Monday, April 21, 2014

Being Real

Daughter and hubby in the middle of Manhattan. 

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy creating layers and layers of fa├žade. I think most of us do. We start when we are very young finding out what is acceptable. We learn on the playground that sometimes saying what we really think might be scoffed at, so we learn to pretend to like something just because everyone else likes it. We learn to stuff our feelings at a very young age because we need to appear brave, strong, and intelligent, or for little girls we are taught that being pretty is above all most treasured. We learn to wait and see what others think. In Kindergarten, I sat on a rug with the teacher sitting in a chair. She taught us a little song with a whistle in the melody. I couldn’t whistle, still can’t, but I would pretend by posing my face and mouth the way the other kids did, hoping that no one would know. But a child near me announced, “Carole is not whistling.” So the teacher stopped the song and to my shame tried to teach me how to whistle, drawing attention to my inadequate pretense. I hoped everyday after that we would not sing the song. 

I remember Mr. Atkinson, my 5th grade teacher having us put our heads on our desks with our eyes closed when he would ask us to vote on options or opinions. He told us he wanted to see what we really thought instead of being swayed by the rest of the class. Sometimes he did it the other way so we could see what would happen. He would ask a question where the answer was up for debate and see how we would each look around and wait before raising our hands. Not wanting to be the only stupid one in the class, sometimes those with the right answer would end up changing their minds because the majority thought otherwise. 

Recently, I observed a six-year-old boy announce with glee that he just loved the color pink. I thought to myself that he would soon find out that he can’t love the color pink. The world will tell him that it’s wrong for boys to love pink soon enough, but I hope beyond hope that he can still love the color pink when the boys and girls at school tell him that only girls like pink. We are pegged, categorized and labeled early by gender, by race, by religion, by ethnic and regional values. I wanted desperately to chase lizards, throw snowballs, rocks and play baseball. My young heroes were both Huck Finn and Pollyanna. I knew somehow I was much more like Huck than Pollyanna and that it wasn’t acceptable. I wanted to be like my older brothers even though they rejected me.

Recently we visited our daughter in NYC and I noticed how real people can be. When you are surrounded by seas of people, why pretend to be something you are not? Live in the moment. Live in the now. You will never see the person next to you on the subway again. In a moment where my husband and I were confused by which way to go next to catch our train, a middle aged woman stopped and without us asking for directions politely offered them. She had no one to impress. Goodness for goodness sake. When an elderly woman with a walker got off a packed bus in Brooklyn, she announced as she hobbled out with help from the driver, “I hope none of you ever have to use a walker.” I watched through the window as she made her way down the sidewalk. She caught my gaze, smiled and waved. 

We spent a day with Sherry a feisty woman of 65 plus, an artist of sorts who has spent the vast majority of her life, living in the upper west side of Manhattan surrounded by unimaginable chaos of construction, incessant honking, sirens, and bustling crowds, and yet she manages a peaceful connection with a glimmer of sunlight that tunnels through the walls of cement and steel to her tangled growth of a postage stamp yard in a treasured piece of earth and sky. And in her ground floor apartment escapes to create works of art with colorful thread, beads, paper and paint. As we toured a vast factory building, turned into a modern art museum on the edge of the Hudson River, Sherry had more interest in the brick walls, the hinges, the windows, the doors, and the setting than she did in the actual works of “art.” In this museum it was impossible to tell the real art with the artist’s name by it, to the pile of construction materials in the rooms under renovation. The only clue came from the sign that told us, “this room under construction.”  

Sherry made no apologies for what she found unacceptable and not worthy of such a beautiful building. These weren’t students’ works, where one knows the discovery process was still underway, these were established artists, well-known in the art world, yet Sherry called it for what she saw. The rules of the museum were clear and there were only two. “No touching the artwork and No Photography.” Sherry continually broke these “silly rules.” She took photos of the doors, walls, and of the hinges. She took photos of one exceptional exhibit. She touched the art, blank white canvases, to see what the material was. She touched the plywood boxes. The security guards were on to her and would radio to the next security guard to watch out for “that one.” I found Sherry to be completely endearing and refreshing. I wondered how she cared so little about what people thought about her. She is who she is, no pretense, and no show. 

The contrast of the hustle and bustle in NYC with people on the constant go, where getting from here to there takes energy, strategy and even risk to coming home to my laid back world where on my daily walk I encounter only people I know by name and the occasional stranger who took a wrong turn is easy and comfortable. It’s sweat pants and sneakers compared to heels and tight skirts. But here, I struggle with expectations and image. Being real, being me, is still doable, but it takes effort, energy, and sometimes risk. There was a meme on facebook that said, “In a small town, if you don’t know what you are doing wrong, just ask someone.” It’s funny, but the truth of it is there. In our culture we judge each other. I’m sure they do other places too, but here everything is up for public discussion. 

Poet Mark Nepo said, “As the sun cannot withhold its light, we cannot withhold what feels real.” Learning to speak truth and be who we are takes practice, but doing the opposite, that is to continue to stuff who we are in deep layers of pretense eventually snuffs our light out all together. In the city or the tiny town, I’ll work to be me because as the saying goes, “everyone else is taken.”