This is the final story in a series of three. Click here to read the first.

One tiny dot at a time, the daylilies are taking shape on the sun-splashed canvas, their yellow and orange trumpets vivid against the green-shadowed background. Serra can almost imagine herself in the long-ago tranquility of Monet’s garden—that is, if she ignores the skyscrapers on all sides, the rumbling traffic, the chattering pedestrians, and the buzzing of an edger as one of the park’s groundskeepers comes nearer.

After she finishes the painting, she’ll walk back to the tiny apartment she has reluctantly called home since her divorce three years ago. Serra never cared much for city life, but it’s not as if she has much of a choice now. After losing her middle-management job in the recession, she ended up stuck in long-term unemployment hell, and that was when her husband left her. No kids, thankfully. By now she has given up her car, her jewelry, and her collection of antique jewelry boxes, while trying to convince herself (without much success) that a minimalist lifestyle suits her better anyway.

Last week she’d had a particularly awful interview for an office assistant job that was far below her qualifications. The hiring manager, an older man with deep creases around his mouth that gave the look of a perpetual smile, hadn’t even gone through the usual checklist of questions before stopping mid-sentence to ask her, not unkindly, “Do you really want this job?”

Taken by surprise, Serra had been about to stammer a response when the manager had told her, even more gently, “You should have said yes already.”

Now as she’s standing at her easel, the hot sun on her face reminds her of the shame she had felt, stumbling out to the bus stop with her briefcase full of useless resumes. Of course she didn’t really want that crummy job, but the rent wasn’t going to pay itself, was it? She tries to focus her attention back on the painting, but there’s no hope for this latest effort at mindfulness: Monet’s imagined garden is long gone.

The nearby edger whines like an overgrown mosquito, loud and annoying. Serra turns her head to locate the sound, flipping a long braid back over her shoulder as she does so. She’d prefer to get her hair done in almost any other style, having been raised by a single mom named Rainbow who grew up on a commune and always had braids hanging down to her jeans pockets; but going to the salon every few weeks is another luxury Serra has given up.

A spot of white in her peripheral vision resolves into a man’s shirt. Serra realizes in annoyance that some guy she doesn’t know has been standing behind her, quietly watching her paint. He looks harmless enough in a business suit, and he’s kind of cute, with dark curly hair and a Latin complexion. She has no intention of letting some random guy waste her time, though. They always vanish when they find out how long she has been without a job, and she certainly doesn’t need any more of that.

She’s about to scowl and tell the guy to shove off; but then she notices the young woman with the edger, cheerfully waving hello to her. Before Serra knows it she’s smiling in response, feeling mysteriously lighter, as if she just put down something much weightier than the paintbrush she’d been holding. Two robins sitting in a purple plum tree chirp smugly, like they were in on the secret all along.

The man standing behind her smiles, too, a flash of bright white in a smooth bronze face. In a pleasant baritone, he introduces himself as Ricardo and says he’s the second-shift manager at the coffee shop across the street. This morning he’s been meeting with bankers about a loan to finance buying out the shop’s owner, who recently decided to change careers.

Serra knows he doesn’t mean to put her on the defensive. It’s just the usual conversation of people who have a place in the world—a category that doesn’t include her anymore. She feels the familiar tension creeping back into her jaw and shoulders as she gives her name. What else is there to say? But this time, something feels different; the stress doesn’t quite take hold. There is still a bit of a smile on her lips, a touch of the moment’s lightness.

“Serra is a nickname, it’s short for Serendipity,” she finds herself explaining, without the usual self-consciousness about having a silly hippie name. Ricardo compliments her on its uniqueness—he’s being sincere, as far as she can tell. When he follows up by asking if she is a professional artist, she figures that’s got to be nothing but flattery. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to let this conversation bother her; so she goes ahead and tells Ricardo that she paints as a hobby and doesn’t have a job at present.

She expects he’ll make himself scarce quickly enough after hearing that. Instead, he asks what sort of work she does. Then, much to her surprise, she finds herself telling him the whole miserable story, which she generally never mentions at all. She has kept it bottled up all these years because the last thing she wants is anyone’s pity. Once it starts spilling out, though, Serra just can’t manage to put the lid back on.

Ricardo listens calmly. After a while he asks, “Have you ever waited tables? One of the servers at the coffee shop just quit.”

“Yes, when I was in college,” Serra says. She thinks back to those days, not all that long ago, when life was still an adventure full of shiny new possibilities. Somewhere along the way—she still doesn’t quite know how it happened—life turned into a restricted-access highway fenced in all around by plans and expectations, with ever-narrowing lanes and traffic moving so fast there was no way to slow down.

She never had time for painting after she got so busy. As much as she told herself she’d find a few hours on the weekend, there was always something else to do. The notion of spending a gorgeous summer day at the park, contemplating a bed of daylilies and slowly bringing them to life by way of tiny dots in the pointillist style, wouldn’t even have crossed her mind.

Maybe it was not her choice to travel the side roads and the detours, but Serra realizes she has learned something from them. As with the dots on her canvas, every moment of experience has its place in the picture. She finds to her surprise, when she tells Ricardo she’d be interested in the job at the coffee shop, this time she really means it.

