a life of their own when I am not looking, as second childhood hasn’t quite arrived. But they’re intriguing, amusing, sometimes intensely personal–and above all, unexpected. And that, in turn, has been an unexpected blessing of a simpler life.