Simple gifts …

© Mary Garner-Mitchell. Bookshelves at Fantastic Thrift, Richmond, Virginia

Finding a penny, a blue heron, or a hawk crossing my path, such “signs” from above or beyond never fail me when I need a boost or comfort or just some divine assurance that I am never alone, that there is something “more” and beyond my mere mortal comprehension.  My most knee-buckling “sign” however is one of song. It is uncanny how this tune seems to follow me no matter where I go or whether my mood is sheer happiness or one of heartbreak.  I know it’s popular and it always pleases me to hear it whether at weddings or funerals. Yet it is impossible to recount the numerous times I will be driving along in silent melancholy, flip on the radio and it is this song floating into my ears. It is the old Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts.”  Just last week, I happened to mention this musical phenomenon to someone in an email and a day later, only hours after learning of the death of a very close friend, it happened again. Only this time a bit out of the ordinary. In my grief, I found myself stumbling around a thrift shop (truly, I hardly remember driving there) and as I walked past the books, I was struck dumb as the booklet you see here was lying face up on the bottom shelf.  It is an illustrated version of the song’s lyrics, very whimsical and brightly colored, and fully of silly cats! I caught my breath, snatched it up and I carried it around in my shopping basket for an hour. I eventually decided that it wasn’t for me to actually buy or have. I know the words by heart and perhaps another would benefit from its simple gift — the message to once more take heart, to not be sad but instead to be thankful for the wonders of this life and the blessings and people in it, both past and present — to be encouraged and to “Come round right.”

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“Simple Gifts” was written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine. These are the lyrics to his one-verse song.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.[2]

“I meant to do my work today …”

I meant to do my work today,
But a brown bird sang in the apple tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
And all the leaves were calling me.

And the wind went sighing over the land,
Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand–
So what could I do but laugh and go?

                  — Richard Le Gallienne

© Mary Garner-Mitchell. “Buckingham Grasses”

The remains of the day …

“Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

© 2012 Mary Garner-Mitchell. “Parsley at Flower Camp”

It’s the season for seeds, and the skeletal remains of flora are just reminders of past verdant hues. The air has become thin with chilling whispers of what awaits come winter. I look at these forms and remember all so well their splendor, the way they garnished and the flavor they lent to what otherwise was ordinary. I mourn their passing, but celebrate the memory of their being — their deep roots, their flowers and how they stretched to reach their potential and the promise that life will go on in all things left behind.

Sue. You are loved.

Making arrangements

Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day – like writing a poem or saying a prayer.   — Anne Morrow Lindbergh

© 2012 Chip Mitchell. Floral design by Mary Garner-Mitchell. Centerpiece candlelabrum for food table at the wedding reception of Berkley Gordon and Colin Mudrick, September 15, 2012. Floral materials include coral spray roses, bridal white and peach long-stem roses, dried oak leaf and fresh “antique” hydrangeas, silver artemisia, protea, abelia, yarrow, dalhia, pale peach stock and “Love Lies Bleeding” amaranth. For more wedding floral images, see  http://www.chipmitchell.com/clients/cmp/downloads/wedding


Painting, design, dance, music, and of course flowers — all art is arranged. I think I may have mastered a couple of these, and a couple I dabble at, but I love flower arranging above all. It comes as naturally to me as breathing.

Over the years I’ve realized enormous similarities between flower arranging and graphic design.  I once told an intern back in my previous life as a newspaper art director, that page layout was similar to arranging flowers.  One needs an entry point, a focal point and an ending.  White or negative space is essential, as is cohesiveness in color and tone. And the color and tone must convey the story or theme, be it either a photo spread or flower arrangement. For focus, a dominant image married with a well-crafted headline should prevail, supported by secondary and detailed “spots” lending detail.  Same is true for a flower arrangement. One key material or blossom is supported by the punches and wisps  of select materials that will dance and enhance.  As for endings, in a photo spread, an image that is the sum of all the others before it; for florals, if not the container, then it is the collective whole of the materials that went into the arrangement.

I think the same can be said for life.  There’s the entry point — the birth and/or nurturing through childhood; some form of focus — natural gifts or education that will support and influence; and the ending — a means of grounding, closure and completeness.  Stories, be they in photos or flowers — or lives — all transfer to memory, and all, though bound to fade, color every passing day hopefully with beauty and richness.

On living “kind”

© Mary Garner-Mitchell. Acrylic airbrush. Editorial illustration.

Somehow I want to coral my thoughts today around a personal and heartfelt mission I’ve been considering these past few months with the hope of it becoming a habit. I’ve decided to live “kind”… really try to, at least, and already I’ve seen that it truly helps smooth life’s rough spots.

