Unfinished Conversation

Even the title’s a little uncomfortable. We like things to be able to be checked off. But what I learned from sitting with Vincent this week is that sometimes a conversation is left incomplete in service to the bigger picture.

Above on the left is a picture I took at the Cleveland Museum of Art of The Large Plane Trees because I am fortunate enough to live in the same city as that piece. On the right is the same section of The Road Menders, which he painted later in the studio, using his earlier painting as a guide. I’ve written before about how much I love The Large Plane Trees because of its passion and very obvious need to capture the moment before it disappeared. He had to catch the colors of the leaves changing and was so desperate to do so that he used a tablecloth rather than wait for canvases to be delivered. There are places where you can see the pattern of the cloth beneath because portions of the painting were left as rough sketches to be returned to later.

And he did. On the right, because he was working from memory and because he had his earlier work as a guide, he was able to flesh out a great many more details. I was especially struck by the two road menders in each iteration of the work. On the left, they look very…unfinished. Because they are. On the right, the lines are clearer and you can see much more clearly what the two figures are doing.

I think certain conversations are like that. When you Just Begin, sometimes you have only a very rough idea and it gets to a point where you have to stop. The light looks how it looks only for a brief time and sometimes you have to direct your attention elsewhere or you’ll miss it. When I have been in a conversation that has stopped (who goes through their whole adult life without having that experience at least a few times?), I work hard not to begrudge a person this. Maybe at some point we will pick it up in a different context to make the lines clearer, but maybe not. Either way, my hope for each of us is that we catch the light in whatever way speaks beauty to us.

Just Begin

 

Sometimes, there is no low-impact way to begin. We have to just look for the thing that matters the most to us and move toward it.

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“I’d like to homeschool, but I’m not sure where to start.”

“Well, probably with having a kid. Oh, you already did that part? Well, you’re most of the way there.”

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“I really want to have a cleaned out room, but it’s so messy I can’t figure out what to clean first!”

“Maybe go pick up something and put it away? Then pick up something else…”

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“I’d like to talk to other white people about how we can reduce racism amongst ourselves, but I just don’t know how to begin!”

“Have you considered beginning awkwardly?”

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When I don’t feel at home with myself I sometimes go and sit at the art museum with Vincent Van Gogh. Fair warning: this post is likely to be equal parts middle school report and shameless fan-girling.

This is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Large Plane Trees.

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From the Cleveland Museum of Art’s website:

“In May 1889, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to an asylum near the small town of Saint-Rémy in Provence. His doctors soon gave him permission to paint on day excursions to surrounding fields. While walking through Saint-Rémy that November, he was impressed by the sight of men repairing a road beneath immense plane trees. ‘In spite of the cold,’ he wrote to his brother, ‘I have gone on working outside till now, and I think it is doing me good and the work too.’ Rushing to capture the yellowing leaves, he painted this composition on an unusual cloth with a pattern of small red diamonds visible in the picture’s many unpainted areas.”

So, Vincent (I’ll call him Vincent because that is how he signed his paintings and how he wanted to be known) had just moved to a new place, and from all outward accounts his life was not going too well at the moment. He had only sold one painting for money (though people sometimes took them in trade for goods or services), but he saw things and just had to paint them. This piece in particular has become important to me because he couldn’t even wait for the canvases his brother ordered to arrive. He painted it on a table cloth (or possibly a tea towel, but you get the point). He did another work using The Large Plane Trees as a guide. It looks more polished. He took more time. The Road Menders (which you can see here if you like) is beautiful, but I don’t connect to it in the same visceral way.

I took this closeup of The Large Plane Trees during a recent trip to the art museum (don’t worry…I used my camera’s zoom because getting this close to a priceless piece of art is…well, don’t do that).

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If you look closely, you can see the red and white fabric underneath the paint. It shows through in places; he really just had to paint what he saw before the moment evaporated. One of the wonderful (and, I imagine, stressful for him at times) things about Vincent is that he could not help but engage in his environment. His time here didn’t always go well, to put it mildly. But it went, and then it was gone. And by passionately engaging the world, he was able to leave us with some of the most inspiring works of art ever created.

