When it’s ten degrees outside, your recreational options are somewhat limited. Facing yet another inside day watching the cold deepen its grip, my daughter and I decided to shake things up and take a trip to the Portland Museum of Art. After donning our tundra gear and warming up the car seats, off we went.
As we drove along the coast, we watched with despair as the temperature decreased–degree by degree– until it hovered at 5˚ F. We glanced at each other–Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea! Luck was with us, however, and we were able to park around the corner from the museum entrance. Unfortunately, during our drive the cold had been enhanced by the onset of stinging snow flurries and a brisk biting wind. Taking a deep breath before exiting the car, we tucked our heads into our winter layers, and plodded up the slick city sidewalks and at last, with a sigh of relief, into the welcoming vestibule of the museum. Ahhhh….warmth, color, and the buzz of quiet conversation.
Once inside, we checked our winter gear and then wandered through the galleries, speaking in hushed tones, admiring some works, questioning the artistic designation of others.
“So, ookkkaayyyy….what makes something art, anyway?” we wondered. (Sometimes it does seem a bit arbitrary.)
After a delightfully companionable time viewing Renoirs, and Ipcars, and Wyeths (oh my!), we entered The McLellan House, an 1801 federal mansion that forms the rear portion of the museum. (Take a look at the amazing flying staircase!)
We walked up to the second floor, and a sign outside one of the rooms caught our attention: “The Study: Give what you can. Take what you need.”
“What do you think that means?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Lyddie responded. “Let’s check it out.”
So we wandered inside to find this sign, prominently displayed above the mantel:
There were three acrylic boxes by the large windows, each clearly labeled: Letters about…Hope, Strength and Beauty. Each box was brimming with colorful collections of paper. We were immediately captivated, and shuffled through the boxes, pulling out random letters to read aloud to each other. “Listen to this one.” or “Oh, this one’s amazing!” After a few minutes we began to read silently. Long minutes passed unnoticed. As I read letter after letter, I was deeply moved by the sincerity and genuine kindness expressed within them.
After awhile, we put down the letters and moved to the center of the room. There was a cluster of chairs and a table with a pile of colored paper, assorted pencils, and an invitation to participate. I imagined hundreds of people over the course of weeks pausing in this room, taking time out of their day to read, to think and then to write words of encouragement to total strangers. Families sitting down together to write. Random individuals sitting next to each other writing. Lyddie and I sat and thought. Then we wrote our own words of encouragement to add to the boxes. As we left the room, we addressed envelopes to have letters sent to us at the end of the installation.
This has been a dark, negative year and this roomful of letters offered an unexpected and thoroughly appreciated ray of light. As I read some of the letters and then added my own, I felt my optimism rekindled. There is kindness in the world. People are good and caring. We can reach out, connect and help each other. We do have empathy. These thoughts tumbled through my mind, lifting my spirits. After finishing our contributions, we left the room regretfully, wishing we could stay and read each and every letter.
Back in the entryway, we retrieved our coats and layers and bundled up. The snow continued to spit outside and day was already fading to night. As we opened the doors, the arctic chill swirled around us once again, but we had been reminded: There is powerful positive energy in the world. During these upcoming dark winter days, we knew we could anticipate the arrival of a brightly colored letter, written by a stranger, offering heartfelt words of encouragement. Buoyed by this thought and the memories of those letters we had read and written, we stepped out into the cold. Somehow, it didn’t seem quite as bad as it had before.