A friend gave me a painting for my birthday.
To be more precise, she gave me a card with a painting on it, but I love the painting—and have for a while now—and fully intend to frame the little card when I get a moment. Titled “Summer Abundance,” by Loré Pemberton, it depicts a woman and two children, in a rustic kitchen, surrounded by every color of vegetable.
It’s almost absurdly beautiful, this painting, all reds and yellows and golds, late afternoon light and domestic splendor. One of the children is taking a bath in the kitchen sink, eating a carrot, while the other has donned a too-large apron and is watching the mother doing some preserving. (I suppose she doesn’t have to be their mother, but I think of her as such because it suits me.) There are copper pots gleaming from their hooks on the wall, sunflowers winking messily through the open window. It is late summer, harvest season, when present and future are tangled together so lusciously. If you could do a Google Image search for “aspirational delights of Kristi’s soul,” this painting would appear.
In this painting and many others, Pemberton elevates everyday life—often life including children, books, chores and the outdoors—to a golden and shining thing. In my best moments, I think these paintings inspire me to look with wonder on my own life, one that shares so many of these elements. Sometimes, though, I catch myself doing what my kids do with episodes of Bluey, a cartoon about Australian dogs who play endless imaginative games in which their parents are eager participants: I try to recreate this life exactly, hoping that my days will be as painting-perfect as the still scenes I so dearly love.
I think about this as a look through the pictures I took today on a walk to the lake near our house. I had a plan for the morning, a plan that involved a few errands and mostly the slow luxury of a Saturday with very little to do. “I want to go outside!” I told the girls. We will walk, we will play at the playground, we will get a croissant at the chocolate shop. It will be slow and leafy, and we will cherish each other and this moody October morning. It will be grand.
I watch a video of the girls running through perfect yellow leaves, pause on the iPhone portraits I took of them sitting at the knobby base of an alder. Here they are silhouetted against the shining lake, framed by autumn boughs, poised to throw handfuls of leaves onto the still surface. It’s all so quiet, so lovely. If I were a painter, I could capture my own aspirational portrait of the scene. I’ve already been tempted to write a poem about them, my own sort of painting, or just post the pictures with some kind of caption that leaves it at that. Fall bliss, here we are.
But. A painting has no sound, no complaints or bickering. A painting wouldn’t show the youngest taking off, gleeful in her freedom, down the walking path, nor me trotting after her, calling for her to stop again and again until she had to be buckled back into the stroller. A painting wouldn’t pause on the running race that filled the park with crowds, nor mention the sad reality that the chocolate croissant had to be postponed for another day because someone needed to go home to use the bathroom right now. A painting, I’d imagine, wouldn’t be linger on my stress and disappointment, how I came home feeling a little defeated because my Perfect Fall Morning had turned out to be anything but.
I am a recovering perfectionist, and I honestly have to fight the urge to shrug my shoulders, put this morning in the “meh” category—neither terrible nor pristine—and hope for a better one tomorrow. Perhaps I would, if not for the pictures, which for all their incompleteness still remind me that there were moments of sheer glory to be had today. For me, that’s the real value of pictures, not in offering some kind of aspirational nonsense to others, a pretty but incomplete sense of my life as a highlight reel, but in helping me to harvest the kernels of delight from the chaff of frustration, to debrief the day in such a way as to end it more thankful than when I began.
Because this is all hard enough as it is, without having to create the perfect Saturday. Perhaps, in the end, I need to be able to look at my not-painting photographs of my not-painted day with grace and love, thankful for what they are, who they are, who we are becoming every moment.