Mosaic Art Is Life


At least once a day I give myself a silent pep talk: “I am not stupid.” Sometimes it’s after one of my sons has asked me a question about the world I should be able to answer but can’t. Sometimes it’s when a friend mentions a bit of world news or drops the name of a musician in a way that suggests everyone but me already knows it. When that happens my mind spins, then blanks, then settles with resignation on the obvious: I’m so dumb. I can’t remember shit.

The nature versus nurture pondering no longer really interests me. I am who I am. For a dozen reasons or none at all, I grew to limit myself because I didn’t believe I was smart enough to say the right thing or make the right choice. I flat-out didn’t trust myself. I’ve done that team-building free fall exercise more than once over the years, and I never had a problem falling back into a web of others’ arms. For most of my life, though, I would have never relied on myself to catch me. Not without prior approval from at least three people, anyway. Couldn’t risk it.

During the years of our marriage, whenever I would complain about how busy my ex always was with his hobbies, the endless number of things he spent time and money and energy on, he would ask me, “Why don’t you have any interests?” Because I’m stupid, I would think, my mind searching desperately for an activity, a sport, even a single subject in history I might have an inclination to study or pursue. Nothing came to mind. I felt blank, dull, uninteresting.

Then many years ago, quite out of nowhere, I decided I wanted to try mosaic art. The idea of arranging different materials together to form something new appealed to me. It seemed to be the kind of art that didn’t involve having to be a skilled artist at all. It was something even I could do.

I started collecting old plates in varying colors and patterns, imagining the day I’d get to break them apart and reshape them however I wanted. I envisioned myself being surprisingly adept at it, a natural. I daydreamed of giving my art as gifts.

But I couldn’t bring myself to break any of the plates – half of which were already cracked or chipped. What if I did it wrong? What if I wasn’t as creative as I imagined I could be? What if nobody wanted my art? What if nobody even liked it?

To this day I’m not sure how I got the courage to trust myself that first time. I suppose it had something to do with the therapy I’d started yet again, and the gnawing, growing realization that trusting myself was the only thing left to do. My true voice, the one that had been a whisper for so long, muted by my inner “stupid” monologue, began to yell the unrelenting call of the desperate-to-be-heard. She cried for freedom, for the chance to stop playing the role she’d been playing, to yank the theater curtain down and allow herself to be the person she yearned to be, not the character she’d become, the role she’d been playing for years to the applause of the crowd and the dismay of her inner critic.

So I did what I felt I had to do: I smashed the beautiful, flawed plate that was my life, agonizing over its demise as it fell. I watched it crash to the ground by my own hands. Seeing it in pieces broke my heart. Many of the shards cut me; they made others bleed too. I sobbed with guilt and pain. I felt selfish and wrong, and in some ways I was. I patched the wounds and prayed for the scars to fade.

And then I started picking up the pieces, broken into new shapes, revealing previously unnoticed beauty and depth. Through my tears and despite my fears, I began fashioning my first work of mosaic art. Bit by bit I added other elements to my life that make sense to me, that make sense of me.

I fell backwards and I trusted that I would catch myself. Because I had to.

In order for this new way to work, I have to be deliberate and intentional, much more so than I’d ever been before. I have to draw inward each time I’m faced with a decision, whether it’s what to do on a weekend or whether to send a pitch to a new editor. It’s embarrassing, but the answers don’t come easy. I have to focus hard, to fight back the critic and actively choose what will move my life forward, what will make me feel good now and later. I have to force myself to be a grownup, not an insecure young girl. I have to strive to be authentic, not an actor reciting her lines, desperate for applause.

I was not used to doing this. I never used to pause and trust that the answer would come to me; I used to pause and wait for someone else to answer for me. It’s exhilarating but exhausting, and sometimes I still find myself waiting (hoping?) for someone else to decide my salary, my sanity, my Saturday night. I still fight the old way, the paralysis and self-doubt. “Stupid” is not a word I allow in my house, yet it has made a nest in my psyche and it does not want to leave. So when it pops up, I take a moment and define myself using other words. “I am not. I am this and this, and this.” Piece by piece, word by word, action by action, I shape and arrange, glue and grout, and hope it holds.

