In our dreams, we were hip-deep in cotton picked by willing, happy, high-paid underlings and we smiled with satisfied benevolence
We were standing in the shade of magnolias and wearing our widest-brimmed Sunday hats and crisp seersucker and poplin even on Tuesday
We nibbled tiny toast points dabbed with pimiento cheese while a string quartet hummed like honeybees up at the portico
We fanned ourselves to keep cool as the sun sank, listening to mourning-doves serenade the arrival of the winking fireflies
We drank our bourbon out of snifters, neat, and never got more than a little bit hazy, what with having well padded ourselves with roast pheasant over a very long suppertime
We spoke in soft, lilting tones and said kind words to our mothers and children just because that’s how it was done
In our hearts, we were the pathfinders, the athletes who carved a road of freedom and justice across the plains to make new territories ring with accomplishment
We stood tall in the evergreens and set down mighty roots of dedication in lines running from the lakes to the mountaintops
We shipped on the seas and shouted joy with the birds of the air, and of an evening we were wont to watch the stars for signs of adventure yet ahead
We called ourselves hardy stock for braving the cold and wrapped our red-cheeked children in woolen blankets after a day spent in the bracing light of education
We wrestled with bears for the salmon that we ate, but then sat down to dine on it with all the gentility of our many foreign forefathers
We called our politics piety and our egalitarian philosophies a revelation even if everyone who didn’t qualify might not agree
And here we are today, being All-American but half-savage…
We live in the same states of grace but relish our superiority with self-congratulatory rudeness that would shame our imagined selves
We sneer at gentility as outmoded and write polemical pieces about each other with no sense of irony left in the spaces between the hard-edged words
We forget the flaws that taught us our cultured best’s fragility and instead of learning from the mistakes, we widen them as far as our waistbands and pockets can stretch
We turn a critical eye on the wounded world and manage to keep it keen despite the moral blind-spot toward our contributory, if not our sometimes causal, role
We are a nation of would-be saints dressed in brutes’ clothing…but perhaps in that, we may not be entirely alone…
If there is hope, it’s that we’ve gotten here at all, for surely those in our hearts and dreams must have been real somewhere to seem so tangible in imagination
We might still embrace the justice and benevolence we thought we had, if we are willing to strip away delusions of grandeur and the lust for power
We could take a moment, while nibbling our toast points and standing conqueror on our latest promontories of success, to offer a meal to the hungry and a foothold to the poor
We ought to care less about self-image, and more about wholeness and devotion to the betterment of those people and privileges we say we love so well
We are capable, if we watch the exemplars before and around us whose courage and kindness walk arm in arm instead of standing on opposing distant shores
We may yet become the greats that we imagine we should be, if only we stop pretending we are so and humbly take to walking toward it on the faint horizon instead…
Do It Yourself (DIY) projects, when well executed and realized, are impressive and admirable. They double one’s pleasure in the end product by being not only beautiful and useful as desired but also the satisfying result of her own skilled labors. Personal investment increase value exponentially.
I can claim a few DIY accomplishments on my resume, happily, despite my ordinary limitations of resource, monetary or of expertise or ability for the project in hand. But having mentioned hands, I must also confess to having a DITY (Do It TO Yourself) record as well. On the occasion of the hand-made hand injury, I was fortunate that my second of inattention resulted in no worse mishap than a tiny nip on my finger.
Being an artist, I did however do this with a certain degree of style: when I stuck my finger with a single tooth of my nice, sharp little hand saw (too aptly named, perhaps?), I did manage to insert the steel into the only small spot on my hand that already had a visible scar. Puncture becomes punctuation, so to speak.
As always, the tiniest wound is magnified by other pains, not least of them the injury to ego and dignity when on the instant of infliction I succumb to a combination of reactions that to the uninjured could only have a sort of serio-comic ridiculousness perfect for cutting me down to size. The unpleasantness of having made an unwanted incision in my personage is compounded by the leap back that threatens to throw me over a chair and onto my tailbone; the pinching clamp of fingers on the cut to stanch the bleeding hurts almost more than the initial stab; the yell of pain that, in my nephew’s youthful terminology ‘scares my ears’ is also loud enough for the neighbors to hear and enjoy. On top of all this is the diminution of my sanguine pride, reminding me that my handy skills are sorely limited no matter what I tell myself.
Does this prevent my attempting further DIY projects? Hardly! Being by nature a timid and lazy and not-so-brilliant craftsman hasn’t made me give up but instead tends to make me plan and work things out fairly exhaustively before I begin, and to assume that I’ll make mistakes or need help before I finish. It all slows me down, to be sure—and that’s not a bad thing, mind you. Any DIY work is bound to be only as polished as patience and occasionally remedial work can make it.
When I speed up too much, I get sloppy and unfocused; I make silly mistakes like sticking my finger on a saw tooth/a saw tooth into my finger. Luckily for me, I didn’t have a power saw going there, so all I lost was a few minutes, my composure, and a few red cells rather than a digit. In return, I got a good reminder to sharpen my attention, to use tools with greater care, and to call in expert help when needed.
