Sweet Cream Vanilla

Wayne Thiebaud

How a Creative Community Unintentionally Taught me about Wonder and Hope, Plus Friends.

A lot of things start to change in sixth grade. The little caterpillars burrow into their cocoons, awaiting metamorphosis and ultimately the unveiling of their new shining selves, a rebirth in a splendor of colors.

Alyssa joined our sixth grade class at the beginning of that school year, just as we were all climbing into our cocoons, into the void.

Sixth grade is not the best time for someone to start a new school. It was the final grade in our elementary school, and all of us top dogs had already collectively categorized ourselves into our versions of appropriate social groups. The women sixth graders believed in shaving their legs, carrying a purse, and had started to try on the habit of gossip. The men had assumed a posture of both teasing and separateness from the girls, and were working on a crude sense of humor.

Alyssa floated somewhere above the categories we knew, an enigma.

She had moved to Lincoln all the way from Washington state, which was then just a misty gray portion of my mental map of the U.S. Her last name sounded distinctively Polish, and she had an oral expander and braces that made her speech sound like she really might be from another country. She was eager to make friends, and I remember she invited me over to her house at least once. Alyssa and her parents were surprisingly kind. I remember being in her house and looking out at her neat and green backyard through the floor-to-ceiling window in their living room, not sure what my other friends might think of this new girl who was simultaneously intriguing, plain, and inviting.

When my sixth grade friends and I got together, we usually talked about our hair or boys or each other, and we had never seen much of anything new, besides movies. We listened to rap and watched Erin Brockovich in the middle of the night on my friend’s TV in her bedroom, while she worried about getting fat. We were all going through some formidable circumstances, and we grew accustomed to talking about pain. We were getting our first tastes of what it meant to be bitter.

My parents were recently divorced and it wouldn’t be long before my alcoholic father would choose to end his visitations with me by not showing up to a court hearing. “Maybe we shouldn’t see each other for a while,” were his last words with me at age thirteen, at the conclusion of our final Wednesday night together that he had spent alone in his room.  My grandma came over when he dropped me off at my mom’s apartment early. We didn’t know what to say.

I remember trying to make new friends after starting middle school in a new area and literally having nothing to talk about other than things my new, more well-adjusted peers seemed uncomfortable hearing and had no response to. In middle school, I was the kid whose clothes didn’t fit just right and had a hard time looking you in the eye. The only child who walked home from school as the school buses and mini-vans zoomed past, all the way to my apartment behind the gas station on the corner, spending every afternoon entertaining myself with books, notebooks, piano practice, and CDs from the library until my mom came home from work. I began to carefully close myself off to people. I felt very different from everyone around me and had a hard time trusting anyone.

Alas, new wonders were on the horizon.

Alyssa was different. She had medium-long brown hair and never said anything cruel about other people, and never expressed any desire to lose weight. She was one of the first people in my life that made me think how life could be fun, and it could be a nice adventure. After all, she had ventured out to my state clear from Washington, from the Pacific coast. That was farther away than I could imagine, and she had lived there. She had a birthday party that year at a place called Paint Yourself Silly and her parents paid for all of her guests to paint a small piece of pottery, and eat cake and ice cream that came from the next door ice cream shop. Sweet cream vanilla. Unlike any I’d tasted before. Tacky and sweet, you could pull this sticky ice cream in a swoop up past your lips where it would melt delectably into a puddle of cool vanilla bean cream. It was really something. It was different, and it was good.

I was lucky Alyssa came to my school that year. And that she liked me for no particular reason. I wondered about her parents and how they heard about this pottery place when I hadn’t known it was in my hometown, and I thought about how calm and happy they seemed, and what healthy sense of wonder must’ve propelled them to plan Alyssa’s whimsical birthday party.

The downtown building that the pottery studio and ice cream shop were nestled in was a place I wound up visiting and revisiting many times as the rest of my teen years passed. It seemed to be the hub for several meaningful moments with friends who I found that I actually had things in common with. It was called the Creamery, and it still is. Every business in the building was locally owned. It was full of quaint things.

For a while, there was a gift shop there that sold handmade curiosities and other goods. A high school friend of mine and I were wildly entertained by their fragrance line of “familiar, everyday scents,” like Grass, Dirt, Rain, Tomatoes, and Funeral Home.* We bought scarves, notebooks, earrings, giddy with our eclecticism. That friend was a good one, the kind you write notes to with gel-pen mostly every day in geometry class and wallpaper them up in your locker all year. The kind of friend you paint your toenails orange with and make up happy pretend things with and dance to Madonna with. We understood each other and danced around our families’ brokenness and laughed in the face of our parents’ strife.

This was the kind of fearless I had been searching for. Not the walls of distrust and defensiveness that protected me from fear –

Fearless joy.

Years later I would drive myself to the Creamery building in the Haymarket and browse around a bookstore-cafe that opened up, running into an older girl I’d met through a writing group years ago who worked there now. She studied at the university and I imagined she was majoring in creative writing. She remembered me, and we talked for a while. I thought she was the absolute coolest. We both loved writing, and books. I knew something personal about her – that she liked to write in a leather-bound journal.

Beneath my wings, my colors were emerging.

I spent three snowy weekends during high school in this wonderful place called the Haymarket. I was there for All-State Honor Band, hanging with some of the most talented and nerdy musicians my age in the state each winter. Smart people, funny people. People who geek out about their ligatures and get emotional when it comes to the care of their instruments. We got up early to get coffee together and played our faces off on some great music during the day, giving an evening concert at the Lied Center to hundreds of cheering parents. Joy bubbled inside me. I made friends there that I would wind up catching up with summers later to hear live jazz concerts in the university’s sculpture garden. Friends who started their own jazz bands, took piano lessons from the same teacher I did, went to college, and worked at tea shops. I met people like me, kind strangers who dreamed of a world of common pleasantries, connection in creativity, and the certainty of improbable delight.

A lot of time has passed since sixth grade. Much has taken place. As the saying goes, ‘We are all of the selves we have been,’ but I have been transformed. I’ve emerged from the cocoon with my bright colors.

I am still the me that was captured by the idea of eating homemade ice cream while painting pottery, and there is a little part of me that still responds to life with anger and distrust. But I am a new me too. The new me is less surprised by things being pleasant, and people being friendly. Over the course of time and with plenty of experiences that helped to paint a new picture for me, I have learned to trust in goodness, to know and let myself be known, and live in the joy that comes from sharing the wonders and pleasures of life with others.

I think that’s what they call hope.

One of my early employers wanted to be friends with me along my journey of metamorphosing and she told me one day, “Leslie, you’re hard to get to know. You’ve got to let down your walls. It’s like you’ve got all these walls up keeping anyone from getting in. I think you should let go of those.” She was a psychology major. And she was right. It was time to start trusting in the goodness of people, letting them in, and opening up to life and what it had to offer.

I am thankful for the saints in my life who showed up to give me a glimpse of something wonderful, inside and outside that Haymarket station. The calm, confident people who laughed at life and took pleasure in its many beauties and complexities; who helped me determine what I truly valued and desired to give myself to in my life and work.

This is what I believe in: Bringing people together and seeing them come into themselves. Teaching them wonder, through wonderful things like the arts. Helping people find their heart’s smile, find their confidence, find their true selves. These are the colors of my wings.

Jesus, may everyone emerging come to know the sweetness of your great hope, wonder, and joy, through whatever saints or route you choose. May they close their eyes and take a blind step into trusting your goodness. I am thankful that you taught me.

Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks – we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. – Parker Palmer



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