As much as I aspire to remain present, there are times when I really do feel unable to find any point at which to pierce through to the world around me. It feels as though there is this impenetrable barrier between me and any useful thing. But I have found, more often than not, that the barrier that seems so strong bursts like a bubble the moment I touch it by doing the next right thing. I don’t mean that everything becomes fine. Please hear me. That is NOT what I mean. But there’s a reason that Lao Tzu proverb about thousand mile journeys and single steps is still being used to make cheesy (and not so cheesy) motivational posters today. Taking a single action may not fix everything, but what if it fixes something?

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I took my kids to the park yesterday. They needed to run far and climb high and I needed to let them. In the throes of busy-brain, my plan was to find a secluded bench, read articles on my phone, and avoid talking to anyone if I could. When we got there, a lady was sitting on one of the three closest benches. E walked over and put our stuff down within easy conversing distance. Foiled! What do I do? If someone doesn’t want to talk I know how to leave them alone. But what if they want to talk to me? Do I stare at my phone and not talk to them at all, even if they are friendly? Only answer with normal person depth? What even is that?  Make small talk? I don’t think I can do any of those things! “Resting Bitch Face” is completely outside of my skill set!

After a bit of an internal sigh, I decided to poke the bubble and just talk to her, since she was kind and interesting and clearly wanted to talk to me. We ended up talking for an hour and a half. We talked about marriages and divorces and deaths of old relatives and young children. There are lots of things I can’t do. But sitting with people and really caring about what they say to me? That’s one of the things I sometimes do really well.

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It doesn’t matter if you know exactly how it will turn out. It doesn’t matter if some of your source materials show through. It doesn’t even matter if your brushstrokes look nonsensical to the Muggles around you. Just begin.

On Privilege (Or…that time I was taunted for my thigh gap)

I went out recently in public for over an hour and nobody commented on my body. Why is this remarkable? Because I actually can’t remember the last time that happened. See, what with one thing and another, I’ve lost some weight unintentionally over last few months. And apparently, people have noticed.

I went out with a group of women a while back. These are fun ladies. We enjoyed girly drinks and talked about what was happening in our lives. One of the women mentioned she’d found these cool new shapewear garments on Etsy that prevent “chub rub” (when your thighs rub together and chafe…an uncomfortable feeling). I nodded along, but apparently not very convincingly because suddenly one of the ladies gestured to me and said boisterously, “What do you care? I bet your thighs don’t even touch! Do they? I bet they don’t!”

I hid my embarrassment behind my martini and waited for the subject to change.

You know what? Having someone make a joke out of your body doesn’t feel good no matter what your body looks like. Being made fun of for having a thigh gap does not feel less crappy than being made fun of for not having one.

Still…I chose not to address it in the moment for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that I recognized that I was coming from a place of privilege in that instance. Looking at magazines or Pinterest even briefly can show you that thigh gaps are, for some reason which completely elludes me, highly desired. If thin people want to see that thin is a way that people can look, that is easy to come by. “Thinspiration” abounds. But you know what? Seeing a body that resembles yours made into something aspirational is weird. I don’t find that affirming. I find it dehumanizing. Much like racism is bad for all of us (even white people, though that is harder to see which makes it harder to get people to understand), reducing any of us to nothing but a body type is not good for anyone.

The woman who made fun of my body is a cool person. I think she may have heard a few too many times that thigh gaps are the way to be, and so joking about it is a way to say, “I’m ok too!” Here’s the thing: my body is not an indictment of anyone else’s body; it’s just the way I look. That means if I was less analytical I would have gotten very defensive when it was mocked. But I get it: seeing a particular shape of a body feature held up repeatedly as the arbitrary “way it should be” gets old. I think mostly what happens for people is that they start out declaring, “It’s ok that I don’t look like someone on tv.” This is good and important and essential and true. But then that morphs into to, “It’s not ok to look like someone on tv.” And then from there it’s not a big leap to, “You look vaguely like someone I saw on tv and that’s gross.” (This is the hard part for me.)