After all, I’d far rather sacrifice some dollars and a touch of my DIY pride than an appendage. This is how I’ve survived to my advanced age without losing any body parts or breaking any bones. I have recovered numerous times from being an (or falling on my) ass. Self image is ever so much more resilient than such things. Arguably, a little too much so in my case, or I wouldn’t tend to get into these fixes at all.
If I should need some camouflage, should want to truly blend,
I’d better watch my persiflage and learn not to offend
By wearing last week’s trendy style, my hair too short or long,
Or failing, yet, to reconcile which Party’s Right (or wrong)
To run the government; which church is favored most by God,
How not to leave you in the lurch when I have been a clod,
Appalling with my social gaffes, faux pas and frightful fouls;
I may accept I’m built for laughs, but using the wrong towels
Or forks or traffic lanes, That Word in company unfit—
I hope I don’t seem too absurd as-is, but that’s just it:
My imperfections, my unique design as Me, are such
As might make me appear a freak if I am Me too much.
But, truth be told, while I may work to fit in with the rest,
I hope you won’t think me a jerk for liking myself best!
I will blend in, keep pace, behave, up to a point, to please,
But lest you think me fashion’s slave, I think it a dis-ease
To seek conformity and bow to other people’s rules
When I’m quite nifty anyhow, and others may be fools.
It’s especially nice, when I’ve caught myself wallowing in self-denigration and insecurity for a bit, to think on those things that actually, really, truly are pretty darn good about me. It’s no sin to appreciate the gifts we’ve been given, and their relative smallness in comparison to others’, as there are always people for whom we have [possibly unwarranted] adulation as exemplars of all those things we long to be, is irrelevant. Safe to say that every one of those great and mighty high achievers has some hidden insecurity and certainly, all have imperfections. Our inability to see those reflects more on our own worries and wishes than on who anyone else genuinely is.
So I go off looking at the astonishingly skillful artistry of others and am ashamed at how little I’ve accomplished in my artistic life thus far and feel inadequate and cheap, and sulk for a moment or two, and then I need to pick up my tools and get back to work and remember that I do this, to be fair, for the love and joy of doing it, not because I need to impress somebody. And I remind myself that despite my ordinariness, I am in my own way new and improved in comparison to where I started my artistic journey.
The same holds true for looking at others’ writing, cooking, gardening, housekeeping, home decorating, DIY projects, you name it. If there’s anything I do that I wish I were better at doing—and anything worth doing is worth getting better at doing, no?—the reason I have such a wish is that I know I’m far from the best, and I can only know how far I am from the best if there are others leading me there by example. In fairness to my meager position in the relative scheme of things, I need to recognize that most experts spent a tremendous amount of time and energy becoming the avatars that they are, that if I did think I were nearly perfect at anything it would be foolish and delusional and hubristic and, well, tiresome, and that I do improve over time, if not quite at the rate I would fondly hope I could.
This is not a pity party for Poor Little Me, lest you be misled by my maundering start: it’s a self-reminder that I am very fortunate, and yes, a little bit gifted, too. My gifts may not be the kind that were evident from my birth and improved exponentially over a shining, prodigious span of growth and productivity and marvelous output. But incremental growth and modest gifts can be celebrated, too, and since I have no need for fame or (however pleasing I may find the idea of it) wealth, it matters none whether anyone else celebrates them. That they do, and indeed, tell me so, is a kindness and brings the kind of wealth and fame that have a far greater value than the more worldly sort, when I accept them wholeheartedly.
I know I’m not the greatest of or at anything. But I like who and what I am and think I’m on a slow upward incline regarding what I do, and that’s reason enough to hold up my chin and puff out my chest a little and march on forward with a smile on my face and my head held high. I’ll bet you could do it, too, even if you merely do so by letting yourself believe what the people who love and respect you tell you. They don’t love and respect and admire you for no reason at all, and who are you to question your admirers’ integrity! Go ahead, own up to being the new and improved you. Preen a little. You deserve it.
Let us pause for a moment of thought on who we are and what we’re not,
On living life as best we can, no matter whether beast or man,
And think of beauty, wisdom, skill, kind spirits, charm, and strength of will,
And not forget, not for one blink, we’re not as dandy as we think,
But all the same, let’s take the tack of cutting, each, ourselves some slack—
Our imperfections won’t be solved until we’re all far more evolved,
But what we are at present, still, has bits of charm, kind spirits, skill,
Has strength and wisdom; beauty too—and that gives us enough to do—
I’ve been known to be loud. I’ve worn bright colors, I’ve shouted, and I’ve been opinionated. Much of the time I’m more modest and even occasionally somewhat self-effacing, and more often than not I’d rather anyone else be the center of attention, but once in a while I do just let
‘er rip and enjoy the noise.
