Thou Gild'st The Even
This painting is about loveliness. It’s about good-fortune, beauty, riches, and plenty. It’s about glamour, elegance, dignity and grace. It bewildered me to find myself uncomfortable with these concepts, and to notice how I avoided them while painting. My attitude was, “Yeah yeah, I’m painting about splendid things, but let’s not talk too much about it.”
The elements of this painting came from a childhood idea of luxuriousness, one I yearned for and thought about often. I wanted to wear a fox stole and a satin gown and string of pearls, and live in a mansion that overlooked a lake with swans. My desires were probably impressed upon me through movies from the 1940s and my high-minded grandmother who liked the finer things in life.
For younger readers, wearing a dead animal around one’s neck may seem like the height of cruelty and disgustingness, but in my day our grandmothers wore them like the crown jewels, a symbol of distinction and refinement. When no one was home I’d sneak the coveted carcass out for dress-up, and combined with lipstick and rouge I’d think I was on my way to being the next Hollywood starlet or glamorous socialite. A soda straw sufficed for a long cigarette, and if my little fingernails hadn’t been stuffed with black dirt from playing outside all day, I might have convinced myself I could pull off the part.
The stole wasn’t just fun to wear because it was sophisticated. It was also a real taxidermied animal, complete with little teeth. You could feel the bones in its arms and tail. At the same time I got to look like Zsa Zsa Gabor, I got to snuggle and stroke a real creature that seemed the next best thing to a live pet. That smelly stole kept me company, stoked my highfalutin dreams, and delivered an hour or two of quasi-happiness. The point is that I loved that darn thing.
As far as the painting goes, I enjoyed centering my concentration on my childhood symbols of splendor. With nostalgic reverie I conjured those long-forgotten phantoms, surprised at how satisfying it was to see them emerge from their misty back room. Somewhere along the path of life I’d been lulled into the comparatively logical, moral, and boring status of being an adult with a capital A. I’m an artist so I never fell into the cubical/staring-at-a-computer/ cracking-jokes-by-the-water-cooler kind of life (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but this painting alerted me that real life had hammered away at my confidence in those old daydreams and what they stood for.
I was reminded of an exercise I’d done several years back. Someone asked me to write a list of all the things I wanted. What struck me immediately was my defiance about taking on the task. My first response was, I don’t want anything. I’m good. I was so resistant to making the list that I became even more interested in why this undertaking was so thorny for me. The list of reasons that highlighted my trepidation was more enlightening than the list itself. Here is my list of qualms:
- If I wanted stuff, I’d have to work way too hard to get it.
- If I got what I wanted I’d have too much responsibility to keep it up.
- I might get what I wanted and not like it, and that would be a waste of time.
- I could lose serenity, time, energy, and money, and get nothing in return.
- I’ll be materialistic and greedy and not spiritual if I want things.
- Achieving or receiving would make me more visible, and in contact with more people, which brings up these problems:
- Critics would come out of the woodwork. I could be a laughing stock.
- I’d have to work hard on people skills to get along with everyone.
- I’d get fed up with not having enough alone time.
- People would see me when I’m not at my best. I’d have to keep my game face on all the time.
This list boils down to a fear of failure and a fear of success. Breaking them down into specifics allowed me to examine their accuracy. I have boldly followed a dream for many years, and in some ways, the list above is well-founded. I have had to work hard, take on responsibility, risk my time and energy, take abuse from critics, use my people skills, and deal with lots of failure. These things may sound awful, but they also afforded me some other things. I have achieved much of what I set out to accomplish, and I really did and do enjoy it. The failures have taught me a great deal and developed skills I wouldn’t have imagined needing or being so grateful for. The hard work was mostly enjoyable, and the responsibilities not so hard to handle once pacing and delegating was balanced. In all, I can definitely say that going for what I wanted was without doubt a wise, brave, educational, and consciousness-raising thing to do.
My first list of desires amounted to not much more than trading up and upgrading what I already had, physically and spiritually. The list was valid because it was authentic. I didn’t wish to start a world famous charity or to drive a Ferrari or travel to Antarctica. I just wished to live life a little more comfortably. At the time it seemed like I was wishing for the moon. Those pesky fears blocked my view of even not-so-distance possibilities. It felt like a stretch to wish for things like a new bike-rack, a yoga retreat, and a bigger savings account.
I got more comfortable making these desires happen. Most of the time it didn’t feel like I worked for it; I just stated my intention, took some inquisitive steps in the direction that seemed best, and watched the next steps unfold without much pushing on my part. I really saw a bigger change in myself when I pushed the Buy button on flights to Paris. Up until that point I would think of Paris and a split second later shut it down with, “I can’t afford it.” After I wrote it on my want list, I decided that poo-pooing it wasn’t going to be helpful. It didn’t take much thinking to surmise that I could go to Paris, that lots of people go to Paris, that even people with little money find a way to go to Paris. Within months I was there, and it changed everything. I realized, not only could I go to Paris, I could do anything (within reason) that I set my mind to. At least I could go toward it, and see whether I wanted to continue or change my mind. It opened up a new vista of freedom.
Wants are a prompt from the Universe to try something, learn something, create something, share something, see something, all in the service of learning about ourselves, our capabilities, our fears, our shortcomings. If I want it, it’s coaxing me to venture forth because it has something to tell me.
Advancing toward my desires will force me to come up against and face the destructive thoughts that I might not deserve better. It will challenge and usually destroy all the fears I listed above. I’ll have to go into the unknown. I have to leave something behind. I’ll have found comfort in things I was familiar with, even if it was poverty or destructive relationships. It’s a little twisted to pride oneself on being resourceful, frugal, accepting of having little, and tolerant of other people’s bad behavior. On one hand those abilities are handy and beneficial. They become a gloomy trap when they are lauded above the ability to receive and accept the riches of life, whatever form they take. To be attached to NOT having abundance is shabby and narrow and stagnant.
One reason I’ve snubbed my nose at “having the good life” is because I’ve judged others who’ve exhibited an unsavory level of avarice in the pursuit of their dreams. I missed the point that it’s in the balance of giving and receiving that the Good Life resides. My teacher, Sally Kempton says, “When you can allow yourself to receive with the feeling that you deserve the gifts of life, and then give with the feeling that others deserve them also you find yourself in… [an] auspicious state of mind.”
The good-fortune, beauty, and grace that I intended to celebrate in my swan painting is a state of mind, an outward expression, and a natural outcome of embracing what inner guidance compels us to undertake. As I painted and shared about this concept, I found myself more comfortable and more excited with the idea that the world has good things in mind for me. It propelled me to be more broad-minded about the definition of the good life, and eager to explore where it takes me. But if you see me, I will probably not be wearing a stinky fox stole along the way.