I think this is the essence of beginning to deal with privilege of any kind…realizing that people have been hurt, often over and over again, and that if they are prickly about something it’s often not about you personally. Confronting privilege means remaining clear about this one important thing:

It’s not about you.

Do you need to change your behavior? Maybe.

Does the perception of someone deriding something about you mean that your identity is undermined so you absolutely have to defend yourself? It does not.

It’s definitely one way to go, and it’s a not unpredictable reaction when we feel under attack (witness the “All Lives Matter” counter-movement to “Black Lives Matter”). But defensive privilege often doesn’t take into account where a non-privileged person is coming from. In the case of some All Lives Matter folks, they seem to have missed that the point is not that black lives should matter more than other lives, it’s that they should matter…too. Without that piece of understanding, it’s too easy to get defensive. The reason I almost didn’t post about this (and the reason I usually don’t respond directly in conversation when someone comments about my body) is that saying, “stop making mean-spirited comments about my thin body because I would never call you fat” felt like saying “All Lives Matter!” But I realized recently that it’s not the same.

The point of the Black Lives Matter movement is not, as far as I can tell, to say negative things about other people. In fact, most of the things I’ve read (a whole movement is sure to have a wide variety of voices and should not be treated as a monolith) have been quite careful to say that this is about helping and supporting one group that is under attack, which has the potential to help all of us. I have yet to hear a single Black Lives Matter protester say, “I think white people don’t matter.”

The point of saying “Real Women Have Curves,” as far as I can tell, is to make women who have fuller shapes think that they are real women too. I get that. I can even get behind it to a point. But you lose me when you start feeling entitled to speak to me about my own body in derogatory and dehumanizing ways (and no, telling me I look like that actress you just spent ten minutes describing as “disgustingly skinny” is not a compliment).

Objectifying any of us hurts all of us.

At this point, when someone approaches me in an unkind or critical way, I try to listen and then pause to decide whether I need to change what I’m doing based on whatever I’m presented with. The way I see it, I may need to:

  1. Change my behavior or words.
  2. Point out that maybe they should change their behavior or words (this is only rarely the answer), or at least leave me out of it.
  3. Try to discern what important piece of understanding I’m missing.
  4. Let it go (this is almost always part of the answer).

Back to thighs: these days, it seems Real Women either have curves or a thigh gap. If you think either of those things in an exclusive way, I would like to invite you away from a false dichotomy. Real women have identities. Still, it’s the way we’ve been taught to think about our bodies and it takes a whole lot of work to step out of the framework which tells us that people who look differently than us are a threat. Our culture is full of false dichotomies and it’s HARD to leave that behind. But I promise you, it’s worth it in the long run.

Operation Chin Down: Losing Your Mind to Find It

It’s come to my attention that my preferred mode of processing is Quickly and All at Once. I think about things thoroughly, and have a hard time letting something rest until I’ve really processed it. So with something life-changing like heart surgery in the family, what I really want to do is to completely shut down for at least a week. Except I still homeschool my kids. I still have to drive places, make the meals, do the laundry, take the dog to the vet, call the doctors, fight with the insurance company, etc. etc. etc. (etc.). Life doesn’t stop because I’m a mess. Still, I’ve realized that in order to move forward, I need to prioritize being a mess for a while.

When E was a baby and I had postpartum depression, a really smart friend told me, “you have about a hundred hours of crying to do about this. If you work really hard at it, you could be done by the fall.” That was such good advice. The point isn’t to keep track of how long or how many tears. The point is to frame this time as long and intense, but not permanent. It’s a tunnel, not a dead end. There may be cave-ins and things that have to be dug through, but if you keep going there’s light eventually.

I’ve kept my chin up. My chin, literally and metaphorically, hurts. It’s time to stop trying to hold it up all the time.

