40 and 42 Vlamingstraat are two non-particularly-descript houses along a little street that lines an eastern canal in the little Dutch town of Delft. Where they now stand, nearly four centuries ago, were two equally ordinary homes. Worn, earthen red brick, leaded windows, and a white-washed wall.
Johannes Vermeer, The Little Street (1657-1658)
Two passageways. In one of those, a woman working needle and thread. In the other, another woman pausing to rest against the wall with her broom. Two children bending forward, on their knees and the sidewalk, probably playing with marbles. A quiet scene unfolding identically on hundreds of other similar, quiet streets. But when Vermeer painted it, it sparked a revolution,
and is still considered one of the most powerful works of art in history.
Little streets are lined with little homes in which people quietly live. Their days are lined with alarm clocks, commutes, errands, and nine-hour work shifts. Picking the children up, walking the dog. Setting the dinner table, clearing it. And after the lights are out, perhaps, a few soft-spoken words across pillows.
On doorsteps of quiet streets: newspapers, sometimes. On some corners, corner stores. Sometimes the smell of coffee wafts leisurely through them, and bacon on Sunday mornings. Names on doorbells and mailboxes, easily, frequently replaced. From time to time, a fire hydrant or post box. Uneven sidewalks, streetlamps.
Tourists, cameramen, and historians tend to overlook quiet streets; rarely does anything worth documenting ever happen on these. Nothing extraordinary about a light that remained on all night, for instance, in the far left window on the third floor of a building. But Vermeer would have painted it.
And the worried man inside, hunched over figures and coffee, or a drink. The mother hunched over the sick child in bed. The girl waiting for the phone to ring.
The last person at the Laundromat, or bar. The first person at the bakery. The bus driver warming the engine and his hands before touching the steering wheel.
Further, at the stop, the schoolchildren on the bench. Their packed lunches. The parent who packed them. The elder sibling helping the younger one onto the bus’s high steps.
The crisp ties and the hands that adjusted them at eight o’clock in the morning. Then loosened around unbuttoned collars at six o’clock in the evening. The doorbell ringing, the happy scurry of footsteps on the other side. The keys in the door, the warmth and light streaming out onto the sidewalk.
Tourists, cameramen, and historians tend to overlook quiet streets. A shame; the reality, the beauty of being human can only be observed here.
In the quiet heroism of getting out of bed in the morning, every morning. Of tending to loved ones and countertop herb gardens. Fighting, not dragons, but traffic. Finding fortune in random places, like the prize in a cereal box. Snapshots of happiness around every corner, simply by choosing to see it.
Extraordinary stories abound of great lives spent performing great deeds, set in extraordinary places and times, in paintings, books, operas, on big screens. Immortalized by white marble statues and monuments, carved in gold and stone. They elevate and inspire me, but I am also grateful for the little streets.
For a painting of a woman on a doorstep sewing and another resting by a wall. For two children playing. For my ordinary life, and how beautiful it is.