Sunday, April 7, 2013

Unexpected Jewel


I found a jewel in a surprising box. Its beauty took my breath away. Days later, I'm still trying to take in how it could have such an effect on me.

It's a gift shop, I suppose: Seven Silver Seas, in Maggie Valley, NC. I don't like gift shops, especially here. I only go in when my family members ask to go. I don't like the plastic and the Made in China. I don't like the "Indian" wares that have nothing to do with local culture or history; I feel insulted that meaningful Plains Indian traditions are shipped to China to be fashioned into trinkets to be sold to children (and adults) who are led to believe these pieces of plastic and paper and all-wrong feathers represent a connection with the ancient heritage of the Cherokee. It's not a personal insult, other than to my intelligence. As far as I know, I have no Native American genetic links, but I can still respect the uniqueness of each people group and the meanings of their traditions within that context. I do have Appalachian genetic links, and I also find it demeaning that the humans who made a life here, using local resources skillfully to work and play and create, are reduced in these gift shops to corn-cob-pipe-smoking moonshiners with guns and no brains. It's a lot to think about, and maybe I think too much, but this is why I don't like tourist gift shops.

Why, then, would I go into a store surrounded with purple baskets of purple and yellow real and  artificial flowers? Purple rocking chairs line its front, a purple picnic table sits under a purple awning; the front of the clapboard house is painted purple. This is too much, isn't it? Too-too cute. Too-too colorful. Too-too whimsical. Isn't it? But I like purple. It always catches my eye. And my husband even pointed out the shop to me, expecting me to respond positively. I held my tongue and reserved judgment. I don't like gift shops.

"You'll love our jewelry" says the sign out front. The sign doesn't specifically say "gift shop," but instead it has that intriguing name, "Seven Silver Seas." Is it a craftsman's shop? Is there a silversmith inside, fashioning jewelry from raw metal? I do want a pair of earrings - purple ones, in fact. Maybe there are real earrings in there, not plastic shiny baubles that will lose color or fall apart after a wearing or two. An idea began to nudge me. I could go alone, without the family, peek in and look only for purple earrings, slip out before anyone knew I'd been shopping. You see, not only do I not like gift shops, I don't like shopping. I don't like browsing, choosing, spending money. So I can't casually say to my family, "I think I'll run over to that little purple gift shop up the road."

On the third morning, I did it. "I'm taking a walk. I'm going to head over to that purple gift shop." They slept in, I enjoyed the morning. I walked past a mountain stream pouring itself over its rocky bed. I greeted the resting trees lining the banks, waiting for spring to fill their limbs again. I crossed the stream on a footbridge and looked for fish darting near the pilings. The road skirts a deep-green, black-earth pasture with a few grazing cattle, dark as the mud, one nursing her newest masterpiece. I left the herd and strode between the purple baskets of bright flowers and up to the front door. A gentleman exiting the shop held the door. I stepped inside and held my breath.

Where am I?
This is no gift shop. The air isn't even the same. The light is all . . . right. Gift shop light is wrong - artificial, harsh, slightly flickering from a worn-out ballast somewhere over in a corner. This is warm, live light. The colors here are rich and organic; no melted plastic colored to resemble the real thing. I exhaled, inhaled, and turned to the left.

I entered a room full of gently hanging clothing. These were soft, natural fabrics, the kind that flow over bodies like a breeze, covering and celebrating the human form. I fingered a blouse. Organic cotton, hand-dyed, hand-stitched. Someone personally poured life into this garment. There were skirts and scarves and dresses and not one single Great Smoky Mountains T-shirt with a likeness of a bear or a mountain. No machine-stamped, mass-produced, impersonal identical souvenirs here. Not a gift shop, at least not the kind I dislike. There was music, too - a lilting chanteuse singing en fran├žais, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. That was the last straw. I was never going to be able to leave this place!

I had to leave, though. I knew I couldn't stay all day; the family expected me back. Besides that, I wasn't even a shopper; more of a tourist (perish the thought) traveling through this unexpected world of beautifully crafted goods. Earrings - that's why I came in. I moved over to the second room, to the right of the front door. Here was the jewelry I'd love, as foretold on the sign out front.

The sign was right. The jewelry was gorgeous. There were bracelets and necklaces and pendants in glass cases. The clerk (long hair, large eyes, flowing bright skirt and jacket)  let me know the earrings were in boxes on top of all the cases. Boxes organized by color, as it turned out. That's just my style. I didn't rush to the purples, though. There were too many pretties along the way. Simple and ornate, spirals and lines, filigrees and solids - the variety was quite impressive; surely there was something for everyone, for every occasion, here.

If I hadn't been struck dumb by the experience, I'd have asked who made all this. I'd have asked where the materials came from. I'd have asked about the vendors for the clothing from all over the world. I'd have asked about the vegan leather purses. I'd have inquired about the incense. But I couldn't ask. I couldn't speak. My heart was in my throat, and it was a heart swelling with joy. I was breathing in color. I felt as if I were dancing, though my feet were quite still in front of the jewelry case. At last I was able to move toward the door, thank the clerk, and step outside.

I couldn't leave, though. I sat on one of those preposterous purple rocking chairs and I wept. Tears just fell out of my eyes and washed over my smile. What a beautiful store!

It was the realness that got to me, I think. I'm exceptionally sensitive to phoniness. I need truth, honesty, and nature. In the Seven Silver Seas shop I found items made of natural materials, colored with God's pigments, crafted individually by talented hands. This, in contrast to where I'd been recently, was enough to catch my notice. On a spiritual level, though, there was even more.

When I'm in a place where many people have lived and loved and struggled, my spirit is touched by the painful beauty of human life. Many times I've stopped to meditate in a historic site or a church or a theater. I feel a connection to those who have gone before, a sorrow and rejoicing with the mortality and eternity of being human. I think that's what really overpowered me at Seven Silver Seas. It was the connection to people around the world who had labored over these items, individually crafting each one, giving their best to create a beautiful thing each time. Nothing here was stamped out by a machine, tooled in a huge factory, impersonally brought into being as an identical copy of millions of other nondescript things. Each piece is unique, like the person who made it, like the person who will use it.

Finding all this in one small building was unexpected. Finding all this beauty in any building was unexpected. I sure am glad I didn't judge this "book" by its cover.

1 comment:

  1. Chuckling at the contrast: I, on the other hand, went to the "See Rock City" gift shop!

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