July 5, 2015 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Many years ago, I got a black dress with a shiny loop at the neckline, which was made of silver sequins. I have fond memories of events to which I wore the dress; but as time went by, the stitches in the loop drew up unevenly, so that with each washing it looked a bit less symmetrical. As much as I fussed with it and tugged it into place, it never looked or felt quite right anymore.

Black dress with silver sequin loop at neckline. 

Then I realized that because the dress no longer made me happy, the time had come to send it on its way, even if it was still wearable. We have so many choices and possibilities open to us in the modern world, but only a few of them can fit into our available space and time—so we have to choose wisely and make changes that give us more joy!

About Clutter Comedy: Every Sunday (which I envision as a day of rest after a productive week of de-cluttering) I post a Clutter Comedy article describing my most memorable clutter discovery of the week. Other bloggers who wish to join in are welcome—just post a link in the comments! There’s no need to publish any “before” photos of your clutter, if they are too embarrassing. The idea is simply to get motivated to clean it up, while having a bit of fun too!

Last week I got tagged by Jessica Edouard at Send Sunshine with the First Post Challenge, the rules of which are below:

– Copy-paste, link, pingback or whatever, your first post.
– State what type of post it was (e.g. introduction, story, poem).
– Explain why that was your first post.
– Nominate five other bloggers.

My first post, an introduction, is here, and I wrote it for the usual reason of telling readers a little about myself and my blog. Because that’s not much of a challenge response, I decided to put it together with a Nurturing Thursday entry about first efforts.

Birds sitting on a wire.

This photo of birds sitting on a wire was my first header image. I came across it while browsing Creative Commons images and liked its fun, cheerful, social vibes. After that I changed the header several times before settling on the current picture of sailboats in Sydney Harbour. Now that my blog is in its fourth year, its content also has evolved. In addition to the original theme of “stories and musings on modern life,” I regularly write entries about nurturing, positivity, and clearing away clutter both physical and mental.

As with any “first,” I couldn’t foresee just where the blog would go when I posted my first entry, but I jumped in to enjoy the adventure anyway! I’m very glad that last year I discovered the Nurturing Thursday group, whose posts always help to put me in a cheerful mood. To return the favor, I’m tagging five of the group’s members for the challenge. Have fun!

Grace Notes
Woman of Art and Mind
Inside the Mind of Isadora

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

I didn’t get around to writing a Clutter Comedy blog entry last weekend, though I had good intentions. There was some disruption to my schedule, and also my husband upgraded our home computers from 32-bit to 64-bit Windows 7, which he said took a long time because it should have been done sooner. When tasks are left to wait longer than they should, there’s usually more work as a consequence. With software, there are more upgrades to install.

This is not even the final task; it’s all just preparatory to installing Windows 10 later this year, which will require buying more memory because operating systems have gotten enormous. That’s the way of things in the modern world—technology has given us much more capability, but keeping up with all its changes can feel like running frantically on a hamster wheel.

During my mostly unplugged weekend, I started thinking about how there’s not much difference between upgrading our gadgets and refurbishing our minds. If we let too many bad habits, outdated assumptions, and other mental junk pile up, then it’s harder to clear that stuff away than if we had done timely maintenance all along. Same thing with clutter in the house and weeds in the garden—there’s always something in need of attention that wasn’t a problem when we last looked.

Big leafy green weed between orange and yellow snapdragons. 

I have no idea how a weed resembling a small tree got into my snapdragons, when I’m sure it can’t have been more than a couple of weeks since I last did something in that garden…

Of course, our ancestors also had to do plenty of weeding and other chores, without benefit of today’s labor-saving devices. Their work couldn’t be neglected because if too many weeds got into the fields and choked out the crops, they might starve over the winter. Still, their lives were much simpler and more structured than ours, so they didn’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure of having to keep up with thousands of different things all at once.

We don’t really have to juggle huge heaps of tasks either—it just feels like we do, sometimes, because we haven’t yet settled into comfortable routines for such a fast-paced world. There are plenty of computer programs and smartphone apps to keep track of the little things. For example, my husband has a reminder in his Outlook calendar to run the self-cleaning cycle on the oven every four months, which was easy to do last weekend when it was cool enough that opening the windows was comfortable. Way easier than our ancestors had it, cooking over a hearth where they had to bring wood and sweep out the ashes every day. Their tasks rarely changed, though, so they didn’t have the stress of keeping up with to-do lists.

Our world has left behind the familiar customs and simple chores that once allowed people to go through their days without much need for conscious decision-making. We have many more choices now, and that means we need to manage and upgrade our choices proactively, so they don’t overwhelm us. It’s not just about getting used to new gadgets, either; the culture is changing rapidly around us, which means our assumptions are constantly being challenged. Sometimes everything feels like a leap into the unknown.

I am optimistic that as time passes, our society will develop more effective ways to help people navigate its complexity. The concept of supported decision-making refers to informal arrangements that assist people with disabilities in making choices. As I see it, people in general could benefit from having more structure and support in their lives. It’s not that modern humans are any less competent than our ancestors; we just live in a much busier world.