It’s possible that my sometime dislike of bright orange reflected my then predominant shy and introverted parts. When I was little and not yet worried about others’ opinions of me, I chose as my first self-selected garment a coat of the color in today’s illustration, and I wore it proudly and felt like a (miniature) queen in it. Now, ten years after beginning useful treatment for that nasty old anxiety-and-depression cocktail that had drizzled over me in the many subsequent years’ passing after that coat purchase, I appreciate bright orange again. But in that middle time I was a nervous and insecure type and orange was far too ebullient and exotic and full of uninhibited good cheer for me to even look upon it without a twinge.
You know what, though? ‘Orange’ and ‘twinge’ may end with the same sound, but they sure don’t rhyme, and I can’t think of much else they really have in common either, so why should I let the fact that I look awful in that color (never mind my generous childhood self-image) steer me away from delighting in the joy and sunshine that orange represents and just allowing that loud, reckless, gleeful color to shine all over me. Maybe even though I might not be able to be orange enough myself, I can reflect the joy and sunshine of orange a bit. Whee!
Here’s the thing about flamingos: they’re living contradictions. They’re some of the least altered descendants of the dinosaurs, yet in the twentieth century they became icons of modernism in art and design in large part for the very strangeness that ties them so closely to their ancestors. In the span of that surge of popularity, they also had both the high-cultural cachet of favored subjects in Art Deco’s glamorous creations and the lowbrow delights of trailer park plastic lawn decorations. The elegant long necks, graceful broad wings, and that magical coral hue of their plankton-painted plumage are counterbalanced by rather gawky squawking voices and oh, my, what an unattractive smell.
Here’s another thing: we human-types tend to have a certain ambivalence about many things in our lives and appreciate that the world is far from simple. So it’s not surprising that many of us should find flamingos fairly intriguing and compelling. They’re kind of weird. They’re sort of good metaphorical stand-ins for us.
I’m fond of and amazed by birds. I’m particularly drawn to raptors and songbirds, but truth be told, I wasn’t so taken by flamingos, and when I got to spend a tiny bit of quality time in their presence in zoos or parks, I was amused by their seeming clumsiness and more than a little taken aback by their stink and noise. Guess you won’t be surprised, then, to know that when I had a little time to reflect on it–well, it was my own reflection I saw. I’m still thankful I’m not an actual flamingo, since people mostly don’t laugh openly at my foibles when in my presence, and hardly ever tell me to my face that I’m stinky. All the same, having that little picture stored in my mind is useful. I may still be slightly ridiculous, in my stumbling, silly way and with my imperfect voice and showy but eccentric ways, but I guess if flamingos can be such wonderful and iconic beings with all of their oddities, why shouldn’t I, too? Flawed and goofy I may be, but I’m an amazing creature of my own kind.
Maturity is a hard concept to nail down. So few of us would willingly embrace the larger idea of maturity after all: the implication is too much doused with the odor of aging and the loss of innocence, playfulness and joie de vivre.
But if I can move away from those irksome, unflattering aspects of maturation, there is a whole world of better and more admirable traits awaiting me. To refuse to grow up, as so famously done by Peter Pan, one has to reject all of those pleasures and opportunities afforded only to those willing to submit to the passage of time.
I will continue to avoid becoming ensnared in the traps and trials of aging as long as I can get away with it, and probably further. Who wants to become exclusively serious, constantly responsible or particularly predictable? Not I! Age may force me to slow down my physical pace or even make me willing to concede that there is such a thing as a skirt too short or heels too high or a blouse too fitted to be quite seemly for my years, never mind that choosing certain forms of entertainment or places to go or goals to achieve are not particularly well suited for me anymore.
But I am also glad to let down the barriers to other aspects of maturity, and to embrace my aging with a certain relief when it comes to those. I care less and less, for example, about whether I look fashionable or impressive, so the heels and hems can be whatever altitude suits my comfort and mood. I’m happier in my own skin with every year spent getting to know and define and design it.
That, my friends, is the greatest gift of aging: I am freer from the worries, demands and expectations of the world around me and can work at shaping who I am, what I want, and how I feel more deeply and contentedly than when I thought there was a greater need to conform. Youth is not nearly so unfettered as we idealize it as being; so long as more mature people own our territories of home, school, work and even play, they also rule our lives. So long as we concern ourselves with comparison, competition and popularity, we let others have the power as well. When we learn to fit in and find community by being our truest selves, it changes the tune entirely. This is the richness, ripeness and harmony–within and between–conferred by true maturity.And while I’m thinking about musical metaphors, I really must give you a link to my husband’s latest YouTube appearance, conducting the beautiful and magical Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 with the Collegium Singers and Baroque Orchestra of the University of North Texas, with some tremendous guest artists singing and playing alongside the artful student and faculty musicians. This production was the premiere performance of the new edition of the Vespers that was developed by UNT professor Hendrik Schulze and ten of his graduate students, and among the instrumentalists playing on marvelous period instruments were some of the greatest players now gracing the halls and stages of the Early Music genre. Enjoy!