Dedicated to Sam, who works tirelessly in support of my dreams.
There is another beginning to this story, as there often is when one is starting out, but let’s begin here: inside a vintage, white mini-bus. The sliding windows on the right and left are stenciled over in white, tempura paint pattern and dressed in black and white Damask curtains. Black and white checkerboard flooring with traces of muddy footprints lines the aisle. The side door, where children with book bags used to enter and exit in wheelchairs, is swung open and tethered so that the inside shows on the outside. French buckets overflowing with cut flowers hang from the door, and craft paper tags with literary quotes attached to them dangle from bundles of flowers.
Upcycled, second-hand pieces line the inside of the bus. What once was a mahogany-colored table-desk with two small drawers on top and two underneath is now a faux sink, covered in a chalk paint named, “Cream in My Coffee.” A hand-painted, porcelain sink bowl has been wedged into the top of the desk and the grimy brass knobs on the drawers have been replaced with transparent cabochon on steel. Each knob features a word magnified under the cabochon: Drench, Lather, Rinse, Mist. The faux sink counter displays a mixture of personal care products, including four flavors of lip balm and hand lotion – Sweet Basil is a favorite among the young women who visit the bus.
Other once-loved castaways, all with stories of their own, have been repurposed as display pieces. They are now the pedestals for eclectic vintage and hand-curated gifts, all wrapped in partial narrative.
“Without darkness, nothing comes to birth,
As without light, nothing flowers.”
-- May Sarton (Prolific American Poet)
It’s April in the bustling, Lower Highlands neighborhood of downtown Denver, and the buckets on the door hold bundles of Iris stems. The bundles are wrapped in tulle and burlap ribbon, and a man approaches wanting to purchase some for his wife. He picks up a package of stems with the poet’s words dangling from it, hands me a ten-dollar bill, smiles, and walks away. That was two years ago.
Today, my children are three and fifteen and my mobile boutique fits snug into the side of our suburban driveway. It’s much easier to park now that we’ve moved away from our little urban paradise. We outgrew our house and our neighborhood (or maybe our neighborhood outgrew us), and we had to make some tough choices. In any case, they’ve both become our once-loved castaways just like the desks in the bus were for others: what once held the paper and pens that wrote magnificent letters have transformed into props for what has become the Narrative Boutique.
That’s one way this story begins. But a business named The Collective doesn’t just become a narrative boutique overnight, and a school bus doesn’t just turn into a gift shop, and antique desks don’t become faux sinks very often, so maybe the beginning of this story is that point in time when something is recreated in order to fulfill a deep need or desire. And maybe that deep need is the desire to leave a footprint in this life: something that stays behind to show we existed and hopefully, if that footprint was on the right path, that we not only existed, but that we left something of value.
I’m dead set on leaving something of value.
So while a story can have many beginnings, all of which intertwine at various points in time, if the middle is reached, the beginning becomes a self-contained, whole beginning. The middle begins when the beginning is whole.
The plates on the white mini-bus expired in December. The new sticker waits on the kitchen counter in a crystal candleholder my son gave me when he was five. There’s also a lost button and a broken leg from a toy horse in this vessel of procrastination. A vase of cut Irises sits among tattered composition pads on the kitchen table. My three-year old cuddles a blanket at the table and sings, and the house is filled with the scent of baking bread. The kitchen has become the heart of our home, just as it had been in our old house.
With a reheated cup of dark, half-caffeinated coffee, I sit down next to my daughter and thumb through a year’s worth of writing, a year’s worth of lists – some done and some abandoned, a year’s worth of financial stress, a year’s worth of organizing and planning, and a week or two’s worth of creative interjections. I notice my preference for writing utensils has changed several times over the course of the year. Lately, I use a mechanical pencil because being able to erase words makes me feel like I’m in control.
At some point over the past couple months, I transformed – life pushed me to gain control of the things I have the free will to control and erase the things that aren’t valuable in my life any longer. This transformation is destined to be an exceptional addition to my personal narrative, but that’s a beginning for another story. My daughter grabs my hand, “Mommy, are you sad?” I become aware of my demeanor and smile at her.
“No, Mommy’s happy because she gets to be here with you every day.”
“And we sing songs and we read books and we play horses. I love you, Mommy,” she says. My eyes swell with tears. “I love you more,” I whisper. “Impossible,” she says, her dimple peeking out of her cheek. My brother and I use to have the same love chat with our mom with we were little.
My son texts me from school where he is working on a narrative for English class, “Mum, can you help me describe the campground we went to that time I went mini golfing with Megan?’” Megan was his first girlfriend – she was older than he was and dumped him via text minutes after he asked her if she liked Sponge Bob. “Mum, do you remember what age I told her I was?”
“Not really,” I wrote, “but you were nine because we went to New York the following month to celebrate your 10th birthday. Maybe you told her you were ten. Or maybe you simply told her the truth.”
“No, I definitely lied – Sam called me out,” he writes back.
My dear husband, Sam, is at work, making sure there’s enough money coming in for me to continue staying home with the kids -- making sure I have enough time and energy to recreate The Collective as the Narrative Boutique I now know it’s meant to be.
While I look for a place to pack away the year of composition books, I find a hardbound journal with the word, “Dream” on the cover. I open it and realize it’s the journal I kept in the mobile boutique two years ago so I could write during down time. I had written a blurb titled, “Our Story”. It’s a rough draft, and was intended for the second website I had built for the Collective – one I never pushed live. I remember writing it. I was sitting on an antique, chalk-painted piano bench and it was raining outside. The magnified sound of the rain hitting the metal roof drowned out any other sound in the neighborhood, and the typically lively street was still -- except for tiny creeks gushing below the flagstone sidewalk. Here are pieces of what I wrote:
I began thinking about the most valued time in my life and put together the purpose for my life: I love to write; I love storytelling and poetry; I love photography and how technology allows us to connect our stories with one another’s lives. I love the life cycle of flowers and I love building ideas; I love being unconditionally available for my family.
Just after the loss my job and the loss of our savings in my failed attempt to open a storefront for The Collective Boutique, and just after the completion of my graduate program, the DIY home renovations and the full-term pregnancy – during my daughter’s infancy -- I started dabbling in the idea of buying an old bus to convert to a mobile shop. The doors opened in the spring of 2017.
Here I am today, writing this story inside in my vintage boutique on wheels – surrounded by flowers and things with figurative charm. The rain has stopped and a professional photographer just popped her head in to ask if she could photograph her client in front of my bus. Today, The Collective has become a canvas for painting dreams and ideas into the light; and although the narrative boutique still sits in partial darkness, it will one day bloom into a space for sharing our stories and glimpses of our experiences. Should you see us on the streets of Denver, please come in and say hello. Listen profoundly; share your stories; believe in your dreams; and never, never give up.
Two years ago, I was really writing to myself. And whether ever-so-disciplined time lost track of generations of flowers on the kitchen table, or creative focus displaced itself in-between lined pages of to-do lists, what matters is that I have stories and I’m ready to share them; and more importantly, you have stories and when you’re ready, I’m here to help you share yours.
So really, our story is just beginning as the spring flowers emerge from darkness, recreating themselves in the image of what they were a year ago, two years ago. And that, you see, is the whole beginning. The middle is when Irises leave footprints.