To Whom Much is Given

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.

That’s a passage from Christian scripture, but it’s a precept that I’ve read, heard and seen in the texts and teachings of other religions, and it’s commonly enough reflected in social policy and proposals for humane and ethical action in all sorts of places that it deserves more general notice and attention, I think. There seems to be an underlying assumption amongst many people of all kinds and cultures that if one of us has more than another and that other is in need, one ought to take some responsibility for her neighbor’s well-being and share the resources. It’s arguably a foundational principle of civility and hospitality everywhere.

Yet it’s practiced so much less often than is possible. For all of my love of time with friends and family, I also crave quiet and reclusive time, shutting out the world and curling into my own self, and that applies to all parts of my life. And I think that’s probably more common than not. Who does not prefer the company of her own self or her very small circle of kin and kind, especially when the workaday world has seemed particularly demanding and rest and retreat as hard to come by as clear water in the swamp? Who doesn’t covet the privileges she feels she’s chosen and earned for herself?

I was reminded of this particularly when we were in Hungary this summer and I had the privilege of going with a number of the touring choir members and my husband to visit the ancestral home of a hereditary Count and his wife the Countess. The Count himself made only a brief appearance at the end of our visit, his wife having participated with staff and supporters in the greeting of our group, speechmaking about their work with orphans and special needs children in the family-sponsored home on the grounds of the residence, and a small but lovely reception in the main public-room of the place, a large parlor filled with art and artifacts passed down through the lineage. The Count was charming and rather cheery when he did appear, but I sensed that he preferred his privacy as well.

The Countess, on the other hand, had a rather regal bearing and while she was generous in hosting us and very willing to share her home and thoughts with the group, I heard some quiet comments aside that she seemed a touch condescending or even a bit put out by our visit. I had been at the back of the room during her parlor commentary about the family history and the work of the orphanage, not able to see her over the number of people in the room, and her tone was very subdued, so I got the gist of the story, but didn’t see any of the expressions that might have influenced the commenters.

What I did hear was probably a fairly common tale among the nobility in Europe during the previous centuries: a privileged kinship, whether by their own efforts or honors conferred upon them by royalty, this family had done as they were both able and expected to do with their wealth, which was to live quite elegantly and surround themselves with art and beautiful landscaping and magnificent homes. At the same time, they saw themselves very much as caretakers of the larger community, responsible for the well-being not only of the people who staffed their private holdings but those living in proximity as well. This is of course the story of noblesse oblige, a practice of good that may have been at its core a defensive move but served the purpose in any event. Like many noble families, the one we visited had essentially founded a town around themselves over the generations, supporting educational or healthcare or other needed resources and, in this instance, building a magnificent basilica where the town could worship and where, not coincidentally, the touring choir were performing on the evening of our visit in a benefit concert for the children’s home.

Also like so many other noble families, this one had gradually seen its fortunes decline in the years between the World Wars, and on advent of German action in the region in World War II, was ousted from their land and holdings and fled for safer places. Their palatial home first became military headquarters during that war (in which the Hungarians quickly and brutally learned that their alliance with Germany was a general pretext for annexation and Nazi rule), and then was used for Communist offices in the years after. It wasn’t until just a few decades ago that the Count and Countess were able to return to his family property and renew their residence in the place. The good news was that there had been no interest on the occupying military’s part in redesigning the buildings, nor any money for the Communists to do so, so the architecture remained for the most part intact. The bad news was born of the same circumstances, though: the military’s disinterest in redesign and the Communists’ lack of funds extended to any concern for maintenance. Naturally, the park in which the palace stood, the palace and outbuildings all fell into a state that even in their heyday the real owners could probably have scarce afforded to mend, and it all added to the sorrow that the art and fabulous book collections had been heavily looted.

This is a long way of saying so, but on the day we visited there, I stayed after the others had left that once-elegant parlor, pausing to thank the Countess and to ask her a couple of questions about what I understood were the Count’s and her attempts to resurrect some of the property, if only for the appreciation of the locals and the young wards and their caregivers now living in closer quarters with these two owners. Her tone, perhaps because she was no longer addressing a whole roomful of people, or maybe because she felt she didn’t have to represent her husband’s whole heritage anymore, not acting in any official capacity at the moment, softened greatly, and I sensed mostly melancholy. There was sorrow for what had been lost, yes, but after we spoke about that and the enormity of the restoration needs for a moment or two, I simply asked her in the middle of that once-glamorous hall if she had a personal favorite artwork in there.