It all started one recent summer evening when my friend Absolut and I met at my favorite watering hole. (We meet in a couple of chairs in the front yard to ponder the pond and life’s mysteries more often than is healthy, I’m sure.) Our conversation wound its way beyond the week’s woes and wickedness to ways to combat the general “snarky-ness” snaking its way into my psyche of late. (I owe such malaise to yet another vice — social and broadcast media.) ANYWAY… as my ice was melting, so was my mean streak and I came to the conclusion that the remedy might just be a good dose of “kind” and that I needed to live it in order to receive it.

So I asked Absolut (btw, his last name is Truth) just what is kind, what are its origins, moreover, why has kindness become so elusive these days? I was reminded of a most cherished phrase — “I kin ye…” — from The Education of Little Tree.* “Kin” as a verb extends far beyond the noun version meaning of familial ties. More than I love you, it says I really, deeply and truly understand you. Someone, I suppose, somewhere down the page in the English lexicon decided we needed an adjective version of this word kin and added a “d.” So there’s my hypothesis as to the word’s origins, and therein lies the answer to my query regarding kind’s meaning and elusiveness. Kindness has a direct correlation to one’s ability or willingness to try to understand.

According to the Talmud, “deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.” So, here’s my plan: Simply taking a moment to first consider and maybe kin the person who cut me off in traffic before flipping them off; to maybe hide, but not “un-kin” Facebook friends who can make my blood boil; to remember that I kin the someone who left some trivial household chore undone before I bark out my displeasure; to pay it forward at every chance; to write a handwritten thank-you note once a week; to believe the best before assuming the worst — That’s living kind.

God help me.

* Read more about “The Education of Little Tree” and “I kin ye … ” here:  http://www.fivemoreminuteswith.com/2011/03/the-real-meaning-of-kin/

White Room

© Mary Garner-Mitchell. Collection of miscellaneous white porcelain in the kitchen at Stagfield, Ashland, Virginia.

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression Like white on rice?  (You have to be Southern to say it “rite!”) Lest you wonder, it means something that’s integral, something through and through, something so stuck on something else that there is no separation.  I’m that way with old things. I don’t particularly like new, unless it’s a new car. That’s why thrift stores and junk shops are so appealing to me. And I seem to always be drawn to things that are or once were white.

I like how my collections of white objects are testament to their former purpose or previous life. Maybe with antique linens being the one exception, cracks, crazing, grease spots, the way a sugar cone has oxidized over the years earn these items  “most favored” status for they are the pieces that speak to me of memory, of time passing. Rarely do I think, “Oh, I wish this were restored to its original gloriousness, all clean and pristine.”  No, I like “50 shades of white” over the singular non color of new … “where the shadows run from themselves.”

© Mary Garner-Mitchell.

This photo deserves a bit more of a caption. Daddy made this Shaker-style table in 1975 for my first apartment from walnut he and my grandfather harvested long before I was born. If the house were to ever catch fire, I would certainly grab this piece on my way out! The reticulated bowl and platter filled with dried lichens may be one of my best thrift shop finds. It has an impressed stamp on the bottom that is hard to make out. If the Roadshow ever comes this way, I’m taking it and an early 19th century piece of French needlepoint for evaluation.The deer figurine is a yard sale find and I think I paid a whopping 5 bucks for it the year we moved into Stagfield. It moves around the house quite a bit. It is soapstone, I believe. The round plaque, a reproduction I buried in the yard for a winter so it would get mossy and gross enough to earn its spot amongst the old stuff!  The chalk urn I spotted in the barn of the same grandparents’ home when I was a little girl. When they held the estate sale many years later, I asked my mother to look for it and it was exactly where I had remembered!  It is my all-time favorite flower-arranging vessel. It holds pussy willow from the yard most of the time. The ironstone tureen is a much-treasured piece, and it, too, is on the “save list” as it has been handed down from my mother’s family for several generations and has held the centerpiece florals at numerous weddings, mine included.

Far from perfect

© Mary Garner-Mitchell. Watercolor. Botanical illustration under the tutelage of Lara Gastinger http://www.laracallgastinger.com

If you look closely at a tree you’ll notice it’s knots and dead branches, just like our bodies. What we learn is that beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully. Matthew Fox

“Only God is perfect…”  I’m sure I’m not the only person who grew up hearing this — for me mostly from Sunday School teachers. But in my kid brain, as now, I’ve always balked at this notion, though perfectionism is a disease I fight every single day of my life. Be it in relationships, art, business, cooking, gardening — everything I attempt, I have this unattainable vision of a perfect outcome. And as for the Creator being perfect? I don’t think so. Cases in point: Jellyfish.  Now tell me that wasn’t an experiment that eventually was just tossed in utter disgust where it plopped into the ocean and multiplied!  Or,  crazed gunmen in movie theaters. Hmmm… maybe we humans are just experiments, too.