Monday, August 30, 2010

Are you real, Mona Lisa?

It lives. It breathes. I know the intensity of these words.

A troupe of 300 Japanese tourists, all taking individual photos of themselves in front of the glass enclosure, finally left for the next gallery, offering only a moment to fight my way to the rail.

I’d seen photographs, of course; we all have. But, now, the photographs seem to represent some other work. This is no eyebrow-deficient, small-mouthed, jaundiced lady on a muddy canvas who dolefully reminds me of Morticia Adams’ homely sister. This is a gorgeous, vibrant, three-dimensional, human creature, searching my eyes across time and space, whispering her secret joys in my heart. I could not breathe within her gaze. My God.

This is the indescribable power of portraiture, of capturing faces to exude the subject’s core at that moment, grasping recognition in my own. It is a soul released of vulnerability, speaking deepest truths it could not utter in life.

I still tremble when I think back to that moment in the Louvre.

I commissioned an artist I admire to paint a portrait of my recently deceased mother, at my father’s request. He sent emails with attached jpegs, I sent back guidance on how to make the smile more like Mom’s or to better describe the shape of her chin. When I saw the photo of the best version, I was pleased. Today I saw the painting. My God.

The artist said, “In the photo you gave me, I saw a young, happy, woman, typical of her era, seeing her future of possibilities.”

That is exactly what he painted, but both his words and mine fail to describe her truth. Only oil and canvas can.

I cannot breathe within her gaze. I cannot stop looking.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rubber band

Have you felt strrrrrretched to the breaking point, lately? I have. And just when I think I can go no further, I find a little more elasticity.

I was losing my mind thinking about the 7,432 things I need to accomplish by Friday. After a couple of hours pounding away furiously on my laptop in the waiting room at the hospital (long story), oblivious to everyone around me, I hadn't put even a small dent in those 7,432 things. In fact, the list had grown. And a couple of huge complications had arisen.

Frustrated, I unplugged my laptop and popped my cell phone into my pocket so that I could visit the restroom. Of course, it was closed for cleaning, so I had to go searching for another. Another woman was also on the potty hunt, so we headed off to find it together. 

She was wearing a baseball cap and had no eyebrows or eyelashes. Although the visible evidence suggested the answer, I asked her what she clearly wanted to be asked. She is fighting breast cancer.

She had driven more than an hour for her final chemo session. She continued to grapple with “Why me?” questions because she has always been very health conscious. She was feeling besieged by unsupportive co-workers who were speculating about what she’d done wrong to bring this curse upon herself. She was deflecting people who had various (ridiculous) suggestions on how to beat cancer. She was there all alone, facing her disease.

She told me about some uplifting audio programs that helped her emotionally. She showed me a new age tool for improving circulation and talked about her chakras and energies. When I complimented her beautiful complexion, she described a concoction she invented to heal her chemo-ravaged skin. She relayed concerns about her medical bills. She told me how she had to cut back to make ends meet, including cutting off her internet and cell phone – lifelines of connection when people can’t physically socialize. She told me about her exercise program. She told me of the joy of having a pedicure.

She smiled, she teared up.

She had a whole bag of tools with her that she used to help herself through this ordeal. She wanted someone to see them.

She wanted to help.

She wanted to be heard.

So, I looked. I listened. I commiserated. I encouraged. I affirmed. I congratulated. I complimented. I noted her advice. I tried to link her up with people and services that might help her to share her self-help discoveries with other cancer patients who might find comfort in them. I probably said a few wrong things, too.

I hope that when she drove home alone, feeling like hell, trying not to nod off or lose her stomach, leaving a few more hairs inside her baseball cap, heading closer to the people and bills that complicate her plight, she knew that someone heard her today and thinks that what she has to offer is important.

And, while I tried to be truly present for this stranger, I forgot the 7,432 things on my to-do list and focused on one unexpected thing that probably had more value than all the others combined. What a relief!

Stretch a little more. Be present for someone today. Maybe that extra stretch will keep both of you from breaking.

Thank you, lady in the baseball cap.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I Have Not the Courage

I recently visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although a range of African-American experience and worldwide social injustice is covered, emphasis is on the African-American Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1968.

I was born at the end of this movement, so I have no firsthand memory of it. Textbooks I used in the 1970s and 1980s didn't include many events past World War II. (Encyclopedias I used as a child stated, "Someday man might explore space.") My upbringing in a white area in the North didn't provide exposure to racial tension; it existed in town, but didn't enter the few square blocks of my life. I knew only of a few events, like Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus, the Little Rock Nine pioneering school integration, and Martin Luther King saying "I have a dream."

So, when our exceptionally fabulous tour guide queued up displays with, "Of course, we're all familiar with the story…", I, shamefully, wasn't familiar. For example:
In 1955, 14-year-old, black, Chicagoan, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi. Dared by his cousins, he wolf-whistled at a white woman. As a result, he was kidnapped, beaten, blinded, and shot in the head. His body was thrown into a river with a 74-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire. His mutilated body could only be identified by a ring he wore. The two white suspects were acquitted by a jury of white men after only 67 minutes of deliberation. Afterward, the defendants gave an interview in which they admitted their crime. They never expressed remorse
As a mother, I'm shaky as I recall the photos—indescribable anguish on the face of Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, viewing an unrecognizable lump that was once the face of her son. She insisted on an open-casket funeral, saying, "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby."

The International Civil Rights Center and Museum is the original site of the Greensboro Four sit-in (a story I vaguely recall hearing before). On February 1, 1960, four African-American North Carolina A&T University students sat at the all-white lunch counter of F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, triggering nonviolent sit-ins throughout the U.S. Joined daily by other students, they continued until the drugstore chain served all "properly dressed and well behaved people," regardless of race several months later.

It's unfathomable that such extreme and unpunished injustice and brutality could have been so common in my country (almost) within my lifetime.

The Greensboro Four were phenomenally courageous, given the extreme retribution exacted from a child who merely whistled 5 years earlier. How did they ever muster the courage to defy their oppressors? How did parents of college and high school students sitting in protest at that counter, amid jeers and threats, endure their fear for their children's safety, while remembering the heart-rending story of Mamie Till-Mobley's loss?

It is powerful to see the lunch counter standing on the same tile in the same room where a revolution began. It is sobering to admit I would not have the courage—courage like that of the Greensboro Four and so many others who risked their lives for equality—to cross those tiles to sit at that counter myself.

I stand in awe.

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