A few years ago, while driving through the woodsy town south of our city, I often passed a ramshackle, brown cottage, perched crookedly on its messy property. As I approached on the right, a road sign advertised the blind driveway. The house jutted into the road at a curve, between endless forests of tall pines and streams, and drivers needed to slow as they passed, or risk plummeting into a shallow ravine.
Every time I passed that little cottage, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I felt magnetically allured, a bit in love. The place was a disaster. Shutters rotted, mold climbed the foundation, and weed tangles grew feral and huge, mixing with bursts of flowers. Broken pottery shards littered the ground. The roof lacked several shingles. But there was simple beauty. A dirty window’s cracked glass framed a sill line of colorful glass bottles. Wiry nature weavings dangled from the door. And somebody loved those tomato plants, dripping with fruit. I slowed my car, every time, and gazed at that house.
I noticed that someone started placing objects at the roadside – a New Hampshire tradition – when you’re finished with something, just stick it by the street. Within a few hours, a passerby will have popped it into their trunk or pickup to be salvaged, reused or revamped. Each time I drove by, I observed an increased frequency of roadside stuff. Someone was cleaning out the little cottage. I had never seen a human there, but I felt strongly that the owner of the tiny home had died, and relatives wanted to rid the premises of the deceased’s junk. Inexplicably, I thought this, I suppose. Or maybe, the decline of the property, combined with the piles? I’m not sure. The roadside heaps grew bigger. And still, my attraction to the home continued. I had such a crush on it. I know, so weird, to anticipate a happy, seven seconds long heart flutter over an object.
As I approached it on the road one day, I decided to pray about why I felt so attached to the house. Interested in exploring the meaning behind my odd devotion, I asked God to reveal to me just why I adored it. For much of my life, I’ve been propelled by the belief that God sometimes rouses in us our worldly purpose through desires or passions that just won’t die, and sometimes it’s through the love of specific, quirky things. Did something about the house remind me of an important, forgotten memory? Was there something I could learn from it? Would it reveal an aspect of my identity that God wanted to highlight? A change I needed to make? An embrace? A release? I drove by, prayed, and kept on toward home.
A couple of days later, as I again neared it, I remembered my prayer and as usual, slowed as I turned the sharp corner. In the bedraggled yard, a few feet from the road, a woman with short, brown, curly hair stood, feet planted, calm, arms at her side. I have no other way to describe this other than to just say it: I swear she met my eyes before I even knew she was there. I have goose bumps now, thinking about it. I came around the corner, and she was already looking at me, like she had been waiting. She gently smiled and watched me intently as I drove past, just her head turning to follow me. I got the urge to stop and say hello, to ask questions about the house, tell her, “Your home makes me happy,” now was my chance! But I couldn’t – I was absolutely freaked out. And if you know me, you already understand that I’m not shy. I’ll easily talk to anyone, even attempting foreign languages to communicate. But I couldn’t do it.
As I drove away, I berated myself for not stopping. Honestly, here it is: the benevolence of the encounter overwhelmed me. I felt in the presence of something I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know what to do about it.
The next day, I found myself in the area again, and neared the little home. A mile away, my thoughts were tumultuous – That was so bizarre, that woman, I wonder if she’ll be outside again. Is she the owner of the home? Is she the one cleaning it out? A relative of the deceased? And, most importantly, why was she looking at me like that? Like she had all the time in the world. I have friends who believe in ghosts, and while I don’t, I will admit to that thought also crossing my mind before I dismissed it. The encounter had affected me so much, I was imagining the woman’s thoughts based on her strange and calm presence by the road, her looking straight into my eyes. Ah, finally, here comes Hilaree. I’ve been waiting for you. You pass by all the time and I decided I needed to make it obvious.
This time, as I passed by, the woman was nowhere to be found, the yard empty. All the roadside junk had been picked up, with the exception of one, startlingly specific to me item. A light blue, well-loved, wooden easel stood in the weeds at the street, all by itself. Squares of paint marked the outlines of previously painted canvasses. Ghosts of artwork. Someone’s hands were there, many times. I stopped my van, pulled over and clicked on the hazards. I squinted up at the house. I looked around, like I was getting away with something. With my heart an excited mess, I popped the rear door up and lifted the large easel into the back. My three children hung out of their windows, hollering and cheering, thrilled for their mama.
See, it’s not that I didn’t already have an easel. I had one, all right. It was black, metal, foldable, and utilitarian. Sometimes my children used it. I seldom did. I had just begun taking drawing classes, an activity that opened up my soul like that first, barefoot on grass, spring day after an endless, frigid winter. Freedom. This easel, this one, has presence. This one is hefty, old, and easily three feet across. The hinges are rusted open, weathered gorgeous, resistant to folding or propping in a corner, unused.
Among other things, I have wanted to be an artist my entire life. And, I have always questioned if that desire was noble, a worthy enough pursuit. After all, artists spend a lot of time in isolation, percolating their thoughts. Our culture extols the extrovert. I have always needed permission, especially for the quality and quantity of solitude artmaking requires. From who, I never really knew. Blessing others with permission to be artists – yes, I could do that. But myself? Is it good enough? Creating fills my lungs with fresh oxygen. I lose track of time. I lose track of myself. But shouldn’t my purpose be painful?
Within the next week, demolition on the little brown home began. Very little else appeared at the roadside as the house quickly collapsed. On one scorching hot day, June bugs buzzing, I stopped once more, and for the first time, walked right up the short dirt driveway onto the property. I stood sweating on the remaining bricks of a crumbled fireplace, peered into the foundation, all the walls gone. I said thank you, just a whisper, finally.
Now the easel stands sentinel in the corner of my own tiny studio. In total, there are six works in progress propped on the floor and leaning against it, sitting directly on its center surface, or balanced on top of it. I have added my own paint outlines, and I no longer know hers from mine. Every time I use it, chips from her paint come off on my hands, a repeated baptism.