So I present, mostly for my own benefit (if you’re reading along please note that these are my rules and aren’t meant to apply in a broadly prescriptive sense):

Operation Chin Down: The Ground Rules

  1. By all means, make a few terrible decisions. Allow them to remind you (usually by the lingering bad feeling afterward) why you make good decisions most of the time.
  2. Own your selfish, unhelpful thoughts. Recognize them. Just don’t always act on them. Tell your partner you don’t want him to go play cards on a Sunday afternoon, when he watched the kids all morning so you could get out by yourself. Then tell him he should absolutely go anyway because he deserves a break too and because you’re overwhelmed, but you’re still a grownup.
  3. Repeat after me. “No, Dear Daughter, I don’t want to play Monopoly right now.” In point of fact, I never want to play Monopoly. Ever. It sucks away a little of my life force every time I even see the box. Someday I may again have the patience to play anyway, but today is not that day. Don’t say this part out loud.
  4. Create and listen to a playlist of empowering songs that encourage you to feel whatever you feel and not apologize for it. Do NOT listen to this playlist when the kids are around. They don’t need to be repeating that shit at Thanksgiving.
  5. Say curse words when you need to. It really is kind of like the steam valve on the pressure cooker. Better to curse a little than to let your head explode completely.
  6. Try to have a care where you direct your intensity. Not everyone can handle it, and not everyone should have to. People have their own stuff going on and it makes sense to establish that it’s a safe space before you just start erupting like a volcano of neuroses.
  7. You will likely make mistakes in regards to number 6. Forgive yourself. You’re doing the best you can.
  8. Be honest about whatever you think and feel about God. God is big enough to be able to handle it, and won’t hold it against you. Having faith, for you, has never been about being ‘fine’ all the time. Having faith is about being able to move through things, and about being able to recognize that what you see and comprehend can not possibly account for everything that is. You’re allowed to feel bewildered and unable to form prayers. That’s what liturgy is for. “Amen” doesn’t always mean “this is how it is”. Sometimes it means, “I sure hope so.” Amen. Lord have mercy.
  9. You’re allowed to mourn the clarity that you had before all of this happened. You’ll find a way forward eventually; that doesn’t mean that you weren’t doing a good job before (thanks to my friend Sarah Wilson Belzile for that language).
  10. Go to therapy. There’s no shame in this. Find the right psychologist…you can tell it’s the right person because you can tell they get you and because you believe they are smart enough to tell you things about yourself (lots of therapists are smart enough…but not everyone will make you feel that way…that’s where the “getting you” part becomes especially important).
  11. Go to yoga.
  12. Eat all the carbs.
  13. You’re an extrovert. You have a lot of people. Ask a couple of them to come sit with you, even if you’re in a bad head space. You’ll be able to tell who can really be present in a helpful way, because they won’t need you to be smiling before they leave (it’s ok if you do smile, obviously, but the pressure to appear completely fine according to someone else’s definition is really unhelpful to the healing process).
  14. Have people around you who will tell you if they become worried you’ve gone too far off the rails. Believe them when they tell you that you haven’t.
  15. Recognize that the rules may need to change as you go. This is not failure. This is progress.

Cerebral Traffic Control

I was driving home from the market this morning and I took a short-cut through a neighborhood near my house.

There were several pieces of construction equipment blocking parts of the road and a person standing there, ostensibly to direct traffic. I couldn’t see far enough down the road to tell what was on the other side of the trucks, so I trusted the person standing in the middle of the road to tell me when I could go.

She held up both of her hands, looking back and forth from me to the other end of the road, then sort of waggled both hands at the same time in a meaningless way. Then she stepped back out of the way. Baffled, I started to go. The trouble was, another driver at the other end did the same thing. Luckily the two of us were able to carefully edge by each other as our would-be traffic controller stood there haplessly looking on.

It made me think of my brain.

Like the lady in the hard hat, I don’t have total control over what comes driving through. I have various expected inputs. Some thoughts barrel through while others come gently by. Of course, brains are much more complicated than two-way streets. Some thoughts approach like a missile strike and others seem to walk by without even stopping, though we wish they would.

Sometimes, I get “busy brain.” There are just too many thoughts. Too many things to care about. Too many puzzles to figure out. So, like the lady in the hard hat, I sometimes get overwhelmed and just waggle my hands ineffectually and hope for the best.

I don’t judge myself for that. But after this morning, I’m left with the reminder that if I can practice effective cerebral traffic control sometimes I might arrive at more conclusions with less inner chaos.