It was almost as if she became for a moment the young bride who had come there with the Count before the war, a little in awe of his family and the wealth that surrounded them, the power and the weight of the name upon her shoulders seeming rather immense even in the midst of her happiness. I can’t say she became suddenly shy, though it seemed to me that there was the slightest hint of it as she walked across the room and, instead of choosing one of the showy ancestral treasures or superb museum-quality portraits but this moderate-sized, unrestored and slightly bleary, painting of peasant girls dancing around in an Impressionistic meadow, and said simply, “This one.” I asked her what made it so, and she did little more than offer a soft comment that it was pretty and it made her happy.

Digital artwork from a photo: The Countess's Favorite

This is my digitally painted version of the Countess’s beloved artwork, which besides being in great need of restoration was under glass and hard to see without much maneuvering. But even in its retouched state here, I think you can catch a glimpse of what filled her with such longing: a sense of sweetly carefree innocence that must seem now like a distant, faded dream.

And I thought that perhaps what had been asked of her, she who had had quite a lot at one time and might even be seen in town nowadays as a bit of a remnant of things past, was her innocence. It must have been a long, sorrowful journey from being a young lady inducted into the nobility by marriage and impressed, if not overwhelmed, by the lavish life and the heavy weight of what was expected of her in her new role, to the life she knows now. However she and her husband might work to regain a place in the community through their labor and largesse, the world has changed, and they with it.

What must it have been like, as she moved through the war and later years in exile, knowing that everything tangible she had known at home might well be gone? On returning long after, though she saw that it wasn’t demolished, her happy ease was clearly broken and irretrievably changed. Finally, settling into her new role as figurehead of a still somewhat nebulous but ambitious attempt to find a way to make all that was left have real meaning again, looking into that painting must have become rather like looking into a mirror at her past self, not as a dancing peasant girl but as a naïf who thought the world was simple and clean and kindly and that all she had to do was make the best of what had been given to her in order to be happy in it.

Beings without Substance

The measure of a human is not in her wealth, or success, or any of those worldly attainments to which we so happily ascribe great value in the popular realm, but in her simplicity. So much can be accomplished by the reduction of focus on unimportant things, the removal of distractions, and reverence for the smaller and more ephemeral stuff. This, this is how we shine.Photo: How We Shine Best

Image/Self Image

digital illustrationBeauty is in the Mirror of the Beholder

Brenda, trendy modernist, zips through her ultra-racy home

Her super-powered vacuum on a wave of pearly foam;

Her sexy subatomic voice, her skirt of crisp chiffon,

Her to-the-minute kitchen wares, her wildly brilliant spawn,

Her microscopic facial pores, her savvy in her biz,

Convince nobody that she’s great, but make her think she is.

Super Chicken

mixed media artworkMy superpower, if I could be said to have any, is being supremely ordinary. Yeah, I’m really, really good at that. Now, you may think it’s not impressive that I’m good at being so-so, and you could be forgiven for thinking it. And yet . . .

Besides that it requires massive numbers of us mid-range sorts to keep nature in a sort of balance with the various human outliers at the top (and bottom) of the spectrum, there’s also the comfort and safety of being able to travel under the radar of scrutiny and pressure to which both kinds of exceptional people are exposed.

What on earth does this mean I am good at doing, at being? Why, I do what’s expected. I go to sleep; I wake up. I eat and I walk and I get dressed and undressed, and the world carries right on around me. And though I don’t at the moment have employment outside of our home, my current occupation being Homemaker, I spend myself and my efforts, rather, on doing the small and yet significant things that might not be essential to keeping the world operational but grease the gears, instead. And keeping the cogs working relatively smoothly is as useful in its own way as being the driver, the engineer or a cog myself. I go to meetings and do Projects, too, to be sure, but mostly what I do nowadays is fix a meal, repair a door-jamb, ferry my spouse and a student to a rehearsal. I do laundry; I prune the plantings near the window. Glamorous? Just exactly enough.

Because the luster of the day comes not from being admired and lauded but from being appreciated, even if it’s hardly necessary to hear that announced constantly–after all, the proof of its value is in plain view if the needful things get done. Any reward lies in the belief that I make life that one tiny iota smoother and pleasanter for that one brief instant, even if only for this one other person. It’s borne on the smile of relief worn by him whose sheaf of office paperwork got filed at last when he couldn’t get to it himself, or whose old slippers have been mended by the time he gets home from the office at the end of the day. It’s in the neighbor being glad to have the excess garden supplies or box of art materials I’ve collected to send to school with her. It’s with me when I arrange the chairs alongside the singers before a rehearsal when I come by to listen to their work. It’s mostly in knowing that the stuff needed to keep quotidian action on course is being looked after, bit by little bit. And that I’m the person for the job.