It must be, because every day I care a little less whether anybody approves of the work of art I am becoming.

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Mommy’s Little Helper

(Both childhood and parenthood can be so difficult and complicated; we live in the same rooms but see them from completely different eye levels. It took me decades to begin to see my mother’s suitcase not just as a means to escape, but perhaps, for her, as a visual reminder when she needed it most that she was making a choice … to stay. 
For at least a minute every day, try like hell to see the world from the perspectives of the people around you. Better yet, ask them. ~ RSP)

 

A little girl in a gingham dress and apron holds a smiling raccoon on the cover of the diary. The furry bandit is clutching a pink flower in its paw; a happy little bird is perched on its tail.

“Memories Are Forever” the journal declares.

There’s a lock on the front but the tiny key has been missing for decades. Scotch tape reinforces the battered binding, worn from years of opening and closing, scribbling and revisiting the shy girl’s secrets on its lined pages.

The first entry is dated Sunday, Feb. 13, 1983, the day she turned 10.

 

Dear Diary,

Today was my birthday and I ruined it! I had bloody noses so I ruined swimming with daddy. I love being with daddy, we both have birthdays on the same month. I didn’t get to have lazonia today either, but mommy promised she’d make it this week.

 

She scribbled notes to herself in that puffy pink book that made no sense, words of self-deprecation and loathing on what should have been the happiest of days. She grew into double digits while shrinking inside, always shrinking, apologizing for who she was and what her shortcomings were doing to those around her.

While the girl penned her innermost thoughts, the truth as she saw it, her mother packed her bag and placed it by the front door again. The faux leather case, its sides slightly caved in, was a near-perfect metaphor for her middle-aged, desperate inclination to be something she was not. “Maybe I’ll go away and find three good little girls and be their mother instead.”

The suitcase typically stayed for days, sometimes longer. The girl never dared touch it, to see how heavy it was or unzip the side and peek in. She hung her head in shame for the disappointment she was. She felt terrible for her mother, who had to suffer so unfairly for her ungrateful children.

 

Monday, Feb. 14, 1983

Dear Diary,

Today I wrote a letter to mom. It’s Valentine’s Day and I know she’s had a rough time. I wanted her to know how much I really love her. Because sometimes we forget to tell her that and she feels down. When I got home Nonny had sent me a card with $10. She always gives me money, I wonder why? Today I got to have lazonia. Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

When she packed her own suitcase for a trip, the little girl’s father showed her how to roll her clothes instead of fold them, how to fit more in and keep wrinkles down. She and her sisters were taught to be good packers, never bringing more than they needed. They always had to leave things behind they wished they could take with them.

“I could get so violent, and I hated myself afterward. I couldn’t control it,” her mother would tell her daughter years later about why she’d wanted to leave so many times. She spoke of being overwhelmed with mothering and angry at her husband, hating herself for the painful punishments dispensed again and again, the rage she had learned from her father, passed down like poison. They’d be better off without me, she’d thought.

She’d be better off without us, the girl thought, lying on her twin bed with the rainbow sheets. She never pondered what her mother needed to bring with her in that suitcase by the front door, only what she wanted to leave behind.

 

Tuesday, Feb. 15, 1983

Dear Diary,

Today I felt like screaming. I didn’t finish my Brownie things or cleaning my room. I didn’t work on my class diary and I didn’t get to bed on time. I never should have asked to stay up til 9:00 because I can’t get to bed by 8:30!!!!

 

Sometimes the suitcase was quietly put away, and a relief would settle over the household. Twice it left with her mother, just briefly, but for those hours the girl’s world spun out of control, the inevitable nightmare having come true. If only she’d been more helpful, more thankful, more loving, more in tune with what her mother needed. But it was too late. She’d failed again as a daughter, a person, a girl.

