(91) Stop Signs


Life is full of stop signs. And most often, it is art that makes us stop and take notice.

It happened yesterday. I was reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. This book has won honors such as the National Book Award and the Newbery Honor.  Believe me — it deserves it. I will have more to say about it in future posts.

Meanwhile, back to the story. This entire book is done in a prose poetry style, and reads like a very engaging story. I got to page 119 and here was the STOP sign:

Wednesday night is laundry night — the clothes

blowing clean on the line above

my grandfather’s garden. When no one is looking,

we run through the sheets,

breathe in all the wonderful smells the air

    adds to them.

STOP.  Running through the sheets on the line.  I had to stop and take that in. It is a detail from my own childhood (and I’d even add adolescence, because I swear I kept doing it as long as there were sheets on the line).  A detail I HAD FORGOTTEN.  I cannot believe I forgot it, but I had.

This is why writers are so needed in this world. I like to think that I’ve remembered all the wonderful things from my childhood, but obviously not. Now I am wondering what else I’ve forgotten.

But stop signs aren’t limited to books or poetry. It applies to art and music as well.

About seventeen years ago, I visited the Cleveland Museum of Art with a friend.  I had been to the art museum many times in my life.  At this particular time, I was suffering a bit of depression. I came upon a painting by Frederick Church called “Storm in the Mountain” and what I saw was a STOP sign.


In the state of mind I was in at the time, this painting spoke to the deepest part me — a place I simply don’t have words to describe.  I felt like I understood every single thing about it. I was that broken tree. I could feel the wind. The cold. The hopelessness. I have no idea how long I stood in front of that painting, but I knew when I was done there wasn’t much else to look at except Monet’s water lilies. This painting told me everything I ever needed to know about art. And myself.

This has happened to me since with original works of art, but never with the intensity as that time. In fact, I remember revisiting the museum the next year and the picture barely made an impression.

The experience was somewhat of a forerunner to what was to come. A couple short months later, in May of 1998, my father would be dead rather suddenly, casting me into a new level of grief. Without a doubt, I believe that broken tree says a great deal about grief and the grieving process. Its presence inside me was a kind of comfort during that time.

And that brings me to a music STOP sign. It was the summer of 1999, and I was driving home from a class I was taking at the community college. My life had changed quite a bit from the year before when I had suffered depression, but I was still struggling in some ways.

I was listening to country radio, and a song came on that I was familiar with: “I’m So Happy That I Can’t Stop Crying,” written by Sting, and recorded by Toby Keith.  I had only barely listened to the lyrics over the time  — I knew it had to do with newly divorced dad. This particular day, however, there was a STOP sign. It came when he sang the line: “Everybody has to leave the darkness sometime.”

I knew in that moment that I had come through my depression and the first stages of grief, which are always so difficult. I wanted to press a stop button and rewind, but the song was on the radio, so I couldn’t.  Everybody has to leave the darkness sometime.  The process of melancholy depression and grief doesn’t go away, but somehow we have to find ways to step away, to get beyond it.  We have, like the narrator of the song, to look up at the stars and see there is a purpose, a connection, a possibility for something better.

STOP signs and the epiphany they bring, definitely have made my life better. The self-awareness is a gift given to me by someone I don’t even know.  I think that is pretty incredible – -and it is why we should never stop creating and appreciating the creations of others.


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