I don’t do this selflessly, of course, because I would hardly keep it up for long if it weren’t so simply and inherently rewarding. And it certainly bespeaks no genius or courage on my part that I do it, for clearly it takes greater skill and ingenuity and bravery to do all of the shiny, showy things for which I provide my atoms of encouragement from the periphery. Maybe a jot of courage only to admit to being a homemaker and loving it. So many who haven’t the privilege of the life seem to disdain it and misconstrue its meaning, especially if it doesn’t have either children or wealth as part of the equation. I am far more fearful of having no sense of purpose than of being thought unimportant by anyone else; I care more about feeling my own worth than having it validated by any outside agents.

So if I seem to anyone to be afraid of taking a larger role in the Real World as they see it, I suppose I ought to admit that in one sense I am. I know that having this Job for a few years has given me new strength and the ability to go out in the wider world for a so-called Real one again when the time comes, yet I do dread leaving this role that has given me a feeling of vocation more than anything else I’ve ever done and risking the dimming of any of the self-worth I’ve garnered or the value I’ve learned to impute to the tasks of being normal and simple and everyday, which I’ve learned to see as so much deeper and richer than they’d seemed until I tried on the role of their custodian myself. I do, at the end of it, think that if I’m a dull, bland or unimportant grease-monkey to the cogs of the world, I’m a damn good one, and if I’m scared of giving up that high honor, then I at least credit myself with being a superior variety of chicken.

Patience Rewards the Captain of Industry

photoHow Cocooning Relieves Stress among the Hardworking

Behold the moth: he waxeth wroth, and sure has cause if any hath:

A life so short and labor-filled that many lesser moths hath killed;

Yet all’s not tragic, dire, dark things, for, briefly as he hath his wings,

He waxeth too his Silver Wraith; it shineth like a ghost, i’faith.

As caterpillars of his ilk produce the finest bolts of silk,

Yea, marvel at such industry, and bitter butterflies ne’er see,

For, selling such rich bolts of cloth, they’ve little cause for waxing wroth.photoYes, I do know that my photo here is of a butterfly and not a moth. Just as I’m sure you know that this poem is not a scientific treatise on the relationship between entomology and high-end automotive art. Anybody coming to this blog in search of hard data on virtually anything is clearly lacking in logic anyway, so welcome, all! And may none of you fall into the clutches of any lepidoptera with anger management issues or delusions of being silkworms, either one. Also, if you happen to be the computer programmer who designed my auto-correct function, to my knowledge a TelePrompter is in no way related to or a straight-across substitution for a lepidopteran in either linguistic or physical form, though it might amuse you greatly to experiment with such things. I do give thanks for the laugh.

It’s Good to Set a Poor Example

photosI’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.photosThe photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.photosPeople even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.photosThing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.photosSo the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!photos

It’s Not Enough to be Beautiful

digital painting from a photoReally, the stuff that lies inside is what matters, what always mattered. Wit, integrity, talent. Compassion, charm. Power and intelligence and courage and humor. The things that last go far beyond the mere physical and visible attractions that we, individually and collectively, consider beautiful. It’s more difficult to find and gauge inner beauty, and far more so to develop it, so no wonder we hunt for it and we treasure it so highly. Still, it’s funny that we do. We love, after all, what looks beautiful to us very, very deeply as well. And beauty for its own sake is not a bad thing, either.

Is one morally or inherently better than another? Certainly not. Are they mutually exclusive? Hardly. But it’s true all the same that visible beauty has its perks. We often don’t have to know anything about each other for us to want to be associated Beautiful people, to be around them and admire them, if only for how much we like the way they look. And they in turn, both those with the inner resources that we admire and those who might be closer to pretty, empty packages with nothing fabulous inside, get attention and get things done, their way sometimes greased by the access and support that their prettiness gets them. If it’s possible to have both the outer and the inner, that could hardly be objectionable, but if I had to choose, some days I suspect I would be quite content to be the beautiful one in the room; it’d be fun just to see what it’s like, I imagine. Might not be a Greta Garbo, with both the looks and the evidently impressive inner life, but even being a cheap imitation of the exquisite woman for sheer looks wouldn’t be too awful, I’d think. All I can say is that it really isn’t enough to be beautiful–but it’s not exactly such a bad thing either, is it, now?

All right, I’m only enjoying my little fantasy. My partner, husband, best friend and spouse tells me I’m pretty, I’m beautiful, and I’m full of all those dandy aforementioned inner resources too. And whether it’s flattery or his perception of the truth, I don’t much care. It’s more than enough to feel beautiful. Glamorous I may not be, and in fact I might not even be any of those other lovely things my guy tells me I am, but he’s pretty convincing, that fella of mine, and his word–with his impressive daily love backing it all up–is plenty for me. Any day of the year.