Without knowing it she’d packed her mother’s suitcase full of her guilt and her shortcomings, stuffed it with carefully rolled scraps of self-loathing and regret. Don’t wrinkle the regret, it’s all you have. The one chore her mother never asked for help with she’d completed unwittingly anyway. She’d packed her mother’s suitcase with all the reasons, spoken and implied, the matriarch must want to leave. Mommy’s little helper.

Three decades would go by before she’d finally get the nerve to ask the question she’d never even thought of as a child. What was in the suitcase, Mom? The answer, like a soothing balm and a sudden slap, made heat crawl up her neck and tightened her chest with something indistinguishable. Anger? Relief? Love? Pain?

“Pictures of you girls.”

 

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The Picture I Never Thought I’d Share

Norman-Rockwell-Girl-at-Mirror-1954

Do you ever find yourself so mentally exhausting/exhausted you just can’t deal with your own neuroses anymore? That’s where I’ve been this past year or so.

Honestly, I think this is the best thing about middle age. I’m not talking about a midlife crisis; it’s more of a midlife catharsis. I think we all get so damn sick of the same insecurities, hang-ups and excuses we’ve suffocated ourselves with for so long that we finally stop bitching about it – to ourselves or others – and begin the arduous yet wholly satisfying task of beginning to breathe fresh air rather than continuing to choke down the toxic fumes we’ve carefully, carelessly manufactured inside our own thought bubbles for decades. Because time’s a wastin’, people.

More to the personal point: I wore shorts this summer. All summer. Granted, not every day, but enough. Much more than in previous summers, which was basically never. I wore them in public places and in my own backyard. I wore shorts on long runs around town and on short trips to the park with the kids. I wore them on vacation. I wore them out with friends and while running errands. I wore them on dates. I wore them at the lake and the pool. I went to the lake and the pool.

And you know what? I not only lived through it, I eventually began to enjoy it. The more I ran in shorts, for example, the happier I was that I wasn’t overheating, and the longer I was able to run, and the more I began to notice that the muscles in my legs were really starting to come into clearer focus. Funny how that works.

It took awhile, but I no longer worried about people snickering behind my back, looking aghast at my pasty gams – shuddering at the awfulness that is me. Those were all legitimate(ly crazy) fears I’ve always lived with. I’d spent all previous summers wearing yoga pants around the house regardless of the temperature, because not even I wanted to see my bare legs in the privacy of my own home. A few years ago I wore jeans to the beach in August, for Christ’s sake.

You might think I’m crazy, but I bet you are, too, and I hope right now you’re thinking more about your insecurities than mine. Maybe for you it’s not shorts; maybe it’s wearing a bathing suit that’s difficult. Maybe it’s your crooked tooth you can’t stand, or your stretch marks, or your thinning hair. Maybe it’s the size of your fill-in-the-blank you don’t like. Maybe it is whatever it is, and that’s for you to know and not me.

My point is, this summer I said ‘Screw it.’ It’s hot outside, and nobody cares about this but me.

Obviously, I’m oversimplifying things. I did not miraculously reach a point where my long-held, damaging self-beliefs were suddenly hauled away like last week’s trash. In reality, it’s been a painstakingly slow process. I’ve had, collectively speaking, years of therapy regarding my various insecurities. I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed about them. I’ve been in an ongoing support group to deal with trauma from my childhood. I’ve read books professing my worth as a child of God and a person of value in this world. These books all have passages underlined and highlighted by me, hopeful notes scribbled in the margins and eventually left to gather dust. I’ve journaled and meditated and tried to “run it out.” I’ve taken lessons from a crumbled marriage and a life of trial and error and applied them, like layers of Papier-maché, to my worldview.

All the while, I’ve alternately avoided mirrors or I’ve glared and grimaced into them. Neither tactic worked. Until.

You know how sometimes when you say a word over and over it begins to not sound like the word – like any word – at all? Flaw. Flaw. Flaaah. Measure. Measure. Mezsh-ur? Mezzzuuuurr.

That’s what happened when I stared into the mirror long enough to realize it was just me staring back – a dizzying and disorienting revelation.

When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I came across this framed Norman Rockwell print, “Girl At the Mirror,” in an antique store in downtown Saratoga Springs. The expression on the young girl’s face was exactly how I felt, and would continue to feel for another 20 years. I bought it immediately and took it to my first apartment; it moved with me 12 more times in the ensuing two decades. Oddly, though, in all those apartments and rental houses and duplexes, I mostly kept the print in the basement or tucked away in a spare bedroom. As a grown woman, I was embarrassed that it resonated so deeply.

But sometime last year I Googled the painting and read that Rockwell said the magazine picture of movie star Jane Russell was an addition he regretted including; the girl who posed for the portrait did not actually have it on her lap.

This created an opening for a new interpretation in my mind. If you take away the magazine, what is she looking at? I wondered. What is she comparing herself to, if not to the Jane Russell she’d seen in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (or the very title of that film)? She must be comparing herself to something. To the popular girl in school. To a comment her father made. To the way she’d seen her mother look at her own reflection in a mirror.

Because we don’t just see what is in the mirror, we see what is there in relation to everything else we have seen and heard. The question is, can we unsee it? Can we close one eye and blot out Jane Russell with our outstretched thumb? Can we un-hear the playground taunts from grade school about whatever innocuous physical characteristics made us stand out? Can we un-feel the heartbreak of rejection from our teen years? Can we flush from our systems the constant hyper-sexualized messages pop culture skewers into our TVs, phones, magazine stands, radios, clothing racks, brains, friends, sexual partners and psyches?

Flaw. Flawe. Flaaaah. Measure. Measure. Mezzzhuuurr.

I used to say I hated mirrors; I would mostly avoid them, walking briskly by with averted eyes, looking down at the sink while washing my hands, never straight ahead. That was dumb. I was a 2-year-old throwing a blanket over my head and thinking that would keep me invisible.

Nah, nah, I can’t see me!

A mirror shows you the truth; it’s your mind that immediately distorts and judges it. So, bolstered by all the self-improvement steps previously mentioned, along with my newfound knowledge of Rockwell’s Jane Russell regret, I started to treat the mirror like the object that it was meant to be. I tried to stop distorting and judging. I stopped looking into the mirror, and started to just see what was there.

I started to see my legs exactly as they are. The calf muscles I’ve always known were too wide (Says who? “Society”? Magazine covers? An ex-boyfriend?) slowly became, simply, my calves. I took ownership of the ankles I always wished were thinner, the pale skin I always wanted to be more tan, less freckly, the thighs I had longed to be more toned. Mine. Mine. Mine. Only mine. Only for me. For the movement of my body through my life. For dancing and running and walking and swimming. To serve as a lap for my boys. To allow me to wander and explore, to climb and to hike. To wrap around someone special. To let me see the world from a vantage point that’s 5 feet, 8 inches off the ground.

I saw my legs, my whole body, in the mirror. And what I saw was not “better” or “worse” or “thinner” or “fatter” or “paler” or “darker” or “shorter” or “longer” than yours. It was just mine. It’s so obvious I can’t believe I’d missed it all these years. Of course my legs don’t look like Faith Hill’s; they’re not hers, dumbass. They’re not supposed to look like her legs. They’re supposed to look like Robyn Passante’s legs. And they’re doing a damn fine job of it.

These legs look different today than they did a year ago, partly because I’m running more than I ever have, and partly because I see them in a different light than I ever have. Then again, I am also not the person I was a year ago, or three years ago, or six months ago.

Every day I am trying to be more myself and less other people’s expectations, more confidence and deliberateness and less old habits and cyclical mistakes. I am trying to figure out what it means to live a really good life. I am trying to be more open to experiences, to chances, to life as it unfolds. I am trying to be less apologetic, more giving, less cynical. I am trying to abandon the false idea of perfection. I am trying to live out my faith. I am trying to trust people. I am trying to trust myself.

I am trying to stop looking so hard into the mirror, and just see.

Rob legs

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